Monday, December 17, 2012

Supporting people with depression.

I must leave this link where I can find it...

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Books, Libraries, and the Church

(This article appeared in L'Osservatore Romano (English Edition), 28 July 2010 (n. 30): 11, with the title "Necessary Implements for the Service of the Truth: the History and Concept of the Book and Library. I wrote it in collaboration with Abbot Michael Zielinski, OSB Oliv., then Vice President of the Pontitifcal Council for the Heritage of the Church.)

The American essayist Joseph Epstein observes that one very interesting way to appreciate how people differ is to note that some people's lives revolve around books, while others' do not. The interesting difference is not between literacy and illiteracy, nor between knowing or not knowing some particular great book. It is rather that, while for most people, books are a minor or incidental activity, there are others whose way of life is practically defined by reading. Not every culture has a bookish class. Not every society has libraries. In a highly literate civilization, however, books-and developed canons of books-form a cultural bedrock for which there can be no substitute.

Today it would seem true that books and reading and libraries are changing. More precisely, however, it is the case that texts are being circulated in digital or electronic form, and that libraries and readers can make use of new technologies to great advantage. If a book is simply information, and if a library is simply an information management center, then these realities are indeed subject to sudden and dramatic technological change. In a literate culture, however, books and collections of books are more than strings of data: they are human artifacts, developed over millennia and adapted to the nature human mode of growing in wisdom. Christianity is indeed the religion of the living Word rather than "of the book," yet, for the Church as a whole, books and the culture of literacy will remain necessary while the world lasts.
Writing, of course, is not new. Written records were kept by the ancients of Asia and the Near East. The rich and the powerful, at least, found writing useful to keep track of laws, calendars, finances, and so on. The oral traditions of people were sometimes committed to writing and preserved, surviving even into the present. Until the Christian era, however, the world had relatively few artifacts that modern people would immediately recognize as books. For reasons that remain somewhat murky, it was the literate Christians of late antiquity who showed a marked preference for the particular kind of written record that has given to us our books and libraries. In place of the scrolls, wax tablets, and inscribed stones used by earlier ages, Christians, by the fourth century of so, came to prefer the codex (plural codices), that form in which books are made down to the present day.

A codex is a stack of pages or leaves which are sewn, folded, or otherwise kept together along one edge. It has a spine or binding to support and organize the leaves, and it has pages to turn. Whether made of parchment, cloth, skins, wood, metal, or a modern paper, the codex-modeled book works a certain way, and invites certain kinds of handling, reading, and storage-that is to say, a certain kind of culture.

Hand-written, page by page, for the first ten or twelve centuries of its Western history, the codex progressively-thanks first to Asian block-printing and then to Gutenberg's invention of moveable type-became, especially with the advent of less expensive papers, something that more and more communities and individuals could possess. With printing came the first civic libraries: Europe's earliest, the Biblioteca Maletestiana, opened its doors to the citizens of Cesena, Italy, in the 1440s, and within a few centuries public libraries could be found across Europe and in Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

The significance of the civic or public library is manifold, and its practical and symbolic importance, especially for self-governing peoples, is not to be gainsaid. However, with the advent of the modern instantaneous media of communication-radio, television, and now the world of the Internet and digital data-the precise role of real books and real libraries (as opposed to "virtual books" and "virtual libraries") invites serious reflection.

If we are curious about the average annual rainfall in Buenos Aires, or where Napoleon was born, or how many species of ants are found in Africa, the fastest and easiest route to satisfying our curiosity is probably at our fingertips, in the form of a computer, mobile phone, or another electronic gadget with which we may consult encyclopedic digitized resources. Also, if we are curious about current events, the daily printed and digital news media will generally be more useful than books, at least until the events are past, and someone has taken the trouble to write about them at length, in detail, and with the perspective gained by the passage of time.

The paramount advantages of books (that is, of real, written or printed codices) and libraries (the real, and not the "virtual" kind) are not in their ability to give a fast, short answer to a sudden question. Rather, the advantages of books and libraries are to be found in their tangible physicality, in their ability to be handled and to be entered, respectively. A book, more than a scroll or even a scrolling electronic text, is a manageable, portable, permanent (but not impervious) object that is unsurpassed for the literate human activities of reference, research, and repetitive reading, all of which turn mere reading into study. Decently printed, it remains legible and stable for decades or centuries. And, if you lose your book, at least you have not lost your library or your €300 electronic investment.

A library, similarly, is more than an ethereal hub for data: it is, to our advantage, a place suited and reserved for the particular humane activities of reading and study. Allowing for variety and individual tastes, we may still say that some places with books are good libraries, and others are bad libraries (or not really libraries), precisely insofar as they foster the human attitudes and behavior that are consistent with reading and, more profoundly, with growth in wisdom. Wisdom, unlike data or information, does not come naturally to human beings except slowly, gradually, and laboriously. We need to hear words again and again, if we are to plumb their depths and be changed by them. There are silent lessons in libraries, reminders that circumspection, docility, caution, and memory are all needed for prudent understanding: bare information is, in serious reading, not enough.

For the life of goodness and holiness, neither books nor libraries are necessary in the strict sense. Simplicity or circumstance may put study beyond our reach, or Providence place it outside our vocation. Prodigious memory, too, can be a substitute for books, if one hears what it truly worth hearing: thus St. Athanasius says of St. Anthony of Egypt that he retained all he heard of the Scriptures, the liturgy, and the fathers, and so his memory "served him in place of books." For those with the ability to use books and libraries, and without either the perfect memory or the perfect seclusion of an Anthony, it is the case that books become very important indeed. Even libraries and bookcases themselves become sensible signs of the truth and of the high vocation to caritas in veritate. St. Epiphanius, a Palestinian monk and later bishop of Cyprus, took the view that acquiring Christian books was not merely helpful but "necessary for those who can use them. For the mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness." Our age's new technologies do offer immense advantages in certain kinds of information-seeking endeavor: for those whose lives are centered upon books, let alone upon the contemplation of the Word and His Truth, however, the familiar book and the library, set apart, remain the unsurpassed treasury and instruments of intellectual culture, and necessary implements for the service of the truth.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Thomistic Pastoral Theology

Google returns zero results for "Thomistic Pastoral Theology." This is a surprise and, though it would have been nice to find something by a great Thomist, a relief. No theology is better than bad theology.

The good pastor tells the truth, embodies the truth, in love. So why is "Thomistic Pastoral Theology" not an expression that turns up? Perhaps the Thomists are allergic to the name, even as modern "pastoral theologians" are allergic to Thomism? Maybe the traditional Thomists meant rubrics and canon law if and when they talked about Pastoral Theology? Whatever the explanation it seems I am due to work, next semester, on pastoral theology. I'll have to see how the class was taught before, and cover whatever important material there is, but I'll also have to bring some rigor and revelation to what is often taught as mush.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ambition or Magnanimity?

We can hope for great things, if we are hoping for God to do great things in us and give us Himself as our great reward. This is some of what Aquinas means by magnanimity. In contrast, we are not supposed to be ambitious, to hope to be successful and honored and recognized for our own sake. Humility is a tough row to hoe. (Not theology here, just thinking.)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Sufficient Grace

A reader (!) asks, "If we accept that man's cooperation with sufficient grace always remains in potency if he is not given an efficacious grace how, then, can we understand man's culpability in resisting sufficient grace when no efficacious grace to cooperate with it is granted?"

Hmmm, good question, and certainly a classic! What sort of guilt (culpa) is there in those who could not cooperate with grace? 

Take first the example of the unbaptized baby. Until regenerated, the infant bears the culpa of original sin, and is subject to that sin's poena, punishment. Yet the child has no personal sins, no personal sins to be punished. (Hence Limbo, with its perfect natural happiness apart from supernatural beatitude. Here we have culpability without positive punishment, it seems to me.)

Second, what about the sinner, the person whose deeds have been evil, who does not receive the efficacious grace to cooperate with God? I'm not sure it's precisely the lack of cooperation that is culpable. (I'll have to check and see how the Church treats this!) I'll guess, for the moment, that our best course is to think about people who don't receive the actual efficacious grace to cooperate in the same way that we think of divine reprobation: God withholds supernatural assistance from them as a punishment for actual sins. It's their (our) malice, uncharity, and sloth that cause guilt and justify punishment -- not the mere lack of cooperation, and still less the lack of operative grace.

This has got to be one of the murkiest parts of theology. It would be easier if semi-Pelagianism were true, and there were no predestination. All this requires more thought.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


My copy of Flynn & Murray's Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology arrived. It's fat, at least, which makes its $105 price tag slightly less appalling. It's hard to say whether this is appropriate reading for the Triduum Sacrum, which starts tomorrow, but here I go. I will use this space to take notes, with a view to writing something more substantial later on. 

The ressourcement (return to sources) is often named as the more conservative movement in 20th C. theology, especially at and after Vatican II, it's opposite number being aggiornamento (updating, adapting "to today"). I'm not sure what "conservative" means here. Though this book may teach me otherwise, my impression to date is that ressourcement was a revolutionary movement, a return that involved jumping over the heritage that was actually handed down in favor of an historical reconstruction. 

Something tells me my reading of Nicolás Gómez Dávila (the Colombian philosopher) will be helpful in dealing with ressourcement and "historical" theology. History is a young discipline, and theologians are in love with it -- perhaps as they were once in love with philosophy? Gómez Dávila warns always against solutions and reforms: it is not he, the reactionary, who thinks a return to the past will solve things; instead the reactionary seeks shade from current madness, is skeptical but not hopeless, and waits on divine deliverance while he lives and works against fraud, intellectual dishonesty, and barbarism.

I like NGD more and more.