Monday, June 29, 2009

What the POTUS Should Have Said

First of all, thanks to everyone for being patient with me as I negotiated the personal and professional jungle in which it has been my very special privilege to be immersed for the past two weeks.

Thanks also to the Humbly Presumptuous for minding the store when I was gone.

Without further ado, here is the presidential statement that ought to have come from the President of the United States in response to the behavior of the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the wake of their recent elections.

Office of the President of the United States

For Immediate Release:

Statement of Barack H. Obama, President of the United States

When the American people elected me to the chief magistracy of the nation, I incurred a debt with them based on my promise that, if elected, I would work to restore America's moral leadership in the world.

I have the deepest political disagreements with my predecessor and with many of his party and intellectual bent, though the world must know that we, my predecessor and I, and all true Americans are of one mind in our commitment to liberty and justice - the promise, the right and the responsibility of individuals and peoples in every place and every age, from the dawning to the breaking of the world.

America cannot stand idly by as the Iranian regime abdicates government and wages war on its own citizenry - nor shall she on my watch.

Whether or not Iraq was the proper place to engage the military moment of the world crisis upon which we are undoubtedly entered, is a debate for academic historians.

The fact is that the United States of America has a 180 thousand-strong force in the country, a force that is rapidly concluding major military operations.

The successes won by the virtue of their arms and the patience, dedication, industry and ability of the Iraqi people for whom they have been won and by whom they are so tenuously held, will wither and pass, giving way to a new and a bloodier chaos, from which only the chains of despotism might provide sufficiently vigorous restraint.

We cannot, and I shall not allow such a terrible eventuality to come to pass.

Here is my ultimatum to the Iranian leadership:

You have one month to produce a full report on the election and its aftermath, and to submit that report to a candid world.

If you do not do this - and if a single episode of organized violence against you own people should be so much as rumored - you shall feel the full extent of American military might - you shall be made to know the power of a free and virtuous people roused to righteous anger.

To the Iranian people I say tonight: as you prepare yourselves for the trials that await you, know these two things; the price for your liberty, however dear, is worth the paying; America stands with you, ready to suffer and bleed with you, confident as we are in the knowledge that God shall prosper the arms of the just, and give great blessings to those who walk in His ways, which are the ways of righteousness - and they endure forever.

God bless you.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Listening to a sunday homily.

Listening to sunday homily at mass, at a certain point I thoght: that's it.

There it is what I hinted to in some previous posts: natural law isn't but charitas.

The priest was explaining the meaning of charitas with words that didn't have any specifically christian about them. Because there isn't anything specifically christian in love.

English is rather poor on this regard. It doesn't know other word than love, other declaration but I love you.

In Italian, besides ti amo, of use among lovers in the tecnhical sense of the word, we have also the more generic ti voglio bene: literally, "I want good to you".

It could work as a definition of love. But it also says everything there is to know about natural law.

To declare our love to someone is a rather paradoxical affair. When we do it, we make known how much we care for him or her, even how much we are in need of that person, that as a matter of fact we cannot do without her. But woe to us if we say it. We have to say the opposite: I don't think of my good, but of yours. Why so?

There is a simple fact about human nature to keep in mind: we cannot give ourselves our own good . I don't exemplify. Just think of it.

That's all there is to your great discovery? you might ask. It looks more like discovering hot water.

Mind me, I said "give", not "take".

What sets man apart from the remaing animal world, is that, being endowed with reason, he knows his needs are addressed to others like him, equally in need. Neither can take, but they con only wait to receive, provided that they are reciprocally well disposed. Nobody can force giving, without changing it into taking: meaning, by violence.

Of course we can always buy what we need. Provided it can be sold. And even then, we must be able to rely on the seller. There must be trust among us. Call it bonam fidem: necessary condition according to Roman jurists for the validity of contracts. Unless we think an adequate substitute fear of punishment, i.e. violence, coming from the one sovreign to whom we have granted the right to keep us in line: a police State.

This is then man's nature, and therefore the law governing relations among men and women: either they live together in liberty as friends, or are potential enemies kept together by fear.

Christian fides is there to remind us of what is just: the friendship natural to us.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Peace and war

Rhetorical analysis tames my gut reactions. And in these days, in the face of Iran's turnoil, they tend to be rather strong.

To analyze the rhetoric deploied in a situation, public declarations need to be understood and evaluated by their efficacy as moves and coutermoves of the same game: that which makes for peace or war among nations.

So, with the whole world become a gigantic audience, diplomacy (with its possible corollary: war) is played on a double front: the clashing of forces, and the media.

The US lost a war on the media: Vietnam. It stayed in the American mind as a syndrome of uncertainty, never fully cllarified in its rhetoric.

That master or rhetoric named Ronald Reagan brought to an end victoriously the cold war. With the fall of Berlin's wall we thought it was the end of it. We didn't realize that another war, half cold half hot, was in the making, involving Islam in place of that child of modern western philosophy which was marxism-leninism.

Then there was 9/11. The rest is news.

The key word, at least for a western audience, is peace. We want peace, or perhaps we just want to be left in peace. And if a president realizes that there is a war in act, many of us are brought to think that he is the one to want it.

Let me get back then to my gut reactions. Or better, of my taming of them.

Toward Iran President Obama started with an outstretched hand.

Good move, we could say. This doesn't mean that we nourish any illusion about the Islamic gangsters governing Iran. Showing willingness to peace always works, if not necessarily with the world audience, at least with the American and European one. And it made Obama elected. What matters for him, is no to fall prey of his own rhetoric (as it happened to Jimmy Carter).

Now that the Iranian regime showed to the world its true face, Obama firmly condemned the repression, but always in his usual cool way. Is coolnessa enough? I ask.

Ahmadinejad retorts that he is like his predecessor Bush.

A burning offence for somebody who was elected promising change. What should he reply, to our immodest opinion?

Well, my gut reaction, which in this case might be rhetorically correct, is that he should say this:

Of course I am like my precedessor Bush. Don't take us wrong when in our electoral campaigns we vehemently take the distance from each other. Whatever my desagreement with Bush's implementation of the American agenda, this remains the same: to promote justice and democracy in the world. And you failed in democracy, even by your own standards.

To which I would gutsily add: you gang of killers.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Conspiracy theory

I'd like to be fair to Mr President, not to come out strong with my biases.

Half seriously, my wife presented me with an hypothesis concerning the upheaval in Iran which makes the President appear less clumsily groping, becoming all the more serious as she went on elaborating it.

Call it a "conspiracy theory".

Put yourself in the Iranian tyrants' mind. They are paranoic, and denounce foreign intervention: obviously from the US. From the US side, of course, it's all a denial. This does not mean that they aren't, in their paranoia, right .

In 1860, my wife recalls, Giuseppe Garibaldi sailed with thousand men to conquer Sicily and Naples for the northern kingdom of Piedmont, then to become the kingdom of Italy. The official version, supported by the press, was that it was all a spontaneous action from a few patriots. It has been documented later that the Piedmont government armed and financed them.

Why not to think something of the kind has been taking place? That there have been American agents encouraging Iranian opposition? she says, growing more and more headstrong about it. Not just all official American sources, but also the press favorable to it will have to deny it.

"A pensar male si fa peccato ma si azzecca", says an Italian proverb. Which could be roughly translated as, to be prone to see evil is a sin but hits the point.

It's the same if, as in this case, I wouldn't see evil in it, but intelligent support to good.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Quel esprit? Homage to Piccari

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) thought necessary to distinguish between the esprit de finèsse and the esprit de geométrie. In my young age and even later, being alien to the finèsse required by geométrie, I held to such a distinction.

I mean, I thought that one thing was to be able to appreciate the beauty of art and literature, of which I was capable, and another to perform the operations required by mathematics and by the physical sciences that use it as their primary language, out of my range.

When almost fifty years old, I met an undescribable man, his name was Franco Piccari (1929-2008), mathematician, engeneer, philosopher and theologian, and on the top of it musician, who showed and taught me how wrong Pascal was.

You want the moral of the story? Well, I have already given it to you.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


I am in debt of an explanation: why did I say that Justice Marshall's reading of the Massachusset's constitution doesn't fall under the label of juris prudentia?

The simplest explanation, true but too short, it is that she is ignorant: there can't be no prudence without learning.

On the other side, I could bore you with learned explanations of what was prudentia, in Latin, or phronesis, in Greek. But I'll spare you.

I'll ask: what's the use of learning, I mean, wide ranged erudition?

The answer is simple: to learn how to play.

Can you imagine a musician knowing just one score? And playing always that?


Simplifying, the beauty of music comes from the combination of seven notes, and all the variations and tranformations to which it lends itself. Just knowing the notes and the rules of their combination is not enough to become a musician. You must have learned many scores to know how to play.

Still, simple musical erudition is not enough. Exspecially if you need to be able to improvise, as in the jam sessions typical of American jazz. You need an extra factor, a sensibility for music, which can be cultivated but not taught by training in the rules underlying the scores.

You need musical intgelligence, to be music-wise, or, if I may say so, music-prudent.

I have no idea of Justice Marshall's legal erudition. But the sentence to which she gave her words sounded like coming from nowhere, just based on a definition of the elements of society and the law to rule their interaction. No precedents, no backgraound of variantions on the themes of social life. Of life, period.

After all, what else is required save to obey to the rules which the state makes, by way of legislators, or of judges taking their place if they think them too prone to grant people an intelligent understanding of what they want?

Who needs music, who needs all the stories of old which used to teach how to play life?

Who needs prudence?

Slow Blogging

The pace of blogging will continue to be slow until the weekend, at least: there are personal matters to which I must urgently attend.

Prayers for my intention are very much appreciated.



Monday, June 15, 2009

Natural law and jurisprudence

Natual law: twice I named it in this blog. But: how does it stand in relation to positive law?

That's the nth million dollar question.

I don't have millions of dollars, so I will try to answer it for myself... and for those who happen to read me.

When in the 6th century AC the emperor Justinian brought to completion his Corpus Juris, he threw anathema against those who there to dare to subject it to interpretation.

Luckily, when in the 12th century the Corpus Juris was rediscovered by Bolognese jurists, they didn't obey the proscription of interpretation by the long dead emperor, and quietly went on to inteprete it to adapt to their times.

So it was born the tradition of common law which dominated throuout Europe up to a few century ago. It was all based on jurisprudence, the conjoined work of scholars and judges.
The Corpus Juris gave them some authoritative texts, let's say a positive law, to refer to. Their prudent understanding made it alive in their time.

This raises a question: what is prudent?

But before I try to answer let'me go on with the story.

In England common law based on jurisprudence survived the time of kingly absolutism. In the continent, the consolidation of absolute monarchies led slowly to the widespread codification of law. Law came to be understood from then on almost exclusively as written, statutory law: the product of law making by a state power. The famous separation of powers of the English constitution admired by Montsquieu and source of ispiration for the American founding fathers, doesn't change the fact of the law being thus made a product of the state: sovereign, absolute state.

Coming to America: the founding fathers thought to preserve society by the invasiveness of the state by writing a constitution. But this is a bit like the snake biting its tail. By the sheer fact of its being written, the state becomes the guarantor of society.

Not only, but being written the constituzion need to be intepreted. And this takes us right back to Justinian, and to what he wanted to avoid by proscribing interpretation.

With the famous Roe versus Wade the supreme courte could draw from the constitution the right of women to have, if they wanted, an abortion. Which to my modest view was a juridical monster. Again, the supreme court of Masschussets could declare, in the sentence written by the honorable Justice Catherin Marshall, that equality of human beings extends to the point of effacing any difference between man and woman, thus allowing marriage among all people, neutrally. Should I add what a juridical monster that was? With no regard anymore for the constitution to which it appealed (exspecially considering that it had been written by John Adams, exemplar with his wife Abigail of what marriage is).

There you have the question: written law should preserve from the arbitrariness of judgments. But in spite of all the Justinians of this world written law is unavoidably in need of interpretation. And it can be thus turned into a simple authorization to the (constitutional) judge to make it say what he wants: by asserting that, instead of sticking to the letter of what its original authors meant, he conforms to the "living constitution".

Of course, this happens if the judges lack prudence.

What makes jurisprudence prudent is the capability of interpreting positive law in the light of the understanding it represents of what is constant in human affairs: that which imakes possible to talk of natural law.

But someone objected to me: isn't that precisely what Justice Marshall did?

The answer is no.

And for now I leave it at that. If the reader of this post wants to know why, and asks more about prudence, he will have to wait until next. Hopefully.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Exercitus Civitatum foederatarum Americae - AD MULTOS ANNOS!

As The Digital Hairshirt happily reminds us, the US Army was created by act of Congress (2nd Continental), 234 years ago today.

God Bless and Keep our Fighting Men and Women of the US Army!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Faith, natural and supernatural

Dear Lazy Disciple,
in your comments to a previous post, you asked me some tough questions.

In speaking about faith, my main concern was to remove Christian faith from the isolation in which it has been thrown by a pseudo philosophy become average cultura in the West. So I recalled the latin use of fides on the background of the Christian one.

But you asked me: what about this, i.e. supernatural faith.

In speaking of the "supernatural" I can't but resort to the "natural".

We essencially style as "supernatural" an experience of grace, gratia.

Again a latin word of pre-Christian usage: "gracious" it is said what has no motivation outside of itself, that for which we can give no further reasons.

For any married man or woman, I can give the example of the love that ties them to their mate. The question "why does she or he loves me?" ha no answer. It's pure grace, something that happened between us.

It's gratuituous.

That's what we experience when we feel taken in by a higher grace, shining in all tings and embracing them: which the tradition called supernatural.

Faith is the personal answer to a personal grace.

It is, in S. Plaul's definition (on which Pope Benedict reflected in his last encyclical, Spe Salvi), "substantia rerum sperandarum, et argumentum non apparentium": that which makes for hope, we could say, and allows to look beyond appearances. Or again: it's the certainty in the deapth of our being of having been unconditionally loved.

Love is fertile, it's what makes life enduring through generations. So it shapes out character, making us trustful, "faithful". Within limits: the exclusive sphere of grace where we all enjoy the credit of friends.

It is natural therefore to "love friends" and "hate enemies". But someone said: "love your enemies like your friends". And went on to show what it means.

It is a word of infinite grace: don't be afraid of death, life endures beyond all limits.

That is supernatural: a sphere of grace, a kingdom that no worldly kingdom can exaust.

But the supernatural wouldn't be such if didn't make us capable of crossing all borders: which means, capable of recognizing what is natural, the meaning of grace and faith everywhere. If it weren't so, even that word would have been just another natural word.

That's why I insist so much on the latin use of fides. In Christianity it was developped the notion of natural law, previously drafted in Greek philosophy and Roman jurisprudence. Not excluding faith, but starting from faith. Roman jurists in particular required bonam fidem for the validity of contracts. In general terms this meant recognizing in fides the ground of any communication, that which makes the difference between possible enemies (hostes) and possible guests (hospites). To call this "natural", is to say that it is so among men everywhere, at least in their group of belonging. Christianity universalized the notion in the investigation of what constitutes justice among men, whenever they happen to enter in communication.

We should say this to president Obama (if we ever had a chance, and he cared to listen). That we could be able to communicate with Muslims not because of what the three "monotheist" faiths share, but just because they are men. As are so the Hindus, the Buddhists or whomever. But perhaps he knows it well, and that's why he plays with them his rhetorical games.

The question is: what happens to "good faith", when there is suspect of dissimulation?

Friday, June 12, 2009

The strategy of dissimulation

I said that Obama's speech in Cairo was excellent, because he said to Muslims what it was right to say to them, whatever their historical and doctrinal accuracy.

It's a question, I tried to explain, of rhetoric. But rhetoric becomes quizzical when we are all aware of it. And what I said requires further analysis of the complexities of the game.

An American friend of mine simply said that that speech was full of shit. More elegantly, in the face of the president's claim to be a student of history, Victor Davies Hanson pointed out all the historical mestakes his speach contained. Equally Ann Coulter had easy game to joke about the absurdity of some of the president's statements, like his trying to assuage his audience on the question of their treatment of women, by saying that even in American life the struggle to warrant them equality is in many ways still going on.

I could say, incidentally, that there are indeed enduring problems, in America as well in Europe, in men-women relations, but that they don't come from not enough equality, but rather from the opposite: that we don't recognize enough how different men and women are. Still when I was young we were taught to be courteus with women. Which was also a way to keep hold of out male animal spirits. Now we are told that women are equal, and as such we treat them, with all our testosteroneous aggressiveness.

But this is beside the point. The silliness of positions echoed by the president in his statements is not what concerns me here.

What concerns me here, is what happens to what he says when it is received by a Muslim audience.

If I were a Muslim with enough knowledge of western things, I would recognize that the blunders in the president's speech are so great that they could be easily regarded as an effort at dissimulation. Unless I took from ganted the lip service the president paid to Muslims, but in that case I wouln't be very astute.

Now, you have to know that in Islam dissimulation has been explicitly theorized as a way to deal with non Muslims, if not simply with people foreign to one's own tribe or clan or whatever.

What happens then when one recognizes the other's dissimulation? That's the question raised by the president's speech in the light of that theorizing.

I suppose that among Muslims dissimulation is taken as a rhetorical devise admitted by the rules of a game, which consists then in outwitting each other: like in a hide and seek game, one has to be able to make the other uncover himself, and so pin him to his word.

It is early to say who is wittier: whether the president, or the Muslims gathering for his speech.

He tried to pin them to the acceptance of certain "human rights". Try to negate that they are really such, and then you'll bely the noble tradition I grant to be yours - he seems to be challenging them.

Will this rhetorical strategy sort the intended effects? There are reasons to doubt it.

Keep in mind that the game takes place in the presence of a larger audience: a mixed audience. How the challenge is taken depends then on the regard in which are kept the different components of that larger audience.

Before silly Europeans and Obama's American supporters, the Muslims he addressed might again resort to dissimulation, feigning to accept his description of themselves, with all the challenge implied.

But before other Muslims, less of a minoriy than Obama feigns to think, probably they couln't care less of that challenge.

Luckily the president also reminded everybody, Muslims and non, that if need be, he won't shy away from using military force. And that is perhaps the only argument that defeats dissimulation.

Puella's 7QT

Are published. For delight and edification, click here.

Church under Attack in Connecticut, again... (this story broke two weeks ago, when I was urgently taken with things that were not blogging)

The Office of State Ethics in Connecticut is investigating the Diocese of Bridgeport for irregular lobbying activity in connection with its organization of resistance to Ct. Bill #1098.

The Diocese of Bridgeport has filed suit against the OSE officials in Federal Court.
Basically, the OSE has decided (not) to interpret the Ct. lobbying law, but simply to apply it to the Church. The law defines lobbying (sec. 1-94)) as expenditure in excess of $2000 for the purposes of influencing legislation. It requires that lobbyists register with the appropriate state office, which in turn involves consent to state oversight of the registered organizations books and activities.

Of course, the Church spent more that $2000 to organize a massive public rally at the capitol building with less than a week's notice. The point is that the Church spent the money with a view to exercising citizens' constitutionally protected free speech and assmebly rights.

Said simply, the lobbying law requires registry of those parties, which spend in excess of $2000 on lobbying. If organizing a rally is lobbying, then words have no meaning, and Thrasymachos is right.

Every lawyer with whom I have spoken about the matter assures me that the OSE simply has no case to make, but to me this is the most worrisome thing about the whole unpleasant business; it is harassment, pure and simple.

In other words, state power is being used to harass persons and organizations with whom those who wield it have political disagreements.

Whatever one's stance toward / relationship with the Church, and however one feels about the issues raised in, e.g., 1138 and 899, such behavior is unacceptable.

It is use of state power that is either stupid, or corrupt.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Don't miss...

Victor Davis Hanson on "Our Historically Challenged President" - Hanson criticizes the President, and some of it sticks, though I still think Obama's speech in Cairo can be read through a different lens.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Further clarification on rhetoric: granting the meaning of words.

My young friend the Lazy Disciple is right in noticing the fact we commonly use certain words in a meaningless way.

He pointed out saeculum.

I need to point out a couple of heavier ones: religion and faith.

People might think that I am presumptuous. But I am actually amazed by how even the great majority of good Catholics use these words as if there were no problem at all.

Two are the cases:
1) They use them by meaning the right thing, without realizing that those who listen understand them in a totally different way. And I mean listeners who very often are not precisely friendly toward what they want to say by those words.
2) They end by using them in the meaning become current, which is that of their opponents.

Granting or not granting the meaning of words is, as I previously said, a question of rhetoric. We see it when we read Plato's dialogues, where Socrates, to face the self-styled sophists, teachers of the art of persuation, i.e. rhetoric, plays their same game. You claim you know what is knowledge, virtue, justice..., Socrates says; very well, tel me what you mean by them, give me your thesis, a definition to take as basis of discussion, and I'll see if I can grant it. In any given defintion, then, he picks up another word, about whose meaning he enquires, and so on and so forth; until he comes to the point in which they say something in contradiction with the original thesis, which was finally to be abandoned.

So we should beware not to fall into our opponents' traps by granting what we don's need to grant.

I often hear for example faith defined ad "belief in something". Are we sure that it is that what it means? I am rather sure of the contrary. As I am sure that by granting such a definition we put ourselves in the impossibility of giving reasons for what we believe.

The latin fides, from which faith comes, means something eminently interpersonal: the "credit" someone enjoys near somebody else.

Only in a derivative sense faith becomes the credit that we grant to what he says, and finally belief in this.

Even in this case, belief doesn't means anything extraordinary: just the persuasion of the truth of something. I can say for example that I believe in the theory of relativity or in quantum mechanics.

It is in no other way that I say that I believe in the Church's teachings.

As far as religion goes, I'll have to come back to it. The word has become in fact one of the main stumbling blocks to "true religion".

On Diaz and Sotomayor

As promised, some thoughts about the recent presidential nominations. A number of emergencies (more or less important, but all urgent) kept me from posting on them when the rest of the blogosphere was talking about them.

Although the chatter in the blogosphere has slowed, the implications of the Diaz appointment are enduring and therefore worthy of consideration; Judge Sotomayor's confirmation hearings have not begun yet.


Much commentary about Diaz has focused on his orthodoxy. This is a mistake. The important thing to note is that he is not so much as a footnote to the Who's Who of Democratic movers and shakers. He is a virtually unheard-of university professor with little distinction within academia and no political experience. I hope it is very clear that, in noting Prof. Diaz's lack of distinction, I do not mean to cast aspersions on the quality of his theological work. While I confess to little interest in his area of theological endeavor, I also know how many professional thinkers in academia work throughout their careers quietly producing work of good quality - fewer of them "make it" per capita than do actors. The point is, quite simply, that Prof. Diaz has neither the President's ear, nor the people's recognition.

Those in the Latino community who are susceptible to the blandishments of identity politics might appreciate the appointment, though even as a move calculated to improve the President's polling numbers with Latino voters, the choice of Diaz for Ambassador the the Holy See is on its own unlikely to result in a great and lasting bond of affection between Latino voters and the President.

Even if it were, the real significance of the appointment remains geopolitical, rather than domestic.

Ambassador Diaz will doubtless be an intellectual presence on the diplomatic cocktail circuit in Rome; he may become a favored companion at the boards of cardinals and archbishops in the Curia. Even so, he will not be able to raise the President at a moment's notice - again, he will not have the President's ear.

If we are to understand anything at all in light of the Diaz appointment, it is that the President does not consider US relations with the Holy See to be a high priority.


Much has been made of Sotomayor's apparent embrace of something very like the politics of presence, as Prof. Anne Phillips has dubbed it. This is not so interesting to me as are the 6 in every 10 of her decisions that have been overturned by the Supreme court.

This high reversal rate tells me that the nominee is not possessed with great legal intelligence.

This, in its turn, suggests that she might be easily swayed by the opinions of her brethren on the Court.

Not to put too fine a point on it, unintelligent people are often swayed by the opinions they have heard most recently; it were not beyond the scope of this author's notoriously Lazy powers of fantasy to envision Justices Scalia and Ginsburg (for whose swift and full recovery from Pancreatic cancer we ought all to pray) jockeying for the tail position outside her door. "After you, Mm. Justice Ginsburg..." "No, after you, Nino..." "but really, Ruth, I do insist..." etc., etc., etc.

Pro-lifers are rightly concerned to know her position on abortion, though absent "smoking gun" evidence or unusual candor on the part of the nominee during the hearings, we are unlikely to get an unambiguous picture of her views of the subject.

Frankly, this does not overly concern me, any more than do the early descriptions of her as "[A] reliably liberal vote." Such estimations are themselves notoriously unreliable.

Finally, she is Catholic, and Catholics sometimes return to the rigorous practice of their faith, to true discipleship, i.e. to thinking with the Church. If Justice Sotomayor is not unacceptable on other grounds, we may allow ourselves not to be dismayed by her eventual appointment, and must remind ourseves to pray for her and all the Court, as we ought for the President, our Senators and Representatives.


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Some thoughts on the Saeculum I (of a projected III)

I. Groundwork

The following reflections have been percolating for some time - in one form or another, I have expressed them sometimes more, and sometimes less thematically, over the course of the years. This most recent occurrence has been occasioned by two unconnected things: a statement Fr. Zuhlsdorf made to the effect that politics ought to foreshadow the City of God (for the post in which it occurs, click here), and a recent observation in one of the combox threads over at the Papist, in which a university professor reminds us all of the dangers of using terms before having an adequate grasp of their meanings (an alarming number of people are pathologically committed to this imprudence, although the vast majority of them have not been diagnosed with the Vizzini complex).

The term I have heard bandied about is "secularism" in its various permutations, and I would like to clarify the meaning of the term, before those tempted or prone to use the term indiscriminately actually succeed in rendering it practically useless for the purposes of critical discourse.


"Secularism" and its permutations are derived from the Latin, saeculum, i 2n. It is etymologically linked to cycle, derived in its turn from the Greek kyklos. It's first appearance as a unit of measurement was in Etruscan civilization. It is often mistakenly taken as a quantitative measurement of time.

Its standardization as a 110-year period of time during the reign of Augustus, however, was a late and rather confusing innovation.

Even after acquiring its standardized periodization, saeculum continued to be what it always had been: a qualitative measurement of a given people's historical progress.

Theological-political development

In the Western intellectual tradition, the very Roman Christian, St. Augustine of Hippo, appropriated the term, saeculum in his master work, the De civitate Dei contra paganos, which is known more briefly as the De civitate Dei or the City of God.

The most important aspect of Augustine's treatment of the saeculum in that work is his expansion of the term beyond a single people or civilizational project, i.e. Rome, and application to the present state or condition of the world, coupled with his differentiation of the saceulum senescens, literally the "age growing old," meaning, "the last age of the world, which is passing." It is the first and fundamental step in the development of a philosophy of history (here you will not be surprised to learn I am heavily indebted to Eric Voegelin) , in which human action in history has implications in and for the eternity that permeates time, and is intelligible as such, while history itself does not hold the key to its own meaningfulness - history itself is to be read in light of the eternity that is beyond it.

Within the unfolding of this history, the Church emerges as the carrier of eternity in time; her authority is spiritual and her membership extends through all time from the creation of the world and into eternity. She is not of this world, though she is in the world that is passing. Political society, which is proper to the world, nevertheless contributes genuinely to good order and serves the purposes of the spread of the Church, while not strictly depending upon the Church for its authority.

It shall, I hope, be fairly easy now to identify the distint spiritual and temporal spheres out of which the idea of the separation of Church and State rose, beginning in the late middle ages. The idea of a distinct sphere, over which the civil authority had no competence, marks the beginning of the process of differentiation that would continue for centuries, and continues in the present.

In this sense, therefore, the great Bishop and Doctor is the first secularist. A good book for non-experts (good for experts, too, in fact, though they should already have read it) is R.A. Markus' Saeculum: history and society in the theology of St. Augustine.

Modern and Contemporary Confusion

In order to bring the problematic nature of the present confused use of the term in all its permutations fully into view, I would need to revisit the whole intellectual history of the past 1600 years, at least.

Suffice it to say that the modern period has been characterized by two great currents of thought. One holds that human history is intelligible on its own terms, i.e. that it contains within itself its principle of intelligibility (Eric Voegelin calls it an eidos of history). The other denies the basic intelligibility of the world, reducing history to a merely contingent succession of events.

They are only apparently antagonistic, for their deepest roots tap a common source of (mal)nourishment: the desire to escape the eschatological tension of existence.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Learning good rhetoric (not to become empty suits)

It was hard for me as a young man to come to learn the importance of rhetoric: I mean, the art of talking, be it in simple conversations, or to a public audience. That's why I appreciated Obama's talk in Cairo.

There is a strong streak in our culture that praises sincerity at any cost, and views any holding back in what we say as hypocricy.

So we have group therapies - or their caricature in tv shows, I don't know - that recommend venting one's feeling as a liberating experience. And maybe it is so: if I have a grudge against somebody, it may be good to be able to bring it out and say it. The problem arises when for whatever reason I care for that somebody. Say my wife did something that caused me a discomfort (I don't mean necessarily a betrayal, but anything that can make me feel estranged from her, like her preferring "I" to "we" when discussing common matters), should I be sincere and assault her with my bad feelings? Nowadays she will probably go away. I would have liberated myself, and lost my wife. Should I keep it all bottled up inside, and get a bad liver (as we say in Italy)? Leaving aside that probably even in this way I'll loose her, no. It's a question of how I say things.

It's a question of rhetoric.

There is more that I had to learn in my unlearning of the no-hypocrisy culture: not to assume that my interlocutors are in agreement with me, by too soon showing where I stand on touchy issues - or, if you prefer, who I am. It is easy in such a case for them to manipulate what I let them know - somehow to turn it against me.

I remember an episode from the time of my staying in the United States. I was talking with a fellow student in the docrotal program I was attending in the seventies, when at a certain point of a discussion on some topic, I prefaced, to make my argument, "I am a Catholic"; well, I could not go on, because he immediately retorted: "If it makes you happy."

I could have no more case to make. And that was a relatively nice way to cut me out. There can be much nastier ones. But it was an occasion for learning that we need to know whom we are talking with, in order to know what to say to find commong grounds of discussion.

It's a question of rhetoric.

Rhetoric is oratorial etiquette. The habit by which we present ourselves. Even when we expose ourselves naked, we have to know that we'll not stay so for long, and after undressing we'll dress again. Should I say more? That of sincerity in rhetoric is a genuine question: by what can we know that habits do actually show and don't hide?

Obama is not my president - or in a way he is., bBecause personally I can say that I became a man in the United States of America, and still feel therefore, after decades I have been away, an hyphonated American. But also because here in Europe we always takes sides, pro or against American adminstrations: as if we were part of the United States of Europe+America. As a concerned Italian-American I say then that the trouble with Obama is that he is an accomplished rhetorician, even too much so. So that one notices it.

And doesn't quite know, as an American friend of mine suggested, whether he isn't after all an "empty suit".

From AsiaNews - Israel's Finance Ministry Freezes Church Assets

Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) - The Chief Tax Collector at Israel's Finance Ministry, Yehezkel Abrahamoff, has notified institutions of the Catholic Church in Israel that he has seized their funds, in order to force them to submit at once to all of the fiscal demands that he considers applicable to them, ahead of the Agreement on the fiscal status of the Church, which is being negotiate, among other things, between the Holy See and the State of Israel.

Read the rest here.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Obama in Cairo - one bad take on it

Tom Peters alerted his readers to this take on Obama's speech in the National Catholic Register.

I am unimpressed.

I agree with the Humbly Presumptious one when he says that the President said everything he needed to say.

Hoopes fails to note that so capable a rhetor as the President would know his audience, and his audience would know the next verse of the Qur'an. His explicit quotation had, among its other functions within the speech, an antiphonal purpose.

In the Catholic liturgical tradition, an antiphon is a text fragment that may appear random at first glance, though it is in fact anything but random; it is chosen precisely with a view to calling the hearer's attention to what comes before it and what comes after it in the text from which the fragment in extracted. Antiphons presume that those who hear them are well-versed in sacred scripture.

There was, therefore, a subtext to the President's speech, and the tension created between the explicit and the unstated is the proper hermeneutical key.

In praising Islam's "great tradition of tolerance" the President was calling attention to Cairo, Alexandria, Baghdad, Tours, Jerusalem (BTW, whenever anyone brings up the question of the Crusades, I respond, "Oh, you mean that series of wars the Turks both started and won?"), Constantinople, Buda-Pest and Vienna - not to mention Munich (1970 and 1972), Rome (1973), Tehran (1979), Beirut (1983), etc. etc.

In quoting Surah 5:32, the President was drawing the attention of his audience to 5:33 - and the significance of this is to be found, not in the attribution of a supposed program of weak thought, or an ideological commitment to "relativism", but in the context of the over-arching structure of the speech, which is controlled by two axes -

First, in logical order there is the following:

In Ankara, I made clear that America is not -- and never will be -- at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security -- because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women, and children. And it is my first duty as President to protect the American people.
This is clearly to be read in light of 5:33 - the President is saying, essentially, that if you come to our shores and murder our people, we will defend ourselves. It also presses the unspoken question as to how innocent non-Muslims are or can be under certain interpretations of the Qur'an (remember that usul al-fiqh is positive legal science, and the highest science in Islam, above Kalaam, or dialectical reason employed in the pursuit of speculative theological truth - and let this also be a reminder to Catholics interested in "inter-faith dialogue" and other such tripe: talking with Muslim theologians is useless; either we are talking with the lawyers, or we might as well not be talking), and this in turn presses the issue of how Islam is to understand itself.

If we are going to be completely honest, there is a great deal of evidence suggesting that the Wahabi line is the most internally coherent understanding of Islam. The scholars at Cairo could not fail to be aware of this, nor could they have failed to hear the call to challenge the Wahabi line from within, through critical engagement and rigorous scholarship. This is dangerous, it is true, though the alternative is default Wahabi domination.

Then there is this:
I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles -- principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.
In light of the second, we can see that the President is essentially conditioning the success of the new beginning on Islam's ability to resolve the internal tensions to which he so skillfully alluded during the course of his address. In light of the first, we see that, until such time as Islam does order its house, the United States will be resolute in defense of itself and others.

Now, the final piece to this puzzle is the following:
I know that for many, the face of globalization is contradictory. The Internet and television can bring knowledge and information, but also offensive sexuality and mindless violence into the home. Trade can bring new wealth and opportunities, but also huge disruptions and change in communities. In all nations -- including America -- this change can bring fear. Fear that because of modernity we lose control over our economic choices, our politics, and most importantly our identities -- those things we most cherish about our communities, our families, our traditions, and our faith.

But I also know that human progress cannot be denied. There need not be contradictions between development and tradition. Countries like Japan and South Korea grew their economies enormously while maintaining distinct cultures. The same is true for the astonishing progress within Muslim-majority countries from Kuala Lumpur to Dubai. In ancient times and in our times, Muslim communities have been at the forefront of innovation and education.
Said shortly, Islam need not uncritically embrace modernity, but if it does not find a way to approach modernity that is critical without being inimical, it will continue its slide into darkness and backwardness.

This is not relativism, Mr. hoopes, veiled or otherwise: indeed, it is quite the opposite. We Catholics ought to appreciate the deft and subtle way in which the President invited Islam to embrace a vision in which the dignity and rights of human nature are affirmed in a way that does not commit one to the intellectual program of modernity - a program that ends in contradiction and disintegration, viz., abortion, euthanasia and the apotheosis of the state.

I diagree with the President as profoundly as anyone, and quite possibly, moreso than most, and I fully recognize the danger his social agenda poses to good order and true liberty. As they say, though, even a clock what don't work tells the right time twice a day.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

President Obama and human rights

President Obama delivered in Cairo an excellent speech. He said to Muslims what was right to say to them, whatever the historical and doctrinal accuracy of it. He was at his best when he reminded that the possibility to say what one thinks, confidence in the rule of law fair administration of justice, transparency of a government that doesn't steal from people, and finally freedom to live as one chooses, are not only American ideas, but human rights.

All fine and dandy.

It is like to say that they are not based on religion but on natural law. But, did anybody ever inform him that also not killing unborn babies is so based? If he, or someone for him, replies that it is not so, being the full human nature of such babies a question of religious belief, I could easily retort: so it is also for not killing born babies, or for that matter grown people who do not belong to the in-group of true men.

Cultural anthropology should teach us this much: that we cannot assign to human rights what we want, according to our ideas and conveniences. Does this mean that we cannot appeal to natural law? No, we can do it. But we need to know how to do it.

June 6, 1944

I would remind you all of what happened this day, sixty-five years ago:

Fr. Zuhlsdorf has posted Gen. Eisenhower's remarks to the troops, and prepared an appropriate video montage, which I encourage you to visit:

Let this be mine, by way of my friends at American Rhetoric:

(Though it ought to go without saying, I wish to clarify that I cite this speech, and reproduce it, because it taught me an important lesson when I was a boy)


Pointe de Hoc, Normandy, June 6, 1984 (The 40th anniversary of D-Day) We're here to mark that day in history when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. For four long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved and the world prayed for its rescue. Here, in Normandy, the rescue began. Here, the Allies stood and fought against tyranny, in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history.

We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but forty years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon. At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, two hundred and twenty-five Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs.

Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here, and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance.

The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at the edge of the cliffs, shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up. When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting, only ninety could still bear arms.

And behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war. Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender's poem. You are men who in your "lives fought for life and left the vivid air signed with your honor."

I think I know what you may be thinking right now -- thinking "we were just part of a bigger effort; everyone was brave that day." Well everyone was. Do you remember the story of Bill Millin of the 51st Highlanders? Forty years ago today, British troops were pinned down near a bridge, waiting desperately for help. Suddenly, they heard the sound of bagpipes, and some thought they were dreaming. Well, they weren't. They looked up and saw Bill Millin with his bagpipes, leading the reinforcements and ignoring the smack of the bullets into the ground around him.

Lord Lovat was with him -- Lord Lovat of Scotland, who calmly announced when he got to the bridge, "Sorry, I'm a few minutes late," as if he'd been delayed by a traffic jam, when in truth he'd just come from the bloody fighting on Sword Beach, which he and his men had just taken.

There was the impossible valor of the Poles, who threw themselves between the enemy and the rest of Europe as the invasion took hold; and the unsurpassed courage of the Canadians who had already seen the horrors of war on this coast. They knew what awaited them there, but they would not be deterred. And once they hit Juno Beach, they never looked back.

All of these men were part of a roll call of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore; The Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland's 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots' Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeomen of England's armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard's "Matchbox Fleet," and you, the American Rangers.

Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why? Why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief. It was loyalty and love.

The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next. It was the deep knowledge -- and pray God we have not lost it -- that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One's country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.

The Americans who fought here that morning knew word of the invasion was spreading through the darkness back home. They fought -- or felt in their hearts, though they couldn't know in fact, that in Georgia they were filling the churches at 4:00 am. In Kansas they were kneeling on their porches and praying. And in Philadelphia they were ringing the Liberty Bell.

Something else helped the men of D-day; their rock-hard belief that Providence would have a great hand in the events that would unfold here; that God was an ally in this great cause. And so, the night before the invasion, when Colonel Wolverton asked his parachute troops to kneel with him in prayer, he told them: "Do not bow your heads, but look up so you can see God and ask His blessing in what we're about to do." Also, that night, General Matthew Ridgway on his cot, listening in the darkness for the promise God made to Joshua: "I will not fail thee nor forsake thee."

These are the things that impelled them; these are the things that shaped the unity of the Allies.

When the war was over, there were lives to be rebuilt and governments to be returned to the people. There were nations to be reborn. Above all, there was a new peace to be assured. These were huge and daunting tasks. But the Allies summoned strength from the faith, belief, loyalty, and love of those who fell here. They rebuilt a new Europe together. There was first a great reconciliation among those who had been enemies, all of whom had suffered so greatly. The United States did its part, creating the Marshall Plan to help rebuild our allies and our former enemies. The Marshall Plan led to the Atlantic alliance -- a great alliance that serves to this day as our shield for freedom, for prosperity, and for peace.

In spite of our great efforts and successes, not all that followed the end of the war was happy or planned. Some liberated countries were lost. The great sadness of this loss echoes down to our own time in the streets of Warsaw, Prague, and East Berlin. The Soviet troops that came to the center of this continent did not leave when peace came. They're still there, uninvited, unwanted, unyielding, almost forty years after the war. Because of this, allied forces still stand on this continent. Today, as forty years ago, our armies are here for only one purpose: to protect and defend democracy. The only territories we hold are memorials like this one and graveyards where our heroes rest.

We in America have learned bitter lessons from two world wars. It is better to be here ready to protect the peace, than to take blind shelter across the sea, rushing to respond only after freedom is lost. We've learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent. But we try always to be prepared for peace, prepared to deter aggression, prepared to negotiate the reduction of arms, and yes, prepared to reach out again in the spirit of reconciliation. In truth, there is no reconciliation we would welcome more than a reconciliation with the Soviet Union, so, together, we can lessen the risks of war, now and forever.

It's fitting to remember here the great losses also suffered by the Russian people during World War II. Twenty million perished, a terrible price that testifies to all the world the necessity of ending war. I tell you from my heart that we in the United States do not want war. We want to wipe from the face of the earth the terrible weapons that man now has in his hands. And I tell you, we are ready to seize that beachhead. We look for some sign from the Soviet Union that they are willing to move forward, that they share our desire and love for peace, and that they will give up the ways of conquest. There must be a changing there that will allow us to turn our hope into action.

We will pray forever that someday that changing will come. But for now, particularly today, it is good and fitting to renew our commitment to each other, to our freedom, and to the alliance that protects it.

We're bound today by what bound us 40 years ago, the same loyalties, traditions, and beliefs. We're bound by reality. The strength of America's allies is vital to the United States, and the American security guarantee is essential to the continued freedom of Europe's democracies. We were with you then; we're with you now. Your hopes are our hopes, and your destiny is our destiny.

Here, in this place where the West held together, let us make a vow to our dead. Let us show them by our actions that we understand what they died for. Let our actions say to them the words for which Matthew Ridgway listened: "I will not fail thee nor forsake thee."

Strengthened by their courage and heartened by their value [valor] and borne by their memory, let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.

Thank you very much, and God bless you all.

Thank you all, so very, very much, and God bless every one of you.


A New Pen for the LD

Dear Readers,

The Lazy Disciple is pleased to announce the arrival of a new contributor to the blog.

Our new contributor is a native of Naples, Italy, vintage 1945.

A professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Teramo who has also taught political philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University, he studied under Wolfgang Zucker and Will Herberg in the US, before returning to Italy, and Rome, and the philosophical friendship of prof. Carlo Huber, SJ.

He is the Lazy Disciple's friend and mentor philosophicus, and I am confident that you all shall find him Humbly Presumptuous.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Slow Pace of Blogging

Dear all,

It is a terribly busy time for me at the moment, professionally and personally. Please be patient as the pace of posting slows.

Thanks in advance for your forebearance.

Please keep visiting, and remember: the archives are open!

Best to all, and thanks again,


Monday, June 01, 2009

They Shot Him at Church on Sunday

yes, everyone: I heard about Dr. Tiller's murder.

That is what it was, by the way. Dr. Tiller was killed in church on Sunday.

Dr. Tiller was killed to make a point.

I understand that there is a suspect in custody.


He needs to be punished for his crime.

That is all.