Tag Archives: theology

Question: Can Angels Read Your Mind?

I had hoped to get this angel-themed question out in time for October 2, the feast of the Guardian Angels, but I didn’t get to posting it.  My wife Sarah didn’t get a chance to look over it either, so all grammar, logical, and stylistic issues are my own.

 

Unless she looks over this later, in which case, I’ll update.

 

Anyway. . . .

 

Clare from Maryland asks a few questions about angels

 

Can angels read your mind?  Can Mary and the saints read our minds and hear our thoughts?  Also, is it wrong to ask your guardian angel its name? 

 

These are great questions, ones which, honestly, I did not know the answers to until recently, and I did not know the reasons why, exactly, until writing this blogpost.  Everybody learns something today!

 

If you want to know way more about angels than you ever thought you could ever know, then check out Questions 50-64 of the First Part of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae.  Thomas delves into pretty much everything he could about the angels, from their nature to the extent of their relationship with us.  Thomas was drawing upon the rich resources in Scripture and Tradition about the angels, and more modern writers, like Jean Danielo, Peter Kreeft, and Mike Aquilina, likewise draw on the work of the appropriately named “Angelic Doctor.”

St. Thomas with angels

The Angelic Doctor chillin’ with his crew.

 

So let’s briefly look at Clare’s questions.  To answer these questions, I’ll focus on what St. Thomas says in the Summa.  I will also put some “Further Reading” at the end of the post if you want to dive deeper into the theology of the angels with some other books and resources.   There are a lot of good resources out there; some of it you have to be cautious of, as angels have been dragged into the whole New Age movement, and have been misinterpreted by movies and TV.  Here, we’ll stick to what the Church says.

 

Fair enough?

 

First, can angels read your mind (and, relatedly, can the Mary and the saints do that)?  The short answer is no, they cannot.  St. Thomas answers this point in ST I.57, a4.  Do angels know secret thoughts?  No, because they are not God.  God alone can know our inner thoughts, that is, what is not revealed but which stays in our mind.  It is part of His omniscience.  Angels (and saints) do not have that ability or power.

 

However, angels are incredibly rational.  They have a perfect intellect, meaning they fully understand a situation and can more perfectly arrive at a more logical conclusion based on evidence than we can.  Thomas examines this in I.57, a3, “Whether angels know the future.”  In that discussion, he lays out how there are two ways of “knowing” the future: by examining known causes and by knowledge of future events in themselves.  The first way is how angels and men know the future, that is, by recognizing the signs that point to a future event.  We know that something will fall because we see it start to fall, and we know that gravity is pretty consistent here on Earth.  The second way is how God sees the future.  Thomas specifies that this knowledge of the future is not just knowing what must happen, or what will likely happen, but also what could have happened otherwise, “for God sees all things in His eternity, which, being simple, is present to all time, and embraces all time. And therefore God’s one glance is cast over all things which happen in all time as present before Him; and He beholds all things as they are in themselves.”

 

Now, Thomas says, look at the question of angels reading minds.  An angel can know someone’s thoughts by the effects worked by the man’s actions.  That’s not surprising; it is, after all, how we know what someone is thinking.  However, angels and men cannot know the inner thoughts of someone unless the person reveals them (and thus it because an example of the first way of knowing someone’s thoughts).  Thomas’ reason for arguing thus is that rational creatures (men and angels) are subject to God, and God, above men and angels as their Creator, knows their inner workings, knows their will, and thereby knows their inner thoughts.

 

As far knowing the name of your guardian angel, the answer is likewise clear.  The traditional response is that you should NOT ask your angel its name, NOR should you give him a name.  The reason, as with many things in the spiritual and moral life, is an issue of authority.  We give nicknames to our friends and name our pets and children because we are equal to our friends and superior to our pets and children.  That said, we are NOT superior to the angels.  They are above us in being, as they are immaterial beings with perfectly unchanging intellects and will.  It is not our place to give names to things superior to us (which is why it is not a good idea to start calling college professors by their nickname to their face, unless you have their permission).

 

Think back to the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.  Jacob asks the name of the angel, but gets a curt response: “Why should you want to know my name?”  If you know the name of someone, in a sense you control that person; you can call upon them and they answer you.  The angel’s name was none of Jacob’s business.

 

We do know the names of three angels, the archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, because God revealed their names in Scriptures, and their names are thus a part of Divine Revelation.  We can call upon those archangels by name, and they will help us.  Scripture gives the names of no other angels, and we are not encouraged to speculate about such things.

 

If meditations on such matters by the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas are not enough, we can see a more recent reflection by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.  In the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (promulgated in 2001), the Congregation writes the following, concerning the naming of guardian angels:

 

Popular devotion to the Holy Angels, which is legitimate and good, can, however, also give rise to possible deviations. . .  The practice of assigning names to the Holy Angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael and Michael whose names are contained in Holy Scripture. (217)

 

Do angels have names?  Yes, but it is not for us to know them.  Perhaps, in Heaven, God will reveal to us our angel’s name, just as we will see our whole life’s story, seeing every moment where our heavenly helper and guide kept us on the path to Him who is Lord of us and of the Angels.

 

 

Readers, if you have a Quidquid Question, feel free to shoot me an email or tweet at me using the hashtag #QuidquidQuestion.  See the banner above for more how-to help.

 

 

For Further Reading

 

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I. 50-64 (especially 57, a4-and a5)

 

Peter Kreeft, Angels (and Demons): What Do We Really Know About Them (Ignatius Press, 1995)

 

Mike Aquilina, Angels of God: The Bible, the Church, and the Heavenly Hosts (Servant, 2009)

 

Jean Danielou, The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church (first published in 1957)

 

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Review: Books Read in 2018

One of the (now annual) features of this blog is my review of the various books I’ve read in the previous year.  For the past few years now, I’ve kept track of the new-to-me books I read in the previous year, and have included short reviews of them for your edification.  As even a cursory skim of the titles below would reveal, many of the books are unrelated to apologetics or other branches of theology. That said, I find that people are often interested in what other people read, and would love pithy little reviews of what they are reading.  

 

No?  That’s just an obsession of mine?  

 

Well, anyway, I’m posting the list with my comments for my sake, if not for the rest of the Internet.  

 

You might recall from last year’s review (here and here) that my goal for this year was to read all of the books my wife and I own by people we know personally which I had not yet read.  When I posted last year’s review, I was excited that, by the end of the first week in February, I had read six books, including three written by people we know.  I planned on plowing ahead, especially during the summer months.

 

But I ran into a literary brick wall: two massive, 500+ page books.  That slowed my reading to a crawl, and thus I was unable to finish ALL of the books by people we know that we own.

 

But I did read several of them, and I have indicated below which ones were from that list.  

 

TO THE LIST!

 

Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton – Written prior to the the release of Jurassic Park (one of my all-time favorite books!) but never published, this newest from Crichton (who died a few years ago) is a historical novel looking at the 19th century dinosaur bone wars between Cope and Marsh.  It is good, a really fast read, but it does feel like a draft work, like something that could have been expanded into something more like Crichton’s other works.  Still, I recommend it, especially if you like dinosaurs.

 

The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis – I read this one as a challenge to my students.  I regularly assign book reviews for my religion students, and this year was no exception.  They picked the topic of the book, and I picked the title. So we have Lewis’ short collection of lectures on the moral crisis of our day, which became even more abundantly applicable in light of the #MeToo movement.  Men have ceased to be men (hence their abolition) because we have given them free rein to do whatever they desire, but then attack them for doing what we allowed them to do. Lewis wrote decades before the Sexual Revolution, but he saw even in the 1940s the risk of the morality that would flourish in the 1960s.  If only we had listened to his warnings.

 

The Glory of the Crusades by Steve Weidenkopf – The first of the “by people we know” books, this volume traces the history of the major medieval crusades and argues that they were not horrific attacks against helpless Muslim populations but were something more spiritual.  Weidenkopf was a professor of mine in graduate school and directed my MA thesis, and this book feels like his courses. The work surveys some of the best scholars in crusade-studies from the past few decades, and his copious notes refer to noted historians like Jonathan Riley-Smith and Thomas Madden.  A good work for those who hope to better understand the history of the crusading movement, especially in response to those who use the crusades as ammunition to attack the Church.

 

The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander –  I read this with my wife, Sarah.  The 1985 Disney cartoon of the same name does not do the book (or Alexander’s fantasy realm) justice, despite being a pretty good movie.  Adventure! Bad guys! Gurgi! I wish I had been introduced to this series as a kid.

 

Death and Immortality in Middle Earth edited by Daniel Helen – This was one of the “by people we know” books.  Remember back in 2016 when Sarah and I gave talks at the 2016 Tolkien Seminar in Leeds, England?  Do you want to see what you missed out? Well, now you can, with this great little book, containing essay versions of the talks given at that conference.  Mine starts the book, as my talk did the Seminar, and Sarah’s is about midway through it. All of them are good reads. Get yourself a copy!

 

One Man Perched on a Rock: A Biography of Dr. Warren H. Carroll by Laura Gossin – I’m including this in the category of “books by people we know” even though we don’t personally know the author.  However, we do know, or knew, the subject of the book. This is the only substantial biography of Warren H. Carroll, founder of Christendom College.  It draws largely upon an unpublished autobiography by Carroll and interviews with people who knew Carroll personally and were involved with the creation of Christendom College.  If you want to introduce someone to the work of Warren H. Carroll, I would actually recommend giving them this book, and then introduce them to his historical writings. [Side note: I am quoted in the book!]  The book shys away from analyzing Carroll’s thought from a historiographical perspective (it is more put in context of his biography); if you want a short, amazing [he says humbly] introduction to Carroll’s thought as a historian, check out my essay in the most recent issue of The Catholic Social Science Review.  

 

The Real Story of Catholic History by Steve Weidenkopf – Another one of the “books by people we know,” and again, another by this former professor of mine.  This is a wide ranging work, looking at a lot of different historical questions and topics. Each chapter, so to speak, responds to a question/objection to the Catholic Church rooted in her history.  Weidenkopf then explains why opponents of the Church hold this position, citing various anti-Catholic and anti-religious works, and then responds by referring to the historical record. More often than not, the response requires simply presenting the real story behind the objection (hence the title of the book).  A good vade mecum for historical apologetics.

 

Marry Her and Die for Her by Costanza Miriano – St. Nicholas brought this book and its companion, Marry Him and Be Submissive, for my wife and I last Christmas.  While this book is, outwardly, directed towards men, it is just as much, if not more so, directed to women.  The chapters are letters to friends of the authors who are going through relationship/marital/parenting issues.  Good, insightful, funny.

 

Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? by Carl E. Olson – I read this book as a reviewer for Homiletic and Pastoral Review.  Rather than writing out a new review here, I simply direct readers to their website and give this brief recommendation: This is a comprehensive examination of why the historical, physical Resurrection of Jesus really did happen.  Get it. Read it. Share it with others.

 

Rediscover Jesus by Matthew Kelly – I read this book as spiritual reading during Lent, and it definitely helped me understand why Matthew Kelly is so popular as a contemporary spiritual writer.  Kelly provides forty short reflections on Christ’s life, inviting his readers to draw into a relationship with Christ, not simply to learn about Him. That was an important point for me, as too often I turn my spiritual reading into an academic exercise, rather than a chance to build my relationship with God.  Kelly’s short book helped me refocus on Him this year.

 

Angels and their Mission by Jean Danielou – I read this in conjunction with another book report given to my students.  This was a fascinating study, examining angels as discussed in both scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers.  Since I do not know enough about angels, this little book was a welcome read this year.

 

The World’s Last Night by C. S. Lewis –  I read this with my wife, Sarah.  A collection of essays by the master Christian apologist ranging from topics as varied as prayer, education, Faith, and, as the title would suggest, the end of the world.  A good short read, whether as spiritual reading or for fun.

 

No Turning Back by Donald H. Calloway – Another book by someone we know.  Fr. Calloway served his diaconal year at my parish right in the midst of my early teen years.  He was no ordinary seminarian, as he had a conversion and vocation story like no other. You know how St. Augustine had a troublesome youth?  Calloway’s was (dare I say) more troublesome. If you want to hear the compelling, Divine Mercy-filled story of how this rebellious, intoxicated Dead Head (he still has the tatoo) went from being a teenaged gang member to travelling the world, sharing the love of Christ, read this book.  If I could get every student I teach to read one contemporary theological book, this would be it.

 

The Castle of Llyr by Lloyd Alexander – The third of the Prydain Chronicles series, I read this with my wife, Sarah.  This book has a our heroes encountering a giant cat (and his oversized master), a bumbling prince, a scheming Chief Steward, and an evil previously thought vanquished.  Read it with your kids!

 

The Church: Understanding the Church from the Teachings of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium by Mark A. Pilon – This book, unfortunately, does not seem to be available for purchase online anywhere.  That makes sense, since I think the author, a priest from the Arlington Diocese who recently passed away, wrote the book as a textbook for high school students at Bishop O’Connell High School (where I teach).  It does provide a good overview of ecclesiology and a thoughtful reflection on Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II document on the Church. I had Fr. Pilon as a professor in graduate school, so this book falls in the “books by people we know” category.  

 

How to Do Apologetics by Patrick Madrid – I read this book because we were incorporating it as a required text for the apologetics course we offer at O’Connell.  Madrid brings together decades of experience in the field of Catholic apologetics in this short, accessible book. The work does not just give talking points for when engaging objectors to the Faith (“if your opponent says X, you say Y”), but rather looks at how to use logic in argumentation, as well as how to approach different audiences.  Informative as well as instructive.

 

The Best of Triumph edited by Christopher Briggs (?) –  I have a question mark here for the editor because the book does not actually list an editor; I am drawing this information from a footnote in Warren H. Carroll’s The Crisis of Christendom (which I reviewed before on this blog).  This is a MASSIVE book (650+ pages) that includes only a fraction of the essays, articles, book reviews, and editorials from the nine-year run of Triumph Magazine.  It includes several essays by people Sarah and I know/knew (Warren H. Carroll, Anne Carroll, William H. Marshner, and Mark A. Pilon) and other key figures in mid-twentieth century Catholic thought (L. Brent Bozell Jr., Frederick Wilhelmsen, Michael Lawrence, among others).   Reading the section surrounding the promulgation of Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae was helpful when writing my own reflections on the encyclical this past year.  If you want to explore the key ideas of orthodox Catholic thought in the United States, you should read this book.  

 

Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror by Steve Alten – This may surprise you, but this was not a book of deep theology (get it?).  With the movie adaption of this book coming out in 2018, I had hoped to read the novel first, and, finding it in a bookstore, I bought it and read it really quickly.  It was fun, a bit silly, with plenty of giant-shark-eating-people action that you would expect from a novel about a living Megalodon shark going on a people-eating rampage.  

 

The First Society: The Sacrament of Matrimony and the Restoration of the Social Order by Scott Hahn – Another book I reviewed for Homiletic and Pastoral Review.  As I noted in my review, this book is revolutionary in its radicalism.  Radicalism here doesn’t just mean intense; it also means getting at the root of something.  Hahn’s solution to much of society’s issues is fixing the “first society,” that is, the family.  

 

Seventy Years of the Communist Revolution by Warren H. Carroll – I read this as one of the “books by people we know.”  This is the first edition of Carroll’s The Rise and Fall of the Communist Revolution, which is his massive work tracing the history of international communism from its ideological roots to its collapse in the 1990s.  This first edition, however, does not go so far forward or backward in time (the book came out a couple months before the fall of the Berlin Wall).  This book’s scope is still wide reaching, covering all of the major places where Communism extended its tentacles. What was really interesting (and really nerdy on my part) was comparing some passages in Seventy Years with the matching passage in The Rise and Fall, and how the information changed and developed even in the short (less than five years) span of time between the two editions.    

 

Rejoicing in the Truth: Wisdom and the Educator’s Craft by Christopher O. Blum – Another book by someone we know, this collection of essays on education comes from a former history professor of mine at Christendom College (who is now with the Augustine Institute).  I highly recommend this book for teachers who are seeking ways of reevaluating their curriculum to reflect a Catholic vision of academics. There is even an essay that might help mathematics teachers teach in light of the Church’s intellectual tradition.  

 

The Shadow of the Bear by Regina Doman – I read this with my wife, Sarah.  It is technically written by someone we know (kinda) but this wasn’t a book we own, so I don’t know if it counts towards my goal.  I guess not (technically). This is the first of Doman’s “fairy tales retold” series, and it goes through the story of Snow White and Red Rose, updating the setting to modern New York City, rather than the Teutonic woods.  The bear isn’t a bear, but is Bear, a heroic gentle beast of a man. There is adventure, there is romance, there is (a little too much) girly talk, and a healthy splash of Catholicism.

 

The Third Spring by Adam Schwartz – This was by one of my history professors at Christendom College, adapted from his dissertation.  Here, Schwartz examines the lives of four notable British converts to Catholicism (G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and David Jones) and how their life and work fits into their contemporary intellectual and cultural historical setting.  The recurring theme was how these men found in Catholicism an intellectual and spiritual rebellion against the spirit of modernity. A fascinating book, although it was a bit challenging to get through (it is, after all, his dissertation).

 

A Popular History of the Catholic Church by Philip Hughes – This was a book on tape.  No, I mean it. I listened to a cassette tape version of this book.  The book succinctly traces the story of the Church from the days of the Apostles through the first half of the twentieth century (Hughes composed it just before the Second Vatican Council convened).  An enjoyable, informative read, this was more than just a list of names and figures, and yet at the same time was accessible and beautifully written.

 

The Encyclopedia of New and Rediscovered Animals by Karl P. N. Shuker – Again, another (seemingly) strange addition to this list, but not so strange to those who know me.  I love animals, and I love cryptozoology, and this book is a fascinating mix of the two. The book chronicles many (but obviously not all) of the animals discovered or rediscovered since 1900.  They range from fantastic (like the megamouth shark, the coelacanth, the Komodo dragon, and the okapi) to the obscure yet important (including at least one new phylum of invertebrate). I read it all the way through, cover to cover, which is probably not how you should read it.  However, it is definitely a good pick for animal lovers, especially those who seek something new and exciting, awaiting discovery out there.

 

Certain Sainthood: Canonization and the Origins of Papal Infallibility in the Medieval Church by Donald S. Prudlo – This was the last of the books by people that we know and the last book I read in 2018.  Both Sarah and I know Don Prudlo, but for very different reasons (he is a friend of her older brother, and I had Don as a professor in graduate school).  I thought this book was going to be a difficult read, but I was wrong. It was very engaging, especially as its topic was how the Church’s understanding of papal infallibility as defined at the First Vatican Council really stems from the theological wars against heretics in the High Middle Ages.  Central to the book is how canonizations by popes became a doctrinal litmus test to determine someone’s orthodoxy. Did they accept saints canonized by the pope as legitimate saints? Was it because they rejected the idea of saints, or the authority of the pope, or was it that they just didn’t like the saint?  You’ll have to read the book to see how that all irons out.

 

Thus the review of books past.  Now to look forward to the future.  

 

Call it a New Year’s Resolution.  Call it an attempt to be more productive, or professional, or anything like that.  Call me crazy.

 

Whatever you call it, here are my goals for this year (and yes, they include goals for this blog and for reading)

 

  1. Read at least 40 new-to-me books before January 1, 2020.  This would break my personal record for most books read in a year (since I started keeping track).  There are several books I would like to read this year, but I am not binding myself to particular titles.  
  2. Post at least once a month on the blog.  I feel like I have neglected this place in recent months (years. . . ), and I mean to make amends.  They might not all be the greatest posts ever, but they will exist, and that’s got to count for something, right?  
  3. Submit at least one paying article per month.  I often write articles for Catholic Exchange and similar sites, but am looking into writing for other publishers as well.  
  4. Complete the roughest draft of a book-length manuscript.  I have several I am currently gestating, none of which are near completion.  Let’s see what 365 days gives us!

 

In closing, here is a picture of Elijah Charles Rose, my third son, born just as 2018 was ending (specifically December 28). 

 

img_1021

God is good!  

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Reflection: Year of Faith – I Believe in God (Part II)

See Part I of this series

Ahhhh!  Running out of time to write reflections on the Creed before the end of the Year of Faith!  I guess I’ll have to continue the reflections AFTER the year ends.   That’s not so bad, though.  One should grow in Faith no matter what year it is.   I’m sure it wasn’t Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s intention to have the faithful look into the Faith for one year and then abandon such pursuits.  No, deepening your Faith involves a lifetime of devotions.

So let us continue where we left off. . .

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty”

Explain the Trinity.  Go ahead, explain it.  Having trouble?  Unsure of exactly how to describe the 3-in-1 thing perfectly?  The language of “three Persons, one God” is helpful, but do you ever still feel confused at the end of your reflections on the Trinity?

As Fr. Robert Barron says at the end of his discussion of the Trinity in his Catholicism TV series, “Good.”

There is a difference, a huge difference, between a discussion of God’s existence and a discussion of his oneness, and a discussion of the Trinity.  The existence of God can be known through human reason, without the aid of Divine Revelation (St. Thomas, that great thinker of all things theological and philosophical, called natural beliefs like God’s existence “preambles to the Faith”).  The resulting knowledge of God without Revelation isn’t perfect, for we need Revelation from God to better understand Him, but it is possible.  We can see “proofs” that show that God’s existence is reasonable.  This is not the case with the Trinity.  Try all he wants, a pagan Greek philosopher could not come to the philosophical conclusion that God is three Persons yet one God (as a side note in speculation, perhaps the ideas of polytheism did somehow hint at this reality, and man formed multiple gods out of the truth of one God in three Persons).

The doctrine of the Trinity, though not apparent through philosophic thought, does make sense on a rational level.  If God is perfect, as He would have to be, being God, then He would have to have pure Love as one of His attributes.  St. John is right in noting that “God is Love” (1 John 8: 8, 16).  Love is a good thing, but it cannot exist if there is not some person to receive the love, someone to receive the affection (and no, you can’t really love chocolate).  You cannot love something that is not a person; love can only be shared between persons.

This is a powerful truth when applied to God.  God is perfect Love, which means that He loves eternally, without beginning or end.  Being eternal, He must likewise love perfectly someone eternal, another eternal person.  This eternal person would have to exist from all eternity, also without beginning or end.  This second person is thus also God, for God alone is eternal.  This is the Second Person in God, the Son.  Thus we can see it follows that God is two divine, eternal Persons.

So the Father (the First Person) loves the Son (the Second Person) from all eternity, and the Son loves the Father likewise.  Their Love, then, is a third eternal existence, without beginning or end, and is therefore a Third Person, the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit, in case you couldn’t see where this is going, is also God.

Now, of course, this model of the Trinity is not perfect.  It is not without reason that the Church refers to the Mystery of the Trinity.  This is not a Mystery in the sense that you hunt it down and try to find the answer.  No, it is a mystery because it transcends our limited, human understanding.  We cannot fully grasp the inner life of the Trinity, the ad intra workings of God.  What we can grasp, partially, of course, are the ad extra acts of the Trinity, that is, when He works outside of Himself through creation.  God has revealed Himself throughout history and in various steps.  He first revealed Himself through creation, which is why we can use reason to know He exists.  We can look at the created world to know that there is a God and that He loves us (we will look at God’s act of creation in the second half of this post).  God further revealed Himself through His interaction with the Hebrew people.  They were blessed to know God as Father.  God would more fully reveal Himself through the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity in Jesus of Nazareth, who likewise revealed the Third Person of God the Holy Spirit.  We do not have time now to discuss these later revelations of God, but will examine them when we look at the Son and Holy Spirit in later posts of these reflections.

“I believe in One God. . . Creator of Heaven and Earth, of all things visible and invisible.”

All of Creation depends on God, from whom all good comes.  God, being perfect, did not need to create.  He did so out of love.  He, being infinite Being itself, is the source of existence for all of creation.  God is the creator.  Nothing exists that He did not create, at least indirectly (so for example, the plastic stuff all around you wasn’t DIRECTLY created by God, but He did make the materials that would eventually become the plastic).

[And no, that does not mean God creates evil.  Evil is a privation, a lack of a good.  God allows evil to come into the world for our benefit.  We can’t know exactly how it works in this life.  Evil is another one of those mysteries of Faith mentioned above.  But evil isn’t God’s fault, as if He were trying to hurt us.  We should stop blaming God for bad things and instead work towards correcting the bad.  We should turn to Him as our model for goodness, rather than rejecting the one perfect thing in existence.]

This line from the Creed, about God creating “all things visible and invisible” went through a slight translation change in the newest translation of the Roman Missal (from 2010).  The prior English translation of the Latin phrase “visibilium omnium et invisibilium” made God the creator “of all things seen and unseen.”  The translation now states that God is the creator “of all things visible and invisible.”  This is not some obsessive translation on the part of churchmen who have nothing better to do than think of new translations of creedal statements.  It reflects a more sound concentration of the importance of God’s revelation.  “Seen and unseen” implies that one could somehow physically see everything in creation (“unseen” seems to imply that the focus of our attention could be seen somehow, but just hasn’t been seen yet); “visible and invisible” puts every thing into a category of things we can sense and things we can’t.

The new translation points towards not only invisible natural forces in creation, such as gravity or even something like the wind, but also includes the spiritual world, namely angels (and demons, or angels that rejected God).  Pure spirits without material bodies, angels are invisible.  They appear to humans, some theologians say, by manipulating light into a form that can be visible to those to whom they are sent.  Angel means “messenger,” and the angels who do interact with people do so because they have special missions from God.  The three archangels, Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, are known by name because they appear in Scripture, helping God at important points of Salvation History.  All people have their own guardian angel, as does every church and every country.  Angels were created all at once, the Church teaches, and are not the same as souls who have died and gone to Heaven (contrary to pop cultural references).  And speaking of erroneous ideas of angels, get out of your head the idea of angels as cute and fluffy babies.  There is a reason that the first words angels normally say when greeting humans are “Do not be afraid.”  Visitors from other planes of existence can be quite terrifying.

The Creed affirms not only the existence of angels, but of Heaven and Hell as well.  The existence of both Heaven and Hell are denied rather frequently today, sometimes more frequently than God and angels.  We need to remember that such eternal places exist.  Heaven is a place of bliss, where the souls of the just exist in happiness with God forever.  Dante’s Paradiso captures this reality beautifully.  The souls in Heaven, represented by human-sized lights, swirl around God.  When Dante asks one of the souls who is further away from God if that soul is jealous of those closer to God, the soul says no, because God has placed her where she belongs, and she is still in the presence of God.

Hell, also real, is eternal separation from God.  The most terrifying aspect of Hell is that the people there WANT to be there.  They have chosen to separate themselves from God, and God gives them what they want.  Hell, as strange as it sounds, is a place of justice and love, justice because it gives the souls what they are due (separation from God because of unrepented sins), love because it gives the souls what they want.  Nobody is surprised to end up in Hell.  Again, Dante portrays this marvelously in his Inferno.  At the center of Hell is Satan, frozen in thick sheets of ice.  He remains frozen because, in his pride, the Father of Lies beats his wings, creating a freezing wind that further freezes the ice around him.

Two parables emphasize this point by two very different men.  One is told by Jesus, the other by Oscar Wilde.  The parable of Jesus recounts the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  The rich man, who would not help Lazarus, even though he saw him daily outside his house, ends up in Hell, while Lazarus ends up in Heaven.  When the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers so that they might repent, Abraham responds, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29).  The rich man rejects Abraham’s offer: “No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (Luke 16:30).  The brothers, like the rich man, have separated themselves from God, and the rich man fails to see how God might have offered the key to salvation for men like him and his brothers.

The other story is “The House of Judgment” by Oscar Wilde.  In it is a man who has done pretty much everything bad that is humanly possible.  He is told he has to go to Hell, but he replies he can’t because he’s spent his entire life there.  When Heaven is offered to him, he rejects it because, as he says, “Because never, and in no place, have I been able to imagine it.”  One cannot be with God in Heaven if he cannot build his relationship with God on earth.  In what is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of sin, Hell is the only place where such a person can feel at home.

A quick word on visible creation.  There is a lot of debate about whether science or religion has the key to understanding the beginning of the universe.  When man pits science against God or when a man rejects reason in the face of faith, only ignorance results.  Both extremes deny the other’s truth.  Faith and science work together and should agree with each other.  If they don’t, someone went wrong.  The fights over creation vs. evolution are frequently neither scientific nor religious.  Bad science ignores evidence, as many believing evolutionists do; bad religion ignores reason and Tradition, as too many creationists do.

I wrote a paper once trying to reconcile theories of human evolution with the Church’s teaching on Adam and Eve.  Maybe someday I’ll publish it in some scholarly journal.  One thing I found was that there was not a lot of work by Catholics in the field of evolutionary biology, particularly in reconciling the findings of the scientific community with the Church’s teaching on creation, original sin, and the origins of man.  There are some notable contributions by Catholic scientists, but their works are too often ignored by both scientists and Catholics.  Much is said about fitting the scientific theory of the Big Bang into the account of Genesis 1, but there has not been as much work on fitting recent genetic and biological research into the first three chapters of Genesis.  My paper sought to do that, but I am not a scientist, nor am I a genius theologian.  The work still needs to be done.

We Catholics must remember above all that, no matter the details of how the universe came to be as it is today, God must have started it.  If the evolutionary theorists are correct, that the earth and life came to be through gradual changes, then God directed those changes, with our salvation as its goal.  We must also keep in mind that often forgotten point in the debates over man’s origins: man’s ultimate goal, which is salvation in Heaven with God.

It was to regain our salvation for us after we lost it after the Fall that God became incarnate in the womb of Mary, mother of Jesus.  We will reflect on what we believe about this pivotal event in human history, upon which even our dating of history hinges (even if you don’t believe in God): the Incarnation.  And in looking at that crucial historical event, we will delve deep, deep into the mystery of God.

For Further Reading (or Listening)

Augustine of Hippo, On the Trinity

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section Two, Chapter One (198–421)

Gregory of Nyssa, On the Trinity

________.  On “Not Three Gods

Gregory Thaumaturgus, Fragment from “On the Trinity”

Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity

Institute of Catholic Culture Lectures

David Brown, Science & Religion: Compatible or Combative? (especially the first talk)

Dcn. Sabatino Carnazzo, Catechism 102: The Creed

Dr. Timothy T. O’Donnell, Suffering with God: Job & the Attacks of the Evil One

Fr. Andrew Hofer, Original Sin

Fr. Paul Scalia, Credo: I Believe in God the Father

Fr. William Saunders, Alpha and Omega: God the Father, Creator of the World

_________.  Creation or Evolution: What Does the Church Really Teach?

Pinto, Matthew J.  Did Adam and Eve Have Belly Buttons?  And 199 Other Questions from Catholic Teenagers.  West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 1998, Chapters 1 & 2.

Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part I (deals with God and creation, including parts discussed in the previous post.

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Question: God of the Old vs. God of the New?

And we’re back!

Sheila (who blogs at http://agiftuniverse.blogspot.com/) asks: “Why is the God of the Old Testament so different from the God of the New? One minute it’s the flood, fire and brimstone, and the next it’s ‘God does not desire the death of the wicked.’ One minute it’s ‘sacrifice these animals in this way,’ and the next it’s ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice.’”

This is a question which troubled the Church in the early days.  It boils down to the apparent contradiction between the harshness of God in the Old Testament and the gentleness and love of Jesus in the New Testament.  Jesus is supposed to be God, right?  Well, then why does He pretty much contradict what God said to the Israelites?

There are three basic ways of approaching this question.

The first is that the Old Testament and the New Testament tell the story of two different gods, one harsh and evil (that would be the Old Testament) and one good (Jesus in the New Testament).  This was the belief of the Gnostics, whom we’ve discussed before.  Typical monotheists don’t like the idea of having two co-eternal, equally powerful deities, one pure good, the other pure evil.  Besides, Gnostics had a whole bunch of other beliefs that made their argument rather unpleasant.  As discussed in the post on Gnostics and my reflections on the phrase “I believe in one God” from the Creed, belief in multiple gods doesn’t work.  So we don’t have two gods fighting.

The second idea is worse than the first.  There isn’t agreement between the two parts of the Bible on the most important point, that of the nature of God.  How, then, can we trust the Bible?  We can’t.  Therefore, it’s a bunch of [insert preferred insulting word].  While we’re at it, we can’t even know if God exists.  He must not, since if God did exist, and was good, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.  God must be made up.

Clearly this idea has problems too, the main one being that it rejects the existence of God.  While we don’t have time to get into the arguments for the existence of God, let’s leave it at this: Something can’t come from nothing.  This is discussed in greater detail in my earlier post on belief in God, mentioned above.  Its one thing to read the Bible and decide that God is mean, cruel, and terrifying; it’s another to claim it is entirely made up.  Many of the arguments that Jews and Christians invented God stem from the arguers preconceived ideas that all religions are inventions of people.  The widespread use of this argument is surprising, since it’s hard to argue using a source (the Bible) that the arguer has claimed to be unreliable.

But there is a better way. . .

The third idea is that maybe, just maybe, we need to look at the Bible as a WHOLE, searching for points of continuity rather than disunity.  When that happens, a remarkable image appears.  God is not a vicious “god monster,” as one atheist wrote; rather, He is a loving parent, a loving Father, wanting the best for His children.

Let’s start with the Old Testament.

We first meet God in the first verse of Genesis, the first book in the Bible: “In the beginning, when God created the Heavens and the Earth, the Earth was a formless wasteland and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters” (Gen 1:1-2).  God is Creator, and in the course of creation makes everything good.  The first Creation account uses the statement “God saw that it was good” as a refrain, showing that ALL of creation, mankind especially, is good.  Thus God creates everything.  Why did He create?  Not because He was lonely, but out of love, for it is better to exist than not exist.  In that sense, because He created all things and is the origin of all that is good and whole, God is called Father.

The rest of the Old Testament tells the story of God as Father to the human race.  Like any father, God faces rebellious children.  This rebellion started with Adam and Eve, the first humans, who rejected God’s instruction to avoid eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (on a related, though not strictly theological note, the comedian Bill Cosby has a hilarious standup routine where he compares the Fall of Adam and Eve to “brain-damaged” children).  From then on, God had to play that most unfortunate role of parents: Disciplinarian.  Now, I don’t have children yet, but I do teach them (or at least teenagers, who are sometimes more childish than children), and I hate having to be the disciplinarian.  You tell students to do something, and to avoid doing this other thing, and before you know, they have done the very thing you told them not to do, and have somehow forgotten what they were supposed to do.  So it was with the people of God.

Trace the story of Salvation History and you can see this.  Adam and Eve are kicked out of the Garden of Eden, and have two sons: Cain and Abel.  Both are supposed to offer sacrifice to God, and they do, but Cain’s is half-hearted; without giving his heart to God, his sacrifice is moot.  When God prefers Abel’s sacrifice to Cain’s (Abel was righteous, and therefore gave his best to God), Cain kills Abel.  He is exiled from the family, and he starts his own, each generation separating themselves more and more from God, eventually becoming the “men” mentioned in Genesis prior to Noah’s Flood (Gen. 6:1-4).  Meanwhile, God’s blessing bestowed upon Adam at creation is passed down to Seth (born after Abel’s murder), from whom Noah is born.  Noah listens to God, while the rest of mankind doesn’t (Genesis notes regarding the men of that time: “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”), and as a result God wipes out the rest of the human race.  It was not out of some evilness on God’s part that he wiped out everyone but Noah.  The other people of that age were so evil that they had no room in their hearts for God, for any goodness.  Hence Noah and his family are spared.  The often used metaphor of cutting off limbs to prevent the spread of disease is apt here: in order to save mankind, Noah and his family needed to be protected from the evil that infected man.

Such was God’s plan.  But, as is often the case with God and men, God’s will is contingent (for more on this, see Dr. William Marshner’s lecture series on Predestination from the Institute of Catholic Culture), and man fallen human nature rejects what God had planned.  No sooner had Noah and his family descended from the ark than sin appears again in mankind’s story.  A drunken, passed out Noah is unable to prevent his son Ham from having relations with Noah’s wife (Ham’s mother).  The biblical phrase “And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father” (Gen. 9:22) refers to this sin (see Leviticus 18).  A curse comes down not only on Ham but on Ham’s son, Canaan, who would be the fruit of the incestuous relationship.  Why the curse on the son?  Often in the Old Testament, when some curse falls upon the descendent of an evil person while the evil person gets off free, there is more to the curse.  Deacon Sabatino Carnazzo at the Institute of Catholic Culture explains in an audio lecture that Ham, by having sexual relations with his mother, shows that he was trying to take over the family, for in those days one took control of a family or kingdom by having relations with the mother.  Ham, as the youngest of the sons, would not hold a place of authority in the family.  He wanted to control Noah and the whole family, and his son Canaan would allow him to do just that.  The curse that made Canaan the slave of the other brothers ruined Ham’s hopes to rule.

Similar stories abound throughout the Old Testament.  Whenever the Lord establishes a chain of command or sets up some regulations, people rebel or try to usurp the authority of the legitimate leaders.  Why the elaborate laws of Leviticus?  The Israelites had been led out of Egypt, and therefore shown the power of God over the false gods of the Egyptians.  But when Moses was up on the mountain talking to God, the people got impatient and had Aaron, Moses’ brother, set up a golden calf for them, their attempt to continue the Egyptian pagan worship they had partaken of while slaves in Egypt.  As a result, the original laws and plans that God had given Moses were nixed, and thus God gave the Israelites the ENTIRE book of Leviticus.  Everything is specified, particularly how the people are to worship, how they are to live, how they are to interact with each other.  There is nothing, NOTHING, left out, or at least nothing that the Israelites might need.  Hence the heavy burden of the Law the Israelites bore throughout their history.  Yet even with these rules, the people managed to mess things up.  Hence the “wrath of God” flaring up every once in a while.

Again, think like a parent.  God laid out the rules for the Israelites, but they couldn’t listen, so he clarified it, and clarified it, and clarified it.  Soon there were hundreds of laws, and still the people turned from God.  Even the priests and scribes began abusing their position among the people.  It was why God spoke through prophets, condemning the empty sacrifices and prayers of the priests, who were more concerned with outward rituals than internal devotion.  Jesus frequently quoted these passages.  In fact, most references to the merciful, loving God from the New Testament are connected with Old Testament prophecies.  “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” though spoken by Jesus to the Pharisees who complained about Jesus dining with sinners, comes from the prophet Hosea.  The New Testament passage follows the calling of Matthew by Jesus.  Our Lord says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, `I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12-13).  We should follow our Lord’s instructions.  The prophecy in Hosea reads as follows:

Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets,

I have slain them by the words of my mouth,

and my judgment goes forth as the light.

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,

the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.

But at Adam they transgressed the covenant;

there they dealt faithlessly with me.  (Hosea 6:5-7)

The story of Salvation History is as follows:

1)  God lovingly gathers His people to Him, and makes a covenant with them.

2)  The people follow God for a while, until they get distracted like Doug the dog from Up.  They usually start worshipping some false god, usually influenced by their pagan neighbors, and there are usually women involved.

3)  God sends/allows some horrible thing to happen to His people (natural disasters/enslavement/conquest by an enemy).

4)  God sends a prophet, calling the people to repent.

5)  The people cry out to God, saying they are sorry for their sins (or they reject the prophet, often beating or killing him).

6)  God lovingly gathers His people to Him, and makes a covenant with them (or, if they rejected the prophet, worse things happen to them.  Do you know what happened to the lost tribes of Israel?)

Viewing the Old Testament from this perspective changes everything.  No longer is it a chronicle of a wrathful god against an innocent people.  It is a story of a loving Father who time and again offers His hand to His children, only for them to run away.  But when the children find themselves in danger, in pain, or trapped by evil, they call out to their Father, and He answers and helps them.  It is our story too.

Now look at the New Testament.  How does the story of Jesus fit with the story of the Old Testament?  It’s not a mystery; Jesus explains it in a parable:

One day, as he was teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes with the elders came up and said to him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.”  He answered them, “I also will ask you a question; now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?”  And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, `From heaven,’ he will say, `Why did you not believe him?’  But if we say, `From men,’ all the people will stone us; for they are convinced that John was a prophet.”  So they answered that they did not know whence it was.  And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

            And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country for a long while.  When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, that they should give him some of the fruit of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him, and sent him away empty-handed.  And he sent another servant; him also they beat and treated shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed.  And he sent yet a third; this one they wounded and cast out.  Then the owner of the vineyard said, `What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; it may be they will respect him.’  But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, `This is the heir; let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours.’  And they cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?  He will come and destroy those tenants, and give the vineyard to others.”

            When they heard this, they said, “God forbid!” But he looked at them and said, “What then is this that is written:

`The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner’?

Every one who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one it will crush him.”  The scribes and the chief priests tried to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people; for they perceived that he had told this parable against them.  (Luke 20:1-19)

Jesus, of course, is the Son.  What’s more shocking is that the people listening to the parable KNOW that Jesus is the Son.  Jesus ends the parable by saying, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them [the tenants]?  He will come and destroy those tenants, and give the vineyard to others.”  In other words, God will give the blessing, the special place of the Israelites as the chosen people of God, to all the nations, rather than the Israelites.  The scribes and priests know this is what Jesus means, for they respond, “God forbid!”  But they do what Jesus prophesied anyway.  Did they recognize that they were fulfilling the prophecies of the death of the Messiah?  The Scriptures do not say, though we can imagine many a heavy heart the night of Good Friday as more than one mouth uttered, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

The Bible is all one story.  God’s wrath and Jesus’ love are the same, just as a parent who punishes does so out of love, for the benefit of the child.  How will the child know that what he has done is wrong if he is not told so, or punished when he has done wrong?  So also with the Israelites.

So also with us.

The difference between God’s portrayal in the Old Testament and His portrayal in the New is one of perspective.  Frequently the Old Testament tells the story of God having to punish His unruly children.  The New Testament provides a view of Him reaching out His hand to us, so that we can take the hand of Jesus and walk with Him into eternal life.  Recall what Adam and Eve would do before the Fall.  They would walk with God.  When Adam heard God walking in the garden after Adam had sinned, he hid.  There is a story from the Eastern Church fathers that, when Christ went down to bring from Hell (not Hell proper, but what is sometimes called the “Limbo of the Just”) the Old Testament heroic men and women who had been waiting for their chance to enter Heaven, Adam was the first to meet Christ.  Adam, the story goes, heard the footsteps of Our Lord, recognized them as the footsteps from the garden, and rather than hiding, ran to meet his Lord, to walk with Him again.

A story, yes, but a beautiful one.  We too should run to Him, so we too can walk with our Lord.

Now, Sheila, this is only a brief look at this question.  Unfathomable numbers of words address this issue in much greater detail, and with much more finesse.  Hopefully I have at least turned you in the right direction.

For more information:

Carnazzo, Sabatino.  “Swords and Serpents: A Study of Salvation History.” – Describes the whole Bible as one big book (in just 6 hours!).  Shows how God has worked throughout Salvation History.

________.  “Genesis: In the Beginning.” – In-depth examination of the book of Genesis, with particular attention paid to the first few chapters of the book.

Carroll, Warren H. A History of Christendom.  Volume I.  The Founding of Christendom.  Front Royal, VA: ChristendomCollege Press, 1985. – Traces God’s hand in human history, drawing from Biblical and pagan histories, from Genesis through the ascension of Constantine to the Roman imperial throne.

Catholic Answers Live, April 11, 2011 (with Timothy Gray) – Radio show, the first half of the show deals directly with this topic.

Marshner, William.  “Are You Saved? The Catholic Doctrine of Predestination” – Discusses the details of God’s will in history and in our lives and how our choices can affect God’s contingent will.

Olson, Carl E., “The ‘Angry God’ and the ‘Loving God’: Can We Reconcile How God is Portrayed in the Old and New Testaments?”  Catholic Answers Vol. 27, No. 2 (May/June 2013), p. 12–14. – Pages refer to the print edition (online edition also available).  Includes a short discussion of the classic example of “Angry God,” that of the war against the Canaanites.

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Reblog: Dr. Edward Peters on Female Deacons

It seems that the issue of female deacons keeps springing up not just among casual bloggers and commentators on the internet, but by serious priests and canonists (those who deal with canon law, the Church’s legal stuff).  Readers of this blog know I addressed this issue last year, but it keeps appearing, apparently with more vigor.

 

Posted below is a link to Dr. Edward Peters’ blog (Peters is an American canon lawyer well respected in Catholic circles) discussing a recent article by one Fr. Michael P. Orsi, chaplain at Ave Maria Law School in Florida.  Dr. Peters has some issues with some of Fr. Orsi’s assertions, as do I, and does an excellent job explicating them.  The issues are not merely with that female deacons (and thereby priests), but with the understanding of priestly celibacy and Church teaching.

 

I would suggest reading Fr. Orsi’s essay first, for context, and then looking at Dr. Peters’ examination.  Dr. Peters links to Fr. Orsi’s article.  All you need to do is follow the link below!

 

Tea leaves are for brewing tea, not for theological illumination.

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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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Reflection: Year of Faith – I Believe in God

“I believe in God”

Thus opens one of the oldest prayers in the Christian Tradition: the Apostles’ Creed.  Tradition states that the prayer dates back to the time of the Apostles, if not to the Apostles themselves.  “I believe in God.”  That’s how the prayer begins.  All of our actions, all of our daily lives, everything we think, do, say, everything about us centers on that one phrase, that one belief: there is a God.  The more specific phrase “I believe in one God” comes from the later Nicene Creed, formulated from the First Council of Nicea, held in 325.  This emphasis on there being only one God stems from the controversies that led up to the Council of Nicea.  The heretic Arius had denied the divinity of Christ, saying that to say Christ was divine would imply that there were two gods, not one.  The Council Fathers denied such a claim; hence the emphasis of there being one God.

Early on in Christian history, the believers in Christ had to express their belief in one God.  One could see the possible confusion.  Was there only one God?  The pagans in Greco-Roman culture seemed to say otherwise.  Was Jesus really God, and if so, why not someone else?  These were issues that the earliest Christians, those who followed the Apostles, had to answer.  One sees this in St. Paul’s trip to Athens (Acts 17:16–34).  Paul preached to the Athenian philosophers about the “Unknown God,” to whom the Athenians had an altar in the Areopagus.  This was the one true God, Paul preached.  He was unsuccessful, for the most part: “When they [the philosophers] heard about the resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, ‘We should like to hear you on this some other time’” (Acts 17:32).  Paul wasn’t entirely successful, but we can see in this episode the early conflict between paganism and Christian monotheism.  This conflict predated Christianity, of course, for the Jews faced a similar conflict with their monotheism, and since the Christian is the spiritual heir of the Jew, he must expect the same conflicts.

If only people today were as polite as the Athenians were to St. Paul.

Today there is a renewed atheism and a renewed paganism.  The agnosticism of today’s world spits in the face of the ancient Greeks and Romans because at least the pagans believed in something, even if it was multiple gods or the spirits of nature.  Even some sort of bizarre mythology where Zeus or whoever had affairs with humans was a step above new atheists and agnostics because at least the pagans knew there was something beyond them, some spiritual realm.  Today’s “New Atheists” don’t believe in anything.  Today we must turn to basic proofs for God’s existence, renewing our basic belief in one God.

Now, fortunately for those speaking with someone who dismisses the Bible as a collection of myths and superstitious stories written down over the centuries, one can prove that God exists using logic, reason, and the natural world, without having recourse to the Scriptures.  St. Thomas Aquinas did just that, borrowing from the metaphysics of Aristotle.  He presents five classic arguments for the existence of God: from Motion, from Efficient Causality, from Necessity, from Perfection, and from Governance.  Since the gist of the arguments all boils down to the same point, I will focus on the first argument, based on Motion.

By Motion, St. Thomas is referring to the tendency of things in creation to go from a state of potency (able to do/be something) to actuality (being/doing something) and then back to potency.  This process occurs throughout creation, and can be seen in all things, living or non-living.  However, as both Thomas and Aristotle note, something cannot be potentially and actually the same thing.  A log cannot be potentially on fire and on fire at the same time.  It is either one or the other.  Things move from one state to another, and in order for a thing to move from potency to actuality, some other force must act upon it (the log doesn’t spontaneously combust; a pyromaniac lights it on fire).  Tracing the series of movements, one ultimately reaches an Unmoved Mover, a thing which is pure Act.  This must be the case, since if there was any potency in this Unmoved Mover, it would not be able to have any actuality in it, since in order for it to move from potency to actuality, an external force must affect it.  This Unmoved Mover is pure Act, and is what people commonly call God.

This proof does not provide a perfect description of God; the other four proofs expand our understanding of God.  The proof from Causality follows the same process as that from Motion, only this second proof focuses on how one cause leads to an effect; however, following the links of causes back to the beginning of time, one must conclude there is an Uncaused Cause, that is, God.

By Necessity, St. Thomas brings the issue of being into the discussion of God.  All things in the universe exist, but they don’t have to.  Things come into existence and they go out of existence, all without the universe collapsing.  Things in the universe share in existence.  They are not existence itself; their essence is something particular to them, but their essence is not existence.  They had to have gotten their existence, their being, from some other source.  There must be something beyond everything else, something which has as its essence existence, which is in its nature Existence itself.  That would be God.

The other two proofs are very simple.  St. Thomas uses Perfection to prove that, because we know something is better than another, there must be a perfect Entity that transcends all other things.  Our understanding of perfection must stem from a perfect source.  That’s God.  At the same time, the argument from Governance states that the order in the universe points to the fact that the universe could not have come to being by accident.  There must have been a great mind behind the universe; that Mind is God.

So God exists.  But what about the specific nature of the first line of the Nicene Creed: “I believe in one God.”  How do we know Hindus aren’t correct?  How do we know there are not multiple gods out there, or that we all become gods upon our death?  Let us look back at the argument from philosophy just discussed.  You cannot have multiple first causes, multiple sources of being.  You just can’t.  Try to think of a universe with two infinite, perfect sources of all existence.  Two perfect beings would be identical, and there cannot be two purely identical beings; they would be the same being.  It doesn’t make sense to have more than one god.  If it doesn’t make sense to have two gods, it doesn’t make sense to have a whole pantheon, nor to have everything be “God” as found in pantheism.

One God.  Basta, as the Italians say.  Enough.

But don’t Christians say there are three persons in God?  Doesn’t that mean we think there are three gods?

It’s hard to discuss the Trinity.  It’s one of those mysteries of Faith that truly transcends full comprehension.  God’s like that.  The Trinity is not one of the truths of the Faith that is knowable by Reason alone.  We need Faith in order to know God fully, and by knowing God through Faith, we are able to come into close communion with Him.

And we will focus on the Trinity in the next post in this series.

For further reading/listening:

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Catholic Encyclopedia, “God” – Note: This provides links to other articles about God in the Encyclopedia.

Sabatino Carnazzo, “Catechism 102: The Creed”

William Saunders, “Alpha & Omega: God the Father, Creator of the World”

Paul Scalia, “Credo: I Believe in One God”

Robert Barron, et. al, “Faith Seeks Understanding Pt.1: What Is God?” – This is part 1 of a series discussing God, the Trinity, and other aspects of the Faith.  There are links to other parts of the series from this video.

Robert Baron, Catholicism, Episode 3: “THAT THAN WHICH NOTHING GREATER CAN BE THOUGHT – THE INEFFABLE MYSTERY OF GOD” – An episode from the popular series about Catholicism.  See a clip from the episode here.

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Question: How was Joseph and Mary’s Marriage valid?

Just in time for Advent, here’s a post about the Holy Family.

Nicole asks: “How was Joseph and Mary’s marriage valid since it was virginal?”

A lot of people have dealt with this exact question.  In fact, it may be the most dealt with question I’ve answered on this blog so far.  I could fill up the rest of this post with links to other Catholic blogs and websites, video and audio sites, all answering the question, all saying the same thing.

Simple answer: yes.  Of course.  Validity in sacraments deals with whether or not the sacrament really happened.  A valid marriage basically means that, yes, the couple is really married.  Such was the case with Mary and Joseph.

The more elaborate answer (because, let’s face it, who really wants a simple answer) is one which can be found in the writings of that giant of the faith, St. Thomas Aquinas.  In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas deals with this question directly (Part III, Question 29, article 2, or III, Q. 29, art. 2) in a relatively short discussion.  His “I answer that,” wherein he normally gives the full answer to the question posed, is worth quoting in its entirety:

Marriage or wedlock is said to be true by reason of its attaining its perfection.  Now perfection of anything is twofold; first, and second. The first perfection of a thing consists in its very form, from which it receives its species; while the second perfection of a thing consists in its operation, by which in some way a thing attains its end. Now the form of matrimony consists in a certain inseparable union of souls, by which husband and wife are pledged by a bond of mutual affection that cannot be sundered. And the end of matrimony is the begetting and upbringing of children: the first of which is attained by conjugal intercourse; the second by the other duties of husband and wife, by which they help one another in rearing their offspring.

Thus we may say, as to the first perfection, that the marriage of the Virgin Mother of God and Joseph was absolutely true: because both consented to the nuptial bond, but not expressly to the bond of the flesh, save on the condition that it was pleasing to God. For this reason the angel calls Mary the wife of Joseph, saying to him (Mat. 1:20): “Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife”: on which words Augustine says (De Nup. et Concup. i): “She is called his wife from the first promise of her espousals, whom he had not known nor ever was to know by carnal intercourse.”

But as to the second perfection which is attained by the marriage act, if this be referred to carnal intercourse, by which children are begotten; thus this marriage was not consummated. Wherefore Ambrose says on Lk. 1:26,27: “Be not surprised that Scripture calls Mary a wife. The fact of her marriage is declared, not to insinuate the loss of virginity, but to witness to the reality of the union.”  Nevertheless, this marriage had the second perfection, as to upbringing of the child. Thus Augustine says (De Nup. et Concup. i): “All the nuptial blessings are fulfilled in the marriage of Christ’s parents, offspring, faith and sacrament. The offspring we know to have been the Lord Jesus; faith, for there was no adultery: sacrament, since there was no divorce. Carnal intercourse alone there was none.”

Make sense?  There are two parts to marriage: the giving of oneself to the other by way of the marital vows and the raising of children.  The exchange of vows makes the marriage valid, not the sexual union of the spouses.  In that sense, Aquinas says, the marriage of Mary and Joseph was valid.  But even though there was no sexual union between them (in the immediately prior question, Aquinas presents a defense of the perpetual virginity of Mary), the Holy Couple still performed the second part of marriage.  They raised Jesus, albeit not Joseph’s biological son, but still his legal son, as Jesus was born to Joseph’s legal wife (this last part is important, for it made Jesus a legal “Son of David” and therefore heir to the Davidic throne).  Mary and Joseph’s marriage was a real marriage.  In fact, their marriage was better than many marriages not only during our own time, but even at the time of Jesus.  As St. Augustine notes (Aquinas quotes him at the end), the only thing missing from their marriage was sexual intercourse, and since intercourse is not necessary for a real marriage, one can comfortably say that Joseph and Mary had a valid marriage.

Besides, we should remember that God is not bound by the rules concerning the sacraments.  He can work outside them, if He so chooses.  He can bring souls to Heaven outside of Baptism, for example.  Likewise, we can be sure that the marriage into which God was born was a true, valid one, and example to all who seek a pure, holy union.

Reflecting on the marriage of Joseph and Mary leads to much fruit.  I recommend it.  How Joseph must have felt, married to sinless Mary and foster father to the Son of God!  What father could brag of such a burden?  Likewise, when Christ speaks of true marriage, in His mind He must have turned to the holy example of Mary and Joseph.

We too should turn to their example.

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Married Priests?

In light of the earlier post about the supposed history of women priests, here is a practical examination of the married priest question (sometimes linked to the issue of women priests) by a Catholic married deacon.

DeaconCast

Every once in a while someone brings up the topic of married priests.  “Wouldn’t it be great if priests could marry?”  “There wouldn’t be a shortage of priests if they could be married.”  “There would be no sexual abuse crisis if priests were married.”  And on and on.  Then you hear the usual criticisms, “It’s all about money.  The Church doesn’t want married priests because then they’d have to pay them more money.”  “The Church doesn’t want married priests because they don’t want to have to take care of their widows.”  “The Church doesn’t want married priests because of the high cost of health insurance for families.”   “The Church doesn’t want married priests because they’d have to provide them with houses where they could raise their families.”  Again, on and on.

I’m no expert on the theology of married clergy, but since I am one, maybe I can shed…

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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 Early Church.

 

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 Early Church.  Includes much of what we know about the thought of the Gnostics.

 

 

 

 

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