Monthly Archives: April 2014

On Reading the Bible (Part II)

Having drawn the distinction between the proper and the improper literal sense, we can now indicate rules for the employment in exegesis.

The goal of the exegete is, first and above all, to determine what the literal sense is. Discovering the “spiritual sense” is secondary; important, no doubt, but a secondary task; necessary, but subsequent.

Now, the Church’s guideline is that unless a text is manifestly in the improper literal sense, it is to be taken in the proper literal sense. Thus, unless there is a serious reason to think that the text is in the improper literal sense, the exegete should read the text in a “plain and simple manner”. That is, such should be the first reading of the text. “They shared what they had in common” (Acts). This text gives us no reason to think that there is a noteworthy literary device. Therefore, it is in the proper literal sense.

However, if a text manifestly contradicts another text, which is in the proper literal sense, then it (the former) is to be interpreted in the improper literal sense. For instance, it is the manifest teaching of Scripture that there are two groups of people in the final judgment, the sheep and the goats. This division is also implied by the Magisterial teachings through the ages.

Therefore, when we run into texts that apparently contradict these texts, we must interpret them as somehow other than simple and straightforward. For instance, Jesus also says, “I will draw all men to myself.” Well, has he contradicted himself? Not if Truth cannot contradict Truth. Therefore, theologians through the ages have suggested various possibilities. Perhaps he is using “hyperbole” in this latter text: All, meaning many. And indeed, such a reading harmonizes well with the language of the Church concerning the Eucharist. Christ’s blood is “shed for you and for many.” The Church chooses “many”, not “all”, in order to highlight that although Christ’s sacrifice indeed could save infinitely many worlds of men, yet not all men will benefit from it. But only those to whom the benefit is communicated and who do not reject it. Now, we know by faith that it is communicated to the baptized. We are also convinced theologically that all freely acting human persons are offered grace sufficient for their salvation. We do not know about unbaptized persons who never act freely (deceased infants, e.g.). Further, we know, from the two lists at the end of time — sheep and goats — that not all to whom the grace was communicated will in fact receive it and cooperate with it. Therefore, his blood can redeem more than it will actually justify. Hence, the Church’s very wise use of Jesus’ own words: “For you and for many”. And this “many,” rather than “all”, is, we can be very thankful, now reflected in the English translation of the Novus Ordo.

We can see at once that it is very important to get clear on texts that are in the proper literal sense, so that one can better exegete other texts by their clear light.

On Reading the Bible (Part I)

On Reading the Bible

The bible is a whale of a complexity. It can help to have “tools” whereby to access the riches of the bibles. There are sundry tools for reading the bible. I can lay out a few here.

One key tool long prized by the Tradition is the distinction between the proper literal sense and the improper literal sense. Note that in each case we are dealing with the “literal sense”.

What is the “literal sense”? It is that meaning which the words first convey; or, it is that reality which the words first signify. The “literal” sense is distinguished from the “spiritual sense”. Briefly, the “spiritual sense” is that further meaning which the reality first signified itself signifies. Let me give a brief example and then return to the literal sense.

The “literal sense” of the “Binding of Isaac” is the man Abraham, his son, the wood, the fire, the knife, etc. In short, the realities first signified by the words of the text. However, Christians perceive in these realities a further set of realities: God the Father, his only Son, the crucifixion, and vicarious representation. These further realities are signified by the earlier realities. That “movement” of signification from things signified to further things signified is the “spiritual sense”.

Thus, the literal sense is that first meaning conveyed or reality signified by the words of the text. Now, Catholic faith holds that the literal sense of every book and of every part of every book of the bible is inerrant. That is, no part of the bible contains error in its literal sense. Why? Because God inspires the biblical author. Thus, God is the chief agent of the bible; the human author is only a secondary agent. And God so inspires the thought of the human agent, so moves him to write, all the while respecting the human agent’s limitations and freedom, that the result is inspired and without error.

Nevertheless, the “literal sense” is not in every case “the plain simple meaning”. This is where people usually go astray. They see that the “plain simple meaning” is at odds with common sense or with reason or with scientific consensus. In such cases, two things can happen. It may be that the reader clings to God in faith (as he should do) and then feels he must “sacrifice” being rational and so he becomes a “fundamentalist” or “fideist”. Thus, the reader claims that reason is poisoned and totally depraved and never certain; etc. But such a reader will then form a ghetto culture while the modern world of rational inquiry and technology will steamroll over his bible church. His approach has no public future. Or, conversely, it may be that one clings to one’s own egoistic rationality and rejects the bible as so much wrongheaded superstition. Such a person will go on mapping out life without mystery, without faith, without wonder. Such a person’s future is without awe and love. Indeed, it is without reason. For if we are not made by someone and for someone, but only by chance and for …?, then the dark truth is that once pleasure runs out of us or we run out of it, we should commit suicide.

But this foolish alternative – fideism and rationalism – need not be the case. The bible does not always proceed in a “plain and simple manner”. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it does not. Thus the importance of the distinction between the “proper literal sense” and the “improper literal sense”.

I define the “proper literal sense” as follows: That mode of discourse in which terms are employed with respect to their full, normal meaning. So, if the text states that “Jesus walked by the sea”, clearly, the text is simply using the terms in the normal way according to their full meaning.

I define the “improper literal sense” as follows: That mode of discourse in which terms are not employed with respect to their full, normal meaning. For instance, the text may read, “God is the lion of Judah.” Now, integral to the definition of lion is “Feline”. But God is not an animal; therefore, he cannot be “feline”. Therefore, the text is not employing the full definition of the term to God. Rather, the text is metaphorical. As a lion strikes terror in his prey, so God strikes terror in his enemies.

Thus, the way to test for proper or improper discourse is to determine whether or not there is a “noteworthy literary device”. If there is such a device – metaphor, hyperbole, etc. – then the text is in the improper literal sense. If there is no such device, the text is in the proper literal sense.

Concerning Nature and Grace (Part IV)

Part IV

The mistake these naturalists make is to reify the initial thesis: That there corresponds to human nature as such a natural end naturally attainable. The naturalists forget that in fact God has intervened in human history and calls all men to holiness (Vatican II, summing up Christianity). Thus, God offers us one end. Fail that end, we have failed everything. If by natural law we are oriented towards the obedience to God, then when God speaks (reveals himself) we must obey him. Otherwise, we give the lie about our “natural righteousness”. Since right now God is knocking on the heart of every man alive, Christians who believe this are called to witness to it to the ends of the earth. Who is a Christian to set limits on the grace of God? For why do I take prudential measures not to speak of God to someone might seem to be opposed to the Gospel? Is it for love of this man who is presently indisposed? Or is it, perhaps, my desire to have tea with him and enjoy his humor without being put in the awkward situation of having something disagreeable between us emerge? Perhaps it is such a human, too human, desire which keeps me from mentioning the Holy Name. “We could just have tea, agree on certain natural precepts, and leave it at that. I would go home. He would go home. End of the day. Tomorrow another day. What a good man he is!” In short, human respect and love of vanities are keeping me.

What do we prize more for this friend of ours? That he achieve another precept of natural law? Or that he be cut to the quick, realize the vanity of his show, find the foundation in Christ, and build thereon? But of course, the time and labor and warfare it shall take for him to be cut to the quick and then find the foundation is massive. All the while, he and I shall not share tea. He might consider me an enemy. A nuisance. Strange. Alien. So, I go on loving him and our teas, while he knows not where he is going. Nor can he be saved until he comes to faith. And what shall I say to the Terrifying Judge when he comes with his Angels to root out the wicked utterly and to spew out the lukewarm like vomit?

Concerning Nature and Grace (Part III)

Part III

If the messed up man is disposed to the faith, then supernatural revelation and the supernatural means of virtue are the first thing I should discuss with him. If he is indisposed to the faith, then, yes, I could try to lead him from where he is a bit further.

However, all the while, I should know that he is setting his life’s compass by some final good other than the Christian God, the only true God. And if he is setting his life’s compass in this way, I should know that his life will be tragically flawed from its foundation. In short, the very “straightening out” of his life in the “natural order” is itself already touched by error and deception. And these he will need to shed.

Grace does not “build” on nature the way algebra builds on arithmetic. Algebra does not heal the iniquities of arithmetic. But grace heals the iniquity of our failures in the natural order, failures that we cannot remedy without grace. Further, grace sets the very orientation to the only end that God has set up for his – the supernatural vision and love of him. And only a life geared towards this vision can be a good life.

That is why, although Christians can and should cooperate with non-Christians in achieving realizable goods immanent to the eschaton – such as a peaceful society, orderly marriage, search for the truth, healthy technological development, life of human virtues – nevertheless, all such cooperation is marked by the greatest tragedy in that those with whom we cooperate and for whom we wish the greatest good, Life in the True God, are dead set against us on this our greatest love. Or they are lukewarm. Or ignorant. But in no case are they at one. Thus, tears should be our bread in this cooperation. Not “optimism” about how awesome natural law is.


Concerning Nature and Grace (Part II)

Part II

The Catholic Church has no such enthusiasm regarding the “natural law”. Pius XI writes, concerning marriage,

“They are greatly deceived who having underestimated or neglected these means which rise above nature, think that they can induce men by the use and discovery of the natural sciences, such as those of biology, the science of heredity, and the like, to curb their carnal desires. We do not say this in order to belittle those natural means which are not dishonest; for God is the Author of nature as well as of grace, and He has disposed the good things of both orders for the beneficial use of men. The faithful, therefore, can and ought to be assisted also by natural means. But they are mistaken who think that these means are able to establish chastity in the nuptial union, or that they are more effective than supernatural grace” (Pius XI, Casti connubii, art. 101).

In short, you will not succeed in producing virtue in this messed up man unless you give him the supernatural means!

Before Pius XI, Pope Leo XIII excoriated those who think that man can build a successful life upon the precepts of the natural law. In our state – fallen because of Adam’s sin – we cannot live successfully the precepts of natural law without grace; indeed, we cannot even get the details of the natural law correct and without error without the help of divine revelation. Most importantly, our final end is not a natural end. It is a supernatural end, the very Vision and Love of God Unveiled. A lengthy citation from Pope Leo is in order, from his Tametsi futura prospicientibus, arts. 11-12:


“The whole object of Christian doctrine and morality is that “we being dead to sin, should live to justice” (1 Peter ii., 24)-that is, to virtue and holiness. In this consists the moral life, with the certain hope of a happy eternity. This justice, in order to be advantageous to salvation, is nourished by Christian faith…. A system of morality based exclusively on human reason robs man of his highest dignity and lowers him from the supernatural to the merely natural life. Not but that man is able by the right use of reason to know and to obey certain principles of the natural law. But though he should know them all and keep them inviolate through life-and even this is impossible without the aid of the grace of our Redeemer-still it is vain for anyone without faith to promise himself eternal salvation…. We are told that society is quite able to help itself; that it can flourish without the assistance of Christianity, and attain its end by its own unaided efforts. Public administrators prefer a purely secular system of government. All traces of the religion of our forefathers are daily disappearing from political life and administration. What blindness!…

12. So great is this struggle of the passions and so serious the dangers involved, that we must either anticipate ultimate ruin or seek for an efficient remedy. It is of course both right and necessary to punish malefactors, to educate the masses, and by legislation to prevent crime in every possible way: but all this is by no means sufficient. The salvation of the nations must be looked for higher….The common welfare, then, urgently demands a return to Him from whom we should never have gone astray; to Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life,-and this on the part not only of individuals but of society as a whole. We must restore Christ to this His own rightful possession. All elements of the national life must be made to drink in the Life which proceedeth from Him: legislation, political institutions, education, marriage and family life, capital and labour.”

Thus, a “purely philosophical” conversation with someone could not succeed in mapping without error the terrain of the precepts of natural law. Recourse to divine revelation is necessary. It will direct me, the friend of the messed up man. Further, my friend, for his own good, needs to accept this map as quickly as possible.


Concerning Nature and Grace (Part I)

Concerning Nature and Grace – Part I

I am a proponent of the thesis that there corresponds to human nature as such a natural end attainable by natural human powers. (My article appears in “De Lubac on Natural Desire: Difficulties and Antitheses” Nova et vetera 9 (2011): 567–624.) That end could be described as a loving contemplation of God, virtuous friendships in society, traditions of inquiry, artistic expression, etc. I do not propose here to argue for this. Rather, I propose to argue against a false practical application of this thesis.

The false practical application of this teaching is mediated by a false vision of being which is falsely (but understandably) linked with the foregoing thesis. That vision is expressed in this line: “Grace builds on nature”. This line is conceived as follows: Nature can take you so far without grace, and then grace does the rest. Nature is like the fetus in the womb; grace is like a language he learns much later. The one comes first; then after a stretch of time the other can be added. That’s the “vision of being” some people take away from the thesis above, and this vision of theirs is proximately dispositive to their pastoral advice.

In pastoral advice, they advise the following: <<He (a messed up friend) needs to get his natural life in order; then he can get on to a spiritual life. So, you (the one to be sent on an apostolate), try to get so-and-so (your messed up friend) to live in accordance with natural law. Pick one or two items of natural law at first (others later). Show your friend how his life is not in conformity with natural law and how this non-conformity will bring him misery. Only then should you introduce religion to him. After all, religion is “baggage”. So, don’t introduce religion to him right away. After all, grace builds on nature. So, unless nature gets its house in order, grace will not come. Moreover, we live in a pluralistic society. So, even if you are giving a talk to the high-schoolers at that Catholic prep school, you should not mention Catholic teaching. Just stick with the natural law.>>

The above advice is from the pit of hell. Advice most stupid, counsel most unwise. Guaranteed to fail. The Christian life is built not on “nature” as an inert entity capable of getting itself right and then being topped off by grace; rather, Christian life is built on humility. If we take steps to “shore up” a life in integrity but without the humility of dependence on God’s grace, we build for ourselves a foundation outside of Christ and upon our own inflated wills. One reason that God allows “apparently righteous” men to fall into embarrassing sins is to humble them. If humility is not the foundation, pride founds the life, and God confounds the proud.

Gnosticization of Morality – Part IV

Therefore, if our lived Catholicism were to allow divorce and remarried people to receive communion, we would not be proclaiming the repentance we are called to preach. We would be sinning against the sinner. We would in vain try to “cover” their guilt, all to our own shame. And they should rightly be deeply angry with us, even if they might be superficially pleased, because we did not show them the way to happiness. And they cannot be deeply happy, only superficially happy (enough to please a sociological survey, but not enough to please them for eternity), if they remain in their sins.

The Gnosticization of morality is destroying the Catholic ability to re-form the world in God’s image. It is puncturing zeal’s force before ever it gets rolling. It divides man’s heart from his body. Thus, it invites the continual pursuit of pleasure, as long as I am in this mortal coil. Or conversely, it invites contempt at this mere husk of dirt. If the dirt can deliver no more pleasure, then end its pathetic existence, free the poor soul into its paradisal identity with God! Man frees himself by his death. Yes, this is the Pelagian end of the Gnosticization of morality. Euthanasia its logical means.

Now – Who is the Intellectual Engine behind this kind of morality? Well, there are many factors. Not all factors are “theologians”. However, there is one very powerful moral theory that I think is behind much of the “theoretical buttressing” of this Gnosticization. It is the thought of the so-called “fundamental option”. And the author of this theory is Karl Rahner. This is a very difficult matter, which I will treat in a future post.

Gnosticization of Morality – Part III

Part III

Thus, the True Enlightenment that we preach must be that of the True Light that Comes Down from Heaven, Illuminating All Minds. And this True Light takes flesh (Jn 1). Further, this enfleshed Light acts bodily, even unto death (Phil 2). And this pattern of life that he made possible, breathes out to us, and calls us to imitate is the pattern of bodily activities conducive to and, by anticipation, constitutive of happiness.

Thus, we must call him to repentance. We must call him to leave his former, sinful ways. If he is ignorant of his obligations, Woe to me if I preach not the Gospel to him. For then I shall be judged, not him.

“But,” says the Devil himself in my ear, “You could be so helpful to this poor wretch. You could take on his sin for him. Leave him in his activities. Leave him in his ignorance. You take the guilt of him. You shall be a hero. You shall imitate the very one who took your guilt upon him.” Thus spake the Devil.

“May God rebuke him,” I reply. For this is a lie. God it is who has providence. And his providence is to provide for all through Holy Mother the Church. And Holy Mother the Church has a mission to convert the world and bring it into her bosom. Is it impossible for this sinner to change his ways so as to walk according to God? Never! God’s grace can accomplish it for him (Rom 8). And if I did not awaken his mind to the truth, I should be guilty of lack of charity towards him and lack of trust in God’s mighty mercy. I should play magic with providence. A grave danger. But worse, it is a diabolical lie that Jesus “took my guilt” upon his soul. Guilt belongs only to the sinner. Jesus knew no sin and was punished unjustly. He announced the truth to the sinner. Yes, he found the subtle ways. He found the personal ways. But he found them. And he drew the sinner to himself. And he launched the sinner towards the fulness of the way of life.

Gnosticization of Morality – Part II

Now, how are some / many Catholics embracing something like this now? We bifurcate human activity into two realms. We say “He meant well in his heart”. Or, “He did not mean that”. We thus divide the heart’s action from the body’s action. It is always true that we cannot tell with the certainty of vision what someone’s intentions are. However, we can be morally certain.

Moreover, when we “bifurcate” the action into two things, we as it were paint two agents: The mind / heart and the body. This bifurcation resembles Gnosticism. If “he means well” in his heart, then he can keep pursuing the “solitary sin” and not be sinning! If the married man, who left his wife and “got a divorce”, takes up with a new woman, who is not his wife, and “looks to me like a man of pure heart”, then “he is probably not in the state of sin”. This is the thought process of many Catholics, lay and clerical.

Worse, we as it were “let” the person who “means well” stay in his sinful bodily patterns. If it is true that we cannot judge with certainty the state of his soul, we can certainly know that his bodily patterns are counterproductive, deleterious, necessarily inhibitive of happiness, against God’s will, unholy, objectively sinful. Thus, no man can be truly happy who is engaged in these activities.

Now, the Church’s mission is to bring the good news of the Gospel to all peoples. We are to bring the Joy of the Gospel to all peoples. And if no person can be happy who is engaged in these vicious activities, it is part of our Missionary Mandate to announce this to each one. Thus, the preaching of the Law is part of the Gospel. For the Gospel is the power to accomplish the ways of God, and the Law indicates these ways.

If we were to leave the man who pursues unnatural sex to his own deluded understanding of the good, we would rob him of the Joy of the Gospel. This is not what Jesus would have us do, nor would it be good for the man.

Gnosticization of Morality – Part I

One of the great problems affecting our lived Catholicism now is the “Gnosticization of Morality.” The name refers to the heresy of Gnosticism. The reference is meant in a manner not of strict but rather of analogous resemblance. In Gnosticism, the spirit is considered to be good, even divine, and the body evil. The former is in the end one with the Divine Realm itself, and the latter one with the Evil Realm itself.

When it comes to moral prescriptions, then, Gnosticism does not adequately integrate bodily activity into its moral theory. Two moral trends emerge in Gnosticism. One trend is that, since the body is evil, one ought to avoid bodily activities as much as possible. In this way, one works to live more and more according to the spirit, awaiting the shedding of the corpse of the body. This is the spiritualizing trend. The other trend is that body and soul are separate realms, even in the one man. Therefore, what is done bodily is distinct from what is done spiritually. There are as it were two activities, two actors. These insights are then harnessed to opportunism, which aims to get whatever one can while one can. Since the realms are distinct, and since the body can as a matter of fact deal many sensible pleasures, the man who indulges in these pleasures harms not his soul. This is the hedonistic, materialistic trend.

Clearly, these trends are opposite. Neither trend recognizes bodily deeds as truly human deeds. Neither presents a portrait of virtue as bodily life. Neither presents the message of “Repent thou for thy bodily activity! Repent and conform thy bodily activity to the Law of God.” If the first trend offers “enlightenment” it is that of the Buddhistic departure from the world of time and space and matter. It is elitist. It does not transform the immanent things of the world. It is not concerned with justice. If the second offers “Enlightenment” it is that bodily life offers, for the strong, a time of pleasure and dancing. Let us eat and drink….