The multiverse of possibilities

Sam Kriss, who has written before on the joylessness of the pop-scientism so much vogue on the internet and in the media, has written a piece at The Atlantic about the multiverse theory. Indeed, Kriss has made himself a winning critic of scientism, pop vel non, by pointing out the absurdities it forces on its adherents. Now, we wouldn’t confuse Kriss for a religious writer—we have the impression that he’s an unbeliever, though we couldn’t swear as to why we believe that—but Kriss has little use for secularism as it has come to exist popularly. You know the type of secularist we—and he—mean, full of answers like “because science” and “it’s 2016.” Given Kriss’s evident suspicion of people like that, he has some insights, especially on the question of scientism, that we think are profitable for Christians to consider. And his skewering of multiverse theory is one such insight.

Now, as we understand it, the concept of the multiverse is that there is a some number of parallel universes, perhaps an infinite number. The question is, as you might imagine, mathematically dense and contentious even among physicists. But Kriss makes an interesting point that sounds ultimately in common sense:

Heim’s work has been enormously influential in the field of theology, but for some reason it’s generally rejected by the scientific community. Instead, thousands of physicists—big names like Stephen Hawking (who called it ‘trivially true’), Brian Greene, and Neil deGrasse Tyson included—pay lip service to the many-worlds interpretation: the particle still passed through both slits; one here, and one in another universe, created especially for the occasion. It certainly sounds more scientific than Heim’s theory, which tries to shoehorn a Bronze Age concept into an increasingly inhospitable reality. The only snag is that there’s actually very little difference. There’s no way we could ever carry out any experiment to test for the multiverse’s existence in the world, because it’s not in our world. It’s an article of faith, and not a very secure one. What’s more likely: a potentially infinite number of useless parallel universes, or one perfectly ordinary God?

(Emphasis supplied.) He goes on to note that multiverse theory is itself “an organized assault” on imagination:

The Mandela Effect is silly, but is has its roots in the philosophical precursors to multiverse theory. What looks at first glance like an opening up of possibilities is actually an organized assault on the unreal: the delicate networks of falsehood, the boundlessness of counterfactuals, the imagination as such. It goes back to Leibniz, who got analytical philosophers talking about contingency in terms of ‘possible worlds’ for tedious centuries—actually, it goes back to Democritus, twenty-five centuries ago—but there’s no purer instance than the ‘modal realism’ of David Lewis. In a series of books, the Princeton philosopher argued that counterfactual statements (‘There is a possible world in which ‘chartreuse’ describes a shade of red,’ ‘If the author-electrocuting button existed, I’d be dead now’) could not be intelligible unless they refer to an actually existing state of affairs. If the author-murdering button doesn’t exist here, it must necessarily exist in another universe. What this means is that the human capacity to imagine a different world is really nothing of the sort. It’s all just the same washed-out reality, and your hopes and dreams are as drearily physical as a sack of potatoes. Want to write fiction? Want to build a better life? Don’t bother. Everything that could happen has already happened, and nothing can ever change.

(Emphasis supplied.) This, of course, goes back to Kriss’s piece on Dr. Tyson. The sort of materialism that delights in “science,” including the idea of an infinite number of universes where an infinite number of possibilities plays out separately, ultimately seeks to create a world without possible escape. Endlessly, rigorously “correct.” What you see is what you get, if you’re lucky. More likely, what you see is what you see and what you get is nothing. Eventually one does not even need the tweets and blog posts and talking-head programs saying “actually…,” one simply internalizes the “actually…” The goal, to nick the title of that book of Sagan’s, may have started out as to free us from “a demon-haunted world,” but it seems to have wound up being to free us from a human-inhabited world.

One may say, too, that the multiverse idea is an organized assault on faith. We know that God took flesh, dwelt among men, died on the cross, and was raised from the dead on the third day. But if there are an infinite number of universes, then it is entirely possible (probable, even?) that there is a universe in which that did not happen. Right? (We’re not experts in this stuff, so maybe it isn’t right, but we certainly have the sense that this is the thrust of the theory.) There may, in fact, be several universes in which that did not happen. And you see it goes on and on. And for every single thing Christians know to be true. If struck by a perverse mood, one can posit ever more ridiculous hypotheses: let’s say that everything that we know to be true is true for n-1 universes, including ours, but in the n-th, the 27th condemned proposition of the Laxists wasn’t condemned by the Holy Office, or something like that. That’s the only difference. Such a hypothesis is unfalsifiable, obviously, but it’s no more or less so that the more serious hypotheses discussed. (We could gussy it up with some calculations, but we were never that good with figures.) At some point one has to come back to Kriss’s earlier point: “What’s more likely: a potentially infinite number of useless parallel universes, or one perfectly ordinary God?” 

We wouldn’t put it like that, exactly, but that’s a devastating answer to the adherents of scientism who tell us increasingly improbable things and expect us to swallow them whole.

Now, perhaps Kriss means to say that the multiverse and God are equally improbable, but we’ll set that possibility to one side. Perhaps in another universe, we take it up. Levity aside, there is, as a function of scientism and our indefatigable faith in scientific progress notwithstanding all evidence to the contrary, too much piety about science. The scientists say. The experiment shows. And all too often Christians—who know better; who know the truth about God, the world, and our place in it, in point of fact—are stuck either sketching some complicated modus vivendi for faith and science or demonstrating how the scientific explanation fits into our understanding of things. Perhaps the better approach would be to call up “up” and down “down,” as Kriss does, and to say that a given “explanation” is so wildly, hysterically improbable as to be essentially an alternative faith. Thus dialogue between a Christian and an adherent of these theories ought to be in the nature of interfaith dialogue—not some grand disputation between faith and reason—acknowledging always that, while there might be points of agreement, there are points of dogma that cannot be transgressed by the respective believers.

We’re by no means an expert on the intersection of faith and science. We know what we know. And that may not be all that much. But we think there’s good reason to ponder Kriss’s point and its implications.

Pope Paul’s “Sacrificium laudis”

At New Liturgical Movement, Peter Kwasniewski has a brief piece commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Sacrificium laudis, Paul VI’s 1966 apostolic letter to religious exhorting them to retain the choral office in Latin. Kwasniewski’s essay includes a translation by the eminent English Dominican, Fr. Thomas Crean, of Paul’s letter. Echoing a point we have made here before, Kwasniewski observes:

But in many ways the greatest tragedy of the postconciliar period was the sudden, dramatic, worldwide collapse of religious life, especially in its contemplative branches, and the disappearance, as if overnight, of the chanting of the Divine Office in Gregorian chant. It was an anti-miracle, so to speak — a feat of Satan who, appearing as an angel of light, lured the religious to their doom. The praises of God, which had been sung day and night for well over a millennium with melodies more beautiful than any the world has ever birthed before or since, fell silent, with the silence of the tomb.

And yet, Pope Paul VI, in words no less clear, stalwart, principled, and prophetic than those he uttered about birth control in Humanae Vitae, urged religious in 1966 to uphold their traditional choral office at all costs, for it was their special contribution to the life, health, and growth of the Mystical Body. While it is true that Paul VI, with his self-admitted Hamlet syndrome, walked a zigzag path in contrary directions, seeming to be trapped in the torments and doubts of his age, he nevertheless rose above the churning waters now and again to speak a clear word that, had it only been followed, would have been a blessing for the Church.

(Emphasis supplied.) For example, consider this passage from Pope Paul:

What is in question here is not only the retention within the choral office of the Latin language, though it is of course right that this should be eagerly guarded and should certainly not be lightly esteemed. For this language is, within the Latin Church, an abundant well-spring of Christian civilisation and a very rich treasure-trove of devotion. But it is also the seemliness, the beauty and the native strength of these prayers and canticles which is at stake: the choral office itself, ‘the lovely voice of the Church in song’ (Cf. St Augustine’s Confessions, Bk 9, 6). Your founders and teachers, the holy ones who are as it were so many lights within your religious families, have transmitted this to you. The traditions of the elders, your glory throughout long ages, must not be belittled. Indeed, your manner of celebrating the choral office has been one of the chief reasons why these families of yours have lasted so long, and happily increased. It is thus most surprising that under the influence of a sudden agitation, some now think that it should be given up.

In present conditions, what words or melodies could replace the forms of Catholic devotion which you have used until now? You should reflect and carefully consider whether things would not be worse, should this fine inheritance be discarded. It is to be feared that the choral office would turn into a mere bland recitation, suffering from poverty and begetting weariness, as you yourselves would perhaps be the first to experience. One can also wonder whether men would come in such numbers to your churches in quest of the sacred prayer, if its ancient and native tongue, joined to a chant full of grave beauty, resounded no more within your walls. We therefore ask all those to whom it pertains, to ponder what they wish to give up, and not to let that spring run dry from which, until the present, they have themselves drunk deep.

(Emphasis supplied.) Read the whole thing there.

On Alan Jacobs’s Christian intellectuals

At Harper’s Magazine, Alan Jacobs has a lengthy essay, “The Watchmen,” more or less bewailing the disappearance, as Jacobs has it, of Christian intellectuals from the American scene. The problem with Jacobs’s piece, as we see it, is remarkably simple: when it isn’t an exercise in nostalgia, it’s pointless. He sets for himself a big project and then, apparently, decides that he’d rather not make a go of it. (He also has some weird ideas, at least from a Catholic perspective, as we’ll see, about Catholicism.) Political liberals, Jacobs explains, are living an increasingly reactionary world, and they are without the means of understanding the reaction that befuddles and terrifies them. Christian intellectuals, Jacobs says, who were most prominent in the middle of the 20th century, could explain the reactionaries to the liberals. What?

No, really. What?

We have not seen any desire among political liberals—and Jacobs never clarifies what he means by that term until it’s too late—to have Donald Trump, for example, explained to them in Christian terms. Political liberals already know what they think of Trump and the voters that have propelled him to the Republican nomination. They don’t need Christian intellectuals to explain these trends. And that’s assuming that Christians could explain the broader trends. Even conservative Christians seem to be divided on Trump, with many Christians adopting an exhausted, “think of the Supreme Court” approach to Trump. Which is not exactly a robust approach to a new political movement, for what it’s worth. (And recalling Scalia’s Obergefell dissent, about which we have changed our mind in recent months, it is strange to imagine Christians voting for Trump in the hope that he’ll find another proceduralist to replace Scalia.) So, we wonder why Jacobs thinks that Christian intellectuals are necessary to interpret the Trump trend—or any of a whole host of trends—to centrists or leftists.

And Jacobs never really answers that question. Indeed, he quickly abandons the idea of the intellectual-as-interpreter. Instead, he seems to conceive of the Christian intellectual as someone who gives political liberals a religious explanation for things they were predisposed to believe. (Though why he thinks political liberals want a religious justification for things they already believe is, again, beyond us.) Jacobs explains:

Oldham’s Moot and Finkelstein’s Conference shared a pair of beliefs: that the West was suffering a kind of moral crisis, and that a religious interpretation of that crisis was required. The nature of the problem, the believing intellectuals agreed, was a kind of waffling uncertainty about core principles and foundational belief. Faced with ideological challenges from the totalitarian Axis powers and from the communist Soviet Union, democracy did not seem to know why it should be preferred to alternatives whose advocates celebrated them so passionately and reverently. What democracy needed was a metaphysical justification — or, at least, a set of metaphysically grounded reasons for preferring democracy to those great and terrifying rivals.

In was in this context — a democratic West seeking to understand why it was fighting and what it was fighting for — that the Christian intellectual arose. Before World War II there had been Christians who were also intellectuals, but not a whole class of people who understood themselves, and were often understood by others, to be watchmen observing the democratic social order and offering a distinctive interpretation of it. Mannheim, who was born Jewish but professed no religious belief, joined with these people because he saw them pursuing the genuine calling of the intellectual. Perhaps Mortimer Adler felt the same way: it would otherwise be difficult to explain why he, also a Jew by birth and also (at that time) without any explicit religious commitments, would think that the West could be saved only through careful attention to the thought of Thomas Aquinas.

(Emphasis supplied.) Whatever this process is, it is not explaining to political liberals the forces of reaction. Instead, it seems like a process of explaining to political liberals why the forces of reaction are not just wrong in the hic et nunc, but wrong in the only analysis that matters, the religious analysis. One doubts—we doubt, at any rate—whether such they need the help.

But who are these voices? W.H. Auden, Reinhold Niebuhr, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and a few others. In other words, for the most part, sort of high-church protestants from the middle of the 20th century. Auden died in 1973, Niebuhr in 1971, Lewis in 1963, and Eliot in 1965. On Twitter, Matthew Sitman, associate editor at Commonweal, makes the point that these men did most of their most important work in a short time, mostly in the context of actual war. We draw very different conclusions than Sitman, but his series of tweets is well worth reading. His most cogent point is that, by the 1950s, the men Jacobs discusses had moved on to more personal, perhaps less compelling, projects. (By way of example: Little Gidding appeared in 1942 and the collected Four Quartets appeared the United States in 1943. [They would appear in England in 1944.]) And he’s right. If you consider the Christian intellectual project as winning the peace by finding a religious justification for western liberal democracy—and that seems to be Jacobs’s definition—it lasted about 25 years in the middle of the 20th century (1945–1970). And by returning to this brief period—which is probably briefer than we say, since, as Sitman notes, Niebuhr’s last great book was published in the 1950s—Jacobs lays himself open to the charge of sentimentalism and nostalgia. And, we suppose, to high-church liberal protestants, there is much to lament with the passing of that moment in the public discourse.

Catholics might feel otherwise, since from October 1978 to April 2005, the Church was led by John Paul II, who was very much a Christian intellectual of a very different stripe than the ones Jacobs wants to talk about—recall Wojtyla’s corpus from Love and Responsibility to the Theology of the Body discourses to his major encyclicals as pope, whatever one makes of any particular contribution in that vein. The point is clear: the intellectual discourse in the Church, both about Christianity and how Christianity relates to a world hostile to it in many respects, especially moral, remained at a high level. But, Jacobs, for some reason, makes clear that the Christian intellectuals he admires so much did not necessarily include Catholic voices:

To be sure, in America the Fifties were a time of public emergence for many Catholic intellectuals, especially writers of fiction: J. F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy. But these figures were almost assertively apolitical, and when Catholics did write politically, it was largely in order to emphasize the fundamental compatibility of Catholicism with what John Courtney Murray — a Jesuit theologian who was the most prominent Catholic public intellectual of that time — called “the American Proposition.” Murray was not wholly uncritical of the American social order, but his criticisms were framed with great delicacy: in a time of worldwide conflict, he wrote, “there is no element” of that proposition that escapes being “menaced by active negation, and no thrust of the project that does not meet powerful opposition.” Therefore, “America must be more clearly conscious of what it proposes, more articulate in proposing, more purposeful in the realization of the project proposed.” The American idea is in no sense mistaken, though Americans might need to be “more articulate” in stating and defending that idea. This Murray was willing to help us do, by explaining that the Catholic tradition of natural law was the very same principle that the Founding Fathers appealed to when they declared “that all men are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” It is wholly unaccidental that Murray’s book We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition was published in 1960, when a Roman Catholic named John F. Kennedy was standing as the Democratic Party’s nominee for president of the United States.

(Emphasis supplied.) This is a strange point to make, though fundamentally correct: the Catholic intellectuals of the immediate postwar period spent a lot of energy trying to make American-style liberal democracy compatible with Catholicism. Yet, Jacobs seems to miss the deeper connections between that project and the sort of Christian intellectualism he would like to see restored to the public sphere.

Beginning with Pius IX, whose great Quanta cura and Syllabus Errorum condemned propositions that many red-blooded protestant Americans would have considered essential to American democracy—and continuing through Leo XIII’s great encyclicals on social affairs, including Testem benevolentiae nostrae, a warning about Americanism (narrowly defined) and Pius XI’s own, towering contributions to the social teaching of the Church—the good and holy popes of the modern age critiqued aspects of American-style democracy, while on the whole encouraging the American experiment. (Cf. Leo XIII, Encyclical on Catholicism in the United States Longinqua oceani, Jan. 6, 1895.) The upshot of all of this is that, for a Catholic adhering to these teachings, as a Catholic must, there are aspects of American-style democracy that were (and remain) questionable propositions at best. And this is where Jacobs misses his own professed point when discussing the Catholic intellectuals of the postwar period.

We said that Jacobs abandons his original thesis pretty early on, and this a good example of that. He says that Christian intellectuals are necessary to relate reactionary trends to liberal democrats. From an American perspective, few things are as reactionary as the Church’s pre-conciliar teaching on the proper relationship of Church and state, as well as religious freedom and toleration. (From a traditional Catholic perspective, they are far from reactionary and instead represent a deeper liberty, but that is a debate for another time.) Seen in that light, Murray represents a better example of the sort of intellectual that Jacobs wants: showing Catholics that American-style democracy was ultimately compatible with Catholic principles. And Murray was ultimately successful, since the Council’s declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis humanae, represents a partial victory for his thinking. (For an example of what he thought, see his 1964–65 article, “The Problem of Religious Freedom”, or this article from America.) Perhaps the direction is reversed—certainly Murray didn’t spend a lot of time explaining the Church’s historic position on indifferentism to liberal democrats—but the basic idea is the same, and it cannot be denied that Murray’s project was more concretely successful than simply giving liberal democrats a theological dimension for their preexisting belief in liberal democracy.

Jacobs’s weirdness on Catholicism doesn’t stop there, either. Jacobs turns to the life of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the tremendously influential publisher of First Things, to illustrate a point about the Christian intellectual’s reaction to the trends of the 1960s and 1970s. But again Jacobs draws a weird point. Jacobs’s point is this: Neuhaus, previously known for socially progressive politics, was shocked, as any thinking person was, by the horror of abortion loosed after Roe v. Wade in 1973. He hoped that the antiwar and civil-rights tendencies within American Christianity would join him in opposing abortion. That did not happen, and, in fact, Neuhaus lost his access to the mainstream media. So he went and started First Things, which Jacobs calls a “subaltern counterpublic,” which began arguing for mutual toleration through separatism. Maybe Jacobs’s narrative is right, but his perspective is one sided. To many traditionally minded Catholics, however, Neuhaus’s project is essentially a fusion of Catholics, evangelicals, and Jews to articulate, essentially, basic conservative politics. This project may have had its roots in the prolife movement—since horror at abortion was by no means confirmed to Catholics—but its scope is broader than that. It encompasses most of the major goals of the American political right. In other words, no less than John Courtney Murray, Richard John Neuhaus represents an attempt to make American politics compatible with Catholicism. Thus, it is not surprising that Jacobs misses Neuhaus’s greater significance.

How, then, does Jacobs fail to understand that, more than the liberal protestants he focuses on, Catholics have been performing, though perhaps in different ways, the role of the Christian intellectual? Indeed, even after the death of the men he mentions, there have been prominent Catholic intellectual figures, like Neuhaus, or Robert George or George Weigel or Rusty Reno or whoever,  who have performed the basic thing Jacobs wants to see. So why doesn’t he see it? The key to all of this, really, is this paragraph:

It was the Sixties that changed everything, and not primarily because of the Vietnam War or the cause of civil rights. There were many Christians on both sides of those divides. The primary conflict was over the sexual revolution and the changes in the American legal system that accompanied it: changes in divorce law, for instance, but especially in abortion law. (Many Christians supported and continue to support abortion rights, of course; but abortion is rarely if ever the central, faith-defining issue for them that it often is for those in the pro-life camp.) By the time these changes happened and Christian intellectuals found themselves suddenly outside the circles of power, no longer at the head table of liberalism, Christians had built up sufficient institutional stability and financial resourcefulness to be able to create their own subaltern counterpublics. And this temptation proved irresistible. As Marilynne Robinson has rightly said in reflecting on the agitation she can create by calling herself a Christian, “This is a gauge of the degree to which the right has colonized the word and also of the degree to which the center and left have capitulated, have surrendered the word and also the identity.”

(Emphasis supplied.) Ah. There it is. Jacobs is only interested in liberalism in the American political sense, not in the sense we more regularly see it used in Catholic circles. (Not as in, for example, liberalism is a heresy.)

And this is, we think, explains everything. On one hand, it explains the nostalgic tone. The Christian left in the United States is not an especially powerful force. Part of this has been the collapse of the mainline protestant denominations, and part of it has been the remarkably durable coalition of Catholics, evangelical protestants, and Jews on pro-life issues, which has translated into the substantial alignment of that coalition with the Republican Party. There has also been, at least from 1964 to the present, the rise of the organized political right in the United States, which has long included a strong religious element. One could probably plot all the trends on the same graph—presuming one could find statistics to represent the trends—and they’d line up pretty neatly. Jacobs, then, is nostalgic for a time when Christians on the political left had popular prestige and widespread influence, neither of which do they have in any quantity today.

On the other hand, it explains the weirdness about Catholicism, which has never lined up neatly on either side of the American political spectrum, though in recent years Christ’s Church has found herself on the right more often than the left. Certainly some of that shift can be attributed to John Paul’s general direction, especially on moral questions. But even during the Cold War years—which are, it seems, Jacobs’s preoccupation—the Church was engaged in various projects, such as the Second Vatican Council and the major reforms following the Council, that only incidentally lined up with the interests of the American political left. (One wonders, and we suppose that a historian would have the answer, what effect “Seamless Garment” ideology propounded by John Cardinal Dearden and others had on the American left more broadly; it always seemed like an attempt to import conventional leftism into the Church, not the other way around.) It makes sense, therefore, that Jacobs has strange notions about what was happening in American Catholicism, to say nothing of an apparent desire to minimize its importance, since what was happening was, as we say, only incidentally related to what Jacobs is talking about.

In all of this, Jacobs never answers the question we started with: why do political liberals want or, indeed, need Christian intellectuals to explain these trends to them? Especially since Jacobs’s idea of the Christian intellectual does not include voices—mostly Catholic—who might be able to explain the sense of loss and alienation from the culture that Trump voters allegedly feel. Jacobs seems to want liberal protestants around to comment on these trends. But he does not consider that the insights—or lack thereof—of liberal protestants might explain in part why there aren’t too many liberal protestants around any more.

EDIT: After publishing this piece, we noted a few mistakes that we did not want to leave in this piece. We have gone back and cleaned them up, but we have not changed the substance of this essay. – pjs

A comment on Hellerstedt

Today, the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, No. 15-274, 579 U.S. ___ (2016), invalidating some Texas regulations on abortion clinics. The decision today “vigorously reaffirms” Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood. In other words, the status quo remains firmly in place, despite some states’ attempts to regulate abortion vigorously. (Of course, it is interesting to observe the secular left, ordinarily so fond of government intervention, coming down so firmly on the side of corporations and deregulation, though that’s another story.) In the face of such a tragedy, we recall the Holy Father’s wise words in Laudato si’:

Modern anthropocentrism has paradoxically ended up prizing technical thought over reality, since “the technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given’, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere ‘space’ into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference”. The intrinsic dignity of the world is thus compromised. When human beings fail to find their true place in this world, they misunderstand themselves and end up acting against themselves: “Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given, but, man too is God’s gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed”.

Modernity has been marked by an excessive anthropocentrism which today, under another guise, continues to stand in the way of shared understanding and of any effort to strengthen social bonds. The time has come to pay renewed attention to reality and the limits it imposes; this in turn is the condition for a more sound and fruitful development of individuals and society. An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about. Instead, our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship.

Neglecting to monitor the harm done to nature and the environmental impact of our decisions is only the most striking sign of a disregard for the message contained in the structures of nature itself. When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature”.

This situation has led to a constant schizophrenia, wherein a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings coexists with the other extreme, which sees no special value in human beings. But one cannot prescind from humanity. There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes”. A misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to “biocentrism”, for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems and adding new ones. Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued.


Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away”.

(Emphasis supplied, paragraph numbers and footnotes omitted.)

Bernie Sanders addresses “Centesimus annus” conference


Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, currently running for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, had this to say today:

I am honored to be with you today and was pleased to receive your invitation to speak to this conference of The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Today we celebrate the encyclical Centesimus Annus and reflect on its meaning for our world a quarter-century after it was presented by Pope John Paul II. With the fall of Communism, Pope John Paul II gave a clarion call for human freedom in its truest sense: freedom that defends the dignity of every person and that is always oriented towards the common good. 

The Church’s social teachings, stretching back to the first modern encyclical about the industrial economy, Rerum Novarum in 1891, to Centesimus Annus, to Pope Francis’s inspiring encyclical Laudato Si’ this past year, have grappled with the challenges of the market economy. There are few places in modern thought that rival the depth and insight of the Church’s moral teachings on the market economy.

(Emphasis supplied.) He went on to observe:

The essential wisdom of Centesimus Annus is this: A market economy is beneficial for productivity and economic freedom. But if we let the quest for profits dominate society; if workers become disposable cogs of the financial system; if vast inequalities of power and wealth lead to marginalization of the poor and the powerless; then the common good is squandered and the market economy fails us. Pope John Paul II puts it this way: profit that is the result of “illicit exploitation, speculation, or the breaking of solidarity among working people . . . has not justification, and represents an abuse in the sight of God and man.” (Para43).

(Emphasis supplied.)

Sanders was at the Vatican, you may remember, for a conference marking the 25th anniversary of Centesimus annus, hosted by the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences. There was some controversy about Sanders’s visit to Rome, since the invitation, made at the behest of Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, though that’s not really the interesting part of the story. The interesting part of the story—at least for us—is that an American presidential candidate traveled to the Vatican to discuss Centesimus annus, Rerum novarum, and Catholic social teaching more generally.


Veni, Sponsa Christi

Mother Angelica, who founded, in addition to several religious orders, EWTN, died on Easter, March 27, after suffering the aftereffects of a stroke for nearly fifteen years. Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J., has a remembrance at America. He concludes:

The history of Catholicism in the United States will need to include a section, if not a chapter, on Mother Angelica. Hardly any other woman has had so much influence, except Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. St. John Paul II once said, “Mother Angelica—she is very strong woman.” No physical pain, opposition from inside or outside the church, no overwhelming odds or threats stopped that strong woman in love with Jesus. Following her troubles with cardinals and bishops, St. John Paul personally sent her a monstrance to mark the end of the threats of interdict and other conflicts with the Roman Curia. He knew her strength came from her love of Jesus and he gave a gift to encourage the Eucharistic adoration that nourished and strengthened her. May she rest in peace.

(Emphasis supplied.) Her obituary at the National Catholic Register, itself an offshoot of EWTN, tells her life story in great detail. Remembrances have poured in from around the world.

It is far too soon to encapsulate Mother Angelica’s legacy, other than to say that she influenced almost every aspect of the American Church. Indeed, there are aspects of the modern American Church that would be almost unthinkable without Mother Angelica’s enormous, indefatigable labors.