Tag Archives: history

Question: Interpreting and Dating the Bible

Caravaggio MatthewAndTheAngel byMikeyAngels.jpg

St. Matthew and the Angel (destroyed in 1945)

Marcy asks a big, multi-part question.  I took the liberty in breaking this rather large and varied question into five smaller questions.  I hope you don’t mind, Marcy!

 

Let’s take them one at a time.

 

  1. “If the Ten Commandments (or even just the two main ones—love one another and don’t have other gods before me) are the laws by which God wants most western religions to abide, why are things so muddled with the conflicting dicta of other parts of the Bible?”

 

First, let’s look at the Divine Law.  Marcy mentions the “two main” commandments, which could be simplified as the scribe did speaking to Jesus: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.  Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).  That’s the basis for all law, whether it be religious or civil.  Everything boils down to how we honor God and how we treat our fellow man.  Most Christians and non-Christians can agree with that division, even if they disagree with the laws themselves.

 

Christ’s division of the Divine Law into “Love God” and “Love Neighbor” also reflects the Natural Law, those ethical rules we discern through reason.  Pagan tribes, uncontacted by missionaries, still honor the gods and have an understanding of respecting others.  Our definition of Natural Law comes not from the Bible but from philosophers like Aristotle, Confucius, and Buddha.  It is the moral teaching that affect all of mankind.  It is why, for example, Thomas Jefferson could write in the Declaration of Independence that the rights of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” are “self-evident,” or the Nazi war criminals could be tried for “crimes against humanity,” or that every major ethical philosopher has some variation of “Treat others as you would want be treated.”

 

So that’s God’s plan: Love Him and Love people.  Real love.  Willing the best for others and acting accordingly.  That is our moral plan for life.

 

So if that’s all we need, why the other, “conflicting” laws?

 

I can’t get into everything.  That would take a book (see at the end for a list of them).  Me?  I have a blogpost.  So I will focus on why there are so many laws when the basic laws are so simple.

 

The answer is, of course, that the laws are simple, but people aren’t.  Perhaps it might help to look at the problem in light of God’s paternity.  Parents often find themselves dealing with children who need clearer guidelines.  Before, it might have been simple enough to say “Don’t move” to a baby (like that ever works) but now you must say “Stay there and don’t put the diaper in your mouth”).  The intention of the parent is still there, but now there is another rule in place to ensure the end is reached.  Of course, that doesn’t always work, and even a perfect parent has days when the children just do not listen.  Likewise, parents may know that one day they will have to have rules in the house that do not apply to the babies.  I do not, for example, need to tell my older son Benjamin that he must bring the car back before a certain time, or tell my other son Jacob that he cannot stay out past his curfew.  They’re toddlers.  They don’t need to have those rules.  When the circumstances change, and the children get older, the rules multiply; laws I had not enumerated now come into force.

 

So it is, in a sense, with God and His Law.  God’s law to mankind used to be very simple: have babies, care for creation, and don’t eat from this one tree.  Adam and Eve broke the tree rule before they could even get to the babies and caring for creation.  As a result, there were consequences.  As we travel through the Old Testament, we see how God has to refine and clarify His intentions with Israel.  He gave them the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, and the people swore to follow them, but when Moses went back up the mountain to get plans for how to build the Ark of the Covenant, the people revolted and began worshipping a golden cow.  As a result, God took away the priesthood from every family, gave it to the Levites, and gave the Levites very clear instructions on how to worship.  We call these instructions Leviticus; it’s the third book in the Bible.  Later, the Israelites AGAIN broke the law, and so God had to clarify His law AGAIN (this time in the book of Deuteronomy, which literally means “second law”).  So it was again and again.

 

When Jesus came, He continued this refinement of the law.  “You’ve heard it said,” Christ would say.  “But I say,” He would continue.  Christ gives us a New Law that does not remove the old one but rather fulfills it, demonstrating the realities to which that the Old Law pointed.

 

“Conflicting data?”  Remember something very important: we must read the Bible as a whole, not each part in isolation.  We are also not asked to read the Bible alone; that can (and does) lead to confusion on so many points.  The Bible was, after all, written over several centuries by different people in different historical situations.  It is here that the Church’s Magisterium is so essential.  The Magisterium’s particular role is interpreting what God has revealed to us, whether through Scripture or through Tradition.  We should not ignore what the Church has to say about these important points, especially when looking at more controversial topics in the Bible.  God does not contradict God, and truth does not contradict truth.  We have to adjust our understanding of Scripture and the world to God’s, rather than force Him into our narrow frame of mind.

 

Christ established the Church to guide the faithful to salvation and to provide grace through the sacraments.  I might, in a later blog post, go over how we know the Church was established by Christ and that Christ intended it to have the role it does today.  For now, this brief excurses will have to suffice.

 

  1. “Why even use the other parts?”

 

The Bible is much more than laws, just like a library is much more than rulebooks.  There are poems, histories, sagas, proverbs, letters, biographies, visions, and short stories.  All of them teach, but not all of them are laws in the strict sense.  The purpose of Scripture is not just to tell us laws.  It is to tell a love story, that of God for us.  The story helps us understand the laws, just as knowing about your family would help understand any rules particular to your household.  This world, creation, is God’s household, and we are all His children.  The Church’s theology picks up on this.  Theologians refer to the external activities of the Trinity, i.e., whenever God does something outside of Himself, as the “Divine Economy,” from the Greek word oikonomia, meaning “managing a household.”

 

  1. “Who were the authors?”

 

On the one hand, we know the names of several authors of various books in the Bible.  For example, the New Testament letters were written by Sts. Paul, John, James, and Jude.  The Gospels were written by Sts.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  St. Luke also wrote Acts of the Apostles, and St. John is named as the author of Revelation.  In the Old Testament, we know that David wrote most of the Psalms, that Baruch was the scribe for the prophet Jeremiah (and wrote down his own prophecies).  Hebrew tradition names Moses as the author of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, and we can ascribe the words of the various prophets to them or a scribe that travelled with them.

 

On the other hand, we don’t know who wrote most of the Bible.  We can estimate when certain works were composed, but most of Scripture is was written by anonymous authors over the centuries. However, we can see that certain books were written by the same author.  For example, 1 and 2 Chronicles seem to have been written by Ezra the scribe (who also wrote the book Ezra in the Old Testament), but modern biblical critics aren’t sure and so they refer to the author as “The Chronicler.”  Most of the historical books were written by anonymous historians who drew from previously written sources.

 

All of that said, we should also keep in mind that all of the human authors of Scripture are the secondary authors.  The primary Author is God.  He ensures that nothing needed for our salvation is missing from Scripture, and it is because of this that we speak of the Bible as inerrant and inspired.  When we ignore God as the primary Author, we miss the whole purpose of the book.

View the Great Isaiah Scroll

Sample of the Dead Sea Scrolls (Isaiah Scroll)

  1. “When did they write?”

 

As mentioned, the Bible wasn’t written in a couple years; more like several hundred years.  While we cannot figure out the exact date of composition for many of the books (that information is simply lost in time), we can estimate for several of the books when they were composed using evidence within the text and from other historical information.

 

Dating books in the Old Testament is particularly challenging.  Even though the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch or Torah, specifically Genesis through Deuteronomy) are attributed to Moses, we do not know for certain when they were written down.  We do know that there were copies of them in writing during the time of the kings because the scrolls of the Torah were found abandoned in the Temple and were read to King Josiah (see 2 Kings 22), which means scribes wrote them down before 600 BC.  Even scholars who tend to date these documents as “later” date them to the 720s BC, over a century before Josiah’s reign.

 

We can date books by the writers ascribed to them.  For example, even if they did not write them down themselves, many of the Psalms are attributed to specific individuals, such as Kings David and Solomon, which would put their composition between 1000 and 922 BC.  Solomon is also the ascribed author of Proverbs, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes, again, dating those books’ composition to no later than 922 (when Solomon’s son split the united Israelite kingdom through his arrogance).

 

We can also date the composition of books by what they discuss.  For example, scholars estimate that Ruth was written around the time of King David because of the genealogy attached to the end; the whole story is a sort of background to the rise of David as king.  We can date when the anonymous “Chronicler” wrote 1& 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah because of the genealogy of high priests described in Nehemiah 12 (dating the composition around the early fourth century BC).  We know that 1 & 2 Maccabees were written by 100s BC because they describe the events of the Jewish revolt against the Greeks in Israel, which ended around 160 BC, and because both books are in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) which was completed before 132 BC.

 

Unfortunately, not all of the books are so easily dated.  However, we do know that the entire Old Testament was completed by the translation of the Septuagint.

 

As far as the New Testament books, we know that they were completed by the death of John the Evangelist (around AD 100).  Historical critics who tried to date the books later into the AD 100s or even the 200s have been shown to be wrong by more recent scholarship.  The general consensus is that the four Gospels were written before AD 70, when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.  The letters of Sts. Peter and Paul were written before their death in the late AD 60s.  The Gospel of Luke was written before Acts of the Apostles, which was written before Paul’s final arrest and execution (probably before the fire in Rome in AD 64).  For more on the dating of the Gospels, check out this article I wrote about their historicity.

 

  1. “What happened to the parts written by women?”

 

In the Ancient World, literacy was the precious possession of a few special individuals.  As such, scribes (those who could read and write) were respected and pretty much guaranteed an important position in society.  Recent studies have found that more people than previously thought could read and write in Judah prior to the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, but even then the number was a few hundred, very small in relation to the hundreds of thousands of Israelites (see here).  Even by the time of Christ, when more people could read and write thanks to the education systems of the Greeks and Romans, the majority of people could do little more than write their name.  Scholars estimate at most 10% of the Empire’s population could read or write more than their signature.

 

If literacy was that rare among the general public, it was even rarer for women.  Rich women might be able to read or write, but the common ladies could not.  So the simple answer to the question “what happened to the parts written by women” is that they never existed because women, for the most part, didn’t write.  The fact that there is no tradition of direct female authorship of any Biblical books should not be ignored in this regard.

 

However, the Church has long reminded us of the important role women have in society, in salvation history, and in the inspiration of stories and details in the Bible.  Remember that three of the historical Biblical books (Ruth, Judith, and Esther) have female protagonists, and women play a huge role in Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, and 2 Maccabees (where we find the story of the brave mother who encourages her seven sons to die rather than blaspheme God).   It might be argued that these early stories of heroic women (especially where the stories refer to the inner thoughts of these heroines) were drawn from the reminiscences of the women themselves.  In that sense, they might be seen as the book’s author.

 

In the New Testament we see a similar scenario with Mary, Jesus’ mother.  The details of Christ’s infancy narrative, especially in Luke’s Gospel, were drawn from the authors’ conversations with Mary.  Luke even hints at this by saying that “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).  How does an author know the inner thoughts of someone unless he spoke with her?  We also know that Mary lived with St. John the Evangelist after Christ’s death.  St. John wrote the most mystical of the four Gospels and emphasized repeatedly in his first letter that “God is love” (see 1 John 4:8ff).  What better source of that reflection than God’s own mother.

Six women of the Old Testament - Eve, Miriam, Yael, Ruth, Judith and Esther

Six Old Testament Women (Eve, Miriam, Jael, Judith, Ruth, and Esther)

Church of the Dormition, Jerusalem

 

So I hope that answers your questions, Marcy, or at least whets your appetite for more.  Feel free to check out some of the resources I linked to in this article, or some of the resources in the tabs at the top of the page.

 

And everyone, if YOU have a question you want answered, go ahead and send it in.  I’ll get to it eventually . . .

 

 

For Further Reading

 

On Biblical Interpretation

Scott Hahn, A Father Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture

_______, Scripture Matters: Essays on Reading the Bible from the Heart of the Church

Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church.  

 

On Difficult Bible Passages

Trent Horn, Hard Sayings: A Catholic Approach to Answering Bible Difficulties

Matthew Ramage, Dark Passages of the Bible: Engaging Scripture with Benedict XVI and St. Thomas Aquinas

 

On Bible History and Dating

Walter C. Kaiser Jr., The Old Testament Books: Are They Reliable & Relevant?

F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Books: Are They Reliable?

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I had originally written this reflection for publication in an online magazine, but I didn’t submit it in time.  So I’ll publish it here!

Happy Feast of the First Martyrs of Rome

On a late July night in AD 64, hidden in the imperial palace, Emperor Nero’s dark thoughts stirred.  A substantial portion of the great city of Rome lay under ashes.  Outrage spread throughout the streets of the empire’s capital.  Like any outraged populous, the people of Rome called for answers.  They needed answers.  For many, their lives seemed utterly ruined.  The emperor, that sick and twisted man who had murdered his wife and his mother, must be to blame.  So the rumbling crowds shouted.  Nero needed an answer for them, something that would divert their anger from him to someone, or some group, of no consequence.

Perhaps it was an aide to him who made the suggestion.  Perhaps he had heard tales of a strange group that had trickled out from Palestine, a group that adhered to strange rituals and bizarre teachings.  They were a relatively unpopular group, often at odds with the traditional Roman priests.  Perhaps reports came to Nero’s court that these new zealots had stirred up trouble in Greece a few years earlier.  The more the emperor thought on this, the more he knew he had his scapegoat.

He announced by imperial decree that this radical group was to blame for the fire of Rome.  The religion became illegal, and for the 250 years that spanned the fire of Rome in AD 64 and the Edict of Milan in 313, Christians throughout the empire lived and preached under that ban.  The hunt began, and it was not long before the first Christians appeared in a Roman court for that most persistent of crimes: faithfully following Jesus of Nazareth.

The feast of the First Martyrs of the Roman Church falls on June 30, the day after the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul.  It is a fitting placement for such a feast, for if we include in the list of the earliest Roman martyrs those who died before Nero’s bloody suicide in AD 68, then tradition holds that both St. Peter and St. Paul fall into this category of First Roman Martyrs.  On the other hand, this feast celebrates the lesser known martyrs, those whose names or life stories are lost to history.

Their deaths, however, scar the period of the early Roman Empire and provide a blueprint for the persecution of Christians even in more recent years.  Imperial troops scoured the city for Christians.  Arrested Christians often confessed that they were Christian, and under torture often gave the names of other Christians.  The Roman writer Tacitus describes how “an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind” (Tacitus, Annals 15: 44).  Soon this multitude filled the prisons in Rome, and executions followed.

These executions, providing the martyrs with their crowns, stand in history as among the most appalling murders ever recorded.  Men, women, and children died in the circus on the Vatican Hill, near where St. Peter’s Basilica is today.  Some were killed by more traditional Roman methods of execution, such as beheading or crucifixion (St. Paul died through beheading; St. Peter died via crucifixion).  Others died in more diabolical ways.  Nero held grand parties in his private gardens.  There the attendees would see performances of horrific tales from Greco-Roman mythology, particularly ones where the tragic figure would perish at the end.  The part of the helpless victim fell to the Christian prisoners.  In similar fashion, guests of the emperor hunted game in the gardens, though in this scenario the game was a Christian dressed in animal skins.  Nero’s dogs attacked the caught Christian and killed him or her, as they might any wild animal.  The most horrific, however, came after the sun set.  Nero mounted his personal chariot and rode along the garden’s pathways, cheered on by the guests.  As he rode, servants lit torches along his route.  These torches, burning and spitting in the Roman night air, contained not mere pitch or oil, but rather helpless Christians, who being condemned to die, served as Nero’s “Roman candles.”  Many died in such horrible manners, shocking though they may be.  Though the death of Nero granted the Christians some respite from such tortures, it would not be long before another Roman emperor saw reason to wipe out Christians from the empire.  As French historian Henri Daniel-Rops puts it,

Between 64 and 314 every single day held for the faithful believer the ever-present threat of a frightful death: the period is divided fairly evenly into the years of active bloodshed and those of relative quiet.  And every so often, during those two hundred and fifty years of history, we shall hear that cry of distress and agony rising heavenwards again, just as it had risen from the gardens of the Vatican glade in Nero’s day.  But from the moment of the first tortures the faith had known how to transform that cry into a cry of hope.  (Daniel-Rops, The Church of Apostles and Martyrs, 159)

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How do these stories of men and women slain nearly 1950 years ago apply to us today?  Like in the days of Ancient Rome, Christians today face persecution.  While many are not called to martyrdom, as the Christians under Nero were, we are all prepared for it.  By our baptism we are brought into new life in Christ, and by living in Christ, we also share in His death and Resurrection.  We are all called to suffer for the sake of the Name, even if it isn’t to the death.  We are all called to sacrifice our lives for the glory of God.  No matter our vocation, we are called to give up what we once were and embrace a radical new way of living.  This, then, is the ultimate lesson from these earliest martyrs of the Church, the same proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council: the Universal Call to Holiness.  Only when we embrace this call can we stand with the martyrs of the early Roman Church and worship the Triune God for all eternity.

For Further Reading:

Henri Daniel-Rops.  The Church of Apostles and Martyrs

Warren H. Carroll.  A History of Christendom.  Volume 1.  The Founding of Christendom.

Reflection: First Martyrs of Rome

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Review: The Crisis of Christendom by Warren H. Carroll

This is something new for Quidquid Est, Est.  Book Reviews.  As mentioned, I will be reviewing books, some old and some new, that might be of interest for readers of this blog.  They will have their own special category and will be (generally speaking) unrelated to other posts prior to or succeeding them.

And it is my honor to review, for the inaugural Book Review, a work that I have been awaiting probably more than any other person on Earth.  The book is the sixth volume in the late Warren H. Carroll’s History of Christendom series, The Crisis of Christendom (published this year by Christendom Press).  To give you an idea of how long the wait has been for this particular volume, the fifth book of the series, The Revolution Against Christendom, came out in 2005.  The author, an esteemed Catholic historian known worldwide for his devout recounting of key events in Christian history and his role as founder and first president of Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia (my alma mater), died in 2011.  At the time of his death, news releases from ChristendomCollege assured fans of the series that the volume was near completion, and that its publication would be in June 2012.

June 2012 came and went, and it seemed for a year the publication date of the book pushed forward a month at a time.  I was going crazy.

But I have it now (it came out in July 2013), and have read it, and can say with confidence that it was well worth the wait.

The book contains a Forward written by Carroll’s widow, Anne Carroll, who is the co-author of the last two volumes of Carroll’s history.  She notes that the volume covers the years between 1815 and 2010, a time of immense historical events.  Mrs. Carroll notes, “It is not possible to cover these years with the thoroughness of most of his [Warren Carroll’s] earlier volumes.  But Dr. Carroll had selected the topics he wanted to cover, out of all the events that could have been discussed, and it is those topics that are presented here” (p. ix).  As a result, the structure of this volume differs from earlier volumes.  Whereas the chapters in Volumes I-V covered several events within a set time frame, often switching from one topic to another without clear delineation, Volume VI includes subtopic headings, helping the reader know the main focus of that section.  It is a welcome addition which adds to the book’s value as a reference text.

Volume VI opens where Volume V closed, in Europe following the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte.  It traces the historical attempts to reunite and restore a broken Europe from the ashes of Napoleonic conquest.  The major historical players are discussed, kings and queens from throughout Europe.  Carroll then discusses the seeds of a new revolution in the writings of Karl Marx.  Later chapters in the volume will examine in great detail one of Carroll’s favorite historical topics: Communism.  The birth of Communism is documented, and rightly so.  Carroll, however, does not leave the story dark, for great light shone in Europe during the 19th century, namely visitations of Mary (during what Carroll calls the “Marian Century”), the pontificate of Bl. Pope Pius IX, and the climactic meetings of the First Vatican Council.

Also discussed are the trials and victories of the New World, especially in the United States of America.  Carroll devotes an entire chapter to the abolition of slavery in the USA, including a brief examination of the American Civil War (1861-1865).  Carroll also devotes space to examining the results of the Industrial Revolution in America and Europe, deflating the belief in a “Gilded Age” in late 19th-century America.

Then the story of Christendom turns dark again.  The chapter appropriately entitled “The Ditches of Death” recounts the horrors of World War I, while several chapters (from “The Ultimate Revolution” through “The Last Crusade”) recount the takeover of Communism in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe, the spread of eugenics in Europe and America, and the beginnings of Fascism in Germany and Italy.  The main focus of Volume VI is the evils of these totalitarian governments, the history-makers who guided those evils, and those brave men and women who fought valiantly against them.  Carroll adapts much of the material dealing with the 20th century from three of his earlier works: his first book, 1917: Red Banner, White Mantle; his book-length study of the Spanish Civil War, The Last Crusade; and his monumental work, The Rise and Fall of the Communist Revolution, which presents a penetrating investigation of international Communism from its beginnings to its fall in the early 1990s.  This current Volume borrows heavily from those works.  Many of the same players appear here.  Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Pol Pot appear as mankind’s enemies, those who made the world-wide revolution, villains worse than any Disney monster.  Winston Churchill, Bl. Karl of Austria, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, and Ronald Reagan stand as those who defied their totalitarian adversaries, heroes to their dying days.

And as with all volumes of Carroll’s History, the popes play a central role in the fight for the Church.  Already mentioned was Bl. Pope Pius IX.  His successors Leo XIII, St. Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XII, Bl. John XXIII, Paul VI, and Bl. John Paul II each play an important part in the history of Christendom.  The key to interpreting the course of the 20th century, Carroll holds, is a vision granted to Pope Leo XIII.  In the vision, God allowed Satan to unleash his worst upon the world for one century, a century which Satan could claim as his own.  The vision went on to show that Satan chose the 20th century as his century.  Carroll uses this vision as a constant refrain throughout this Volume to help explain how men committed the evils that occurred during the past century.  The heroic popes mentioned above all stood against such evil.

Carroll also includes the stories of heroic saints, especially martyrs who stood against the evils of Communism and Fascism and the holy visionaries of Mary.  Saints form an essential part of any study of Catholic history, as Carroll notes in one of the appendices to the Volume.  Also featured is a detailed chapter on the Second Vatican Council and the heresy of Modernism, both of which are greatly misunderstood in the Church today.

Carroll concludes the book with a chapter devoted to the dignity of the human person, a fitting end as both Communism and Fascism attacked this dignity, as did all socially abusive movements in the 20th century, such as the anti-worker laws, the eugenics movement, and, of course, the abortion movement.  There is no happy conclusion to this Volume, as much work is needed in the fight to save Christendom.  Carroll hoped that, in the words of his widow, “each reader of this volume would work to build the culture of life in whatever sphere he can” (p. xi).

This Volume features something unique in the canon of Warren H. Carroll works: Appendices.  There are four appendices at the end of this book, each one echoing, in a sense, Carroll’s hope for this Volume.  The first, “Mission,” is an autobiographical memoir discussing Carroll’s life prior to his founding ChristendomCollege, in particular his education and his conversion to the Catholic Faith.  It is enlightening because it provides readers with an introspective look as to how God worked in Carroll’s life to bring him home, in particular the role his wife Anne played in his conversion.  It is also a brief first-hand account of some key moments in 20th century intellectual and cultural history, such as the conservative movement in the mid-20th century and the work of Triumph magazine (a late-20th century Catholic magazine that had a major impact on Carroll and other Catholic intellectuals during that era).

The second, “Principles for Writing Catholic History,” provides six principles for Catholic historians writing today.  Most are logical: ‘Accepting and Hailing the Supernatural’ (a favorite topic of Carroll’s, as noted in this essay), ‘Seeing All History as Religious and/or Political’ (again, a favorite position of Carroll’s is that history is made by men and women, not social/economic forces), ‘Acknowledging that the Popes Act in History’ (not only that, but the biographies of popes are often good sources for contemporary historical research, especially the multi-volume histories of Horace Mann and Ludwig Von Pastor), ‘Seeing the Impact of the Saints’ (holiness attracts, as one professor of mine would say, and thus holy people have an important historical impact), ‘Eliminating Bias’ (historians should not always write history like hagiography), and ‘The Legacy of Triumph Magazine’ (which Carroll, a former contributor to the magazine, says holds that “the teachings of the Catholic Church alone can explain modern history and culture” [p. 822]).

The third appendix is “Having Done All, To Stand: The Epic of Malta,” a printed version of a lecture Carroll had given at ChristendomCollege several years ago (I was there; it was my first time meeting him).  The essay chronicles the island of Malta’s stand against Turks, Napoleon, and Hitler.  There is passion in Carroll’s chronicle of Malta’s epic history, a passion rarely seen in historical works today.

The fourth appendix is the most unique, an unfinished poem of Carroll’s entitled “The Ballad of the Reconquista: Pelayo at Covadonga.”  It is an epic-style poem reminiscent of G. K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse.  Here is another way of teaching history, one ancient, yet ever new: through poetry.  I had never read or heard Carroll’s poetry before; after reading this incomplete poem, I wish there was more of it.

The feature of the Volume that struck me the most was how personal Carroll made it.  Other volumes in the series provide digressions and comments by Carroll in the footnotes of the work, though these comments are usually in the third person (i.e., “the author’s work”) rather than first person (i.e., “my work”).  In Volume VI, not only are references to Carroll’s previous works referred to as “my/mine,” but other comments by Carroll in the text of the history, not in the footnotes, are in first person.  This gives the reflections a more personal aspect, as if Carroll is speaking directly to readers about something close to his heart.  It is good to hear from him again.

Above all, this is a labor of love, the result of over thirty years of historical study and research, the fruit of a lifetime of conversion and conversation.  This is more than a volume of history.  It is more than the story of men and women in the “accursed twentieth century,” as Carroll refers to the past century.  It is Carroll’s final work, and it is his lasting literary legacy.

For More Information:

The Crisis of Christendom is available from Christendom Press and from Amazon.

Press Release from Christendom College concerning the book’s publication.

A short biography of Carroll from the Christendom College website.

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Reflection: Fifty Years Later

This is an off-the-cuff reflection, meaning my beautiful wife, who normally proofreads blog posts, hasn’t check over this.  Maybe she’ll look at it later, but I wanted to capture the immediacy of my thoughts.

Today marks 50 years since the death of three very important men: President John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president of the United States of America, C. S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist, and Aldous Huxley, author of the classic distopean novel Brave New World.  The fact that all three men died on November 22, 1963 prompted Catholic philosopher and apologist Peter Kreeft to write his novel Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis, & Aldous Huxley.  While not strictly a serious examination of these three men’s thought, the work does look at some of man’s greatest questions as these great men might have answered them.

All three men changed the world in which they lived, but in vastly different ways.  I do not know a lot about any of these men, but I do know something about all of them.  Kennedy became president of the USA in 1960.  He faced great opposition while running because of his Catholic Faith.  In his famous (or infamous, depending on who you talk to) speech to the Greater Houston Ministreial Association, a group of Protestant ministers in Houston, Texas, he assured his listeners and the American public the following: “Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views — in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”  This speech changed the way in which Catholic politicians in America and around the world viewed their role in government.  More liberal-minded politicians would use Kennedy’s words as an explanation as to why they would not support some law that might seem as if they were supporting the Catholic Church’s view the issue.  More conservative-minded politicians try to critique Kennedy’s words, distancing themselves from liberal Catholic politicians.  

We will never know what might have come from Kennedy’s presidency during the tumultuous sixties.  His death fifty years ago from a bullet fired by Lee Harvey Oswald ended our certainty.  What we do know is that he was a politician.  He wanted to be known as that, not as a Catholic, and so he was.  Everything of his presidency, from his election through the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis to the sordid affairs that everyone remembers from his presidency, capture him as a politician.  And so he was.

C. S. Lewis, one of the most influential Christian writers of the 20th century, held views which put him at odds with many around him.  He wrote in defense of Christianity (Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, Miracles, etc.), novels of high fantasy (The Chronicles of Narnia series), novels of science fiction (the Space Trilogy), theological fantasies (The Screwtape Letters, The Piligim’s Regress, The Great Divorce), and many essays on various topics.  He was also a literature professor at Oxford and Cambridge, something many fans of his writings forget.  He was a good friend of J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, and with Tolkien and Charles Williams formed the Inklings, a group of writers who would share their works in progress.  Though he never became Catholic, Lewis has brought many to the Faith, like a modern-day Virgil for a new world of Dantes.  He spread the Gospel like few of his contemporaries, a preacher to the nations.

Of these three men, Aldous Huxley has perhaps the most variant life.  He was neither on fire for Christ (in fact, he embraced parapsychology and Eastern mysticism, particularly Vedanta) like Lewis, nor was he involved in political life like Kennedy.  However, Huxley wrote a novel, Brave New World, which presented a world over 500 years in the future, a world where the Henry Ford is held up as a god (and people cross themselves with a T, in honor of the Model T cars).  Here people are grown in factories (with propaganda slogans playing in the background while the fetuses develop), women walk in a world of recreational sex with contraceptives on their belts, and the delightful soma pills provide a drug-induced escape from reality.  Into this world enters the hero, who, raised in the wild with those who do marry and raise children and read alone.  He enters the utopia to find it horrifying and, unaccepted in either his original home among the “savages” or in the cities, he hangs himself (which I TOTALLY did not pick up on when I read the novel in high school).

The novel is a dark glimpse into what we might see in the coming centuries.  Like Children of Men, it predicts a world of sterility.  Like Nineteen Eighty-four it predicts a completely government-run world.  Huxley didn’t live to see the horrors which have plagued our world today, nor did he live to see the explosion of “free love” and over-the-counter contraceptives for preteens.  He did not live to see the expansion of political life into every aspect of everyday life.  Some may call him a prophet, seeing the doom of a coming age.

So there were three men who went to their judgement this day fifty years ago.  One was a politician, a man of crucial words, cut short in a flash of red.  One was a preacher, who preached in the darkness with a light in his hands.  The third was a prophet, whose dire predictions rolled snowball-like through history.  All met God, and all gave an account of their life.  I do not know more than that, and I would not dare to guess where they are now, as many have debated.

We shall see their legacy as the decades progress.  In another fifty years, will their words still matter?

For Further Reading

http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/john-f.-kennedy-and-c.s.-lewis-where-are-they-now

Joseph Pearce, C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press)

Peter Kreeft, Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis, & Aldous Huxley (Intervarsity Press)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._S._Lewis

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldous_Huxley

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_F._Kennedy

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Question: Can Catholics celebrate Halloween?

Kristy, who writes at Granola Vogue, asked a question (and to emphasize just how BEHIND I am, I had joked with her that I hopefully wouldn’t be writing about it around Halloween. . . ) about everybody’s favorite candy-giving, creepy movie watching, totally spiritual holiday: “I read your latest post on Christmas [sorry to interrupt again, but this kinda shows just how old this question was] so I was wondering where does the Catholic Church stand on celebrating Halloween? Where does it fit it, if at all into their beliefs?”

A fine question, Kristy.  Let’s look at the history of Halloween first, compare its historical celebrations to today’s, and see what Catholics say about it.

Halloween got its start as a religious feast.  It is the day before All Saints’ Day, one of the holiest feasts of the year, when the Catholic Church celebrates all of the saints in Heaven, especially those who have not been declared a saint by the Church (remember, the Catholic Church doesn’t make someone a saint; she declares that that person is a saint).  The word “Halloween” is adapted from its proper, liturgical title: “All Hallows’ Eve.”  “Hallows” is an older English word that we still use in some contexts (for example, in the “Our Father” we say in the first line “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name”).  The word “hallow” means “holy,” and thus “All Hallows’ Eve” celebrates the eve (evening) before the feast of All Saints (the holy ones of God).  The words combine to make Halloween.

The feast of All Saints’ Day wasn’t established in the Church calenders until 615, when Pope Boniface IV established the Feast of All Martyrs to commemorate the conversion of the Pantheon in Rome into the Church of “St. Mary of the Martyrs” (“Santa Maria dei Martiri”).  There had been earlier celebrations commemorating the Church’s martyrs, but this was the first time it was made official by the Pope (it was celebrated on May 13).  This feast was later turned into the Feast of All Saints by Pope Gregory IV in 840 and moved to November 1 in 844 by that same pontiff.  Several commentators note that the establishment of both the feast in honor of All Martyrs and the feast in honor of All Saints marked an attempt to turn a sometimes pagan Europe towards God, baptizing the day in honor of the saints, rather than towards pagan gods.  To highlight the importance of the feast, Pope Sixtus IV made the feast a holy day of obligation in 1484, meaning all Catholics were to attend Mass that day.  Pope Sixtus also established a vigil feast for this major feast day (what is now called Halloween) as well as an octave to extend the feast’s celebration.  However, the octave and the liturgies attached to the eve of All Saints were removed before the mid-1950s.

(Above: Raphael’s “The Disputation of the Sacrament,” aka, What they do in Heaven)

All Souls’ Day (November 2) has a much shorter history.  Since the beginning of the Church (and before, as noted in 2 Maccabees 12:38-46), the faithful have offered prayers for the dead, so that they might be freed from the stain of sin and brought into paradise.  The feast of All Souls’ Day grew out of this practice, first in local monasteries as a way to pray for those monks and loved ones who had died (particularly from the 6th through 11th Centuries), then in the major cities (Liege by 1008, Milan by 1125), and eventually to the whole world.  Pope Sylvester II recommended the feast for the Universal Church (but did not require the feast be added to the universal Church calender) in the 11th century, and as is often the case in matters liturgical, once the feast gained the support of the Pope, it spread throughout Europe.  It wasn’t until very recently (1915, under Pope Benedict XV), however, that the feast became an official one on the universal Church calendar (and a special exemption from the two-Masses-per-day rule was given to priests).

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass freeing souls from purgatory

(Above: What happens during a Requiem Mass)

So that’s a quick summary of the history behind All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days and the creation of Halloween as a liturgical celebration.  Halloween is, as you can see, at its roots a Catholic celebration: remembering the saints who dwell with God in Heaven and the departed who left this world in need of our prayers.  In that way, it is very Catholic to celebrate Halloween.

But what about Halloween today?  Where did we get all the holiday stuff, the ghosts, the monsters, the jack-o-lanterns, etc.?  Is the Church ok with all of that?

First, the party stuff.

The connection with All Souls’ Day reveals right away the emphasis on ghosts and things that go bump in the night.  Ghosts are often connected with souls from Purgatory who cannot find rest.  A church in Rome contains relics of visitors from Purgatory (these and other ghost-like visitations were the subject of a recent book, Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory), emphasizing the need for prayers for the faithfully departed, especially those who have no one to pray for them.  The accounts attached to those relics are real ghost stories.  It is little wonder, then, that ghosts and other denizens of the night are associated with the two feast days of the Church which focus on the afterlife, not on the lives of heroic men and women but on what happens to us when we die.

Many of the familiar Halloween features stem from pagan European practices.  The most commonly noted is a festival in Celtic areas (Ireland, England, Scotland, etc.) prior to the arrival of Christian missionaries dedicated to Samhain, their god of death.  This feast marked the Celtic New Year.  Rituals included offering burnt sacrifices in huge bonfires and wearing animal skins as costumes.  The hope was that these would keep the god at bay, as well as protect the people of the villages from the evil spirits released into the world by Samhain.  From these Celtic areas, we also find familiar rituals which may be the ancestors of our Halloween celebrations.  In Ireland people joined a parade led by a druidic priest in an animal mask who went from house to house begging for food in the name of another god, Muck Olla (those who would give food were blessed, while those who didn’t were cursed).  The Irish also started carving turnips for the feast.  Scottish peasants wandered the fields at night with torches to keep evil spirits at bay.  When Roman legions conquered the Celtic regions, their Latin customs of autumnal harvest rituals mixed with the Celtic festival.  Christian missionaries attempted to baptize the festivities (as they did with festivals near Christmastime), resulting in a strong emphasis in Celtic Christianity on death and physical mortification.

Similar rituals arose in Frankish and Germanic Christian kingdoms.  French Catholics in particular had a festival known as “Dance Macabre” in honor of departed souls, often dressing in costumes to represent people throughout their life.  French monks in the monasteries in Cluny developed devotions in honor of the souls in Purgatory, offering special Masses for the dead (the Masses of the Clunaic monks inspired Pope Sylvester II, who himself was French, to spread the celebration of Mass for the Dead).  These rites and rituals became popular among the lay faithful, and soon became part of Christian culture.

Our modern understanding of Halloween came about when all of these features mixed together in America, the world’s cultural melting pot.  French, Irish, Scottish, and German immigrants lived near each other, intermarried, and formed a new culture.  The Irish tradition of carving turnips and asking for food became our tradition of carving pumpkins and trick-or-treating.  The French devotion to prayers for the souls in Purgatory and their costume-filled “Dance Macabre” mixed with Celtic fears of ghosts and goblins.  Other cultures mixed and mingled, and eventually our modern holiday of Halloween formed.

This leaves the biggest question of them all: can a Catholic celebrate Halloween?  I would say yes, provided they avoid the more disturbing facets that have slithered into the holiday’s celebration in recent decades.  The focus of the holiday turned from remembering the dead, praying for them, and invoking the saints, to a disturbing obsession with evil.  This evil appears in various forms, and its not always as obvious as the evil in a horror movie.  Many children (and those who wish they were children) dress in costumes for trick-or-treating.  Those costumes speak volumes.  A cute costume might draws “awwws” and “how sweet.”  Gory costumes draw the opposite reaction.  Girls dressed in overtly sexual costumes draw a very disturbing reaction.  Costumes of children dressed as witches and zombies seem more appropriate.  Mix this with attempts by modern witches and druids to claim Halloween as their holy day and the water gets murky.  The Christian origins of the holiday fade into obscurity.

Christians are divided into four groups regarding Halloween.  One group just doesn’t celebrate it, not out of any dislike but simply because they don’t want to.  Another wants nothing to do with it, some because of its connection to pre-Christian Europe, some because of how disturbing some of the celebrations of Halloween have become.  A third group, on the other end of the spectrum, celebrates the holiday like anyone else, without any concern over the controversies mentioned above.  The fourth group, which I lean towards, seeks to embrace what is properly Christian, reclaiming, so to speak, Halloween.  Rather than wandering the streets dressed as monsters, children trick-or-treat dressed as saints or religious figures.  Others dress in some heroic costume (knights, soldiers, policemen, etc).  Other costumes work too (I was a shark when I was very young!) and there is room for some monstrosities, gentle ghosts and lovable witches.  However, it is not my place to say in definite terms “this is wrong” or “the parent who allows this or that costume is a bad, sinful parent.”  These, of course, are mere suggestions.

There is a place for terror during Halloween, for it reminds us of the end of our lives.  Halloween brings to our attention a terrifying reality: we will all die.  Even those who emphasize the spiritual aspect of the holiday know that this reality is at the root of the celebration.  The saints, though heroic and in Heaven, had to die to reach their triumphant state.  The souls in Purgatory likewise had to die to reach their state of purification.  Those in Hell suffer the worst fate, for in their death they have separated themselves from God.  It is of this reality that Halloween seeks to remind us.  Horror has its place in reminding us.  Perhaps it is the easiest way to shock us into drawing back to God.

No matter the costume or the celebration, this main focus of Halloween should be maintained.  We should recall those who have gone before us, either celebrating in the triumph of the saints or pray for those who still journey through Purgatory.  Some suggested practices help refocus our attention during the holiday.  Reflections on the saints form a delightful part of the celebration. Readings from the lives of the saints or their writings might help to remind Christians young and old of the great patrimony of our spiritual siblings in Heaven.  In this way, a new generation of Christians can reorient themselves towards Christ through His saints.

For Further Reading (note: most of these websites are articles discussing the history of Halloween in more detail):

http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/hallween.htm

http://www.fisheaters.com/customstimeafterpentecost12aa.html#1a

http://www.americancatholic.org/Messenger/Oct2001/Family.asp

http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/liturgicalyear/overviews/months/10_2.cfm

http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=6210

http://www.wordonfire.org/WoF-Blog/WoF-Blog/October-2012/Culture–Time-for-Catholics-to-Embrace-Halloween.aspx

http://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/784/Truth_about_Halloween.html

http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/all-hallows-eve-or-halloween

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315a.htm – Catholic Encyclopedia article about All Saints’ Day

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01315b.htm – Catholic Encyclopedia article about All Souls’ Day

Van Den Aardweg, Gerard J. M.  Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages, and Warnings from Purgatory.  Rockville, IL: TAN Books, 2009.

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Reflection: On Pope Benedict’s Resignation (part 2)

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

 

After much reflection, and after much reading (and much putting off), I have compiled some thoughts on the end of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy.  The man has been a giant, in his own small way: quiet in demeanor, yet able to move a crowd of thousands to cheers (I’ve seen it happen myself).  He is the first pope of my adult life, having become Supreme Pontiff in 2005, my freshman year of college.  I remember when I heard of his election: I was working in the college’s kitchen, as students ran out of the building and through the trees to the large TV in the school’s gym.  I watched them run, and I couldn’t leave, but someone shouted to me as they left, “There’s white smoke.”  The cardinals had elected a new pope!

Thus was my first interaction with Benedict XVI.

During the ensuing years, I came to love this man.  I helped at a summer conference about him at Christendom College, shook his hand TWICE at two separate Wednesday audiences, and have looked forward eagerly for his encyclicals and books, especially his three volumes       about Jesus.

Then came the morning of February 11, 2013.  Pope Benedict, I heard, was soon stepping down as pope.

I must say, I did not belief the reports that the pope was resigning.  I had heard rumors for years, both with Bl. John Paul II and Pope Benedict, and had not put much credence in them.  Few popes in the Church’s history have resigned (as I’ll discuss below), the most recent one, as many news stations have reported, being Gregory XII in 1415 (his resignation helped end one of the greatest scandals in Western Christendom: The Great Western Schism).  Benedict’s resignation, though, struck me as odd and unbelievable at first.  As the day stretched on, and I took advantage of my breaks from teaching to read the news develop over internet, including the Holy Father’s words on resigning, I began to come to a startling conclusion.  Well, for me it was startling.

The Conclusion: I wasn’t surprised.

I wasn’t.  I read the pope’s words, and then read some comments, and I, like several other Catholic writers (several of which are linked to below in the For Further Reading), recalled the quiet teaching moment in 2009 when Pope Benedict put his pallium, the symbol of his authority as an archbishop, on the tomb of Pope St. Celestine V (Peter Celestine), another pope who resigned from the papal throne.  What was he saying?  One finds the answer in his book-length interview with Peter Seewald, Light of the World (p. 29-30):

[Question, Seewald]: The great majority of these [sex abuse] cases took place decades ago.  Nevertheless they burden your pontificate now in particular.  Have you thought of resigning?

[Response, Benedict]: When the danger is great one must not run away.  For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign.  Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the difficult situation.  That is my view.  One can resign at a peaceful moment or when one simply cannot go on.  But one must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it.

[Note the circumstances Benedict rejects as times to resign: “When the danger is great,” that is, during a great crisis where fortitude is needed, when the Church needs a warrior pope, one to face the forces of Hell and shout, “I am Peter!  I am the Rock, and you shall not prevail against us!”]

[Question]: Is it possible then to imagine a situation in which you would consider a resignation by the Pope appropriate?

[Response]: Yes.  If a Pope clearly realizes that he is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his office, then he has a right and, under some circumstances, also an obligation to resign.

Benedict clearly supported papal resignation, under certain circumstances.  His requirements for resignation mentioned here are very similar to the resignation announcement he gave earlier this month.  In his announcement to the cardinals (and to the world), he said, “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

In resigning, he is merely following his own teaching, his own philosophy, his own papalogy.

What of these earlier resigning popes?  News reports, secular and Catholic, noted the historical importance of this event because the last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII (mentioned above).  What is the history of papal resignations?  Is there a papal resignation similar to that of Benedict?

First let’s look at a list of papal resignations:

The earliest papal resignation was that of Pope St. Pontian, who resigned on September 28, 235.  He stepped down after being sentenced to the Roman mines on Sardinia, which was the not-so-fun Roman way of killing someone slowly, working them to death mining salt in the hot, Mediterranean sun.  Pontian did die in exile on the island (reconciling the Church’s first antipope, St. Hippolytus, while he was out there).  Those were dangerous times (Pontian’s successor, Pope St. Anterus, died a martyr a mere forty days after his election as pope), and Pontian’s decision to resign to ensure the presence of a visible head for the Church remains a highly prudent decision.

Following Pontian, several popes, according to various sources, resigned, including Pope Liberius (died 366, the first pope NOT declared a saint by the Church), Pope Benedict V (who, in 964, abdicated under pressure from the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I), and Pope John XVIII (died in 1009, though not before resigning in July of that year).

Perhaps the most confusing case of papal resignation, however, is that of Pope Benedict IX.  He’s the Grover Cleveland of popes; he reigned as pope THREE separate times.  Benedict was elected in October of 1032; he was twenty years old, one of, if not the, youngest popes.  Struggle ensued due to his hedonistic lifestyle.  The people of Rome kicked him out because of his debauchery, put their own antipope (who styled himself Sylvester III) on the papal throne, but were thwarted by Benedict when he returned to remove his rival.  He resigned in 1045, bribed to do so by another priest, who became Pope Gregory VI after Benedict resigned.  Soon after this, Benedict came to regret his resignation, so he attempted to put himself up as pope against Pope Gregory (making himself an antipope).  The Holy Roman Emperor Henry III got involved and had both Benedict IX and Sylvester III (who still claimed to be pope) deposed; he also convinced Pope Gregory to resign, leaving the papal throne open for Pope Clement II.  Benedict was determined to keep the papacy, and following Clement’s death in October 1047, he took back the papal throne.  He remained there for less than a year; troops sent by the Holy Roman Emperor drove him out of Rome for good, allowing for the election of Pope Damasus II.

Confused?  Depressed?  For the latter, don’t worry, because Benedict was supposed to have repented of his sins later, living out the rest of his life in a monastery.  As far as confusion is concerned, this is only slightly less confusing than the Great Western Schism, which we will discuss later.

The first official, canonical papal resignation was Pope St. Celestine V, mentioned earlier.  The Catholic cardinals (all ten of them) had elected Celestine (his baptismal name was Peter) as pope in March of 1294, a compromise move, as these same cardinals had dragged out the papal conclave for over two years.

Imagine that, for a moment.  Two years without a pope.  Many Catholics worry how the Church will function during the few weeks in which we will struggle without a pope; imagine two years as a flock without a shepherd.  It is no wonder that Pope Celestine accepted the papal office, the last hope against schism.

Celestine was eighty years old when he became pope.  His pontiff was short, a mere ten months, as the political intrigues that corrupted the Church wore at him.  He asked his advisors if he could resign.  They were torn; the last pope to resign had been Benedict IX, and there was a mess following that abdication.  The majority of these canon lawyers said, yes, of course the pope can resign.  Celestine made his decision, and on December 13, 1294, he resigned.  His successor, Pope Boniface VIII, had him placed in prison, an assurance that Peter Celestine would not go back on his abdication; the last thing the Church needed was a former pope acting as an antipope again.

Much chaos came in the ensuing centuries following Pope St. Celestine’s short reign.  One sees several scandals erupt through the Church: The Avignon Papacy (started by Boniface’s successor Clement V) and the Great Western Schism (wherein THREE men claimed to be pope, though only one was the real pope).

The Great Western Schism provided the circumstances for the most recent papal resignation prior to that of Benedict XVI, namely that of Gregory XII.  Following the return of the papacy to Rome, the reigning pontiff (Urban VI) fell out of favor with the cardinals who elected him (that tends to happen when the pope publicly yells at cardinals; Urban VI was not known for his people skills).  Most of the cardinals regrouped and held another election in 1378, selecting a man they claimed to be the new pope.  Never before in Church history had the cardinals set up an antipope against the pope they had elected earlier.  This antipope set up his residence in Avignon, and soon Europe erupted into confused convulsions.  Europe’s princes sided with either the true pope or the Avignon antipope.  Matters worsened when a group of cardinals met in Pisa in 1409, hoping that, by meeting in council, they would elect someone to be pope.  They did elect someone.  Thus the three men claiming to be pope.  Matters worsened until finally the Hungarian King Sigismund (later Holy Roman Emperor) called the bishops of the Church to meet at a council in Constance (in modern-day Germany).  He invited all of the papal claimants to the council.  The true pope was Gregory XII.  He saw the disaster threatening the Church, and he acted: He offered to resign the papacy, leaving the See of Peter vacant, placing in the council’s hands the task of electing a pope to unite Christendom.  He requested that the other two papal claimants, the two antipopes, do the same, that is, resign and abdicate their positions.  After some intrigue, all three claimants relinquished their authority (or what authority they thought they had, in the case of the antipopes), and the Council of Constance elected Martin V as pope.  The Council was only able to do this, in this unique situation, because Pope Gregory had declared they could.  The Council did not have authority over the reigning pontiff.  Only after the pope resigned could the successor be elected.

Thus Pope Gregory XII resigned to preserve the unity of the Church in a time of crisis.

How does all of this compare to Pope Benedict’s resignation?  He resigned in a time of peace for the Church.  Oh sure, the Church faces dangers and enemies in every age, and this age is no exception.  But in the case of Pope Benedict, there was not a great crisis facing the Church.  There isn’t a violent persecution where pope after pope is led to their deaths, or a scandal where Christendom itself is rent asunder.  Nor did Benedict XVI resign for selfish reasons like Benedict IX.  He resigned because he could not continue.  He resigned because, as he said in the announcement that shocked the world this past February 11, he did not have the strength for the “adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”  In this regard, he most closely resembles Pope St. Celestine V, who resigned because he too did not have the strength to deal with the rigors of the papacy.

As I write this, the Church has entered a period of emptiness.  It is an emptiness mixed with excitement for me, as I tear up to say goodbye to a most worthy successor of St. Peter.  I will miss him.  I already miss him.  But at the same time I look forward to the conclave, the meeting of cardinals, and the puffs of white smoke, and the ringing of church bells, to signal the election of a new pope, a new captain in the barque of St. Peter.

Of course, the Pope Emeritus remains in my prayers, as do the cardinals who have already begun to descend on Rome to vote for the next pope.  Holy Spirit, guide them, keep them safe, and do not let the Evil One tempt them away from God’s Will.

 

For Further Reading:

Kirsch, Johann Peter.  “Pope St. Pontian.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 12.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12229b.htm. – There’s not a whole lot we know about this pope, but this article sums it up nicely. 

Mann, Horace.  “Pope Benedict IX.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 2.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907.  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02429a.htm. – Makes sense out of the confusion caused by Pope Benedict IX’s reign. 

Shahan, Thomas.  “Council of Constance.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04288a.htm. – Details what led up to the Council and what occurred during it. 

Mirus, Jeff.  “Benedict: Far from the First Pope to Resign.”  Catholic Culturehttp://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/otc.cfm?id=1055. – Dr. Jeffery Mirus, a Church Historian (and co-founder of ChristendomCollege) takes a look at the historical record of popes who resigned. 

The Pope Benedict XVI Fan Club, http://www.popebenedictxvifanclub.com/index.html – Has pretty much EVERYTHING by or about Pope Benedict on the web.  Have at it!

Prudlo, Donald S. “Pope Benedict’s Resignation in Historical Context.”  Crisis Magazinehttp://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/pope-benedicts-resignation-in-historical-context – A reflection on Benedict’s resignation not only in light of his historical predecessors, but also in light of the saints-to-be discussed at the canonization consistory where he announced he would retire. 

Carroll, Warren H.  A History of Christendom.  Vol. 3.  The Glory of Christendom.  Front Royal, VA: Christendom Press, 1993. – Chapters 8-12 give, in great detail, the historical context of the papacies of Pope St. Celestine V, the Avignon Papacy, the Great Western Schism, and the Council of Constance. 

Moynihan, Robert.  “The Scandal of Secularism: Pope Benedict XVI & Pope Celestine V” Institute of Catholic Culture (August 29, 2010).  http://www.instituteofcatholicculture.org/the-scandal-of-secularism-pope-benedict-xvi-pope-celestine-v/ – It was in this lecture that I first heard of the connection between Pope Benedict and Pope Celestine V. 

 

Looking towards the future. . . . .

Smith, Bartholomew.  “From Sede Vacante to Habemus Papam: How the Empty Chair of Peter Gets Filled.”  Theology on Tap: Arlington Diocese (Januardy 16, 2012).  http://arlingtondiocese.org/podcasts/2012-01tot_podcast/tot_2012-01-16.mp3 – Fascinating talk about what happens in a papal conclave from the former secretary of the senior cardinal at the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI. 

 

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Question: The Dating of Christmas and Easter

The Date of Christmas

“Adoration of the Child” by Gerrit van Honthorst

This second part was, originally, to follow closely behind its predecessor, but circumstances beyond my control, and my tendency to over-research, delayed this post’s creation for far too long.  My original hope had been to have it online by the end of the Christmas season.  Lent is here, so I guess it will have to serve your Lenten meditations.

Oh well.

In the first of these two posts, we dealt with Marcy’s question: “Why are there so many pagan items incorporated into the celebration of Christmas (Yule log, Christmas tree, etc.)?”  I hoped to show that such pagan celebrations arise in Christian traditions because the Church, when preaching the Faith to these pagan peoples, incorporated what was useful into the life of the Church, creating an authentic culture.  In this second post, we will deal with her question involving the dating of Christmas: “Why is the date for Easter set according to a phase of the moon, instead of on a fixed date, like Christmas, and who set it up like that? Why is Christmas placed so close to the winter solstice instead of closer to the assumed actual time of year that Christ was supposed to have been born?”

The question assumes one commonly held belief concerning Christmas: the birth of Christ actually occurred during the spring.  Several pieces of evidence are put forward to support this.  The key one is that Luke’s Gospel reports that shepherds who were “in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock” (Luke 2: 8).  The obvious implication is that the area around Bethlehem, where Mary gave birth, would be too cold in late December for shepherds to be watching their sheep at night.  Christ must have been born during a warmer time (maybe Spring or Autumn, during the feast of Tabernacles, the harvest feast for the Jews), and thus December 25 is wrong.  The date, the theory continues, was chosen, like the Christmas tree and Yule logs, to incorporate pagan celebrations into the newly formed Christian Faith, a way of making new converts feel more at home.  That is the reason why the Church moved the celebration of Christ’s birth to December, away from its real date.

Often repeated, such evidence is, and with each repetition it sounds that much more convincing.  However, we should not be so quick to throw out the traditional date of Christmas.  There is evidence in favor of it, as well as against it.

First, let’s address the whole shepherd issue.  Does the presence of shepherds and sheep remove the possibility of a December Christmas?  Taylor Marshall, a professor and chancellor at FisherMoreCollege [http://www.fishermore.edu/] in Texas, notes that “Bethlehem is situated at the latitude of 31.7,” a latitude with “rather comfortable” outside temperature in December (Marshall, 52).  A quick glance at the weather nowadays in Bethlehem (January 2013) has a nighttime temperature of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, not balmy, but bearable.  At the same time, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “Authorities moreover differ as to whether shepherds could or would keep flocks exposed during the nights of the rainy season” (Martindale, “Christmas”).  The issue of shepherding in the winter thus remains open.  We cannot reject the December dating of Christmas because of a shepherd-based argument.

The second argument against the dating of Christmas in December is the claim that Christians simply put Christmas in December to coincide with one of several pagan festivals: the festival of Saturnalia, which celebrated the winter solstice (the festival ran through middle/late December), or the celebration of the Natalis Solis Invicti, a celebration of the Unconquered Sun’s Birth (held on December 25).  The Christian Church, in an attempt to bring in more pagan converts, acquired these older pagan feasts, and thus made Christ’s birthday coincide with these festivals.

Is there evidence for such an acquisition?

Again, Dr. Taylor Marshall goes through a truly scholastic (in the original sense of the term) discussion of these points.  Regarding the winter solstice, he notes that the dates recorded for the celebrations (sometime between December 17 and December 22) do not coincide with the date for Christmas.  Now, this counterargument seems dismissive, but, then again, the connection between the winter solstice and Christmas is one of temporal approximation; there doesn’t seem to be any theological or spiritual connection between the coming of winter and the arrival of Christ.  If anything, springtime would be a better symbol, rather than the winter solstice, for the arrival of Christ, the life for the world.

The connection between Christmas and the celebration of the Natalis Solis Invicti is likewise tenuous.  Though there was a pre-Christian tradition of sun worship in Ancient Rome, the festival in honor of the Natalis Solis Invicti do not predate the celebration of Christmas in December.  The earliest references to the Natalis Solis Invicti occur during the reign of Emperor Aurelian.  Aurelian established the celebration in AD 274 with the intention of unifying various pagan rituals, possibly in reaction to increased Christian activity in the mid-3rd century.  Contemporary Christians did not seek to connect the date of Christmas to the festival.  Only in the 12th century does one find scholars connecting pagan festivals and Christmas, often with the explicit purpose of dissuading people from celebrating Christ’s birth.  On the contrary, many Church Fathers refer to the celebration of Christmas on December 25, whereas March 25 was given the date not only of the Annunciation, and therefore Christ’s Incarnation, but also the date of His crucifixion.

The argument over whether Christ was born in the spring versus the winter does not seem a part of the early Christian Church.  A more pressing debate in the early Church, it seems, was not if Christmas belonged in the spring, but rather if Christmas was on December 25 or January 6 (the Western half of the Church solved this problem in typical joyous fashion: 12 days of Christmas, from December 25 through January 6).

As far as Easter is concerned, much debate raged over when it should be celebrated.  What time of year was never an issue; all four Gospels are very clear in putting the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus in the context of the Jewish feast of Passover, commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  This answers the first part of Marcy’s question: Easter is so intrinsically linked with the feast of Passover (which, in turn, is based on the vernal equinox and the cycle of full moons) that to deviate from that context might diminish the importance of the feast.  All Christians, since the beginning, saw in the feast of Passover a precursor of Christ’s Passover from death into life through His resurrection.  On all of that, Christians agree.

The controversy, rather, was over what day of the week to celebrate this greatest of feasts.

Two camps emerged in the first centuries following the end of Roman persecution (because, of course, when one is worried for his or her life, one doesn’t quibble over when to celebrate Church feasts).  One camp said that Christians should celebrate Easter three days after the Jewish celebration of Passover, regardless of the day of the week on which this celebration fell.  The other major camp held that the Church should celebrate Easter near the time of Passover, but on a Sunday, in commemoration of how Christ rose on the “first day of the week.”  This controversy went through several phases during the first millennium of Christendom.  Popes and Church councils would decree, eventually, that Easter was to be always celebrated on Sunday, though not without some heavy debates (the last big debate over this issue arose at the Synod of Whitby, England, in 663; Wilfrid, a British cleric who sided with the Sunday date for Easter, by that time the official decision from Rome, persuaded the contingent of Irish monks to celebrate Easter on Sunday by invoking the Irish fidelity to the Holy See).

So there you go.  I hope that cleared up everything, or if it didn’t, just let me know.

Happy Lent!

For Further Reading:

Marshall, Taylor.  The Eternal City: Rome & and Origins of Catholic Christianity.  Dallas, TX: St. John Press, 2012. – Defends outright the traditional dating of Christmas.

Martindale, Cyril Charles.  “Christmas.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 3.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013. Available at  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03724b.htm.

McGowan, Andrew.  “How December 25 Became Christmas,” Biblical Archaeology Review, n. d.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013.  Available at http://www.bib-arch.org/e-features/Christmas.asp.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal (Pope Benedict XVI).  The Spirit and the Liturgy.  Translated by John Saward.  San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000. – See especially Part II, Chapter 5 (“Sacred Time”) which has a fascinating look at the history of setting the dates for Easter and Christmas.

Thurston, Herbert.  “Easter Controversy.”  The Catholic Encyclopedia.  Vol. 5.  New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013.  Available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05228a.htm.

Tighe, William J.  “Calculating Christmas,” Touchstone, December 2003.  Accessed 11 Feb. 2013.  Available at http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v.

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Question: Who were the Gnostics

Marcy asks a pretty simple question: “Who were the Gnostics”?

 

The answer is another question: “When”?  At what point in the history of Gnosticism should we focus?  It is a cult that has morphed throughout the centuries, predating Christianity, then sliding into the Church via distortions of the Church’s teaching, dying down only to reappear in various forms throughout the Christian era.

 

Gnosticism falls into that disturbing category of religious movements that one can safely call diabolical.  Like the pagan worship of Moloch and Ba’al, or the widespread slaughters done by the Aztecs in Mexico, there is an essential anti-life aspect to Gnosticism.  This follows naturally from the Gnostic understanding of the material world.  The main trait of Gnosticism is a degrading, if not abhorrent, view of the material world.  Matter is evil, according to a Gnostic.  In its earliest forms, the material world was a mistake created by a Supreme Being (alternately called Sophia [Wisdom] or Logos [Word]).  Sophia/Logos, however, is not THE ultimate Supreme Being.  That is “God,” for lack of a better word, though one should understand that the Gnostic understanding of “God” is not the same as the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim understanding of God.  Sophia/Logos is a lesser, non-God, divine spiritual being.

 

And, according to the Gnostic myth of creation, at some point before all material creation, Sophia/Logos made an error.

 

Usually this error is described as some estranged attempt to understand the Gnostic “God,” who does not seem to like sharing his inner divine life with other divinities.  This prideful error led to “the hypostatization of her (Sophia/Logos) desire in the form of a semi-divine and essentially ignorant creature known as the Demiurge” (Edward Moore, “Gnosticism,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [July 2005], available at http://www.iep.utm.edu/gnostic).  This “begotten” Demiurge then decided, out of some strange ignorance (strange because the Demiurge is sort of divine, like its source) to claim he is a god (in fact, he claims he is the one true God) and create the material world.  He creates the universe in direct violation of the Supreme Being and Sophia/Logos.  Thus the material world is evil.

 

As mentioned above, Gnosticism predates Christianity, though one can see how it easily slipped into the Faith and corrupted it from within.  Gnostics grabbed onto the earliest Christian beliefs, most essentially that the Divine Son became incarnate as a man.  The Gnostics twisted this belief, stretching it to fit into their understanding that the material world is evil, created by an evil god, so to speak.  The “God” in the Hebrew’s Scriptures, the Gnostic taught, was the Demiurge, and thus the craziness of the Old Testament.  This figure Jesus, though, was Logos, who didn’t actually become incarnate (to do so would be to defile himself, since the material world is evil) but rather seemed to have become incarnate (this belief later evolved into the heresy of Docetism, which held that Christ’s human nature was a mirage; this was vehemently condemned at the First Council of Nicea in 325).  The Gnostics skirted around the issue that Logos wasn’t God, but was rather a creature below God.  Instead, they focused on the belief that Jesus came to save our spiritual souls from the evil creator “god,” who wished to imprison us in evil physical bodies.  The death of Jesus, then, was a show, a sort of divine play, more an example of how we should devote ourselves to escaping the prisons of our bodies.  Jesus, the Gnostics taught, was our example of how to be saved from our flesh.

 

The Gnostics also held that their leaders received special, private revelations that supplanted the teaching of the Apostles.  This hidden knowledge gave the movement its name; Gnosticism comes from gnosis, which means “knowledge.”  The existing Gnostic writings often emphasize secret knowledge, often telling stories about Christ teaching secretly to specific disciples.  Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Gospel of Judas, wherein Jesus informs Judas that it is part of the secret revelation that Judas would betray Jesus (who appears and disappears from among the disciples like a ghost, without any sort of physical body; this is different than Christ after the Resurrection for even Jesus’ glorified body wasn’t like a ghost’s, as Luke and John emphasize [Luke 24; John 20 – 21]).  Judas, in turn, would become great when Christ returns at the end of time, judging the other disciples.  It is a classic Gnostic story: the elect receive the secret gnosis, and as a result are blessed.  Mix in the idea that Jesus wasn’t material (hence his ability to vanish) and you have a perfectly Gnostic text.

 

The Gnostics seemed pious, and many followed their beliefs, especially as the first Christian century drew to its close.  The horrors of the persecution against Christians, first in Jerusalem under the Jewish leaders there and then in Rome under Emperor Nero, played into this belief, and many Christians were confused.  Worse still, Gnostics began twisting the teachings of Christ as taught by the disciples for their own purposes, claiming to have received secret revelations from God or from the Logos, explaining how one should live and shed his or her body.  All this, and they seemed so holy, praying for others, avoiding sins, especially sins of the flesh, and urging everyone to embrace eternal life.  Then as now, holiness (be it genuine or fictitious) attracts; a disaster brewed in the EarlyChurch.

 

Enter St. John the Evangelist, the beloved disciple, who had walked with Jesus, spoke with Him, and even laid his head upon the Lord’s breast at the Last Supper (John 13:23).  Writing in the twilight of the first century A.D., John knew well the attempts to demonize the Creator of the universe while denying the Incarnation of Christ, the Son of God.  Nowhere is this clearer than the Gospel attributed to this apostle.  The Prologue to the Gospel rings of anti-Gnosticism:

 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him.  He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.  The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.  He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father (John 1: 1-14, RSV translation)

 

The whole passage roars against the Gnostics; its wording awkward sounding in English because it stands as testimony against specific Gnostic teachings.  The Word (Logos) is God, and He became “flesh,” meaning He became incarnated, became material.  This was directly against the Gnostic/Docetist belief that Jesus’ body wasn’t material.  Not only that, it affirms the controversial teaching repeated by Christ throughout John’s account: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30; 17: 11, 22).  Likewise, the incident at the crucifixion where the Roman soldier pierces Christ’s side with a lance disproves Gnostic beliefs concerning Jesus’ body.  John is the witness (“He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe” [John 19:35]) and he includes the event as if to say “See, he was real.”

 

John repeats this teaching in two of his three letters included in the New Testament.  In his first letter, John warns his spiritual children of the dangers of Gnosticism:
Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour.  They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.  But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all know.  I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and know that no lie is of the truth.  Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also.  Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father.  And this is what he has promised us, eternal life.  I write this to you about those who would deceive you (1 John 2: 18–26).

 

In his second letter, John warns against not only listening to heretics, but even associating with them:

 

Many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh; such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.  Look to yourselves, that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward.  Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son.  If any one comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting; for he who greets him shares his wicked work (2 John 7–11).

 

Doctrine is serious stuff, both for John and for the Church, even through today.  St. Irenaeus (one of the EarlyChurch’s foremost anti-Gnostics) tells how John encountered a notorious Gnostic in a public bathhouse in Ephesus, and “rushed out of the bath-house without bathing, exclaiming, ‘Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus [the heretic], the enemy of the truth, is within.’”  St. John’s disciple St. Polycarp had a similar encounter with the Gnostic Marcion, who saw the saint on the street.  One can imagine Polycarp giving Marcion the cold shoulder, perhaps rushing past him.  “Do you know me?” Marcion asked Polycarp.  Polycarp turned to the heretic, looked him in the eyes, and said, “I do know you; you are the first born of Satan.”

 

That’s what you call a Patristic BURN!

 

The Gnostics survived the Apostolic Age (which ended with the death of St. John around AD 100) by going underground.  They reappear throughout Church History.  Montanists in the 2nd and 3rd centuries followed Montanus, who claimed to receive direct guidance from the Holy Spirit, contradicting the Church’s official teaching.  Herein is the descendent of Gnosticism’s special secret knowledge.  St. Augustine (died 430) was a member of, and then later wrote against, the Manicheans, which were next generation Gnostics.  The Manicheans emphasized a dualism (two gods, one good and one evil) to explain morality: sins were when the bad god controlled you.  St. Dominic (d. 1221) dealt with the Cathars (also called the Albigensians), again, another incarnation of the Gnostic beliefs.  In these later incarnations of the heresy, especially the Albigensians, sexual immoralities were encouraged and ritualistic suicide became their greatest form of worship.  The body became either a dreaded evil, something that must be abandoned at all cost, or nothing of consequence, meaning one could do whatever he or she wanted with it.

 

Of course, the worst thing one could do was trap another soul in a body.  Hence the Albigensian sexual immoralities: anything was permissible, so long as it did not result in babies.

 

Sound familiar?

 

Strains of Gnosticism appear today.  Besides the Free Love anti-culture (which endorses neither true love nor true freedom) that dominates society, one sees a rash of suicides as people young and old seek to escape this life.  An anti-life mentality plagues society, and people at both ends of their lifespan face death at the hands of others who see their life as worthless; having babies is seen by some as foolish and irresponsible.  Several Protestant groups throughout the last 500 years (such as the Quakers and Pentecostals) claim continual revelation from God, a secret gnosis like that of the early Gnostics.  Joseph Smith, in 1820s, claimed a secret revelation from God, which would later form the Book of Mormon, and would lead to the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  In Catholic circles, one sees this same influence today in some branches of the charismatic movement (we’ll deal with the charismatic movement in a later blog post).

 

What then are we to make of the Gnostics?  They are an ancient enemy of the Faith, one of the oldest, and Gnosticism still remains alive today.  Few would find the original Gnostic beliefs appealing today, yet this heresy’s lasting impact on the Church shows that its legacy is far from over, and that the believing Christian should expect to face shades of Gnosticism in his or her life.  One must be prepared.

 

For further reading:

 

Edward Moore, “Gnosticism,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (July 2005), accessed October 29, 2012, available at http://www.iep.utm.edu/gnostic – Provides a very thorough summary of the basic beliefs of the pre-Christian Gnostics, as well as the incorporation of the Gnostic beliefs into the Christian Gnostic heresy.

 

John Arendzen, “Gnosticism,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 6 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909), accessed October 29, 2012, available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06592a.htm. – Though written in the first decade of the 20th century, this article provides a full account of Christian Gnosticism in the EarlyChurch, including a discussion of anti-Gnostic writers, such as St. Irenaeus.

 

St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103.htm – One of the most complete attacks against Gnosticism in the EarlyChurch.  Includes much of what we know about the thought of the Gnostics.

 

 

 

 

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Question: Historically, were there women priests?

Marcy asks “Were there ever women priests?  Is there an alcove in the Vatican depicting women priests?”

This question is linked to the earlier post concerning Pope Joan and women popes.   Let’s start this question off by answering the unasked question which must be dangling in the back of many of your minds: no, women can’t be priests.  Similarly, men can’t be mothers.  It’s not who we are.  It’s not in the nature of males to be mothers; it’s not in the nature of women to be priests.  We might go into the details of why women can’t be priests in a later post, but for now, let’s look at the historical question of women priests, because if women were priests in the past, then they could obviously be priests today.

The historical evidence for women priests, or at least women receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders (through which a man is ordained first a deacon, then a priest, then a bishop, if he is so chosen) is compelling: mosaics in Roman churches with women dressed in what looks like clerical garbs and referred to as episcopa, which for all the world looks like Latin for “female bishop”; stories of certain sects in various parts of the early Church where women were ordained priests; frequent references to women known as “deaconesses” in several writings.  There may even be Scriptural evidence in the New Testament letters.  Such evidence, the argument goes, was suppressed by the misogynistic pope and bishops.  Once again, we are faced with troubling evidence that appears to undermine an essential teaching of the Church.

Never fear.  Reality is here.

We’ll look at the Scripture passages first.  The major passages are Romans 16:1-2 and 1 Timothy 3:11.  Romans 16:1-2 reads as follows (Revised Standard Version translation):

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cen’chre-ae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.

The word translated as “deaconess” is diakonon, which normally means “deacon,” as the word is a masculine word.  This does not prove, however, that Phoebe, described as a diakonon, is an ordained minister.  Deacons in the early Church had many jobs.  A woman who did similar jobs was probably called the same word, since there wasn’t a feminine equivalent in Greek.

First Timothy 3:11 (RSV translation) reads as follows: “The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.”  The preceding and succeeding verses deal with deacons, specifically how they are to live and be model Christians to the community.  The women mentioned in 3:11 could be deacons, but they could also be the deacons’ wives (verse 12 discusses how deacons are to act as husbands if they are married, saying “Let deacons be the husband of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well”).  The fact that verse 12 refers to the deacons as “husbands” implies that they are all males, and that the women referenced in verse 11 are the deacons’ wives.  As the wives of deacons, these women would have had a special place in the community, and like their husband should be models of virtue.  They could be such models without receiving Holy Orders.

Besides, Paul earlier in 1 Timothy made that rather awkward statement about how women should “receive instruction silently and under complete control” (1 Tim 2:11; NAB translation).  He likewise noted that “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man.  She must be quiet” (1 Tim. 2:12 ).  Not really a ringing endorsement of women’s ordination.

Further evidence for women clergy in the Church stems from artistic artifacts left in churches.  Marcy refers to an “alcove in the Vatican depicting women priests.”  In the Basilica of St. Prassede (or St. Praxedes) in Rome (not technically in the Vatican but rather down the street from the Basilica of St. Mary Major), there is a controversial work of art in a beautiful side chapel.  On the wall of the chapel are four figures, saintly men and women to whom or for whom the chapel is dedicated.  One of the figures is a woman with a nimbus (TRIVIA ALERT: A nimbus is a square halo surrounding the head of a figure in ecclesial art which indicates that the figure depicted was alive when the artist completed his work).  Next to her image are two words which have sparked great controversy in the Church: “Theodora” (the woman’s name) and “Episcopa” (which appears at first glance to be a female version of the word episcopus, which is the Latin word for “bishop”).

A picture of four figures. The one on the far left is Theodora. Note the “Episcopa” above her head.

Bishop Theodora, eh?  Sounds like women clergy to me.  To make matters worse, the reigning pope at the time, Pope Paschal I (reigned 817 – 824), built the church of St. Prassede and, according to the records of that time, had the chapel with Theodora in it built to honor his mother Theodora.  One historian, in writing of this mosaic, claims “We have papal authority for a woman bishop and an acknowledgement by the pope that he himself was the son of a woman bishop!” (Thomas F. Torrance, “The Ministry of Women: An Argument for the Ordination of Women“, Touchstone [Fall 1992]).

Close up of the word “Episcopa” if you can see it.

Except it wasn’t a woman bishop.  In fact, as far as historians can tell, there never has been a woman bishop.

There is no historical record, besides this mosaic, that refers to a female bishop named Theodora.  However, there are previous uses of a feminized version of episcopus.  A local Church council in the city of Tours proclaimed in 813: “Let no entourage of women accompany a bishop who does not have a bishopess” (Patrick Henry Reardon, “Women Priests: History & Theology: A Response to Thomas F. Torrance,” Touchstone [Winter 1993], available at http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=06-01-022-f).  The reason for the canon from this council is clear: some bishops were surrounding themselves with women, causing scandal and more likely than not leading to severe breaks in the vow-of-chastity department.  No women except for the bishop’s wife, the council declared (in Latin, the canon states “Episcopum episcopam non habentem nulla sequatur turba mulierum”), should be traveling around with the bishop.  This means, of course, that some bishops were married (back in 1 Timothy 3:2, Paul notes that a should only be married once, which probably points to a no-remarriage-after-becoming-a-widow rule for bishops).  Yes.  And there were (and are) married priests in full communion with the Holy See.  That is a discussion for another day.

So episcopa might mean the wife of a bishop, in which case, Theodora was the wife of a bishop; hence her entitlement.  Another possibility is that Theodora, following the death of her husband (Pope Pascal’s father), joined a religious order.  This was a common practice in those days (many women saints were widows who joined monastic orders).  Some historians arguing that Theodora was a bishop note that the figure in the church wears a coif or cap worn by nuns under their veil; the argument was that, because she dressed like a nun, she could not have been married, and thus could not have been Pope Paschal’s mother (see the essay by Reardon).  However, it is just as likely that Theodora entered a convent as a widow, and perhaps became an abbess.  For lack of a better word, she was referred to as an episcopa.  It would not be the only instance in Church History of an abbess living and ruling her monastery like a bishop.  St. Brigid of Ireland was reported to have accidentally been ordained a bishop, though the tale seems spurious, a hyperbole seeking to show just how powerful abbesses had become in Ireland and other parts of the Church.  But a powerful abbess is not a bishop, no more than a powerful queen is a king.

Are there reports of women acting as clerics in the medieval Church?  There are.  Were these women supported by the Church of their time?  No.  Throughout history, the Church Fathers spoke repeatedly against women clerics.  Irenaeus condemned the use of priestesses in Gnostic sects during the late 2nd century; Tertullian noted that women are not allowed “to offer, nor to claim to herself a lot in any manly function, not to say sacerdotal office.”  Hippolytus, writing in 215, gives one of the more direct rejections of women priests: “When a widow is to be appointed, she is not to be ordained, but is designated by being named [a widow]. . . . A widow is appointed by words alone, and is then associated with the other widows. Hands are not imposed on her, because she does not offer the oblation and she does not conduct the liturgy. Ordination is for the clergy because of the liturgy; but a widow is appointed for prayer, and prayer is the duty of all.”  These quotes are all taken from an article posted on the Catholic Answers website; there are many more Church Fathers quoted.  Likewise, a local council in Laodicea (held in 363) stated that “Presbytides, as they are called, or female presidents, are not to be appointed in the Church” (Canon 11).  It is because of this Tradition in the Church that John Paul II taught infallibly that women cannot be priests.

So here’s the bottom line: women have tried to be priests in the Church’s past.  They were not successful in their endeavor, and the Church (both East and West) has always rejected women’s ordination.  Historically, then, there were not real women priests.

For further reading:

Catholic Answers, “Women and the Priesthood,” available at http://www.catholic.com/tracts/women-and-the-priesthood, accessed August 23, 2012.

Patrick Henry Reardon, “Women Priests: History & Theology: A Response to Thomas F. Torrance,” Touchstone (Winter 1993), available at http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=06-01-022-f, accessed August 23, 2012.

William G. Most, “Women Priests?”, available at http://www.ewtn.com/library/SCRIPTUR/OTRANTO.TXT, accessed August 23, 2012.

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Question: Were there women popes?

Marcy asks, “Were there women popes?”  

There is a dark legend in Church history, stemming from the 13th century, of a great scandal that occurred in Rome between the pontificates of Pope Leo IV (847-55) and Benedict III (855-58) (or in the first decade of the 1100s): A woman was somehow elected pope.  The story usually goes thus: A young woman entered a monastery disguised as a monk in order to study.  She took a lover, who moved her up through the rankings of the Church, so that she might be close to him.  Her reputation as a brilliant mind grew, and she was elected pope.  However, she kept her lover (or found another) because the legend continues with her becoming pregnant, hiding the signs of her pregnancy under her papal robes.  She managed to hide this minor detail for the entire length of her pregnancy until one day, during a procession from St. Peter’s on the Vatican to St. John Lateran, she gave birth, much to the shock and horror of the crowd.  She died in one way or another (some say she died in childbirth, others say the crowd killed her, others say she and the baby were burned alive, and one record even states that she was dragged around by a horse and stoned to death), and thus ends the sordid tale of Pope Joan (as post-Reformation Church critics would call her, though the earlier medieval manuscripts all refer to her by the name of “John”).  Her legacy remains, according to those who argue for her existence, in a statue on the Via San Giovanni in Laterano, the road that leads to St. John Lateran (late medieval guides for pilgrims mentioned the statue), in a bust in the cathedral in Siena, and in over 500 medieval manuscripts which mention the story, or at least reference a pope named Joan. 

Pretty convincing, huh?  Lots of historical documents, exact dates, and artistic representations seem to provide ample evidence that there was a woman who reigned as pope and lost the papal throne due to childbirth.  The integrity of the papacy is ruined!  The Catholic Church has lost its claim to authority! 

A closer look, however, proves the claims false.  There was no Pope Joan. 

Our examination of the claims concerning Pope Joan turns to two well-researched sources.  The first is very sympathetic to the Church, an article written by Dennis Barton over at Churchinhistory.org; the other comes from John Julius Norwich’s recent book Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (Random House, 2011), which is less sympathetic to Catholic history.  Both men come to the same conclusion: Pope Joan never existed. 

The earliest references to a female pope come from Jean de Mailly, a French Dominican who wrote the Chronica Universalis Metensis around the year 1250, who mentioned a female pope “who is not set down in the lists of popes or bishops of Rome, because she was a woman who disguised herself as a man” (quoted in Norwich, 64).  Mailly claims the whole female pope scandal occurred in 1099, historically when Pope Paschal II began his reign (Mailly postponed Paschal’s reign until 1106, cutting Paschal’s nineteen-year reign by seven years).  The other major source of the legend is another Dominican, Martin Polonus, who in his Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatum wrote the most famous record of the female pope (he places her story between the papacies of Leo IV and Benedict III).  The earliest edition of Martin Polonus’ work does not include the story, however, and it seems that it was added after the monk’s death.  The story appears throughout the Middle Ages, repeated with little variation from Polonus’ work (Polonus had been a chaplain for Pope Clement IV, and had thus earned an air of authority in all things papal).  It is this story that inspired later interpretations of the legend. 

But the Polonus legend falls apart under any serious examination.  The time he gives for Joan’s reign, between Popes Leo IV and Benedict III, leaves Joan only two months to reign, from July 17 – September 29, 855 (this assumes, of course, the impossible: an instantaneous papal election).  This is clearly not enough time to do any/all of the activities attributed to Joan.  The historical circumstances surrounding the election of Pope Benedict (worthy in itself of a short blog post. . . ) were crazy enough without throwing a woman papal claimant into the mix. 

No contemporary historian or writer at that time mentions a woman pope; antipope Anastasius (who also tried to be pope in the confusion) makes no mention of her in the memoirs of his antipope reign.  Likewise, Benedict III’s successor, Pope St. Nicholas the Great, makes no mention of a woman papal claimant, even as antipope, and says he immediately succeeded Benedict, who immediately succeeded Leo.  Likewise, Patriarch Photius of Constantinople, no friend of the papacy and papal authority, refers to Pope Nicholas (with whom he was embroiled in a controversy known as the Photian Schism) as following Leo and Benedict in progression of the papal throne.  If he wanted to attack Nicholas’ authority, what better weapon could there be than a scandalous female pope.  No such mention exists in any of Photius’ writings.  In a similar story, Pope St. Leo IX, in the 1050s, wrote to and criticized Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople for allowing eunuchs to be patriarchs in the eastern half of Christendom.  This too easily allowed for women to sneak into the role of bishop, the pope argued; no counter-reply from Constantinople cited the shocking story of a woman pope.  There is simply not enough historical evidence that Pope Joan lived when she was supposed to have lived. 

But what of the multiple documents that refer to her existence?  Dennis Barton notes that all of these major works, from the 9th century through the early decades of the 13th century, do not mention the story of the female pope in their earliest manuscripts; mention of a female pope does not appear in copies of the documents before 1275.  It was after the publication of Martin Polonus’ story that these earlier documents included their own copy of Polonus’ account. 

Also, upon examining the medieval guides for pilgrims in Rome, one does not see any reference to the story of a woman pope nor the statue that marked where she supposedly gave birth until after 1377, when the papacy returned to Rome from France (definitely the topic of another post).  Perhaps the return of the popes sparked an interest in sensational stories, and a woman pope would fit perfectly into the pilgrims’ curious mindset.  As for the notorious sedes stercoraria, large porphyry thrones with a large hole in the seat supposedly designed to check if a pope was a man, there is no mention of their use in any of the papal ceremony texts of the Church. 

So there we have it.  The story of Pope Joan doesn’t add up.  She does not fit into the history of the papacy.  Her shocking story only appears in chronicles written 400 years after her supposed reign.  “Not one contemporary chronicler nor one letter written anywhere in Rome or Europe mentioned a pope who had given birth in public. Yet this would have been the news story of the age” (Barton, 3).   And, as John Norwich notes, “the best argument of all is the sheer improbability of a female pope, a long deception, a hidden pregnancy, a sudden birth in public” (Norwich, 70).  Thus settles the story of Pope Joan. 

So no, there has not been a female pope in Church history, nor can there ever be one, as the pope is a bishop, and therefore a priest, and since only men can be priests in the Catholic Church, there cannot be a female pope in the future. 

For further reading

Dennis Barton, “Pope Joan,” Church in History, (May 29, 2006), available at http://www.churchinhistory.org/pages/booklets/popejoan.pdf, accessed July 30, 2012. 

John Julius Norwich, Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (New York: Random House, 2011), 63–70. 

Johann Peter Kirsch, “Popess Joan” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VIII (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910), available at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08407a.htm, accessed July 30, 2012. 

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