Ash Wednesday Gospel Reflection

A Reading from the Gospel according to Matthew (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18)

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Take care not to perform righteous deeds
in order that people may see them;
otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms,
do not blow a trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets
to win the praise of others.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give alms,
do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,
so that your almsgiving may be secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you pray,
do not be like the hypocrites,
who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners
so that others may see them.
Amen, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room,
close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.
And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.

“When you fast,
do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.
They neglect their appearance,
so that they may appear to others to be fasting.
Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast,
anoint your head and wash your face,
so that you may not appear to be fasting,
except to your Father who is hidden.
And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

The Gospel reading at hand is best understood when considered in light of the so-called parable of the lamp, which is recorded in the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. The parable is simple. Christ asks His disciples “Is a lamp brought in to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed, and not to be placed on a lampstand?” Presented right after the parable of the seed and the sower, the image of the lamp represents the light of Faith. With a bit of a humor, Christ teaches that Faith is useless unless it is visible.

At first, this parable seems to contradict today’s Gospel directly. If indeed Faith is meant to be visible, why does our Lord call those who publicly perform religious acts “hypocrites”? Further, does not Christ’s instruction to pray in secret correlate to placing the lamp of Faith under our bed?

Deeper analysis, however, will show that these two teachings are inversions of one another and, hence, complementary. In today’s Gospel, Our Lord warns against performing religious acts for public attention. This behavior is reprehensible and hypocritical insofar as it transfers the focus of religion from the Divine to the ego and its material affect. This hypocrisy transforms an otherwise pious act to an act of selfishness: rather than serve God, one serves instead his pride, his popularity, his mundanity. As a result, the light of Faith is rendered inscrutable as men turn in on themselves.

Our Lord illustrates this act of “turning in on oneself” in the parable of the lamp, using the image of a lamp under a bushel basket or a bed. Just as the passage from Matthew’s Gospel shows how works are rendered hypocritical when they are ordered toward material gain, this passage shows how faith is rendered hypocritical when it is not expressed in works. For we, who would not have known these things unless our Father in Heaven revealed them to us, must be careful to remember that our Faith is a gift from God. Thus, what is the difference between going out in public in shows of righteousness and hiding the lamp of our Faith deep within us? What is the difference insofar as we are withholding our gift of Faith from God?

Faith is a gift, a talent, which Our Father in secret bestows on us because “There is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to the light.” (cf. Mk 4:22). God did not give us Faith for it to be kept secret; our Faith is meant to change the world, beginning with each human heart in which it is planted. Faith that is not expressed through works of love is stifled and suffocated in the soil of the heart. It is not enough to possess the lamp of Faith, for Faith without works is dead. Rather we must make returns on the talent our Master has entrusted to us: we must go out into the world, proclaiming the Gospel with our lives as He did with His.

Our Lord knows, however, that men tend to become vain and self-centered when faced with the duty of going before the world. This fault manifested itself even among the Apostles, who had to be rebuked for arguing amongst themselves over “who was the greatest.” Consequently, in this beautiful reading from Matthew, our Lord does not advocate the suppression of Faith, but rather the suppression of egotism which obfuscates faith. Look closely at what He is teaching: “do not seek your reward in the affirmation of the people,” He says “for then you are rendering to them what belongs to God.” Rather, always remember that “what you do for the least of these, you are doing for me.”

Render unto the world the things that are of the world. Do not keep your pride or your vanity; render them back unto the darkness from which they came. Let the world keep its affirmation and its riches, for you do not need either; rend your garments in penitence and your heart in contrition. The world will not see these things, but your Father in Heaven, who sees in secret, will see them. The world will not approve of those things for they will all despise you because of Him whose name you bear. But your Father in Heaven, who sees in secret, will approve of them and, on the last day, will claim you as His own.

Render unto God the things that are of God—be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect. And, if you wish to be perfect, pick up your cross daily and follow Christ. The Cross is the ultimate destiny of every Christian. Crucifixion is our ultimate end. The Cross is the ultimate expression of Faith—it can never be mounted for love of self. We must all be willing to die and to share in Christ’s death—to be despised and to be rejected; to tread the raging waters of oppression and hate; to follow so long as our Master beckons us to follow.

Our King wears not robes of silver and gold, but scars, and it is according to these scars that we will be judged. The good shepherd knows His own and His know Him. To those who kept their faith hidden, He will say: “Depart and return to your darkness!” And to those who were pierced for love, He will say: “Well done, my good and Faithful servant, come into your Father’s rest.”


A Century of Disenchantment: Weber’s “Wissenschaft als Beruf” Turns 100

One hundred years ago this past week, on November 7, 1917, the German sociologist Max Weber delivered a speech in the modestly sized lecture hall of a bookstore in Munich. He had been invited by a group of students to address the topic of science, in the broadest sense of scholarly pursuits and the products of academia. Two years later the speech would be published under the now famous title Wissenschaft als Beruf – “Science as a Vocation.”


This speech is arguably Weber’s single most influential work, despite the renown of his inquiry into the Protestant work ethic earlier in his career. At the very least, its words have enjoyed an especially prolific afterlife through the dissemination of the phrase “the disenchantment of the world,” which occurs twice in the published version of the speech and has been appropriated for book titles in subjects as diverse as consumer economics and modern poetry. A century later, however, this very phrase has produced a wide range of confusion, owing at least in part to a fairly imprecise translation. It is the task of this essay to point to how the reception of this speech has contributed to a misunderstanding of Weber’s legacy and spurred a largely misleading diagnosis of the triumph of secularism in the modern West. I hope to accomplish this task through a simple yet intuitive approach: by reading Weber’s own words.

That being said, the confusion surrounding “Science as a Vocation” has its source in the speech itself. Two passages in particular are frequently cited to depict Weber’s alleged hostility toward religion and his prognostication of a decidedly irreligious future. Near the end of the speech, Weber links religiosity to an “Opfer des Intellekts,” which C. Wright Mills translates as “intellectual sacrifice.” This certainly seems to undercut the truth of religions claims, as Weber also typifies the attitude of religious believers with the formulation: “credo non quod, sed quia absurdum est”; that is, I believe because it is absurd.

The second passage follows shortly thereafter with another apparently polemic remark, according to Mills’s translation: “To the person who cannot bear the fate of our times like a man, one must say: may he rather return silently, without the usual publicity build-up of renegades, but simply and plainly. The arms of the old churches are opened widely and compassionately for him. After all, they do not make it hard for him. One way or another he has to bring his ‘intellectual sacrifice’ – that is inevitable.” Again, the attribution of “intellectual sacrifice” to religious believers, lacking in manly endurance, seems to level a critique of intellectual dishonesty – a term Weber nearly uses a sentence later – against the religiously inclined. In the same breath, Weber apparently consigns religion to a heap of antiquated institutions receding in a secular tide. The world has been “disenchanted,” after all, which means that science and reason have cast supernatural superstitions into the outer dark.

It is no wonder that this anti-religious attitude has been coupled with Weber’s notion of “disenchantment,” since these two remarks frame the second and most thundering formulation of Weber’s so-called “disenchantment thesis.” In the same paragraph as the previous remark, Weber defines the “fate of our times” as “the disenchantment of the world.” However, the interpretation of this key phrase is precisely where matters go awry.

Weber’s Disenchantment

The problem begins with the common English translation “the disenchantment of the world.” In English, the word “disenchantment” carries significant emotional baggage, bringing connotations of melancholic dissatisfaction and meaninglessness along with it. This has led some theorists to posit that a return to enchantment might be precipitated by flashy public events, like the Olympics or rock concerts, which reassure modern man of the marvels of existence. Weber’s original German, however, has a more abstract, historical force: “die Entzauberung der Welt.” This would more literally translate to “the de-magicalization of the world.” What is at stake, then, is an historical process, one which Weber associates with intellectualization, of which scientific advancement is only a “fraction” or “Bruchteil.”

The phrase first occurs after Weber’s lengthy opening remarks on academia in Germany and the United States, which place the modern university rather than modern religious institutions under scrutiny. When Weber finally announces the “disenchantment of the world”, he does so not with the voice of a prophet but with the measured restraint of an interrogator:

The increasing intellectualization and rationalization do not, therefore, indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives. It means something else, namely, the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it any any time, that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This signifies the disenchantment of the world. No longer does one need to take recourse to magical means, as the savage did, for whom such mysterious forces existed, in order to master or implore the spirits. Rather, technical means and calculation achieve this. This above all is what intellectualization signifies as such.1

Weber’s disenchantment concerns itself first and foremost with the belief that all things can be quantified and calculated. In the original German, Weber uses the subjunctive tense to indicate that he is reporting about beliefs rather than declaring his own, much less asserting that no incalculable forces exist. Moreover, Weber goes on to explain how this positive belief about technical mastery actually poses problems for scientific enterprises and those who claim that science can account for all facts of existence. Such adherents of what we today call “scientism” are deemed by Weber to be little more than “große Kinder” – “big children.

Weber on Religion

Concerning the dominance of the natural sciences, Weber hardly has a word of optimism to offer in “Science as a Vocation.” But what is his opinion of religion in modern Europe? While the passages quoted above appear to paint Weber as a critic of religious belief, the majority of his remarks on the matter in the speech as a whole reveal a decidedly open-minded if not sympathetic stance. For instance, Weber affirms that the religious believer can practice science “without being disloyal to his faith” and entertains the idea that theology is a science, through he ultimately claims that its pretenses about the meaning of life confine it to its own value sphere. Yet, Weber also mentions that “religiously ‘musical’ people” should not hide from their fate of living in a “god-foreign and prophet-less time.” Is this speech consequently a prediction of religious decline?

In brief, Weber’s position is not quite that simple. Earlier in the speech, he describes the present age as a “religious ‘everyday‘” in which “the many old gods, disenchanted and hence in the form of impersonal powers, rise from their graves” and “resume an eternal struggle with one another.” For Weber, modernity is typified by polytheism, as various values and worldviews contest for dominance. Religion, then, does not have its back to the ropes; rather, Christianity has lost its heavyweight status as the “presumably exclusive orientation” in a ring of conflicting beliefs. Hence, Weber’s diagnosis of a disenchanted world does not entail the gradual demise of religion but its diversification and relativization.

This much is clear in Weber’s second and final formulation of the disenchantment of the world, alluded to above, as he writes that “precisely the last and sublimest of values have retreated from public life, either in the otherworldly realm of mystic life of in the brotherliness of immediate relationships” and that “from one person to another, in pianissimo, something pulsates which corresponds to that which earlier moved through the great congregations as a prophetic pneuma in tempestuous fire and welded them together.” Weber’s language itself abounds with a mystical sense, a sense of fate. As if to emphasize this point, Weber ends his speech by citing the prophet Isaiah and speaking of the “demon” that holds the strands of each of our lives.

Weber’s Legacy

articleweber Reading Weber’s 1917 speech a century later, we would be wise to observe two crucial points. First, interpretations and spin-offs of Weber’s “disenchantment of the world” do not hold true to Weber’s claims when they posit a linear path toward secularity nor, indeed, when they pigeonhole Weber as an enlightened critic of religion. Second, despite the passage of time, Weber’s insights about the shift in religious attitudes and pervasiveness of technical means of control continue to hold their own. Perhaps, though, this speaks more to how the modern West is still haunted by the ghosts or its past in a century that is, on second thought, far less disenchanted than first believed.

1This translation, as well as those that follow, have been altered to better reflect Weber’s original German.

The Art of Fasting

Among our greatest tools of spiritual growth are prayer (of diverse variety), fasting, and almsgiving. Indeed, all three are especially encouraged during Lent. Yet in the Gospels, Jesus warns us about the proper use of these ‘holy weapons’ in the arsenal of the pious soul in training. I am thinking, primarily, of the sequence of warnings Jesus issues in the Sermon on the Mount, as documented in chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel.

To wit: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Mt. 6:1) And again: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” (Mt. 6:5) And finally: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” (Mt. 6:16)

The talk here is of action and reward: the hypocrites perform these three ideally pious acts merely “so that they may be seen by others,” that is, for recognition, even fame. But such actions, Jesus admonishes us, lose their worth—their reward—when they are directed to such self-seeking ends. Everything hangs on the little word “so,” the link between deliberate action and intended result, as I was learned once in a Bible study of this passage. This “so,” Jesus explains in the case of each potentially penitent act, must be aimed always at “your Father who is in secret.” Only in seeking to contact the Lord do prayer, fasting, and almsgiving have their merit… and their reward.

This tension (acting for a higher cause or merely for recognition) is played out with soul-wrenching drama in a short story by the German-Czech daytime office worker and moonlight fiction writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924). This short story, indeed, has surprising topical relevance to thinking about Good Friday (a day of fasting) and Easter Sunday (a day of feasting), as apparent from its title “A Hunger Artist” (Ein Hungerkünstler in the original German). Although the story hardly allows for a purely Christian allegorical reading, the psychological toil of its titular “hunger artist” bears striking similarity to the Gospel’s teaching on fasting. I would go so far as to contend that Kafka deliberately arranged for crossover between his hunger artist’s starvation spectacle and the practice of Christian asceticism. In any case, this bizarre short story illustrates the art of fasting in a way that complements Jesus’s teaching, and it is this illustration which I would like to investigate in turn.

The Hunger for Attention


A Hunger Artist” is a brief story, so brief that it serves as its own summary. But, to be brief, Kafka’s story recounts the once appreciated art of fasting (“Those were different times,” he writes) through the downfall of one particular hunger artist, whose showmanship in “a small barred cage” at first draws crowds of enthusiastic spectators only to wane in popularity until he is eventually replaced. At a low point in his career, the children for whom this hunger artist was once “especially put on display” have to rely on their “family father” (Familienvater) to thoroughly explain to them what a hunger artist even is. Thus, the story tracks a trajectory from fame to irrelevance, confounded at every turn by misunderstanding.

From this summary, one could easily read Kafka’s story as a conflict between a tortured artist and a fickle audience that goes from applauding his efforts to ignoring his continued artistic dedication simply because their interest shifts, and they “preferred to stream to other attractions on display.” “Fame is bee.” – so begins Emily Dickenson in a famously short poem, which concludes, “It has a song— / It has a sting— / Ah, too, it has a wing.” This is a story, allegedly, of art against society, the creation of art for appreciation vs. art for art’s sake.

Yet, such a reading of the story overlooks long, winding passages in which the hunger artist wrestles not with the caprices of his spectators but with his own self-worth. In these passages, we see how the real misunderstanding does not arise between the fans outside the cage and the performer inside the cage, but occurs primarily within the cage itself. The hunger artist is misunderstood because he misunderstands himself: he thinks his unyielding devotion to self-denial through fasting will win him acclaim among the world, whereas the real reward for his vain performances is the cage of a false self, a self which seeks to overcome its own bodily needs only to double-back and become trapped in self-obsession. When the hunger artists fasts only for himself, he ends up a huddled mess in a hay-filled cage. Ironically, this is precisely the situation where he begins, for his motive was same the whole time, only then, in those “different times,” the crowds nourished him with the short-lived recognition he desired.

I don’t want to paint Kafka’s story as a simplistic moralizing narrative against vanity, though. As with many of Kafka’s characters, the hunger artist pivots around various psychological extremes, occasionally deserving our pity, sometimes earning our scorn, but often vacillating in the space between. This ambiguity is important to note not because the story ultimately pardons self-obsession but because it tracks the route to self-obsession as a decidedly circuitous one. In the course of this progression, several twists along the path overlap with the points raised in the Gospel’s provisions on fasting.

The Reward of Fasting for the Self

To better understand the psychological struggle of Kafka’s hunger artist, I should highlight a few more details. First and foremost, in the early days of the hunger artist’s fame, he worries that those watching him, the guards (Wächter, literally “watchers” in German) above all, think that he wants to cheat by breaking his fast while they are not looking. As if to heighten the tension, the guards are “usually butchers, strangely enough” who are selected by the public (one gets the sense that “hunger artists” are a sort of public good at the beginning of the story, like playgrounds of fire hydrants, whom everyone wanted to see “at least once daily”). Hence, his ‘watchers’ have an intimate connection to food, to flesh, the very thing he wishes to reject. (Kafka doesn’t use the normal term for butcher but rather Fleischhauer, “flesh hacker.”) Moreover, though, they suspect that he really would break his fast if given the opportunity, so they sit at a distance to goad him into cheating. Understandably, the hunger artists takes this as an insult, as an abuse:

Nothing was more tortuous to the hunger artist than such guards; they made his soul gloomy; they made his fasting terribly hard; sometimes he overcame his weaknesses and sang during their watch, as long as he could hold out, in order to show the people how unjust their suspicions of him were.”

We might sympathize with this sad soul at such moments, yet notice that he acts, as the hypocrites in the Gospels do, “in order to show the people” some merit about himself. He can fast. He would never cheat. That his spectators have a certain view of him is what cuts him to the bone. On the other hand, he far prefers when the guards pay attention to him and listen to “stories from his life of wandering” as he listens to their “tales in turn.” This sounds nice and cordial, but we immediately learn that he does all of this in order to be able to show them always that he had nothing edible in the cage and that he was fasting, like none among them could.” (emphasis mine)

Just as in the Gospel’s warning, the hunger artist fasts for himself, so that others will esteem his accomplishments. This self-obsession is further emphasized in the next section of the story, as we hear that “fasting could absolutely not be separated from suspicions,” for “no one could know from their own observation whether the fast was really unbroken and without error; only the hunger artist himself could know that, only he, therefore, could be the observer totally satisfied by his fasting.” In this gesture, Kafka dramatically declares that the hunger artist alone could be the one to recognize fully his successful fasting, the only one who could really pat himself on the back for a job well done. Hence, any ultimate recognition to be gained from such his fasting must be given by himself; it would be self-recognition, and that would undermine the point… or perhaps prove the point that the quest for recognition, rather than moving outward, is a quest that isolates the self in its own desires.

Outward, however, is the direction in which fasting and other penitent acts must take us. Sadly for the hunger artist, his fasting leads him to question whether he is emaciated not from his fasting but only “out of dissatisfaction with himself.” Fasting, taken by itself, is easy for him. “It was the easiest thing in the world.” Despite the ease of his great act of penitence, though, “this dissatisfaction always inwardly gnawed on him, and never once, after no period of fasting—one must afford him this witness—had he left the cage on his own volition.” Notice that dissatisfaction, not hunger, is what “gnaws” at him, and that he would stay in the cage as long as he could to try to ward it off. The hunger artist has trapped himself.

The extent of the this famished performer’s vanity comes to the fore in what is quite possibly the most direct reference to the Gospels in the story. The Impresario who promotes his performance sets an upward limit of forty days for the his fast, that is, the famous forty-day-long stretch of Jesus’s fast in the desert (based on the Israelites’ forty years of wandering), after which Lent is patterned. But our less than humble ascetic aesthete (if you will allow me an indulgent play-on-words) would fast longer if he could, he could last “unlimitedly longer.” Why stop at forty days? “Why did they want to rob him of fame,” the narrator asks, “to fast further, to become not only the greatest hunger artist of all time, which he probably was already, but also to cross over into the incomprehensible, for he felt no barriers for his ability to fast.” He could do it. He could best Jesus. But the others simply do not understand.

As soon as the public misunderstanding of the hunger artist’s fasts morphs into a disinterest, though, the hunger artists real limits are brought to light. Somewhat tragically, the entire reason the Impresario limits the hunger artist’s performance to forty days is because after that time people simply lose interest. Once the artist finds himself without a steady audience, he joins a circus and fasts as long as he wants, but no one affords him the attention he thinks he deserves. Even the small sign posted next to him, announcing who he is and how long he has hungered, fall into disrepair, such that “no one counted the days, no one, not even the hunger artist himself, knew how great his accomplishment was, and his heart became heavy.” Still, he continues his work “honestly,” fasting, indeed, with excellence, “but the world cheated him of his reward.”

The Reward of Fasting for God


In Luke’s account of the crucifixion, we learn the most about the two robbers executed on either side of Jesus. One of these men, the so-called “good robber,” responds to the other’s mockery of Jesus by saying “we have indeed been condemned justly, for we are getting our reward for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” (Lk. 23:41). The hunger artist thinks he’s being robbed of his reward, his recognition, for his fasting. But truly, his search for self-affirmation earns him his just reward, which is self-entrapment. Nonetheless, a final moment in “A Hunger Artist” provides some hope of redemption, as the “good robber” is provided redemption for acknowledging his own wrongdoings.

It comes by way of reaching out, moving beyond a misunderstanding of the self’s desires.

On a rare occasion of acknowledgment, a single spectator approaches the cage. When the spectator asks at what point the hunger artist will finally end his fast, he responds, seemingly incongruently, with the words: “Forgive me for everything.” Although only this single spectator-turned-listener “understood,” finally, what the hunger artist has said, he responds in the plural: “we forgive you.” In turn, the hunger artist confides in his lone companion that “you all” (again in the plural ihr) should not be astounded by his fasting, for in truth, he would have eaten his share like all of the others, only he could not find food that tasted good to him. Thus, the grandiose displays of the hunger artist collapse into the petty fuss of a picky eater. But at the same time, his struggle escapes the singular, opening outward to other selves.

The Gospel tells us, for its own part, that our attempts at self-acclaim are likewise petty. What really matters is that we direct our acts of penitence outward toward God. The hunger artist finally makes the first steps toward God, away from the entrapped self, in one of the story’s final passages as he confesses the insubstantial grounds of his alleged greatness to an caring observer. But the burden of selfishness is not carried, perhaps, by the hunger artist alone. After his final exchange with the spectator, the artist expires and is buried along with the hay from his cage. In its place, a young panther is put on display with “nourishment that tastes [good] to him,” thereby recalling the source of the hunger artist’s error. The panther “lacks nothing” and becomes a grand attraction of the circus’s public. But the price the animal pays for this exultation is its freedom. It is encaged by spectacle.

If we allow our own efforts of penitence to be directed either at earning the recognition of others or promoting our own achievements, they too will rob us of our freedom, for our actions will be aligned not to our own choice but to the choices we feel we have to make to prove something of ourselves to others. A paradox seems to follow out of the other end of this tension, though. If we align ourselves NOT to a misunderstanding of our own desires, including the desire to be seen by others, which stands at the forefront of Kafka’s short story, BUT to the proper ordering of our desires in God, we come to realize true freedom. By giving in to God’s will for us, we discover that the path to our true happiness is not the path that implodes back into the self, but which elevates the self to God.

In brief, God wants the best for us. But when we blindly seek to advance ourselves in life by making our actions only about ourselves, we get no further than the bars of our self-built cages. This all requires more explanation. But suffice it to say: Kafka’s hunger artist shows us the way with no exit.

The way to start is to make our fasting, and other actions beyond that, not about winning fame, but about pursuing the Good and the Beautiful. Only then will fasting become an actual art and not merely a side-show for selfishness.

Humanae vitae Revisited

A new year dawns, bringing renewed social strife and uncertain presidential promises along with it. With the new year upon us, why not revisit an old yet groundbreaking encyclical in a new light?

The encyclical I have in mind is Pope Paul VI’s Humanae vitae (Of Human Life), delivered to the Church on the feast of St. James the Apostle in 1968. In essence, Humanae vitae clarifies the Church’s teaching on birth control, a topic which was left somewhat unresolved in 1965 at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council.

Why do I choose this encyclical in particular? In brief, I am of the opinion that this encyclical clarified and defined the tone for the Church’s social agenda, which would reverberate for decades to come and shape the Church into the counter-cultural institution that it is in the Western world today. Of course, the Church has always been counter-cultural in a sense (just look at Pope Pius X and the rejection of “Modernism” in his 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis—or Jesus’s critiques of the Pharisees, the Jewish cultural authorities of His time), but Humanae vitae took a firm stand against a prevailing, ubiquitous change in Western society: the widespread acceptance of artificial birth control. The encyclical reaffirmed the Church’s counter-cultural status by weighing in on the birth control debate that reached a peak in the 60s, and which has simmered but by no means settled since—see, for instance, the debacle with the HHS birth control mandate.

In this post, I want to explore the claims of Humanae vitae against the backdrop of the birth control controversy, the circumstances of which are depicted with special insight and hilarity in David Lodge’s novel The British Museum Is Falling Down, first published in 1965 shortly before Pope Paul VI’s encyclical. In the novel, an English Catholic graduate student by the name of Adam Appleby bemoans the Church’s prohibition of artificial contraception as he tries to manage his growing family. Ultimately, I will conclude that Humanae vitae presents a challenge for ‘modern’ Catholics, trapped as we are in a ‘modern’ conception of sexuality. But the actual grit of that challenge, and the demands it places on Catholics and, indeed, all people, requires further examination.

The Historical Backdrop

According to the British historian Hugh McLeod, Western Christianity underwent a period of foundation-shaking turmoil in years leading up to Humanae vitae: the title of his study The Religious Crisis of the 1960s says as much. In this work, McLeod characterizes the 1960s as a focal point of change in religious belief in the Western countries (Europe, US, Canada, Oceania), involving a near universal decline in church attendance, the proliferation of belief systems outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and major changes within Christianity, not the least of which was the Second Vatican Council.1 It is in this historical context of Christianity’s decline that Pope Paul VI’s encyclical must be understood.

Since Humanae vitae primarily concerns itself with artificial birth control, a short history of Christian views on birth control methods will follow. For centuries, all Christian denominations opposed methods of birth control that prevented conception and, most especially, induced abortion.2 However, this stark rejection of birth control began to change in the 20th century, beginning with a gradual acceptance of contraception by the Church of England. Carlson lays out this progression in article that originally appeared under the title “How Protestants Learned to Love the Pill” in the journal Family Policy.

In effect, the Anglicans relaxed their condemnation of contraceptive methods in particular (or “cautiously accepted” them, as McLeod puts it) during the 1930 meeting of the Lambeth Conference—something like the Anglican equivalent of a synod.3 Just a year later in 1931, Carlson reports, a conference of American Protestants—including Methodists, Presbyterians, the Church of Brethren, and Congregationalists—petitioned for the legalization of contraceptive devices in the US.4 Meanwhile, the Vatican reaffirmed its opposition to contraception in Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubii (On Chaste Marriage). Yet, the Protestant trend of accepting contraception continued, as the Anglican Church endorsed any means of family planning “mutually acceptable to husband and wife in Christian conscience,” according to resolution 115 of the 1958 Lambeth Conference. Thereafter, the 1961 North American Conference on Church and Family rocked the boat of standard anti-contraceptive teachings through the call for “a development of a new evangelical sexual ethic, one ‘relevant to our culture,’ sensitive to the overpopulation crisis, and grounded in modern science,” in Carlson’s words. Speakers included Mary Calderone of Planned Parenthood and Wardell Pomeroy of the Kinsey Institute, two bastions of ‘modern’ approaches to sexuality. Finally, the availability of ‘the Pill’ to American women in 1960 and British women in 1961, made contraception an easy, effective, and affordable form of birth control. And, still, the Vatican held firm.

In brief, Protestant conferences through the first half of the 20th century gradually buckled under the pressure of cultural demands for artificial birth control, while the Catholic Church refused to give up ground, with the exception perhaps of Pope Pius XII qualified acceptance of the “rhythm method” in 1951. On these issues, the Church stood on the losing side.

McLeod relays the words of a young British woman from the 1960s, who spoke of howthe magazines that you read at the time very much were saying, go on the pill, the pill, the pill. That was all what it was, young girls were supposed to be doing, taking the pill” (163). A recent article in TIME magazine with the title “The Long, Strange History of Birth Control” (Feb. 2, 2015) corroborates this narrative of contraception’s rise on the other side of the Atlantic as well. According to the article, by 1965 almost 6.5 million American women used the birth control pill. In America in 1973, “70% of married woman between the ages of 15 and 44 were using some form of contraception.”

By the numbers, the tides had already turned against Church Teaching well before Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, even among Catholics. Drawing on research cited in Tentler’s Contraception and Catholics in America, McLeod writes that “a survey in the United States in 1960 found that 38 per cent of married white Catholic women aged 18–39 were using or had used methods of birth control forbidden by the church, including 46 per cent of those in the 35–9 age group” (167). On the one hand, it seemed that Catholics simply expected a change. By 1968, all the other mainline churches had accepted contraception as a norm, so why not the Roman Church? Adam, the protagonist of Lodge’s The British Museum Is Falling Down—to be discussed in depth later—, echoes this expectation of acquiescence, as he muses over the possibility that the ‘progressive’ Belgian Cardinal Suenans might triumph over the ‘conservative’ Italian Cardinal Ottaviani and declare artificial contraception proper for Catholic couples.

Much to the disappointment of these Catholics, however, Humanae vitae offered no such assent to the tailwinds of cultural change.

Pope Paul VI in his own Words

From this historical context provided above, we can frame the encyclical with the following backdrop: by 1968, all mainline Protestant churches has accepted artificial birth control (within marriage), Catholic couples in Western countries had already begun using artificial birth control (including 38 per cent of married white Catholic women in the US), and ‘the Pill’ had an especially strong hold. The scales seemed to be tipping in favor of papal approval of contraception for married people: even a commission first organized in 1963 under John XXIII, the predecessor to Paul VI, weighed in favor of allowing contraceptive measures in marriage, though its exact results were not meant to be public.5


Despite all of this pro-contraceptive momentum, Paul VI affirmed the Church’s Teaching against artificial contraception. Why? Was he just some meddling traditionalist bent on halting progress? Did he fear that a reversal of previous papal condemnation of artificial contraception in Casti Connubii would desecrate Church authority? In the pope’s own words, the matter has more to do with drawing out the implications of Christ’s teaching.

The encyclical begins by very much countenancing the problems that Catholic couples faced at the time. These include “rapid increase in population” and “demands made both in the economic and the education field” that impose hardships on large families—all concerns that Lodge’s fictional protagonist voices. In §3 the pope asks whether, given these contemporary conditions, married couples might be able to observe the moral norms of the Church “only with the gravest difficulty, sometimes only by heroic effort?” This mention of “heroic effort” represents a clear, candid extension of empathy from the pontiff to the married couples in his flock. Indeed, the emotional intelligence of the pope’s reflections comes to the fore in second paragraph of §3, which is worth quoting at length:

Moreover, if one were to apply here the so called principle of totality, could it not be accepted that the intention to have a less prolific but more rationally planned family might transform an action which renders natural processes infertile into a licit and provident control of birth? Could it not be admitted, in other words, that procreative finality applies to the totality of married life rather than to each single act? A further question is whether, because people are more conscious today of their responsibilities, the time has not come when the transmission of life should be regulated by their intelligence and will rather than through the specific rhythms of their own bodies.

Without a doubt, Paul VI acknowledges the concerns of Catholic couples of his day and respects their entirely rational need to limit family size and in doing so fulfill the procreative aim of marriage in the totality of marriage, rather than in every sexual act. But the encyclical also warns of “the domination and rational organization of the forces of nature” that lead to a Dr. Frankenstein effect in which “every aspect of [human] life” (§2) comes under human control. Here, we can see signs of hesitancy, even suspicion toward the artificial subversion of human nature.

And, indeed, it is on this boundary between the natural and the artificial that the gavel of papal authority finally falls in Humanae vitae. After addressing the results of the commission mentioned above, which “could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain” due to a lack of “complete agreement concerning the moral norms to be proposed” (§6), Paul VI draws out the implications of God’s loving design for married life. He reasons from the definition of marriage as a “union of two persons in which they perfect one another, cooperating with God in the generation and rearing of new lives” (§8), that married love is total, faithful and exclusive, and fecund. From this basis of marriage, it follows that married love must seek to bring forth new life if it is to be total and fecund. Perhaps more controversially, though, Paul VI clarifies that, according to Church Teaching, “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” (§11). The question, then, is what it means to retain this procreative element.

Here, the division between natural and artificial means of spacing births enters into the fray. Because conception is the natural result of sexual intercourse, then “an act of mutual love which impairs the capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it, frustrates His design which constitutes the norm of marriage” (§13). Hence, the Church excludes methods of birth control which deliberately disable the transmission of life “either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse” (§14). Among the unlawful forms of birth control, then, would be condoms or other barrier methods, drugs that prevent ovulation, such as ‘the Pill,’ or that prevent implantation, as well as forms of sterilization. Yet, Paul VI affirms methods of birth control in accordance with the natural functioning of human reproduction, especially through engaging in intercourse “only during those times that are infertile” (§16). Hence, Humanae vitae does not rule all forms of birth control unlawful. Rather, artificial contraception, as an alteration of human sexuality, is admonished by Church Teaching.

At first, this distinction between artificial and natural methods of birth control may seem arbitrary. What difference does it make if a couple spaces births by having intercourse during infertile periods or by preventing ovulation with ‘the Pill,’ especially if the intention is to avoid pregnancy in both cases? The moral distinction occurs only between the constitution of the method rather than the intention. Paul VI addresses this concern, however. “In reality,” he writes, “these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the later they obstruct the natural development of the generative process.” (§16). Again, Paul VI emphasizes how artificial birth control alters the very nature of human sexuality.

Is Paul VI’s concern for the alteration of sexuality through birth control perhaps overstated? He claims, for example, that widespread use of artificial birth control “could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” (§17). Moreover, Paul VI worries that “a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, ans, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires” (§17). Finally, the pope directs his attention to governments, asking “Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone.” (§17).

Considering the ‘modern’ views of sexuality that have developed in the 50 years between Humanae vitae and the present—the legalization of no fault divorce, the preponderance of marital infidelity, especially in western Europe,6 the popularity enjoyed by so-called ‘moral relativism,’ the burgeoning growth of pornography, and the HHS birth control mandate—it is hard to assess Pope Paul VI’s concerns as anything less than prescient. For better of for worse, the transformations he forecasted have come to pass. Whether they have been caused by the availability of artificial birth control is harder to say, but certainly the separation of procreation from sexuality, which such methods wrought, has proliferated, indeed, revolutionized ‘modern’ views of sexuality.

The Game Changer and the Deal Breaker: the Lay and Clerical Catholic Response

For those familiar with the Church’s teaching on sexuality, the ruling against artificial birth control in Humanae vitae should come as no surprise. However, for Catholics of the day, the 1968 encyclical was a game changer and a deal breaker: a game changer because it set in stone, with that infamous papal infallibility, a doctrinal condemnation of artificial birth control for Catholics, and a deal breaker because it dashed the hopes of many married Catholics, who would subsequently break off from the Church.

McLeod offers a broad snapshot of this decidedly negative response to Humanae vitae in its own time. Before the encyclical, a 1967 poll among American Catholics found that 73 per cent want the condemnation of artificial birth control altered (168). Compare this to a 2013 poll from Quinnipiac, which reports that 64 per cent of Catholics in the US, including 51 per cent of weekly churchgoers, think the contraception ban should be relaxed. The irony, of course, is that nowadays Catholics are somehow less resistant to this particular teaching. For Australian Catholics, McLeod cites Anne O’Brien’s book God’s Willing Workers: Woman and Religion in Australia, which claims that Humane vitae marked “the beginning of the end of their association with the Church” (169).

The opposition to the encyclical’s ruling did not limit itself to the laity, though. McLeod cites David Rice’s book Shattered Vows: Priests Who Leave, to detail the sizable clerical opposition to Humanae vitae:

older Catholic priests are said to remember what they were doing when they heard the news of Paul VI’s condemnation of contraception. In a typical story, an American priest driving along a remote country road heard the news on his car radio and uttered the two words, ‘I quit’. (McLeod 193; Rice 41)

And quit they did. Rice’s study of priestly resignations from the 1960s to the 1980s found that “the only doctrinal reason mentioned was papal teaching on birth control” (McLeod 191). Rice himself was a Dominican priest until 1977, when, like Martin Luther, he renounced his vows to marry a woman. Meanwhile, several priests who did not cast off their cassocks campaigned against the Vatican’s ruling. Fr. Louis Janssens of the University of Louvain, for example, approved of oral contraceptives in the Belgian journal Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses in 1964 – again, before the encyclical’s publication, which goes to show the tidal wave against which Humanae vitae asserted itself.

An especially troubling trend that seemed to emerge in the 60s combines this lay and clerical opposition to Humanae vitae. Once the teaching against artificial birth control became doctrine, Catholic couples, many of whom were already using such methods (again, that 38 per cent figure from US Catholics in 1960), feared the admonishment of priests in the sacrament of confession.7 Subsequently, fewer Catholics received absolution in the confessional, and hence could not receive communion with the mortal sin on their hearts. Hence, church attendance declined. Simultaneously, priests opposing Humanae vitae refused to enforce the Church’s Teaching, or like Fr. Rice, vacated their priestly offices. Having fewer priests only exacerbated the problem with the sacraments and introduced an even more heinous problem: the recruitment of inadequate individuals for the priesthood, some of whom would contribute to the sexual abuse crises of the last 20 years, which would drive even more Catholics away from the Church. Though this downward spiral can hardly be attributed to Humanae vitae alone, the ramifications of the Church’s Teachings therein are immense.

Is The Catholic Church Falling Down?


The British Museum, London

My portrayal of cultural response to Humanae vitae up to this point leaves us with a far from rosy picture of Catholic Teaching on birth control. A retreat to comedy, then, might be in order. But I don’t think that the following examination of Lodge’s The British Museum Is Falling Down leaves us only with laughter. Indeed, Lodge’s portrayal captures many of the focal points of the birth control debate described above and, in the way that fiction often does, provides us with insight otherwise overlooked.

Adam Appleby is a simple man. He is a British graduate student in English literature, whose doctoral dissertation focuses on“The Long Sentence” in several literary works. He is also a practicing Catholic. At age 25, he has already sired three children with his loftily wedded wife Barbara and fears that they have conceived another. With this fear, the novel starts its progression—or perhaps digression—through Adam’s day at the library of the British Museum.8

Adam’s stance toward Catholic Teaching on birth control, like that of many of his contemporaries, could described as “less than enthusiastic” or “begrudgingly complaint.” In the first chapter he muses:

How different it must be, he thought, the life of an ordinary, non-Catholic parent, free to decide—actually decide, in calm confidence—whether to have or not to have a child. How different from his own married state, which Adam symbolised as a small, over-populated, low-lying island ringed by a crumbling dyke which he and his wife struggled hopelessly to repair as they kept anxious watch on the surging sea of fertility that surrounded them. (12)

Yet, Barbara and Adam proceed with the Church’s provisions to practice what was then called the “rhythm method.” Lodge pokes fun at the method throughout the book, characterizing it through “sheets of graph paper and little pieces of cardboard with transparent windows of cellophane” “patient graph-plotting” and “exhaustion and renewed suspense.” (14). The notion, essentially, is that all of painstaking measurements of the “rhythm method” are far from natural, that is, if couples intend to have frequent intercourse. For his own part, Adam “wrote to the Catholic Press about Birth Control” (29) and attends a meeting of Catholic dissenters to the Vatican’s at-that-point unestablished Teaching, while Barbara is entreated by their landlady to use ‘the Pill.’

Adam and Barbara’s concerns are of course well-founded. In fact, the main talking points of the birth control debate come to the fore in a bizarre conversation between Adam and their local priest, an Irishman by the name of Fr. Finbar, who amusingly hitches a ride on Adam’s moped. Adam begins:

Do you think the Council will change the Church’s attitude on Birth Control?”

What was that, Mr. Appleby?”

Adam repeated his question at louder volume, and the scooter lurched as his passenger registered its import.

The Church’s teaching never changes, Mr. Appleby,” came the stiff reply. “On that or any other matter.”

Hence, we encounter the issue of doctrine: the Church has established, unchanging teachings. Adam continues:

Well, all right—let’s say “develop”,” Adam went on. “Newman’s theory of doctrinal development—”

Newman?” interjected the priest sharply, “Wasn’t he a Protestant?”

Circumstances have changed, new methods are available—isn’t it time we revised our thinking about these matters?”

Following this humorous jab at Cardinal Henry Newman, who was indeed a Protestant prior to his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845, Adam raises the very same question Paul VI does in Humanae vitae in the discussion of “This new state of things” and “heroic effort.”9 Fr. Finbar, though, eventually answers with the stated foundation of marriage, reiterated in Humanae vitae §§ 8-9.

The true purpose of marriage is to procreate children and bring them up in the fear and love of God!” asserted Father Finbar.

But Adam answers with a plea that echoes “the demands made on both the economic and educational field” (§2) which impose difficulties for families in the industrialized world.

Adam, his scooter locked in traffic, twisted in his saddle. “Look, Father, the average woman marries at twenty-three and is fertile till forty. Is it her duty to procreate seventeen children?”

I was the youngest of eighteen children!” cried the priest triumphantly.

How many survived infancy?” demanded Adam.

Seven,” the priest admitted. “God rest the souls of the others.” He crossed himself.

You see? With modern medical care they might all survive. But how could you house and feed even seven in London today? What are we supposed to do?”

To this query, Fr. Finbar answers with a predicable response:

Practice restraint,” retorted the priest. “I do.”

That’s different—”

Pray, go to daily communion, say the rosary together . . .”

We can’t. We’re too busy—” (35-37)

Ultimately, it seems, the real strain on adherence to the Church’s teaching on birth control comes down to the very conditions of ‘modern’ life: busy-ness that leaves little time for spiritual cultivation such as daily prayer. The societal foundation of dissent to Church Teaching, one that is based in economic progress above all, should not be understated.

Despite all of Adam’s grievances, though, God’s plan ends up panning out for him in the end, though I don’t want give away the fanciful resolution Lodge works into The British Museum Is Falling Down. Let’s just say it involves deflecting temptation with a thermometer—the very tool of the “rhythm method” that Adam laments. There’s a great line in that scene, though, that is worth mentioning. The questions arises: “You mean you believe all that nonsense about birth control?” “I’m not sure I believe it,” Adam replies, “but I practise{sic} it.” (123).

A Voice in the Wilderness

Belief and practice, indeed, mutually reinforce each other. They are inherently interwoven. In the ‘modern’ West, though, the two are often divided. Though the Church officially espouses the belief that artificial birth control is unlawful, the majority of its congregants do not practice what the Church preaches. Today in the US, a widely cited statistic announces that 98 per cent of Catholic women have used artificial birth control at some point in their lives. In Britain, a 2008 survey from Tablet magazine reports that 54.5% of Catholic women who regularly attend mass in England and Wales were on ‘the Pill.’ Half thought the teaching against artificial contraception should be revised.

Clearly, opposition to the Church Teaching on artificial birth control is widespread and popular, both inside the Church and outside of it. Moreover, artificial birth control, especially ‘the Pill’ and condoms, have become ubiquitous in the West. A BBC article reports that 2 million women in England and Wales have prescriptions for the pill, and 70% of women across Britain report having use the pill as a particular form of birth control at some point in their lives.10 In countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, and France, condom advertisements are sanctioned by the government. More recently in the US, the Affordable Care Act has mandated that insurance plans cover all kinds of birth control, including sterilization.

This embrace of artificial birth control has not been without its consequences, though. Indeed, it lies at the heart of ‘modern’ views of sexuality, which boil down to this: sex is not chiefly about procreation. It is about enjoyment, self-discovery, entertainment and even ‘having fun.’ The ‘modern’ West agrees: one need only look to the proliferation of pornography, the ubiquity of sexual references and portrayals in popular media, “hook-up” apps like Grindr and Tinder, the increase in cohabitation before marriage, the decline in number of marriages, the increase in average number of sexual partners, the decline in age of first sexual encounter, and a polyphony of other factors. The sexual revolution has changed Western society, not only in what Westerners belief, but also in what they practice.

It is precisely because such ‘modern’ views of sexuality are commonplace that the Church cannot yield to their pressures. In any society, there must be voices of opposition. In regards to matters of ‘modern’ sexuality, the Church is, most definitively, that voice. This position places orthodox Church Teaching on the margin for sure. Humanae vitae solidified that reality. Yet, there may still be room for Catholic couples to abide by these difficult doctrines in a way that requires less than “heroic effort.”

In a sort of epilogue to Lodge’s The British Museum Is Falling Down, the perspective shifts from a third-person narration of Adam’s day to the interior monologue of his wife Barbara. Those with a background in modern literature, particularly Irish literature, will immediately recognize this move as a play on the final section of James Joyce’s landmark work of Modernist fiction Ulysses, which ends with the barely punctuated interior monologue of the protagonist’s wife, Molly Bloom. In Ulysses Mrs. Bloom has committed infidelity. In Lodge’s novel, though, Barbara ponders the Church’s views on birth control. She speaks of the ‘Safe Method’ as “too mechanical, you’re always watching the calendar, it’s like launching a rocket—five four three two one, and by the time it’s zero you’re too tensed up to” (169). She refers to it jokingly as “Vatican Roulette” (172), yet she also acknowledges that even this method was once discouraged: “mum told me when she was young even the safe method was frowned on and you were only supposed to use it if you were starving or going to die from another pregnancy” (173). And though she, like her husband, struggles with Church Teaching on birth control, she also admits that there’s “something a bit offputting about contraceptives even non-Catholics would prefer not to” (174).

Surely, the birth control debate gives us much to think about. The final word of The British Museum Is Falling Down reflects this general need for further consideration. Joyce ends his monologue with the affirmative “Yes”; but Lodge, coyly and with literary allusion in mind, ends his with the hypothetical “Maybe.”

Maybe the possibility that still stands for Catholic couples, especially those struggling with Church Teaching, consists in the formation of strong communities with programs in marriage counseling, workshops on various Natural Family Planning (NFP) methods, and strong pastoral care for growing families. Maybe, too, it consists in rejecting the prevalent sexualization of popular media and cultivating the values of modesty, self-respect, and that oft-mocked fulcrum—chastity, which does not seek silence on sexual matters, but rather a mature and thoughtful handling of them.

As for a shift in Catholic doctrine away from the precedents set in Humanae vitae? That is a possibility only in fiction.

1This process of “de-Christianization,” of course, traces back to a epoch long before the 1960s; Brad Gregory, for instance, argues in The Unintended Reformation that the modern decline of Western Christianity has its roots in the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Other scholars, such as the Italian philosopher Augusto del Noce, stress the importance of the Enlightenment in Christianity’s decline. Charles Taylor, meanwhile, traces the roots of modern secularism back to the so-called Axial Age all the way back in the 6th century B.C., in which societies became structured more in terms of the individual rather than the collective.

2This opposition to birth control has Biblical precedent in the story of Onan in Gen 38, in which Judah’s son Onan, tasked with continuing his genetical line of his brother Er, “spilled his semen on the ground” (Gen 38:9) since he knew the children would not be his – hence, the method of “pulling-out” is referred to as Onanism, as is masturbation. The divine decree to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28) in the Priestly creation story is also cited in the birth control debate. However, Catholic Teaching on birth control grounds itself more in a holistic understanding of human sexuality and the natural ordering of sexual intercourse toward procreation.

3The modesty of the language in the Lambeth Conference’s resolution allowing “other methods” of birth control, one resolution 15, should be noted. Only in cases with a “clearly felt moral obligation to limit parenthood” did the conference approve of contraception, whereas the conference condemned cases with “motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.” Yet even this narrow gap allowed a sort of Pandora’s box to be opened. A commentator in the June 30, 1930, edition of the London Times went so far as to say that the conference would alter the “social and moral life” of humanity, and not without merit. In light of this, the Church’s hesitancy to approve of any artificial means of birth control is understandable.

4They would have to wait for the 1964 Supreme Court ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut to have their pleas for nationwide contraception met, at least for married couples. The 1972 Supreme Court ruling in Eisenstadt v. Baird would extend contraceptive rights for non-married couples eight years later. This follows a general narrative in US courts toward sexual liberation (see, for example, Roe v. Wade in 1973, Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, and of course the Obergefell v. Hodges ruling of 2015).

5Documents leaked to the press in 1967 show that 9 committee members voted in favor of artificial birth control, including Cardinal Suenens mentioned above, 3 abstained, and 3 opposed, including Cardinal Ottaviani, also mentioned above. See, Janet E. Smith, Humanae vitae: A Generation Later (Catholic University of America Press, 1991).

6According to my research of recent polls, reported rates of infidelity in any romantic relationship in western Europe stand at around 40 per cent (my information comes from 2014 poll by the French Institute of Public Opinion, and a similar poll from the Italian equivalent of Ashley Madison, a website that facilitates marital infidelity). This compares to around 20 per cent in the US, according to a YouGov poll in 2015. However, rates of marital infidelity seem to be more or less the same between western Europe and the US, with around 3 per cent of spouses reportedly having an extra-marital sexual partner in the last year, according to surveys in France and the US from 2004, cited by Druckerman.

7One survey shows a decline from 38 percent attending confession monthly in 1968 to 17 percent in 1974 (Greeley, The Catholic Revolution, 49).

8Adam is clearly an autobiographical character: Lodge, also an English Catholic, worked on a PhD in literature while providing for a burgeoning family.

9This new state of things gives rise to new questions. Granted the conditions of life today and taking into account the relevance of married love to the harmony and mutual fidelity of husband and wife, would it not be right to review the moral norms in force till now, especially when it is gelt that these can be observed only with the gravest difficulty, sometimes only be heroic effort?” (Humanae vitae §3)

10Rebecca Cafe, “How the contraceptive pill changed Britain” (4 Dec. 2011), BBC News.


I just want to take a moment to apologize.

I’m sorry for being lazy. I’m sorry for feeling like time isn’t worth being spent. I’m sorry for forgetting about God. I’m sorry for thinking that being sorry doesn’t matter.

I apologize for just thinking about food and sleep and getting by. I’m sorry for neglecting my relationships and responsibilities I had all along.

I apologize for feeling resentment and jealousy towards those who seem to have it all more figured out than I do. I’m sorry that I just ate 3-5 handfuls of mini M&Ms that were just sitting on the counter, and although I don’t know who their proper owner was, I know it wasn’t me.

I’m sorry for abandoning a number of people who deserve attention and love. I’m sorry for essential becoming vacuumed into myself and being blind to everything outside of me. I even feel the need to apologize to the person I was 6 months ago for about-facing and walking the other way for a few miles.

I’m sorry for taking so much and giving so little.

I’m sorry if this essentially sounds nonsensical.


These verses come from the Sidney Psalter, a versification of biblical psalms from the 16th century. Psalm 6 is a penitential psalm.

Psalm 6: Domine Ne in Furore

Lord, let not me, a worm, by thee be shent,

While thou art in the heat of thy displeasure;

Not let thy rage, of my due punishment

Become the measure.

But mercy, Lord, let mercy descend,

For I am weak, and in my weakness languish:

Lord, help, for ev’n my bones their marrow spend

With cruel anguish.

Exploring Meaninglessness with the Darkly-minded, Slightly Emo, Older Cousin of the Biblical Family

Whether through television or real life experience, we’re all familiar with those social gatherings with all of the extended family invited to gorge themselves on fine cooking and indulge in a general atmosphere of conviviality. At these gatherings, many overused archetypes of various family members are destined to show up—the fat, obnoxious uncle with his snappy one-liners; the old, consternated grandmother who has a soft spot for the grandkids; the dilapidated granddad who we really ought not allow near the liquor cabinet lest we want to relive the offensive diatribes of yesteryear. Then, over in the corner, slouched against a wall dressed In solid grayscale, the T shirt beneath his cardigan sporting a few skulls and cross bones, is the dissonant outlier of the family gathering, the darkly-minded, slightly emo older cousin, who is talked about in passing as being “really a very talented painter,” and “always up in his room thinking.” Deep down, everyone there knows that this misunderstood not-quite-a-teenager-any-more young man doesn’t belong. And yet, he is a part of the big happy family all the same.

This is the way that I thought about the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes when I first encountered its terse collection of 12 chapters nestled between Proverbs and the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament. If Ecclesiastes is the strange, morbid second cousin (once removed on his mother’s side) of the biblical family, then Proverbs and the Song of Solomon are two beloved brothers. Ecclesiastes just doesn’t fit.

Now, let me explain. The reason the book seems out of place is because of its content and tone, not because of its familial relation to other books in the Bible per se. After all, it arose from the same scribal communities as other books ascribed to King Solomon. Still, something seemed off with this one, as my initial response to reading its somber passages was this: “What is this? Am I even reading the Bible?”


Perhaps to offer a flavor of this Old Testament outlier we can examine a passage from the 9th chapter, which in my biblical edition receives the subtitle “Take Life as It Comes.” I think we’ll see how Ecclesiastes handles issues of wisdom, death, mystery, and the pivotal Hebrew word חבל hevel (literally translated to “breath” but often taken to mean “vanity” or “meaninglessness”[1]) in a rather strange manner compared to the transcendent theology common to the Bible.

“Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun an oath. This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone.” (Eccl 9:1-3)

And what is that common fate that seems to disregard morality and conduct? “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun.” (Eccl 9:5-6) This obsession with the passing away of things, the notion of ephemerality, haunts the entire book of Ecclesiastes. The pattern is essentially this: the  Qohelet (the Teacher and speaker of Ecclesiastes) describes something considered meaningful—the pursuit of wisdom (Eccl 1:12), obtaining wealth (Eccl 2:9), human friendship, (Eccl 4:9)—but then, like the pessimistic, black-garbed second cousin, realizes that these things won’t be remembered and will pass away like the breeze, leaving  the Teacher to conclude “Surely this is also vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccl 4:16).

This dismissal of the meaning of things that are impermanent and will pass from memory—this is a very modern existential struggle, which is discussed in a similar way in a 2012 novel that I read recently, The Pale King by David Foster Wallace:

I’m talking about the individual US citizen’s deep fear, the same basic fear that you and I have and that everybody has except nobody ever talks about it except existentialists in convoluted French prose. Or Pascal. Our smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing that we all spend all out time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back and our childhoods are over and our adolescence and the vigor of youth and soon our adulthood, that everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it’s all passing away, and so are we, so am I, and given how fast the first forty-two years have shot by it’s not going to be long before I too pass away, whoever imagined that there was a more truthful way to put “die,” “pass away,” the very sound of it makes me feel the way I feel at dusk on a wintry Sunday—“ (143)

Given the shared language of passing away, the fleetingness and ephemerality embodied so well in hevel or vanity, Ecclesiastes is rendered very modern in its message. However, neither Ecclesiastes as a whole nor the above passage denies that life has meaning; they’re just worried about ephemerality. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl 1:2) describes not the purposelessness of life but that “everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it’s all passing away,” as Wallace writes.

Carpe Diem, but Not Quite

What should one do amid the fleetingness of life? The Teacher of Ecclesiastes commands, “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long approved what you do. . . Enjoy life with your wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given to you under the sun, because that is your portion in life. . . Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might” (Eccl 7-10). This declaration to “enjoy life” through food and drink and “whatever your hand finds to do” seems to condone an almost unbridled hedonism. Drink and be merry, not obey God and His will. At first, this was the real shocking passage for me, since it seems to disregard consequences and morals with the same irresponsible fervor evoked by YOLO (said, almost exclusively, before someone does something stupid). Is Ecclesiastes promoting that kind of life style? Not quite.

It’s important to understand that the whole eat, drink, and be merry in ancient Israel was not so much about excess as just enjoying the everyday—a meal with the whole family, not a Dionysian symposium of wine-chugging.

Moreover, the mention of eating in drinking in Ecclesiastes is accompanied by a note of dependence on God, as the Teacher notes that enjoyment “is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (Eccl 2:24-25).  The hedonism, here, is not nihilistic and morally unrestrained, but God-given. The message of carpe diem (seize the day) lives in these passages but is breathed by God into man, such that enjoying the little things, food, drink, & co. becomes part of humankind’s God-given lot.


Ecclesiastes, though, seems to take the fleetingness of life further than any other biblical book, ostracizing itself from the family conversation like the brooding adult-ish teenager. Take this passage, which flies in the face of humankind’s dominion over animals proclaimed in Genesis: “For the fate of animals and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals downward to the earth?” (Eccl 3:19-21).

By reducing human life to nothing more than the animalistic, Ecclesiastes contradicts the very chapter of Genesis (Gen 3) it references with “all are dust” bit. No wonder its canonical status was contested, as Temper Longman describes, “The book was accused of contradictions, secularity, and even outright heresy” [2]. However, Longman resolves the heresy conflict in his exegesis by citing the first and last verse of Ecclesiastes, in which another voice other than that of the Teacher speaks: “Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone” (Eccl 12:13). (If humans are no more than animals, are we holding animals to those standards, too?) The proclamation to obey God, while seemingly out of place, underlies much of Ecclesiastes, and ultimately, I think that the outcast slightly-emo, older cousin has something pertinent to say about God.

In God’s Time

Probably the most beautiful section in Ecclesiastes is chapter 3, in which the listing oppositional pairs, such as birth/death and weeping /laughing reminds us that “for everything there is a season” (Eccl 3:1). There is well-known hymn based on the passage, actually.

The passage both issues a warning and offers reassurance; where there is happiness, there will someday be sadness, but where there is sadness, there will sometime be happiness. In this way, maybe it’s not so bad that the worldly sensations are fleeting, for we need not bear one feeling for too long.

Directly after this section, the Teacher reminds the reader that all of this happens in God’s time: “He has made everything suitable to its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end” (Eccl 3:11). With the assuredness of God’s plan comes the inability to understand it fully, though it may be accessible in part. Indeed, it would be presumptuous to claim knowledge of God’s plan—there is foolishness in presuming. As my former theology professor said fondly, “We plan. God laughs.” Our plans might come to pass, deo volente (God willing).

This, I feel, is what Ecclesiastes’s Teacher is really getting at with the talk of vanity, hevel, fleetingness.

As humans, we cannot contemplate God’s ways. We live on this earth, which isn’t a perfect place, and we experience much suffering and injustice. Yet, there are times of goodness and joy and companionship with great friends. We cannot understand everything, but in obedience to God, we wait for a time of plenty. We cannot know what will become of us, but we must live out our days, and we ought to trust God in that time. Earthly things are “vanities” but God is eternal, and God may yet guide us to a resting place “because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets” (12:5). This is a view of low-epistemology, of human ignorance, yet also a testimony to God’s greatness and a bleak yet apt theodicy to explain evil: Don’t question why there is evil. Of course there is evil. The world is full of it, for it is not the place of God’s eternal goodness and need not be good; still, there will be “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;” (Eccl 3:4). Though the Qoheleth tells us to enjoy life, this is not license to embrace personal hedonism: it is the proclamation to seize the day—carpe diem—for only God know what comes next.

[1] Raymond C. Van Leewen, “Ecclesiastes”  The Harper Collins Study Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 892.

[2] Temper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 26.

Dealing with Something That Might Not Really Be Fully Understood Ever

There are some things out there in the universe that are nigh near impossible to define: what exactly God is, the concept of infinity (and hence the first thing on the list), the limit of y = 1 over x as x approaches 0. . . what women want. Now, in this realm of undefined, ambiguous notions consider this simple yet puzzling statement: “God is Love.” In Kurt Vonnegut’s much acclaimed and much beloved (by me not the least) novel Cat’s Cradle, this statement earns the following response from Dr. Hoenikker, an eccentric scientist who is every bit as difficult to quantify as the aforementioned phrase: “What is God? What is love?”

For a while there, in my ongoing struggle to answer both of the questions that Dr. Hoenikker poses, I thought outright that love didn’t exist. Now, please allow me to be more specific. Of course I knew that people said that they loved each other, and I knew that I cared deeply and passionately about the members of my family and about certain concepts, God among them, but I had a great difficulty saying that romantic love was anything at all like what we understand it to be.

I think one of the greatest difficulties in my search and with the idea of love in general, is that the English language possesses a woefully inadequate supply of words to differentiate between the varieties of love that we feel, and within the wide network of things that this English term love attempts to define, it impoverishes itself, being neither specific enough nor broad enough to define any idea well. In an essay aptly titled “Love,” published in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, philosopher Bennett Helm wrestles with the homonymic quality of love, stretching from this single word various emotions and expressions tagged with designating adjectives like “philial,” “erotic” or “erosic,” “platonic,” and “value-ascribing.” I think that Helm is of the same mind as me in wishing that English could be more like Greek, with its cleanly separated terms for the various powers pulsing through our bodies that often fall under the blanket term of “love;” words like eros, agape, and philia; and in Latin, amor, amicitia, and the theologically powerful caritas. In Russian, I’ve been told, there are some seven words for love, among them любовь (Ee-yoo-beet) which can be translated as the “flame of love.” Yet, in English we are left with the plainly powerful, painfully imprecise word “love.”

The Confusion: This Love (Is Takin’ Its Toll on Me)

Love’s ambiguity wasn’t really my basis for denying its existence, though. That would be, I suppose, rather like claiming that blue isn’t a color because there are too many dissimilar shades of it. The problem for me is that I couldn’t understand how love, especially romantic love, was anything more than just a combination of a few other basic emotions. For example, it seems that love, with all of its psychological attachment and clinginess, is no more than an exaggerated friendship. What factors make it anything otherwise, anything more than another very strong human relationship? On the other hand, I couldn’t understand how romantic love was anything more than the clinginess of friendship with the addition of sexuality. But if love can be so easily conceptualized as an admixture of other more basic traits, then where is its essential power? If love really is an all-powerful, subsuming essence of life, then it shouldn’t be so easily reducible. If anything, other things (sexuality, friendship) should reduce to it. Otherwise, love is not really an essence of life at all but a confused product of more basic forces.

Important Questions: What Is Love? (Baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no mo’)

From this state of confusion, I want to explore several questions about love, namely:

(1)   Is love an essential force that cannot be reduced?

(2)   Does romantic love exist independently from sexuality, that is, is romantic love autonomous?

(3)   If romantic love is NOT autonomous and necessarily relates to sexuality, are our romantic interactions anything more than evolutionarily determined mating practices?

(4)   Is love a transcendent experience, and, if so, how can this help us to understand God?

Finally, I want to extend this question as a source of reflection:

(5)   What do you mean by love?

Love as “Essence”: All You Need Is Love

Before delving into whether or not love is an irreducible “essence,” I think I ought to identify what I mean by love. Colloquially, love is understood to be felt through a physical sensation—a warmth in the chest when someone is present, an emptiness when that someone is gone. Yet, the reasons why one feels these sensations ought to be part of the definition as well. For these, I turn to the three Greek terms eros, agape, and philia.

Eros arises from passion and desire, usually in a sexual sense, though Socrates sees this desire reaching further, as Helm explains: “Socrates understands sexual desire to be a deficient response to physical beauty in particular, a response which ought to be developed into a response to the beauty of a person’s soul and, ultimately, into a response to the form, Beauty.” In this case, the desire is for more than a person’s body, as the real desire is directed toward the ideal Beauty that manifests itself in that person. Eros, then, is a very visceral response to beauty, a desire to be close to it.

Philia, on the other hand, is a friendly affection or appreciation, the sort of warmth one feels when in the company of one’s best buds. But this feeling of love also extends to the love one may have of one’s community or country at large—it’s the appreciation that says, “that’s what I’m all about, or I can get behind that!” as well as “I’ve got your back, or you can count on me!” In this way, philia is derived from a sharing of ideals or interests—the camaraderie to eros’s companionship. Philia—it’s about friends coming together.

Finally, agape is the unconditional love of God for humanity and humanity for God, as well as a general love for all humanity, a kind of brotherly love. Helm describes agape as “’spontaneous and unmotivated,’ revealing not that we merit that love but that God’s nature is love.” Unlike philia, the love of agape is not built on shared ideals; rather, it is a love that God naturally has for us and that we in turn have for God and each other. In this sense, caritas is very much the Latin analogue of agape—it’s about moving beyond yourself, toward God and your fellow human beings.

These three terms describe different sources of love—beauty, friendship, God and neighbor. But these are all different kinds of love, not what love actually is. The similarities among them, then, should define what love is at its essence. As I see it, the main similarity is an individual’s deep, necessary (innate) attraction to something beyond oneself—to an ideal, a person, or a deity—that produces a pure and guiltless happiness that comes from making one feel whole.

The French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes about love in a very similar way. For him, love is a cosmic power that overwhelms the world, that traces back to the most primitive of interactions at the molecular level which gain sophistication in the interactions of living things. In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard writes of love,

“It is a general property of all life and as such it embraces, in its varieties and degrees, all the forms successively adopted by organized matter.” (81-2)

As a “general property of al life,” Teilhard is answering our first question in the affirmative—love is an essential force that is not constructed of other concepts like friendship or sexuality. In fact, sexuality and friendship and even kindness seem to require love as a base. Teilhard also affirms the idea that love works toward completeness:

“Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.” (85-6)

Here, Teilhard explains that living beings actually need love to be complete, that without it, one is deficient. Pursuing excellence, looking for a spouse, working toward a successful career—all of this requires love, an inborn desire to move beyond yourself toward fulfillment, which will bring happiness and wholeness. Teilhard’s emphasis on the necessity of love reminds me a lot of 1 Corinthians 13, which Noah discussed in a previous blog post:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13: 1-7)

This passage does two very important things in defining love’s essence; the first three verses emphasize the necessity of love, and the next four give some hints of what love is and is not—kind, not envious; trusting, not recording of wrongs; joyfully truthful, not delightfully evil. These distinctions will be important later when sexuality and love is discussed. For now, I think maybe the Beatles were right to sing that “all you need is love,” for with love as an essential force one can channel a benevolent mindset that, when followed, leads us on the path to happiness.

Romance v. Sexuality: What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Let’s assume that Teilhard is right about love: it is this essential force that leads us to fulfillment, manifested in our attraction toward things outside ourselves and our immediate needs, through agape or philia or eros. But if we define love, the basic all-across-the-board love, in that way, what does that make romantic love, the makes-your-heart-race kind of love that is normally implied when someone says the word “love”? Is romantic love just a fulfilling experience that integrates sexuality? Or is there something else to it? Cue question (2).

A few months ago, I had a long, long conversation with a few friends about this very question. What we ended up with were two proposed models for how friendship, romance, and sexuality relate.


In the first model, romance is a sort of intermediary stage between friendship and sexuality, the ultimate end of which is sexual interaction. The friendship doesn’t necessarily go away when romance begins, nor does romance end when sexuality begins; rather, they built off of each other, the friendship and romance sustained throughout. This seems to be more or less the kind of linear model bought into by romantic comedies and other media. It’s simple; it works. But is it right? Keep in mind that if romance is all that romantic love is, then romantic love yields to sexuality later down the line. Or, if this entire arrow scheme is all that romantic love is, then sexuality subordinates romantic love—it’s all just part of the sexual cycle. Any romantic relationship that isn’t tending toward sexual expression, by this logic, is incomplete. I, for one, hope that there’s more to it than that.


The second model, on the other hand, grants autonomy to all three ideas (friendship, romance, and sexuality) in classic Venn diagram shape. In fact, the linear model can be seen as a route through this diagram, as seen below.


That’s all fine and dandy, but what does each section mean? Where does romantic love fit in? The all green friendship section is easy enough—it’s a (friend)zone where you aren’t interested in someone as a sexual or romantic partner (maybe philia fits here). The pink section, then, is the voracious and licentious zone of loveless one-night-stands and unfriendly sexual favors (unless one can go straight to loving someone without friendship or romance [even love-at-first-sight requires some courtship before sexual interaction, right?]). The blue section might be reserved for someone met through speed dating or some other process that circumvents friendship and goes straight to courtship. The overlapping sections, though, are more difficult to quantify: the section between friendship and sexuality might be friends with benefits; the one between romance and friendship, a celibate relationship; the one between romance and sexuality, a sexually active relationship between two people who are not friendly toward one another. The center section is a synthesis of all three, perhaps a functional marriage in which the pair can confide in one another as friends.

But this diagram leaves us with a lot of questions. What differentiates romantic actions from sexual ones? One could just say that sexuality includes all sexual interactions, and romance is the sort of innocent lovey-dovey stuff and walks on the beach. But usually, these two are conflated. People don’t usually act romantically toward someone whom they are not interested in being sexual with potentially down the road. Still, there are certainly people who date without the prospect of sex entering into the picture until after marriage. But, even then, if one dates just to find a marital partner, isn’t sexuality still the end goal that subordinates romance?

Where, then, is romantic love? Is it autonomous? Maybe. Perhaps there are aspects that make romantic love more than just friendship + sexuality.

For example, Helm cites an argument from a R.C. Solomon who defines romantic love in terms of union: “Love is the concentration and the intensive focus of mutual definition on a single individual, subjecting virtually every personal aspect of one’s self to this process.” This means that two romantically engaged people work toward forming a shared identity for themselves that includes similar interests, life goals, etc. Sounds a lot like Genesis 2:24:

That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Another view is that romantic love is an expression of a robust concern for another person’s well-being. However, this could also be applied to a friend or a child just as well. Maybe romantic love involves a deeper level of trust and reliance towards one’s beloved. In this case, the difference between romantic love and friendship or philial love is one of degrees, not kinds. You trust your beloved as you do your friend, only more so. You care about your beloved’s well-being as you do your friend’s, only more so. But this means that romantic love isn’t autonomous from friendship. In order for it to be autonomous in and of itself, it would need some other aspect, but if that aspect were sexuality, then it would not be autonomous from sexuality. Is that a problem?

Maybe. If romantic love is all about sex, then why wait until marriage to have sex? Maybe the union or the commitment is important. Either way, the thought that I HAVE to reject is that sex = love, a horrible misnomer with we are barraged by popular songs and movies. This is precisely why I can’t bring myself to use the euphemism “make love” to describe sex, as if the sexual act were somehow what allows a couple to love each other. Liberated, bare-naked sex is not enough to constitute romantic love. Nor do I personally think that it is a necessary condition for it (i.e. friendship + sex ≠ romantic love). There’s a great line about the relation of sex and love in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, a war novel with a love story woven grittily into its pages. A priest opines to Mr. Henry, an American ambulance driver in the Italian army, concerning the latter’s sexual encounters with Italy’s finest harlots:

“What you tell me about in the nights. That is not love. That is only passion and lust. When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve.” (72).

This attitude of self-sacrifice exemplifies the Christian understanding of love (caritas) which I’ll discuss later. For now, let’s assume (against my will) that romantic love is not autonomous, that its definition depends on sexuality.

My Chemical Romance

Several years ago I was sitting alongside a river in Germany. The stars spanned across the firmament of the heavens. The air was cool. My friend, however, was not feeling so tranquil. He was confused about love, much as I am. “How can love be real,” he lamented, “if it’s just chemical interactions in our bodies? How can it be important if it’s just our drive to pass on our genes?” At the time, I responded that just knowing how something works chemically ought not to deprive it of meaning. One can know that water droplets adhere to one another through hydrogen bonding and still be astounding when they defy gravity by flowing along the bottom of one’s outstretched arm. Yet, I am still troubled by my friend’s lamentation. If romantic love and sex are ultimately just about passing on genes, microscopic collections of DNA that may play a very, very big part in who we are, how we behave, and each choice that we make, what room is there to be in awe of someone you love romantically? If all those warm and romantic feelings can just be reduced to “Wow, I like your genes,” what more is there to it? The whole mating process seems completely indifferent to the love between to people, unfortunately meaningless. (That’s one interpretation.)

As it turns out, the neuroscience of attraction and affection are rather interesting and perhaps meaningful. Hormones, as many of us know, are involved in sexual development and attraction, testosterone being the big one for men (increasing aggression, for example) and estrogen playing an important role for women. Pheromones are another chemical indicator, communicating messages outside of the body, especially in various insects to direct social and sexual behavior (seen in chemical trails left by ants).

Several neurochemicals receive a lot of attention in human attraction and sexuality. Scientists tend to divide the chemicals into two groups—those that cause attraction and those that cause attachment. Oxytocin, known as the “human super glue” creates powerful attachment between two individuals and is released during intense physical contact of the sexual kind. Dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin are present at higher levels during the attraction phase of a relationship. Serotonin, in particular, is linked to obsessive thoughts about a potential mate. In addition to indicating attraction, dopamine also induces pleasure though a neurological “reward” system: like giving a dog a treat for rolling over, our brains produce dopamine to reinforce certain behaviors.

That’s all very interesting, but what does that tell us about love besides how bodily chemicals are involved? As I told my friend, knowing how something happens doesn’t make it any less real. In fact, it seems to make it more real. Similar chemical processes are involved in other sensations, such as a baby bonding with its mother. The chemical understanding of love seems only to reinforce the idea that it’s all very complicated. What’s more, the differences between chemicals that produce attachment and those that produce lust (as well as those released during sex) indicate that the sensations of being in love vs. infatuation vs. lust are all quite unique. If different chemicals cause these sensations, then there ought to be a perceivable difference between feeling infatuated and “the real deal.” Certainly, there is still room for transcendent experience.

Beyond the Sensual Body:  Transcendent Love

If romantic love’s definition is dependent on sexuality, that doesn’t mean that people are just evolutionary automatons attempting to pass on their genes—there’s much more than that (many people deliberate prevent the passing on of genes through the sexual act in the modern age of sexual liberation). Yet, defining love just on a basis of sexuality seems to dampen it. Why is there a need for all of the ceremony and dating rituals if it all comes down to a moment of passion? Doesn’t romance possess an intrinsic worth? The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy seems to think so. Therein romantic love is honored with a grace mightier than mere sensuality. The romantic love of medieval knights and damsels, for instance, transcended desire and “theoretically was not to be consummated, for such love was transcendentally motivated by a deep respect for the lady.” This understanding of romantic love harkens back to Plato’s writings of Socrates, in which a beauty beyond the body was the real desire of eros.

By most any account, those who have experienced what they feel to be romantic love regard it as a very powerful experience, one that cannot so easily be dismissed. There is something about it that is elevating and fulfilling. This understanding of love from a Christian sense.

Christian teaching frequently uses the rhetoric of love. As mentioned previously, this kind of love does not entail the erotic passion of eros but the unconditional devotion of agape or caritas. It is a love made dually powerful through its assurance that God will always present us with the offer of love and its notion of commitment to something far greater than ourselves. This is not a simple Valentine’s Day affection. This is determined commitment to servitude, something “you wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve” as Hemingway’s priest says. If Teilhard is correct in thinking that this fulfilling force of love pervades the universe, then encountering God’s rejuvenating, fulfilling love should be as simple as acting on this desire to extend beyond ourselves–to transcend and produce happiness. Hence, Christ issues his two most important commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”(Mark 12:30)  and “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12:31). How does one do that, you may ask? Return to 1 Corinthians 13 and its definition of love: patient, kind, not boastful. This behavior often involves sacrifice; indeed, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross demonstrates the will do take on the burden of all wrongdoings to grant as all another chance to love each other more fully. That’s a love that perseveres always. This behavior, Teilhard feels, will bring humanity to its Omega point, that is, toward union with God.

There’s a great scene in Cat’s Cradle where sex is shown to be subordinate to other forms of bonding. The protagonist ends up on this island where many inhabitants secretly practice a cultic religion called Bokononism, the main holy rite of which is placing the soles of your feet against the soles of another person’s feet and reciting a chant. There is a beautiful woman in the novel who is not at all interested in sex–she just cares about this rite. Placing the soles together to form one soul, to create companionship–this dyadic bonding is more important to her than intense physical pleasure. And now that I think about it, this is what really sets romantic love apart. A strong bond between two people to form a singular “we.”

I’m not going to pretend to understand love all that well. It’s not my story to tell. But I think that there is a lot more to it than kissing and physical contact or sappy terms of endearment. I approach love like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart approaches obscenity: I know it when I see it. Or in this case, if I feel it. For now, I’m going to go listen to all of the songs linked in the subheading of this post. To me, it seems like love in its totality transcends all definitions but this: Love, like God, is something that is only known when experienced. God is love.

Cum Caritas (with the love that God has for each person, and which each person is, in turn, called to have toward God and each other),


Cheeseburger Dreams

I woke up early today to go to work. I needed a few extra hours, so I picked up these short, early shifts a few days this week. Because I woke up early and worked hard for a few hours, I wanted to have a burger for lunch. As I pulled off the highway at the exit where the fast-food joint was, I saw a man sitting on a milk crate on the side of the road with a sign that read,”I’m hungry, and I’m dreaming of a hamburger. Please help make my dream a reality.” When I ordered my food, instead of ordering one of everything that I wanted, I ordered two. I went back, pulled over, and handed him a bag with a bacon cheeseburger and fries inside and a soda.

This interaction was so striking to me because of a quotation that was shared with me a few days ago. St. Basil the Great said this:

“When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

That quotation, in me, stirs up this desire to make a change in my life to benefit those who are poor or hungry or naked. It urges me to consider how I am wasteful in my life and how I can cut out the unnecessary things that keep me from loving God as fully as I can, as fully as I was made to love Him. So I offer you a challenge: how can you make a change to help those in need. I know I’m still considering what this looks like for me. Don’t expect to come up with the perfect plan over night. Don’t sweat it it you need to tweak your plan to help others a few times to get the balance between your time, energy, and livelihood and helping others. Feel free to email me or comment if you want help talking out what a good plan of sacrificing to help others would look like in your life.

One last thing before this post is over: this marks the start of a new, more consistent year at Contagious Caritas. Charlie and I will be posting weekly, alternating authorship week-to-week. This means that you will read at least one piece from me every two weeks and one from Charlie every two weeks. We are committed to this schedule, and we hope that it will be spiritually fruitful both in our lives and in yours.

My sincerest prayers for you and your family.

Choose Your Own Adventure v. 1.0

For all of you loyal blog-followers out there, or for those of you who may have enjoyed the most recent post, “On Free Will, or Did I Have a Choice to Write This Post?” I have a very empowering announcement:




Below I have inserted a poll with topics that are playing theological hop-scotch in my head as of late.

PLEASE, PLEASE. Choose one. Exercise your putative free will (oh, the memories of last post’s inquiry into the choice of free will).

Yay, choices! Yay, theology!

Cum Caritate,


On Free Will, or Did I Have a Choice to Write This Post?

Many moons ago, I had a conversation with a marginal friend about the existence of free will–that ever important concept that reassures us that our decisions do indeed matter and that we are NOT just robots set on a track that has unalterably been laid out before us. My friend argued that free will is a mere illusion because every action has already been determined by the action before it (if I look at my keyboard, I will necessarily see the “g” key, and seeing it, I will press it, and so on). I do not choose any of these actions; they simple proceed from one cause to one effect to one cause to one effect, ad infinitum. This is problematic. If I can’t choose any of my actions, why bother doing anything? Why behave? Why seek to do good if there is no real seeking, since we’re all synchronized to a narrow system of cause and effect? I’ve brooded over this free will debacle a whole season long. The following are my findings, arranged by academic subject. Browse at your discretion (if it actually exists!).

DISCLAIMER: Okay, readers. This is about to get intensely theo-LOGIC-al. Comment now, OR forever hold your opinions.



The war over free will or no free will has ravaged the realm of philosophy from Plato to Popper. It boils down to anti-free will determinism facing off against pro-free will thought. As required of philosophical conversations, let’s define our terms.

Determinism: “The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.” as per the Stanford Philosophy Department website. [1]

In laymen’s terms: There is no free will, as all human actions and natural events are precipitated by a cause, continuing along an unbroken, singular cause and effect chain according to natural universal laws, e.g., if I drink coffee this morning, I will urinate at exactly noon, after which I will wash my hands, scratch my chin, look at my face in the mirror, contemplate the existence of free will, and, as a direct unavoidable consequence, I will blink three times, and nod twice, in an attempt to spite my predetermined path and claim that I really did have a choice to nod and blink, exactly that number of times, when in reality, drinking coffee in the morning naturally led me to do this, and I had no choice in the matter. Moreover, my decision to drink coffee was just a result of another cause, which could have no other manifested effect than my drinking of coffee. That cause is my sleep deprivation from staying up to write this post, which had its own singular cause, stemming from its own cause, ad infinitum leading back to the alleged Big Bang.

Free Will: “a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.” (again, as per the Stanford Philosophy Department website [2]).

In laymen’s terms: Individuals who can think and weigh outcomes have the ability to choose one option or another when confronted with a decision-making situation, e.g., I want to buy a car, and I can choose between a blue or red car. My past experience does not lock me into an answer; I can choose one way or the other. It’s up to me.


The great 17th century French philosopher René Descartes struggles with this free will conundrum in his 4th meditation from Meditations on First Philosophy [3]. Like many of us do, he exalts free will as all important: “It is only the will or free choice that I experience to be so great in me that I cannot grasp the idea of any greater faculty.” In the next paragraphs, he explains that the source of free will is God, and that in a perfect world, we would have all the knowledge that we need to make informed decisions. Whenever we have all the sufficient information, Descartes claims, we will always choose the right option. Conversely, poor decisions are only ever made when we possess inadequate information. Here Descartes seems to border on a kind of determinism: given the right circumstances (INPUT) by God, an individual will necessarily choose the right option, which is to say that they don’t really choose at all. One divine input = one human output, a 1-to-1 cause and effect chain. Still, Descartes contends that human freedom is maintained in his system of free will: “Nor indeed does natural knowledge ever diminish one’s freedom; rather, they increase and strengthen it.” Essentially, more information just helps us to freely choose the right choice. This, HOPEFULLY, moves us closer to a nuanced view of free will. Now let’s think about different kinds of choices.


Obviously, some decisions are more important than others (whom you marry vs. what you eat for breakfast). We can classify these decisions or choices into two (2) categories: (1) pivotal choices and (2) simple choices.

(1) pivotal choices are those that largely affect an individual and the surrounding, usually in an easily perceivable way. These are the choices where we really stop and think, delineating pros and cons, measuring risks, and projecting possible ramifications. When you encounter a pivotal choice, you know you’ve hit a wall. The effects can be massive, determining one’s career path, one’s health, one’s mental stability, even one’s final destination (heaven or hell) from a theological perspective. An example of just such a moral quagmire that qualifies as a pivotal choice is whether to kill or spare the life of a captured enemy soldier.

(2) simple choices are those which have little perceivable, lasting effect on the well-being, temperament, and life path of an individual–that being that they require little critical thought. Examples include whether to brush one’s teeth at 8:00 am or 8:15 am, what to eat for lunch, whether to step with one’s left or right foot initially, or how many times to blink while looking in the mirror. Of course, one can argue that when taken together, these small choices add up to manifold, critical effects: developing cancer from too many microwaved chicken nuggets; failing an admission’s test due to less-than-punctual brushing habits. However, these effects seem unlikely and are compounded over long stretched of time; individually, the decisions remain negligible in the scheme of one’s life. One could also subscribe to the untold ripples of the Butterfly Effect, but that is highly speculative.

Unlike pivotal choices, simple choices are not necessarily confined to humans. An animal can choose what it eats each day, where it nests, and so forth. These simple choices rule an animal’s survival, though: a poor nesting ground could spell the end of a toucan’s colorfully-beaked existence. However, these animals do NOT seem to weigh any of their choices, a necessary condition for pivotal choices, and, quite possibly for free will. Free will is still very much a HUMAN issue.


I have to admit,the study of physics is NOT my forte, but it is intensely interesting. Physics has actually paved the road of determinism (no free will), as Albert Einstein was a staunch opponent of philosophical free will:

In human freedom in the philosophical sense I am definitely a disbeliever. Everybody acts not only under external compulsion but also in accordance with inner necessity. [4]

This all ties into the notion of causation: one cause leads to one effect, and so on. Everything is a predetermined INPUT and OUTPUT, as in a well-functioning computer system. However, the understanding of cosmological phenomena, chiefly the groovy, interstellar oddities that are black holes, complicated the clean-cut system of cause and effect.

Black Holes: Total Insanity

The physical understanding of causation rests on the tenet that information cannot be destroyed, that it is preserved, though transferred from one form to another. This is because information must be accessible to verify causal relationships. If A + B = C, and all of a sudden B disappears, how can we prove that the relationship holds true? In the mega-gravity of a black hole, information very much seems to be swept into the abyss, creating problems for determinists.

Back when black holes were in vogue, wheelchair-bound genius Stephen Hawking and his retinue of science buddies encountered the problem of light and hence information, among other things, vanishing into the void of black holes. The question arose: Does the existence of black holes jeopardize the preservation of information and cause-and-effect relationships, if black holes truly do destroy information?

The question sparked a debate between Hawking and physicist Leonard Susskind, described in Susskind’s book Black Hole Wars (soon to be featured on the History channel’s Monday lineup #HistoryChannel’sFormulaicallyNamedShows). [5]

Hawking said, NO. Information is NOT lost in black holes. He reasoned that anti-particle-particle pairs fray at the event horizon of the black hole, such that information would escape, resulting in Hawking’s radiation of black holes. Consequently, black holes are really white, spitting back the information rather than annihilating it. [6] Perhaps black holes are worm holes to other universes, in which only white holes and no black holes exist.

Susskind said, YES. Information IS lost in black holes. He explains the dilemma via his holographic principle, which envisions the universe as truly 2-dimensional, with 3-dimensionality being an illusion of the immense size of the universe. Somehow, matter that a black hole cosmically slurps becomes lost on its 2-dimensional event horizon. However, this hypothesis is rooted in the untested grounds of string theory, a conceptual web of esoteric physics which I do not even begin to pretend to understand.


A quantum physicist by the name of Hugh Everett III postulated a different understanding of cosmological possibility and choice with his multi-versed many worlds theory. This theory essentially posits that many possible “tomorrows” could take place, and that they actually do take place in a branching system of multiple parallel universes, one for each possible action. This applies especially to non-determinist quantum mechanical processes, such as radioactive decay, in which substances can break down in an random number of ways. [7]

Assuming that the our universe began in a Big Bang-type event, and that from this event all else followed in a neat 1-to-1 cause and effect chain (universal forces were born, hydrogen atoms form, helium arose as an element, yada-yada), the many worlds theory would postulate that many different universes branched off in other directions, as forces and elements formed differently. Even if the 1-to-1 causation holds up, one could ask whether the universe necessarily HAD to start the way that it did. Perhaps out of the initial random nothingness, any number of things could have emerged from a single CAUSE. Who’s to say that one particular cause HAD to start it all (theologians who say that the cause was God, that’s who!)? In this way, maybe a very limited free will DOES exist in the undetermined randomness of preexistence that spawned what became a predetermined universe following along a chain of 1-to-1 cause and effects that the first cause enacted.

The IMPORT of all of this into understanding free will is that black holes challenge the presumption of single 1-to-1 cause and effect relationships. Perhaps, as Everett contests, there are many possibilities that emerge from a single INPUT.


To reiterate the cosmological physics approach to free will:

If all actions can be explained in a single, linear chain of causation, then was the original cause precipitated? Was ONLY that one original cause possible, or WAS there a realm of possible initial causes, hence indicating an extremely limited, though still present degree of freedom in the events of the universe: from an unstable state, did the Big Bang necessarily occur as it did, or were there multiple options, choices, as it were, from which the universe could choose to enact itself?

With the 1-to-1 causation relationship called into question, we can examine some mathematical models of how cause (INPUT or X) related to effect (OUTPUT or Y).

Causation 1 to 1Causation Multiple Outputs

Here we have two mathematical functions, a parabola y=x^2 and a sideways parabola, y= + or – root*(x). The first functions as a simple 1-to-1 cause and effect function. For every INPUT, e.g. -1, there is exactly one OUTPUT, e.g. 1. This is what the determinists contend as true for free will. However, even here we have an interesting feature: in a parabola, OUTPUTs are repeated: 1 is the OUTPUT of both -1 and 1. The tight-knit relationship between 1-to-1 causation is challenged by this first graph.

The second graph, also representing an INPUT-OUTPUT relationship, describes how one INPUT, i.e. one cause, can result in multiple OUTPUTs, i.e. effects. The INPUT of 1 (which we can think of as an sensory INPUT in an individual, say seeing a red car) results in two OUTPUTs, 1 and -1 (which we can think of as resultant actions by a rational individual, say buying a red car OR buying a blue car). Although the sideways parabola, a radical relation, is not technically a function, it still shows that cause and effect need not be 1-to-1, as determinists claim.


Applying the principles of multiple outputs for multiple inputs, we can discuss how one cause can give rise to multiple, diverging effects, some of them good, some of them bad. Here free will has an opportunity to make its case.

The Free Will Graph of Multiple Output Causation


where f(x) is the free will function measured in goodness outcome, and where X represents life experience, the points representing critical decision junctures, e.g. to take a particular job, to forgive someone or lash out at the person.

This graph epitomizes the lengthy discussion which I have attempted to conduct concerning free will so far. The graph tracks the life experience of a rational individual who encounters pivotal decisions at critical junctures marked by points above. Much as espoused in Everett’s many worlds theory, the individual’s life branches off into multiple possibilities, some tending toward goodness (positive Y axis), others toward evil (negative Y axis). The branching off portions of this graph take the form of what is known as a piece-wise function, in which multiple functions are strung together into a single relation. [8] Though it may seem problematic that some functions occupy the same domain (X values), this is ameliorated by the linear trajectory: an individual can’t be on two paths at once, but he or she can choose which path to take. All of these choices are affected by the same initial conditions, or causes, yet their ending effects are so different, hence emphasizing the decision making process via free will.

From the onset, the first choice doesn’t seem to generate much difference in goodness outcome: perhaps the pivotal choice was as simple as deciding to become an accountant or a salesman (not to undermine the importance of variances in business careers). However, after pivotal choice two, at around 1 life experience, the situation changes: the green C 1.2 and the dark blue C 1.1 seem to be mirror images of each other (as if to show the real parallels of parallel universes). By pivotal choice 3, at about 1.5 life experience, a new choice emerges: the red MLK path, titled thusly for its lofty goodness outcome, as per the 1960s civil rights’ leader.

By pivotal choice 5, at about 2.6 life experience things get dicey: C 1.2 forks into 3 branches: purple C 5 converge, green C 1.2, and light blue Delinquent Path, so called because of its depths of moral depravity. This choice 5 might be whether or not sell cocaine to pay the bills for that YACHT you thought that you could afford. In this case, D is yes, C 1.2 is no, and C 5 conv. is unveiling the minor cocaine smuggling ring to the police. Importantly, C 5 conv, is a converging path: it forms back up with C 1.2, such that the goodness outcomes are the same either way. This, I think, is a very reassuring message, since it states that sometimes, our decision will turn out well even between two different, albeit similar, choices. Notice again how the purple C 5 conv. path emerges at decision 11, after what I term the “sequence of rapid pivotal choices,” (points 7-10) only to converge again. Perhaps some alternate dimensions are inexplicably linked.

The sequence of rapid pivotal choices is about as close as this model comes to the causation of determinism: each pivotal action gives rise to the next; however, the individual can still choose different options, as the decisions aren’t locked in among this liberating wonderland of realized possibilities, each existing within its own spawned parallel universe, yet capable of converging back in on another path, as in C 5 conv.

This mathematically modeling aims to illustrate how multiple OUTPUTs can arise out of one set of initial conditions, resulting in moral decline or magnanimous ascent to ethical righteousness, all through the vehicle of the all important free will.


While the explanation of free will through mathematics and science delves deep into the process of choice, none of this has much currency if we don’t know why we should care. Theology offers that why in abundance.

As stated before, I am frustrated by the determinist notion of unbridled 1-to-1 causation because it removes the relevance of morality, the very premise of which is the human ability to choose actions and behaviors, either for good or for evil. Christian theology maintains that free will is paramount in human interaction, and that it allows us to live happy and fulfilling lives in line with God’s love as revealed through Scripture. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states regarding freedom:

1730 God created man a rational being, conferring on him the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him.” [9]

Who doesn’t want to feel free to choose their own actions? Isn’t that a large part of why teenagers rebel against their parents, of why the Thirteen Colonies fought against the British? Free will is clearly important to how we live our lives, and it does seem practical to act under the assumption that we CAN and DO elect our own actions, through our own volition NOT through a pre-designed set of causes. However, even within the realm of theology, there are ideas that seem to conflict with free will.


Predestination is the belief that the final destination of each human soul is preordained and known by God, as are all other events. It is primarily attributed to the 16th century Swiss-French reformer John Calvin. [10] This view does not hold up entirely to the Catholic understanding of salvation history and God’s plan for us. While God certainly knows all things, God does NOT necessarily will all things to happen: God does not pull every last puppets’ strings, as it were, from a Catholic stand point. People have a free will, and can therefore make decisions unfettered as they will. St. Paul, however, warns against the unbridled license of doing whatever one wants with this God-endowed free will:

[ The Believer’s Freedom ] “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. (1 Corinthians 10:23, NIV, 2011)
Having freedom, like having a pet dog, means big responsibility, with many potential accidents waiting to happen. This only seeks to further solidify the significance of choosing from a number of possible options or paths, such that goodness is obtained.
Although Catholic teaching grants people free will, such that they can determine their own fate, God still knows what their fate will be. Some argue that God’s omnipotence clashes with human free will. However, apologist Fr. Vincent Serpa O. P. thinks otherwise:
There is nothing to reconcile. Because you know that the sun will be in the sky tomorrow doesn’t mean that you will have caused it to be there! Even though God already knows what our free choices will be in the future, our choices are still ours and are still free. If our free choices change how the future will be, God already knows that and has known it for all eternity.[11]
Though God knows what we will do, it does not infringe on our ability to choose. Everyone knows that given the opportunity to play soccer or baseball, I always choose soccer; I still get to make that decision, of course. We are the agents of our actions, no matter that God knows what those actions will be.
Theologically speaking, free will is an incredibly vital topic which I could discuss in far greater detail. This seems to suffice for an understanding of ‘why’ free will is important and non-contradictory within the scope of Catholic thought.


In the scientific realm, free will also musters a surprising amount of vigor among scientists. While scientists as a whole do not place much credence in theological approaches to questions of human nature (42% of scientists do not believe [note that 25% identify as agnostic] in the existence of a personal God according to a 2009 Pew Research Poll), matters beyond the experimental purview of scientific empiricism still way heavily upon them. Evolutionary biologists are especially opposed to religious interference with science, as Graffin and Provine report that 78% of biologists surveyed in 2003 Cornell Study thought that religion and science should remain distinctly separate spheres. In the study, the majority of biologists rejected religious belief in question after question. YET when it came down to the existence of free will among humans, the researches may as well have been standing on their heads. Graffin and Provine explain:

Darwin concludes in the last sentence of the book[The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication], “we are brought face to face with a difficulty as insoluble as is that of free will and predestination.” Darwin, however, had solved the problem of free will more than 30 years earlier; he believed it was nonexistent.

To our surprise, 79 percent of the respondents chose option A for this question, indicating their belief that people have free will despite being determined by heredity and environment.

The professional debate about free will has moved far from this position, because what counts is whether the choice is free or determined, not whether human beings make choices. People and animals both certainly choose constantly. [12]

A new bastion for free will coalesces through this surprising agreement between theologians and evolutionary biologists, for whom “what counts” is “whether the choice is free or determined.” There is a particular wing of this evolutionary biology that applies both to me and to this argument of free will: twin studies.


Twin studies are near and dear to hearts of many an evolutionary biologist for one main reason: they set as a given the same genetic make


up of two identical twins, thus eliminating the variable of genes. This is especially useful in studying the debate of nature v. nurture, as nature becomes a given for two identical twins. I think that this same elusive genetic likeness can be applied to the free will controversy by setting given INPUTS as the same for two individuals.

To start: I am a twin. My brother and I have been roommates for nearly 19 years straight, from womb to dorm. Consequently, we have eerily similar personal experiences, and nearly identical pivotal choices. What school to attend, what clubs to join, what classes to take–all the important decisions have been shared. If we negate the simple choices (choice of lunch, hair style, minor friendships), my brother and I are a scientific experimental ideal: two individuals with effectively the same givens, the same circumstances, the same INPUTS. Now, observe the OUTPUT.

Imagine the graph of the free will function again (or just scroll up). A single line slides along the graph, mostly stable, until it reaches a critical juncture. This is where my twin brother and I must decide what we are to study in college. My brother and I, like most ordinary twins, have very similar interests: we both play soccer, we both read, we both excel in school. If determinism is right, all of our similar causes should lead up to one shared effect at this juncture. There are many options for both of us–(engineering, humanities, science, art)–that, the determinists will admit. But can we really choose, or have our past experience (one shared experience) locked us in to the same choice? With all other things equal, I chose to study English, and my twin brother (with effectively the same INPUT) chose engineering. It could have just as easily been the other way around (I still like math, as per the above graphs, and my brother is an avid reader of David Foster Wallace). Yet in this instance, our collective path diverged into two.

Some would say that there were enough differences between my brother and I to set out single-stream, 1-to-1, predetermined cause and effect chain along different routes. However, I think that this study into this pivotal choice of identical twins is convincing experimental evidence that supports the case for human free will. Unless time travel becomes feasible and we can literally replay the option selection of an individual, I don’t think that the determinist-free will debate can be resolved definitively. It was worth a shot.


Even if determinism is correct, and we all are pre-programmed to make decisions along a rickety chain of one cause to one effect, I think that the whole notion of “no free will” is a MOOT POINT. No matter what, we all have to make tough decisions, and knowing that the outcome is predetermined since the Big Bang doesn’t help us to weasel out of our predicaments. Free will, if only a falsehood, governs our lives. Perhaps scientists AND Descartes are right: given enough information, anyone’s actions can be predicted to a tee. So long as all previous causes are known a guy in a lab coat should be able to tell me when I’m gonna hiccup and in what exact order I trace my footsteps across a college quad. I don’t think that’s likely. I’m prone to thinking that things could turn out one way or entirely a different way, once we reach a crossroads. To end on a point of literature, the French-Algerian novelist Albert Camus once wrote a book called L’Estrange (The Stranger), in which a character encounters many pivotal choices and acts like a grade-D lunatic with his free will, half-heartedly attending his mother’s funeral and shooting to death an intimidating but unprovoked Arab. While in prison recounting his choices, Meursault, the aforementioned lunatic says this:

“Yes, it was the hour when, a long time ago, I was perfectly content. What awaited me back then was always a night of easy, dreamless sleep. And yet something has changed, since it was back to my cell that I went to wait for the next day…as if familiar paths traced in summer skies could lead as easily to prison as to the sleep of the innocent.” (Part II, Chapter 3)

Thank you so much for bearing through all of this. It was a joy to write. I finished at 6:32 AM, writing all through the night. And that was a choice.

Cum Caritate,


Print Sources:

[3] René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, “Meditation Four: Concerning the True and the False,” (1641).

[12] Graffin, Gregory W., and William B. Provine. “Evolution, religion and free will: the most eminent evolutionary scientists have surprising views on how religion relates to evolution.” American Scientist 95.4 (2007): 294+. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 11 Sept. 2013.