Monthly Archives: July 2016

written on All Souls, 2013

Thanks to my first supporters in my Kickstarter campaign to promote The Clay Pot!  Here’s a poem from just a couple years back:

“All Soul’s Vigil”

Leave silences to Autumn. Let them fall.
I have enough to do to stand the chill,
And need the cheer. Rebuke me how you will,
Allowing me this only: one last call.
Sulky embers warm, and I recall
Outpourings from a heart that drank its fill
Of amber, ruby, white, by cask or still.
All words read ripe; each echoed in the hall.
I do not know how many days remain.
A year, a day, a week? The bowl will break,
And out will pour the mead, a golden lake
That tarnishes ’til swift hands blot the stain.
Then pour me out. Be all my words undone,
Save only this, which marks what I have won.

PGE 11-01-2013

This poem appears in my third collection, Going Home Words.

Ten years ago

Thanks to my first supporters in my Kickstarter campaign to promote The Clay Pot!  Here’s a poem that was published in The Penwood Review, a Southern California poetry journal that was a frequent outlet for my mentor, Dr. Pilkey.  This was written as I contemplated my return from Japan in 2006, and first appeared in print in 2007:

“To Have Boldly Gone”

Where I have been through three unthinking years
Is not so far from where you knew me, when
You’d looked through all I’d never seen and been
Surprised by what might grow from showered tears;
And yet, we’ve read our way up through the spheres;
Heard creaking, clanking music; filled a den
With smoke and dreams and laughter; but again
Stilled all these things except what rhyme reveres—
So you who know me well, consider yet
That all I have not thought of still has been
Caught up in all I’ve seen, and each I’ve met
Has been to tell me now what I knew then:
That where we stumble boldly, still there’s grace
Trips over all we’ve done and saves our place.

PGE 5-27-2006

This poem was later published in my first collection, Depth Perception.

Why I failed to be Libertarian, in spite of myself.

I begin and end with a mile-wide, football-field deep, concession:  In the present lamentable state of affairs and strictly as a matter of registering a statistical counterweight or protest, I have no objection to what I am about to object to.

In fact, let me develop the logic I have in view, there, first.  There are two large stages.

Least-Worst Choices

There are many things which are reasonable “least-worst” choices for some very contingent reason in some very limited, local, immediate circumstances which ought never be advocated on an ongoing basis.  I take this as basic for all moral theology and policy discussion.  Precisely because we and our situations are not adequately prepared to do what, upon careful reflection, we know would be better, we have to choose with limited information and freedom among “worse” options.  Provided the options are not intrinsically evil (and this is why “intrinsically evil” versus “pretty much always wrong” or “really never right under circumstances prevailing now” is a terribly important distinction), it is only prudent to understand which “least-worst” choices are still on the table–even while we strive to do better than any such options.

However, I think it is seriously unwise to advocate publicly for any “least-worst” choice, except perhaps in the narrowest moment of the crisis; and it is definitely wrong to treat a “least-worst” choice as a banner to rally behind, a cause to be promoted.  It is a fallback, a sign of failure, and not something whose success should be celebrated (even if we celebrate the defeat of obviously evil options through our “least-worst” choices).

Be Prejudiced!

I also take it that we have an obligation to carefully structure our priorities in moral decision-making, and no less in policy.  We harm ourselves and others when we indulge in the notion that policy is an amoral, pragmatic decision that should somehow be “guided by” our “core values.”  That language is, as I hope I conveyed by choosing its preferred Clintonian form, an evasion of the responsibilities of discourse on significant matters.  “Values” mean decisions about the proportions of things, that is, reasonable assertions of priority that can be tested and affirmed or denied, or they mean only “my preferences right now.”

“Core values” disappear when Apple threatens to boycott Indiana, because political pragmatism and one’s real priorities–one’s actual understanding of what is “real” and has weight–assert themselves over against this phantom.  It is therefore essential to be explicit and structural about these real priorities, to expose one’s prejudices quite deliberately, in order to advocate for what is right or to be corrected.

Following on that second, then, I would try to formalize what has gradually become my approach to public decision-making in this way:

Top-Shelf Priorities

At the top level of priority, I must always advocate for the most important practicable good that both is just and can be seen as just; this is not to be distinguished from its immediate mirror image, opposing the most important evil that is both unjust and can be seen to be unjust.  Thus I should praise even someone I otherwise oppose insofar as he achieves justice (not just uses words, though words are not nothing), and oppose someone I otherwise praise insofar as he abets injustice.

Nor is “can be seen” a mere matter of polls or popular prejudice; the question is whether I am able to articulate what justice would look like in the matter (this is, for example, why I am full-throated about abortion but slightly inarticulate about usury–because in fact I am not able to articulate justice with regard to the latter as well as the former).  If I can make justice intelligible, so someone with power can make it actual, then I have an obligation to do so, no matter what the pragmatics.

But to call some matters “top-shelf” acknowledges, by definition, two things:  that there are other priorities as well, and that they are in some sense commensurable with the top-shelf priorities, so that one could not possibly abandon all other considerations.  In other words, we are talking about genuine evaluation, here, not “core values.”

Never Play Limbo

When I find myself stymied with regard to a higher priority, I do agree that a “least-worst” decision about what approaches or people to support may be necessary.  Of course, silence is often an option–but also often not.  In the current climate, silence is as likely to be guilty as prudent.

So where popular delusion seems to favor outright evils, or even just “worse-worst” solutions, I do feel it is necessary to advocate in favor of solutions that are often phrased with “at the very least, you could…” or “if you can’t do this, how can you even defend your existence?”  That is, I identify the bottom defensible level, and advocate for at least getting that out of the scrum.

But here is the crucial key, and where one moral (and practical) danger comes in.  See, when we begin to advocate for an approach or person or party that we recognize as a “least-worst,” we find ourselves conflicted in our hopes and in our arguments.  It is much the same problem as taking counsel of despair (for good reason, it seems when I see it in myself).  Having decided that “we are doomed” or that “nothing more can be done, it’s inevitable,” or that “you can’t win on that issue, you have to settle for the best deal on the others,” we are now trapped between “I was wrong” (which makes us feel ashamed, rightly or wrongly) and actually hoping to be right about our negative analysis.  Believe me, I am not judging in others something I have not been struggling against for decades.

But think about it:  does your “success” in your approach depend on the assumption that pretty much everyone has and will refuse to understand some top-shelf, lowest-common-denominator, fundamentally human reality?  You may be right.  But ought you not to hope you are not, and if you can find a reason to expect and demand that humans do better, that your friends and neighbors be better, is it not the way of charity to demand that basic humanity from them?

It seems to require a Calvinist prior decision to despair about the possibility of creaturely goodness in human creatures–a decision to believe that it requires constant miraculous intervention for humans to practice even natural justice and common decency–to decide in general that people cannot be asked to behave like the human creatures they cannot fail to be.

Now, once a decision is made, it is folly to pretend against fact.  No, let it be upon the heads of those who made it (you may pray for them, but if they choose grave and intrinsic evil you cannot be required to do so, because you cannot be required to hope against the evidence).  But let that be wrung from you, not given cheaply.

Because the alternative is to find yourself defending a “least-worst” against all those who hope and demand and call for better.  And that is to put yourself in the wrong position, spiritually–and also, if you aim for the actually and durably good, in the wrong position practically.

So the policy that I have only in the past year become aware I was gradually adopting is this:

  1. Always advocate the top-shelf good, that is, call for and demand just action on the highest priority issue for which you are able to articulate some proximate just action, some corrective to evil that promotes the common good, in the near term.
  2. When apparently stymied on top-shelf issues, then advocate a temporary and tentative settlement for a “least-worst” if and only if the approach, person, or party you settle for does not advocate against the top-shelf good (or for intrinsic evil).

In other words, it’s not a “least-worst” situation if it involves advocating as a durable good an approach, person, or party actively opposed to the top-shelf good.  That’s true even when no immediate action for advancing the top-shelf good seems likely.

Temporary inability to achieve the top-shelf good cannot justify advocating as durably good anything that opposes it.

I will apply this to the Libertarian Party more specifically in a later post, but it should be sufficient to meditate on this for now:

1.4 Personal Relationships Sexual orientation, preference, gender, or gender identity should have no impact on the government’s treatment of individuals, such as in current marriage, child custody, adoption, immigration or military service laws. Government does not have the authority to define, license or restrict personal relationships. Consenting adults should be free to choose their own sexual practices and personal relationships.

1.5 Abortion Recognizing that abortion is a sensitive issue and that people can hold good-faith views on all sides, we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.

(source: Platform | Libertarian Party)

Despite my profound love of the Anglo-American tradition of enumerated liberties against the imagined total reach of government, rooted properly in the natural law tradition that recognizes that each human creature’s transcendent obligations to God and other people, in justice and in charity, individually and in marriage and the Church, are such as demand that no merely secular power claim the right to bind the conscience or impede the performance of these duties; despite my adolescent passion for Locke and Bastiat and von Mises and Hayek, despite my ardency in favor of the “historical best” nature of the United States Constitution and the openness to an honest natural law reading of the Declaration of Independence; despite having for years labelled myself a “civil libertarian” and still defaulting to libertarian arguments and principles whenever a merely American and Constitutional question is in view (though I then often have to correct myself)–despite having longed for decades, literally more than half my life now, to be able to vote for a candidate labelled Libertarian Party or Constitution Party or Taxpayers Party, and having not a few times actually cast sober or protest votes for them–despite all this, I fail to see how it is possible to faithfully relate Christianity to secular regimes and then advocate in favor of the Libertarian Party.

Now, go back and note my concessions, and remember that I wish I could agree with you, friends & family who want the Libertarians to be right.

But…they just aren’t.  And I would have to sin by taking counsel of despair for all effectual advocacy, or sin by advocating what I know to be utterly unconscionable, to support them.  We’ll have to find another way.

Free Means Less Bondage, Not More.

I find this specific “calling out” of the way late modernity continues to insist on some conclusions from Freud, despite the sheer bunk that we know most of his theory really was, especially helpful:

Though Freud’s psychological theorizing has been largely discredited, a fundamental assumption of Freudianism remains an absolute bedrock of our culture. I’m referring to the conviction that most of our psychological suffering follows as a consequence from the suppression of our sexual desires. Once we have been liberated from old taboos regarding sex, this line of argument runs, we will overcome the neuroses and psychoses that so bedevil us. What was once the peculiar philosophy of a Viennese psychiatrist came to flower in the 1960’s, at least in the West, and then made its way into practically every nook and cranny of the culture. How often have we heard some version of this argument:  as long as you’re not hurting anyone else, you should be allowed to do whatever pleases you in the sexual arena. What the Time article articulates in regard to the specific issue of pornography has been, in point of fact, glaringly obvious for quite some time: Freud was wrong. Complete sexual freedom has not made us psychologically healthier, just the contrary. It has deeply sickened our society. The valorization of unrestricted freedom in regard to sex—precisely because it is morally corrupt—proves psychologically debilitating as well.


While we’re talking about it, you or someone you know may benefit from this:

(I am slightly acquainted with the author.)

Here, let me draw you a picture….

It is not uncommon for folks to get confused when they encounter differences in vocabulary between, say, the Didache and Apostolic Constitutions and the writings of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Pope St. John Paul lI.  There is, of course, every possibility that one sentence or another could be mistaken–but, really, when you do check up on them, there is a remarkable consistency.

The confusion lies in that any one of these, or hundreds of others, may well be discussing a question such as “Is thus-and-such a case a matter of contraception or of homicide” with regard to the objective and subjective guilt–both relevant in moral theology, and not always tidily distinguished–that was relevant to some contemporary discussion that may not be obvious to a casual reader.  

When you do read the whole discourse, however, it becomes clear that at issue here is how the ascertainable presence of a baby affects the judgment of all those involved, and thus what intentions it is possible for them to have formed (objective guilt involved in the act performed) and what degrees of culpability they might have (subjective guilt modified by the agent’s freedom, knowledge of fact, and knowledge of law).  If a man negligently causes injury to a woman, and death to a child he does not know she has, is that different than if he knows she has the child?  If a woman attempts to prevent conception, and causes an abortion, is she guilty of contraception or homicide?  Is abortion reducible, in every case, to either contraception or homicide, or is there some distinction (objective or subjective) between them?  These are the questions the tradition dealt with, long before the advent of modern medicine that could ascertain the presence of a baby very nearly as soon as it is conceived.

So, in an effort to clarify the principle here, I’ve drawn a picture:

Not Hard to Refute the Canard

Would you believe it?  Earlier this year, I actually heard someone claim that “The Church never even had a position on abortion until the 1880s” while walking to sing in the choir at Mass!  This is just one of the mendacious arguments held by some who could know better, with just the tiniest amount of effort.

Here, let’s just put two simple and obvious texts–outside the Bible, in the Christian tradition, and before the Nicene Creed was formulated.  Just for starters.

Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not corrupt youth; thou shalt not commit fornication; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not use soothsaying; thou shalt not practise sorcery; thou shalt not kill a child by abortion, neither shalt thou slay it when born; thou shalt not covet the goods of thy neighbour;

(source: Didache)

People will frequently try to make something out of the difficulty faced by St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, in differentiating the crimes of contraception, abortion, and homicide clearly–given the lack of clear science on the early stages of human development.

But there is really no doubt that from the earliest days the Church not only condemned infanticide, but also the deliberately induced death of a child in the womb:

You shall not use magic. You shall not use witchcraft; for He says, You shall not suffer a witch to live. You shall not slay your child by causing abortion, nor kill that which is begotten; for everything that is shaped, and has received a soul from God, if it be slain, shall be avenged, as being unjustly destroyed. You shall not covet the things that belong to your neighbour, as his wife, or his servant, or his ox, or his field. You shall not forswear yourself; for it is said, You shall not swear at all. But if that cannot be avoided, you shall swear truly; for every one that swears by Him shall be commended. You shall not bear false witness; for he that falsely accuses the needy provokes to anger Him that made him.

(source: Apostolic Constitutions, Book VII)

So let’s just quit destroying justifying grace in our lives, and tempting others, on the verge of meeting Jesus, right?  And at any rate, let’s don’t use easily-refuted folly to do it.

On Caring For People, Not Dissection Specimens

It is vital, vital, vital that we care for each other in the complete body-and-soul, now-and-forever integrity of each human being. Shortcuts to compassion that make us enablers of destructive behavior do not heal. Rather, enablers themselves become caught in a vicious cycle of self-justification and falsification of their self-understanding, needing to push ever harder in the direction of a flawed “compassion” rather than admit the damage they are doing.

We must care for whole people as whole people, as a people…as the People of God.

John Henry Newman was an unflagging opponent of what he called “the religion of the day.” Whereas a previous age may have stressed too much the fierce and grim aspects of Christianity, Newman believed that his own age cared only for “the brighter side of the Gospel,—its tidings of comfort, its precepts of love.” He saw that the God who is described as a consuming fire in the Letter to the Hebrews had been forgotten.

(source: Always Fear, Always Love)

Be Nice to Rule-Keepers

I really appreciated this article. It’s all too easy to apply Jesus’ words against certain of the religious leaders of His day in slapdash fashion to those who we think are “too legalistic” or “too rigid” about this or that point. But someone who insists on using administrative clout to achieve this or that result is hardly being less “legalistic” than someone who insists that the rule should only be changed when its purpose has been properly understood, and the consequences accounted for; and someone who thinks that what stands in the way of the work of God is “the rules” is probably not understanding either “the rules” or the work of God very well.

None of which excuses us when we insist that people conform to standards that privilege our strengths and conceal our sins–whitewashed sepulchers that we all may be!

Activists are impatient with rules. They have plans and they want results! If their plan of action is stymied by existing law, their first instinct is to cast the law aside– especially if they cannot see why the law is necessary. But if they do not understand the purpose of the law, that does not mean that the law has no purpose. Quite possibly the legislator understood something that the activist has not yet grasped. It’s even possible that the law was written after the failure of a plan like the one the activist now has in mind.

Obviously there are times when a law should be amended, or abolished, or even defied. But before setting the law aside, one should understand why it was written, and what are the likely consequences of changing it. Church law, developed and refined over the centuries, represents a storehouse of wisdom about human nature and human frailty. The canons are there for a reason. Should some canons be changed? No doubt. But they should not be ignored.

(source: In defense of the ‘doctors of the law’)

Here, have another old one.

I happened to start flipping through my very old file with my poems in it–here’s another of the earliest I have archived in a clean copy.  You can tell a lot about what hymnody I grew up on, from this one.

“Meditation on a Rainy Day”

“O God of dust and rainbows, help us see
That without dust, the rainbow would not be”
Langston Hughes

O God Who sends upon us rain,
Help us to sing Thy praise;
Help us Thy glories to proclaim,
Sing wonders all our days.

We see the drop fall in the grass,
To nourish up the seed;
Lord, how out of this earthy mass
Grow plants to meet our need?

The waters pass; the clouds are dry;
The sun sends forth his rays.
We see Thy rainbow in the sky
Exalt Thy wondrous ways.

O God of grandeur: rain or sun,
May we in thee find peace;
That, with our day’s hard labor done,
Our joy shall never cease.

3-4-1993 PGE