The Contraception Post…

Eamonn Clark, STL

People say that the Church is “obsessed with sex.” This is only half-true. People are obsessed with sex, and the Church is obsessed with people. Given that the great majority of souls which are lost carry sexual sins with them, and are even lost on account of those sins, it is worth addressing here one of the more common kinds of such wrongdoing – the use of contraception.

In this post, I will explain the following items:

  1. The difference between natural and unnatural sexual vice
  2. The moral significance of unnatural vice, especially contraception
  3. Why periodic continence (“NFP”) is not contraception
  4. The effects of contraception on the individual soul
  5. The effects of contraception on marriages
  6. The effects of contraception on society
  7. The effects of certain contraceptives on one’s physical health
  8. The infallible character of the Church’s teaching on contraception
  9. How to confess the use of contraception
  10. Remedies for those struggling with contraception

Hopefully, this will be a helpful guide for couples, married or unmarried, and for clergy who are responsible for teaching, preaching, and counseling on these important matters. As you can tell by the length, it is thorough.

The difference between natural and unnatural sexual vice

In moral theology, an act is called “natural” if it aligns with the God-given purpose of a particular faculty which one possesses. For example, it would be natural to communicate the truth by speaking to another through signs or symbols. The faculty of communication is ordered towards this end – we have the gift of the power to express thoughts through language in order to pursue the truth in a community. If this gift is reordered to undermine the pursuit of truth, it is called lying. Lying is an unnatural act, a perversion of the order found in the faculty of communication. We have the capability to use language precisely so that we can express what is in our mind; thus, every lie, which distorts this, is a sin, however slight it may be in some cases. (Deceptive language is its own separate discussion requiring some distinctions – I did a post on this a while ago. But we will return to this analogy with language later.)

Another example is digestion. Something like what one sees in that scene at the party in Hunger Games 2 is a kind of perversion… Eat until you’re full, then make yourself throw up so you can go on eating – it is about the pleasures of the experience to the exclusion of fulfilling the purpose of the faculty being used. In fact, one guarantees that the purpose of the faculty will not be achieved by an act of the will which interrupts the order itself. In this case, one is taking food out of oneself which is suitable for consumption, simply for the pleasures of having more food. With dishonest communication, one is using words which do not signify what is in one’s mind to deceive another.

The power to reproduce is also a faculty. The sexual organs are not body parts with a wide range of legitimate uses, unlike the hand or the foot. There is a clear purpose for them, without which they would not make any biological sense. Nature would not provide organs which are merely there for useless pleasures. Just as communication benefits the community and individual as rational, and just as the digestive faculty benefits the individual as physical, so too does the sexual faculty benefit the community as physical. Eating keeps the body alive, reproduction keeps the human race alive. The former is important, but the latter is even more important.

Natural sexual vice (“natural vice” from here on out) is therefore easily distinguished from unnatural sexual vice (“unnatural vice”). Natural vice is the sort which is not a use of the sexual faculty whereby reproduction is essentially impeded by an act of the will. Unnatural vice is the opposite – something is intentionally done whereby the sexual faculty is integrally unable to achieve its fundamental purpose, namely, the conception of new human life.

Natural vice essentially reduces to extramarital relations. Various characteristics which have a special quality in relation to reason change the act from being mere fornication to being adultery (marriage), rape (violence), sacrilege (consecrated person), incest (family relation), and so on. This kind of act is seriously immoral principally on account of the danger to the potential child, who is owed the stability of a father and mother committed to each other for life. This evil is compounded by whatever special harm is done due to other circumstances.

Unnatural vice includes all those sorts of sexual acts which of themselves, according to their character, cannot produce a child. This includes masturbation, homosexual activity, immoderate/dishonest foreplay (or similar behavior), and contraceptive activity. It also includes more “extreme” behaviors, such as zoophilia (animals) and necrophilia (corpses) – which are perhaps more common vices than people might think, especially among certain populations.

Pedophilia is its own strange phenomenon which sits somewhat in between unnatural and natural vice as a condition, but as an act it is either unnatural due to its homosexual character or is simply a particularly bad kind of natural vice if it be heterosexual. This is notwithstanding the fact of the infertility of a child – infertility is an accidental characteristic of the act, not an essential one, as will be explored more below.

It is true that some factors outside of one’s control could contribute to desires to engage in unnatural vice, especially the way one is raised and educated in morals. Anyone who struggles with unnatural vice – which is the vast majority of adults in the developed world – is called to repentance and reform. When deliberately indulged in by those who basically understand what the sexual faculty is (i.e. not small children or those with severe mental illness), unnatural vice is mortal sin, thus excluding one from the life of grace and ultimately from Heaven should one fail to repent adequately before death. These people are, nonetheless, still to be treated as human beings who are loved by Christ; this is, of course, why they are called to repentance and reform in the first place. Those who have an abnormally strong and persistent drive towards entirely perverse matter (i.e. persons of the same sex, animals, corpses, etc.) must recognize that this is a cross which they must take up and carry. They cannot licitly act on this desire, ever.

Unnatural vice is categorically more perverse sexual activity, and thus worse as sexual sin, than natural vice, despite individual acts in the latter category being potentially worse as sins. (For instance, a married man forcibly violating his sister who is a nun would rightly be seen as a worse sin than a 14-year-old boy abusing himself as a result of a pornography addiction.) The reason unnatural vice is worse overall as sexual vice is that it entirely reorders the sexual faculty away from its God-given purpose. In natural vice, there is some element that is not a characteristic of the sexual act itself which renders the act immoral; in other words, it is something “not sexual” that makes this sexual act a sin.

The moral significance of unnatural vice, especially contraception

There seems to be a general sense among Westerners that we are all basically okay. Christianity teaches us that this is not true – actually, we are all basically broken. Understanding the significance of original sin is the key to understanding the reality of personal sin. One must know the bad news of our helplessness in the face of sin and death – and the subsequent fairness of eternal damnation – in order to contextualize the Good News of the possibility of new life in Christ, and thus the need for redemption in the first place. It does not seem that Our Lord is optimistic about the possibility of the great majority of people saving their souls. Quite the opposite, in fact: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

This point helps us to orient the conversation around discipleship, which is always a conscious choice. The developed world actively urges lifestyles and values which are utterly opposed to the dictates of the Gospels. Unnatural vice is one of the big ones.

True, very few people have a tolerance for the more extreme behaviors listed, but by sanctioning behaviors in the same genus they can no longer reasonably condemn the related species. What they have left is mere emotional revulsion. It makes no sense to argue that contraception or sodomy is acceptable but that fooling around with a dog is not, unless one reduces the question entirely to the realm of active rational consent. This reduction involves a complete rejection of the principle that the precise part of human nature at issue informs the morality of its use, which in turn calls into question the role of human nature in general as a foundation for understanding all morality; that is to say, if morality is just about consent in regard to sexual matters, why is consent not the basis for all morality? This is a broader and deeper discussion than can be had here in detail, but suffice it to say that God creates us, including our bodies, with powers for particular purposes, and those purposes are the way we pursue flourishing, so long as they are subjected to and rightly ordered toward higher goods of the intellect and will (viz., the pursuit of truth and friendship). Human nature teaches us how to be happy, with the desires of our lower powers being at the service of our higher powers, not the other way around. We can obviously consent to bad things being done to us – for instance, we can consent to be killed by another.

Unnatural vice, including contraception, reorders a great gift of God away from the purpose for which God designed it. Imagine a father who gives his son a very expensive new car. The son is very happy to have the car. He puts it in neutral and then pushes it off a cliff. He thought to himself, “I just want to see how it would fall and crash. It gave me pleasure. And it’s my car, so I can do what I want with it.” The father would undoubtedly be very offended at such an abuse of the gift he gave to his son, no? That’s because he gave his son that gift for a particular purpose – to drive around in, not to push it off a cliff.

The stakes are indeed much higher when it comes to human generation, and the One Who gives the gift is the Almighty Creator. To abuse the sexual faculty for its associated pleasures is like pushing the car off the cliff, but much, much worse: the car is just about the son’s personal flourishing, while the sexual faculty is not only about our personal flourishing but also about the continued existence of humanity.

No doubt, other people will be having kids, and the practitioner of unnatural vice may also eventually procreate. This is sometimes presented as a counter-argument. There are several problems with this. First, this sidesteps the primary problem, which is that a faculty is being perverted. It does no good to protest that other sons will drive cars given by their fathers, or that he can carpool, or that he can buy another car – this car was given to this son by his father, and it was given to this son to drive. Second, unnatural vice spreads by social contagion and has accompanying bad effects in society. We will explore this more later.

Unlike with a vice like autoeroticism (and then only to some degree), no excuse can be made in terms of a lack of deliberation in the use of contraception. Taking the proper understanding of “how babies are made” for granted, the use of any sort of contraceptive implies an understanding of what one is doing vis-à-vis the sexual faculty: voluntary sterilization. There is likewise always some delay between the intention of the sexual act and the administering of a contraceptive. Given that one is necessarily aware of the character of one’s action, and that there is always some time to deliberate, it follows that there is never a time when the consensual use of contraception is not mortal sin for both parties. (The case of someone who does not consent to his or her spouse’s use of contraception is different, as Pius XI explains in Casti Connubii, 59 – one can consent to the sexual act without consenting to any artificial impediments to its fertility.)

Why periodic continence (“NFP”) is not contraception

There is a natural rhythm of fertility and infertility in women, and eventually they become infertile. Men, on the other hand, are always fertile unless there is a serious problem with their health. Not long after this was properly understood (around the mid-1800’s) there has been an openness on the part of the Church toward allowing for the use of infertile times in a woman’s cycle to enjoy sexual union and simultaneously to avoid the possibility of having children. This takes for granted that there is both a legitimate reason to avoid having children and a legitimate reason to engage in relations, presumably beyond mere recreation but more so because it is truly needed or is lawfully requested by one’s spouse (a contestable point which I will explore at length at a later date).

The objection is laid down: this amounts to contraception. Instead of using a barrier or a chemical to restrict insemination or ovulation, one simply guarantees infertility by using timing.

The normal response is that the use of periodic continence, or natural family planning (NFP), to avoid conception is that it uses the natural rhythm of the woman and therefore does not constitute a violation of the natural order of procreation. It is not contraceptive to not have relations during some times and to have relations during other times.

This is true, but it is somewhat vague and does not address the underlying suspicion about the intention being the same, namely, to presume upon infertility as a condition for having relations. It is better to point out also that not wanting the faculty to achieve its end and simultaneously predicting its failure to do so is different from intentionally and artificially guaranteeing sterility by removing something natural to the faculty and its organs (i.e. a hysterectomy in view of sterilization) or by adding something which is foreign to that system (i.e. a barrier). In this case, the matter or means of sexual activity is rendered unfit by an act of the will – what was the right object of sexual action is now made improper due to the subversion of that matter’s purpose by the one acting upon it or using it. In other words, everything works rightly in periodic continence: sometimes she is fertile, and sometimes she is not, and it is not immoral to want things to work the way they are meant to. This is very much like what is called a “broad mental reservation,” wherein someone tells a truth hoping to deceive, due to some reasonable motive. This is not a lie – as intentionally telling the truth is not lying. In the contraceptive act, something is made not to work rightly. It’s the “making something not work rightly” while using that thing’s system which makes contraception immoral and leaves periodic continence as a legitimate option. Contraception, then, as we have seen, is like lying. And while some truths are unimportant to communicate, human life does not admit of degrees of importance in the same way – it is always serious.

There are potential misuses of NFP – I alluded to two possible cases (unjustified avoidance of children, merely recreational sexual activity) – but there is only venial sin here. While still immoral, and certainly an occasion of worse sin, it will not kill the soul or be likely of itself to introduce terrible disorders into a marriage or into society. NFP, by the way, can and should also be used as a tool to try to conceive.

The effects of unnatural vice in the individual soul

We naturally have a strong desire to propagate our own species, just like plants and animals. This is outdone only by the natural desire for self-preservation, through eating and shelter and self-defense. But the guilt and stain of original sin is transmitted by physical generation from one human to another. It seems that, as a fitting consequence, we are driven to sexual sin more vehemently than to other sins… it’s almost like original sin is a virus that wants to propagate itself through a manifestation of its effects, just like sneezing or coughing. However, unlike a virus and more like a parasite, original sin is also comfortable with simply afflicting its host. The viral paradigm corresponds to natural vice, and the parasitic paradigm corresponds to unnatural vice.

A virus can certainly kill its subject. But it’s sort of “just business,” as viruses are only quasi-living entities. A parasite kills in a more disturbing way – almost as if it’s personal. It’s a hunter, and you are the prey. Like a parasite, original sin starts to eat away at the interior life of a person engaged in unnatural vice (or any other vice, except natural vice). And it grows stronger as the host grows weaker, like a tapeworm adding new sections over time.

The “daughters of lust” are eight in number. Four afflict the intellect: blindness of mind, rashness, thoughtlessness, and inconstancy. These relate, respectively, to the perception of an end as good, a lack of due consideration of the means to attain the end, a lack of judgment about the rightness of the means, and the mind’s command to carry out the means. Four afflict the will: self-love, hatred of God, love of the world, despair of the next life. These correspond respectively to the end concerned (conversion towards oneself and away from God) and the means (this world, which removes thought of the future world). The worse the vice, the stronger the daughters. Unnatural vice is categorically a worse vice, as it is a worse perversion of human sexuality in itself. Therefore, the daughters will be stronger in the one afflicted by unnatural vice than one who simply fornicates and risks having many children out of wedlock.

The individual who is willing to use contraception is much more likely to be promiscuous. This goes without saying… it’s sort of the whole point, for the single person.

The effects of contraception on marriage

Certainly, not everything which follows will apply to every marriage, but most of what follows applies to most marriages to some degree. Each individual, and therefore each marriage, is unique. Reception is according to the mode of the receiver… Unnatural vice will have different effects in each relationship, but these are some general tendencies which leap out at me.

From the outset, we must insist that marriage is primarily about raising a family to be virtuous members of society and to teach them to glorify God. It is not merely about personal psychological fulfillment – one’s psychology is disordered if it is not seeking God’s glory in all things, after all. Marriage fundamentally exists as a natural office wherein new citizens are raised to be good men and women, and members of the family learn to become saints through the edification and assistance received from each other. This is the point, and it is certainly something one ought to take psychological pleasure in.

The first effect is a diminished need, and subsequently a diminished capacity due to a lack of practice, for meaningful communication. She no longer needs to bother to say that it’s that time of the month – which means that more serious conversations don’t need to be had about one’s needs and desires in relation to the prospect of welcoming another child. Over time, many opportunities are missed for growing in the skills to sift through these challenging topics which touch on every element of a couple’s life together. As a result, over time the communication skills of the couple will be less than what they could be, and they might even be quite emaciated.

The second effect follows from the first, which is a decrease in intimacy. This will often begin with a lack of emotional intimacy and eventually a lack of physical intimacy expressing those absent emotions. Without the need for good, strong communication about the most important things in the couple’s life, they have less need to be vulnerable with each other. This can create a coolness, or at least a kind of shallowness, which is often intractable and can be extremely damaging in the long run.

The third effect follows from the second, which is a selfish objectification of the other. In denying generosity with God in the act which is naturally ordered towards creating new human life, the most powerful thing a person can naturally do, one turns in the great gift of human sexuality in on oneself. Spouses then use each other as tools for pleasures according to their own mind. This may be limited at first to the bedroom, but if what is most powerful and important can be subverted in order to be turned to one’s own temporal desires, it stands to reason that lesser things can be manipulated as well. The spouse becomes merely the tool to get what one wants. In the midst of the pursuit of selfish designs, one forgets that it is the search for God within and together with one’s spouse in the service of one’s family and society which rightly motivates marriage in the first place.

The fourth effect also follows from the second, and it is boredom. This could be emotional or social boredom, and with time it will almost definitely include boredom with each other’s bodies. After all, there has been so little need for restraint that all the psychological mystery of the sexual encounter is entirely gone, together with the intimacy which surrounds it and makes it positively meaningful. The couple gets too sexually accustomed to each other.

The fifth effect, more general in nature and usually only present in the long-term, is regret. We do not often encounter people who regret the children they had, but we do encounter people who regret the children they did not have. What preoccupies people at their deathbed are chiefly two things: their soul, and their family. They may fret over both, or they may be consoled. But a family that doesn’t exist brings neither fear nor consolation to the one who withheld their procreative power in favor of minding pets and taking luxurious vacations; it brings emptiness and pain. Even before the deathbed, one’s old age can be very lonely indeed. Was chasing those pleasures really worth the awful feeling of wasting away, of being abandoned and forgotten, especially if the other effects I’ve mentioned have accrued and become fully mature? Those who do have at least some children who pause to consider it will likely admit that in fact the pleasures now of being visited by their children and watching them become parents and so on is much more enjoyable than any other achievement or experience in their life – and if they go the step further in reasoning, they will almost always admit that they cut themselves short by not having more children.

The sixth effect is the delay or rejection of marriage between a couple. Why bother? After all, it is easier to cohabit and just “wait and see.” The social effects of cohabitation are that an unrealistic perception of the other is cultivated – it’s a “try out.” It turns out that playing house is not the same as marriage and starting a family. The data is not actually as clear as one might think on the relationship between cohabitation and divorce, but studies have generally found them to be correlated positively. More research is needed, perhaps with more precision as to demographics. However, promiscuity in general is wildly positively correlative to divorce rates, though there are some oddities in those numbers which are difficult to explain. Yet such promiscuity is no doubt engaged in so widely due to the availability of contraception.

The final effect, a kind of summation and completion of the foregoing, is divorce, which, by American data, is about 50% more likely among couples who never practice periodic continence but have recourse instead exclusively to contraception. This statistic does not evaluate couples who have never used contraception, and it does not take into account the decline of marriage in general.

The effects of contraception on society

Clearly, the effects on the couple themselves are also effects on society, but there are more directly “social” effects outside the pair themselves.

The first effect is a kind of entitlement toward having children. If one sees no problem with blocking the production of new life, as if one is the master over it rather than God, then it follows that one may easily come to see having children as a right which exceeds the demands of the natural order of their production. This is made manifest in the use of artificial means of conception, such as IVF and surrogacy, wherein the child is treated as property, or like a pet, which one purchases rather than receives as a free gift from God. Over time, this attitude seeps into the way that children are treated in society, namely, as “projects” of their “owners,” rather than individuals with their own eternal souls which have an ordering for them preordained by God. Hence, we see little to no meaningful moral education on the part of schools. However, given the depravity of the current Western understanding of morals, especially in certain areas, perhaps makes it better that public moral education is minimal.

In fact, this general moral depravity is itself the second effect. In Humanae Vitae, St. Paul VI predicted four effects of contraception, one of which we have already examined (increased objectification, in particular the objectification of women). He also predicted a lowering of moral standards in general (obviously correct), and a more widespread use of forced sterilization (Google “forced sterilization” and “[country/region]”). He additionally predicted that marital infidelity would skyrocket. And so it was that shortly after the advent of “the pill,” starting in earnest after Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the United States saw the rise of “no-fault” divorce (starting in 1970). If sex doesn’t have to mean the possibility of babies, then the permanence of marriage is without any objective foundation, as that permanence is primarily for the sake of potential and actual children. Rather, marriage is then at the service merely of one’s own psychological fulfillment. Not long after no-fault divorce, we had Roe v. Wade (1973). Well, the fact is that sometime contraception fails, and the “problem” needs to be dealt with so that one’s psychological fulfillment (“dreams”) can continue to be pursued. In the ultimate avoidance of the responsibility to suffer for the sake of another, we were tricked into thinking that there is no such thing as human nature and so the unborn child is simply a “private” matter. The maturation of the next step took a while, it is granted, though there were already motions towards it in the late 1960’s. This is the so-called “gay rights” movement, achieving its latest major victory with Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). If there is no intrinsic need to bother with the risk of children in sex, and there is perhaps not even human nature but rather just “privacy” and psychological fulfillment, then it is not only unclear why marriage should be permanent, but it is also unclear why our biology should matter at all for the use of sex or even the contracting of marriage. And finally, we see today the most recent link in the chain, which is the rejection of the reality of our sexual biology in its entirety: transgenderism. If our biological sex isn’t relevant to how we have sex, then maybe there is not really such a thing as biological sex, or maybe it is just not significant at all. Perhaps this is the end, perhaps it will go further, or in different directions, such as into the normalization of polyamory, as I have already explored in another post. I think that is the most likely route.

The third effect is the dumbing down of public discourse. This follows from the descent into moral depravity. Since the behaviors society tolerates and promotes become more and more obviously indefensible through reason, the use of force, whether social, legal, or physical, is required to protect those behaviors from becoming taboo or illegal once again. The reduction of the quality and depth of public discourse is also is a product of the daughters of lust, as explained above. The mind and will are turned away from the true and the good and can’t even really perceive this – so what is there to talk about, really, except the trivial things of life?

The fourth effect is, in fact, demographic winters. A cursory glance at the changes in birth rate in first world nations over the past few decades should be enough to convince one of the fact. It turns out that, when unnatural vice is treated as acceptable, the existence of the human race, at least in a given sovereign territory, can be threatened. Yes, it is more complex than this, but, to take an extreme example, it can’t honestly be denied that if Japan or South Korea didn’t have contraceptives they would not be teetering on a demographic cliff. China might be heading in the same direction – so too might the USA.

The effects of certain contraceptives on one’s physical health

I am a moral scientist, not a medical scientist, but here I will offer a few points which are well-established, with links to sources with more information, on the effects of some oral contraceptives can tend to have on women. It is true that permanent sterility is not an effect of oral contraception, but other items one might want to consider include:

  • An increased likelihood of some cancers
  • Gingivitis
  • “Lady problems”
  • Instability of weight (loss or gain)
  • Decreased attractiveness (yes, really – see below)
  • Manipulation of mood
  • Decreased libido (nature’s sense of irony)
  • Various gastro-intestinal problems (diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, etc.)
  • Other severe (albeit rare) issues

I highly recommend listening to this excellent talk by Janet Smith on contraception, which includes a discussion of the shocking and scientifically well-established fact that oral contraceptives make women unconsciously less subjectively attractive (this part starts around 27 minutes into the talk) – and it even warps their perception about the attractiveness of men. Aphrodisiacs are perhaps not real, but pheromones are.

The infallible character of the Church’s teaching on contraception

Humanae Vitae was published in 1969, a year after the onset of the “sexual revolution” began. Its primary teaching was of course that the use of contraception (as contraception) is always immoral. Ever since the publication of Humanae Vitae, there has been an argument made that the document is not infallible, and so the teaching contained therein is also not infallible. It is a remarkable fact that St. Paul VI judged the way he did, given that the overwhelming majority of bishops advising him on the issue were opposed to his conclusion. (Two notable exceptions included the Ven. Fulton Sheen and Bishop Karol Wojtyła, the future St. John Paul II.) By what is best explained as a movement of the Holy Spirit, in favor of the protection of the Pontiff from error in such a weighty matter now being so hotly contested, Paul VI judged against the majority and in favor of the extremely unpopular minority. Perhaps not since St. Athanasius had there been such a moment.

It is true that the encyclical genre, into which Humanae Vitae clearly falls, is not usually considered to be infallible unless otherwise evident. However, one would hardly conclude that encyclicals cannot contain truths which are already part of the infallible and subsequently irreformable doctrine of the Church, such as teaching that God is a Trinity, or that the direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always evil. The teaching of Humanae Vitae on the intrinsic immorality of contraception belongs to this kind of teaching.

We have already seen the natural foundations of the immorality of contraception, beginning with the character of the act itself as a species of unnatural vice and exploring also the various bad effects which the habit tends to have on individuals, couples, and society. We could add to this a firm basis in Scripture, most notably in the case of Onan, who spilled his seed on the ground instead of raising up children for his deceased brother and was slain by God as a result. (Genesis 38:8-10) The teaching of Paul VI finds immediate support in nearly contemporary magisterial literature in Pius XI’s encyclical Casti Connubii, which rendered an identical judgment. Pius XI quotes St. Augustine on the question in defense of his own position, and many other major authorities could be brought forward as well, including St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Alphonsus Liguori, St. Jerome, St. Caesarius of Arles, St. John Chrysostom, and others. One will in fact find no support for the liceity of contraception among any such author.

Other than abortion (and maybe capital punishment), it would be difficult to find a moral teaching more universal than on the immorality of unnatural vice, which contraception is clearly part of. (By the way, contraceptives of various kinds have been around and well-known for thousands of years.) Therefore, supposing that the ordinary universal magisterium of the Church possesses the character of infallibility, which it clearly does, then the teaching of Paul VI on contraception is simply the reiteration of this infallible teaching. Subsequently, since truths about human nature and its rightful use do not change, this teaching likewise cannot change.

How to confess the use of contraception

There are some points worth making on the right confession of the use of contraception.

First of all, if one has simply sinned by the use of a contraceptive, it suffices to say that one has engaged in contraceptive sex, stating approximately how many times this has occurred. (Other forms of sterile/unnatural sexual activity must be confessed as separate sins, of whatever kind.)

Second, if one has deliberately held the opinion that contraception is not immoral, over and against the judgment of the Church, this ought to be confessed as well. The intellect is bound to assent to the teaching of the Church on this matter – otherwise, one presumes to usurp for himself the judgment of a moral item which has already been definitively ruled upon by the Church.

Third, if one has undergone a contraceptive surgery, this ought to be confessed as its own distinct act, specifying that one has mutilated oneself in view of contraception. This is because a sterilization is not only an act of contraception, it is an act of violence against the good of one’s own body. In my opinion, one is normally bound to reverse such a surgery if physically and financially possible. This would of course be impossible with irreversible surgeries (i.e. hysterectomies) and also seems unnecessary in the case where the couple includes a post-menopausal woman who can no longer conceive due to natural sterility. Still, in these special cases, the will must remain open to the theoretical possibility of conception, even though conception be unwanted and even impossible.

Remedies for those struggling with contraception

Individuals who habitually use contraception must become aware of the fact of their own darkness in this matter, and they must trust, rather blindly, that on the other side of making this radical change in their life they will as a result encounter a kind of peace, joy, and power that they are presently unable to grasp.

They must make a good confession, naming this sin and any other sins of similar gravity. Otherwise, due to the lack of sanctifying grace in the soul, not only will they likely struggle immensely to improve in chastity but whatever progress they make will not redound to any merit. Those with the guilt of mortal sin cannot please God until they are properly reconciled to Him – and, should they fail to make proper reconciliation, they will lose their souls forever at death. Even before confession, they ought to make a good act of contrition immediately, apologizing to God for having thus offended Him, seeking to make confession as soon as reasonably possible.

Couples should open an honest conversation about why they are using contraception and what effects they think it may have and have had on their relationship. They must avoid blaming the other – unless only one party has been consenting, then they are both to blame, even if in different ways and to different degrees. The point of such soul-searching is healing in view of integrating themselves back into an ordered way of conjugal life. Sharp arguments must be avoided at all costs. The point is not to compete, it is to complete. The couple then must together strongly resolve that, no matter what, they will no longer defraud and degrade each other out of the search for pleasures cut off from their natural purpose but will instead trust God and each other enough to welcome whatever children may be conceived. In some cases, working with a good and like-minded marriage counselor could be helpful.

Individuals, including spouses, must also now struggle to attain the virtue of chastity. I have written a post giving in-depth advice on this, but here I will note that the removal of people from one’s life who are occasions of promiscuity is on the top of the list for the unmarried. For the married, they ought to consider more deeply what duties they undertook when exchanging vows, and if they have children already they ought to consider why they would not want another, even to go so far as to poison or mutilate themselves.

Finally, all who wish to attain to chastity must pray for assistance earnestly, frequently, and humbly. It will then be given, along with any other virtue which is thus requested.

Conclusion

One will find any number of voices that contradict what is presented here. Those voices may even claim the cloak of Catholicism. Yet the honest and open conscience will recognize that twisting the gift of human sexuality inward on oneself is a grave offense against God in every instance. And yet He is ready and eager to forgive immediately – so long as one still draws breath. The shame of such sins, once recognized as sins, can be overwhelming to the point of near-paralysis, and the pleasures indulged in can indeed deeply blind one to the good of virtue, as noted. But one must go onward and upward, with humble confidence in God’s mercy and assistance for all those who wish to pursue Him. Chastity is most especially a product of hope.

It is my deep desire that these observations will help individuals and couples embrace the heights to which they are called as chaste souls, and fruitful husbands and wives. I will pray for those who are challenged by this post, and I ask that they return the favor.

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Our Lady, Queen of Virgins, pray for us.

Amoris Laetitia and the Eunuch-makers

Eamonn Clark, STL

Today we continue on in my notes for a book on Amoris Laetitia – or, rather, a book on its bad interpretations. These ones are rougher notes. I’ve removed some undeveloped or underdeveloped sections, including one on the Matthean exception and another on the Pauline and Petrine Privileges

Previous entries here (on clerical compromise) and here (on Cardinal Coccopalmerio’s booklet).


Adultery defined

The Sixth Commandment (Ex. 20:14) states, “You shall not commit adultery.” The Hebrew: לֹא תִנְאָף (lo tin’aph); the Greek Septuagint: οὐ κλέψεις (ooh kle-pseis); the Latin Vulgate: Non mœchaberis.

Adultery, strictly speaking, is sexual activity between a person presumed to be married and another to whom he or she is not presumed to be married. (For various reasons, we leave aside here the old scholastic method of specifying sexual sins, namely, only on the part of the “matter,” viz., the woman in her diverse conditions, i.e. unmarried, married, consecrated, etc.) Notice that one can commit adultery as an unmarried person with a married person, or as a married person with an unmarried or with a married person. The old scholastic definition is “access to another’s marriage bed.”

It is important also to note that the presumption of marriage, whether psychological or juridical, suffices to specify an extramarital sexual act as adulterous. For example, a man thinks that a woman is married to another man, but really she is not. His sexual activity with her constitutes adultery in the formal sense (that is, according to the consent of his will), even though materially (in external reality) it is only fornication. (A stranger example, which yet illumines this case further, is if two spouses have relations with each other, each thinking the other to be a stranger or perhaps the spouse’s twin – like the inverse of the case of Jacob and Leah.) An example proper to Catholics is the following. A Catholic man thinks there is a good case to be made that the woman he attempted to marry actually is not his wife, but he has not bothered to approach a tribunal to petition for nullity. This would not suffice to reduce his extramarital sexual activity to mere fornication. It is adultery, plain and simple.

Bigamy defined

The term “bigamy” has been used in diverse ways. The etymology is “bi,” two, “gamy,” marriage. The first and strictest sense in historical and even legal usage is remarriage after the death of a spouse. We do not use this sense here. A second sense, which we also do not use here, is a specific case of polygamy, namely, one woman married to two men, or one man married to two women. The sense we mean here is more specific – it is the act of attempting marriage with any person while oneself or the second person is presumed to be married. (Astonishingly, Cardinal Kasper conflated this third sense with the first, in his famous consistory speech about divorce and remarriage, when referencing Canon 8 of Nicaea I – there was suspicion in those days over the practice of remarrying after the death of a spouse, so the issue was addressed with “pastoral tolerance,” “indulgence,” “clemency,” etc. This is altogether different from what is being addressed in Amoris, clearly.)

The three senses obviously overlap. However, the third sense is exclusively what is meant in this text from hereon. When speaking of “bigamous” relationships, what is meant is a relationship proceeding from the attempt of marriage while one of the parties is still presumed to be married to another. (Clearly, this is not limited to “two” unions but could include a third attempted marriage, a fourth, a fifth, etc.)

“It is better not to marry”

The apostles immediately perceived the difficulty of marriage as taught by the Lord. They saw that in fact celibacy would be a more freeing way of life. Perhaps, due to their still imperfect understanding of the Messiah and His Kingdom, they did not yet perceive the eschatological and evangelical significance of celibacy but rather simply noted the difficulty of staying with one person for life. In other words, theirs was a realization in favor merely of their own convenience.

People in today’s Western world would do well to follow the apostles’ example and marvel at the doctrine of indissolubility of marriage. It goes without saying that if indissolubility were really taken seriously by all who were going to attempt marriage, the overall state of the Western family – and therefore of the Western world itself – would be much healthier. (This is part of why it is so important for the Church not to give the impression, even “indirectly,” that divorce and remarriage is acceptable.) The Church takes the baptized faithful seriously when they promise fidelity to each other, frequently more seriously than the couples take themselves. However, instead of saying “it is better not to marry,” in view of continent celibacy, people now say either, “it is better to ignore this teaching and marry and remarry as we wish,” or, “it is better not to marry and to sleep around anyway without any commitments.”

What occasioned the onset of no-fault divorce in the USA was the wide availability of cheap, safe, and effective oral contraceptives (“the pill”), which came in 1960 (increasingly accessible until universally legal in 1972). The first no-fault divorce law came in California in 1970, shortly followed by many other states. The gross expansion of abortion access came in 1973, with Roe v. Wade. Now, we are already in the twilight of the “gay rights” movement and are deep into transgender paranoia with little hope of recovery short of a full cultural implosion and reset. We see the natural progression: first, the obstruction of the natural fecundity of the sexual act which destroys the need for monogamy, let alone lifelong fidelity. Through contracepting, one is able to have as many partners as he or she wants, and any monogamous sexual relationship bears offspring contingent on one’s will. Second, the need for monogamous fidelity having been undermined, the logical step is to ratify this by declaring marriage to be a temporal project of self-gratification which one can escape at any time for any reason; thus, no-fault divorce. Third, the permanent consequences of “mistakes,” from contraception failing or not being used, must be dealt with, as one’s self-determination is threatened by children – whom we would be more comfortable pretending are “subhuman” enough to kill rather than deny our will and raise them. After destroying the logic of fidelity and fecundity, the very nature of biological order is called into question, as homosexual activity is just as much willed by some as heterosexual activity is willed by others, and who are we to stop it? Because there is no longer any real connection between fidelity, fecundity, the idea of marriage, and marriage’s legal framework, there is no reason why people of the same sex should be prevented from entering into such a union. Finally, after having utterly destroyed the meaning of marriage and torpedoed the reality of the most fundamental biological order as a basis for governing sexual activity, the very reality of biological sex is declared irrelevant or even illusory. What matters is one’s desires and how one wishes to express those desires. What matters is the will.

We see that the entire progression rests on the denial of one’s sexual faculty’s natural end for the sake of self-gratification, which is itself a bizarre reversal of the Lord’s loving invitation to celibacy as the way of perfection: instead of making oneself a “eunuch” for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven by withdrawing from the life of sexual activity and marriage altogether, the idea is to make oneself a “eunuch” within one’s marital or extra-marital sexual activity for the sake of one’s own kingdom, so that all of one’s temporal desires can be fulfilled with as much convenience as possible. Instead of freeing oneself for the Will of God, contraception frees oneself to pursue one’s own will. And it ends with people even really making themselves true eunuchs, as we can see not only with contraceptive sterilization procedures, but also with the rise in popularity of the most ghoulish kinds of “gender reassignment” surgeries. Truth be told, many such “transgender” persons have been mentally ill for years before their surgeries and “therapies”; they are therefore frequently minimally responsible for such terrible acts. However, the signs of the times are that nobody stopped these sick individuals from harming themselves – instead these poor people are encouraged in their delusions and even celebrated for living them out. These pitiable men and women are made eunuchs by others.

“Some have been made eunuchs by others”

Sometimes one is made a eunuch by others metaphorically. There is clearly a “contingent” or “conditional” call to continence. This vocation is manifested by one’s life circumstances beyond one’s control. Perhaps there are no people available in one’s purview for marriage; perhaps one’s spouse is dangerously ill with a heart condition and cannot safely engage in sexual relations; perhaps one’s spouse is alive but is in prison, gone on a long voyage, or otherwise physically inaccessible. The inability to marry or access a spouse is no grounds for extramarital sexual activity. One must necessarily have the grace available to live continently in these cases.

This reality of a conditional vocation to continence, at least temporary continence, applies in many cases of divorce and civil remarriage. If a man is truly married to a woman who is unwilling to reconcile and return to conjugal life he must necessarily have the grace to live in continence, despite having contracted a civil marriage with another woman; if his duties toward the children born from his second union oblige him to live day and night under the same roof as the woman in his second union, then he must have the greater grace to live in continence even while being so close to temptation. Likewise, he must have the grace to confront and endure whatever backlash might come from refusing sexual intimacy with the woman. (The same applies to women vis-à-vis men.)

Is Doubt a Sin?

Eamonn Clark, STL

Perhaps there is no moral issue which is more confusing to people than what is demanded of the intellect with regard to faith. It is an especially big problem in the West, among young people most of all. One hears from time to time, “I’m not sure I believe in the Church’s teaching on x,” where x is more often than not some moral teaching which rubs against the grain of progressive Western values of “tolerance” and “compassion.” One also hears occasionally, “I just struggle to believe y,” where y is some article of faith or a close derivative, with the supernatural character being particularly clear, such as the bodily resurrection of all the dead at the end of the world. Last of all, one also hears the blunter sort of statement, “I don’t believe in z,” where z could be either a moral or speculative doctrine taught authoritatively by the Church. In all three cases, if the doubter had previously called himself Catholic, it is unlikely to be any different after such announcements. He will still most likely simply say that he is “Catholic, but…” Whence the pejorative title of “cafeteria Catholic” comes.

Catholicism is not a culture. It is not a race, either. The Pharisees of old confused Judaism for a culture and their natural lineage for a spiritual one – descendants of Abraham in the flesh do not necessarily inherit his spiritual blessings. As someone put it once, God has no grandchildren. Excepting those who cannot use their reason (like infants), following Christ must be a personal choice which at least formally subjects everything else to Him and His will, meaning, at least in principle, despite failures from weakness, one wants to do His will no matter what.

This not only includes believing what God has said through Christ and His Church, it begins with this belief. Faith, which is not a mere collection of spiritual feelings or some arbitrary belief in spiritual realities but is rather trust in God’s Word as revealed in Christ and through His Catholic Church, is the condition for having a real spiritual life in the first place. (This can be implicit – see Hebrews 11:6 – but we’ll leave aside the special case of those who have not really been preached to sufficiently.) One who does not take God’s Word for truth, on the authority of God, and subsequently recognizing His voice in the Catholic Church when such becomes possible, can do nothing to please Him. The Scriptural evidence for the necessity of faith for salvation is copious – a reading of Hebrews 11 should suffice to give you the picture, along with the Lord’s statement in the Temple at the start of Holy Week: “Then Jesus cried out, ‘Whoever believes in Me does not believe in Me alone, but in the One who sent Me. And whoever sees Me sees the One who sent Me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in Me should remain in darkness. As for anyone who hears My words and does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I have not come to judge the world, but to save the world. There is a judge for the one who rejects Me and does not receive My words: The word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. I have not spoken on My own, but the Father who sent Me has commanded Me what to say and how to say it. And I know that His command leads to eternal life. So I speak exactly what the Father has told Me to say.'” (John 12:44-50)

To disbelieve any part of the teaching of God is to cut oneself off from Him, by implying that He is either confused or, even worse, lying. God demands that we perceive that He knows all and never lies. To disbelieve that the Church faithfully carries and announces God’s teaching is to reject those whom the Lord sent out to do precisely that, just before His Ascension: “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘Behold, all authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.'” (Matthew 28:16-20; cf. the sending of the 70 in Luke 10:16 – “He who hears you hears Me,” etc.)

To be a Catholic in law is to be sacramentally Catholic. If one was baptized as a Catholic, one is legally a Catholic. However, this does not mean that one truly belongs to the Catholic Church in an effective sense. That requires faith in the teachings of God through the Catholic Church, namely, the creeds and dogmas proposed for belief (i.e. the Trinity, the Resurrection, the Assumption, etc.), and also intellectually holding to their clear derivatives as proposed by the Church since, even though such data is not explicitly revealed by God, the Church enjoys protection in interpreting revealed truths whether through the Her ordinary or extraordinary magisterium. Were the Church not able to exercise both of these functions, that is, infallibly stating what is revealed by God directly and infallibly interpreting the immediate consequences of that data, there would be no real significance of the Church as a teacher. This would even extend to the necessity of throwing out Scripture – as otherwise the Church would not infallibly teach what belongs in Scripture in the first place.

So, are pro-choice politicians, for example, even able to be Catholics, over and above the legal sense? As it turns out, strictly speaking, yes. The illicitness of abortion does of course belong to Catholic doctrine, but it is not a datum revealed by God per se. The 5th Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill,” is revealed by God, but its application to cases where there is even the slightest bit of clarification needed from an additional science renders the conclusion non-revelatory, even if definitive and infallible, which is the case with abortion. One who denies this teaching on abortion, presupposing an awareness of what one is actually talking about (a theme we will return to momentarily), is a mortal sin indirectly against faith, in addition to being (sometimes) a mortal sin of both formal and material cooperation in the evil act of abortion and (sometimes) a mortal sin of scandal. So it should not be any consolation that one happens not to sin so egregiously against faith that it actually constitutes heresy, resulting in the loss of interior moral membership in the Church – it is actually to one’s greater shame, as St. Peter indicates: “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: ‘A dog returns to its vomit,’ and, ‘A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud.'” (2 Peter 2:21-22)

I base my analysis here on Fr. Cartechini, SJ’s wonderful chart on theological notes. I have referenced it before – it might be a little bit too rigorist in my opinion, and the legal framework it is based on (the 1917 Code) renders some parts a bit obsolete, but it is very good at setting up the theoretical side of the problem. See also Dr. Feser’s nice explanation of the 5 types of papal teaching, which maps onto this schema easily enough. In truth, the world of systematic/dogmatic theology, especially when touching morals, is not exactly as straightforward as most think it is. In fact, one might be able to make the case that the Church’s teaching on the immorality of abortion belongs to a higher note than mere Catholic doctrine, especially given that Pius IX’s dogmatic definition of the Immaculate Conception does indeed treat of Mary’s conception, not of her “quickening” or any other antiquated embryological terminology. (Gynecology had really just begun to take off shortly before the 1854 proclamation on Mary’s conception.) Given that Pius IX used “conception” in Ineffabilis Deus, rather than some other term, (like “existence,”) did he thereby allow a theological demonstration of the humanity of a conceptus, given that he clearly means to ascribe humanity to Mary in such a state, as only humans can be preserved from the stain of original sin? If so, it would be easier to make the case that the illicitness of abortion is a truth of “ecclesiastical faith,” the second highest kind of doctrine. (It would still certainly not be of Divine and Catholic faith, the highest degree, nor would it be situated as proximate to faith, it seems.) But I am not convinced by that argument – it very much strikes me as still not closely enough connected with revelation. I could be wrong. It might be that those who reject the teaching of the Church on abortion aren’t Catholics. But it is somewhat academic… However, since certain politicians have made it so abundantly clear that they think they are still Catholics (devout!) and push the most ghoulish kinds of pro-choice legislation, maybe more study of this issue is called for. (Friends of mine looking for a good Licentiate thesis topic – this could be a good one.)

All this is basically to say that intellectual disobedience, whether through heresy in the strict sense or less serious kinds of dissent with what the Church understands as being binding upon the minds of the faithful with regard to faith OR to morals, is material sin. The intellect’s relation to other elements will determine its formal character, as we will see.

So what of our x, y, and z cases? What about that vocal kid in youth group who says he supports gay marriage? What about that couple that puts an “ordain women” bumper sticker on their car? What about that friend who’s just not sure if there really is a resurrection of all humanity at the end of the world and has just decided not to take a stance on the question? What about, what about, what about…

As we have seen, sometimes it can be tricky enough to situate the object itself into the proper category. Is it a denial or doubt of something directly revealed by God? Is it something merely closely connected with revelation? Or merely something taught infallibly by the magisterium? Or something else?

The next question is what the subject’s relationship really is to the object. This can be even trickier, as we can’t read minds.

First of all, doubt, as a moral category, lies underneath of rejection or “dissent” but above mere hesitation or anxiety. Doubt is a choice to suspend belief, whether by a positive act of deciding not to believe one way or the other, or by a deliberate failure to address a hesitation or anxiety over a matter requiring assent by not moving the mind in one direction or the other. Sometimes it is not particularly clear, even to the person himself, what is going on in his intellect.

Second, we have to evaluate the subject’s understanding of what he is considering. This is the most difficult aspect, and it is divided into two parts. Briefly… First, there is the attention given to the doctrine’s source qua authoritative source, and, second, there is the ability of the intellect in this particular moment to grasp the doctrine as something intelligible.

As to the second part, those who are suffering from some anxious movement of the mind can be so overwhelmed by the apparent strangeness or natural impossibility of doctrines that they start to seem disconnected from reality. Souls ought to be counseled not to worry themselves should they seem to consent to such temptations – the fact of the anxiety means that they are resisting somehow, and their minds cannot be expected, at least not under grave precept, to withhold all such assaults. But more on this below.

As to the first part, we could consider the example which St. Thomas gives when asking whether venial sin can be in the higher intellect when directing its own proper acts (as opposed to whether it can have sin when directing outward actions or interior movements of the will). Suppose a person begins to consider the resurrection of all the dead at the end of time, and he immediately thinks this to be untrue, as he is only thinking of things according to natural processes and empirical evidence. This is venial sin, as he should have his mind always sufficiently turned toward the truth of the Faith such that this would not occur. However, if he begins to consider that this doctrine is proposed by the Church as an Article of Faith, or that it is taught by Christ Himself, and subsequently that it is the doctrine delivered by God, then he arrives at the point at which he will either return to intellectual assent (belief) toward the doctrine, or he will enter into a mortal sin directly against faith, thus losing the virtue of faith altogether, by not assenting. One is obliged seriously to learn the basic tenets of the Faith, and should some subtler point be at issue then those with less learning ought to consult those who are more learned (and most trustworthy). The obligation increases with the recurrence of such thoughts of dubious orthodoxy, and with the significance such thoughts have for one’s life – certainly, one who takes it upon himself to become an activist, such as for “equality in the Church” of various sorts, has a serious duty to know first what he is talking about before setting himself against those who propose the opposite position and can point to any number of authoritative sources which affirm their claims. Failure to do such would, it seems, entail a loss of the virtue of faith. Even merely “being vocal” is serious business. The wisdom literature suggests that silence brings wisdom and preserves one from sin for a reason.

Implicit assent would be enough in normal scenarios for those battling some temptation towards doubt or even dissent. In his classic work, The Spiritual Combat, passages of which were read daily by St. Francis de Sales, Dom Scupoli gives the advice to those struggling with anxious thoughts over matters of faith to make general acts of faith, rather than fixating on whatever particular doctrine is bothersome. “I believe all that the Church teaches because it is from God.” Scupoli suggests that if these thoughts are coming at the behest of the Devil, and he prods one to explain what the Church teaches, it will be very mortifying to the Evil One to respond, “The Church teaches the truth,” and leave it at that. Should the response come, “What is the truth?” the reply should be, “What the Church teaches!” Thus will anxious persons escape confusing themselves and ultimately losing their faith, and they will torture the Devil in the meantime.

In the end, as these two aspects (awareness of the authoritative source of a doctrine, and clearness of mind toward the doctrine) decrease, the sinfulness will decrease. More serious offenses, of course, ought to be confessed, especially if they became outward statements or activism – whether it was last weekend at youth group, or during the local synodal meeting, or on the campaign trail.

There is a lot more to talk about, but I will save it for a book I’ve been working on related to this theme (and connected issues). Don’t wait up for it, it will take a very long time still to come to publication, if it ever makes it…

Poland post coming in the next few days.

Of Mollusks and Marble

I don’t normally do personal posts, let alone lifestyle posts, but… the past two days have been particularly Roman.

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Normally, it would be tomorrow, but it has been moved because tomorrow is Sacred Heart. So yesterday was the vigil, which means…

Snails.

It is an ancient Roman tradition – originally connected with the solstice and warding off ghosts, and now connected with the Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist – to eat snails. So eat them I did, with several friends and several bottles of white wine, in the Monti neighborhood. Lumache alla Romana, at Osteria della Suburra. Great stuff!

Today I meandered down, for the first time in almost a calendar year, to St. John Lateran. The full name of the basilica, which is the cathedral of Rome, thus the “mother church” of all Christendom, is the Archbasilica Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in the Lateran. Despite the name there is no relic of either saint as far as I know – but John the Baptist’s head (at least the “Roman” contender) is at San Silvestro in Capito, where I did not make it today unfortunately.

Some details of the left transept:

That is Leo XIII’s tomb on the right. He looks a little camera shy – or just got out of the movie theater and can’t take the sunlight?

One of the most striking things about the basilica is the statues of the apostles. They are very large, lining the right and left sides of the nave. Many of them are depicted with the instruments of their martyrdom.

St. Bartholomew, skinned alive.
St. Simon (not Peter), with a saw.

You can see one of the dedication crosses on the right, which were smeared with oil at (I suppose) the re-dedication of the basilica after its last major renovation (under Innocent X, his name is everywhere). I really dislike the fake candles, as I explained in a post a long time ago. It is especially bad when it is a papal basilica… the things we offer to God matter, especially in formal worship and sacred spaces.

Ugh. Convenient, yes, but… that sort of defeats the purpose.

There was another curious statue, in a side chapel on the right. It’s a saint who looks like she is playing table tennis, and she is holding a snake as well. I guess it is supposed to be a mirror, but… I like to think saints liked ping pong. But I have no clue who this is. Anyone got any idea?

The gate to the chapel is its own great piece of art. I think the guys who made it would have eschewed fake candles, for what it’s worth…

Look at the detail, and the creativity… I would wager the thinking with these creatures is similar to the gargoyles of French fame… scaring away evil angels. (Wait – they aren’t snails, are they!?)

Grrrrr…

There was a little exhibit going on about St. Therese of Lisieux. I was especially interested in the fact that they had a whole section on Pius XI’s devotion and teaching on her, as he is the object of my doctoral studies. The posters are a bit out of date… I wonder if you can see why.

Pius XI: [she is] “the star of my pontificate”

Speaking of Pius XI, here is a plaque about him in the basilica:

My Latin is not good, but luckily I ran into a friend (whose monastery I will be staying at in Poland next week – yes, pictures will be forthcoming), and his Latin is excellent. Had I bothered to work out the date, I would have figured out what this was, but… I took a shortcut.

It is commemorating this chapel, which is where the young Achille Ratti was ordained a priest. I knew he was ordained in the Lateran, but I always thought it was at the main altar. It was not… it was here, in this small side chapel.

He was ordained December 20, 1879 by Cardinal La Valletta – who also happened to ordain Benedict XV a priest.

On my way out, I stopped by the baptistry. Constantine was baptized here – before the structure existed, which essentially serves to commemorate that blessed event.

Here is one of the famous obelisks of Rome. This one is Egyptian – one of 8. (Several others are Roman.)

It is the tallest in Rome, if one doesn’t include the base in the calculations. (With the base included the tallest is the obelisk at St. Peter’s.) This one weighs 330 tons, after reconstruction trimmed it down a bit, from 455 tons (quite a diet). It was in the temple of Amun in Karnak, near Luxor. It came over to Rome in 357 to be a decoration in the Circus Maximus.

The base.

And finally, a quick look in toward where the educational facilities are… including the main Roman diocesan seminary (I think Rome has about 30-40 seminarians of its own – incredible…), and the now-destroyed JPII Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family. So sad. I think they have very few students. People vote with their feet – and their wallets. That includes candidates for the priesthood!

Well, that is it. Despite my rare “lifestyle” posts, another one coming up soon, from the Archabbey of Jędrzejów. But, with 5 likes on this post, I will do these more often!

Be sure to subscribe as well…

St. John the Baptist, pray for us!

-Eamonn

Who led the reform – Bugnini, or the Holy Spirit?

Eamonn Clark, STL

Cardinal-Elect Arthur Roche, Prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has given an interview. It is worth reading, primarily for the following paragraph.

So, all that is taking place is the regulation of the former liturgy of the 1962 Missal by stopping the promotion of that, because it was clear that the Council, the Bishops of the Council, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, were putting forward a new liturgy for the vital life of the Church, for its vitality. And that’s really very important. And to resist that is, is something that is really quite serious, too.

Never mind that the Council didn’t itself reform the liturgy, nor that it was never suggested to create a “new liturgy” but simply have a restoration of sorts. The overall attitude/vision of Roche put forward here is congruent with the speech given by Pope Francis in 2017 to Italian liturgists. Anyone who is interested in what is happening right now in the world of Catholic liturgy absolutely MUST (re)read this speech. It is like an intellectual tell-all. This is the speech where he made one of the oddest statements perhaps ever uttered in public by a Roman pontiff: “After this magisterium, after this long journey, We can affirm with certainty and with magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.”

The men leading this charge think that the work of the Consilium ad exsequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia (or just “the Consilium”), the liturgical committee which was commissioned by the Second Vatican Council to implement the document Sacrosanctum Concilium, was inspired by the Holy Spirit.

The claim of inspiration is not about the document, Sacrosancutm Concilium, which is a huge claim on its own, especially given the “pastoral” as opposed to “doctrinal” character of the Council, as Ratzinger/Benedict XVI pointed out;1 it seems very much to be the work of the Consilium which is being claimed to have inspiration. This sort of claim is without any precedent in the entire liturgical history of the Church, as far as I can tell – do correct me if I am wrong. Nobody claims that their liturgical reforms are “inspired” by the Holy Spirit, and traditionally liturgical developments are seen as being “protected” (a weaker influence of the Holy Spirit) only in special cases, like the commemoration of saints or generally the teaching content of prayers when adopted for a long time in a great number of places. What happens in liturgical reforms throughout the ages is that the general custom of the Church, in Her liturgy, is guided somewhat by the Holy Spirit, overall away from the introduction of error and toward the edification of souls, in the long-term – or something very close to this. Because the liturgy is the public worship of God by the Church, it stands to reason that God would be invested in its development and growth towards a form which more and more adequately reveals and instructs about the mysteries which it contains, including through legitimately diverse forms (i.e., the Eastern liturgies). This process, after the Last Supper, has gradually come to occur typically through minor reforms of bits and pieces of the liturgy, done in tandem with the growth of local liturgical customs. As the centuries have gone on, these changes have become smaller and less frequent.

Suffice it to say, what occurred in the late 1960’s at the Consilium was a bit different. The dishonesty of Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, who spearheaded the work of the Consilium, was sufficient to get him banished to Iran by the same pope who commissioned him in the first place, St. Paul VI.

Knowing the history of these things is no longer optional for anyone who is involved in theology, or in public ecclesiastical life.

There is a nice 3-part series being put out right now which I would encourage readers to watch. The first two episodes are out – PART 1, and PART 2. It is not a perfect production – on several levels – but as an introduction to the the old liturgy, the history of the reform, and what exactly is going on right now, it is helpful. One of the gems comes from the second episode, where the textual changes to the liturgy are shown graphically:

The thought that the Holy Spirit has any direct involvement with major liturgical reforms done by committees, let alone inspires such reforms, which is a category that only properly applies to the original writing of Sacred Scripture, is entirely novel. May I suggest that the ideas of some men about how to change the text and rubrics of one slice of the Church’s liturgy (the Latin/Western slice) are not equivalent with the words of Isaiah, or Genesis, or Matthew. The language we use to talk about these things matters. If Scripture is inspired, and the work of the Consilium is inspired, then how do they differ in authority?

Go read Francis’ speech. Pay attention.

For those readers of mine in higher theological studies – especially if you are looking for a good topic for a dogma STL thesis – start considering what the role of the Holy Spirit is in liturgical reforms. One can make various distinctions, such as inspiration vs. protection vs. providence, etc., which would be relevant. It is the most timely sort of topic, and it is sorely needed. This tension is not going to be swept away by the next pope, one way or the other. It will be here for a while. We may as well settle in, and we would be fools not to arm ourselves with knowledge.

We must also pray and fast for our bishops, including our Holy Father, Pope Francis.

1 – “The Second Vatican Council has not been treated as a part of the entire living Tradition of the Church, but as an end of Tradition, a new start from zero. The truth is that this particular council defined no dogma at all, and deliberately chose to remain on a modest level, as a merely pastoral council; and yet many treat it as though it had made itself into a sort of superdogma which takes away the importance of all the rest.” – Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), July 13, 1988 (Santiago, Chile)

What is TikTok? A Primer for Clergy

Eamonn Clark, STL

Dear Fathers – if you are unaware of the pervasiveness and influence of TikTok, you are way out of the loop. If you have never heard of it, then I welcome you back to Earth from your mission to the International Space Station… A lot has changed in the years you have been gone.

This app presents an absolutely immense pastoral challenge which anyone engaged in parochial ministry – or any ministry involving youth or parents – ought to be aware of.

Below, I offer a series of videos which will get you up to speed on what this thing is, how it works, and some reasons why it is so dangerous.

TikTok was the most visited website in the world last year – more than Google. You really do need to know what it is.

What worse kind of poison to a good education in faith and morals could there be than a thing such as this? How will souls attached to this thing ever be led into the beginnings of contemplative life?

The video above is a basic introduction to what TikTok is.
Incentivizing bad behavior – a subtle political maneuver?
I’m giving three videos from this YouTuber. He runs a gaming channel, so some clips are from games… if it looks like a video game, that’s not TikTok.
Top 50 most liked TikToks (as of a few months ago)
#trans videos racked up a whopping 27 billion hits last year. Take a look at what the kiddos are watching and being formed by.
Some #christian TikToks
A self-described reel of “progressive Catholic” TikToks… Not necessarily a lot of hits/views relatively speaking, but the fact that there is such a thing as a “LeftCath” community/group pushing weird stuff which will reaffirm emotionally vulnerable and poorly catechized kids is its own cause for concern (see the video’s description).
Another take on the dangers of TikTok, especially for girls.

My recommendation for any pastor in the developed world would be to work with your youth minister on a way of combating this problem. Really, I would recommend that basically every pastor have a small group of trusted young people keep him informed once a month of the most significant goings-on in the world of youth media… TikToks, memes, top-40 music, blogs, etc., so that Father is aware of what on earth the kids are up to. But maybe a good pastoral moment could be had by hosting an open forum for parents to address concerns that they have, for Father to talk about concerns that he has, and for the youth minister to talk about concerns he or she has. You could even team up with other parishes in the deanery. It’s an idea.

Fathers… Come up with a plan. The Devil has one… and it’s this.

Cardinal Marx is Right… But Mostly Not.

Eamonn Clark, STL

The Catholic blogosphere will no doubt be ablaze with indignation at the German cardinal’s latest attempt at theology. While the Twitterati will certainly make many points about how wrong he is about the “issue at hand,” which he certainly is, they might miss the chance to acknowledge the truth of one element – which is about the status of the Catechism.

Many people would struggle to explain what exactly the Catechism is. That’s precisely because they know it as “the” Catechism, rather than “a” catechism. A catechism is a tool for teaching and explaining the Catholic faith. It is not the Faith itself. Very often people will ask, “Where is the list of things which the Catholic Church teaches?” This is an understandable but misguided question. While it is true that the “matter” of the Faith is propositional, meaning, one can use words to signify its content, there is no “list of propositions” which qualifies as “the official list of all the things Catholics must believe in order to be Catholic.”

This is for a few reasons.

First, Catholic doctrine has “levels,” or “notes,” to use the technical term. In short, some elements of what qualify as “Catholic teaching” are more derivative or less derivative in some way, either from other doctrines (i.e. “the laity may receive the Eucharist,” “Anglican Orders are invalid,” etc.), or from other doctrines set in relation to the observable world (i.e. “St. Clement was the pope,” “abortion is a sin against the 5th Commandment,” etc.). This complicates matters a great deal – should all of what is contained under the category of “teaching” be included? What that even means is rather obscure, unless one wants to restrict this only to those propositions canonized “de fide,” which ends up being a rather short list, even though there are three types of “de fide” propositions.

Second, sometimes what once had a relatively high theological note is reduced to a lower one, to such a degree that it comes into serious doubt; the opposite can also happen, going from a lower note to a higher one. The current example of the former is the possession of the Beatific Vision by Christ during the entirety of His earthly life, which is a hot topic in the literature today. Current examples of the latter include the Marian dogmas – certainly, the Immaculate Conception, which St. Thomas famously argued against, there being the freedom to do so at the time – but also the Annunciation, which has moved up, and now, most especially, the possibility of a definition of a fifth Marian dogma looms far in the distance, which is that of Mary as Mediatrix of all graces. There are certainly limits to the kind of movements or developments which can occur, (such as “de fide” propositions being unable to move downward,) but the fact that doctrine is “mobile” in this way cuts against the logic of a “doctrine list.”

Third, language changes over time, and it can even be ambiguous in the present. To try to set in stone a few propositions in the context of an ecumenical council is challenging enough. To try to do it with “everything” could invite an unbelievable amount of trouble in the distant future, or even the near future. One need only think of the ancient spat over “hypostasis” with the Greeks, for instance, to see how this could be a problem – or even things more recent, like the the moral status of the word “inadmissible.”

So, what does all this mean for Cardinal Marx’s claims? Well, first of all, the “Catechism,” which is more precisely called The Catechism of the Catholic Church, is about as close as one gets to a “doctrine list” of the sort which people usually desire. What is contained in it is very important. It is the first “universal” catechism – formerly, catechisms had only been written locally (such as the famous Baltimore Catechism, written for the USA), or for a particular group (such as the Roman Catechism, which was written for bishops and pastors). This catechism, however, is the one written for everyone – kids, adults, men, women, Brazilians, Japanese, Red Sox fans, Yankees fans… What is in it therefore matters more than what is in other catechisms. Everyone is supposed to be able to rely on it for guidance.

That’s why changing anything in the text of The Catechism of the Catholic Church ought to be a hair-raising prospect. It implies that it was wrong, or at least gravely defective, when the definitive text was promulgated. Now, to reiterate, catechisms are merely tools for teaching the Faith, they are not the Faith itself. However, this is supposed to be the tool which everyone can rely on. It should not be changing every once in a while to suit the latest tastes in language, culture, or theological speculation… in several centuries, it may indeed be time to rewrite the text entirely for the sake of updating the way the Faith is communicated through the words, the expressions, and even the themes emphasized to some extent. But it turns out that changes can indeed be made to the very text of what the Church currently refers to as Her universal catechism, which means in some sense one is allowed to doubt its content qua instrument. That’s where Marx has it right. What makes this so scary is that there is precedent for doing this already, since the capital punishment kerfuffle.

The deeper point to be made is that doctrines do not develop “laterally” – a change in our understanding of femininity, for example, could never contradict the Church’s teaching on Holy Orders being reserved to men alone; were there such an understanding to be developed, that understanding of femininity must be wrong. The Church effectively says, “There is a rock in this path. You can’t go this way. Turn around and try another route.” And, in fact, one can use precisely the same structure of the capital punishment paragraph to justify any sort of “lateral development,” such as is now proposed by Cardinals Marx and Hollerich on homosexuality. If our understanding of human sexuality develops, it must develop without transgressing settled doctrine about the meaning of sexual acts, among other things. (And if the Church’s teaching on the intrinsic immorality of homosexual acts is not settled, then nothing outside the Creeds and Councils is settled, which is preposterous.) The capital punishment paragraph practically functions as a lateral development MadLib. Watch:

“Recourse to the condemnation of all homosexual acts was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain abuses and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.  

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the autonomy of human sexuality is legitimately expressed even in a homosexual relationship. In addition, a new sociological-scientific understanding has emerged of the significance of the structure of the nuclear family.

Lastly, more effective systems of inclusion have been developed, which ensure the due protection of homosexuals and, at the same time, do not definitively deprive them of the possibility of marriage.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the exclusion of homosexual activity in society is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of human sexual autonomy,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

There you have it – the Devil’s blueprint. It’s that cunning, subtle, and disgusting.

So, what is ours? Knowing our faith, praying and fasting for clergy, and keeping our children out of harm’s way – which in many places almost certainly means pulling them from public elementary schools… maybe even the parish schools in some cases. Almost definitely off of TikTok for the younger ones.

Do you know what your children are learning about sex and gender? Are you sure? Ask them what their friends teach them, too… You might be shocked. Can they explain what a boy is? What a girl is? What marriage is and what it is for? Why marriage is a sacrament for Christians?

The Hidden Idolatry in Our Midst

Eamonn Clark, STL

In the past, it has struck me that the sense of sin among even many pious people is skewed in favor of measuring the gravity of sin in terms of its effects rather than in terms of its disorder. The specific example that has come up multiple times relates to the Sixth Commandment, but I will use a slightly different example: the difference between the Eighth Commandment and the Second Commandment. Lying is wrong. But swearing a false oath (perjury) is far, far worse. It is leagues above the most malicious of lies, when such lies are taken by themselves as lies, even though a malicious lie can cause such great damage while one may see no real damaging effect from perjury at all, even most of the time. (By the way, it is perjury that the Second Commandment is really about – not “using bad language,” as is unfortunately taught so frequently.)

Why is perjury so much worse? After all, it is a lie that may or may not have a bad effect, while a malicious lie is designed to harm another and often has such terrible effects. Even taking the cumulative force of the violation of other precepts together with malicious lies as their root (such as the violation of the Fifth or Seventh Commandments), we should note that not only does the Second Commandment rank higher numerically on the Decalogue, at a whopping five places above, but it is actually on the First Tablet. This is because, first of all, it relates directly to our relationship with God and His due honor. Second, following from this, the sin of perjury (“swearing on the Name of God” in a matter which you are lying about) is enormously disordered, much more disordered than trying to harm some mere creature with a lie. When perjuring, one “harms God,” in the way that this is possible. Seeing as the point of human existence is primarily to love God, and that the love of creation is only well-ordered in relation to the love of God first, we can see how a direct assault on the honor of God is much worse than a direct assault on a creature, especially when the sin is the same sort of action. (Sometimes people take false oaths in words without truly meaning to take a real oath – “I swear to God,” etc… This is a terrible habit which must be intentionally rooted out. It is arguably venial sin in itself in the case of mindlessness, but such mindlessness proceeds from somewhere – often a general lack of interest in honoring God and His Holy Name, which reveals a lack of charity.)

Now, onto the real topic for today: the violation of the First Commandment and this sin’s infiltration into the normal lives of so many people. So. Many. People. And no, I do not mean “idolizing sin/money/sex/etc.” I mean real idolatry. Let’s get into it.

One of the few people that St. Thomas specifically names and accuses of sin in the Summa Theologica is the great Roman philosopher Seneca, whom several pages later is relied on, strangely enough, as an authority on gratitude. (Thomas also did not like the Stoics in general, of whom Seneca was a foremost member and representative. In fact, the Stoics are the only group which the Angelic Doctor basically mocks, to my knowledge, for their hypocritical doctrine on the use of pleasure.) The relevant section for us, however, is the II-II q. 94 a. 2 resp., which discusses whether idolatry is a sin.

Thomas quotes Augustine, who himself is quoting Seneca, on the worship of the Roman gods. Here it is: “We shall adore in such a way as to remember that our worship is in accordance with custom rather than with the reality.” Thus spoke Seneca. Well, at least he was honest about what he was doing. Thomas, with Augustine, finds this to be “wicked dishonesty,” especially since Seneca pretended to worship the gods so well that people thought he actually believed.

I was speaking some time ago with a friend about the strange phenomenon of “atheist Jews” who continue to practice the rituals which signify the advent of the Christ. Well, they neither believe in the reality of the Incarnation nor do they actually expect it. It is about custom – a bizarre and grotesque outgrowth of these Jews’ distant ancestors who accosted Jesus for not understanding Judaism because He did not follow the customs they were so fond of. We can say that these ethnic Jews who, unlike their ancestors, do not even believe in God at all, nonetheless pretend to worship God and therefore are in fact idolaters on this account. This is because the outward ritual of the Passover meal, or Succoth, etc., are imbued with a significance so evidently containing the communication of idea of submission, praise, hope, etc. in relation to the God of Israel that these rituals also contain the idea and the objective fact of worship of that very same God. Despite the lack of belief in God, such ethnic Jews pretend to worship Him nonetheless, even if they would insist that they are not doing so. The rites of the old feasts are themselves sufficient to indicate that one is expressing faith and hope in the God of Israel. This is much the same as the Christian lapsi who dishonestly pretended to worship the Roman gods to escape persecution, though those who gave in after much torture certainly have much less guilt than those who were afraid of incurring mild inconveniences. But those who simply outwardly communicate worship (latria) are not only formally giving idolatrous worship (even if it happens to be worship given to the one true God), but it is also, in Thomas’s words, a “wicked falsehood.” (He also attacks the continued observance of the Jewish rites after the age of the Church begins – like that which was promoted by the Judaizers that Paul fought against so vehemently – and though he does not say it is idolatrous, it is nonetheless a “pestiferous superstition.” A wonderful phrase, if I do say so myself.)

And now we come to the real problem. The outwardly devout attendance of Mass on the part of those who lack belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which, in the USA, is about 70% of self-identified Catholics, including about a third who show up every Sunday. Let us investigate.

Christ and the Eucharist are the same, except for shape (“secondary dimensive quantity”) and thus also according to mode of presence (“sacramental presence”/”substantial presence” as opposed to “local presence”), and they differ in the reason for the unity or “concomitance” of the parts (Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, whether by “nature” directly as with Christ in Heaven, or in virtue of real concomitance resting the power of the word – which subject Lateran IV dealt with so succinctly). This means that to worship the Eucharist is to worship Christ…

…if one believes in the Eucharist as such. If one does not actually believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, what is happening in such a soul at Mass? He is giving the objective signs of latria, adoration, worship, to what are, in his mind, mere bread and wine, not Christ, though he may see these objects as somehow “representing” or “symbolizing” Christ. Therefore, it constitutes formal idolatry, even though materially, unbeknownst to him, it is materially worship of Christ.

That is the thesis. It needs some qualification, so I will now walk it back a few steps. Of course, most people in such a situation have little to no meaningful catechetical formation. They have never been told that the Mass is a sacrifice, that it re-presents Calvary, that Christ is substantially present in the Eucharist, that the state of grace is requisite for a good Communion, that rendering good worship in the Mass is the highest act of moral virtue which one can do, etc. They have instead been formed by the Protestant culture and liturgy which surrounds them, and, unfortunately, have also been formed by the Protestantization of the Catholic Mass which resulted from the reforms after the last Council, coupled with decades of weirdness and sloppiness in the reformed liturgy. So, despite probably having presented themselves for catechetical formation, it has not been given to them. The average Sunday pewster would be able to tell you aesthetic differences between what Evangelicals or Lutherans are doing in their worship and what Catholics are doing in ours, but meaningful theological differences would be a struggle to explain. It is difficult to see how that is entirely the fault of the individual in ignorance.

It is also the case that the formal idolater hardly understands themselves to be offering worship to the Eucharistic species at all. (Once again, one might point to the reforms as a possible root for this shift, along with the experiments of the following decades.) They simply “follow the crowd,” and they don’t think much more about it.

On the other hand, I once had an experience, when assisting in a parish in the USA, of a group of parents who came to have details explained about their children making their first Holy Communion. I think many of them had their kids with them. The meeting was held in a chapel, with a full tabernacle. I distinctly remember sitting there at the end of the meeting in genuine shock and awe as I watched each one of several dozen people exit the chapel without the slightest act of reverence toward Christ in the Eucharist… What is one to make of this morally? It is the opposite of the phenomenon of kneeling, bowing, and receiving Holy Communion at Mass without faith in the Real Presence. It is worship which ought to be given but is not, which is called irreligion, specifically sacrilege (the failure to honor rightly a sacred object). While it is only a minor kind of sacrilege and is done in ignorance, as opposed to burning a church down intentionally, it is still deeply disordered.

Likewise, when real outward signs of reverence are given, it communicates something about what is interior, namely, belief about the dignity of the object reverenced. One cannot get around this. There is a kind of idolatry, even though done in ignorance, in the person who lacks Eucharistic faith but goes through the motions at a Mass. This, too, exposes an immense disorder in the soul, and in this particular case, especially in the intellect, as one is utterly ignorant of the reality of the Blessed Sacrament. It reveals that one does not know how to give worship hardly at all, even when in precisely the right place at precisely the right moment, and even when doing outwardly the precisely correct things, in the context of the highest kind of worship.

This is a crisis. It is a First Commandment crisis. If we cannot get this right, what else matters?

That is the situation. What to do? More preaching on the Mass, and more vigilance exercised over catechesis in parochial environments, indeed can go a long way. However, I propose there are other remedies as well.

  1. Perpetual adoration, or as close as the parish can get to it. A good introduction to what this is, and why it is done, where much teaching can be done, is the set up for the practice itself, which is always sure to bring many blessings to the community. A culture ought to be built up around keeping watch with Our Lord. Eucharistic processions are good too – the more public the better!
  2. Liturgy needs to be celebrated very precisely and very well. This cannot be emphasized enough – the chief way that people learn what the liturgy is all about is by experiencing it. So if it is anthropocentric, they will learn that Mass is about “me” or “us.” If it is done well, they will learn that it is about Christ, specifically about Christ in the Eucharist – not about music, not about the homily, not about “participation” qua “doing stuff,” and not even about community. It is about what is happening on the altar, and our participation in that act of sacrifice, by prayer, presence, and even by palate – though it is only necessary to receive Holy Communion once a year during Easter, and it is, of course, obligatory to refrain when in grave sin.
  3. Priests and other sacred ministers need to exhibit special devotion before, during, and after the Mass. This is closely connected with, and even identical to some extent, with the point about liturgy being celebrated well. If Father doesn’t bother to genuflect when setting up for Mass, why would anyone think of the tabernacle as anything other than a pretty-looking box? If he handles the sacred vessels like ordinary things, why would anyone think something is special about what they contain? And so on. It is also especially helpful for people to see priests praying before and after Mass. In many parts of the world, this is not customary, once again, due to the exertion of cultural pressure from Protestantism. I would suggest that it is often more helpful for people to see Father praying for a few minutes after Mass than to shake hands on the way out the door… But, alas, one must not be too harsh in the violation of custom, and it is frequently the case that people would never speak a word to Father other than at such a moment. However, if there is more than one priest around, he should greet people, while the celebrant goes to pray. After all, as Canon 909 says: “A priest is not to neglect to prepare himself properly through prayer for the celebration of the eucharistic sacrifice and to offer thanks to God at its completion.”

The case of formal idolatry, even if watered down somewhat from the Senecan version, is not a sin without enormous bad effects – they are simply distant from their cause. How many people have stopped going to Mass altogether because they don’t see the need for it? How many people make bad communions? How many people never bother to pray directly to the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, or even reverence Him intentionally, thus depriving themselves and the world of untold amounts of grace? How many people go to non-Catholic churches on some Sundays because they don’t really see the difference? How may people go to Mass a few times a year because of “custom” rather than “reality,” almost like Seneca or the atheist Jews who still observe their ancestors’ feasts out of some kind of nostalgia or sentimentality??? These bad effects come from a lack of faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, an enormous disorder. It stands to reason then that over time, if we heal the root, we fix the fruit.

I know how jarring the use of the word “idolater” is. It is out of care and concern for souls that we ought to use precise language, albeit tactfully. Hopefully, these considerations can move things in the right direction for those who read and have the position to preach, teach, and otherwise influence souls.

The Drive to Become an Altar

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

Eamonn Clark, STL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Principles for Chaste Relationships – Part II

Eamonn Clark, STL

After an inappropriately long break, we are continuing our moral analysis of romance. First post here, on the principle “distinguish between the passions of love, desire, and delight.” I am preparing some lectures on a related topic for some of my students – so I have these things on the brain a bit. I may publish some of those notes another time.

The second great principle: don’t start what you can’t finish.

We were talking about an analogy with food…

It’s not obligatory to finish the cheeseburger. We are much more masters over our own bodies in terms of regulating our self-preservation than we are masters over how to regulate the preservation of the human race. We can, for example, choose to eat more or less in one “instance” of eating. It is not exactly the same with the sexual faculty. It is true one can choose to engage in sexual activity or not, but it is not so true that one can licitly decide ahead of time to “half eat the cheeseburger,” or even “eat the cheeseburger and then spit it out.” Nor may one deliberately enjoy the feelings that come with “pretending to eat the cheeseburger,” as we have said in our discussion of morose delectation.

While the Council of Vienne declared that kissing is not intrinsically immoral (yes – this was an issue brought up at an ecumenical council, in the 14th century, due to the odd teachings of various beguinages), let’s read St. Thomas on this point (II-II:154:4), as he makes a helpful (but challenging) distinction, namely, that while not sins in themselves, kisses and touches can be mortal sins from their cause. Let’s carefully consider the following text (it is not a simple one, despite its appearance): “Now it has been stated above (I-II:74:8), that it is a mortal sin not only to consent to the act, but also to the delectation of a mortal sin. Wherefore since fornication is a mortal sin, and much more so the other kinds of lust, it follows that in such like sins not only consent to the act but also consent to the pleasure is a mortal sin. Consequently, when these kisses and caresses are done for this delectation, it follows that they are mortal sins, and only in this way are they said to be lustful. Therefore in so far as they are lustful, they are mortal sins.”

We have already unpacked a lot of this in the foregoing section. What this Article means is the following, at least on my reading of it (together with supporting texts, including the Article referenced – Article 8 of Question 74, which is rather complex)… After the first passion (love), the second passion (desire) begins soon enough. The third passion (delight) can then be taken in the second passion’s act itself. If this is willed deliberately, there is mortal sin, as the appetite has been conformed to a mortal sin, even though one is not actually committing the sin for whatever reason (others are watching, inconvenience, etc.). The more closely one is simulating actual sexual union, including by engaging in its accompanying acts, the more likely it is that one is taking delight in the desire for mortal sin, as evidenced by one’s clear intent to arouse the passion of desire for the sake of the pleasure it brings.

Thus we can start to get a grip on how to understand what is going on morally in various kinds of pre-sexual recreation (including, unfortunately, many things which go on at an average high school dance). Some amount of “kisses and touches” are indeed appropriate, especially given the societal context (our psychology being wired by our environment to expect courtship to contain certain signs of affection), but there are some more or less objective lines that we can draw. To reiterate, the more an action looks like it belongs to the marriage bed, the more dangerous it is, and one must also consider carefully the possibility of slipping into further acts – or occasioning this in the other person. Some of these lines are a little less clear.

What is certain, however, is that recreational simulation of sexual activity planned ahead of time with the intent to derive pleasure from the desire to “go further” is totally without excuse – they are acts that simply are lustful “from their cause,” as St. Thomas explains. One uses the other person for the sake of a sexual fantasy that he is conforming his appetite to by willfully enjoying the pleasure which that fantasy brings. These are also actions which have a definite trajectory – real sexual union, right now, and it is precisely this trajectory which makes them so enjoyable. They cry out to be finished, and we know from experience that playing with fire in this way eventually leads to being burned.

With married couples the case of “mere” kisses and touches is different, as there is at least an habitual desire and licit ability to finish the trajectory – however, looks, touches, kisses, etc. should be done in relation to this habitual intention towards actual sexual union, rather than done only for the sake of the pleasure of the moment. In other words, such things should be ordered towards building desire for an actually possible future sexual act, rather than simply as an isolated event for its own pleasures, lest it become autoerotic – for sure, to start the actual process of direct stimulation with the intention not to complete the trajectory would come under this unfortunate category. Thankfully, sincere and pious couples typically fall into this chaste mode of action rather naturally.

TL;DR: To try deliberately to have the feeling of anticipating sexual union (“desire”) is to want to have the appetite conformed to a mortal sin, which is mortal sin itself (morose delectation), and outward acts that cause this feeling (kisses, touches, etc.) must be treated very carefully, especially if they are very closely associated with actual sexual union (i.e. heavy petting). To “make out” or otherwise touch or even look at someone specifically to derive this pleasure of “wanting to go further”, with sufficient deliberation, is to use the other’s body to engage in the mortal sin of morose delectation of fornication (or whatever species of lust, i.e. adultery, an unnatural act, etc.).

This leads us to the third great principle – the emotions are not the body. We’ll explore that soon…