Some Symbols in the Baptism of the Lord You Might Have Missed

Eamonn Clark

You know about the Trinitarian symbolism… Christ, the voice of the Father, the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. You know about the imagery of John the Baptist, the “New Elijah” and the last of the prophets. And you know about the Jordan River symbolizing a turning point in salvation history, as it was when Joshua crossed over into the Holy Land with the ransomed Hebrews from Egypt (and their descendants), which of course recalls the splitting of the Red Sea and also Noah’s Ark. The river is between Israel and “the nations,” remember.

But add these symbols to your “just too cool” file. The Sea of Galilee, near where the Jordan River begins, is full of life, and it is where Christ calls the first Apostles to follow Him. (Remember the miracle of all those fish in the net?) Around it is the area where Christ begins and does most of His public ministry. The Dead Sea, where the Jordan ends, is just that: dead. It’s so salty that nothing can live in it, even to this day. So when the Lord goes down into the waters in between the two, what is He saying?

Hold on though, it gets better. The Dead Sea valley, where the Baptismal site is, is actually the lowest point on planet Earth (that isn’t under a body of water)… By a lot. See for yourself. So not only does the Jordan River make sense locally, for the Jews, caught between life and death, but it makes sense for the Gentiles as well.

The next time someone wants to say the symbolism in the Gospels is “too convenient,” you can tell them that the Evangelists didn’t even include everything.

We need to bring back this patristic style of Scriptural exegesis, and we need to bring modern day tools into it. Surely, there is a whole lot of stuff we are missing because we won’t take the Lord’s providential action in salvation history seriously enough as it is presented on the Sacred Page.

Merry Christmas, and a happy Feast of the Baptism of the Lord!

 

Main image: Triptych by Jan Des Trompes, c. 1505

Covenant Communities, PART III: My Own Bright Ideas

Eamonn Clark

See PART I, PART II

What is the draw of a Covenant Community, anyway? Isn’t being baptized into the Church and living within the parish enough? Isn’t having a biological family enough? Isn’t having a spouse enough? After all, these, too, are covenant communities. People see the good and understandably want more… Living in an intense form of common life, where certain things are shared and there is a structure of obedience, is freeing. It is what human beings are built for. It’s what Heaven will be in full. (By the way, Heaven is not an ecumenical community – true friendship and common life mean a common order of worship!)

I understand the pull to an additional form of covenant community quite well, as someone looking to enter religious life. The thing is, unlike most people, I’m planning on not marrying… That means no spouse or children to account for when discerning where God’s will is leading me – or to drag along where some manipulative superior says “God’s will” is leading me. That’s a major part of why religious life works so much better.

Other differences usually include: immediate oversight and control from the hierarchical Church, a rotating leadership (typically with a large democratic component), many internal checks and balances on governance and financial transparency, strict requirements of theological and spiritual formation for those entering, a clearly defined exit path, and a particular charism which is being offered for the good of the universal Church.

There are also differences between Covenant Communities and “religious movements” like Communion and Liberation, Focolare, or the Neocatechumenal Way. These are massive organizations – with no real “covenantal” dimension, at least not in the same way – that more or less propose living ecclesial life in a certain way in some kind of community with one another, integrated into the hierarchical Church. While there can develop eccentricities (and even real problems) in such movements, the successful ones are closely linked with normal ecclesial structures like parishes and dioceses and/or are so massive that well-defined statutes and close hierarchical oversight are guaranteed. These kinds of movements provide a healthy alternative to signing one’s family’s life away to some charismatic leader and his friends.

So that is one option for families: join a well-established, global movement which is vetted by the Holy See and has a clear purpose and appropriate transparency.

frate
Someone should have told Silas about that option… And also about the real Opus Dei.

But maybe that isn’t enough or right for some people. What other options might be out there? Let me propose two, beyond Third Orders, and/or simply picking friends wisely and making an attempt to spend time together, and/or just really trying to involve yourself with a parish to make it better and let it make you better. (Another Maryland community comes to mind which has this very healthy approach of the last two paths…)

The first is to form associations dedicated to some particular work of mercy, corporal or spiritual. (This is usually how religious orders start, of course!) One of the biggest problems is that Covenant Communities are an attempt at an extra-parochial parish… And they attempt a self-sustaining utopia founded on shaky ground. Associations dedicated to works of mercy actually go and encounter the dystopia head-on with a clear purpose in mind: feed the hungry, heal the sick, pray for the living and the dead, instruct the ignorant, etc. The last one is especially big, as it would involve forming homeschool co-ops (or even private schools in some cases). Such an association satisfies so many desires and needs… For community, for social/spiritual aid, for witness, for working toward common goals. This is especially true for educational projects, which are obviously easier to involve the whole family with. These groups are out there… Go find one that suits you, and make it better!

But maybe even that is not enough… Well, then, in most cases a person simply has to realize that family life is a massive obstacle to the desire for common life with others. (Aristotle teaches that we can only have 2 or maybe 3 friends of virtue, the “real” kind – true common life founded on authentic virtue is that hard, at least in this life!) Because of the prudential issues involved with entering into a Covenant Community, it is better to just wait until the general resurrection. But for single people, including those not really considering religious life or priesthood, there is another option…

Dioceses could establish houses of formation for lay people. Basically, lay seminaries. (Not men and women in the same houses, of course, or at least entirely separate halls/floors/wings without easy access.) There could be an application process of some rigor, tons of diocesan oversight, and membership would be conditional on several things, such as being regularly employed, not getting married, not doing anything too crazy, etc. People could apply right out of college (22) up until about 25 and stay for 3-4 years. Rent would be minimal. Mere “houses” could be set up I suppose – and this is very popular in Africa – but if the diocese is setting up a house for single laymen, why not just go the extra mile and bother to give them some education in the evenings and on weekends? Teach them some basic theology. Teach them how to pray. Teach them how to grow personally and practically. Teach them about what makes family life work well in the long-term.

How many recent college grads do you know who would stop, drop, and roll into such an accommodation?

If you don’t get a few priests and religious after a while out of such a set up (highly unlikely), you will definitely get plenty of well-formed young adults ready to take on life. In the meantime, they can have a serious communal life regulated by an external structure, without having to worry about whether their kids will “grow into” the community life they have promised for them, where their money is going, etc.

Well, that’s it. What are your thoughts? Do you know of any concrete examples of my two proposals? Do you have any experience with a Covenant Community, good or bad? (And I do know that some good people have good experiences, which is fine!) Let me know in the comments.

Covenant Communities, PART II: WOG, MOG, and LOG

Eamonn Clark

See PART I

SOS. No, I’m not crying for help, that last one stands for Sword of the Spirit, a group which has indeed made people cry for help. Before we begin our superficial case studies of two Maryland-based covenant communities gone haywire, I want the readership to know of my own personal connections with one of them (LOG). I have close connections with people who were involved, I have been to their school, I have talked with people affected by the community’s activity and fallout, and I have met their former leader. Let me be clear: I mostly don’t want to talk about people… I really want to talk about the community. Communities are more than the sum of their parts. So this is not a post about people who were involved (save for one), but the way that people interacted with one another in a certain context. So if a WOG-er, LOG-er, or MOG-er is reading this – and I think that is likely to happen – please don’t feel personally judged. You are not the community. And you are free to disagree with my assessment… I think that such freedom is important, don’t you?

The three acronyms in the title stand for Word of God, Mother of God, and Lamb of God. The first is the covenant community which was (until 1990) immediately operated by Sword of the Spirit, the Ann Arbor-based ecumenical super-community. The second is a D.C./Gaithersburg group which was radically reorganized in the late-90’s by Cdl. Hickey and still operates today. (You might be familiar with the publication that came out of the group, called “The Word Among Us.”) The last group was begun in the Greater Baltimore area in the late 70’s and ran into the mid-90’s when it was effectively dissolved by Cdl. Keeler.

I won’t go into all the problems of these groups (especially WOG, which I don’t know much about). I will provide links to caches of documents on MOG (here) and LOG (here) and make a few observations about commonalities among covenant communities, those two in particular. Then I will talk a bit more about LOG, and I will talk about its new incarnation.

First observation: the so-called Charismatic Renewal is a common theme. It seems that where there is a covenant community, there is the Charismatic Renewal. (See this article on the downfall of the Steubenville covenant community, Servants of Christ the King, for another example. Steubenville is, of course, an epicenter of the Renewal.) There is something that tends to unhinge “members” of the Renewal from normal ecclesial life. Perhaps it is because they often see themselves as “members” of a renewal – that is, special, set apart, even “chosen.” (Not all, but many… most… enough.) This is then combined with an inordinate expectation of God’s use of emotions and experiences in prayer and community to drive one toward or away from some action or idea. There is no need to dive into these problems here… I think the point is clear enough: if one feels spiritually powerful because of a direct and “personal” relationship with the Holy Spirit, confirmed by others in the same elite group, the importance of the Church as such diminishes. Interested readers might check out this online book on covenant communities by a Notre Dame professor (who was dismissed from the People of Praise in South Bend, IN) which explores this topic and loads more.

Second observation: the word “obedience” is a red flag. If the covenant one signs says anything about obeying the leadership, one can expect trouble… And if you don’t see the trouble, you are probably part of the problem. This is due in no small part to the fact that leadership will seldom if ever rotate unless a leader dies. An opaque chain of command will almost inevitably be established which monitors and controls lower-level members (psychologically, socially, financially, etc.). It will be done in the name of “pastoral care,” or for the sake of “integrity,” or some such thing. Of course, it is simply manipulation which frequently ends in grave harm to psyches, friendships, and even marriages. Real confidentiality among members, under a covenant with an “obedience clause,” will not exist. It will get so bad that even to breathe a word of gentle criticism against the leadership or the community’s direction will be “corrected.” See an example of a covenant document, from the Alleluia Community in Augusta, GA, here, and do scroll through the comments from former members.

Third observation: Language in general will also slowly become special or equivocal within the group, as the insular nature of the community can only lead to. Taking this together with the previous reality of monitoring members, the word Orwellian comes to mind.

When members start talking about “repentance” or “fellowship” or “spirit” or “discernment” in ways that seem a bit off to an outsider, it is probably a function of spending too much time around each other in an overly intense context of ordered socialization run by people who don’t know theology.

Fourth observation: The sense of being an alternative Church, or a Church within the Church. Covenant communities are the ultimate “safe space” – and how dreadful it would be to get cast into the outer darkness! “They are screwed up out there, unlike us. They’ll get you… they’ll get your kids… they’ll use you to infiltrate the community and try to tear it down…” This creates tons of fear which keeps people in line. The threat of spiritual danger can be just as effective, or even more effective, than the threat of physical danger. And the thing is, depending on how one interprets “out there,” it is true. Western society, and even many pockets within the Church, are incredibly dangerous. Ironically, covenant communities tend to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Training people to mistrust the Church, or even to avoid the sacraments, is deadly rather than life-giving. It is an idol.

Fifth observation: A lot of people get hurt, and a lot of people would be hurt if they allowed themselves to feel and think naturally. This should be obvious. The number of damaged minds, broken marriages, and even apostasies that come from covenant communities should be enough evidence to show that something is gravely wrong with the model.

Sixth observation: A driving force is religious novelty. A “new community.” An “emerging leadership.” Prayer “in the Spirit.” A “different way of life.” Leaders with “prophecies.” These sorts of fascinations are hallmarks of beginners in the spiritual life, not mature leaders. Religious novelty is one of the major themes of the Old Testament: God is spiritual, we are not, and so we will tend to go after lesser things to make God more tangible like ourselves. We want experiences, things we can see and feel and hear, things we feel immediately controlled by and can immediately control. The most superficial study of the Carmelite doctors will convince one of how stupid – and dangerous – this kind of thinking is. St. Teresa frequently saw Christ in plain human form… To her it was rather secondary, almost trivial. She would tell her confessor about what happened, and then she would forget about it. She certainly would not follow commands from such visions without permission from her director… After all, what if it was actually the Devil? A thorough study of the lives of the saints will reveal that this is a pattern: holy men and women do not trust their own spiritual experiences to guide them. They ask someone disinterested to show them the right path.

As I noted above, I have some tangential experience with a covenant community, Lamb of God. The echoes of the community, some 20 years later, are quite loud – there are still damaged relationships and suspicions around Catonsville, there are still some attempts at a common life among former members and their friends, there is still a school, and the old leader of the group is still around. He has, however, moved on to a “new project.”

I have also had some limited active experience with this project, called ChristLife. Just as I could not give you an ecclesiology of an “intentional Christian community” or a “covenant community,” I cannot really describe what this entity is, only what it does. There is an evangelization series which it sponsors in parishes (which is basically sound and useful, if not a bit elementary), there is a young adult group (in which I have several friends), and there is a company which somehow also involves itself in broader international mission work. There seem to be many more interior checks and balances on ChristLife than on LOG, and there is certainly more diocesan oversight. However, old dogs don’t learn new tricks. It concerns me greatly that the leader of what essentially turned into a cult (good intentions notwithstanding) immediately became the director (and after some 20 years, has been the only director) of an evangelization program within the exact same local church. Someone will have to explain to me how that is prudent… How might people be being manipulated? What attitudes and mindsets have been carried over from LOG into ChristLife, by the leader and by former members who involve themselves? Who else might be pulling strings that aren’t publicly known to be involved? Etc.

I don’t doubt the good intentions. I do doubt the means.

In the final installment, I will propose a different vision for how a “covenant community” might work. Stay tuned, and be sure to subscribe…

See PART III

 

Main image: Maryland flag

Covenant Communities, PART I: The Beguinage Option

Eamonn Clark

Your husband has just left with his buddies… Not for the bar, not for the bowling alley, but for the Crusade. He will probably never return – the territory is unfamiliar and the enemy fierce. The organization of the ranks is questionable, too. You are left alone in your little Belgian village. A few years pass, and some wearied soldiers come back into town after the failed campaign. The Mr. is not one of them: you are off to the local Beguinage.

There, the organization of the ranks is questionable as well – just as most of the crusaders were not professional soldiers, the superior is likely ill-equipped: she is not a professional ecclesiastic (viz. a priest) or even a proper religious. The other women are only half-invested, since they can own their own property and leave at any time to get married. The local bishop is aware of the institution, but he has other, more pressing affairs to attend to. Many of the women bring tons of money with them after the sale of their land, so the community is overflowing with wealth.

What could go wrong?

A lot, as it turns out. The Beguines (and Beghards, the male version) were suppressed by the little-known Ecumenical Council of Vienne in 1312. These semi-monastic communities, mostly centered in the Low Country, had amassed enormous wealth and slipped into very bizarre spiritual doctrines. (Basically, their errors amounted to the thought that one was able to attain, in this life, their twisted vision of spiritual perfection. For the condemned propositions, see Denzinger 471-8, older numbering.) It is also difficult to imagine there were no “power issues,” given the nature of the structure of the communities and the strange ideas that eventually pervaded them. (The “no kissing rule” was especially weird… Yes, go on click that Denzinger link. You know you want to see what infallible statement the Church has made on kissing.) If you think you are perfect, and your inferiors think you are perfect, when you are definitely not, how would that not occasion terrible abuses? Even though the Beguines did not share property (unlike the Beghards) or take vows, there was still a superior of the community, and how could a perfect superior not wield undue control? (Coincidentally – or not – Vienne also dissolved the Knights Templar, who had begun a similar downfall into wealth, power abuse, lax membership requirements, and heresy. One is reminded of the Church in present-day Germany.)

The Beguinages did attract pious women who did plenty of good work for each other and their towns, but in the end they didn’t work in many important ways, namely in cultivating a mature spirituality among the members. (There are, however, still a few active Beguinages around… The suppression on the Beguines – not the Beghards – was lifted 9 years after the Council, but eventually, the need disappeared and so membership declined.) When wealth, power, and gross spiritual imperfection are mixed in an ill-defined religious community with limited ecclesiastical oversight, one should expect mayhem to ensue. This is the lesson which Church history teaches us, and I fear it is a lesson not being well-learned today. That means the error will be repeated… Let us turn now to the so-called “Benedict Option.”

thevillage1
Some critics might have M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” lurking in their memory.

A million articles have now been written in response to Rod Dreher’s book on the need to duck out of postmodern society and form intentional Christian enclaves – which, he opines, is sort of the point of Christianity anyway (made obvious in part by the comical slew of “original” variations on the theme – the “Marian Option,” the “Augustine Option,” etc.). The idea is basically that Western society is so bad that it should just be left to destroy itself while we preserve our faith and morals amongst our own rather than risk more bleeding by living out “in the wild,” and we can draw people into the Church by leading attractive lives and with some occasional missionary activity overflowing from the enclave.

While most critics of this idea are concerned with the abandonment of wandering souls to the Zeitgeist, which is a legitimate (although in my opinion overblown) concern, my critique is focused on the interior life of an “intentional Christian community” rather than its exterior missionary activity. We don’t always need to preach to Gehenna (Jesus didn’t bother!), but we do always need to know who is in charge, where the money goes, how the hierarchical Church is involved, and in general how the community lives its life together.

There is a chasm between the domestic church and the hierarchical church. It is easy to fall into it.

I could not give you an ecclesiology of an “intentional Christian community,” though this is now the primary buzzword, closely followed by “covenant community,” although these are distinct (albeit not mutually exclusive) realities. An “intentional Christian community” is just that – people who intentionally associate with one another to aid their discipleship. A “covenant community” involves signing a contract that pledges certain things for the good of the group… Like “obedience to the leadership.”

Let’s ask some questions.

First, is this or that community even specifically Catholic? If not, how will the Catholic Church be presented by non-Catholic members and leaders? Will there be requirements or “suggested opportunities” for members that don’t square with Catholic doctrine and morals? Is there a non-denominational-ish church which the community is obliged or semi-obliged to support, financially or otherwise? What is being preached and taught there? What about a school? Same questions. What kind of spirituality will the community develop and encourage that is not founded in or ordered to the Mass and the confessional? How exactly does one’s local parish pastor involve himself in the lives of Catholics in such a community? How do members relate to their parish in general? Is the leadership tempted to use the group’s ecumenical nature as a means of dodging episcopal oversight? How can a Catholic member in good conscience follow a non-Catholic spiritual leader, precisely insofar as he or she is a spiritual leader? These are serious questions, some of which don’t have easy answers. It can sometimes happen that, as far as the Church is concerned, what happens in such groups is more communism than ecumenism.

There are many other questions to be answered by any community, especially the ones that require signing a contract or “covenant” to join… Will the community be at the service of the parish and hierarchical church, or vice versa? How will a poorer family support both the community and the parish? What are the details of the “covenant” (viz. what is actually required, and why)? How does one opt out of the community, if it is possible at all? If it is not possible, why? How is personal information treated within the community? How are relationships between men and women monitored? Where does the money go, and how is transparency guaranteed? Are there inordinate pressures to take or leave certain jobs? Is there any restriction of relationship with people inside or outside the community for arbitrary reasons? What is required to become a member of the community? How does the community relate with the diocese and bishop? In whose name does the community exercise its ministries and evangelization projects – their own, the diocese’s, the parish’s, the individuals’? If priests or deacons are members, how does their membership and activity relate to their official ecclesiastical role wherever their bishop or superior has actually assigned them? Exactly what role does the leadership of the community play in the life of the group? What is required to become a leader in the community? Does all of the leadership rotate periodically? If no, why not? What is the understanding of the “grace of state” among the leaders?

This last one is huge. Grace of state is a gift that comes with occupying a certain office. In some cases, it can, in a sense, involve an infallible discernment of the will of God, which would imply obedience to that person’s demand under pain of sin. A few examples will suffice… The president of a country signs legislation that people must drive on the left side of the road. The local bishop chooses not to allow a tabernacle to be put in a certain rectory. The parents of a child tell him that he will go to the parish school. Who would argue that obedience in these examples is not a matter of moral precept? However, this does not mean the decisions were necessarily made for the right reasons… Perhaps the president is hoping that his new law will cause catastrophe for tourists. Maybe the bishop is jealous of the piety of the priest who lives in that rectory. It could be that the parents would actually do better to homeschool their child, but they are just lazy. It doesn’t matter: it is still the will of God precisely because these people have the right to demand these things of those under them in virtue of their offices – offices which ultimately derive from God, either through nature (like the government or the family) or through grace (like the hierarchical church).

In covenant communities, there is often an ambiguous commitment to “obey” the leadership. One could be shamed and thought of as impious or disobedient (or even Satanic) for not falling in line with whatever the leaders require. After all, don’t they have the grace of state to determine God’s will for the community?

No. There is no office of nature or of grace which authentically interprets the will of God for such a community which comes from within the community itself. That is the job of the pastor and/or bishop, or a duly appointed delegate. Even then, the scope of obedience only goes so far – the bishop, for instance, does not have the right to tell parents they must enroll their child in the parish school. The pastor does not have the right to demand a certain amount of tithing from his parishioners. Etc. These things can frequently be items of “discernment” in covenant communities which then become “suggestions” or “opportunities.” Pity the member who does not go along with the will of their leaders! In fact, it seems that all that a duly appointed ecclesiastical representative could really authentically interpret is how to relate the community to various real authorities, such as the pastor, the bishop, the government, families, and so on, according to those authorities’ proper roles. What one finds instead is often one or several people at the top, who were self-appointed, who never rotate, and who claim to be authentic prophetic voices for the community which is centered around their wills; in other words, cult leaders.

Signing a contract is an important action, and it should not be done lightly. However, we must realize that humans are not angels – they do not perfectly understand all the implications of their actions – and therefore, vows can (and sometimes must) be broken for the good of the individual or commonwealth. Unlike marriage, association with a community is certainly something “intrinsically dissoluble” – that is, either party can choose to step away once it becomes clear that it is best for either of them, so long as any inordinate injury is avoided… It does not require an intervention of a third-party, like the Pauline or Petrine privileges in the dissolution of non-sacramental marriages. A vow to a merely human society is not a vow to God, and so it is far less serious, though it is still a matter of justice insofar as the reckless abandonment of the promise can bring damage to either party… One does owe something to the person or persons to whom a vow is made simply by the nature of the vow itself.

But let’s examine the nature of private vows made to God. (See the relevant canons here.) Vows to God are much more serious (as a matter proper to the virtue of religion), such that the complete release from them requires a dispensation or commutation from the Church (or the time elapsing). And yet even here, one who undertakes a vow to God with insufficient understanding of what he is committing himself to by that vow can’t be morally bound to it. (Think of a pious 5th grader who, in a fit of religious fervor, promises to God after Mass one day that he will never marry. He is unquestionably not bound by this vow! Of course, determining what is “sufficient” is a difficult matter.) What’s more, a vow made to God must actually be possible (obviously) and for the sake of a better state or action than what one would otherwise be in or do without the vow, or else the vow does not bind. (A person who promises to God that he will not go to Mass except on Sundays is not bound by this vow unless he would really be doing harm to himself or others by going to Mass during the week. A person who promises to God that he will tie his left shoe before his right shoe is also not bound by the vow because it is not better to do this. Vows like this are vain and sinful, in fact, and rash or hasty vows can be sinful as well.) It must also be the case that the “better state or action” must really continue to be better for the one who made the vow in order for it to remain binding. (If a husband vows to spend several hours each week in private prayer, this would cease to bind if his wife became very sick and needed his constant attention.) In general, when more fundamental obligations become more serious, the obligations based on vows begin to decrease in gravity.

Given all this, it should be easy to see that the “covenant” part of covenant communities involves a serious but not that serious kind of promise. The public vows made when entering proper religious communities, or private vows made directly to God, are much more serious – and yet there are many qualifications and ways out. I wonder how well the nature of vows is understood by leaders in various covenant communities – and how well they explain that nature to aspiring members. Once it becomes clear that a community is bad for one’s children, isn’t it incumbent upon the parents to remove themselves from that community? If it is becoming harmful to one’s psychological, emotional, spiritual – or financial – welfare, isn’t it a duty to leave? As a person slowly realizes that he got himself into something he didn’t really understand the details of, doesn’t his obligation to stay begin to diminish? Of course. And all the while, the leaders of these communities will still not be authentically interpreting the will of God, because they are only appointed or elected for the good of a merely man-made and non-fundamental collective to which people can freely come and from which people can freely go, usually without sin. This is unlike the government, this is unlike the Church, and it is unlike the family.

The “Beguinage Option” is not the right way – but clearly, the desire for intense communal discipleship is good. How can it be fulfilled in the lives of lay people who can’t enter or don’t want to enter religious life?

In the next post of this 3 part series, I will look at a few specific examples of covenant communities as case studies (including one with which I have some personal connection), and then finally I will propose a model or two of my own.

See PART II

 

Main image: The Beguinage in Bruges, Belgium. By Navy8300 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Apolog-etc. – Episode #1

Eamonn Clark

I often come across articles on WordPress (the platform this site uses) which don’t quite seem to get “the Catholic thing.” Usually, they fight strawmen (caricatures or weakened versions of a position), and many times the authors are former Catholics, which is very sad. Quite recently, I ran across a post, which I commented on, and which prompted a whole post of its own on the author’s part. With that, I’ve decided to start an ongoing series of posts on apologetics (etc.) – thus the strange title. I will dissect such articles (at least in part) and try shed some light on the matter.

The link to the article in question. From here on, comments in red.

[BEGIN QUOTE]

In response to one of my posts here, I received a comment which says:

I’m interested to know where exactly you think the “Bible” comes from? How do we know “these” books are in it, and others are not? Who and what is responsible for determining that? Why and how can there be disagreements about this?

The question is actually four questions, and the second and third ones can be answered together in a single response.  The question is “How do we know ‘these’ books are in [the Bible] and others are not, and who and what is responsible for determining that?

The books included or excluded from the ‘finished’ Bible as we know it were compiled, curated, or determined – generally – by a group of individuals who ‘authorized’ that particular version of the Bible.

They then go on to describe the history of several versions of Bibles – the KJV, Tyndale, Coverdale, Vulgate, etc., most of which was just ripped straight from Wikipedia… And this, of course, does not answer the question at all – who cares where this version comes from – where did the right version come from, and how, and why? Then we have this gem:

Tyndale’s Bible was an affront to the Roman Catholic Church because it challenged many of the Church’s established doctrines and – by giving access to God’s word to everyone – would have negated the Church’s position that only the Church (and its priests/bishops) could properly ‘interpret’ God’s word and act as intercessory agents between mankind and God.

Nevermind the translation issues with the Tyndale Bible – as the Italians say, “traduttore, traditore,” there is no perfect translation, though Tyndale did try to target buzzwords of Catholic doctrine – but there is a very persistent Protestant myth that the Catholic Church used to keep Bibles away from laymen for “intellectual safety” or something like that. Given the fact that trying to interpret Scripture without a good education is often extremely dangerous, this is plausible. This did happen once in southern France in the 13th century, because Albigensians were handing out Bibles with a little “extra” stuff thrown in there to make converts for their sect, but by and large it was simply too expensive to buy a Bible (which would have been handwritten), and literacy was not that widespread anyway.

Who is responsible for determining what books are chosen for each different version of the Bible?  A question I did not ask. The group, agency, organization, entity, or individual responsible for publishing the version is the ‘who’ that selected what books to include.

How do we know that these versions, book selections, and translations are official or authoritative or correct? Another question I did not ask. Unless we can read and have access to the original texts, we don’t know. We make a leap of faith and let our belief in the word be guided by the Holy Spirit. Interesting – so there is some trust put in the operation of God through human beings who preserved the text down to our own time? Did God really give mere human beings His own authority in this way? Curious… This sounds very Catholic. But the questions remain – which version and why?

Where do I think the Bible comes from?

If you ask 100 different people this question, you will likely get at least a dozen different answers.

According to scholars, which ones? why should we listen to them? isn’t the devil a Scripture scholar too? the authors of the individual books of the Bible were from all walks of life – kings, tax collectors, poets, farmers, priests, and others – and that the texts created by these people were divinely inspired by God.  In other words, they were writing about ‘religious’ subjects while under the influence of God through the Holy Spirit.  This point of view (the scholars’ presumption) is the belief I hold regarding ‘where’ the Bible comes from. Ok… Still no answers.

Why and how can there be disagreements about all this?

That’s the easiest question of all to answer. We’ll see… No matter what the subject is, there can always be a disagreement if two or more people are present and discussing it.  People can even argue about the color of the sky (sky blue, cerulean, robin’s egg blue, bright blue, milky blue, etc.) or which direction the sun rises from (east, slightly northeast, a bit more southerly than easterly, etc.). … Okay, so we disagree about which particular shade of blue the sky is, and also the categories of written content of the definitive revelation of Almighty God which is supposedly the only means of accessing the truth which can save us from everlasting torment – got it. But there seems to be a confusion about the question… Obviously, people disagree, but how can that be so? Are there no means of determining the matter? How strange that God would leave us to our own devices on such an important matter… What if I don’t like the Gospel of John, especially chapter 6? What if I disagree with the 10 Commandments, can I take out the books which talk about them? What if it’s too hard to believe some things in the Book of Acts – I can just say it’s not from God, right? Luther pulled exactly this kind of stunt… His theology was at odds with some books (especially James), so he discarded them.

Unless God himself personally appears and declares that he ‘instructed’ the writing of the Bible via the Holy Spirit, which He has, through the visible Catholic Church… there WILL be disagreements about it. And perhaps there would still be even if he did appear and unequivocally inform us of where the Bible comes from. Which there is, among non-Catholics…

As always, seek your own understanding, meaning, and interpretation of the intention behind God’s word by reading it for yourself.  Don’t believe others, because we are all only human, and none of us is more qualified to discern a revelation from God’s word meant for you other than you yourself. So now, not only do we have no idea how to know what is really inspired by God, but even if we did, we should just try to figure its meaning out all by ourselves… Because each individual is less fallible than the next, or something like that? If only there was some kind of teaching authority which God gave the Church which could help with all of this…..

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OKAY: So, there was no satisfying answer to my questions – and there can’t be any from a Protestant or non-denom. The conclusion is inescapable… Either God gave an authority to the Church to define what is contained in Scripture, and therefore the Church “as such” has, in some way, authority to teach in God’s Name (viz. infallibly), or we are essentially left as orphans with a bunch of ancient texts with no way to know for sure what God has inspired or to interpret what we think He has inspired. See my post on sola scriptura here.

I enjoyed a friendly exchange with this author, and I gave them a heads up that I would also take a look at some of their claims in the original post which sparked my questions. (I often come across tragic and sometimes downright weird misconceptions about Catholicism, many times from former Catholics – including this individual. It is very unfortunate.) However, I usually talk about the authority of Scripture, because inevitably the discussion will turn to: “Where is that in the Bible?” Now, I can play that game quite well (and I will play it here in this post a bit), but it is, at bottom, a game… I do not have the authority to explain definitively what Paul means about grace and law, nor does the interlocutor – all there can be is suggestion. It is a cat-and-mouse “gotcha” paradigm which can and does lead to pitting one part of Scripture against another. This shows the need for an authority, visible and living, to intervene and settle the matter. Anyway, my friend found some “list of infallible dogmas” (which I think is probably some blogger’s summary of Denzinger or Ott), and here are the sorts of things that they were on about, all the while claiming (rather arrogantly) that the Catholic Church needs to read the Bible… Yikes. I will just look at some of it.

A link to the article.

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#106 states that ‘after the birth of Jesus, Mary remained a virgin.’  There is no foundation whatsoever for this in the Bible, and the Bible actually goes on to refer to the brothers of Jesus (which some people say is a general ‘mankind’ reference).  In a day and age when large families were common and Jesus’ Earthly family was a ‘common’ one, why wouldn’t Mary and Joseph have had other children after the birth of Jesus?

That’s the whole argument. Forget that we should not expect such a statement in Scripture, for various reasons. Forget the perennial tradition among the early Church about Mary’s virginity. Forget the puzzling question of Mary at the Annunciation about how she will conceive (if she is getting married like a normal person, she would not have been wondering how she will become pregnant). Forget the widespread use of the word “brother” to refer to non-biological family (perhaps cousins). Forget the internal problems with such an interpretation, which I believe Sheen so masterfully described in his book on Mary. Rather, we should just think that Mary did all the same things that other women did, because, after all, she is only the mother of the Incarnate Son of God… not like that would require anything special of her. 

Moving on, item #133 says that ‘grace can be increased by good works.’  No, no, no.  You cannot ‘work’ your way into heaven, you cannot ‘work’ your way into a higher state of grace, you cannot ‘work’ your way into becoming more saved or more blessed or more beloved of God.  God has NO respect of persons (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11, Ephesians 6:9, 1 Peter 1:17), which means we are all saved, blessed, loved, and granted grace on equal footing with each other.  Sure, good works make you feel better – but they won’t make God love you more, give you more grace, or bestow upon you a higher ‘status’ than anyone else.  Items #135 and #136 on this list also deal with how ‘good works’ can improve your status with God.  The Catholic Church really needs to READ the Bible, instead of trying to create it for themselves.

This is one of the big ones. The myth is: Catholics are Pelagians (viz. they think that trying really hard to be good, by our own efforts alone, earns us grace). On the contrary, the Catholic Church teaches, with Paul, that even the mere desire to do something good (for a right reason) is preceded by the movement of grace in the soul. Grace which is sufficient for following the Commandments is given to all, (at least to all the baptized,) and resisting that grace results in sin, which, if serious enough, destroys friendship with God (charity), reordering the soul away from Heaven, though possibly with the person remaining a believer who hopes for salvation (thus continuing to enjoy a kind of justification). When a good work is done, whether to follow the Commandments or even to go beyond them (see the dialogue with the Rich Young Man – we can do better than simply not sin!), then God has given even more grace than was there originally, called efficient grace. This is how some enter the Kingdom ahead of others, this is why there are many mansions in the Father’s house, this is why the better servant who humbles himself more will be called the greatest, this is how the division of talents among the stewards translates to the spiritual life, etc., etc., etc. Perhaps my friend ought to READ the Bible, instead of Googling anti-Catholic apologetics. It all fits together… Both grace AND works. (By the way –  some of the “works” that Paul talks about are the works of the Mosaic law, perhaps including the established rabbinic interpretation among his own Jewish sect, the Pharisees… It is certainly true that doing your dishes a certain way will not save you. Nor will even circumcision save you. You must follow the Commandments, which, as John says, is how we first love God. Read the letters.)

Item #153 says ‘the Church founded by Christ is unique and one.’  That is true, but Jesus did not create the Catholic Church.  He didn’t create a church of any denomination.  We are one body in Christ with many members, which means we are non-denominational, and any division into denominations is a violation of Biblical edict.

Here is the “non-denominationalist error.” By choosing to be one who rejects doctrinal clarity in various ways, and by choosing a certain kind of ecclesiology (an understanding of what “the Church” is), one separates himself from other Christians who disagree. In short, to be “non-denominational” is to be in a denomination. The word “denomination” literally means “what you are named.” Because there is division within Christianity, one simply must make choices about “sides” once one is faced with the options. Division in the Church is the result of doctrinal, liturgical, and sometimes political disputes – finding the “authentic Church” is not done by simply ignoring these entrenchments, nor is it done by denouncing them all as “divisions.” The former is like an awkward family reunion where everyone pretends that the serious problems which exist between various members don’t exist, for the sake of having a good time – it is superficial and unsustainable in the long-run. The latter is like sawing off the branch which one is sitting on, as was already explained. This topic deserves its own post at a later date, but this will suffice for now.

Items #205 through #209 discuss the Catholic Church’s power to remit (forgive) sin, whether it was committed before or after baptism.  Once again – wrong!  The only ‘power’ that exists to remit or forgive sin is the power of Jesus’ blood shed on the cross at his crucifixion.  Jesus did not bestow upon anyone or anything the power to forgive sins.

So… John 20:23? I guess we are ignoring that instance. The apostles understood it well enough, and so did their successors, and their successors, etc. In the meantime, the New Testament was being written. We can see, then, that Christianity is not based on Scripture – it is the other way around. The Word did not just become more words… He became a man and dwelt among us – and those with whom He dwelt bore Him witness, first by speech, and then later by writing. The authority rests in the lineage of the apostles, then, especially with Peter, who was privileged with preeminence by the Lord and by the other apostles in many ways. And these men understood themselves to have power, in the Lord’s Name, through His saving work which they were chosen to participate in by the Lord Himself, to forgive sins. Solus Christus has its own post coming too – it is an even bleaker doctrine than sola scriptura. We indeed are called to share in His own ministry and life in various ways, according to His own action within us. In this case, it is through priestly ordination. There are now many Joshuas whom God will obey, as He did when the sun stood still…

Item #212 claims that the confession of sins (to a priest) is necessary for salvation.  Wrong again.  The only thing necessary for salvation is faith in Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15).  The Bible also tells us that our transgressions should be confessed to God, not to another fallible human being (and does not specify that it is necessary for salvation!).

So……. James 5:16? But what authority does James have anyway… Luther threw out that book because it says: faith alone does not suffice for salvation (James 2:14-26). James is not talking about sacramental confession, of course, but it seems my friend is simply poorly read in Scripture (or is missing this book in their Bible – which goes back to the original question).

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That is enough of a look at these posts. Hopefully, this will suffice to show what kind of misunderstandings can be out there – and I hope my new friend does not mind a bit of my rhetoric, but rather embraces a little correction. There are so many more things to say, but perhaps a good perusal of the wonderful site of Catholic Answers would be better than me blabbing on. It is not hard to find good explanations of this stuff…

Have you encountered similar objections and misunderstandings? Share in the comments below – but be charitable!

10 Reasons to Enroll in a Roman Pontifical University

Eamonn Clark

Almost 2 years ago, I decided to leave the United States and move to Rome to study. There were, and probably still are, people who thought I was crazy for doing so. I can understand the sentiment, but it was an excellent decision. In this post, I want to demystify the “Roman Schools” a bit and give 10 reasons why taking the leap is totally worth it for anyone who wants a good theological or philosophical education.

First, a distinction. The universities are not colleges, and the colleges are not universities. If your seminarian friend goes to the North American College, that does not tell you what university he attends – it could be one of a dozen or so. A college is where a student (especially a seminarian) lives and would usually receive mostly non-academic formation, like help with personal growth or practicums on how to celebrate the sacraments. Some students live in religious houses (convents, monasteries, etc.) or in their own apartments and are therefore not at any college whatsoever.

There are many kinds of degrees that can be earned at the universities, though the three which are most pursued here are the theology degrees: the S.T.B., the S.T.L., and the S.T.D. Respectively, they are the Roman versions of a Bachelor’s, a Master’s (“Licentiate”), and a Doctorate. To study for the S.T.L., one must have the S.T.B. – a normal Bachelor’s in theology will not cut it, though some courses might be accepted for credit. The S.T.D. requires the S.T.L. The S.T.B. requires having a sufficient background in philosophy, although this can sometimes be made up for while studying for it.

A Pontifical University is a school which is accredited by the Holy See, and the degrees conferred (especially the S.T.L.) give one a heightened professional freedom within the Church. There are many such universities around the world, but here are 10 reasons why any prospective pontifical student should consider moving to Rome to go to school.

  1. It is cheap as dirt. I first approached a former professor who had done studies in Rome to ask about some of the basic things. One of them was money – it must be pretty expensive to go to some of the most storied schools in Church history, right? Wrong. Plan to spend about $2,000 on tuition… Not per class, not per semester, per year. There are not many extra fees thrown in either, and the ones that are added are reasonable and also relatively low. For example, a final comprehensive degree examination might cost 250 euro, a pre-requisite Latin class might cost 300 euro, etc. (Fun fact: when Fr. Karol Wojtyla finished his doctorate at the Angelicum, his diocese was so poor it couldn’t pay for the degree, so he technically did not receive it. When he became John Paul II, he made a visit to the university. Unsurprisingly, his degree was finally conferred!) Cost of living is the only hurdle, as it is impractical (and illegal) for most students to work a full-time job. However, part-time work is possible, and there are scholarships available. Private fundraising is possible as well, which is how I obtained most of my funding. Parishes and individuals are very generous with students coming here.
  2. You will get admitted. This was another concern I brought to my professor. I’ll never forget his response when I asked what was required for admission: “A pulse.” As long as you can gather the paperwork and pay tuition, you’ll be good to go. Every university has open seats which they are looking to fill, and they will gladly take your money and let you sit in class. It doesn’t matter how many intellectual giants, saints, and popes went to the Gregorian – you do not have to be any of these to get in. Low admissions standards may be the reality at some other pontifical universities, but given the tuition rate, it is especially true in Rome.
  3. You will pass. The entry-level degree programs (like the S.T.B.) are designed to be easy enough that the vast majority of students can pass. The difficulty might vary somewhat from university to university and from professor to professor, but in general, it is quite hard to fail a class in the entry-level degree programs. (To go on to the next degree level, you do need to get a good G.P.A.) Attendance policies are also quite lenient.
  4. There is real, meaningful diversity in the student population. At the larger universities, there will be students from around a hundred different countries or more. The networking alone is worth the price of tuition.
  5. You will learn Italian. Yes, most universities are taught exclusively in Italian, (with the notable exception of the Angelicum, which also teaches in English,) but most other students are in the same boat. There are ways to learn course material without knowing any Italian, such as note-taking systems, but with a little effort, immersion in the language will slowly render the fruit of fluency. Being able to add that to a resumé is a definite bonus.
  6. There are some of the world’s best professors here. Nowhere else is there such a concentration of competent Catholic intellectuals. And many of the big names who aren’t teaching here often visit to give talks at conferences.
  7. It’s Rome. Enough said…
  8. It’s Europe. If you want to go to France for the weekend, you can. If you want to take your spring break to go backpacking in Germany, no big deal. Etc. Everything is right next door.
  9. There are some extremely specialized programs, too. On top of your standard degrees, there are entire schools dedicated to Christian archaeology, oriental Christianity, scripture studies, patristics, and so on. (NB: Some of these might be pontifical institutes rather than full universities.)
  10. The degrees carry global respect. “You went to Santa Croce? Wow, you must know your stuff,” etc. It is a big advantage to go to a school which is known around the world for its high quality education.

It can be very intimidating to move to another country.  Family and friends from home will probably be very far away. And it is certainly difficult – sometimes maddeningly so – to deal with Italian bureaucracy. But there are so many people here who feel just as lost… Family and friends from home will want to visit… And as for the bureaucracy, well, you just have to suck it up!

I welcome any questions in the combox or through the contact tab.

Ci vediamo…

Have You Heard the Bad News?

Eamonn Clark

We hear a lot about the Good News. The Good News is that God sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, who died for us and has risen from the dead, freeing us from the tyranny of sin and death. This is also called the kerygma.

The kerygma does not make sense to most millennials. Why? Because they don’t know the Bad News. There can no longer be much Western evangelization without first talking about the Bad News.

What is the Bad News? It is this: you are a sinner, you are going to die, you deserve to be punished by God forever, and there is nothing you or any mere human being can do to rectify this situation.

Post-modern millennials (PMM’s) do not believe in personal sin, that is, offending God in a meaningful way. They don’t even believe in God, or if they do, it is a God that is more like a soup than a person… He is not really more in one place than another, and He makes you feel good when you take a spoonful. PMM’s ignore death – they wrap it up as an occasion to celebrate the life of the deceased, thus avoiding significant grief over the horrifying reality of loss. Therefore, the thought that anyone could merit eternal punishment is incomprehensible to them, except maybe some Trump supporters, terrorists, and global-warming skeptics… Certainly, they deserve eternal punishment, right?

The faithful Jews of ancient Israel understood the Bad News very well – they knew sin, they knew death, they knew personal guilt. Particularly helpful in describing the sad state of affairs in which post-Eden humanity finds itself is the Book of Ecclesiastes… There is perhaps no book in Scripture which paints a clearer picture of the human condition. I submit that this text is a massively underused tool of evangelization, as it relies almost entirely on appealing to natural reason, and it very well disposes a person to feel the need for the Gospel message. Qoheleth just tells it like it is: the world is not fair, your wealth and pleasure, though good, are torturously fleeting and uncertain, people will not remember the good you do, and soon enough, you will die – all of the fruits of your labors will be lost to you, and you have no real way of controlling what will happen to them.

If that’s not a cold dose of reality, then nothing is.

And since we have to present the Gospel as real, it must connect with what is really experienced. A sincere appeal to life’s unfairness, the fleetingness of pleasure, etc., can open the door which He is always knocking on, even in the heart of a PMM. The Bad News is, in fact, the door itself which has blocked Him in the first place.

Is the Church Really in a Crisis?

Eamonn Clark

It has been said that the Church is in a crisis… Some have even said we are now in the “Fourth Great Crisis.” After all, it seems that about every 500 years the Church needs to face some massive doctrinal upheaval. First was Arius, next was the Great Schism of 1054 between East and West, then exactly 500 years ago was the Reformation. Aren’t we due? Isn’t the confusion over Amoris Laetitia the manifestation of a widespread sickness that has been plaguing the Church for some 50 years or more? We are facing serious novelties and ambiguities regarding the doctrine of grace, at least three sacraments, fundamental morals, the nature of the office of the papacy, and canon law. Indeed, there is a massive problem… But the Church is not in a crisis.

The Church is a crisis.

We, the Church on Earth, are no longer in Eden. This is the Bad News™ which makes sense of the Good News. We are caught in between the life of our corrupted nature and the life of Heaven, with the possibility but without the guarantee of making it to glory. The Church Militant is “militant” because of the continual working out of our salvation in fear and trembling… We must constantly fight against our weakened wills and darkened intellects. Either the battle is fought – with the help of God – or the battle is lost. If you are not fighting, you are dying… The one who stops fighting allows the Evil One to gain ground.

A city which is in a perpetual state of warfare would certainly be in nonstop crisis, but the Church Militant simply is the war itself on the part of the baptized. To be baptized is to have the power to fight for what the sacrament makes possible to obtain, namely, Heaven, and it makes one a special target of the Devil and the possible subject of a tragic fall into damnation. Therefore, the Church Militant is itself a war – or a crisis.

Yes, it is more than that. The Church is a communion of persons united with God through grace, it is the access to a supernatural storehouse of merit, it is the temporal participation in the Mystical Body of the Lord, and so on. But it is also essentially a dramatic fight for Heaven, where the Lord does battle with us and within us. Thus did Joshua enter Canaan, and so must we enter the true Holy Land. Our nature being what it is, however, there will be resistance to grace, and this will make a mess of what could have otherwise been an immediate victory – Joshua failed to purify the land of all its idols, which occasioned much trouble – and we have failed in much the same way. So long as there is sin within the Church, we have not yet succeeded, and this means that the war must continue.

There has always been widespread sin in the Church in every day and age. (Do you really think the pre-conciliar Church was that nice? Where, then, did the post-conciliar Church come from, I wonder?) However, there are moments where sin becomes more pronounced or more accepted as good among members of the baptized or even among the clergy. When this happens, it is something of a return to form… If you want to know how bad things can really get, reread the story of Our Lord’s Passion and Death, keeping in mind that the apostles are clergy – and one is the pope. (An attentive reading of 2 Kings 21 might also help – surely, you will have a legitimate complaint when your local bishop institutes the policies of Manasseh, King of Judah, and stays in power for 55 years.) Nonetheless, God made good on His promises then, and He will do so again. His own holiness and fidelity have the last word. He fights with us, and this is why the crisis – which is the Church in time – will not last forever. Until that day, let’s cultivate an eternal perspective on the failures of mere men who have a special office in Our Lord’s mystical body.

Let’s pray, too.

Sola Scriptura: 7 Fatal Flaws of a Bleak Doctrine

Eamonn Clark

“Sola Scriptura” means “only Scripture,” as in “Scripture alone is the authority for Christian doctrine.” It is one of the foundations of Protestant theology… It rejects the teaching authority of the Church as such. Given that this day marks the dreadfully unhappy 500th Anniversary of the beginning of Protestantism, shall we examine this idea and expose it?

I submit that there are at least 7 massive problems with Sola Scriptura.

First: Sola Scriptura is anarchic. This is evident from the endless multiplication of divergent theologies and denominations within Protestantism. Without a unifying voice, namely, a bishop, pope, or something similar, one becomes his own definitive authority on the meaning of Scripture. Perhaps a pastor or teacher can help one form ideas, but it is I and I alone who am responsible for determining the true meaning of any given passage. Of course, I might say that the Holy Spirit is giving me the truth – which would mean that everyone must actually listen to me. In Protestantism, everyone is their own little pope. This same “bottom-up” approach to God existed once before, at the Tower of Babel. And there too did the languages multiply endlessly unto chaos, just as we see within Protestantism now, where there is splinter after splinter. Pentecost was the opposite – God came down to us (the Church as such, as represented by the Apostles and Mary in the Upper Room) and gave us a principle of unity from which to adapt to the many situations and needs of the day. Without a visible, living Pentecost among us, there can be no public unity around Christ. From the mere fact that there can be morally, liturgically, or doctrinally significant disagreement about the meaning of the same Biblical passage, it is evident that Scripture does not fit the bill of the “visible and living Pentecost”… Remember, the Devil knows Scripture too! (Mt. 4: 1-11) Unless one speaks about Scripture with the very authority of Christ, there is no end to disputation. As Peter says, interpreting Scripture can be very difficult and sometimes it ends badly, especially with Paul’s letters! (2 Pt. 3: 16) Would God really leave us orphans in this way? Did the Word really in practice just become more Words?

Second: Sola Scriptura is innovative. It did not exist until 500 years ago when Luther came up with it. Protestants often complain about “man-made traditions” infecting Christianity – well, Sola Scriptura is one of them. Would we not expect a Christian “God-made tradition” to have existed long before the 16th century? It sounds quite a bit like one of those “winds of doctrine” which Paul warned about (Eph. 4: 14). Of course, Scripture has been treated as authoritative throughout the ages, but it was not treated – or attempted to be treated – as the only authority until relatively recently. Did God let Sola Scriptura remain an obscure but correct practice and then even fall out of existence for centuries until Luther was inspired to revive it? This does not sound like the God of Christianity, does it… It sounds like a God Who did not remain among us but Who left us orphans instead – not only with no definitive interpreter of Scripture (see #1), but without the right doctrine about what Scripture is. And to think, He only left the children of Jacob in Egypt for 400 years…

Third: Sola Scriptura is historically impractical. This is not primarily due to illiteracy (though one might also wonder if that would be an impediment to being a good Protestant), it is due to the fact that for many years there simply was no such thing as Christian Scripture, let alone a collection of texts organized into “the Bible.” When Thomas the Apostle went to India, he did not bring with him the Gospel of Luke. When Peter went to Antioch, he did not bring Paul’s letters with him. When Matthew went to Alexandria, he did not bring the Johannine corpus with him. We can note that Paul in his missionary journeys, based on the whole Book of Acts and his own letters, is not using anything but Jewish Scripture in his disputations and preaching. How then could there be Christians in the wake of these evangelists? Doesn’t a Christian need a Bible? Obviously not. There were local churches set up in many places across the globe for a long time with little to no Christian Scriptures available, relying on the oral tradition and the authority of the Church as such, and it took even longer to form a real, authoritative canon (viz. “the Bible”) which allowed people to know what Scripture consisted of… Which brings us to the next problem.

Four: Sola Scriptura is conceptually impossible. We must know what actually is Scripture in order to use “Scripture alone,” yes? But how do we know what really counts and what doesn’t? The truth is that Scripture was defined by the Church, finally confirmed in a special way at the Council of Trent in response to the preaching and teaching of Luther, who wanted to throw out a few books which he didn’t think were really Scripture, but which most others did. Without descending into the minutiae of the history of the so-called “deuterocanon,” we can simply note that it was indeed widely regarded as Scripture from an early time, even though there was some controversy surrounding it. A Protestant response might be to fall back on the principle of St. Vincent of Lérins, that the faith is that “which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” (Never mind that this was about faith in “the Catholic Church,” as Vincent says, nor that he only holds it out as a general rule for finding heresy rather than as a specific rule for formulating a biblical canon.) Universal acclamation of texts as Scriptural does not really work on its own… If there is a little disagreement, which there certainly was about non-deuterocanon, then one must begin to wonder, “How universal is universal enough?” There is no good answer. Instead, an authority must decide what is Scripture and what is not. Yes to 2 Peter, no to 1 Clement. Yes to Revelation, no to The Shepherd of Hermas. Etc. The New Testament itself does not and cannot provide a guide – nor does the New Testament provide a list of what belongs in the Old Testament. So the very existence of an authoritative canon which does not assemble itself or fall from the sky necessitates an authoritative compiler. That is the Church itself, which therefore must have its own special authority to speak for God. This guarantees the texts of Scripture are actually the ones which God inspired. (Let’s not even get into the bizarre and self-refuting theory that the Bible is a fallible collection of infallible texts…)

Five: Sola Scriptura is arbitrary. Of course, it makes sense that a revealed religion would involve a sacred text which has authority, but it is conceivable that it would not. And there is, therefore, no a priori need for “Scripture” as an authority at all, let alone as the sole authority. Let me be clear: I am not saying the Bible is not an authority, I am saying it is not clear that it automatically must be… And anyone who says that it is an authority has to appeal to something outside of Scripture. An appeal to Scripture to prove the authority of Scripture is perfectly circular. Why is Scripture an authority? Why not “Sola Papa” (the Pope Alone)? Why not “Sola Ego” (I Alone)? Why not “Sola Luther” (Luther Alone)? There must be an authority which supports Scripture as an authority, and that authority must derive from God. Seeing as Christ did not give us a biblical canon, He must have somehow given authority to mere human beings to decide what texts God actually inspired. In the end, men must cooperate in the governance of the Church, at least in this way. This brings us to problem #6…

Six: Sola Scriptura is self-contradictory. It is a teaching of Martin Luther, a mere man, and by those following him: also mere men. By obeying those who teach Sola Scriptura, the very doctrine is violated. To practice it on one’s own is also a violation, as one must listen to one’s own interpretation of passages (especially in cases of controversy), or one must say that the Holy Spirit is interpreting – Who is clearly not Scripture. And let us also note that Sola Scriptura is not taught by Scripture… So finally, we have the last and most problematic issue for the doctrine…

Seven: Sola Scriptura contradicts Scripture. The Bible does not teach Sola Scriptura, but it does teach the importance of the oral tradition which is not written down. Scripture also teaches the authority of the Church as such. Two verses will suffice. The first is 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.” (Other translations render παραδόσεις “traditions” instead of “teachings.”) This is enough to show that at least Paul thought that more than Scripture might be necessary for safeguarding Christian doctrine. What might the mechanism be? He describes it in the second verse for our examination, 1 Timothy 3: 15 – “…if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” How can “the church” be a “pillar” for the truth unless it functions as a means of connection to God, whereby false doctrines are corrected with good authority? The truth is tied at least to this pillar, “the church.” And how can it also be the “foundation” for truth unless it has a special means of holding up truth in a special way? What else could be the foundation of truth except that which is first in announcing it in the world? The guarantee of truth – infallibility – rests upon “the church.” God corrects error and announces truth through “the church.” This is how the Catholic Church understands its role in condemning heresies and defining doctrines (including what is Scripture and what is not).

There we have it… 7 fatal flaws with Sola Scriptura. Protestant readers (if there are any) might object with many verses of Scripture (especially 2 Timothy 3: 16, which simply insists that Scripture is indeed important – I do not deny this!)… However, in so doing they will no doubt demonstrate the points above.

You might consider sharing this post with any Protestant friends and see what they say. Tell them that no, God did not abandon us, leaving only a special book behind… That is a bleak doctrine indeed.

(This is the inaugural post in a year-long series for LutherFest500. Please subscribe to receive posts by email!)

Main image: “The Tower of Babel,” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563

Four Kinds of Problems with the Pan-Amazon Proposal on Married Priests

Eamonn Clark

The suggestion has been floated around in some quarters that at the newly announced Pan-Amazon Synod, to happen in 2019, bishops will discuss the possibility of ordaining married men in their region to the order of Priest. These “viri probati,” “proven men,” would make up for the absolute dearth of priests deep in the jungles of South America, where people are often deprived of the sacraments for long periods of time. There have been some missionary efforts there, but the terrain is vast and unfriendly, and the culture is extremely difficult to adapt to, so there has been limited success. It seems to some that simply ordaining certain men in isolated communities would help to make up for the absence of celibate priests in the area.

I note at least 4 categories of problems with the proposed solution. They are as follows:

  1. Canonical. The Code of Canon law, which binds the Latin Church (including, presumably, the men who might be ordained in the Amazon,) does allow for the possibility of married priests under certain circumstances (see c. 1047, §2, n. 3), but nowhere is the obligation to perfect and perpetual continence lifted for any cleric in the Code (though entering Orders – even the diaconate – without understanding or making the promise of continence means one cannot be obliged to its fulfillment). There has been much misunderstanding of the obligation to continence as distinct from the obligation of celibacy, and the widespread priestly ordination of married men in the Latin Church would make this worse. (On the other hand, it might finally get the mess canonically resolved.) For more on this confusing topic, see Dr. Ed Peter’s fine treatment here.
  2. Standard objections. There are many intrinsic problems with the idea of a married presbyterate. There are the economic problems, such as the time and energy a father and husband would have to spend between his family and the service of the community – or several communities, sometimes perhaps separated by miles of thick jungle, in this case. The resources needed to educate and train these priests adequately is an additional economic strain (and would likely never rise to the level of a normal priestly education), as is the payment of the priest who has to make enough income to provide for his family. There is the loss of the power of the witness of celibacy, which is a sign of contradiction to the spirit of the world, reminding people that there is a Heaven and a Hell, a death and a judgment, and that we had better start thinking about these things now if we are to be prepared for them later. There is also the impoverishment of the spirituality of the Latin priesthood as normally understood, which is spousal in nature and urges the priest toward greater charity for those in his care. In general, it seems that all the normal problems of a married priesthood obtain.
  3. Internal prudential. Not only will there likely be no comparison between the education and training of the Amazonian viri probati and a regular Latin priest, to the possibly very grave positive harm of the community (due to serious deficiencies in the confessional, in the pulpit, and so on), but the deeper problem causing the shortage is ignored. It is like a man who drinks to cure his depression – the feeling will go away for a while, but the underlying cause is never addressed. In the meantime, an addiction is developed which harms him positively and perpetuates the deeper problem, perhaps even worsening it. If there are no normal vocations to the priesthood, it is due to a lack of faith, a lack of zeal, a lack of something important in the local church. This ought to be the real object of discussion.
  4. External prudential. Once the Amazon has viri probati priests, who else will feel entitled? What other areas or countries will claim that they need this compromise? Meanwhile, as more concessions are made due to mounting pressure, the three foregoing sets of problems will perpetuate themselves.

The idea of a “simplex priest” may be what the bishops have in mind, a priest who does not do all of the public actions a priest with full faculties to preach and hear confessions would… But that comes with other problems, which will be addressed in a future post.

In summary, the bishops meeting at the Pan-Amazon Synod ought to think these things through quite carefully. I, for one, am unconvinced that it is a wise idea. But then again, I’ve only ever been to Amazon.com…