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December 23, 2012

As a blogger, I have two cardinal rules. The first is, “do not repeat that which you have already said”; the second, “do not repeat that which you have elsewhere read.” Since I resurrected this blog last January, the majority of posts have circled back to a few key topics: contraception, same sex marriage, the HHS mandate, religious liberty, and so on.

Part of why I was drawn to these topics is that it seems to me there is a dearth of constructive criticism of Catholic sexual ethics out there. In orthodox circles, you get unquestioning obedience to Humanae vitae with little to no attempt to explicate the encyclical for its skeptics (or, I suspect, to wrestle with it oneself). Amongst so-called liberal Catholics, you get a knee-jerk reaction to the Vatican coupled with a watered down secular ethos. So I’ve attempted in my own small way to think through this stuff and grope toward a “third way” that rejects a false dichotomy between blind adherence to the traditionalism of John Paul II, on the one hand, and to the libertinism of Dan Savage, on the other.

At the same time, I have said all I have to say about these issues and am, frankly, tired of quarreling with the Catholic bishops. Quarreling endlessly with the Catholic Church is what Protestants do, and I am ultimately not a Protestant, but a Catholic–though admittedly a very bad one! We liberals too readily forget that there is more to Catholicism than a list of sexual prohibitions. I do not wish to fall into the trap of monomania. Nor do I wish to violate my first maxim by simply repeating myself over and over and over and over.

Here is the other thing. I don’t want to write about public policy–or, at least, not in the way that Ezra Klein, Simon Johnson, and countless others already do so well. There are plenty of places online for that type of commentary and I have no desire to violate my second maxim, which is not to rehash the commentary of others.

Now, I realize that clearly articulating what one does not want to say is only a starting point. What I need to determine is where to go next. So that is a new year’s resolution. I can’t exactly when, but I do intend to get back in the saddle at some point in 2013.


Smith’s Dictionary: Metaphysics

November 22, 2012

“The finding of bad reasons for what we all believe on instinct.” (Qtd. by Anthony Daniels)

Insult of the Day

November 11, 2012

Mark Shea on movement conservatism:

By “the Thing that Used to be Conservatism” I basically have in mind what is commonly referred to as Movement Conservatism. The sort of people who live in a media bubble of FOX, Limbaugh, Talk Radio, and National Review, augmented with stuff like the Blaze, Breitbart, and related propaganda organs. People who seriously believed that Tuesday would be a Romney landslide and who took seriously not merely the idea that Romney sucked less than Obama (intellectually defensible) but that he was a good candidate who was “prolife” and “conservative”. People who think the Bush years were not a catastrophe but a great thing, that the Iraq war was a good idea the Church never opposed, that the erection of a police state only became a bad thing when Obama took over the project, that Ayn Rand is a thinker to be reckoned with, that Sarah Palin was a serious stateswoman and thinker, who never saw an Obama conspiracy theory or denunciation they didn’t like, who believe devoutly in the Immaculate Conception of the State of Israel, who think Mitt Romney was the embodiment of Christian Values, and who never listen to news media outside the bubble just described (except for Christian radio and/or EWTN) lest they be defiled.

For Shea’s post-election musings on how Republican party politics have corrupted conservative Catholicism and what can be done about it, see here, here, and here–some of Shea’s finest writings to date if you ask me!

Smith’s Dictionary: Bigot

November 3, 2012

Someone whose views I don’t like or understand.

Searching for a New Sexual Ethic

November 3, 2012

In economics, we are often presented with a false dichotomy between capitalism and socialism. Just so, it seems to me, are we presented in debates over marriage and sexuality with a false dichotomy between Dan Savage and John Paul II.

Since I resurrected this blog last January, I’ve been searching for a sexual ethic at once at odds with orthodox Catholicism and the secular culture. Having spent the past 10 months in an ideological no man’s land, I have on occasion succumbed to self-doubt: is it really worth the effort or even possible to spell out an alternative to the tried-and-true orthodoxies of the Vatican, on the one hand, and post-sexual revolution America, on the other? In light of this nagging question, I was pleased and encouraged to read the following quotation from a contributor to the Oxford History of Christianity, which nicely encapsulates so much of what I have been trying to say:

There has in Western countries been a widespread rejection of traditional Christian standards, chiefly but not exclusively in the realm of sexual behaviour. This revolt has been associated with secular philosophies which stress personal authenticity and individual self-expression. That these philosophies are inadequate to the whole range of moral problems which beset the modern world is increasingly apparent to many reflective people. The churches, therefore, have an obligation, which non-believers expect them to acknowledge, to maintain and strengthen the Christian ethical tradition. It is a resource that the modern world cannot do without. But the churches are liable, in this situation, to adopt one or other of two alternatives, neither of which is satisfactory. The first is to reassert without qualification the ethical prescriptions which have been accepted in the recent past, without considering whether the underlying principles require fresh applications in the light of current knowledge, and to assert them, moreover, in an authoritative manner. This reinforces the modernist revolt which has fed upon the continuing repudiation of just this stereotype. The second alternative is to embrace the typical modern world-view in the one or other of its forms and interpret the Christian ethical tradition in terms of it. The first, conservative, approach fails as a rule to address itself to the problems in their full context and is insufficiently sensitive to the possibility that, because of the ossification of conventional teaching, genuinely Christian insights have sometimes had to flow through secular channels. The second, liberal, approach, fails in a different way to address the problems, because it identifies itself too closely with the very attitudes that have been largely responsible for creating them. What is needed is conservatives who are prepared to be critical of the tradition and liberals who are prepared to be critical of contemporary fashions.

Second Thoughts on the Marriage Amendment

November 1, 2012

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, a young man who wishes to remain agnostic about the Minnesota marriage amendment cannot be too careful of his reading. Mark Shea’s blog caters to social conservatives and would therefore appear to be safe territory for a Catholic with a heretical leaning toward voting “no”. Not so, it turns out.

Earlier today, Shea linked to a statement by 143 faculty and staff at St. Benedict’s and St. John University in Minnesota. Shea’s goal was not to engage the authors in serious debate—an unnecessary task for a writer whose audience takes the wrongness of same sex marriage as self-evident—but to admonish readers not to “ever give another dime” to the university. Despite Shea’s intentions, the statement provides compelling evidence against one of the central claims made by same sex marriage opponents. Specifically, the third footnote links to an APA Policy Statement that summarizes multiple studies demonstrating that “the development, adjustment, and well-being of children with lesbian and gay parents do not differ markedly from that of children with heterosexual parents.”

Should the APA be blindly trusted? Of course not. But a substantial body of research appears to contradict the bishops’ claim that “respecting a child’s dignity means affirming his or her need for – and right to – a mother and a father.” This should, at the very least, give same sex marriage opponents pause. Moreover, whereas a “no” vote leaves time for additional study and deliberation, a “yes” vote forecloses that possibility, enshrining unsubstantiated claims about gender into our state constitution.

Thus, for reasons quite inconsistent with the libertarian rhetoric of Minnesotans United, I will be voting “no” on November 6th.

How Our Politics Corrupt Catholic Religion

October 21, 2012

Earlier this month, in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Stephen Colbert astutely observed that religious leaders who engage in political advocacy typically assume they’ll “get religion into our politics” but forget that “politics will come right back through that gate onto our religion.”  If I have learned anything from the HHS mandate controversy, it is the truth of these remarks.

To be fair, the Catholic bishops view themselves as playing defense, not offense.  Their stated goal is not to impose Catholic sexual morality on the public, but to protect the religious liberty of Catholic institutions.   And yet, as I have discussed elsewhere, the bishops’ libertarian rhetoric is altogether inconsistent with the traditional Catholic teaching that the use of contraceptives violates natural law, which is in principle applicable to everyone, not just Catholics.  Have the bishops’ abandoned the premise that Catholic sexual morality is universally valid?  Apparently not, for they oppose same sex unions partially on the basis that the “proper mission” of marriage is “having children and raising them”—a position that presupposes the wrongness of contraceptive sex.  So the bishops want to have their Catholic kosher and eat it too: the Church’s contraception ban is at once understood to be a theological idiosyncrasy (HHS mandate) and the basis of public morality (same sex marriage).

I think I’m beginning to understand the bishops’ intellectual inconsistency.  The bishops may continue to espouse orthodoxy on pelvic issues, but they have ceased to understand it in any kind of meaningful way.  Like the liberals they continually chastise, the bishops and their conservative allies tend to evaluate moral issues in terms of the categories of American political thought. Their stances may be authentically Catholic, but the reasoning often reeks of American politics.

Lest readers suppose that contraception is an isolated occurrence, I will take another example of this phenomenon.  As anyone familiar with Catholicism knows, the Church opposes legalized abortion on the grounds that all persons have a right to life—a right which government has a responsibility to protect.  The Church has likewise consistently taught that all persons have a right to health care.  Each of these teachings is part of a seamless intellectual fabric.  The trouble is, they don’t jive with American political thinking.  Social conservatives may adamantly oppose abortion, but they’ve hardly been leading the charge on universal health care—quite the contrary.  Due to what I take to be the corrupting influence of politics, some bishops are now attempting to reconcile their pro-life stance with conservative opposition to Obamacare.  Here, for example, is what Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia told the National Catholic Register when asked about the universal right to health care:

The bishops really do believe it. Health is a basic human right; we have a right to be healthy. There’s no declaration on the part of the Church that that has to be accomplished through government intervention.  There are many ways of approaching health care, and I think it’s very important for Catholics to understand the fact that the Church, seeing health care as a basic human right, does not mean [to say] there’s a particular method of obtaining that [right that’s] better than another.

On the face of it, Chaput’s position seems tenable.  However, as J. Peter Nixon of Commonweal has shown, the Church has consistently taught that the state should proactively ensure that all citizens have access to health care.  And with good reason: for if state intervention is not necessary as a means of protecting basic human rights, then there is no compelling reason to be pro-life!  To paraphrase Chaput—and, for that matter, Joe Biden—we could say that the Church’s view that all persons have a right to life need not entail the position that the criminalization of abortion is the best method of obtaining that right.  Surely, no bishop would endorse such a view—and yet the view is difficult to oppose once one has conceded, along with Chaput, that government doesn’t have a responsibility to protect basic human rights.

As a quick addendum, none of this is to suggest that I think we ought to erect a wall of separation between church and state. To be clear, I doubt that it is possible to separate “public” and “private” morality. As Alasdair MacIntyre brilliantly explains in After Virtue, the Enlightenment project has failed. No one has, as of yet, convincingly identified universally valid moral norms, apart from those we inherit from culture, tradition, and (gasp!) religion. So what? Some on the Catholic right have used MacIntyre’s insight as cover for theocratic ambitions. I am not among them. Enlightenment thinkers may not have provided us with a solid basis for separating church and state, but Stephen Colbert does. Political activism tends to corrupt Church leaders, not just morally but also intellectually. And while it would be foolish to turn the separation of church and state into a religion—for example, by making ex cathedra pronunciations in the New Yorker on the role of religion in American life—caution and restraint are surely prudent.