Why Am I Catholic?

On this, the first of the year’s most holy days, Elizabeth Scalia gives her answer. Other Patheos bloggers are likewise answering. While nobody asked me, and I’m not one of those *real* bloggers over at Patheos, here goes:

I am Catholic because the Almighty and Eternal God created me to be Catholic, to be a member of the one Mystical Body with His Son as the Head.

I am Catholic because Jesus, in his infinite mercy, died to save me from my self and from the enemy.

I am Catholic because, in a moment of despair in a life of despair, I cried out, and God rescued me. His Spirit granted me a miracle, wholly unmerited and unexpected,  the truth of which I can no more deny than my very life.

I am Catholic because Catholicism is true, and God has given to me, in His mercy, a thirst for truth that only He can slake.

The Last Supper (1498) Leonardo Da Vinci

Praise the Lord, who has blessed a wretch like me.

Rock On, Archbishop Cordileone

Have had the honor of meeting and exchanging a few pleasantries with this fine man on a couple of occasions. Here, he defends marriage in a gracious, articulate and logical fashion.


Q: What is the greatest threat posed by allowing gays and lesbians to marry?

A:The better question is: What is the great good in protecting the public understanding that to make a marriage you need a husband and a wife?

Key step: do not accept false premises.

(Of course, it’s USA Today, which, in its dedication to keeping America informed by means of pictures, and, when unavoidable, words, posted the Archbishop’s remarks above a link to the urgent news that Gwyneth Paltrow has acknowledged that it would have been better had she worn appropriate undergarments. The less generous might assert that this calls into question this newspaper’s grasp of what constitutes news, or even impugn the purity of its motivation.  But at least they did publish the interview.)

If You’re a Practicing Catholic, You’ve Been There:

Elisabeth Scalia reports on attending a dumbed-down Palm Sunday liturgy.

One comment: If one assumes that the effectiveness of liturgy is to be measured in terms of ‘active participation’, and that ‘active participation’ is defined as vocal, physical and mental involvement in the liturgy, then – surprise! – it is possible to objectively measure ‘success’. When people are not praying, not singing, not moving, and not paying attention – YOU HAVE FAILED by YOUR OWN STANDARDS.

These standards are wrong, of course, but this wrongness is perhaps best illustrated by trying to apply them and seeing what happens. Ironically, the standards for good liturgy that were rejected – that, first and foremost, our communal prayer is meant to acknowledge, praise and thank God, and beg His mercy – are not objectively measurable by simple observation of the congregation. Yet the perpetrators of modern liturgy have continued the previous practice of not measuring,  pretending that the (in)effectiveness of their efforts cannot be easily seen in the attitudes (and, often, the absence) of the people in the pews.

It’s the same argument used with the ugly LA Cathedral: we’ve got a theory why this is better, we’ve explained it, and so the resulting concrete physical reality is irrelevant. (This is the standard Progressive/Pragmatic view – but that’s another story.)

Religion Meets Economics

A friend recently darkly hinted that the Church has the ability (and desire!) to silence people on Facebook. I pointed out that that whole albino monk assassin stuff is *fiction*.  Not sure I had any effect.

Similarly, all kinds of crazy stuff gets written on church finances that, typically, studiously avoid any perspective or economic reality check.  Let’s run through a few examples:

– The Vatican is rich, rich, rich! Untold billions!

Turns out the Vatican has an operating budget of around 300 million dollars, and an endowment of about $1B. While not chump change by any means, this is in the range of a middling American college or hospital. Harvard has an operating budget of $3.7B and an endowment of $30B.  (And here’s a link to – Gulp! – the National Catholic Reporter. At least, we can safely say the source isn’t *too* pro-Vatican…)

– But what about all that artwork?

Right. Imagine the outrage of the Italian people and government – masterpieces that are a sources of pride and devotion and billions of tourist dollars are now in some rich dude’s living room in LA? Non capisco! I’ve heard that the Vatican is legally the custodian, not the owner, of its art, and that the Italian government has laws against anybody selling Italian masterpieces. which all makes perfect sense upon a moment’s reflection.

But even if the Vatican were to ignore the law, here’s a question: How big is the market for art? In other words, how much money is out there in the world to be spent on art? About $60B. Assume two things that are unlikely to be true, but paint the most optimistic picture of the value of the Vatican’s art collection: that 100% of the available money would be spent on Vatican art if it were available; and that maybe another $60B might come out of the woodwork if Michelangelos and Rafaels hit the market.  So, wildly optimistically  there’s $120B per year that might be spent on Vatican artwork, that could theoretically then get spent on the poor.

But what really happens when the Pieta hits the auction block? It’s priceless, but if this is worth $120M, then I’d say a billion for the Pieta is a bargain. Let’s try to understand the buyers:

– it is very unlikely more than a tiny handful of buyers, either private or institutional, has a billion dollars to drop on a single artwork;

– while there are some buyers who would be eager to drop a $1B  because their egos would be fed by having the Pieta in their living room, others are going to wonder: if a whole bunch of Vatican art hits the market, what’s that going to do to the value of my other stuff? Note that this isn’t an artistic judgement, but an economic one: if you can buy a first-rate Bernini at price X, what does that do to the value of my Rodin? I’m guessing that any auction featuring Vatican masterpieces would have very few bidders and leave most of the art market very unhappy;

– Once buyers become convinced that yet *another* timeless masterpiece is being sold, excitement – and prices – start to drop even more.

So, the reality is that the Vatican could sell maybe a few billion (and probably much less) in art per year for possibly a few years before the market gets saturated and prices fall. Similar arguments can be made over lesser works – there’s no way the Vatican could sell many of its lesser works without overwhelming or suppressing the market.

Same goes for real estate. Besides, what are you going to do, open a Walmart off the Piazza St. Peter?

But what about all the other real estate? All those Catholic parishes, schools, hospitals, retreat centers, bishop’s houses, monasteries  convents and so on? The church, in all its decentralized members, does sell and buy property all the time. But there’s something like 1.3 billion Catholics *using* this property – isn’t arguing that the property be sold pretty much arguing that the church should be disbanded? At least, let’s be honest about what we’re suggesting, and recognize with that same honesty that the church can hardly be blamed for choosing not to dissolve itself.

Also, recognize that those buildings and land are usually both the collection and distribution points for the charity that the Church does supply (more than any other organization in the world) to the poor and needy.

Are there things that could be sold? Is there money that could be better spent? Of course. But now we’re in the realm of good management and prudential judgement. No one would ever dispute the suggestion that better management and judgement is needed in Church affairs – as it is needed everywhere in human affairs.

Albino ninja assassin monks and a wacky conspiracy theory are not required to explain the Church’s behavior here.

Seven Quick Hits


You know, I love Jennifer Fulwiler’s blog, partly because it is so different than my blog, but mostly for the scorpion stories. But here, at least, is something that sounds like it sorta kinda could be more or less related to the sort of things she writes about: what I learned from my father.


Another difference is that Mrs. Fulwiler is careful not to needlessly offend people.  I, on the other hand, have a gift for cluelessly writing offensive stuff, offensive to people I really don’t intend to offend. Only much later does it dawn on me how it will be taken. Such is this post on Higher Education.

The discussion in the middle on how Science comports with distinctively Catholic versus distinctively Protestant metaphysics is very much based on actual history and on somewhat technical philosophical points. What I’m not saying: that modern Protestants and Evangelicals have rejected the scientific method, or consider the truth of Scripture to preclude certain findings of science. What I am saying is that there is an historical tension present between science and uniquely Protestant theology such as Sola Scriptura that is not present between science and Thomism, and that this situation is reflected in the Church essentially shrugging at scientific claims that have – historically – caused much consternation and conflict in Protestant circles.  This conflict smolders in some circles even today. But this requires a book, or perhaps a book case, to explore.

What we all can agree on and unite behind, I hope, is that it is a bad thing when colleges and universities no longer believe in truth.


As the Caboose’s corn snake gets bigger, so do the mice we feed it. The snake is now around 2′ long, so we fed it older pinkies – mice a few days old, starting to get a little bit of fuzz, and starting to move around a little. This triggered a tiny amount of sympathy, even though I’m of the ‘Die, vermin! Die!’ school of nature lover. (Vermin include mice, rats, uppity squirrels, and suburban deer. Among other things.)  But that whole Circle of Life thing kicked in – that’s what I’m calling our bloodthirsty fascination with Death when it happens to vermin. For the first time, the snake didn’t just swallow the prey live – it constricted it. Seems the snake can constrict a young mouse to death in a minute or two. But mouse #2 – the snake gets 2 at this point – got the suck it down live head first treatment.

Should I be mortified that I find this stuff fascinating?

On the plus side, our son now handles the snake like a pro, and the snake has grown used to it. I was worried for a time because the snake seemed calm enough when I picked it up, but tended to freak our a bit when the Caboose held it. Now, it’s pretty mellow – as long as you’re not a little mouse.


William Briggs, Statistician to the Stars, is doing a series of posts on arguments against redefining marriage. While these are typically brilliant, the kicker is his instructions to his commentators:

Warning Tolerance is a hallmark of those supporting same-sex marriage. Never will you find proponents employing abuse, vituperation, appeals to emotion, or angry senseless shouting. They do not label their opponents enemies, nor accuse them of being hate-filled. They instead use calm, logical, well-reasoned argument; they understand rational and sincere people may disagree on certain points. I therefore expect supporters of traditional marriage to act similarly. Comments which do not accord with ladylike or gentlemanly behavior will be ruthlessly expurgated.




You never really know who your friends are until you accidentally set them on fire and then knock out several of their teeth trying to put it out with an hors d’oeuvre tray before inadvertently pushing them into the champagne fountain, bringing down the entire wedding pavilion and getting their pictures on the front page of the society section as they’re carted off to the emergency room in their smoldering formal wear.  But, once that happens, it all becomes very clear, the lying weasels!


Next time, I’ll tell you about our psychotic dog. For now, just know that the teenagers in the household have decided it would be cool to get a parrot and train it to say: “Jimmy (that’s the dog’s name), nobody likes you.” So, you know, they can stop having to say it all the time.


Northern California suburbia is largely free of scorpions, so we must make do when the situation calls for either large poisonous inveterates or terror and/or humor based on same. Deer ticks, as disgusting as they are, just aren’t in the same league. Therefore, I must direct you, again, back to the epic Jennifer Fulwiler: Scorpion Slayer‘s blog. Oh, and there’s more Quick Takes there as well.



Education: The Example of Our Fathers

Through no virtue of my own and entirely as a result of either luck or divine intervention,* I have had for years a very nice, well compensated job.  Strangely enough, I am also the embodiment of exactly the feature set most loathed in today’s youth: lazy, undisciplined, unfocused, hedonistic. 

So, how does that work? Shouldn’t I be stocking shelves somewhere, or out of work entirely? Aren’t focus, drive, and hard work the formula for success?

Here’s a story about my father. I believe such stories are common among successful people, however success is counted. Such stories are also common among tragically sad people. This particular story is shared among me and my brothers and sisters, each of whom can be successful and tragically sad, often at the same time.

My father grew up on a huge farm in Oklahoma as one of the younger of 14 children. When he was 13, the Great Depression bankrupted his father, they lost almost all the farm, keeping only a few acres around the family home.

My grandfather had a mean streak which, in his despair, was unleashed against his wife my grandmother. My father, who at the time was probably the oldest son still at home, was able to throw his father out of the house for the sake (and physical safety) of his mother.  This story was told only once in my dad’s old age to one of my older brothers.

So, here was young man with shattered dreams and more sadness than a kid ought to have. Before the Great Depression, he would ride a horse out on the several thousand acres of his father’s farm. Some of his older brothers and sisters went to college – in the 1920’s!  He dreamed how he was going to do the same and escape the farm.

Then, after all was lost, he found himself digging coal to make a few bucks – some of which was used to pay down debts rung up by older siblings. He did finally manage to escape home and farm via the CCC. He toured the West over the next few years as a camp clerk – he had somehow managed to learn office skill in his desperation to escape farming.

So, he meets my mom in California, gets married, converts to Catholicism (mom was a cradle Catholic of East Texas Czech stock – that’s another story) and raises a family of 5 boys and 4 girls.

At the age of 45, after 25 years of experience in the sheet metal fabrication field, he started his own company – and here’s where I enter the story. I was 5 at the time. Dad was a maniac worker by all accounts. 70 or 80 hour weeks were the norm. He early on established his marketing strategy: we’re not the cheapest, just the best. It’s right the first time, and delivered on schedule.  This requires a high level of planning, discipline and focus. These were my dad’s strengths.

Working for my dad was no fun. My older brothers both had to work for him. In his mind, he wasn’t asking much – it’s not like they had dig coal in an Oklahoma winter or anything. In my brothers’ minds, dad had these incredible expectations, while at the same time showing very little appreciation of their efforts. And dad’s bitterness and yes, violence, sometimes boiled over on his sons.  Great damage was done.

By the time I’d gotten old enough to help out – at 12, I started sweeping floors and cleaning up on weekends – dad had mellowed considerably. But he was still not much fun to work for.

And here’s the point of all this: from my father, I learned a few things about work:

– the amount of time you spend cleaning up is trivial compared to the time you’ll spend looking for stuff and climbing over stuff if you don’t. Not cleaning up is not an option.

– Whenever you put something down, put it where it will next be needed. Making someone else move something because you were too lazy or clueless to put it where the next guy would need it is unacceptable.

– you’ll always make more money thinking than with physical labor, but don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

– the guy doing work always has the right of way – get out of his way.

– when the horn sounds, you are at your station ready to work, or you are late. You’re done with your cup of coffee.  Late is unacceptable.

– measure twice, cut once.

– From the customer’s point of view, having what they need when they need it is worth a lot of money. Do that, and charge for it.

– always ask: is there money in it? This isn’t a charity, here.

I have discovered that even the semi-random and intermittent application of these principles by a lazy smart guy yields fabulous results in the world of business.  If I were not a philosophically inclined introvert and had a little ambition, I’d be running something by now.

My older brothers, who in the normal course of things could have inherited and run the business, both fled at their earliest opportunity. In my senior year of high school, dad had a massive heart attack, underwent quadruple bypass surgery and was told by the doctor to sell his company and retire – at age 59 – or die. It took him a couple years, but he complied.

The doctor was right. The heart attack was all but inevitable. The day before, some welder had (incompetently) warped an expensive electrical cabinet – if you’re not careful, the welding process will heat the entire piece and twist it and ruin it. My father knew all the tricks – in a fury, he worked late into the evening with a blow torch, a bucket of water and a sledge hammer, artfully straightening the cabinet back out, salvaging thousands of dollars of work.

He then went home and almost died.

I went away to college. My older brothers moved far away, as did my 4 sisters and one younger brother. (score: one brother, the youngest, never moved far away.) A coupe eventually moved back to Southern California. All but a couple eventually made peace/called a truce with mom and dad, who lived into their late 80s.

So, I balance gratitude with an abiding sense of deep sadness, mostly for the sake of my siblings, who each have their own sad and even tragic tales to tell.  I got it easy, and got a wonderful spouse and beautiful children. Most didn’t get that.

A couple more things I learned that dad probably didn’t even know he was teaching: do not fear doing things yourself. Fix something? Build something? Dad always assumed we could just do it. He built a house and ran a grocery store and learned meat cutting – and that seemed normal to us. He always let us use his tools so long as we put them back when finished. He showed us how to use them. I started using hammers and saws when I was 5.

These lessons dwarf anything I learned in school. I suspect this is true of most people.

(This post is the current leader in the ‘start one place, end up someplace completely different’ sweepstakes. But hey, it’s just a blog.)

* I choose the latter – God gave me wonderful children, saw that I would most likely stress myself into a permanent state of clinical depression if I had to scramble for money my whole life, and so He found me a job where my talents can shine and my many flaws can be hidden. There are miracles involved, here.

The Higher Education Mish-Mash

One of the central threads followed in The Metaphysical Club is the bifurcation over the 19th century of American college education into Science and Not Science.  Menand describes how Harvard moved over a couple generations from the embodiment of Puritan ideas of education to the the embodiment of Unitarian ideas. From there, it is a short logical hop to complete secularism. Harvard’s presidency went from a Puritan theologian, to a Unitarian theologian, to a scientist with no theological claims in about 50 years (don’t have the book in front of me, pardon me if the details are wrong – I think the sweep is right.)Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Meanwhile, you have statistical analysis, Darwin, and the Civil War leading educated Americans to call everything they believe into question. Part of this – a huge part of this – is that Protestant theology, especially as expressed in Puritanism and Unitarianism, doesn’t really have the solid philosophical and logical foundation to support a view of reality that includes and harmonizes Revelation and experience. The proof of this: the logic and metaphysical assumptions required for scientific investigation are a subset of Thomism, and not a subset of the metaphysics of Kant, Fichte or Hegel,* and most definitely not a subset of the thinking of Luther.

File:Holmes with signature cropped.jpgIn practical terms, a believing Harvard man in 1820 would expect the natural world to conform to Divine Revelation as clearly stated in Scripture. Up to around 1800, there really wasn’t a ton of overwhelming evidence that the natural world *didn’t* conform to Scripture, at least not evidence that couldn’t be comfortably explained away. The four corners of the earth is just a poetical image, not a statement of geophysics. But that the world and everything in it was created out of nothing about 6,000 years ago – that was harder to explain away if one is to cling to Scripture as the Protestant of the time typically did: as a bulwark against all that Jesuitical hair-splitting and Thomistic angels-on-pins-dancing characteristic of the Catholic Church. That path – taking the literal sense of Scripture as but one way to understand it – lead away from Sola Scriptura, lead to introducing external, non-spiritual elements into understanding. So, just as Catholics were unperturbed by having the Church define the Cannon of Scripture while Protestants were (and are) absolutely insistent on some other more acceptably spiritual mechanism, Thomists and Catholics in general are not upset by the thought that the world might be ancient, that Scripture might sometimes be more truthfully understood as poetry and theology than geophysics and biology, and, that in any event, the Truth is One, whether discovered through Revelation or revealed through study of the natural world, Protestants seemed compelled to either cling to Scripture and dispute the physical evidence, or acknowledge that Scripture is ‘wrong’. This battle, with a thousand degrees of nuance, is still being fought today.

Back to college education. Because of this more sophisticated understanding of reality and Revelation, Thomists, the founders of Europe’s great and ancient universities, were and are not unduly perturbed by evolution, natural selection or statistical uncertainty. In fact, they see these ‘problems’ as just more fascinating aspects of creation, and try to understand them both in themselves and as revealing of the nature of God. In practical terms, in a Thomistic university, natural science, philosophy and theology could live under the same roof, so to speak, and communicate with each other based on a shared understanding of the nature of reality and truth. But in 19th century America, the shared understanding, insofar as it existed, was far less robust – any understanding of the natural world was seen as having, as it were, a dependent existence – it must be understood within an already delineated understanding of Scripture. As more and more discoveries pushed and strained at this limitation, the unity of the college could not hold. Add in the horror of the Civil War, which destroyed many people’s faith in God, or at least in the God of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and the unity broke down entirely: by the 2nd half of the 19th century, American universities have almost always consisted of two independent institutions sharing, with growing unease, buildings and a bureaucracy.

That this truce is ignored doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable. I’ve mentioned before the whole Science Kicks the Creationist Dog aspect of academia: a hard scientist can’t complain (out loud) about the stupidity exhibited, for example, in the Women’s Studies  department, where students and teachers turn on the lights and fire up their laptops prior to discussing how Science has no valid claim to truth, it is in fact nothing more than a tool of oppression wielded by patriarchal misogynistic elites to keep women in line. So, instead of screaming to high heaven over the traitors to truth in the adjoining buildings, traitors who have a lot of influence with the administration and don’t shy away from publicly destroying the careers of people who challenge them, science fans bravely go after Creationists, who don’t do any of that stuff and have no pull and often no presence in their institution.

So, now, this situation prevails: in one and the same institution, an 18 year old can spend 4 or 5 years and 100 grand plus getting trained in:

a. the scientific method as applied to a particular hard science, such as chemistry or physics. In the course of these studies, the student will learn a lot of math and perform experiments and projects where the difference between correct and incorrect, or success and failure, will often be easily apparent o both the student and the professor. A degree is awarded if the student proves to be satisfactorily competent in producing objectively correct or successful results in his field;

b. the conventional and completely self-referential thinking du jour of whatever Humanity or soft ‘science’ they have chosen. In this context, there is no objective measure of correct or successful completion of projects. Success depends entirely on the ability to regurgitate a certain theories and ideas on command. Degrees are awarded to students who display sufficient conformity to the thinking of the student’s academic specialty.

Of course, these are purified extremes – there are grey areas, occasional overlapping, and cross-politicization, such as Skinnerians playing at science, and scientists playing at philosophy. And it is quite possible to teach fields such as History and Philosophy with a high degree of rigor. Doesn’t seem to happen much, but still.

The impression I got at the universities and colleges I’ve hung out at over the last 40 years: the hard science people tend to hold the non-science folks in contempt; the non-science folks seem to be hide their well deserved defensiveness behind a wall of condescending arrogance. In general, academics seem to be about as thin-skinned and needy as any group I’ve ever run into.

On top of all this are the professional schools – MBA, CPE, etc. – which are cash cows and tend to exist in an alternate universe separate from the rest of the school.  They are a frauds of a different kind, but that’s off topic.

One supposes this can’t go on. Why would the customers – the people who pay the college bills – put up with this? especially now, when a college degree is hardly a meal ticket? Two solutions loom:

Financial ruin. So far, our fine colleges and universities have managed to push the ‘financial ruin’ part of the equation onto the students and parents. Eventually – I suspect soon – the music will stop. A college price war is already brewing over the net, it seems to me. When a degree won’t get you a job that can pay off what the degree cost, market forces demand that costs come down – or else. Academic inertia being what it is, my money is on ‘or else’ for many schools.

Reconsolidation. Hey, what if we started with the idea that the Truth exists, and is One? Some religious schools, especially Catholic schools, are trying this – Thomas Aquinas College springs to mind. This has the huge, incalculable benefit – science *needs* philosophy to refine its logic and check its arrogance – and visa versa. The worst tendencies towards philosophical flightiness can often be checked, it seems to me, by seriously looking at the natural world.

As usual, I’ve left out several times as much as I’ve put in here. Time is short!

* Science and Thomism share the assumption that I, the inquirer, exist, as do other people and scientists; the world exists independent of me and my investigations; that thoughts and ideas can be communicated between men via language and mathematics; that, while men possess an intellectual nature commensurate on some level with the natural world, the world can prove my thoughts and ideas wrong. Further, the law of non-contradiction holds,  and, more subtly, the world is worth investigating scientifically.  This set of ideas is not shared by the Big Boys of Philosophy who came out of (and, in the case of Kant and Hegel, explicitly acknowledge their acceptance of) Protestant theology, nor is it shared by any of the other great schools of thought – Buddhist, Muslim, etc.