Category Archives: Theology

Time and Eternity

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

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

Augustine and Time

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

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

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

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

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

Why It Matters

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

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

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

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

Praying with the Dead

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

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

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

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

Covering Our Bases

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

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

The Power of Prayer Over Time

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

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

A Truly Virgin Birth

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

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

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

The Miracle of Christ’s Birth

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

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

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

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

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

The Miracle as a Sign

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

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

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

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

Science and the Immaculate Conception

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

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

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

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

Christology and the Immaculate Conception

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

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

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

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

How Science Supports the Immaculate Conception

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Slippery Heresy

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

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

The Gates of Hell and the Church

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

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

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

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

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

The Mother of All Heresies

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

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

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

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

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

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



What’s for Dinner?

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

Animals and Their Use

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Moral Case For Vegetarianism

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

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

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

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

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

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.



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.

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.

The Dirtiest Word

What is the longest dirty word in the English language?  For many Catholics, it is theology.  I am often left speechless when I am invited to speak and told that the talk needs to be “practical and not be filled with theology.”  The last word is always said in a tone of disdain.  I nod knowingly and then set out to prepare a talk that will be filled with theology.  If I had the courage I would ask what exactly they are expecting when they invite someone trained in moral theology to speak.  That would probably ensure that I would not be invited back, but the fact is that all Christians should study theology.

Augustine defined theology as “reasoning about God.”  Based on this definition it becomes readily apparent that man is a theological animal.  What I mean by this is that we are all theologians to one degree or another.  The questions surrounding God are so linked to what it means to be human that one cannot help but to apply reasoning to God.  Even atheists are theologians who operate under certain understandings of God.  Therefore I am not saying that everyone should seek an advanced degree in theology, but certainly it is necessary for all of us to develop an adequate theological toolbox.

St Thomas Studying

The Universal Doctor of the Church, St. Anselm’s motto was fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”).  Contained within this short motto is the reason why theology is so important.  Properly speaking the gift of faith is a share in God’s knowledge of Himself.  On our part it is merely intellectual assent to the truth of what He has revealed.  Faith may be a form of knowledge but it is an imperfect knowledge.  Its goal is to develop certitude.  That is why it will pass away when we see God face to face.   Then we will have certain knowledge.  As pilgrims our goal ought to be to grow in certitude.  This only happens with an increased understanding.  With greater understanding we grow in love because we have more reasons to love.  This is why theology is so important—it enables us to grow in understanding.  It gives us a science and a vocabulary in which to speak and deepen our understanding.

An example might help to see what I am driving at.  Revelation tells us and we accept on faith that Christ is true God and true man.  What we do with these facts can have a profound effect on our love for Christ.  We will not love Him merely based on this fact.  It is our understanding and the implications of this fact that changes us.

Let’s look at one of the places where we see the two natures of Christ most operative—in the Garden of Gethsemane.  We know that Christ experienced fear in the face of sin and death to the point of sweating blood.  Now everyone has their own interpretation of how this was possible (remember we are all theologians), but a solid understanding of theology allows us to penetrate it and understand its true meaning.  Recall that Jesus was not fallen like the rest of humanity.  What this meant is that His emotions were perfectly under the control of His human reason and will.  Anything that He felt, He willed to feel.  He could have remained absolutely a stoic and not willed to feel fear in the Garden.  He could have greatly tempered it so that it was only a little.  But instead He willed to feel fear beyond a level we can even conceive—to the point of shedding blood.  No one would will to feel that horribly except for one He loved.

Our response?  We ought to be more in awe of the depth of His love (He could have left this unpleasant experience out) and love Him in return ever more deeply.  But without a cursory understanding of theology, in particular, what happened to man when he fell, this level of understanding and love is not possible.  With a misguided understanding of theology we might even think that He could not help being practically crippled with fear and that He was a mere victim of circumstances or whim of a vindictive Father.  And maybe He wasn’t yet God’s Son.  Maybe that came after the Resurrection.  Bad theology leads not just to heresy but away from the One Whom my heart desires.  Good theology leads me more deeply into His grasp.  Why would I ever avoid teaching theology?  What could be more practical than chasing someone into the wounded hands of Jesus?

Trained theologians bear some of the responsibility for why theology is treated as a dirty word.  According to Cardinal Ratzinger, the theologian’s “role is to pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church. He does this in communion with the Magisterium which has been charged with the responsibility of preserving the deposit of faith” (On the Ecclesial Role of Vocation of the Theologian, 6).  What he means is that the task of the theologian is to explain what we already know to be true.  That means theologians are not an authority unto themselves but merely teachers of Divine Revelation even if they have unique teaching styles.  Their approach cannot be merely academic but should be the fruit of a prayerful understanding of their vocation in the Church.  It should be preferred (for all of us) that we study theology on our knees rather than at a desk.  Avoid reading known dissenters and pray for the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, particularly understanding.  This gift allows us to develop a “Catholic nose” that sniffs out things that are wrong, even if you can’t fully explain why.  So often I hear someone start a question with “so and so said this, but it just didn’t sound right.”

There are two other reasons why it is treated as a dirty word—one internal and one external.  The internal is one of the seven deadly sins, sloth or acedia.  St Thomas defines it as “sadness in the face of a spiritual good.”  It is marked by a certain indifference towards what is truly important and is pervaded by a spirit of “whatever.”  Dante describes the slothful as suffering from lento amore or “slow love.”  It is hard work to understand revelation.  If it were simple then it wouldn’t be God.  A slothful generation is marked by a plethora of “seekers” who never really settle on anything.  Finding often requires something of us and there is a certain comfort in merely seeking.  We are OK with a fuzzy Jesus, but the true Jesus can often make us uncomfortable.  Sharp theology brings Him (and His demands) into focus.

The external reason is a cultural obsession with practicality.  We demand that all things have practical value.  But nothing is practical without principles underneath it.  The wheel may be the most practical thing man has ever made, but in order to be made, the first man had to understand many principles of mechanics, friction, etc.  The practical follows from the theoretical and if we disdain the theoretical then we will lose the practical as well.  This is hard for us to grasp when our society suffers under the “tyranny of the expert” (including the theologian).  Experts can cripple us because they make us reduce our personal understanding because we just simply rely on their knowledge without developing our own understanding.  Soon we just assume that they have that area covered and do not even attempt to learn the principles of reality under which the experts operate.   The rest of us just operate as experts of practicality.  But as Chesterton said, “[T]he man who is theoretically a practical man…will never believe in anything long enough to make it succeed.”  What I do practically as a Christian depends upon my theological understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

The best argument for studying theology is found in Frank Sheed’s book, Theology and Sanity, “…a virtuous man may be ignorant, but ignorance is not a virtue.  It would be a strange God who could be loved better by being known less. Love of God is not the same thing as knowledge of God; love of God is immeasurably more important than knowledge of God; but if a man loves God knowing a little about Him, he should love God more from knowing more about Him: for every new thing known about God is a new reason for loving Him.”  Theology gives us more reasons to love God, what could be more practical than that?

It Takes Only One?

In his Encyclical on Moral Theology, St. John Paul II cautioned against falling into the theological loophole that is commonly called the “fundamental option.”  The general idea of the fundamental option is that each person makes a basic choice to love God and as long as they do not consciously revoke that decision, they remain in His good graces.  In this way it becomes little more than a psychological game where as long as we say we love God, it is so.  Our actions do nothing to change our fundamental stance as long as we still “love” God in our minds.  With the adoption of this viewpoint throughout the Church, the idea of mortal sin has been lost and many people miss out on the opportunity to bathe in God’s merciful love.

Despite this, the Church still teaches that there is such thing as mortal sin and a single mortal sin can damn us to hell for all eternity.  The Catechism says “[T]o die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice” (CCC 1033). While this constitutes a truth of the faith, it is fruitful to look at why this is the case.  All too often people will view this teaching as “fire and brimstone” but it can have a bearing on our daily lives, especially those who truly want to love God.

There is a subtlety in the quote from the Catechism that is easy to miss. The choice of describing it as being in mortal sin, rather than “having committed mortal sin” or “with mortal sin on his soul,” reveals a deep anthropological truth and shows us how sin is more than just an offense against God.

Man, because he is free has the freedom for self-determination.  Man can become whatever he wants to become.  Now, this is not meant in a “you can do anything if you just believe in yourself” kind of way.  Instead it means that we are free everywhere and always to be a certain kind of person.  A man who desires to be honest, is always free to do the honest thing.  A man who desires to humble, always has the power to do the humble thing.  It is only on this level that man is authentically free and thus responsible.  Where the self-determination comes in is that by repeatedly performing acts of honesty or humility the man becomes honest or humble.  These habitual dispositions (we call them virtues) become almost second nature to us.  In other words, our actions determine the kind of person we are.  This can also work for woe.  The man who repeatedly lies out of fear becomes a liar and coward.

When we speak of heaven then we must first admit that there are only certain kinds of people that are fit to be admitted.   We shall return to the question of why it must be a certain type, but first it is necessary to make a further distinction.  While self-determination plays a key part in this, it is not the only thing (or even the most important thing).  The most important thing is whether the heaven life is alive in our souls.  Because God is “a consuming fire” we cannot enter into eternal friendship with Him without being “equals” with Him.  This is so important to understand any time we speak of Heaven or Hell.  Not everyone could stand in God’s Presence.  He gives us sanctifying grace to make us fireproof.  Without it, no matter how many good things we have done, the fire of His love would be more painful than the fires of Hell (this is why we can say that Hell is a sign of God’s mercy).

What this means is that this time of trial and testing is all about being made fit.  We must do everything in our power to keep the life of God that was freely given to us in Baptism (ordinarily) coursing through our souls.  This is where the notion of self-determination comes into play.  Our actions determine the “shape” of our souls and only certain shapes can hold the life of God in them.  Once the soul becomes warped from certain types of actions, then the life of God spills out them.

Nine Circles

At this point, one might be willing to concede all that has been said.  But how is it that a single mortal sin could so damage the human will as to make the person unfit for Heaven?  After all, we have been speaking of habits and one slip does not break a habit.  Perhaps this is best answered by way of analogy.  Suppose a man loves his country and strives to be patriotic.  He may have dedicated his life to serving out of love for his country.  This love certainly may not be perfect.  He may love her imperfectly by doing something like not obeying all the traffic laws.  While he would still be viewed as a patriot, he would not yet be a perfect patriot since the love of self that causes him to disobey the traffic laws impedes him from loving his country perfectly.  But are there certain actions in which he would cease to be a patriot?  Would a man who sold secrets to his country’s enemy still be a patriot even if he only did it once?  Everyone recognizes that a single traitorous action would undue all of his previous patriotic actions and he would no longer be considered a patriot.

So too it is with our moral lives.  We may love God imperfectly and commit venial sins, but there are certain actions which we can perform which are so contrary to the love of God that they deform our wills such that the life of God can no longer reside in us.  Just like the false patriot in our analogy, we still have the opportunity make amends for our transgression and have grace restored to us, but at a certain point that no longer becomes an option.  Benedict Arnold can no longer make amends for his act of treason, despite all of his previous acts of patriotism to the contrary.

This brings us to a second important point and that is that at the moment of death our souls become fixed.  We now enter into the realm of spirits and our manner of judging is immutable.  This is one of the ways we become “like the angels.”  Angels, because they are pure spirits, do not change their minds.  Because they can see all particulars attached to their decisions, their wills remain fixed once they have made a judgment.  So too we will do at the moment of death.  Because the soul is fixed in either good or evil by its last voluntary act, it continues to judge according to its inclination at the time of separation.  The will can only change when the judgment of the intellect gives new reasons.  This is why there is only one personal judgment at the time of death—the decision to choose for or against God has been made and cannot change.  This is also why the Fathers of the Church speak of the terrible temptations of the demons at the hour of death as they tempt us towards a mortal sin or away from repentance.  It is also why we pray regularly to St. Joseph, the Terror of Demons, for a happy death.

While we can see how reasonable this teaching is, it remains just informative unless it causes us to measure our actions more carefully.  If it is true that one mortal sin can cause us to lose Heaven then we must actively strive to grow in sanctifying grace.  The deeper the penetration of God’s life into our souls, the greater our protection against sin.  We truly become more and more like God, and it is only those who are truly like Him that can share His life in eternity.  Each day we do not grow in the love of God is a loss.

In closing, we may turn to Blessed Columba Marmion who seems to summarize our approach best:

We shall enjoy God according to the same measure of grace to which we have attained at the moment of our going out of the world. Do not let us lose sight of this truth: the degree of our eternal beatitude is, and will remain, fixed forever by the degree of charity we have attained, by the grace of Christ, when God shall call us to Himself. Each moment of our life is then infinitely precious, for it suffices to advance us a degree in the love of God, to raise us higher in the beatitude of eternal life. And let us not say that one degree more or less is a small matter. How can anything be a small matter when it concerns God, and the endless life and beatitude of which He is the source? If, according to the parable spoken by our Lord in person, we have received five talents, it was not that we might bury them, but that we might make them bear increase.  And if God measures the reward according to the efforts we have made to live by His grace and increase it in us, do not think it matters little what kind of a harvest we bring to our Father in Heaven.  Jesus Himself has told us that His heavenly Father is glorified in seeing us abound, by His grace, in fruits of holiness, which will be fruits of beatitude in Heaven. In hoc clarificatus est Pater meus ut fructum plurimum afferatis  . . . Can it be that our love for Jesus Christ is so weak that we account it a small thing to be a more or less resplendent member of His Mystical Body in the heavenly Jerusalem?


A Religion of Peace?

In his dialogue with Euthyphro, Socrates poses a crucial question that has application even today.  He asks Euthyphro “is what is holy, holy because the gods approve it or do they approve it because it is holy?”  Put in other words, he is asking whether something is good because God commands it or whether God commands it because it is good?  A moment’s reflection reveals a philosophical catch-22.  The question is essentially trying to answer which of the two—goodness or approval of the gods—is the cause and which is the effect.  Euthyphro contends that a thing is good because God commands it.  But this makes God arbitrary and mankind subject to His every whim.  Socrates chooses the second; God commands a thing because it is good.  This too presents a problem, namely that there appears to be something above God, binding His omnipotence.

Which answer is correct?  Both.  Both Euthyphro and Socrates are right.  But because they do not know God in the manner He has revealed Himself to Christians, they are also wrong.  They assume a cause and effect relationship between commandments and God’s will.  Instead it is of God’s nature to act in accord with reason.  The Christian conception of God is one in which God is a God of reason.  We worship the Logos or the Word Made Flesh because we alone recognize God’s true nature.

This problem of somehow seeing laws as constraining God has plagued both the East and the West.  In the Christian West it has led to the rejection of Natural Law and reduced all law to the “will of the People.”  In the East it took the form of a religion called Islam.

euthyphro painting

It is this philosophical problem that plagues Islam and is ultimately the reason why Islam cannot be a religion of peace without being first a religion of force.  There are two ways in which a man can be compelled—by reason and by force.  A god who is pure will and not governed by reason is necessarily a god who will command violence.  A god not governed by reason can only make his law known by commanding it.

In his Regensburg Lecture, Pope Benedict XVI used a quotation of Manuel II to draw out this truth.  Manuel II said that “To convince a reasonable soul one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening the person with death.”  His point is that the truth has a compelling force of its own.  Certainly we are fallen creatures and have difficulty both arriving at and conforming ourselves to the truth, but never the less the truth is ultimately what sets us free.

If you remove truth (through moral relativism) or our ability to know the truth on our own (like in Islam where man can only know what God tells him directly) then the only compelling force to follow laws is through force.  If truth does not make right then “might makes right.”  If Allah is the mightiest then he will ultimately resort to violence to enforce his will.  This violence is not directed just towards non-Muslims, but all mankind.  The violence is done to man’s nature and freedom to come to know the truth and live in accord with it.  For non-Muslims the violence simply extends into man’s material being as well.

This is why any claims that Islam is a religion of peace are logically incoherent with their conception of God.  If we assume that God is a god of pure will then the commands in the Koran such as, “Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! God loves not aggressors. And slay them wherever you find them and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter,” (Sura 2:190-193) naturally follow.  When reason or Logos does not govern action then it necessarily becomes a matter of “might makes right.”  What we label as terrorism is simply a logical consequence of a voluntarist Allah to whom the entire world must be submitted.

As an aside it is worth understanding the claim that the Sura quoted above only allows fighting for self-defense.  The problem with this explanation is the definition of what constitutes an act of aggression against Islam.  Some Islamic schools say non-belief in Islam is itself an act of aggression since it is the true and original religion.  It is assumed that the truth of Islam is so obvious that only an obstinate person would refuse to accept it.

It is said that the goal of Islam is peace.  This is why they greet fellow Muslims with “as-salamu alaykum” (“the peace of Allah be upon you “).  This same greeting is never extended to a non-Muslim because in Islam there exists no concept of peace between nonbeliever and devout Muslims.  The peace that is promoted is within Umma or the worldwide Muslim brotherhood and is the fruit of everyone submitting (the meaning of the word Islam) to the rule of Allah.

For Islam the whole world is wakf , which means it is territory belonging to Allah.  This territory has been promised to the Muslims and jihad is the means by which those lands that have been “illegally” held by infidels are brought back into Islamic possession.  In other words, Muslims can never be accused of occupation or oppression because they believe the land is theirs.  Before allowing any mass “migration” into a country this needs to be understood.  A Muslim who is faithful to the Koran does not see himself as an immigrant anywhere, but instead as coming into land that is by right his.

Everyone has a philosophy whether they recognize it or not.  As Cicero once said, the choice is not between having a philosophy and not having one, but between having a good one or a bad one.  By recognizing the underlying philosophy of Islam, we are able to cut through a lot of the false ideas and rhetoric surrounding it.  A belief in a capricious god always leads to violence as his followers enforce his arbitrary rulings.