Letters to the Editor: June 2023
The Empty Vanity of Science
Hugh Hunter’s article “Miracles for Empiricists” (April) was a home run of empiricist logic. First off, a miracle must be defined as an event that defies empirical logic and brings us to the point of admitting something other than empirical causality, namely, divine causality. Such was the case when the author of the Book of Genesis attributed a miracle — divine intervention — to the creation of the universe. As it turned out, many astronomers and physicists, including Albert Einstein before the Big Bang theory was developed, did not believe that the universe was created at a point in time but that it is eternal. To admit creation is to come too uncomfortably close to the idea of a Creator, which is empirically taboo. Einstein, at first, resisted the Big Bang. David Hume, being the atheist he was, would have ferociously fought it!
But there is no way to explain empirically how the universe came to be. As the James Webb Telescope is consistently proving, every new discovery about the early universe creates many more confusing questions than clear answers. But why wouldn’t that be so if the universe was created by a God whose mind is infinitely grander and more complex than our own?
It is the empty vanity of science to resist particular miracles, old or recent, when it should be able to concede that the creation of the universe was the first and most obvious miracle of them all.
In Hugh Hunter’s article, the protagonist is the philosopher David Hume. The misfortune for Hume (1711-1776) is that he lived in the time before the modern scientific era, the late 20th century to the present. The empiricist Hume “saw” nothing more than the natural world to influence him, and he never personally encountered a divine miracle to convince him of the supernatural realm. Although it seems Hume never admitted to being an atheist, he was probably an agnostic at heart and could confound the average Catholic into doubting that miracles happened elsewhere in a different age, as Hunter alludes to in his article.
If Hume had lived in our time, the “evidence” needed to prove that supernatural miracles have occurred would have been within his reach, even without his personal eyewitness verification. An example: In August 1996, after Holy Communion was distributed at St. Mary Church in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a discarded consecrated Host was discovered and placed in a plate of water in the tabernacle. A week later, the Host had turned into a bloody substance. In 1999 Frederick Zugibe, a well-known New York cardiologist and forensic pathologist, analyzed a fragment of the Host, without knowledge of its origin. Dr. Zugibe verified that the fragment contained human DNA. “The analyzed material is a fragment of the [human] heart muscle…,” he wrote. “The heart muscle is in an inflammatory condition and contains a large number of white blood cells. That indicates that the heart was alive at the time the sample was taken, since white blood cells die outside of a living organism.” Astoundingly, Dr. Zugibe reported that the sample was pulsating like a living, beating heart!
Another eucharistic miracle that occurred in the eighth century in Lanciano, Italy, was analyzed by Dr. Edward Linoli in 1970 and then by the World Health Organization in 1973, both times with results identical to the Buenos Aires miracle. These lab reports were examined by other experts in the field, without any of them knowing the origin of the fragments. The experts concluded that the lab reports must have originated from test samples obtained from the same person.
If Hume were alive today, as an empiricist he would have to accept the science of the Buenos Aires and Lanciano miracles as a direct engagement of the physical world by the supernatural and, therefore, an immutable truth, as the foundation of the scientific method is empiricism. These supernatural miracles are compatible with science.
Dan Arthur Pryor
Belvidere, New Jersey
Casey Chalk’s column “The Second Last Word” (Revert’s Rostrum, April) was enjoyable, as always. However, it contains an error. In speaking of Lord Marchmain’s reception of the Anointing of the Sick in Brideshead Revisited, Chalk mistakenly identifies the oil the priest uses as “chrism.” The Oil of the Sick is used for that sacrament. Chrism is used for the three non-repeatable sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders.
Rev. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
Editor, The Catholic Response
Pine Beach, New Jersey
The Pursuit of Raw Power
If what makes the civilization originally created by the Catholic Church attractive is its possession of gunpowder and big guns, then I see no special reason to admire it. Christopher Beiting, in his interview with Anthony Rizzi (“The Effect of Divine Grace on the Human Intellect,” April), seeks to claim the support of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas for the modern scientific endeavor and the civilization it created. But this is mistaken. Have Beiting and Rizzi never asked themselves why modern science arose in the waning days of Christian civilization, in the very era when the European intellect began to turn away from its link with theology and a Christian outlook? Post-Galilean science is not the science of Aristotle and Aquinas but arose as an effort to overthrow Aristotle and put in his place an entirely new way of looking at and dealing with the world.
As the American Aristotelian philosopher Henry Veatch wrote, “The very rise of so-called modern science and modern philosophy was originally associated — certainly in the minds of men like Galileo and Descartes — with a determined repudiation of Aristotle: it was precisely his influence which it was thought necessary to destroy, root and branch, before what we now know as science and philosophy in the modern mode could get off the ground” (Aristotle: A Contemporary Appreciation, 1974).
Modern science has even usurped the very name science, which was originally applied by preference to philosophy and theology and is now almost exclusively reserved for the manipulation and exploitation of the natural world. Nor is it the case that a criticism of current Western science has any connection with Manicheanism, as Rizzi suggests. Rather the opposite. As we can see in the bizarre phenomenon of transgenderism, with its surgical and chemical mutilation of the human body, disdain for God-created natures can coexist quite well with a high degree of technical ability to manipulate matter. And this should come as no surprise, for if the body and matter have no importance, then why not subject them to any sort of degrading treatment we desire?
For those who find what I say bizarre or even incomprehensible, I recommend reading C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (1943). Lewis wrote of the similarity of modern science and magic, as both seek to control and manipulate nature, a project that “unites magic and applied science while separating both from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages.”
A defense of reason, grace, and European Christian culture is not the same as a defense of what that culture has become since it abandoned its original intellectual setting as part of a sound philosophy and began to pursue the raw power championed by René Descartes, Francis Bacon, and others.
I agree with most of Anthony Rizzi’s opinions, especially that intelligence needs grace to guide it. But I balk at his statement that “the intellect is the highest quality in the essence of the soul.”
Years ago, I was concerned because I identified my being, my essence, with my intelligence. I was disturbed by the presence of the mentally challenged and those who, like my grandmother, had lost their intelligence. I took the matter to prayer and was graced with a story about a mentally challenged disciple of Jesus, which I later set down in The Book of Jotham (2013).
Those who have known the mentally challenged realize that intelligence is not the highest quality in the essence of the soul. Purity of heart — which is, essentially, the love of God — is far more important. The mentally challenged often seem to feel and be with God more closely than most of the rest of us. Intelligence is a gift that should be valued, but it is only a tool; without purity of heart, intelligence can be a great barrier to faith.
Deacon Arthur Powers
Raleigh, North Carolina
ANTHONY RIZZI REPLIES:
To Thomas Storck
Thank you for your important comment. The interview, being about grace, could not fully address the problem of modern science.
You allude to a fact most people do not know: modern science, as currently constituted, is at the core of our cultural problems, driving the inhuman aspects of culture ever more forcibly with each passing year. However, among the rather small number of people who’ve noticed this, nearly all miss the nature of the problem. The divide (caused by this very problem) between the sciences and the humanities has led the humanities to see the drive and even the purpose of modern science through the lens of people like Francis Bacon (whose view is false). Scientists such as Isaac Newton were not trying to control the world but to understand it using a new approach. The defining nature of that new method, what I call the equational method, is that one seeks to understand the world through a system of rules, logic, and categories, especially by incorporating quantity and analogies.
Though this method is itself good, it has increasingly become, over the past 400 years, a substitute, not by intent or even conscious knowledge but by long undigested practice, for getting to the truth of things. Our physics, the base science, has become an equation-alone physics (by neglect of thinking carefully about what we scientists do and what it means) to the point where the equation, the system of rules and thought, becomes a substitute for the essence of things. This exacerbates already flawed human nature, creating what I call “original sin on steroids,” and is killing man’s ability to see nature and nature’s God and man’s ability to receive and act on God’s word (see my two-part article series “Recovering by Grounding Modern Physics,” NOR, April 2013 and May 2013). These flaws include man’s irrational tendency to seek power over truth.
The mis-digestion of modern science is locking us more and more into an equation-alone view of life, as the equation-is-the-essence method gets more and more successful at encapsulating reality, and culture more and more ignores the intellectual life and does not care or even think to investigate the causes of things. So, as you imply, we all need to ask why Christianity, human thinking, and standards in general have been, in essential ways, falling for the past 400 years.
However, we cannot be satisfied with generic, even error-ridden, answers like the current standard answer: people want power over truth. Confused in such statements is usually the implicit belief that power is evil. But people need power; power is good. Whether power is integrated properly into the substantial whole is what makes it good or bad.
Another standard answer, usually coupled to this belief about power, is that we simply need to use science properly. This is, taking its in-context meaning, an even more erroneous answer, as it adopts the “use first” mentality. We are made for truth, not simply to use things. Scientia, science, is to seek knowledge; to make science something we use for something else is to destroy it. Science should seek truth, not something to use. This answer to the problem is thus a participating in the very problem it is trying to fix. In this answer, we see people substituting power for truth by saying truth is to be used better, not simply understood. Thus, we compound the problem.
So, how is modern science a problem? First, every evil presupposes good, for evil is no more (or less) than the privation of a good. The greater the created good, the greater the evil that results when that good is lacking. There is great good in the things science has learned and done. The world has never seen anything like Western civilization, its great power, and its great understanding (albeit with great errors attending them): great medicine, great agricultural systems, and all kinds of technologies. Even the raw, powerful things, such as guns and Saturn V rockets to the moon, are great goods in themselves. When they are misunderstood or misused, they become evil, but the existence of the good remains to be addressed and even appreciated. It is, in principle, the first thing that needs to be addressed.
The modern scientific method begun by Galileo in physics, and Descartes in mathematics, is very good and, indeed, essential for man’s growth, but it has not been properly digested over the centuries (see my article “The Science Before Science: The Grounding and Integration of the Modern Mind and its Science,” Reading the Cosmos: Nature, Science, and Wisdom, 2011). The habits of doing science with unintegrated, not fully thoughtful (because its nature was not properly understood) “equation” focus (in biology this appears as focus on systems of categories and schema) led to the equation replacing the essence of things in our mind. In this way, Aristotle and St. Thomas — who, under the impetus of grace in Catholic Europe, provided the generic principles for the start of modern science — were replaced by idealist philosophers, who are stuck in mental being and are blind to nature and nature’s God.
To Deacon Arthur Powers
Absolutely speaking, it cannot be denied that the truth is our highest goal, not love, that is, not the activity of the will, for the will is the appetite of the intellect. We cannot love what we do not know.
However, your point is a good one insofar as it points to the need to see the whole man. The power of the intellect is the first and highest power of man, but it is only a power. A man whose intellectual ability has dropped very low is still a man and thus has, no less, the high dignity of a man. This arises because we have lost the concept of properties arising from a substance, which we don’t get unless we first see it in physical things
Furthermore, for us men, there is a secondary sense in which love is first, namely, because we are not God, not complete, and we should be growing, and this growth only happens if we love the truth, including our fellow man, who is necessary for our growth in truth. We can have all kinds of “knowledge,” but if it is not driven by love of truth — and, finally, love of Truth Himself — then that which we know is severely distorted by that privation of proper order. This is not true knowledge but a false facsimile, a clanging gong, as Scripture says about those who lack charity, or the supernatural love of God. True love is sometimes most evident in those good men and women who are in the most desperate states and in our responses to them.
Where Is Heaven? Why Would I Want to Go There?
In his reply to Pete Jermann’s letter (April), Jason M. Morgan writes, “Our bodies will be in Heaven if we are saints.” Oh, dear. This body? This tired, wrinkled, flabby body? And where is Heaven? On the rings of Saturn? How will my body stand in space? Will I be loafing around for eternity in the blissful state of some psychedelic high on God’s proverbial knee? Will I have to be martyred to get there? I don’t want to be. Do I really want that sort of “sainthood”?
I was raised Catholic, and I went through 18 years of catechism. And then, in the 1960s, I began looking elsewhere for spiritual meaning. I didn’t like poorly tuned guitar-plucking in a school cafeteria for Mass; I preferred the smell of incense and the sound of a beautiful choir. But I also didn’t like the repetition of traditions that had such a meandering pedigree that did not bear close examination. The Inquisition? Colonial missionary murders? So much blood exchanged for power.
I always acknowledged that Jesus was a Jew, and that Paul was an opportunist and championed his own view of what Jesus was about. Where are the rabbis who really know the Hebrew Bible that Christians reinterpret for their own purposes? The rabbis know their own book; Christian theologians do not. I used to argue for the need for ritual and the solace of tradition, but that was mostly idealistic rhetoric, ignoring the reality of misogyny and racism and white supremacy — those “traditions” are even longer in the tooth.
Jesus always inspired me as a man who walked his talk of love and peace. Comparatively few have walked in his footsteps. If we are not peacemakers, healers, or honest, then we are not honoring the teachings of Jesus. If scholars and church leaders do not call out the abuses of all the Roman Empire-like governments we have now, then they are not honoring the teachings of Jesus.
A person does not need to be a “good Catholic” to be saved. We are all saved. God loves creation, but if that creation sullies or brutalizes itself, then it is because of human ignorance or, worse, stupidity — for which there seems no cure. No one I know is a “true believer” in whatever religion they were born into. They have either shed that skin entirely or struggle with existential anxiety, for which only science is a balm. Science has provided me more awe, wonder, and hope than religion. And I went through 15 years of seminary work and became ordained as an Independent Catholic priest 20 years ago.
I prefer to think that Jesus was a good, kind, and brave man. And I prefer to think of life as an opportunity to enjoy and explore. As I approach eight decades, I have come to believe that it’s fine that people find comfort in their beliefs as long as they do not force others to comply. As long as no one is harming anyone, we need to leave each other alone.
Leslie A. Aguillard
JASON M. MORGAN REPLIES:
As far as I can tell — and I admit it’s not very far — only the first paragraph of Leslie A. Aguillard’s letter has anything to do with what I wrote. And even then, only about a third of that. So I was inclined to leave to discretion the better part of valor.
But perhaps there are other Leslie A. Aguillards out there. Not “out there” as in floating, flabby-bodied, among the rings of Saturn, or in psychedelic bliss, but “out there” as in wandering around, lost and bleary-eyed, filling the cities and towns with their heartfelt freight of silent desperation. I was such a one. I know a cry for help when I hear it, because I too once cried out in the same voice.
To begin with, Heaven is not in outer space. Heaven is not in anything. Our heavenly bodies will be glorious, as they were meant to be from the beginning, a beginning which God wrought as surely as He wrought the bodies through which we abide in the physical universe. And this body — yea, I am fat, my back aches, the hair on my temples is going gray, I am half-blind without my glasses, and I have crooked, coffee-stained front teeth — is not a body for the ages. But this wretched thing will outlast all the ages of the universe, through Christ’s sacrifice of His own Body, and all it will cost me is death to sin and the flesh. What I lose I will gain. Aguillard rejects martyrdom — don’t we all? — but in doing so, he loses everything. Forget the gas giants, Aguillard. Why not aim much higher?
Which brings me to the Inquisition. Having some people ask some questions in the hopes of helping strangers win eternal salvation seems not as horrendous a fate as Aguillard imagines it to have been. But let me try a different approach. Here is Terry Eagleton writing on famed secularist Richard Dawkins: “On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity, he is predictably silent. Yet the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of them than the work of religion. Swap you the Inquisition for chemical warfare.”
On “blood for power,” by the same token, perhaps we might set side by side a saint who bled a lot — for example, St. Isaac Jogues — and another famous inhabitant of North America also associated with a lot of blood. To be sporting, I will ask Aguillard to choose St. Isaac Jogues’s counterpart from among, say, Curtis LeMay, Donald Rumsfeld, and William Tecumseh Sherman. Or maybe we can compare the awful missionaries with the North Americans who used to knife the beating hearts out of people on the top of Aztec pyramids.
Yes, Jesus was a Jew. But if St. Paul was an opportunist, he sure did miss a lot of opportunities. He spent a lot of time in prison for the sake of the Gospel. He was poor and basically homeless. He lived as Christ taught, true to Heaven and letting his body — readers will see where I am going with this, namely, back to the point of my “Subsidiarity of the Body” article (Jan.-Feb.) — fend for itself. Paul did this, of course, because Jesus was not just any Jew. Aguillard might not think that Jesus was the Messiah, but surely he will not dispute that Jesus was a rabbi. If Aguillard is looking for a rabbi who knew his own book, then he need look no further than Jesus of Nazareth. Don’t take my word for it, though. Ask a man named Saul a few moments after something extraordinary happened to him on the road to Damascus.
Really, do Christian theologians not know the Bible? Aguillard seems to know Jesus well enough to make Him the standard by which to judge the book about Him. But how could this be? If he thinks about it, he’ll have to conclude that the Catholic Church is the answer. But if he admits that, then he’ll have to revise a lot of his bluster about meandering pedigrees not holding up under close examination.
And upon closer examination, we find that Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” He never said, “I’m brave, good, and kind.” That’s not why anyone dropped everything to follow Him.
This tension between what we’d like to believe happened in the past and what really happened brings me to the subject of tradition. I do not understand how anyone can think that tradition produces solace. Tradition is the offspring of confusion and suffering. It’s what you get when one generation after another runs headlong into the same brick wall until eventually some people realize it isn’t necessary to keep doing that anymore. Solace? No. Tradition produces in me a sense of human frailty, folly, and sheer willfulness. It’s only by God’s grace that we maybe, eventually, stop making the same mistakes over and over again. This is tradition — wisdom bought at a very steep markup. Aguillard is mistaken if he thinks Catholicism is tradition. Catholicism is about a resurrected Jew on an altar and then in our bodies and souls. It’s the precise opposite of tradition. It’s the world made new.
In this sense, racism, misogyny, and white supremacy are not traditions at all. They are just the same old idiocy in which our species has specialized since day one. I should also note that, as concepts, these idiocies are very recent and have nothing whatsoever to do with what happened in Palestine 2,000 years ago. At any rate, Jesus wasn’t white, He loved His Mother, He once saved a woman from getting stoned to death, and He died for everybody. (There is no Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion dean at the Pearly Gates.) None of this has anything to do with tradition, but with a Man who asked people to eat His Body and drink His Blood. Cannibalism isn’t much of a tradition either, so we are left, again, with the choice between, on one hand, the eternal immediacy of the Savior and belief that He is, indeed, the Son of God, and, on the other hand, the same old rigmarole of hopeless flailing in sin, which the world seems to prefer to salvation.
Aguillard speaks the truth when he writes that God loves creation, and that humans sully and brutalize themselves. But what logic is this that bookends these statements? There would seem to be no cure for our sorry state, Aguillard laments, and yet we are all saved, he summarily ordains. This contradiction, and Aguillard’s fiddling with the eschatological machinery, does not inspire much confidence in the ability of the human brain to think its way out of its sullied and brutalized mire.
Nor does Aguillard’s subsequent non-sequitur, the old chestnut that science provides hope, wonder, and awe. Science cannot possibly provide hope, for it is simply another name for understanding. As Aguillard uses the term, he means, certainly, understanding physical reality. Is it not the opposite of hope to believe that all that lies ahead is the working out of more and more formulae about gravity, particles, and waves? String theory was having a moment, but now we are on to local non-reality. Secular science gives us, at best, a big maze with a lot of dead ends. How truly dull when one mistakes Newtonianism for metaphysics. It’s like going into the grocery store and looking up and down the aisles for unconditional love.
About wonder and awe, again Aguillard is wrong, on both counts. Science does not produce wonder. Wonder produces science. And awe? Science doesn’t give us that any more than a window gives us the landscape beyond it. And anyway, no matter how one looks at the thing, science is an adjunct to creation, and creation is just a huge and elaborate way of begging a question, namely, “Where did all this stuff come from in the first place?” Science, on the secular view, stops where matter does, so the question goes on getting begged forever. What’s so awesome about a closed epistemological loop? To put it another way, secular science is existential anxiety. The late Stephen Hawking understood this well. Science brought him so little hope that he had to keep fidgeting around the edges of science, looking for something — someone — to complete it.
Aguillard concludes that “it’s fine that people find comfort in their beliefs as long as they do not force others to comply. As long as no one is harming anyone, we need to leave each other alone.” Fair enough, my friend, but you wrote about me, and in the pages of a magazine to boot. So, what’s up with that?
An Investment in the Betterment of Souls
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Please keep me in your prayers in that regard, and be assured of mine. Thank you again, and God love you!
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I find myself standing with Catholic traditionalists on most issues because I believe that what they espouse is Catholic Christianity in its true form. But sometimes I find that some of the issues they are most staunch about are ones in which there is room for theological development. Not change but growth. That’s why I find a lot of your articles so great. I see the NOR standing for Catholic truth, too, but also open to God’s providence.
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Andrew J. Beal
Chuckawalla Valley State Prison
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Everglades Re-Entry Unit
Since my transfer to East Texas, I have felt pressed under the weight of my cross. I am living now in a Faith Based Dorm (FBD), and it has become clear to me that we Catholics do not have much in common with Protestants, after all. Whereas we may similarly invoke the name of Our Lord, what I hear at other times makes me wonder if we are speaking of (or even to) the same Person. I often hear Protestants say, “This is what I think…” or “This is what I believe…” when discussing Scripture or doctrine. Wait a minute! What does that matter in relation to Truth? If Truth is no more than one’s interpretation, then we are no better off than Pontius Pilate or Friedrich Nietzsche.
I can’t help wondering if many of today’s Protestants are little more than theistic nihilists. (That may sound contradictory, but it relates to the old Watchmaker theory.) They make it appear that you are already “justified” if you simply have a battery of Bible verses lined up to support your personal point of view.
When the unit chaplain invited me to the FBD, I thought it could have been by a prompting of the Holy Spirit. It turns out, however, that I was actually being cozened into a program of indoctrination that teaches a free pass to Heaven by “grace.” There is no need for contrition for our sins, let alone for confession of sins. In fact, they teach that the Sacrament of Confession is unbiblical. (And they say we Catholics are the deceivers!)
The unit chaplain will not allow us Benedictine Oblates to meet for prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours, as is done in other units. I’ve heard that he doesn’t think there is “room” enough for the three of us to meet, and possibly that he doesn’t feel comfortable providing a platform for inmates to espouse their own religious views. But our liturgy is well structured and evenly balanced, for good purpose. As a mere layman, I am not qualified to lecture on the moral implications of Scripture. That’s for the clergy. Besides, I’m pretty sure I am no great prophet and was elected to serve as prior for three years running simply because I read naturally, without stuttering or hesitation.
I feel as though I’ve been led into another desert, this one not as barren as that during the COVID-19 lockdowns, but one crawling with vipers and asps. This has become a pilgrimage. Yet I will continue, sustained by the prayers of the Benedictine community and faithful members of Holy Mother Church.
Richard C. Owings Jr.
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Sun City, California
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