Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

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Journalistic Integrity

December 13th, 2010, Promulgated by Vox Clara

I originally intended these remarks to focus on both academic and journalistic honesty with a special emphasis on media treatment of the dedication of La Sagrada Familia. Unfortunately, I have not had the time to complete a proper post on these issues until now. Since that time, the news media has managed to provide me with a wealth of additional material over which I might castigate them. I would like to outline several principles which I believe would improve the quality of contemporary reporting with examples of what happens when these principles are ignored.

1. Among the most fundamental components of quality journalism is relevance. A journalist who is unable to stay on his subject is a poor journalist indeed. For example, in an otherwise focused and balanced article on CNN, the author felt the need to insert the following remark with reference to Spain in an article about Pope Benedict’s dedication of La Sagrada Familia: “The country has largely been spared the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the church in much of the rest of western Europe.” What does this statement have to do with La Sagrada Familia? Does the author somehow believe that the Catholic Church is defined by sexually abusive priests? The diversion does say something positive about the Church in Spain, but I don’t see how it contributes to an article on La Sagrada Familia.

Apart from this flaw, I do find the article to be reasonably well balanced. It quotes Benedict frequently, does not mention the small “gay kiss-in” protest that Benedict passed on the way to Barcelona,  and even makes note of Gaudi. Mention of the connection between Benedict’s homily and the Holy Family, for whom the basilica is named, might also have been relevant, but I don’t think I’d criticize CNN for that since they didn’t assert that the pope was railing on Spanish policy the way other outlets did.

2. A good journalist always checks his facts. This does not make him infallible, but it does mean that he rarely makes serious factual errors in his writing. This also does not mean that the author succeeds in identifying the main issue at stake, merely that he does not report inaccurately on what ever his chosen subject may be.

The Wall Street Journal aired a video on its web site courtesy of Reuters that exemplifies such a lack of integrity. Note the contrast between the language of the reporter, which suggests that the pope entered the basilica to “decry Spain’s legalization of gay marriage,” and the language of Pope Benedict’s homily. Note how Benedict comments on the sanctity of the human family while consecrating a church dedicated to the Holy Family. Note also how the reporter construed this not in its logical context, but as a means of lashing out at Spain’s government. The words of the pope simply are not grounds for this reporter’s statements. Read the whole homily to see for yourselves what a “scathing attack” the pope made on Spanish policy.

The New York Times also provides a superb example of disingenuous writing. Here an author writes as though rogue “churches” in Belgium are equally catholic to the Catholic Church herself. While she is right to convey multiple sides of the story, the author clearly lacks knowledge of the rituals with which Delsaert grew up and seems willing to call anything that declares itself to be Catholic, Catholic. There is no mention here of the unity or apostolicity of the Church, only the notion that when it comes to Catholicism, anything goes.

3. When citing sources, be sure to understand what they are saying. This issue arose across many media outlets with regards to certain remarks made by Pope Benedict in his new interview/book Light of the World. A look at headlines should reveal the problem here. The Australian ran an article called “Condoms justified to stop AIDS: Pope” on November 21. The Ottowa Citizen condescendingly declared: “Pope joins the 21st Century.” Al Jazeera decided that the pope had changed Catholic teaching on condom use (Global reaction to pope’s new stance on condoms). Finally, after a clarification was offered for what the pope actually said, the New York Times reported that the “Pope’s comments on condoms sow confusion.

Oddly, each of these accounts portray the idea that Benedict was talking about condoms in his recent interview. The text itself, however, suggests nothing of the sort. Not only is this interview not an authoritative teaching, it doesn’t justify or condone condom use. It does comment on the dignity of the human person, the human aspects of sexuality, and the meaning of real love and responsibility. The pope is an academic and, as such, he makes a lot of careful distinctions in his expressions. A failure to look for these constitutes a failure of understanding and will assure an erroneous outcome.

Where all of this leads me back to is the importance of care and integrity on the part of journalists. Unless a journalist can carefully read his sources for information, present that information accurately, and stay on topic, he will do a poor job of informing his readers of current events. I’d like to close with a recording of Cardinal Wuerl in which he discusses how important it is that the media portray “the rest of the story.


August 17th, 2010, Promulgated by Vox Clara

A jury fails to convict a man who is as guilty as sin of anything more than one of his most minor crimes. Granted, the jury was hung and there may yet be a conviction in a retrial, but how does the governor who said: “I’ve got this thing, and it’s [expletive] golden. I’m just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing.” concerning a senate seat manage not to be convicted of all kinds of political corruption! I apologize for the rant, but I find this obscene.

Utilitarianism Part IIa

August 16th, 2010, Promulgated by Vox Clara

Continued from Part 1.

Sorry for the long delay between chapters; if you’d rather read it all at once, then use the links I’m working into these articles to go between them with ease. The structure of this chapter is simple. Mill defines utilitarianism as he sees it, he raises and then refutes several objections to this notion, and then he  concludes that utilitarianism is implicit in every other mode of moral reasoning. My approach to it is also simple. I will begin by outlining Mill’s definition of utilitarianism, move to tenets that can be drawn from his objections to his opponents, and then raise several new objections to his theory. This will fill three  posts due to the length of the chapter and my responses.

Mill defines his theory of utilitarianism by citing what he calls the “greatest happiness principle.” This principle states that what one ought to do in every  given situation, is that which allows for the greatest happiness (pleasure) to the greatest number of individuals while causing the least pain to the smallest possible number of individuals. This, of course, rules out the notion that utility is opposed to pleasure, rather it is pleasure. At its core, a morality based in  the maximization of pleasure is the whole of utilitarianism.

For Mill, this has several implications which come up in his rebuttals to those who object to his theory. The first, and most important, is that utilitarianism values the intellect and higher pleasures in life. Second, utilitarianism is not centered on the individual; the good utilitarian thinker will place the good (pleasure) of all before his own. Third, since the optimization of pleasure and minimization of pain are the only desirable outcomes in life, the ends justify the means. Finally, Mill claims that utilitarianism is not contrary to religion and that the deity wants good for mankind.

Mill’s first big point is that not all pleasures are equal and that man is better than the beasts because he is capable of higher pleasures. It is Mill’s belief that man, who is capable of appreciating beauty and is in possession of higher intellectual and spiritual faculties, is therefore capable of experiencing better quality pleasures than the beasts. No man in his right mind, therefore, would ever sacrifice these higher pleasures to gain contentment if that contentment meant that he was capable only of enjoying what an animal might. This leads to the conclusion that we can determine what is most pleasurable by the consensus of those who  have experienced it and prefer it to other things thus creating a sort of democratic hierarchy of goods.

The second tenet of utilitarianism is that utilitarianism is meant not as a type of self-centered quest for pleasure, but as a means to increase the pleasure  experienced by all of humanity. In other words, if by my death I am able to increase the total happiness of society and minimize its pain, then I am obligated to  die. However, this only works in an imperfect world in which science has not yet eliminated suffering and in which great evil (pain) remains possible. By this view, a martyr only does good if by his death he either increases the pleasure of the world and reduces its pain more than he could by his life.

Third, the ends justify the means. According to Mill, the only absolute standard of morality is that of utility. If today you can increase happiness by sleeping  around, then you ought to do so, but if tomorrow the risk of disease renders this a more painful experience then pleasurable, you ought not to. If an individual is a greater burden on society than he is a joy, he ought to kill himself or be killed. If a woman produces sickly children who are judged to reduce the pleasure of society, then she ought to be sterilized. A further implication of this greatest good principle is that motives don’t matter to morality. If the action leads to greater pleasure, then it was good and if it lead to pain, then it was bad. Utility comes first.

Fourth, and finally, Mill objects to the idea that utilitarianism is a godless doctrine. Mill addresses this briefly and I can conceive of no better way to summarize his assertions than to quote them. “If it be necessary to say anything at all about so mere an assumption, we may say that the question depends on the moral character of the Deity. If it be a true belief that God desires, above all things, the happiness of his creatures, and that this was his purpose in their creation, utility is not only not a godless doctrine, but more profoundly religious than any other.” He then goes on to assert that whatever God has seen fit to reveal to man concerning morals must fulfill the requirements of utility to the supreme degree. Mill also claims that a utilitarian is free to make use of the Christian religion and revelation to form an idea of morality.

So there, in a nutshell, is Mill’s definition of utilitarianism with a few examples of how it might be implemented. In my next post on the subject, I aim to explore the difficulties in implementing utilitarianism and why they don’t discredit it as Mill sees them and in my third post on what utilitarianism is I will raise my own objections to Mill’s utilitarianism. Enjoy the reading and God bless!

(P.S. Apparently, Utilitarianism was never on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, so we’re all completely free to read it!)

A Vatican Literacy Quiz

July 25th, 2010, Promulgated by Vox Clara

I came across a post recently on John L Allen Jr’s NCR blog “All Things Catholic.” I highly recommend that you check it our and see how you perform on his quiz. Allen’s suggestion is that one might offer this quiz to anybody who hold brazen opinions on matters concerning the Vatican, especially when they appear to know very little. It’s really an ingenious idea, especially given how many Americans feel qualified to pontificate on what our pontiff ought to be saying or doing.

For my part, I passed muster. I missed number 3 after narrowing it to two options and guessing the wrong one and missed number 10 the same way. That must make me an awful guesser or something since I missed to 50/50 shots in a row! I’m eager to hear how all of you do and let me know if this quiz proves useful to you.

Lastly, and unrelated to this post, Utilitarianism II will come eventually. I meant to do it last week, but something came up.

Utilitarianism – Part 1

July 11th, 2010, Promulgated by Vox Clara

It’s a topic that’s been covered a number of times in the Catholic blogosphere, but, given how prevalent it is, I believe it is worth another look. Utilitarianism is a popular philosphy with roots dating at least to classical times. It takes multiplicitous forms, but most often can be boiled down to some principle of optimizing “utility,” or happiness. The goal of the utilitarian then, is to create the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. For the sake of simplicity and in an effort to focus on a primary source for the philosophy of utilitarianism, I will be focusing on John Stuart Mill’s book Utilitarianism for this series of posts. Also, I must warn you that I will be posting as I read it so I may be correcting certain statements or restating things should it prove that I misunderstand Mill’s work mid-way through.

At a superficial level the notion that providing the greatest level of happiness to the greatest number of people as an optimal moral worldview strikes many as reasonable and even meritorious. Unfortunately, such a theory is behind a great many of the moral ills in contemporary society. For example, many people who favor euthanasia, especially for the elderly and feeble, cite utilitarian moral thinking. Suppose that grandma is in the hospital and very ill. She is suffering greatly and it pains her friends and relations to see her suffer so. Additionally, her medical bills present a significant burden on her children. Her illness, though grave, is not necessarily terminal. The utilitarian says that she ought to be put down (euthanized) to spare herself and her children worldly suffering. Obviously this represents grave moral evil to any Catholic. After all, life is a gift of God and to take it willingly is to commit an act of mortal sin and hence, to deprive oneself of eternity with God in the absence of true repentance.

Such reasoning also serves the abortion lobby. After all, why should a child grow up in poverty and suffering and why should a woman with child be put through the sufferings of childbirth and rearing if she doesn’t want them? Is not aborting the pregnancy more expedient than forcing a woman to carry the child to birth against her will and raise or give up the unwanted child for adoption? Then again, what if that child would have cured cancer or plugged the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or achieved some other great deed for the benefit of humanity? Utilitarianism seems to lack an answer to this moral quandary since we just can’t know what yields the greatest utility.

Perhaps utilitarianism can be given a spiritual dimension in which eternal happiness and true, Catholic, morality is given pride of place before all other considerations? It may be that it would hold some real water if the salvation of souls were held to be the highest happiness and a trump card to be played over all manifestations of worldly happiness. This is a question that I intend to address later after I have obtained a deeper comprehension of utilitarianism as Mill presents it.

Moving to Mill’s utilitarianism, I’d like to summarize section 1 of his work which concerns general remarks about utilitarianism. Mill introduces his work by asserting that, in his day, the state of man’s assessment of the criterion for what is right and wrong was positively dismal. He contends that no “sense” as of sight or touch can help us to discern right from wrong in particular cases, but rather that any such a thing must be restricted to general principles of morality. Mill’s argument is that there is a single standard of morality and that that standard is the highest utility, or happiness that can come of a given moral decision. In other words, he takes happiness to be the source of moral obligation. Interestingly, Mill also believes that his theory cannot be proven logically since one cannot guage just what makes pleasure a good thing (or suffering so bad, for that matter). He does, however, affirm that reason can lead one to utilitarianism. Finally, Mill outlines the remainder of his book by explaining that he will next tackle what utilitarianism is and then seek to justify it on rational grounds.

Throughout Mill’s exposition, I aim to comment on his premises and conclusions from a Catholic perspective. At the end of it all, I’d like to assess his overall theory for its merits and faults. This should be a fun project for me and I hope that you all gain something from it too.

God bless!

A morning reflection on the Nicene Creed

June 22nd, 2010, Promulgated by Vox Clara

As I recited the Apostles’ Creed during my daily rosary, prayed for Fr. Meng this morning, a conversation I had with a youth minister some years ago presented itself to my attention again. Her contention was that the Nicene Creed gave attention to things relative to their importance. There’s a certain method to this madness. It places a rightful emphasis on each of the three persons of the Trinity and then concluded with a brief mention of the Church, baptism, resurrection, and eternal life. God, being the most important part of any profession of Christian faith, deserves emphasis over church and mortal beings.

There was something that never quite sat well with me about this, however. The Church is God’s instrument on earth and Her mission is the salvation of souls. As a soul in need of saving, I always felt like this explanation was giving short-shrift to Christ’s bride, the Church. Getting back to this morning’s rosary, however, I’ve come up with an analogy that helps me to wrap my head around the relative “unimportance” of things like baptism and the resurrection.

God is like the air; all life depends upon God. The Church is like food; no man can live without food. In general, our food is derived from living things like plants and animals and, as forms of life, they are all dependent on air. Physically, man is dependent bot directly on air and on food. Since food is dependent on air, man is rendered yet more dependent on air. Spiritually, he is dependent both on God and the Church. Since the Church is dependent on God, man is rendered all the more dependent on God. You can insert baptism, the resurrection, or Heaven in a place similar to that of the Church and get the same result. Ultimately, all life needs God and hinges on His good will.

To wrap up, it is proper to place a powerful emphasis on the three persons of the Trinity in a profession of Christian faith. It is also proper to mention other basic needs of the human soul such as the Church and baptism. I’m not completely convinced that this is what the youth minister was getting at, but it allows me to gain something useful from the statement so I thought I’d share it.

P.S. It’s an analogy; it’s flawed. I know this and came up with several as I typed it. The purpose was to illustrate a rationale for saying that different entities such as the Father and life after death are rightly emphasized at different levels. If this purpose is wrong, contend that, or if I have failed to achieve it, challenge me there, but don’t cry foul because “fish don’t breathe air and we eat fish or anything like that so we aren’t really dependent on God or the Church” by the analogy. Perhaps not the most brilliant thing I’ll come up with, but it was nice to bring some resolution to my own personal conflict on this matter. Have a blessed night and pray your rosaries!

By way of an introduction…

June 16th, 2010, Promulgated by Vox Clara

I have chosen to remain largely anonymous on this site. I’m sorry if you disapprove, but at this juncture I do not deem it wise for me to broadcast my presence here. I don’t aim to tell any lies about who I really am, but I also don’t aim to say much about myself either. A few of the writers here know me and I anticipate meeting some of you in the future, but otherwise my name is my own and I’d like to keep it that way.

Speaking of names, I didn’t choose Vox Clara, but it is in the spirit of the longer Vox Inter Concilia of my own choosing. Unfortunately, it was not possible to make a user name such that it included so many characters. Nevertheless, I will explain my reasoning. I chose Vox Inter Concilia because of my deep admiration for a great many voices raised between the two Vatican Councils. The likes of Adrian Fortescue, Fr. Henry Graham, Fr. Leo Rudloff, O.S.B., Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and Leo XIII spoke with a clarity concerning our Holy Catholic faith that I can scarcely claim to imitate, but which I aim to nonetheless.

To put it more concisely, I am here to expound on the truths of the Catholic faith. I may occasionally engage in discussion, but my primary aim is to present the truth as it is in clarity and charity. I apologize in advance if you’re looking for intense debates, but I don’t anticipate getting embroiled in them. I believe what Holy Mother Church teaches me and I aim to pass that on as best as I can.

Sancte Maximilian Kolbe, ora pro nobis!