Human Dignity in Part 3 of the Catechism

In reading the Third Part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (especially Section I) the importance of the dignity of the human person in understanding moral instruction is made clear. We are focused in this course on individual morals for the most part, but of course, man is a social animal by nature. We are called to communion. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves (the second part of the two great commandments). So we should reflect for a moment on the social aspect of human dignity.

 

Catholic social teaching believes that human beings, created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27), have by their very existence an inherent value, worth, and distinction. This means that God is present in every person, regardless of his or her race, nation, sex, origin, orientation, culture, or economic standing. Catholic social teaching asserts that all human beings must see within every person both a reflection of God and a mirror of themselves, and must honor and respect this dignity as a divine gift. – Daniel Groody (Globalization, Spirituality and Justice).

The Catholic Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society. This belief is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching. You will see this if you open the Church’s Compendium on Social Doctrine. In fact, it is significant, therefore, that in the Church’s Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, more than half of the document addresses man as made in the image and likeness of God, and the fact that all temporal goods and actions are means towards the one end of all men, that “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”

 

The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God (article 1); it is fulfilled in his vocation to divine beatitude (article 2). It is essential to a human being freely to direct himself to this fulfillment (article 3). By his deliberate actions (article 4), the human person does, or does not, conform to the good promised by God and attested by moral conscience (article 5). Human beings make their own contribution to their interior growth; they make their whole sentient and spiritual lives into means of this growth (article 6). With the help of grace they grow in virtue (article 7), avoid sin, and if they sin they entrust themselves as did the prodigal son1 to the mercy of our Father in heaven (article 8). In this way they attain to the perfection of charity. (CCC 1700)

 

Please see my earlier blog post here for a short reflection on right social teaching, which focuses on the dignity of the human person as made in the image and likeness of God.

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The Importance of Character and the Virtues

“The true aim of education is not merely the cultivation of the intellect but also the formation of moral character. Increased intelligence or physical skill may as easily be employed to the detriment as to the benefit of the community, if not accompanied by improved will. Both do not necessarily go together. As it is the function of ethics to determine the ideal of human character, so it is the business of the theory or science of education to study the processes by which that end may be attained and to estimate the relative efficiency of different educational systems and methods in the prosecution of that end. Finally it is the duty of the art of education to apply the conclusions thus reached to practice and to adapt the available machinery to the realization of the true purpose of education in the formation of the highest type of ideal human character.” (Catholic Encyclopedia)

We must keep this all in mind as we begin this course. For this course will examine the cardinal virtues and their integration into character development; explore possible remedies advanced by “character education” and approach the relationship of the virtues with an authentic Catholic character formation from both speculative and practical perspectives. In any class, of course, the speculative aspect is emphasized, but in a course dealing with ethics, it is the application that is the final goal.

Aristotle tells us that ethics is primarily a practical science, as opposed to a speculative science or an art. A few of his reflections will be good to consider at the outset:

“Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth… If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good.” (Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book I)

Aristotle will go on to tell us that man’s ultimate aim, that “which we desire for its own sake,” is happiness. We may build a ship so that we can sail, and sail so that we can cross the ocean, and cross the ocean so that we can see our lost love ones, etc. But we don’t wish to be happy “so that…” We simply wish to be happy. It is an end and not a means to something further. The surprising thing, here, especially given our contemporary culture, is that the classic understanding of ethics was one of happiness.

Our contemporary culture would tell us that the key to happiness is freedom, but the modern understanding of freedom is extremely flawed. True freedom is not the “right” to simply follow the impulses of the will, but a true freedom is what is known as a “freedom for excellence.”

Servias Pinckaers uses the wonderful example of a piano player as a means to show what virtue can do for someone who seeks true freedom towards a specific end:

In the beginning the child, despite the desire to learn will often feel that the lessons and exercises as a constraint imposed on freedom and the attractions of the moment. There are times when practice has to be insisted upon…Of course, anyone is free to bang out notes haphazardly on the piano, as the fancy strikes him. But this is a rudimentary, savage sort of freedom… On the other hand, the person who really possesses the art of playing the piano has acquired a new freedom. (The Sources of Christian Ethics, p.355)

We see, then, that to truly be free to attain the very ends we were both made for and should aspire to attain to, that our freedom involves both a responsibility and a joy in becoming what we are meant to be. It should come as no surprise that, at the same time a new teaching on freedom overtook society (a freedom which emphasizes indifference rather than excellence) the virtues fell out of common knowledge and pursuit.

If we are to once again become a culture that seeks excellence, we must be a culture that strives after virtue. We are meant to be something, and we are meant to have a part in becoming that something. We are truly both what we are (as created) and what we make of ourselves: a sort of theistic existentialism. Made in the image of God, we are meant to be free, but free to be what He made us to be.

A virtue is an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions. (CCC 1803)

The good is what the will seeks. God is goodness Himself. Therefore, the cultivation of the virtues help us to, here on earth, to follow the will of God. They give us the power (virtus, power) to overcome the passions if and when they lead us away from the path we want to choose.

Of course, we recognize the necessity of grace in all of this, and with St. Paul, although we must admit that “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am!” we also have cause to rejoice:

“Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:23-25)

Paradiso Canto XXXIII

“Within the depthless deep and clear existence of that abyss of light three circles shone – three in color, one in circumference: the second from the first, rainbow from rainbow; the third, an exhalation of pure fire equally breathed forth by the other two.” (Canto XXXIII)

Who dares to say what we will see when we see God “face to face.” Dante dared; should he have?

“If any one, therefore, says to us, ‘How then was the Son produced by the Father?’ we reply to him, that no man understands that production, or generation, or calling, or revelation, or by whatever name one may describe His generation, which is in fact altogether indescribable. Neither Valentinus, nor Marcion, nor Saturninus, nor Basilides, nor angels, nor archangels, nor principalities, nor powers [possess this knowledge], but the Father only who begot, and the Son who was begotten. Since therefore His generation is unspeakable, those who strive to set forth generations and productions cannot be in their right mind, inasmuch as they undertake to describe things which are indescribable.” -St. Irenaeus of Lyons

Certainly, many a Father and Doctor of the Church would qualify, by St. Irenaeus’ standards, as not in their right mind. But as Aristotle and St. Thomas say, to achieve even a little knowledge of the highest things is far better than to know almost everything about worldly things.

The extreme difficulty of finding words to describe the vision in heaven is hardly made any easier by Revelation. How will, indeed, we “see” the threeness and oneness of God? We cannot do such here, not through creation.

God is One, and He acts as one.  We can know that God exists through reason alone, but this is reasoning from cause to effect, and in this case, we recognize a “necessary cause” for all that is contingent. We can only reason to the one cause, which is the one nature, the one essence that is the one God.  There is no way to know (through reason) that there is a Trinity.

In heaven, of course, we will see God not through some other medium, but directly. This must be the key to seeing God, three and one. But still, to describe it in human terms must truly be impossible. Yet we should not fault Dante, but rather praise him, for saying what he can. After all, many things we try to describe here on earth fall short (I hope) of what we actually conceive. One’s love of a spouse and children, for example; I may try to express to my wife my love for her, but human language falls short.

In the prologue to Book II of St. Augustine’s de Trinitate it is written, “men seek to know God, and bend their minds according to the capacity of human weakness to the understanding of the Trinity; learning, as they must, by experience, the wearisome difficulties of the task, whether from the sight itself of the mind striving to gaze upon light unapproachable.”

But at the end of the Divine Comedy, indeed, what makes it a comedy (a story with a happy ending) is what will make all of our lives a comedy; we will see God face to face, as He is. He will call us friends.

Morals, Family, and Subsidiarity

The Loss of Culture

 

I would like to comment on two important and interrelated themes; tradition and education. The purpose of this series is to confront a few of the major issues facing our culture today, especially as regards the faith and the family. The method I will use will simply be that of commenting on some excellent quotes from a book on natural law.

 

Most of the quotes expounded upon will be from the book What We Can’t Not Know, by Budziszewski. His excellent comments provide the necessary base from which to expand.

 

In doing this, I am not being lazy, although I hope that I am indeed being, for the most part, unoriginal. This method alone should be a lesson in itself. For there may be new methods, for instance, in mathematics, but 2+2 will always be 4, and there is no need to try and be “original” in our findings here. Just so, the natural law is unchanging, and even if we come upon new details of its practical use, we must never try and teach a new ethic for the sake of originality. With that in mind, we turn to our first of three topics; that of tradition.

 

On Tradition:

 

The first quote, however, comes from G.K. Chesterton’s book, Orthodoxy.

 

“Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” Chesterton goes on to say: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

 

It is often said that one of the keys that sets humans apart from all other animals is language. I certainly do not deny this. But language does this in several ways. Two of them I would like to address here. The first is that language gives us a way to communicate our ideas with one another, especially the kinds of ideas that only humans can have; those of abstracted universals. But only temporally posterior to this is the second use of language, and that is to hand on knowledge from one generation to the next. This can be done orally through memorization, or in written form.

 

This means that each generation does not have to reinvent everything or rediscover everything.  We have, instead, a collected body of knowledge that we pass down, and this enables us to further and further develop our culture and the human race. We could not possibly have the understanding of nature, and yes, the power over much of it, that we have today, were it not for all the collected knowledge and wisdom of those of the past.

 

However, many today, in the name of progress, individuality, and other such ideologies, seem to have forgotten this. What we need, rather, is to get the young generation out of the “outmoded” ways of their unenlightened parents, and teach them to “think for themselves. Budziszewski tells us,

 

To some people in our day the word “tradition” suggests merely a repeated action that is hallowed by sentimental associations, like wearing a certain tartan or eating turkey on a certain day. I mean a good deal more than that—a shared way of life that molds the mind, character, and imagination of those who practice it, for better or for worse. It is a sort of apprenticeship in living, with all of the previous generations as masters, and includes not only ways of doing things, but ways of raising questions about things that matter…Traditionlessness, then, is not the absence of traditions so much as a particular, unsound sort of tradition that does not recognize itself as tradition, disbelieves whatever it does recognize as tradition, and is traditionally smug about its disbelief. It is the absence, not of traditions as such, but of sound ones…

 

Those that teach against tradition, whatever they may mean by that, do so to instill a “new tradition” of there own. The goal, simply, is to create a void, which will then be filled with their “better way.” Tradition, in this case, seems to be “wrong” no matter the content, and this for the sake of telling one to “think for oneself.” Of course, once the student/child/citizen is told to “think for himself,” the new teaching is immediately preached as being enlightened and correct.

 

But if this new teaching is indeed enlightened and correct, it ought to stand on its own merits. Usually it does not, and it is for this reason, first, that “tradition” as a whole must be broken down. The individual arguments, if they were worthy, ought to be able to replace or improve old errors. This, indeed, is a good and necessary thing.

 

In general, a person who has been raised in a sound tradition is far better prepared to change his mind, should his beliefs prove faulty in some particular respect, than a person who has been raised “to make up his own mind” about them. While the former has at least acquired some equipment—the habit of taking important things seriously, and a body of inherited reflections about what some of these things are—the latter is weighed down with different baggage: the habit of not taking important things seriously, and the habit of considering the way things really are as less important than what he thinks of them at the moment…

 

Those, for instance, who have a great knowledge of Newtonian physics will be more prepared to understand newer ways of looking at the world, such as the theory of relativity. Indeed, Einstein did not discover such principles in spite of being learned in the old traditions of Newtonian science, but because of that very education.

 

The vigor of sound traditions requires a way of life in which the generations live in close proximity and have discourse with each other. It requires that people in general live in communities in which they know each other and can hold each other accountable. It requires that in relations among the various cultural institutions— parents, churches, schools, government, and so forth—the agents higher on the totem pole regard themselves merely as servants of the lower, and not as their masters or competitors. Unfortunately, the lines along which our own society is organized are diametrically  opposed to these. The generations say little to each other, and may be hundreds of miles apart.

 

Certainly, the principle of subsidiarity has been subverted and all but destroyed in most modern governments. The fact that people move around often due to ease of travel and the location of universities and employment hasn’t helped families and thus small communities form the same sort of cultures and traditions as in days of old. Certainly there are benefits to a “smaller world” as we seem to have today, but with the demise of the family community seems to have come the family of the big government. With people moving around and families distant from one another, the state has become, often, the closest common factor. When this happens, “the higher agents on the totem pole” no longer regard themselves as “servants of the lower“ but “as their masters or competitors.”

 

On modern education:

 

Modern education is really more focused on expertise in certain fields than it is on forming persons who can seek truth. After all, in our competitive markets, we need computer experts and doctors and scientists, and not well formed human beings.

 

With the destruction of tradition and of close knit families, this liberal arts education would hopefully be found in the schools…it is not. Instead, and especially in the public school systems, the students are trained (yes trained) mostly in a pragmatic and utilitarian way: they are built to be useful to society. The will become these experts in their particular fields, and those fields that they are not trained in are best left for the other experts to decide.

Strategic sophism is the outcome. We learn to listen to “the experts,” and often the “experts” are chosen because of their agreement with a certain ideology. They are the expert, it seems, because they already agree and can sound convincing, in teaching what the ideologues wish to be heard.

 

In our own polity this strategy is well advanced, especially in the courts. When the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”, it was expressing the Sophist charter… If Sophists are to run the courts and the civil service, they need plenty of help. From somewhere there must come a steady stream of people who think as they do, to fill vacancies as they open up. Universities fill this need. Ordinary people who have not spent time on college campuses find it difficult to believe just how thoroughly they subvert the mind and how little they train it…

 

The mind is not trained, at least not so much to think and understand as to do and execute. The collectivism of society requires a certain number of technicians (in the broad sense of the word) to do the various jobs, of which parts make the whole function correctly. The human, who is a seeker of truth and a willer of good, is secondary in such a society. Wisdom is secondary (if desired at all) to production. The university is no longer designed to advance the wisdom of man and culture, but the output. This is not limited to the classes alone, but the entire project of modern education, often right from the elementary level.

 

The curriculum of the university is but a tithe of what it teaches. It is a total-immersion counterculture whose methods of indoctrination include classroom style, freshman orientation, speech codes, mandatory diversity training, dormitory policies, guidelines for registered student organizations, mental health counseling, and peer pressure… if the modern university is not theoretically Sophist, it is operationally Sophist, and the extremists hold the high ground…

 

There is, of course, an oft used circular argument to what is required to be a tenured university professor these days. One should be an “intellectual elite,” and to be so means to follow a certain ideology. How do we know one is actually qualified to teach at the university? They are smart enough to understand why the university teaches the way it does.

 

We see the same circularity in supposed arguments against those who would say there is a God. “Only fools believe in God” But what about Tom? He believes in God. Well, Tom is a fool. How do you know? Because he believes in God; obviously he isn’t very bright.”

 

Speaking of arguments, we live in a culture that uses the phrase “I feel that” way more often than it uses the phrase “reason shows that.” In a culture of subjective “truth” (whatever that oxy moron means), we talk a lot about how we feel and little about what we can actually reason about.

 

When I ask my graduating college students to “formulate an argument”, I have to tell them what I mean. Many of them have never heard the expression; the idea of persuading someone by reasoning is new to them. They conceive an opinion as a kind of taste, like a partiality for one brand of soft drink over another. Many of my colleagues will tell them that they are right…

 

Morals and the Family:

 

 The bottom line is this. Our culture has achieved the perfect conditions for bringing about the ideologies of a “new morality.” The family is hardly as close as it once was, and traditions are seen as meaningless sentimental actions. The sophistical operating standards of the public education system, aided by these former conditions in the family’s own influence (or lack thereof) on the young mind, is conditioning the youth to easily accept whatever the talking heads are preaching. The only way to prevent this is for parents and communities to reverse this trend at their own level, by taking responsibility as the primary educators, once again, of their own children, first, and then of the communities in which they live. Simply put, the principle of subsidiarity must be reestablished, and it will only be reestablished by the “smaller agents on the totem pole” enforcing it themselves. It will not be willfully handed back by “their masters or competitors” at the top of the totem pole.

On Tradition, Education, Adolescence, and Marriage

The following are not my thoughts (although I tend to not only agree with them but feel compelled to share them). They are from Budziszewski’s What We Cant Not Know, Chapter 8, and deserve reflection.

On Tradition:

 

To some people in our day the word “tradition” suggests merely a repeated action that is hallowed by sentimental associations, like wearing a certain tartan or eating turkey on a certain day. I mean a good deal more than that—a shared way of life that molds the mind, character, and imagination of those who practice it, for better or for worse. It is a sort of apprenticeship in living, with all of the previous generations as masters, and includes not only ways of doing things, but ways of raising questions about things that matter…Traditionlessness, then, is not the absence of traditions so much as a particular, unsound sort of tradition that does not recognize itself as tradition, disbelieves whatever it does recognize as tradition, and is traditionally smug about its disbelief. It is the absence, not of traditions as such, but of sound ones…

 

In general, a person who has been raised in a sound tradition is far better prepared to change his mind, should his beliefs prove faulty in some particular respect, than a person who has been raised “to make up his own mind” about them. While the former has at least acquired some equipment—the habit of taking important things seriously, and a body of inherited reflections about what some of these things are—the latter is weighed down with different baggage: the habit of not taking important things seriously, and the habit of considering the way things really are as less important than what he thinks of them at the moment…

 

The vigor of sound traditions requires a way of life in which the generations live in close proximity and have discourse with each other. It requires that people in general live in communities in which they know each other and can hold each other accountable. It requires that in relations among the various cultural institutions— parents, churches, schools, government, and so forth—the agents higher on the totem pole regard themselves merely as servants of the lower, and not as their masters or competitors. Unfortunately, the lines along which our own society is organized are diametrically

opposed to these. The generations say little to each other, and may be hundreds of miles apart.

 

On Modern Education:

 

Sophism has always been a corrupter of democracies, and the difference between ancient and modern Sophism corresponds to the difference between ancient and modern democracy. Ancient democracy was radical democracy, so in order to win power through the sophistical arts, one had to win over the Assemblies of the People. Modern democracy is constitutional democracy, full of checks and balances, so there are other possibilities. The Sophists might seize power, not in the assemblies, but in the courts and the civil service; in this case the assemblies might not have to be wholly corrupted, but only confused enough to go along…

 

In our own polity this strategy is well advanced, especially in the courts. When the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”, it was expressing the Sophist charter… If Sophists are to run the courts and the civil service, they need plenty of help. From somewhere there must come a steady stream of people who think as they do, to fill vacancies as they open up. Universities fill this need. Ordinary people who have not spent time on college campuses find it difficult to believe just how thoroughly they subvert the mind and how little they train it…

 

The curriculum of the university is but a tithe of what it teaches. It is a total-immersion counterculture whose methods of indoctrination include classroom style, freshman orientation, speech codes, mandatory diversity training, dormitory policies, guidelines for registered student organizations, mental health counseling, and peer pressure… if the modern university is not theoretically Sophist, it is operationally Sophist, and the extremists hold the high ground…

 

When I ask my graduating college students to “formulate an argument”, I have to tell them what I mean. Many of them have never heard the expression; the idea of persuading someone by reasoning is new to them. They conceive an opinion as a kind of taste, like a partiality for one brand of soft drink over another. Many of my colleagues will tell them that they are right…

 

Many lines of work require more training than of old; that is plain enough… Schools, in the meantime, have become incompetent, so that the time necessary to learn anything is much longer. What once was taught in secondary school now waits for college; what once was taught in college now waits for postgraduate school. The result is a long period of economic dependence.

 

Prolongation of Adolescence and Later Marriage:

 

Apologists for late marriage consider it good because human beings do not reach maturity until their mid-twenties… Certainly people should not marry until they are mature. But the age at which people are mature enough to
take on the responsibilities of marriage is not a human constant; it depends in part on when we marry. For centuries, most people married and began families in their teens. If today they are not ready until twenty-five—or thirty or thirty-five—then our first question ought to be “Why aren’t they?” We should also pause to remember how maturity is attained. Men and women do not first become mature and then accept responsibilities; it is through accepting responsibilities that they become mature. Responsibility itself is what transforms them, the marital responsibility above most others…

 

The unnatural prolongation of adolescence poses a variety of moral problems. Normal erotic desire is transmuted from a spur to marriage to an incentive for promiscuity. Promiscuity thwarts the attainment of moral wisdom and makes conjugal love itself seem unattractive. Furthermore, prolonged irresponsibility is itself a sort of training, and a bad one. Before long the entire culture is caught up in a Peter Pan syndrome, terrified of leaving childhood.

 

 

 
Budziszewski, J, What We Cant Not Know 

Paradiso, Canto XXIV

“As a bachelor arms himself for disquisition in silence till the master sets the terms for defending, not deciding, the proposition; so did I arm myself…”

 

When one has the pleasure of meeting the first Vicar of Christ, one knows it is time to learn and not to teach. But if the teacher asks, one must answer. Dante prepares himself for the questions on faith, hope, and charity, the three theological virtues, of which the great apostles in heaven will ask of him an explanation. One of the primary roles of a teacher is not only to teach the content, but to know what content is worth teaching. Therefore, it is not for Dante to answer the questions he deems appropriate, to answer those of the master, who not only knows the answer to the question, but the importance of the question.

 

“Therefore my pen leaps and I do not write; not words nor fantasy can paint the truth: the folds of heaven’s draperies are too bright.”

 

St. Thomas, a master of the Sacred Page himself – he wrote, besides his more well known works, countless Quaestiones  Disputatae,  – spoke similar words when it was begged of him to complete the writing of his Summa Theologica.  Just as “not words nor fantasy can paint the truth,” as Dante must admit more and more often as he nears the vision of God, just so, all that St. Thomas had written seemed to him “as so much straw.”

 

Luckily for us, it was well before this point that St. Thomas began his Summa. In the first question, we learned the nature of sacred doctrine. Certainly this influenced Dante’s account in Canto XXIV:

 

“Faith is the substance of what we hope to see and the argument for what we have not seen. This is the quiddity as it seems to me…Starting with this belief, it is evident, we must reason without further visible proofs. And so it partakes, by nature, an argument.”

 

The two most important points, I believe, of this first Question, as it relates to theology being a true science, are from the 2nd and 8th Articles respectively:

 

“We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence…There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science… So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God…sacred science is established on principles revealed by God.” (Article 2)

 

“…it is to be borne in mind, in regard to the philosophical sciences, that the inferior sciences neither prove their principles nor dispute with those who deny them, but leave this to a higher science…Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation… Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.” (Article 8)

 

Understanding of these two articles underlies much of what Dante says here and in the following Cantos (and, in fact, in the entire Commedia).

The Purgatorio as Spiritual Exercise, Afterward

In an earlier post, I proposed that:

 

“Dante’s Divine Comedy is a wonderful work of poetry and a reflection upon the philosophy and theology of the Church in the High Middle Ages. But, like the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, often missed is its value as a spiritual exercise. Much like St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises and St. Francis de Sale’s Introduction to the Devout Life, the Purgatorio especially functions as a spiritual exercise that, approached with prayer, is a great aid toward removing vices and instilling virtues so that one may more easily cooperate with the grace of God.”

 

In a comment as a rebuttal of a negative review of the Divine Comedy via Amazon.com, the following was stated:

 

“Read it for the symbolism behind the characters, and the problems, political and otherwise that Italy was having at the time. Read it to appreciate the genius that one must posses to write a story in such a fashion, ie terza rima, try looking at the Italian Version, and the way that it is written. Religion is the last thing that should be on one’s mind when reading this book.”

 

Certainly much of what is said here is correct. But far be it from me to approve the final sentence. Dante certainly, in his genius, fit into the story the situation, both personal and political, of his time. What good author ignores it? But Dante understands that time, place, (and all the other accidents of reality) have their existence in the One Who Is. In a way we would be correct to say that religion should be kept in mind in everything we read (or hear, or do, or otherwise). In the Commedia, the primary point is that of the soul seeking God; what else is religion, properly defined, than man’s attitude towards his Creator?

 

The great poem speaks of politics in the Italian Peninsula, of Beatrice, or Virgil, and, as I stated, of ‘the philosophy and theology of the Church in the High Middle Ages.’ But what it is “about” is God, and man’s seeking God. It certainly is just as much about God seeking man, by way of calling Him with His grace.

 

In fact, what the Comedy is about is that one point, that one fixed point from where all else comes.

 

“I saw within Its depth how It conceives all things in a single volume bound by Love, of which the universe is the scattered leaves; substance, accident, and relation so fused that all I say could do no more than yield a glimpse of that bright revelation.” (Paradiso, Canto XXXIII)

 

 

I chose the project because the Middle Ages are too often represented as a time when religious thought was simply vain argument about needless distinctions and pointless debates. Certainly, there was some of this, and Dante himself complains of it. Because there is truth mixed with error, so much of the truth gets missed (is not this so often the case in many things?).

 

Followers, for instance, of the method used by Peter Lombard, St. Albert the Great, St. Bonaventura, and St. Thomas Aquinas, often used the scholastic method to useless ends. In doing so, in fact, did they not ignore the teachings of such writers? St. Thomas himself states in the beginning of his Summa Theologica that one of his purposes in writing it is so that students would not be “hampered by what they have found written by other authors, partly on account of the multiplication of useless questions, articles, and arguments…”

 

The Summa Theologica, rather, is not only a great manual of instruction on the truths of the faith, but it is at least as much a work of profound spiritual depth. What else, for one, do we call “spiritual” except that which the spirit does: seek truth? But even so, the Summa Theologica should be prayed, not just read.

 

I stated in my thesis that “like the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, often missed is its [the Divine Comedy] value as a spiritual exercise.” Even the above quoted rebuttal of a poor review of the Comedy missed this, in fact, rejected it.

 

Yes, “Read it for the symbolism behind the characters, and the problems, political and otherwise” as the reviewer says. But these and all the many other elements of the story are bound up in one; rather, bound up in the One:

 

“Consider then how lofty and how wide is the excellence of the Eternal Worth which in so many mirrors can divide Its power and majesty forevermore, Itself remaining One, as It was before.” (Paradiso, Canto XXIX)

 

“Religion is the last thing that should be on one’s mind when reading this book”? On the contrary, our relation with God is what is primary, and it is what makes everything else in the Divine Comedy (or in anything else in the universe) truly great.

Paradiso, Canto XIX

Canto XIX

As an American now living in Scotland, I am compelled to address a line that would probably receive little attention elsewhere.

“There shall be seen the pride whose greed confounds the mad Scot and the foolish Englishman who cannot stay within their proper bounds.” (Canto XIX)

Of course, here is spoken of the Wars of Independence between Scotland and England, of which Edward the Longshanks, Robert the Bruce, and William Wallace hold such fame.

It is notable that it was likely just around the time of the writing of this part of the Commedia that the famous Declaration of Arbroath was written and sent to the Papacy then residing in Avignon.

It is generally accepted that it served in many ways as an inspiration and a guide for the Declaration of Independence of what is now the United States, who also, of course, broke away from English rule. The Declaration of Arbroath’s most famous passage is as follows:

“For as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom — for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

 

My last fifteen years, that is, all of my adult life until 2 months ago, were spent serving the cause of freedom as a soldier. Today, as always, there is much talk of freedom, and whether or not Americans will hold on to the liberties that the founder fathers risked so much to obtain. But rather than speak on the current debates in American politics, to which I no doubt have chosen my sides on the issues, there is a more fundamental point to make here.

Without elaborating at all here (although it would be worth elaborating at some point), that it “is not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom” that a man is willing to give his life. St. Thomas speaks to the fact that glory and riches and honors are not what makes man happy (Q. 2, Things in Which Man’s Happiness Consists)…and we know that the one thing that will make man happy is the vision of God; it is to make that vision possible that the man Jesus Christ did indeed die, setting us free: free from sin.

We are thus made free. We are prepared to give up our lives if need be. And in one way, perhaps the most important, we already have (or if we have not, we should not delay in doing so). In baptism, we died with Christ, and then, like Christ, rise to new life.

As Blessed Columba Marmion says in his Christ, the Life of the Soul, “The Christian life is nothing other than the progressive and continued development, the application in practice, throughout the whole of our human existence, of the twofold initial act put into us in seed form at baptism, of the twofold super-natural result of ‘death’ and of ‘life’ produced by this sacrament. In that is to be found the whole program of Christianity.”

Paradiso Canto XVII

Canto XVII

 

Contingency and God’s foreknowledge, contingency and necessity.

 

Aristotle discusses the question in his On Interpretation when he states that “A sea-fight must either take place to-morrow or not, but it is not necessary that it should take place to-morrow, neither is it necessary that it should not take place, yet it is necessary that it either should or should not take place to-morrow. Since propositions correspond with facts, it is evident that when in future events there is a real alternative, and a potentiality in contrary directions, the corresponding affirmation and denial have the same character. This is the case with regard to that which is not always existent or not always nonexistent. One of the two propositions in such instances must be true and the other false, but we cannot say determinately that this or that is false, but must leave the alternative undecided.”

 

It is, in this case, necessary that one of two contraries happen, but neither is necessary as it is in itself. It is simply the law of contradiction (or of non-contradiction, if you prefer) at work in time.

 

We read in the Paradiso that “Contingency, whose action is confined to the few pages of the world of matter, is fully drawn in the Eternal Mind; but it no more derives necessity from being so drawn than a ship dropping down the water derives its motion from a watcher’s eye.”

 

At first I am unsure of how to take this verse. There are, after all, not just contingency and foreknowledge, but predestination separately. Of course, we do not say that God’s knowledge of something forces it, in the same way that my having already watched a movie or read a book makes me suddenly it’s author just because I know beforehand what will happen the second time I watch or read it. It is, of course, merely that I have seen the story already. God, of course, sees the story all at once, and this, on its own, in no way makes Him its cause.

 

God has seen already a much broader picture.  We know that there will either be or not be a battle tomorrow. Guessing correctly doesn’t necessitate it. In fact, if the battle happens today, it wasn’t necessary yesterday that it happen. God, of course, knew it would, but that did not necessitate it. And, of course, I dare not limit God’s foreknowledge to merely future contraries, but His knowledge extends to all events whatsoever.

 

However, there is also the fact that everything receives its being from God, to include the being of its very acts (and, if rational, the being of its thoughts and its willing). So while the foreknowledge of God certainly is not causal, understood AS foreknowledge, the fact that God is the prime mover certainly is causal.

 

This, to me, has always been the more difficult question. It is, however, a question that can be deeply pondered but must remain a mystery. What we must not do (and it has led to many heresies) is attempt to remove the mystery by emphasizing one aspect of this mystery and removing the other.

 

There is free will, and God is the ultimate prime mover of “all that is.” There is no sin in seeking to understand this; the sin is in thinking we have arrived at understanding this.

 

That is, as made clear in Canto XVII, God’s business.

Paradiso, Canto VII (On the Passion and Resurrection)

Why did God Become Man?

 

St. Anselm takes up the problem (and what theologian has not?):

 

“Would it be proper for God to cancel sins by compassion alone, without any payment of the honor taken from him?

 

How would one go about putting away sins in this way? Simply by not punishing? But it is not right to cancel sin without compensation or punishment — if it is not punished, then is it passed by and not dealt with.

 

But it is not fitting for God to pass over anything in his kingdom without dealing with it.

 

It is therefore not proper for God to pass over sin unpunished.

 

There is also another thing which follows if sin is passed by unpunished, — that with God there will be no difference between the guilty and the not guilty. That would be inappropriate for God.” (Anselm, Why did God Become Man?)

 

St. Anselm is usually interpreted as having concluded that the Incarnation, and thus the Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ was the only way for man to be saved; a sort of necessity that differs from that of St. Thomas Aquinas’ understanding. When Aquinas speaks on the necessity of Christ’s Incarnation and passion, he is much more careful to qualify “necessity.”

 

“As the Philosopher teaches (Metaph. v), there are several acceptations of the word “necessary.” In one way it means anything which of its nature cannot be otherwise; and in this way it is evident that it was not necessary either on the part of God or on the part of man for Christ to suffer. In another sense a thing may be necessary from some cause quite apart from itself; and should this be either an efficient or a moving cause then it brings about the necessity of compulsion; as, for instance, when a man cannot get away owing to the violence of someone else holding him.” (STh III, 46, art. 1)

 

“”Limited man, by subsequent obedience, could never make amends; he could not go as low in his humility as once, rebellious, he had sought to rise in his pride…For God, in giving Himself that man might be able to raise himself, gave even more than if he had forgiven him in mercy.” (Paradiso, Canto VII)

 

We see Dante’s understanding of the Incarnation reflects that of St. Anselm, but goes beyond, as does St. Thomas Aquinas, who states that it was not necessary, as St. Anselm says, for God to become man to forgive men (God could indeed forgive by a mere mercy alone) but that it was however the most appropriate means.

 

“It was not necessary, then, for Christ to suffer from necessity of compulsion, either on God’s part, who ruled that Christ should suffer, or on Christ’s own part, who suffered voluntarily. Yet it was necessary from necessity of the end proposed;…Among means to an end that one is the more suitable whereby the various concurring means employed are themselves helpful to such end. But in this that man was delivered by Christ’s Passion, many other things besides deliverance from sin concurred for man’s salvation.” (STh III, Q. 46, various articles)

 

St. Thomas then lists many of the particular ways in which the Passion was most suitable as the means for man’s salvation, because:

 

  1. Man knows how much God loves him, and is thereby stirred to love Him in return

 

  1. Thereby He set us an example of obedience, humility, constancy, justice, and the other virtues displayed in the Passion, which are requisite for man’s salvation.

 

  1. Christ by His Passion not only delivered man from sin, but also merited justifying grace for him.

 

  1. By this man is all the more bound to refrain from sin, “You are bought with a great price: glorify and bear God in your body.”

 

  1. It redounded to man’s greater dignity, that as man was overcome and deceived by the devil, so also it should be a man that should overthrow the devil;

 

He concludes, therefore, by stating “It was accordingly more fitting that we should be delivered by Christ’s Passion than simply by God’s good-will.”