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Inequality and God’s Love

It may be an obsession with equality or the extension of the trophy mentality to eternity, but I am often struck by the vehemence of those who protest that God does not love each of us equally.  On the one hand, we can sympathize with our protester—that God might love some more than others reeks of a superiority complex based on the all-too human tendency to exclude ourselves from the roster of the “others.”  This danger must be confronted head on because this “mere” theological exercise is not an excuse to say that one person is better than another, but a key component of a healthy understanding of God’s love for each one of us individually.  It is, in fact, an indispensable facet of the Good News, enabling us to see how God’s love of all mankind extends to each person individually.

To open our minds to at least the possibility that God may love some more than others, we begin by assuming the egalitarian viewpoint.  That is we must be willing to concede that God loves me just as much He does the Blessed Mother.  Framed within such a stark contrast, we must at least be willing to entertain the possibility; if God were to love one person more than another, it would be here.  If nothing else, this disparity would lead us to admit to the uniqueness of God’s love for each one of us.  God certainly would love the Virgin Mary differently than He would love me even if it does not imply that there is a difference in degree.

Why God’s Unique Love is Not Enough

To say that God loves us uniquely is certainly true, but my contention is that we must also hold onto the more/less distinction as well.  Calling it unique does not quite capture how it is Good News so we must continue on down this road, stopping at one detour along the way.  To say that God loves one person more than another does not preclude Him from loving each of us with the same intensity.  God is love, that is, love is of His essence and so He loves all things with the same vehemence or intensity of will.  He wills the good for all of His creatures and for each man the supreme Good that is a share in His abundant life. This detour also gives us a moment to examine our perspective.  When we do this, we realize we may be looking at the question from a totally human perspective.  Human love is only an analogy for the love of God, only revealing part of it.  It would be repulsive for a parent to love one of their children more than another.  That is because when we love, it is a recognition of the good in the other.  The good, in a certain sense, is the cause of our love.  For God, it is the opposite—it is His love that causes the goodness (for a more thorough treatment of this question see ST I, q.20, art 3).  With this paradigm shift comes a change in our focus to which we must ask, what exactly is it that makes us lovable?

In examining creation, both visible and invisible, we find that God willed a hierarchy in the natural realm.  We find that by nature, angels are above men, men above beasts, beasts above plants, etc.   This hierarchy means that no man, not even the Virgin Mary is above an angel by nature.  There is also an internal hierarchy within the different natures.  Some angels are above other angels and some men above other men.  In short, nature’s hierarchy is based on how much the thing images God.

God is not content with the natural realm, in fact the natural realm was created so that those creatures who most perfectly image Him, may share in the supernatural realm.  This we call the order of grace.  And while grace does not destroy nature, it does disturb the natural hierarchy.  A hierarchy remains but it is based on not so much on what the creature is, or, more accurately, who he or she is, but in how much he or she is “like” God.  God is, from all eternity, not just love, but because He is a Communion of Persons, lovable.  This means that the more “like” God the creature is, the more lovable they are.  The more lovable they are, the more they are loved by God.

The Question Reframed

With proper framing we find that it is almost common sense that God would love more those who are more lovable and that our lovability is based upon the degree of our “God-likeness.”  For sophisticated theologians, this “God-likeness” has a name—sanctifying grace or, as St. Peter puts it, the gift (gratis) by which we become “partakers of the Divine nature” (2Peter 1:4).  We are loved to the degree that we have sanctifying grace in our souls.  This is why we should ever be striving to increase in sanctifying grace (primarily through Prayer, the Sacraments, and acts of love for God), it makes us more lovable and thus more loved.  The difference in love is not so much in the way that God loves us, but in our capacity to receive.  That capacity is determined by one thing only—the amount of grace we have in our souls.  Thus the Virgin Mary is more loved because she who is full of grace is more lovable.  This is why we believe she occupies the highest realms of heaven.  She who is most “like” God, is most near God.

To see why this is Good News look at someone like St. John Vianney.  By all accounts he was not a man of any particular natural endowments and was probably quite simple at best.  He would never achieve any great things in his life and his chances of making any lasting contributions to this world were pretty slim.  Except, that he was inundated with grace and focused solely on growing in holiness (and all that entails including service of neighbor, etc.).  Why it is Good News is because it doesn’t depend on my accomplishments at all.  It doesn’t matter what great things I do, it only matters that “the Almighty does great things for me” only because I say yes, “be it done to me according to your word.”   This is incredibly freeing, especially to someone like me who is plagued by pride.  By humbling accepting this, it can gives us a laser focus realizing the desire each of us has for greatness and the call to holiness are the same thing.

If you are still unconvinced that this really is Good News, then I offer one more example of a Saint who rode this doctrine all the way to Heaven and was declared a Universal Doctor of the Church, St. Therese of Lisieux.  Happy to be the smallest of God’s flowers she knew He would fill her to the brim with grace and could offer herself as a victim to His love without any hesitation.  Her capacity to be loved may have been less than some of the other Saints, but she strove to have her cup filled to the brim.  The Little Flower shows us the other reason why this is also part of the Good News.  In the heavenly realm there is no competition.  Each person is perfectly happy in their place because they are filled and are part of a whole that shows the glory of God.  God is not simply trying to populate heaven, He is building a family, and like in all families, it glory consists in the whole and not the individual parts.  St. Therese, pray for us!

Misogyny and Misbegotten Males: On the Creation of Woman

The account of the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis has often been labeled as the genesis of misogyny by feminists.  The opening account in the Bible has become for many the point where they close the book.  Therefore it behooves us to know how to respond to such a charge.  In so doing, we will, like Adam who found an unlikely “helpmate” in Eve, we will turn to what many would consider a more unlikely helpmate—St. Thomas Aquinas.

Using St. Thomas as a helper to dismiss the charge of misogyny require some explaining.  For many people this would be like asking David Duke to help defend proper race relations.  But there is good reason to turn to the Dumb Ox for help on this.  Too often skeptics will dismiss the entire corpus of his teaching because the Angelic Doctor is a “misogynist.”    Following the teachings of Aristotle, St. Thomas saw women as “misbegotten males.”

It bears mentioning however that if he was wrong about women, then this does not mean he was wrong about everything, or even anything else.  All this would prove is that he was not infallible and was capable of making mistakes.  Like all of us, he too was prone to unquestionably accept some of the prevailing views of his day.  To have a blind spot, does not make one blind.  Should the entire economic theory of Adam Smith be thrown out because “woman are emotional and men rational.”?  What about John Locke’s political theory because he justifies slavery?  Living in the glass house of a multitude of errors in our own day, we should be careful to throw stone.

St. Thomas Aquinas: Patron Saint of Misogyny?

This particular case is worth examining however because St. Thomas does not wholly swallow the prevailing viewpoint.  While he wrote about women (including his great esteem for Our Lady) in numerous places, he is usually, as mentioned above, accused of misogyny because of what he wrote in a single place when called woman a “misbegotten male.”

In seeking to examine the origin of woman, St. Thomas first asks should the woman have been made in that first production of things (ST I, q.92, art.1)?  He answers in the affirmative, but the first objection he mentions is that of the Philosopher, that is Aristotle:

“For the Philosopher says (De Gener. ii, 3), that ‘the female is a misbegotten male.’ But nothing misbegotten or defective should have been in the first production of things. Therefore woman should not have been made at that first production.”

Note first that this he has listed as an objection to his own viewpoint.  Obviously it was not his own.  In his reply to this objection he shows why he does not agree completely with Aristotle.  It is worth citing the entire response in order to put the myth of his woman hating to rest.

“As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence; such as that of a south wind, which is moist, as the Philosopher observes (De Gener. Animal. iv, 2). On the other hand, as regards human nature in general, woman is not misbegotten, but is included in nature’s intention as directed to the work of generation. Now the general intention of nature depends on God, Who is the universal Author of nature. Therefore, in producing nature, God formed not only the male but also the female.”

Notice that he agrees with Aristotle about the “misbegotten” part, but only on a biological level.  The prevailing view of reproductive biology was that the sperm produced only male offspring, and that when this did not happen it was because something interfered with it.  But St. Thomas goes to some length to say that woman is not a mistake of any sort, but directly willed by God.  Men and women, in St. Thomas’ view, are equal in dignity, even if there are some accidental inferiorities (such as physical strength) between the two.  We shall return to this idea in a moment when we speak of Eve’s origin.

Eve and Adam’s Rib

In the second chapter of Genesis, speaks of the mysterious origins of man and woman.  The man, Adam, is made from the dust of the ground infused with a spirit.  The woman is “built” from the rib of the man.  (Gn 2:21-22).

Much of the creation account uses metaphorical or mythical language, but that does not mean it is entirely composed of metaphor.  In fact, the Church is quite insistent that we understand Eve being formed from the rib of Adam literally.   This is one of the three truths of man’s origins from revelation that the Church insists must be safeguarded from any encroachment by a Theory of Evolution.  Strictly speaking, if creatures are always evolving, there is always a relationship of inferior to superior.  If woman and man evolved from different individuals, evolution would lead them eventually away from each other.  Survival of the fittest would mean that one would necessarily become superior to the other.  But if they share one common origin, one common nature, then they will necessarily be equals.  By insisting that woman is taken from man, the Church is affirming this essential equality between man and woman; equal dignity such that any differences are not essential but only accidental.

This view is pretty much what we saw in St. Thomas’ explanation of why the understanding of woman as a misbegotten man is inadequate.  He goes on to further say that,

“It was right for the woman to be made from a rib of man…to signify the social union of man and woman, for the woman should neither “use authority over man,” and so she was not made from his head; nor was it right for her to be subject to man’s contempt as his slave, and so she was not made from his feet” (ST I, q.92, a. 3).

By removing the rib from Adam, God also would have exposed Adam’s heart to Eve, a truth that becomes clear when we examine the act of creation of the bride of the First Adam, with the bride of the Second Adam.  Just as Adam fell asleep and the raw material of his bride came from his side, so too when the Second Adam fell asleep that the raw material that God would form into His Bride came forth.

This exposure of Adam’s heart has not just a mystical meaning, but a natural one as well.  It is an expression of the truth that “it is not good that man should be alone.”  Pope St. John Paul II mentions this when he discusses the meaning of Adam’s rib during his catecheses on the Theology of the Body.  In naming the animals, man experiences what the Pope calls Original Solitude, in recognizing he is fundamentally alone among creation.  In the creation of Eve, he ecstatically experiences that he was made for another, that is, he was made to love—“this at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh!”  In other words, Eve being taken from the rib of Adam reveals that the two ways of being human somehow complete each other.  As John Paul II puts it, the rib reveals  masculinity and femininity as “two complementary dimensions…of self-consciousness and self-determination and, at the same time, two complementary ways of being conscious of the meaning of the body” (TOB 11/21/79).  Adam’s recognition of Eve as somehow his equal and yet wholly other is a summons to love.

There is certainly a rich symbolism attached to the idea of Eve created from the rib of Adam, but must we really interpret it literally?  Literal interpretation affirms another very important, and very Catholic, principle related to God’s Providence.  God, being totally free, could have fashioned Eve in any manner He wanted.  But He chose this way not because it was a symbol, but because it was a sacrament.  It brought about and revealed the things that it symbolized—the unity, equality and love that each of the symbols we mentioned pointed to. All of creation including the human nature of Christ is meant to reveal God to us.  Therefore nothing that He has made can be taken at face value as “only this” or “only that.”  Everything that is, means something.  God does not need to use symbolic language because everything that He creates is in some sense a symbol.

The accusation of misogyny in the origins of man and woman is really an accusation of Christianity not being Christian.  Prior to the “evolution” of Christian culture, women were always viewed as somehow inferior to men.  It is only when Christianity became the prevailing worldview that the essential equality of men and women became the norm.  Now, revisionists would have us believe that the hand that fed us, actually poisoned us, by feeding us healthy food.  The account of the creation of Eve reveals the dignity of woman and is not misogynistic.



Prophecy and the Third Part of the Secret of Fatima

Tomorrow marks the 100th Anniversary of the third appearance by Our Lady to the children in Fatima, Portugal.  It was during this visit that Our Lady disclosed to the children what has become known as the “Three Secrets.”  The first two of these secrets included a vision into hell, a prediction of World War II and the spread of Communism.  The third secret remained hidden and was not disclosed until the year 2000.  At the end of the Mass of Beatification for two of the visionaries, Jacinta and Francisco Marto, Cardinal Angelo Sodano announced its release.  He mentioned that the time was ripe partly because “the events to which the third part of the ‘secret’ of Fatima now seem part of the past.”  This has not stopped many people from claiming otherwise, insisting on all kinds of apocalyptic interpretations and creating much controversy.

Shortly after Cardinal Sodano’s statement, the then Head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, issued a Theological Commentary on the Message of Fatima  hoping to shine some light upon the third vision the children saw.  The Cardinal began by affirming Cardinal Sodano’s assertion saying,

“[I]nsofar as individual events are described, they belong to the past. Those who expected exciting apocalyptic revelations about the end of the world or the future course of history are bound to be disappointed. Fatima does not satisfy our curiosity in this way, just as Christian faith in general cannot be reduced to an object of mere curiosity. What remains was already evident when we began our reflections on the text of the “secret”: the exhortation to prayer as the path of “salvation for souls” and, likewise, the summons to penance and conversion.”

Despite such a lucid statement, many still insist that the vision is pointing to something yet to happen even going so far as to insist that the Church is hiding something.  There are certainly a number of psychological reasons why a person might do this, but there are those whose insistence comes from a misunderstanding about the nature of prophecy.  Cardinal Ratzinger anticipated this aspect of it and spoke briefly about prophecy in hopes that some of the mistaken views could be put to rest and the focus could be placed on the message itself.  It is in this spirit that we should examine what the future Pope Benedict XVI had to say and supplement it with St. Thomas Aquinas’ explanation of prophecy.

St. Thomas Aquinas and Prophecy

In addressing the charism of prophecy in the Summa (ST II-II, q.173, art. 2), St. Thomas speaks of three different ways in which a prophetic vision is conveyed.  There is the ordinary vision in which something is presented to the exterior senses.  Second, there is an interior perception.  Finally there is a mystical vision that occurs without images.  Regardless of the means by which the vision is conveyed, there is always a subjective element to it. St. Thomas says that “whatever is received, is received according to the mode of the receiver” (ST IA q.75, a5).  What he means by this is that although a person may receive light from on high, how they receive it and how they explain it is based upon their own capacity and experience.

Applying this to what we know of Fatima we can say that the vision was neither the first (only the children could see it) nor could the third (because Sr. Lucia describes it using images).  Through process of elimination we can conclude that the prophetic vision the children received would have been through an interior perception.  What this means is that the vision as Sr. Lucia describes it, even though it is authentic, uses images drawn from her imagination and memory.  This, by the way, is similar to what we see with St. John in the Book of Revelation.  Many of the images as he describes them are based on images that were familiar to him, especially things he had seen on Patmos (like the sea of glass).  In any regard, Sr. Lucia received an impulse from above that is then translated by her interior senses so that she can receive the message.

A thought experiment will make this more understandable.  When I say to you the word “telephone,” you cannot think of a telephone without drawing up an image in your imagination.  This telephone is likely drawn from something in your own memory.  In that way it is completely unique to you and if you began to describe it, it would like be very different from the image I had in mind when I said the word.   In this way, the vision as Sr. Lucia describes it describes is the product of her own imagination and memory.  Again, this is not to suggest that it is made up, only that the images themselves are drawn from her imagination.

Any interpretation has to factor how the prophetic light is received in because it is not like she has seen something on TV or a picture on a wall.  She has received a light and her imagination has attempted to match the light she received.  Of course, it is a prophetic light that is always beyond our natural capacity to know (St. Thomas says of prophecy that it  “first and chiefly consists in knowledge, because, to wit, prophets know things that are far removed from man’s knowledge” (ST II-II, q.171, a.1)) and thus much more complicated than my simple telephone example.  In other words, it is not the vision that matters so much as the interpretation, that is the explanation of what the actual light that was received consisted in.  This is why when asked by Cardinal Sodano whether the interpretation of the vision was correct, Sr. Lucia said she had been given the vision but not the interpretation.  She said it was up to the Church to interpret it, but once she was shown the interpretation she thought it corresponded with what she had seen.

Not only do we tend to focus too much on the vision itself, but we forget another important aspect of a truly Catholic understanding of prophecy.  Most tend to think of prophecy as a foretelling of future events, but the Catholic understanding of prophecy is broader than this. As Cardinal Ratzinger says in his commentary, “prophecy in the biblical sense does not mean to predict the future but to explain the will of God for the present, and therefore show the right path to take for the future.”  By overly focusing on the “prediction” piece of the vision, we can miss the message.

The Vision

With these principles in mind, we can turn to Sr. Lucia directly in her explanation of what she saw in the vision.  Just after seeing an angel with a flaming sword crying out “Penance, penance, penance!” at which point Sr. Lucia saw

“an immense light that is God: ‘something similar to how people appear in a mirror when they pass in front of it’ a Bishop dressed in White ‘we had the impression that it was the Holy Father’. Other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious going up a steep mountain, at the top of which there was a big Cross of rough-hewn trunks as of a cork-tree with the bark; before reaching there the Holy Father passed through a big city half in ruins and half trembling with halting step, afflicted with pain and sorrow, he prayed for the souls of the corpses he met on his way; having reached the top of the mountain, on his knees at the foot of the big Cross he was killed by a group of soldiers who fired bullets and arrows at him, and in the same way there died one after another the other Bishops, Priests, men and women Religious, and various lay people of different ranks and positions. ‘Beneath the two arms of the Cross there were two Angels each with a crystal aspersorium in his hand, in which they gathered up the blood of the Martyrs and with it sprinkled the souls that were making their way to God.’”


Cardinal Ratzinger offers the following points of interpretation based on similar Biblical images:

  • The angel with the flaming sword on the left of Mary represents the threat of judgment looming over the world, just as we see in Book of Revelation—a particularly apt image as today man “himself, with his inventions, has forged the flaming sword.” The image shows the power that stands opposed to the force of destruction—the Mother of God and the seriousness with which we ought to respond to the call to penance
  • The mountain and city symbolize the arena of human history and how man is in great peril of bringing about his own destruction—the cross transforms destruction into salvation
  • Time is presented (the entire century is represented) in a compressed form, just as history is directed towards the Cross. It would be a century of a great suffering for Christians. Martyrs and even the Pope himself (“The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated.”  It is as Ratzinger says a “Via Crucis of an entire century”

Viewed through a wider-angled lens, prophecy is meant not primarily to clear up the incurable human blindness of the future, but the curable blindness of the present time.  This is why it is so important not to get caught up in controversies surrounding the secrets and lose focus on the prophetic message of Fatima.  While it is clear that the events depicted have come to pass, the prophetic nature of the message has not passed.  The events were signs pointing to both the events themselves, but also, and primarily to the overall message of Fatima which is to become a people of both profound penance and dedication to the will of God through an imitation of Mary’s spirit of fiat (that is the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart).  The events not only add credibility to the authenticity of the message, but also are signs through the suffering of the martyrs (the extreme form of Penance) and the Bishop dressed in white who cheated death through his dedication to the Immaculate Heart—his spirit of fiat exemplified through his episcopal motto, Totus tuus.  As we recall this important Centenary, we can echo the thoughts of Pope Benedict that the events have passed while also saying “we would be mistaken to think that Fatima’s prophetic mission is complete.”   Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!



The Media and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

“If it bleeds, it leads.”  If there is a single maxim that guides the main stream media in their reporting, then it is this.  The principle itself is based on a simple calculation: the more carnage, death and human depravity in a story, the higher it appears in the reporting hierarchy.  We, of course, are all quick to condemn the media for this.  But not so quick that we don’t watch it first.  The main stream media is a business, a big business at that, and guided by the law of supply of demand.  It is all based on ratings and with so many ways to monitor what we are watching, they know exactly how much is consumed.  In other words, they lead with the blood because we watch it.  The more we watch, the more we get.  Inundated by it, we feel powerless to keep from watching.  We watch while covering one eye.  But like all things we feel powerless to avoid, it is illuminating to ask why we do it.

Rather than strictly psychological, the answer is more theological in nature.  Its genesis is found, well, in Genesis.  Returning to “the beginning” of mankind, we find man and woman in Eden made in the image and likeness of God.  In His likeness, Adam and Eve are practically unlimited, able to eat from every tree in the Garden except one.  Unlike God, they have a single limitation; they cannot eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Their test then will be whether they are willing to accept this limitation or not.  The Serpent, the inventor of “if it bleeds, it leads,” leads with “You shall not die” and tells the story of how Adam and Eve can be like God if they will simply take from the tree and eat.

The Knowledge of Good and Evil

Even if the tree itself is symbolic, the limitation itself is real.  In order to understand our bloodlust we must first understand exactly what the tree represents.  Adam and Eve attempted to know evil without experiencing it.  That is, they tried to know it from the outside without participating in it from the inside.  This capacity of knowing evil while not experiencing it is something that only God can do.  Only God is all holy and can be unstained by it.  As Blessed John Henry Newman puts it,

“You see it is said, ‘man is become as one of Us, to know good and evil,’ because God does know evil as well as good. This is His wonderful incommunicable attribute; and man sought to share in what God was, but he could not without ceasing to be what God was also, holy and perfect. It is the incommunicable attribute of God to know evil without experiencing it. But man, when he would be as God, could only attain the shadow of a likeness which as yet he had not, by losing the substance which he had already. He shared in God’s knowledge by losing His image. God knows evil and is pure from it—man plunged into evil and so knew it.” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Ignorance of Evil).

This is also the sin of Lot’s wife when she is turned to a pillar of salt.  Overcome by the curiosity to know the evil of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah without being touched by it, she quickly finds out that to know it, is to share in it.  But Scripture is most clear on this when we examine the accounts of Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden.  It is the God-Man and only He Who can know evil without actually participating in it.  So great is the protest of His human nature that He sweats blood.

One might rightly ask at this point how it is that merely watching “bad news” has anything to do with the knowledge of good and evil.  It is in seeing this particular aspect of it that we can begin to separate ourselves from it.  Why is simply hearing about “bad news” not enough and why do we crave the details?  Why are we unsatisfied with a report such as“13 people were killed in an attack today” but have to know how it happened (video even if it contains the “graphic material” is especially wanted), who the perpetrators were, what their motivations were, etc.?  It is because what we learned theologically is proven empirically (or else it wouldn’t be the main part of the consumer news cycle).  In short, it shows we cannot just know about evil, we want to know it like Adam knows Eve, that is experience it fully.

What the Tree Offers Us

This doesn’t mean we want to pull the trigger but just don’t have the courage.  For most of us its meaning is more subtle than that. It means we want to experience the pleasure attached to the evil even if we do not actually commit the act.  It is what the Church calls the glamor of evil, the primal curiosity that brings pleasure from evil acts.  We can call it virtual reality evil—all of the thrills with none of the bills.  It is what keeps us from looking away at bad car accidents, watching Youtube videos of accidents, going to the movies to see the latest “psychological thriller” and the reason why serial killers gain celebrity.  The Devil really is in the details.

The illicit pleasure is not the only effect or really even the worst.  This habit of dwelling on depravity is soul deadening.  It causes us to view evil through a carnage calculator that relativizes it against the last one or against the greatest acts of reported slaughter.  We slowly become immune to evil and see it solely for its entertainment value.  I once saw a lady drive into a storefront and no one went to help her even though there were 20-30 bystanders each with his phone in hand recording the accident.  Not only does it make us slow to love, but also suspicious and fearful of our neighbor.  When bad news gets significantly more play time than good news, we become masters of suspicion and avoid other people, assuming the worst of them.

Returning to man’s Retake in the Garden of Gethsemane we find the strength to overcome the ubiquity of bad news.  Our Lord was the one who “resisted sin to the point of shedding His blood” (c.f. Hebrews 12:4) not just to show us His divine power put to win for us the grace to remain pure of heart amidst so much evil.  We should become cautious and discerning viewers of the news, even sites and channels we would consider reputable.  Avoid getting drug into the details and focus only on headlines.  All too often there is nothing we can do personally to combat a particular evil and so knowing the details is simply curiosity rearing its ugly head.  Get in the habit of asking yourself why you need to know anything more and you will quickly realize that you don’t.

When St. Paul wrote the Christians in Philippi he knew they too were living in a culture where evil had been glamorized he had what is the most practical of advice, “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things” (Phil 4:8).  We would do well to focus on these things as well, turning away from the bad news so that we can more fully embrace the Good News.

On Social Justice

Over the last couple of years, the protest movement has gathered so much steam that there seems to be an organized protest over nearly everything.  One California company has even gone as far as to offer their employees paid time off to participate in protests as a form of social justice.  The fact that these “social justice” protests result in destruction of property, violence and any number of offenses against justice shows that these protest movements are actually counter-productive at best.  They are based on a cart before the horse principle in which the participants and organizers (assuming at least some good will on their part) assume that once “just” social structures are in place, then the people will act justly.  Until this happens, they may need to “make a mess,” to borrow a phrase from the liberal manifesto Rules for Radicals to grab people’s attention, but that should eventually settle down.  But the cart of social justice can only be pulled by the horses of just individuals.  That the protestors are unjust while screaming for justice shows just how convoluted our thinking about justice has become and how necessary it is to develop a more complete understanding of justice.

Justice is the firm and habitual disposition to give to each person his or her rightful due.  Or, put more succinctly, justice is the habit of giving to each what is owed to them.  In short, to “owe” another person means that we are giving, or more accurately restoring, to them something that they already own.  Those more classically schooled will recognize in the “firm and habitual disposition” the definition of a virtue.  Justice is one of the four virtues (along with prudence, temperance and fortitude) on which all the other virtues depend.

The Interiority of Justice

It merits a reminder as well that because justice is a virtue, this means that it is primarily something interior to the person and not exterior.  Just as the person who habitually lies is a liar, so too the person who habitually acts justly is just.  The “environment” helps us to be more or less just, but it is the individual man who is just.  When a critical mass of individuals are just, a social justice follows.  Men without the virtue of justice, no matter how just the social structure, will always tend to destroy that structure.  That is precisely what we see in the protest movement—injustice committed in the name of justice.  While this might be a glaring example, the same can happen when the leaders are not just men either.

As the definition suggests, justice is meant to govern relationships and so to speak of “social justice” is a bit of a tautology.  This is why it remains a fuzzy concept for many of us and often just ends up being a mask for a political movement.  The Church has always viewed it as the cooperation of just men who form, maintain, or re-form social institutions that serve the common good.  Justice rules (i.e. social justice) a community when three fundamental structures of communal life are in proper order—individuals one to another (commutative), society to individuals (distributive) and individual to society (legal justice).  In his book on Justice, Josef Pieper has a helpful diagram to keep these straight.


The first form of justice is called commutative justice.  Commutative justice is usually what we think of when we speak of justice.  It governs the relationship between two people and assumes a certain level of equality between the two.  Being equals, they must equally bear the burden of any social exchange.  A person needs a pair of shoes from a cobbler and exchanges a just price, say $10, for the shoes.  Anything less than that then the buyer would be guilty of an offense against commutative justice.  Anything more and it would be the cobbler who violates commutative justice (As an aside, I will post on the Church’s teaching on just price, so for now just assume that $10 is a just price). It is also commutative justice governs the duty of restitution.   If a person steals from another, then they violate commutative justice and the guilty party must make some restitution to restore to the victim that which is owed.

Because many people think only in terms of commutative justice, many injustices occur because groups of men have obligations towards individuals.  In truth, while commutative justice is based on a principle of equality, men are not equal in all ways.  This is why the Church also speaks of distributive justice.  Distributive justice is not based on equality, but based on proportion, according to need, merit, circumstance, etc.  What properly belongs to man through distributive justice is a proportionate share in what is common to everyone, that is, to each man must be given a proportionate (not equal) share of the common good.

A classic example helps us to see how these first two forms of justice work.  Suppose there are two brothers, ages 2 and 16, and they approach their parents because they want candy.  There is only a single bag of M&Ms left and so the parents must divide the bag between the two.  Rather than counting the M&Ms and splitting them evenly, the parents give the 16 year old  2/3 of the bag and the 2 year old, 1/3.  They give unequal distribution because of their ages and amount of candy they should eat.  This is distributive justice.

Just as in the example the parents, who govern the good of the family, chose the allotment of M&Ms, it is the custodian of the common good in society then that determines the proper proportion.  For society as a whole this would be the State, or more properly understood, an individual that has the power to determine the allotment.  So, it is not the State that is just or unjust, but individuals holding power within the State that act justly or unjustly.  This simply reiterates the point about when the emphasis is on just structures and not just men, justice is almost never achieved.

Social Justice

Social justice is often equated with distributive justice because it is viewed mainly as a problem of distribution and the focus mainly remains on this dimension.  However, those who desire social justice ought to focus more on the relationship between the individual and society that St. Thomas calls legal justice. In short it is the individual, not focusing so much on his rights, but on his duties to society that creates social justice.  It is, to borrow from JFK’s famous speech, to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  If each man were to focus on contributing to the common good and not just his own private goods then social justice would reign.

What all of this brings to the forefront is that the protest movements as they are practiced now are truly protesting against social justice.  In attempting to raise the awareness of injustices, they do harm to the common good.  Anyone who reads Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, can’t help but be struck by his thoughtful reflection upon what is just.  It was only because he had spent time thinking about justice that he was able to envision what it would look like.  He and his fellow co-founders of the Civil Rights Movement refused to counter injustice with more injustice.  Instead they kept their eyes focused on the common good (the focal point of his I Have a Dream speech) and how a more just society could be formed.  Destroying property, trampling on the good of the free speech of others, and destroying public order all creates less social justice not more, no matter how many days of paid leave they are given to protest.

Grandpa Adam and Grandma Eve

In his 1950 Encyclical, Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII cautioned about a number of ideological trends that undermined the Faith of the Church.  Among these was a certain idea connected with the Theory of Evolution called polygenism.  For the evolutionary idea to be accepted it would require not just two first human parents, but the transition from animal to man would require a multitude of men and women.  In other words, it is a rejection of the belief that Adam and Eve were two real people from which the entire human race descended.  The Pope strongly condemned acceptance of this idea saying, “When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own” (Humani Generis, 37).

On the surface, it appears to make little difference as to whether there was an actual Adam and Eve or whether mankind traces its roots to a multitude of first humans.  Diving beneath the surface, we see that acceptance of polygenism threatens to undermine the foundations of the Christian faith.  If polygenism is true, then the Christian faith is necessarily false.

Evolutionary theory applied to man does not only mean that man was made by blind forces but is ultimately an attempt for men to remake themselves.  The creature becomes his own creator.  No Adam and Eve means no Original Sin.  No Original Sin, no need for Christ.  If we were never “in Adam” then there would be no need to be “in Christ.”  With a multitude of races at our beginning, there would be fallen and unfallen men living together and only those who are direct descendants of Adam need redemption.  Evolution eventually weeds this out through natural selection, removing any distinction and Christ becomes entirely unnecessary.  Even if this is a case of unintended consequences on the part of Darwin and his ideological descendants, we can be sure there is at least one highly intelligent person who revels in this idea.

In the mind of many Christians, this sets up a Catch-22.  If we accept a literal Adam and Eve, then where did their grandchildren come from?  To accept a belief in only first two parents means to accept that their children were incestuous in populating the earth.  With no outsiders to marry, Cain, Abel, Seth and their unnamed sisters would have married each other.  Rejecting a literal Adam and Eve seems to be better than accepting this morally repugnant option.  Or is it?

Why Incest is Wrong

When asked why incest is wrong, most of us would say because the genes of those closely related by blood are so similar that it can result in offspring with serious genetic defects.  Looked at properly however, this is a consequence of the wrong and not necessarily the reason why it is wrong.  Whether we posit that because Eve was taken from the rib of Adam they were nearly genetically identical (making their act of intercourse genetically the same as fraternal twins) or that Eve was fashioned with a different genetic code than Adam, the important point to remember is that their genetic code would have had no mutations in it.  After the Fall, their offspring may have had mutations in their DNA, but, if we accept the modern scientific explanation of these mutations as appearing at random, we should not expect identical mutations to occur in Adam and Eve’s offspring.  Without the necessary doubling of mutations in the parents, we would not see the same effects that we see with inbreeding today.  Once the gene pool has a sufficient number of these mutations present in it and the likelihood of some deleterious effect occurring on the rise, God issues a positive command that a man may not marry someone of close relation like his sister, aunt, or niece (Lev 18-20).

In short, the consequence of serious birth defects is a sign that incest is wrong, but is not what makes it wrong.  In City of God (Book XV, Ch. 16) Augustine visits this question as to why Cain, for example, committed no wrong when he married his sister.  We can borrow from his explanation to help us see past this intellectual obstacle.

The Augustinian Solution

First, he looks at the purpose of marriage and procreation and says something that most of us would not think of as a purpose today.  Augustine see this as one of the goods of marriage—marriage multiplies relationships.  In the past, especially in ruling families, marriage was viewed as a means to bring the families together, making them one.  It brings strangers together and makes them a family.  A woman’s brother becomes the man’s brother-in-law, her father, his father-in-law.  Without the marriage of the man and woman, these men would not have entered into a familial relationship.

When closely related persons married, this good is lost.  When siblings marry, their mother is both mother and mother-in-law.  This was obviously unavoidable in the case of Cain and his sister, but, according to Augustine, is a reason to avoid close marriage.

Obviously, this would not be a precept of the natural law, but Augustine and St. Thomas both say that marriage between a parent and a child was always contrary to the natural law because of the relationship of parent and child could never be placed on the equal footing required for marriage.  A child always owes their parents piety while spouses have no such obligation.  This is why Noah curse Ham when he “saw his nakedness” (Gn 9:20-25), which is a Hebraic euphemism for sleeping with his mother.

While not a precept of the natural law, marriage between siblings and close blood relatives is still wrong because of our fallen human nature.  For men and women to live closely together (like siblings do today or close blood relations such as cousins did in the past) with the potential for the relationship to become sexualized is a great temptation to lust and use.  This is why it would be just as wrong for Greg and Marsha Brady to get married as it would be for two blood siblings.  To make such a union illicit can serve to remove this temptation and makes it taboo.  The fact that we initially recoil at the thought of Cain and his sister means that this taboo has had its intended consequence.

Removing incest as an obstacle to belief in two first parents goes a long way in helping us to see why polygenism must be false and why we should reject any form of it.  Grandpa Adam and Grandma Eve, first parents and first grandparents.

The Triumph of the Immaculate Heart

With the celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Our Lady’s appearance to the visionaries in Fatima, there has been a renewed interest in meaning of her visit.  There has been much ink spilled, especially since the release of “Third Secret” in 2000, interpreting all that she did and said.  At the heart of all the visions, miracles and “secrets” is the perennial call to pray and do penance.  But there is one aspect that has, for the most part, remained a mystery.  What did Our Lady mean when she told the visionaries that “in the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph”?

To understand what Our Lady meant when she told the visionaries of the triumph of the Immaculate Heart we have to examine a most fundamental truth.  It is the Immaculate Heart that paves the way for the Sacred Heart.  This is not based on some pretended religiosity and obscure connection but the most basic truth that in the fullness of time, it was the Immaculate Heart, a heart completely open to God’s will that led to the creation of the Sacred Heart.  Not only does the Immaculate Heart pave the way in the fullness of time, but also at the end of time.  That is it was the Immaculate Heart that brought about the Incarnation and thus we should expect that it would be instrumental in His return.  Just was we know that it is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, that is Our Lord both in His Divinity and His humanity that will reign in the end, we can also know that Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart will reign as well.

The Immaculate Heart

In his theological commentary on the Third Secret of Fatima, the future Pope Benedict XVI explained what it meant to have a devotion to the Immaculate Heart.  He said, in “biblical language, the “heart” indicates the center of human life, the point where reason, will, temperament and sensitivity converge, where the person finds his unity and his interior orientation. According to Matthew 5:8, the ‘immaculate heart’ is a heart which, with God’s grace, has come to perfect interior unity and therefore ‘sees God’. To be ‘devoted’ to the Immaculate Heart of Mary means therefore to embrace this attitude of heart, which makes the fiat—‘your will be done’—the defining center of one’s whole life.”  His point is that the Immaculate Heart reigns in our hearts when we allow our own hearts to be cultivated after hers.

Mary’s heart is one that is one that does not grow weary because she is always expecting God to act personally in her life.  Evidence her reaction to the appearance of St. Gabriel.  Throughout the Old Testament record, the appearance of an angel always elicits great fear in the visionary.  The first words spoken by the angel is “do not be afraid.”  But Mary seems to expect the angel and is clearly not shaken by his appearance; even if his manner of greeting her is troubling. Most of the artistic renderings of the Annunciation show her at prayer, but there is little proof of this other than pious tradition.  She was just as likely working as sitting in contemplation.  She knew God can and does come in either situation.  She travels to the Hill Country to visit Elizabeth “in haste” because she is excited to see the mighty power of God at work.  She believes and professes that nothing is impossible for God.  Her response to St. Gabriel’s proposal is “let it be done to me according to thy word.”  Later when she arrives at the home of her cousin Elizabeth she proclaims the “great things that God has done for me.”  It is this change in preposition that shows how deep her trust in God truly is.  A living faith like that of Our Lady is one that sees those things that God does to us, ultimately are for us.  But this is a radical trust that must come from the heart and be filled with fiat.

How the Immaculate Heart Triumphs

How is it that the Immaculate Heart will triumph?  Building on Cardinal Ratzinger’s commentary we can say that the reign of the Immaculate Heart is not so much about the reign of Mary as Queen per se, but a devotion to her spirit.  It is by the wholesale adoption of this spirit of the Immaculate Heart.  The Kingdom comes when “Thy will is done on earth as it is in heaven.”  It is only this spirit of fiat, that is, the spirit of wanting nothing more than God’s will that will bring about the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

We might see how this is done individually, but how can an entire culture adopt this stance?  This is why Our Lady so vehemently desires the First Saturday devotion.  It is the Communion of Reparation that will bring about this reign.  When all the children begin to act like Mommy and willingly go to the foot of the Cross and stay with Jesus.  This is no symbolic gesture but instead a literal one.  We go to the foot of the Cross each time we go to Mass and on First Saturdays we go with Our Lady in reparation for the offenses against her Immaculate Heart—not because she is overly sensitive, but because without reparation by those children that love her, her spirit of fiat will never spread.  There are two things always at the heart of Christian culture—Mary and the Mass.  Where devotion to Our Lady thrives, so too does the Mass.  Where the Mass is seen as the “source and summit” love for the Immaculate Heart grows.

Ironically there has been so much controversy over whether or not John Paul II consecrated Russia to the Immaculate Heart or not, that we have neglected the other part of Our Lady’s request of the First Saturday Communion of Reparation.  While we have very little control over whether the Pope performed or has yet to perform the Consecration of Russia, we do have control over the spread of this practice.  The best way to bring about the reign of the Immaculate Heart and hasten the reign of the Sacred Heart is also the best way to heal our culture.

Immaculate Heart of Mary, reign in our hearts and show us the way to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Revealing and Reliving God’s Fatherhood

Each Father’s Day, I begin the day with what has become a personal tradition.  I open my copy of Pope St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Famliliaris Consortio, to p.43 and then read the last paragraph of section 25 where the saintly Pontiff says:

“In revealing and in reliving on earth the very fatherhood of God, a man is called upon to ensure the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family: he will perform this task by exercising generous responsibility for the life conceived under the heart of the mother, by a more solicitous commitment to education, a task he shares with his wife, by work which is never a cause of division in the family but promotes its unity and stability, and by means of the witness he gives of an adult Christian life which effectively introduces the children into the living experience of Christ and the Church.”

These words, written by a celibate to his spiritual children, perfectly capture the essence of what it means to be a father.  They form, what has become for me, a mission statement and so, every year, I visit them to ask God the Father how I am doing in living out the calling He has given me.  This practice has always been fruitful for me personally not only because it recharges my paternal batteries, but also because it provides clarity where busyness may be obscuring my mission as a father.

St. Thomas lived by the motto that “our calling is to share the fruits of our meditation.”  It is in this spirit, that is in recognition of the gifts God bestows on each of us in prayer are not just our own, and not because I am some exemplary model of fatherhood, that I share some of the lights that have come to me over the years.

Keeping the End in Mind

First, I will mention a most important principle that animates JPII’s mission statement.  We ought to, in everything we do, live with the end in mind.  The more conscious we are of our goal or our purpose, that is the more we call it to mind, the easier it is to achieve.  The truth is that all too often activity causes us to forget where we want to go.  We get easily distracted and need to be reminded it is not about the journey but about the destination.  To the extent that each of us does this, asking constantly if what we are doing or about do will help us reach our goal, the more successful we will be.

This is true not just in the natural realm but the supernatural as well.  The more we remind ourselves that the goal is heaven, that is, the more we live with a heavenly perspective, the less often we will fall off the path.  So often we fall not so much out of malice, but forgetfulness.  Like Peter walking on water, we take our eyes off Christ and we fall.  Once we refocus on Him, He is there to put us back on our feet.  In short, the more we keep our desire to be with Jesus in the front of our minds, the more docile we are to the impulses of grace.

Fatherhood is not just one means among other means for us to get to heaven, but for those who have been called, it is one of the primary ways.  Just as husbands are to be Christ in the flesh to their wives, they are to “reveal and relive the very fatherhood of God” to their children.  The mission is simple, even if it isn’t easy, to show those children “born under the heart of the mother” what God the Father is like.  For good or for bad, nearly all of us see God the Father as something like our fathers on earth.  If you want to know how you are doing as a father, ask your children what God the Father is like.

Revealing and reliving the Fatherhood of God—a daunting task indeed!  In fact anytime I grow overconfident in my fathering and need a dose of humble pie, I remind myself of this calling and abruptly reality sets in.  But reality is not that I can’t live up to this calling.  That much is obvious.  Reality is that God never calls without equipping and He has given me the graces I need to make this happen.  For my part I only need to keep my eyes on the purpose—to show them God the Father.

There have been so many times when the Holy Spirit has whispered those very words in my ear—“relive and reveal the very Fatherhood of God on earth”—before I was about to lose my cool or before I was tempted to insist on my own way God the Father is gentle and bears all things.  God the Father is generous.    Do I always listen, no, but when I do these simple words always keep me on course.

How it’s Done

How is it that John Paul II proposes we as fathers reveal and relive the Fatherhood of God?  It is through what he calls the “the harmonious and united development of all the members of the family.”  God is a true Father Who is not far away but at work at every moment forming us into His adopted children.  When fathers take an active role in the development of their children, especially their spiritual and moral development, they image God the Father.

Notice the tone of reverence the Pope displays toward wives and mothers when he speaks of “the life conceived under the heart of the mother.”  That is, husbands are called to love their wives first.  It is because he is a husband that he becomes a father.  One of the best ways a man can love his children is to love his wife and to show reverence for her.  To model true complementarity for your children also shows them that men and women, despite the effects of the Fall, are not in competition with each other, but true partners and made to challenge each other to become more fully human.

Fathers also should make a “more solicitous commitment to education” of their children.  This starts by forming them in the Faith.  All too often men will leave this to their wives or think this means dropping them off at CCD or the Catholic School.  But this is not what John Paul II has in mind.  Study after study has shown that when fathers are committed to the faith, their children follow suit.  Children need to learn the truths of the faith from their fathers but they also need to be schooled in prayer.  There is nothing more manly than to be found on your knees in prayer and children naturally imitate this when their fathers model it for them.  Men should always strive, as JPII says, to introduce “the children into the living experience of Christ and the Church.”

John Paul II also has a broader idea of education of which school is only a small part.  This is especially true today as the contributions to overall education by schools, both public and private, are greatly diminished.  This is why many fathers, following the model of St. John Bosco, develop simple formation plans for each of their children that includes their spiritual, intellectual, social, and human—all with the goal of educating the entire person.

The Pope acknowledges that providing for his family by his work, is fundamental to what it means to be a father.  But he also cautions men to make sure that their work “is never a cause of division in the family but promotes its unity and stability.”  So many of us, especially in a consumer-driven culture, overly focus on the material aspects of work.  Certainly, earning money is a key aspect of it, but we also must ask the harder questions.  What kind of person does my work turn me into?  Am I absent from family life more than I should be or even pre-occupied or stressed out when I am there?  Our work should support our vocation as fathers but never at the cost of the unity and stability of our family life.

Father’s Day in the United States is a relatively recent addition to our holidays.  But Father’s Day has been celebrated for centuries in some European countries on March 19th, the Feast of St. Joseph.  St. Joseph, above all the married saints, truly relived and revealed God’s Fatherhood.  He was chosen from all eternity to be the representative of God the Father on earth.  Fathers should regularly turn to him for guidance and strength.  He was also one of the Patron Saints of Pope John Paul II who bore his name as his middle name.  Let us spend this Father’s Day with these two fathers and ask them to guide us as we examine ourselves in light of these challenging words.

Evolutionary Bait and Switch

A recent Gallup poll found that 38% of Americans hold to the Creationist view of human origins.”  The remaining 62% believe that evolution (either guided or unguided) played a part.  In the court of public opinion, evolutionists appear to have won the day.  The problem however is that the debate suffers from a lack of precision in terms.  “Evolution” means different things to different people.  In general we know that it refers to some transformation of a species of living beings but most discussion occurs without making that definition more specific.  This is why the first (and most important step) in any discussion is to define your terms. Evolution falls into two main categories, microevolution and macroevolution.  As the name suggests, microevolution explains the changes that lead to variation within a given species.  Macroevolution refers to the large-scale changes that lead to increasingly more complex species.  The failure to make a distinction between these two categories is the source of most of the confusion in the current debate between so-called creationists and evolutionists.

Microevoltion and Macroevolution

As the “experts” in the scientific fields, the evolutionary philosophers, that is, those who treat evolution as a philosophy such that it explains all of reality rather than as a scientific theory that explains part of reality, are only too happy to have these two lumped together.  Microevolution seems to be self-evident and it doesn’t take an expert to see this.  Anyone who has had to take multiple antibiotics for an infection knows that bacteria can evolve such that they are resistant to certain antibiotics.  With the self-evident quality of microevolution, the evolutionists can perform a bait and switch of sorts lumping macroevolution in and selling it as “evolution.”  Opposing something that seems so obvious makes one look like an unreasonable religious nut.  We must insist then that swallowing the microevolutionary slice doesn’t mean we must eat the whole evolutionary pie.

Many insist that there ought to be no distinction between micro- and macro-evolution because macroevolution is simply an extrapolation over time of the same processes that drive microevolution.  This viewpoint is scientifically problematic for at least three reasons.

First, there is the problem of the Missing Link in the fossil record.  “The problem is”, as GK Chesterton pointed out nearly a century ago, “that the missing link is still missing.”  The use of the term “missing link” is considered archaic, but the idea I think is still valid even as we find more and more examples of intermediate species  within the fossil record.  These intermediate species are often labeled as “transitional” but the problem is that this implies that the jump from one to the other is very short.  If macroevolution based on microevolution is true, then there ought to be something like a linear or gradual progression between species.    Instead there are still jumps, and even if the jumps are getting smaller, they are still pretty large.

Too often the “missing link” became an argument from silence, but I think it is still valid because the gap of say 400,000 years between two related species is non-trivial.  The fossil record really appears to show something like fits and starts.  A species is stable and then abruptly a new species appears.

If science truly is allowed to go where the data takes it, then it is far from definitive that macroevolution has occurred based on the fossil record.  In fact in a controversial paper in 1972 as Stephen Jay Gould points out the exact opposite,

“The history of most fossil species includes two features particularly inconsistent with gradualism:

(1)Stasis. Most species exhibit no directional change during their tenure on earth. They appear in the fossil record looking much the same as when they disappear; morphological change is usually limited and directionless.

(2) Sudden appearance. In any local area, a species does not arise gradually by the steady transformation of its ancestors; it appears all at once and ‘fully formed.'”

Second there is the problem of time.  Extrapolation from micro to macro-evolution we are told, happened slowly over time.  If a chasm is so wide that it cannot be crossed without a bridge, no amount of time is going to make it crossable.  The macroevolutionist might say that there were small stepping stones that arose that made the crossingpossible, but that those stepping stones disappeared.  Again one would have to ask where the data is that suggests that such stones actually appeared, especially when there is a simpler and much more reasonable assumption that they were carried across.  That is unreasonable, if you have not already presupposed that no such carrier existed.

The third problem is related to the mechanism by which evolution is said to occur, namely natural selection.  This ought to be obvious from the name, but Natural Selection is selective and not productive.  It does not bring new creatures into being, but instead is a mechanism by which certain individuals are favored because of their adaptations to some environmental condition.  It cannot create those individuals but draws from those who already exist in the population.  Many treat Natural Selection as a creative force; as if it somehow causes the favorable mutation rather than just selecting based on it.

An Edge to Evolution?

As we continue to study the genetic basis of mutation, Natural Selection seems not to be a mechanism by which this jump from microevolution to macroevolution could have occurred.  In his book, The Edge of Evolution, biologist Michael Behe documents a study in which about 30,000 generations, or 1 million years of E. coli have been manufactured and what they have found is “ Mostly devolution.”  It will advance to a certain stage and then throw away chunks of genetic patrimony because it costs too much energy to maintain.  What Behe claims is that this is one example among many of the edge to evolution.  There is a barrier beyond which selective breeding will not pass because either sterility occurs or genetic variability is exhausted.  Although Behe is not popular among some of his colleagues, it is mostly on ideological and not scientific grounds.  Even scientific giants like Richard Dawkins could only resort to ad hominem  arguments to refute Behe.

None of this, of course, proves that macroevolution does not offer a true explanation of the variety of species.  But it does show the need for intellectual honesty that starts by using terms properly.  We should not fall for the evolutionary bait and switch that many neo-Darwinist philosophers try to sell us.  Evolution, especially macroevolution is an open question and ought to be treated as such.

Believing in Jesus

Every televised sporting event includes two things that are guaranteed to happen.  First, there will be beer commercials.  Second, at some point during the game, when panning the crowd, we will see a sign that says John 3:16.  It is perhaps the most recognizable verse in Sacred Scripture, “For God so loved the world that he gave his Only Begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”  It is in many ways a perfect summary of the Gospel containing both the importance and simplicity of the message.  Despite its simplicity, it has also become a source of confusion and contention for many Christians that centers around what it means to “believe in Him.”

As with many questions like this, it helps to begin with what it is not saying.  First, it is not saying that we believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  Paraphrasing St. James, “even the demons believe that and tremble” (James 2:19).  Jesus’ true identity is something worthy of belief, but only in the sense that we believe other historical realities.  They either happened or they didn’t.  Jesus either really rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven or He didn’t.  This is not to believe in Him but to believe about Him.  This is not what Jesus had in mind in addressing Nicodemus.

This is also not a call to believe in Jesus the philosopher or ethics professor.  This is often the way the world views Jesus and we inadvertently adopt this view to defend Christianity.    This is simply to believe Him.  Our Lord is not asking Nicodemus to become one of His pupils or to follow His moral code.  The invitation is for something deeper and more personal.  Instead we must treat Christianity as, Pope Benedict XVI said in his first encyclical, “not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”

What Christianity Is

In this, the Pope Emeritus captures the true meaning of what Jesus is inviting Nicodemus, and by extension, us, to.  We do not believe in ideas, principles or philosophies.  We believe in another person.  In short Jesus is inviting us not to follow a way of life, but to enter into a love affair.  It is an invitation to trust.  Until we accept that this is the invitation, we will remain fixed in viewing our Christian life as a moral or philosophical journey.  Until we love Christ and not just Christianity we will not have the encounter we so deeply desire.

The doors of trust are opened when we come to realize that the “Word became flesh” for no other reason than because “God so loved the world,” that is every person in it.  It is no encounter with a man who died long ago and left us some teachings, but a man who is alive and waiting for me.  It is not a generic love for me, but a deeply personal love for me.  It is the assurance that Christ did not die for mankind, but that “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).

Like all relationships founded on trust, once the trust is in place, we are willing to do whatever Christ tells us.  Notice how Nicodemus keeps returning to Jesus throughout John’s Gospel so that his trusts grows to the point that he even defends him before the Sanhedrin. Once I know that He has only my best interest at heart, once I know the lengths He has gone to prove this and the power He has over all that can harm me, I will do whatever He says, no matter how crazy it seems, I will do it.

Even the devil knows how foundational this trust is.  Deep down, all sin is a matter of not trusting God enough.  “Maybe he doesn’t really have my best interest at heart…”  As the Catechism says “Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command” (CCC 397).  Jesus, I trust in You!

Faith and Works

Call it “works flowing from faith” or whatever you like, but it is summarized in one word trust.  The whole faith vs works controversy that separates Christianity is simply semantics.  It is about trust.  “Trust,” Our Lord says, “that I can save you” and you will be saved.  Trust not, and you are already condemned.  There is no other way to be saved.

We can readily see that this confusion over the word believe is related much like the confusion over the word faith.  That is why the Church has always made the distinction between the act of faith and the content of faith.  The act of faith is the trust that we have in God.  The more we trust, the greater our trust becomes.  The content of faith is what we believe.  In both senses we will use the word faith.  We have faith in the Person and so the content of what He has revealed, i.e the Faith, is altogether reliable.

While the act of faith is primary (in the sense that it is first in time), the content of faith is indispensable.  The content of faith, that is things like the Creed, are the reasons why we believe.  They are motives of credibility.

In his biography on St. Francis of Assisi, GK Chesterton seems to capture the spirit of John 3:16 perfectly.  He writes of the world’s fascination with God’s Troubadour because of his love of nature and mankind, but his religion was always a stumbling block (especially the Stigmata).  Chesterton says the interpretive key for Francis is that “A man will not roll in the snow for a stream of tendency by which all things fulfil the law of their being.  He will not go without food in the name of something, not ourselves, that makes for righteousness.  He will do things like this, or pretty like this, under quite a different impulse.  He will do these things when he is in love.”

On Roasting and Empathy

For those of us who are parents, coaches or teachers of teens, we cannot help but be struck by what has become an unparalleled capacity for cruelty that this generation of teens seems to have tapped into.  To be clear from the outset, this is not an essay about bullying, although it is related to this capacity in its truest form.  Our focus on bullying has become merely another way in which we help to create more victims so much so that we have come to label even the smallest amount of confrontation as “bullying.”  This is about a much deeper issue and that is the depths of cruelty that seem to be part and parcel of the life of teens.  Witness the latest teen pastime, Roasting.

Roasting is different from making fun of someone.  A certain amount of that is healthy, and especially in young men it is a sign of affection.  That is mere ribbing.  Even when it is not entirely good-natured, it usually stops when someone gets salty or sensitive.  Roasting on the other hand is something much more than ribbing.  Roasting is, as the Urban Dictionary describes it, the “act of verbally assaulting someone until you hurt their feelings, sometimes to the point of making them cry.”  Victory doesn’t occur with the zinger or burning the other person, it is in roasting them, that is, submitting them to slow and painful abuse.  Its purpose is not simply to embarrass but to keep going until you actually hurt the person or you drive the person to hurt himself.    Roasting is, in essence a Luciferian monologue intended to push a person over the edge.

This phenomena of Roasting leaves Parents, Teachers and Coaches at a loss, especially because even those who we would label as “good kids” engage in it.  It will remain an enigma until we are willing to name it for what it is and confront its chief cause.  Children and teens of this generation have failed almost universally to develop empathy.

When I make fun of someone else, my ultimate reason is because it brings me some pleasure.  That pleasure is reduced to the degree that I realize that it came at the price of causing another person pain.  In short, empathy either stops me from doing it, or at least from taking it so far.  Empathy is a sub-virtue of the virtue of charity by which a person habitually enters into another’s feelings, needs and thoughts. It is the habit of seeing things through the eyes of another person.  Empathy, first and foremost, assumes that one has learned how to “read” another person.  Until that ability matures, the person can only know their own pleasure.

How do we learn to “read” another person?  In normally developing children it is through face to face contact with other people.  They watch the reactions of other people to events and begin to read what they are thinking and feeling through those reactions. They learn that not all communication is verbal and learn how to pick up on these non-verbal cues.  They learn what approval looks like and what disapproval looks like.  They even learn that a person who is crying may be overcome by joy and not sadness.

The seeds of empathy are planted where there is presence.  Remove the presence and the tree of empathy never grows.  It is presence that is in danger in our digital age.  Children spend an inordinate amount of their time looking at screens instead of real live faces.  Even if their parents are “present” their faces are mostly looking down at their screens.  Communication occurs, not through conversation, but through texting and instant messenger.  Emoji are a cheap counterfeit to the real life need for a smile or a frown (did you know there is even a roasting emoji?). Growing up digital may have many advantages, but until we are aware of the pitfalls, we put our humanity in danger.  The digital threat to empathy is perhaps one of the greatest dangers we face.  Empathy is one of the most important social virtues and a loss of empathy leads not just to Roasting but things that are much worse.  We are raising our children to be cold and will only continue to exacerbate the problem as long as we remain addicted to our screens.

This mass deficiency of empathy in the young is a major theme of a book that every parent should read called Reclaiming Conversation.  The author, Clinical Psychologist Sherry Turkle, discusses some of the unintended consequences of going so digital, so fast.  As the name suggests, one of those consequences is a loss in conversation. What makes her book particularly good is the healthy dose of realism.  For most of us, ditching digital is not an option.  But rather than give ourselves over to it completely, we need to be aware of the places where we are particularly vulnerable and do things to protect ourselves.  In practice this means finding ways to unplug for longer periods of time with the express intention of having healthy conversation.  She uses Thoreau as her conversational model; the same Thoreau retreated to Walden and set up three chairs in his house—“one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”  It starts with unplugging long enough to have healthy conversation with God (solitude), with those who are important to (friendship) and then to those outside our inner circle.  Although inefficient, face to face conversation is something that makes us human and is good for us.

It isn’t just Roasting in the young that is a problem.  There are many signs that adults too are losing the ability to empathize.  We say many things over email and text that we would never say in person because we have failed to realize that there is a person on the receiving end.  Rather than using text and emails as a tool to facilitate conversation we have come to use it as a replacement.  It may be easier to “deal” with someone who, but Jesus never said we should “deal with your neighbor” but to “love your neighbor.”  Love requires face to face interaction.  Practically speaking we should never argue or apologize over text or email.  Instead we should make it a policy to have conversations, especially hard ones, face to face.  Our humanity might depend on these simple practices.  We need to put down our phones so that we can take up our conversations.

The Power of Pentecost

Within the Jewish Liturgical Year, there were seven major feasts, three of which were considered “major feasts” and were commanded as times when the males were to “appear before the Lord God” in Jerusalem (c.f. Exodus 23:14-17).  These three major feasts were the feast of Unleavened Bread, the feast of the Ingathering at the end of the year, and the harvest festival.  The Harvest festival, or the Feast of Weeks was to occur on the fiftieth day after Passover (there was some disagreement among the Pharisees and Sadducees as to when the actual feast was to be celebrated).  In later antiquity, it would come to be as Pentecost (Greek for “fiftieth”) by the Greek-speaking Jews.  It was for the celebration of this feast that many Jews from throughout the world (Parthians, Medes, Mesopotamian, Egyptians, etc. as listed in Acts 2:9-10) had gathered when the Holy Spirit was finally manifest on that day.

This helps to explain why so many were gathered on that day in Jerusalem to witness the power from on high, but it does not necessarily explain why it had to be that feast day.  In other words, why was it that the Jewish Feast of Weeks found its fulfillment on Pentecost?

A word first about the concept of “fulfillment.”  When we hear this term used, there is a tendency to think “it had to happen that day in order to fulfill the meaning of Pentecost.”  In short, we can think that the purpose of Pentecost was to fulfill the Feast of Weeks.  Thinking in these terms there is a danger of thinking that the Feast of Weeks is obsolete and now only Pentecost matters.  Properly understood though we should attempt to see things the other way around.  The purpose of the Feast of Weeks was to make Pentecost understandable.  It may no longer be efficacious, but it is not devoid of meaning.  God was so demanding in the rubrics surrounding the Jewish liturgy because He wanted them to act as clear signs of the thing they were pointing to.  The Jews gathered in Jerusalem on Pentecost would have recognized what was happening and were instantly moved upon hearing Peter’s explanation.  But Pentecost was not just for them.  By deepening our own understanding of the Feast of Weeks, we can enter more fully into the celebration and join those first Christians in being “cut to the heart.”

This challenge of deepening our understanding of the Jewish celebrations is echoed in the Catechism:

A better knowledge of the Jewish people’s faith and religious life as professed and lived even now can help our better understanding of certain aspects of Christian liturgy…The relationship between Jewish liturgy and Christian liturgy, but also their differences in content, are particularly evident in the great feasts of the liturgical year, such as Passover. Christians and Jews both celebrate the Passover. For Jews, it is the Passover of history, tending toward the future; for Christians, it is the Passover fulfilled in the death and Resurrection of Christ, though always in expectation of its definitive consummation. (CCC 1096, emphasis added)

In ancient Israel, the Feast of Weeks was a harvest festival in which loaves of bread were offered to the Lord as a gift of the first fruits (a minor Jewish festival celebrated just after the Feast of Unleavened Bread).  It was accompanied by sacred rest and sacrifices (see Num 28:26-31).  It was by the death of the grains of wheat, the first fruits of the wheat that the bread was to be baked.   This grain then takes on the value of a sign of the One Whom “God raised up” (Acts 2:32).  As the definitive sacrifice, He ascended to heaven where God received Him and showed His approval by pouring out His Spirit by a strongly felt sign (Acts 2:33).  Rising on the day after Passover, that is the feast of first fruits, Christ is “the first fruits of those who have died” (1Cor 15:20).

The Feast of Weeks

By this powerful sign, the Apostles now become the harvesters.  And on this day, the harvest is great, drawing 3000 souls to the Lord.  This number is far from arbitrary and it would immediately bring to mind the other aspect of the Feast of Weeks, namely that it was to be marked as a time to remember the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai.

While God was giving the Law to Moses, the Israelites fashioned the Golden Calf.  In response, the Levites were commanded “’Each of you put your sword on your hip! Go back and forth through the camp, from gate to gate, and kill your brothers, your friends, your neighbors!’ The Levites did as Moses had commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people fell” (Ex 32:27-28).  Spiritually inebriated, the Apostles, that is the priestly successors to the Levites, will put to death the flesh of those 3000 souls, each of which will follow the law because it is written not in stone, but on their hearts (Jer 31:33).

The giving of the Law was the initiation of the Old Covenant.  This indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the Faithful that will become the sign of the new Covenant, that is Baptism.  Those who are claimed for Christ, the 3000, do as Peter told them— “repent and be baptized” so that they “will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

The giving of the Law as part of the Old Covenant also formed Israel as the People of God—that is the visible Kingdom of God on earth.  At Pentecost, the Church becomes the Kingdom of God that is open to all people.  This understanding helps bring clarity to the somewhat random question and ambiguous response Our Lord gives to the Apostles when, just prior to His Ascension, they ask “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” to which He replies that they will “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:6,8).

The Spirit of Pentecost

All of this remains mere proof-texting unless we allow the effects of Pentecost to be felt in our day.  So many within the Church speak of waiting for a “New Pentecost” in which the power of the Holy Spirit will be made manifest once again.  But there will be no “New Pentecost” because Pentecost was not a single event, but one that was to last perpetually.  The Jews celebrated the different festivals not merely to remind them of the past, but to make the past somehow present to them so that they could participate in it.  The Feast of Weeks was a time for recalling and renewing the Old Covenant and Pentecost ought to be a time that we consciously renew our participation in the New Covenant.

The first way that this should be done is through a renewed focus on our baptismal commitment to offer spiritual sacrifices unceasingly to Christ.  Likewise, we should renew our commitment to the graces of Confirmation, that is when we received the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and march to the Front in the battle to win souls.  Offering Mass for the grace to live those two Pentecostal Sacraments to their fullest would be a worthy intention.

Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the Church.  With this in mind, a second way to live Pentecost is to do what we all do at all birthday celebrations—show gratitude for the gift of the person and offer a gift to pay our debt of gratitude.  We can often take for granted the gift of the Church and how much easier it makes our lives.  Yes, we have to deal with the human elements, that is the weeds among the wheat, but the guidance that her teaching office gives us can save us from making a lot of mistakes.  She speaks to nearly every aspect of our lives and offers us a sure port amidst the storms of life.  Amidst a culture in which we are “tossed to and fro by every wave of false doctrine,” there is great comfort knowing we have a place to go for the Truth.  By renewing our efforts to form ourselves in her teachings, to be docile to the truth and proclaim it loudly, we can pay the debt of our gratitude.  We are the new harvesters in the long line of harvesters known as the Communion of Saints.  Pray then, this Pentecost, that the Master of the Harvest will send more out into the fields, priests, and laity alike.

Death and the Three Judgments

“You are going to die.”  It is the best first line to a book I have ever read (Fr. Larry Richards’ Be a Man).  Not just because of its shock value, but also because of its truth.  100% of the people who read the book are going to die.  We can’t merely believe this, but it must be before our minds regularly.  St. Paul tells the Christians in Rome that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).  In short, death was a punishment for the first sin of Adam.  To see it merely as punishment however causes us to miss an important point.  Man, because he is, even if not wholly, a material creature, is naturally subject to death.  Among the original gifts bestowed upon Adam and his posterity was a supernatural immunity to death.  By turning away from God, Adam rejected both God and His gifts.  Adam was expelled from the Garden without access to the Tree of Life and death would henceforth come to all men.  Death is then not just a punishment, but a consequence of being human.  Still death was not in God’s original “plan” for mankind and thus was taken up and trampled by Christ.  For the Christian death is not to be feared but to be seen as a necessary instrument for being conformed to Christ and sharing in His reward.

If death is unavoidable then, in the hands of a just God, it is not just a punishment, but also a judgment.  It is what we are when God allows death to visit us that determines our eternal destiny.  For those who have sanctifying grace in their souls at the time of death, death will be a mercy.  For those who do not, death will be a condemnation.  This is well worth meditating upon and many of the great spiritual masters have spent serious time contemplating their own deaths.  But the fact is that for most of us living in a culture where death has been sanitized, we think of death as something that will happen “later” even if it is ultimately inevitable.  It no longer creates a sense of urgency the way that it used to.

The Third Judgment

St. Peter well understood this tendency when he first preached the Gospel to the Gentiles and introduced Jesus as the “judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42).  Most of us tend to think in terms of two judgments—the personal judgment at death and the final judgment at the end of time.  But what St. Peter is telling Cornelius and his friends is that there is a third “moment” of judgment, namely the temporal or judgment of the living.  In other words, God does not merely judge us at the end of our lives, but continually throughout our lives.  The Catholic tradition has a term for the effects of our temporal judgment that we call the “temporal punishment for sin.”

Among the theological casualties of the last century is the notion of God as judge.  That is because we only see Him as judge of the dead and not so much as judge of the living.  This means He is seen merely as the Condemner or Rewarder.  But when we see Him as judging the living, that is punishing them in time, we can see how justly He judges the dead.  Of course this means that we have to see the purpose of Fatherly punishment correctly.

Punishment has two purposes, both of which are associated with the repairing the damage caused by the transgression.  First there is the damage caused to the order of things.  Sin unjustly takes pleasure from something that one should not take pleasure in.  Punishment removes the pleasure from some lawful good.  Second, there is the damage done to the perpetrator of the offense.  Our sins turn us into something (lying makes us liars, stealing makes us thieves, etc).  Only by cultivating the opposing virtue can the damage be undone.  Therefore, the purpose of punishment, according to Aquinas is “to bring man back to the good of virtue.”  It is the admission of guilt and sorrow that acts as a bridge between these two purposes of punishment.  Without it, punishment will remain merely retributive, that is reparative to the external order.  To be reparative to the inner order, it must be voluntarily accepted as coming from a just judge.  Only the patient who admits his sickness and willingly takes the medicine can be healed.

Although this seems obvious from what was said above, it merits pointing out that death itself is part of the temporal punishment for our sins.  The manner in which we approach death as a punishment as a tremendous bearing on our eternal destiny.  It remains somewhat mysterious as to how exactly death is reparative, we can take it as a given that it is.  Any punishment from a loving Father is medicinal.  This is why it is important that we accept death on God’s terms and not our own.  This is yet another reason why assisted suicide and euthanasia by omission remain harmful to the patient.  We cannot decide when God is done making the person ready for heaven.  The time of death is God’s verdict on the lives we have lived.

Death as the Meaning of Life

All of life then should be seen as preparation for dying well.  Those who habitually accept the temporal punishments will accept the final punishment of death in the spirit God intended and will move on to eternal life.  Short a special grace to see the punishment of death clearly, those who habitually despised God’s temporal judgments will despise death as the final punishment and be condemned.  It becomes clear then that when we speak of the Particular Judgment we are speaking of judgment only by analogy.  God needs no examination but instead at the moment of death the soul knows by intuition and is enlightened of all its merits and demerits. In a sense the soul judges itself in accordance with truth.

If the eternal destiny of each man has been decided at the particular judgment, then why is it necessary to have the Final Judgment?  St. Thomas gives three reasons for the last judgment.  First, there is the fact that men are often judged contrary to truth by history (both good and bad).  Margaret Sanger has been judged well by history and many Churchmen have been judged poorly.  The truth will be made known.  Justice is also vindicated in a second way in that the dead have had imitators in good and evil and thus their errors must be made known.  Finally, and this relates to the Particular Judgment, the effects of man’s action last long after death.  The good (and evil) that we do effects our children, their children and beyond.  Once history is winding down, we will all see the role we have played in it, even after death.  The hierarchy of heaven and the lowerarchy of hell will be set and our own place determined.

The Truth of the Resurrection

“If Christ has not been raised,” St. Paul told the Christians in Corinth, “then your faith is in vain” (1Cor 15:17).  It is the Resurrection of Our Lord that underwrites all that He did and said.  It almost goes without saying then that the most effective attack Christianity would be to undermine the certainty of Christ’s Resurrection.  Clearly it was the first response of the Jews when they paid the guards stationed at the tomb to claim that Our Lord’s followers came and stole the body (Mt 28:12-13).  We should not be surprised when, without fail, each Easter we are met with the latest evidence of finding the tomb of Jesus or a long-lost letter describing where the Apostles laid the body when they stole it.  Predictably the “evidence” falls flat upon closer scrutiny, but this doesn’t stop someone from trying again.  In their approach however, the debunkers do have one thing right—they treat the Resurrection, not as a matter of faith, but as a true historical event.

This was the approach that St. Paul took as well.  In the beginning of the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, he describes all the witnesses to the Resurrection, most of whom were still alive and could testify to the fact that a man whom they knew to have died, still lived.  Certainly, the Corinthians would need to believe their testimony.  But the testimony was related to a historical fact, not a matter of belief.  In other words, they would need to be convinced that the evidence reasonably led to the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead.  Can we, nearly 2000 years removed from the historical event, reasonably come to the same conclusion based on the evidence?

Historical Evidence

First a word about historical evidence.  All too oftenthe debunkers say that there are no extra-biblical sources that mention the Resurrection and therefore the New Testament is somehow inadmissible as evidence.  Of course the conclusion does not follow from the premise.  The fact that there are no extra-biblical sources simply means there are no extra-biblical sources that are sin existence (either because they never existed or because they are lost).  One cannot conclude that the Gospels are ahistorical simply because you cannot confirm the historicity of the Resurrection.  At best, it is an open question.  Although the historical circumstances presented in the Gospels do jibe with other historical facts known from other sources (things like who the rulers were, the mass crucifixion in Galilee, etc.).  For that reason, one may reasonably conclude that because they are factually accurate in those things we can check, that they are accurate in those that we can’t.

It is more than just circumstantial evidence however.  The fact that we have four different eyewitness accounts written in different places at different times that basically agree with each other is a lot of historical evidence given the time span since the events themselves.  The fact that the Gospels were later included in the Christian Scriptures has no bearing on them as historical documents.  There is no more reason to think them propaganda material than there is for thinking that Caesar did not cross the Rubicon because it is not mentioned in any other source of the time than the Roman Suetonius’ The Lives of the Twelve Caesars.  Just as Suetonius’ account (100 years after the event) seems to accurately portray other events we find mentioned in other sources, there is no reason to suppose he made up the part about Caesar crossing the Rubicon because he was a Roman who wanted to put the glory of Rome on display.

We accept Suetonius’ account because it fits with the other evidence and likewise we should accept the Resurrection as a historical event because it fits the evidence.  We struggle to defend its historicity because we tend to treat it as a matter of faith and not a historical event.

There first is what we can call the biblical package, which includes the empty tomb and the sightings.  These need be a single package because people report seeing departed loved ones all the time.  What makes the accounts so powerful is that there is evidence that the tomb the deceased one was buried in was also empty.  This biblical evidence was the basis of the early Christian argument for the Resurrection.  Yet, no one ever attacked the Christian argument by saying that the tomb was not empty.  They may have argued for other reasons why the tomb was empty, but the fact that the tomb He was left in was empty on the first Easter morning was never questioned.  A reasonable historian would conclude that the tomb was in fact empty.  What remains is the explanation.

The Resurrection as Truth

There is an important point for us to grasp about the Resurrection itself.  In the Greco-Roman world the notion of the resurrection of the body was absurd.  They thought the body was a prison and something to be escaped rather than something to return to.  The resurrection of the body would have been seen as a curse and not a triumph.  Most Jews believed in the resurrection of the body, but only “only the last day” as a sign that God’s victory had been won.  The idea that a man would rise from the dead before that would have been considered anathema.  That is one of the reasons it makes little sense to say that the Apostles made up the story or it was something made up later by the Christian community.  Christ’s manner of resurrection would have been wholly unexpected and entirely new.

But this is not the only problem with the clever myth hypothesis.  We still have the problem with establishing motive.  The Apostles had absolutely nothing to gain by fabricating the story, except the suffering promised the followers of Christ.  They stood to gain neither wealth nor power from their testimony.  The only plausible explanation is that their motive was because it was true.

All too often one will give a variation on Pascal’s argument “I believe those witnesses that get their throats slit” by saying that no one dies for a lie.  But the reasoning is more subtle than that.  The witnesses of the Resurrection were all martyred not for sticking to the truth.  No, they had seen a man who was dead, conquer death.  They were willing martyrs because they all had no fear of death.  Their Friend had overcome death and promised them the same.

Why didn’t Christ appear to the powers of the age?  Surely He could have appeared before Pilate or the Sanhedrin in His Resurrected state and convinced them all.  But that is not what He was about.  He was looking not to convince the likes of Pilate and Caiaphas.  The Church, that is the extension of the Incarnation through time and space, would need credible witnesses to serve as foundation stones.  With Pilate and Caiaphas as witnesses, the Resurrection would become just some unexplained historical event.  With Peter, Paul and all the Apostles as witnesses, this tiny group of followers founded a society that has outlasted every earthly kingdom.  Surely, that should be a strong reason to take the historical evidence surrounding the Resurrection more seriously as a true historical event.

“When I was Hungry and Thirsty You Gave Me to Eat and Drink”

In the past few months our family has been confronted with end of life medical care for two close members.  In both cases, we had to fight to continue providing nutrition and hydration.  After hitting so close to home twice, I began to wonder about other’s experiences and found that nearly everyone who has had to walk this journey with a loved one did not know what to do and eventually deferred to “the experts” in the medical profession.  Already emotionally overwhelmed and lacking confidence in their medical knowledge, they trusted that the medical professionals would guide them to do the right thing.  If our experience has taught us anything, it is two things.  First, the culture of death is so deeply imbedded that even those medical professionals who are genuinely compassionate and of good will can succumb to it and that we were glad that we did not wait until the situation came up to learn about the importance of nutrition and hydration at this most vulnerable stage of life.

This is not meant to be a condemnation of those caregivers who devote their lives to walking with families through this.  This is meant to raise awareness that the current “best practice” in dealing with those who are actively dying is morally repugnant.  By arming yourself now with a proper understanding, you can protect yourself later when your thinking may be clouded because of the stress of the situation.

Medical Treatment and Ordinary Care

First, there is an important distinction to be made between medical treatment and ordinary care.  In general treatment would include those interventions that may cure a disease or aid one in returning to health. Medical treatment would include things like antibiotics, dialysis, surgery, chemotherapy, and the like.  One may look at these treatments and decide that their burdens outweigh their benefits and decide to forgo them in order to live the remaining days of his life with a certain quality of life.

Medical treatment is different than ordinary care however.  Ordinary care is simply routine attention given to the patient.  This would include bathing, providing clean clothes and sheet, keeping them warm, and providing food and water.  Each of these is essential to life and to withhold any of these, especially to those who cannot provide them for themselves, and assuming you have the means to do so, is considered cruel.  No amount of misguided compassion would say that we should leave a sick person outside in December exposed to the elements.  Likewise, no amount of misguided compassion would say that we should allow someone to starve and become dehydrated.

It was this important distinction between medical treatment and care that Pope St. John Paul II brought attention to when in a papal allocution in 2004 he said,

“I should like particularly to underline how the administration of water and food, even when provided by artificial means, always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act. Its use, furthermore, should be considered, in principle, ordinary and proportionate, and as such morally obligatory, insofar as and until it is seen to have attained its proper finality, which in the present case consists in providing nourishment to the patient and alleviation of his suffering” (Address of John Paul II To the Participants in the International Congress on “Life Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas”).

Notice as well that John Paul II did not say nutrition and hydration must be given in all circumstances.  He said that they are only to be given for as long as they are “seen to have attained its proper finality.”  What he means is that they should be given in all circumstances until it can be definitively shown that they no longer can be processed or assimilated by the body.  It must be “seen.”  There cannot be mere medical conjecture or blanket statements like “we see that as the patient is dying their nutritional and hydrational needs are greatly diminished.”  Even if their needs are greatly diminished, this is an argument for giving less, not cutting them out altogether.  All too often this argument is put forth as a reason for omitting them altogether.  The only time they should be completely removed is when it is shown that the body no longer can make use of them.

Other Arguments against Nutrition and Hydration

The “diminished need” argument is not the only one that is commonly put forth.  There are two others.  The first is what I like to call the “argument from technology.”  This argument essentially says something like “75 years ago we didn’t have the ability to use feeding tubes or IV’s and we can now keep people alive longer because of these technologies.”

What makes the flaw in this argument hard to see initially is that it is true.  We did not have the ability to use feeding tubes and IV’s for nutrition and hydration in the past.  The problem with this argument is that we have a lot of things because of technological advances that we did not have in the past.  The refrigerator that allows us to feed sick people (even those who can still feed themselves) in a relatively recent invention.  Indoor plumbing, another technological advance, keeps the sick who can still hold their own cups (another technological advance) hydrated.  But we also did not have the pain killers we have now.  Should we remove those as well?  Certainly, we are prolonging their lives by controlling their pain.  In the past they would have gone into shock and died.

One can easily see how absurd this line of reasoning can actually become.  Where do we draw the line?  If we have the ability and the technology to provide care for someone and it is care that they have the capacity to receive, then we ought to provide it.  The fact that nutrition and hydration extends one’s life is true for all of us.  Remove those things from even the healthiest person and they will die.  More accurately, removing those things from the person would be to kill them.  Allowing someone to die is different than causing someone to die, even if you do so by an act of omission such as withholding care from them when you have the means to do so.

The second argument is that by providing nutrition and hydration, even when the patient is still able to tolerate it, we are “postponing the inevitable.”  Again the difficulty in seeing where this thinking goes wrong is that it is true.  We are postponing the inevitable.  Although again, by me eating lunch today, I also have postponed the inevitable.

What those who use this line of reasoning surely mean is that when death is imminent we should do nothing to stop it.  But doing nothing to stop it, is not the same thing as aiding it.  Why not, as my son with Autism suggested when we told him his grandmother was going to die, push them off the roof then?  The fact that death is imminent does not mean we should kill the person, even if it is by omission.

The fact is that human life, even when the person is suffering, even when the person is close to death is a good that ought to be protected.  Life is a gift, one that none of us earned.  Therefore we are never free to give the gift back or decide that we do not want it any longer.  We must wait on the decision of the One Who bestowed the gift.  Until such time, we should see the person before us and care for them.  Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the sick—all corporal works of mercy that should never cease as long as a person is present before us.  Don’t allow anyone to take those acts of charity away from you.  Provided the person can still assimilate the food and water, you should never remove a feeding tube or a hydration IV.


The Miracle of the Sun

As the Church marks the 100th Anniversary of the first of six appearances by Our Lady to three young children in Fatima, Portugal with the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, one question associated with the apparitions has remained largely unanswered.  What exactly happened on 13 October 1917 when 70,000 witnesses saw the sun dance?  While accounts may vary in some ways, there is universal agreement among the witnesses about several key facts surrounding the event.  First, it had been raining hard for several hours and the sky cleared right as the children began praying.  One of the children, Lucia, instructed the crowd that they should look at the sun at which point the sun, covered by what looked like a thin silver disc, appeared to change color, spin like a fire wheel and plummet towards the earth 3 times.  Although it was bright, it seemed to have a filter (the thin silver disc) that made it possible to look directly upon it.  This was met by both reverential awe and fear especially because many of the pilgrims spoke of a heat emanating from the sun as it approached; a heat so intense that all of their clothes were dried.  All total, the miracle lasted about 10 minutes.  Despite the near unanimous agreement about this extraordinary event and its overwhelming evidential power, the miracle itself has been largely ignored by those outside the Church and misunderstood by those inside the Church.

Perhaps some of the reason why it has been ignored is because of the label of miracle.  Informed by a materialist philosophy, miracles are a priori impossible.  Any talk of them is usually met with ridicule and the charge of incredulity and superstition.  Such a public event as what the people in Fatima witnessed that October day is an open contradiction of this and therefore many pretend it did not happen.

The Church and the Miraculous

This may be compounded by the fact that the Church is extremely cautious in labeling something as a miracle.  Every conceivable natural explanation must be eliminated before declaring an event to be miraculous.  In the case of the so called Miracle of the Sun, the Church, even though she has deemed the message of Fatima as worthy of belief, has never declared that a miracle occurred that day.

This leads to confusion among those in the Church, especially because many take this as an indication that the Church is drinking scientism’s Cool-Aid.  Instead, it shows her access to Divine Wisdom.  She knows that if a natural explanation were to be found for what she had previously called a miracle, then it would shatter the confidence of many believers and destroy her own credibility.  Those steeped in a solely scientific worldview are always on the lookout for a the capital offense of placing “God in the gaps.”

What was witnessed that day may have a natural explanation.  To be sure, the Sun did not move that day.  For the sun to approach the earth (ignoring the problems of size, gravity, etc.) it would have been a global event and not something localized to Fatima.  In other words it would have been witnessed throughout the world.  God can do anything, but even He cannot make something that is a contradiction occur.  Contradictions are not things but nonsense.  A wholly material thing cannot be in two places at once.  The sun could not both be in the sky over Spain and approaching the earth in Portugal.  It will not do to say that God somehow played tricks on the minds of the pilgrims to make it seem as if they were seeing the sun.

Rather than placing God in the gaps, scientism’s adherents like to put Mesmer (the inventor of hypnosis) in the gaps.  Many have said that those present that day all were victims of mass suggestion.  Some people were not in the Cova that day and there were witnesses as many as 9 miles away that saw the event.

Certainly, whatever happened that day was unique.  But the meteorological conditions themselves were unique as well.  The atmospheric conditions may have been such that there is a wholly natural explanation for what happened.  Fr. Stanley Jaki in his book God and the Sun at Fatima offers one such possibility.

The point however is that even if we came up with a natural explanation tomorrow, it would not change the supernatural character of the event.  The “Miracle of the Sun” is not a miracle just because of what the people saw that day, but because three barely literate sheepherding children predicted the exact date and time that it would occur.  The children had told the people that Our Lady would provide proof of her appearance at Fatima on that day.  That is why most of the people were there—the children had called the shot.  They were given knowledge that goes beyond what could be known naturally—the definition of supernatural.  In that sense it was a wholly supernatural event, whether we find a natural explanation for the event itself.

We should not be surprised because Our Lord performed miracles like this in the Gospel.  He tells Peter that the fish he will catch will have a coin in it that can pay their tax.  As any fisherman knows, fish can often have some strange things in their mouths.  Even if you think that the fish at some point swallowed the coin, Jesus knew something that only God could know.  Likewise, with the prior identification of the man who would provide the lodging of the Upper Room to the Apostles.  No natural human knowledge could know that.  The miracle can be in the ability to know something that human reason could not have otherwise known.

“Not because you saw signs…”

Whether there is a natural explanation or not, does not mean it was not God Who did it.  He can act directly or He can use secondary causes.  Either way, it is God Who has manifested Himself.  The star over Bethlehem may have a natural explanation, but it is an explanation that falls under the power of Divine Providence.  It is the same God Who set the heavens in motion such that in the “fullness of time” they would declare the birth of the Messiah that also arranged things such that the “Miracle of the Sun” would occur.  It does not detract from His power to attribute it to a natural cause but instead shows Him to be more powerful in that He is able to use secondary causes (even those who are free) to bring about His plan of making Himself known.

This may be why the events of 13 October have not been well understood inside the Church.  In the haste to explain the miracle and defend it, we have forgotten that miracles are not just events, but signs.  In other words, we should not be so quick to look for explanations but for the meaning.  Our Lord invited those who had witnessed the multiplication of the loaves to see the meaning of what He had done and not so much the event itself— “Amen, amen, I say to you, your seek Me, not because you saw signs but because you ate your fill of loaves” (Jn 6:26).

The Miracle of the Sun was not just a sign that the apparitions were true, but fit into the overall message of Fatima itself.  Our Lady appeared to the children with a sense of urgency, inviting them (and us) to do penance.  It is a time of mercy, although that time is running is short.  Divine Justice will manifest itself.  The Miracle of the Sun portrayed the sun as rushing towards the earth three times, but there was something kept it from hitting the earth.  It was the thin silver disc, the same thing that allowed the pilgrims to look at it without hurting their eyes, that kept the sun from being fully exposed.  One of the visionaries, Lucia, saw Our Lady with her hands on the sun as if she was holding it back.

The message seems obvious, it is Our Lady of Mercy, that has obtained for us the reprieve from God’s Justice.  But even He grows tired of allowing her to do so because of the blasphemies against her Immaculate Heart.  If the time of Mercy is to last, then her Immaculate Heart must reign.  So then on this feast day of Our Lady of Fatima, let us rededicate ourselves to doing all that we can to make this a reality by following her commands.

Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us!

A New Pentecost

When the Catechism of the Council of Trent was published in 1566, it contained a warning regarding the Sacrament of Confirmation:

If ever there was a time demanding the diligence of pastors in explaining the Sacrament of Confirmation, in these days certainly it requires special attention, when there are found in the holy Church of God many by whom this Sacrament is altogether omitted; while very few seek to obtain from it the fruit of divine grace which they should derive from its participation.

As much as this was true is 1566, it is probably even more so today.  Most Catholics operate under a false understanding of what the Sacrament is and does and therefore fail to make use of it.  Given the direction our culture is going and the need for strong Christian witness, it is time to examine this Sacrament once again so we can make use of the supernatural power that God provides us.

The Purpose of Confirmation

The most common misunderstanding about Confirmation is attached to its purpose.  Most see it correctly as somehow completing the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism and the Eucharist), but assume it just involves accepting responsibility for your faith.  It is given when someone is old enough to make a decision for themselves about whether they are going to accept the faith they were baptized into.  While it is often received after someone has reached the age of reason, this accepting of responsibility for your faith would not make it a Sacrament.  Sacraments are first and foremost the work of God.

All of the Sacraments confer sanctifying grace, but each one also bestows a unique grace called “sacramental grace.”  Three of them, Baptism, Holy Orders, and Confirmation, also bestow an indelible mark on the soul called a character.  In addition to serving as a mark of distinction, it also acts as a sign that denotes a certain duty.  Think of it as a badge on the soul that deputizes us to perform a certain office.  It also disposes us for the reception of actual graces.  Even more than that, it gives us a right to all the actual graces that are necessary to fulfill that particular office.

The sacramental grace that is bestowed on us in Confirmation is the “power of the Holy Spirit” by which we are enabled to believe firmly and profess boldly the Gospel.  Think of Peter on Pentecost and afterwards.  It marks us as soldiers for Christ and causes the necessary growth in us to serve on the front lines, wherever the Front that God sends us may be.  It also imposes on us the duty to witness to the Faith. Because God never gives a mission without the necessary grace to fulfill that mission it also gives us the right to those actual graces we need to fight for Christ and His Church.

There is a danger in leaving this on an intellectual level.  But we need to realize (i.e. make real in our own lives) what Confirmation does to us and how God puts Himself in a position in which He owes us something.  I have been marked as a Christian witness at the core of my being and this mark obligates me to profess the One Who has marked me.  It is no cosmetic change, but a change that will last forever.  Because I bear this mark, God owes me all the actual graces that I need.  I can count on them when I need them because He is just.  The challenge is to live with this realization and allow my courage to increase daily—the grace of Confirmation perfects each of our seemingly small acts of witness until we are boldly professing the Truth to all who need to hear it.  How different my encounters will be if I live with this in mind rather than relying on my own strength?  How much confidence will I gain?

As I walk down the street no other man may see the mark, but this mark can be seen by our real enemies.  It becomes a bull’s-eye of sorts in which they now take sharper aim at us.  This is why we must recall that the Greek word for witness is martus, from which we get the word martyr.  Ultimately Confirmation is the Sacrament of Martyrdom.


When the Levitical priests were preparing burnt offering sacrifice to God, they always laid their hands upon its head (c.f. Lev 1:3 and Exodus 29:10, 15).  This is why a Bishop, who has received the fullness of the Priesthood of Jesus Christ, is the ordinary minister of the Sacrament.  By laying his hands on the confirmand’s head, he is setting that person aside as a sacrifice to God.  This is why it is so important for us to enter the Sacrament with eyes wide open and having a proper understanding what it actually empowers us to be.  It fully conforms us to Christ by marking us a victims.  We are no longer just adopted sons and daughters through Christ, we now become more fully conformed to Him as victims.

When Confirmation Should Happen?

Before closing, a word about who should receive the Sacrament.  With all the Sacraments, there is an ever-present danger of treating them like magic.  We grasp objectively what they are—essential channels of sanctifying grace—but spend little time worrying about the subjective dimension.  In other words, we don’t necessarily ask whether the person is really ready (not just superficially able to tell you what the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit are) to receive that grace.  It is given to many teens in the hopes that something “sticks.”  Then we are surprised when we don’t see any real change in the Confirmandi and the Church as a whole.  Rather than quibbling over the proper age to give the Sacrament, what if we spent the time really preparing them?  Helping them develop a true prayer life, a true Sacramental life (including regular reception of the Sacrament of Confession) and forming them to battle the enemies of the Church.  A Catholic boot camp of sorts to train the next generation of Christian soldiers.

The need for credible witnesses to the Faith has grown dire in the past fifty years and one can imagine that it will increase even more in the immediate future.  In response to this, many in the Church have called for a New Pentecost.  In truth however a New Pentecost is not needed—the grace of the Sacrament of Confirmation extends the same power of Pentecost through time.  What is needed is a greater emphasis on the necessity of this Sacrament.  We should be giving it sooner to children rather than later, especially since children today seem to face a unique set of challenges that could lead to a loss of faith earlier in their lives than ever before.  This starts however by spreading an understanding of this virtually untapped source of supernatural power so that we can truly bring about the fruit of Pentecost today.



On the Idolatry of Money

The strange thing about idols is that they usually travel in our blind spots.  We may very well be aware of their dangers, but fail to see that we have succumbed to them.  This is true especially when it comes to the idolatry of money.  We may agree, for example, with Pope Francis that “the worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money,” but think that it is the greedy rich people’s problem and not necessarily our own.  The plank is firmly implanted in our own eye and unless we submit ourselves to some self-examination we may remain permanently blinded to what has always been viewed as one of the Seven Capital Sins.

The Role of Money in Exchange

A word first on the reason many of us our blind to this particular vice.  St. Thomas Aquinas, building on the economic teachings of Aristotle, thought that the marketplace was governed by two different types of exchanges which he called natural and unnatural.  A natural exchange was one in which one good was traded for another.  This might be a barter system or a money as medium of exchange system.  A cobbler needs to feed his family and so he might trade a pair of shoes for a cow or he sells the shoes so that he could buy the cow.  In either case the end of the cobbler’s transaction was to obtain a cow.  It may be that he chooses to save the money so he can purchase the cow later, perhaps when business is slow, but his purpose is always clear—to obtain something he needs to feed his family.

An unnatural exchange, on the other hand, is one in which money ceases to be a medium of exchange but instead becomes the end.  The cobbler sells the shoes with the goal of making money and to get rich.  He does not have any particular end in mind, even if it is to save for some future hardship.

What also makes an exchange unnatural is when one or both participants has an irrational end in mind.  All exchange should be governed by needs and rational wants.  The needs are obvious but a rational want represents something that may not be strictly needed but is a reasonable thing to purchase.  A second pair of shoes may be a reasonable want, a tenth pair, not so much.

When a commodity is the end of an exchange there is a certain protection against greed.  One may desire only so many things.  There is only so much room to store them.  There are only so many loaves of bread we can eat.  There are only so many pairs of shoes we can wear.  Our desire may be unreasonable, but there is a natural limit to how much we will desire.

Money is completely different.  Our desire for money is infinite.  There is no natural limit on how much we can desire.  For the rich, their “net worth” becomes merely a game to see how high they can go.  This, of course, only happens when money becomes an end instead of a means.  When we see it merely as a means to purchase those things we need and rationally want, we will be satisfied with only a certain amount.

Love of Money as a Capital Sin

Scripture tells us that the “love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10) and Tradition labels it as one of the Seven Capital Sins.  The latter are not sins in the classical sense, but more like motivations that gives rise to the actual sins in our lives.  Objectively speaking one may commit the sin of murder, but the personal motivation is always rooted in one of these seven capital sins.  We may murder because of wrath or we may murder to grow rich.  The act is the same, but the motivation differs.

Understanding this helps us to root out the actual sins in our lives.  When our motives change, our acts change.  Love of neighbor will only replace love of money when we see it for what it is.  Watch yourself over the next few weeks and see how often money motivates you; not by money as being able to purchase things that you need or rationally want, but just the idea of having more money.  Whenever I do this exercise I am always surprised by how easily I have fallen into the trap again.

Covetousness, that is a love of money, remains hidden to most of us because it is woven into the fabric of the culture.  Our economy is structured such that money is the end.  It is not about producing goods that people need and rationally want, but creating a desire for consumption.  Advertisers try to convince us we need something.  This is all motivated by a love of money.  Most people work, not because it provides for needs and rational wants and fulfills them as persons, but because they want to be rich.  When you are swimming in water, it is hard not to get wet.  The first step is to recognize that the water is what is making you wet and find ways to stay out of the pool.  Examining our motivations and ways that we personally contribute to the culture of consumption will help to purify us from this dangerous idol.

What also makes money a particularly deadly snare as an idol is the fact that it can rob us of our trust in God. Money is usually a sign of security for most of us. After all, money can buy all the things we need, or so the thinking goes. Money contributes to the lie that man lives on bread alone. It is not without accident that when religious fervor was stirred in the hearts of Americans during the Second Great Awakening that the motto In God We Trust first appeared on coins. It is a stark reminder that our security is in God and not in money. Our Lord called the poor in spirit, those who put their trust in God and not in money, as blessed.

Unleashing the Truth

Most regular readers of this blog will readily admit that relativism, that is the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth, is absolutely absurd and unlivable.  So ubiquitous is this false understanding of reality however that there is not a single one of us that remains outside the grasp of its tentacles.  Whether we believe in it or not, it still affects us in ways we might not initially realize.  It is one specific way that I want to address in today’s entry.

Relativism is not only damaging because it fails to recognize universal truth claims.  It is not only damaging because it is unlivable, causing a fracture in our personality between what we believe and how we act.  These are injurious only to those who profess belief in relativism.  It is most damaging because it depreciates truth in everyone’s eyes.  Where relativism reigns, there is a universal indifference towards the truth.

“Wait”, you say, “I am not indifferent to the truth at all.”  Really?  How many times, when confronted with a falsehood, have you just thought “it is not worth it to say anything”?  We might justify it using the Gospel maxim of “not putting pearls before swine” or speak of “picking our battles,” but most of the time we think that ultimately it doesn’t matter.  Perhaps this is more of a self-indictment than anything else, but I would dare to say that it happens more often than we would be willing to admit.

The truth (see what I did there?) is that it does matter and matters immensely.  We are not preserving the pearls of truth nor picking our battles.  There is no danger of losing the pearls of truth because they are not really pearls.  Unlike material goods, spiritual goods like the truth multiply when shared.   What this means is that the truth has a power all its own, even when we don’t share it with great eloquence or fancy arguments.  It has no power when it is kept inside, but once unleashed, it can destroy falsehood.

The Truth and Charity

Note the important distinction between destroying falsehood and beating a person.  This destruction of falsehood is not an excuse to beat your opponent to submission.  What I am suggesting is that we re-capture the distinctively Christian habit of forcefully and charitably attacking untruth.   This is always done with two motives, each equally important—destroy the falsehood and win the person.  The truth will set you free.

This is one of the reasons that GK Chesterton remains one of the best apologists for the Christian faith even today.  He attacked untruth wherever he found it.  He never shied away from debate.  But he was often criticized for how gently he treated his opponents. Unyielding when it came to untruth, he would still speak kindly to and of his opponents.  His goal was to “kill and wound folly” not his opponent.

In fact, at the heart of the Christian message is charity, that is, the habit of loving like God loves.  God loves in truth and with Truth.  For many of us we treat the truth as something that we own rather than as something to be given away.  And because we are possessive of it, we lose our confidence in its power.  It really becomes “my truth.”  As Pope Benedict XVI has said on a number of occasions, “none of us have the truth.  At best, we can say the truth has us.”  You cannot both believe a truth while at the same time not believe in its evidential power, standing all on its own.  With this realization comes the ability to always remain charitable in our untruth slaying.

The Value of Arguing?

The truth is the truth whether I can argue for it or not.  In fact I may not be able to argue it, but still I have an obligation to stamp out the falsehood.  Simply saying “that is not true” is enough, although quite obviously it is much better to be able to say why it isn’t true.  Even still, not being able to argue should never be a reason not to speak out against untruth.  The humiliation of not being able to defend the truth often motivates us to learn how.  Charity is truth, but so is humility.  Trust in the hidden power of the truth.

Most of us are jealous of our own ideas so convincing someone of their falsehood is often difficult.  But do you know who else is listening?  This is something that I came to realize when I took a trip to Mississippi just after Hurricane Katrina to help with cleanup with two guys I knew.  One of them was my college roommate who could never understand why anyone in their right mind was Catholic.  Over the years we had covered pretty much every topic related to the Faith.  A few hours into the trip, he said something (I don’t recall exactly what) about the Blessed Mother that was not true.  I immediately called him on it, even though we had talked about this before.  We spent a couple of hours going back and forth about the Faith.  He was just as unyielding as I was.  The whole time the guy in the back seat was quiet and didn’t say a word.  Two months later he called me and told me that he was entering RCIA and that the eavesdropped conversation was the thing that put him over the top.  My arguments were not to him specifically, I didn’t even know his objections.  Instead he heard the truth and it opened up everything for him.  All this because I was unwilling to leave a falsehood floating around the car.

Perhaps you may not win the person over to the truth, you may stop them from unthinkingly repeating what they are saying.  If what they are saying is untrue, it will crumble under its own weight.  He may not agree with you, but he will think twice before saying it on another occasion.  It will keep the falsehood from spreading.

Unleash the truth!

The Great Feast of Mercy

Among the vast spiritual treasures that Pope St. John Paul II left to the Church, Divine Mercy Sunday may be his greatest gift.  During his canonization homily of St. Faustina, he declared that the Sunday after Easter, the final day of the Octave of Easter, would be called Divine Mercy Sunday.  The timing was no accident.  Among the requests that Our Lord gave to St. Faustina, was His request that a Feast of Mercy be celebrated on the Sunday after Easter.  In the midst of the terrible “Century of Sin,” Our Lord desired to give the Church new channels for the outpouring of His grace—“where sin abounds, grace abounds the more” (Romans 5:20)—through devotion to Divine Mercy, and more specifically through the Feast of Mercy.  Our Lord told St. Faustina that “on the day of My feast, the Feast of Mercy, you will go through the world and bring fainting souls to the spring of My mercy.  I shall heal and strengthen them” (Diary, 206).

Divine Mercy and Private Revelation

First, a word about Private Revelation in general is necessary.  All too often we will look at certain devotions like Divine Mercy as something optional, that is, not binding on us in faith to believe as Catholics.  But this is an overly simplistic way of looking at them.  If the Church deems some apparitions and private revelations worthy of belief, then we should treat them as anything else that is sufficiently proved, namely that it is true.  In other words, we may not be bound in faith to believe these things but we are bound by reason and logic.

We should treat St. Faustina then as a great prophet of our age.  She brought no new doctrine or dogma, she added nothing to the deposit of faith.  What she did add is a blueprint for how the Gospel can be lived in our age.  Public revelation may have ceased at the death of the last Apostle, but prophecy did not—“where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (Proverbs 29:18).  Faustina, the prophet’s message?  A radical trust in the mercy of God.

Our Lord promised through the pen of St. Faustina “to heal and strengthen” fainting souls on the Feast of Mercy.  What was He promising?  Our Lord promised to “grant unimaginable graces to those souls who trust in My mercy” (Dairy, 687).  What are “the unimaginable graces” attached to Mercy Sunday?   “Whomever approaches the Fountain of Life on this day will be granted complete forgiveness of sins and punishment” (Diary, 300).

This is unimaginable indeed!  Those who approach the Fountain of Life, that is Our Lord in the Eucharist, will be granted complete forgiveness of sins and punishments.  It is as if the person is to receive the Baptismal grace again, a spiritual do-over.  Where sin abounds, grace abounds the more!

We can see that one of the obstacles then to celebrating the Feast of Mercy is that it is practically unbelievable.  The Father who is “rich in mercy” is a prodigal Father, pouring graces everywhere and anywhere.  But like the lost son in the parable, there are conditions on our part.  It is not a magic wand, but like all things depends on how well we prepare for the Feast.

How is it then that we, “the fainting souls”, can approach “the spring of Our Lord’s mercy”?  Jesus lays out the conditions to St. Faustina; the things that we must do to “be healed and strengthened.”

A Special Grace Won

The first we have already mentioned, that is to receive Communion on the day of the Feast of Mercy.  If the “unimaginable grace” attached to the Feast is one similar to the grace of Baptism, then it will be delivered through the Eucharist.  In other words, if Our Lord is to bestow a grace of a “second Baptism” He will do so through the Eucharist.  Receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist with that intention will only strengthen our own resolve to both desire and receive this extraordinary grace.

Provided we receive Our Lord worthily, that is in a state of grace, then we may receive this extraordinary grace.  Those who are conscious of mortal sin must first approach the Sacrament of Confession.  However, that is not the only reason why going to Confession prior to the Feast of Mercy is a good idea.  One of the graces of Confession is to receive true repentance for our sins, a condition of receiving the unimaginable grace.  Our imperfect contrition meeting Our Lord’s perfect contrition on the Cross through the Sacrament, brings with it the grace to have true repentance for our sins.  The better disposed we are to receive the grace of the Feast, the more likely we are to have it lead to true conversion and not a mere one time event.

Our Lord, repeatedly tells St. Faustina how important Confession is calling it the place where “the misery of the soul meets the God of mercy” (Diary, 1602).  Our Lord tells St. Faustina that “every time you go to Confession, immerse yourself entirely in My mercy with great trust, so that I many pour the bounty of My grace upon your soul.  When you approach the confessional, know this, that I myself am waiting there for you” (ibid).  The Confessional is the place where we encounter Our Lord, face to face and where we find the “fount of mercy.”

This extraordinary grace, seemingly too good to be true, can only be received by those who are willing to admit the possibility that God really is that merciful.  In other words, only those who have a radical trust in the mercy of Jesus can win this grace.  This is why Our Lord attaches this necessity—an absolute trust in Him—to its reception on the Feast of Mercy.

This is also why veneration of the image of Divine Mercy is also a key component of the Feast.  It is a visual reminder, with the Blood and Water flowing from the Sacred Heart that we always have access to God’s mercy by offering “the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your Only Begotten Son Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

With this great Feast of Mercy upon us, let us approach Our Lord’s throne of Mercy well prepared to receive all that Jesus wants to give us.  Jesus, I trust in You!

Filling in the Resurrection Accounts

The last couple of centuries have witnessed a great push both outside and inside the Church to mythologize Christianity. This is felt most keenly when it comes to the Resurrection of Our Lord. From positing that Our Lord did not actually die on the Cross (called the Swoon Theory), to mass hallucination, to “a spiritual resurrection in the hearts of the followers of Jesus,” each new “theory” offers a natural explanation to the central supernatural event in the history of mankind. Of course, it makes perfect sense. If you want to destroy Christianity, then you should start by destroying belief in the Resurrection itself. No less than St. Paul himself warned that downplaying the Resurrection of the Lord as the pivot of Christianity would lead to its eventual destruction; “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain” (1 Cor 15:17).

Given how long ago it occurred, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting the Resurrection as a historical fact. I won’t attempt to add to what many other authors have already done in this area. Instead, what I would like to do in this post is to look at how we can avoid another pitfall, namely, over-spiritualizing the Resurrection.

In short, we often read the obviously incredible post-Resurrection appearances in such an ethereal manner that we divorce them from the overall Incarnation. Rather than seeing them as real, historical events, we view them in a spiritual fog. Rather than making the Resurrection more real, it becomes less.

Overcoming the Spiritual Fog

There is only one way around this trap and that is to ask, in faith, concrete questions of those accounts in order to add substance to what would otherwise be too sublime to be believed. Some questions, such as what were the teaching sessions of the Risen Lord and the Apostles like, are left to speculation. But there are others that have more flesh to them and can serve to strengthen both our faith and our hope.

One such question is what was the risen body of Jesus actually like? We know that it was a physical body—it could be touched and he ate, two things ghosts cannot do. We know it was the same body as the one that hung on the Cross; it bore the marks from the nails and the spear. After all, in order for it to be a true resurrection, it must be the same body. If it is not a new body, then it has been transformed in ways we almost certainly could not have anticipated. A true body does not vanish from sight (Lk 24:31).

There is a more personal reason why the question of the qualities of Our Lord’s risen state is important. Those who die in Christ, will have resurrected bodies patterned after His. By assuming human nature to Himself, the Son becomes the form of all human destiny for those who “put on Christ” in Baptism. In other words, by carefully examining Christ’s risen encounters, we can catch of glimpse of the destiny we are promised.

The Resurrected Body of Christ

Once properly motivated, we find that Christ wins for us resurrected bodies that have four qualities in addition to identity (same body) and integrity (complete body) mentioned above. The first is commonly referred to as subtlety. The resurrected body is a “spiritual body.” What this means, is that while a resurrected body is tangible, it is completely under the direction of the spirit. It is able to transcend the physical laws that normally govern us (such as two physical things cannot occupy the same place at the same time in the same way) simply by willing it. It simply takes an act of the will to pass from one side of a locked door or sealed tomb to the other.

Once rendered completely under the control of the soul, the body’s movement is different as well. Agility enables the person to traverse great physical distances with ease and speed simply by willing it. The movement may be very fast but it is still observable. Angels have a similar quality to their movement as far as its rapidity, but their movement is more like a quantum leap and would not be observable as a linear movement from point A to point B.
The other two qualities are somewhat commonsensical and appear within the Book of Revelation. The glorified body is impassible, that is, incapable of suffering. Lazarus’ body was resuscitated, Our Lord’s resurrected. Lazarus could still suffer, Our Lord would suffer no more. Our Lord appears to John as a “lamb as though slain, standing” (Rev 5:6) and “God will wipe away all tears” (Rev 21:4)

It also has the quality of clarity. Because the union of the human nature of Christ was in the Divine Person of the Son itself (we call this the Hypostatic Union), He enjoyed the vision of God from the moment of the creation of that human nature. This means He was always filled with beauty and radiance (what we commonly call the “light of glory”). His soul maintained this, while it miraculously remained hidden in His body except for the Transfiguration where He releases the governor on it. We do not see this quality exhibited during any of the pre-Ascension appearances because of its overwhelming nature. Instead John sees it when he encounters Our Lord in Chapter 1 (verses14-18) of the Book of Revelation.

Jesus, Shape-Shifter?

In a number of the post-Resurrection accounts described in the gospels, Jesus is not recognized by His followers. This does not mean that one of the qualities of the resurrected body is shape-shifting. Instead, St. Thomas articulates an important principle for understanding. He says:

“Divine things are revealed to men in various ways, according as they are variously disposed. For, those who have minds well disposed, perceive Divine things rightly, whereas those not so disposed perceive them with a certain confusion of doubt or error: ‘for, the sensual men perceiveth not those things that are of the Spirit of God,’ as is said in 1 Corinthians 2:14. Consequently, after His Resurrection Christ appeared in His own shape to some who were well disposed to belief, while He appeared in another shape to them who seemed to be already growing tepid in their faith” (ST III, q.55, art.4)

In short, faith adds not just intellectual clarity, but the ability to see divine acts rightly. Christ was clearly manifested to those who believed in the Resurrection. For those who were tepid or doubted, “this hindrance in their eyes was Satan’s doing, lest Jesus might be recognized. Hence Luke says (24:16) that ‘their eyes were held, that they should not know Him.’”(ST III, q.55, art. 4, obj. 2). Seeing was not necessarily believing, but believing was seeing. Our Lord was trying to instill faith and so he was willing to allow these hindrances to remain as long as He could use them to drive them into the hands of true faith. This is the faith of “credible witnesses” that will never be shaken, even to the point of martyrdom. He is building an edifice on these people and so greatly desires to strengthen their faith during the 40 days between Resurrection and Ascension.

Our Lord allows this pretense to happen because it brings the person to faith. Mary Magdalene did not yet believe Our Lord was truly risen when she encountered the Gardener. She simply wanted to know what happened to the body. But her act of love of Christ, allowed her faith to expand so that she saw Him truly when He spoke her name. The disciples on the Road to Emmaus also had very imperfect faith, but once they were instructed in the Messianic texts, that is in a practical Liturgy of the Word, that their faith began to expand. Once Our Lord performed the Liturgy of the Eucharist, they were completely disposed to see Him as Himself.

Even Peter was not immune to this principle as his faith began to waver. We are told that when John saw the burial cloths, “he saw and believed” (John 20:8). It is not surprise then that when Peter begins to lose faith and attempts to return to fishing, that it is John who first recognizes Our Lord on the shore. Once Peter’s eyes are opened, he rushes to have his “come to Jesus meeting” (John 21:1-8).

So What?

What follows from this reflection are two things. First, the devil did not give up when Our Lord overcame death. He did not brood, but wasted no time attacking believers. He is still at work, especially on the tepid by using those “scholars” who would discredit the truth of the Resurrection. We must see these attacks for what they really are and be ready to counter them in faith and in fact.

Second, the Liturgical time between Easter and the Ascension of the Lord is a time in which a great many graces are available to deepen our faith in the risen Lord. But the key is we must first believe so that we can understand. Believing is seeing. This only happens when we ask the probing questions, not in a spirit of doubt, but in a spirit of true faith. When we color inside the lines, the true picture emerges.

Holy Saturday and the Descent into Hell

Among the days of the Sacred Triduum, Holy Saturday remains the least significant.  For most Christians, it is simply a placeholder—a day of waiting for Easter.  Good Friday is done and now we await the celebration of Easter.  To live this sacred season to the fullest, we need to see it for what it is liturgically—the day of the death of God.  This is especially true given the practical  experience of our age; an age when many forces in our culture have succeeded in implementing  Nietzsche’s plan; “God is dead and we have killed Him.”

This experience of God’s silence is, as Pope Benedict once said, “part of Christian revelation…Only when we have experienced Him as silence may we hope to hear his speech, too, which proceeds in silence.”  This truth is so foundational to the Christian life, that it is was presupposed by an article in the Apostles’ Creed marked by the tenet that “He descended into Hell.”  Holy Saturday, then, offers us a unique opportunity to meditate upon this article of the Creed.

Part of the Christian Myth?

This particular article of the Creed, according to Pope Benedict, has become a victim of the demythologizing of Christianity, rendering it incomprehensible to many of us.  Some of this stems from a certain amount of ambiguity attached to the word Hell.  In English, we usually associate this word with the hell of the damned, but the Catechism of the Concil of Trent makes the distinction between three different abodes called Hell.  The first is the dark prison where the damned are tormented is called Gehenna and is hell strictly speaking.  The second consists of the fires of purgatory where the just men are cleansed from temporal punishment.  The third is Sheol which is the abode into which the souls of the just before the coming of Christ the Lord were received and remained, without experiencing any sort of pain and sustained by the blessed hope of redemption, in peaceful repose.

When we speak of Christ’s Decent into Hell we are referring to the place called Sheol in  Hebrew (Greek Hades and Latin infernus).  Christ did not visit the hell of the damned, a place that by definition, God does not go.   Instead He visited the place where the souls of the just men went, commonly referred to as Abraham’s bosom.

It was first of all fitting that He did this.  As punishment for Original Sin, the souls of all the just were sent to Sheol.  Because He was like unto us in all things but sin, Christ the preeminently just man, upon the separation of His body and soul at death descended to the abode of the dead and remained there until it was reunited to His body in the Resurrection.  As St. Peter tells the crowds at Pentecost Christ was “released from the pangs of Hades; for it was impossible for Him to be held by its power” (Acts 2:24).

What did He do while He was there?  As he did on the earth, He did under the earth—“proclaimed liberty to the captives.”  Who were these captives?  The righteous men and women of the Old Covenant, who, like Abraham had faith in the fulfillment of God’s promises were the captives freed.  This faith was credited to them in righteousness as St. Paul tells the Romans.  They are among the great clouds of witnesses listed in the Book of Hebrews; the Fathers like Abel, Enoch, Noah and Abraham; Jews like Moses and David; non-Jews like Rahab; and those who passed during Jesus’ life like His precursor John the Baptist, and foremost in great joy, St. Joseph.

St. Peter, in writing of Christ’s descent, says that “He preached to the souls in prison” (1 Pt 3:19).  This was an act of proclamation that what they had believed in and waited for during their lives, had taken place.  It was not as if He told them about Himself and they could decide whether to believe or not.  These men and women already believed and died in faith and charity.  Jesus did not “convert” unbelievers during His time in Sheol.  They had their period of trial during their lives.  It is appointed that all men die once and then judgement.  There is no test after death nor is there a second chance.  However, as St. Thomas says, Christ’s descent was virtually into the Hell of the Damned because its effects were felt in order to put them to shame for their unbelief and wickedness.

Christ’s Victory Dance

Christ’s Descent into Hell is a descent of victory.  The righteous who were held within the confines of Abraham’s Bosom would have been a virtual trophy case for the devil.  Although just, they were still kept from God in death.  The devil would have looked upon the death of Christ initially as one more victory.  That is until His actual descent when He conquers death by His death.  This truth is one that is beautifully captured in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ when the devil screams with the realization that God has used his weapon, death, against him.

The Descent into Hell is no mere collection of theological facts, but are charged with meaning.  As I alluded to at the beginning, this article of the Creed is so relevant today because God is seen by many to be silent.  But just as when Christ appeared to be silenced by death, God is always at work bringing about redemption.  Just when things seem darkest, God is at work turning evil on its ear. Those who remained in Abraham’s bosom are the saints of hope and patrons for all of us.  Despite all appearances to the contrary they knew that when God does speak, He always keeps His promises.  Often all they had were His promises.  They had to wait for Him to come to save them and wait they did.  Christ’s Descent into Hell reminds us that God always keeps His promises.  Through their intercession, may we spend this Holy Saturday, waiting in joyful hope.

Which Will You Have, Barabbas or Jesus?

As part of the celebration around Jewish Passover each year, one prisoner was granted amnesty each year.  During the Roman trial of Our Lord, Pilate in recognition of that tradition, put forward two candidates for the Passover Amnesty—Barabbas and Jesus of Nazareth.  While Barabbas was a relatively obscure revolutionary in his day, there is perhaps no “minor” character in all the Gospels that plays a more pivotal role than he.  He is also significant because he incarnates some of the traps that Christians can fall into when it comes to Our Lord.

The Political Trap

The first trap is to view everything through a political filter.  Pontius Pilate was like many Americans in our own day, only able to see through a political lens.  Pope Benedict XVI points out in his book on Holy Week that Barabbas was an infamous rebel whom Pontius Pilate feared.  Once Pilate realized that Jesus was not only innocent, but was also politically harmless, he sought a political solution to the problem.  He thought the trial could be ended and he could still have favor with the Jews by offering Jesus as a candidate for the Passover amnesty.  He assumed that the people would choose the innocent Jesus rather than the dangerous Barabbas.  This is why we see him repeatedly lobbying for Jesus’ innocence.  The problem with this of course was once Our Lord was put forward as a candidate for amnesty, guilt was assumed and Our Lord already condemned.

Frank Sheed reported that Pilate already had three major conflicts with the Jews prior to the incident with Jesus.  Two of these had been settled within Judea itself, with Pilate winning one and having to yield to the Jews in the other.  The third conflict had been sent to the Emperor Tiberius himself.  Pilate sought to avoid an appeal to Caesar at all costs.  His patron in Rome, Sejanus, had recently been executed in Rome.  That is why he sought two loopholes in order to avoid making a decision; sending Jesus to Herod the Tetrarch and by making an appeal to the crowd.  When these both fail, he chooses the politically expedient solution without any regard to innocence and truth—“I am personally opposed, but…”

Freedom is first and foremost a theological reality, that is “an exceptional sign of the divine image in man” (Gaudium et Spes, 17) and not a political one.  Our Lord may have been in chains, but “no one takes My life, I lay it down of my own accord.”  He was the freest man who ever walked the face of the earth.  Barabbas may have shed his chains and Pilate may have thought himself master of all in Jerusalem but both were chained to the whim of the crowd.  They both remind us that we are only truly free in one sense—we are always free to do that which is good.  But each time we run with the herd, that capacity within us shrinks to the point where we forget we have it.  Eventually we wonder “what is Truth?” Sooner or later we eventually run out of room to compromise and must either unconditionally surrender our freedom or declare “non possumus.”

The Theological Trap

The second trap is theological in character.  The name Barabbas literally means “Son of the Father.”  Matthew in his Gospel calls him a “notorious prisoner” (Mt 27:16), which is probably an indication that he was a leader of a political uprising.  In this way, the people are presented with two very different messianic figures, both “Sons of the Father”, who are accused of the same offense—rebellion against Roman rule.  It is clear which one Pilate prefers.  He prefers the nonviolent one whose “kingdom is not of this world” rather than the violent Barabbas.  The crowd and the Jewish authorities however, want a different kind of Messiah.   They do not want one that works through love and truth but instead one who promises political power based upon violent revolt.  They do not want the one who picks up His cross, but the one who would crucify.

John refers to Barabbas as a “robber.”  This term (lēstēs in Greek) was often a term used to describe those who stirred up rebellion and is the same term that Jesus uses to contrast the behavior of the Good Shepherd.     It is clear that John has in mind a concrete example of the people choosing a false shepherd in choosing Barabbas.

That we should not set up for ourselves false shepherds seems obvious but there is a subtle way that we do this that is not always easy to catch.  I once went to a book signing where the author who writes historical fiction spoke about the Founding Fathers.  She talked about how she loved Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin growing up until she found out they owned slaves and grew to completely loathe them.  She then went on to say how she now thought Alexander Hamilton was the greatest of all the Founding Fathers because of his abolitionism.  I was struck how she was unwilling to overlook Jefferson and Franklin’s moral failings and see the good that they did, but overlooked Hamilton’s many moral failings.

The point is not that support of slavery is a minor or major moral failing, but that there is a tendency to demonize or canonize a person based on how their position gibes with our own (or usually the politically correct one).  Jefferson and Franklin had serious moral failings, support of slavery among them, but they also had good ones too, the fruit of which we are still drawing today. Hamilton’s character was such that he saw slavery as the evil that it is, but his other moral failings (including great pride leading directly to his death) should render us slow to praise him as the greatest of the American Founders. Similarly Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy combined to helpd the civil rights cause more than any two men in US history, but both were serial adulterers.  The point is that we already have a Messiah, and none of those men are Him.  The minute we try to set up fallen men as the Messiah, we feel we must defend them and justify any flaws. There will always be a gravity towards crowning the latest hero as the Messiah. However when Christ remains the Messiah, we can see how these men were instrumental (or not) in bringing other men into His Kingdom. Only there does true greatness lay.

The Peace Trap

Finally, Barabbas reminds us that peace only comes where there is justice.  Pilate knew very well that justice demanded that Jesus be released and that Barabbas remain imprisoned. But he feared an uprising, a loss of peace.  In the end, it was a band aid as Jerusalem would eventually be destroyed.  Barabbas reminds us that we cannot peace by making a lie into a system (Jeremiah 6:14).

Peace, St. Thomas says, is the tranquility of order.  This means peace can only come about when our lives and our society are properly ordered.  This is not about “social justice” of which there will be none until we have this proper ordering.  First and foremost it means giving God His due.  Any society that does not put God first is absolutely doomed to fail.  Do we really believe this?  Rather than trying to blame the secularists for this, why don’t we as Catholics take responsibility for this and stop trying to smuggle Catholicism into society. We are mostly cowards worrying about hurt feelings rather than burning souls (our own included—“woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel”).

Barabbas or Jesus, which will you choose?

Why Christianity Cannot be Separated from the Cross

All too often in our haste to “defend” God, we fail to ask, and more importantly, answer, what are the most foundational questions of the Christian life.  Take, for example, the question of suffering.  Quick to build the bridge made by man’s free will, we cleanly unite God’s omnipotence and His omnibenevolence with suffering.  Meanwhile, we fail to ask the more personally relevant question as to why it seems that Christians suffer more than non-Christians.  Of course this is not true in every individual case, but there is a certain universality we all observe.  Not to minimize the suffering of the various groups at the hands of genocidal maniacs, but all of the totalitarian regimes of the past two and a half centuries had a common target: Christians.

For many Christians this is a sign that, very soon, a great chastisement is going to be visited upon mankind.  It is only a matter of time before God removes His hand of mercy and rains fire from heaven, wiping out our modern day Sodom and Gomorrah.  Others can only see God’s “mercy,” unable to fathom such vengeance from Heaven.  In the usual manner of finding the Catholic solution, neither is entirely true nor are they entirely false.  That the world in recent times has gone off the rails and that Heaven cannot remain silent is without question.  But what if God’s vengeance is being rained out upon the earth and is filtered through the hands of mercy?

Before you dismiss this as theological doublespeak, hear me out.  No mere theological sleight of hand, it actually answers the foundational question I opened with.  Christians are the ones who suffer more because they are the ones who actually bear the brunt of the chastisement.  In so doing they act as the hands of God’s mercy keeping the punishments from falling upon the rest of mankind.  God’s mercy and His justice, two sides of the same coin.

There is a Scriptural precedent that illuminates this idea.  When God “contemplates” destroying Sodom and Gomorrah He admits to Abraham that He will hold back its destruction if He finds righteous inhabitants within those cities.  It is only when He finds none that He allows the destruction to happen.  It wasn’t just because He refused to destroy the righteous (even they would eventually die), but because the righteous act as a shield to those around them, holding back the full consequences of sin that would lead to the destruction of the unrighteous.  In shielding those around them from the flaming arrows, the righteous still get burned (usually by the very people they are shielding).  The just debt for sin is still paid through the application by the Christian of the merits of Christ.


All this talk of God’s justice seems absurd when Christians are “punished” for not just their own sins, but the crimes of others.  There is nothing just in this.  Except that is, if it is willingly borne and the person is rewarded accordingly.  This is why it is such an important question—it is a reminder of what it means to be a Christian.  “When Christ calls a man,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “He bids him come and die.”  In becoming a Christian through Baptism, we are brought into the very life of Christ.  Through the Sacrament of Confirmation, we are offered as sacrificial witnesses (i.e martyrs).  Christians recapitulate Our Lord’s life and death so as to share in the reward of His resurrection.  This is no mere theological metaphor, but an absolute truth and one that ought to inform our every action.

Christ came to make reparation and to save souls.  He did this through His suffering and death.  The Christian merely continues that mission—armed with power that He won for them as the God-Man.  The first soul that I must save is my own, but this is no mere “me and Jesus” thing.  He will use my willingness to save others (see Col 1:24).  The Church in her members too must go through His Passion and spread its power throughout the world.  Therefore you can never define a Christian without making reference to the Cross because a Christian is not a Christian without picking up the Cross.  It is not my Cross that I carry, but His.  The job of the Christian is to carry it through the streets so that others can come in contact with it.

All too often we forget that this is in fact what we signed up for when we chose the Christian life.  We volunteered to be “other Christs,” allowing His life to become incarnate once again in us.   That may sound really sweet when we are talking about being nice to other people and spreading Jesus’ love.  But that is not the only part, nor is it really the most important part.  We have accepted a life of suffering for the salvation of souls.  That can never, ever be forgotten.  The more often we recall this fundamental truth and embrace our crosses, the greater our reward.  That is why there is nothing unjust—it is only through suffering voluntarily accepted or undertaken that “an eternal weight of glory, that far outweighs our afflictions can be built up within us” (2 Cor 4:17).  Suffering can only be understood in relation to the promise of the reward.  In other words, our willingness to suffer is a measure of the depth of our faith.

Suffering and Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden

What does that actually look like?  Perhaps this is more of a self-indictment than anything else, but I suspect this is where many of us struggle.  We don’t ask the question because we don’t like the answer.  We know everything of what has been said is objectively true.  Yet, it does not ring true within our hearts.  There are three reasons for this, each of which can be illuminated by looking closely at Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden.

First, there is the natural repulsion to suffering.  As mortal creatures, there is always a physical recoil of pain and suffering.  No one will naturally “feel” like suffering.  Even Our Lord felt this pull to a certain extent in the Garden.  But, like Our Lord’s “not my will but your will be done”, one can will to suffer without actually feeling like it.

Second, and this is often the biggest obstacle, is the fact that no one can will to suffer in the abstract.  We often avoid thinking about suffering because we imagine our worst fears becoming reality.  But Christ could only say, “Your will, not mine” after the sufferings He was about to endure were brought before His mind.  We can fall into a trap by getting ahead of ourselves and letting our imagination (with the help of the Evil One) get ahead of reality.  We cannot say yes until we know what we are saying yes to.

Third, we know that we should want to suffer, but we find no strength to do so and therefore grow discouraged or forget about it altogether.  There is only one way out of this trap—admit our weakness to Our Lord.  He will only heal what we ask Him to heal.  The great sufferings of the saints are not because they were strong-willed, but because they humbly knew they were not and allowed grace to make them stronger.  There is no “fake it ‘til you make it” on this one.  Instead we can only begin by saying “I want to want to suffer for You” and allow Him to implant that desire in us.    All too often our unwillingness to tell Jesus how weak we really are is the biggest impediment to our spiritual growth.

Why should we look to Our Lord so closely in the Garden?  It is not just He is a model, but because every action He performed, including this one, was done to win specific graces for us.  Those moments when we struggle with this part of our Christian vocation are the moments that we need to turn to Him in the Garden and ask that He give us those graces He fought so hard to win for us.  In a certain sense, not to take hold of the graces He won is to make Him suffer in vein.

Now it becomes clear as to why the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”  Only by re-presenting the sacrifice of Christ to the world, can Christians win the world.  Those who were our enemies, now become our friends.  History is rife with examples of true Christian heroes—the ones who rather than defeating their enemies, win them over.  This same challenge is before us.  How much suffering is one soul worth?

A Culture of Divorce

Once, when Our Lord was speaking with the Pharisees, they tried to test Him by asking Him about the lawfulness of divorce.  In response, He invited them to return to the beginning when, in God’s plan, man and woman became one through marriage.  In revoking Moses’ concession to man’s hardness of heart and outlawing divorce, He announced the indissolubility of marriage as a key aspect of the New Covenant.  This teaching however has become a source of controversy among Christians to the point where only the Catholic Church has remained faithful to Our Lord’s teaching of marriage as indissoluble.  Moses may have allowed divorce outright, but this is not the only way to “allow” divorce.  There is a second, more subtle way, that many within the Church would like to adopt—the “yes, divorce is wrong, but it doesn’t really matter” approach.

Remarriage is not the Only Problem

A point of clarification is necessary at first.  At first it seems the issue is really about remarriage after divorce.  But the Church, echoing Christ’s words is really against divorce.  In Matthew 19:9 Our Lord issues an exception opening the path to divorce because of “unchastity.”  The actual Greek word used by St. Matthew is porneia and has remained rather elusive as to an exact translation.  All of the ink spilled on a proper translation of this word is pointless unless we understand two things.

First, regardless of whether it refers to serious sexual sin or other forms of infidelity such as abuse, divorce is only a legal arrangement of living apart.  The marriage bond is not, nor can it ever be, broken.  Nowhere throughout the history of the Church did this ever mean that the person was free to remarry.  This teaching comes directly from St. Paul who taught that the separated couple has two options: reconciliation or remain single (1 Cor 7:10-11).

Second, the exception proves the rule.  This needs to be mentioned because we now live in a culture where the exception becomes the rule.  GK Chesterton said that because we have an “incapacity to grasp that the exception proves the rule, …silent anarchy is eating out our society.” He goes on to say that “if you treat a peculiar thing in a peculiar way, you thereby imply that ordinary things are not to be treated in that way…Anything in a special situation shows by implication that all things are not in that situation.”  In other words, the argument that there is an exception for “unchastity” says that divorce is normally wrong.  There can be no such thing as “no-fault divorce” because it takes the exception and makes it the rule.

That being said, divorce really does matter and we should not merely turn a blind eye to it.  Divorce really matters because of its effect on the Family.  When I say capital F Family, I mean the social reality that is the Family.  Yes, obviously, it has profound effects on those families touched by it directly, but no family remains immune to it.  Divorce leads to a divorce culture; a culture born not just by imitation, but also by intimation.

Marriage and Children

To see this, we must first acknowledge the relationship between marriage and children.  Most of us know these things are intrinsically connected but would struggle to articulate it.  Even the most ardent supporter of same-sex marriage knows this and often goes to great lengths to simulate it as part of their relationship.  The purpose of marriage is the mutual perfection of the spouses.  Marriage is an end in itself—it is not a means to have children.  A man and a woman desire marriage with each other, not because it will bring children into the world, but because they desire to be completely united to their spouse so that the two become one—spiritually, emotionally, and physically.

What does the Church mean then when she says that “Procreation and education of children is the end of marriage”?  What this means is that when the two become one, children naturally follow.  In other words, children are the fruit of conjugal love.  Procreation and education of children is the end of marriage not as the reason why spouses come together, but as a result of their coming together.  Marriage is the natural place in which a child is brought into and up in this world.  Yes, there are exceptions and courageous ones at that, but the exception proves the rule.  A child brought up with only one parent is at a disadvantage.

Clarity as to why this is a disadvantage emerges when we examine our brokenness.  As a result of the Fall, conflict and division emerges between men and women (c.f. Gn 3:16).  Their relationship becomes mainly one of competition.  But, “in the beginning, it was not so.”  Humanity is not man or woman, but both.  A child brought up with only a father(s) or mother(s) is really only half-educated on what it means to be a human person.  They need, and therefore have a right to, both parents.

But not any man and any woman will do.  They must be indissolubly united by love because each child must know that they are not a result of some random encounter, but through an act of everlasting love.  They remain incomprehensible to themselves unless they know they were loved into existence.  This is why their security always rests in the stability of their parents relationship and the love between the spouses must be the primary catalyst for the love of the parents for the child.

The Hidden Effects

In this setting, the child intimates what becomes a very important belief that puts structure his whole life.   A child needs a father and a mother not as separate or competing influences but as cooperating influences in their complementarity.  The world, especially today, says that men and women are mostly competitive and will only come together when, and for as long as, there is mutual benefit.  By remaining indissolubly united, the children learn that men and women are not naturally competitive but cooperative.  The minute divorce enters the picture, the child only sees the competitiveness.  When this happens enough and divorce within society gathers a certain momentum, indissoluble marriage becomes the exception and society built upon the Family crumbles.

Chesterton calls divorce, especially when there is remarriage, the height of superstition.  Can we really expect someone who broke a vow at the altar to keep a vow the second time at that same altar?  Vows mean very little and within a divorce culture integrity becomes an anti-value.  We are married at an altar because an altar is a place of sacrifice.  Marriage leads to the fulfillment of spouses because each learns to truly love.  It is a sad world where happiness (in the worldly sense) and love must co-exist.  Marriage is the school where love is learned and taught, and not just to the children.  Divorce says all of that was a lie.

Why Many of the Jews Remained Veiled to Jesus

In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul laments that the Jews of his day suffered ignorance regarding the identity of Christ because “their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away.  Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed” (2 Cor 3:14-16).  One can imagine the Christians in Corinth struggling to understand how the Jewish people, steeped as they were in the Sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament, failed to see how all the prophecies find their fulfillment in Jesus.  The Corinthians are not alone in this, many of us often wonder how the Jews could miss this.

In his writings on the Antichrist, Blessed John Henry Newman has an extensive discussion on biblical prophecy in which he articulates an important principle: “It is not ordinarily the course of Divine Providence to interpret prophecy before the event.”  Newman is referring specifically to what the role of prophecy is in God’s plan.  Although prophecy is often (but not always) directed towards some future contingency, this does not mean that it is akin to being able to clearly predict what is going to happen.  If it were simply to tell everyone what is going to happen in the future, then it would seem that it should be marked by clarity.  Instead we find that prophecies are often obscure.  Prophecy, rather than being primarily for prediction, instead has the purpose of building up the body of believers (c.f 1Cor 12:10).  Its obscurity makes it impossible for those who lack the illumination from the same Spirit that inspired the prophecy to understand it.  With the gift of hindsight and illumination, it seems to us that the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah are very clear.  But we need only see how much help the first Christians needed (the road to Emmaus and Matthew’s explicit mentioning of which actions fulfilled which prophecies) to see just how difficult this was.  It is only when Our Lord comes to sweep away the clouds of obscurity by opening their minds to the Scriptures that they understood it (Lk 24:45).

There is another practical reason as well that made it particularly difficult and it has to do with the nature of the Messiah.  All too often we over-generalize and say “the Jews were expecting a political Messiah and Jesus came to usher in a different kind of kingdom.”  In an age where we make everything political this offers a clean explanation.  Most of the Jews were expecting that the Messianic Age would follow right on the heels of the Messiah (c.f. Acts 1:6) and when that didn’t happen it shattered many people’s expectations.  But to label their expectations as “political” does not quite capture what they meant.

The difficulty and the obscurity came in trying to somehow reconcile these different views.  We know that they are all true, but one can imagine how difficult it would be to wed them together yourself.  What often happened is that different schools opened up in which one chose only one of them at the expense of the others.  We are often very jealous of our ideas so that once they are challenged we reject everything that doesn’t agree.

Broadly speaking there were six different sets of prophecies concerning the future Messiah:

  • New Adam—based upon the promise in Gn 3:15 of the Seed of the Woman who would crush the head of the Serpent and a promise of a restoration of Eden (Is 11:1-10, Ezekiel 36:33-38)
  • New Moses—based upon Moses’ prophecy that God will raise up a “prophet like me” (Dt 18:1-17). In this way the Jews were awaiting a New Exodus into a New Promised Land, a theme I have written about previously.
  • Son of David, “Son of God”—this is most clearly laid out in Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees about their understanding of the opening verses of Ps 110 when Our Lord asks them about the nature of the Messiah as David’s offspring(c.f. Mt 22:41-46).
  • Son of Man—the Messiah is described by Daniel as “one like a son of man” who comes not from the earth but “with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13-15).
  • Suffering Servant—Daniel prophesies that the Messiah will be “cut off” or put to death as an atonement for sin, reconciling it with Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. Jesus reconciles this with the previous one by saying “the Son of Man came to serve, not be served and give Himself as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28).
  • Priest of the Order of Melchizedek—this Priest will be a “priest forever of the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:1-4), offering the same sacrifice as the Davidic kings did (2Sam 6:13-17).

Although we might easily reconcile these different views of the Messiah now, it was a tremendous challenge for the early Christians and their Jewish counterparts.  It was especially difficult to   The Book of Hebrews, written around 65 AD was composed mainly as a reference for tying all of these strains together.

The final obstacle for the Jews was the Crucifixion.  Although there are some very obvious parallels between the Passover Lamb and Our Lord (e.g. timing, “not a bone shall be broken”, etc), the Crucifixion itself could be an insurmountable obstacle.  It was for the punishment of criminals and would have appeared to be nothing like a sacrifice.  To all appearances, Jesus was a failure and a blasphemer.  Except for one small thing.  He actually called His shot this night before.  What makes the Crucifixion recognizable as the Sacrifice is the Institution of the Eucharist the night before. It is God who institutes each of the covenantal sacrifices and gives them their meaning. He is the One who appoints the priest, the victim and the manner of sacrifice.  It was God Incarnate Who did all those things prior to the event.  Not only does the Crucifixion give meaning to the Eucharist, it is the Institution of the Eucharist by which Our Lord assigns meaning to His death on the Cross.

How Much Did Mary Know?

One of the most popular Christmas songs this past year was Mary Did You Know.  While the lyrics of the song may not be theologically sound, the song asks a most important question for us to meditate upon on this Feast of the Annunciation: What did Mary know when she consented to the angel?

In asking whether Mary knows that the Son she was soon to deliver, would one day be her Deliverer, the lyrics gloss over the Immaculate Conception.  Through a singular grace, Our Lady was redeemed pre-emptively her Son from the Fall.  But the Immaculate Conception is also important in answering the question because of its effects.  Our Lady was untouched by Original Sin and any of its effects.  Ignorance, properly speaking, is a lack of knowledge of something that one should know and is an effect of the Fall.  Our Lady, immune to this effect, would have lived her life in what, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange describes as, a “dark brightness, the darkness arising not from human error and ignorance, but from the very transcendence of the light itself.”  In other words, she would have known all things that were humanly knowable at the time about the mystery of the Messiah and the Incarnation.  Many of the Church Fathers thought she also was given a plentitude of infused knowledge that was directly related to the Incarnation.  Either way, she would have known more about the Mystery of the Messiah than the most learned of the Jewish scholars.  The rest would have remained in the darkness of faith.

How Mary Knew

For certain, Mary would have known all the prophecies of the Old Testament.  She would have known that the 70 weeks of years prophesied by Daniel were expiring in her day.  She would have understood that the Suffering Servant prophecies in Isaiah referred to the Messiah.  She would have known that the child she was to carry was both her Savior and her God.  There was no doubt in her mind as to the identity of the Child she was to conceive.  As Fulton Sheen says, “Mary’s mind was filled with the thought of Divinity in the stable.”

Rather than being surprised by the content of the message of the Angel at the Annunciation, instead she is surprised that St. Gabriel was speaking to her.  She did not know her mission prior to it being revealed, but once it is revealed to her she is fearful.  She is fearful because she knows what it means for her.  Like her husband Joseph, she believed in God’s Redemption through the Messiah, but because of her profound humility thought herself unfit to fulfill any role in it.  She knows her own nothingness and yet has no doubts that “nothing is impossible for God.”

Two Examples Among Many

We can point to two instances among many that show her specific knowledge of the mission of her Son.  The first is so subtle, that we can easily miss it.

When Our Lord is born, Mary wraps Him in swaddling clothing and lays Him in a manger.  At first glance this seems so common place that we even wonder why it was included in the account.  But then we realize that most mothers would not have placed their children in a hard manger with straw.  Instead, they would most certainly have kept the child comfortable by holding him.  But Our Lady knows her Son’s mission and that each and every act of suffering is redemptive.  There is never a time when He is not the Messiah, but there is a time when because of normal human limitations, He relies upon His Mother to complete His mission.  For her part Mary must always put the mission first, even though she could easily remedy His pain.  Her suffering at seeing Him suffer, not just on the Cross, but even in the manger, merited her the title of Our Lady of Sorrows.

The second “moment” is at Cana.  Here the connection with the Fall, Adam and Eve and redemption with the New Adam and the New Eve is made most explicit.  But notice that it is Mary who initiates Our Lord’s public ministry.  It is as if He once again asks her if she is willing to go with Him to His hour.  The Annunciation and the Miracle at Cana are inexorably linked.

Mary’s Freedom and Knowledge

There is also a more fitting reason Mary must have known what was to transpire.  The Angel Gabriel comes to Our Lady not with a demand, but with a request.  God has sent him because He seeks Mary’s cooperation.  He will not initiate salvation without her say-so.  It is God’s “dependence” on Mary and her unique role in His saving mission that has earned her the title of co-redemptrix.

Eve may have had no choice in becoming the mother of all the living, but the New Eve would have a choice.  God wanted a free cooperator.  The will as a blind faculty can only choose based on knowledge.  As knowledge grows, the freedom with which we act increases.  If Mary’s fiat was total, then her knowledge must have been as well.

God could have defeated sin in the beginning by limiting human freedom.  Given He chose the greater good of human freedom, why would He circumvent it when finally defeating sin?  Instead He secured salvation through a supreme act of human freedom. If Eve freely and with full knowledge cooperated in mankind’s downfall, then the New Eve would untie the knot freely and with full knowledge.

This is not to say that Mary did not need faith.  She did not know everything and she had to make an act of faith in order to jump from seeing that what God “does to me” (Lk 1:38) is really the thing that the “Almighty does for me” (Lk 1:49).   Nor was it all Mary—although it was a free act, she who was “full grace” cooperated fully with it.  Mary needed both faith and grace, but God did not want to pull the wool over her eyes.

“Mary, did you know?”  Yes, she most certainly did.

Our Lady of Fatima and Gay Marriage

When Our Lady appeared to the children of Fatima, she warned that without conversion, Russia would continue to spreads its errors throughout the world.  The “errors” to which she was referring were mainly those of Communism, rooted in the philosophy of Karl Marx.  More than an economic theory, Marxism views all of history as the conflict between oppressors and oppressed and seeks to do away with all division, natural or not.  Marx himself presented it as a conflict between capital and labor, but those categories can readily be adapted to any two groups including gender, race or sexual orientation.  While the fruit of the Marxist tree that is Communism may be dying, the Marxist roots are alive and thriving within our own liberal democracy, a society that is deeply (and deliberately) divided.  This makes Our Lady’s words all the more prescient and ought to give us pause as we mark the 100th anniversary of her appearance at Fatima.

All of the prior Marxist attempts to remake human nature and society have met one almost insurmountable obstacle—the Family.  Marx himself envisioned this obstacle and called for the abolition of the family in the Communist Manifesto saying, “Abolition of the family!  Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.”

As long as the foundation of society remained strong and in place, any attempt to change society as a whole would ultimately fail.  But weaken the foundation and society will fall with it.

Not surprisingly, the Communist Party USA has been one of the most vocal supporters of the push for gay marriage.  They knew that by subverting marriage, the Family would ultimately be laid waste.  Ultimately this is why those who oppose Gay Marriage cannot give up the fight.  By removing one of the means by which the Marxist spread their errors, we are hastening the reign of the Immaculate Heart.

Thinking Clearly about Marriage

Pascal said that our first moral obligation is to think clearly so that before we do anything we must understand why Marriage and the Family are intrinsically linked.  Without marriage, the Family ceases to exist.

Amidst all the debate in the past decade about redefining marriage, neither side could actually define either the classical definition or the revisionist version.  In order to see why the family and marriage are linked, we must begin by offering a definition of marriage.  Marriage is the complete union of two persons.  It is the total union of their persons at every level of their temporal being—spiritual, emotional and bodily.  The conjugal bond is what makes marriage unique in comparison to any other relationship or community of persons.

What revisionists have tried to do is to remove one of the elements.  They would almost certainly call it an emotional and spiritual bond.  Although it may seem surprising it is the bodily union that they must remove; not because it isn’t a sexual relationship but because it is not a conjugal relationship.

Men and women are capable of performing all biological processes on their own, save one, procreation.  To perform this process they need a complementary other.  In other words, in performing acts that may lead to procreation, they become a single “organism.”  It is not just any sexual activity that unites them, but only sexual activity that is intrinsically ordered to procreation.  In order to be unitive, sexual activity must also be the kind that is procreative.  Any other sexual activity (including contracepted) simply becomes the exchange of pleasure and does not unite the two people physically any more than a handshake, a back rub, or putting one’s finger in another’s ear.  Only in the marital embrace can two spouses be physically united, an act that same-sex couples cannot perform.  Marriage, under the revisionists’ definition must therefore no longer be a complete union of two persons since the couple is unable to become one flesh.

A word of explanation as to why I have been careful about calling them acts that are “ordered to procreation.”  As a biological process, procreation has aspects that are under control of the person and aspects that are not.  One may choose to breathe, but one cannot choose to get oxygen into the blood.  Provided the conditions are right, that happens “automatically” and is outside the direct control of the person.  So too with acts ordered to procreation.  A couple can engage in the marital embrace, but whether conception occurs or not, happens after the fact and is outside of their direct control.  In other words, it is not the actual conception of the child that causes the act to be unitive.  It is unitive because it is a procreative act.  Grasping this helps us to see why an infertile couple may still be married (because they are capable of procreative acts even if they do not lead to conception) and a same-sex couple may not.

Marriage and the Family

It also helps us to understand what it means when we say that children are the end of marriage.  They are not the purpose of marriage—the purpose is the total union or communion of the persons—but they are the fruit of marriage.  In short, they are a natural result of the communion of persons in marriage.

With all that has been said, we can understand that the Church is not being old-fashioned when she defines the family as “born of the intimate communion of life and love founded on the marriage between one man and one woman” (Gaudium et Spes, 48).  The family as the first society a person belongs to forms that person in his vision of reality.  Each child learns that he or she was generated from an act of love and was quite literally loved into existence.  It is the school of love where the child learns both how to love and be loved.  In short, “a society built on a family scale is the best guarantee against drifting off course into individualism or collectivism, because within the family the person is always at the center of attention as an end and never as a means” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 213).

Joining the Battle

If the goal is to destroy the family, then get rid of marriage.  Erotic love is too powerful to destroy it altogether, but modifying it to the point that it becomes unrecognizable is sufficient to destroy the family.  Not surprisingly with a change in marriage we are seeing a change in what people call a family.  A “family” that is not founded upon marriage as the communion of persons is built on sand.  It is only the complete bond of the spouses to each other that keeps the family together.

Since the Obergefell decision almost two years ago, many Catholics have disengaged from the battle for marriage.  It is time to pick up the battle once again, especially considering what Sr. Lucia, the Fatima visionary once said.  “The final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family. Don’t be afraid because anyone who operates for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be contended and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue. However, Our Lady has already crushed its head.”  Let us re-engage and fight for marriage and the family!

St. Gianna Molla and the Principle of Double Effect

Since her canonization by Pope St. John Paul II on May 16, 2004, St. Gianna Beretta Molla has become the Patroness of the Unborn Child.  Faced with serious complications during the pregnancy of her fourth child, St. Gianna bravely put the needs of her child ahead of her own.  Pro-lifers often point to her heroic witness as a model to be followed.  They are right in doing so, but maybe not for the reason they often cite.  Most portray her situation as an all or nothing—they say she was faced with having life-saving treatment and an abortion or no treatment at all.  The problem is that this is not actually what happens.  The details of St. Gianna’s dilemma matter greatly in the retelling of her story, especially because it helps illustrate a moral solution for mothers who are faced with serious medical problems during pregnancy.

St. Gianna’s Story

While pregnant with her fourth child, St. Gianna developed a large fibroid; a benign tumor of the uterus.  In the normal course of events when these tumors are found during pregnancy they are unobtrusive enough that they may be left be.  In St. Gianna’s case, the tumor was large enough that it was likely to cause serious complications during the pregnancy that ultimately could threaten the development of the child and put her in considerable pain and risk for a serious infection.  There are additional medical details of her situation (detailed here) but for the sake of our discussion this should suffice.

When St. Gianna learned of the fibroid tumor, she was, according to her husband, presented with three options by her doctors.

  1. Terminate the pregnancy via direct abortion and remove the fibroid
  2. Have a hysterectomy that removed her uterus. This would also result in the death of the 2 month old preborn child.  For her personally this was a low-risk approach and was also the standard of care at the time given the lack of medical technologies (such as ultrasound machines) that we have today.
  3. Remove the fibroid and continue her pregnancy. This option could result in the spontaneous miscarriage of the child because of the irritation to the uterus.  It also carried with it serious risks for herself.  The blood loss from a pregnant uterus can be excessive and difficult to control.  It might also be that the wound could re-open during any point in the pregnancy.

Notice that not receiving any treatment was not one of the options as the story is often portrayed.  This was not a real option as to not do anything would have placed the child at great risk.

Examining the Moral Principles

Before examining her decision, it is helpful to make some distinctions and define some moral principles.  This is what makes knowing the details of her case very instructive.  It is a real-life, concrete example of what someone did and it contradicts the abortion or nothing approach that many people often assume.

The first point to look at is why (1) is morally problematic and (2) is morally permissible.  Looked at superficially, the two acts look to be the same—in both scenarios the child ends up dead and the mother lives.  But how we end up there matters, even if we end up in the same place.  Despite Machiavellian protestations to the contrary, one may never do evil so that good may come about.  The end does not justify the means.  Abortion, that is the direct killing of an innocent human being is always wrong regardless of whether the mother’s life is in jeopardy or not.

In scenario (2), the death of the child, although foreseen, is not directly willed even if it is permitted.  What is willed is the preservation of St. Gianna’s life.  Notice too that the preservation of her life does not come about as a result of the child’s death, but as a result of the removal of the uterus.  That same removal of the uterus also has the “side-effect” of killing the baby, even though it was not chosen for that reason.  Finally, there is a certain proportionality involved in the moral calculation in that both mother and child’s life are of equal value and by not acting you are placing one or both of their lives in jeopardy.

Option (2) demonstrates an important moral principle called The Principle of Double Effect.  This principle recognizes that none of our acts occur in a moral vacuum.  Each of our actions are complex with a mixture of goods and evil attached to them.  Thus, even if the will chooses some good, there can often be an evil associated with it.  This is why when we make our moral calculation, we must look not just to the external act but to the underlying choice of the will.  With this in mind, there has classically been the need for the distinction between two types of will—the direct will and the permitting will.  We may never, morally speaking, directly will an evil.  However, we may permit it.

The Principle of Double Effect

The Principle of Double Effect says that it is morally allowable to perform an act that has at least two effects provided all four of the following conditions are met.

  1. the object to be done must be good in itself
  2. the intent of the agent must be to achieve the good effect and to avoid the evil effect as much as possible. The evil effect must not be directly willed but only permitted.  This is the case even if the evil effect is foreseen.
  3. the good effect is proportional to the bad effect and there is no other way to achieve the effect.
  4. the good effect must follow directly from the action and not as a result of the harmful effect.

St. Gianna would have been morally justified in choosing option (2), but instead she chose option (3).  Although under no moral obligation to do so, this decision flowed from her desire to put the life of her child first.  She was a mother and a holy one at that, so this decision came somewhat second nature.  It is not the reason she is saint, but she made this decision because she was on her way to sainthood.

Most of us know that she eventually lost her life after delivering a healthy baby.  But there is not direct evidence that she died because of her decision.  The cause of her death was an infection in her abdomen that was brought about as a result of the Caesarian section that was performed.  Why this detail matters again speaks to how we present her as a witness.  She knew that her health was in jeopardy by choosing (3) but there was no reason for her (she was a doctor) to think it may end up leading to her death.  She made a courageous decision, but also one based on prudence.  It is her courage and prudence that made her a saint and makes her a great Pro-life witness.  It wasn’t her unwillingness to do something evil, but her willingness to love her children at great personal cost.  Saints are praised not because they didn’t choose evil, but because of their witness of heroic virtue.  Knowing the details enables us to let her witness speak clearly to a very confused age.

Catholics and the Seder Meal

In recent years, one of the more popular Lenten practices of Catholics has become to participate in Seder Meals.  Their popularity is driven mostly by a desire to express a solidarity with the Jewish people and to understand the Jewish roots of our Faith.  While it may seem harmless to participate in them, there are some serious reasons why Catholics might want to avoid them all together.

In an age where the morality of a given act is mainly subject to our intention, it is important to begin any discussion on whether Catholics should participate in Seder Meals with a fundamental principle.  St. Thomas puts the principle this way—“external worship should be in proportion to the internal worship” (ST I-II q.103, a.3).  What the Angelic Doctor means by this is that our external acts of worship must always reflect our internal beliefs.  If our act of worship does not reflect our internal beliefs then we are guilty of superstition, that is giving worship to God in, what St. Thomas calls, an “undue mode” or in giving worship to a false god.

Trapped in a dualistic mindset, many of us would think that our external acts are just that—external—and there is no harm done if you do not really mean them.  But intuitively we all seem to think otherwise, especially when we reflect on the witness of the Martyrs.  Many martyrs refused to offer a pinch of incense to the pagan gods because they knew this would be an act of worship, even if they may not have believed in what they were doing.  Likewise there are those who have been tempted to desecrate an image of Christ in order to avoid martyrdom.  All too often the tempters would simply say, “It’s just an image.  All that matters to you is what you believe.”  Those who desecrated the image were considered apostates regardless of what they may have believed.  Not having our exterior acts reflecting our interior beliefs is a form of lying.

The Seder Meal and What it Means to Participate

Returning to the topic at hand, namely Seder Meals, it is without a doubt a religious act.  Many of these are sponsored by different Jewish Synagogues or, when done “do it yourself” follow the existing Seder liturgy.  A Seder Meal is one of the primary means by which the Jewish people hand on their faith.  It also reflects an act in faith in the coming of the Messiah.

For a Christian, that is, one who has faith that the Messiah has come, to participate in a Seder Meal is a false declaration of faith.  It is, as St. Thomas said, an act of worship of God in an “undue mode.”  While our faith in the Christ with the Jewish people may be the same, that faith must be expressed in different ways.  The Jews reflect the faith of Abraham, that is the Messiah to come, through circumcision.  The Christian expresses his faith in the Messiah who has come when they share in His life and death in Baptism.

St. Thomas says that all of the legal ceremonies of the Old Law, including the Passover meal, have passed away because each found their fulfillment with the coming of Christ.  Each of the ceremonies of the Old Law expressed the expectation of the coming Messiah, those of the New Law reflect His having already come.  In the mind of Aquinas, to continue to participate in these ceremonies is a lie and constitutes, at least objectively speaking, a grave sin.  Regardless of what one believes, by participating in a Seder Meal, the Christian is professing through his actions that Christ is yet to come.

The ceremonies of the Old Law were mere “shadows” (Col 2:17) of the Sacraments to come.  The Seder is but a foreshadowing of the Mass.  Why would one participate in shadow when the real thing is available?  Catholics are already participating the True Seder Meal, the Mass.

What if I Just Want to Learn More About Our Roots?

What about those who only do so out of curiosity or as a learning exercise to help them better understand the Mass?  Certainly their intentions do not change the fact that it is objectively wrong to participate, but still it may change their culpability.  This approach is worth unpacking further for a different reason as well.

The problem with this approach is that it denies an important historical fact.  Those who have studied the Passover meal that Our Lord celebrated with the Apostles are quick to point out that it differs from the first Passover as described in the Book of Exodus and not just because Our Lord added the elements of fulfillment.  At the time of Our Lord only the Levitical priesthood existed and thus all sacrifices occurred within the Temple.  What did not change however was that the Passover was not just a meal but also a sacrifice.

Once the Temple was destroyed, Judaism underwent a profound change.  Prior to 70 AD, Judaism was much like Catholicism in that they had priests who lead the worship which was centered upon sacrifice.  After 70 AD it became much like Protestantism in that the emphasis was placed on worship without sacrifice.  Judaism today is not the same Judaism of Our Lord and the Apostles.

In short, the Seder Meal that Jesus participated in the first 32 years of His life is profoundly different from the Seder Meal as it is celebrated within Judaism today.  The key element, the sacrifice of the Lamb, is missing.  With the sacrificial character removed it now bears little resemblance to the Mass which retains its sacrificial meaning.  A Seder Meal, as it is celebrated today, has little value for the Christian for learning the roots of the faith.

Certainly studying (without participating) the Seder Meal as it was during the time of Our Lord has value for us as Christians.  Studying the type or the sign helps us to better understand the archetype or thing signified.  Rather than spending your time organizing or attending a Seder Meal, you would be better off studying Dr. Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist or listen to Scott Hahn’s Fourth Cup.  Although there are more, I have found these two resources invaluable for deepening our understanding of the meaning of the Mass and its relation to the Jewish Passover Meal.

Donald Trump and the Witches

At Midnight on February 24th, a group of witches cast on spell upon President Donald Trump.  The ritual must be repeated at Midnight on the date of every waning crescent moon during his presidency.  Witchcraft is nothing new; they have been casting spells on men and women for many centuries.  What makes this mass spell unique is that it has taken on a “viral” quality with the rite being posted online with an attempt to take it to a wider community.  For most of us, the thought of witches in black hats around a bubbling cauldron with broomsticks in hand casting a spell on Donald Trump is somewhat ridiculous.  But for those who are actively engaged in spiritual warfare they know how serious this can be.  In openly declaring their intent to cast a spell, battle lines have been drawn and Catholics must step into the breach to engage in this spiritual battle.

Regardless of whether one is a card-carrying member of the Donald Trump Fan Club, as Christians we have an obligation to pray for him as the leader of our country (1Tim 2:2).  In other words, we should bless him rather than, as the witches propose, curse him.  These prayers of blessing protect him both from harm and from doing harm.  Despite protestations to the contrary that the witches merely wish to “bind him”, the intent of any spell or curse is to do evil to the person.

Curses and Divine Providence

Whether the curse is effective or not is left up to Divine Providence.  God may allow it to happen or He may actively oppose it.  Not recognizing this can often be an obstacle in understanding how someone becomes “infected” by the demonic.  Most of us understand that by dabbling in the occult we can open ourselves up to falling victim to demonic activity.  It does not happen in 100% of the cases, but the likelihood increases as the frequency of contact increases, especially for a person who has fallen out of a state of grace.

What is often not understood however is that it is possible, through no fault of the person, that they come under the control of the devil and his minions.  We can become spiritually sick in much the same way that we can become physically sick.  It may be that we do things that jeopardize our physical health (like drug abuse, overeating, etc.), but this is no guarantee that one becomes sick.  Likewise, many people become sick with some disease through no fault of their own.  Certainly, suffering in the innocent, especially at the hands of the demonic, stretches our capacity to understand, but it is still possible for it to occur.

Satan: The Great Ape

One of the most common ways in which this can happens is through the invocation of a curse.  Satan is the great ape, constantly trying to mimic God’s power.  Think of the curse as an “anti-grace.”  Grace seeks to aid a person through divine intervention, while a curse, according to the recently deceased Chief Exorcist of Rome, Fr. Gabriele Amorth, is defined generally as “harming others through demonic intervention.”  Satan apes God’s power that He exercises through the Sacraments by creating curses.

Like the Sacraments, curses usually require a minister.  This is where witches and wizards enter the picture.  They act as ministers once they are commissioned and perform a ritual on a given material object that is somehow connected to the victim.  In this case, there are several objects including an image of the President.

Not all people who practice or commission witchcraft are consciously worshipping Satan.  What they are consciously doing is invoking a supernatural power.  There is no denying this.  The source of that power does not require them to acknowledge him and may in fact prefer that they don’t.  Still, they are acting as his ministers and, in borrowing from his power, will end up falling under his power.  Access to that power comes with a price.  This is why the viral nature of the spell placed upon the President is so dangerous.  It may never touch the President personally, but most assuredly it will do harm to those who dabble in it.  This is a win-win situation for the evil one.  He is sure to gain power over someone because of this.

What to Do

The Church as the custodian of the Real Thing—the Thing that blesses and never curses—has an obligation to act in this case.  The problem is, as Fr. Amorth pointed out, priests do not take curses and witchcraft seriously.  They are not alone as most of the Faithful also see witchcraft as some antiquated superstition rather than a real threat to souls.  If they did, then both clergy and laity would be offering Mass for the protection of the President and for those who act out of ignorance in performing the rite.  They would have recourse to the Rosary and its inherent power to crush the head of the serpent.  They would go to the Sacrament of Sacraments, that is the Precious Blood of Jesus, and seek protection there.  The Litany of Precious Blood is perhaps one of the most effective prayers against curses and demonic activity in general as most Exorcists will attest.

Human Origins and the Transgender Person

“Where did I come from?”  What parent doesn’t cringe hearing those words come out of the mouth of their young child?  The parent’s mind goes to the birds and the bees while the mouth quickly intervenes saying “God put you in Mommy’s tummy.”  Although it is uttered by a mere babe, we cannot help but be struck by the profundity of the question.  Where do we come from and how are we made?  It is a question that touches deeply on both philosophy and theology and the answer can only leave us echoing the marvel of the Psalmist—“I praise you, because I am wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14).

The Platypus and Us

From our perspective, the platypus seems to be the strangest of all God’s creatures.  If we were able to step outside of ourselves, we would quickly realize that in truth humans are the oddest of His creatures.  Formed from the “dust of the ground” and “the breath of God,” we are the only creatures in which matter and spirit are wedded together.  We are neither wholly material or wholly spirit, but a morph of the two.  We must understand this point if we are to understand our origins.  We are not souls trapped in a body nor are we really smart apes.  We are both a body and a spirit.  Although this seems like common sense, it seems to have been greatly forgotten in a culture that tends to look at man in a dualist fashion.  Although the soul enjoys a certain prominence, the person is not just their soul.

What follows from this is that man is really capable of three different kinds of actions.  As a bodily being, he can operate on an animal level by which he experiences hunger and growth and the like.  As a spiritual being he can perform acts of pure spirits like abstract thought.  Man can know that 2+2=4.  What is entirely unique to man as a composite creature is that he can also perform a third type of act—one that only man can do such as appreciating beauty, proving a mathematical theorem and experiencing conjugal love.

The Origin of the Soul

Thanks to modern biology and embryology, we know where the body comes from.  But where does the soul come from?  It is created directly by God at the moment of conception.  There is no material power that can create a spiritual soul.  Being immaterial and having no parts, it cannot come from the parents the way the body does.  This leaves only one alternative, a sort of process of elimination, that leads to the conclusion that it must come directly from God.

It is not, as is often thought, as though the soul exists prior to the body.  How do we know this?  In short, it is the law of heredity that reveals this.  Children can inherit bodily traits from their parents.  A son can be the spittin’ image of his father.  But it is not just bodily traits, but also some of those traits that fall into our third class of actions that children tend to inherit.  Artists and musicians tend to rear children with the aptitude for the same.  Those gifted in mathematics tend to raise children with mathematical minds such that no mere environmental explanation exists. So widespread and common is this that it is easy to overlook the implication of it.

In short, we have to offer an account of our origin that factors in the hereditariness of these spiritual/material acts.  The only plausible explanation for this phenomena is that the soul is made for the body.  When the body is created, thought St. Thomas, God fuses a soul to it to match the body.  In that way our souls are entirely unique and thus when separated from the body (after death and prior to the General Resurrection) they still remain our soul.  He doesn’t just fuse a soul into my body, but He infuses my soul into my body.  They are a perfect match.

Now all human souls have the same essential qualities such as being capable of abstract thought, knowledge of first principles, and the capacity to love.  But each soul may differ in some of its accidental qualities such as taking spiritual delight in certain intellectual pursuits which coincidentally may coincide with those same bodily, hereditary tendencies that make the practice of art, music and mathematics easier.

This also confirms on one of the key concepts of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, namely that the body reveals the soul.  If the soul is made to fit that particular body then this seems intuitive.  But this also means that one of the accidental qualities of the soul is sex.  In other words, gender or sex (or whatever we are now calling it) is not just a physical difference but a spiritual one too (see CCC 2332-2333).

The Transgender Soul

And now we begin to see why these philosophical musings are relevant.  There are many who claim that transgenders were born with the wrong bodies.  They claim that God “makes no mistakes” and that the biology was wrong.  But if the body is primary and God matches the soul to it, then this cannot be so.  If the body is biologically male then the soul is also spiritual masculine.  The soul is matched to the body and God “makes no mistakes.”

Further, to make biological changes to the body in the cases of someone who is conflicted will only serve to make matters worse.  They may not “feel comfortable” in their skin, but those changes will not touch their souls and will lead to an even deeper conflict.  How does a masculine soul express itself through a female body?  They will never be able to fully express themselves and thus will be forever wounded in their ability to give and receive love.  Instead we must be willing to help them discern the true source of their inner conflict without taking what amounts to a short-cut solution.

Our Lady of Fatima and the First Saturday Devotion

In the popular devotion of the Church, Saturday has long been a day set aside to honor the Blessed Mother.  It was the 8th Century Benedictine monk and Carolingian liturgical reformer, St. Alcuin, who first composed Votive Masses to honor Our Lady on Saturday.  These masses were so popular among the faithful, that they eventually became accepted into the Missal as the Common of the Virgin Mary.

It was no accident however that Alcuin chose Saturday, for there are deep theological reasons for doing so.  The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy  explains that Saturday is set chosen as a memorial of the Blessed Virgin as “a remembrance of the maternal example and discipleship of the Blessed Virgin Mary who, strengthened by faith and hope, on that great Saturday on which Our Lord lay in the tomb, was the only one of the disciples to hold vigil in expectation of the Lord’s resurrection; it is a prelude and introduction to the celebration of Sunday, the weekly memorial of the Resurrection of Christ; it is a sign that the ‘Virgin Mary is continuously present and operative in the life of the Church.’”

This devotion to Our Lady has been sorely tried in recent centuries, beginning with the Protestant Revolution.  Rather than being met with indifference, she was treated with contempt.  It was within this setting that a practice of receiving Communion in reparation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary arose.  This devotion spread, catching the attention of Pope St. Pius X who attached an indulgence to the practice in 1904.  This practice was expanded when on June 13,1912 he offered additional indulgences for “All the Faithful who, on the first Saturday or first Sunday of twelve consecutive months, devote some time to vocal or mental prayer in honor of the Immaculate Virgin in Her conception gain, on each of these days, a plenary indulgence. Conditions: Confession, Communion, and prayers for the intentions of the Sovereign Pontiff.”


Five years to the day, Our Lady appeared to the Fatima visionaries, showing them the Immaculate Heart surrounded with thorns.  Sr. Lucia would later say that she understood that the vision was “was the Immaculate Heart of Mary, outraged by the sins of humanity, which demanded Reparation.” It was also during this appearance that Our Lady told the children that Jesus wished to “establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart.” Our Lady promised Lucia that she would return to explain the practice of the first five Saturdays.

Fast forward eight years and Lucia is now a postulant in a convent in Pontevedra, Spain.  Our Lady appeared to her and said “Look, my daughter. My Heart is surrounded with thorns that ungrateful men pierce unceasingly with their blasphemies and ingratitude. You, at least, try to console me and announce that for all those, who for five consecutive first Saturdays, confess, receive Holy Communion, pray the Holy Rosary and accompany me for15 minutes by meditating the mysteries of the Holy Rosary with the intention to do reparation, I promise to assist them at the hour of death with the graces needed for salvation.

About a year later, she was taking out the trash when she encounters a little child.  She told the child to pray a Hail Mary which He refused to do.  So, she tells him to go to the Church and ask the Heavenly Mother for the Child Jesus.  When the child returns, she asks him if he did what she said to which He replied “And have you spread through the world what the heavenly Mother requested of you?”  She replied, knowing it was Our Lord, that she had met many difficulties in spreading the devotion.  He told her to rely on His grace and to “have compassion for your Mother’s Heart. It is surrounded with thorns that ungrateful men pierce at each moment, and there is no one who does acts of reparation to remove them.”

Our Blessed Lord appeared once again to now Sister Lucia on May 29, 1930. He explained that the devotion involved five consecutive first Saturday because it was five kinds of offenses and blasphemies against the Immaculate Heart of Mary that required reparation, namely: blasphemies against her Immaculate Conception, against her perpetual virginity, against the divine and spiritual maternity of Mary, blasphemies involving the rejection and dishonoring of her images, and the neglect of implanting in the hearts of children a knowledge and love of this Immaculate Mother.  Mary had asked Jesus for this to forgive those who “had the misfortune of offending her.”

Why does it Matter?

Why do all these details matter?  Because we are now closing in on the 100th anniversary of Our Lady’s appearance to the visionaries in Fatima.  The world has changed in ways the Fatima visionaries could hardly have conceived.  But many of the advances that have been made have left us less human.  Our Lady appeared in order to warn us of this and offered us a remedy to protect us from ourselves—“Penance, penance, penance.”  Many within the Church has chosen to focus on the consecration of Russia as the primary message, but it seems to me that any debate on whether that has actually been accomplished (Sr. Lucia herself said it had) misses the point when we fail to implement the simple call to do Penance.

Our Lady’s instructions are a reminder to all the Faithful of the communal dimension of sin and our obligation to make reparation. Christ came for no other reason than to make reparation.  A Christian is meant to continue His work throughout time and space.  Sure, He could have done the work Himself had He so willed, but He did not will.  Sure, His participation and ours differ immeasurably but He asked for our participation in it when He called upon us to take up our Cross.  We cannot be Christians while at the same time striving to live a comfortable life.  Christians must act redemptively by consciously making acts of reparation, not just for our sins but for the sins of others.  Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more, provided we are willing to act like other Christs.  Our Lady’s very specific instructions to Sr. Lucia offers us a concrete means to make this happen.  She is ever the spiritual mother teaching us.  Can we not give to her Son, the First Five Saturdays in honor of His holy Mother?

Separation of Church and State?

In a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association written on New Year’s Day in 1802, President Jefferson wrote what, especially in recent times, has become his most often quoted words.  In offering an interpretation of the First Amendment he said,

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State” (emphasis added).

The Catholic Church invents the Separation of Church and State

Jefferson was offering nothing novel.  Christians have been preaching the separation of Church and State for millennia.  If we look at the great cultures throughout history, the idea of a separation between the State and Religious powers was anathema.  Whether it was Egypt or Rome, the Emperors were believed to be gods themselves and religious veneration was due to them.  When Christ uttered His famous “render unto Caesar,” He did so in a culture in which Caesar thought himself divine and the High Priest or Pontifex Maximus of the official Roman pagan religion.  This was the norm throughout the ancient world, except for a single country—Israel.  In Israel, the role of king was distinct from either the priests or the prophets.  The first king, Saul, was anointed by the Prophet Samuel (1Samuel 10) and even King David himself was beholden to the Prophet Nathan who accused him of murder.

Christians have always interpreted Christ’s admonition to “render unto Caesar” as a call to keep this Jewish tradition of separating the governance of the State from the governance of the Church.  On the one hand, we can see why Our Lord thought this necessary simply by looking at man’s nature as both spirit and body.  We live two distinct, although related lives—temporal and eternal.  His utterance baptizes these two distinct powers to govern each of the lives.  Like the body and soul, there is a certain precedence of the spiritual governance over the temporal governance, but still the two should work in a complementary fashion.

Why We Need the Separation

Why the Church and State should remain distinct is not entirely clear until we add into the mix man’s fallen nature.  As an effect of man’s prodigious fall, the body tends to drag the soul down and corrupt it.  When the Church and the State are essentially one, it is the Church bears the brunt of it.  History reveals this repeatedly, especially if we look to the Middle Ages, culminating in Henry VIII’s foundation of the Church of England.  The circumstances may change but the Church always becomes corrupt when it gets too closely tied to the temporal power.

To use an American parlance, the Church/State distinction is a form of checks and balances.  The temporal authority, because he is first and foremost is trying to save his own soul in addition to his subjects, is always subservient to the Church.  The Church would, in turn, make itself the servant of the Imperium in her conduct of temporal affairs.  Each serves to keep the other in line—when the Church oversteps her bounds and gets too caught up in temporal affairs, the State is there to remind her of her mission to souls.  When the State oversteps its bounds and puts the souls of its residents at stake, the Church is there to remind it of its proper place.  While this practice may have been abused, the power of the Pope to excommunicate a rogue Christian King was very effective in bringing about conditions that were good for the soul.

When the two function in this way the citizens of the State thrive and are holy.  The culture becomes Christian, rather than a mere State that happens to have a majority of Christians in it.  The Church recognized the importance of building a Christian society—one in which being a Christian is made easier by the culture—and therefore worked out her understanding of Church/State relations shortly after the time of Constantine.  Pope St. Gelasius I (492-496) who is often credited with “inventing” the separation of Church and State said:

“Christ, mindful of human fragility had discerned between the functions of each power… His reason for so doing was twofold. On the one hand, it is written that no one warring for God should be entangled with secular things. The raison d’être of the royal power was to relieve the clerics of the burden of having to care for their carnal and material wants. For the temporal necessities the pontiffs indeed need the emperors, so that they can devote themselves to their functions properly and are not distracted by the pursuit of these carnal matters, but the emperors, Christian as they are, need the pontiffs for the achievement of eternal salvation.”

The Jefersonian Distinction

Even if Jefferson did not invent the notion of the Separation of Church and State, he did endorse an important twist to it.  What was new about Jefferson’s position—which was subsequently read into the Constitution by Justice Hugo Black—was his belief that a wall of separation had to be erected.  In other words, he thought Church and State should remain completely separate.

Returning to the analogy of the human person, you can no more put a wall of separation between the Church and State than you can between the soul and the body.  To sever the one from the other leads to death—be it the death of the person or of society as a whole.

When the complementary role of Church and State is denied, the State will go unchecked in its power.  When the State finds no authority above it then it simply does as it sees fit without any regard to the moral law or the eternal salvation of its citizens.  In order to pull this off though the State needs to promote “bread and circuses” to keep the populace from focusing on their souls.  The “bread and circuses” can take various forms, but the form of choice today is sexual license.  It is not as if the Church merely disappears in this setting.  The State sets up a new Church, one that is merged with the State.  In other words, when you set up a “wall of separation” it will always end up merging the two.


Return of the Church-State of Paganism

Much of the West is returning to paganism in the form of liberalism, worshipping the god of freedom.  Like all pagan gods, it demands child sacrifice, even if is cleaner this time because it is done in utero.  Its churches are universities (really all public schools) and its high priests are the judges.  The State will “tolerate” other religions and grant “freedom of worship” but any public expression, especially when it comes in conflict with the State Religion, will not be tolerated.   The Little Sisters of the Poor may have ultimately won their lawsuit, but that is only a harbinger of things to come.  The next battle will likely come for not complying with the demands of the law for gay marriage.  You must be willing to profess the new pagan creed which many Catholics, even bishops and priests, have shown themselves willing to do.

This is really a project of the Enlightenment, it simply took a few centuries for the Christian roots of Western society to actually die out.  Those roots are now, for all intents and purposes, dead.  We are living in Rome in reverse and the only way we can act redemptively is the way of the Church—martyrdom or an appearance by Our Lady.  Throughout history those are the only two ways that a society has been saved from the clutches of paganism.  Let us pray that as we ready ourselves for the 100th Anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima that it is the latter.

Spiritual and Religious

“I am spiritual, but not religious.” It has become the fastest growing religious affiliation.  So popular is it, that it now has its own acronym—SBNR.  Its appeal is that it supposedly frees its adherents from the trappings of organized religion so that they may become more “spiritual.”  What it means to be more “spiritual” remains a mystery because any formal dogma or Creed would signal its death knell.  Usually it is about “connecting to God within.”  Although the popularity of SBNR has grown, it is not something new.  In fact one could say it is the second oldest religion in the world, beginning when Lucifer decided that he too would spend eternity as spiritual but not religious.

Ultimately the fall of Lucifer and his minions was a permanent refusal to have any obligations towards God.  The eternal cry of the demons is “non serviam”—“I will not serve.”  They desire to be like God, but shun religion.  Although their fall was instantaneous, many of the adherents to SBNR slide in the same direction—many not realizing what they are agreeing to when they recite the SBNR mantra.

What is Religion?

Without a doubt, some of the issue has to do with vagaries surrounding the word religious.  The English word religion is derived from the Latin religare, to tie, fasten, bind, or relegere, to gather up or treat.  First and foremost, religion is the moral virtue that consists in giving to God the worship and service He deserves.  It is part of the virtue of justice which consists in rendering to each his due.  Because He is the Creator of all things and has supreme dominion, God in a singular way has a special service due to Him.  This service is worship.

Herein lies a source of confusion, namely why God creates us and then commands that we worship Him.  This is worth investigating because it is often an obstacle for the SBNR congregants.  We offer worship to God, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, not for His sake but for ours.  We cannot give to God anything He doesn’t already have.  Instead He creates us as rational creatures not just because we manifest His goodness or glory, but because we, among all visible creation, have the capacity to appreciate it.  In other words, we worship to both show our appreciation and to grow in the pleasure that His goodness brings to us.

The SBNRer may willingly concede that they do owe something to God in terms of worship, but they prefer to connect to God privately “in their souls.”  This ultimately stems from a denial of what we are as human beings.  As body/spirit composites, we are capable of both internal and external acts of religion.  In a certain sense the internal take precedence, but these internal acts can never be wholly free from the external and must be guided by them.

As human beings, our bodies and our spirits act in unison with each other.  That which is in the mind, must first have been in the senses.  You cannot perform a wholly interior act without also affecting the exterior.  Just the very thought of God or Jesus, invokes an image in our material imaginations.  We worship both from the inside-out and the outside in.  Our external acts of devotion effect our internal acts of devotion.  One is more likely to have increased devotion in their heart to God kneeling (an external sign of supplication) in front of a Crucifix than if they are staring at a blank wall sitting on a bed.

The implications of this are obvious.  There are some external acts that are better than others at increasing devotion.  This is certainly true in the subjective sense—we all have our favorite environments in which to pray—but it is also true in the objective sense.  God is equally present in the bathroom as He is in the chapel, but it is the chapel that has been consecrated (i.e. set aside) as a place of prayer that is objectively better than the bathroom.  This is why praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament is called Adoration.  You can adore God anywhere in spirit, but in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament that Adoration occurs in “spirit and truth.”

SBNR and Organized Religion

As you probe more deeply into the motives of the typical SBNRer, you will find that really what SBNR means is that “I am spiritual, but I loathe organized religion.”  They view religion as something wholly personal and subjective.  But if it is really true that we owe God worship and that certain forms of worship are better than others, then a loving Father would teach us what those forms are.  The history of mankind outside of, first Judaism and then Christianity, has been man groping for these forms.  Some of the forms were innocuous like offering incense to the local god, while others commanded human sacrifice.  God commands definitive forms of worship to keep us from falling into two equally dangers traps—one of defect and one of excess.

There is the trap that once we realize that worship is really for us, we will worship in a way most pleasing to ourselves.  This has not only led to the Non-denominational denomination with their mega-churches and “praise and worship services” worthy of a pep-rally, but also the pop music masquerading as liturgical music in Catholic churches.  The second trap is that of excess.   The truth is that no form of worship will ever feel adequate because no merely human form of worship is.  So we keep upping the ante so to speak leading to some of the religious atrocities we still see in certain cults and Middle Eastern religions.  We need God to tell us what is acceptable and what is not.

God does not merely tell us, but He comes and shows us.  Through the sacrifice of His Son, He shows us the most pleasing form of worship—the one act that is enough.  He gives us the power to make that sacrifice our own—both through Faith (subjective) and through the perpetuation of that same Sacrifice in the Sacrifice of the Mass (objective).  The One True Religion is the one that offers that Sacrifice because it is not just any organized religion but the Religion organized by the Holy Spirit Himself.

The Catholic Response to SBNR

SBNR is really a protest movement against religious tolerance. Properly understood, religious tolerance assumes that there is a true religion and that we are willing to tolerate some people who hold only part of that truth. Tolerance respects human freedom to discover the truth. But religious tolerance has come to mean that all religions are equal. If all religions really are the same, then why should I have anything to do with any of them? But, if one of them is different because it is true, then it does matter. As the One True Religion is only the Catholic religion that can lead the SBNR away from sliding down the Luciferian slope.

This claim to be the One True Faith may seem arrogant, but it is no more arrogant than the claim that 2+2=4.  It is a statement of truth and it is a truth that has been handed down to us.  I am not the inventor of my religion, but its grateful recipient.

The Inventor died to give this religion to me.  Before dying He deeded it to its caretakers.  As proof, notice the first time that Jesus mentions His suffering on the Cross—it is only after setting up the Church upon Peter the Rock that He tells of His redemptive death (c.f. Mt 16:18-21).  Those same caretakers wore martyrs’ crowns rather so that the Faith was passed on to me.  Thousands upon thousands of martyrs and confessors boldly preached that religion so that I would have it.  Now it is my turn and your turn to pass it on to the next generation.  We cannot hide our light under a bushel.  We should not apologize for being Catholic, but we should apologize for not being Catholic enough.  Only we can show SBNR what it means to truthfully and joyfully be spiritual AND religious.

What is the Pro-Life Movement?

When thousands gather today in Washington to march to the steps of the Supreme Court, the Pro-lifers will be confirming what has in many people’s minds become a stereotype.  Pro-life has become synonymous with “anti-abortion.”  There are those who are trying to rebrand the Pro-life movement by imaginatively calling it the New Pro Life Movement by providing a more “consistent-life ethic” to other issues, especially those related to abortion.  Whether or not the rebranding of the movement will be better only time will tell, but they may not be addressing the larger issue.

Pro-life might be the only positive word (the Pro part) that has a negative definition.  The Pro-life Movement is more like a protest group defined by what it is against.  The problem is that when you define yourself solely as against something, the enemy of your enemy becomes your friend.  As we are learning with the new administration it can make for interesting bedfellows.

The anti-X label follows Pro-lifers wherever they go and they self-identify with those labels.  They might like the sound of Pro-life better than “anti-abortion” from a public relations standpoint, but can they define themselves positively?

Pro-lifers could say “we are for life.”  But their work doesn’t necessarily set them apart from any other group that is concerned with the just treatment of society’s most vulnerable, including those in the womb and approaching death.  Pro-lifers define themselves as against abortion, euthanasia, abject poverty, and the like.  Anyone who is Pro-life should oppose those things.  But you don’t need to be Pro-life to oppose them so much as pro-justice.  A just society may eliminate all those things and yet still not be Pro-life.  Pro-life must mean more than just obtaining justice for the weak, even if it most definitely includes those things.

Catholic Pro-lifers often speak more generally in terms of the Culture of Life and the Culture of Death.  Pro-lifers favor the former over the latter.  Over the past few weeks leading up to the March for Life I have heard these terms, Culture of Death and Culture of Life, invoked any number of times in Catholic circles.  But I have yet to hear them described in the manner that John Paul II did—namely as a battle between   a culture that is designed to encourage spiritual death and one in which earthly life is “a penultimate reality entrusted to us, to be preserved with a sense of responsibility and brought to perfection in love and in the gift of ourselves to God and to our brothers and sisters” (Evangelium Vitae, 2).

Being Pro-life means first and foremost about caring about the spiritual welfare of each person in society.  They are not only concerned about the welfare of the child in the womb, but the spiritual well-being of the mother.  They are not only concerned with the life of the elderly, but that they are given an opportunity to die in a manner that increases their dignity.  They are concerned not just with the plight of the destitute, but the spiritual dangers faced by the rich.  In other words, Pro-life means caring about the eternal welfare of all those involved—both victim and perpetrator.

In a society that is marked by its materialism, Pro-lifers often forget this and only focus on the material well-being of the person without any reference to their spiritual health.  Without making this distinction, the Pro-life movement could ultimately get burned.  For example, how many people identify themselves as Pro-life and still support contraception?  Whether or not availability of contraception reduces the number of abortions is an ancillary consideration.  They are both fruits plucked from the tree of the Culture of Death.  This is not to say that they carry the same moral gravity—only that they equally have the ability to kill the soul.

“Kill the soul?”  I mean this not so much in the sense of judgment and heaven and hell (although that may be part of it) but in their innate capacity to kill men and women interiorly by wounding their ability to give and receive love (i.e. in JPII’s words above, “brought to perfection in love”).

This is also why Pro-lifers must be slower to hail President Trump as some sort of long awaited Messiah.  This is where the distinction between pro-justice and Pro-life is important.  We can applaud his working for justice for the unborn, but that does not make him Pro-life.  He will have to show himself to be concerned with promoting an atmosphere in which he makes being the “pursuit of happiness” (happiness in the classical sense that that Jefferson meant—namely a life of virtue) easier.  The best measure of a good leader of men is always how morally good the people are that he leads.

All of this is not to reduce the work of things like the March for Life.  They are a vital part of what it means to be Pro-life.  You cannot change laws or change hearts, but change hearts to change laws and change laws to change hearts.  Think of how the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was a vital piece of the Civil Rights Movement.  The law is a great moral teacher and it forms the minds and hearts of the citizenry.  Good laws make it easier to take things like the value of human life for granted and then form your opinions based on that.  Roe v Wade did not invoke the Culture of Death, but was a sign of its presence already among us.  Removing it would not mean that the Culture of Death was in its final throes.  Overturning Roe v Wade would be victory but only of a battle and not the war.  If Pro-lifers are to be active participants in that war, then we must make sure we have our marching orders correct—“to build a culture that is designed to encourage the pursuit of eternal life.”

Self-Help and the Spiritual Life

Is there anything more demonstrative of the true American spirit than the self-help industry?  From How to Win Friends and Influence People to Tools of the Titans, America has always been a ripe market for self-help.  It has grown into a $10 billion industry.  Part of the appeal is that they appear to fit a primal need—each of us is haunted by an awareness that we are not what we are supposed to be and need some outside help. Always pragmatic, Americans assume that there must be a technique to fix the problem and buy the latest “life-changing” self-help book.  Even after reading the best ones, we are still plagued by a nagging sense that all is not quite right inside.  Off we go to the next book.  But one has to wonder, with over 630,000+ self-help books  on Amazon offering different techniques, is the problem really a technical one at all?  What if the problem is in our constitution such that no amount of self-help will completely fix it?

Within the Christian tradition we have a name for this fundamental flaw and we call it Original Sin.  We used to all know this, but many of us have forgotten it.  As Chesterton said, Original Sin is “the only part of Christian theology that can be proved.”  In an age where we abhor theory and demand practicality, all men agree on the doctrine of the Fall regardless of whether they profess it or not.  What they deny it in theory, they find in practice—each of us “do not do the good they want to do” (Romans 7:19).

Most of us are familiar with the term Original Sin but struggle to articulate exactly what it is.  Adam and Eve were created by God with supernatural gifts including the very life of God which we call sanctifying grace.  Adam and Eve had perfect integration of their faculties.  They could see the Good clearly in their intellect, they were able to will it and carry it out with a bodily intensity in the passions.  The passions followed the will which followed the intellect which followed God, the Supreme Good.

Falling from such a height, not only removed the supernatural gifts, but left the human nature they would hand on to their progeny damaged.  Their souls were no longer integrated.  The intellect was darkened, the will weakened and the passions ran amok, no longer obeying intellect and will.  In other words, Adam and Eve’s offspring were not just worse off because they lost sanctifying grace, but also because human nature itself was damaged.  Naturally, this leads to the question why God allowed man to Fall from grace, leaving him worse off than if He had never graced him to begin with?

The Self-Help Trap

God left man worse off to protect him from a bigger fall, that is, plunging into the self-help trap.  Without this inner brokenness we could actually help ourselves.  The only problem is that we would help ourselves to become something less than we were meant to be, namely “partakers of the Divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4), “God’s children now” (1 Jn 3:2).  With the stain of Original Sin, we are always aware of a lack that cries out ultimately for God.

The self-help trap denies not only Original Sin, but the height from which we fell.  It is meant to help us “improve,” but what does this mean?  Progress is only progress if we know where we are going.  We must know our purpose or destination before we can say whether something has improved our chances of reaching it.  Each self-help program promises “success” but success is highly dependent upon the author’s definition.

One of the other post-Fall pitfalls is that we are prone to self-deception.  We begin to look at what is normal (what everyone else is like) and the norm (what we were made for) and think “I am mostly OK, just need to work on few things.” Self-help only feeds this.  We will always choose to improve in areas that either require the least amount of work or based on some idol we have set up.

In the minds of many well-meaning Christians, Christianity is the self-help program that actually works.  Pope Benedict XVI pointed out this trap Christians can fall into in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est  when he said “[B]eing Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (DCE, 1).  There are a number of evangelists that present the Gospel as a self-help program that actually works.  The danger in doing this however is that it doesn’t work when it is lived as an ethical system.  Christianity morality is hard and all but impossible without first having an encounter with the living Christ.  To the world, Christian morality makes no sense. It only makes sense once we trust Christ completely.  With trust comes the willingness to do whatever He tells us.

Christianity and Self-Help

The opposite of Christianity is not atheism but radical self-help.  They both start at the same place—a willingness to change.  But it is there that they part ways.  Self-help says “you can do this, all you need to do is approach the problem differently,” Christ says “pick up your Cross and follow me.”  If I take it from the wounded hands of Christ, it will make me whole.  Every virtue I am lacking is found in the crosses God sends me.  All I need to do is allow them to do their work on me.  It has a proven track record winning friends and influencing people—the Saints always make more Saints.

All that being said, this does not mean that self-help books and techniques do not have value in the spiritual life.  Grace perfects and elevates nature so that the books which acknowledge the good of virtue over selfishness can be the raw material for change in our lives.  But their proper place is always after the invasion of grace has occurred in our lives.  A recent book written by Jeff Goins called The Art of Work is one worth commending to you.

The subtitle of the book reveals just how compatible it is—A Proven Path for Discovering What You Were Meant to Do.  Although he does not specifically mention Christianity, it assumes that God’s Providence is an active force in our lives.  He offers practical advice on how we are to respond to our call (without reference to Who it is that is calling), how service fulfills us, suffering is a friend dressed like an enemy because all things work for good for those who have a calling and nothing we do is wasted.  He also recognizes God’s law of gradualism in which we do not so much leap from one cliff to another but build a bridge gradually across the chasm.  Throughout the book he gives tells stories to demonstrate his point (even at one point referring to St. Theresa of Calcutta.  All in all it reads like an instruction manual for fulfilling all aspects of your Christian vocation, especially when he talks about living what he calls a “portfolio life.”

Psychological or Demonic?

As followers of Christ, true God and true man, it is hard to avoid the truth that we inhabit two worlds—the seen and the unseen.  This is so basic a tenet of Christianity that we easily forget it and gravitate towards one or the other, the natural or the supernatural.  We have all met people who supernaturalize everything, referring all that happens in our world to the angelic and demonic.  On the other hand there are also those who tend to only accept natural explanations for what happens.  Our Lord however taught us to keep one foot in each of those worlds.  There were the sick whom He healed and those whom He exorcised.  There is perhaps no arena where this dichotomy is more obvious than mental illness.

On the one hand there are those who think that the remedy is simply to pray the problem away.   Prayer must always be part of anyone’s therapy (more on this in a moment) so this is a difficult point to contend.  But for most people prayer isn’t enough.  Or, more accurately, the answer to their prayer is found through the help of therapists.  God rarely acts in a vacuum.  He always uses secondary causes when they are available to carry out works of His Providence.  We may pray and pray for healing, but only receive it when we go to the doctor.  Does this mean that God did not deliver?  Of course not.  He simply wanted to share His power of healing with one of His creatures.

Removing the Stigma

Within Christian circles, mental illness is stigmatized.  Mental health problems are not just problems because someone’s faith or trust in God is not strong enough.  That can always be the case, but it need not be the direct cause.  There are people of incredible faith that nobly carry the cross of mental illness.  If anything, those who think this way are the ones who do not understand the Faith.

An authentic Catholic understanding of the human person, as both body and soul, leads to the recognition that because of our fallen nature, defects in our bodies can spill over into the way we see reality.  Think about the person who is drunk—their judgment is impaired.  Did the alcohol somehow drip into the seat of judgment, the intellect?  No, but when our senses are impaired we cannot judge correctly.  That which is in the intellect, was first in the senses as the Scholastics were fond of saying.

So too with the person with mental illness.  They may have a bodily defect which causes them to judge reality incorrectly.  Or, their early experience or exposure to a trauma may have hindered their ability to judge reality properly.  Perhaps they need a medication to restore the body back to its proper function so that it can send clean data to the intellect.  They may additionally need counseling on how to judge reality correctly.

As an aside, many Catholics fear receiving counseling because the counselor may not be Catholic.  This is a reasonable fear, but just because they are Catholic doesn’t make them good therapists.  What one should look for is someone who has a correct definition of mental health.  Mental health consists in the ability to judge reality correctly.  This means they have an understanding of man as a body/soul composite with a purpose outside of himself.  Only once this is established would you assess their clinical capabilities.  In this regard, it is no different than choosing any other kind of health care provider.  If a cardiologist thinks that a healthy heart is one in which only one ventricle is functioning, you would not choose him, even if he was the most clinically gifted doctor in the world.  Simply asking the therapist what his or her definition of mental health is, can often protect you from wasted time and doing more harm.

Psychology and Catholicism have been in conflict since the advent of modern methods, but this need not be the case.  Anyone who reads St. Thomas’ Summa on human nature and the virtues realizes he would have made an excellent psychologist.  This is because of his correct anthropology.  There has been a rediscovery of sorts of St. Thomas’ works and many schools are teaching them to those training in psychology.

It used to be that anyone who was mentally ill was thought to be possessed.  In this regard the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme where everyone assumes that the problem is clinical.  However, just because there were cases in the past where a supernatural explanation was sought when there was a natural one, doesn’t mean that they weren’t right some of the time.  Supernatural explanations still remain valid.  While not everyone who is mentally ill is demonically tormented, this does not mean nobody is.  In short, sometimes when someone claims to be hearing voices, they actually are.

A Third Way?

This opens up a third possibility—one in which we acknowledge that we are standing in two different worlds.  This is the one that most people overlook because they fall into an either/or mentality, when in many cases it is both/and.   The person can be suffering from some natural mental illness which is only exacerbated by the presence of the demonic.  The devil is a bully and loves to kick people when they are down, especially when he can hide within some natural illness.

One of my boys suffers from Autism and this has made him a target of the diabolical bully.  It was his condition that attracted the evil one and made it easy for him to hide while he tormented my son.  The demonic oppression got so severe that we had to seek the prayers of an Exorcist.  Through the prayers of Exorcism, he was freed from the oppression.  But, and this is a very important but, he was not healed of his Autism.  His symptoms were greatly reduced and his response to therapy since then has been overwhelmingly positive.  But the clinical condition remained—for that God is using natural means.  For the supernatural problem, He used the supernatural solution of the Rites and Authority of the Church (as a side not, for those of you interested in hearing about my son’s story, I did an interview with my friend Pete for his podcast in which this among other topics related to Spiritual Warfare).

The point is that there are many cases where the problem is really both natural and supernatural.  For the good of the person we need to recognize this as real and likely option.  In the majority of cases it will not be necessary to seek out an Exorcist, but still spiritual remedies will need to be applied.

This is where the “just pray and it will go away” folks have a point.  There is almost always a mixture of the natural and supernatural causes involved and it is always good advice to apply spiritual medicine to all mental health problems.  Prayer alone may not be sufficient, but it is always necessary.  Psychotherapy should always be accompanied by an intense prayer life and an active Sacramental life, including regular Confession and Communion, along with a healthy dose of Eucharistic Adoration.  When someone has been in therapy for a long time, making minimal progress adds these practices to their regular therapy they usually begin running towards mental health.

A New Asceticism

Living in an age of unprecedented material prosperity and comfort, the practice of asceticism is a relic of ages past.  The word itself invokes images of emaciated monks wearing hair shirts and living in the desert.  Asceticism is still a foundational element in a healthy Christian life however and something that is foundational to the Christian life.  With this in mind, it is instructive to examine this practice with twenty-first century eyes.

What Is Asceticism?

Crippled in practice by misconceptions, a definition of asceticism is in order.  It is derived from the Greek word askētikós which means subject to rigorous exercise and hard work in the pursuit of virtue.  Simply put, asceticism is the strenuous effort one makes to overcome the deep division within his nature.  Asceticism is never done for its own sake, but always as a means to an end.  Forget this and it becomes more an exercise of ego than a Christian practice.  Christian asceticism is a means to greater freedom.  It is always done so as to live with the freedom of the children of God.  The more control we have over ourselves, the more grace is able to penetrate and transform us.  Grace perfects nature.

Never forgetting that we are earthen vessels, there is a vast difference between what we might call a heathen asceticism and Christian asceticism.  The heathen attempts to simply beautify the body the body while Christians attempt to bring it under control and train it for the glory of Heaven.  The heathen attempts to avoid death, the Christian lives looking forward to the Resurrection of the Body.

Asceticism is fitness training for the glory of heaven.  This training is approached from two angles.

The first is the classic approach in which we refuse to the body all that can weaken our soul’s union with Our Lord.  We know that, as fallen men and women, we are uncomfortable in our own skin.  Our bodies seem to have a mind of their own and so we must consciously forgo things that are good for us.  This training is not so much meant to bully the body but to prepare it to serve the higher goods of the soul.  In our resurrected state, the body will be under the command of the higher faculties of intellect and will—asceticism of this sort looks forward to that day.  We do what we can and wait for grace to do the rest.

The New Asceticism

On his death bed, St. Francis of Assisi had one regret—that he had been more gentle with Brother Ass, the moniker he gave to his body.  It is in this spirit that we view the second approach of actually taking care of our bodies.  A “new” asceticism might consist in doing all of those things and only those things that are necessary for our union with Our Lord.  In the old asceticism, the practice often overshadowed the purpose.  Subduing the body is not the end.  We subdue the body so that we may live fully in the freedom of the children of God.

Why this is “new” is because it reflects the times we live in.  Some of the poorest among us are surrounded by material comforts that only nobility would have enjoyed in the past.  With access to so many comforts, abstinence remains an option, but the harder path (i.e the path of virtue) is to practice moderation.  It allows us to use the material gifts God has provided with a greater freedom—the freedom that only comes when we use things according to the use that God intended.

In a vicious man, the body is a danger to his spiritual health, but in the hands of a virtuous man, a healthy body becomes a great spiritual weapon.  Rather than dragging themselves around by severe fasts, they abound with energy for winning souls to the Kingdom of God.  The beauty of their soul is matched with a certain beauty of body.  Holiness has a beauty all its own, a beauty that ought to radiate to the body even if it will never be matched in this world.

I have seen numerous articles floating about with regards to New Year’s Resolutions for Christians.  Almost all of them poo-poo “bodily” resolutions like getting back in shape because they suffer from a dualistic view of man that somehow puts the body and the soul at enmity with each other.  We may not be trousered apes, but we also are not angels.  A Christian knows that she is both and soul—she does not have a body and soul, but instead is a body and soul.  Those things that are truly good for the body redound to the soul and vice versa.  In other words, things that are good are good for the whole person.  As form of the body, the soul has a certain precedence, but nevertheless exercising the body is something that holy people do.

I would like to suggest that many Christians fail in their New Year’s resolutions precisely because they fail to see the need to train the whole person.  They may make resolutions to pray more, read Scripture more, etc, but then lack the bodily discipline to get out of bed to do these things.  They may be too tired because of poor health.  On the other hand they may promise to work out X number of days, but fail because they do not have the necessary virtue to persevere.  They fail to grasp that for the Christian, working out can be a spiritual practice (c.f.   ), or more accurately a practice done by a perfectly integrated Christian.

Asceticism in Practice

What would this new form of asceticism look like?  For starters we should have some regular form of moderate to intense exercise—always with its proper end in mind so as to keep us moderated.  From an ex-competitive bodybuilder I can tell you that physical exercise can become addictive especially as you begin to see positive body changes and so we must always remember why we are doing it.

There are other, more common sense things we can do as well—especially when it comes to food.  In God’s goodness, eating, because it is necessary for life, brings with it some pleasure.  But pleasure is not its purpose.  Its purpose is to produce health and strength.  It is in this spirit that we should always approach food and avoid snacking between meals and overeating.

This approach also helps us to rediscover the difference between merely eating and a meal.  A meal is meant to be a sign of a shared life together as they share something that cannot be lived without.  There may be a lot of eating, but very few meals.  In writing about gluttony, St. Gregory the Great describes the dangers of falling into the deadly sin of gluttony not only by eating too much, but also too expensively, too daintily prepared, too quickly and too often.  When our meals are more focused on who we are with and then the food, we are protected against this vice that acts as a gateway to the more serious sins of the spirit.

One other way the new asceticism is lived out is regarding getting enough sleep.  Often this simply means avoiding mind-numbing activities that typically keep us from falling asleep at a good time.  But it can also be an act of humility recognizing our own limitation and the number of things we can reasonably get done on a given day.  Most people find that when they set a hard and fast bed time, they not only feel better but waste less time during the day.  This is not to rule out vigils which are an important ascetical practice, but to say that these are an exception to what is otherwise an ordering of our lives that is patterned after God’s design.

Before closing, a point of clarification regarding the two approaches.  They are equally applicable to all stages of our Christian life.  It is not as if you graduate from the first approach and adopt the second.  We will never fully conquer the effects of original sin and so we will need to first approach.  Likewise, we are redeemed and ever-growing in our freedom and so the second approach will also be necessary.

St. Paul tells Timothy that “while bodily training is of some value, Godliness is of value in every way” (1Tim 4:8).  Christians, especially in our day, tend to ignore the first part and wonder why they are not as Godly as they could be.  Embracing asceticism once again, will go a long way in accomplishing this.

Love is Love isn’t Love

In the battle to normalize homosexuality there must be some collateral damage.  Lies are like parasites to the truth—always doing harm and ultimately killing their host.  The truth that homosexuality preys upon is not just erotic love, but the love of friendship.  The push for gay marriage may have done great harm to the love between a man and a woman in marriage, but ultimately it will not be the only casualty.  In the end it will have also destroyed the ability for two men or two women to develop healthy friendships.

One might quickly dismiss all of this as homophobic hate speech.  But I assure you homophobia is alive and well in the hearts of many young people today—just not in the sense we usually use the term.  They may not have a problem of someone else being gay, but the fear of being gay themselves, or at the very least appearing to be gay, lurks in their hearts.  How could it not be, given what they have learned?

Love is Love and the Harm it Does

“Love is love” they are told.  Hard to believe that a tautology could do so much damage.  Given that it has become a battle cry for a gay agenda, it doesn’t take much logic to conclude that love is about sex.  It is only love when it is expressed sexually.  What is not expressed sexually is not love.

Now enter into the heart of a young person.  They search and realize that they too indeed are drawn to certain members of the same sex.  They find themselves attracted to them and may even want to show affection towards that other person.  They may go so far as to realize that they enjoy that particular person’s company over another person’s or even look forward to seeing them.  All of this is natural.  Ages upon ages, men have loved other men and women have loved other women with a love of friendship.

Now, dear reader, when you read my description above, where did your thoughts go?  Were you thinking “wait, is he saying it is natural to wrestle with feelings of homosexuality”?  Or did you immediately think “he is merely describing friendship”?  The answer can reveal to us how much the culture has infected us and how deeply we need to see friendship in its proper light.

Notice that I called it natural and not normal.  In substituting normal for natural we have created a culture that embraces its brokenness.  Natural, or that which fulfills us as persons, is always good.  “Normal” is what everyone else is doing and usually has a nicer ring to it than rationalizing.  Normal is how we can keep up with Mr. and Mr. Jones.

Returning back to the inner workings of our young man or young woman.  They now begin to apply what they have learned to their feelings.  They are left with two alternatives.  They can think that what they are feeling may be some homosexual tendency and maybe experiment.  Or, and this is more likely, they will feel a sort of revulsion towards that other person because they equate the love they are feeling as something sexual.  Ickiness will win out and that other person will remain at arm’s length.  The chance for an authentically fulfilling friendship will pass them by.

Here is what they won’t do.  They likely won’t seek help to work through this from their parents, teachers, coaches or mentors.  They have been told that homophobia is the unforgivable sin and would never want to appear to say there is anything wrong with it.  They may look to the same people as models and find that they too do not have anything akin to true friendship.  The sages don’t know what true friendship is and are too busy for something so useless anyway.  As a father, a High School Baseball Coach, and a mentor to College Students, I see this as a theme across the board.  It affects kids who have been homeschooled just as much as Catholic school kids and public school kids.  They have no idea what friendship is or why it matters they have them.

An Alternative Explanation

We may quickly blame technology for the dearth of friendships in the young, but what if that is the effect rather than the cause?  What if our entire society has been so damaged in its ability to form meaningful friendships that technology actually offers us an escape from the emotional turmoil brought about by the feelings of friendship?

Obviously, modeling proper friendship is important to redeeming friendship, but it has been lost mostly on an ideological front.  We need to be prepared to challenge the notion that “love is love.”

Love is love, but not all loves are equal.  Some loves are higher than others and their differences are not in degree, but in kind. Classically the Greek classified them into three categories—affection (which they called storge), friendship (philia), and love between the sexes (eros).  As Christians, we would add a fourth, namely the love of God (agape).

I have written other places about these four loves and their differences.  In this essay I would prefer to focus on another important aspect, namely the belief that true love is always expressed sexually.

Love is love but each of the loves has its own proper expression.  Affection, especially as between family members is expressed through hugs, kisses, tickling and the like.  The love of friendship is expressed with hugs, handshakes, high fives and the like.  Eros usually includes those expressions of affection, but also those expressions that we would call intimate and sexual.

What is important in this is that we help to identify that each of these loves has a proper form of expression.  We intuitively know this and it is why we make incestuous relationships illegal, give actresses a hard time for kissing their children on the lips, and make movies about the destruction of friendship when two people become “friends with benefits.”

Dr. Joseph Nicolosi has done a great deal of research into some of the causes of homosexuality.  While he has found that there are a number of causes, a common one, especially in men, is the proper expression of love by the father.  He found that a number of the fathers themselves had terrible relationships with their own fathers and did not have significant male friendships.  They would fail to show their sons what one man loving another man actually looked like.  The spirit of the world, when those children went out into the world, was only too happy to give them an acceptable model.  This is probably why there has been so much backlash against reparative therapy and why we must be prepared to fight this ideological battle.

Who were the Magi?

Throughout history there has been a universal fascination with the event of Epiphany.  One cannot help but wonder about the experience of the Magi as they traveled a great distance to meet the King of Kings.  But why did they come?

Explanations of the Star

There have been a number of possible explanations offered as to what drew the Magi to Bethlehem.  We know of course that they were following a star, one that they had been looking for.  The first explanation is the one that has been offered by several Church Fathers and Doctors of the Church (such as St. John Chrysostom and St. Thomas Aquinas for example).  We could categorize theirs as wholly supernatural.  From the perspective of faith, the description of the star in Matthew’s Gospel, especially how it stops and starts again, sounds eerily famililar—almost like the description of the shekinah cloud as Israel left from Egypt.  The Star went before them the whole of their journey, so bright that it was even visible in the daytime.  It also traced a rather odd course for a celestial body.  First it went from east to west but then stops over Jerusalem (where it disappeared).  It then moves from north to south as it guides them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and remains over the house where Our Lord was to be found.

In more recent times, some scientists have put forward a more “natural” explanation as an alternative.  In his book, Star of Bethlehem, astronomer Konradin Ferrari d’Occhieppo says that around 7-6BC there was a great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the sign of Pisces which would have been bring enough to merit consideration for the star.  It would have captured the imagination of the Magi because Jupiter was the star of the highest Babylonian deity and it was lined up alongside Saturn which was the cosmic representation of the Jewish people.  Other scientists have offered similar explanations including a great movie called The Star of Bethlehem.  What is left unexplained in these natural accounts is how the “star” disappeared and reappeared in the same spot and how it suddenly changed its course.

There might be a tendency to reject the natural in favor of the supernatural because it seems take away from the miraculous event it was foretelling.  In either case though it is the same God Who is guiding the star.  All creation finds its meaning in Christ so that God, when He set the world in motion, could have set the heavenly bodies in such a manner as they would converge to form a bright appearance at the moment of Our Lord’s birth.  All of history is His story.

The Meaning of Epiphany

God is omnipotent in His Providence because He reveals Himself to the world through events.  If we examine the meaning of the star as revealing the God Who became man, then the most plausible explanation is one that combines both explanations.  The scientific explanation (either the conjunction of the two planets or another explanation) would have led the Magi to Jerusalem.  They would have gone as far as they could by human reason.  To find the King of Kings they would need revelation.  So, they had to consult the Jews who were the keepers of God’s revelation.  With the star’s reappearance, they were guided by some visible supernatural sign. This explanation would enable us to read literally the text that says that the “star stopped over the place where the child was” (Mt 2:9).  For a star to lead them to a specific house one would imagine that it would have had to be very close; something akin to the Miracle of the Sun witnessed by 70,000 people in Fatima, Portugal 100 years ago.

There is a second meaning of the event as well that comes to the front when we ask who these Magi were.  They were either astrologers or astronomers, although there was not necessarily a distinction between the two in the ancient world.  The planets are named after their deities because they believed that the heavenly bodies ruled over the events of man.  They studied the heavens in order to divine what was to happen on earth.   With or without the knowledge of Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 24:19, (“there shall come a Star out of Jacob”), they would have considered the bright star to mean something significant.  Once they witnessed the extraordinary action of the star, they would have realized that it was the child himself that was directing it.  As Pope Benedict puts it, they would have come to realize “[I]t is not the star that determines the child’s destiny, it is the child that directs the star.”

The Magi embarked as pagans, but they return Christians.  The seeds of truth found in their pagan religions have led them to the fullness of God’s revelation.  God may have left traces of His truth in creation and in the minds of men, but that all changed at the coming of Christ.  As St. Gregory Naziazen says, astrology came to end because all stars from that point on followed an orbit traced by Christ.  God has personally come to meet man and from that point forward man would be able to approach Him.

Christ is the great demythologizer.  The world is no longer governed by forces in the heavens but instead by the God Man.  They approach a little baby who looks like everything other human baby, and yet this little child can move everything within creation to suit His purposes.  Their gods, if they exist, obey this infant.  They are not disappointed when they meet this child without any stately appearance but instead pour expensive gifts upon Him.  The Magi come pagans and leave Christians.

A Defense of Name Dropping

Is there a habit that is met with great disdain today than name-dropping?  Most of us hate when others do it, but have a hard time avoiding it ourselves.  In an age of “networking” it is practically unavoidable—who you know is often more important than what you know.  Your contacts bestow status.  Christians are not exempt from this practice.  In fact our eternal status is based on our contact with one Person—Christians should constantly be dropping His name—the Holy Name of Jesus.  We are admonished that “there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12) and told “whatever you ask in My name, that I will do” (John 14:13).

Traditionally, January has been set aside as dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus and in 2011, Pope St. John Paul II restored the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus to January 3rd.  Therefore it seems an appropriate time to reflect upon the name that should be the cause of every knee to bend (c.f.Phil 2:10).

The Power of a Name

A word first about names.  St. Thomas says that names “should answer to the nature of a thing” (ST III, q.37, a.2).  Building upon this, the Catechism says that a name is an “icon of the person” (CCC 2158).  What is meant by this is that someone’s name is a sacrament of the person.  Although this may have become obscure when names are often selected simply based on novelty, St. Thomas says that names ought to be “taken from some property of the men to whom they are given” (ST III, q.37, a.2).   The names may be given with respect to a saint (either one to whom the parents have a particular devotion or whose feast day the person was born on) or some blood relation or even based on some quality of the person (like Esau whose name means red).  The point is that the name reveals something of the person either relationally or personally.

When God gives a name it is always to signify some gift He has bestowed on them.  Abraham is made the “father of nations”, Peter is made to be the “rock upon which the Church is built” and Mary identifies herself as “the Immaculate Conception” to St. Bernadette.  In this regard, Jesus which means “God saves” is so named because “He will save the people from their sins” (Mt 1:21).

Our Lord’s name denotes the essence of Who He is because it reveals His mission.  He cannot be separated from His mission; He is never, as Pope Benedict XVI says, “off-duty.”  Everything that He did and said from the moment of the Incarnation until it was finished on the Cross was to save me and save you.  The power flowing from those actions touch me and you here and now.  Jesus saves me right here and right now and you as well.

It was said that the name is like a sacrament of the person not just because it is a sign of the person, but also because it carries with it a power to bring about the one it signifies.  This is why we name-drop—it is as if the person is present testifying for us.  It also gives as the actual power to make the person present.  In a loud and crowded restaurant I have the power to call the waiter to me immediately when I know his name.

This power is amplified when it comes to the name of Jesus.  Eternally God, He is present at all times and always.  But when I call upon His Holy Name, He is present to me not just as the source of my existence but as the source of eternal life.

This is what makes using the Lord’s name in vain so soul-deadening.  God commands that the name of Jesus is holy and to be revered at all times, but not because He is somehow disrespected by us when we abuse it.  The commandments are for our benefit, not God’s.  He gives us this commandment so that we never forget or take for granted the privilege we have in calling upon God by name.

The power attached to the knowledge of another’s name is why the Jews in the Old Testament would not utter the name of God.  Jesus’ very name (God saves) contains God’s name and thus we cannot say His name without also uttering God’s name.  The Catechism captures this well in the section on Prayer saying, “the divine name may not be spoken by human lips, but by assuming our humanity The Word of God hands it over to us and we can invoke it: ‘Jesus,’ ‘YHWH saves.’  The name ‘Jesus’ contains all: God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray ‘Jesus’ is to invoke him and to call him within us. His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies…” (CCC 2666).

If the name invokes the Person and the Person sanctifies by His presence, then we ought to make a regular habit of invoking Jesus’ name.  The Church has offered a partial indulgence attached to the recitation of the Litany of the Most Holy Name of Jesus.

The Jesus Prayer

As many people look to Eastern Spirituality and non-Christian forms of prayer in the West, I would like to commend to you a practice with roots in Eastern Christianity called the Jesus Prayer.  While no one knows exactly when it started, it has been in the tradition of the Eastern monks back to at least the 6th Century.  In an attempt to “pray without ceasing” the monks began to repetitively say short prayers invoking the name of Jesus.  The most common of these prayers was “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”  Rather than being a merely a mantra that seeks to empty the mind, the Jesus Prayer was meant to engage the whole person—body, heart and mind.  One exhales the name of Jesus and inhale His mercy while forming a mental picture of His presence and making acts of love towards Him.  Those who practice this with regularity will find it to be a powerful means of drawing closer to Our Lord by invoking Him and opening yourself up to the gift of higher levels of prayer.

In The Way of the Pilgrim, the master describes the prayer to the pilgrim saying:


“The continuous interior prayer of Jesus is a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart, while forming a mental picture of His constant presence, and imploring His grace, during every occupation, at all times, in all places, even during sleep. The appeal is couched in these terms, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ One who accustoms himself to this appeal experiences as a result so deep a consolation and so great a need to offer the prayer always that he can no longer live without it, and it will continue to voice itself within him of its own accord. Now do you understand what prayer without ceasing is?”

Make us, O Lord, to have a perpetual fear and love of Your holy name, for You never fail to govern those whom You establish in Your love. You, Who live and reign forever and ever. Amen



Mary Mother of God

The essential activity of the Church’s teaching office, its reason for existence, is to keep and protect the contents of divine revelation.  It is only when there is a threat to the integrity and purity of the deposit of faith that she defines and exercises her Spirit-given gift of discernment.  Her powers of discernment were taxed during the first few centuries because of a string of challenges to her beliefs about Christ, true God and true man.  This came to a head in the early fifth Century when the Council of Ephasis (431) was called to address the question how Christ could have two natures (human and divine) and yet be a single Divine Person.  To address this, the Church developed the most important Christological dogma of the Hypostatic Union.  The Divine Son of God took to Himself a complete human nature and was incarnate of the Virgin Mary.  Closely linked to this belief was the title given to Mary as “Mother of God.”  Many worried that calling her Mother of God, or Theotokos in Greek, would imply that she was the originator His divine nature.  Instead they proposed that she be called Christotokos or Mother of Christ.  The Church reasoned however that a woman is never a mother of a nature, but instead a mother of a person.  In this case, the Person is God and so it was proper to refer to Mary as the Mother of God.  The Council declared “If anyone does not confess that the Emmanuel is truly God and therefore that the holy Virgin is the Mother of God (Theotokos) (since she begot according to the flesh the Word of God made flesh), anathema sit” (Council of Ephesis, June 22, 431).

The “anathema sit” stems from the fact that referring to Mary merely as the Mother of Christ, a fundamental truth of the Incarnation is threatened.  It is a perfect illustration of the principle that everything the Church believes about Mary follows from her predestined role as Mother of God.  Put another way, anytime we detract from Mary, we ultimately subtract from Christ.  In short, the Marian dogmas are the great protectors of Our Lord’s humanity.

The Roots of Mary’s Greatness

Everything that we say about Mary with respect to her greatness stems from her office as Mother of God.  It is this Marian dogma around which all the other Marian dogmas revolve.  It is like the center of a wheel in which everything we say about her connects back.  For example, in declaring the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Pius IX refers to her office of Mother of God as the reason for her greatness—“And indeed 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 that she would triumph utterly over the ancient serpent” (Ineffabilis Deus, 1854, emphasis added ).

Keeping in mind her office as Mother of God also helps us maintain a balanced view of Mary.  When God calls, He always equips.  Being called to the greatest of roles—Mary also received the greatest gifts.  As St. Thomas says, all the glory and grace given to her was to make her the worthy Mother of God (ST III, q.27, a5, ad2).

God permitted man’s fall to bring about the greater good of the Incarnation.  The Bad News was followed immediately by the promise of the Good News to come (Gn 3:15).  This promise yoked the Redeemer with His Mother—the seed and the offspring were a package deal.  In other words, it was by the same eternal decree that the Son was to take flesh, that Mary was predestined to give birth to the “Son of the Most High.”  Everything we say about Mary, redounds to God and His plan to manifest His goodness—her soul always “magnifies the Lord.”  To mark this predestination, the Church has always viewed Proverbs 8:22-35 as referring to Our Lady—“The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His ways, before He made anything from the beginning.  I was set up from eternity, and of old before the earth was made…when He prepared the Heavens was present…when He balanced the foundations of the earth, I was with Him…”

It is God who makes her worthy to be the Mother of God, but only so that she would be empowered to perfectly unite her will to His.  Therefore we cannot look upon Mary simply as consenting to the use of her womb for nine months and little else.  She had first conceived the Son in her soul through a perfect union with the divine will and then conceived Him in her body as St. Augustine said.

Mary’s Divine Motherhood

Mary is no mere figurehead to make Our Lord look “normal.”  He was obedient to her as all children are to their parents.  Unlike all parents however, she was preserved from the possibility of making an error and leading her child into sin.  One can readily see why the singular grace of the Immaculate Conception flows from her calling as Mother as God.  She must be infallible in her decisions and impeccable in her moral example if Our Lord was to submit to her as Mother.  As an aside this is also why some theologians have posited (although the Church has not spoken definitively one way or the other) that St. Joseph too must have at some point been freed from the effects of Original Sin.

One might argue that Our Lord was not obedient to her when He was left behind in Jerusalem.  But the exception proves the rule.  Our Lady was quite perplexed as to why He would do such a thing because she knew Him to be obedient to her in all things.  Our Lord reminds her that when His divine mission came in conflict with His natural sonship, He must always “be about His Father’s business” (Lk 2:49).  Nevertheless, it was still a shock when He appeared to not obey His parents.

The Blessed Mother’s relationship with Jesus is entirely unique and is worthy of our admiration.  He is truly flesh of her flesh and her flesh alone.  All who are in Christ enter into a spiritual or mystical relationship with Him.  Only Our Lady has a relationship based upon a consanguine relationship with Our Lord.  The divine maternity imposes upon God obligations of justice upon Him which confers upon her the natural rights that accompany motherhood.  In other words, she is the only one who God “owes” something to.  Even if  the obligation is self-imposed because of His divine plan, still it is an entirely unique relationship based upon this plan.

This is why we ultimately cannot be in Christ while simultaneously remaining indifferent towards Our Lady.  He extended her motherhood from the natural Son of God to all the adopted sons of God (Jn 19:27).  We cannot be sons of the Father while rejecting the one Whom He chose from all eternity to be our mother.  It is why the Church closes the Octave of Christmas with the great Feast honoring her as Mother of God.  As the Second Vatican Council affirmed, “Redeemed by reason of the merits of her Son and united to Him by a close and indissoluble tie, she is endowed with the high office and dignity of being the Mother of the Son of God, by which account she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit” (Lumen Gentium, 53).

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

Running Through the Finish Line of Advent

Within Church tradition, Advent has been viewed as a “little” Lent.  Lent, because it involved a prolonged period of preparation marked by the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  “Little,” because it was a shorter time period (4 weeks vs 40 days) and because it lacked some of the rigor normally associated with Lent.  For many of us, despite the best of initial intentions, Advent has had any rigor at all.  The commercial trappings of Christmas can ensnare all of us to some degree, something we do not necessarily have to combat at Easter.  We may easily be tempted to give up and try again next year.  But there is still a week left in the season and the Church has the perfect prescription within her traditions to recoup some of the spiritual fruit that may have fallen off your Advent tree. It may be that Advent has been very good so far and you are looking for a way to stretch to gather the fruit from the top.  Either way, we can finish Advent by turning to the Church’s tradition of “little Advent.”

In the spirit of always acting with the end in mind, a brief reminder about the purpose of Advent.  All too often Advent and even Christmas can feel like a game of make believe.  We know that God has already come in the Incarnation.  We know that He is here in the Eucharist.  Sure we are awaiting His Second Coming in glory, but that is something that we are always waiting for.  Why do we need a special season of waiting?

It is precisely that reason that the Church gives us Advent leading up to the theophany of Christmas.  We may always be, as the embolism of the Mass says, waiting “in joyful hope for the coming of Our Savior.”  But Advent offers us a special time to focus solely on this waiting so as to stir up love in us and to awaken our otherwise dormant hope.  God’s promises really do come to fruition, not just “spiritually” but as history.  Not just once upon a time, but “in the first enrollment (of the census ordered by Caesar Augustus) when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”  God made good on His promise to be Emmanuel, God with us and He will continue until He has ransomed all of captive Israel.

This waiting is especially acute in Advent and ought to be our primary focus.  We do the things that waiting people do—pray, fast and give alms.


Beginning on December 17th, the Church has traditional marked seven days with a series of special antiphons known as the O Antiphons.  These antiphons frame the Magnificat in each evening’s Liturgy of the Hours.  Not only are these antiphons tied to the official prayer of the Church, but are also well known to most of us as they comprise the verses of O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

Within the Liturgy of the Hours, antiphons are short verses that are sung (or recited) prior to and after the Psalm or Canticle that provide an interpretive key to the mystical meaning of the passage or the feast day.  This is what makes the O Antiphons perfect material to recharge or redeem Advent for us—they are short reflections that capture the meaning of the season.  The O Antiphons allow us to make present the expectation of Israel and ignite within us any aspect of hope that has lain dormant in our hearts.  And because they are appended onto the Magnificat, Mary’s great prayer of expectation and thanksgiving, they unite us with her as well.

Each of the Great Antiphons as some have called them, invokes the name of the Messiah under his various Old Testament titles and closes with a proper petition.  The medieval church masters say there are seven as a reminder of the miseries of our fallen condition; each of which the Messiah came to rescue us from.  On the first day we recall how it is the Wisdom from on high that can free us from ignorance.  On the second day, we beg for the coming Redeemer who will save us from eternal punishment.  On the third day, longing for our heavenly homeland, we invoke the promised Root of Jesse to hurry to us.  Imprisoned in sin and death, on the fourth day, we plead for the Key of David to unlock our chains and guard us.  Trapped in darkness, we beg for the Dayspring to enlighten our way on the fifth day.  Because we are enslaved under the terrible reign of the devil, we invoke the King of Nations on the sixth day.  Finally, separated from God, we invoke Emmanuel, God with us.  In short, each of the seven days we should meditate upon our fallen condition and God’s remedy as outlined by that day’s antiphon.


At this stage of Advent, our longings ought to be felt, not just spiritually, but also bodily.  This is why the last week is a time to fast.  In teaching His disciples, Our Lord associates fasting with waiting for the Bridegroom (Mt 6:16).  It is a spiritual discipline that has fallen into disuse, but this last week of Advent offers a great time to get back into the practice.  Fasting allows us to truly experience longing for something we simply cannot live without.  By going without that which is necessary, namely food, we express our desire for the One Thing that is most necessary.  One would be hard pressed to come up with a better way to express the true meaning of the banquet most of us will partake of on Christmas Day than to have first fasted.  Feasts are only meaningful when we have had the experience of fasting.

Pope Benedict XVI often said we are living in the “already, but not yet.”  What he meant is that Christ has come and is with us really and truly, but we have not yet seen His glory.  It is in this spirit that fasting should always be accompanied by Daily Mass and reception of the Eucharist.  By having our actual hunger temporarily satisfied by the Bread of Life, we will again experience in our bodies the truth of what happens in our souls.


In a season marked by a spirit of  giving, it seems that almsgiving plays a large part already.  But we often miss the real point of almsgiving which is to give until it hurts.  We do this not because we are nice, but because we love God and want to give in the way that He gives—until it hurts.  Almsgiving should always flow from a supernatural motive that is based on a love of God and a desire for Him to spread His love through us.

There is also the tendency to give only from our surplus, especially for those of us who have families to support.  It seems wrong to take from what the family needs in order to help another family.  This was my own thinking for many years until I came across a quote from Pope Francis in which he said “we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to enrich others by our poverty.”  What I took the Holy Father to be saying is that, and this is especially true for parents, we should look to see what we can sacrifice personally.  Then there is no conflict with our obligations to our children and spouses.  As a father I may not be willing to have one of my children forgo a thick winter coat, but as a man I might be willing to forgo one myself so that someone else can be warm.  By personally going without something of importance, I can enrich others.  These “others” include not just the direct beneficiary of your charity but your children as well who catch the spirit of sacrifice so inimical to our Christian spirit.

There is another aspect of our almsgiving that should be a focus during Advent which can be a time of great loneliness for many people.  The greatest poverty is often a lack of being loved.  Too often we are tempted to take a “I gave at the office” type mentality that removes us from actual contact with the poor.  Giving money is a good thing, but the problem with it is that, as Pope Benedict XVI said, we have a tendency to give too little of ourselves.  What the other person needs most is the knowledge that they are loved, a knowledge that is only acquired by our face to face contact with them.  Our almsgiving should not just be focused on meeting material needs, but should always leave the person spiritually enriched as well.  Christians are not social workers, but manifestations of Christ’s self-giving love in the world.

Entering the home stretch of our Advent journeys, there is still plenty of time to seize the graces God had planned from the beginning of time to give to us.  By returning to our Catholic roots—through Prayer, especially the great O Antiphons, fasting and almsgiving—we can with great joy welcome Christ the newborn babe.

Then or Now?

It is always the questions with the obvious answers that cause the most problems.  Case in point, what if I were to ask whether you would rather live now or 200 years ago?  Allowing for the exception of a troglodyte or two, every one of them would, without hesitation, say “now.”  The reason seems obvious—the quality of life today is far beyond anything that could have been imagined two centuries ago.  Not only do we live longer today, but we are healthier and more people have access to more wealth.  Even the poor enjoy access to luxuries that only the very richest had in the past (if at all).  Think for example of our access to entertainment, entertainment filled with enough depravity that only the likes of Nero could enjoy in his day.  With that we realize that we may have answered the question too quickly and perhaps even looked at it the wrong way.  Sure we are enjoying an unprecedented material prosperity, but man does not live on bread alone.  Can we say that we are also enjoying an unprecedented spiritual prosperity?  Before throwing away the key to our time machines, we should reframe the question and ask “in which time period would being virtuous easier?”  Suddenly the answer does not seem so cut and dry.

The Question of Technology

We might be tempted to put the question down completely at this point.  We are when we are and there is no going back.  That is certainly true and the answer is only valuable insofar as it helps us in the here and now.  But rather than killing investigation, it ought to motivate it.  Volumes could be written on the differences in the time periods, but they could be summarized neatly in one word—technology.  At least that is the main difference according to CS Lewis who wrote:

“[F]or the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue.  For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both in the practice of this technique are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”

Summarizing Lewis’ point we can say that there are two kinds of men—those who subdue themselves to reality and those who will have reality subdued to themselves.  We call those in the first group virtuous and the second vicious.  This is a “problem” that is at the heart of man’s fallen existence.  Adam’s reality was that he had a single limitation—not eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Rather than subjecting himself to this reality, Adam chose to subject reality to himself.  In this regard he is no different than any one of us—sin is, at its core, an unwillingness for each of us to submit himself to reality.  We are like God in many ways, but not in the way that we can define for ourselves what is good and what is evil.

This is not a new problem for sure, but what is new is that in the past the average person lacked access to the power necessary to subdue reality to his wishes.  Now with so many technological solutions (techniques to use Lewis’ term) that give us power over reality, the temptation to subdue reality is much greater.

Technology and Power

Technology and power go hand in hand.  This may not be as obvious as it seems when more people have access to instruments of power, but it is true nonetheless.  Power in the hands of a few tends to corrupt only a few, power in the hands of many corrupts many.  With technological power comes the capacity to destroy ourselves.

We may have fallen victim to the belief that an increase of power mean “progress” but that is only true when the strength of character for using that power has kept pace.  We are now all like the superhero who wakes up one morning discovering he has superpowers and is confronted with whether we will use our powers for good or evil.  With greater command over the world, we need greater command over the self.

Progress in technology then is only truly progress when it makes us more human.  And this ought to be how we evaluate any advances in technology or our use of existing technologies.  Technology may be morally neutral, but how we use it is not.  Our guide as to its use is whether it leads to a more virtuous life or less, whether I am more human because of its help or less because of its substitution.


What often blinds us to seeing our use of technology more clearly is an obsession with efficiency.  Modern technology, the argument goes, increases efficiency making work easier and freeing us up for higher things.  But it seems that in the majority of cases the exact opposite has happened.   Labor saving devices may have replaced the slave labor of the past, but these devices often have enslaved otherwise free men.

The men of 200 years ago were freer than we are today.  Of that, there is no question.  The average man was more capable of taking care of himself and his family without significant outside help.  They could farm and hunt, they could build their homes and repair them, they knew how to navigate when lost in the woods, etc.  We, on the other hand, have specialists (farmers and homebuilders) or special machines (GPS) to do that for us now.  The average man 200 years ago would be far from average today.

The point is not that efficiency is bad, only that we should not treat it as an absolute value.  There is value in work done with our hands and simple tools.  It helps us to grow in the virtues of prudence, patience and perseverance.  In other words, we are better men for having done the work, no matter how menial it seems.  Labor saving technologies are only good and should only be used insofar as they help make us better men.

Another example might help to illustrate the point further.  Take a simple technology that is near and dear to my heart, the calculator.  Having a calculator has freed me up from doing the time consuming work of crunching numbers and enabled me to do the higher and more theoretical work in statistics.  However, when doing simple mathematical calculations, I will never use a calculator because it will reduce my distinctly human ability to do this.  I am somehow less human when I cannot do percentages in my head and have to rely on a calculator for a tip.  The point is that when the technology actually frees us up for higher things then it is a good, but this can never be at the expense of the loss of the ability to do the lower things.

Paradigm shifts always come abruptly.  We may pine for simpler times.  Frankenstein is already out of the cage and is not going back in.  While we may prefer to have lived in a previous age of morally better men, the reality is that we live in a technological age and we must find ways to use that power to make us better men.  Virtue itself may be harder, but this also means they will be stronger.

Justification and the Friendship of God

Any discussion surrounding the issue of justification ought to, like all fruitful discussions, begin with defining our terms.  The first act of the mind is apprehension and intellectual grasping of what is being discussed.  We must first agree on the meaning of the terms we are going to be using before we can argue about them.  In my experience, Catholics and Protestants use the term justification without actually saying what they mean by it.  They proceed to argue operating under the assumption that they are using the terms univocally.  Often, however, this is not the case.  A clear definition at the outset goes a long way in helping the two sides not argue past one another.


Justification only makes sense when we properly recognize what amounts to, according to Aristotle, an insurmountable obstacle.  He thought friendship with the gods was impossible because it can only occur between equals.  Man as a mere creature is incapable of true friendship with God unless he is somehow made equal with God.  He can never enter into a personal relationship with God unless He freely elevates man.  The term justification has a juridical tone to it, but in truth this is not essentially a legal problem.  It has nothing do with sin per se, but really is just man’s default position as a creature.  Sin has just complicated the issue for sure, but the problem would exist even if sin didn’t.  Thus the Council of Trent, in response to the Protestant teachings on justification, said that one is changed by justification “from an unjust person into a just person and from an enemy into a friend of God.”

Elevation from man’s natural state to a supernatural state that makes him capable of friendship with God is a free gift.  That ought to be obvious from what has been said.  We call this gift grace.  But there is a problem with using this term; namely that grace is a broad term that requires a modifier.  This is where it is helpful to have a strong Catholic vocabulary.  Grace, broadly speaking, falls into two categories: actual grace and sanctifying grace.


Actual grace is the interior assistance that God confers upon mankind in order to render him capable of supernatural acts of the soul.  In other words, it is God’s help to us in doing works that make us worthy of eternal life.  These works can be antecedent in the sense that when a man is in need of conversion or returning back to God from sin, he is given supernatural assistance in doing so.  They can also be consequent, a topic we will return to in a moment.  What actual graces do is enlighten the mind to recognize the true Good that is friendship with God and/or strengthen the will to move to repentance.  What is equally important is that these graces require man’s cooperation—friendship can be offered but never coerced.  God is responsible for bestowing them, but man is still responsible for responding to them.

Sanctifying grace on the other hand “is a habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love. Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God’s call, is distinguished from actual graces which refer to God’s interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification” (CCC 2000).


It is, once again, a free gift but it is this free gift that renders us capable of friendship with God.  By making us “partakers of the divine nature,” sanctifying grace infuses the divine life into our souls and elevates us to a supernatural plane.  In other words, we truly become like God.  Our first parents were created with this free gift (made in the image and likeness) but lost it during the Fall (thus only in the image of God).  Now, rather than having it bestowed on us in birth, it is bestowed on us in re-birth.  The ordinary way that it is given to us is through Baptism.  We are “born from above” (Jn 3:7) in Baptism and adopted as true children of God.  Baptism gives to us a likeness to God—like Father, like son.

It bears mentioning as well a word about Heaven.  We tend to treat Heaven as “other-wordly” and simply as a reward.  That is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t necessarily go far enough.  Heaven is really the place where the friends of God see Him face to face.  It is only those who have remained His friends that are capable of seeing Him as He is (1 Jn 3:2).  This is why we speak of the necessity of remaining in a “state of grace.”  Only those who die with sanctifying grace in their soul can avoid being destroyed by God, “Who is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29).  In other words, only those whom God has made holy, not just imputed holiness to, but who actually are holy, can endure His presence.


Despite the fact that we speak of justification as a free gift, we also speak of merit.  This term seems to imply a debt on God’s part.  This sounds suspiciously like “we can earn our salvation” and so people tend to shut down when we use the term.  An important reminder helps to clear up some of the confusion.  Naturally good acts remain just that, natural.  They remain in the natural realm and have their reward here and now.  We are capable of doing many good acts on our own.  What we are incapable of doing are supernatural acts.  Even those who are in a state of grace cannot do these action.  They require actual grace and must proceed from a supernatural motive.  Christ says both “without Me you can do nothing” (actual grace) and promises reward for the works that are performed for His sake (c.f Mk 9:40 “Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.”).

Although we require the assistance of actual grace in performing these supernatural acts, God still imputes them to us as though they were done by us.  He rewards our cooperation in them because it shows our desire to love Him and in so doing actually increases that love within us.  This is what St. Paul is referring to when he tells the Corinthians that “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God [that is] with me” (1 Cor 15:10). It is not unlike a father who gives his son money so that he may buy a Christmas present for his father.  He is pleased not because of the gift but because of the heart from which the gift came.

Merit again is not just a legal term but a way to describe how we grow to be more like God.  These acts are completely outside of our natural capacity, but once elevated to the supernatural realm, we become capable of doing them.  God is the initiator, we are the secondary instruments.  Notice how this explanation helps to sidestep the whole faith and works controversy which quickly develops into a conversational wormhole.  Knowing these terms can help us avoid this apologetical pitfall.