The Contraception Post…

Eamonn Clark, STL

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

In this post, I will explain the following items:

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

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

The difference between natural and unnatural sexual vice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The moral significance of unnatural vice, especially contraception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why periodic continence (“NFP”) is not contraception

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

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

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

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

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

The effects of unnatural vice in the individual soul

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

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

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

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

The effects of contraception on marriage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The effects of contraception on society

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

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

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

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

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

The effects of certain contraceptives on one’s physical health

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

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

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

The infallible character of the Church’s teaching on contraception

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

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

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

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

How to confess the use of contraception

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

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

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

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

Remedies for those struggling with contraception

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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Our Lady, Queen of Virgins, pray for us.

Lessons and Questions: Unpacking Covid

Eamonn Clark, STL

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

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

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

First, what we have learned.

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

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

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

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

Marital Sexual Ethics – An Analogy with Baking

Eamonn Clark, STL

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

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

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

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

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St. Paul and Building Bridges

Eamonn Clark, STL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s emphasize a few points.

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

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

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

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

Cardinal Marx is Right… But Mostly Not.

Eamonn Clark, STL

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

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

This is for a few reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hidden Idolatry in Our Midst

Eamonn Clark, STL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Drive to Become an Altar

Below is a talk on penance I recently gave to my men’s group here in Rome (the Oratorio)… Enjoy.

Eamonn Clark, STL

One of the most significant figures of the 20th century neothomistic movement had only a four year long career in theology before being drafted into the Great War and getting shot in a trench in northeastern France. Fr. Pierre Rousselot is perhaps best known for a work titled “The Intellectualism of St. Thomas,” in which he does a kind of experiment attempting to reconcile Thomas with the aftermath of the Kantian revolution. One of the conclusions of that work was that our intellectual nature pushes us towards trying to develop the sort of knowledge that angels have, which is a knowledge of the essence of things. It can ultimately be summarized by saying simply that man contains a drive to become an angel; interestingly, the corollary for angelic creatures is that they, in fact, have an intellectual tendency toward Divine knowledge – the drive to become God.

Lent is fast approaching. Perhaps some of you even have “deification” on the brain after attending the conference at the university. While we certainly all are called to become like God according to our capacity, we have before us a different way than just knowledge, which is a special kind of love. Though knowledge indeed precedes love and directs it, just as the procession of the Son is logically prior to the procession of the Holy Spirit, as students we are concerned about knowing God and His revelation well enough. Lent is a challenge to make something out of that knowledge in unique acts of love called penances.

The title of this talk, derived from Rousselot, is the following: “The Drive to Become an Altar.”

First of all, penance is altogether useless for advancing in Christian perfection without sanctifying grace. One may still be bound to complete an act of penance, such as abstinence from meat, but this is a bit like being bound to the matter of a vow by canon law without having actually made the vow which contains that matter – think of an atheist communist infiltrating a religious order, for example. In truth, if he has been baptized, he is indeed bound to fulfill the matter of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but these things do not redound to any merit. On the other hand, someone who promises under a vow to attend daily mass increases the merit of that action – yet there is reason to be cautious about adding up vows, as Our Lord warns implicitly when condemning extraneous oath-taking – let your yes mean yes, and let your devotion be your devotion. You can overdo vow-making just like oath-taking. Something similar applies to penances.

There are four chief motives for fasting and other penances. The first reason is that they are obligatory, such as the penances prescribed by the Church, like abstinence from meat on Fridays or the fasts on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This is principally an act of obedience. The second motive is in reparation for sin – to take on a punishment with some relation to manifestations of our individual corruption. This is an act of religion. The third purpose is to help to elevate the mind from things of the flesh to things of the spirit. The final motive is to discipline the body for the sake of bringing it in line with the rule of charity. These last two seem not to be acts of obedience or even necessarily of justice but of infused temperance, which is a separate species from acquired temperance, as it exists for spiritual aims rather than merely moderating bodily health.

The altar of the Temple was where sacrifices were offered. Sacrifice is one of the external parts of the virtue of religion, and it is known by the natural law – in fact, it has been taught to all the nations throughout time. We know intuitively that we owe to God something. Those who are sensitive in spirit know with David that sacrifice must cost oneself something – another cannot pay for us, at least not generally speaking.

Christ is the New Temple. The Cross is where this becomes most evident, and this point is later confirmed by the “rebuilding” of the New Temple in the Resurrection. On the Cross, the Priest, the Sacrifice, the Temple, and God are in fact all the same. For the baptized who have died and risen with Christ, who live with Him in charity by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the soul, one participates in the religious synthesis of the Cross and receives the gift of infused temperance in virtue of sanctifying grace. By infused temperance, the abandonment of things of the flesh in favor of the things of the spiritual world is made more attractive. We begin to want to offer things to God more and more the stronger our friendship grows. Our heart becomes more and more an altar, where our will and the pleasures we could partake of, even licitly, are sacrificed to make room for the Lord Jesus.

St. John of the Cross would go so far in fact as to urge the use of physical pleasure only as an immediate springboard to the enjoyment of friendship with Christ. There is a profound sense to this – after all, a friend of the Almighty should not really be interested in enjoying something apart from his Divine Friend, or to be distracted by something lower than Him except out of necessity. However, despite Garrigou-Lagrange’s great attempt to harmonize John with Thomas, the Angelic Doctor seems less enthusiastic about such a prescription for the general public, despite his exhortation that more or less everyone ought to enter religious life, and this without even very much thought about it! But professing chastity, poverty, and obedience in common life is not the same as John’s “nada” doctrine. In fact, St. Thomas’s rather blunt critique of the Stoics – who professed a rejection of all pleasures – could partially be applied to the more rigorous interpretation of Carmelite ascetical doctrine… Thomas says to look at the life of men who say they reject all pleasures, as their lives will be different from their writings.

A great example comes to us in the treatment St. Thomas gives of the use of alcohol, and we should remember that he would have known the life of St. Dominic. The latter, we read, gave up the use of wine for some 10 years, only to take it up again at some point after founding the Order. It may sound like a joke, but not if Thomas is to be taken seriously: Dominic may have really just needed a drink. The teaching of St. Thomas is that, of course, the careless deprivation of reason through intoxication is always grave sin. Sometimes the use of alcohol can be scandalous, and for some certain persons who are especially bound to pursue perfection of their mind, such as bishops, it is probably better to abstain altogether. But, he says, for some people alcohol is extremely helpful. It seems it was for Dominic – or perhaps he wanted to soothe the scruples of his brothers by providing a good example. Another similar anecdote comes from near the end of the life of St. Anthony Claret, who had given up all alcohol many years before. When returning to visit the order which he had founded before becoming a bishop, the superior of the community ordered a glass of wine set before the prelate. He did not protest. St. Francis de Sales also speaks of the good example of St. Charles Borromeo, a great ascetic no doubt, but who would occasionally have a glass of champagne to celebrate some great accomplishment. To do otherwise would have brushed up against scrupulosity, suggests Francis.

Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, a later Carmelite, warns of excessive penance and deprivation in his famous little book “The Practice of the Presence of God.” “One does not become a saint all at once,” he says. Of course, the Cross is only the means to the end. When the means becomes harmful for reaching the end, the means ought to be adjusted. If penance is driving one into despairing altogether of deprivations, or causing bitterness and harshness towards others, or neurotic worrying about pleasures being excessive, one ought to reduce the penance. If one becomes proud of what penances he is doing, it is maybe better to stop using penances altogether except under obedience.

So we must not be “overly virtuous” lest it be too much for us, as Qoheleth warns. St. Thomas says pleasures ought to function somewhat like a “spice of life.” However, Lent is a time for decidedly less spice.

Christ is now mostly hidden in the glory of Heaven, appearing only in the most extraordinary of visions. Penances ought to be mostly hidden as well, allowing us to appear normal, with the interior transformation conforming us to Christ. This is just like Christ in the Eucharist – an interior change of something ordinary which makes Him present.

The Crucified Christ is indeed a sacrifice which we can in fact offer, though it has cost us nothing; and yet, in the Mass we do indeed present materials which have been changed by human work, in bread and wine. By this symbol of human labor, we are taught to appreciate the fact of participation in the liturgy which is mystical. The Mass is an incarnational representation of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, and it is in fact so incarnational that it is a real sacrifice itself. This explains why one must be physically present at Mass in order to fulfill the obligation of attendance – one does not really offer oneself to the sacrifice which is occurring without some kind of moral presence before the altar where the sacrifice is occurring.

We also see in the Mass the four characteristic motives of penance: we are commanded to celebrate Mass by Christ Himself, we celebrate Mass for the reparation of our sins and the sins of others, and our minds are elevated to God. By the reception of Holy Communion we are conformed to the Glorified Christ, Whose Flesh and Blood which we receive as food is perfectly subject to His Soul and Divinity, which we likewise receive. And like penance, attending Mass profits one nothing without sanctifying grace. Therefore, go to Confession. Be contrite. Receive grace. Do penance. And be conformed more and more by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gift of Wisdom which flow from charity, which call us away from worldly goods, and urge us toward the Crucified One: “Christ the Power of God, Christ the Wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:24) In this way, our hearts become true altars where the world is sacrificed, dies, and is transformed by rising to a Christified state, where He is all in all, and only charity moves us to have anything to do with its pleasures, and God is enjoyed above everything else for His own sake, not for His gifts which He will nevertheless lavish upon us. Just as His love comes down upon the altar at Mass, surely, it will come down likewise upon hearts which are altars where He lives as well.

Principles for Chaste Relationships – Part II

Eamonn Clark, STL

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

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

We were talking about an analogy with food…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Ignatius of Antioch, pray for us!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday Fathers #7: Ambrose on Christology

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

St. Ambrose, pray for us!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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