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.

Thoughts on Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s “Amoris Booklet”

Eamonn Clark, STL

I am continuing to publish some of my notes for a potential book on the various readings of Amoris Laetitia. I’m not sure it will ever see the light of day otherwise.

Bad interpretations of AL, in particular of Chapter Eight, remain a major pastoral-academic concern, despite the dust seeming to have settled. In actual Catholic life, which lies outside of seminary classrooms and the blogosphere, this is a real issue and will continue to be so until there is either sufficient intellectual conversion among the elite, both ecclesiastical and academic, or there is extremely strong papal teaching on the matter.

Here, we look at a small book put out some years ago by Cardinal Coccopalmerio, who used to be prefect of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. We should pray for His Eminence. He is very old now, and we never really found out exactly what the deal was with that infamous party at his secretary’s residence. Really – pray for him.

On we go, then. Some small edits made from my notes.

Coccopalmerio perhaps makes a better case than Fernández regarding the question of grace but arguably ends up with an even less tolerable position on the nature of the moral law.

“Having considered the ontology of the person also in the unique elements and particularly in those that in some way limit the person in his capacity to act normally, it seems to me that the Exhortation leads to three important consequences: the so-called “law of gradualness,” the recognition of the good that is possible, the non-immediate imputability of all those people who do not fulfill the law or who fulfill it only in part, and the consequent need to refrain from judging these people as culpable and therefore as in a state of grave sin.”

“The so-called ‘law of gradualness’ recurs many times in the magisterium of Pope Francis, in the proposals of the Synod of Bishops and in the Exhortation Amoris laetitia. Let us see at least one passage: ‘Along these lines, Saint John Paul II proposed the so-called “law of gradualness” in the knowledge that the human being “knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth”. (Familiaris Consortio, 34). This is not a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law. For the law is itself a gift of God which points out the way, a gift for everyone without exception; it can be followed with the help of grace, even though each human being “advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life” (ibid., 9)’ (n. 295). The so-called ‘law of gradualness’ presupposes, therefore, an incapacity or a serious difficulty for a person to put the law into practice, at least in its totality, in all its requirements, on account of a condition of weakness.”

This last statement of Coccopalmerio seems to exceed the teaching of the Holy Father when the Cardinal claims that there can be an “incapacity” in fulfilling the demands of the law. However, he goes on to say that such an incapacity could be derived from “a condition of sickness”:

“For these members of the faithful, pastors of souls should, on the one hand, state the ideal, that is, the law in its entirety and in all its demands, but they should, on the other hand, work to heal the weakness, that is, to increase ability to act, by using the normal methods of pastoral care in this work, especially preaching and the sacraments. From this case, we should distinguish another case of impossibility or serious difficulty in putting the law into practice. And, in fact, the law is given for all people, and does not take into account, nor could it, a condition in which individual persons can come to find themselves with an incapacity to act normally, and therefore, to observe the law, such as, for example, a condition of sickness.”

This is a fine position, even though his expression of the position is unclear. People who struggle with sin should be helped by preaching and the sacraments. People who cannot avoid a materially sinful act due to sickness (we assume he means mental illness) are not guilty of actual sin, and so we must use common-sense jurisprudence in our dealings with such people, taking into account their objective inability to perform human acts in a normal way. There is no problem with this suggestion. But he goes further: 

“We can recall that, by making provisions for such situations of inability with pastoral wisdom, canon law has already provided in its roots some remedies that are comprehensively referred to as “aequitas canonica” [canonical equity], and those are known as exception, dispensation, and epikeia. In the case, however, of the “law of gradualness,” the impossibility or serious difficulty to put the law into practice is caused by an incapacity to will it because of a condition of weakness of the will.”

Now we are left wondering if “a condition of weakness of the will” means something other than “a condition of sickness.” He does not clarify. Let us suppose, for his sake, that it is what he means.

“Three barely reported texts are undoubtedly of great human and pastoral value. It seems important to me to re-read three particular expressions: ‘…  what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God… it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits.’ (n. 303) ‘… possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits….’ ‘a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God…’ (n. 305) ‘… eventual stages of personal growth…’ ‘the Lord’s mercy, which spurs us on to do our best.’ ‘… a church … a mother … always does what good she can…’. These are expressions that speak for themselves. They are, however, [expressions] of great realism and great respect for the concrete ontology of every person. The statement should be noted that God himself requires only what is possible and He accepts, therefore, what is possible. Likewise, the Church [is] like a Mother.”

At long last, Coccopalmerio rightly draws attention to the fact that God cannot command the impossible. He is also right to imply that the careful urging of a person toward greater virtue is a role proper to the Church as a Mother, and its pastors who do this work should be attentive to the status of a person’s individual inclination towards vices and virtues, just as St. Gregory the Great indicated in the Pastoral Rule. This is his first “solution”: to say that a person cannot live up to the ideal of the law due to a weakness of will. There would be no problem with this except with the ambiguity of the words “can,” “impossible,” etc., provided he left it there: such weakness of the will we call vice, and vice produces sin.

However, he has much more in mind than this, as the next passage shows:

“The second solution: the non-immediate imputability of those people who do not fulfill the law or fulfill it only in part, and the consequent need to refrain from judging these people as culpable and therefore in a state of grave sin. We can read a pair of texts: “It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being” (n. 304). “The Church’s pastors, in proposing to the faithful the full ideal of the Gospel and the Church’s teaching, must also help them to treat the weak with compassion, avoiding aggravation or unduly harsh or hasty judgements. The Gospel itself tells us not to judge or condemn (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37). Jesus ‘expects us to stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune, and instead to enter into the reality of other people’s lives and to know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated’ (ibid., 270)” (n. 308). We can re-read the valuable text of n. 305 already cited above (cfr. no. 4.1.). I would say that all this makes the reason complete for what we have said above regarding the person and the moral action made impossible by concrete conditions, such as that one exemplified by a woman cohabiting for years, conscious of the illegitimacy of her union, genuinely desiring to put an end to it, but however, it has been made impossible, at least at present, to put her desire into practice.”

It is no longer reasonable to give the Cardinal the benefit of the doubt. By his last words in this section, it is evident that what he has in mind is not a case of severe mental illness but instead a case of severe attachment to sexual activity in the context of an illicit union. This is clear because the Cardinal says that there are concrete conditions which make “the moral action” impossible in the case he gives of a woman living for years in an illicit union, who is aware of its illicit character, and somehow both genuinely desires to stop sinning but it is impossible to stop nonetheless. The details of the case he refers to were explained earlier in the book: 

“[Suppose there is] a woman who went to cohabitate with a canonically married man who was abandoned with three young children by his wife. However, this woman has saved the man from a state of deep despair, probably from the temptation of suicide; she has brought up the three children, not without considerable sacrifices; their union lasts for ten years now; a new child is born. The woman of whom we speak is fully conscious of being in an irregular situation. She sincerely would like to change her life, but evidently she cannot do it. If, in fact she left the union, the man would return to his situation from before, the children would be left without a mother. To leave the union would mean, therefore, not to fulfill her grave duties to people who are innocent in themselves. It is therefore evident that it could not take place ‘without a new fault.’”

The Cardinal at least realizes that leaving the union is not the only option: “she should practice continence” is the natural objection, which he is well aware of and notes. He goes on to quote Footnote 329 of AL, which quotes Gaudium et Spes 51. These passages from the Council speak about maintaining “intimacy” being important for the couple with respect to raising their children. The Cardinal explains:

“It is important to ask ourselves what the expression used by the Council exactly means: ‘the intimacy of married life’ (in the original Latin text: ‘intimata vita conjugalis’). Undoubtedly, this means the performance of conjugal acts. Beyond the meaning of the words, what is said above leads to this exegesis: ‘at least temporarily the size of their families should not be increased.’ At this point, the text states: ‘… where the intimacy of married life is broken off’ (Latin text ‘abrumpitur’), and so the performance of conjugal acts is interrupted, ‘it is not uncommon that fidelity is imperiled and the good of the children may be endangered… their upbringing… the courage to accept new ones.’ One may naturally note that the opportunity to not abstain from performing conjugal acts in order to prevent that ‘fidelity is imperiled and the good of the children may be endangered’ is a directive given by the Council for situations of marriage, in other words, for legitimate unions, while it is applied by the Apostolic Exhortation to cases of unions which are at least objectively illegitimate. I believe, however, that this difference is not relevant to the correctness of this application. Having considered the preceding texts, it seems to me that it may be held: a) if the commitment to live as brother and sister proves possible without difficulty for the couple’s relationship, then the two cohabiting may accept it willingly; b) if, however, this commitment creates difficulties, the two cohabiting seem not to be obligated in and of themselves, because they will meet the case of the subject of which n. 301 speaks with this clear expression: a subject ‘can be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.’”

Let us suppose, with much lenience, that the Cardinal’s assertion about the meaning of the phrase “the intimacy of married life” in GS is correct in that it refers to conjugal relations, and let us suppose he is right to see AL applying this same criterion to illicit unions – even though these are not “conjugal” but merely sexual acts. (In the strict sense, the word “conjugal” implies “married.”) The direct implication is that a person who wants a good thing to happen, namely, the prevention of “further sin” (like the partner harming himself or the children), is justified in giving sexual favors to obtain it; in fact, one could easily argue that giving such favors is a duty because of the importance of maintaining a stable family environment for the sake of the children. (A similar argument, in favor of the duty to use contraception, has been recently made by an increasingly prominent Roman moralist, Father Maurizio Chiodi.) Ironically, Coccopalmerio suggests this adulterous act is part of the good of fidelity. It cannot be so.

After detailing the “concrete case” he has in mind, the Cardinal goes on to explain his opinion on the possibility of “mitigating factors” obtaining in this woman’s psychology.

The most generous reading of these passages gives us the following teaching from Cardinal Coccopalmerio: when one thinks or feels that it is impossible to fulfill the demands of the moral law due to the desire for future goods or due to present weakness of will, God does not demand that the moral law be fulfilled. There are two plain errors. On the one hand there is simple consequentialism or proportionalism – when a better good can be obtained by what is normally seen as wrong, that act stops being wrong. On the other hand there is the paradigmatic case of saying that temptation excuses from sin, seemingly proximate to heresy. (One is reminded of the famous 17th century laxist, Archbishop Caramuel, the “Lamb of God,” so named because he “took away the sins of the world.” St. Alphonsus also dubbed him the “Prince of the Laxists.” Caramuel made a similar argument about temptation removing guilt.) One could use the Cardinal’s method to justify practically any action whatsoever – “I can’t follow the moral law because I want this future good which is threatened by not violating it, and so God does not demand it,” or “I can’t follow the moral law because I am weak, and so God does not demand it,” or a combination of the two. We can and should notice that, coincidentally, that this argument is never applied for the “malefactor” in broken marriages – why could there not have been “mitigating factors” for a man who abandons his wife and children? Could it have been that he needed to do so in order to avoid some bad thing in the future? Such considerations are never made.

The less generous reading has the Cardinal falling directly into heresy regarding sufficient grace.

A Liturgical Autopsy

Eamonn Clark, STL

There is so much to learn about liturgy from Moses and Aaron. What to do, and what not to do. For example, when Moses goes rogue and disobeys God in striking the rock, he makes the whole “liturgy” about him and Aaron, and their power and importance before the people – allegedly to appease them. And it comes about by his effort, his creativity, rather than the power of the word, as God had wanted. Instead of “crucifying himself” with the “rubrics,” Moses “struck Christ,” the bearer of living water, who only needs to be so stricken once, on the Cross… in the liturgy, He provides power in virtue of this singular act. (This symbolic act occurred previously, in Exodus 17:6.) Moses pays for this incident by being forbidden from entering into the Promised Land.

Earlier on, Aaron shirks his priestly responsibility when Moses goes up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 32) He blames the people for the golden calf which he created, after taking their gold to give them a religious experience which was “comprehensible” to them, which would allegedly get them not to abandon the camp. The people do love it, and they feel great. In Aaron’s zeal for numbers, his tribe, Levi, righteously put to death three thousand idolaters, and those who remained were stricken with plague and made to drink the ground up golden powder of the idol with water from the brook nearby.

These are just a few abstract observations of what NOT to do. It is good for reflection. Liturgical abuse, mind you, is a species of the vice of superstition, on St. Thomas’ account. “[F]alsehood in outward worship occurs on the part of the worshiper, and especially in common worship which is offered by ministers impersonating the whole Church. For even as he would be guilty of falsehood who would, in the name of another person, proffer things that are not committed to him, so too does a man incur the guilt of falsehood who, on the part of the Church, gives worship to God contrary to the manner established by the Church or divine authority, and according to ecclesiastical custom. Hence Ambrose [Comment. in 1 ad Cor. 11:27, quoted in the gloss of Peter Lombard] says: “He is unworthy who celebrates the mystery otherwise than Christ delivered it.” For this reason, too, a gloss on Colossians 2:23 says that superstition is “the use of human observances under the name of religion.” He continues, “On the other hand if that which is done be, in itself, not conducive to God’s glory, nor raise man’s mind to God, nor curb inordinate concupiscence, or again if it be not in accordance with the commandments of God and of the Church, or if it be contrary to the general custom—which, according to Augustine [Ad Casulan. Ep. xxxvi], ‘has the force of law’—all this must be reckoned excessive and superstitious, because consisting, as it does, of mere externals, it has no connection with the internal worship of God. Hence Augustine (De Vera Relig. iii) quotes the words of Luke 17:21, ‘The kingdom of God is within you,’ against the ‘superstitious,’ those, to wit, who pay more attention to externals.” How interesting that it is that St. Thomas accuses liturgical abusers of excessive attention to externals, when usually the accusation is just the opposite.

A video of a mass from a parish “cluster” has been making the rounds on the Catholic blogosphere. I usually don’t like watching such things, let alone commenting on them, but this one is singularly bad. It’s like the morbid curiosity of slowing down to look at a bad car crash. Usually, it might be better to just move along. But if you want to know just how bad the liturgy can be while still being valid (a point I will contest with another commentator), it can be informative to watch such things. Then picking it apart can be its own instructive exercise.

Here’s David Gray’s video commentary. He thinks the consecration was invalid. I do not. It feels like it’s almost worse that it was valid.

I don’t doubt there are many sincere souls who are “along for the ride” in this parish community. I don’t mean to be harsh with them. I also don’t doubt the sincerity of the pastor. He probably really does care for his people and wants their spiritual good, and he has probably been helpful for many people in difficult moments of their lives. But… this is the liturgy of Christ and His Church. It is not the personal property of any particular cleric (even of the pope, by the way…), so there is plenty of criticism warranted, despite any good intentions, which I am sure abound. Clergy don’t have plausibly have the option of pleading ignorance of the law of Christ’s Church, even though some of them should be cut a bit of slack due to terrible formation in seminary. Anyway, let’s get into it, with charity.

I don’t want to make this a big list of “things that I notice are wrong,” as it would be too repetitive, but immediately, at the 0:00 mark, one notices certain oddities which will serve as a kind of overture for the liturgy. First of all, the level of sound – it is LOUD and jarring, drawing attention to Father. He wants to talk to people and have a personal connection. It is about him, and it is about “us.” And the whole thing is not particularly serious, so, we’ll talk about the weather. Meanwhile, he is carrying a crozier (or something like one) – he is not a bishop, but he evidently thinks this symbol of authority looks nice on him. Cue the music….

Blech. Okay, we’ve reached the collect and kyrie, which are by the book. And then, homily #1 begins. Father wants you to know that he is really concerned that you understand what you are about to hear, so he is willing to interrupt the whole mass. Okay… not the worst, but it would be better to write a blog post ahead of time for people to read, or hand out something in the bulletin on Sunday, no? Notice too how “gender conscious” Father is, being sure to mention our “Jewish sisters” before our “Jewish brothers,” and then going out of his way not to imply that God is a “He,” lest some chick feel underrepresented in the Godhead. What ultimately animates such thinking is the refusal to accept both nature and revelation about the sexes. God is “He” because He says so, and because the male sex is archetypally related to act or force, and the female sex is archetypally related to passivity or reception. God is not passive or receptive in any real sense, except in Christ in His human nature – with sanctified humanity, by the way, being the Lord’s mystical bride, the Church.

First reading and Psalm. Fine.

11:42 – here comes homily #2. Father wants everyone to know he is being merciful by not using the long version of the difficult letter to the Hebrews. It’s too haaaaaard for you, you sheep of mine.

Second reading.

14:37 – homily #3. Instructions to be spiritual. Okay, not the worst advice, but without the foregoing interruptions and with better music and more reverent silence, that should be easy enough without the reminder.

Gospel, with some weird ad-libbing before and after. The deacon is vested with whatever strange garment Father is wearing it seems, and has a similarly low opinion of the intelligence of the congregation based on the way he proclaims the readings – like it’s story time in 3rd grade.

Homily #4, the main one. It actually starts out okay, a little too 70’s, but some decent points. And then, unfortunately, comes the whopper, at 24:58 – “Pro-life, pro-choice, whatever our values are, we want to involve others in that process…” Hmm. Seems evil. The homily is a moment to instill values, like warning that those who kill the unborn or support doing such do not inherit the Kingdom of God, which he seems to be really interested in promoting, which is good. Then we hear about a plane ride that Cardinal Cupich had and how people being concerned about a mom carrying her baby means the Kingdom of God is here. Weird. Then something about a birth by a swimming pool. Weirder. Then some navel gazing about the parishes in the cluster and asking for money for the capital campaign. Then some rambling. A story to end, which is actually a charming anecdote, but maybe not anonymous enough. Such homilies are almost like conversations, because the homilist struggles to understand that he is not merely a facilitator of reflection but actually a teacher. If such men were to stop inserting well-intentioned but ultimately condescending mini-homilies everywhere in an attempt to instruct people about what is happening and put all that energy into teaching during the homily instead, it would be better.

37:12 – petitions. A little fluffy but not terrible. I do like that they prayed for police. One kudo earned. Then the stupid sheep are reminded that they need to sit now while the gifts are prepared. Kudo lost.

I don’t think I need to address the impropriety of how the altar linens are… arranged.

Presentation and preparation of the gifts. Extremely casual, since, I think, the attitude deep down is that the main part of the liturgy is over. No fewer than EIGHT chalices, as if that is not excessive… but at least they are using precious metals. One kudo.

41:38 – offertory. Major ad-libbing, again with the needless didactism, to remind people of a point which could have simply been made once in a while in a decent homily on what the Eucharist is. Kudo lost. Oh, and the response makes sure not to make women feel excluded from the Trinity, again.

Homily #5, with a happy birthday wish in there. The point here is to make people feel that they are experiencing something spiritual, I guess. One wouldn’t have to try so hard were the liturgy which the Church demands simply executed to the letter, with more silence, better music, and reasonable accoutrements. Laying underneath of this might be some sort of vague Pelagianism – if we aren’t trying, and we aren’t feeling spiritually and socially included, then we aren’t really praying or worshiping God or “participating” enough.

Preface. Read from the book, but very dramatically, as if it is really about the “experience,” not about simply being present as a sacrifice is being offered.

Then – well, I’m not sure what to call this, it is made up. It is not the Sanctus. It is just a weird song, with WEIRD arm swinging. Back to the point about Pelagianism. Epiclesis, then into the Eucharistic Prayer…

Here, we are coming to the very heart of the Mass – usually, even the most liberal guys don’t mess around with this part. Father does, in this case, throwing in the word “friends” where it does not belong. This is egregious sin, but it does not invalidate the consecration – the Words of Consecration are what make or break the validity as to its form. Those words, “This is My Body,” and “This is the chalice of My Blood,” are said correctly. Even these could admit of some small changes without invalidating the sacrament, as long as the central meaning is clearly preserved (i.e. “This is the cup of My Blood”) – but not without committing mortal sin even worse than messing with the parts surrounding this critical moment.

A lot is going on here. There is again the weird didactism (“Let us bow before our God,”) which admittedly is half-necessary, given that the posture of the congregation and assisting ministers is totally inappropriate. There is the distracting – not engaging – looking around the room by Father. There is the – understandable – nonchalance of the one altar server who is visible (who bears minimal blame).

Then, again, the same stupid made up song with the weird arm movements, with some more minor ad-libbing. Then after an overly dramatic Per Ipsum, we get the same song and arm swinging AGAIN. Really painful. Tell me that this parish has produced a single priestly vocation in the past 20 years, and I would be shocked. Who on earth who grows up in such an environment would say, “I want to give up marriage, a career, and self-direction, to do THIS all day”? Maybe there are a few such people, but they are unlikely to be well-balanced emotionally – or psycho-sexually.

Our Father. At least they didn’t say “Our Parent.” One kudo. Then the “Sign of Peace,” which is supposed to be brief and, well, peaceful, lasts over a minute. Kudo lost.

52:54 – Agnus Dei. You will notice that Father is putting Our Lord into wicker baskets with fabric inside. How thoughtful to put the fabric in, so Christ is nice and comfy, and particles won’t fall out all over the floor. Remember, the main part of the liturgy is long over. And while we want money given away to the parish cluster to fix the floor or whatever, we will carry Christ around in what would be just barely fit to use at a picnic. Okay. The worst part is that they have real ciboria visibly available, made from a precious metal – it is out-and-out intentional use of an unworthy vessel. It’s one thing if you’re celebrating a secret mass in Auschwitz and need to pass around Holy Communion discretely. This is something else. And it shows, as the Gospel reading ironically mentioned, where the heart is, and where the treasure is… Not in the Eucharistic Lord.

Then homily #5, which consists of a bunch of ridiculous COVID stuff, including the insane request to carry the Eucharist back to your seat (because that is safer I guess). I won’t bother going through it. But it fits the bill – the temperament and ideological leanings of those panicked by COVID tend to be of the sort which inform the liturgy we are witnessing. Liberals tend to be stronger in the concupiscible part of their appetite, while conservatives tend to be stronger in the irascible part. Each tendency leads to its own challenges. A post for another time.

54:47 – Ecce Agnus Dei. Made up. Moving on.

Distribution of Communion. Here we find out what all those chalices were for, which was foreshadowed in homily #5. They are just there to look at from far away, with Extraordinary Ministers of – adoration? – picking them up so they can be reverenced. At least the thought of reverencing the Lord’s Most Precious Blood is a good thought, but… it is just a made up ritual and confuses people about what the Eucharist is. “Am I really receiving all of Christ?” (This is a very good argument, among several, not to distribute from chalices to the congregation at all, ever.) At 1:06:59, we get a rather brazen announcement that anyone who wants to waltz up to take Our Lord to someone can come on ahead. I guess as long as you have a wicker basket on hand, you are qualified… I don’t know, maybe the people who come up are legitimately deputed. We should give the benefit of the doubt, but… it is a bad look.

1:08:12 – homily #6. Short, but unnecessary.

Concluding prayer. Then homily #7, which is some kind of announcement about writing on a card that you will love, or something, and then more talk about money. Then a “living eulogy” of some woman in the parish who is not there but has worked there for a while.

Final blessing, made up. With the crozier. Dismissal, made up. Recessional. With a quasi-blessing, from the “crozier,” being put on people’s heads. Yes, you read that correctly. (I, for one, would encourage a return of the virgula poenitentiaria, or penitential wands, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening here.)

Well, that’s it. We made it.

I won’t do another post like this for a long time, maybe ever. The thing is, the more “creative” a liturgy is externally, the less creative it is internally. All that focus, as St. Thomas implies, on externals, distracts one from truly entering into the authentic prayer of the Church. Sin moves away from the infinite horizon of God and His love and moves toward finite creation, so sin is boring. So is bad liturgy, because it is sinful. Even if valid, such liturgy deadens the movement of the Holy Spirit, despite its normal intention to the contrary. Thus ends, then, my liturgical autopsy.

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Is Doubt a Sin?

Eamonn Clark, STL

Perhaps there is no moral issue which is more confusing to people than what is demanded of the intellect with regard to faith. It is an especially big problem in the West, among young people most of all. One hears from time to time, “I’m not sure I believe in the Church’s teaching on x,” where x is more often than not some moral teaching which rubs against the grain of progressive Western values of “tolerance” and “compassion.” One also hears occasionally, “I just struggle to believe y,” where y is some article of faith or a close derivative, with the supernatural character being particularly clear, such as the bodily resurrection of all the dead at the end of the world. Last of all, one also hears the blunter sort of statement, “I don’t believe in z,” where z could be either a moral or speculative doctrine taught authoritatively by the Church. In all three cases, if the doubter had previously called himself Catholic, it is unlikely to be any different after such announcements. He will still most likely simply say that he is “Catholic, but…” Whence the pejorative title of “cafeteria Catholic” comes.

Catholicism is not a culture. It is not a race, either. The Pharisees of old confused Judaism for a culture and their natural lineage for a spiritual one – descendants of Abraham in the flesh do not necessarily inherit his spiritual blessings. As someone put it once, God has no grandchildren. Excepting those who cannot use their reason (like infants), following Christ must be a personal choice which at least formally subjects everything else to Him and His will, meaning, at least in principle, despite failures from weakness, one wants to do His will no matter what.

This not only includes believing what God has said through Christ and His Church, it begins with this belief. Faith, which is not a mere collection of spiritual feelings or some arbitrary belief in spiritual realities but is rather trust in God’s Word as revealed in Christ and through His Catholic Church, is the condition for having a real spiritual life in the first place. (This can be implicit – see Hebrews 11:6 – but we’ll leave aside the special case of those who have not really been preached to sufficiently.) One who does not take God’s Word for truth, on the authority of God, and subsequently recognizing His voice in the Catholic Church when such becomes possible, can do nothing to please Him. The Scriptural evidence for the necessity of faith for salvation is copious – a reading of Hebrews 11 should suffice to give you the picture, along with the Lord’s statement in the Temple at the start of Holy Week: “Then Jesus cried out, ‘Whoever believes in Me does not believe in Me alone, but in the One who sent Me. And whoever sees Me sees the One who sent Me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in Me should remain in darkness. As for anyone who hears My words and does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I have not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects Me and does not receive My words: The word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. I have not spoken on My own, but the Father who sent Me has commanded Me what to say and how to say it. And I know that His command leads to eternal life. So I speak exactly what the Father has told Me to say.'” (John 12:44-50)

To disbelieve any part of the teaching of God is to cut oneself off from Him, by implying that He is either confused or, even worse, lying. God demands that we perceive that He knows all and never lies. To disbelieve that the Church faithfully carries and announces God’s teaching is to reject those whom the Lord sent out to do precisely that, just before His Ascension: “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘Behold, all authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.'” (Matthew 28:16-20; cf. the sending of the 70 in Luke 10:16 – “He who hears you hears Me,” etc.)

To be a Catholic in law is to be sacramentally Catholic. If one was baptized as a Catholic, one is legally a Catholic. However, this does not mean that one truly belongs to the Catholic Church in an effective sense. That requires faith in the teachings of God through the Catholic Church, namely, the creeds and dogmas proposed for belief (i.e. the Trinity, the Resurrection, the Assumption, etc.), and also intellectually holding to their clear derivatives as proposed by the Church since, even though such data is not explicitly revealed by God, the Church enjoys protection in interpreting revealed truths whether through the Her ordinary or extraordinary magisterium. Were the Church not able to exercise both of these functions, that is, infallibly stating what is revealed by God directly and infallibly interpreting the immediate consequences of that data, there would be no real significance of the Church as a teacher. This would even extend to the necessity of throwing out Scripture – as otherwise the Church would not infallibly teach what belongs in Scripture in the first place.

So, are pro-choice politicians, for example, even able to be Catholics, over and above the legal sense? As it turns out, strictly speaking, yes. The illicitness of abortion does of course belong to Catholic doctrine, but it is not a datum revealed by God per se. The 5th Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” is revealed by God, but its application to cases where there is even the slightest bit of clarification needed from an additional science renders the conclusion non-revelatory, even if definitive and infallible, which is the case with abortion. One who denies this teaching on abortion, presupposing an awareness of what one is actually talking about (a theme we will return to momentarily), is a mortal sin indirectly against faith, in addition to being (sometimes) a mortal sin of both formal and material cooperation in the evil act of abortion and (sometimes) a mortal sin of scandal. So it should not be any consolation that one happens not to sin so egregiously against faith that it actually constitutes heresy, resulting in the loss of interior moral membership in the Church – it is actually to one’s greater shame, as St. Peter indicates: “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: ‘A dog returns to its vomit,’ and, ‘A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.'” (2 Peter 2:21-22)

I base my analysis here on Fr. Cartechini, SJ’s wonderful chart on theological notes. I have referenced it before – it might be a little bit too rigorist in my opinion, and the legal framework it is based on (the 1917 Code) renders some parts a bit obsolete, but it is very good at setting up the theoretical side of the problem. See also Dr. Feser’s nice explanation of the 5 types of papal teaching, which maps onto this schema easily enough. In truth, the world of systematic/dogmatic theology, especially when touching morals, is not exactly as straightforward as most think it is. In fact, one might be able to make the case that the Church’s teaching on the immorality of abortion belongs to a higher note than mere Catholic doctrine, especially given that Pius IX’s dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception does indeed treat of Mary’s conception, not of her “quickening” or any other antiquated embryological terminology. (Gynecology had really just begun to take off shortly before the 1854 proclamation on Mary’s conception.) Given that Pius IX used “conception” in Ineffabilis Deus, rather than some other term, (like “existence,”) did he thereby allow a theological demonstration of the humanity of a conceptus, given that he clearly means to ascribe humanity to Mary in such a state, as only humans can be preserved from the stain of original sin? If so, it would be easier to make the case that the illicitness of abortion is a truth of “ecclesiastical faith,” the second highest kind of doctrine. (It would still certainly not be of Divine and Catholic faith, the highest degree, nor would it be situated as proximate to faith, it seems.) But I am not convinced by that argument – it very much strikes me as still not closely enough connected with revelation. I could be wrong. It might be that those who reject the teaching of the Church on abortion aren’t Catholics. But it is somewhat academic… However, since certain politicians have made it so abundantly clear that they think they are still Catholics (devout!) and push the most ghoulish kinds of pro-choice legislation, maybe more study of this issue is called for. (Friends of mine looking for a good Licentiate thesis topic – this could be a good one.)

All this is basically to say that intellectual disobedience, whether through heresy in the strict sense or less serious kinds of dissent with what the Church understands as being binding upon the minds of the faithful with regard to faith OR to morals, is material sin. The intellect’s relation to other elements will determine its formal character, as we will see.

So what of our x, y, and z cases? What about that vocal kid in youth group who says he supports gay marriage? What about that couple that puts an “ordain women” bumper sticker on their car? What about that friend who’s just not sure if there really is a resurrection of all humanity at the end of the world and has just decided not to take a stance on the question? What about, what about, what about…

As we have seen, sometimes it can be tricky enough to situate the object itself into the proper category. Is it a denial or doubt of something directly revealed by God? Is it something merely closely connected with revelation? Or merely something taught infallibly by the magisterium? Or something else?

The next question is what the subject’s relationship really is to the object. This can be even trickier, as we can’t read minds.

First of all, doubt, as a moral category, lies underneath of rejection or “dissent” but above mere hesitation or anxiety. Doubt is a choice to suspend belief, whether by a positive act of deciding not to believe one way or the other, or by a deliberate failure to address a hesitation or anxiety over a matter requiring assent by not moving the mind in one direction or the other. Sometimes it is not particularly clear, even to the person himself, what is going on in his intellect.

Second, we have to evaluate the subject’s understanding of what he is considering. This is the most difficult aspect, and it is divided into two parts. Briefly… First, there is the attention given to the doctrine’s source qua authoritative source, and, second, there is the ability of the intellect in this particular moment to grasp the doctrine as something intelligible.

As to the second part, those who are suffering from some anxious movement of the mind can be so overwhelmed by the apparent strangeness or natural impossibility of doctrines that they start to seem disconnected from reality. Souls ought to be counseled not to worry themselves should they seem to consent to such temptations – the fact of the anxiety means that they are resisting somehow, and their minds cannot be expected, at least not under grave precept, to withhold all such assaults. But more on this below.

As to the first part, we could consider the example which St. Thomas gives when asking whether venial sin can be in the higher intellect when directing its own proper acts (as opposed to whether it can have sin when directing outward actions or interior movements of the will). Suppose a person begins to consider the resurrection of all the dead at the end of time, and he immediately thinks this to be untrue, as he is only thinking of things according to natural processes and empirical evidence. This is venial sin, as he should have his mind always sufficiently turned toward the truth of the Faith such that this would not occur. However, if he begins to consider that this doctrine is proposed by the Church as an Article of Faith, or that it is taught by Christ Himself, and subsequently that it is the doctrine delivered by God, then he arrives at the point at which he will either return to intellectual assent (belief) toward the doctrine, or he will enter into a mortal sin directly against faith, thus losing the virtue of faith altogether, by not assenting. One is obliged seriously to learn the basic tenets of the Faith, and should some subtler point be at issue then those with less learning ought to consult those who are more learned (and most trustworthy). The obligation increases with the recurrence of such thoughts of dubious orthodoxy, and with the significance such thoughts have for one’s life – certainly, one who takes it upon himself to become an activist, such as for “equality in the Church” of various sorts, has a serious duty to know first what he is talking about before setting himself against those who propose the opposite position and can point to any number of authoritative sources which affirm their claims. Failure to do such would, it seems, entail a loss of the virtue of faith. Even merely “being vocal” is serious business. The wisdom literature suggests that silence brings wisdom and preserves one from sin for a reason.

Implicit assent would be enough in normal scenarios for those battling some temptation towards doubt or even dissent. In his classic work, The Spiritual Combat, passages of which were read daily by St. Francis de Sales, Dom Scupoli gives the advice to those struggling with anxious thoughts over matters of faith to make general acts of faith, rather than fixating on whatever particular doctrine is bothersome. “I believe all that the Church teaches because it is from God.” Scupoli suggests that if these thoughts are coming at the behest of the Devil, and he prods one to explain what the Church teaches, it will be very mortifying to the Evil One to respond, “The Church teaches the truth,” and leave it at that. Should the response come, “What is the truth?” the reply should be, “What the Church teaches!” Thus will anxious persons escape confusing themselves and ultimately losing their faith, and they will torture the Devil in the meantime.

In the end, as these two aspects (awareness of the authoritative source of a doctrine, and clearness of mind toward the doctrine) decrease, the sinfulness will decrease. More serious offenses, of course, ought to be confessed, especially if they became outward statements or activism – whether it was last weekend at youth group, or during the local synodal meeting, or on the campaign trail.

There is a lot more to talk about, but I will save it for a book I’ve been working on related to this theme (and connected issues). Don’t wait up for it, it will take a very long time still to come to publication, if it ever makes it…

Poland post coming in the next few days.

Apolog-etc. #3: Sola Scripture – a Reprise

Eamonn Clark, STL

I’ve done a few posts like this before (here and here), where I respond to other bloggers, but it is not normal for me. Please let me know in the comments or by “like” if you enjoy this sort of post. They are a little more polemical and therefore possibly of less lasting relevance, but hey, I need to keep the readership interested!

So one of my most popular posts ever is a post on Sola Scriptura. For some reason, in 2021 (years after it was posted) it got well over 5,000 hits. It still seems to get consistent hits on the daily. Anyway, it lists 7 reasons why the doctrine of “Scripture alone” is problematic. In brief, these problems are that Sola Scriptura is:

  1. Anarchic (no infallible interpreter, so everyone is a “little pope,” leading to countless divisions in doctrine and praxis)
  2. Innovative (in the bad sense, it is a “new doctrine” not from the apostles)
  3. Historically impractical (constructing and defining the Biblical canon took time, so how could it be that one must base faith on what did not yet exist?)
  4. Conceptually impossible (what counts as Scripture can’t be defined by Scripture, that is circular reasoning)
  5. Arbitrary (why not “popes alone”?)
  6. Self-Contradictory (a man, Luther, teaches the doctrine of Sola Scriptura – authoritatively?)
  7. Contrary to Scripture (i.e. 2 Thess. 2:15, 1 Tim. 3:15)

You might be able to get around one or two of these. But when presented together, there is quite a bit of weight to the argument.

Let’s take a look at a response that I got (a few years ago) and go through it. In so doing we will tease out some subtleties to the arguments given above. But, alas, we will also conclude that Sola Scriptura is untrue.

My comments in bold. Some formatting adjusted, some content skipped. Go read the whole thing here.


“All Christians believe that the Scripture is inspired by God, literally ‘God-breathed’. Protestants also believe that the Scripture is ‘self-authenticating’, as explained by 2nd century Church Father and philosopher Justin Martyr thus:

THE word of truth is free, and carries its own authority, disdaining to fall under any skilful argument, or to endure the logical scrutiny of its hearers. But it would be believed for its own nobility, and for the confidence due to Him who sends it. Now the word of truth is sent from God; wherefore the freedom claimed by the truth is not arrogant. For being sent with authority, it were not fit that it should be required to produce proof of what is said; since neither is there any proof beyond itself, which is God. For every proof is more powerful and trustworthy than that which it proves;
Justin Martyr, On the Resurrection, Ch. 1

As the word of God, the Scripture derives its authority from God, not from man. Therefore, the Scripture is not subject to the proof or approval of man.”

Self-authentication is a very interesting claim. In some sense it is true. I recall to mind the beautiful encounter between Zosimus and St. Mary of Egypt in the desert beyond the Jordan, where she indicates that, despite never having studied the Scriptures, the Word edifies of its own power, giving her words the graced character which they possessed. This is true. However, the question is not whether the Voice of the Shepherd is ultimately able to be recognized within what is authentically Scripture, and much less whether God is trustworthy (of course He is) – His voice is recognizable in texts, by those with the greatest sensitivity to the Holy Spirit – but the question is rather what the mode is of the regula fidei, the rule of faith. In other words, how does God actually want people to know in general what is Scripture and what is not? Luther, for example, threw out a few books which were widely considered Scripture for over 1,000 years, but which were inconvenient for his doctrine. Trent said, “No.” Who is right? But there is the deeper problem, which is that, in actual fact, the Church considered canonicity a major issue from the early days, not only in affirming or denying texts from the apostolic age, but also clarifying that newer texts, like the apocryphal “Gospels” and other Gnostic writings, were not from God. In so doing, the Church “as such” exercised an important ministry for the salvation of souls. To say otherwise is to say that the debates over whether to include Hermas or 1 Clement – or even the Gospel of John, which was looked at with some suspicion in some places – were vain exercises, albeit with pious intentions… the masses ought to just be more spiritual and know for themselves, apparently. We are evidently all bound to be as holy as St. Mary of Egypt. But that is not the case, as evidenced not only by the historical fact of the crises over canonicity being allowed by God to occur within the Church in such a way as to seem important with an authoritative conclusion, but also by His own charge to the Apostles to teach in His Name in the Great Commission. This is a theme to which we will return as it shows that the Voice of the Shepherd is not a hidden voice, it is like a city on a hill, a lamp on a lamp stand, found within a visible, living, unified symbol of authority through which God Himself speaks. That is the mode by which the regula fidei comes to us, and so that is what needs to be recognized by the one who would follow Christ, not whether or not 1 and 2 Maccabees are inspired texts (etc.). However, now we turn to the signs of what counts as Scripture on the author’s reckoning. Maybe we don’t need to be that pious or intelligent in order to know what is Scripture and what is not?

“While we cannot prove divine authorship of the Scripture for the reason mentioned, we can find plenty of evidence of it. In other words, there are distinguishing characteristics that set the Scriptures far above other writings of men. When the early Church Fathers were challenged on this point, they gave the following evidence in support of their belief:

  1. The antiquity of the Old Testament, Moses in particular, predates all the ancient Greek and Roman writings.
  2. The prophesies in the Scriptures (both OT and NT) have been and are still being fulfilled.
  3. Jesus, manifested as the Son of God through the Resurrection, confirms the Old Testament, which prophesies about Him.
  4. The lives of people all around the world have been transformed for good through the teaching of the Scripture. This is unprecedented and unparalleled in history.”

No problem here; in itself, this is correct. However, it is hard to see how this would solve the problem. For instance, there are no prophecies to speak of in 2 John, or 1 Timothy, or many other texts of the New Testament. There was not yet time either for contemporary texts to have had the sort of influence we would expect of authentic Scripture, but once the arch-heretic Marcion put out his canon in about 140 AD, there was a crisis that needed to be resolved. And, just in general, these criteria go towards verifying as Scripture a collection of texts already considered as Scripture rather than serving as a rule for determining what ought to be so considered. Unfortunately, we aren’t given the citations from which these points are drawn, so the commentary stops here. But the problem very much seems to remain.

“Given that God is the author of the Scripture, it follows that He is also the ultimate Interpreter, without whom no man can comprehend the Scripture.”

Granted. But this does not mean that God cannot allow others to participate in that authority somehow.

“Christians believe that God dwells in each and every believer in the Spirit. This indwelling Spirit acts as an interpreter of God’s Word, and guides the believers into all truth.”

There is a lot to talk about here. I will limit my observations to two points. First, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is called “charity,” or “the state of grace.” This constitutes friendship with God – the Holy Spirit being God’s own Love for Himself. This is lost by mortal sin. Nowhere in Scripture are we told that we, as individual believers, have the gift of infallibly interpreting the Scriptures on account of some perpetual indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Second, were it true that the Holy Spirit “acts as an interpreter of God’s Word” in the soul of each and every believer, we have two problems. First, a problem of circular logic: who counts as a believer? Isn’t being guided “into all truth” what the Holy Spirit does, thus making one a believer to begin with? Where is the entry point? Second, bracketing the question begging, there is the expectation that “believers” would then all interpret Scripture in a uniform way, at least in a way which is not mutually exclusive. Thus, we see, it is impossible to bracket the question-begging problem: who is a “believer”?

“The Church, i.e., the assembly of all believers, is the dwelling place of the Spirit. Therefore, the Church has the power to recognize the divine authority and inspiration of the Scripture, and to formalize, interpret and teach the Scripture.”

Now, of itself, this is correct. The Church does indeed have such authority. But in the context of the argument, he seems to mean that this can and does happen in any old way… But history does not bear that out. Rather, it is those who are specially charged with teaching who have the collective charism (gift) to know what is Scripture and its authentic meaning and have actually used that charism regularly. This would be the whole college of bishops, successors of the Apostles, in union with the Pope, the Successor of St. Peter, and sometimes even just the Pope. It is true that the whole Church, including laity, can “sense” a truth of faith (the sensus fidelium) with a subsequent definition when there is some true need or advantage (i.e. the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption) but this is neither a common occurrence nor does it easily escape the circular logic of “believer-truth” paradigm explored above, at least on a strict interpretation of that principle (which would seem to be required here due to it being the only leg to stand on). It very much seems one might err in what the Church “as a whole” knows without breaking faith. (For example, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Immaculate Conception.) This leaves us without a principle to define faith and morals, including out of the pages of Scripture, except that visible hierarchical structure within the Church, which structure was instituted by Our Lord Himself.

“One common objection to sola scriptura is that the principle was unknown in the Church for the first 1500 years, and only brought into existence in the 16th century by the Reformers.”

Yes. Certainly, the apostles were not teaching it – they could not have, as there was no New Testament yet! Who then decided – somehow using Scripture itself, which has somehow been defined as Scripture – that this is now the whole regula fidei?

“For starters, to use an analogy, scientists didn’t formulate the law of gravity until the 17th century, but it doesn’t mean that the law didn’t exist in nature before then.”

The author seems to mean that Luther is theology’s version of Isaac Newton. There was already this principle before, and he and the other Reformers just articulated it. Let’s see…

“More importantly, Jesus, the apostles, and the early Church Fathers constantly applied the principle of sola scriptura when witnessing to the Jews of their time. They rejected tradition as the “tradition of men”. They didn’t and couldn’t appeal to the religious authorities, the chief priests and Pharisees who persecuted them. Consequently, they reasoned with the Jews using the Scriptures alone. Although the Jews compiled and transmitted the Old Testament Scriptures, early Christians did not trust the Jewish religious authorities with the interpretation, believing that the latter were not illuminated by the Holy Spirit.”

It should be easy, first of all, to find numerous references to such a principle throughout the patristic sources, despite the claim of the analogy with Newton. If Sola Scriptura is in fact THE way that Christianity is lived, THE way that theology is done, then surely, the Fathers will say so, over and over. But such references will be thin – I know of only two texts which indicate something like Sola Scriptura, and their authors, Hippolytus and St. Cyril of Jerusalem, would hardly agree with such an interpretation of their words. When the Fathers talk about doctrine, obviously they make copious use of Scripture to prove their points. However, nobody here is claiming that Scripture is not authoritative… Rather, the claim is that Scripture does not always interpret itself (let alone assemble itself), and sometimes an authoritative interpretation is called for due to some crisis, and this requires appealing to some visible, biologically living authority. Quite to the point, if Scripture interpreted itself fully, there would not be the tomes of exegesis produced by the Fathers. What is more, even St. Peter found the Pauline epistles to be difficult to understand, and a potential cause of division and doctrinal confusion: “Consider also that our Lord’s patience brings salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom God gave him. He writes this way in all his letters, speaking in them about such matters. Some parts of his letters are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, beloved, since you already know these things, be on your guard so that you will not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure standing.” (2 Peter 3:15-17) Additionally, the content of Scripture is itself affirmed by any other doctrinal content which can be derived from other sources, such as the liturgy. Neither I nor the Fathers would have any problem saying that all of the content of Christian faith and morals is found, even if only in seminal form, in the Scriptures, and that if it cannot be so found, it is not Christian. (This is not a controversial position. It is called the “material sufficiency” of Scripture, as opposed to the “formal sufficiency” of Scripture, as the latter would constitute Sola Scriptura.) This would even apply to something like the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which Pius XII explicitly stated when defining that dogma: “All these proofs and considerations of the holy Fathers and the theologians are based upon the Sacred Writings as their ultimate foundation.” Finally, there is a veritable plethora of patristic argumentation against Sola Scriptura, albeit indirectly (since nobody was really asserting such a principle until Luther – it would have been batting at the air). For more on the Fathers’ views on Scripture vis-a-vis the regula fidei, see Dave Armstrong’s wonderful compendium on “Church Fathers vs. Sola Scriptura.” Suffice it to say that it is a pretty good list, both offering positive evidence for the Catholic view and negative evidence against the interpretation made by some of certain Fathers in favor of Sola Scriptura.

The Lord and subsequently His disciples do not trust “Jews” to interpret the Tanakh (the “Jewish Bible”/Old Testament) because, quite simply, the Jews looked the meaning of their Scriptures in the face 2,000 years ago, argued with Him about the Law, and then killed Him. Yes, yes, “not all Jews killed Christ,” but if you don’t believe the Messiah has come, and you have had the Gospel announced to you, then you are an unsafe guide to the Old Testament, period. I wrote a post about that here – which polemic could be applied to another prominent Italian bishop as of recently, but I digress.

“There are some parallels in history between the separation of Christianity from Judaism, and Protestantism from Roman Catholicism.”

There are, but they are not particularly relevant, as far as I can tell. In the one case, the meaning of the Old Testament is fulfilled and constitutes a new and universal Covenant, an open door with the Blood of the Lamb upon the doorpost and lintel, into which the whole world can fit, thus being saved from the Angel of Death. In the other, you have a frustrated Augustinian friar who likely had serious trouble with the 6th Commandment, swinging from deep despair over his sins to deep presumption of his salvation, subsequently building a theology centered around protecting his frail psyche from having to deal with intolerable cognitive dissonance and the challenges of authentic Christian moral life, using other clergy’s moral corruption as a scapegoat.

“Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians say that the Scripture must be understood in the context of Tradition. I asked them in the forum what “Tradition” means and how one can relate to it in daily practice. After nearly a year of discussion, I remain as mystified as ever. I would submit that, because of its lack of clarity, Tradition cannot be a guiding, let alone authoritative, principle in the Christian life.”

Fair enough. Well, frankly, the best definition of “the context of Tradition” is the Liturgy, wherein we find not only the beginnings of the sensus fidelium about what counts as Scripture (which was extremely relevant, as St. Vincent of Lerins is keen to point out), but also through the prayers and practice of the Church in administering grace. For example, that the Church distributes Holy Communion to laity is not something taught directly or clearly in Scripture, but it is nonetheless rooted therein while being explicitly contained as a datum in the liturgical use of the Church. Same for baptizing infants, ordaining men alone, or petitioning the saints. These practices and their accompanying speculative doctrines are rooted in Scripture but are made more articulate by the Liturgy of the Church. Lex credendi, lex orandi – as one believes, so one prays. Tradition does not simply reduce to Liturgy, as it would also include the visible authoritative structure of clerical hierarchy as its own distinct point, and any kind of consistent teaching/preaching about faith or morals (especially among the Fathers) for a long period of time widely throughout the Church (the “universal ordinary magisterium,” for example, Catholic doctrine on abortion or contraception), perhaps along with revelatory teachings which, while not contrary to and which can be found dimly in the Scriptures, were passed on orally in the beginning before the whole of the New Testament was written, with such things ending with the death of the last apostle. (See the aforementioned 2 Thessalonians 2:15 – “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.”) One might also include in “Tradition” the fact of the definition of what the Scriptures actually mean, such as through Ecumenical Councils or the occasional solemn papal definition.

“When an age of rampant relativism has run its course, people tend to gravitate toward authoritative figures, perhaps due to a deep-seated need for justification. In politics, it is the Supreme Court or the President, in religion, it is the Pope or the Patriarch, in academics, it is the most outspoken scholars. However, appealing to authority, apart from being a logical fallacy, is also futile, for authority figures are fallible and fallen men.”

Unless such fallen men are given the office to teach with participation in God’s own authority. Even if they are sinful, they retain that authority (to teach, govern, and sanctify, just as Christ with His gold, myrrh, and frankincense) until they lose the office. Just like Saul was really King of Israel, so too are bad popes and bishops really popes and bishops. On the natural plane, an evil governor or judge still exercises his office with the authority proper to it. Recall St. Peter’s words about Nero – that he ought to be honored – or St. Paul’s – that he ought to be obeyed and given his taxes. (1 Peter 2:17, Romans 13:1-8) This is the same Nero who would later execute them both.

“An Ecumenical Council might serve a necessary function in the life of the Church. It provides a venue for spiritual fellowship and rational discourse, a venue for resolving conflicts and maintaining unity, but it is not the ultimate authority of Christian faith.”

This is true, but the contrary is not being claimed, as should now be clear. Ecumenical Councils serve, in part, to define what the Scriptures actually mean – the Councils have the authority to interpret another authority, indeed a higher authority, if one wants to say so – perhaps it is better to say that it is a different kind of authority rather than a higher or lower one, as Scripture contains revelation (through inspiration) while Councils only enjoy protection from error in their solemn definitions.

“Another common objection to sola scriptura is that there are many different, even contradictory, interpretations of the Scriptures. Therefore, it is not a reliable approach to the truth.”

Almost but not quite. It’s more specific: many self-identifying Christians, who claim to believe the teachings of Scripture, and who believe those teachings are extremely important for salvation, have mutually exclusive interpretations of Scripture. Who cares what atheists think about Genesis, or what Hindus think about the Gospel of Matthew, or what universalist Unitarians think about 1 Corinthians?

“Firstly, as Paul writes, ‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things’. It is only natural that Christians believe different things in different stages of their spiritual life. If they all believed the same thing, it might actually be a sign of brainwashing.”

If truth is One as God is One, then there cannot be contradictory truths. Therefore, believing “the same thing,” at least on matters pertaining to what suffices for salvation, is rather important. It is no less brainwashing than it is to believe God on His own authority, for that is what is being asserted to begin with: that Scripture is the Word of God transmitted through human language. So at least the fundamental matters, both speculative and practical (moral), ought to be communicated clearly enough to be believed by all who are attempting to approach God through Christ.

“Secondly, it is true that we tend to project our personal opinions into the things we read, the Scripture not excepted, which results in errors and even abuses. But, we can avoid falling into this trap by heeding Augustine’s admonition: ‘For to believe what you please, and not to believe what you please, is to believe yourselves, and not the gospel.’
(St. Augustine, Contra Faustum, Bk. XVII)

Augustine makes an important distinction between sola scriptura and the misuse of scripture. If one follows the principle of sola scriptura, he would uphold the whole scripture, not just accept the parts he approves and reject the rest; Origen, when he defends the doctrine of free will, examines all the relevant passages in the Scripture, including those verses that seem to contradict free will, and provides an interpretation of those verses that both make sense in context and are consistent with free will. This is the type of exegesis that we can all learn from.

Augustine also writes that there can be many valid interpretations of the same passage of the Scripture, as long as they don’t contradict the rule of faith and logic; Origen demonstrates that there are many levels of interpretations of the Scripture, literal, allegorical, moral and spiritual. These manifold interpretations are all valid and help us to grow deeper in faith and understanding.”

We should certainly follow the advice of St. Augustine. But his advice does nothing to solve the problem of circular reasoning, as mentioned above, nor the problem of canonicity. Leaving aside canonicity, how do I know that I am really and correctly taking into account all of Scripture, especially if others say that they are too but disagree in a mutually exclusive way with me on the same point? The interpretation of the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6 is a great example. Is the Eucharist really, substantially Christ, or just some kind of unique symbol? The stakes are about as high as they get on that issue… And yet the Protestants jettisoned what had been settled doctrine since the 1st century, only meaningfully being first challenged by Berengar of Tours about a thousand years later (who was thankfully reconciled to the Church before his death). So, who is right? Are Catholics material idolaters, or are Protestants rejecting the greatest gift the Lord has left with us? It is one or the other. Same goes for whether faith alone, without “works,” suffices for salvation – that is not exactly a small disagreement.

“At the most basic level, sola scriptura is an approach to the inquiry for truth. It shares common characteristics with other approaches to inquiry, such as the scientific method. For it focuses attention on objective data, i.e., what is independently observable and verifiable, not opinions that may or may not be grounded in the data.”

Sola Scriptura is an approach, but it is a flawed approach. There is, in fact, an additional font of data which we can and in fact must use to interpret Scripture, which is the Church’s teaching office, the Magisterium (which, when functioning, is necessarily always in line with Tradition).

“Reading the Scripture is like reading the Book of Nature. God is the author of both. An interpretation is like a scientific theory. If any scientific theory contradicts known facts or experimental results, then that theory is falsified. Similarly, if any interpretation contradicts part of the Scripture, it is not a valid interpretation.”

Nature does not require faith to understand. The Scriptures do. The science of theology, which is primarily done out of the Scriptures (best done out of their original languages – or at least out of the Septuagint), takes God’s authority as its starting point. And as God is One, the truth is One as well. So, correct, no true contradictions are possible.

“As an inquiry for truth, sola scriptura aims at preventing people from elevating themselves above the Scripture, the objective standard of truth. In other words, it is a countermeasure against tyranny. It proclaims that everyone has access to the Truth, and everyone becomes accountable, being measured against the objective standard.”

Anarchy is just as tyrannical as despotism. However, Christ is no despot, He is a true King, and those who participate lawfully in His teaching office therefore do not constrain the mind except to bring it to the truth – which is a freeing act. One no longer needs to worry about so many questions, as they are already answered infallibly. But this in no way limits the horizons for Biblical exegesis – on the contrary, it expands them, opening one up to “all truth.”


In the end, I remain unconvinced and stand by my original list of 7 problems.

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My post on my trip to Poland is coming soon – apologies for the delay, I know I must feed the readership!

The 10 Reasons for Clerical Compromise on Divorce and Remarriage

Eamonn Clark, STL

I had been preparing a book on a certain post-synodal apostolic exhortation, but maybe it will never see the light of day. Instead, I might just share here a few bits and pieces with small edits. Here is one of them.

The first set of errors can be called “Jesuit legalism,” making the law to be the ideal. (Jesuits have classically seen morals through the lens of “criminal law,” where the bar is high to convict the defendant.)

  1. Underestimation of the power and universality of grace
  2. Overestimation of the ability to be ignorant of the natural law without blame
  3. Lack of understanding of the extent of “epikeia” in formulations of natural law found in the Decalogue
  4. Overestimation of the mitigation of culpability in difficult cases (i.e., “temptation excuses from sin”), especially by conflating habitual intentions with individual actions
  5. General consequentialism or proportionalism, frequently ending in a kind of “situationalist ethics” when other errors inform the application

The next set of errors could be summarized by the phrase “empathy-driven jurisprudence,” which bases the order of public welfare around one person or group’s difficulties.

  1. Conflation of public and private reception of Sacraments
  2. Forgetting/ignoring the rights of the putative spouse and children 
  3. Over-application of the internal forum solution of the (vanishingly rare) “conflict-marriage” case
  4. Neglecting the freeing characteristic of objective due process in ecclesiastical courts
  5. Underestimating the damage caused by undue dissimulation/neglect of the prevention of scandal

The possible roots of clergy teaching this doctrine are:

  1. Bad seminary formation
  2. A generally overly empathetic pastoral mindset which clouds prudence, especially with respect to the importance of the courts and due process
  3. To account retroactively for mistakes they have made in the past about correcting the faithful in this matter
  4. To remove or soften their obligation to do the difficult work of calling sinners to repentance 
  5. To mount an indirect defense of lax moral lives of their own

We must always pray and fast for clergy, especially bishops – the bad ones most of all.

Marital Sexual Ethics – An Analogy with Baking

Eamonn Clark, STL

Continuing on in articulating my developing thoughts in what increasingly seems to me to be a deeply neglected field, I would like to propose an analogy for understanding some of the basics about chastity within marriage.

There are some well-known Catholic authors, especially contemporary ones, who promote a sort of “anything goes as long as it ends the right way” approach, and they sometimes don’t even get that minimalist principle quite right. Instead, pulling from figures including the Salmanticenses and St. Alphonsus, let me offer the following example by which to understand some of the honest boundaries of the marital embrace.

The idea is to bake some bread with an oven and some dough. What is sure is that the oven should be pre-heated, which could take a while and may involve some adjustments. The dough might require some kneading as well, but probably not very much. Once the dough is ready, the kneading should stop, as it is now excessive and unproductive – and it is not really part of baking. The dough should certainly not be put in the sink or in the garbage, even if that might seem interesting and fun, as that would not really be baking, even if the plan is to put it in the oven later – just as it is really not baking in one’s own kitchen to use someone else’s oven for a few minutes with the plan to finish the bread in one’s own oven, so too it is not baking to put the dough in places not ordered toward making bread. Nor would keeping the oven at the right temperature without putting the dough in be baking; rather, it’s playing with the oven. And once the dough is baked, it is time to turn the oven off – to keep it running after the bread has been made is also not baking, it is also playing with the oven.

I hope this analogy can be especially useful for pastors and confessors in helping couples to understand appropriate and honest boundaries in the marriage bed. It is not easy to do so – but an image like this is probably one of the best ways. 99% of couples will get the message, at least. Certainly, the laxist doctrines ought to be condemned.

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What is the fixation…

…with rainbow logos…

The 2025 Jubilee Year logo.

Read the article here. Note the part about men embracing each other. Just the ticket to win hearts and minds!

This comes after the Synod logo… which I long to forget.

I don’t think it’s a secret code or anything. I think it’s tone deafness. But blindness often goes together with sin.

And yet somehow, despite the clown car, Christ will be victorious.

Ireland’s Metasynod

The Synod on Synodality has been rightly critiqued for numerous reasons. That doesn’t mean we should ignore the results of the local meetings…

Today I read a nice synopsis of the Irish meetings. Ireland has of course been in a cultural and ecclesiastical free fall for a while now. But still about 75% of people who live there identify themselves as Catholic, regardless of whether they actually believe and practice the Faith regularly (a much lower number to be sure, maybe around 15%). There might be some lessons to reflect upon.

Thoughts? Let us know in the comments. Did you go to a synod meeting? What was your experience?