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):

Slope Slipped: the Normalization of Polyamory

Eamonn Clark, STL

People sometimes make the defensive claim that “what happens in my bedroom is none of your business.” In one sense that’s correct. However, it turns out that how the next generation comes into existence is of massive public interest, because that generation constitutes the make-up of the future society. Bracketing the question-begging argument that they will likely be taught bad marriage/sexual behavior, one wonders what the psychological effects are of certain innovations are. For example, IVF and surrogacy constitute a sort of commodification of children – as if a child is a product, something to buy. While this is not how most would explain their behavior or their lived experience of being such a child, it stands to reason that the desperation which drives one to such a procedure is not the well ordered procreative generosity and trust in God’s providence proper to marriage but rather a kind of spirit of self-determination which is bold enough to presume to rip human life out of God’s hands. How does such an attitude spill over into other facets of life, and of child-rearing? I leave that question aside today. My main focus is something which still, thankfully, is a taboo in Western society – polyamory.

The first time most people heard the word “throuple” was on HGTV a few years ago.

There you go. HGTV is not exactly deep in the world of on-demand cable. It is pretty mainstream. (Watch the video on YouTube, and scroll through the comments. It is enlightening.)

Some readers (as one commenter pointed out) might be asking themselves about certain polyamorous Biblical marriage arrangements, among the patriarchs and some of the kings. There are a few points to make about this.

1 – The arrangements frequently lead to trouble of some sort. Pick up your Bible!

2 – The point of the concession/dispensation, or rather restraint from the development to a more refined application of the natural law (on its social level), was to allow for the propagation of the human race and especially God’s own people, the Jews. There is no longer such a need, so the concession ends and the developed state of society requires the full development or application of natural law. (More can be said on how this works – but it suffices to leave it at this for now. You can read St. Thomas on the question here… but I have summarized it for you.)

3 – The arrangements are always one male with many women – NEVER anything else. This follows from point 2… women are less fertile than men. Just as well, the payment of the marriage debt could be significantly impeded by pregnancy, whereas a man can be ready at almost any time. Furthermore, we always know who the mother is in any arrangement (leaving aside IVF etc.), but it does not follow that we (easily) know who the father is. That creates problems for the inclination towards caring for one’s children, one of the fundamental precepts of the natural law.

Now, just today I have seen this short reaction clip, which inspired the present post:

The way the pair explains themselves so calmly and confidently, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, is, to me, bone-chilling. They happened to have social misfortune of being picked up by a major political and cultural commentator, but otherwise they would have almost certainly been faced with nothing but well-wishes and heart emojis.

There’s a whole lot of this stuff online, some videos getting hundreds of thousands of hits. In one playlist on a channel (“Truly”) with almost 10 million subscribers, there are over 100 videos wherein one can peruse the various forms of polyamory and other odd arrangements – including a poor woman who says she is in love with a chandelier. (I didn’t link to it, as the lead video features a woman who seems to fear wearing clothing that properly covers her.)

These ideas are now being offered to your children as they browse the internet. Do you know what your kids are up to online?

I wrote a post a while ago critiquing a certain cardinal on his poor argumentation against one of the other last remaining sexual taboos, incest. (I can think of only 6 real, visceral sexual taboos that remain in the Western world at large – in no particular order, they are: incest, polyamory, zoophilia, necrophilia, pedophilia, and rape.) If we don’t really know how to talk about marriage to our kids, our students, our friends, our congregations, then HGTV will inform them that they have nothing to fear from throwing one more person into the relationship. After all, more love is better than less love, right? Who could deny that!?

These days, since aristocracy and monarchies are not so common, incest seems to be a problem primarily for the lower class. Polyamory, however, seems to be primarily for rich people. It is real decadence – a kind of “sex club” that one might get to join if they are just right.

As we careen toward the end of the line of sexual perversion, (and thankfully we are likely getting close to reaching it,) we can notice the effect it is having on children. Such behavior as polyamory is deeply narcissistic – that narcissistic tendency fits together with other behaviors and trends which destroy the authentic meaning of human sexuality, which is life-giving and self-demanding. The more one turns in on oneself sexually, the more will one be blinded and weakened in other parts of the moral and spiritual life, especially in prudence and in spiritual perceptiveness. The daughters of lust are split evenly between afflicting the intellect and afflicting the will. They are: blindness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, self-love, hatred of God, love of this world, and abhorrence or despair of a future world. These anti-values exhibited by parents will deform their children (if they have any), either through the kids imitating their parents or by the kids simply being left to themselves to figure things out. And so sin multiplies upon the earth. Thankfully, many such people don’t have children to corrupt, and if they do, their children might become so corrupted that the chain of sin ends with their own sterility, whether by self-mutilation, homosexuality, or a general inability to find someone willing to have children with them. In itself, it is tragic, but insofar as it is a case of evil slowly destroying itself, it is something to rejoice about.

In his second best known work, the Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas lays out the full argument for monogamy in marriage. In surrounding chapters, he goes into other dimensions of why marriage is what it is as well. Study up, my friends. The Devil knows the arguments – we need to as well.

St. Mary of Egypt, pray for us.

St. Paul and Building Bridges

Eamonn Clark, STL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s emphasize a few points.

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

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

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

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

Adventures in Casuistry: Episode 1 – Sanchez on the Marital Debt, Part 1

Eamonn Clark, STL

May I draw your attention to my newly expanded “research” tab, above on the top right. (Email readers, you have to go to the website itself to see). I have added many links to old manuals of moral theology. The authors are listed in no particular order, and they are mostly files accessible through Google Books. The first volume of what I think is the most relevant moral theology text is what I link to, but other volumes and works are searchable below in the “related” section. It is incredible what is available to all, for free.

Almost all of them are in Latin. And they are generally enormous books, meticulously organized, quite searchable, and, for someone whose mind is “wound tight,” they are extremely satisfying to read.

I have known of the manuals for a while, but only in the past few weeks have I really become seriously interested in working through them – in part because I discovered many of them are available for free online, but also because I have been working on some questions related to sexual ethics… I am astonished to find the wisdom on this topic in the older authors being so rich, so vast, and so entirely forgotten. It is a tragedy. (The blame mostly falls on the myriad of things going on in the 19th century, including, we must admit, the rise of neoscholasticism. The manuals in general started to fall out of favor around this time.)

Therefore, in order to make a small contribution to the recovery of the manualist tradition, which ought to be revived to some extent, and to help expose new students like myself to these treasure troves of theological acumen, I will be posting some texts from them once in a while, with a translation, maybe even a few comments.

Today, flowing from my studies on marriage and sexuality, we dive into Thomas Sanchez, SJ’s immense work on marriage, De Matrimonio, which is one of the most important texts on the topic in the history of theology. It is a HUGE work, divided into 10 books over 3 volumes, with hundreds of questions addressed. Today, we are looking at the introduction to Disputation VIII, in Book 9 (On the Marital Debt), which we find on page 193 of Volume 3.

I am working on my Latin… I start, I admit, with Google Translate, and I go from there. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of all my translations, so be aware of that. If you are a Latinist and want to help, please reach out! (NB: I also might skip over some of the citations which authors make, for simplicity’s sake. You can always just look at the text yourself if you want to know references.)

Sanchez, De Matrimonio, Liber IX, Disputatio VIII (Tomus III, 193) [“Introduction”]

Disputatio VIII: An actus conjugalis vitietur ratione finis ad quem referetur? Et specialiter si solum exerceatur propter bonum sacramenti: nempe, ad significandam conjunctionem Verbi cum carne aut Ecclesia?

Disputation VIII: Is the conjugal act corrupted by reason of the end to which it is referred? And especially if it is exercised only for the good of the sacrament, namely, to signify the conjunction of the Word with the flesh or the church?

Hactenus in genere disputavimus, qualiter sit licitus, et obliget conjugalis actus. Jam de circumstantiis, quibus vitiari solet, agendum est. Et primo de finis circumstantia, quae in actibus humanis primum locum obtinet. Et potest esse multiplex finis illius actus, nempe, prolis, reddere debitum, significatio unius Christi cum Ecclesia, aut cum carne, sanitas corporis, vitatio fornicationis, voluptas, aut alius finis extraneos. In praesentiarum disserimus conjugalis licitus est, relatus in bonum prolis, aut in fidei bonum: nempe, dum exercetur gratia prolis habendae, aut servandae fidei alteri conjugi reddendi ei debitum. Conclusio tanquam certissima statuitur a Magistro 4. d. 11 et D. Th. ili q. 2 . a. 2 et universis Theologis: et ab omnibus utriusque juris professoribus cum Gloss. e. Quidquid 31 q. 2. verb. Ab adulterio. Et constat de bono prolis. Quia cum Deus ad multiplicationem generis humani matrimonium instituerit, illo utens ad hunc finem peccare nequit: alias Deus aliquid illicitum instituisset. De bono etiam fidei constat. Quia tenentur conjuges ex justitia ad debitum sibi mutuo reddendum. Quia ergo, ut huic satisfaciat obligationi, ad conjugem accedit, tantum abest, ut peccet, ut potius opus virtutis et obligatorium faciat.

So far we have discussed in general how the conjugal act is lawful and how it binds. We shall now treat of the circumstances under which it is wont to be vitiated. First, the circumstance of the end, which takes place first in human acts. And there may be a manifold end of that act, namely, children, paying the debt, signifying Christ’s oneness with the Church, or with the flesh, the health of the body, the avoidance of fornication, the pleasure, or other external ends. In the present discussion, a married person is allowed to join in the good of the child, or in the good of faith, namely, when he exercises the influence of having a child, or of keeping the faith in return to the other spouse due to him. The conclusion is established as the most reliable by the Master 4. d. 11 and St. Thomas in q. 2 a. 2 and by all theologians. And it is clear about the good of the child. Because when God instituted marriage for the multiplication of the human race, one cannot sin by using it for this purpose: otherwise God would have instituted something unlawful. It is also evident of the good of faith. Because married couples are bound by justice to pay the debt to one another. And because, in order to satisfy this obligation, the man goes to his wife, so far from being a sinner, he rather does an obligatory work of virtue.

Observare tamen oportet minime sufficere, quod actus conjugalis culpae venialis immunis sit ex finis circumstantia, ipsum referre ad bonum prolis. Nam si in prole sistatur, desiderioque habendi successorem ea intendatur, culpa venialis erit: sed proles intendi debet ad cultum Dei amplificandum. Ratio est, quia alias staretur in creatura, nec bonum esset faeramenti. Natura enim bonum prolis intendit, ut in ipsa species conservetur: bonum autem sacramenti exposcit, ut referatur in Deum. Nec inde inferre licet motum naturae malum esse, sed esse imperfectum; nisi ad aliquod sacramenti bonum referatur. Sic D.Th. 4. d. 31 qu. 2 a. 2 ad. 1 Gerson. p.1 in compenio Theologiae tract. de sacramento conjugii, alphabeto 27 litera O. Tabiena Matrimonium 3 q. 2 s. 3

However, it is far from sufficient to observe that the act of a conjugal act is immune from venial guilt, from the circumstance of the end, that it relates to having a child. For if it is ordered towards having offspring, and it is motivated by an intense desire simply to have a successor, it will be a venial sin; but having offspring should be directed to enlarging the number of those worship of God. The reason is, that otherwise it would be only about creatures, and thus would not be well done. For while it is true that nature intends the good of the offspring to be preserved in the species itself, the good of the sacrament demands that it be referred to God. Nor is it lawful to infer from this that the motion of nature is evil, but only that it is imperfect unless it is referred to some sacramental good. Thus St. Thomas 4. d. 31 qu. 2 a. 2 ad. 1.

Nec tamen reminisci opus est in actu ipso conjugali alicujus ex finisbus licitis, sed satis est, si habitu referatur ad illos. Sicut juxta communem. Theologorum senten. id satis est ad meritum. Atque ita D.Th. et Tabien. num. praeced. allegati dicunt erigi, ut proles actu vel habitu referatur in Deum. Ita docent Veracruz 3 p. Speculi, art. 16. concl. 5. Matienz. lib. 5 recop.t.I.rubr.glos.I. n. 105. Led. 2 p.4.q.5 1. ad fi. Quare satis est, si a principio conjuges matrimonium inierint propter hos fines, nec intentionem ipso actu contrariam habeant, ut actus conjugalis in ipsos relatus censeatur. Ut bene docent Led. et Veracr. ibidem, qua de causa dicit Led. excusari conjuges a multis venialibus. Quod optime etiam explicuit Sylvest. verb. Debitum, quaest. 12. vers. 2 ubi dicens ut actus conjugalis meritorius si, referendam esse prolem ad Dei obsequium: subdit id esse verum, licet de obsequio divino nil cogitetur, sed solum de successore. Quia ex quo conjux est in gratia, nec malum finem intendit, virtute refert in Deum.

However, there is no need to remember anything from the lawful ends of the conjugal act itself, but it is enough if it refers to them in habit. It is approximately the general opinion of the theologians this is enough for merit. And St. Thomas and Tabien. say the same. Surely the preceding say that the procuring of offspring may be referred to God in act or habit. Therefore, it is sufficient that if couples from the beginning had entered into marriage on account of these ends, and they did not have an intention contrary to the act itself, then it would be considered related to their conjugal acts. See Veracruz, (ibid.). And it is for this reason which reason Led. says couples are excused from many venial sins. Sylvest. also explains this very well, where he says, that if the conjugal act were meritorious, that the offspring should be referred to the service of God, he adds, that it is true, even if nothing is thought of divine obedience, but only of a successor. Because since he is a partner in grace and does not intend an evil end, he refers the act virtually to God.

Next time, we will continue on with Sanchez and see what conclusions he draws from the foregoing.

Happy Easter, dear readers!

What is TikTok? A Primer for Clergy

Eamonn Clark, STL

Dear Fathers – if you are unaware of the pervasiveness and influence of TikTok, you are way out of the loop. If you have never heard of it, then I welcome you back to Earth from your mission to the International Space Station… A lot has changed in the years you have been gone.

This app presents an absolutely immense pastoral challenge which anyone engaged in parochial ministry – or any ministry involving youth or parents – ought to be aware of.

Below, I offer a series of videos which will get you up to speed on what this thing is, how it works, and some reasons why it is so dangerous.

TikTok was the most visited website in the world last year – more than Google. You really do need to know what it is.

What worse kind of poison to a good education in faith and morals could there be than a thing such as this? How will souls attached to this thing ever be led into the beginnings of contemplative life?

The video above is a basic introduction to what TikTok is.
Incentivizing bad behavior – a subtle political maneuver?
I’m giving three videos from this YouTuber. He runs a gaming channel, so some clips are from games… if it looks like a video game, that’s not TikTok.
Top 50 most liked TikToks (as of a few months ago)
#trans videos racked up a whopping 27 billion hits last year. Take a look at what the kiddos are watching and being formed by.
Some #christian TikToks
A self-described reel of “progressive Catholic” TikToks… Not necessarily a lot of hits/views relatively speaking, but the fact that there is such a thing as a “LeftCath” community/group pushing weird stuff which will reaffirm emotionally vulnerable and poorly catechized kids is its own cause for concern (see the video’s description).
Another take on the dangers of TikTok, especially for girls.

My recommendation for any pastor in the developed world would be to work with your youth minister on a way of combating this problem. Really, I would recommend that basically every pastor have a small group of trusted young people keep him informed once a month of the most significant goings-on in the world of youth media… TikToks, memes, top-40 music, blogs, etc., so that Father is aware of what on earth the kids are up to. But maybe a good pastoral moment could be had by hosting an open forum for parents to address concerns that they have, for Father to talk about concerns that he has, and for the youth minister to talk about concerns he or she has. You could even team up with other parishes in the deanery. It’s an idea.

Fathers… Come up with a plan. The Devil has one… and it’s this.

What is a “just cause” for using natural family planning?

Eamonn Clark, STL

I am on a really deep dive right now into the source material and several questions surrounding the use of “natural family planning” (NFP). There is a LOT on my mind… many questions, many distinctions, and maybe a few answers. While I will wait to share my findings – primarily, whether and why this practice as broadly taught is in principle legitimate, illegitimate, or needs more qualification – here I want to explore what a “just cause” is for the use of periodic continence or NFP in the first place.

Before looking at the documents, to summarize briefly, NFP involves tracking the fertility of the woman in order to know when she can conceive. The idea is that abstaining from relations during those fertile times, or, conversely, trying especially hard to conceive during the fertile times, will be more conducive to the familial goals of the spouses. There are a number of ways to do this, but the specifics of the methods are beyond the scope of this post.

The texts which will be quoted are going to make the point, in various ways, that only serious reasons justify the recourse to the exclusive use of natural infertile periods. (To give you a sneak-peek of my other work on this question, part of my hypothesis is that NFP can be compared with speech in various ways – broad mental reservations can be justified by legitimate reasons, but one needs to have a good reason for speaking in the first place, or else it is idle speech. Thus, NFP needs not only a serious reason in principle but also in the individual case of its use, i.e., the legitimate need for the relaxation of concupiscence, not just “recreation.” But I am getting ahead of myself.) These come after several responses from the Sacred Penitentiary about the issue, twice in the 1800’s and once in 1932, slowly opening the door to the practice. But here we are only concerned with “just causes” for the use of NFP, not the liceity of the practice in itself. (It is true the 1932 decision refers to “just and grave causes,” but there is no elaboration.) Here they are, in order of appearance. Emphases added.

Pius XII, Address to Italian Midwives, October 29, 1951:

“However if the limitation of the act to the periods of natural sterility does not refer to the right itself but only to the use of the right, the validity of the marriage does not come up for discussion. Nonetheless, the moral lawfulness of such conduct of husband and wife should be affirmed or denied according as their intention to observe constantly those periods is or is not based on sufficiently morally sure motives. The mere fact that husband and wife do not offend the nature of the act and are even ready to accept and bring up the child, who, notwithstanding their precautions, might be born, would not be itself sufficient to guarantee the rectitude of their intention and the unobjectionable morality of their motives.

The reason is that marriage obliges the partners to a state of life, which even as it confers certain rights so it also imposes the accomplishment of a positive work concerning the state itself. In such a case, the general principle may be applied that a positive action may be omitted if grave motives, independent of the good will of those who are obliged to perform it, show that its performance is inopportune, or prove that it may not be claimed with equal right by the petitioner—in this case, mankind.

The matrimonial contract, which confers on the married couple the right to satisfy the inclination of nature, constitutes them in a state of life, namely, the matrimonial state. Now, on married couples, who make use of the specific act of their state, nature and the Creator impose the function of providing for the preservation of mankind. This is the characteristic service which gives rise to the peculiar value of their state, the ‘bonum prolis’. The individual and society, the people and the State, the Church itself, depend for their existence, in the order established by God, on fruitful marriages. Therefore, to embrace the matrimonial state, to use continually the faculty proper to such a state and lawful only therein, and, at the same time, to avoid its primary duty without a grave reason, would be a sin against the very nature of married life.

Serious motives, such as those which not rarely arise from medical, eugenic, economic and social so-called “indications,” may exempt husband and wife from the obligatory, positive debt for a long period or even for the entire period of matrimonial life. From this it follows that the observance of the natural sterile periods may be lawful, from the moral viewpoint: and it is lawful in the conditions mentioned. If, however, according to a reasonable and equitable judgment, there are no such grave reasons either personal or deriving from exterior circumstances, the will to avoid the fecundity of their union, while continuing to satisfy to the full their sensuality, can only be the result of a false appreciation of life and of motives foreign to sound ethical principles.”

Pius XII, Address to the National Congress of the Family Front and the Association of Large Families, National Catholic Welfare Conference, Washington, DC, November 27, 1951:

On the other hand, the Church knows how to consider with sympathy and understanding the real difficulties of married life in our day. For this reason, in Our last address on conjugal morality, We affirmed the legitimacy and at the same time the limits – admittedly far-reaching – of regulating offspring, which, contrary to so-called “birth control”, is compatible with God’s law. One can indeed hope (but in this matter the Church naturally leaves judgment to medical science) that medical science will succeed in giving this licit method a sufficiently secure basis, and the most recent information seems to confirm this hope.

St. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, July 25, 1968

“If therefore there are well-grounded reasons for spacing births, arising from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that married people may then take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile, thus controlling birth in a way which does not in the least offend the moral principles which We have just explained. Neither the Church nor her doctrine is inconsistent when she considers it lawful for married people to take advantage of the infertile period but condemns as always unlawful the use of means which directly prevent conception, even when the reasons given for the latter practice may appear to be upright and serious. In reality, these two cases are completely different. In the former the married couple rightly use a faculty provided them by nature. In the latter they obstruct the natural development of the generative process. It cannot be denied that in each case the married couple, for acceptable reasons, are both perfectly clear in their intention to avoid children and wish to make sure that none will result. But it is equally true that it is exclusively in the former case that husband and wife are ready to abstain from intercourse during the fertile period as often as for reasonable motives the birth of another child is not desirable. And when the infertile period recurs, they use their married intimacy to express their mutual love and safeguard their fidelity toward one another. In doing this they certainly give proof of a true and authentic love.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2368

“For just reasons (de iustis causis), spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality.”

So those are the most relevant texts about motives for NFP. Here’s Christian Brugger’s take.

Here’s mine.

First, one ought to note the distinction between the use of periodic continence and abstinence. The documents do not drill into this difference, and it is a potentially significant difference. In the Speech to Italian Midwives, Pius XII seems to address both of these practices under the same aspect, but it is not clear that they are morally equivalent. For the sake of simplicity, we will only address the use of periodic continence, that is, the “normal way” of using NFP, which is not total abstinence, though it seems to me there is an extension of this argument, if only partial, into the use of total abstinence as well.

Second, the only malleable or truly subjective consideration seems to be the economic factor. There are broadly 4 kinds of things which can legitimately influence the decision to use periodic continence.

  1. Economic (we will come back to this)
  2. Social and psychological (considerations like: are you possibly facing a divorce? is there nobody helpful emotionally in your life? are there sources of psychological and emotional distress which you cannot escape from and which already impede your normal functioning?)
  3. Physical and medical (considerations like: is pregnancy dangerous for the woman? is it dangerous for the child, whether by miscarriage or by serious birth defect or congenital illness? are you too unhealthy to raise a child well?)
  4. External and eugenic (considerations like: is there a “one-child” policy that would force you to obtain an abortion? is there some other regime which would radically endanger your child, such as a warlord looking for child soldiers? are you in a war zone? does your spouse intend on doing some strange genetic modification treatment/experiment on the child if the child isn’t “right”?)

The economic factor is the most interesting and most subjective consideration. Clearly, all the factors listed require some amount of “phronesis,” or “practical wisdom,” meaning a kind of judgment based on experience and reasonable estimation of what the possibilities are in the future.

Most couples in the developed world, I would suggest, are infrequently facing issues 2 through 4, although they do exist – and when they obtain, it is relatively clear, though there could be some ambiguity.

The economic factor is what most couples probably think about. “Can we afford another child?” This is the question. By this, almost nobody in the developed world who lives above the poverty line means, “Can we actually feed, clothe, and house this child, and provide for his or her medical needs,” it is rather something more minor… “Can we still do all the things we enjoy, in the way we enjoy them, if we have another child?” This is prescinding from the first few years, which absolutely excludes any sort of frequent extended leisure for almost every couple except the “1%”.

Some would say, “You do not need another television/car/house/vacation,etc., be more generous,” and that is their whole solution. While plausible, I think that there is a better or at least more nuanced path forward. That path is an application of the doctrine of St. Thomas and the manualists following him on the distribution of one’s wealth, through almsgiving and justice.

Justice demands that we pay fair taxes on our wealth and financially help those closely connected to us when they are in extreme indigence. Charity demands that we give some small amount of our excess wealth to those whose need, while not extreme and urgent, is serious, whether directly or through some intermediary (like a philanthropic organization). However, this giving based on charity does not ever need to disadvantage one to the point where he or she would live in a way that is unbecoming to his or her social class. To live in a way that is unbefitting is actually sinful on St. Thomas’ account, and to give that which would risk putting one in such a situation can only be justified by extraordinary circumstances, such as the clear choice to change states of life (i.e., entering religious life, giving all of your property away), the extreme need of an individual or the common good, or the case where one could foresee the easy recovery of adequate wealth to live in the way one is generally accustomed to.

I would cautiously suggest the following thesis, which I may modify in the future… Justice demands that the married couple is open to life in virtue of being married, and, insofar as economics bears on the question, charity – even the virtue of religion – demands that they try to have children (or at least not try to avoid having children) when they would not be moved down a social class thereby. Charity and religion demand us to love our neighbor – and by extension, our potential neighbor – on account of God’s love for them. Religion demands fitting sacrifices for the glory and honor of God, which in this case means that couples always have at least a habitual intention to raise children to be pious worshipers of Christ. Justice means rendering the other what is due, which means both the mutual self-giving of the spouses’ bodies to each other, and also the “legal justice” (one of the three types of justice) of providing for the common good of the community by having and raising children.

Nobody ever regrets having a child. It only goes in the opposite direction, whether by not having one or by the even more tragic decision to kill them in the womb. But sometimes the peripheral effects of having a child are regrettable and even warrant the avoidance of what would occasion them, even though children are the primary point of marriage as an office of nature. This is an act of prudence and magnanimity… To be reckless here can be imprudent and presumptuous. Even though God will always provide the child what he or she needs for salvation, it is the role of the parents to participate appropriately in that task, which task can be greatly complicated in some cases. It does not become impossible to do the will of God in such circumstances, but one does in fact sin by putting themselves into a situation which is beyond their natural means and habitual graces, which are the primary tools of discernment here.

A corollary is: if you aren’t ready to have kids, don’t get married…

There is so, so, so much to talk about in this minefield of issues. I have plenty more to say. But I will just let this bomb drop for now. I am running an unofficial survey right now on people’s attitudes towards NFP in view of some other writing, including eventually here on these pages. Please leave a comment below telling us what your thoughts are. Do young married people of this generation “just not get it”? Are the documents missing something which could help illuminate the problem? How is NFP presented in your parish and diocese? Tell me everything, I am interested to hear. You can use the “Contact” tab too, if you want.

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Cardinal Marx is Right… But Mostly Not.

Eamonn Clark, STL

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

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

This is for a few reasons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hidden Idolatry in Our Midst

Eamonn Clark, STL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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