Apolog-etc. – Episode #1

Eamonn Clark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do I think the Bible comes from?

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

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

Why and how can there be disagreements about all this?

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

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

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

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

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

A link to the article.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have You Heard the Bad News?

Eamonn Clark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the Church Really in a Crisis?

Eamonn Clark

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

The Church is a crisis.

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

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

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

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

Let’s pray, too.

Incest – The Surprising Thomistic Objections

Eamonn Clark

*WARNING: Put on your Charity Goggles*

A disappointing article appeared recently in the Chicago Sun-Times entitled, “Archbishop not backing gay marriage – yet.” (See Phil Lawler’s commentary here.)

While one might argue there are several problems in the article, I want to focus on His Eminence’s explanation of consanguinity in marriage. I think he is off-base and risks coming across as a consequentialist.

The Angelic Doctor lists four reasons why consanguine marriage is illicit – and guess what? The risk of birth defects is not one of them. To me, it seems unlikely that Thomas was altogether ignorant of the likelihood of sickly kids coming from kissing cousins, but suppose he was… He is still against it, and with today’s rapid advances in genetic manipulation, the “problem” of incestuous birth defects could eventually be overcome. We should see the causal link between incest and sickness as a sign that something is wrong with the act, not as a random feature of an otherwise virtuous behavior. Thomas gives us a more principled account of why consanguinity (and affinity) is such a big deal.

With that, the four reasons are:

  1. Shame (in its proper sense) before one’s parents – and those closely united with them by blood and law – is good on account of the special respect owed to them on account of one’s special relationship with them.
  2. Families often live together, and this would provide an untold number of occasions to lust if there were not a clear, strong, and constant prohibition against incest.
  3. Inter-family marriage increases the social good of individual human beings, and in so doing it also builds up the community.
  4. We already have a natural inclination to love family members, and if this had the possibility of intercourse added to it then there would be an occasion for too great a sexual desire for that person.

So, for St. Thomas, it is about filial piety, intemperance in itself, and the good of the commonwealth, not scoliosis or clubfoot.

Again, it is not that birth defects are irrelevant to the discussion, but it is a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself – and it is a symptom which theoretically could be eliminated. If we are to win the battle of the minds against secular culture, then we need to do better. Going back to Thomas is almost always a good idea, and I suggest that this is one of those moments. Incest is one of the last sins against chastity that Western society actually considers immoral… Let’s be sure not to lose that ground.

St. John the Baptist – pray for us.

Reflections of a New Priest

Fr. Peter Gruber

Before I was ordained, I was asked what I looked forward to most about being a priest. My answer happened to be the same thing that filled me with the greatest uncertainty: hearing confessions.

Everything else about being a priest seemed somehow already familiar – daily Mass had made me accustomed to the priest’s role, diaconate ordination acclimated me to preaching, I had already adjusted to our primary ministry to the students at our universities.

However, hearing confessions was an entirely new experience. Sure, I had grown used to being on the penitent side of the screen, but the idea of encountering other people in what seems their most personal details had given me pause. Would I have anything to offer?

But upon being ordained, I quickly found hearing confessions the most impactful and formative aspect of being a priest of Jesus Christ.

I’m a priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri and hearing confessions is a particularly Oratorian thing to do – St. Philip Neri did the bulk of his pastoral care within the sacrament of Penance. Even the time spent waiting for the next penitent has become a new facet of my spiritual life. More than any other time do I get to practice what Blessed John Henry Newman would call (in his Advent sermon of the same name) “watching.” I pray that I may have the same zeal as St. Philip, who would go throughout the streets of Rome to attract people to the confessional early in his priesthood, and later would “attract souls as a magnet draws iron.” To support such zeal, I all the more have to be rooted in intimacy with Christ in prayer, as St. Philip was.

In one of our confessionals, we have a small statue of St. Padre Pio. A few years ago, while I was still in college, I found Padre Pio’s Prayer after Communion, and since then, St. Pio has accompanied me through this prayer with every communion. And now, he accompanies me as a priest. I’m reminded when I see him there how his advice in the confessional was short but filled with insight, and I pray that I may have something of his depth or brevity in my counsel.

As a mediator of Christ, it is His mercy that I dispense. Behind that screen, at the intersection of God’s love and human misery, I have to make real the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). It’s His cross, His sacrifice, that I witness to, and I pray that I do not get in the way of his outpouring mercy.

More than anything, I have found that sins do not make us who we are. The priest does not see our deepest selves when he hears our confession; he sees our deepest selves when he gives us absolution. “We are not the sum of our faults,” St. John Paul II says, “we are the sum of the Father’s love for us.”

Sola Scriptura: 7 Fatal Flaws of a Bleak Doctrine

Eamonn Clark

“Sola Scriptura” means “only Scripture,” as in “Scripture alone is the authority for Christian doctrine.” It is one of the foundations of Protestant theology… It rejects the teaching authority of the Church as such. Given that this day marks the dreadfully unhappy 500th Anniversary of the beginning of Protestantism, shall we examine this idea and expose it?

I submit that there are at least 7 massive problems with Sola Scriptura.

First: Sola Scriptura is anarchic. This is evident from the endless multiplication of divergent theologies and denominations within Protestantism. Without a unifying voice, namely, a bishop, pope, or something similar, one becomes his own definitive authority on the meaning of Scripture. Perhaps a pastor or teacher can help one form ideas, but it is I and I alone who am responsible for determining the true meaning of any given passage. Of course, I might say that the Holy Spirit is giving me the truth – which would mean that everyone must actually listen to me. In Protestantism, everyone is their own little pope. This same “bottom-up” approach to God existed once before, at the Tower of Babel. And there too did the languages multiply endlessly unto chaos, just as we see within Protestantism now, where there is splinter after splinter. Pentecost was the opposite – God came down to us (the Church as such, as represented by the Apostles and Mary in the Upper Room) and gave us a principle of unity from which to adapt to the many situations and needs of the day. Without a visible, living Pentecost among us, there can be no public unity around Christ. From the mere fact that there can be morally, liturgically, or doctrinally significant disagreement about the meaning of the same Biblical passage, it is evident that Scripture does not fit the bill of the “visible and living Pentecost”… Remember, the Devil knows Scripture too! (Mt. 4: 1-11) Unless one speaks about Scripture with the very authority of Christ, there is no end to disputation. As Peter says, interpreting Scripture can be very difficult and sometimes it ends badly, especially with Paul’s letters! (2 Pt. 3: 16) Would God really leave us orphans in this way? Did the Word really in practice just become more Words?

Second: Sola Scriptura is innovative. It did not exist until 500 years ago when Luther came up with it. Protestants often complain about “man-made traditions” infecting Christianity – well, Sola Scriptura is one of them. Would we not expect a Christian “God-made tradition” to have existed long before the 16th century? It sounds quite a bit like one of those “winds of doctrine” which Paul warned about (Eph. 4: 14). Of course, Scripture has been treated as authoritative throughout the ages, but it was not treated – or attempted to be treated – as the only authority until relatively recently. Did God let Sola Scriptura remain an obscure but correct practice and then even fall out of existence for centuries until Luther was inspired to revive it? This does not sound like the God of Christianity, does it… It sounds like a God Who did not remain among us but Who left us orphans instead – not only with no definitive interpreter of Scripture (see #1), but without the right doctrine about what Scripture is. And to think, He only left the children of Jacob in Egypt for 400 years…

Third: Sola Scriptura is historically impractical. This is not primarily due to illiteracy (though one might also wonder if that would be an impediment to being a good Protestant), it is due to the fact that for many years there simply was no such thing as Christian Scripture, let alone a collection of texts organized into “the Bible.” When Thomas the Apostle went to India, he did not bring with him the Gospel of Luke. When Peter went to Antioch, he did not bring Paul’s letters with him. When Matthew went to Alexandria, he did not bring the Johannine corpus with him. We can note that Paul in his missionary journeys, based on the whole Book of Acts and his own letters, is not using anything but Jewish Scripture in his disputations and preaching. How then could there be Christians in the wake of these evangelists? Doesn’t a Christian need a Bible? Obviously not. There were local churches set up in many places across the globe for a long time with little to no Christian Scriptures available, relying on the oral tradition and the authority of the Church as such, and it took even longer to form a real, authoritative canon (viz. “the Bible”) which allowed people to know what Scripture consisted of… Which brings us to the next problem.

Four: Sola Scriptura is conceptually impossible. We must know what actually is Scripture in order to use “Scripture alone,” yes? But how do we know what really counts and what doesn’t? The truth is that Scripture was defined by the Church, finally confirmed in a special way at the Council of Trent in response to the preaching and teaching of Luther, who wanted to throw out a few books which he didn’t think were really Scripture, but which most others did. Without descending into the minutiae of the history of the so-called “deuterocanon,” we can simply note that it was indeed widely regarded as Scripture from an early time, even though there was some controversy surrounding it. A Protestant response might be to fall back on the principle of St. Vincent of Lérins, that the faith is that “which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” (Never mind that this was about faith in “the Catholic Church,” as Vincent says, nor that he only holds it out as a general rule for finding heresy rather than as a specific rule for formulating a biblical canon.) Universal acclamation of texts as Scriptural does not really work on its own… If there is a little disagreement, which there certainly was about non-deuterocanon, then one must begin to wonder, “How universal is universal enough?” There is no good answer. Instead, an authority must decide what is Scripture and what is not. Yes to 2 Peter, no to 1 Clement. Yes to Revelation, no to The Shepherd of Hermas. Etc. The New Testament itself does not and cannot provide a guide – nor does the New Testament provide a list of what belongs in the Old Testament. So the very existence of an authoritative canon which does not assemble itself or fall from the sky necessitates an authoritative compiler. That is the Church itself, which therefore must have its own special authority to speak for God. This guarantees the texts of Scripture are actually the ones which God inspired. (Let’s not even get into the bizarre and self-refuting theory that the Bible is a fallible collection of infallible texts…)

Five: Sola Scriptura is arbitrary. Of course, it makes sense that a revealed religion would involve a sacred text which has authority, but it is conceivable that it would not. And there is, therefore, no a priori need for “Scripture” as an authority at all, let alone as the sole authority. Let me be clear: I am not saying the Bible is not an authority, I am saying it is not clear that it automatically must be… And anyone who says that it is an authority has to appeal to something outside of Scripture. An appeal to Scripture to prove the authority of Scripture is perfectly circular. Why is Scripture an authority? Why not “Sola Papa” (the Pope Alone)? Why not “Sola Ego” (I Alone)? Why not “Sola Luther” (Luther Alone)? There must be an authority which supports Scripture as an authority, and that authority must derive from God. Seeing as Christ did not give us a biblical canon, He must have somehow given authority to mere human beings to decide what texts God actually inspired. In the end, men must cooperate in the governance of the Church, at least in this way. This brings us to problem #6…

Six: Sola Scriptura is self-contradictory. It is a teaching of Martin Luther, a mere man, and by those following him: also mere men. By obeying those who teach Sola Scriptura, the very doctrine is violated. To practice it on one’s own is also a violation, as one must listen to one’s own interpretation of passages (especially in cases of controversy), or one must say that the Holy Spirit is interpreting – Who is clearly not Scripture. And let us also note that Sola Scriptura is not taught by Scripture… So finally, we have the last and most problematic issue for the doctrine…

Seven: Sola Scriptura contradicts Scripture. The Bible does not teach Sola Scriptura, but it does teach the importance of the oral tradition which is not written down. Scripture also teaches the authority of the Church as such. Two verses will suffice. The first is 2 Thessalonians 2: 15 – “So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” (Other translations render παραδόσεις “traditions” instead of “teachings.”) This is enough to show that at least Paul thought that more than Scripture might be necessary for safeguarding Christian doctrine. What might the mechanism be? He describes it in the second verse for our examination, 1 Timothy 3: 15 – “…if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” How can “the church” be a “pillar” for the truth unless it functions as a means of connection to God, whereby false doctrines are corrected with good authority? The truth is tied at least to this pillar, “the church.” And how can it also be the “foundation” for truth unless it has a special means of holding up truth in a special way? What else could be the foundation of truth except that which is first in announcing it in the world? The guarantee of truth – infallibility – rests upon “the church.” God corrects error and announces truth through “the church.” This is how the Catholic Church understands its role in condemning heresies and defining doctrines (including what is Scripture and what is not).

There we have it… 7 fatal flaws with Sola Scriptura. Protestant readers (if there are any) might object with many verses of Scripture (especially 2 Timothy 3: 16, which simply insists that Scripture is indeed important – I do not deny this!)… However, in so doing they will no doubt demonstrate the points above.

You might consider sharing this post with any Protestant friends and see what they say. Tell them that no, God did not abandon us, leaving only a special book behind… That is a bleak doctrine indeed.

(This is the inaugural post in a year-long series for LutherFest500. Please subscribe to receive posts by email!)

Main image: “The Tower of Babel,” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563

Four Kinds of Problems with the Pan-Amazon Proposal on Married Priests

Eamonn Clark

The suggestion has been floated around in some quarters that at the newly announced Pan-Amazon Synod, to happen in 2019, bishops will discuss the possibility of ordaining married men in their region to the order of Priest. These “viri probati,” “proven men,” would make up for the absolute dearth of priests deep in the jungles of South America, where people are often deprived of the sacraments for long periods of time. There have been some missionary efforts there, but the terrain is vast and unfriendly, and the culture is extremely difficult to adapt to, so there has been limited success. It seems to some that simply ordaining certain men in isolated communities would help to make up for the absence of celibate priests in the area.

I note at least 4 categories of problems with the proposed solution. They are as follows:

  1. Canonical. The Code of Canon law, which binds the Latin Church (including, presumably, the men who might be ordained in the Amazon,) does allow for the possibility of married priests under certain circumstances (see c. 1047, §2, n. 3), but nowhere is the obligation to perfect and perpetual continence lifted for any cleric in the Code (though entering Orders – even the diaconate – without understanding or making the promise of continence means one cannot be obliged to its fulfillment). There has been much misunderstanding of the obligation to continence as distinct from the obligation of celibacy, and the widespread priestly ordination of married men in the Latin Church would make this worse. (On the other hand, it might finally get the mess canonically resolved.) For more on this confusing topic, see Dr. Ed Peter’s fine treatment here.
  2. Standard objections. There are many intrinsic problems with the idea of a married presbyterate. There are the economic problems, such as the time and energy a father and husband would have to spend between his family and the service of the community – or several communities, sometimes perhaps separated by miles of thick jungle, in this case. The resources needed to educate and train these priests adequately is an additional economic strain (and would likely never rise to the level of a normal priestly education), as is the payment of the priest who has to make enough income to provide for his family. There is the loss of the power of the witness of celibacy, which is a sign of contradiction to the spirit of the world, reminding people that there is a Heaven and a Hell, a death and a judgment, and that we had better start thinking about these things now if we are to be prepared for them later. There is also the impoverishment of the spirituality of the Latin priesthood as normally understood, which is spousal in nature and urges the priest toward greater charity for those in his care. In general, it seems that all the normal problems of a married priesthood obtain.
  3. Internal prudential. Not only will there likely be no comparison between the education and training of the Amazonian viri probati and a regular Latin priest, to the possibly very grave positive harm of the community (due to serious deficiencies in the confessional, in the pulpit, and so on), but the deeper problem causing the shortage is ignored. It is like a man who drinks to cure his depression – the feeling will go away for a while, but the underlying cause is never addressed. In the meantime, an addiction is developed which harms him positively and perpetuates the deeper problem, perhaps even worsening it. If there are no normal vocations to the priesthood, it is due to a lack of faith, a lack of zeal, a lack of something important in the local church. This ought to be the real object of discussion.
  4. External prudential. Once the Amazon has viri probati priests, who else will feel entitled? What other areas or countries will claim that they need this compromise? Meanwhile, as more concessions are made due to mounting pressure, the three foregoing sets of problems will perpetuate themselves.

The idea of a “simplex priest” may be what the bishops have in mind, a priest who does not do all of the public actions a priest with full faculties to preach and hear confessions would… But that comes with other problems, which will be addressed in a future post.

In summary, the bishops meeting at the Pan-Amazon Synod ought to think these things through quite carefully. I, for one, am unconvinced that it is a wise idea. But then again, I’ve only ever been to Amazon.com…

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

Jacob Gruber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heterodox Does Not Mean Heretical

Eamonn Clark

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

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

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

Theological censures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that is surely nothing to brag about.

Comments are closed. See follow up here.

 

Main image: Detail of an icon of Nicaea I

In Defense of Bad Priests

Eamonn Clark

I recently prepared third graders for their First Holy Communion. Going through the story of the Last Supper several times, I noticed that they had a fascination with a certain Apostle… You guessed it – Judas. A fascination with such a character is understandable, as it seems rather out of place in a story which one would think is supposed to be exclusively upholding models of virtue. This is not unlike the very grown-up temptation to expect moral perfection from Catholic clergy. After all, they are supposed to be models of virtue, right?

Yes, they certainly are, and extra scrutiny is rightly deserved because we do indeed have the fullness of truth and grace available to us. But here are the facts. Our Lord chose losers, dummies, and wicked sinners as the foundation of His Church. Of the original Twelve, ten were ambitious cowards. One of those ten was also arrogant (Peter). The eleventh was just ambitious (John). And the twelfth one was a greedy traitor. (Later on He would also call a terrorist to this elite group.)

The place to start looking at the failure of any priesthood is a comparison with the first four failed priesthoods, and the first successful one: Adam, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and Melchizedek, respectively. (Others such as Abel and Noah and Abraham offered sacrifices, like priests, but they were not called by the name “priest.” More could be said about their sacrifices as well.)

Adam was the high priest of nature, called to guard and serve the Garden of Eden and his wife Eve at his own expense. He ought to have put himself in front of her and the serpent, but he shrinks away from his duty. He stands next to her (as Eve “turned to her husband” to give him the fruit) and watches this calamity take place. The serpent goes after Eve first, because he knows that she is easier to trick and that she might be able to trick her husband. When confronted by God, Eve blames the serpent, and Adam blames Eve: there is no responsibility taken.

The Devil often seeks to harm God’s priests through the very people they are called to protect. In this case, Adam’s own fear and self-interest allow his beloved to fall, and then she takes him with her – for what husband would want to have a wife estranged from him, as Eve surely would have been without Adam following her into sin? And yet they become estranged from each other anyway, needing to hide themselves with the flesh of animals… The first time blood is shed in Scripture, it is to cover up the sins of our first parents. A sign of things to come, for sure.

The next failed priesthood is Aaron’s. While Moses is busy with spiritual matters on Mount Sinai, the people grumble against him. The patience required to receive the Covenant is too spiritual for them, and so they threaten to leave the mountain in protest. Aaron is concerned about such a loss of numbers – he is afraid of what Moses will think. He has the people give him their gold, and he makes for them an idol which provides them with the experience of God they wanted: an unchallenging, unspiritual, ungodly experience. But the people are happy, and they stay put for a while, high on their own erroneous ideas about the worship of God. Aaron saved the day. When Moses returns with righteous fury, Aaron explains, like Adam did before God, that it was not his fault – it was the people’s and the furnace’s. More shirking of responsibility. (Moses gives them the proper experience of the god Aaron made for them when he ground it down, threw it in the water, and made the people drink. Like a good priest, he teaches them that a dead god gives even less life than water: it cannot save.)

Unlike Adam, Aaron’s ambitions were totally worldly. Instead of trying to become like God as a direct opponent, he simply wants to be the hero of God’s chosen people. Aaron wants just a little bit too much of their attention… He is not really after the gold, but what lies behind the gold – the esteem of men. That is what gives gold its value, after all.

Nadab and Abihu were Aaron’s sons. They violated the code of the Lord’s sanctuary by bringing unholy fire into the Tent of Meeting. This strange fire was deeply repugnant to the Lord, and so He slew them where they stood. Our Lord will only have sacred heat and light dwell within His holy place. Though profane fire may sustain bodily life, only sacred fire can sustain the life of grace.

The first successful priesthood is that of Melchizedek, whom Abraham meets after his battles. His is a totally spiritual and eternal priesthood, offering bread and wine and accepting the tithes owed to him for his work. He does not ask for money, he simply receives it. He is a priest not because of his family stock, like the Levites, but because of his charity. He gives to God first, then he receives what is rightfully his from men. He does not go looking for greatness: he simply is great.

Judas wraps up all of the failures of earlier priests in himself and makes them even worse. He is unwilling to do the work of a priest, putting himself in the place of Christ over and over again for the salvation of souls, standing in the way of the Devil’s reach of the weak, even though he would not have been alone in this task, unlike Adam. He trades the incarnate Lord not for the esteem of men, but for money itself. The purifying fires of the grace welling up in the Eucharistic Lord are traded for the fires of the foundry which purified the silver he would take as payment for his betrayal and would later throw into the Temple to try to buy back that grace. He takes into his body the blessed fruits of that very first celebration of Holy Mass which he was simultaneously endowed with the awesome power himself to perpetuate, as a recapitulation and elevation of Melchizedek’s priesthood, and then invites in the Devil to contradict it all. Though the accidents of bread and wine sustained Judas’ bodily life, the spirit within him died because of the rejection of the grace within the Lord’s Body and Blood – true food and true drink which preserve from everlasting death.

What greater human evil is there than the evil found in Judas on Holy Thursday? And yet that very night, Our Lord bowed before him to wash his feet, and He even personally called him “friend.” It is not unfair to say that, in a way, God loved Judas more than anyone else in human history, for there has never been a fouler human being to love. In the midst of this supreme wretchedness, Christ left us a memorial of His own greatness.

We know how the human story turns out. Judas despairs of the very mercy he was shortly supposed to be empowered to bring to others in the sacrament of confession. He attempts to slay himself (though perhaps did not succeed, and received even more time to repent), as if the death of the Lord had not been enough payment for his sin… No, Judas saw himself as so great that he believed his sin was unforgivable. “What a fool I have been,” he uttered. Yet this foolish failure brought about the culmination of our very redemption. Without Judas, there is no Passion, Death, or Resurrection. There is also not the greatest condescension of love ever shown by God. Deicide is not therefore justified, but God’s choice to allow a bad priest to exist in the Church is.

Meanwhile, Peter weeps in contrition and makes amends with “the man” he denied knowing, within earshot and within hours of having heard this prophesied. He left that “strange fire” in the courtyard, from where he watched the Lord shiver in the cold and dark of the prison cell, and he leaves the slave girl before whom he cowered in fear. Behold, the Prince of Apostles, who would eventually learn that taking up the sword is better left to those who persecute Christ than those who defend Him, and who would finally end his life as a willing victim upon a cross. The priesthood of Peter was in as sorry a state as the priesthood of Judas; the difference was repentance. Yet again, Our Lord shows his greatness through the failures of one of His hand-picked dispensers of grace.

The Church on Earth is institutional and hierarchical by nature, because human beings require such an order so as to avoid repeating the tragic error of the men of Babel who tried by their own powers to cooperate to reach up to Heaven. The Church on Earth is also sinful by nature, because it is populated by human beings – even in its hierarchy. It has been so from the moment of its inception, and this is by design. No, God does not want bad clergy in the same way He wants good clergy, but He does want to permit them to exist for now. He knew Judas would betray Him, and He knew all the clerical pedophiles, heretics, and antinomians of our own day would do the same. While they betray the Lord by selling Him for popularity or money, as they shrink from their duty to stand in front of Satan and then blame the weak or the natural insufficiency of their means, as they profane the Eucharist through indifference toward it, they repeatedly show the power of Christ in His Church: even through all this, there is victory waiting.

There has always been a crack in the foundation, there has always been chaff in the wheat, and yet there has always been grace available through these men nonetheless, as it is God’s own power which is the source of their priesthood and thus the source of their power to give grace – “ex opere operato.” God shows His majesty in the midst of this weakness and wretchedness. And sometimes He even brings these men out of their shameful disgrace and elevates them to the profoundest heights of sanctity, a feat which must be marveled at. There is true hope of Heaven for every bad priest in this world. Christ calls each of them “friend.”

Perspective is important. “There is nothing new under the sun,” as Qoheleth reminds us. We would do well to recall more frequently the beginnings of the Church to understand Her challenges today. (A reading of the disturbing history of ancient Israel would help too.) Whatever cleric is the object of concern – parish priest, celebrity priest, local bishop, curial official, pope… If there really is sin there, realize that it is just business as usual. The Barque of Peter has always leaked in the storm while the inept crew runs about helplessly, and yet it continues to float safely toward the harbor. Our Lord can guide it even in His sleep.

Let’s pray and fast for all priests, especially those who need it most.

Our Lady, Queen of the Clergy, pray for us!

 

Main image: Pope John XII, who was killed in the act of adultery by a vengeful husband