Tuesday, May 19, 2020

New Normal: Subjectifying the Sunday Obligation

Anybody tired of the phrase "New Normal" yet?

As part of the New Normal within the Church, I predict we are going to see the total subjectivization of the Sunday obligation. Here's why:

At the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, bishops worldwide dispensed Catholics from keeping the Sunday obligation. This was necessary as the public celebration of the Mass had been suspended in most places, making it impossible for Catholics to keep the obligation anyway.

Catholics who complained about shuttered churches and inability to access the sacraments were taunted and called selfish—in some cases, even by priestsand told to "just" make a spiritual communion and watch Mass on a live stream. In many dioceses, the tone of these bishops' announcements of these directives lacked any empathy for the immense sadness of the faithful at being deprived of the sacraments. Instead they read like bureaucratic memoranda. "Just" watch a live stream. There was a lot of disdain hidden in that "just."

Anyhow, the result of this that tacit inference that the physical attendance at Mass isn't what ultimately matters most; what matters is that "our hearts are in it" and that we at least desire to be at Mass. It also established the premise that the Sunday obligation can be done away with if there is a grave enough threat to health. Given the circumstances, these inferences were certainly not false, but even good things can be twisted.

The next step came when bishops started announcing the tentative re-opening of public Masses. I attended my first Mass in months today, deo gratias. But this is only an interim sort of stage. The bishops understand that the pandemic is not over and that certain populations are still very vulnerable. For this reason, though Masses are being restored, Sunday attendance is remaining optional in most places for the time being. In my diocese, it is still optional until July. Persons who are at risk or don't feel safe can still opt to stay home. Essentially, the bishops at first said, "We don't think this is safe, so we are telling you not to come." Now they are saying, "We think this is pretty much safe, but if you don't feel safe, you're still free not to come." The bishops are asking us to consult our own informed conscience about whether we feel it is safe to return. Sunday attendance is being tossed into the realm of conscience.

Priests are tripping over themselves to assure Catholics it is okay not to return to Mass right now if they don't feel like it. For example:

And again, this isn't necessarily wrong. If the Sunday obligation is still suspended, and the pandemic is still going on, and one feels they might be vulnerable, there's nothing incorrect about this.

However, I do want to draw attention to the way the attendance of Mass is getting shoved into the realm of the subjective, the realm of conscience. The reason is because the bishops consider the current safety of public Masses to be up in the air. It's safe enough to let people return in some sense, but not safe enough that we can go back to normal. Hence we give certain folks leeway to decide to stay away.

Thus, since there is some question about the objective safety of large public Masses, this is where we remain today.

Now, let me predict where we will end up and how this will turn into a gargantuan debacle:

Eventually, the bishops will decide that it is safe enough to reinstate the Sunday obligation. Maybe this summer. Maybe later. But eventually the Sunday obligation will be restored. But after months of non-stop Covid-19 hysteria and media fear-mongering, many Catholics will still "not feel safe" returning to Mass. Indeed, a recent survey found that 1 in 6 Americans will never feel safe going out in public ever again.

This will inevitably result in a large swath of formerly practicing Catholics who "don't feel safe" returning to Mass despite the fact that the bishops declare it safe to return and reinstate the Sunday obligation. These people will be propped up by an army of useful idiots who inundate social media with virtue signaling memes and moralizing soliloquies about how whether to attend Mass is a matter of "conscience" and that we shouldn't be "Mass-shaming" Catholics who don't "feel safe" returning to Sunday Mass. There will be a lot of half-baked cringey attempts to offer theological justifications for this—sometimes centering on the primacy of conscience, sometimes appealing to a slip-shod sacramental theology they probably picked up from reading Patheos. There will be more accusations of Pharisaism towards Catholics who find this objectionable, and your progressive Catholic friends on Facebook will become even more belligerent and annoying. There will be strained, pathetic arguments trying to convince you that watching Mass on a screen is not substantially different than assisting in person.

The bishops will waffle on clarifying the matter and issue contradictory statements, essentially saying that while the Sunday obligation remains in place, one must always follow the dictates of ones conscience. The statements will leave enough ambiguity for persons on both sides of the dispute to argue from. Meanwhile goofy parish priests will take to Twitter to confuse the faithful by affirming the right of any Catholic to abstain from physical attendance at Sunday Mass if they don't "feel safe."

Essentially, the Sunday obligation will transform entirely into a subjective matter of conscience.

But as for us, here's the thing we ought to remember when these absurd arguments cross our screens: whether something is "safe" is not a matter of conscience or feeling. If I have a room that has a clearly lit exit sign, a working fire suppression system, and multiple easily accessible means of egress, then (from a fire safety standpoint), that room is safe. It doesn't matter whether you "feel" safe from fires in the room.  The room is safe. It doesn't mean it couldn't conceivably catch on fire or that something totally unexpected won't happen—after all, life involves risk. But it does mean that by all objectively measurable criteria, the room is safe. It's not a matter of one's opinions or feelings.

The same goes for the restoration of the liturgy. The reason the bishops are currently allowing us to defer to our conscience about Mass attendance is because there is some degree of uncertainty over how safe the situation is objectively. But whenever the bishops do decide to restore the Sunday obligation, it will be because they assess that the situation is now objectively safe. Whether or not someone "feels safe" is not relevant. Safety is an objective state of affairs, and if the bishops restore the Sunday obligation it will mean that state of affairs is such that there is no reason for Catholics to abstain from attendance any longer. Catholics will have no licit reason to refuse attendance at Sunday Masses, regardless of how they feel.

But by that time it will be too late. Catholic social media hacks will flood us with an avalanche of sewage from all quarters that essentially reframes the Sunday obligation as entirely a matter of conscience in the age of corona. And good luck ever getting that horse back in the stable once it's out.

Welcome to the New Normal.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

It's not "Crucifying Your Neighbor" to Attend Mass

All around the country bishops are beginning to restore the celebration of public Masses. In response to this, Simcha has published an article on the question of attending these Masses while the pandemic is still going on. Her essential point is that voluntarily abstaining from Mass and Eucharist right now is an act of love for one's neighbor. Conversely, choosing to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist right now is not an act of love but an act of selfishness akin to crucifying our neighbor. It's not too long; if you want to read it you can do so here.

While I understand her concern about the vulnerable, I have some serious reservations about her line of argumentation.

First, Simcha is right that attending Mass right now involves risk. However, it always did. I have five kids and they're all germ factories. They are constantly at risk of spreading their germs to the sick and the elderly at Mass despite our precautions. Every time we get in the car to drive to Mass or elsewhere we are endangering other people's lives. Is that antithetical to love? Well, it can be, depending on the level of recklessness involved in the act of driving, but the mere act of assuming risk isn't reckless. The question that we must discern is not "does this involve risk?" but "how necessary is this risk?" "how much risk is involved?" and "what am I doing to mitigate that risk?" If you run red lights or don't wash your hands (that is, if you don't take precautions) then you've been negligent in your duty to protect those around you. You've been reckless. We have a responsibility to our neighbors not to take unnecessary risks and to mitigate risks when they are present, but we can never act completely without risk, especially in activities that are so essential to our well-being as attending Mass.

Second, like many, I was disappointed when Masses were suspended. We've gone two months without Mass and certain parts of the country may go much longer still. At the time, we were supposed to trustingly accept that our bishops were taking the necessary precautions that the situation at the time demanded. If we were supposed to trust our pastors then, are we not supposed to trust them now that those same bishops are making the decision to gradually reopen access to the Mass with precautions? Everyone should make their own discernment, but that should also involve guidance from our spiritual leaders. Simcha suggests that going to Mass right now is akin to being "willing to kill" for Jesus. It seems absurd to me to frame going to Mass as being "willing to kill for [Jesus]" when our bishops are the ones encouraging the restoration of public Masses. Essentially, you can't wag your finger and say "Trust our bishops!" when they shut Masses down but now say we should not trust them when they decide to open up.

Elsewhere, Simcha states "Take care that, when you say 'I would die for Jesus,' you don’t really mean, 'I’m willing to kill for him.'" However, if going to Mass constitutes killing people, then so does going to the grocery store to buy the food necessary to keep your family alive. I have yet to hear anyone make the argument that by going to the grocery store that we are killing people or that killing people for physical nourishment is justified (hint, it's not). Is killing people to go to Mass permissible? That's an absurd hypothetical with no basis in reality. Better questions are "How essential is Mass?", "What threshold of risk is acceptable when determining to suspend/resume Mass?" and "What precautions should we take when resuming Mass?" Our pastors have been grappling with these questions for months and, again, I want to assume that they are making the best decisions they can with the information available to them when they choose to reopen the Mass. But the essential point is that Mass is not a special circumstance; if it's "killing people" to go to Mass then it is also "killing people" to go get groceries or any of the other things we are still allowed and required to do. 

Finally, Simcha seems to characterize Mass attendance as something that primarily benefits the individual but with social consequences: something that doesn't just affect only ourselves but everyone else as well. That last part is absolutely true. However, we have to be careful not to apply principles capriciously. Making the personal decision to attend Mass certainly affects those around me, but so does the decision not to attend. I have a responsibility not just to society generally but to my family specifically. The spiritual development of my children is probably the single greatest responsibility in my life. They don't really understand why we don't go to church anymore and, despite my best efforts to substitute the Mass, they don't really view it as important anymore. When discerning to attend Mass or not I have to take into account not only my own desires versus the risk to others but also the needs of my family. If I choose to wait longer than what my bishop says is necessary then I must be sure that this does not constitute a reckless neglect of my family's needs and my responsibility to them.

Two concluding thoughts: Simcha's use of sex as a corollary to attending Mass is kind of weird. I get that her point is to say "Love waits", but there is a world of difference between wanting to partake in a physical act we are biologically disposed to and the desire to attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. 

Also, it's interesting to reflect on all the times in history when the mere attendance at Mass put the entire congregation at risk. Ancient Rome during the persecutions. Elizabethan England. Revolutionary France. Mexico during the 1920s. Communist China. In any one of those historical circumstances, all it would have taken was one single Catholic to be captured and talk under duress to expose the entire congregation—as well as their priest—to imprisonment, torture, exile, or death. Any one parishioner assumed a very real risk, not that their fellow parishioners would get an illness from which 98% of people recover from, but that the entire congregation could be destroyed. And yet they all still came and were encouraged to do so by their pastors, who viewed the spiritual treasures of the Mass as justifying the profound risks.

Now, I certainly am in no position to tell anybody how much risk they need to be willing to take—for every Catholic who attended Mass during the Mexican persecution, there were probably five who stayed home for their safety, and that's their call. But, those who do choose to assume the risk should not be called selfish and accused of "crucifying their neighbor" because they are simply attending a religious service that their own bishops have told them it is now allowable to attend.

I also want to thank my friend Christian, whose thoughts formed the genesis of this post.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Kevin Symonds' Review of Infiltration

Last year I published a guest post by Kevin Tierney on the factual and methodological problems with Dr. Taylor Marshall's book, Infiltration

This week I came across another great review of the book by Mr. Kevin Symonds. The review is quite extensive and highlights some of the same issues as our original post. It is broken up into two segments, which you can view below on Kevin Symonds' website:

The real gem in these reviews, however, is the 12 page PDF linked at the end of the second review that catalogs a list of the factual and scholarly problems with the book. If you want to skip right to this, I have linked it here. I highly recommend it.

I want to stress that my posting of these reviews is not indicative of any personal animus against Dr. Marshall. He's done some excellent work on behalf of Traditionalism. But we Traditionalists ought to be critically-minded about our own arguments. Not everything that comes from our own "side" needs to be defended and propped up. "Iron sharpens iron", as the Scriptures say (Prov. 27:17), and we should not shy from critical examination of the works produced by other traditionalists. In the 13 years I have been blogging here, my readers have been very astute and persistent at critiquing my own blathering mind-dumps, for which I am immensely grateful.

Please check out the work of Mr. Symonds. It brings up some excellent points for consideration.

Friday, May 01, 2020

"Utilitarianism": The Latest Word Being Used Incorrectly

In the debate among Catholics about the damage of long-term economic shut down versus the risk posed by COVID-19, one will often hear the word "Utilitarianism" being thrown around. The subject inevitably arises whenever people begin questioning whether the deaths caused by coronavirus are "worth" the total destruction of the economy. As soon as someone starts making a calculus about whether human lives are "worth" some other sacrifice, the party in favor of keeping the economy closed will often retort that such calculations are "Utilitarian" and contrary to an authentic Catholic ethos.

It is not my intention here to discuss the pros or cons of opening the economy back up. However, I do want to address the way the term Utilitarianism is being bandied about in these circumstances and educate people on why it is being used incorrectly.

Many Catholics are under a mistaken notion that a moral act is "Utilitarian" if it tries to calculate the worth of human lives in relation to some other good. For example, saying, "It's not worth destroying 22 million jobs for the sake of a virus that 99% of people recover from." We can see in this statement that there is a kind of calculus happening—there is acknowledgment that 1% of the persons infected will regrettably die, but that this is not "worth" destroying the livelihoods of 22 million people. And therefore this argument is Utilitarian because such a calculus is being made and that such an argument is ipso facto wrong for a Catholic to make, or so it is said.

This, however, is an incorrect application of the term "Utilitarian." Utilitarianism does not simply mean that one calculates the weight between two different sorts of human loss. We do that sort of thing all the time, and it is not Utilitarianism. For example:

  • We know that around 38,000 people will die every year from car crashes in the United States. Tragic as this is, society has collectively decided that vehicular travel is a good that is "worth" the deaths that will regrettably result from it.
  • A general is planning an attack. He can attack with a cavalry charge from the flanks, or an infantry assault head on. He calculates the head on assault will likely result in 5,000 casualties among the infantry, but the cavalry attack will result in only 2,000, mainly from the cavalry. He therefore chooses the cavalry assault to minimize the loss of his forces, even though he knows it will probably result in the deaths of 2,000 cavalrymen. The 2,000 dead cavalrymen are "worth" preserving the 5,000 infantry and winning the battle with less loss of life.
  • A man operates a roofing company that employs 30 roofers. He knows statistically that in an average year at least one of his employees will sustain serious injury from falling off of a roof. Nevertheless, he has decided that the good of running his business and employing 30 people is "worth" the trade off of one employee potentially being injured or killed in any given year.

None of these situations are Utilitarian, despite the fact that there is a calculus of "worth" taking place. Rather, these are examples of risk management. Risk management is what happens when people understand that any course of action possesses certain inherent risks. Being unable to totally avoid those dangers, they proceed with a course of action while doing what they can within their power to mitigate the risks associated with it.

We know people will die in crashes and thus we try to mitigate traffic deaths with traffic laws, enforcement, and driving education. The general knows soldiers will die in a battle and so chooses the plan that tactically exposes his soldiers to the least amount of harm. The man with the roofing company knows at some point an employee will get injured and tries to mitigate this by mandating the proper protective gear and regular safety training. All of these are examples of risk management, not Utilitarianism, despite the fact that there is a sort of calculus or "trade off" that is weighed between the sufferings endured by a few versus the good for the greater number.

What would make an act Utilitarian, then? According to John Stuart Mill's theory, Utilitarianism is not so much that the few suffer on behalf of the many, but that their suffering is required to secure the benefit of the many, which can only come about on behalf of the suffering of the few. In true Utilitarianism, there is an intrinsic, causal connection between the suffering of Class A and the good of Class B. It is not merely accepting that a certain course of action will have unavoidable risks. Rather, it is intentionally willing those negative outcomes to Class A as a means of establishing the good of Class B. But in our examples, we can see that this is not what happens at all.

For example, though we know 38,000 will die in car crashes as a result of keeping the roads open, nobody says that these deaths are necessary to keep the roads open. If there is any doubt about this, we can do a simple test. Suppose through some miracle we were able to maintain our travel without a single traffic fatality in a given year. Would people respond with frustration and anger that we didn't get to kill off 38,000 people? Of course not. There would be rejoicing that we had managed to keep road travel open while avoiding any casualties. This demonstrates that the 38,000 annual traffic deaths are not part of a Utilitarian calculus; rather, they are a risk that society is willing to assume as an unintended side-effect of vehicular traffic. Society actually works to mitigate these fatalities because the relation between driving and fatal car crashes is neither necessary nor causal; our ability to drive is not made possible by traffic fatalities. There is no Utilitarian trade-off.

The general's attack is not made possible because 2,000 cavalrymen will probably die. If he could take the enemy position without losing a single man, he would. The presumed loss of life is an unintended consequent of the attack that is tolerated in order to secure the objective of winning the battle. If the owner of the roofing company goes a year without any accidents, he does not wring his hands and say "Ugh...we really needed at least one or two of you to fall off a roof this year to keep our margins up." Of course not. The statistically probable accidents are neither willed nor are they intrinsic to keeping the business open. The business owner would happily do away with roofing accidents altogether and does everything in his power to mitigate this risk.

Similarly, to argue in favor of opening the country back up, even knowing that people may die as a result, is not a Utilitarian trade off. Even if we mitigate the spread of COVID-19, we cannot stop it. It is inevitable that it will spread, and inevitable that people will die from it. It is also inevitable that the continued closure of the economy will have disastrous consequences that will certainly spiral into its own unique health and safety crisis the longer this goes on. It is not Utilitarianism to say that we are willing to accept the potential risk of COVID-19 in order to stave off long term socio-economic collapse. It is no different than a general choosing the course of action that will lead to the lowest amount of casualties. It is an example of risk management, not Utilitarianism.

And we know it is not Utilitarian simply by this fact: COVID-19 deaths are not necessary for the economy to recover. Even though they may accompany a general re-opening, they do not make the re-opening possible. There is no "good ends through evil means" sort of causal occurrence; rather, there is a choice between two options (each of which has its own inherent risks) and the decision to go with the option that seems less destructive in the long run while continually trying to mitigate the unintended consequences.

A further point to consider is this: in Mill's Utilitarianism, Class A not only suffers to establish the good of Class B, but they are morally obligated to do so. This follows as a consequent of the argument that the necessary harm inflicted on minority Class A is justified as a means of securing the good of the majority Class B. Class A not only suffers for the good of Class B, but they are morally obligated to suffer.

Clearly our examples do not fit this mold. Even if we can expect 38,000 traffic fatalities a year as the cost of keeping the roads open, nobody argues that those 38,000 are morally obligated to die for this end. The soldier attacking the hill is under no obligation to become a casualty. No roofer has an obligation to fall off the roof and injure himself, even if it is statistically certain that at some point someone at the roofing company will. And even though we know COVID-19 will continue to wreak havoc even after the economy is opened up, nobody is under any moral obligation to contract the coronavirus. There is no relationship of obligation between Class A and Class B, and without that theoretical morally obligatory duty of Class A to suffer for the good of Class B, we do not have an actual Utilitarian trade-off happening. Again, this entire argument comes down to risk assessment and risk management, which are always dictated by prudence and admit of various different courses of action which may all be morally justifiable.

But that's not acceptable to some. Many Catholics and others do not want to view this through the realm of prudence or risk management. They want to say "YOU ARE MORALLY OBLIGATED TO SUPPORT THE LOCK DOWNS AT ANY COST OR ELSE YOU ARE UTILITARIAN AND YOU WANT PEOPLE TO DIE."

Yes, "the greatest good for the greatest number" was the slogan of classical Utilitarianism, but the nuts and bolts of Utilitarianism are vastly more complex than that slogan alone. We all attempt to maximize the use of our resources to the greatest extent for the greatest good. But that doesn't make something Utilitarian anymore than saying there is secret knowledge available only to the initiates makes something Gnostic. You may agree or disagree with re-opening the economy, but those of you from the militant "Stay Home Stay Safe" crowd should stop accusing your fellow Catholics who disagree with you of Utilitarianism or Consequentialism who merely disagree on a prudential matter.