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.