Monday, 29 February 2016

Being and Goodness

Lately I have been reading Meditations on the Tarot. It is a book that comes with a recommendation of several Christian abbots and an epilogue by Hans Urs von Balthasar, so I figured it was safe enough. It is written by an anonymous author who pursued esotericism and Hermetic philosophy for quite a while, but eventually converted to Catholic Christianity. So at some point during a discussion of one of the twenty-two Tarot cards, he remarks that his frequent devotional visits to the relic of the Holy Blood in Bruges were instrumental in his realization of the importance of blood as a life-force. (I am paraphrasing from memory here.)

In any case, I was particularly struck by a passage which occurs in his discussion of the second card, the High Priestess. (The book was originally written in French, and the English translation also gives the French names of the cards; this one is la Papesse, the female Pope.) The author talks about his discomfort with renaming the Holy Trinity as ‘Being, Consciousness, Beatitude’. For, he argues, goodness has primacy over being.

This sparked my interest, as St. Thomas defends the primacy of being (ST Ia Q5 A2), and the first adagium of the Thomist theologian is ‘when St. Thomas is not clearly wrong, he is obviously right’. So I read on with a sort of defensive intellectual posture, looking for flaws in the reasoning. The kernel of the argument was a reference to Calvary, in which God sacrificed his existence on earth for love’s sake. But what about the Resurrection, you say? The author argues this confirms his argument, showing ‘that love is not only superior to being but also that it engenders it and restores it’.

So the revelation to St. John, that God is Love, surpasses the revelation to Moses, that God is He who is.

The author further refers to the moral neutrality of being (as a concept); one could get an idea of ‘being’ from looking at plants or minerals, but ‘goodness’ presupposes an acquaintance with psychic and spiritual life.

I was still in defensive mode, trying to recall St. Thomas’s argument, when the author dived below the surface. He said:

The consequence of choosing between these two – I will not say “points of view”, but rather “attitudes of soul” – lies above all in the intrinsic nature of the experience of practical mysticism which consequently derives from this choice. He who chooses being will aspire to true being and he who chooses love will aspire to love. For one only finds that for which one seeks. The seeker for true being will arrive at the experience of repose in being …

So far, so good. True being, yes, that does sound like my cup of tea. And repose in being, certainly, against the horizon of ST Ia Q12 A1.

… and, as there cannot be two true beings … the centre of “false being” will be suppressed …

I felt a bit uneasy about this part, but before I had quite worked it out, I read on.

The characteristic of this mystical way is that one loses the capacity to cry.

That hurt!

Monday, 22 February 2016

Pope Francis

I was going to point out an interesting inconsistency (?) in the encyclical Laudato Si. But this past weekend, I was confronted with major headlines about something else Pope Francis has said. It started with a Dutch news site, which was shared in a WhatsApp group:
Pope: contraception is allowed against Zika

Going to the Internet to find out the truth of the matter, there were many more such headlines from international news sources:
BBC: Zika virus: Pope hints at relaxation of contraception ban…
CNN: Pope suggests contraception OK to slow Zika
Wall Street Journal: Pope Francis Says Contraception Can Be Acceptable in…
New York Times: Francis Says Contraception Can Be Used to Slow Zika
Los Angeles Times: Pope opens the door to contraception in averting harmful…
Washington Post: Pope Francis suggests contraception could be permissible…
The Guardian / USAToday / ABCNews: Pope suggests contraception can be condoned in Zika crisis

Fighting my own little guerrilla war on misinformation, I posted a link to the actual interview. It was conceded that the Pope had not quite said it in those words.
There was a brave attempt by an alumna of the University of Nebraska to explain that ‘avoiding pregnancy’ does not necessarily mean using contraceptives. This is true, but while writing this blogpost, I heard that Fr. Lombardi has confirmed that the Pope was indeed speaking about contraceptives. Which makes a statement like the following difficult to harmonize with Church teaching:

On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, or in the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear.

So not only does the Pope suggest that contraception is permissible to counteract the Zika virus, but he suggests that it is clearly permitted.

Of course, questions now arise why this should be the case for Zika but not for AIDS.

I think I will wait for the dust to settle.

So, what is the inconsistency in Laudato Si? This concerns the addressees of the encyclical. In 1963, Pope John XXIII made a significant change in addressing his encyclical on world peace (Pacem in Terris) not only to his fellow-bishops and the other faithful, but to all people of good will. This precedent has been followed in some other encyclicals, such as Caritas in Veritate (but, oddly enough, not Fides et Ratio).

In Laudato Si, the circle seems to be drawn even wider. In one of the first paragraphs, Pope Francis writes,

Pope Saint John XXIII … addressed his message Pacem in Terris to the entire “Catholic world” and indeed “to all men and women of good will”. Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet.

A good will is not required; if you are a person, then Pope Francis is speaking to you, whether you are benevolent or hostile. However, further on in the document, this open address seems to be narrowed down again, in the first sentence of Chapter 2 about the Gospel of creation:

Why should this document, addressed to all people of good will, include a chapter dealing with the convictions of believers?

What happened to the villains inhabiting this planet? Do they not exist or are they no longer in view? Perhaps it is supposed that they do not read encyclicals? That would be a wrong assumption, because I have in fact read Laudato Si.

Questions, questions. Well, let me end with an assertion, again from Pope Francis, from the airplane interview that has so quickly become (in)famous. This is a good bit, in response to a question about the friendship between Pope John Paul II and Dr. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, that threatens to get overlooked:

A man who does not know how to have a relationship of friendship with a woman – I'm not talking about misogynists, who are sick – well, he's a man who is missing something. …

I also like to hear the opinion of a woman because they have such wealth. They look at things in a different way. I like to say that women are those who form life in their wombs – and this is a comparison I make – they have this charism of giving you things you can build with.

Monday, 15 February 2016


I have been absent for a while. Meanwhile, my friend Christy has not. She has set herself the task of writing a blogpost each day, for reasons outlined in the link. I don’t think I can do the same, but I’d like to try writing a snippet every Monday about a text that crosses my path, any text, a book or a sentence, it does not matter.

So let’s start here and now, with the story of King Saul which I have been reading. It’s a story I have been familiar with for a long time: the tall man chosen and anointed to be the first king of Israel. He seems rather reluctant at first, but comes to accept and even to love his position. When David threatens to outshine him, he hunts him (unsuccessfully) up and down through the land. Eventually he meets his fate in battle, dying together with his heirs.

Actually Saul’s downfall is announced before the name of David is even mentioned. A Philistine army is coming for him while Saul waits for the prophet Samuel, the one who has anointed him, to offer sacrifices. But because Samuel is late and the soldiers are starting to fidget and desert, Saul takes it upon himself to begin the ceremony. This is problematic because an Israelite king, unlike his colleagues in the Ancient Middle East (who are seen as divine beings), typically has no religious functions. So when Samuel arrives, he gets angry and tells Saul that his kingship is coming to an end.

There is one detail in the story that I never noticed before. It happens when Saul goes to Samuel for the first time, not with the goal of being anointed king, but because he is on a family errand and needs some help. Saul enters the city where Samuel lives and asks if the prophet is around. The young women answer him,

He is; behold, he is just ahead of you. Hurry. He has come just now to the city, because the people have a sacrifice today on the high place. As soon as you enter the city you will find him, before he goes up to the high place to eat. For the people will not eat till he comes, since he must bless the sacrifice; afterward those who are invited will eat.

The good example that Saul should have followed is right at the beginning of the story!