Disgruntled Catholic

As a frequent poster on mailing lists and other online forums, I am subjected to many peoples' opinions of the Church, most of them negative. It seems to me that most of these negative opinions are misinformed, uninformed, or just plain prejudiced. Most people just seem to parrot nonsense they hear from their friends or the mass media, which no one seems to trust unless it is saying something they like. The whole thing leaves me very frustrated and disgruntled, hence the title.

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Location: Leesburg, Virginia, United States

I live with my long-suffering, sainted wife Jennifer, without whom I'd be hopelessly lost, instead of just lost, and four children, Ian, Simon, Francine and Jeremy who challenge, enlighten, amaze, inspire and irritate me on a daily basis. I'm a long-time software developer and have worked in many industries in the past 20 years. I also teach CCD at St. John the Apostle Catholic Church because time spent with children is never wasted. These opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employers, past or present, the Government, the Church or the effects of CIA mind-control lasers. Not that anyone would want them.

Monday, June 09, 2008

I passed.

You are a 100% traditional Catholic!

Congratulations! You are more knowlegeable than most modern theologians! You have achieved mastery over the most important doctrines of the Catholic Faith! You should share your incredible understanding with others!

Do You Know Your Baltimore Catechism?
Make Your Own Quiz

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Sola Scriptura or "Reductio ad Absurdum"

I have had a few discussions in the past couple years with different flavors of Protestants, and have found it to be an interesting, useful but sometimes frustrating exercise. Most of these folks are earnest, faithful Christians who are struggling to discern the meaning in God's Word as it applies to their lives, just like the rest of us. However, I keep hearing the phrase, and the sentiment of, "Sola Scriptura", which is apparently the idea that Scripture alone is both necessary and sufficient for our complete understanding of God's plan for our lives, and everything He wants us to know. Now, in fact, I would agree with that statement, but with a single caveat: Due to the limitations of language, and particularly the limitations of human understanding, it doesn't really work out this way in practice. God is Perfect, but Man is not. I would never presume to accuse the Almighty of messing something up, but for Sola Scriptura to be even remotely possible, it seems to me that He certainly didn't make us all smart enough.

Many Protestants seem to believe that if you give someone his trusty KJV bible and lock him up in a room for sufficient time and he will, by sheer virtue of the magnificent action of the Holy Spirit through the written word inspired by God (no sarcasm or disrespect intended) definitely and completely derive the entire corpus of Christian thought and understanding. While it's certainly possible for this happen, after all, with God nothing is impossible, the only question I would pose to my friends who seem to think that all you need is the air that you breathe and a Bible is this: Why has this in fact never happened?

It's a simple question really. Why is it that so many millions can proclaim a very simple, and eminently provable postulate that Scripture alone is sufficient for any one person to know and understand everything he needs to achieve a perfect Christian life and subsequently salvation, and yet no one can point to any person, save for the Incarnate Author of Scripture Himself, who has actually done this? Because if Scripture alone really were sufficient for any person, wouldn't in fact, all Christians who read it, meditate on it, and pray over it agree? On anything?

Let's look at this another way. If we were try a simple experiment, and take two faithful Christians, cloister them in a comfortable setting for a sufficient time each with a fresh-of-the-press copy of the King James Bible, and task them with coming up with a simple description of how God wants us to live in this modern world, we should, after a reasonably sufficient time , say a couple of years, be able to call these two folks out and have them compare notes, and find that they agree on every single topic. That sounds reasonable enough to me. Then why can't we? Why can't we, in fact, find any one single topic upon which all self-proclaimed Christians agree?

Is it possible that while the Word of God is sufficient, not all of us, or perhaps not any of us, are equipped with the intellectual and moral faculties to fully complete this exercise? What if the two people we were to choose for our little test above were, say Augustine of Hippo and Ernest P. Worrell? Wouldn't it be a little silly to assume that these two people would come to the exact same conclusions? Well, what about you and what about me? I won't speak for anyone else, but I can safely say that I am further from "Nothing conquers except truth and the victory of truth is love." and a little closer to "KnowWhutIMeanVern?".

In fact, if we take the idea of Sola Scriptura to its logical extreme, we would have not thousands of Christian denominations, but in fact one for each single person in Christendom. I don't think this is quite what Christ had in mind when He established His Church. Do you? Yet, this is exactly where Sola Scriptura leads, and in fact, to a large degree, has already lead!

What I think Sola Scriptura is actually, is twofold. First, having been a major precipitate of the Protestant movement, which was originally driven by corruption in the Church, this principle obviates the need for a Magisterium, which is a desired end since its proponents are opposed to the Magisterium. Secondly, and more importantly, I believe that this idea is a misguided attempt at individualism, that each Christian should be some kind of rugged pioneer, trekking across the religious wilderness in some kind of Donner Party quest for the Meaning of Life. Despite the fact that Christ established a Church, an organization that would need to be guided by His Spirit, in order to spread His Gospel, and bring His Truth to all the corners of the world, that Church really isn't necessary any more. I guess under Sola Scriptura, once the canon was settled, the Church wrote itself out of a job. Or perhaps it was Johannes Gutenberg that finally eliminated the need for the Church, having provided the means for every pauper and peasant to have his own copy of Scripture. And let's not even question the utter chaos that must have meant for the first three of four centuries, before it was conclusively decided what was Scripture and what wasn't. "Sola Scriptura" certainly doesn't.

There are many points on which persons of good faith (little 'f' faith and big 'F' Faith) can disagree and debate, but this idea has always struck me as one of the sillier ones. Far from requiring some deep theological and scriptural research, this philosophy falls apart with the simple application of logic and the empirical evidence of centuries of Christian disunity. In other words, you don't even have to crack a book to show this can't be true.

Ultimately I think Sola Scriptura is, in fact, a symptom of that most common religion of this, and perhaps any, age, the Church of Self.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Missing the Point

About two weeks ago, I went to Mass at the church my parents attend in Smithfield, Virginia. It is a small parish, as are most outside of the few big cities in Virginia, and due to the tragic lack of vocations in the Richmond diocese, it must share its sole priest with 3 other parishes. Nevertheless, Father had an interesting sermon about why the Gospels focused one story between the infancy narrative of Jesus and his preparing to start his public ministry: The story of Mary and Joseph finding young Jesus in the temple teaching.

However, I noticed something odd in the parish bulletin after Mass, and this I think is a good example of why I started this blog in the first place. There is a page, which is probably boilerplated into each week's edition, called "Q&A: Inclusive Language".

The basic idea of course, is the politically correct guilt that stems from the fact that English has no gender-neutral singular pronouns. Or to be more precise, it has no obvious gender-neutral pronouns. In fact, just like Latin, Spanish and a whole host of other languages, the masculine subsumes the gender-neutral role. Since we are talking about gender and not sex, this is a purely grammatical construction, but just like with Orwell's Newspeak, the political correctness crowd believes that language creates thought, and not the other way 'round. Ironically, Mass was said in Latin for, which likewise has no gender-neutral singular pronouns, for the better part of two millennia, and this never seemed to be a problem.

Right away I have a problem with this, and here's why: The Mass is supposed to be universal. The Mass transcends language, culture and custom. I am supposed to be able to go to Mass anywhere in the world, and even if I am unfamiliar with the language, it should be readily recognizable, with no explanations necessary. Now we will grant that it is quite possible that there are parishes in the U.S. where Mass would be less recognizable to me than some small chruch in the most remote place in Africa or Asia, that's another story for another day, but the fact that you have to issue a disclaimer for how you conduct the Mass is to me a warning sign. It's a warning sign that they expect people to have a problem with what they are doing. If, in fact, the rites of the Mass itself have not been changed, then I don't think there's any reason to need a full page to explain the use of English to an English-speaking audience. But, if the rites are being reworded, I think anyone, even a priest, is stepping beyond his role and doing something that should not be done.

The letter starts out pointing out that we have rightfully abandoned archaic language that is no longer commonly used, citing "thee" and "thou" as good examples. That's fine. It goes on to describe what it refers to as "horizontal inclusive language", which refers to "men and women" instead of "men" and "brothers and sisters" instead of "brothers", or the Anglo-Saxon "brethren". I don't have a problem with this, and in fact often do it myself.

However, there would be no reason to issue such a disclaimer unless, in fact, these people were changing the words of the Mass and scripture themselves, in some deeply misguided attempt to avoid hard feelings. "Don't mind us, we'll clean up that nasty Bible, and that barbaric Mass so as not to offend your twenty-first century sensibilities." That's really it, isn't it?

The problem I have is when people take it upon themselves to retranslate on the fly, replacing those and similar words when reading Scripture during Mass. We have specific translations approved by the Church for a reason. Small, simple changes in language can effect huge changes in meaning, and I don't think anyone, even a priest should trust his cognitive wherewithal to spot all the possible ramifications of altering Scripture on the fly to suit to some misplaced sense of propriety. Doesn't Scripture itself warn us against changing it?

Now granted that adding "and women" or "and sisters" is quite unlikely to have any deleterious effect on the meaning of a particular passage, but I've also heard reference to "Abraham and Sarah, our parents in faith" at Mass in Georgetown, Washington, DC. Now, I'm no theologian, nor an expert of Scripture, but I'm pretty sure that God chose Abraham specifically to lead His people, and while Sarah is very important, being his wife and mother to his children, she was not chosen to lead the Israelites. Here we have a clear cut change to the meaning of Scripture. At the time, my jaw literally dropped, but apparently I was alone as a quick glance around revealed that no one else gave any outward indication that anything was amiss. If God had chosen Abraham and Sarah as "co-presidents" of His chosen people, I think He would have made it clear, but that is not the case. You might think I'm picking nits here, and maybe I am, but how much change is too much change? Where do we draw the line? We've already tried the idea of people translating and interpreting Scripture for themselves and the end result of which is some 20,000 Christian denominations.

On a similar aesthetic note, I find it quite appalling to hear the Gloria butchered "Glory to God in the Highest, and Peace to All people on Earth." or "Peace to God's people on Earth." In fact, I was at one Mass where one singer sang "all" and the other sang "God's" and had to quietly chuckle at the sheer absurdity of people thinking they are far too wise and sophisticated to follow the backwards example of Christ Himself. Yes, that's the meat of the matter really. There are many people who think they are smarter than Jesus, Who very clearly and unequivocably instructed us to refer the God as "Our Father". Are these people embarrassed to use the words of Christ Himself? If not, then what's the problem?

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Are we too dumb to debate?

In the past hundred years, we have seen science and technology change to a degree and quantity that no one could have imagined. At the beginning of the 20th century, time and space were still thought to be absolute. Atoms were still hypothetical to most people, including most scientists. The electric light was new and the telephone, the telegraph and newspaper were most sophisticated pieces of information technology available.

Today the level of knowledge and technology increases at a geometric rate. There is more discovered every year than anyone can learn in a lifetime and so much of this information is becoming more readily available to anyone with a library card or an internet connection. We are bombarded by more media than a generation ago would have even imagined. I personally carry a quarter to a third of a terabyte of information with me in my bag to work to every day including almost my entire music collection, hundreds of books and research papers, thousands of photographs and all kinds of computer source code and documentation. You would think we'd be pretty smart, awash in all this information. You would think our culture and our education would be so much more advanced than it was a hundred years ago. You would think we would have a level of enlightenment and knowledge that would impress and amaze our forefathers. But would they really be impressed at us, or our gadgets? Would they be amazed at our erudition and capabilities, or the fact that we can watch 500 different channels of television? We, as a society, know orders of magnitude more than our ancestors of only a hundred years ago, but are we, as individuals, any smarter? Looking at our education system, and the results of it, I'm not so sure I would say so.

Take a book written from a hundred years ago. Most of the time you will see far more complex use of language, with extensive use of appositives and parentheticals, that actually can take much effort to parse, leave alone comprehend. Now being hard to read doesn't necessarily make something better, and maybe we are just better at communicating clearly these days, but I have found the these older texts are often really that much better. Compare "The Wind in the Willows" or even "Winnie the Pooh" to anything written for kids in the last 50 years... I think our use of language is deteriorating significantly. It is said that J.R.R. Tolkien considered his book "The Hobbit" to be appropriate for a six-year-old to read. Nowadays, it would probably be considered appropriate for middle school, or later. Compare the speeches of Presidents Bush or Clinton to those of, say, Kennedy, Churchill or Lincoln. You will find that even when modern speeches are succinct and inspiring, as some of Bush's have been, or long and detailed, as most of Clinton's were, that the eloquence and beauty of orations from past generations simply do not exist any more. If you look at the school work required of even a eighth-grader from a century ago, it rivals that of a high-school graduate or even college undergraduate today. Yes, there was more emphasis on rote memorization, something of which I am certainly no big fan, but that alone does not explain the difference of what we expected of our children four generations ago, to what we expect today.

The very existence of widespread grammar and spelling errors (e.g., loose/lose, would of/would have, pluralizing with apostrophes) demonstrates to me that most people don't read very much if at all, because the best way to learn the language is to be exposed to numerous good examples of it. Now good spelling is not always correlated with being well-read; one of the smartest and most well-read people that I know (more well-read than I) is a horrible speller. But when I see people claiming that they get all the useful information they need from sites like Digg or /. and have no need for books, I can only conclude that those kinds of people are doomed to communicate at a highly illiterate level in perpetuity. Even if you were to read extensively from common magazines and newspapers, you will not be exposed to anything more than a very fundamental (i.e., 6th grade) level of proficiency with the language.

I've been recently reading a book of lectures given by Max Planck in the early 1900's. While the scientific content the first couple lectures isn't above anything a typical high-schooler could (or should) be able to understand, I found the level of sophistication of his language to be surprisingly high, and yet I get the feeling that this was typical in that context for 100 years ago. Maybe we are just better at speaking succinctly... I think that is in some part true... but mostly I think we are simply losing our ability to express ourselves as well as our forefathers, that we lack much of their skill to communicate nuance and abstraction.

I have spent (or perhaps wasted) a significant amount of time communicating online in the past 15 years, and while much of it has been informative, insightful, or otherwise rewarding I have found that the biggest problem in having a debate is often not making points and backing them up, but getting people to simply understand what you are saying, and not what they think you are saying, as we have a habit of instantly categorizing opinions into one of a small number of narrow, stereotypical mindsets because this is the kind of "debate" to which we are most often exposed. Whether on television, the radio or the internet, what passes for real discussion is often empty rhetoric, prejudice or just downright misrepresentation, and true debate, based on facts, employed with logic, is almost non-existent. Even a presidential candidate debate, which, one would think, would be one of the most serious and thorough discussions of policy and philosophy, often amounts to little more than simultaneous campaign speeches, with each candidate stating his positions in oversimplified "sound bites" with which the audience is almost certainly familiar to the point of boredom, pausing only occasionally to take an ad hominem swipe at his opponents, if he even acknowledges them (or in the case of one recent candidate, to simply criticize his opponent in broad, unspecific terms to the near exclusion of saying anything meaningful about how he would be any better).

A good recent example is the Pope's recent speech that caused such a stir, to put it mildly. Now plenty of folks use any excuse imaginable to attack the Pope, and I doubt few if any of the people reacting with anger or violence even read (or in many cases, even could read) His Holiness' speech in its context and entirety. However, I cannot imagine that anyone with the capacity and will to actually understand what was said would respond with any criticism the like of which we've heard over the past few weeks. I found myself wishing for a thorough grounding in philosophy because I knew I was missing many of the implications of the Holy Father's words. My degree in Computer Science has done almost nothing to prepare me to consider the significance of Hellenistic thought and its relation and importance to modern faith.

Does it matter? It should, but public perception, as ignorant as it may be, ends up having a much stronger effect regardless of whether it is based on fact or not, and those people, civic, religious leaders or anyone with an opinion, who have something nontrivial to say will suffer, as do we all, from a society that is indifferent, or even hostile, to in-depth communication or a use of language beyond that of a small child. At this point, we are not only victims of our own willful ignorance, but even more so by those individuals who will take advantage of our collective lack of knowledge to misrepresent history. Our short memories and lack of learning have already turned political discourse into an exercise in distortion and illogic that would be entirely at home in George Orwell's "1984".

You may have noticed that His Holiness expressed his sorrow for how his speech was received, not what he said. Far from being the usual weaselly apology of a politician who is only sorry he was caught, Pope Benedict correctly expressed the fact that the people who were angry did not, in fact, understand what he was trying to say. Could he have prevented this misunderstanding? Probably, but the strong reactions against his speech were a symptom of exactly what he was trying to say, thus proving his point: Too many people do not rely on reason, but rather let passions drive their lives, whether in faith, politics or even posting on some Internet forum.

As this situation has shown, it is vitally important in religion, politics and any other aspect of public or private discourse, that we attempt to move beyond the party mottos, catchy bumper-sticker philosophy and clever one-liners. We must attempt to create real dialog, and not just engage in parallel volleys of name-calling or knee-jerk reactions. Unfortunately, this requires a thorough understanding and consideration of both one's own beliefs and the beliefs of one's counterparts, and this, I'm afraid, is something that we all too often find to be too much trouble, and not worth the time and effort required.