Lessons and Questions: Unpacking Covid

Eamonn Clark, STL

As the last Covid mandates etc. finally begin to fall, there is beginning to be a genre of “what have we learned and what should be done next time” articles. Here’s a good one by Fr. Roger Landry. This one is mine.

In my first Covid post, I stated that we know 20 things, including about medicine. Aside from referring readers to this fact summary (which includes the now-obvious truth that the vaccines weren’t all they were cracked up to be), and to this excellent meta-study on masks by the same wonderful research group (we are finally allowed by the social media overlords to point out that they don’t work, because they don’t and have terrible side effects, both physical and psychological), I will not be talking directly about medicine per se in this post. Plenty of others are doing that better than I could. I will also refer the reader to Prof. Feser’s summary article on the vaccines, along with the links at the bottom of that post, which lays out essentially my own moral position on the issue as well. (Really, check out the medical info links above, they have great stuff on this and on other topics. Very useful.)

So, here we go. What have we learned in the last two and a half years, and what are the questions that remain? These are at least a few things to think about.

First, what we have learned.

  1. There were a great number of people in the pews who were planted in rocky soil, so to speak. The sun beat down, they withered, and the wind blew them away. They are not planning on coming back. They are GONE. While it’s true some people, for whatever reason, are still watching mass online instead of showing up in person, this is not the majority. It will be next to impossible to recover the tumbleweeds at this point through the normal means of inviting them back to mass. They took a long break, and they felt that their life was either unchanged or better by not attending mass. This is a point for serious reflection. Why did that happen? (I guess this point belongs in the next section, but oh well, there you have it.)
  2. Bishops’ conferences need some examination. For all their money and bureaucratic strength, national bishops’ conferences generally failed to play a significant role as mediating associations between individual bishops and national governments. While it is the case that some individual bishops were far too quick and zealous to close churches, etc., the temptation to do nothing but vilify individual bishops for caving to inordinate government pressure is also somewhat misguided, albeit understandable. The credibility of the “threat” that one bishop can make is limited compared to the sort of “threat” the entire body of bishops within the country can make. This reveals either a systemic flaw in the way that bishops’ conferences work, and/or, in those countries where the episcopacy was not all-in on Covid avoidance, it reveals significant fault-lines which killed the ability to cooperate meaningfully, calling into question what the conference is for in the first place other than for rubber-stamping translations of Scripture and liturgical texts.
  3. People expect a lot from their bishops and their priests. This includes an expectation, not unreasonable, for their parish priest or bishop to advocate vociferously for the freedom to worship, and even put himself at some risk of losing his personal liberty. And yet, to my knowledge, not a single Catholic cleric in the USA (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter) went to jail over holding mass or administering the sacraments during the entire past two and a half years on account of violating Covid policies. I’m sure there are a few – I don’t follow Catholic news in Madagascar – but this absence of “white martyrs” speaks volumes. There was also not as much creativity and initiative on the part of clergy as many would have hoped. This is not to say that there was none, but there could have and should have been more, especially in certain places. There is the strong and often warranted sense that, when it mattered most, the hierarchical Church failed. So much for closeness, accompaniment, and walking together.
  4. Dioceses generally lack the resources to evaluate public health crises reasonably in view of liturgical adjustments. Case in point, as I noted in one post, the use of holy water (which is optional!) does not spread Covid. This was able to be known some time around April of 2020. Bishops (or even parish priests) ought to find out who in their flock, with the right credentials, got everything more or less right on Covid from the start. They are out there – so go find them and use them as advisors. Brostradamus (clip from 2020) is out there too, but people want a white lab coat. Fine, find a doctor who has a proven track record on this stuff.
  5. People like simple narratives and are ready to believe the worst about the intentions of those they disagree with on public policy. This is not new, but it bears repeating. If there is any hope of having conversations with people disagreeing over something like Covid policy, it will doubtless start by acknowledging the good intentions that each party has – and then working backwards, citing as much evidence as possible.
  6. There is an immense dearth of understanding of bioethics among those who ought to know better. This includes those who suggested that the use of any of the 3 or 4 major vaccines was intrinsically evil due to extremely remote connections with abortion or because of closer connections with tyranny, to those who suggested that it was certainly evil not to use them or even that it was evil not to mandate their use as a condition for engaging in basic life activities. (Perhaps the scuffle over cooperation with evil in using medicines centering around Fr. Matthew Schneider, LC is worth its own post at a future point, when all of the dust has totally settled, though I think he ultimately gets it basically right from a structural point of view.) Unfortunately, even the usually excellent NCBC had an altogether avoidable gaffe when failing to take account of the experimental quality of the technology of m-RNA vaccines as opposed to the vector vaccine which was then-available, an extremely relevant factor in moral analysis. Vector vaccines have been around a long time – while the Covid vector vaccine (J&J) was new, its technology was not. The m-RNA vaccines, on the other hand, have essentially brand new technology, in the sense that there has not, until now, been the sort of clinical testing usually required for such a thing – large phase 3 clinical trials on humans. Also, very few people pointed out the key to the conscience-exemption issue, which is to recognize that actions which are not intrinsically evil may nevertheless still be rightly judged as evil. Why is that? Am I not reading enough? It is really not that hard.

So much for what we have learned. What about things we still don’t know but should be thinking about? What will we do the next time something like this happens?

  1. What are the limits of a bishop’s authority to limit the administration of the sacraments in his own diocese without suspending clergy from ministry, especially confession and extreme unction? To what extent are priests morally obliged to obey directives which they prudently analyze and find to be based on suspect medical advice? The corollary is: to what extent are clergy obliged to disobey the directives of their superior in favor of the faithful requesting the sacraments? Some of this is quite unclear and calls for serious canonical and moral consideration.
  2. Do the faithful really have the obligation to practice particular medical directives from their parish priest or bishop in order to access the sacraments, and to what extent? This ranges from vaccination to wearing masks to standing far apart. All of these things can either prohibit worship or inhibit it to varying degrees.
  3. To what extent can a bishop or religious superior legitimately demand medical interventions, such as vaccination, of his inferiors, including employees? We saw a large number of clergy, especially religious, who were forced to take experimental drugs under the guise of “obedience.” Was this right? The answer may seem obvious, but consider too that in order to be pastorally useful in some cases, i.e., to be able to visit hospitals, clergy had to play ball with whatever civil mandate was in effect. It is not exactly clear cut, though I do think there is a stronger argument one way rather than the other.
  4. What is the spiritual effect on the faithful of the prolonged use of televised/livestreamed masses?
  5. How exactly does general absolution work? That is, can it be used over a whole city or diocese, such as by a bishop flying above in a helicopter? How? What about online? Or individual confessions assisted by technology in some other way (i.e. by cellphone from across a parking lot)? There are some clear answers here, but there are still some dark corners which need light shone upon them.
  6. How can the skills learned (especially livestreaming and other online technology usage) be harnessed positively going forward? There are countless opportunities – for those who wish to explore them.

Well, that is what comes to the top of my mind. What did I miss? Comment below, and be sure to subscribe!

A Trinitarian Social Justice?

Below is the text of a talk I gave online at Te Kupenga Catholic Theological College (Auckland, New Zealand) a few days ago. Video should be available soon, for those interested, with a brief (but lively) Q and A. It tracks themes that I will be investigating in the 5th chapter of my doctoral dissertation, which is a deep dive into “social justice” in the context of Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno.

There was a lot more I could have talked about, but there was obviously a time limit.

Eamonn Clark, STL

Karl Rahner’s well-known book, The Trinity, published in 1970, sets out to explore and defend his so-called “grundaxiom” – “The ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity.” However, while an interesting claim resting on a possibly problematic distinction worth much discussion and evaluation, what makes me think of Rahner’s text is rather one of its more introductory remarks. He says, “[Despite] their orthodox confession of the Trinity, Christians are, in their practical life almost mere ‘monotheists.’” (10)

Rahner was right. The Trinity, the central mystery of our Faith, is usually disregarded as a lived reality for most Christians, even the relatively pious ones. While we may open and close prayers with the invocation of the Trinity, and we may direct some prayers to some of the Persons in particular, especially to Christ the Son, we do little beyond this, either in practice or in thought, except when we are merely concerned to avoid falling into heresy, certainly a worthwhile endeavor. However, as St. Augustine once opined, the study of the Trinity, while the most dangerous, is also the most fruitful if done well. The Mystery of the Living Triune God is imprinted on everything about the universe – so understanding more deeply Who God is, in His Triple Personality, ought to reveal ourselves and our world to us more deeply.

This holds true even for justice. John Rawls, whose book A Theory of Justice (followed by another work called Justice as Fairness) argues the opposite, that in fact justice reduces to abstractions relating to “fairness.” For Rawls, the anti-metaphysician, we ought to imagine what he calls the “original position,” a theoretical state where nobody is individuated as a concrete human reality. In this position, we should envision what the “rules of the game” ought to be, given that we ourselves do not know what part of the game we are to find ourselves in when we are brought into the concrete – shall we be a prince, or a pauper? An athlete, or a cripple? A genius, or a dimwit? If we set up fair rules without being able to serve ourselves as we really are as individuals, so goes the argument, we will neither sway to the right, nor to the left, but rather, we will have a society with just laws that are impartial toward the rich and talented, and which do not improperly favor the poor and misfortunate but will seek to bring them some preferential treatment in view of equalizing society. This is a Kantian paradigm. We will return to this consideration at the end of this presentation.

In 1945, famed Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek published an essay titled “The Use of Knowledge in Society” in The American Economic Review. The article, one of the most lauded in the whole field of economics, argues that just as information is decentralized, so too should – or rather must – the use of that information be decentralized in order to procure the best economic results. If a central power were to attempt to plan the entire economy, or even just a major part of it like prices, there would undoubtedly be gross inefficiencies; it is simply impossible that a central authority would be able to know, for example, whether there are enough shipping crates at a bottling factory without knowing the number of bottles produced per day, whether there are enough bottles without knowing the amount of drink produced per day, whether there is enough drink being produced per day without knowing the amount of thirst in the locations to which the factory ships its products. The list could go on, even with this example.

Supposing, however, we could solve the problem of omniscience on the part of a central planner, we would be left with yet other problems. First of all, there is the difficulty of actually managing the economy beyond setting policy: those policies must be communicated and then enforced somehow. The planners would need power over every facet of social life to ensure that their ideal economic structure is followed perfectly, lest there be any deviation which ruins the project. Thus, in a way, they must be present everywhere as well. Second, we would be left at the mercy of the central authority to care for our true good as a whole society while still avoiding the violation of the proper good or rights of individuals. They would need to be perfectly good, perfectly loving. Third, we would need to ensure that these authorities remain in place and at work just as they are, or else the whole project would be jeopardized.

So we see the Divine attributes mapped onto the central authority, or government: omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence, and even impassibility. However, as should be evident, governments do not possess such attributes, nor could they. Furthermore, while God does exercise the governance of Providence over His creation, He has left us to our own counsel in earthly affairs. (Cf. Sirach 15:14) The Lord Jesus Christ truly reigns as King, but those with civil authority mediate his universal royal authority. The Israelites who would have carried Him off to make Him king after the multiplication of the loaves and fishes in the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John 6 misunderstood the purpose of the Messiah and in what His Kingdom consists, for, as He Himself indicates, His Kingdom is not of this world. (John 18:36)

In this talk, I wish to highlight the relevance of the inner life of the Triune God, the One Who is omniscient, omnipotent, and so on, for the shaping of public policy and for describing acts of beneficence and social justice. I will also situate my argument in the initial historical contexts of the phrase “social justice,” beginning with what might be called the “magna carta” of social justice, Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno.

The pontifical motto of Pius XI (1922-1939) was, “The Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ.” He explained this in his inaugural encyclical in 1922, Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio, and then later established the Feast of Christ the King with Quas Primas in 1925. Pius does not foresee merely a government which is friendly to and even promoting the Catholic Faith; he foresees the love of God penetrating the souls of individuals and changing them – this is the root of a truly flourishing civilization. Nine years later, in Quadragesimo Anno,his commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the Pontiff returns to the theme of the moral education and reform of the individual as a root cause of the restoration of peace and justice in the world. It is also in this encyclical where we find the phrase “social justice” used for the first time in a text widely read outside particular academic circles, mostly in the Italian peninsula. Pius does not believe that a just and peaceful society is possible without interior reform, reform of the hearts of individuals. No mere set of policies will suffice.

Quadragesimo Anno departs somewhat in its vision of the just society from Rerum Novarum, as Thomas Burke points out in The Concept of Justice (2011), because, while Leo XIII remains moot on “states of affairs” as being just or unjust, Pius XI does not. Rather, he proposes that gross disparities in wealth are unjust, and they ought to be diminished. (For historical context, we should recall that in 1931, when the encyclical was published, the world was recovering from the First World War, just beginning the Great Depression, and fresh off the first of two major banking crises in the USA in the 1930’s.) There is no doubt that it is more desirable that every individual possess the wealth necessary for a decent life, but the point which Burke makes is indeed a powerful one: great disparities in wealth do not necessarily arise from any particular person acting unjustly. How then is it that such disparities can be called unjust? We will return to this question later.

Quadragesimo Anno uses the phrase “social justice” nine times. Unfortunately, just as in the cases of the progenitors of the phrase, Blessed Antonio Rosmini and Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, SJ, the meaning is somewhat unclear. As close as we get to a definition comes in section 110, where “the norm of social justice” is equated with “the needs of the common good.” However, the first usage deals with disparities of wealth and their diminution. Social justice is the force by which the Gini coefficient, as it is called, is made smaller. Other usages, perhaps dominant in the encyclical, refer to rendering an appropriate wage to workers. Pius sees the living wage as a function of social justice, but oddly enough he also claims that unreasonably high wages would violate the principle of social justice. Furthermore, he pairs social justice together with an almost completely forgotten idea of “social charity,” which is an even more ambiguous term indicating something like “love for the common good,” evidently a supererogatory love, otherwise it would be the same as giving the common good what it is owed, which reduces to justice.

Moving even further back in time, we can examine briefly the doctrine of Rosmini and Taparelli, who each somewhat independently coined the phrase “social justice” in various works, Rosmini first in 1837, and Taparelli a few years later in 1840. By the way, Taparelli was the mentor of the future Leo XII and Rerum Novarum’s ghostwriter Matteo Liberatore, the latter being a professor of the future Pius XI and the ghostwriter for Quadragesimo Anno, Oswald Von Nell-Breuning, SJ. It’s a very clean intellectual lineage.

Rosmini’s political thought developed much throughout his lifetime and was at its zenith in his monumental and fascinating text, The Constitution Under Social Justice, written in the midst of the revolutionary waves of 1848 which swept over Europe and then presented to the embattled Pius IX as a possible constitution for a unified Italian state. The commentary Rosmini provides tells us that social justice for him, in this text, the last of his life, meant simply the proportional representation of political power through the vote based on the amount of income tax one contributes to the public treasury. That is, the more taxes one pays, the greater weight must be apportioned to one’s vote. Rosmini does not believe in giving formal political power to the destitute, or even to day laborers (whom he would not have taxes levied upon), lest this lower class rise up in envy against the wealthy. On the other hand, the middle class is more numerous than the wealthy, thus balancing the scales, all the while providing an impetus for honesty in paying taxes and also a greater psychological attachment to caring for the common good through political means, seeing as one’s own place in guiding it has been individualized.

Taparelli, on the other hand, has social justice as a sort of assistance which is subsequent to healthy subsidiarity. Subsidiarity, we recall, is the principle that affairs ought to be managed by the lowest possible stratum of society concerned with those affairs. For instance, a mayor ought not to interfere with the arrangement of furniture or the selection of family meals in a household in the town he governs, even if he thinks he has a better plan than this particular family – and even if he really does have a better plan. For Taparelli, social justice is, more or less, the protection and advancement of the rights of lower strata to pursue their own legitimate ends. This undoubtedly involves giving some kind of aid, such as financial or natural resources, public permissions, legal defense, advertisement and referrals, and so on, the application of which is left up to the discretion of the group to whom it is given. However, too much assistance is in fact not only not social justice, it destroys the entire purpose of a society as a political unit – the higher strata only exist as higher strata in order to free lower strata, which in turn exist to free individuals in their pursuit of flourishing in the life of nature and in the life of grace. Overreaching – that is, violating subsidiarity – swallows up lower groups rather than serving them.

But why not simply have one large group? We have already seen the beginnings of an answer with Hayek’s observations about the market. Information is disseminated, so power ought to be disseminated due to the limits of human nature. However, what about God? Can His inner life tell us anything about this problem?

It turns out that it can. We believe in One God Who is Three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The fact that God is Tri-Personal not only tells us about God Himself, but it also indicates the fundamental pattern of creation. We recall that in the Creed we also profess a doctrine on creation, namely, that through Him, the Son, all things were made. Therefore, the Son is a sort of lens which the Father, Who made all things visible and invisible, “pushes” creation through, or if you like shines through. The Father begets the Son before all time, and the Son eternally proceeds from the Father by this act of generation. Hidden within these two relations of paternity and filiation, we find the pattern for the law of all creation, the Eternal Law. Unlike in Islam, our God is not above reason, He is Reason, especially in the Person of the Son, the Logos, the Word, whom St. Paul calls the “Wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:24) I shall momentarily return to this theme.

We call creation’s participation in this Eternal Law the natural law. As an expression of the mind of God, creation is ordered, it has a logic to it, it somehow makes sense, even when broken. There is, however, a need for a terminus ad quem, an end which this law pursues and a means by which it pursues it. The Goodness of the Father is especially known by the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Here, in the spiration-procession relations, we find the final, efficient, and formal causes of creation’s search for its own end, however, in diverse ways. Clearly, a stone “loves” the good differently from an angel, and a dog or a house plant loves differently than you or I. And yet, we can still see that the Trinitarian pattern is built into the very idea of a substance having some good to seek at all. It is inescapable as a pattern, since, as we have noted, “through Him all things were created.” It is just not conceivable that things would be any other way. A being which had no good to seek would be completely perfect, which is only said of God, Who, as it turns out, personally loves Himself.

In rational creatures, angels and humans (though I limit my scope here to humans, despite much of it applying also to angels), the Holy Spirit is imprinted in some way on our very being in virtue of our mere existence, just as with the stone or the plant or the dog. We have a good to seek, a natural good, which is the upshot of having been created by God. However, there is also open to us the life of grace, a supernatural elevation of our capacity to flourish, which essentially consists in a personal friendship with God. This friendship is properly called charity, which is the special indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the soul, as an invisible mission.

However, charity springs from hope, which itself springs from faith. One cannot love God without the expectation of His assistance based on His promise to do so in pursuing Him, and one cannot even know such promises or that He is a personal deity at all without faith. (Cf. Hebrews 11:6) Thus, we see the classical aphorism vindicated – you cannot love what you do not know. I will say it again: you cannot love what you do not know.

One of the great medieval theological debates occurred over the primacy of our two rational powers: the intellect and the will. What follows is no doubt a gross oversimplification, but basically St. Thomas took the position that the intellect fundamentally acts prior to the will, knowing truth and thus informing the will with its object whereby the will is able to function, while his classmate St. Bonaventure argued for the primacy of the will over the intellect, with the will fundamentally moving the intellect to its good act of knowing truth. Quite a puzzle.

I take my cue from Etienne Gilson’s book “The Unity of Philosophical Experience” in pointing out that history can inform us when an idea is wrong if the ideas themselves are too subtle to discern. I think it is clear that history, both prior to and following St. Bonaventure, show him to have been wrong. I also would like to submit that eternity shows him wrong as well. Allow me to explain, and then return to an application of what follows to the topic at hand – social justice.

The scholastic period saw the influx of a large amount of previously unavailable Aristotelian texts, along with their various commentaries which had never been translated into Latin, including the Muslim commentators like Avicenna. The scholastics, which included not only Dominicans like Thomas but also Franciscans like Bonaventure, were reading these sources, open to the truths found within, despite their pagan and Muslim origins. Could it be the case that Bonaventure somehow picked up, through someone like Avicenna, his doctrine on the will? We see in the Franciscan lineage, following Bonaventure, a descent into a rejection of classical metaphysics in favor of “nominalism” – a doctrine emptying things of natures and relying on the will’s arbitrary subjection to Divine precepts, which is “voluntarism”; at least, this is the Christian version, while the secular version leaves aside both a metaphysics of objective and identifiable natures and God, and it subjects one’s will merely to itself – thus, nominalism and voluntarism have left a legacy which is as wide as it is deep, one which I surely don’t need to explain or explore very much for the listeners. As Benedict XVI explained so well in his famous Regensburg Address, in Islam God’s commands do not need to be reasonable, as Allah is above reason. The entire religion of Islam, literally meaning “submission,” is built around this nominalist-voluntarist paradigm. So it seems that the evolution within the Franciscan medieval scholastics, from Bonaventure into Scotus, Scotus into Ockham, and then finally culminating with Abelard, whose teaching pervaded and persuaded much of continental Europe, has a root not in a purely anthropological error but in an error about who God is. This is certainly not to say that St. Bonaventure did not believe in the Trinity, that would be absurd. It is, however, to say that he missed out on seeing a reflection of the logic of the Triune Godhead within the heart of the logic of human agency, perhaps on account of Muslim influence.

The processions in God are two – one procession of knowing, one procession of loving. The Son proceeds from the Father’s act of knowledge, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the mutual love of the Father and the Son. There is no temporal or real priority between the processions, just as there is no hierarchy among the Persons. However, we call the Father the First Person of the Trinity, the Son the Second, the Holy Spirit the Third. This is no accident – while there is no temporal or real priority, there is indeed logical priority between the processions and thus among the Persons. The first procession, which is necessary for the second procession, is that of knowledge. The second procession is that of love. The Son, Who is generated by knowledge, logically precedes the Holy Spirit, Who is spirated by love. Once again, one cannot love what one does not know. It is not that this principle applies to God so much as it simply is how God is, and subsequently it is how His creation is.

If even God does not love without knowing first, at least in terms of logical priority, would this not indicate that we rational creatures would be similar? I believe that this point, coupled with the history preceding and following St. Bonaventure with regards to voluntarism, namely, Islam and the collapse of faith and morals in Western Europe which can be largely attributed to nominalism (which is the metaphysical underpinning of voluntarism), indicate the solution: St. Thomas had it right. The intellect moves first before the will ever moves, as a reflection of the inner life of God. What seems to many to be nitpicking over irrelevant minutiae of philosophical anthropology turns out to be anything but – this is a major part of understanding who we are as embodied creatures made in the Image and Likeness of God pursuing union with Him through virtue under the operation of grace.

What does this have to do with public policy and social justice? A lot, in fact. We will only have time to set out a few lines of inquiry which could be probed much more deeply.

Returning to Taparelli, social justice comes after subsidiarity. On his account, as mentioned earlier, social justice is more or less the promotion and defense of the rights of lower strata of society. However, such lower strata, in order to exist as groups, must of course be allowed to function as their own caretakers to a sufficient degree, and in fact this must be demanded of them. This autonomy protects their existence, then, in two ways: as a present reality, and as a future reality. Autonomy protects the present reality by preventing the group from being swallowed up and assimilated by a larger group. For example, a neighborhood association which looks after the décor and propriety of its own territory would effectively no longer exist if it were not allowed to pursue these ends by the fact of the city government taking over the same tasks. If the end or telos is removed, the association ordered toward that end is effectively destroyed. Secondly, autonomy protects the future reality of the group by providing the sufficient knowledge and love to defend itself from external threats to its existence, as well as its flourishing and the flourishing of its members. The city government would be unlikely to care about the neighborhood’s welfare as much as the neighborhood itself cares about its own welfare.

Let’s extend this example and say that in a city of 1 million people, there is a clearly defined neighborhood comprising 2 dozen blocks, with apartments and shops and a few small parks. On each block there is an average of 350 residents, so about 8,400 people in total. Of these, about one third are living just above the poverty line, about 1,200 live below it, and of those 1,200 there are 80 who are homeless, and of those 80, 27 live night and day on the streets of the neighborhood. (These numbers regarding the poverty rate are proportionate with the situation of New York City.)

The city council member from this neighborhood is going to have two major advantages over the mayor of the city, the provincial governor, and the leader of the nation. First, he is going to know the names, the faces, and the real stories of the people who are the neediest in his neighborhood, which entails that he will know who is really in need and who simply prefers to take advantage of generous people, perhaps to their own detriment. Because he knows the situation of his neighborhood so well, he will be very well suited to make prudential decisions about how to fix the problems, both from his own direct exposure and from the ease of communication with his constituents. The second advantage is that he will be more likely to have an affective love toward the poor and marginalized of his neighborhood, because they are real people to him – they are not numbers or ideas. Here is where all of the foregoing speculative theology becomes incarnate and practical: to him, “the least of these” are these individuals, not some aggregate group without individual identities. It is not that “they” are suffering from want, it is that “William” is suffering from alcoholism, “Jacqueline” is suffering from domestic abuse, “Richard” is suffering from schizophrenia, “Jack” is trying to get work but encounters racial prejudice, and so on.

The masses of the needy do not have a face – an individual in need has a face, and therein we can find most easily the face of Christ. We can have personal encounters with individuals – we can only have political encounters with the crowd, or with the unnamed group of “those in need.” People clearly prefer to love and help individuals whom they know, whom they are more closely connected to; this is built into the order of charity, as St. Augustine and St. Thomas explain, given that we are finite creatures with a limited energy for service to others, unlike God. The best way to use that energy is in general to stick to what we know, such as our own family, our own country, and those who surround us in daily life. Otherwise, we presume to have the capacity to redeem the widow and the orphan in the way that only God can – as we will have the poor with us always, He said. In short, it seems God wants social justice to be as personal as possible, given God’s own interior life among the Persons. Certainly, there is a role for “programs” which benefit large groups, but such assistance must still be proportionate to the knowledge of the group’s situation. A study of the United States’ well-intentioned interventions in Haiti under Clinton provides good food for thought. Agricultural and ecological initiatives destroyed local businesses which made many perpetually dependent on foreign aid, and the poor moved out of the farmlands into the cities, where they built shanty towns. These shanty towns were then destroyed in the earthquake of 2010, leading to thousands of preventable deaths.  Had the U.S. bothered to do the hard work of getting to know local businesses and market patterns in an attempt to partner with entrepreneurs, farmers, and conservationists, instead of swallowing up the countryside, this outcome could have been very different. Instead, to this day, Haiti remains largely destitute and dependent on handouts from foreign governments, which makes local start-ups a near impossible venture: it is too hard to compete with “free.” This cycle perpetuates itself. Subsidiarity has been destroyed, and so too therefore has social justice been destroyed. Technically, slavery ended in Haiti, but really, it continues through big NGO’s.

Because Christ Himself indicated that He is “the least of these,” (Matthew 25) we can infer at least a dim analogy with the inner life of God in the act of social justice. This in part relies on a Trinitarian structure of society – I am speaking analogically now, not univocally; God is a society, but its members are perfect and perfectly equal. That is not the case with us. The knowledge a higher stratum possesses of a lower stratum, even on a one-to-one level (namely, the benefactor vis-à-vis the benefacted,) reflects the relation of the Father to the Son. It is this knowledge which allows for the impulse of love of benefactor for benefacted to be real, material, and affective rather than formal and general “love of the poor” – we can really feel that we are doing something good for someone when we know their name, when we know how the benefaction will help them in real life, and so on, as opposed to, for instance, making a donation to a large NGO which may use that money in anonymous or even unknowable ways. It becomes personal love through personal knowledge, and that intensifies the impulse itself and informs it with prudence on the part of the benefactor, and real, personal gratitude on behalf of the benefacted. It opens up a greater possibility of an encounter with God through service and being served, by “seeing the face of Christ,” on the part of benefactor and benefacted. If one is personally serving another, and one is personally grateful, it stands to reason one will associate this with the personal love of God in diverse ways. This is not the case so much with the anonymity involved with large NGO’s or welfare programs, which, while necessary in some circumstances, especially natural disasters, can overtime create a sense of learned helplessness or even entitlement on the part of the recipients.

There is, then, also a sort of natural redemption of the benefacted by the benefactor. That which the needy cannot do for themselves but absolutely require in order to flourish must be given from above. In terms of grace, we speak of Christ and the economy of salvation, which we were never owed except by God’s own gratuitous promises. In some natural circumstances, this is a matter of strict commutative justice, such as in urgent and grave necessity of material assistance. In other natural circumstances, we are engaged in almsgiving, out of charity rather than justice – even though such charity is a matter of grave even if indeterminate precept: we are bound to assist the poor out of what is truly excessive to us relative to our state of life, but it is left to us to choose how. This models God’s own love for humanity, in Christ’s redemptive work, albeit on the natural plane.

The knowledge-love dynamic is also part of why religious life can work while Communism cannot, and this in two senses – first, to know and love a community of several hundred or several thousand as in religious life is unlike the attempt to do so with a large nation. Second, religious life is centered around knowing and loving Christ, to pursue union with Him in this life and the next. It is not about creating an exterior utopia, but an interior one.

Similarly, social justice, a phrase now sometimes hijacked to support movements deriving from Marxism in various ways, is not to remove all suffering or inconvenience or struggling in the world, for this is impossible for us, since we and our governments lack the Divine attributes. Rather, it is the empowering of lower social strata to pursue their own flourishing, while not destroying their independence and autonomy by doing for them what they can and must do for themselves, again, something which to judge rightly requires sufficient knowledge of the situation. This act is an act of justice insofar as it has the common good in view, which each individual is bound to will. This would seem to make social justice equal to what St. Thomas calls “legal justice,” but perhaps we can say it is a species thereof. St. Thomas describes legal justice as a general virtue which is part of all virtues, that seeks to benefit the common good according to the ratio of the act produced by the given virtue. For example, the virtues belonging to temperance moderate the use of pleasures, which moderation benefits the common good in many ways, such as the well-ordered creation of new human life within the family, in the case of chastity. Legal justice belongs to rulers as a mastercraft. Here is where we can possibly see social justice as a species of legal justice, or as a special part of it: it is the part of legal justice which specifically pursues the preservation of lower social strata and their empowerment to pursue their legitimate ends while respecting subsidiarity, given that this object has a special relation to reason but still directly corresponds to the care of the common good. This leaves us with a puzzle of where social justice stops and almsgiving begins. I will leave that unexplored today, though I would suggest it has something to do with the proper object of each, and that these are not mutually exclusive acts but are rather complementary while remaining distinct.

Pius XI gives us some more to think about. He is certainly in favor of many mediating associations, such as clubs and guilds, especially his favorite project of organized youth groups called “Catholic Action,” scuffles over which with Mussolini almost led Italy into a civil war in 1931. Mediating associations limit one’s need to care for more people than is possible by creating an organized structure for advocacy. British anthropologist Robert Dunbar’s famous 1993 study on social knowledge suggested that the average person can only have about 150 meaningful relationships. Beyond this, a person one knows is merely an acquaintance. Having more associations, even associations of associations, such as for schools, business districts, neighborhoods, and particular trades (these were called “guilds” but now replaced by the idea of “unions” which can exist for a single company), create a barrier against overreach from higher strata. This could be overreach motivated by the most laudable of intentions, but, once again, underinformed of the on-the-ground reality to such an extent that their good intentions ruin people’s lives to no discernible benefit of the common good, while also possibly violating their individual good which is never to be sacrificed. (Here we see the distinction that Rosmini makes between public good, which is a collection of public resources, and the common good, which includes the rights of individuals which can never be violated for the sake of the public good or for any other reason.) These good intentions leading to overreach could range from being concerned with economic reform, to social reform, from ecological health, to public health.

A final note before concluding. Taparelli and Rosmini, the two progenitors of social justice, are against egalitarianism, and subsequently they are against policies designed to eliminate inequalities of status, such as the wide and forcible redistribution of wealth. They each take inequalities of status as an inescapable given, a fact explained by Rosmini in his book Theodicy as being accounted for by God’s wisdom in giving to each what he is most capable of making the best use of. Taparelli goes so far as to say that, apart from our humanity (which would include our race in itself, of course), we are unequal in everything else – our wealth, our intelligence, our skill, our strength, our virtue, our class. He is opposed in principle to “contract theories” of society, because, he says, no such “contract society” has ever really existed, there has always been hierarchy from the beginning due to natural disparities in individuals. Only God is a perfectly equal society. Not only would pursuing the elimination of inequalities be to set out to reach an impossible goal, leaving many victims in its wake, but it would thwart the design of God for human civilization – which, as we have seen, involves the dynamic of benefaction. Remembering and responding now to Rawls, we can say that inequality as designed under God’s wisdom is a “rule of the game” which we cannot “get above” in order to assess. That God creates us with inequalities means something, including for what justice looks like in practice. Without the poor, whom we will always have with us, we are assured, how would we encounter Christ in the unique way which such service provides the avenue for? This is particularly true in the case of social justice, which empowers the needy to assist themselves – a special joy to partake in, not all unlike that of parenting, which involves the most obvious natural inequalities.

The world today wants to think of social justice as removing “unjust states” from existence, such as large wealth disparities. This notion derives at least in part from Quadragesimo Anno – it is the “line in the sand” – and here I will put myself in careful tension with Pius XI. The problem is that injustice is not properly a characteristic of states of affairs, it is a characteristic of actions. It is possible to create large wealth disparities, for example, without ever having done something unjust, as Thomas Burke points out. The attempts to ameliorate circumstances found unpalatable, such as immense and stark wealth disparity in South Africa or India, or even those unwanted circumstances that come from historical injustices such as slavery or some other kind of oppression of a people, must follow the lines given by Rosmini and Taparelli if they are to be successful, while remembering the “barrier” of subsidiarity, the knowledge-love dynamic, and the point just made about justice and acts. It is not unjust strictly speaking that some are very rich and some are very poor. The rich who know of some dire case may be obliged by justice to give assistance, but normally this belongs to the virtue of charity through almsgiving. Seemingly in line with what Pius XI envisions for society, over and above individual moral virtue and the interior reform which strengthens it, what the wealthy and “privileged” as a class owe society as a whole, is to work toward the establishment of a social structure where they can more and more easily function as economic and social “redeemers,” who elevate the lower classes to their proper place through empowerment, but without accidentally – or intentionally – making them perpetually dependent to the point where they become entitled and apathetic due to inordinate amounts of benefaction. We read in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “He who does not work should not eat.” Let the rich not run afoul of St. Paul by occasioning laziness which slowly grows into envy and eventually revolution, or even worse by destroying the ability to engage in self-sustaining work; for, ironically, this might do more to undermine the dignity of a man than does his mere unwanted poverty.

What is the fixation…

…with rainbow logos…

The 2025 Jubilee Year logo.

Read the article here. Note the part about men embracing each other. Just the ticket to win hearts and minds!

This comes after the Synod logo… which I long to forget.

I don’t think it’s a secret code or anything. I think it’s tone deafness. But blindness often goes together with sin.

And yet somehow, despite the clown car, Christ will be victorious.

Ireland’s Metasynod

The Synod on Synodality has been rightly critiqued for numerous reasons. That doesn’t mean we should ignore the results of the local meetings…

Today I read a nice synopsis of the Irish meetings. Ireland has of course been in a cultural and ecclesiastical free fall for a while now. But still about 75% of people who live there identify themselves as Catholic, regardless of whether they actually believe and practice the Faith regularly (a much lower number to be sure, maybe around 15%). There might be some lessons to reflect upon.

Thoughts? Let us know in the comments. Did you go to a synod meeting? What was your experience?

There Are Only Four Pro-Choice Arguments

In the wake of the monumental overruling of Roe v. Wade in the USA, I offer a “reblog” of this old post on the 4 pro-choice arguments… it is more important than ever to know how to talk about this issue reasonably – with those who are open to discussion at all.

Christian Renaissance Movement

Eamonn Clark, STL

Naturally, being a moralist who is active in western society, I have encountered and thought a lot about various arguments in favor of the “pro-choice” position. Summarizing all of the arguments, we find that there are really only four; while they can be mixed together, they are nonetheless discernible in basically every argument ever made in favor of the “right” to have an abortion, or that abortion is morally acceptable. And yes, they are each erroneous. Let’s go through them: they are the physical (or biological) error, the metaphysical error, the ethical error, and the metaethical error.

The Physical Error

The first error is that the fetus is not a distinct living organism. Any biologist can debunk this. If the fetus is not a distinct living organism, there is no such thing. It is true that there is a physical connection through the umbilical cord, but first…

View original post 1,243 more words

All of “Grandma’s Lace” – and More

Eamonn Clark, STL

So I was at the mass for the Sicilian clergy-pilgrims a little while ago. Before the bishops went for their meeting with Francis, where he decried the use of “grandma’s lace” in the liturgy, they had a mass at Mary Major. Let me tell you, lace is not the issue. A friend in the sacristy told me there were bishops who didn’t know how to put on an amice… I stood and watched many priests taking pictures during the liturgy. One guy, just in front of me, was wearing an alb whose neckline was hanging very low, almost halfway down his chest, and he had a tab collar shirt that was unbuttoned at the top, with the tab sticking out.

There are two points to lace in liturgy. First, in a place like Sicily, it is very functional: it breathes. Extremely hot weather begs for lace. Second, lace, like incense or chant or any number of things, indicates that something special is occurring… something out of the ordinary… something sacred.

Now, it can be overdone. “More lace, more grace,” goes the derisive mantra. I once was going to a shop to buy some vestments, including a surplice, and in the area of the store I ran across another shop with the same name – it happened to be a lingerie store! “I love lace, but this is too much, even for me,” I quipped. But, just as it can be overdone, it can be underdone. I would suggest that the Sicilians luck out with the heat, giving them the impetus to use fine albs and such; the fact that they aren’t bothering with other items and behaviors of liturgical decorum that are always due gives the impression that they just don’t really care very much about the liturgy, they just care about not sweating to death (this also perhaps explains the low hanging alb, the neglect of amices, etc.).

I was complaining yesterday again about the fake candle phenomenon in Roman churches – even papal basilicas. It’s cheaper and more convenient, but that sort of defeats the purpose. Likewise, wearing all the right vestments in the right way can be uncomfortable – but that is fitting when one is offering a sacrifice. On the other hand, if one is just having a ritual meal… comfort matters much more. It is beginning to dawn on me that one of the most significant changes made to the liturgy after the Council is the offertory… Formerly it emphasized the Mass is a sacrifice, but now it uses a modified Jewish prayer before meals. One wants to be comfortable at dinner… but at a public sacrifice? Maybe it’s worth being drenched with sweat to get it right.

But it also might be worth wearing lace!

Of Mollusks and Marble

I don’t normally do personal posts, let alone lifestyle posts, but… the past two days have been particularly Roman.

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Normally, it would be tomorrow, but it has been moved because tomorrow is Sacred Heart. So yesterday was the vigil, which means…


It is an ancient Roman tradition – originally connected with the solstice and warding off ghosts, and now connected with the Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist – to eat snails. So eat them I did, with several friends and several bottles of white wine, in the Monti neighborhood. Lumache alla Romana, at Osteria della Suburra. Great stuff!

Today I meandered down, for the first time in almost a calendar year, to St. John Lateran. The full name of the basilica, which is the cathedral of Rome, thus the “mother church” of all Christendom, is the Archbasilica Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in the Lateran. Despite the name there is no relic of either saint as far as I know – but John the Baptist’s head (at least the “Roman” contender) is at San Silvestro in Capito, where I did not make it today unfortunately.

Some details of the left transept:

That is Leo XIII’s tomb on the right. He looks a little camera shy – or just got out of the movie theater and can’t take the sunlight?

One of the most striking things about the basilica is the statues of the apostles. They are very large, lining the right and left sides of the nave. Many of them are depicted with the instruments of their martyrdom.

St. Bartholomew, skinned alive.
St. Simon (not Peter), with a saw.

You can see one of the dedication crosses on the right, which were smeared with oil at (I suppose) the re-dedication of the basilica after its last major renovation (under Innocent X, his name is everywhere). I really dislike the fake candles, as I explained in a post a long time ago. It is especially bad when it is a papal basilica… the things we offer to God matter, especially in formal worship and sacred spaces.

Ugh. Convenient, yes, but… that sort of defeats the purpose.

There was another curious statue, in a side chapel on the right. It’s a saint who looks like she is playing table tennis, and she is holding a snake as well. I guess it is supposed to be a mirror, but… I like to think saints liked ping pong. But I have no clue who this is. Anyone got any idea?

The gate to the chapel is its own great piece of art. I think the guys who made it would have eschewed fake candles, for what it’s worth…

Look at the detail, and the creativity… I would wager the thinking with these creatures is similar to the gargoyles of French fame… scaring away evil angels. (Wait – they aren’t snails, are they!?)


There was a little exhibit going on about St. Therese of Lisieux. I was especially interested in the fact that they had a whole section on Pius XI’s devotion and teaching on her, as he is the object of my doctoral studies. The posters are a bit out of date… I wonder if you can see why.

Pius XI: [she is] “the star of my pontificate”

Speaking of Pius XI, here is a plaque about him in the basilica:

My Latin is not good, but luckily I ran into a friend (whose monastery I will be staying at in Poland next week – yes, pictures will be forthcoming), and his Latin is excellent. Had I bothered to work out the date, I would have figured out what this was, but… I took a shortcut.

It is commemorating this chapel, which is where the young Achille Ratti was ordained a priest. I knew he was ordained in the Lateran, but I always thought it was at the main altar. It was not… it was here, in this small side chapel.

He was ordained December 20, 1879 by Cardinal La Valletta – who also happened to ordain Benedict XV a priest.

On my way out, I stopped by the baptistry. Constantine was baptized here – before the structure existed, which essentially serves to commemorate that blessed event.

Here is one of the famous obelisks of Rome. This one is Egyptian – one of 8. (Several others are Roman.)

It is the tallest in Rome, if one doesn’t include the base in the calculations. (With the base included the tallest is the obelisk at St. Peter’s.) This one weighs 330 tons, after reconstruction trimmed it down a bit, from 455 tons (quite a diet). It was in the temple of Amun in Karnak, near Luxor. It came over to Rome in 357 to be a decoration in the Circus Maximus.

The base.

And finally, a quick look in toward where the educational facilities are… including the main Roman diocesan seminary (I think Rome has about 30-40 seminarians of its own – incredible…), and the now-destroyed JPII Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family. So sad. I think they have very few students. People vote with their feet – and their wallets. That includes candidates for the priesthood!

Well, that is it. Despite my rare “lifestyle” posts, another one coming up soon, from the Archabbey of Jędrzejów. But, with 5 likes on this post, I will do these more often!

Be sure to subscribe as well…

St. John the Baptist, pray for us!


Unanswered Questions Regarding the “Bologna Blessing”

Several stories have run about the recent “mass of thanksgiving” offered for a “gay wedding” that took place across the street. It is particularly noteworthy due to its having taken place in Bologna, the diocese of the highly prominent papal candidate and new Italian Bishops’ Conference president, Cardinal Zuppi. So, it seems like some “motivated” journalism… people trying to take some swings, perhaps in an effort to influence the next conclave.

The journalism has been less than good. (First disclosure, I used to do work for the main paper reporting the story, doing some translations, so I have a bias opposite my conclusion here.)

One problem with the headlines is that, in fact, this was not the first “gay wedding blessing” that has happened in Italy, not even in the past few years, depending on how broad that category is understood to be. Read about the last instance of something like this happening here, ironically reported on also by the same paper when it happened. (Second disclosure – I spent some good time in that diocese, and around its bishop – it is not exactly a conservative place, but it’s not “Left” either.) While it was not in a liturgical context per se, it was an actual “wedding” – or at least a civil union. In any case, the failure to note this event was a mistake.

Furthermore, and much more importantly, there are at least four questions that the stories have left unanswered, at least as far as I can tell, given that the parish priest claims he “told” the Cardinal about this event. First, what exactly did the parish priest tell the Cardinal? That there were some gay men who would be acknowledged at a mass? That they would be present? That they were coming to mass after a “wedding”? That they would be celebrated for having just gotten “married”? Something else? Second, when did he tell him what he told him? Was it even ahead of time? If so, how long in advance? Third, how did he tell him? Text message, phone call, letter, in person, and in what detail? Fourth, and perhaps more importantly, what exactly did the Cardinal say in response, if anything?

Lots of work left to do here… and maybe some of that work includes giving the benefit of the doubt, until more information appears.