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.

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: 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.

About that Communist Article in “America”

Eamonn Clark

If you haven’t heard by now, the Jesuit-run magazine America ran an article in praise of Communism (and a rather weak defense of its publication). There have been plenty of decent reactions. Being a fledgling scholar of socialist and Communist thought, here is a bit of what I’ve learned during the past few months in my deep dive into that world which could help the discussion… I welcome any corrections or criticisms in the comments.

  1. If Marx were alive today, he would recognize no country on Earth as having achieved Communism. He would likewise recognize no major political party as Communist upon close inspection, including those which describe themselves as such. Any country with a “state,” with private property, with wage labor, or even simply with currency, would not qualify as Communist. And any party which is not explicitly – and sincerely – working toward this goal would not be truly Communist in the classical sense. Opportunistic power-grabs which use the language of Communism and impose an indefinite program of state-capitalism through authoritarian collectivization, whatever they are, are not what Marx had in mind. It could and should be argued that any kind of large-scale collectivization and planning is doomed (see Hayek), that Marx left some troubling ambiguities about the process of socialization and its final product (especially regarding the usage of words like “socialization” and “state”) which is in part what opens the door to such misunderstandings or willful manipulations on the part of his early disciples, and that the foundations of Marx’s economic diagnoses were flawed (they were)… But what he cannot be fairly charged with is designing what is popularly thought of as “Communism.” Instead, what he must be charged with is proposing something which is not reachable or is not worth trying to reach, either due to what must happen to get there, or due to the goal’s intrinsic undesirability.
  2. No serious economist today is a classical Marxist, if for no other reason than that several prophecies of Marx’s did not come to pass. The middle class did not disappear. The age of the factory came and went without the revolution, and the revolution does not seem in sight anymore. The increased aggregation of capital has not tended to yield perpetual decreases in profit margins. This is to leave aside all theoretical questions about Marx’s version of the “labor theory of value,” which is integral to his moral critique of capitalism as being exploitative in itself, in addition to his scientific or deterministic predictions which rely on his labor theory of value. So all of this calls into question the legitimacy of the project, at least as expressed by its chief proponent.
  3. That project’s historical foundations are deeply at odds with Christianity in their basic philosophical and anthropological commitments. The dialectical materialism of the classical Communists sets up human nature in place of Hegel’s evolving God (a theory enunciated first by Feuerbach)… Through various stages of mass economic development and conflict, humanity evolves to a perfect state. This process is altogether unavoidable (“scientific,” not “utopian”), and it ends with Communism. There countless problems with this from a Christian point of view; and ironically, the atheistic determinism, violent tactics, and Pelagian ethos rob Communist life of its possibility; that possibility is best actualized in religious life, where the wall primarily prevents one from getting in, not getting out, and where the love of a transcendent God Who heals an otherwise stable and broken human nature animates all work. This should give us real pause.
  4. If there had been a successful global Communist revolution near the end of the 19th century as had been predicted by so many, we can assume safely that the age of innovation was over. The “glut” of capitalist production was seen as overwhelming at the time… We had everything we needed to relax and enjoy life, at last! And since innovation would no longer be rewarded by the accrual of wealth, it stands to reason that it would have been either only for the sake of making work easier (not necessarily more productive, but easier), altruism, or it would be done on accident. Consider what things we take for granted today that were not yet invented or mass-produced in the 1890’s. We would have been essentially stuck in that age had the revolution happened and innovation effectively ceased. What great innovations that otherwise await in the future would a successful revolution destroy today?
  5. Socialization is a matter of degrees. I take this from an analogous insight offered indirectly by Ludwig Von Mises (in his masterwork on socialism, online for free here, along with tons of other Austrian-school economics books and articles) regarding democracy: in some sense, every state is democratic, insofar as a sufficient number of people are sufficiently satisfied with the prevailing state of affairs such that it continues. Put another way, enough people choose with enough commitment to go along with what is the established order of society so that a new order is not established. Incremental changes might happen even outside of a “formal” democratic structure or means (viz., voting on a ballot). Likewise, socialization exists insofar as property is under the control of the community. All kinds of ways exist for controlling “private property” and “private production” through the government or some other organ of the community. The question then is not whether to socialize property or the means of production, it is whether to increase or decrease the strength or directness or scope of the socialization which already exists (and which informs the society’s understanding of ownership and the private sector). This is an important hermeneutic when giving any critique of “socialism”; it is a complicated issue. Simple dismissals of “socialism” are therefore rightly met with equally simple counter-dismissals by those who know the history and contemporary literature. However, Communism, the highest form of socialization, is subject to special critiques insofar as challenges to socialism’s status as desirable, achievable, and sustainable are “turned up to eleven” when discussing socialism’s perfected form.
  6. The scope of the authentic Communist movement today is very limited. The SPD’s Godesberg Program could probably be used as a singular indication of the global shift away from revolutionary Communism toward a milder and less-defined “socialism”; Marx and Engels were quite involved in the affairs of the SPD early on, particularly in opposing the influence of Lassalle’s revisionism, such as we see in the Critique of the Gotha Program alluded to in the America article. That revisionism is radically exceeded in Godesberg, the spirit of which informs the global socialist movement of today much more than an entirely unrealistic call for pure Communism. Under this hyper-revisionism, most “serious” contemporary socialists work for a humane administration of governmental tools in a mixed economy (partly socialist, partly capitalist), and many of them further envision a high degree of democratic participation in the planning of this administration – but NOT full public or collectivized ownership of the basic means of production, the classical definition of socialism. One will find this theme explored at length in the final work of Michael Harrington (also alluded to in the article – who was apparently a “Catholic Worker,” and yet, though we are not told there, was also a committed atheist), and any number of recent books and articles on so-called “democratic socialism.” (Connected but somewhat distinct ideas are “market socialism” and “participatory economics.”) These positions are sometimes subtler than one might think, even if they all ultimately fall prey at least in part to the same pitfalls as more classical Marxist theories (which, by and large, they do in my estimation). Whatever the case, while the old encyclical condemnations remain relevant, those written before 1960 are not necessarily the slam-dunk cases against contemporary socialism that many people think them to be, as they are addressing a more classical version under old global conditions.

So there you have it. In sum, classical Communism is Heaven without God, earned through a large-scale, unavoidable, Hegelian-style revolution due to class conflict, and history teaches us that, despite Engels’ optimism that the revolution only might involve force, is always incredibly violent, whether directly through the killing fields and gulags, or indirectly through creating famine and destitution. Is this what the folks at America think is worthy of discussing seriously with openness? I hope not. If it is true that Communism has a “complicated relationship” with Catholicism – and it is, simply because both are complicated things – perhaps another journal is more fit to handle the discussion.

Fire in Paris… My Mixed Emotions

Eamonn Clark

Yes it is sad that the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned down. It is good that it seems it will not be entirely destroyed and that many important things inside the building were apparently rescued. It even seems that nobody was hurt (granted I am writing this as the story is still unfolding). I squirm at the sight of the images of the fire, and I would have prevented it from happening if I could have.

Here is the thing.

I have been to the cathedral plenty of times (I used to live not far away and have occasionally visited Paris since). There is just no denying that the priorities at Notre Dame were backwards. And to anyone who has gone there to try to pray, you know what I mean. It has been, for a very long time, a place 99% dedicated to tourism, and 1% to prayer. I recall one afternoon when I was in the chapel in the far back end of the ambulatory, where the Blessed Sacrament was. There were perhaps 2 or 3 other people with me. After a little while, for no apparent reason, some guards came all of a sudden and told us we had to leave and re-join the Kabah-like crowd of tourists circling the nave. I suppose they were setting up for something, but that was extremely frustrating and disappointing nonetheless, and I bet it happened all the time. I recall there also being a large commercial operation near the entrance, selling various memorabilia. It always unsettled me to see… Of course it is not quite on par with the money-changers at the Temple whom Our Lord attacked twice, but it was not at all appropriate. Misplaced priorities.

And now this symbolic heart of the French Church – and in many ways the European Church – is practically destroyed. What an apt metaphor. People indeed have marveled at the “culture” of the Church through this splendid building. Well, now that is gone, for the time being. What will be done? What leg is there to stand on except faith? A fine leg indeed – much stronger than wood and stone, even beautiful wood and stone.

Recall that Europe was not always the mainland of Christendom. It was once North Africa… It produced saints like Augustine, Cyprian, Cyril, and on and on. Today it is not like that, if you didn’t know. Nor is Turkey, which was also once a booming epicenter of Christian orthodoxy and apostolic zeal. Europe is quickly becoming like these places. There have been attacks on several French churches in the past few weeks. St. Sulpice, another incredible Parisian church, was also on fire just last month. I am not an apocalyptic conspiracy-theorist, so I won’t go there – but that God has allowed all of this should be cause to stop and think a bit. Why are we so concerned to preserve these churches? Is it just because they are nice pieces of eye candy, or is it for something more?

This will be an immensely important chance for the French clergy to capitalize on vast swarms of media attention which they are about to encounter, and the momentous effort which will surely go into the restoration of this magnificent church. Let us pray that they use the opportunity not only to do and say the obvious, but that they also point to the Tabernacle not made with human hands… Who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Our Lady of Paris… Pray for us.

The Historical-Critical Exegetes: A Brief Summary of the Consensus in the 41st Century

Herman Von Voelkenhausen
Catholic University of Cologne
St. Benedict XVI Chair of Theology
April 12, 4019


Before outlining the views of the majority of contemporary scholars on the historical-critical tradition of the 19th and 20th century, it is worth first mentioning the traditional view of that school from which our own views have arisen and evolved beyond.

Writers of the 22nd century onward who reflected deeply on the historical-critical phenomenon, scattered as such writers are, assume that the exegetical school was simply directly inspired by Spinozistic and post-Kantian ideals to re-envision the Scriptures in a radical way, breaking with the cumulative conclusions of the ages and the clear teaching of the Church. These exegetes supposedly became immensely popular, even holding chairs in the most distinguished theological faculties of Europe, where they would really speak and teach their students directly. Their lectures and writings were the real motion towards a culmination in the “Jesus Seminar,” the fullest expression of the movement, which was followed by a number of special disciples who gradually unpacked the wisdom contained therein in the midst of the larger academic community that turned to join the historical-critical movement in this final phase of critical scholarship.

We must now pause and admit that all of this seems rather childish to us, but to the majority of theologians and historians from the year 2100 until well into the 3800’s, this simplistic position was simply taken for granted. It is no wonder; due to the limited knowledge of the 19th and 20th century which was available to the early authors, we cannot expect very much accuracy on their part. The advent of the internet came only near the very end of the 20th century, and immediately afterward came that dark cloud of Fake News, which persisted well into the mid-22nd century. With such imprecise methods of research and communication, we should be inclined to go easy on those who first attempted to react to the historical-critical phenomenon. The tradition which took their analyses in good faith, it is true, has less excuse insofar as their means of investigation increased in quality, but those authors were hindered by the all-too-natural allure of continuity and the professional risk of speaking out too boldly.

The first point which nearly all authors now make is that of the difference between the “historical exegetes,” and the “scholars of faith.”

The exegetes are the real human beings at the center of the scholarly movement traditionally placed in the 19th to 21st centuries (although it seems increasingly likely that these early dates are fallacious). Many of them, it is granted, really did exist as human beings. But it matters very little what these men really were in their historical lives – it mostly matters that they existed. For instance, whether or not some sayings of Rudolph Bultmann were actually spoken by him is largely irrelevant; what really matters is that a tradition developed which sees him in connection with such sayings.

The “scholars,” then, are the writers in the minds of those who received their teachings and modified them. We encounter the scholars in the writings which are associated with them by name.

Immediately the question is raised – how were these writings produced? “The books bear the names of the authors themselves,” it is objected. As foolish as it sounds to us, it was once unthinkingly presumed that, since an exegete’s name was attached to a text that he must have actually written that text himself. The prevailing theory today is that while some writers did indeed exert a kind of influence over the writings that bear their names, in almost every case we see a kind of pseudepigraphy.

A fundamental body of writing in the historical-critical tradition will serve as a fine framework for an introduction to the methods we are using today to analyze this period of theology. This collection of books was traditionally presumed to be the work of a single author, but now the agreement is that it actually is an amalgamation of several written traditions under the redaction and collection of later theologians. First, there is the Kuenen source, or K. Next, the Graf source, G. Third, the Hupfeld source, H. Finally, the Reuss source, R. Over time, a careful redaction on the part of later German exegetes over the coming decades would piece these writings together to form what the historical-critical tradition, and those who uncritically write of its history, has called the collected works of Julius Wellhausen.

Perhaps there really was a Julius Wellhausen, but the “historical exegete” is, in any case, less important than the significance of the “scholar” represented in the popular imagination of the academy of the 20th century. For those first disciples of the masters of the historical-critical tradition, such as Wellhausen was to those who followed in that tradition, they really were seen as true scholars, important figures who somehow had advanced the theological milieu towards a new era.

It should be noted that the most recent quest for the historical Albert Schweitzer has come up largely empty. There is now, however, a broad consensus that he was not born in Alsace-Lorraine, but in Tübingen – to place his birth in an as-then recently annexed part of France was a clever narrative device used to broaden the appeal of the historical-critical movement beyond Germany in the long-term. That is to say, there was a value of a kind of “academic annexing” being imposed on the narrative of the Schweitzer character during the period of redaction of the earlier records of his life. It is well established that he did spend time in France, but to place his birth and childhood in anywhere but Germany finds no support except the primary texts themselves, which, as we have said, have changed the narrative to suit their own ideological agenda.

In the 19th century, the time for historical-critical exegesis was ripe, as there were expectations in the air for such a movement, after the Prussian myth of Schleiermacher had taken hold of the European imagination. (The Schleiermacher-myth was distinct from but related to the Prussian myths of Fichte and Kant, all of which were zealously absorbed and appropriated by the “Hegelian Community.”) Eventually, this all culminated in the well-known “Jesus Seminar” Event. While most scholars agree that there really was a Jesus Seminar, there is little consensus beyond three points: that the Jesus Seminar was formed around the year 1980, that it preached an apocalyptic doctrine about the coming end of traditional Biblical theology (with itself as a central catalyst), and that it ended in a shameful demise.

An example will serve us well to illustrate the attitude of current scholarship on post-Jesus Seminar thought. Virtually all historians of theology today recognize the minimal “historicity” of the writings of Bishop Spong, that is, Spongian authorship. Instead, various radical publishing houses collected the reports of various moderate pieces of scholarship on the part of Bishop Spong, and they published books under his name. Why? Clearly, these publishing houses had their own theological agenda which they were willing to advance, even in the face of such enormous ridicule. Their reflection on the meaning of Spongian theology prompted them to take a courageous attempt at promoting work largely inspired by his own teachings but which was itself a radical development of them. This is a standard model for the era.

The writings of all the post-Jesus Seminar theologians are typically dated to the late 21st to early 22nd century. It was a common pious mentality of devotees of the historical-critical exegetes, and especially those following the Jesus Seminar, to view the writings traditionally attributed to figures such as Bishop Spong, Bart Ehrman, and Paul Bradshaw as being written much earlier than they really were. It has been firmly established, however, that Bradshaw did indeed write his work first, and Spong and Ehrman based their writings on his, and upon other accounts of the Jesus Seminar and the tradition it represents. Furthermore, these three works draw on a common source, “Q,” (from the French, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” – “What is it?”) which links them together. They are altogether in a different tradition, however, than the Reza Aslan tradition, which is decidedly more “spiritual” than historically minded in its presentation.

Of course, as is well-known, current academics consider many of these texts to have been compiled by the communities which gathered around these figures. The Spongian community, the Aslanian community, and so on. (Bradshaw, it is true, perhaps did actually write his own works – but it is altogether clear that he himself could not have come up with the idea that John was unaware of an Institution Narrative – this was a later redaction by the publishing house.) The growing majority also views most of the writings attributed to Bart Ehrman actually to be complete forgeries – fully dishonest, albeit clever, pseudepigraphy. (Several editions and translations of his work have also left us wondering what the “true” or “original” texts were in the first place – the recent unearthing of hundreds of copies of the text “Jesus Interrupted” in what is thought to be a 25th century Siberian landfill may prove to be a crucial discovery to aid us in getting to the bottom of this vexing problem. My own forthcoming work “Misquoting Bart Ehrman” will investigate this data at length.)

The motivation for our project is simple: it is altogether unrealistic that such men would have really existed, taught, and written as they are traditionally have thought to have done. Their doctrines are too systematically bizarre and radically incoherent to have been the products of single authors; it is altogether unthinkable that, even given such bad scholarship, they somehow gained wide acclaim to the point of wielding true academic and intellectual authority. Therefore, what was at stake in the 19th and 20th centuries, and what was carried on by the disciples of historical-criticism in the centuries which followed, must be studied under a hermeneutic which takes the spirit of the tradition seriously while retaining the position that such fantastical theories themselves were not taken literally by those who first originated them. It was only later generations of devotees of historical-critical exegesis who, in their zeal, took these traditions to be literal works of Biblical scholarship.

Post by: Eamonn Clark (NB: Faith is a gift – let no man boast… Let us pray for souls who lack such a great grace to see and know the Living God!)

Shameless Plug #2

Eamonn Clark

I am helping to produce content for the brand new YouTube channel for the Thomistic Institute at the Angelicum. It’s great!

Minutes ago, we published a fantastic talk by Dr. Ed Feser:

The other talks from that conference will be coming in the next few days. (They are great.) We also have uploaded talks from the inaugural conference of the year, all available if you click HERE.

We also recently hosted Justice Alito, though no recordings were allowed. (I did help the Secret Service get a door open, though, so there’s that!) Much more to come after the New Year. Get yourself the best Christmas gift ever and SUBSCRIBE to the channel – and to this blog if you’ve not!

The Double-Effect Death-Spiral… and the Way Out!

Eamonn Clark

There are a number of pressing problems in Catholic moral theology, especially in bioethics. One of them is the right understanding of the so-called “Principle of Double-Effect,” (PDE) or whether this is really a legitimate principle at all in the way it is normally expressed. Now that Dr. Finnis has both parts of his series on capital punishment out, let’s put on our moralist hats and get to work.

I’ll spare you all the ins and outs of the history of the problem – Fr. Connery’s wonderful book on abortion in the Catholic moral tradition deals with this in some relevant detail – but will give you the gist of the recent discussions so that we can dive into John Finnis’ articles. I too will write in two parts, I think…

The 19th century saw the problem of “craniotomy” come up, and this is a decent and to me, most familiar way to dive into the problem of PDE. (Craniotomy is crushing the skull of an inviable fetus, in this case with an eye to extracting the child to save the mother.) Archbishop Kenrick of Baltimore wrote his morals handbook and forbade the operation, Cardinal Avanzini of Rome anonymously opined in favor (page 308-311) of the procedure in his journal (which would become the Acta Apostolicae Sedis), and Cardinal Caverot of Lyon (the city pictured above, coincidentally) petitioned the Holy Office for an official response. Needless to say, there was some controversy.

In response to Caverot’s dubium, the Holy Office (the precursor to the CDF) decided in favor of Kenrick’s position. But it did so cautiously, saying that the procedure “cannot be safely taught.” It did not exclude definitively the liceity of the procedure in itself.

Let’s fast-forward to today’s iteration of the old camps, of which there were and still are precisely three…

The “Grisezian” Position:

Doctors Grisez, Finnis, and Boyle were major proponents of the liceity of craniotomy in the 20th century and into the 21st. Grisez lays out his argument in several places, including in his magnum opus (entirely available online), The Way of the Lord Jesus. It is worth quoting the relevant passage in its entirety:

“Sometimes the baby’s death may be accepted to save the mother. Sometimes four conditions are simultaneously fulfilled: (i) some pathology threatens the lives of both a pregnant woman and her child, (ii) it is not safe to wait or waiting surely will result in the death of both, (iii) there is no way to save the child, and (iv) an operation that can save the mother’s life will result in the child’s death.

If the operation was one of those which the classical moralists considered not to be a “direct” abortion, they held that it could be performed. For example, in cases in which the baby could not be saved regardless of what was done (and perhaps in some others as well), they accepted the removal of a cancerous gravid uterus or of a fallopian tube containing an ectopic pregnancy. This moral norm plainly is sound, since the operation does not carry out a proposal to kill the child, serves a good purpose, and violates neither fairness nor mercy.

At least in times past, however, and perhaps even today in places where modern medical equipment and skills are unavailable, certain life-saving operations meeting the four conditions would fall among procedures classified by the classical moralists as “direct” killing, since the procedures in question straightaway would lead to the baby’s death. This is the case, for example, if the four conditions are met during the delivery of a baby whose head is too large. Unless the physician does a craniotomy (an operation in which instruments are used to empty and crush the head of the child so that it can be removed from the birth canal), both mother and child eventually will die; but the operation can be performed and the mother saved. With respect to physical causality, craniotomy immediately destroys the baby, and only in this way saves the mother. Thus, not only classical moralists but the magisterium regarded it as “direct” killing: a bad means to a good end.

However, assuming the four conditions are met, the baby’s death need not be included in the proposal adopted in choosing to do a craniotomy. The proposal can be simply to alter the child’s physical dimensions and remove him or her, because, as a physical object, this body cannot remain where it is without ending in both the baby’s and the mother’s deaths. To understand this proposal, it helps to notice that the baby’s death contributes nothing to the objective sought; indeed, the procedure is exactly the same if the baby has already died. In adopting this proposal, the baby’s death need only be accepted as a side effect. Therefore, according to the analysis of action employed in this book, even craniotomy (and, a fortiori, other operations meeting the four stated conditions) need not be direct killing, and so, provided the death of the baby is not intended (which is possible but unnecessary), any operation in a situation meeting the four conditions could be morally acceptable.”

We can see the attractiveness of the Grisezian position. It removes the uncomfortable conclusion that we must allow two people to die rather than save one. However, it simultaneously introduces an uncomfortable conclusion: that we may ignore the immediately terrible results of our physical exterior act in favor of further consequences of that act due to the psychological reality of our intention, in this case contingent on even further action (viz. actually extracting the child after crushing the skull – presumably, a surgeon may perform the craniotomy and then simply leave the child in the womb, thus failing to save either life).

Hold on to that thought.

The “Traditional” Position:

I put the word “traditional” in scare-quotes because it is the position which follows the cautious prohibition of the Holy Office, but it is not very old and is merely probable opinion. It is taken by a good number of moralists who are “conservative” and “traditional” in other areas. And it doesn’t have a modern champion the way Grisez was for the pro-craniotomy camp.

Folks in this school often make more or less good critiques of the Grisezian position, zeroing in on the lack of the appreciation for the immediate physical effects which flow from an external act. How is it that crushing a child’s skull does not equate with “direct killing”? It seems that such an action-theory, as proposed by Grisez, Finnis, and Boyle (GFB) in their landmark essay in The Thomist back in 2001, is utterly at odds with common sense. The plain truth then, is that craniotomy, just like ripping the organs out of someone healthy to save 5 other people, functions based on consequentialism.

This position, however, must bite two bullets. First, there is the sour prescription to let two people die when one could be saved. Second, it throws into confusion the topic of private lethal self-defense… Doesn’t shooting a person in the head also directly kill in order to save another’s life? GFB made this point in their Thomist essay, and, in my opinion, it is their strongest counter-argument. It pulls us back to the fundamental text in the discussion, q. 64 a. 7 of the Secunda Secundae, whence supposedly cometh PDE.

Hold on to that thought too.

The Rights-Based Position:

The final position for our consideration comes most recently from Fr. Rhonheimer, who seems to be at least in part following Avanzini. Basically, the argument goes like this… In some vital conflicts, like the problematic pregnancy at issue, one has two options – save one life, or allow two deaths. Everyone has a right to life, but in cases where we find acute vital conflicts, it sometimes makes no sense to speak of rights. The case in which a person in a vital conflict (the child) will not even be born is one such example. Therefore, while the child retains the right to life, it makes no sense to speak of this right, and so it does not bear on the decision of whether to perform an act which would end in the child’s death if it will save the mother.

Leaving aside the problem of the language of rights in moral discourse (see McIntyre’s scathing critique in After Virtue), we can simply observe that this is a position which does not evidently derive from virtue-ethics but is made up wholesale out of a desire to appease an intuition. Rhonheimer, as far as I recall, does not even attempt to integrate his position into the broader framework of moral theology. In sum, the damning question is, “Why precisely does acute danger to others and shortness of life remove the necessity to respect the bodily integrity/life of a person?” To me, it seems little more than an appeal to intuition followed by foot-stomping.

I credit Fr. Rhonheimer for making an attempt to present a different solution, and certainly, not all of his work is this problematic. But we are presently concerned with this particular topic. Anyway, I suggest that this is not a serious position for further consideration.

A Brief Synthesis

I recently wrote my STB thesis on moral liceity with respect to “per se” order, which is to say that those acts with “per se” order form the fundamental unit of moral analysis upon which the whole question of “object” vis-a-vis “intention” turns. I look at Dr. Steven Long’s truly excellent groundwork in his book The Teleological Grammar of the Moral Act, but I expose what I found to be some ambiguities in his definition and presentation of what exactly constitutes per se order. Skipping over all the details, let me quickly show how problematic the first two foregoing positions are and then give a rundown of the basic solution and its integration with respect to capital punishment. (It is Finnis’ articles on the death penalty which brought us here, remember!)

There are 3 dilemmas we have already mentioned: the central problem is craniotomy. At the two poles are the “transplant dilemma,” with one healthy patient and 5 critical patients in need of new vital organs, and the standard case of private lethal self-defense (PLSD), such as shooting a person in the head in order to stop his lethal attack.

The Grisezian position ably explains the craniotomy and PLSD. Nowhere – and I have looked pretty hard – do NNL theorists explore the implications of their action-theory (such as presented by GFB in their article) with respect to something like the transplant dilemma. One could easily appropriate the language of Grisez’s passage in TWOTLJ to accommodate such an obviously heinous action as ripping out the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, etc. of a healthy man to save 5 others. (It should be noted that the individual’s willingness to give his body over to such an act, while good in its remote intention, is totally inadmissible. I think basically all Catholic moralists would agree with this.) To rip out the man’s vital organs could certainly be described as “reshaping the body” or something similar to Grisez’s description of craniotomy as “reshaping the skull.” After all, the surgeon need not intend to kill the man – he could simply foresee it happening in view of his means to save these other men.

GFB evidently miss the point in their Thomist article, as they claim a causal equivalence between craniotomy and procedures done on a person for that person’s own sake, on page 23: “It is true that crushing the baby’s skull does not of itself help the mother, and that to help her the surgeon must carry out additional further procedures (remove the baby’s body from the birth canal). But many surgical procedures provide no immediate benefit and by themselves are simply destructive: removing the top of someone’s skull, stopping someone’s heart, and so forth.” We can see, then, that the principle of totality is undervalued by GFB and those who follow them. Serious damage done to a person must at least help that person. Any help to other persons is secondary, and I would argue per accidens rather than per se… One human substance is always related accidentally to another human substance.

The traditional approach more or less throws the teaching of St. Thomas into a cloud of ambiguity. By stating that the craniotomy is illicit because of the directness of its physical causation, the language in q. 64 a. 7 becomes unintelligible. We have to see the whole thing:

“Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above (II-II:43:3; I-II:12:1). Accordingly the act of self-defense may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in ‘being,’ as far as possible. And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore if a man, in self-defense, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defense will be lawful, because according to the jurists [Cap. Significasti, De Homicid. volunt. vel casual.], ‘it is lawful to repel force by force, provided one does not exceed the limits of a blameless defense.’ Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.”

Without launching into a critique of the Cajetanian strain of commentary which ultimately gave rise to the crystallized formulation of PDE which pervades most moral discourse on vital conflicts, I will again follow Long and say that the “rules” of PDE really only work if one already knows what one is looking for. In this respect, PDE is like the moral version of St. Anselm’s ontological proof for God’s existence – it is nice to have in a retrospective capacity, but it is not actually that helpful as an explanatory tool.

As we have seen, GFB take Thomas to mean that one does not “intend” to kill the aggressor, just as the surgeon does not “intend” to kill the child in the craniotomy. The traditional school does not have as clear of an answer – it seems forced to say, somewhat like Fr. Rhonheimer, that the rules just “don’t apply,” yet without a convincing explanation. After all, the principle of totality does not bear on the slaying of one person for the sake of another, even in the case Thomas addresses. Furthermore, because it appears that it is only due to the death of the aggressor that the attack is stopped, thus implying “intentional killing” as a means, how do we explain St. Thomas’ position?

We can note a few things in response. First, it is in fact not death which stops the attack initially – it is the destruction of the body’s capacity to continue attacking, which itself is the cause of death. The separation of the soul and body (which is what death is) need not be the chosen means or the intended end. In every single case, the aggressor is incapacitated before dying, and such incapacitation is what is sought. (This is at least part of what makes Finnis’ argument about “unintentional killing” in war plausible.) Second, the child stuck in the womb is a radically different kind of threat than the rational aggressor. Third, Thomas is quick to turn the discussion to public authority, as a kind of foil. All of this is quite significant and points to an answer.

To the first point… It is true that the private citizen can’t have the death of the aggressor as a goal, meaning, death can’t be what is sought as a means or as an end. He doesn’t need to do anything to the soul-body composite as such, he only needs to do something to the body’s ability to be used as a weapon.

To the second point… A gunman in an alley is a very different sort of threat than a child growing in the womb. There seem to be two classes of threats – non-commutative, and commutative. The non-commutative threats are those which result from principles not in themselves ordered towards interacting with the outside world, viz., the operations of which are without a terminus exterior to one’s own body. These would be the material principle itself of the body (the act of existing as a body), and the augmentative and nutritive faculties of the vegetal soul. So a person falling off a cliff, or a child growing in the womb, are not acting on the outside world… Threats which proceed from the animal or rational appetites, however, are indeed acting externally. The crazed gunman who is not morally responsible and the hired hand are both trying to do something to another person, whereas the child growing in the womb is not. So perhaps different kinds of threats allow for different kinds of defense.

To the third point… Without a full exploration of the famous “self-defense” article quoted above, Thomas is eager to explain that public authority can kill intentionally – evidently meaning it can be the end of one’s act rather than just the means. (“Choice” refers to means, “intention” refers to ends – they are only equivocally applied in the inverse senses in scholastic morals.) Here’s where it gets weird.

Because the soul-body composite is its own substance (a living human being), the act of killing a person (regardless of one’s psychology) destroys that substance insofar as the world of nature is concerned. (We leave aside the interesting questions of  the survivalism vs. corruptionism debate among Catholic philosophers.) It forms a per se act – that is to say, there is nothing further which can come from this action which will be per se an effect. This is because, as I argued in my thesis, per se order exists only within the substance chosen to be acted upon. Per se effects are those effects which necessarily occur in the substance an agent acts on which come from the agent’s act itself, given the real situation of the substance. So to destroy a substance necessarily ends the per se order. At the end of per se order there is the intended effect – such as debilitation (which is only logically distinct from self-preservation and therefore is not a separate/remote/accidental effect – what it is to protect oneself simply is to remove a threat) or death. Of course, this intended effect can itself be part of a chain of intended effects which function as means with relation to some further end. If I defend myself in order to live, but I want to live for the sake of something else (like acquiring wealth), then there is a chain of intended ends which function as means. The necessary process of moral evaluation, however, is to look for the per se case of action and examine whether it is rightly ordered in itself.

We have seen with the transplant dilemma that it is wrongly ordered to damage one innocent person’s body lethally with the good aim of helping many others. The answer to the craniotomy seems to be the same… The child does not have an unjust appetite, he has a rightly ordered vegetal/material appetite which is inconvenient to others, so he may not be attacked, unless that attack also proportionately helps him and is chosen in part for that reason. (Such a case might really exist – for example, an inviable fetus is causing the womb to rupture… It’s foreseen that delivering the child will both save the mother and allow the child to live longer than he would have otherwise, even though exposure to the outside world will be the cause of his death. It certainly seems that this would be permissible given the principle of totality.) Finally, we reach the case of PLSD… There is no principle of totality at work here, even though the intended effect of self-preservation is immediately achieved with the debilitation which causes death. Rather, the normal rule of totality is indeed suspended. This is because of the kind of threat which the aggressor poses – it is a threat to the commonwealth due to a disordered external appetite.

Because “it is natural to everything to keep itself in ‘being,’ as far as possible,” and “one is more bound to take care of his own life than another’s,” it stands to reason that in a case in which there is public disorder due to the external act of a person, that person becomes the rightful recipient of correction at the hands of those whom he threatens, without his own good being a barrier to protecting the good of oneself or the community. The blows to the aggressor, we can see, actually help him – they keep him from being a bad part of society. And the private citizen’s duty is indeed to protect the commonwealth insofar as he is a part… This would include a kind of “natural delegation” to dispense with individual totality for the sake of communal totality – he is at liberty to risk the good of the one person (while, remember, he actually does something good to the aggressor by rectifying his disordered exterior act) for the sake of the commonwealth. The private defender may not try to kill the aggressor, but he may knowingly cause it with no benefit to the aggressor beyond keeping him from being harmful. Even though death is a per se effect, the defensive act is legitimate – the private defender acts like a miniature public official in this urgent situation, without psychologically taking death itself as an end.

This plugs in very nicely with Thomas’ vision of capital punishment… Stay tuned for part 2, though I’m sure a lengthy tome like this won’t be too necessary, given that a response from Dr. Feser is likely forthcoming, due in no small part to having been called out personally by Dr. Finnis.

Interesting times indeed.

The double-effect gauntlet has been thrown…

Eamonn Clark

John Finnis has published the first part of a two part series on capital punishment at the Public Discourse.

It is wrong.

I will wait for the second part to appear to launch a full critique, but note now the startling assertion that he makes: all intentional human killing, of any kind, is forbidden by the 5th commandment.

For those unfamiliar with Finnis, he and Grisez (and to a lesser extent, Boyle,) were the chief architects of what is widely now considered to be a failed normative ethical project called “New Natural Law.” Its arch-proponent, Dr. Grisez, was a long-time professor at my own undergraduate university. He died only a few months ago.

NNL has its rhetorical advantages, but it suffers serious theoretical problems. I won’t explore those any time soon… Except for one, which I just did my thesis on. It centers around NNL’s vision of the so-called “principle of double effect.”

Without getting into it too much – and hopefully without spoiling the possibility of publishing my thesis in some form in the future – suffice it to say that Finnis and friends face “unintended consequences” of their own when they take the line that “intention” reigns supreme in the way they suggest.

Note that NNL theorists, while typically opposing the death penalty, would also support the use of craniotomy. (Don’t google it. It’s essentially medical abortion necessary to save the life of the mother.) This debate extends back into the 19th century, when Cardinal Caverot of Lyon inquired of the Holy Office about the matter, and Archbishop Kenrick of Baltimore wrote against the procedure in his moral theology handbook. This sparked a round of debates which has swirled for more than a century. Eschbach, Pennachi, Waffelaert, Avanzini… and on and on until we have the three camps of today, one represented by NNL theorists, one represented by the teaching of the Holy Office and most Catholic moralists, and then finally one represented almost exclusively by Fr. Martin Rhonheimer.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Briefly, however, the paragraph in the Catechism about the 5th commandment and war which Finnis proof-texts (2307) is either simply poorly worded (although it does use “intentional destruction” rather than “intentional taking,” for what it’s worth), or it is just a lacuna.


More to come… Stay tuned and be sure to subscribe.

7 Reasons Why We Needed the Ascension

Eamonn Clark

Bertrand Russell, perhaps the most famously atheist man of the 20th century, was asked on his deathbed what he would say to God if he met Him when he died. Russell said, “Sir, why did you take such pains to hide yourself?” Among the many objections to the Christian Faith, and to revealed religion in general, is this: that God does not make Himself evident enough. It is an understandable difficulty – if God is so good and wants people to know Him, why does He not make Himself more openly available? Clearly, the Ascension invites this question, especially when combined with the limited appearances of the risen Christ… He appeared to the Apostles, some other close disciples, and a nondescript large group in Jerusalem. Why not to as many as possible? The Romans? The Greeks? The Native Americans? (Thus the attractiveness of the Mormon doctrine that Jesus visited the Americas.)

We can start to answer this question with another question: should Jesus have jumped off the parapet of the Temple, as the Devil had suggested? Assuredly not, simply because He did not. While Jesus responds by rejecting the proposition because it would “test” God, we ought to be struck by the fact that it was not part of God’s design that the Christ would do such open miracles as flying around for all to see. Instead, the miracles of Jesus are, for the most part, quite obscure and hidden. There is chaos in the multiplication of the loaves, there is darkness and rain in the storm when He walks on the sea, the healings and resuscitations are done “inside” the body, etc. That’s why a depiction of Jesus like this might seem a little bit “off”:

When Jesus does fly, it is in front of a small group of hand-picked men, it is not to prove His power, and it is only done for a moment before He disappears into the clouds. Why did He not do a flyover of all of Israel, or even beyond?

Most of all – why did He not just stick around? Surely, the sight of a 2,000-year-old Jesus would be a definitive sign of His power for any sane person. He could continue His public ministry, and we could have a world leader with a perfect vision of human flourishing. It would have been easier especially for the Jews, who were basically expecting this kind of “worldly” Messiah anyway.

Let’s start with Christ’s own explanation for His departure: so that the Holy Spirit can be sent. Why is the sending of the Spirit contingent on Christ’s departure? One answer that comes to mind is that it would have been confusing to have such a dynamic… Why the need for the Spirit when Christ is physically here among us? If He remained, it would have been tempting to ignore the action of the Holy Spirit which moves us towards the spiritual union with Christ, that union which is called charity… People would have insisted on seeing Christ “in person,” since He would not be omnipresent the way He is now thanks to the sending of the Spirit Who teaches us to pray, as Paul says.

This leads us to the second reason for the Ascension, which is given by St. John of the Cross – the disciples’ relationship with Jesus was too sense-based and needed to be spiritualized. “Stop holding on to me,” as He told the Magdalene, “for I have not yet ascended to My Father.” (John 20:17) The relationship with the risen Christ is going to be of a different kind: one in the Spirit. Prayer and the Sacraments make much less sense if the physical Christ remains among us – they would seem like cheap imitations of a physical encounter or a direct word to or from Christ in the flesh. The Eucharist would be especially confusing… How is it that Christ is here and is consumed, but also physically over there, where He can be directly seen? His continued physical presence would prove to be a great obstacle to the appreciation of this mystical union.

Third, the popular hope of a worldly Messiah is destroyed by the Ascension. No doubt, after the Resurrection, the Apostles were still wondering when they would start a war with Rome and bring peace to the land of Israel. Jesus had been demonstrating during His public life that this was not the plan, but the misguided hope yet lingered. For the idea of a worldly Messiah to go away, the Messiah had to go away. Christ shows us Who He is and what He is really about when He goes back to Heaven – the King of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Another reason presents itself immediately, which Sheen offered, namely, that in order for a man to become truly great he must die. Only after the completion of one’s life can people make a judgment about how well that life was lived. As Qoheleth says, “There is no embalming like a good name left behind; man’s true birthday is the day of his death.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2) Of course, Christ does not die at the Ascension, but His public life “dies,” which suffices. Nobody is waiting for Him to make a mistake, like the Pharisees used to do.

Fifth, in the Ascension, Christ transfers responsibility onto the Apostles, and by extension, onto the whole Church, for the task of making disciples. He does this in word and in deed: in word by commanding the Apostles to preach and to baptize (the “Great Commission”), and in deed by removing His bodily presence so that nobody could defer responsibility to Christ directly in these matters. With this enormous duty comes an enormous privilege and joy: to participate in the life of God insofar as He governs, teaches, and sanctifies His people.

Next, given that Christ is “one step removed” from the normal exterior functioning of the Church, it takes a purer kind of assent to enter into the Church’s life. One must have a more resolute determination to trust in God if God is using secondary causes to do His work. In other words, the added difficulty of Christian faith presented by Christ’s physical absence – especially given the circumstances of the Resurrection appearances – redounds to our merit for believing. The low-bar is set higher, as it were, giving those who make the “leap” the winners of a greater prize than what it might have been otherwise, and those who don’t will be the recipients of milder punishments. (Why the bar is set specifically there and not at another height seems unanswerable except by an appeal to God’s wisdom.)

Finally, Christ’s Ascension points us towards our own final destiny – dwelling in the presence of the Godhead – and makes us hope for it. Unless He returns very soon, we too will die, rise, and hopefully appear before a Friend rather than a Judge, and then be brought into Heaven. Where Christ physically went, He brought our human nature with Him in His own, and so this is also a sign of our present status as ones who also currently dwell with God, albeit in a dimmer way. Furthermore, the thought of Christ’s return is particularly important in helping us to acknowledge that we are waiting for His help – resurrection and judgment are not mere promises of a King on Earth, they are promises of a Savior Who resides in the very place to which we aspire, where He is preparing a place for us with Him.

Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below! Happy Ascension Thursday Sunday.


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