In Search of the Holy Grail of Catholic Bible Translations

A shelf of bibles

In February, I wrote a lengthy post about Bible translations. Herewith a recapitulation and follow-up, because (a) I have more, different Bible translations than the six I referenced a few months ago, (b) I’m procrastinating about a different writing project and (c) a bunny-hole search about one of them that started with that aforementioned different writing project revealed that there’s really not a good general-purpose guide for Catholics about the mighty — and mighty contentious — question of which Bible a person ought to use.

First, I’m in agreement with the wag who said that the best Bible is the one you’ll actually open. That said, for Catholics, the “where we rate” question for U.S. sales totals proves illuminating in a depressing way. The top seller of 2017 was the King James Version at 31 percent of the market, followed by the New International Version at 13 percent and the English Standard Version at 9 percent. The first specifically Catholic version to hit the list was the New American Bible, at an anemic 2 percent market share.

Catholics do enjoy many “authorized” choices, although the KJV and the NIV aren’t among them. Before the 1983 revision to the Code of Canon Law, translations just had to be approved by either the Holy See or by any local bishop. After 1983, either the Holy See or an episcopal conference (in the U.S., it’s the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) can approve a new translation. Thus, anything receiving at least one bishop’s approval before ’83, or anything receiving USCCB or Vatican approval after ’83, is permitted for personal, private prayer and study. There are, quite literally, dozens of translations that therefore make the cut, ranging from the USCCB’s own “official” Bible to the beloved Jerusalem Bible that Mother Angelica favored. Just check the copyright page. If it’s got an imprimatur from a local ordinary from before 1983 or by a bishop under color of the USCCB after 1983, then it’s valid.

The major Bibles explicitly approved by the USCCB since 1983 include the Contemporary English Version, the New American Bible (Revised Edition) and the Good News Translation (Today’s English Version, second Catholic edition). Older versions, like Knox and the Revised Standard Version and the Douay-Rheims and the Confraternity Bible, were grandfathered under Canon 825. Interestingly, the USCCB endorses a handful of partial translations, as well, such as the inclusive-language Grail Psalter from G.I.A.

In the United States, a hodge-podge of translations percolate into the current Lectionary used at Mass. There’s technically no Bible on the market that perfectly matches the current FrankenLectionary. So don’t bother looking. If alignment with Mass readings matters to you, your closest option is the New American Bible; the Lectionary is based on the NAB subject to one-off revisions prompted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and subsequently adopted by the USCCB. (Adding to the fun: Much of the Scriptural quoting in the English-language version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church sources from the Revised Standard Version, not the NAB. But not all the CCC quotes originate from the RSV. Isn’t that special?)

Finding a “good” Catholic Bible, therefore, is a matter of considerable consternation, and websites ranging from general-interest Catholic Lite forums to the fevered underbelly of the Catholic Traditionalist movement all offer opinions with varying degrees of coherence. In general, three attributes seem to matter to people:

  • Upon what was the translation based — the Vulgate or ancient source material?
  • How literally does the translation hew to the idioms of the source material?
  • How does the translation deal with horizontal and vertical inclusive language?

Spend a few minutes in that Catholic Bible Bunny Hole and you’ll find much wailing and gnashing of teeth among people looking for the “best” translation, and they usually identify “best” as being the most word-for-word faithful to ancient sources. Yet it matters whether “ancient sources” do or don’t begin with Jerome’s Vulgate. Plus, (ahem!) literalness is not a synonym for Godliness. An idiom in Latin or Hebrew or Aramaic may or may not pass into comprehensible contemporary English; whether you want to needle over idioms that make no sense or just let the translators craft them to make sense for you is therefore a matter of preference — one that, in theory, should be theologically moot. The only reason it’s not moot is because the First Aggiornamento Armored Assault Brigade bulldozing through the 1970s deliberately mistranslated parts of the Bible and the Roman Missal to satisfy particular Wonder-Bread-and-granola ecclesiological and Christological biases, in a manner not dissimilar to the way the Protestants chucked the parts of the Bible that proved inconvenient to their, um, particular set of protestations. Had the translators been more faithful and less partisan stewards of their task, today no one would really give a whit about the difference between formal and dynamic equivalence. Vigilance is high because the shenanigans were shameless.

Where those shenanigans clamored most intensely — the subject of vertical inclusive language — the Catholic Bible-buying population remains most hyper-vigilant. Vertical inclusive language was the practice of translating terms about the Supernatural Supreme Being in deliberately gender-neutral ways, including belaboring the term God so as to avoid pronouns. (You see this phenomenon at work in the ethos of some Red Habit nunneries where bretheren become comrades and “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” transmogrifies into “the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier.”) This practice sowed confusion about well-established Catholic doctrines to the point that the Vatican policed English translations of the Lectionary and the Missal, wrestling a degree of control away from the USCCB and the largely autonomous boards of experts that shaped the translation process. The base of the Lectionary is the New American Bible, but Rome found some NAB passages so theologically deficient that several rounds of additional revision and even explicit approval by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith proved necessary. Thus, some very new Catholic Bibles proclaim fidelity to Liturgiam Authenticam, the Vatican’s 2001 instruction about how to translate stuff. That the CDF found it necessary to release this document is a sign of just how far politicized the liturgical-translation process had become; that in 2017 Pope Francis unwound bits of Liturgiam Authenticam with his Magnum Principium reveals that the fight isn’t over.

The Vatican also took issue with horizontal inclusive language, or the practice of rendering in gender-neutral terms a text’s references to humans. For example, the ancient brethren might be translated as brothers and sisters. In many cases: So what? What’s wrong with recognizing that them there womenfolk are people too? For the most part horizontal inclusive language provoked merely literary disagreement, given that in some cases, the translated text effected all the sublime grace of a memorandum composed by the Diversity & Inclusion committee at UC-Berkeley. Yet some theological problems arise here, too. For example, consider the opening verse of Psalm 1, where the traditional phrase Happy the man is rendered in the RNAB as Happy those — although NABRE under the Vatican’s prodding revised it to Blessed is the man. This kind of language that pervaded the RNAB (the two transitional versions between the original NAB and the current NABRE) is considered problematic by some insofar as rendering man as person or those affirmatively precludes the possibility of interpreting the psalm in overtly Christological terms. In other words, even horizontal inclusive language sparked occasional theological disagreement.

So, yeah. On one hand, it’s a silly thing to get worked up over, except that the guardians of scriptural scholarship gave people something legitimate and substantive to get worked up over.

Thus the situation complexifies, alas.

A Tale of Nine Texts

Let’s compare the language of these nine translations of mine against a verse — Hebrews 12:1-2. We’ll start with me listing specifically which versions I possess, along with my subjective assessment of where they fall on a grid comparing both the nature of the translation as well as the inclusion of additional supplemental material (concordances, maps, extensive footnoting, etc.) within that specific version on my shelf.

  1. Vsc — The Sixto-Clementine Vulgate (1592, Latin). Minimal footnoting.
  2. DRC — Challoner Douay-Rheims (1752, English). Minimal footnoting.
  3. KJV — King James Version (1769 revision); not approved for Catholic use. Minimal footnoting.
  4. Knox — Msgr. Ronald Knox’s one-man translation (1949). Minimal footnoting.
  5. RSV-2CE — “The Didache Bible,” Ignatius Press (2015), the Revised Standard Version (Second Catholic Edition) revised in light of Liturgiam Authenticam but governed under the RSV’s original 1960s-era imprimatur. Extensive supplementary material including doctrinal lessons and exhaustive footnotes.
  6. NASB — New American Standard Bible (1971); not approved for Catholic use. Minimal footnoting, but with a concordance at the back.
  7. NIV — New International Version (1984); not approved for Catholic use, despite that it was provided to me by the diocesan prison ministry for use when I made prison visits as a lay chaplain. Minimal footnoting.
  8. GNT/TEV — Good News Translation, Today’s English Version, Second Catholic edition (1992). Some glossary and reading-table info at the back. Many line-art drawings within the text.
  9. NABRE — the closest thing to an official Bible in the U.S., given that copyright to “The New American Bible, Revised Edition” is owned by USCCB (2011). Heavy footnotes, chapter intros and maps. NABRE is an update to the 1970 NAB, although two intermediary versions — both titled Revised NAB — appeared in 1996 and 2001.

The Story of Hebrews 12:1-2

So how do each of the nine translations — six of which are approved for U.S. Catholics — stack up, comparatively?

Sixto-Clementine Vulgate

Ideoque et nos tantam habentes impositam nubem testium, deponentes omne pondus, et circumstans nos peccatum, per patientiam curramus ad propositum nobis certamen: Aspicientes in auctorem fidei, et consummatorem Jesum, qui proposito sibi gaudio sustinuit crucem, confusione contempta, atque in dextera sedis Dei sedet.

Challoner Douay-Rheims

And therefore we also having so great a cloud of witnesses over our head, laying aside every weight and sin which surrounds us, let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us: Looking on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, who, having joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth on the right hand of the throne of God.

King James Version (1769)

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking onto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Knox Version

Why then, since we are watched from above by such a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of all that weighs us down, of the sinful habit that clings so closely, and run, with all endurance, the race for which we are entered. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the origin and crown of all faith, who, to win his prize of blessedness, endured the cross and made light of its shame, Jesus, who now sits on the right of God’s throne.

Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

New American Standard Bible

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

New International Version

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Good News Translation, Today’s English Version, Second Edition

As for us, we have this large crowd of witnesses around us. So then, let us rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way, and of the sin which holds on to us so tightly, and let us run with determination the race that lies before us. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from beginning to end. He did not give up because of the cross! On the contrary, because of the joy that was waiting for him, he thought nothing of the disgrace of dying on the cross, and he is now seated at the right side of God’s throne.

New American Bible, Revised Edition

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.

… all of which to say is that any authorized Catholic Bible should suffice. Nevertheless, the NABRE is closest to Mass readings and is a well-balanced edition that, in full-sized versions, offers plenty of useful study materials. More conservative Catholics favor the RSV-2CE for its comparative lack of pronoun confusion. The Douay-Rheims was the “ancestral Bible” for Catholics for centuries, plus it’s beautiful and a close translation of the Vulgate.

Just pick the one you’ll actually open. You’ll be fine. Lectio divina and all that.

Translation Standards and the Quest for Biblical Meaning

Having been tempted by my friend Patrick, I purchased — it arrived today! — a side-by-side copy of Challoner’s revision of the Douay-Rheims Bible opposite the Clementine Vulgate. It’s a beautiful, hefty volume prepared with obvious care by Baronius Press. I flipped through it and immediately got sidetracked by textual comparisons.

Myriad copies of the Bible, in English, grace the market. There’s a smaller, but no less robust, market for Catholic versions. The major difference between Catholic and Protestant Bibles is that the Protestants removed the good parts that prove their heresy Protestant versions decline to include some “deuterocanonical” books accepted by Catholic and Orthodox authorities. So Catholic versions tend to include a bit more in the Old Testament.

Even in the Catholic-specific Bible market, you can choose from several dozen different editions, each offering slightly different translation standards and supplemental materials. Technically, the Catholic version is the Vulgate, originally prepared by St. Jerome in the fourth century A.D. The Vulgata Sixto-Clementina — the Clementine Vulgate revised, most recently, in 1598 under the leadership of Rev. Franciscus Toletus SJ during the pontificate of Clement VIII — governed until 1979, when the Nova Vulgata promulgated by Pope St. John Paul the Great became the textual basis for the Missal, the Lectionary and related liturgical texts issued in Latin after 1979. No English-language version is mandated by Roman ecclesiastical authorities as being authoritative, however.

That said, although Calvinist some people look to the King James Version as being the authoritative English-language Bible, for Catholics the pride-of-place probably goes to the Douay-Rheims version, published in phases between 1582 and 1610 by the English College at Rheims and Douay. This version translated the Vulgate, not the underlying source texts. The most recent revision to the Douay-Rheims, accomplished in the middle of the eighteenth century by bishop Richard Challoner, was approved for use in English-speaking countries and remained the dominant version until well into the twentieth century.
I presently own six different Bible versions across five physical volumes:

  • The St. Joseph Edition of the New American Bible (1970) [NAB] — this volume was given to me in elementary school as part of a multi-year preparation for the Sacrament of Confirmation. I’ve treasured it for nearly 30 years. It was explicitly approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for use in the United States and contains extensive footnotes, cross-references and brief introductory essays for each book. The NAB is still the version used in the English-language Lectionary in the United States. To the extent that there’s an “official” Catholic Bible in the U.S., it’s the NAB.
  • The New American Bible, Revised Edition (2010) [NABRE] — the USCCB’s second-edition official version, approved by Francis Cardinal George. It retains much of the extra contextual material of the NAB, like the maps and extensive footnotes, but updates the language based on new scholarship including access to the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s a bit more literal than the NAB but hasn’t yet made its way into the Lectionary. If you’ve never owned a Bible before and want one that’s easy to access with rich additional supplementary material, this one’s your best bet.
  • The side-by-side Sixto-Clementina Vulgata [Vsc] and Challoner’s Douay-Rheims [DRC], acquired this week. The Vsc is still an authoritative text of the Latin Church despite the recent release of the Nova Vulgata. DRC, beyond its historical value in the English-speaking world, is given pride-of-place by traditionalist Catholics. This one-volume compilation is probably a must-have resource for theologically aware Catholics with a rich sense of history and, ideally, some background in Latin.
  • Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition (2006) [RSV-2CE] — a revision undertaken in light of 2001’s Liturgicam Authenticam, this lovely volume by Ignatius Press doesn’t include much contextual material. It’s considered a solid, mainstream Catholic edition (it’s personally recommended by folks like Scott Hahn and Jimmy Akin). The RSV bridges the Douay-Rheims and the Authorized (King James) versions; it’s considered the first ecumenical English Bible, plus the original RSV is the source of the scriptural quotations in the English-language version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Edition of the RSV includes the deuterocanonical books and the “second edition” references the adjustments after LA.
  • New International Version (1984) [NIV] — I received a cheap NIV many years ago when I began prison ministry. This volume, published by the International Bible Society, was approved by the Michigan Department of Corrections and the Kent County Sheriff’s Department. Not theologically, of course, but because the volume is made of newsprint with a glued spine and a soft cover, it can’t readily conceal contraband into a secured facility or be used as a weapon if seized by an inmate. The NIV is a mainstream Protestant version, issued by academics rather than clerics and governed by a dynamic equivalence of the language. It’s meant to be accessible to the widest possible reading audience.

So funny thing. There’s been a long-running war in the Catholic Church — which might be close to sputtering out, Deo volente — regarding the logic of liturgical translations. One school of thought, formal equivalence, suggests that the most literal translation of the original source is the best. The other perspective, dynamic equivalence, suggests that ancient formations should be rendered in ways intelligible to modern readers. Many Bible translations fall somewhere in the middle. On top of that, you’ve got the question of what’s being translated. Original source material? The Greek Septuagint? The Vulgate? The KJV?

So in the spirit of “well, that’s interesting,” I present a table of two different verses with the resulting translation by version:

Scriptural Translations

VersionGenesis 1:1-2John 1:1-5Matthew 16:18
VscIn principio creavit Deus caelum et terram. Terra autem erat inanis et vacua, et tenebrae errant super faciem abyssi: et spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas.In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum. Omnia per ipsum facta sunt: et sine ipso factum est nihil, quod factum est. In ipso vita erat, et vita erat lux hominium: et lux in tenebris lucet, et Tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt.Et ego dico tibi, quia tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam, et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversus eam.
DRCIn the beginning God created heaven, and earth. And the earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the face of the deep: and the spirit of God moved over the waters.In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
NABIn the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters.In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
NABREIn the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth — and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters —In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
RSV-2CEIn the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.
NIVIn the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood.And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Two passages, six translations, one Bible.

To a casual reader, these differences might seem minor. Mere wording. But much mischief flows from creative translation, particularly when the translator’s politics aren’t irrelevant. Consider, most notoriously, the translation of Credo in unum Deum — the first line of the Creed — in the English version of the 1970 Missal. Credo was translated as “we believe,” despite that the only logical translation is “I believe.” (For the folks at home: “We believe,” in Latin, is credimus; this error is so basic that, quite literally, a Latin 101 student should catch it.) It took a stern rebuke by Rome to prompt the U.S. bishops to tighten the translation standards.

Of course, if a blog post about Biblical translations seems obscure, think of it this way: History has a way of leaving the interpretation of events to the chroniclers of the day. In this age of “fake news” and gross political hypocrisy and what-about-ism, whose translation of History do you trust, and why?

The Ghosts of Easters Past, Present and Future

As I write this reflection, it’s late morning on April 15. A fresh pour of coffee sits to my left — as does Queen Fiona, comfortably napping on her pillow — and to my right, an open window admits the hums and chirps of a serene spring Saturday on a quiet side street in the heart of Grand Rapids, Michigan. As if by the product of elven magic, the trees have budded seemingly overnight; in fact, several trees across the street already appear to be mostly leafed. It’s peaceful, which means it’s a good time to write.
Last night was not peaceful. I just couldn’t get comfortable, so I kept waking up and at one point, I even decamped to the couch. Right around 4 a.m., when the thunderstorm rolled past. During the stretches of wakefulness last night, a few thoughts about life, Easter and everything bubbled within the soft grey goo betwixt my earholes.
Allow me to share.

Easter Past

At some point, the “Easter” of my childhood transformed from a family-themed chocolate festival into a religious duty. This ghost of memory asserted itself for the first time about a week ago, after I had mentioned to my friend Patrick that I had written a short essay that will be included in the forthcoming book provisionally titled Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church, edited by Eve Tushnet and published through Wipf+Stock’s Cascade Press. A central motif in that essay, which addressed my experience in the diocesan vocations program in the early 2000s, focused on one central event: A brief moment of spiritual clarity obtained, interestingly, around noon on Good Friday, 2000, at the Legion of Christ novitiate in Cheshire, Connecticut.
That experience proved to be a pivot point of sorts. Before it, Easter was more of a family event: There’d be a luscious feast and chocolate bunnies and happy memories. And, yes, Easter Mass — but a church service was a small price to pay for all the fun and food.
After Cheshire, and as I got more deeply involved in the religious discipline of the Church, the “family stuff” yielded to spiritual renewal. I actually looked forward to Lent and its period of reflection and rejuvenation. I did retreats. I went to penance services. I prayed the Stations of the Cross. The Triduum presented a busy yet fulfilling experience: Although as chief sacristan and parochial master of ceremonies for my parish I was constantly on the go, I found my centering moments in the little places. Like the period of Eucharistic adoration on Thursday night, or the chance to take a pew with my breviary while the decorators planned where they were going to place the lilies. Or just sitting by the tabernacle after the 11:30 Mass on Easter Sunday, the church empty and everyone gone, to just be.

Easter Present

Yet it barely registered that this week was Holy Week.
The ghost of Easter Present whispers — barely audibly — that a lot of stuff changed in 2008, and over that year, religious discipline took a mighty fall. The nine-year anniversary of that transition draws nigh.
Divide 2008 into thirds. Late winter and early spring saw me twitchy. I wanted a change. That’s the period when I first started thinking about long-term life goals, and even achieved some by earning my open-water dive certification. But it wasn’t enough, so I began to think more actively about my social network. The late-spring-to-late-summer period witnessed a veritable explosion of new friends, new experiences and a wildly chaotic summer-long encounter with love, sex and dating.
The allure of hedonism, the restlessness of my early 30s and a changing portfolio of habits and goals pulled me away from the Church and toward a radically different lifestyle. By the end of the year, I had stopped regular religious observation. It wasn’t deliberate, and it wasn’t even so much a loss of faith — more like a paradigm shifting without a clutch. I drew more and more comfort from the (admittedly misguided) belief that I could have my cake and eat it, too, by simply invoking St. Augustine’s logic of “Lord, make me holy … but not yet.”
So this is the world I currently inhabit: Not faithless, not anti-Church, but largely absent from the public celebrations of the Church. Untethered, perhaps.

Easter Future

The ghost of Easter Future asks: What path may a person take to remain faithful, if that path isn’t perfectly consistent with the disciplinary norms of the Church? I suspect I’m being presented with a trick question, because the orthodox answer is delightfully concise.
It’s partially the Augustine factor, and partially a function of asserting a quasi-gnostic, quasi-individualistic ethos to justify one’s disengagement from the ordinary discipline of the Church. You know the drill: “I’m smarter than the average bear, therefore the rituals that guide the rubes are beneath me; after all, I have access to a higher understanding of Truth.”
The funny thing is, I love ritual. Yet in all of my travels across the diocese, I have yet to find a priest who (a) does ritual well, and (b) offers homilies that aren’t either solipsistic or trite or both. So an essential part of the Mass is missing, and I must supply it for myself. The temptation is to say that I can supply it on my own time.
So the ghost challenges me to think about Easter Future:

  • By putting aside a smarmy over-reliance on Augustinian thinking.
  • By putting aside the arrogance that cleaves a person from the daily life of the Church.
  • By re-orienting life’s burdens to ensure adequate time for spiritual growth.

I will consider this challenge.

Sundry Updates

Enough about Easter. Here are other things of note:

  1. Next weekend I’ll speak at the Get Published! conference in Holland. Attendance is free; the event is coordinated by MiFiWriters. Should be a ton of fun; I’m sitting on one panel and leading another (on query letters). Last year’s event was great.
  2. I’m also privileged to speak at the UntitledTown Book and Author Festival in Green Bay, Wisconsin in a few weeks. I’ll be leading a discussion about how aspiring authors should get started with small presses and literary journals. Lots of fabulous speakers lined up for the three-day event, including Margaret Atwood.
  3. And twice in the next month I’ll be off to the Chicagoland area, once for our quarterly NAHQ board meetings and once to speak about health data analytics to the Illinois Association for Healthcare Quality at that group’s annual educational conference.
  4. Lots going on at the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters, not least of which is a massive renovation to our website. As board treasurer, I’ve been focused on that piece of the adjustment, although many more exciting changes will be announced very soon.
  5. I’ve been plugging away at Caffeinated Press. Working through a handful of manuscripts, which is great, but sweet mother of potatoes it’s been a slog. Partially because my attention has been divided a thousand ways from Sunday.
  6. Looks like another Vegas trip is on the horizon.
  7. I’m pleased to report that Ziggy the Cat — one of the two neighborhood felines who frequent Jason’s outdoor Café de Meowmix — appears to be doing much better. She’s gaining weight and her fur loss has reversed. I think she was abandoned last summer. I’ve been looking out for her. Sweet kitty, although a bit of a bully to the other café patrons.
  8. Got to enjoy a wonderful “day off” a few weeks ago. My friend AmyJo hosted an all-day marathon of the extended edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. After 11.5 hours, several cocktails and a revolving-door of guests … it was great.

All for now.

On Bakeries, Pizza Shops, Florists and Same-Sex Nuptials

I can’t think of any other word to describe my impression of the brouhaha sweeping the country about the collision of same-sex marriage and the religious beliefs of small-business owners.
Off the bat, I’ll declaim what I believe to be self-evidently true: The radical monoculture of the Totalitarian Left tears at our shared social fabric. I could go on at length about the subject, but there’s not much I can add to what’s already been published by conservative commentators the last few weeks. Even for conservatives like me, who are supportive of gay rights, it’s difficult to be allies when the most prominent spokespeople of the Left have gone Full Alinsky on us, adopting hate-filled rhetoric and violent intimidation along the You Will Be Made To Care axis of “argumentation.”
That said, I am skeptical that a plain and faithful reading of Scripture justifies a small-business owner refusing to supply a same-sex wedding. There’s plenty in both Scripture and Tradition to bar a faithful Christian from being one of the spouses in a same-sex marriage … but serving as a contractor? One could, I suppose, elucidate a fairly subtle theological argument to justify non-engagement with a same-sex wedding in any capacity, including as a vendor, but it’s an argument — an interpretation of religious norms, not a plain-text reading of one. And the nature of many of these arguments I’ve encountered recently suggest that there’s not much theological nuance there; the arguments have all the superficiality of a post-hoc rationalization, a thin veneer disguising overt discrimination.
In other words: I throw the bullshit card on the idea that there’s a specifically religious reason compelling enough to justify the denial of service to same-sex clients. Especially when the very folks who argue their religious rights are violated by acting as vendors for a same-sex wedding also argue that those weddings are invalid in the eyes of God. So what’s the religious problem, then, in catering a make-believe wedding? The only way the religious-exemption logic holds is if the objector conceded that same-sex marriage (even civil marriage) is divinely sanctioned — but then, divine sanction erases the claim for a religious exemption. The mind boggles at the irrationality of it all.
To be sure, many Christians profess significant problems with homosexuality and the expansion of marriage to same-sex partners. Those problems are rooted in valid readings of Christian theology. I believe very strongly that Christians should not be targeted or persecuted for adhering to those beliefs. I also believe very strongly that gays and lesbians should not be ostentatiously refused public accommodation by businesses, through the self-serving and open-ended assertion of religious liberty.
These Christians are also Americans. The civil law has recently opened a gulf between what’s legally permissible and what many Christians view as being morally permissible, regarding the institution of marriage. Squaring the circle between private faith and the public Constitutional order isn’t easy, but there are ways beyond public foot-stomping to remain true to your faith while fully participating in even today’s more permissible social climate.
In fact, the real problem here is the perfect storm of a brand of Evangelical conservative Christians who want to make a stand, and be seen making a stand, for their disapprobation of gay rights — in opposition to far-Left ideologues eager to pick a fight with the “bitter clingers.” So we’re left with the rank idiocy of the Indiana and Arkansas RFRA bills but also uncharitable lawsuits against bakers and florists who prefer not to celebrate that which they morally oppose. The veiled threats of the far-right blogosphere contributes, too, with its denunciations of the “caving” by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, while far-left activists delight in vitriolic denunciations of alleged intolerance that are untethered to reality. All of this drama constitutes a self-inflicted injury for Christian conservatives.
Let’s look at this from the perspective of a devoutly Christian baker, caterer, florist or wedding planner. You’re behind the counter, conducting your trade in peace. You go to church on Sunday, you tithe, you pray. And then Adam and Steve sashay into your storefront, ready to place an order for a sheet cake for their upcoming wedding. What do you do?
When you walk the Path of Martyrs, eager to be seen as making a stand for Jesus, you tell Adam and Steve that you can’t support them because you’re a Christian and won’t be a party to their sin. Cue the raging public shitstorm. (And, in a sense, the religious hypocrisy — viz Matthew 6:5.)
In a more reasonable world, when Adam and Steve cross your threshold, you smile at them, congratulate them on their engagement, ask friendly questions about their color choices, and enquire about the date of their ceremony. Then you appear crestfallen when you say that you can’t accommodate that date because you’re already booked solid that weekend, but you’d be happy to refer Adam and Steve to Jane’s Bakery across the street. And wouldn’t you know it, Jane just came back from a confectioner’s conference and she has some really great designs for contemporary his-and-his cakes!
Better yet, you mark that date on your calendar and genuinely take it off as a day of prayer, thus protecting you from the accusation of lying while deepening your relationship with Jesus. Sure, you’ll lose some revenue, but consider it as an investment in your treasure in Heaven. Net result: Happy customers, happy proprietors. You have rendered on to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and onto God that which is God’s.
The cynic view, of which I’m increasingly persuaded, is that all of this drama has very little to do with gay marriage. If Adam and Steve want to get married, fine; you’d think they’d find vendors who support them, instead of compelling vendors who don’t. Human decency, and all that. And you’d also think that small-business owners would recognize that baking a cake isn’t a sin, even if you don’t like your customer.
What we’re seeing is, I think, less a genuine question of gay rights or religious freedom, and more a paradigmatic question of whose orthodoxy will govern the terms of engagement in the naked public square. So in a sense, all of this drama is small-small potatoes skirmishing in a much larger and more significant cultural war, a conflict wherein certain modes of thinking that contradict the Authoritarian Left must be rooted out, suppressed, denounced — while certain practices that conservative activists despise must be de-legitimized in the name of “freedom.”
Don’t be distracted. None of this is really about a nuanced view of Christianity, or about gay marriage. Rather, it’s about competing claims to the power to coerce normative values on the larger body politic.
Hence, dismay.

The Nature of Faith

Last Sunday, we had a closing four-hour retreat for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults at St. Robert of Newminster. The session was pleasant and the people at that parish are really quite delightful. The experience, at the time when Palm Sunday opens Holy Week, reinforced for me a concept I don’t take seriously enough — that is, the role of religiosity in the lives of ordinary people.
The social scientists tell us that formal religious profession is on the wane. Only one in five Americans visits a place of worship in any given week. Although three-quarters of us confess Christianity, demographers project that Christianity will be a minority faith tradition by 2030 given that one-third of people under age 30 claim no religious affiliation whatsoever.
Yet the religious impulse, as a human phenomenon, is quite different from religious practice. For the unchurched or the atheistic, their religious impulses tend to find expression in other pursuits — sexual licentiousness, radical environmentalism, unfocused spiritualism, unfettered egoism, etc.
Look at the pseudo-messianic undertones of the climate-change True Believers. Some of them suggest that people who disagree with their interpretation of climate models aren’t just mistaken — they’re morally defective and ought to be silenced — or even put in jail. Look, too, at the furor over the departure of newly appointed Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. Some representative supporters of same-sex marriage have argued, loudly, that one man’s private donation six years ago is a public matter because he’s a public face of a company. Think what you will about climate change and same-sex marriage: The zeal to persecute non-believers is a religious impulse that goes beyond mere disagreement about facts, theories or policies.
The phenomenon is simple, really. Human nature is what it is, and that nature prompts us to seek to belong to a tribe. The evolutionary biology and developmental psychology of humankind is fairly well understood on the matter, thanks to pioneering work by researchers like Jared Diamond. Our tribes both fuel and channel our passions and inspire emotional bonds that transcend abstract, dispassionate reason.
Tribes are funny things. In simplest form, they’re society’s little platoons, the places where we discern meaning and level-set sociocultural expectations and find refuge in a like-minded community. In years past, tribes in the United States looked like ethnic bars, churches, fraternal clubs and neighborhood associations. Yet these mediating institutions, across the board, are failing. Gentrification is leading to the erosion ethnic identity for most white Americans; church attendance is on the wane; fraternal organizations are a shell of their former glory; neighborhood civic groups have been superseded by online communities.
So how do we find our tribe? How do we belong? We do it the same way we always have — we find people who “look like us” and share our worldview. Except now, we’re not finding communal solace in religion or civic virtue but rather in political and public-policy forums, and our potential fellow travelers don’t need to hail from our neighborhood but rather can come from anywhere there’s broadband access. Hence the polarization of the electorate: We’re sorting ideologically across party lines because we have fewer purely local social ties to bind us.
Religiosity, when channeled through institutions that have had millennia to develop, is mostly benign. Religiosity, divorced of anchor institutions and self-directed through political channels, is harder to manage. Harder to mediate. Without a diversity of those “little platoons” to provide a broad-based context, we fall into the solipsism of a single-issue messiah. Political activism sourced from a wholly self-contained belief system cannot be reasoned with; it can only be confronted or accommodated.
Hebrews 11:1 reminds us that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Faith compels us; even people who profess atheism nevertheless need faith in something. It’s hard-wired into us as humans. As the rich tapestry of competing loyalties — a diversity that helped to check the excesses of any single constituent part — fades for many of our fellow citizens into a single-issue monochromatic print, our faith loses its grounding.
Some may argue that religious conservatives are ignorant. Or superstitious. Some probably are. But their faith in something bigger than themselves offers their religiosity a more humble, more humane path. Those whose faith hails from their own privileged beliefs, answerable to no higher authority than their own egos, have a tougher struggle to maintain a similar humble, humane demeanor. And, in this poisoned climate, it shows.
As a Catholic, then, I must confess: I have not really appreciated the gift of faith until I finally understood people whose faith is little more than a megaphone for their own psyches.

Blessings, Old and New

Today is Christmas. Ho3.
Once upon a yesteryear, the last six weeks of the calendar marked a magical period of fun, family and festivity. The season kicked off with the trek up the hill to my grandparents’ house on Thanksgiving Day. We’d enjoy a feast that would put any Edwardian glutton to shame –assembling in the White Dining Room, a twice-a-year event, with non-casual attire and rare delicacies stretching as far as the eye could see — then cap it off with the thrill of defeat known as the “Lions’ game.” Heaven help us when it was Detroit v. Green Bay; battle lines formed ’round the TV, with the Michigan Delegation duly singing Nearer My God to Thee as the defense sunk beneath the waves while the Indiana Delegation surged with a wild-eyed ferocity that would make Mel Gibson look as sedate as Ben Stein.
Then, we’d embark upon that Great Interregnum known as Advent, when the spiritual side of Christmas received its due accord. The ancient Christian fathers knew what they were doing when they introduced seasonality into the liturgical calendar; moreso, when they pushed the cycle of readings to three years on Sundays and two years on weekdays. Advent became a period both familiar and yet ever new; in my youth, at a Franciscan parish, by the time a new three-year Gospel cycle began we’d have new friars and thus new perspectives on that year’s narrative.
Times change. My parents divorced, my grandfather died, everyone’s moved to different domiciles, schedules swapped as in-laws proliferated, food lines slimmed down from “extravagant fare on china with silver” to “grab a paper plate for appetizers,” sweaters and ties gave way to pajama pants … and I’m in my mid-30s living with a pair of cats. Over the last few years, the holiday season has crumbled a bit. It became a duty to buy gifts. It became rote to do the same things at church. It felt odd that “family” occurred twice per year, in the Snowy Season.
The last few years haven’t been especially merry. Acedia set in, I suppose. Christmas became just one more thing to plan around, like a doctor’s appointment or annual performance review.  One more thing to spend money on. One more reason to sit down with family you see almost never and pretend like things are a happy, healthy whole. Indeed, my favorite part of the last six weeks of the year is the anticipation over my annual two-week vacation, a time spent not on others but rather myself.
Yet. Yet. Yet. It’s tempting to catch yourself judging today by the impossible standard of yesterday. It’s the fate of mankind — graced, as we are, by mortality; cursed, however, by relentless novelty — to never step in the same stream twice. The things that used to excite us eventually lose their wonder. The things we used to tire of, now bring delight. The challenge of Christmas, then, is to resist treating the holiday like a repeat, but instead to find new meaning every single time, even when there’s no lodestar to compare against.
This year, I kicked off the holiday season with Thanksgiving with my mom and brother. Then I had a second feast with friends at Brittany and Steve’s. We’ve had snow consistently in December, and little things — a gift here, a card there, a party with friends somewhere else — made a huge difference. We had a fun party at my grandmother’s condo last Saturday, and last night at my mom’s was great — especially chucking indoor snowballs at my young nephew. Today I’m drinking coffee with Bailey’s, writing, while the cats sit peacefully on their pillows. I think tonight I’ll make a fire and watch the Doctor Who special.
Christmas isn’t about gifts, or decorations, or cookies or anything else. More than anything, it’s a state of mind that says two things simultaneously. First, in that ancient Christian tradition, we are invited to reflect on the miracle of life and the saving power of innocence in the face of worldly adversity. Second, we are called to impose our own meaning on the world around us, to choose to find reasons for joy … or not. Our call.
Choose wisely. For myself, this year, I choose to enjoy the blessings of Christmas, and I pray that you do, too.

Wisdom and The Law

Many moons ago, I half-justified to a friend a particular deviation from Catholic moral theology by arguing that as long as he understood the rationale behind the Church’s prohibition, he could live according to the real moral truth (imperfectly encapsulated by a behavioral norm) despite his superficial non-conformance with the letter of the law. The subtext of that somewhat Gnostic argument? That much of the thou-shalt-not discipline of Scripture and Tradition was intended to provide concrete guidance to the great unwashed masses who lack the intellectual wherewithal to properly adjudicate complex ethical problems.

We, the wise, however, ought not to labor under such crude restrictions, better suited to toddlers than adults. Ergo, as long as we could tease out a logical superstructure of principle beneath those crusty old rubrics, we could live as enlightened souls who didn’t obsess over compliance with rules intended to shepherd the children around us.

Interesting, then, to read Aaron Rothstein’s review of Steven Weitzman’s Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom published in the current issue of The Weekly Standard. Rothstein — a medical student at Wake Forest — offers a refreshing insight into the interplay of wisdom and spiritual humility:

The rabbis conceived of gezeirah, alternatively known as building a fence around the Torah. One places certain restrictions on lifestyle in order to (in Rabban Gamliel’s words) “keep a man far from transgression.” … In other words, if we understand the secrets of why we do certain things or why certain laws exist, we remove the barriers that prevent us from breaking more serious laws. Solomon’s downfall, then, demonstrates the danger of too much understanding — a biblical version of the Faustian tale.

Put differently: Laws, both secular and religious, serve as markers that delimit acceptable behavior. In many cases, those markers sit very far away from grey zones, in order to protect people from the confusion reigning at morality’s twilight. When we, the wise, treat those markers as rules for the unenlightened — when we decide that our own wisdom is sufficient to light our way through that twilight — we risk missing the next set of markers, hidden in the darkness, roping off the point of no return. Ethics becomes tautology: A given act is acceptable because I believe it’s acceptable. QED. And the wisdom inherent in the original placement of those universal markers fades from public consciousness.

Having decided that I have ascertained the real lesson of the rules that govern everyone else, I can then presume to know when those rules may safely be broken. And what’s true of one’s private life — e.g., out-thinking biblical dietary norms — works in one’s public life, too. Anyone want to wager whether all the best and brightest at the National Security Agency will always elect to follow domestic-surveillance laws, enacted in messy and haphazard fashion by a dysfunctional Congress, when the intelligence analysts think they’ve got a compelling case to skirt them in service to their version of the public good?

We break laws with impunity when we think we understand the law’s purpose and decide that some other, higher, purpose ought to trump.

Therein lies the risk. Humility — a trait that often comes easier to men of intellectually modest means — helps us to acknowledge that the law’s markers serve a valuable purpose and were erected with foresight. When we lack that humility, we treat those markers as speed bumps, yet we rarely acknowledge that some wisdom superior to our own may have played a part in setting them.

Solomon fell because he out-thought the Torah and God decided to remind him that mere wisdom isn’t a license to disobedience. Today, we see case after case after case of men out-thinking both statutory and natural law, and we must ask: Are we really that wise, after all?

Thoughts on the Moral Permissibility of Abortion

An extended coffee-shop conversation with Abbi yesterday prompted the observation that I haven’t bothered to put to writing an extended treatment about the moral permissibility of abortion.

The most intriguing aspect of yesterday’s discussion was Abbi’s claim that she hasn’t encountered many substantial, thoughtful defenses of a pro-life agenda. Although she’s still a bit of a young little whippersnapper, she demonstrates clarity and charity of thought and seems, intellectually, to outrank most of her peers. So an idiot, she’s not — but smothered by an environment of hyper-reflexive progressivism at art school? Quite possibly.

But I digress.

Any solid treatment of abortion intended to apply outside of a particular faith tradition must not be rooted in explicitly sectarian terms. Thus, despite my Catholicism, I cannot appeal to formal Catholic doctrine if I wish to convince an atheist of my position. So this treatment will, by necessity, skip over the religious arguments and rely instead on pure philosophy.

First things first. The problems of rape, incest, fatal fetal deformities and maternal risk constitute special forms of the question and will be addressed later. For the bulk of this treatment, assume that the fetus is healthy and the conception was voluntary.

Now …

Continuum of Life

Human life exists as a pure and unbroken continuum, from a four-cell embryonic cluster to a 115-year-old woman on her deathbed. From conception until death, the organism is, and can only be, human. There is no point where you can draw a line and say “human here, not-human there.” At least not until cyborgs become common.

The organism is capable of varying degrees of autonomous action at certain, well-defined stages of that continuum. A 6-week-old embryo cannot survive outside the womb, for example, whereas a 30-week fetus could survive with external support. And a 40-year-old adult who suffered a traumatic brain injury in an auto accident and now exists in a persistent vegetative state would die of asphyxiation or dehydration within minutes or days without life-support equipment. A spry 90-year-old, however, might well outrun and out-think a morbidly obese teenager. The organism has periods of absolute or moderate dependence at various stages of its life cycle, and sometimes the natural arc of capability, autonomy and dependency breaks down, favorably or unfavorably, from injury, illness or life choices.

Because the organism is purely, wholly and unambiguously human from conception to death, we are logically compelled to accept the humanity of the organism at all phases of its life’s journey. And because it’s human, it enjoys basic rights — including the right to life.

Philosophers invoke a thought experiment called “The Ship of Theseus” to illustrate the point. Picture it: The Greek hero Theseus has a ship. As the ship sets sail from harbor, the crew mutinies and throws him overboard. He swims after his pirated vessel. Meanwhile a second ship, filled with lumber, accompanies his hijacked command. Every day, the crew tosses a plank from Theseus’s original ship into the water and replaces it with a new board from the supply vessel. Theseus collects these cast-offs and reassembles them. By the time everyone reaches a foreign port, every single plank in the original ship has been cast off and reassembled. The question: Which ship, of the two that arrive in the foreign port, is the original ship of Theseus? Is it the reconstructed one or the one that evolved through the voyage? It’s an interesting question because it highlights the serious philosophical problem of identity persistence over time.

Every seven years or so, every cell in the human body has been replaced. Are you the same person today that you were eight years ago? In a purely material sense, no. All the constituent pieces have been replaced, like those of the ship of Theseus. The “you” of eight years ago may be wholly gone, biologically, but your personal identity (your inner, mental Theseus, if you will) persists. Is that enough to say that you’re the same person you were eight years ago?

The question of personal identity undergirds the logic behind extending full personhood to the four-cell embryo, the full-grown adult and the senile senior. In a material sense, each phase of the organism’s life is radically different; in a mental sense, there’s an unbroken chain of memory and identity that stretch forward and backward in time, from creation to destruction.

Some philosophers — including, most notoriously, Peter Singer — argue that moral rights including a right to life apply only to whose who can act as autonomous moral agents. A person so situated is capable of making choices and responding to choices made about him, with memory and reason unaided by external support. Thus, adults and even children enjoy moral rights. Fetuses, infants younger than roughly six months old, the senile elderly and people in a persistent vegetative state cannot act as autonomous moral agents, thus they do not have the same intrinsic right to life that others enjoy. They may be, it’s argued, destroyed at will by their guardians with no moral penalty whatsoever.

Despite the efforts of many to split hairs, the pro-life argument presents as a pair of interrelated judgments:

  • Humans exist in a mental, moral and physical continuum of development from fertilized egg to elderly adult. Any attempt to deprive an embryo or fetus of the same rights one would extend to an adult must therefore plausibly argue that the pre-natal are qualitatively different (e.g., not definitively human) from post-natal people. If no such argument is forthcoming, then the moral permissibility of abortion becomes much more difficult to justify.
  • The pro-life position asserts that all humans regardless of condition obtain moral rights, including a fundamental right to life. If one concedes that there’s no qualitative difference between fetus and adult in terms of its intrinsic humanity, but nevertheless assert that some aspect of the organism’s condition at a specific point in its developmental continuum lets us deprive it of some or all of its rights at that phase, then we need to settle two questions. First, what are the specific markers that delineate that period of impaired moral status? Is it fetal viability, birth, or the onset of self-awareness as an infant? Second, what are the conditions that serve as toggle switches in a person’s moral status? Is it truly moral self-awareness? If so, then what’s the moral justification that allows abortion but not euthanasia, infanticide or the summary execution of people in a persistent vegetative or senile state?

It’s logically possible to deny that there’s an inherent right to life, for anyone. Some governments (notably, China) follow this tack. If you deny that there’s a basic human right to life, then congratulations — you’ve won the pro-abortion debate … but it’s not clear that many in the West would agree with you, and certainly this position is inconsistent with the foundational governing documents of the United States of America.

Accepting that a fetus is human but alleging that abortion is permissible because the fetus hasn’t yet been born presupposes that the condition of birth imparts moral rights upon the fetus. There’s no getting around the point that if you do believe this, then you necessarily accept that the fetus’s lack of autonomy (either its inability to act autonomously, or its dependency on some other person or device for its sustenance) is the condition that justifies its denial of basic human rights. To therefore hold that abortion is permissible for a fetus but infants, the brain damaged or the senile/infirm elderly do enjoy moral rights is to simultaneously hold two logically inconsistent beliefs. In addition, people who make this type of claim also incur a tighter logical standard for opposing the death penalty, since they’ve already opened the door to killing humans because of an aspect of condition.

Abortion, Considered

One of the most common arguments made in favor of a permissive abortion regime rests on the inconvenience of pregnancy upon the mother. You know the drill: That pregnancy is too disruptive to a woman’s body, or that bearing a child could put the woman’s economic standing in jeopardy. A woman therefore should have an absolute right to terminate any unwanted pregnancy.

If we accept the premise that human life is an unbroken continuum during which human rights always apply, then the fact that a woman is pregnant means that the woman’s not the only one with skin in the game. The child within her womb has a right to exist, and that right outweighs a mere argument from convenience.

The Sexual Revolution fundamentally altered our sexual norms and the cultural consequences of sexual behavior. Access to contraception, the disambiguation of sex from marriage and changing gender roles means that sex, today, is a fairly casual affair.

But sex, from a purely biological perspective, is an act with one purpose and one outcome: Procreation. All of the other stuff — the physical thrill, the feeling of emotional connectedness — is evolution’s way of making sex fun so we’ll have more of it and therefore expand the human population. After all, if sex were painful and boring, we would have gone extinct as a species many moons ago. It’s a serious error in judgment to confuse the purpose of sex with its side benefits — a problem not unlike the concern that people who dine on sweet, calorie-rich foods and thereby become morbidly obese have flip-flopped the purpose of eating (getting enough calories to function) with the enjoyment of taste sensations and the foodie culture.

We treat sex like a form of entertainment. Doing so entails a degree of risk: The “risk” that the biological function of copulation will, in fact, result in the biologically intended pregnancy despite all of our attempts to prevent it.

At that point of improperly prevented conception, there’s a fetus and therefore another moral being whose existence isn’t just a matter of convenience, but an actor in the moral calculus who enjoys a privileged, rights-based claim to continued existence.

A woman who seeks to avoid pregnancy should either abstain from sexual behavior or seek sterilization through tubal ligation or some other method. It’s OK to have sex for fun, even with various forms of contraception, but if recreational sex yields a fetus, then the fetus has a right to life. Period. The woman’s “choice” comes not in deciding to abort, but in deciding to procreate (i.e., to use sex for an entertainment purpose inconsistent with biology); after she assumes the risk, she must bear the consequences. Such a position isn’t a cold-hearted, patriarchal exercise in religious conservatism, but rather the conclusion of dispassionate syllogism that understands that the purpose of sex isn’t orgasm but conception.

Abortion as birth control, in other words, is motivated by a sense of entitlement that sex may be misused beyond its biological purpose without consequence even if a human life should be destroyed in the process. Such a position isn’t morally serious.

Men’s Rights

If it’s generally accepted that a woman has absolute discretion to abort a fetus, then the right of the male half to influence the decision — to “abort” his legal or financial stake in the pregnancy, or to force the woman to carry his child to term or to abort it if he doesn’t want to be a father — must be addressed. It’s fundamentally irrational to deprive fathers of the “choice” of parenthood that woman get, when the man and the woman were equal partners in assuming the risk of sexual activity that ended in pregnancy.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Women’s Rights

It’s supremely ironic that feminists remain the loudest proponents of unlimited abortion-on-demand, because a culture that treats pregnancy like an illness that can be cured with a pill or a brief outpatient procedure reinforces the commodification of the female body. The social role of women as mothers — a culture that enforces stability and helps rein in male behavior — erodes when motherhood itself loses its meaning.

In addition, the culture of predatory male behavior that treats women like another piece of meat to warm their beds for a night becomes significantly easier to perpetuate when sexual behavior has little or no consequence. Although “liberated” women — often wealthy white liberals — may enjoy the freedom of no-cost sex with largely non-threatening metrosexual males, the reality on the ground for minority or low-income women is markedly different. Because abortion absolves men of their fatherhood requirements, it’s more likely that men will play the field and resist commitment; they’ll mate with the women most likely to accept their sociocultural posturing. And if a woman does get pregnant and he doesn’t want it, the odds increase that she’ll be the victim of domestic violence as he tries to compel her to abort even if she doesn’t want to. The cycle of violence continues with the only clear winner being the aggressive, misogynist male.

It’s easy to pretend that contraceptive abortion will lead women to glorious, liberated lives like those on display in Sex in the City. More likely, that city is Compton and the result of carefree sex is more abuse, rape and unwanted pregnancies.


At the beginning of this essay I mentioned several special cases of the argument.

  1. Rape.  The idea of choice is a powerful one. A woman’s voluntary assent to sexual activity resulting in pregnancy is the very choice that privileges the fetal claim to life, on the grounds that pregnancy is the consequence of a choice and not a “choice” in itself. But what happens when the pregnancy was forced upon the woman involuntarily? Not just through the obvious crime of forcible rape, but through cases of “drunk sex” when the woman was not in a position to give clear-headed consent to the sexual activity? U.S. politics tends to favor abortion exceptions related to rape. Although the fetus does not suffer a diminished moral standing based merely on the circumstances of its creation, people (myself included) have a natural sympathy toward the victims of forcible rape. In a perfect world, an “unwanted” fetus conceived with an unwilling partner would nevertheless be born and perhaps given for adoption. The world being far from perfect, the prudent course may well include the routine administration of a drug to interdict uterine implantation in the first 24 hours after a forcible rape to prevent pregnancy.
  2. Incest.  The incest exception is odd; if the incest was forced, then it’s rape and the question moves along that track. If the incest was voluntary, then what characteristics about incest justify abortion that non-incestuous unions don’t enjoy? It’s true that there’s a marginally higher risk of birth defects related to close-kin interbreeding, but if those defects are serious enough, they’re treated as a special case of fetal deformity. If there aren’t any serious birth defects, then it’s not clear why incest justifies abortion. Don’t misunderstand; I am as strongly affected by the incest taboo as any, but the argument for voluntary incest as an automatic justification of abortion seems to be less a matter of reason and more a matter of “Eeew, gross.” Which, alas, isn’t sufficient in itself to override fetal right to life.
  3. Fatal Fetal Deformities. Not all fetuses are capable of natural life — e.g., anencephalic fetuses, or fetuses subject to intense trauma in the second trimester. In cases where there’s almost no chance that the fetus will survive birth, it must be recognized that nature misfired; there’s no moral duty to carry a fatally deformed fetus to term.
  4. Maternal Life. In some cases, a woman may learn that a pregnancy will put her own life at substantial risk. The classic example is the case of a woman who gets pregnant and then discovers she has serious cancer that requires a regime of radiation or chemotherapy that would kill the fetus. If she delays treatment until after the child is born, then her own survivability plummets. In situations like this, there’s a competition between two moral absolutes: The right to life of the fetus, and the right to life of the mother. In such difficult circumstances, there’s no possibility of rote guidance. Factors like fetal risk to treatment, the mother’s long-term prognosis, the odds that the mother would die in labor, etc. all complexify the situation and create a true moral dilemma that requires case-by-case adjudication. But in such a case, abortion — being the resolution to an equally strong counter-claim of maternal life — at the least becomes morally justifiable. (Note, however, that general claims about the psychological well-being of a woman do not rise to the level of a “life of the mother” exception.)

Concluding Thoughts

Abortion has ravaged American politics for two generations. The tension seems to fall ideologically; people who follow strongly feminist politics or who elevate their own convenience and sexual satisfaction above the consequences of their sexual activity tend to favor lenient abortion regimes; people who adhere to a strongly religious morality, or who remain more sensitive to duty and rights, favor restrictive abortion regimes.

From a moral perspective, abortion is difficult to justify except in rare cases if one accepts the idea that human life exists in a continuum from conception to natural death and that human rights — including a right to life — exist at all phases of that continuum. If one does accept the continuum-of-life argument, then there are very few ways to justify abortion without denying the existence of a universal human right to life. Although the continuum-of-life argument may be open to criticism, abortion-rights activists have generally not articulated a clear and convincing counter-argument rooted in biology and sound philosophy that withstands logical debate and doesn’t lead to either internal contradictions or very slippery slopes.

Alas, too many people engage the abortion debate at the level of bumper-sticker sloganeering; advocates and opponents alike, in too large of numbers, mindlessly shout pro-choice or pro-life sentiments without undertaking a logical inquiry into the arguments supporting their positions. And that’s too bad — because there are many sharp people, like Abbi, who might be open to persuasion or at least moderation if the full arguments pro et contra were thoroughly and dispassionately discussed in the public square.

Divine-Command Ethics in a Secular World

A quick review from Moral Philosophy 101: The divine-command theory of ethics holds that morally laudatory behavior is that which conforms to the will of God or a canonical text; morally blameworthy behavior is that which contradicts divine teaching.

For an ethical theory, divine command is hard to beat in its simplicity. The tough questions about the source of morality or the proper content of a praiseworthy life don’t need to be determined, they merely need to be consulted through a religious text or spiritual leader. Unlike the sophisticated mental gyrations that deontologists or utilitarians must make to obtain some degree of logical coherence for their moral system, people who get their ethics from God have an easy go of it. As they say: RTFM.

Assuming, of course, that you actually believe in God and accept as binding the principles of whatever holy scripture you profess. A problematic assessment, insofar as the patterns of modern religious belief shift religious conviction for more and more people from a deep-seated, unquestioning faith toward a cultural or familial artifact to be observed but not necessarily internalized.

It’s ironic, then, that in the Western world, there’s a resurgence in divine-command ethics — fueled not by organized religion, but within those belief systems that substitute as a quasi-religious alternative for a mostly atheist or agnostic worldview.

The most obvious expression of the “new” divine-command ethics derives from the unshackling of ideology as a first-order motivator, particularly but not exclusively with folks from the Left. Their decline in respect for institutional authority means that neither religious nor political leaders can inspire unquestioned loyalty that helps to impose an externally locused belief system on them. Freed from religious norms and disdainful of mass culture, these souls “deify” their ideological predispositions and use internally derived principles (made absolute) as the yardstick of morality.

Cultural anthropologists argue that humans are hard-wired socially to adopt belief systems that help differentiate friend-from-foe in larger social contexts while providing a reservoir of meaning about one’s purpose and destiny. The reasons for this are vast and deep — E. O. Wilson presents a good high-level overview of the concept in his recent book,The Social Conquest of Earth. Long story short, we need beliefs that situate us within the whole. Religion has played this role for millennia; more recently, religion has been augmented by ideology or nationalism, but the underlying tendency remains unchanged and in some places “augmenting” is giving way to “supplanting.”

As fewer Westerners profess unwavering support for any specific modern faith tradition, the tendency for social belonging — with all of the moral norms attendant to membership — transfers from religion and large-scale politics into increasingly granular social structures with local leaders and deeper passions and less of an intellectual superstructure to keep these local belief systems from falling into solipsism.

Radical environmentalism serves as an excellent case in point. Forget the stereotype of granola-eating, pot-smoking, Birkenstock-wearing long-haired hippies banging drums and communing with Gaia. There are plenty of respectable folks who fit nicely into polite society who nevertheless no longer have a private belief in God and subscribe to radical environmentalist theory. There’s a reason, after all, that Greenpeace types or urban anarchists often hail from upper-middle-class backgrounds: They had a conversion experience, and have traded the boring, empty churches of their parents for the hip, authentic religion of struggle on behalf of the Earth. Anyone who’s read about Saul on the road to Damascus understands the archetype; anyone who’s ever spoken to a radical environmentalist understands their need for social inclusion.

Thus we see increasingly blind obedience to canonical norms:

  • Humans are causing global warming that will destroy the Earth.
  • People who don’t agree that “climate science is settled” are heretics who deserve to be ostracized.
  • Corporate greed must be rejected if the environment is to improve.
  • Humans have all sorts of socioeconomic rights to income security and access to organic/local foods and any opposition to this must be overcome by any means necessary.
  • &c, &c.

One reason that political debate about climate change is so bitter is that it’s taken on the trappings of religious warfare. True believers fight against those who cast a more skeptical eye on some environmental nostrums. The evidence of the phenomenon is vast and deep: Just look, for example, at how the prophets at East Anglia conspired to reject from peer-reviewed journals any suggestion that the (made-up) numbers supporting climate change were, in fact, problematic. Fair-minded people don’t act like this. People caught in the grip of divine-command ethics, do.

I’m picking on the environmentalists because they’re an obvious target, but the shift I’ve outlined covers many newer “faith traditions,” including those who continue to protest against Darwinism or struggle against abortion. Although it seems that this phenomenon is rooted in the Left, the Right isn’t immune to it, either.

The most fascinating aspect of all of this is that the one ethical system that’s so often derided as being the simplistic holdout for the unenlightened seems to naturally attract those who wear their sense of sophisticated upon their sleeves.

Divine-command theory, in a classic sense, proves philosophically interesting because it’s inherently unfalsifiable at its core. This “rock” that anchors religious morality, if unchained by texts and priests and centuries of practical experience, can lead to curious inversions of generally accepted ethics. Like, for example, radical environmentalists who deliberately spike trees in such a way that loggers could be seriously injured or even killed.

Put differently: If any particular implementation of divine-command ethics is unconstrained by institutional or cultural norms, the risk that “anything is permissible” in service to the ideological point at its core increases the relative gridlock and fragility of the political process.

Ethics without God is possible. God-based ethics without God, however, increases the risk of radical absolutism that poisons the well for everyone.

Reflections on the "After Liberalism" Essays in "First Things"

Is contemporary liberalism (in its lowercase-L sense) an exhausted project, or simply in need of rejuvenation? Wilfred M. McClay, Yuval Levin and James R. Rogers address this weighty subject in the May 2012 issue of First Things. While the entire exchange — a lead essay by McClay, followed up with two shorter responses by Levin and Rogers — is well worth the read, one significant point from Rogers really hit home.
Responding to McClay’s reference to Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument “that emotivist propositions have replaced rational argument over objective moral ends,” Rogers advances the claim that “liberals believe that the emotivistic move reduces conflict and opens venues for conversation rather than conflict….” Why avoid conflict? Rogers suggests that the “residual horror at the devastation of the Thirty Years’ War, underlined by the English Civil Wars, still prompts a visceral reaction by many to any hint of religion in the public square,” and thus by extension, contemporary politics must answer “whether religious belief is intrinsically dangerous and whether claims of absolute truth are consistent with forms of toleration sufficiently robust to offer credible assurance that devastatingly religious conflict will not be repeated.”
Put more simply: Contemporary liberals favor language and arguments that privilege individual feelings or perspectives, because doing so provides a partial block against abstract arguments sourced from absolute truth statements that, if left unchecked, could engender wide-scale social conflict. Hence the concern about Rick Santorum establishing a “theocracy” or the fear that conservative political ends constitute a “war on [insert demographic group here]” even when dispassionate observers believe the fears rhetorically disingenuous.
Take, for example, the gay marriage debate. Proponents on the left usually stake their arguments in a broad reading of human autonomy. Liberals rarely discuss marriage as a socioeconomic institution or a sacramental event and frequently dismiss communitarian objections to gay or plural marriage as inherently discriminatory. Instead, they talk about “marriage equality” or “the right to love whomever you wish” — language that elevates a person’s experiences and his emotional response thereto as an intrinsic good. When you pit a self-referential, emotional plea against an argument that prevents someone from allegedly being true to himself because of inflexible, “uncaring” institutional rules, the progressive will typically favor the former no matter how the latter’s logic unfolds. Why? Because if dispassionate social norms may be brandished to allegedly prevent a person from enjoying the fullness of a loving relationship, what other sociocultural violence may these norms inflict? Thus, the norm itself must be challenged to protect not just gays but everyone from the risk that those rules may be used as weapons against other people in other contexts.
In short: Progressives believe that sociocultural principles founded on abstract or religious truth-claims, by their very nature, increase the risk of theoretical social violence because they infringe on the self-actualization of people who don’t support those norms.  So, hey hey ho ho, your abstract norms have got to go!
Rogers’ insight illuminates in a different way the reasons that the progressive left disdains cultural authority and religion and privileges personal authenticity and a person’s emotional response. Yet it doesn’t answer the Lenin Question: What is to be done?
Commentators decry the polarization in the American electorate, yet the lion’s share of the reason has nothing to do with partisan affiliation but rather with the latent worldview differences between contemporary progressives and everyone else. No matter how you construct the arguments about the proper size and scope of government or fair tax rates or regulatory reform, you cannot escape epistemology. If a progressive by default will often reject “common good” or “historical practice” arguments because they conflict with an emotivist rebuttal, there’s no real chance for a meeting of the minds to resolve pressing political problems. You cannot negotiate or debate in good faith when the discussants haven’t resolved the stark differences in their logic models and value systems.
The central insight into the entire question raised by McClay is that contemporary liberalism faces an existential crisis; from a purely intellectual standpoint, the progressive inheritance is largely spent, with no clear path forward for the dominant political philosophy of the Western world. The question, though, is what happens next. Can liberalism adapt and reform? Will it be supplanted by something different? Will it collapse and some other value system fill the gap (as seems to be happening with the increasingly Islamization of parts of Europe)?
As a conservative in the contemporary American ideological sense, I have a vested interest in seeing liberalism as a political system rehabilitated and strengthened. Alas, it seems that the “fix” has to occur from within, but it’s not clear that anything short of crisis will help today’s progressives to re-evaluate the long-term self-destructive ends that their worldview logically entails.