Friday, March 30, 2012

The End of Women

Carolyn Moynihan | Friday, 30 March 2012

The legacy of the sexual revolution is more subversive than its champions admit.

Adrienne RichThe death of the American feminist poet Adrienne Rich (pictured) this week has brought many accolades on account of her literary gifts and contribution to the feminist movement over the past 50 years. In her transformation from conventionally married mother of three sons in the 1950s, to lesbian partner and apologist in the 1970s, she became not only the voice but a living example of the revolutionary character of second wave feminism.

The chief legacy of that movement has been brought into sharp focus in recent months by the battle royal between Catholic authorities (mainly) and the Obama administration over the latter’s mandate forcing employers to pay for birth control, including abortifacients and sterilisation.

Old-guard feminists -- including Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sibelius -- are nervous and casting the conflict as a “war on women”, an attempt to wind back the “reproductive rights” won in the 1960s and 1970s with the arrival of the contraceptive pill and the Supreme Court decision decriminalising abortion.

On the other hand, those who regard such methods of birth control as objectionable or morally wrong -- including those who hold that view as a matter of religious faith -- are outraged that the principle of freedom of conscience could be trashed for the sake of a symbolic enshrining of contraception in the pantheon of free health services.

Yes, the mandate is both an overblown tribute to the value of contraception in women’s lives -- in particular for their “health” -- and an act of intolerance towards those who do not value it at all. But at least we can be grateful that it has stirred up a debate that really needs to happen - a debate about whether the sexual revolution that contraception and abortion let loose on society has been a good thing or a bad thing.

As Mary Eberstadt wrote in her contribution to a forum on the issue in the Wall Street Journal last weekend, the legacy of the sexual revolution has yet to be “settled in the Western mind” -- despite claims that “women” (minus, at the very least, the 25,000+ who have signed a letter objecting to it) are solidly behind the HHS mandate, and the sexual revolution to boot.

In her recently published collection of essays, Adam and Eve after the Pill, Eberstadt covers all kinds of fallout from the “sex without consequences” culture that has grown up over the past four decades, including the growing chorus of unhappiness from women writing on such mournful themes as “The Case for Settling” and “The End of Men”, complaining about men who won’t grow up and lamenting the general state of relations between the sexes. If the sexual revolution was such a boon, how come women are not happier? She asks.

Hanna Rosin, who also contributed to the WSJ’s sexual revolution forum, has an answer to that. She says happiness doesn't matter. Rosin argues that young women (those in their 20s and early 30s) are generally better off than young men. “They are better educated and earn more money on average,” she points out. In other words, they don’t need men -- except for “temporary, intimate relationships that don’t derail a career.” She is working on a book called -- guess what? -- “The End of Men”, due out in September.

Rosin does make some frank admissions. She concedes that there is a rumble of complaint from young women about men who won’t commit; that this is because the post-pill market has made sex “very cheap” and turned men into “free agents” who sleep with as many women as possible; which in turn causes women “a lot of frustrating little dating battles” and “heartache”. But that is a small price to pay, Rosin argues, for a woman’s future success in a career.

(Funny how arguments in favour of post-pill sexual culture always seem to hang on college educated women with careers, who generally do find a mate, rather than working class women who increasingly “settle” for the insecurity of serial cohabitation, and bringing up children, much of the time, on their own. But that is another story.)

The odd thing about Rosin’s theory is that it really describes “the end of women” rather than the end of men. The great gift of the sexual revolution to women is not that it has taken them out of men’s power but that it has made them over as the new men. They can pursue their careers just like men. They can have sex without getting pregnant and having to get married, just like men. They can ignore the emotional consequences of uncommitted sex (“And how bad are heartaches, anyway?” asks Rosin) as men tend to do.

When the ache for a baby gets too strong, today’s macho woman can go get herself impregnated with donor sperm at a fertility clinic. And since there’s really no difference between men and women any more she could just settle down with a lesbian partner and save herself any further trouble from the officially male of the species.

The truth is that, if men have become redundant, so have women. One makes no sense without the other. What we have instead is humanoids who come in a range of genders and can make use of their sexual endowment (or someone else’s) in a variety of ways. They can generate or acquire children as the case may be; they can saddle the kids with two “moms” or two “dads” or with other combinations of “parents” if it suits them. What that means for the children simply doesn’t matter. Nothing that comes from the sexual revolution can really be bad for anyone. Get used to it.

Isn’t this the insane world we see taking shape before our eyes? There may have been a lot wrong with marriage and the status of women in the America of young Mrs Adrienne Conrad (Rich’s married name), but cutting sex adrift from babies and marriage was patently not the solution. It has made nonsense of the body and made men and women strangers to themselves.

To refuse to become an active party to such madness is a right no just society should deny to any member.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Reposted from MercatorNet, March 30, 2012

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Why the Trinity Matters - Anthony Esolen

An interesting take on monotheism and how without the Trinity it tends to impersonality and abstraction.  These reflections bear directly on the question raised by Gary Gutting (see my post below) about whether God matters.  They point to the tendency of non-Trinitarian monotheism to lose the personhood of God and, at best,  degenerate into mild ethical systems.  The alternative to the three-person God of Christianity, Esolen suggests, is not a one-person God but an abstraction.
The Modern Amputation

By Anthony Esolen   
A few years ago my family and I attended a Trinity Sunday Mass at a parish that isn’t our own. On the way over, we bet on whether at least one of the four hymns sung would have anything to do with the Trinity. My wife, who pegged the odds at precisely zero, turned out to be correct.
          I expected that the priest would say something about the Trinity during his homily. He did, but I wish he hadn’t. All he said was that the Trinity was something that we could never understand – which is true enough, but not at all helpful. He did mention that the Trinity had something to do with love. In general, he left the congregation with the impression that the Trinity was one of those odd holdover doctrines that we believe, but aren’t really central to our worship.
          How far, how terribly far, from the great prayer of Dante in the Paradiso: 
       O Light that dwell within Thyself alone,
             who alone know Thyself, are known, and smile
             with Love upon the Knowing and the Known!
It is crucial that we understand why Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Baptism initiates us into the Christian life, by incorporating us into the Church, the Body of Christ. But that cannot be, unless we are also welcomed into the life of the Trinity.
If we believe that we have been made in the image and likeness of God, and that we find our human fulfillment in that supra-human power and wisdom and love, then to mistake that we are meant for the Trinity is to mistake how we are meant for God, and that, as Christians must hold, is to mistake what we are as human beings.
The danger of monotheism without the Trinity is that it will eventually shade away into the abstract and impersonal. Judaism is the obvious exception to this rule – an exception, however, clinched by the intense personalism of the revelation of God in the Old Testament.
Even the sacred name given to Moses, “I am Who am,” which rightly appears to be the name beyond names that such philosophers as Aristotle and Plotinus were searching for, may also be taken to mean, “I am with you always” – in other words, “I am that personal God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who have adopted you as my own people.”  
But those forms of Judaism that efface the chosenness of Israel eventually lose the personhood of God and degenerate into mild ethical systems; as neo-Platonism loses the personhood of the mind by attempting to attain union with the impersonal One; as Islam loses the personhood of Allah, and confuses God with fate or with bald unreasoning power.

         The Holy Trinity by Antonio de Pereda, c. 1650
Our own secular monotheism without the Trinity has its source, and its sad end, in an amputated anthropology. We bow down in worship of liberty, which for us means non-interference, doing as we please, like miniature Allahs, with a vast legal tangle to keep one Allah from stubbing his feet against the solitary dreams of the Allah next door.
Thus do we misunderstand both God and man. We mistake the individual for the person, and we mistake the collective for the community. We would do neither, if we kept the Trinity firmly in mind.
The essential mistake of liberalism – of whichever political flavor  – is the refusal to admit that an “individual” is an abstraction. We are persons, and personhood implies relationship. We are born into a web of relations that not only form us but exert just claims upon us: I am a son, brother, husband, father, student, teacher, friend, citizen.
The liberal sees the relations as essentially restrictive; but they are so in the sense that having legs is restrictive. My bones delimit me, but they allow me to walk across the room. Having one mother and one father is delimiting also; but by them I came into the world, and learn what it is to love – which is to say, to be truly human.
I am to honor my mother and my father, to love my home and my neighbor. Moral laws are not No Trespassing signs erected arbitrarily by a Great Forbidder. They are personal and loving guides, revealing to us where joy is to be found – joy proper to persons.
The inability to distinguish between the individual and the person is reflected in an inability to distinguish between a collective and a communion. The Trinity is not a collective. In fact, it is just because of the persons that the Trinity cannot conceivably be a collective.
For a collective is an abstraction. It implies no personal affection, no special duty or love owed to this person rather than that; it cherishes no traditions handed down from one generation to the next; it is, like the individual, strangely ahistorical and incorporeal. It operates not from deeds of love and wisdom undertaken by one person for another person, but rather by procedures, like the levers and pulleys of a great machine.
In education fit for a collective, the “right” objects of study are determined by the “right” educrats and are decreed universally, without regard to distinctions between country and city, or one way of life and another. Such education will typically coexist with forms of libertinism.
The amputated person is “free” from interference by those to whom he should be most intimately bound; free, then, to be corralled into that desiccated community, the collective, which must be established if for no other reason than to contain the libertine disorder.
When we see families and neighbors united in prayer to the source of all personhood, we are witnessing something that the would-be directors of the collective, who grant us an enslaving license and call it liberty, despise.
Perhaps they understand the Trinity – its promise to us, and its threat to them – better than they know.
Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your ChildHe teaches at Providence College.
© 2012 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write

Retrieved March 29, 2012 from The Catholic Thing and reposted with permission.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Lucifer's Letter on Gary Gutting and the New York Times

I find it impossible these days to think of Gary Gutting, philosophy professor at the University of Notre Dame, without being reminded of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.  I imagine a letter from Lucifer to his nephew Snipe, the agent in charge of undermining Catholic education, something like the following.
My dear Snipe,
I have been watching with growing admiration your recent activities.  Even though the media and comboxes, even a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, denigrate the Catholic Church daily to good effect, there is nothing like the sophisticated musings and pronouncements of a professor at a prestigious Catholic university to sow confusion among the faithful.  It is very helpful to perpetuate - above all in centers of Catholic learning - the idea that orthodoxy is for simple folk, people like fishermen and tax collectors and much beneath the cultured elite.  So your work in fostering dissent and cynicism in philosophy and theology departments at places like Notre Dame, Georgetown, and Boston College is greatly appreciated.
It is very good to see how one of my favorite professors, Gary Gutting of Notre Dame’s philosophy department, is writing regularly for the New York Times to undermine the teaching authority of the Catholic Church as well as the teachings themselves.
I was amused to see Gutting’s comment in the New York Times that “the immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church.”  He based this astonishing but welcome news on the fact that so many Catholics ignore Church teaching on the matter.  What I especially enjoyed was his response to those like EWTN and Professor William E. May of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America who pointed out that God’s Son gave the authority to speak in his name only to a designated body.  “This was, and is,” said May, “Saint Peter, the Apostles and their successors.”  They alone “have the authority to speak, in the name of Jesus Christ, the truths that are necessary for our salvation.”  
Professor May even cited the teaching of Vatican II that Catholics “may not undertake methods of birth control which are found blameworthy by the teaching authority of the Church in its unfolding of the divine law.”  He cites another document of Vatican II on the duty of Catholics to accept and submit to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff.”  These are dangerous arguments, drawing as they do on the authority of Christ himself and Vatican II, a council to which dissidents like to appeal. No worries - we know that the NYT looks to my followers, not the bishops, to speak for Catholics, and Gutting did a wonderful job of appealing to the “spirit” of Vatican II against what that Council’s documents actually say. 
But here our dear Professor Gutting surpasses himself.  He rejects the relativist view of the unsophisticated undergraduate that there is no objectively correct view, but asks how we can decide who’s right.  “We can’t appeal to the bishops to decide the matter, since what’s in question is their authority. So obviously, Catholics have to answer this question on their own, by their own best lights. That’s what I mean by saying it’s up to individual Catholics.”
That is brilliant!  He asserts as a matter of fact that the immorality of birth control is no longer a teaching of the Catholic Church.  He admits that his assertion is contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church as promulgated by the pope and bishops, but then says it’s up to individual Catholics to decide what authority those clerics have anyway.  Be sure to have our dear professor explain to the New York Times that the Church no longer teaches the Real Presence either and use this same argument to justify his position if challenged.  This is the way to go, a sure path to our ultimate goal, dissolution of the Church.
Now in a column in the esteemed NYT our friend goes further and questions God’s authority too, on the grounds that even if he exists he may be up to no good as far as humans are concerned and anyway it doesn’t matter what people believe.  Doesn’t he do a good job of turning God’s answer to Job--about the limitations of human understanding in relation to the omniscience of God (Job 38)--into an argument against (or for the irrelevance of) belief in God at all?  Mere mortals, as he says, have no idea what he is up to or whether it’s for the benefit of humans.  
This is all very good.  He not only undermines religious faith, but also attacks the very foundations of Christianity without firing a shot.  In becoming one of them, God confronted humans with a Fact, an inescapable truth claim that becomes for them the most important and inescapable question imaginable.  Either God became man or he didn’t. People accept or reject the claim.  It is, as we know, absurd to say that it doesn’t matter.  But this is exactly what Gutting does, with such sleight of hand that he appears sophisticated and intelligent while making those who think truth matters look ignorant and not too bright.  Admirable!
I want to conclude with an admonition.  Departments of philosophy and theology at major Catholic universities play a crucial role in undermining the faith.  So many intelligent young people come to professors like Gutting as faithful Catholics and lose their faith in just a few years under their skillful instruction.  That parents spend tens of thousands of dollars on the ruin of their children’s souls is an added bonus.
But there are challenges and we must maintain our vigilance.  We have had two strong popes in a row determined to stop the rot we are trying to spread.  Sadly, there is a new spirit of orthodoxy and enthusiasm among the young and the newer priests and religious.  Old dissident orders and seminaries are dying out or being closed down.  How to reverse these damaging trends?
First, it is necessary to criticize the Church and the bishops publicly whenever they come into conflict with the state.  Fortunately, you can count on the mainstream media to turn to our people as if they had equal authority to speak for Catholics.  People like our dear professor must always be on hand to explain that the Church no longer teaches what she teaches.
But now many seminaries and religious orders are again admitting young men and women who are orthodox and devout.  The work of keeping or driving them out as “rigid” is faltering.  Pious, good men are once again becoming priests and joyful, holy women are joining new orders, all wearing their clerical clothes and habits openly with pride.
That is very bad and you must see that this sort of thing does not happen in the prestigious Catholic universities you oversee.  You must make sure that orthodox, faithful Catholics are never hired as faculty in philosophy and theology departments and that students of that kind are given as hard a time as possible.  They must come to see the error of their ways or suffer the consequences of their obduracy.  Your people have only a few years to do their work with these impressionable young people.  They know not to teach the self-refuting claim that all truth is relative but don’t forget Gutting’s excellent alternative - it may be objective but what that truth is and who has authority to decide is just a matter of opinion. 
Remind our collaborators in the elite Catholic faculties of our slogan.  In religion you can say anything you like as long as you don’t claim that it’s true.  The only heresy is orthodoxy.  Drum this into students and the battle is half won.
Your affectionate uncle,

Fr. Barron - Additional Commentary on The Hunger Games

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ave Maria Celebrates its Feast Day


When the town of Ave Maria was being planned, the layout of the Ave Maria town center was oriented so that the azimuth of sunrise -- the point at which the sun breaks the horizon -- would be directly behind the Ave Maria Oratory on March 25, when the Solemnity of the Annunciation is normally observed. 

Yesterday we celebrated that feast with a beautiful Annunciation Mass and Eucharistic procession at which our bishop Frank Dewane presided.

Afterward students danced joyfully to the Irish music of a visiting band from DC.  The open air concert concluded with a quiet moment as the sound system died, the audience moved in close, and the two fiddlers played Schubert's Ave Maria.  The audience sang along quietly.  Not only did the students know the Latin words, but they knew what Schubert had done with them and could sing them to his music.  An impressive and beautiful moment.  Enough to make an old man cry!

Europe battles hate crimes against Christians

Béatrice Stevenson | Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Vilification, violence and discrimination are still a reality in the 21st century.

What was the most vilified religion in Scotland in 2010-2011? Not Islam – only 2.1 percent of religious hate crimes were directed against Muslims. Not Judaism – only 2.3 percent were directed against Jews. According to a report by the Scottish government, 95 percent of all religious hate crimes were directed against Christians.

"These statistics show the shameful reality of religious hate crime in Scotland,” the Minister for Community Safety, Roseanna Cunningham, declared last year. “Like racism, this kind of behaviour simply shouldn't be happening in a modern Scotland but sadly, it seems there are still those who think hatred on the basis of religion is acceptable.”

Christians are also the targets of most religious hate crimes in France. A report released last year showed that 84 percent of cases of religious vandalism had targeted Christian sites in 2010 – an increase of 96 percent in two years. Two hundred and fourteen cemeteries were vandalized, along with 272 chapels, 26 war memorials and 10 crosses.

Christian monuments are not the only targets. Earlier this month the hacker group Anonymous crashed the Vatican website, leaving a message: “Anonymous decided today to besiege your site in response to the doctrine, to the liturgies, to the absurd and anachronistic concepts that your for-profit organization spreads around the world."

The Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians, an Austrian NGO, documents the growing problem of Christian persecution in Europe in a recently-released annual report.

According to its director, Dr Gudrun Kugler, all Christian denominations in Europe face “a broad phenomena of intolerance and discrimination caused by those who reject and disrespect Christianity as a whole: radical lobbies which have gone overboard, seeking to limit the practice of the Christian religion and with it fundamental rights and freedoms.”

Is she over-dramatising the issue? Dr Kugler responds that many religious leaders and politicians in Europe have been hitting the alarm bell.

Last year Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, a senior Russian Orthodox prelate with a PhD from Oxford, warned that there is a “basic danger of attempting to use religious diversity as an excuse to exclude signs of Christian civilization from the public and political realities of the continent, as though this would make our continent friendlier towards non-Christians.”

And a Muslim government minister in the UK, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, admitted that Christianity was under siege by militant secularism in a landmark speech earlier this year.

“I see it in United Kingdom and I see it in Europe: spirituality suppressed; divinity downgraded… at its core and in its instincts [militant secularism] is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity and failing to understand the relationship between religious loyalty and loyalty to the state.”

Dr Kugler admits that the hardships faced by European Christians are minor compared to the daily threats of murder, beating, imprisonment and torture in countries like Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. But, she says, “History teaches to address injustices before they become a slippery slope towards even greater injustices.”

Dr Kugler says that the growing intolerance and discrimination take several forms.

Human rights violations and discrimination. Christian are being denied the right to educate their children when there is a conflict between the parents’ convictions and state required sex education. The Catholic Church had to shut down adoption agencies in the UK because they were being forced to accept same-sex couples as adoptive parents.

Workplace discrimination. French pharmacists are required to sell the “morning after” pill which causes an early abortion. Midwives and nurses in Scotland must oversee abortions. Workers in the UK are threatened with dismissal for wearing crosses.

Marginalization and negative stereotyping. The media is constantly projecting hostile images of Christians and Christian values. The Norwegian killer Andres Breivik was instantaneously and wrongly called a “Christian fundamentalist” even though he had no connections with any mainstream Christian churches. Last July the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe even passed a resolution to “encourage the media not to spread prejudices against Christians and to combat negative stereotyping”.

Hate crimes. Violence against Christian sites and clerics is becoming more common. Churches, shrines and cemeteries are often torched or desecrated. “It is indisputable that hate crimes against Christians occur in the OSCE region,” Janez Lenarčič, of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, told a conference in Rome last year. “Such attacks instil fear, not just in the individuals they target directly, but also in the wider community, particularly where the Christian community in question belongs to a minority.”

But if most European countries are at least nominally Christian, isn’t it ridiculous to talk about a vilified minority? Wrong, says Dr Kugler. It is not nominal Christians who are getting the sharp end of the stick, but people who take the precepts of Christianity seriously. And these are a minority.

“South African blacks were not a minority when they suffered from apartheid. Also women always constituted a majority in history. Rocco Buttiglione was not accepted as an EU commissioner due to his adherence to Christianity, the majority faith. It is true that intolerance and discrimination more often affect minorities. More essential than numbers is power: who sets the tone, who is listened to, and who creates the agenda. Every day Europe’s majority faith is being treated disrespectfully; its faithful are faced with hostility and cultural animosity; and its free exercise is confronted with unjust limitations.”

Amazingly, statistics on “Christianophobia” are sketchy, a failure which Dr Kugler’s group is trying to set right. It acts as a clearinghouse, logging incidents of discrimination and intolerance which have been reported in the media.

As she points out, people need to know these grim stories to ensure that history does not repeat itself. In 2010, graffiti at the University of Barcelona sparked a minor controversy in Spain. “Los cristianos son como ratas. Apunta bien,” it said. “Christians are like rats. Shoot straight.” This happened in a country where thousands of Christians were shot like rats in the Spanish Civil War just because they went to Mass. Europe cannot afford to let this happen ever again.

Béatrice Stevenson is a French history student and research assistant for The Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians.

Retrieved March 27, 2012 from MercatorNet.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Fr. Robert Barron discusses The Hunger Games

Caravaggio on the Run

Caravaggio on the Run in Malta
Cornelius Edmund Sullivan

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist in the cathedral in Malta is the only painting that Caravaggio ever signed. He signed it in the Baptist’s blood on the pavement. A woman looks on and clasps her own head with two hands in horror and Salome holds the platter that the executioner points to, the basin for Saint John’s head.

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, Oratory of St John’s Co-Cathedral , Valletta

He signed not “Caravaggio”, what he was called after his own town, but “Fr (Brother) Michelangelo“, his Knight of Malta name with crimson and cadmium red gushing from John’s neck.

This painting can tell us more about the tortured psyche of the great painter, brawler, murderer, and fugitive than any other painting. Events in Malta turned out to be a microcosm of his whole life. First he had acceptance, then more than acceptance, acclaim and notoriety. And then it all ended in violence, imprisonment, escape, and fugitive status again.

Caravaggio was so well known and respected that the pope had allowed him to become a knight and it was likely that he would eventually be pardoned for the murder in Rome and could return to the city triumphantly as a knight. They loved his painting of the Baptist and there was to be a festive dedication of it in the Cathedral. Then, again he drew his sword. What went wrong?   

He always had a hard time with daily life if he was not painting, what he was born to do. He jumped into the fight involving some knights to protect a friend. He probably thought it was no big deal. He didn’t kill anyone and it wasn’t anything that would not happen on any Saturday night in Campo Marzio in Rome. Caravaggio was arrested along with the other knights. Then he escaped.

The stock, easy answer to the question of why the great painter was always involved with criminal acts of violence, is that he had a predisposition for it and that he became easily insulted. Like a tragic Greek hero his fatal flaw  would bring him down. But did he sense that centuries later his painting in Malta would be studied and written about, that people would travel to see it? In his life time lesser artists continued to get the good commissions while his paintings were rejected?

My eyes tell me that whether he paints executioners or saints, his love for them as human beings shows. This is one of the reasons he is a great artist and his art has universal recognition and appreciation.

In the prison without his sword, his nightmares returned again, the ones about the bounty hunters taking his head for the reward. He could not stay locked up, they would find him. The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist is a painting of his own worst nightmare. It is the most brilliant case of artistic sublimation, turning his dreadful dream into a biblical tale, and being paid to paint it.

After the homicide in Rome in 1606 he went into exile. He kept moving driven by a justifiable paranoia. As they say, if you are paranoid, it does not mean that they are not after you. At the same time he was aided, hidden, protected, and used by Italian aristocratic families that more than ever prized his great painting ability. So, despite his internal turmoil he continued to have patronage and was able to continue to make major important paintings, and his acclaim continued to grow. He was protected first outside of Rome in the Alban Hills, and then in Naples, and in Malta.

In Malta the Grand Master wanted him to become like a court painter. His portrait of the Master is in the Musee de Louvre. The Grand Knight decided to make Caravaggio a Knight so that he could not leave the island. He would become a fugitive artist captive. Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt sent a hypothetical query to Pope Paul V Borghese. What if a man (unnamed) had committed a homicide in Rome in a brawl, could he, possessing special skills and character, still become a Knight of Malta? The pope knew it was Caravaggio and his response was quick and positive, yes. This could be seen as a prelude to his full pardon to be able to return to Rome, which indeed, did come from Pope Paul V in 1610.

Alof de Wignacourt, Musee de Louvre

From Caravaggio, Art, Knighthood, and Malta, by Keith Sciberras: “Less than two years after murdering Ranunccio Tomasoni, some eight months after he left Naples, a new chapter in his life was to begin. …the concessions made by Paul V represented a major step towards pardon.” -1.

In front of his painting of The Beheading Saint John the Baptist in the sanctuary of the Oratory of the Cathedral at Valletta, the paint not long dry, Caravaggio would be defrocked, de-knighted, in a solemn ceremony, with ritualistic calls of his name four times. They should have known that he was not there, because his offense was not being there. The unforgivable crime was not that he was in a brawl and locked up, but that he had escaped from the inescapable Alcatraz of Malta, the prison Fort St’Angelo, using a rope, and then he fled the city of rock. It has been suggested by historians that he must have had political help in his escape. I am not surprised by any physical or creative feat of this extraordinary man. He did win his sword fights and he was a professional fugitive with excellent powers of observation and his paintings required exceptional physical mastery.

Saint Jerome WritingMuseum of Saint John’s, Valetta

But after his escape…"the Grand Master wanted fugitives back in Malta… and Bellori, (Caravaggio’s biographer), himself records that Caravaggio feared the Knights were after him.” -2  I mention this not to imply that the Knights were responsible for his later death but rather because I am always interested in how Caravaggio thinks.

Many consider The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist to be Caravaggio’s best painting. I think it is The Calling of Saint Matthew, the master’s first great painting and the painting that changed the history of painting and formed a new way to make religious art.

Biographer Helen Langdon says about the Beheading of the Baptist, 
It is an ignoble scene. John does not kneel as is customary... but is brought low on the ground and his body is trussed like that of a sacrificial lamb his hands tied behind his back his red cloak suggesting blood and a rope snaking across the floor... 
...Its ignobility must have startled young knights who received instruction before it and who aspired to the glorious feats of Christian chivalry yet it is a meditation on the reality of martyrdom...-3.

Art Historian Howard Hibbard on the signature, “The signature is proof of Caravaggio's pride in attaining the honor he had sought so assiduously: its place and its nature are almost pathological and they seem to confirm our suspicions of Caravaggio's identification with the Baptist and of his unusual preoccupation with beheading.” -4.

The executioner is poised with blade for his final effort in a scene stilled, stopped in time. The Caravaggio red in the burnt umber dungeon is John’s cloak and also becomes the spilled, sacred stain. The bones of the prophet’s face in the dark show John’s character forged by wilderness fasting and show his resolve in martyrdom.

The painter’s defrocking carried the same irreversibility as a beheading, no going back. 

He was pardoned to return to Rome but did not make it and died mysteriously in July of 1610. In four years of exile he made as many enemies throughout the Mediterranean as he painted masterpieces. In Naples, before Malta, he was ambushed and attacked, disfigured, and nearly killed.  Was it a fever that caused his death on the beach or was it vengeance or justice that caught up with him at age thirty-eight?

He is an artist who knew the highs and lows of life. He painted the Baptist in his low death, in a place familiar to the artist, the lowest, darkest cell. The one to come that John announced died upright with arms raised to the sky and breathed his last, giving up freely what was his own, what was not given to Him. Caravaggio painted Saint John the Baptist at his own final baptism, not a baptism by water, a baptism by blood.

The prison Fort St’AngeloValettaMalta
1. Caravaggio, Art, Knighthood, and Malta, Keith Sciberras, 2006, p.30
2. Sciberras, p.34
3.  Caravaggio, Helen Langdon, 1998,p.357.
4. Caravaggio,  Howard Hibbard, 1983,p.238.
(c) 2012 by Cornelius Edmund Sullivan,

Friday, March 23, 2012

On the reasonableness of slippery slope arguments

Zac Alstin | Thursday, 22 March 2012

Who’s afraid of the slippery slope?

"Slippery slope" arguments for issues like euthanasia or same-sex marriage are often labelled logical fallacies. Is this true?

In January this year, would-be Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum met with a hostile response from college students in New Hampshire when he raised the issue of polygamy in response to a question about same-sex marriage:

“If it makes three people happy to get married, based on what you just said, what makes that wrong?”

His questioner replied with the calmly delivered and radically incisive analysis that is typical of the present debate:

“That’s irrelevant. In my opinion, yeah, go for it. But what I’m asking you is how do you justify your beliefs based on these high morals you have about all men being created equal?”

I remember being taught in a class on bioethics that many of the arguments used against euthanasia, drug legalisation and other highly controversial policies were invalid because they relied on metaphors. You’ve heard them all before: ‘the thin end of the wedge’, ‘a slippery slope’, ‘foot in the door’, ‘the camel’s nose’, ‘open the doors’, ‘open the floodgates’, and so on. It is typical, for example, to find opponents of euthanasia arguing that even the most restrictive and careful euthanasia regime will eventually lead to the more expansive and unrestricted practice of euthanasia. Such arguments flourish because they are easy to mount yet difficult to rebut, and because – in a society heavily influenced by consequentialist arguments – they appeal to fearsome and dangerous consequences.

Against such an argument the euthanasia advocate has limited options. He can: (a) put his hand on your shoulder, look you in the eye and say “Trust me. We won’t let that happen”; (b) repeatedly emphasise the word ‘safeguards’ at every available opportunity; or (c) launch a counter-attack with a wearied and dismissive critique of ‘slippery slope’ arguments.

Option (c) has proven quite successful. Challenging the very notion of a ‘slippery slope’ is a potent move because it forces opponents to elaborate their argument beyond the simple and appealing metaphor. ‘Slippery slope’ arguments are extremely difficult to defend without relying on metaphoric images of a gradual descent into an unwanted moral chaos. “I said ‘open the floodgates’! How much clearer could I be?”    

Whether the issue be euthanasia or same-sex marriage, a slippery slope argument that ‘X will lead to Y’ can always be countered by the simple particular assertion: ‘X is the issue. Nobody is talking about Y; why, oh why, won’t you stop talking about Y?’

So when conservative Melbourne columnist Andrew Bolt raised the spectre of polygamy in the context of the same-sex marriage debate late last year, he was a little self-conscious in his invocation of the dreaded metaphor. Bolt’s ‘Gay marriage push is a slippery slope’ carried the defensive admission that:

‘Yes, this is the slippery slope argument that social "reformers" sneer at, arguing we're smart enough to know how much is enough when we start smashing.’

Bolt’s article ‘opened the door’, so to speak, to a swift rebuttal from a rival publication under the very efficient heading ‘Do I really need to explain to Andrew Bolt why the “slippery slope” is a logical fallacy?’ Despite describing the contents of Bolt’s article as “some hilarious dumb”, the author conceded:

‘I doubt Andrew Bolt is really stupid enough not to understand why the “slippery slope” is a fallacy. Which begs the question, then – why does he run an argument he knows is misleading and false? What is he trying to do?’

This exchange provides a great insight into a collision of worldviews. For the supporter of same-sex marriage, a ‘slippery slope’ argument invoking polygamy is a complete non-sequitur, like some kind of bizarre word-association game: ‘you say tomato, I say prosthesis.’ Indeed, given the philosophical consensus that ‘slippery slope’ arguments are not, in fact, logical arguments at all, the supporter of same-sex marriage might be forgiven for thinking that polygamy is being invoked purely and cynically to scare the public.

More than a scare tactic

The problem with this point of view is that it fails to appreciate the many and varied ways in which ‘slippery slope’ scenarios (as opposed to arguments) actually function. Indeed, an excellent paper by UCLA Professor of Law Eugene Volokh from 2003 undertook the noteworthy task of demonstrating actual mechanisms that underlie the various ‘slippery slope’ metaphors.
Volokh discussed mechanisms such as ‘cost-lowering’, ‘attitude-altering’, ‘small change tolerance’, ‘political power’ and ‘political momentum’ as examples of mechanisms whereby X can in fact lead to Y.

One intriguing example is that gun registration – itself a seemingly innocuous practice – could ‘lower the cost’ for government control and restriction of gun ownership. A similar example from the world of bioethics is that IVF technology ‘lowered the cost’ for research on human embryos and human cloning. Not only did IVF ‘lower the cost’, it was also ‘attitude-altering’ in terms of public, scientific, and legislative willingness to accept the concept of human life being created (and eventually destroyed) in laboratories.

In ethical issues the journey from X to Y takes place primarily on the level of principle, and for most of us these principles are hidden away behind layers of passion, emotion, culture, and social mores.

Take, for example, the issue of slavery: very few people are in favour of slavery these days. Yet we know for a fact that this was not always the case. Transport the average Anglo-Saxon of anti-slavery orientation back in time by about 200 years and we might find to our shock and horror that his enlightened moral views are out of step with mainstream society.

Take the average anti-whaling Aussie back less than a hundred years and his views on the subject will likewise clash with that relatively recent social context. These obvious moral discrepancies should elicit doubt from those of us who presume that our moral values are self-evidently true. If we cannot say why slavery is wrong, or why whaling is morally objectionable in principle, then we might merely be parroting the popular values of our present social context.

Which is more strange: that people once accepted slavery, or that they now reject slavery as though it were unthinkable to do otherwise? This is lesson one: human beings can adapt and acclimatise to even the most morally depraved acts and situations, to the point where they are considered normal. What this means is that even if we decide to adopt something novel and potentially fearsome such as euthanasia with a host of restrictions and safeguards, the novelty and the fear will soon dissipate and wear off. In time, restricted euthanasia (perhaps for cases of terminal illness only) would be accepted as normal, perhaps a ‘necessary evil’. We cannot help but become acclimatised to it.

This brings us to lesson two: human beings are rational creatures. Try rewarding children or employees on an entirely arbitrary basis, and you will immediately discover the awesome logical power of the human mind.

I dare you to arbitrarily let one employee take the afternoon off, and then endure the dark scowls and conspiratorial muttering of all the others. What they want are reasons: ‘why did he get the afternoon off?’ ‘why can’t I go too?’ . We all know that notwithstanding evidence of sheer insanity or meaningless frivolity, human beings act according to reasons.

Acting reasonably

This dependence upon reasons is a function of that superordinate thing we appropriately name reason. Our actions have their reasons because we act according to reason itself. They may not be good reasons, consistent reasons, or even enduring reasons; but reasons we have, and we thus, from the same etymology, distinguish ourselves by the term rational beings.

With regard to euthanasia: it would only be a matter of time before someone who did not meet the narrow requirements of a limited euthanasia regime demandedreasons for this discrimination. The onus would then be upon society and its lawmakers to prove the consistency and merit of their reasons for allowing euthanasia in one set of circumstances but not in another, perhaps very similar, set of circumstances. What is it about terminal illness that warrants euthanasia where severe disability or chronic illness do not? How can we arbitrarily allow ‘relief’ for one set of people in suffering, while denying ‘relief’ to those whose suffering might actually be worse?

We have seen this exact progression unfolding through the legal status of abortion in some jurisdictions. In countries such as Britain and Australia, abortion was originally unlawful in all circumstances. Exceptions were made in case law, originally for the sake of ‘preserving the life of the mother’. This exception was subsequently interpreted in Australia to mean ‘to preserve the woman from a serious danger to her life or her physical or mental health”’ This judgement was in turn expanded to include ‘any economic, social or medical ground or reason’ to avoid the aforementioned dangers.

Finally, an additional judgement extended the range of these considerations and danger to include not just the duration of the pregnancy but any point in the mother’s life. Not to be outdone, in 2008 one Australian state parliament removed abortion prior to 24 weeks from the criminal code entirely. There is a logic to this expanding circle of legal exceptions; and at each stage the compelling reasons for change are made more plausible by the normalisation, the acclimatisation that has gone before it. 

These two features of humanity – our reason and our capacity for acclimatisation – are the core elements of what we generally consider a ‘slippery slope’ scenario. Reason alone is not enough. If same-sex marriage is permitted in this country, we will not be compelled by force of reason alone to consent to polygamous marriages. To this extent the slippery slope sceptics are in the right.

But if we look at the process by which same-sex marriage has gone from self-evidently nonsensical to a seemingly ‘inevitable’ social change, we can see that this progress has been achieved through a formidable process of social acclimatisation and normalisation. If anyone had suggested 50 or so years ago that the modern gay rights movement would lead to same-sex marriage, he would have been accused of a cheap and convenient ‘slippery slope’ argument. Yet here we are today, on the verge of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples because (1) we now consider homosexuality to be normal, and (2) we struggle to find any reasons to deny marriage to same-sex couples. When people claim that same-sex marriage will ‘lead to’ polygamous marriage, they are pre-empting the application of these same two faculties – acclimatisation and reason – to the issue of polygamy.

We know for a fact that there are people who wish to practice polygamy with legal recognition. We know that given sufficient time to build up public sympathy and awareness, their cause can be normalised. If we now demonstrate our willingness to redefine marriage for the sake of same-sex couples, what reasons will we offer for denying similar privileges to polygamous groups in the future?

There is nothing, in principle, to stop us from arbitrarily allowing same-sex marriage but rejecting polygamy. There is nothing to stop us from arbitrarily restricting euthanasia to very narrow circumstances, if we so choose. The problem is that as our sense of ‘normal’ shifts over time, we may find ourselves wanting to shift those arbitrary boundaries. The only solution is to calibrate our sense of ‘normal’ by non-arbitrary principles, reasons that will not shift.

Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia. 

First published at MercatorNet.  Retrieved March 23, 2012.