Saturday, December 29, 2012

Best Posts of 2012

It's time to wrap up another great year here on Unam Sanctam Catholicam. As usual, I had less time to post this year than the previous year - partially due to my duties at home, partially due to the labor I was putting in to launching the new website, which went live on the Feast of the Holy Angels.The new site is doing well; it already has about 300 articles (about 75% of them new, not copies from this blog) and is getting about a third of the traffic this blog gets, which is pretty decent for only being live for four months.

Some stats on this blog:

Date launched: June 29, 2007
Posts: 898
Followers: 85
Fans on Facebook Page: 291
Average Views Per Month: 6,004
Total Number of Pageviews since 06/29/07: 491,112

Here are (in my opinion) the best posts of 2012:

Were David and Jonathan Homosexuals? Examination of the evidence for and against the argument that David and Jonathan were actually homosexuals in the context of the ancient view of friendship.

Taking Protestants to a Bad Novus Ordo. The problems that arise from the conundrum of preaching to Protestants about the True Faith and then taking them to Mass where they see that the reality doesn't always line up with the ideal.

Balthasar and the Beatific Vision of Christ. Hans Urs Von Balthasar blatantly denies that Christ possessed the Beatific Vision, contrary to the Church's whole tradition.

Comparing Trad and Liberal Dissent. Dismantling the canard that Trad "dissent" is just another a "right-wing version of liberal dissent; featuring graphs to explain the differences!

Transplanting Tradition. Traditions, even if they are not bad in and of themselves, cannot simply be lifted from one cultural context and put into another and have the same meaning.

Cardinal Pell, Richard Dawkins, Adam and Eve. It is unfortunate that the best argument against evolution comes not from the Cardinal but from the atheist.

Intellectualizing Marriage. Is Catholic marriage prep focusing too much on compatibility and psychology and not enough on God's grace?

What is Schism? Examination of the definition of schism with a focus on a distinction between the sin of schism and the canonical state of schism.

The Suicide of Samson. Why the death of Samson was not really suicide in the proper sense and why Samson is still thus honored as a hero of faith.

Traditionalism and the SSPX. Whatever happened historically, the future of the Traditionalist movement need no longer be yoked to the fate of the SSPX.

Pope on Nostra Aetate's "Weaknesses". Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that the Vatican II documents are far from perfect.

The Problem of Catholic Unity. How can really profess a Church with the trait of Unity when the vast majority of Catholics either are ignorant of the Church's true teaching or else dissent from it?

Alleged Catholic Obsession with Homosexuality. It is not the Church that is obsessed with the issue of homosexuality; it is the homosexuals and culture at large who are obsessed with redefining the morality of this specific act.

Potuit, Decuit, Ergo Fecit. On the fittingness of the Immaculate Conception.

Within the Great Stream of Tradition. How to distinguish between things that are legitimate developments of doctrine and things that are deviations from the Tradition.

What's coming up in 2013? A lot, actually. The website continues to grow and become a catalog of all things Catholic, and more contributors are coming on board. Earlier this Fall, I signed a contract with Arx Publishing for a two-volume series on the writings of St. Cyprian of Carthage that should be coming out this Spring, Lord willing. The books are a compendium of all the writings of Cyprian with apologetical footnotes and topical index with a biography of the saint and introduction written by none other than Mr. Ryan Grant, formerly of the now defunct Athanasius Contra Mundum.

I am also in the final phases of getting ready to send my illustrious comrade Anselm's second book to print. Anselm and I began this blog together in 2007, when we were both DREs, but Anselm of course moved on to the ITI where he got very busy obtaining a Master's Degree in Theology (2009) and now and S.T.L. (2012). The thesis from his Master's Degree on the Thomistic doctrine of the atonement became the book Poena Satisfactoria; his 2012 thesis is on the extent of the infallibility of the ordinary papal magisterium and is entitled Cathedra Veritatis. I'm simply working through some formatting issues and this book should be available for sale shortly; I have read the whole thing and can tell you that it is simply excellent. While I miss Anselm's regular contributions to this blog, I applaud his graduation from armchair theologian (like me) to the ranks of real theologians. Congrats, my friend!

Finally (and please pray for me concerning this), I am in the finishing stages of formalizing a radio program for Catholic radio on Church history. This has actually been in the works for eight months and I am expecting word on its status any day now. The program has gone from concept to several pilots and we are now awaiting the final approval to begin production, which I am told is pretty certain. I mess of nerves over it and could use some prayers. If the show goes on air, it very well may be syndicated on various Catholic stations around the country.

Blessings and grace to all! Happy New Year, Merry Christmas, and Blessed Feast of St. Thomas Becket!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Was Jesus born at night?

In western tradition it has been common to depict the birth of our Lord Jesus as occurring during the night. Film and art have reinforced this image so many times that we hardly give it much thought. But was Jesus really born at night? Is there any way to know for sure? This is a question of merely curious interest, perhaps not worth the thought I have expended on it, but - hey, it's Christmas.

In my experience, kids are more likely to be born at night - all four of my children were born between the hours of midnight and 6:00am, which is quite inconvenient but at least I have come to expect it.

Of course, my experience isn't universal and I do admit the existence of people who are not born at night. Where does the tradition that Jesus was born at night come from?

Partially I think this might be related to the tendency in art and film to conflate the birth of Christ with the finding of the Child by the Wise Men. The Wise Men are usually depicted following a star shining over Bethlehem (obviously at night) and it is wrongly presumed that the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem on the very night of Christ's birth. Of course, the Wise Men arrived considerably later than the actual birth date, as evidenced by Herod's command slay all the children two years and younger, "according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men" (Matt. 2:16).

We could also look at the appearance of the angels to the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke, which occurred at night: "And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night" (Luke 2:8). The shepherds are accosted by the angels after the birth of Christ had already taken place, and they are sent to Bethlehem to find the babe. Unlike the case with the Wise Men, this must have occurred relatively soon after the birth, for the shepherds were told that they would find the baby "wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger" (v. 12). Unless Mary and Joseph stayed in the manger for several days or weeks, we can presume this visit happened within a day or two of the birth.

Furthermore, on the night the angels appear to the shepherds, the angel says to them that "for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (v. 11). And we know from the context of the angels worlds that the birth had already happened when the angels appeared to the shepherds. Therefore, the question is, how long after the birth did the angel appear and say that "this day" the Christ had been born? If we can presume Mary and Joseph were still going to be awake when the shepherds came that evening, then the salutation to the shepherds probably happened right at dusk, placing the birth somewhat earlier. But how much earlier?

There is of course no way to be sure from the text. Jesus may have been born at 6:00am, or noon, or 3:00pm, or even 6:00pm and the angel's greeting of a Savior born "this day" would most likely still be applicable. The angelic greeting to the shepherds could have happened several hours after the birth or perhaps almost concomitantly with it. There is no certainty here.

And yet artistic tradition insists it was at night. When you really dig into the Tradition here, you find that the depictions of Christ's birth at night do not come from conclusions drawn from the Gospels, as we would imagine. Rather, the few writings I have found that do reference the birth at night draw upon a text from the Book of Wisdom for their justification:

"While gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed" (Wis. 18:14-15)

The night being "half gone" has traditionally been understood to be midnight. And at midnight, the Word of God is presented as "leaping" from heaven to earth. The Fathers and Medievals loved this image of God's Word "leaping" to earth in the middle of the night and applied this passage to the birth of Christ in the middle of the night. This verse is the inspiration of the famous hymn (one of my favorites), Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming:

Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse's lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah 'twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
Mary we behold it, the Virgin Mother kind.
To show God's love aright, she bore to us a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The application is typological, not prophetic; the verse in context refers to the Angel of Death leaping down to Egypt on the night of the Passover to execute judgment on the firstborn of Egypt; hence the reference to the "land that was doomed." It is somewhat odd that a verse about the Angel of Death should be applied to the birth of Christ - especially more so since this sort of application isn't even theologically precise; if we were to pinpoint a moment when the Word of God "leapt from heaven" to earth, it would not be at Christ's birth, but at the moment of the Incarnation. Still, we are dealing here with a tradition that is artistic, not doctrinal, and the connection between the "Word of God" mentioned in Wisdom and Christ as the Word was too much for Catholic artists to pass up.

We should also note the traditional celebration of Mass Christmas Eve so that the consecration occurs at midnight, at the moment when the Word was believed to have "leapt" from heaven.

This is not the only case of a typological reading of the Old Testament being used to create a setting for the birth of Christ. Again, in our tradition, we are used to seeing baby Jesus surrounded by animals - oxen, cows, sheep, etc. How do we know there were any animals present? Was the manger cave occupied or wasn't it? Again, the fact that tradition has tended to portray the infant Jesus surrounded by reverent animals does not come from exegesis of the Gospels, but a loose reading of Isaiah 1, where God says,

"Sons I have reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master's crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand" (Isa. 1:2-3).

This is not a prophecy; it is simply a matter-of-fact statement contrasting the ability of even dumb animals to recognize their masters with the unwillingness of Israel to do the same. Western tradition has appropriated this phrase by means of typology to apply to the birth of our Savior, since Christ, too, was not recognized by His people, this served as the perfect foil against which to demonstrate the homage of the natural world to the Lord, exemplified by the animals taken from the text of Isaiah.

Thus in the Wise Men who represent all the Gentiles (three corresponding to the three continents known to antiquity), and in the animals who represent the natural world, and in the shepherds who are the poorest of the poor to the angels who sit by the throne of God, we have all creation at every level praising the Savior of the world.

No, our artistic representations of how the birth of Christ happened may not be entirely accurate in all their details. Was Jesus born at night? Who knows. But the western artistic tradition has applied some very pertinent typological texts from the Old Testament to give more depth to this already momentous event. Some may say this obscures the historic truth; I would say it brings the theological meaning of the event into greater clarity.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Within the Great Stream of Tradition

This week I had a follow up meeting with my Protestant acquaintances that I blogged about last time. We spent several hours at the local Big Boy drinking shakes, eating seasoned fries and talking about different issues in theology. As last time, we wandered in a disorderly manner over many topics, starting with the atonement and moving on to the concept of tradition and finally ending with Nominalism and the influence of Occam and the Nominalists upon the proto-Reformers like Wycliffe.

In speaking about Tradition and the break with Catholic Tradition that came out of the Protestant Revolt, one of my companions asked a very decent question. He said, "You speak of different dogmas developing over the centuries; not everything the Catholic Church teaches is found explicitly in the apostolic age" (which is true)...he continued, "so, if you can admit a development of dogma in the Church, why can't it be said that the theological doctrines that came out of the Reformation were themselves developments of Christian dogma?"

The question was raised in the context of Lutheran-Calvinist soteriology. Since there had been much disagreement before as to how the atonement actually works (the Fathers favored the Ransom Theory, Anselm had his Satisfaction Theory, St. Thomas the modified Satisfactory Punishment Theory, etc), why could the historic Christian traditio accommodate all of these diverse theories but find no place for Penal Substitution as a legitimate development? Could it not just be seen as the next step in Christian soteriological development, a development that had already been going on since the days of the Fathers?

The late Fundamentalist Bible teacher J. Vernon McGee (d. 1988)  made a similar point when speaking of eschatology. When it was pointed out to this proponent of the novel Rapture doctrine that the concept of the Rapture was not held by the historic Church, he countered by arguing that, just as the great Christological disputes of theology were worked out in the fifth century, so the Church's eschatological disputes were being worked out in the 20th. Therefore, the "emergence" of the Rapture doctrine so late in the history of Christianity is just the latest step in the development of dogma; Christians ought to be no more wary of the emergence of the Rapture doctrine in the 19th century than of the Trinity in the 4th, the Hypostatic Union in the 5th or any other development.

This does of course beg the question of what is a legitimate development and what isn't. No doubt Dr. McGee would not sanction the devotion to Mary or the saints that grew out of the patristic period or the Scholastic teaching on the nature and efficacy of the Sacraments to be legitimate developments of doctrine but rather deviations. In other words, Dr. McGee would sanction only those developments, like the Rapture, that already conformed to his theology.

But couldn't a Protestant jump back and make the same accusation? The Church only rejects Calvinist soteriology because it is contrary to its teaching while accepting Aquinas' because his conforms. Isn't this the same argument?

Yes. As a matter of fact it is. The only difference is the Catholic has a right to make the argument while the Protestant does not.

Of course the reason why an innovation like the Rapture or Penal Substitution would be rejected as not in keeping with the Tradition for the very reason that they contradict Church teaching, because Church teaching is nothing other than the Tradition. That which is in the stream of Tradition is part of the Church's teaching and that which is not is not proposed by the Church for belief. The Church, the Magisterium in particular, is the custodian of Tradition and is responsible for handing that Tradition on intact to each subsequent generation - this is done by explaining the True Faith, but also by excluding and condemning propositions that are against the Faith. This what the Church does and what it has always done. If the Church is a credal, confessing, historic Church (i.e., One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic) then such a conclusion is self-evident and entirely in keeping with the nature of the Church and Christian dogma as understood by Catholicism.

But, if one rejects this ecclesiological concept of a credal, historic Church, as Dr. McGee does, then by what right does one accept one dogma and reject another, especially if adherents of both sides use the Bible to justify themselves? We know that Protestant sects can argue from the Bible all day long and get nowhere; this is one of the inherent flaws in Protestantism - a lack of a Magisterium to authoritatively resolve conflicts.  The whole Protestant movement was based on the premise that the Church could, and indeed had, erred on several fundamental points of doctrine for several centuries. If Protestants accept Luther's premise that Catholicism had erred in its teachings on justification, the Eucharist, devotion to the saints, etc., then why can't any other Protestant teacher make the similar assertion that Protestantism has erred in its teaching on anything from soteriology to eschatology to the eternality of hell? There is no reason why not, unless you appeal to a universal Tradition.

But if we appeal to that Tradition, we cannot do so haphazardly. That is, if we use the Tradition to support belief in, say, the Trinity or the divinity of Christ, we cannot reject it when it tells us that Mary is sinless or the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ. A Protestant might respond that we can only accept those aspects of Tradition that are in keeping with the Bible, but if we say that we are arguing in a circle - we use the Tradition to interpret arguments about the meaning of Scripture but deferring to the "plain meaning of Scripture" when interpreting the Tradition. Either the Tradition is authoritative or it is not; if it is, then the Catholic Church is the Church of Christ; if it is not, then there can be no appeal to Tradition to solve any theological dilemma. We are left solely with every man to his own sect and each sect its own interpretation and the Baptists and the Presbyterians are no more right or wrong than the Adventists or the Unitarians.

But to go back to the original question of why every development can't be accepted within the larger stream of Tradition - the answer is that Tradition is not to be understood as simply "whatever happens", in such a way that each and every thing that crops up is said to be part of the Tradition just by virtue of existing. Tradition means "that which was handed on", and something within the stream of Tradition must have evidence of being handed on in some way. In other words, that which is truly in the "stream" of Tradition must go "with the stream" and not against it; it must be clearly deducible from principles which came before and one must be able to discern the later development from the seeds of earlier teaching. This is one of the principles Cardinal Newman lays down in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.

Let's use two examples: Mary's Immaculate Conception and the Protestant assertion that the Eucharist is not the real Body and Blood of Christ. First, the Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception, formally defined in 1854, is according to one of my Protestant friends, the prime example of a doctrine "invented out of thin air." But if we look at the Tradition, we can see that it is not the case.

  • First of all, the data of Scripture itself that calls Mary "full of grace" can be said to at least suggest the concept of sinlessness, since to be full of grace is to be without sin, depending on how we understand grace.

  • In St. Irenaeus' writings (c. 180), Mary is described as "undoing the knot of Eve's disobedience" through her own obedience, so Mary is contrasted with Eve and her fiat is given an important place in the Redemption of Man.
  • Fathers of the third century continue to contrast Mary with Eve, using Mary as an antitype, contrasting not only Eve's disobedience with Mary's obedience, but Eve's sinfulness with Mary's purity.
  • By the fourth century, this has crystallized into a language of Mary being "all holy" and "without stain of sin." This is found in the writers of the west, like St. Ambrose, as well as in the east, like in the case of St. Ephrem the Syrian, who wrote poems in honor of Mary's purity. As the devotion to the saints and martyrs evolved, devotion to Mary uniquely as the first and holiest of the saints (hyperdulia) emerged.

  • In the early fifth century, St. Jerome and St. Augustine treat Mary's sinlessness as a given, something all Christians assume rather than argue about. Liturgical feasts also are first recorded here honoring things like Mary's Dormition and her Immaculate Conception, though that language is not yet used. Mary's sinlessness is assumed by all Christians; the Council of Ephesus in 431 declares Mary theotokos.
  • Marian devotion in general spreads throughout the early Middle Ages and all Christians agree that Mary is sinless. Bernard of Clairvaux composes hymns and orations on her purity. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Scholastics ruminate on how exactly Mary is sinless; since actual sin proceeds from original sin, if Mary was free of actual sin or from any stain of sin, it means she was free from original sin. But since original sin is part of human nature, she must have been rendered free from it at her very conception. There are arguments over how this happened, when a human is really "conceived" and so forth, but there is a general agreement that Mary is not only free of actual sin, but free of original sin, and this from her conception. This is the natural conclusion that flows from the patristic consensus on her sinlessness.
  • Marian devotion continues to spread with the promulgation of the Rosary devotion by the Dominicans and the rise of humanistic Christian devotion in the late medieval period that focuses more on the humanity of Christ, in which the Virgin finds a prominent place as an object of veneration, as well as the art of the Renaissance. Liturgical feasts celebrating the Immaculate Conception are celebrated all over Christendom.
Okay, pause. So, we have a clear linear development of Marian theology from the apostolic age to the Renaissance, both in the special place Mary is accorded in the devotional life of the Church, and in the doctrine of her sinlessness and Immaculate Conception, which is either clearly taught by the Fathers or easily deduced by principles the Fathers espoused. There is a solid and unambiguous line connecting the Fathers with the Scholastics and the later medievals, creating a clear line of development. Thus, when Pius IX proclaims the Immaculate Conception ex catherda in 1854, it is evidently clear that this dogma stands firmly within the stream of Tradition. It is clearly handed on, there is a historical continuity of Marian devotion, and the 1854 dogma stands "in the stream" or in the same line of thinking as that of earlier ages. We can, in a sense, anticipate the Immaculate Conception definition from the teachings that came before. This teaching is a legitimate development of Tradition.

Now compare this with the denial of Transubstantiation by the Reformers. Let's look at the Eucharistic Tradition up to the time of the Protestant Revolt:
  • Scripture has Christ refer to the sacrament as His "Body and Blood", there are string Eucharistic allusions in John 6 suggesting that eating and drinking the flesh of the Son of God is somehow necessary in order to be incorporated into Him; St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 states that he who profanes the Lord's supper will be judged for "not discerning the Body of the Lord."
  • References from the apostolic Fathers and the sub-Apostolic Fathers consistently refer to Holy Communion as the Body of Christ. St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 110) calls it the "medicine of immortality" and "the flesh of Jesus Christ", a strange phrase to use about a symbol. St. Justin Martyr calls it "the flesh and blood of Jesus who became flesh."
  • Fathers like Tertullian and St. Cyprian make very clear references to belief in Christ's real presence; Cyprian tells stories of curses that have fallen on apostates for receiving the Body of Christ unworthily. The doctrine is firmly established and undeniable by 250 and will only be further confirmed by the writings of fathers like Augustine, Jerome and Ambrose.
  • In the early medieval period (Gregory the Great on), liturgical praxis develops around the assumption that the Eucharist was the true Body and Blood of Christ. Reception on the tongue was prescribed to prevent possible sacrilege; later, the Minor Elevation was added. Belief in Transubstantiation is evidenced by certain Eucharistic miracles that occur throughout the period, like the famous one of Lanciano, c. 700. Note that, even if specific Eucharistic miracle tales can be written off as legendary or of questionable historicity, the fact that such tales were being circulated at the time is proof that the people of the age believed unquestioningly in the Real Presence. Paschasius Radbertus writes an influential treatise affirming Transubstantiation.
  • In the 11th century, the heresiarch Berengarius becomes the first person on record to doubt Trasubstantiation officially. He is controverted by Lanfranc, the most eminent ecclesiastic of his day, as well as the Holy See and several local synods; the Church universally condemns his teaching.

  • In the 13th century, the doctrine of the form and matter of the sacraments is more perfectly worked out and Transubstantiation is defined formally at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Eucharistic devotion spreads with the institution of the Feast of Corpus Christi and the rise in the practice of Eucharistic Adoration. This continues throughout the medieval period.
Okay, so again, we have a clear line of development in the direction of affirming the real, true and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Now insert the Protestant doctrine that the Body and Blood of Christ is not truly present but is merely a symbol. Given the brief history we just sketched, how can this teaching be said to be a development from anything that came before? It does not flow with the stream of Tradition but adamantly opposes it, holds the former popes and saints to be in error, and posits a teaching that the Fathers and Scholastics would not have recognized; a teaching which, in fact, many condemned. Are we supposed to believe that the 16th century Reformers' denial of everything that came before is somehow also a development of what came before? So contradictions can become developments? This is in the same vein as the Protestant idea of "unity in disunity" as an explanation for why Protestant communions still have "unity" despite being fractured into 20,000+ denominations.

There fact is there is no unambiguous line connecting denial of Transubstantiation with anything that came before, no historical continuity, and no one reading the statements of Augustine or Ignatius or Aquinas would anticipate a denial of the Real Presence as a logical development of earlier ideas. The Protestant concept of the Eucharist is not in the same stream as that of the earlier ages, neither in teaching nor liturgy. Therefore, this is not a legitimate development of doctrine but rather a deviation from it. And the same can be said of every major teaching that came out of the Protestant Revolt or subsequent Protestant sects.

The theory that the developments that came out of the Reformation are legitimate developments of doctrine within the stream of historic Christian Tradition is ultimately an attempt to have your cake and eat it too; to maintain professing a single, uninterrupted Christian traditio that has survived intact throughout the ages, but yet a traditio that can also encompass teachings that are in direct contradiction to the direction of the rest of the Tradition. It is a way to maintain the Protestant dissent from Catholic dogma while affirming the appealing Catholic concept of a single Christian Tradition. It is nothing other than the Via Media that enticed Newman for a time until he came to see that it is a contradiction to claim that things directly contrary to the traditio can themselves be part of that traditio. As Newman discovered so many years ago when he came from Anglicanism into the Catholic Church, there is no way to assert the claims of Catholic Tradition with the right hand while insisting one is independent of it with the left.

Let us stand firm with the stream of Tradition, or let us stand alone to the side, casting rocks at the Tradition like Shimei did to King David and accuse the Tradition of being entirely corrupt; but to try to affirm a Tradition while placing things contrary to that Tradition within the stream of the same Tradition is not possible and conflates the concepts of "development" and "change" as if they were the same thing. That kind of broad accommodation is not possible; either Catholicism is totally right, or it is really, really wrong. If you are with the Tradition, you must be within it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Potuit, Decuit ergo Fecit

This week we celebrated the Feast of Our Lady's Immaculate Conception. In his homily on the feast day, our pastor gave an excellent little exegesis on the formula that the Scholastics adopted for explaining the reason behind the Immaculate Conception.

The formula of the Scholastics is potuit, decuit, ergo fecit, which roughly translated means, "He could do it, it was fitting that He do it, therefore, He did it." The phrase of course refers to God and His causing of the Blessed Virgin Mary to be free from the stain of original sin from the first moment of her conception. God had the power to cause Mary to be created sinless; it was fitting that the Mother of God be sinless - and therefore, God did in fact cause her to be so.

Two things are worthy of noting about this formula:

First, the formula does not offer a proof for the Immaculate Conception, but merely an explanation of why God did it, which is different than a proof. A proof is different than an explanation. An explanation of why I went to the store would be that I needed to pick up some eggs and butter. Proof that I went to the store would be the mileage logged on my car, the surveillance cameras showing me in the store at a given time, electronic records of the purchase on my debit card, and the physical presence of the eggs and butter now safely inside my refrigerator. The latter sum of data is proof; the former is just an explanation.

The interesting thing about the Immaculate Conception in Catholic Tradition is that it is so taken for granted in the first millennium and a half that no theologian or father really bothers to write a formal series of proofs on the Immaculate Conception, the way St. Thomas did with his proofs for God's existence. No one disputed the Immaculate Conception. It was taken for granted that Mary was sinless. St. Augustine did not even think the question was worth discussing and refused to speak of it out of "honor for the Lord":

"Having excepted the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom, on account of the honor of the Lord, I wish to have absolutely no question when treating of sins—for how do we know what abundance of grace for the total overcoming of sin was conferred upon her, who merited to conceive and bear him in whom there was no sin?—so, I say, with the exception of the Virgin, if we could have gathered together all those holy men and women, when they were living here, and had asked them whether they were without sin, what do we suppose would have been their answer?" (Nature and Grace 36:42 [A.D. 415]).

St. Ephraim the Syrian took her absolute purity for granted when he composed his famous hymns in her honor. Notice how he classes Mary in the same category with Jesus, indicating that the gracefulness he envisions in her is more than that which is common to the saints:

"You alone and your Mother are more beautiful than any others, for there is no blemish in you nor any stains upon your Mother. Who of my children can compare in beauty to these?" (Nisibene Hymns 27:8 [A.D. 361]).

Going further back, Tertullian and St. Irenaeus both speak of Mary saving the human race and of humanity being "redeemed by virginal obedience" in contrast to the virginal disobedience of Eve. The analogy is clear: the first Eve, through sin, enslaved humanity; the second Eve, without sin, freed it. It would make no sense to use Mary as an anti-type to Eve if Mary shared sin in common with Eve. The reason Mary and Eve are such a perfect type and anti-type is not because of Mary's similarity to Eve, but because of her dissimilarity. However far back we go in Church Tradition, we see that Mary's sinlessness is never really argued about; it is simply taken for granted; that is, the fact and the rationale are offered, but not the proof. Proofs will come later, but not until the late Scholastic period and the era of the Protestant Revolt when men first started really debating the merits of the teaching.

Second point on this formula: Note that it says the rationale is potuit (He was able) and decuit (it was fitting), but not necessarius erat (it was necessary). The Scholastics were careful to avoid making Mary's Immaculate Conception a matter of strict necessity; they did not teach that Mary had to be free from Original Sin, only that it was within God's power to do it and that it was fitting. The reason for the fittingness of her sinlessness is her unique vocation as the incarnate Mother of the Second Person of the Trinity.

Why did they not argue from necessity? The Scholastics, and most other traditional Catholic theologians, have been very hesitant to say that God "had" to do something this or that way in the economy of salvation. It is very true that, based on what we know and what has been revealed to us, we are unaware of any other way God could have redeemed us other than by the sending of His Son to die a redemptive, atoning death on the cross. But the fact that we are unaware of any other way or that any other potentiality was not revealed to us does not mean that, in His omnipotent eternal wisdom, God could not have chosen another method had He wished. Similarly with the Scriptures, we only know of 73 books that are inspired by God; these and only these books are said to be the Sacred Scriptures breathed by the Holy Spirit. But there is no reason, in God's omnipotent power, that He could not have inspired more or less had He so wished. It is necessary that we hold that there are 73 inspired books, not one more, not one less, for the very purpose that God Himself did in fact inspire 73; but we cannot say that on God's side He could not have done things otherwise had He so wished. To assert so would be to subject God's freedom to act to a kind of necessity or fate that would in fact then be higher than God Himself.

This is why the theologians stop short of saying Mary's Immaculate Conception is necessary and instead focus on the fittingness of the dignity. The official definition of 1854 states that the Immaculate Conception was wrought "by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God"; it is noteworthy that the word privilege is used, as it gives credence to the teaching that Mary's sinlessness is fundamentally an issue of fittingness, not of necessity. Note also in the official definition the absence of "in order that original sin not be transmitted to Christ" or any such language. The Church does not view the Immaculate Conception as "necessary" to preserve Christ Himself from inheriting Original Sin. Rather, it is a privilege that is fitting given Mary's unique status as Mother of God and receptacle of the Incarnate Word of God.

There are some, deviating from Catholic Tradition and no doubt motivated by pious inclinations, who attempt to fabricate some sort of necessity on the Immaculate Conception, sometimes through reflections on the biological details of the Incarnation (see here, for example).  Nevertheless, necessity is not part of the traditional formula, and I do not think Catholics ought to argue from necessity when proposing the Immaculate Conception to our non-Catholic friends. Even St. Thomas Aquinas, when discussing the question of Mary's Immaculate Conception, defaults to the question of "fittingness" or "worthiness" as the rationale for the singular grace. When discussing Mary, Jeremiah and John the Baptist and the concept of sanctification before birth, St. Thomas says:

"Although it is not possible to assign a reason for God's judgments, for instance, why He bestows such a grace on one and not on another, yet there seems to be a certain fittingness in both of these being sanctified in the womb, by their foreshadowing the sanctification which was to be effected through Christ. (STh, III, q. 27, art. 6).

In my experience, Protestants in particular do not understand the argument from fittingness; they want to know why God had to make Mary sinless, and why if so, He didn't also have to make Mary's parents sinless in order to create Mary Immaculate, and so on ad infinitum; and if He can do that to Mary, why not do this with all humanity and dispense with Christ's atoning death altogether? Perhaps Protestantism,  coming from a tradition of ostensibly rejecting all that is "superfluous", "showy" or smacking of "pomp", can no longer appreciate graces bestowed for purposes of adornment, glorification and beautification apart from strict necessity.

It is good to remember that, as St. Thomas said, "why He bestows such a grace on one and not on another" is not ultimately within the purview of our knowledge. Why doesn't God heal all disease, like He did to the people who encountered Christ during the days of His earthly sojourn? He clearly could if He wanted to. Or for that matter, why did He miraculously and infallibly convert St. Paul on the road to Damascus? If He could do that to St. Paul, why not do that to every single human being and save the Church the effort of having to evangelize? God could do that right this second and every human being would be saved. Who doesn't God grant every sinner the grace to immediately and infallibly see the emptiness and futility of worldly pleasure and cause them to repent, as our history tells us happened to St. Francis of Assisi?

The answer of course is that we do not know why God does one thing and not another. When treating of the Immaculate Conception, let us hold fast to traditional formulation. God in His omnipotence was capable of creating Mary sinless, and given the dignity that was to be hers as the Mother of God, it was eminently fitting that she be thus endowed with the grace of sinlessness. God could do it. It was fitting that He do it. Therefore, He did it. Potuit, decuit ergo fecit.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Recent posts on Medjugorje, St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre and More!

We have a whole slew of new articles on the website this week! Here's what's new on USC:
St. Bartholomew's Massacre Death Toll: Article I spent three weeks researching on the true number of people killed in the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre of 1572, debunking outrageous Protestant claims of hundreds of thousands dead.

Understanding the Herzegovina Question: Perhaps the most important Medjugorje article I have ever written, documenting the cultural context of the alleged apparitions in the dispute between the Herzegovinian Franciscans and the Holy See over the ownership of Church property and bringing into context why the Franciscans fabricated the alleged apparitions to begin with.

Liturgy, Decorum and the Bible: If Moses went barefoot in the presence of God, why can't we walk around in the Church sanctuary with our shoes off?

Virgin Mary Crucified? Answer to the absurd fundamentalist claim that Catholics "worship" Mary based on alleged statues of Mary crucified and "dying for our sins" in various churches around the world.

Four Traits of Gregorian Chant: Four characteristics of Gregorian Chant that set it apart from other sorts of music.

Salvatore Lilli and the Martyrs of Armenia:The heroic story of the Franciscan martyrs of Armenia, tortured and killed in 1895 for refusing to convert to Islam.

Movie Reviews

Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Won't Back Down (2012)
John Adams (2008)
The Hunger Games (2012)
Shutter Island (2010)

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Religious Liberty? A Secular Answer to a Secular Problem

All across the nation this year, rallies have been popping up in protest of the Obama Administration's HHS mandate, which would require Catholic employers to pay for insurance plans that would cover abortions and contraception, thus forcing Catholics to sin by contributing to the sin of others who will use these plans to get abortions or obtain contraception.

The United States bishops have made an admirable stand against the mandate. The level of organization and the vehemence of many of their statements of opposition have been impressive. The rallying cry the bishops have settled on is the principle of "Religious Liberty" - that the mandate forces Catholics to violate their conscience by compelling them to act against their religion and hence violates the First Amendment, which guarantees every citizen the right to practice their religion freely without hindrance from the government.
This approach of the bishops was largely strategic. By choosing "religious liberty" as their rallying cry, the United States bishops were attempting to ground the protests within the framework and vocabulary of the First Amendment, part of a secular Constitution written by pseudo-Protestant deists. Presumably the point of grounding the argument on religious liberty in general rather than on the specific teachings of the Catholic Church in particular is that it universalizes and Americanizes the debate, allowing for other parties besides Catholics to join in the protest. By making this about religious liberty, the message is sent that this is not just a Catholic problem.

This is actually part of the modern Church's larger Grand Alliance of All "Moral" People Against Secularism, by which Catholics are supposed to ally with Protestants, Jews, Muslims and all religious people against the onslaught of atheist secularism, which threatens all religions alike. I do not think this is a biblical approach to our modern problems, and I have written against it here.

But the real problem with the "religious liberty" rallying cry is this: the behavior the HHS mandate compels is sinful and contrary to the teaching of the Church. That is the issue - not religious liberty. Religious liberty is certainly involved, but we can't stand on the pillar of religious liberty and be consistent.

Why not? Well, suppose we expend all this time and effort arguing that this is "not just a Catholic problem" and that this is ultimately about "religious liberty." Now suppose the government decides to attack or proscribe the practices of another religious group, but a practice which is, in fact, contrary to Catholic teaching. If this is really about religious liberty, then the Church would be in the awkward position of having to defend practices that are contrary to the truth revealed in Christ on the principle of religious liberty. In other words, arguing against the HHS mandate on the grounds of religious liberty is ultimately arguing that every religious practice is worthy of state support and protection.

This time, the issue is the HHS mandate. But if we argue against this based on the grounds of religious liberty, what about when the government tells the Native American tribes of the west that they cannot use Paiute in their private, religious rituals? If the issue with HHS was religious liberty, then we have to affirm the duty of the state to sanction and protect the "right" of these folks to use illegal controlled substances for their religious worship. We have to allow for protection of Santeria practitioners to sacrifice small animals. We have to stand shoulder to shoulder with orthodox Jews in Germany who are arguing against a ban on religious circumcision (even though the Council of Florence taught that circumcision for religious purposes is a grave sin).

But, if we argue against HHS on grounds of liberty, what grounds do we leave ourselves to argue against the legitimacy of any other practice? Seventh Day Adventist gatherings on Saturdays where the Catholic Church is attacked and blasphemed as the Harlot of Revelation and Jehovah's Witness mock "communions" and everything in between all becomes equally licit and permissible and worthy of state protection because, according to the Bishops, we all have the liberty to persevere in whatever religious error we happen to be enmeshed in. The religious liberty objection really says nothing about the objective truth or falsity of the religious practice in question; it simply appeals to the fact that the practitioner believes their opinions to be true and that this should be respected. Is entirely subjective.

Thus, when the Jews or the Jehovah's Witnesses or the Voodoo folks come complaining about religious liberty being violated in any of their cases, how can the Catholic Church respond? Will we not have boxed ourselves into a corner where we are compelled to advocate religious liberty for these practices as well once we advocated it for our own?

Don't we see that defending one religious practice in the name of "religious liberty" means defending all religious practices absolutely?

This objection to the HHS mandate on the grounds of "religious liberty" is ultimately a weak, secular objection to a very strong secular challenge. As they used to say in sales training, we need to "find the real objection"; if we do not object to HHS on the grounds of religious liberty, upon what grounds do we object to it that will not lead us into the inconsistencies I described above?

The objection should be this:

We will not comply with the HHS Mandate because we are Catholics loyal to the Magisterium and the Traditions of our Faith. Our Faith teaches us that abortion and contraception are grave sins. Not only are they grave sins, but supporting them or enabling others to partake in them are sins as well. We will not comply with a mandate that forces us to betray God by sinning against Him, even to uphold the law. Catholics are good citizens and see no dichotomy between choosing between Caesar and Christ, each with their own proper sphere of authority; but in this mandate you have compelled us to choose between the two, and we shall choose Christ over Caesar.

This response does not make the problem about the First Amendment. It does not force us into an awkward alliance with every religious group out there. It makes this about the world versus the Catholic Church, and choosing between Caesar and Christ, because what Caesar commands is sin. This response does take into account the objective evil of what Caesar commands and makes the issue a religious question, not a political question about what religious "liberties" we have under the Constitution. It does not force us into a position where consistency requires Catholics to uphold the "rights" of non-Catholics to participate in or promote practices or doctrines that are contrary to Catholicism and damaging to people's souls.

The "religious liberty" objection is a profoundly secular objection to a secular problem. We cannot fight secularism with more secularity. We cannot use the enemy's weapons against him; we cannot ourselves use the Ring to defeat Sauron. The religious liberty rallies are a uniquely American solution to an American problem; but it is not an ideal Catholic solution.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Alleged Catholic "Obsession" with Homosexuality and Abortion

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's Doctrinal Assessment of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) has predictably found some serious defects in the LCWR's role of representating the women religious of the United States. The crux of the CDF's statement is that there are "serious doctrinal problems which affect many in Consecrated Life. On the doctrinal level, this crisis is characterized by a diminution of the fundamental Christological center and focus of religious consecration which leads, in turn, to a loss of a “constant and lively sense of the Church” among some Religious."  In other words, women religious no longer see themselves as Brides of Christ.

From this "diminution of the...Christological center" of religious life comes other inevitable diminutions and omissions, especially as regards the Church's teaching on life issues. The document says:

"[W]hile there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the Church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States. Further, issues of crucial importance to the life of Church and society, such as the Church’s Biblical view of family life and human sexuality, are not part of the LCWR agenda in a way that promotes Church teaching. Moreover, occasional public statements by the LCWR that disagree with or challenge positions taken by the Bishops, who are the Church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals, are not compatible with its purpose."

So the positions of the LCWR with regards to the Church's life issues are deficient, and hence, they are rightfully chastised by the CDF for it, among other things. Yet, when the CDF exercises its rightful function of passing judgment on whether a Catholic organization is following Catholic dogma, we instead hear the accusations from the progressives and modernists that the Church is in error for condemning these trends among the LCWR and that the CDF's statement reveals how "obsessed" the Church has become with the issues of abortion and homosexuality.

This nonsense about the Church "obsessing" over life issues and sexual sins is quite a common refrain among the enemies of the Catholic faith. It is protested that Catholics are singling out abortion and homosexuality as worse sins than others. "If the Church would devote the time and resources it uses attacking homosexuality to combating alcoholism, poverty or child abuse, the world would be a much better place." The Church's single-minded, obsessive focus on the "life issues" distracts her from adequately loving the poor and attending to other important corporal works of mercy. Anti-abortion and anti-homosexuality have become the Church's core teachings, our opponents suggest.

The tactic of playing social justice issues against life issues is a stupid false dichotomy, as any devout Catholic or anyone who actually does love poor people and the unborn at the same knows. But this argument about the Church's "obsession" with life issues is interesting. It is true that the Church in the United States probably spends more time and money defending traditional marriage and the rights of the unborn than on any other issues. But does this fact mean that we Catholics are "obsessed" with these issues and see them as the most important Catholic teachings?

Here's the thing. YES, there are lots of other Catholic teachings, and YES, there are lots of other sins; alcoholism, poverty and child abuse are certainly very serious problems that need to be addressed. But (and this is a very serious but), no one is out there trying to redefine the evils of alcoholism, poverty and child abuse and trying to turn them into positive goods. There are no such groups as the "Society for the Promotion of Alcoholism" or the "Child Abuse Supporters Network." There are no mass protests of people chanting, "More poverty! More poverty!" No one is redefining theft as a virtue, or advocating for lying as just one of many acceptable forms of communication, or touting the benefits of drunkenness. In none of these cases is society moving to redefine sin into goodness or vice into virtue. The secular world, by and large, still understands alcoholism, child abuse, et al to be evils, or at least socially undesirable.

But, supposing for the sake of argument that there was a massive public outcry to promote child abuse; suppose that there did exist numerous large, national organizations, well staffed and well funded with important political connections, who were lobbying for tax-payer funded liquor for alcoholics or the abolition of laws against perjury and the promotion of lying as an acceptable form of communication. Suppose we lived in such a world where such things were common. If that were the case, then you can be sure, the Catholic Church would be in the forefront of the fight against such social evils. Bishops would be speaking out against drunkenness, there would be homilies on the virtue of honesty, a whole slew 501 (c) 3 lay organizations dedicated to promoting the welfare of children and combating the pro-child abuse crowd, and there would be a whole market created for pro-sobriety bumper stickers. If these sorts of vices were being redefined as virtues in the manner that abortion, homosexuality and euthanasia are today, then I am positive that Catholics individually and the Church collectively would counter this assault on truth with a campaign as equally vigorous as the one being waged against abortion in this country.

But of course, nobody is proposing to promote drunkenness or redefine lying as a virtue. But people are in fact doing this with abortion, homosexuality and euthanasia, three acts that the entire Western Tradition has seen as gravely evil and depraved until relatively recently. In these cases of the life issues, we do in fact have a society-wide attempt to redefine as positive goods things that were unanimously understood to be evil.

Thus, it is certainly not that the Church is "obsessed" abortion, homosexuality and euthanasia; on the contrary, it is our corrupt culture that is obsessed with redefining the morality of acts that have always been viewed as evil. The Church is not attacking a particular point with any special vehemence; it is simply putting its finger in the dyke at the point of the leak, or deflecting a specific blow aimed at a specific spot on the Body.

If the society will stop redefining immoral acts as moral, I'm sure the Church would stop "obsessing" over the redefinitions. If the state would stop legislating on matters that are ultimately moral and not at all political, then the Church would happily "stay out of politics." But unfortunately, the redefinitions continue and legislation in favor of popular support of immoral actions continues, and so the Church must continue to fight and educate on the life issues and stand firm to maintain its right to pass judgment on the morality (or immortality) of actions of government. What people presume is a Church attack from one direction is really a Christian counter-offensive to a secular onslaught from the other; and society is too blind to see it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

New articles this week!

Here's what's been added to the USC website this week:

The Myth of the Religious Wars
Primer on Restoring Liturgical Music (from a contributor; the first in what will be a series on sacra musica)
Predestination: Problems and Solutions (also from a contributor)
The Human Experience (movie review)
Expendables 2 (movie review)
The Amazing Spider Man (movie review)

I am sorry that besides the article on the religious wars and the film reviews I was unable to write anything myself; I spent the entire week researching and working on the article of the religious wars, but it ended up being a very well done piece of research.

Two of the three movie reviews this week are from a contributor; Blake, from "Popin Ain't Easy", who does a majority of my reviews; the Predestination and Music articles are both from different contributors. If you'd like to write something for the site, please let me know. I am trying to build this site into a clearinghouse of well researched, well written articles on all things traditional and Catholic. If you want to be part of the effort, even in the smallest way, please contact me, and remember to follow this blog on Facebook.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

How did hermits keep the Sunday Obligation?

If you are anything like me, then you must have wondered occasionally, upon reading the tales of St. Benedict spending years alone in an inaccessible cave on Subiaco or St. Daniel Stylites sitting for thirty years atop a pillar, how on earth these hermit-saints fulfilled the Sunday obligation which stipulates participation in Mass every Sunday? When did these holy hermit saints ever receive Holy Communion?

At first glance, it might seem plausible to suggest that the canonical obligation to attend Mass every Sunday was not yet defined, and that in the age of the Desert Fathers and the early Benedictines, Christians basically went to Mass on Sundays as a matter of custom, but not as a strict obligation that needed to be fulfilled on pain of sin. This explanation would allow the hermits leeway to spend extended periods of time in solitude in the wilderness without attending Mass and yet not be guilty of sin.

The only problem with this explanation is that it is not historically accurate. Although canon law as such did not crystallize into a uniform legal code until the 12th century, "canons" certainly existed in the Early Church which prescribed attendance at Sunday Mass and imposed ecclesiastical censures for those who did not. For example, the Council of Elvira (300) decreed: "If anyone in the city neglects to come to church for three Sundays, let him be excommunicated for a short time so that he may be corrected" (Canon 21). In the Apostolic Constitutions, which belong to the end of the fourth century, both the hearing of the Mass and the rest from work are prescribed, and this is attributed to the Apostles. Thus, by the fourth century the general necessity of attending Mass on Sundays was well-known; note that these decrees are contemporary with the earliest Desert Fathers and predate St. Benedict at least a century and a half. Thus, it cannot really be said that a Sunday obligation was unknown in these early centuries. Besides, there was always Hebrews 10:25m which encouraged Christians to meet together regularly for worship, "Not forsaking our assembly, as some are accustomed..."

A further argument against this position is that it does not help us solve the dilemma for hermits who came much later in history, men like St. Cuthbert of Linidsfarne (d. 687) who lived in solitude for eight years on a small island in the North Sea; or Robert of Knaresborough (1160-1218), a hermit who spent his life in a cave in the vicinity of York and certainly lived after the period when the canonical Sunday obligation was clearly defined and universally known.

If the obligation was already known in the days of the Desert Fathers and earliest western hermits, then perhaps we may postulate that they in fact did receive communion regularly? For example, when we read that St. Daniel Stylites lived on top of a pillar for thirty years and never came down even once, we assume of course that though he was not coming down, someone else was coming up; otherwise, how did he obtain food? And if we assume that some disciple was regularly bringing food to fulfill the demands of bodily health, may we not also assume that some disciple likewise regularly brought him Holy Communion to fulfill the demands of spiritual health? When we read of St. Anthony and his community of monks, we must presume there was some priest among them who said Mass and distributed communion to the community. This presumption is based upon the acknowledgement that these individuals were eminently holy and would not out themselves in living arrangements that would preclude them from attending Mass or receiving Holy Communion. Thus, whenever we read about a holy hermit, we must always assume that some provision was made to fulfill this obligation.

This is the view I myself took of this matter for many years, until I realized three very strong weaknesses in the argument:

First, it depends upon a very powerful assumption - that whenever we read of a holy hermit or saintly recluse, we must always assume that they were receiving communion weekly even when their biographies make no mention of it. Surely, had they been receiving communion weekly, their devout hagiographers would have taken care to point this out? But regardless, it is poor history to simply assume that something was regularly going on when there is no real evidence to support such an assumption.

Second, many of the saints' lives positively rule out such explanations. St. Athanasius' biography if St. Anthony is very specific in stating that, after the saint moved into a fortress in the Egyptian desert, he went without any human contact for almost twenty years. How silly would it be for St. Athanasius to say this if what he really meant was, "Except that he left to go to Mass at the local church every week." No; Athanasius is clear that Anthony had not human contact for many years. The life of St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne also states plainly that Cuthbert lived in a small cell on the Farne Islands inaccessible to the outside world except by a small window and that Cuthbert never left it. The life of St. Benedict written by Pope St. Gregory the Great says that the holy Father, when living on Mount Subiaco, dwelt in an inaccessible cave on a sheer cliff face and that he had no human contact for several years, save from the monk Romanus who would lower food down via rope once in awhile. When these biographers go out of their way to stress that these holy hermits had no human contact, how can we justify presuming that they either left for Mass once a week or else received someone who gave them Holy Communion? Of course, perhaps in communities like the one that sprouted up around Anthony later in his life there would be priests present, but it doesn't do away with the passages that specifically deny any human interaction for very long periods.

Finally, even if Anthony or Benedict or Cuthbert had someone bringing them Holy Communion, attending Mass is not the same thing as receiving Holy Communion, and simply having someone bring you Holy Communion while you live in a cave does not constitute fulfilling the Sunday obligation, which stipulates not the reception of communion, but the hearing of Mass, regardless of whether or not communion is received. This is an important distinction we should all know (see here); thus, even if it were true that someone brought these holy men communion once a week, the fundamental problem of how they fulfilled their Sunday obligation would not be resolved.

This is still true for those hermits who reserved the Blessed Sacrament in their cells so that they could receive Communion occasionally, which was common. It does not solve the problem of the Sunday obligation.

If they knew of the Sunday obligation, and we can reasonably assume they did not have some secret way of fulfilling it, are we left with nothing else than to accuse them of sin for intentionally missing Mass? God forbid; the men are saints because they are holy, and they would not be holy if they were guilty of habitually sinning. What are we to do then? Fortunately, there is one other solution, one that I think is very satisfactory.

Let us begin with two assumptions which I do not think any serious Catholic would dispute: first, that the life of the Desert Fathers and hermits was pleasing to God; and second, that God does not command what is impossible. If we can grant these two simple assumptions, then the problem can be happily resolved.

The eremetical life has always been seen as the most radical way of fulfilling the Evangelical Counsels. This is why this style of life was so praised in the early Church and why the early hermits like Anthony were so universally venerated. Thus, whatever a hermit had to do to create the solitude necessary for successfully living the eremetic life was seen as a good, whether living in a cave on a cliff face, dwelling alone in an abandoned Egyptian fortress, or sitting on top of a pillar for three decades. The whole purpose of eremetical life is to cut oneself off from society, including the society of the Church on earth; not because it is bad, but because the solitude afforded by the eremetical life becomes the occasion of perfecting the soul's union with God. This has always been understood and has always been seen as a good in Christina spirituality.

We also know that God does not command what is impossible. Given this, in canon law, as in civil law, there have always been exceptions and relaxations of certain laws based on impossibility of fulfillment. A Catholic astronaut doing a six-month tour of duty on the International Space Station is not held to the Sunday Obligation, for obvious reasons of impossibility of fulfillment; the same applies for Catholics living or traveling in heathen lands where there is no Catholic parish, or even for those Catholics who, though in their homeland, are incapable of attending Mass (camping in Yellowstone twenty miles from the nearest road, laid up in bed with pneumonia, or a single-mother just staying home to attend a sick child). There are a number of reasons why an individual would be practically hindered from getting to Mass, and in these situations - assuming they are legitimate and serious - the canonical obligation is relaxed due to an impossibility of reasonable fulfillment.

Touching on the Sunday Obligation, the 1983 Code of Canon Law states:

"If because of lack of a sacred minister or for other grave cause participation in the celebration of the Eucharist is impossible, it is specially recommended that the faithful take part in the liturgy of the word if it is celebrated in the parish church or in another sacred place according to the prescriptions of the diocesan bishop, or engage in prayer for an appropriate amount of time personally or in a family or, as occasion offers, in groups of families" (Can. 1248§2).

So Canon Law allows for an exception when "celebration of the Eucharist is impossible": and recommends participation in reading and praying of the Scriptures personally or in groups as an acceptable substitute in such circumstances. I know that obviously this canon is part of the 1983 Code, but it recapitulates an earlier canonical tradition that no doubt dates from the earliest days of the Church, as Canon Law is nothing but a summation of what the Church has always done, and the laws concerning the Sunday Obligation were not altered at Vatican II. If we presume that the early fathers and hermits understood the obligation this was, even if they hadn't formulated it systematically, I think the problem disappears.

It does leave us with one question, though: Although we know the obligation is relaxed if its fulfillment is impossible, is it still relaxed if we put ourselves in a situation of impossibility of fulfillment intentionally? Should we not go camping or travel to places where we know ahead of time that we will not be able to attend Mass? And if not, how would this be any different than Benedict choosing to live in a cave for three years with full-knowledge that he would not be able to attend Mass?

It would be tempting to say that such behavior would be wrong for us but alright for Benedict because he is a saint, but I do not think we can allow one standard of behavior for the saints and a different one for everybody else; saints are saints because they are worthy of being imitated, not because we judge them differently and allow bizarre behavior for them but condemn it elsewhere (I have written on this here). No; we have to actually account for the saints' behavior, not just shrug it off as some weird thing that they do because they are saints.

It is my understanding that it is not wrong to intentionally put oneself in a position where fulfillment of the Sunday Obligation is impossible provided this is not our direct intention in doing so. A man who goes camping in the wilderness of Alaska for recreation and misses Mass does not sin by doing so; a man who goes camping in the wilderness of Alaska because he knows his pastor will be preaching against adultery that week and he himself has committed adultery and does not want to suffer through hearing his sin condemned from the pulpit does commit a sin, for his purpose in going camping is simply to avoid having to go to Mass. So I think intention is key here.

To go back to the intention of the hermits, for what end did they withdraw from the world and intentionally put themselves in circumstances where the hearing of Mass was not possible?

Certainly their intention was not to get away from God or avoid obligations; if anything, it was to draw closer to God and more perfectly fulfill their Christian obligations by living the Evangelical Counsels. Such an argument against the eremtical life of the saints that depends on intention for justification would certainly end up justifying their choice of life. This is why no ecclesiastical writer or hagiographer ever seems to think it is an issue than the saints and hermits are not able to attend Mass; they understand that their choice of life makes it impossible to fulfill the Sunday obligation and that in these circumstances, that decision is justified in the eyes of God and the Church.

To sum it up: Though it is true that the Sunday Obligation was known of and was in force in the age of the Desert Fathers and hermits, it seems implicitly understood that the law is relaxed in their case due to an impossibility of fulfillment based upon the nature of the eremetical life itself. Because the eremtical life facilitates the fulfillment of the Evangelical Counsels and is pleasing to God, it is a just and holy thing for men and women to devote themselves to God in this way, and consequently, their intention to leave the world, even if it means an inability to attend Mass regularly, is justified entirely.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Problem of Catholic Unity (part 2)

Last week, we introduced the "problem" of Catholic unity; namely, how can the Catholic Church claim a oneness and supernatural unity substantially superior and different from the vague unity claimed by Protestant sects when a large number of contemporary Catholics are either ignorant of the Church's teachings or else actively dissent from them? How can this be considered unity? After introducing the dilemma, we answered and I think put to rest the objection against the Church's unity based on the existence of ignorant and uncatechized Catholics. Now we have to address the objection against unity based on the existence of rampant dissent within the Church's ranks.

First it is necessary to divest ourselves of the defense that the external dissent does not harm to the unity of the Church because, after all, it is only the internal unity that matters. While tempting, this answer is too similar to the Protestant "unity in disunity" concept - thousands of denominations all in disagreement about every major doctrine but somehow possessing a vague "spiritual" unity based on the fact that they worship the same God. No, we cannot posit such an concept in the Catholic Church.

It is true that the essence of the Church's unity is an internal reality based on the union of the Father with the Son that Christ bestowed upon His Church. However, unity as a mark of the Church is not primarily this internal unity; it is the external, visible unity that flows from that inner unity. St. Cyprian of Carthage, in his famous work On the Unity of the Church, explains that the very unity of the Trinity is the bond which assures the Church of its unity:

"The Lord says, "I and the Father are one"; and again it is written of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, "And these three are one." And does any one believe that this unity which thus comes from the divine strength and coheres in celestial sacraments, can be divided in the Church, and can be separated by the parting asunder of opposing wills?" (On the Unity of the Church, 6).

That is why unity is one of the Four Marks; the marks are supposed to be visible realities that identify the true Church and distinguish it from false sects. A unity that is ultimately invisible is of no use and cannot be the Oneness that Christ gave to the Church.

That being said, it is helpful to look at this question of Unity in the larger context of the Four Marks. Let's look at the mark of Holiness. We know that when we profess that the Church is Holy that we do not mean that every individual member of the Church is holy, or that her holiness comes from the sum total of everybody's individual holiness - as if we could quantify and add up holiness and proclaim the Church holy if 51% or more of its members qualified as holy.

The Church is not said to be holy because of the individual holiness of its members, but because it possesses the very principle of of holiness within it: the treasury of the grace merited by Christ made available through the sacraments, specifically the sacrament of the Eucharist. This holiness does in fact manifest itself in that a very many members of the Catholic Church end up displaying exemplary personal holiness, so much so that the world takes notice.

Similarly, the Church's oneness is not derived from the sum total of everybody's "unity" - by quantifying how many Catholics are in perfect standing with the Church and then trying to add that up. On the contrary, the Church is One because she has the principle of oneness within her - her Union with Christ. This union is manifested physically in the unity of the Bishops with the Pope, and secondarily with the faithful to the Bishops.

Note that the external manifestation of the Church's unity is not primarily measured by how many of the laity agree with the Magisterium. Although it is an ideal situation for the laity to be in docile obedience to the Holy See, that is not primarily what constitutes the Mark of Unity. The Mark of Unity is found primarily in the relation of the episcopate to the papacy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists three elements to the visible unity in paragraph 815:

What are these bonds of unity? Above all, charity "binds everything together in perfect harmony." But the unity of the pilgrim Church is also assured by visible bonds of communion:

- profession of one faith received from the Apostles;
-common celebration of divine worship, especially of the sacraments;
- apostolic succession through the sacrament of Holy Orders, maintaining the fraternal concord of God's family.

 "Profession of the one faith" refers to the formal profession of the Catholic Faith by the Bishop being in union with Rome. "Common celebration" again refers to public, liturgical celebrations, under the jurisdiction of the Bishop; finally, "apostolic succession" again refers to the legitimacy of a Bishop's episcopal consecration. Ultimately, all the visible elements of the Church's oneness have to do with the Bishops being in union with the Successor of Peter.

Thus, the unity of the Church is not ultimately threatened when theology professors dissent or when whole parishes adopt liberal positions. For the unity to be broken, there would have to be a massive invalidation of Apostolic Succession universally, such as the Sedevecantists posit, combined with a massive disruption or schism across most dioceses in the world and a breaking up of the Church's common profession of Faith. There are some (Sedes, some radical SSPX) who claim that these things have all happened, but I think most thinking people will acknowledge that, however bad things are, this has not happened yet. Most Bishops have no positive intention of breaking from Rome, apostolic succession is not in danger, the sacraments are still celebrated all over the globe and the profession of the Faith (at least publicly) is still generally intact, although it is watered down in some places. Therefore, the dissent of some, even many, does not destroy the Church's oneness - and because Protestants lack apostolic succession, valid sacraments or one common profession, this argument cannot be used to support their claims to a vague spiritual unity. Thus we have a good reason why Catholic unity is not imperiled even while Protestant unity is not affirmed. For Protestants, any real unity really must depend upon the sum of each person's agreement with this or that doctrinal statement.

But, in case this line of argumentation is not strong enough, there are a few other points to take into consideration.

The position in favor of the endurance of the Church's unity becomes stronger when we draw in an important point from traditional Catholic ecclesiology. According to classical Catholic theology, the Mystical Body exists in three states: the Church Militant, comprised of Catholics now upon the earth; the Church Suffering, those Catholics who are undergoing the purifications of Purgatory, and the Church Triumphant, those of the faithful who have gone on to their heavenly reward. Thus, the Church encompasses all the Faithful who have ever lived, both those who have gone on before and those upon the earth at this moment. The Church always has one foot on earth and one in heaven. As such, it can never be bound to the fortunes of just one era upon earth because at any given time the majority of the Church is not on earth but in Purgatory and Heaven, where their union to God is much more perfected that it is for us. In light of the all of the Faithful who are alright perfectly united to God in the Beatific Vision, "a multitude which no man could number" (Rev. 7:9), the failings of even a mass of Catholics on earth pale in comparison; they union of the Blessed with God is so strong and profound as to outshine and overwhelm the sins of a few. Not only do they outshine the wicked, but they actually communicate their blessedness to us through their intercession. This is the essence of the doctrine of the Communion of the Saints.

This is especially the case when we realize that the Church also encompasses all the angels as well, which is a truly innumerable multitude (at the very minimum, one for every soul born on this earth, but obviously more than that). These angels who never fell are in constant union with God and mediate His grace to us through their angelic ministry. St. Augustine comments upon this:

"Therefore due order in the profession of faith required that the Church should be named after the Trinity, like a house after the one who lives in it, a temple after its god, and a city after its founder. Here the whole Church should be understood to be meant, not only the part that is in pilgrimage on earth, praising the name of the Lord from the rising of the sun to its setting and singing a new song after its old captivity, but also that part which has remained with God in heaven ever since its foundation and has never suffered any fall into evil. This part is found among the holy angels and continues in blessedness, giving generous help as it should to its comrades who are on pilgrimage, since they will together form one company in eternity, which is one already by the bond of charity, established to worship the one God" (Enchridion, 56).

Looking at the Church from the light of eternity, these problems about a vocal group dissenting, even a very large group, do not seem so formidable. Please notice that no Protestant sect can make this claim about the unity of their own church, denomination or loose association of churches. For them, who deny any communication in spiritual goods between those in heaven and those on earth, the church really is only that which on earth; the church is bound to the fate of this present generation, and as this generation goes, so goes the Protestant church. Thus they can make no argument for unity based on a church existing in multiple states outside of time.

But even if we discount the argument from the Church's three states and take a purely historical view of the Church, from its founding by Christ to the Second Coming, we can still see a powerful argument for the persistence of the Church's unity in the face of the dissent and defection of some of its members: Because the Church professes to also be Apostolic and a historical Church with roots firmly planted in Tradition, the Catholic Church's unity therefore does not stand or fall with any one generation. There may be much dissent at the moment, but given the hundreds of generations of Catholics who lived and died vehemently attached to the unity of the Faith, it becomes a drop in the bucket. The fact that the generation of St. Athanasius was largely Arian and that the mid-4th century was marked by schism and crisis did not undermine the overall historical unity of the Church; the 4th century dissenters did not destroy it, nor will those of the 21st century. The Church is founded on a certain deposit of Faith, it has guarded and preserved this deposit, and no matter what is going on now, we know from Divine Revelation how this story ends - we know that we totally and unambiguously win in the end.

Therefore, knowing that the Faith began in a unified integrity, by and large has been transmitted in integrity, and that this Faith will eventually win and triumph in the end - that from beginning to end we have the knowledge and promise of unity and integrity - how can we worry that the failings of a single generation will jeopardize that unity? If we look at this generation against the backdrop of hundreds of better generations, we realize, again, that this present crisis is not as big as it seems to us. The sun is setting on this earth, and a setting sun casts long shadows, shadows that seem colder and deeper than the realities they reflect. These sorts of things will vanish away in a moment when Christ descends from heaven with a shout.

We could close with some words from Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis in which that venerable pontiff reminds us that the Church exists as both a supernatural and a natural reality, and that to the extent that there are wounds to her holiness or unity by bad bishops or sinful men, it is not due to the nature of the Church itself, but to sinful tendencies of human nature. Just as a desire for sanctity and a pull towards sin exist in us, so do forces rending unity coexist with the forces compelling unity within the Church. Just as these trials becomes tests of our virtue, so the trials of the Church are tests for her. Furthermore, just as our own souls shall be purified of our own weaknesses when we are glorified, so also shall the Church herself be divested of these human failings on that day when she is presented as a spotless Bride to Christ:

"And if at times there appears in the Church something that indicates the weakness of our human nature, it should not be attributed to her juridical constitution, but rather to that regrettable inclination to evil found in each individual, which its Divine Founder permits even at times in the most exalted members of His Mystical Body, for the purpose of testing the virtue of the Shepherds no less than of the flocks, and that all may increase the merit of their Christian faith. For, as We said above, Christ did not wish to exclude sinners from His Church; hence if some of her members are suffering from spiritual maladies, that is no reason why we should lessen our love for the Church, but rather a reason why we should increase our devotion to her members. Certainly the loving Mother is spotless in the Sacraments by which she gives birth to and nourishes her children; in the faith which she has always preserved inviolate; in her sacred laws imposed on all; in the evangelical counsels which she recommends; in those heavenly gifts and extraordinary grace through which with inexhaustible fecundity, she generates hosts of martyrs, virgins and confessors. But it cannot be laid to her charge if some members fall, weak or wounded. In their name she prays to God daily: "Forgive us our trespasses;" and with the brave heart of a mother she applies herself at once to the work of nursing them back to spiritual health. When, therefore, we call the Body of Jesus Christ "mystical," the very meaning of the word conveys a solemn warning. It is a warning that echoes in these words of St. Leo: "Recognize, O Christian, your dignity, and being made a sharer of the divine nature go not back to your former worthlessness along the way of unseemly conduct. Keep in mind of what Head and of what Body you are a member" (Mystici Corporis, 66).

Even when lay theologians and bishops dissent, even when whole dioceses fall into darkness, though it may wound unity, it can never destroy it so long as apostolic succession is maintained, the episcopate of the world remains in canonical union with Rome, and valid sacraments are being administered - furthermore, taking into account the how the disorders of the present age are outweighed by the faithful witness of hundreds of other generations, and how at the end of things, the vast majority of the Church already exists in perfect unity with Christ in the Beatific Vision, we can see that the presence of dissenters and scoffers within the Church is ultimately no threat to her unity. They were be burned up like stubble on the Day of Fire.