Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Transworld Irony (new term)

Transworld Irony (or TWI): It is possible that in every possible world there exists at a college named after John Calvin a philosophy professor who offers a free will defense for the problem of evil. 

Marilynne Robinson: What Literature Owes the Bible

This wonderful piece was published last week in the New York Times. Authored by the writer and novelist Marilynne Robinson, it begins this way:
The Bible is the model for and subject of more art and thought than those of us who live within its influence, consciously or unconsciously, will ever know.

Literatures are self-referential by nature, and even when references to Scripture in contemporary fiction and poetry are no more than ornamental or rhetorical — indeed, even when they are unintentional — they are still a natural consequence of the persistence of a powerful literary tradition. Biblical allusions can suggest a degree of seriousness or significance their context in a modern fiction does not always support. This is no cause for alarm. Every fiction is a leap in the dark, and a failed grasp at seriousness is to be respected for what it attempts. In any case, these references demonstrate that in the culture there is a well of special meaning to be drawn upon that can make an obscure death a martyrdom and a gesture of forgiveness an act of grace. Whatever the state of belief of a writer or reader, such resonances have meaning that is more than ornamental, since they acknowledge complexity of experience of a kind that is the substance of fiction.

Old Jonathan Edwards wrote, “It has all along been God’s manner to open new scenes, and to bring forth to view things new and wonderful.” These scenes are the narrative method of the Bible, which assumes a steady march of history, the continuous unfolding of significant event, from the primordial quarrel of two brothers in a field to supper with a stranger at Emmaus. There is a cosmic irony in the veil of insignificance that obscures the new and wonderful. Moments of the highest import pass among people who are so marginal that conventional history would not have noticed them: aliens, the enslaved, people themselves utterly unaware that their lives would have consequence. The great assumption of literary realism is that ordinary lives are invested with a kind of significance that justifies, or requires, its endless iterations of the commonplace, including, of course, crimes and passions and defeats, however minor these might seem in the world’s eyes. This assumption is by no means inevitable. Most cultures have written about demigods and kings and heroes. Whatever the deeper reasons for the realist fascination with the ordinary, it is generous even when it is cruel, simply in the fact of looking as directly as it can at people as they are and insisting that insensitivity or banality matters. The Old Testament prophets did this, too.

>>>continue reading

Friday, December 23, 2011

The God-Haunted Atheism of Christopher Hitchens

That is the title of my most recent entry over at The Catholic Thing. Here's how it begins:
On December 15, contemporary unbelief lost one of its most gifted apologists, Christopher Hitchens. He, along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett, are often referred to as the four horsemen of the New Atheism. It is called the “New” Atheism because of its evangelistic zeal, an enthusiasm largely absent from the more urbane and engaging infidelities of “the Old Atheists” like Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, or Antony Flew.

But like all undisciplined enthusiasts who confuse wisecracking proselytes with wisdom-seeking pilgrims, the New Atheists seem incapable of completely ridding themselves and their disciples of the metaphysical infrastructure of the creeds from which they claim to have decisively fled. Hitchens, for example, in his book God Is Not Great, argues that “religion poisons everything,” blaming religious believers and their beliefs for many of the atrocities of history.

>>>continue reading


Monday, December 19, 2011

Some reference work contributions now accessible online

For those who may be interested, the following is a list of reference work contributions of mine that are now accessible online.  Just click the name and you will arrive at the entry.

  • “Agnosticism.” (co-authored with  Maurice Redmond Holloway SJ). The New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2009. 2 volumes. Robert L. Fastiggi, Editor in Chief. Detroit: Gale, 2009. volume 1, 5-10. (an update and revision of the original entry authored by M. R. Holloway, SJ)

  • “Alliance Defense Fund.” The Praeger Handbook of Religion and Education in the United States. Edited by James C. Carper and Tom Hunt Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2009. Pp. 55-56.

  • “J. M. Dawson Institute for Church-State Studies.” The Praeger Handbook of Religion and Education in the United States. Edited by James C. Carper and Tom Hunt Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2009. Pp. 268-269.

  • “Dawson, Joseph Martin.” Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties. Volume 1. Edited Paul Finkelman. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis, 2007. Pp. 397-98.

  • “Edwards v. Aguillard, 382 U.S. 578 (1987).” Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties. Volume 1. Edited Paul Finkelman. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis, 2007. Pp. 480-482.

  • “Epperson v. Arkansas 393 U.S. 97 (1968).” Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties. Volume 1. Edited Paul Finkelman. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis, 2007. Pp. 511-512

  • “Abortion.” Religion Past and Present: Encyclopedia of Theology & Religion, Volume 1. Edited by Hans Dieter Betz, Don S. Browning, Bernd Janowski and Eberhard Jüngel. Boston: Brill, 2007. Pp. 9-10



    Thursday, December 15, 2011

    Dear President Obama....

    A new video at


    For more on religious liberty and conscience, read the outstanding work of George Mason University law professor Helen Alvare.


    Friday, December 9, 2011

    Newt Gingrich, Redemption, and the Presidency

    That's the title of my latest entry over at The Catholic Thing. Here's are some excerpts:
    In 2009, Gingrich was received into the Catholic Church, the faith of his third wife, Callista Bisek. Because Catholic conversion requires the sacrament of confession, Gingrich has been absolved of his sins. This, of course, suggests to many, including me, that one cannot evaluate Gingrich’s candidacy and character without taking his conversion seriously. It is a mistake for Christians to emulate the world and treat a man’s conversion as if it were the metaphysical equivalent of a change in hobby.

    On the other hand, Rod Dreher raises an important point in suggesting that Christian conservatives take care in their choice of standard-bearer. Relying on insights by New York Times writer Ross Douthat, Dreher argues that Christian conservatives, in the toxic atmosphere of the culture wars, cannot afford to have as a public face a figure who for most of his adult life has shunned the virtues and ways of life that Christian conservatives want to advance in the public square.

    Read the whole thing here.

    Thursday, December 8, 2011

    Richard Dawkins carrier of bu!!sh-t meme

    (HT: Ed Feser)

    This is just hilarious. Apparently, the great atheist scientist Richard Dawkins, who recently made quite a public fuss in his refusal to ever debate philosopher William Lane Craig, now claims that he in fact has debated Craig, and according to Dawkins, Craig was deeply unimpressive when they sparred. That's a pretty amazing feat: Dawkins is claiming that while he would never be caught dead debating Bill Craig he has in fact defeated him in debate at least once. I'm not sure that would qualify as a miracle, though it may qualify as an intellectual version of the Monty Python dead parrot sketch.


    Wednesday, December 7, 2011

    The Immaculate Conception, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Catholic Church

    Today, December 8, is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Sometimes my Evangelical Protestant friends, knowing that I am a Thomist, will point out that St. Thomas Aquinas did not believe in the Immaculate Conception, suggesting that the Church should have stuck with St. Thomas and not declared the Immaculate Conception a dogma. For example, my friend Norm Geisler writes: "Many of the Catholic beliefs that concern Protestants most were not declared dogma until long after Aquinas. For example, Aquinas denied the immaculate conception of Mary, and it was not declared dogma until 1854."

    In fact, during my September 3, 2009 dialogue with Timothy George at Wheaton College, we briefly discussed St. Thomas' denial of the doctrine, with Dr. George maintaining that Catholicism would have done well in not straying from the Angelic Doctor on this matter.  One of the points I made in the dialogue was that St. Thomas' understanding of Mary's holiness was far from the Protestant view. To be sure, for St. Thomas, Mary was indeed conceived with original sin. Nevertheless, it was removed by God after she was conceived (technically, after she was "animated"). She was also the recipient of an abundance of grace so that she may be protected from all actual sin. So, St. Thomas' view, though not the view currently held by the Church as dogma, contained within it some of the same logic on which the Church's dogma is based. Here is St. Thomas from Summa Theologica, III, q. 27:

    Saturday, December 3, 2011

    2011 Synthese article may be downloaded for free through December 31, 2011

    I just found out this afternoon that my 2011 Synthese article, "Or We Can Be Philosophers: A Response to Barbara Forrest," may be downloaded for free until December 31, 2011. Many people, because they did not have a subscription or an academic appointment at an institution that does have a subscription, were not able to download the article without paying a hefty fee.  For those folks still interested in reading the piece, they can do so free of charge until the last day of the year.

    For previous posts on this matter, go here.

    Friday, November 25, 2011

    Philosophy, the Handmaid of Judicial Review

    That's the title of my latest entry over at The Catholic Thing. Here's how it begins:
    In his most recent column here at The Catholic Thing, my friend Hadley Arkes raises the question as to why the federal courts, and the Supreme Court in particular, could not extend the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment to unborn human persons by employing the same reasoning these courts have utilized elsewhere.

    What Hadley is suggesting in his query should be uncontroversial:  the courts must apply the principles of the Constitution to new realities that share the properties of those realities to which the principles have always applied, even though these new realities were not predicted or anticipated by the framers.

    In order to make this point, we need not look further than a 1970 federal district court case, Steinberg v. Brown (1970). This case was cited by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade (1973) as one of the many cases that had upheld anti-abortion statutes. What the Supreme Court failed to mention is that the Steinberg court upheld Ohio’s statute based on reasoning that the Supreme Court claimed the defendant in Roe, the state of Texas, did not provide, namely, evidence that a federal court had found an unborn human being to be a person under the Fourteenth Amendment.

    >>>continue reading

    Thursday, November 17, 2011

    Religion, Politics, and the Public Square

    Over the years I've published several academic articles dealing with the separation of church and state and the status of theology as knowledge. I bring this to your attention because of the increasing attention on the religious beliefs of those running for the U. S. Presidency. Here are some of my articles with links:

    Tuesday, November 15, 2011

    Progressive Politics and Diminishing Religious Liberty

    Over at Public Discourse this morning, attorneys Jane Robbins and Emmett McGroarty have authored an eye-opening piece, "Mandating Our Religious Freedom." Here's how it begins:
    People of faith must reclaim their religious freedom, granted by the Creator and protected by the Constitution.

    The Founders’ protection of religious freedom in the First Amendment was in keeping with their recognition of the supreme importance of the individual, who was created by God and subject to God’s natural law. The early twentieth-century Progressives largely rejected this view, as they concluded that man must not be limited by “arbitrary” rules such as those imposed by religion. Modern progressives have seized upon this viewpoint, especially in their attitudes toward sex. The State will teach children about sex, and it will do so by disconnecting it from its most important component—the spiritual. It does not matter that such teachings are, by nature, within the rights of parents.

    Progressives have carried these attitudes to federal, state, and local governments, and the result has been an unprecedented assault on religious values and religious practice. Governmental authorities embrace the view that access to contraception (and abortion) is a fundamental right vital to sexual freedom. Similarly, homosexual conduct must be completely normalized and accepted. The law must prohibit even private preference for heterosexual norms, and if religion teaches such a preference, religion must yield. These attitudes must be taught to children in the public schools in order to affirm, in the state’s view, the full self-realization of every person—and as shown below, parents who object to the assault on their right to bring up their children according to their religious values have discovered that the courts will not protect their rights in this regard.

    >>>continue reading

    Sunday, November 13, 2011

    Is There a Right to Clone?

    I don't think so. In a 2002 article in the Nevada Law Journal, "Cloning and Reproductive Liberty," I make the argument that one cannot get a right to clone from the Supreme Court's reproductive rights jurisprudence. You can read the article here.

    Crime and Punishment at Penn State

    That is the title of the piece published by my fellow contributor at The Catholic Thing, Brad Miner. Here's how it begins:
    Author’s Note: The crimes described below are stated frankly. Those who do not wish to read details about sexual assaults are cautioned.

    Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno is Roman Catholic and a regular churchgoer, not a nominal believer. Surely, he paid attention to the scandals that have roiled the Church in recent years. And you might suppose he learned something about how to respond to allegations about the sexual assault of children. But apparently not.

    The lesson: sexual predators cease their criminal abuse only when caught, tried, convicted, and imprisoned. This is the single understanding to be applied in all places at all times and, by definition, in every profession. And against every pedophile.

    >>>continue reading

    Friday, November 11, 2011

    Rod Dreher is back

    After a blogging hiatus of about a year, Rod Dreher is back, blogging over at The American Conservative. Even if Rod were not my friend, I would still highly recommend his blog. He is one of the more thoughtful writers online. You can go to his blog here.

    Thursday, November 10, 2011

    The Question Behind Our Political Divisions

    That is the title of my most recent entry over at The Catholic Thing. Here's how it begins:

    The political regime of the United States of America is one founded on three core philosophical ideas:  natural rights, consent of the governed, and the rule of law. The American Founders put in place a structure – a federal constitutional government of divided powers consisting of states with their own republican governments – in order to ensure that these core philosophical ideas stood the best chance of surviving the tumult of human depravity. Thus, the Founders’ government was a limited government, but it was not a libertine one. It offered what some call a regime of ordered liberty. That is, one in which the preservation and development of certain institutions and ways of life – already present in civil society – could be allowed to flourish for the sake of the common good.

    The Declaration of Independence provides a philosophical snapshot of the grounds by which the infrastructure of this government was fashioned:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” That is, human beings are rights bearers by nature, and these rights are given to them by God. And because the human being, in the words of Justice McLean, “bears the impress of his Maker,” we are in fact creatures of equal dignity and immeasurable worth (even when our government does not live up to this truth).

    >>>continue reading

    (picture of U. S. Supreme Court Justice John McLean, who served on the Court from 1830 until 1861)

    Wednesday, November 9, 2011

    Duke's Coach K on uncompromising morality

    In an article about the Penn State case, ESPN reports:
    Paterno's requirement that his players not just achieve success but adhere to a moral code, that they win with honor, transcended his sport. Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke basketball coach, said in June for an ESPN special on Paterno: "Values are never compromised. That's the bottom line."

    However, when a very courageous assistant coach at Baylor, Abar Rouse, had surreptitiously audio-taped his superior, disgraced head basketball coach Dave Bliss, telling Rouse of his plan to falsely depict a murdered Baylor player as a drug dealer so that  Bliss' under-the-table payments to the player were not exposed to NCAA scrutiny, this is what ESPN reported:
    Many coaches, including Hall of Famers Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski, have said that Rouse had crossed the line. "If one of my assistants would tape every one of my conversations with me not knowing it, there's no way he would be on my staff," Krzyzewski told "Outside the Lines" in 2003.

    If a sainted coach like Krzyzewski can see only disloyalty, and not heroism, in Rouse's catching and turning in Dave Bliss for defaming a murder victim for whom Bliss had special care as the young man's head coach, is the harboring of a child rapist by Penn State University not so unimaginable? "Values are never compromised"? What a pile of horsesh*t.

    Monday, November 7, 2011

    Dignity Never Been Photographed: Scientific Materialism, Enlightenment Liberalism, and Steven Pinker

    That is the title of an article I published in the Summer 2010 issue of Ethics & Medicine: An International Journal of Bioethics (vol. 26.2).  (The title, if you have not noticed yet, is from a line in the Bob Dylan song, "Dignity"). Here's how the article begins (endnotes omitted):

    In March 2008, the President’s Council on Bioethics published a volume entitled, Human Dignity and Bioethics.  It consists of essays penned by council members as well as other scholars and practitioners invited to contribute. As one would guess, the idea of human dignity and what it means for bioethics, both in theory and in practice, is the theme that dominates each of the works contributed to this impressive volume. But for those who have been following or participating in the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary world of secular bioethics during the past fifteen or twenty years, the insertion of the idea of “human dignity,” or even the word “dignity,” as the anthropological foundation of bioethics is highly unusual.  Much of the cutting edge literature in bioethics, with few exceptions, tends to employ the language of modern political theory and contemporary analytic political philosophy and jurisprudence. So, for example, one finds in these cutting-edge works discussions about the meaning and implementation of the principles of autonomy, justice, nonmaleficence, and beneficence, as well as calls for the application of these principles to what constitutes physician neutrality, informed consent, and patients’ rights.  This project often goes by the name principlism. There is, of course, much that this project has contributed to the study and practice of bioethics.  For each principle and its application has a long and noble pedigree about which many of us hold a variety of opinions. But what distinguishes principlism from the concept of “human dignity,” and what makes this central concern of the council’s volume so astounding, is that advocates of principlism typically intend for it to be a means by which a physician, ethics committee, nurse practitioner, general counsel, etc., need not delve into the metaphysical question for which “human dignity” is offered as a partial answer, namely, “Who and what are we, and can we know it?

    To put it another way, if bioethics commits itself to the idea that “human dignity” is essential to its practice, as the President’s Council suggests, it follows that bioethics must embrace a philosophy of the human person, a philosophical anthropology, if you will, that can provide substantive content to the notion of “human dignity.” But such a suggestion seems to run counter to two ideas that are dominant in the secular academy: (1) Enlightenment Liberalism, and (2) Scientific Materialism.

    Enlightenment Liberalism is, roughly, the view that a state that aspires to justice and fairness ought not to embrace one view of the human person as the correct view because to do so would be to violate the principles essential to liberal democracy. This is why the principles central to principlism, such as autonomy and justice, are almost all procedural in their application. That is, when they are applied and practiced correctly, they commit the relevant medical personal and institution to as minimal an understanding of the human person and her good as possible. Now, as I point out below, I think that this is actually false. In fact, secular bioethics does commit its practitioners to a substantive understanding of the human person and the human good, one that is as contested and controversial as the so-called “religious” views for which principlism is often thought of as a neutral arbiter. What I am suggesting here, however, is that this is not how its supporters present, or in some cases understand, their position.

    The second idea, Scientific Materialism, is, roughly, the view that science is the best or only way of knowing, and that science is committed to methodological naturalism (that science must proceed under the assumption that non-natural entities cannot be items of knowledge that may count against the deliverances of the hard sciences).  Therefore, philosophies of the human person that affirm non-material properties like “human dignity” are not items of real knowledge.  Thus, such philosophies of the human person, though they may be privately embraced and practiced by individual citizens in accordance with their own religious sensibilities or believed on the basis of utility, none of these philosophical anthropologies may ever serve as the basis on which a society may regulate research and practices of bioethical controversy, such as embryonic stem-cell research, physician-assisted suicide, abortion, or reproductive technologies.

    As one would suspect, given these definitions, advocates of Enlightenment Liberalism and Scientific Materialism offer them as neutral and uncontested concepts that provide a fair, impartial, and scientifically respectable foundation for the practice of medical ethics in a pluralistic society of competing worldviews. Despite their intuitive appeal to many in the academic and professional cultures in which a secular bioethics is dominant, I want to argue that these views are not neutral and uncontested concepts. Rather, they support an account of the common good and the human person that answers precisely the same questions that the so-called contested worldviews, including so-called religious perspectives, attempt to answer.  In order to make my case, I employ as my point of departure several comments that appeared in a 2008 article published in The New Republic, “The Stupidity of Dignity,” authored by Harvard University psychology professor, Steven Pinker.

    You can download the entire article on my website here.

    Evangelical and Catholic

    Next week on the dates of November 16-18, 2011 I will be attending the 63rd annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in San Francisco. I
    will be there delivering a paper as a member of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, whose sessions are part of the ETS program. (For those who may be attending, I will be delivering my paper, "Justificatory Liberalism and Same-Sex Marriage," on Thursday November 17 at 9:20 am, in the same session as William Lane Craig and Michael Licona are delivering their papers). I have attended two ETS meeting since returning to the Catholic Church (2007, 2010). It is such a joy to visit with my Evangelical friends, with whom I am still very close.  I continue to learn so much from them.

    Saturday, November 5, 2011

    Can the Personhood of the Embryo Be Rejected Based on Supposed Bad Consequences of Believing In It?

    Karen, in the combox in a previous post, raises this concern:
    Persons get to sue.  If this law passes [i.e., the Mississippi personhood amendment], miscarried embryos can sue their mothers for negligence that resulted in the miscarriage. Examples of things that cause early miscarriage are bicycling, horseback riding, breastfeeding, drinking coffee, tea, and alcohol.  Insurance companies face astounding potential liability for covering restaurants or holiday camps that allow women of childbearing age to engage in those activities.  Given what 'prolifers' think about women who have the gall to exist in public, I find it extremely easy to imagine you suing the Mississippi restaurant association for permitting women to drink beer or eat fat, causing an untold number of embryonic deaths.  Suddenly insurance companies refuse to cover any entity that allows women to do anything that could cause a miscarriage, including things like work at most any factory job or health care position.

    Please don't insult my intelligence by saying this could never ever happen because you all LOOOVVEEE women so much.  Under this law embryos are persons; persons can sue in civil court; one of you could file suit on behalf of all embryos who are damaged by the fact that their mothers had the unmitigated gall to leave the house.

    For the record, I have no idea what I think about the Mississippi personhood amendment, since I have not kept up with the debate about it. My initial and untutored reaction, however, is that given the composition of the U. S. Supreme Court, these sorts of amendments are a bad idea. For they will merely allow the Court to once again reinforce the right to abortion. Nevertheless, what interests me is Karen's argument. As luck would have it, I address two similar arguments in my book, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 170-171. Here's what I write (citations omitted):

    Friday, November 4, 2011

    Robert VerBruggen on Science and Personhood: A Response

    Over at National Review's "The Corner," Robert VerBruggen writes:
    What’s not clear to me, however, is why “distinct DNA” should be the criterion by which we judge personhood for moral and legal purposes. As Reason’s Ronald Bailey has pointed out, 60 to 80 percent of human embryos — post-conception, with distinct DNA — are naturally destroyed by the woman’s body. Are we to see this as a large-scale massacre of human beings, develop drugs to prevent it from happening, and require all women who have unprotected sex to take them? Certainly, we would be willing to take measures like this if post-birth infants were dying in comparable numbers.

    First, VerBruggen is not correct in saying that the prolife position depends exclusively on the "distinct DNA" of an embryo in order to affirm its personhood. Rather, the prolifer believes that the embryo is a person because of the sort of thing that it is, a rational animal, an individual human substance whose parts are intrinsically ordered to work in concert for the good of the whole. It is an individual being who owns properties and parts and is not a property or part of something else, like its foot or its weight. The fact that the embryo has its own DNA distinct from either parent's DNA is not what makes it a person.  After all, my hand's DNA is distinct from my wife's DNA, but that does not make my hand a person. It is, to be sure, a part of a person, but it is not an individual human substance. Rather, it is a part of a rational animal whose existence began at the moment of its conception over 51 years ago. (For more on the "substance view of persons," see my chapter “The Human Being, a Person of Substance: A Response to Dean Stretton,” in  Persons, Moral Worth, and Embryos: A Critical Analysis of Pro-Choice Arguments, ed.  Stephen Napier [Dordrecht: Springer, 2011], 67-83).

    I understand that VerBruggen was quoting fellow NRO blogger, David French, who writes: "Indeed, scientists are virtually unanimous in declaring that the result of conception is a human child with a distinct DNA different from his or her parents. This unanimity is the essence of `overwhelming consensus.'" Notice, however, that David is not saying that "distinct DNA" is a sufficient condition for personhood. Rather, he is arguing that a human child already exists and that it happens to have its own "distinct DNA" that differs from its parents' DNA. It would be like saying that "Fred is an individual human child, since he has his own hands and feet that are not the hands and feet of his parents." But having hands or feet are not sufficient for human personhood, since chimps have hands and feet and some human beings, like the thalidomide babies, lack them.

    Wednesday, November 2, 2011

    Catholics Come Home


    Every time I watch this video I get choked up. You can find out more about Catholics Come Home here. It is a wonderful website.

    Tuesday, November 1, 2011

    Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta will vote on reversing condemnation of Pelagius

    (HT: Rod Dreher). Over 1500 years in the making, Pelagius is making an ecclesiastical comeback. The story begins:
    The [Episcopal] Diocese of Atlanta has been asked to rehabilitate Pelagius.

    Delegates to the diocesan convention will be asked to reverse the condemnation of the Council of Carthage upon Pelagius, and to explore whether the Fifth century heretic may inform the theology of the Episcopal Church.

    Resolution R11-7 before the convention states in part:

    “Whereas the historical record of Pelagius’s contribution to our theological tradition is shrouded in the political ambition of his theological antagonists who sought to discredit what they felt was a threat to the empire, and their ecclesiastical dominance, and whereas an understanding of his life and writings might bring more to bear on his good standing in our tradition;”

    You can read the whole thing here. (But what of his half-brother, semi-Pelagius?) Perhaps if Pelagius wins the November 4 vote, he can do a remake of the LL Cool J video:


    Sunday, October 30, 2011

    Reformation Day, continued

    On Friday, I published an entry over at The Catholic Thing, to which I linked on this blog.  Entitled, "Reformation Day – and What Led Me To Back to Catholicism," it has, as I expected, inspired some responses by a variety of commentators. What follows are some of my thoughts on those responses.


    It is always an honor to have one’s work be the focus so much diverse and interesting opinions.

    But given the nature of the topic, there is a tendency in all of us to perhaps not read as carefully as we should.  Thus, for example, when I say the Church is logically prior to the Scriptures, some commentators did not seem to take notice that I did not say “chronologically prior.” The reason for this is, of course, intentional: I do not believe, and no one who thinks seriously on this matter really believes, that you had a whole Bible or no Bible (66 or 73) chronologically prior to the Church’s existence. After all, Christ himself quoted from the OT. So, when I say “logically prior” I mean that the Church’s existence is a logically necessary (and chronologically simultaneous) condition for the fixing of the entirety of the biblical canon. Its consummation occurred at the end of an historical process that was organic and not mechanistic.

    But it was not the consequence of authoritarian fiat (as it seems some Protestants think Catholics believe) or mere analytic criteria from which the canon had been deduced (as it seems some Catholics think Protestants believe), both of which caricature canonicity. My Protestant friends are indeed correct that canonicity cannot be absent of criteria, and some have eloquently suggested such criteria among these comments. However, just as a verdict in a court of law cannot be achieved absent civil or criminal procedures (the “criteria,” if you will), civil or criminal procedures absent a legitimate and authoritative court cannot produce a verdict either. So, when my Protestant friends write of the Church “recognizing” certain books as Scripture, or that, for example, St. Peter recognized St. Paul’s writings as Scripture, they indeed have made a good point if “the Church” spoken of in the first case has the same or similar authority as the St. Peter cited in the second case. That is, the strength of this reasoning depends on the degree to which “the Church’s” recognition of certain books as Scripture is as authoritative as the Apostle Peter’s recognition of the Apostle Paul’s letters as Scripture. So, if the two authorities are not similarly situated in fixing canonicity, the case is weak. On the other hand, if the two authorities are in fact similarly situated, the case is strong, but in that case the case is Catholic.

    I should also note that in the fewer than 1000 words allotted to me for my Catholic Thing entry I was discussing the narrow question of the role and place of Tradition and authority in the fixing of the canon. So, when I share the inner thoughts of my own pilgrimage, I am referring to my reflections on that narrow question and not to the other arguments—e.g., criteria by which the Church recognized books as Scripture—that I accepted as well.  This is why the reader must attend to the language I actually use, and not the language he may wish I had used.  So, when I write that “I would appeal to the exclusion of these books as canonical by the Jewish Council of Jamnia (A.D. 90-100),” I am not claiming I had once believed that it was at Jamnia that “the OT canon was fixed,” as one commentator carelessly attributed to me. Rather, I am referring to the way in which it is procured as part of the case made for the Protestant canon.  (In fact, in my book Return to Rome [p. 123], there is a quote from the book Early Christian Doctrine in which the author, J. N. D. Kelly, points out that the Jewish Palestinian canon—the one recognized at Jamnia—was in fact not the same OT canon that one finds in the Septuagint, the pre-Christian Greek translation of the Hebrew OT, which, according to Kelly, was the version accepted as authoritative by the Church in its “first centuries.” It is from the Septuagint that the Catholic Church derives its OT canon).

    In any event, one commentator nevertheless makes the claim that because Jesus had apparently accepted the Palestinian canon, then He fixed it, and who can argue with Jesus? Setting aside the question as to whether one can infer from Christ’s summary statement of the OT as “the law, the prophets and the writings” to the conclusion that he meant the Palestinian canon (especially since well over 75% of Christ’s quotes from the OT are from the Septuagint), the appeal to Jesus to certify OT canonicity relies, ironically, on a Catholic intuition. Let me explain. If the fixing of OT canonicity requires Jesus’ authority, then surely NT canonicity requires that authority (or some historical extension of it) as well, especially since in the latter case we are starting from scratch and in the case of the OT there was already an uncontroversial and identifiable core.  So, it seems then that the authority required for NT canonicity is just the sort that the Church understood itself to have when its bishops convened to address pressing theological questions at its most important ecumenical and regional councils, the very councils that resolved, among other things, the conflicts over Arianism, Nestorianism, and Pelagianism.  It is an authority that sees itself as the rightful successor of the Apostles, such that it, in the same way that St. Peter acknowledged the scriptural status of St. Paul’s letters, may issue binding judgments on the questions surrounding the scope of the NT canon.

    One final word. I neglected to mention in my original entry that the Eastern Churches—both the Orthodox and those rites in full communion with Rome—embrace the 73-book canon, just as the Catholic Church does. Thus, anyone who seeks to challenge the Catholic canon has the unenviable burden of showing that until sometime in the middle of the 16th century, that the Church, both in the East and the West, having the full authority to expel Arius, Nestorius, Pelagius, propose the Nicean Creed as universally binding and normative, and get the NT canon just right, somehow, for a millennium and a half, failed to possess the power to recognize and subsequently exclude seven spurious OT books residing in its most sacred text.

    Thursday, October 27, 2011

    Reformation Day – and What Led Me To Back to Catholicism

    That is the title of my latest entry over at The Catholic Thing. Here's how it begins:
    October 31 is only three days away. For Protestants, it is Reformation Day, the date in 1517 on which Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to that famous door in Wittenberg, Germany. Since I returned to the Catholic Church in April 2007, each year the commemoration has become a time of reflection about my own journey and the puzzles that led me back to the Church of my youth.

    One of those puzzles was the relationship between the Church, Tradition, and the canon of Scripture. As a Protestant, I claimed to reject the normative role that Tradition plays in the development of Christian doctrine. But at times I seemed to rely on it. For example, on the content of the biblical canon – whether the Old Testament includes the deuterocanonical books (or “Apocrypha”), as the Catholic Church holds and Protestantism rejects. I would appeal to the exclusion of these books as canonical by the Jewish Council of Jamnia (A.D. 90-100) as well as doubts about those books raised by St. Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate, and a few other Church Fathers.

    My reasoning, however, was extra-biblical. For it appealed to an authoritative leadership that has the power to recognize and certify books as canonical that were subsequently recognized as such by certain Fathers embedded in a tradition that, as a Protestant, I thought more authoritative than the tradition that certified what has come to be known as the Catholic canon. This latter tradition, rejected by Protestants, includes St. Augustine as well as the Council of Hippo (A.D. 393), the Third Council of Carthage (A.D. 397), the Fourth Council of Carthage (A.D. 419), and the Council of Florence (A.D. 1441).

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    Monday, October 17, 2011

    Government Forms (or Deforms) Your Soul

    That is the title of an article I published last year (vol. 21, no. 5, September 2010) in This Rock (now Catholic Answers Magazine), the magazine of Catholic Answers. It is now available online. Portions of this article are adapted from portions of my most recent book, Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft (InterVarsity Press, 2010). Here's how the article begins:
    “Statecraft,” Aristotle instructed his pupils, “is soulcraft.” What he meant is that the state or government, by its policies, procedures and actions, places moral ideas in thesocial and legal fabric and these ideas shape the quality of its citizens’ character. This central truth animates the understanding of politics supported by Catholic teaching.

    Some thinkers, however, believe that the government should, and can, remain neutral on several controversial moral and social questions about which Catholics and other Christians have taken a strong stand, including the sanctity of life and the protection of marriage. These thinkers maintain, contrary to Aristotle, that statecraft is not soulcraft, that the government should not take a position on which views are right or wrong, since taking such a stance would violate the right of citizens to make up their own minds on these questions.

    This view is mistaken for one simple reason: No matter what the government permits or forbids, it is taking a stance on what it believes about the nature of the human person and what is right or wrong, even if it denies that this is so. To demonstrate that this is the case, I will focus primarily on the issue of abortion and then two other issues: the right to suicide and same-sex marriage.

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    Thursday, October 13, 2011

    President Obama: Ex-Liberal

    That's the title of my latest entry over at The Catholic Thing. Here's how it begins:
    President Barack Obama has abandoned liberalism.  What I mean by liberalism is not the political philosophy that we typically associate with left of center politicians and candidates.  The President, of course, remains unabashedly in that camp. What I am referring to you is a particular posture concerning moral questions the President has publicly embraced on several occasions. It is from that liberalism he has walked away.

    In a  speech delivered at the 2006 "Call to Renewal" conference, Senator Obama offered these thoughts on the relationship between politics and religion:

    "Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all."

    In his 2009 Notre Dame commencement address, the President eloquently opined on the importance of mutual respect in the face of deep irreconcilable differences on the matter of the moral status of nascent human life:

    "Understand - I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it - indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory - the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature."

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    Saturday, October 8, 2011

    The Human Being, a Person of Substance

    That's the title of a chapter I recently published in the book, Persons, Moral Worth, and Embryos: A Critical Analysis of Pro-Choice Arguments, edited by Stephen Napier. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2011), 67-83. Other contributors in the book include my Baylor colleague Alexander Pruss as well as Jason T. Eberl, A. A. Howspeian, Christopher Tollefsen, Helen M. Alvaré, and David Hershenov. You can read my entire chapter via Google Books here. Here's how the chapter begins (citations omitted):
    Over the past decade or so several challenges to the prolife understanding of fetal personhood have been published. Two of the authors who have contributed much to this critique are Jeff McMahon and Dean Stretton.  The purpose of this chapter is to respond to some of their arguments.  My point of departure will be Stretton’s 2008 Journal of Medical Ethics review...of my 2007 book, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice... In his critique of my defense of fetal personhood Stretton relies heavily on McMahon’s work. I will first summarize the case I make for fetal personhood in Defending Life, and then respond to the challenges to my case offered in Stretton’s review.

    In Defending Life I offer a defense of fetal personhood, which I call the substance view.... According to the substance view, the human being is a particular type of living organism--a rational moral agent--that remains identical to herself as long as she exists, even if she is not presently exhibiting the functions, behaviors, or current ability to immediately engage the activities that we typically attribute to active and mature rational moral agents.  Because the human being is a rational moral agent, she is a person of intrinsic moral value as long as she exists.

    Friday, October 7, 2011

    Robert P. George and Russell Moore discuss religion in the public square

    Here's an outstanding discussion between a Catholic, Robert P. George (Princeton University), and an Evangelical, Russell Moore (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), entitled Faith in America: Religion in the Public Square. The discussion took place on Monday, October 3, 2011, at Princeton University. You can watch the video here. Both these men are friends of mine, I am proud to say.

    Saturday, October 1, 2011

    New word: Metaphornication

    Here's the context. On Thursday evening I was in Denver. Over dinner I was discussing with friends Pat Robertson's claim that one can divorce a spouse with Alzheimer and begin dating others without violating the "in sickness and in health" requirement, because, according to Robertson, the spouse suffering from Alzheimer  is "a kind of death." As the conversation continued, one of the other dinner guests pointed out that Martin Luther had said that divorce for reason of adultery is not inconsistent with marriage being indissoluble because the adultery effectively "kills" the marriage in the same way that the death of a spouse ends the marriage and allows for the surviving spouse to remarry. I then called Luther's conceptual move, "metaphornication." Feel free to use it, but just give me credit. If not, I will accuse you of "cleptologia."

    Friday, September 30, 2011

    The Christian University

    That's the title of my latest entry over at The Catholic Thing. It is adapted from my September 23, 2011 talk at the installation of Myron Steeves as Dean of Trinity Law School. Here's how it begins:
    As is evident by where and how we mark this event – in a church, accompanied by prayer and song – Trinity Law School, and the university of which it is a part, is Christian. “Christian” may seem a mere adjective that modifies “university” or “law school” in the same way that “regional” or “California” might.  This temptation arises from a belief – widely held, though rarely challenged, in contemporary culture – that a Christian school is just a secular school except with idiosyncratic accouterments, such as mandatory chapel, rules about personal moral conduct, and a commitment to a list of religious dogmas to which its faculty must subscribe. Although these differences are of no small consequence, they are not, or ought not to be, at the heart of an institution that considers itself seriously Christian.

    Let me offer for your consideration the following thesis: A Christian school regards theology as a legitimate academic discipline that informs and illuminates, and is organically connected to, all the other disciplines of the university in the same ways that those other disciplines are connected to each other.

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    Sunday, September 18, 2011

    Speaking to the Orange County Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society on September 22

    For those who are in the Southern California area, on September 22 I will be speaking to the Orange County Lawyers Chapter of the Federalist Society. My talk is entitled, "How the Federal Courts' Religious Motive Test Violates Religious Liberty." Co-Sponsored with the Orange County Chapter of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society, it will be held at 12 noon (11:30 am registration) at the Knobbe Conference Center, 2nd Floor at 2040 Main St., Irvine, 92614. You can read more about the event here.

    The next day, September 23, I will be speaking at the installation of the new Dean of Trinity Law School, Myron Steeves, who is a good friend. It is truly an honor to have been invited to participate in this important ceremony.

    Friday, September 16, 2011

    Revelation, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium

    That's the title of my latest column over at The Catholic Thing. Here's how it begins:
    This past Tuesday, September 13, I taught my first RCIA class, offered at St. Peter’s Catholic Student Center at Baylor University. Although I have been teaching philosophy to college students for twenty-five years, I was a bit nervous. Thankfully, I have a minor role in the class, leading only one session this semester with perhaps another one or two in the Spring. Our RCIA team consists of several seasoned parishioners, with St. Peter’s gifted pastor, Fr. Anthony Odiong, overseeing the entire enterprise.

    I spoke on the topic of Revelation, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium, focusing on how I came to accept the Catholic understanding of this subject in my own journey from Evangelicalism and back to the Church. (I am a revert).

    As a Christian philosopher I had always had a keen interest in how faith and reason interact and what that means for both the life of the mind and our walk with Christ. Although I had read many books and articles on these matters by both Catholics and Protestants, the ones that seemed most sensible to me were those that I would later learn were more “Catholic” than “Protestant” in spirit and approach.

    So, even though I was an Evangelical, I read with great interest John Paul II’s encyclical, Fides et Ratio: On Faith and Reason soon after it was released in September 1998. After reading it, I concluded that the most important lessons that Evangelicals can learn from this document were the pope’s insights on how certain philosophies will, because of their own internal logic, undermine confidence in the truth of the Gospel message.

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    Wednesday, September 14, 2011

    An historian's account of Baylor's 1994 invitation to join the Big XII

    The recent tempest over Texas A & M's invitation to join the Southeast Conference, and Baylor University's response to it, has resulted in some heated exchanges online. In following these verbal disputes, I have had the misfortune of reading some of the press op-ed accounts of how and why Baylor was invited to join the Big XII in the mid-1990s after the dissolution of the Southwest Conference. Most of these narratives range from the misleading to the outright false.

    Fortunately, nearly four years ago a professional historian published an account of Baylor's entry into the Big XII. It is the result of his research into the primary documents as well as extensive interviews with some of the most important figures surrounding the move. Authored by Thomas L. Charlton (Ph.D., University of Texas), Director of the Texas Collection and Professor of History at Baylor University, it appears as a chapter in the book, The Baylor Project (St. Augustine Press, 2007), edited by two of my other colleagues Barry G. Hankins and Donald D. Schemltekopf. Entitled, "A New Aspiration and Opportunity: Baylor and the Big XII Conference," Professor Charlton's chapter is a careful and historically accurate account of Baylor's athletic history and how the university's invitation to join the Big XII came about. It is a clear refutation of the "conventional wisdom" that has become ubiquitous on so many sports pages both online and in print.

    I have posted a pdf of Professor Charlton's chapter online here.

    Thursday, September 1, 2011

    Secular Gnosticism and "The New York Times"

    That's the title of my latest entry over at The Catholic Thing. Here's how it begins:
    Just this past week, Bill Keller of the New York Times opined about the religious beliefs of several Republican presidential candidates, suggesting clusters of questions that he would like to ask each of them. Keller’s column has been justly criticized and ridiculed by many writers, including the folks at Get Religion. Not only because of the factual errors that pepper Keller’s epistle, but the crude and uncharitable ways in which he communicates and seems to understand the beliefs of the candidates.

    Lurking behind his clumsy queries is an intellectual posture I call “secular gnosticism.” It assumes a position of cultural privilege on what counts as knowledge and justified belief, though it is rarely doubted and thus rarely defended. For that reason, its believers do not subject their position, its presuppositions, and its sources of authority to the sort of rigorous interrogation they suggest the beliefs, presuppositions, and sources of authority of religious believers should undergo.

    The word “gnostic” comes from the Greek word γνῶσις, which is translated “knowledge.” The Gnostics of the Early Christian Era were considered heretics because they eschewed ecclesiastical authority while claiming esoteric or intuitive knowledge of the divine as a means to escape material reality for the salvation of their souls. That is, the external world and the institutions in it such as the Church were seen as obstacles to the soul’s ascendance to God.

    For this reason, the Gnostics were, in a sense and ironically, invincibly ignorant. No amount of contrary evidence, philosophical argument, or Biblical exegesis can convince someone who has private, direct, incorrigible, and impenetrable acquaintance with The Truth. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, “Gnostics were ‘people who knew,’ and their knowledge at once constituted them a superior class of beings, whose present and future status was essentially different from that of those who, for whatever reason, did not know.”

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    Tuesday, August 30, 2011

    Another Christian "Dominionist"?

    With all this talk of certain Republican Christians and their alleged connection to Dominionism--a view inaccurately ascribed to several Christian writers in articles published in the New York Times and the New Yorker--there's one Christian that our East-of-the-Hudson betters seemed to miss. Here are his shocking comments, where he explains how America's laws should reflect God's eternal law:
    Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid....

    One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

    Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

    You can read his entire essay here.

    Friday, August 26, 2011

    The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture

    That is the title of a new book by Notre Dame sociologist, Christian Smith. I received my copy of it yesterday, and I cannot put it down. (Readers of Return to Rome may recall that in June I blogged about Professor Smith's other recent book, How to Go From Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps (Cascade Books 2011). My endorsement of the book is on its back cover). Unsurprisingly, The Bible Made Impossible is causing quite a stir on the internet.

    Over at First Things, Peter Leithart reviews it, while Smith offers a response. Kevin DeYoung critiques the book on his blog at the Gospel Coalition, with Smith responding to DeYoung and others in the commentary section. Also discussing the book are Chaplain Mike at the Internet Monk, Brent Stubbs at Called to Communion, and my Patheos colleague Scott McKnight over at Jesus Creed. (In fact, Scott has an 8-part series on the book's central thesis!)

    There's also a five-part video interview of Professor Smith on Youtube: Part 1Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

    Friday, August 19, 2011

    Mormonism and Natural Law

    That's the title of my latest entry over at The Catholic Thing. Here's how it begins:
    With the increasing likelihood that Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee for President, it is important for Catholics and other Christians to reflect on some concerns raised by Damon Linker in a 2007 New Republic article. Linker argues that Mormon theology does not have important resources that traditional Christians have at their disposal, such as natural-law theory.

    Although LDS writings say little specifically about the nature of moral law, they do say quite a lot about the nature of laws and principles that include moral laws. The founding Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr., maintained that laws and principles are eternal and unchanging: “Every principle proceeding from God is eternal and any principle which is not eternal is of the devil. . . . The first step in the salvation of man is the laws of eternal and self-existent principles.”

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    Monday, August 15, 2011

    C. Stephen Evans on Kierkegaard

    My Baylor colleague, C. Stephen Evans, was interviewed earlier this week on KGO radio in San Francisco. The topic was the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, a thinker about which Steve knows quite a bit. You can listen to the interview here.

    Saturday, August 6, 2011

    The Eucharist and Cannibalism

    My Baylor colleague, Michael P. Foley (associate professor of patristics), is a new contributor to The Catholic Thing. His first entry was published today. Entitled, "The Eucharist and Cannibalism," it begins this way:
    Perhaps the most disconcerting Catholic doctrine is the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Many people today have the same reaction as those disciples who heard Jesus preach it for the first time in Capernaum and were scandalized, “This saying is hard, and who can hear it?” (Jn. 6:61). John says that after, many of His disciples stopped following Him altogether.

    What is obviously so “hard” about this saying is that it suggests cannibalism. If Catholics believe the Eucharist really is the body and blood of Christ, then they believe they are eating human flesh and drinking human blood. The Romans accused Christians of cannibalism and that the charge has been made against Catholics in various ways ever since.

    But while Holy Communion does involve eating human flesh and blood, it is not true that it is cannibalistic. How so?

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    Friday, August 5, 2011

    Why I'm Catholic: Philosopher Richard Sherlock

    There is a wonderful new website, "Why I'm Catholic," or Among the many stories on this site is the one told by my friend, Richard Sherlock, Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. Richard, who was received into the Catholic Church just this past Easter Sunday (2011), is a convert from Mormonism. He begins the account of his journey in this way:
    One should never leave the religion in which one was born or raised for anything but the most serious of reasons. Warm feelings, family, friends, a social ethos, should never be the reason for joining or leaving a religion. The fact that you do not like the priest, pastor or parishioners should never be a reason for staying or leaving. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have never been a person to "go with the flow" or seek popularity. I was a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War and I have a 1-0 draft card to prove it. I have been an absolute opponent of abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment my whole adult life. When I was a professor of moral theology at Fordham University in the mid-1980's I happily defended the view that artificial birth control is morally wrong. This was at a time when many, if not most, actually Catholic moral theologians wouldn't do so, or wouldn't do so strongly. I have not left religion or Christianity. But I have left Mormonism. I have become a deeper, more intellectual, more spiritual and truer Christian than I have ever been, literally. I am converting to the Roman Catholic Church. All true roads do lead to Rome.

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