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.

Amoris Laetitia and the Eunuch-makers

Eamonn Clark, STL

Today we continue on in my notes for a book on Amoris Laetitia – or, rather, a book on its bad interpretations. These ones are rougher notes. I’ve removed some undeveloped or underdeveloped sections, including one on the Matthean exception and another on the Pauline and Petrine Privileges

Previous entries here (on clerical compromise) and here (on Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s booklet).

Adultery defined

The Sixth Commandment (Ex. 20:14) states, “You shall not commit adultery.” The Hebrew: לֹא תִנְאָף (lo tin’aph); the Greek Septuagint: οὐ κλέψεις (ooh kle-pseis); the Latin Vulgate: Non mœchaberis.

Adultery, strictly speaking, is sexual activity between a person presumed to be married and another to whom he or she is not presumed to be married. (For various reasons, we leave aside here the old scholastic method of specifying sexual sins, namely, only on the part of the “matter,” viz., the woman in her diverse conditions, i.e. unmarried, married, consecrated, etc.) Notice that one can commit adultery as an unmarried person with a married person, or as a married person with an unmarried or with a married person. The old scholastic definition is “access to another’s marriage bed.”

It is important also to note that the presumption of marriage, whether psychological or juridical, suffices to specify an extramarital sexual act as adulterous. For example, a man thinks that a woman is married to another man, but really she is not. His sexual activity with her constitutes adultery in the formal sense (that is, according to the consent of his will), even though materially (in external reality) it is only fornication. (A stranger example, which yet illumines this case further, is if two spouses have relations with each other, each thinking the other to be a stranger or perhaps the spouse’s twin – like the inverse of the case of Jacob and Leah.) An example proper to Catholics is the following. A Catholic man thinks there is a good case to be made that the woman he attempted to marry actually is not his wife, but he has not bothered to approach a tribunal to petition for nullity. This would not suffice to reduce his extramarital sexual activity to mere fornication. It is adultery, plain and simple.

Bigamy defined

The term “bigamy” has been used in diverse ways. The etymology is “bi,” two, “gamy,” marriage. The first and strictest sense in historical and even legal usage is remarriage after the death of a spouse. We do not use this sense here. A second sense, which we also do not use here, is a specific case of polygamy, namely, one woman married to two men, or one man married to two women. The sense we mean here is more specific – it is the act of attempting marriage with any person while oneself or the second person is presumed to be married. (Astonishingly, Cardinal Kasper conflated this third sense with the first, in his famous consistory speech about divorce and remarriage, when referencing Canon 8 of Nicaea I – there was suspicion in those days over the practice of remarrying after the death of a spouse, so the issue was addressed with “pastoral tolerance,” “indulgence,” “clemency,” etc. This is altogether different from what is being addressed in Amoris, clearly.)

The three senses obviously overlap. However, the third sense is exclusively what is meant in this text from hereon. When speaking of “bigamous” relationships, what is meant is a relationship proceeding from the attempt of marriage while one of the parties is still presumed to be married to another. (Clearly, this is not limited to “two” unions but could include a third attempted marriage, a fourth, a fifth, etc.)

“It is better not to marry”

The apostles immediately perceived the difficulty of marriage as taught by the Lord. They saw that in fact celibacy would be a more freeing way of life. Perhaps, due to their still imperfect understanding of the Messiah and His Kingdom, they did not yet perceive the eschatological and evangelical significance of celibacy but rather simply noted the difficulty of staying with one person for life. In other words, theirs was a realization in favor merely of their own convenience.

People in today’s Western world would do well to follow the apostles’ example and marvel at the doctrine of indissolubility of marriage. It goes without saying that if indissolubility were really taken seriously by all who were going to attempt marriage, the overall state of the Western family – and therefore of the Western world itself – would be much healthier. (This is part of why it is so important for the Church not to give the impression, even “indirectly,” that divorce and remarriage is acceptable.) The Church takes the baptized faithful seriously when they promise fidelity to each other, frequently more seriously than the couples take themselves. However, instead of saying “it is better not to marry,” in view of continent celibacy, people now say either, “it is better to ignore this teaching and marry and remarry as we wish,” or, “it is better not to marry and to sleep around anyway without any commitments.”

What occasioned the onset of no-fault divorce in the USA was the wide availability of cheap, safe, and effective oral contraceptives (“the pill”), which came in 1960 (increasingly accessible until universally legal in 1972). The first no-fault divorce law came in California in 1970, shortly followed by many other states. The gross expansion of abortion access came in 1973, with Roe v. Wade. Now, we are already in the twilight of the “gay rights” movement and are deep into transgender paranoia with little hope of recovery short of a full cultural implosion and reset. We see the natural progression: first, the obstruction of the natural fecundity of the sexual act which destroys the need for monogamy, let alone lifelong fidelity. Through contracepting, one is able to have as many partners as he or she wants, and any monogamous sexual relationship bears offspring contingent on one’s will. Second, the need for monogamous fidelity having been undermined, the logical step is to ratify this by declaring marriage to be a temporal project of self-gratification which one can escape at any time for any reason; thus, no-fault divorce. Third, the permanent consequences of “mistakes,” from contraception failing or not being used, must be dealt with, as one’s self-determination is threatened by children – whom we would be more comfortable pretending are “subhuman” enough to kill rather than deny our will and raise them. After destroying the logic of fidelity and fecundity, the very nature of biological order is called into question, as homosexual activity is just as much willed by some as heterosexual activity is willed by others, and who are we to stop it? Because there is no longer any real connection between fidelity, fecundity, the idea of marriage, and marriage’s legal framework, there is no reason why people of the same sex should be prevented from entering into such a union. Finally, after having utterly destroyed the meaning of marriage and torpedoed the reality of the most fundamental biological order as a basis for governing sexual activity, the very reality of biological sex is declared irrelevant or even illusory. What matters is one’s desires and how one wishes to express those desires. What matters is the will.

We see that the entire progression rests on the denial of one’s sexual faculty’s natural end for the sake of self-gratification, which is itself a bizarre reversal of the Lord’s loving invitation to celibacy as the way of perfection: instead of making oneself a “eunuch” for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven by withdrawing from the life of sexual activity and marriage altogether, the idea is to make oneself a “eunuch” within one’s marital or extra-marital sexual activity for the sake of one’s own kingdom, so that all of one’s temporal desires can be fulfilled with as much convenience as possible. Instead of freeing oneself for the Will of God, contraception frees oneself to pursue one’s own will. And it ends with people even really making themselves true eunuchs, as we can see not only with contraceptive sterilization procedures, but also with the rise in popularity of the most ghoulish kinds of “gender reassignment” surgeries. Truth be told, many such “transgender” persons have been mentally ill for years before their surgeries and “therapies”; they are therefore frequently minimally responsible for such terrible acts. However, the signs of the times are that nobody stopped these sick individuals from harming themselves – instead these poor people are encouraged in their delusions and even celebrated for living them out. These pitiable men and women are made eunuchs by others.

“Some have been made eunuchs by others”

Sometimes one is made a eunuch by others metaphorically. There is clearly a “contingent” or “conditional” call to continence. This vocation is manifested by one’s life circumstances beyond one’s control. Perhaps there are no people available in one’s purview for marriage; perhaps one’s spouse is dangerously ill with a heart condition and cannot safely engage in sexual relations; perhaps one’s spouse is alive but is in prison, gone on a long voyage, or otherwise physically inaccessible. The inability to marry or access a spouse is no grounds for extramarital sexual activity. One must necessarily have the grace available to live continently in these cases.

This reality of a conditional vocation to continence, at least temporary continence, applies in many cases of divorce and civil remarriage. If a man is truly married to a woman who is unwilling to reconcile and return to conjugal life he must necessarily have the grace to live in continence, despite having contracted a civil marriage with another woman; if his duties toward the children born from his second union oblige him to live day and night under the same roof as the woman in his second union, then he must have the greater grace to live in continence even while being so close to temptation. Likewise, he must have the grace to confront and endure whatever backlash might come from refusing sexual intimacy with the woman. (The same applies to women vis-à-vis men.)

A Liturgical Autopsy

Eamonn Clark, STL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First reading and Psalm. Fine.

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

Second reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that’s it. We made it.

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

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

Eamonn Clark, STL

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Principles for Chaste Relationships – Part IV

Eamonn Clark, STL

See parts one, two, and three.

We all know that romance is a risky venture.

For some more than others!

What is the risk we are concerned with here? It is the subtle movement from mere romantic feelings into “curiosity” (wanting knowledge of something – in this case, a person – which is not helpful for you to have… like certain kinds of immodest glances and even discussion, which are then “annexed” to lust) into more impure thoughts and indeliberate desire, into morose delectation (often manifested in and aided by outward motions, as already described), then often even into fornication, many or even most times in an unnatural way (viz., in a way that ensures no offspring, which character aggravates the sin even further).

Looking at people who are attractive is obviously necessary for one who is in the market for love. Of course, looking longer or looking at more than is really necessary starts the downward trajectory we have described above. One must use some discipline and honesty in these matters, without being unnaturally cold or rigid, allowing for some authenticity of expressions of affection. (Certainly, voyeurism, looking at indecent images, etc., for the pleasure of satisfying curiosity is always at least a venial sin, and if one is deliberately purposing to take pleasure in the desire to “go all the way” by means of such looks, even without self-abuse, the words of Our Lord in Matthew 5:28 have been fulfilled – it is “adultery of the heart.” The satisfaction of curiosity which simply arouses desire as an effect is not necessarily mortal sin, except if one has the wherewithal to consider or at least has the time to consider and experience to know that this is indeed a proximate occasion to mortal sin, as it is for most people before they are middle-aged, then even such acts become mortal sins on account of the treatment of one’s soul with such recklessness.)

It is very difficult to be perfect in this regard during extended courtship. There will be small slips into sin, as the desire for propagating the human race is extremely strong on account of the good that it seeks, and it is also the most corrupted desire we have (which, says St. Thomas, is due to the fact that original sin is transmitted on account of generation). But the risk of a person foregoing marriage who doesn’t have the strength to do so is far worse than the risks involved with courtship, at least in the long-term. So, there is a risk, but a proportionate reward, for most. These risks do need to be taken seriously, with clear boundaries discussed honestly between a couple – not first date conversation material, but maybe 4th or 5th date…

TL;DR: It’s okay to expose oneself to risks of some sin in romancing to avoid habitual falls into unchastity in the long-term.

But if none of this is much of a challenge, then we reach the fifth and final principle…

If you can raise your mind, do that.

Of Mollusks and Marble

I don’t normally do personal posts, let alone lifestyle posts, but… the past two days have been particularly Roman.

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Normally, it would be tomorrow, but it has been moved because tomorrow is Sacred Heart. So yesterday was the vigil, which means…


It is an ancient Roman tradition – originally connected with the solstice and warding off ghosts, and now connected with the Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist – to eat snails. So eat them I did, with several friends and several bottles of white wine, in the Monti neighborhood. Lumache alla Romana, at Osteria della Suburra. Great stuff!

Today I meandered down, for the first time in almost a calendar year, to St. John Lateran. The full name of the basilica, which is the cathedral of Rome, thus the “mother church” of all Christendom, is the Archbasilica Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in the Lateran. Despite the name there is no relic of either saint as far as I know – but John the Baptist’s head (at least the “Roman” contender) is at San Silvestro in Capito, where I did not make it today unfortunately.

Some details of the left transept:

That is Leo XIII’s tomb on the right. He looks a little camera shy – or just got out of the movie theater and can’t take the sunlight?

One of the most striking things about the basilica is the statues of the apostles. They are very large, lining the right and left sides of the nave. Many of them are depicted with the instruments of their martyrdom.

St. Bartholomew, skinned alive.
St. Simon (not Peter), with a saw.

You can see one of the dedication crosses on the right, which were smeared with oil at (I suppose) the re-dedication of the basilica after its last major renovation (under Innocent X, his name is everywhere). I really dislike the fake candles, as I explained in a post a long time ago. It is especially bad when it is a papal basilica… the things we offer to God matter, especially in formal worship and sacred spaces.

Ugh. Convenient, yes, but… that sort of defeats the purpose.

There was another curious statue, in a side chapel on the right. It’s a saint who looks like she is playing table tennis, and she is holding a snake as well. I guess it is supposed to be a mirror, but… I like to think saints liked ping pong. But I have no clue who this is. Anyone got any idea?

The gate to the chapel is its own great piece of art. I think the guys who made it would have eschewed fake candles, for what it’s worth…

Look at the detail, and the creativity… I would wager the thinking with these creatures is similar to the gargoyles of French fame… scaring away evil angels. (Wait – they aren’t snails, are they!?)


There was a little exhibit going on about St. Therese of Lisieux. I was especially interested in the fact that they had a whole section on Pius XI’s devotion and teaching on her, as he is the object of my doctoral studies. The posters are a bit out of date… I wonder if you can see why.

Pius XI: [she is] “the star of my pontificate”

Speaking of Pius XI, here is a plaque about him in the basilica:

My Latin is not good, but luckily I ran into a friend (whose monastery I will be staying at in Poland next week – yes, pictures will be forthcoming), and his Latin is excellent. Had I bothered to work out the date, I would have figured out what this was, but… I took a shortcut.

It is commemorating this chapel, which is where the young Achille Ratti was ordained a priest. I knew he was ordained in the Lateran, but I always thought it was at the main altar. It was not… it was here, in this small side chapel.

He was ordained December 20, 1879 by Cardinal La Valletta – who also happened to ordain Benedict XV a priest.

On my way out, I stopped by the baptistry. Constantine was baptized here – before the structure existed, which essentially serves to commemorate that blessed event.

Here is one of the famous obelisks of Rome. This one is Egyptian – one of 8. (Several others are Roman.)

It is the tallest in Rome, if one doesn’t include the base in the calculations. (With the base included the tallest is the obelisk at St. Peter’s.) This one weighs 330 tons, after reconstruction trimmed it down a bit, from 455 tons (quite a diet). It was in the temple of Amun in Karnak, near Luxor. It came over to Rome in 357 to be a decoration in the Circus Maximus.

The base.

And finally, a quick look in toward where the educational facilities are… including the main Roman diocesan seminary (I think Rome has about 30-40 seminarians of its own – incredible…), and the now-destroyed JPII Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family. So sad. I think they have very few students. People vote with their feet – and their wallets. That includes candidates for the priesthood!

Well, that is it. Despite my rare “lifestyle” posts, another one coming up soon, from the Archabbey of Jędrzejów. But, with 5 likes on this post, I will do these more often!

Be sure to subscribe as well…

St. John the Baptist, pray for us!


The Ottaviani Intervention – TLM vs. NO

Today I present the translated text of Cardinal Ottaviani’s famous intervention regarding the introduction of the Novus Ordo Missae, the missal reformed under Paul VI. As we approach the 1-year anniversary of Traditiones Custodes, it is important that we are increasingly aware of the deeper theological significance of the differences between the TLM and the NO. These are not merely superficial differences, as it might seem to someone sitting in the pews who has not bothered to study these things seriously; it is, however, evident to those priests who celebrate with both missals that the dissimilarities are profound. This study, presented to Paul VI by Cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci, is extremely helpful for those looking for a solid introduction to the gulf between 1962 and 1969. It is not taking any cheap shots, as it is easy to do with the new missal by pointing to the worst kinds of abuses… This is a serious theological critique.

For the footnotes and some more information, see the SSPX’s original page on this text here.

Letter from Cardinal Ottaviani to His Holiness Pope Paul VI

September 25, 1969

Most Holy Father,

Having carefully examined, and presented for the scrutiny of others, the Novus Ordo Missae prepared by the experts of the Consilium ad exequdam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia, and after lengthy prayer and reflection, we feel it to be our bounden duty in the sight of God and towards Your Holiness, to put before you the following considerations:

1. The accompanying critical study of the Novus Ordo Missae, the work of a group of theologians, liturgists and pastors of souls, shows quite clearly in spite of its brevity that if we consider the innovations implied or taken for granted, which may of course be evaluated in different ways, the Novus Ordo represents, both as a whole and in its details, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated in Session XXII of the Council of Trent. The “canons” of the rite definitively fixed at that time provided an insurmountable barrier to any heresy directed against the integrity of the Mystery.

2. The pastoral reasons adduced to support such a grave break with tradition, even if such reasons could be regarded as holding good in the face of doctrinal considerations, do not seem to us sufficient. The innovations in the Novus Ordo and the fact that all that is of perennial value finds only a minor place, if it subsists at all, could well turn into a certainty the suspicion, already prevalent, alas, in many circles, that truths which have always been believed by the Christian people, can be changed or ignored without infidelity to that sacred deposit of doctrine to which the Catholic faith is bound for ever. Recent reforms have amply demonstrated that fresh changes in the liturgy could lead to nothing but complete bewilderment on the part of the faithful who are already showing signs of restiveness and of an indubitable lessening of faith. Amongst the best of the clergy the practical result is an agonizing crisis of conscience of which innumerable instances come to our notice daily.

3. We are certain that these considerations. which can only reach Your Holiness by the living voice of both shepherds and flock, cannot but find an echo in Your paternal heart, always so profoundly solicitous for the spiritual needs of the children of the Church. It has always been the case that when a law meant for the good of subjects proves to be on the contrary harmful, those subjects have the right, nay the duty of asking with filial trust for the abrogation of that law. Therefore we most earnestly beseech Your Holiness, at a time of such painful divisions and ever-increasing perils for the purity of the Faith and the unity of the Church, lamented by You our common Father. not to deprive us of the possibility of continuing to have recourse to the fruitful integrity of that Missale Romanum of St. Pius V, so highly praised by Your Holiness and so deeply loved and venerated by the whole Catholic World.

A. Card. Ottaviani
A. Card. Bacci
Feast of St. Pius X

A Brief Critical Study of the Novus Ordo Missae
by a group of Roman Theologians


In October 1967, the Episcopal Synod called in Rome was requested to pass a judgment on the experimental celebration of a so-called “normative Mass,” devised by the Consilium for implementing the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. This Mass aroused the most serious misgivings. The voting showed considerable opposition (43 non placet), very many substantial reservations (62 juxta modum), and 4 abstentions out of 187 voters. The international press spoke of a “refusal” on the proposed “normative Mass” on the part of the Synod. Progressively-inclined papers made no mention of this.

In the Novus Ordo Missae lately promulgated by the Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum, we once again find this “normative Mass,” identical in substance, nor does it appear that in the intervening period, the Episcopal Conferences, at least as such, were ever asked to give their views about it.

In the Apostolic Constitution, it is stated that the ancient Missal promulgated by St. Pius V, July 13, 1570, but going back in great part to St. Gregory the Great and to still remoter antiquity,[3] was for four centuries the norm for the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice for priests of the Latin rite, and that, taken to every part of the world, “it has moreover been an abundant source of spiritual nourishment to many holy people in their devotion to God.”

Yet, the present reform, putting it definitely out of use, was claimed to be necessary since “from that time the study of the Sacred Liturgy has become more widespread and intensive amongst Christians.”

This assertion seems to us to embody a serious equivocation. For the desire of the people was expressed, if at all, when—thanks to St. Pius X—they began to discover the true and everlasting treasures of the liturgy. The people never on any account asked for the liturgy to be changed or mutilated so as to understand it better. They asked for a better understanding of a changeless liturgy, and one which they would never have wanted changed.

The Roman Missal of St. Pius V was religiously venerated and most dear to Catholics, both priests and laity. One fails to see how its use, together with suitable catechesis, should have hindered a fuller participation in, and greater knowledge of, the Sacred Liturgy, nor why, when its many outstanding virtues are recognized, this should not have been considered worthy to continue to foster the liturgical piety of Christians.

Since the “normative Mass,” now reintroduced and imposed as the Novus Ordo Missae, was in substance rejected by the Synod of Bishops, was never submitted to the collegial judgment of the Episcopal Conference, nor have the people—least of all in mission lands—ever asked for any reform of Holy Mass whatsoever, one fails to comprehend the motives behind the new legislation which overthrows a tradition unchanged in the Church since the fourth and fifth centuries, as the Apostolic Constitution itself acknowledges. As no poplar demand exists to support this reform, it appears devoid of any logical grounds to justify it and make it acceptable to the Catholic people.

The Vatican Council did indeed express a desire (para. 50, Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium) for the various parts of the Mass to be reordered “so that the distinctive character of each single part and its relationship to the other part may appear more clearly.” We shall now see how the Ordo recently promulgated corresponds with this original intention.

An attentive examination of the Novus Ordo reveals changes of such magnitude as to justify in themselves the judgment already made with regard to the “normative Mass.” Both have in many points every possibility of satisfying the most modernistic of Protestants.


Let us begin with the definition of the Mass given in n. 7 of the Institutio Generalis at the beginning of the second chapter of the Novus Ordo: De structura Missae:

The Lord’s Supper or Mass is a sacred meeting or assembly of the People of God, met together under the presidency of the priest, to celebrate the memorial of the Lord.[4] Thus the promise of Christ, “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them,” is eminently true of the local community in the Church” (Mt. 18, 20).

The definition of the Mass is thus limited to that of a “supper,” and this term is found constantly repeated (nos. 8, 48, 55d, 56). This “supper” is further characterized as an assembly presided over by the priest and held as a memorial of the Lord, recalling what He did on the first Maundy Thursday. None of this in the very least implies either the Real Presence, or the reality of the sacrifice, or the Sacramental function of the consecrating priest, or the intrinsic value of the Eucharistic Sacrifice independently of the people’s presence.[5] It does not, in a word, imply any of the essential dogmatic values of the Mass which together provide its true definition. Here the deliberate omission of these dogmatic values amounts to their having been superseded and therefore, at least in practice, to their denial.[6]

In the second part of this paragraph 7 it is asserted, aggravating the already serious equivocation, that there holds good, “eminenter,” for this assembly Christ’s promise that “Ubi sunt duo vel tres congregati in nomine meo; ibi sum in medio eorum” (Mt. 18, 20). This promise, which refers only to the spiritual presence of Christ with His grace, is thus put on the same qualitative plane, save for the greater intensity, as the substantial and physical reality of the Sacramental Eucharistic Presence.

In no. 8 a subdivision of the Mass into “liturgy of the word” and Eucharistic liturgy immediately follows, with the affirmation that in the Mass is made ready “the table of God’s word” as of “the Body of Christ,” so that the faithful “may be built up and refreshed”—an altogether improper assimilation of the two parts of the liturgy, as though between two points of equal symbolic value. More will be said about this point later.

The Mass is designated by a great many different expressions, all acceptable relatively, all unacceptable if employed, as they are, separately and in an absolute sense. We cite a few:

  • the Action of Christ and of the People of God;
  • the Lord’s Supper or Mass;
  • the Paschal Banquet;
  • the Common participation in the Lord’s Table;
  • the memorial of the Lord;
  • the Eucharistic Prayer;
  • the Liturgy of the Word and the Eucharistic Liturgy;
  • etc.

As is only too evident, the emphasis is obsessively placed upon the supper and the memorial instead of upon the unbloody renewal of the Sacrifice of Calvary. The formula “the Memorial of the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord” is, besides, inexact, the Mass being the memorial or the Sacrifice alone, in itself redemptive whilst the Resurrection is the consequent fruit of it.[7]

We shall later see how, in the same consecratory formula, and throughout the Novus Ordo such equivocations are renewed and reiterated.


We come now to the ends of the Mass.

I. Ultimate end. This is that of the Sacrifice of praise to the Most Holy Trinity according to the explicit declaration of Christ in the primary purpose of His very Incarnation: “Coming into the world he saith: sacrifice and oblation thou wouldst not but a body thou has fitted me” (Ps. 34, 7-9 in Heb. 10, 5).

This end has disappeared from the Offertory, with the disappearance of the prayer Suscipe, Sancta Trinitas; from the end of the Mass with the omission of the Placet tibi Sancta Trinitas; and from the Preface, which on Sunday will no longer be that of the Most Holy Trinity, as this Preface will be reserved only to the Feast of the Trinity, and so in future will be heard but once a year.

2. Ordinary end. This is the propitiatory Sacrifice. It too has been deviated from; for instead of putting the stress on the remission of sins of the living and the dead it lays emphasis on the nourishment and sanctification of the present (no. 54). Christ certainly instituted the Sacrament of the Last Supper putting Himself in the state of Victim in order that we might be united to Him in this state but this self-immolation precedes the eating of the Victim, and has an antecedent and full redemptive value (the application of the bloody immolation). This is borne out by the fact that the faithful present are not bound to communicate, sacramentally.[8]

3. Immanent end. Whatever the nature of the Sacrifice, it is absolutely necessary that it be pleasing and acceptable to God. After the Fall no sacrifice can claim to be acceptable in its own right other than the Sacrifice of Christ. The Novus Ordo changes the nature of the offering, turning it into a sort or exchange of gifts between man and God: man brings the bread, and God turns it into the “bread of life”; man brings the wine, and God turns it into a “spiritual drink.”

Thou art blessed Lord, God of the Universe, because from Thy generosity we have received the bread [or “wine”] which we offer Thee the fruit of the earth [or “vine”] and of man’s labor. May it become for us the bread of life [or “spiritual drink.”].”[9]

There is no need to comment on the utter indeterminateness of the formulae “panis vitae” and “potus spiritualis,” which might mean anything. The same capital equivocation is repeated here, as in the definition of the Mass: there, Christ is present only spiritually among His own: here, bread and wine are only “spiritually” (not substantially) changed.[10]

In the preparation of the offering, a similar equivocation results from the suppression of two great prayers. The “Deus qui humanae substantiae dignitatem mirabiliter condidisti et mirabilius reformasti” was a reference to man’s former condition of innocence and to his present one of being ransomed by the Blood of Christ: a recapitulation of the whole economy of the Sacrifice, from Adam to the present moment. The final propitiatory offering of the chalice, that it might ascend “cum odore suavitatis,” into the presence of the divine majesty, Whose clemency was implored, admirably reaffirmed this plan. By suppressing the continual reference to God in the Eucharistic prayers, there is no longer any clear distinction between divine and human sacrifice.

Having removed the keystone, the reformers have had to put up scaffolding; suppressing real ends, they have had to substitute fictitious ends of their own: leading to gestures intended to stress the union of priest and faithful, and of the faithful among themselves; offerings for the poor and for the Church superimposed upon the offerings of the Host to be immolated. There is a danger that the uniqueness of this offering will become blurred, so that participation in the immolation of the Victim comes to resemble a philanthropical meeting, or a charity banquet.


We now pass on to the essence of the Sacrifice.

The mystery of the Cross is no longer explicitly expressed. It is only there obscurely, veiled, imperceptible for the people.[11] And for these reasons:

1. The sense given in the Novus Ordo to the so-called prex eucharistica[12] is: “that the whole congregation of the faithful may be united to Christ in proclaiming the great wonders of God and in offering sacrifice” (no. 54, the end).

Which sacrifice is referred to? Who is the offerer? No answer is given to either of these questions. The initial definition of the prex eucharistica is as follows: “The center and culminating point of the whole celebration now has a beginning, namely the Eucharistic Prayer, a prayer of thanksgiving and of sanctification” (no. 54, pr.). The effects thus replace the causes, of which not one single word is said. The explicit mention of the object of the offering, which was found in the Suscipe, has not been replaced by anything. The change in formulation reveals the change in doctrine.

2. The reason for this non-explicitness concerning the Sacrifice is quite simply that the Real Presence has been removed from the central position which it occupied so resplendently in the former Eucharistic liturgy. There is but a single reference to the Real Presence (a quotation—in a footnote—from the Council of Trent), and again the context is that of “nourishment” (no. 241, note 63).

The Real and permanent Presence of Christ, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the transubstantiated Species is never alluded to. The very word transubstantiation is totally ignored.

The suppression of the invocation to the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity (Veni Sanctificator) that He may descend upon the oblations, as once before into the womb of the Most Blessed Virgin to accomplish the miracle of the divine Presence, is yet one more instance of the systematic and tacit negation of the Real Presence.

Note, too, the eliminations:

  • of the genuflections (no more than three remain to the priest, and one, with certain exceptions, to the people, at the Consecration);
  • of the purification of the priest’s fingers in the chalice; of the preservation from all profane contact of the priest’s fingers after the Consecration;
  • of the purification of the vessels, which need not be immediate, nor made on the corporal;
  • of the pall protecting the chalice;
  • of the internal gilding of sacred vessels;
  • of the consecration of movable altars;
  • of the sacred stone and relics in the movable altar or upon the mensa—when celebration does not occur in sacred precincts (this distinction leads straight to “eucharistic suppers” in private houses);
  • of the three altar cloths, reduced to one only;
  • of thanksgiving kneeling (replaced by a thanksgiving, seated, on the part of priest and people, a logical enough complement to Communion standing);
  • of all the ancient prescriptions in the case of the consecrated Host falling, which are now reduced to a single, casual direction: “reverenter accipiatur” (no. 239);
  • all these things only serve to emphasize how outrageously faith in the dogma of the Real Presence is implicitly repudiated.

3. The function assigned to the altar (no. 262). The altar is almost always called mensa.[13] “The altar or table of the Lord, which is the center of the whole Eucharistic liturgy” (no. 49, cf. 262). It is laid down that the altar must be detached from the walls so that it is possible to walk round it and celebration may be facing the people (no. 262); also that the altar must be the center of the assembly of the faithful so that their attention is drawn spontaneously toward it (ibid). But a comparison of nos. 262 and 276 would seem to suggest that the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament on this altar is excluded. This will mark an irreparable dichotomy between the presence, in the celebrant, of the eternal High Priest and that same Presence brought about sacramentally. Before, they were one and the same presence.[14]

Now it is recommended that the Blessed Sacrament be kept in a place apart for the private devotion of the people (almost as though it were a question of devotion to a relic of some kind) so that, on going into a church, attention will no longer be focused upon the tabernacle but upon a stripped bare table. Once again the contrast is made between private piety and liturgical piety: altar is set up against altar.

In the insistent recommendation to distribute in Communion the Species consecrated during the same Mass, indeed to consecrate a loaf[15] for the priest to distribute to at least some of the faithful, we find reasserted a disparaging attitude toward the tabernacle, as toward every form of Eucharistic piety outside of the Mass. This constitutes yet another violent blow to faith in the Real Presence as long as the consecrated Species remain.[16]

4. The formulae of consecration. The ancient formula of consecration was properly a sacramental, not a narrative one. This was shown above all by three things:

a. The Scriptural text not taken up word for word: the Pauline insertion “mysterium fidei” was an immediate confession of the priest’s faith in the mystery realized by the Church through the hierarchical priesthood.

b. The punctuation and typographical lettering: the full stop and new paragraph marking the passage from the narrative mode to the sacramental and affirmative one, the sacramental words in larger characters at the center of the page and often in a different color, clearly detached from the historical context. All combined to give the formula a proper and autonomous value.

c. The anamnesis (“Haec quotiescumque feceritis in mei memoriam facietis”), which in Greek is “eis tén emèu anàmnesin” (directed to my memory). This referred to Christ operating and not to the mere memory of Him, or of the event: an invitation to recall what He did (“haec… in mei memoriam facietis”) in the way He did it, not only His Person, or the Supper. The Pauline formula (“Hoc facite in meam commemorationem”) which will now take the place of the old—proclaimed as it will be daily in vernacular languages—will irremediably cause the hearers to concentrate on the memory of Christ as the end of the Eucharistic action, whilst it is really the beginning. The concluding idea of commemoration will certainly once again take the place of the idea of sacramental action.”[17]

The narrative mode is now emphasized by the formula “narratio institutionis” (no. 55d) and repeated by the definition of the anamnesis, in which it is said that “The Church recalls the memory of Christ Himself” (no. 556).

In short: the theory put forward by the epiclesis, the modification of the words of Consecration and of the anamnesis, have the effect of modifying the modus significandi of the words of Consecration. The consecratory formulae are here pronounced by the priest as the constituents of a historical narrative and no longer enunciated as expressing the categorical and affirmative judgment uttered by Him in whose Person the priest acts: “Hoc est Corpus Meum” (not, “Hoc est Corpus Christi”).[18]

Furthermore the acclamation assigned to the people immediately after the Consecration: (“we announce Thy death, O Lord, until Thou comest”) introduces yet again, under cover of eschatology, the same ambiguity concerning the Real Presence. Without interval or distinction, the expectation of Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time is proclaimed just as the moment when He is substantially present on the altar, almost as though the former, and not the latter, were the true Coming.

This is brought out even more strongly in the formula of optional acclamation no. 2 (Appendix): “As often as we eat of this bread and drink of this chalice we announce Thy death, O Lord, until Thou comest,” where the juxtaposition of the different realities of immolation and eating, of the Real Presence and of Christ’s Second Coming, reaches the height of ambiguity.[19]


We now come to the realization of the Sacrifice, the four elements of which were:

  1. Christ,
  2. the priest,
  3. the Church,
  4. the faithful present.

In the Novus Ordo, the position attributed to the faithful is autonomous (absoluta), hence totally false from the opening definition—“Missa est sacra synaxis seu congregatio populi”—to the priest’s salutation to the people which is meant to convey to the assembled community the “presence” of the Lord (no. 28). “Qua salutatione et populi responsione manifestatur ecclesiae congregatae mysterium.”

A true presence, certainly, of Christ but only spiritual, and a mystery of the Church, but solely as assembly manifesting and soliciting such a presence.

This interpretation is constantly underlined: by the obsessive references to the communal character of the Mass (nos. 74-152); by the unheard of distinction between “missa cum populo” and “missa sine populo” (nos. 203-231); by the definition of the “oratio universalis seu fidelium” (DO. 45), where once more we find stressed the “sacerdotal office” of the people (“populus sui sacerdotii munus excercens”) presented in an equivocal way because its subordination to that of the priest is not mentioned, and all the more since the priest, as consecrated mediator, makes himself the interpreter of all the intentions of the people in the Te igitur and the two Memento.

In Prex Eucharistica III (Vere sanctus, p. 123) the following words are addressed to the Lord: “from age to age you gather a people to Thyself, in order that from east to west a perfect offering may be made to the glory of Thy name,” the in order that making it appear that the people, rather than the priest[20] are the indispensable element in the celebration; and since not even here is it made clear who the offerer is, the people themselves appear to be invested with autonomous priestly powers. From this step it would not be surprising if, before long, the people were authorized to join the priest in pronouncing the consecrating formulae (which actually seems here and there to have already occurred).

The priest’s position is minimized, changed and falsified. Firstly in relation to the people for whom he is, for the most part, a mere president, or brother, instead of the consecrated minister celebrating in persona Christi. Secondly in relation to the Church, as a “quidam de populo.” In the definition of the epiclesis (no. 55), the invocations are attributed anonymously to the Church: the part of the priest has vanished.

In the Confiteor which has now become collective, he is no longer judge, witness and intercessor with God; so it is logical that he is no longer empowered to give the absolution, which has been suppressed. He is integrated with the fratres. Even the server addresses him as much in the Confiteor of the “Missa sine populo.”

Already, prior to this latest reform, the significant distinction between the Communion of the priest—the moment in which the Eternal High Priest and the one acting in His Person were brought together in closest union—and the Communion of the faithful had been suppressed.

Not a word do we now find as to the priest’s power to sacrifice, or about his act of consecration, the bringing about through him of the Eucharistic Presence. He now appears as nothing more than a Protestant minister.

The disappearance, or optional use, of many sacred vestments (in certain cases the alb and stole are sufficient—n. 298) obliterates even more the original conformity with Christ: the priest is no more clothed with all His virtues, becoming merely a “graduate” whom one or two signs may distinguish from the mass of people:[21] “a little more a man than the rest” to quote the involuntarily humorous definition by a Dominican preacher.[22] Again, as with the “table” and the altar, there is separated what God has united: the sole Priesthood of the Word of God.

Finally, there is the Church’s position in relation to Christ. In one case, namely the “missa sine populo” is the Mass acknowledged to be “Actio Christi et Ecclesiae” (no. 4, cf. Presb. Ord. no. 13), whereas in the case of the “missa cum populo” this is not referred to except for the purpose of “remembering Christ” and sanctifying those present. The words used are: “In offering the sacrifice through Christ in the Holy Ghost to God the Father, the priest associates the people with himself.” (no. 60), instead of words which would associate the people with Christ Who offers Himself  “per Spiritum Sanctum Deo Patri…”

In this context the following are to be noted:

  1. the very serious omission of the phrase “Per Christum Dominum Nostrum,” the guarantee of being heard given to the Church in every age (John 14, 13-14; 15; 16; 23; 24;);
  2. the all-pervading “paschalism,” almost as though there were no other, quite different and equally important aspects of the communication of grace;
  3. the very strange and dubious eschatologism whereby the communication of supernatural grace, a reality which is permanent and eternal, is brought down to the dimensions of time: we hear of a people on the march, a pilgrim Church—no longer militant against the Potestas tenebrarum — looking toward a future which having lost its link with eternity is conceived in purely temporal terms.

The Church—One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic—is diminished as such in the formula that, in the Prex Eucharistica IV, has taken the place of the prayer of the Roman Canon “on behalf of all orthodox believers of the Catholic and apostolic faith.” Now they are no more nor less than: “all who seek you with a sincere heart.

Again, in the Memento of the dead, these have no longer passed on “with the sign of faith and sleep the sleep of peace,” but only “who have died in the peace of Thy Christ,” and to them are added, with further obvious detriment to the concept of visible unity, the host of all the dead “whose faith is known to Thee alone.”

Furthermore, in none of the three new Eucharistic Prayers is there any reference, as has already been said, to the state of suffering of those who have died, in none the possibility of a particular Memento: all of this, again, must undermine faith in the propitiatory and redemptive nature of the Sacrifice.[23]

Desacralizing omissions everywhere debase the mystery of the Church. She is not presented above all as a sacred hierarchy: angels and saints are reduced to anonymity in the second part of the collective Confiteor: they have disappeared, as witnesses and judges, in the person of St. Michael, from the first.[24] The various hierarchies of angels have also disappeared (and this is without precedent) from the new Preface of Prex II. In the Communicantes the reminder of the pontiffs and holy martyrs on whom the Church of Rome is founded and who were, without doubt, the transmitters of the apostolic traditions, destined to be completed in what became, with St. Gregory, the Roman Mass, has been suppressed. In the Libera nos the Blessed Virgin, the Apostles and all the Saints are no longer mentioned: her and their intercession is thus no longer asked, even in time of peril.

The unity of the Church is gravely compromised by the wholly intolerable omission from the entire Ordo, including the three new Eucharistic Prayers, of the names of the Apostles Peter and Paul, Founders of the Church of Rome, and the names of the other Apostles, foundation and mark of the one and universal Church, the only remaining mention being in the Communicantes of the Roman Canon.

A clear attack upon the dogma of the Communion of Saints is the omission, when the priest is celebrating without a server, of all the salutations, and the final blessing, not to speak of the Ite missa est[25] now not even said in Masses celebrated with a server.

The double Confiteor showed how the priest—in his capacity of Christ’s Minister, bowing downplay and acknowledging himself unworthy of his sublime mission, of the “tremendum mysterium” about to be accomplished by him and of even (in the Aufer a nobis) entering into the Holy of Holies—invoked the intercession (in the Oramus te, Domine) of the merits of the martyrs whose relics were sealed in the altar. Both these prayers have been suppressed; what has been said previously in respect of the double Confiteor and the double Communion is equally relevant here.

The outward setting of the Sacrifice, evidence of its sacred character, has been profaned. See, for example, what is laid down for celebration outside sacred precincts, in which the altar may be replaced by a simple mensa without consecrated stone or relic, and with a single cloth (nos. 260, 265). Here too all that has been previously said with regard to the Real Presence applies, the disassociation of the convivium and of the sacrifice of the supper from the Real Presence Itself.

The process of desacralization is completed thanks to the new procedures for the offering: the reference to ordinary not unleavened bread; altar servers (and lay people at Communion sub utraque specie) being allowed to handle sacred vessels (no. 244d); the distracting atmosphere created by the ceaseless coming and going of priest, deacon, subdeacon, psalmist, commentator (the priest becomes a commentator himself from his constantly being required to “explain” what he is about to accomplish)—of readers (men and women), of servers or laymen welcoming people at the door and escorting them to their places whilst other carry and sort offerings. And in the midst of all this prescribed activity, the “mulier idonea”[26] (anti-scriptural and anti-Pauline) who for the first time in the tradition of the Church will be authorized to read the lesson and also perform other “ministeria quae extra presbyterium peraguntur” (no. 70). Finally, there is the concelebration mania, which will end by destroying Eucharistic piety in the priest, by overshadowing the central figure of Christ, sole Priest and Victim, in a collective presence of concelebrants.[27]


We have limited ourselves to a summary evaluation of the new Ordo where it deviates most seriously from the theology of the Catholic Mass and our observations touch only those deviations that are typical. A complete evaluation of all the pitfalls, the dangers, the spiritually and psychologically destructive elements contained in the document—whether in text, rubrics or instructions—would be a vast undertaking.

No more than a passing glance has been taken at the three new Canons, since these have already come in for repeated and authoritative criticism, both as to form and substance. The second of them[28] gave immediate scandal to the faithful on account of its brevity. Of Canon II it has been well said, amongst other things, that it could be recited with perfect tranquility of conscience by a priest who no longer believes either in transubstantiation or in the sacrificial character of the Mass—hence even by a Protestant minister.

The new missal was introduced in Rome as “a text of ample pastoral matter” and “more pastoral than juridical” which the Episcopal Conferences would be able to utilize according to the varying circumstances and genius of different peoples. In this same Apostolic Constitution we read: “we have introduced into the new missal legitimate variations and adaptations.” Besides, Section I of the new Congregation for Divine Worship will be responsible “for the publication and constant revision of the liturgical books.” The last official bulletin of the Liturgical Institutes of Germany, Switzerland and Austria[29] says:

The Latin texts will now have to be translated into the languages of the various peoples: the “Roman” style will have to be adopted to the individuality of the local Churches: that which was conceived beyond time must he transposed into the changing context of concrete situations in the constant flux of the Universal Church and of its myriad congregations.

The Apostolic Constitution itself gives the coup de grace to the Church’s universal language (contrary to the express will of Vatican Council II) with the bland affirmation that “in such a variety of tongues one [?] and the same prayer of all… may ascend more fragrant than any incense.”

The demise of Latin may therefore be taken for granted; that of Gregorian chant—which even the Council recognized as “liturgiae romanae proprium” (Sacros. Conc., no. 116), ordering that “principem locum obtineat” (ibid.)—will logically follow, with the freedom of choice, amongst other things, of the texts of Introit and Gradual.

From the outset therefore the new rite is launched as pluralistic and experimental, bound to time and place. Unity of worship, thus swept away for good and all, what will now become of the unity of faith that went with it, and which, we were always told, was to be defended without compromise?

It is evident that the Novus Ordo has no intention of presenting the Faith as taught by the Council of Trent, to which, nonetheless, the Catholic conscience is bound forever. With the promulgation of the Novus Ordo, the loyal Catholic is thus faced with a most tragic alternative.


The Apostolic Constitution makes explicit reference to a wealth of piety and teaching in the Novus Ordo borrowed from the Eastern Churches. The result—utterly remote from and even opposed to the inspiration of the oriental Liturgies—can only repel the faithful of the Eastern Rites. What, in truth, do these ecumenical options amount to? Basically to the multiplicity of anaphora (but nothing approaching their beauty and complexity), to the presence of the deacons, to Communion sub utraque specie. Against this the Ordo would appear to have been deliberately shorn of everything which in the Liturgy of Rome came close to those of the East.[30] Moreover, in abandoning its unmistakable and immemorial Roman character, the Ordo lost what was spiritually precious of its own. Its place has been taken by elements which bring it closer only to certain other reformed liturgies (not even to those closest to Catholicism) and which debase it at the same time. The East will be ever more alienated, as it already has been by the preceding liturgical reforms.

By way of compensation the new Liturgy will be the delight of the various groups who, hovering on the verge of apostasy, are wreaking havoc in the Church of God, poisoning her organism and undermining her unity of doctrine, worship, morals and discipline in a spiritual crisis without precedent.


St. Pius V had the Roman Missal drawn up (as the present Apostolic Constitution itself recalls) so that it might he an instrument of unity among Catholics. In conformity with the injunctions of the Council of Trent it was to exclude all danger, in liturgical worship of errors against the Faith, then threatened by the Protestant Reformation. The gravity of the situation fully justified, and even rendered prophetic, the saintly pontiff’s solemn warning given at the end of the bull promulgating his missal: “Should anyone presume to tamper with this, let him know that he shall incur the wrath of God Almighty and of his Blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul” (Quo Primum, July 13, 1570).[31]

When the Novus Ordo was presented at the Vatican Press Office, it was asserted with great audacity that the reasons which prompted the Tridentine decrees are no longer valid. Not only do they still apply, but there also exist, as we do not hesitate to affirm, very much more serious ones today. It was precisely in order to ward off the dangers which in every century threaten the purity of the deposit of faith (“depositum custodi, devitans profanas vocum novitates.”—I Tim. 6:20) that the Church has had to erect under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost the defenses of her dogmatic definitions and doctrinal pronouncements. These were immediately reflected in her worship, which became the most complete monument of her faith. To try and bring the Church’s worship back at all cost to the ancient practice by refashioning, artificially and with that “unhealthy archeologism” so roundly condemned by Pius XII,[32] what in earlier times had the grace of original spontaneity means—as we see today only too clearly—to dismantle all the theological ramparts erected for the protection of the Rite and to take away all the beauty by which it was enriched over the centuries.

And all this at one of the most critical moments—if not the most critical moment—of the Church’s history! Today, division and schism are officially acknowledged to exist not only outside of but within the Church.[33] Her unity is not only threatened but already tragically compromised.[34] Errors against the Faith are not merely insinuated but positively imposed by means of liturgical abuses and aberrations which have been equally acknowledged.[35] To abandon a liturgical tradition which for four centuries was both the sign and the pledge of unity of worship[36] (and to replace it with another which cannot but be a sign of division by virtue of the countless liberties implicitly authorized, and which teems with insinuations or manifest errors against the integrity of the Catholic religion) is, we feel in conscience bound to proclaim, an incalculable error.

Some Thoughts on Papal Resignations – and “BiP”

Eamonn Clark, STL

Speculation abounds as to the possibility of a Francis resignation very soon, what with all the things going on – an extraordinary consistory, seemingly frantic reforms, a potentially symbolic trip to L’Aquila, and his unfortunately and obviously declining health – but on the other hand, he is still making plans for various travels in the future, after August. Bizarre.

Given the occasion, I have some thoughts on the idea of papal resignations in general which I thought I’d share.

To begin with, I think it is extremely clear that Benedict XVI validly resigned the papacy, and I believe just as well that Francis was validly elected. I have talked about this on these pages twice, here and here. I also point the reader to Steven O’Reilly’s work on the topic, of Benedict’s resignation in particular, which is extensive. See also Prof. Feser’s work on this.

When one looks at the text of the Declaratio, especially together with the text of Normas Nonnullas, published shortly afterward, it seems to be quite clear that, despite whatever theories Cardinal Ratzinger privately entertained about a “bifurcation” of the papacy before his election (which he apparently did), this is simply not what he intended, given his public words.

I would add too a canonical observation: it seems that categories like “substantial error” and “grave fear/coercion” with respect to papal resignations have a higher bar to clear than with respect the resignation of other offices. The famous “Beal Commentary” on the 1983 CIC talks about substantial error in resignations as being either from cause/motive, or from the essential character of resignation/its effects. So, cause or effect. The example given is a diocesan finance officer who mistakenly thinks he must resign upon the appointment of a new bishop, when he actually does not need to do so. Such a resignation is invalid from its cause. The case with the Benedict XVI bifurcation theory would be an error of effect, supposing, as I do, that the papacy, being the exterior and visible sign of ecclesiastical unity, cannot be split into two offices, one contemplative, one active, or one as “Bishop of Rome” and one as “Vicar of Christ,” despite the fact that St. Peter was simultaneously pope and not the Bishop of Rome… Ever since, they have been linked, a custom which seems to be sanctioned by Divine law, given the obvious facts that 1, St. Peter became Bishop of Rome while he, an apostle, was still alive, thus allowing for revelation to occur publicly, which at least opens the possibility of the existence of a revealed (but not explicitly defined) datum that the ecclesiastical control of Rome is intrinsically linked to the papacy, and 2, the Church has been organized this way in every single case since St. Peter, even when popes have lived outside of Rome (i.e. Viterbo, Gaeta, Avignon), thus suggesting the existence of a Divine law of such an intrinsic link in reality.

So, if Benedict XVI really had this bifurcation thought in mind, despite publicly giving every indication to the contrary, he would indeed seem to have had what would normally be a substantial error that would suffice for the invalidity of resignation. An analogy would be a diocesan bishop saying, “I will resign the ministry of my episcopate over this diocese, but I will still retain the right to ordain licitly, by my own authority, the diocesan clergy of this diocese.” The two go hand in hand, and they cannot be separated. But when one deals with something as important as the papacy, merely ecclesiastical law – viz., the laws regulating the validity of resignations or the loss of office more generally – must be seen in relation to the Divine laws which govern what the papacy is, and they must be seen in the light of the immense importance of the papacy for the health of the universal Church. The “hermeneutic of common sense” is very important… If one pope stops pope-ing, and another guy starts pope-ing, then the strong presumption has to be that the second guy is pope. In the history of the Church, there have been clear cases of false papal claimants, and there have been cases which were less clear, such as in the Western schism… But then there have been cases which, to us with our fancy CIC, would seem clearly to be cases of anti-popes usurping power, such as due to exile or simony (both of which happened with Benedict IX – who then left office for a third time by abdication, dying repentant in a monastery)… Well, here is some common sense: if another guy started pope-ing, and the Church went along with it, then the second guy was pope. It seems God sanctions the common sense hermeneutic when it becomes too difficult to know otherwise who is in fact the Successor of St. Peter. So, even accepting the hypothesis that Benedict XVI was pressured in this way or that, and had a rather significantly erroneous understanding of the papacy which informed his intentions in abdicating, his resignation would not therefore have been necessarily invalid. Anyway, that is my take.

All this stuff brings me to the next point. Popes should not resign. It’s a bad idea. It causes so much confusion, even schism. Benedict said his strength was failing him to such a degree he felt he couldn’t do the job well enough anymore – he had seen what was done by opportunists while John Paul II was dying, and he didn’t want it to happen under him… But somehow, the Church has gotten along just fine for millennia with popes who died in office, likely some who were for a long while in hospice, perhaps popes so decrepit they couldn’t even speak, and probably a handful of popes who even slipped into dementia or suffered from Alzheimer’s. The difference is, in fact, the precedent set by John Paul II especially, and to some extent his immediate predecessors (especially Paul VI). The papacy has not normally been what these men lived it as – traveling here and there, speaking publicly all the time, and being deeply involved in the affairs of the worldwide Church (such as personally appointing every bishop). It does have its advantages, but it also brings large risks with it… If popes were to recede more into the background, with a real and healthy kind of decentralization of power, gathering truly exemplary men to assist them in the curia, then there would be fewer problems with popes staying in office with declining health, whether it’s physical health, mental health, or both.

Anyway, we pray for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and for Pope Francis, and his successors.

Who led the reform – Bugnini, or the Holy Spirit?

Eamonn Clark, STL

Cardinal-Elect Arthur Roche, Prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has given an interview. It is worth reading, primarily for the following paragraph.

So, all that is taking place is the regulation of the former liturgy of the 1962 Missal by stopping the promotion of that, because it was clear that the Council, the Bishops of the Council, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, were putting forward a new liturgy for the vital life of the Church, for its vitality. And that’s really very important. And to resist that is, is something that is really quite serious, too.

Never mind that the Council didn’t itself reform the liturgy, nor that it was never suggested to create a “new liturgy” but simply have a restoration of sorts. The overall attitude/vision of Roche put forward here is congruent with the speech given by Pope Francis in 2017 to Italian liturgists. Anyone who is interested in what is happening right now in the world of Catholic liturgy absolutely MUST (re)read this speech. It is like an intellectual tell-all. This is the speech where he made one of the oddest statements perhaps ever uttered in public by a Roman pontiff: “After this magisterium, after this long journey, We can affirm with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.”

The men leading this charge think that the work of the Consilium ad exsequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia (or just “the Consilium”), the liturgical committee which was commissioned by the Second Vatican Council to implement the document Sacrosanctum Concilium, was inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The claim of inspiration is not about the document, Sacrosancutm Concilium, which is a huge claim on its own, especially given the “pastoral” as opposed to “doctrinal” character of the Council, as Ratzinger/Benedict XVI pointed out;1 it seems very much to be the work of the Consilium which is being claimed to have inspiration. This sort of claim is without any precedent in the entire liturgical history of the Church, as far as I can tell – do correct me if I am wrong. Nobody claims that their liturgical reforms are “inspired” by the Holy Spirit, and traditionally liturgical developments are seen as being “protected” (a weaker influence of the Holy Spirit) only in special cases, like the commemoration of saints or generally the teaching content of prayers when adopted for a long time in a great number of places. What happens in liturgical reforms throughout the ages is that the general custom of the Church, in Her liturgy, is guided somewhat by the Holy Spirit, overall away from the introduction of error and toward the edification of souls, in the long-term – or something very close to this. Because the liturgy is the public worship of God by the Church, it stands to reason that God would be invested in its development and growth towards a form which more and more adequately reveals and instructs about the mysteries which it contains, including through legitimately diverse forms (i.e., the Eastern liturgies). This process, after the Last Supper, has gradually come to occur typically through minor reforms of bits and pieces of the liturgy, done in tandem with the growth of local liturgical customs. As the centuries have gone on, these changes have become smaller and less frequent.

Suffice it to say, what occurred in the late 1960’s at the Consilium was a bit different. The dishonesty of Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, who spearheaded the work of the Consilium, was sufficient to get him banished to Iran by the same pope who commissioned him in the first place, St. Paul VI.

Knowing the history of these things is no longer optional for anyone who is involved in theology, or in public ecclesiastical life.

There is a nice 3-part series being put out right now which I would encourage readers to watch. The first two episodes are out – PART 1, and PART 2. It is not a perfect production – on several levels – but as an introduction to the the old liturgy, the history of the reform, and what exactly is going on right now, it is helpful. One of the gems comes from the second episode, where the textual changes to the liturgy are shown graphically:

The thought that the Holy Spirit has any direct involvement with major liturgical reforms done by committees, let alone inspires such reforms, which is a category that only properly applies to the original writing of Sacred Scripture, is entirely novel. May I suggest that the ideas of some men about how to change the text and rubrics of one slice of the Church’s liturgy (the Latin/Western slice) are not equivalent with the words of Isaiah, or Genesis, or Matthew. The language we use to talk about these things matters. If Scripture is inspired, and the work of the Consilium is inspired, then how do they differ in authority?

Go read Francis’ speech. Pay attention.

For those readers of mine in higher theological studies – especially if you are looking for a good topic for a dogma STL thesis – start considering what the role of the Holy Spirit is in liturgical reforms. One can make various distinctions, such as inspiration vs. protection vs. providence, etc., which would be relevant. It is the most timely sort of topic, and it is sorely needed. This tension is not going to be swept away by the next pope, one way or the other. It will be here for a while. We may as well settle in, and we would be fools not to arm ourselves with knowledge.

We must also pray and fast for our bishops, including our Holy Father, Pope Francis.

1 – “The Second Vatican Council has not been treated as a part of the entire living Tradition of the Church, but as an end of Tradition, a new start from zero. The truth is that this particular council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council; and yet many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of superdogma which takes away the importance of all the rest.” – Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), July 13, 1988 (Santiago, Chile)

A good chastity video to watch

So I watch a lot on this channel – he has a series (he argues it is the longest running show on YouTube, which is probably actually correct) that is mostly him giving relationship advice to high school and college kids, and it is absolutely hilarious – but this one was a bit more serious. And as a major cultural-pastoral concern of today in the West, I thought I’d share. (The original video he’s reacting to is here.)

See my other posts on chastity here:

Practical chastity, principles for chaste relationships 1, part 2, and part 3 (parts 4 and 5 coming soon)

Matt Fradd (who wrote a book on the topic) also has a nice interview which I was watching the other day… also worth watching (he has several other similar interviews, as you might imagine):