Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Colloquy

The Death and Ascension of St.Francis, by Giotto

Last year I read The Silencing of Leonardo Boff by Harvey Cox. Back in 1984, Leonardo Boff, one of the leading proponents of liberation theology, was called to Rome to have a discussion with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was then the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The topic was Boff's book Church: Charism and Power.

I covered some of the fencing and barbed comments that passed between them at that meeting in this post. Cox, and Boff himself, provide a few more details...

Cox was saying how, at the colloquy in Rome, Boff was startled and taken aback when Cardinal Ratzinger started grilling him on the "subsists" issue (the Vatican II statement that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church). Boff didn't think that this was what the conversation was going to be about. Boff did think that the Church could subsist in other churches, but he was surprised that this was the focus of the discussion, because it wasn't the point of his book, or the the main theme of his work in general. He was also surprised that Cardinal Ratzinger took a different view from it's meaning than was presumably held by other Council fathers like Rahner, Willebrands, Koenig, and Congar.

Robert McAfee Brown, in his article Leonardo Boff: Theologian for All Christians, describes the meeting this way...

In May 1984, Boff received a six-page letter from Ratzinger, detailing charges against him and summoning him to Rome for an accounting. Ratzinger charged Boff with distorting old doctrines by reinterpreting them in new contexts. Boff’s language lacked "serenity" and "moderation," and, more substantively, he employed "ideological" perspectives from history, philosophy, sociology and politics that were not fully enough informed by theology. Thus, Ratzinger asked, is Boff guided by faith or by "principles of an ideological nature"?

Ratzinger was deeply disturbed by three areas of Boff’s book.

He first accused Boff of suggesting that Jesus did not determine the specific form and structure of the church, thus implying that other models besides the Roman Catholic one might be consistent with the gospel.

A second charge was that he is cavalier about dogma and revelation. Boff responded by acknowledging that dogma is needed to protect against heresy, but not in the same way in all times and places. It is ultimately the life of the Spirit in the church that protects faith against encrustation in "timeless truths" that can only negate spiritual progress. Ratzinger feared that such a doctrine of the Spirit would legitimate the theological whim of the moment.

Finally, Boff is charged with being unnecessarily polemical and disrespectful in his comments on the church’s use and abuse of power. Boff certainly does not mince words, and in one place even offers a kind of Marxist analysis of institutional church life, citing "the expropriation of the religious means of production" (forgiveness, sacraments and so forth) as means by which the clergy deny power to the people. Such excessive concentration of power, Boff believes, leads to domination, centralization, marginalization of the faithful, triumphalism and institutional hubris -- an extensive laundry list of aberrations from which not even the Sacred Congregation itself is exempted. In the notorious Chapter 12 -- the precis of his dissertation -- Boff offers an alternate model of power for the church -- a model based on the "service" of a living, changing church in which theological privileges are not concentrated in the few, but shared among the many.

It is clear that the congregation’s main fear with Boff is not Marxism (as it is with many other liberation theologians) but his central emphasis on the Holy Spirit, which could challenge the validity of present ecclesial structures.

Boff met with the Sacred Congregation in Rome in September 1984. Though the curtain of secrecy is drawn over such meetings (one of the abuses that Boff had criticized in his writings) , Boff emerged from the encounter smiling, believing that he had made the point that, when dealing with liberation theology, the church ought to consult people directly involved in the struggle, rather than relying solely on European theologians who, as he told reporters, "look on poverty from the outside, from a position of security, in a paternalistic way."

One reason that Boff may have escaped censure on this occasion is that (in a move indicating that Franciscans know how to combine the wisdom of the serpent with the gentleness of the dove) he had chosen as the theologian to defend him at the closed-door proceedings His Eminence Cardinal Alois Lorscheider, head of the Brazilian hierarchy -- neither a person nor an office that the Sacred Congregation would instinctively care to challenge.

Boff seemed to be home free. He wasn’t. Some months later the unexpected order came, consigning him to "silence" for "an opportune period."

Here on his website, Boff describes the colloquy in his own words. I have to say, even though I sympathize with Boff (especially in these days of a cautioned Jon Sobrino and the pending normalization of relations with the SSPX) there was plenty of ego in the room to go around.

Objective facts are always submerged, as it were, in the feelings of those who are living them out. What effect did the events of my judicial proceedings within the former Inquisition in Rome in 1984 have upon me?

In the first place I felt as if I had been truly kidnapped by someone from the “Red Brigades”. At 9 a.m. the Vatican officials came to fetch me and before I could say goodbye to my Superior they grabbed me and pushed me inside a car which sped to the nearby Vatican.

Swiss Guards escorted me from the car to the lift. On the floor above two other Guards were waiting for me together with the Cardinal Inquisitor, Joseph Ratzinger, attired in his formal cardinal’s robes. I was wearing my simple friar’s habit. To ease the tension I greeted him in his native Bavarian. But I was taken straight through a carpeted hall some 100 metres long which was lined with Renaissance paintings.

At the very end was a tiny door, so small that I had difficulty going through it into the small room, full of books, with a small podium on which sit both the Inquisitor and the person who is the object of his inquisition. A notary by our side would be taking everything down.

Proceedings began without further ado.I interrupted the Cardinal, however, and said to him,” My Lord Cardinal, in our country we are still Christians; before we start any serious business we ask for God’s protection”. Surprised by this, the Cardinal immediately started the ritual recitation of the Veni Sancte Spiritus. Within a juridical concept of the Church there is, really, no place for God.

I started reading what I had prepared. The Cardinal only interrupted me twice. First he wanted to know what an Ecclesial Base Community was; he thought it was a communist cell where militants were trained, because in these communities we are always talking about struggle.

The second interruption led to a debate which we have continued to the present day. He states, “The Church of Christ is only to be found within the [Roman] Catholic Church. There are only elements of Christ’s Church within other institutions: it is rather like having doors and walls, but not enough to make a complete house.These institutions are not churches and therefore cannot by rights be called churches”. This I consider to be offensive, arrogant and simply wrong if Tradition be taken into account.

There was a break for coffee in the large hall. Officials appeared from everywhere, each one with his copy of the condemned book Church: Charism and Power asking for autographs. This greatly irritated the Cardinal. I wrote the same thing in every copy, “Conserve Jesus’s inheritance, freedom won not with words but with his own blood”.

Alone with the Cardinal we went on looking at the paintings until we stopped before a huge picture representing Saint Francis, in old torn clothes, but transfigured in the sky above. On the ground below was the kneeling Pope with his triple crown on his head. I said to the Cardinal, “here is the symbol of the Church we defend, the Church of the poor, represented by St Francis and the Pope kneeling at its service”. The Cardinal said,” you politicize everything. Here we simply see this as a work of art and not a theological statement”. I then drew his attention to the great squared iron windows, “you have no eyes for Liberation Theology because you see the world of the poor through those square windows and so everything appears square to you”.

We worked for another hour. At the end we had a meeting with the two Brazilian Cardinals Arns and Lorscheider who had come to Rome to support me. Cardinal Arns came straight to the point, “Eminence, we do not like the document on Liberation Theology which has just been published. We are asking for another document which will do justice to the churches which take the option for the poor and their liberation seriously. You have tried to build a bridge by using a grammarian and not an engineer .Allow our builders in and they will help you to construct a good Liberation Theology, which will be of service to the whole Church”.

If only that had been given a chance. Where are such cardinals and bishops today? What has become of our hierarchy?

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Helmet as Weapon

Concussions and other consequences of helmet-to-helmet hits

Pittburgh's Ryan Clark on Baltimore's Willis McGahee

There was a pretty frightening moment in the Pittsburgh Steelers - Baltimore Ravens AFC title game a couple of weeks ago when Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark put a brutal (but legal) hit on Baltimore running back Willis McGahee, knocking them both senseless. McGahee was wheeled off the field on a stretcher and sent to the hospital. Clark was also sent to the hospital for a concussion test afterwards. Clark said after the game, "This is the first time I've ever had any head injury. It's the first time I've had to take any concussion test afterwards... If you look at most of my hits, I always try to turn and lead with my shoulder, even the McGahee hit. I try my best to tackle in a way where I don't put myself at risk."

Pittburgh's Ryan Clark on New England's Wes Welker

I'm not quite so sure about that... It was helmet-to-helmet. Clark has a reputation for being an intimidator who can bring the "big hit." It's very similar to the one he put on an unsuspecting Wes Welker as he was running an inside route earlier this season. Years ago, there was a lot of talk about helmets being used as intimidating weapons in NFL games, spurring imitation at lower levels from the NCAA down to Pop Warner.

Florida's Major Wright on Oklahoma's Manny Johnson

With the ensuing outcry, things seemed to get better for a while, but with the pressure to win combined with the intense competitive spirit of the game and glaring media spotlight, it appears to me to be on the rise again. I love football, and I like to watch a tough physical contest as much as anyone else, but there's a right way and a wrong way to tackle. I know these defensive backs love to put a good stick on these flashy receivers who can burn them and make them look bad, but there's something gutless about putting your helmet in the chin of a man who's helpless and completely exposed.

My oldest son loved playing youth football, even though he's not very big. His first coach was great guy, but a stern and demanding taskmaster. My son loved playing for him. Go figure... Sometimes kids can take orders and discipline from other people better than they can from their own parents. At any rate, his coach told me later that the first time he saw my son's lack of size and experience, he thought to himself, "what am I going to do with this kid?" Over time, however, my son impressed him with his coachability and his toughness (a commodity the coach found to be generally lacking in our town). He wound up starting at cornerback and was moved to inside linebacker by the end of the season.

One thing that helped was the fact that I'd taught him how to tackle and his coach had reinforced the same lesson. To tackle someone (anyone) properly, you put your shoulder right into his belt buckle, drive, and wrap up. A ballcarrier can try all the head fakes, eye shifts, and fancy footwork he wants, but the hips don't lie. The hips invariably tell you the direction someone is moving in. A little guy can tackle a big guy this way just using the proper mechanics.

For his second season, my son wasn't able to move up to the next division with his coach and the rest of the squad because he hadn't put on enough weight. He was unhappy with his new coach, because he allowed too much head-to-head contact in practices. This lack of disclipline frustated and irritated my son. When he started complaining of headaches after practices, that was it. No more football.

From that point on he's gotten more serious about his soccer and has become quite good at it, although I still think swimming and diving are his best sports.

The gist of all this? The cost of all the helmet-to-helmet activity is becoming more and more visible in the NFL and elsewhere. The two starting quarterbacks in the Super Bowl, Kurt Warner and Ben Roethlisberger, have each suffered from a number of serious concussions in their careers. In this article, As study reveals NFL headache, concussions could cloud Kurt Warner and Ben Roethlisberger, its says...

A Boston University study unveiled this week uncovered new evidence concerning chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by head trauma. Six former NFL players, all dead by 50, were found to have the condition, which doctors say can cause victims to lose control of their emotions, suffer depression and eventually, dementia.

Two of the players, former Eagle defensive back Andre Waters and ex-Steeler guard Terry Long, committed suicide, and a third, ex-Oilers linebacker John Grimsley, died after accidentally shooting himself. Tom McHale, a former Bucs offensive lineman, died of a drug overdose. Justin Strzelczyk, the former Steelers lineman, died in a head-on collision after leading New York State Thruway police on a high-speed chase.

In addition, the study reported the discovery of damage from CTE in the brain of a deceased 18-year-old who suffered multiple concussions while playing high school football.

Ted Johnson, formerly of the New England Patriots, was known as our "Bettis-Stuffer." This linebacker out of Colorado was one of the few defenders in the league who could stop this pantload from Pittbsurgh, Jerome Bettis, one-on-one. The contact from those, and other clashes, left a terrible legacy for Johnson.

Read Johnson's story in: 'I don't want anyone to end up like me' - The Boston Globe

"Officially, I've probably only been listed as having three or four concussions in my career," Johnson said. "But the real number is closer to 30, maybe even more. I've been dinged so many times I've lost count."

It has all unraveled; his career, his marriage, his health, his reputation. Former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson was once a Super Bowl champion and a fan favorite, admired for his jarring hits and thoughtful approach to a violent game.

But now he is a struggling ex-athlete who has become unreliable and unreachable -- making promises and commitments he does not keep -- the subject of steamy tabloid gossip, shunned for an alleged domestic abuse incident involving his wife.

Johnson, 34, suffers from such severe depression that some mornings he literally cannot pull himself out of bed. When the crippling malaise overtakes him, he lies in a darkened room, unwilling to communicate with his closest family members.

The 10-year NFL veteran believes his current state is a direct result of a career in which he absorbed "countless" head injuries, including back-to-back concussions suffered within days during the 2002 season, when he says the Patriots didn't give him proper time to recover.

Desperate for answers, Johnson scheduled an appointment to receive electric shock treatment before deciding at the last moment to forgo that option.

Johnson's multiple symptoms include depression, dizziness, excessive drowsiness, fatigue, irritability, memory loss, poor concentration, ringing in the ears, and acute sensitivity to noise.

According to Dr. Cantu, who has been treating Johnson since last May, post-concussion syndrome can occur from a single concussion, but is more likely to occur after multiple concussions, and most likely to occur when the patient has endured back-to-back concussions without time for the first concussion to clear.

Johnson toyed with going public with his story before. He shared his struggles with the Globe last summer, but later requested his comments be put on hold. The recent suicide of former NFL defensive back Andre Waters, who had multiple concussions and suffered from depression, finally prompted Johnson to come forward.

"I want people to realize that you don't have to 'black out' to have a concussion," he said. "Most times, the symptoms of a concussion don't show up for hours, sometimes days. And this isn't just happening in the NFL. High school kids get concussions, and aren't properly monitored.

"Every day there is a new study linking concussions to depression, as well as early onset of Alzheimer's disease. It doesn't have to happen. It shouldn't happen.

"I don't want anyone to end up like me."

One of the things that bothered me the most about Clark's hits is that they remind me very much of the one that Jack Tatum left on Darryl Stingley which left him paralyzed.

Listen to WBUR ON-Point: Concussions and the NFL NFL wives speak out. Are their husbands suffering brain damage from playing in the National Football League?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Is it Time to Look at Usury as a Sin Again?

Hey, how'd you like John Thain, the Clark Kent lookalike, he of the 1.2 million dollar office renovation and ex-head of Merrill Lynch?

Back in September, when Hank Paulson called in a bunch of Wall Street bigshots to take a look at what should be done with Lehman Bros and the other investment houses in trouble, Thain made sure that he and his boys at Merrill were going to be well taken care of. When Merrill was picked up by Bank of America, he didn't come clean on just how bad things were at Merrill. Now that he's attempted to use some of that bailout money to pay out bonuses to himself and his buddies and the true Merrill losses can be clearly seen on the books, he's been canned by BoA. See this article:

Mr Thain realised that Mr Paulson was making little progress in finding a consensus about how to save Lehman. By Saturday night, with no bailout on the table and no firm bidder, Mr Thain concluded that not only would Lehman collapse but that Merrill would be next, and he phoned Ken Lewis, the chief executive of America’s biggest retail bank, Bank of America, based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

By Sunday afternoon the deal to sell Merrill Lynch for $50 billion to BoA was signed and sealed. It was not just the takeover Mr Thain raced through. He also tried to seize a $10 million bonus for himself and forced through the early payment of up to $4 billion of bonuses to Merrill’s top executives despite knowing about the rapidly escalating losses the bank was incurring.

By December, just three months into the merger, Mr Lewis began to discover from his own integration team that Merrill was on course to lose $3 billion in the fourth quarter and $15.4 billion over the year. The shock forced him this month to go to the US Treasury and beg for $118 billion in asset guarantees and $20 billion in rescue financing.

On Thursday, Mr Lewis flew from Charlotte to Manhattan to sack John Thain. As every financier knows, consistency is key to success. How appropriate, then, that a banker who had long enjoyed the excesses of Wall Street should choose to go skiing in the rich resorts of Colorado once BoA’s losses were out in the open.

These guys are unbelievable.

You know, I have auditors from PricewaterhouseCoopers poring over just about everything I do, according to Sarbanes-Oxley regulations. When they ask me if a particular business representative from the Billing Dept. was authorized to sign off on the minor code changes we've made, I'm tempted to ask them if they've already found out where the federal bank bailout money went last Fall. I'm tempted to ask them if they've figured out what was in the "black box" Bernie Madoff used to run his Ponzi Scheme.

The working world really is a lot like that TV show The Office, but even more surreal. You can't make up this kind of absurdity.

The banks still aren't lending. Nobody knows where the bailout money went, and wherever it went, it apparently didn't work. In the meantime, they say the average American household is carrying well over $5,000 in credit card debt, and credit card rates are at a usurious rate of over 14%. The credit card industry will be the next thing to go kablooey, I suppose.

This all reminded me of a passage from Judge John T. Noonan's book
A Church That Can And Cannot Change: The Development Of Catholic Moral Teaching, on the subject of usury. During the Middle Ages, of course, the lending of money at interest was considered a sin. Around the 1570's or so, there was movement on this teaching. Noonan describes what provided the impetus for the change - The German Triple Contract.

The Triple Contract

On June 22, 1573, a commission of Jesuit provincials and theologians, meeting in Rome, issued a decision to guide all Jesuit confessors, preachers, and moralists in their treatment of the so-called "German contract" or "5 percent contract," whereby five percent was charged on money advanced to another person. Generically, the contract was a loan from which profit was made; as such it was usurious and therefore morally unlawful, the commission ruled.

Analysis showed that there was a way of looking at it that made it right.

A contract of partnership in which the capitalist got a return on the capital he invested was perfectly legitimate. Say he could reasonably expect 10 percent. Then suppose he entered into a contract of insurance guaranteeing the return of his principal and surrendered 3 percent of his expected 10 percent in exchange for the guarantee. Again, it was perfectly legitimate.

Suppose he surrendered another 2 percent to be guaranteed his profit - also legitimate.

Then suppose he entered these contracts of guaranty with his partner, so that 5 percent of the expected return on the capital went to his partner, and he was guaranteed the return of his capital and 5 percent. The three contracts were all lawful. What was wrong with collapsing them into a single contract, "the triple contract"? What was wrong with finding the triple contract not spelled out but implicit in every contract at 5 percent where investor intended to act lawfully?

Nothing was wrong, concluded the commission.

We seem to be in the world of Enron's financing where loans are packaged as sales and insurance companies guarantee the interest. How did such intricate lawyerly analysis come to occupy the attention of the most acute moral theologians in Europe? What development of doctrine was represented by this decision of 1573, which was reaffirmed by another Jesuit commission in 1581 that at the same time taught that a loan at 5 percent was "intrinsically evil?" To answer these questions it is necessary to look at Scripture and fifteen hundred years of reflection on Scripture.

Were you able to follow all that?

Ah, those lax Jesuits. :-)

I don't know if I followed it all properly, but it sure sounded a lot like collateralized debt and insured credit default swaps to me. The same kind of stuff that did such damage to Enron, Lehman, Fannie Mae and AIG and others....

Were we too rash when it came to easing up on usury? Is it time to take a look at it again? After all, it was the only thing that Christ ever became violent about.

Christ Driving the Money Changers out of the Temple, by Valentin De Boulogne (c. 1618)

I glazed over a bit going over the ins and outs of what Noonan went on to describe, but there was one thing he left out. By 1580 or so, the heifer had already left the barn, because John Calvin had already offered his opinion that money could be lent at interest, and his advice was already being followed in Protestant Europe. It's fair to assume that Venetian and Florentine merchants already knew a thing or two about doing business with credit too.

Now, I'm not one of these guys who gets all dewey-eyed about the supposed splendor of the Middle Ages and the golden 13th Century of reforming popes and scholastic saints, etc.... There was too much strappado, trial by fire, trial by water, breaking-on-the-wheel, burning-at-the-stake, crusading and that sort of thing for me to get too sentimental about it.

On the other hand, there were great achievements that are now underappreciated, and some valuable good that has been lost. We've certainly heard plenty over the years about the "Protestant Work Ethic" and the contribution of the Reformers to the spirit of democratic capitalism from the likes of Max Weber to Paul Blanshard to William Manchester to Samuel Huntington and so on, comparing it favorably to the supposed backwardness and slothfulness to be found in latifundist, agrarian Catholic countries.

Therefore, I think it's fair to pay attention to a different take from British author Tom Hodgkinson....

IF THERE’S ONE element of my book How To Be Free that the scoffers really rounded on, it was the positive light I threw on various medieval institutions and approaches to life. To see anything good in the Middle Ages contradicts our neophyte conditioning. But the medievals really did have some excellent ideas. Community rather than individuality was at the heart of the medieval approach to things. For example, Florence and the city states called themselves communes, and governed themselves with a revolving panel of guild master craftsmen.

Well, the medieval approach to economics is particularly interesting given what is happening in the financial world right now, because it specifically banned usury, that is, the lending of money at interest. Usury was reserved for the lowest of the low. It was not the done thing. The medieval society had taken to heart Biblical injunctions against usury and also the example of Jesus turning over the tables of the money-changers.

Usury was wrong for a variety of reasons. Firstly, by charging interest on loans, you were taking advantage of the bad luck of your fellow human. The medievals had a stronger belief in Providence than we do today. So it did not necessarily mark you out as a loser if you needed to borrow money. And your bad luck, which was caused by God, should certainly not provide an opportunity for another to exploit you. This of course is the precise opposite to the situation we’ve been living with for the last two or three hundred years, where the whole financial system revolves around usury and indeed, till recently, those who most successfully exploited others were known as the Masters of the Universe. usury is a profoundly selfish and unneighbourly practice. Usury is robbing the poor to feed the rich (and it is still banned today in Islam).

Money for the medievals was not for hoarding or for lending, but for spending. To accummulate it for is own sake would be to commit the sin of avaritia, or greed, a deadly sin. Medieval cathedrals are full of unsympathetic carvings of the spend thrift “money bags” character, the miser who jealously hoarded his cash. Greed was bad.

Usury was also banned because in committing it, you committed the sin of sloth: you had not worked, you had not created anything, you had merely waited and you had made a profit. This was was wrong.

Furthermore, in lending money at interest, you were in effect selling time, and time did not belong to man. It to belonged to God. It was later, in the 18th century, that the dynamic Benjamin Franklin changed things when he wrote: “Time is money” and “Credit is money”. For the medieval to think in such terms would be a colossal arrogance...

There was an enormous amount of productivity in the Middle Ages, and an enormous amount of global trade, particularly before the Black Death. But, as G. K. Chesterton points out, it was trade based on the values of cooperation rather than competition. Work and commerce was arranged around the guild system, later more or less destroyed during the Reformation. Guilds were brotherhoods of workers who banded together to protect their own interests. To undercut your brother in the Guild of Linen-dyers, for example, by offering the same cloth at a cheaper rate, was profoundly unethical behaviour, because you were acting in your own interest rather than the broader interest of the guild. It was unbrotherly to overcharge or undercut.

Overwork, too, another damaging feature of contemporary civilization, was frowned upon. To work too hard showed a lack of faith in God’s providence. “Consider the lilies of the field,” Jesus had said in the Sermon on the Mount, his great Taoist line: “They toil not, neither do they spin.” Do not worry about tomorrow, Jesus had said. Do not store up your wealth. Things will be all right. It was the exact opposite of what we have been conditioned to believe today, which is that you should get pensions and insurance and worry about the future.

Now far from being somehow creatively or technologically inferior to our own age, this was the system that produced the cathedrals, architectural feats that have yet to be bettered. It produced the beautiful city states such as Florence and Arezzo. It produced illuminated manuscripts, and the freedom-loving republics of Amsterdam and Antwerp. It was a less exploitative system: all that sailing around the world and plundering came later. The people were more closely connected to the land. In short, it was an anti-capitalist system of trade and production. But it was not communist because it was not statist. This is where the right wingers get it so wrong when they state that the only alternative to capitalism doesn’t work and it’s called communism.

Today we are seeing a swing back towards medieval economics. The usurers are being punished and their faces paraded on the front of newspapers. Our ethical pundits are calling for the top bankers to be named and shamed, to do penance, to confess. In the same way, the medieval usurer, on his deathbed, was required to give back all the profits of his extortion if he wanted to go to heaven...

Our economists might do well to explore further the medieval system. It tried to be fair, it tried to guard against exploitation, it produced many things of great beauty and it lasted until Calvin. And at its heart was a sense that we are all this together, we are brothers and sisters, and we should behave as cooperators and not competitors.

There's the knock on John Calvin. Interesting. I noticed once that Peter Maurin, co-founder with Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Movement, and normally a pretty mild-mannered fellow, worked over your man Calvin pretty harshly in his collection of writings called Easy Essays:

Before John Calvin people were not allowed to lend money at interest.
John Calvin decided to legalize money-lending at interest in spite of the teachings of the Prophets of Israel and the Fathers of the Church.

Protestant countries tried to keep up with John Calvin and money-lending at interest became the general practice.

And money ceased to be a means of exchange and began to be a means to make money.

So people lent money on time and started to think of time in terms of money and said to each other: "Time is money."

When John Calvin legalized money-lending at interest, he made the bank account the standard of values.

When the bank account became the standard of values, people ceased to produce for use and began to produce for profits.

When people began to produce for profits they became wealth-producing maniacs.

When people became wealth-producing maniacs they produced too much wealth.

When people found out that they had produced too much wealth they went on an orgy of wealth-destruction and destroyed ten million lives besides.

Because John Calvin legalized money-lending at interest, the State has legalized money-lending at interest.

Because the State has legalized money-lending at interest, home owners have mortgaged their farms; institutions have mortgaged their buildings; congregations have mortgaged their churches; cities, counties, States and Federal Government have mortgaged their budgets.

So people find themselves in all kinds of financial difficulties because the State has legalized money-lending at interest in spite of the teachings of the Prophets of Israel and the Fathers of the Church.

Was this fair? Could a modern economy ever have taken off without allowing the lending of money at interest? Was the creation of the modern economy a good thing?

I'm certainly no fan of the theology of John Calvin, but was the criticism of him on this particular matter fair? One thing I'll grant to Calvin. He was a darned good lawyer. If you can get past the presuppositions on which he built his arguments (whether we agree with them or not), he usually had the ability to defend his ideas with cold, ironclad, bulletproof logic. You can check it out in one of the links below.

Thomas Aquinas Concerning Usury

John Calvin Concerning Usury

Jeremy Bentham: In Defense of Usury

Friday, January 16, 2009

America's Painter Passes On

Andrew Wyeth (1917 - 2009)

The Finn, (1969)

The great American painter Andrew Wyeth passed away today at the age of 91. He died in the same place where he was born, Chadds Ford, PA. Andrew Wyeth has always been one of my favorite painters. In fact, I never gave painting much thought until my mother dragged me away from the neighborhood clubhouse one spectacular Summer afternoon around 1970, so that we could see the Andrew Wyeth exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. I was sullen and I grumbled about being hauled away from my friends, but I was captivated by Wyeth's work as soon as I saw it up close... I've been an aficionado ever since. In fact, we still keep the framed print of Christina's World that my mother bought that day in the upstairs hallway of our house even though Anne (and just about everbody else) thinks it's gloomy and depressing.

Pennsylvania Landscape, (1941)

He was the son of the reknowned illustrator N.C. Wyeth, and father of another fine artist and portrait-painter, Jamie Wyeth. Actually, I've always preferred the rough-and-ready themes and bold colors in N.C's work, even though N.C. couldn't hold a candle to his son in terms of talent. N.C.'s childhood home in Needham MA (which shows up in his illustration of Blind Old Pew in Treasure Island) is only a few miles from where we live. Jamie's work is very good too, but kind of edgy for me. Andrew's sister Henriette, I don't know much about.

The Sisters, (1990)

The year 2008 was a tough one in terms of losing several American icons. This year has started out with another great loss.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

January is Robert Shaw Month II

"Ah, what an evening! A man could fight a lion!"

"Some men could, your grace."

In A Man for All Seasons (1966), Robert Shaw was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in his portrayal of the young Henry VIII. In this scene he's meeting with his friend Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England. More is played by the brilliant actor Paul Scofield, who just passed away in March of 2008. Scofield won the Oscar for Best Actor in that role. The film won a ton of awards, including Best Picture.

Here, Henry is alternately begging, flattering, bullying, cajoling and threatening More into backing him on his wish to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. As they fence jovially over the finer points of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, More is having none of it and holds his ground, but he knows at this point that he's a dead man.

The film was good hagiography, but was Thomas More really a Man for All Seasons? I doubt William Tynedale would have thought so.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

American Obscurantism

Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has: it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but--more frequently than not --struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God...

Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and know nothing but the word of God...

Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason.

But since the devil's bride, Reason, that pretty whore, comes in and thinks she's wise, and what she says, what she thinks, is from the Holy Spirit, who can help us, then? Not judges, not doctors, no king or emperor, because [reason] is the Devil's greatest whore.

-- Martin Luther

Okay, is that custom church sign too provocative with its Martin Luther quote? Maybe so, but I'm sorry. The direction that Protestantism in this country is heading in is scaring the heck out of me.

I saw this graphic in the Boston Pilot a couple of weeks ago, which was culled from a November 2008 Harris Poll.

Belief in God is roughly the same... but I don't know which bothers me the most, the fact that only 32% of Protestants believe in the Theory of Evolution (although the statistic of only 52% of Catholics isn't necessarily something to crow about), that over half of Protestants believe in Creationism, or that over half of Catholics believe in ghosts and nearly half believe in UFOs.

In the 2007 Harris Poll, they made a distinction between Protestants and Born-Again Christians for some strange reason, and only 16% of Born-Again Christians indicated that they believed in evolution.

What accounts for the differences? I suppose most everyone would agree that it boils down to the sola scriptura principle and biblical literalism. The only thing puzzling about that particular explanation is that there are references to ghosts in the Bible.

As for UFOs, I guess people could make the argument based upon numerical probabilities. One thing I'm pretty sure of. If UFOs were mentioned explicitly in the Bible, the percentage of people who believed in them would skyrocket significantly. I've always found this a curious thing about sola scriptura... People who will believe without a shadow of a doubt that a virgin had a baby, that a crucified man rose from the dead, that there are three persons in one Godhead, and that the Son is co-eternal with the Father, all based upon evidence in ancient texts, are vehemently loathe to accept something like the Immaculate Conception because it's "not biblical" and will ridicule the very notion as "man-made superstition."

A priest in my parish is fond of saying that "faith should take us beyond reason but should never take us beneath reason." We could all debate about whether or not all Christian doctrines are beyond or beneath reason, but one thing is certain, and that is that the Catholic Church has a long tradition of at least leaving a place for reason in the dialogue.

The Catholic Church takes a lot of heat over the Galileo affair, sexism, and its supposed retrograde thinking in a whole host of areas, but it's not entirely clear that the reformers offered an improvement in this regard by any means.

In his marvelous book Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages, author Richard Rubenstein tells the fascinating story of how Aristotle was rediscovered in Europe and how after a long struggle, aristotelian philosophy, which underlies the origins of modern secular science, was succesfully integrated with Catholic theology by Thomas Aquinas and others. From the editorial review:
Christian theologians rediscovered Aristotle through the commentaries of the monk Boethius, who argued in the sixth century that reason and understanding were essential elements of faith. There resulted a tremendous ferment in the study of Aristotle in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, culminating in the work of Thomas Aquinas, who used Aristotle's notion of an Unmoved Mover and First Cause to construct his arguments for God's existence. Aquinas, too, argued that reason was a necessary component of faith's ability to understand God and the world.
There was opposition to scholasticism to be found of course, from such quarters as the Dominicans' Franciscan rivals, but the Protestant reformers in particular were utterly contemptuous of Aristotle and the "sophistry" of the schoolmen. In the extended quote below, Rubenstein explains how this represented a step backward from the hard-won achievements of those who championed aristotelianism, and for the synthesis between faith and reason.

With Luther's theological revolution, the separation of faith and reason foreshadowed by William of Ockham's philosophy and Meister Eckhart's religious practice was realized. One is not surprised to discover that Luther and John Calvin opposed Copernicus's sun-centered astronomy as vehemently as did the Catholic Holy Office. The Protestant leaders had determined that the individual's relationship to God need not be mediated by popes and priests; that "Scripture alone," not the authorized interpretations and doctrines of the Roman Church, represented God's unalterable word; and that the papacy was neither authoritative in matters of law nor infallible in matters of doctrine.

By the time they finished stripping away "non-apostolic" customs and doctrines, there would be little left of the Church as a public institution. Moreover, the attack on scholastic theology would tend to put questions of belief beyond the realm of rational argument. Luther "knew" that man is justified by faith alone because, while reading the Epistle of Paul to the Romans, he came upon Paul's quotation from Habakkuk, "He who through faith is righteous shall live," and was illuminated." Suddenly, he understood the relationship of faith to salvation. Because of this experience, his sermons took on a new character. As a classic biography of the Reformer puts it:

It was not an eloquent rhetorician or a pedantic schoolman that spoke, but a Christian who had felt the power of revealed truths, one who drew them forth from the Bible, poured them out from the treasures of his heart, and presented them all full of life to his astonished hearers. It was not the teaching of a man, but of God."
This was all very well if one agreed with Luther's interpretation of the passage from Romans, but many other Christians (including most Catholics) did not. How to determine, in such cases, which interpretation was correct?

Eliminating the Church as the sole authorized interpreter of Scripture opened the door to the fundamentalist approach, which asserts that such-and-such is the literal meaning of the text, not an interpretation at all, or that a particular interpretation is divinely inspired, and therefore unquestionable. In Luther's time and afterward, Christians fed up with fanciful, allegorical interpretations of the Bible that reflected the prejudices of the interpreter were inclined to embrace this type of literalism, especially if it was accompanied by the sort of illumination that Luther himself had experienced.

Fundamentalist literalism, in other words, was not a feature of the medieval worldview from which modern rationalists had to be "liberated." It came into the world as a result of the same attack on Aristotelian-Christian thinking that produced secular science. One can imagine this as a sort of intellectual nuclear fission. Bombarded by its early modernist opponents, Aristotelianism implodes, generating a coldly objectivist science and a passionately subjectivist religion.

Follow one of these links to watch a short video featuring the Vatican Astronomer Fr. George Coyne SJ, discussing evolution (hat tip to Maria at Confessions and Contemplations by way of Busted Halo).

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

January is Robert Shaw Month

"I'll never put on a life jacket again..."

Actor and Author Robert Shaw (1927-1978)

There were several actors from years ago who vaguely reminded me of my dad. I think of David Janssen in particular, and even Frank Sinatra in some ways. One of those actors who most reminded me of him was the late Robert Shaw. He was roughly the same age as my father and they both died the same year.

My dad and I went to see Steven Spielberg's movie Jaws when it came out in 1975. This all comes to mind, as sort of a follow-up to the Pacific War reference in the previous post, because I've been recently looking over Richard F. Newcomb's 1958 bestseller, Abandon Ship! The Saga of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, the Navy's Greatest Sea Disaster. It's the horrific story of the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis, which was sunk in the closing days of World War II by a Japanese submarine shortly after transporting the atomic bomb (that would later be dropped on Hiroshima) from the West Coast to Tinian Island.

In this scene from Jaws the shark-obsessed skipper Quint (Robert Shaw) is sitting in the cabin of his boat with marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Amity Island Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) while they're taking a break from hunting the Great White. Quint and Hooper are comparing old "battle scars" and Brody briefly considers whether he should bring up his appendectomy or not... Anyhow, it comes out that Quint happened to be a crewman aboard the USS Indianapolis, and he goes on to tell the true tale of the harrowing fate that was endured by the sailors who entered the water... One has to suppose it explains his vendetta against sharks. It's one of my favorite movie monologues.

Quint's Monologue from Jaws on the Fate of the USS Indianapolis Crew

During World War II, the Indianapolis served as the flagship for Vice-Admiral Raymond Spruance's 5th Fleet. She was heavily damaged by a kamikaze attack during the Battle of Okinawa and was sent back to the States for repairs. After being being repaired and refitted in San Francisco, she was chosen for the top-secret mission of delivering the components and uranium core for the first operational atomic bomb to Tinian Island. The bomb was successfully delivered and assembly was finished at the airfield at Tinian. The Indianapolis then stopped shortly at nearby Guam and was given orders to sail onwards to the Phillippines (Leyte) for more training.

Shortly after midnight on July 30, 1945 she was hit by two torpedos from the Japanese submarine I-58 and sank in just twelve minutes in some of the deepest water in the Pacific Ocean.

Spielberg (through Quint) tells the story pretty well, but he does get a couple of details wrong.

Quint claims that "the mission was so secret, no distress signal was sent out." That's not really true. The mission was top-secret, but once they delivered the bomb they were back on standard operating procedures. The first torpedo that struck the ship tore off the bow, and the second knocked out most of the ship's electronics and all of its radio communications. She sank very quickly but the crew was able to get off some SOS signals. Recently declassified Navy documents seem to indicate that the signals were picked up at various points but were ignored as a Japanese ruse.

Quint also makes it sound as if most of the crewmen who survived the initial sinking were devoured by sharks in the aftermath. The ship had a crew of 1,196. Out of those, about 900 made it into the water alive. Out of that 900, only 316 were eventually rescued after being left exposed in the ocean for over 96 hours.

Many of the crewman were eaten by sharks, it's true, but a great many others succumbed to wounds, exposure (blazing sun and heat during the day, frigid temperatures at night), thirst, from drinking salt water, and from drowning (their kapok life jackets were not designed to last more than a couple of days).

Eventually, the men were only discovered at all by mere chance. A plane running a routine anti-submarine patrol spotted them. Far from being a nefarious plot based upon the secrecy of their mission, the reason for their prolonged agony was just plain incompetence and a set of poorly thought-out procedures. In those days, only the arrival of convoy ships was tracked at destination points. The arrival of combatant ships was not, ostensibly for security reasons. When the Indianapolis didn't show up for training at Leyte as expected according to orders, no one thought this was particularly unusual. There were all kinds of reason why countermanding orders might be made for a combatant ship. Nobody thought much of it. To cap things off, the ship had been ordered to leave Guam without an escort even though her Captain had requested one.

However, despite all that, heads needed to roll for it and there was an inquiry and a court-martial... Rather than placing blame on higher-ups for the negligence embodied in their own procedures, and for the whole Navy's lack of interest in the whereabouts of a missing flagship cruiser, the skipper of the Indianapolis, Captain Charles Butler McVay, was chosen to take the fall. Who else? Specifically, he was faulted for not sailing in a zig-zag pattern at the time the ship was struck, even though the Japanese submarine captain testified at the trial that he would have had no trouble sinking the unescorted ship whether she was zig-zagging or not.

Years later, haunted by the memories, and hounded by those who considered him a villain, McVay took his own life. From wiki:
While many of the Indianapolis survivors said McVay was not to blame for the sinking, the families of some of the men who died did. The guilt that was placed on his shoulders mounted until he committed suicide in 1968, by using his Navy issue revolver. McVay was discovered with a toy sailor in one of his hands on his front lawn.

The whole atomic bomb connection with this story makes it especially creepy... I'm not much into the image of a wrathful God dishing out earthly punishments for man's transgressions, but when you look at Hiroshima and this improbable story, you almost have to wonder...

More information can be found at

Sunday, January 04, 2009

The March of Folly Continues... 2009

Airstrike on Gaza

With the fall of Communism in the late eighties and early nineties there was a brief flurry of speculation within some scholarly quarters as to whether or not we were heading towards a bright hopeful future characterized by the univeral embrace of democracy and freedom, the end of ideological conflict between nations, and the "end of history."

There were more skeptical voices out there to be sure, but hardly even the most pessimistic expected to see what the early 21st Century has looked like so far, the century that John Paul II had hoped would be one of "New Evangelization."

Everywhere is war, and as we look at the horrific events unfolding in Gaza, I find myself wondering if humankind can ever find its way out of this cycle.

Regarding Gaza in particular... I stand by Israel. For all of Israel's flaws and mistakes, of which there are many, if I'm forced to take sides between Israel and Hamas, I will have to choose Israel. The tragedy is amplified by the fact that both sides are locked into a death spiral over their shared conviction that force must always be answered by force.

I'm still wrestling within my own heart and mind over the implications and possibilities of pacifism. Can it ever be practically applied in this world of harsh and unforgiving realities? I pray, I wish to God that it can, but I'm not so sure. There are times when I'm inclined to lose hope. One way or another, through nonviolence or violence, the nihilistic death-worshipping ideologies of Hamas and like-minded groups need to be discredited and repudiated.

World War II was not being fought as a "Just War" by the time it ended, if it ever was at all. "Total War" was being waged by both sides. Is it really true that Total War is what it took to put the ideologies of National Socialism and militaristic Japanese emperor worship into disrepute? Can might really make right? Does good sometimes need to triumph over evil using the same forces as evil?

Maybe that's true. What, however, does this mean for our Christian faith? If we accept this principle of might making right, what difference did the appearance of God in incarnate form make in this world? What was the purpose of his death and resurrection if the world was only going to continue operating in the same way it always had before? Is this what the Kingdom of God was supposed to be, with us piously coopting and recasting the message of Jesus into something totally other-worldly instead of this-worldly?

I never served in the military, but my family has a proud military tradition within it. I don't consider the military a dishonorable profession by any means. On the contrary. I admire a soldier's courage, discipline, self-sacrifice and loyal selflessness. On the other hand, we need to be careful of where this lionization of martial attributes leads to, out of love of weaponry, adventure, uniforms, etc...

It may be that war is a regrettable necessity in certain circumstances, but it always represents a human failure. It is always a tragedy. Even a war fought for necessary purposes is obscene. As humankind makes the same mistakes over and over again, seeming to learn nothing from them except how to continue making endless lists of enemies, do we have to wonder if it really is true that we are nothing more than highly socialized apes, capable of love and art and close cooperation, but also the most vicious forms of competition?

Most authors and commentators who've earned the right to have an opinion on the matter seem to have come to a consensus that the best memoir written by an infantryman in the Second World War was With the Old Breed by the late Eugene Sledge, a native of Mobile who served as a combat marine on the Pacific islands of Peleliu and Okinawa. He escaped those epic and horrific battles without a scratch and went on after the war to become Professor of Marine Biology at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. He deals with a fair amount of survivor's guilt in those pages, wondering why he emerged physically unharmed when so many of his comrades were killed or wounded, but the most important point to take out of his book is the utter obscenity of war, and that there is no glory to be found in it whatsoever.

Fallen Marines on Iwo Jima

Excerpts from Sledge's book, describing the atmosphere surrounding the Battle of Half Moon Hill, before the Shuri Line on Okinawa, 1945.

Everywhere lay Japanese corpses killed in the heavy fighting. Infantry equipment of every type, U.S. and Japanese, was scattered about. Helmets, rifles, BARs, packs, cartridge belts, canteens, shoes, ammo boxes, shell cases, machine-gun ammo belts, all were strewn around us up to and all over Half Moon.

The mud was knee deep in some places, probably deeper in others if one dared venture there. For several feet around every corpse, maggots crawled about in the muck and then were washed away by the runoff of the rain. There wasn't a tree or bush left. All was open country. Shells had torn up the turf so completely that ground cover was nonexistent. The rain poured down on us as evening approached. The scene was nothing but mud; shell fire; flooded craters with their silent, pathetic, rotting occupants; knockedout tanks and amtracs; and discarded equipment-utter desolation.

The stench of death was overpowering. The only way I could bear the monstrous horror of it all was to look upward away from the earthly reality surrounding us, watch the leaden gray clouds go skudding over, and repeat over and over to myself that the situation was unreal-just a nightmare that I would soon awake and find myself somewhere else. But the ever-present smell of death saturated my nostrils. It was there with every breath I took.

I existed from moment to moment, sometimes thinking death would have been preferable. We were in the depths of the abyss, the ultimate horror of war. During the fighting around the Umurbrogol Pocket on Peleliu, I had been depressed by the wastage of human lives. But in the mud and driving rain before Shuri, we were surrounded by maggots and decay. Men struggled and fought and bled in an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell's own cesspool….

The longer we stayed in the area, the more unending the nights seemed to become. I reached the state where I would awake abruptly from my semisleep, and if the area was lit up, note with confidence my buddy scanning the terrain for any hostile sign. I would glance about, particularly behind us, for trouble. Finally, before we left the area, I frequently jerked myself up into a state in which I was semiawake during periods between star shells.

I imagined Marine dead had risen up and were moving silently about the area. I suppose these were nightmares, and I must have been more asleep than awake, or just dumbfounded by fatigue. Possibly, they were hallucinations, but they were strange and horrible. The pattern was always the same. The dead got up slowly out of their waterlogged craters or off the mud and, with stooped shoulders and dragging feet, wandered around aimlessly, their lips moving as though trying to tell me something. I struggled to hear what they were saying. They seemed agonized by pain and despair. I felt they were asking me for help. The most horrible thing was that I felt unable to aid them.

At that point I invariably became wide awake and felt sick and halfcrazed by the horror of my dream. I would gaze out intently to see if the silent figures were still there, but saw nothing. When a flare lit up, all was stillness and desolation, each corpse in its usual place.

Among the craters off the ridge to the west was a scattering of Marine corpses. Just beyond the right edge of the end foxhole, the ridge fell away steeply to the flat, muddy ground. Next to the base of the ridge, almost directly below me, was a partially flooded crater about three feet in diameter and probably three feet deep. In this crater was the body of a Marine whose grisly visage has remained disturbingly clear in my memory. If I close my eyes, he is as vivid as though I had seen him only yesterday.

The pathetic figure sat with his back toward the enemy and leaned against the south edge of the crater. His head was cocked, and his helmet rested against the side of the crater so that his face, or what remained of it, looked straight up at me. His knees were flexed and spread apart. Across his thighs, still clutched in his skeletal hands, was his rusting BAR. Canvas leggings were laced neatly along the sides of his calves and over his boondockers. His ankles were covered with muddy water, but the toes of his boondockers were visible above the surface. His dungarees, helmet, cover, and 782 gear appeared new. They were neither mud-spattered nor faded.

I was confident that he had been a new replacement. Every aspect of that big man looked much like a Marine "taking ten" on maneuvers before the order to move out again. He apparently had been killed early in the attacks against the Half Moon, before the rains began. Beneath his helmet brim I could see the visor of a green cotton fatigue cap. Under that cap were the most ghastly skeletal remains I had ever seen-and I had already seen too many.

Every time I looked over the edge of that foxhole down into that crater, that half-gone face leered up at me with a sardonic grin. It was as though he was mocking our pitiful efforts to hang on to life in the face of the constant violent death that had cut him down. Or maybe he was mocking the folly of the war itself:
"I am the harvest of man's stupidity. I am the fruit of the holocaust. I prayed like you to survive, but look at me now. It is over for us who are dead, but you must struggle, and will carry the memories all your life. People back home will wonder why you can't forget."

During the day I sometimes watched big rain drops splashing into the crater around that corpse and remembered how as a child I had been fascinated by rain drops splashing around a large green frog as he sat in a ditch near home. My grandmother had told me that elves made little splashes like that, and they were called water babies. So I sat in my foxhole and watched the water babies splashing around the green-dungaree-clad corpse. What an unlikely combination. The war had turned the water babies into little ghouls that danced around the dead instead of little elves dancing around a peaceful bullfrog. A man had little to occupy his mind at Shuri-just sit in muddy misery and fear, tremble through the shellings, and let his imagination go where it would.

More excerpts for Eugene Sledge's book can be found here at the PBS website for the Ken Burns series The War.