Sola Scriptura – a Conclusion

Eamonn Clark, STL

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

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

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

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

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

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.

If you like this style of post, do let me know with a like. They are fun but a lot of work. And be sure to subscribe if you haven’t!

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

The Castration of a Sacrament

Eamonn Clark, STL

As subscribers might be picking up on, I have reached a point where I am starting to speak my mind a bit. This is for a few reasons. Thankfully, I am still prudent enough to keep those to myself… for now.

I have noted with interest since the Pan-Amazon synod the tendency of many “influential” figures in the Church to empty the sacrament of Holy Orders of one of its characteristic dimensions, or offices (“munera”)…

When Jesus is visited by the three Wise Men, they bring Him gifts representing His three offices, as Eternal High Priest: myrrh, representing priesthood or sanctification, frankincense, representing prophecy or teaching, and gold, representing kingship or governance.

As Ven. Fulton Sheen points out in one of the most mature of his works, “Those Mysterious Priests,” every priest is a “little Christ.” He participates in the ministry of Christ the Eternal High Priest. These “little Christs” therefore inherit His offices. They too are given gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Today, some want the gold to be withheld.

We saw this on display in the Pan-Amazon Synod in the suggestions of “reshaping” or “rethinking” the governance of the Amazonian local churches. Laity ought to be able to rule over the ecclesiastical territories and goods, while priests simply move around to preach and administer the sacraments… so goes the suggestion.

This is an attack on the integrity of the sacrament of Holy Orders. It is, in fact, a castration.

Let me put it bluntly. One of the deeper reasons why women cannot be priests is that it is more fitting for men to hold positions of governance. That’s not to say that women can never be good leaders, or should never be in charge of public affairs, etc. – but it is to say that this is a deviation from the norm, and world history bears this out. (I leave aside, perhaps for another time, the Western cultural experiment of women “in the workplace” in the sense proper to the West after the industrial revolution. In my opinion, it has not gone well.) The superiority of men for rule is for numerous reasons – psychological, physiological, sociological, and protological (these latter explaining or verifying the others). This hard truth flies in the face of contemporary Western culture, and yet it is right there in St. Paul’s exegesis of Genesis (1 Corinthians 11 – a complex text, for sure, but there is no getting around certain conclusions), among other places in Scripture. And it accords with the common experience and observation of basically all ages and cultures in world history. Men hunt, women gather – that means something for how society is going to work, let alone flourish. More physical strength and subsequent risk taken, more knowledge of the territory, more freedom when raising a child… it all entails a certain kind of right and fittingness to govern. And this is in fact the pattern even before real civilization began. It continues now, though it is a bit more complex.

The protological truths are where really good spiritual reflections can start. For instance, St. Thomas argues1 that a helper is made for Adam (who came first) primarily with respect to generation – he cannot populate the Earth by himself. Men and women, let it be known, have exponentially different capacities for generation. A man can rather easily have thousands of children in a lifetime and have plenty of time for other things (look at some of the pharaohs); a woman can have a few dozen. That is part of why, as I explored recently, polygamy only ever worked one way in the Bible, on account of the benefit of propagating the human race and propagating the Chosen People in particular. So, this is part of the natural power of Adam, and of males: to propagate the human race. Women are critical assistants in this essential task, but they have a far weaker power of generation. That is just biology.

This biological element of the dynamic between men and women in the context of Eden (along with some other elements which I won’t explore today) is a symbol for what the priesthood is. It is an office whereby spiritual propagation occurs by the personal grace of Christ working through the priest, in the Church, His Bride. Sure, Christ’s grace works instrumentally through any person helping another to be more virtuous, but the instrumentality of the priest is different – it is by his own rational initiative that he exercises his priestly ministry as such, infallibly calling upon God to work in him and through him. Like Joshua made the sun stand still, the priest celebrates the sacraments. “There has never been a day like it before or since, when the LORD listened to the voice of a man, because the LORD was fighting on behalf of Israel.” (Joshua 10:14) Really, it is more like when Christ prays to the Father to have a miracle worked, such as the raising of Lazarus: “So they rolled the stone aside. Then Jesus looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, thank you for hearing me. You always hear me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so that they will believe you sent me.‘ Then Jesus shouted, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound in graveclothes, his face wrapped in a headcloth. Jesus told them, ‘Unwrap him and let him go!'” (John 11: 41-44) This is unlike the charity expressed in a kind word which efficaciously moves a soul to repentance – the causal structure is different. The person who is merely baptized does not “demand” the movement of grace in such an action.

Now, not only is celibacy under attack from those who cannot understand spiritual fatherhood and its ascetic components due either to worldliness, or bad theological education, or sinful lives of their own which they are trying to justify somehow, or outright contempt for the good of the Church, or a combination of these things; the governing function of clergy is being questioned at the highest levels of the Church Militant as well. Often, the same people will put forward both of these two very bad ideas. And, in the extreme cases, they might also propose that women be ordained.

See how it works? See where the root is?

All these things go back (at least in part) to misunderstanding the principle of Adam’s rule over Eve, in relation to Christ’s rule over the Church. Adam is a priest too, a kind of natural priest, the firstborn of material, rational, natural creation – extended later on in Scripture through the so-called “primogeniture” (firstborn) priesthood. Eve is his bride. That spousal dominion, which is “economic” rather than “servile,” we should note, preceded the Fall… it is not a result of sin. Thus, Christ, the New Adam, is a male. Those who participate singularly in His priesthood, who by their office represent His very Person in the administration of grace, truth, and POWER, must be male (and should ideally be celibate, concerned only with spiritual propagation, like Christ).

So we can now see an issue with Cardinal-elect Ghirlanda’s bewildering statement about the new possibility of laity running Roman dicasteries – he argues that it is not a problem, because the “power of governance in the Church does not come from the sacrament of Orders,” but rather from the “canonical mandate,” which, if he didn’t realize it, will always come back to a cleric, whether the parish priest, the local bishop, or the pope. So… the question must be raised… could the pope appoint a lay “vicar for global Church governance” who in practice governs all the world’s bishops, while the pope plays billiards or something? While it is obviously not ideal, is it even possible in theory? It is not so clear. Nor is it clear if the alarming centralization of power in the papacy (pace all the talk about “synodality” and “decentralization”) in the past year or so is entirely legitimate in principle. Understanding what popes are, and what popes are not, which in turn determines their legitimate power and authority, is hopefully going to be a major theological and legal fruit of the period in between Blessed Pope Pius IX and Pope Francis – the period from those who were alive during Vatican I to those who were alive during Vatican II. This age has also seen the end of lay involvement in conclaves (the ius exclusivae) with Pius X – a topic not unrelated to this, but one too complex to broach here, as it opens a very beefy can of worms related to investiture (who chooses/appoints bishops).

As some have already begun to point out, the announcement of – and thankfully, not yet the use of – the “Ghirlandian governance principle” is an attempt at a major revolution in the understanding of Holy Orders and the Church as such, and it seems to run up against the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (in Lumen Gentium specifically), and the Code of Canon Law, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church… While Vatican II is a pastoral and not a dogmatic council, it is also not simply an ideological cafeteria. It is especially annoying when the same people want to appeal to the allegedly unquestionable wisdom and authority of every part of and practical effect of the Second Vatican Council when it suits their agenda, and then jettison things like this because it is not useful to their own ends. (NB: I am not accusing Fr. Ghirlanda of this.)

It turns out that many good clergy resent laity telling them how to govern ecclesiastical affairs on account of those laity being set over those clergy… If we are in fact to follow the teaching of Vatican II, they apparently have got a right sense of their sacramental character. Like Eve is to Adam, laity are critical assistants and cooperators, and they can obviously be great saints, which is the most important thing… but ecclesiastical rule properly belongs to those conformed to Christ in Holy Orders. There could perhaps be individual and extraordinary exceptions in particular cases, but it is not and never can be the norm. To argue otherwise is a castration of the sacrament.

Once again, for my readers in the Second Cycle – this would be a good thesis topic. Distinguishing ecclesiastical governance properly speaking from other kinds of governance (i.e. in religious life) would be a part of such a study.

1 – The biological errors that St. Thomas makes do not destroy the overall argument. Adam didn’t need someone to talk to – he was already talking with God. He needs help making others like himself. Yes, this opens a discussion of why he wants to do this, but the basic point is not therefore fundamentally destroyed.

St. Paul and Building Bridges

Eamonn Clark, STL

Yesterday I happened to read two chapters of Scripture, each with its own value for reading the signs of the times.

The first was 2 Maccabees 4, where Jason usurps the office of High Priest through a bribe. He begins Hellenizing the Jews – destroying their customs which belong to the Law. Plots and murders follow, with another simonaical acquisition of the High Priesthood taking place with Menelaus. And this comes immediately after the wonderful protection God gave to his people in the episode of the miraculous defense of the Temple and subsequent conversion of its would-be violator, Heliodorus. (2 Maccabees 3)

Maybe there are lessons there for what is occurring today in the Church, but one of them is certainly that things have been worse and more dramatic than they are now, and yet God is still present and caring.

The second, which I want to focus on more, is 1 Corinthians 5. Now, it is true, I read the text in English, but something tells me that St. Paul would not be too enthused about some interpretations of this passage today.

In the RSV 2nd Catholic Edition, the first subtitle of this chapter is, “Sexual Immorality Defiles the Church.” The second, “Immorality and Judgment.” Chapters 6 and 7 continue these themes (lawsuits among believers, glorifying God in the body, questions on marriage, etc.).

St. Paul was not interested in dialogue, bridge-building, or tolerance. He was interested in maintaining discipline and real unity in the Church, clarity of doctrine in morals, and authentic love for the sinner. Here is the text of 1 Corinthians 5:

1 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; 10 not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? 13 God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

Let’s emphasize a few points.

First, the precise instance of immorality which occasions this passage is of a man sleeping with a woman, his “father’s wife,” probably his step-mother (or else St. Paul would have probably written “mother” instead of “father’s wife”). This is bad, very bad indeed, but when set in comparison to Paul’s invective against unnatural sexual immorality in Romans 1, we get the sense that it is not as bad as that… At least it is natural vice.

Second, the Corinthians are arrogant, as manifested by their boasting. They think they are just great, the perfect Christian community despite this manifest evil taking place among them without much concern on their part for addressing it. Later in the same letter, Paul will chastise the Corinthians for partaking of the Eucharist without adequate self-examination, and also for misusing (or perhaps even faking) the gift of tongues, urging them to strive for the higher gifts, especially prophecy, which teaches and edifies on its own without an interpreter.

Third, Paul enjoins the Corinthians to judge the wicked among them and separate them from the community to such an extent that they ought not even be associated with in one’s private life. While perhaps there is some legitimate prudential leniency to this principle today, especially given the size and complexity of the Church (as opposed to the few hundred Corinthian believers), one cannot avoid the fact that Paul in fact thought that this was at this time and place a good idea. He did not want a dialogue, a listening session, or a synod. He wanted them delivered over to the power of the Devil, thrown out of the public association of the faithful and deprived of social relations with Christians, in order that they might repent and come back to full communion. As an individual, he must be made to suffer so that he realizes his error. As leaven – as part of the public community of the Church – he must be removed, lest he corrupt everyone else. For Paul, certain people do not admit of a “chaff among wheat” sort of treatment… There are cases which are sufficiently clear and sufficiently dangerous that ecclesiastical authority has a duty to act for everyone’s sake. The way to “build a bridge” in these cases is to make it clear that the sinner is indeed “over there” and needs to do something to get “over here,” like a public act of reparation, along with a good confession.

Dear readers, pick up your Bibles more. There is much consolation, instruction, and challenge to be found. Memorize some passages, know where to find specific points. It can make a huge difference, in your own life and in the lives of those you might influence. The more you study theology, the more you pray, the longer you are “involved,” and the more you read Scripture, the more will leap out at you. Develop eyes to see and ears to hear, and you may be able to help others do so as well.

A Good Debate to Watch

Eamonn Clark, STL

In case you missed it, there was a debate hosted recently by Catholic Answers between their head apologist Jimmy Akin and biblical skeptic Bart Ehrman. It is worth a watch.

I really noticed a pattern in Ehrman’s comments/critiques – which is a certain sort of myopia. Take the example of Luke “only saying Jesus appeared in Jerusalem” – of course that is not a contradiction with the other Resurrection accounts. It would be contradictory, or more contradictory, to say that Jesus “only appeared in Jerusalem.” It is a hermeneutic of suspicion to such an extent that it is truly baffling how Ehrman can be taken seriously by so many people. We can and should pray for him.

The Luke 24 verse they get into a tussle over is interesting but also easily explained by the “summation” style… “On the 21st of March in 1988, I was born in California. Then I was a lifeguard at the local pool. And I went to college in New York City.” We do not need to assume that all of these three things happened on March 21, 1988. Nor do we need to assume that everything that is happening in the second part of Luke 24 is all happening on the same day as the appearance after the two disciples’ return from Emmaus.

Anyway, enjoy the debate, it is worth watching. Do check out Jimmy’s page that he references, it is great stuff.

I’m also just seeing there is a post-debate debrief, which I have not watched yet but assume is worth the time.

Cardinal Marx is Right… But Mostly Not.

Eamonn Clark, STL

The Catholic blogosphere will no doubt be ablaze with indignation at the German cardinal’s latest attempt at theology. While the Twitterati will certainly make many points about how wrong he is about the “issue at hand,” which he certainly is, they might miss the chance to acknowledge the truth of one element – which is about the status of the Catechism.

Many people would struggle to explain what exactly the Catechism is. That’s precisely because they know it as “the” Catechism, rather than “a” catechism. A catechism is a tool for teaching and explaining the Catholic faith. It is not the Faith itself. Very often people will ask, “Where is the list of things which the Catholic Church teaches?” This is an understandable but misguided question. While it is true that the “matter” of the Faith is propositional, meaning, one can use words to signify its content, there is no “list of propositions” which qualifies as “the official list of all the things Catholics must believe in order to be Catholic.”

This is for a few reasons.

First, Catholic doctrine has “levels,” or “notes,” to use the technical term. In short, some elements of what qualify as “Catholic teaching” are more derivative or less derivative in some way, either from other doctrines (i.e. “the laity may receive the Eucharist,” “Anglican Orders are invalid,” etc.), or from other doctrines set in relation to the observable world (i.e. “St. Clement was the pope,” “abortion is a sin against the 5th Commandment,” etc.). This complicates matters a great deal – should all of what is contained under the category of “teaching” be included? What that even means is rather obscure, unless one wants to restrict this only to those propositions canonized “de fide,” which ends up being a rather short list, even though there are three types of “de fide” propositions.

Second, sometimes what once had a relatively high theological note is reduced to a lower one, to such a degree that it comes into serious doubt; the opposite can also happen, going from a lower note to a higher one. The current example of the former is the possession of the Beatific Vision by Christ during the entirety of His earthly life, which is a hot topic in the literature today. Current examples of the latter include the Marian dogmas – certainly, the Immaculate Conception, which St. Thomas famously argued against, there being the freedom to do so at the time – but also the Annunciation, which has moved up, and now, most especially, the possibility of a definition of a fifth Marian dogma looms far in the distance, which is that of Mary as Mediatrix of all graces. There are certainly limits to the kind of movements or developments which can occur, (such as “de fide” propositions being unable to move downward,) but the fact that doctrine is “mobile” in this way cuts against the logic of a “doctrine list.”

Third, language changes over time, and it can even be ambiguous in the present. To try to set in stone a few propositions in the context of an ecumenical council is challenging enough. To try to do it with “everything” could invite an unbelievable amount of trouble in the distant future, or even the near future. One need only think of the ancient spat over “hypostasis” with the Greeks, for instance, to see how this could be a problem – or even things more recent, like the the moral status of the word “inadmissible.”

So, what does all this mean for Cardinal Marx’s claims? Well, first of all, the “Catechism,” which is more precisely called The Catechism of the Catholic Church, is about as close as one gets to a “doctrine list” of the sort which people usually desire. What is contained in it is very important. It is the first “universal” catechism – formerly, catechisms had only been written locally (such as the famous Baltimore Catechism, written for the USA), or for a particular group (such as the Roman Catechism, which was written for bishops and pastors). This catechism, however, is the one written for everyone – kids, adults, men, women, Brazilians, Japanese, Red Sox fans, Yankees fans… What is in it therefore matters more than what is in other catechisms. Everyone is supposed to be able to rely on it for guidance.

That’s why changing anything in the text of The Catechism of the Catholic Church ought to be a hair-raising prospect. It implies that it was wrong, or at least gravely defective, when the definitive text was promulgated. Now, to reiterate, catechisms are merely tools for teaching the Faith, they are not the Faith itself. However, this is supposed to be the tool which everyone can rely on. It should not be changing every once in a while to suit the latest tastes in language, culture, or theological speculation… in several centuries, it may indeed be time to rewrite the text entirely for the sake of updating the way the Faith is communicated through the words, the expressions, and even the themes emphasized to some extent. But it turns out that changes can indeed be made to the very text of what the Church currently refers to as Her universal catechism, which means in some sense one is allowed to doubt its content qua instrument. That’s where Marx has it right. What makes this so scary is that there is precedent for doing this already, since the capital punishment kerfuffle.

The deeper point to be made is that doctrines do not develop “laterally” – a change in our understanding of femininity, for example, could never contradict the Church’s teaching on Holy Orders being reserved to men alone; were there such an understanding to be developed, that understanding of femininity must be wrong. The Church effectively says, “There is a rock in this path. You can’t go this way. Turn around and try another route.” And, in fact, one can use precisely the same structure of the capital punishment paragraph to justify any sort of “lateral development,” such as is now proposed by Cardinals Marx and Hollerich on homosexuality. If our understanding of human sexuality develops, it must develop without transgressing settled doctrine about the meaning of sexual acts, among other things. (And if the Church’s teaching on the intrinsic immorality of homosexual acts is not settled, then nothing outside the Creeds and Councils is settled, which is preposterous.) The capital punishment paragraph practically functions as a lateral development MadLib. Watch:

“Recourse to the condemnation of all homosexual acts was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain abuses and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.  

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the autonomy of human sexuality is legitimately expressed even in a homosexual relationship. In addition, a new sociological-scientific understanding has emerged of the significance of the structure of the nuclear family.

Lastly, more effective systems of inclusion have been developed, which ensure the due protection of homosexuals and, at the same time, do not definitively deprive them of the possibility of marriage.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the exclusion of homosexual activity in society is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of human sexual autonomy,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

There you have it – the Devil’s blueprint. It’s that cunning, subtle, and disgusting.

So, what is ours? Knowing our faith, praying and fasting for clergy, and keeping our children out of harm’s way – which in many places almost certainly means pulling them from public elementary schools… maybe even the parish schools in some cases. Almost definitely off of TikTok for the younger ones.

Do you know what your children are learning about sex and gender? Are you sure? Ask them what their friends teach them, too… You might be shocked. Can they explain what a boy is? What a girl is? What marriage is and what it is for? Why marriage is a sacrament for Christians?

The Hidden Idolatry in Our Midst

Eamonn Clark, STL

In the past, it has struck me that the sense of sin among even many pious people is skewed in favor of measuring the gravity of sin in terms of its effects rather than in terms of its disorder. The specific example that has come up multiple times relates to the Sixth Commandment, but I will use a slightly different example: the difference between the Eighth Commandment and the Second Commandment. Lying is wrong. But swearing a false oath (perjury) is far, far worse. It is leagues above the most malicious of lies, when such lies are taken by themselves as lies, even though a malicious lie can cause such great damage while one may see no real damaging effect from perjury at all, even most of the time. (By the way, it is perjury that the Second Commandment is really about – not “using bad language,” as is unfortunately taught so frequently.)

Why is perjury so much worse? After all, it is a lie that may or may not have a bad effect, while a malicious lie is designed to harm another and often has such terrible effects. Even taking the cumulative force of the violation of other precepts together with malicious lies as their root (such as the violation of the Fifth or Seventh Commandments), we should note that not only does the Second Commandment rank higher numerically on the Decalogue, at a whopping five places above, but it is actually on the First Tablet. This is because, first of all, it relates directly to our relationship with God and His due honor. Second, following from this, the sin of perjury (“swearing on the Name of God” in a matter which you are lying about) is enormously disordered, much more disordered than trying to harm some mere creature with a lie. When perjuring, one “harms God,” in the way that this is possible. Seeing as the point of human existence is primarily to love God, and that the love of creation is only well-ordered in relation to the love of God first, we can see how a direct assault on the honor of God is much worse than a direct assault on a creature, especially when the sin is the same sort of action. (Sometimes people take false oaths in words without truly meaning to take a real oath – “I swear to God,” etc… This is a terrible habit which must be intentionally rooted out. It is arguably venial sin in itself in the case of mindlessness, but such mindlessness proceeds from somewhere – often a general lack of interest in honoring God and His Holy Name, which reveals a lack of charity.)

Now, onto the real topic for today: the violation of the First Commandment and this sin’s infiltration into the normal lives of so many people. So. Many. People. And no, I do not mean “idolizing sin/money/sex/etc.” I mean real idolatry. Let’s get into it.

One of the few people that St. Thomas specifically names and accuses of sin in the Summa Theologica is the great Roman philosopher Seneca, whom several pages later is relied on, strangely enough, as an authority on gratitude. (Thomas also did not like the Stoics in general, of whom Seneca was a foremost member and representative. In fact, the Stoics are the only group which the Angelic Doctor basically mocks, to my knowledge, for their hypocritical doctrine on the use of pleasure.) The relevant section for us, however, is the II-II q. 94 a. 2 resp., which discusses whether idolatry is a sin.

Thomas quotes Augustine, who himself is quoting Seneca, on the worship of the Roman gods. Here it is: “We shall adore in such a way as to remember that our worship is in accordance with custom rather than with the reality.” Thus spoke Seneca. Well, at least he was honest about what he was doing. Thomas, with Augustine, finds this to be “wicked dishonesty,” especially since Seneca pretended to worship the gods so well that people thought he actually believed.

I was speaking some time ago with a friend about the strange phenomenon of “atheist Jews” who continue to practice the rituals which signify the advent of the Christ. Well, they neither believe in the reality of the Incarnation nor do they actually expect it. It is about custom – a bizarre and grotesque outgrowth of these Jews’ distant ancestors who accosted Jesus for not understanding Judaism because He did not follow the customs they were so fond of. We can say that these ethnic Jews who, unlike their ancestors, do not even believe in God at all, nonetheless pretend to worship God and therefore are in fact idolaters on this account. This is because the outward ritual of the Passover meal, or Succoth, etc., are imbued with a significance so evidently containing the communication of idea of submission, praise, hope, etc. in relation to the God of Israel that these rituals also contain the idea and the objective fact of worship of that very same God. Despite the lack of belief in God, such ethnic Jews pretend to worship Him nonetheless, even if they would insist that they are not doing so. The rites of the old feasts are themselves sufficient to indicate that one is expressing faith and hope in the God of Israel. This is much the same as the Christian lapsi who dishonestly pretended to worship the Roman gods to escape persecution, though those who gave in after much torture certainly have much less guilt than those who were afraid of incurring mild inconveniences. But those who simply outwardly communicate worship (latria) are not only formally giving idolatrous worship (even if it happens to be worship given to the one true God), but it is also, in Thomas’s words, a “wicked falsehood.” (He also attacks the continued observance of the Jewish rites after the age of the Church begins – like that which was promoted by the Judaizers that Paul fought against so vehemently – and though he does not say it is idolatrous, it is nonetheless a “pestiferous superstition.” A wonderful phrase, if I do say so myself.)

And now we come to the real problem. The outwardly devout attendance of Mass on the part of those who lack belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which, in the USA, is about 70% of self-identified Catholics, including about a third who show up every Sunday. Let us investigate.

Christ and the Eucharist are the same, except for shape (“secondary dimensive quantity”) and thus also according to mode of presence (“sacramental presence”/”substantial presence” as opposed to “local presence”), and they differ in the reason for the unity or “concomitance” of the parts (Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, whether by “nature” directly as with Christ in Heaven, or in virtue of real concomitance resting the power of the word – which subject Lateran IV dealt with so succinctly). This means that to worship the Eucharist is to worship Christ…

…if one believes in the Eucharist as such. If one does not actually believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, what is happening in such a soul at Mass? He is giving the objective signs of latria, adoration, worship, to what are, in his mind, mere bread and wine, not Christ, though he may see these objects as somehow “representing” or “symbolizing” Christ. Therefore, it constitutes formal idolatry, even though materially, unbeknownst to him, it is materially worship of Christ.

That is the thesis. It needs some qualification, so I will now walk it back a few steps. Of course, most people in such a situation have little to no meaningful catechetical formation. They have never been told that the Mass is a sacrifice, that it re-presents Calvary, that Christ is substantially present in the Eucharist, that the state of grace is requisite for a good Communion, that rendering good worship in the Mass is the highest act of moral virtue which one can do, etc. They have instead been formed by the Protestant culture and liturgy which surrounds them, and, unfortunately, have also been formed by the Protestantization of the Catholic Mass which resulted from the reforms after the last Council, coupled with decades of weirdness and sloppiness in the reformed liturgy. So, despite probably having presented themselves for catechetical formation, it has not been given to them. The average Sunday pewster would be able to tell you aesthetic differences between what Evangelicals or Lutherans are doing in their worship and what Catholics are doing in ours, but meaningful theological differences would be a struggle to explain. It is difficult to see how that is entirely the fault of the individual in ignorance.

It is also the case that the formal idolater hardly understands themselves to be offering worship to the Eucharistic species at all. (Once again, one might point to the reforms as a possible root for this shift, along with the experiments of the following decades.) They simply “follow the crowd,” and they don’t think much more about it.

On the other hand, I once had an experience, when assisting in a parish in the USA, of a group of parents who came to have details explained about their children making their first Holy Communion. I think many of them had their kids with them. The meeting was held in a chapel, with a full tabernacle. I distinctly remember sitting there at the end of the meeting in genuine shock and awe as I watched each one of several dozen people exit the chapel without the slightest act of reverence toward Christ in the Eucharist… What is one to make of this morally? It is the opposite of the phenomenon of kneeling, bowing, and receiving Holy Communion at Mass without faith in the Real Presence. It is worship which ought to be given but is not, which is called irreligion, specifically sacrilege (the failure to honor rightly a sacred object). While it is only a minor kind of sacrilege and is done in ignorance, as opposed to burning a church down intentionally, it is still deeply disordered.

Likewise, when real outward signs of reverence are given, it communicates something about what is interior, namely, belief about the dignity of the object reverenced. One cannot get around this. There is a kind of idolatry, even though done in ignorance, in the person who lacks Eucharistic faith but goes through the motions at a Mass. This, too, exposes an immense disorder in the soul, and in this particular case, especially in the intellect, as one is utterly ignorant of the reality of the Blessed Sacrament. It reveals that one does not know how to give worship hardly at all, even when in precisely the right place at precisely the right moment, and even when doing outwardly the precisely correct things, in the context of the highest kind of worship.

This is a crisis. It is a First Commandment crisis. If we cannot get this right, what else matters?

That is the situation. What to do? More preaching on the Mass, and more vigilance exercised over catechesis in parochial environments, indeed can go a long way. However, I propose there are other remedies as well.

  1. Perpetual adoration, or as close as the parish can get to it. A good introduction to what this is, and why it is done, where much teaching can be done, is the set up for the practice itself, which is always sure to bring many blessings to the community. A culture ought to be built up around keeping watch with Our Lord. Eucharistic processions are good too – the more public the better!
  2. Liturgy needs to be celebrated very precisely and very well. This cannot be emphasized enough – the chief way that people learn what the liturgy is all about is by experiencing it. So if it is anthropocentric, they will learn that Mass is about “me” or “us.” If it is done well, they will learn that it is about Christ, specifically about Christ in the Eucharist – not about music, not about the homily, not about “participation” qua “doing stuff,” and not even about community. It is about what is happening on the altar, and our participation in that act of sacrifice, by prayer, presence, and even by palate – though it is only necessary to receive Holy Communion once a year during Easter, and it is, of course, obligatory to refrain when in grave sin.
  3. Priests and other sacred ministers need to exhibit special devotion before, during, and after the Mass. This is closely connected with, and even identical to some extent, with the point about liturgy being celebrated well. If Father doesn’t bother to genuflect when setting up for Mass, why would anyone think of the tabernacle as anything other than a pretty-looking box? If he handles the sacred vessels like ordinary things, why would anyone think something is special about what they contain? And so on. It is also especially helpful for people to see priests praying before and after Mass. In many parts of the world, this is not customary, once again, due to the exertion of cultural pressure from Protestantism. I would suggest that it is often more helpful for people to see Father praying for a few minutes after Mass than to shake hands on the way out the door… But, alas, one must not be too harsh in the violation of custom, and it is frequently the case that people would never speak a word to Father other than at such a moment. However, if there is more than one priest around, he should greet people, while the celebrant goes to pray. After all, as Canon 909 says: “A priest is not to neglect to prepare himself properly through prayer for the celebration of the eucharistic sacrifice and to offer thanks to God at its completion.”

The case of formal idolatry, even if watered down somewhat from the Senecan version, is not a sin without enormous bad effects – they are simply distant from their cause. How many people have stopped going to Mass altogether because they don’t see the need for it? How many people make bad communions? How many people never bother to pray directly to the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, or even reverence Him intentionally, thus depriving themselves and the world of untold amounts of grace? How many people go to non-Catholic churches on some Sundays because they don’t really see the difference? How may people go to Mass a few times a year because of “custom” rather than “reality,” almost like Seneca or the atheist Jews who still observe their ancestors’ feasts out of some kind of nostalgia or sentimentality??? These bad effects come from a lack of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, an enormous disorder. It stands to reason then that over time, if we heal the root, we fix the fruit.

I know how jarring the use of the word “idolater” is. It is out of care and concern for souls that we ought to use precise language, albeit tactfully. Hopefully, these considerations can move things in the right direction for those who read and have the position to preach, teach, and otherwise influence souls.

Principles for Chaste Relationships – Part II

Eamonn Clark, STL

After an inappropriately long break, we are continuing our moral analysis of romance. First post here, on the principle “distinguish between the passions of love, desire, and delight.” I am preparing some lectures on a related topic for some of my students – so I have these things on the brain a bit. I may publish some of those notes another time.

The second great principle: don’t start what you can’t finish.

We were talking about an analogy with food…

It’s not obligatory to finish the cheeseburger. We are much more masters over our own bodies in terms of regulating our self-preservation than we are masters over how to regulate the preservation of the human race. We can, for example, choose to eat more or less in one “instance” of eating. It is not exactly the same with the sexual faculty. It is true one can choose to engage in sexual activity or not, but it is not so true that one can licitly decide ahead of time to “half eat the cheeseburger,” or even “eat the cheeseburger and then spit it out.” Nor may one deliberately enjoy the feelings that come with “pretending to eat the cheeseburger,” as we have said in our discussion of morose delectation.

While the Council of Vienne declared that kissing is not intrinsically immoral (yes – this was an issue brought up at an ecumenical council, in the 14th century, due to the odd teachings of various beguinages), let’s read St. Thomas on this point (II-II:154:4), as he makes a helpful (but challenging) distinction, namely, that while not sins in themselves, kisses and touches can be mortal sins from their cause. Let’s carefully consider the following text (it is not a simple one, despite its appearance): “Now it has been stated above (I-II:74:8), that it is a mortal sin not only to consent to the act, but also to the delectation of a mortal sin. Wherefore since fornication is a mortal sin, and much more so the other kinds of lust, it follows that in such like sins not only consent to the act but also consent to the pleasure is a mortal sin. Consequently, when these kisses and caresses are done for this delectation, it follows that they are mortal sins, and only in this way are they said to be lustful. Therefore in so far as they are lustful, they are mortal sins.”

We have already unpacked a lot of this in the foregoing section. What this Article means is the following, at least on my reading of it (together with supporting texts, including the Article referenced – Article 8 of Question 74, which is rather complex)… After the first passion (love), the second passion (desire) begins soon enough. The third passion (delight) can then be taken in the second passion’s act itself. If this is willed deliberately, there is mortal sin, as the appetite has been conformed to a mortal sin, even though one is not actually committing the sin for whatever reason (others are watching, inconvenience, etc.). The more closely one is simulating actual sexual union, including by engaging in its accompanying acts, the more likely it is that one is taking delight in the desire for mortal sin, as evidenced by one’s clear intent to arouse the passion of desire for the sake of the pleasure it brings.

Thus we can start to get a grip on how to understand what is going on morally in various kinds of pre-sexual recreation (including, unfortunately, many things which go on at an average high school dance). Some amount of “kisses and touches” are indeed appropriate, especially given the societal context (our psychology being wired by our environment to expect courtship to contain certain signs of affection), but there are some more or less objective lines that we can draw. To reiterate, the more an action looks like it belongs to the marriage bed, the more dangerous it is, and one must also consider carefully the possibility of slipping into further acts – or occasioning this in the other person. Some of these lines are a little less clear.

What is certain, however, is that recreational simulation of sexual activity planned ahead of time with the intent to derive pleasure from the desire to “go further” is totally without excuse – they are acts that simply are lustful “from their cause,” as St. Thomas explains. One uses the other person for the sake of a sexual fantasy that he is conforming his appetite to by willfully enjoying the pleasure which that fantasy brings. These are also actions which have a definite trajectory – real sexual union, right now, and it is precisely this trajectory which makes them so enjoyable. They cry out to be finished, and we know from experience that playing with fire in this way eventually leads to being burned.

With married couples the case of “mere” kisses and touches is different, as there is at least an habitual desire and licit ability to finish the trajectory – however, looks, touches, kisses, etc. should be done in relation to this habitual intention towards actual sexual union, rather than done only for the sake of the pleasure of the moment. In other words, such things should be ordered towards building desire for an actually possible future sexual act, rather than simply as an isolated event for its own pleasures, lest it become autoerotic – for sure, to start the actual process of direct stimulation with the intention not to complete the trajectory would come under this unfortunate category. Thankfully, sincere and pious couples typically fall into this chaste mode of action rather naturally.

TL;DR: To try deliberately to have the feeling of anticipating sexual union (“desire”) is to want to have the appetite conformed to a mortal sin, which is mortal sin itself (morose delectation), and outward acts that cause this feeling (kisses, touches, etc.) must be treated very carefully, especially if they are very closely associated with actual sexual union (i.e. heavy petting). To “make out” or otherwise touch or even look at someone specifically to derive this pleasure of “wanting to go further”, with sufficient deliberation, is to use the other’s body to engage in the mortal sin of morose delectation of fornication (or whatever species of lust, i.e. adultery, an unnatural act, etc.).

This leads us to the third great principle – the emotions are not the body. We’ll explore that soon…

Friday Fathers #8: Ignatius of Antioch’s Epistle to the Romans

Today we read the powerful letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Romans, one of several such epistles he wrote while on his way to Rome to be killed. I recently read St. Alphonsus Liguori’s brief biography of St. Ignatius – it is well worth a read too.

St. Ignatius helps to remind us of the potential heights – and costs – of discipleship. He was eventually martyred, as he describes his intense longing for in this letter. Where is his pain now? Gone. Instead, he is in glory.

St. Ignatius was a friend of St. Polycarp, who was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist and the mentor of St. Irenaeus of Lyon, whom we read from recently.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, pray for us!

Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which has obtained mercy, through the majesty of the Most High Father, and Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son; the Church which is beloved and enlightened by the will of Him that wills all things which are according to the love of Jesus Christ our God, which also presides in the place of the region of the Romans, worthy of God, worthy of honour, worthy of the highest happiness, worthy of praise, worthy of obtaining her every desire, worthy of being deemed holy, and which presides over love, is named from Christ, and from the Father, which I also salute in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father: to those who are united, both according to the flesh and spirit, to every one of His commandments; who are filled inseparably with the grace of God, and are purified from every strange taint, [I wish] abundance of happiness unblameably, in Jesus Christ our God.

Through prayer to God I have obtained the privilege of seeing your most worthy faces, and have even been granted more than I requested; for I hope as a prisoner in Christ Jesus to salute you, if indeed it be the will of God that I be thought worthy of attaining unto the end. For the beginning has been well ordered, if I may obtain grace to cling to my lot without hindrance unto the end. For I am afraid of your love, lest it should do me an injury. For it is easy for you to accomplish what you please; but it is difficult for me to attain to God, if you spare me.

For it is not my desire to act towards you as a man-pleaser, but as pleasing God, even as also you please Him. For neither shall I ever have such [another] opportunity of attaining to God; nor will you, if you shall now be silent, ever be entitled to the honour of a better work. For if you are silent concerning me, I shall become God’s; but if you show your love to my flesh, I shall again have to run my race. Pray, then, do not seek to confer any greater favour upon me than that I be sacrificed to God while the altar is still prepared; that, being gathered together in love, you may sing praise to the Father, through Christ Jesus, that God has deemed me, the bishop of Syria, worthy to be sent for from the east unto the west. It is good to set from the world unto God, that I may rise again to Him.

You have never envied any one; you have taught others. Now I desire that those things may be confirmed [by your conduct], which in your instructions you enjoin [on others]. Only request in my behalf both inward and outward strength, that I may not only speak, but [truly] will; and that I may not merely be called a Christian, but really be found to be one. For if I be truly found [a Christian], I may also be called one, and be then deemed faithful, when I shall no longer appear to the world. Nothing visible is eternal. For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. For our God, Jesus Christ, now that He is with the Father, is all the more revealed [in His glory]. Christianity is not a thing of silence only, but also of [manifest] greatness.

I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless you hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep [in death], I may be no trouble to any one. Then shall I truly be a disciple of Christ, when the world shall not see so much as my body. Entreat Christ for me, that by these instruments I may be found a sacrifice [to God]. I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you. They were apostles; I am but a condemned man: they were free, while I am, even until now, a servant. But when I suffer, I shall be the freed-man of Jesus, and shall rise again emancipated in Him. And now, being a prisoner, I learn not to desire anything worldly or vain.

From Syria even unto Rome I fight with beasts, both by land and sea, both by night and day, being bound to ten leopards, I mean a band of soldiers, who, even when they receive benefits, show themselves all the worse. But I am the more instructed by their injuries [to act as a disciple of Christ]; yet am I not thereby justified. (1 Corinthians 4:4) May I enjoy the wild beasts that are prepared for me; and I pray they may be found eager to rush upon me, which also I will entice to devour me speedily, and not deal with me as with some, whom, out of fear, they have not touched. But if they be unwilling to assail me, I will compel them to do so. Pardon me [in this]: I know what is for my benefit. Now I begin to be a disciple. And let no one, of things visible or invisible, envy me that I should attain to Jesus Christ. Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.

All the pleasures of the world, and all the kingdoms of this earth, shall profit me nothing. It is better for me to die on behalf of Jesus Christ, than to reign over all the ends of the earth. For what shall a man be profited, if he gain the whole world, but lose his own soul? Him I seek, who died for us: Him I desire, who rose again for our sake. This is the gain which is laid up for me. Pardon me, brethren: do not hinder me from living, do not wish to keep me in a state of death; and while I desire to belong to God, do not give me over to the world. Allow me to obtain pure light: when I have gone there, I shall indeed be a man of God. Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my God. If any one has Him within himself, let him consider what I desire, and let him have sympathy with me, as knowing how I am straitened.

The prince of this world would fain carry me away, and corrupt my disposition towards God. Let none of you, therefore, who are [in Rome] help him; rather be on my side, that is, on the side of God. Do not speak of Jesus Christ, and yet set your desires on the world. Let not envy find a dwelling-place among you; nor even should I, when present with you, exhort you to it, be persuaded to listen to me, but rather give credit to those things which I now write to you. For though I am alive while I write to you, yet I am eager to die. My love has been crucified, and there is no fire in me desiring to be fed; but there is within me a water that lives and speaks, saying to me inwardly, Come to the Father. I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.

I no longer wish to live after the manner of men, and my desire shall be fulfilled if you consent. Be willing, then, that you also may have your desires fulfilled. I entreat you in this brief letter; give credit to me. Jesus Christ will reveal these things to you, [so that you shall know] that I speak truly. He is the mouth altogether free from falsehood, by which the Father has truly spoken. Pray for me, that I may attain [the object of my desire]. I have not written to you according to the flesh, but according to the will of God. If I shall suffer, you have wished [well] to me; but if I am rejected, you have hated me.

Remember in your prayers the Church in Syria, which now has God for its shepherd, instead of me. Jesus Christ alone will oversee it, and your love [will also regard it]. But as for me, I am ashamed to be counted one of them; for indeed I am not worthy, as being the very last of them, and one born out of due time. (1 Corinthians 15:8-9) But I have obtained mercy to be somebody, if I shall attain to God. My spirit salutes you, and the love of the Churches that have received me in the name of Jesus Christ, and not as a mere passer-by. For even those Churches which were not near to me in the way, I mean according to the flesh, have gone before me, city by city, [to meet me.]

Now I write these things to you from Smyrna by the Ephesians, who are deservedly most happy. There is also with me, along with many others, Crocus, one dearly beloved by me. As to those who have gone before me from Syria to Rome for the glory of God, I believe that you are acquainted with them; to whom, [then,] make known that I am at hand. For they are all worthy, both of God and of you; and it is becoming that you should refresh them in all things. I have written these things unto you, on the day before the ninth of the Kalends of September (that is, on the twenty-third day of August). Fare well to the end, in the patience of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Friday Fathers #7: Ambrose on Christology

Today we read a small portion of St. Ambrose’s “On the Christian Faith.” He is defending and articulating the humanity of Christ and attacking the Arian doctrine in the following chapters (15 and 16), in Book I.

St. Ambrose, pray for us!

95. To no purpose, then, is the heretics’ customary citation of the Scripture, that God made Him both Lord and Christ. Let these ignorant persons read the whole passage, and understand it. For thus it is written. God made this Jesus, Whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ. It was not the Godhead, but the flesh, that was crucified. This, indeed, was possible, because the flesh allowed of being crucified. It follows not, then, that the Son of God is a created being.

96. Let us dispatch, then, that passage also, which they do use to misrepresent — let them learn what is the sense of the words, The Lord created Me. It is not the Father created, but the Lord created Me. The flesh acknowledges its Lord, praise declares the Father: our created nature confesses the first, loves, knows the latter. Who, then, cannot but perceive that these words announce the Incarnation? Thus the Son speaks of Himself as created in respect of that wherein he witnesses to Himself as being man, when He says, Why do you seek to kill Me, a man, Who have told you the truth? He speaks of His Manhood, wherein He was crucified, and died, and was buried.

97. Furthermore, there is no doubt but that the writer set down as past that which was to come; for this is the usage of prophecy, that things to come are spoken of as though they were already present or past. For example, in the twenty-first psalm you have read: Fat bulls (of Bashan) have beset me, and again: They parted My garments among them. This the Evangelist shows to have been spoken prophetically of the time of the Passion, for to God the things that are to come are present, and for Him Who foreknows all things, they are as though they were past and over; as it is written, Who has made the things that are to be.

98. It is no wonder that He should declare His place to have been set fast before all worlds, seeing that the Scripture tells us that He was foreordained before the times and ages. The following passage discovers how the words in question present themselves as a true prophecy of the Incarnation: Wisdom has built her a house, and set up seven pillars to support it, and she has slain her victims. She has mingled her wine in the bowl, and made ready her table, and sent her servants, calling men together with a mighty voice of proclamation, saying: ‘He who is simple, let him turn in to me.’ Do we not see, in the Gospel, that all these things were fulfilled after the Incarnation, in that Christ disclosed the mysteries of the Holy Supper, sent forth His apostles, and cried with a loud voice, saying, If any man thirst, let him come to Me and drink. John 7:37 That which follows, then, answers to that which went before, and we behold the whole story of the Incarnation set forth in brief by prophecy.

99. Many other passages might readily be seen to be prophecies of this sort concerning the Incarnation, but I will not delay over books, lest the treatise appear too wordy

100. Now will I enquire particularly of the Arians, whether they think that begotten and created are one and the same. If they call them the same, then is there no difference between generation and creation. It follows, then, that forasmuch as we also are created, there is between us and Christ and the elements no difference. Thus much, however, great as their madness is, they will not venture to say.

101. Furthermore — to concede that which is no truth, to their folly — I ask them, if there is, as they think, no difference in the words, why do they not call upon Him Whom they worship by the better title? Why do they not avail themselves of the Father’s word? Why do they reject the title of honour, and use a dishonouring name?

102. If, however, there is — as I think there is — a distinction between created and begotten, then, when we have read that He is begotten, we shall surely not understand the same by the terms begotten and created. Let them therefore confess Him to be begotten of the Father, born of the Virgin, or let them say how the Son of God can be both begotten and created. A single nature, above all, the Divine Being, rejects strife (within itself).

103. But in any case let our private judgment pass: let us enquire of Paul, who, filled with the Spirit of God, and so foreseeing these questionings, has given sentence against pagans in general and Arians in particular, saying that they were by God’s judgment condemned, who served the creature rather than the Creator. Thus, in fact, you may read: God gave them over to the lusts of their own heart, that they might one with another dishonour their bodies, they who changed God’s truth into a lie, and worshipped and served the thing created rather than the Creator, Who is God, blessed forever. Romans 1:24-25

104. Thus Paul forbids me to worship a creature, and admonishes me of my duty to serve Christ. It follows, then, that Christ is not a created being. The Apostle calls himself Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, Romans 1:1 and this good servant, who acknowledges his Lord, will likewise have us not worship that which is created. How, then, could he have been himself a servant of Christ, if he thought that Christ was a created person? Let these heretics, then, cease either to worship Him Whom they call a created being, or to call Him a creature, Whom they feign to worship, lest under color of being worshippers they fall into worse impiety. For a domestic is worse than a foreign foe, and that these men should use the Name of Christ to Christ’s dishonour increases their guilt.

105. What better expounder of the Scriptures do we indeed look for than that teacher of the Gentiles, that chosen vessel — chosen from the number of the persecutors? He who had been the persecutor of Christ confesses Him. He had read Solomon more, in any case, than Arius has, and he was well learned in the Law, and so, because he had read, he said not that Christ was created, but that He was begotten. For he had read, He spoke, and they were made: He commanded, and they were created. Was Christ, I ask, made at a word? Was He created at a command?

106. Moreover, how can there be any created nature in God? In truth, God is of an uncompounded nature; nothing can be added to Him, and that alone which is Divine has He in His nature; filling all things, yet nowhere Himself confounded with anything; penetrating all things, yet Himself nowhere to be penetrated; present in all His fullness at one and the same moment, in heaven, in earth, in the deepest depth of the sea, to sight invisible, by speech not to be declared, by feeling not to be measured; to be followed by faith, to be adored with devotion; so that whatsoever title excels in depth of spiritual import, in setting forth glory and honour, in exalting power, this you may know to belong of right to God.

107. Since, then, the Father is well pleased in the Son; believe that the Son is worthy of the Father, that He came out from God, as He Himself bears witness, saying: I went out from God, and have come; John 8:42 and again: I went out from God. John 16:27 He Who proceeded and came forth from God can have no attributes but such as are proper to God.