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I’m a bioethicist, human rights advocate, and blogger based in Washington, DC.

  • Lex Fridman’s recent interview with Bishop Robert Barron led me to discover the late John Polkinghorne, whom Bishop Barron mentions at one point. An Englishman, Polkinghorne was a theoretical physicist who became an Anglican priest. In his book Living with Hope: A Scientist Looks at Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, he speculates about how it is that we are separated from our bodies at death and yet have hope of the resurrection.

    How can it be that we die, our bodies are buried and decay, are burned up in cremation, or worse, defiled, and yet we have hope for resurrection? Polkinghorne writes:

    “Christian people sometimes talk about death as ‘falling asleep’ or even, in words that are occasionally quoted at funerals, as ‘going into the next room’. I am not very happy with this language. You can find the sleep metaphor used occasionally in the New Testament (for example, in 1 Thessalonians 4.13 where, to disguise the fact, the translators of the NRSV have quite unjustifiably taken it upon themselves to turn the original ‘fallen asleep’ into ‘died’). But today’s passage [Mark 14.32-36], which is one of the most moving and holy in the whole gospel story, shows us with what seriousness Jesus himself faced his own approaching death. He is ‘deeply grieved’—Luke (22.44) even speaks of ‘sweat like great drops of blood’—and he asks that if possible this cup should pass from him. Yet he is also resolute to accept the Father’s will. Death is clearly in no sense a trivial or easy matter for Jesus.

    “People have often compared this scene with the end of another famous figure in the ancient world, Socrates. He too was unjustly condemned to die, in his case not by crucifixion but by the much gentler process of drinking a cup of hemlock. Before he did so, he talked with his friends in a philosophical way about his belief in the immortality of the soul. This discourse ended, Socrates then calmly took the poison and tranquilly allowed it to bring about paralysis and eventual death. The contrast of this peaceful scene with Gethsemane is very striking.

    “So what is happening? Is the Greek philosopher a nobler figure than the Jewish Messiah? To understand Gethsemane I think that we need to understand that the Christian hope is not belief in a spiritual survival, such as Socrates believed in, but it centres on the double process of death and resurrection. Even for Jesus the two are separated by the silent tomb of Holy Saturday.

    “I can best explain how I understand this by asking a related question. What should we believe is the nature of the human soul? Socrates thought that the soul was a purely spiritual entity which during this life was housed in the flesh of the body, but which would be released at death to enter into the immortal life of an unencumbered spiritual existence. Someone once caricatured this view as being the picture of a human being as a ‘ghost in a machine’. It seems to me that today it is very hard for us to think in this Socratic way. What we know about the effects of brain damage on the mind, and of drugs on behaviour, suggest a much more unified, ‘package deal’ picture of a human being, understood as an integrated, animated entity. This idea would not have shocked or surprised the writers of the Bible, for it was also they way in which Hebrew people thought about being human.

    “But if that is the case, what has happened to the soul? Have we lost it? I don’t think so. The soul is ‘the real me’. Now what that could be is a bit of a problem even in this life, let alone beyond it. What makes me today the same person that I was 60 years ago? It is not, as you might think, physical continuity, for the atoms that make up our bodies are changing all the time, through wear and tear, eating and drinking. I have very few atoms that were in my body even three years ago, let alone 60. What really maintains the continuity of the real me is not matter itself, but the immensely complex, information-bearing pattern in which that matter is organized. That pattern is the soul.

    “It will be dissolved at my death with the decay of my body. Therefore, I have no natural expectation of surviving death. This is why death is a real end. Yet it is perfectly consistent to believe—and we can indeed believe—that the faithful God will remember the pattern that was me, holding it in the divine memory, in order to reconstitute me again in God’s great final act of resurrection, taking place beyond history.

    “I shall have more to say about this later. For the moment, just note that when God does bring about that re-embodiment, it will have to be in some new kind of matter, for if it were the old kind I would just have been made alive again in order to die again. And where will that new ‘matter’ come from? It will surely be the redeemed matter of this world, transformed by God after the death of the universe itself. The future of the cosmos and the future of humanity must lie together, in the life of that new creation that will succeed the demise of the old. Again, I shall have more to say about this later in relation to the resurrection of Christ, which is the pattern and the guarantee of the hope that we are given through the steadfast faithfulness of our creator.

    “Meanwhile, we can think of the moment of death as being the great final act of this life, in which we shall commit ourselves fully into the hands of God.”

    Later in the book Polkinghorne further elaborates his notion of the soul as a sort of divinely-remembered pattern:

    “We have already seen that today it is natural to think of human beings as a kind of package deal: psychosomatic unities, as people like to say. I think that we are right to think in this way and St Paul would agree with me. Today’s rather difficult passage [2 Corinthians 5.1-3] shows him expressing a horror of being found ‘naked’, that is to say as a soul without a body. In this life, and in the life of heaven, human beings have to be ‘clothed’ with some sort of body, be it earthly or heavenly in its character. (Paul has a lot more to say about this in 1 Corinthians 15.35-49.)

    “What then is the soul? It is surely the ‘real me’, but what that can actually be is a bit of a puzzle in this life, let alone beyond it. What is it that connects me, a bald, ageing academic, with the young lad with the shock of black hair in the school photograph of 60 years ago? It is tempting to suppose that the connection lies in material continuity, as that young body changed gradually into today’s elderly body, but that is really an illusion. I mentioned earlier that the matter in our bodies is changing all the time… Philosophers sometimes like to talk about a boat that is continually being repaired at sea, so that when it eventually comes into port again every plank in it has been replaced. Is it still the same boat that left the home port, if all its material bits and pieces have been changed in this way? I would say yes, provided that the pattern had been maintained. Of course if that had been altered, so that it had sailed out as a single hull but arrived as a catamaran, the answer would have to be no. Continuity lies in the pattern and not in the planks.

    “It is similar for us. The real me is not the ever-changing atoms of my body, but it is the immensely complex, information-bearing pattern in which those atoms are organized. It is that pattern that is the soul, an idea that fits in with what twenty-first-century science is beginning to discover from the study of complex systems, that information is as fundamental a category as energy.

    “This concept of the soul as informational pattern is quite an old one. Aristotle believed something like that, and so did the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. I believe that we should think this way too. If this is right, it follows that the soul, in itself, is not immortal. When I die, the pattern that is me will dissolve with the decay of my body. But it is a perfectly credible and sensible hope that God will remember that pattern—hold it in the divine memory after its natural decay—and then rebuild it when I am resurrected into the life of the world to come. Once again we are reminded of a central truth, that the true ground for hope of a destiny beyond death lies solely in the everlasting faithfulness of God.

    We might think, along these lines, about the consequences of cutting ourselves off from relationship with God as a sort of willful and intentional dis-figuring of ourselves, of a disruption of our pattern that can only be restored through confession and repentance.

  • “Freedom is not self-determination,” says Bishop Robert Barron at roughly the 1:43:00 minute mark in conversation with Lex Fridman. “Freedom is the disciplining of desire so as to make the achievement of the good first possible and then effortless.”

    Topics: Who is God?, Christianity, sin, the Trinity, Catholicism, sexual abuse scandal, evil, atheism, Jordan Peterson, Jesus, the Bible, America, Nietzsche, Word on Fire, gay marriage, abortion, advice for young people, mortality, meaning of life.

  • James Howard Kunstler writes in The Geography of Nowhere:

    Thirty years ago, Lewis Mumford said of post World War II development, “the end product is an encapsulated life, spent more and more either in a motor car or within the cabin of darkness before a television set.” The whole wicked, sprawling, megalopolitan mess, he gloomily predicted, would completely demoralize mankind and lead to nuclear holocaust.

    It hasn’t come to that, but what Mumford deplored was just the beginning of a process that, instead of blowing up the world, has nearly wrecked the human habitat in America. Ever-busy, ever-building, ever-in-motion, ever-throwing-out the old for the new, we have hardly paused to think about what we are so busy building, and what we have thrown away. Meanwhile, the everyday landscape becomes more nightmarish and unmanageable each year. For many, the word development itself has become a dirty word.

    Eighty percent of everything ever build in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading—the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the “gourmet mansardic” junk-food joints, the Orwellian office “parks” featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chain-gang guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call “growth.”

    The newspaper headlines may shout about global warming, extinctions of living species, the devastation of rain forests, and other world-wide catastrophes, but Americans evince a striking complacency when it comes to their everyday environment and the growing calamity that it represents.

    Kunstler was writing in the early 1990s. While I think there have been some areas since where we’ve recovered some of traditional and ecologically-conscience construction, our basic growth pattern remains the same: expand outwards until we consume every last free and open space and replace it with ever-denser townhomes, ever-closer “detached” homes on ever-smaller plots, within ever-more random and disconnected suburban cul-de-sacs undeserving of the name “neighborhood,” because they are places devoid of neighborly intimacy.

    Spending the summer in Europe was eye-opening, noticing that it’s possible to have cities and towns and also rural areas—that we can choose to stop building suburbs and try building cities and towns like we did prior to the last century’s wars.

  • We walked over to The Catholic University of America’s Heritage Hall on Sunday night for “An Italian Evening,” a concert hosted by Catholic University’s Chamber Orchestra and the Italian Cultural Society of Washington, DC.

    Kendall Waters describes Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony:

    “Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony was composed not to introduce uniquely Italian melodies and forms to the rest of Europe but rather to provide the composer’s impressions of what he experienced during his Italian travels. What each movement might have been intended to represent, of course, is subject to speculation. The first movement, which opens with one of the most recognizable symphonic melodies in the repertory, seems to swoop and skip like leaves in the wind. The second, contemplative and solemn, might call to mind a religious procession such as those Mendelssohn witnessed in Rome. The third movement is more restrained than the boisterous fist movement, but it retains the light sweetness of the symphony’s opening. The final movement is a marked departure from European art music convention. Instead of utilizing an expected musical form, Mendelssohn labeled this movement a saltarello, a folk dance from southern Italy. By ending the Italian Symphony with a saltarello, Mendelssohn demonstrated that the use of folk music idioms could be an effective tool in a composer’s toolbox.”

    The concert program:

    Preludio to Act I of La traviata (Giuseppe Verdi)

    Marionette (Teresa Procaccini)
    Allegro spiritoso
    Tempo di Valzer
    Allegro brillante

    Concerto No. 2 in B minor for Double Bass (Giovanni Bottesini)
    Allegro moderato
    Andante
    Allegro

    Symphony No. 4 “Italian” (Felix Mendelssohn)
    Allego vivace
    Andante con moto
    Con moto moderato
    Saltarello – Presto

  • St. Anthony of Padua’s Votive of Thanksgiving

    MaryKate (26) and I (34) were among the oldest present at the final extraordinary form mass last Tuesday at St. Anthony of Padua in Brookland in Washington, DC.

    St. Anthony of Padua has been our parish since we moved to the neighborhood last year and is one of hundreds of parishes across the United States where the mass of our ancestors—the extraordinary form, the Tridentine Mass, the Old Mass, the usus antiquior, etc.—has been suppressed as a result of Pope Francis’s motu proprio Traditionis Custodes. We’re not frequenters of the extraordinary form, but we have both been grateful for its accessibility, faithfulness, reverence, and vitality. We find our spiritual gaze elevated in distinctive ways through this liturgical expression of the mass. There is obvious loss in the loss of this mass, and so we wanted to be there for this final mass at St Anthony of Padua before restrictions took effect on September 21st.

    St. Anthony offered its final mass as “a Votive of Thanksgiving for all the graces poured out through the Old Mass in all the parishes of the Archdiocese.” The extraordinary form mass continues nearby at the Fransiscan Monastery, though this too may be suppressed when the norms are reviewed in three years.

    As a husband and father, I am now acutely aware of how crucial it is that the mass be as accessible as possible for the widest number as possible—especially the many young men to whom this mass speaks so powerfully. We’re living through a time of spiritual poverty on so many fronts. We need God. We need spiritual nourishment amidst the spiritual deserts of our culture.

    Trusting in God and in the Holy Father’s pastoral care, we can be content in knowing that God is always good and that time is a great thickener of things.

  • Near Leesburg

    Near Leesburg

    We spent Saturday out near Leesburg, Virginia in part for Leonine Forum’s Fall Picnic. The colors this time of year are fantastic, with the brightness of summer and the first hints of fall. We had to drive more than an hour outside of Washington just to start getting past grey suburbia.

    We picked up fresh honey on the way home, still with part of the honeycomb in the jar.

  • Nighttime McGivney Hall view

    Nighttime McGivney Hall view

    I took these earlier this week, one night around 8pm when I was leaving McGivney Hall at The Catholic University of America in Brookland in Washington, DC. The first photo below shows the view from the front steps of McGivney, with a view of the Dominican House of Studies across Michigan Avenue.

    The second photo shows the view from the same front steps when looking right, toward the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

  • Jacob Neu writes at The Lamp on Roe, Dobbs, and the future of pro-life advocacy:

    We’ll need to remember the same tactics that got us this far: perseverance and planning. Little by little does the trickLet not our zeal outrun our discretion. Every plan begins with the intended result, and our goal remains the same as when we began on January 22, 1973. We seek to make abortion illegal in the United States. But not only do we want to make it illegal, we want a culture that will, in the words of Pope John Paul II, “respect, protect, love, and serve life, every human life!” To get where we want to be, we must also acknowledge our current position. Here we must be brutally honest. In many ways we start further from our goal than we did in 1973, and the terrain is more treacherous. …

    It is plain that in Dobbs the Supreme Court did the bare minimum we could have asked for. Yes, it overruled Roe, but the opinion limited itself to Roe’s myriad and manifest defects in legal reasoning. Dobbs does not take up the invitation of several amicus briefs that sought to establish fetuses as persons under the Fourteenth Amendment entitled to certain basic rights, whether on originalist or natural law grounds. In fact, the Court hardly articulates a reason for promoting the dignity of the child or the child’s right to life beyond acknowledging that it is something about which the country is fervently divided.

    The Court could have chosen a different path, one exemplified by the West German abortion case in 1975. Two years after Roe, the German Constitutional Court interpreted statements in its constitution that “human dignity shall be inviolable,” and that “every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity,” as obligating West Germany to protect the fetal life developing in the mother’s womb, even against the mother, for the duration of the pregnancy. The German court held that “it should not be forgotten that developing life itself is entrusted by nature … to the protection of the mother. To reawaken, and … to strengthen the maternal duty to protect, where it is lost, should be the principal goal of the endeavors of the state for the protection of life.” The court permitted the state to withhold punishment for abortions undertaken where the woman’s life was in danger or cases of similar gravity, and West Germany subsequently established a system requiring doctor examination, counseling in favor of the child’s life, and a three-day waiting period. Nevertheless, the court held that “in the extreme case, … the lawgiver can be obligated to employ the means of the penal law for the protection of developing life.”

    If only our Supreme Court had recognized in Dobbs an affirmative obligation of the state to protect the life of the child as well as the life of the mother. We should not neglect this “teaching function” of law, whereby the law provides the bounds for acceptable behavior and molds peoples’ attitudes over time. In 1980 in the US there were twenty-nine abortions per one thousand women of childbearing age; in Germany, there were nine. How many abortions could have been prevented had the Supreme Court adopted a position similar to that in West Germany?

    If the justices think they will be out of the abortion business they are wrong. I anticipate numerous challenges from progressives. These will include serious questions, such as resolving conflicts between the application of state laws and any federal laws, and ridiculous ones, such as whether the Thirteenth Amendment’s ban on slavery makes a total abortion ban unconstitutional.

    Still, many of the coming legal fights will occur in the state courts. Four states have explicitly rejected the right to an abortion, while eleven state courts have found a right to abortion in their constitutions already. We will need to overturn those provisions while articulating state-specific reasons why their constitutions protect the life of the child. Our strategy must be multifaceted. We must seek to change hearts and minds. We must make political alliances where possible to build support for reasonable, and increasingly restrictive, abortion laws. We will have to amend state constitutions. We will continue asking the Supreme Court to not merely be neutral, but to obligate the state to protect the child’s life.

    Only this “whole of society” approach will do. For even if we could enact perfect laws, a community not ready to accept them will despise both the laws and the virtues they promote. As St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his Treatise on Law, “The purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue, not suddenly, but gradually. Whereupon it does not lay upon the multitude of imperfect men the burdens of those who are already virtuous. … Otherwise these imperfect ones, being unable to bear such precepts, would break out into yet greater evils.” In other words, we must seek laws that lead the states that are strongly pro-abortion to true human dignity, and we must also prepare them as a community to joyfully accept that dignity. Little by little does the trick.

    The sooner we recover the classical legal tradition’s insight that the “purpose of human law is to lead men to virtue,” the better.

  • Doug Sanders writes on Poundbury, the New Urbanist community begun in 1993 by King Charles III:

    Poundbury offers a window into the mind of the new King. It was the controversial test bed for his outspoken ideas about architecture and urban planning, ecology and community. It has been a highly lucrative part of the portfolio of property-development and retail ventures that made up his business empire, now passed on to his son William.

    And, you realize after spending a day or two here, Poundbury is meant to be a statement—about the importance of tradition and its place in a modern high-tech world, about the relationship between community and authority, and, by extension, about how Charles envisions institutions such as the monarchy, and imagines them functioning during his time on the throne. …

    “Personally, I like living here because you can live in a nice Victorian house that doesn’t have all the thermal and energy problems of a real Victorian house,” says architect Duncan Jagger as he picks up his two small kids from the Prince of Wales school. He’s not an anti-modernist, but, as he notes, neoclassical house designs and rural-village streetscapes have been a popular fashion in housing developments for decades, and master-planned towns are certainly nothing new in Britain. …

    But Poundbury is bound to be judged differently, because it was meant to be a proof of one man’s values.

    On one hand, it is a very progressive place by urban-planning standards. It is built to be very walkable, with a high population density, no yards surrounding houses, and streets designed to deter fast driving – there are no lines on the roads or signs beside them, so drivers have to concentrate. It is a mixed-use town, with retail and residential sharing the same space, including urban-style flats on top of shops. It is very ecological, with, for example, a regeneration plant that generates electricity from waste. And it’s theoretically “tenure agnostic,” so you can’t visually tell the social-housing flats from million-pound luxury homes. …

    Charles did believe that the wedding of aesthetic and organizational tradition with social progress would create a tight-knit place, on a human scale, that would foster a more harmonious community. And in the view of many of the people who live here, it has.

    Leon Krier, Poundbury’s lead architect and planner, wrote ten years prior to Poundbury’s opening that communities should be built to human-scale and to be adaptable rather than premised on a single model of human/economic behavior. Krier wrote in Architectural Design, in a piece titled Urban Components, that:

    “[T]he whole of Paris is a pre-industrial city which still works, because it is so adaptable, something the creations of the 20th century will never be. A city like Milton Keynes cannot survive an economic crisis, or any other kind of crisis, because it is planned as a mathematically determined social and economic project. If that model collapses, the city will collapse with it.”

    Krier descries the drift in the 20th century to single-use zoning, where certain parts of a community become strictly residential, other strictly commercial, others strictly industrial, etc. When communities are built this way, you end up with places that become dead or dangerous at certain times of day—think of corporate office parks with their desolate parking lots, or residential subdivisions whose codes can even prohibit gardening or clothes lines, and whose life drains away during the day when children are at school and parents have left for corporate or commercial activity zones.

    Contrast this with the city or town core of our best cities—places like New York, Old City Philadelphia, Rome, etc. where homes, restaurants, art studios, schools, etc. are all naturally layered together, resulting in communities that are always alive.

     

  • Fr. Raymond J. de Souza writes on the “strikingly Christian funeral of Queen Elizabeth II:”

    It was the grandest state funeral in history for history’s longest-serving monarch. 

    First and last, though, it was a Christian funeral. 

    The Church of England rendered a signal service to all Christians in providing a model for how funerals ought to be conducted, in a time when both sacred and civic funeral liturgies have become rather emaciated. 

    The Queen was rightly and well eulogized in various ceremonies in the past week. The day of her funeral was a day for prayer. 

    From the moment the funeral cortege entered Westminster Abbey to the singing of I Am the Resurrection and the Life, the mystery of death and eternal life took precedence over all others. 

    “We will all face the merciful judgment of God,” preached the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.  

    The archbishop preached a magnificent funeral homily, a model for all Christian funeral preaching. He preached truths about the queen’s “servant leadership” but presented her as a Christian disciple first and monarch second. The day included the height of British pomp and pageantry, but Archbishop Welby noted that “death is the door to glory.” 

    The sheer length of the queen’s life and reign were underscored as her earthly remains passed underneath the statues of the 20th-century martyrs installed over the abbey’s great west door for the millennium. The queen was born three years before Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth, and when she came to the abbey for her wedding in 1947, St. Maximilian Kolbe had not even been dead a decade. 

    Completely absent were speeches by secular officers of state. And to that welcome silence was added the profound, even palpable silence of the enormous crowds around the abbey and along the mall to Buckingham Palace. It was a manifestation of reverence, a public virtue much required for a healthy common life.  

    The ritual for a deceased monarch is richer than for any other, and the funeral masterfully permitted the ritual to speak. The congregation in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor stood in silence as the instruments of the queen’s earthly power — the orb, scepter and imperial state crown — were removed from the coffin and placed on the high altar. Then they sang Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation. What more need be said about the basis for all authority? 

    Catholic liturgy might learn something. Our current graveside rituals are banal. Contrast those with the sight of the coffin being lowered into the royal vault, while the dean of Windsor recited Psalm 103: 

    “For he knoweth our frame;  
    he remembereth that we are dust. 
    As for man, his days are as grass: 
    as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. 
    For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; 
    and the place thereof shall know it no more.” 

    Then he recited the stirring and solemn prayer, “Go forth Christian soul, from this world …” 

    The BBC’s coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral is exceptional, particularly of her burial in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor:

    Rest In Peace.