Friday, March 30, 2007

Descartes' mistake...

It seems to me that there is a pretty obvious mistake in Descartes' method; it is not so much that he followed a process of radical doubt but that he didn't follow it consistently enough. Descartes made indubitability the starting point of thought. He made the perfectly valid observation that in every "Ego" there is a necessary "Ego sum;" this is not so much a logical deduction as a tautology (thus Descartes supposedly does not need to appeal to logic, which he has already doubted--but more on this later). But by elevating this "necessity" to a foundation of knowledge, Descartes commits an equivocation. Because while it necessarily follows from the "Ego" that "Ego sum", the "Ego" itself has no necessity. There is, in Descartes, a forgetfulness of the contingency of the self. An incidental "Ego" is confounded with a necessary "Ego," simply because from the "Ego" itself, certain necessary deductions are possible.

There may also be a wrench on the Cartesian gears buried in the fact that Descartes' "radical doubt" has structure; an odd feature for a method striving for univocity. He doesn't simply doubt everything at once; there is an order to doubt, and for some reason unexplained, the self is the last, i.e., the ultimate step in that order. Hierarchy is not exactly modernity's favorite heuristic scheme... yet one of the most profound foundations of modern thought seems built on a basically hierarchical conception of being and thought, with the intellectual soul standing on top as it ever was.

At the root of the inflation of "Ego Sum" is something common enough. Sometimes a method or an instrument of investigation obscures something but is mistakenly believed to reveal something. For example, a photo of the alleged Loch Ness Monster, with a dark something-or-other popping out of the water, is in all likelihood a smudge; an obscurity mistaken for a revelation. The tautology of "Ego" and "Ego sum" has pretensions of eternity and thus indubitable necessity, because allegedly, time itself has been "doubted". If only Kant's discovery, that time and space are not so easily discarded from thought, was retroactively applied to Descartes' discovery, the essentially time-rootedness of the "Sum" would have been discovered, and the "Ego" once again found to be contingent and hardly worthy as a foundation of knowledge.

The truth beneath the "Ego sum" is that even its status as a tautology has not liberated it from the structures of reason and logic as Descartes as hoped. If he had been consistent in his method, Descartes would have stopped writing after establishing the "Cartesian demon" and would have gone outside and started hitting people and screaming bloody murder. That is because it is impossible to isolate even something as simple as "Ego Sum" from the machinations of a deceiving demon or the vast perceptible, time-rooted world in which we find ourselves.

In short, it might be true that there is a tautology of "Ego" and "Ego Sum". But there is equally as much a tautology between "Ego Sum" and "Ego Sum Nunc." This wrenches the pretentious statement away from eternity and necessity and directs the radically doubting method away from the self and toward that upon which the self is contingent.

Things I've been thinking about recently...

Possible future essays... no promises.

  • Bigotry, homosexuality, and Church teaching.
  • Descartes' mistake.
  • ES IV: Oblivion, video games, and human motivation.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Homosexuality and bigotry

Right. General Pace says homosexual acts are immoral. Now everybody and their dog hates him.

It happened overnight, when everybody was asleep. Nobody announced it; there was never a constitutional amendment; it simply happened. There once was a time when one may have been able to believe that homosexual acts are immoral without being a bigot. Now, this is no longer true.

"Bigotry" as a vague and sentimentally super-charged notion, is one of the only things that western society can agree is inherently evil, though it knows not really why. Even the barest intimation of bigotry sets off a an involuntary reaction on a national scale, a bit like how I collapse choking after the smallest sip of spoiled coffee. In fact, in a society long enamored yet still afraid of her captor--modernity--it is not difficult to see how bigotry has come to be not only a sub-category of evil but its very essence. Let me lay it out.

When good and evil are judged only by the scientifically measurable scale of sociology, they are aligned no longer with the analogues of "order" and "chaos" as in antiquity, but rather with "less harm" and "more harm"--a happily quantifiable standard. Science knows nothing of violating a "nature"; it only knows of violating an "other".

Yet in spite of brute quantifiability of this new standard, the modern sense of violation is not primarily any physical violence (for after all, the willingness of Armin Meiwes' victim initially turned "murder" into "manslaughter", nevermind the calculated willingness of Meiwes nor the measurable deadness of the victim). More heinous than contradicting another's vital organs is contradicting their conscious will (while they are conscious, anyway).

How to reconcile the modern need for a scientifically measurable standard of good vs. evil and the quintessential modern value of self-determination, which itself cannot really be seen or measured?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Some liturgy thoughts...

Things have been pretty slow in real life. My recent interviews didn't pan out; I have one more this week, this time for a job in a pet store, but I don't know if they'll be able to pay me what I'm looking for. But in the middle of the week, I'm driving out to my old seminary to clear out my room and sign the exit papers.

Some interesting news. The supposed motu propio granting universal permission for priests to celebrate Mass according to the 1962 missal may be coming very soon, at least according to this article. I can only celebrate if that happens. In the current atmosphere, I would be tempted to make a Tridentine rite parish my primary source of the sacraments, if one were offered in union with Rome. It might disappoint some of my friends to learn that I've become a little more of a "traditionalist" since coming back to Tucson. In fact, on an important level, I haven't. But this bears explaining.

Ideally, there should be no need whatever to bring back the Tridentine rite. Unlike many people who prefer to go to Tridentine Masses, I do not believe that the external reforms to the 1969 missal played the most important role in the decay of Catholic worship over the last forty years. Nothing Rome could have done in the 60's would have ultimately saved Catholic worship from the floodgates of modernism effectively erasing the category of "ritual worship" from western culture. The 1969 rite might have accelerated the decay; but ultimately I think we would be in the same place we are today even if Paul VI's Novus Ordo had never been promulgated.

Granted, I do believe that it's Sacrosanctum Concilium, and not the rite of 1969, that inadvertently opened the floodgates. This is not an indictment of S.C.; even those traditionalists who read the document rarely find fault with it. But it was S.C. which was surgically removed from the tradition and teaching of the Church and reconstituted by liberalism into a kind of magna carta of the desacralization of the Mass. It is my opinion that Catholic worship was doomed to decay by the secular history of the late 60's through today; but S.C. was pivotal for changing the nature of the decay. If S.C. had never been written, the decay which had already been occurring in the celebration of the Tridentine rite would have continued, and today we would have far fewer people going to Mass than we do, fewer people calling themselves Catholics, and a liturgy which was as perfunctory, functionalistic, and incomprehensible as it is now superficial, silly, and bland.

For the Catholic interested in worship of the Father that is real and not just pretend, religious and not just social, sacred and not just nice, the mainstream today is, I can say now unabashedly, a wasteland. But apart from the mainstream there are two parallel movements. I used to believe that these parallels were in competition with each other, but now I do not.

The first, and I think most important movement is what is commonly called the reform of the reform, and I think is most represented by the then-Cardinal Ratzinger's book Spirit of the Liturgy. This is the movement which affirms, and I believe rightly so, that Vatican II hasn't been implemented yet, with the exceptions of those liturgical bright-spots on the western landscape. The Brompton Oratory in London is one example (though even there one might accuse them of falling to a theatricalism whose only advantage is that it isn't folk music), as well as the chanted English liturgy of St. Meinrad Archabbey; or more on the 'old fashioned' side, the San Benedetto Monastery in Norcia, Italy.

The second movement is institutionalized implementation of John Paul II's motu propio Ecclesia Dei, embodied by noble organizations in communion with Rome like the Fraternity of St. Peter and the Institute of Christ the King, Sovereign Priest. In other words, a movement to restore, or to return as far as possible, to the rite of 1962.

There are a few important facts to note. For one, a return to the missal of 1962 is emphatically not a return to the state of the Church in 1962. Although Catholic communities that center on the Tridentine rite also reclaim a very traditional morality--a morality that might look over-scrupulous to even conservative Catholics--yet still their manner of celebrating the Mass is probably much different than it was forty years ago. It is tighter, slower, more reverent and knowledgeable of the meaning and origin of each element; in a word, more self-aware both on the part of the priest and the people, which is precisely what Sacrosanctum Concilium was aiming for in its call to "active participation." Those "traditionalists" whose "spirituality" consists largely of criticizing Vatican II would probably be surprised by how much their favored form of worship has benefited, indirectly, from Vatican II.

Two historical points might help explain why this is so; first, that the official suppression of the Tridentine rite has had the effect of embalming it. Some might consider this all the more reason for keeping the Tridentine rite down--its overt anachronism is all the more keen now that it been suppressed and revived within the lifetimes and memories of one generation. But, as one monk priest of mine has once said, "liturgy is supposed to be anachronistic." To desire a form of worship that is timeless is not to deny that that the Tridentine rite is as time-conditioned as its younger sister. But it certainly feels less time-conditioned than the 1969 reformed rite, particularly as the "Novus Ordo" is celebrated by priests still beholden to the historicist bias of their 70s/80s seminary educations.

Second, it is precisely the self-conscious and idiosyncratic character of communities focussed on the Tridentine rite which contributes to the deliberateness and the energy with which they worship. I have seen a forum post comment that this energy is "parasitic on the mainstream church", and there might be a grain of truth in that, especially of the case of schismatic groups that fuel their devotional furnace with the brittle plywood of self-righteous anger. But in the case of the others, there is a natural zeal that attends minority religiosity which is not a vice, but a natural aid to the salvation of many. This minority zeal is the same whether it accompanies a new, radical monastic order freshly approved by Rome or a lay ecclesial community--and it carries the same pitfalls of spiritual elitism and obscuritanism.

In this respect, I would rather hope that the Tridentine rite never becomes mainstream, not for any dislike of it but precisely because it would thereby be in danger of losing its peculiarly sacral character. I do not share the confidence of other traditionalists that the 1962 missal has an objective invincibility to corruption amid the world which is passing away.

As a seminarian I was opposed to reviving the Tridentine rite because I believed that the Church in America and the new generation of priests really ought to focus their attention on the reform of the reform; on the restoring of the Mass to its timeless dignity within the current, ordinary, universal Roman rite. I felt that the Tridentine rite was a distraction from the real task at hand, and that its advocacy implied the illegitimacy, or at least the irrelevance of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which I believe to be the work of the Holy Spirit. But at this stage I no longer believe these things. A few points.

  • The "reform of the reform" is going to be more difficult if it has to take place in a void of liturgical excellence. Benedict XVI's ideal of liturgy, I believe, needs an ally against its powerful opponent--mainstream liturgical desacralization. The revival of the practice of the Tridentine rite could serve as a foil to the mainstream decadence, and spark the desire already latent in the laity for more worthy worship-forms. The "reform of the reform" would benefit from a parallel movement, not compete with it.
  • The restoration of the 1962 missal via a universal indult would provide an immediate mercy to Catholics who are unable otherwise to enjoy Mass. Of course, such an indult would not result in Tridentine Masses popping up all over the landscape; there are dioceses so devoid of liturgical sense that it would take much time still for a handful of priests to train themselves in the Latin and ritual necessary to celebrate it correctly.
  • As mentioned before, the way that the Tridentine Mass is celebrated nowadays has at least indirectly benefited from Sacrosanctum Concilium, and in many ways reflects the goals of Vatican II; this fact has deeply catechetical significance and should be made known to those who currently attend such Masses.
So anyway, I now favor a universal indult, and I have a new affection for the rite of 1962 itself. Hm. Some people reading this might think that I've fallen victim to a certain externalism--focussing too much on the external form of the liturgy. I assure my readers that this isn't so; although I do believe that external forms and internal dispositions are not such divergent matters as some presume. Maybe I'll post my little "liturgical manifesto" in full in the next post.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Great idea.

Just found this great little blog: The Mass of Vatican II. The fellow is arguing (with perhaps more strident language than I would use, and not with all valid arguments) that the reforms of the missal in 1965 and 1967 were authentic, organic developments based on the true spirit and letter of Vatican II, whereas the missal of 1969 was not.