The Confession Post…

Eamonn Clark

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

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

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

Today is the day to resolve to go to confession.

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

First, Catholic doctrine and law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just confess my sins to God.”

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

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

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

“I will feel too good about being forgiven.”

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

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

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

“I am afraid of becoming scrupulous.”

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

“The priest might not be holy.”

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

“I had a bad experience.”

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

“My sins are too great.”

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

I am providing a few good resources here:

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

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

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

More advice on how to make a good confession

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

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

The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Sacrament of Confession

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

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There Are Only Four Pro-Choice Arguments

Eamonn Clark, STL

Naturally, being a moralist who is active in western society, I have encountered and thought a lot about various arguments in favor of the “pro-choice” position. Summarizing all of the arguments, we find that there are really only four; while they can be mixed together, they are nonetheless discernible in basically every argument ever made in favor of the “right” to have an abortion, or that abortion is morally acceptable. And yes, they are each erroneous. Let’s go through them: they are the physical (or biological) error, the metaphysical error, the ethical error, and the metaethical error.

The Physical Error

The first error is that the fetus is not a distinct living organism. Any biologist can debunk this. If the fetus is not a distinct living organism, there is no such thing. It is true that there is a physical connection through the umbilical cord, but first of all, the zygote pre-existed this stage, and second of all, we acknowledge that the cord actually connects two organisms, each of which exhibit the standard signs of biological life: homeostasis, cellular organization, metabolism, reproductive capacity (actual in the zygotic phase when asexual reproduction can occur, potential in the fetal stage as sexual reproduction), response to stimuli, growth, heredity… There is simply no argument to be made here. The advocate of abortion who is taken by this error would be forced to admit that a pregnant woman has eight limbs, two heads, and maybe male reproductive organs, which she then ceases to have upon delivering a child. There is no point in arguing with someone who will not budge on this. However, if we say this is a distinct living organism, we admit that to abort it is to kill it.

The Metaphysical Error

The second error is that the distinct living organism is not a human (or a person). The advocate will say that eventually the organism will become a human, based on certain actions or activated capacities – cognition (but usually excluding sleepers, for reasons inexplicable), self-reliance (of a high-level, let it be noted), capacity to be a productive member of society (whatever that means)… These are signs of humanity, it is true. However, to say that these are constitutive of humanity is quite problematic. First of all, most would agree that we are human beings, not human doings – that is to say, we can do human things because we are actually humans first. (Agere sequitur esse, as the axiom goes – action follows being.) Second, if we define humanity based on certain kinds of actions, we must ask, why is it these actions which are characteristics of humanity and not other actions? And why should it be actions at all? Why not “traits,” like race or sex or eye color? Of course, some do in fact say that something as arbitrary as “3 months” or “being outside the womb” in fact turns the very same living organism into a human being. Plenty will say that it is a “capacity to feel pain,” sometimes mixed with “capacity for memory,” which typically ignores folks with congenital analgesia – the chronic inability to feel pain – and is also simply based on the emotional discomfort coming from an empathetic impulse). Strange… We can see the problem – once we detach the definition of humanity from “being,” as a substance, we are left with arbitrary values leading to arbitrary norms. (A substance is that which is not predicated of another – we do not say “human” of anything, but we do say “cognition” or “race” of a human.) So, to the point: it is the same being (the same living organism!) which is thinking and feeling and “self-relying” that is growing in the womb. What changes are traits and actions – size, strength, organ development, mental activity, mobility, etc. The “being” does not change – it is the same substance. It is a human being who is simply not doing the most human-like things at this moment. This error is the most prevalent and most difficult to get one to see the problems of. But if we admit the metaphysical reality of humanity in the fetus, we are forced to conclude that aborting the fetus is murder.

The Ethical Error

The third error – and perhaps the most repulsive – is that one is never bound to suffer for another individual human being. We’ve shown that biology says that the fetus is not “my body,” but why not still have “my choice” despite that? “So, it is a human being, who cares? This person is inconvenient for my life.” Well, it could be true. However, if a mother is not bound to suffer for her own child, and, what is more, in the precise way that the woman exists as such, namely, to generate life and gestate that life within herself, one could hardly ever be bound to suffer for another. This seems to eliminate all moral responsibility of any kind, or it at least comes very close. In the case that the advocate bites this bullet, he is simply a terrible person and is unlikely to be persuaded by anything one can say. The problem with the ethical error is grasped intuitively by most – this error is therefore quite rare in its pure form. It does show up in weaker forms, however, in the context of diminishing the humanity of the fetus, as described above. It is much easier to argue that one is not obliged to suffer for a pre-human than for a human…

The Metaethical Error

The final error is the rejection of the possibility of real moral obligations altogether. (“Metaethics” is the branch of ethics which asks or studies “what do we mean by ‘ethics’ in the first place?”) The error here is to relegate all ethical norms to the dictates of individual wills (namely, one’s own, or perhaps the “will of the people/government”). The only question then is about strategy – how to get what you want. Plato’s famous thought experiment in the Republic addresses this head-on… The one who wears the Ring of Gyges could get away with anything (yes – exactly like the One Ring to rule them all). Do moral laws really apply to such a person when he is wearing the ring? Let’s say yes, it is still “good” to follow the moral law. Then we can ask with Nietzsche, “Why be good?” The entire meaning of morality collapses in on itself. “Autonomous” morality is no morality at all. This includes every kind of utilitarianism and consequentialism in the strict sense. Who gets to determine what counts as “utility”? And how would we even know how to reach maximum utility anyway? These are the first problems. (Consequentialism is worth its own post.) At the end of the day, we are left with one’s own values being imposed on others, with nothing to do but play power games to achieve what makes us feel warm and fuzzy by making “contracts” and playing nice. And the unborn are powerless.

These four arguments can be combined in various ways. But they are always there. For example, the famous “violinist” example of Thomson commits the ethical error indirectly. Perhaps we don’t have to suffer for a famous violinist who is artificially connected with our body – but a mother does have to suffer for her own child who is naturally connected with her body by the very fact of womanhood’s intrinsic order, namely, generation of new life within the body.

The point of ethics is not merely avoiding wrongdoing, it is fundamentally about achieving happiness through flourishing – which entails the faculties of human nature striving moderately in accord with the order of reason toward their proper ends. Killing innocent children does not lead to such flourishing, as we are intrinsically ordered towards life in community in a common pursuit of the truth – it is one of the primordial precepts of the natural law. Abortion is immoral, and it will never make a person truly happy. And we see this validated by the fact that so few parents regret having any of their children, while the opposite claim does not hold.

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A “Spitting Image” of Obedience

Eamonn Clark

“The next time you see her, spit in her face.”

An extremely instructive story for those who are tempted to trust their own judgment in the spiritual life is related in Gerard de Frachet O.P.’s Lives of the Brethren (available online here). Over a 5 year period (about 1255-1260), De Frachet (d. 1271) collected stories from the earliest life of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), which stories were well-founded on eyewitness testimony, with many of the brothers who are in the stories still being alive at the time of composition. It contains some of the earliest biographical information of St. Dominic, Bl. Jordan of Saxony, and many other stories of miracles, extraordinary piety, and heroic virtue. The episode we are considering goes like this – from page 209 (Imperium Christi Press, trans. Conway), in Chapter 22 of Part V, titled “Impatience and Phantasms”:

“One of the brethren in the convent in Paris gave himself up entirely to prayer to the detriment of his studies and teaching. The devil was also in the habit of coming to him, feigning to be the blessed Virgin, at one time praising his state of soul, and at another revealing future events. The brother happened to mention this fact to Brother Peter of Rheims, who was prior at the time, and was advised to spit in the face of the phantom if it appeared again: ‘For if it be the blessed Virgin,’ said he, ‘she will not be vexed, being always most humble of heart, nay, she will excuse you on account of your obedience; while if it be the father of lies he will make off in confusion.’ The brother simply did what he was told and spat accordingly, upon which the devil roared in anger: ‘Curse upon you, where did you learn such gross manners!’ He went off ashamed of himself, and never ventured to come again.”

Let those taken in by interior assurances of piety and holiness beware… they are blind guides. Even exterior affirmations should be distrusted, and they should be rejected entirely when there is an objective problem (such as neglecting one’s duties, even for an outwardly pious motive). The most famous example of such radical self-distrust is perhaps that of St. Teresa of Avila, who would regularly see Christ in apparitions but would essentially ignore their content without approval from her director – she knew her director would not deceive her, while she was less sure if she was really encountering the Lord in her visions.

And should there ever be an experience – psychological, physical, mystical – which suggests that one go against the lawful and reasonable demands of one’s superiors (natural or ecclesiastical, including one’s spiritual director), let alone that one go against the teaching or demands of the Church, one can be assured that such a thing is not from God. (Cf. Gal. 1:8 – “But even if we or an angel from Heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!”) Such illusions should be rejected – they should be spat upon. Let’s have terrible manners with the demons… Maybe that sometimes means spitting on apparitions, but it always means being obedient to God, to His Church, and to all our legitimate superiors who represent them both.

Main image: Paris – the old convent church (Couvent St. Jacques) in which this incident occurred was destroyed in the first half of the 19th century.

The Trinity Matters: Introduction

Eamonn Clark

The story goes that an old Irish priest was getting ready for his homily on Trinity Sunday. In Ireland at the time, on this Feast, the annual tithe of peat moss was made, to supplement the priest’s salary. He would need it for the fires throughout the coming winter. He ascended the ambo to preach that Sunday, and said, “As you know today is Trinity Sunday. That means it’s time to make the tithe of peat. If I don’t have peat, the winter will be dreadful, etc.” When asked later by a friend why he didn’t preach on the Trinity, the priest said, “Well, they all believe in that… They don’t all believe in making their tithe of peat!”

It should go without saying that, being the highest Mystery of our Faith – God Himself – the Trinity matters. However, as Rahner aptly pointed out in his important book on the subject, the Trinity has nonetheless somehow been slipping into practical irrelevance in the lives of believers. One must ask not only whether people do not believe in “tithing peat” and other such appropriate responses of parochial commitment anymore – but if they even really believe in the entire center and ultimate point of Christianity, which is the Triune Godhead as such. Or, instead, is it the case that, after so many preachers simply assuming “they believe it,” they are rather actually some kind of Sabellians or Arians, even if unknowingly? (Many are.) What effects could that have on the spiritual life, for individuals, and also for the whole Church and world? (Enormous ones.) And what exactly is the doctrine of the Trinity anyway? (Three Persons in One God.) Is it even really coherent? (Yes.) Is the doctrine demonstrable from reason alone? (No.) Do the missions imply a subordination of the Persons? (No.) Etc.

We will be walking step by step through the Treatise on the Trinity by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica, starting with Question 27 of the Prima Pars and going all the way through to Question 43… At the end, I will introduce you to the most relevant debate occurring right now in Trinitarian theology (over Rahner’s famous “grundaxiom” – “The Immanent Trinity is the Economic Trinity, and the Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity”) and perhaps give some additional reflections on the visible mission of the Son (the Incarnation) as it relates to the mysteries of His public life and ministry.

Have no fear! I will break down the language piece by piece and sift through all the normal queries. As St. Augustine said, this part of theology is the most dangerous, but it is also the most fruitful… It’s worth the effort.

Astute and zealous readers might want to brush up first on Divine Simplicity (Question 3) to see what is immediately at stake in this topic (basically, if something is not perfectly simple, viz., without parts, then it’s not God – such a thing would have had to be put together by something else which existed prior to it). Other Questions might be helpful to read too (11-14, 18-20, 22, 25), but Question 3 is enough to see the major “obstacle” at hand. I will help you through the rest.

I hope you enjoy this upcoming series, and may God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit bless you and keep you always… Happy Trinity Sunday!

Main image: The Jordan River, near the Baptismal Site, the lowest place on Earth – where all Three Persons were encountered by distinct visible missions.

The Christian Film I Want to Make

Eamonn Clark

Years ago I had a post on the relationship between animation and iconography. The basic point is that the more “data” given by the artist, the more the mind has to overcome the falsehood of the representation. That’s why icons are good for devotion, while realistic images are not.

Ever since, I have been thinking about the Christian film that one day I would like to make.

It is easy to critique the “genre” of Christian film. It is worth doing so. The Church has the truth, so She should also have beauty, no? It is disgraceful that there have been so few good Christian films produced since the medium was invented over 100 years ago.

A few films stand out as masterpieces – yet to my mind, none really hits the mark, for reasons explained in my post on animation. About as close it gets to what I have in mind among color films can be found in the 1959 production, Ben-Hur.

Notice – no words, no face… And yet, it is just about right. In this scene, Christ is on screen for about 2 minutes, and later at the end of the film we see His shadow for a few seconds as He is carrying the Cross. But somehow the entire film is about Christ nonetheless, and it drives that fact home much more efficaciously than many films that portray the entire Gospel narrative. What if the Ben-Hur style of depicting Christ was used to tell the whole Gospel story? Food for thought.

So, to my dream-film. Would it be animated? No. “Moving iconography”? Closer.

I invite the reader to do an exercise. Take a quick look at any recent film about the life of Christ. (For example, this one.) Consider: how does it affect you?

Now, there is a website (here) dedicated to old Christian films – take a look at the film “No Greater Power” (skip to about the 18 minute mark). Watch it for a bit. Notice the difference?

Now rewind, turn the sound off, and play something ambient and mildly dramatic, like this, or maybe this.

Now go back to the first film.

Which of the three models did you prefer? If you are like me, it is the third. The selective realism allows freedom for the mind to move to God rather than focusing as much on the film itself. If the point is to make a movie, then maybe the first model is best. But “making a movie” would not be the point. Nor would it be making money – as is what unfortunately drives Hollywood and much of the Christian movie industry as well. Cheap budget makes big bucks if you have the “right message” – it is going to be picked up by millions of people to show their children, to show their youth group, etc. That’s the point. But they do not evangelize.

For anyone with a moderate amount of knowledge of the events of the Gospel narrative, I think my model could work, at least for many people.

So, the film would be black and white (or some version of sepia), silent (or mostly silent), with semi-ambient music designed to draw the viewer into the moment of the scene, and be very limited and obscure in the portrayal of Christ, especially leaving the full view of His Face just out of sight. All this helps to conjure – rather than replace – the memory of the real event and the real persons, allowing for a more authentic use of the medium of film for an encounter with God by freeing the mind from the burden of the senses. In a word, it’s contemplative, like an icon.

One day someone will be kind enough (and foolish enough?) to give me the money needed to do such a project. Until then, it’s nice to dream.

About that Communist Article in “America”

Eamonn Clark

If you haven’t heard by now, the Jesuit-run magazine America ran an article in praise of Communism (and a rather weak defense of its publication). There have been plenty of decent reactions. Being a fledgling scholar of socialist and Communist thought, here is a bit of what I’ve learned during the past few months in my deep dive into that world which could help the discussion… I welcome any corrections or criticisms in the comments.

  1. If Marx were alive today, he would recognize no country on Earth as having achieved Communism. He would likewise recognize no major political party as Communist upon close inspection, including those which describe themselves as such. Any country with a “state,” with private property, with wage labor, or even simply with currency, would not qualify as Communist. And any party which is not explicitly – and sincerely – working toward this goal would not be truly Communist in the classical sense. Opportunistic power-grabs which use the language of Communism and impose an indefinite program of state-capitalism through authoritarian collectivization, whatever they are, are not what Marx had in mind. It could and should be argued that any kind of large-scale collectivization and planning is doomed (see Hayek), that Marx left some troubling ambiguities about the process of socialization and its final product (especially regarding the usage of words like “socialization” and “state”) which is in part what opens the door to such misunderstandings or willful manipulations on the part of his early disciples, and that the foundations of Marx’s economic diagnoses were flawed (they were)… But what he cannot be fairly charged with is designing what is popularly thought of as “Communism.” Instead, what he must be charged with is proposing something which is not reachable or is not worth trying to reach, either due to what must happen to get there, or due to the goal’s intrinsic undesirability.
  2. No serious economist today is a classical Marxist, if for no other reason than that several prophecies of Marx’s did not come to pass. The middle class did not disappear. The age of the factory came and went without the revolution, and the revolution does not seem in sight anymore. The increased aggregation of capital has not tended to yield perpetual decreases in profit margins. This is to leave aside all theoretical questions about Marx’s version of the “labor theory of value,” which is integral to his moral critique of capitalism as being exploitative in itself, in addition to his scientific or deterministic predictions which rely on his labor theory of value. So all of this calls into question the legitimacy of the project, at least as expressed by its chief proponent.
  3. That project’s historical foundations are deeply at odds with Christianity in their basic philosophical and anthropological commitments. The dialectical materialism of the classical Communists sets up human nature in place of Hegel’s evolving God (a theory enunciated first by Feuerbach)… Through various stages of mass economic development and conflict, humanity evolves to a perfect state. This process is altogether unavoidable (“scientific,” not “utopian”), and it ends with Communism. There countless problems with this from a Christian point of view; and ironically, the atheistic determinism, violent tactics, and Pelagian ethos rob Communist life of its possibility; that possibility is best actualized in religious life, where the wall primarily prevents one from getting in, not getting out, and where the love of a transcendent God Who heals an otherwise stable and broken human nature animates all work. This should give us real pause.
  4. If there had been a successful global Communist revolution near the end of the 19th century as had been predicted by so many, we can assume safely that the age of innovation was over. The “glut” of capitalist production was seen as overwhelming at the time… We had everything we needed to relax and enjoy life, at last! And since innovation would no longer be rewarded by the accrual of wealth, it stands to reason that it would have been either only for the sake of making work easier (not necessarily more productive, but easier), altruism, or it would be done on accident. Consider what things we take for granted today that were not yet invented or mass-produced in the 1890’s. We would have been essentially stuck in that age had the revolution happened and innovation effectively ceased. What great innovations that otherwise await in the future would a successful revolution destroy today?
  5. Socialization is a matter of degrees. I take this from an analogous insight offered indirectly by Ludwig Von Mises (in his masterwork on socialism, online for free here, along with tons of other Austrian-school economics books and articles) regarding democracy: in some sense, every state is democratic, insofar as a sufficient number of people are sufficiently satisfied with the prevailing state of affairs such that it continues. Put another way, enough people choose with enough commitment to go along with what is the established order of society so that a new order is not established. Incremental changes might happen even outside of a “formal” democratic structure or means (viz., voting on a ballot). Likewise, socialization exists insofar as property is under the control of the community. All kinds of ways exist for controlling “private property” and “private production” through the government or some other organ of the community. The question then is not whether to socialize property or the means of production, it is whether to increase or decrease the strength or directness or scope of the socialization which already exists (and which informs the society’s understanding of ownership and the private sector). This is an important hermeneutic when giving any critique of “socialism”; it is a complicated issue. Simple dismissals of “socialism” are therefore rightly met with equally simple counter-dismissals by those who know the history and contemporary literature. However, Communism, the highest form of socialization, is subject to special critiques insofar as challenges to socialism’s status as desirable, achievable, and sustainable are “turned up to eleven” when discussing socialism’s perfected form.
  6. The scope of the authentic Communist movement today is very limited. The SPD’s Godesberg Program could probably be used as a singular indication of the global shift away from revolutionary Communism toward a milder and less-defined “socialism”; Marx and Engels were quite involved in the affairs of the SPD early on, particularly in opposing the influence of Lassalle’s revisionism, such as we see in the Critique of the Gotha Program alluded to in the America article. That revisionism is radically exceeded in Godesberg, the spirit of which informs the global socialist movement of today much more than an entirely unrealistic call for pure Communism. Under this hyper-revisionism, most “serious” contemporary socialists work for a humane administration of governmental tools in a mixed economy (partly socialist, partly capitalist), and many of them further envision a high degree of democratic participation in the planning of this administration – but NOT full public or collectivized ownership of the basic means of production, the classical definition of socialism. One will find this theme explored at length in the final work of Michael Harrington (also alluded to in the article – who was apparently a “Catholic Worker,” and yet, though we are not told there, was also a committed atheist), and any number of recent books and articles on so-called “democratic socialism.” (Connected but somewhat distinct ideas are “market socialism” and “participatory economics.”) These positions are sometimes subtler than one might think, even if they all ultimately fall prey at least in part to the same pitfalls as more classical Marxist theories (which, by and large, they do in my estimation). Whatever the case, while the old encyclical condemnations remain relevant, those written before 1960 are not necessarily the slam-dunk cases against contemporary socialism that many people think them to be, as they are addressing a more classical version under old global conditions.

So there you have it. In sum, classical Communism is Heaven without God, earned through a large-scale, unavoidable, Hegelian-style revolution due to class conflict, and history teaches us that, despite Engels’ optimism that the revolution only might involve force, is always incredibly violent, whether directly through the killing fields and gulags, or indirectly through creating famine and destitution. Is this what the folks at America think is worthy of discussing seriously with openness? I hope not. If it is true that Communism has a “complicated relationship” with Catholicism – and it is, simply because both are complicated things – perhaps another journal is more fit to handle the discussion.

The Logic of the Resurrection

Eamonn Clark

The meaning of human existence was definitively determined and confirmed about 2,000 years ago in a little cave just outside Jerusalem when a dead man suddenly came alive again. Nobody saw the event itself – it was secret. Only its effects were perceived, just as this same man’s public miracles had been… in the midst of confusion, or chaos, or darkness, or in some kind of hidden or invisible circumstances. But the effects were perceived clearly. And yet frequently, their meaning was not perceived.

To see the Risen Christ after the torture and death He endured only days earlier evoked principally two emotions – fear and joy. The fear came from the natural confusion of seeing someone alive who had died. The ambiguity which such a situation presents is overwhelming to the psyche – and even most sincere believers in the Resurrection today would no doubt still be startled by this kind of encounter. The bridging of the worlds of the living and the dead calls for such an “unnatural” in-betweenness, a characteristic of the Christ which is hammered home numerous times in the pages of the Gospels. This should be no surprise when we believe He is both God and man, already a great mystery of “contradiction” and “ambiguity.” He was baptized in the “middle” place. He touches “unclean” things. He lives near cities but not in them. He is evasive physically and rhetorically. He is a shape-shifter. He is a gatekeeper.

The joy, in part “unleashed” or magnified by the fear, comes from perceiving that this gatekeeper has opened the way to Heaven in the Resurrection somehow in Himself, which is the meaning of the event. And a primal spiritual instinct ought to urge one not only to desire such an opening, but also to sense that the narrative of Jesus of Nazareth actually matches with this desire in a way that nothing else could. In other words, the story of Jesus is too good not to be true; human minds are not capable of devising a story like this – in fact, everything in our natural powers tends to fight against making these sorts of deep and universal existential claims that hinge on particulars, like the sort that would depend on an individual man in a real historical time and place. Our natural sensibilities prefer a God that is more like a cosmic soup or a distant watchmaker – not a Person, let alone three Persons. The “scandal of particularity” is deeply unsettling when rightly perceived. That is what happens when order, the Logos, involves Himself with the mess of the universe – there is a disruption, including in the chaos of our souls.

This was recently demonstrated to me after some discussions with defenders of a certain Easter article in the New York Times. I don’t intend to launch into an apologetic critique of the article – you can read such a thing here – I only mean to note the stubborn insistence that somehow the Resurrection, to a Christian, could be something other than what it is plainly preached as being by the apostles: a physical reanimation of the individual Jesus of Nazareth. The gymnastics used to get around this while still ferociously clinging to the title “Christian” were what really struck me. It occurred to me that this is precisely what that dreadful curse of Isaiah is all about – seeing without perceiving, hearing without understanding – even in the midst of claiming the masthead of Divine approval.

This is also basically what occurred during the public ministry of Christ, but in a slightly different way. While the folks I was talking with were through and through American leftists and therefore deeply opposed to any kind of nationalism, the same false Messianic paradigm which has seemingly always plagued the Jews since they entered Canaan was at work in them as well: the Messiah is a politician. For these leftists, the point of the Christ is by and large to advance laws and policies propping up public welfare programs, globalism, non-judgmentalism, and instant gratification of hedonistic desires. (The “economic Christ” and the “therapeutic Christ” are present as well.) For the Jews, it was and is about Jewish nationalism. Even today they are waiting for a singular figure to rise up to destroy the Palestinians and usher in a glorious Jewish peace in Israel, of course, with the Temple rebuilt. (Have they forgotten about Julian the Apostate’s miraculously disastrous attempt to rebuild the Temple, even before the Al-Aqsa mosque occupied the very spot?)

Peter was really willing to die for Jesus on Holy Thursday – until he realized that this is not the Messiah he had signed up for. The predictions of death were clearly not metaphors or exaggerations… but he did not yet understand that neither were the predictions of resurrection. He had been thinking like men, not like God. His paradigm of Messiah qua warlord-politician was ruined when Jesus submitted to the soldiers, and so Peter too was ruined. It turns out that in some sense he really did not know the man. “How will Jesus lead the war against those dreadful Romans now?” He will indeed lead a war against Rome, but in a spiritual way that shows even them Divine mercy and love.

All this brings me, oddly, to the Book of Jonah. When read correctly, there is hardly a book in the Old Testament which more bluntly and richly explains the Christ’s agenda in such a short space. Of course, we read Christ speak about the “sign of Jonah” (Matthew 12: 38-41) – a clear reference to the Resurrection – but there is more to it than that.

Jesus Christ is the New Jonah – not only in the sense of “fulfillment” but also of correction. See if you can find some paradoxical connections to the Gospels in this summary.

Jonah so deeply hates the Assyrians (Gentiles) that he would rather die than tell them that God loves them. After all, they have historically been at war with Israel. But even before he turns to obey God’s command to preach in Nineveh, Jonah is a successful evangelist. Sleeping on the pagan sailors’ boat during a storm as he is disobediently running away from Nineveh as far as he can, he awakens to tell them that he is the cause of the danger. With this short sermon alone, they all become fervent devotees to the God of Jonah, probably, we can infer, much to Jonah’s displeasure. These new fervent worshipers of the God of Israel commend the soul of Jonah to that same God’s care, asking that his blood not be on their hands as they throw him into the sea to meet his fate. While Jonah wishes for death, he seems not to get it, although we are left wondering if he died in the belly of the whale and yet rose again. His prayer therein is not repentant – apparently he finds no guilt in himself – but he does offer obedience. He is spit onto land again and preaches a five word sermon in Nineveh which simply threatens destruction. He does not say what is wrong with Nineveh, he does not say how to avoid the impending punishment, and he does not even mention God. The entire city converts, which Jonah is furious about. He sits outside the city waiting to see what will happen, and a plant grows over him. The shade is wonderful, but soon a worm eats the plant and it dies – Jonah wishes for death again, selfishly complaining to God about His mercy on Nineveh but not on the plant. God disagrees. The end.

Christ loves the Gentiles so much that He wants to die for them. Start the reinterpretation there. The end of the story is the real kicker for Jewish nationalism… According to St. Augustine, the worm which attacks Jonah’s plant represents Christ; the plant represents the Old Covenant and its favors. (Think of the cursing of the fig tree during Holy Week.) It was there for a while due to God’s own superabundant favor, and now it disappears, making everyone equal under the sun. The “Jewish moment” is over. It was only a pedagogue, mainly about the fidelity of God to His promises. Now a greater promise must be fulfilled… And keeping this in mind, many of the parables and activities of Christ are split wide open to a new logic, along with more understanding of the offense taken at the Lord’s attitude toward the Nations. (The workers who are late to the vineyard, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the discussion with the woman at the well… all these and more lend themselves in part to the exploration of this theme.) The Jews are not special in themselves: salvation is for everyone, even the descendants of the wicked Esau and Ham. The Temple curtain has been torn from top to bottom, as God made His escape from Jerusalem out into the Nations. The Lord’s own garment, woven from top to bottom, has not been torn, while He died just outside the Holy City, shedding His Blood upon the new doorpost and lintel which is broad enough for the whole world to enter in and receive the safety of God’s protection from everlasting death. That blessed Plant, the Cross, will protect us from the heat of Hell’s fire, which will make us wish for another death that will never come.

There should be no question of the historical existence of the person of Jonah. We hear about him in 2 Kings 14: 23-25 – where he delivers a prophecy which will, ironically, be reversed by Amos (Amos 6: 13-14) – and a hermeneutic of faith urges us to read the Sacred Text open to the astounding and miraculous intervention of God in the history of the Chosen People. Compared to the Paschal Mystery, the miracles contained in the Book of Jonah are mere shadows. Trying to “demythologize” these or other miraculous signs without a serious reason to suspect a metaphorical intention on the author’s part indicates an unhealthy attitude towards Divine Providence and an under-appreciation for the significance of the New Covenant. Perhaps the single biggest problem among basically orthodox theologians today is a fear of being “fundamentalist” with regard to the run-up to the Incarnation. As if it were somehow naive to believe as the Jews of 1st Century Israel believed. What we need in order to appreciate the kerygma as fully as possible in this life is the shameless acceptance of full-throated and unabashed Judaism as the real preparation for the advent of the Messiah. That is not my opinion – it is what God actually wrought upon the Earth. He chose to enter into a people who at least believed these things were generally real, literal history. After all, how can we really understand and appreciate the silent and invisible things of the New Covenant on Calvary if we can’t even acknowledge the reality of some thunder and smoke on Sinai? I don’t mean to impute sin to those who hesitate here; I only mean to say that such hesitation is typically unnecessary, inappropriate, nonsensical, and can render theology and even the spiritual life quite sterile. The most carefully planned event in history was the Incarnate Word’s earthly life. We should read the Scriptures with this in mind, no?

In its extreme, this program of “demythologization” prevents the entrance into the spiritual life. Creation is through the Son, the Word. It follows that human existence – and all of creation – is in some profound sense itself a story, or a myth, as it were, into which God Himself enters as the central character, first indirectly, then directly, now half-directly, later to be fully direct once more when the story is finished. Without acknowledging the need for a Savior who will open the way to eternal life by redeeming one from sin and overcoming death, there is a fundamental frustration of what God designed humanity for. The story wouldn’t really make sense. Without faith, it is impossible to please God – one must believe He exists and that He rewards those who seek Him, in particular through grace and personal love, even if this is only dimly perceived (cf. Hebrews 11:6). The tendency to fight one’s own deepest in-built supernatural longings is a self-imposed darkness – a rejection of the Light which is already shining in all creation. We are always free to destroy ourselves in this way, and we always will choose to do so without God’s special mercy. Even with every indication and sign available – including countless miracles, visions, and wonders down to our own day – without His ongoing support and personal “invasion” of the Canaan of our souls, we would drown in the misery of our self-absorption and fixate on God’s created gifts rather than on the God Who is giving them. So let no man boast except in the Cross and its Victim. Jesus rose from the dead. No more gloomy despair from Qoheleth is warranted: in the light of His Resurrection, and in this light alone, by which He has drawn all the Nations to Himself, human existence, and each person’s own individual existence, at last make sense. Anything to the contrary is a chase after wind. And we should be able to see that.

The Historical-Critical Exegetes: A Brief Summary of the Consensus in the 41st Century

Herman Von Voelkenhausen
Catholic University of Cologne
St. Benedict XVI Chair of Theology
April 12, 4019

+JMJ+

Before outlining the views of the majority of contemporary scholars on the historical-critical tradition of the 19th and 20th century, it is worth first mentioning the traditional view of that school from which our own views have arisen and evolved beyond.

Writers of the 22nd century onward who reflected deeply on the historical-critical phenomenon, scattered as such writers are, assume that the exegetical school was simply directly inspired by Spinozistic and post-Kantian ideals to re-envision the Scriptures in a radical way, breaking with the cumulative conclusions of the ages and the clear teaching of the Church. These exegetes supposedly became immensely popular, even holding chairs in the most distinguished theological faculties of Europe, where they would really speak and teach their students directly. Their lectures and writings were the real motion towards a culmination in the “Jesus Seminar,” the fullest expression of the movement, which was followed by a number of special disciples who gradually unpacked the wisdom contained therein in the midst of the larger academic community that turned to join the historical-critical movement in this final phase of critical scholarship.

We must now pause and admit that all of this seems rather childish to us, but to the majority of theologians and historians from the year 2100 until well into the 3800’s, this simplistic position was simply taken for granted. It is no wonder; due to the limited knowledge of the 19th and 20th century which was available to the early authors, we cannot expect very much accuracy on their part. The advent of the internet came only near the very end of the 20th century, and immediately afterward came that dark cloud of Fake News, which persisted well into the mid-22nd century. With such imprecise methods of research and communication, we should be inclined to go easy on those who first attempted to react to the historical-critical phenomenon. The tradition which took their analyses in good faith, it is true, has less excuse insofar as their means of investigation increased in quality, but those authors were hindered by the all-too-natural allure of continuity and the professional risk of speaking out too boldly.

The first point which nearly all authors now make is that of the difference between the “historical exegetes,” and the “scholars of faith.”

The exegetes are the real human beings at the center of the scholarly movement traditionally placed in the 19th to 21st centuries (although it seems increasingly likely that these early dates are fallacious). Many of them, it is granted, really did exist as human beings. But it matters very little what these men really were in their historical lives – it mostly matters that they existed. For instance, whether or not some sayings of Rudolph Bultmann were actually spoken by him is largely irrelevant; what really matters is that a tradition developed which sees him in connection with such sayings.

The “scholars,” then, are the writers in the minds of those who received their teachings and modified them. We encounter the scholars in the writings which are associated with them by name.

Immediately the question is raised – how were these writings produced? “The books bear the names of the authors themselves,” it is objected. As foolish as it sounds to us, it was once unthinkingly presumed that, since an exegete’s name was attached to a text that he must have actually written that text himself. The prevailing theory today is that while some writers did indeed exert a kind of influence over the writings that bear their names, in almost every case we see a kind of pseudepigraphy.

A fundamental body of writing in the historical-critical tradition will serve as a fine framework for an introduction to the methods we are using today to analyze this period of theology. This collection of books was traditionally presumed to be the work of a single author, but now the agreement is that it actually is an amalgamation of several written traditions under the redaction and collection of later theologians. First, there is the Kuenen source, or K. Next, the Graf source, G. Third, the Hupfeld source, H. Finally, the Reuss source, R. Over time, a careful redaction on the part of later German exegetes over the coming decades would piece these writings together to form what the historical-critical tradition, and those who uncritically write of its history, has called the collected works of Julius Wellhausen.

Perhaps there really was a Julius Wellhausen, but the “historical exegete” is, in any case, less important than the significance of the “scholar” represented in the popular imagination of the academy of the 20th century. For those first disciples of the masters of the historical-critical tradition, such as Wellhausen was to those who followed in that tradition, they really were seen as true scholars, important figures who somehow had advanced the theological milieu towards a new era.

It should be noted that the most recent quest for the historical Albert Schweitzer has come up largely empty. There is now, however, a broad consensus that he was not born in Alsace-Lorraine, but in Tübingen – to place his birth in an as-then recently annexed part of France was a clever narrative device used to broaden the appeal of the historical-critical movement beyond Germany in the long-term. That is to say, there was a value of a kind of “academic annexing” being imposed on the narrative of the Schweitzer character during the period of redaction of the earlier records of his life. It is well established that he did spend time in France, but to place his birth and childhood in anywhere but Germany finds no support except the primary texts themselves, which, as we have said, have changed the narrative to suit their own ideological agenda.

In the 19th century, the time for historical-critical exegesis was ripe, as there were expectations in the air for such a movement, after the Prussian myth of Schleiermacher had taken hold of the European imagination. (The Schleiermacher-myth was distinct from but related to the Prussian myths of Fichte and Kant, all of which were zealously absorbed and appropriated by the “Hegelian Community.”) Eventually, this all culminated in the well-known “Jesus Seminar” Event. While most scholars agree that there really was a Jesus Seminar, there is little consensus beyond three points: that the Jesus Seminar was formed around the year 1980, that it preached an apocalyptic doctrine about the coming end of traditional Biblical theology (with itself as a central catalyst), and that it ended in a shameful demise.

An example will serve us well to illustrate the attitude of current scholarship on post-Jesus Seminar thought. Virtually all historians of theology today recognize the minimal “historicity” of the writings of Bishop Spong, that is, Spongian authorship. Instead, various radical publishing houses collected the reports of various moderate pieces of scholarship on the part of Bishop Spong, and they published books under his name. Why? Clearly, these publishing houses had their own theological agenda which they were willing to advance, even in the face of such enormous ridicule. Their reflection on the meaning of Spongian theology prompted them to take a courageous attempt at promoting work largely inspired by his own teachings but which was itself a radical development of them. This is a standard model for the era.

The writings of all the post-Jesus Seminar theologians are typically dated to the late 21st to early 22nd century. It was a common pious mentality of devotees of the historical-critical exegetes, and especially those following the Jesus Seminar, to view the writings traditionally attributed to figures such as Bishop Spong, Bart Ehrman, and Paul Bradshaw as being written much earlier than they really were. It has been firmly established, however, that Bradshaw did indeed write his work first, and Spong and Ehrman based their writings on his, and upon other accounts of the Jesus Seminar and the tradition it represents. Furthermore, these three works draw on a common source, “Q,” (from the French, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” – “What is it?”) which links them together. They are altogether in a different tradition, however, than the Reza Aslan tradition, which is decidedly more “spiritual” than historically minded in its presentation.

Of course, as is well-known, current academics consider many of these texts to have been compiled by the communities which gathered around these figures. The Spongian community, the Aslanian community, and so on. (Bradshaw, it is true, perhaps did actually write his own works – but it is altogether clear that he himself could not have come up with the idea that John was unaware of an Institution Narrative – this was a later redaction by the publishing house.) The growing majority also views most of the writings attributed to Bart Ehrman actually to be complete forgeries – fully dishonest, albeit clever, pseudepigraphy. (Several editions and translations of his work have also left us wondering what the “true” or “original” texts were in the first place – the recent unearthing of hundreds of copies of the text “Jesus Interrupted” in what is thought to be a 25th century Siberian landfill may prove to be a crucial discovery to aid us in getting to the bottom of this vexing problem. My own forthcoming work “Misquoting Bart Ehrman” will investigate this data at length.)

The motivation for our project is simple: it is altogether unrealistic that such men would have really existed, taught, and written as they are traditionally have thought to have done. Their doctrines are too systematically bizarre and radically incoherent to have been the products of single authors; it is altogether unthinkable that, even given such bad scholarship, they somehow gained wide acclaim to the point of wielding true academic and intellectual authority. Therefore, what was at stake in the 19th and 20th centuries, and what was carried on by the disciples of historical-criticism in the centuries which followed, must be studied under a hermeneutic which takes the spirit of the tradition seriously while retaining the position that such fantastical theories themselves were not taken literally by those who first originated them. It was only later generations of devotees of historical-critical exegesis who, in their zeal, took these traditions to be literal works of Biblical scholarship.

Post by: Eamonn Clark (NB: Faith is a gift – let no man boast… Let us pray for souls who lack such a great grace to see and know the Living God!)

The Heterodoxy We Need

Eamonn Clark

I am sure it is a startling headline. Yes – it is shameless clickbait. I won’t apologize.

I do not think we need more bad teaching on faith and morals, viz., the heterodoxy which is contrasted with orthodoxy. We need more right teaching on marriage and anthropology… That’s the “heterodoxy” contrasted with homodoxy.

Allow me to define my neologism.

Homodoxy (n.) – The ideology which supports, casually tolerates, or downplays the disordered nature of same-sex activity, attraction, or public policy which promotes such; adj. homodox; “The homodoxy of the German bishop was being imposed upon the diocese.”; “The thought that clericalism is the root of the abuse crisis strikes me as homodox.”

The sense in which I use the word “heterodox” here is, therefore, a double-entendre… It is both a diversion of belief with a somewhat dominant mindset in Western culture and in many areas of the Church. It is also in support of exclusively heterosexual activity, attraction, and public policy which promotes such.

Names give power. Categories help control people and situations. Maybe this one will be rhetorically helpful. While there is more than one kind of position which might fall under this definition, and we should always try to understand the precise nature and motivation of some person’s erroneous or bizarre point of view, there is certainly a real current of pro-gay thought which can be called such.

It should be done out of charity – well-tempered, assertive, and tactful charity.

Have a good Sunday…

A Mother’s Shame and Notre Dame

Eamonn Clark

There is an article at LifeSite about a controversy boiling at Notre Dame. Apparently, a mother wrote a letter to the editor of the school paper to express shock at the sartorial inclinations of some women at the basilica on campus. The letter was published, and a sensitive nerve was touched. I want to take the opportunity to sketch out the debate and offer some thoughts about deeper issues involved. For the first part, I’m going to use the quaestio format of the Summa Theologica. (You can read St. Thomas’ own blistering critique of immodest clothing here, though he is mostly talking about over-dressing.) For the second, I am just going to ramble. Bear with me.

Whether it is a sin for women to wear revealing clothing in public?

Objection 1. It seems it is not a sin. For the man who lusts after such a woman does so from his own volition which the woman does not control. Thus does Our Lord warn against adultery of the heart: “He who even thinks lustfully of a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) But there is no commission of adultery by mere outward appearance. Thus, it is only the man who sins by his lust, not the woman by her attire which attracts his desire.

Objection 2. Further, modesty is a cultural norm which changes according to the tides of custom, which is easily proved by the fact that in two different nations the same attire might be looked at altogether differently. Given that more traditional restrictions of dress are more serious and burdensome for women, it is in fact laudable that these customs be gradually changed to bring about a more equal standard of modesty for men and women.

Objection 3. Further, just as it is natural for a stone to fall to the earth, so too are human beings inclined to seek what is most natural to them and thereby satisfies their God-given desires. But restrictive dresscodes contradict this tendency toward goods such as comfort, self-esteem, and the like. Therefore, whatever feels most desirable in itself ought to be licit to wear.

On the contrary, It is written (1 Timothy 2:9): “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control.” Since the Apostle identifies immodest dress with women in particular, it seems it is especially incumbent upon women to adhere to a strict standard of modesty.

I answer that, Modesty in outward attire, in the sense we are speaking of it, seeks a middle-path between two extremes – repression and vulgarity.

On the one hand, to subject women habitually to the total covering of the entire body even including the face, is illicit for at least two reasons, even though it would remove the occasion of lust. First, it is necessary for women to be able to attract husbands through means of their appearance, which is altogether impossible by such an arrangement, leaving some other method to take the place of self-determination. Second, identification of one person among many is much easier without exorbitantly restrictive coverings, especially of the face, which makes the public life of women and the men who interact with them much more efficient. Thus, the complete repression of individual identity and bodily features through extensive covering is undesirable.

On the other hand, the more one reveals the body, the more one tends to increase the occasion to lust through vulgarity. Therefore, if one is to incur the risk of scandal being taken by one’s attire, namely, lust, some proportionate good to that risk must be gained. Where there is only small potential of scandal being taken, only light reasons are necessary to avoid sin, such as serious inconvenience, moderate discomfort due to heat, and so on; where there is large potential of scandal being taken, only the gravest of reasons will excuse, such as the risk of one’s life. The offense will be in proportion to the similitude between one’s necessity and the risk of scandal. Given that men are more easily drawn to women by appearance than women are to men, women are especially susceptible to this vice and should guard against it most closely, which also promotes the common good by requiring men to seek them for their virtue and honor. Thus it is written, “Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of robes, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” (1 Peter 3:3-4) Therefore, to safeguard morals and common decency among the sexes, which are graver motives than mere pleasantries of comfort and convenience, errors ought to favor the more restrictive vice.

All of this is especially important in sacred places. As the Psalmist says, “Worship the Lord in holy attire.” (Psalm 69:6) For what is moderate in profane spaces becomes immoderate in sacred spaces due to a lack of fittingness with the outward worship of God which the space is specially consecrated to. Thus is it licit to throw darts in a pub, but it is not licit in an oratory. Likewise, dress in churches or other sacred places ought to be especially reverent and safe from occasioning sin, lest men be drawn to lower their eyes from the worship of God toward the delectation of a woman’s flesh.

Reply to Objection 1. It is also written, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it is better that a great millstone was hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42) The argument in favor of individual liberty holds to the degree of custom which reason has communally decided upon, and regarding which one should make errors on the side of safety, as said above.

Reply to Objection 2. Custom cannot eradicate concupiscence, nor can it change the greater proclivities of men to delight in the appearance of women than women do in the appearance of men. Therefore, while custom may be altered, human nature will not be altered and must be adverted to.

Reply to Objection 3. Outward attire exists primarily for three reasons. First, to protect against physical harm, such as from heat or cold or blows in battle. Second, to mark or distinguish ourselves among other people in society. Third, to protect against lust and shame, as it is written (Genesis 3:7): “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” Therefore, these considerations hold primacy of place in the reasonable choice of outward apparel, and only afterward can other motives be evaluated.

Now on to the rambling.

Notre Dame has been plagued with “Catholic identity” troubles over the past few years. Without repeating them all, I will simply point the reader’s attention to another recent story there which broke when a large number of students asked for content filters for their internet connections to help avoid “inappropriate” content. The administration balked, and now we are seeing a rather vile backlash over a concerned mother asking young girls to dress for church better than they dress for the gym – as if it is any wonder. There are hundreds and hundreds of comments under the main story, almost all of them deeply critical.

No doubt, many of the people screeching wild accusations of bad parenting at this poor concerned mother and proclaiming the virtue of individual liberties are the same people who complain about a “rape culture” on college campuses. While there is no demonstrable systemic toleration or support of verifiable rape in universities in the West – and thus no “rape culture” – there is what one might call a “culture of promiscuity.” This is the toleration and support of every kind of sexual activity, as long as it’s consensual (with a few arbitrary exceptions, like student-teacher relationships and incest). What to say then about the high amounts of regretful sex and he-said-she-said cases of assault? One might say that it’s almost as if a climate of loose sexual mores disposes people to make dumb sexual choices, whether by not avoiding bad situations or by crossing over nearly invisible lines in the heat of already sinful passion. While wearing this or that trashy piece of clothing in public is not immediately inducing assault, the broad acceptance of such things is part and parcel of the larger paradigm of just not giving a hoot about any kind of sexual activity short of what suffices to call the cops.

What you wear (or don’t wear) in public, it should be noted, is not consensual… You make others see you as you are without their consent. It is almost never a reasonable argument to say, “They can look away if they want.” The problem with revealing clothing is precisely that many people won’t want to look away but should for the good of their souls, and for the good of your relationship with them. Heard of the phrase, “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have”? How about this: dress for the respect and real love you want, not the respect and real love you have. Those who already respect you and love you won’t care about your appearance – only new people will, who still have to be won over to a special valuation of your personhood. The better a person you are, the less you will have to compensate by flaunting your mere appearance. And if you aren’t a good person, get to work on that first.

A lot of people don’t think about this topic much for one of a few different reasons. First, they don’t understand sin in general. This is a common and large problem requiring more basic catechesis and evangelization. Second, they are so hardened by sins against chastity that they cannot even begin to see the problem with revealing a little skin. To them I say, I am sorry for you – it must be terrible to miss out on all the little joys of physicality which come along with modest courtship. (See Prof. Esolen’s wonderful article on that here.) Third, they are out of touch with how men and women actually relate with each other, both in general and in today’s particular circumstances, for whatever reason. These could even include well-meaning people who are sincerely trying to be holy but who just for the life of them can’t see why wearing skin-tight leggings to church is such a big deal. My advice to them is to accept that holiness sometimes involves giving up things that you don’t see the harm of, even if it’s simply because other people find your behavior to disturb their over-sensitive conscience. (See St. Paul’s discussion of abstaining from food sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8.)

Whatever the case, there seems to be a need to address this topic more seriously at Catholic universities. Perhaps a standard chapel dress-code, for men and women, could be implemented… Or asking some of the more committed Mass-goers to step up their fashion-game to help other people see that the church is not a gym, a dance floor, or a couch… Especially at universities named after Mary, the Mother of God!

End of rant. I didn’t even get to discuss 1 Corinthians 11!

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.