Thursday, July 2, 2015

Laudato Si, "The Curate's Egg" I. The Excellent Parts

fBishop: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones"; Curate: "Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!"
"True Humility" by George du Maurier, originally published inPunch, 9 November 1895.
"(1) He [the Pope] cannot speak as a private theologian but in his official capacity as vicar of Christ and head of the Church; (2) He must officially define a doctrine relating to faith or morals (unfortunately, the pope is not infallible when it comes to science, politics, weather, and the outcome of sporting events); and (3) The pronouncement must not be directed only to a single individual or particular group of people, but it must be promulgated for the benefit of the entire Church" Patrick Madrid, The Papacy and Galileo
"Every judgment of conscience, be it right or wrong, be it about things evil in themselves or morally indifferent, is obligatory, in such wise that he who acts against his conscience always sins." St. Thomas Aquinas. III Quodlibet 27.
There has been much heat and just a little light engendered by Pope Francis's recent Encyclical, Laudato Si. Unlike many who have either praised or condemned Laudato Si, I have read the whole work, not once but three times. What I propose to do in this post is to list, with minimal comment, the sections that I find laudatory (that's a pun, son) and then in a second post, the parts that I find questionable or objectionable. The Encyclical is 184 pages, so it will be necessary to focus selectively on the material.


Pope Francis enjoins against abortion and the culture of death, and promotes the value of the family, as has been done in previous encyclicals  by other Popes.
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.  Item 117.
The sheer novelty involved in the emergence of a personal being within a material universe presupposes a direct action of God and a particular call to life and to relationship on the part of a “Thou” who addresses himself to another “thou" Item 81.
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 un comfortable 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."  Item 120, quote from Caritates in Vertate, 2009.
I would stress the great importance of the family, which is “the place in which life – the gift of God – can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth. In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life”.   Item 213

Pope Francis calls us on us to reject consumerism, not to rely solely on technology, and to focus on that which has human values.
 Furthermore, when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously. In this context, the great sages of the past run the risk of going unheard amid the noise and distractions of an information overload. Item 47
 “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development” Quoting the Pontifical Council for Justice Peace(483). Item 50
 Each of us has his or her own personal identity and is capable of entering into dialogue with others and with God himself. Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities, are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology. Item 81
The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way that humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm. This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation  Item 106
 It cannot be maintained that empirical science provides a complete explanation of life, the interplay of all creatures and the whole of reality. This would be to breach the limits imposed by its own methodology. If we reason only within the confines of the latter, little room would be left for aesthetic sensibility, poetry, or even reason’s ability to grasp the ultimate meaning and purpose of things. Item 199
Pope Francis calls on us to enter into a relationship with Christ in the Eucharist.
It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation. Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures. The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter. He comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world of ours. In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living centre of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love. Item 236


In the first sections of Laudato Si Pope Francis exhorts us to be one with nature and to realize God in  His creation, emulating Saint Francis in his paean to Brother Sun and Sister Moon.     There is much beautiful in these sections, and I emphasize with them.   I recall the times more than 70 years ago when I lay underneath the big trees in Yosemite (as a summer Forest Service worker), or sat in the Griffith Planetarium marveling at the night sky  in other times and other places.

He cites the works of past Popes who have been concerned about the environment,  Paul VI, Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and quotes at length the remarks of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew:
At the same time, Bartholomew has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply to give up. It is a way of loving, of moving gradually away from what I want to what God’s world needs..."   Item 9, Quoting from Lecture at the Monastery of Ulstein
I can't quarrel with any of those statements.   What concerns me, however, is that they are adopted and corrupted by those who do not believe in a Creating God, but instead worship the creation--Gaia, Mother Earth.*    We see the farmers in San Joaquin Valley in California struggling to produce food--their water supply has been diverted to the San Francisco Bay to preserve (presumably) a small fish, the snail darter.    One extreme faction of the Green worshipers of Mother Earth would have human reproduction minimized or eliminated.   Thank God, Pope Francis spoke against that.


In the post to follow, I will present what Pope Francis has to say on the relation of politics and economics to the environment and climate science.   And  I'll explain why I disagree with many of these positions.

*A comment on this post published in another blog (William Briggs, Statistician to the Stars) that I had the order of support mixed up--Pope Francis is following the Greens and Gaia worshippers, rather than the converse.     Indeed, he had Naomi Klein, invited to Rome, to help support his campaign against global warming.    Naomi Klein holds all the popular, extreme left/radical views. She is anti-capitalist (nationalize the industries), anti-Israel, pro AGW, and very probably a pro-abortion advocate. Here’s a quote–population control relevant-from an interview:
Well, to be honest, for a long time, I just couldn’t see a future for a child that wasn’t some, like, Mad Max climate warrior thing. And, you know, I’d joke about it with my husband, like, you want to have a little climate warrior? [laughter] And it seems like that was the best thing I could imagine for a child. I couldn’t see a future that wasn’t just incredibly grim — maybe I’d seen too much sci-fi and read too much climate science. But I just couldn’t see it. ”
So I wonder what sort of conversations Pope Francis and Naomi Klein will have about “be fruitful and multiply”…there are some inconsistencies with what is good in the Encyclical, arguing against population control, and inviting Naomi Klein to Rome.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Don't Argue on the Internet 2: A Lesson in Gracious Dialogue

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6
"At BioLogos, "gracious dialogue" means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith." From FAQ at Biologos Forum


Last February, 2014, I posted an article "A Lesson from Two Homilies: Don't Argue on the Internet"
I'll reprint the first part of that article here rather than trying to summarize it.
A recent  article in Crisis magazine by James Kalb reminded me of two homilies  I recently heard, and of the lesson I should have learned from these.   The homilies were given by two different priests, both foreign-born:  Fr. X, Vietnamese, one of the boat people who escaped the Communists at an early age; Fr. Y, Nigerian, a Dominican.   (Aren't we fortunate, as a missioned nation, that bread cast upon the waters has returned?)   The Crisis magazine article is about the futility of argumentation on the Internet, a conclusion with which I heartily concur.

As the title of this post suggests, argumentation is not the way to evangelize.   This was the lesson of the two homilies.   It's been a while since I heard them, so forgive me, Fr. X  and Fr. Y, if I don't recast them exactly as you spoke.    Fr. Y was discoursing on the Gospel, Matthew 10, in which Jesus sends the apostles out and tells them "And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet." (Matt 10:14)   In his homily Fr. Y said that one should not contest with those--family members, friends, ...--who dispute your faith.   You should state what you believe and show, by the example of your life, what your faith means to you.     Fr. X's homily took off from the moving paean on the great gift of love, in First Corinthians, "...If I have not love..".   Fr X said we have to love our enemies and those who contest with us, otherwise we are not Christians.   We cannot disparage them or wish ill for them.


It is also part of the Benedictine Rule, which unfortunately I haven't followed as faithfully as I should have, that one ignores insults, slights, etc., and wishes good to those who wish you bad:
"harbor neither hatred nor jealousy of anyone, and do nothing out of envy. Do not love quarreling; pray for your enemies out of love for Christ".  Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 4, Tools for Good Works.
In Chapter 6, on Humility, St. Benedict says the monk should accept insults, wrong-doing, and all the rest, knowing that this is the way he might follow in the footsteps of Christ.

How does this relate to internet discussion?  It means we should not harbor angry feelings, but good will to those whose views differ from ours.   It means we should accept insults and illogical replies with good will and humor.    I confess that I have not always followed these precepts.


The quotes at the beginning of this post are taken from the "Discourse" page of the Biologos Forum.
As an example of how gracious discourse might be conducted on a controversial topic, I'd like to link to a discussion between myself and Rev. Nicanor Austriaco.    Please note, I'm not trying to blow my own horn in this--the gracious tone of the exchange owes more to the good offices of Fr. Austriaco than to my efforts.    Also, I am not trying to promote discussion of the topic to which the link applies.


One final observation might be allowed:  I try, when discussing a controversial subject, particularly one that lies at the intersection of the Church and science, to research all sides of the controversy and then follow my conscience in what my opinion might be.    There is an appropriate quote from St. Thomas Aquinas that says it is a sin not to let your conscience be your guide:

"Every judgment of conscience, be it right or wrong, be it about things evil in themselves or morally indifferent, is obligatory, in such wise that he who acts against his conscience always sins." St. Thomas Aquinas. III Quodlibet 27.
So,  as for myself , the rule I will try to follow is to engage in comments only when something defamatory  is said about the Church or science,  and in my comment attempt to be kind, charitable and gracious.   I pray to God for the humility and good will to follow this.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Theology of Science-fiction: IV. End-Times

Armageddon in Revelation, from "Israel my Beloved" website
"Because SF primarily deals with the future, it must inevitably deal with the end of the world, and thus SF overlaps more closely with apocalyptic literature than with any other type of religious writing...[and] focuses on eschatology--ideas about 'the last days', the end of the world as we know it and the dawning of a radically new era." Gabriel McKee, The Gospel According to Science Fiction
 In this post, the fourth of the series, I'm going to focus on works for which the religious attitudes of two SF authors cover the range from atheist to true believer.   And as the quote above  suggests, we're talking about end-times--the Apocalypse, Armageddon, the Ball is Over.    For the SF author, this can mean the end of the world--earth--the end of the Universe, or the end of everything  (from Creatio ex nihilo to Annihilatio ad nihilum).

There are a host of stories dealing with end-times, ranging from post atomic-war destruction of civilization, destruction of earth by collision with asteroids,  alien take-overs of the world, or the final end  of the Universe.   Rather than giving a catalog of these, I'm going to discuss two classics that span religious attitudes, from atheist to Catholic faithful.  Surveys of SF apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic works are given in the References*.


An Overlord, from
Childhood's End, the classic by Arthur C. Clarke, is a story about a benevolent take-over of earth by aliens ("the Overlords") who look like the common image of the devil--horns, wings, tail and all that.  The Overlords institute a benevolent dictatorship, eliminating nuclear fission and other explosive missiles, want and crime.  “Utopia was here at last: its novelty had not yet been assailed by the supreme enemy of all Utopias—boredom.”

However, it was not to give mankind Utopia that the Overlords came to Earth.    Rather, they were acting as nannies for a new humankind, and to prevent mankind from destroying itself until that new man emerged.  That new, improved species was to be derived from the children of the generation visited by the Overlords.  They would be endowed with supernatural psychic powers, and after developing these powers during a maturation period on earth, would join with the Supermind that had desired this change.    They would leave earth in a pillar of fire and as they left, destroy their birthplace:
“There was nothing left of Earth. They had leeched away the last atoms of its substance. It had nourished them, through the fierce moments of their inconceivable metamorphosis, as the food stored in a grain of wheat feeds the infant plant while it climbs towards the Sun.”  Childhood's End.
Now, there is nothing of God in this, unless you equate the Supermind, which is composed of the composite minds of many species. to God.  The origin  and precise nature of the Supermind is not discussed in the story, but then of course if it is a supermind, what  can our poor intelligence make of it.   Clarke's bias against theism is revealed early on in the book by the remarks of one of his characters:
Science is the only religion of mankind.”     and
Science can destroy religion by ignoring it as well as by disproving its tenets. No one ever demonstrated, so far as I am aware, the nonexistence of Zeus or Thor, but they have few followers now.” Childhood's End
Given Clarke's proposal that psychic powers, supermind and all such stuff, constitute the next step in evolution, one wonders how seriously to take the dicta in the quotes above.    Much more faith is required to believe in supernatural psychic powers than to believe in God and His only begotten Son.   But, as G.K. Chesterton aptly put it:
"It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense." G.K. Chesterton, Fr. Brown in  The Oracle of the Dog
"You hard-shelled materialists were all balanced on the very edge of belief — of belief in almost anything."G.K. Chesterton, Fr. Brown in The Miracle of Moon Crescent
(Those are the quotes that gave rise to the saying, attributed to Chesterton by mistake:
 "When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything."  American Chesterton Society.)
Now it seems in the critique above, I have given short shrift to "Childhood's End".   That was not my intention.   Fifty-five years ago when I first read it, I was moved.   Today on re-reading it (after my conversion) I find it unsatisfying and shallow as an aid to appreciate the meaning of end-times.


First Edition Dust Jacket,
by George Sottung
Beloved of both SF fans and non-SF fans, is the classic "A Canticle for Leibowitz", a book which has sold over a million copies and is still in print.
Preparing for this post, I reread it;  the message of the book is still fresh and moving.    Rather than summarize the plot (go to the link above for that), I want to expound on that message.  (Better yet, read the free pdf download of the book, or buy it--you'll want to reread it.)

The story takes places in three historical periods:

  • Fiat Homo (Let there be Man):  The first period is in the 26th century, several hundred years after the "Flame Deluge", an atomic war that destroys civilization and engenders a host of monstrous mutant births.  The populace, calling themselves "Simpletons", have risen up against the establishment--killing scientists, academics, government officials--and against the learning that led to this catastrophe.   Books are burnt, technological devices destroyed in the rage of the survivors.    An order of monks had been founded some years earlier by a Jewish convert to Catholicism,  Leibowitz, who had been an atomic weapons scientist.   The special mission of the monks was  to save the remnants of learning;  each monk is to be a "booklegger", carrying books in a bindle-stiff to a place of safety.   Leibowitz himself was martyred, burnt with his books.
  • Fiat Lux  (Let there be Light): The second period is 500 years later.   The rebirth of science takes place, partially in the Abbey of St. Leibowitz (he has been canonized by the Pope in New Rome).    A monk of the  Leibowitzian order invents a human-powered dynamo to power an arc light, illustrating the new theories of a theoretical genius, a  royal bastard (the kingdom is Texarkana).     Tensions between the Church and the state rise again, as in the past.
  • Fiat Voluntas Tua (Thy Will be Done): The third period is some 600 years later.   Science and technology have risen again:  atomic weapons, interstellar travel (with a few colonies), computers, automated roads are here, to the consternation of the Abbot of the St. Leibowitz monastery.  State and Church have reached an accommodation, much as today--most of the populace are unbelievers or Catholic in name only.    There is tension between the two superpowers, the Asian Coalition and the Atlantic Confederacy.   The tension grows into an atomic war;  even greater destruction is wrought than in the preceding flame deluge, but a contingent of the Order of St. Leibowitz carries civilization and the Church goes to the stars, to the new colonies.
All the above is bare bones, dry as dust, and conveys little of the power and beauty of the book.  I'm going to try to do that with some selected quotes and context.  (For a fuller exposition of the plot, again, please refer to the linked article.)

Fiat Homo:  Brother Francis falls into the uncovered remains of a fallout shelter, containing relics of Saint Leibowitz, is terrified and prays a litany for salvation from the Flame Deluge:

"A spiritu fomicationis,
Domine, hibera nos.
From the lightning and the tempest,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the scourge of the earthquake,
O Lord, deliver us.
From plague, famine, and war,
O Lord, deliver us.
"From the place of ground zero,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the cobalt,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the rain of the strontium,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the fall of the cesium,
O Lord, deliver us.
"From the curse of the Fallout,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the begetting of monsters,
O Lord, deliver us.
From the curse of the Misborn,
O Lord, deliver us.
A morte perpetua,
Domine, libera nos.
te rogamus, audi nos.
That thou wouldst spare us,
we beseech thee, hear us.
That thou wouldst pardon us,
we beseech thee, hear us.
That thou wouldst bring us truly to penance,
te rogamus, audi nos."  p. 16 (Bantam Edition).
Fiat Lux Brother Kornhoer has invented a dynamo and electric arc lamp, amazing the great scientist Thon Taddeo (repeat of Galileo or Newton?) who has come to investigate the Leibowitz memorabilia.    A discourse on scientific achievements of the past and the preservation of knowledge by the Church follows.
"Now a Dark Age seemed to be passing. For twelve centuries, a small flameof knowledge had been kept smoldering in the monasteries; only now were there minds ready to be kindled. Long ago, during the last age of reason, certain proud thinkers had claimed that valid knowledge was indestructible--that ideas were deathless and truth immortal. But that was true only in the subtlest sense, the abbot thought, and not superficially true at all. There was objective meaning in the world, to be sure: the nonmoral logos or design of the Creator; but such meanings were God's and not Man's, until they found an imperfect incarnation, a dark reflection, within the mind and speech and culture of a given human society, which might ascribe values to the meanings so that they became valid in a human sense within the culture. For Man was a culture-bearer as well as a soul-bearer, but his cultures were not immortal and they could die with a race or an age, and then human reflections of meaning and human portrayals of truth receded, and truth and meaning resided, unseen, only in the objective logos of Nature and the ineffable Logos of God. [emphasis added] Truth could be crucified; but soon, perhaps, a resurrection."  p. 133, ibid.
And so the age of science begins again  and again, the Church is the wet-nurse of the new "logos of nature".

Fiat Voluntas Tua  The Church has had an interstellar vehicle of its own ready for missionary work to the interstellar colonies and, with nuclear annihilation threatening within a short time, decides to send  two Bishops and a group from the Leibowitz Abbey--priests, brothers, sisters, civilians and children--to the Centauran colony.  (The Bishops are sent to  maintain apostolic succession.)  The Abbot, Fr. Zerchi, speaks to the group:'

" 'You will be years in space. The ship will be your monastery. After the
patriarchal see is established at the Centaurus Colony, you will establish there
a mother house of the Visitationist Friars of the Order of Saint Leibowitz of
Tycho. But the ship will remain in your hands, and the Memorabilia. If
civilization, or a vestige of it, can maintain itself on Centaurus, you will
send missions to the other colony worlds, and perhaps eventually to the colonies
of their colonies. Wherever Man goes, you and your successors will go. And with
you, the records and remembrances of four thousand years and more. Some of you,
or those to come after you, will be mendicants and wanderers, teaching the
chronicles of Earth and the canticles of the Crucified to the peoples and the
cultures that may grow out of the colony groups. For some may forget. Some may
be lost for a time from the Faith. Teach them, and receive into the Order those
among them who are called. Pass on to them the continuity. Be for Man the memory
of Earth and Origin. Remember this Earth. Never forget her, but-- never come
back.'  Zerchi's voice went hoarse and low. 'If you ever come back, you might
meet the Archangel at the east end of Earth, guarding her passes with a sword of
flame. I feel it. Space is your home hereafter. It's a lonelier desert than
ours. God bless you, and pray for us.' "  
p. 269, ibid.
Brother Joshua, after much soul-searching decided to accept the invitation to be the Abbott for the Visitationist Friars and be ordained a priest.   He climbs into the spaceship as nuclear bombs are falling to the east,  slaps his sandals together, shaking the dust from them [see Matt 10:14] and whispers "sic transit gloria mundi" .

I wish that the sequel, the story of the interstellar mission, had been written...and, were I thirty years younger, I would try to do so myself.


The Gospel according to Science Fiction (Chapter 10, "The Last Days [and After]). Gabriel McKee.

*One very fine apocalyptic SF novel by Nancy Kress, "After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall", was published after these references;  it deals with destruction of civilization by aliens and the attempted recovery.

About Me

My Photo

Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.