There is no such thing as an “internet atheist”

Eamonn Clark, STL

The other day I happened across a video of a well-known scientist (Lawrence Krauss) who also frequently engages in discussions about religion. I marveled at the shallowness and predictability of his talking points… “Science tells us everything now!” Hmm. “Define your own meaning in life!” Okay, got it. “Nobody really believes in this stuff, at least in the First World!” Ugh… where’s the science there? “Bronze Age myths!” Alright then. “Compassion and logic-based morality!” Yup, sure.

He went on and on. Childish, frustrating, and boring. Most of all, tragically ironic. As folks like this use their otherwise brilliant minds to describe how awe-inspiring the universe is with all its complexities and all its mysteries which have yet to be unlocked, they don’t ever seem to realize that the possibility of doing that can’t explain itself. The “self” is not an empirical datum, nor is intelligibility.

I thought about doing a line-by-line summary of the video, breaking down how incredibly wrongheaded almost each and every point was, but it occurred to me that not only would this take an inordinate amount of time (as there are just so many things wrong!) but that a better point might be made instead.

In my younger years, I would have been eager to rush down into the comboxes of such videos (or of other platforms) and try to wrestle with the people who are busy cheering on such things like so: “He’s such a freethinker!” “God is Santa Claus for adults!” “This is the most logical thing ever spoken by a human being,” etc. Today, while I do engage in a bit of textual dialogue with unbelievers, I don’t go into the comboxes very much at all anymore. The problem, it seems, is not only with the mindset that internet atheists bring to the arena, it’s precisely that I as a believer and apologist have a tendency to see them as “internet atheists” in an “arena.”

It’s possible to be on amicable terms with someone hiding behind a screen name, but it is not really possible to be friends. Someone who is really hyped up on the “New Atheist” ideology might indeed be a nice person “IRL” (in real life), but as a keyboard warrior, he will usually not be. He will tend to be as smug as a bug and ready to joust aggressively with any believer who dares question the “dogmatic non-dogmas” of the New Atheism. The one who ventures to ask subtle questions about causation or the roots of intelligibility, for instance, will be met with the standard polemical tropes about “the God of the gaps” and “metaphysical mumbo jumbo” and “empirical observation and logic” and what have you, with maybe an f-bomb or two thrown in for good measure. The cleverest ones will bring up Kant.

Anyway, that’s half the problem. The other side is that the bait is taken at all. The believer who wanders into the combox to pose pointed questions will be pounced on – which may then provoke an equal and opposite reaction. Observe:

“You can be moral without God.” “What does morality really mean without a lawgiver?” “So you just obey a monster who punishes you for looking at girls? I wouldn’t want to worship such a God.” “Look at how bad the Communists were in the last century! That’s what atheism does! How is that moral?!” “Stop cherry-picking. How about all those pedophiles at church?”

And so it goes. More and more aggression until it is little more than name-calling.

What’s the solution? Well, whatever it is, it will involve either creating an open space online for sincere dialogue for those who actually want to have it (which is difficult), or actually getting people “AFK” (away from keyboard) and seeing them “IRL” as real people with flesh and blood, with memories, desires, families, and souls (which can also be difficult though in a different way). In the case of the disciples of the New Atheists and their ideology, as with most people, the obstacles to belief frequently lie in large part in the will, not only the intellect. They have sensed something bad about the Catholic Faith – or religion in general – and/or sensed something good about their ideology. Maybe it was the people… it was probably the people, or at least this probably factored in somehow. The first “missionary” step then would consist in being a neighbor to one’s friend by having discussions on important things in sincerity and truth, rather than trying to “own” an opponent on Reddit. Many arguments are won at the price of losing souls.

There is no such thing as an “internet atheist.” There are only people.

P.S. – I offer my own combox here for inquisitive unbelievers… Have at it, friends!

Haggai and the Woman with the Hemorrhage

Eamonn Clark, STL

Today, a short meditation on the fulfillment of the Old Law and the Prophet Haggai… First, the text of the Gospel of Mark 5:25-34 (also found in Matthew and Luke):

25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” 29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

It is a familiar passage, but there is more going on here than meets the eye; in this incident the Prophet Haggai has been “overcome,” or rather, the law which Haggai refers to has been usurped by a superior Legislator. Haggai was sent to encourage the Jews to rebuild the Temple, after they had returned from their exile in Babylon; there was reluctance to do the work out of a kind of spiritual lethargy. He has a short dialogue with the priests about sacrifice and law. Let’s see the text of Haggai 2:10-14

10 On the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Haggai: 11 “This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Ask the priests what the law says: 12 If someone carries consecrated meat in the fold of their garment, and that fold touches some bread or stew, some wine, olive oil or other food, does it become consecrated?’” The priests answered, “No.” 13 Then Haggai said, “If a person defiled by contact with a dead body touches one of these things, does it become defiled?” “Yes,” the priests replied, “it becomes defiled.” 14 Then Haggai said, “‘So it is with this people and this nation in my sight,’ declares the Lord. ‘Whatever they do and whatever they offer there is defiled.’”

Clearly, the Flesh of Christ is more sacred than “sacred flesh.” Some flesh is sacred by ritual – His Flesh is sacred by nature, and the “order of purity” is reversed.

When faith in Him is offered, and His clothing is touched from that motive, spiritual healing, or forgiveness, comes. What is it to touch His clothing now? It is that which “covers” His Sacred Flesh – that which mediates His Presence, namely, the Sacraments, which lead to the Eucharist, especially Confession. On the Cross, Christ’s side poured forth water and Blood – Baptism and the Eucharist – but He also had His cloak taken from Him. Unlike the veil of the Temple, torn from top to bottom, Christ’s cloak was woven from top to bottom: the one was destroyed by God, the other represents the Sacramental order which one must pass through to reach the Flesh of Christ aside from the waters of Baptism, an order disrespected by those concerned with possessions, with amusement, with going along with what the crowd is doing, despite being right next to the Crucified One – just like the soldiers who gambled for the garment, or even like the masses that pressed up against Christ for motives out of curiosity rather than faith. Simply touching the cloak is not enough, as the crowds and soldiers did; nor even does touching the Flesh suffice, as those who crucified Him did. It must be done in the right way to receive the cleansing power which comes from Him.

To make a good Eucharistic sacrifice, the priest must be clean – so too must we be clean to receive that Flesh, not only washed with Baptism, but also having touched the cloak of Christ in faith to be healed of our spiritual impurity. By entering “through” that “veil” into the New Temple, namely, into the Risen Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ, we can live with the same God Who once dwelt behind the curtain of the Temple, without going all the way to Jerusalem. Power flows forth from Him openly now, for all the nations. Unlike the impure inhabitants of Jerusalem, those who approach the Lord in faith and humility through the Sacraments will be living stones, built up into a spiritual temple, ready to offer sacrifices acceptable to the Father (1 Peter 2:5) – and others will even in a way be made pure through us, especially priests, by the very power of the One Whom we have encountered and share.

An Abandoned Rite

Fr. Grzegorz Brodacki, O.Cist.

“Holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way.” We find this statement in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the last ecumenical council (§4). Here many will say, not without irony, that the subsequent radical reform of the Roman rite (or rather its destruction followed by the creation of something completely new) showed very well what such “preservation in the future and fostering in every way” mean in practice. However, such an abandonment of an existing rite, even though not to such extent and not on the universal level, is not something unprecedented in the history of the Church’s liturgy. In the course of the 17th century the Cistercian Order almost unanimously abandoned its rite of the Mass so as to accept the Roman rite with few features of their own rite.

What were the reasons for which the authorities of the Order decided to stop using the proper Cistercian rite? To answer to that question, we must know something about its history and its character.

The Cistercian Order was founded in 1098 in Burgundy in France out of a desire to renew the monastic life by returning to the literal adherence to the Rule of Saint Benedict. However, while the Rule speaks much about the structure of the canonical hours, it is completely silent about the rite of the Mass. What is more, Saint Benedict does not even indicate how often the Mass should be celebrated in the monastery. So, the first generations of the Cistercian monks had to find other principles to arrange the rite of their Mass. One of the principles was authenticity; they decided to use only renowned sources. This mainly regards the textual layer of the rite. The chant books were copied in Metz which at that time enjoyed the reputation of having the purest Gregorian tradition. Also, the texts of the missal (called at that time the “sacramentary”) were taken from the most respected churches of Burgundy.

Other principles were simplicity and poverty. One can say that properly these two principles shaped mostly the external layer of the Cistercian rite. The substance of the rite – taken from the existing monastic customs and from neighbouring churches – remained intact, but the Cistercians decided to remove or simplify all that they saw as accidental and superfluous.

Let us take a look at a typical conventual mass celebrated every day at a Cistercian abbey. The first difference with respect to the other rites at the time was the scarcity of ministers: for Sundays and feasts the priest was accompanied by a deacon and subdeacon, while on ordinary days even the subdeacon was unnecessary.

Just after the preparatory prayers at the foot of the altar, the ministers proceeded to the preparation of the chalice, but the pouring of the water was reserved to the priest. Once the lesson had been sung, the subdeacon could join the choir to help in singing.


Before the gospel, the deacon asked the abbot for his blessing. After the Credo, the deacon brought the sacred vessels (let us remember – these already contained the wine with water) to the altar, but there was no special offertory prayer other than In spiritu humilitatis. Then, only on feast days and only at this moment, incense was used. The way of incensing was quite curious: the priest traced a circle over the offerings with the thurible, then incensed the right side of the altar, the left one and again the right and the left side of the base of the altar. After that, he gave the thurible to the deacon who in turn incensed the right side of the altar cross and then went behind the altar to the left side to do the same there.

The Canon of the mass was substantially identical to its counterparts elsewhere. It is important however to point out two particularities: first, the elevation of the sacred species was introduced somehow reluctantly and gradually, so it became universal only in the 15th century. Secondly, kneeling was practiced to a limited degree. The community knelt down for the Canon only on ferial days, while the sacred ministers did not kneel ever.

The Pater noster was followed by a series of prayers for peace and, at least at the beginning, for the reconquest of the Holy Land. Also, the way of distribution of the Holy Communion was quite remarkable. The sign of peace was given uniquely to those who were to receive Communion. In conformity with the Rule of Saint Benedict, the monks approached the altar by seniority, they knelt on the highest degree and received the species of bread directly on the tongue. Similarly, kneeling on the left side of the altar, they drank the consecrated wine without touching with their hands the chalice held by the deacon and subdeacon. Then they passed to the sacristan standing between the altar and choir and drank a little bit of unconsecrated wine in order to “purify themselves,” probably from the possible remnants of the sacred species in the mouth.

At this point the role of the celebrant was practically over. He had only to wash his hands at the piscina (i.e. a kind of a little well placed at the right side of the altar), recite the postcommunion prayer, and then could go back to the sacristy, with no final blessing, which is noteworthy. In the meanwhile, the sacred ministers were occupied with purification of the sacred vessels, not upon the altar but at the ministerium (i.e. credence table). The rite of purification was quite complex: it consisted of several ablutions with wine and water and even of licking the paten.

Even this summary description of the Cistercian Mass gives one an idea of the extreme simplicity and sobriety of the medieval rite. However, not only this was its weak point. The situation was even more difficult, since there was no detailed and exhaustive description of its ceremonies. Actually, the medieval Usus contained special chapters speaking about various types of the mass (conventual with two ministers, conventual with one minister, private mass), but those descriptions were anything but complete and satisfying. As long as the Order was vivacious, conscious of the richness of its proper tradition, the new generations of priests were taught the rite by their elders. By contrast, after the Council of Trent, when a new generation of men joined the Order, the sense of the Order’s own identity, expressed in large part by liturgical customs, faded more and more. Those men knew almost exclusively the post-Trent Roman rite which at that time was spreading with astonishing success, enjoyed the authority of the pontiff, corresponded to the spiritual tastes and needs of the epoch and, last but not least, was meticulously described.

We can suppose that all those factors provoked a gradual abandonment of the medieval Cistercian rite. The first step towards its romanisation, made 1611, was a permission to say private masses according to the Roman missal granted to the monks of the Order. To facilitate that new possibility, in 1617 the Roman Ritus servandus was inserted into the new edition of the Cistercian missal, since there was no Cistercian counterpart to it. In the following year the general chapter formally adopted the Roman Ritus celebrandi. Liturgical unrest was in the air. Claude Vaussin, who was elected general abbot in 1645, decided to publish liturgical books that would put an end to the increasing liturgical confusion, and doubtlessly also to the fights between the “traditionalists” and the partisans of the Romeward trend. Eventually, in 1656 under his authority the Breviarium cisterciense juxta Romanum was published, and one year later came the analogous Missale cisterciense juxta novissimam Romani recognitum correctionem. Thus, the traditional Cistercian rite (with the small exception of the Congregation of Castile) ceased to exist. While the romanisation was not total and complete, as there remained, for example, several Cistercian features for the rites of Holy Week, the rite’s substance was henceforth purely Roman.

During the first half of the 20th century there was a considerable renewal of the Cistercian Order in both branches (the Strict and Common Observances) which led at least three monasteries (Hauterive, Poblet, and the now-closed Boquen) to restore the primitive rite that had fallen into disuse, but even those attempts ended in a debacle after the introduction of St. Paul VI’s Novus Ordo Missae.

As we can see, the necessity of protecting the liturgical richness of the Church has not only been urgent in our own times. Undeniably, the abolition of the traditional Roman rite was something unusual in the history of the Church; however, the abandonment of the primitive Cistercian rite shows to us a phenomenon which differed only in scope, not in quality. The lesson that we can take from this is that every liturgical tradition is worthy of protection and cultivation. Nowadays many speak about regionalization, decentralization, and the exaltation of minorities, but few are able to apply these principles to the liturgical life of the Church. If we believe that the Holy Spirit leads the Church and inspires various communities growing in Her bosom to express their faith, their charism, and their way of life, even through liturgical forms, a blind unification cannot be understood as anything other than a big mistake and a deep impoverishment.

Fr. Grzegorz Brodacki, O.Cist. is a priest and monk of the Cistercian Archabbey of Jędrzejów in Poland.

The Confession Post…

Eamonn Clark

There is nothing our accuser in Hell hates more than a self-accuser, nothing he loves more than a self-excuser.

There are many means to fight against sin and everlasting death – principally, baptism, but also frequent prayer, fasting and other penances, and almsgiving, together with a constant desire to grow in virtue, the reception of the Sacrament of Confirmation, and the reception of the Eucharist.

But all of it will profit one nothing if the Sacrament of Confession is neglected. In fact, it will be to one’s eternal shame and confusion that all the spiritual resources of the Church found in this sacrament (in the midst of the other advantages named above) were so readily available and yet were ignored. In fact, it would perhaps have been better for such a person never to have received faith at all than to have thrown away its gifts in this way. (2 Peter 2:21-22) Many souls who consider themselves to be spiritual are dragged down to Hell because of their stubborn refusal to humble themselves by using the order of forgiveness of sins instituted by Christ Himself, an order already implied even in the Old Testament, when the dynamic between the priests and lepers is described (see Leviticus 13; cf. Matthew 8:4, Luke 17:4 regarding the cleansing of the ten lepers by Christ – “Go, show yourself to the priest,” etc.). The soul which needs to go to confession is a spiritual leper; half dead, half alive, in need of healing and purification.

Today is the day to resolve to go to confession.

First, I want to lay out the basic points of Catholic doctrine and law on Confession. Second, I will address the most common excuses for avoiding Confession. There will come a time when arguments will cease, however…

First, Catholic doctrine and law.

The Sacrament of Confession is administered to the baptized by a duly authorized priest for the remission of personal sins committed after baptism. An integral (or “real”) confession requires several parts: confession, contrition, absolution, and penance (or satisfaction). In turn…

Confession: One approaches a priest and names one’s mortal sins in kind and number, after an honest attempt to recall them to memory; one may also confess venial sins (although these may be forgiven in other ways, such as the reception of the Eucharist, or certain prayers and sacramentals, as long as one is not already in mortal sin). Any attempt to hide a mortal sin by consciously failing to confess it when one knows it to be a mortal sin with reasonable certitude renders the entire confession invalid and constitutes a sacrilege – an enormous sin. Mortal sins remembered only after the confession have been forgiven but must still be made known in the sacrament at a later time, which time one should not postpone. This is because the act of confession is related to the order of the person’s soul and also to the Church; not only must one do appropriate penance under obedience within the judicial framework established by Christ (the hierarchical/ministerial priesthood) for his sin for his own sake, but he must also rectify the harm he has done through his sin to the entire Body of Christ, the Church, which is wounded by every sin. (Some extraordinary sins also carry canonical penalties which require a special juridical process – but we leave this aside here.)

Contrition: One is truly sorry for his sins because they offend God, in addition to fearing punishment for them. The Sacrament of Confession takes one’s fear of punishment (servile fear) and makes up for the lack of the fear of God as a Friend and Father (filial fear) by the grace contained in the sacrament. The former kind of sorrow is called “attrition,” the latter is called “contrition.” (NB: the person who is absolutely unable to go to Confession who makes a good act of contrition – that is, a real apology to God because of the offensiveness of one’s sins – is forgiven by God. However, when it becomes possible to go to Confession, one must do so, and this intention needs to be there, at least implicitly, in the act of contrition outside the Sacrament; see the section above, and note the need for doing penance under obedience.) Without contrition for mortal sin, one is not a friend of God. All the prayer and penance of such a person amounts to nothing except a disposition to reconcile with the Lord. One who dies without restoring this friendship (called “charity”) condemns himself to the pains of Hell, forever. Effectively God says to such a person, “Thy will be done.” One receives something other than God, for all eternity. Contrition also implies a purpose of amendment, meaning, one intends to avoid all sin in the future, even though we all know that we will continue to fail. The point is that one wants to do the will of God starting “right now,” not later.

Absolution: The priest delivers the formula of absolution, essentially consisting in the words, “Ego te absolvo” (which can be translated, “I absolve you”). There are usually other words which accompany this fundamental form, which are important for driving home what is occurring but not essential for validity.

Penance: One must intend to do the penance which is delivered by the priest in reparation for the sins which were confessed. (A failure to do the penance after the fact does not invalidate the sacrament – but it is obligatory nonetheless.) Again, we note that the key is obedience to the juridical order established by Christ – in doing our penance (provided it is not a sin itself – in which case, one should approach another priest in Confession and explain the situation, also if it seems extremely unreasonable or inappropriate), we do the will of the Church as such. We can be assured that this is what God wants us to do for Him. This is freedom.

The law of the Church regarding the use of Confession is in fact so important that it constitutes one of only five “precepts” of the Church, each of which are interrelated (perhaps worth its own post) and aim at sustaining the bare minimum of commitment to the spiritual life that is generally necessary for avoiding total spiritual catastrophe. They admit of special exceptions (like missing Sunday Mass due to sickness), but they generally bind the conscience. The five precepts are: to contribute to the material needs of the Church; to attend Mass on Sundays and other prescribed days (e.g. Christmas, Immaculate Conception, etc.); to fast and abstain from meat on the prescribed days (e.g. during Lent); to receive Holy Communion once a year during the Easter season; to go to Confession once a year.

It used to be a widespread problem that Catholics would hardly ever receive Holy Communion, despite frequent attendance at Mass, sometimes accompanied by an automatic or “rote” use of Confession. Today, we usually have the opposite problem – infrequent use of Confession, automatic and rote reception of Holy Communion. (We should recall that to receive Holy Communion while consciously in mortal sin is a sacrilege – once again, an enormous sin. In cases of grave necessity, one may attempt to elicit an act of perfect contrition, which includes the intention of going to Confession when possible, and then receive Holy Communion – but these are very rare instances.) It seems Christ would be much more pleased with very few receptions of Holy Communion with many receptions of forgiveness in Confession, rather than the other way around. For example, St. Francis of Assisi may have only received Holy Communion three times in his entire life.

The precepts of the Church are the most fundamental “rules” which the Church prescribes. The Church has the commission to teach, to govern, and to sanctify, in accord with Christ’s own teaching, governing, and sanctifying power and authority (prophet, king, priest – frankincense, gold, myrrh) – the precepts invoke the full authority of the Church in governing the spiritual lives of the members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. In other words, it is Christ Who gives these precepts. Therefore, to neglect any of the precepts knowingly and willingly constitutes mortal sin, and though ignorance of the precepts “as” precepts could excuse one from grave sin (e.g. “I didn’t know I had to go to Mass on Sundays”) it is practically impossible to avoid mortal sin without doing what the precepts tell us to do – that’s why the Church puts them forward: it is for our benefit. So, it is obligatory under pain of mortal sin to confess one’s sins once a year – and if you think you have nothing to confess after a whole year, try asking your friends and relatives (especially your spouse) for some ideas. They will set you straight on that. Then you can also confess pride and self-ignorance. Even if you don’t have mortal sins to confess, you still have the opportunity to examine how you can do better.

In sum: it is seriously obligatory to confess one’s sins once a year, to be sorry for them, to receive absolution, and to do the penance assigned.

Second, the most common objections against the use of the Sacrament of Confession. Maybe you can find other excuses – but if you are honest with yourself, you will find that they are always derived from a distrust of Christ and His Church, and/or inordinate self-reliance. Such excuses should normally be brought up in the Sacrament, by the way.

“I just confess my sins to God.”

This is certainly a good thing to do. As we have already noted, God can and does forgive sins when one is truly contrite – and venial sins can be forgiven apart from Confession by the use of prayers, sacramentals, or the reception of the Eucharist (unless one is in mortal sin already). The first problem, however, is that when dealing with the matter proper to Confession (mortal sin), one who “confesses to God” cannot be fully sure of his own motivation for his sorrow – fear of punishment, authentic love of God, or maybe some other motive (psychological discomfort, for instance). Confession removes this lack of clarity – all one must do is make a good effort to make an integral confession. Furthermore, as we also already saw, the key is the order of judgment and reparation (or penance) instituted by Christ: one’s sins – especially and principally one’s grave sins – wound not only the soul of the individual sinner (who frequently is not even aware of the depth of that damage and therefore needs Father to drive the point home), but it also wounds the whole Church. Therefore, when it is possible, one must subject himself to that judicial order, which is the sacrament. If we deny this, we are calling the sacrament superfluous, unnecessary, unimportant – we are implying that we would have advised the Risen Christ not to bother instituting this sacrament in the first place (John 20:23 – “Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven, those whose sins you retain are retained”). What an insult to the Son of God – which should be confessed. (This is part of the core of the Protestant doctrine on forgiveness of sins, by the way.) God wants us to confess our sins to Him in the way that He indicated by instituting the Sacrament of Confession to begin with.

“I am embarrassed of my sins/I am afraid/it’s too difficult.”

This is a more understandable and less offensive cause of avoiding the sacrament. However, it is still completely insufficient, for a few reasons. To begin with, unless it is Father’s first few months as a priest, you can be pretty well assured that he has heard it before, or at least something very close. Even if not, you are quite unlikely to say something all that “shocking,” and the sorrier you are in your expression of your sins, the less shocking it will be. “But you don’t understand – my impiety/sexual perversion/whatever/etc. is so extreme/weird/shameful that it is just too much to mention.” Well, your sin is probably not quite as “out there” as you think, but the discomfort is telling you something; that you are ashamed, which is right and just. It should be uncomfortable to say what you did, because it is evil – but you should not fear saying it. It is you who make it difficult to the point of being impossible. If it comes down to it, write your sin down, and just resolve to read it – that could help you get through it. But the discomfort actually can provide the condition for the great feeling of freedom – the secret is out, even though God already knew what you did. Now your mind is free, and your soul is cleansed. And the sin dies in the confessional. Do not fall into the false humility of Simon Peter in the boat – “Depart from me O Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8) It is precisely because you are sinful that the Lord should not depart, and you should ask His forgiveness in the way that He wants.

“I will feel too good about being forgiven.”

Sometimes, a person will make the argument that it is this precise feeling of freedom which is a “trap” of some kind. The idea is that it is “purer” to apologize to God directly and avoid the Freudian “release” of the confessional process. Often this is a pious-sounding cover for a deeper problem – for example, inordinate shame of sin (see the section above), which could be the real reason motivating any of these excuses – but perhaps such a person really think it is “more spiritual” to avoid the sacrament. After all, one might “feel holy” instead of being holy by going to Confession, right? The problem is, once again, the order of forgiveness instituted by Christ is contradicted. In fact, one of the advantages of the sacrament is precisely the feeling of being forgiven – it is a good feeling (or it can be) – which is supposed to teach us to love the forgiveness of the Lord and to keep seeking it. God actually wants people to feel good about forgiveness, at least sometimes. This is to make no mention of the fact that being forgiven does actually make a person holy, even if not perfectly so. In actuality, a person who lets himself believe the lie that “avoiding feeling holy” justifies avoiding confession is deceived far more than a person who tends toward thinking that “feeling forgiven” is the same as holiness… the former lets himself think that his own psychology is more important than the order established by Christ and commanded by the Church in His Name, while the latter simply feels a little too spiritual when actually doing something which Christ truly wants. Disobedience with the feeling of pure intentions is far worse than obedience with the feeling of being a bit holier than one really is. Disobedience is a higher kind of pride than a mere swelling of the ego. Better to do God’s Will poorly than to do well what is not His Will.

“I just don’t have time/it’s too much effort/it’s inconvenient.”

Nonsense. We put plenty of time and energy into all kinds of pursuits which are not even that important for our natural, temporal lives… Hobbies, socializing, getting ahead at work… Surely, we can muster the energy and make the time to drive to the local parish on a Saturday afternoon to put our souls in order – instead of watching television and surfing the internet. And if there is no time for Confession advertised at the parish that is convenient, make an appointment at your leisure – or just show up at a daily Mass and tell Father you want to make confession before or after. (But if you need to go to confession, don’t dare to receive Holy Communion in the meantime.)

“I am afraid of becoming scrupulous.”

It is true that there is an abuse of the sacrament by overuse, or rather, inappropriate frequency deriving from a warped sense of morality. To be clear – some saints went to Confession once a day (such as Ignatius of Loyola), and it was not abnormal for many to go two or three times per week in centuries past. However, this is probably not advisable for the average layman, or even the average priest (once or twice a month is a standard practice). In any event, a person who is tending toward going to Confession every day is most likely doing so because of a neurosis, an overly sensitive conscience, a poor understanding of morality or of the sacrament… not because they are the next Ignatius of Loyola. This is a problem, but the fear of such a problem is insufficient for avoiding the sacrament altogether, as it still remains the order of the forgiveness of sins which Christ wants used. If a person really is afraid of a “runaway train” then he should approach a priest and explain this fear, and ask for his advice on how often to go to confession (except when one is absolutely sure one has committed a mortal sin – sure in the way one could swear on a stack of Bibles that it is so), and then obey it. If it’s once a year during Lent, then it’s once a year. If it’s once a month, so be it. Obedience is the key – just like we have already been pointing out.

“The priest might not be holy.”

So what? None is good but God alone. And yet the Lord wants to use broken instruments to show His power and glory. It is insulting to the Lord to assume that He cannot work well through bad instruments – and clearly, He wanted to use mere men to do His work, even evil ones like Judas. The thought which animates this objection is heretical in the strict sense – it is Donatist (and Protestant). Christ is the Voice which says the words, “Ego te absolvo,” through the priest – be he adulterer, murderer, or idolater. If you have been falling into the Donatist heresy, you should bring that up at your next confession, by the way.

“I had a bad experience.”

It happens – and it can be a great psychological obstacle. Sometimes, Father is exhausted and short on patience. Sometimes, he is just plain short on virtue (see above). Well, thank God, in most places there is more than one priest available. Try again – it is Christ you are seeking, not Father So-and-So. Maybe start by saying how bad your last experience was with confession, and go through what happened… that could be helpful.

“My sins are too great.”

No, they are not. See above about Simon Peter in the boat – “Depart from me O Lord!” This too is its own sin – to assume that God is not powerful enough, or merciful enough, to forgive you. (You should apologize to Him in the Sacrament for thinking so little of Him.) There are plenty of sinners much worse than you who have come back to the Lord. My favorite Old Testament example is King Manasseh – an idolatrous genocidal maniac who finally turned his life around after decades of terrorizing Jerusalem (see 2 Kings 21 and 2 Chronicles 33). St. Paul was the leader of the Jewish version of ISIS, then he became “the Apostle.” A popular modern example is Rudolf Hoss – commandant of the holocaust death-camp at Auschwitz, who is likely happy in Heaven now. You are not that bad. (You are also likely not as bad as the groveling and apostate Simon Peter in the courtyard, denying knowing the Lord Who sat just around the corner, nor as bad as the soldiers who crucified Christ – whom He forgave during the act itself.)

All of these excuses are great short-term investments in psychological comfort. They are very bad spiritual investments in both the short-term and the long-term. You will not regret overcoming your excuses – and in Hell, one only regrets his state… no longer is one capable of the kind of regret which leads to repentance. The regret of Judas leads to confusion, pain, despair – the regret of Simon Peter leads to repentance. Their sins were basically equal, but their outcomes could not have been more different. Choose wisely.


The soul which neglects making at least an annual confession slides slowly into more and more problematic sins – and then eventually is solidified in his favorite vices. When there are many people neglecting the sacrament in one place, such as in a parish, the devotional life will become more and more anthropocentric (no prayer before and after Mass, clapping for musicians, careless reception of the Eucharist, little tolerance for “challenging” homilies, a preoccupation with “being involved” with the Mass, etc.), and “social justice” initiatives will tend to overshadow what is left of the devotional life. This is not a good trend, and it is gaining ground in many areas around the world. More and more preaching on the need for the use of the Sacrament of Confession is called for – consider this my small contribution. Let us walk while we have the light… for soon the light will be taken away, and the darkness will come. (John 12:35)

GO TO CONFESSION! (And please share this post if you think it could help someone – spread this net far and wide…)

I am providing a few good resources here:

A formula for perfect contrition (it is not “magic,” remember – though it could be a good practice to say once or twice a day): “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”

My own post on learning chastity – perhaps the least favorite virtue of the young, especially young men… be ashamed of sins of lust, but be more ashamed not to confess such sins!

A good examination of conscience for single adults …and for married people … and for young adults/teens … and just in case you want it, for kids.

More advice on how to make a good confession

The Summa Theologiae on the necessity of Confession (composed by a colleague of St. Thomas, based on another of his works)

The Council of Trent on the Sacrament of Confession (Session 14), and the Roman Catechism (from Trent) on the Sacrament of Confession (promulgated by Pope St. Pius V)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Sacrament of Confession

Some detailed history and theological analysis of the Sacrament of Confession and also especially of Absolution

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There Are Only Four Pro-Choice Arguments

Eamonn Clark, STL

Naturally, being a moralist who is active in western society, I have encountered and thought a lot about various arguments in favor of the “pro-choice” position. Summarizing all of the arguments, we find that there are really only four; while they can be mixed together, they are nonetheless discernible in basically every argument ever made in favor of the “right” to have an abortion, or that abortion is morally acceptable. And yes, they are each erroneous. Let’s go through them: they are the physical (or biological) error, the metaphysical error, the ethical error, and the metaethical error.

The Physical Error

The first error is that the fetus is not a distinct living organism. Any biologist can debunk this. If the fetus is not a distinct living organism, there is no such thing. It is true that there is a physical connection through the umbilical cord, but first of all, the zygote pre-existed this stage, and second of all, we acknowledge that the cord actually connects two organisms, each of which exhibit the standard signs of biological life: homeostasis, cellular organization, metabolism, reproductive capacity (actual in the zygotic phase when asexual reproduction can occur, potential in the fetal stage as sexual reproduction), response to stimuli, growth, heredity… There is simply no argument to be made here. The advocate of abortion who is taken by this error would be forced to admit that a pregnant woman has eight limbs, two heads, and maybe male reproductive organs, which she then ceases to have upon delivering a child. There is no point in arguing with someone who will not budge on this. However, if we say this is a distinct living organism, we admit that to abort it is to kill it.

The Metaphysical Error

The second error is that the distinct living organism is not a human (or a person). The advocate will say that eventually the organism will become a human, based on certain actions or activated capacities – cognition (but usually excluding sleepers, for reasons inexplicable), self-reliance (of a high-level, let it be noted), capacity to be a productive member of society (whatever that means)… These are signs of humanity, it is true. However, to say that these are constitutive of humanity is quite problematic. First of all, most would agree that we are human beings, not human doings – that is to say, we can do human things because we are actually humans first. (Agere sequitur esse, as the axiom goes – action follows being.) Second, if we define humanity based on certain kinds of actions, we must ask, why is it these actions which are characteristics of humanity and not other actions? And why should it be actions at all? Why not “traits,” like race or sex or eye color? Of course, some do in fact say that something as arbitrary as “3 months” or “being outside the womb” in fact turns the very same living organism into a human being. Plenty will say that it is a “capacity to feel pain,” sometimes mixed with “capacity for memory,” which typically ignores folks with congenital analgesia – the chronic inability to feel pain – and is also simply based on the emotional discomfort coming from an empathetic impulse). Strange… We can see the problem – once we detach the definition of humanity from “being,” as a substance, we are left with arbitrary values leading to arbitrary norms. (A substance is that which is not predicated of another – we do not say “human” of anything, but we do say “cognition” or “race” of a human.) So, to the point: it is the same being (the same living organism!) which is thinking and feeling and “self-relying” that is growing in the womb. What changes are traits and actions – size, strength, organ development, mental activity, mobility, etc. The “being” does not change – it is the same substance. It is a human being who is simply not doing the most human-like things at this moment. This error is the most prevalent and most difficult to get one to see the problems of. But if we admit the metaphysical reality of humanity in the fetus, we are forced to conclude that aborting the fetus is murder.

The Ethical Error

The third error – and perhaps the most repulsive – is that one is never bound to suffer for another individual human being. We’ve shown that biology says that the fetus is not “my body,” but why not still have “my choice” despite that? “So, it is a human being, who cares? This person is inconvenient for my life.” Well, it could be true. However, if a mother is not bound to suffer for her own child, and, what is more, in the precise way that the woman exists as such, namely, to generate life and gestate that life within herself, one could hardly ever be bound to suffer for another. This seems to eliminate all moral responsibility of any kind, or it at least comes very close. In the case that the advocate bites this bullet, he is simply a terrible person and is unlikely to be persuaded by anything one can say. The problem with the ethical error is grasped intuitively by most – this error is therefore quite rare in its pure form. It does show up in weaker forms, however, in the context of diminishing the humanity of the fetus, as described above. It is much easier to argue that one is not obliged to suffer for a pre-human than for a human…

The Metaethical Error

The final error is the rejection of the possibility of real moral obligations altogether. (“Metaethics” is the branch of ethics which asks or studies “what do we mean by ‘ethics’ in the first place?”) The error here is to relegate all ethical norms to the dictates of individual wills (namely, one’s own, or perhaps the “will of the people/government”). The only question then is about strategy – how to get what you want. Plato’s famous thought experiment in the Republic addresses this head-on… The one who wears the Ring of Gyges could get away with anything (yes – exactly like the One Ring to rule them all). Do moral laws really apply to such a person when he is wearing the ring? Let’s say yes, it is still “good” to follow the moral law. Then we can ask with Nietzsche, “Why be good?” The entire meaning of morality collapses in on itself. “Autonomous” morality is no morality at all. This includes every kind of utilitarianism and consequentialism in the strict sense. Who gets to determine what counts as “utility”? And how would we even know how to reach maximum utility anyway? These are the first problems. (Consequentialism is worth its own post.) At the end of the day, we are left with one’s own values being imposed on others, with nothing to do but play power games to achieve what makes us feel warm and fuzzy by making “contracts” and playing nice. And the unborn are powerless.

These four arguments can be combined in various ways. But they are always there. For example, the famous “violinist” example of Thomson commits the ethical error indirectly. Perhaps we don’t have to suffer for a famous violinist who is artificially connected with our body – but a mother does have to suffer for her own child who is naturally connected with her body by the very fact of womanhood’s intrinsic order, namely, generation of new life within the body.

The point of ethics is not merely avoiding wrongdoing, it is fundamentally about achieving happiness through flourishing – which entails the faculties of human nature striving moderately in accord with the order of reason toward their proper ends. Killing innocent children does not lead to such flourishing, as we are intrinsically ordered towards life in community in a common pursuit of the truth – it is one of the primordial precepts of the natural law. Abortion is immoral, and it will never make a person truly happy. And we see this validated by the fact that so few parents regret having any of their children, while the opposite claim does not hold.

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The Trinity Matters: Processions

Eamonn Clark, STL

See the Introduction here.

The argument begins simply: “From God I proceeded.” (John 8:24) Question 27 is the foundation for the Treatise on the Trinity, and this appeal to authority – in this case, Divine Authority – is the point of departure. God has said it, therefore we believe it, as God does not lie and is never confused or ignorant.

It must begin this way, as we will see later in detail; for now it suffices to say that what can be known about God by reason alone does not include real processions of the sort which we are about to discuss. God must in fact tell us there are processions in Himself. With that, let us begin.

Article 1 establishes the presence of procession in God. Article 2 demonstrates that one procession is rightly called “generation” (of the Word, or the Son). Article 3 shows that there is another procession in God, that of the Holy Spirit. Article 4 determines that the procession of the Holy Spirit is not “generation” but “spiration.” Article 5 proves there cannot be more than two processions in God (and thus not more than three Persons).

The “sed contra” of Article 1 has already been laid out – John 8:24 tells us that procession exists in God. We move now to the body of Article 1 (the “respondeo” or “answer”) before looking at the objections (which is the proper way to read the Summa, by the way) and the other Articles.

Thomas again begins with Scripture. The Bible uses Names for God which imply procession (like “Son”) but it is not immediately clear what kind of procession this is. A procession, in general, is a kind of “issuing forth” of one thing from another – the way a son proceeds from a father… But now we see the two great errors which are possible: Arianism and Sabellianism.

Arianism sees the Son as a creature of the Father, and the Holy Spirit as a creature of both – this would be procession indeed, but this position empties the Son and the Holy Spirit of Divinity. (Thomas again appeals to Scripture to explain why Arius was wrong, specifically 1 John 5:20 for the Son, and 1 Corinthians 6:19 for the Holy Spirit… I hope it is sufficiently clear by now that Thomas’s theology is deeply Biblical; we are not even half-way through Article 1.)

Sabellianism (also Modalism) sees the Son and the Holy Spirit not as creatures but simply Names predicated of God the Father acting in certain ways. When the Father is Incarnate, He is called “Son.” When He sanctifies human souls, He is called “Holy Spirit.” In other words, the Son and the Holy Spirit are only logical distinctions – they are not really distinct from the Father. Thomas appeals to John 5:19 and “many other passages” to rebut this… This simply is not what we get from Christ’s teaching in Scripture.

The common error is to see procession as “outward” – something existing in creation. With Arius, it is the beings themselves which are processed outwardly, while with Sabellius the outward effect which proceeds from Divine operation in creation indicates the Name to use.

This is not the kind of procession which allows for the Trinity of Catholic Faith. The processions of the Trinity are interior processions.

The most evident analogy is with our own mind (an analogy developed at length by St. Augustine in his book on the Trinity frequently called the “psychological analogy”). We think of a thing by conjuring an idea – but the idea remains within our mind until we speak it by the word, the concept, by which we are understanding it. In God, procession is like this – it is not procession as according to bodies, such as a son proceeding from a father, or heat proceeding from fire.

You can look at Objections 1 and 3 on your own. Objection 2 is worth a look here, as it really touches the heart of the major obstacle to making sense of the Trinity, namely, Divine Simplicity. After all, what proceeds from a thing is distinct from that whence it proceeds – but God is perfectly simple. How? Well, in an intellectual procession, the more perfect the procession is the more closely united is the concept with the mind. In other words, the better a thing is known, the more it is one with the intellect. God knows perfectly – so what He conceives of must be perfectly united with Him by Essence. (We will see a similar argument about power later – the more power a cause has, the more the cause will be replicated in the effect… the better the teacher, the more able the students will be to teach what they are learning. Coincidentally, this is part of why Jesus did not write a book. But we are getting sidetracked…) The point is that the Word is perfectly understood by the Father and is therefore perfectly One with Him.

So much for Article 1. There are processions in God which remain within God, the most easily grasped being the intellectual procession of the Word, Who is perfectly united with the Father because the Father perfectly understands the Word. On to Article 2: is any procession in God called “generation”?

The “sed contra” is Psalm 2:7 – “This day I have begotten Thee.” (To “beget” and to “generate” are the same.) So, at least one procession in God is called “generation.” But why?

There are two kinds of generation – the kind which makes something new (fire making more fire) which brings something into existence out of non-existence, and a kind which is proper to living things which generate other living things which have the same specific nature (unlike a man producing a hair on his head – but like a man producing a man). The latter normally includes the “making” of the first kind of generation; a horse generates a horse, a man generates a man, and so on. But maybe there could be something which lacks the aspect of “making” and has only this latter kind of generation… This is the Father-Son relationship. This generation is from a living principle (the Father, Whose operation of understanding is the “force” of this generation), it is a generation of similitude (due to how understanding works, as explained above), and that which is being understood is God Himself, the Divine Essence (the same nature as the Generator). So this is living generation but without creation. (Nerds may look at Question 14 for more details.)

Objections 2 and 3 are very important and very helpful.

Objection 2 notes that our own thoughts are not called “generation.” So, why should God’s thought in this case be called “generation”? Well, our act of understanding is not the same as our own substance – this is not the case with God. We produce thoughts that are not ourselves; but for God, anything in Him is Him.

Objection 3 argues that what derives its existence from another will exist in a subject, meaning, it is not self-subsistent – for example, a horse generated from a horse will exist in the physical universe, as part of that universe. So, since God is self-subsistent, there can be no generation in Him. Well, the created universe is Thomas’ counter-example: it does not exist in a subject. Creation exists in itself, due to the power of God. So, the Word, Who derives or receives His existence from another (the Father) by interior procession, does not need to subsist in another, just like creation does not need to.

Article 3 is relatively simple. The “sed contra” points to Scripture for the grounds for arguing that the Holy Spirit proceeds from God but is not the Word (John 15:26 and John 14:16 respectively).

The intellect has an interior procession, and so does the will. In the will, the object of desire moves us towards that object by a kind of impulsion. In God, the intellectual procession generates the Word; the procession of the Will of God gives us the Holy Spirit. This is the procession of love.

Objections 1 and 3 are good to look at.

Objection 1 states that, if we admit of more than one procession in God, we could be setting ourselves up to say that there are infinite processions in God, which is unreasonable. Thomas’ response is very important (and essentially constitutes the argument of Article 5)… Only the intellect and the will can have interior processions, so there cannot be more than two.

Objection 3 is possibly the strongest counter-argument yet. The claim is that intellect and will are the same in God, due to Divine Simplicity. Therefore, there cannot be a difference in the procession from the Divine Intellect and Will… So, there can be only one procession. Thomas admits that the Will and Intellect of God are the same, but Thomas says that there is a priority between intellect and will, with intellection preceding willing, logically even if not really; in God, this priority can only be logical – one must know what one loves, but since God is not doing this “step by step” it is in a single moment… and yet, there really is this logical priority, so there can be distinct processions. (Nerds might like to recall the insistence of Thomas on the priority of the intellect in human acts, over and against Bonaventure and later Scotus, Ockham, and then the long line of nominalists and voluntarists… Interesting how this connects, no?)

Article 4 gives us the first appeal to something other than Scripture – rather, it is an appeal to St. Athanasius, who says that the Holy Spirit is not begotten (or generated).

The intellect has an interior procession because some similitude exists in the intellect (I think of the apple, and something like an apple is in my mind – I think of myself, and something like myself is in my mind – and the better the conception in my mind is, the more like the thing itself that it is a conception of will it be… in God, as we saw, this conception is perfect, and therefore is God Himself, God the Word). Well, with the will it is a bit different. Instead of similitude, we speak of inclination, or a kind of wanting (or loving). When we have an object in our will, we are inclined towards it – we want it, we desire it, we love it. God, by loving Himself, has an interior procession in His Will. What thus proceeds is the Holy Spirit, so called because “spirit” implies a kind of living impulse. The procession is therefore called “spiration” rather than generation (see Objection 3).

We’ll leave the Objections alone.

Article 5 is within our grasp, as we’ve already indicated the argument. The “sed contra” is particularly blunt at this point – Thomas simply says there are only two Persons Who proceed, and thus there are only two processions.

As we have said, the intellect and the will are the only faculties which can have interior processions. Other faculties or operations will have exterior processions or no processions at all – sensation, for instance, requires activity outside the intellectual nature. Thus, there can only be three Persons in God, in accord with the Intellect and Will and unproceeded Principle, the Father.

The Objections concern the following claims: 1, that power has procession; 2, that goodness involves procession; and 3, that fecundity of operations would multiply the processions of Word and Love.

As for 1, power is exercised on another, so it is an external operation. As for 2, the goodness of God belongs to His Essence and is not an operation like understanding or willing, and so the Goodness of God is simply involved in the processions of the Word and Love. As for 3, God understands all and loves all by one simple act – therefore, there is no possibility of multiplying the processions of Word and Love.

We made it! Question 27, done! Believe it or not, we have already pretty much laid out the entirety of Trinitarian theology in seed form. The rest is largely just unpacking what we have just done.

Next up, Question 28: relations of origin…

A “Spitting Image” of Obedience

Eamonn Clark

“The next time you see her, spit in her face.”

An extremely instructive story for those who are tempted to trust their own judgment in the spiritual life is related in Gerard de Frachet O.P.’s Lives of the Brethren (available online here). Over a 5 year period (about 1255-1260), De Frachet (d. 1271) collected stories from the earliest life of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), which stories were well-founded on eyewitness testimony, with many of the brothers who are in the stories still being alive at the time of composition. It contains some of the earliest biographical information of St. Dominic, Bl. Jordan of Saxony, and many other stories of miracles, extraordinary piety, and heroic virtue. The episode we are considering goes like this – from page 209 (Imperium Christi Press, trans. Conway), in Chapter 22 of Part V, titled “Impatience and Phantasms”:

“One of the brethren in the convent in Paris gave himself up entirely to prayer to the detriment of his studies and teaching. The devil was also in the habit of coming to him, feigning to be the blessed Virgin, at one time praising his state of soul, and at another revealing future events. The brother happened to mention this fact to Brother Peter of Rheims, who was prior at the time, and was advised to spit in the face of the phantom if it appeared again: ‘For if it be the blessed Virgin,’ said he, ‘she will not be vexed, being always most humble of heart, nay, she will excuse you on account of your obedience; while if it be the father of lies he will make off in confusion.’ The brother simply did what he was told and spat accordingly, upon which the devil roared in anger: ‘Curse upon you, where did you learn such gross manners!’ He went off ashamed of himself, and never ventured to come again.”

Let those taken in by interior assurances of piety and holiness beware… they are blind guides. Even exterior affirmations should be distrusted, and they should be rejected entirely when there is an objective problem (such as neglecting one’s duties, even for an outwardly pious motive). The most famous example of such radical self-distrust is perhaps that of St. Teresa of Avila, who would regularly see Christ in apparitions but would essentially ignore their content without approval from her director – she knew her director would not deceive her, while she was less sure if she was really encountering the Lord in her visions.

And should there ever be an experience – psychological, physical, mystical – which suggests that one go against the lawful and reasonable demands of one’s superiors (natural or ecclesiastical, including one’s spiritual director), let alone that one go against the teaching or demands of the Church, one can be assured that such a thing is not from God. (Cf. Gal. 1:8 – “But even if we or an angel from Heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!”) Such illusions should be rejected – they should be spat upon. Let’s have terrible manners with the demons… Maybe that sometimes means spitting on apparitions, but it always means being obedient to God, to His Church, and to all our legitimate superiors who represent them both.

Main image: Paris – the old convent church (Couvent St. Jacques) in which this incident occurred was destroyed in the first half of the 19th century.

The Trinity Matters: Introduction

Eamonn Clark

The story goes that an old Irish priest was getting ready for his homily on Trinity Sunday. In Ireland at the time, on this Feast, the annual tithe of peat moss was made, to supplement the priest’s salary. He would need it for the fires throughout the coming winter. He ascended the ambo to preach that Sunday, and said, “As you know today is Trinity Sunday. That means it’s time to make the tithe of peat. If I don’t have peat, the winter will be dreadful, etc.” When asked later by a friend why he didn’t preach on the Trinity, the priest said, “Well, they all believe in that… They don’t all believe in making their tithe of peat!”

It should go without saying that, being the highest Mystery of our Faith – God Himself – the Trinity matters. However, as Rahner aptly pointed out in his important book on the subject, the Trinity has nonetheless somehow been slipping into practical irrelevance in the lives of believers. One must ask not only whether people do not believe in “tithing peat” and other such appropriate responses of parochial commitment anymore – but if they even really believe in the entire center and ultimate point of Christianity, which is the Triune Godhead as such. Or, instead, is it the case that, after so many preachers simply assuming “they believe it,” they are rather actually some kind of Sabellians or Arians, even if unknowingly? (Many are.) What effects could that have on the spiritual life, for individuals, and also for the whole Church and world? (Enormous ones.) And what exactly is the doctrine of the Trinity anyway? (Three Persons in One God.) Is it even really coherent? (Yes.) Is the doctrine demonstrable from reason alone? (No.) Do the missions imply a subordination of the Persons? (No.) Etc.

We will be walking step by step through the Treatise on the Trinity by St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica, starting with Question 27 of the Prima Pars and going all the way through to Question 43… At the end, I will introduce you to the most relevant debate occurring right now in Trinitarian theology (over Rahner’s famous “grundaxiom” – “The Immanent Trinity is the Economic Trinity, and the Economic Trinity is the Immanent Trinity”) and perhaps give some additional reflections on the visible mission of the Son (the Incarnation) as it relates to the mysteries of His public life and ministry.

Have no fear! I will break down the language piece by piece and sift through all the normal queries. As St. Augustine said, this part of theology is the most dangerous, but it is also the most fruitful… It’s worth the effort.

Astute and zealous readers might want to brush up first on Divine Simplicity (Question 3) to see what is immediately at stake in this topic (basically, if something is not perfectly simple, viz., without parts, then it’s not God – such a thing would have had to be put together by something else which existed prior to it). Other Questions might be helpful to read too (11-14, 18-20, 22, 25), but Question 3 is enough to see the major “obstacle” at hand. I will help you through the rest.

I hope you enjoy this upcoming series, and may God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit bless you and keep you always… Happy Trinity Sunday!

Main image: The Jordan River, near the Baptismal Site, the lowest place on Earth – where all Three Persons were encountered by distinct visible missions.

The Christian Film I Want to Make

Eamonn Clark

Years ago I had a post on the relationship between animation and iconography. The basic point is that the more “data” given by the artist, the more the mind has to overcome the falsehood of the representation. That’s why icons are good for devotion, while realistic images are not.

Ever since, I have been thinking about the Christian film that one day I would like to make.

It is easy to critique the “genre” of Christian film. It is worth doing so. The Church has the truth, so She should also have beauty, no? It is disgraceful that there have been so few good Christian films produced since the medium was invented over 100 years ago.

A few films stand out as masterpieces – yet to my mind, none really hits the mark, for reasons explained in my post on animation. About as close it gets to what I have in mind among color films can be found in the 1959 production, Ben-Hur.

Notice – no words, no face… And yet, it is just about right. In this scene, Christ is on screen for about 2 minutes, and later at the end of the film we see His shadow for a few seconds as He is carrying the Cross. But somehow the entire film is about Christ nonetheless, and it drives that fact home much more efficaciously than many films that portray the entire Gospel narrative. What if the Ben-Hur style of depicting Christ was used to tell the whole Gospel story? Food for thought.

So, to my dream-film. Would it be animated? No. “Moving iconography”? Closer.

I invite the reader to do an exercise. Take a quick look at any recent film about the life of Christ. (For example, this one.) Consider: how does it affect you?

Now, there is a website (here) dedicated to old Christian films – take a look at the film “No Greater Power” (skip to about the 18 minute mark). Watch it for a bit. Notice the difference?

Now rewind, turn the sound off, and play something ambient and mildly dramatic, like this, or maybe this.

Now go back to the first film.

Which of the three models did you prefer? If you are like me, it is the third. The selective realism allows freedom for the mind to move to God rather than focusing as much on the film itself. If the point is to make a movie, then maybe the first model is best. But “making a movie” would not be the point. Nor would it be making money – as is what unfortunately drives Hollywood and much of the Christian movie industry as well. Cheap budget makes big bucks if you have the “right message” – it is going to be picked up by millions of people to show their children, to show their youth group, etc. That’s the point. But they do not evangelize.

For anyone with a moderate amount of knowledge of the events of the Gospel narrative, I think my model could work, at least for many people.

So, the film would be black and white (or some version of sepia), silent (or mostly silent), with semi-ambient music designed to draw the viewer into the moment of the scene, and be very limited and obscure in the portrayal of Christ, especially leaving the full view of His Face just out of sight. All this helps to conjure – rather than replace – the memory of the real event and the real persons, allowing for a more authentic use of the medium of film for an encounter with God by freeing the mind from the burden of the senses. In a word, it’s contemplative, like an icon.

One day someone will be kind enough (and foolish enough?) to give me the money needed to do such a project. Until then, it’s nice to dream.