Grace and Progress
Arguing on the Internet

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2004-2006
Published in the March, 2004
Issue of Catholic Insight
Reproduced with Permission

I recall very clearly the summer I purchased my first Pentium with Internet access -- a summer, I might add, that my wife would very much like to forget. I am usually in bed by 9:30 p.m., but that summer I rarely set foot into our bedroom before one or two in the morning. For I discovered the Detroit Free Press Forums, in particular, a discussion forum on Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the infamous Dr. Death who is currently serving a 10-25 year sentence at the Egeler Correctional Facility for his murderous role in the death of Thomas Youk, which he video taped and sent to 60 Minutes to share with the nation. One night, after reading a number of arguments in favor of Dr. Kevorkian, I decided to register and add my two cents to the discussion. No one at that time would have dreamed that Kevorkian was headed for prison -- least of all myself. But the replies to my humble contribution to the debate were overwhelming, not to mention rude and insulting. And so began a long exchange that brought stress to my married life and lessons about people that I probably would not have learned without the Internet. I was convinced that if I could formulate my arguments clearly and thoroughly, covering all possible angles that a person can take on an important life issue, I would eventually win over my adversaries. My friend the Late Monsignor Thomas Wells assured me that I was wasting my valuable time and risking my valuable marriage. Some people even suggested that I was suffering from an addiction to the Internet.

Since then I've come to realize that Monsignor Wells was right -- but not entirely. One of the great things that came out of my foolishness began the week Robert Latimer was sentenced to life for killing his daughter Tracy, by placing her in the cab of his truck and pumping it full of exhaust fumes. I was the only one on the CBC Online Discussion Forum who applauded the court's decision. And once again I was required to cover the many subtle distinctions involved in the ethics of killing, for people who should know better.

I was determined not to insult any of my opponents in debate when they begin insulting me. Who was going to last? I was determined to stay the course, and it wasn't long before I became the target of counter arguments of the ad hominem variety. I knew from experience that were I to return fire, immediately I'd be dismissed as someone unworthy of further debate. So I continued to put forth the strongest arguments against Robert Latimer and his supporters without the slightest hint of sarcasm or disdain. Finally, they cracked. One Tuesday morning the CBC Message Board was a veritable barrage of personal attacks on my character. The projections of who I was were astounding -- and difficult to put up with. Instead of replying, I decided, in despair, to turn off the computer for the remainder of the day, only to be pleasantly surprised later that very evening. Someone had entered the ring on my behalf, and she was doing a much better job than I was capable of doing. She was a 28 year old girl with Cerebral Palsy, who underwent all the operations that Tracy Latimer had and was scheduled to undergo. This girl suffered tremendously throughout her life, and she quickly pointed out that there was only one person on that forum who provided her with hope and strength to continue her difficult life at that difficult time, and that the rest of them had no idea what they were saying, much less any idea of the pain that their words were causing her -- a pain greater than any surgery she had suffered through.

I decided to lay low and follow the discussion. The arguments in favor of life were no longer coming from an abstract philosopher, but from a woman who knew exactly what was in store for Tracy. Would she succeed where I could not? I thought she would. But her experience was a very important chapter in the lesson I had learned about human beings. She changed no one on the forum. In fact, after a time, they even turned ad hominem on her, and so she eventually gave up the discussion. But the good news in all of this is that I gained a friend for life, and one year later I stood next to her in St. Patrick's Basilica in Ottawa as her sponser, as she was received into the Catholic Church on the Easter Vigil.

I've had my computer for a number of years now, and within that time I have come to an important realization. After all the debating, arguing, discussing, and reasoning, and after being told so often that anyone who lived prior to the late twentieth century had nothing to offer the sophisticated West, much less anyone who lived before or around the beginning of the Common Era (BCE), such as Aristotle or St. Paul, I have become fully convinced that I have absolutely no power whatsoever to change the will of another human being. In this I am simply helpless. The most eloquently written, clearly formulated, coherently argued and thoroughly explained presentation of the evils of active euthanasia, or direct abortion, or any other relatively straightforward life issue will never turn the will of another human being if that person has decided otherwise. Either the person has already willingly made himself open to the truth, in which case a thoroughly formulated moral philosophy or theology will prove a help and support, or the person has rejected truth and has made himself the measure of the true and the good, in which case all the argument in the world will turn out to be of no avail. In short, I have come to realize through experience that only God can move the will from within. Only a "miracle" of grace can change the heart of another man. And so my friend Monsignor Wells was right; I was wasting my time.

But not everyone is closed to the truth, and far be it for me to even suggest that anyone who disagrees with me is closed to truth. Such a criterion would surely leave me friendless and alone; for not one of my friends agrees with me in every respect. But unless there is a fundamental readiness on the part of both parties to receive and be measured by something larger than themselves, unless there is a readiness to enter into real dialogue, all efforts to convince another of the truth of a position are simply futile. And so the only option left is to pray; for only God can move the created will without contravening its voluntary nature. This is certainly one of the most difficult concepts to get across to my young philosophy students. But Aquinas sums it up rather well:

Now the will can be moved by good as its object, but by God alone sufficiently and efficaciously. For nothing can move a movable thing sufficiently unless the active power of the mover surpasses or at least equals the potentiality of the thing movable. Now the potentiality of the will extends to the universal good; for its object is the universal good; just as the object of the intellect is the universal being. But every created good is some particular good; God alone is the universal good. Whereas He alone fills the capacity of the will, and moves it sufficiently as its object. In like manner the power of willing is caused by God alone. For to will is nothing but to be inclined towards the object of the will, which is universal good. But to incline towards the universal good belongs to the First Mover, to Whom the ultimate end is proportionate; ...Wherefore in both ways it belongs to God to move the will; but especially in the second way by an interior inclination of the will.

In reply to the objection that God cannot move the created will, because whatever is moved from without is forced, and the will cannot be forced, Aquinas replies:

A thing moved by another is forced if moved against its natural inclination; but if it is moved by another giving to it the proper natural inclination, it is not forced; as when a heavy body is made to move downwards by that which produced it, then it is not forced. In like manner God, while moving the will, does not force it, because He gives the will its own natural inclination.

Now this becomes all the more mysterious when considered from the point of view of divine grace. According to Catholic Theology, if I am not in a state of grace, it is my fault. But if I am in a state of grace, it is no credit to me. This all goes back to the distinction between sufficient grace and efficacious grace. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange writes:

Efficacious grace, in contrast with sufficient grace--which can remain sterile, is infallibly followed by a meritorious act. This efficacious intrinsically efficacious because God wills it; not merely extrinsically efficacious, that is, by the consent of our will.

In other words, there is sufficient grace in my life for me to freely choose "heaven". But I can freely choose not to cooperate with this grace, that is, to shatter its impetus (Maritain) and render it sterile. But if I choose "heaven", that is, if I choose to cooperate with divine grace, that cooperation is itself an effect of grace, for my will has been moved interiorly by an unshatterable impetus that does not contravene my freedom, but elevates it. And so it is literally true that "all glory and honour are His", and "there but for the grace of God go I."

I was thinking of this for a number of days and came to believe that to pray for a conversion of the heart is to pray for a greater miracle than if one were to pray that a person be healed of polio or throat cancer. After all, we discovered the vaccine for polio, and we will continue to discover cures for some types of cancer. To pray for the latter is to pray that God do something for us that man, in principle, can do. But to pray for a conversion of the heart is to pray that God do something that no person can ever do. To witness a conversion after praying for such a thing is to witness a far greater miracle than were we to witness someone jumping out of a wheelchair as a result of a healing prayer. And so I concluded that since all of us are called to pray for the conversion of souls, all of us are called to be miracle workers in the fullest sense of the word. And since God gives us the charisms we need to fulfill our vocation, God must have given us all the charism of miracles.

As I was thinking about how to explain this to a local council of the Knights of Columbus, two former students walked into my classroom to say hello and chat. Our talk led to one thing, which led to another, until eventually I found myself challenging their lack of faith. We continued to discuss the reasons for the difficulties they were having in accepting the Person of Christ. At one point, one of the girls insisted, like some of my opponents in debate on the forums, that we are far more educated today than those of biblical times. We are more intelligent, more sophisticated, and less naive, she continued. Needless to say I was rather taken aback. I wasn't aware of how widespread this philosophical "supersessionism" has become. Personally, I don't think many of our MPs could read and understand one third of The Federalist, written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, published in 1788, and I think very few of them could read and understand an Act of Parliament drafted in sixteenth-century England. Technologically, we have become more advanced; we have better televisions than we had in the 70s, we have more fuel efficient automobiles, laser pointers, better telescopes, computers, and more powerful weapons. And because science depends so much on technology, we can expect a steady advancement in the world of science. But we have not become better thinkers. In fact, technology may very well be a factor in the reason why we are less able to think on the abstract level that was standard for students of a previous century. The history of science and technology appears on a graph as a slope ascending steadily upwards, but the history of philosophy -- which is the history that will determine how those better weapons will be used -- is rather jagged, like a broken window with sharp pieces protruding from the frame. In other words, the historical development of Western thought is not necessarily a progression from the inferior to the superior, but at times involves regression, fresh starts, progress, regression, new directions, dead ends, and "new ideas" are often old ones in modern garb.

For example, when I ask my students to come up with an answer to the first question philosophers posed for themselves in the sixth century BC (What is the basic "stuff" out of which everything is made?), year in and year out their answers prove to be as primitive as those of the Pre-Socratic philosophers. And it has taken two thousand years for the world of physics to figure out that matter is not a collection of microscopic billiard balls, but "a tendency towards act" (Heisenberg). That's something Aristotle reasoned to three hundred years before Christ -- without a tunnel electron microscope, I might add. There is very little about post-modernism that is modern. Its basic premises were laid down by Heraclitus in 500 BC, and its conclusions are Gorgias and Protagoras all over again.

But how does one get this across to two teenage girls who are too young to know any better? I explained myself as best I could, and they readily assented to what I was saying. In other words, they put their faith in me, as most of my students do. But why, then, can they not put their faith in the Person of Christ, who is far more trustworthy than I? Perhaps because the theological virtue of faith is a gift. Only God can move the intellect and will to freely embrace the truths He has revealed about Himself in the Person of Christ. And so perhaps our basic work as teachers is to pray for our students.

The girls eventually left, and I returned to my talk on the greater miracle of conversion and justification. As I was skimming through some sections of the Summa of St. Thomas, I came across some articles that appeared to bear upon the topic I was writing about: "Whether Whatever God Does Outside The Natural Order Is Miraculous" (I. q. 105, a 7). I started reading the first objection, which is always contrary to what Thomas holds:

It would seem that not everything which God does outside the natural order of things, is miraculous. For the creation of the world, and of souls, and the justification of the unrighteous, are done by God outside the natural order; as not being accomplished by the action of any natural cause. Yet these things are not called miracles. Therefore not everything that God does outside the natural order is a miracle.

I assumed then that Thomas was going to provide me with support for the basic insight of my talk. But that was not to be:

Creation, and the justification of the unrighteous, though done by God alone, are not, properly speaking, miracles, because they are not of a nature to proceed from any other cause; so they do not occur outside the order of nature, since they do not belong to that order.

Of course! Why didn't I think of that? I'll tell you why. Even though I am living in the highly "sophisticated" twenty-first century, this theologian of the thirteenth century is smarter than I am. In fact, there isn't a theologian alive that can hold a candle to him. I have studied Aquinas for twenty-six years now, and you would think that after studying a particular thinker for that length of time, very few surprises would be left. But this is simply not the case. I continue to be surprised, taught, and awakened, and occasionally I am reminded that some people will likely remain forever ahead of our time. Philosophical "supersessionism" is a modern delusion rooted in laziness, arrogance, and ignorance. Aquinas did not offer support for my insight that conversion is properly a miracle because he knew specifically what a miracle was and what it wasn't, whereas my mind was clouded. But what he did offer me was further evidence that man does not necessarily progress intellectually with the passing of time. That, I think, is a much more valuable lesson for us these days.