City Point down the James
down the Powhattan, aka the James, from City Point fishing pier, with the Benjamin Harrison Memorial Bridge in the mist

In 1864-65, two hundred boats a day coursed this water, delivering supplies for the Union lines around Richmond and Petersburg.  General U.S. Grant presided over it all, from his little cabin.

I know: remembering the soldiers of the Civil War hardly gives us a blithe and bonny patriotic Memorial Day, dear reader.  Forgive me.  History inevitably makes things complicated.

Let’s start with the original memorial:  the Mass.

What if the written documents of the New Testament never got collected?  What if the scriptures of the Old Covenant had been lost?  What if Rome had fallen before St. Peter ever got there, and the memories of all the ancients died when they did?

Not so outlandish, really.  The native people used to call the James River by a different name.  But their memories–of empires, triumphs, defeats, dynasties–those memories have all but vanished from the face of the earth.

But: Even if not a single book survived from the age of ancient Rome, we would still remember Jesus, because of the Mass.

Some people remember the Vietnam War.  During his visit to Asia last week, President Obama said he remembered when that war ended, when he was 13 years old.  Who remembers why that war was fought?  I think the Vietnamese exiles around the world probably remember better than anyone.

Because Catholicism involves people in the world, institutions, property, alliances, family ties, and stuff like that, we cannot exactly claim ideological purity, so to speak.  What we can claim is that we have remembered Jesus, through thick and thin, by celebrating Mass.

When the president visited Hiroshima, it served as an occasion to rehearse an argument that runs like this:  dropping nuclear bombs on Japan brought the end of World War II.  If we had not dropped The Bomb, the war would have lasted much longer, and many more people would have died.  Therefore, we did the right thing.

This is what you call “consequentialism”–the moral justification of inherently immoral acts by invoking anticipated results.  Consequentialism is the refuge of people hell-bent on doing something they manifestly should not do, but who try to find a reason to do it anyway.  Consequentialism neglects the one, all-important fact:  God runs history, not us.  Our job is to do good and avoid evil.  Dropping bombs that you know will kill countless innocents–women, children, old people sitting in their rocking chairs:  E-V-I-L.

Anyway, may all our beloved dead rest in peace!

Someday, when people pray for us, in languages different from any which we currently know, using new and different names for the places familiar to us–when they pray for us, we can hope for divine mercy through their prayers.  Provided it’s the memorial of Jesus, a Mass.

Acts 5 and Consequentialism

Acts of the Apostles, chapter 5.  What happened leading up to it?

The Lord poured out His Holy Spirit.  Peter preached on the Temple steps.  He explained to the pilgrims how Christ had fulfilled all the promises made to Abraham and the prophets.  Miraculous signs and wonders ensued, in the name of Jesus.  Thousands came to believe.

Then the high court decided to investigate.

Helen  Mirren Eye in the Sky

Now, people who study the daily-Mass readings deserve a perk.  Just so happens that we read from Acts 5 yesterday, and today, and tomorrow.  Also, we will read from Acts 5 at Mass on Sunday.  But the Sunday Lectionary skips a few verses–the very verses we will read at daily Mass tomorrow!

Of course everyone knows what’s coming on Sunday, during the sermon at St. Andrew’s.  A quiz.

The quiz will focus on the wisdom of one particular member of the Sanhedrin.  The same rabbi who taught the young Saul of Tarsus.

Who holds the future in His hands?  God?  What about us?  Do we control the future at all?

Anyone ever heard of “consequentialism?”  In the mid-20th century some well-meaning priests got themselvses confused in the pastoral advice they gave.  Because they, either knowingly or unwittingly, became consequentialists.

Consequentialism is the moral philosophy of the technocrat.  The basic idea is:  Whether I ought to do something depends on the consequences that I anticipate.  If good will come of what I do, then I should do it.

Anybody see the problem here?  “The ends do not justify the means,” for one thing.  But an even more fundamental problem is:  We can never know for sure what the consequences of our actions will be.  We do not have adequate intelligence to take every variable into account.  Only the Lord has that kind of intelligence.

Which is why morality must operate according to fixed principles, not just projected consequences.  There are some things we simply can never do, even if we imagine all kinds of lovely consequences.  Killing the innocent, committing adultery or fornication, stealing, lying–no consequences that we foresee could ever justify doing any of those things.

One thing we can foresee, though:  Daily-Mass people will ace the quiz during the homily on Sunday.

How to Make Good Decisions


Is it okay to cut the heart out of a newborn baby with severe brain damage, so that the baby’s heart can be transplanted into a baby who has a bad heart?  Is it okay to perform an abortion on a pregnant teenager, or on a pregnant woman with a serious health problem?  Is it okay to lie to make other people feel better?


There are things that people do, and many smart people approve, but these things do not seem to be right.  I would like to put in my two cents about what exactly is wrong.


When people do bad things, it is almost always because they convince themselves that they are doing something good.  They convince themselves of this by attempting to measure the effects of what they propose to do.  In the case of the two babies, the doctors involved convince themselves that they are doing good because they are saving the life of the baby with a bad heart, and the one with brain damage would die soon anyway.  If the good effects outweigh the bad effects of an action, it must be a good thing to do.

(The question of how to know precisely when someone dies, including a baby with severe brain damage, is a tricky one–let’s acknowledge that.  It is okay to transplant organs from a corpse, provided they will benefit someone else.  Good people disagree about the criteria for establishing when someone is dead.  There are doctors these days, though, who are not concerned with establishing death definitively; they regard it as an unnecessary question.)

Measuring potential outcomes is a good way of making decisions, given one very important proviso:  All the options have to be good.  If I have the choice between giving extra money to charity, or saving it for a rainy day, or giving it to a family member, the best thing for me to do is to weigh the effects of all these options, because they are all perfectly good things to do.


But there is one effect of my acting that outweighs all others, so much so that it makes an option impossible to choose.  That effect is this:  I become someone who has knowingly and deliberately done something evil.  No other effect can make this effect worthwhile, even if the potential effect appears to be very good to me right now.  (Fr. Martin Rhonheimer taught me everything in this paragraph.)


The greatest thing that a person can be by their own devices is a moral person.  Everything else is a matter of fortune or Divine Providence.  I cannot control anything completely—except my own actions.  If my actions are good, then I am moral.  If they are not, then I am immoral.


So it is wise to weigh the potential outcomes of my actions (understanding, of course, that I cannot really know them definitively).  But first and foremost I must consider the act itself.  Is the act itself okay?  Or am I in danger of doing evil with the idea that good may come of it?  If I try to do evil that good may come of it, the following consequences will ensue:  Good things may happen outside of me, or they may not—there are a lot of variables, and I should have the humility to admit that I do not know them all, even if I am very knowledgeable about the matter at hand.  On the other hand, if I do evil, I will have made myself a bad person, an immoral person.


To this argument, some people will say:  How selfish!  How can you worry about something like your own soul when the life and death, or the health and well-being of others is at stake?  Keep your moral scruples to yourself!  At least let us do what we think we ought to do, without trying to force your religion on us!


The problem with this objection is that it is ultimately self-contradictory.  Obviously, it is not a case of crass disingenuousness:  If those who objected to moral scruples were only interested in robbing banks or seducing women, then we would not be in danger of being persuaded by them.  But they claim to be on the side of the angels, on the side of fostering human life and well-being.


This is where the self-contradiction comes in:  You say that you are on the side of human life and well-being.  You say you want to do the things you propose to do to save lives, or make lives more healthy or pleasant.  Why?  What is the point of saving a life, or improving someone’s health, if not for the sake of that person becoming good and not evil?  Isn’t moral success the ultimate goal of life?  What does it mean to thrive as a human being?  To laze around in the basest pleasures?  To pile up the biggest stash of stuff?  To breathe, eat, and sleep?  To thrive as a human being is:  To do good and avoid evil, to be moral, to fulfill the potential we have to make good choices, and to work for the good of those we love.


So it makes no sense to kill the one baby to save the other, so that someday the other can grow up to have the moral insight and self-control to see that this was a bad thing to do.  Instead, just do every good and reasonable thing that can be done now to save them both.  That’s all we can do; we are not the masters of life and death.  We are not here on earth to control everything; we are here to do good and avoid evil.


In order to approach decision-making this way with confidence, we need to trust God.  I will undertake to consider the relationship between faith and morals at some other time.  Stay tuned!