Category Archives: Church Authority

Sign of Contradiction

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

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

Statistics Don’t Lie but People Sometimes Use Them Wrong

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

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

The Unattainable Ideal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacramental Momentum

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

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


Sacramental Inertia

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

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

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

Applying the Law Sacramental Inertia

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

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

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.

The Primacy of Conscience

Could it be that the” primacy of conscience” will lead to its ultimate demise?  With Church leaders like Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago saying things such as: “If people come to a decision in good conscience then our job is to help them move forward and to respect that. The conscience is inviolable and we have to respect that when they make decisions, and I’ve always done that” one has to wonder if it already has.  As Pope Benedict XVI once said, the greatest danger facing the West is the “self-destruction of conscience.”  Conscience is being destroyed from within because we no longer understand what it is.  Therefore it is instructive to look at conscience and see why those who profess the primacy of conscience are misguided.

Thanks, in no small part to the magic of Disney, Conscience is often spoken of as a thing, like the proverbial angel on one’s shoulder or Jiminy Cricket guiding Pinocchio.  Conscience is not, however, a thing but an act of the intellect.  More specifically it is a judgment reason.  Conscience is not just any judgment like whether I should bring along my umbrella or not, but a moral judgment about what one ought to do in a certain situation.  The Catechism, succinctly defines conscience as “a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed” (CCC 1777). Rather than being something outside of us, conscience is as Gaudium et Spes defines it, “the most secret core and sanctuary of a man” (GS 16).

Before looking more closely at the idea of the so-called primacy of conscience, it is helpful to examine the underlying cause for its unquestioned adoption.  The moral life seems to present us with a Catch-22.  Either one sacrifices their freedom by obeying an authority or embraces that freedom and becomes one’s own authority.  In other words, there seems to be a great divide between authority and freedom and we must choose one or the other.

Those who embrace the “primacy of conscience” have decided to assert their freedom.  One would be hard pressed to find a single mention of this phrase in any magisterial document.   Those who refer to it often cite the same passage from the Catechism that the author did — namely, a “human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience.” While this does put an emphasis on the necessity of following one’s conscience there is a key modifier that can’t be overlooked.  Advocates of the primacy of conscience consistently omit the modifier “certain.”  The Catechism says that we must obey a “certain” conscience so that if we are to speak of a primacy of conscience it is a primacy of a certain conscience.

Fr. John Hardon in his Modern Catholic Dictionary defines a certain conscience as “a state of mind when it has no prudent fear of being wrong about its judgment on some moral issue and firmly decides that some action is right or wrong.”

In other words, a certain conscience has two components.  It is a judgment that follows from sound deliberation and second it refers to the moral law.  It is not a mere moral opinion based on a superficial assessment of a situation nor is it looking for reasons why what we want to do can be justified.  We call that rationalizing.  Instead it is principled reasoning as to how the moral law applies to the situation at hand.

Interestingly, those who appeal to the primacy of conscience rarely ever actually refer to whether they are right or not.  All that matters is whether or not the person acted in accord with it.  Think of Archbishop Cupich’s respect for the fact that the individual has been true to themselves.  Conscience trumps truth. So embedded in our language is this understanding of conscience that we even refer to St. Thomas More as a “martyr for conscience.”  It is as if he merely made up his mind that the Church was right and Henry VIII wrong and dug in his heels.  But St. Thomas More died not as a “martyr for conscience” but, like all martyrs, as a witness to the truth. Herein lies the problem for those who hold the mistaken idea of “primacy of conscience.”   By their logic, both St. Thomas More and someone like Adolph Eichmann who said during the Nuremburg trials that he was only being true to his conscience were equally laudable

Within the Catechism’s definition of conscience, we find the blueprint for the bridge between freedom and authority. Recall that conscience is “a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act.” By what standard does one determine the “moral quality of a concrete act”? Before we can answer that question, we must clarify what we mean when we speak of “morality.”

Morality, simply put, is the relationship between a human act — i.e., one done with knowledge and freedom — and the use of man’s nature in fulfilling his ultimate purpose, communion with God.  Some acts are in accord with the proper use of man’s nature and lead us to thrive (we call these good) and some are not and cause us to become slaves (we call these evil). Because human nature and its fulfillment are objective, certain goods are common to all men. Reason recognizes these goods as true goods, and commands that they be protected, preserved, and promoted. These commandments of reason comprise the moral law. Therefore, the “moral quality of a concrete act” can be determined by how it measures up to the moral law.   The moral law acts as a bridge between freedom and authority.


It remains to investigate where the moral law comes from.  How can we see obeying a law as not somehow inhibiting our freedom?  The word for conscience in Latin, conscientia, gives us a clue. It is translated literally as “knowledge with.” Conscience is literally the “co-knowledge” that man shares with God.   This shared knowledge about reality shows why conscience has authority.

God governs all of creation by His Divine Providence.  Because He always acts in accord with reason, all things participate in His eternal law.  He has made all things with natural inclination towards those things that will fulfill its purpose or end.  Think of how a tree naturally grows towards the sunlight.  But unlike the tree, man, because he has an intellect and will, can know and choose to participate in this eternal law.  According to St. Thomas Aquinas, it is our participation in the eternal law of God that is called the natural law. Therefore, the natural law comes from within insofar as it is mediated by God through reason. But because it is a participation in the divine law, it has its source outside of man, in God Himself who is the Author of human nature.

It is in light of this understanding that St. Paul refers to the Gentiles, “who have not the law,” as a “law unto themselves” because they “do by nature what the law requires” (cf. Rom. 2:12) without any contradiction of either their freedom or the objective moral law.

The moral law comes to us through our intellect, but because of our fallen condition we also share in the “knowledge of good and evil.” Although our innate desire for the good cannot be extinguished, the darkening of the intellect that accompanied the Fall causes us great difficulty in discovering the good. Our reason, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, must now be “suffused with the light of God’s truth. In fact, when human reason humbly allows itself to be purified by faith, it is far from weakened; rather, it is strengthened to resist presumption and to reach beyond its own limitations.” The light of God’s truth flows through the Church. The Church informs conscience in much the same way the soul informs the body — giving it life and making it what it is.

St. Thomas teaches that we need revelation in the practical order for two reasons. First, since we are fallen creatures without revelation, the truth “would be known only by a few, and after a long time, and with the mixture of many errors.” Second, because man has a supernatural end, there are certain truths that surpass human reason. The Church, as described in Veritatis Splendor, is at “the service of conscience, helping it to avoid being tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine proposed by human deceit (cf. Eph. 4:14), and helping it not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it” (no. 64). The Church does not impose the truths of man’s proper use of his nature from the outside, but instead proposes those truths to man’s reason so that he may recognize them as true internal values and accept them as his own.  Conscience indeed is primary, but only a conscience that is animated by a desire to become what we were made to be—saints.

Sola Scriptura and Logic

Halloween marked the 499th Anniversary since Martin Luther fired the first theological shot of the Protestant Revolution by presenting the Bishop with his Ninety-Five theses.  Since then, Christians have remained divided, even among those that would identify themselves as Protestants.  But one thing that they all agree upon is that the Bible is the sole rule of faith.  Many Protestants are quite vocal in their opposition to the Church on this one point.  For example, Pastor John Piper recently posted to his website,, an interview he gave in which he addresses the following question from a listener named Dan:

“Dear Pastor John, several of my Evangelical friends have converted to Roman Catholicism in recent years. One key issue has been over whether the Bible is our sole rule of faith. After reviewing some of the Catholic arguments, I’ve come to appreciate their persuasive force. As I’ve engaged Protestants, however, I have not yet found an equally persuasive defense of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Pastor John, I was wondering if you could please help persuade me.”

Dan had to be somewhat disappointed by Pastor John’s first response because it is one that appears in one form or another anytime the subject is broached.

“If the Bible is God’s word, by definition no human authority or human institution can serve alongside the Bible with equal authority. Neither the pope nor any human counsel or any scholar or priest or pastor or human tradition has the authority of the Bible if it is God’s word. And it is.

Not only that, but the Bible itself nowhere grants to any person or ecclesiastical office an authority equal to its own. There are pastors and teachers which Christ gives to the church (Ephesians 4:11). Their job is not to impart revelation, but to stand on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. And Paul makes plain in 1 Corinthians 14:38 that the authority of those in the church must always give an account to the Scriptures, not themselves. That is the first response.”

When confronted with this or similar arguments, the Catholic will almost always respond with 1 Tim 3:15, “the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”  What normally ensues is a back and forth of different passages with no ground gained on either side.  What I would like to suggest is that the Catholic take a different approach, one that is outlined in the opening chapter of Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini, beautifully.


Pastor John opens his response by saying “If the Bible is God’s word…”  As Catholics we would not dispute this.  However, as the rest of his response seems to indicate, he is assuming that God’s word is the Bible.  What I mean by this is that, like nearly all his Protestant brethren, Pastor John assumes that the Word of God and Sacred Scripture are the same thing; that Sacred Scripture somehow exhausted all God has to say.

Anyone who carefully reads the Prologue to John’s Gospel will reject this.  John speaks of the “word of God” in various ways.  He is eternal, “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1).  God’s Word took “flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) in the Person of Jesus Christ.  His word has been expressed through creation—“the world came to be through him” (John 1:10).  Turning to other books we find that His Word has been expressed “in partial and various ways through the Prophets” (Hebrews 1:1) and through angels (Acts 7:35).  His Word is expressed through the word preached by the Apostles (Mk 16:15).  We could multiply the examples, but what should become clear is that Pastor John and friends are making not so much a theological error, but a logical one.

When we use any two terms, they may equivocal, univocal or analogical.  Equivocal terms are those that have completely unrelated meanings (such as a river bank and a bank where we store our money).  In contrast to this we may use them univocally where the two terms express the same essential meaning.  Between these two poles there is also the opportunity to express the set of terms as having an analogical relationship.  An analogy is where you take two things which are different, but have a certain proportionality to them.  We use analogies with the hope of gaining knowledge of the latter which you don’t know by looking at how it is like a thing you do know.  For example, when we say that “Pastor John is good” and “God is good” we don’t mean exactly the same thing.  But we can gain a knowledge of God’s goodness which we don’t know fully by looking at Pastor John’s goodness which we do.

The Protestant error consists in using the terms “Word of God” and “the Bible” univocally, rather than analogically.  Each of the places we find the “Word of God” expressed throughout salvation history represent degrees or proportions.  The Word of God is eternal and yet is always expressed to man through a limited human language.  This is even the case with the Word Made Flesh.  Our Lord is the fullest expression of the Eternal Word, but not the Eternal Word expressed fully.  Pope Benedict XVI expresses it succinctly when he says that, “[A]lthough the word of God precedes and exceeds sacred Scripture, nonetheless Scripture, as inspired by God, contains the divine word” (Verbum Domini, 17).


The Word of God has always been mediated through the words of men through the working of the Holy Spirit.  In this way, we can see that all the ways in which God spoke are analogates of the Word Made Flesh.  It is always the Divine Word spoken using human instrumentality.  That is why you cannot pit human authority against God the way that Pastor John attempts to do.  Men who speak the Word of God, speak with the same authority, because the authority comes from God Himself Whose Word is spoken.

This is where Pastor John and many of his Protestant brethren set up Catholic strawmen only to knock them down.  No Catholic believes, nor does the Church teach, that the Pope or any man is above the Word of God.  The Church, as the Body of Christ extended through time, is like Christ’s earthly body, at the service of the Word.  Like Christ’s Incarnated Body, the Church also can speak the Word of God.  To think that the Word of God only is spoken in a book is to deny that it is living and active.

Protestantism doesn’t just differ in its view of authority but in what it means to be a disciple.  Pastor John and many of his friends believe Christians are a “people of the Book.”  But Christians are “people of the Word of God” that is incarnate and living (VD, 7).  It is living because He is alive and has never ceased speaking through the Holy Spirit.  He did not dwell among us temporarily but “with you always, until the end of the ages” (Mt 28:20).  The Incarnation did not cease with His Ascension, He simply took on a new body with a new voice on Pentecost.  It is not mere men who speak in the Church, but mere men whom Christ uses as His voice (c.f Lk 10:16).  He may have nothing new to reveal, but He still speaks.

Before closing, I want to mention briefly a hidden danger of a sect of Christianity that defines itself the way Protestantism does.  Protestantism is obviously broad, but it is essentially defined as “not Catholic.”  With this comes not only a tendency to protest all things Catholic, but it also leads to a giant blind spot that causes one not to actually take the time to learn what it is that Catholics believe.  Pastor John’s second paragraph is a good example.

Not only that, but the Bible itself nowhere grants to any person or ecclesiastical office an authority equal to its own. There are pastors and teachers which Christ gives to the church (Ephesians 4:11). Their job is not to impart revelation, but to stand on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.

There is a self-refuting quality about this argument.  On the one hand, he says that no ecclesial office has an authority equal to that of the Bible, but then mentions that pastors and teachers are “not to impart revelation, but to stand on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”  What are apostles other than ecclesial officers (1 Cor 12:28)?  He is describing what Catholics actually believe.  We already believe that public revelation is closed but must still be handed on (or in Latin tradere from which we get the word Tradition).  Therefore, we believe that Scripture and Tradition, both of which are guarded and handed on, “form one sacred deposit of the Word of God” (Dei Verbum, II, 10).

A Right to Privacy?

During an interview on Meet the Press this past Sunday, Democratic Senator and possible Vice Presidential Candidate Tim Kaine, admitted to being a “Traditional Catholic” who “personally opposes Abortion.”  Despite his personal opposition however he has “taken the position, which is quite common among Catholics — I have got a personal feeling about abortion, but the right rule for government is to let women make their own decisions.”

The Senator is right that his is a position that is “quite common among Catholics,” especially politicians.  But what never gets said is why they are “personally opposed.”  That would seem to be the next logical question that gets asked anytime a seemingly reasonable person says they are opposed to something that other people accept.  Part of the reason why it never gets asked is because the answer is implied when they identify themselves as Catholic.  They are opposed because that is what the Church teaches.  In other words, it is a matter of dogma that Catholics should oppose abortion. As a “traditional Catholic,” Senator Kaine knows that the Church (and American constitutional law) says that religious dogma should not legitimately be enforced by the coercive power of the state. It is also politically convenient because by suggesting that abortion belongs only in the confessional realm, Senator Kaine is able to play both sides of the field.  He can be personally opposed (and thus satisfying those who are also opposed) while appearing to be very tolerant of other people’s beliefs.

Surely as a “traditional Catholic” who is personally opposed to abortion he would know that the Church does not teach that abortion and contraception are matters of revealed faith.  Just as surely a Catholic who is involved in public life would have read St. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae.  If he had he would have known that “[T]his doctrine is based upon the natural law” ( EV, 62) and like all the precepts of the natural law, binding on Catholics and non-Catholics.  In other words, being Catholic has nothing to do per se with whether you think abortion and contraception are wrong.  Pro-life Catholic politicians are just as guilty in this regard of allowing the debate to center around their Catholicism and would do a great service to the movement if they avoided making that connection.

While the “personally opposed, but…” defense has been worn out, it is the second half of the Senator’s response that bears a closer look because it betrays a profound philosophical difference from what the Church has taught us:

“I deeply believe — and not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

Again as a Catholic, the Senator could again turn to Evangelium Vitae and find that the Holy Father anticipated his response when he said:

“Finally, the more radical views go so far as to maintain that in a modern and pluralistic society people should be allowed complete freedom to dispose of their own lives as well as of the lives of the unborn: it is asserted that it is not the task of the law to choose between different moral opinions, and still less can the law claim to impose one particular opinion to the detriment of others.” (EV, 68)

If it is not from the Church that the Senator gets his “radical view” then where does it come from?  It comes from a distorted view of the human person that permeates the modern American landscape.  It has even found its way into our laws through the so-called “right to privacy.”

Tim Kaine

Man by nature is a social being.  He depends upon others for his fulfillment.  Operating under this paradigm, the role of government is to aid in the development of the total person.  A good government is one that helps to create morally good people.  Laws not only protect freedom from the outside but also from the inside by promoting virtuous behavior.  Certainly it is always preferable to foster virtue by non-legislative means since virtue requires voluntary rather than coerced actions, nevertheless law cannot remain indifferent to moral actions because of its pedagogical power.

Operating under this view, there is an emphasis on the freedom to fulfill one’s obligations.  The obligation to protect innocent human life leads to the outlawing of all offenses against human life.  Each man sees himself as his brother’s keeper to a limited extent.

This understanding of man as social by nature is rejected in modern-day America.  Instead man is an individual with absolute autonomy.  He only enters into social relationships by an agreement or contract. Each man enters civil society and gives up only so much of his personal liberty as to facilitate comfortable self-preservation.  Under this view, the role of government becomes protective—protecting freedom from outside interference and from infringement by others.  Anything is legal provided it doesn’t limit the freedom of others.  The emphasis now shifts towards rights rather than obligations.  When two rights claims such as the right to choose and the right to life clash, the government must step in with positive law.  It is always the louder (or stronger) asserter of rights that wins.

Within this atmosphere of radical individualism enters the right to privacy.  This becomes a fundamental right because one must be able to do what one pleases without any outside interference.  This right has been elevated within the annals of the Supreme Court to an unalienable right.  Although it remains rather elusive as to what exactly it means, the Court ruled that the right to privacy under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion.

It is “deeply held belief” in the right to privacy that trumps anything else that the Senator might “feel about abortion.”  Accordingly while he thinks that an individual’s private choices regarding intimate and personal matters (like whether or not to bear a child) must have no government interference, this cannot be done without reference to the moral law.  In no other aspect of life do we treat the right to privacy as an absolute right except in contraception, abortion, and homosexual activity.  This suggests that it is merely a smokescreen for judicial (and in the case at hand Senatorial) fiat.

Can the Senator explain why the private use of recreational drugs is a problem?  What about prostitution?  The “right to privacy” remains unprincipled.  This is why the right to non-interference for abortion (Roe v Wade) quickly turned into a right to abortion (PP vs Casey).  The government now interferes by supplying the abortion.  This is why a “personally opposed but” stance does nothing except reveal a lack of personal integrity.  The Senator is far from the neutral observer that he pretends to be.

We need only look to Monday’s Supreme Court ruling as proof of its arbitrary nature and its impossibility to overturn.  Abortion may be a personal decision, but it is certainly not private and no amount of judicial gymnastics can make it so.

He Who Hears You, Hears Me

Each time the secular media picks up a quote from Pope Francis regarding the changing of some teaching of the Church, confusion quickly follows.  The foundation of much of this confusion stems from the fact that very few Catholics understand how the Church exercises her authority.  Many Catholics have the attitude that “the Pope may be infallible, but unless a Pope speaks ex cathedra on a particular moral issue, we are all free to follow our own opinions and do what we want to do.”  Very often what further muddies the waters is the fact that there are a small, though extremely vocal group of revisionist theologians that claim that the Church has never taught infallibly on moral issues.

To help clear up some of this confusion, it is necessary to understand what infallibility is and who has been given this charism.  Infallibility is essentially a negative charism; it is a gift that makes it impossible to fall into error.  It does not mean that those who exercise it are somehow impeccable, but that when and if they speak, they cannot speak in error.  It is as if, in taking a test, the student may not answer all the questions, but those that he does, he gets right.

Why it is given is also important.  It is not meant in any way to add to Revelation but instead protect and preserve it.  The First Vatican Council said

This gift of truth and never-failing faith was therefore divinely conferred on Peter and his successors in this See so that they might discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine.

This gift is given to the Church by Christ Himself.  First He gives it to Peter and His successors, when at Caesarea Philippi He tells Peter that “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19).  Later on, He grants the gift to the united Apostolic College (and their successors) (Mt 18:18).  This power to bind and loose means not that Peter and the Apostles with Him can say whatever they want, only that there is Divine protection in what they do bind and loose will be true.  In this way, “binding and loosing” is synonymous with infallibility.

Therefore, the gift of infallibility can be traced to the New Testament days.  However, only gradually (as circumstances required) did it come to be understood more fully what its actual exercise looks like.  This is why the Second Vatican Council sought to explain infallibility in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium.

Peter Preaching

First, the Council Fathers sought to address Papal infallibility, declaring that “the Roman Pontiff enjoys in virtue of his office the gift of infallibility…when… by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.”  Papal infallibility refers not only to the Papal prerogative to proclaim a dogma to be divinely revealed, it can extend to solemn teachings on morals as well (more on this in a moment).  Its scope includes not just strict Revelation, but also to those things connected to it.

As Chapter 18 of Matthew suggests, this is not the only way in which the Church can exercise infallibility.  It may also do so in a collegial manner.  “The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter.”  There is a distinction between the two types of activity in which the body of the episcopate in union with the Pope enjoys infallibility.  The first is the extraordinary form when gathered at a general or ecumenical council.  The second is when they exercise their infallible power in an ordinary manner when in a moral unity with the Pope they “are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely.”  This is what is referred to as the “Ordinary Magisterium.  In other words, the ordinary magisterium does not mean the bishops act in a strictly collegial matter but that they “agree in one judgment” on a certain issue.  Cardinal Ratzinger, in the audience of John Paul II, sought to clarify this point when he said

It should be noted that the infallible teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium is not only set forth with an explicit declaration of a doctrine to be believed or held definitively, but is also expressed by a doctrine implicitly contained in a practice of the Church’s faith, derived from revelation or, in any case, necessary for eternal salvation, and attested to by the uninterrupted Tradition: such an infallible teaching is thus objectively set forth by the whole episcopal body, understood in a diachronic and not necessarily merely synchronic sense. Furthermore, the intention of the ordinary and universal Magisterium to set forth a doctrine as definitive is not generally linked to technical formulations of particular solemnity; it is enough that this be clear from the tenor of the words used and from their context.

Unlike the Extraordinary Magisterium, when the Ordinary Magisterium is exercised it does not depends on particular formulations.  It is enough that it is part of the consensus and is said to be definitively held.

It is most often the case then that it is the exercise of the Ordinary Magisterium that is overlooked.  To say that the Pope has never taught ex cathedra on a moral issue does not mean that the Church has never taught infallibly on a moral issue.  As an example, we see John Paul II refer to the ordinary magisterium in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae.  In particular, he mentions three specific moral norms related to the killing of innocent life, abortion and euthanasia that are to be held as irreformable and definitive.

This also extends to issues directly related to the natural law as well, since the Church is the “authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law, not only, that is, of the law of the Gospel but also of the natural law” (Humanae Vitae, 4).  This means that the moral teachings that are directly connected to the natural law that the Church has always taught are also included within the scope of infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium.  The Natural Law is based on unchanging human nature and therefore cannot itself change even if its application to different historical circumstances might change.

There has been much debate within the Church regarding the infallibility of the Church’s teaching regarding contraception.  Some of the issue pertains to a statement made during a press conference when Humanae Vitae was released.  However, if we apply the criteria given by John Paul II through Cardinal Ratzinger above, there is no other way to interpret Paul VI’s statement that “The Church, nevertheless, in urging men to the observance of the precepts of the natural law, which it interprets by its constant doctrine, teaches that each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (HV, 11) is an exercise of infallibility based on the Ordinary Magisterium.  Footnotes in Papal documents are very important because they show the continuity of a given papal teaching.  The footnote attached to this paragraph refers to two papal documents of Pius XI and Pius XII, who in turn refer to Leo XIII and so on.

No discussion of infallibility would be complete unless it also mentioned that the Second Vatican Council also teaches that “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals… It is exercised under the guidance of the sacred teaching authority, in faithful and respectful obedience to which the people of God accepts that which is not just the word of men but truly the word of God” (LG, 12).

The term sensus fidelium has been attached to the concept that the entire body of the faithful also enjoys infallibility.  This infallibility is, as Pope Benedict reminds us, “not a kind of public ecclesial opinion, and invoking it in order to contest the teachings of the Magisterium would be unthinkable” but depends upon “the guidance of the sacred teaching authority.”  In other words, it not the consensus on some truth that makes it true, but the truth of the doctrine that forms the consensus of the faithful.  We are infallible insofar as we rely on the infallible teaching of the Church.  That is why in a culture where personal freedom is paramount without any connection with truth, there is always the danger of seeing the Church’s exercise of infallibility as mere authority.  But properly understood, the authority is given to the Church precisely to protect us from falling into error regarding who God is and who we are.  In other words, infallibility, rather than somehow limiting our freedom, actually enhances it.  The spirit of the world tells me that divorce is permitted and maybe even a good thing.  The Church infallibly tells me it is not, not to hold me in a bad marriage, but to free me up for authentic love.  When divorce is off the table as an option I am more likely to love my spouse as my own flesh than if I look upon my spouse as a growth that may need to be excised.  We should rely on the Church as the steady guide in forming our consciences because of the presence of her divine Founder.  As Christ told the Apostles in Luke’s Gospel, “he who hears you, hears me.”