Swimming the Tiber 18: The Sacraments: Confession

But all [these] things [are] out of God, the [one] having reconciled us to himself through Christ and having given to us the service of reconciliation, that God was, in Christ, reconciling to himself [the] cosmos, not reckoning to them their blunders, and having placed in us the word of reconciliation. On behalf of Christ therefore, [we] are ambassadors,1 as with God summoning [others] through us; [we] beg [you] on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. On our behalf, [he] made the [one] not knowing error [to be] error, in order that we may become [on a particular occasion] [the] justice of God in him.

– 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 (my translation)

“But we don’t need a mediator for confession!” you may say. “Requiring priests for the confession of sins was the old covenant (Leviticus 4), not the new!”

This is another one of those times where I’m going to talk about the ordinary and the extraordinary means of receiving something from God. Certainly, God can forgive any sins he wishes at any time, and indeed he does so–of that I am certain. But what is the proper means by which we obtain that forgiveness? Do we ask him directly, or do we confess to another?

When I was younger (and Protestant), I held pretty firmly to the “ask him directly” path. “Of course, only God can forgive sins!” said I. “Why even involve anyone else?” I was also given to understand that for the really big sins, I was supposed to take them before the church (meaning the local church, for reasons I was never clear on). But naturally, I had never committed any of those sins. (Remember, I was working under a faulty understanding of the magnitude of sins, not yet understanding the difference between venial and mortal sins.) And so I would sin, usually in private, and I would confess, always in private, and I would feel kinda sorta maybe a little better, but not really. The weight of my sins never quite left me, and the stain of my wickedness was never quite washed clean.

Which is not to say that my emotions are the proper judge of whether or not I was truly forgiven. Of course, I had to forgive myself, and I had to accept the mercy of God, whether I thought I deserved it or not. These are still true even now, when my confessions work quite differently. But my emotional state illuminated something that I didn’t really know before: when my confession is only between me and God, my reconciliation is only between me and God. Sin does not only separate us from God; it separates us from each other. It fractures the Church herself (2 Corinthians 2:5); it fractures our very souls. And as a Protestant, I had no means–at least no means I could see–that could restore a right relationship between me and other people. Could I go before the whole local church? I suppose so, but what could they offer that would restore me to the spiritual union of the Church?

Cue Catholicism, which has an ordinary means of acquiring reconciliation, not only between us and God, but also between us and the Church. It heals those fractures, and the balm of penance soothes our divisions. This ordinary means is called the sacrament of Confession, or Reconciliation, or Penance. (They’re all equally valid terms, often used interchangeably.) It’s called confession because that’s how we start it; we go to confess our sins. It’s called penance because that’s how we finish it; we pray or engage in charity or otherwise perform an act that restores what our first (sinful) act broke. And it’s called reconciliation because that’s what it provides to us when we are faithful and obedient in it.

Now, before you jump on my case, let me clarify something: God is absolutely capable of forgiving sins and restoring right relationship with his Church without involving anyone but you and him. Certainly he is capable of that, or else we wouldn’t have so many Psalms (like Psalm 32:5 or Psalm 51) and wisdom literature (like Proverbs 28:13; Sirach 4:26; 21:1) telling us how important confession is. We know that God has authority to forgive sins and his authority in this matter is absolute, or else the Jews would not have claimed blasphemy by Christ for his statements of the same (Matthew 9:2-3; Mark 2:5-7; Luke 5:20-21).

So why does the Catholic Church insist on this mediation through priests? Well, for one thing, Scripture makes it pretty clear we should confess to one another, and not just in silence (Proverbs 28:13 again; James 5:16; 1 John 1:9). But to whom should we confess? To everyone? Sometimes, yes (2 Corinthians 2:5-10). But to whom should we regularly confess? To those ordained by God and granted this authority by his Word (John 20:21-23), and those to whom they pass along that authority (recall the end of this post on the papacy, specifically the section on the succession of apostolic authority).

That’s what it means for “us” to have this ministry of reconciliation (see the quote at the top of the post): that the apostles (St. Paul included) had the authority to forgive sins, granted to them by God, which they granted to the bishops that came after them. Those bishops, in turn, granted it to the priests of the local parish. But recall again, from my post on mortal sin, that some sins are so heinous that they can only be forgiven by the Pope, and of course, Scripture is quite insistent that there is one sin that no one has the authority to forgive (Matthew 12:31; Mark 3:28-29; Luke 12:10).

Remember, priests are special in this forgiving business. They are the vicars of Christ (as I talked about in my post on the priesthood of believers), so the sacraments they perform are done in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ.” They are limited and finite and broken like the rest of us, but they have dedicated themselves to God, and so Christ works through them to forgive sins and work wonders on earth.

So what does this sacrament really look like? Confession and penance are fine terms, but how do they work?

Well, there is a standard form to confession. You greet the priest, request a blessing, tell them how long it has been since your last confession (this can help them select an appropriate penance, among other things), then identify your mortal sins by type and number (and your venial sins as accurately and completely as possible). The priest will provide instruction on what penance will restore your relationship with the Church, which you agree to accomplish, and then you say an “act of contrition,” a prayer that indicates your repentance and desire to follow Christ. If you miss those parts (i.e., if you don’t confess honestly, if you don’t do penance, and/or if you don’t repent), then any absolution given is not valid.

The opener is almost word-for-word what you see in movies and TV shows (“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; it has been X days/weeks/months/years/forever since my last confession”). We’ve already talked about how to differentiate and identify your mortal and venial sins. And the act of contrition is just one of several prayers you can memorize that focus on your repentance and desire to repudiate sin and follow God’s commandments. (Of course, you can also communicate those points–(1) I’m sorry, and (2) I’ll try to do better–without memorizing a prayer, but the act of contrition makes it easier to remember.)

Which leaves the “penance” part. What is penance? It depends on the priest and on the sins you’re confessing. Some priests always give the same penance–“Say a prayer for the sick of the parish.” Your job, of course, is not to question your penance, demand a heavier (or lighter) penance, or to try to do the priest’s job for him; your job is to obey, do your penance, and restore your relationship with God and the Church. Other priests will work in your sins–“Say these three prayers for yourself to grow in humility and love for your family, and for the driver that cut you off in traffic.” Some will work in physical penance–“Say the ‘Our Father’2 and spend the next three nights sleeping on the floor without a pillow.” If your sins are criminal, your penance almost always includes turning yourself in to the civil authorities and making appropriate recompense.

Whatever it is, penance is always a sacrifice–of time, of pride, of money, but especially of self. In this way, it restores our relationship to God and to others, because it forces us to return things to their proper order: Jesus first, others second, yourself last (J-O-Y, for those who haven’t heard the backronym I first heard about twenty years ago, but which my local pastor mentions almost every week).

Self-sacrifice is crucial to the whole process: First, we “examine our conscience,” that is, we identify our sins. During this process, we ought to be careful not to think of our sins too lightly; we cannot ask forgiveness for something we intend to keep doing under the presumption that God will keep forgiving us (Sirach 5:4-6). Second, we humbly confess our sins and beg God’s forgiveness, showing this humility by going to another person and being open about our sins (even if it takes some prodding–2 Samuel 12:12-13). Third, we accept our penance, obey God’s will, and work to restore what we have destroyed. Fourth, we must acknowledge the great gift we have been given by holding nothing against our fellows, but forgiving as we are forgiven (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:23-35; Colossians 3:13).

And in case you’re wondering, that whole “priests aren’t allowed to break the seal of the confessional” thing is legit. Many priests talk about not even remembering what was said afterward. And if they do tell tales out of school, so to speak, they are committing one of the few sins that only the Pope has authority to forgive.

Next week, I’ll be diving into the sacrament of marriage. This has a lot of political entanglements attached to it, but I’m going to try to focus on what God and the Church say positively about this sacrament and its benefits. (In a month or three, when I get to ethical behaviors in the Church, I’ll address some of the challenges of a holy marriage in modern society.)


Footnotes:
1 Literally, “Over Christ, therefore, [we] are elder,” but based on context, the “ambassador” translation is most appropriate. It is important to note, though, that this verb is closely tied to presbyter, a term frequently used for bishops.
2 You might know this prayer better as “the Lord’s Prayer.” Catholics name prayers after the first 2-3 words in them.

Swimming the Tiber 10: Judging Your Sins

Happy new year! I’m not going to talk about New Year’s resolutions, I promise. (Well, at least not outside that sentence.)

Last week, I talked about virtue and vice from the perspective of Catholic philosophy; the week before, I talked about how we are justified and, more crucially related to this topic, how sin and salvation interact. Please keep both topics in mind going forward.

When I was younger, I had a particularly egalitarian view of sin. Basically, I told myself that all sins are committed equal. Whether you murdered someone, robbed them, flipped them the bird on the freeway, or gave them an uncharitable thought, you had sinned, and that was all it took to condemn you (lacking God’s grace, of course). Nazis were on an even playing field with schoolyard bullies.

A simple logical appraisal tells us that this is ridiculous, but it cemented itself in my mind for a reason: it was a reaction against moral relativism. In a sense, moral relativism tells us not only that we can define “good” for ourselves, but more importantly, that there is such a thing as “good enough.” Secular philosophy says that if we’re mostly good, then that’s fine, and we can do a few bad things here or there (errare humanum est, am I right, Seneca?) without endangering our souls (or being “Bad People,” depending on the particular flavor of secular philosophy we’re talking about).

Even as I child, I knew that was hogwash; we can’t be good enough (that would make us practically Pelagian!), because that would invalidate the sacrifice of Christ, and that would make God not just extraordinarily cruel, but unjust. (After all, if we can achieve perfection and salvation without divine intervention, then Christ’s death was unnecessary, and in such a case, the execution of Christ as propitiation for sin is excessive rather than normative. In short, if we can choose not to sin, or if we can be saved in spite of our sin without repentance, then Jesus died for no reason.) So I said that all sins were equal, basically so that I could refute anyone who said that little white lies wouldn’t send them to hell.

But I didn’t make that conclusion from logic, I made it from convenience. Saying the first part made saying the second part easier, it didn’t make it truer. The former doesn’t prove the latter, and the latter doesn’t necessitate the former. Here’s what I mean: I can say that all sin is sin, and that any sin (whether the taint of original sin or the commission of any sin small or large) is enough to separate us from the presence of God, without once suggesting that genocide and mild deception are on the same level. And so I should.

Because obviously not all sins are equal.

But all sins are sins.

Which brings us to the main point of this week’s post: the Catholic concept of “mortal” and “venial” sins. Recall that two weeks ago I talked about the idea of losing our salvation through sin, that by sinning, we separate ourselves from communion with God. In the Catholic Church, sins are put into two classes: mortal sins and venial sins. Mortal sins are the big ones–the ones that cause that fall from the state of grace. Venial sins are the small ones–the ones that are bad, the ones that helped to condemn our souls in the first place, the ones from which we need to be purified, but that do not reflect an evil or unrepentant heart (just a frail human one). This is even Scriptural:

If someone sees his brother committing an errorlit. erring an error not toward death, let [the one seeing it] prayhere and throughout, lit. ask, and he will give to him [the one sinning] life, for the [ones] erring not toward death. There is error toward death; not about that do [I] say that [he] should pray.a purpose clause as a kind of indirect speech; literally, this sentence is something like “not about that do [I] speak in order that [he] may pray [about that]” Every injustice is an error, and there is error not toward death.

– 1 John 5:16-17 (my translation)

Let me be clear: classifying sins is not about judging people, just about judging sins. It’s okay to call yourself the foremost of sinners, but you shouldn’t go around saying it about other people. If a Christian is sinning openly, respond as exhorted by Scripture and the Church (Matthew 18:15-35; Galatians 6:1-10; cf. 1 Corinthians 5), but whether in the Church or out, final judgment is reserved to the Lord. (Again, as I’ve written before, the Church does not keep a list of “anti-saints” who are in hell, but does keep a list of saints who are surely in the presence of God even now.) Judging your sins is about examining your own conscience, so that you know what to confess and where to improve.

In fact, proper judgment of sins is crucial to a good confession. I will talk in more detail about the Sacrament of Confession/Penance/Reconciliation in a few weeks, but here’s the short version: since Christ gave the Church the authority to bind and loose sins (see Matthew 18 again), the Church engages that authority through private confession to a priest. In general terms, in such a confession, you should identify your mortal sins by kind and number, and your venial sins more generally (though as accurately as you can). This isn’t about doing “spiritual accounting” or keeping a detailed log, but it’s about identifying all the areas in your life where you are still broken and to what degree you are broken.

(By the way, I should note that these two classifications, “mortal” and “venial” are not the entire spectrum of sin severities; there are some mortal sins which are so heinous that a regular priest does not have authority to loose them, and even a few–five, last I checked, and most of those can only be committed by priests–where only the Pope has that authority.)

So how do you judge your sins? Well, the Church identifies sins as mortal if they meet the following criteria:

  1. The sin must be a grave (serious) matter.
  2. The sin must be committed with full knowledge.
  3. The sin must be committed with deliberate consent.

Grave matter is defined as the Ten Commandments, in short. Stealing, killing, committing adultery, etc. Grave matter has been more fully defined, especially in light of “modern” sins that may or may not have been spelled out in Scripture; there are a wide range of books that are useful for the examination of one’s conscience (i.e., the judgment of one’s sins). (I find this one very helpful, but there are even apps for that.) Full knowledge means knowing that something is a sin and doing it anyway (pretending not to know makes it worse). Deliberate consent means that it is a personal choice (claiming hardness of heart is not an exemption, but compulsion may be, in the determination of the Church). If any of these criteria are not met, then the sin is venial, not mortal.

For some more detail on these subjects, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1854-1864.

Next week, I’m going to drop all the sin talk and focus on one of the virtues–not one enumerated, nor one universal, but a virtue nevertheless: virginity.

Swimming the Tiber 9: Virtue and Vice in Catholic Philosophy

Merry Christmas! I hope this Christmas season is a joyous one. Now, on to your regularly scheduled program.

But now, if, in all this talk, we both inquired and were speaking beautifully, excellence would be neither by nature nor taught, but coming to [men] by divine lot, without sense [for those] to whom it comes.

– Socrates in Plato’s Meno (my translation)

And if [things are] thus, the human good comes about as an activity of a soul according to excellence–and if, rather, [there are] excellences, according to the best and most perfect [one]. And [thus] hereafter in a perfect life. For one swallow does not make spring, nor one day; and thus also neither [does] one fortunate day nor a short time [make] a [man] blessed.

– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1.7 (my translation)

Therefore, the good [man], even if [he] serves, is free; the bad [man], however, even if [he] reigns, is a slave, and not of one man, but–what is more burdensome–[he is a slave] of as many lords as [he is] of vices. About which vices Scripture deals [thus]: “For by whatever(whomever) someone has been overcome, to this [thing]([man]) also [he] has been dedicated as a slave.”

– St. Augustine, City of God 4.3, quoting 2 Peter 2:19 (my translation)

Because perfect moral virtue does not totally remove the passions, but orders them; for [it] is of the temperate [man] to desire just as is proper, and [to desire] what is proper, as is said in Ethic III.

– St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Part 1, Question 95, Article 2, paraphrasing Artistotle’s Nicomachean Ethics 3.11 (my translation)

Catholic philosophy is nothing if not philosophy. But before I became Catholic, I was very fond of Tertullian (poor heretic though he died, may he rest in peace), and especially his famous (or infamous) demand, “What therefore [is] for Athens and for Jerusalem? What [is] for the academy and for the church? What [is] for heretics and for Christians? Our institution is from the porch of Solomon, who also himself had handed down that the Lord is to be sought in simplicity of heart” (De Praescriptione Haereticorum, chapter 7, my translation).

Tertullian was one of many Christian thinkers who eschewed philosophy and theological depth in favor of “simplicity of heart.” (This is also very popular in modernity; consider Rob Bell, as one among many.) At the time that I quoted him often, though, I think I was being purposefully impertinent–because I have always disagreed with this concept. Philosophy and theology and study provide a depth to faith that cannot be found in simplicity. And while I appreciate those who can have simple faith, I am not among them; if I tried to have simple faith, to adhere to God through immediate and unobjecting acquiescence, I would fall away faster than Scotch tape covered in cat hair. The only reason I have any faith at all is because I have objected and I have wrestled and I have come to a fuller understanding.

So while I seek always to have simplicity of heart and faith like a child, I also want to put away the things of childhood and become a man in the faith. And that involves complex theology. And in complex theology, much of the first principles are drawn from our culture’s rich history of philosophy.

Which is why Plato and Aristotle are quoted above, along with St. Augustine and St. Thomas. Plato and Aristotle were not perfect, nor were they Christian, but by God’s grace, they were granted an insight into the real nature of divinity. Unwilling to submit to complete paganism, both saw the unseen ideas of God from the creation of the world (Romans 1:20) and grasped the seed of the Word, as St. Justin Martyr called it in his Apologies. From this basis, though their understanding was incomplete and some of their failures must be rejected, they still laid the groundwork from which Catholic philosophy could spring up and blossom.

Virtue was one of many subjects for which Christian thinkers adopted Platonic and Aristotelian ideas. Now, in Protestant circles, I rarely dealt with “virtue”; maybe I thought it was too works-centric, or too pagan, but to be honest, I’m not sure I thought about it much at all. But as we discussed last time, good works spring naturally from genuine faith; a philosophical discussion of virtue clarifies the subject in the mind and helps us pave the way for those actions to overflow from the wellspring of our hearts (Proverbs 4:23; Matthew 12:34).

In short, being contemplative and philosophical enables us to have practical ideas to improve our behavior.

It would take years and more academic degrees than I have to provide a thorough understanding of Catholic virtue, but I do want to hit the highlights. First, let us consider the quotes above.

From Plato, we learn that virtue comes neither from education nor from nature, but from “divine lot”–that is, a blessing from God. “But wait!” you may say, “If virtue cannot be taught, then why are we having this conversation?” Well, perhaps Plato is not entirely correct, but his objection is a sound one. Here’s what I mean: if a devout and virtuous man has a son, and he teaches the son all of his skills (say, for example, how to do math or how to sprint or how to shoot a bow and arrow), it only makes sense that he would also teach him his abilities in virtue–but we know that, sometimes, such a son does not become virtuous. Plato took this to mean (at least in Meno) that virtue cannot be taught, but must be granted by the gods.

Perhaps it is clearest to say that God opens the door to virtue. He makes virtue possible. As we read in Scripture and throughout Christian tradition (including St. Augustine above), we are slaves to sin; Christ freed us from that slavery and made righteousness available to us. But that doesn’t make us instantaneously virtuous, even when we accept him; we must develop our virtue, and for that purpose, education can be (and is) very profitable. St. Thomas, in his enumeration of the virtues (which I will get to shortly), says that some can be practiced by all people (the cardinal virtues), but others are given by God (the theological virtues), but as we shall see, even the cardinal virtues are only made possible by God.

Aristotle gives us more insight into developing virtue. Becoming virtuous is not one-and-done. It does not happen on a particular occasion. “One fortunate day,” no matter how fortunate, does not make us blessed (or “happy”). It takes continued vigilance, every day, for the rest of our lives. (This is picked up by St. Thomas, too, when he identifies virtue as a habit. It is not merely one action, nor even repeated action, but the manner in which we behave, developed by continually choosing the good.)

St. Augustine reminds us of the truth of our freedom. When we cling to truth and strive for virtue, we can be enslaved to men, but truly free; when we cling to the old life, the life of sin and death, we can be kings of the world, but truly enslaved–and not just to men, he tells us, but to every sin which we allow into our lives. This is the glory of virtue–and the danger of vice. Once a habit is established, it is hard to break; shall we free ourselves with a habit of virtue or enslave ourselves to a habit of vice?

St. Thomas spends page after page after page dealing with questions of virtue, but I have excerpted this tiny passage from a nearly-unrelated question. Virtue-as-habit is well covered by Aristotle and St. Augustine, so I wanted to call out this other facet of Christian virtue, especially in Catholic philosophy. When I was a Protestant, I often thought of righteousness as this far-off mindset in which there is no passion, no emotional turmoil; if I became righteous, I thought, I would no longer get angry or covetous or ebullient, but would have this Stoic, pseudo-Buddhist serenity. But that is far from the truth; Christian virtue is not divesting oneself of emotion, but rather subjecting emotion to right reason. To be angry, to desire, to rejoice–these are human. Vice is to do too much or too little of these things; it is vicious to rage against others, and so also to ignore their injustices; it is vicious to lust, and so also want for nothing (not even relationship with God); it is vicious to celebrate in a time for mourning, and so also to mourn in a time for celebration.

Too often, as a Protestant, I thought of virtue as “Puritanical” (nevermind that the Puritans weren’t Puritanical). I thought for sure I would never be righteous, because to be righteous was to avoid all these things I could not. But I was wrong: to be righteous is to subordinate your emotional response to God’s will and God’s design. If I am angry at injustice, good; I should work to end that injustice. If I desire intimacy with God or with my wife, good; I should work to develop that intimacy. If I am gleeful, good; I should share that joy with those who need it, and share also its cause in God. Emotion is compelling and informative; it directs us and illuminates our lives. We are vicious only when we let it take control, one way or the other.

Catholic philosophy also enumerates virtues and vices. You have likely heard of these, no matter how far from Catholicism you have spent your life. There are four “cardinal virtues” and three “theological virtues,” and their converses are the “deadly sins.” Exact enumeration of these falls, as usual, to St. Thomas, but they have their roots in Scripture.

The four cardinal virtues are:

  1. Prudence: Right reason put into practice; that is, the wisdom to know what to do in a given situation and the will to follow through with it. (Prudence depends on both the wisdom and the will.) Cf. Psalm 119:98-104; Sirach 1:1-10; James 1:5.
  2. Justice: The determination to give everyone his due, regardless of any other factor; if a debt is owed, the debt is paid, even if you don’t like the person to whom you owe the debt. Cf. 1 Samuel 24; Matthew 5:6.
  3. Fortitude: The strength to accomplish good deeds in spite of fear, but tempered by reason. (This is to differentiate it from recklessness.) Cf. 2 Maccabees 6:27-28; 2 Timothy 1:6-7; Hebrews 13:6; 1 Peter 4:12-16.
  4. Temperance: Self-control and self-restraint, to keep our passions in check. Cf. 1 Kings 11:1-11; Proverbs 25:28; Matthew 13:7, 22; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

The first thing you may notice is that these virtues are intertwined (cf. 1 Peter 1:5-7). If you have prudence but not fortitude, then you don’t really have prudence (because you lack the will to accomplish what is right); if you have fortitude but not justice, you may end up in a “might makes right” mentality; if you ever lack temperance, then no other virtue will be profitable for you, because you will be enslaved to your passions instead. Enumerating the virtues helps us know where we are weak and where we are strong, but you can’t be a righteous man by saying, “I have tons of fortitude, so it’s okay that I’m intemperate.”

The three theological virtues are:

  1. Faith: This virtue is the means by which we comprehend the complexities of our religion. God opens our eyes to that which is beyond rational understanding (Isaiah 55:9; Ecclesiastes 8:16-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16); it is by faith that we deepen our knowledge of God and delve into theology. Cf. Hebrews 11.
  2. Hope: This is our confidence that God will save us in spite of the fact that we don’t deserve it. He has promised he will, provided we cooperate (as discussed last time), and we trust him to do as he says–not because salvation is easy, but because it is hard. (Hope is discussed probably the least, even in Catholic circles, and deserves more attention. So say I, anyway.) Cf. Matthew 24:13; Romans 5:1-5; 8:18-25; Titus 3:4-7; Hebrews 6:17-20; 10:19-25; 1 John 3:2-3; Revelation 21:6-7.
  3. Love: Also called “charity” (from Latin caritas), this is wanting the best for others. That does not mean wanting what they think is best, but rather what God wants for them–to become more virtuous and grow closer to him and, ultimately, to be saved. Like prudence, love also means acting on that desire. Cf. John 3:16; 15:13; 1 Corinthians 13; Ephesians 5:1-2; 1 John 3:17-18; 4:7-12; 5:3.

Like the cardinal virtues, these are intertwined–with each other and with all virtues. “But the greatest of these [is] love” (1 Corinthians 13:13, my translation).

In contrast are the “seven deadly sins,” which are less directly tied to Scripture, though all are included there (Proverbs 6:16-19; Galatians 5:19-21; Revelation 21:8). That there are seven of these does not make them exactly parallel to the cardinal and theological virtues, though there was later development of exact contrasts (in the “seven lively virtues”). They are as follows:

  1. Lust
  2. Gluttony
  3. Greed
  4. Sloth
  5. Wrath
  6. Envy
  7. Pride

Personally, I find this list less helpful. Lust, gluttony, greed, and envy are all basically the same thing (excess concupiscence, or desire for worldly things, which itself stems from wanting all things for oneself); sloth is a particular form of selfishness that does not attribute value to work, and so is a subset of pride; and wrath is usually the inappropriate extension of a prideful outlook (because we perceive an “injustice” against oh-so-awesome us, we lash out). Honestly, the whole list just reads like “pride” over and over again, at least to me. But perhaps that just reveals something particular about my own sins, and others get more out of a practical list like this.

At any rate, there’s your primer on virtue and vice in Catholic philosophy. Coming up next is a more in-depth look at sin in Catholic theology, especially as it relates to “ranking” sins as mortal and venial.

Next Post:
Judging Your Sins >

The Funny Martian

Spoilers follow!
The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time. But before I get into why it’s amazing, let me quickly detail why it’s imperfect.

1. It started on the Internet. That’s not an automatic negative mark, and it’s probably the weakest black mark I have against it, but knowing that this was originally written Dickens-style on a blog made some of its flaws more obvious, including a few grammatical errors common to the casual intellectual marketplace of the Internet and the staccato progression that sometimes accompanies updates on a schedule (don’t worry, I thought the same thing of Dickens, on occasion).

2. Audience targeting. It’s never made entirely clear why Mark Watney (the eponymous character and frequent narrator) assumes that his mission logs will be browsed by laypersons, but it makes perfect sense for a novel of this sort. For the most part, Mr. Weir manages to work this out fairly well, with minimal intrusion, but once in a while, I read something and thought, “That only makes sense if your reader is completely unrelated to NASA/the probable first reader of your mission logs.”

3. My own nit-pickiness. (This issue continues for several paragraphs below.) I don’t care for cuss words (the fourth word of the novel is the F-word), but frankly, in this book more than others, it makes a lot of sense. The guy had just discovered he was abandoned on Mars and likely to die. If ever there’s a time to cuss… it’s then.

At one point, early in the book, Mr. Weir describes the ion drives of the primary interplanetary vessel, explaining that they “accelerate constantly the whole way there.” My first thought was, “If you accelerate the whole way there, how do you stop?” This even becomes a plot point later in the novel, and frankly, it seems like an oversight here. I briefly looked into ion engines for a story of my own, and they have potential, but you have to start decelerating about halfway there (unless you have some other engines for stopping). (Granted, “deceleration” in scientific terms is just “acceleration” in the other direction, but that would still mean an odd maneuver, like turning the ship around and switching the engines on the other direction to slow you down. Some sci-fi sources solve this by having engines on both ends of the ship, which makes a lot of sense to me, but ends up pretty ugly and probably expensive. There’s no friction to stop ships in space, after all.)

Also, weird random moments. Two-thirds of the way through or so, we hear Teddy (head of NASA) telling Annie (media relations) to excuse Mitch (mission commander) for his impertinent attitude, because men-testosterone-some-weird-nonsense. Meanwhile, Annie has been cussing like a sailor with a bad attitude since we met her, and seems the least likely of all the characters in the novel to be offended by someone flying off the handle. It’s kind of a baffling moment, but it passes quickly.

4. Heavy-handed pedantry. It lasts for all of a page (the last one in the book), but it ties into the least believable part of the novel: how everyone in the world bands together and spends millions of dollars in an effort to save one guy. I just don’t quite buy it. The way it’s presented for most of the novel, I can buy, if only because a few individuals might be able to pull this off, but there’s a notable lack of people saying, “Well, that sucks, but I guess he’s just going to die now. It’s just too expensive to do anything about it.” Because it’s fiction, I’m happy to aim for the happy ending, but to suggest there’s no antagonism toward this “save one guy in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars” plan? None at all? That’s a little strange. And then for Watney to come back on for a page to talk about how inherently good people are is just too heavy-handed a conclusion.

And that’s pretty much all I have to complain about this novel. It may seem like a lot, but I’m being highly critical (more than usual), because I was really hoping a novel with this kind of success could be easily achieved (Mr. Weir is both more intelligent and a better writer than I am, so I punish him by saying mildly unkind things about his debut novel). There was an awful lot to like (hence the five stars), but it’s not a guaranteed delight. For example, it is–first and foremost–a survival thriller. If you’re at all like my wife, and you get insanely stressed out when fictional characters might die, this is not the book for you. The “everyone might die” scenario is pretty much on the table until the last page. Which I enjoyed. But you might not.

I also like math. I didn’t study math, but given, oh, two or three more chances to go to college, I totally would. It’s right up there with computer science and physics for “most delightful college degrees I didn’t get.” This book has a lot of math. It’s frequently made accessible to the layperson (see “audience targeting” above), so it doesn’t interrupt the flow, but math and science are pretty much the bread and butter of this novel. I have heard it said that “The Martian” is like a full-length story just like that bit in Apollo 13 when the NASA guys get in a room and try to figure out how to make the square peg fit in the round hole; I find that an entertainingly accurate summation.

Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Weir does what almost no other author does: he makes me laugh. Most “comedic” books, even the vaunted Terry Pratchett, leave me saying, “Yep, that’s funny,” but not actually laughing. Perhaps (probably?) aided by his first-person perspective, Mr. Weir accomplishes genuine comedic timing, and delivers time and again with humor that I find delightful. (It may not be your style. Lots of sarcasm, and a little absurdity. It’s perfect.)

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I intend to. Given the content and style of the book, and that the film stars Matt Damon, I imagine that the film is a combination of Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, and Cast Away, minus Tom Hanks.

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Sense v. Friction

When Faith Causes Family Friction: Dr. Ray Tackles the Tough QuestionsWhen Faith Causes Family Friction: Dr. Ray Tackles the Tough Questions by Ray Guarendi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a helpful, if limited, little book. It is short and very easy to read, and it may contain precisely the wisdom you need in your familial troubles. At the same time, much of it seems very common-sense, especially if you’ve listened to Dr. Ray’s radio show before.

And ultimately, that’s what this book is: reading Dr. Ray’s radio show, complete with humorous asides and distracted parentheticals. And that can be delightful and helpful and informative, but ultimately, the radio show works better because Dr. Ray is able to address specifics with his callers, whereas we (the listeners) glean that which is generally applicable. In this book, Dr. Ray condenses his comments to only that which is generally applicable, losing much of the helpful specificity.

And much like a radio show, this book lacks a lot of integrated context. In one answer, Dr. Ray will reference earlier answers; that, combined with undecipherable chapter titles, shows we should read this book from beginning to end. But then Dr. Ray will repeat something he wrote two pages earlier–not just reference it, but repeat it word-for-word–and the reader must wonder whether he is reading this book incorrectly. Finally, the book ends without the slightest conclusion; whether or not these writings could be summarized isn’t clear, but we can’t know, because Dr. Ray doesn’t try. Once he runs out of questions, he runs out of pages, and we’re done. So if you need a specific question answered, it could be very useful–provided you can figure out which title relates to the question you want to ask.

Now, when I say that this book is “common sense,” I must acknowledge that such sense is not at all common–I mean only that I knew much of it beforehand, and it probably does not take Dr. Ray’s psychology degrees to figure it out. But many people have questions along these lines, and for all their intellect and wisdom, cannot come up with the answers Dr. Ray provides. And it may be that, in times of struggle and strife, I shall forget these answers and wonder troubling questions to myself, and I shall need this reminder. For that reason alone, I intend to keep this book.

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