Divorce, Sort of, Hollywood Style

brangelinaFollowing the break-up of HiddleSwift, it seems as though an infectious virus dissolving relationships old and new is spreading through Tinseltown:  Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber, done after 11 years and two children together, but who never officially married; Kiefer Sutherland and Julia Roberts have ‘delayed’ their planned nuptials, and, now, even the indomitable Brangelina have called it quits, and this with six children in tow.  Unlike many Hollywood couples, Mr. Pitt and Ms. Jolie actually were married, or at least they went through some kind of ceremony.  Now, accounts report, former bad-boy Pitt is trying to seek a reconiciliation with his other half.  You go, Brad, m’boy…


At the same time, we recently heard from another (former) power couple (that former belongs with ‘power’, for they are still a couple), namely Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, stars of numerous films of middling to low quality in the seventies and eighties, who claim to have the sure-fire recipe for sticking together, through thick and thin:  Wait for it, it is never to get married at all!  That did not seem to work for Schreiber and Watts but, oh well…


I think what they mean is that it is best if one lives with the option of being able to chuck it all and, like Paul Simon sang, be able to slip out the back, Jack, or hop on the bus, Gus…it matters not where one runs, just away from you.  Such thoughts of possible easy escape, I suppose, are meant to keep one going in the darker moments.


Russell and Hawn have a point, for it is sort of unnatural to commit oneself to another person, in an unremitting and irrevocable conjugal marriage-scandalrelationship, for life.  Even the great Saint Thomas taught that, at the purely natural level, a married couple were only bound to stay together until their children were raised.  For children need a stable home, and the example and influence of a father and mother, to develop fully.  After they are grown up and moved out (a seemingly endless process in our day of perpetual adolescence), the natural reasons to share hearth and home diminish, if not recede into the background.  That is why the Church has always permitted couples to ‘separate’, to commit themselves to a life of greater perfection in consecrated continence, by mutual agreement, once the obligations of the marriage are complete.


But this is the very rare exception, not the rule, because marriage is not a purely natural reality, for the simple reason that we are not just natural beings.  In Man, the natural and the supernatural, the physical and the spiritual, coalesce into a complex reality, making him a metaphysical hybrid of sorts.  Although neither angel nor beast, Man has elements of both within him. Hence, romance and sex are not just natural psycho-physiological experiences that take up time and effort on the  weekend.  Rather, as Pope John Paul II so clearly taught, they are deeply spiritual realities, by which one ‘gives’ oneself to the other, fully and completely, body and soul.


Fornication, adultery, divorce and such like are not bad just because of their emotional, societal and familial consequences, or because they are detrimental to present and future children.  Rather, they are bad primarily because they lead to our own corruption.  They make us less human, more bestial, even, taken far enough, demonic.  The sexual act ‘signifies’ far more than ‘let’s have a good time using each other’s bodies as a means of achieving climax’, even if one thinks and acts this way.  Rather, the conjugal act always signifies, even if one does not intend it as such, a total reciprocal self-gift.  When one holds back, by limiting commitment, by contraception,  by pure use-for-pleasure, or by selling one’s body, one is telling a profound lie, signifying one thing externally, while meaning another internally.  And a lie of such dimensions, told in the most intimate way with one’s body, is impossible to revoke. One is marked for life by sexual activity, by ‘carnal knowledge’ with another, which is why virginity should be preserved until marriage, or offered to God in consecration.


That is also why divorce is so painful, and should not be made easy in law.  Pierre Trudeau did Canada a great disservice (as he did in so many cheap-divorceother ways) by legalizing divorce, paving the way to the advertisement I recently saw on the side of a bus for a lawyer’s office offering no-fault, and no hassle, dissolution of marriages, akin to the one pictured.


Of course, there is no such thing as no-fault and no-pain divorce.  For to rend a marriage, or indeed any conjugal relationship, is to rend one’s own, as well as one’s spouse’s, flesh in two, and this before we discuss what it does to the children.  That is also why we should not be so quick in the Church to speed up our annulment process (a declaration that a marriage never existed), turning it practically into a type of free-and-easy Catholic divorce, or to make shacking up without the commitment of matrimony too easy and conscience-free, a la the Russell-Hawns.  Such would be a scandal of literally Biblical proportions, as Pope John Paul II implied in his 1981 Letter Familiaris Consortio.  The Catholic Church is the last bastion left in our world witnessing to the truth of the sanctity and indissolubility of the marital bond, and it would be sad indeed if we were to give even the appearance of wobbling on this front, as seems to be happening.


I am glad Goldie and Kurt have made it through all these years together, but, regardless of what they say, the mere fact of their conjugal life has by its very nature committed them to each other, whether they know it or not.  The sacrament (or, in their case, the ‘ceremony’) of matrimony solemnizes what is there to some extent already, namely, the will to give oneself to the other for life, come hell or high water.  The best option in any long-term conjugal relationship is to regularize the union, or, if it is in danger of disintegration, to seek healing and reconciliation, for each other’s sake, and for the sake of the children involved. My recommendation to all these woeful, wayward couples, which applies to all those in fluid sexual ‘partnerships’ out there, would therefore be to solemnize and solidify their relationships currently built on shifting sand, before they meet the judgement seat of God.  That way, they can show up, yes you know it, wearing their ‘wedding garment’.


A Debacle of a Debate

clinton-trumpI watched a bit of the ‘debate’ last night between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and I use that term reservedly.  A debate is meant to be a measured and regulated argument, based on reasoned principles, and not a bandying back and forth of scoring ‘points’, of braggadaccio, looking for weaknesses and straw men in the opponent, of self-congratulation, sound bites, smirks, finger pointing, figurative and otherwise, and, what was most annoying, skirting and ignoring the questions of the moderator (whether they were to one’s taste or not),  to say nothing of droning on over the time limit, yelling over not just the moderator, but each other.  It was bombast, spectacle, and playing upon the emotions and the a priori, unreasoned biases of one side or the other.  My  mind began to melt, so off it went (the debate, not my mind, I hope).


Have we as a society become so unhinged?  Is this what reasoned discourse looks like in our era?  Read accounts of the the sober and clear debates of yesteryear, say, between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, where issues were discussed at length, with all the requisite and necessary nuances.


As per my recent post, is the age of the Internet, of ‘smart’ phones and texting, of hashtags and YouTube, reducing us to intellectual barbarism?  Ideas have consequences, certainly, but even worse is the lack of ideas, the incapacity or outright refusal to think clearly, to get to the roots of our modern malaise.


Saint Thomas Aquinas declared that the hallmark of a developed intellect is the capacity to make the proper distinctions, which allow us to see things as they really are.  Adequatio rei et intellectus, is how Thomas defined truth, following Aristotle, a ‘conformity between the intellect and reality’.


How I wished, in the few minutes I did watch Trump and Clinton, they would make such distinctions: in the U.S. relations with Russia, in the quagmire of the Middle East, the spiralling debt-load of the United States, and why they cannot continue to carry their current ‘obligations’, at home and overseas.   These were real questions requiring real, and fully reasoned, answers.  But none were forthcoming, just chest beating and talking points.  Trump with his ‘winning disposition’ and Hillary with her sense of smug entitlement, make rather pathetic figures.


Where, oh where, were the more fundamental  questions, on life and family, and the disintegration of both in American life, without which no other ‘questions’ can be solved?  Our modern media does not want to touch these with a hundred foot microphone. Yet as the recently canonized Saint Mother Theresa of Calcutta taught a few decades ago in her own soft, yet commanding, voice (I would not mind seeing her debate Clinton):


But I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child – a direct killing of the innocent child – murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?…Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching the people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. That is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion. ” 


In all likelihood, Trump is the lesser of these two deeply flawed candidates.  But until America, and its President, (as well as Canada, and our own cherub-faced Prime Minister) face that bloated elephant in the room, we will never have peace, at home or abroad, and the world will continue to dis-integrate, regardless of who leads whom.

The Insanity of our Brave New World

xytexJames Christian Aggeles is a paranoid schizophrenic with various personality disorders and grandiose delusions, which came to the forefront after he donated sperm to Xytex, Corp., a ‘fertility company’ based in Atlanta, Georgia.  Mr. Aggeles claimed to have an I.Q. of 160 (well above Stephen Hawking’s and Einstein’s), with various degrees, and working on a Ph.D in ‘structural neuroscience’ (whatever that is).  You might think he was laughed out of the sperm bank, with a kick in the pants.


But no:  In fact, Aggeles could have claimed that he could bench 400 pounds and had invented sliced bread, for Xytex did not bother to check any of his credentials, but blindly took his sperm, which they used to make a whole lot of little embryo-babies, some of whom were transferred to (we think) 36 unsuspecting would-be-mothers, who dreamt of their little tykes growing up also to be like their paper-tiger Dad, at least according to his ‘grandiose’ resume.


Now, all these three dozen Mums are raising children who may grow up to be unemployable schizophrenics, ahem, just like Dad.  Three Ontario mothers are suing the corporation (most are in the U.S.).


Thus is the brave new world in which we live, the fruit of the tragic 2004  Assisted Human Reproduction Act, permitting certain in-vitro fertilization practices in Canada: Unlike our neighbours to the south, we cannot buy or sell sperm or eggs, but we can use them.  A number of Catholics supported the Bill back then, as at least prohibiting some of the worst evils.  However, contrary, I would argue, to Pope John Paul II’s teaching in paragraphs 73-74 of Evangelium Vitae, we introduced into positive law some other grave evils, as we see in the case of the prolific Aggeles who, it seems, will not be charged, as not compos mentis enough to understand what he was doing.


I would imagine that the corporate heads at Xytex knew, as did the desperate mothers, eager for a little Junior, but without the proper means and environment by and in which to bring him into the world.


Of course, these sperm banks are in the business of profit, so why would they check their donating clients?  What sells, sells, and smart, healthy sperm cells sell, whether they be smart or healthy in reality.  After all, say the hand-wringing execs of these misaptly-named misanthropic centres of fertility, who really is ever going to find out, at least until it is far too late?


By happenstance, Xytex inadvertently cc’d an email to some of the families with Mr. Aggeles’ real name.  A quick Google search determined that he was not the genius he claimed to be, far from it, so the cat was out of the bag, or the true nature of the sperm out of the secret vaults of the bank.


There are a whole lot of Mr. Aggeles’ out there in the world, siring untold dozens, even hundreds, of children (keep in mind that in sperm banks, many more embryos are conceived than are transferred to wombs, for there is a high failure rate in these procedures, so Aggeles is likely the father of a lot more than 36).


Need I recount the host of evils of this practice? Children who know not their fathers, nor mothers their, what, husbands (of a sort)? Multiple siblings who know not they are siblings?  Lack of genetic diversity?  Technological manipulation and control of human reproduction? The thousands, if not millions, of non-transferred embryos left in cold storage, left to what the Church has called an ‘absurd’ fate, likely eventual death, as they are abandoned and forgotten? For a Magisterial and theological take, see the trivium of documents:  Humanae Vitae (1968), Donum Vitae (1987) and Dignitatis Personae (2008) all well worth a read.


Thus is the Promethean Age of Man, or, in this case, Woman:  If Woman wants a child, and has no Man, then a child must be given her, in a twisted parody of Luke’s Gospel, where a Woman conceives of the Holy Spirit, without a Man.  And, lest we forget, this Woman had the help and support of one of the greatest of Men, Saint Joseph.


I keep hoping we might return to some sort of sanity and reason in our world, but, ten years after Benedict XVI’s crisp, clear and direct Regensburg Address calling for such a return, my hopes keep getting dashed on the rocks of madness.  An article this morning announced that they now may be able to use sperm alone to fertilize ‘any cell of the body’.  Hence, we may soon have children without mothers, along with children without fathers.  All you men out there, we may even be able to conceive our own children, quite literally ourselves, in a bizarre twist to cloning, the ultimate vanitas vanitatis.


A final note:  There was a review this morning of a new Bridget Jones film, a decade and a half after the first of this franchise which I have never watched, and of whose plot I am nescient (it was apparently a vague adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice).  In this new incarnation (pun intended), Bridget, played by the now 47 year-old Renee Zelweeger, has a one-night stand (or is that  a two-night?) with both of her paramours of yesteryear.  She conceives, remarkably one might think, and now has to decide which one she wants to be father of her child.  Post hoc, propter ergo hoc.


Such is the age of choice and determining your own destiny as a woman, even in middle-age, as the breathless CBC reviewer gushed over my Friday morning porridge.  No longer do such independent and free-thinking females require men, not for their money, their living, nor, now, for their children.


In real life, insofar as we are still grounded in reality, we should ponder the tragedy of the Italian woman who had herself filmed having sexual relations with her boyfriend, and the film somehow ended up on-line. The video, as one might suspect in our world without honour, went viral, being viewed more than a million times on various social media sites.  The woman, known only as ‘Taziana’, killed herself in the midst of trying to change her name and identity, as she tried to escape the unbearable shame.  May God have mercy on her soul, and on those who helped goad her to her tragic death.  The shame that is inherent in the act of sex (see John Paul II again, in his Theology of the Body) rests more upon the woman, which is why, I suspect, so many of the fairer half turn to these anonymous sperm banks for their babies, rather than turning to one-night stands with, for want of a better term, ‘real’ men.


I will say this:  At least the fictional fornicatory Bridget/Renee knew, in the epistemological and the Biblical sense, who the father of her child was, with some degree of certainty.  Not so the poor, misguided women who were technologically, and blindly, united with the schizophrenic Aggeles, and all others like him, geniuses or not.  The greatest victims in this whole immoral swamp are the poor children of these misbegotten unions.


Brave new world, indeed.


The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains

google-stupidOne of the most studied patients in neuropsychological history, from 1957 until his death in 2008, was a patient known through his life only as ‘H.M.’ , but after whose death in 2008, we now know as Henry Molaison.


H.M. did not mind the intense scrutiny he received from all sorts of researchers, for he suffered from one of the most severe forms of anterograde amnesia ever recorded. Unlike the more common retrograde amnesia, wherein one cannot recall past memories, with anterograde, one cannot form new memories.  H.M. would greet you happily, converse and smile.  Then, the next day, or in the next ten minutes, he would act as though he was meeting you all over again.  His life was one perpetual Groundhog Day, but, unlike Bill Murray’s character, he was not aware of it.


Here is the story:  As a child, H.M. suffered a massive brain trauma, after which he developed incurable and incapacitating epileph-m-2tic seizures, one of the treatments for which (even to this day) is to excise the damaged parts of the brain causing the seizures.  So, in 1953, H. M. underwent radical brain surgery that removed, most tragically as we would soon discover, both of his hippocampi, two small little organs located just under the temporal lobe, which gets its name from its resemblance to a sea-horse.


After the surgery, it was discovered that H.M. could not form new explicit memories (that is, those we can recount, as opposed to, say, implicit memories like motor skills).  He would greet you heartily, then forget all about it soon after you had introduced yourself.


Without his memory, H.M. lost a large part of his identity. After all, if you cannot recall things, how are you, ‘you’?  There is a forgettable film (with Ben Affleck) wherein the main protagonist is allowed to go on fantastic vacations; the only rub is that he must have his memory swiped afterwards.  So he had a blast, but cannot recall it.  Did ‘he’ really go on holiday?


The great Pope Saint John Paul II called his own mini-biography, published in 2005 just before his death, ‘Memory and Identity’.  In a very real and fundamental way, we are our memories, allowing us to extend our identity from the effervescent and ever-fleeting present into the past, and into the future.


The claim made by Nicholas Carr is that the Internet is turning us all into mini-versions of H.M., attenuating our capacity to form new ‘memories’, at least of the long-lasting, deep variety, making our minds, our thoughts and our very identities ‘shallow’.


Such a claim on the effects of technology is not new. Back in the 5th century B.C., in the Phaedrus, the philosopher Plato has Socrates declaim on the deleterious effects of writing, using the king of Egypt, Thamus, arguing against Theuth, the inventor of the alphabet, :  Theuth claims that writing will ‘increase memory and make the people of Egypt wiser’.  Not so, claims Thamus: Rather,  “it will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely upon what is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks”.  The written word is “a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is not true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only semblance…those who rely on reading will “seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing”


Carr argues that Socrates was being a bit of a gadly, as was his wont, for although it is perhaps possible to use (or not use) books in a way that diminishes our mind’s capacity, they are, as we will see, by far a much more beneficial aid than a liability to reasoned, deep-seated thought, as we have discovered since the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg.


shallowsBut the technology of the Internet is a whole different ball game, one which Carr argues is truly reducing our capacity to remember and to think, to store and interconnect ideas and concepts, which are the hallmarks of wisdom and intelligence.


Carr’s argument goes back to 1885, when the psychologist Ebbinghaus taught himself to memorize 2000 nonsense words; what he found was that it was easier to learn a half dozen words in a sitting than a dozen.  Some would slip away from memory very quickly, while others would linger for a while.  Eventually, the words would stay in his memory, and not be forgotten, but only after constant focus and repetition.


Subsequent research based on Ebbinghaus’ self-study discovered that there were basically two kinds of memory:  Short-term, which quickly fades, and is able to hold up to about seven ‘bits’ of information (which is why phone numbers are, or were, usually this long).  And long-term memory, which lasts for much longer, days, weeks or even one’s entire life, depending on how consolidated it is.


It is essential to learning, and the acquisition of knowledge, that information be transferred from short to long term memory.  As Carr puts it:


The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas.  But the passage from working memory to long-term memory also forms a major bottleneck in our brain.  Unlike long-term memory, which has a vast capacity, working memory is able to hold only a very small amount of information (p.124)


So far, so good.  But what has this to do with the Internet?


Research has demonstrated that the transfer from short to long term memory requires that we focus on the material we are learning, rehearse it, ponder upon it, connect it with other things we remember, ‘weaving’ the material into ‘conceptual schemas’, which comprise the overall capacity of our intelligence.


The key to memory consolidation is attentiveness.  Storing explicit memories and, equally important, forming connections between them requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. (p. 193)


Without such attentiveness, if we are distracted and flitting about with our minds, we will never learn.  All of what we think we are ‘learning’ will remain in short-term memory, and disappear soon afterward.


And Carr argues, quite convincingly, that the Internet is inherently distracting.  In fact, the whole technology is built upon the process of distraction, of skimming for information, inhibiting the focused attention necessary to weave things into long-term memory.


Here is Irene Au, the Director of ‘User Experience’ at Google:


Our goal is to get users in and out really quickly.  All our design decisions are based on that strategy


Carr backs up his argument with the physiology of learning:  Our brains are made of cells, termed ‘neurons’, connected by axons and dendrites,which intercommunicate via molecular chemical signals we term neurotransmitters.  These chemical signals flow across a ‘synapse’, a gap between the cells, causing them to fire and send an electro-chemical signal. By a process not yet fully understood, after a number of repetitive firings of the same synapses, permanent anatomical changes are produced in the brain, with the extension of, and greater interconnectivity between, the dendrites. The hippocampus seems to be the anatomical ‘gateway’ of this process, holding information in short term storage, as it is consolidated deeper within the cortex.


Here is the rub:  What we have discovered of late is that short-term memory is chemical, based on the transient, and quickly dissolving, release of neurotransmitters. Long-term memory, on the other hand, is anatomical, based on new, and more-or-less permanent connections between neurons.


Thus, we may discern a physiological spectrum to memory, from short term, which is easily forgotten, such as people’s names at cocktail parties, to long term, which ‘resides’ somehow in the neuroanatomical structure of the brain itself.  To move our thoughts from short to long term memory is the process of ‘memory consolidation’.  What we do know, as Carr makes clear, is that


short-term memory produces a change in the function of the synapse, strengthening or weakening preexisting connections; long-term memory requires anatomical changes (p. 185)


Thus, what determines what we remember and what we forget is this very consolidation, which requires focus and attentiveness, some level of ‘deep reading’.Without this, our memories dissolve quite literally in a neurotransmitter chemical soup, somewhere perhaps deep in our hippocampi.


If we are in a state of near-permanent distraction, we diminish our capacity to transfer information from short to long term memory.  And the Internet is designed by its very nature (which is to say, by its creators and administrators) to distract you, both your emotions and your will. Ponder Google and Facebook, which make no bones about wanting to know as much about you as possible for their ‘files’, and the more you click or swipe, the more they know.


Even if you try to focus on one thing, you know there are email, updates, texts, just a finger click away, even if you turn off all notifications.  Unlike a sturdy, steady book, the screen before you is a chameleon, that can be many things, a movie, a YouTube clip, your email, a photo, a Wikipedia page, a hyperlink, music, Skype; the possibilities are endless, and inherently distracting.


Some try to argue that the Internet allows for a greater extension of knowledge and, after all, what is wrong with off-sourcing our memories to allow for more, ah, ‘creative’ thoughts?


mind-internetAlas, much.  For, to return to the beginning, it is our memories that make us who we are.  If our memories are all off-sourced, then who really are we?  Is this why Millennials are so possessive of their phones, because their technologies have quite literally become them?  If you lose your ‘device’, have you lost a part of yourself?  Is this why we no longer converse, neither on the phone, nor, in person? Why we are losing our culture, our imaginations, and why we are so easily led?  Have we lost our capacity to think deeply, which, almost by definition, requires memory?


Carr does not delve into these deeper philosophical questions, but we may use his book, and the scientific research  which he references, as a starting point for us to do so.  His conclusions are fully in line with the Catholic and Thomistic doctrine of human persons as body-soul composites.  As Saint Thomas puts it, it is neither the body nor the soul that act, but the person, body and soul.  So we should not be surprised that our minds have a physical substrate, and that developing our minds and our memories, our very selves, requires focus, attention, effort and concentration, akin to physical exercise.  Without these, our minds will remain largely empty or, at the very least, shallow.

Korea on the Brink: Holiness or Tragedy?

korean-martyrsToday is the feast of the martyrs of Korea, led by the indomitable convert priest, Father Andrew Kim Taegon, tortured and beheaded in 1846 at the tender age of 25, by the shores of the Han River.   Thousands more were likewise killed for their faith, 103 of whom were canonized by name by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1984.  Pope Francis beatified 124 others during World Youth Day in Korea in 2014.


Their work and their witness were not in vain:  Korea today, by which most people mean ‘South Korea’, although mostly secular and atheistic, still boasts a nearly 30% Christian population, about 11% of that Catholic.  And from what I have heard, they are in the main zealous and orthodox.


North Korea, usually referred to by its geographical adjective, on the other hand, was divided from Koreans in the south after World War II, when so many countries were given over, one might say (and many do) sold out, to the Communists under Stalin.  A puppet regime was set up, which still exists today, suffering under the ridiculous, but fanatical and dangerous and, yes, evil, antics of Kim Jong Un and his loyal henchmen.  The country is more or less atheistic, under the cult of personality of its ‘great leader’.  Christians make up less than 2% of the population.


So there is much work to do in Korea, presuming that the great dictator to the north does not do something apocalyptic, like drop one of his dozen or so nukes on his neighbours to the south.  An article today claimed that the insane North Korean regime has been, and still is, propped up by the United States, for fear that something worse would come along should the great ‘Kim’ fall, and his nuclear arsenal itself fall into the hands of who knows who.


Such is realpolitik in today’s world.  A fragile balance of power, on the brink of who knows what.


But we Catholics live in real spiritual-tik, where God’s law, not man’s, reigns.  As today’s reading from Proverbs declares,


the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will’


And as Christ would later paradoxically teach Pilate as He stood bound and scourged before him, that the Roman potentate would have no authority, had it not been given from above.  God will remove the tyrants in His own good time, and in the meantime, at times we must live under persecution, even bloodshed.  The worst that can happen, really, is that we give up our lives.  But that is a joy, as the young Father Kim Taegon realized as he was dying:


This is my last hour of life, listen to me attentively: if I have held communication with foreigners, it has been for my religion and for my God. It is for Him that I die. My immortal life is on the point of beginning. Become Christians if you wish to be happy after death, because God has eternal chastisements in store for those who have refused to know Him.


So let us intercede with the martyrs that many will not ‘refuse to know him’, but, as Christ exhorts  the people in today’s Gospel, rather they hear the word of God, and keep it.

Why We Need More Bellarmines

robert-bellarmineBefore we get to Bellarmine, for those of you who would like to peruse my take on the strange saga of James Christian Agelles, and what it says about our world, please see my article this morning in Crisis on-line magazine.

(n.b.:  An earlier version of this article, which has since been modified, claimed that the ex-boyfriend uploaded an explicit video of his former paramour.  That claim has not been substantiated, so should be read in that light.  I will modify when I post the article here)


Also, if you readers could kindly offer a prayer for the repose of the soul of my cousin, Thomas Hughes, who was tragically killed in an ATV accident early on Saturday morning.  Thomas was one of fraternal triplets, and the family is going through a lot of sorrow. God’s mercy is infinite, et requiescat in pace.


Thomas died on the feast of Saint Robert Bellarmine, one of the shining lights of what is unfortunately known as the ‘Counter-Reformation’, as though the Catholic Church were somehow stifling the noble, reformatory efforts of Calvin and Luther.  True enough, the rebellion of the Protestants (and I judge not their motives, which may well have been to some extent good-willed) did lead to much-needed Catholic reforms, culminating in the Council of Trent, and all the great fruits thereof.


Bellarmine was a noble and generous soul, based on his disciplined and deeply spiritual life, a result of his Jesuit formation (yes, I know, we can hope), which allowed him to see farther than his contemporaries.  It was he who warned Galileo in 1616, that if he were going to urge the Church to change her (non-official) interpretation of certain Scripture passages, which seemed to imply a stationary Earth and moving Sun, he had better have solid physical proof.


I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false.


But as I have written before, Galileo, blinded perhaps by his own hubris, did not ‘proceed with great care’.  Rather, he went ahead boldly with his Copernican theory, replete with ‘perfect circular’ orbits, as befit Galileo’s mathematical and Pythagorean obsession. Johannes Kepler, Galileo’s contemporary, was correct, that the orbits were in fact slightly flattened ellipses, and pointed this out to Galileo.  Sadly, the stubborn Florentine ignored him, and was having none of non-circular orbits.


Further, the primary ‘proof’ Galileo could offer was that that the tides were caused by the Earth’s motion ‘sloshing’ the oceans around. Nonsense, as the great scientist (who ironically founded the science of motion) should have known.  Again, it was Kepler who knew that the tides were in reality caused somehow by the ‘pull’ of the moon, that he thought was magnetic.  Again, ignored by Galileo.  (It would take Newton to demonstrate gravity, but he would not be born until Galileo’s death in 1642).


If only Bellarmine had lived long enough to help Galileo and the Church see that both were in the right, and both in the wrong, but he died in 1621, before the whole thing blew up .  His prudent and discerning mind, formed in the clear and rigorous thought of Saint Thomas Aquinas, could have seen the true middle path, a path that Pope John Paul summarized in his brief address to the Pontifical Academy for Science in 1992.  We might then have been spared the tragic, and oft-misunderstood, ‘Galileo affair’, which has done so much harm to the harmony that should (and in reality does) exist between faith and science.


It has been said that Queen Elizabeth the First so feared Bellarmine that she banned all of his writings from Britain.  The Protestant revolt under her father Henry VIII, and put into full effect by his royal daughter of his adulterous dalliance with Anne Boleyn, did not much good for merrie olde England, and we are only seeing the full fruits of this schism in the socialist, secularist basket case that Britain, and so many other countries, have become, as they jettison the principles that the Catholic faith of their forefathers offers, without which our society, and our culture, is doomed.


So pray to good Saint Robert, that the new springtime, so often promised, will soon dawn upon the Church, a dawn that will arrive when the Church realizes and puts into effect the full patrimony of her intellectual treasure house, which is the only way her spiritual resources can be put to the most prudent use.


HiddleSwfit No More: Why Taylor Swift May Never Get Married

hiddleswiftAlas, in earth-shattering news, the couple known as ‘HiddleSwift’ has broken up.  Yes, to you legions of fans (there have to be some out there to make its mountains of cash) of the Avengers’ nemesis Loki, and of the teen-angst ballads of Taylor Swift, the photogenic young-ish couple has called it quits, barely two months after their coupledom was confirmed.  They had the most perfect romance money and fame could provide:  Jet setting to all the romantic locales in Europe and beyond; gazing into each other’s eyes in boutique cafes; quiet strolls along the most picturesque promenades…What, oh what, could have gone wrong?


lokiWell, everything.  It seems that as soon as Tom had to return to filming yet-another sequel in the ghastly Avengers series (I suppose they will keep making them so long as they make billions), the romance cooled off like a forgotten and deflated Yorkshire pudding left out too long. The nail was driven into the coffin when Tom-Loki tweeted a photo of himself ‘in costume’, which may have woken up Ms. Swift to what her paramour actually did for a living, playing some ridiculous mythical god-like creature in an unwatchable franchise, but I will not dwell upon this point, which is somewhat accidental.  I bear no grudge against Hiddleston, nor his films, which I am not forced to watch, nor, as far as I know, to pay for (see my review of the original Avengers, which was, in fact, one of my first blog entries, and there is a backstory to that).  Same goes for Taylor Swift’s music, such as it is.


The main point rather is the tragic nature of their romance:  For a friendship to blossom and flourish, not least the friendship that leads to the lifelong community of marriage, it has to be about something other than the romance itself.  There has to be a common project, a purpose, an end or telos; a friendship of any kind cannot just exist on its own.


Aristotle distinguishes three types of friendship: the concupiscent, the useful, and friendship proper.  The concupiscent is based on the pleasure the friend offers us, humour, company or even, as is so often said, sexual benefits.  The useful derives from what the friend offers in terms of utility:  He may have a nice house with a pool, or be a good fisherman or handyman, or share the driving on road trips.  There is nothing absolutely wrong with these friendships, which are often transitory and temporary, nor even with ‘using’ others in this way, so long as we do not use the person solely as a means to an end, and that we see them as an end in themselves.


Such true friendship, which must colour all friendships, is one where we ‘love’ the friend for his own sake, not for what he can offer us.


As John Paul II argues so forcefully in his discussion on male-female relationships, from his early (1960) Love and Responsibility to his later (1979-84) Theology of the Body discourses, true friendship is especially necessary in that adventure we call marriage, not least because marriage involves the other two types of friendship so heavily.  That is, because of the intense pleasure of matrimony, not just the sexuality, but all the emotional attachment and bonding that goes along with this, as well as the mutual dependence to run a household, support each other and raise children, marriage requires the love of charity, true friendship, most of all other kinds of friendship.


What, we may ask, was the romance of Hiddleston and Swift really ‘about’?  Did each of them ever intend to get married?


I am not sure either of them ever could, even if they desired such, not least because their phalanxes of lawyers would require binding pre-nuptial agreements to keep their mountains of cash safe, in case it ‘does not work out’.   As I pointed out in a recent article, that in itself would invalidate the marriage, as denying indissolubility, one of the required ‘goods’ that ‘make’ the marriage.


Furthermore, how would Ms. Swift ever know if anyone was marrying her for who she is, and not for her fame, her money, her prestige?  The number of men with the equivalents of these attributes to hers is miniscule indeed (she is worth a quarter of a billion), and the subset of these that would make good husbands likely non-existent. I recall vividly a discussion I had years ago with a very rich woman, who had a daughter who was going to inherit millions upon turning eighteen.  The anxious mother confessed to me that she would never know if anyone would ever love her daughter for who she was.


Beyond this, how would Ms. Taylor ever raise children, settle down to the humdrum life of vita domestica, spending her life, as one mother of a large household described it, immersed in various forms of ‘liquids’?


A former student of mine recounted that he met Taylor Swift years ago, before she was a worldwide phenom, quite by accident in a grocery store, while he was picking up leftover bread for the religious community in which he was then a novice. People were pointing to her, and he asked if she were famous.  She replied rather humbly, ‘Well, I’ve got a song or two on the radio’.  I sometimes think it may have been better for Ms. Swift if those songs had bombed and she had married some carpenter in California, and was now homeschooling a growing passle of children.  I dare say she would be far happier than she is, and would certainly provide a better example to the world.


Yes, I feel no envy, but mainly sorrow, for the rich and famous, whose lives are so distant from reality, especially the women, upon whom this weighs so heavily.  But no one can be fully insulated from God’s law imprinted upon nature and the soul, as Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey recounts so vividly.  Eventually things, our choices and non-choices, catch up to us.  As the now bifurcated Hiddleswift move on from this debacle to another fake romance, as they drift inexorably out of the potency of their youth (Swift is still sort of young at 26, but Hiddleston is gettin’ up there at 35) they will become, if they have not already, emotionally less willing, even unable, to give themselves to another, emotionally and spiritually, as ennui and fear of the next disastrous romance settle in to their tired souls, so weary of the world.


Far better to accept reality as it is, to settle down with the one you love, even if not perfect, perhaps especially if not perfect, or embrace a life of celibacy for the Lord and His work.


For it is only in losing ourselves, that we will find ourselves.


Labor et Dolor

human work

We recently held a faculty retreat at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, whose theme was ‘Play’.  A curious focus, one might think, for serious-minded professors about to begin an academic year of rigorous learning (or so we like to think).  But in fact, the conversation was rather eye-opening, as we pondered the distinction between ‘work’ and ‘play’.


I personally consider the strict comparmentalization of work and play somewhat false, a fruit, in part, of Reformational philosophy, particularly of certain early varieties of Calvinism, where it was all work and no play, making Jean a dull boy.  And the ‘work’ had to be duty-bound, practical and useful to give glory to God.  Under the pious exhortations of Jean Cauvin and his fellow Calvinists, various instruments of ‘playing’ were thrown onto huge bonfires of the vanities:  decks of cards, dice and other ‘games’ being primary targets of such devilish dissipation.


Not so in Catholicism, which always hearkens back in its moral teaching to the joyful time before sin, in the prelapsarian paradise, offering us a glimpse of who Man was, is and is meant to be again (even more gloriously in heaven).  Saint John Paul II does this in his teaching of marriage in his Theology of the Body discourses, and he does it also for the nature of human work in his 1981 encyclical Laborem Exercens.  When I first read the document, I found it curious that he defined work as ‘any activity of man’:  Work is simply Man acting as he is meant to, whatever he may do.  Our whole life is therefore a work, from the time we arise, to the time we rest, and even our sleep itself.


We have for various reasons now limited the definition of work to what John Paul terms its objective or transitive aspect, producing or making things people can use, whether material or intellectual.  Very good in itself, but as the great Pope, who experienced many forms of work in his variegated life, goes on to clarify, the primary purpose of work is its subjective aspect, whose purpose is to perfect the worker himself.  Ideally, our work should be such that it makes us more virtuous and fulfilled, according to our own specific gifts and talents. And when we are fulfilled, we are joyous, for what is joy but a fulfillment of one’s nature and desires?


In this broad definition of work, there is no strict delineation between ‘work’ and ‘play’; rather, they should flow seamlessly together, as one continuous process of perfecting who we are in whatever vocation and activity to which we are called in life and in the moment.  This was the case for Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Life, work, play, romance, conversation, eating, walking, praying, all flowed into one harmony of life.


We see a glimpse of this in religious and monastic life (well, with a bit less of the romance, except in the spiritual sense), for they minimize their needs, and therefore they need not work for money, and their labour is therefore less ‘servile’. Not so the husband and father of five, who must put bread on the table, even in tasks he may not find all that personally fulfilling.


Yes, alas, in the era of sin (that is, after the Fall), work is not what it is meant to be, as prophesied to Adam by God Himself:


In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken


Sin, in ourselves and in others, is what makes work onerous and unpleasant, servile, or even slave-like.  Most people on this planet labour in such conditions, some in far worse than others.  We labour and sweat, cursing the very ‘ground’ which resists our attempts to make it ‘bear fruit’ (which applies not only to farming, but to any productive work).  Much of this work is not all that directly perfective of the person, but rather back-breaking, repetitive, monotonous, all done for the meagre paycheque, which barely makes ends meet.


Thus, when workers in such conditions get to ‘play’, there is a tendency to go hog-wild, dissipating themselves in devil-may-care alcohol-fueled weekend carousing, or in lounging on the couch watching sports and playing World of Warcraft.  In another encyclical, Dies Domini, Pope John Paul warns against such hedonistic and secular ‘weekend-ism’, with no consideration of the Sunday Sabbath, which should be the pinnacle of our week.  Our recreation (our play) should truly be re-creational, to renew us and make us stronger to work for the kingdom.


So, in the end, Calvin was to some extent correct to focus on the drudgery of work, with his theological principles brought to their zenith in the brilliant, but ultimately destructive, philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who, in his dense, nigh-unreadable tomes, taught that it is only duty that counts, pleasure be damned.  But both Calvin and Kant, in their blinkered vision, mistook work under the reign of sin for what should be the case without sin.


Rather than wallow in such burdensome, grey, fatalistic doom, therefore, we must rather strive to make our work and our play as harmonious and enjoyable as we can, to make our work somewhat ‘playful’, even if we do not always feel such to be the case.  John Paul II states that even if what we do does not seem directly to perfect us, and here we may think of all the innumerable multitude stuck in servile wage-slavery, who may even ‘hate their jobs’, such workers can at the very least offer up what is lacking in their work, even rejoicing in their drudgery, by uniting their suffering with that of the Saviour, who plied an ordinary trade of carpenter.  There is no work out there that cannot be redemptive.


Even for the unemployed, a phenomenon that Popes John Paul and Francis have described as a ‘scourge’ (which as things now stand will only get worse with off-sourcing and especially automation) there are always activities by which one can be perfected: reading, courses to perfect skills and talents, and, not least, prayer.  For it is in the praise and love of God, particularly in the liturgy, the ‘opus Dei’, that the very work of God is carried out, the most important, most fulfilling, and hopefully most enjoyable, work.


I will have more to say on this theme, which is of the essence in this moment in our history, but hopefully these few thoughts help on this secular Labour Day holiday, which points, however dimly, to the great goodness, dignity and perfection of human labour.



Herod, the Baptist and Conformity to the World

John the Baptist

While I was away, relishing the world God has created (see my last post), we celebrated the memorial of the beheading of Saint John the Baptist.  He is sort of a bookend to the summer, for you may recall that June 24th, just after the end of spring, was the solemnity of his birth, while now, as summer draws to its close, we celebrate his death.  A curious liturgical paradox, you might think, for why would not his death be a solemnity as well?  Perhaps because it was his birth, not his martyrdom, that ushered in the dawn of the Christian era, for the Baptist stands as the bridge between the Old and the New Covenants.  As Saint Augustine pointed out, his birth has traditionally been placed around the time of the summer solstice, when the Earth completes half her half-billion mile journey around the Sun, when the days begin to get shorter, as we move (yes, it’s that time already) towards Christmas, and the advent of the Messiah:


Christ must increase, and I must decrease.


Everything changed with the dawn of this New Covenant, and we as Catholics are called, even commanded, to approach temporal realities in a different way. As Saint Paul warns the Romans


Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (12:2)


What, really, does it mean to be ‘conformed’ to the world?  What does the Baptist, who may well be called the patron saint of non-conformity, have to teach us?


Here is one thought:  The ‘form’ (as in con-form) of the human person, as the Catechism teaches, is the soul, that immaterial and immortal principle which gives life and breath to the body.  Although we are animals, and share with the animal kingdom a material, sensual body, we are not just animals, but infinitely transcend them by the presence of this soul, made in the very image of God, which the same God creates immediately ex nihilo. We do not always ‘feel’ that we have this mysterious thing called a ‘soul’, for the body, affected by sin, often weighs us down, and many days we feel just like tired old beasts of burden. But even in the doldrums of life, we must believe and hold that the soul exists.


It follows from this that it is the soul which should therefore govern the body, not the other way around. John the Baptist was the paradigm of this order:  For what the muddle of men find alluring, sensual delights, fame, fortune, ambition, reputation, he seemed to care nothing for, living on ‘locusts and wild honey’, vested in camel hair (and try petting a camel sometime).


Herod, alas, poor Herod, reverted the order, and allowed his over-indulged sensual body to dominate his acratic soul.  Smitten with the ‘dancing’ of his step-daughter (we may presume it was not a waltz, and not just for historical reasons) he made a rash, perhaps even drunken, promise, to keep which, and maintain his honour and reputation amongst his reputable guests, he was willing, however reluctantly, to have an innocent man brutally murdered, a man whom he in some vague way respected and admired.


We see here the two ‘ways’ which Moses prophesied to the Israelites:  The way of the commandments, which leads to life, and the way of sin, which leads to death.


We may look at this event more particularly from the vantage point of the two ‘rational’ powers in the soul, the intellect (or reason) and the will.  The intellect ‘knows’, while the will ‘commands’ and ‘loves’.  We may know the true and the good, but not will it, nor love it (as we see so often in our own lives).  Conversely, we may will or love the true and the good, but not know it, or at least not know it fully.  As the Imitation of Christ declares, it is better to feel contrition for our sins, than to be able to define it.


Of course, we must know some aspect of the true and the good to love it, for we cannot love what we do not know, but (and it pains me to some extent to say this), in the spiritual life, the will outstrips the intellect.


Here is the rub: As Saint Thomas teaches, when we know something in the world (whether real or imagined) with our minds, we bring that thing up to our level:  In knowing a tree, we universalize the tree, in a sense knowing all trees.


Yet when we love something in the world, like triple-chocolate cheesecake, our wills go ‘out’ to the object, and we conform ourselves to it.  When we add our unruly passions to this mix, things can get very severely disordered and evil.  Look around at the effects of pornography, drugs, alcoholism, avarice, gambling, and vice of all sorts. We become what we love, more than what we know.


That is why Saint Thomas states that it is better to love God than to know Him, for we can only know Him according to our own capacity (rather limited, from God’s infinite perspective), but we can love Him as He is in Himself (of which there is no limit).  In the end, we will be judged on our love of God, not our knowledge.


Hence, we are admonished not to love the things that are of this world, at least insofar as these things are contrary to the love of God, for in doing so, we conform ourselves to them, with all of their emptiness and transitoriness, the form of which is already passing away. This is a subtle phenomenon, not happening all at once, but gradually, over time, as the ‘world’ inexorably entangles our souls its in sticky web with every compromise and capitulation to its way of thinking.  Get behind me Satan, Our Lord rebuked Saint Peter for you are not on the side of God but of men.


So many of us think in the world’s terms, and what the world deems ‘success’.  Rather, we must, with each moral decision, from the least to the greatest, continually conform ourselves to God and His way of ‘seeing things’, and so be transformed into His likeness.


I wonder about that moment of choice in the soul of Herod, as he hung in the balance before the daughter of Herodias, his unlawful wife.  At least in that instant (we know not his eternal destiny), he conformed himself to the ‘world’, loving what he should not love, while rejecting what he did know, even inchoately.


Contrast the sad and tragic figure of Herod to the strength and vigour of John the Baptist, who conformed himself to what he, and we, should truly love, and that all of our ‘loves’ this side of the grave must be subordinate to this pure and undistilled love of God.  If any of the passing things of this life lead us astray, out they must go, and uprooted they must be, even if it means the loss of our heads, to say nothing of our reputation.