Aug 12, 2009

Animal Piety

There is often a confluence of events I feel is inadequately explained by random chance. I've had such a week recently. It started on Dennis Prager's Ultimate Issues Hour, when he discussed the insignificance of intention. There is an idea in Judaism related to intention called the “yetzer” or urge. Jews believe we each have a good yetzer and a bad yetzer which exist simultaneously in us at all times. The simple example Prager gave was the cheesecake temptation. The good yetzer tells you not to eat it because it's bad for you while the bad yetzer says – “life is short, eat dessert first.”.

Prager told the story of visiting a friend's father, who was a rabbi, for some personal advice. The rabbi told him, “At my age, I have my bad yetzer pretty much under control. It's my good yetzer which gets me into trouble.” In other words, it doesn't really matter if your intentions are good or bad if the resulting fruit is rotten. You still get judged on the fruit. Therefore, wisdom is the ability to discern what will produce the good fruit, regardless of your intention.

Prager had a show later in the week in which he debunked the cliché, “the ends do not justify the means”. His argument was that about half the time the only way to justify the means is the good ends they produce. He gave the example of using a bazooka to rid a house of cockroaches (unjustified) versus ridding a house of terrorists (justified). And he used the real-world example of the atomic bombing of Japan to end WWII. Dennis took a call from a Catholic woman with a masters in theology arguing that evil means are always unjustified whatever the ends, based on Church teaching of the conditions for sin (evil in nature, knowledge of it, consent to it). She even told Prager that the means of the Polish Catholic woman (Irena), who slept with a married Nazi to save the lives of twelve Jews hidden in the basement, were evil. That is animal – or unholy - piety.

I'm not a scholar of Judaism, so I'm working out my own definition here. If we place human behavior on a spectrum from unholy (animal, primitive, common) to holy (godly, transcendent, set-apart), then animal piety is behavior (or belief) which preserves one's moral virtue at another's expense. I think imposing virtue on others, by force, also falls under animal piety. Examples would be: an unwillingness to kill an intruder to protect one's family from rape and murder; pacifism in the face of evil because war requires killing; redistribution of wealth to the poor by government force rather than voluntary charity; endorsing the noble lie (man made global warming is going to destroy the planet) to force some perceived virtue (going green) on others; the desire (and intent) to prosecute CIA interrogators for pouring water on the faces of murderous terrorists. In these difficult interesting times, the animal is running wild.

Unfortunately, some very prominent Catholics seem to be practicing animal piety. Actually, the most prominent Catholic, Pope Benedict XVI, makes statements which could be construed as promoting it in his latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth). At one point he says, “there is urgent need of a true world political authority...” to address the social justice issues. Let's hope he's referring to the Second Coming of Christ! This section of the encyclical is alarming in its utopianism. But, I suppose if the Church isn't directing our thoughts to an ideal of human relationships, it doesn't have much to say about anything. I'm not trying to bash or defend the pope's writings as I have only read some excerpts and commentary. I am concerned though that utopianism coming from the pope encourages fierce animal piety in others.

Take, for example, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who explains “Without a Doubt, Why Barack Obama Represents American Catholics better than the pope does.” Townsend is a potent agent on behalf of Obama's effort to re-brand the Catholic Church. She seems to be arguing that liberalism is what American Catholics practice, in which case, she is correct. Barack Obama better represents liberals than the pope. She is pleased that the Church supports unions, regulation of capitalist excesses, environmentalism and political activism (one must assume she's not thrilled about activism of the right-to-lifers). But the Church is wrong about women (especially in the clergy), gays, pro-choice Catholics' right to communion and birth control. It's all in the polls “... 54 percent of American Catholics find gay relationships to be morally acceptable, according to a 2009 Gallup poll.” Why, didn't 54% of Catholics vote for Obama in the last election?

Townsend is a typically petulant leftist. You can almost picture her “I want what I want and I want it now!” foot-stomping tantrum. I'm not going to take the space to specifically refute all her talking points. However, to claim that liberals are more pious than the pope, who leads the only institution on earth which proclaims the dignity of the human being from pre-birth (contra contraception, embryonic destruction for stem cell research and abortion) to natural death is the epitome of moral preening. To believe in Ms. Townsend's world view, one must believe that women priests, openly gay relationships with full blessings of the Church and state, full-throated Church support of abortion and Catholics who endorse it, and free love with free contraception and free of consequences would be better for the common good than the Magisterium's considered positions of two millennia. I can think of a few arguments against her, augmented by the facts of world history, but fine. Let's say she's right. Now she must answer why she continues to belong to a religion she finds so unjust. And how her piety doesn't hurt human beings and the uniquely Judeo-Christian social constructs from which she has benefited her entire life.

And then we have Fr. Richard Schiblin. He wrote an article for the Liguorian entitled, “Church Teaching and the Economic Crisis: Where Do We Go From Here?” If you go read it, pack your duct tape. It is an anti-capitalist screed full of false statements and foolishness, such as “Capitalism has been the cause of excessive suffering, injustices, and fratricidal conflicts whose effects still persist.” No, Father Schiblin, capitalism is the system in which “the poor” have cell-phones and flat-screen TVs on which they may watch over 500 satellite channels while choosing not to buy health insurance because they qualify for “free” health care under Medicaid. Their health care is financed by the middle class who have a wine refrigerator as standard equipment under the counter of their newly remodeled kitchens. It is the system which, while not being entirely fair (only Al Gore and a few dozen other elites can afford a private jet), has the most people in human history living comfortably and as close to “liberty and justice for all” as has ever been achieved in the real world. But, never mind. The Obama government, with which I'm pretty certain Father Schiblin is well pleased, will forcibly ensure that no one is able to keep “for his exclusive use what he does not need when others lack necessities.” Well – except for Al Gore. He'll get to keep his jet because he needs it to go warn the world about global warming. Oh, and the system you advocate, Fr. Schiblin? That system is responsible for over 100,000,000 murders in the 20th century alone. Fr. Schiblin isn't just guilty of animal piety – he shows a deeply unattractive ingratitude for the blessings of liberty.

It seems one aspect of animal piety is an unreasoning animal ignorance of that which is plainly true. Capitalism, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is the worst system of economics around – apart from all the others. Perhaps Father Schiblin has a whole new system in mind. However, what he advocates sounds a whole lot like the old collectivism invented by Marx and applied by godless butchers like Stalin, Mao, Castro and Chavez. Bill Buckley hoped, with the death of the Soviet Union, we had reached the end of history, but it appears the animal pious among us keep resurrecting the powerful State to try to do what is expressly the work of the Body of Christ. It is tragic that any layperson should have to explain this to a priest. Such is the nature of animal piety.


Anonymous said...

The fact that a layperson CAN explain this to others including the Priest is remarkable. I find that your understanding is drawn from a very deep well. You should write for a living!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for explaining the "hope" to us mortals. This post is one of your best.