Are we our bodies?

To other eyes we seem to stand aloof as it were behind the wall of the body; and when we wish to make ourselves known, we go out as it were by the door of the tongue to show what we really are.

Gregory the Great, quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas, ST I, Q. 107, A. 1.



Current events

If Pope Francis really is claiming that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, then either scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all previous popes were wrong—or Pope Francis is. There is no third alternative. Nor is there any doubt about who would be wrong in that case.

Edward Feser, “Pope Francis and Capital Punishment,”, August 3, 2018.

Democracy without transcendent truth

Recently I had a discussion with a fellow Catholic regarding the founding of the United States. Her feeling was that the Founding Fathers introduced political ideas that were new and had never been thought of or implemented before, for example that all men are created equal and that our rights come from our Creator, and these ideas make or system the best that ever was. I questioned whether these were really new ideas. I’m suspicious of the idea of rights being given by God, yet remaining undiscovered by Christ’s Church for over 1,700 years, and then finally figured out by Protestants.

Depending on what you mean by “equal”, I think it can be argued that all men being created equal is an old idea. Obviously we’re not all equal in terms of height, weight, strength and various talents. We’re not equal in terms of our individual traits. What we’re equal in is our nature: we’re all human beings. As such, we’re equally obliged to obey God’s commandments. We’re obliged not to steal from each other, lie to each other, kill each other, be unfaithful to each other, etc. The flip side of these obligations is that we have a right not to be stolen from, lied to, killed, etc., on the basis of our human nature. Thus, we have always had rights that were given by God.

Of course, she was referring to political rights. And it may be true that political equality was a new idea at the time of the Founding. But are there sufficient grounds for saying that political equality is a God-given right?

In any event, I argued that the Founders made a critical error in asserting that the authority to govern comes from the people and not from God. If authority comes from the people, and I’m one of the people, then there is no authority above me, and I can think and do as I please. Obviously the laws (in theory) are imposed by the majority, and in that sense I am restricted by the majority view. But the point is that I have the right to try to persuade others to my view rather than the existing majority view, in the hope of creating a new majority view – and nothing and no one has the legal right or power to stop me. This right is vested not only in individuals but also in rich, powerful organizations such as corporations, foundations and universities, entities which have no obligation to base their views on divinely revealed truth, and are often active in opposing it.

Making the Constitution religiously neutral may have seemed like a good idea at the time, when the Founders could count on the country being predominantly Christian; or at least, possessing the Christian underpinnings of public morality. Maybe they thought the checks and balances built into the Constitution, and the rights guaranteed thereby, were sufficient: No one is powerless, but neither is anyone so powerful as to be a tyrant. But is that enough? Giving people the power to act as they see fit is good as far as it goes, and preventing domination by any one person or group as well. But none of this says anything about what people should or shouldn’t do with their rights or their power. The answers to those questions, at the time of the founding, were provided by centuries of Christianity being embedded in the culture. But how about now, when that is becoming less and less the case? I think this is a situation they utterly failed to foresee.

My interlocutor doesn’t see this as a problem. Apparently in her view, it’s best that the government have no say in what people should believe about the purpose of our lives and the best way to live them. I think she would say that if we want a Christian society in a democracy, then we need to work for the evangelization of individuals until we have a majority of converted Christians in society. A democracy will be good when the people in it are good, and it will be friendly to Christianity when most of the people are Christians. But I don’t believe that a converted Christian majority can happen. I don’t mean that God couldn’t convert a majority of any given country if he chose to, but that the scriptures clearly teach that the majority of the world will always be “of the world”, in other words opposed or indifferent to the Gospel.

Historically, the influence of Christian ideas on a society was not a bottom-up process wherein the society was changed because a majority of individuals had experienced a personal metanoia. The majority in these societies, at the time of their conversion to Christian countries, were illiterate. The Christian influence was imposed from above, starting with the conversion of Constantine, but in a process that was repeated over and over, when the ruler of a place was converted to the Christian religion, and as a result Christian ideas were taught to the literate, mainly the wealthy and the clergy, and then passed on to the masses via churches and schools.

The idea of the United States being converted by a bottom-up process involving mass conversions, does not seem realistic to me. I’m not saying I have a better idea for remedying our situation; I don’t. I just think the Founding Fathers blew it. They set up a very good system for their time but one which, in our time, has become hostile to Christian faith and morality, and in all likelihood will only become more so. The fear is not only that public morality suffers in our time, but I believe the Christian understanding of God, creation and human nature is what led to the establishment and success of stable democracies. The undermining and loss of that understanding, I fear will ultimately undermine the feasibility and success of democracy itself.

Maybe not. This situation is unprecedented. It’s never happened before that a society was Christianized, then became post-Christian. We don’t really know what comes next. Maybe the Christian principles that undergird our democracy will remain, even if no longer recognized as Christian. But I think Pope St. John Paul II might say otherwise. He seems to teach that there need to be overt governing moral principles that transcend mere human opinions, in order for a democracy to survive and thrive:

96. The Church’s firmness in defending the universal and unchanging moral norms is not demeaning at all. Its only purpose is to serve man’s true freedom. Because there can be no freedom apart from or in opposition to the truth, the categorical–unyielding and uncompromising–defense of the absolutely essential demands of man’s personal dignity must be considered the way and the condition for the very existence of freedom.

This service is directed to every man, considered in the uniqueness and singularity of his being and existence: only by obedience to universal moral norms does man find full confirmation of his personal uniqueness and the possibility of authentic moral growth. For this very reason, this service is also directed to all mankind: it is not only for individuals but also for the community, for society as such. These norms in fact represent the unshakable foundation and solid guarantee of a just and peaceful human coexistence, and hence of genuine democracy, which can come into being and develop only on the basis of the equality of all its members, who possess common rights and duties. When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the “poorest of the poor” on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal [God-given equality].

97. In this way, moral norms, and primarily the negative ones, those prohibiting evil, manifest their meaning and force, both personal and social. By protecting the inviolable personal dignity of every human being they help to preserve the human social fabric and its proper and fruitful development. The commandments of the second table of the Decalogue in particular–those which Jesus quoted to the young man of the Gospel (cf. Mt 19:19)–constitute the indispensable rules of all social life.

… Even though intentions may sometimes be good, and circumstances frequently difficult, civil authorities and particular individuals never have authority to violate the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person. In the end, only a morality which acknowledges certain norms as valid always and for everyone, with no exception, can guarantee the ethical foundation of social coexistence, both on the national and international levels.

* * *

99. Only God, the Supreme Good, constitutes the unshakable foundation and essential condition of morality, and thus of the commandments, particularly those negative commandments which always and in every case prohibit behavior and actions incompatible with the personal dignity of every man. The Supreme Good and the moral good meet in truth: the truth of God, the Creator and Redeemer, and the truth of man, created and redeemed by him. Only upon this truth is it possible to construct a renewed society and to solve the complex and weighty problems affecting it, above all the problem of overcoming the various forms of totalitarianism, so as to make way for the authentic freedom of the person. Totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense. If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others… Thus, the root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate, no individual, group, class, nation or State. Not even the majority of a social body may violate these rights, by going against the minority, by isolating, oppressing, or exploiting it, or by attempting to annihilate it”.

Consequently, the inseparable connection between truth and freedom–which expresses the essential bond between God’s wisdom and will–is extremely significant for the life of persons in the socio-economic and socio-political sphere. This is clearly seen in the Church’s social teaching–which “belongs to the field… of theology and particularly of moral theology”–and from her presentation of commandments governing social, economic and political life, not only with regard to general attitudes but also to precise and specific kinds of behavior and concrete acts.

* * *

101. In the political sphere, it must be noted that truthfulness in the relations between those governing and those governed, openness in public administration, impartiality in the service of the body politic, respect for the rights of political adversaries, safeguarding the rights of the accused against summary trials and convictions, the just and honest use of public funds, the rejection of equivocal or illicit means in order to gain, preserve or increase power at any cost–all these are principles which are primarily rooted in, and in fact derive their singular urgency from, the transcendent value of the person and the objective moral demands of the functioning of States.

When these principles are not observed, the very basis of political coexistence is weakened and the life of society itself is gradually jeopardized, threatened and doomed to decay (cf. Ps 14:3-4; Rev 18:2-3, 9-24). Today, when many countries have seen the fall of ideologies which bound politics to a totalitarian conception of the world–Marxism being the foremost of these–there is no less grave a danger that the fundamental rights of the human person will be denied and that the religious yearnings which arise in the heart of every human being will be absorbed once again into politics. This is the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgment of truth impossible. Indeed, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism“.

Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (1993).

Truth, morality and martyrdom

Two things that I’m reading right now happen to overlap:

“Teach it to the simple, the learned know it well,
“TRUTH IS TREASURE, the best tried on earth.”

“Nay, but I know not,” quoth I, “ye must teach me better.
“How doth truth grow in me? Is it beyond my ken?”

“Thou doted daff, dull is thy wit,
“Little Latin hast though learnt in the days of thy youth.”

Woe for my barren youth days spent in vain.

“Thou knowest well enough. To love the Lord
“And rather than do deadly sin to die.”

Better die than live ill.

The Vision of Piers Plowman, “The Vision of Holy Church” (ca. 1370-1390).

The Church proposes the example of numerous Saints who bore witness to and defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom, or who preferred death to a single mortal sin. In raising them to the honor of the altars, the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect his commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances, and the refusal to betray those commandments, even for the sake of saving one’s own life.

* * *

Martyrdom rejects as false and illusory whatever “human meaning” one might claim to attribute, even in “exceptional” conditions, to an act morally evil in itself. Indeed, it even more clearly unmasks the true face of such an act: it is a violation of man’s “humanity,” in the one perpetrating it even before the one enduring it. Hence martyrdom is also the exaltation of a person’s perfect “humanity” and of true “life”, as is attested by Saint Ignatius of Antioch, addressing the Christians of Rome, the place of his own martyrdom: “Have mercy on me, brethren: do not hold me back from living; do not wish that I die… Let me arrive at the pure light; once there I will be truly a man. Let me imitate the passion of my God.”

Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, 91, 92 (1993).


Spiritual Transport

A few years later, in January, my sister Aloise died, aged forty-nine, eldest of ten children, mother of ten. The family — her children and her siblings — were catapulted into a dumb grief. We took refuge in our conviction that our separation from her was impermanent. It was for us acutely the time not merely to recall the promises of Christ but to invoke their magical capacity to mitigate grief. We wanted to relive, in the funeral ceremony, the liturgical experience we had all grown up with — indeed, what had been the universal practice up until a few years before — the Mass in Latin. This request the priest we dealt with gladly granted.

And so on January 17, 1967, the weather in the little town in northwestern Connecticut, at subzero, in the homely brick church we had all known since childhood, the priest recited the Mass of the Dead and the organist accompanied the soloist, we sang the Gregorian dirge in words the mourners did not clearly discern, words which, had we discerned them, we could not exactly have translated; and yet we experienced — not only her family but her friends; not alone the Catholics among us but also the Protestants and the Jews — something akin to that spiritual transport which, in the late sixties, many restless folk were finding it necessary to search out in drugs or from a guru in Mysterious India.

William F. Buckley, Jr., Nearer My God: An Autobiography of Faith (New York:Doubleday, 1997).

I indulge my short attention span

Last night before bed I washed the little case that I keep my earplugs in and set it down next to the sink. When I woke up this morning, it was still too dark to see in the bathroom with the light off. I took my earplugs out, walked into the bathroom, and put my hand exactly where the case was, no feeling around for it, but reaching out and grasping it just as if it were broad daylight. I was surprised I even remembered exactly where I put it, let alone that I could put my hand directly on it without even seeing it. Our bodies are incredible.

I’ve been reading the book “Emotional Intelligence”. It talks about how the immune system learns and adapts just as the brain does. I would have thought that the immune system was controlled by the brain, but apparently they’re two different systems, so much so that the discovery that they are actually connected in some ways was newsworthy.

For the past year and a half or so, I have been blogging less. I don’t know why. I’m not having ideas, and when I have them I have trouble writing them down. That’s also about the time I changed jobs. Since then I seem to have a shorter attention span. Hence this rambling from one topic to another. It seems to be the only way I can write more than a paragraph at a time.

This morning while praying the rosary I experienced a sort of timelessness. I don’t mean anything mystical, just that the usual time pressure that I feel was absent. Usually from the time I wake up until I go to bed, I’m feeling the pressure of too many things to do and not enough time (as everyone does, I assume). Even when I’m relaxing, or trying to relax — which, believe me, I do enough of — I’m still feeling time pressure. But this morning, possibly because I woke up so early, I had the sense of there being plenty of time. With my windows open to let in the cool morning air, I could hear the mourning doves cooing back and forth outside, in stereo, one on the left and one on the right. I could hear my son stirring in his bedroom next to mine, then settling back down. My wife outside turning the water on and off to water her “pets”, which is what she calls her plants. I have things to do today, but if I don’t get started for an hour or two it will be fine. So these next two hours, and especially the next 20 minutes or so while praying the rosary, are pressure-free. I can meditate and pray and praise God for the cool breeze through the window, my healthy wife and her healthy plants, the birds cooing and chirping, my son enjoying a late sleep on a Saturday morning.

This is one thing that I think will be precious to me in heaven — no time pressure. Plenty of time to meditate and praise God without the feeling that I’m neglecting other things. The one thing necessary.

Some Mormons have told me that they believe heaven will not be a static state, not a place of rest and timelessness but of continued activity, continuing marriage and being given in marriage, continued child-bearing and raising of a sort, continued striving for this goal or that, and even worrying and suffering. If it’s all these things, I can’t help thinking that there must be time-pressure as well, or at least the potential for it; more things to do than there is time in the day. If not, why not?

In the traditional concept of heaven, our peace and happiness have a source: our spiritual union with God. God being eternal and infinite, we can enjoy timelessness to our heart’s content. We don’t have to be anywhere or do anything, since there’s nothing that will wither and die without our attention, like our plants or our pets, our children or our car. If my meditations are fruitful — and they will be — I can feel free to continue in them for the next 20 minutes, or hours, or years, without anything else suffering from my lack of attention.

This evening we’re having my Mom and her boyfriend over for a late Mother’s Day brunch. It’s neither Mother’s Day nor brunch since it will be at dinner time. We don’t take my Mom out for brunch on Mother’s Day, since the restaurants are crazy crowded. Instead we invite her over and cook for her, which she likes since she prefers home-cooked food anyway. We postponed it this year since we were out of town on the actual Mother’s Day, attending my son’s graduation from college. If I don’t stop this scribbling pretty soon, I won’t have time to change the spark plugs on my car, balance the checkbook, and go to the store to buy some good Irish whiskey to serve before or after dinner. Things will suffer. There are limits. In heaven at last we’re spared from limits, at least as regards time and things suffering and decaying.

Do animals go to Heaven?

Fr. Sharkey had been approached some weeks earlier, he told us, by a devout elderly woman who asked him whether dogs would be admitted into Heaven. No, he had replied, there was no scriptural authority for animals getting into Heaven. “In that case,” the lady had said to him, “I can never be happy in Heaven. I can only be happy if Brownie is also there.”

“I told her” — Fr. Sharkey spoke with mesmerizing authority — “that if that were the case — that she could not be happy without Brownie — why then Brownie would in fact go to Heaven. Because what is absolutely certain is that, in Heaven, you will be happy.” That answer, I am sure, sophisticated readers [will find] jesuitical. Yes. But I have never found the fault in the syllogism.

William F. Buckley, Jr., Nearer My God: An Autobiography of Faith (1998).

Some believe strongly that animals will be in heaven. I don’t know that the Church has ruled on the question. My feeling, based on St. Thomas Aquinas, is that animals don’t go to heaven because they don’t have spirits. In a nutshell, every living thing has a soul, in the sense of the vivifying principle of a body. But a spirit is a soul with an intellect. God is a spirit, as are angels. The human soul is a spirit, but animal souls are merely souls. Since spiritual union with God is the essential component of heaven, and animals can’t enjoy spiritual union with God, they can’t experience heaven in its essentials.

As far as I can see, this doesn’t definitively dispose of the question. The Bible speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, and we will have resurrected bodies; all of which seems to imply that we will live a physical existence in heaven, and not merely a spiritual one. Can’t animals then be physically present in the “new earth”?

My problem is not with the idea of animals being there per se, but that the same animals we have known and loved will be there, i.e. our pets. In other words, that they are to be resurrected like us. This seems absurd when taken to its logical conclusion. When we say animals will be resurrected, do we mean all animals? Not just all kinds of animals, but every animal that has ever lived? Not only every cat and dog, but every cow, chicken, snake and rat that has ever lived? How about insects — every beetle, fly, ant and cockroach? All animals that have ever lived through eons of time, living on the same planet at the same time?

If not all these, then where are we drawing the line, and on what basis? Are we allowing only mammals?

Aquinas’s position provides a reasonable place to draw a non-arbitrary line between creatures that can go to heaven and those that can’t: Those that are capable of spiritual union with God can; those that aren’t, can’t. Any other line that you could draw, between these animals and those, seems arbitrary.

Maybe we only mean animals that were important to people in some way, i.e. pets. That takes away some of the absurdity of including all animals that have ever lived. But in that case aren’t we saying something like, our love for our animals gives them eternal life? If an animal pleases his master he may go to heaven but if not, he is doomed to annihilation? If so, that seems like an unjustified doctrinal assertion absent any revelation on the matter.

I’m willing to stay openminded on the issue, but I’m not convinced that it’s something we should believe in or tell others to believe. What do you think?