Friday, October 29, 2010

The Libertine Libertarian

Every now and then, some conservative prognosticator gets it in his head to compile a list of something with conservative themes. It could be rock songs, movies, books, fictional characters – you name it, somebody has, or soon will, come up with a list. This fascination with lists is not limited to conservatives. Catholics, especially our friends at L’Osservatore Romano, have contracted the bug as well.

When the list in question is conservative authors of science fiction, one almost always finds Robert Heinlein’s name on the list. Indeed, Heinlein appears to have a large number of fans on the right side of the political spectrum. I read quite a bit of Heinlein in my youth, and I think I know what I’m talking about when I say that Heinlein might have been a libertarian (and a libertine one at that!), but he was no conservative, as I understand the term.

Heinlein’s fiction is not friendly to religion and traditional morality. In Time Enough for Love, the protagonist travels back in time, where he seduces his own mother. In Job: A Comedy of Justice, the characters “marry” into a family with multiple husbands and wives involved in polyamorous bisexual relationships. Also in Job, we learn that the devil is a misunderstood swinger who’s much more fun that the uptight God. Meanwhile, Stranger in a Strange Land presents us with a Christ-like figure from Mars who preaches that “Thou art God” (as is the tree in the meadow, so don’t think too highly about yourself) and instructs his followers to cook him into a soup for dinner after he dies.

I was in my teens when I read most of my Heinlein. It’s a wonder that I turned out as I did (and maybe explains some of the flaws with which I still struggle). I don’t think that my parents had any idea what kind of amorality I was absorbing through my choice of literature. That’s why I try hard to monitor what my own kids are reading.

Heinlein’s stories are fun to read, and they do promote some virtues, such as self-reliance and civic responsibility, but they also promote a world-view that is incompatible with Christian morality. He should only be read by adults capable of recognizing and filtering out the bunk.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Capital Gains

There was some discussion over on The Corner yesterday between Ponnuru and Stuttaford regarding taxes, specifically, the capital gains tax. I find myself straddling the fence on the subject. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that I buy a house for $100,000 and then sell it for $150,000. There are lots of folks who think that I’ve just pocketed fifty grand and need to share a portion of that windfall with Uncle Sam. This might be true, IF there hasn’t been any inflation AND I haven’t poured any money into the property.

In most cases, however, flipping a house involves spending money to prepare it. In my case, just holding onto an older house involves a constant flow of cash. If I own the above-mentioned house for ten years, and during that time I spend more than $50,000 on it (for re-modeling, upgrades, roofing, plumbing, landscaping, etc.), then it is hard for me to see how that difference between my purchase price and my selling price represents a net gain that the government needs to tax, especially if I can document every penny that I’ve spent on the property.

On the other hand, I’m all for phasing out the mortgage interest deduction. It provides a perverse incentive to buy more house than I need and to keep the value of that house financed rather than owned in equity.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Speed Mass

Wow! That was one of the quickest Sunday masses I’ve ever attended. The brevity of the rite was assisted by the terseness of the homily. Here it is, in it’s entirety: “Two men went up to the Temple to pray. One of them did.” I sat in my pew thinking, “That’s a promising start,” but the celebrant spun on his heel and returned to the sanctuary. Just like that, the Liturgy of the Word was over, and we were transitioning to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Special Days

I’ve fallen a little behind in following the Lectionary readings. While the Church completed reading St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians and moved on to the letter to the Ephesians, I found myself stuck on Galatians 3:15-25. Up until that point,I thought that I was following Paul’s line of argument; but then he offered a clarifying example. Rather than make things clearer, it only confused me more, and I had to keep re-reading the passage. Let’s just say that I don’t find Paul’s reliance on singular versus plural nouns, especially when the noun is something as indefinite as “seed” or “offspring” (depending on the translation) to be convincing.

I finally moved on yesterday, only to stumble over Galatians 4:8-11.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God – or rather are known by God – how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

This October, like no October I ever remember, is being pushed upon us as Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Everywhere I turn, I see pink! Every cause has it’s own awareness month, it seems. And, of course, we observe secularized seasons for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Even within the Church, we observe special months (May for Mary), seasons (Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter), years (the Year of St. Paul, the Year for Priests), and days (solemnities, feasts, and memorials). Would St. Paul have feared for us?

I know that Paul was writing in the context of the old Law, which was fulfilled in Christ. Christians aren’t under the Law and, therefore, aren’t required to observe the Law’s liturgical calendar. In some ways, however, we traded one liturgical calendar for another. We are no longer bound by the Mosaic Law, but we are bound by Canon Law. The difference is that we do not become righteous by observing the calendar and the law. Indeed, the righteous will be observant, but not slavishly observant.

What might cause Paul to fear is the sad fact that some might believe that merely by observing the calendar, they are doing all that is necessary. This occurs to varying degrees. There is the Catholic who only attends mass occasionally, but makes sure to go on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and thinks that’s good enough. There is the Catholic who attends mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation, but only those days, and thinks that’s good enough. On the other extreme, there are Catholics who, based on promises by apparitions in private revelations, think that they are assured of salvation as long as they make it to mass on nine consecutive first Fridays or first Saturdays, or are wearing a brown scapular when they die.

Ultimately, that is not what saves us. We are saved by faith, but not faith alone. Our faith must be accompanied by love. When James says that faith without works is dead, he is not speaking about works of the Law; he is speaking about works of love. If we observe special days, months, seasons, and years because we love God, the Church, and the object of those observances, then we are doing a good thing, and no fear is necessary.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Linked: Newman and Rameses

Disparate things occasionally form tenuous links. George Weigel has a piece On the Square today in which he waxes over the recently beatified John Henry Newman. He quotes a prayer by Newman:

God has created me to do him some definite service. He has committed some work for me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons….

The prayer continues, but that idea of being a link in a chain is striking. It is so easy to slip into a mode of thinking in which we exist in spiritual isolation to the extent that our sins and weaknesses are private. They are not, as Paul makes all too clear in his first letter to the Corinthians. A soul’s private sins affect the whole body.

The sudden recognition of interconnectedness is enough to make an individual vow, “I will not be the weak link!” That, in turns brings to mind the scene from the Dreamworks film Prince of Egypt, in which Rameses, rebuked by his father, vows that he will not be the weak link in the line of Egyptian kings. The vow hardens his heart and turns him into an autocratic dictator.

The analogy limps more than a bit. If we all form a single chain, then any one person would only need to ensure that he is not the weakest link – as long as another link fails first, the whole chain fails because of someone else – and we can all look around us and see folks that we believe are weaker links than we are. Nonetheless, it helps to be reminded that we are all joined together. Life is a team sport.

Newman was a historical figure of greatness. The Rameses of film was a fictional character based on a historical figure. It is a good thing for us to be determined not to fail in our obligations to God, but we must always remember that the obligation is manifested in love – both of God and of our fellow man created in God’s image.

Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us, that we might each fulfill our mission with fidelity and love.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Number of Sts Simon and Jude

I like to read the Bible with the Church by following the Lectionary readings and trying to fill in the gaps when the readings skip chapters. Last week, for example, the Lectionary skipped its way through the book of Job in six days, five if you exclude Wednesday, when the readings for the Feast of the Archangels superceded those for the 26th Week of Ordinary Time. Once a month, I’ll chart the readings for the month, print the chart, and tuck it into my Bible for reference.

Two things struck me as I prepared my chart for October. The first is that, although we aren’t numerologically superstitious, I couldn’t help but notice that the Lectionary entry for the Feast of Sts. Simon and Jude on October 28 is 666. That also happens to be Beggar’s Night (aka Trick or Treat) in our little village. All Saints Day (November 1) uses Lectionary entry 667, making 666 the last fixed entry before Halloween. I’m sure that it means nothing, but it’s still interesting to note.

The second striking thing is the entry for All Souls Day, November 2. There are three options for the first reading, three options for the responsorial psalm, 13 options for the second reading, and 12 options for the gospel. That’s 1,404 different possible combinations! I think that I’ll just default to whichever four are featured on the USCCB site for that day.

Note: I don’t have my own copy of the Lectionary. I use this site as a reference, with little recourse other than to trust in its accuracy.