Leaving a “land without a Sunday” — Aleteia.org – Worldwide Catholic Network Sharing Faith Resources for those seeking Truth – Aleteia.org

A colleague of mine at St. Gregory’s University recently introduced me to a marvelous little essay by Maria Von Trapp,“The Land Without a Sunday.” The essay, taken from her 1955 book Around the Year with the Trapp Family, begins by recounting how Communist Russia attempted to do away with Sunday. The idea was to drain…

via Leaving a “land without a Sunday” — Aleteia.org – Worldwide Catholic Network Sharing Faith Resources for those seeking Truth – Aleteia.org

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The Moral Wrong of Physician-Assisted Suicide – Crisis Magazine

Though a New York Appellate court recently ruled that there is no right to physician-assisted suicide under the current laws of the state, the issue remains far from settled. Not only are the plaintiffs expected to appeal the decision, but a bill recently proposed in the New York legislature also seeks to legalize the practice. …

Source: The Moral Wrong of Physician-Assisted Suicide – Crisis Magazine

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Advice From the Bible: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” — Aleteia.org – Worldwide Catholic Network Sharing Faith Resources for those seeking Truth – Aleteia.org

Chapter 8 of the Old Testament book of Nehemiah contains a marvelous scene, one we can profit from as New Testament people. The context for the scene is the refoundation of Jerusalem by the Jews returning from exile in Babylon. The difficult task of rebuilding the walls of the city has been completed, and now…

via Advice From the Bible: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” — Aleteia.org – Worldwide Catholic Network Sharing Faith Resources for those seeking Truth – Aleteia.org

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Retrievals quote of the day . . .


photo credit: nbcnews.com



. . . from Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, 3rd ed., trans. James Ellington (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), p. 7:

“The sight of a being who is not graced by any touch of a pure and good will but who yet enjoys an uninterrupted prosperity can never delight a rational and impartial spectator.”

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A Promise to Love? The Possibility of the Catholic Wedding Vows

One of the fun things about being Catholic is that some of our prayers are a bit scary when one stops to ponder them. I’m not talking about prayers that only a few of us actually get around to praying, such as the Psalms in which we ask God to vent his just and terrible wrath on various evildoers. No, I have in mind prayers as common as the Our Father, in which we hold hands (well, I don’t, but you probably do) and blithely ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” One could possibly read that clause as asking God to make our own reception of forgiveness contingent upon our forgiveness of others. So not just “Please forgive me,” but rather “Please forgive me to the extent that I am fair enough to forgive others.” Uh-oh.

I welcome the correction of competent theologians on the aforementioned point. Until then, I will continue to feel nervous. Forgiveness and mercy are difficult for most of us. Evidence for this difficulty might be found in the fact that the Catholic Church is currently in the midst of a Year of Mercy. Holy Mother Church, in her wisdom, has not decided on a “Year of Fun” or a “Year of Getting Exactly What You Want” or a “Year of Free Candy.” We don’t need a year to work on obtaining those things. But it seems we might need a year to prepare our hearts for God’s mercy.

But if the Our Father isn’t terrifying enough, allow me to assist your Lenten mood of doom and gloom by helpfully providing another example: YOUR WEDDING VOWS.

Have you watched the recording of your wedding lately? Odds are, you said something along these lines:

“I, Boethius, take you, Rusticiana, to be my wife. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”

You think you know where I am going with this, but you really don’t. You think what frightens me is the part about “all the days of my life.” But that’s not so scary. That just simplifies things: now there’s finally a plan! Plus, the Sweet Meteor of Death may already be in route, so let’s not presume we are talking 60+ years here.

Or perhaps you think I’m concerned about promising to be true to one’s spouse during times of sickness and health. Again, not such a problem. Dunno about you, but when I have a pounding headache, I’m not likely to be pondering adultery. Theoretically, staying true in times of health could be more of a challenge. But the God also provided a practical solution to that problem, a solution called “children.” Once you have children you’ll be tired, and adultery requires at least some minimal effort. It’s hard to stray when you fall asleep on the couch every night at around 9 p.m.

Nope, the scary part of the wedding vows is in that other, seemingly innocuous little clause, the one in which you promise to love. Did you have any business saying that? Is love something within your control, the kind of thing you can actually promise to do? A lot of our common ways of speaking about love give the opposite impression. We talk about being “swept away” or “falling in love”–both of which seem to indicate that love is some sort of mysterious and powerful force beyond our control. Did you, in your wedding vows, make a rash promise before God to feel warm and fuzzy towards someone for the remainder of your life, a promise you no doubt felt emboldened to make because of your excellent track record in your previous relationships. Well . . .

One good solution to the problem I have heard in several wedding homilies proposes a truth our culture has largely forgotten: there is such a thing as love which is chosen, love which is willed. We philosophy nerds call this “volitional love.” This form of love consists in seeking the good of the other person. One thus “loves” one’s spouse when one chooses to say a kind word to one’s spouse, when one chooses to do the dishes so one’s spouse can relax at the end of a long day, when one chooses to enroll one’s spouse in that bowtie of the month club thing he keeps strategically leaving on the kitchen table every morning, and by the way he likes the thin kind of bow tie. Just an example. Move along.

The point is that we can indeed promise to love in this volitional way, and the point of a sacramental marriage is receive a pledge of God’s help in carrying out that promise. Sacramental marriage offers amazing advantages for creatures whose wills are wounded by original sin. Wondering if that includes you? Unless you are currently enjoying the beatific vision, then the answer is likely to be “yes.”

Telling people that they have promised volitional love of their spouses is true and important. However, because I am a philosopher, and one of the jobs of a philosopher is to rattle the bars of your cage–especially during Lent–I would like to remind you that “the Catholic thing” is to understand God’s grace as building on and perfecting nature. That means that the natural way human life works is not typically overturned by the actions of God. And in the natural order of things, human action is often prompted by the emotions as well as the will. In fact, as the psychologist Conrad Baars points out in his book Feeling and Healing Your Emotions, the human will is most truly powerful–i.e. it actually gets things done–when the emotions support the decisions of the will. The will indeed shows a certain power when it resists strong emotions running in the opposite direction, but such unpleasant situations threaten to enfeeble one’s actions. One is “fighting oneself” instead of focusing on the task.


No bow tie. Bad sign, bro.

A marriage is no exception to this general rule of human action: one wants the support of the emotions in order to succeed at it. Good luck carrying out all those loving actions you wrote down on the flyleaf of The Five Love Languages if all you feel is hatred, aversion, and anger towards one’s spouse. No, if you really want to love someone, if you really want to honor the promise you made before God, then you will also need to cultivate the emotions that will support volitional love. In short: loving well requires both that we seek the good of our spouses (i.e. volitional love) and that we seek to like our spouses (i.e. the warm fuzzies, emotional love). We can’t simply excuse ourselves from the emotional side of marriage; we can’t simply tell ourselves that “the fire has gone out” and give up. If you take seriously the promise to love with the will, then you must also try to sustain–or even recover–emotional love.

Yet surely we can presume the assistance of grace with this second form of love as well. And here, again, grace would actually be building on nature: the emotions are not as independent of our control as we commonly suppose.

If you think that last statement was some crazy talk, then I refer you to the crazy talk of St. Thomas Aquinas, who argues in p. 81, a. 3 of the First Part of the Summa Theologiae that the human emotions actually “obey reason.” To be sure, “obedient” is not the first word that comes to mind when we think of the emotions, and St. Thomas admits that we do not enjoy any direct or “despotic” control over our emotional states. Yet St. Thomas also points out that we do enjoy a substantial amount of indirect control over them.

For example, the emotions obey reason “in their own acts” by following upon perception–and in humans, one’s perception of a situation can be influenced by reason, especially over time. You can “tell yourself a different story,” and this can radically change the emotion triggered. For example, you may have had the experience of being angry at a spouse for not doing something, only to have that anger dissipate when your reason helped you to give a different appraisal of the situation: “Why didn’t he start the !@#$% dishwasher? Oh, it was because he was making me a totally awesome, homemade Valentine’s Day card . . . in the shape of a bow tie!”

The emotions do just obey reason reason as “mind”; they also obey reason as “will.” The point of emotions is to move you into action. But your emotions cannot fully accomplish this without the consent of the will. The will has a “veto power”–not over the experience of the emotion itself, but instead over the actions that flow out of the emotion. And the will has still more tricks. With your will, you can choose to pay attention to the sorts of things likely to trigger certain emotions, and you can choose to do certain things likely to trigger certain emotions. On date night, for example, instead of having a heart-to-heart discussion of the various inadequacies and failures of your spouse, you might instead consider reminiscing about how you first met, or some of your happiest memories together. Or to really be proactive, you might choose to set the stage for date night by doing–get ready for it–acts of kindness. You might do the dishes. You might buy flowers. Acts of kindness of that sort are likely to put one’s spouse in a good humor: they influence one’s spouse to be a lovable person, the kind of person that tends to trigger emotions of love.

So all of this can be summed up in four sobering propositions:

  1. If you got married in the Catholic Church, then it is quite likely that you promised to love another human being until death.
  2. This love should always exist on the level of one’s will.
  3. To whatever extent possible, this love should also exist on the level of one’s emotions.
  4. None of this is likely to be easy.

Still, it is Sunday, so we don’t want to wallow in doom and gloom, even during Lent. Since marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic Church, a pledge of God’s grace, a fifth proposition also follows:

5. God will help you to love in these ways, if you try.

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The Philosophical Anthropology of Pixar’s Inside Out

Inside OutEveryone seems rather excited about the new Pixar movie Inside Out, and rightly so. Unlike some of Pixar’s recent efforts since being acquired by Disney, Inside Out is a film that charts new ground; it is not a sequel. Moreover, it is one of those films that both children and adults can legitimately enjoy watching together. In fact, the movie may tilt the scales slightly in favor of adult viewers–not by including any objectionable content–but merely by being so clever. At any rate, the film seemed a bit above the head of my 4-year-old, who nevertheless enjoyed the popcorn and soda. Especially the soda, which he never gets to drink otherwise.

The premise of Inside Out is simple: what would the emotional crisis of a child look like, if the emotions were personified? Most of the kid-friendly stuff comes through the 5 personified emotions and their oftentimes slapstick interactions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. As my son said, his favorite part of the movie was “Fire Guy” (i.e. Anger). Most of the adult-friendly content comes through seeing the movie’s “lesson” slowly play out: both positive and negative emotions have a place in human life. There are situations that are objectively sad, and they ought to be acknowledged as such. For the 11-year-old protagonist of the movie, “Riley,” growing up entails moving out of “pure” emotional experiences in which she is completely happy or sad to emotional experiences that are more “mixed,” such as that blend of joy and sorrow often referred to as “bittersweet.”

Another large part of what gives power to the movie for adults is how surprisingly “accurate” the imagined structure of Riley’s mind turns out to be. That is to say, the movie isn’t too bad as an exercise in philosophical anthropology. There is a “Train of Thought” (yes, literally a train) corresponding to discursive reasoning; it does not operate while Riley is asleep. There is “Imagination Land,” “Long-Term Memory,” and “The Subconscious” (complete with a giant, scary clown). Intuitive thought shows up in the form of “Ideas” (little light bulbs) that can be plugged into the control panel that runs Riley’s life at “Head-quarters.” Habituation even makes an appearance in the form of abiding “Centers of Personality” (little theme parks) such as Family Land, Honesty, Hockeyland, etc. These personality centers–or as Aristotle might call them, states of character–provide Riley with stable and reliable ways of acting. Like all virtues, they provide a wholesome sort of “autopilot” for the human person.

And, of course, there are the emotions. In Inside Out, the emotions are the movers of the person. The five emotions share a “control board,” and thus dictate how the young girl, Riley, will respond in any particular situation. Each person has a predominant emotion–Riley’s is Joy, her mother’s is Sorrow, and her father’s is Anger (perhaps this is a little nod to some of the classical temperaments such as sanguine, melancholic, and choleric). Nevertheless, the emotions cooperate well. They generally react immediately, without deliberation, and typically in ways that are reliable and correct. Each emotion senses when it is appropriate to leap to the console and take control–that is, until a move from Minnesota to San Francisco precipitates an emotional crisis in Riley, leaving her only with Anger, Disgust, and Fear to run her life. The results, as you can imagine, are not good.

As I said, much of the movie’s view of the human person is extremely clever and surprisingly philosophically sound. Some of the details are even thought-provoking. For example, Riley’s emotions are a mix of male and female characters, yet the emotions of her parents are all male or all female, as far as I can recall. Is it part of a successful maturation process that one’s emotions would tend to become more characteristically masculine or feminine? Does masculine fear differ from feminine fear? Masculine anger from feminine anger? It doesn’t sound wildly implausible. If even the structure of the eye differs in men and women, why not the calibration of the emotions as well?

However, there are also problems with the fanciful picture of the human person offered in Inside Out. To start with the most glaring, obvious problem, where is the free will? Riley certainly has what St. Thomas called the “sensitive appetite”–the emotions–yet she seems to be utterly lacking what St. Thomas called the “rational appetite,” the power of free choice that responds to goods proposed by the mind. In other words, in addition to the five little cute emotions, there should also have been an unruly giant (I picture him like a very large and fat Socrates) with a control console of his own, one which could usually override all the commands of the emotions. In the absence of free will, what Inside Out offers instead is a kind of emotional determinism. When I feel angry, I have to have an outburst. When I feel disgust, I have to express my revulsion. Perhaps that would be appropriate if we were considering a toddler. But the protagonist in the movie is 11 years old. Even more disturbingly, the film depicts the adults as having the same emotion-controlled cognitive structure. That is not quite the right view. It is true that many adults today allow their emotions run their lives–but they don’t have to. To be rational is to have a faculty of rational choice as well.

And more generally, the central lesson of the movie only makes sense when we supplement it with a fuller consideration of the irreplaceable role of the mind in human life. It is true that “growing up” often means our emotions grow more complex–but why is that? What causes the change? To put that question in terms of the movie, we might ask why the emotion Sadness suddenly has an uncontrollable urge to begin coloring with sorrow all the formerly happy memories. The answer has to do with the growth of rationality. Sadness wants to color all the former memories because of the new rational recognition that Riley is no longer living in Minnesota, the place where all those happy memories were formed. In a similar way, the movie only comes to its successful resolution when one of the emotions, Joy, arrives at a greater rational maturity. Joy realizes that the expression of one emotion, even if a “negative” emotion, often leads to a different, more “positive” emotional experience; this allows Joy to stop trying to prevent Sadness from ever having a turn at the controls.

To put the matter more philosophically, as rationality grows in the human person, so should the emotions. While the emotions have a bodily component–for example, one’s pulse rises when one is angry–the emotions also have a great deal to do with the rational soul. Fundamentally, the emotions are all responses to some sort of “awareness,” either sensory or mental. As we grow smarter and gain more experiences, we become aware of much more, and as a result, we typically become emotionally broader. We develop the ability to perceive things that delight us, disgust us, or anger us . . .  all in the same situation.

The great irony is that despite its declared purpose to reveal what is hidden, to turn the human person “inside-out,” this rational core of the emotional growth process remains more or less hidden in the film.

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Do Catholics Need to Talk About the Faith?

One theme that emerges from the Church’s documents on evangelization, education, and catechesis is the primacy of personal example, of the “witness” of one’s life over and above one’s mere words. As Pope Paul VI (1975) wrote in Article 21 of Evangelii Nuntiandi: “Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness.” The pope continued by contemplating what would happen if “a Christian or a handful of Christians” were to give a witness of understanding, solidarity, and faith in the midst of the larger community. He anticipated that such an example would give rise to questions on the part of the surrounding community, and thus bring about “a silent proclamation of the good news . . . an initial act of evangelization.” Cardinal Baum (1982) made a similar point in article 32 of Lay Catholics in Schools. As he wrote: “Conduct is always much more important than speech. . . . Students should see in their teachers the Christian attitude and behavior that is often so conspicuously absent from the secular atmosphere in which they live.” A similar intuitive preference for actions as opposed to words probably also accounts for the popularity of the quotation dubiously attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times; use words if necessary.”

This naturally leads to a question: if actions are so important for Christian witness, why do we need words at all? What is it that prevents us from giving up the task of talking about the Christian faith? The possibility is tempting: no more awkward discussions, no more verbal confrontations with family members, no more possibility of being labeled a hypocrite, no more nights spent wondering “Do I have to say something?” As this line of thought goes, people will just see our lives of numinous holiness, and then–rather like students imitating a Tai Chi master exercising in a park at dawn—they will begin to live out the fullness of Christianity after our example. This line of thought is especially seductive to parents: surely our children will just “pick up” the faith by hanging around us. Why bother with the hard work of actually teaching them the Gospel with intentionality?

St. Francis preaching a sermon to Pope Honorius III (photo credit: WikiArt)

St. Francis preaching a sermon to Pope Honorius III
(photo credit: WikiArt)

Although tempting, such a model of “evangelization solely by personal example” is ultimately unrealistic. Paul VI (1975) pointed this out in article 22 of Evangelii Nuntiandi: “Even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified.” Yet the pontiff’s judgment prompts a further question: Why is that? What is it about “words” that makes them so necessary to evangelization? Why did St. Francis of Assisi spend so much time preaching if he thought personal example was so important? Why does legend have it that St. Anthony of Padua, one of Francis’s spiritual children, once preached a sermon to the fishes of the sea when the people refused to listen? Why aren’t holy actions and a joyful personality simply sufficient for evangelization.

It seems to me that we have ample theological resources to answer that challenge (“and the WORD was made flesh”), but a philosophical response is also possible. Actions are insufficient for evangelization because our actions are primarily images that other people see. Since other persons have no direct access to our interior mental and volitional states, they view our actions from the “outside.” It somewhat akin to viewing a picture or a video of someone. But as the philosopher Robert Sokolowski (2008) wrote in Phenomenology of the Human Person, “Picturing alone does not make the intelligibility of the thing present to us; we need the support of words in picturing” (p. 139). We “need the support” of words because pictures and images are ambiguous. For example, if I see you running across the grocery store parking lot, your action is not self-explanatory. Perhaps you are running from the police. Perhaps you need to find a restroom facility. Perhaps you are exercising. However, your words could assist me in understanding precisely what is going on: “I am late for work!”

Because grace typically builds upon and perfects human nature, the same necessity of conjoining word and image applies to our Christian witness. As Paul VI rightly anticipated, our actions can provoke questions. But only our words can provide answers.

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