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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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.

The future glory of our bodies

Eamonn Clark, STL

In my License thesis (on socialism and how it is so very unlike Christian charity), I had a small section on the gifts of the resurrection. Why? Well, in the context of my essay I wanted to show how the various socialist action-items are not only fulfilled but surpassed in Heaven… instead of merely recovering Eden and its preternatural gifts, which we cannot do, we get something even better. I would suppose that not many people even know that there are such gifts in the resurrection; and I know for a fact that many people struggle with this seemingly strange doctrine in the first place, namely, that after we die, our flesh will in fact be reanimated when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. So, in this post, I will go through a few points: first, the basic doctrine and its metaphysical fittingness; second, why this doctrine is so important and is actually much easier to believe than it appears; and third, a very short description of and reflection on the gifts of the resurrection.

The Article of Faith – gravely binding upon the conscience, to be believed by anyone taking the name of Christian – is stated in the Creed: “I believe . . . in the resurrection of the body.” This doctrine has extremely sound Scriptural foundations, in the Old Testament, in the Gospels, and in the Epistles, especially in the preaching of Paul (including in Acts). We will limit ourselves to mentioning only a few passages. First, the Vision of the Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37. Second, the dialogue of Christ with the Sadducees in Matthew 22. Third, Paul’s preaching in 1 Corinthians 15. This list could be multiplied… It is a clear doctrine of Sacred Scripture. This eschatological hope was implanted too in those true believing Jews from of old – as we see from the words of Martha in John 11:24 before her brother Lazarus is raised – and the doctrine was taught very firmly in the early Church by the Fathers. The doctrine means that when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, the souls of the dead will receive their flesh again and have biological life, just like Jesus did – and just like those who rose with Him and appeared to people in the Holy City of Jerusalem. (We forget about that incident – we shouldn’t. Nobody would make this stuff up. See Matthew 27:52-53.)

The general resurrection makes sense of the reality of the human being. The immortality of the soul is demonstrable from natural reason; in short, the immaterial powers of the soul (the intellect and will) cannot come from the body and therefore cannot be destroyed by the body’s corruption. But we are more than souls, we are a body-soul composite. We are not souls trapped in bodies, ghosts condemned to dwell in a puppet-like mechanism until we finally escape… We most certainly do not become angels, which are beings who never had flesh and never will. No, we are really made from the dust of the Earth, as Genesis 2 teaches, and so the body is a good thing made by a Good God which is integral to what we are. The Manichaeans, the Albigensians, and the Buddhists are wrong. So, it seems appropriate that God would want to give us our bodies for eternity, seeing as He bothered to give them to us in the first place. Finally, we are what we eat – and if we are receiving the Lord in the Eucharist, which is Him in the Resurrection, well, we are united already with Him in this way. It is the “pledge of future glory” which the prayer “O Sacrum Convivium” speaks of…

So much for the doctrine. Why is it so easy to believe? First, God never lies and is never confused. Fair enough – to believe God is the fundamental aspect of faith – but what is there to help us “grip onto” this teaching? Well, the same God Who teaches it gave us the reassurance of it by His own Resurrection. He also raised up His dear Mother – who makes appearances, sometimes to large crowds, such as at Pontmain or Fatima.

On a theoretical level, it is “easier” to raise the dead than to create a new human. We have grown so familiar with the latter that it seems utterly boring, but the truth is that it is an utterly “strange” thing: the soul is made from nothing by an act of pure power, while blind matter is organized by a complex process into a body with the disposition to receive that soul. In short, God makes the new human when there was no human. At the resurrection, God makes something from something only; He takes the parts and puts them back together. He did it the first time without you existing at all, so why is it so hard for Him to do it when you already exist? It’s not. It’s “easier,” even, though all things are easy for God.

Finally, a short description and reflection on the gifts of the resurrection, which are derived from what we know of Christ’s glorified and risen Body. If God is going to raise up our bodies, certainly these strange and wonderful things are no difficulty at all for Him. First, immortality (or impassibility). This speaks for itself… We will no longer be subject to death or bodily corruption of any kind. Second, subtlety (or subtility). Just like Christ, Who appeared in the Upper Room when the doors were locked, our bodies will no longer be bound by physical barriers. Third, agility. Again, like Christ, we can appear here and there quickly. Fourth, clarity. Like the “pre-vision” of the Risen Christ in the Transfiguration, our bodies will be filled with light (like Moses’ face, which needed to be veiled – or like other saints who had such luminescence, which phenomenon makes sense of the “halo”).

We will be less like dust from which our bodies were made, more like air; closer to God, further from the ground from which we will rise. We will be powerful and glorious, not only in spirit but in body. Nothing will hold us back… nothing will contain the joy of our soul, not even the natural limitations of “normal” bodily life. Having surpassed mere “bios,” the life of the body, we will be living in full “zoe,” the life of the spirit, fully subjecting the body to that happiness and conformity with the Will of God in which we will find our constant delight and peace. We will be completely free in our total selves.

The Trinity Matters: Relations of Origin

Eamonn Clark, STL

See Part 1 here – it is really hard to jump in without at least seeing Part 1 (Question 27).

We are looking now at Question 28. Article 1 regards the question of whether there are real relations in God (there are); Article 2 is about whether the relations are the Divine Essence (they are); Article 3 is on the distinction of the relations between each other (they are really distinct); Article 4 asks whether there are four relations, namely, paternity, filiation, spiration, and procession (there are only these four).

Article 1 has a clear opponent, as stated in the “sed contra”: Sabellianism. If there are not real relations in God, then there are only relations in our way of understanding God. That would mean God only “appears” as Father, or as Son, or as Holy Spirit, depending on how we encounter God, but that God is not actually these Three in reality. But what does it mean for there to be relations in God, Who is absolutely simple, with no parts whatsoever? This is the point of Article 1… it’s not a simple text, so let’s go through it carefully.

The first thing that is done is to describe what exactly “relation” is to begin with. Nerds will recall that relation is one of the 9 genera of accidents set forth in Aristotle’s Categories, the others being quantity, quality, habitus, time, location, situation, action, and passion. Relation is that which signifies regard to another. The stone has a relation with the Earth (or rather with bodies in general), which is its inclination to move towards the center. The son has a real relation to his father, but not to a tree, at least not in the same way (procession of the same nature – man from man… there is a kind of relation by position as well, or by action and passion, such as being on this side of a tree, or touching the tree, etc., but this kind of relation more “formal” than “accidental” – but we are getting ahead of ourselves). The man also has a relation to animality (that is, “animal-ness” as an idea, or as a genus), which is that he is a part of that genus. This is a logical relation, not a real relation, because the genus as such does not even exist really except in its individual instantiations, like in “this animal.” So it is something which the mind does – it pulls apart these ideas and compares them. This is quite unlike the man in relation to his father, or the stone in relation to the Earth – these are relations inherent in the things themselves, and thus they are real relations. The Persons have (or are) real relations because the Son and the Holy Spirit proceed from principles of the same nature (the Divine Essence), which is analogous to the man and his father who generated the other man who is his son (both are men). The Son is really from the Father, and the Holy Spirit is really from the Father and the Son. It’s not just a way of speaking.

The Objections are difficult, but worth a shot.

Objection 1 quotes Boethius’ De Trinitate (a strikingly short but rather dense text), where he seems to deny relation in God. Thomas makes a fine distinction developed out of the body of the answer (which, to be honest, seems to depart a bit from Aristotle… but I digress and am probably wrong anyway). Relation exists in God in a way that is not “inherently towards something else” (viz., creatures), but only denotes “regard to another,” viz., one Person with respect to another Person. This is unlike creatures in relation to God, and unlike mere logical relations which only exist in our way of thinking.

Objection 2 again quotes Boethius, saying that God’s relations are relations of “the same to the same,” but since “the same” is only a logical relation (because we have to create a mental image of a thing being related to itself in order to grasp the idea), it seems that only logical relations exist in God. Well, of course, Boethius himself is not looking to deny real relations in God, and Thomas distinguishes between that which is absolutely and numerically the same and that which is the same according to a genus or species. In this “genus,” God, there are three Persons, related in a certain sense like three men – there are three, but they are all “man,” which is one specific substance, or all “animal,” which is one generic substance. Of course, the difference with the Trinity is that there is only one God numerically (unlike with the three men who are three persons), so the comparison is only partial.

Objection 3 compares and contrasts God’s relation to creatures (which is only a logical relation, as God in no way depends on creatures and exists totally “apart” from them, perfectly subsistent in Himself) and the Father to the Son. The Father and the Son are of the same Divine Nature, unlike creation, so it is a real relation between Them.

Objection 4 is maybe the most interesting. If logical relations are those which only exist in the mind, and the Word is generated by the Divine Intellect, how is there anything but a logical relation? Well, logical relations exist by observation, not by procession. The intellect is real, that which comes from it is also real, so there is real relation between them, just like between a father and a son – or in this case, the Father and the Son.

The question posed by Article 2 sounds bizarre but is quite important for us to consider: are relations in God the same as His Essence? The short answer is, yes. We “adore the distinction of the Persons, and the Equality of Their Majesty,” as the Church’s liturgy teaches us.

The controversy that this Article takes on was all the rage at the time, if I recall correctly. Is the Father “paternal” because of the Son (viz., “Look! This Divine Person has a Son, so He has the quality of paternity from His Son!”), or is the Father “paternal” in Himself (viz. “Look! That is the Father! He must have a Son!”)? Gilbert de la Porrée said the former, Thomas says the latter; Gilbert later retracted his position at Rheims, as Thomas notes.

The Cathedral at Rheims.

There are two ways a relation can be predicated of something (meaning “said” of something). The first way is the way Gilbert exclusively considered… The dog bites the cat, so the dog is in a “biting” relation to the cat, and the cat is in a “bitten” relation to the dog; this is the most formal kind of relation, but it is not the real accident of relation. The accident of relation actually inheres in (or exists in) the subject, like the father’s paternity (“father-ness”) exists in him because of his real relation to his son (by a procession of the same nature – man from man). But God has no accidents in Himself due to His perfect simplicity, so whatever is predicated of God is the same as God, so what would normally be an accidental real relation would be an essential or substantial relation after the manner of an accidental relation. (Confused yet? Take a deep breath and buckle up.) So too, the way a father is related to his son is that of a procession of the same nature which inheres in the father and in the son with regard to each other, viz., a real relation inhering in the subject insofar as it regards another. However, unlike creatures, not only does God not have a real relation to whatever is not God, but God also does not change, and so His Persons are those specific unchanging Persons from all eternity, in all their distinct Personalities – the Father is Father always, and the Son is Son always. So paternity and filiation (“sonship”) do not “happen” but are eternal, therefore inherent to the Father and Son respectively, and therefore are not affixed or “assistant” as a result of some relation. (NB: I am going a bit beyond what Thomas says here.) In the end, the relations are therefore actually what God is Himself in His Persons, though not in His Essence when considered apart from the Persons. What this means is that to know the Divine relations (paternity, filiation, spiration, and procession) is to know the Divine Persons, which is to know the Divine Essence (though the Persons may be spoken of as such rather than as the Divine Essence “in general”), but to know the Divine Essence is insufficient for natural reason (without revelation) to know the relations and the Persons, because to know the Divine Essence from reason alone (without faith) is not to know that there are opposing terms within the Divine Essence (which are signified by the relations).

Objection 1 develops this last point about the Divine Essence and relations being spoken of independently; the relations are the Divine Essence, but they are not spoken of under the mode of substance, as this would imply a relation improper to Divine Simplicity, namely, one unlike a relation of the three men to each other in their nature as men in the relevant sense (identity), more like a stone in relation to the Earth.

Objection 2 sounds more complex than it really is. In creatures, relation exists within the creature, and the creature is more than the relation it possesses (the dog is more than its “biting-ness,” the father is more than the father of his son, the stone is more than its character of being drawn toward the Earth, etc.). In God, this is not so – the relation is the same as the Substance, which is God. But the descriptor “relation” does not exhaust the mystery of what God is – nor is “relation” even used in the normal way, as we have seen.

Objection 3 follows upon the preceding Objection and says that even though relation signifies in some real way what God is, this is not everything that God is (which would be a problem for His perfection, as it would mean God exists in relation to something else entirely, thus not being Self-subsistent and fully actual). God contains all perfections within Himself, as He is their source.

Onto Article 3, a short one which is taking on Sabellianism yet again. This might be one of if not the most important Articles in the entire Treatise. If the relations are all really the Divine Essence (God), wouldn’t they all actually be themselves the same? No, says Boethius, says Thomas, and says the Church. How?

The argument is simple. We have established that there are real relations in God, which have “regard to another.” We have established that the terms of these relations are opposed to one another by the logic of procession (the Intellect generates the Word, the Will spirates the Holy Spirit), which means that there is real relation, as already discussed in Question 27 and the last post in this series. To have real relations means to have opposing terms – a real “from where,” and a real “where to,” so to speak, as we see in processions, including interior processions (i.e. the thought I have of myself is not actually myself). The key is this: that which is really opposed necessarily implies a real distinction. Just as “left” is really distinct from “right,” so too is Intellect distinct from Word, and Will distinct from Love/Spirit/Gift (more on the Names of the Holy Spirit later). The terms are opposed, therefore they are really distinct, while still being contained within the same Substance, viz., God. There’s the Mystery: the fact that there is within this single and perfectly simple Substance, God, a collection of oppositions, thus allowing for real distinctions within God. Three Whos, One What.

The Objections are basically clarifications of this point, so we leave them aside, though they are worth a read.

We’re almost done. Article 4 is asking whether there are only four relations in God – paternity, filiation, spiration, and procession. This Article is curious in that it does not have a “sed contra” but only an opposing wrong answer proposed in the final Objection (5), which, unlike the first four Objections that propose more than four relations, instead argues that there are fewer.

There are only these four relations. Relation can be based either on quantity (like double and half) or based on an action/passion (doing/receiving action, like the dog biting the cat, or even like the human father generating his son who receives being from him). There is no quantity in the Divine Essence, as God is infinite Being. So, the relations must be action/passion. They are the acts of the interior processions, of course, which have already been described: the Intellect generating the Word, and the Will spirating the Holy Spirit. Now, the relations are described “from both ends” as it were – from the origin and the final term (the “beginning” and “end”). It’s clear with the Father and the Son: paternity and filiation. With the Holy Spirit, there is no “normal” vocabulary, so we designate the relation of the principle of the Holy Spirit (the Father and the Son) as “spiration” and the relation of the Holy Spirit to His principle as “procession.”

Objection 1 is worth a look. The argument is that the relation between a mind and its object is a real relation (as with the will and its object which it loves, so the following argument holds also for the Holy Spirit) because they are really different things. So it seems that there are more than four relations in God. But since God is knowing and loving God, the Divine Intellect and Will are the same as their objects (and therefore only logically distinct and logically related, like the way anything is “related to itself”). How then, can there be such diversity in these acts (knowing and loving) as to allow for real relations? Well, the Word is in a real relation by the opposition found in intelligible and interior procession, as described previously… The Word is that by which God understands Himself, which has the real relation, real opposition, and real distinction spoken of earlier, even though the Word is also the Divine Essence, the object of understanding. As described above, the key is the real distinction that is allowed for by the opposition of terms – intellect and word – which leads us to this strange but coherent “both/and” with the Word being both not the object of understanding but the concept by which the object is understood insofar as He is the Word, and as the object of understanding which is God Himself, the Divine Essence.

Objections 2 through 4 deal with some other errors about what counts as relation in God. Objection 5 is our last stop. Isn’t there only one relation between the Father and the Son, a paternal-filial relation? Just as there is one road between Athens and Thebes, it seems there is only this one relation between the Father and the Son. However, we already see the problem in the proposed name for this single relation (which is my own invention, mind you): there are two parts. The human son is not father to his own father, nor is the father son to his own son. While one takes a single road from Athens to Thebes and from Thebes to Athens, you go northwest and southeast respectively. You could say, however, that some things have this “absolute” mutual relation, perhaps like numbers, though we leave this discussion aside. The point is that to describe filiation is not to describe paternity, and this also applies to the spiration-procession relations which are between the Holy Spirit and the Father and the Son.

Whew. We made it. Next time, we finally answer the burning question: what exactly is a person anyway?

There is no such thing as an “internet atheist”

Eamonn Clark, STL

The other day I happened across a video of a well-known scientist (Lawrence Krauss) who also frequently engages in discussions about religion. I marveled at the shallowness and predictability of his talking points… “Science tells us everything now!” Hmm. “Define your own meaning in life!” Okay, got it. “Nobody really believes in this stuff, at least in the First World!” Ugh… where’s the science there? “Bronze Age myths!” Alright then. “Compassion and logic-based morality!” Yup, sure.

He went on and on. Childish, frustrating, and boring. Most of all, tragically ironic. As folks like this use their otherwise brilliant minds to describe how awe-inspiring the universe is with all its complexities and all its mysteries which have yet to be unlocked, they don’t ever seem to realize that the possibility of doing that can’t explain itself. The “self” is not an empirical datum, nor is intelligibility.

I thought about doing a line-by-line summary of the video, breaking down how incredibly wrongheaded almost each and every point was, but it occurred to me that not only would this take an inordinate amount of time (as there are just so many things wrong!) but that a better point might be made instead.

In my younger years, I would have been eager to rush down into the comboxes of such videos (or of other platforms) and try to wrestle with the people who are busy cheering on such things like so: “He’s such a freethinker!” “God is Santa Claus for adults!” “This is the most logical thing ever spoken by a human being,” etc. Today, while I do engage in a bit of textual dialogue with unbelievers, I don’t go into the comboxes very much at all anymore. The problem, it seems, is not only with the mindset that internet atheists bring to the arena, it’s precisely that I as a believer and apologist have a tendency to see them as “internet atheists” in an “arena.”

It’s possible to be on amicable terms with someone hiding behind a screen name, but it is not really possible to be friends. Someone who is really hyped up on the “New Atheist” ideology might indeed be a nice person “IRL” (in real life), but as a keyboard warrior, he will usually not be. He will tend to be as smug as a bug and ready to joust aggressively with any believer who dares question the “dogmatic non-dogmas” of the New Atheism. The one who ventures to ask subtle questions about causation or the roots of intelligibility, for instance, will be met with the standard polemical tropes about “the God of the gaps” and “metaphysical mumbo jumbo” and “empirical observation and logic” and what have you, with maybe an f-bomb or two thrown in for good measure. The cleverest ones will bring up Kant.

Anyway, that’s half the problem. The other side is that the bait is taken at all. The believer who wanders into the combox to pose pointed questions will be pounced on – which may then provoke an equal and opposite reaction. Observe:

“You can be moral without God.” “What does morality really mean without a lawgiver?” “So you just obey a monster who punishes you for looking at girls? I wouldn’t want to worship such a God.” “Look at how bad the Communists were in the last century! That’s what atheism does! How is that moral?!” “Stop cherry-picking. How about all those pedophiles at church?”

And so it goes. More and more aggression until it is little more than name-calling.

What’s the solution? Well, whatever it is, it will involve either creating an open space online for sincere dialogue for those who actually want to have it (which is difficult), or actually getting people “AFK” (away from keyboard) and seeing them “IRL” as real people with flesh and blood, with memories, desires, families, and souls (which can also be difficult though in a different way). In the case of the disciples of the New Atheists and their ideology, as with most people, the obstacles to belief frequently lie in large part in the will, not only the intellect. They have sensed something bad about the Catholic Faith – or religion in general – and/or sensed something good about their ideology. Maybe it was the people… it was probably the people, or at least this probably factored in somehow. The first “missionary” step then would consist in being a neighbor to one’s friend by having discussions on important things in sincerity and truth, rather than trying to “own” an opponent on Reddit. Many arguments are won at the price of losing souls.

There is no such thing as an “internet atheist.” There are only people.

P.S. – I offer my own combox here for inquisitive unbelievers… Have at it, friends!