Category Archives: Ecumenism

Should Any Catholic Praise Luther?

We praise someone who fundamentally deserves praise. No one is without fault, and no one without some merit. But only those are worthy of praise who fundamentally deserve praise, whose pith and marrow is good.

Now, Luther certainly saw some things in the Church as evil that were evil. No one can say that his vision was totally corrupted. But was his vision fundamentally worthy of praise? We must, of course, distinguish contemporary Lutherans from Luther. Here, we are interested in the founder, in the foundation he laid.

What should be the matter upon which we judge this case? Luther’s own texts, of course.

So, in this post, we will cite Luther at length in one of his key contributions. Granted, this key contribution he did not continue explicitly to lay out. However, he never retracted it. In another post, we can lay out the theses he continued explicitly to hold.

In reading the below, ask yourself these questions: Could a saint utter the words below? Could a holy man write the following? Could a true lover of God, one in the state of grace, write the following?

First Thesis of Luther. For Luther, Divine Foreknowledge means that there is No Contingency, and that means that there is No Freedom. This thesis he lays down, so he asserts, to protect God’s foreknowledge so as to protect his promise so as to protect our confidence in salvation by faith alone. Indeed, here we see the connection between this foundation and the explicit teaching of his that endures and which will be treated in a future post. The connection: If future events are contingent, God’s promise is not as trustworthy as we need it to be. Hence, future events are not contingent.

For Luther, there is either grace or freedom (Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will, from Luther’s Works vol. 33, p. 126; hereafter, LW 33:126). There is either freedom or Christ (LW 33:279).

(Regarding Pharaoh), Luther writes: “If there had been any flexibility or freedom of choice in Pharaoh, which could have turned either way, God would not have been able so certainly to predict his hardening. Since, however, the Giver of the promise is one who can neither be mistaken nor tell a lie, it was necessarily and most certainly bound to come about that Pharaoh should be hardened; which would not be the case unless the hardening were entirely beyond the capacity of man and within the power of God alone” (LW 33:183).


If God foreknew that Judas would be a traitor, Judas necessarily became a traitor, and it was not in the power of Judas or ay creature to do differently or to change his will, though he did what he did willingly and not under compulsion, but that act of will was a work of God, which he set in motion by his omnipotence, like everything else” (LW 33:185).



It is not in our power to change, much less to resist, his will, which wants us hardened and by which we are forced to be hardened, whether we like it or not” (LW 33:187).


“I admit that the question is difficult, and indeed impossible, if you wish to maintain at the same time both God’s foreknowledge and man’s freedom. What could be more difficult, nay more impossible, than to insist that contradictories or contraries are not opposed, or to find a number that was at the same time both ten and nine?…. Paul is thus putting a check on the ungodly, who are offended by this very plain speaking when they gather from it that the divine will is fulfilled by necessity on our part, and that very definitely nothing of freedom or free choice remains for them, but everything depends on the will of God alone…. Not that any injustice is done to us, since God owes us nothing, has received nothing from us, and has promised us nothing but what suits his will and pleasure” (LW 33:188).


“God’s foreknowledge and omnipotence are diametrically opposed to our free choice” (LW 33:189).


“Here, then, is something fundamentally necessary and salutary for a Christian, to know that God foreknows nothing contingently, but that he foresees and purposes and does all things by his immutable, eternal, and infallible will. Here is a thunderbolt by which free choice is completely prostrated and shattered…” (Bondage [LW 33:37]).

Luther presents as his evidence that God is unchanging. So, he concludes, is God’s will. So far, so good. But from these he deduces that therefore, nothing is contingent. Again,

“From this it follows irrefutably that everything we do, everything that happens, even if it seems to us to happen mutably and contingently, happens in fact nonetheless necessarily and immutably, if you have regard to the will of God” (Bondage [LW 33:37f]).

What have real saints said about this thesis? Well, St. Thomas More labelled Luther’s thesis on absolute determination to be:


AMEN to St. Thomas More. How can we contradict St. Thomas More here? Should we, out of human respect and errant versions of ecumenism, lose our theological heads, not in service of martyrdom, but rather in praise of such execrable doctrine? 

Let us continue the citations.

For Luther, the thesis of absolute determinism is necessary in order to Protect Faith’s Certainty. No faith is possible unless one already “knows” that because God wills all things, nothing is contingent (LW 33:42).

“For if you doubt or disdain to know that God foreknows all things, not contingently, but necessarily and immutably, how can you believe his promises and place a sure trust and reliance on them? For when he promises anything, you ought to be certain that he knows and is able and willing to perform what he promises; otherwise, you will regard him as neither truthful nor faithful, and that is impiety and a denial of the Most High God. But how will you be certain and sure unless you know that he knows and wills and will do what he promises, certainly, infallibly, immutably, and necessarily?” (Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, LW 33:42)

Now, this reason for humility is utterly false, since it contradicts Catholic Dogma. But St. Bernard said that giving false reasons for humility is in fact pride. Hence, Luther also takes one of the steps of pride in contending that this thesis Benefits Humility.

Luther recognizes that the notion of absolute determinism seems to make God utterly evil and perverse. Instead, then, of rejecting it as blasphemous and fideistic, he embraces it as lifting up Faith and Revelation, since it is so contrary to all reason:

“This is the highest degree of faith, to believe him merciful when he saves so few and damns so many, and to believe him righteous when by his own will he makes us necessarily damnable, so that he seems, according to Erasmus, to delight in the torments of the wretched and to be worthy of hatred rather than of love” (LW 33:62f).

Luther’s own words are the evidence. This is the testimony of his own mouth. Let the honest and decent reader judge the case.

Before the bar of every rational and decent person, does Luther not convict himself of utter inhumanity?

Before the bar of all that is reasonable in moral exhortation – from parental to educational to civil and criminal, does he not convict himself of a crime against all law? Is he, therefore, anarchical?

Before the bar of Catholic Dogma, supreme criterion on earth of what we know is and is not part of and/or in harmony with the Deposit of Faith, does he not convict himself of heresy?

Before the God whom we ought to honor, to whom we ought to ascribe only what is good and true and fitting, does he not convict himself of great blasphemies, greater even than the Gnostics who first attempted to ruin the Church? For the Gnostics distinguished two gods, one good and one evil. Does not Luther add to the evil by subtracting from the number of Gods, folding that Evil, which all right reason and right faith and common decency vomit out as execrable, into the one God?

Indeed, DOES NOT ALL OF MODERN THOUGHT — which, incidentally, is not entirely corrupt, though it is by and large no friend of Christ — REJECT SUCH VILE THOUGHT? If we, then, accept what is good and decent in Modernity – as it rebels against fideism and voluntaristic notions of God and absurd notions of justification and divine predetermination and the destruction of all legitimate autonomy of man – must we not therefore reject this foundational thesis of Luther? Finally, does this predetermination to evil harmonize with the errant notion of a mercy shorn of justice, so popular these days?

What is the Authentic Catholic Teaching on Love and True Dialogue?

Love is willing the good for one’s neighbor. But Jesus Christ is the only way to Salvation. Hence, the Catholic knows that true love demands that we will each neighbor to encounter Jesus Christ. This is fully done in the Catholic Church, with the whole truth and all the Sacraments. Hence, the Catholic knows that true love demands that we will each neighbor to enter the Catholic Church.

The means by which we put ourselves in the service of God’s call that this happen must differ in each case. In all cases, charity, prudence, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit must rule. Yet, in no case is this not the end one should intend. (In all cases, this is the end one should intend.)

These truths cannot be overruled by anyone, even by a pope. 

We find these truths beautifully stated in the Prayer of a pope who remained true to this vision, Pope Pius XI. His Prayer of Consecration calls on Jesus to bring the whole world into the Catholic Church. This intention is, incidentally, also echoed in Lumen Gentium, chap. 2.

Most sweet Jesus,
Redeemer of the human race,
look down upon us,
humbly prostrate before Thine altar.

We are Thine and Thine we wish to be;
but to be more surely united with Thee,
behold each one of us freely consecrates himself today
to Thy Most Sacred Heart.

Many, indeed, have never known Thee;
many, too, despising Thy precepts,
have rejected Thee.

Have mercy on them all,
most merciful Jesus,
and draw them to Thy Sacred Heart.

Be Thou King, O Lord,
not only of the faithful who have never forsaken Thee,
but also of the prodigal children who have abandoned Thee,
grant that they may quickly return to their Father’s house,
lest they die of wretchedness and hunger.

Be Thou King of those who are deceived by erroneous opinions,
or whom discord keeps aloof
and call them back to the harbour of truth and unity of faith,
so that soon there may be but one flock and one shepherd.

Be Thou King of all those who even now sit in the shadow of idolatry or Islam,
and refuse not Thou to bring them into the light of Thy kingdom.
Look, finally, with eyes of pity upon the children of that race,
which was for so long a time Thy chosen people;
and let Thy Blood, which was once invoked upon them in vengeance,
now descend upon them also in a cleansing flood of redemption and eternal life.

Grant, O Lord,
to Thy Church,
assurance of freedom and immunity from harm;
give peace and order to all nations,
and make the earth resound
from pole to pole with one cry:
Praise to the Divine Heart
that wrought our salvation:
to it be glory
and honour forever.


Luther vs. Horace

Luther wants, most of all, to escape punishment; only secondly does he want to escape being wicked (interior corruption). He would, that is, rather be in heaven with a heart of hell, than in hell with a heart of heaven. He writes,

“We would perhaps have disregarded corruption [the inward evil] and been pleased with our evil unless this other evil, which is wrath [the outward evil], had refused to indulge our foolishness and had resisted it with terror and the danger of hell and death, so that we have but little peace in our wickedness. Plainly wrath is a greater evil for us than corruption, for we hate punishment more than guilt” (LW 32:224).


“Just as wrath is a greater evil than the corruption of sin, so grace is a greater good than that health of righteousness which we have said comes from faith. Everyone would prefer—if that were possible—to be without the health of righteousness [gift] rather than the grace of God, for peace and the remission of sins are properly attributed to the grace of God, while healing from corruption is ascribed to faith.” (LW 32:227)

Sed Contra! Even the Pagan Horace rejects such an inversion of priorities:

“The wicked hate sinning because of fear of punishment, the virtuous hate sinning because of a love of virtue” (Epistles I, 16).

In an age in which mercy’s link to justice is insufficiently expressed, one wonders whether the mercy sought is indeed “freedom from punishment” rather than “freedom for truth, opportunity for repentance.”

St. Paul rejects the use of mercy to condone or tolerate sin (Rom 2:4ff). Moreover, mercy is not opposed to judgment, for the Gospel declares divine mercy, but St. Paul says that “according to my Gospel, God will judge the secrets of hearts” (end Rom 2).

Thomas More Critiques Martin Luther

My article on Thomas More’s critique of Luther on justification is now available electronically, courtesy of the Thomas More Studies website.

You may link to it here.

In a nutshell, it investigates More’s treatment of Luther’s notion of justification by faith alone. Scholars for the past 80 years have contended that Catholic Reformers, such as More, misunderstood their opponents (Luther, Calvin, et alia). I examine More’s treatment and contend that More indeed correctly targets Luther. I make one chief correction of More’s analysis, but this correction only returns to another criticism of Luther, and this quite incisive and confirmatory of More.

A takeaway line from More, on the ultimate doctrine of Luther et alia:

[Their ultimate position is] that everything depends only upon destiny, and that the liberty of the human will serves absolutely no purpose, nor do people’s deeds, good or bad, make any difference before God, but in his chosen people nothing displeases him, be it no matter how bad, and in the other group nothing pleases him, be it no matter how good—the very worst and most harmful heresy that ever was thought up; and, on top of that, the most insane (§11, p. 453 – from More’s Dialogue Concerning Heresies; Scepter 2006).

Lessons from the Holy Office

A most lucid and clear, and far-sighted, Instruction was issued by the Holy Office on Dec. 20, 1949.

It regarded ecumenism. It consists in a set of instructions and principles for authentic Catholic involvement in the ecumenical movement.

How greatly we need to re-receive this Instruction. Each and every Catholic should listen to the wisdom taught herein.

I paste a lengthy excerpt from EWTN’s translation, but also refer you to their site for more:

As regards <the manner and method of proceeding in this work>, the Bishops themselves will make regulations as to what is to be done and what is to be avoided, and shall see that these are observed by all. They shall also be on guard lest, on the false pretext that more attention should be paid to the points on which we agree than to those on which we differ, a dangerous indifferentism be encouraged, especially among persons whose training in theology is not deep and whose practice of their faith is not very strong. For care must be taken lest, in the so-called “irenic” spirit of today, through comparative study and the vain desire for a progressively closer mutual approach among the various professions of faith, Catholic doctrine-either in its; dogmas or in the truths which are connected with them-be so conformed or in a way adapted to the doctrines of dissident sects, that the purity of Catholic doctrine be impaired, or its genuine and certain meaning be obscured.

Also they must restrain that dangerous manner of speaking which generates false opinions and fallacious hopes incapable of realization; for example, to the effect that the teachings of the Encyclicals of the Roman Pontiffs on the return of dissidents to the Church, on the constitution of the Church, on the Mystical Body of Christ, should not be given too much importance seeing that they are not all matters of faith, or, what is worse, that in matters of dogma even the Catholic Church has not yet attained the fullness of Christ, but can still be perfected from outside. They shall take particular care and shall firmly insist that, in going over the history of the Reformation and the Reformers the defects of Catholics be not so exaggerated and the faults of the Reformers be so dissimulated, or that things which are rather accidental be not so emphasized, that what is most essential, namely the defection from the Catholic faith, be scarcely any longer seen or felt. Finally, they shall take precautions lest, through an excessive and false external activity, or through imprudence and an excited manner of proceeding, the end in view be rather harmed than served.

Therefore the <whole> and <entire> Catholic doctrine is to be presented and explained: by no means is it permitted to pass over in silence or to veil in ambiguous terms the Catholic truth regarding the nature and way of justification, the constitution of the Church, the primacy of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, and the only true union by the return of the dissidents to the one true Church of Christ. It should be made clear to them that, in returning to the Church, they will lose nothing of that good which by the grace of God has hitherto been implanted in them, but that it will rather be supplemented and completed by their return. However, one should not speak of this in such a way that they will imagine that in returning to the Church they are bringing to it something substantial which it has hitherto lacked. It will be necessary to say these things clearly and openly, first because it is the truth that they themselves are seeking, and moreover because outside the truth no true union can ever be attained.

Can the Catholic Church Gain from non-Catholic churches?

This is a most important question. And one the answer to which will surprise people on all sides.

For, one group will say, “Of course the Catholic Church can gain. She is not the full Church of Christ anyway. There are many churches of the Church of Christ that are not Catholic and which therefore can teach the Catholic churches.”

Another group will say, “If the Catholic Church is the very Church founded by Jesus Christ, then she can gain nothing from non-Catholic churches.”

To answer this question, we must begin with some basics. First of all, the second group states a truth of dogmatic authority in its “if” clause: The Catholic Church most certain is the very Church founded by Jesus Christ. There is a “full identity” here; hence, no distinction at all.

But second, this does not mean that the Catholic Church can gain nothing from non-Catholic churches. Why not?

We must distinguish the essence of the Church – the ingredients of which I refer to as her intensive plenitude, e.g. her sanctifying power, her governing power, his teaching power, her holiness, catholicity, etc. – from her “lived life”. The “lived life” of the Church refers to the quality of the lives of her individual members, the quality of the theological reflection at some given age in some given place, the quality of the relations among the members, the quality of the liturgy, etc. The “lived life” of the Church may suffer in one age or another. There come times when Catholics do not live their faith well, run through the motions of the liturgy, do not study theology and philosophy, do not love the poor, do not order the temporal order to Christ the King, etc. For instance, before St. Francis, the Italians were far from the way of Christ and his Church. St. Francis brought about a renewal. At the times of the Protestant objections, many Catholics including priests were not living holy lives ordered to Christ the King. At different times in the Church’s history, liturgical reforms were made that were not so edifying. For example, the reform of the Divine Office in the early 16th century. It was a badly done reform; the Church eventually went back to her prior practice.

When we make these distinctions between the essence and the lived life, we can further reflect on our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. We can ask ourselves, “Is it possible that a Greek Orthodox liturgy is more beautiful than the liturgy as practiced in many Catholic parishes?” Now, I think just about anyone who assists at an Orthodox liturgy will agree: “Yes, they do liturgy better than do many Catholic parishes.” Thus, we can ask, “Can the Orthodox teach us how to do liturgy better?” I think surely everyone will now agree: “Yes, they most certainly can.”

Let’s continue. We can even ask more incisively: “Does the Orthodox liturgy itself – not just in its practice – not give us an objectively more beautiful presentation and more comprehensive catechetical portrait of our faith (excepting of course the Roman primacy and certain other crucial truths, such as some Marian dogmas) than that given in the Novus Ordo? Here, I contend the answer is, “Yes, it surely does.”

But someone will object: If you say that, you are questioning the validity of the Novus Ordo. Answer: No I am not. One can hold – and on grounds – that some liturgy is more adequate an expression of the Eternal Faith than another liturgy. Adequate here would be judged in terms of the comprehensive and articulate expression of the Church’s faith and in terms of the goal of liturgy, the pointing of man to God in fitting religious worship. Of secondary concern, but not of no concern, would be the “accessibility” of the liturgical reality. This is a concern, but it is of secondary importance.

Now, a full evaluation of the matter would be complex. It would involve analysis of the precise prayers, the order, the movements, the vestments, etc., of the liturgies. How well do the prayers convey, substantially, the faith of the Church? That Christ died for our sins to snatch us from the fires of hell! That Christ is God and man! That the Holy Trinity accepts the sacrifice of Christ our High Priest. That through the liturgy we are sanctified and ushered towards glory. That we must repent of our sins. That the saints are in heaven with us as we pray. That we rely on them. Etc. Now at the liturgies of John Chrysostom, the congregation sings again and again to God implorying his mercy and repenting of sin. Sanctification in light, removal of darkness. These are stressed. Christ as God and man. These are stressed. The liturgy is accessible though transcendent and even foreign. It lifts us up to worship.

Is that level of richness present expressively in the Novus Ordo? Is the saving sacrifice of Christ as abundantly expressively present in the Novus Ordo as in the Greek Orthodox liturgy? What of his holy Godhead, his exalted humanity, his kingly power and rule, etc.? These are serious questions. Of course, the one same sacrifice of the Mass is present; that is not in question.

Let’s return to our opening question: Can the Catholic Church gain from non-Catholic churches. The answer is indeed surprising. The answer is yes, contrary to what some, who love Tradition, may think. Yet paradoxically, this answer does not mean a dilution of Tradition, contrary to the misguided and the rebels. It means that we must be insightful enough to realize that the current “lived life” of the Church may be very sick, just as it was at the time of St. Francis. She may, in her members and expressed life, need to undergo an authentic reformation. And sometimes non-Catholic churches can point the way towards a healthier lived life.

Further, as should be evident by now for the reader, the Ordinary Form of the liturgy might stand to gain from consideration of the Extraordinary Form. The Novus Ordo may stand to gain from consideration of the Mass of many ages. The prayers, the gestures, the movements, the vestments, the sequences; the deep theology of the Cross, the battle of sin and grace, the transcendence of God, etc. Could it be that in an age in which we focus on the secondary concern – accessibility – we have lost sight of the primary concerns of liturgy? Could it be that accessibility thus stressed has eclipsed the Theo-centric character of liturgy?

The questions are double edged. Chiefly and immediately, they target the bad performances of the Novus Ordo. That is the chief ill of the day. For it is evident that the transcendence of God is not infrequently eclipsed by the very character of the way the Mass is celebrated. Balloon masses, etc. These are utterly banal; an insult to the human person. But secondly, and less forcefully but not without all force, the foregoing questions may well target the Novus Ordo itself. Not as anything illicit much less invalid. Not as anything false. Indeed, not. But rather as, perhaps, something less comprehensively expressive of the faith as would be desirable. See, e.g., the concerns of Siri, Ottaviani, even J. Ratzinger, et alia.

Final objection: But even to raise such questions is disobedience.

Final retort: Do you accept Paul VI’s missal? (He answers: Yes.) What are its roots? (Vatican II). You’re correct, though of course the normal interpretation of Vatican II might be different from what the texts themselves stipulate. For instance, the next never said that Latin should go on holiday. By the way, I got that expression from Cardinal Arinze. But back to my retort: What are the roots of Vatican II? (The liturgical movement of the 1900s). And was that movement suggesting a change in the then current liturgy? (Yes.) So it is not per se rebellious to suggest a change? (Well, hmm. I guess not.) No indeed. It must be done with tact and respect, loyalty to Rome and to the Great Tradition, and with an eye on the eternal glory of God and the salvation of souls.

Again and on a different note: Can a community of reformed Christians teach the Catholic Church anything? Indeed yes. How zealous many are! How deeply immersed in the bible. And yes how thoughtful. No, not all evangelicals are “fundamentalists” without brains. Many are very thoughtful. Indeed, I heard Denis Prager on the radio yesterday talking with a group of Christians who are scientists arguing scientifically for the perspective of an ordered, divinely ordered, world. This is excellent. And much needed. How much of the bible and history do Catholics know? Do they know how to go to a disaster area and lend a hand? Do they challenge the culture or just go along with it? Well, our evangelical brothers and sisters can teach us considerably on this score.

By the way, none of this is new to God’s plans. Who was it who told Moses how to organize the people in the desert? Not Aaron. Not Moses himself. No. His non-Jewish father-in-law! The bible is filled with surprises such as this.

The point is, we must measure our standards not by current practice alone but by the weight of Tradition, Divine Transcendence, etc. It just is a fact: Many people are currently bored with the current parochial practice of Catholicism.

If man is deep and built for transcendence, we will become relevant in the measure to which our lived Catholicism becomes deep and transcendent (not fickle and flighty), radically theo-centric (not anthropocentric), Godward (not manward), accessible yet difficult and wonderful (not conquerable, banal and forgettable).

On Matrimony – Part 18 (The Bible and Catholic Teaching)

Part 18

I mounted the Biblical evidence that Jesus’ “exception” clause cannot mean that Jesus is “allowing” divorce in certain cases. That is not a tenable reading. If it were, then if you were divorced you could get remarried. But Jesus proscribes anyone from getting remarried, even if he is divorced.

So what does he mean by this “exception” clause? Here, theological speculation must come into play. A thing to observe is that the Pharisees ask Jesus whether there be any cause on account of which one may divorce one’s wife (See Cornelius a Lapide’s absolutely masterful commentary. If you do not own it, buy it. It is better than anything that has been written on the Gospels since. His is the way to read the Scriptures. Are there new methods and knowledge that can help? Yes. But his is the substance, the bulk of what is important for salvation.) The implicitly ask, also, whether one may remarry. Thus, Jesus has two questions on his hand. I have already given his answer to the second question: No, no validly married person may remarry. Period. Thus, Jesus puts an end to polygamy and “divorce” when by “divorce” one means dissolution of the bond. However, another question remains. Is there no cause on account of which there might be a separation? Although the bond be not dissolved, is there a cause whereby the matrimonial rights of one party can be forfeited vis-a-vis the other party?

Following this question, we discover One Possible Reading of the text. Perhaps Jesus uses the term “divorce” loosely, to mean “separation”. We have seen that in certain grave circumstances separation is allowable by Tradition. Today, our eyes usually only see the problem of physical abuse, a man beating a woman so unjustly as to give her the right to separate from him until such time as the cause for separation has been remedied. But there is also the problem of infidelity. The duty of Christian charity must reign supreme, in all cases. Thus, if there has been an infidelity, the noblest act, that which will secure salvation the more and true happiness and healing the more, is forgiveness. However, if the offended spouse has not approved the infidelity, tacitly or expressly, then she or he has the right to separate from bed and board. In all cases of separation, the spouse seeking separation must seek approval from the competent authority (check the Bishop’s office for whom to speak with. See Canon Law, Canon 1151ff.) Note that separation is not divorce; it is simply physical and financial and emotional distance. The separated couple is a married couple. Well, St. Paul takes our Lord’s command in this way. “To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single or else by reconciled to her husband)—and that the husband should not divorce his wife.” The double commandment (separation permissible, divorce prohibited) applies to each, to male and female. (This is a typical biblical shorthand.) Many of the Church Fathers read the commandment of Jesus as St. Paul reads it.

There remains A Second Possible Reading of the exception clause. By “divorce” in the “exception” case, Jesus indicates something like the annulment declaration. In a declaration of nullity, the proper Church official declares that there never was a bond in the first place. That the couple never was validly married. How does the exception of “unchasitity” fit into this annulment reading? The Greek term is porneia. (Where we get “pornography” from.) Porneia can refer to a variety of kinds of sexual deviance. It can refer also to incest (see, for instance, 1 Cor 5:1-2). In those days, many gentiles would marry close relations (cousins, half siblings, etc.). When the relation is close enough, it is incest. The Church never recognized such marriages (see Acts 15:20, 29). The Mosaic Law also forbad it (Lev 18:6-18). Some theologians speculate that Jesus is indicating a kind of situation in which supposedly married persons are not in fact married. In such cases, a true declaration of nullity would be possible (and necessary).

In fact, both of these readings are possible. Our Lord was not a mere “Marginal Jew,” as some falsely label him. Our Lord was an astoundingly brilliant teacher. A true master. A rabbi. He could say several things with one word. Thus, two distinct literal readings are indeed possible. For the Word of God is living and active; it is a two-edged sword.

On Matrimony – Part 17 (The Bible and Catholic Teaching on Divorce)

Part 17

Where can one find the Catholic teaching against divorce? Is it Biblical or not? Has the Catholic Church strayed? Does she place burdens and not carry them? Is she Pharisaical? She is not. She is the Lord’s truthful servant. The teaching is Biblical. It is also the constant Tradition. It is the Word of our Lord.

Jesus teaches, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Mt 5:31f).

Here we see Jesus proscribe divorce. His words are the source of Tradition and Scripture, and the Catholic Church takes them at face value.

Some will however raise a question: “Didn’t Jesus make an exception… unchastity?” Good question.

The Catholic response to that question is as follows:

First, we must see that Jesus’ work was to restore marriage to its original state. About that state, Jesus declares that “The two are made one.” He adds in consequence, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” categorically (Mt 19:6). The first state involved a joining by God, and no man can break what God joined. The exceptions allowed under Mosaic Law were granted on account of human sinfulness, human weakness in the face of the great demand entailed in the bond. But Jesus came with “grace and truth” (Jn 1:17); therefore, I can do all things in him who strengthens me (Phil 4:13).

Second, in the context of this passage (Mt 5:31f), Jesus is overturning the Mosaic permission, just as he is Promulgating a Divine Law more exacting than the Mosaic Law. Thus, the “stress” of this passage is on the proscription of divorce.

Third, note that in every passage in which this “exception” clause occurs, Jesus immediately follows with an absolute proscription of marrying a divorced woman. “Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” This is a blanket proscription. It is in contrast to Deut 24:1-4, in which a man may marry a divorced woman. Jesus prohibits anyone marrying a “divorced” woman. Why? Because it would be adultery! That means that “divorce” is a pure fiction if by divorce you mean the “breaking of what God has joined.” Luke discloses even more of Jesus words: “Every one who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Lk 16:18). Once again, if I commit adultery by getting married after being “divorced,” then I must still be married. Divorce is pure fiction. See also Mk 10:11-12; Mt 19:9; and 1 Cor 7:10-11. Observe that Mk unpacks the implication: “And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:12). Mark’s unpacking of this implication is crucial because of the Roman Law which allowed a woman to file for divorce. Mark had a Roman audience in mind.

Fourth, observe that in some of these texts just referenced there is no mention of an exception clause. See, e.g., Mk 10:11-12 and 1 Cor 7:10-11. See also Rom 7:1-3. Paul is categorical that the bond of marriage, and the legal obligations it entails, last for either spouse until the death of the other spouse (Rom 7:1-3).

This raises the question, “What did Jesus mean by this ‘exception’”? I will treat that tomorrow.


Note on Genuine vs. False Ecumenism

In the year 1864, the Sacred Office wrote a letter to Bishops of England regarding a falsely ecumenical society. The society held the view that the Church of Jesus Christ consisted partly of Roman Catholic churches, partly of Greek Orthodox churches, and partly of Anglican (ecclesial communities). The Holy Office writes,

[NB: What follows is what the Holy Office condemns] “The foundation on which this society rests is of such a nature that it makes the divine establishment of the Church of no consequence. For, it is wholly in this: that it supposes the true Church of Jesus Christ to be composed partly of the Roman Church scattered and propagated throughout the whole world, partly, indeed, of the schism of Photius, and of the Anglican heresy, to which, as well as to the Roman Church, ‘There is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.’” [Condemned View]

The Holy Office condemned the society for this heretical view. Further, the Holy Office condemned Catholic members of the society for praying under the leadership of heretics and schismatics. Finally, the Holy Office declared the true dogma concerning the genuine Church of Christ:

 [The Holy Office declares this as the true view]: “The true Church of Jesus Christ was established by divine authority, and is known by a fourfold mark, which we assert in the Creed must be believed; and each one of these marks so clings to the others that it cannot be separated from them; hence it happens that the Church which truly is, and is called Catholic should at the same time shine with the prerogatives of unity, sanctity, and apostolic succession. Therefore, the Catholic Church alone is conspicuous and perfect in the unity of the whole world and of all nations, particularly in that unity whose beginning, root, and unfailing origin are that supreme authority and ‘higher principality’ of blessed Peter, the prince of the Apostles, and of his successors in the Roman Chair. No other Church is Catholic except the one which, founded on the one Peter, grows into one ‘body compacted and fitly joined together’ in the unity of faith and charity.”

If we combine this model of orthodox clarity with the true charity that reaches out to Christian non-Catholic churches and ecclesial communities, in hope and zeal inspired by God and in search of true unity, we have the ingredients for genuine ecumenism.

Yet, this is a very difficult path. One is tempted to “temper” orthodoxy with charity, or charity with orthodoxy. But the divine faith cannot be “tempered,” for it is divine. The commandment to love cannot be tempered, for it is of God and leads to God. Therefore, we must be extreme in faith and in charity. That is genuine ecumenism.

On Concupiscence, Part II

How, finally, does the Catholic teaching on concupiscence highlight the remaining goodness of human nature? Because the Catholic Church affirms that the intellect can still know truth and the will still inclines toward the good. In short, concupiscence does not destroy the fundamental inclinations to know truth and will the good. These inclinations remain. They are the basis making God’s invitation to conversion intelligible. For instance, man can discover the truth of things. He can engage in scientific inquiry and experiment. He can collect data, sift the data. He can draw inferences, lay down hypotheses. As Vatican I teaches, in Dei Filius, man can even discover the truth of God’s existence through his knowledge of this world of change, chance, and striving. This discovery can go hand in hand with a reflection on himself. Man can reflect on himself, asking, “Who am I?” and “Where did I come from?” and, most pertinently, “Where am I going?” Thus can emerge incipiently religious questions: What ought I to do with my life?

No man who doesn’t ask these questions is yet a man! We must face these questions as the primary ones in our lives. Pascal was right to lambast those who refuse to ask these questions as fools. They are like men who put boards over their faces, and walk around here or there, on the edge of a sheer cliff to a bottomless pit. Oh the caviar is nice. The view is nice. The clothes feel good. What an Olympics! Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow…. Since these are foolish pursuits if not nestled in the context of the greater questions of life, the Bible charges, “The fool said in his heart, there is no God.” Note: The fool. The evidence of God is obvious to one whose mind is not foolish nor heart hardened. Read Wis 11 and Rom 1. This evidence can be read by the 5 year old and by the 40 year old. This evidence is manifold. And the failure to draw the correct conclusion is not simply an intellectual error but implicates the erring person in guilt. See John Henry Newman, Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent: We are accountable for our every last act of reasoning!

To what shall we turn our minds? How shall we see the evidence? What first principles shall we set forth, and why? What projects shall we set out for ourselves, and why? These questions involve free choices. And free choices involve ethics. This is not to say that only one option is the only option. It is to say that in the very framing of our options and pursuing them, we are exercising moral agency. Thus, good men may disagree, and yet they are good only if they rightly exercised their agency. That is, their purposes and viewpoints – colored by their previous actions, which establish habits of mind – are moral stakes coloring any options. Thus, a bad man may agree with a good man about how to set up the laboratory.

But good or bad, both men have an inclination to know the truth. And it is against that that the man who fusses with the data so as to obtain an outcome can be accused of a violation of human reason! Both men have an inclination to good. And it is against that backdrop that the one who chooses what he knows to be a violation of right reason can be accused of a violation of natural law!

The condition for the possibility of sin is that the good can be done and the evil avoided. Thus, the Catholic teaching that concupiscence is but an habitual inclination harmonizes with the Catholic teaching on sin. Concupiscence does not so dominate the mind that only evil can be chosen. A man can choose what is not evil: He can build a house, reach out to a peer and pursue legitimate activities (bowling, bridge), etc. Therefore, not his every free act is a sin.

This position contrast with Luther’s teaching that a man sins in his every last work, even in the “good” ones he does in the power of grace

“Whoever does less than he ought, sins. But every righteous person in doing good does less than he ought. Well, then, I shall prove the minor premise in the following way: Whoever does not do good out of complete and perfect love of God does less than he ought. But every righteous man is that kind of a person. I shall prove the major premise through the commandment: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul, and all your might’ etc. [Deut. 6:5], of which the Lord says in Matt. 5 [:18], ‘Not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.’ Therefore we must love God with all our might, or we sin. But the minor premise, that we do not love him with all our might, has been proven above, for the unwillingness in the flesh and in the members hinders this perfection so that not all members or powers love God. This unwillingness resists the inner will which loves God.” (Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputations, Explanation to Thesis 6 (LW 31:61–62.)

Again: “To deny that man sins even when doing good; that venial sin is pardonable, not according to its nature, but by the mercy of God; or that sin remains in the child after baptism; that is equivalent to crushing Paul and Christ under foot.” Martin Luther, The Leipzig Debate, 2nd Thesis (LW 31:317).

In sum, Luther teaches that the gravest sin a man has is the very root power of his free action. This power is so bent against God as to do, vis-a-vis God, all evil. We can control only our free actions and so cannot directly act on this agent of sin. Thus, we are most culpable for that about which we can do least. Think here of a man with libidinous tendencies, or worse, of a man with an unnatural sexual inclination. Such are gravely culpable, in Luther’s eyes, for these tendencies, even if they have not freely performed actions that exacerbate these tendencies. The Catholic teaching is that concupiscence, qua such (not qua exacerbated), is not a sin.

The Catholic focus is on what you do freely with that tendency, which itself is found in a broader tendency toward the good. Do you allow your evil tendency to dominate? Do you succumb? And thus exacerbate it? Or do you manfully strive to combat it, to achieve virtue? This is what the Catholic priest – in the sacrament of Reconciliation – wants to know. Did you fornicate, because you so desired? Did you commit unnatural sex with someone? Or did you decide to go play tennis, take a walk, do some homework, read a good book, walk away? In the former case, you committed grave sin against Almighty God, a sin which deserves of its nature the eternal fires of everlasting hell. In the latter case, you crushed the head of the Devil who was lying in wait to destroy your soul. In either case, tomorrow awaits. God’s grace beckons each of us to repent and believe.

Now, and this addition is CRUCIAL: Without that grace, none of us can repent and believe! Although a man without grace can avoid each mortal sin – otherwise it would not be a sin – yet none of us can love God intimately or believe in him as revealer (have faith) unless his grace touches our hearts, heals us, and brings us to these actions. Our job: To welcome his action in our lives and cooperate. Life is not just about science, or random good deeds paid forward. No, life is about discipleship of Christ. About entering the One True Church he established, the Catholic Church. This is life, and life in abundance.

Let us enter Life this Lent.