Discrete Acts

I’m a big fan of “morals clauses” in contracts for Catholic school teachers and I certainly hold for the principle that Pacta sunt servanda (agreements once made should be kept), but I am having a hard time seeing my way clear to the firing of a Catholic school teacher for being pregnant outside of wedlock.

I agree with Dr. Peters that the grounds for dismissing this teacher as it's being reported is pretty tenuous. However, I would argue that the reason for the morality clause is that teachers are not actually private persons. It's because they are public persons (or at least quasi-public persons) that private sins that manifest in the external forum can be grounds for dismissal. Sadly, this means that women will be disproportionately affected when it comes to the sin of fornication.

Measuring History

But the lesson for us moderns is, I hope, clear: phrases plucked from ancient documents, phrases such as “second marriage”, do not necessarily carry the same connotations today that they enjoyed in times past. Caution in reading them, and in reaching conclusions of law based on them, is therefore strongly advised.

Apart from the topic of this article there is a greater lesson here. Before we commit to a controversial position we should follow the old advice of carpenters everywhere, viz., measure twice, cut once.

I'll try to remember this lesson myself.

Words Words Everywhere, And Not a Thought to Think

The word redefine didn't enter into English usage until the 1840s. Today, however, it's use is ubiquitous. There seems to be a common sentiment that everything must be redefined, not simply reformulated or resourced. If you think about it, the idea of redefining something is very odd. This is because we naturally understand the definition of a thing to be something we discover, not something we constitute. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, uses at least two definitions for a person – an individual substance of a rational nature, and a master of one's self. Both definitions are equally valid descriptive of different aspects of personhood. However, neither of these definitions negate or conflict with the other; they're simply precise descriptions of an object considered from different angles for the sake of analysis. This is radically different than today's trend of redefinition.

Oddly, the current business trend of rebranding is closer to the traditional method of defining than the contemporary method of redefining. When done well, rebranding capitalizes on the actual things that a business does and excels at. When done poorly, it tries to capture what a business would like to do well. The difference is subtle, but it's one that can lead to real world successes and failures. The former describes a reality, the latter describes a fantasy.

This gets at the heart of the problem with redefining words. Words, i.e., definitions, are supposed to accurately describe things the way they actually exist regardless of how we might want them to be. Redefinition tends to describe things the way we wish them to be regardless of how they actually exist. Essentially it's the difference between accepting or rejecting the objective reality of a thing. What's worse is that when we redefine something we expect it to bend to our new definition. It's like defining light as darkness, ice cream, or cowboy boots.

The great danger with this is that it's at least a tacit denial of the intelligibility of reality. As we continue to redefine things according to our subjective whims we do violence to the ground upon which human knowledge stands. Words lose their meaning because they no longer signify real things. If this trend continues each one of us will eventually end up with our own private language game. We are already seeing the practical implications of this trend in the widening polarity of contemporary politics. Debates have devolved into shouting matches where opponents are frequently talking past one another. Political opponents often lack a common language, so to speak. The contemporary marriage debate is a perfect examples of how the meaning of words have lost any ground in a commonly held notion of reality. And, this is, in fact, what is at stake. In the end, the question is about the nature of reality. Is it something we must accept as given, or something we constitute.

The assault on language is one of the most troubling aspects of modernism. It's an attack on the reality of the world, and hence on the intelligibility of the world. Really, take some time to reflect upon the very serious ramifications of this phenomenon.

They are all around us. And, they aren't pleasant.

A Tough Pill To Swallow

Recently the Catholic Bishop's Conference of Germany released a document that would allow for the use of emergency contraception at Catholic Hospitals for victims of rape. According to the instruction, contraception is only to be administered if it can be determined that conception hasn't occurred. The question of accurately determining when conception has occurred isn't my concern in this matter. That judgment is left to medical science. Those of us responsible for helping people make good moral choices should not reach beyond our expertise. We, however (as the German Bishops have done), must concern ourselves with the application of sound moral principles to help guide human actions according to right reason.

Nonetheless, there have been a number of reactions to this instruction. My own initial reaction was that the German Bishops made a bad decision. However, it turns out that the ethical principles they're employing are sound. Indeed, the policy as I understand it accords with the best of Catholic moral thinking. Hopefully, I'll be able to shed light on why.

The reaction against the Bishops' policy is predicated on good moral instincts. On face value the instruction seems to violate one of the clearest principles of moral action. It seems to go against the principle that one cannot do an evil to bring about a good. Also, it seems to imply that contraception is not an intrinsic evil. Those who criticize the Bishops' policy have a line of thinking that goes something like this

One cannot do evil to bring about a good.
But, contraception is intrinsically evil.
Therefore, contraception cannot be used to bring about a good.

This is certainly sound reasoning. However, as with most moral analysis, the matter isn't as clear-cut as it seems. Allow me to try and explain how the Bishops' policy doesn't fall into the error of consequentialist reasoning nor violate objective Catholic moral teaching on contraception.

To understand the Bishops' policy we need to look at the nature of human actions. First, when we evaluate an action we are looking at a specific sort of action. Human persons are capable of two types of action. The first type are human actions. These actions have a moral character and involve the active use of the human intellect and will. The second type are acts of man. These are involuntary actions. They don't involve the active use of the human intellect and will. The former are proper matter for moral evaluation, the latter are not. This is an essential component to moral evaluation. In evaluating a moral act, it's necessary to always consider the actions from the perspective of the acting person(s) involved. It can never remain simply a third person perspective. If we were to do the contrary we would easily fall into the error of physicalism. This issue is one of the central topics of the encyclical Veritatis splendor.

Also, if we are to understand the Bishops' policy we must look at the nature of the human sex act. Contrary to what some may think, questions about the unitive and procreative aspects of sex are not what is important when evaluating this case. What is important is evaluating whether rape is properly defined as a human sex act.

For sex to be a human act, as opposed to simply an act of man, it must involve the willing participation of both parties. It is not simply the biological process of sexual penetration that defines sex as a human act. This is because we are rational animals, not brute animals. Hence, regardless of the perpetrator's disposition it's always the case that a victim of rape is an unwilling participant. She doesn't will the act of rape. Because she doesn't will the act she is free to not will the object of the act, i.e., procreation resulting from the rape. When the acting person is considered in the moral evaluation of this situation it's clear that rape doesn't fit the definition of sex as a human act. It lacks the consent of both parties that's necessary for the act to be properly defined as a human sex act.

Now, a further concern might arise. In Veritatis splendor, John Paul II defines contraception as an intrinsic evil. This means that contraception, regardless of the circumstances, is never a licit means of birth control. So, while one may be tempted to argue that even though rape cannot be properly considered a human sex act, it would still not permissible to use contraceptives to arrest the unwilled end of conception. But, the problem with this line of thinking is that it confuses contraceptives with contraception. It's only when contraceptives are used for contraception that they take on the moral character of contraception. Likewise, if a contraceptive is used for abortion it takes on the moral character of abortion, not contraception. This is why we properly refer to such a drug or treatment as an abortifacient. Contraceptives, however, are not always used for contraception (or abortion). When contraceptives are used in some other licit therapeutic way they don't necessarily take on the moral evil of contraception.

So: What is contraception? Simply put, contraception can be defined as the intentional and unnatural frustration of conception in the human sex act. This definition seems to contain all the essential parts needed to adequately describe contraception. It should now become clear why the use of a contraceptive to prevent possible conception resulting from a rape is morally licit. Yes, the use of a contraceptive in this case is intentional, it's unnatural, and it frustrates conception. But, rape isn't properly a human sex act because the victim of the rape isn't a willing participant in the act. Because she doesn't will the act she is free to not will the end of the act, i.e., procreation resulting from the rape. Thus, the use of a contraceptive to prevent conception in such a case doesn't constitute a moral evil. In fact, one could go so far as to say that it could be an injustice to not permit a rape victim from from using contraception in such a case. If we didn't permit the use of a contraceptive in the case of rape, we would be forcing the victim to suffer the end of the act that she has a legitimate right to not will. Such coercion is itself an unjust act of violence against her.

It may be a temptation to suggest that this moral evaluation could lead to a “slippery slope.” If the victim of the rape is free not to will the possible conception resulting from that rape then wouldn't she be free to have an abortion? The short answer is no. Again, if we return to the question of the acting person we can see how procuring an abortion after conception has occurred as a result of rape is morally illicit. In the case of the prevention of conception there are two acting persons involved in the situation. However, once conception occurs there is a third person involved. That newly conceived person now possesses his own dignity. He has a right to life from the moment his life begins.

This is why it's important to make moral evaluations with the acting persons in mind. Remember, it's always persons who act, persons, who have dignity,persons who have rights and obligations. Moral actions cannot be properly understood apart from the intrinsic dignity of the human person.

This may be difficult to understand. It took me quite a while. I had to reread parts of Veritatis splendor and have numerous conversations with knowledgeable brothers to get at the heart of the matter (living among a lot of brilliant Dominicans is awesome). So, if you have further questions, remember, you're always free to contact me using the contact form on this site. But also, don't neglect to read Veritatis splendor. It's a difficult read. But, it's essential for a correct understanding of moral analysis so we don't fall into any of the many errors of our day, whether proportionalism, utiitrianism (or it's derivatives), or physicalism. It's essential that we hold to the moral evaluation provided to us in the Natural Moral Law and Divine Law. If we waver we will fall into the relativism that's so prevalent in our time.

The Enemies Weapons

Every once in a while there is a zealous group who will do nearly anything for their cause. Zeal is a wonderful thing. But, more often than not it's something that is fuled by the fires of an emotional reaction to some percieved evil. A deep pool of anger is unearthed by that percieved evil. This is good. Anger is an appropriate emotional response to injustice and other evils. The problem often occurs when that anger, that zeal, is misdirected or misused. A great example is the eco-terrorist who firebombs a parking lot of SUVs. He becomes the victor over something he believes is a large contributing factor to the harm of the earth's environment. However, by blowing up the SUVs he causes the release of more polluting toxins into the atmosphere than whould have been produced by those despised combustion engines.

Protecting the environment, good. Firebombing SUVs, bad.

Likewise, in the fight to save lives through the Pro-Life movement it is unacceptable to use immoral tactics to achieve the desired and laudable goal of saving innocent human life. If this is the first time you have heard this, I'm not surprised. You won't hear this from most people. In fact, sometimes the use of evil means to bring about a good is called heroic. This is because most of the English speaking world has been highly effected by the Philosophies of Utilitarianism and Consequentialism. And, in these philosophies all that really matters is the end result. People generally only want to know if some action worked to its desired end. The means used to achieve the desired end is either not considered or given only a passing consderation in the morality of an action. But, Catholics should not and cannot accept an "ends justifies the means" mentality. In fact, this is an ancient axiom held by many for good reason. It is not a uniquely Catholic notion but it is a deeply Catholic notion.

If we are escape the grasp of Utilitarian and Consequentialist ethics then we must take seriously the means that we use to achieve some laudable goal. So, contrary to common practice, if we want to catch a criminal we can't lie to him. The law allows this. But, just because something is legal doesn't make it morally acceptable. Waterboarding is legal. Is it morally acceptable? No. This is a very real and proximate example of doing evil to bring about some good. Likewise, if we want to expose the evil and sometimes illegal actions of the abortion industry we cannot expose them through evil actions. We cannot lie to them. Why?

Lying is always an evil. This is different than speaking a falsehood unintentionally. That should be clear. It is even different than speaking falsehood intentially. Few would argue that performing a dramatic play or doing a magic trick is evil. Lying has a very narrow definition. Lying is speaking a falsehood with the intention to deceive. According to this very concise definition lying doesn't pass the moral "smell test" in a number of ways.

  • It violates the purpose of language
  • It deprives the mind of truth
  • It does violence to the dignity of things
  • It is contrary to the common good
  • Theologially speaking, Scripture tells lying doesn't please God

Now, I could unpack each of these and discuss all of the nuances. I won't. Instead, I will actually turn comments on for this post. I think that a firm understanding of this topic requires dialogue. So, take advantage of this opportunity. Comments will be a rare occurance on this blog.

But, I will say that all of the points that I listed are ways that lying is an action contrary to nature. This being the case, lying can never be a valid means to achieve a good end. An evil means pollutes the whole action no matter how good or noble an end.

We simply can't use the weapons of the enemy to fight in the cause of good. Every superhero story, every tale told to children to help build their moral character teaches us: It is harder to be good than bad. The hero follows rules that the villian can ignore.

Finally, Scripture warns us that we should never presume to do evil to bring about a good. Only God can bring good out of evil. The contrary would seem a great act of presumption.

God is the God of Truth, he is Truth itself, no falsehood can be found in Him. Likewise, in our conformity to Christ the same should be able to be said of each of us.


I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts today. During the show one host started recounting his experience with a devoutly Catholic friend – a jurist from Notre Dame. The description of his experience with this friend was less then edifying. The host's friend, presumably an acclaimed jurist, tends to send the host chastening missives concerning faith, morals, and the like. The lawyer lectures him.

I'm sure that the host's friend is well intentioned. However, his approach isn't having the desired effect. Instead, the host seems to feel that those who approach life from a deeply held position of faith are intellectualy unassailable. This is percieved by the host of this podcast as a lack of intellectual humility. Conviction or certitude has been perceived as being pridefull.

This is troubling on a number of levels. I'll begin with my concern about the host's ideas. One problem is the faulty belief that there can be an ideology that lacks a dogmatic core. This is the same as making a judgment without it being based in a principle. This is a logical impossibility. The Anglicans have done a great job of showing us that acceptance of all ideas and opinions quickly becomes its own strongly held and rigorously defended dogma. They have also shown us that this is an impossible position to maintain. It's self-contradictory. This sort of intellectual indifferentism (relativism) is doomed. Once it encounters a position that doesn't accept relativism it has no choice but to anathematize it. It is forced to become unaccepting of the unaccepting.

While I'm concerned with the problem of relativism I'm more concerned with the "pastoral" approach of the host's friend. I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Lord knows I've been guilty of the smug self-righteous approach to "helping" unbelievers "understand." Now, I'm working hard to present the faith differently. I've learned that it is unhelpful to just simply assert what you think or know to be true. You may be 100% right. Guess what? No one cares? If I disagree with someone and I don't take the time to discover why they believe as they do, then I don't really love them. On the contrary, I would be more interested in being right.

But, being right isn't everything.

Yes. It is true that my faith is unassailable. But my faith isn't simply an emotional response to some feeling or experience. It isn't something that was simply handed on to me by my family or culture. Yes, there are bits and pieces of these influences in my faith. But, my faith was hard won. My faith isn't even a rational response to sound propositions. Eventhough it is the reasonability of the Catholic faith that keeps me in it when I inevtabilly doubt. Rather, my faith is a gift. It is a gift that the Lord gave me. I have chosen to take that gift and make that gift the center of my life. I want to share this gift with everyone. I want my gift to give others the same joy that it gives me. I want to hand it on to others just as it was handed on to me.

I bet the Catholic Jurist feels the same way. But, for better or for worse, the experience of the faith that he is portraying lacks the depth of joy and peace that characteries the faith. He's letting himself get in the way of the faith.

The most important thing in my life is God. I radically self-identify with this part of me. It permeates all of who I am. After all, I've proessed vows in a religious order. To get to know me is to come in contact with my faith. If I'm a jerk then people's experience of the faith is tarnished. The faith becomes something not worth having. It appears to others as not delivering on its promises. As an old boss of mine would constantly say, "They don't cares about what you know until they know how much you care." Yeah, it's a little hippy, a little too 7 Habits. But, you know what, it's true.


When I was a layman I did a lot of work with teenagers. My home parish had (and continues to have) an outstanding LifeTeen program. Our teen years some pretty amazing years. Indeed, they are painful. However, they are wondrous. When you're on the cusp of entering the adult world everything is exciting. Everything is new. But, unless you have experienced great trauma as a child you are never quite prepared for just how cruel the adult world is. This, I think, is why teens are always asking the theodicy question. How can there be an all good, all knowing, all powerful God and there still be suffering in the world? It seems that one is mutually exclusive of the other. Either God exists or suffering exists. Either that or God is a sadist. 

My answer is simple yet unsatisfying. Evil exists in this world so that love can exist in this world. To put it more precisely, the same underlying principle that resides in the human powers of action that allows us to commit the greatest atrocities is the same principle that allows us to commit the simplest act of love. We call this power of action freedom. If we are to be free to love, then we must also be free to not love. This is a simple fact of our human world. The possibility of real love could not come about in any other way. Like I said, however, this answer is true but it is unsatisfying. It leaves a bitter taste in our mouth. 

We desperately want to the world to work another way. Deep down inside we want the world we thought existed when we were children. We want to be sheltered from the adult world. We want heaven. As children we were protected from the brutality that characterizes most of human experience. But, as we get older we gain entry into the brutality of the adult world – the real world. It's in our  teenage years that we are first fed the vile bitterness of real human suffering. We all know this. We have all experienced it. I think this is one reason why we become so outraged when a child is exposed to the adult world. We know that children aren't ready. Hell, we aren't ready!

When we see images of children crying, terrified, eyes closed, following rescue personnel to safety, we react. We react with every fiber of our biology and every ounce of our spirit. Rightly so! Who wouldn't? Who couldn't? But it's not just their plight that we are raging against. It's also our own. When we see senseless tragedy all the hard won comfort we achieved in our world comes crashing down on our heads. We become scared children again, looking out on a world that we can't fully understand. A frightening world where everything is reaching out to harm us and those who we love.

When this fear takes hold of us we eventually turn to God. Even the atheist does, if only to mock God's existence. Some turn to him for comfort and shelter. Others turn to him with seething anger. Eventually we blame God that children were murdered. Why? Do we think that God has failed because there is a tragedy of unspeakable sorrow? It seems that this is our instinct. But why? Why do we think that God is supposed to make things better? Why do we assume that he is some divine safety blanket who exists to shield us from sorrow, pain, madness, and suffering? Because he has told us to call him Father. When we become those terrified children we look for a savior. Aren't fathers supposed to protect their children? God seems no better than any deadbeat dad.

My own natural tendency is cynicism. This is born from my own battle scars. Maybe you have the same ones? When there is a tragedy I start looking for God's used car salesmen. I look around to see who is trying to sell me God and I want to know what they're selling. Are they selling a God who is a safety blanket? Will be comfort me in the darkness and feed me in times of famine? Will be he carry all of my suffering? Will he make me feel good about myself? Will he make me feel safe in this world? Will he save all his children? When a salesman is offering something too good to be true, it probably is.

We must learn to hold some difficult things in tension. First, we must remember that God gave each of us the freedom to love or to not love. When we chose not to love God isn't happy. He empathizes with those who are harmed. He empathizes with the one who choses to harm. However, he isn't going to interfere with the freedom of the one who has chosen to not love. If he did, we would not be truly free. Without the freedom to do evil we would also lack to freedom to love. So, the question shouldn't be, "Why does God allow bad things to happen?" Instead, the question should be, "Why do people chose not to love?" 

This is a question without an answer. Seek your own heart? When have you chose to not love. Why? Why would you chose to not love? You've done it, I've done it. We chose to not love all the time. Why do we fail to do the one thing that we all want? If you can figure that one out, let me know.


Advent is the time of year when we are called to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. Part of this preparation is the process of purgation. We must un-clutter our lives to make room for the Lord. He greatly desires to dwell within your heart. Everyone must determine for themselves what must be purged. One must clear a space, so to speak. 

Those of us nailed firmly to the wood of the desk are not exempt. It is my hope to consider both final papers and assignments to be part of this process. As each task is completed there will be more room for the Lord in my mind and in my heart. The anxiety that accompanies these tasks will be replaced with an urgency. I must hurry and finish cleaning my house because the Lord is coming.  He will not delay.

Blessed Advent! Pray for all the students who are super stressed right now. They may not realize how much they need your spiritual support. Also, I will not be as active online until I am once again free to pursue extracurricular activities. 

The Sameness Mentality

This tweet by @rare_basement (a girl) arrived  in my twitter timeline today:

"why cant i be pope. this is the WORST sexism"

Actually, I'd say it is the BEST sexism. Why? Well, the reason she can't be pope is that she can't be a Bishop. Why? Because you must be a guy to validly receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. Why? As John Paul II put it, the Church doesn't have the authority to change what Christ established. The Church's authority is limited. She cannot augment the Deposit of Faith that was passed to the Church by Christ through the Apostles. She is a steward of God's decrees. She is not an innovator, modifier, or redactor of the Catholic faith. Christ alone has the authority. A ramification of this is that the Church can't change the all male priesthood because Christ established it. Even if the Church wanted to admit women to the priesthood, she doesn't have the authority to do it. She can't.

So, why does this get branded as a form of sexism? I think it has to do with two contemporary mentalities. The first is that there is a belief that the sexes are in a power battle. The second is that there is a belief that the solution for a perceived lack of equality is to deny the distinction between the sexes and impose structures that support this denial.

There was a famous song performed by the characters Annie Oakley and Frank Butler in the production "Annie Get Your Gun." It captures the mentality of the "war between the sexes." Everyone knows the words, "Anything you can do I can do better." Men and women are typed as being competitors in a struggle for power and prestige. There may be some truth to this in our society today. However, such a competition ought not exist in the community of the faithful. We must reject the "conflict theory" view of human life. Power, if it may be so called, resides simply in holiness, not position.

Joined to this mentality is the erroneous belief that equality equals sameness. While this is a common belief it is more false than the conflict theory approach. At least there is evidence for conflict theory! However, sameness is an assertion. It is an authoritarianism of the secular will. Biology and the whole of the natural order deny the proposition of sameness. Nietzsche would call the imposition of sameness a perfect example of "slave morality." He would be mostly correct. Even the contemporary virtue of diversity is opposed to the sameness mentality. But for some reason such diversity is anathema in our culture when applied to the sexes. But the Church is a great supporter of diversity. She is not bound by the errors of any particular culture or time.

When all things are considered the Church, and the faithful Christian, is able to affirm the dignity of each person and of each difference that expresses the perfection of humanity. It would be an act of violence against the dignity of the diversity of God's creatures if we were to embrace the sameness mentality. We would do violence to both masculinity and femininity if we were to confuse the two.

This is one reason why it doesn't make sense to have women as priests. We call priests father for a reason. Their function in the Church is essentially fatherly. It is not essentially motherly. A mother can never be a father, nor can a father ever be a mother. For one to try and replace the other would be to do violence to the dignity of both fatherhood and motherhood. One only needs to point to the disfunction of our contemporary culture as a proof of this.

When women want to be fathers or when men want to be wives or both desire to be neither there is something profoundly wrong with society. We definitely have these problems in our own society today. What I have said here will be nonsense to the worldly. However, we are not supposed to be of this world. We are in the world but not off the world. Many people say that this problem will be solved by helping restore the family. Maybe the beginning is really through reforming the priesthood?