Monday, June 28, 2010


I've had a dramatic increase of hits over the last few days. I'm not sure why since I haven't been posting much lately, but welcome to all of you. I have some things brewing in my brain that I will try to post soon.

Grace and peace to you all.

History of Pharmacology

Mark Shea posted this brief history of medicine today:


A Short History of Medicine

"Doctor, I have an earache."

2000 B.C. -- "Here, eat this root."

1000 A.D. -- "That root is heathen; say this prayer."

1850 A.D. -- "That prayer is superstition; drink this potion."

1940 A.D. -- "That potion is snake oil; swallow this pill."

1985 A.D. -- "That pill is ineffective; take this antibiotic."

2000 A.D. -- "That antibiotic is artificial. Here, eat this root!"

On Plowing and Looking Back

This Sunday's readings came from 1 Kings 19: 16b, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; and Luke 9:51-62. The first and last each use the image of plowing, but each in what would seem to be opposing ways.

Our departing parochial vicar, Fr. Mariusz Majewksi gave a great homily focusing primarily on the gospel reading, but he also addressed all three readings on his blog.

I puzzled over the reading of 1 Kings myself, because I was struck by verse 19: "So he departed from there, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing, with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he was with the twelfth" (RSV)

The NAB phrases it differently: "Elijah set out, and came upon Elisha, son of Shaphat, as he was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen; he was following the twelfth."

The Septuagint translation from the Apostolic Bible Polyglot reads: "Twelve teams were before him, and he was among the twelve."

Jay Green's Hebrew/English interlinear reads: "twelve pairs before him, and he was with the twelfth."

Take note that he is not with twelve oxen, but with twelve yoke/teams of oxen, or in the Hebrew, 12 pair. That's a whole lot of oxen--at least 24. So we can see just what kind of investment such a number is and just why Elisha cannot turn back. He has destroyed any chance of return to his livelihood. Symbolically, what does this mean? Perhaps that he is taking up the mantle of a prophet. He is cutting himself off from the material concerns of the 12 tribes to put himself at the service of God, regardless of the cost. In any case, I find the wording interesting, particularly that he was "with the twelfth." The specificity here raises a flag and causes me to pause.

In Luke, Jesus uses a similar image in Luke 9:62 to talk about following God's will, evoking the scene between Elijah and Elisha: "Another said, 'I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.' Jesus said to him, 'No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.'"

Now in 1 Kings, Elisha was plowing. When he asks essentially the same question of Elijah and is rebuked, he responds by ending his plowing in the most dramatic way possible. However, Jesus uses a different image here. The Greek text actually uses the words "looking at the things behind." The difference in the usage is striking. Here, the work of following involves plowing the field, not rejecting labor and not merely being a prophetic voice, but preparing the world for the kingdom. Why otherwise would it matter for someone plowing to look back? Because you cannot plow a straight furrow is you are not looking forward. In a sense, Elisha is preparing himself to put his work before him as well, slaying whatever life he had before to follow God's will.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Moderation Casualties

I had what appeared to be a great comment by someone named Steve concerning the temporal and spiritual effects of sexual immorality. Unfortunately, at the end of the comment was a link to a pharmaceutical site. That seems like an awful lot of trouble to go through to post a link. Anyway, Steve, if you're perplexed as to why I moderated your comment, that's why.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Comments, An Ony Mous, and Moderation

I've been getting quite a bit of spam in my comments, particularly for old posts. So I have changed the comment settings to require a name and to moderate for posts that are over 14 days old. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

What is the Communion of Saints?

The communion of the saints, as described by Ashley, is all those who are or have followed the way of life—both those who have died and those of us who are still on earth.[i] We can also see this communion as the Body of Christ, joined together in communion, particularly as expressed in the Eucharist.[ii] This communion obligates us to love, as Christ commanded. In 1 John, the author reminds us of this obligation: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God” (4:7). Paul also exhorts us in 1 Corinthians, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (13:1). Communion is contingent on this love and cannot exist long without it.

The communion of saints is, if nothing else, a communion of persons. In the forward of her translation of Pinckaers’ The Source of Chirstian Ethics, Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P., summarizes the author’s views of virtue-based morality, as opposed to casuistic legalism: “Father Pinckaers describes how the Christian develops connaturality with the true Good. This occurs only within a communion of persons where individuals are shaped by the truth of divine and evangelical law.”[iii] Virtue must be practiced in a community, and nowhere should it be more evident than in the communion of believers. We learn love by acting justly toward others. We learn hope by requesting intercession and praying for each other. We learn faith by learning through each others’ struggles.

The communion of saints is essentially a school for virtue. In those who have gone before us, we have models of faith and struggle, people who exemplify the virtues we seek to develop. In the Christian faithful on earth, we also have such models, but we also have the environment in which we need to develop the discipline and practice of virtue. Our life in the communion of saints, our living with each other allows us to live for each other and serve each other, “so that what each one does or suffers in and for Christ bears fruit for all” (CCC 961).

i. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 8b—Lesson Sixteen,” International Catholic University, 17 April 2010, .
ii. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Edition (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vatican, 1997), 871.
iii. Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), xiii.

What is the relation of Christian spirituality to moral theology?

In Deuteronomy, before he went to die on Mt. Nebo, Moses set before the people of Israel the way of life and the way of death (30:15). As the Jews came to understand it, the way of life was exemplified in the Decalogue and the teaching of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the 613 mitzvot of the Law. Minus the ritual and juridical law, what remains is the same moral teaching Christians practice today. However, the Christian way of understanding these laws involves an interiority that was missing from the Jewish understanding, or at least from the understanding of those Pharisees whom Jesus frequently castigated in the gospels. Some systems of moral theology, those which are volunteeristic or deontological and emphasize external obligation with little thought to consequences,[i] neglect the interiority of moral behavior. It was against such approaches that many people began to rebel following Vatican II, seeking a spirituality apart from the moral law.

Some people invoke the phrase “spiritual but not religious” to describe themselves. It is not uncommon to find this kind of thinking among new-age practitioners or westerners who dabble in eastern meditative practices. As Ashley points out, though, these people have missed the great riches of Christian spiritual practice.[ii] They have also emptied moral law of its life-giving aspects, focusing solely on the external observance rather than their connection with love of God and neighbor. However, spirituality is intimately tied with the way of life. Spirituality is, in a sense, the individual path we take toward God, our personal expression of the way of life. It involves our relationship directly with our maker, and as such, is the expression of our life in Christ. It is intimately tied to how we put into action the theological and cardinal virtues. All the moral law is tied to love of God and love of neighbor,[iii] which is enlivened by faith and guided by prudence. That love impels us to treat others justly. Through hope, we find the disciplines that help us to control our passions—temperance and fortitude. These virtues foster in us this love of God and neighbor and put it into concrete form. As Christians, we must live our lives in community. Through the seven virtues, the Holy Spirit grants us the ability to do so.

i. Benedict Ashley, Living the Truth in Love: A Biblical Introduction to Moral Theology, (Staten Island: St. Pauls, 1996), 126.
ii. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 8b—Lesson Sixteen,” International Catholic University, 17 April 2010, .
iii. Ibid.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

What is “moral relativism?”

Moral relativism is the denial of an objective, absolute standard upon which morality rests. It is, in Western European culture, a result of the Romanticist response to the Enlightenment. Because Enlightenment led to a rejection (in some circles) of Christian morality as a guide for behavior, a vacuum existed. Romanticism (and Transcendentalism in America) stepped in to fill that vacuum.[i] In a sense, these two related movements finished, in the moral sphere, the work that Descartes had unwittingly begun in the “turn to the subject.”[ii] They displaced the center of the moral compass from Divine revelation to human intuition. The problem is that in so doing, they rejected the foundation for all morality. As John Paul II put it, “Thus, giving himself over to relativism and scepticism… he goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from truth itself” (Veritatis Splendor 1). What suffers first in moral relativism is an absolute sense of value, with the exception of an absolute value of freedom apart from natural law (VS 48).

Servais Pinckaers points out the beginning of this trend and its dangers in the work of Catholic ethicists of the mid-20th century. Prior to the Vatican II council, the Catholic ethicist taught a well-established set of principles in regards to moral standards and acting to a degree like an extension of the magisterium of the Church.[iii] However, with the new “openness to the world” following Vatican II, many ethicists began to use methods from the behavioral sciences, sometimes without regard to the moral foundation already present, or as Pinckaers calls it, the “irreducible character of moral knowledge.”[iv] Ethicists who do not recognize this character “will be limited to a ‘shifting morality’ adapted to the prevailing opinions of a given time or milieu.”[v] Proportionalism and consequentialism are two such moral systems, both of which were condemned by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor 79. Ashley also notes the promise of assimilating the “results of modern science” provided that we rethink the results to remove “the distortions of Enlightenment philosophy.”[vi] Pope Benedict XVI has also spoken out numerous times about the “dictatorship of relativism,” which begins by promising freedom but ends as dogmatic and rigid as many people accuse the Church of being.

i. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 8a—Lesson Fifteen,” International Catholic University, 17 April 2010, .
ii. Benedict Ashley, “Philosophy for Theologians—Lesson 3: The Intellectual Ambiguities of Contemporary Culture,” International Catholic University, 28 February 2010, .
iii. Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 75.
iv. Ibid.
v. Ibid.
vi. Ashley, .

What was the Enlightenment? How is it still an influence today?

The Enlightenment was a secular reaction to the religious controversies of the Reformation and Counterreformation, primarily to the authoritarian Puritanical morality of the Calvinists, but also to the traditional authority of the Catholic Church.[i] During this time, a substantial shift took place in philosophy, beginning with Descartes, a Catholic layman, who perhaps unwittingly introduced the notion of the turn to the subject in philosophical inquiry,[ii] as opposed to the traditional focus on the object in classical and medieval philosophy. This “turn to the subject” cast doubt upon the “external ‘objective’ world of the sense” and instead focused on “our own introspective knowledge of our thoughts,”[iii] summed up neatly in Descartes’ famous dictum, “Cogito, ergo sum.”

In reaction against Descartes’ idealism, the British empiricists swung to a materialist extreme.[iv] These two views, rationalist or idealist on one side and materialist on the other, responded dialogically into a more and more skeptical philosophical spirit until finally with Hume, we see even the notion of causality being called into question. What all of this skeptical philosophizing ultimately led to was a distrust of traditional institutions and morality, leading to a suspicion or outright rejection of external norms as the basis for morality.[v] As Ashley notes, this movement turned instead to modern science and technology as the solution to human problems, rejecting revelation from God as being of any use.[vi] While Renaissance humanism respected the accomplishments of religion, secular humanism essentially attempted to (and in some locales, did) supplant religious morality with a new order.[vii] However, because science is essentially value free, a new source had to be found to supply a system of values and morality. Ultimately, the source came to rest in the human “genius.”[viii]

What all of these strands do is to come together with a heightened sense of the individual as the source of authority or at least the “captain” of his own destiny. While I think Ashley paints with too broad a brush in his descriptions of conservatism and progressivism, he points out that each tends to emphasize certain aspects of libertarian thought to the detriment of Catholic teaching. On one extreme, there is a disregard for social solidarity in the economic sphere—the legitimate regulation of market practices. On the other extreme is the disregard of social solidarity in the “personal” moral sphere, the area of sexual morality and personal responsibility.[ix] I would also argue that each side demonstrates an extreme interpretation of the volunteerist morality of the late scholastic and Reformation eras, with each extreme responding in polar opposition—one holding rigidly to the letter of law while neglecting the spirit; the other, rejecting the letter while claiming to seek or express the spirit (often well outside of the clear moral norms of Catholic tradition). A truly Catholic approach, to me, seeks to hold letter and spirit in balance or in tension.

i. Bendict Ashley, Living the Truth in Love: A Biblical Introduction to Moral Theology, (Staten Island: St. Pauls, 1996), 126.
ii. Benedict Ashley, “Philosophy for Theologians—Lesson 3: The Intellectual Ambiguities of Contemporary Culture,” International Catholic University, 28 February 2010, .
iii. Ibid.
iv. Ibid.
v. Ashley, 128.
vi. Benedict Ashley, “Moral Theology: Lecture 8a—Lesson Fifteen,” International Catholic University, 17 April 2010, .
vii. Ibid.
viii. Ibid.
ix. Ibid.