Aristotle’s Attitude about the Pope

'Aristotle with a Bust of Homer' by Rembrandt
‘Aristotle with a Bust of Homer’ by Rembrandt

More tortuous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it? I, the LORD, alone probe the mind and test the heart, to reward everyone according to his ways, according to the merit of his deeds. (Jeremiah 17:9-10)

One of the essential tenets of our religion holds that God judges souls. We do not. We do not have what it takes to penetrate deeply enough into another person’s soul so as to know whether it be good or evil. After all, we can barely manage to penetrate into our own souls; we can hardly begin to sort them out.

Sometimes we have to exercise limited judgment over external matters pertaining to other people. People with great responsibilities have to do it a lot. But our prayer as Christians is always: Lord, be merciful. Father, forgive. May everyone get to heaven. Have mercy on me, and help me to be good like other people are, because I am really the worst sinner I know.

Pope Benedict Easter candleAlso, even in the realm of limited judgments about external matters: the wise philosopher of old, Aristotle, warned against anyone trying to exercise judgment of any kind over someone more experienced.

None of us have the right, really, either to blame or to praise anyone who knows more than we do. It goes for both praise and blame. Just as it requires superior wisdom and experience justly to blame another for his or her bad actions, it likewise requires superior wisdom to praise someone for actions we judge to be good.

The simple way of saying this is: Parents have the right and duty to praise and/or censure their children. Children have no standing either to criticize or to commend their parents. If a little boy says, “Daddy, you are such a good daddy!” the wise father would have to say to himself: “That’s nice. But it doesn’t mean that I am good. Only a father wiser than myself could really give me such a compliment.”

This is why I do not understand why anyone would think that he or she has the standing to make any judgment at all about Pope Benedict’s decision to resign. Is there any question that Pope Benedict is a wiser and more experienced man than I am? There is no question. Not a person on the earth can really say that he or she is wiser or more experienced than the Pope. So really it makes no sense to judge the decision at all. Bad or good, the Pope will answer to God for it. For our part: we pray for him; we love him.

For nearly eight years, we have been praying for “Benedict, our Pope” at every Mass. That’s well over 2500 times for me—praying for Pope Benedict at the altar. It has been a privilege to be able to do so, a privilege granted to me despite my unworthiness.

St. Peter's tomb, under the High Altar of the Basilica
St. Peter’s tomb, under the High Altar of the Basilica
And: Can any of us doubt that the Pope has been lovingly praying for us all this time, too? No, we cannot doubt it. He certainly has been. And we know that he will continue to pray for us, as he enters his hidden life inside the precincts of the tomb of St. Peter.

If you remember exactly one year ago, on this day of Lent last year, we talked about how the shortness of life, and the inevitability of death, makes the Creed of the Catholic Church a lot more interesting.

Our Holy Father resigns his office today. Indeed, that makes today an unusual day in the history of the world. But is it earth-shattering? I mean, after all: before we know it, Pope Benedict will be dead, just like the rest of us.

So let’s just focus on God, and pray that everything happen in such a way that everyone will be able to get to heaven. And let me do my little part, and leave the business of judging to the wiser and more experienced people, and to God.

Metaphysics of Morals Compendium (with Punishments) + April 9 Palm Sunday

If you find yourself at a Knights-of-Columbus pancake breakfast with Spanish-speakers from various countries, you will encounter different words for ‘pancakes’: panqueque, crepa, cachapa, panqueca, güirila, panqué

…The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter will fall on Tuesday night. The Sesquicentennial unfolds.

The older of my brilliant nephews was born on April 9. Palm Sunday fell on April 9 that year, 2006.

Palm Sunday also fell on April 9 in 1865, the day when Robert E. Lee rode up to the McLean house and, in the words of James Robertson, “after 39 years of dutiful military service, did what duty demanded of him.”

The Army of Northern Virginia most certainly was beaten. Lee nonetheless displayed acute moral discernment at Appomattox.

The prospect of the southern cause continuing as a guerrilla war was the most likely sequel to the fall of Richmond and the routing of Lee’s army. At Appomattox, Lee rose above the normal pattern and effected a decisive stroke for reconciliation.

Continue reading “Metaphysics of Morals Compendium (with Punishments) + April 9 Palm Sunday”

Magnificent Place to Catch a Train

We cannot let this anniversary pass unremarked. This year is the 100th anniversary of the completion of Union Station in Washington, D.C. (The grand opening was October 27, 1907, but the building was not yet finished then.)

The building was designed by Daniel Burnham. It was built as part of the McMillan Plan for beautifying the capital city of the United States. Pierre L’Enfant had, at George Washington’s request, laid out a beautiful design for the city a century earlier, but L’Enfant’s ideas were not fully realized. The McMillan Plan, conceived at the turn of the twentieth century, brought L’Enfant’s original design to fulfillment.

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, these two great teachers of right living list magnificence as one of the virtues of an upright man. Only those who are in charge of large public projects are able to practice this virtue. In order to execute such responsibility well, someone who controls large sums of money for the public good must attain magnificence.

Public money is spent well when it produces something not merely useful, not just efficiently put-together. Rather, something built for the public must possess elevating beauty. It must lift us up to the true dignity which the human race possesses.

We could catch trains in little demountable depots, as we did here in Washington through the 1980’s (after the failure of the ill-conceived National Park Service Union Station Visitor Center, which attracted more pigeons than people). It is not necessary for us to catch trains in a 100-foot-high double vault of marble and steel with coffered ceilings, Italian statues, and sculpted water fountains.

It is not necessary to have such a place for the catching of trains–but it IS magnificent to have one. It is fitting for a noble race, an upright people, a nation of grand ideals.

This fall is also the twentieth anniversary of the grand re-opening of Union Station after it’s decade of decrepitude. My father was very excited about it back in 1988, but I was too distracted by being a freshman at a New England College to pray much attention.

Then I had a pivotal experience of life. I came home from college on the train for Thanksgiving. Four months in the foreign territory of western Massachusetts had me miserable. Nobody there believed in God, and the sun went down at 3:00 in the afternoon.

But then, when the train arrived in Washington, I did NOT emerge into the graffiti-covered construction site that had been our train station for almost as long as I could remember. No: I stepped out into the newly re-opened Union Station, in all its pristine splendor.

I could not believe my eyes. The splendor of Rome itself had come to my hometown train station. I thought: This is where I belong. This grand city is my home. You can have Williams College.

Not long after, I told one of my Williams’ buddies: “You know, if some celestial power offered me a choice at this moment, either to live out the rest of my days on earth within the confines of the District of Columbia, with no opportunity ever to leave it, OR to have the freedom to go anywhere in the world–except into the city of Washington–it would take me all of one second to make up my mind. Give me my home turf.”

My days in New England were numbered. Before long, I was a student at the Catholic University of America. The rest is more or less a Washington-D.C. history. (I am allowed into the suburbs.)