Covenant Communities, PART III: My Own Bright Ideas

Eamonn Clark

See PART I, PART II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eamonn Clark

See PART I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See PART III

 

Main image: Maryland flag

Covenant Communities, PART I: The Beguinage Option

Eamonn Clark

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

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

What could go wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s ask some questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See PART II

 

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

Apolog-etc. – Episode #1

Eamonn Clark

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

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

[BEGIN QUOTE]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do I think the Bible comes from?

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

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

Why and how can there be disagreements about all this?

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

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

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

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

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

A link to the article.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have You Heard the Bad News?

Eamonn Clark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the Church Really in a Crisis?

Eamonn Clark

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

The Church is a crisis.

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

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

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

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

Let’s pray, too.

Sancti Obscuri – St. Crispin and St. Crispinian (October 25)

Jacob Gruber

In Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, King Henry overhears a soldier lamenting how few men have come from England to fight in a battle against the French at the Battle of Agincourt, leaving their odds of carrying home a win rather low. He responds with a bold appeal to all the courage left in the hearts of that “band of brothers” who did show up for battle and unites the hope of their victory with the celebration for all time of St. Crispin and Crispianus (Crispinian). It’s worth the watch:

Fictional though this speech may be, the king’s prediction seems to have unfortunately come true: “and Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by from this day to the ending of the world but we in it shall be remembered!” In this article, it is my hope that on the feast of Crispin and Crispinian this year (October 25), Crispin and Crispinian themselves will be remembered for once!

These two saints lived the in middle of the third century in the Roman empire. Allegedly, they were brothers from a noble Roman family. The story from the Bollandists (from which the Catholic Encyclopedia draws their information in the case of these men) tells us that they went to Soissons in Gaul together to preach the faith. While there, they supported themselves financially primarily by making shoes. Their missionary work there was so effective, however, that it caught the attention of the high Roman authorities. A short historical detour is necessary at this point.

Crispin and Crispinian lived in the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Any Christian familiar with some Roman history should be feeling the shiver run down their spine – this man was ruthless. He was Roman emperor from 284 to 305 AD, and in his rule he initiated one of the biggest, cruelest persecutions in early Church history (which is no small statement when the bloodbaths of Emperors Nero and Decius are taken into account). So bad was Diocletian’s persecution that, before Anno Domini (AD) came into fashion for marking years, the Christians (especially of the Alexandrian Church) used Anno Martyrum (AM), or the Era of the Martyrs, to mark their years. The Anno Martyrum system began year 1 in 284 AD – the beginning point of Diocletian’s reign and persecution.

With this in mind, consider that Crispin and Crispinian were preaching the Christian faith rather effectively at this time in Gaul, an important territory of the Roman empire. It did not take long at all for some action to happen. In the year 285 AD (or the year 2 in the Anno Martyrum), Maximianus Herculius, who had been made a sort of co-emperor with Diocletian, called the two men before him. After his efforts to persuade them to give up the faith, they responded,

“Thy threats do not terrify us, for Christ is our life, and death is our gain. Thy rank and possessions are nought to us, for we have long before this sacrificed the like for the sake of Christ and rejoice in what we have done. If thou shouldst acknowledge and love Christ thou wouldst give not only all the treasures of this life, but even the glory of thy crown itself in order through the exercise of compassion to win eternal life.”

Maximianus handed them over to Rictiovarus, the Gallic governor, who had them tortured terribly – stretched on a rack and flesh torn, among other horrible inflictions. After all of this, he had millstones fastened to their necks and had them thrown into the Aisne River. Miraculously, they managed to swim to safety. The Roman Martyrology succinctly finishes the story: “after [these] horrible torments, they were put to the sword, and thus obtained the crown of martyrdom.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia questions some of the credibility of this story, since its sources may be somewhat unreliable. However, we must examine a certain important principle in the matter of saintly stories, since credibility will always loom as an issue in the stories of the obscure saints. I simply quote a section from St. Francis de Sales’ Treatise on the Love of God in which he defends the practice of believing holy stories:

“Charity willingly believeth all things; that is, it is not so quick to believe that any one is lying, and if there are no apparent marks of falsehood in things which are told, it makes no difficulty about believing them; but above all when they are things which exalt and magnify the love of God towards men, or the love of men towards God … in matter of religion, good souls have more sweetness in believing things in which there is more difficulty and admiration.” (Chapter XII)

By means of this argumentation, St. Francis de Sales was insisting that a certain miraculous story told in a homily by St. Bernard could be believed, even though he simply had no evidence whatsoever to prove it. We are in a similar situation. We’ve been handed a story of the miracles and martyrdoms of Crispin and Crispinian with only the written testimony of writers centuries later to show for it. But the good souls have more sweetness to believe stories such as these. Our charity willingly believes all of these things.

Thus,  I would suppose that we can accept the story handed onto us from the works of the Bollandists – but I’ll leave that up to the reader.

So, what if Crispin and Crispinian hadn’t fallen into obscurity? They are already known as patron saints of shoemakers, saddlers, and tanners. But their legacy is more than cobbling. While the modern imagination tends towards Shakespeare’s reference in “Henry V,” it turns out that this reference is not so far from the original spirit of these men. The Battle of Agincourt was a battle in which England triumphed against great odds over France in 1415 AD. But Saints Crispin and Crispinian in their own way triumphed against great odds in France (Gaul at their time), albeit in a spiritual battle for souls.

So let us hail them today as victors all the same! May St. Crispin and St. Crispinian pray for us!

Even More on Theological Censures

Eamonn Clark

Today’s post on censures, I am discovering in my private research, was a little bit lacking in precision and scope.

It could be labeled with several censures of its own, perhaps!

With that, I will provide a few additional distinctions and corrections (some of which have been added to the original post – email subscribers, I’m looking at you!), and some links for your perusal. My posts are certainly not exhaustive of this rather complicated subject. I encourage you to do your own research on this stuff and to get back to me and tell me my two posts are [insert Latin word here] and why.

Theological notes: a system of categorizing theological propositions according to their level of authority. Take a look at this useful chart, which also describes censures which might be fairly attached (and the sin which goes along with it, supposing sufficient knowledge and freedom in what one is doing). There ten notes, ranging from dogma to probable opinion.

Opinio tolerata: a tolerated opinion which is not probable (having significant evidence in favor of its truth). It could be called an eleventh theological note. Pious legends would come under this category, along with something like, “This was the veil of the Virgin Mary.”

De fide: There are three classes of de fide propositions. The first is de fide divina et ecclesiastica/Catholica (divine and ecclesiastical/Catholic faith), which is also simply and properly called “dogma.” Second is de fide ecclesiastica definita (definite ecclesiastical faith). The third is de fide divina (divine faith). The first kind of de fide proposition is that which is both revealed directly by God and has been solemnly declared as such by the Church. An example is, “Priests can confect the Eucharist.” The second category of de fide proposition, definite ecclesiastical faith, is a solemn declaration of the Church which, while infallible, is not dogmatic. In this case, God reveals through the Magisterium in a binding way without constituting a distinct item within the deposit of faith. One example is the sacramental efficacy of receiving Holy Communion under one species. Another, I suggest, would be the canonization of saints – a post is forthcoming on this interesting question. (For more on ecclesiastical faith, which is somewhat of a controverted topic, click here.) The third is what is revealed by God but not solemnly defined by the Church, often because there has been no significant controversy and therefore no need for such a definition. An example might be, “The Holy Spirit was present in a special way in the Upper Room at Pentecost.” The first two kinds of de fide propositions are matter for heresy. Contradicting immediately and directly (viz., without a mixture of any natural or derivative propositions) the first kind is heresy simply speaking, and with the second kind it is heresy against ecclesiastical faith. The third kind is matter for error in faith, as opposed to error in theology (which is simply a misapplication of certain principles – like the validity of the vernacular Novus Ordo).

De fide doctrines on morals: It seems difficult to speak about morals in a de fide way outside of the plain sense of the Ten Commandments due to their complexity and relation with natural truths. I would love to find some sources that explore this topic more in-depth.

Different lists of censures: There seems to be some differences between the old Catholic Encyclopedia’s enumeration and description of censures and Fr. Cartechini’s (the table of theological notes), even just regarding the teachings themselves (first category). Perhaps there is more than one way to skin a cat – or label a bad theological idea – which might depend on the purpose and resources of the body issuing the censures.

Maybe it is time to bring back these old distinctions and the discussions surrounding their particulars. Maybe it is time for the United States especially to have an operational Inquisition – that is, a canonical court specifically designed to investigate credible charges of heresy and error. The USCCB sort of has this in its Doctrine Committee, but maybe they could “turn up the volume.” The system we have now seems to provide too little too late.

Just some thoughts.

 

Heterodox Does Not Mean Heretical

Eamonn Clark

Update: See Dr. Ed Peters take on this issue (in a better way, taking up the issue of “refraining from proclaiming truth”) here.

In an earlier post I examined the beleaguered (and yes, still deserving of charity) Fr. James Martin, SJ’s denunciation of the rash use of the label “heretic,” together with some extremely suspicious Christology.

I actually agree with him regarding his claim that he is not a heretic (at least according to law, which involves outward signs revealing what is within the soul). This is with respect to his Christology and even with his homosexualist agenda. Nor does his shocking (but not quite totally direct) endorsement of apostasy rise to the level of “heresy,” I suggest. Of course, I also think these things are awful and deserve serious attention from the appropriate ecclesiastical authorities. Until such a time as those offices give that attention, and as long as “Martin Mania” continues, may I offer some selected thoughts on how to navigate this alarming controversy and propose the wide-spread resurgence of the use of a timeless treasure of the Church – hopefully in an “official” way?

Theological censures.

A theological censure is a kind of warning – or judgment – about a teaching or a written work. A local bishop, a special commission, a Roman congregation, or the pope himself might issue a censure. A censure says that a teaching or work is heterodox (at odds with the truth in any of a variety of ways) and/or dangerous to the moral life of those who might encounter it. Works that receive bad enough censures might be put on an index of forbidden literature, and teachings might be condemned in the form of a syllabus. Theological censures are still used today but not nearly as much as they used to be. While there is some danger with them (such as descending into incessant hair-splitting or losing a sense of theology’s purpose, such as was happening with the overuse of manuals), it seems an opportune moment to begin at least talking about popularizing this tool once more.

Suppose a Jesuit writes a book with imbalanced emphases, a bold assertion about rewording the Catechism, and generally scandalous phrases which tend to affirm sinners in their sin. What censures might be relevant?

There are three broad classes of censures which could possibly be placed on any work, or even propositions within a work. The first regards the importance of the teaching’s object itself, the second regards the mode of expression of that teaching, and the third regards the moral character of the teaching itself and its foreseen practical consequences for morals. (There is another means of categorizing censures, viz., according to the relevant “theological note”, but this is the simpler method and allows an easier way to admit the third category mentioned here.)

The first category is where we find the term “hæretica,” meaning “heretical.” It is the highest censure that can be placed on a teaching or work. A heretical teaching is one which directly and immediately contradicts a doctrine “de fide” (or dogma), a truth revealed by God which must be believed (“credenda”) with divine and Catholic faith. To say, “God is four Persons,” or “Christ had only a human nature,” or “the Eucharist is not substantially Christ,” or “the Commandments are impossible even for one in grace,” would be heretical. It is very, very difficult to earn this stamp of disapproval. The too frequent use of the word “heresy” is a bit like the casual use of bad language – it empties it of its power, and it should be discouraged. It is quite difficult to commit the sin of heresy, and it is even more difficult to commit the outward crime which can be judged by the Church publicly as such. The latter requires outward, explicit, and obstinate confession of a proposition directly contrary to a de fide truth/dogma.

Are there dogmas regarding morals? Yes. I contend it is dogmatically certain that murder is immoral, as it is expressly condemned in Scripture and denounced by the ordinary magisterium of the Church in an infallible way, that is, consistently and universally throughout the entire history of the Church. It would be heretical to support murder as such. On the other hand, it would be more difficult to say that the immorality of abortion is a dogma, as it is at least somewhat debatable that the ordinary magisterium has consistently and universally enough maintained that unborn life in all its stages is truly human and therefore inviolable. The naturally available truth of the humanity of the embryo, now completely evident, confirms that abortion does indeed constitute murder. But because we have to put these two truths together, one which is a dogma and one which is a natural truth related to it, to say abortion is immoral is not, in the strictest sense, heretical. One might put it in one of two categories: “erronea” (erroneous), supposing the humanity of the embryo is or was a sufficiently doubtfully applied natural truth, unlike an innocent adult (which, if taken away, would leave the 5th Commandment void of content altogether), or “hæresi proxima” (next to heresy or approaching heresy), if it is the case that one sees the humanity of the embryo as having been insufficiently doubtful to warrant the need for an additional truth on top of what is already implicitly contained in the Commandment. Either way, this is still a terrible label… To be in an error of faith, or to be next to heresy, should be frightening to the one putting forth the teaching, as it is still mortal sin. (Do take a look at the theological notes chart here, with more examples and explanations for all this.) Error regards things which still must be held (“tenenda”) by Catholics. The support of the legal recognition of same-sex unions as marriage would fall in one of these lower (but still binding) categories… It involves a dogma and a naturally available truth (called a “certa”), or it involves a truth immediately derived from the dogma which is “proxima fidei” (next to faith and commonly believed to be revealed, but without ever being the object of a formal enough definition). The dogma is that sacramental marriage is between a man and a woman, and the natural or derivative truth is that men are not women (and vice versa). Supporting homosexual marriage in law would be contradicting either a certa (mix of a truth from natural reason and a truth “de fide”) or to contradict the immediate derivative of the dogma itself. Heterodox? Yes. Heretical? No. (I tend to favor the label “erroneous,” but that’s too much to get into here.) And the vaguer the language becomes, the more difficult it is to levy a high censure rightly. To say something like, “There can be true love in a homosexual act,” is surely wrong in many ways, but it is vague enough to be far from deserving that worst of labels, “heresy.”

Returning to the example of abortion, the claim that so-called medical abortion or craniotomy (both of which destroy the child to save the mother) are licit procedures, given that such a condemnation is difficult to reconcile with the general affirmation of the morality of self-defense, could be called “errori proxima” (next to error): the contrary is able to be deduced from the right teaching on abortion. It would be “temeratia” (rash) to assert that the vast majority of abortions are only venial sins on the part of the mother due to the distress of the situation. In no way is this clear, as the natural truths involved are not at all available to the one who makes this claim (so one must wonder at the reasoning), and so this is also at odds with the common opinion of theologians.

Propositions which just seem like heresy or error but can’t quite be charged with the other offenses might be labeled “sapiens hæresi/errori” (smacking of heresy/error) or even “suspecta de hæresi/errori” (suspected of heresy/error).

There are other qualifying labels which might be added, according to what kind of truth is being contradicted (Scriptural, credal, moral, etc.), but this will do for our investigation of the first category.

The second regards the way a teaching is put forth. Even true teachings could be censured in this way. A proposition may be “ambigua” (ambiguous), for example, leaving itself wide open to bad interpretation. “Protestants should be welcomed into the Catholic Church,” might be an example… Surely, entrance into full communion should be done in a welcoming way, but we should not simply begin treating Protestants as part of the Catholic Church.

Statements might also be “captiosa” (captious), “male sonans” (evil-sounding), or, my favorite in this category, “piarum aurium offensiva” (offensive to pious ears). The first uses unobjectionable language to forward an objectionable agenda (“Priests might be allowed to marry one day.”) The second is when inappropriate words are used to express truths (use your imagination). The third simply shocks the sensibilities of Catholics, though it may well be true. (See my post on Jesus and the Aliens, which arguably comes under this category. I claim there that our sacramental economy could not incorporate extraterrestrial life because aliens are not descended from Adam. The short and “offensive” version is, “Jesus can’t save aliens.”)

The third category describes what a teaching does that is morally wrong or encourages that is morally wrong. They are rather self-explanatory. The category includes but is not limited to “subsannativa religionis” (derisive of religion), “decolorativa canodris ecclesiæ” (defacing the beauty of the Church), “subversia hierarchiæ” (subversive of the hierarchy), “arrogans” (arrogant), “scandelosa,” “perniciosa,” “periculosa in moribus” (scandalous, pernicious, dangerous to morals), which might include “blasphema” (leading to blasphemy), “magica” (leading to sorcery), “idolatra” (leading to idolatry), etc., etc.

Hopefully this will serve as a decent primer on this important and seemingly neglected area of Church governance and teaching.

What censures might some of Fr. James Martin, SJ’s countless articles, tweets, books, and speeches rightly be labeled with? Many, for sure, but that would be for the lawful authorities of the Church to determine and pronounce. Though I do not think that anything I have seen warrants that highest and worst label hæretica.

But that is surely nothing to brag about.

Comments are closed. See follow up here.

 

Main image: Detail of an icon of Nicaea I

Sancti Obscuri – St. Porphyrius (September 15)

Jacob Gruber

​If you were asked off the top of your head to name five saints of the Catholic Church, who would come to mind? St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Padre Pio, or St. Francis of Assisi? Perhaps St. John Paul II or Mother Teresa? But what about St. Euphemia or St Paphnutius? Surely St. Iphigenia made it somewhere on the list?

​If these latter names don’t ring any Church bells for you, this new column may be right for you. It’s no secret that we have “saint celebrities.” If you’ve lost an item, you think to pray to St. Anthony, not St. Abundantius. If you want help in discernment, you probably prefer St. Therese’s roses to St. Rosalia’s. But what about these other saints? Don’t they have something to teach us, to inspire us with, to remind us?

​This new column, “Sancti Obscuri,” will look at different saints who, for one reason or another, have become obscure to the modern Catholic imagination. The posts won’t be exhaustive, considering how historical obscurity tends to coincide with a paucity of source material. But if these forgotten men and women have received the crown of sainthood, then they have a story worth hearing. (They know something of Thomas Jefferson’s exasperation in this old “Simpsons” episode, “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington.”)

Our first “sanctus obscurus,” St. Porphyrius, shares a feast day with Our Lady of Sorrows on September 15. In his life, however, he would not have known what to do with a celebration of a “Lady of Sorrows.” By profession, he was a comedian, a mimic, a famous jester. He was a prevailing voice of the remnant of paganism in the post-Constantine Roman Empire, offering to those who hadn’t accepted Christianity a sufficient mockery of its tenets. People expected comedy and corruption from him, certainly not conversion. Yet, as we will see, he was a man who, within a day, went from mimicry to martyrdom, profanation to profession. Before we tell his story, some background is in line.

His story begins best with the story of Julian the Apostate, who, given the spoiler alert in his name, didn’t care for Christianity very much. In the years following the death of Constantine the Great in 337AD, a barrage of complicated politics had plagued the leadership of the vast Roman Empire. Fast forward a couple of decades, and in 361AD one “Flavius Claudius Julianus,” a nephew of Constantine, arose as sole emperor. His reign was to be short (only 20 months), but not without activity.

Although Christianity for almost 50 years had enjoyed political freedom and support from the emperor, the rule of Julian loomed as a serious threat. Though he was a Christian for the first 20 years of his life, he came to reject the Lord and choose instead the “way of Helios” (see his Letter 47). Julian the Apostate envisioned a return to the Roman paganism of old, a religious atmosphere marked by highly syncretistic polytheism, unified, as it were, under the banner of being ‘not Christian.’

When Julian heard of the fame of Porphyrius the Mimic whose specialty was mocking Christians, he had him brought in to entertain the royal court. Everything was set up for a successful show. The audience was eager to be entertained at Christianity’s expense, and Porphyrius had put together a special play; he was going to mock the Mystery of Baptism.

The show was a riot, eliciting raucous laughter to be sure. Things seemed to be lining up perfectly. The climax of the action involved a mock-baptism scene with fake clergy dressed in liturgical garb immersing the “catechumen,” Porphyrius, into some water.

He ceremoniously pronounced that he would now be a follower of Jesus Christ, “in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” before being immersed. But something happened when Porphyrius entered the water. Submerged in that moment, Porphyrius felt the summons of actual grace, a call to serious conversion. Coming out of the water, he announced his decision to all present that he wished to be a Christian and would no longer mock the Living God. But, while he had his metanoia, the emperor was simply annoyed. The Roman Martyrology sums up best what happened next:

“Forthwith, by order of the emperor, he was struck with an axe, and thus crowned with martyrdom.”

​Struck with the extraordinary work of divine grace, he managed to get struck also by the work of human anger. Having given over his heart to Jesus, he gave his head to the emperor. Thus is the story of the great Martyr Porphyrius. Once a jester before secular courts, he was to become a martyr in the heavenly courts.

​As for Julian the Apostate, his hopes for a revival of Roman paganism would not find widespread success. In 363AD, following Julian’s military death, Emperor Jovian took the emperor’s throne and restored the faith of the Roman Empire to Christianity.

​Suppose St. Porphyrius hadn’t slipped into obscurity in modern spirituality. Comedians and performers would have a ready patron, and the whole Church would have a better sense of God’s poetic justice. As it is, let us at least take the lesson to have sincere reverence for the truth and all holy things even when it puts us in rather difficult situations. Don’t forget to invoke his intercession every September 15!

May St. Porphyrius pray for us, and teach us true reverence for the Lord!