Checking in with our heavenly Mother isn’t just for May!
How’s your devotion to Mary going this summer? We had the month of May, which is dedicated to the Blessed Mother and to adding or deepening expressions of Marian piety and devotion in daily life. Parishes this year were of course limited in what they offered during the month of May because of shelter at home orders and quarantine life.
In the life of any Catholic, I highly recommend a healthy Marian devotion, responding to Jesus’ invitation to take Mary into our homes and behold her as our mother. Loving Mary can’t be confined to just one or two months, but must be a daily relationship with our heavenly mother who prays for us now and at the hour of our death.
Let these weeks of summer be a time where you deepen your devotion to Mary, and as you do so, hopefully it will become a part of who you are.
Pray a novena
The month of August has a few different opportunities for praying a novena. The Assumption of Mary into Heaven is observed on August 15 and eight days later the memorial of the Queenship of Mary. August 21 is the anniversary of Mary’s apparition in Knock. You can find many different novenas online simply by searching for them. And you could pray a novena anytime; it doesn’t have to be for a liturgical feast.Read more:Who is Our Lady of Knock? The silent apparition
The other night I went for my nightly Rosary walk. It had just rained a little bit and the sun was coming out. As I walked my mile route, I was caught up in the beauty of God’s creation and the double rainbow in the sky. If you find praying the Rosary difficult or can’t seem to find the time, combine it with a walk. Mary walks with us as we pray the Rosary through the scenes of Jesus’ life, and she can hold our hand as we thumb our beads and walk the road, too.Read more:How to learn to love the Rosary (even if you hate it)
Look for Mary statues
I’ve been doing a lot of biking this summer, going for 10- to 20-mile bike rides. As I bike my country roads, I look at people’s yards, and am surprised to find so many yard statues of Mary. Go for a fun run, bike ride, or Sunday drive, and count how many Mary gardens you find along the way.
Visit a Marian shrine
Even with the pandemic, many shrines are open for people to visit. You have to observe social distancing and wear a mask, but that doesn’t take away the something special about praying at these holy places. In addition to shrines, many churches have a special area to pray and honor the Blessed Mother. Stop by one of these places and entrust your needs to Mary’s intercession.
Read a book
Saints and contemporary authors alike have meditated on the mystery of Mary and published many books. If you want to know more about Mary, check out any of Dr. Edward Sri’s books or Dr. Brant Pitre’s book, Jesus, and the Jewish Roots of Mary.
If you want a devotional text, check out my book A Heart Like Mary’s or any other meditation book you can find. Consult websites of Catholic publishers such as Ave Maria Press, TAN Books, OSV, Sophia Institute Press, or Ignatius Press, and discover what Marian title intrigues you.
Learn about Mary, so you can love your mom all the more! And if you want to learn How to Love Mary, you can always check out the podcast How They Love Mary.
Question: My question is about the “full knowledge” element for mortal sin. My belief has always been in line with the following statement from the FAQ section of the popular program “The Light Is On For You” that is employed in many dioceses around the country: “Full knowledge means that one is aware that God or the Church he founded considered the act sinful (even if one doesn’t totally understand why it is sinful).” I have recently been told that this definition if wrong. I have been told that, as a baptized Catholic, I can be fully aware of the Church’s teaching that an action is gravely sinful but if I do not actually believe it, then I can never commit a mortal sin by engaging in that act. In other words, as long as I act in accord with my own sincere beliefs, it is impossible for me to commit a mortal sin. I am looking for an authoritative magisterial statement that explicitly rejects this. Can you help?
Answer: The general answer to your question is that the statement you quote from the program is correct. The issue of the place of knowledge in moral responsibility is an important one. This is because one cannot love what one does not first know. A child who has never tasted chocolate cannot cry for it. This is true of all goods including the good which is God Himself, the ultimate end of moral life. In fact, there are two orders regarding the relation of means to an end. The first is the order of intention in which the end comes first and the means come second. The intellect has priority here. Before determining the means and the road to pursue in any journey, the final destination must be determined. The second order is the order of execution in which the means are actually carried out in practice. One can intend the final destination in a journey and fail to take the first step. The will has priority here.
In all moral choices, whether of good or evil, the intellect is like the eyes and the will is like the feet. The character of evil results from the will desiring something as a good which is not a true good. One can love a good which is false. When the will goes after such a good, it is rather like taking a journey and either ending in a ditch or falling off a cliff. The strength of the desire would carry one very far afield unless guided by the truth of reason.
When one is forming one’s conscience, which is itself a process of reasoning in which the moral truth is applied to conduct, one must be certain that what one is proposing to do actually corresponds to the truth. Since conscience is a process of reasoning, like all exercises of logic, it can be mistaken. If this is the case, there are two issues to resolve in determining whether will actually is responsible for the disorder which is introduced into the character by the mistake and thus incurs responsibility for either good or evil.
The first regards the possibility of the will altering the ignorance which caused the mistake. If the ignorance precedes the action of the will, then the will can do nothing about it. In the case of evil, though the act remains a sin, the will does not incur responsibility for the deed. This is what is traditionally known as invincible ignorance.
On the other hand, should the ignorance result from factors under the control of the will, then the person’s act is more voluntary and more responsible for committing sin because there is a callous indifference as to the truth. This is called vincible ignorance. This is normally demonstrated in negligence. A student is too lazy to study in medical school, cheats on tests, becomes a doctor, and kills a patient on the operating table. A lawyer takes a fee but loses a capital case because he is simply too lazy to do the work necessary to defend his client adequately. Each could claim ignorance, but they could have done something about it and did not. In other words, they could and should have known the truth which would have guided their action properly.
The second issue regards the manner in which an erroneous conscience binds a person to act. St. Thomas maintains that a person is bound to follow an erroneous conscience, but in doing so he cannot avoid sin. In following his conscience he sins against the objective order and in acting against his conscience he acts against what he subjectively considers the will of God. Such a conscience binds only conditionally. If one can change his conscience, one must. The norms for this come from the teaching on vincible and invincible ignorance already evoked.
In the case presented, the ignorance does not result from negligence but from positive dissent. In matters connected with faith, including both faith and morals, arguments from authority are the strongest arguments. This is what the Catholic Church has always taught. Were someone to know the teaching of the Church and use his dissent from it as a justification for an evil moral choice which constituted a mortal sin, he would be even more guilty of sin, not less. The quote above rightly addresses how deep the knowledge must be. One need not be a theologian but just understand with common knowledge that what the Church teaches is contrary to one’s proposed practice.
Magisterially, the Catechism of the Catholic Church sets out some of the possible sources for a vincibly erroneous conscience. These include: “Rejection of the Church’s authority and her teaching.” So full knowledge that something is in fact a teaching of the Church and rejection of that teaching in moral action does not excuse from mortal sin.
Adoration of Saints vs. Adoration of God
Question: Do we adore the saints and Mary in the same way that we adore God?
Answer: In moral theology, the term adoration refers to an exterior act of the virtue of religion. The virtue of religion is a connected virtue to the virtue of justice. If justice is the constant and perpetual will to give to another his due, the virtue of religion entails the constant and perpetual will to give God his due. Since man can never repay God in any sort of strict equality for the good of existence, much less many other things, religion is a connected virtue and not a part of strict justice itself.
The virtue of religion recognizes the rights of the Creator which are, of course, very extensive because all man has and is occurs as a result of divine power, truth, and love. There are two interior acts of this virtue: devotion in the will and prayer in the intellect. These result from a true attitude toward the Creator of respectful obedience and recognition of dependence for everything. The formation of these internal attitudes is essential to the development of this virtue.
Since man has a body as well as a soul, these interior acts are fostered by two exterior acts: adoration and sacrifice. Sacrifice involves a victim, a priest, and an altar, and strictly speaking refers to the offering of some return to the Creator in recognition of all we have received from him.
Adoration, on the other hand, refers to the exterior use of the body in actions which express or excite devotion and prayer. They are things like candles, body postures, music, art, genuflections, kneeling and the like which are directly related to the worship of God. Thomas Aquinas distinguished three types of adoration.
The first are those actions which denote reverence for God alone. This is called latria in Greek. It is reserved for God, Christ’s human nature, the Blessed Sacrament, and artistic representations of Christ. The traditional teaching on the veneration of images is expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The Christian veneration of images is not contrary to the first commandment which proscribes idols. Indeed, ‘the honor rendered to an image passes to its prototype,’ and ‘whoever venerates an image venerates the person portrayed in it.’ The honor paid to sacred images is a ‘respectful veneration,’ not the adoration due to God alone. Religious worship is not directed to images in themselves, considered as mere things, but under their distinctive aspect as images leading us on to God incarnate. The movement toward the image does not terminate in it as image, but tends toward that whose image it is” (2132).
Since the saints are examples to us of those who have lived an especially holy life, they are venerated but not worshiped. In Greek this is called dulia. Our Lady is not a goddess. But in imitation of the Magnificat in Scripture: “All generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1:48), Catholics call her blessed with a special veneration which is not latria nor dulia, but a special veneration expressed by the term hyperdulia.
About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered”.
What is “doubt?” To doubt is to lack faith, and to lack faith is to lack trust in the perfect revelation and plan of God’s Will. First and foremost, a doubt, resulting from a lack of faith, means you are not listening. When we doubt God, His plan and all that He reveals to us, we are left on our own. But when we listen, hear, understand and believe, we are covered in the protection of His Mercy on account of the faith that we manifest. Faith means that we know with certainty all that God says and wills. Faith is not just believing in something we hope is true, it’s knowing and believing all that is true (See Diary #1101).
Do you doubt at times? Or do you have faith? This is an exceptionally important question to ponder. Begin by asking yourself these questions: Do I listen to the Voice of God? Do I hear God speak to me and do I comprehend all that He says? Without these first steps, faith is impossible. Hearing Him speak can only come through prayer. And the form of prayer we need could be called “soaking prayer.” Soaking prayer is a form of prayer by which we allow ourselves to daily become immersed in the Voice of God revealing His holy Will. He speaks to us all day, every day. Little by little we listen, comprehend and respond. This produces the gift of faith and that faith will lead your life. Reflect upon this process in your life and renew your commitment to start at the beginning so that the Lord will lead you one step at a time.
Dear Lord, I desire to hear You speak to me. Help me to open my ears to hear so that I may know You and discern Your perfect Will for my life. I desire to be led each day only by You and to trust in the gentle guidance of Your holy Will. Jesus, I trust in You.
Question: St. Thomas believed that man has an inborn understanding and disposition toward doing the good. What, then, is the purpose of the infusion of grace?
Answer: I really do not know where you get the idea that Aquinas thought that man has an inborn understanding. For him, as for Aristotle, the mind was a tabula rasa (blank slate) at birth. Experience of the world through the senses was the necessary foundation for the ability to abstract universal ideas and so gain science. Perhaps you mean that there was a long debate in the Church over certain expressions of St. Thomas which had their origin in a phrase he used to express the final fulfillment of truth in the mind: the natural desire to see God.
This phrase caused a great deal of theological ferment in the last hundred years, and oddly enough seems to be at the basis of many of the problems we are experiencing in the Church now. This is why the debate should occasion some analysis. There are many passages in Aquinas where he explains that the potential of the intellect for truth can only be stilled by knowing the ultimate truth in its essence, namely God. This is natural and innate in the human mind because the mind has a basic potential to know truth. It is not actually in the mind by birth as to its fulfillment. This reflects an idea which Aristotle had in his Metaphysics, which begins with the sentence: “All men by nature desire to know.” Aristotle goes on to explain that man was led into the material world of nature by wonder as to its explanation, what he called causes. Little by little, human beings progressed until they understood that the ultimate explanation of the material world of nature, what he called the final cause, could not be something material, but something spiritual, God. Man discovered this in physics and this led him to conclude there was a science beyond physics, or metaphysics. But this wonder did not stop with only knowing this cause existed, but was drawn on to know what it was. Of course, man cannot do this merely by human reason, and Aristotle went away frustrated.
Aquinas uses this argument to explain that there must be an aid given to human nature if the quest for truth is to be completed: grace and revelation. Reason can never suffice to explain the world. He asks if it is possible to know God as he is in himself, or see God. He states that those who say this knowledge is too high for man are arguing against both reason and faith.
Therefore some who considered this, held that no created intellect can see the essence of God. This opinion, however, is not tenable. For as the ultimate beatitude of man consists in the use of his highest function, which is the operation of his intellect; if we suppose that the created intellect could never see God, it would either never attain to beatitude, or its beatitude would consist in something else besides God; which is opposed to faith. For the ultimate perfection of the rational creature is to be found in that which is the principle of its being; since a thing is perfect so far as it attains to its principle. Further the same opinion is also against reason. For there resides in every man a natural desire to know the cause of any effect which he sees; and thence arises wonder in men. But if the intellect of the rational creature could not reach so far as to the first cause of things, the natural desire would remain void. (Summa Theologiae I, Q. 12, A. 1)
Many theologians have either denied there is a natural desire or tried to make it an innate act of the will. This would not be possible, as acts of the will demand actual actions of knowledge, and what Aquinas is referring to is the potential of the intellect in itself. The will cannot act unless presented with goods by the mind, and this would not be innate in, say, an infant whose intellect was not developed at all. This fact also relates to the question about good. There is a natural tendency in the will for good but this is good in general. Even sinners act for good, albeit a disordered one. The will seeks by nature the satisfaction of all human powers, including the intellect. If the intellect demands grace to arrive at heaven and know God as he is in himself, then a fortiori the will also demands grace to attain the complete perfection of the intellect and man, which is what the will aims at. The answer to the question is that grace perfects, but does not destroy, nature. Aquinas summarizes: “Man is called to an end by nature that he cannot attain by nature but only be grace because of the exalted character of the end.” (Aquinas, Boethius, de Trinitate, Q. 6, A. 4, ad. 5.)
New Heaven? New Earth?
Question: What is meant by the “new heaven and the new earth”? How can there be a new heaven? It is very confusing.
Answer: The source of your question comes from the book of Revelation 21:1: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.” This verse reflects a fulfillment of a prophecy in Isaiah 65:17. This prophecy is followed by the prophecy of the heavenly Jerusalem in which the city has no sun or moon but only the Lamb as its light.
As with all apocalyptic literature, these verses are obscure in their meaning and have been the subject of many interpretations. Still, one Catholic interpretation of this may help. The New Jerusalem descends from God like a bride. This is the Church who is the bride of Christ and shares spousal life with him. This spousal love is characterized by a union of truth and love wrought in the souls of the members of the Church by grace. Vatican II speaks of the three persons of the Trinity as the basis of the union of the Church as a society, and states: “Thus, the Church has been seen as ‘a people made one with the unity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’” (Lumen Gentium 4).
The new heaven expresses the fact that by grace heaven has descended and penetrated the earth. In the sacraments, the people of God is made holy and can participate in heaven while on earth. Nature becomes super-naturalized, not in the sense that it is changed as such, but in the sense that through nature man can again arrive at God through the help of grace. The Holy Cloud, or Shekinah, which covered Sinai and showed the presence of God, has become permanent just as the veil covering the Holy of Holies was rent asunder at the death of Christ. The complete elevation of nature is realized in the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ. In his body, the whole of nature is fulfilled in man. Man, body and spirit, is fulfilled in God. This fact is completed now in him and in Our Lady, but will only be finally completed in us in our own resurrection at the end of time.
The new heavens and the new earth, then, are not in any sense to be interpreted literally as the same as this earth and heaven we experience in the five senses every day. This new experience certainly has a physical or material aspect because it is experienced in risen bodies. But in this new cosmos, God will be all in all. The motion of the heavens and the earth will cease because, according to Christian cosmology, the primary moving force in nature is not matter and energy, but the love of the Holy Spirit. The material world exists for man and man exists for God. When the number chosen by God of the elect is filled, there is no need for the motion of the heavens and the earth, and they will cease.
About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered”.
I am persuaded God has a sense of humor. When I was once a Presbyterian, Calvinist seminarian, I tried, without result, to persuade my then-Reformed Baptist girlfriend that paedobaptism—the practice of baptizing infants and children—had biblical warrant. A few years later, after I had converted to Catholicism and began working as an editor of the ecumenical website “Called to Communion”, I found myself in frequent and often fruitless debates with Reformed Baptists. I don’t think I persuaded a single one of them.
I was reminded of those experiences —some with more personal relevance than others—when reading the recent First Things article “Why I Am a Baptist” by R. Albert Mohler Jr., President and Professor of Christian Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mohler, a prolific Baptist theologian and writer, recounts an anecdote in his article’s lede about an exasperated Desiderius Erasmus, the Catholic humanist and foe of Martin Luther, who grew increasingly frustrated with the German monk and Reformer’s proclivity for extremes, hyperboles, and emotive assertions.
In Mohler’s account of the historical development of Baptists in the post-Reformation era, these truest-of-true Protestants sought to affirm the “central doctrines of the Christian faith,” and “unite and confirm all true Protestants in the fundamental articles of the Christian religion,” as the 1679 Baptist “Orthodox Creed” explains. Of course, many of these “central doctrines” and “fundamental articles”—sola fide, sola scriptura, for example—are rejected by substantial numbers of self-described Christians, including, notably, Catholics and Orthodox. This provokes a question of paramount importance: who decides what doctrines are “essential” and “central”?
The answer in the Baptist theological paradigm is the individual, Bible-reading Christian, guided by the Holy Spirit. This presents its own immediate problem, since determining who even counts as a legitimate Christian is a question only an individual person who claims to be a Christian could answer, and is thus a form of limitless, circular question-begging. Who are true Christians? “People like me who believe the central truths of biblical Christianity, as taught by the Bible.” But what about other people who read the Bible and come to different conclusions than you about its central truths? “Well, they must not be Christian.”
Baptist theology is thus essentially individualistic. Each individual person is the ultimate arbiter for interpreting the Bible’s meaning. This framework can only have a semblance of coherency if one also believes in the peculiar Protestant doctrine of perspicuity, the tenet that the Bible is so clear regarding the “essentials” of Christianity that any individual Christian can identify them. This also is question-begging, since other dominant Christian traditions (Catholicism, Orthodoxy) don’t hold to perspicuity, but recognize the necessity of an authoritative biblical interpreter.
The individualism and presumption of perspicuity is also visible in the Baptists’ most famous (and self-identifying) doctrine—credobaptism, otherwise known as “Believer’s Baptism.” Only those who have made a public profession of faith in Christ should be baptized. “Reading the New Testament,” says Mohler, Baptists “concluded that infant baptism was no real baptism and that baptism, like the Lord’s Supper, was not a sacrament but an ordinance.” Moreover, Bible verses including Colossians 2:12 and Romans 6:4 “clearly indicated the full immersion of the new believer in water.” So much for the consensus on the baptism of infants among the Church Fathers (e.g. St. Irenaeus of Lyon, St. Hippolytus of Rome, St. Cyprian, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, etc.), or the curious lack of debate regarding baptizing infants in the early Church (one would think, if many early Christians disagreed with paedobaptism, there would be record of such disagreement).
“To the Baptists,” explains Mohler, “the practice of believers’ baptism was shorthand for their entire system of doctrine and ecclesial practice.” Mohler’s forthright acknowledgment of the centrality of credobaptism is further proof of its unparalleled level of individualism. This is because Baptist theology depends on a subjective, unauthoritative interpretation of a set of verses with little interpretive pedigree prior to the Reformation. It is further manifested in Baptists’ refusal to recognize the baptism of individual Christians baptized as infants. Of course, this is internally coherent—if paedobaptism is illegitimate, “rebaptism” would be necessary. Yet this also means most other Christians, including Protestants who share significant theological overlap with Baptists (e.g. Anglicans, Presbyterians), lack perhaps the most essential external markers of the Christian faith, per the Church fathers and historical ecclesial traditions.
This radical individualism is also visible in Baptist theology’s prioritization of the singular, definitive moment of personal conversion. Individuals are born in original sin and are thus inherently directed towards sin (so far, so good), but that spiritual renovation occurs not through baptism, but through a decision made by individuals possessing sufficient moral agency. “The definition of Christ’s church as wholly regenerate is perhaps the most radical of all Baptist doctrines,” observes Mohler. Indeed. Here again we see the question-begging premises of perspicuity: “the concept of a regenerate church… was evident to the early Baptists as they read the Bible.” And, one might add, as they neglected the teachings of pre-Reformation Christianity.
The early English Baptist Thomas Helwys—approvingly cited by Mohler—is paradigmatic of this hyper-individualism: “man’s religion to God is between God and themselves.” There is some inconsistency in this, given that Baptist parents catechize their unbaptized children in the peculiarities of Baptist doctrine. That aside, Mohler himself affirms an extreme form of religious liberty: “Helwys had the clearness of mind to discern that as a matter of justice the ruling authorities must grant liberty of conscience no matter what faith people held.” No matter what? What if said faith is destructive to the human person, contrary to the most fundamental of natural laws, or inimical to the preservation or flourishing of the polis? Baptist theology thus elevates the conscience of the individual above the very survival of the community.
Mohler laments the “acids of modernity,” “increasingly aggressive secularism,” and “secular liberation.” Yet it is precisely the philosophical premises underlying Baptist theology that have contributed to these broader socio-cultural trends. Baptist theology’s hyper-individualism is modernity in action. It only takes a little skepticism and creativity for individual persons who see the irrationality of Protestantism to dispense with the Bible altogether and try to create a new system of ontology, epistemology, and ethics totally severed from the remnants of their own philosophical inheritance, as did Descartes, Kant, Hume, Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Sartre.
Mohler defends those, who, like himself “hold to traditional forms of Christianity, revealed religion, and religious authority.” Yet this is an ersatz, ad hoc tradition, because Baptist doctrine encourages its adherents to embrace only those traditions that they individually determine to be in conformity with Scripture, while rejecting the broad, early Church consensus on many matters. These include not only infant baptism but also Eucharistic rites, Lenten fasts, rules for the election and consecration of bishops, the sign of the cross, and prayers for the dead. Baptists are thus ecclesial deists, believing God began the church and then left it to its own devices. Again, Baptists possess an ersatz, ad hoc authority, rejecting the apostolic episcopacy in favor of individual persons who form communities with like-minded interpretations of the Bible.
I often employ these arguments with Baptist interlocutors. The most common response is to cite Bible verses at me, as if the passages are themselves capable of making the argument, even if I interpret those verses differently than the Baptist. The Baptist approach is emblematic of a theological system predicated on that pesky doctrine of perspicuity—the Bible verses are clear; their theological adversaries just haven’t interpreted them properly. Indeed, Mohler’s article presumes Scripture is clear in reference to the nature of Christian conversion, the form and application of baptism, ecclesiology, sacramentology (again, there are no sacraments, Baptists believe in “ordinances”), the content of the gospel, and church discipline (a new mark of the church, according to Baptist teaching). And if the non-Baptist doesn’t rightly see those clear, pro-Baptist doctrines in the Bible, well, that must necessarily reflect some deficiency on his part!
At its heart, Baptist theology is defined by a hyper-individualistic, anti-traditionalist, and ecclesial deist paradigm that has far more in common with Enlightenment, modernist thinking than it does with historical, orthodox Christianity and its familial, traditionalist, and episcopal qualities. For the Baptist, the answers to the questions of who decides the contents of the Bible, the Bible’s meaning, and its relationship to a systemized Christian theology are found not in an apostolically-derived ecclesial authority, but in the atomized, self-assured Christian. Every time Mohler refers to “New Testament principles,” what he really means is his personal principles of New Testament interpretation, masquerading as objective and orthodox. He ends by declaring his intention to die “faithfully Baptist.” For his and all Baptists’ sake, I plead that he reconsider.
About Casey Chalk 5 ArticlesCasey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master’s in theology from Christendom College.
By Anthony S. Layne
“And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, / Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” If you’re a Catholic of a certain age, “We Are One in the Spirit” by the late Peter Scholtes may cause you to shudder. I think it’s the song that caused the traditionalist movement. Written in a natural minor key, it’s dreary and unimaginative. Who knew agápē could be so bloody boring? There’s just not much you can do to make it interesting, though For King and Country and Jars of Clay tried.
Here’s the question, though: Do non-Christians know us by our love?
If you’re socially aware and honest about the matter, you have to answer “No.” Neither love for one another (John 13:34-35) nor for our neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40) have been distinguishing features of Christianity among non-Christians for centuries. Whatever the song’s aesthetic demerits, it captures the distinction between the Christian ideal contained in the gospel message and the reality of the Western confessional Christianity that’s now losing adherents and social influence. If conservative or traditional Christianity has an ugly reputation among non- and post-Christians, it’s by no means undeserved or purely the product of misunderstanding.
Cruel, Ignorant, Greedy, and Hypocritical
Optics matter. If it looks bad, it probably is bad. A pastor of a large Pacific Coast evangelical congregation told Peter Wehner of The Atlantic that, from his perspective, conservative Christian support for Pres. Donald Trump had accelerated American disaffiliation from confessional Christianity. “For decades Hollywood has portrayed conservative Christians as cruel, ignorant, greedy, and hypocritical. … Yes, Hollywood and the media created a decidedly unattractive stereotype of Christians. And Donald Trump fits it perfectly. Made it all seem true. And sadly, I now realize that stereotype is more true than I ever knew. It breaks my heart.”
Cruel, ignorant, greedy, and hypocritical. Hollywood and the media couldn’t have created that stereotype if we hadn’t given them so many examples of Christians Behaving Badly to work with, whether intentionally or unintentionally. True, some of the appearances of ignorance is due to rejecting agenda-oriented falsehoods dressed up as science. And by no means do all faithful Christians who lean right fit the stereotype. But anti-Christian outlets like Patheos’ “Friendly Atheist” can subsist on nut-picking—See, they’re all like that!—only because so many Christian nuts are available for the harvest.
Yes, there is a liberal or “progressive” Christianity that’s now almost indistinguishable from the secular political left; it will eventually cease to be Christian even in name. But that there are different “flavors” of Christianity known by their secular political orientation is itself a condemnation of Western Christianity. To paraphrase St. Paul: Is Christ divided? Was Trump crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes? (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:13) If Christ hasn’t been divided, certainly the gospel message has been, with different factions emphasizing select elements at the expense of others.
In fact, you could say that the two darksome powers now struggling ineffectively for control of American destiny are the twin heads of a corrupt Christianity—the real anti-Christianity—eating itself alive. Yes, corrupt. If you’re in Stage 2 or 3, you don’t say, “I have a little cancer;” you say “I have cancer.”
A (Brief) History of Christians Behaving Badly
The most significant symbol of Christianity’s corruption is the burning cross of the Ku Klux Klan. Yet we can wonder how much different it is from the “white Christ” that followed the plundering Spanish conquistadors into the West Indies and Mexico, the Christ to whom English colonists built churches as they imported African slaves to work fields taken from their aboriginal inhabitants. Yes, some popes and preachers inveighed against the oppression and enslavement of other peoples. And other Christians ignored them, often quoting Scripture in their defense or grumbling that said evangelists were ignorant of certain overriding realities.
The Christianity they spread was corrupted even before Columbus’ ships left Castile in August 1492. Centuries of European dominance had made Western Christians relatively wealthy, powerful, and arrogant. We hadn’t invented slavery, exploitation, or oppression. However, we had made advances in technology and economics that gave us the power to leverage our sins beyond those of the people we conquered. The questioning of human authority and tradition had already begun. It would explode into the Reformation and Enlightenment, and collapse into denying not only God but human reason and reality itself.
Western Christianity succeeded in making disciples of other nations, not because of our strengths but despite our glaring faults. The gospel message was nearly trampled to death as economic, cultural, and ideological imperialism followed political imperialism. We had left off working out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (cf. Philippians 2:12) to work out other peoples’ salvation with guns and money. It shows as much in Western exports of communism and contraception as it does in our exports of clothes and fast-food chains. For the gospel’s spread throughout the world, give glory to God, not to the white man.
The Evanescence of Temporal Power
Ayn Rand despised Christianity because it criticizes the wealthy. Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the people” because it keeps the proletariat from overthrowing their capitalist masters. They hated Christ because he understood what they didn’t: that the things this world prizes—especially power, whether financial, political, or social—are all evanescent, as fleeting as time. The rich and the poor, the ruler and the ruled, the famous and the obscure all come to the same end. Gather all the laurels you will; they all eventually wither. The one who dies with the most toys is still dead.
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
“Power tends to corrupt,” wrote the Catholic historian Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Against this, Jesus preached humility, service to others, and radical dependence on God. Against the pride of self-righteous judgmentalism, Jesus preached forgiveness and mercy as essential components of agápē. He taught his disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35) and to “take up their crosses” (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34), as one who foreknew that the crowds would welcome him to Jerusalem with “Hosanna!” and later send him to Golgotha with “Crucify him!”
Christ had real, unimaginable power. Yet he taught that the greatest power we could aspire to was the power to do good for each other. The servant model of leadership he advocated against traditional authoritarian models has recently found new validation in business. Change individual hearts and minds, and the culture will eventually change; change the culture and the laws will inevitably change to suit. The real task of changing the world begins not in legislatures or executive offices but in that piece of the world where our homes and daily lives are. It begins with love for one another.
Re-conversion and Reparations
At this point, I’m no longer concerned with “saving” the United States, in the sense of returning to some nostalgia-painted Golden Age (“Make America Great Again”). I would rather that we focus on making Americans disciples. Nations are abstractions. People, on the other hand, are concrete realities. We are no longer in a world where converting the local rulers is sufficient to gain adherents among the ruled. To convert nations, you must convert their peoples. The new evangelization was always about re-converting ourselves first in preparation for re-proposing the gospel to “post-Christian” nations.
To re-evangelize ourselves, we must first recover the humility at the core of the gospel message. You can teach a parrot to say, “I am a sinner”; we must go beyond the parrot-talk to “hug the cactus” of our vices and flaws. (Note to self: If you can go to therapy once every two weeks, you can go to Confession just as often.) Until we take ownership of our sins, our talk of our salvation is merely self-congratulation. Ignoring and rationalizing our sins are not at all the same as forgiving ourselves or being forgiven by others.
We white Christians can’t build on anything positive or valuable of our cultural legacy without first taking ownership of the harm our ancestors did in the past and asking forgiveness in their name. Granted, many “woke” people of color may choose not to forgive us and instead demand that we suffer some “de-privileging” for our “whiteness.” Others, however, look for our asking forgiveness as a sign that we have truly repented. To pretend those sins have nothing to do with us would show we haven’t changed: “Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors” (Matthew 23:29-32).
Today, we Christians are known for anything but our love for one another. I suggest it’s because white European Christians and their non-Christian descendants lost the Christian virtue of humilitas that lies near the center of Christ’s teachings. To renew ourselves in Christ’s message and undo our evil reputation, we must first rediscover humility. We must also realize that, beyond exercising our obligation to vote, American politics present a near occasion of sin, an opportunity for vicarious power to corrupt us. Our mandate is to teach new disciples to obey Christ’s commandments, not to compel obedience by law.
I’ve written before that we shouldn’t mourn the loss of our political power. If anything, we should regret that we ever had it, for we’ve misused it. Instead, let’s seek to repair the broken relationships between ourselves and with our fellow Americans of all classes, especially those who suffered because of our hubris. Let’s learn to lead through the example of service to others, building networks of love and solidarity that lead to stronger, healthier, more stable communities, converting from the bottom up rather than top-down. Then, perhaps, one day they’ll again know we’re Christians by our love.
CATHOLIC STAND is an e-publication presenting essays and creative non-fiction, offering substantive resources with thoughtful insights into how to live the Truth that the Church teaches, owned by Little Vatican Media.
When I was young, even three and four years old, I used to cry at night thinking about death and eternity. It was a feeling as if the wind has gotten knocked out of me and a huge weight was being pressed upon me. Even now, a feeling of terror can come over me when I think of eternity in relation to time. How can our lives which are so limited and passing endure forever? Forever itself seems to be an insolvable puzzle that twists the minds in knots. If I think of eternity, just sheer eternity, it makes me want to crawl under a rock and hide!
St. Thomas Aquinas demonstrates the nature of this puzzle quite well. Eternity is not simply living forever, but in the fullest sense is a perfect and everlasting now, without any form of change. Aquinas calls this a simultaneous whole: “Clearly, therefore, no succession occurs in God. His entire existence is simultaneous” (Compendiumof Theology, ch. 8). Yet, this perspective is so far removed from us: “We reach to the knowledge of eternity by means of time, which is nothing but the numbering of movement by ‘before’ and ‘after’” (Summa theologia, I, q. 10, a. 1). We try to approach the changelessness of eternity from our own position of change, which, in a sense, makes it completely beyond our comprehension. Furthermore, “eternity “truly and properly so called is in God alone, because eternity follows on immutability. . . . But God alone is altogether immutable” (ibid., a. 4).
All of this is a philosophically technical way of saying that God never changes and we are so unlike him in our changeability. This is what I felt deep down inside of me as a child, unable to comprehend how a finite being can abide forever.Unlike those moments when I was a young child, when I have this oppressive feeling now, I turn to Christ and it quickly passes. I always think that if God became man and has taken on our humanity as his own, eternally, than we certainly have confidence in a place with God forever. The Church Fathers summarized this thought: “God became man so that we can become God.” It is true that limited finite things do not in themselves abide forever, but God has given us his divine life so that we can live with and in him.
The Bible reveals our divine, eternal vocation in Wisdom 2:23: “For God created man for incorruption, and made him in the image of his own eternity.” The Catechism also affirms that God has specifically made us in light of his eternity:
The human person: with his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the “seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material,” can have its origin only in God (§33).
God has made us in the image of his own eternity by infusing within us a rational soul, which can endure beyond the simply material. Our soul is the seed of eternity that is meant to bear fruit in eternal life, through God’s grace.
The great theologian, Matthias Scheeben, drew out this eternal reality of grace in his great work of popular spirituality, The Glories of Divine Grace:
We are called to a more than temporal, to an eternal life, and dwell in the tabernacle of God’s eternity, immediately at the foundation of all being and of all life. Here our enteral existence is as secure as that of God Himself; here we need fear neither death nor destruction, and when Heaven and earth pass away, when the stars fall from Heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be moved, we shall not be affected, because we rest in the bosom of the Creator (49).
Scheeben draws out what it means to share in the divine nature. It includes sharing in those things which belong properly to God, including his eternity: “You ascend by [grace] unto the bosom of God, to partake of His nature and the eminent prerogatives peculiar to Him, of His eternity and infinite perfection” (65). This is a pretty awesome prospect: to share in the life of God, not just insofar as we are able as creatures, but to share in his own proper life. Following up from his point above, on God’s unique immutability, Aquinas describes that “as some receive immutability from Him, they share in His eternity.”
We shouldn’t let God’s generosity go to our heads, however, as the Catechism reminds us: “Faced with God’s fascinating and mysterious presence, man discovers his own insignificance” (§208). Standing before God in this insignificance, we are meant to fear God. St. Thomas describes how even filial fear (fear of offending God) still recognizes our creaturely distance from Him:
Filial fear does not imply separation from God, but submission to Him, and shuns separation from that submission. Yet, in a way, it implies separation, in the point of not presuming to equal oneself to Him, and of submitting to Him, which separation is to be observed even in charity, in so far as a man loves God more than himself and more than aught else. Hence the increase of the love of charity implies not a decrease but an increase in the reverence of fear (ST II-II, q. 19 a. 10 ad 3).
What is striking in relation to fearing God in His infinity is that even though we share in that infinity in Heaven, fear of God remains even there. St. Thomas explains that even the Saints “wonder at God’s supereminence and incomprehensibility,” because “fear implies a natural defect in a creature, in so far as it is infinitely distant from God, and this defect will remain even in heaven. Hence fear will not be cast out altogether” (ST II-II, q. 19, a. 11, corpus; ad 3). Even though God has given us such a great reason to hope and to be consoled, there is still something right and just about fearing God and feeling the infinite distance between us and Him.
As a little child crying in my bed at night, I would not have been able to articulate the theological significance of what I was feeling. There was an intuition of my littleness and the overpowering and overwhelming greatness of God and eternity. That initial fear would eventually lead to an encounter with Christ and the acceptance of an invitation to enter into a relationship that is meant to abide forever. Thinking about eternity, and helping others to do so, even with a bit of fear, may be the beginning of sharing in God’s own eternity.
R. Jared Staudt is the Director of Formation for the Offices of Evangelization and Catholic Schools of the Archdiocese of Denver and teaches for the Augustine Institute. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He is a Benedictine oblate and author of The Beer Option(Angelico Press). He and his wife Anne have six children.
There are certain passages in the Old Testament that stop me in my tracks. One such passage is in the Book of Jeremiah where the bedraggled prophet tells us that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?”
It is important for me to realize that Jeremiah is speaking directly to me. He is telling me about something that is very dear to me—my heart—and telling me that it is fraught with deception. My “organ of benevolence,” as Charles Dickens once described it, is fundamentally flawed. Jeremiah has handed me my X-rays and they do not look good. Nor does Matthew (15:19) paint a pretty picture of the heart when he states that “Out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”
How should I respond? Can my heart be resuscitated, rectified, purified? Is everything I think or say or write essentially unreliable? How does Saint John Henry Newman justify his motto, Cor ad cor loquitur (Heart speaking to heart)? Jeremiah had a hard time convincing certain people that they were clinging to false prophets. At the same time, he felt wholly unfit to carry out his God-commissioned task. Small wonder he recognized the deceitfulness of the human heart.
Even if my heart is pure, can I find another whose heart is equally pure? The Scottish poet William Sharp expressed this predicament most poignantly when he wrote: “Deep in the heart of summer, sweet is life in me still, But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.” Carson McCullers turned The Heart is a Lonely Hunter into a best-selling novel and successful motion picture. Is the “I-Thou” relationship, we may ask, an illusion? Does the heart-to-heart communion always elude even those who hunt for it?
The Pseudo-Macarius speaks about the heart with a glimmer of hope: “The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons live there, and there are many lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace—all things are there.”
I will balance the words of Jeremiah with those of the Pseudo-Macarius. I should not be presumptuous. Beasts and dragons prowl in my heart. I must not listen to them but to my better angels, who are God’s beneficent emissaries. For the Christian, prayer is as important as reason was for Socrates. Jeremiah is telling me to be careful, to pray, to silence my ego, and not to lose hope, because God is always available. We can pray as David did: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit in me” (Psalm 51:10). We can all unite our hearts, then, with the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Dr. Donald DeMarco—Prof. Emeritus, St. Jerome’s University; Adjunct Prof., Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the St. Austin Review. His latest books, How To Navigate through Life and Apostles of the Culture of Life is posted on amazon.com. He is also the author of How to Flourish in a Fallen World (En Route publishers). Reflections on the Covid-19 virus: A Search for Meaning is in production.
Given a low rate of survival, Odin and Jordan went on to prove the miracle of life.
Life is certainly full of surprises, and none more so when people manage to beat scientific odds to achieve more than was ever thought possible of them. And happily this was the case for 18-year-olds Odin Frost and Jordan Granberry.The two boys from Texas were both given low chances of survival at birth due to brain damage, but they went beyond doctors’ highest expectations to become high school graduates this month.
Their story is actually particularly sweet, as their strong bond came about after meeting at a school for children with special needs at the tender age of three. Sitting together at Wayne D. Boshears Center for Exceptional Programs, the two boys became inseparable, even though they couldn’t actually speak, Odin’s dad Tim explained in a report with CBS News.
Tim also shared how his wife had to be induced during her pregnancy due to pre-eclampsia. “It was a really hard labor. When [Odin] came out, he was barely, barely breathing.” After spending two weeks in an NICU in Dallas , where incidentally Jordan had been two weeks beforehand, the family had to endure three years of medical visits in which doctors gave their son a two percent chance of survival.
Jordan had a similar story at birth, being deprived of oxygen he experienced brain damage. His mom Donna shared how doctors believed he’d not make it beyond his seventh birthday.
Yet, both boys went from strength to strength. Odin went as far as learning to walk with braces at the age of four, something his parents never believed would happen.
At school, although both were non-verbal, they became best friends, and music was a way in which they’d connect. “When my son started walking and Jordan didn’t, they had this connection still. My son would try to stand up and push Jordan’s wheelchair and stand beside him at all times and sort of defended him.”
The two families became close. Jordan’s mom, a hairstylist, was used to cutting the hair of kids with special needs, and she arranged a family hair cut once a month which gave them all the opportunity to spend time together.
Finally, 15 years after defying the odds, the two best friends got to graduate. As Tim said, the families had misgivings as to whether they should attend the graduation due to the pandemic. But he reasoned: “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, let’s let them walk the stage.”
And walk the stage they did. Accompanied by his dad, and wearing matching shirts, Odin went to have his hard work acknowledged. Although he couldn’t express verbally how he was feeling, Tim said he could feel his excitement as he held his hand. Jordan came in just after his best friend to come up to the stage too.
“It’s something we thought would never happen. We didn’t think he was going to live … now he’s walking the stage and graduated,” Tim shared.
After the ceremony the boys sat together for a photo op, which bore a huge resemblance to the photo taken of the boys when they met 15 years ago. Their achievement is a testimony to the encouragement and devotion of the boys’ families to prove that where there is life there is always hope
What was wrong with Martha’s desire to take care of the practical needs of Jesus?
Let’s imagine the scene: Jesus, the great friend, is received in Bethany. Thrilled to greet him, Martha is enthusiastic and efficient: There’s so much to do! But her sister Mary doesn’t seem to pay any attention to that, as she calmly sits and rests at Jesus’ feet, as if the food could prepare itself, as if she thought it was normal to let everyone else do all the work. Martha protests — and what homemaker doesn’t understand her point of view? Everyone would prefer to sit down instead of sweating over a hot stove! It’s all good and fine to listen to the guest when there’s someone there to take care of the practical matters. That may have been what Martha was thinking, and we can understand!
When we become a slave to material tasks
And Jesus, does He realize what is going on? Yes, without a doubt. To start with, because for 30 years he saw his mother prepare food, wash, and get the house in order, as mothers all over the world do. He well knows that these tasks don’t just magically get done. He has experienced both the weight of exhaustion and the delight of eating a good meal. He does not overlook the value and real importance of Martha’s work — He doesn’t look down on her. And what is more, He senses the generosity that pushes her to become annoyed: she wants everything to be perfect for Him. About these tasks Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)
“But Martha was distracted with all her preparations.” (Luke 10:40) ‘Distracted’ is the word we should pay attention to. Martha, in a way, has become a slave to her material tasks. She runs the risk of paying more attention to the food than to her guest. This flaw is repeated in many other situations: in systems or processes that become more important than human beings; in religion teachers more worried about problems of methodology than with the Lord Himself; or even in parents who put more pressure on their children to get good grades than to develop their character.
How can we remain focused on what’s really important?
What is primary in our life? This is the question we are continually invited to ask ourselves to keep from getting distracted, to keep our freedom, and stay focused on what is really important, instead of getting distracted by other things. We often complain about having a job with excessively long hours, of always having to rush, of never being able to take a break … Could it be that, like Martha, we get upset and nervous over many things?
“There is only one thing worth being concerned about,” Jesus says to Martha (Luke 10:42). From the point of view of this one thing, there is no opposition between Martha and Mary’s vocation—Carmelite or mother, hermit or head of a business, the main thing for us is to remain at Jesus’ feet and listen to him.
“God is enough,” and this is not true only for monks and nuns, but for everyone. Jesus repeats to us, as He did to Martha, that the first thing in our day is prayer. Our primary preoccupation is to fulfill the will of God. The main concernin our ambitions is the search for the Kingdom of God. Everything else will be provided for later.
Of course, Martha’s vocation is not the same as Mary’s. A mother cannot spend as much time praying as a religious nun; a monk will not have to be as good a financial manager as the owner of a business. Everyone has his or her vocation and mission. What does change, from one phase of life to another, is the way we search, the way in which the “one necessity” is served. This one necessary thing is always the same. The Lord made all of us for Him and, as St. Augustine says, “Our heart is restless until it rests in Him” — whether we are like Martha or like Mary.