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Part of the debate regarding the legality of abortion is the question of whether or not a government can or should legislate or regulate morality. An oft-held position is that, in the end, a person is autonomous, and their actions are their own, that freedom of conscience is ultimately inviolate, and to attempt to create law based on a particular moral stance rather than, say, social necessity is itself misguided at best or at worst openly theocratic.
The rejoinder to this is that no society has been so callous as to fail to legislate against things like murder and theft, but this is itself rebutted by saying these are social problems more than they are moral ones, that they are bad of themselves, and not merely because they have been decreed to be sins.
Abortion falls in some weird territory both legally and morally.
So, since we’re talking something that is widely understood as a social sin as well as a personal sin, let’s discuss it in the context of two other great social sins that affected the United States, at least; I am not as up on the history of the other English-speaking nations as I should be, so I’ll stick to the one I know best.
So, in order
- Indian removal.
1) The decision to purchase and hold slaves is a personal one; John Q. Slaveholder is making a moral decision, one with remarkable nuance over the years. There were those, like Thomas Jefferson, who felt slavery a problem that simply held off greater problems, fearing mass emancipation would lead to race war and crime. John C. Calhoun felt that slavery was, in fact, a moral good, and while his position was primarily reaction to aggressive abolitionism — an assertion of the southern way of life as something objectively right — it too is a form of moral reasoning, a personal decision he made seeking for what he felt to be the common good.
Was the federal government right to impose a different moral conclusion on the individual moral agents who peopled the slavery debate, and unilaterally dissolve the practice? In other words, can a government legislate objective morality?
2) Indian removal is the same story, but backwards: the federal government paved the way for white settlers to seize Indian lands and displace their inhabitants on a massive scale. Now, while the government legalized the processes by which this happened, the choice to, in fact, move into the Cherokee territory (for example) was one made individually by the settlers themselves, and it is something they were, to an extent, doing anyway without government intervention in their favor. We can likely all agree that this was a moral wrong conducted against America’s aborigines, but the question remains: shouldn’t the United States government have rather enacted laws shielding them from white encroachment on territory that had been legally protected by treaty, imposing on the white settlers its own moral conclusions?
In other words, can a government legislate objective morality?
Well, folks. Tomorrow is the day.
Tomorrow, I begin seminary. Tomorrow, I move out of my beloved little shithole apartment — which I do love, but it really is a shithole — and make my way to the far end of Queens, where I will spend the next two years, or rather four semesters, boning up on philosophy in preparation for my major seminary studies, which God willing will be in Rome rather than Yonkers, but we’ll see about that. The upcoming adventure demanded I spend some time in Virginia, so spend some time in Virginia I did, embarking on what I like to call the 2010 Seminary Victory Tour.
It was fun. I hit Richmond to see my whole college gang, and then spent three days at my mom’s place in Newport News. And then I came back here, and here I am. For less than twenty-four more hours.
Hm. What to say about it. What to do about it. I’d be lying to say I wasn’t nervous, and as much as I dissemble, I won’t do so here regarding that. I am nervous. I am, in fact, numbly terrified, because this seems to be something so wholly other, so wholly new. I feel like I’m starting my studies to be a Jedi, right down to the special robes. And it’s all so soon. Move-in is tomorrow. School starts on Wednesday. I’m being thrown back into an environment I understand — academica — at the very same time I’m entering this wild unknown expanse. It’s vast and huge and unexplored and unmapped, and I can’t yet make sense of it. I don’t know I should be trying.
Suffice to say the Lord has led me this far, and the Lord will lead me farther along, and all my trust is in him. It would have to be. If it wasn’t, this insanity would be truly insane, and there’d be no hope at all.
Jesus, I trust in you.
My preparations for seminary continue apace. Not only am I trying to ready myself spiritually, but I have had to divest myself of some material goods as well. Today was such a day, a sad one, wherein I sold a much-beloved piece of equipment: my Playstation 3. You see, for me, the PS3 was more than a simple gaming device — it was the hearth of my room, and I used it both for material entertainment — games, movies, television on DVD — but as a spiritual aid as well, using its slide show function to provide iconography for my prayer. Yes, it was a versatile device — as the slogan goes, it only does everything — and it was small and sleek and cool.
See, for the last few years, gaming has provided a meaningful social grease between my friends and I, a place where we could bond, and share and interact. The PS3 was really a social hub, a watering hole of sorts, and getting one sort of made me feel like more a part of the whole than I had been. I also have a sort of brand loyalty to Sony, much like I have to NBC, as the makers of something that always seemed a little more mature than your standard fare. The PS3 wasn’t ever just a gaming system. It was a storytelling device, something that allowed me to engage my senses with incredibly human tales.
I am, I suppose, ever a member of my generation, and games have been a big part. I have owned a gaming console consistently, but for a brief span, since I was four years old. To lose this one — irrevocably in the service of a greater whole — is a considerable loss to this worldly and sinful man.
I trust it has found a good home.
A few months back, the Insane Clown Posse — a ridiculous band of which I am not a fan; my sincerest apologies to Juggalos and Juggalettes the world over — released a song called “Miracles.” I don’t listen to ICP, so I can’t say if miracles is normal Dark Carnival fare (see what I did there?), but it garnered a bit of attention, and a good deal of mockery, for its attitude regarding the world. The song is a meditation — I know I’m stretching that word — on little mysteries that fill up our lives, those moments of wonder.
Look at the mountains, trees, the seven seas
And everything chilling underwater, please
Hot lava, snow, rain and fog
Long neck giraffes, and pet cats and dogs
And I’ve seen eighty-five thousand people
All in one room, together as equals
Pure magic is the birth of my kids
I’ve seen shit that’ll shock your eyelids
Stuff like that. The Clown Posse goes on to say that they don’t want scientists explaining things, and accuses them of lying, and that line, coupled with the “Gee whiz” attitude of the rest of the song, has prompted a bit of a pop cultural backlash. Science students have showed up at ICP shows to teach their fans where, for example, rainbows come from. And while I have no objection to science education — science being the use of reason to study Creation — I do take some issue with the idea that there’s something wrong with awe.
I bring this up in response to another round of mockery, this time addressed to a man who caught sight of a double rainbow, was struck down in wonder at the sight, and then made the mistake of posting it on Youtube.
While I can understand the humor — maybe it’s a little over the top — I think that that video is a pretty beautiful artifact of awe as something that transcends the rational without being irrational. We can explain all we want how rainbows come into being, but the human response to beauty is something sacred and inexplicable. Much the way you cannot derive ought from is, the beautiful like the good can’t be derived from logic. And there, in Yosemite, this fellow saw a double rainbow, and couldn’t begin to understand it. Maybe he knew how rainbows are formed. But the arch of light that presented itself spoke more deeply to him of something unspeakable than it did of light refraction.
There’s a reason that, if you do a Google image search for “worship,” you get a bunch of people raising their arms at the beach or mountain. Beauty demands worship. Beauty testifies to God.
Well, my Supermanistas, how have you been? We’ve been in a pretty wild summer here in what John Paul II liked to call the Capital of the World (he once addressed John O’Connor as the Archbishop of such), much like the rest of the northeast, usually suffering boiling, baking temperatures unfit for man or beast, the sort of weather which makes you wonder, theologically speaking, if the world isn’t actively prosecuting war against us. It’s not a completely untoward and unjustified thought — one of the consequences of original sin was the disordering of nature — that a living must be eked from it through struggle rather than it pouring life upon us in abundance. There were days when the heat was so oppressive I couldn’t turn my computer on because it couldn’t disperse its own into the air. Today it’s violently muggy. I know it’s boring to talk about the weather, but when it’s weather like this, it’s the only topic in the air, so to speak.
Apart from that, I’ve got a date for my entrance into seminary: August 28. In the meantime I’ll be trying to get my affairs in order, disposing of things I can’t bring with me (e.g. my Playstation and my couch and whatnot), raising last-minute funds and paying off what I can: I will enter seminary more or less broke. This will be difficult, and worries me. I trust God will see me through it, but I’m not without apprehension.
In the meantime, enjoy these:
In a stifling July heat made worse by the fact that to live in a major city is to in fact live on a giant mirror, where glass and asphalt kick up the sun and only deaden further the bleary eyes of the sweat-stained rabble, I sit about five miles from the place where, in 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the first holder of what was then frequently known as the chief magistracy. That building, Federal Hall, no longer stands, and the city in which it did stand is now unrecognizable. New York in 1789 was hardly a powerhouse; the largest city in the United States was still Philadelphia at a bone-shattering thirty-thousand people. Today, New York has over eight-million people, more than the entire state of Virginia, which was itself the single largest state in the Union at the time of Washington’s inauguration.
It’s the Fourth of July. It’s Independence Day, and as always, it is a day of immense conflict for me.
Longtime readers will remember my difficulties with patriotism, which I’ve written about at length in the past but boil down to an unwillingness to be quite as generous in my affection to my country as I am often told I should be. I don’t believe in American exceptionalism. I don’t believe in the five-thousand year leap. I don’t justify our every policy and I don’t think our banner stainless. To the contrary, for this blogger American patriotism has too often contained more arrogance and pride than I am willing to stomach. Further, I believe that being a Christian, being a Catholic specifically, certainly calls me to be more cosmopolitan than parochial — rather than elevate above others my nation, I should place it in its due position amidst the powers and principalities of history: as passing thing which today commands the awe of the world and will tomorrow crumble to dust and the day after be completely forgotten. The only eternal thing is God. The only human edifice God has guaranteed is the Church. It’s only in Christ are we rightly formed. He speaks more to human goodness and freedom than the American Revolution could ever have hoped to, and our irrevocable independence is in comparison to our baptism trite and meaningless.
For all that, I’ve tried and have been trying to reconcile myself to my country, to make sense of that constellation of stars, that expanse of mountains and plains and rivers full of discord and contradiction as its people struggle to play out and comprehend the creedal charge contained in this country’s birth. We don’t understand our freedom. We never have. From the earliest moments of the Revolution onward, we have tried without success to make coherent sense of liberty, of representative government, of the republic. We’ve vacillated over the role of work and of wealth, and our founders were at times diametrically opposed to one another’s vision for this new and wild country straddling North America like a bull.
Freedom is not independence. It never has been, and it never will be. Freedom isn’t liberation from a crown. Freedom isn’t casting off a tyrant. Freedom isn’t representative government. Freedom can’t be found in bills of rights or constitutions. Freedom belongs to and is only received from Christ, and only in Christ is man free. That freedom isn’t the right to do what we want, but to do what we ought. Freedom is moral in that freedom points to morality. Freedom invites us to be good. It demands it, even. And anything other than that is the basest slavery.
Our government may be good, but it’s good only insofar as it provides a space wherein man might be good. It doesn’t give us our freedoms — it recognizes them. That’s important to remember. We aren’t free because “Congress shall pass no law…” We either are or are not free before those words come into play. Either we have freedom in Christ, the freedom that points to God and to moral and spiritual greatness, to meaning and grace and beauty and truth — or we have no freedom at all, and the only use we may make of the space a civil constitution provides for freedom is to debase ourselves and subject the world to our chains.
May God bless America, because we cannot bless it ourselves.
So, here I am. For the first time in longer than I anticipated. This blog, which I opened for the year of St. Paul, and which flourished in the same, has languished during the Year for Priests, going unattended and left overgrown. This is ironic.
There were numerous reasons for this, work and a lack of free time being principal among them, but certainly numbered therein is a reason I have not discussed: I have been for some months now in the extended process of applying for seminary with the Diocese of Brooklyn. The application was gigantic, my own motivations sometimes unclear, and my eventual fate unknowable — these X-factors made me reluctant to discuss it online. What would I have to say other than “still working on it,” “stressing out over my psych eval,” and “more terrifying meetings,” again and again and again? I was also extremely reluctant to raise my own hopes by confidently and brazenly addressing the topic here, holding forth with the hoary assumption of my admission and my grandiose plans. What could I possibly say on the matter that wouldn’t be presumptuous, or at least presumptive?
That time, though, has passed, because today, I got the call. The process which culminated a week ago in the admissions board meeting that reviewed and discussed my application has officially reached its glorious apogee — the word came down from the mountain.
I am in.
That’s right. Barring anything unforeseen, in September, I will be a seminarian for the diocese of Brooklyn.
I attended, in February, a vocations retreat on something of a whim. I say a whim because I had had no plans to go, and didn’t really want to, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to. Getting there would be frustrating, but I really had no compelling reason not to go; what would I do that cold night? Watch some reruns of Deep Space Nine, when I could be praying before the tabernacle, and discussing the future? And there, on that retreat, our bishop, Nicholas DiMarzio, spoke.
He spoke and said, “It’s like the Nike slogan: just do it. If you’re feeling the call, why wait? Why put it off? Seminary is itself part of figuring this whole mess out.” And I had no reason why not. In fact, it struck a chord with me, a sentiment I’d long felt but been unable to express, best summed up by this comic strip: I’m tired of saying “everything is too complicated right now, but maybe next year.” I’m sick of next year, of putting things off. So I decided to stop, and ask for this insane privilege.
Now, you all know I’m a big fan of Superman. Superman has been proposed as many things – in particular a Christ figure, as Alan Moore put it, “a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good,” – but I think he’s far more accurately called a saint. He’s a man with a great power who has done nothing but put himself at the service of an often-ungrateful populace. Service is his purpose. Service is his end. Service is his particular telos.
He’s always served for me as a sort of icon of the nature of vocation – knowing your purpose and therefore living it. I believe that we’re all made by God for some end, toward some end, some good, and it’s our duty to seek that, and embrace it. To do so is not only objectively good of itself, service qua service, it’s a recognition of the sovereignty of God over yourself. I believe God may be calling me to the priesthood, and as such, I would be foolish not to pursue it. If it is my end, my best good, shouldn’t I run after it, in wild trust and dedication? Even further, I think my disposition as a man makes me a good fit for priestly formation; I am oriented toward theology, liturgy, teaching, and counsel. These are the things toward which I have always gravitated, which I have pursued or had impressed upon me in my Christian life. If God is sovereign over the world, he can speak through it. I believe he has done so.
Well, Superman. I’ve just been accepted into superhero school.
A few days ago, I was having some manner of discussion with my roommate and bromantic counterpart Ian. Unfortunately, the nature of this conversation — the wider nature, at least — escapes me; ours are long and meandering discussions that frequently involve impromptu improvisational skits with multiple characters before wending their way through Scrubs and the Simpsons and The Shawshank Redemption and whatnot. Either way, the conversation turned, somehow, to The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which Ian will never see.
Ian will never see it, because demonic possession terrifies him.
It’s a pretty damn good movie, though; I’ve always taken a bit of a shine to anything that deals with what I call the breadth of the world, be it the dark or the light of it; it’s the reason I enjoyed Out of the Silent Planet and Cairo as much as I did — there is an immense attraction to anything that posits that there are more things than we might have dreamt, entire orders to the world of which are largely if not wholly ignorant.
Anyway, somehow and for some reason, I brought up the part of the film wherein the priest performing the eponymous exorcism finally manages to tease out the names of the demons inhabiting the poor girl. It’s an absolutely riveting, terrifying scene, and if you happen to be my roommate, do not watch the video below.
Bone-chilling, I know. I mean, that’s a who’s who of prominent demons, culminating in Legion, Belial, and the bastard Lucifer himself. But those, ahem, luminaries aside, it was the first three upon which the conversation hinged. Clearly transported, the mademoiselle Emily Rose — or rather the spirits speaking through her tortured lips — say that they were the demons who dwelt within Cain, Nero, and Judas, respectively. I’m sure it’s something of a sick honor to be so oppressed, but in my memory, the names stuck out much wider than the identities; I remembered the demons proclaiming themselves to be, in fact, these particular monsters of history: I am Cain, Nero, Judas. Which led to the question — is it possible that the damned may become demons themselves?
Might some devils once have been men?
I can’t say. I have not been to hell and nor do I wish to go there, and neither have I spoken at length with the Bastard about his practices, but I must admit it struck me as wholly appropriate to be so. The popular notion of Hell as a place of punishment administered by fallen angels has always struck me as faintly ridiculous; while true, they might enjoy such work, it would mean that they were, after a fashion, proudly doing the work of their enemy, the Most High God. And I cannot see that happening.
No, far more likely to me is it that Hell is, in the words of Chesterton, locked from the inside, and the damned may well be proud to be there. Would it not be appropriate for them to view hell as less a place of punishment, but as the happy, if suffering, seat of rebellion? And the poor souls there condemned, who rebelled in life, may well continue to rebel in death. After all, the chief sin is pride, and if anything will keep a sinner in Hell, it’s Hell’s heart, a proud and haughty and disdainful heart, that rails against heaven even unto oblivion.
It has been brought to my attention how severely I have neglected my blog, but then, that statement assumes I was unaware, that this blog had simply slipped from my mind like that old Republica CD I was so into in the sixth grade until being foisted back into my awareness in a chance encounter with it at a thrift store, prompting two solid days of listening to “Ready to Go.” No, in all truthfulness, this blog has been very much upon my mind, but my creative and spiritual energies have been quite otherwise engaged. And not engaged.
Among my worries this last month or so have been the death, and subsequent funeral of my uncle Charlie, a wedding in Virginia, and the completion of one issue of Stronghold and the beginning of two others (one of which has finally entered production stages). Work still occupies much of my time, and when I get home, I am likely more inclined to pop in a Simpsons DVD than engage in the difficult and often-thankless work of scouring the internet, my books, and my mind in the pursuit of things to discuss.
And it’s not from a lack of effort, though; this last month has been one of intense reading. Since last we spoke, I have read The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution 1763-1789, Peter Kreeft’s Between Allah and Jesus: What Christians Can Learn from Muslims, Orson Card’s Red Prophet, C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet and G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, which I finished today. Unfortunately, these are rich texts which are simply sitting there, stewing in my mind for want of good conversation to tease them out.
I cannot stress how much this blog depended on conversations I had with people, with little ideas turning into immense meditations. The chief difficulty I have had since moving up here is an isolation from the Catholic social sphere I had that fostered and abetted my love of a good talk in which Things Are Considered. I suppose college is spoiling in that regard.
It is hereby the vow, though, of This Blogger to never let Saint Superman lay so long fallow.
I have had these past two weeks much on my mind. If I might be permitted a respite from the usual fare of this blog (gentles, do not reprehend), I would like to share my thoughts on what is, I believe, a most important matter, that which appears to have the countenance of an approaching crisis which I would rather we enter into, if we must, with minds and consciences fully formed. If it must be demanded, it must be understood.
As we are all aware, the healthcare legislation has provoked something of an uproar among its opponents; regardless of the act’s passage, the opposition to it has hardly abated. It surrounds itself with fire and vitriol, and we, the weary bystanders, must still sit and watch the violent circus that continues to play before our eyes. There is a particular tenor to it, though, that rings unfamiliar and strange to those who have not made a hobby of following fringe politics; of course, my own fascination with such movements may give me a sense of a false heightening of rhetoric, being that I, in fact, pursue these stories, this news. But the stories I have found trouble me with that odd and tense excitement bad news can often bring.
The issue under discussion now is the so-called Obamacare health act, which does lots of things, among them obliging people to purchase health insurance under penalty of law, which is the key complaint against it. Seventeen states, if I recall correctly, including my own old home of Virginia, have filed suit against the federal government charging the statute to be in violation of constitutional law. This is a perfectly valid — and I daresay the preferred — manner of bringing this sort of grievance to the government; it proceeds through proper channels, and when a decision is rendered it is abided by.
But other states, most notably Louisiana and apparently Texas, have taken a distinctly different approach. Louisiana governor Jindal has backed a proposal (which according to the New York Times mirrors proposed legislation in over thirty states) which would declare that the state will not enforce the health act within its borders, that it is null and void in Louisiana, and not to be considered law, because it is held to be unconstitutional.
This is nullification, the states’ rights doctrine which maintains that a state, as a constituent member of the compact forming the Union, has the role of Constitutional check on Federal action distinct, and inevitably above, the Supreme Court. It works from the fundamental political concept that authority derives via consent of the governed, and the more uncertain one that the Constitution is a contract between states who together agree to form (and be formed by) a common Union. Thus, the doctrine of nullification holds that a state may, if it determines legislation to be unconstitutional (and thus in violation of the interstate compact which it holds the Constitutional to ultimately be), it may nullify or abrogate that law within its own borders of its own initiative until such a time as the law is either repealed by a subsequent statute or in fact made constitutional via the amendment process.
This is the broad principle; much has been written and debated about this over time, especially considering that the United States already faced the issue of nullification way back during the presidency of John Adams, when Thomas Jefferson and James Madison authored the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions in protest of the Alien and Sedition Acts, of which nothing came as the laws were eventually repealed, but which laid the philosophical groundwork for a much more impressive challenge in the 1830’s, during the Jackson administration. The same principles as articulated above were maintained — that an act deemed unconstitutional could be nullified as law within the boundaries of the nullifying state, in this particular case the tariff of 1828.
The trouble with nullification is twofold: 1) it is a reasonable position that 2) is immensely dangerous. It’s reasonable because, yes, one can view the nature of the Union as deriving its authority from the states and thus subject to the states, the states being the signatory parties to its foundational document. There are, however, to that view dear and dangerous consequences. If the Union is subject to the states, and derives it’s sovereignty from them as legal bodies and not from the collective popular sovereignty of the people, then the Union is meaningless. It is a mere league, and confederation, and not a government
If Louisiana, now, passes this legislation, what it does is singlehandedly challenge the very nature of the United States as a body. If a state has the power to abrogate federal authority at will (and the wildly differing interpretations of constitutionality make the proviso that it will only do so if an act is unconstitutional virtual gibberish), then the federal government has no authority at all, and cannot govern. Let me repeat that: nullification means the government cannot govern. Federal supremacy — itself a constitutional principle and mandate — is essential to the existence of the Union; it ensures that there will be unity of law and administration, that the Union is capable of exercising power over the states, and that that power is not exercised at the point of a gun; it is done by mutual respect for law.
Unfortunately, in any nullification crisis — be it the one Jackson confronted in the early 1830’s or the one that seems to be brewing now — the point of a gun is the only power the Union will be able to muster. The functioning of the United States is incumbent upon all parties agreeing that, absent major constitutional reform, federal law trumps state law, and that the process for challenging that law is the judiciary. This keeps battles in statehouses and courtrooms, and outside of armies.
If this is not the case — if a state is free to follow its whims and deny federal authority wherever it happens to disagree with opinion in its legislature or governor’s mansion, then the Union has fallen. It means the Union isn’t binding. It means federal sovereignty is subject to that of the states, and thus has and can have no real power over them but that power which they agree to cede on a case by case basis; the moment this becomes even a prevailing theory, the next logical step is to contemplate secession.
This has already happened. This is the same pattern it took when the Union seemed to be hurtling towards its doom in the 1830’s, and here it is, again: the logical next step from nullification is secession. The abrogation of federal authority in a state in one instance must lead to its abrogation in all instances. There is no “Union, with limits;” option here. A state can’t determine what laws it does and does not wish to follow. To be a part of the Union is to be subject to its laws and methods, and to allow the sovereignty of the state to be subsumed into the sovereignty of the whole. It’s Union, or No.