Announcing the Release of the Summer Issue of Fare Forward

My contribution can be found here:

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Celebs Be Crazy – A Post for English Manif

I recently started translating for English Manif, a blog started by Robert Lopez in response to the “Manifestation pour Tous,” the organized résistance to the same-sex marriage movement in France. The goal of the blog is to make the French-language news about life issues accessible to English-speakers, and to do the same for French-speakers with English-language news. My work is being published there under the pseudonym “Wally”. I encourage you to follow it, as it provides a frequently-updated resources about the goings-on in France (and elsewhere in Europe) in English.

Click here for my most recent post on celebrities and surrogacy. 

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What does it Mean to Favor ‘Traditional’ Gender Roles?

I wish I knew. Despite my being very interested in gender issues, I have actually done very little reading in this area. The reason for this is that most of the literature that I come across is written by angry women whose main project is to eradicate y-chromosome-bearing beings from the world. The rest of the literature that I have found is sparse and, generally, bad. I have therefore been unable to develop a complete gender theory on my own, though it is certainly a goal of mine to adhere to one some day, be it adopted from somewhere else or of my own creation.

That said, I don’t think that today’s endeavor will be entirely hopeless, for I do have a skeleton of a gender theory in mind and I hope that, after presenting it here, people will add to it and/or critique any weaknesses or inaccuracies that it may have. Here goes.

Why ought there be gender roles in the first place?

A man and a woman together are capable of attaining a good which no other combination of persons can attain (at least not licitly, but that’s another discussion). That good is the procreation and rearing of children, and the weight of this good, given that the survival of our race depends on it, demands that it must be sought in the best way possible.

The procreation and rearing of children is a lengthy process that demands an immensely high degree of dedication on the part of both of the spouses involved. However, the ways in which they dedicate themselves will be different. Some of these differences are due purely to biology; a woman is going to have to carry a baby around for nine months and deliver it. The effect that this has on the man will vary from place to place. In the industrialized West, it mostly means that he will need to be particularly attentive to the needs of his wife. In a more primitive world, it might mean that he has to spend his nights outside the cave, spear in hand, to protect his wife and unborn child against whatever dangers the wilderness may hold.

Other differences will be due to psychology, as research has shown that children learn different behaviors and skills from their mothers and fathers. The 82nd edition of the journal Psychological Reports, for example, contains psychological research shows that the differences in the parenting styles of fathers and mothers complement one another. The research concluded that children learn from their fathers how to be autonomous and independent, and from their mothers how to interact will with others. Clearly, both sets of skills are important.

We have now come to the first reason for which gender roles ought to exist: men and women need to be prepared to play their respective parts in the procreating and rearing of children in which they may some day participate.

Saying that there was a first reason implied that a second was to follow, and indeed there is. Not only ought men and women be prepared for their roles as potential future parents, but there must also exist the cultural norms which guide this process from potency to act: dating. Of course, the practice of arranging marriages still exists in some parts of the world, but that practice is completely alien to me and so I can’t comment on it.

In order to date, couples have to know what to do; there must be some norms against which they can judge their actions. The absence of such norms makes it difficult for each member of a couple to interpret the level of affection, commitment, interest, etc. that the other is trying to communicate. They also need to know what is expected of them as a couple by society and, consequently, through what stages and at what rate their relationship ought to advance.

This second reason can be combined with the first. That is, the norms that serve as the basis for communication can also serve to prepare men and women for their future conjugal lives. For example, I think that the classical paradigm according to which a man must court a woman (and her family) in order to woo her forces him to place his desire to be with her and serve her above his inclination to objectify her (which is an inclination in all, I am sure, but the most blessed of men).

What about the exceptions?

Okay, so men and women have certain general characteristics respective to their genders, but what about the womanly men and the manly women? I, as a man who detests watching sports, appreciate this question, which is why it pains me to say that I am unable to provide an adequate answer to it. I will, however, do my best.

I will begin first by pointing out that I think most of the people who ask this question give the exceptions to the rule more weight than they ought to. If you claim that women are more nurturing than men, they will immediately tell you about their uncle who was a very sensitive father and was always attentive to the immediate needs of his children. To your observation that men a bigger risk-takers than women, they will rebut with a tale about their dare-devil niece whose thirst for danger gives you the shivers.

In my experience it has usually been the case that these pesky exceptions to the rule usually exhibit only one or two traits that are more on the opposite gender’s side of the spectrum than their own. On the whole, when you combine the traits of these individuals into a psychological profile, you find that, more often than not, they still display an overall profile that is characteristic of their gender. Of course, this is mere conjecture based on my personal experience.  I hope one day to test it against psychological evidence, but I do not yet possess the means of doing so.

Nevertheless, these exceptions also bear no weight when it comes to biology. You may be able to take issue with my ideas about general psychological profiles by making reference to exceptions and to human psychological plasticity, but these arguments are useless against the inalterable (mostly, again, that’s another subject) biological dichotomy that separates males and females. The consequences of this are that women who bear strongly-masculine psychological characteristics are nevertheless going to have to prepare for the role that biology will assign them. At this point, I would go so far to say that any women (or man) whose psychology is so strongly akin to that of the opposite gender that she (or he) is unable to carry out the tasks that are biologically dictated to her (or him) is disordered.

I should also mention that while I speak of roles and norms and general profiles, these are rarely meant to be understood as absolute rules. So long as a whole culture does not decide that they are a collection of purely-autonomous individuals and date and marry and raise children however they want, then the norms which prepare boys and girls for dating and marriage and raising children will still be in place and will still serve to educate and to provide a standard against which to judge actions. Those who argue otherwise should probably check out the new Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” The main character, a graduate of Smith College (where everyone is encouraged to “express herself” [itself? zieself? themself?]), was educated in a very “express-yourself” climate. As a result, she couldn’t be more confused. She graduated college as a lesbian, and then decided that she wanted to marry a man, and then she wasn’t a lesbian anymore, but then maybe she was, but then only a little bit, but then a lot, but then not at all. How could anyone stand living like that? Human desires – especially sexual desires – are too fickle to be used as a behavioral standard. It would be better to recognize they they exist for a purpose and then to gear them according to that purpose.

In other words, husbands, if your wife tells you that she’s feeling overwhelmed with the housework, pick up the slack and help her out.

So What About Those ‘Traditional’ Gender Roles?

Well, I think it’s impossible to endorse one particular culture in one particular time as having come up with a perfect solution to this problem. To proceed from here I think that our culture needs to reflect on masculinity and femininity and in order to understand how these qualities function best together for the future of society. This understanding will produce changes, and these changes will take various forms. Some will be concrete, for example, it may be set in law that mothers should be given x months of maternity leave with y amount of pay, while fathers should be given x’ and y’ respectively. Others will be more nebulous, as when we encourage or discourage certain behaviors in our sons but not in our daughters.

But regardless, it seems clear to me that a society which embraces gender differences and uses their natural complementarity will benefit more than a society which sees them as eradicable difficulties.

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‘For the Husband is Head of His Wife as Christ is Head of the Church’

The fifth chapter of Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians has caused me more stress than any other chapter of the Bible. During my master’s studies, I made frequent attempts to write research papers on it, but I always gave up after undertaking the preliminary research. The reason for this was that the scholars who wrote on this issue had the annoying tendency of spending entire articles trying to explain exactly what St. Paul didn’t mean; they would entirely avoid the bold claim that St. Paul seemed to make. My reading got me absolutely nowhere. Without any substantial material, it was impossible to write a paper. 

Nevertheless, I could not help but obsess about what St. Paul was trying to say in this chapter. While I am still far from having figured it out, my quest has not been fruitless. Below are some of my thoughts on family dynamics that I dreamt up while wrestling with the 23rd verse of this chapter, quoted in the title. Mostly (I believe) because of its contentiousness, I was unable to find anyone willing to publish it.  The reason why is it is wholly lacking in Christian or Biblical references is because I had intended it for secular publication. Well, here it is and here it will remain. Feedback would be appreciated. 

It has been typical in my experience in dealing with married couples that it is much more useful to consult a wife/mother than a husband/father when trying to make plans. This is because the woman is likely to be keenly aware not only of her own schedule, but also of those of her husband, children, friends, and extended family. A man, however, when asked about the availability of his family for such-and-such an affair, is likely to reply with a deferential remark such as, “Ask my wife.”

Many attempt to explain this phenomenon by making reference to historical shifts in social attitudes about the genders and their relation to the family. The logic runs that, in the past, the management of domestic affairs was a woman’s responsibility. Men were expected to take care of extra-domestic obligations such as making a living. Today, men have inherited negligence of their forefathers in dealing with family affairs as well. Others might say that modern women, under pressure from certain strains of feminist thought, feel obliged to handle both inter- and extra-domestic affairs, which leaves little room for the husband. Similarly, the men, for fear of being perceived as domineering or controlling, step aside while their wives “take charge.”
Regardless of which of these theories – if either – is correct, I think it is clear that there is an underlying psychological cause which may be partly to blame for the lack of husbandly/fatherly  involvement: women tend to be able to easily put themselves in tune with the emotional and material needs and wants of those around them. Men may be capable of doing this as well, but it usually require a conscious and concerted effort on their part.

If there be any truth in this psychological assessment, then a solution to the problem of husbandly/fatherly involvement immediately presents itself: if one of the uninvolved fathers described above were to take a stronger leadership role in his family’s life, it will require him to involve himself in the personal lives of his family members. In order to fulfill his role, he will need to spend time with his children to learn about their personalities, aspirations, friendships, etc. He will need to do the same with his wife, but in addition, he will also have to confer with her when trying to make decisions for the family; even though he may be making a stronger effort to learn about his children, she is still likely to know them better than he does.

The current intellectual climate demands that I clarify precisely what I do not intend to say in the above paragraph. I am not claiming that a man ought to be autonomous in making decisions for his family; his wife’s opinion on such matters are as important as his own.  Rather, the role which I mean to ascribe to him has a more representational character. I think that the man ought to present his decisions (with his wife’s stamp of approval) to his family in a firm manner which makes them clear and succinct. Additionally, he ought to “take the lead” in carrying out such decisions, not in a domineering or controlling way, but in such a way that the energy and initiative needed to bring these decisions to fruition flow from him.

In the end, it seems to me that such an arrangement will be beneficial for the entire family. Instead of an uninvolved father, the children will benefit from the attentiveness and direction given to them. A woman in such a family will have a responsible husband who does not stand idly on the sidelines, but who works with her to raise and lead a family.

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The Impurity of ‘Purity’

Virtue, Aristotle tells us, is a mode of action that operates as a mean between two emotional extremes, or ‘vices’. When properly developed, a virtue allows a person to act readily, easily, happily, and reasonably – in a word: excellently - with regard to the action which corresponds to that particular virtue. The virtue of temperance, for example, allows one to enjoy bodily pleasures properly. A temperate person would eat neither too much nor too little; he would eat a healthy amount and he would enjoy doing so. In addition to virtues, there are certain habits of the mind that a person can develop which can help him to act virtuously. Continence, for example, describes the ability of a person to resist the urge to overindulge in bodily pleasures. 

The fact that virtue is a mean between two extremes is important to remember. Human experience shows that most people tend toward one extreme more than the other; it is easy to find a person who can’t resist chocolate cake, but it is hard to find a person who completely lacks a sweet tooth. It is important to keep this in mind when aiming to develop a certain virtue. Aristotle suggests that you should aim toward whichever extreme you do not tend toward naturally, then stop when you hit the mean.

Since they’re nothing but a group of people, societies share this tendency to favor one vice over its opposite. Being aware of this, and perhaps also of Aristotle’s suggestion to aim towards the vice to which one is not inclined, subcultures often develop in reaction to the particular brand of viciousness of the society at large. I think that the straight-edge movement of the 1980′s which favored a brand of rebelliousness that disallowed the use of alcohol, tobacco, and uncommitted sex provides an interesting example. These punk rockers, sickened by the drug abuse and licentiousness of the popular music culture of the time reacted by promoting a culture with inverted values.

The straight-edge movement was probably a good one over all, but sometimes such reactionary subcultures take things too far. In present-day North America, there exists such a subculture – comprised of conservative-minded Christians – which has me worried. These Christians rightly observe that modern North American culture promotes overindulgence in sex. Their typical response is to try and beat ‘purity’ into their children – particularly into their daughters – in order to protect them from the licentiousness of the greater culture.

Purity, as I understand it, is intended to be a form of continence that is applied specifically to sexuality. Continence in general describes the ability to resist urges to indulge in physical pleasures; purity refers specifically to sexual pleasure. Just as continence can help one to develop the virtue of temperance, so purity can help one to develop the virtue of chastity. Over-continence, however, would be an impediment to the development of temperance; such a person would not enjoy physical pleasures enough. Such a case sounds strange – and indeed it is – but people, if appropriately conditioned, can develop all sorts of strange behaviors.

This is, I believe, what has happened to a large portion of the children of the conservative-minded Christians which I mentioned above. Their children exemplify a particular brand of purity which goes so far as to make them afraid of sex and anything that leads to it. Effective purity, that is, purity which would actually promote sexual wholesomeness (ie, chastity), would not go so far as to make people afraid of sexual pleasure; it would only make them wary of seeking sexual pleasure improperly. I therefore contend that the form of purity which goes so far as to make people afraid of sexual pleasure is impure, since it does not actually promote the wholesomeness that the name implies, and have for this reason placed it in inverted commas. Conceived in an effort to avoid the vice of lust, it has dodged a bullet only to be hit by an arrow. Lust it is not, but nor is it chaste. It is ‘pure’.

Sex is a good thing. It makes babies, it brings people together, and it feels good. It is, however, very easy to misuse it, which is why people are so careful about it. We cannot, however, be afraid of sex. If Christianity is to survive to the next generation, there is going to have to be a next generation. Generation requires procreation, procreation requires sex, sex takes place within the context of marriage, and dating and romance are the processes that lead to marriage. I have seen cases in which people are so infected with ‘purity’ that they are terrified of dating. These people also tend to be those whose greatest goal in life (and it is indeed a great goal) is to marry and have children. What a paradox! To aspire toward an end but be repelled by its means!

Parents should indeed warn their children about the ways in which sex can be misused and protect them from falling into the licentious habits that prevail in our contemporary culture. However, in doing so, they need to be careful to communicate the fact that sex is a good thing and the processes that lead to its being used properly – while they should be undergone with great care – are desirable.

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Learning to Want as we Ought

Today a post of mine was posted on Fare Forward’s blog.

Here’s a preview:

During the course of a homily on the virtue of faith I heard this Sunday, the priest gave an anecdote from his teenage years. I can’t quote him verbatim, but this is essence of what he said:

As a teenager, I thought that Heaven was essentially a mass that never ended. The very idea of sitting through a never-ending series of church hymns repulsed me. Nevertheless, I wanted to want this because I believed I should.

His experience of wanting Heaven despite his visceral repulsion to it is an example of what I think makes up the essence of the spiritual life: you must strive to want what you must want.

Isn’t that a strange concept? If I want to want something, don’t I want it? Not really. The fact that you can want to want something that you don’t desire shows that there are at least two parts of you that “want” and that these parts are out of line with one another. The first part is the will and the second part is an affective desire. The spiritual life is essentially the task of aligning these naturally misaligned faculties. Specifically, the will, informed by the intellect, should govern your affective desires.

To read the rest, please visit Fare Forward’s blog.

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Misunderstanding the Old Testament

A friend of mine recently posted the following picture on Facebook:

OT NonsenseI took it upon myself to try and respond to the misunderstanding exemplified by this picture. I’ll post the response below for the benefit of anyone who may be interested in reading it. You may notice that it isn’t as detailed or as precise as my usual writing. Therefore, since I have written on these topics before, I’ll include a link to an article that I did on the book of Sirach.

Here’s my comment:

Due to time/energy constraints, I’m going to write this briefly and I’m mostly going to make biblical allusions, not quotations.

Firstly, there’s the question of how Christians are supposed to approach the Mosaic Law. Luckily for me, there is a connection between this and the question of homosexual marriage. There are some allusions to the Mosaic Law in the Gospels, but I think that the clearest references (clearest in terms of meaning) are those found in Acts of the Apostles and the Letter to the Galatians. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter has a dream in which he sees a platter full of unclean (by Mosaic standards) animals. Then, he hears the voice of God telling him, “Slaughter and eat.” Peter refuses, saying that he will not touch unclean food. This is repeated three times, and on the third time, the voice of God says, “What I have made clean, you will not call unclean.” After that, Peter informs the Apostles of his dream and they decide to allow newly-converted Christians to eat foods that were formerly forbidden. 

Why the change? St. Paul explains it pretty well in the Letter to the Galatians. Essentially, what he says is that God revealed himself gradually to the Jews, not all at once. For them, the laws served the purpose of preparing them to receive the Messiah. However, once the Messiah arrived, there was no longer any need for the Law. Upon further examination, some of which will be clarified later, it becomes clear that the laws can be categorized. Some of them expressed timeless moral truths, such as the Ten Commandments. Some were merely hygienic. Others were meant to moralize the Jews. (Which makes a lot of sense out of some of the more horrid-sounding laws, for example, that rapists be required to marry their pregnant victims. Sounds awful for the bride right? Well, of course, but this was a means of holding a man accountable for his actions. Now, instead of having a woman and a child with no economic means of support, Israelite society now has a man who will have to spend the rest of his life embracing the consequences of his actions and providing for a woman he wronged and a child he brought into the world.)

Then, there’s the question at hand. What does all of this have to do with homosexual marriage? Well, the New Testament makes very few mentions of homosexuality, and only mentions sexuality of any sort a handful of times. However, there is one passage that is very relevant here. Here is a bit from the beginning of Matthew 19 (The capital letters are quotations from the Old Testament):

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”4And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE,5and said, ‘FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER AND BE JOINED TO HIS WIFE, AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH’?6“So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”7They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY?”8He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.9“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Jesus makes it clear that some of the Mosaic Laws were made out of political expediency. However, God had not intended marriage to be as it was under that law. (In other words, all of the Old Testament allusions in your photo above are irrelevant.) So then, to find out how marriage was “supposed to be” according to Jesus, what we have to do is go back to “the beginning” or Genesis. There, we find a man and a woman in a lifelong commitment. So then, according to the Christian view, as derived from the Christian approach to the Bible, a marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman and there is to be no divorce.

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March for Marriage

Some of you may be familiar with the March for Life. If not, it’s a political demonstration that takes place every year on the anniversary of the Supreme Court case – Roe v. Wade –  which made abortion (until viability) a constitutional right in the US. This past week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for two cases, one about the constitutionality Proposition 8 in California, and the other about the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Mirrored after the March for Life, and March for Marriage was organized to show support for both Proposition 8 and DOMA on the first day of the oral arguments. The Love and Fidelity Network  (LFN) planned a trip to to DC to march, and I went with them.

Soon after the March, the director of the LFN asked me if I wouldn’t mind writing something for their blog about my experience. Here’s what I wrote. 

Here, I’d like to add a thought or two:

Basically, I think that it’s great that our country has such a strong love of liberty and justice. Our country was founded on the principle that a government exists to protect individual rights and civil liberties. If you think about all of the tyrants that have existed throughout human history, it won’t take you long to realize that we are extremely blessed to live in the time and place that we do.

But here’s the problem. We’ve gotten so hung up on the idea of personal freedom that we’ve equated it with total autonomy. This means that justice today is a one-way street. The individual doesn’t owe anything to anybody – society or otherwise. Rather, the individual deserves everything. This, however, is a dangerous and unsustainable philosophy. Firstly, this understanding of freedom and justice does not make sense in light of human nature. It is a simple fact that I cannot do whatever I want. Rather, I must act in accord with my nature to fulfill myself. Secondly, this understanding of freedom and justice does not make sense in light of human relationships. Nobody likes one-way relationships. Not only do people feel used, but soon enough, the people doing all the taking find that their lives are empty from not doing any giving.

If you read the article that I linked above, you’ll see an outline of what I understand marriage to be. The reason I spoke here so much about freedom and justice is because I didn’t have much more space to do so in the article. So the point that I want to emphasize is this: given the strength of our passion for freedom and justice (as demonstrated by the fervor of the protestors who were protesting our March) in this country, if we manage to rediscover the meaning of marriage as rooted in human nature, then we will have a very, very strong force on our side that will be directed toward the good of society.

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I did it!

For anyone who follows this blog on a regular basis, I thank you for your patience and apologize for the lack of content. This past August, I moved to Washington, DC. The primary reason behind the relocation was to be near the Catholic University of America, where I wanted to do my PhD in Moral Theology. I wanted to be nearby so that I could meet with professors and keep in touch with people at the school so as to make my interest in their program abundantly clear. But I’m getting ahead of myself; I should start at the beginning.

In the beginning of the year 2011, I was going through some intense discernment. To put it simply, my plans for the future fell through and, as a recent college graduate, I had no idea where my life was going. That summer, I decided that it was my calling in life to pursue an academic career in moral theology. At the time, I was enrolled in an MA program at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York.

I started to look into schools and, that fall, I picked four schools that I wanted to apply to. Of those four, Catholic University was by far my top choice. After a stressful period during which I was trying to complete four graduate courses, four PhD applications, and work as a painter in order to support all of this, that awful waiting period which follows the application process began. I first got a rejection letter from one school, and began to worry. A few weeks later, I received an e-mail from a professor at Catholic University, telling me that he was very happy with my application and thought that I’d be a good fit in his department. I was accepted there with strong enthusiasm from the faculty. They told me that they would do their best to “advocate for funding on [my] behalf.” Unfortunately, however, the funding never came through. After considering the possibility of taking out loans to pay for a 5-year graduate program in liberal arts, which doesn’t have very promising career potential, I decided to defer my acceptance to Catholic University.

Unfortunately, the other two schools didn’t accept me either. Great, I got into my first-choice school, but without any funding, and nobody else wanted me. After some discussions with some of the professors at Catholic University, they told me that they felt confident that they could fund me in the future, but that they couldn’t guarantee it. In their opinion, there were several things that I could do to boost my chances, but the best option would be to retake the GRE.

I spent the summer of 2012 working and doing GRE practice. I worked through an entire GRE Math practice book, and I memorized 650 vocabulary words. I also practiced writing essays a bit, and asked some of my friends to critique them. In August, I retook the exam and improved my score in all three sections. In addition to all of that, I also studied Latin quite a bit; so much so that I felt confident enough to list it on my CV as a language that I could “read with a dictionary.” I already had French (a very useful theological language) and Spanish (a not-so-useful theological language, at least for the work that I want to do) listed there. Lastly, I got myself published in Fare Forward, which I thought might help.

After all that, I moved to Washington, and kept in touch with the professors that I wanted to work with. I made myself visible on campus, and showed up to one or two functions. Later in the fall, I sent the admissions department at Catholic University my updated information, and I also included a two-page letter outlining why I thought that I deserved any funding that they had to offer. Essentially, my argument was that though my GRE scores might not have been the highest that they had ever seen, I had a number of other qualities that would make me a successful graduate student an academic. Particularly, I emphasized my linguistic ability, teaching experience, and ambition.

I hoped that this would be enough, but just to be sure, I sent applications to six other graduate programs. Finally, just last week, I received an e-mail from the same professor who informed me about my acceptance last year. He told me that I’d be receiving a scholarship that would cover all of my tuition and a yearly living stipend! So, it seems like a year’s worth of hard work and perseverance paid off. I am happy to say that I will be starting a PhD program in moral theology at Catholic University this August.

Since receiving word of the financial offer that the university would be making me, I have experienced a whole range of emotions, but the most prominent of them has been gratitude. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to spend so much time studying theology, the noblest academic discipline. So many generations before me, and so many people today, could not even dream of such a possibility. Having spent a year striving so hard for this, I think it impossible that I could ever become complacent and take my wonderful opportunity for granted. I sincerely hope that I manage to sustain my feeling of gratitude for as long as my life as an academic endures, and that because of it, I may work to the best of my ability in what I do.

I thank you, God, for the opportunity to learn more about your Church, your teachings, and you yourself.

Returning to the lack of content, I hope it is clear why I haven’t been posting much here. Not only have I been very busy working two jobs and trying to get myself funded at Catholic University, but I haven’t been able to read much theology at all for the past few months. When you’re busy with worldly things and not engrossed in theology, it’s pretty tough to come up with regular posts about it. I have no doubt that, as my non-academic schedule gets lighter and as I start studying theology again, this page will be as productive as it was before.

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We Could Use a Little More Downton

So I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about; last week, I watched the first episode of ‘Downton Abbey.’ Today, I finished the second season. Yeah, it’s that good. The acting is excellent, the directing is fantastic, and it’s refreshing to finally see a TV series with some serious character development, but I think the rush of attention that Downtown has been getting recently has to do with more than all of that. Downton brings us back to a different time. It’s a time which is simultaneously near and far from our own. Near in that it was only a century ago, far in that most of us couldn’t possibly imagine living in it.

This should come as no surprise; the 20th century brought about the greatest social changes the Western world has ever known. Many of these changes, I dare not dispute, were for the good. And yet, I am confident that some of the well-intentioned reforms brought disastrous consequences with them. Make no mistake, I do not wish to live in the world of Downton Abbey; I am the son of a painter who will soon be pursuing a terminal degree in the liberal arts. Such social mobility would have been unthinkable 100 years ago. Indeed, I am quite happy with many of the social changes that were introduced in the last century;  I merely think that some of the reforms went overboard.

It seems to me that the reason behind the allure of “Downton Abbey” is that is shows us a world which contains many things that ours lacks. Let’s take a look at some of the (I think) good things found in the world of Downtown that are either absent from our own or are present in truncated form:

1) Gender Roles

Alas, for the first discussion I have chosen a topic that is sure to be the touchiest of them all. Nevertheless, I think it is important for a society to recognize that there are differences between men and women and to treat them accordingly. I don’t think that the Downton World does a perfect job of treating men and women properly, but it does treat them differently and that’s my point.

It is a simple fact that men and women are different. A woman is a member of the human species who has the potential to become a mother. A man is a member of the human species who has the potential to impregnate a woman. In different times and places, these essential facts will have different consequences, and men and woman will need to have the appropriate virtues formed for dealing with them. Accordingly, the social atmosphere of a certain time and place must be conducive to the development of those virtues.

2) Civility

Though the Downton World is certainly rife with examples of snark and backhanded nastiness, the politeness that the characters show for one another is quite refreshing. For example, in one scene, two families are to dinner, and a dispute arises within one of the families. The mother of the other family goes to make a comment, and her son stops her saying, “Mother, it is not our place to have an opinion.” What maturity! It would be wonderful to live in a world when people know when to keep their noses out of other people’s personal affairs.

3) Hierarchy

Before I continue, I’d like to point out something that I found interesting about the different social clases in the Downton World. The characters on the show express the opinion from time to time that the members of the upper class have more freedom than the lower classes. To me, this doesn’t seem to be the case. In several instances, a member of the upper class falls in love with a person of lower class. They are both equally unfree to marry each other. The members of the upper class have seriously high expectations for one another with regard to other things as well: where they live, the type of house they will have, how they are to dress, etc.

Now about hierarchy as such. I think it is quite obvious that human beings are naturally hierarchical; hierarchy seems to have arisen in every society with which I am familiar. I don’t think that this is just some quirky part of human nature that we should do away with; I think it’s a good thing. It’s good to know your place.

For example, I remember once being enrolled in a course taught by a professor who desperately wanted to be popular with his students. He told us (bad) jokes, had us call him by his first name, and even cut class short a few times to let us go home early. The problem with this, is that it fosters a sense of familiarity, and even friendship. This is great for equals, but it is not good for superiors and subordinates. In this example, it was difficult for the professor to grade our papers fairly. Wanting to please us, and also not wanting to violate the feeling of friendship that he had with some of us, it felt like betrayal to him to give us bad marks. The problem here is not only that students were getting away with shoddy work, but that they weren’t being forced to better themselves as students. The student-teacher relationship was inhibited, and the students suffered the consequences.

It is important to treat your superiors as superiors, otherwise you won’t be able to learn from them. After all, if we are all equally skilled and equally important, why on Earth would we take advice from one another?

4) Articulation

The Downton World is a place where people place a high value on the ability to speak well. Consider the following quotation:

Woman to her mother-in-law: Are we to be friends then?

Mother-in-law:  We are allies, my dear, which can be a good deal more effective.

Cold as it might be, the mother-in-law is drawing a distinction between two different relationships. Being allies is similar to being friends, but because of its coldness, it can be more useful than friendship. The mother in law managed to convey that idea in one sentence. Imagine if we could all speak like that?

On that note:

5) Enduring through Difficulty

The people of Downton had apparently not forgotten that good can arise out of evil. More importantly, they recognized that enduring through difficulty was a very effective way of developing one’s character. In today’s world were the minutest amount of discomfort is to be avoided, we might do well to consider the words of Lady Sybil to her sister:

“You’re far nicer than you were before the war, you know.”

Apparently, having endured through the stress of World War I, Edith (Sybil’s sister) had gained a new perspective on things. Some things that used to bother her now no longer did, probably because she recognized how foolish it was to let such things annoy her.

6) Taking Pride in Your Work

I find it very gratifying to see how many of the characters in the Downton world take pride in their work, no matter what they do. In one scene, a butler chides a footman for serving dinner with a tear in his jacket:

Butler:  William, are you aware the seam at your shoulder is coming apart?
Footman:  I felt it go a bit earlier. I’ll mend it when we turn in.
Butler:  You will mend it now and you will never again appear in public in a similar state of undress.
Footman:  No, Mr Carson.
Butler:  To progress in your chosen career, William, you must remember that a good servant at all times retains a sense of pride and dignity that reflects the pride and dignity of the family he serves. And never make me remind you of it again.

In this and other scenes, the Butler has shown himself to take incredible pride in his position. It didn’t seem to matter to him that he was not the Lord of the house. He was the butler, and what mattered to him was that he did his job well. I sincerely wish that I could appreciate my work as much as he.

Again, there are many things about the Downton World that I’m happy to do without, but I think that we’d all be a bit better off if we rescued a few of the vestiges of this time that were thrown out in the name of progress.

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