Saturday, January 2, 2021

Celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas (and Beyond)

Star of Bethlehem by Bruno Piglhein
 Merry Christmas!  Since I started blogging seven years ago I've honored the 12 Days of Christmas with a meditation (along some beautiful works of art and Christmas songs) for every one of the 12 Days of Christmas. I usually have a few things to say about the later part of the Christmas Season as well (after all, Christmas lasts for more than 12 Days). This year all the posts (up through today's) are HERE, at my blog Nisi Dominus.  Please join me in celebrating the miracle of the Nativity of Christ through the whole Christmas Season.

Andrea Bocelli, David Foster - "Cantique De Noel"

Monday, May 14, 2018

St. Mathias: The Church's First Decision (From Nisi Dominus)

Today is the Feast of St. Mathias, who was chosen to take the place of Judas after he had betrayed The Lord and then killed himself.  The only mention of Mathias in Holy Scripture (at least by that name) appears in the Acts of the Apostles, immediately after the Ascension of Jesus:

In those days Peter stood up among the brethren (the company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty), and said, "Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David, concerning Judas who was guide to those who arrested Jesus.  For he was numbered among us, and was allotted his share in this ministry . . . For it is written in the book of Psalms, 'Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it'; and 'His office let another take.'  So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us--one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection." And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, "Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place." And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was enrolled with the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:15-26)

(to read the entire post , go to Nisi Dominus here)

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday: Who Are Those Cheering People?

There’s something a little unsettling about Palm Sunday.  It appears that the same people who welcome Jesus as a victorious king at the beginning of the week are screaming for his death by its end.  I’ve heard a number of possible explanations. I read once (I’m sorry to say I can no longer remember where) that the supporters greeting Him with palm fronds and hosannas on Sunday may not have been the same angry mob demanding his crucifixion on Friday.

Hippolyte Flandrin, Christ's Entry Into Jerusalem

     There may be some small element of truth to this theory, but I can’t help but think that there must have been a very significant overlap between the two groups.  How likely is it that the entire mass of people who were so enthusiastic just a few days earlier would simply stay away from their new king’s trial?  I find the more traditional explanation more likely, that a large portion, at least, of the first crowd had soured on the whole Jesus phenomenon over the intervening days.
     Which brings us back to the original question: why did so many change their minds?  The likeliest thing seems to be that when they found out that Jesus had no intention of being the sort of savior they were looking for, disappointment and disillusionment turned to disgust and hatred.  They thought that Jesus was a conquering hero who would free them from the oppression of the foreign Romans; when they discovered that his real aim was to free them from sin, well, no thanks, Jesus.
     This explanation rings true, because it fits with human nature: I’ve seen it in other people, I’ve experienced it in myself.  The fact is that, very often, we don’t really want to be saved from our sin. We would be happy to have Jesus take on our external hardships for us, to battle “Caesar” out there on our behalf, but we’re all too comfortable with the inner tyrants who hold us bound in a way no emperor can do.  How often have we welcomed Christ as our savior, only to turn away when the freedom he offers comes with the admonition “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11)?
     But Christ still rides into Jerusalem, receiving acclaim from a crowd that he knows will soon turn against him.  He does it because he loves them . . . just as he loves us.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day - Fruit of the Same Tree

    Fr. Goyo Hildalgo has posted an interesting observation on Twitter: “This year nothing says happy Valentine’s Day like taking your date to get your ashes in church and reminding each other that one day you are both going to die.”  Romantic, no? Fr. is alluding to the fact that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday share the same space on the calendar this year.  This unusual convergence has some people caught in a conflict between bright pink hearts on the one hand, and ashes against a deep purple backdrop on the other.
    The coincidence of these two days should not really be a problem for us if we hold to the Faith as handed down to us.  The Valentine’s Day promoted by retailers and other secular sources, after all, started out as the Feast of St. Valentine, who was a 3rd century Christian martyr. Not only do both observances spring from the same Christian tradition, they actually complement each other in a way that is particularly relevant to our current situation.

   Let’s start with Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the great penitential season of Lent. It’s name comes, of course from the imposition of ashes on the forehead, along with the admonition “remember, man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return”, or sometimes today something like “repent and believe the Gospel” (for more on this particular aspect of Ash Wednesday please see my post “Remember, Man, That Thou Art Dust”).
   The reminder of our dusty origin is taken from Genesis 3:19, at which point the Lord is expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after they have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil at Satan’ behest (tangentially, I once heard a wonderful Ash Wednesday homily on the connection to Genesis 3 to our observance of Lent (which I discuss in my Worth Revisiting Wednesday post: "What Adam Ate Brought Death, Christ Offers the Food of Eternal Life"). In our Ash Wednesday observances we have a concrete reminder that, through original sin and its effects, The Fall is still an operative reality in our lives.  The Fall destroyed the close relationship between humanity and God, which we see when Adam and Eve hide from their Creator in the Garden. It likewise creates division in the one-flesh union between the two of them: they now feel the need to hide their bodies from each other with clothes, since each now feels the greedy power of lust as a consequence of original sin, and perceives it in the other.
    Concupiscence is the theological term for the attraction to sin that is one of the consequences of Original Sin. Lust is by no means its only manifestation, but it has always been one of its most prominent features, and one which heavily overshadows our age. In fact, in lies at the heart of virtually every major point on which the secular world (and the culture of dissent within the Church) takes issue with traditional Catholic moral teaching.  Lust permeates our popular culture.  It is not surprising, then, that as the Feast of St. Valentine has been gradually transformed into the bacchanalia known as Valentine’s Day (or sometimes simply “V” Day) it has become, more or less, simply a celebration of carnal desire.

    Carnality, however, was not the program of the real St. Valentine (as I detail in last year’s post, “St. Valentine, Patron of Agape”). The historic Valentine was put to death by the Romans, according to some accounts, for consecrating Christian marriages.  Now, the Romans married as much as anyone else, there was no crime in presiding over marriages per se.  The crime was in the consecrating of Christian marriages.  St. Valentine was a champion of marriage as raised to a sacrament by Jesus Christ.  He willingly sacrificed his own life for this understanding of marriage.
    It is here that we begin to see the convergence between the supposedly divergent observations of Ash Wednesday and St. Valentine’s Day.  On Ash Wednesday we are called to repent, to turn aside from concupiscence in all its forms and surrender ourselves to Christ.  The Christian marriage for which St. Valentine gave his life likewise calls us to turn aside from selfish lust, and, in imitation of Jesus, sacrifice ourselves for our spouse.  As St. Paul says:

. . . walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Eph 5:2-3)

Later he adds:

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her . . . (Eph 5:25-26)

Christian love consists in sacrificing oneself for the good of others, and a Christian expresses sexual love precisely by sacrificing oneself for one’s wife or husband within the sacramental covenant of marriage.  Most often this also involves sacrificing one’s own wants, desires, and comfort for the good of the children that result from the union.
    Let’s return for a moment to that first human marriage in the Garden of Eden. We saw how concupiscence is an impediment to love: love between the spouses, and love between the spouses and God.  Turning away from sin (i.e., repenting) is the only thing that makes true love possible. If we want true love, we must indeed “Repent and believe the Gospel”.
    This Ash Wednesday my date, as Fr. Goyo Hidalgo puts it, will be my sweetheart of thirty-plus years (along with several of our fair offspring). We're going to church and getting our ashes . . . that we might sanctify each other.

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Presentation and God's Strong Hand

"Moses Striking the Rock", by Francesco Bacchiacca
    Today in the secular world (at least in the United States) we observe the venerable tradition of Groundhog Day, which involves allowing an earth-dwelling rodent to forecast our weather for the next few weeks. Nobody really takes it seriously, and yet it receives an enormous amount of attention.
The Church, as we should expect, has something much more substantial for us. Today, forty days after the birth of Jesus at Christmas, we observe the Feast of the Presentation, in which we commemorate Mary and Joseph bringing the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to consecrate Him to God, as was the Jewish custom with first-born sons. In this event we can see how the Old Covenant foreshadows the new, and how the New, in turn, casts its shadow upon the Old; similarly, we can catch a glimpse of the whole of the life and mission of Jesus on earth, from beginning to end.
Let's start with the depiction of the event in Luke 2:22-40, the Gospel reading at today’s Mass, which begins as follows:

When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, Mary and Joseph took Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord, and to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.  (Luke 2:22-24)

The passage from Exodus to which Luke refers above appears in today’s Office of Readings.  There we see the origin of the mandate that Jewish families offer up their eldest male child to the Lord:

And when the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstlings of your cattle that are males shall be the LORDs. Every firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every first-born of man among your sons you shall redeem. And when in time to come your son asks you, 'What does this mean?' you shall say to him, 'By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both the first-born of man and the first-born of cattle. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all the males that first open the womb; but all the first-born of my sons I redeem.'  (Exodus 13:11-15)

   The injunction to consecrate the first-born males sends a powerful, and serious, message: that the chosen people were saved not through any virtue of their own, but through the favor, and by the power, of God.  By dedicating to the Lord their eldest sons, who will someday become the head of their families, they are putting God at the head of every family.  It is a reminder that future generations are in God’s hands as much as the generation that he liberated from Egypt.

   As we commemorate the Presentation of Jesus, we might also want to consider the passage above in its larger context in the Book of Exodus.  The Hebrews have been released by Pharaoh, but their struggle is just beginning; they have a long road ahead of them.  Here are the verses that immediately follow the reading in today’s Office:

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, "Lest the people repent when they see war, and return to Egypt." But God led the people round by the way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. And the people of Israel went up out of the land of Egypt equipped for battle. (Exodus 13:17-18)

The Israelites will not be able to simply walk in and take up residence in the land the Lord is giving them; they will need to fight, but God knows they’re not ready for that yet.  Before that time they will be prepared and tempered by a close escape from Pharaoh’s army (again, only by the “strength of the hand the LORD”), and forty years of struggle and hardship in the Sinai desert, punctuated by transcendent reminders of God’s Grace (Manna, Water from the Rock, the Ten Commandments).  God makes his Grace available, but the recipients are expected to cooperate actively with it.
   Now let’s look at Luke’s Gospel.  God has shown his strong hand again, in the birth of Jesus, the firstborn (and only born) son of The Father.  The Holy Family encounters a prophetic old man in the Temple named Simeon, who says:

       Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,
according to thy word;
for mine eyes have seen thy salvation
which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to thy people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)

And yet, as was the case with the escape from Egypt, this is only the beginning.  He also tells Mary:

Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2:34-35)

"The Presentation", Hans Holbein the Elder
Simeon says that he can die content now after seeing the Savior, but also reveals that, here as in Moses’s day, salvation can only come after trial and suffering.

   We can see this reality reflected in the Liturgical Calendar: today is our last celebration of the Christ Child, and so our last glance back at the Christmas Season; in less than two weeks it will be Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  We can’t separate the Incarnation from the Via Dolorosa and Calvary.  And it’s no different for any one of us: God doesn’t make his Grace available to spare us our forty years in the desert, or release us from our own Way of the Cross.  Rather, it is to help us through them, because there’s no other way to get the Promised Land beyond.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

"Progressive" Catholicism, Humanae Vitae and the Spirit of Vatican II

This Worth Revisiting post dates from September 26th, 2015, shortly before Pope Francis visited the United States. We'll be hearing more on this topic throughout this year as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI''s encyclical Humanae Vitae.

To enjoy the work of other faithful Catholic bloggers see Worth Revisiting Wednesday, hosted by Elizabeth Reardon at and Allison Gingras at

A Blast From The Past

   Some years ago, as part of a staff spiritual development project at a Catholic high school, I was asked to read and comment upon a number of excerpts from a book called A People Adrift: The Crisis Of The Roman Catholic Church In America, by a fellow named Peter Steinfels.  

I didn’t know much about the author at the time except that he and his wife had some connection with the leftish quasi-Catholic publication Commonweal.  I soon ascertained that he was very much of the “Spirit of Vatican II” school of Catholicism, in which the teaching and tradition of the Church often appears to serve as little more than window dressing for whatever enthusiasms are fashionable among the cultural elite.  It seems that it’s hard to maintain this stance if one is too particular about that doctrine and tradition, as I pointed out in one of my responses to the assigned reading:

Steinfels typically uses vague generalities when proposing his heterodox positions, as when he fails to cite any of the documents of Vatican II in his discussion of the council and the reform of the liturgy [literally not one citation in an entire chapter on the topic!]. Other times he simply ignores factual evidence that doesn’t fit his theses, as when he omits the scriptural background and the teaching of the Fathers in his discussion of contraception, and in his discussions of the current state of the Church he never mentions the ecclesial movements or some of the vibrant new publications spearheaded by lay Catholics.

I couldn’t possibly respond to every omission, distortion, and non-argument in his book, but still my comments grew longer and more elaborate with every chapter assigned. Finally, after reading his chapter on Humanae Vitae and contraception, I submitted a thirteen-page critique of Steinfels' argument and a defense of the Church’s centuries-old ban on contraception, with attached documentation of at least equal length.  It was an exhausting (and tiresome) exercise.
    The Catholic Left, however, never seems to tire of discussing Humanae Vitae and contraception.  Mr. Steinfels continues to opine on the topic in public, most recently just a couple weeks ago in the Washington Post [here], where he takes advantage of the publicity surrounding the Pope’s visit to the United States and next month’s Synod on the Family in Rome to renew his campaign to persuade the Catholic Church to abandon its condemnation of contraception.  

The More Things Change . . .

    As for Steinfels’ arguments, well, not much has changed over the past ten years.  To begin with, he tries to minimize the Catholic teaching on contraception with the usual red herrings and non-sequiturs:

The church’s sexual norms were woven out of the Old Testament, apostolic injunctions and classical doctrines such as Stoicism, which held passion suspect and condemned sexual acts not directed toward procreation as “against nature.”
But unlike, say, adultery or fornication or defining the conditions of a valid marriage, contraception was a relatively marginal issue until the 20th century, when reliable methods replaced a brew of folk remedies. Before that, birth control was associated with prostitution or illicit sex and decried by virtually all Christian denominations . When Anglican churches broke that pattern in 1930, followed by many Protestant denominations, Pope Pius XI reacted with a stern encyclical reasserting the condemnation. Opposition to birth control soon became a kind of identifying mark of Catholicism.
So, the implication is that a centuries-old doctrine can be done away with because 1) it’s based on the Bible, the teaching of the Early Church, and Classical moral philosophy, 2) we can accomplish the proscribed activity much more effectively now than we could in the past, 3) said activity was formerly associated with prostitutes, but now, apparently, behaving like a prostitute is no longer a big deal, and 4) the Anglicans and other Protestant bodies changed the teaching, and they’re doing just fine, aren’t they? . . .  At least the ones who are left. This last point is especially funny, given the massive decline of those ecclesial bodies after their acceptance of contraception, when the the main point of Steinfels’ essay is that banning contraception is driving decline in the Catholic Church.  As a matter of fact, along with points 1 through 3, this actually sounds more like an argument for maintaining the prohibition on contraception, doesn’t it?
Lies, Damned Lies, And Statistics
    There is also the usual unspoken assumption among the “progressive” set that Catholics can somehow vote to repeal unwelcome moral teachings.  He trots out the the notorious “600 theologians” who, in the best traditions of theological discourse, published a full-page ad in the New York Times the day after Humanae Vitae was promulgated in order to proclaim their opposition (one wonders when they found the time to study its arguments, or whether, in fact, they read it at all).  We are asked to accept uncritically the thoroughly unbiblical, uncatholic, and ahistorical notion that, on matters of faith and morals, academics in university theology departments can overrule the Successors of the Apostles.
    We also hear from the voice of the supposedly faithful laity:
Approximately 80 percent of U.S. Catholics, including the thoroughly devout, disagree with that stance [i.e. the prohibition of contraception] (support for changing the ruling is nearly as high around the world). And the vast majority ignore the teaching altogether — one study suggests that 68 percent of sexually active American Catholic women have used birth control, sterilization or IUDs.    
Blessed Paul VI, author of Humanae Vitae
This last quote is a good example of just how slippery these statistics can be: what precisely does “thoroughly devout" mean? Who gets to decide who falls into this category? How can one be “thoroughly" devout if one rejects the teaching of the Church to which one is supposedly devoted? Notice also the careful parsing of “68 percent of sexually active American Catholic women have used birth control.” First of all, I’m surprised the percentage isn’t higher, because we live in a culture where contraception is the norm, where doctors routinely prescribe birth control pills to teenaged girls without a second thought.  That makes it easy to distort the real situation: by including all women who have used birth control, Steinfels is putting in the anti-Humanae Vitae camp the growing number of women who, on the contrary, have embraced the encyclical's teaching after trying the current conventional wisdom and finding it sadly wanting.  Quite a few of the public promoters of Humanae Vitae's teachings today, in fact, are lay people who have gone this route.  More importantly, it doesn't matter how unpopular it might be, Doctrine isn't made, or unmade, by popular opinion: it's Doctrine because the Magisterial Church to which Christ gave the power of binding and loosing (Matthew 18:18) has determined that it's the truth.
The Truth
    That, finally, is the fundamental problem with the Steinfelsian approach, not only in regard to Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical, but to everything.  There is no sense of coming to terms with The Truth: everything is put in terms of a battle of opinions, as if this were a wrangling over a political platform, where whoever can concoct the more persuasive argument "wins". For instance, Steinfels writes:
At last October's Synod on the Family . . . the discussion of contraception was perfunctory.  The bishops simply called on the church [sic -lower case in original] to do a better job of propagating "the message of the encyclical Humanae Vitae." In other words, the rejection of the birth- control ban is simply a messaging problem.
Well, no, it doesn't necessarily follow that the bishops consider it a "messaging problem", which is political jargon for not “selling” your position in a way that appeals to voters. I suspect the bishops were more concerned about the fact that the Church, in the person of its bishops and priests, virtually never mentions the topic at all (for more on that point, see here).  For Steinfels, however, and for "progressive" (another political term) Catholics in general, politics seems to be the prism through which they view everything, including their faith.  Instead of the traditional definition of theology, "Faith seeking Understanding", we have merely "policy preferences seeking justification". That’s not the sort of thing that inspires ordinary people to become saints.
   And yet, sainthood is what we are all striving for, isn't it?  St. John Paul the Great used to exhort us to embrace the “Adventure of Orthodoxy”, and “Set Out Into the Deep”; Mr. Steinfels is willing to settle for “give the people what they want”.  Which one sounds like he’s talking about the Church of Jesus Christ?   

Saturday, January 27, 2018

St. Thomas Aquinas and Conscience: a Sin is Still a Sin

Today is the Feast Day of St. Thomas Aquinas, "The Angelic Doctor".  My first adventure in bloggery was a series of five posts examining the intentional misuse of St. Thomas's teaching on conscience in defense of certain fashionable sins.  I called the series "Thomas Aquinas Said What?" Below, in honor of this great Saint's feast day is a condensed and revised version of that series.

A Sin Not To Sin?

"The Temptation Of St. Thomas" by Francesco  Gessi.  
St. Thomas was not a man who rationalized sin.
   St. Thomas Aquinas, greatest of Catholic theologians, has been the target of a sort of “hostile takeover.” There are people invoking his authority in order to justify ignoring Catholic moral doctrine. They claim  that, according to St. Thomas, it’s wrong not to follow one's conscience, even if it’s in error; therefore, if their conscience tells them to use contraceptives, or support pro- abortion politicians, or vote in favor of redefining marriage they would actually be sinning if they obeyed the Church!  Don’t blame them: Thomas Aquinas made them do it.  What else can they do?

It's wrong to will wrong

     What can any of us do? Well . . . we can let the Angelic Doctor speak for himself. On the one hand, St. Thomas does actually say what the dissenters claim he says, more or less. On the other hand, if we look at all of what he says, he actually means the opposite of what they say he means.  Here is the relevant passage from his Summa Theologiae  [ST hereafter: italics mine here and below]:

. . .  conscience is nothing else than the application of knowledge to some action. Now knowledge is in the reason. Therefore when the will is at variance with erring reason, it is against conscience. But every such will is evil; for it is written (Romans 14:23): "All that is not of faith"--i.e. all that is against conscience--"is sin." 
Therefore the will is evil when it is at variance with erring reason.  ST IiaIae  

Yes, it is “evil” to disobey even an erroneous conscience, but conscience does not mean “feelings” or “opinions” (the common misrepresentation); rather, it is “the application of knowledge to some action”.  To St. Thomas (and to the Church) it is the process of applying moral principles to one’s particular situation, or “knowledge applied to an individual case”, as he describes it in another section (ST I, 79, 13).  Since conscience is the reasoning process by which we determine whether a course of action is good or evil, going against conscience means deliberately choosing what we believe to be evil, even if we do not actually accomplish evil:  

But when erring reason proposes something as being commanded by God, then to scorn the dictate of reason is to scorn the commandment of God.  (ST IiaIae)   

When we violate our conscience, then, quite apart from the actual harm we might or might not be doing (objective sin), we are intentionally rejecting what we believe to be God’s will (subjective sin): the "evil" in violating our conscience is our conscious choice to disobey God. This act of defiance is a sin in itself, quite apart from the sinfulness (or not) of the particular act we are contemplating.      

Forming Our Conscience

The story doesn’t end there, of course; St. Thomas was well aware that someone might try to use his argument to justify sin. He goes on to explain that, even though we must obey an erroneous conscience, we may be morally culpable (i.e., guilty of sin) for having an erroneous conscience.  He says: 

If then reason or conscience err with an error that is voluntary, either directly, or through negligence, so that one errs about what one ought to know; then such an error of reason or conscience does not excuse the will, that abides by that erring reason or conscience, from being evil. But if the error arise from ignorance of some circumstance, and without any negligence, so that it cause the act to be involuntary, then that error of reason or conscience excuses the will, that abides by that erring reason, from being evil.  (ST IiaIae) 

Recall that conscience is moral principles (what he calls “knowledge” or “Divine Law”) applied to particular circumstances.   For an adult Christian “what one ought to know” are the moral principles contained in Church teaching, although it is quite possible to be mistaken or misinformed, through no fault of one’s own (invincible ignorance), about the circumstances to which one is applying the principles. Therefore, invincible ignorance excuses us from subjective guilt, but failure to form our conscience properly does not.   Just to be sure his point is clear, St. Thomas illustrates with the following examples:    

For instance, if erring reason tell a man that he should go to another man's wife, the will that abides by that erring reason is evil; since this error arises from ignorance of the Divine Law, which he is bound to know. But if a man's reason, errs in mistaking another for his wife, and if he wish to give her her right [i.e., sexual intercourse] when she asks for it, his will is excused from being evil: because this error arises from ignorance of a circumstance , which ignorance excuses, and causes the act to be involuntary. (ST IiaIae)

Notice the phrase “bound to know”: whether or not adultery is wrong is not a matter of conscience, its wrongness is an unalterable reality that we are “bound” to acknowledge.

The Wages of Sin

St. Thomas did NOT make her do it
       When the champions of conscience (or perhaps more properly, “conscience”) over and against Catholic moral doctrine invoke St. Thomas, it is almost always in order to justify their rejection of the Church’s teaching on one of the currently fashionable sexual issues, such as contraception, gay marriage, extra-marital sex, etc., practices that have been explicitly and unambiguously condemned in scripture and in the teaching of the Church under the sixth commandment’s prohibition of adultery.  If we look at St. Thomas's entire discussion, however, and not just the one sentence that seems to excuse dissent, we see that he is saying explicitly that you cannot invoke conscience against these teachings. Using adultery as his example, he demonstrates that the role of conscience is not to determine basic rules of right and wrong, but to guide our own actions according to the sure rules we have received from God through his Church.
      It would be helpful at this point to recall that sin involves a lot more than just the will of the sinner. The Church teaches that there must be three conditions for a sin to be a mortal sin: grave matter, full knowledge, and full consent or, more prosaically, "it's bad, you know darn well it's bad, but you go ahead and do it anyway".  St. Thomas is here considering only the second part of the formulation, that is, whether or not you know darn well it's bad.   Even if, through no fault of your own (a significant "if", as we saw above) you don't know it's bad, and so are not guilty of choosing bad, it's still bad.  And it's bad because bad consequences, for you and/or society at large, are likely to follow.  That's why it's a sin, after all. Consider St. Thomas's example of the unwitting adulterer.  He is not guilty of subjective sin, because he is not aware of what he is doing.  The act is nevertheless an objective sin, which could lead to all manner of destructive consequences: fathering a child out of wedlock (with all the attendant problems), or receiving a disease which might in turn infect his innocent wife; the other woman might receive an infection from him, and, depending on her awareness of the situation, might feel exploited or betrayed by him.  If the adultery becomes known, as is likely, it will damage the man's relationship with his wife and children; if not, he may feel the need to cover up his deed and commit the further sin of lying in order protect his family . . .  And on and on.  
   In other words, a sin is a sin is a sin, and whatever we may think, it's still a sin.  As Catholics, we have ample means of knowing the Moral Law, and therefore have no excuse for disobeying it.  St. Thomas writes nothing that justifies committing acts which the Church teaches to be morally wrong.

See also on Nisi Dominus

St. Thomas Aquinas wasn’t just a theologian and a philosopher, he was also a writer of beautiful and enduring hymns: ’PanisAngelicus’ – Friar Alessandro sings St. Thomas

Friday, January 26, 2018

The Power of Christ: Saints Paul, Timothy, & Titus

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)

    The boxer Robert Fitzsimmons, who was slated to fight the much larger James J. Jeffries in a heavyweight title match in 1902, supposedly quipped: “The bigger they come, the harder they fall.”  While Fitzsimmons failed to demonstrate the truth of his remark on that occasion (he lost the bout to Jeffries in the 8th round), it has become something of a proverb.  How many times have we seen that the more formidable the opponent, the more dramatic the impact when he comes crashing down?

    The nascent Church faced just such an opponent in the days after the ascension of Jesus, an opponent much more formidable than James Jeffries and Robert Fitzsimmons put together.  This man “was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3).  Not satisfied with terrorizing the followers of Christ in Jerusalem, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, [he] went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1-2). And yet this man, Saul of Tarsus, reached Damascus a very different man, because on the way he met the Risen Christ:

Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" And he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. (Acts 9:3-8)

“Oh what a fall was there!”, as Shakespeare’s Mark Antony says of the death of Caesar.  And when Saul fell to the ground it was indeed a great fall, one which the Church commemorated yesterday, as it does every January 25th, as the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul.  Saul, of course, later calls himself Paul, and goes on to become Saint Paul. While both might have been great falls, each in its own way, Saul's was a very different fall than Caesar's.  Caesar pursued greatness to satisfy his own ambitions, and any lasting good that came of it was simply a happy consequence God’s working everything for good (see the quote from the same St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans at the top of this post).  This working for good  took a very different form in the case of St. Paul himself. When Paul arrives in Damascus the Lord tells a man named Ananias to “come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight” (Acts 9:12).  Ananias has heard about Paul, and is afraid of him, but the Lord assures him that “he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15).  Unlike Caesar, who lived only for his own glory, Paul now lives for the Glory of God or, as he himself puts it: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). While Caesar's fall was the end of his life ("Now die, Caesar!"), Saul's was the beginning of new, more glorious life.

The laying on of hands: Joseph Ratzinger (later
Pope Benedict XVI) is made a cardinal
    Likewise, any power that St. Paul and the other Apostles wielded was very different from the sort of power that Caesar fought for.  Caesar’s power died with him under the jealous daggers of conspiratorial senators, and it would take almost two decades of ongoing civil war before another man, his great-nephew Octavian, seized supreme command in the Roman Empire and had himself proclaimed Augustus, the first emperor.  It generally happened that emperors after Augustus generally gained power through violence and bloodshed, and lost it in the same way.
St. Paul, on the other hand, was simply a conduit for the power of Christ, who tells him "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9).  It is a power that comes from outside of him, which was before him, and which continues after him.  We can see this in the fact that yesterday’s feast of the Conversion of St. Paul is followed by today’s memorial of Saints Timothy and Titus, just as Timothy and Titus themselves followed Paul.  St. Paul made both men bishops by the laying on of hands, just as Ananias had laid hands on him, and wrote letters addressed to both that are now included in the canon of Sacred Scripture. Timothy and Titus likewise passed the power of Christ on to other bishops.  This power is still working through our bishops today, centuries after the bodies and the power of the Roman Emperors have crumbled into nothing.

    The bigger they come, the harder they fall.  We all fall at some point in our lives.  Let us pray that we fall not like Caesar, in a futile pursuit of worldly ambitions, but like St. Paul, born to a new life in Christ.