True Myth, Part 2: A Hidden Lesson in Eden

Eamonn Clark

Surely, there is hardly any limit to the meaning of the imagery in the opening chapters of Genesis. The dichotomy of dark and light, the details of the order of creation, the numerology… But let’s just focus in on one little part of the story.

We find Adam and Eve happy in Eden, but – the serpent tells them of something that God is holding back from them. There is special, privileged knowledge that is available through disobedience. God doesn’t want them to have it because He is afraid, jealous, selfish… They would become too much like Him.

We know how the story goes – it doesn’t work out for Adam and Eve. What is glossed over is a lesson which sought to correct some misunderstandings about divinity pervasive in the Ancient Near East (ANE).

In ANE cosmologies, the world and the pantheon were very permeable, almost the same world entirely, one might say. The gods come and go as they please, a bit like God walking in Eden and coming in the Incarnation. The difference with the ANE gods is twofold: motive, and nature.

The motives for the pantheon’s involvement were the petty kinds of endeavors we are used to seeing in myth – fear, jealousy, selfishness, and other passions common to mere human beings. The nature of these gods is that, essentially, they were created out of a realm which lies above them. Both in motive and in nature, the God of Adam and Eve is completely different. He is only concerned for the authentic good of His creatures, driven by His own totally free choice, and He is utterly transcendent, uncreated, and quite radically unlike human beings.

The lesson about motive is clear enough – the “knowledge” they gained by disobedience was truly unhelpful for Adam and Eve. It did not make them happier, that is, more authentically “like” God. It was therefore out of selfless love that God restricted them from eating from that tree. The lesson about transcendence is less clear, although even in the lesson about motive it is inherent. Because God does not think like a human being, the way the ANE gods do, He must be higher than the ANE pantheon. But that’s not all…

In the ANE, magic was commonplace. We can see how it comes from their theology: the gods are finite, they don’t love perfectly, therefore they aren’t always going to help me get what I really need to be happy. So, the thinking went, an appeal can be made to this “realm above the gods,” the place from which the pantheon comes. Magic was done by channeling the powers of that realm through some natural element, like water, rocks, blood, plants… even perhaps a fruit.

Adam and Eve were the first magicians, according to Genesis. That’s my theory.

It seems that the choice of the sacred author to use natural imagery that evokes the ANE theory of magic is to teach a clear lesson about God’s transcendent nature: there is nothing above this God. He was not created like the ANE pantheon. There is no going around Him. And because His transcendence is also a guarantee of His goodness, as we saw, we can trust Him.

No more magic.

An Analogy for Teaching the Necessity of the Incarnation

Eamonn Clark

When I was in middle school, I wondered about many things. “Do I have a chance with this girl? (No.) Will I make the high school basketball team? (No.) What does it mean to say that Jesus died for our sins?” Though I didn’t get a satisfying answer to the third question until much later, thankfully it didn’t bother me too much. But for those of you who are looking for a way to teach kids – or even adults – the main idea of St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, here is a helpful analogy which can be elaborated or simplified according to time or audience. (Be careful not to ruin the central ideas though!)

A caveat – it is an analogy, so despite its strength it isn’t perfect. You’ve been advised.

Imagine a town with a strict but kind mayor. He lives in a large house near the local baseball field and, in his spare time, he makes incredibly ornate and unique stained glass windows, together with his son. One of his windows faces the field, and at night the light from his house shines on the field – just enough for the local little league team to practice for a while before night. The mayor knows the evening is the most fun time to play baseball… He knows all the kids on the team and wants the best for them.

One evening, the team captain steps up to the plate. He knows he is strong enough to hit it out of the park, and his friend, the pitcher, knows it too. They have been having so much fun that they have lost their good judgment… They conspire and decide to show off by going for a major home run. A friendly pitch, a hard swing, a big hit, and a crash – the ball went right through the mayor’s priceless window and shattered the whole thing. The light goes out, and the mayor comes out to yell at the players… He discovers it was really the fault of two – the pitcher and the batter both, and that the batter is in fact team captain. He is especially at fault as batter, and since he is team captain the whole thing is made even worse… Because of the town’s laws, people like team captains get to represent a whole group of people in public events, but they also get the whole group in trouble if they do something wrong publicly. To punish the team, the mayor tells them they are banned from playing on the field until the debt gets paid – they’ll have to settle for cheap imitations, like parking lots and back yards, which don’t even allow for a real game at all. The team now owes the mayor a debt of the worth of his window. It is a debt that they can’t repay and could never repay. To replace the window is a task that belongs only to the mayor and his son.

Due to his strictness, the mayor won’t simply forgive the debt to the team. It would be inconsistent and unfair. They don’t get special treatment. But because of his kindness, the mayor wants to find a way that he can let the kids play again, and so he needs to come up with a way to get the team to repay the debt.

The solution occurs to him: it is time for his son to start playing baseball. The mayor gets his son signed up for little league, and he insists that his son also become team captain. Now the mayor’s son, who can make the window again, represents the whole team.

In a short while, after some difficult work, the son has remade the window, paying the debt on behalf of the whole team. He made the window stronger this time, too, so if it gets hit again it will only break in one pane instead of shattering – easy to fix. The mayor is satisfied, and he is willing to let the team play baseball again, with their new captain, but not in the evenings anymore. Though it’s the most fun time to play, they will have to settle for the normal daylight. The light still comes through the window, but it can’t be seen clearly. The mayor says that one day, however, the team will be allowed to play in the evenings again, and the colorful, beautiful light will be brighter than ever before, and they can play as long as they like into the night.

The End.

In case it’s not obvious, the mayor is God the Father, his son is the Son, baseball is the life of virtue, the first captain is Adam, the pitcher is Eve, the evening is Eden and Heaven (with the better light), the light and the window are the operation of God’s love and grace, breaking the window and the debt incurred is original sin, the town rules are the natural and eternal law.

It has its limits, but I think it’s alright. The essential point is that the son has to join the team and become its new captain in order to pay the debt that the team couldn’t otherwise pay. What do you think? Have you used similar metaphors with any success?

True Myth, Part 1: The Fundamental Thesis

Eamonn Clark

While interest in religion and in myth are perennial, at this moment it is particularly appropriate to dive into a study of the relationship here between true religion and true myth. This is not only because of my own personal acute interest presently, but the broader culture at large seems abnormally interested as well. This is due in no small part, perhaps almost exclusively, to the success of Intellectual Dark Web numero uno, Dr. Jordan Peterson, whose meteoric rise into international superstardom has exposed many people for the first time to a serious way of thinking about religion, especially Christianity, in a way similar to the exploration which will be undertaken here. For all his ideological red-pilling, which has made him most well-known (and which I typically find incredibly satisfying  to watch), his most popular video to date is the first in his series on the Bible. With Jung for a guide, Peterson explores the Scriptures from a psychological and pragmatic point of view. (Maybe a few parts of this series will pick apart one of his lectures.) While this kind of work is useful to an extent, my own sojourn into this region of thought will emphasize not only the usefulness of religion and myth, but their usefulness specifically insofar as they are true in a realist sense. William James’s self-defeating paradigm has little to do with my project. Religions might be useful in a number of temporal ways, but clearly we want to find a “non-temporal usefulness” which is powerful in its own right, such that its object can save us from that state in which we are no longer able to act on our own. When we are dead, we are no longer pragmatists… we are helpless. So we are here investigating not merely the truly useful; we are concerned with the usefully true. We want a saving truth, as it were, which can operate on its own.

With that introduction, here is the fundamental thesis. God gave mankind in general many common desires and ideas about the universe. The myths of various profane civilizations reveal these desires and ideas in fragmented ways, and the stories of the sacred civilization of Israel reveal them more plainly. Through the Biblical narrative of salvation, God corrected, spiritualized, and completed the profane myths. This threefold action corresponds to the triple purpose of grace – to heal, to elevate, and to perfect – and also corresponds to the triple munera of Christ, the prophet, the priest, and the king. As prophet, God corrects, as priest, He spiritualizes, and as king he completes. The Biblical story is mankind’s true myth, the perfect expression of what God wants us  to believe about and to desire from ourselves, the rest of creation, and God Himself. There is no archetype left untouched, no emotion left unexplored, no space of the human mind left unsatisfied. In the Judeo-Christian narrative we will consistently find God’s threefold action on profane myth, and this action is exhaustive.

The first topic we dive into will be a little slice of the opening pages of Genesis – and the Ancient Near East mythical context which helps us make sense of some of the puzzling imagery. What is this “fruit” all about?

Being Critical of the Historical-Critical

Eamonn Clark

I am watching some lectures on Scripture which were put out by Yale’s divinity school – it is quite an interesting experience. After many years of formation in what might be called “catechetical Scripture studies,” from CCD, to a Catholic university, to seminary, to a Roman pontifical university, encountering at length the material presented at an Ivy League school is like being thrown into a tornado.

It’s not that the material is altogether new or revolutionary – although some of it is certainly quite new and interesting to me, even edifying – it is the attitude which undergirds it which strikes me as bizarre. I have known a long time that this approach is out there, especially in higher education, but it’s my first time really having meaningful exposure to it.

Without making accusations of the professors I am watching, (and I have not even come close to finishing the courses,) a few characteristics leap out at me of this way of teaching and studying Scripture. Each follows the other.

  1. It is dogmatic. The conclusions tend to guide the argument – the texts can’t be harmonized, the stories can’t be historical, the authors must be pseudonymous, etc., etc. It seems the grand conclusion which is protected by these kinds of conclusions is that God can’t really be entering into creation. Further, there is a dense wall of “scholarship” which protects these conclusions, and because this scholarship is the newest and most popular, it must be the best. It seems rather off-limits to use “traditional” sources in a serious way. In one word, it is Modernist, or at least has strong Modernist tendencies.
  2. It reverses the mysterious character of the Judeo-Christian story. By taking away the traditional positions on questions of historicity, authorship, dating, etc., a veil of mist is put over the text – “What does it mean? Who wrote it? When? Why? Where did they get their material from?” These questions occupy the student, while the mystery of the Living God presented by the text is basically ignored.
  3. It is purely didactic. There is not a further purpose to understanding the history of the Scriptures. They are merely items of curiosity – a bit like how Herod enjoyed John the Baptist, who is easily seen as the representative of the entire prophetic tradition… Interesting? Yes. Convicting enough to cause a personal conversion? No, not here. And when the call comes to sacrifice its integrity for the pleasure of the world, of the academy, or of one’s own personal life, there will perhaps be reluctance, but there will be obedience. The quest for the “historical Jesus” is no grander than the work of any historian; it is just more dangerous to discover and hold fast to the truth. Since historical-critical exegetes are, by and large, not in it for a real encounter with the God of Abraham, the danger isn’t really worth it. Not all that long ago, probably even at Yale, to enter a program of theological studies required faith. That is to say, if the school were Methodist, one had to be a Methodist in order to study theology there. Anyone else, so the thinking went, was wasting their time.

So why continue watching? Well, I enjoy knowing what the “others” are up to, so that when I meet them I know where they’re coming from. Second, there certainly are plenty of real insights presented. Third, it is better than watching cat videos.

We need to use the historical-critical method in the right way – as an aid to what might be called the “spiritual method.” For example, to know that there were other Flood narratives in the Ancient Near East (and well beyond, even into the Americas, might I add,) is probably helpful to understand the composition of the text of Genesis, but knowing the differences helps us to know something – really to know something – about how our God is different. In this case, one major difference is that Noah is saved because of his virtue rather than his cleverness or strength…

In the past few months, I have become especially interested in the world of myth and how it relates to salvation history. Therefore, I have decided to start a series on the topic, called “True Myth,” that title of Christ shared with C. S. Lewis by Tolkien. Stay tuned for more, and be sure to subscribe.

The Life of Faith: A Case Study (Simon Peter)

Eamonn Clark

I am in the (very) remote stages of planning a book on the virtue of faith… The Biblical, scholastic, and contemporary definitions of faith, faith and the moral life, faith and the contemporary West, faith and psychology, and so on. It seems to me that such a book, specifically with a presentation of a solid pastoral praxis aimed at healing the anxious minds of millennials which is directly grounded in Biblical and Thomistic thought, is sorely needed. One chapter will be dedicated entirely to Peter as an example of the whole life of faith… its beginning, growth, crisis, rebirth, overflow, and finally its consummation in martyrdom. Allow me to present the rough draft of the very beginning of the chapter, in which I am showcasing the kind of Biblical theology which I think is sorely needed in our age – both in the academy, and in the real world of ministry.

We find Peter living a natural life, working for natural gain, by reaping the fruits of the natural world. Peter had clearly been passed up for higher studies by the rabbis who would have taught him Torah and the Prophets in his youth – otherwise, he would have certainly accepted such a great honor, an honor afforded to only the most promising of students. Instead, he is fishing. Peter had watched Jesus heal his mother-in-law a little while earlier, and the whole countryside was already talking about the public ministry. Just before having Peter go further out into the lake, Jesus had been preaching to a crowd so great that Peter provided his own boat as a pulpit to keep the people from crushing Him – what a privilege to be the steward of such a man’s ministry! What an opportunity to study the Book and even to be the disciple of a living prophet… But he will not trust this prophet that much, at least not yet, as the ensuing discussion shows. Peter echoes the unbelief and impetuosity of his forefathers in the desert when, shortly after having seen Jesus heal his mother-in-law, he begins to argue with Him about food. However, while those Jews were helpless in the desert, Peter is a professional fisherman, floating on the Sea of Galilee, which is full of fish. Though prophets may know much about the supernatural, surely a lifelong fisherman knows how to fish! Peter reluctantly, almost flippantly, gives in and acquiesces to let down his nets. (Some translations give an eisegesis here, translating “ta diktua” in the plural when Jesus asks, and in the singular when Peter responds – “let down the nets,” “I will let down the net.” But the Greek itself does not give us this.)

Jesus shows Peter that acquired skill and natural talent are no match for His word… The same voice that moved over those chaotic primordial waters in the beginning of time now brings order to the Sea of Galilee. The fish hide in the cool of the darkness, and only by being brought up into the light will they be able to be caught and sustain life; and thus it was in the beginning as well, as all the life which God brought forth came from the darkness and was made helpless before Adam.

While the amount of fish caught doesn’t quite tear the nets, it does tear Peter, who no doubt had none of the foregoing typology on his mind but was simply stunned by the show of power. For the first time, we see Peter confront his interior emptiness. Unfortunately, he does not yet know the correct response; “Depart from me,” he tells the Lord, “for I am a sinful man.” This display of the power of Jesus to control nature inspires reverence, but it does not inspire devotion… Peter feels unworthy of being in the presence of such power – evidently, he thought that it was a greater deed to control fish than to heal his mother-in-law – and so he seeks separation. He does not see that the very purpose of the coming of the “prophet” Jesus is precisely to forgive sins, a power as yet unheard of, except for God alone. And so, just as we see Peter face his interior emptiness for the first time, we see Peter reject Jesus for the first time. (Later on, the order of these phenomena will be reversed, with rejection leading to the confrontation of self.) Nevertheless, Jesus asks Peter for his discipleship, promising him that he will become “a fisher of men.”. This mysterious invitation was irresistible. Perhaps Peter hopes to follow in the footsteps of Elisha, the disciple of Elijah… One day, he might acquire a “double portion” of the spirit of the prophet Jesus!

Bishops and Borders

Eamonn Clark

I had endeavored to write a post some time ago when all eyes were turned to Catalonia because of the separatist fervor threatening the unity of Spain, but I never got around to it. Let this supplant it.

The recent history of the Iberian peninsula is rife with political conflict… (In fact, it is only barely out of living memory that Spain was in a war with the United States.) It should be entirely unsurprising that there are still problems… And only time will tell if Catalonia earns its independence, with violence, with voting, or with a mix of the two.

There is a singular voice in the Catalonian Church which sticks out like a sore thumb, aching to teach us an extremely important lesson about the way ecclesiastics ought to treat politics. It is St. Anthony Claret – priest of the Diocese of Vic, 3rd Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba, and confessor to the Queen of Spain, Isabella II.

During his entire life and ministry, St. Anthony was surrounded by fierce political controversies and enemies of the Church, including the Carlist civil wars raging around his home, an attempt on his life in Cuba, the confiscation of the Papal States, and the dethronement and exile of the Queen. Certainly, St. Anthony’s immense tact guided him during all this – such as when he would say he was from the Diocese of Vic when questioned by Carlistas and that he was from the town of Sallent when questioned by the Isabelinos – but beyond this, two things are striking about St. Anthony’s response to political clamor.

First, he was positively and intentionally aloof from political affairs which did not directly concern the Church and the salvation of souls. This is most evident during his time in the Queen’s court, an assignment which he utterly despised, calling it a “continual martyrdom.” (Anthony Claret is one of the few saints who left us an autobiography. It is excellent.) By that time in his life, his fame was widespread, and to have the Archbishop’s approval on some matter would carry immense weight, especially with the Queen. He wanted no part – it would be alienating to those who did not agree with his decision, threatening their relationship with the Church, of which, after all, he was a steward and representative. Despite an average of a hundred letters a day asking for his help in various matters, he remained disinterested, answering none. He saw involvement in politics as an abuse of his office, as something beneath his dignity; his principal duty was the care of souls, not care of the country. When affairs did directly concern the Church or salvation of souls, such as the unification of Italy, or the anti-clerical sentiment in Spain and Cuba, he was ready and willing to act appropriately. During the Risorgimento, for instance, the Queen faced immense pressure to give her approval of the dissolution of the Papal States, but her confessor was there to warn her of the grave spiritual danger which such a move would bring… He was also there to lift the canonical penalty she incurred after having finally given her assent to Italian unification, as she sat in exile in France, disgraced and contrite.

Second, he was engaged in entirely non-partisan works as a civic leader. Given the incomprehensible amount of preaching and sacramental work which Claret performed – in his 6 years in Cuba alone, he wrote many books and pamphlets on spirituality and doctrine, validated over 9,000 marriages, confirmed some 300,000 people, and conducted 4 missions in every parish in his large and rugged diocese, always traveling by foot – one would think he would have time for little else. On the contrary, he was up to his neck in public works, such as supporting orphans, educational institutions, scientific research, agriculture, and healthcare. All of this was neutral work that no reasonable person could object to. Those who smeared him for it did so because of an animus against the Church or his own person, not because the work was partisan.

All this brings us to comments made by some bishops on illegal immigration which are only the most recent manifestation of a disturbing trend.

Unlike other so-called political issues, such as euthanasia or abortion, the Church has no teaching on the treatment of illegal immigrants as such. All we have are some basic ideas about human dignity and the authority of the state. Who could object to a preacher who says, “We should treat every human being with charity because all are made in the image and likeness of God”? It is easy, however, to imagine an objection to a preacher who says, “It is uncharitable to defend our nation from illegal immigrants,” and yet this is the kind of thing which is sometimes said, including presently. Not unlike the rhetoric which surrounds the current debate on gun-control, those of a liberal mindset accuse those of a conservative mindset of immorality prima facie – to oppose stricter gun laws is simply to care too little about people’s lives, especially children’s lives. In this case, to oppose sanctuary cities and spotty border patrol is simply to care too little about the oppressed who are fleeing from the south.

Of course, this trick could be reversed easily enough (and sometimes it is done to good effect), but making accusations of immorality due to differing prudential judgments does not make for a healthy political forum. Let me suggest that it makes for an even unhealthier ecclesiastical forum. Perhaps – or even, dare I say, probably – both sides really do care about the common good of the nation and have compassion for the suffering, but they simply have different ideas about how to reach the goal of political flourishing and the role of jurisprudential factors in border control and deportation.

Since I am not a cleric, I will go so far as to say that the past shows us that our current tolerance of illegal immigration has been extremely expensive and dangerous, the principle of subsidiarity seems to be violated by accepting a long-term responsibility for people of other countries who do not legitimately become part of our own, and that writing laws based on empathy for those who suffer is, in general, a bad idea, because it blinds one to the broader impact of that legislation.

And what good does it do for a bishop to risk scandalizing the faithful who might hold a different prudential assessment of the situation than himself by insisting that a certain position on DACA is immoral? Usually little to none; it is either ignored, is used by those who already agree as a moral sledgehammer, or simply annoys people who disagree, as they rightly sense that this is not a matter for the Church to be involved with directly. It certainly seems good for a bishop or any cleric to have a well-informed opinion on immigration policy, but it seems extremely unwise to reveal it. Perhaps the time of an ecclesiastic could be better spent by prayer, devotional and doctrinal preaching, administering the sacraments, studying theology, or building up the common good by entirely neutral means. Anything more is a waste of time at best and positively harmful at worst.

“A sacerdotes,” says St. Anthony, “must never align himself with any faction.” This is the great lesson our Catalonian saint teaches us: that a cleric is to render unto Caesar what is his by simply leaving him alone.

 

Main image: the Cathedral of Vic, where St. Anthony was ordained a priest and bishop

Clothing and Salvation

Eamonn Clark

Just a few points for your own meditation on this Good Friday, and through the Easter season.

Covering and uncovering of flesh is an important theme in Scripture. Here is a very quick glimpse:

Genesis 3:21 – The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.

Amos 2:16 – And the most stouthearted of warriors shall flee naked on that day, says the LORD…

John 20: 5-7 He bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.

Romans 13:14 – Instead, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.

The removal of a garment implies vulnerability, putting one on implies protection. Adam and Eve are strong in their “weakness” before the Fall, as they are constituted in a special state of grace. When they lose their innocence, blood is spilled for the first time in Scripture… Their own meager attempt at clothing themselves with leaves will not do. Instead, something has to die in order to cover them up. A brute animal will work – there is nothing better, for the moment.

We ourselves have just been in the Garden with the Lord – not Eden, but Gethsemane, its antithesis – and soon we will see Him in another garden. Moments before entering Gethsemane, He had taken off His outer garment in order to wash the feet of the disciples, the entire process of which was a catechesis on the kerygma… He rises up from the throne of the Godhead, removes the outer glory which is rightly His, takes on human nature as its servant, has mercy, puts on his outer glory again, and then returns to His throne. Finally, He commissions them to imitate Him. This is the whole Life of Christ.

Then in Mark we read of a man who runs away naked (14:51-52)… Perhaps it is Mark, perhaps it is Lazarus, perhaps it is some other person whose identity needed protection. Whoever it is, instead of leaving everything to follow Christ, this poor soul leaves everything in order to run away. No doubt he had high hopes of the advent of an Israel more like a New Rome than the New Jerusalem of Jesus, which would be won with swords and clubs by zealous warriors like Simon Peter. Instead, this Yeshua does not go about expelling the pagans as the old one did when he led the Israelites into Canaan, with violence of His own. Instead, this one makes himself vulnerable to violence, and eventually is stripped naked and put on a cross to die. How unlike the Joshua of old! Perhaps the rebellious murderer Barabbas would give the Jews the kind of Christ they wanted…

The Lord is dying, and the Temple’s own “garment” is ripped, as if to let God loose from the Holy of Holies, out into the Nations, to save the Gentiles. Meanwhile, the soldiers divide Jesus’ clothing among them, casting lots for the outer garment. Relics of a famous criminal, artifacts of a failed rebellion, prized items of curiosity which would one day certainly make for good conversation pieces. “This was Jesus of Nazareth’s cloak – do you remember him?” That cloak which held no seams, in which Christ could hide nothing to keep for Himself, which had been the instrument of healing, which protected the human dignity of God incarnate, was now itself given to the world, almost as if to pay respect to that command of the Baptist: Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none… (Luke 3:11) He is willing to give away not only His Divine dignity but also His human dignity in order to save us.

A day comes, a night comes, and then in the morning we see the Lord again, alive, but He does not look the same… He is changed in the flesh, mysteriously. He has become in His humanity something more suited to His Divinity, and yet His humanity is the same, even with His Body having the same wounds. His Flesh is perfected, becoming the completed New Adam, the fullest expression of all that humanity can be. In this Garden of the Resurrection, where He meets the Magdalene, He is the champion of death, having willingly gone under the knife as that animal in Eden did unwillingly to clothe our first parents. Now He will clothe us with His own Flesh and Blood, with His own Love, with His own Life which has now sprung up from the Earth, like a seed that dies to give forth its fruit… Changed, yet the same. He has left the old garment behind.

And the Magdalene was right: He is the Gardener.

Apolog-etc. #2

Eamonn Clark

I recently scanned a blog which regularly appears in my feed called “exCatholic4Christ” for the word “Orange.” This may sound quite strange – including to the author of that blog, who I am confident is reading – but I assure you, it is not.

I have had a few online exchanges with the author, a former Catholic turned rabid anti-institutional Christian, most of them to incredibly frustrating ends. He, like nearly all such men and women, beat, pound, stab, and ridicule a straw-man of the Catholic Church and Her teachings to a self-declared triumphant victory, often to the applause of a well-established echo-chamber which has an even worse understanding of the issues at hand. The lack of the relevant use of the word “Orange” anywhere in this man’s blog archive proves my point. Allow me to explain.

His favorite issue is “works.” His argument, which he reiterates ad nauseam (in literally almost every other post), is that salvation is not based on doing enough good works to earn (or “merit”) it. To the surprise of no regular readers of mine, I agree… Because this is the teaching of the Church. Remember, we baptize infants who do nothing other than breathe, eat, etc. – and yet the gates of Heaven are open wide… How less “worky” can you get than that? The child has done absolutely nothing but exist. (But I wonder if the blog author supports infant baptism… Hmm.) He and those like him want it both ways apparently – no works, and yet the need to do the work of an inward confession of faith – or even an outward confession of faith. Lest we forget, belief is an act of the will which moves the intellect to assent to a proposition whose referent is unseen… it is no less a work than prayer, or feeding the hungry, or healing the sick. Except we know that faith is an infused virtue, meaning, one that is given by God directly and not acquired by practice or natural effort. This virtue, however, can be resisted, which is sin, or it can be allowed to become active in one’s life by placing no obstacle before it, which is good. (The latter is what necessarily happens with infants who are baptized, as they can place no obstacle before an infused virtue or any grace. They have the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, but they just can’t really actively use them on account of their feeble minds.) And of course, any work which is actually meritorious, is a work which is powered by and completed through the working of interior grace. Meanwhile, unrepentant murderers, adulterers, thieves, etc. who happen to believe in the Resurrection (etc.), may indeed have the virtue of faith, but they will go to Hell because they do not love God with charity, the greatest virtue which “binds the rest together.”

But let’s hold on to that thought and return to the word “Orange.”

To comment on the Catholic Church’s teaching on grace and works, one must have read and understood the declarations of the Second Council of Orange (among other sources). Consider that Second Orange was called to deal with the teaching of later followers of Pelagius – the one who said that we can merit salvation without the help of grace… The doctrine had been refined to “semi-Pelagianism,” which still held that the first grace could be earned by our natural powers. This is an extremely attractive position. After all, if we don’t – or even worse, can’t – earn salvation through what we are born with, how else would God’s creative and salvific action be fair? How can we really be free if we are unable to choose the good on our own? Wouldn’t that mean that the Commandments are cruel taunts of an evil god who created some people just so that He could send them to Hell? What would human action even be for at all in such a paradigm? These are the questions at the center of the debate, and they are not easily answered, including from Scripture. (For instance – are we speaking here of Christ knocking on the door, or are we ourselves knocking on the door? See Matthew 7:7 vs. Revelation 3:20… The Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians certainly had strong Scriptural arguments at their disposal. Debates such as this help prove the inadequacy of “sola scriptura” – see my post on that topic here.) Anyway, shall we take a look at a few of the canons of Second Orange? The few readers interested enough can go compare these with his rather wild, tedious, and repetitive accusations that the Catholic Church is guilty of what amounts to a legalistic Pelagianism…

“If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), and, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).”

“If anyone affirms that we can form any right opinion or make any right choice which relates to the salvation of eternal life, as is expedient for us, or that we can be saved, that is, assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truth, he is led astray by a heretical spirit, and does not understand the voice of God who says in the Gospel, “For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and the word of the Apostle, “Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5).”

“God loves us for what we shall be by his gift, and not by our own deserving.”

Does this sound Pelagian or legalistic to you?

Anyone wishing to study in detail this issue will find plenty of information (and further references) in the commentary on grace by my own university’s most prestigious professor emeritus, the late Fr. Reginal Garrigou-Lagrange: here. The topic is not at all simple, because the human soul is not simple to begin with, and sin has only complicated it. Add to this the transcendence and inscrutability of God’s inner judgments about how to dispense grace, and we are off to the races.

To simplify these things (and almost every other issue in theology and law), which heresy invariably does, is to ignore the reality of competing truths: human freedom (and the ability to choose what is truly good), and human corruption and weakness (due to the Fall from the original state of Adam in Eden). The many heresies on grace and works basically sacrifice one for the sake of the other. Protestants basically choose human corruption over human freedom. The call to “be free” is actually a call to resign to one’s inability to do good – which is to lead one to resist sufficient grace.

The cruelest particular error which the Protestant heresy brings to the world is that the Commandments are impossible to follow, and thus they are not required for salvation. Apparently, the New Testament is speaking in vain with practically every other line – or God has set up a wicked game where we are forced to do evil which we will be punished for unless we just happen to believe (which is itself something that we do, lest we forget) that Jesus rose from the dead (and other items which, in this case, derive from no symbol or creed in particular – and all of which the demons also believe and tremble at and thereby profit nothing). If we don’t actually have to love our enemy, if we don’t actually have to refrain from anger, if we don’t actually have to forgive others, if we don’t actually have to give thanks to God, if we don’t actually have to… well, you get the idea. Half of the sense of the New Testament is precisely that we do indeed have the grace available to us to follow the Commandments, and thus if we should fail and not earnestly seek God’s forgiveness after failure, we condemn ourselves by choosing that sin over the love of God. We can, however, do much more than simply avoid grievously offending our greatest Friend – we can live the Beatitudes. We can live a common life of poverty. We can enter into a radical relationship of obedience, destroying our own will so as to serve God better. We can forego marriage so that we are freer for the love of God and His work. These things were preached by the Savior and the Apostles, and they are also practiced to great effect in our own day. One ought especially see the Lord’s interaction with the Rich Young Man (a story present in all the synoptic Gospels)… “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is, of course, to follow the Commandments, the most basic rules of charity and justice (a theme which is reiterated in the Epistolary tradition which follows, especially in the Johannine corpus). But, if objective perfection is sought, and in the case of the Rich Young Man it was possible (or else Christ would not have offered the special invitation to “follow,”) then greater freedom from the world is necessary… Perhaps the Rich Young Man made it to Heaven. But how much greater would his harvest have been, how much more fruit would he have borne, how much heavier would have been his glory, if he had sold his property and joined up with the Twelve? Apparently, none, according to the ethic I am here critiquing, even though this is confirmed in Christ’s assurance to the Twelve that those who have left social and material wealth will receive a hundred times more than those who have not, as He does in Matthew 19. The Rich Young Man was just “saved” or “not saved,” depending on his subsequent faith in the Resurrection and – I guess his belief in the supreme authority of the Bible, a book which would not exist for quite a while. The prescription to follow the Commandments was unnecessary, and the invitation to follow more closely in a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience was even more unnecessary. The words of the Lord, then, were quite in vain. How asinine a position. If the 10 Commandments were impossible to follow, they would be the 10 Suggestions. In truth, the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience are “Suggestions.”

For some verses which stress the importance of “works” (as in not committing grievous sins which reject God’s love in such a way that we destroy our friendship – our charity – with Him, depriving ourselves of a “trajectory” toward Heaven, which is the consummation of that friendship), one might begin with: Gal 5:6, 6:6-10; Phil 2:12; 1 Cor 6: 9-10, 13:2 (ESPECIALLY THIS ONE!); 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 2:6-10, 13, 3:31; Mt 25:32-46; Rev 20:12; 1 Jn 2:3-4; 1 Jn 3:24; 1 Jn 5:3… But pretty much, turn to any page of the New Testament, and you will see God telling us: “You need to LOVE as I have instructed, or you will lose your soul to Hell!” Love is the greatest commandment… Love God, love neighbor. The thought that what the law and the prophets are built upon, and which Christ gives as a “new commandment” (“love one another as I have loved you” Jn 13:34), is just icing on the proverbial cake, is quite blasphemous. It makes God into a vain talker at best, and a liar at worst.

Salvation is not about doing enough good works to earn it… but it is about loving God, which is His own life operating within us. When we act contrary to the letter or spirit of the Commandments, we remove that life, even though we might retain faith.

But does faith just mean loving God? Doesn’t a believer do good works just because they are good to do on account of how we have been loved by God? Perhaps some people operate this way. (Atheists often say something similar, and they will claim moral superiority by it… Strange, huh?) Faith, as it is strictly understood, is not the same as doing everything such belief would urge one toward doing. In a broad sense, the sense of total fidelity, faith does imply action based on the love of God. But if we insist on the latter meaning, then we end up with an absurdity: anyone who sins can’t possibly have faith. After all, if one really believes that it is best to follow the Commandments and love God with one’s whole heart, mind, and soul, how could that person ever do something wicked? It’s simple: we allow ourselves to be blinded to the truth from moment to moment through spiritual distraction. (It is this reality of blindness which differentiates our actions from those of the angels, who are confirmed in glory or damnation immediately upon their first action, good or bad – we can come to see that we made a wrong decision, while an angel chooses with complete knowledge with the meaning of the choice in itself and also of the consequences.)

Canon law is another perpetual target on the blog. One of the most recent posts details the supposed “dilemma” with which Catholics are faced by the overlapping of Ash Wednesday with Valentine’s Day – which I told the author would be a hilarious, bizarre, and irrelevant critique to any Catholic who heard it. What on Earth is complicated about this? We have a memorial of a saint which people in the West usually associate with romance, and we also have the beginning of Lent which requires fasting and abstinence for certain people, which are categories that can easily be checked.

But the problem with positive ecclesiastical law goes much deeper, I think. Why all the “extra” laws and rules? “Nobody could ever follow all of these rules! And so many just ignore them anyway!” That is just about the whole argument… Shall we unpack it?

The Church, as Christ’s Mystical Body, participates in His triple office of priest, prophet, and king. The first regards the authority to sanctify the people of God through the dispensation of grace through the sacraments. The second regards the authority to teach in God’s own Name and with His own authority, namely, infallibly. The third regards the authority to bind the people of God for the good of the order of the Church and the health of Her members. This third one is the source of ecclesiastical law. (“Ecclesiastical law” is a narrower term than “canon law,” as canon law also includes some Divine law. For example, it is canon law that baptism cannot be repeated – but this is a law directly from God, not a law from the Church’s own initiative.) Law is essentially about leading human beings to virtue, and canon law is no different. It also provides rules for what would otherwise be left to a chaotic soup of choices – just like we are told, “Drive on the right side of the road.”

The Church legislates positive and negative laws (“do this” and “don’t do that”) which do not exist in Scripture (or elsewhere in revelation) but which She does see as good for the whole or for the part. Fasting and abstinence laws, for example, are constructed to impose a minimal exercise of self-denial. Self-denial is a basic part of Christian life, and therefore, it is only fitting that the Church, as a caring Mother, would require at least a little bit from her members. Because of the serious and clear character of the obligation, it is a serious offense to dispense oneself for no good reason. Just as a natural parent can bind natural children, so too can the Church, a supernatural parent, bind Her supernatural children. And even though some kids don’t want to eat vegetables, or refuse to do their chores, or throw temper tantrums because they can’t play with their toys all the time, a good parent will make rules nonetheless which directly address these problems.

Ecclesiastical laws, however, and especially positive laws, certainly do not bind under every circumstance. (Not even Divine positive law always binds – thus was the Sabbath made for man, and not the other way around!) There are plenty of exceptions, and sufficient ignorance of ecclesiastical law can also excuse from guilt for breaking it.

I can hear the protesting now… “Silly human laws! Ha! So complicated! It’s impossible to figure out all those Catholic laws!” To which I respond – okay…? Any time there is a command and someone who seeks to follow that command, the command must necessarily be interpreted. As the issues which require the guiding hand of law grow more numerous, and the circumstances also increase in variety, the difficulty of interpretation will also rise. Look at civil laws… We certainly need those, right? And civil laws are always clear, yes? No. And that’s why the settling of certain difficult cases can “make law,” so to speak. But the fact is that Christ did not seek to establish an earthly kingdom, and so He left us to determine most temporal (and usually prudential) laws ourselves, both within the Church and in the civil sphere. (Where does the Bible tell us which side of the road to drive on? How long robbers deserve to be in prison? What a fair tax rate is? These kinds of questions exist within the Church’s governance and administration as well, like how to appoint someone as a pastor of a parish, for example…) The Apostles clearly thought that it was their responsibility to govern… To “bind and loose,” as it were. See Acts especially, but also the Pauline corpus. Why is there no complaint about Paul adding up laws on top of what Christ commanded?

“It’s Scripture,” goes the objection. But this does not change the fact that the Apostles actually gave laws which were temporal and prudential. We do not require women to cover their heads in churches today… Why? It’s commanded of the women in Corinth, after all, and it’s in the Bible, so why do we tolerate anything else if this is the only source of law? This is why the authority of the pope to “bind and loose,” and the Church’s extraordinary (and universal ordinary) magisterium to interpret Scripture infallibly, are so important, along with the authority of local bishops to govern the territory given to their care. If all we had was a big book written in ancient languages which we knew was free of error, we would have a much, much larger task on our hands than someone who has everything prepackaged in a codified law.

Furthermore, the vast majority of canon law is either intuitive (i.e. that clerics are the ordinary ministers of baptism), is easy to learn in a basic and practical way (i.e. consanguinity and affinity restrictions on marriage), or is pretty much irrelevant to the average layman at any given time (i.e. how to run a seminary).

The author also seems fascinated with Pope Francis, specifically, with the in-fighting surrounding Amoris. Close followers of this blog need no reminder of my position regarding the legal and moral aspects of the debate… I recounted my opinions in a series here, and there is really no meaningful update, other than to say that the appearance of the Buenos Aires document in the Acta does not meaningfully change the objective situation at all, though it certainly might have changed the prudential situation “on the ground.” I will not even bother to go further than that – those interested in the topic can comment on the series I wrote on the apologia of the document. Suffice it to say that his treatment is – no surprise – lacking in the necessary subtleties to be at all useful and therefore is not even worth critiquing. (I may, however, do a post eventually on my own take on the possibility of heresy in the Petrine office, looking at Bellarmine’s position and others’, careful to be sure to make the material-formal distinction, which is of course nowhere to be found in the author’s investigation of the subject.)

Okay. I could go on (and on and on and on!), but that is enough, as so much of his content is the same tune played on different strings, time and time again. I invite him, his fans, or other Protestants to tell me where I’m wrong and start an open and respectful discussion.

Covenant Communities, PART III: My Own Bright Ideas

Eamonn Clark

See PART I, PART II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apolog-etc. – Episode #1

Eamonn Clark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do I think the Bible comes from?

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

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

Why and how can there be disagreements about all this?

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

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

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

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

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

A link to the article.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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