Friday, July 31, 2009

7QT at the PP

They are up again, after a hiatus.

As always, they are edifying and entertaining.

Where are the numbers from this time, though?

Remember, you can participate in the project, which is hosted by Conversion Diary.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Conspiracy Theories

Mark Shea and I are having an exchange regarding what constitutes a conspiracy.

The occasion for the exchange was a post over at his place, with the gist of which I agree, regarding conspiracy theories, and the conspiracy theorists who espouse them.

Our exchange is in the com-box.

As of publication, Mark has yet to reply to my response to his reply to my original comment.

I honestly cannot imagine what could possibly be more important to him, than responding to me.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Let's call it "a letter on tolerance"

Excusatio non petita, accusatio manifesta. The wisdom of this Latin saying, for which apologies that are not asked for are equivalent to self accusation, holds me from giving in to the temptation of forwarding with an apology the theme I am going to tackle.

I restrain myself and take a start.

Newsweek of July 27, had the cover article denouncing "The myth of Eurabia", i.e. "the false fears of a Muslim take over".

It seems according to it that the far right in Europe suffers of a paranoid fear of a Muslim take over.

I am not sure whether I qualify as far right, but I am convinced that some reasons of preoccupation do exist. And if it is so, how does the article's author qualify: far left?


An apology therefore is in order. Such an article touches me in my honor of philosopher-theologian and cultural anthropologist.

I'll quote to this end the famous French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss – I hope the Newsweek journalist knows whom I am talking about, otherwise all my apology is in vain.

Or perhaps not.

Back in the fifties of last century, in a beautiful book of his entitled Tristes Tropiques Lévi-Strauss made himself known as defender of little tribal societies of South America. Now he is too old to be still speaking about anything, but in his latest public statements he rather came to the defense of European civilization, because, he said, he sees it at risk of extinction.

May be he has turned far right.

How about saying that he is just an intelligent and wise author, who knows where the problems lie?

A little more down to earth: several years ago, it must have been in the middle Nineties, a friend of mine, teacher of Latin and Greek in high school and a good catholic, reported an experience that alerted her on a threat.

She had been, together with other fellow teachers, at a seminar organized by the Roman church school office on the theme of multiculturalism. As the well meaning teachers that they were, they all felt obliged to express a generic approval of the importance of keeping open to other cultures. But there was also a guest speaker, a Muslim engineer I don't remember from where, who had been living in Italy for some twenty years. When it came his turn, he left them all flabbergasted. "For you, tolerance is a value", he said, "for us it isn't. You don't make children, we do. Draw the consequences by yourself."

The Newsweek article deftly dismisses the second, demographic point made by that engineer in still non suspect years: long it takes before Muslim become a majority in Europe. Besides, they are not so unanimous in their views: many, perhaps the majority of them want to integrate.

Does this mean that even the first point is voided? And that there is no threat? I wouldn't say so. Many incidents, even horrid ones, seem rather to point to the contrary.

How grave is it? Well, that's something that requires discussion.

My answer is: the gravity of the threat depends on its being or not being perceived. In other words: I see the threat coming not so much from Muslims, as from insipient Europeans who don't understand the nature of the problem.

Or, for that matter, insipient Americans.

It is not a question of right or left, but of knowledge of human affairs. And here an anthropologist like Lévi-Strauss can come handy, teaching us that human nature does not change.

Nobody, anywhere, ever likes to be tolerated.

At least since John Locke's famous letter, in our society we keep on extolling tolerance. That's because we never stop and think of converting the noun into the verb.

Now, try to say to somebody: I tolerate you. And imagine his or her reaction.

In our society we wanted for some reason to be, on principle, tolerant; so we made space to people, many of whom found our tolerance unpleasing... and reacted with their intolerance.

The reason is that we don't even know what we are called to tolerate. Having we rejected or at least put aside our knowledge of the alternative in Christianity, which inspired the universal recognition of the equal dignity of any man (and of course woman) we rightly hold as natural, we don't have anything left to offer for it except lurid tolerance.

Am I preaching intolerance? Certainly not! I am just saying that tolerance, if it can work on the legal level, doesn't work as a civic virtue apt to promote good will in social relations.

I don't care how many of the Muslim immigrants are against us, what matters is that they are the most vociferous in a Europe that is highly deculturalized.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


LD always overtakes me with new posts.

I was still meditating on an answer to give to his question about what it is that makes us capable of trusting each other, that it came his comment about POTUS' remarks about what to expect from the war in Afghanistan.

I meant to say that the one he asked was the classical million dollar question.

Better, it is a question of no quantifiable prize, because it rests in the very infinity of God.

In this question politics and theology intermingle, because faith in God and trust in men cannot be severed.

Benedict showed us where, in the third chapter on gift of his Caritas in veritate.

I trust a men if I perceive him concerned not just for himself, as wanting something from me, but also concerned for the good of being in relation with me.

This is gift: I don't speak just of giving things, but attentions, little gestures of regard, all that shows the capability of caring.

We call it good manners: which is not just good education, but a consistent way of being. Not all the rules of etiquette might be observed, actually one might even be a little uncouth, but still there are little signs by which, if we know how to look, we can discern gentleness.

It depends on the overall story that is represented.

So it goes in all things, when we have to assess a fact read on the newspaper, or the speeches and the acts of the President of the United States (by the way, always known through some media, the press or TV).

There are all kind of nuances, different ways of looking at things and to bear witness of them, always presented to us as to a kind of jury: our capability of judging depends on the magnitude of the gifts we have received.

There squabbles and wars, and there is no way to end them except by victory: that is really such only if it isn't our victory, but victory of the good, the common good of being able to trust each other and live in peace.

That's the way one encourages his men at war.

Choosing Life

Crusty old men (not all of them white, mind you), used to say: [ens et] verum et bonum et pulchrum convertuntur, and also, bonum est diffusivum sui:

As her condition grew worse, Mayra’s family prepared for the end of her earthly life. Aida described the beauty that shone through the pain of her sister’s last days on earth. "At the end, I saw her like Christ, with so many wounds and bruises on her arms and her side," she said.

Go read the rest here.

Hat-tip to Fr. Zuhlsdorf.


A Lesson in Rhetoric for the POTUS

Much hay is being made in conservative corners of the blogosphere this morning regarding the following statement from President Obama:

I'm always worried about using the word 'victory,' because, you know, it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur.
Taken out of context, the remark is outrageous.

In context, however, it is merely unhappy.

The President goes on to say:
We're not dealing with nation states at this point. We're concerned with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Al Qaeda's allies," he said. "So when you have a non-state actor, a shadowy operation like Al Qaeda, our goal is to make sure they can't attack the United States.
In context, the POTUS is simply reminding us that we cannot expect there to be a single moment, a particular action on the part of the erstwhile belligerents, reestablishing peace, with all the attendant consequences.


I will go so far as to say I agree with the President's limited view of our war objectives: while we are not at war with the people of Afghanistan, neither do we owe them in justice what we owe the people of Iraq, i.e. a real chance at securing for themselves ordered liberty in civil society under good government. That the best angels of our nature do inspire us to work for the betterment of the Afghani people's lot even as we continue to prosecute the war against our enemies operating on their soil, is a sign of the magnanimity of the American people, and laudable as such. We do not owe it to them.

I will even allow the President's lapse in historical memory to go uncriticized - after all, the Japanese Foreign Minister was acting as the Emperor's attorney on the deck of the USS Missouri.

I will, however, allow myself to offer an alternative to the President's infelicitous incipit.

If I were the POTUS, I would have said:

"Of course, our goal in Afghanistan is victory. We do not employ American military might with any other goal in sight; we do not spend our war treasure for any other end; to no other purpose, but that of absolute and total victory, do we put our sons and daughters in harm's way. We cannot, however, expect the moment of victory to come upon us as it has in the past - with a formal surrender and a conclusion of peace. Our enemy is not the Reich, or the Empire of Japan. Our enemy is creeping and lawless; he hides in the shadows, he slithers in and out of caves in the darkest and most desolate regions of the world, preying on those unfortunates, who with great invention make those places their home; he lurks, and he cowers, ever vigilant, for he would not lose a single opportunity to destroy innocent life, to steal another's legitimate property and bend it to sinister purpose, to reduce to servitude the one who would only be his neighbor. As long as such as these are able in Afghanistan to harm our people and our interests, and to impede those people on whom they prey for daily subsistence, as those people seek to better themselves and secure a brighter future for their children, so long shall American arms be employed in Afghanistan."

There are those who say I was born in the wrong century.

Perhaps they are right.

I hope they are wrong.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Between Credulity and Incredulity, Naiveté and Jadedness, Simplicity and Sophistication

There is something to be found.

In English we call it, "trust".

The Romans called it fides.

I am mentioning this because the public exchange with my teacher, the Humbly Presumptuous one, has raised some legitimate questions about journalistic trust, and how we receive messages, hear stories, and take news generally.

The general concerns are there, and though they might have been occasioned by the Gates story, my concern was to avoid using the Gates story as a springboard for discussion of general problems that are amply illustrable by other means, without giving it the treatment it clearly deserves on its own merits.

You say you were incredulous, HP?

I think that is a sign of your moral sanity: I am reminded of some observations C.S. Lewis makes in Mere Christianity (if memory serves), to the effect that something has gone terribly wrong with us when we want to believe bad things we hear, even when we hear them about our worst enemies.

So let me reply to your reply to my reply with another question: what is it that makes us capable of trusting each other at all?



Wednesday, July 22, 2009

An answer to the answer

I have no reading of the matter.

Mine was just a question.

I understand what is involved: racial prejudice (which lives in contemporary reality as well as the personal and collective memory of American society and its members, notwithstanding great strides forward).

I can understand this, though I have little to help me appreciate the rawness of America's experience of racism.

Until recently, racism, strictly speaking, was rather unknown in Italy, for the simple reason that there were virtually no people of non-European descent living in the country, and very few visitors.

Regional prejudices were strong, however, with people from the North looking down on people from the South.

When, back in the Fifties, many southern Italians moved to the city of Turin, for example, it was not unusual to find places with the notice, "for rent, save to Southerners".

The problem is becoming more strictily racist nowdays that Italy is favored destination of emigrants from North Africa and elsewhere.

Our experience of the phenomenon is very much different from that of African Americans, and of American society generally, though: people come to Italy of their own accord, not on slave ships.

The sensibilities are therefore different, and I recognize that.

As things stand, there was enough to my ears to raise the question, out of simple incredulity: I found it hard - and still find it extremely unpleasant - to believe that policemen might enter a man's house, and gratuitously manhandle him.

If you tell me that this can happen, I cannot but acknowledge the existence of a sad, though simple state of affairs.

An Answer to Humbly's Question

Dear Humbly Presumptuous,

The short answer is: no.

Prof. Gates' reaction to the behavior of the policemen is not only understandable: it is in a certain sense precisely the reaction of a sane man, whose rights have been violated.

This was not an exchange at a conference that became heated: this was the power of the state being used to drag a man from his own home and haul him to prison.

It is outrageous.

That Prof. Gates' reaction is more than simply understandable, is visible from another aspect as well: let me illustrate by analogy with pacifists.

The mistake pacifists make is that they assume to erect a personal Christian response to the call to charity, into a principle of justice.

As we are fond of saying: martyrdom may not be by proxy.

Prof. Gates was not simply a private citizen encountering a police officer having a bad day.

He was manhandled because of the color of his skin - and therefore a representative (in the Voegelinian sense of the truth of existence) of all African-Americans, who continue to suffer the indignity of being considered suspects only because of their pigmentation - and even of all Americans, for whom the home is still the ultimissimum refugium, to be defended at all costs, against any power whatsoever.

I strongly disagree with your reading of the matter.



Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Shouldn't a wise man be capable of forbearance

A question to LD:

Isn't it possible that Prof. Gates is a bit paranoic?

I mean:

given his age, he belongs to a generation that has known a much more racist America;

given what he teaches, he is one who has made a job out of keeping memory of that America.

Yes, police officers can be very arrogant, enough to make even angels loose their temper.

But, isn't it precisely this what we are taught to do since we were babies: to keep under control our fits of anger?

A mature man, and, on the top of it, a doctor and professor, shouldn't be wise enough to exercise forbearance?

Readiness to take offence can make me suspect to be in the presence of a biased personality.

Yes, if police officers can make even angels loose their temper, how much more non-angels: like human beings tending to paranoia?

All the above is just a question from someone who used to take fire like nothing.

What, you mean you can't just smile your way into peace with your sworn enemies and domestic socialist paradise?

Found this Politico piece being featured on Yahoo!

No, Mr. President, the bad folks hate us because of who we are, not because of who our President used to be.

No, Mr. President, not even Congress is going to let you let them spend all of this and the next three generations' money.

I'm with Prof. Gates on this one...

I'd be pretty damned indignant, too.

As my friend said, this is not the Onion...

Link to story here.

The problem here, though, does not seem to me to be one of 'racial profiling'.

The problem here seems to me to be Prof. Gates' racist neighbor, who made the complaint, and the racist police officers who responded to the call at Prof. Gates' house.


Friday, July 17, 2009

All men: who are they?

We are convinced that abortion is an awful thing.

Being so convinced, however, we must be able to say why; in the absence of reasons, there is no way that "we" might be convinced of the awfulness of abortion - at most, "I" could assert its awfulness.

Many people, even among Catholics, seem to think that this is the case, that we either do not or cannot go beyond the "I" of the speaker in his assertion of a certain confessional concomitant, that doesn't involve all men. In other words, that it is just a question of opinion concerning the beginning of life, when we can say a human person has taken shape.

First, when we say "person", we mean someone endowed with rights, like the famous ones about which the Declaration of Independence speaks.

LD and I discussed of the possible import of the Declaration of Independence on the discussion.

How about its famous "We hold this truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal..."?

I wanted to play it by objecting to the self-evidence, but he retorted that this stems from the concrete experience that led to the Declaration. It is not therefore an abstract logical category to which one can object.

Another question is the meaning of 'equal': how does it square with all the differences physical and moral we can find in people, men and women? But also this, even though of the utmost importance, doesn't lead to what I want to say now.

The whole point is in that "all men". The Declaration could be signed in good faith by people who owned slaves, starting from the same Jefferson who wrote it.

In short: we can hold that it is self-evident that all men are created equal. But, how do we define man?

Hence, the argument I want to make is this.

Historical and ethnographic evidence shows us that there is no society in which it doesn't hold the maxim, "Thou shalt not murder," by which they proscribe the taking of innocent human life - but this begs the question, for human beings are distinguished from other animals by their belonging to a certain group. Those in the group are human - those outside it might resemble humans, though they are not, or not quite, human (the examples abound, from Aristotle's barbarians to the inuit, whose name means quite simply, "the men" to the black slaves on a Southern plantation).

So, there is nothing evident in the extension we give to our holding homicide, slavery, torture, etc., as forbidden.

This extension comes from our holding "all men created equal", which we first encounter in the chilling symmetry of, "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." The natural similarity of all men was then established as equality.

We need to recall, at this point, that the natural extension of the definition of man in physical space, to embrace all men wherever they come from, went hand in hand with the extension in time: i.e. with the prohibition of infanticide and abortion.

Given the essential continuity from conception on in the growth of the baby, a continuity that is not broken by birth, the humanity of a child is socially established when the child is accepted, and this acceptance is symbolized by the giving of a name to the newborn. It is pertinent to note that, under Roman law, the term foetus was a legal category that applied to a child from the moment of conception to the moment its father embraced it, at which point it became infans. When we read in the Didache that Christiani non abiceunt foetus, we encounter a principled rejection of the practice of infanticide - and a fortiori, of abortion.

In plain words: one extension involves the other, and negating the rights of a person to the baby from the moment of conception leaves the rights of all born men without any rational ground in nature.

With no awareness whatsoever of the implications, contemporary abortion rights activists would have us return to the primitive pagan Roman understanding of things; chillingly, in the third generation of abortionism, more than a dim awareness of the direct implications for the rights of newborns is present to many abortion rights advocates, as illustrated by, e.g. the President of the United States' erstwhile nay vote in the Illinois Born Alive Act.

Perhaps we ought not be so surprised he did not, or could not quite bring himself to quote the Declaration of Independence in his inaugural.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

No time (Pace Prufrock)

This week is turning out to be far more hectic than I had suspected - please ahve patience as I negotiate the rapids.

When I am back on a slow stretch of water, you all shall know.


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

TODAY IS BASTILLE DAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Monday, July 13, 2009

Let's read what Benedict says

I have always felt somewhat ill at ease with economic theory. Probably because my training in social things comes, together with classical political philosophy, from sociology and social-cultural anthropology.

I mean a teaching that views people as essentially "social animals", zooi politikoi in Greek. Now the encyclical Caritas in veritate sounds to me in line with the way I have learned to think about and understand human being and human things, generally.

Following his main stress of continuity in the Catholic tradition, the encyclical takes its start from underlining what is enduring in the message of Paul VI' Populorum Progressio. It is like Pope Benedict wanted to say: now I tell you the truth about it.

Populorum Progressio seemed to suffer of an inconsistency common in anthropological thinking about "underdeveloped" peoples: on one hand calling for their vocation to become participant in world commerce, on the other laying all the responsibility for their state on rich countries, so viewing them as mainly passive subjects of events on which they have no control whatsoever. That's why the new encyclical brings development back to vocation and responsibility.

Actually, with that acceleration of communication that we call globalization, each people is called to find in itself the cultural and spiritual resources to face commerce with other peoples. And many are at pains in doing so: not only among poorer countries, often falling in the area of Islam, but also among the richer ones, e.g. in Europe, which seems no longer to know why it exists.

But this is another story, which the Pope addressed in his previous encyclical. Today Europe seems to have nothing to say to anybody - unless it be to squeak and squeal an apology every so often, as it wallows in sentiments of guilt over its past wrongs.

I don't want to say that there were no such wrongs, mind you - and Africa has been the main victim of them. African nations' large and apparent inability to exploit their vast natural and human resources for their own advancement and the advancement of their peoples, is largely traceable to the circumstances and mode of European powers' abandonment of their colonial enterprises on the continent.

In their arrival, and again in their departure, Europeans destroyed African social structures, especially political ones (even as African Americans under the yoke of their three hundred years' servitude suffered not only the breakup of their families, but the near total disintegration of their family structures).

The nineteenth century division of Africa among European powers was the utmost of shame. It stopped the development of the African kingdoms toward political units capable of taking part in world commerce, scattering them into myriad little societies under a glass dome. And when the colonial dominion was no longer convenient, the same colonial powers washed their hands of it with decolonization, which left Africa cut into a series of States artificially defined by the old borders of colonial administration.

Caritas in veritate's view of this situation is anthropologically more accurate than that of Pope Paul's encyclical. The French sociologist Serge Latouche pointed out years ago that there is a solidarity still at work in Africa based on an economy of gift exchanges that allows people to survive, of which the official market economy doesn't take cognizance. This ethnographic reality is at the basis of the wish expressed in chapter III for an integration of the gift economy with the market economy. Framed, however, in the context of an embracing theory of gift that accounts also for market.

It is like saying: from society we can understand economics, from economics we cannot understand society. And because society makes sense only in the light of gift theory, that sense is eminently theological.

This should be kept in mind by Catholics prone to fall for the presidential rhetoric. With Obama they stay within the limits of homo oeconomicus, and of its inevitable counterpart, call it homo gubernativus, just slightly tempered by the slick theological charm of the President.

After all, to make abortion a matter of choice, is to make life a matter of economy under the aegis of government.

A little morning thought

A little moning thought: the sun shines, birds twitter, and the whole world calls for giving grace.

I am reading a book on a current in Buddhism, dedicated to the worship of the Buddha Amitabha, lord of a "paradise of the West", full of everything beautifull we can imagine, where all his devotees are reborn in flower of lotus, not to do anything but dance and play in the light he sheds, and listesn to his teaching.

There is only one funny thing: in rebirth, there are no women. Which sounds like: evryone is reborn male, in the sense, I imagine, of man turned into a sort of androginous.

No sex, a little like in our contemporary society, when they tell us that all is indifferent sex.

The sun shines, birds twitter, and my wife is at the telephone tolking with her doughter.

What would I have to give grace for, If she weren't there?

Saturday, July 11, 2009


Just a very brief observation, one that may be obvious to everyone, but one that needed making in a conversation I had today.

When Pope Benedict XVI talks about the need for an ethical framework to surround, or a healthy moral culture to undergird both the economy and our thinking about the economy, he is not talking about an externally-imposed superstructure or a kind of foundation from which economic activity might be separated.

Rather he is calling our attention to a fact: the economy is nothing other than the aggregate of energies directed to production and exchange of goods and services; those energies, however, are at their origin human energies - human beings engage in economic activities, and human beings are inherently, even essentially moral actors, so that human activity as such has a constitutive moral component.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Gift: where did Pope Benedict take it from?

I found convincing indications on where theoretical imputs on chapter III of the encyclical came from.

I read in an interview to the german catholic philosopher Otto Kallscheuer (in the Italian opinion newspaper Il Foglio, of 7-9-09), that "the theme of gift and its gratuitousness is fruit of the teem work realized in the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences by Stefano Zamagni, speaker for the economy of brotherhood, by Alain Caillé, critic of the utilitarian paradigm and founder of the MAUSS (Mouvement anti utilitariste dans les sciences sociales), by the Nober prizes Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, even though the latter was not present".

It sounds convincing because Alain Caillé is author of a book on gift, Le tiers paradigme, in whic he declairs himself directly inspired by Marcell Mauss (to the point of makng anacrostic of his name).

However, in the pages Benedict signed there is an insight that goes beyond what I found in Caillé's book. Or at least that is what I read in it with the interpretation I gave of gratuitousness.

The ground inspiration might simply be the archetype of the good business man, as we can find in an old Hollywood movie. In Sabrina, Humphrey Bogart, businessman of great consequence, is organizing the marriage of his brother to launch a new enterprize. Asked why he does it, not for money nor for poweer, which he already has, he answers that he does it for its own sake, no other reason than the pleasure of building things and creating wealth. The answer, with its purely gratuitous motivations, sounds good to me, and it remains valid also after that he leaves behind everything for a more perfect gift, the gracious love of the girl Sabrina (a splendid Audrey Hepburn).

Who knows, Joseph Ratzinger might even have seen it.

An Encyclical Conversation...

I was involved in a conversation with some folks regarding the right way to read Caritas in veritate, in which one interlocutor suggested that George Weigel’s “gold and red” reading were tantamount to, or tat least tending toward the sort of doctrinal, “cherry picking” of which “conservative Catholics” often more or less rightly accuse “liberal Catholics”.

What follows is a response, or the synthesis of the conversation.

Weigel offered some very good insights. He is wrong about the relative importance of the idea of gift, but he is right about the literary inconsistency of the document. It must be said that he offered his reflections less than 24 hours after the release of a 28k+word document that is theologically weighty, to say the least. Indeed, it is so densely written that it will take weeks, if not months to unpack.

Interlocutors raised the question of the relative weight of an Encyclical, and whether it might be dangerous to suggest, as I had, that an Encyclical might be read with a critical eye toward what are what lawyers call the operative parts, and what are dicta. The question whether such readings might be hypocritical is discussed…

While an Encyclical Letter is a very high form of Papal writing, and while the whole of the Encyclical is issued in the Pope's name, the present Encyclical does indeed present the reader with some peculiarities, most of which are rooted in and stem from the topic of the Encyclical, itself, i.e. "integral human development in charity and truth".

Said simply, this is a social encyclical, and the Church does not have power to bind consciences in opinable matters regarding the pursuit of the common good, which call for an exercise of prudential judgment on the part of competent actors.

The Church does have a divinely inspired tradition of thinking about social problems, one that has stood the test of time and continues to be valuable in our day.

Pope Benedict is a better, and a more "ecclesial" thinker that the PCJ&P, which is to say he is better at thinking with the mind of the Church than is the Pontifical Council.

So, one need not attribute GW's attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were, to hypocritical cherry-picking. It might simply be, indeed I think it is, that George would not see the Pope's Letter co-opted by those who would like to put the Papal seal of approval on their policy stances, on the one hand, and on the other, that he genuinely wants to help people think with the mind of the Church, by parsing the authentically Benedictine parts and offering those for our more leisurely rumination.

If it is not absolutely necessary to paint someone with the brush of hypocrisy, then to do so is inappropriate.

First, as regards the Church's understanding of its competence to speak to and on social matters: the Church can teach on basic questions - matters of fundamental importance to social order, e.g. the structure of marriage and the rights to life and liberty, esp. in religious expression.

The controlling canon is 747.2: "It belongs to the Church always and everywhere to announce moral principles, even about the social order, and to render judgment concerning any human affairs insofar as the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls requires it."

Questions regarding the right way of achieving the essential ends of society are prudential, and fall to citizens and their competent representatives. As Benedict is at pains to remind us in the new Encyclical, "The Church does not have technical solutions to offer and does not claim “to interfere in any way in the politics of States.”

She does, however, have a mission of truth to accomplish, in every time and circumstance, for a society that is attuned to man, to his dignity, to his vocation."

There are two end-notes in this pair of sentences, which come from paragraph 9.:

Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 36; Paul VI, Apostolic Letter Octogesima Adveniens (14 May 1971), 4: AAS 63 (1971), 403-404; John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus (1 May 1991), 43: AAS 83 (1991), 847.

[11] Paul VI, Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio, 13: loc. cit., 263-264.

I think it is generally good practice to interpret Encyclical Letters in light of the changeless Magisterium, e.g., in light of ecumenical councils. Pope Benedict certainly rests himself on the II Vatican Council in this regard, even citing GS, a document about which he is known to have concerns.

This is a highfalutin way of saying that the Divine command to feed the hungry does not make us farmers, hunters, fishermen, grocers or cooks.

At this point, it was suggested that the desire to separate the binding parts of this or any teaching document might be less than generous...

I agree that it can seem less than generous, and probably is, sometimes.

Not necessarily, though: esp. in the area of social doctrine, lots of folks just want to figure out whether they have to modify their existing prudential judgments, policy positions, etc., or whether they are free to persist in their opinions.

Sometimes, as when there is a Papal statement that might be construed, or is publicly interpreted by some commentator or another, and sometimes by someone with some pretense to authority, to condemn a given opinion, the holder(s) of that opinion will seek to explain why their opinion is consistent with sound doctrine.... Read More

That is their right, and even, in a certain sense, their duty to their own consciences and to the body of the Church, to whose members no legitimate liberty of opinion is to be denied.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Did Justice Ginsburg Really Say What it Looks like She Said?

In an interview to be published in this coming Sunday's print edition of the New York Times Magazine, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has the following exchange with interviewer Emily Bazelon (hat tip to Ed Whelan on NRO's Corner blog):

Q: If you were a lawyer again, what would you want to accomplish as a future feminist legal agenda?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Reproductive choice has to be straightened out. There will never be a woman of means without choice anymore. That just seems to me so obvious. The states that had changed their abortion laws before Roe [to make abortion legal] are not going to change back. So we have a policy that affects only poor women, and it can never be otherwise, and I don’t know why this hasn’t been said more often.

Q: Are you talking about the distances women have to travel because in parts of the country, abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid for abortions for poor women?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae — in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn’t really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong.
Did Justice Ginsburg actually lament the failure of Roe to require government funding of abortion for undesirable classes of people?

On the most charitable reading, according to which Ginsburg is not lamenting, but only recalling, critically, her own impressions of things at the time, the observation is appalling.

Usually, there is some edulcoration or pseudo-justification offered, along the lines of "easing the burden" of poor women.

Such a frank admission of the expected eugenic utility of Federal funding for abortion as a motivating factor in people's advocacy for the policy and for the judicial mandating thereof, is surprising, even refreshing: the chill reminds me I am alive.

Apologies for the (lack of) links

Apologies for the lack of links in the post on Gift and Gratuity, below. The situation has been rectified.

If I missed any, please let me know.

Oh, and to the recent new visitors: Welcome, and please do feel free to jump in!

Best to all,


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Gratuitousness and reciprocity

I didn't know I were a conventional gauchist, in the way George Weigel styles the Pontifical Counsil for Justice and Peace; actually I didn't know I was a gauchist at all; if anything, I have always been rather accused of the opposite, to be quite on the right, and I am surprised to be put in the company of that Council, which I have no doubt is as Weigel thinks, even when he ascribes to it the crucial paragraph 34 and 35 on gift in Benedict's new encyclical.

It just happens that I am totally in line with them, as I already said. I think them fully benedictine (if we have to play Weigel's game of pen marking), and I see in them an outline of that new integral anthropological theory the Pope asks for in paragraph 30 and 31.

Should I say that I have been working on it my whole life? And that it was precisey in the anthropological reality of gift that I found the key to it?

Let's put it this way then: I am no leftist, no liberal if you prefer, actually I wouldn't mind, if I didn't detest labels, to be called a conservative. But I always found myself ill at ease when I heard conservatives, like the otherwise very smart William Buckley jr, to extall free market as primary mark of good society. This made them sound to me less conservative than they claim to be, and more liberal than they like to be. In other words, with such praises conservatism seems to stop to nineteenth century liberalism, in the more continental use of the word.

"Free marked" doesn't exists, it says almost verbatim the encyclical. In my words: it's a fiction by which it is called a given insitutional setting of human action. Very far then from the truth of human affairs which the encyclical wants to recall.

Since I first read the famous Rerum Novarum, I perceived that the point of the social doctrine of the Church was to bring economic theory back to political theory. No "third way" between capitalism and socialism, but a way out of thinking on the model of homo oeconomicus, which imagines a rational animal calculating gains and losses.

Weigel sees its imprint, best exemplified in John Paul's Centesimus Annus, in the three traits of "free economy, democratic polity, vibrant public moral culture". That's fine, but it still needs to be said, on the level of a social and political theory stemming from it to address everybody, how those three things stay together. We would thus have the truth about human affairs: in the intrinsic connection of the three things. Otherwise we would have separately "free economy" as rational calcolus of gains and losses, "democracy" as procedures for the formation of consensus, and "moral culture" hanging in the air, with no public import - as those who oppose Catholic social doctrine claim.

Now, such a theory is what Pope Benedict gives us - of course in the limits allowed by the encyclical format. And he does so by bringing together in the light of Christ imputs coming from anthropology and from classical episteme politike.

Antrhpologists, I mean, social-cultural anthropologists, were never convinced by the model of homo oeconomicus, but their critique was mainly kept within the scope of the primitive socities they used to study, while the model was granted as true for modern socierty.

In 1927 the french socio-ethnologist Marcel Mauss wrote a famous Essey on Gift. Through the witness of some cases, going from Polinesia and Melanesia to anciant India and Rome, he theorized gift exchange as a cultural constant of primitive societies, to draw from it a moral lesson valid also for our industrial society.

Claude Lévi-Strauss, a prince of anthropologists, took over from the lesson of Mauss to understand the meaning of marital exchanges as constituting knship, and by way of it soociety.

But it is to Mary Douglas, reknown British anthropologist whom the queen made Dame, that we have to turn for an extention of thinking encopassing primitive as well as modern society. In the World of Things, she tried to fill a basic lack in econimic teory, due to disinterest for the factor of demand, left over to indiividual choices. Therefore, as the encyclical, she says that there is more in economics than econimic theory sees in it.

Should we say, social factors implying "distributive justice"? To use the classical expression taken over by the encyclical to mean an exchage in which the partners own identity is involved.

Gift exchange is such. This seems to run counter what we are used to think, when we identify the gratuitousness of gift with unilateral giving, excluding reciprocity. If it were so, Weigel woud be right in speaking about it as cloddy sentimentalism. But it is not so, even though so it might appear if one has no knowledge of the cycles of reciprocity of which ethnographic evidence gives witeness.

Gratuitous, I said in a previous post, is what has no reasonn outside of itself: like play. It is not against reciprocity: it rather requires it, as the ordering principle of human relations, that makes for justice.

But there are two different cycles of reciprocity, direct and indirect. The first is the one that we summarize in latin as the do ut des: I give to you, and you give to me. The second is when I give to you, who give to him, who gives to another, who gives still to another, and so on, until what I gave comes back to me. That's why my giving appears on the moment unilateral.

The passages can go to the infinite. Actually the infinite is sensed in each one of them, as that by which I draw all my power to give, shown in my giving all. Here talk of gift becomes, from anthropological, theological. And well fits in a papal encyclical that wants to tell the truth about charity, the very truth manifested in charity.

There is in the chapter on gift an advocacy for the "third sector" of non profit economy, between profit oriented enterprise and government, which Weigel's would definitely ascribe to the Counsil for Justice and Peace. But that is not the originality of it. This is rather in the meaning gratuitousness takes for economic practice, if only we view it in the light of indirect reciprocity. A new economic theory is hinted at, in which actors are not regarded as closed in their calculus of gains and losses, but as capable of taking into consideration the prosperity of the whole economy: the common good.

In the anthrpological and theological truth thus sketched, charity permeates all human affairs, thanks to the faith that nourishes the hope necessary to face the uncertainties of indirect reciprocity.

Gift and Gratuity: the heart of Caritas in veritate

My partner in blogging, the Humbly Presumptuous one, has observed that the idea of gift is at the center of Pope Benedict XVI's Encyclical Letter, Caritas in veritate.

Having been through the letter several times, I can say that my blogging partner, my friend and mentor philosophicus, is right on the money, notwithstanding George Weigel's dismissal of the language in which the Encyclical discusses of gift as:
[S]o clotted and muddled as to suggest the possibility that what may be intended as a new conceptual starting point for Catholic social doctrine is, in fact, a confused sentimentality of precisely the sort the encyclical deplores among those who detach charity from truth.
I admire George Weigel greatly, and I think he is right about there being a palpable difference between the Benedictine and the Curial sections. Nevertheless, I disagree very strongly with this dismissal, which is perplexing to me, given Weigel's renowned ability to parse the language of Romanitas.

The most sustained theoretical discussion of gift in the Encyclical is found in the opening section of the 34th paragraph - the opening paragraph of the third (and, it is beginning to appear to this commenator, central) chapter of the Letter:
Charity in truth places man before the astonishing experience of gift. Gratuitousness is present in our lives in many different forms, which often go unrecognized because of a purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life. The human being is made for gift, which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension. Sometimes modern man is wrongly convinced that he is the sole author of himself, his life and society. This is a presumption that follows from being selfishly closed in upon himself, and it is a consequence — to express it in faith terms — of original sin. The Church's wisdom has always pointed to the presence of original sin in social conditions and in the structure of society: “Ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action and morals.” In the list of areas where the pernicious effects of sin are evident, the economy has been included for some time now. We have a clear proof of this at the present time. The conviction that man is self-sufficient and can successfully eliminate the evil present in history by his own action alone has led him to confuse happiness and salvation with immanent forms of material prosperity and social action. Then, the conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from “influences” of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way. In the long term, these convictions have led to economic, social and political systems that trample upon personal and social freedom, and are therefore unable to deliver the justice that they promise. As I said in my Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, history is thereby deprived of Christian hope, deprived of a powerful social resource at the service of integral human development, sought in freedom and in justice. Hope encourages reason and gives it the strength to direct the will. It is already present in faith, indeed it is called forth by faith. Charity in truth feeds on hope and, at the same time, manifests it. As the absolutely gratuitous gift of God, hope bursts into our lives as something not due to us, something that transcends every law of justice. Gift by its nature goes beyond merit, its rule is that of superabundance. It takes first place in our souls as a sign of God's presence in us, a sign of what he expects from us. Truth — which is itself gift, in the same way as charity — is greater than we are, as Saint Augustine teaches. Likewise the truth of ourselves, of our personal conscience, is first of all given to us. In every cognitive process, truth is not something that we produce, it is always found, or better, received. Truth, like love, “is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings.
In this section, the Holy Father accomplishes three things:
  • He uses the idea of gift to tie his present reflections to those he offered in Spe salvi;
  • He further ties his reflections on the virtue of Hope to his earlier reflections on Charity, making the notion of gift the thread that ties the thought of his three Encyclicals together;
  • He grounds his reflections in a densely expressed anthropological vision that has gift as its focal point, making the essential openness to gift the lynchpin that unites the human being in mundane existence to the divine transcendent source of all that is.
In the section immediately following the one quoted above, the Holy Father clarifies that the gift that is constitutive of the deep unity of the human race is the gift of charity in truth, which comes from God the Father. It is received by everyone - first, in our creation, our nature as creatures capable of community with the Divine and therefore with one another - and then, clearly enough for those who would understand (though he does not quite say it, not yet), in our ability to receive and respond with loving gratitude to the fullness of Divine Revelation in the true religion, founded by Christ.

"The logic of gift," writes Pope Benedict, "does not exclude justice, nor does it merely sit alongside it as a second element added from without." The Pope goes on to say that, in order to be authentically human, "[D]evelopment... needs to make room for the principle of gratuitousness as an expression of fraternity."

The principle of gratuitousness is not moon-struck sentimentalism, nor is it a foundation of the utopian dream of bohemian star children. It says that we are capable of giving, because and according to the measure which we have received.

A social order built on the idea that we are not capable of such giving, will always be one that constrains us to give what is due.

A social order built with every one of its parts explicitly justified in terms of more or less direct reference to this principle, however positiviely articulated, will likely be so cumbersome, so bulky and lumbering, as to stifle human invention.

A social order built by people who are aware of the operational presence of this principle in themselves, has some chance of reasonable success, so long as the people remember also the wounds in their nature.

By recalling us to the idea of gift, to the principle of gratuitousness, Pope Benedict XVI is helping us to find the right way of thinking about society. We do well to listen.


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Fr Thomas J Reese, SJ, gets it wrong again?

The reliably liberal Jesuit theologian, Thomas J. Reese, has issued a knee-jerk reaction to the Encyclical Letter Caritas in veritate of Pope Benedict XVI.

Fr. Reese does not treat the Encyclical, so much as he proof texts it, or almost: he says what the Pope is “for”, and on Fr. Reese’s view of things, the Pope is for everything that Fr. Reese is for.

Par for the course.

Catholics to the right of the political spectrum do the same thing – it is simply part of the game.

But there is a point beyond which rhetorical selectiveness becomes disingenuous, and before which it were simply sloppy.

While Fr. Reese is not disingenuous in his proof-texting, he is sloppy.

His mistake is one that many on the left make, and that too few on the right ever notice or seek to correct.

Specifically, Fr. Reese takes the Pope’s condemnation of any economic practice based on the theory that the economy itself is essentially amoral, and either confuses or conflates it with a more or less critical embrace of government regulation.

By way of illustration, consider the following remark from Fr. Reese:

The pope disagrees with those who believe that the economy should be free of government regulation. “The conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from ‘influences’ of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way,” he writes. “In the long term, these convictions have led to economic, social and political systems that trample upon personal and social freedom, and are therefore unable to deliver the justice that they promise.”

Fr. Reese sets up his quotation by noting the Pope’s disagreement with an imaginary policy stance that is a gross mischaracterization of a classically conservative position (I mean his caricature of conservatives’ wariness of regulation - don’t I?).

So, we would expect the Holy Father to criticize the conservative understanding of the market – right?


When Pope Benedict writes about the deleterious effects of the conviction that, “[T]he economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from ‘influences’ of a moral character,” he is writing about the theoretical underpinnings of scientific socialism.

Let's see how this breaks down:

Fr. Reese makes his statement - entirely unobjectionable, although of the "Sun rises in the East" variety, to the effect that the Pope disagrees with opponents of all regulation.

Then he offers this quote from the encyclical:

The conviction that the economy must be autonomous, that it must be shielded from “influences” of a moral character, has led man to abuse the economic process in a thoroughly destructive way.

But listen to what Benedict says right before that (the sentence Reese does not quote):

The conviction that man is self-sufficient and can successfully eliminate the evil present in history by his own action alone has led him to confuse happiness and salvation with immanent forms of material prosperity and social action.

Reese even omits a very telling, "Then" from the front of his 1st quotation.

Reese's second quote is:
In the long term, these convictions have led to economic, social and political systems that trample upon personal and social freedom, and are therefore unable to deliver the justice that they promise.

This sentence immediately and directly follows the first quoted sentence from the passage, so that "these convictions" are the convictions of scientific socialists, not radical free marketers.

In fact, the first radical free market thinkers thought the only necessary (or at any rate viable) correctors for the market were the restraints common morality placed on actors in the marketplace.

If you doubt this reading of things, look to the second sentence, which traces a direct correlation, indeed a causal link between the exclusion of morality from the conduct of economic life, and the rise of economic, social and political systems that are inimical to and destructive of personal and social freedom.

Recall the central tenet of Marxism: man is entirely conditioned by his economic circumstances. According to the scientific socialist, the very language of classical morality is an instrument of oppression, and liberation from the constraints of morality is the first step in the creation of class warriors.

The point is not that all those who favor heavier government regulation of the economy are secret Marxist revolutionaries. The point is that the more government is involved in economic life, the more government tends to be involved in economic life. As government involvement increases, so must the government’s strength increase, and so must the scope of its power expand, until every aspect of our life is regulated – not as a matter of design, but, as the inevitable result of the great leviathan’s natural growth.

In any case, Fr. Reese, while there are some dyed in the wool opponents of any and all government regulation, the majority of market conservatives believe there should be as little regulation as is absolutely necessary to ensure the market does not behave in a way that is destructive of the end it serves, which is human flourishing.

They have this in common with Pope Benedict, who explicitly bases his own reflections on the understanding of authentic progress as integral human development, which Paul VI articulated in Populorum progressio. “Paul VI,” writes Pope Benedict, “had a keen sense of the importance of economic structures and institutions, but he had an equally clear sense of their nature as instruments of human freedom.” Only when development is free, “can development be integrally human; only in a climate of responsible freedom can it grow in a satisfactory manner.”

There is certainly room for discussion of the important questions as to what constitutes responsible freedom, and whether enacting regulations is an exercise in it.

Though She can help us think through these questions, “The Church does not have technical solutions to offer, and does not claim ‘to interfere in any way in the politics of states.’ (Cv i.9.)”

Caritas in veritate

The Encyclical Letter caritas in veritate of Pope Benedict XVI was released today.

Full text in English can be found here.

This is going to take awhile to digest.

Also, a note to readers: the pace of blogging will be slow during the Summer, as I have several projects, a heavy workload until August, and then two trans-Atlantic voyages on the ends of my 10 days' Summer vacation.


Sunday, July 05, 2009

What happened to the DPMs?

I just heard about Sarah Palin's resignation. I don't know what it means. I like her, so much the more conisdering the character assassination she had to undergo by the same press that let Obama go with everything, from association with an ex terrorist and a dubious Chicago landlord (if I remember correctly), to the contempt toward Americans attached to their religion... and to their rifle.

I know that Palin was very popular among the staunch republican voters. And I also know that they are mainly protestants. While Catholics traditionally are more on the deocratic side.

But what happned to the Daniel Patrick Moynahans?

Nowdays they seem to have left the ground to the Nancy Pelosis. Whom I wouldn't dare to define Catholic. At best we could say she was born in a Catholic family.

Now I ask a question that would horrify certified Catholics as my lazy joung friend's father: isn't it time for Catholic would be politicians to discover the republican party, and the well meaning protestant electorate Palin knows how to address?

In any case, with her we shouldn't have waited to bang the haed against reality before taking a more prudent attitude in international affairs.

Saturday, July 04, 2009


I proudly say, or humbly recognize, by anticipations from his last enciclical, that Pope Benedict confirms what I stated in my previous post.

I'll probably have more to say when I'll have read the whole thing. But I was glad to find at the core of Benedict's discourse the concept of gift.

I wrote a book about it, if you want to know.

We call gift gratuitous. But this does not mean that it excludes any expectation of reciprocity. To the contrary. Such expectation does not take away, though, its gratuoitosness.

In a gift exchange, I am not primarily interested in what someone has to give, but I am rather interested in defining the relation in which we stand to each other. That why gift giving requires forms of politeness, to be gracious in giving, by putting little stress on the things given: "it's just a thought", we may say; or, after receiving thanks, we may reply, "it's nothing".

In this sense then gift is gratuitous: that it doesn't rest on anything else, it is a pure sign of our being in relation - call it of friendship and love.

It's all a giving and receiving, which we did not start.

A divine play we participate in.