Where is Christ?

This blog was originally started with the goal of exploring the arts and sciences in relation to the Catholic Faith. This post is a return to that original mission. Below is a talk I gave today at the Angelicum Thomistic Institute’s currently ongoing conference – New Heavens and a New Earth: Scientific and Theological Eschatology. Enjoy!

-Eamonn Clark, STL

We are sometimes confronted by potential converts, by catechumens, and even by curious believers about the whereabouts of the Lord. He is in Heaven, of course, but where is that? Is it somewhere out among the stars? Is it in some “parallel universe”? Or is there some other option? It is an uncomfortable experience for the apologist, the catechist, the evangelist, and the theologian not to have a simple answer for this rather reasonable question.

Today I will posit that there is a third option, though close to the “parallel universe” theory, and that its existence and mode of access, if true, reveals something profound about the gifts of the resurrection and about Christ as the Incarnate Logos in relation to modern physics. I depart a bit from St. Thomas in his treatment of the gifts of the resurrection, precisely on account of our enhanced understanding of the physical world, which presents us with new options to consider.

St. Thomas assumes that Christ is in a place – a real body demands physical space – and Christ’s Ascension is caused efficiently in a twofold manner: first, by His glorified soul, and secondly, by His unique Divine Power. (ST III-57-3)

The gifts of the resurrection are similarly explained by St. Thomas in the Commentary on the Sentences, as powers flowing from the soul on account of its glorification. I will not contest this so much as I will attempt to give some possible articulations of the effect and mode of the gifts’ interaction with the world.

St. Thomas does not seem to like the idea of multiple universes – he tells us this in Question 47, Article 3 of the Prima Pars. So, we abandon that idea.

As a scientific springboard, I want to consider two possible or even probable physical remnants we have of the Resurrection of Christ.

The first remnant is the Shroud of Turin. Here I take it for granted, of course, that the Shroud is in fact the linen cloth which laid over the dead Christ, and which has received the image of his Body. A very long description would be required to explain adequately exactly what we find on the Shroud, but we are more concerned with how the image was produced. Of course, we do not possess any technology today which is capable of giving anything close to a plausible imitation of what we find in the image. The best estimation is that the image was produced by a sort of radiation of light from the body of the dead Christ. We will return to this momentarily.

The second remnant is an electromagnetic field – or something like a field – which was discovered by scientists during the 2016 excavations in the Holy Sepulcher. The electromagnetic field underneath the Edicule, in the cave in which Christ was buried, is a much lesser-known reality but is just as puzzling if not more so than the Shroud. As Aleteia reported, “As soon as [the measuring instruments] were placed vertically on the stone in which Christ’s body rested, the devices either malfunctioned or ceased to work at all.” This electromagnetic field apparently also had ruined previous attempts at measuring the depth of the shaft which leads from the Edicule down to the cave. There is no known natural explanation for why there would be such an electromagnetic field in that location.

The musing of there being a possible connection between the electromagnetic field and the Shroud has been made before. Here is my own elaboration, synthesizing my own take on the Shroud itself, coupled with the fact of the electromagnetic field. I propose, with many others, that the Shroud is the result of a hyper-energetic burst of radiation from the Body of the Lord at the moment of His Resurrection. I propose uniquely that this burst was a mixture of various types of radiation – everything from alpha particles to gamma rays – which were controlled by a kind of infused habit of an electromagnetism emanating from the Lord which was under His control, or something very similar. It is because of this unique situation that the Shroud is not replicable by natural means, nor is there even a plausible explanation given the natural forces which we know of unless they are warped somehow and brought together in a way not seen in nature – which is precisely what I am proposing. It is experimentally verified that electromagnetic fields can warp radiation, and if this could somehow be done with a sort of immediate voluntary power over the character of the field itself in every part of the field, one could control the radiation at a whim, thus explaining the image. This even explains the lack of slight warping we would expect from a sheet laid over a face – the Shroud is a flat image, like a photograph or a mirror, without stretching, which we would expect from vertically collimated burst of information on a slightly curved surface. Instead, it is designed to be fitting for devotion. The alternative would be that the linen cloth itself was elevated above the dead or resurrecting Christ and stretched out flat, which seems strange and unnecessary.

In the case of a habit of this sort of elemental control, one might not only be able to warp radiation emanating from one’s own body, but could warp other things around oneself as well, such as folding linen cloths without touching them, or creating electromagnetic fields in one’s surroundings. The linen cloths being folded can be explained several other ways, but it seems certain that this latter phenomenon really happened. The Lord left a trace of Himself in the place He rose from, just as He did in the Shroud. I propose, then, very cautiously, that anywhere that the Risen Lord appeared or disappeared during the 50 days before the Ascension, we would find electromagnetic aberrations similar to those found in the Holy Sepulcher. To drive it home: empirical tests could actually be carried out in what is most commonly thought to be the Upper Room, despite its having been rebuilt, and along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. These would be the obvious contenders for such tests, and perhaps also the site of the Ascension itself on the Mount of Olives and the probable route to Emmaus.

Next, I note two abnormal manipulations of spacetime as relevant for our consideration – the normal sort of manipulations being gravity, electromagnetism, and, in a way, mere motion.

The first is wormholes, specifically electromagnetically induced wormholes – a wormhole being a kind of bending of spacetime to take a “short cut.” There has been some experimental verification of creating miniature wormholes for electromagnetic fields themselves, such as by Prat-Camps, Navau, and Sanchez (2015), and there is increasing clarity that electromagnetic fields, taking for granted Penrose’s Weyl curvature hypothesis, as proposed by Lindgren and Liukkonen in 2021, are a feature of spacetime itself. Just as gravity manipulates spacetime within a vacuum, so too does electromagnetism, implying that the field is somehow already “there,” which perhaps makes the proposal of harnessing electromagnetism itself to create wormholes more plausible. Would a sufficient control over these forces allow one to open a wormhole and be “carried through it” by electromagnetism? Maybe.  

The next element of abnormal manipulation is less about manipulation itself but more about its mode. I speak now of the apparent relationship between superpositions of particles and knowledge of those same particles. In brief, wave functions, of light for example, seem to collapse into particles – if we measure them. We should be bewildered by such a finding, “And yet it turns,” to quote Galileo. Erwin Schrodinger, who pioneered the mathematics of wave functions, famously pointed out the seemingly absurd conclusions of superpositions and by extension quantum mechanics in general with his famous thought experiment. There is a cat in a box which has a mechanism triggered by a particle emitting radiation, with a likelihood of 50% of the radiation occurring, and the mechanism will then release a deadly poison, thus leaving us with the ridiculous conclusion that the cat is “just as alive as it is dead” until we know it is in the one state or the other by opening the box. Dr. Wolfgang Smith offers an elegant way out of the conundrum. He draws a distinction between “physical” and “corporeal.” This means, in short, that he advises us to see substances (the corporeal) as being more than a collection of matter (the physical) – the atomic and subatomic world is real but is not of itself substantial, being rather a bundle of potentialities. This possibly gives us a very fine Thomistic solution to the problem of entanglement with substances. Nevertheless, we are left not only with the fact that wave functions do indeed collapse when observed, as with photons in the double-slit experiment – and they must be observed by a mind to collapse fully, or else the non-conscious measuring instrument simply becomes entangled with the cat-poison-radiation – we are also left with the oddity of the gift of agility, which St. Thomas discusses at abnormal length in the Commentary on the Sentences trying to deal with the problem of “instant motion.” And here we must ask if “spooky action at a distance,” as Einstein derisively referred to it, between entangled particles at large distances from each other wherein these particles somehow control each other seemingly instantaneously is a clue to how agility qua instantaneous does not violate classical Aristotelian physics the way St. Thomas assumes. Clearly, instant or at least faster-than-light motion or control, of a kind exists between entangled particles. The question occurs to us then whether in the resurrection we are somehow able to entangle ourselves with the entire universe.

And how would the motion work? Could it be the case that Christ, the Logos, the One begotten by the interior procession of Divine Self-knowledge, knows into being the manipulations of the world which we see in the Resurrection narratives, by doing something like resolving a wave function – namely, “resolving” His own self, thus causing near-immediate motion through an electromagnetic wormhole? This would be in line with, and an elevation of, the very controversial but in my view promising Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation of quantum mechanics, which posits the demarcation line of wave function collapse to be the mind, not instruments which the mind can make use of, as noted already, which would, it seems, be even more bizarre. This theory is unacceptable to most who work on quantum mechanics because it is at odds with a rather central dogmatic assumption: materialism.

Perhaps there is also an analogy for agile motion, even if dim, with angelic movement and manipulation. St. Thomas explicitly rejects this in his discussion of agility in the Commentary on the Sentences, but we know about entangled particles and wormholes, whereas St. Thomas did not. In his famous text, The Intellectualism of St. Thomas, Fr. Pierre Rousselot, SJ posited that human nature has “the drive to become an angel.” He means this in regard to our inclination to know things through their essence, which the angels do naturally. But here I mean to apply this same principle to motion. Perhaps we approximate the angelic nature in the resurrection in the way that we move and manipulate the physical world, by somehow containing space in our intellect and then applying the power of the will to it directly, thus having a movement somewhat like the angels (see ST I-53; 54-2). Afterall, we already know, “In the resurrection they do not marry and are not given in marriage, for they are like the angels in Heaven.” (Matthew 22:30) I simply note the possibility. Could it further be the case that the gifts of the resurrection elevate a natural power which we already seem to possess, namely, observing-into-being certain facts – such as seen by observing the photons in the double-slit experiment, causing them to behave differently than if they were unobserved, or unknown? Again, perhaps. But perhaps also, in 100 years, that generation of scientists will speak about photons as we speak about flogiston or the ether.

Just as the heart and mind are freed in the Beatific Vision, so too is the body freed in the resurrection on account of the gifts, and the mode of those gifts does in fact seem to be in a curious relationship with the four fundamental forces of the universe, which are: gravity, the weak nuclear force (radiation), the strong nuclear force (which binds the components of an atom together), and electromagnetism.

The gifts of the resurrection are agility (the ability to move rapidly from one place to another, for example, after the breaking of the bread on the way to Emmaus), subtlety (the ability to penetrate through solid substances, as the Lord did in the Upper Room), clarity (a kind of luminosity), and immortality or impassibility.

By His actions during the Resurrection appearances, the Lord shows Himself to be master over the fundamental forces. In the Ascension, we see control over gravity. In the moment of His Resurrection, as indicated by the electromagnetic and radiative leftovers, we see the control over the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force, and we perhaps can posit the same of all the appearances and disappearances. The luminosity of His body, not experienced directly in His Resurrection appearances but experienced elsewhere, viz., in the Transfiguration and in the visions in Revelation, is also indicative of a kind of mastery over the weak nuclear force. In walking through the walls, we see control over the strong nuclear force – we do not need to say with St. Thomas that the Lord was strictly in the same physical place as the wall, we can say that His control over the sub-atomic world allowed Him to pass through without contact. Could the Lord be harnessing the fact that even macroscopic objects like human bodies are in fact, like the light which emanates from glorified bodies, both particle and wave? In other words, is the Lord somehow causing a diffraction with Himself to “scatter” and then reassemble? Or is He swinging from particle to wave and back again? Or some combination of all this, with “wave collapse” occurring through an act of the understanding caused by the will? Perhaps.

The four fundamental forces do not seem to track the gifts one-to-one. But there is certainly an intricate connection between the forces and the gifts of the resurrection, not entirely unlike the complex relationship between the virtues, the spiritual gifts, the fruits, and the beatitudes. Immortality, or impassibility, seems to be the trickier one to nail down, as it does not easily lend itself to a four-force analysis, despite some promising recent leads in medicine involving the use of electromagnetism and obviously radiation – and yet we know that whatever biological process causes one’s death, it is caused by the four forces, so controlling them within oneself obviously allows one to resist bodily corruption.

The conclusion is that a miraculous habit imposed by God in the resurrection bestows the power to control the four forces by a kind of immediate power, which includes the ability to manipulate space-time by the special harnessing of the same forces. This is the natural medium by which we live the life we are most meant to live. By the gifts, seemingly especially agility and perhaps also subtlety, we access Heaven by the manipulation of natural space-time. We are empowered by these gifts to enter into a physical but hidden world, which could be, in a word, right next to us, but which is “guarded,” like Eden.

I posit that the increasingly deep study of the four fundamental forces, and the spaces in between, like dark matter and energy, virtual particles, and so on, will only serve to show how elegant the mastery is over those same forces by Christ in the Resurrection.

Before offering my final and concluding hypothesis, I pause to note two objections, one Scriptural and one based on parsimony.

The first objection is a statement of the Lord Himself. The Lord says to Mary Magdalene in John 20:17, “I have not yet ascended…” Doesn’t this counter the claim that the appearances and disappearances of Christ do not make sense on my account, because of the time in between appearances? If Christ were “hiding” in Heaven in the time in between His resurrection appearances, He would have ascended, thus making His statement to Mary Magdalene untrue.

There are a few ways to reply. First, we could say that the action of the Ascension itself contains some special significance or power that is unlike merely going back and forth – each time only for a short while, when in the Ascension the departure is definitive until the Parousia. This is a weak argument, but it is plausible. It would be better to suppose that Christ was merely walking upon the Earth in a far away place, or, most likely, that He was neither in Heaven nor in the normal places of the universe but was instead in a third place which is also only accessible through the gifts of the resurrection and which is now obsolete.

The second objection is based on parsimony, and it has probably been arising in some of your minds: “Why not just give a purely miraculous explanation? Why all the need for these intermediary natural forces?”

In response, I say that we could just as easily ask why we will have bodies in the eschaton in the first place. As embodied creatures, we live in the physical world, which has its own rules and forces and logic. There is a fittingness to retaining the use of the natural forces by which we interact with the world around us as the means for the very same thing; but it is, of course, also appropriate that our relationship to those forces changes to be more immediate, with more direct control over them. And I recall your attention to the empirical starting point for this investigation, namely, the Shroud and the electromagnetic field under the Edicule. Those are there for a reason. They mean something. The imposition of the gifts is undoubtedly miraculous, but why should their mode of operation be miraculous? Why would it not be the case that they have simply become fully empowered to use the natural world for all it is capable of?

The limitations of this brief study are obvious. I have shown some possible steppingstones to interesting conclusions, but there is much in between. To borrow an image from Von Balthasar in the Prolegomena to his Theo-Drama, I have constructed a gymnasium, which athletes can now use.

In the end, I conclude and propose the following. Christ is the Master of the four fundamental forces, and we shall be masters with Him in the resurrection – the ultimate anti-entropic event. Given that Christ is not merely resurrected but is the Resurrection, we can rightly suppose that He, the Logos, the One through Whom all things were made, visible and invisible, is in fact the final frontier for theoretical physics. Any attempt to “get fully underneath” the four forces has been and inevitably will be frustrated so long as one limits oneself to considerations of the created world; in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. There is no getting “behind” the Word. The Logos, God the Son, incarnate in Christ, is the unified theory of physics.

A Question for Sedevacantists…

Eamonn Clark, STL

Most sedevacantists claim that John XXIII was not validly elected pope because he held something heretical prior to the conclave, thus he was not a Catholic, thus he was ineligible for election.

While I think that is incorrect, here I will grant it for the sake of argument.

Here’s the question: how do you know that was the first time? Don’t you think it’s possible that, say, a weirdo like John XII was not totally orthodox prior to his supposed papacy? What about even earlier, when we have practically no record of anything about the early lives of the supposed popes? Doesn’t that disturb you? Wouldn’t it be more likely that God doesn’t ever let His Church fall into such a state where the vast majority “goes along with it” and doesn’t really worry about it?

Just asking.

Invitation for Mass Stipends

Dear Readers,

I live in a house full of priests here in Rome. Many of them come from very poor countries. If you would like to help them and yourself, please reach out through the Contact tab. There are priests here who would love to take Mass intentions, in return for, I would suggest, about 10 Euro after exchange and transfer fees.

There are even priests available for Gregorian Masses – an ancient and venerable tradition of 30 Masses celebrated continuously (one each day) for a particular intention. In this case, I would recommend simply multiplying the normal stipend (300 Euro after exchange and transfer fee).

You would arrange all of the payment details between yourselves – not through me, or through my own bank account.

Please let me know if you would like to support any of my housemates. It would help them to buy simple things which they often go without.

God bless you,

Thoughts on the “Marital Debt”

Eamonn Clark, STL

In the past year, I’ve become immersed in the world of Catholic doctrine and discussion on marriage and sexuality. This adventure has undoubtedly just begun, but I have already reached a few conclusions. Let me share some of them.

  1. There is no excellent book available on marriage and sexual ethics that is readable for the average Catholic adult which is not simply a moral theology text. (Let me know if you know of one.) As close as it gets is Christopher West’s “Good News About Sex and Marriage,” revised edition, which does a pretty good job overall.
  2. There are few excellent moral theology texts focused on marriage which have been published in the past several decades. Dr. Fastiggi’s book “Catholic Sexual Morality” is on that short list (though it is not perfect).
  3. There are puzzles in sexual ethics which have not been satisfyingly solved.
  4. There is a strong but completely unjustified movement to change the understanding of the marriage goods to having a reformed version of “fidelity” (now “mutual help”) on par with the good of children, with Gaudium et Spes #50 serving as the alleged prooftext. (They appeal to the section, “while not making the other purposes of matrimony of less account,” etc., which presumes that “not making of less account” means “is not superior,” which is an invalid inferential conclusion – rather, it should be inferred that the mere reality of the superiority of the good of children does not affect the intrinsic goodness of fidelity/mutual help, just as the superiority of Christ does not “make of less account” the goodness of, say, Mary the Mother of God… They are not “competing” goods, despite being hierarchical – they have their own intrinsic worth which is not affected by the other good. This comes out in the surrounding text in the same document.)
  5. NFP/periodic continence is a deeply misunderstood topic which is almost universally given a lax treatment by the authors.
  6. The “marital debt” is also a deeply misunderstood topic, and there is an astonishingly minimal awareness of what this even is, let alone how it works.

It’s the 6th one I’m talking about here. The marital debt has a long juridical-moral tradition, reaching a kind of crescendo in Gratian, then being filtered through Peter Lombard into St. Thomas, then expounded on by the manualists (like Sanchez – it’s Book 9 in the 1st volume, which is linked to) and synthesizers up until quite recently. There are many points we could talk about, but in this post we’ll go through the basics and discuss why this topic so often gets butchered by both those eager to present the classical (and correct) doctrine on the matter and those who balk at it.

A lot of people want to appeal to St. Thomas on this, and they are right to do so. However, there is an issue with that – St. Thomas, in line with St. Augustine, presumes that requesting the debt, absent at least a habitual intention to have children, is always at least a venial sin. That’s not the doctrine of St. Alphonsus, modern popes, and other authorities – but we’ll just leave that question aside for right now.

First, let’s present the foundational text: 1 Corinthians 7:1-9.

“Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

So, St. Paul is saying that, if you are getting married, you are giving over your body to your spouse for his/her access at his/her will, and vice-versa. Otherwise, why would you get married? If you don’t need to have relations, stay celibate! And that’s precisely what he talks about later in the chapter.

“Are you saying marriage exists just to use and be used by someone to prevent sin?” No. But this is an understandable reaction given two points. First, most who present the doctrine of the marital debt do not give it the nuance required and/or are generally pastorally insensitive. Second, the world does not see marriage rightly anymore, which subconsciously warps our attitudes towards it even when we make the attempt to be pious and right-thinking. Marriage is primarily about multiplying the glorification of God by having children who will worship Him in spirit and truth – in other words, marriage is primarily about making saints, especially of your children, while working on yourself and your spouse as well. The spouse’s vocation is to be a domestic missionary. Marriage is not primarily about satisfying one’s personal hopes and dreams, even though that’s important. It’s also not primarily about slaking lust, but this is an important function of marriage. One has a more direct path to union with God as a celibate, and celibacy also enables one to make saints more easily on account of availability for ministry in addition to the interior spiritual goods it offers, so it is preferrable – unless one will struggle with concupiscence too much without relations, or unless there is some other special reason, as Paul indicates later in the chapter.

While Paul’s precept is in one place framed as a negative statement (“do not deny each other”) it is really better seen as a positive precept – “do this” – as he gives first (“should fulfill his marital duty” etc.). Positive moral precepts of the “do this” variety (i.e., “give alms to the poor”) admit of exceptions, unlike negative moral precepts (“do not blaspheme”). This is for two reasons. First, because positive obligations can interfere with each other. Suppose a church is on fire and one’s child is trapped inside. One has the duty to reverence Christ in the Eucharist by bodily signs, especially by genuflection – but one has a higher duty in this moment to save one’s child from being killed in the fire. God wants “mercy, not sacrifice” in this case – run to the place where your child is, don’t bother to genuflect, and get him out of the fire! Second, because positive obligations are sometimes impossible. A man who witnessed a murder has the obligation to testify in court to act as a key witness, but if he is in a coma he is excused.

Given this, there are several cases when the marital debt need not be fulfilled. While authors will disagree about some particular points, we’ll take an obvious case. A woman has a heart condition which is aggravated by sexual intimacy such that a single conjugal act could be fatal. She would not only be not obliged to acquiesce to a request for the debt from her husband, she is obliged to refuse.

St. Thomas discusses another kind of case, where the woman requests the debt after having just received it. There is no obligation to pay it, because biologically it cannot be paid by the man, and the woman in this case is acting like a harlot, not a spouse – which she shouldn’t do.

So there we have two kinds of obvious cases of being able to say, “No.” These are not controversial. But what about… “I have a headache.” “I’m tired.” “I’m not in the mood.”

Here we have to pause and clarify something, as this is the space where the zealous go awry, and the anti-zealous rightly pounce. Simply proposing the idea of relations, or even asking for them, does not constitute a strict appeal to one’s marital right. Consider the following exchange between husband and wife at 10:30 P.M.

Husband: “Can we go to bed? You know…”

Wife: “Oh… I’m sorry, I’m trying to get the checkbook to balance before calling it a night and have a bad headache. Can we wait until tomorrow night?”

Husband: “I know, and I can appreciate that and I’m sorry about the circumstances. It’s just that I’ve been having such a hard time at work, it’s been so stressful and we haven’t slept together in a month because I’ve been coming home so late, and you’ve been up so early with the baby. Are you sure you can’t?”

Wife: “I just don’t the energy right now. I’m totally exhausted and feel a cold coming on.”

Husband: “Please, I really, really need this tonight.”

Wife: “No, not tonight, sorry.”

Husband: “I’m telling you I need you to sleep with me tonight. Please.”

Wife: “No. Goodnight.”

So… at what point in the conversation was the debt refused? Certainly not in the first response of the wife. If the husband had taken that and gone off, she could reasonably assume that his request was not really that serious, at least not as serious as her reason for declining. With the second exchange we are getting a little closer, but it’s still reasonable to see the request not as a strict appeal to his right as a husband, especially given that in her response she is still leaving things open for him to make a decision of whether to continue to ask or to decide to let it go. With the third exchange, we are now toeing the line, if not crossing it. With the fourth and final exchange, the line has clearly been crossed – at this point, there can be no lack of clarity about the appeal to his right, which would indeed overcome the appeal to the mild physical discomfort of the wife. On St. Thomas’ view, if the husband tomorrow takes an impure glance at that pretty secretary at work he’s been trying to avoid getting close with, while it is his sin, his wife is partially to blame due to having illegitimately increased the occasion of sin, as it’s her responsibility to help her husband with this precise kind of thing… Remember, nobody else can. But the refusal itself is grave matter – one signs away one’s body when getting married. Actually, all things being equal, strictly refusing a perfectly legitimate request for the debt for a completely frivolous reason is worse than adultery. In the exchange of marriage vows, one implicitly makes a negative promise (“I will not sleep with others”) and a positive promise (“I will sleep with you”). To violate the positive promise is in itself a worse offense than to violate the negative one – one isn’t simply giving too much to someone else, one is denying what one promised to give to one’s spouse. “This is mine, and it is only mine.” It’s the “is mine” part that is the most important, our psychological and social dispositions to think otherwise notwithstanding. That’s not to say that adultery isn’t a terrible sin – it is – it’s to say that the completely unjustified refusal of a reasonable request for the debt is even worse. (As an aside, today we might struggle to explain why adultery is really all that immoral – I won’t descend into that discussion here, I just want to note in passing that the mistaken appeal to Gaudium et Spes about the equality of marriage goods which I noted in the introduction is perhaps more significant than it might at first seem.)

There are some competing principles here, and it is important to appreciate them to have a not-totally-crazy understanding of the marital debt. Spouses should in fact be eager to serve each other. That of course includes the desire to have relations when requested. It also includes the desire to be considerate of one’s spouse’s condition. Because of this, a healthy sexual dynamic between spouses includes communicating about oneself – like being sick, having work to do, etc. The appeal to one’s right should only come as a last resort – and can itself be excessive and thus sinful. Suppose, for example, that the husband in the conversation above is simply an intemperate man, and it’s not stress from work or lack of intimacy that is occasioning the request but just his out-of-control libido which he makes no effort to reform. If mixed with a lack of care for the welfare of his wife, the situation becomes very bad very quickly. And yet, except in the limited cases where it is acceptable to refuse the debt flatly, or in cases where the holistic reality of the marriage is abusive (a more complex topic), she will have to give in to the requests.

This goes both ways. Oddly, St. Thomas primarily talks about the woman having excessive requests for the debt, and we usually only talk about the man having such a problem. Anyway, husbands too must respect legitimate requests from their wives, even when inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Initiating a conversation about a request for relations does not amount to refusing the debt, which is the sense one gets from some presentations of the issue. However, at the “bottom” of such conversations there is the possibility of appealing to the debt, and in such a case it must be accepted, unless a very serious reason exists. And there is often sin in such requests for the debt.

To know whether refusing a request is sin or not can sometimes be difficult. (For the nerds, what we are talking about is the quasi-potential part of prudence called “gnome.”) But the larger point is this: don’t be selfish, and don’t marry someone selfish.

In the end, navigating the marital debt is actually not that hard to figure out in general. It’s only the very special cases of when flat refusal is justified which can get complicated (and which we won’t explore here). As a good husband or wife, you want to help your spouse – either by giving over your body to your spouse at his or her request, or by holding your body back so you can respect the reality of the presently unsuitable condition of your spouse, even when you could legitimately insist on your right. Good spouses are eager to help each other. St. Paul gives this principle, albeit in a different context but which nevertheless applies here: “Outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12:10) And when in doubt about the legitimacy of a reason to refuse the debt strictly speaking, lean towards paying it. That’s pretty much the whole rule summed up.

Much more can (and ought to be) said. But this will suffice for now. I leave you with two recent sources which give decent formulations of the principle:

Fr. McHugh and Fr. Callan (#2614-#2616)

Fr. Dominic Prümmer (#860-#861)

For the nerds, there are many older manuals on this website in the Research tab which will go through this kind of stuff and more in all the deliciously casuistic nauseating detail which you and I so crave.

St. Joseph, pray for us.

Principles for Chaste Relationships – Part V

Eamonn Clark, STL

This is the conclusion to a short series on the topic of chastity and courtship from a Thomistic perspective. See part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4. I am more or less confident in the content laid out therein, but what writing this series has taught me, and what other studies I have been undertaking on marriage ethics have taught me, is that this subject is far under-treated in today’s popular Catholic literature, and when it is discussed, it’s often poorly discussed. As for the current academic literature, I am still largely unaware of what the threads are. The problems in the popular literature are generally laxist – but even the more rigorous sources are frequently lacking in the distinctions and precision that would fully satisfy a truly astute reader. Part of the problem is that it can be very difficult to parse through many different kinds of experiences or feelings, and this difficulty is aggravated by the delicacy of the subject – one cannot (or at least should not) “experiment” with impurity and lust in order to get a better grasp on the topic!

I’ve written a very beefy article on NFP recently and am looking for the right place to publish – but I think it may be better put into a book, as a series of longer essays. (For instance, I would rework this very series into a chapter.) If you think that’s a good idea, please let me know, as I need the encouragement. Eventually I want to write a much larger work on the topic of sexual ethics, but a thematic exploration is something which I could realistically take on in the near future, while the larger work I have in mind would not be so easy – more like the work of a lifetime.

At any rate, here is the last installment of this series. (It’s the first real series I have actually finished on these pages, – I must eventually get back around to the Trinity series… God deserves it!)

The fifth great principle: if you can raise your mind, do that.

There are three fundamental precepts of the natural law: self-preservation, generation and rearing of offspring, and the pursuit of truth in community. They are interwoven with each other, but there is a hierarchy as well: if we don’t stay alive, we cannot continue the human species, and if the human species dies out then we have no natural community, and if we ourselves die we can neither naturally participate in community nor pursue truth. So it is this third precept which marks out the highest thing in natural law… the rational delights of encountering persons (and Divine Persons) as such.

The one who can simply relate with the opposite sex without much of the struggle to keep away from impurity will do better to forego marriage altogether. And the couple that is busy romancing who could easily be engaging in more intellectual – while still personal and sincere – conversation should do that. These rational pleasures are more lasting, and they are more fulfilling when rightly perceived. Lower pleasures must always be used in the service of the higher pleasures… We eat to stay alive, and we stay alive to… what? To know, love, and serve God according to our natural status as rational animals in this life.

There are lower kinds of love, such as the kind which the senses have for their proper object (i.e. sight and color, hearing and sound) or which characterize other natural desires (i.e. the pull of gravity on a body). Rational love is chosen freely by the lover. When fully actualized, it is reciprocal and becomes friendship. Friendship has two great poles, or elements – sacrifice and contemplation. A true friendship is one where there is delight in the thought of the other, and there is a willingness to suffer for the other. This is what healthy romantic relationships entail on the part of both parties, taking for granted the other virtues being present. We can see that these two poles also exist in the liturgy – sacrifice and contemplation. The Liturgy of the Word is primarily for contemplation, though it is also sacrificial, as the readings are an incarnational offering to God of what He has done for us. The Liturgy of the Eucharist is obviously sacrificial primarily, though the ultimate point is in fact contemplative – to meet Christ here and now, as our greatest Friend.

The best advice is the advice of Christ, echoed by St. Paul, and then taken up and elaborated many times by the saints – if you can go without marriage, go without it. It will be easier to reach the higher places of the spiritual life. In fact, if one has made good progress in the virtue of chastity while yet unmarried, it is a very good sign that he or she should simply remain celibate, unless one’s self-mastery is somehow deeply integrated with the expectation of marriage such that it depends upon it.

But it isn’t something to worry about – neurosis is not the way of the spiritual life, charity is. As St. Augustine said, “Love God and do what you will.” But keep trying to elevate your mind and heart as well, knowing that this task will eventually be accomplished for you by God in Heaven.

Sola Scriptura: An Epilogue

Eamonn Clark, STL

I appreciate the reply to my latest post on Sola Scriptura from Nemo. This long-delayed post will be my last public response – and I will do so via the method called “fisking,” my comments in bold, with a little outro to close. Go here to see the whole post (some introduction and endnotes). See my previous posts here, here, and here.


Clark made an objection to sola scriptura, which is commonly raised by Roman Catholics, as I found out just recently. It goes like this, if I understand correctly: a) the Scripture started out as individual books written by different authors centuries apart, b) there is no way of knowing which books belong in the Scripture c) unless there is an authority outside the Scripture that can infallibly determine what constitutes Scripture, d) ergo the infallible authority of the Catholic Church.

Yes, that is more or less the way the argument goes, as what else would determine the canon? In my last post, I showed that the only alternatives are that we are left with our own judgment, that some totally arbitrary measure exists (sola Luther?), or the even worse and much weirder hypothesis of a “fallible collection of infallible texts.” Another option would be that history didn’t happen – as we will see, the historical reality of the formation of the canon is relevant here.

For starters, regarding (d), even if we grant that an authority outside the Scripture is necessary to determine what constitutes Scripture, it doesn’t follow that the magisterium of the Catholic Church is such an authority. I get the impression, rightly or wrongly, that Roman Catholics are attacking sola scriptura as if it were a zero-sum game, and they would establish the authority of the Church simply by knocking down the authority of the Scripture.

Not quite – one needs to recognize the Voice of the Shepherd behind all of it. One is simply bound, by the operation of the kind of sufficient grace which touches all rationally active minds, to know that the Christ’s truth and authority subsists in the Catholic Church. One way to see this is through the history of the Scriptural canon – it did not fall from the sky. If I think that the old woman at the supermarket infallibly determines the canon, then I have a problem. Why would it be any different for, say, some disgruntled Augustinian friar named Martin Luther? (Then there are other claims too, such as with the Ethiopian tradition, but we leave that aside.) So history is the key here. There are PLENTY of ways to see that the Catholic Church has the authority which She claims – the plethora of miracles, the favors of the many major Marian apparitions (especially Fatima, given its enormous audience and recent occurrence), the coherence and stability of doctrine, the proliferation of that doctrine across the Earth… But the canon is its own argument, based in the facts of history (but not thereby exhausted, as one must still see with the eyes of faith).

But that is far, far from the case. From the epistemic perspective, the same questions would remain: How do we know that (the magisterium of) the Church is infallible? What constitutes the magisterium and who decides that infallibly? Does it speak with one voice or many? How do we know that the teachings of the magisterium are interpreted correctly? The list goes on.

These are presented as very challenging questions, but they are relatively straightforward to answer. We know the Church is infallible by faith, evidence of which is contained in all the things I just mentioned. One ought to be inclined toward trusting the Church as God’s infallible mouthpiece just as one is inclined toward Christ – flesh and blood does not reveal, and yet it also does prepare one to make the jump. St. John Henry Newman called this sense of the convergence of evidence which doesn’t quite demonstrate the truth of the Catholic Faith the “illative sense.”

What constitutes the magisterium, in the relevant sense here, is: the Pope, or the whole college of bishops teaching together with the Pope. Who decides that infallibly is and could not be other than God. We can see here that Nemo is struggling with the relationship between evidence, faith, and authority. In the end, it is up to one’s own mind to see, and that’s that, and yet we also are not entirely alone in our responsibility for knowing – we have help through others. What is really of faith cannot be demonstrated by “flesh and blood,” it must be revealed from above, but often using “flesh and blood,” as with the Incarnation itself, but also through the visible hierarchical structure of the Church. The Pope is, in a sense, the Church’s babysitter – like Aaron was for the Hebrews while Moses was up on Sinai. Regardless of how well he does, he has the authority (cf. Saul’s reign over Israel, the Pharisees and Jerusalem, etc.).

The magisterium, in this sense, speaks with one voice, and could not speak otherwise. (I have written more about the different senses/uses of the word “magisterium” elsewhere on these pages.)

Nemo’s final objection once again shows that he is trying to grapple with the reality that, at the end of the day, one cannot actually have another take the place of one’s own mind in the relationship between evidence, faith, and authority, but one also isn’t responsible for everything by himself – we have a visible, exterior structure which disposes us to the operation of interior invisible grace. We can have intelligent people help us to understand the teaching of the Church, and we have the exterior authority of the Church itself as expressed in Her definitive doctrines, but one must still see with the eyes of faith for themselves after encountering the reality of dispositive visible effects of God’s grace with the senses. To drive this home, I could take many of these same objections and apply them to Christ. How do we know He speaks infallibly? Who decided that? How do we know we are understanding what He is saying? Actually, this last one is the whole theme here – He evidently wanted us to have a very serious kind of help. He did not leave us orphans. Nor do we need to be able to read in order to have faith – something which Sola Scriptura indirectly implies. The peasant girl in 9th century Gaul simply knows, “The old man in the funny hat has learned the true Faith and is responsible for instructing me so that I can save my soul,” and that’s about all she needs.

Second, regarding (c) the canon. If we define canon as a definitive collection of books that are recognized by believers as Scripture, then what constitutes the canon changes over time, at least from a historical perspective. For example, in the Gospels, Jesus constantly refers to (what we now call) Old Testament books, namely, the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (Luke 24:44-45), which the Gospel authors designate collectively as “the Scriptures”, or simply “the Scripture”, emphasizing its unity. The canon then did not include the New Testament books which were written later. By the fourth century, the majority of the 27 books of the New Testament have been recognized as Scripture, as evidenced by extant New Testament manuscripts and the writings of the Church Fathers. There is no evidence that such recognition resulted from a Church Council. It is likely that the canon emerged organically through a grass-roots networking process, independent of any central authority.

I’m a little shocked that Nemo would make the objection that the existence of Scriptures before Christ and the apostolic age would somehow undermine the possibility of more Scripture. Since the fullness of God’s revelation is the Incarnation of His Son, there will be a clear division among the texts wherein God foretells the coming of Christ and the texts wherein God teaches about what happened during Christ’s earthly life and ministry. Turns out that the 430 year gap between Malachi (the last prophet of the Old Testament) and Christ’s public ministry maps onto the 430 years of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt. It was time for God to speak again.

Nemo then jumps to the 4th century. He’s right to point out that the canon had basically been settled by then. He neglects to say HOW. It was, of course, the project of Pope St. Damasus I, whose old house I coincidentally have been doing some of my research in (it is here) as there are some curial offices there in the palazzo surrounding the church. This was partially in response to confusion over what belonged in the canon which occurred at the end of the 2nd century, because of the heresiarch Marcion. But without going into details, there was still some slight lack of clarity over the so-called “Deuterocanon” throughout the medieval period and into the 15th century. However, there was no problem significant enough to warrant any action more forceful than the council which Damasus held in Rome in 382, where he published his list. This mild anxiety (but no “crisis”) was evidently on account of the prologue to the the Liber Regus (the “Kingdom Books” – 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2Kings), written by Damasus’ private secretary, St. Jerome. (Jerome evidently held reservations about Damasus’ list and let people know it. Maybe Damasus was fine with it – who knows… It was 9-10 years after the Council of Rome in 382 under Damasus I.) It was the Council of Trent (an ecumenical council, the highest kind of teaching authority on account of the sort of papal sanctioning involved) which “canonized” the list which we have today – although the same list had been put forward by Damasus some 1,200 years earlier, and also just the century before at the Council of Florence (another ecumenical council), but only using the word “inspired” and not “canon”/”canonical.” This was in response to the activity of Luther, who threw out some books which were especially inconvenient for his ”theology.” This, together with the invention of the printing press, heightened the urgency for a stronger position on the canon than did the shift from baskets and scrolls to the codex in the 1st century. The Jews and first Christians didn’t have books at all, they had scrolls which could be put into one basket and then another. The codex forced the question of what would be included and what excluded. The printing press meant that not just the clergy and scholars but everyone in the world could soon have a “Bible” – so it became absolutely imperative to know what that meant. In fact, we see here a stroke of God’s Providence. Had Luther not tampered with the list given by Florence, then we may still be left without the list of inspired texts which Trent gave us, and the problem would perhaps have grown deeper and thornier than it already is.

Third, a few more words regarding the self-authentication of the Scripture (b). Jesus says, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (John 6:45). And “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) It is interesting that, with the advance of technology, voice recognition software can uniquely identify the speaker from a voice recording, as the voice of each person has a unique digital signature. If I may use another analogy, the Scriptures bear the seal of the Lord, just as signet rings are used by ancient kings to authenticate their royal decrees. All believers, without exception, have been and will continue to be taught by the Lord, and have the right and obligation to hear His voice and follow Him.

Once again, we see Nemo wrestling with the evidence-faith-authority paradigm. Yes, we do need to recognize the Voice of the Shepherd, but to what degree? As I said in an earlier post, St. Mary of Egypt was taught by God without study. Are we held to that standard? Are we all bound to know what is Scripture simply by being sufficiently holy, or intelligent, or both? No – rather, we ought to see the all the other things which point towards the Divine origin and thus the veracity of the Catholic Faith and go from there. God wants us to see the greatest effect of His Incarnation – the Church, His Bride – and then read about Him in the light of what the Church offers to us for our instruction. He does not want us arguing whether 1 Clement or The Shepherd of Hermas or the various silly Gnostic “gospels” are inspired documents, OR THE DEUTEROCANON.

Lastly, if we define the Canon as a complete collection of books inspired by God for the salvation of His people, then the Canon is fixed from the foundation of the world. But, one might ask, is what we have today the whole Canon? It is possible that some inspired books have become extinct, e.g., Paul’s letter to Laodicea (Colossians 4:16), just as some species God created has become extinct through the long lapse of time, and just as His prophets died after they had served the purpose of God in their own generations. We can only answer (in faith) that God has preserved the canon through history to accomplish His purpose, so that the canon we have is sufficient and necessary for salvation, and the lost books, if any, do not subtract from the integrity of the canon, nor their inclusion make the canon redundant in any part.

Here we have to say that God knows what He wants included and certainly made sure that it was in fact included. That’s it. Those, and those alone, would then carry the character of “inspiration,” as inspiration is only really a useful term in theology when it refers to “those books contained in Scripture.” Other kinds of authority and prophecy surely exist, but the special thing about being inspired is precisely that it is part of Scripture.


Well, thus endeth the discourse. From here, we would no doubt continue to explore what “the Church” is, how the virtue of faith works, what the process of inspiration involves, or drill into what exactly the status of the Deuterocanon was in the middle ages, and so on, but this takes us quite far afield of the question. I do other posts on some of that stuff. But for any curious Protestants reading, you might start with this good article on apostolic succession and go from there.

A Secret Letter to Leo XIII

Eamonn Clark, STL

I apologize for my absence these past weeks. Hopefully, I will be able to begin posting more regularly again. I have been and continue to be working on something very big which I hope to share soon enough. You won’t be disappointed.

Today, I share with you some fruits of the time I recently spent in the Apostolic Archives (formerly the “Secret Archives”). Below, I present, without commentary, an unsigned letter which was sent to Leo XIII about a certain Archbishop Langénieux. My translation and transcription (from Italian). Some parts are/were a little difficult.

AAV, Index 1302, b. 11, sf. 68, n. 1-4

Necessary and secret information for the Supreme Pontiff Leo XIII

In France, everyone knows that the Bonapartist party makes continuous applications to the Holy See so that Monsignor Langénieux, Archbishop of Reims, may be elevated to the dignity of Cardinal.

If, hypothetically, this promotion took place, it would only be the effect of the favor, and would produce only bad results.

And what everyone notices that M. Langénieux was a close friend of Monsignor Darboy Archbishop of Paris, who was always an enemy of the Holy See. These two ecclesiastics and M. Degury Curé della Maddalena often went to Napoleon III to urge him to bring down the Temporal Power of the Pope.

M. Langénieux preached Lent at the chapel of the Tuileries palace where he flattered the Emperor a lot, and to thank the preacher he invited him to have lunch with him at the Court, and restored the decoration of the Legion of Honor with a beautiful goblet. At the same time, Archbishop Darboy appointed M. Langénieux to the care of souls in one of the largest and richest parishes in Paris, that of Saint Augustine.

During the government of the Commune, while the good priests as true soldiers of Jesus Christ remained with fidelity and courage in the service of their churches, the Curé Langénieux abandoned his parish, and went to hide in the house of a Bonapartist family, to the chagrin and detriment of his parishioners.

After the re-establishment of social order in France, the Bonapartists were looking for a Church there to celebrate, on August 15th – Saint Napoleon – according to their expression, as they had always done under the empire, but from which they received a clear and irrevocable rejection by several respectable Curates of the Capital.

M. Langénieux, who knew refusal well, went in person to see two rich ladies, who are the most influential in the Bonapartist party, and told them that he was very willing to place his parish church entirely at their disposal. This offer was accepted instantly and with great pleasure; all the Bonapartists, carrying a bunch of violets on their chests, went to the church of Sant’Agostino, and the Curé Langénieux sang the Solemn Mass in music to celebrate Bonaparte. At the end of the Mass, the Bonapartist men and women went – quickly – to the sacristy to shake hands with the Curé Langénieux, who had been so amiable and complacent towards them.

The house of God was thus profaned on the day of the greatest Feast of Mary Most Holy. This profanation caused an immense scandal in the city of Paris, and bad publicists took advantage of it to write against all the clergy and the Holy See.

This serious inconvenience was renewed in the following two years.

For the sake of brevity, the description of other mistakes committed by M. Langénieux. They are known to all the Parisian clergy, who would bring them out if need demanded it. It is only added that Langénieux often goes to Paris to see the imperialist families with whom he is in continuous and intimate correspondence. The two Buonapartist Ladies said: “Our dear friend Curé Langénieux will soon be named Bishop, then Archbishop, then Cardinal; we are powerful enough to obtain this favor from the Archbishop of Paris Monsign. Guibert, and of the Holy See; we need it to boost our political party, and to make everyone believe that the Pope is on our side.”

M. Langénieux, in fact, was immediately appointed first Vicar General of Paris, to the prejudice of the other priests who had already been Vicars General for a long time before him. Shortly thereafter, he was proclaimed Bishop of Tarbes, and then promoted to the Archbishopric of Reims.

As, in France, a priest-curé has never been seen to make three leaps up the hierarchical career in less than two years, so the members of the clergy say that M. Langénieux is a Bonapartist jumper and that if, in addition, he reached the end of his excessive ambition, by all he would be called the Cardinal of the powerful Bonapartist ladies.

In order for a Prelate to be promoted to the sublime dignity of cardinal, it is absolutely necessary that he has already rendered great services to the Holy See, to the Church, and to the person of the Pope; he also must not belong to any political party. Now, what good has M. Langénieux done for the Holy See, for the Church, and for the Pope? NOTHING!!! and it is a manifest fact that he is constantly toiling for the chimerical restoration of the empire, which has done so much harm to the infallible Vicar of Jesus Christ, and which he would do even more if he returned to the throne of France.

Non potest arbor mala bonos fructos facere. [A bad tree cannot produce good fruit.]

In France there are several Bishops and Archbishops, who have bleached their hair in the exercise of the holy ministry for the salvation of souls, and who with admirable zeal have written many pastoral letters, many pamphlets, and also great and luminous works to defend the holy cause of the Holy See. It would therefore be an act of justice if the Supreme Pontiff deigned to give those excellent Prelates the Cardinal’s Hat before M. Langénieux, who is still young, and must henceforth deserve it through a completely different conduct from that which he has held to this day.

 The bad results of the hypothetical promotion of Monsignor Langénieux would be the following.

The Bonapartists are so small in number that they will never be able to succeed in their mad enterprise. The French, generally speaking, abhor the Bonaparte dynasty because it has always been their scourge. The so-called son of Napoleon III finds himself exiled from France, and is a man without wit, without intellect, without courage; if, by chance and by an impossible plebiscite, he were called to the throne, after six months he would be driven out by a terrible revolution, which would massacre all the clergy and burn the churches, because the majority of votes would be attributed by the revolutionaries to clerical influence similar to that of 1849, 1850, and 1852.

No doubt the Republicans will rule France for a long time; and to displease the Pope they would suppress the budget of Catholic worship, if the Pope gave the cardinal’s hat to Monsignor Langénieux, the active and intrepid Bonapartist.

Pius IX, of holy memory, did not want to receive the ex-empress Eugenia in private audience, but when begged repeatedly and deceived by the Bonapartists domiciled in Rome, and by Cardinal Bonnechoses, Archbishop of Rouen, he received iher Immediately afterwards; out of a spirit of unjust vengeance, the republican government of France began to persecute the Religious Corporations there, and now it continues with the intention of harming the Church and afflicting the Pope.

When the republican government will be used by the application of its bad laws, the Princes of the Royal Family of Orleans, who have become legitimate heirs to the throne after the death of the Count of Chambord, will definitively take over the reins of power to govern their country. Then, they would probably never take care of the restoration of the Temporal Power of the Pope, if M. Langénieux were to be named Cardinal, because they would consider such appointment as a great service rendered by the Holy See to the good partisan party. The whole of Europe knows that the Brothers(?) Principi (Princes?) have been too badly treated by Napoleon III. Unfortunately men do not forget offenses and do not forgive.

Ecclesiastical history tells M. Langénieux, Archbishop of Reims, that the greatest persecutors of the Catholic Religion have always been, and will be, the high ranking members of the Catholic clergy with ambitious spirits.

Experience teaches that the best way to prevent is to predict. This is so true that the Holy See in its infinite wisdom has, at all times, refrained from making promotions which could be considered as favorable to any political party whatsoever.

Three years ago, the ensign of Mac-Mahon, a spirit of the Bonapartist ladies, asked the Supreme Pontiff for the cardinal’s hat for Monsignor Langénieux, Archbishop of Reims, and immediately received a negative answer from Pius IX, who is today in the Kingdom of the Blessed.

He who has taken the liberty of writing this sheet with good intention humbly begs the Holy Father Leo XIII to affix that he deign, as a matter of charity, to ensure that it is not read by any other person.

Paris, December 10, 1878

Why Women Can’t be Priests

Eamonn Clark, STL

I recently had a lengthy exchange with a self-styled “feminist theologian.” We talked about a number of things, but of course we spoke about the perennially misunderstood issue of women’s ordination. Obviously, she was in favor. I was not.

I’ve ordered the famous text on women’s ordination by Fr. Manfred Hauke – as I don’t think this topic is going to be going away for another 20-30 years, and I want to understand it better. I look forward to reading it. In the meantime, here is the argument as I make it, in three parts. The definitive part is the revealed fact of the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood. (I will leave aside the question of women deacons, as it is actually slightly more complex; however, I would also argue that it is revealed that the entire sacrament of Holy Orders is reserved for men alone and that many of the arguments against women’s priesthood are operant in the solution to the question of women deacons – it’s just that the argument about the spousal relationship between the priest and the Church does not apply as strongly to the diaconate.) The theoretical part is the underlying theological and anthropological realities which order men toward this office and not women. The practical part is the circumstances of history which teach us about the will of God.


The universal ordinary magisterium (UOM) delivers us infallible teachings on faith and morals. This is a function of Christ’s promise to the Church, in the apostles, that the Holy Spirit would guide them “into all truth.” (John 16:13) What good is the Church as a teacher if She cannot guarantee that Her consistent and longstanding teaching and use are free from error in faith and morals? Since right belief is necessary for right love (“you can’t love what you don’t know,” etc.), a guarantee that the Church will be preserved from error in teaching is quite important. There are some borderline cases, but when the Church very consistently teaches and/or “uses” something over many centuries, the presumption must be that it is in fact part of UOM teaching and is thus infallible. (This differs from the ordinary magisterium of individual bishops, or of an individual pope, as I have explained elsewhere.) The fact that the Church has for so long and so consistently both taught that women cannot be ordained priests and has in fact not attempted this, since this has only been a practice among tiny groups cut off from mainstream ecclesiastical life and administration, indicates that this is a firm part of the UOM. This was forcefully explained by St. John Paul II in his text Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

One can even make the argument, as one prominent American canonist does, that St. John Paul II actually used his extraordinary magisterium – the “papal infallibility” sort – when issuing that document, despite any statements to the contrary after the fact. It is an interesting argument, and it is possibly correct. However, we can at least state that it is a clear explanation of the UOM in a definitive way.


Men hunt, women gather. This is the basic dynamic between men and women from the dawn of civilization. It may mean something for understanding our diverse roles in ecclesiastical life.

In Eden, the man is created first. The woman comes from him, and this is a measure for how the order between men and women ought to be. St. Paul explains this very bluntly in two different sections of 1 Corinthians, with words that make the 21st century westerner bristle from the lack of political correctness. “A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels. Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God.” (1 Corinthians 11:7-12) He continues on in chapter 14: “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)

Almost predicting the present-day near-complete irrelevance of so-called “feminist theology,” Paul says in the conclusion of this section: “But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.” (1 Corinthians 14:38)

Likewise, in 1 Timothy, we read: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” (1 Timothy 2:11-14) Obviously, Paul attributes original sin primarily to Adam (1 Corinthians 15:22), but the fact that it was the woman who was deceived by the Devil leaves the progeny of Eve who are of her sex to be without a claim over official public teaching about God and righteousness (faith and morals). Adam was not deceived – he knew better but was just plain evil in his disobedience and pride.

St. Paul also gives us an order between men and women in the domestic sphere: “Wives be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. Because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church.” (Ephesians 5:22-23a) The corollary, explained immediately, is of course that men must love their wives as Christ loves the Church (which means immense self-denial, even unto laying down one’s life). It’s better seen as the relief of a burden for women, and a challenge for men.

All of this is to say that St. Paul does not believe in “women’s equality” in practical, temporal affairs. Thus, neither does the Church nor Her faithful children. However, temporal affairs are only the means to the end. When Paul says there is “no longer male nor female” in Galatians 3:28, he speaks of the reality that God is not a “respecter of persons.” (Cf. Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11) One’s love of God, and subsequent merit with Him, is completely independent of what station one has in this life. The greatest saint, the holiest human person ever to walk the earth, was a woman – Mary, the Mother of God. She was not complaining about “not being equal,” and now she is Queen of Heaven and Earth.

If women are not permitted to teach in the Church on account of Eve, what is the implication for men? By inversion, we see that Adam’s sin provides the paradigm for the debt which men owe to God. Instead of defending his bride from the serpent (the text of Genesis implies he was standing right next to her when she was deceived), Adam was negligent and subsequently proud by direct disobedience. As part of the curse which Adam is put under, he must toil for his food. Additionally, Adam owes an infinite debt, and all humanity with him, on account of his enormous and special sin. This can only be done by offering something infinitely good back to God. We can certainly offer our own lives, as baptized Christians (the “priesthood of the baptized”), but we are of finite goodness. No number of finite sacrifices equals an infinite sacrifice.

From these points alone we can derive a strong argument for the reservation of the priesthood to men. It is the man’s special burden to make up for what Adam consciously failed to do – to offer himself as a sacrifice for his bride, putting himself between her and the Devil. This is the Mass, where the priest acts in the very person of Christ, offering the perfect sacrifice of Christ Himself on the Cross, by which work (“liturgy” literally means “work”) he procures the spiritual food of the Eucharist for him and his spiritual children. The progeny of Adam who share his sex are responsible for offering the infinite Sacrifice of Christ to atone for their first father’s sin, and for those of himself and the whole Church militant (Earth) and suffering (Purgatory), and to keep Christ’s Bride, the Church, in the souls of Her children, from succumbing to the forces of evil by begging God’s help through succoring Him through the means of this same sacrifice, in addition to offering their very selves in service for the People of God. It is this particular kind of imaging of Christ, precisely as the New Adam, which requires a man, rather than a woman.

There are other theoretical considerations. They are at least twofold: first, that men have a more positive religious inertia than women; second, men are more ordered toward public life than women.

We can notice a few facts, confirmed by empirical study. Women who are pious are generally unable to be pulled downward by their impious husbands, but nor can they pull their impious husbands upward. Women who are impious are generally easily able to pull down weakly pious men. (Thus the Torah’s stronger insistence on men not marrying foreign wives than women not marrying foreign husbands.) On the other hand, impious women are usually easily pulled upward by pious men. This teaches us something about the role of the male in religion: he is by nature meant to lead. It perfects him as a man. Leadership in religion does not correspond to perfecting the woman nearly to the same degree. This is intuitively sensed by children especially, who are far more likely to go to church their whole lives if dad goes than if just mom goes. The example is more psychologically moving, for whatever reason. Therefore, while there are plenty of screw-ups in the priesthood, at least they are male screw-ups. The bad men do less damage than bad women would, and the good men do more good than good women would.

This corresponds with the reality that men are generally more ordered to public life in general. This is for three kinds of reasons: biological, physiological, and psychological. First, the biological. Men do not need to be at home when having a child – the woman does, out of physical necessity. This limits the amount of public engagement that women can have over the course of their life. They cannot make long commitments to delicate, serious, long-term, time-intensive, and physically taxing work that men can. Next, the physiological. Men are bigger, faster, and stronger than women. Once again, men hunt, women gather. The demands of public life at the higher levels are extremely difficult for men to meet well, even though they have the propensity to endure more laborious conditions and be more intimidating to competitors. It is nearly impossible for women, except in special circumstances. This bread-winning gives men a kind of presumptive right to make more decisions about the common welfare of the society in which they live, as they are more effective in managing its affairs, will be called on to do so more often as a result, and are more familiar with what the public sphere is really like. Finally, the psychological. Men are by nature more aggressive and focused than women. They are also more drawn to dealing with problems and tasks related to “things” which they can “fix.” Women excel more with “people problems” which require empathy and high emotional intelligence. The male psychology is therefore much better suited to handling high-pressure situations which call for focus, aggression, and problem-solving ability. (Women, however, can perhaps more easily excel in those public affairs which are purely diplomatic in nature.)

This is not to say that women can’t be good leaders. But it is much harder for them to be effective administrators of public affairs at a high level, especially if they are bearing children. The priesthood is a public office of the Church which intrinsically involves administration, even if the priest is not actually an administrator of anything. (To drive home this point, a priest ordained on his death bed would still be conformed to Christ in view of sanctification and teaching, even if he never actually celebrates the sacraments or teaches anything.) Since the priesthood is a public administrative function in the Church, it is much more fitting that only men occupy the office. While there are some women who would be competent, the point is that the general higher competence of men for public affairs indicates the appropriateness of men alone being able to occupy the office.


I was informed in my discussion with my feminist friend that actually the reason why there weren’t women priests in the early Church was because of a rigid patriarchal culture in the Roman world, such that it was too difficult to have such women priests in practice. They wouldn’t have been accepted by all those sexist males who wanted to dominate the women because of their evolution-driven urge to do so. But now, she argued, women are socially equal and so should be free to be ordained.

There are two huge problems with this argument from a purely practical point of view, leaving aside the Eurocentrism (or Western-centrism) which animates the thought that women are now socially equal to men, as in most of the world that thought is laughable.

First of all, one must assume that the apostles and their immediate disciples had a serious lack of courage to proclaim the Gospel in its entirety, which would naturally include the right ordering of liturgical worship. Given that these men and women usually knew that the lions likely awaited them in the arena if they were found out by the unfriendly emperor (etc.), this argument is laughable. If one is refusing to worship the local deities, such as in Rome, one becomes an enemy of the state. (The classical pagan pantheons were often seen as being integral to the flourishing of civil society – so appeasing them was important enough to legally enforce the practice of offering sacrifice to them. To refuse to do so was like fomenting insurrection.) One would have to state that St. Peter or St. Andrew, for example, were fine with being martyred for preaching unique salvation in Christ, but it was just a step too far for them to have a woman presiding at the altar. It does not make sense psychologically, and it is even mildly blasphemous.

The second problem is even more fatal. The fact is that presiding at liturgies was one of the only major public functions which women held in the ancient Mediterranean world. Rome, Greece, Persia, Egypt… They all had priestesses in their various cultic paradigms. If Christians had priestesses, this would have been utterly uncontroversial. So the fact that the early local churches did not produce priestesses, as evidenced by the complete absence of any documentation of such a practice, especially the non-existence of a tradition of priestesses enduring after the apostolic age, indicates that it was a conscious choice (or a complete non-choice which merely recognized the right practice and implicitly rejected the wrong practice) that came from something intrinsic to Christianity rather than a decision made from external coercion.

The synthesis of the feminist argument about rigid patriarchy and the early Church: the apostles and their first disciples were so cowardly that they were ready to face martyrdom over preaching Christ, except for allowing for a practice which was totally uncontroversial in the surrounding culture. This is about as good as a reductio ad absurdum can get.

The problem gets even worse when applied to Christ. If it is mildly blasphemous to suggest that the apostle St. Bartholomew was fine being skinned alive but just not for taking the risk of putting women in their God-given place at the altar (despite that being the norm in the pagan world), then it comes close to serious blasphemy to suggest that the Lord was constrained by cultural paradigms in commissioning the first priests in the Upper Room at the Last Supper. If the incarnate Son of God is so beholden to cultural norms of patriarchy that He just can’t find a way around it, then He’s not God. As St. John Paul II explains in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the Lord acted with total freedom in choosing only men to be conformed to Him as priests. In fact, the more natural choice would have been to choose all the women who were much more faithful to Him. Instead, He consciously chose a bunch of men, most of whom would abandon Him – with one selling Him in an act of betrayal, and the leader of them all denying Him three times within earshot. So clearly the Lord is unconcerned with the “natural choice.” Had He chosen the women, they would have been easily accepted by the ancient world as cultic leaders. True, as teachers it would have been more of a struggle, but as soon they had started healing the blind and raising the dead, people would have listened. God can teach and preach through whomever He wants – through rough, uneducated fishermen, or through women. They were both naturally unfit for the task of conquering the Mediterranean world. And yet conquer it they did.


Women’s ordination is likely to be a peripheral pastoral concern for the next generation, but it seems to be reducing in popularity. This is because those younger women who are attracted to serious Catholic life are not swept up with the cultural revolutionary sentiments of the 1960’s and 70’s. They may even perceive that the idea of “women in the workplace” as it’s been tried over the past 50 years has not been the liberating blessing that women were told it would be. And vanishingly few men are concerned with this perceived “inequality problem.”

The most attractive daughters of Christ are those who fully embrace their femininity – to be happy to love the Lord and their husband (perhaps one and the same) and embrace that most fundamental of virtues, obedience, in a special way. They realize they are off the hook, by and large, for worrying about the affairs of the world and of the Church. They focus on their own sons and daughters, their own neighbors, and their own selves, to make saints. While men must usually hunt in order to realize their full potential as men, normally women need only to gather.

Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us.