The Confession Post…

Eamonn Clark

There is nothing our accuser in Hell hates more than a self-accuser, nothing he loves more than a self-excuser.

There are many means to fight against sin and everlasting death – principally, baptism, but also frequent prayer, fasting and other penances, and almsgiving, together with a constant desire to grow in virtue, the reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation, and the reception of the Eucharist.

But all of it will profit one nothing if the Sacrament of Confession is neglected. In fact, it will be to one’s eternal shame and confusion that all the spiritual resources of the Church found in this sacrament (in the midst of the other advantages named above) were so readily available and yet were ignored. In fact, it would perhaps have been better for such a person never to have received faith at all than to have thrown away its gifts in this way. (2 Peter 2:21-22) Many souls who consider themselves to be spiritual are dragged down to Hell because of their stubborn refusal to humble themselves by using the order of forgiveness of sins instituted by Christ Himself, an order already implied even in the Old Testament, when the dynamic between the priests and lepers is described (see Leviticus 13; cf. Matthew 8:4, Luke 17:4 regarding the cleansing of the ten lepers by Christ – “Go, show yourself to the priest,” etc.). The soul which needs to go to confession is a spiritual leper; half dead, half alive, in need of healing and purification.

Today is the day to resolve to go to confession.

First, I want to lay out the basic points of Catholic doctrine and law on Confession. Second, I will address the most common excuses for avoiding Confession. There will come a time when arguments will cease, however…

First, Catholic doctrine and law.

The Sacrament of Confession is administered to the baptized by a duly authorized priest for the remission of personal sins committed after baptism. An integral (or “real”) confession requires several parts: confession, contrition, absolution, and penance (or satisfaction). In turn…

Confession: One approaches a priest and names one’s mortal sins in kind and number, after an honest attempt to recall them to memory; one may also confess venial sins (although these may be forgiven in other ways, such as the reception of the Eucharist, or certain prayers and sacramentals, as long as one is not already in mortal sin). Any attempt to hide a mortal sin by consciously failing to confess it when one knows it to be a mortal sin with reasonable certitude renders the entire confession invalid and constitutes a sacrilege – an enormous sin. Mortal sins remembered only after the confession have been forgiven but must still be made known in the sacrament at a later time, which time one should not postpone. This is because the act of confession is related to the order of the person’s soul and also to the Church; not only must one do appropriate penance under obedience within the judicial framework established by Christ (the hierarchical/ministerial priesthood) for his sin for his own sake, but he must also rectify the harm he has done through his sin to the entire Body of Christ, the Church, which is wounded by every sin. (Some extraordinary sins also carry canonical penalties which require a special juridical process – but we leave this aside here.)

Contrition: One is truly sorry for his sins because they offend God, in addition to fearing punishment for them. The Sacrament of Confession takes one’s fear of punishment (servile fear) and makes up for the lack of the fear of God as a Friend and Father (filial fear) by the grace contained in the sacrament. The former kind of sorrow is called “attrition,” the latter is called “contrition.” (NB: the person who is absolutely unable to go to Confession who makes a good act of contrition – that is, a real apology to God because of the offensiveness of one’s sins – is forgiven by God. However, when it becomes possible to go to Confession, one must do so, and this intention needs to be there, at least implicitly, in the act of contrition outside the Sacrament; see the section above, and note the need for doing penance under obedience.) Without contrition for mortal sin, one is not a friend of God. All the prayer and penance of such a person amounts to nothing except a disposition to reconcile with the Lord. One who dies without restoring this friendship (called “charity”) condemns himself to the pains of Hell, forever. Effectively God says to such a person, “Thy will be done.” One receives something other than God, for all eternity. Contrition also implies a purpose of amendment, meaning, one intends to avoid all sin in the future, even though we all know that we will continue to fail. The point is that one wants to do the will of God starting “right now,” not later.

Absolution: The priest delivers the formula of absolution, essentially consisting in the words, “Ego te absolvo” (which can be translated, “I absolve you”). There are usually other words which accompany this fundamental form, which are important for driving home what is occurring but not essential for validity.

Penance: One must intend to do the penance which is delivered by the priest in reparation for the sins which were confessed. (A failure to do the penance after the fact does not invalidate the sacrament – but it is obligatory nonetheless.) Again, we note that the key is obedience to the juridical order established by Christ – in doing our penance (provided it is not a sin itself – in which case, one should approach another priest in Confession and explain the situation, also if it seems extremely unreasonable or inappropriate), we do the will of the Church as such. We can be assured that this is what God wants us to do for Him. This is freedom.

The law of the Church regarding the use of Confession is in fact so important that it constitutes one of only five “precepts” of the Church, each of which are interrelated (perhaps worth its own post) and aim at sustaining the bare minimum of commitment to the spiritual life that is generally necessary for avoiding total spiritual catastrophe. They admit of special exceptions (like missing Sunday Mass due to sickness), but they generally bind the conscience. The five precepts are: to contribute to the material needs of the Church; to attend Mass on Sundays and other prescribed days (e.g. Christmas, Immaculate Conception, etc.); to fast and abstain from meat on the prescribed days (e.g. during Lent); to receive Holy Communion once a year during the Easter season; to go to Confession once a year.

It used to be a widespread problem that Catholics would hardly ever receive Holy Communion, despite frequent attendance at Mass, sometimes accompanied by an automatic or “rote” use of Confession. Today, we usually have the opposite problem – infrequent use of Confession, automatic and rote reception of Holy Communion. (We should recall that to receive Holy Communion while consciously in mortal sin is a sacrilege – once again, an enormous sin. In cases of grave necessity, one may attempt to elicit an act of perfect contrition, which includes the intention of going to Confession when possible, and then receive Holy Communion – but these are very rare instances.) It seems Christ would be much more pleased with very few receptions of Holy Communion with many receptions of forgiveness in Confession, rather than the other way around. For example, St. Francis of Assisi may have only received Holy Communion three times in his entire life.

The precepts of the Church are the most fundamental “rules” which the Church prescribes. The Church has the commission to teach, to govern, and to sanctify, in accord with Christ’s own teaching, governing, and sanctifying power and authority (prophet, king, priest – frankincense, gold, myrrh) – the precepts invoke the full authority of the Church in governing the spiritual lives of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. In other words, it is Christ Who gives these precepts. Therefore, to neglect any of the precepts knowingly and willingly constitutes mortal sin, and though ignorance of the precepts “as” precepts could excuse one from grave sin (e.g. “I didn’t know I had to go to Mass on Sundays”) it is practically impossible to avoid mortal sin without doing what the precepts tell us to do – that’s why the Church puts them forward: it is for our benefit. So, it is obligatory under pain of mortal sin to confess one’s sins once a year – and if you think you have nothing to confess after a whole year, try asking your friends and relatives (especially your spouse) for some ideas. They will set you straight on that. Then you can also confess pride and self-ignorance. Even if you don’t have mortal sins to confess, you still have the opportunity to examine how you can do better.

In sum: it is seriously obligatory to confess one’s sins once a year, to be sorry for them, to receive absolution, and to do the penance assigned.

Second, the most common objections against the use of the Sacrament of Confession. Maybe you can find other excuses – but if you are honest with yourself, you will find that they are always derived from a distrust of Christ and His Church, and/or inordinate self-reliance. Such excuses should normally be brought up in the Sacrament, by the way.

“I just confess my sins to God.”

This is certainly a good thing to do. As we have already noted, God can and does forgive sins when one is truly contrite – and venial sins can be forgiven apart from Confession by the use of prayers, sacramentals, or the reception of the Eucharist (unless one is in mortal sin already). The first problem, however, is that when dealing with the matter proper to Confession (mortal sin), one who “confesses to God” cannot be fully sure of his own motivation for his sorrow – fear of punishment, authentic love of God, or maybe some other motive (psychological discomfort, for instance). Confession removes this lack of clarity – all one must do is make a good effort to make an integral confession. Furthermore, as we also already saw, the key is the order of judgment and reparation (or penance) instituted by Christ: one’s sins – especially and principally one’s grave sins – wound not only the soul of the individual sinner (who frequently is not even aware of the depth of that damage and therefore needs Father to drive the point home), but it also wounds the whole Church. Therefore, when it is possible, one must subject himself to that judicial order, which is the sacrament. If we deny this, we are calling the sacrament superfluous, unnecessary, unimportant – we are implying that we would have advised the Risen Christ not to bother instituting this sacrament in the first place (John 20:23 – “Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven, those whose sins you retain are retained”). What an insult to the Son of God – which should be confessed. (This is part of the core of the Protestant doctrine on forgiveness of sins, by the way.) God wants us to confess our sins to Him in the way that He indicated by instituting the Sacrament of Confession to begin with.

“I am embarrassed of my sins/I am afraid/it’s too difficult.”

This is a more understandable and less offensive cause of avoiding the sacrament. However, it is still completely insufficient, for a few reasons. To begin with, unless it is Father’s first few months as a priest, you can be pretty well assured that he has heard it before, or at least something very close. Even if not, you are quite unlikely to say something all that “shocking,” and the sorrier you are in your expression of your sins, the less shocking it will be. “But you don’t understand – my impiety/sexual perversion/whatever/etc. is so extreme/weird/shameful that it is just too much to mention.” Well, your sin is probably not quite as “out there” as you think, but the discomfort is telling you something; that you are ashamed, which is right and just. It should be uncomfortable to say what you did, because it is evil – but you should not fear saying it. It is you who make it difficult to the point of being impossible. If it comes down to it, write your sin down, and just resolve to read it – that could help you get through it. But the discomfort actually can provide the condition for the great feeling of freedom – the secret is out, even though God already knew what you did. Now your mind is free, and your soul is cleansed. And the sin dies in the confessional. Do not fall into the false humility of Simon Peter in the boat – “Depart from me O Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8) It is precisely because you are sinful that the Lord should not depart, and you should ask His forgiveness in the way that He wants.

“I will feel too good about being forgiven.”

Sometimes, a person will make the argument that it is this precise feeling of freedom which is a “trap” of some kind. The idea is that it is “purer” to apologize to God directly and avoid the Freudian “release” of the confessional process. Often this is a pious-sounding cover for a deeper problem – for example, inordinate shame of sin (see the section above), which could be the real reason motivating any of these excuses – but perhaps such a person really think it is “more spiritual” to avoid the sacrament. After all, one might “feel holy” instead of being holy by going to Confession, right? The problem is, once again, the order of forgiveness instituted by Christ is contradicted. In fact, one of the advantages of the sacrament is precisely the feeling of being forgiven – it is a good feeling (or it can be) – which is supposed to teach us to love the forgiveness of the Lord and to keep seeking it. God actually wants people to feel good about forgiveness, at least sometimes. This is to make no mention of the fact that being forgiven does actually make a person holy, even if not perfectly so. In actuality, a person who lets himself believe the lie that “avoiding feeling holy” justifies avoiding confession is deceived far more than a person who tends toward thinking that “feeling forgiven” is the same as holiness… the former lets himself think that his own psychology is more important than the order established by Christ and commanded by the Church in His Name, while the latter simply feels a little too spiritual when actually doing something which Christ truly wants. Disobedience with the feeling of pure intentions is far worse than obedience with the feeling of being a bit holier than one really is. Disobedience is a higher kind of pride than a mere swelling of the ego. Better to do God’s Will poorly than to do well what is not His Will.

“I just don’t have time/it’s too much effort/it’s inconvenient.”

Nonsense. We put plenty of time and energy into all kinds of pursuits which are not even that important for our natural, temporal lives… Hobbies, socializing, getting ahead at work… Surely, we can muster the energy and make the time to drive to the local parish on a Saturday afternoon to put our souls in order – instead of watching television and surfing the internet. And if there is no time for Confession advertised at the parish that is convenient, make an appointment at your leisure – or just show up at a daily Mass and tell Father you want to make confession before or after. (But if you need to go to confession, don’t dare to receive Holy Communion in the meantime.)

“I am afraid of becoming scrupulous.”

It is true that there is an abuse of the sacrament by overuse, or rather, inappropriate frequency deriving from a warped sense of morality. To be clear – some saints went to Confession once a day (such as Ignatius of Loyola), and it was not abnormal for many to go two or three times per week in centuries past. However, this is probably not advisable for the average layman, or even the average priest (once or twice a month is a standard practice). In any event, a person who is tending toward going to Confession every day is most likely doing so because of a neurosis, an overly sensitive conscience, a poor understanding of morality or of the sacrament… not because they are the next Ignatius of Loyola. This is a problem, but the fear of such a problem is insufficient for avoiding the sacrament altogether, as it still remains the order of the forgiveness of sins which Christ wants used. If a person really is afraid of a “runaway train” then he should approach a priest and explain this fear, and ask for his advice on how often to go to confession (except when one is absolutely sure one has committed a mortal sin – sure in the way one could swear on a stack of Bibles that it is so), and then obey it. If it’s once a year during Lent, then it’s once a year. If it’s once a month, so be it. Obedience is the key – just like we have already been pointing out.

“The priest might not be holy.”

So what? None is good but God alone. And yet the Lord wants to use broken instruments to show His power and glory. It is insulting to the Lord to assume that He cannot work well through bad instruments – and clearly, He wanted to use mere men to do His work, even evil ones like Judas. The thought which animates this objection is heretical in the strict sense – it is Donatist (and Protestant). Christ is the Voice which says the words, “Ego te absolvo,” through the priest – be he adulterer, murderer, or idolater. If you have been falling into the Donatist heresy, you should bring that up at your next confession, by the way.

“I had a bad experience.”

It happens – and it can be a great psychological obstacle. Sometimes, Father is exhausted and short on patience. Sometimes, he is just plain short on virtue (see above). Well, thank God, in most places there is more than one priest available. Try again – it is Christ you are seeking, not Father So-and-So. Maybe start by saying how bad your last experience was with confession, and go through what happened… that could be helpful.

“My sins are too great.”

No, they are not. See above about Simon Peter in the boat – “Depart from me O Lord!” This too is its own sin – to assume that God is not powerful enough, or merciful enough, to forgive you. (You should apologize to Him in the Sacrament for thinking so little of Him.) There are plenty of sinners much worse than you who have come back to the Lord. My favorite Old Testament example is King Manasseh – an idolatrous genocidal maniac who finally turned his life around after decades of terrorizing Jerusalem (see 2 Kings 21 and 2 Chronicles 33). St. Paul was the leader of the Jewish version of ISIS, then he became “the Apostle.” A popular modern example is Rudolf Hoss – commandant of the holocaust death-camp at Auschwitz, who is likely happy in Heaven now. You are not that bad. (You are also likely not as bad as the groveling and apostate Simon Peter in the courtyard, denying knowing the Lord Who sat just around the corner, nor as bad as the soldiers who crucified Christ – whom He forgave during the act itself.)

All of these excuses are great short-term investments in psychological comfort. They are very bad spiritual investments in both the short-term and the long-term. You will not regret overcoming your excuses – and in Hell, one only regrets his state… no longer is one capable of the kind of regret which leads to repentance. The regret of Judas leads to confusion, pain, despair – the regret of Simon Peter leads to repentance. Their sins were basically equal, but their outcomes could not have been more different. Choose wisely.

Conclusion

The soul which neglects making at least an annual confession slides slowly into more and more problematic sins – and then eventually is solidified in his favorite vices. When there are many people neglecting the sacrament in one place, such as in a parish, the devotional life will become more and more anthropocentric (no prayer before and after Mass, clapping for musicians, careless reception of the Eucharist, little tolerance for “challenging” homilies, a preoccupation with “being involved” with the Mass, etc.), and “social justice” initiatives will tend to overshadow what is left of the devotional life. This is not a good trend, and it is gaining ground in many areas around the world. More and more preaching on the need for the use of the Sacrament of Confession is called for – consider this my small contribution. Let us walk while we have the light… for soon the light will be taken away, and the darkness will come. (John 12:35)

GO TO CONFESSION! (And please share this post if you think it could help someone – spread this net far and wide…)

I am providing a few good resources here:

A formula for perfect contrition (it is not “magic,” remember – though it could be a good practice to say once or twice a day): “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”

My own post on learning chastity – perhaps the least favorite virtue of the young, especially young men… be ashamed of sins of lust, but be more ashamed not to confess such sins!

A good examination of conscience for single adults …and for married people … and for young adults/teens … and just in case you want it, for kids.

More advice on how to make a good confession

The Summa Theologiae on the necessity of Confession (composed by a colleague of St. Thomas, based on another of his works)

The Council of Trent on the Sacrament of Confession (Session 14), and the Roman Catechism (from Trent) on the Sacrament of Confession (promulgated by Pope St. Pius V)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Sacrament of Confession

Some detailed history and theological analysis of the Sacrament of Confession and also especially of Absolution

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A Brief Note on Politics

Eamonn Clark, STL

You have never heard of Esarhaddon. You might have heard of his father, but you have not heard of him.

I am watching the ongoing fiasco in the USA with a lot of interest – perhaps with more interest than is appropriate. (If you do not know that there is a fiasco, well, you are in for a surprise when the mainstream/legacy media is finally forced to cover what is actually about to happen in the courts.) The whole world is focused on American politics at the moment, and it seems that it is all so extremely consequential. For some people, surely it is consequential, in an individual existential sense, whether in terms of careers or direct effects from public policy that is actually at stake (which is not nearly as much as people tend to think, at least with respect to the U.S. presidency). Others think it is just about the end of the world if their candidate doesn’t win – and this sad phenomenon was quite famously on display in the aftermath of 2016. When people choose to define the meaning of their lives by the presence of a few people in Washington D.C., the individuality of one’s own life is forgotten, let alone the perspective of eternity.

Again, you have never heard of Esarhaddon. He was considered “Lord and King of the Universe.” And of all men, in terms of temporal, political power, he may indeed have the best claim of anyone in world history, or at least he is in the top 10 or so. (Mansa Musa would be another good contender, along with Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and a few Roman Emperors.) But you have never even heard of him.

Esarhaddon was the Emperor of Assyria at its absolute apex, from 681-669 B.C. His career included most significantly successfully conquering Egypt. (He is mentioned indirectly in 2 Chronicles 33:11 when the extremely wicked King Manasseh of Judah was captured by him – who then prayed to God and was eventually freed – but be honest, you do not recall that verse!) However, we know from his private letters that he was a very depressed and disturbed man. He was especially distraught over the premature death of one of his children – not unlike Pharaoh (or later, ironically, King David). For all his immense power, he could not stop the death of his family or of himself, and he could barely function in his imperial duties, often withdrawing for months at a time from public life. (In a strange and rather unique practice, there would be a “substitute king” for 100 days – after which period, the unfortunate man taking the emperor’s place would be executed. In fact, Esarhaddon once used this to dispose of one of his great political rivals…) Assyrians would have surely been as attentive to the goings-on of the imperial court as Americans are to the White House. How relevant is Assyrian politics now, except for the sake of understanding world history and especially Scripture?

You know Esarhaddon’s father, Sennacherib, whose march on Jerusalem is addressed in Isaiah 10 and 2 Kings 18-19 – likely the only reason you would have heard of him. You also might have even heard of Esarhaddon’s son, Assurbanipal (whose rule led to the end of the Empire), although that’s not so likely. But you’ve never heard of Esarhaddon. That’s worth considering. He is dead, he is forgotten, and his empire is gone too. So much for Esarhaddon, “Lord and King of the Universe.”

Will normal people 2,600 years from now have ever even heard of Trump or Biden? Who knows. But they will have heard of Jesus of Nazareth. And all that time from now, Jesus of Nazareth will remember each of us, as well.

The Real Reason for Priestly Celibacy

Eamonn Clark, STL

Do you remember the Amazon Synod? Well, it seems it failed to give certain people what they wanted: widespread married priests in the Latin Church. Of all the many arguments made in both directions, one consideration in favor of the discipline deserves our full attention today.

It is not that of economics, though the problems of time and energy and money are real. “But the East does it, so why can’t we?” Well, never mind that they have been doing this a long time and have gotten used to it, but the real question is: why are there so few Eastern Catholics? It’s because their priests are typically not very free for mission work, for frequent mobility, for constant preaching and teaching… due to marriage. They cannot nearly as easily embrace the faithful as fathers, because they have a biological family. They are not as available in their ministries as celibates, even though they are certainly valuable ministries nonetheless.

It is not that of the eschatological sign of celibacy. Though this is certainly powerful – one knows that the Catholic priest is different, in part because of this. He is a counter-cultural symbol. And to “cave” on this is to give up a massive moral authority over a world which the Church seeks to convert, a world which, to reiterate, stands in need of missionaries who are not tied down by the demands of domestic life.

The reason of reasons is neither of these important things. Rather, it is contemplation.

I was reading up a bit just the other day on the Carthusians. You may have heard of them because of a famous documentary which took 21 years to make. Well, they do exist, and they are a nice starting point for the discussion. What exactly is the point of Carthusian life? What do they do all day? Why don’t they go preach and hear confessions or even at least allow for retreats in their monasteries? They walk into the mountains, live practically alone in a room for their entire lives, and don’t hardly even communicate with the outside world at all except when absolutely necessary.

The Order explains it bluntly: the only goal of Carthusian life is the contemplation of God.

After all, “Mary has chosen the better part, and it shall not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:42) Apostolic activity is good, and it is even necessary in a way, but it is not the best thing to do absolutely speaking, and it is not, ultimately, the most necessary thing to do either. The higher thing is to meet God face to face – the real “one thing necessary.”

We bracket here the question of apostolic life that comes from an “overflow” of contemplation… In fact, from my reading of Thomas, it seems the objectively highest vocation for him is to be a bishop freed from administration, living in a hermitage under religious vows, who occasionally comes into public to preach and administer the sacraments out of an abundance of mystical illumination from the depths of his prayer. Not exactly the norm – but the argument is strong. And its strength comes in part from his doctrine on the contemplative life, a doctrine which beautifully matches his teaching on the ascetical (“penitential”) life. Let’s dive in with Thomas on fasting. (And no – St. Thomas Aquinas was not “fat,” or at least not large from overeating. Stay tuned for a post on that in a few weeks.)

There are three purposes for fasting, and by extension, other ascetical practices. First, to do penance in reparation for sin. By taking on some small pains, we atone for what wrong we have done, thus alleviating some of our due punishment (greatly aided by the Church’s generosity in granting indulgences). Second, fasting is for cooling the passions. It is really difficult to be pining after a beautiful woman if you are really hungry. (And this is not the only good trick to help with chastity, as I’ve explored elsewhere.) Third, we fast to elevate our minds to God. The passions being cooled allows for the mind to be freed of preoccupation with the lower things and to move instead to higher things, such as meditation on the Passion, or a consideration of the meaning of our lives in the light of eternity, to examine our consciences clearly, to think on the love of God and the Mysteries of the Life of Christ… and simply to be attentive to God with an habitual, loving gaze, longing for Him and His Will, no matter how distasteful it may be to our lower appetites. This is the Wisdom which comes from the Cross, which is where perfect freedom was and is still. Christ, though physically tormented – and even physically trapped – manifested the highest degree of personal freedom on the Cross. By draining Himself of all earthly desires, He fully and completely accomplished an act of superabundant charity in accord with the Will of the Father Who had sent Him for this precise purpose. And, though physically trapped, we must remember that every moment was nonetheless chosen deliberately and without constraint; indeed, He could have come down if He had willed to. This is the pattern for growth in discipleship – to deny the lower self in favor of uniting the higher self with God, to do His Will for its own sake, and for its own sake alone. Contemplation is the highest part of our mind dwelling on the Almighty God, a quiet foretaste of the exhilarating enthrallment of Heaven.

Astute readers will notice an opening for the teaching of St. John of the Cross to sneak in. While John certainly is valuable in many ways, I would suggest that his specific teaching on the active purgation (“doing penance/fasting/deprivations,” especially in order to initiate the first passive purgation or “dark night of the senses”) is a bit too narrow or strict, even if rhetorically helpful when set alongside the more moderate approach of Thomas. In fact, Thomas seems to say precisely this, in a roundabout way, both in his teaching on the usefulness of marriage (which John seems to have been rather suspicious of, given his comment in Ascent of Mount Carmel that the married ought to be “perplexed” by the lack of a higher vocation) and in his critique of the Stoics, the Greek philosophical sect that disdained the enjoyment of any physical pleasures. We should recall that this was a very hot topic for Thomas, as the Albigensian heresy was not yet dead… This made it all the more necessary to stress the goodness of the physical world and its proper use, yes, even of physical pleasures.

However, despite his mockery of the Stoic doctrine – which he says nobody follows anyway, including the teachers of such things – Thomas insists on the usefulness of asceticism for the sake of better contemplation. This is a function not of physical pleasures being “bad,” nor of suffering or deprivation being “good” on their own, but because of the brokenness of human nature in the context of the body-soul composite. Physical pleasures drag the mind toward the things from which they derive, thus tending to drag the mind away from God, unless, as John rightly points out in Book I of Dark Night of the Soul, they are enjoyed precisely on account of elevating the mind to God, a point which St. Paul himself indicates should come through the mode of thanksgiving, in 1 Timothy 4:1-5: “We are expressly told by inspiration that, in later days, there will be some who abandon the faith, listening to false inspirations, and doctrines taught by the devils. They will be deceived by the pretensions of impostors, whose conscience is hardened as if by a searing-iron. Such teachers bid them abstain from marriage, and from certain kinds of food, although God has made these for the grateful enjoyment of those whom faith has enabled to recognize the truth. All is good that God has made, nothing is to be rejected; only we must be thankful to him when we partake of it, then it is hallowed for our use by God’s blessing and the prayer which brings it.”

But that much gratitude is difficult to keep up. In many cases, it is better to forego the pleasures entirely rather than count on having a perpetual habit of thanksgiving, which is certainly as laudable of a goal as it is an unreachable one, especially over a long period of time, wherein one becomes habituated to the use of pleasures, especially in marriage, and may even grow a bit entitled in spirit. Even barring this, one’s mind will nevertheless still be pulled down by the mere fact of the energy of the intellect and will being drained in the use of intense pleasures with any kind of frequency. It is not immoral, it is simply not ideal.

However, the flip side is that many do not have the gifts to give up certain pleasures in favor of contemplation – a point running somewhat contrary to the spirit of John’s teaching – and this attempt can even become the sin of presumption (against magnanimity by excess, not against hope by excess). The one whose mind is dragged down even more by the lack of certain licit pleasures, such as in marriage, after some attempt at getting above this struggle, is in fact better off resigning to weakness, at least for the time being. By a moderate use of these pleasures, he will free his mind more than he was able to without their use. The fixation will disappear, and he can move on with life, including in prayer, and perhaps later on he can go higher up if there is occasion, for instance, by a mutual agreement to live in perpetual continence with his spouse.

This brings us almost all the way to the point. It belongs to the priest especially to know God, and the things of God, and to judge well as an administrator and spiritual father. This requires the sharpest and freest of minds. This means, first of all, that priests should be doing a lot of fasting and other penances. It also means that they should be free of the weight of the pleasures of marriage, ideally freed from the married state altogether (which perhaps relates more to availability than to contemplation, though it still does free the mind of the activities proper to domestic concerns).

The capital vices (the “seven deadly sins”) each have “daughters” – these are other vices or sins which tend to flow from the capital vices. The capital vice of gluttony, opposed by abstinence (moderation in food and normal drink) and especially by fasting (which is an act of infused temperance properly speaking), has five daughters: unseemly joy, scurrility or foolish manners, loquaciousness, uncleanness/pollution, and dullness of mind as regards the understanding. This doesn’t mean that enjoying food is sinful, but even a lot of licit enjoyment of food will tend towards these unfortunate actions… The last one is especially pertinent, namely, dullness of mind as regards the understanding. The daughters of lust, we should note, are eight: blindness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, narcissism, hatred of God, love of this world, and hatred or despair of the world to come. Again, several of these relate directly to the well-functioning of the rational part of the soul with respect to contemplation… especially blindness of mind.

The dull and blind in mind have a hard time understanding spiritual things without a lot of help. Their attention is too focused on worldly pleasures – even licit ones – to be easily elevated to the world of the spirit.

Where are all the discussions about this, I wonder?

The great Carthusian dictum is true: “Stat crux dum volvitur orbis.” The Cross is still, while the world turns. If we want spiritual fathers who are “alter Christi,” “other Christs,” then conformity with the unchanging dynamic of the Cross, at least in a basic way, is of the utmost importance. As we see, the availability for ministry is only a part of the equation. What does one bring into his ministry without easy access to the deeper kind of contemplation which is generally only available to the celibate? The flesh must be brought into subjection – crucified, as it were – so that spiritual strength and power may lead the priest into the wisdom proper to his office as a teacher, judge, intercessor, and administrator. For, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:23-25) Let the world have its misguided opinions about clerical celibacy – for they have such opinions about the Cross, too. And let the Church stand as still as the Cross, while the world continues to turn.

Inaugural Speech of The Oratorio – Rome, October 21, 2020

A blessed Feast of St. John Paul II to all, in these strange days in the Church.

Please enjoy my speech at the opening of the lay men’s group I have just begun with several friends here in Rome. A reminder that we are still fundraising – more info here.

Eamonn Clark, STL, President of the Oratorio

Rome and the Spiritual Life

“Memories” and “opportunities.” Perhaps there are no two words which capture what Rome is better than these. It’s not “splendid architecture,” “fine wine,” or even “beautiful women” – I assure you, you can find all these things in Paris, and in other places too! No, Rome is a place of memories and a place of opportunities. In fact, in some way, for us they are one and the same.

First, some memories.

About 14,000 years ago, the Palatine Hill began to be host to a small village. How could these people have known what was to come of their small foundation? Certainly, they could not have dreamed of it.

As more settlements were built over the millennia, they slowly merged into one until a city was formed. By the time we reach the end of the reign of the mythical King Romulus near the close of the 8th century B.C., Moses had already left Egypt some 500 years ago, and Isaiah was then busy confronting King Ahaz about the sign to come of a Virgin with Child – evidently, God had been working more quickly than men.

The City grew. Seven kings of Rome came and went, and the Republic began, initiating a period of non-stop conflicts and crises which somehow never seemed to destroy the City entirely – not unlike the Kings of Israel and Judah and their nemeses – but rather saw its incremental expansion of power and terrain, all over the Mediterranean. The Republic ended with an ironic catastrophe: the ambitious and extraordinarily popular Julius Caesar slowly secured himself a position as the “dictator pro vita” through various power-grabs, which alarmed the senate who feared the end of the Republic and a return to a kingdom. They killed him, of course, and accidentally paved the way for the inauguration not of a mere kingdom, but of an empire. Strange things are reported to have happened in the moments following the death of Caesar, here in the City, supernatural things, says Virgil: “Who dare say the Sun is false? He and no other warns us when dark uprising threaten, when treachery and hidden wars are gathering strength. He and no other was moved to pity Rome on the day that Caesar died, when he veiled his radiance in gloom and darkness, and a godless age feared everlasting night. Yet in this hour Earth also and the plains of Ocean, ill-boding dogs and birds that spell mischief, sent signs which heralded disaster. How oft before our eyes did Etna deluge the fields of the Cyclopes with a torrent from her burst furnaces, hurling thereon balls of fire and molten rocks. Germany heard the noise of battle sweep across the sky and, even without precedent, the Alps rocked with earthquakes. A voice boomed through the silent groves for all to hear, a deafening voice, and phantoms of unearthly pallor were seen in the falling darkness. Horror beyond words, beasts uttered human speech; rivers stood still, the earth gaped upon; in the temples ivory images wept for grief, and beads of sweat covered bronze statues. King of waterways, the Po swept forests along in the swirl of his frenzied current, carrying with him over the plain cattle and stalls alike. Nor in that same hour did sinister filaments cease to appear in ominous entrails or blood to flow from wells or our hillside towns to echo all night with the howl of wolves. Never fell more lightning from a cloudless sky; never was comet’s alarming glare so often seen.” It was at this moment in time that everything began to change. An imperial reign began with Caesar Augustus which he would oversee for some 40 years – a familiar number – and 27 years into that reign – 3 years short of 30 – a Child was born of a Virgin. No mere king had come into Judah, either. Interestingly, it is rumored that Augustus was inspired by a dream one night, around the year 1 AD, to build an altar to a ruler that had been born far away, and this altar supposedly now rests buried underneath the Ara Caeli, atop the Capitoline Hill.

Augustus’ adopted son Tiberius became his successor. He regarded Augustus as a god, we should remember, beginning the whole sad cult of the emperors. It was Tiberius who sent Pontius Pilate to the north to govern what they both must have thought of as the ancient version of “flyover country.” In fact, Tiberius signed the document giving Pilate authority to use capital punishment in a little room just on the slope of the Quirinal Hill, right near the Angelicum, which you can see preserved today. The governor of Judea would find himself caught up in a conflict eerily similar to what had been unfolding in far-away Italy just a generation ago and into his own time – a figure rising to an alarming degree of power and influence, claiming His Father to be God and maybe Himself as well, killed by those pleading their loyalty to Rome… and then the ironic catastrophe was followed by the ushering in of something even greater and more powerful than had been feared – not a kingdom, and not even an empire, but a Church, with a true “dictator pro vita,” One Who will never die, and truly supernatural things coming in the wake of His booming voice crying out from the Cross – the sun was darkened, the curtain of the Temple was torn from top to bottom, the Earth shook, and many of the dead were raised up and later appeared in Jerusalem. Just as well, prophetic and Divine words were spoken by mere men not too long after – like mere animals using human speech! The Roman guards who “became like dead men” (Matthew 28:4) and no doubt eventually ran away at the second earthquake which occurred when the Emperor of the Universe rose from the grave were a sign of things to come. Some weeks later, the fire of the Holy Spirit came down, at the “dedication” of the New Temple, so unlike to the Temple whose remnants now possibly sit as prizes in the Arch of Titus in the Forum after its final destruction, and the Good News was preached for the first time from the cenacle by the foremost representatives of Christ’s Mystical Body. As Acts 2:10 tells us, there were Romans there to hear the first apostolic preaching – this was certainly not by chance. The “death of Rome” was now the Holy Spirit’s special goal, in order to replace it with something much more glorious.

It was Rome, then, where Jesus Christ’s Church would have to go to be most firmly established, going out of Jerusalem, much as God had “escaped” from the old Temple whose veil He tore from top to bottom and went out into the Nations – out to the wicked Assyrians, Babylonians, and even the Romans who had crucified Him. And so it was that the very same fisherman from Galilee would find his way down here, to preach especially to the Jews who had already been dwelling in this place for quite a while. Peter stayed here until his brutal death, just around the corner, which he must have known would come, not only from common sense but also from the time that he walked on the shores of Galilee with the Risen Christ, Who told him of his coming martyrdom, and Who had turned him back along the Appian Way as he tried to move on from here, a site which is known and preserved as “Quo Vadis Domine.” When Peter was living on the Aventine at what is now S. Prisca, he would have looked over in this direction at night and seen the glowing embers of the bodies upon the pikes atop what was the Vatican Hill, a warning to would-be rebels that the cruelties of Nero’s wicked circus awaited them should they have a mind to oppose him. John also made a famous appearance, though the attempt at killing him did not go the way it was planned – he emerged from a pot of boiling oil unscathed, converting the crowd to the Faith, though the Emperor Domitian was unfortunately not persuaded. But of all the wonders Our Lord has worked in the hearts of men, perhaps none has been greater than what was done in Paul, who, lest we forget, was the one-time leader of the Jewish version of ISIS who became “the Apostle.” It is Paul, a Roman citizen, who most especially confirms the integrity and veracity of the witness of the original disciples – he came from outside the apostolic college of Jerusalem, though being no less appointed by Christ to preach, especially to the Gentiles. For about two years he ministered in this City alongside Peter unto his own all-too-predictable martyrdom, and his sacred bones are with us today, still crying out in testimony to the immense sanctity he received from the Lord – “I want to know Christ, and the power of His Resurrection and participation in His sufferings, so that I might somehow attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)

There is no need to describe the bitter persecutions of the wicked Emperors Nero, Domitian, Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian and the ultimate heroism of the early martyrs – Clement, Agnes, Cecilia, Ignatius, Sebastian, Pancras, Lawrence – especially Lawrence, who, like Peter, had made it out of Rome but turned back to face his impending death, which came on the Viminal Hill by fire… Almost every stone it seems has been marked with the blood of a saint, who chose the distant joys of the Heavenly Jerusalem over the worldly glory of Rome.

I’ve already mentioned the Ara Caeli. Constantine’s mother St. Helen rests there, whose collection of relics from her Holy Land excursion are kept at her old palace in what is now Santa Croce in Gerusalemme – and if one stands beneath the Capitoline Hill in Piazza Venezia looking north down the Via del Corso, through Piazza del Popolo and basically straight up the Via Flaminia – a long way to look, but not so far to walk – there one finds the bridge where her son was converted, Ponte Milvio, where he fought 1,708 years ago one week from today. This event triggered the first Golden Age of Christendom, bringing us the great construction projects and politico-religious shifts that we still enjoy the fruits of today. Our brothers and sisters came up from obscurity and stopped their semi-clandestine worship in the farmlands and catacombs and emerged victorious through Christ’s Providence into the center of the City, with Pope St. Sylvester leading the charge. The conciliar Tradition began shortly thereafter, with First Nicaea, at the request of none other than Constantine himself. Soon after this, the canon of Sacred Scripture was being solidified, by Pope St. Damasus and St. Jerome, right here, just down the road.

The Empire slowly waned – the Church did not. As the Emperors became less relevant, the popes became more relevant, among them St. Innocent I, St. Hilarius, St. Zosimus, and so on, all here, each knowing the same hills and many of the same churches which we know.

With the Donation of Pepin in 756, the Papal States came into existence, and the Bishop of Rome became a sovereign king, as is right and just. Only 44 years later, the Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, on a round piece of porphyry which today sits near the entrance of the new St. Peter’s Basilica. The tables had turned; the Church, and the Bishop of Rome, were now the reference point in the “caput mundi,” the capital of the world.

While we certainly face a troubling period in the Church today, the centuries around the turn of the First Millennium were arguably much worse. The wicked Counts of Tusculum, the Theophylacti family, rose to power and brought a level of perversion to the papacy that is practically unthinkable, with so many clergy of the Church, including especially here in the City, falling into the most shameful of sins, as St. Peter Damian relates in his ever-relevant book on the topic. But this was not to last. From the Benedictine abbey at St. Paul’s tomb, the Abbot Hildebrand rose to the Throne of St. Peter as Gregory VII, initiating a reform that the saint would use to purge so many evils from the Earth. In the century and a half afterward came some of the most important moments in the world of religious life: the Cistercians were formed at Cîteaux, St. Norbert founded his Premonstratensians, and then came the two great mendicant orders of St. Francis and St. Dominic. These two great men were both in the City, but Dominic had more of a personal impact here, not only by bringing so many of his own men to Rome to study, and working countless miracles in various locations, but also by reforming female religious life, bringing the women together from S. Maria in Trastevere to San Sisto Vecchio, which convent was eventually moved to Ss. Domenico e Sisto on the Quirinal Hill, before finally going on to Monte Mario, where the same community dwells today.

St. Dominic’s greatest spiritual daughter, St. Catherine, would help steady the Bark of Peter in the following unbelievably turbulent century full of plague and anti-popes, in part by dragging Gregory XI from France back to his true home here, and she rests now just down the road at S. Maria Sopra Minerva. Not too long after this tumultuous time came the terrible errors of the so-called “Reformation.” So many men and women in Rome met the challenge, including St. Ignatius of Loyola and our own special friend St. Philip Neri, who became active in the years around the great Council of Trent, at which point the level of religiosity in Rome was perhaps at an all-time low. Philip spent a long time in Rome as a layman, until finally he realized that God wanted Holy Orders for him. His little group of men, many of them laity, who gathered around him not long after his ordination sought to fix the problems of a lack of devotion and pious learning in the City, starting with themselves.

The Roman liturgy by now was proliferating all over the Earth, including in the New World, the missions of which were watched closely by the popes, into the 19th Century. Special mention must be made of Blessed Pope Pius IX of happy memory, whose epic reign included the unfortunate loss of the Papal States with the violent and anticlerical unification of Italy. He still had the guts to hold an Ecumenical Council in the Vatican, while the unifiers looked on with hunger at their desired capital before finally taking it in 1870. The First Vatican Council only officially closed 90 years later, in 1960.

At last, we emerge into the realm of living memory. The World Wars touched Rome but only barely – perhaps the confused and ambitious bully Napoleon had had a worse effect some 140 years earlier, to whom we owe the injustice of so many churches belonging to the State; though, it is true, this no doubt saved many sanctuaries from being “improved” in the 1970’s. The kindness, zeal, and prudence of the Venerable Pope Pius XII not only kept the Germans from flattening the City but it also converted the rabbi of Tempio Maggiore. Then came several saintly popes who would lead and implement the most recent Council, especially our dear friend John Paul II, who charged students to “learn Rome,” “imparare Roma,” and whose impact on this City was enormous, even approaching that of Pius IX. As we can see, there is plenty to learn, and it is worth learning – it is spiritual food, is it not? Of course, this is only an appetizer; the omissions of this summary are vast, as you well know.

All this brings us to today, to current joys and sorrows, and to our own personal memories. Just as the first settlers on the Palatine came here and lived together in a tight-knit group, so have we, and we too draw closer and closer to become a “little city” of our own. The same question is before us: how can we know what awaits us and our small foundation? Well, we have looked at the past, and that helps us to think of our future.

Now then, onto some opportunities.

We all know that we can go to Mass with the Holy Father, or visit the tombs of several apostles and other saints, both those well-known and those somewhat obscure to us, or climb to one of the great vistas of the City and marvel at its reality as a present testimony to its past, which is itself a testimony to the Faith. Likewise, we know of the ancient churches and the sprawling subterranean complexes which lie just beneath the visible City, both of which have such a special place in Christian history. All of these are indeed opportunities – like a spiritual playground, and I want to emphasize this; the City is a place to be used to elevate the heart and the mind to God. It is a spiritual tool. And its great instrumentality in the present is directly a function of its past which we have just examined, if only briefly. It is an immense treasure trove of material for deep reflection on what God did in the Incarnation, and on what it means to be a Christian. However, there is more to consider.

The fact is in front of us in this moment: Rome is international. After all, here we are. It’s not simply that we are some “stranieri” passing through, like the foreigners in Jerusalem at Pentecost who were brought there for Divine instruction through Providence alone. No, rather we have come here intentionally from afar to meet God and listen to Him by sitting around the feet of St. Peter. We are here to study, to teach, to work for the Lord in various ways. Rome remains the “caput mundi” for those of us who wish to know the Church from a global perspective, that is, to understand the “catholic” part of the Catholic Church. They say that Rome is a village – well, it is in some ways, but it can also be quite isolating, especially for us laymen, and above all for those among us who haven’t yet quite mastered Italian, or maybe still can’t even use the subjunctive correctly! So, the reality is that many of us are in need of intentional community, and by that community so many possibilities can manifest themselves. The whole world opens up through these friendships, let alone the City of Rome.

But not only can we not flourish here without a good social network; we also require support in the spiritual life. No matter how far we have advanced in the life of prayer, there is always further to go, and the diversity of experiences which we have in virtue of our different backgrounds makes us each have something to contribute, even if it is small. Each of us is an expert in our own life history, from which we can hopefully draw edifying spiritual lessons for the whole group. On top of this, we have the chance to plead the Lord on each other’s behalf. Praying together for one another, for our intentions, for our families, creates a bond of spiritual fraternity which goes to the heart of the purpose of our efforts. Transcending mere natural association helps us to orient our lives around our common destiny in eternity. In spiritual concord we find that the narrow gate becomes a little bit wider, so to speak. As the Psalm says, “How pleasant it is when brothers live in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.” (Psalms 133:1) With a union of charity magnified by fervent prayer and mutual edification, we tap into the graces which God has already shared with each of us. “Without cost you have received. Without cost you are to give.” (Matthew 10:8) This verse speaks of the initial preaching of the Twelve, wherein they are instructed not only to preach that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand but also to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and drive out demons.”

We must indeed help each other in our spiritual journey here on Earth as brothers. But the whole world too stands in need of help. To be more specific, Europe needs to be evangelized – including Italy – and Rome is no exception. Just as St. Phillip Neri faced a Rome full of spiritual squalor, so too do we. The secular state of Italy has weakened the Catholic heart of the peninsula to the point of being overflowing with an anemic and grotesque kind of “cultural Catholicism” which poisons minds much like the culture of Judaism did the Pharisees, leaving those of us who insist on the plain truths and demands of the Gospel and of the Church as “unmerciful,” “unpastoral,” “unkind,” and so on. It is a mindset which chiefly afflicts the young, and also a certain type of clerical subculture. Yet let us be on our guard, for this attitude has a grip not only on those who seek to interpret the Gospel into a bizarre mix of feel-good storytelling and impossible moral ideals, but also on those who might be tempted to announce the truth in a corner and leave the rest of the works of mercy to others. It is just as easy to forget not to try to turn stones into bread in the desert as it is to forget that there are people stuck out in the desert who need food – both material and spiritual. Such “country club Catholicism” is a species of “cafeteria Catholicism”: taking only a part instead of taking the whole. Granted, we are not pastors, designated missionaries, or any such thing, yet there are indeed works of mercy which we can undertake, and there are indeed pastors and missionaries and others whom we can encourage and aid in their important ministries. Rome is full of clergy and religious who would more than appreciate having a little help with their work. Why not assist where we can? And why not take other initiatives that are appropriate for us as laymen?

The last opportunity to note is the one which pulls these other opportunities into itself, and it is what draws us here today: the Oratorio. It is my sincere prayer that our diverse backgrounds, connections, and talents will allow our common faith and zeal to bring forth wonderful fruit in this, our little village, and in the City of Rome for years to come.

Blessing the Hour

Eamonn Clark, STL

There are a few Marian devotions which have become extremely popular over the centuries. The rosary of course, but also the Angelus (at 6:00 AM, 12:00 PM, and 6:00 PM), and the ubiquitous May Crowning devotions. All beautiful and worthy exercises of piety. However, there is another devotion which is shorter, simpler, and practiced by several saints, including St. John Vianney and St. Anthony Claret, two of my personal favorites. It is called “blessing the hour.”

It goes like this. Every waking hour, on the hour, one prays a “Hail Mary,” dedicating the following 60 minutes to Our Lady. 8:00 AM? “Hail Mary…” 9:00 AM? “Hail Mary…” 10:00 AM? “Hail Mary…” Etc.

That’s it.

By doing this, one reminds oneself to sanctify the whole day. It’s a great opportunity to pause, for just 10 seconds, and consider whether one is living up to the standards of the Gospel given the activities of the preceding hour, and then to make a resolution to do better in the next hour, asking the Blessed Virgin Mary for her help. She certainly likes to be asked for such favors, and she certainly likes to grant them – so why deny her the pleasure, meanwhile denying ourselves of her powerful help?

Over time, this practice will help one to keep up a constant kind of awareness and familiarity with the Lord and His Mother, in accord with St. Paul’s admonition to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess. 5:17) If we are intent on one day making our eternity to be with such Friends, we ought to get in the happy habit of conversing with them at least every 60 minutes, no? And so, at the hour of our death, we are ready to spend every minute like those ten seconds each hour, but with so much more pleasure, peace, and love:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the Fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Main image: A statue of the Virgin with Child, outside Santa Sabina, in Rome

Ordinary Magisterium – what is it and why does it matter?

Eamonn Clark, STL

There has been a bundle of contentious theological topics in the past few years erupting into very public and occasionally nasty debates. Some of the contentious character of these debates comes from the subject matter at hand, while others are also resting in part on the issue of the “ordinary magisterium”… Some might think it is obvious what this strange sounding phrase means, while some are completely unaware.

Well, it is not particularly obvious. In fact, there are multiple meanings of the phrase, and this, I suggest has been part of the problem. Before tackling it: what are some of the topics that are at stake in the question of the ordinary magisterium?

Abortion… contraception… women’s ordination… capital punishment… homosexuality and transgenderism… the administration of the sacraments to those in illicit unions… and even usury.

If all these (and more) are on the table, it’s important to get the question of “ordinary magisterium” right.

First, “magisterium.” This means “teaching,” or more specifically a “teaching office/function” plain and simple. The cleric, especially the bishop, is normally called and bound to instruct the faithful in right doctrine. Without right knowledge, how will there be right love? It is not possible to love what is not known. Therefore, the data of revelation are to be delivered, explained, and defended by clergy.

Second, “ordinary.” This means – you guessed it – normal. Ordinary magisterial teaching is the normal kind. This implies that there is also an “abnormal” kind, which we call the “extraordinary magisterium.”

The extraordinary magisterium is the one that is a bit more familiar as a category. It consists of two parts: the canonical teachings of Ecumenical Councils which are accepted and promulgated by the pope, and the rare act of a pope defining some point “ex cathedra,” such as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Both of these enjoy the status of infallibility. Note that the subject of extraordinary magisterial teaching is the pope, either alone or together with a Council.

The ordinary magisterium has more than two parts, and it has two kinds of subjects. First, the subjects. The pope certainly has an ordinary magisterium, such as daily homilies, encyclicals, and catechisms he may write, but so too does every bishop, who are also competent to teach in similar ways, viz., daily preaching, pastoral letters, and local catechisms (like the Baltimore Catechism). All the bishops of the Church are also said to exercise this ministry together in a second way, which is a special kind of ordinary magisterial teaching. Under special conditions, the Church Herself (“in se”) is the subject of ordinary magisterial teaching. Thus, when we say “the Church teaches x,” we are frequently appealing to this very thing – yet certain conditions must be met… There must be a broad consensus over time among the bishops, especially the popes. There must be a firm root in Scripture or in liturgy as well, as the Church does not “invent” new teachings, She only articulates what She has already received more clearly. The most notable theologians and saints should also be able to be called on in support of the point – especially St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Alphonsus Liguori, and other such figures renowned for their learning. If you cannot find one of these four to give direct and explicit support for a moral or dogmatic position on something which they all have spoken about, then you are in big trouble and are very likely just plain wrong.

Also, the Church does not teach that the sky is blue, or that Latin is a cool language. Even if most bishops and popes have taught these things throughout time, we see that neither belongs to the ordinary magisterium because they are not about matters of faith or morals, the proper realm for the Church to teach about, in the magisterial sense. That might seem unimportant, but when you notice that this excludes points of biology, psychology, or sociology, for instance, it becomes much more important – can the Church really teach about issues of life and death, or about criminal justice, or about human sexuality?

Yes, but normally only by “skipping ahead” to the conclusions. For example, the Church in fact does not teach, in the full sense of the word “teach,” that human life begins at conception. (Note that there are distinctions to make about “teaching” – one may not simply ignore what comes from various Roman Congregations like the CDF or even a pope’s daily homilies simply because it’s not extraordinary magisterium – but I believe I have addressed that elsewhere on these pages, using this chart as a guide, and Dr. Feser’s short article on the 5 kinds of magisterial teaching is also helpful. For my readers who might be thinking about thesis topics – “theological notes” would be a great area to explore, starting with Fr. Cartechini’s chart, linked to above.) Perplexingly, even though the biology of conception does not seem to be the matter appropriate for magisterial teaching, a biological truth is nonetheless implied by something which is ordinary universal magisterial teaching, namely, the immorality of abortion. It is explicitly revealed, by the Fifth Commandment, that murder is immoral – however, it is not explicitly revealed that direct abortion constitutes murder… Nevertheless, it is taught to be so. It always has been taught to be so, from the earliest days of the Church, by a wide consensus of bishops, including popes. It has extremely firm Scriptural roots. Every major theologian to speak on it has been in basic agreement. And of course, it is an appropriate matter for magisterial teaching, unlike what color the sky is, or even when and how exactly human life begins in biological terms. Indirectly then, we learn from the Church that human life, in the relevant sense, begins prior to the point when what is called “abortion” is possible. Today, we clearly see that moment to be conception (a fact inaccessible to physicians in earlier ages), though it is beside the point, as even if this were to be discovered to be a false understanding of biology, the truth about direct abortion would remain – it is immoral. This is a teaching which enjoys infallibility.

John Paul II appealed to this kind of datum of the “ordinary magisterium of the Church” in his document on the question of ordaining women to the priesthood. In explaining the text, then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) said much about the character of the Apostolic Letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis,” which was claimed not to be extraordinary magisterial teaching but only a definitive and authoritative interpretation of the Church’s ordinary magisterium. (Interestingly, one might make a good case that, despite the pope’s insistence to the contrary, he actually exercised his extraordinary magisterium based on the content and purpose of the text… but I digress.) See “Lumen Gentium,” paragraph 25 as well for some background.

This brings us to the issues we are facing today – women’s diaconal ordination being among them, but certainly not the only one. Can a pope simply decide, for example, that a point of speculative or moral doctrine taught in the way we have been discussing as constitutive of the Church’s ordinary magisterium, is “not merciful” and therefore be just plain wrong? While it is indeed possible (and obligatory – as I have talked about here) to read the best continuity into everything a pope says, this sort of unjustifiable “development” is what many seem to be seeing with the question of capital punishment – a point reiterated in the Holy Father’s most recent encyclical. If capital punishment’s liceity in principle does not belong to the ordinary magisterium of the Church, one must wonder what does… How many popes, Fathers, saints, doctors, and major catechisms does it take to interpret the already rather clear texts of Scripture on the point? (I recommend here the work of Dr. Feser once again, in many articles on his blog and of course his book, which is now the standard text on the issue and simply must be dealt with for anyone looking to support the idea that capital punishment is intrinsically immoral – which, by the way, is not even precisely what the Holy Father has actually said.)

On the other hand, there is a topic like usury. But we will leave that hornet’s nest alone and save it maybe for another time.

I hope the point is clear enough. Understanding what the Faith contains means knowing the theological history of the Church, including both the “primary sources” for theology itself where we find revealed truths most clearly organically expressed (Scripture and Liturgy) and the way the Faith has actually been preached and taught and even lived throughout the past two millennia. To know the ordinary magisterium of the universal Church can be difficult – there are maybe a few borderline cases (such as Mary as Mediatrix of all Graces, for example), and getting acquainted with the doctrine of the Church in general can be time-consuming – but it probably helps to know that there is such a universal ordinary magisterium at all, distinct from albeit connected with the ordinary magisterium of the pope and all bishops as individuals.

St. Thomas Aquinas on how to ensure your prayer is answered – in 4 easy steps!

Eamonn Clark, STL

It’s a shocking claim, but it’s eminently sensible… if you want a guaranteed answer to your prayer, you must only do four things. And note that I mean the kind of answer that you are actually looking for, rather than getting something different which God wants for you instead (which would be better for you than your own idea anyway).

St. Thomas Aquinas lays out the four steps, or aspects, in the Summa Theologica, II-II q. 83, a. 15. They are:

To pray piously – If we are asking God for something rudely, as if we are entitled to it, we are not praying very well. A pious prayer is humble, respectful, and sincere.

To pray perseveringly – When we really want something, we will typically keep asking until we obtain it. So it is that when we pray for a favor in a fleeting way, we are not desiring that favor very seriously. Why then should we expect Providence to match our desires? We might fall into presumption if such prayers were answered and end up not even praying piously for favors the next time around.

To pray for what is useful for salvation – Despite what it may seem, God does not actually particularly care about the score of the big football game coming up. (In fact, it can be sinful to pray for certain outcomes in such things, unless one has some extraordinary vested interest in them.) While God will grant little favors sometimes that make our lives more pleasant or convenient, normally by the natural order of things, these are small potatoes. Even miraculous physical healings are low on the list of God’s priorities – just look at how Christ did not open up a miraculous hospital in Galilee to heal every single sick person, though He could have done so. What God really wants is our everlasting friendship.

To pray for oneself – People have free will. They can accept grace or resist it. It is not possible to merit another human being’s salvation, although we can assist in a way. However, when we desire our own salvation we have immediately put ourselves on the right path by that very act of the will. Our free will is moving in the right direction already.

That’s it! It may sound underwhelming, but it’s surely not. With this formula, we can obtain Heaven, thus fulfilling the purpose of our existence. God will never deny a soul that earnestly seeks its own salvation through humble and frequent prayer for favors that relate to growth in charity and avoiding falling into Hell. Do you want to obtain the courage needed to go to Confession? You will have it. Do you want to become more temperate? It will be given to you. Do you want to enjoy a deeper friendship with the Lord and be a great saint? He wants to give it to you. All you must do is ask in the right way, and it is sure to come to you.

Do you have an Admiral Ackbar in your spiritual journey?

Eamonn Clark, STL

Those “in the know” who also have a grip on spiritual theology already know what this post is about. For those who don’t, please allow me to introduce you to Admiral Ackbar, Commander of the Naval fleet of the Rebel Alliance against the Galactic Empire, most notably in the Battle of Endor, as seen in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Read all about it on Wookieepedia. Well, here is his most famous line, with nearly 7 million views to date:

The evil Galactic Empire and yes, even the Sith, are wily and clever… They set traps, and we need someone to yell at us to let us know, as we’re so busy with everything else in our ship. We need an Admiral Ackbar… We need a spiritual director.

“Oh there’s not enough time for Father to do that for me.” Well, if everyone in the parish wanted spiritual direction, that would be the case, but if you bother to read Catholic blogs like this one then you’re probably in a small minority in your parish environment. So I don’t think that’s plausible in your case.

“Well, maybe Father would be able to make the time, but it’s me who’s too busy.” Oh. Okay. That Netflix binge/afternoon tea/yogalates class/whatever it is must be very important to you not to be able to have a serious conversation about your soul for an hour a month. Come on. You can do it, if you prioritize it.

“Okay. Fine. But isn’t spiritual direction really only for priests, seminarians, candidates for religious life, etc.?” No, though they form the bulk of those who are interested (and are normally required to have such a discipline). But if you are really seeking to grow in the spiritual life, you will need help from someone who knows the path before you, who can keep you accountable, and who will tell you bluntly when necessary: it’s a trap! It’s a huge advantage…

So, what are you waiting for? Why not ask someone to be your spiritual Admiral Ackbar today?

A Major Announcement!

Dear Readers,

After a few years now in Rome, some circumstances have accumulated that have led to my conclusion that God has given it to me to start a small lay movement, based here in the City. It will be for Anglophone lay men to organize themselves for the sake of common prayer, works of service, and fellowship. The idea is loosely based on a group that was run here by St. Phillip Neri, before he was a priest.

It is called The Oratorio.

Today, we are launching a fundraiser, which you can access HERE.

The short promotional video is also posted below. Thank you for any contribution you can make – financial or spiritual. I am more than happy to answer any questions you might have about the group. Please pass the GoFundMe page along to anyone you think would be interested in being a part of this journey right from the start.

God bless you,
-Eamonn Clark, STL
President of the Oratorio

“I no longer call you servants…”

Eamonn Clark, STL

Here’s a one-minute Gospel reflection for you today.

We read the Parable of the Wedding Feast at Mass…

The one who shows up without a wedding garment is rejected in the following way:

“How did you get in here, my friend, without a wedding garment?” And the man was silent. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and throw him out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.

The Last Supper Discourses in John give us the great “turn” from servile fear to filial or reverential fear, acknowledged by Christ in the words (John 15:15), “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

We know that Judas is among them. Now watch (Matthew 26: 48-50):

Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”

Friend. Where is your wedding garment? How did you get in here? I can no longer even call you a servant. You do not know the gift of the Eucharist, you do not know my love, you do not know the Church. You have no virtue, no love for me. You have no wedding garment, you bring the world in with you instead of purity. Friend… The darkness and pain which you lead me to this terrible night, you yourself will experience forever. If only you had loved me… You have not learned what my Father has given me to teach. Friend… You will indeed taste the Eucharist, as your lips touch my sacred Blood pouring already from my face. But it is to your shame. You are not prepared for the Banquet… Friend… Friend…

Just as David wept for Absalom, so does Christ sorrow over every soul that is lost, even the most wicked. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33)

He is always a Friend to us… Even if we are far from Him, He is always close to us.

Some Quick Thoughts on “Vocation”

Eamonn Clark, STL

The fullest I have ever seen a very large church, other than the papal basilicas for a major event, was this past autumn in Naples. I had intended to pay a visit to this particular church, but I did not know it was the feast of a saint entombed there. The church was the Gesù Nuovo, and the saint was Giuseppe Moscati.

It was more than standing room only. Packed to the walls.

The Gesù Nuovo is a perplexing structure. On the outside, it looks a bit like a Communist library. But on the inside, as you can see, it reminds one of the Lateran or some similarly impressive church. One might be somewhat inclined to say the same of Giuseppe Moscati – a man who “on the outside” did not “look” the way saints normally appear, but who nonetheless was burning with charity. For those who aren’t aware, Giuseppe Moscati was not a priest or a religious. He was not a hermit, and he was not even particularly involved in ecclesiastical affairs. He was a medical doctor and researcher. And here was his path to sanctification… While he was a miracle worker, he was holy because of his love of God and of souls, which love was made manifest by running hospitals, conducting medical research, and so forth.

The impetus for sharing this example and the following thoughts is a recent article in Crux on the alleged non-existence of the “vocation to the single life.” I found the analysis good in the sense of pointing out the issues with the idea of being “called to remain as one is” and the problems one might find therein (ranging from self-deprecating despair at “being left out” to presumptive self-indulgence in “not committing”), but lacking in the way of distinctions and context. I think we want to say that St. Giuseppe Moscati had a vocation, but we also want to make it clear what that actually means.

I would like then to offer a paradigm, based on Thomistic principles, for understanding what a “vocation” is, and also opine briefly how one can “discern” that vocation.

What is a vocation? It seems we can distinguish between two genera of vocations: to be something, and to do something. I’ve asked many kids what they want to be when they grow up – and the standard answers follow. Never has one of them said, “a spouse,” or “a parent,” until after I ask about that. Then they all agree, if they are old enough, “Yes, well of course, but I wasn’t thinking about that.” Leaving aside the troubling fact that family life is just presumed without a thought by so many youth, it is also unfortunate that there is no training in kids (or even adults) to think of what to be rather than what to do. As the old adage goes, agere sequitur esse – doing follows being. Until a thing exists in such-and-such a way, it will not be able to do such-and-such an action. Fish cannot ride bicycles, orchids cannot play the violin, and something that does not exist cannot do anything at all. (As obvious as this may seem, its relevance cannot be overstated today – think especially about what men and women can and cannot do because of what they are respectively.)

A “vocation of being” is a call from God to enter a certain state of life, such as marriage or priesthood. In the strict sense, one who enters into a state of life has then fulfilled that vocation – the call is answered, and the vocation ceases insofar as the movement towards “being” is complete. One now is a spouse, or a priest, or a religious… So such a person only “has a vocation” in the sense that he or she was called to become what he or she now is.

The question is now before us. What about “single life”? Well, using the word in the strict sense, a person who is already single cannot be “called” to remain single, insofar as there is no invitation to change from being one thing to being another; rather, if God simply wants such a person to stay as he or she is, that’s that. In some cases, God may indeed want a single person to take certain vows and enter a consecrated state, but maybe not all. It is true that Giuseppe Moscati did take a vow of chastity, and this does change what one is in a certain sense (making one “sacred” in a way) but he was not thereby enrolled in any special order or society. The Saint simply already was otherwise in the right state of life.

There are people who do not have a vocation to religious life, or to marriage, or to Holy Orders, or to the Orders of Virgins, Widows, or any other special kind of consecrated single life. And there are even people who should not take a private vow of chastity, despite all that, unlike Giuseppe Moscati. Sometimes, such a person has a very good reason not to “commit” to such a state, whether spiritual or natural. Other times, one might have tried to enter consecrated single life and been turned away by the local bishop or by one’s spiritual director, whether for good reasons or not. So it is very important not to assume that such individuals are just being selfish, lazy, or inconstant, even if some are. They have no vocation of being, except to keep being what they already are – but this is like inviting someone to a table he is already sitting at… It doesn’t really make sense to speak in such a way.

The “vocation of doing” is the work which one’s vocation of being (or state of life once attained) is ordered towards that God wants one to do. The priest is a pastor, or a hospital chaplain, or a professor in a seminary. The husband and father is an electrician, a grocer, a banker. Etc. Giuseppe Moscati’s vocation of doing was clearly that of medicine. In this sense, he had a vocation, full stop. And so does everyone who has the capacity for any kind of work have a vocation of this sort; we must at least invest in the profit of our own souls with our time and energy, even if we do not multiply what we have been given in great quantities through much prayer and preaching; or at least that is one plausible way to read the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30).

Well then, now that we have clarified a bit what we mean by “vocation,” how does one “figure it out”? I would suggest that “figuring it out” is actually the fundamental problem with the mindset that often surrounds this topic, with men and women both. If one scans the vast literature on the subject, one will encounter two realities: first, this literature is all very recent. Second, this literature typically urges one to “go do stuff” in order to “discern” one’s vocation. I propose that the latter is a function of the former. And, to be clear, I do not mean to suggest that one should not read such books, or that they are “bad,” but I do want to say that they should be seen in the context of the broader history of the treatment of this subject. (In fact, I profited myself quite a bit from one very popular “discernment” book, and then the author became my spiritual director for a year – it was great!)

We are in a hyper-informed society. You are reading this blog post because you were on some other website and saw a link, or someone emailed this to you, or you were scrolling through tags on WordPress and saw it; despite what I would like to imagine, not many people are checking my website directly. You might go on from here to check the daily news, watch a DIY video on YouTube, scroll through some other social media, then maybe look at some product reviews on Amazon… etc. Until recently in human history, that would be considered a pretty extraordinary amount of “non-human” information to collect and process. 100 years ago, to read the daily newspaper was sufficient. 1,000 years ago, only the most highly educated were really reading books at all, and to own more than a few volumes would have been rare indeed… one’s personal reading schedule would have been extremely minimal by today’s standards.

But the medievals had time to think about what they were reading. There was no pressure to hurry up and get on to the next thing. After all, you might only get this one chance to read St. Augustine’s Confessions – as there is only one copy in the university (unless you are up for copying it by hand, which was regularly done by students) – so you had better make it count, and the pace of work would have reflected this reality.

What does any of this have to do with vocational discernment? Well, of the few books that people were reading in the “good old days,” manuals on “how to discern your vocation” were not among them, at least to my knowledge. Sure, there are some lines in the Fathers and some nice quotations from various saints that have been around a long time, but I would suppose that there were no dedicated manuscripts until somewhat recently, at least after St. Ignatius of Loyola, and then things only really seem to have started moving along in the last 100 years or so. Maybe I am wrong – let me know in the comments – but it seems that if there is some substantial text that I am unaware of, it is probably somewhat obscure.

Anyway, the point is that the idea that to “discern” one needs to go visit this or that place, have this or that experience, pray in such-and-such a way, talk with these people and those people, then even try out the life for a while and see if it’s a good fit… Maybe this is not always the best approach. Sure, it is necessary to know at least something about what the options are, what one is getting into, and to make sure it is realistic, but here’s the center of the problem – someone who is actively living the Faith usually already has a lot of information. What is typically needed more is a moment to process that information, not add to it! The question simply should be, does x make sense in my life right now, or could it make sense in the foreseeable future? For example, a man who is visiting a seminary already has a “sign” that he should enter formation – of all the things he could be doing today, somehow his life has led him here. Does it make sense that he should turn around and go in some other direction? Maybe… but there should be a very good reason.

This brings me to a final consideration. It concerns the question of celibacy. (See my post on practical ways to improve in chastity here.) The young person – and sometimes even someone a bit older – will have this question in some version or other: “Can I really do that?”

Not unlike the foregoing, the basic way to “figure it out” is to ask what one’s life already consists of and what it realistically could consist of in the foreseeable future. Basically, an unmarried person who somewhat easily overcomes temptations against the 6th Commandment and lives chastity with pleasure should assume that he or she has the gift to remain unmarried; if this state is “within reach,” then work should be done to achieve it. This is simply the principle underlying the admonition of Christ, reiterated by St. Paul, that those who can remain unmarried should do so… The celibate state, if lived rightly, is an aid both to contemplation and to active ministry – but especially to contemplation. (More on that in an upcoming post.) If one can begin to live Heaven on Earth, without driving Himself into Hell through pride or despair (which can come on their own or as reactions to opposite ways of dealing with neuroses rooted in going “too far” in perfection) then he or she should. Why throw away the gift if you have it? Don’t bury the talent.