The Contraception Post…

Eamonn Clark, STL

People say that the Church is “obsessed with sex.” This is only half-true. People are obsessed with sex, and the Church is obsessed with people. Given that the great majority of souls which are lost carry sexual sins with them, and are even lost on account of those sins, it is worth addressing here one of the more common kinds of such wrongdoing – the use of contraception.

In this post, I will explain the following items:

  1. The difference between natural and unnatural sexual vice
  2. The moral significance of unnatural vice, especially contraception
  3. Why periodic continence (“NFP”) is not contraception
  4. The effects of contraception on the individual soul
  5. The effects of contraception on marriages
  6. The effects of contraception on society
  7. The effects of certain contraceptives on one’s physical health
  8. The infallible character of the Church’s teaching on contraception
  9. How to confess the use of contraception
  10. Remedies for those struggling with contraception

Hopefully, this will be a helpful guide for couples, married or unmarried, and for clergy who are responsible for teaching, preaching, and counseling on these important matters. As you can tell by the length, it is thorough.

The difference between natural and unnatural sexual vice

In moral theology, an act is called “natural” if it aligns with the God-given purpose of a particular faculty which one possesses. For example, it would be natural to communicate the truth by speaking to another through signs or symbols. The faculty of communication is ordered towards this end – we have the gift of the power to express thoughts through language in order to pursue the truth in a community. If this gift is reordered to undermine the pursuit of truth, it is called lying. Lying is an unnatural act, a perversion of the order found in the faculty of communication. We have the capability to use language precisely so that we can express what is in our mind; thus, every lie, which distorts this, is a sin, however slight it may be in some cases. (Deceptive language is its own separate discussion requiring some distinctions – I did a post on this a while ago. But we will return to this analogy with language later.)

Another example is digestion. Something like what one sees in that scene at the party in Hunger Games 2 is a kind of perversion… Eat until you’re full, then make yourself throw up so you can go on eating – it is about the pleasures of the experience to the exclusion of fulfilling the purpose of the faculty being used. In fact, one guarantees that the purpose of the faculty will not be achieved by an act of the will which interrupts the order itself. In this case, one is taking food out of oneself which is suitable for consumption, simply for the pleasures of having more food. With dishonest communication, one is using words which do not signify what is in one’s mind to deceive another.

The power to reproduce is also a faculty. The sexual organs are not body parts with a wide range of legitimate uses, unlike the hand or the foot. There is a clear purpose for them, without which they would not make any biological sense. Nature would not provide organs which are merely there for useless pleasures. Just as communication benefits the community and individual as rational, and just as the digestive faculty benefits the individual as physical, so too does the sexual faculty benefit the community as physical. Eating keeps the body alive, reproduction keeps the human race alive. The former is important, but the latter is even more important.

Natural sexual vice (“natural vice” from here on out) is therefore easily distinguished from unnatural sexual vice (“unnatural vice”). Natural vice is the sort which is not a use of the sexual faculty whereby reproduction is essentially impeded by an act of the will. Unnatural vice is the opposite – something is intentionally done whereby the sexual faculty is integrally unable to achieve its fundamental purpose, namely, the conception of new human life.

Natural vice essentially reduces to extramarital relations. Various characteristics which have a special quality in relation to reason change the act from being mere fornication to being adultery (marriage), rape (violence), sacrilege (consecrated person), incest (family relation), and so on. This kind of act is seriously immoral principally on account of the danger to the potential child, who is owed the stability of a father and mother committed to each other for life. This evil is compounded by whatever special harm is done due to other circumstances.

Unnatural vice includes all those sorts of sexual acts which of themselves, according to their character, cannot produce a child. This includes masturbation, homosexual activity, immoderate/dishonest foreplay (or similar behavior), and contraceptive activity. It also includes more “extreme” behaviors, such as zoophilia (animals) and necrophilia (corpses) – which are perhaps more common vices than people might think, especially among certain populations.

Pedophilia is its own strange phenomenon which sits somewhat in between unnatural and natural vice as a condition, but as an act it is either unnatural due to its homosexual character or is simply a particularly bad kind of natural vice if it be heterosexual. This is notwithstanding the fact of the infertility of a child – infertility is an accidental characteristic of the act, not an essential one, as will be explored more below.

It is true that some factors outside of one’s control could contribute to desires to engage in unnatural vice, especially the way one is raised and educated in morals. Anyone who struggles with unnatural vice – which is the vast majority of adults in the developed world – is called to repentance and reform. When deliberately indulged in by those who basically understand what the sexual faculty is (i.e. not small children or those with severe mental illness), unnatural vice is mortal sin, thus excluding one from the life of grace and ultimately from Heaven should one fail to repent adequately before death. These people are, nonetheless, still to be treated as human beings who are loved by Christ; this is, of course, why they are called to repentance and reform in the first place. Those who have an abnormally strong and persistent drive towards entirely perverse matter (i.e. persons of the same sex, animals, corpses, etc.) must recognize that this is a cross which they must take up and carry. They cannot licitly act on this desire, ever.

Unnatural vice is categorically more perverse sexual activity, and thus worse as sexual sin, than natural vice, despite individual acts in the latter category being potentially worse as sins. (For instance, a married man forcibly violating his sister who is a nun would rightly be seen as a worse sin than a 14-year-old boy abusing himself as a result of a pornography addiction.) The reason unnatural vice is worse overall as sexual vice is that it entirely reorders the sexual faculty away from its God-given purpose. In natural vice, there is some element that is not a characteristic of the sexual act itself which renders the act immoral; in other words, it is something “not sexual” that makes this sexual act a sin.

The moral significance of unnatural vice, especially contraception

There seems to be a general sense among Westerners that we are all basically okay. Christianity teaches us that this is not true – actually, we are all basically broken. Understanding the significance of original sin is the key to understanding the reality of personal sin. One must know the bad news of our helplessness in the face of sin and death – and the subsequent fairness of eternal damnation – in order to contextualize the Good News of the possibility of new life in Christ, and thus the need for redemption in the first place. It does not seem that Our Lord is optimistic about the possibility of the great majority of people saving their souls. Quite the opposite, in fact: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

This point helps us to orient the conversation around discipleship, which is always a conscious choice. The developed world actively urges lifestyles and values which are utterly opposed to the dictates of the Gospels. Unnatural vice is one of the big ones.

True, very few people have a tolerance for the more extreme behaviors listed, but by sanctioning behaviors in the same genus they can no longer reasonably condemn the related species. What they have left is mere emotional revulsion. It makes no sense to argue that contraception or sodomy is acceptable but that fooling around with a dog is not, unless one reduces the question entirely to the realm of active rational consent. This reduction involves a complete rejection of the principle that the precise part of human nature at issue informs the morality of its use, which in turn calls into question the role of human nature in general as a foundation for understanding all morality; that is to say, if morality is just about consent in regard to sexual matters, why is consent not the basis for all morality? This is a broader and deeper discussion than can be had here in detail, but suffice it to say that God creates us, including our bodies, with powers for particular purposes, and those purposes are the way we pursue flourishing, so long as they are subjected to and rightly ordered toward higher goods of the intellect and will (viz., the pursuit of truth and friendship). Human nature teaches us how to be happy, with the desires of our lower powers being at the service of our higher powers, not the other way around. We can obviously consent to bad things being done to us – for instance, we can consent to be killed by another.

Unnatural vice, including contraception, reorders a great gift of God away from the purpose for which God designed it. Imagine a father who gives his son a very expensive new car. The son is very happy to have the car. He puts it in neutral and then pushes it off a cliff. He thought to himself, “I just want to see how it would fall and crash. It gave me pleasure. And it’s my car, so I can do what I want with it.” The father would undoubtedly be very offended at such an abuse of the gift he gave to his son, no? That’s because he gave his son that gift for a particular purpose – to drive around in, not to push it off a cliff.

The stakes are indeed much higher when it comes to human generation, and the One Who gives the gift is the Almighty Creator. To abuse the sexual faculty for its associated pleasures is like pushing the car off the cliff, but much, much worse: the car is just about the son’s personal flourishing, while the sexual faculty is not only about our personal flourishing but also about the continued existence of humanity.

No doubt, other people will be having kids, and the practitioner of unnatural vice may also eventually procreate. This is sometimes presented as a counter-argument. There are several problems with this. First, this sidesteps the primary problem, which is that a faculty is being perverted. It does no good to protest that other sons will drive cars given by their fathers, or that he can carpool, or that he can buy another car – this car was given to this son by his father, and it was given to this son to drive. Second, unnatural vice spreads by social contagion and has accompanying bad effects in society. We will explore this more later.

Unlike with a vice like autoeroticism (and then only to some degree), no excuse can be made in terms of a lack of deliberation in the use of contraception. Taking the proper understanding of “how babies are made” for granted, the use of any sort of contraceptive implies an understanding of what one is doing vis-à-vis the sexual faculty: voluntary sterilization. There is likewise always some delay between the intention of the sexual act and the administering of a contraceptive. Given that one is necessarily aware of the character of one’s action, and that there is always some time to deliberate, it follows that there is never a time when the consensual use of contraception is not mortal sin for both parties. (The case of someone who does not consent to his or her spouse’s use of contraception is different, as Pius XI explains in Casti Connubii, 59 – one can consent to the sexual act without consenting to any artificial impediments to its fertility.)

Why periodic continence (“NFP”) is not contraception

There is a natural rhythm of fertility and infertility in women, and eventually they become infertile. Men, on the other hand, are always fertile unless there is a serious problem with their health. Not long after this was properly understood (around the mid-1800’s) there has been an openness on the part of the Church toward allowing for the use of infertile times in a woman’s cycle to enjoy sexual union and simultaneously to avoid the possibility of having children. This takes for granted that there is both a legitimate reason to avoid having children and a legitimate reason to engage in relations, presumably beyond mere recreation but more so because it is truly needed or is lawfully requested by one’s spouse (a contestable point which I will explore at length at a later date).

The objection is laid down: this amounts to contraception. Instead of using a barrier or a chemical to restrict insemination or ovulation, one simply guarantees infertility by using timing.

The normal response is that the use of periodic continence, or natural family planning (NFP), to avoid conception is that it uses the natural rhythm of the woman and therefore does not constitute a violation of the natural order of procreation. It is not contraceptive to not have relations during some times and to have relations during other times.

This is true, but it is somewhat vague and does not address the underlying suspicion about the intention being the same, namely, to presume upon infertility as a condition for having relations. It is better to point out also that not wanting the faculty to achieve its end and simultaneously predicting its failure to do so is different from intentionally and artificially guaranteeing sterility by removing something natural to the faculty and its organs (i.e. a hysterectomy in view of sterilization) or by adding something which is foreign to that system (i.e. a barrier). In this case, the matter or means of sexual activity is rendered unfit by an act of the will – what was the right object of sexual action is now made improper due to the subversion of that matter’s purpose by the one acting upon it or using it. In other words, everything works rightly in periodic continence: sometimes she is fertile, and sometimes she is not, and it is not immoral to want things to work the way they are meant to. This is very much like what is called a “broad mental reservation,” wherein someone tells a truth hoping to deceive, due to some reasonable motive. This is not a lie – as intentionally telling the truth is not lying. In the contraceptive act, something is made not to work rightly. It’s the “making something not work rightly” while using that thing’s system which makes contraception immoral and leaves periodic continence as a legitimate option. Contraception, then, as we have seen, is like lying. And while some truths are unimportant to communicate, human life does not admit of degrees of importance in the same way – it is always serious.

There are potential misuses of NFP – I alluded to two possible cases (unjustified avoidance of children, merely recreational sexual activity) – but there is only venial sin here. While still immoral, and certainly an occasion of worse sin, it will not kill the soul or be likely of itself to introduce terrible disorders into a marriage or into society. NFP, by the way, can and should also be used as a tool to try to conceive.

The effects of unnatural vice in the individual soul

We naturally have a strong desire to propagate our own species, just like plants and animals. This is outdone only by the natural desire for self-preservation, through eating and shelter and self-defense. But the guilt and stain of original sin is transmitted by physical generation from one human to another. It seems that, as a fitting consequence, we are driven to sexual sin more vehemently than to other sins… it’s almost like original sin is a virus that wants to propagate itself through a manifestation of its effects, just like sneezing or coughing. However, unlike a virus and more like a parasite, original sin is also comfortable with simply afflicting its host. The viral paradigm corresponds to natural vice, and the parasitic paradigm corresponds to unnatural vice.

A virus can certainly kill its subject. But it’s sort of “just business,” as viruses are only quasi-living entities. A parasite kills in a more disturbing way – almost as if it’s personal. It’s a hunter, and you are the prey. Like a parasite, original sin starts to eat away at the interior life of a person engaged in unnatural vice (or any other vice, except natural vice). And it grows stronger as the host grows weaker, like a tapeworm adding new sections over time.

The “daughters of lust” are eight in number. Four afflict the intellect: blindness of mind, rashness, thoughtlessness, and inconstancy. These relate, respectively, to the perception of an end as good, a lack of due consideration of the means to attain the end, a lack of judgment about the rightness of the means, and the mind’s command to carry out the means. Four afflict the will: self-love, hatred of God, love of the world, despair of the next life. These correspond respectively to the end concerned (conversion towards oneself and away from God) and the means (this world, which removes thought of the future world). The worse the vice, the stronger the daughters. Unnatural vice is categorically a worse vice, as it is a worse perversion of human sexuality in itself. Therefore, the daughters will be stronger in the one afflicted by unnatural vice than one who simply fornicates and risks having many children out of wedlock.

The individual who is willing to use contraception is much more likely to be promiscuous. This goes without saying… it’s sort of the whole point, for the single person.

The effects of contraception on marriage

Certainly, not everything which follows will apply to every marriage, but most of what follows applies to most marriages to some degree. Each individual, and therefore each marriage, is unique. Reception is according to the mode of the receiver… Unnatural vice will have different effects in each relationship, but these are some general tendencies which leap out at me.

From the outset, we must insist that marriage is primarily about raising a family to be virtuous members of society and to teach them to glorify God. It is not merely about personal psychological fulfillment – one’s psychology is disordered if it is not seeking God’s glory in all things, after all. Marriage fundamentally exists as a natural office wherein new citizens are raised to be good men and women, and members of the family learn to become saints through the edification and assistance received from each other. This is the point, and it is certainly something one ought to take psychological pleasure in.

The first effect is a diminished need, and subsequently a diminished capacity due to a lack of practice, for meaningful communication. She no longer needs to bother to say that it’s that time of the month – which means that more serious conversations don’t need to be had about one’s needs and desires in relation to the prospect of welcoming another child. Over time, many opportunities are missed for growing in the skills to sift through these challenging topics which touch on every element of a couple’s life together. As a result, over time the communication skills of the couple will be less than what they could be, and they might even be quite emaciated.

The second effect follows from the first, which is a decrease in intimacy. This will often begin with a lack of emotional intimacy and eventually a lack of physical intimacy expressing those absent emotions. Without the need for good, strong communication about the most important things in the couple’s life, they have less need to be vulnerable with each other. This can create a coolness, or at least a kind of shallowness, which is often intractable and can be extremely damaging in the long run.

The third effect follows from the second, which is a selfish objectification of the other. In denying generosity with God in the act which is naturally ordered towards creating new human life, the most powerful thing a person can naturally do, one turns in the great gift of human sexuality in on oneself. Spouses then use each other as tools for pleasures according to their own mind. This may be limited at first to the bedroom, but if what is most powerful and important can be subverted in order to be turned to one’s own temporal desires, it stands to reason that lesser things can be manipulated as well. The spouse becomes merely the tool to get what one wants. In the midst of the pursuit of selfish designs, one forgets that it is the search for God within and together with one’s spouse in the service of one’s family and society which rightly motivates marriage in the first place.

The fourth effect also follows from the second, and it is boredom. This could be emotional or social boredom, and with time it will almost definitely include boredom with each other’s bodies. After all, there has been so little need for restraint that all the psychological mystery of the sexual encounter is entirely gone, together with the intimacy which surrounds it and makes it positively meaningful. The couple gets too sexually accustomed to each other.

The fifth effect, more general in nature and usually only present in the long-term, is regret. We do not often encounter people who regret the children they had, but we do encounter people who regret the children they did not have. What preoccupies people at their deathbed are chiefly two things: their soul, and their family. They may fret over both, or they may be consoled. But a family that doesn’t exist brings neither fear nor consolation to the one who withheld their procreative power in favor of minding pets and taking luxurious vacations; it brings emptiness and pain. Even before the deathbed, one’s old age can be very lonely indeed. Was chasing those pleasures really worth the awful feeling of wasting away, of being abandoned and forgotten, especially if the other effects I’ve mentioned have accrued and become fully mature? Those who do have at least some children who pause to consider it will likely admit that in fact the pleasures now of being visited by their children and watching them become parents and so on is much more enjoyable than any other achievement or experience in their life – and if they go the step further in reasoning, they will almost always admit that they cut themselves short by not having more children.

The sixth effect is the delay or rejection of marriage between a couple. Why bother? After all, it is easier to cohabit and just “wait and see.” The social effects of cohabitation are that an unrealistic perception of the other is cultivated – it’s a “try out.” It turns out that playing house is not the same as marriage and starting a family. The data is not actually as clear as one might think on the relationship between cohabitation and divorce, but studies have generally found them to be correlated positively. More research is needed, perhaps with more precision as to demographics. However, promiscuity in general is wildly positively correlative to divorce rates, though there are some oddities in those numbers which are difficult to explain. Yet such promiscuity is no doubt engaged in so widely due to the availability of contraception.

The final effect, a kind of summation and completion of the foregoing, is divorce, which, by American data, is about 50% more likely among couples who never practice periodic continence but have recourse instead exclusively to contraception. This statistic does not evaluate couples who have never used contraception, and it does not take into account the decline of marriage in general.

The effects of contraception on society

Clearly, the effects on the couple themselves are also effects on society, but there are more directly “social” effects outside the pair themselves.

The first effect is a kind of entitlement toward having children. If one sees no problem with blocking the production of new life, as if one is the master over it rather than God, then it follows that one may easily come to see having children as a right which exceeds the demands of the natural order of their production. This is made manifest in the use of artificial means of conception, such as IVF and surrogacy, wherein the child is treated as property, or like a pet, which one purchases rather than receives as a free gift from God. Over time, this attitude seeps into the way that children are treated in society, namely, as “projects” of their “owners,” rather than individuals with their own eternal souls which have an ordering for them preordained by God. Hence, we see little to no meaningful moral education on the part of schools. However, given the depravity of the current Western understanding of morals, especially in certain areas, perhaps makes it better that public moral education is minimal.

In fact, this general moral depravity is itself the second effect. In Humanae Vitae, St. Paul VI predicted four effects of contraception, one of which we have already examined (increased objectification, in particular the objectification of women). He also predicted a lowering of moral standards in general (obviously correct), and a more widespread use of forced sterilization (Google “forced sterilization” and “[country/region]”). He additionally predicted that marital infidelity would skyrocket. And so it was that shortly after the advent of “the pill,” starting in earnest after Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the United States saw the rise of “no-fault” divorce (starting in 1970). If sex doesn’t have to mean the possibility of babies, then the permanence of marriage is without any objective foundation, as that permanence is primarily for the sake of potential and actual children. Rather, marriage is then at the service merely of one’s own psychological fulfillment. Not long after no-fault divorce, we had Roe v. Wade (1973). Well, the fact is that sometime contraception fails, and the “problem” needs to be dealt with so that one’s psychological fulfillment (“dreams”) can continue to be pursued. In the ultimate avoidance of the responsibility to suffer for the sake of another, we were tricked into thinking that there is no such thing as human nature and so the unborn child is simply a “private” matter. The maturation of the next step took a while, it is granted, though there were already motions towards it in the late 1960’s. This is the so-called “gay rights” movement, achieving its latest major victory with Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). If there is no intrinsic need to bother with the risk of children in sex, and there is perhaps not even human nature but rather just “privacy” and psychological fulfillment, then it is not only unclear why marriage should be permanent, but it is also unclear why our biology should matter at all for the use of sex or even the contracting of marriage. And finally, we see today the most recent link in the chain, which is the rejection of the reality of our sexual biology in its entirety: transgenderism. If our biological sex isn’t relevant to how we have sex, then maybe there is not really such a thing as biological sex, or maybe it is just not significant at all. Perhaps this is the end, perhaps it will go further, or in different directions, such as into the normalization of polyamory, as I have already explored in another post. I think that is the most likely route.

The third effect is the dumbing down of public discourse. This follows from the descent into moral depravity. Since the behaviors society tolerates and promotes become more and more obviously indefensible through reason, the use of force, whether social, legal, or physical, is required to protect those behaviors from becoming taboo or illegal once again. The reduction of the quality and depth of public discourse is also is a product of the daughters of lust, as explained above. The mind and will are turned away from the true and the good and can’t even really perceive this – so what is there to talk about, really, except the trivial things of life?

The fourth effect is, in fact, demographic winters. A cursory glance at the changes in birth rate in first world nations over the past few decades should be enough to convince one of the fact. It turns out that, when unnatural vice is treated as acceptable, the existence of the human race, at least in a given sovereign territory, can be threatened. Yes, it is more complex than this, but, to take an extreme example, it can’t honestly be denied that if Japan or South Korea didn’t have contraceptives they would not be teetering on a demographic cliff. China might be heading in the same direction – so too might the USA.

The effects of certain contraceptives on one’s physical health

I am a moral scientist, not a medical scientist, but here I will offer a few points which are well-established, with links to sources with more information, on the effects of some oral contraceptives can tend to have on women. It is true that permanent sterility is not an effect of oral contraception, but other items one might want to consider include:

  • An increased likelihood of some cancers
  • Gingivitis
  • “Lady problems”
  • Instability of weight (loss or gain)
  • Decreased attractiveness (yes, really – see below)
  • Manipulation of mood
  • Decreased libido (nature’s sense of irony)
  • Various gastro-intestinal problems (diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, etc.)
  • Other severe (albeit rare) issues

I highly recommend listening to this excellent talk by Janet Smith on contraception, which includes a discussion of the shocking and scientifically well-established fact that oral contraceptives make women unconsciously less subjectively attractive (this part starts around 27 minutes into the talk) – and it even warps their perception about the attractiveness of men. Aphrodisiacs are perhaps not real, but pheromones are.

The infallible character of the Church’s teaching on contraception

Humanae Vitae was published in 1969, a year after the onset of the “sexual revolution” began. Its primary teaching was of course that the use of contraception (as contraception) is always immoral. Ever since the publication of Humanae Vitae, there has been an argument made that the document is not infallible, and so the teaching contained therein is also not infallible. It is a remarkable fact that St. Paul VI judged the way he did, given that the overwhelming majority of bishops advising him on the issue were opposed to his conclusion. (Two notable exceptions included the Ven. Fulton Sheen and Bishop Karol Wojtyła, the future St. John Paul II.) By what is best explained as a movement of the Holy Spirit, in favor of the protection of the Pontiff from error in such a weighty matter now being so hotly contested, Paul VI judged against the majority and in favor of the extremely unpopular minority. Perhaps not since St. Athanasius had there been such a moment.

It is true that the encyclical genre, into which Humanae Vitae clearly falls, is not usually considered to be infallible unless otherwise evident. However, one would hardly conclude that encyclicals cannot contain truths which are already part of the infallible and subsequently irreformable doctrine of the Church, such as teaching that God is a Trinity, or that the direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always evil. The teaching of Humanae Vitae on the intrinsic immorality of contraception belongs to this kind of teaching.

We have already seen the natural foundations of the immorality of contraception, beginning with the character of the act itself as a species of unnatural vice and exploring also the various bad effects which the habit tends to have on individuals, couples, and society. We could add to this a firm basis in Scripture, most notably in the case of Onan, who spilled his seed on the ground instead of raising up children for his deceased brother and was slain by God as a result. (Genesis 38:8-10) The teaching of Paul VI finds immediate support in nearly contemporary magisterial literature in Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubii, which rendered an identical judgment. Pius XI quotes St. Augustine on the question in defense of his own position, and many other major authorities could be brought forward as well, including St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Jerome, St. Caesarius of Arles, St. John Chrysostom, and others. One will in fact find no support for the liceity of contraception among any such author.

Other than abortion (and maybe capital punishment), it would be difficult to find a moral teaching more universal than on the immorality of unnatural vice, which contraception is clearly part of. (By the way, contraceptives of various kinds have been around and well-known for thousands of years.) Therefore, supposing that the ordinary universal magisterium of the Church possesses the character of infallibility, which it clearly does, then the teaching of Paul VI on contraception is simply the reiteration of this infallible teaching. Subsequently, since truths about human nature and its rightful use do not change, this teaching likewise cannot change.

How to confess the use of contraception

There are some points worth making on the right confession of the use of contraception.

First of all, if one has simply sinned by the use of a contraceptive, it suffices to say that one has engaged in contraceptive sex, stating approximately how many times this has occurred. (Other forms of sterile/unnatural sexual activity must be confessed as separate sins, of whatever kind.)

Second, if one has deliberately held the opinion that contraception is not immoral, over and against the judgment of the Church, this ought to be confessed as well. The intellect is bound to assent to the teaching of the Church on this matter – otherwise, one presumes to usurp for himself the judgment of a moral item which has already been definitively ruled upon by the Church.

Third, if one has undergone a contraceptive surgery, this ought to be confessed as its own distinct act, specifying that one has mutilated oneself in view of contraception. This is because a sterilization is not only an act of contraception, it is an act of violence against the good of one’s own body. In my opinion, one is normally bound to reverse such a surgery if physically and financially possible. This would of course be impossible with irreversible surgeries (i.e. hysterectomies) and also seems unnecessary in the case where the couple includes a post-menopausal woman who can no longer conceive due to natural sterility. Still, in these special cases, the will must remain open to the theoretical possibility of conception, even though conception be unwanted and even impossible.

Remedies for those struggling with contraception

Individuals who habitually use contraception must become aware of the fact of their own darkness in this matter, and they must trust, rather blindly, that on the other side of making this radical change in their life they will as a result encounter a kind of peace, joy, and power that they are presently unable to grasp.

They must make a good confession, naming this sin and any other sins of similar gravity. Otherwise, due to the lack of sanctifying grace in the soul, not only will they likely struggle immensely to improve in chastity but whatever progress they make will not redound to any merit. Those with the guilt of mortal sin cannot please God until they are properly reconciled to Him – and, should they fail to make proper reconciliation, they will lose their souls forever at death. Even before confession, they ought to make a good act of contrition immediately, apologizing to God for having thus offended Him, seeking to make confession as soon as reasonably possible.

Couples should open an honest conversation about why they are using contraception and what effects they think it may have and have had on their relationship. They must avoid blaming the other – unless only one party has been consenting, then they are both to blame, even if in different ways and to different degrees. The point of such soul-searching is healing in view of integrating themselves back into an ordered way of conjugal life. Sharp arguments must be avoided at all costs. The point is not to compete, it is to complete. The couple then must together strongly resolve that, no matter what, they will no longer defraud and degrade each other out of the search for pleasures cut off from their natural purpose but will instead trust God and each other enough to welcome whatever children may be conceived. In some cases, working with a good and like-minded marriage counselor could be helpful.

Individuals, including spouses, must also now struggle to attain the virtue of chastity. I have written a post giving in-depth advice on this, but here I will note that the removal of people from one’s life who are occasions of promiscuity is on the top of the list for the unmarried. For the married, they ought to consider more deeply what duties they undertook when exchanging vows, and if they have children already they ought to consider why they would not want another, even to go so far as to poison or mutilate themselves.

Finally, all who wish to attain to chastity must pray for assistance earnestly, frequently, and humbly. It will then be given, along with any other virtue which is thus requested.


One will find any number of voices that contradict what is presented here. Those voices may even claim the cloak of Catholicism. Yet the honest and open conscience will recognize that twisting the gift of human sexuality inward on oneself is a grave offense against God in every instance. And yet He is ready and eager to forgive immediately – so long as one still draws breath. The shame of such sins, once recognized as sins, can be overwhelming to the point of near-paralysis, and the pleasures indulged in can indeed deeply blind one to the good of virtue, as noted. But one must go onward and upward, with humble confidence in God’s mercy and assistance for all those who wish to pursue Him. Chastity is most especially a product of hope.

It is my deep desire that these observations will help individuals and couples embrace the heights to which they are called as chaste souls, and fruitful husbands and wives. I will pray for those who are challenged by this post, and I ask that they return the favor.

Comments are closed. Questions are accepted through the Contact tab.

Our Lady, Queen of Virgins, pray for us.

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.


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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Why is Sunday Mass attendance obligatory?

Eamonn Clark, STL

For reasons I won’t yet share on these pages, I have been studying the situation of the Church in Ireland with intense interest in the past few weeks. It is not too healthy.

One of the deeper challenges seems to be Sunday Mass attendance. In Dublin, the rate of faithful weekly attendance is, I have heard, at about 1% of nominal Catholics – so about 10,000 out of Dublin’s 1 million. It is better elsewhere, but the numbers are overall pretty grim.

In days past, one was a social outcast for NOT going to church on Sundays. Now, it is almost reversed. What happened?

While each individual soul has its own complex story to tell, the phenomenon as a whole is actually relatively simple. There was exterior cultural pressure to act in such-and-such a way, with little to no rationale given as to why it is actually good to act thusly, and subsequently there was no understanding of the character of the obligation. Then, when the scandals began to break in the 1990’s, enough people found a suitable excuse to stay home; the cultural pressure was gone, and so the pews were emptied.

But even among those who remain, there is not necessarily much of an understanding as to why they are showing up – or at least, why it is their duty to show up. I read about an elderly couple who had been faithfully attending Sunday Mass for their whole lives suddenly decided to stop going. Why? Because the mass schedule changed, and it conflicted with their preferred lunch time.

No doubt anyone in the Western world can identify a similar phenomenon on Christmas and Easter when suddenly people show up for sentimental reasons. “It’s our family tradition.” Well, okay, but just like the Pharisees, one is not saved by their traditions, however nice they may be. One is saved by fidelity to the Lord.

Mass attendance is one of the five precepts of the Church – Sundays and other particular days of obligation (i.e. Assumption, Christmas, etc.). These precepts are mere “ecclesiastical law,” or “Church law,” but they rest immediately on Divine law. The precept to attend Mass corresponds to the Third Commandment – to keep holy the Lord’s Day. The precepts are grave obligations. To neglect them without a serious reason constitutes a mortal sin.

The virtue to which the Mass precept corresponds is religion – the habit of offering to God what is His due (in proportion to what we can give, as of course God’s due is infinite). Religion is a part of the broader cardinal virtue of justice, which is about rendering to others what they are owed.

The principal thing done at a mass is not singing, or gathering, or being preached to, or normal individual or communal prayer. It is not even the reception of the Eucharist, which can be done outside of mass, just as all these other actions can be. The principal thing done at a mass is an act of sacrifice, an offering to God made by the priest who celebrates the liturgy. (This was made clearer by the offertory prayer in the old rite – now the offertory does not mention sacrifice as explicitly… “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer You,” etc.) There are secondary purposes of the Mass, but this is the primary one: the sacrifice Christ made on the Cross is re-presented by the consecration of the Eucharist and its consumption by the priest.

God demands our presence at this sacrifice of His Son so that we can participate in its offering, in a moral sense. While we do not directly offer the sacrifice as the priest-celebrant does, we do so indirectly, not only by presenting the offerings of bread and wine (things which laity, not priests, would normally work to produce), but also by merely being intentionally present at the sacred action; our intentional presence (“being there because of the thing which is happening”) indicates our consent to and affirmation of the sacrifice being made. It is the highest act of justice which is available to us – there is nothing greater we can offer than Christ, and nobody greater to offer to than God.

Thus, God demands that we participate in this supreme act of justice, at least on Sunday, the day specially commemorating the Lord’s victory over death (or at least on the evening before), and on other particular days as determined by the Church, unless there is some sufficiently grave excuse. (Positive commandments bind conditionally, negative commandments bind absolutely.) A good general rule of thumb is that to miss Sunday Mass for a reason which one would also miss the work that is regularly necessary to provide adequately for one’s family (i.e. a serious illness, attending to some family emergency, an extremely inconvenient distance, etc.) is without sin. The less serious one’s reason, the more serious will be the sin.

It is also possible to obtain a dispensation from Sunday Mass. Bishops or even pastors can dispense all the faithful from the obligation to attend Mass, as we saw en masse during Covid, but it is also possible to obtain and individual dispensation for a particular situation. For instance, a family is taking a vacation where it would be mildly inconvenient to attend Sunday Mass. Their pastor can dispense them entirely or commute the obligation to some other pious action – perhaps attending mass on the day before they leave, or the day after they return, or praying a rosary on Sunday. (People should make more use of this right – and perhaps pastors ought to teach more about its existence.)

A challenge to readers: invite someone back to Mass. Now you can probably explain the obligation better if asked.

What are motivations you have heard for missing mass? Did the person seem aware of the sacrificial element of the Mass? Comment below, and be sure to subscribe!

Taparelli: 150 Years Later

Eamonn Clark, STL

Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the death of Fr. Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, SJ. (I thought it was today, but – apparently not!) My time is short right now but I could not let this moment go by without some brief acknowledgement of this man and his work.

He is the grandfather of Catholic social teaching. He pioneered Catholic theories on mediating associations, the living wage, subsidiarity, “social justice,” and the character of international affairs. He led the charge among the emerging “neo-Thomist” school in Italy, first in Rome, then in Naples where he was exiled, then in Sicily where he was further exiled. He was rehabilitated by Pius IX, who put him as a founding co-editor of the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica, which is still in print today.

His most famous student, who was in a semi-clandestine after school club at the Roman College devoted to reading St. Thomas, was Giacchino Pecci, the future Pope Leo XIII.

His works remain almost entirely untranslated, except for the French edition of his magnum opus, “Theoretical Wisdom of Natural Right Based on Fact,” which is as difficult to read as it sounds, notwithstanding the old Italian prose. There is some work being done to bring this text into the English language. I can’t wait… it will be really special.

Taparelli was decidedly a 19th century conservative, meaning, he rejected entirely the ideas motivating the French Revolution, which set him in opposition to many of his peers. Further, his close connections with the Italian peninsula’s political elite (including his own brother), coupled with his intellectual eclecticism and bold attempts to re-introduce St. Thomas into seminary formation, made him a lightning rod. So controversial was he that not even Leo XIII cited him in any text, despite the unmistakable influence, an influence that ran even into Pius XI as well. Pius thought that the theologian to read, after St. Thomas, was Taparelli.

For a meaningful introduction to Taparelli, his era, and his work, I recommend Thomas Behr’s recently released book.

We owe quite a bit to this man. I find it inappropriate to pass over this occasion without acknowledging him – and perhaps offering a prayer for his soul, though he is likely in no need.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

His Excellency’s Press Release on the New Blessing

Bishop Aaron Churchman
Diocese of Cityville
December 2, 2094

For a hospitable Church, which excludes no one
For years, the Catholic faith community of our diocese, in all its parts, has been working together with other social actors to create a climate of respect, recognition and integration. Moreover, many of them are engaged in a church association or a Christian institution. I, your Bishop, encourage their collaborators to keep following this path. They feel supported in this by the apostolic exhortation ‘Amoris Laetitia,’ which Pope Francis wrote long ago after the 2015 Synod of Bishops. Discernment, accompaniment and integration: these remain the most important keywords. With these words, I as bishop of our diocese am publishing this communiqué on the pastoral relationship with mafiosi. In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis explicitly states that every person be respected in his dignity and treated with respect be (AL 250). I want to continue on that road through this pastoral structure.

Pastoral care and guidance
The pastoral attention of the church community first of all concerns mafiosi themselves. Along the sometimes complex way of acknowledging them, accepting their activities and their positive experience, we want to stay close to them. Some don’t murder, engage in trafficking of humans, drugs or weapons, or engage in crooked gambling. They deserve our appreciation and support. Others prefer to live a life of crime, in lasting and committed fidelity with their Don and extended family. They also deserve our appreciation and support, because this relationship, although not an association of the faithful, can also be a source of peace and shared happiness. Their families and relatives equally deserve this pastoral attention and guidance. An attitude of understanding and appreciation is of great importance. Pope Francis explicitly asks to offer families respectful pastoral guidance so that their members who show signs of deviation from traditional Catholic morality can enjoy the necessary support to understand and fully accomplish the will of God in their lives (AL 250).

Our attention must also go to the wider society and church community.
Despite a growing social recognition of the mafioso as a fellow man, many are left with questions. At the same time, anti-mafia violence can rear its ugly head. Better insight can promote better integration.

Structural anchoring

I, your Bishop, want my pastoral involvement with mafiosi and their families to exist structurally. The policy team of the Diocesan Service for Family Pastoral Care (DSFPC) will have an additional employee to take this to heart. I have appointed Fr. Vito Colioni for this. In addition, every parish will have someone to give the same pastoral attention within the framework of the diocesan family pastoral network. He or she will be the point of contact for that parish. As our diocesan coordinator Fr. Vito will work with them and provide them with the necessary equipment and guidance.

The Pastoral Encounter
In this pastoral structure the focus is mainly on meeting and conversation. Even believers who live a stable life of organized crime desire respect and appreciation within the faith community. It hurts when they feel they don’t belong or are excluded. They want to be heard and recognized. That’s what this pastoral structure is about: their story from uncertainty to growing clarity and acceptance; their questions about ecclesiastical positions; their joy of knowing a committed and wealthy family; their choice for an exclusive and lasting career in assassinations, trafficking, and crooked gambling; their firm will to be responsible for caring for each other and their desire to be of service in church and society. In this pastoral approach there is room for spiritual discernment, for inner growth and for conscientious decisions. Pope Francis asks for the conscience to value and support people, including in life situations where the objective ideal of virtuous citizenship is not fully fulfilled: The conscience can be serious and honestly recognize that which is for now the most generous answer that one can give to God, and it can see with some certainty that this answer is the self-gift that God asks in the midst of the complexity of concrete limitations, even if the full objective ideal has not been reached (AL 303).

The meeting with a pastoral counselor is for mafiosi an important step toward integration in the religious community. About that integration Pope Francis writes analogously: “It is a matter of integrating everyone, helping them find their own way of being part of the church community, so that they would be personally affected by ‘undeserved, unconditional and gratuitous’ mercy. No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the way of thinking of the Gospel! I don’t only address divorced people and people in a new relationship, but all, in whatever situation they find themselves” (AL 297).

Prayer for love and fidelity
During pastoral meetings, the question is often asked about a moment of prayer to to ask God that He may bless and perpetuate this commitment of love and faithfulness. It is best for those involved to discuss what content and form that prayer can take in concrete terms with a pastoral manager. Such a moment of prayer can take place in all simplicity. Also, the difference must remain clear with what the Church understands by creating an association of the faithful.

This moment of prayer can, for example, proceed as follows.
o Opening word
o Opening prayer
o Scripture reading
o Commitment of all parties involved. Together they express before God how they feel about each other and how they commit to each other. For example:

God of love and faithfulness,
today we stand before you
surrounded by family and friends.
We thank you for the gift of our crime family.
We want to be there for each other
in all circumstances of life.
We speak here with confidence
that we want to work for each other’s wealth, power, security and honor,
day by day.
We pray: give us strength
to be faithful to each other
and deepen our commitment.
We trust in your closeness,
we want to live by your word,
given to each other forever.
o Community prayer. The community prays that God’s grace may work
in them to care for each other and for the wider community in which they live. For example:

God and Father,
we surround N. and N. with our prayers today.
You know their hearts and the path they will take together from now on. Make their commitment to each other strong and faithful.
Let their house be filled with understanding,
tolerance and care.
Let there be room for reconciliation and peace.
Let the love they share bring them joy
and serve them in our community.
Give us the strength to walk with them,
together in the footsteps of your Son
and strengthened by your Spirit.
o Intercession
o Our Father
o Closing prayer
o Blessing

December 2, 2094
+Aaron Churchman

On this day, 1952 years ago…

…the Siege of Jerusalem, the major event of the First Jewish-Roman War, entered its final phase: occupation and plundering. The Temple had been destroyed about a week earlier. (For once, the image that is above, which is the default image for my posts, is spot on. The Dome of the Rock/Al-Aqsa Mosque, the prominent gold roof atop the walls, is where the Temple used to be.) This had come after months of siege, which had reduced the city to absolute mayhem and despair, which included cannibalism.

Read all about it.

It’s suspected that stones from the Temple were put into the Roman monument memorializing the event, the Arch of Titus.

In 878, Pope John VIII was busy crowning Louis the Stammerer as King of West Francia. Yep, that was his name. This was Louis’ second crowning, for some odd reason, as King of West Francia. He’d been crowned the previous year in October by the Archbishop of Rheims – Archbishop Hincmar. Presumably, when he succeeded his younger brother – Charles the Child – as King of Aquitaine, he was also crowned. Later on, King Louis the Stammerer, who was never emperor for some other odd reason, gave a few counties of his kingdom away to – Wilfred the Hairy. With his second wife, he had a child born after his death who was the eventual heir to the throne after his older brothers died: Charles the Simple.

In 1159, Pope Alexander III was elected, though he had to deal with an anti-pope (Victor IV – one of FOUR anti-popes during his reign) who for a while commanded the allegiance of most European kings. (Alexander wept openly at the news of Victor’s death and allegedly scolded the cardinals who were happy about it.) His papacy lasted just under 21 years. His reign oversaw the controversy around St. Thomas Beckett and King Henry II. He canonized Beckett, too.

This is an excellent film, despite some liberties begin taken with the history. The anathema scene is particularly good – starts around 1:27:33.

This was the second Englishman he canonized, the first having been Edward the Confessor. He also convened and led the Third Lateran Council, which settled on a canon that to this day regulates conclaves (2/3 majority votes). Alexander was quite interested in the missions as well, especially in Scandinavia and the Baltic region.

He did other stuff too.

In 1630, the city of Boston was established. Go Red Sox.

In the Wild West of Northfield, Minnesota, on this day in 1876, Jesse James and his James-Younger Gang tried to rob a bank but were thwarted by heavily armed townsfolk. Yee-haw!

In 1901, the Boxer Rebellion ended in the Qing Dynasty (China).

On a cheerier note, 20 years later (1921), the Legion of Mary was founded in Dublin. Today it is the largest lay apostolate in the world. Maybe there is even a chapter at your local parish!

On the very same day, the first annual Miss America pageant began.

Moving to Africa, Desmond Tutu became the first black man to lead the Anglican Diocese of Cape Town in 1986. On the same day, the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was almost assassinated by Communists – 5 of his bodyguards died. Exactly ten years later in 1996, hip-hop phenom Tupac Shakur was shot. He died 6 days afterward.

In 2008, the US federal government took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, during the recession occasioned by the housing bubble caused by sub-prime mortgages. Here’s a great rundown of that whole catastrophe.

Last year, Bitcoin became legal tender in El Salvador in a national economic experiment. It hasn’t really worked. El Salvador is, well… still not a very nice place to be. Not sure what the update is on trying to jerry rig a volcano to power a Bitcoin mining facility. Let me know in the comments if you are aware.

Lots of other stuff happened on September 7’ths in history too. But also, today, on September 7th, 2022, I leave South Carolina for Maryland for a few days before returning to Rome. Maybe I will get around to my Poland post then…


Amoris Laetitia and the Eunuch-makers

Eamonn Clark, STL

Today we continue on in my notes for a book on Amoris Laetitia – or, rather, a book on its bad interpretations. These ones are rougher notes. I’ve removed some undeveloped or underdeveloped sections, including one on the Matthean exception and another on the Pauline and Petrine Privileges

Previous entries here (on clerical compromise) and here (on Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s booklet).

Adultery defined

The Sixth Commandment (Ex. 20:14) states, “You shall not commit adultery.” The Hebrew: לֹא תִנְאָף (lo tin’aph); the Greek Septuagint: οὐ κλέψεις (ooh kle-pseis); the Latin Vulgate: Non mœchaberis.

Adultery, strictly speaking, is sexual activity between a person presumed to be married and another to whom he or she is not presumed to be married. (For various reasons, we leave aside here the old scholastic method of specifying sexual sins, namely, only on the part of the “matter,” viz., the woman in her diverse conditions, i.e. unmarried, married, consecrated, etc.) Notice that one can commit adultery as an unmarried person with a married person, or as a married person with an unmarried or with a married person. The old scholastic definition is “access to another’s marriage bed.”

It is important also to note that the presumption of marriage, whether psychological or juridical, suffices to specify an extramarital sexual act as adulterous. For example, a man thinks that a woman is married to another man, but really she is not. His sexual activity with her constitutes adultery in the formal sense (that is, according to the consent of his will), even though materially (in external reality) it is only fornication. (A stranger example, which yet illumines this case further, is if two spouses have relations with each other, each thinking the other to be a stranger or perhaps the spouse’s twin – like the inverse of the case of Jacob and Leah.) An example proper to Catholics is the following. A Catholic man thinks there is a good case to be made that the woman he attempted to marry actually is not his wife, but he has not bothered to approach a tribunal to petition for nullity. This would not suffice to reduce his extramarital sexual activity to mere fornication. It is adultery, plain and simple.

Bigamy defined

The term “bigamy” has been used in diverse ways. The etymology is “bi,” two, “gamy,” marriage. The first and strictest sense in historical and even legal usage is remarriage after the death of a spouse. We do not use this sense here. A second sense, which we also do not use here, is a specific case of polygamy, namely, one woman married to two men, or one man married to two women. The sense we mean here is more specific – it is the act of attempting marriage with any person while oneself or the second person is presumed to be married. (Astonishingly, Cardinal Kasper conflated this third sense with the first, in his famous consistory speech about divorce and remarriage, when referencing Canon 8 of Nicaea I – there was suspicion in those days over the practice of remarrying after the death of a spouse, so the issue was addressed with “pastoral tolerance,” “indulgence,” “clemency,” etc. This is altogether different from what is being addressed in Amoris, clearly.)

The three senses obviously overlap. However, the third sense is exclusively what is meant in this text from hereon. When speaking of “bigamous” relationships, what is meant is a relationship proceeding from the attempt of marriage while one of the parties is still presumed to be married to another. (Clearly, this is not limited to “two” unions but could include a third attempted marriage, a fourth, a fifth, etc.)

“It is better not to marry”

The apostles immediately perceived the difficulty of marriage as taught by the Lord. They saw that in fact celibacy would be a more freeing way of life. Perhaps, due to their still imperfect understanding of the Messiah and His Kingdom, they did not yet perceive the eschatological and evangelical significance of celibacy but rather simply noted the difficulty of staying with one person for life. In other words, theirs was a realization in favor merely of their own convenience.

People in today’s Western world would do well to follow the apostles’ example and marvel at the doctrine of indissolubility of marriage. It goes without saying that if indissolubility were really taken seriously by all who were going to attempt marriage, the overall state of the Western family – and therefore of the Western world itself – would be much healthier. (This is part of why it is so important for the Church not to give the impression, even “indirectly,” that divorce and remarriage is acceptable.) The Church takes the baptized faithful seriously when they promise fidelity to each other, frequently more seriously than the couples take themselves. However, instead of saying “it is better not to marry,” in view of continent celibacy, people now say either, “it is better to ignore this teaching and marry and remarry as we wish,” or, “it is better not to marry and to sleep around anyway without any commitments.”

What occasioned the onset of no-fault divorce in the USA was the wide availability of cheap, safe, and effective oral contraceptives (“the pill”), which came in 1960 (increasingly accessible until universally legal in 1972). The first no-fault divorce law came in California in 1970, shortly followed by many other states. The gross expansion of abortion access came in 1973, with Roe v. Wade. Now, we are already in the twilight of the “gay rights” movement and are deep into transgender paranoia with little hope of recovery short of a full cultural implosion and reset. We see the natural progression: first, the obstruction of the natural fecundity of the sexual act which destroys the need for monogamy, let alone lifelong fidelity. Through contracepting, one is able to have as many partners as he or she wants, and any monogamous sexual relationship bears offspring contingent on one’s will. Second, the need for monogamous fidelity having been undermined, the logical step is to ratify this by declaring marriage to be a temporal project of self-gratification which one can escape at any time for any reason; thus, no-fault divorce. Third, the permanent consequences of “mistakes,” from contraception failing or not being used, must be dealt with, as one’s self-determination is threatened by children – whom we would be more comfortable pretending are “subhuman” enough to kill rather than deny our will and raise them. After destroying the logic of fidelity and fecundity, the very nature of biological order is called into question, as homosexual activity is just as much willed by some as heterosexual activity is willed by others, and who are we to stop it? Because there is no longer any real connection between fidelity, fecundity, the idea of marriage, and marriage’s legal framework, there is no reason why people of the same sex should be prevented from entering into such a union. Finally, after having utterly destroyed the meaning of marriage and torpedoed the reality of the most fundamental biological order as a basis for governing sexual activity, the very reality of biological sex is declared irrelevant or even illusory. What matters is one’s desires and how one wishes to express those desires. What matters is the will.

We see that the entire progression rests on the denial of one’s sexual faculty’s natural end for the sake of self-gratification, which is itself a bizarre reversal of the Lord’s loving invitation to celibacy as the way of perfection: instead of making oneself a “eunuch” for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven by withdrawing from the life of sexual activity and marriage altogether, the idea is to make oneself a “eunuch” within one’s marital or extra-marital sexual activity for the sake of one’s own kingdom, so that all of one’s temporal desires can be fulfilled with as much convenience as possible. Instead of freeing oneself for the Will of God, contraception frees oneself to pursue one’s own will. And it ends with people even really making themselves true eunuchs, as we can see not only with contraceptive sterilization procedures, but also with the rise in popularity of the most ghoulish kinds of “gender reassignment” surgeries. Truth be told, many such “transgender” persons have been mentally ill for years before their surgeries and “therapies”; they are therefore frequently minimally responsible for such terrible acts. However, the signs of the times are that nobody stopped these sick individuals from harming themselves – instead these poor people are encouraged in their delusions and even celebrated for living them out. These pitiable men and women are made eunuchs by others.

“Some have been made eunuchs by others”

Sometimes one is made a eunuch by others metaphorically. There is clearly a “contingent” or “conditional” call to continence. This vocation is manifested by one’s life circumstances beyond one’s control. Perhaps there are no people available in one’s purview for marriage; perhaps one’s spouse is dangerously ill with a heart condition and cannot safely engage in sexual relations; perhaps one’s spouse is alive but is in prison, gone on a long voyage, or otherwise physically inaccessible. The inability to marry or access a spouse is no grounds for extramarital sexual activity. One must necessarily have the grace available to live continently in these cases.

This reality of a conditional vocation to continence, at least temporary continence, applies in many cases of divorce and civil remarriage. If a man is truly married to a woman who is unwilling to reconcile and return to conjugal life he must necessarily have the grace to live in continence, despite having contracted a civil marriage with another woman; if his duties toward the children born from his second union oblige him to live day and night under the same roof as the woman in his second union, then he must have the greater grace to live in continence even while being so close to temptation. Likewise, he must have the grace to confront and endure whatever backlash might come from refusing sexual intimacy with the woman. (The same applies to women vis-à-vis men.)

Lessons and Questions: Unpacking Covid

Eamonn Clark, STL

As the last Covid mandates etc. finally begin to fall, there is beginning to be a genre of “what have we learned and what should be done next time” articles. Here’s a good one by Fr. Roger Landry. This one is mine.

In my first Covid post, I stated that we know 20 things, including about medicine. Aside from referring readers to this fact summary (which includes the now-obvious truth that the vaccines weren’t all they were cracked up to be), and to this excellent meta-study on masks by the same wonderful research group (we are finally allowed by the social media overlords to point out that they don’t work, because they don’t and have terrible side effects, both physical and psychological), I will not be talking directly about medicine per se in this post. Plenty of others are doing that better than I could. I will also refer the reader to Prof. Feser’s summary article on the vaccines, along with the links at the bottom of that post, which lays out essentially my own moral position on the issue as well. (Really, check out the medical info links above, they have great stuff on this and on other topics. Very useful.)

So, here we go. What have we learned in the last two and a half years, and what are the questions that remain? These are at least a few things to think about.

First, what we have learned.

  1. There were a great number of people in the pews who were planted in rocky soil, so to speak. The sun beat down, they withered, and the wind blew them away. They are not planning on coming back. They are GONE. While it’s true some people, for whatever reason, are still watching mass online instead of showing up in person, this is not the majority. It will be next to impossible to recover the tumbleweeds at this point through the normal means of inviting them back to mass. They took a long break, and they felt that their life was either unchanged or better by not attending mass. This is a point for serious reflection. Why did that happen? (I guess this point belongs in the next section, but oh well, there you have it.)
  2. Bishops’ conferences need some examination. For all their money and bureaucratic strength, national bishops’ conferences generally failed to play a significant role as mediating associations between individual bishops and national governments. While it is the case that some individual bishops were far too quick and zealous to close churches, etc., the temptation to do nothing but vilify individual bishops for caving to inordinate government pressure is also somewhat misguided, albeit understandable. The credibility of the “threat” that one bishop can make is limited compared to the sort of “threat” the entire body of bishops within the country can make. This reveals either a systemic flaw in the way that bishops’ conferences work, and/or, in those countries where the episcopacy was not all-in on Covid avoidance, it reveals significant fault-lines which killed the ability to cooperate meaningfully, calling into question what the conference is for in the first place other than for rubber-stamping translations of Scripture and liturgical texts.
  3. People expect a lot from their bishops and their priests. This includes an expectation, not unreasonable, for their parish priest or bishop to advocate vociferously for the freedom to worship, and even put himself at some risk of losing his personal liberty. And yet, to my knowledge, not a single Catholic cleric in the USA (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter) went to jail over holding mass or administering the sacraments during the entire past two and a half years on account of violating Covid policies. I’m sure there are a few – I don’t follow Catholic news in Madagascar – but this absence of “white martyrs” speaks volumes. There was also not as much creativity and initiative on the part of clergy as many would have hoped. This is not to say that there was none, but there could have and should have been more, especially in certain places. There is the strong and often warranted sense that, when it mattered most, the hierarchical Church failed. So much for closeness, accompaniment, and walking together.
  4. Dioceses generally lack the resources to evaluate public health crises reasonably in view of liturgical adjustments. Case in point, as I noted in one post, the use of holy water (which is optional!) does not spread Covid. This was able to be known some time around April of 2020. Bishops (or even parish priests) ought to find out who in their flock, with the right credentials, got everything more or less right on Covid from the start. They are out there – so go find them and use them as advisors. Brostradamus (clip from 2020) is out there too, but people want a white lab coat. Fine, find a doctor who has a proven track record on this stuff.
  5. People like simple narratives and are ready to believe the worst about the intentions of those they disagree with on public policy. This is not new, but it bears repeating. If there is any hope of having conversations with people disagreeing over something like Covid policy, it will doubtless start by acknowledging the good intentions that each party has – and then working backwards, citing as much evidence as possible.
  6. There is an immense dearth of understanding of bioethics among those who ought to know better. This includes those who suggested that the use of any of the 3 or 4 major vaccines was intrinsically evil due to extremely remote connections with abortion or because of closer connections with tyranny, to those who suggested that it was certainly evil not to use them or even that it was evil not to mandate their use as a condition for engaging in basic life activities. (Perhaps the scuffle over cooperation with evil in using medicines centering around Fr. Matthew Schneider, LC is worth its own post at a future point, when all of the dust has totally settled, though I think he ultimately gets it basically right from a structural point of view.) Unfortunately, even the usually excellent NCBC had an altogether avoidable gaffe when failing to take account of the experimental quality of the technology of m-RNA vaccines as opposed to the vector vaccine which was then-available, an extremely relevant factor in moral analysis. Vector vaccines have been around a long time – while the Covid vector vaccine (J&J) was new, its technology was not. The m-RNA vaccines, on the other hand, have essentially brand new technology, in the sense that there has not, until now, been the sort of clinical testing usually required for such a thing – large phase 3 clinical trials on humans. Also, very few people pointed out the key to the conscience-exemption issue, which is to recognize that actions which are not intrinsically evil may nevertheless still be rightly judged as evil. Why is that? Am I not reading enough? It is really not that hard.

So much for what we have learned. What about things we still don’t know but should be thinking about? What will we do the next time something like this happens?

  1. What are the limits of a bishop’s authority to limit the administration of the sacraments in his own diocese without suspending clergy from ministry, especially confession and extreme unction? To what extent are priests morally obliged to obey directives which they prudently analyze and find to be based on suspect medical advice? The corollary is: to what extent are clergy obliged to disobey the directives of their superior in favor of the faithful requesting the sacraments? Some of this is quite unclear and calls for serious canonical and moral consideration.
  2. Do the faithful really have the obligation to practice particular medical directives from their parish priest or bishop in order to access the sacraments, and to what extent? This ranges from vaccination to wearing masks to standing far apart. All of these things can either prohibit worship or inhibit it to varying degrees.
  3. To what extent can a bishop or religious superior legitimately demand medical interventions, such as vaccination, of his inferiors, including employees? We saw a large number of clergy, especially religious, who were forced to take experimental drugs under the guise of “obedience.” Was this right? The answer may seem obvious, but consider too that in order to be pastorally useful in some cases, i.e., to be able to visit hospitals, clergy had to play ball with whatever civil mandate was in effect. It is not exactly clear cut, though I do think there is a stronger argument one way rather than the other.
  4. What is the spiritual effect on the faithful of the prolonged use of televised/livestreamed masses?
  5. How exactly does general absolution work? That is, can it be used over a whole city or diocese, such as by a bishop flying above in a helicopter? How? What about online? Or individual confessions assisted by technology in some other way (i.e. by cellphone from across a parking lot)? There are some clear answers here, but there are still some dark corners which need light shone upon them.
  6. How can the skills learned (especially livestreaming and other online technology usage) be harnessed positively going forward? There are countless opportunities – for those who wish to explore them.

Well, that is what comes to the top of my mind. What did I miss? Comment below, and be sure to subscribe!

Sola Scriptura – a Conclusion

Eamonn Clark, STL

After two previous posts on this topic, I am about ready to wrap it up. My first post, my most popular ever, still retains its value. I did a follow up post responding to a critique, and there is a response to that post. Unfortunately, that second response was intellectually lazy, and, seemingly, just a cop-out which amounted to – “he made some straw men, but I won’t say how, it’s too hard.” Well… Okay then. Disappointing – and also revealing. Read for yourselves to judge and see if that’s really the case. I tried to be quite fair. Anyways, consider this my final word on the matter.

The problem of canonicity is probably the most basic problem for Sola Scriptura. That is, how do we know what books are Scripture in the first place? I submit that there are only 4 ways to answer this question, period.

  1. Scripture is not a rule of faith, so it doesn’t matter (held by non-Christians)
  2. One is bound to be personally wise/holy enough to know intuitively which texts are Scripture (held by nobody)
  3. We have a fallible collection of infallible books (a deeply problematic pretzel of a position held by major Protestant scholar R. C. Sproul – again, how do we know that these books are infallible in the first place, and why would God leave some infallible texts outside our use and possibly allow some fallible texts to show up in what we call the Bible?)
  4. There is an authority external to Scripture which determines what is Scripture and what is not, thus undermining the position that Scripture alone is the entire rule of faith, as if an authority can define what is contained in Scripture, it follows that it is a parallel teaching authority (held by Catholics, Orthodox, etc., and, ironically, in practice held by Martin Luther, who presumed to create his own canon, prompting Trent’s definition of the canon)

With regard to #4, one would struggle to explain how and why an authority external to Scripture would exist solely to define the canon and not also be able to interpret its contents without error. It just does not sound very much like the God of Christianity: “Here’s a book, good luck.” And here we go into the problem of anarchy, which I described in my first post… each is left to his own devices, with many people with contrary positions claiming the support of Scripture and even that they are being instructed from within by the Holy Spirit that “x” is true and not “y.” It’s like we’ve returned to the time of the Judges, when “there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own mind.”

That’s it. If anyone can show me how this point – just this one – falls apart, I will return to this topic. But that’s about all I have to say on it. For more, see here.

A Trinitarian Social Justice?

Below is the text of a talk I gave online at Te Kupenga Catholic Theological College (Auckland, New Zealand) a few days ago. Video should be available soon, for those interested, with a brief (but lively) Q and A. It tracks themes that I will be investigating in the 5th chapter of my doctoral dissertation, which is a deep dive into “social justice” in the context of Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno.

There was a lot more I could have talked about, but there was obviously a time limit.

Eamonn Clark, STL

Karl Rahner’s well-known book, The Trinity, published in 1970, sets out to explore and defend his so-called “grundaxiom” – “The ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity.” However, while an interesting claim resting on a possibly problematic distinction worth much discussion and evaluation, what makes me think of Rahner’s text is rather one of its more introductory remarks. He says, “[Despite] their orthodox confession of the Trinity, Christians are, in their practical life almost mere ‘monotheists.’” (10)

Rahner was right. The Trinity, the central mystery of our Faith, is usually disregarded as a lived reality for most Christians, even the relatively pious ones. While we may open and close prayers with the invocation of the Trinity, and we may direct some prayers to some of the Persons in particular, especially to Christ the Son, we do little beyond this, either in practice or in thought, except when we are merely concerned to avoid falling into heresy, certainly a worthwhile endeavor. However, as St. Augustine once opined, the study of the Trinity, while the most dangerous, is also the most fruitful if done well. The Mystery of the Living Triune God is imprinted on everything about the universe – so understanding more deeply Who God is, in His Triple Personality, ought to reveal ourselves and our world to us more deeply.

This holds true even for justice. John Rawls, whose book A Theory of Justice (followed by another work called Justice as Fairness) argues the opposite, that in fact justice reduces to abstractions relating to “fairness.” For Rawls, the anti-metaphysician, we ought to imagine what he calls the “original position,” a theoretical state where nobody is individuated as a concrete human reality. In this position, we should envision what the “rules of the game” ought to be, given that we ourselves do not know what part of the game we are to find ourselves in when we are brought into the concrete – shall we be a prince, or a pauper? An athlete, or a cripple? A genius, or a dimwit? If we set up fair rules without being able to serve ourselves as we really are as individuals, so goes the argument, we will neither sway to the right, nor to the left, but rather, we will have a society with just laws that are impartial toward the rich and talented, and which do not improperly favor the poor and misfortunate but will seek to bring them some preferential treatment in view of equalizing society. This is a Kantian paradigm. We will return to this consideration at the end of this presentation.

In 1945, famed Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek published an essay titled “The Use of Knowledge in Society” in The American Economic Review. The article, one of the most lauded in the whole field of economics, argues that just as information is decentralized, so too should – or rather must – the use of that information be decentralized in order to procure the best economic results. If a central power were to attempt to plan the entire economy, or even just a major part of it like prices, there would undoubtedly be gross inefficiencies; it is simply impossible that a central authority would be able to know, for example, whether there are enough shipping crates at a bottling factory without knowing the number of bottles produced per day, whether there are enough bottles without knowing the amount of drink produced per day, whether there is enough drink being produced per day without knowing the amount of thirst in the locations to which the factory ships its products. The list could go on, even with this example.

Supposing, however, we could solve the problem of omniscience on the part of a central planner, we would be left with yet other problems. First of all, there is the difficulty of actually managing the economy beyond setting policy: those policies must be communicated and then enforced somehow. The planners would need power over every facet of social life to ensure that their ideal economic structure is followed perfectly, lest there be any deviation which ruins the project. Thus, in a way, they must be present everywhere as well. Second, we would be left at the mercy of the central authority to care for our true good as a whole society while still avoiding the violation of the proper good or rights of individuals. They would need to be perfectly good, perfectly loving. Third, we would need to ensure that these authorities remain in place and at work just as they are, or else the whole project would be jeopardized.

So we see the Divine attributes mapped onto the central authority, or government: omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence, and even impassibility. However, as should be evident, governments do not possess such attributes, nor could they. Furthermore, while God does exercise the governance of Providence over His creation, He has left us to our own counsel in earthly affairs. (Cf. Sirach 15:14) The Lord Jesus Christ truly reigns as King, but those with civil authority mediate his universal royal authority. The Israelites who would have carried Him off to make Him king after the multiplication of the loaves and fishes in the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John 6 misunderstood the purpose of the Messiah and in what His Kingdom consists, for, as He Himself indicates, His Kingdom is not of this world. (John 18:36)

In this talk, I wish to highlight the relevance of the inner life of the Triune God, the One Who is omniscient, omnipotent, and so on, for the shaping of public policy and for describing acts of beneficence and social justice. I will also situate my argument in the initial historical contexts of the phrase “social justice,” beginning with what might be called the “magna carta” of social justice, Pius XI’s encyclical Quadragesimo Anno.

The pontifical motto of Pius XI (1922-1939) was, “The Peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ.” He explained this in his inaugural encyclical in 1922, Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio, and then later established the Feast of Christ the King with Quas Primas in 1925. Pius does not foresee merely a government which is friendly to and even promoting the Catholic Faith; he foresees the love of God penetrating the souls of individuals and changing them – this is the root of a truly flourishing civilization. Nine years later, in Quadragesimo Anno,his commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, the Pontiff returns to the theme of the moral education and reform of the individual as a root cause of the restoration of peace and justice in the world. It is also in this encyclical where we find the phrase “social justice” used for the first time in a text widely read outside particular academic circles, mostly in the Italian peninsula. Pius does not believe that a just and peaceful society is possible without interior reform, reform of the hearts of individuals. No mere set of policies will suffice.

Quadragesimo Anno departs somewhat in its vision of the just society from Rerum Novarum, as Thomas Burke points out in The Concept of Justice (2011), because, while Leo XIII remains moot on “states of affairs” as being just or unjust, Pius XI does not. Rather, he proposes that gross disparities in wealth are unjust, and they ought to be diminished. (For historical context, we should recall that in 1931, when the encyclical was published, the world was recovering from the First World War, just beginning the Great Depression, and fresh off the first of two major banking crises in the USA in the 1930’s.) There is no doubt that it is more desirable that every individual possess the wealth necessary for a decent life, but the point which Burke makes is indeed a powerful one: great disparities in wealth do not necessarily arise from any particular person acting unjustly. How then is it that such disparities can be called unjust? We will return to this question later.

Quadragesimo Anno uses the phrase “social justice” nine times. Unfortunately, just as in the cases of the progenitors of the phrase, Blessed Antonio Rosmini and Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, SJ, the meaning is somewhat unclear. As close as we get to a definition comes in section 110, where “the norm of social justice” is equated with “the needs of the common good.” However, the first usage deals with disparities of wealth and their diminution. Social justice is the force by which the Gini coefficient, as it is called, is made smaller. Other usages, perhaps dominant in the encyclical, refer to rendering an appropriate wage to workers. Pius sees the living wage as a function of social justice, but oddly enough he also claims that unreasonably high wages would violate the principle of social justice. Furthermore, he pairs social justice together with an almost completely forgotten idea of “social charity,” which is an even more ambiguous term indicating something like “love for the common good,” evidently a supererogatory love, otherwise it would be the same as giving the common good what it is owed, which reduces to justice.

Moving even further back in time, we can examine briefly the doctrine of Rosmini and Taparelli, who each somewhat independently coined the phrase “social justice” in various works, Rosmini first in 1837, and Taparelli a few years later in 1840. By the way, Taparelli was the mentor of the future Leo XII and Rerum Novarum’s ghostwriter Matteo Liberatore, the latter being a professor of the future Pius XI and the ghostwriter for Quadragesimo Anno, Oswald Von Nell-Breuning, SJ. It’s a very clean intellectual lineage.

Rosmini’s political thought developed much throughout his lifetime and was at its zenith in his monumental and fascinating text, The Constitution Under Social Justice, written in the midst of the revolutionary waves of 1848 which swept over Europe and then presented to the embattled Pius IX as a possible constitution for a unified Italian state. The commentary Rosmini provides tells us that social justice for him, in this text, the last of his life, meant simply the proportional representation of political power through the vote based on the amount of income tax one contributes to the public treasury. That is, the more taxes one pays, the greater weight must be apportioned to one’s vote. Rosmini does not believe in giving formal political power to the destitute, or even to day laborers (whom he would not have taxes levied upon), lest this lower class rise up in envy against the wealthy. On the other hand, the middle class is more numerous than the wealthy, thus balancing the scales, all the while providing an impetus for honesty in paying taxes and also a greater psychological attachment to caring for the common good through political means, seeing as one’s own place in guiding it has been individualized.

Taparelli, on the other hand, has social justice as a sort of assistance which is subsequent to healthy subsidiarity. Subsidiarity, we recall, is the principle that affairs ought to be managed by the lowest possible stratum of society concerned with those affairs. For instance, a mayor ought not to interfere with the arrangement of furniture or the selection of family meals in a household in the town he governs, even if he thinks he has a better plan than this particular family – and even if he really does have a better plan. For Taparelli, social justice is, more or less, the protection and advancement of the rights of lower strata to pursue their own legitimate ends. This undoubtedly involves giving some kind of aid, such as financial or natural resources, public permissions, legal defense, advertisement and referrals, and so on, the application of which is left up to the discretion of the group to whom it is given. However, too much assistance is in fact not only not social justice, it destroys the entire purpose of a society as a political unit – the higher strata only exist as higher strata in order to free lower strata, which in turn exist to free individuals in their pursuit of flourishing in the life of nature and in the life of grace. Overreaching – that is, violating subsidiarity – swallows up lower groups rather than serving them.

But why not simply have one large group? We have already seen the beginnings of an answer with Hayek’s observations about the market. Information is disseminated, so power ought to be disseminated due to the limits of human nature. However, what about God? Can His inner life tell us anything about this problem?

It turns out that it can. We believe in One God Who is Three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  The fact that God is Tri-Personal not only tells us about God Himself, but it also indicates the fundamental pattern of creation. We recall that in the Creed we also profess a doctrine on creation, namely, that through Him, the Son, all things were made. Therefore, the Son is a sort of lens which the Father, Who made all things visible and invisible, “pushes” creation through, or if you like shines through. The Father begets the Son before all time, and the Son eternally proceeds from the Father by this act of generation. Hidden within these two relations of paternity and filiation, we find the pattern for the law of all creation, the Eternal Law. Unlike in Islam, our God is not above reason, He is Reason, especially in the Person of the Son, the Logos, the Word, whom St. Paul calls the “Wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:24) I shall momentarily return to this theme.

We call creation’s participation in this Eternal Law the natural law. As an expression of the mind of God, creation is ordered, it has a logic to it, it somehow makes sense, even when broken. There is, however, a need for a terminus ad quem, an end which this law pursues and a means by which it pursues it. The Goodness of the Father is especially known by the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Here, in the spiration-procession relations, we find the final, efficient, and formal causes of creation’s search for its own end, however, in diverse ways. Clearly, a stone “loves” the good differently from an angel, and a dog or a house plant loves differently than you or I. And yet, we can still see that the Trinitarian pattern is built into the very idea of a substance having some good to seek at all. It is inescapable as a pattern, since, as we have noted, “through Him all things were created.” It is just not conceivable that things would be any other way. A being which had no good to seek would be completely perfect, which is only said of God, Who, as it turns out, personally loves Himself.

In rational creatures, angels and humans (though I limit my scope here to humans, despite much of it applying also to angels), the Holy Spirit is imprinted in some way on our very being in virtue of our mere existence, just as with the stone or the plant or the dog. We have a good to seek, a natural good, which is the upshot of having been created by God. However, there is also open to us the life of grace, a supernatural elevation of our capacity to flourish, which essentially consists in a personal friendship with God. This friendship is properly called charity, which is the special indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the soul, as an invisible mission.

However, charity springs from hope, which itself springs from faith. One cannot love God without the expectation of His assistance based on His promise to do so in pursuing Him, and one cannot even know such promises or that He is a personal deity at all without faith. (Cf. Hebrews 11:6) Thus, we see the classical aphorism vindicated – you cannot love what you do not know. I will say it again: you cannot love what you do not know.

One of the great medieval theological debates occurred over the primacy of our two rational powers: the intellect and the will. What follows is no doubt a gross oversimplification, but basically St. Thomas took the position that the intellect fundamentally acts prior to the will, knowing truth and thus informing the will with its object whereby the will is able to function, while his classmate St. Bonaventure argued for the primacy of the will over the intellect, with the will fundamentally moving the intellect to its good act of knowing truth. Quite a puzzle.

I take my cue from Etienne Gilson’s book “The Unity of Philosophical Experience” in pointing out that history can inform us when an idea is wrong if the ideas themselves are too subtle to discern. I think it is clear that history, both prior to and following St. Bonaventure, show him to have been wrong. I also would like to submit that eternity shows him wrong as well. Allow me to explain, and then return to an application of what follows to the topic at hand – social justice.

The scholastic period saw the influx of a large amount of previously unavailable Aristotelian texts, along with their various commentaries which had never been translated into Latin, including the Muslim commentators like Avicenna. The scholastics, which included not only Dominicans like Thomas but also Franciscans like Bonaventure, were reading these sources, open to the truths found within, despite their pagan and Muslim origins. Could it be the case that Bonaventure somehow picked up, through someone like Avicenna, his doctrine on the will? We see in the Franciscan lineage, following Bonaventure, a descent into a rejection of classical metaphysics in favor of “nominalism” – a doctrine emptying things of natures and relying on the will’s arbitrary subjection to Divine precepts, which is “voluntarism”; at least, this is the Christian version, while the secular version leaves aside both a metaphysics of objective and identifiable natures and God, and it subjects one’s will merely to itself – thus, nominalism and voluntarism have left a legacy which is as wide as it is deep, one which I surely don’t need to explain or explore very much for the listeners. As Benedict XVI explained so well in his famous Regensburg Address, in Islam God’s commands do not need to be reasonable, as Allah is above reason. The entire religion of Islam, literally meaning “submission,” is built around this nominalist-voluntarist paradigm. So it seems that the evolution within the Franciscan medieval scholastics, from Bonaventure into Scotus, Scotus into Ockham, and then finally culminating with Abelard, whose teaching pervaded and persuaded much of continental Europe, has a root not in a purely anthropological error but in an error about who God is. This is certainly not to say that St. Bonaventure did not believe in the Trinity, that would be absurd. It is, however, to say that he missed out on seeing a reflection of the logic of the Triune Godhead within the heart of the logic of human agency, perhaps on account of Muslim influence.

The processions in God are two – one procession of knowing, one procession of loving. The Son proceeds from the Father’s act of knowledge, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the mutual love of the Father and the Son. There is no temporal or real priority between the processions, just as there is no hierarchy among the Persons. However, we call the Father the First Person of the Trinity, the Son the Second, the Holy Spirit the Third. This is no accident – while there is no temporal or real priority, there is indeed logical priority between the processions and thus among the Persons. The first procession, which is necessary for the second procession, is that of knowledge. The second procession is that of love. The Son, Who is generated by knowledge, logically precedes the Holy Spirit, Who is spirated by love. Once again, one cannot love what one does not know. It is not that this principle applies to God so much as it simply is how God is, and subsequently it is how His creation is.

If even God does not love without knowing first, at least in terms of logical priority, would this not indicate that we rational creatures would be similar? I believe that this point, coupled with the history preceding and following St. Bonaventure with regards to voluntarism, namely, Islam and the collapse of faith and morals in Western Europe which can be largely attributed to nominalism (which is the metaphysical underpinning of voluntarism), indicate the solution: St. Thomas had it right. The intellect moves first before the will ever moves, as a reflection of the inner life of God. What seems to many to be nitpicking over irrelevant minutiae of philosophical anthropology turns out to be anything but – this is a major part of understanding who we are as embodied creatures made in the Image and Likeness of God pursuing union with Him through virtue under the operation of grace.

What does this have to do with public policy and social justice? A lot, in fact. We will only have time to set out a few lines of inquiry which could be probed much more deeply.

Returning to Taparelli, social justice comes after subsidiarity. On his account, as mentioned earlier, social justice is more or less the promotion and defense of the rights of lower strata of society. However, such lower strata, in order to exist as groups, must of course be allowed to function as their own caretakers to a sufficient degree, and in fact this must be demanded of them. This autonomy protects their existence, then, in two ways: as a present reality, and as a future reality. Autonomy protects the present reality by preventing the group from being swallowed up and assimilated by a larger group. For example, a neighborhood association which looks after the décor and propriety of its own territory would effectively no longer exist if it were not allowed to pursue these ends by the fact of the city government taking over the same tasks. If the end or telos is removed, the association ordered toward that end is effectively destroyed. Secondly, autonomy protects the future reality of the group by providing the sufficient knowledge and love to defend itself from external threats to its existence, as well as its flourishing and the flourishing of its members. The city government would be unlikely to care about the neighborhood’s welfare as much as the neighborhood itself cares about its own welfare.

Let’s extend this example and say that in a city of 1 million people, there is a clearly defined neighborhood comprising 2 dozen blocks, with apartments and shops and a few small parks. On each block there is an average of 350 residents, so about 8,400 people in total. Of these, about one third are living just above the poverty line, about 1,200 live below it, and of those 1,200 there are 80 who are homeless, and of those 80, 27 live night and day on the streets of the neighborhood. (These numbers regarding the poverty rate are proportionate with the situation of New York City.)

The city council member from this neighborhood is going to have two major advantages over the mayor of the city, the provincial governor, and the leader of the nation. First, he is going to know the names, the faces, and the real stories of the people who are the neediest in his neighborhood, which entails that he will know who is really in need and who simply prefers to take advantage of generous people, perhaps to their own detriment. Because he knows the situation of his neighborhood so well, he will be very well suited to make prudential decisions about how to fix the problems, both from his own direct exposure and from the ease of communication with his constituents. The second advantage is that he will be more likely to have an affective love toward the poor and marginalized of his neighborhood, because they are real people to him – they are not numbers or ideas. Here is where all of the foregoing speculative theology becomes incarnate and practical: to him, “the least of these” are these individuals, not some aggregate group without individual identities. It is not that “they” are suffering from want, it is that “William” is suffering from alcoholism, “Jacqueline” is suffering from domestic abuse, “Richard” is suffering from schizophrenia, “Jack” is trying to get work but encounters racial prejudice, and so on.

The masses of the needy do not have a face – an individual in need has a face, and therein we can find most easily the face of Christ. We can have personal encounters with individuals – we can only have political encounters with the crowd, or with the unnamed group of “those in need.” People clearly prefer to love and help individuals whom they know, whom they are more closely connected to; this is built into the order of charity, as St. Augustine and St. Thomas explain, given that we are finite creatures with a limited energy for service to others, unlike God. The best way to use that energy is in general to stick to what we know, such as our own family, our own country, and those who surround us in daily life. Otherwise, we presume to have the capacity to redeem the widow and the orphan in the way that only God can – as we will have the poor with us always, He said. In short, it seems God wants social justice to be as personal as possible, given God’s own interior life among the Persons. Certainly, there is a role for “programs” which benefit large groups, but such assistance must still be proportionate to the knowledge of the group’s situation. A study of the United States’ well-intentioned interventions in Haiti under Clinton provides good food for thought. Agricultural and ecological initiatives destroyed local businesses which made many perpetually dependent on foreign aid, and the poor moved out of the farmlands into the cities, where they built shanty towns. These shanty towns were then destroyed in the earthquake of 2010, leading to thousands of preventable deaths.  Had the U.S. bothered to do the hard work of getting to know local businesses and market patterns in an attempt to partner with entrepreneurs, farmers, and conservationists, instead of swallowing up the countryside, this outcome could have been very different. Instead, to this day, Haiti remains largely destitute and dependent on handouts from foreign governments, which makes local start-ups a near impossible venture: it is too hard to compete with “free.” This cycle perpetuates itself. Subsidiarity has been destroyed, and so too therefore has social justice been destroyed. Technically, slavery ended in Haiti, but really, it continues through big NGO’s.

Because Christ Himself indicated that He is “the least of these,” (Matthew 25) we can infer at least a dim analogy with the inner life of God in the act of social justice. This in part relies on a Trinitarian structure of society – I am speaking analogically now, not univocally; God is a society, but its members are perfect and perfectly equal. That is not the case with us. The knowledge a higher stratum possesses of a lower stratum, even on a one-to-one level (namely, the benefactor vis-à-vis the benefacted,) reflects the relation of the Father to the Son. It is this knowledge which allows for the impulse of love of benefactor for benefacted to be real, material, and affective rather than formal and general “love of the poor” – we can really feel that we are doing something good for someone when we know their name, when we know how the benefaction will help them in real life, and so on, as opposed to, for instance, making a donation to a large NGO which may use that money in anonymous or even unknowable ways. It becomes personal love through personal knowledge, and that intensifies the impulse itself and informs it with prudence on the part of the benefactor, and real, personal gratitude on behalf of the benefacted. It opens up a greater possibility of an encounter with God through service and being served, by “seeing the face of Christ,” on the part of benefactor and benefacted. If one is personally serving another, and one is personally grateful, it stands to reason one will associate this with the personal love of God in diverse ways. This is not the case so much with the anonymity involved with large NGO’s or welfare programs, which, while necessary in some circumstances, especially natural disasters, can overtime create a sense of learned helplessness or even entitlement on the part of the recipients.

There is, then, also a sort of natural redemption of the benefacted by the benefactor. That which the needy cannot do for themselves but absolutely require in order to flourish must be given from above. In terms of grace, we speak of Christ and the economy of salvation, which we were never owed except by God’s own gratuitous promises. In some natural circumstances, this is a matter of strict commutative justice, such as in urgent and grave necessity of material assistance. In other natural circumstances, we are engaged in almsgiving, out of charity rather than justice – even though such charity is a matter of grave even if indeterminate precept: we are bound to assist the poor out of what is truly excessive to us relative to our state of life, but it is left to us to choose how. This models God’s own love for humanity, in Christ’s redemptive work, albeit on the natural plane.

The knowledge-love dynamic is also part of why religious life can work while Communism cannot, and this in two senses – first, to know and love a community of several hundred or several thousand as in religious life is unlike the attempt to do so with a large nation. Second, religious life is centered around knowing and loving Christ, to pursue union with Him in this life and the next. It is not about creating an exterior utopia, but an interior one.

Similarly, social justice, a phrase now sometimes hijacked to support movements deriving from Marxism in various ways, is not to remove all suffering or inconvenience or struggling in the world, for this is impossible for us, since we and our governments lack the Divine attributes. Rather, it is the empowering of lower social strata to pursue their own flourishing, while not destroying their independence and autonomy by doing for them what they can and must do for themselves, again, something which to judge rightly requires sufficient knowledge of the situation. This act is an act of justice insofar as it has the common good in view, which each individual is bound to will. This would seem to make social justice equal to what St. Thomas calls “legal justice,” but perhaps we can say it is a species thereof. St. Thomas describes legal justice as a general virtue which is part of all virtues, that seeks to benefit the common good according to the ratio of the act produced by the given virtue. For example, the virtues belonging to temperance moderate the use of pleasures, which moderation benefits the common good in many ways, such as the well-ordered creation of new human life within the family, in the case of chastity. Legal justice belongs to rulers as a mastercraft. Here is where we can possibly see social justice as a species of legal justice, or as a special part of it: it is the part of legal justice which specifically pursues the preservation of lower social strata and their empowerment to pursue their legitimate ends while respecting subsidiarity, given that this object has a special relation to reason but still directly corresponds to the care of the common good. This leaves us with a puzzle of where social justice stops and almsgiving begins. I will leave that unexplored today, though I would suggest it has something to do with the proper object of each, and that these are not mutually exclusive acts but are rather complementary while remaining distinct.

Pius XI gives us some more to think about. He is certainly in favor of many mediating associations, such as clubs and guilds, especially his favorite project of organized youth groups called “Catholic Action,” scuffles over which with Mussolini almost led Italy into a civil war in 1931. Mediating associations limit one’s need to care for more people than is possible by creating an organized structure for advocacy. British anthropologist Robert Dunbar’s famous 1993 study on social knowledge suggested that the average person can only have about 150 meaningful relationships. Beyond this, a person one knows is merely an acquaintance. Having more associations, even associations of associations, such as for schools, business districts, neighborhoods, and particular trades (these were called “guilds” but now replaced by the idea of “unions” which can exist for a single company), create a barrier against overreach from higher strata. This could be overreach motivated by the most laudable of intentions, but, once again, underinformed of the on-the-ground reality to such an extent that their good intentions ruin people’s lives to no discernible benefit of the common good, while also possibly violating their individual good which is never to be sacrificed. (Here we see the distinction that Rosmini makes between public good, which is a collection of public resources, and the common good, which includes the rights of individuals which can never be violated for the sake of the public good or for any other reason.) These good intentions leading to overreach could range from being concerned with economic reform, to social reform, from ecological health, to public health.

A final note before concluding. Taparelli and Rosmini, the two progenitors of social justice, are against egalitarianism, and subsequently they are against policies designed to eliminate inequalities of status, such as the wide and forcible redistribution of wealth. They each take inequalities of status as an inescapable given, a fact explained by Rosmini in his book Theodicy as being accounted for by God’s wisdom in giving to each what he is most capable of making the best use of. Taparelli goes so far as to say that, apart from our humanity (which would include our race in itself, of course), we are unequal in everything else – our wealth, our intelligence, our skill, our strength, our virtue, our class. He is opposed in principle to “contract theories” of society, because, he says, no such “contract society” has ever really existed, there has always been hierarchy from the beginning due to natural disparities in individuals. Only God is a perfectly equal society. Not only would pursuing the elimination of inequalities be to set out to reach an impossible goal, leaving many victims in its wake, but it would thwart the design of God for human civilization – which, as we have seen, involves the dynamic of benefaction. Remembering and responding now to Rawls, we can say that inequality as designed under God’s wisdom is a “rule of the game” which we cannot “get above” in order to assess. That God creates us with inequalities means something, including for what justice looks like in practice. Without the poor, whom we will always have with us, we are assured, how would we encounter Christ in the unique way which such service provides the avenue for? This is particularly true in the case of social justice, which empowers the needy to assist themselves – a special joy to partake in, not all unlike that of parenting, which involves the most obvious natural inequalities.

The world today wants to think of social justice as removing “unjust states” from existence, such as large wealth disparities. This notion derives at least in part from Quadragesimo Anno – it is the “line in the sand” – and here I will put myself in careful tension with Pius XI. The problem is that injustice is not properly a characteristic of states of affairs, it is a characteristic of actions. It is possible to create large wealth disparities, for example, without ever having done something unjust, as Thomas Burke points out. The attempts to ameliorate circumstances found unpalatable, such as immense and stark wealth disparity in South Africa or India, or even those unwanted circumstances that come from historical injustices such as slavery or some other kind of oppression of a people, must follow the lines given by Rosmini and Taparelli if they are to be successful, while remembering the “barrier” of subsidiarity, the knowledge-love dynamic, and the point just made about justice and acts. It is not unjust strictly speaking that some are very rich and some are very poor. The rich who know of some dire case may be obliged by justice to give assistance, but normally this belongs to the virtue of charity through almsgiving. Seemingly in line with what Pius XI envisions for society, over and above individual moral virtue and the interior reform which strengthens it, what the wealthy and “privileged” as a class owe society as a whole, is to work toward the establishment of a social structure where they can more and more easily function as economic and social “redeemers,” who elevate the lower classes to their proper place through empowerment, but without accidentally – or intentionally – making them perpetually dependent to the point where they become entitled and apathetic due to inordinate amounts of benefaction. We read in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “He who does not work should not eat.” Let the rich not run afoul of St. Paul by occasioning laziness which slowly grows into envy and eventually revolution, or even worse by destroying the ability to engage in self-sustaining work; for, ironically, this might do more to undermine the dignity of a man than does his mere unwanted poverty.