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Music and Morality

When Plato set out to write the Republic, he was attempting to present a blueprint for a just society filled with just men.  You might be surprised then to find several sections in which he discusses music.  Plato, like many of the ancients, thought music was not invented but discovered; a sacrament that made the order and rhythm of the universe felt.  “Rhythm and harmony,” he thought, “find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful.”   In other words, music, because of its power to captivate us and bring us pleasure, also has to be evaluated morally.  And in this, we moderns would think him entirely backward.  Maybe the lyrics matter a little, but music itself is entirely neutral.  Good music is in the ear of the listener.  Plato himself would group us moderns with the fools of his day who “[I]n their mindlessness [they] involuntarily falsified music itself when they asserted that there was no such thing as correct music, and that it was quite correct to judge music by the standard of the pleasure it gives to whoever enjoys it, whether he be better or worse” (The Laws 700e).

This is not an attempt to empirically verify what Plato thought as true, but only to set the table by asking a simple question—what caused the sexual revolution?  Put more precisely, why did things change so drastically in the mid-60s and 70s?  It would be hard not to connect it to the revolution in music that preceded it.  In fact we can do this for many periods of recent and not-so recent history; from the nihilism of the late 19th Century and its connection to the denial of tonality in music to the denial of tradition in the Romantic composers, Plato seems particular prescient—“ [A]s Damon says, and I am convinced, the musical modes are never changed without change in the most important of a city’s laws” (Republic 424c).

The Moral Aspect of Music

Although we could continue to trace the music-cultural connection, it is more instructive to examine the nature of music and its effects on morality to show why this will always be the case.  What makes this particular topic difficult to discuss is that most of us have a fundamental misunderstanding regarding morality.  We have come to see it mainly as following rules, that is, as a training exercise of the intellect.  But the moral man is one who trains his will such that he learns to take pleasure in the right things.  It is no unlike the man with a healthy diet in that he learns to like the taste of food that is healthy for him.  When driven by pleasure alone he will consume only those foods that are sweet to his palate, treating health as, at best, a secondary concern.  When he is concerned with his health and sees food as necessary to maintaining it, he will develop his palate such that he finds pleasure in foods that are truly good for him.

The food analogy is a helpful aid to understanding music.  Music naturally has a capacity to move us and bring us pleasure.  It is able to target specific emotions or evoke certain images.  Military men were able to cover much greater distances when marching to music.  They were able to go bravely into battle on the heels of the otherwise unarmed military drummers and buglers.  Movies add to the suspense of the scenes by playing music.  Try watching the shower scene in Psycho without the music and see if it elicits the same response from you.  Music clearly feeds the soul and therefore we should ask how to separate the healthy music from junk food.

This inherent capacity of music to move us is where music takes on a moral component.  Emotions are part of the constitution of man and are meant to be bodily responses to good and evil.  They can be stirred up (or permitted to endure) interiorly through reflection or they can be stirred from contact with something exterior to us.  When they are stirred up from the outside prior to any moral reflection, there is no moral aspect per se.  But once we choose the particular emotion, then it becomes subject to moral evaluation.  The morality of emotions is something most of us already grasp.  What we may not realize however is that when we choose a thing because it will stir up an emotion, this too is subject to moral norms.

When we choose a song that we “like” what we are really saying is that “I like the emotion this music causes me to feel.”  Fallen as we are, without reflection we tend towards those things that stir up base emotions.  To continue to feed certain emotions develops in us a habit for those emotions to arise on their own with ever greater frequency.  These unbridled emotions then dispose us towards vice, making it easier and more pleasurable.  Music that is rhythm-heavy with a syncopated beat (like modern popular music and rock) for example, tends to stir up the base emotions associated with anger and lust.  Train the body enough in these emotions and acts will follow.  The angry teenager who only wants to listen to his music (he is addicted to the pleasure of feeling angry) and the “bumping and grinding” that sets the scene of the dance club are both caused by the accompanying music.

Evaluating Music

Because of the melody, harmony and rhythm, music has the capacity to bring us pleasure; and not just bodily pleasure.  The melody and harmony can bring pleasure to our souls while the pleasure of rhythm can be felt bodily.  Music that respects this ordering, placing rhythm at the service of the other two, will bring us spiritual pleasure.  This gives us a way in which we might evaluate the quality of the music.  Music that corresponds to the ordering of the soul, when the artistic primacy of melody and harmony above rhythm is respected, is objectively good music.  Classical, folk and liturgical music are all examples of genres in which this hierarchy is respected.

Notice that I have said nothing about the lyrics.  In truth, lyrics serve only, at best, a secondary role.  To say “you don’t listen to the lyrics” doesn’t really change anything.  Even if you don’t understand German, you know that Beethoven’s Ninth is an Ode to Joy.  Much of the music in vogue today, you can’t understand the lyrics anyway.  Regardless, lyrics are meant to serve the other aspects of the music.  They are meant to make clearer the artist’s intent.  In rhythm heavy rock and pop music, the lyrics are supporting the beat and the song would have the same effect (maybe not as deeply) without the lyrics.  This is why Christian rock is an absurdity.  The rhythm is saying one thing and the words another.  There is no due proportion and the result is ugly in the truest sense of the word.

In a world where arguments are ignored(especially when someone might be addicted to the thing you are arguing about), there is value in personal experience.  The easiest way for us to evaluate our own musical choices is to simply observe ourselves when we listen to a particular song.  Where does your mind go and what emotions are stirred in you?  What is it that you like specifically about the song?  Conversely when you think of the “anti-one hit wonders” like Mozart, Bach, Palestrina and the like, what is it you don’t like about their music?  Is it boring?  That might be because you have been feeding on junk food for so long that you need to refresh your musical palate.  With a steady diet of only music that uplifts your soul, you will come to draw pleasure from objectively good music.  Trust me, if I, with the steady diet of crappy music I used to listen to, can do it then so can you.  And you will be that much the better for it.  In fact, society as a whole will be that much better for it.

Defending Death?

In a previous post, two of the most common arguments for abolishing the death penalty, were examined and put to rest.  In the midst of this presentation, I promised to return to the topic because the arguments themselves are predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of the reasoning behind the Church’s position, a position she has held from her beginnings.  When asked where the Church stands on Capital Punishment, most would put forward the “self-defense” defense, a position based upon John Paul II’s explanation in Evangelium Vitae and later included in the Catechism:

“If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’” (CCC 2267)

In summary, provided that the threat to society from the person can be neutralized, then the death penalty should not be used.  Given greater and greater security measures, we should expect that the death penalty will eventually be done away with.  Or so the argument goes.  This may come as a surprise to many, but “self-defense” has never been the primary reason why the Church has allowed recourse to the death penalty.  And if it was, this would represent a novelty (i.e. a change in something belonging to the Tradition of the Church).  Instead the Church has taught from the beginning that the death penalty was a valid means of punishment.

“From the beginning?”

Within the classical tradition, punishment has three distinct purposes.  The primary end is the re-establishment of justice.  When a crime is committed, the order of justice is upset and is only restored when a proportionate punishment is given to the offender.  This is why the punishment must always be carried out according to the judgment of a competent authority.  The other two purposes serve only secondary roles.  First, the punishment must be ordered to the correction of the offender himself, that is, it is medicinal in some way to the person who committed the injustice.  Finally, it must serve a social purpose, primarily as a deterrent and isolation of the offender.

We can examine Capital Punishment in light of these three ends to see if it can be applied.  It bears mentioning that this is a different question as to whether it should be applied in a given situation.  This is a question that only the competent authority whose role it is to promote and protect the common good.  We are interested here only in the question of why in principle the death penalty is not immoral.  That being said, we can examine the primary end, namely the re-establishment of justice.  Does the punishment fit the crime?

Almost on an intuitional level we must admit that there are some crimes that are so heinous that the only fitting punishment is death.  If this sounds like vengeance then that is because it is.  Vengeance corresponds to the innate desire for justice that is written into human nature and it is a good thing when it is exercised according to justice.  This is why punishment should always be carried out by the competent authority.  If “all authority comes from above” (Romans 13:1) and “vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Dt 32:35) then it is the competent authority that carries out the punishments of the Lord.

Even if you are willing to concede this, you might answer “no, there is no crime for which the fitting punishment is death.”  The problem with this position is first that it contradicts Sacred Scripture.  In the midst of His covenant making with Noah, the Lord says “Anyone who sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall that one’s blood be shed. For in the image of God have human beings been made” (Gn 9:6).  This is the principle of proportionality.  A principle that even Our Lord did not abrogate in the Sermon on the Mount in which He addresses His individual followers to avoid unjust anger and vengeance while at the same time commanding them to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”  There should be no vigilante justice, only those for whom the competence rests (c.f, Romans 13:1-4).  Our Lord teaches how we should respond as victims to violence, not as punishers.  It is with this awareness that the Church has always taught that society may have recourse to the death penalty as a punishment; from St. Paul to Augustine to Aquinas to Pope Innocent III to Pope Pius IX to Pope Pius XII to Benedict XVI.

The second problem is more one of common sense.  To say that a mass murderer deserves the same punishment (life imprisonment) as say a rapist is to ultimately destroy the principle of proportionality.  That a mass murderer gets only life imprisonment would suggest that a rapist who, “at least didn’t kill someone” should get less.  This leads to a sort of arbitrariness in punishment, including excess or even no punishment at all.  We cannot eliminate per se Capital Punishment as a proportional punishment.

Although it is not immediately obvious, Capital Punishment also serves the second purpose of punishment.  It serves a medicinal as well.  St. Thomas says that the death penalty leads to either repentance or puts an end to their sin, both of which are good for the person.  Death is not the worst thing that can happen to us—hell is.  Repentance obviously leads the person away from hell, but keeping a person from sinning even more keeps them from further punishment in hell

Finally, how the death penalty serves a deterrent.  This also needs to further explanation.  Many people take this to be an empirical claim and think that the number of murders is no less in places where there is recourse to the death penalty.  But the claim is more about the law as a great moral teacher.  As a deterrent the death penalty is not a part of someone’s calculation, but represents an overall hatred of murder.  Most people would not commit and murder and one of the reasons why they have such distaste for it is the horror of the death penalty.  Rather than being an affront against human dignity, it actually shows the great worth of human life.  Recall the reason that God gave Noah as to why he should use capital punishment—“in the image of God have human beings been made” (Gn 9:6).

A Novelty?

It was mentioned above that the “self-defense” defense would represent a novelty in the Church’s teaching and would be a break with unbreakable Tradition.  “Still”, one might say, “the Catechism says what it says.”  That is true, except that the paragraph must be read from within its proper context.  The teaching on the death penalty is presented from within the context of punishment, that is, as Capital Punishment.

“The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.” (CCC 2266)

This is merely a summary of the principles of what we said above.  What follows then in the next paragraph is meant to be an application of those principles based on the Holy Father’s prudential judgment.  He thinks that given the current state of the penal system, the ends of punishment—proportionality, expiation and deterrence— can be met with something like life imprisonment, rendering the only issue being whether or not society can be protected from further violence by the perpetrator.  As proof that this is a merely prudential application we need only look to the comments of the future Pope Benedict XVI when he said “While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia” (Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith).  It is both permissible to have recourse to capital punishment and to disagree with how it is applied.  The principle is set but how it is applied, like many things related to the moral teachings of the Church, is debatable.   Put another way, that it can be used as punishment is not debatable, when it should be used is.  As an aside, I should mention as well that, despite taking a lot of flak for it, Edward Feser offers an excellent explanation of why this is an imprudential judgment in his new book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of the Death Penalty.

In conclusion, the Church has repeatedly affirmed the validity of the death penalty as a moral option for punishing violent offenders.  Despite a move towards a more merciful approach, this particular doctrine will not and cannot change.  The death penalty should always be on the table.

Catholic Culture and the Collapse of the Self-Evident

In a book written just prior to becoming Pope called Truth and Tolerance, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger describes the present day crisis of faith as coming about from a “collapse of the old religious certainties.” This collapse affects more than just faith, but leads to a total “collapse of human values” (Truth and Tolerance, p.140).  So connected are these religious certainties with our conception of human values, that we treat certain truths of the Christian ethos as self-evident.  Or at least, we did.  What we are witnessing is not just the death of a Christian culture, but also, what one author has called, the collapse of the self-evident.

The Enlightenment and the Collapse of the Self-Evident

Those who have been victimized by the project of the Enlightenment, the same project which promised to liberate reason from the constraints of religious truth, have seen reason collapse instead.  Rather than liberating reason, it has enslaved it to feeling and the scientific method.  There are no longer first principles, truths that we all hold as self-evident, from which reason and society might proceed.  Freedom reigns supreme, unfettered even by reason itself and it is every man for himself in this brave new world.  It seems that the only self-evident truth is that there are no self-evident truths.  Descartes’ skepticism has won the day—we now know nothing for sure.

Nevertheless, this is our reality and a failure to adapt to it only exacerbates the problem.  For those who desire to spread the Christian ethos they must come to accept the consequences of the “collapse of the self-evident.”  When we encounter another person who fails to acknowledge what is self-evident we assume that they are either stupid or wicked.  We assume that they are either unable or unwilling to see the truth. They are the swine upon which we should not cast our pearls and we counter with indifference and/or hostility.

Our Lord’s admonition regarding our pearls and the world’s swine is not without merit, but we miss a great opportunity when we fail to grasp that, in a culture in which the self-evident has collapsed, they may be neither stupid nor wicked.  In fact, in Christian charity, we should assume they are simply ignorant.  Rather than being, as we should all be, slaves to the self-evident, they become slaves to the fashionable.  There was a time when the Christian ethos was the fashionable, but those days are long past.

An illustration will help to drive the point home.  Many Christians find themselves absolutely flummoxed by those who support abortion.  The self-evident truth that acted as a cornerstone for our country, that no one may directly kill an innocent person, makes it practically self-evident that abortion is immoral.  Therefore we assume that abortion supporters are either stupid or wicked, marking them as enemies to be conquered rather than potential allies to be won over.  It is no longer self-evident what a person is.  Even if we are able to grasp that, then we run into a second “self-evident” roadblock, innocence.  What is an innocent person; one that poses no threat to my well-being or one that does not deliberately seek to harm me, or what?  That a child in the womb is innocent should be self-evident, the fact that so many people can’t see it is because of the collapse of the self-evident.

Every pre-Christian culture had abortions.  This was not because they were less enlightened but because they were pre-Christian.  Likewise with the dignity of women, slavery, euthanasia, and nearly every other societal ill.  It is only in light of the Christian conception of man that we can even speak of the value of every human being.  It is the fact that we are made in the image of God and worth enough for the Son of God to die for that we can even conceive of human dignity.  Throw out those two truths and the collapse of the self-evident is sure to follow.

We argue and argue, but our voice is lost because no one understands us.  We are, quite literally yelling into the wind.  Sure individual conversions still occur, but nothing on the massive scale that the Church is used to.  And that is because the smattering of individual conversions cannot sustain a Christian culture.

The Necessity of a Catholic Culture

Our Lord won a grace for the ignorant to see the truth on the Cross—“Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  But His Mystical Body, His visual presence on earth has been given a grace and a task.  This is the same grace and task that the early Church was given to “instruct the ignorant” through the foundation of a decidedly Catholic culture.  It started with a tightly knit sub-culture but before too long blossomed into an entire culture.  Constantine may have “legitimized” Christianity by adopting it as the state religion, but he was only acknowledging what every Roman already knew—the empire, thanks in no small part to a lifeless pagan worship, was in steady decline with the most vital part of society being the Church.  I am not calling into question the sincerity of Constantine’s conversion, there is no good historical reason to doubt that, only pointing out that it also turned out that a healthy Church has a unifying capacity in society, even if not everyone is Christian.  What follows from this is the rise of a Christian culture.

The Church may not be in favor of divorce, but they must finally admit that the marriage of the Church with liberalism is a failed union.  We have been trying for over a century to show how the Church is compatible with liberalism rather than showing how liberalism is compatible with the Church (or mostly how it is not).  Pope Leo XII may have been ahead of his time in declaring the heresy of Americanism, but he wasn’t wrong.

Culture, as the liberals (not in the liberal vs conservative sense, but in the sense of liberalism of which both liberals and conservatives are a part) know is built from the bottom up in the education of the young.  Why have Catholic schools adopted the liberal model and dropped the classical liberal arts model?  Catholic education was a battlefield in the 1950s when the Supreme Court put parochial schools in its sight.  Rather than continuing the fight, the Church schools simply adopt the liberal model.  There is no longer a uniquely Catholic education, except among a very small remnant.

Likewise, we are urged to call our Congressmen to protect the Dreamers, many of whom are Catholic immigrants, from being deported.  But if we are honest, they would probably be better off in their Catholic homeland rather than having their eternal salvation at stake as here.  Oppose Trump’s wall?  Fine, but how about building a wall around these young people so that they retain their Catholicism and not Americanism.  There was a time when there was enough of a Catholic culture to sustain many Catholic immigrants.

The examples could be multiplied, but the point remains that until we remain committed to building a Catholic culture, we will lose, not just the culture war, but eternal souls.  The collapse of the self-evident leaves many blinded by the fashionable and unable to see the truths of the Faith as livable and coming from the hand of a loving Father.


All Dogs go to Heaven?

One of the most painful memories of childhood for many of us is the loss of a pet.  At a young age we are forced to confront the impermanence of things and death.  Unlike the death of a loved one which carries with it the hope that you will be reunited one day with them, the death of a pet brings with it nothing but questions.  Is Spot in heaven?  Will I be able to pet Tabby again?  Parents struggle to come up with an answer, mostly because we do not know the answer ourselves.  Will our pets be in heaven?

Let us first frame the question properly by clearing up what can be a source of confusion.  All living things have souls, that is, there is no such thing as a living being that does not have a soul. A soul is the animating principle of all living things. There are three types of souls that exist in a nested hierarchy: vegetative, sensitive, and intellectual. Each of these has specific functions. The vegetative soul is concerned with growth, nutrition, and reproduction; the sensitive soul is concerned with locomotion and perception; the intellectual soul is concerned with rational thought. These are nested in the sense that anything that has a higher degree of soul also has all of the lower degrees. All living things grow, nourish themselves, and reproduce. Animals not only do that but also move and perceive. Finally, man does all of the above in addition to reasoning.  What distinguishes man’s soul from the other two is the fact that it is a spiritual soul.  The fact that it is spiritual in nature doesn’t just mean that it has no parts and is incapable of being destroyed, but also that it is subsistent.

The Subsistence of the Human Soul

The concept of subsistence is important for our question and therefore bears some further explanation.  Subsistence of the human soul means that it can exist apart from the body.  How do we know this?  The human soul may depend upon the body for some of its operations, but not all.  It is capable of activities, specifically rational knowing and willing, that do not depend upon the body for their operation.  Therefore if the body ceases to function as such, the soul can stilll operate.  On the other hand, an animal soul because it depends completely upon matter to operate (such as seeing, sense knowledge, etc.) and has no operations apart from the body, it ceases to exist once it is separated from the body.  “The operation of anything follows the mode of its being” as St. Thomas says—a thing with no operation has no being, that is, it no longer exists (c.f. ST I q. 75, a.3).

Death means the separation of body and soul and occurs when the body is no longer sufficiently organized to allow the soul to act through it.  The human soul because it is subsistent continues in existence as a knowing and willing substance (we say that it goes to heaven or hell).  The animal soul, lacking subsistence ceases to exist and the specific animal with it.  Animals do not go to heaven because there is no animal left to go to heaven.

Not the End of the Story

Most people will find this explanation extraordinarily cruel.  Animals are not people, but they are not just “things” either.  We can develop a healthy attachment to them, especially because many seem to develop a certain individuality to them.  But this is not the end of the story because heaven is not the end of the story.  All too often we forget or overlook the last thing we are told in Scripture—we are not just trying to go to Heaven, but to be included in the New Earth.  Although we are not told much about this New Earth, we know that we have experienced it in sign in this world.  How can we assume this?  Because St. Paul says that “all creatures groan and are in travail, awaiting the revelation of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21-22).  All of creation will be delivered from the servitude to corruption at the Resurrection of the Body.

It is the Lamb that is the light (c.f. Rev 21:22-23) in this new world so that we see all things in creation in His light.  The meaning of creation and its capacity to magnify the glory of God will be fully realized, allowing man’s senses to fully participate in beatitude.  “”By the greatness of the beauty and of the creature, the Creator of them may be seen, so as to be known thereby” (Wisdom 13:5).  While we may be told specifically that there are animals in the New Earth, it is a reasonable assumption that there are.  What this would look like may be difficult to say.  God could reconstitute each of the individual animals by uniting form and matter or, more likely (at least in my opinion), He would have each individual species such that the individual animal contains all individuals within that species.  Because our love will have been purified, seeing God in all things and loving them for His sake, our purified love for Spot or Tabby will be directed to this one dog or cat.  In this sense we might truthfully say that our pets enter into glory with us.

Parents often struggle with coming up with a truthful answer when their children ask whether their pet is in heaven.  The answer is no, but this is not the end of the story.  They will see their pet again in the New Earth.  This answer helps to articulate an important, and oft-overlooked, truth of the Faith—the creation of the New Earth.  And in this regard, it can offer both solace and an excellent teaching opportunity.

Jealous of Our Ideas

Regardless of whether or not Plato took artistic liberties with the character of Socrates there can be little doubt that the father of modern philosophy was one of history’s world’s greatest teachers.  Great for the content of his teaching, but especially renowned for his manner of teaching.  Many people cannot tell you one thing he taught, but they can tell you how he taught—the so-called Socratic Method that involves leading a person to the truth through a series of leading questions.  The genius of his method was the homage he paid to the irrationality resulting from original sin (even if he probably would deny the existence of original sin itself, believing all vice was solely brought about as a result of ignorance) that causes us to be jealous of our own ideas.  His method of cooperative argument destroys the protective walls we erect around our ideas by giving the appearance that the new ideas are also our own.  I have written in the past on how this method can be very powerful as a tool for evangelization, but today I would like to focus on the effect this seemingly innate jealousy has on us individually and societally.

“My Ideas, Right or Wrong”

Our ideas are true or false based upon whether or not they conform to reality.  Truth is, in essence, a relationship between thought and what really is.  This relational understanding of the truth as both subjective (my idea) and objective (reality) is the key to safeguarding against the jealousy of which we are speaking.  For this jealousy of our own ideas causes each of us to zealously defend our ideas even to the point of blinding ourselves to reality.  When left unchecked it leads to a deeply rooted stubbornness (what St. Thomas calls pertanacia) that refuses to give up its ideas because it would be an admission that the other person is more intelligent than ourselves.  St. Thomas says that this eventually leads to a crass obstinacy that is the mother of all discord in which we are constantly arguing to find at least one other person who can agree with us.

Jealousy for our ideas is manifest in the tendency we have not only to demand agreement in conclusions, but in the manner of arriving at those conclusions.  How often do we find ourselves experiencing jealousy when someone else explains something differently than we would?  We may agree with the conclusions, but we pick apart their explanation and think about how much better we would explain it.  This jealousy blind us by turning our subjective understanding of the truth into the truth itself.  It objectifies the properly subjective.  Coming at the truth from different angles always benefits all of us if we have the humility to allow others to teach us what we already know.  If Our Lord could grow in wisdom and knowledge, coming to the truth he already knew in a new way, then we too can do the same thing.

We apprehend many things, but comprehend nothing.  Because we never know anything fully, we can always grow in knowledge of a thing by coming at it from a fresh angle.  Coming at the truth from different angles always benefits all of us if we have the intellectual humility to allow others to teach us what we think we already know.  If Our Lord could grow in wisdom and knowledge, coming to the truth he already knew in a new way, then we too can do the same thing.

We not only objectify the subjective, but we also “subjectify” the objective.  What I am thinking about here specifically is when reality becomes entirely subjective, what we call relativism.  The self-refuting quality of relativism as “the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth”, notwithstanding, many people accept this into the treasury of their ideas.  In fact, a whole generation has practically grown up with this as a fundamental tenet of their reality.  In response to one of his teachers telling him “you cannot force your beliefs on other people,” my 12-year old son told his teacher that during the next test he was going to cheat because “you cannot force your belief that cheating is wrong on me.”  The only response he got was “touché.”  He had challenged the deeply seeded relativism and lost by way of his opponent conceding.  Welcome to the new world order.

The point is that because of relativism, any attack upon one’s ideas is an attack upon the person.  There is no longer a distinction between an idea and reality because they are in essence the same thing.  The truth is entirely subjective.  In calling into question their ideas, you have threatened their world.  Now not only are they jealously guarding their ideas, they must zealously defend their world.  Wed the jealousy of our own ideas with relativism and their offspring is the “safe-space.”  We laugh at the iGens and Millenials who need “safe-spaces,” calling them soft, but we forget that we have created their environment in which an argument is scary because it is always personal attack.  How can they see it any other way given how they have been formed?

It is this combination of jealousy and relativism that also is the source of the “division in our country” that everyone is so fond of talking about.  Argument, the very thing that held the founders together, is impossible in that climate.  Everyone takes everything as a personal attack and therefore responds in kind.  This cocktail is literally poisoning our society and could, without any danger of hyperbole, lead to its ultimate demise.  Interiorly we all need to lighten up and avoid succumbing to jealousy.  Exteriorly we have to fight relativism and its two daughters, tolerance and indifference, wherever we find them especially as they are being taught to the young.  Perhaps we can learn from Socrates in this regard as well.

Socrates: ” So you believe that each man’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s.”

Protagoras: “That’s correct.”

Socrates: “How do you make a living?”

Protagoras: “I am a teacher”

Socrates: “I find this very puzzling. You admit you earn money teaching, but I cannot imagine what you could possibly teach anyone. After all, you admit that each person’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. This means that what your students believe is as good as anything you could possibly teach them. Once they learn that each person is the measure of all things, what possible reason would they have to pay you for any further lessons? How can you possibly teach them anything once they learn that their opinions are as true as yours?”



Time and Eternity

If Abbott and Costello had been philosophers rather than comedians, one could imagine their “Who’s on first?” routine morphing into “what did God do before He made the world?”  Costello would spin Abbott in circles explaining how there was no time before God made the world because God made time with the world.  Back and forth they would go until Costello told Abbott that God was outside of time.  Exasperated with more questions than answer, Abbott would finally ask “who’s on first?”  The two comedian philosophers would not be alone in puzzling over time and eternity.  Even the great Christian philosopher and saint, St. Augustine’s “mind burns to solve this complicated enigma” and begged God not to “shut off and leave these problems impenetrable” (Confessions XX, XXII).  He realized he was not faced with a mere intellectual abstraction but a question that had great practical consequences.  After all, time is the means by which earn our wings to fly into eternity and thus grasping the relation has bearing on how we live.

Let us begin by tracing some of Augustine’s thoughts about time.  Asking what time is often elicits a response akin to “I could have told you if you didn’t ask.”  That is, it is so fundamental to our lived experience that we are defined by it, making defining it difficult. For this reason we should do the intellectual legwork and come to examine it.

Augustine and Time

Time, St. Augustine says, exists only in the sense that it is tending towards nothingness.  What he means is that the past no longer exists and the future does not yet exist.  The present, however we might measure it because of its fleetingness, has barely any duration at all and therefore has no extension.  Nor is the movement of heavenly bodies time because we would know if one day the sun moved twice as fast.  Heavenly bodies can be used to measure time only because they move in time.  Time instead, according to Augustine, is something that is experienced as either a present of things past (in memory), a present of things present (in the eye) or a present of things to come (in the expectation of the imagination).  Time is this succession from past to present to future.

Because time in its constituent elements of before and after is deeply embedded within our vision of reality, we often struggle to grasp eternity because we see it as somehow opposed to time.  We see it as some duration that does not have beginning or end.  This is inadequate because even if time had no beginning or end, it would still be a succession of days that embraces past, present, and future.  Time is but an analogy for eternity.  Plato thought that time is, in essence, the mobile image of immobile eternity.  Time is like a sacrament for eternity—a tangible sign of the invisible reality that, when lived united to divine eternity through sanctifying grace, brings eternal life about.

Eternity in the theological sense is a duration without beginning and end but has no succession of either past or future.  St. Thomas calls it “the now that stands, not that flows away” (ST I q.10, art2 obj 1).  More accurately, eternity is not a duration but a fullness.  It is the absolutely unchangeable God’s total possession of Himself—the fullness of His life.

Living within time, we are never fully ourselves.  What we were as children is not the same as we are now, nor is it the same as it will be when we are older.  Our life is not simultaneously whole as it consists of distinct periods so that there is never a moment in which we are fully ourselves.  Not so with God.  All that He is, He possesses in a single act of being.  When we say that God is “outside of time” this is primarily what we mean—because God does not change, there is no time in Him.

There is a second sense in which we mean God is outside of time. If eternity is, as Boethius contends, “being simultaneously whole” and our life is not simultaneously whole then we can only view time successively.  But God, being simultaneously whole sees the succession of time.  He sees all of time in a single glance as man looking from a high mountain can see an entire river while the man in a boat on the river sees each twist and turn as he comes to it.  This is why God knows what we do before we do it—because he can see all of time before Him—without directly causing those things to happen.

Why It Matters

This all remains terribly abstract unless we ask the question, what difference does all of this make to you and me?  It makes, quite literally, all the difference in the world.  Only God is eternal.  Our reception of eternal life is a participated eternity by which we have an uninterrupted, unchanging vision of God that is succeeded by a love for God that is equally changeless.  As Our Lord says, “this is eternal life, that they may know You and the One Whom You sent” (Jn 17:13).  This participation in God’s eternity is called the beatific vision—in seeing God “as He is” (1 John 3:2) we will see all things in Him.

It is by reflecting on these truths that we can earnestly desire “eternal rest.”  Locked in time, we view rest as cessation of all activity, a passive staring at God.  But rest in the eternal sense is vastly different.  It is a rest that can only come about when we have received the fullness of our being and nothing can be added to it.  In other words, it is a rest of ceaseless activity.  We see God as He is and all things in Him.  We see things as God sees them and judges them.  We may not be able to fully grasp what this is like here and now, but those who grow into the higher levels of prayer in this life can, like St. Paul, experience a foretaste of it in the unitive way (c.f. 2Cor 12:2).

This seeing and judging as God sees is why the saints, especially Our Lady, are such powerful intercessors for us.  They can ask God for those things we are asking for, but always in a manner that is in accord with God’s will.  They have fully “put on the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16).  They too are “outside of time” but only in a participative sense.  This means they cannot see everything, but only those things which God has allowed them to see.  That is their participation is in proportion to their knowledge and love of God.  This helps us to understand both why some saints are more powerful than others and why some saints are more powerful as intercessors for certain needs—grace has fully perfected their natural powers in those areas.

In closing, it is also useful to ask about how, if at all, those in hell participate in eternity.  The punishment of hell is eternal in the sense that it never ends but “in hell true eternity does not exist but rather time in accordance with a certain change in sensible pain.”  The awareness of before and after rather than a rest in the eternal now is a constituent element of hell.  This makes the pain all the more acute because of both the remembrance and expectation.  This lack of participation in eternity, by the way, is why the devils did not know who Jesus was.  Angels too naturally experience a “before” and “after” but only in a discrete sense.  There is “this” and then “that” with no connecting moment between the two.   This is different from time and to mark the difference, St. Thomas calls it Aeviternity.  So, the angels are “outside of time” but in a very different sense than God is.  They truly are outside of it, not able to see the succession of it.  Therefore, they cannot know the future (even if they are smart enough to make a really good guess).

On Rage Mode

On several other occasions (here and here for example) I have mentioned a particular distaste for the ubiquitous habit of theological hair-splitting perpetrated by the priest and lay alike.  One might even say it makes me angry—except for the fact that this post itself is about anger.  Specifically it is about the follicle-parting habit of saying that “anger is not a sin, but depends on what you do with it.”  As usual our armchair theologians are mixing just enough truth with error that it satisfies all but the most conscientious of interrogators.  The problem of course is that anger is one of the seven capital sins, that is, the seven vices that flow from our fallen nature and animate much of what we do.  Given that anger is a core element of concupiscence, it merits a more accurate and thorough response than the Reader’s Digest version we reflexively offer.

To begin we should go to the heart of our apologist’s argument and make the necessary distinction between anger solely as an emotion and anger as an emotion that is willed.  Our emotional life in this post-lapsarian world is a source of interior conflict.  Emotions can rise within us without any engagement of the will.  But they always act so as to gain consent of the will so that they may endure.  Anger in this regard is no different.  Anger itself is a passion that is part of the irascible appetite meant to assist us in driving away an evil that is difficult to avoid.  It has two elements to it and it is the taking of offense and the taking of revenge.  Without the engagement of intellect and will, anger can arise when an evil is perceived.  Left unchecked or even consented to by the will, it can intensify making rational judgment difficult.  It can also be deliberately aroused.

Some examples might help us see how this works.  Suppose you are on a bus, keeping to yourself, when someone walks by and steps on your foot.  Without any thought, you feel angry.  You look up and see that it is an old woman who accidently put her cane on top of your foot.  You are now at the moment of judgment, should I be angry or not?  The emotion arose without any judgment or willing it, but the moment comes when you must decide whether it should persist.

Now change the example slightly.  When you look up it is a young man who is going up and down the aisle stomping on people’s feet.  You realize it was done deliberately and you must decide whether to allow the emotion of anger to persist or not.  In both of these examples the emotion of anger arose antecedently, but now you must “decide what to do with it.”  To multiply the examples, suppose further that when you get home, you begin to recall the actions of the young man and the more you think about it, the angrier you get.  As you will to reflect on the slight, you are deliberately willing the anger.

Using the three examples, we would say that in the case of the old woman once you judge it to be accidental your anger should dissipate.  With the young man your anger was probably justified.  But what about when you dwell upon it later on?  We clearly see that each of these examples highlights the inherent problem with “it depends on what you do with it”—it assumes that we know what to do with it.  That is, it neglects the fact that anger is more than just any other emotion, but also a capital vice.

Righteous Anger?

This is where the language of St. Thomas Aquinas is helpful because he speaks in terms of the “quantity” of anger and how it must be done according to right reason.  Anger may be justified (like in the case of the young man slamming your foot) but this does not make it righteous anger.  In order to be righteous anger it must seek to punish only those that deserve punishment and only in the measure in which they deserve it.  It must be moderate in its execution going only as far as is both necessary and allowed according to justice.  Finally it must be animated by motives of charity aiming at the restoration of order and amendment of the guilty.

The enumeration of these three conditions ought to give each one of us serious pause.  The only time we should “do something with our anger” is when all three conditions can be met.  Without the accompany virtues of meekness and justice, righteous anger is practically impossible.   St. James seems to be speaking in absolute terms when he says that “the wrath of man does not accomplish the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).

What then should we do with it?  According to St. Francis de Sales, we should mortify it, literally killing it when it arises— “better to learn how to live without being angry than to imagine one can moderate and control lawful anger… it is better to drive it away speedily than enter into a parley; for, if we give it ever so little leisure, it will become mistress of the place, like a serpent, who easily draws in his whole body where he can once get in his head…You must at the first alarm speedily muster your forces; not violently, not tumultuously, but mildly and yet seriously.””  Like all the vices, each time we allow our anger to go unchecked we create a bodily disposition that both increases the intensity of it and makes it easier to experience anger.  This includes not only full “rage mode”, but even seemingly small acts of impatience, flashes of temper, and harsh words.  Anger has a power to overcome reason, blinding it to every color but red, making it something that should not be lightly trifled with.

Mortification is one of those dirty Catholic words that needs to be understood, especially in this context.  The goal of mortifying our anger is not so that we will never be angry, but that we are able to bring it under the control of our judgment.  As St. Thomas reminds us, righteous anger is a “simple movement of the will, whereby one inflicts punishment, not through passion, but in virtue of a judgment of the reason” (ST II-II q.158, art 8).  This starts by doing as St. Francis de Sales suggests—“drive it away speedily”—but that is not the finish line.  We subdue our anger so as to unleash its goodness.

The Daughters of Wrath

If we are to drive it away, we must first recognize the effects of disordered anger, what St. Thomas calls the “daughters of wrath.”  These are the seemingly hidden ways innocuous ways in which we feed the beast of anger.  There are three sets of them that have to do with disordered thoughts, disordered speech and disordered acts (c.f. STII-II q.158, art 7).

The daughters of thought are with indignation and what St. Thomas refers to as swelling of the mind.  Indignation may be directed at “the person with whom a man is angry, and whom he deems unworthy.”  But it has a certain gravity to it that always causes the person to reflect on how vile the person whom he is angry at and how grave their injustices.  This leads to both a magnification and amplification of the actual offense.  Much anger is fed and expressed in our current political climate based upon the division of left and right.  “Swelling of the mind” is manifest in the angry man who “mulls over different ways and means whereby they can avenge themselves.”  So, while indignation causes focus on the imagined depravity of one’s “enemy”, “swelling of the mind” imagines ways in which one can gain vengeance against the evildoer.

The daughters of speech are clamor and contumely.  The former denotes disorderly and confused speech.”  This is essentially what we would call unintelligible ranting.  While the latter, is unnecessarily harsh and insulting language.  Likewise the daughters of acts are blasphemy (contumely directed to God) and quarreling.  Quarreling bears special mention because it means more than just “arguing.”  Argument is a good thing when it is in the service of the truth, but often degrades to quarrelsomeness as jealousy for our own ideas creeps in.  This daughter also manifests in the habit of having imaginary arguments in your head, with either real or imaginary foes.

With the awareness of the daughters of wrath, we can see how often we fall victim to them and why we may have so much difficulty in controlling our anger.  It is these daughters, because they are feeding our anger, that need to be mortified.  We need to mortify our imagination and memory not allowing it to dwell on real and imaginary slights.  We should mortify our speech by controlling our volume and tone of voice.  We should avoid arguments about things that really don’t matter and be willing to concede when arguments become quarrelsome.

“Anger can be a sin, but only if you don’t learn how to use it!”

Take and Read

As a Bible-believing Christian I will confess to finding red-letter Bibles to be a paradox.  Paradoxical, not in their application—words that are written as coming directly from the mouth of Jesus have red text—but in their principle.  The implication being that these words and their red lettering should give us pause as we read them because these are really the word of God, spoken directly from the mouth of the Word of God made man.  Do the words of Jesus according to Matthew, Mark, Luke or John carry a heavier weight than the words of God contained in the letters of Paul or Peter?  The red letters might lead us to believe this to be true, but the truth is that both are equally acts of condescension by God to speak to us in a language we can understand.  It is the Word of God using the voice of man.  It is not just the red letters, but “all scripture [that] is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17).  Perhaps the publishers of those Bibles can be forgiven for succumbing to a marketing ploy of sorts, but it also betrays a pitfall that many of us fall into in our use of Sacred Scripture.  Notice that I said use and not just read.  Why I used the former rather than the latter will become evident momentarily.

If we were to parse some of that red lettering, then something will become rather obvious to us.  When the Word of God speaks, things happen.  When He commands demons to depart, they leave.  When He commands storms to cease, everything is calm.  When He commands a crippled man to walk, he grows strong and walks.  He even commands the Apostles to “not be afraid” and fear exits.  To these we could multiply other examples throughout Scripture starting with God speaking creation into being in Genesis and ending with the creation of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation.  The Word of God is performative and while this power is earth shattering in the literal sense, it is hardly so in the figurative sense.  We already know this—after all this is what makes God, well, God.

What’s In it for You and Me?

Until, however, we go a step further and ask what difference this makes for you and for me.  For this, we have to call to mind two very important Scripture passages about Scripture itself.  First there is a passage from the fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah in which the Sacred Author, operating under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says that:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Is 55:10-12).

This is God reminding us of the power of His speech.  But when exactly did He send forth these words of Scripture?  Was it back in the 6th Century BC when these words were likely written, or was it yesterday when we heard it as the first reading at Mass?  God is speaking from the eternal now so that His words speak to all times and places.  When you read these words and I read these words they are spoken to you and to me right here and right now.  In inspiring the author of Isaiah to put these words to sheepskin, God in His Providence knew exactly when and how you and I would encounter them.  He addressed them to you and me directly, not just in a generically but in a deeply personal sense.  Inspiration did not stop in the author but extends to each of the readers.  It is the Holy Spirit speaking directly to us.  This helps explain why we might read the same Scripture passage many times and “get something different out of it” each time.  Those words were spoken not just way back when, but here and now.  It is also why Scripture scholars usually struggle praying with the Scriptures—they read it only as a theology textbook and assume they have exhausted its meaning without plummeting the depths of its personal message.  They may read the Scriptures but fail to use them as God’s preferential means of communicating with us individually.

There is a concomitant passage to Isaiah in the New Testament that helps further illuminate the point.  In the Letter to the Hebrews the sacred author says that “the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.  No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account” (Hebrews 4:12-13).  Sacred Scripture needs no red letter, nor is it a dead letter, but it is also much more than a read letter too.  Recall that when God speaks, things happen—even if that word is spoken to you and me in the Sacred Scripture.  When we read and meditate on these Scriptures we are changed, not just because we make great resolutions, but because God’s word changes us simply by being heard.  We can easily overlook this but we should expect it to happen.  As the Catechism puts it, “Still, the Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book.’ Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, a word which is ‘not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living.’  If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, ‘open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures’” (CCC 108).

The Witness of the Saints

History is full of examples of saints who were changed simply by an encounter with God through the Scriptures.  The most famous example is St. Augustine.  He was a man who, after a long intellectual battle, found the Christian explanation of reality to be true.  Nevertheless he struggled with the moral demands, famously praying “Lord make me chaste, just not yet.”  One day Augustine was in a garden praying and he heard a voice telling him “Tolle Lege,” that is “Take and read.”  He understood it to mean the epistles of St. Paul that he had left in the house.  When he grasped the book and opened to a (seemingly) random page, his eyes fell upon Romans 13:12-14—“Let us then throw off the works of darkness [and] put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”  In that moment the saint found the moral strength to fully convert and live totally for the Lord.  God spoke, and Augustine was changed.

Augustine himself was moved by the example of another Scriptural convert, St. Anthony of the desert who one day heard the Gospel of the Rich Young Man and knew that it was addressed to him.  He sold everything, went into the desert, and was instrumental in preserving the Christian faith during the Diocletian persecution.  We could multiply the examples but the point is that these men saw the Scriptures as a medium of communication between God and themselves.  They ardently believed that the Scriptures held the power of God’s direct speech.  With such a cloud of witnesses, shouldn’t we do the same?

Resolving for a Change

Without having the benefit of Divine Revelation, Socrates, and by extension, Plato, was able to discover many truths about humanity.  Lacking an understanding of Original Sin and its effects however, he also made a serious mistake in the area of ethics.  This error is on display in the dialogue with Gorgias when Socrates makes the claim that all wrongdoing is a result of ignorance.  He thought that once we know the good, we would automatically do it.  Socrates’ ignorance was the problem, but it was ignorance of the Christian explanation of Original Sin that leaves him in error.  With the fall of man there was not only a darkening of the intellect that caused ignorance but also a weakening of the will that makes even the good we know difficult to do.  No one is immune to this defect in our nature, even the great Apostle to the Gentiles St. Paul, who candidly shared with the Romans his own struggle: “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” (Romans 7:19).   So universal is the experience that it almost seems to be common sense, which makes it odd that the wisest man in Athens did not catch it.  Odd, that is, until we, especially those who have earnestly set out on the Christian journey, realize that all too often we make the same mistake.

Why did I single out those who have “earnestly set out on the Christian journey”?  Because they are the ones who presumably pray, reflect upon their short comings and sins and do spiritual reading.  And, therefore they are the ones that, according to St. Francis de Sales, are the most likely to fall victim to a subtle form of self-deception.  They are the ones who, for example, want to learn from Our Lord to be meek and humble of heart.  They begin by reading about and meditating on humility and meekness.  They expose themselves to the lives of the saints who were meek and humble.  They learn all Scripture has to say about humility and meekness.  They even speculate what it might look like in their own life.

As all learning does is apt to do, knowledge about humility and meekness brings them great pleasure.  Hearing or reading of humility and meekness puts them in a humble and meek state of mind.  It gives them, as Screwtape says, “humble feelings”.  This pleasure serves as a counterfeit of the real pleasure attached to mature virtue.  That is, they become meek and humble only in their imagination.  This imaginary humility and meekness helps them to quiet their conscience causing them to leave aside any self-reflection in these areas.  They are virtues that have been conquered and it is time to move to the next set.  The problem is that meekness and humility, like all the moral virtues, reside in the will and not in the intellect.  You must do humble and meek things repeatedly and with ever greater vehemence to actually become humble and meek.  You must, as St. James cautions, “become not just hearers of the word, but doers” (James 1:22).

Becoming Doers of the Word

St Francis de Sales issues the above mentioned caution, but also offers us a simple solution, a re-solution, you might say.

“Above all things, my child, strive when your meditation is ended to retain the thoughts and resolutions you have made as your earnest practice throughout the day. This is the real fruit of meditation, without which it is apt to be unprofitable, if not actually harmful–inasmuch as to dwell upon virtues without practicing them lends to puff us up with unrealities, until we begin to fancy ourselves all that we have meditated upon and resolved to be; which is all very well if our resolutions are earnest and substantial, but on the contrary hollow and dangerous if they are not put in practice. You must then diligently endeavor to carry out your resolutions, and seek for all opportunities, great or small. For instance, if your resolution was to win over those who oppose you by gentleness, seek through the day any occasion of meeting such persons kindly, and if none offers, strive to speak well of them, and pray for them” (Introduction to the Devout Life II, 8).

In speaking with many Christians who are soberly trying to live out their Christian call, but find themselves stuck, I find a common thread.  They may devote consistent time to prayer, but they do not devote themselves to making concrete resolutions based on that prayer.  I find this because I saw it in my own life first.  I would religiously (literally) devote 30 minutes to meditation every day and would find that, when I wasn’t deceiving myself, that I had made little progress.  That is until I read St. Francis de Sales’ great treatise on living a lay Catholic life, the Introduction to the Devout Life.  It was the quote above that made me realize I was not consistently making resolutions and when I did they were too general.  And while that persisted I was simply a hearer of the word.  But when I allowed that word to penetrate not just my mind, but my will, I began to move again.

The key was making not just a vague resolution like “I will act humble today” but instead “when my co-worker who is constantly challenging me about everything does it again today, I will defer to him.”  We might fail, but it was not for a lack of trying.  The more effort we make even in failing, the more God responds with grace. Before long virtues that were arduous begin to bring some pleasure with them pushing along further.

Over the last few weeks my inbox has been flooded with this or that devotional for Lent.  They are all good, but I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if I simply put into practice what I already knew.  What if rather than purchasing another devotional, I practiced greater devotion?  Perhaps, you were wondering the same thing.

Reading the Fine Print

Sentimentality, as was mentioned in a recent post, is a great enemy to the spiritual life.  The solution proposed was to read Scripture with an absolute literalism.  In particular, when St. Paul tells the Romans that we are God’s children now and have a right to an inheritance as sons, we should understand the magnitude of such a high calling and live accordingly.  We would, however, fail in our quest for living in the truth if we did not also realize that, while this gift is free, it is not cheap.  If we are to live like sons, then we will act like the Son.  All too often we interpret this to mean “being nice to other people,” “love your neighbor”, “defend the teachings of the Church” or any other one of a variety of (usually)comfortable outward manifestations of the Christian life.  But we should read the fine print of St. Paul’s great promise: “if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him” (Romans 8:17, emphasis added).

When reading fine print, it is always the preposition that matters.  We might be tempted to read the contingency as suffering for Christ, but St. Paul says we must suffer with Him.  That one word, with instead of for makes all the difference.  It makes all the difference because it forces us to move from the abstract to the real.  This move may feel like a gut punch from reality, but in reality, it is a liberation from fear.  Fear, as we talked about in a recent podcast, is always future- directed and thus fertile ground for anxiety or avoidance.  Suffering for Christ has an abstract quality about it in that causes our minds to wander, sometimes to the great sufferings of the martyrs or losing our jobs because of our faith or any other number of ways we might have to painfully witness to our faith.  We begin to wonder whether we will have what it takes when the moment comes or whether it is really all worth that. This causes on to hold back from God, but based only a hypothetical way, because, in truth, He isn’t asking for that thing.

Suffering with Christ has a now quality about it.  To suffer with someone implies that they are suffering currently and that what is required of me is to engage.  There may be fear of engagement, but I have come to a decision point.  There is nothing abstract about it, because it is real in the here and now.

An illustration might help make this clear.  When I consider the sufferings of someone close to me, I would do almost anything, endure almost anything, in order to participate in that suffering.  Tell me, as a parent, that I will have to suffer with my children, my mind goes everywhere.  Well not exactly, it usually goes to the “worst” thing I can possibly imagine.  In short, fear carves out its space and there is really no way to deal with it because there is always a chance that thing might happen.  It begins to affect how I act—I might be overly protective or draw back—but in order to manage the fear of the abstract, I must change my behavior.

Now tell me that my son has autism and no longer am I handcuffed by fear.  There is sorrow for sure, but once the decision is made to suffer with him the fear of suffering for him is gone.  In other words, once I am suffering with him, I am now willing to suffer for him as well.  His suffering becomes mine and I am on the constant quest to alleviate it.

Just as the both the duty and love of a father drives him to be willing to suffer with his son, St. Paul is really telling us that we must be willing to suffer with Christ in the same way.  Just as I feared suffering in the abstract for a loved one (and acted upon it), so too will I fear suffering for Christ in the abstract.  But give me a specific scenario and I will enter in.

Suffering With Christ

We should rightly question how is it that we can suffer with Christ, right here and now.  The days of His Passion are over.  He is both God and glorified man, incapable of suffering.  Sure, He can suffer in His Mystical Body, but that is to change the mode of St. Paul’s address.  He is speaking from our perspective not from Christ’s.  He is speaking about the sufferings of His Passion that we must enter into.  The key is to rightly see His Passion, not as some abstract event in the past, but as concrete and specific in the here and now.  To do this we will need to turn to the “abstract” St. Thomas Aquinas in order to lay the groundwork for this key spiritual practice.

When St. Thomas examines the sufferings of Our Lord during His Passion, he asks what at first seems to be a stupid question, that turns out to have great practical import.  He asks whether Christ endured all suffering during the Passion.  It is a relevant question because in order for Our Lord to give suffering redemptive value, He must first experience it.  And he must experience not in the abstract, but in the particular.  So how, for example, if Our Lord did not suffer burning, could burning have redemptive value?

St. Thomas points out that it would be impossible to experience all possible sufferings, especially since some are contraries.  One cannot both suffer having his ears removed and the cries of his loved ones for example.  Instead Our Lord suffered all classes of suffering.  First, He suffered at the hands of all kinds of people; men and women, rulers and commoners, His fellow Jews and seculars, His friends and His enemies.  Second, He suffered “from friends abandoning Him; in His reputation, from the blasphemies hurled at Him; in His honor and glory, from the mockeries and the insults heaped upon Him; in things, for He was despoiled of His garments; in His soul, from sadness, weariness, and fear; in His body, from wounds and scourgings.”  Finally, “ in His head He suffered from the crown of piercing thorns; in His hands and feet, from the fastening of the nails; on His face from the blows and spittle; and from the lashes over His entire body. Moreover, He suffered in all His bodily senses: in touch, by being scourged and nailed; in taste, by being given vinegar and gall to drink; in smell, by being fastened to the gibbet in a place reeking with the stench of corpses, ‘which is called Calvary’; in hearing, by being tormented with the cries of blasphemers and scorners; in sight, by beholding the tears of His Mother and of the disciple whom He loved” (ST III, q. 46, art. 5).

Why the Details Matter

This level of detail is important for two reasons.  First, because it should move us to love, realizing that Our Lord planned out His sufferings in a very specific manner.  There was no mere chance in even the slightest of His sufferings.  He knew each one of our very specific sufferings and sought to redeem them.  Secondly, and more relevant to the discussion at hand, is that by enumerating the categories we see how exactly we enter into Our Lord’s Passion right here and now.

Look at St. Thomas’ list again and think about your own personal sufferings in the past or presently.  Are there any that don’t fall into one of those categories?  This means that each of these is a personal gateway into His Passion here and now.  When we willingly embrace them as such, we are suffering with Christ.  He anticipated what you are going through and sanctified it and all that remains is to enter fully into it to receive the fruit of the Passion—sonship.  Big sufferings, little annoyances, all belong as long as we lovingly accept them as Christ did His Passion.   Where there is a will, there is the Way.

Do this enough and you know what happens?  The fear of suffering for Christ goes away.  We become like the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the Cross.  We have endured so much with Him, realized so much of the fruit of suffering that we trust His plan, grown to love Him so deeply, that we will suffer whatever comes.  He does not ask us to be masochists, but we will habitually choose those things which have more of the Cross in them because we know it brings us closer to Him.  Think of Simon of Cyrene and how close he was to Christ when he helped Him carry the cross.  That is us.

Now the wisdom of all the saints and their habit of meditating deeply on the Passion comes to light.  Each time we enter into the Passion in our prayer, we are in a very real sense anticipating our own role in it.  This Lent then let us resolve to meditate upon the Passion as one of our spiritual practices.  If the witness of the saints is any indication, then it will be a most fruitful Lent.

Praying with the Dead

In a previous post, the supreme importance of avoiding personally canonizing those who have died was highlighted.  The “holy souls” in Purgatory depend greatly upon our prayers in order that they may be loosed from the lingering effects of their sins after their death.  Many of us grasp this and, out of charity, regularly offer prayers for the dead.  But there is a flip side to this coin—nearly every saint who has been canonized in the last two centuries was recognized because people began asking for their intercession.  In other words, rather than primarily praying for them, people began praying to them.  It seems that we must then exercise judgment as to whether the person is in Purgatory or in Heaven, the very thing I said not to do.  Stuck in a spiritual no-man’s land, we tend towards neither praying for them or to them.  The problem becomes theological rather than governed by the logic of love.  The rich relationship of the Communion of Saints becomes a sterile doctrine and our personal faith falters with it.  All of this seems unavoidable unless we can find a way around this spiritual dilemma.

A single paragraph in the Catechism, quoting an indulged prayer from Pope Leo XIII, helps part the clouds of obscurity.  The Catechism says:

“In full consciousness of this communion of the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church in its pilgrim members, from the very earliest days of the Christian religion, has honored with great respect the memory of the dead; and ‘because it is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins’ she offers her suffrages for them.’ Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.” (CCC 959, emphasis added).

In summary, it is our prayers for the dead that not only help them, but also make their intercession for us effective.  What this tells us is that the holy souls in Purgatory, as members of the Church, have the power to intercede for the members of the Church Militant.  But this power comes in some way through our prayers for them.  How this works is obviously a mystery, but that it works is immediately relevant to the discussion at hand.  It gives us an immediate plan of action that will enable us to do both—pray for them and pray for their intercession.

Covering Our Bases

For some of us, this still has a Russian roulette type feel to it—like we are simply trying to cover our bases.  This only serves to make it more mechanical and less personal, the very antithesis of what prayer should be.  But this stems from a certain anxiety that our prayers may actually be wasted.  After all, if the person is in heaven and you are praying for their release from Purgatory, then your prayers have been wasted.

All of our prayer draws its power from the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.  In other words, our prayer is caught up in the Eternal Now of Our Lord’s act of redemption where time and eternity met.  This means our prayer, although uttered in time, enters into the timelessness of God.  God knows “when” you will pray and He can apply the merits of those prayers as He sees fit.  More to the point, even if the soul of our departed loved one is in heaven, it is still your prayer here and now that got them there.  They may have even received the graces you interceded for just now while they were still on the earth.  Just as there are many natural causes that God uses to guide His providential plan, prayer too is a cause.  But because of its supernatural power, it operates outside of the natural constraints of time.

The Power of Prayer Over Time

Once we grasp this hidden power of prayer, we can see that our prayer, even if the soul has left Purgatory, is never wasted.  But it is still necessary because it is a power by which they have been or will be released.  It is also empowers them to intercede for the members of the Church Militant so that we should confidently ask for their intercession in our needs as well.  So our prayers for and to the dead are no different than they were while they were still living—praying both for them and asking them to pray for us.  Because “the prayer of a righteous man has great power to prevail” (James 5:16), we should go to them with confidence for our needs.  This also carries with it a rich experience of the true nature of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.  It is a supernatural reality that spans Heaven and Earth and in between (Purgatory).

As long as we are speaking of covering our bases, how do we explain the prayers for the dead who are actually in hell?  Aren’t these wasted?  By now the answer ought to be clear that God wastes none of our prayers.  Our prayers obviously cannot lift them out of hell, but they could be applied to the person prior to their death.  They may lead the person towards conversion prior to their death (there is a beautiful account of the conversion of a despairing soul on the door of death who receives a final grace in St. Faustina’s Dairy #1486).  Or, perhaps it “only” kept them from further sin and, in a sense, lightened their suffering in hell.  Not knowing anyone’s destiny, we should confidently pray based on the overwhelming power of God’s mercy.  By praying, we become instruments of that same mercy.

Owning Our Hypocrisy

If a man was to read the gospels with a fresh mind, that is, without any pre-conceived notion of Who Jesus is and what He was trying to accomplish, he would quickly conclude that one of the worst sins was hypocrisy.  And in a certain sense, he would be right.  There is no group of sinners that Our Lord singles out more often than the hypocrites.  Knowing His profound distaste for this particular sin, it is not surprising that we, His followers, should vigilantly avoid it and keep any traces of it from creeping into our lives.  In many ways this should be one of the easiest sins to avoid because it is also one of the easiest sins to identify in ourselves.  We should know when we are posing to be something we are not.  But this may be oversimplifying the case because it has a subtle way of insinuating itself into our spiritual lives and spreading like a weed.  Therefore, it is fruitful for us to examine this vice more closely.

If lying is to signify by words something different from what is in one’s mind, then dissimulation is a form of lying in which the outward deed does not correspond to the inner intention.  To the topic at hand, hypocrisy is a type of dissimulation when a “sinner simulates the person of a just man” (ST II-II q.111, a 2).  Like all offenses against the truth, when practiced enough, one forgets the truth and begins to believe the untruth.  One starts seeing himself as just.  This was why Our Lord was so harsh with the Pharisees—they had become blinded to their hypocrisy and only by shining His light that the Truth could they be set them free.

Hypocrisy’s Deadly Roots

Rightly recognizing its capacity to kill our spiritual lives, we do all we can to avoid it.  The problem however is that we do too much, mostly because we have failed to make an important distinction.  St. Thomas doesn’t say that you must do everything with perfect intention in order to avoid hypocrisy.  That, unfortunately is the way most of us think of hypocrisy.  No, instead he says that hypocrisy consists in the intention of presenting ourselves as just.  An example might help see the distinction more clearly.  Two men enter an adoration chapel and prostrates themselves before the monstrance.   The first man does so in order to be seen by others and be thought a holy man.  His is an act, not of piety, but of hypocrisy.  The second man does so, not because he wants to adore Our Lord, but because he has always been taught that is what you are supposed to do with only a vague awareness of why.  This is far from being a perfect intention, but it is not hypocrisy.

This description helps to clarify why Our Lord spent so much time pointing hypocrisy out.  It can, and usually does, become a sin of those who have advanced a certain amount in their spiritual life.  At first, we have little interest in appearing to be religious and we may even have reason to hide it.  But as our friends change, our vanity can be directed towards our “spiritual” friends and hypocrisy creeps in.  A hypocrite has to see some value in faking it and thus it is a more “advanced” sin.  This makes Our Lord’s command to “go into your room and shut the door” (Mt 6:6) invaluable for avoiding hypocrisy.  We should perform acts of piety as if we have only an audience of One.

Counterfeit Hypocrisy

There is a further dimension of this that merits some explanation as well.  It is a fear of hypocrisy that keeps us from performing certain acts of piety.  This fear causes us to confuse the false piety of hypocrisy with weak acts of genuine piety.  We hold out until we can get fully behind what we are doing.  For example, a person sends you a novena to St. Joseph, asking you to pray it.  Deep down you believe novenas work, but you feel like you mostly would be going through the motions doing it.  If only your faith was a little stronger than you would do it.  Therefore, to avoid “feeling” like a hypocrite you don’t do it.

It should be clear that to do the novena would not be hypocritical, but what is not clear is that you will never get to the point where your faith is “a little stronger” without doing acts that are weaker.  Faith and the accompanying virtue of piety are habits in our soul and only grow when they are exercised.  By starting with the weak, imperfect acts, they eventually grow to full bloom.  This is not merely going through the motions, but instead adding a little more fervor, a little stronger intention, each time we do them.  With each repeated act, God does His part by strengthening these virtues further because He will not be outdone in generosity.  Before long you not only develop a devotion to St. Joseph, but the Communion of Saints becomes not just a sterile dogma, but a living reality in your life.  This cannot happen however without those first weak baby steps.  “I believe Lord, help my unbelief!”


Our Jealous God

Public revelation was officially closed with the death of John the Apostle.  This does not preclude, from time to time, God raising up prophets, fashioned in the mold of the Jeremiah, Isaiah and Elijah, to help the People of God apply the contents of that revelation to their current times.  History is rife with them—St. Athanasius, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Faustina to name a few.  The Spirit of Prophecy is a key component in the Mystical Body of Christ even in our own day.  Unfortunately, like the days of Israel of old, the spirit of false prophecy is always lurking at the door.  There will always be those who claim to speak on behalf of God and yet are lending their voices to the enemies of humanity.  It is to one of those groups that I address this post today—the self-styled prophets who claim “God does not care if…”

This spirit of false prophecy is ubiquitous, especially in our “YOLO” culture.  Who among us has not met one of these prophets?   They are quick to tell us, “God does not care if we go to Mass.” Or, “God does not care if we call Him the right name.”  They proclaim, “God does not care how we worship Him.”  And even remind us that “God does not care if you eat meat on Fridays.”  And “God does not care if you smoke weed.”  These are but a few of their prophetic utterances, but you get the point.  These Bizarro John the Baptists repeatedly reassure us that God loves us as long as we are good people and enable us all to relax a little bit, if for no other reason that we have found out that God has sanctioned our drug habit.  They are great prophets of, well, not exactly peace, but at least of “chilling out.”

God’s New Name

Just as Jonah was stopped in his tracks when his message was received, these luminous prophets are often thrown off when they are asked “how do you know God doesn’t care?’  Probing, you find that what they really mean is that if they were God, then they wouldn’t care.  God is really their prophet.  But it is not the audacity of their message that is the most distressing element, but instead the image of God that emerges if we are to worship “I CARE NOT” rather than “I AM WHO AM”.

All of us tend to chill out in our old age, and “I CARE NOT” is no different.  Given all the time of dealing with humanity, He has chilled.  At least that is what our prophets would have us believe.  But the image this God invokes is actually just as scary as the so-called “fire and brimstone” God they are trying to extinguish.  Their God may be laid back, but He is still merely a Divine Auditor concerned only with tallying up our actions.  He may not put as many things in the left-hand side of the ledger, but he still has his ledger.  Presenting him as mellow does nothing to remove this image.  It is a scarier image because we have no way, other than by listening to these prophets, to actually know which belongs in which column.  If “God doesn’t care” does that mean these are good actions then?  Or do we now have an indifferent column?  If he is mostly indifferent about what I do, then how do I even know he cares about me?  Most people will take the God who hates over the God who is indifferent—at least the former also loves.  Indifference and love, bumper stickers to the contrary, cannot coexist.  In trying to avoid sterile moralism, the Prophet of Indifference manages to castrate God Himself.

Why God Cares

These prophets can still challenge us however, even if it is by way of an end around.  They force us to ask the question why God even cares what we do.  As we probe we find that St. Thomas Aquinas asked the same question, framing it in terms of sin as an offense against God.  In Book 3 of the Summa Contra Gentiles, the Angelic Doctor says that “God is offended by us only because we act contrary to our own good.”  In other words, God cares so deeply about each one of us that He takes offense only when we do something that ultimately harms us.  And what are those things?  We call them sins, but they are essentially things that move us off the path that our nature and our supernatural calling has put us on.  There are some things that help us to advance towards this goal (we call these good), some things that stop us (venial sins) and some things that knock us off the path entirely so that we need His help to get back on the path (mortal sins).  In short, God not only cares what we do and don’t do, He says that He does so as a jealous lover.  He knows that giving ourselves to any other lover than Him ultimately ends in frustration that could be eternal.  But choosing Him as our love, we can love all those other things in Him.  “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Mt 6:33).  This is not to trivialize just how bad sin is—it is still an offense against Almighty God—but to place it within the context of a filial relationship rather than as Judge and defendant.  God, in all eternity, is Father but only with respect to creation is He judge.  It is of His nature to be Father and not to be Judge.  See, He does care what we call Him.

In his sermon entitled “Jewish Zeal, A Pattern to Christians,” Blessed John Henry Newman reminds us of the best weapon with which to combat these false prophets.  He says that Christians should not be taking up the sword in the manner of Elijah when he encountered the false prophets of his day, but instead to capture the spirit of mind that animated his actions.  Zeal, Newman says,

“consists in a strict attention to His commands—a scrupulousness, vigilance, heartiness, and punctuality, which bears with no reasoning or questioning about them—an intense thirst for the advancement of His glory—a shrinking from the pollution of sin and sinners—an indignation, nay impatience, at witnessing His honour insulted—a quickness of feeling when His name is mentioned, and a jealousy how it is mentioned—a fullness of purpose, an heroic determination to yield Him service at whatever sacrifice of personal feeling—an energetic resolve to push through all difficulties, were they as mountains, when His eye or hand but gives the sign—a carelessness of obloquy, or reproach, or persecution, a forgetfulness of friend and relative, nay, a hatred (so to say) of all that is naturally dear to us, when He says, ‘Follow me.’”

Let us go forth in this same spirit.

Lifting the Sunday Obligation

It used to be that every time I got the two-week reminder for my dental cleaning appointment, I would start flossing my teeth again. It wasn’t that I had forgotten to floss, but that I wanted to avoid the floss-shaming from the hygienist.  I thought that floss was overkill seeing as my high-powered electric toothbrush already removed the food particles and plaque from between my teeth.  Then during one appointment the hygienist explained that one of the main purposes was to keep your gums healthy. No one had ever told me why I needed to floss and just assumed I knew why (and didn’t realize I was too proud to ask). Understanding lifted the “obligation” and desire followed.  I stopped doing it merely to keep from getting in trouble with the dentist and started doing it because it was what healthy people do. For many Catholics, Mass is like flossing. They may be aware of the obligation to go to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, but because they do not understand why this is so important and the desire is lost.

In an age of exalted personal freedom, obligation is a dirty word—“I shouldn’t have to do anything, especially during my free time on the weekends.”  Not to mention, God doesn’t want people who are forced to go to Church but people who free love Him.  God doesn’t want a bunch of rule-followers but men and women who love Him.  With this as the prevailing mindset, the Sunday obligation conjures up images of the “pre-Vatican II” Church that was overly focused on rules.  Obligations reek of mechanical action and are devoid of love.

Why We Need Laws and Obligations

The problem with this line of reasoning though is that we easily forget why God imposes rules and obligations upon us in the first place. The giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses while the Israelites were reveling at the foot of Sinai was not arbitrary. They were given precisely at that moment because the people are pining for their days in Egypt and are beginning to act just like what they were before—slaves. God gives them the Ten Commandments to show them what they must do to protect their true freedom.  Like the obligation to floss, the obligations imposed by the Decalogue are things that keep the human person healthy and from falling into slavery to sin.

At the bottom of the first tablet of the Law is the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath, the same Sabbath that Christ tells us was made for man (Mk 2:27). In other words, keeping the Sabbath is what a free and healthy person does. By setting aside one day a week to worship God, it keeps us from worshipping the false gods that surround us and continually threaten our freedom. As the Catechism says, “the Sabbath brings everyday work to a halt and provides a respite. It is a day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money” (CCC 2172).

In truth, God does not need our worship, instead it is us that needs to worship Him. He has made us to appreciate His infinite goodness and we are only truly fulfilled when we do that. Worship is the way we do that. But not any worship will do—this is the lesson of the Golden Calf. There are certain forms of worship that show forth His goodness truly and certain forms which don’t. Worship is not so much us going up to God, but Him coming to us, showing us how He should be worshipped.

Why the Mass is Different

The Mass is the divinely revealed form of worship. God does care how we worship Him or else He would not have gone to such incredible lengths to give it to us. It is the Mass that Our Lord so eagerly desired to give to the Apostles (Lk 22:15) and that received His stamp of approval with His last word from the Cross. It is the most perfect prayer to God, because it is God Himself Who has written it with His blood.

The Law gives us guidance on how to act just as the Mass gives us guidance on how to offer right worship.  But the Sunday Obligation is also different than the giving of the Law because it actually empowers us to love God and move beyond obligation.  Our participation in Mass enables us to take ownership of the greatest act of love for God that mankind has ever offered and make it our own.  Not just by watching but by truly participating; a participation that is consummated in Holy Communion.  The love for the Father that motivated Christ to perform that self-sacrificial act now becomes mine and yours and the stone tablets of our hearts become His flesh and blood.  In short, the Mass is obligatory because there is no more efficacious way to grow in love of God—“He who does not eat my flesh and drink my blood has no life in him” (John 6:53).  We could never come to this conclusion on our own and it is the Church as Mother that commands what is for our own good.  Without this act of obligation we will never come to love God more than we love ourselves.  Obligation gives way to desire through the power of the Cross given to us in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Like my flossing revelation, understanding lifts the obligation of the Mass and allows desire to grow to full bloom.  Our Lord “earnestly desired to eat this Pascha” (Lk 22:47) with each and every one of us.  Go and allow your desire to meet His!



Christian Dignity

There is a certain logic and progression to the Catechism that reveals it to be more than a book of beliefs, but a map for the spiritual journey.  After delivering the content of what we believe (the creeds) and how we are empowered to believe it (the Sacraments), the Catechism examines what being a Christian looks like through an account of the moral life.   It begins with a quote that, at least at first glance, flies in the face of what most of us think of when we consider the moral life of a Christian.  It references a Christmas homily of St. Leo the Great in which the great pope exhorts Christians to “recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God” (CCC 1691).  Of course it mentions “not sinning” but his reasoning for shunning sin strikes many of us as a little off.  He mentions nothing about breaking commandments or risking salvation but instead says sin is beneath our dignity as Christians.  In reading the signs of the times, the authors of the Catechism chose this particular quote because of both its timelessness and timeliness.  We live in an age of defensive Christianity and it is only by embracing our dignity as Christians that we can go on the offense once again.

This last sentence regarding widespread defensiveness bears an explanation.  There are certainly many Christians that live in a defensive stance against the world, trying to protect Christianity from outside influences.  Insofar as that is concerned, this is a good and necessary stance provided it is done with proper moderation.  What I mean by “defensive Christianity” has to do with the stance we take in our individual spiritual lives.  Most of us see a life of grace as one in which we are protected from evil.  Evidence the habit, even within Catholic circles, to focus on “being saved” and “getting to heaven.”  Both are important, but they represent a stunted view of the Christian life.  By placing the emphasis on our Christian dignity and off of merely being saved, we can fly towards Christian perfection and sanctification.


Although this may be slightly tangential, it is worth discussing the concept of dignity.  Many people insist that men and women have an inherent dignity because they are made in the “image and likeness of God.”  That is not entirely true.  Adam and Eve were made in the image and likeness of God, but we are not.  Our dignity rests in the fact that we are made in the image of God.  That is, as creatures who have the spiritual powers of intellect and will, we surpass all of material creation in greatness.  This means that we are afforded a certain treatment that we call dignity.

Christian dignity is something more because it restores God’s likeness.   To “be like” God means we have a nature like His, or, more accurately since He is God, a share in His nature.  It is the “likeness of God” that was forfeit by our first parents and, thanks to Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, is restored to us in Baptism.  Christian dignity then stems from our restored likeness to God or as St. Leo puts it “recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature.”

Of course Pope St. Leo is just reminding of something that Pope St. Peter said in his second letter—“that you may become partakers of the Divine nature” (2Pt 1:3).  Catholics have always called this share in the Divine nature sanctifying grace.  But Catholics rarely reflect on the full impact that this has and what our being “born anew of the Spirit” (c.f. Jn 3:6-7) really means.  Because most assuredly if we did then, at least according to the Saintly Pontiff, it would be enough to keep us from forfeiting it through sin.

Reading the Scriptures with the Head and not just the Heart

One of the obstacles has to do with our approach to Scripture.  We can read it with sentimentality rather than taking it literally.  One might be excused with reading St. John’s letters this way when he says something like “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are…Beloved, we are God’s children now” (1 Jn 3:1-2).  But one cannot ever read St. Paul in a sentimental manner.  When he says “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”  it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15-17) we should take our sonship quite literally.  This is a repeated theme throughout the New Testament and one of the keys to understanding what it means to be a Christian.  We are quite literally God’s children only because He has given of His own nature to us.  To be adopted by Him means not just that we were created by Him, but that as Father He recreated us by impressing His own nature on us.

There is more to this than simply realizing it.  He gave this gift to us not just as protection from sin (i.e. that we might be saved) but for us to make use of it.  Those in a state of grace are given a super-nature, one that enables them not just to “be like God” but to act like Him.  As the name implies, this supernatural power builds upon our natural power, or more accurately, it transforms and elevates it.  The more we use this super-nature, the more we become like God which only makes us the super-nature more (in theological terms we increase in sanctifying grace).  We become, as Jesus commanded us “perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48).  Notice too how this clears up all the intellectual debates about faith and works and merits.  It is us using God’s nature that He was given us.

This also takes the emphasis off of “getting to heaven.”  Why?  Because we are already there.  Heaven is the place where God dwells and those who dwell with Him enjoy union with Him.  With the gift of sanctifying grace comes the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (c.f. Romans 5:2-5).  God comes and takes up residence in our souls so that we may be united with Him.  Again, sentimentality blocks us from understanding what St. Paul means when he says we are “Temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 6:19).  The Holy Spirit truly comes into our souls and dwells there.  With Him come the other two Divine Persons as they cannot be separated, even if their mode of presence is different (like the Incarnation).  That is why St. Paul says we have been given the “first fruits” of heaven through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:22-23).  It is still first-fruits so that the degree in which we will know God (faith versus the Beatific Vision) is different, but not in kind.  Divine grace truly contains the seeds of heaven, growing day by day.  Our focus should not be simply getting there, but acting like you are already there.  As St Theresa of Avila said, “it is heaven all the way to heaven.”

If all that I have said to this point is true, then why would we ever forfeit it for a momentary delight?  There are no “cheap thrills”; each is more expensive than we could possibly imagine.  We would be more foolish than Esau who failed to see his dignity as the first-born son and sold his birth right for a bowl of porridge (Gen 25:29-34).  This is Pope St. Leo’s crucial point—stop and recognize who you are now, Whose you are now; do you really want to throw that all away?  Recognize your dignity Christian.

John Paul II and the Founding Fathers

In his great encyclical preaching the Gospel of Life, St. John Paul II recognized the important role that politics plays in building a culture of life.  Civil laws are closely tied to an individual’s awareness of the moral law and therefore always act as a great moral teacher.  Unfortunately, especially from within a democratic ethos, there can be great difficulty in overturning unjust laws without widespread support and a moral catch-22 often arises.  This is the experience of many pro-life politicians who find themselves trapped and unable to avoid being complicit with evil.  It was in this light that the saintly Pontiff articulated an important principle encouraging those politicians to exercise what he would later call the “art of the possible.”

A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favoring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations-particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation-there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects (Evangelium Vitae, 74).

In truth, John Paul II was not introducing anything novel but simply applying some long-held principles within the Church’s social doctrine to the scourge of abortion.  It is well worth our time to examine these principles in depth because they have application in other arenas of social justice as well.

Morality and Legislation

There are those who contend that “you cannot legislate morality.”  While this is quite obviously false, they do have a point, even if they do not realize it.  While we can, should and do legislate morality, one cannot use civil law to create a utopia in which all moral evil is eliminated.  This is one of the serious errors (although certainly not the only) that totalitarian regimes, especially those that are Marxist in their roots, readily make in thinking they can absolutely enforce a complete moral code from above.  Even the best regimes, that is those that result in the most virtuous people, will have to exercise tolerance towards certain evils.

How do we know which ones should be tolerated and which ones should be legislated against?    The logic is relatively simple—you tolerate those for which outlawing would do more harm to the common good than the evil itself does.  This is why John Paul II doesn’t encourage those legislators to start a revolution and overthrow the existing government.  The chaos that would ensue would do great harm to all members of society, including those most vulnerable, the very ones you are trying to protect.  Relative peace and stability are part of the common good and thus cannot be tossed aside lightly.

This is not to suggest however that you must sit idly by and allow the evil to continue.  Instead you should seek ways in which to limit the evil and its effects on the common good.  All too often tolerance turns into acceptance which then turns into promotion and even provision.  The just politician must seek solutions to limit the evil and keep it from spreading.  This takes a fair amount of prudence because it always requires some accommodation with those who are bent on its continuation.  Prudence should not be confused with expediency.  The means of bringing about the reduction of evil should not create further evils.

Abortion is not the only application of the “art of the possible.”  In fact, there is a historical example from the founding of the United States that still gets much airplay today—slavery.

The “Art of the Possible” and Slavery

Slavery, like abortion, is gravely evil and something that no society should ever have to tolerate.  Nevertheless, our country had to confront this great evil during its Founding.  A grave distortion, animated by political correctness, revisionist history and chronological myopia, has occurred and left blinded us to the true dilemma that the Founders faced, casting a dark cloud over what could rightly be judged as a glorious achievement.

Like the pro-life politicians of today, the Founders were in no position to outlaw slavery outright.  It had become an institution upon which a number of the states had become so dependent that they would rather form their own country than to give it up.  The truth is that the Union of the Thirteen Colonies was extremely fragile with very little to bind them together.  In order to “form a more perfect union” they gathered in 1789 in order to re-constitute this Union with stronger ties among the states.  In order for the experiment in liberty to work, they would need to band together.

As the Constitutional Congress met it became very obvious that many of the southern delegates would not bend on their support of slavery.  Most of the Constitution’s framers condemned slavery, but there were powerful interests who still supported it, making those delegates demand concessions.  So divisive was this issue that James Madison himself said, “the real difference of interests, lay, not between the large and small but between the Northern and Southern states.  The institution of slavery and its consequences formed the line of discrimination.”

Faced with the prospect of no union at all and a union where slavery was tolerated, the Framers chose the latter.  Many have asked “why didn’t the North just form their own country and leave the South to its own devices?”  There is a sort of intellectual dishonesty in the question itself, because the South then would have never eliminated slavery.  Even the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass recognized this saying, “[M]y argument against the dissolution of the American Union is this: It would place the slave system more exclusively under the control of the slaveholding states, and withdraw it from the power of the Northern states, which is opposed to slavery…I am therefore, for drawing the bond of the union more closely, and bringing the Slave States more completely under the power of the free states.”  Even so, the North was not strong enough to stand on its own, especially without Virginia.  The greatest problem facing the new Nation was its collapse under its own weight.

The Framers decided to exercise the “art of the possible” so that the founding principle “that all men are created equal” could eventually shine forth.  They did this by instituting three measures.  First, they agreed that Congress could make no laws forbidding slave importation until 1808 (at which point they outlawed it).  Second, they instituted the 3/5 compromise by which each slave only counted as 3/5 of a person when determining congressional representation and electoral votes.  Finally, it outlawed the spread of slavery to new states and the Western territories (although not the Southern), and gave Congress regulation power over inter-state commerce, including in the commerce of slaves.  In short, the framers thought that, while not eliminating it completely, they were choking it out.

Chronological myopia also creates another blind spot—what would it actually look like to free the slaves?  There is the assumption that one day they would simply say, you are “free to go” and off the slaves went to live free.  Most were not educated and would not have been able to take care of themselves.  You could help to train them and give them the means to get started, but where was the funding to come from for this from a country that was begging other countries for loans?  Most of the slaves, once freed would end up worse off than they were currently.

There was also the historical problem that no two races had ever lived together peacefully.  This was foremost on the mind of Jefferson himself who said, “many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”  This is exactly what happened in Haiti from 1791-1804 when every white person on the island was killed.  This is why many favored colonization (a solution also supported by Lincoln) rather than citizenship.

As we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. this week, the great Civil Rights reformer, it is important that we set the record straight.  The Framers may not have been prudent in their accommodations, but accusations of racism go too far, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and division.  When Jefferson penned the phrase “all men are created equal,” he and his compatriots believed this included slaves as well.  His further writings and those of the other founders support this.  In his book Vindicating the Founders, Thomas West furnishes primary sources—writings from the Founders themselves—to, well, vindicate the founders against the accusation of racism.  He thoroughly treats the subject, but five quotes in particular are noteworthy:

  • Washington—“There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”
  • John Adams—“Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for he eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States…I have through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in…abhorrence.”
  • Franklin—“Slavery is…an atrocious debasement of human nature.”
  • Madison—“We have seen the mere distinction of color made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”
  • Jefferson–“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.”


In short, to use the language of Evangelium Vitae, their “personal opposition was well known.”   There may have been some personal weakness in resolve, but their condemnation of it was clear.   They knew that a change in the law would strengthen their personal resolve.   In any regard, West’s book should be required reading for any American, especially American Catholics, if for no other reason than its clear presentation of  John Paul II’s “art of the possible” in action.

Did Jesus Ever Get the Flu?

With frigid temperatures gripping much of the country confining much of America to the indoors, flu season has fully blossomed.  In response, many are scrambling to get flu shots so as to build up an immunity to the virus before it hits them.  Setting aside the question of the effectiveness of flu shots in general, I would like to focus on immunity to the flu.  Specifically, to ask whether Our Lord was immune to the flu during His earthly sojourn.  Did Jesus get the flu?

While some of us who are theology geeks might consider it “cool” to speculate on these types of questions, they appear to have little additional spiritual value.  It could be grouped among the other useless musings of the medieval theologians; musings such as how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  It is hard to imagine, however, that Saint Thomas Aquinas would spend so much time on theoretical questions without them also having spiritual value as well (like he does for this particular question in ST III q.14).  Questions like this one have value because they put the right amount of flesh on the doctrine of the Incarnation.  We can get so stuck on the idea of the Incarnation, that we forget it is first and foremost a real event touching even down to our own time.  Exercises such as these help us to meet Our Lord in the flesh with the right proportion of familiarity and wonder.

Like Us?

Our initial reaction might be to say, Our Lord was human, “like us in all things but sin” (Heb 4:15) and so, while He may never have caught the flu specifically, He almost certainly got sick.  Being fully human would mean He was subject to all kinds of bodily limitations in His human nature, sickness included.

The problem with this hasty response is that “except sin” marks a rather broad exception.  Most of the time we take it to mean that He didn’t do anything wrong.  That is, of course, true, but it does not fully capture the broad scope of the effects of sin, especially personal sin.

To properly frame the issue, let us make what is an important, albeit often misunderstood distinction.  Death in man, because of his composition of matter and spirit, is natural.  It was only a privilege that God gave to Adam and Eve in their state of innocence that they were exempt from suffering and death.  Put another way, man is naturally mortal and it is only by a preternatural gift that the first man and woman could avoid it.  Being “like us in all things but sin” means that Christ took to Himself a passible nature that included a body that was subject to death and suffering. Being “like us in all things but sin” means that His suffering and death were a natural consequence of becoming human and not as a result of Original Sin.

To be absolutely clear the Son, when He took the passible human nature to Himself, was under no necessity to do so, but instead did it voluntarily.  He could just as easily have prevented suffering and death, but He chose to endure them for three reasons.  First, and foremost, He did so that He might make satisfaction for our sins.  The second was so that He might show Himself to be truly human.  His human nature was a sacrament of His divinity in that it was the sign that made visible the reality that He was the Son of God and thus Our Redeemer.  Finally, He did so as to leave us an example of heroic patience.  In short, He did so because it was necessary to complete His mission as Redeemer.

By focusing on the fact that Our Lord willed to suffer, rather than to be the passive victim that Original Sin turns us all into, we can move advance the ball down the field towards a definitive answer.  Our Lord suffered only insofar as it was necessary to make satisfaction for the common sin of human nature.  his was provided that the defects He was subject to did not interfere with His mission as Redeemer.

This helps us to understand why Our Lord experienced hunger, thirst and exhaustion.  In order to make satisfaction for the common sin Our Lord would have to voluntarily assume these common penalties that were imposed on mankind because of Original Sin.  St. John Damascene calls these natural, but not degrading affliction.  This also helps us to rule out a few things.

What Our Lord Didn’t Suffer

First, He did not suffer anything as a result of any hereditary defect.  His constitution was perfect and He was not even prone to certain illnesses.  Second, He would not have suffered any illnesses that would be an indirect result of personal sin—things such as heart disease, diabetes or liver disease.  In summary He did not take on particular sufferings that afflict particular men.

So then, what about the flu and other illnesses?  Since the flu is not a common punishment meted out to human nature in general, then Our Lord would not have suffered it.  One might immediately object that neither was scourging and being crowned with thorns.  Those sufferings were willed because they atoned for the common sins of mankind, especially as they relate to sorrow for our sins and unwillingness to do penance.  Each of the sufferings of His Passion makes these sins visible so to speak and thus cry out for our participation.  These sufferings were a part of His mission as Redeemer whereas the Flu and other such illnesses would have hampered His mission, rendering Him unable to carry out good works.

Our Lord, because His soul was filled with wisdom and grace, could not suffer as a result of failures on either count.  Our Lord, filled with wisdom, would have known how to avoid illness, even if He were subject to it.  Likewise, filled with grace in His humanity and able to heal the sick, He would not have been subject to sickness Himself.

Joining the Choir

In the midst of one of the greatest Christian persecutions, Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan seeking his counsel for dealing with Christians.  What makes this letter especially noteworthy is that it is the earliest non-Christian account of Christianity itself, with specific details about the religious practices of the early believers.  In particular, he mentions how those former Christians whom he had met all said that their supposed error was that they “were accustomed to gather before dawn on a certain day and sing a hymn to Christ as if He were God.”  Although understated, it appears remarkable that of all the Christian practices, they remember the liturgical singing best.  It is as if it was so intoxicating that it was a primary cause of their “error.”  They were not alone, even the great St. Augustine expressed a similar conviction, finding the Church mostly vulgar until he heard her singing: “I wept in Thy hymns and canticles, touched to the quick by the voices of Thy sweet-attuned Church” (Confess. ix, 6).

Would either of these two pagans would say anything remotely similar if they were to find harbor in a church during Mass in our own time?  More than likely, not.  Like many aspects of the Sacred Liturgy, liturgical music is approaching a crisis point.  Banal at best, many places throw in a dash of irreverence confusing Mass music with the music of the masses.  Liturgical music ought to be different.  No mere sing-along, it is meant to vest and adorn the liturgy by bringing clarity to what is truly going on around the Faithful. Or, as Pope St. Pius X put it,

“Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It contributes to the decorum and the splendor of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.” (Tra Le Sollecitudini Instruction on Sacred Music)

Bad Theology Leads to Bad Music

This is not really a critique of the skills of choir directors or choir members, but a critique of their underlying philosophy.  Many have been trapped within a mindset Pope Benedict XVI calls a “puritanical functionalism of the liturgy conceived in purely pragmatic terms.”  This pithy explanation is rich in substance, saying a number of things all at once.  Foundationally, it lies in a (mis-)application of the call of the Second Vatican Council for the Liturgy to be marked by active participation of all present.  Many have interpreted this to mean that everyone has a function to perform during the liturgy.  But, as the Pope Emeritus points out, the “earthly liturgy is liturgy because and only because it joins what is already in process.”  That is, we are merely participating in God’s work, a work that is cosmic in its dimension.  Our part(-icipipation) is not merely to do a bunch of external activities, but to actively and internally unite ourselves with this Opus Dei, praying that we will personally take ownership of the sacrifice and make it our own.  It is a sacrifice given in “spirit and truth” and thus, first and foremost, requires hearts that are into it.

Anyone who has gone to a concert knows that attentive listening, even if you are not singing or humming along, is a form of participation.  In fact someone doing that, especially when they are out of tune or otherwise don’t have particularly good voices, can ruin the experience for those around them.  Likewise, with musica sacra—listening intently and devoutly to a choir fits the Council’s call for active participation.  But there are those in the congregation who, to quote Pope Benedict XVI again, “who can sing better ‘with the heart’ than ‘with the mouth’; but their hearts are stimulated to sing through the singing of those who have the gift of singing ‘with their mouths.’”  The flip side is that by compelling those to sing who cannot we are not only silencing their hearts, but those around them as well.

The problem, as I mentioned, is not particularly related to skill but to ideology.  With the goal being external uniformity in activity, sacred music suffers.  Musical selection is based upon the ease in which those present may sing along and its capacity to build community through singing.  These two criteria however conflict with what Pope St. Pius X said was the authentic goal: namely that the music be holy and have “goodness of form.”

What Makes Good Liturgical Music

That the music should be holy simply means that it should be set aside as specifically liturgical, that is “closely connected with the liturgical action and… conferring greater solemnity upon the sacred rites” (SC 112).  “Praise and worship” music, Christian rock, and secular “feel-good” music each have their own place, but the liturgy is not that place.  It should be a musical setting of a liturgical text.  This is why the Church has always given the works of Palestrina and Gregorian Chant pride of place because of it solemnity and close connection to the spirit of the liturgy.

Liturgical music should also have “goodness of form” by which Pius X means it should be of high artistic quality.  He said, “it must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.”  This is where choirs and choir directors should not fear to shine for the glory of God.  They should strive to play and sing beautifully even if the rest of the congregation cannot join them.  They should see themselves properly as sacraments, making the singing of the angels and saints present.  Their music should raise our minds and hearts to the heights of heaven.

When these two criteria, holiness and beauty, are met, then a third one, universality emerges.  This is what St. Augustine experienced early during his conversion.  By universal St. Pius X means it “in the sense that while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.”  One does not need to understand all the words of the music, let alone the Liturgy itself, in order to participate.  As St. Thomas says, “Even if those who listen sometimes do not understand the words being sung, they do understand the reason for singing, namely the praise of God.  And that is sufficient to arouse men to worship” (ST II-II, q.91 art 2).  If the music has beauty, then the clarity of its purpose will emerge and move all those present to worship God more fully during the Mass.

Music has the power to move us in ways that even the best homily could never do.  This power, once harnessed and properly applied, can be the “heart of the Liturgy.”  The crisis point has been reached—it is time to reclaim liturgical music and restore it to its pride of place.

Sign of Contradiction

In what has been labeled as a landmark study into various institutional responses to child sex abuse, the Australian Royal Commission targeted two particular practices of the Catholic Church; deeming them as directly contributing to abuse.  There is a certain familiar ring to them with the Commission recommending that the Church remove the canonical seal of Confession as pertains to sexual abuse and make clerical celibacy voluntary.  Many in the media, both Down Under and abroad, have criticized the Church for being too quick to dismiss the recommendations of the Commission.  Of course, the Church has been listening to these “recommendations” for many years now and so has good reason for rejecting them out of hand.  Nevertheless, it is always instructive for us to look at why, particularly the recommendation to change the practice of celibacy, is not a real solution.

To be fair, the Commission was quick to point out that clerical celibacy was not a direct cause of abuse but instead called it “a contributing factor,” especially since it “is implicated in emotional isolation, loneliness, depression and mental illness. Compulsory celibacy may also have contributed to various forms of psychosexual dysfunction, including psychosexual immaturity, which pose an ongoing risk to the safety of children.”  Furthermore, “for many clergy and religious, celibacy is an unattainable ideal that leads to clergy and religious living double lives, and contributes to a culture of secrecy and hypocrisy” (p. 71).

Statistics Don’t Lie but People Sometimes Use Them Wrong

Because we live in a world that increasingly relies on empirical observation, it is always helpful to begin by examining exactly how they came to their conclusions.  There can be no doubt that the Church in Australia, like the Church in the United States and the rest of the world, fostered a culture of abuse in the past.  There have been many effective safeguards put in place in the last decade but there is always room for improvement.  Still, there is some extreme speculation in what the Commission is saying.  To say that celibacy is a contributing factor with any degree of statistical confidence, you must be able to compare the incidence with non-celibates, with all other risk and institutional factors (including size) being equal.   To simply report raw numbers and unadjusted proportions comparing the Catholic Church (964 institutions) with Hinduism (less than 4 institutions) is highly misleading and can lead to spurious conclusions (see pp. 45-46).    They mention that the Church had the highest percentage of the total abuse cases, but there is no adjustment in that percentage for the fact that it is by far the largest institution.  It is like comparing the number of murders in Billings, Montana, with those in New York City without making any adjustment for the population size.  Per capita the incidence of abuse within the Church is no higher than other religious institutions, making any claim that celibacy is a contributing factor spurious at best.  In a peer reviewed setting, what they reported in their numbers of victims would have never passed even the most cursory of scrutiny.

They may have data to support this claim, but it would have been remarkable since no other group has found the incidence among priests to be any higher than other religious denominations and some have even found it to be lower.  If you really want to know the truth as to the incidence of abuse, follow the money.  Since the 80s insurance companies have offered sexual misconduct coverage as a rider on liability insurance and they have found that the Catholic Church is not at any additional risk than other congregations.  In fact, because most abuse claims involve children, the only risk factor they do include is the number of children’s programs they have (for more on this, see this Newsweek article).

The Unattainable Ideal

There is also a familiar tone to their contention that compulsory clerical celibacy is an “unattainable ideal” for many of the clergy.  In fact, it is similar to the response that Our Lord gave to the Apostles when they questioned Him regarding “becoming a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom of God” (Mt 19:12).  It is a calling based on a very high ideal, an ideal that can never be attained unless there is a particular call—”Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Mt 19:12).  It is both a free choice and a calling to a high ideal, but God always equips when He calls.

The point is that it is an unattainable ideal for all of the clergy without the necessary graces attached to the call.  But it is still a fallen man who accepts the call and thus the possibility for infidelity always remains real.  But just because some men fail, does not mean that the Church should throw away the ideal.

What this really betrays is a hidden assumption that everyone is making.  Priests are human just like everyone else and when they itch they must scratch.  We do not understand what celibacy is and therefore assume the solution to the problem is an orgasm.  If we can set it so that this orgasm occurs in a licit situation then we will rid the priesthood of this problem.  But again, if that were the case no married men would do something like this.

This is where JPII’s elixir of Theology of the Body comes in.  In man who has been redeemed by Christ, sexual desire is meant to be the power to love as God loves.  Nuptial love is the love of a total giving of self.  It is in the body’s “capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the person becomes a gift—and by means of this gift—fulfills the very meaning of being and existence” (JPII General Audience 16 January 1980).  Marriage and Procreation aren’t the only ways to love as God loves.  These are simply the original models that God gave us “in the beginning”.  Anytime we image Christ in giving up our bodies for others we express the nuptial meaning of the body.

With this in mind we can begin to understand celibacy.  Celibate life can only flow from a profound knowledge of the nuptial meaning of the body.  Anyone who chooses this vocation out of fear of sex or some deep sexual wound would not be responding to an authentic call from Christ (JPII General Audience 28 April 1982).  Celibacy is meant to be an anticipation of Heaven where we are neither married nor given in marriage.  It is a witness to the resurrection of the glorified body.  In other words, those who forego marriage in this life do so in anticipation of the “marriage of the Lamb”.

The Commission simply sees no value in celibacy and therefore is quick to dismiss it.  It is a sign of contradiction and therefore “has to be the problem” even if there is no way to prove it.  They rightly call it an ideal, but then fail to grasp the value of that ideal.  It is an ideal because it is also a sign—a sign that is valuable to the rest of society as a whole.  It serves a complimentary role to marriage and helps to show its true meaning.  It is an anticipation of our future life where our union with Love itself will be more intimate than marriage.  But it also shows the great worth of marriage itself because it is a sacrifice of great worth.

A Truly Virgin Birth

Sometimes familiarity can be a catalyst for myopia, especially when it comes to the mysteries of the faith.  Christmas is no exception in this regard and offers an excellent opportunity to expand our sights by fixing them on some of the not-so obvious mysteries hidden with of Our Lord’s nativity.

In his customary manner, St. Matthew ends his account of the birth of Our Lord with an Old Testament proof-text to show how the prophets spoke specifically about Jesus.  Quoting Isiah 7:14, the Evangelist says, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” (Mt 1:24).  It is common for us to use this as Scriptural proof of the virgin birth of the Messiah, but unfortunately very little attention is paid to what this actually means.  More to the point, we often substitute our idea of the virginal birth with the idea of the virginal conception.  Both of course are true, but how is it that a virgin could give birth?

If we come at it from the perspective of the one who gave birth, clarity emerges.  For a belief in Our Lady’s perpetual virginity is really saying three things.  First, that she became pregnant with Our Lord without “knowing a man” (Lk 1:34).  Second, that Our Lady remained in this state after the birth of Our Lord.  These two are obvious, but it is the third that helps bring illumination—Our Lady remained a virgin “even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man” (CCC 499).  Or, as the Council of Ephesus puts it: “After giving birth, nature knows not a virgin: but grace enhances her fruitfulness, and effects her motherhood, while in no way does it injure her virginity.”

The Miracle of Christ’s Birth

In order to keep her virginity intact, Our Lord did not leave His Mother’s womb through the birth canal.  He would have been delivered in a miraculous manner, passing directly from her womb into the outside world.  Without getting overly bogged down in the biological details, we can still glean some particularly poignant aspects of the mystery.

As a first consequence of this, Tradition has always taught that Our Lady’s partus was completely devoid of pain.  This is more than an interesting fact, but carries with it a very deep corollary that Our Lord wished to establish from the beginning of His mission.  When Our Lord came into the world, He came to suffer so as to redeem us.  But He was unwilling to be the cause of any other unnecessary suffering.  As St. Thomas says, “But the mother’s pains in childbirth did not concern Christ, who came to atone for our sins. And therefore there was no need for His Mother to suffer in giving birth”(ST III, q. 35, a.6).  Our Lady would suffer because of her role as the New Eve, but only in the amount that was absolutely necessary.  Likewise, all those associated with Him (us) are guaranteed only to suffer when it is necessarily tied to His redemptive mission.  He did, and still does, refuse to “break the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick” (Is 42:3).

Remaining on the more practical level, we can also see why this miraculous intervention might be necessary.  If Our Lady’s virginity remained physically intact, there can be no doubt as to the truth of the virginal conception.  This is also why it is reasonable to believe that Our Lady remained a virgin throughout her entire life.  While we do not get overly fixated on the biological details, the virginal birth is still a biological fact.

Virginity, properly understood though, is not just a biological fact.  It is a condition of the entire person and does not simply mean someone who has never had sex.  Our Lady is ever-virgin because she is all-pure, both body and soul.  Her body is as a sacrament revealing the state of her soul.  In order to affirm this Our Lord does not destroy the physical sign of her personal virginity.

As a point of clarification, we call it a miracle because it defies the laws of nature for a human body to pass under its own power from its mother’s womb.  This should be seen as distinct from Christ, while operating under the power of His resurrected body, had the power of subtlety, that is, the power to pass through physical objects.

The Miracle as a Sign

But we also refer to it as a miracle because, like all Christ’s miracles, it has great value as a sign.  The same infant that was wrapped in swaddling clothes, that is burial cloths, had just passed from the closed womb pointing to the time when He would pass from the tomb.

His birth also was to serve as a sign revealing the fullness of Our Lord’s person as true God and true man.  As St. Thomas says, “He mingled wondrous with lowly things. Wherefore, to show that His body was real, He was born of a woman. But in order to manifest His Godhead, He was born of a virgin, for ‘such a Birth befits a God,’ as Ambrose says in the Christmas hymn” (ST III, q28, art. 2, ad. 2).

The miracle also serves as a sign of our ultimate redemption.  Living in this post-lapsarian world, it is difficult to view creation as anything other than a closed system of corruption.  By passing through Our Lady’s womb, without leaving behind the natural traces of corruption, Our Lord was pointing ahead to the redemption of creation in the New Heavens and the New Earth where corruption is no longer possible.

Finally, Our Lord wanted to point each of us to the true joy of Christmas.  By taking something that is naturally painful and filling it with gladness, He was forever instituting Christmas as a day of great joy.  Merry Christmas everyone!

The Devil in the New World

In the battle against the Culture of Death, there is a certain gravity pulling towards two self-defeating tendencies, both of which equally plague those building a Culture of Life.  The first is to treat evil as something abstract, a mere force or darkness that looms around us.  No one ever won a battle against an abstract enemy.  The second is to treat other men as evil, that is, to literally demonize them.  It puts a face on the evil, showing it to be something that is orchestrated, but also misses the mark because it misidentifies the true enemy.  This temptation is perennial, especially since the enemies are relentless and have no real face, but instead are powerful and intelligent evil spirits, hell-bent on destroying as many human beings as possible.  “We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12).  The Apostle to the Gentiles wants to remind the Ephesians (and us) that a Christian, as their name suggests, does not defeat his flesh and blood enemy but instead wins him over.  When we forget this fact, more souls will be lost.  No doubt, the Devil’s plan was always self-defeating, but our goal must always be to limit the casualties.

In a gloss on St. Paul’s aforementioned spiritual combat plan, St. Thomas Aquinas paints a vivid word picture which helps us to better understand our plan of attack.   Using the analogy of a battle, he says that “evil men are horses, and the demons the riders; hence, if we kill the riders, the horses will be ours.”  We win souls by releasing them from the grips of the Devil.  This means using first and foremost spiritual weapons of the Mass, Our Lady, prayer, and fasting.  But it also means engaging the enemy head on by exposing him and his works for what they are.

The Historical Battleground

This may sound woefully abstract, until we look at a historical example that illustrates what this looks like in practice; an event whose effects are still felt today.  Not surprisingly, we will have to do some digging to uncover what actually happened because like much of Christian history, it has been overcome with the Smoke of Satan, obscuring the truth with outright lies and revisionist history.  The event that I am referring to is Hernan Cortes and the conquering of Mexico.

The wind of truth can sweep away the haze by posing a simple, almost common-sense question that challenges the conventional wisdom of the day: how could Cortes, commanding 500 men with 10 cannons, 16 horses, 13 muskets and 32 crossbows, possibly conquer an enemy who outnumbered them at least 100 to 1?  For sure, the Spaniards may have enjoyed a technological military advantage, but the Aztecs were no backward savages either.  Their advanced culture would have rivaled anything found in Europe at the time.  They had many fierce warriors skilled in hand to hand combat and had conquered most of Mexico through their military prowess.  In fact they may have been able to match the military skills of the Spaniards except for one thing—they refused to kill their vanquished enemy, insisting on carrying them off as prisoners instead.  This novel approach however was not really a military tactic but a religious one as we shall see in a moment.

The Aztecs may have had an advanced sanitation system, aqueducts and a very accurate calendar system, but they exceeded all cultures in previous history in one particular regard.  It was this regard that especially drew the interest of Cortes and his Spanish Conquistadors.  It was not their gold or their riches, but their blood lust.  They were unrivaled in their penchant for human sacrifice, sacrificing at least 50,000 men women and children every year and as many as 80,000 during a 4-day festival in 1487.

Although the Aztecs had a number of gods in their pantheon, it was their primary god Huitzilopochtli, who was called the Hummingbird Wizard or the Lover of Hearts and the Drinker of Blood who demanded the human sacrifice.  It was to sate the Hummingbird Wizard that the Aztecs would carry away their vanquished enemies in battle—offering them as human sacrifices to the Lover of Hearts and the Drinker of Blood.  But we should resist the temptation to think the Aztecs think that these were backward people caught up in superstitious practices of sacrificing human lives to imaginary idols.  This would ignore the reality and the power of the Devil.

By possessing a few people of influence (influence he was able to give them) and speaking to the people through them, he was able to enslave the entire population of Mexico.  Things would go well when his demands were met, instilling a sense of fear and loyalty in the average person.  When they failed to meet his demands, he would punish the people through a reign of terror.  Without the light of Christ to free the people of Mexico from this demonic stronghold, the people were trapped in a bloody snare.

One might be accused of “over-spiritualizing” history to view it this way, except for the truth that the Devil is the great copycat—mimicking the good that God does, to set himself up as a god.  For Huitzilopochtli was believed to have been born from the goddess Coatlicue who was an earth goddess who was depicted as a woman wearing a skirt of snakes and a necklace of hearts torn from victims.  She immaculately conceived her son when a feather fell on her apron.  When her son was born, he killed all her other children who became the stars and the moon.  The parallels to Revelation 12 are uncanny, especially given they had no contact with the Christian story.  Compound this with the fact that they viewed cannibalism as a religious ritual in which those who fed on the flesh were thought to be eating the flesh of the gods that Huitzilopochtli killed and we can see that it was a great Black Mass that Cortes encountered.

The story can only be fully understood by adding one important detail.  The Aztecs were awaiting the return of Quetzalcoatl, a god wholly unique among their pantheon because he was of light and wanted men to live and serve him, rejecting all forms of human sacrifice.  He was supposed to return in a year of 1-Reed which occurred every 52 years on the day of 9-Wind.  When Cortes arrived on Good Friday 1519, which was both a 1-Reed year and a 9-Wind day and was dressed in penitential black, the same color that Quetzalcoatl wore as a priest, the Aztecs, especially their leader Montezuma assumed it was Quetzalcoatl returning.  Cortes never said he was Quetzalcoatl, but he was vague enough to use the deception to his advantage.

Cortes was joined in his war against the Aztecs by many of the indigenous peoples in the region, who were only too eager to finally be freed from the yoke of the Hummingbird Wizard.  In order to placate the Aztecs they regularly had to supply them with victims for sacrifice.  When they refused, the Aztecs would go to war with them and carry away their warriors as sacrificial victims.  They were quite literally damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.  Cortes was hailed as a great savior of the native peoples, especially because he did so in a true Christian spirit, always with his eyes towards their conversion and the toppling of idols and human sacrifice to be replaced with churches and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  Having been so recently victorious in freeing their homeland from the Muslims once and for all, the Spanish had a natural crusading spirit; a spirit that Cortes appealed to in rallying his men to fight for the freedom of the Mexicans, “The greater the King we seek, the wider the land, the more numerous the enemy, so much the greater will be our glory, for have you not heard it said, the more Moors, the greater the spoils?  Besides we are obligated to exult and increase our holy Catholic faith which we undertook to do like good Christians, uprooting idolatry, that great blasphemy to our God, abolishing sacrifices and the eating of human flesh, which is so contrary to nature and so common here.”  Surely, there can be no question as to Cortes’ primary motive in setting out to tear down the Aztecs’ altars of sacrifice and “conquer” the Aztecs.

What it Means for Us

One can’t help but wonder given the valor exercised by Cortes and his men why we are so quick to condemn him.  How many of the descendants of the indigenous people are alive today because of him?  The Aztecs were slowly but surely eliminating all the other peoples in Mexico so hungry had the Hummingbird Wizard become.  Surely any celebration of “Indigenous People’s Day” that is true to the name would be marked with gratitude for the Spanish.

The Conquest of Cortes and his companions serves as a great reminder that every cultural battle is a spiritual battle.  As soon as he arrived in Mexico City he set up icons of Our Lady and altars so that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass could be celebrated.  Everything that he did, was aimed first and foremost towards the conversion of the Mexican peoples.  He knew that a time would come when some of his fellow Spaniards would demand that the Mexican people be sacrificed in slavery to their idols—gold and that only through Baptism could this be avoided so that he always acted with a sense of urgency.  It was he and Christopher Columbus who called Our Lady down from Heaven into the New World by frequenting the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Spain because they knew the only way to squash the serpent was by becoming her heel.

Disorderly Conduct

It’s not always what you say, but also how you say it.  Even a man like St. Peter, characteristically known for his bluntness, recognized this and cajoled the peddlers of the Good News that while having a ready defense of the reason for their hope, it should always be done with reverence and respect for the other person.  The truth is naturally harmful to error, but it can always be presented in a manner that makes it more palatable to those who hold those errors.  This balance is at the heart of the Church’s pastoral mission.  That is why, when the self-appointed Apostle to the LGBTQ community, Fr. James Martin, says that the Church’s language regarding the homosexual condition is unnecessarily harsh, we ought to take his criticism seriously.

Fr. Martin takes exception to the use of the term disordered.  The Catechism uses the term twice within the context of same sex attraction (SSA)—once when referring to homosexual activity, calling it intrinsically disordered (CCC 2357) and then a second time calling the inclination itself objectively disordered (CCC 2358).  Many people, Fr. Martin included, are quick to point out that the term disordered refers “to the orientation, and not the person” (Building a Bridge, p.46).

Why We Use the Term Disordered

They are correct that in this context the adjective, disordered, is modifying the inclination and the action and not the person.  But this does not mean that the persons themselves are not disordered.  In fact, the Church believes that we are all disordered and those with same sex attraction are no different in that regard.  The particulars of their disorder may be different than mine or yours, but rest assured dear reader that we are all disordered.  If we weren’t then there would be no need for the Church.  The Church is given by Christ so that He might continue His ministry to disordered tax collectors and prostitutes throughout time and space.

The use of the term disordered is really meant to highlight an important aspect of human life, one that truly is Good News.  Life is not just a series of unrelated episodes, but has a specific purpose or end based upon the fact that we have an unchangeable human nature.  Those inclinations and actions which take us towards true fulfillment are said to be ordered to happiness, those which take us off that path are said to be disordered.  In short, homosexual inclinations and actions are only one of a number of things that are disordered; things such as lying and calumny are also classified as being intrinsically disordered by the Catechism (CCC 1753) precisely because they lead us away from a life of true fulfilment and happiness.

Nevertheless, the Catechism does single out the inclination as disordered and this also for a very good reason.  There is only one way in which order can be re-introduced back into our fallen nature—grace.  The Church turns her focus to this inclination rather than the many others because she wants to apply the medicine of grace to those who live with same sex attraction.  She is the lone voice crying out in the desert that SSA is a serious obstacle to the Promised Land.  That is, in their struggle for chastity and rightly ordered love, the person struggling with same sex attraction may unite their suffering with the suffering Christ, sanctifying the whole Church in the process.  This is why we should “build a bridge” to them and invite them in—not just because we want to see them healed, but because of their particular cross they might add to the holiness of all the members of Christ’s Mystical Body.

The Weight of the Burden

It is worth mentioning as well why so many people who suffer with SSA do read into the Catechism a specific condemnation of their being ontologically disordered—they read it as a noun rather than an adjective.  There is something much more fundamental to each person than their sexual inclinations.  In fact the Church, “refuses to consider the person as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual’ and insists that every person has a fundamental identity: a creature of God and by grace, his child and heir to eternal life”(PCHP, 16).  The truth is that no one is ontologically homosexual; there really is no such thing as “homosexuality” or “heterosexuality”.  There are only two sexual identities; male and female.  Our sexuality is the call of men and women to love as God loves in and through their bodies.  The unfortunate reality is that we live in a fallen world where there can be distortions that obscure our sexual identity.

This particular burden is especially difficult because it attacks one’s ability to relate to other people, both of the opposite sex and the same sex.  In other words, it disorders all your relationships.  This leaves the person feeling very isolated and very alone.  When they find a community of like-minded people, whose social action centers on making their inclination and actions ordered it is hard not to fall victim to wearing nothing but the homosexual label.  We are so much more than our feelings and our genitals however.  Even if the inclination were not disordered, wearing the label to the extent that many wear it, would lead to grave unhappiness.  That basket can’t hold the eggs of our identity and the Church wants those who struggle with SSA to know that.

We can see why then the Church might use the term disordered as a way to point out there is an ordered way of life in which things proceed in an ordered fashion towards true human fulfillment, but is the phrase “still needlessly hurtful. Saying that one of the deepest parts of a person — the part that gives and receives love — is ‘disordered’ in itself is needlessly cruel” (p. 46-47), as Fr. Martin suggests?  There might be a gentler term that could be used, but most that I can think of betray the truth.  Fr. Martin’s suggestion that we should call it “differently ordered” is problematic in that it implies that it is ordered.  It is, according to him then one different way of life that when lived out would lead to true personal happiness and thriving.  The Church cannot, as Cardinal Sarah says in referring to Our Lord’s encounter with the woman caught in adultery, be more merciful than her Lord.  The merciful call of the Church always echoes Christ’s compassionate call to conversion.  That is, it always mixes the bad news with the Good News, or rather begins with the bad news (dis) and ends with the Good News (ordered).  Come to think of it, maybe, just maybe, there is wisdom in the use of the term.  It’s not always what you say, but how you say it indeed.


***As a postscript, I would not recommend anyone spend money on Fr. Martin’s book as it is really a veiled attempt to circumvent the Church’s teaching through subterfuge and verbal gymnastics.  His unwillingness to engage any of his critics head-on always makes someone suspect in my mind.  Instead, buy Daniel Mattson’s book Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay.  For anyone trying to aid in the bridge building, this book should be one of the pillars.

A Death Like His

For those who have spent any time in school, it is a universal experience.  On the cusp of final exams, you perform the “what’s the worst I can do and still get an A?” calculation.  Or if you don’t have an A, you’ll ask “what will my grade be if I get 100%?”.   Crunching the numbers, the study plan develops accordingly.  Outside of the academic arena this approach can get us in trouble—especially when we apply a similar pattern of thinking to life’s final exam, death.  We assume that if we have performed well during the semester of life, then death will be a breeze.  Not only does this attitude ignore the tremendous temptations that await us, but it fails to discern the truly Christian meaning of death, or more to the point, the meaning of life.  For a Christian the meaning of life is dying well.

When St. Paul was being held captive in Rome, he penned his great opus on joy to the Church in Philippi.  Written during his first imprisonment in Babylon (c.f. 1 Pt 5:13), the Apostle reflected upon his own approach to death.  But rather than performing the “end of semester calculus” he “forgets what lies behind straining forward to what lies ahead” (Phil 3:14).  In other words, St. Paul eschews the cruise control and sprints all the way through the finish line.

This attitude is antithetical to the spirit of the world which confronts death in one of two ways.  First there is the mode of distraction.  It looms in the back of our minds, but as something we will deal with later.  Meanwhile we come up with creative ways to avoid thinking about it.  As Pascal maintains, “we run heedlessly into the abyss after putting something in front of us to stop us seeing it.”  We know it is inevitable, but we hope it catches us by surprise and “peacefully”.  Second there is the wisdom of pop-psychology which summons us to “accept it.”  Paradoxically this type of acceptance is a denial.  Like its proverbial doppelganger, taxes, we simply treat it as something to be planned around and cheated.

Planning for Death

Scripture on the other hand tells us to plan for death.  As the Book of Sirach tells us, “Remember the Last Things and you will never sin” (Sir 7:36).  Biblically speaking, to remember is not simply to keep it in the back of our mind or to “accept it” but to make it a present reality.  Knowing you are going to die is one thing, knowing how you will die is quite another.  Very likely we have no knowledge of the external circumstances but we can rehearse the interior dispositions that will accompany our deaths.  Just as we plan fiscally for our deaths with life insurance and a will, we should plan physically by preparing our souls, making death a testament.

In order to hit the target, we must first distinguish what we are aiming at.  The goal is, as St. Paul tells the Romans, to be united to Christ in a “death like His” (Rom 6:5).  Our own death, not surprisingly, finds meaning in His Passion.  Like a lamb being led to slaughter, Our Lord was silent in His sufferings.  The only time that Christ lets out a cry of anguish during His Passion is at the moment of His death.  The agony of His death is so keen that He could not remain silent.  The cry of anguish was proceeded by His last words—“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  That is, Christ the Priest, has made a definitive offering of the pain of death to the Father.  A “death like His” is one that has been offered to the Father.

Life is not really pass/fail.  We run through the finish line because in death we have something, perhaps our greatest something, to offer to the Father.  Death ceases to be a punishment and becomes a true offering of our lives to God.  Death, when offered in union with Christ, becomes the pathway to Life.  It is when we receive the fullest share in the priesthood of Christ and in turn conform ourselves more fully to Him as victim.  It is only at death that we can truly offer our life to God—no other person, even Christ Himself, can do that for us.

A Priestly Annointing for Death

To prepare us for the greatest of our priestly tasks, the Church “completes the holy anointings that mark the whole Christian life…completing our conformity to the death and Resurrection of Christ, just as Baptism began it” (CCC 1523) in the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.  This Sacrament, even though it is often touted as a Sacrament of Healing, is first and foremost a priestly anointing so that “the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus” (CCC 1521).

A proper understanding of death as primarily a priestly occupation, enables the Christian, even when facing great bodily pains surrounding death, can remain spiritually joyful.  God loves a cheerful giver.  Unfortunately this aspect of death as a definitive offering has been lost to the prevailing culture.  We collectively accept the wine and myrrh thinking we can anesthetize death, depriving the person of their opportunity to give their life to God.  This is also why euthanasia is the very opposite of mercy, robbing the person of the only true gift they have to offer to God.

Seeing the Sacrament of the Anointing as an anointing for a good death also helps bring out another important facet of death.  The dying person often sees himself as a burden upon other people, especially his loved ones.  But the Church says that there is an Ecclesial grace attached to the Sacrament such that the “sick who receive this sacrament, ‘by freely uniting themselves to the passion and death of Christ,’ ‘contribute to the good of the People of God.’  By celebrating this sacrament the Church, in the communion of saints, intercedes for the benefit of the sick person, and he, for his part, though the grace of this sacrament, contributes to the sanctification of the Church and to the good of all men for whom the Church suffers and offers herself through Christ to God the Father” (CCC 1522).  By uniting themselves to Christ in a “death like His,” the sick man finds joy, able to say with St. Paul, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…” (Col 1:24).  Far from being a burden, the sick actually lighten the burden on the other members of Christ body.

The great spiritual masters of the Church all speak of the art of dying well.  Like any art, it can only be done well when it is practiced and prepared for.  Remember death and you will do well in life.

The Truth on Lying


One of my favorite all-time commercials is a Geico ad in which President Lincoln is asked by his wife whether or not the dress she is wearing makes her backside look fat.  As cleverly designed as the commercial is, and as refreshing as “Honest Abe” might be in our current political climate, this short ad is particularly compelling because it forces the viewers to think about the nature of lying.  Drenched in a culture that has shown a particular allergy to truth-telling, we “spin the facts” and color-code our lies, bleaching them of any wrong doing.  As lies increase, trust decreases, turning us all into masters of suspicion. Lies will break down any society, the family included, but there is an ever-greater danger hidden in the weeds of lying—losing a grip on what is real.  Telling a lie over and over, we can easily forget the truth.  As philosopher Hannah Arendt put it, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth…but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world…is being destroyed.”   It is time to tell the truth about lying.

Most of us know a lie when we tell it, but there is a shadow over truth telling that creates a grey area.  That is because we lack a really good definition.  Even the Church has struggled to come up with a good definition.  In the 1994 edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the definition of lying was “to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth(CCC 2483)When the official Latin text was released 3 years later, the italicized part was left out, rendering lying as “speaking or acting against the truth in order to lead someone into error.”  This is true as far as it goes, but it does not shine enough light to remove the shadow.  This is why St. Augustine’s definition is especially helpful.  He says that lying is deliberately speaking (verbally or non-verbally) contrary to what is on one’s mind.  In other words, there is an opposition between what one speaks and one what thinks in lying.

Loving the Truth

Because most people look at lying as mostly a legal issue, it is first important for us to discuss what makes lying wrong.  Our communicative faculties have as their end the ability to convey our thoughts.  When we lie, that is when we say something that is contrary to what we are thinking, we are abusing that power.  Notice that in this teleological (looking at the purpose of the power) approach circumstances do not matter.  Lying is always wrong.

Seen another way, we can make further sense of the intrinsically evil nature of lies.  Our Lord is pretty harsh in His condemnation of lying; calling those who lie the devil’s offspring “because he is the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44).  There are no such thing as white lies.  A lie is an offense against the truth, the same reality that God, in His Providence, has orchestrated.  That is, all lies, are primarily offenses against God because we are rebelling against the way things are and revolting against His ordering of things.  It is our love for God and with gratitude for His Providential care that we should love the truth so much that we would never lie.

In this case, removing the white does not necessarily remove the grey area until we can answer what constitutes lying.  Recall Augustine’s definition of a lie as the willful communication of an idea that is contrary to what one is thinking.  This definition is preferred because it removes the situation where the speaker is wrong in their thinking from the realm of lying.  If your son did not know he had homework and then told you he didn’t then that would not be lying.  He communicated the truth as he understood it.  Similarly with joking or story telling where the purpose is to convey irony or illustrate a deeper truth.  Many people say “I was just kidding” when they are caught in a lie, so again this is something we all naturally seem to grasp.  Regardless, at a certain point—like when the person asks “are you joking?” –it ceases to be a means of laughter or truth telling and becomes lying

Intuitively we grasp that to forget or joke around is not the same thing as lying.  But it is the so-called hard cases that make it more difficult.  For example, there is the oft-cited situation of the Nazi asking where the Jews are hidden. It was an attempt, although not precise enough, to deal with these hard cases that motivated the authors of the Catechism to include the clause “who has a right to know the truth” in the original definition.  It would seem that the only way out of this Catch-22 would be to lie because it is “the lesser of two evils.”

Living the Truth

It is necessary as this point to make the distinction between deception and lying.  All lies are deception, but not all deception is lying.  There are times when deception might be necessary, especially when the interlocutor plans to use the information in order to commit some evil.  Although our communicative faculties have as their purpose the communication of the truth as we know it, this does not mean that we have an obligation to communicate the truth.  In fact, the obligation may be to remain silent such as when you are keeping a secret.  Likewise the obligation to communicate the truth does not mean it has to be communicated in the clearest fashion.   But because lying is intrinsically evil, that is, it can never be ordered to the good, it can never be a means of deception.

Protecting the truth from those who have no right to the truth is done then not through lying but through what is called Mental Reservation.  A mental reservation is a way of speaking such that the particular meaning of what one is saying is only one possible meaning.  There are two classes of mental reservation—a strict mental reservation involves restricting it in a way that the listener could never guess what you mean.  This would be a form of lying.  A broad mental reservation means that the average listener could figure out one’s meaning, even if it is not very clear.  Blessed John Henry Newman uses the classic example from St. Athanasius’ life when he was fleeing persecution and was asked “Have you seen Athanasius?”  The great enemy of the Arians replied, “Yes, he is close to here.”  Obviously there are a number of ways this could have been interpreted, but it was not a falsehood strictly speaking.  A similar approach could be taken with the example of the Nazis and the Jews but never in a way that would constitute lying.

What if however the soldiers had continued to probe Athanasius, forcing him to answer directly?  Broad mental reservation may be employed for as long as possible but when it fails, one may, out of a love for the truth, simply remain silent and suffer whatever consequences may come from that.  Likewise, many people tell other’s secrets simply because the other person asked and “I wasn’t going to lie.”  One can keep a secret without lying, but it may mean suffering at the hands of the interrogator.  However, before my teen readers see this as a Jedi mind trick and add it to their war-chest to use against their parents, this only applies when the person in question does not have a right to the truth.  When the person has a right to the truth, you have an obligation to give it to them in as clear a manner as possible.  There are some, especially in the Church, that rely on mental reservation to mask heresy.

In the commercial, Honest Abe, wanting to avoid lying, answers that the dress does make Mary Todd look a little fat.  Is this the only possible answer he could have given, or could he have exercised a mental reservation?  I’ll leave that for the readers to answer and debate in the comments section below…

Science and the Immaculate Conception

One of the most common mistakes that Catholics make regards what is actually celebrated during this week’s feast of the Immaculate Conception.  The general consensus is that it is a feast marking the Immaculate Conception of Jesus.  They this feast with the Feast of the Annunciation which marks the miraculous manner in which the Word took flesh in the womb of the Immaculate Conception.  One thing they are not wrong about however is that, while the feast centers on the circumstances and consequences of Our Lady’s singular grace, the Feast, like all things pertaining to Our Lady really is about Christ.

The Council of Chalcedon in 451 was called in response to the Monophysite heresy.  This heresy believed that the two natures of Christ were united such that they really became one, that is, the human was fully absorbed by the divine rendering only a single nature. Its backers proposed the metaphor that the divine nature was like an ocean and His human nature like a drop of water totally lost in the divinity.  This may seem to be unnecessary theological hairsplitting until we follow through to its logical conclusions.  First, with no true humanity, He would only appear to be human like some sort of vision or hologram.  Second, and more importantly, it meant that the humanity of Christ could not be a separate source of activity from the divinity.  He could not really suffer and die as a man and any appearance of those things would be only that, an appearance.

The Council, with the approval of St. Leo the Great, was quick to reject any trace of this and reaffirmed that Christ ss true God and true man, “perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, composed of rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father as to his divinity and consubstantial with us as to his humanity; ‘like us in all things but sin.’. He was begotten from the Father before all ages as to his divinity and in these last days, for us and for our salvation, was born as to his humanity of the virgin Mary, the Mother of God” (quoted in CCC 467).

The necessity of both powers of operation, human and divine, are necessary for Christ’s sacrifice to be efficacious.  Remove either power and atonement becomes a sham.  Mankind incurred a great debt, so great that only God could pay it.  Justice must be served for the moral order of the universe to be restored.  In mercy, God takes the debt as if it is His own.

Christology and the Immaculate Conception

What does all this have to do with the Immaculate Conception?  As true man, Christ was “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4).  That is self-evident, but it also means His mother was a true mother.  And like all mothers, she supplied to Him her flesh and it was her blood that coursed through His veins.  Put in a more scientific manner, it was her ovum that was fertilized and that ovum became the building block of the human nature that was assumed by the Person of the Son.  She was truly His mother and not merely a surrogate or a human incubator.

Furthermore, we are told that the Son of God come in the flesh is “like us in all things but sin” (Heb 4:15), that is, neither original nor actual sin touched Him.  The impossibility of actual sin we all intuitively grasp, but we may not think about the fact that the human nature He inherited must also be free from original sin and its effects.   Original sin is not sin committed, but “sin” inherited.  It is passed down from our parents.  Since Our Lord had only one human parent, and she was truly His Mother and no mere surrogate, the flesh that Mary passed down to Him had to be free from original sin and its effects.

We begin to now see the logic of the Immaculate Conception as an explanation for the purity of His blood offering and His freedom from Original Sin.  We have ruled out the possibility that by some miraculous intervention the ovum that was to become a part of Our Lord’s human nature was altered at the moment of Conception.  Mary would no longer be His true mother.  But we have not yet seen why Our Lady must be free from the stain of Original Sin from the moment of her conception.  Why could it not be that she was sanctified at some other time?

When Pope Pius IX declared the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, he commented on the fact that it was “wholly fitting that so wonderful a mother should be ever resplendent with the glory of most sublime holiness and so completely free from all taint of original sin.”  In other words, he thought it was not theologically necessary, only fitting.  But there may be a certain biological necessity that would help us to see why this dogma is true.

How Science Supports the Immaculate Conception

Thanks to advances in the field of human embryology, we know that the flesh of Our Lord (in Mary’s oocytes) was actually formed at her conception. Although He takes her flesh at the Annunciation, but the actual flesh He takes to Himself (in the oocyte that matured into an egg) was present in Mary at her beginning.  Just as she carried it around after His birth, Mary was, in a very real sense, carrying around the flesh of Our Lord from the moment of her conception.

For the more scientifically minded, we know that at the moment of conception, although obviously not fully formed, the human person is self-directed and thus needs no outside intervention to develop assuming the proper environment.  That means that even if oogenesis occurs at the meiosis I stage of development, everything that is to be used for the formation of those germ cells is already present.  We should make sure that we see development as a continuous process, begun in a definitive direction at conception, and not a series of independent stages.  The stages are simply mental constructs to help us understand the development itself.

Science then would help to confirm that the Immaculate Conception is necessary, even if theology can only describe its fittingness.  Science is a path not just to facts but to wonder, a sure path to the Truth.  The dust from the earth shattering landing of the Son of God has yet to settle, leaving traces of Him everywhere we look.  Science is no threat to our devotion but a means of increasing it.

This realization can also help to increase our devotion in another way.  According to Josephus, the great Jewish historian, the restoration of the Second Temple of Zerubbabel began in the year 19BC.  This is the same year that tradition also says Our Lady was born.  That is, at the same time that Herod set out to rebuild the Temple, God began construction on the true Temple.  The cornerstones of the Temple of Our Lord’s body were laid at the moment of Our Lady’s Conception, of that truth science confirms.

As Friday’s Feast Day comes around, we can be sure that there will be many Catholics confused as to who the Immaculate Conception refers to; thinking it refers to Jesus’ conception and not Our Lady’s.  But they are not entirely wrong—Our Lady, in whom the true Temple was made, carried around the building blocks with her from the moment of her own conception.

Our Lady, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee!

The Slippery Heresy

There is an innate pessimism in all of us that leads us to believe we are living in the worst of times.  So ingrained is this habit are we that we surround ourselves with prophets of gloom—paid professionals whose sole task is to point out how bad things are.   We can hardly imagine things getting worse and we simultaneously pine for the good ol’ days when things were so much better.  Paralyzed by nostalgia we feel the darkness of doom surrounding us; surrounding us, that is, until we ask “when exactly were the good ol’ days?”  History becomes the elixir of pessimism.  The more we examine it, the more convinced we become that we are living in neither the best of times nor the worst of times.  We find examples of when things were better certainly, but we also find times where things we far worse.

The Church, for her part, has no shortage of prognosticators of peril promising that the collapse of the Church is imminent.  But history, if we study it, tells us otherwise.  The Church survived far worse circumstances than our own and we are assured it will survive the worst.  Talk about optimism!  The worst is yet to come, but the best will follow shortly thereafter.

The Gates of Hell and the Church

The Church holds an insurance policy against the gates of hell will not prevail, underwritten by the Divine Son of God, but we also have plenty of historical examples giving the promise a certain amount of street cred.  Hardly a century has gone by in which the Church did not seem to be on the verge of destruction and yet rebounded.  Our time is likely to be no different—the Mystical Body may enter the tomb like its Head, but it will always be a sign of His resurrection as well.

No worries, right?  Well, not exactly.  When you love someone, you not only want them to live, but you want them to be healthy.  The Church most certainly will survive, but her health is another issue altogether.  The Church may have been in great peril in the first three centuries, but her health was never in question.  She may have been big and rotund 1000 years later, but her health was delicate.

It may seem odd to go to these lengths for the sake of making a proper distinction, until we carry out the implications of this.  The Church as she sits here in 2017 is not healthy.  If we love her then we ought to greatly desire her health.  This is not pessimism, but realism.  The disease may not be terminal, but many members, especially in the extremities may end up being amputated unless we can properly diagnose the problem and apply the remedy.

Diseases in the Mystical Body of Christ have a very specific name—we call them heresies.  Rather than being infected from without, these are like autoimmune diseases that attack the body from within.  To fight them, God injects saints as antibodies.  These saints witness in a particular way against the prevailing error in the Church and then attack those errors with truth and charity, that is, by their words and way of life.

What makes our time particularly unique, is that it would be very difficult to name the heresy plaguing the Church.  St. Athanasius could identify the pathology he was fighting—Arianism.  St. Dominic could name his—Albigensianism.  And St. Therese of Lisieux could name hers—Jansenism.  The list goes on and on.  God raised these men and women up and formed them to fight the diseases in the Church.  While there seem to be a lot of heretics, there is no great heresy.  Some will say modernism, but that, as dangerous as it is, is really a catch all and doesn’t quite capture it.  Some would say it has to do with the moral authority of the Church, but again that is not quite it either.  Try as you might, you would be hard pressed to name the one heresy.

The Mother of All Heresies

That is because the heresy we are facing is really the mother of all heresies—ambiguity.  Ambiguity is really a heresy of omission—it sows error not so much in being silent, but in not saying anything.  It is animated by the spirit of Pope Honorius, the 7th Century pope who was condemned for fanning the flames of heresy by remaining silent when he could have spoken clearly regarding the Monthelite heresy.

In this environment we should not be surprised to see the re-emergence of all the past heresies because all truth is now hidden under the veil of ambiguity.  It is a circumstance that Pope Pius VI anticipated in his 1794 papal bull Auctorem Fidei.

“[The Ancient Doctors] knew the capacity of innovators in the art of deception. In order not to shock the ears of Catholics, they sought to hide the subtleties of their tortuous maneuvers by the use of seemingly innocuous words such as would allow them to insinuate error into souls in the most gentle manner. Once the truth had been compromised, they could, by means of slight changes or additions in phraseology, distort the confession of the faith which is necessary for our salvation, and lead the faithful by subtle errors to their eternal damnation. This manner of dissimulating and lying is vicious, regardless of the circumstances under which it is used. For very good reasons it can never be tolerated in a synod of which the principal glory consists above all in teaching the truth with clarity and excluding all danger of error.”

There is a demonic cleverness to the heresy of ambiguity that makes it difficult to grasp or even accuse someone of.  It says everything and nothing all at once.  It tells a different truth depending on where you are standing.  It is not either/or or even both/and, but both/or.  And like most heresies historically speaking they spread from the top down.  Nearly 80% of the Bishops in the mid-4th century were Arians as well as most of the Roman army, but it was the rank and file Catholics and faithful Bishops like Athanasius that stemmed the tide.

The Church may be a field hospital, but it is the unambiguity of divinely revealed truth that allows her to apply the salve of mercy.  There can be no mercy without justice, no mercy without acknowledging a truth that has been transgressed.  Take away the truth and mercy soon follows.  The Church is left defenseless and ineffective in her saving mission.  Eventually even her own children will be cut off with nothing to tether them to the Body.

Looked at through the lens of history, the saints of our age will be witnesses against ambiguity, fighting against the honorary Honoriuses of our age.  They will be marked by a clarity in their teaching that is matched by an unambiguous way of life.  They will be unambiguously joyful because they will be unambiguously holy.  They will accept unambiguous suffering at the hands of those afflicted with ambiguity and offer it for their sake (Col 1:24).  They will hold fast to the truth, but always in a way that speaks of love and mercy.  They will be true saints.



The Waiting Game

In his most celebrated and enduring work, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens tells the story of a miserable old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge.  The protagonist is visited by three ghosts, each set on infusing into his heart the “Christmas spirit.”  As frightful as the experience might be, many of us would wholeheartedly welcome the arrival of a specter if it meant being given the Christmas spirit. In hopes of being caught up in the spirit, we try shopping for the perfect gift.  We may turn to Christmas music, but we can only listen to Feliz Navidad so many times (once) before our hearts grow cold.  We might blame the “culture” for the secularization of Christmas, but no matter what we do, the Christmas spirit remains elusive. What if, the problem was something else?  What if we struggle to get into the Christmas spirit because we never “get into” the spirit of Advent?

As the Latin derivation of the name suggests (Adventus for Coming), Advent is a period of preparation for the celebration of the Feast of the Incarnation on Christmas. Although it has been observed to varying degrees and varying lengths of time throughout Church history, it has always been viewed as a “little” Lent because it is a period of spiritual preparation through the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It was “little” both because the duration of time is shorter (4 weeks vs 40 days) and because the Church does not command the same rigor as Lent. Its “littleness” has always been the reason why it is my favorite liturgical season and why it offers an excellent time for those of us who might grow weary and lose intensity during Lent or even suffer from a little spiritual ADD.

What Are You Waiting For?

Advent is a season of waiting.  Throughout history, God’s people have always waited for Him to fully reveal Himself. The Incarnation may have happened in a specific time and place, but it touches every time and place.  When God pitched His tent among us, time and eternity met—now each moment touches God’s eternal Now.  The season of Advent may end at Christmas—a day that marks the birth of Christ—but Christmas properly understood is meant to mark the three comings of Christ. First, there is His coming in the flesh in the cave in Bethlehem. Second, there is His coming in grace and the Eucharist to us in the here and now. Finally, it is preparation for His second coming when He will judge mankind. Christmas, like all the Christian mysteries, has a threefold meaning in the past, present and future. You cannot separate any of the three elements from the other two without doing harm to the meaning of Christmas. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

This threefold meaning of Christmas is what ultimately helps us to “keep Christ in Christmas” by protecting it from simply being a day we remember some past event.  We see it not only as an event in the past that put the world on a different trajectory, but an event that touches each of us individually today and ultimately determines our individual future.  The Christmas spirit is a living spirit.  But we must prepare for it by following the steady path laid out in Sacred Scripture.  The Church borrows the words of the prophets in the Advent liturgies not so much to show they were right, but to make their fervent expressions of longing our own. God’s word is living and active and never returns to Him empty (c.f. Heb 4:12, Is 55:11). We must wrap our hearts around His words through the prophets and make them our own expressions. Advent should be a time in which Scripture comes alive for us, especially by dedicating more time to prayer and study.

Are You Awake?

It is not just the words of prophets that form our Advent, but even the cosmos bids us to “stay awake” as the night grows longer.  It is not until the “Light of the World” enters on December 25th that the days will begin to get longer again.  The Christmas spirit only comes when we have allowed the spirit of vigilance to animate our Advent.  Advent allows us to give expression to that deep yearning for God that we all experience. That desire is so deep within us and such a natural part of our daily existence that we often become drowsy.  Advent offers us both the opportunity, and specific graces, to become vigilant.  In fact we will likely find that we are more vigilant throughout the rest of the year because we have paid our dues in Advent.

Fasting while we await the arrival of the Bridegroom is also a key aspect of Advent. Assuming that His disciples would fast (Mt 6:16), He won many graces for them when He Himself fasted in the desert.  Fasting not only helps us to gain control over our passions, but when done properly actually makes our senses more alert.  This is why fasting from food is such a powerful spiritual practice.  Because food is necessary to life, the hunger we experience in going without, is felt at the core of our being. We give up what is necessary because we want the One Thing that is most necessary.

Advent and the Eucharist

Advent can also be a time in which we double-down on our devotion to the Eucharist.  The Eucharist ensures that Christmas Day is not merely symbolic. We truly receive what we have been preparing for, even if God shields our eyes under the appearance of bread and wine.  The entire purpose of all the season is to receive Christ in His fullness and permanently.  The Eucharist is the Sacrament that truly brings this about.  It is not only Christmas Day but the entire season of Advent that is protected from becoming a symbolic gesture by the Eucharist. Spending more time “keeping watch with Our Lord” for an hour of Adoration ought to be a key practice of Advent. Likewise, we should increase our frequency of Daily Mass attendance, asking for the grace to receive Our Lord more perfectly each time. The Eucharist has a gravitational force about it in that the more you receive Our Lord, the more you desire to receive Him again. There is no better way to make real the goal of Advent than by allowing Our Lord to bestow this gift upon us.

Apostles of the End Times

As the liturgical year comes to a close, the Church’s readings focus almost exclusively on the end times and the return of Christ in power and might, revealing Himself as Christ the King.  With Advent on the heels of the Solemnity of Christ the King, many of us will flip a switch and turns our eyes to His first coming, when He mounted the throne of the Cross to reign from the Tabernacle.  But rather than hitting the reset button, we should see a principle of continuity between the two seasons, especially if we subscribe to the beliefs of the greatest prophet of the 20th Century, St. John Paul II.  A recurring theme during his pontificate, one that he emphasized in his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis, was that we are in a season of “a new Advent.”  This new Advent means “to accept with keen conviction the words of her [the Church’s] victorious Redeemer: ‘Remember I am coming soon’ (Rev 22:12).” (John Paul II, ad Limina Address to the Bishops of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, April 25, 1988).  Without succumbing to any distorted millennialism or fatalism, the saintly Pontiff nevertheless expressed a sober certitude that “We are living in the Advent of the last days of history, and trying to prepare for the coming of Christ…”(Angelus Address for World Youth Day, August 19, 1993).

While it remains always true that “you know not the day nor the hour,” the office of Supreme Pontiff carries with it a prophetic charism that invites us in a particular way to keep watch during our own time (c.f. Mt 25:13).  The Pope had a good reason for thinking that our own times were ripe for the return of Christ, one that he hints at in his encyclical Redemptoris Mater:

“For, if as Virgin and Mother she was singularly united with him in his first coming, so through her continued collaboration with him she will also be united with him in expectation of the second; ‘redeemed in an especially sublime manner by reason of the merits of her Son,’ she also has that specifically maternal role of mediatrix of mercy at his final coming, when all those who belong to Christ ‘shall be made alive,’ when ‘the last enemy to be destroyed is death’ (1 Cor. 15:26).”

The great Marian pope reasons that because Mary played such a key role in the first coming, she would likewise play an integral role in the second.  This is a principle that he borrowed from St. Louis de Montfort, a saint whom John Paul II admitted to having a particularly strong devotion.

Mary’s Role in the End Times

The words of the Polish saint echo St. Louis’ who, in his book True Devotion to Mary, says that

“The salvation of the world began through Mary and through her it must be accomplished. Mary scarcely appeared in the first coming of Jesus Christ so that men, as yet insufficiently instructed and enlightened concerning the person of her Son, might not wander from the truth by becoming too strongly attached to her…As she was the way by which Jesus first came to us, she will again be the way by which he will come to us the second time though not in the same manner” (True Devotion to Mary, 49, 50).

Mary’s greatness remained hidden at the first coming so as to cause no confusion as to the reason for her greatness—the Son of God come in the flesh.  Once the true nature of Christ was sufficiently known, the Holy Spirit wished that we come to know her more fully so that, made perfectly prepared for the first coming, she might prepare the world for the Second Coming.  Just as through her, He came, so through her, even if in a different manner, will He come again.  It is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Revelation 12 in which the Queen gives birth and the child is caught up to God and to His throne.  She returns to her place prepared by God and the devil takes out his wrath on her children.

Reading the signs of the times through a Montfortian lens, St. John Paul II likely interpreted the proliferation of Marian apparitions as a sign that the end is near.  Again, we do not know how near is near, but nevertheless Our Lady’s messages in each of the apparitions are marked by a spirit of urgency.  The “Fatima Pope,” deeply formed by these messages, invited the Church to a renewed vigilance in this “new Advent.”

Those consecrated to Jesus through Mary are, what St. Louis de Montfort, calls Apostles of the End Times (TD 58).  In describing these apostles, the 17th Century French Saint provides us with a blueprint for navigating this new Advent.  At the dawn of the Final Battle,

“Almighty God and his holy Mother are to raise up great saints who will surpass in holiness most other saints as much as the cedars of Lebanon tower above little shrubs…These great souls filled with grace and zeal will be chosen to oppose the enemies of God who are raging on all sides. They will be exceptionally devoted to the Blessed Virgin. Illumined by her light, strengthened by her food, guided by her spirit, supported by her arm, sheltered under her protection, they will fight with one hand and build with the other. With one hand they will give battle, overthrowing and crushing heretics and their heresies, schismatics and their schisms, idolaters and their idolatries, sinners and their wickedness. With the other hand they will build the temple of the true Solomon and the mystical city of God, namely, the Blessed Virgin, who is called by the Fathers of the Church the Temple of Solomon and the City of God . By word and example they will draw all men to a true devotion to her and though this will make many enemies, it will also bring about many victories and much glory to God alone.”

Becoming Apostles of the End Times

In short, these apostles will be identified by three particular marks—a love of the Cross, Apostolic Zeal, and a great Marian devotion.

These great souls, because they “carry the gold of love in their heart and the incense of prayer in their spirit” will love the Cross; a love shown by “carrying the myrrh of mortification in their bodies.”  They will, as Our Lady requested at Fatima, practice penance with great regularity.  In preaching devotion to Mary they “will make many enemies” (TD 48) and serving as Our Lady’s heel by which she will crush the head of the serpent, they will be “down-trodden and crushed” (TD 54) by all the children of the devil and of the world.

Not only will the Apostles of the End Times suffer for a love of God, but also they will be driven by an unquenchable apostolic zeal to save souls.  “Flaming fires” (TD 56) these apostles will spread the “the fire of divine love” everywhere.  Our Lady will use them like sharp arrows in her powerful hands and they will not only reform the Church, but will be instrumental in extending the truth of the Gospel to “the idolators and Muslims” (TD 59).

St. Louis says that “these great souls . . . will be exceptionally devoted to the Blessed Virgin. Illumined by her light, nourished at her breast, guided by her spirit, supported by her arm, sheltered under her protection” (TD 48, 55).  They will be marked by a profound humility which enables them to act as her heel that crushes the head of serpent.  Their militant spirit will imitate the spirit of Our Lady of Mercy, always willing to suffer to win souls from the clutches of the evil one. “They will have the two-edged sword of the word of God in their mouths and the blood-stained standard of the Cross on their shoulders. They will carry the crucifix in their right hand and the rosary in their left, and the holy names of Jesus and Mary on their heart. The simplicity and self-sacrifice of Jesus will be reflected in their whole behavior” (TD, 59).

Are we living in the end times?  Most assuredly, yes.  But we may still be separated by many years from the return of Christ.  Nevertheless, the Church needs to set the wheels in motion so that the Apostles of the End Times are fully formed when the time comes.  It is hard to imagine a better way to live in the “new Advent”, then by spending this Advent by becoming an Apostle of the End Times.  This Wednesday, November 29th offers yet another opportunity to spend the next 33 days preparing for a consecration to Jesus through Mary on January 1st.

What’s for Dinner?

In keeping with tradition, President Trump pardoned Drumstick, the thirty-six pound presidential turkey, yesterday and sent her to Gobblers Rest on the Virginia Tech campus.  Millions of other turkeys will not be so fortunate however adorning the tables of Americans tomorrow gathering for the Thanksgiving Day feast.  For a small, but increasing, number of those families, they will forgo the fowl because they are avowed vegans and vegetarians.  Included within this group are a number of Catholic intellectuals who have rejected their omnivorous ways by making a moral argument for vegetarianism, seeing it as an antidote to the culture of death.   Before the Lion of PETA lies down with Lamb of the National Right to Life, it is instructive to offer a Christian perspective on vegetarianism.

Animals and Their Use

In examining the order of nature, it is patently obvious that there is a hierarchy in which the perfect proceeds from the imperfect.  This hierarchy also resides in the use of things so that the imperfect exists for the use of the perfect.  The plants make use of the earth for their nourishment, animals make use of plants and man makes use of plants and animals.  Man is said then to have dominion over all of visible creation because, having reason and will, he is able to make use of all of it.

Revelation supports human reason in this regard as Genesis tells of God’s granting of dominion to mankind because he is created in God’s image (c.f. Gn 1:26-27).  But this is really a two-edged sword.  Dominion means not just that we have the capacity for using things, but also that there is a right and wrong way to use them.  With free will comes the capacity for the misuse of creatures.   So that the question is not really whether man has dominion over the animals but whether this dominion includes the right to eat them.

Thus when we reflect on the proper use of animals, we usually use the term “humane.”  Although it is an oft-used term, it is not oft-understood.  When we speak of the “humane” treatment of animals it does not mean that we treat them as if they were human.  Instead it refers to the truly human (i.e. moral) way of treating animals as living, sentient beings over which we have been given not just dominion but stewardship.  Humane treatment refers to the truly human way of using the animals.  This would mean that all traces of cruelty or causing unnecessary pain carry moral weight.  Put another way, we should avoid any all forms of abuse, which, of course,  always assumes there is a proper use.

The question also needs to be properly framed.  It is not really whether or not this use includes the death of the animal.  Just as the use of plants by animals may lead to the death of the plants, so too do higher animals prey on the lower.  There is no inherent reason then why the use of the animal by man cannot results in death.  Some make the argument for the moral necessity of vegetarianism based on the fact that we should not kill a living thing.  A moment’s reflection however allows us to see that virtually all of our food, including many things like wheat and fruits and vegetables, results from the death of something that was living (see Augustine’s City of God, Book 1, Ch.20 for further discussion on this).  No one truly objects because the plant matter, lacking sentience, does not have the capacity for pain.  To advance further we must look more closely at animal pain.


Every generation has its pet virtue and for our generation it is kindness.  Provided we “would never hurt a fly” we are deemed good people.  The great enemy of kindness is cruelty and its daughter pain.  Pain is the greatest evil.  But this is not entirely true.  Pain becomes an evil when it becomes an end in itself.  This is true in both humans and animals.  It can however serve as a means, provided it is minimized in carry out its purpose.  That purpose can be either corrective (like getting too close to a fire) or for growth.  Cruelty would not be to cause pain, but to cause it unnecessarily.  The power of sentience is not simply for feeling pleasure, but also allows for the feeling of pain.  This power is good and necessary for the creature to thrive.

The difference in humans and animals is the capacity, not to feel pain, but to suffer.  There must be an I to experience suffering or else it is merely a succession of pains without any real connection.  As CS Lewis says in The Problem of Pain it is most accurate to say “pain is taking place in this animal” rather than “this animal is suffering.”  We should avoid saying things like “how would you like to be in a slaughterhouse?”  The experience of animals in that environment is very different from the suffering that would have gone on in a place like Auschwitz.  They may be in pain in the slaughterhouse, but there is no suffering.  Any appeal to emotions based on an anthropomorphic comparison ultimately muddies the waters.

The causing of pain in other humans, always as a means, is licit provided the patient receives some benefit from it.  At first glance it would seem that animals would derive no benefit from the pain caused by humans.  When we view pain as means of moving a person towards perfection then we can see the parallel in animals.  The perfection of any creature consists in it achieving the end for which it was made.  Man was made for happiness (in the classical sense of becoming morally good) and animals were made for man.  If the pain that a man causes an animal is necessary for his own happiness and acts as a means to helping the animal reach the end for which it was made, namely the service of mankind, then there is nothing inherently wrong with it.

The Moral Case For Vegetarianism

All that has been said so far helps to clear up some of the ambiguities surrounding the issue, but has yet to address whether a moral argument could be made for vegetarianism.  In the state of original innocence man was a vegetarian (c.f. Gn 1:29).  Man had dominion over the animals but did not use them for clothes or food (ST I, q.103, art. 1).  The animals obeyed man, that is, all animals were domesticated.  For his own disobedience man was punished by the disobedience of those creatures which should have been subjected to him and they became difficult to domesticate and often posed threats to his life.  Shortly thereafter the animals were used for clothing (Gn 3:20) and food (Gn 9:3).  In short, because of the frailty introduced to the human body as a result of the Fall, it became necessary to make use of the animals for warmth and nutrition.

Any argument that man “was originally a vegetarian” ultimately falls flat because we cannot return to our Edenic state.  With the Fall came irreparable damage to both body and soul of which animal flesh provides a partial remedy.  Furthermore, within Church tradition, fasting from meat has long been practiced as a means of mortification.  We are called to abstain from good things so that eating meat is a good thing and thus worthy of being sacrificed.  In short, any attempt to make a moral argument that eating meat is wrong ultimately falls flat.

Likewise making a connection to the culture of death is problematic.  It is not clear how using animals for food is directly connected or acts like a gateway drug for the culture of death unless you equivocate on the word death.  The culture of death is one that causes spiritual death.  How the killing of animals, when done in a humane way and not out of greed, leads to a culture of spiritual death is not immediately obvious.

All that being said, there is a manner in which vegetarianism can represent a morally praiseworthy act, that is by way of counsel and not obligation.  Because meat is a concession made by God because of man’s fallen condition, abstaining from meat can act as a participation in the fruits of Christ’s redemptive act.  This is why the Church has long obligated abstaining from meat specifically (as opposed to some other kind of food) during certain liturgical periods.  Permanently abstaining from meat, when done with this intention, becomes a powerful spiritual practice.  It also becomes an act of witness to both the world and to those in the Church who often neglect this practice.

For the omnivores among us—enjoy your meat this Thanksgiving Day with a clear conscience.  But make an offering of thanksgiving Friday by holding the leftovers until Saturday.  Herbivores, allow your vegetarianism to be a constant sign of the redemption won at so great a cost.  Truly, something to be thankful for.

Changing the Cultural Smell

Long before it was fashionable to write books whose titles include profanity, philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote an extended essay On Bullsh*t.  Written in 1986, it is as current as ever, explaining why male cow excrement is a fitting metaphor for how Political Correctness spreads like manure, fertilizing our social landscape while carrying with it a noxious stench.  Thanks to its ubiquitous nature, we grow wearing of pinching our noses and eventually let go allowing it to saturate our minds.  Case in point—the recent scandal of sexual impropriety has shown not only that we have been holding our noses to it, but that we may in fact have forgotten how to breathe properly.  It is in that spirit, that I hope to end the bullsh*t by offering an introduction and application of Frankfurt’s work.

When I was in college, we used to play a card game called BS.  It was like Uno, except, rather than picking up cards when you did not have anything to put down, you would attempt to bluff your way out of it.  If another player thought you were bluffing then he would call BS and whoever was right became the owner of the pile.  The really good players were skilled at bluffing that they were bluffing, calling out the wrong number (which was really the right number), thus making it really hard to know what the player actually believed.

BS and Indifference

Nostalgic as I am for that game, it is relevant because it is illustrative of what real BS is like.  It is not really lying, but a form of bluffing.  It is merely an attempt to represent yourself as a certain kind of person.  Whether you are really that way is secondary at best, really inconsequential—it is only the appearance that matters.  As Frankfurt says, BS is really short of lying because it doesn’t really care what the truth is only how what you say makes you appear to be.  Its indifference to the truth makes it, in a certain sense, worse than lying because at least a lie pays a certain deference to the truth, even if it is still trying to deny it.

BS is not so much that someone gets things wrong, but that they are not really even trying to get things right.  The feigned conviction is not grounded in either a belief that what you are saying is true nor, as with a lie, in the belief that it is not true.  This indifference to the truth is really the essence of BS.  In fact we even have a special word for it—Political Correctness.  BS is at the heart of Political Correctness.  Whether or not I actually believe X is wrong or not is inconsequential—only that I say the things that make me appear to think it is wrong.  If tomorrow the court of public opinion changes then I will spout my BS to the contrary.

Frankfurt uses the example of the man leading a July 4th celebration standing up and giving a patriotic speech.  Whether the man is a patriot or not does not matter, his only goal is to appear patriotic because the setting demands it.  The man may be, and probably is, indifferent.  As the BS spreads so does the indifference.  All of the mouth breathing leads to brains that have been deprived of oxygen and no longer know what or why they believe certain things.  They simply become parrots repeating what someone else has said and keeping up appearances.

The BS Meter

The BS meter is maxed out with the latest sexual impropriety scandal.  For years Hollywood and Washington, as hubs of US power, were also seedbeds of exploitation.  Once a few women had the courage to speak up, the BS starting flowing.  Now to be clear, I am not saying they aren’t telling the truth.  I am sure the overwhelming majority of them are and that there are any number of victims who won’t speak up.  What I am saying is the “outraged” response.  One day Actor X is hitting Twitter saying all the PC things.  He doesn’t believe a word of it because the next day we find out he is just as guilty.  Next day Senator Y is condemning Actor X and it turns out there are pictures of him exploiting another woman.  Just as sure as tomorrow will bring another outing, there will be the accompanying BS.  BS kills conviction and once the next scandal hits, the problem creeps back into the shadows.

How do I know this?  Because it isn’t just Actor X and Senator Y that are guilty of it.  We are all complicit.  We may talk about how horrible sexual exploitation is, but it is all BS.  Take a look at your favorite news web site today and glance at the stories.  You will see a story about Al Franken, Roy Moore, and will also find one about some young female teacher arrested for sexual encounters with a teen boy.  Franken and Moore will pass but each day brings another story of a woman (usually a teacher) being arrested for a rendezvous with a male (underage) student.  The numbers are increasing (latest available data, collected in 2014, showed that a third of nearly 800 student-teacher sex prosecutions involved women) and we pretend it is not a problem.  But rather than outrage at this blatant abuse we click on each story to see the mug shot of the latest Mrs. Robinson with the accompanying Facebook or Instagram “sexy” photo.  Barstool Sports (BS), who just got their own SiriusXM radio station, even came out with a Sex Scandal Starting Lineup of the hottest teachers in 2016.  BS needs to keep the cycle of BS going by appealing to “guys.”  After all, what guy didn’t fantasize being with some hot teacher at some point?  Somehow without any basis in truth, these same guys who have bought BS’s BS are supposed to turn around and not sexually exploit women.  BS is dizzying if nothing else.

The examples grow exponentially.  What about the BS of equality?  Or the BS of freedom?  Or the BS of tolerance?  Even the Church is not immune with the BS masquerading as ecumenism.  BS has a funny way of infecting an entire culture.

In our collegiate game of BS there was only one way to win.  Once you got down to one card the other players would always call BS to keep you from winning.  The only way you could win is if you told the truth—that is you actually had the next card in the sequence.  It is only the truth that can set us free from cloud of BS and in the midst of a cultural crisis we as Catholics have a unique gift to offer the world.  We must preach the Good News of who we are as men and women, equal and not, and who we are in light of Christ.  Christ came so we would not have to deal with BS any longer.

The Terror of Demons

When St. Pius X officially sanctioned the Litany of St. Joseph in 1909, he acknowledged him to be both the Patron of the Dying and the Protector of Holy Church.  It was Pope Pius IX who first invoked him under the title of Patron of the Universal Church and he did so because dedicated his life to safeguarding the two most important members of the Church, Our Lord and Our Lady.  Tradition also names him Patron of the Dying because he died the most blessed of all deaths in the presence of the same two whom he had so vigilantly protected during his earthly sojourn.  But it is the title that bridges St. Joseph’s dual patronage, Terror of Demons, which constitutes his most active roles in the lives of individual Christians.  There is a danger of seeing the litany as merely a catalogue of things that St. Joseph can do; the carpenter who is the jack of all trades.  These last three titles have an interconnectedness that stocks our personal arsenal in times of great trial.  In truth, they arm us for the greatest of trial each of us will face, death.

All of the spiritual masters of old suggest that we reflect upon death regularly, not just to know about it, but to remember it.  They do so not just because it helps keep things in their proper perspective, but because it is the moment when our souls are in the greatest peril of being lost.  During our lives, the great majority of us see the devil as the Cheshire Cat but for all of us he will reveal himself fully  as the prowling lion intent on the ruin of our soul (1 Pt 5:8).  When his time is short, his wrath is greatest (Rev 12:12).

Why the Battle is So Fierce

Why this time of trial is so severe may not be entirely clear so that by adding some clarity we can steel ourselves for those inevitable moments.  Through His death and resurrection, Christ destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14).  But He did not take away death, but instead freed us from “the fear of death” (Heb 2:15).  Death itself is the last enemy to be destroyed (c.f. 1Cor 15:26) and still remains the playground of the Devil.  Just as in the rest of life, the devil is given power because it provides matter for our growth in the theological virtues.  On the cusp of death our faith and hope are sorely tried and through their fervent exercise provide a growth in our desire for God, “having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, which is much better” (Phil 1:23).

By freeing us from the fear of death Our Lord not only gives us a share in His victory but empowers us to make the victory our own.  Thrust into spiritual combat with the devil, the faithful are enabled to defeat the “strong man.”  Our Lord’s victory on the Cross does not merely defeat the devil, but destroys him (c.f. Heb 2:14).  That is, He renders Satan’s power at the time of death ultimately ineffective.  To be defeated by the Word made flesh is one thing, but to be defeated by hairless bipeds is quite another.  Satan’s destruction comes about because he can no longer bind severely handicapped human creatures.  Through the mysterious action of grace each of us can truly say that the victory is mine.

Armed for the Final Battle

The Church was given the power to arm the faithful for this final battle through the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.  The Council of Trent says that among the effects of the Sacrament is the power to “resist more easily the temptations of the devil who lies in wait for his heel” (Council of Trent, Session 14).  While the Sacrament bestows this power ex opere operato, the effect within the individual believer depends upon his subjective disposition to receive the grace.

By anticipating the fronts on which the attacks are likely to occur, we can be better prepared for the ensuing battle.  It is our faith and hope that are put to the test during this final battle and so we need to examine how these two virtues are tried—faith through doubt and credulity and hope through despair and presumption.  In his book, Spiritual Combat, the 16th Century author Dom Lorenzo Scupoli examines these four areas and gives some tips to make us battle ready.

In his attacks against faith he will attempt to stir up anxiety about what is to come by planting the seeds of doubt about the faith of the Church in our minds.  The battle is not however to have a ready defense so as to argue.  Our Lord’s temptation in the desert reveals the Devil to be a liar and a sophist and able to twist and distort even the most blatant of lies.  Instead we must have the interior habit of faith—a firm clinging to the truth of all that the Church teaches.  The more ingrained that habit is, the stronger will be our defense.  In any regard we are to offer no pearls to the demonic swine.  As Scupoli says, “if the subtle serpent demands of you what the Catholic Church believes, do not answer him, but seeing his device, and that he only wants to catch you in your words, make an inward act of more lively faith.  Or else, to make him burst with indignation, reply that the holy Catholic Church believes the truth; and if the evil one should ask in return, ‘What is truth?’ you reply, ‘That which she believes.’”

The devil will also tempt us towards credulity through false visions.  Knowing the likelihood of an attack on this front, we should turn away from any visions in humility by seeing ourselves as unworthy of visions.  Even if they turn out to be true, God ultimately is pleased with our humility and therefore will not hold it against us.  Instead acts of trust are to be made in the mercy of Jesus and the prayers of Our Lady and St. Joseph.


The second front by which the demonic sortie is likely to come is by attacking hope.  Our past sins will be thrown at us all with the goal of despairing for our salvation.  Humility and trust in the blood of Christ are the weapons of choice.  Remembrance of past sins is a grace when it is accompanied by sorrow for having offended God and humility.  But when these thoughts unsettle you, they come from the Wicked One.  True sorrow is a gift of the Sacrament of Confession and will bear great fruit in this time of trial.  Genuine humility, borne out in the crucible of the humiliations of life is a steady shield.  To the extent that we develop these virtues now, they will be ready at hand in the time of trial.

Scupoli says that presumption is the final battle arena. Confronted with despair there is always the temptation to begin to list all of our merits.  In the face of this, Scupoli says we should “abase yourself ever more and more in your own eyes, even to your last breath; and of every good deed done by you, which may come before you, recognize God Alone for its Author. Have recourse to Him for help, but do not expect it on account of your own merits, however many and great be the battles in which you have been victorious. Ever preserve a spirit of holy fear, acknowledging sincerely that all your precautions would be in vain, if God did not gather you under the shadow of His wings, in Whose protection alone you will confide.”

The logic of the Litany of St. Joseph now comes into view.  If he is to be the Patron of a Happy Death, he necessarily must be a Terror of Demons.  It is his prayers specifically during our battle that make him the Terror of Demons, chasing them from us by the power of his mere presence.  By captaining the final battle of the members of the Church Militant, he is there to usher them into the Church Triumphant making the Church truly universal.  By fostering our own personal devotion to St. Joseph, we too may come to share in his inheritance.

The Heart of Sacrifice

It is part of the canon of frenzied modern man—“showing up is 80 percent of life.”   Whether the percentage is correct or not, rarely do we hear the proverb’s obverse that “20 percent of life requires more than just showing up.”  The challenge, and it is a challenge whose success determines a life well-lived, is to know which arenas to apply the 80/20 rule to.  Unfortunately, for many Catholics, the Mass falls into the 80 percent category.  But the Church, at least according to the Second Vatican Council, thinks it is in the 20 percent exhorting that “fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (Sacrosanctum Concillium, 14).  In short, we must do more than just show up.

One could wallpaper the entire Vatican several times over (or, if you prefer, fully clog their sewer system) with all that has been written about the meaning of the phrase “fully conscious and active participation” so I will not add to the growing detritus.  Regardless of how you interpret that phrase, we can all agree that little, if any, headway has been made towards this “aim [that is] to be considered before all else” (SC, 14). Why is this?  Because the Mass, like many parts of our divine faith, has become an ideological battleground whose smoke has obscured the reason that the Mass exists in the first place.

The Sacrament of the Body and Blood

Each of the Sacraments are visible signs, instituted by Christ, by which invisible grace and inward sanctification are communicated to a person.  We all remember this definition from our early Catechism lessons.  But what we may not have grasped is the uniqueness of the Eucharist and the grounds for the assertion that it is the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (SC, 10).  Like the other six Sacraments the Eucharist bestows grace, but it also contains the very Author of grace, Jesus Himself.  The Son is really and truly present upon the altar after the words of consecration.  The truth of the Real Presence is overwhelming, but we must take care to not allow its brightness to blind us to the fact that the Eucharist is also a sign.  It is a sign that points to the reality of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  It is the Divinely instituted sign that invokes His power and makes that same sacrifice present under the form of bread and wine.  It is the Sacrament of His Body and Blood first, Real Presence second—not in the chronological sense but in the order of the Divine intention.  Christ says not, “this is Me” but “this is My Body…this is My Blood.”  This is not to deny the Real Presence, only to frame it within the context of what happens in the Mass.

By turning our gaze upon the Body and Blood of Christ we see the Mass rightly as a sacrifice.  In an age of exaggerated ecumenism it is vital for us to grasp that the “Mystery of Faith” is the sacrifice that occurs on the altar.  It is not the same sacrifice as the one on Calvary; Christ was sacrificed once for all.  Yet this sacrifice is one with that sacrifice in that it is the perfect re-presentation of the same Victim and the same Priest.  The only difference between the two sacrifices are the mode in which they are offered.  The natural mode saw the separation of His physical Body and Blood on the Cross, while the Sacramental mode sees the separation of His Body and Blood Sacramentally—an unbloody offering of the one Sacrifice of Calvary.  As the Council of Trent puts it “[I]n the two sacrifices there is one and the same victim, one and the same priest, who then on the cross offered Himself, and who now, by the instrumentality of His priests, offers Himself anew, the two sacrifices differing only in their mode” (Council of Trent, Disp 13, q. 3, nos 48,50).

This distinction enables us to see a deeper aspect of the Sacred Mystery.  Just as her Divine Head had His natural sacrifice, the Church has her own sacrifice in the Eucharist.  The Sacrifice of the Cross belongs to the world, while the Sacrifice of the Mass belongs only to the Church.  It was instituted by Christ specifically for the members of His Mystical Body.  The Church as the Body of Christ is no mere metaphor, but a profound truth that we are comprised of members who have been bodily united to the Lord in the Eucharist (c.f. 1Cor 6:12-19).  Likewise, Communion as the consummation of the Eucharistic Sacrifice becomes a necessary, and uniquely privileged, element of the sacrificial act.

“Pray Brethren that My Sacrifice and Yours…”

Taking ownership of the sacrifice means not only that we receive sacred benefits from it, but that the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is put into our hands to use.  The Mass is not just about receiving forgiveness and grace but also about exercising our share of the Priesthood of Christ.  Calvary comes to us so that we might participate in it and have a share in distributing its fruit.  This is why simply mailing it in deprives each of us and the Church as a whole of a great spiritual benefit.  “Fully conscious participation” consists in recognizing “my sacrifice and yours” as an exercise of our own priesthood.  Mary was mankind’s representative at the foot of the altar of Calvary and in that way participated in the sacrifice so that its benefits my spread to her spiritual children.  We ought to have her as our model in participating in the unbloody Calvary of the Mass.  The point is that we must be fully present in order to not only receive its benefits but also to apply them.  As co-sacrificing priests, we ought to have specific intentions for which we offer the Mass—intentions that are distinct from the general intercessions and the special intention of the Priest for the Mass.

Although in some circles the idea of Christians presenting sacrifices to God has the odor of “the Law,” it is something that we are commanded to do.  After preaching the essence of the gospel to the Romans for 11 chapters, St. Paul begins the 12th by exhorting them to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).  According to the Apostle to the Gentiles, the essence of the Christian life is to offer sacrifice.  But it is a sacrifice that on our own we can never offer—this sacrifice must be visible (your bodies), living, holy and pleasing to God.  It is God who supplies the Lamb.  The Eucharist is the only living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God.  By its reception we become one flesh with its Victim thus His Body becomes ours.  The Eucharist becomes the source and summit of all Christian sacrifice.  All our sacrifices—big and small even when mixed with impure motives—are offered in the Sacrament of the Body and Blood and thus become holy and pleasing to God.  All of life finds its meaning and fulfilment in the Mass.  The great challenge of the Christian life—pleasing God—becomes conceivable.  Eighty percent of life may be showing up, but Life itself requires much more.

Spreading Hope


During a September series between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers in Dodger Stadium, Giants’ rightfielder Hunter Pence wore a necklace that contained the cremains of a devoted Dodgers’ fan, after the Dodgers refused the request to have the man’s daughter spread his ashes on the field.  The plea was one of many that the Dodgers and the rest of the MLB teams receive and routinely refuse yearly.  There is an ongoing campaign to develop a compromise of sorts in that the teams could allow on certain days a small amount of a person’s ashes to be spread on the field.  Setting aside the pragmatic reasoning, this decision ultimately represents an act of charity toward the dead and their loved ones.

The Book of Tobit reveals God’s pleasure in Tobit’s dogged persistence in burying the dead (Tobit 14:14) and it has long been considered a corporal work of mercy in the Christian tradition.  Understanding why God looks favorably upon this act however can help us to see the reason the Church insists that cremated remains not be scattered.

Spreading Faith

Christians have long seen death not as annihilation nor as the releasing of the soul from its incarceration in the body, but as having a fundamental positive meaning.  By being united to Christ’s death and resurrection in Baptism, the believer sees his own death in Christ as the pathway to a share in His glorious resurrection.  Like the resurrection of the Lord, the Christian’s is a bodily resurrection.  Our temporal bodies become as a seed of the body that will rise in glory (c.f. 1Cor 15:42-44).

This motivation helps to reveal the meaning of Christian burial.  If we really believe that our resurrected bodies are found in seed form in our earthly bodies, then our actions ought to reveal this.  Seeds must be buried and die so that new life may spring forth.   Christian burial is a sign of this; a sacrament that point to this reality.

Historically, pagans practiced funeral rites that included cremation, reflecting the widespread belief that there was no resurrection of the body.  Even when the pagans did practice burial (based on the belief that only when their bodies were buried could the soul rest), the Christians still buried their separately from the pagans because of the great difference in their understanding of the future resurrection.  It was this connection between paganism (and later certain secret societies and cults) and cremation that led the Church to remove it as an option for the faithful.

Considering some of the practical difficulties of burial in modern times (mostly exorbitant costs and decreasing space) the Church relaxed some of her restrictions on cremation when the new code of Canon Law was released in 1983.  Burial because of its nature as a sign remains the preferred method, but unless it is chosen for reasons contrary to Christian beliefs (i.e. a lack of belief in the resurrection of the body) then it is permitted when necessary (Canon 1176.3).  Cremation can testify to the omnipotence of God in raising up the deceased body to new life and therefore “in and of itself, objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body” (Piam et constantem, 5 July 1963).

The cremated remains of the person should always “be laid to rest in a sacred place, that is, in a cemetery, or, in certain cases, in a church or an area which has been set aside for this purpose…” (Instruction Regarding the Burial of the Deceased and the Conservation of Ashes in the Case of Cremation, CDF, 2016).  This means that the ashes should never be scattered or preserved as mementos or pieces of jewelry.   To do any of these things would be testimony of pantheism, naturalism, or nihilism.

Based on what has been said so far, one might be willing to concede that the prohibition on scattering ashes should be binding on Christians, but what about non-Christians?  In other words, what if the man whose remains Hunter Pence wore didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body?  How is insisting on his burial an act of charity to both he and his family?

Of particular mention as well is that whether or not someone believes in the resurrection of the body has no bearing on whether it is true.  It may be an article of faith but it is an article of true faith, and so we as Christians have an obligation to do all that we can to bear witness to this truth.  Burial or interment also constitutes an act of charity to the dead as well.  For the dead it creates a “monument” that serves as a reminder to the living to pray for the deceased.  It assures that they will not be forgotten.  One whose ashes have been scattered will soon be forgotten, perhaps not by their immediate loved ones, but to subsequent generations they will be as one blotted out.  By not spreading ashes, we are spreading hope.

Spreading Charity

This highlights the intrinsic connection between the corporal work of mercy, burying the dead, and the spiritual work of mercy of praying for the dead.  This is perhaps the “easiest” of all works of mercy but also the most often neglected.  To pray for the dead is a great act of charity especially considering that only Catholics do it.  Very likely that man whose remains were worn by the Giants’ outfielder and many others like him have no one to pray for him.  We may have no way of knowing how the person has been judged, but we always trust that God’s mercy is more powerful than any man’s sins.  And so we pray and by praying, ironically enough, repair the harm done by our own sins, reducing our own time in Purgatory.  Charity covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).

Many of the souls in Purgatory spend more time there than they should for want of having someone to pray for them.  Therefore the Church Militant devotes a whole month of special focus to relieving their suffering and offers a plenary indulgence for the Holy Souls during the week of Nov 2-Nov 8 each year.  By way of reminder, one can obtain a plenary indulgence (one per day), when in a state of grace and with a complete detachment from sin, receive Holy Communion, pray for the intentions of the Pope and go to Confession within 20 days before or after the act (one Confession can cover all 7 days, but the other acts must be done daily).  One can gain this particular indulgence by, in addition to the above conditions, devoutly visiting a cemetery and praying for the departed, even if the prayer is only mental.

A partial indulgence for the Souls in Purgatory can be obtained when the Requiem aeternam is prayed. This can be prayed all year, but should be especially prayed during the month of November:

Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.



Why God Loves Baseball

The ghostly baseball announcer commands the farmer “if you build it, he will come.”  So the man tears up part of his farm and builds a baseball field and is visited immediately by members of the shamed 1919 White Sox.  So begins W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe that was later made into the American classic movie Field of Dreams.  When the farmer, Ray Kinsella, meets one of his heroes Joe Jackson, Shoeless Joe says “This must be heaven.”  Ray replies “No, it’s Iowa.”  The famously slow outfielder from South Carolina may be excused for his confusion, for a baseball field can very easily be confused with heaven for those who have eyes to see.  It is quite literally the perfect game.

First there is the fact that the game is deeply Trinitarian.  The number three and its multiples are found everywhere.  There are 3 outs, 9 innings and the game is complete once 27 outs, that is  outs, are recorded.  There are 9 players on the field, a field in which the pitcher’s mound whose diameter is 18 feet and is 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate.  The bases, of which you must touch all 3 before advancing home, are each 90 feet apart.  It is played on a diamond, the symbol of purity and one of the 12 gemstones of the New Jerusalem.  We can’t help but love it because it is played on a diamond, the same precious stone that God uses to write on man’s heart (c.f. Jer 17:1).

The most exciting (and rarest) of plays are the triple, the triple play and striking out the side on 9 pitches.  Only the truly excellent players can achieve a 30-30 season (that is 30 HR and 30 SB) or strike out 300 batters.  Canonization is guaranteed by 3000 hits or 300 wins.  The game is played without a clock and thus foreshadows the timelessness of heaven (it is a great sacrilege when kids have to play the game under a time limit).  In fact when both teams play it perfectly, that is when there is a double perfect game, it could go on forever.  There is also the goal, beginning at home and striving to return there, as an apt parallel for life as proceeding from that same Trinity and our hustling to return to God.  Baseball is then a parallel for the Divine Romance between man and God.

Field of Dreams By JoeyBLS

Baseball’s historical roots are clouded in darkness with nothing like it found anywhere, making us think it was created ex nihilo. On the Seventh Day, God rested and watched the Seventh Game of the World Series, the perfect ending to His perfect creation.  Sin, PEDs and instant replay may have tainted that creation, but baseball still gives us a glimpse of paradise restored.  That ultimately is why sports, and baseball in particular remain compelling to us—America’s pastime.  Baseball is not a necessary thing or even a really important thing, but in the strict sense neither is creation.  Baseball, like all of creation, exists out of the superabundance of God’s goodness.  He created it in order to bring us joy; enabling us to grasp at the seeds of hope found within His creation.  For a small window of time we are brought into a well-ordered world where human perfection is on display and only fair play allowed.  It is, as Aristotle thought, a foretaste of true contemplation.

That the Seventh Game of the World Series will be played on All Saints Day is providential.  For those who watch the Astros and Dodgers tonight will become as the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering the players on and winning and losing with them.  They become the 10th man on the field.  The game binds a community together, that is why we name them after cities instead of giving the naming rights to companies.  And now that the Suffering Servant (the Cubs) has prospered, the game can work its healing power on devastated city like Houston the same way it did Boston in 2013.

Walt Whitman, when he first encountered children playing ‘base’ in Brooklyn declared “the game of ball is glorious.”  Is it heaven? No, but it isn’t Iowa either.  Baseball brings us to some place on the road between the two.

Making Supermen

A friend of mine often wears what he calls his “favorite conversation starter” t-shirt.  It features a bunch of Marvel and DC superheroes sitting on top of a building listening to Jesus regale “and that is how I saved the world.”  This clever t-shirt is a conversation starter indeed, but not for the reason that you might think.  For most people, Christian and non-Christian alike, know the story of how Jesus saved mankind.  What they do not understand is how Jesus saves individual men.  It is this distinction between the universal and the particular, between all men and each man, that has both evangelical and ecumenical implications.  It is towards this distinction that we need to turn our gaze, not only to grasp it intellectually, but to embrace it more fully with our hearts.

The logic of the Word pitching His tent among us is twofold: atonement and redemption.  He came to return to the Father all the external glory that was lost through mankind’s offense.  But He did not just leave mankind in travail, but also redeemed us.  This is how He saved the world.  But not all members of the human race are redeemed so that simply being a member of the human race is not sufficient.  There is still the question as to how you and I enter into the orbit of the redeemed.  In Protestant parlance, the question is how does Jesus become my personal Lord and Savior?

How You and I Are Saved

The obvious, and somewhat simple answer, is faith.  Although the answer is simple, all too often we equivocate on the word faith and do not truly grasp what it means.  Faith, in the broadest sense, means to believe.  According to St. Augustine believing means to give assent to something one is still considering because one does not have a finished vision of the truth.  That is, rational inquiry into the object is not yet complete and therefore the person’s assent is not in the reason but in the will.  One trusts the Source and therefore proceeds as if the object has been sufficiently proven.

Faith is not complete until it has an object.  It is not enough to say “I believe” but one must say what he believes in.  To say that one has faith in Christ, he must believe that “there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  That is the man trusts that all Christ did and said was true and that his act of redemption was sufficient to overcome his slavery to sin and power of death to hold him.

So far, the Catholic and non-Catholic Christian would agree.  Faith is necessary for salvation but it may not be sufficient.  Faith in Christ could exist prior to His appearance.  This is the faith of the father of the Old Testament, “the faith of Abraham which was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:22).  Faith by itself is not tied to the historical appearance of the Son of Man per se.  In other words, faith’s object remains blurred until it is bound to the Passion of Christ.

To bring the power that flows from the Passion of Christ, that is our personal possession of His act of redemption, into focus requires something further.  As Aquinas puts it, “the power of Christ’s Passion is united to us by faith and the sacraments, but in different ways; because the link that comes from faith is produced by an act of the soul whereas the link that comes from the sacraments, is produced by making use of exterior things” (ST III, q.62 a.6).  The sacramental system is joined to faith so that there is not just a psychic connection between the believer and Christ but also a physical one.

Just as the physical encounter that St. Thomas the Apostle (and all the witnesses to His resurrection) had with the risen Christ that strengthened his faith, so too with the physical encounter with the Risen Lord in the Sacraments strengthens our own.  That is the Sacraments do not diminish our faith but greatly supplement it.  Aquinas says that the Sacraments are indispensable to a full life of faith for three reasons.  First is because of our nature as spirit/matter composite.  Faith, as an act of the soul, is strengthened by acts of the body.  Second, our slavery to material things can only be remedied by a material thing that contains spiritual power to heal.  Finally, because man finds in them a true bodily exercise that works for salvation (ST III q.61, a 1).

The Sacraments and the Link to the Incarnation

These same three reasons can also be given for why God should appear before men.  As the “image of the invisible God” Our Lord comes only because of our needs.  The Sacramental system is seen most properly as an extension of the Incarnation.  Those who reject it, tend towards Gnosticism, that is, seeing themselves saved based on some secret knowledge they have been given.  They reject the notion that material objects can be instrumental causes of grace just as the Gnostics rejected the Incarnation, thinking that the human body of Christ could not be an instrumental cause of saving grace.   A sacramental system free view of salvation is an over-spiritualized salvation—one that is both theologically and practically unlivable.

This is why my friend’s t-shirt is so compelling—not because Christ is the greatest superhero but because it leads to a deeper truth.  Christ does not merely offer us redemption nor make us super-spirits like angels, but into supermen.  Faith unites us to Him, the Sacraments incorporate us into His life making us into something wholly other (or holy) than we are.


The Power of Confession

In recent months the world has had numerous opportunities to be left in awe at the destructive force of nature.  But earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and wild fires are nothing compared to the most powerful force at work in the world—the Sacraments.  These seemingly benign ceremonial rituals have the power to render Almighty God Himself captive in what looks like bread and wine, infect the omniscient Deity with amnesia of evil committed, and make mere mortal men into something akin to gods.   And it is the Catholic Church that has been given the ability to harness this power, unleashing it upon her faithful children whenever they desire it.

Yet, if we the Faithful are honest, we mostly go through the motions when it comes to the Sacraments.  Surely something so powerful does something to us we reason.  Sure, we would like it to do more, but truth be told, our hearts are not in it.  We all want to approach Our Lord in the Eucharist with our hearts hurting because we love so deeply, but we easily succumb to distraction and our desire deflates.  We all want to enter the confessional with the tears of sorrow, but no matter how hard we try, they never come.  It is not that we don’t care, it’s just that we have not a clue as to how to engage our hearts.  How can we form hearts ready to be overpowered by Christ in His Sacraments?

What is Love?

Many well-meaning apologists have said something like “love is not a feeling.  Love is an act of the will.”  Many of us have swallowed this whole and are very suspicious of our feelings.  Subsequently, our hearts atrophy.  Even if there is a certain primacy of the will, any love that lacks feeling is somehow incomplete and its coldness can, quite frankly, be pretty scary.  What our friends really should say is “love is not only a feeling.”   For a person to fully love, they must love fully, that is, with a love that flows from both soul and body.

When Our Lord appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque and revealed His burning heart to her, He complained of receiving only “coldness…in this Sacrament of Love.”  In other words, what love He did receive in the Eucharist was love that was heartless.  This was not a concern of just the 17th Century, but one that was on Our Lord radar all along.  In fact when Our Lord was asked what the greatest commandment was He replied that it was to “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind”(Mt 22:37).  It is the heart that is primary.

You might object and say that I am misinterpreting what He said.  God does not command a feeling of us that we are incapable of producing.  First we must clarify what we mean when we speak of the heart.  It is not just our physical heart nor is it just a collection of bodily emotions.  When Sacred Scripture refers to the heart it locates it as the seat of joy and deep love.  That is, it is viewed as the “place” where our emotions are elevated or spiritualized by our intellect and will.  The Fall crushed our hearts.  Christ came to restore them to their rightful place under the dominion of intellect and will enabling us to do everything with a bodily intensity.

Second, and most relevant to the discussion at hand, Christ never commands something of us without in turn also empowering us to do it.  In other words, Christ is commanding us to have a feeling we are incapable of producing because He is determined to give us the power to produce those feelings.  The biggest obstacle to pure love is, according to Scripture, a hardened heart and Christ wants to make them come alive again.  It should not surprise us then that if He is going to heal that hidden place in us where body and soul meet that He would create material things that have a hidden spiritual power in them.  In other words the Sacraments, especially Confession, not only heal our souls but our hearts as well.

While the Sacraments contain grace ex opere operato, the amount of grace we receive depends upon our readiness.  One Confession contains enough grace to heal us completely.  All that stands in the way is our own subjective disposition.  Therefore, if we are to maximize our yield, it is instructive to look at the Sacrament itself.

The Sacrament of Confession

For the Sacrament of Confession to be valid three things are required of the penitent—sorrow, confession and amendment.  All three being necessary it is hard to rank them in importance, but for most of us there is an over-emphasis on the confession aspect.  The other two are equally important, especially because they directly involve our hearts.  Having sorrow, or to use the classic term contrition, is first and foremost an act of understanding and will.  We understand that what we did was wrong either because we have offended Our Beloved (perfect contrition) or because we fear punishment (imperfect contrition).  To feel sorry is not necessary.  But truth be told even though we may not feel sorry, we should.  In other words true sorrow of soul should be accompanied by tears of sorrow, especially if we are conscious that we have offended One Who is worthy of all my love.

Likewise with our amendment or penance.  The priest assigns a penance to us to provide suitable satisfaction for the sins we have confessed and through our the grace of the Sacrament there is a certain remission of the temporal punishment of sin and the curing of evil inclinations.  The actual amount is proportional to both the measure of the penance imposed (an argument for asking for giving/asking for harder penance) and the disposition of the person making satisfaction.  That disposition of course has to do with having a firm intention to repair the harm done by the sin, but again it would be more complete if we did so accompanied by sorrow and determination exhibited through our bodies.

There seems to be a Catch-22 of sorts in that for the Sacrament to have a greater effect on our hearts, we have to awaken our hearts, which we already said we can’t do.  That is why we also believe that the Sacrament itself entitles the penitent to all the actual graces needed to deepen our sorrow, increase self-knowledge, and make firmer our purpose of amendment (c.f. Pius XII, Mystici Coroporis Christi, 88).  Obviously the more deeply you experience sorrow, the more intensely you will make satisfaction for your sins.  In short, our hearts come into the orbit of the Sacred Heart and we begin to experience an acceleration due to gravity with each Confession made from the heart.  Confession absolutely forgives our sins and removes the eternal punishment for them, but it is only through frequent reception of the Sacrament that we can hope to win healing for our hearts.  Through frequent Confession, our will becomes stronger not only in resisting sin but also in stirring up our bodily passions to more fully participate in our sorrow and penance.

When Jesus healed the paralytic and forgave his sins he literally dazzled the crowds because of His Supreme Power.  Matthew says that the “crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such power to men” (Mt 9:8).  We too should marvel at this tremendous power and make Confession a regular habit.

On True Friendships

For those who approach Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics for the first time, they are often surprised by the fact that he devotes more pages, two whole books in fact, to the topic of friendship than to any other.  From the modern viewpoint, this seems to be an unnecessary tangent that has little to do with ethics.  That is, until we realize that for Aristotle and most Christian Philosophers up until the Middle Ages, ethics was not an abstract set of rules, but practical principles for living a full and happy life.  So when Aristotle apportions such a large percentage of his book on ethics to friendship we realize that he sees it as one of the most important components of a life well lived.  In fact he ranks it among one of the greatest of life’s goods saying that “friendship is especially necessary for living, to the extent that no one, even though he had all other goods would choose to live without friends.”

First, a disclaimer of sorts.  Because Aristotle struck out in his physics and his views on women and slaves, he has fallen out of favor in modern times.  But there is a certain timelessness to his writings, especially in his ethics, because he roots them in unchanging human nature.  Therefore we ought to take what he says seriously, even if we find good reasons to disagree with him.  In a culture undergoing a crisis in friendship his writings on the topic are like a hidden treasure whose mining promises to enrich our lives greatly.

Because everyone needs friends, everyone wants friends.  This natural desire for friendship can lead us into unhealthy friendships.  This is what makes his study of friendship so important—it enables us to see our relationships more clearly and to have the right expectations.  There is not a single person among us who has not at some point experienced betrayal in one of their friendships.  Like all the loves, friendship requires a certain level of vulnerability, but much pain can be avoided through a proper understanding of friendship in general and Aristotle’s three levels of friendship in particular.

For Aristotle, there are two factors of friendship.  There is the good will that the two friends bear towards each other and there is the common good that brings them together.  As a form of love, friendship is first and foremost about willing the good for another person.  Friendship is not just a relationship, but a mutual relationship in which both parties actively will some good for the other person.  Without this, no real friendship can be found.

CS Lewis in his book The Four Loves captures the second aspect well when he compares friendship with erotic love.  He says that erotic lovers stand face to face while friends stand side by side looking at the thing that brings them together.  He says that “friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”  This is what Aristotle means by the common good that brings them together.  Friendships are always based upon not just willing the good but willing a particular good.  These goods fall into three broad categories, each one corresponding to the different levels of friendship.

The Categories of Friendship

His first category is friendship of pleasure.  Because it is the lowest level of friendship, it is the most common, especially among younger people.  This is based upon two people “having a good time together.”  It might two “golfing buddies” who enjoy playing golf together simply for the pleasure of the game itself.  What makes this friendship rather than simply mutual use is that they each will that the other plays well and has a good time, not so they will have someone to play with again, but because they truly desire that pleasure for them.  They desire the particular good of pleasure for them, although not at the expense of their own pleasure.  These types of friendships tend to dissolve when the pleasure that united the parties ceases.  One of the golfers might stop playing golf for whatever reason and the two eventually lose touch with each other.

Aristotle’s second category is a friendship of utility.  In these types of friendships there is a certain tradeoff between the two parties in which they somehow supply each other’s needs.  They are brought together primarily for the love of the good they get from the other person.  This type of friendship is most common in the adult years when “working your contacts” has become an art form.  It is a mutual coincidence of wants that brings the two parties together, a transaction of sorts.  The notion of mutual service or sacrifice is likely not a part of this type of this friendship.  Once they cease being useful to each other, the friendship usually dies.

There is always a certain amount of use in these two types of friendships because the parties love the thing that unites them more than they love the person.  This does not make them wrong per se, just incomplete.  St. Thomas says they are not friendships essentially but incidentally because the person is loved more for what they can give than in themselves.  This is why Aristotle thought only the third category of friendship, that is a friendship of virtue, was the only true friendship.

A virtuous friendship is one in which, to borrow from CS Lewis’ definition, the two parties are both looking at virtue.  They desire true happiness for each other.  Aristotle thought this the only true friendship because only a virtuous person is capable of loving the other for their own sake and because only a virtuous person can actually help another person be happy.  It is not so much that the two people are perfect, but that they are both striving for perfection.

As a true friendship, it includes the other two friendships but in an authentic way.  Rather than a friendship of pleasure, one derives pleasure simply from pleasure his friend receives in doing something.  Rather than a friendship of utility, one receives payment simply by serving the other person.  True friends look upon each other as an “other self.”

The Work of Friendship

These categories are important for two reasons.  First because many of us lack true friendships.  This lack may be simply because we lack the capacity, that is virtue, for true friendships.  We prefer the superficial to the hard work of growing in virtue.  It may also be that we are trying to form authentic friendships with people who are not capable of it because they lack the virtue or, at least, the desire for virtue that is always necessary. Remember Lewis’ definition—we will not find true friends until we decide virtue is important.

The second reason is that we often fail to properly “categorize” our friends, leaving us with unreal expectations.   A person whom we only have a friendship of pleasure with is not someone we should be going to for personal advice in a time of crisis.  We may develop a friendship of utility with our mailman, but this does not mean we should have him sit down with us to open our mail.  Those types of friendship cannot bear the weight—either because one of the parties lacks the necessary virtue to truly will the good for the other person or because there is a lack of intimacy.  True friendships are rare not only because virtue is rare, but because we simply do not have the time and emotional energy to maintain authentic friendships with that may people.  Overcommitting ourselves to too many true friendships can be a mortal pitfall for our overall well-being.

Many people in today’s culture view friendship as an unnecessary luxury rather than an integral part of a truly happy life.  By reflecting on friendship in the works of Aristotle, we can come to enjoy what the book of Sirach calls “the elixir of life” (Sir 6:16).

The Christ-Bearer

There once was a society that fell in love with the equality of its citizens.  They saw it everywhere and in everything so much so that fought to remove its enemy, excellence.  They did not lift up the lowly, but lowered the mighty.  Heroes became a thing of the past and then past heroes were erased because they might inspire noble acts among the citizenry.  Heroes simply never existed.  Then one day a great crisis came upon that society and for want of enough heroes, they perished.  They were all equally dead.

Is this just a story, or is this a glimpse of what the future will say about us?  We might gauge by asking, which is easier, to name three modern day heroes or three celebrities?  Most certainly the latter.  Heck, even most our fictional super-heroes are deeply flawed bullies lacking nobility.  For want of heroes, the people perished.

We look down on Achilles because we can’t take our eyes off his heel.  Paradoxically we abhor excellence while at the same time demanding perfection.  That is because we have forgotten what a hero is.  The heroes of the past and the present are all fallen men and women.  They are not heroes because they are perfect, they are heroes because they are magnanimous and courageous.  They do great and noble things, even if not all the things they do are great and noble.  All saints are heroes, but not all heroes are saints.  I can think of no better example of this principle than the former hero Christopher Columbus.

Christopher Columbus may not have been a Catholic saint, but he is a great Catholic hero.  As Leo XII said of the great explorer “[F]or the exploit is in itself the highest and grandest which any age has ever seen accomplished by man; and he who achieved it, for the greatness of his mind and heart, can be compared to but few in the history of humanity” (Quarto Abeunto Saeculo [QAE]).  His unflappable courage in literally “setting out into the deep” and his noble intention of winning souls to Christ, that set the course of history off in an entirely new direction.  For generations, his life was a model and inspiration.  For our generation he is a scoundrel.

Why He Went

There are those who would challenge the contention that he set off from Spain in August of 1492 with anything more than a desire for fame and riches.  They allow the men holding the eraser to tell the whole story rather than letting the man himself tell it.  Leo XIII summarized it best when he said that  it is “indubitable” that the Catholic faith was the strongest motivation for Columbus and for this reason the whole human race owes “not a little to the Church.”  After 30 plus days without the sight of land mutiny threatened and the Admiral of the Ocean Sea reminded his crew of their mission.  His log for October 10, 1492 records:

They could stand it no longer. They grumbled and complained of the long voyage, and I reproached them for their lack of spirit, telling them that, for better or worse, they had to complete the enterprise on which the Catholic Sovereigns had sent them. I cheered them on as best I could, telling them of all the honors and rewards they were about to receive. I also told the men that it was useless to complain, for I had started out to find the Indies and would continue until I had accomplished that mission, with the help of Our Lord (The Log of Christopher Columbus, p. 72).

After discovering Hispaniola, he wrote (again in his log) to Isabel and Fernando:

I have to say, Most Serene Princes, that if devout religious persons know the Indian language well, all these people would soon become Christians. Thus I pray to Our Lord that Your Highnesses will appoint persons of great diligence in order to bring to the Church such great numbers of peoples, and that they will convert these peoples. . . . And after your days, for we are all mortal, you will leave your realms in a very tranquil state, free from heresy and wickedness, and you will be well received before the Eternal Creator (Nov. 6 entry).

Even one of his contemporary critics, Fr. Bartolome de Las Casas, the great champion of the rights of the Native Americans, labeled him “extraordinarily zealous for the divine service; he desired and was eager for the conversion of these people…And he was especially affected and devoted to the idea that God should deem him worthy of aiding somewhat in recovering the Holy Sepulchre” (quoted by Samuel Eliot Morison in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Admiral of the Ocean Sea pp.45-46).

This quote is particularly appropriate because it helps to explain one reason why Columbus has become an object of scorn in recent times.  His name, Christopher, or “Christ-bearer”, was his mission.  In an age of religious subjectivism anyone who acts must be acting for some other motive.  To act for the glory of God is deemed to be absurd and bears the label fundamentalist or extremist.  Not only that, but his motive was also politically incorrect.  Columbus saw his mission as an extension of the Crusade to capture the Holy Land.

The tellers of history often speak of the reason why explorers set out to find water routes to the Orient based on strictly on economics, but do not explain why the land route was so costly and dangerous.  The reason is simple—the lands that needed to be crossed were controlled by Muslims who heavily “taxed”, robbed, enslaved and killed merchants from the West.  Columbus and his generation thought this could be avoided by finding a water route.  What set Columbus apart however was that he thought he could convert the East and then squeeze the Islamic lands between East and West and recapture the Holy Land for good.

Although these were Columbus’ primary motivations, they were not his only.  He did also seek riches.  Riches are a “second thing” and provided that the First Thing remain first there is nothing wrong with that.  He wanted to fund the Crusade to recapture the Holy Sepulcher, but he also had investors that he had to satisfy.  He also sought to increase his own wealth and like the rest of fallen mankind these secondary goals were wont to make him forget the primary goal at times.

A Great Hero, but a Fallen Man

There is no need to whitewash all that Columbus did.  He failed to live up to his noble mission at times, especially in his inability to transcend his own circumstances.  When he arrived in Hispaniola he found two peoples, the peaceful Arawaks and the brutal Caribs.  The Caribs committed all kinds of atrocities including human sacrifice and cannibalism, mostly directed at the Arawaks.  Columbus viewed the peaceful Arawaks as Spanish citizens and thus worthy of protection.  When he conquered the Caribs, he, as was the accepted custom of the time, enslaved the conquered peoples.  He was gravely wrong in doing so, although he may not have realized the full import of what he had done at the time by blindly accepting the cultural norm.  It is easy to condemn him thinking we are more enlightened now about slavery, except we are far less enlightened about the barbarity of human sacrifice to our own gods.

He also was a much better explorer than an administrator.  Despite objections to the contrary—he told the King and Queen that only “good Christian men should be sent”—the Spanish sovereigns sent him back to govern Hispaniola with 1200 colonists.  These men were included corrupt nobility and convicts whose death sentences were commuted for going.  Rather than accept this role wholeheartedly, he often left the island for long periods of time to continue exploring.  While the cat was away the mice played and he returned to find the peaceful Arawaks enslaved to the Spanish men there.  Rather than putting an end to it, he allowed it to continue and eventually ended up returning to Spain in chains  This ultimately cost his governorship, but he was allowed to return a fourth time strictly as an explorer.

Before closing, it is also worth addressing the other common accusation lobbed at Columbus, namely that he stole the land.  The fact that this is an accusation at all shows how chronologically bias we are.  There is no evidence that the natives themselves viewed the land as their own.  They were for the most part nomadic peoples among nomadic peoples so that even if there were stationary groups you have to ask whether the land they occupied was rightfully theirs.  How did these primitive peoples make land claims and how were the recognized?  Did they merely use the land for a certain amount of time and move on, or did they actually own it?  What is sure is that they did not have any understanding of property the way the Western Europeans did or we do today.  So, even if the Spanish were guilty of exploiting them in many ways, the accusation that they had their land stolen from them is really meant to excite modern prejudice.  In any regard this is not as cut and dry an issue as it is often presented to be.

It is Leo XIII that seems to best summarize why we as Christians should redeem the history of Christopher Columbus and rank him among the great American heroes of the past: —“ He was distinguished by this unique note, that in his work of traversing and retraversing immense tracts of ocean, he looked for a something greater and higher than did these others. We say not that he was unmoved by perfectly honorable aspirations after knowledge, and deserving well of human society; nor did he despise glory, which is a most engrossing ideal to great souls; nor did he altogether scorn a hope of advantages to himself; but to him far before all these human considerations was the consideration of his ancient faith, which questionless dowered him with strength of mind and will, and often strengthened and consoled him in the midst of the greatest difficulties. This view and aim is known to have possessed his mind above all; namely, to open a way for the Gospel over new lands and seas” (QAE).  This Columbus Day let us come to his defense.  For want of heroes, the people will perish.


The Great Sin

There is an unwritten rule in the Catholic blogosphere that if you want people to read your stuff, don’t include the word sin in the first twenty-two words.  There is also a written rule that you should not lie, so I will admit that I made that up in order to avoid jumping right into the topic of which few of us like to speak: sin.  More specifically, it has to do with what the Book of Sirach calls “the beginning of all sin” (Sir 10:13) or, what CS Lewis called the “one vice of which no man in the world is free; which everyone in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves…There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves.  The more we have of it in ourselves the more we dislike it in others” (Mere Christianity).  He, of course, is referring to the most destructive of the Seven Deadly Sins, pride.

The fact that we can easily perceive pride in others and not in ourselves is because we only, as Lewis says, “imagine” we are guilty of it ourselves.  We usually only have a vague sense we are plagued by it, but cannot see it clearly because we only know what it looks like exteriorly.  So we shun compliments and avoid things like bragging, but make little headway in actually overcoming it.  What we really need is a sketch of what it looks like interiorly; how it animates much of what we do.  For help on this we can turn to one of the oldest Doctors of the Church, St. Gregory the Great.  In his long book called The Morals of Job, he provides the blueprints of pride by separating it into four specific kinds.

The Four Species of Pride

Because of its clandestine character, it is first necessary to understand what pride is.  Pride is, according to St. Thomas, a disordered desire for excellence.  Notice that he doesn’t say it is the disorder of desiring excellence, but a disordered desire for excellence.  That means that there is an ordered desire for excellence meaning that in the human constitution there is a natural desire for excellence (c.f. 2Cor 10:13-17).  We are made with a desire for goodness, both material and spiritual, and therefore excellence is simply a measure of the amount of goods one possesses.  This awareness that we have a natural desire for excellence helps us to better understand why denying compliments or boasting is little more than a doggy paddle amidst the torrent of pride in our hearts.

This also helps to elucidate why it is so difficult to escape pride’s clutches.  Pride is a constitutive element of man’s fallen nature because it is the first sin.  In the case of both Lucifer and then Adam and Eve, their fall was because they sought an excellence that was disordered.  Both the fallen angels and fallen men sought to “be like God” even if their manner of approach was different.  “Pride goes before the fall” (Prov 16:18) is not just a psychological fact but also a historical one.  In trying to become “self-made” men raising ourselves from the pit in which we fell, pride is always looming.

What is Pride?

Returning to the teachings of Pope St. Gregory, we find that he assigns the four species of pride accordingly, “…either when they judge that they have their goodness from themselves, or when if they believe that their goodness has been given to them from above, they think that they have received it because of their merits, or surely when they boast that they have what they do not have, or when, despising others, they desire to appear to have in a singular way what they have” (Morals of Job XXIII, 13).

The first species has to do with the source of our personal excellence, that is, we can judge that it comes from ourselves.  It is always true that excellence achieved without outside help is better than that which is received with help.  Thus the myth of the self-made man.  As Christians we acknowledge that “every good thing comes from above,” (James 1:17) and yet this species of pride has a subtle way of insinuating itself into our heart through what I would call “Christian pride.” So common is this Christian pride that it bears some unpacking to make it clearer.  I am not saying that being a Christian is not an excellence in which we should derive a form of healthy pride.  The snare comes when we see ourselves as better than others, rather than simply better off.

Can we honestly think that when so many of our contemporaries are blind to the truth that we somehow figured it because of our own sagacity?  The conflict with the culture can lead us to look down upon others seeing them as non-Christians rather than Christians to be.  It is hubris of this sort that turns many people away from Christianity.  “But for the grace of God go I” is more than a cute saying.  It is a foundational truth upon which humility is built.  Faith is a completely unmerited gift.  The teachings of the Church, especially in a time of moral turmoil are a gift.  The wisdom that enables us to see them as true is a gift.  The perseverance to remain steadfast too is a gift.

Closely related to this is the second species of pride by which we acknowledge the excellence as coming from above, but somehow see ourselves as meriting it.  In examining our hearts we can find this form in our attitude towards other people, especially in their sins.  All too often we demand justice for others and mercy for ourselves.  We look for ways to accuse others while excusing ourselves.  This is the competitive nature of pride, thinking excellence comes by knocking other people down a rung or two.  How often when someone suffers, even if it is self-imposed, do we think “they got what they deserved”?  But when we suffer, that thought never crosses our minds.

Pride also causes us to play a game of pretend by “boasting of what he has not.”  This is where we have developed a persona and thus do everything we can to keep that image up, usually causing great suffering while doing so.  This is a favorite one of Social Media users but also a particular problem in certain Catholic circles.  In attempting to present to the world an image of what they think a perfect Catholic should be like, they are ascribing to themselves an excellence they have not.  Truth be told, it is usually not even a true excellence.  The “perfect” Catholic family looks like a small army that is at war, each one conformed to Christ crucified.  That is usually not a pretty picture according to the standards of the world.

The competitive nature of pride also is the genesis of the fourth species of pride —“when a man despises others and wishes to be singularly conspicuous.”  This is the pride of the “most interesting man in the world,” or if you prefer a more biblical example, the Pharisee who thanked God he was not like the rest of humanity (Lk 18:9-14).  He had true excellences, fasting and tithing, but he was riddled by pride because he thought this made him “singularly conspicuous.”  This is the worst form of pride and is actually the sin of Lucifer himself.  This form of pride causes us to constantly need to put others down in order to make ourselves look better.  As the worst of the four types, it also results in the most serious myopathy.  The only barometer for how bad we have it is to ask how much we hate it when people snub us, don’t “respect” us, show off or patronize us.

Around the turn of the 20th Century, Cardinal Merry del Val composed what is now called the The Litany of Humility.  Praying this regularly helps us not only to obtain the grace to overcome pride, but helps motivate us by enabling us to see how deeply entrenched pride is in our hearts.  There is an inverse proportionality of sorts in the zeal in which we make this prayer and the amount of pride we have.  It is also great material for our personal examen.  “Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it…”


A Necessary Habit?

In an age of exaggerated ecumenism that is further fueled by a scientific witch hunt to burn all religious superstition, the Brown Scapular has lost much of its popularity.  With its innate connection to Marian devotion it remains one of the most powerful Catholic sacramentals even as it slides into disuse.  As a particular expression of Marian devotion, the Brown Scapular may have slid into disuse, but it remains a particularly powerful sacramental of the Church; one that is particularly needed in our time.  To place the Brown Scapular within the context of a healthy spirituality, we must first speak briefly about sacramentals in general.  It is not just the Brown Scapular that carries an air of superstition, but all sacramentals.  These sentiments are not unfounded as their patrons often treat them as such.  For many people, both Catholic and not, there seems to be little difference between sacramentals and something like a dream catcher.  Therefore it is fitting to lay the authentically Catholic foundation in hopes of returning the Brown Scapular to its primacy of place among these gifts of the Church.

The Church and Sacramentals

Each of the Seven Sacraments are an objective source of grace, even if the amount of grace a given individual receives is dependent upon their personal readiness.  Sacramentals, on the other hand, do not bestow grace, but rather aid those who are using them to receive grace.  The Sacraments have been instituted by Christ and the Church is merely the custodian of them while sacramentals are instituted by the Church as part of her binding and loosing authority.  In making the distinction between sacramentals and the Church’s Seven Sacraments, the Catechism summarizes, saying, “Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it” (CCC 1671).

If they don’t bestow grace, then why should we use them, especially since, as can often happen, they appear to be tools of superstition?  It is because in establishing (or blessing) a sacramental, the Church acts as an underwriter by attaching the prayer of the entire Church to that of the individual.  The prayer of a righteous man is powerful indeed (James 5:16), but the prayer of a righteous man joined to the prayer of Christ’s Mystical Body carries with it divine assurance to be heard (c.f. Mt 18:19).  This makes each of the sacramentals a powerful aid in the pursuit of holiness, even if they do not bestow it directly.  At that, they always require certain conditions on the part of the patron in order to be effective helps.   This awareness must always be at the forefront of our use of sacramentals to keep from plunging into superstition.

In this regard the Brown Scapular is particularly conspicuous because it carries with it a promise from Our Lady that “Whosoever dies wearing this Scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.”  Properly situated within the Church’s understanding of sacramentals, we can see why this particular sacramental might be especially popular and in a certain sense necessary.  Like all sacramentals, the physical Scapular is a sign pointing towards a deeper reality.   It acts as a sign sealing the covenant instituted by Christ on the Cross of the mutual entrustment of the Blessed Mother and each of the Faithful (c.f. John 19:26).  In that way it is like a wedding ring (another Catholic sacramental) that both signifies and, in a certain sense, seals the covenantal commitment of spouses.

Backed by the commitment of the Church, the Brown Scapular guarantees her constant Maternal protection and the wearer has a growing confidence in her most powerful intercession.  Just as the wedding ring increases the sensitivity of the spouses to the presence of the beloved, especially when they are not seen or felt, the Brown Scapular makes the “wearer more sensitive to the Virgin Mother’s loving presence in their lives” Pope St. John Paul II, Letter to the Carmelites on 750th Anniversary of the Bestowal of the Scapular).  It is worn as a “habit” suggesting that it is meant to represent the habit of committing oneself to the constant protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary both “now and at the hour of our death.”  Thus it also becomes a sign of the grace of final perseverance.

Just as it takes more than simply putting on a wedding ring to be married, so too with the Brown Scapular.  As Pius XII says, “For the Holy Scapular, which may be called the Habit or Garment of Mary, is a Sign and a Pledge of the protection of the Mother of God. But not for this reason, however, may they who wear the Scapular think that they can gain eternal salvation while remaining slothful and negligent of spirit, for the Apostle warns us: ‘In fear and trembling shall you work out your salvation.’” (Pius XII, Letter to the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel).  To guard against becoming “slothful and negligent of spirit” we should seek to bring about the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart by adopting her spirit of fiat as our own.

Why We Need the Brown Scapular Now

Given ratification by the Holy See in 1908, the so-called Sabbatine privilege can be invoked for those who in addition to being vested in and wearing the Brown Scapular like a habit, also practice chastity according to their state in life and daily recite the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin.  Pope Leo XIII also gave permission for priests to commute the third condition and substitute a similar good work like a Daily Rosary to meet the conditions of modern life.  The promise, directly from the lips of Our Lady is that “as a tender Mother, I will descend into purgatory on the Saturday after their death, and will deliver them into the heavenly mansions of life everlasting.”

The point though is that the promise carries with it additional duties.  There is nothing superstitious about it, but both natural and supernatural encouragement to do those things that we know will lead to sanctity.  This is why one can’t help but see the coincidence in the timing of the ratification and Our Lady’s appearance to the visionaries at Fatima less than a decade later.  One of her great concerns that she expressed to the children was the number of souls who were going to hell because of lust—more than any other sin as a matter of fact.  Given the emergence of a hyper-sexualized culture, the problem has only become more acute in the century since.  So vicious has this attack become that it is only with help from above that we can even hope to achieve chastity.  The Brown Scapular becomes a pledge from Our Lady to jump in the foxhole with us and fight.  With close proximity to the heart, the habit will act as a protecting shield for those who wear it.

On the End of the World

Having put off yard work all week, I was disappointed when I heard a Christian numerologist backed off his claims that the world would end today.  Hedging his bets however he still claims that some cataclysmic event will occur that will usher in the end of the world.   Whatever date he actually decides upon, Mr. Meade will have the rather dubious distinction of joining the illustrious ranks of Pat Robertson, Edgar Cayce, Jeane Dixon, Grigori Rasputin, Tim LaHaye, Nostradamus, and Isaac Newton as failed Doomsday prophets.  Despite the hundreds, if not thousands, of famous apocalyptic forecasts, each new prediction ignites the interest of the Christian and non-Christian alike.  The question as to when the world will end is an important one, but one that Christian would be better served setting aside.  While the reasoning employed by these would be soothsayers is often entertaining, we should resist paying giving them any attention.

To be fair, this is a question that drew great interest even among the disciples of Our Lord.  When preaching about the End Times, Our Lord told them “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mt24:36).  When He says “no one” He really means it and wants this question to be one that is off the table, so to speak.  Any investigation into the question will prove fruitless and so any answers that we give will surely be wrong.  Instead Our Lord wants His disciples to be vigilant, treating each day as if it were the Day of Visitation.  Given that every Christian will have a last day and for only a tiny proportion of them it will be the Last Day, this is sage advice indeed, especially considering for most of us the end is no longer than 80 years or so away.

What Our Lord Knew

It is worth discussing the meaning of Our Lord’s words in detail because there have been and still are many heterodox theologians and priests who have twisted them.  Christ, because He has two natures has two ways of knowing—divine and human.  As God, He of course knows when the end of the world is.  It is not as if the Father somehow has kept it as a secret from Him.  As man He was limited to true ways of human knowing.  But still as a Divine Person He knew all things.  What He meant in this situation is that this is knowledge that only God could know, that is, it is knowledge that must remain within the divine realm.  This is not a recent opinion but belongs to the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church, going back to the 6th Century: “If anyone says that the one Jesus Christ who is both true Son of God and true Son of man did not know the future or the day of the Last Judgment and that he could know only as much as the divinity, dwelling in him as in another, revealed to him, anathema sit.” (Pope Vigilius, Constitutum I of 14 May 553).   Augustine said that although Christ had full knowledge of all things, there were two types: communicable knowledge which is related to His mission as Redeemer and noncommunicable.  The question as to the end, because it is not tied to His mission as Redeemer is noncommunicable.

Despite not be able to predict the hour, Our Lord still provides a list of signs to watch out for.  These signs are useful for putting down the false prophets but they also are meant to encourage our vigilance and, for those who are facing the trials of the last days, perseverance. The signs can be broadly grouped into five categories:

  • Preaching of the Gospel to the Whole World
  • The Conversion of the Jews
  • The Great Apostasy
  • The Appearance of the Antichrist
  • Meteorological Phenomenon

Before the end of the world, the Gospel will have been preached to the entire world (c.f. Mk 13:10).  The Gospel will first have to spread, that is, all the peoples of the world will have had heard the true Gospel and had an opportunity to respond.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes of the conversion of the Jews saying that only after the Gospel has spread will tall Israel come to Christ, saying “I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers, so that you will not become wise [in] your own estimation: a hardening has come upon Israel in part, until the full number of the Gentiles comes in, and thus all Israel will be saved…”(Rom 11:25-28).  Most of the Church Fathers teach that the Jews will first think the Antichrist the true Messiah, but through the preaching of the two witnesses (c.f. Rev 11:3-12—which points possibly to Elijah and Enoch) they will come to the fullness of the truth.  This obviously does not mean that every single Jewish person will come to Christ, but means all in the moral sense.

The third event to watch for is what is called the Great Apostasy (c.f Mt 24:9-12).  Apostasy is “the total rejection by a baptized person of the Christian faith he once professed” and is present in the Church in every age.  The Great Apostasy will be a time in which entire Christian nations will apostasize and it will spread throughout the universal Church, perhaps even reaching the hierarchy.

The fourth event is the appearance of the Antichrist.  While we do not know a lot of specifics, Scripture and Tradition does give us enough to form a vague outline of the man.  First, he is just a man and not the Devil incarnate.  Still he will be under the control of the devil to such a degree that he will perform many signs and wonders.  His reign will last for 42 months (Rev 11:2), coming to power with a show of mildness, soberness and benevolence.  This will beguile many (especially the Jews who will think he is the expected Christ) by his lying signs and wonders of his “magical deceit,” but afterwards he will be characterized by all kinds of crimes of inhumanity and cruelty, especially towards the elect, that will make the worst tyrants of history look mild.  He will eventually be killed by Christ, the earth swallowing him whole.

Where the false prophets go wrong is usually because they misunderstand the last one.  Christ says the meteorological signs will occur “immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Mt 24:29).  Most place these phenomena at the beginning of the process or skip the other signs.  Wars, earthquakes, famines and the like “must take place, but the end is not yet” (Mk 13:7-8).

Is the End Near?

No matter what astronomical events occur today or in the coming days, we can say that it is not the end of the world because all the other four things have not yet occurred.  There are two that we might wonder about.  We are living in a time of mass apostasy, but it is not clear that this is the Great Apostasy that Our Lord prophesized.  Likewise with the preaching of the Gospel to the whole world; St. John Paul II thought not—“…there remain vast regions still to be evangelized. In many nations entire peoples and cultural areas of great importance have not yet been reached by the proclamation of the Gospel and the presence of the local church.  Even in traditionally Christian countries there are regions that are under the special structures of the mission ad gentes, with groups and areas not yet evangelized” (Pope St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio,37).  Either way we can say with certainty that neither the conversion of the Jews nor the rise of the Antichrist has occurred.  Best we can say at this point is that we are at least 42 months from the end of the world.

The fact that the predictions are obviously false is good enough reason to ignore them, but there are two additional reasons as well.  First, it only encourages others to join in the prognostication party.  Thanks to viral quality of Social Media, everyone’s 15 minutes of fame has been extended to 30 minutes.  If it is sure to garner attention and “likes” then people will throw it out there, even if it is just a picture of it spelled out in their Chef Boyardee Numbers and Letters Pasta.

The second reason is related to this and that is that it only further serves to make Christians look ridiculous.  The world may not recognize that we are trying to predict something we were explicitly told not to waste our time on, but they will know and remember when we are wrong.  Christians are supposed to be a prophetic voice to the world, but when they make more noise being false prophets then it muffles the true prophetic voice we are given at Baptism.  We need to quickly call out these false prophets for what they are; ignoring them when the world is not does us no good.

Beauty Will Save the World

The mark of a truly wise man is that he is able to gather the seeds of wisdom in his midst and fears not to adopt them as his own.  Sometimes the wisdom is even snatched from the lips of an idiot.  Case in point: one of the wisest men of the 20th Century, St. John Paul II, was unafraid to adopt as his own the thesis of Dostoevsky’s character Prince Myskin in his novel The Idiot that “Beauty will save the world.”   In his 1999 Letter to Artists, the Pope said

“People of today and tomorrow need this enthusiasm[sparked by wonder] if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us. Thanks to this enthusiasm, humanity, every time it loses its way, will be able to lift itself up and set out again on the right path. In this sense it has been said with profound insight that “beauty will save the world” (Letter to Artists, 16).

Fast–forward to our day, seventeen years after the Pope put ink to paper and we, the “people of tomorrow,” are collectively more boring and duller than the simplest peasant from the so-called Dark Ages.  Our minds, thanks to their reduction to nothing but firing synapses, have atrophied paralyzing our capacity to wonder.  There is nothing new under the sun.  While the circumstances may have changed, the prescription is perennial—“every time humanity loses its way” it is the encounter with beauty that will set us “out again on the right path.”  What makes our circumstances rather unique is that in order for “beauty to save the world” it must first be rescued from the poison of subjectivism.

Most of us are quick to denounce relativism in both its axiomatic and moral forms.  But when it comes to its aesthetical claims, we find ourselves all too ready to concede that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  If beauty is entirely subjective, that is a matter strictly of personal taste, then how can we join the Pope’s aesthetical revolution, a revolution that always “stirs that hidden nostalgia for God” (LA, 16)?

Is there Such Thing as Objective Beauty?

The linking of beauty with truth and goodness was deliberate.  The truth ignites the intellect, the good moves the will, but the beautiful strikes the heart.  Beauty’s grip on the heart gives it an indomitable power to move us.  It is found in many disparate types of things—there are beautiful beaches, beautiful people, beautiful art, and beautiful music—so that it transcends all categories.  In this way it is the third wheel of the other two transcendentals.  Unlike its transcendental counterparts, goodness and truth, it can only be known when it is experienced.  Someone may tell you something is beautiful, but you are merely repeating what they have said until you experience it for yourself.  Beauty, therefore, because it is completely practical, is always threatened by a subjective interpretation.

When asked to define Time, St. Augustine says he could define it if you didn’t ask him to.  Beauty is like that in that we know what it is, but it is difficult to define.  The most succinct definition is that beauty is the material expression of the inner most identity of a thing.  Beauty reveals what a thing is and leads to knowledge of that thing.  This is why St. Thomas defines beauty as “that which when seen, pleases” (more on this definition in a moment).

When we attach the adjective beautiful to each of the things mentioned above, we are saying that there is some quality in that particular object that sets it apart from other objects of its kind.  A moment’s reflection and we realize that the beauty is not in the eye of the beholder but in the object itself.  Before beauty can be in the eye of the beholder, it must first be in the object eyed.  Because beauty is objective, St. Thomas sought to articulate some principles by which the beauty in the object could be moved to the eye of the beholder.

In a paragraph on the Trinity (for what could be more beautiful than God Himself?) in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas assigns three conditions:

“For beauty includes three conditions: integrity or perfection, since those things which are impaired are by that very fact ugly; due proportion or harmony; and lastly, brightness or clarity, whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color” (ST I, q.39, art.8).

  • A beautiful object has integrity meaning it reflect the fullness of the object’s being.  It lacks nothing that it ought to have.  A male peacock may have beautiful feathers, but if it is missing a leg then it tends towards ugliness.
  • A beautiful object has due proportion in that there is an order and unity to it.  Everything is in the right place and in the right amount.
  • A beautiful object has clarity in that what the object is, its ontological reality, shines forth.  Clarity means that the appearance (or sound in the case of music) of the object makes it clear what it is.

 These three conditions can be thought of as the objective components of beauty and give us a basis upon which to talk about and evaluate beauty.  We may call a church building that looks like an auditorium ugly not because we don’t like it, but because it lacks clarity and does not reveal what it is.  We may call DaVinci’s Mona Lisa beautiful because it has integrity, due proportion (it is filled with examples of the divine ratio) and clarity, even if the subject is a rather plain woman.

Why It All Matters

Once we recognize the objectivity of beauty we can return to St. Thomas’ definition of beauty as “that which, when seen, pleases.”  When St. Thomas refers to the beautiful as that which when seen delights he is referring to an intuitive seeing (knowledge) and not merely seeing with the eyes.  He is speaking of a delight of the intellect and not just the senses.  More accurately, the beautiful creates a delight in the mind that spills over into the senses, that is it strikes the heart.  “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is not proof of subjectivity but proof that there is a need to cultivate taste.  Mozart’s Requiem is objectively beautiful, but the fact that I may not like it, is because I have deadened my taste buds from consuming so much ugliness.  The beautiful must be slowly reintroduced to my system before I can fully enjoy its richness.

Why this discussion needs to happen is because Christians have abdicated their role as peddlers of the beautiful.  There is little beautiful Christian art.  There is little beautiful Christian music.  Even Christian movies are mostly ugly.  Rather than attempting to make something beautiful, using Aquinas’ criteria, they have tried to adopt the ugly forms the world uses and smuggle Christianity into them.  What comes out is something ugly and uninspiring.

A friend of mine and I were teaching a class together.  Before going to teach, we went to Mass.  As we were climbing the steps to go to the classroom, he said to me “that was a beautiful Mass.”  I agreed with him, but admittedly it wasn’t the first thing I thought of when I came out of Mass.  Those words left a lasting impression on me however because they were the last words he ever spoke.  A couple of minutes later he was on the floor after suffering a massive heart attack.  This was a holy man who had cultivated the habit of capturing the beautiful and allowing it to move him.  So moved that day that the Mass was like a springboard launching him from the sign to the full reality.  Please God he is seeing the full Beauty right now.  Ultimately this shows that beauty matters because Heaven is Beautiful and each encounter we have with it, only increases our longing for its fullness.

In an age in which all truth and goodness are thought to be relative, the power of beauty to move even the most hardened of hearts cannot be overlooked.  This of course assumes that we can present and point out those things that really are true, good and beautiful.  It just might be that beauty really will save the world!

On Absolution without Confession

At the heart of Christianity is freedom; for it was for “freedom’s sake that Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1).    So it is rather strange that the two things we fear most are the very same things He freed us from—death and sin.  We do not like to think or talk about either except when it comes to denying their reality.  It is this self-deceptive practice that compels me to offer the previously promised second example of our painful plucking and splitting of theological hairs.

The average Catholic probably can’t name all twelve Apostles, but they can tell you the conditions for mortal sin.  That is because they are sure to have heard a homily or three about it in one of the Masses that they didn’t miss.  They have learned that for a sin to be mortal it must be grave matter and it must have been done with full knowledge and consent.  In a previous age the emphasis was always on the “grave matter” part.  With a cultural turn to the subjective, the emphasis is now on the personal aspects—knowledge and consent—and almost always with the goal of absolution without confession.  If you can absolve from the pulpit then the lines in Confession will shrink while the lines for Communion will grow.

The Pastoral Approach?

What makes this rather sticky is that technically Father is right.  For someone to be guilty of mortal sin, they must have done something that is particularly grave.  They must have known it was grave matter and they must have done it with full freedom.  That is solid moral theology, but, as will be obvious shortly, is bad pastoral practice.

The Prophet Jeremiah tells the people that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9).  His point is that the knowledge and intention of our actions are almost always hidden, even from ourselves.  Thanks to our fallen condition our capacity for self-deceit is quasi-omnipotent.  When faced with admitting our faults or justifying them, we will almost always choose the latter.  It is as if we are naturally trained in the art of moral hair splitting so that when Father or our favorite armchair theologian splits hairs on this issue it finds our sweet spot.

Once can see how this might lead to a rejection of the existence of mortal sin.  It may exist in theory, but is practically non-existent except for a few of the most hardened of sinners.  If we can’t know two of the three conditions with any surety, then there is no reason to worry about it.

This is a sure sign of the collective insanity caused by Original Sin.  The reasonable man, when faced with a large mass protruding from his abdomen would not go to the doctor because he does not feel bad.  He would go because he has an objective, measurable sign that he may have cancer.  So too with mortal sin.  When all objective signs point to mortal sin, the reasonable man would go to Confession.  Like the man with the tumor, he assumes the worst and goes to the Divine Physician’s clinic in the confessional.  It may be nothing serious, but when it comes to the health of our soul we should assume the worst.  The Good Doctor will sort out whether you actually have a spiritual cancer growing in your soul, but either way you have had an encounter with the living Christ in the Confessional.  Christ has already paid dearly for the premium and empowered His ministers to forgive sins, why not take advantage of it?

Why the Doctors of the Church Did Not Split Hairs

There are valid reasons why there was a movement away from emphasizing the “grave matter,” especially in the post-Jansenist Church.  But we ought to seriously consider why the moral Doctors of the Church always used “mortal sin” and “grave matter” interchangeably.  I am sure someone has counted how many times he did this, but St. Thomas when examining virtues and vices in the Summa almost always asks “Is X a mortal sin?”  He was well aware of the conditions of mortal sin but his goal, even in his Summary of Theology, was to be pastoral.  When in doubt Confession was the remedy.

For the world’s loss of a sense of sin to have crept into the Church is absolutely absurd.  The Church exists to forgive sins.  To explain away their existence is to make herself obsolete—“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’  And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’”(Jn 20:21-23).

Scrupulosity is an emotional hyper-sensitivity to sin.  It is a common aspect at the beginning of the Christian journey and tends to subside as the person progresses in the stages of holiness.  It is when it persists that it becomes a real problem.  It is these relatively few tortured souls that many have found their justification for de-emphasizing the “grave matter” aspect of mortal sin.   First of all, a person plagued by a case of the scruples already has a conscience that will not rest.  It is constantly being challenged by the emotional feeling of sin.  Taking away an objective measure and leaving it completely as a subjective measure leaves them in a worse state of confusion.  Their mind may tell them one thing, but the feeling can overwhelm them causing a great deal of inner turmoil that will not cease until they can set their conscience at ease in Confession.

Assuming that you are not seeing a regular confessor and combating a prolonged case of scrupulosity, I would like to make brief mention of something that is related to this.  Be very leary of a priest when he tells you in the Confessional that something is not a sin .  If you do not know your own heart, then (except in the rare cases of an enlightenment by God) neither does he.  His only judgment is whether you are contrite and have a firm purpose of amendment.  He is not a tribunal of one to judge whether something is sinful or not, that is God’s role.  If you confess something that is not sinful, then God will figure it out.  Better to find out later it was not a sin then to have it before you on Judgment Day.  While we cannot be sure of the judgment rendered on that awful day, we can be sure that there will be no hair splitting.

On Nude Art

On May 13, 1981, a day marking the 64th anniversary of Our Lady’s first visit to Fatima, Pope John Paul II was shot by a would be assassin just prior to giving his Wednesday Audience address.  The attempt on his life, its connection to Fatima and Our Lady’s intercession has been well documented.  What has often been overlooked however is the fact that he was in the midst of giving a series of catecheses that was to become the Theology of the Body.  Had the assassin’s bullet found its mark, the Church would have been all the poorer without this great corpus on our the meaning of corporeal existence.  It was more than just a great personal love for the man Karol Wojtyla that spurred Our Lady to guide the bullet away from every major organ in the Pope’s body that day.  It was also motivated by her great love for all her children, especially those challenged by lust.  For she had told the visionaries during their “visit” to hell that “more souls go to Hell because of sins of the flesh than for any other reason.” She knew of the Pope’s plan for “creating a climate favorable to the education of chastity” (TOB May 6, 1981) and that by embracing that education many souls would be saved.  It is no mere coincidence that the Pope had just completed an extended analysis of what is perhaps the greatest modern day challenge, pornography.  It is as if the Pope’s near death was Our Lady’s exclamation point on the previous week’s teaching.

The Pope began his discussion of pornography by pointing out that the human body is a perennial object of culture.  Because sexuality and the experience of love between man and woman is so deeply imbedded in what it means to be human, art and literature always find fertile ground in those two arenas.  But the Holy Father was also aware that the world, especially in the West, was rapidly being (re)transformed form a culture of the word into a culture of the image.  This resulted in a culture in which everything—from photoshoots to movies to reality TV shows to viral videos to hacked personal sex videos— finds its way to an audience.  With virtually unlimited access, the idea that certain things should be surrounded by discretion is anathema.  The Pope commented that even the use of the term “pornography” is a linguistic addition that represents a softening for what had previously been called obscaena, from which we get the word obscene.

The Puritanical Backfire

In many ways this represents a backfire of the puritanical approach that sought to keep even artistic representations of the naked human body hidden from sight.  The Church had forgotten some of what it meant to be Catholic—embracing all that is good, true and beautiful in the world—and adopted this priggish approach instead.  Men of the Church had even gone so far as to cover over nudes in Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel with unsightly loincloths.  But John Paul II was proposing a different approach, namely learning to distinguish between the obscene and the aesthetic through the development of  the ethos of the image.  So committed to this approach was he that he would later remove those same awkward loincloths in Michelangelo’s masterpiece in order to show “the splendor and dignity” of the naked human body (Homily at the Mass celebrating the restoration of the Sistine Chapel, 1994).

At either extreme the problem remains the same.  Without a guiding ethos, erotic art and pornography remain indistinguishable and we swing from license to prohibition and back again.  The ethos of the image provides an escape from this merry-go-round, but only if we are able to grasp two important points.

True art consists in taking ideas and imprinting them in matter.  It is the idea and the beauty with which it is presented that moves us.  This excitement of our aesthetic sensibilities then moves us to further contemplate the idea.  There is a certain universality of beautiful art as the particular is abstracted away.  This power to move however can be abused when the artist attempts to move the viewer or the listener merely by exciting their aesthetic sensibilities.  Now it is no longer the idea and the clarity in which it is presented that moves us, but the direct appeal to emotions.

The second point is related to the first.  Unlike all other objects that appear as the matter of art, a person is an object that is also a subject.  This means there is always a certain dignity attached to the human body as the subject of art which can never be lost, even if it is abused.  Instead, according to the Saint, the offense comes in the intention of the artist. If the artist intends to present a nude body so as to convey some truth about masculinity and femininity then one should consider it erotic art.  If, however, their intention is to present a body so as to excite sexual desire in the viewer then this would be considered pornographic.  This may even include someone who is not fully naked.  This is a favorite trick of Social Media and sites like who like to present soft pornography in the form of “See such and such’s Beach Bod” or “Watch such and such’s Wardrobe failure” as click bait.

The Spousal Meaning

While there is a certain grey area between erotic art and pornography, there are far less than 50 shades.  In fact John Paul II thought it rather easy to discern the intention of the artist—whether or not the spousal meaning of the body is violated.  What this means practically is whether the work of art enables the viewer to more deeply understand the meaning of masculinity and femininity—of what it means to be a person.  Just as the body reveals the person in the real world, so too should the nude body reveal that there is a person (even if the model is anonymous) there.  As philosopher Roger Scruton puts it “The pornographic image is like a magic wand that turns subjects into objects…It causes people to hide behind their bodies.”  They become simply objects of desire and nothing more.

Regardless of the intent of the artist however, the Pope was realistic in that we are fallen and prone to what he calls the “look of concupiscense” in which we may look at a beautiful nude and still be moved to desire.  For that we must begin to develop what I will call a “spiritual aestheticism” as a corrective.  This means that we develop a taste for objective beauty in all arenas of our lives.  Only then will we see beauty in the human body and be moved to contemplation.  Returning to Scruton he gives what I think is an excellent tool for self-examination.  He mentions that the truly beautiful should stir our imagination (our bodily step towards wonder in our minds) and not fantasy.  The moment we find fantasy rising in our minds we know we have crossed over.

George Weigel once called the Theology of the Body a “theological time bomb” that was set to go off some time in our century.  Thanks to the intercession of Our Lady of the Rosary on that fateful May day in 1981, the fuse has already been lit.  Please God that the first target will be the scourge of pornography—not just to remove it from the moral landscape but to free all of us to see the beauty of the human person in and through the body.


The Boredom of Heaven

Perhaps it is because I am bald, but I cringe at the theological hair splitting that often goes on in the Church.  It is not just “professional” theologians that are guilty of this, but priests and ordinary lay folks as well.  Don’t get me wrong— I think making distinctions, defining your terms and the like are very important to coming to understand the truth.  But it is when the split hair itself becomes the answer that I feel the shiver in my spine.  There are two questions that immediately come to mind.  I will save the second for another time, but in today’s post I would like to look at the first—“how can a loving God send people to hell?”

To ask it is almost to reflexively answer it—“God does not send anyone to hell.  People choose hell.”  In most cases that is sufficient for the prosecution to rest.  But the better prepared interlocutor will demand a cross-examination.  In the parable of the sheep and the goats it certainly seems as if the wicked are being sent by God to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41).  Even though it may not fit with the image of God we are trying to portray, the fact of the matter is that there are simply too many references to divine judgment to avoid the conclusion that God sends some people to hell.  There must be a more tactful answer.

Now, I have made the reader cringe.  God becomes not Father but harsh Judge, the exact image you are trying to overcome with your hair splitting answer.  The reflexive answer to the question really only serves to perpetuate two common misconceptions about heaven; misconceptions that are often stumbling blocks to our desire for Heaven.

Heaven May Not Be What You Think It Is

The first delusion embedded in both the question and the answer is that Heaven is a reward for being good and hell a punishment for being bad.  But that is not true.  Heaven is the (super)natural consequence of being holy.  Sure, everyone in Heaven is good, but only because they are holy.  No amount of goodness can make us holy, even though holiness makes us good.  The author to the Letter to the Hebrews says “without holiness no one will see God” (Heb 12:14).

One of the reasons why someone like Aristotle could only get so far in his thinking about God was that he could not conceive of a way for the gods and men to be friends.  Friendship can only occur between equals and since there was a great chasm between the two, while men might placate the gods, they could never enjoy their friendship.  What Aristotle didn’t consider is that the real God was Love and desired nothing more than to be friends with each man.  To make that happen, He would first become equals with us so that we might become equals with Him.

God makes us equals with Himself by filling us with the Divine life, what St. Peter calls becoming “partakers of the Divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4).  Catholics call it sanctifying grace or the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  Whatever you call it, it is the only thing which makes friendship with God possible.  We really must be “like God,” but only on His terms and not our own.

The problem with the answer is that it only feeds the “faith vs works” controversy.  Holiness is bigger than either faith or works.  It is accepting the invitation of friendship with God and then having that friendship grow.  This is why the authors of the New Testament repeatedly stress the necessity of Baptism and all the great missionary saints like St. Peter Claver saw it as their mission to enflame a desire for baptism in the natives (or in the case of St. Peter Claver, slaves) and then baptize them.  Baptism is the only sure way we know of to become friends with God.

Heaven, then properly understood, is the culmination of a lifetime friendship with God.  This leads us to the second delusion veiled in the question and answer and that is the tendency to see Heaven as the place where you finally get everything you ever wanted.  But Heaven is the place where you get the One Thing you really wanted—God.  Heaven is only heaven because God is there.  It is not a collection of the best things of earth.  There may be many other things there, but it is only God that matters.  All of the other things that are there are there simply to increase the enjoyment of Him.

Hell is hell because God is not there.  It may have many other things, but once God is removed their emptiness becomes apparent.  That is why the pain of loss, that is rejection of the free invitation to friendship, is considered to be the greatest pain of hell.  There is a diabolical corollary to the divine maxim “seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you”—“seek ye first all these things and the Kingdom of God will be forfeit unto  you.”

Medieval art often presented Heaven with cherubs playing harps on clouds.  For those operating under our two embedded assumptions this image of Heaven is not awe-full, but awfully boring.  While it remains just an artistic representation, these images contain a truth that Heaven is about being with God and nothing else.  For those who are interested in that sort of thing then the experience will be far beyond what we could possibly image (c.f. 1 Cor 2:9).  But for the worldly man it would seem boring.  He would soon get weary of heaven because he would continue to hear only about one subject which he has no real interest in hearing about.

Increasing the Desire for Heaven

This is one of the reasons Catholics have a decided advantage thanks to the Mass.  Mass really is training for Heaven.  It is Heaven with a Sacramental veil over it.  If you love the Mass then you will love heaven.  If you don’t love the Mass, then get to work on growing in love with it.  Pray for this singular grace and persevere in that prayer.  As Blessed John Henry Newman says, “‘Enter into the joy of thy Lord’ will sit with us the same way ‘Let us pray’ does now.”

Although the conclusion might not seem obvious at first based on what we have said, it is most certain that God “sends” people to hell because hell is not really the worst thing that can happen to someone.  The worst thing that can happen to a man who is not holy is to go to heaven.  Newman said, “Heaven would be hell to an irreligious man.”  Heaven is a place of happiness only for someone who is holy.  Otherwise it would be a place of eternal torment.  God is “a consuming fire” that burns hotter than the fires of hell.  Only those who have been clothed with grace can withstand and enjoy the heat of His Presence.  The thicker the cloak, the closer one gets.  That is why God does not cease to be merciful even to those in hell.  Returning to Newman once more: “even supposing a man of unholy life were allowed to enter heaven, he would not be happy there; so that it would be no mercy to permit him to enter.”

Catholic Culture and the Filet-o-Fish Sandwich

The Bishops of England and Wales recently made a change to their liturgical calendar, effective the first Sunday of Advent, that added back to the calendar two Holy Days of Obligation—Epiphany and Ascension Thursday.  While this decision obviously only effects those Catholics in England and Wales, their decision is remarkable because it is counter to a trend that has plagued the Church since the Second Vatican Council that has seen the reduction of Liturgical Feasts of Obligation.  One can hope that this will spur other Episcopal Conferences to follow suit.

The Code of Canon Law (1246) has this to say about Holy Days of Obligation:

  • Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church. Also to be observed are the day of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension and the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary Mother of God and her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, Saint Joseph, the Apostles Saints Peter and Paul, and finally, All Saints.
  • However, the conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See.

In Advent of 1991, the NCCB of the United States (now known as the USCCB) issued a general decree defining the Holy Days of Obligation (in addition to all Sundays throughout the year) for Latin rite Catholics in the US as follows:

  • January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
  • Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, the solemnity of the Ascension
  • August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • November 1, the solemnity of All Saints
  • December 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
  • December 25, the solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Whenever (1), (3) or (4) fall on a Saturday or on a Monday, the precept to attend Mass is abrogated.  The Feast of the Ascension, in most dioceses in the US, has been moved to the following Sunday, effectively reducing the number of feasts of obligation from ten to five.

Plummeting Mass Attendance

When faith is in decline, the power of binding and loosing enables the shepherds of the Church to make the practice of the Faith “easier.”  Although this is often abused (I will avoid that rabbit hole here), the shepherds may alter Church disciplines in order to keep the sheep from falling to grave sin.  Seeing regular Mass attendance drop precipitously from 55% to 41% in the years from 1965 to 1990, the Bishops thought that by reducing the obligation, it might keep at least some from committing the serious sin of missing Mass.

That this approach proved ineffective seems obvious, especially since regular Mass attendance dropped to 22% in 2016.  Likely, it had the opposite effect by contributing to it.  Removing some obligations is always a danger because it challenges all obligations, especially when their removal goes unexplained.  Perhaps, the thinking goes, if those days really weren’t obligatory, then the ones they say are obligatory now aren’t either.  After all, one can still be “spiritual” without religious obligation.

The crisis in Mass attendance was not really the problem, but merely a symptom of a larger disease that the Doctors of the Church failed to properly diagnose.  While the reasons are legion, the issue was the death of Catholic culture.  There may have been some compromises with the surrounding culture, but Catholics always stood out because of their religious practices. Think of the Catholic practice of no meat on Fridays throughout the year (another one that has been done away with) and how restaurants made special accommodations to win Catholic patronage.  Once that practice was no longer obligatory even the meat fasts of Fridays in Lent went ignored.  The point is that these practices, even when done with less than pure intentions, bind Catholics together.

The point is that there can be no culture without cult so that if you take away from the liturgical life of the Catholics, you will most assuredly do harm to the sheepfold.  It is not only, or even primarily, for the natural reason that it creates, for lack of a better term, Catholic “identity.”  It is also for the supernatural reason of Communion.  The more often the believers come together and receive life from the Altar of Sacrifice, the closer they will be to Jesus.  The closer they are to Jesus, the closer they will be to one another.  The closer they are to one another, the greater their witness to the world.  The Eucharist is like the nucleus of a primordial atom drawing each negatively charged man to Itself.

When faith is in decline you should increase the obligations, not reduce them.  Fear of hell, while imperfect motivation, can still keep you from hell.  Someone may come to Mass out of obligation, but Our Lord will not be outdone in generosity giving actual graces to those present to receive Him more purely.  There are always those who will go to Mass regardless of whether it is a Holy Day of Obligation, but there are also a great number who will only go because it is.

Catholic culture has to be built from the ground up and is something that needs to be instilled in the young.  I find it very strange that Catholic schools all treat the few Holy Days of Obligation as “regular” days, instead of true holydays.  Should they really celebrate Labor Day while simultaneously demanding work from students on the day when we celebrate all those “who from their Labor rest?”  Going to Catholic school in the 1980s was certainly a confusing time, but one thing they always did right was give us off from school on all the Holy Days of Obligation.  That has always stuck with me and left me with the awareness that these days were no ordinary days.

The Fullness of Time

This leads to one further point that could come under the heading of unintended consequences.  One of the great heresies of modern times is compartmentalization, that is creating a “wall of separation” between Church and the rest of life.  God can have Sunday (even if only for an hour) but the rest is mine.  The Incarnation made it glaringly obvious that God is with us, not just on Sundays, but all days.  The Son came in the “fullness of time” not just because everything was Providentially ready for His arrival, but also because when time and eternity meets in His Person time is filled.  This is part of the reason the Church celebrates Mass not just on Sundays, but every day.

If you really believe that God is actively participating in every moment at every time, you will reject compartmentalization.  The great Christian feasts mark those moments in history when God stepped into the ordinary.  They not only mark them, but make them present.  It brings God into the humdrum, or rather, shows that there really is no humdrum.  It shows them to be real, as in really,really real and not just something relegated to the past.  Take away these celebrations and you move God to the periphery.  Move Ascension Thursday to Sunday and you make it nearly impossible to fully prepare for your share in Pentecost.  Pentecost was not a single event, but one that unfolds throughout time and also at specific times on each Pentecost Sunday.  The Apostles and Our Lady taught us how to prepare for it by nine days of prayer.  Seven days may be more convenient, but it isn’t how it’s supposed to be done.  It makes it all seem manufactured (work of man) and just ceremonial rather than truly liturgical (work of God).

Likewise with Epiphany—we complain about keeping Christ in Christmas, but meanwhile we don’t keep Christmas in Christmas.  Want to win back Christmas from the clutches of commercialization, restore Epiphany to its rightful place in the calendar.

Please God that all the Bishops will follow those of England and Wales and reinstate all the Holy Days of Obligation!

Theology of the Body and Fat Shaming

Long before Freud and Jung, there was Moses.  The account of the Fall not only reveals theological truths, but anthropological truths as well.  If we are not careful, we can over-spiritualize it and miss the deep psychological truths that would otherwise be difficult for us to discover.  The velocity at which our first parents hit the ground from their lofty fall left them and all of their progeny with a form of altitude sickness we call Original Sin.  While shaking the proverbial cobwebs from their heads, Adam and Eve instantaneously became aware of the fact that they were naked and felt afraid (Gn 3:7-10).  In short, they experienced shame and no longer comfortable in their own skin.  Photoshop and makeup cannot cover over the fact that our flesh and our spirit are at war with each other and all of us experience this conflict to varying degrees.  There is a universality to our discomfort that we label generically as “shame.”  Only at the General Resurrection will the fa…, err, big boned lady sing her song of conquest.  Still, freedom in Christ can be found in what we do here and now.  It is in this spirit that I would like to examine our latest cultural crusade—the elimination of  fat-shaming.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, fat shaming is “the action or practice of humiliating someone judged to be fat or overweight by making mocking or critical comments about their size.”  Our crusaders have even given it a label—Sizeism.  As a partial diagnosis, eliminating cruelty towards those who are deemed overweight is a battle worth fighting.  While on the surface the obese person appears to be lacking in self-control, the reasons for an individual person being overweight are usually more physically and psychologically complicated than that.  Rash judgments and cruelty often serve only to pull the scabs off of an already wounded person.

Notice however that in the definition, “critical comments” are included in the list of offenses.  Even doctors, whose job it is to make critical comments about one’s physical health, are lumped in with the offenders.  What this reveals is that while the diagnosis may be accurate, the cure is not.  Our cultural crusaders always rely on their lone panacea—“embracing your brokenness”—critical comments even when done in the spirit of fraternal charity have no place in their medicine cabinet. The solution they propose is to affirm our coping mechanisms and rationalizations with the hopes that we will all become shameless.  As Catholics, especially those who have been schooled in St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, we can offer a  more effective antidote to shame.

The Experience of Shame

During his Catechesis that became the Theology of the Body, the saintly Pontiff offered an extended discussion on the experience of shame.  He starts, naturally enough, at the beginning with the first man and woman prior to the Fall.  They are described as being “naked without shame.”  In order to understand this primordial experience, we must first grasp that shame is a relational reality.  A person has no reason to be ashamed of his nakedness when he is alone in the shower.  Instead shame occurs in relation to another person.  Our first parents felt no shame, not because they had no flaws in their bodies (even though this is true), but because their bodies fully revealed who they were to one another.  Eve had no worry that Adam would see her as an object of pleasure, but instead as a subject to be loved.  In short she had no reason to cover up.  Likewise with Adam.

With the Fall came a change both within the man and woman and between them.  This led to two different experiences of shame.  No longer gifted with self-mastery, the body and spirit are at odds which JPII calls this immanent shame.  It is best described, as we said at the beginning, as a constant awareness of discomfort in our skin.  No matter how much we devote ourselves to beautifying our bodies, we never can quite be satisfied.  The second dimension of shame is what the Pope calls relative shame.  This sense of shame is essentially a fear that the other person will not recognize and affirm the truth of the person revealed in our bodies.

While shame is experienced as a negatively, it should not be viewed wholly as such.  Even though it was an effect of the Fall, God left it there for our benefit.  Immanent shame is a constant reminder that all is not yet right within us.  Likewise relative shame is a form of protection against being used as an object for enjoyment.  This is the most obvious in relation to sexual values, but it has bearing on the topic at hand.  A person who is overweight may, because of shame, be driven towards dressing modestly, so that they do not get made fun of (i.e become an object of another person’s self-entertainment).  Because of the negative experience of shame, they are driven towards a good thing which will in the long run help to restore them to genuine freedom.  The modest person is always more free than the immodest, regardless of whether they are thin or fat.

The Benefit of Shame

Fat-shaming is so psychologically damaging because it fails to recognize the person as a subject that craves love and sets them up merely as an object to be used.  This is why it must be seen for what it is—an attempt to exploit the universal experience of shame to somehow reduce its effects in the abuser.  But the shame that the person experiences, even if it is agitated, is not caused by the abuser but part of his fallen experience.  So even if it were eliminated completely within society, the shame would still be there.  There can be no return to Eden to a shame-free life.  The only remedy is found in mitigating the twofold effects of shame.  To grow more comfortable in our own skin, we must cultivate virtue, especially temperance and its daughter, modesty.  Self-mastery neutralizes many of the effects of shame.  Modesty, especially in an immodest culture, empowers many of those who are held in the grips of shame.  Plus-sized models who model immodest clothing like the petite ones only promote shamelessness and leave many women feeling trapped.  One cannot both say that the beauty is more than skin deep while simultaneously bearing more skin.

In his book Love and Responsibility, then Fr. Wojtyla said that “shame is swallowed up by love, dissolved in it…” Only genuine love can alleviate the effects of relative shame.  Genuine love sees the body as a person and thus has no desire to use that person.  But only the person who has cultivated the virtue of purity has the capacity to receive that love.  Purity not only protects us from experiencing lust, but also prepares us to receive true love.  This message of purity is drowned out in a culture dedicated to shamelessness only making it all the more vital to living a life marked by true freedom.  Fat-shaming is a real problem, but only by “looking through the veil of shame” can we hope to offer a real solution to those who are crippled by fear and shame.

Old Men and the Bible

“You don’t actually believe,” my Christian friend asked, “that Methuselah lived to be almost 970 years old, do you?  It’s been pretty much proven by biblical scholars in the last century that the ages shouldn’t be taken literally.  I had no idea you were a biblical literalist.”  Intrigued by the fact that it was “proven,” I asked what the proofs were.  He said there were two—those such that hold it to be a myth or literary device to speed up the story from Adam to the Flood and those who say the ancients reckoned the years differently, something akin to what we do with “dog years.”

These are not new questions to be sure.  In City of God, St. Augustine set out to defend the truth that we should interpret the ages of the Biblical Fathers literally.  Even in Augustine’s day there were those who tried the “dog-years” interpretation saying that the authors of Sacred Scripture reckoned years differently, 10 years for every actual year.  He refutes it by pointing out that if the calendar was “sped-up” then a year would last 36 days, with each month lasting 3 days.  The problem with this however is that there are very specific references to months and days in the text.  We are told that the waters began to recede “in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month” (Gn 8:4).  Later we learn that Noah left the ark on the twenty-seventh day of the second month (Gn 8:14).  Between the two months there were at least 44 days, making the “dog-years” hypothesis untenable.  We can conclude with Augustine and all those who followed him that “[I]t is plain that the day then was what it now is, a space of four-and-twenty hours, determined by the lapse of day and night; the month then equal to the month now, which is defined by the rise and completion of one moon; the year then equal to the year now, which is completed by twelve lunar months, with the addition of five days and a fourth to adjust it with the course of the sun” (City of God, Book 15, Ch.14).

Likewise the “literary device” hypothesis is difficult to defend.  There is a genealogy that connects each of the persons listed directly.  Anyone who has attempted to trace their own genealogy knows that the two most important things are getting the years of birth and death correct and matching the child with the right parents.  So unless you are willing to concede that the people listed themselves were not real people, then you will have difficulty connecting the men and women listed except by accepting the time frame as well.  There is no reason that the Sacred Author would need to employ this as a literary device when it would be just as effective to summarize across generation the way it is done at the beginning of the book of Exodus.

The Problem of Methuselah

All that being said, we still have not overcome what I will call the “wink-wink” aspect.  According to the Guinness Book of World records, the “greatest fully authenticated age to which any human has ever lived is 122.”  That Methuselah lived to be 969 years old flies in the face of both experience, common sense and modern genetics.  Ironically enough, though, if we are willing to accept Divine Revelation as true (i.e. a literal interpretation of the ages) then we can use some of the principles of genetic mutations to offer a reasonable explanation.

In a couple of previous posts (here and here) we discussed how faith and reason intersect to offer an explanation of our beginnings from a single man and a single woman whom Tradition calls Adam and Eve.  Being the first of their kind they would necessarily represent humanity in its “purest” form.  That is, as the first human beings, they would be setting the genetic standard for what it means to be human.  Any so-called mutations in a creature that is the first of its kind represents not a mutation but a part of the baseline so to speak.  Mutations could only begin to occur in the second generation.  But these mutations (I am oversimplifying here to make a point) would not begin to express themselves in offspring until there was a “doubling” in that both parents had the mutation and passed it along to their offspring.  Given that the appearance of these mutations occur in random subjects, probability theory would suggest that it would take a long time for this doubling to occur, even if the population size is increasing exponentially.

At a certain point in time, a “shorter life” gene could have entered the gene pool and through a process of micro-evolution (especially if it was selective for another reason) became the more prominent.  Human beings had “evolved” such that they now lived for 80 years instead of 800.  The vegans among us might be quick to point out that everything was fine until they started eating meat (Gn 9:3), but I digress.  The point is that modern science can offer us a possible explanation as to how it happened.  It could have happened another way.  But, happen it did.  This is not a proof, but an explanation.  Revelation is a given.

Why Faith Needs These Questions and Answers

While this may be an interesting intellectual exercise that shows the overlap between faith and reason, that is not the point of this essay.  It is simply an example.  We should not be surprised that we cannot prove many things contained with divine revelation, especially those related to our pre-historic, that is those that happened before historical record, beginnings.  If we could discover them then we would not need revelation.  As Christians, we start with the Bible as a given and then proceed from there.  Like our friend St. Augustine, we believe and then understand.

We might treat these things as “acceptable fictions” that make for a nice story or simply look the other way, feeling a little absurd when they come up.  Both practices are ultimately damaging to our faith.  Which is more unbelievable—that men once lived hundreds of years or that God Himself took flesh, walked the face of the earth as one of us, suffered, died, was buried and on the third day rose again?  By examining revelation using other avenues of truth it not only strengthens our faith, but more importantly, it increases our awe at the most wonder-full truth of the Incarnation.  An incarnational religion ought to be animated by a desire to put flesh on the truths of the faith by scrutinizing them using the tools of reason.  Armed with the maxim that truth cannot contradict truth, the assurance that everything given to us through the fonts of Revelation is true, and a healthy dose of humility, we should not fear to use reason to challenge what we believe.  Questioning the truths of the Faith is not the same thing as questioning whether they are true.  The death of faith can come from at the hands of credulity just as easily as it can in the face of methodical doubt.  The Christian story is quite incredible and we should treat it as such.  Apologetics helps the apologizer just as much as his audience; be not afraid to shine the light of reason onto divine revelation.

Sacramental Momentum

At the beginning of his extended treatise on the Eucharist in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas draws a parallel between our corporeal lives and our spiritual lives that helps explain the inner logic of the Sacraments.  Specifically he says “the spiritual life is analogous to the corporeal, since corporeal things bear a resemblance to spiritual. Now it is clear that just as generation is required for corporeal life, since thereby man receives life; and growth, whereby man is brought to maturity: so likewise food is required for the preservation of life. Consequently, just as for the spiritual life there had to be Baptism, which is spiritual generation; and Confirmation, which is spiritual growth: so there needed to be the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is spiritual food” (ST III, q.73, a.1).  While it is certainly a clever way to teach about the need for the Sacraments, to see it as only that would be to miss an important analogical corollary; one that has practical applications for our apostolic approach to those in various stages of conversion.

In mitigating the factions that had arisen within the Corinthian community, St. Paul reminds them of his (and our) role in the conversion of others.  It is by way of cooperation that we participate in the conversion of another, but it is ultimately God Who provides the growth (c.f. 1Cor 3:6-7).  We all intuitively grasp this and realize that our role is secondary (at best) and that only through grace does another person “grow to the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13).  Nothing new has been said so far.  But how that growth is provided is not at all intuitive.  In fact we might be tempted to think it is a mystery and only according to God’s good pleasure.  As Catholics we do know that there is one sure way that God causes growth—through the Sacraments.


Sacramental Inertia

This is where St. Thomas’ analogy between our corporeal lives and our spiritual lives fits in.  The analogy is not just about the inner logic of the Sacraments themselves but also represent a progression in our Spiritual lives.  Just as a living person has a natural drive toward food, the person who has been born again in Baptism has a supernatural drive to feed on the Bread of Life.  Just as the child who has been born and has nourished his life with food desires to grow up, so too in the Spiritual life there is a supernatural desire for Confirmation.  What St. Thomas doesn’t say, but which is implied, is that this supernatural desire is contained as a grace within the Sacraments.  Baptism leads to a desire for the Eucharist.  Baptism and the Eucharist lead to a desire for Confirmation.  Baptism and Confirmation lead to an increased desire for the Eucharist.  Each reception of the Eucharist leads to a more fervent desire for the Eucharist itself.  And so, through this analogy we see that within the Sacraments there are graces pushing the recipient towards the other Sacraments, most especially towards the “source and summit” in the Eucharist.  It is like Newton’s first law applied to the Spiritual life—that which is set in motion in Baptism stays in motion through the other Sacraments.

Like all theological truths, this (super)natural progression also has practical consequences, one which we ought to make profit of in our apostolic endeavors.  If we know that an infallible means of growth is the Sacraments and follow St. Paul’s model then we ought to push others towards the Sacraments.  When we meet someone who does not know God at all and is unbaptized, our focus ought to be to lead them to the Baptismal font.  Why?  Because the grace of conversion contains within itself a desire to be baptized.  If the person is Baptized, then our focus ought to be on pushing them towards Confession and the Eucharist.  Why?  Because the Baptized person is already being inwardly pushed towards those Sacraments.  They may not be able to identify the specific impulses, but they will know them when they see them.    Lukewarm Catholic already in communion with the Church?  Push them towards Jesus in the Eucharist Who is the fire that will set ablaze the most lukewarm of hearts.

I knew of a man who did nothing else but invite his Protestant friends to Eucharistic Adoration.  He reasoned that if his Protestant friends really knew Jesus, they would recognize Him when they met Him in the monstrance.  It might not happen immediately, but in many of the cases they kept going with him until it did.  If Jesus is really there, and He is, then it is hard to find a flaw in this approach.

Applying the Law Sacramental Inertia

Our apostolic endeavors are only effective insofar as we cooperate with grace already working interiorly in the person.  By making use of this principle of Sacramental Inertia we are assured that we are on the same page as the Holy Spirit.  The Sacraments become a sort of apostolic blueprint that represent a goal.  In Latin, the Mass ends with Ite Missa Est, literally “she is sent,” meaning that we are sent out into the world to bring others back with us.  Like John the Baptist our goal is simply to point out and bring others to Jesus.  If we really believe the Sacraments are what the Church teaches they are, we will make them our apostolic goals.

One last point merits our attention as well, especially if it seems that the picture I have painted is overly simplistic.  It is no coincidence that the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist (and Confession), as next steps are also the biggest obstacles.  The principle of Sacramental Inertia is not foreign to mankind’s greatest spiritual foe.  They are either mocked by direct attack, counterfeited or else indirectly attacked by attacking the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  We should be constantly aware that the last thing the Devil wants is for a non-Catholic to begin a Sacramental life and he will do all that he can to impede that.  Our approach, when not leavened with prayer and sacrifice, will always become mere apologetics.  The Sacraments are the greatest treasure of the Church and we must always recognize that sharing these gifts is our apostolic goal.