The Castration of a Sacrament

Eamonn Clark, STL

As subscribers might be picking up on, I have reached a point where I am starting to speak my mind a bit. This is for a few reasons. Thankfully, I am still prudent enough to keep those to myself… for now.

I have noted with interest since the Pan-Amazon synod the tendency of many “influential” figures in the Church to empty the sacrament of Holy Orders of one of its characteristic dimensions, or offices (“munera”)…

When Jesus is visited by the three Wise Men, they bring Him gifts representing His three offices, as Eternal High Priest: myrrh, representing priesthood or sanctification, frankincense, representing prophecy or teaching, and gold, representing kingship or governance.

As Ven. Fulton Sheen points out in one of the most mature of his works, “Those Mysterious Priests,” every priest is a “little Christ.” He participates in the ministry of Christ the Eternal High Priest. These “little Christs” therefore inherit His offices. They too are given gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Today, some want the gold to be withheld.

We saw this on display in the Pan-Amazon Synod in the suggestions of “reshaping” or “rethinking” the governance of the Amazonian local churches. Laity ought to be able to rule over the ecclesiastical territories and goods, while priests simply move around to preach and administer the sacraments… so goes the suggestion.

This is an attack on the integrity of the sacrament of Holy Orders. It is, in fact, a castration.

Let me put it bluntly. One of the deeper reasons why women cannot be priests is that it is more fitting for men to hold positions of governance. That’s not to say that women can never be good leaders, or should never be in charge of public affairs, etc. – but it is to say that this is a deviation from the norm, and world history bears this out. (I leave aside, perhaps for another time, the Western cultural experiment of women “in the workplace” in the sense proper to the West after the industrial revolution. In my opinion, it has not gone well.) The superiority of men for rule is for numerous reasons – psychological, physiological, sociological, and protological (these latter explaining or verifying the others). This hard truth flies in the face of contemporary Western culture, and yet it is right there in St. Paul’s exegesis of Genesis (1 Corinthians 11 – a complex text, for sure, but there is no getting around certain conclusions), among other places in Scripture. And it accords with the common experience and observation of basically all ages and cultures in world history. Men hunt, women gather – that means something for how society is going to work, let alone flourish. More physical strength and subsequent risk taken, more knowledge of the territory, more freedom when raising a child… it all entails a certain kind of right and fittingness to govern. And this is in fact the pattern even before real civilization began. It continues now, though it is a bit more complex.

The protological truths are where really good spiritual reflections can start. For instance, St. Thomas argues1 that a helper is made for Adam (who came first) primarily with respect to generation – he cannot populate the Earth by himself. Men and women, let it be known, have exponentially different capacities for generation. A man can rather easily have thousands of children in a lifetime and have plenty of time for other things (look at some of the pharaohs); a woman can have a few dozen. That is part of why, as I explored recently, polygamy only ever worked one way in the Bible, on account of the benefit of propagating the human race and propagating the Chosen People in particular. So, this is part of the natural power of Adam, and of males: to propagate the human race. Women are critical assistants in this essential task, but they have a far weaker power of generation. That is just biology.

This biological element of the dynamic between men and women in the context of Eden (along with some other elements which I won’t explore today) is a symbol for what the priesthood is. It is an office whereby spiritual propagation occurs by the personal grace of Christ working through the priest, in the Church, His Bride. Sure, Christ’s grace works instrumentally through any person helping another to be more virtuous, but the instrumentality of the priest is different – it is by his own rational initiative that he exercises his priestly ministry as such, infallibly calling upon God to work in him and through him. Like Joshua made the sun stand still, the priest celebrates the sacraments. “There has never been a day like it before or since, when the LORD listened to the voice of a man, because the LORD was fighting on behalf of Israel.” (Joshua 10:14) Really, it is more like when Christ prays to the Father to have a miracle worked, such as the raising of Lazarus: “So they rolled the stone aside. Then Jesus looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, thank you for hearing me. You always hear me, but I said it out loud for the sake of all these people standing here, so that they will believe you sent me.‘ Then Jesus shouted, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound in graveclothes, his face wrapped in a headcloth. Jesus told them, ‘Unwrap him and let him go!'” (John 11: 41-44) This is unlike the charity expressed in a kind word which efficaciously moves a soul to repentance – the causal structure is different. The person who is merely baptized does not “demand” the movement of grace in such an action.

Now, not only is celibacy under attack from those who cannot understand spiritual fatherhood and its ascetic components due either to worldliness, or bad theological education, or sinful lives of their own which they are trying to justify somehow, or outright contempt for the good of the Church, or a combination of these things; the governing function of clergy is being questioned at the highest levels of the Church Militant as well. Often, the same people will put forward both of these two very bad ideas. And, in the extreme cases, they might also propose that women be ordained.

See how it works? See where the root is?

All these things go back (at least in part) to misunderstanding the principle of Adam’s rule over Eve, in relation to Christ’s rule over the Church. Adam is a priest too, a kind of natural priest, the firstborn of material, rational, natural creation – extended later on in Scripture through the so-called “primogeniture” (firstborn) priesthood. Eve is his bride. That spousal dominion, which is “economic” rather than “servile,” we should note, preceded the Fall… it is not a result of sin. Thus, Christ, the New Adam, is a male. Those who participate singularly in His priesthood, who by their office represent His very Person in the administration of grace, truth, and POWER, must be male (and should ideally be celibate, concerned only with spiritual propagation, like Christ).

So we can now see an issue with Cardinal-elect Ghirlanda’s bewildering statement about the new possibility of laity running Roman dicasteries – he argues that it is not a problem, because the “power of governance in the Church does not come from the sacrament of Orders,” but rather from the “canonical mandate,” which, if he didn’t realize it, will always come back to a cleric, whether the parish priest, the local bishop, or the pope. So… the question must be raised… could the pope appoint a lay “vicar for global Church governance” who in practice governs all the world’s bishops, while the pope plays billiards or something? While it is obviously not ideal, is it even possible in theory? It is not so clear. Nor is it clear if the alarming centralization of power in the papacy (pace all the talk about “synodality” and “decentralization”) in the past year or so is entirely legitimate in principle. Understanding what popes are, and what popes are not, which in turn determines their legitimate power and authority, is hopefully going to be a major theological and legal fruit of the period in between Blessed Pope Pius IX and Pope Francis – the period from those who were alive during Vatican I to those who were alive during Vatican II. This age has also seen the end of lay involvement in conclaves (the ius exclusivae) with Pius X – a topic not unrelated to this, but one too complex to broach here, as it opens a very beefy can of worms related to investiture (who chooses/appoints bishops).

As some have already begun to point out, the announcement of – and thankfully, not yet the use of – the “Ghirlandian governance principle” is an attempt at a major revolution in the understanding of Holy Orders and the Church as such, and it seems to run up against the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (in Lumen Gentium specifically), and the Code of Canon Law, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church… While Vatican II is a pastoral and not a dogmatic council, it is also not simply an ideological cafeteria. It is especially annoying when the same people want to appeal to the allegedly unquestionable wisdom and authority of every part of and practical effect of the Second Vatican Council when it suits their agenda, and then jettison things like this because it is not useful to their own ends. (NB: I am not accusing Fr. Ghirlanda of this.)

It turns out that many good clergy resent laity telling them how to govern ecclesiastical affairs on account of those laity being set over those clergy… If we are in fact to follow the teaching of Vatican II, they apparently have got a right sense of their sacramental character. Like Eve is to Adam, laity are critical assistants and cooperators, and they can obviously be great saints, which is the most important thing… but ecclesiastical rule properly belongs to those conformed to Christ in Holy Orders. There could perhaps be individual and extraordinary exceptions in particular cases, but it is not and never can be the norm. To argue otherwise is a castration of the sacrament.

Once again, for my readers in the Second Cycle – this would be a good thesis topic. Distinguishing ecclesiastical governance properly speaking from other kinds of governance (i.e. in religious life) would be a part of such a study.

1 – The biological errors that St. Thomas makes do not destroy the overall argument. Adam didn’t need someone to talk to – he was already talking with God. He needs help making others like himself. Yes, this opens a discussion of why he wants to do this, but the basic point is not therefore fundamentally destroyed.

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):

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.

A Good Debate to Watch

Eamonn Clark, STL

In case you missed it, there was a debate hosted recently by Catholic Answers between their head apologist Jimmy Akin and biblical skeptic Bart Ehrman. It is worth a watch.

I really noticed a pattern in Ehrman’s comments/critiques – which is a certain sort of myopia. Take the example of Luke “only saying Jesus appeared in Jerusalem” – of course that is not a contradiction with the other Resurrection accounts. It would be contradictory, or more contradictory, to say that Jesus “only appeared in Jerusalem.” It is a hermeneutic of suspicion to such an extent that it is truly baffling how Ehrman can be taken seriously by so many people. We can and should pray for him.

The Luke 24 verse they get into a tussle over is interesting but also easily explained by the “summation” style… “On the 21st of March in 1988, I was born in California. Then I was a lifeguard at the local pool. And I went to college in New York City.” We do not need to assume that all of these three things happened on March 21, 1988. Nor do we need to assume that everything that is happening in the second part of Luke 24 is all happening on the same day as the appearance after the two disciples’ return from Emmaus.

Anyway, enjoy the debate, it is worth watching. Do check out Jimmy’s page that he references, it is great stuff.

I’m also just seeing there is a post-debate debrief, which I have not watched yet but assume is worth the time.

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.

It’s Time to Bring Holy Water Back

Eamonn Clark, STL

We read in the autobiography of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque the following: “[They] thought I was possessed or obsessed by the devil, and they threw a quantity of Holy Water over me, and with the Sign of the Cross and other prayers they strove to drive away the evil spirit. But He by Whom I was possessed, far from taking flight, drew me yet more powerfully to Himself saying: ‘I love Holy Water and I have so great an affection for the Cross that I cannot refrain from uniting Myself closely with those who bear it like Me, and for the love of Me.'”

There was never any scientific justification for removing holy water from churches. (Even the WHO admits that swimming will not transmit COVID.) Nor was there even much of a logical justification, granting for the sake of argument that it could be dangerous – the use of holy water to bless oneself is optional, after all. Those who don’t want to “take the risk” certainly are not required to. But it is beyond all reasonableness to claim at this point that COVID spreads in any significant way by means of contact – thus the general decline in neurotic hand-sanitizing and, yes, pew-sanitizing, is very appropriate. (Regarding sanitizing pews, what exactly was the thinking there? That everyone coughs downward, and everyone puts their hands where they are sitting? Or does the virus crawl up from the pew somehow? The imagination fails.)

Some churches have been filling their stoups back up, but many have not, as if this were reasonable. By now, it is a habitual lack which people have grown accustomed to… one of the most important sacramentals which the Church possesses essentially no longer exists for many people. If a pastor really thinks he needs the “right moment,” then Easter is the time. No need even to announce it, just do it. No big fuss. Many will not even notice for a while. There will be complaints from others, but it is time to start living within the truth for the sake of the common good of the faithful. Those who are still petrified need to be tolerated patiently and slowly helped to return to a right perspective of spiritual priorities and order, but they ought not be encouraged or given preference at the expense of the multitudes. Maybe just promise to replenish it more than usual and leave it at that. Surely, the Lord does not want the Church deprived of such a useful instrument any longer.

The Drive to Become an Altar

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

Eamonn Clark, STL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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