A brother seminarian recently made this observation, and I think it bears repeating. The next 50 years are going to see a lot of liturgical changes. Vatican II is still being worked out, and still may be not fully implemented until the end of this century. Some people on both sides may like certain changes and hate others. The most important question, however, is not what changes will be made; rather, it is this: when the changes are made, will you be obedient and implement them?
Archive for the ‘Catholicism’ category
Over at First Things I got involved in a discussion on Catholic conjectures about Limbo, a state of being proposed by some theologians as a state of perfect natural happiness that unbaptized infants go to after death. Normally I do not get involved in internet debates–they tend to bring out the worst in me, but a friend requested that I get involved, so I did. The following is a set of posts from different interlocutors and my responses to them. Text in green are comments from one interlocutor; text in blue are from another interlocutor; text in black are my comments.
I am only human, and I may have once again misrepresented myself in some way in any of the numerous posts that have appeared in this comment box. Given the misunderstandings that have arisen, I can see why you would be able to attribute to me the position that baptism can be applied after death in the time period following Christ’ death and resurrection. After all, in my last post I wrote: “It is fairly clear, then, that I recognize that infants who have died without baptism by water may receive baptism of some other kind.” I confess I did not put enough thought into that particular sentence. But the sentence immediately following that one is more detailed and, I think, places that sentence in its proper context: “My position is simply that one needs some form of baptism to be healed of original sin, and that if one has not received any form of baptism and then dies in original sin, that the teaching of the Council of Florence then applies to that person.”
Now, I can see where a misunderstanding would arise from a reading of those two sentences one after another, and, as I said above, I apologize for not being precisely clear. I also realize that no man’s patience is eternal, and it is not my intention to exasperate anyone.
So, to avoid any further misunderstandings of my position (all of which have arisen from my own fault), I offer the following formulation for your analysis. If I err at any step please correct me so that I can arrive at the truth.
Baptism is necessary for salvation, according to canon five of the seventh session of the Council of Trent in the section on baptism. There are many forms of baptism besides baptism by water, such as baptism by blood, and by implicit or explicit desire. According to the Council of Florence, anyone who dies in original sin alone is sent to hell to be tortured, though with unequal pains when compared to others found in hell. So, if an infant dies without receiving any form of baptism, he dies in original sin alone, and so, following the Council of Florence, is sent to hell. Paragraph 1056 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which cannot be said to be ignorant of the limbo of the fathers, says that “eternal death” is also called “hell.” Death is not a place but a state of being. So, eternal death is an eternal state. If “eternal death” is also called “hell,” then “hell” is also called “eternal death.” So, hell is an eternal state. The Council of Florence also says that those sent to hell are punished with unequal pains, and the Catechism, paragraph 1057, says that the principal punishment of hell is eternal separation from God. So, I conclude that, if an infant dies without any form of baptism that he dies in original sin, and so, according to the Council of Florence, is sent to hell, which is eternal death, and is punished with eternal separation from God.
Thanks for that formulation. Let’s take a small sample of what you said.
1) Baptism is necessary for salvation.
2) Those who die in original sin alone are sent ad infernum; those who do not receive any form of baptism go to hell.
3) Hell is eternal separation from God.
On each of these appoints, we agree, although on some we agree only verbally. We seem to agree on 1). Baptism is necessary for salvation, and baptism is understood in both its ordinary form, i.e. by water, and in certain extraordinary forms, such as by desire, by blood, and implicit desire. From this it logically follows that the group of people who have not received formal baptism is not the same as the group of people who die in original sin; this is because some people who die without formal baptism do not die in original sin, i.e. those who receive some extraordinary form of baptism. We also agree on 3), that those who are sent to hell are in eternal separation from God.
On 2) we also agree, to this extent: per Florence, those who die without any sort of baptism are in hell eternally because they are still in original sin. But we have already established that to die in original sin is not the same as to die without formal baptism. There are extraordinary forms of baptism which do not involve water. While we can determine that infants who die soon after formal baptism go to heaven, it is not necessarily known to man who receives extraordinary baptism; for example only God can determine who has the implicit desire to receive baptism and who doesn’t. The point of dispute among theologians is how flexibly the criteria for extraordinary baptism are to be interpreted.
The point in 2) on which we may disagree is the meaning of ‘infernum.’ Yes, every time we say hell, we translate it infernum; but it is not true that every time we say ‘infernum’ we translate it as hell. The counter-example repeatedly used in this thread is the limbo of the Fathers, which Christ harrowed after his death. It therefore does not logically follow that what the Catechism says of hell proper is true of every sense of the word ‘infernum’.
Hell, according to the Catechism, is “the state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed, reserved for those who refuse by their own free choice to believe and be converted from sin, even to the end of their lives” (CCC 1033; also, see the entry for ‘hell’ in the glossary). Now it is in no way clear how the ‘infernum’ discussed at Florence for those who die in original sin alone is the same as hell proper (from this point forward, assume that whenever we speak of Florence’s infernum we add the qualification “insofar as infants are concerned”). For it is in no way clear that infants who die are capable of exercising free choice prior to their deaths. Thus one of the criterion for entrance into hell proper is not met, and since hell and Florence’s infernum have different properties, they cannot be the same thing. Therefore, to say something about the permanence of hell is not to say anything about the permanence or lack thereof of Florence’s infernum. And this ties into one of Dr. Liccione’s suggestions, that infants may remain in a non-permanent infernum for a time, perhaps until the general resurrection before going permanently to heaven or hell. Furthermore in denying the permanence of the infernum mentioned at Florence, Dr. Liccione is not trapped into saying that hell proper is a temporary state.
Yet even if we assume for the sake of argument that the infernum of Florence is hell, Florence need not be interpreted as saying anything on the topic of extraordinary baptism. Florence says that those who die “in original sin” go ad infernum, so we can infer with certainty that any infant who dies without any sort of baptism goes to hell. We can also say with confidence that every person who is in a state of original sin is unbaptized; what is in dispute is the extent to which the extraordinary means of baptism are available to infants, and thus which infants count as unbaptized. The real question is what would be required of that infant actually to choose to go against God by its own free choice, and thus warrant eternal punishment for having rejected God and extraordinary baptism in the first place.
Florence, therefore, cannot be interpreted as saying anything definitive about infants in general after death beyond what the text *manifestly* says: any person who dies in original sin goes to hell. However, the text says nothing about how to determine who ultimately dies in original sin because it says nothing about how to determine who dies without some extraordinary form of baptism. Dr. Liccione and I think that God offers each infant some opportunity to choose extraordinary baptism after its death; others may disagree. But this discussion pertains to matters well beyond what was formalized at Florence and is assumed by both sides of the limbo debate.
In summary. Both of us can agree with your conclusion, though it is not clear that we interpret the words in the same way. While we both acknowledge the permanence of hell proper, it is unclear whether we both acknowledge that the infernum mentioned at Florence is the same thing as hell proper. And while we both agree that some form of baptism is necessary for salvation, it is not clear that a) we agree that Florence makes any definitive pronouncement against the position that Dr. Liccione and I defend, and b) we agree about how liberally we are to understand the phrase “extraordinary baptism.”
thanks. I’m in agreement with much of what you’ve said, but I’m not sure you’ve answered the question I have re. the ITC’s statement I quoted.
That statement seems to be saying this: If Jack & Jill intend their baby Molly to be baptized, God will save Molly anyway if for some reason they are prevented from carrying this out. Well, let’s grant this arguendo, and call it baptism of (parental) desire. But consider the more interesting case not canvassed by the ITC, that Jack and Jill have no intention or desire whatsoever to baptise Molly, and she dies an infant. Does God save Molly anyway? If so, then why put in the words “when we have not been able to do for them what we would have wished to do” when they have no bearing on the case? God is apparently going to save Molly who dies as an infant regardless of parental intentions. Thus, baptism by us of Molly in any form actual or by desire is not, after all, necessary for her salvation. If on the other hand we give these words a function in the sentence and take it to mean that God may not save Molly in this second case, then where does she go in all justice, but into a state wherein she lacks the beatific vision, but where there is no punishment due to personal sin, and perfect natural happiness forever?
Here is a theologically possible scenario. Under the guidance of Providence, no souls die merely in a state of original sin. But if there had been any, they would indeed go to a place that corresponds to St Thomas’s doctrine of limbo.
How could it be that no souls actually die in a state of original sin alone?
1.) Infants who die in utero cannot be baptised, physically and theologically (says St Thomas because, for starters, you can’t be “born again” if you’re not born a first time.) So baptism is not necessary for them: they are not yet subject to the action of men (St Thomas) and it’s impossible for them to undergo it. But as St Thomas says, it’s perfectly possible that those who are going to die in utero, who are subject to the action of God, “in whose sight they live”, could be sanctified in the womb as (eg) John the Baptist was. (III Q68 Art 11).
2.) For those children like Molly in the second case above, who die in infancy and unbaptised by disinclined parents, it’s theologically possible that God chooses to send an angel or a saint to administer the sacrament before the moment of death.(III Q64 Art 7 Whether Angels can Administer Sacraments.)
(I have a lot of theological problems the idea of baptism or sanctification after death, suggested in posts above. For one thing, it compromises the fundamental Christian idea of the finality of death. Plus, on the principle of Occam’s Razor, it’s superfluous to requirements. If God could sanctify in an extraordinary way after the moment of death, surely He can just as easily do so before the moment of death. Etc)
3.) For pagan adults who have the requisite dispositions, similar provision could be made as in 2) (viz. the vision of Venerable Maria Agreda and the pagan indian in South America.)
On this scenario, baptism is necessary for salvation in the strict sense (ie, baptism by someone, even an angel or saint) and while limbo is a valid and reasonble theological hypothesis, it’s in fact empty.
But this it’s impossible to say whether this scenario is wholly or partly the case. God in His wisdom has chosen never to reveal as definitive such information from us in the Church Militant, for reasons some of which are pretty obvious even to me. Therefore the thesis that limbo exists and is populated is equally possible, and is a valid, indeed I think compelling theological hypothesis, even if it does turn out to be unpopulated.
The only safe course for us is to desire and intend that our born children be baptized, and that everyone in the world is baptized or at least has it as their top priority in their hour of death. We must leave the rest to the infinitely merciful to God.
P.S. Limbo, hypothetically or actually existing, has had an unjustifiably bad press. I’m unable to see insuperable theological objections to the following possibilities for inhabitants of Limbo.
1.) That they commune and intermingle with the saints and angels in heaven, even though lacking their Beatific Vision. [After all, Jesus had the Beatific Vision while He interacted with us, sinners or otherwise, on earth.]
2.) That they contemplate with restored preternatural gifts of knowledge the truths of the Faith which will unfold eternally for us all. [Even though the knowledge by which they will grasp these will not supernatural faith after all, even “The devils believe and tremble.”]
3.) That they will meet know and enjoy an eternal relationship with Jesus Christ with all their (natural and possibly restored preternatural) powers. [Just as people with original sin on their souls encountered and befriended Jesus of Nazareth.] And possibly through Him, experience in some way with their heightened natural powers, the presence of the Father and the Holy Ghost. [As Abraham encountered the Trinity in the form of three angels.]
Naturally, I submit to the rulings of the magisterium on all of these points.
I was going to make my previous post my last, but you raise some interesting points that I would like to address.
a) If my account is correct (provided in detail in my previous post), the Molly in your example is still saved by baptism, even if she does receive baptism formally or by the desire of her parents. She is saved because she would be given an opportunity to choose to accept or reject God when, and through God’s power, she is capable of making such a choice–and this would be an extraordinary form of baptism. God does not save her “no matter what”, but by her desire for salvation, when in God’s time she becomes capable of desiring or not desiring God. It is also possible that she ultimately rejects God.
b) The possibilities you set forth about limbo are interesting, although I’m not sure that any of these states of affairs are equivalent to limbo as it is classically defined, i.e. as a state of perfect natural happiness. I don’t see how any of these scenarios matches that description–but that’s not due to any lack of interesting and creative thought on your part, but because a perfect state of nature independent of grace is probably impossible in the first place. But if we allow that children who die in original sin alone possibly spend their days in God’s grace, why not admit the possibility that they reach heaven?
c) Your point about the finality of death is interesting and worth addressing. However, there is no finality of death absolutely speaking; that is, there are ways in which death is said to be “not final” in a qualified sense, such as those who go to Purgatory prior to entering heaven, and the limbo of the Fathers. I say this not as a counter-example to your position (obviously because the people in these examples will ultimately have a final resting spot, and so their destinations really are final), but because it requires us to examine in exactly what way death is said to be final.
Death seems to be final in two ways: a) the desire for or aversion to God that we exhibit in this life is final, in that it determines b) our permanent destination after death–either heaven or hell. It is in both of these ways that our deaths are final.
Note that the destination of heaven or hell is not permanent due to any quality in the individual himself or just because God said so. They are permanent because the states of affairs are permanent. In Thomas Aquinas’ account, on earth we are capable of sinning because we do not know God with simple vision, and thus can choose to see God as just another good among goods. Yet when we reach heaven and see God with the simple vision of him as he is–as the highest good– we cannot but will him. Hell is permanent because the damned choose to live in a state of being without grace, and God in deference to their will sends them to a place without grace. Since without grace they can never make it to heaven, the state of the damned is permanent.
But it is unclear that the deaths of formally unbaptized children like Molly can be considered final in either of these ways. First, heaven or hell cannot be permanent for Molly because her situation is such that she does not have the credentials to belong to either. While original sin is sufficient to keep her out of heaven, having original sin alone is not sufficient to place her in hell proper, which the Catechism states is reserved for those who actively reject God. Nor can her choice or desire for or against God be considered final, since she never made a choice in the first place.
If limbo exists, it is unclear why it must be a permanent state of affairs. Its permanence cannot be explained by the abundant goodness and grace of God like heaven is; and if there is no such thing as a perfect state of nature lacking completely in grace–which theologians have given us no good reason to think exists–then its permanence cannot be explained in the same way as hell’s is. If limbo exists, then there doesn’t seem to be any clear reason to assert its permanence.
If my analysis is correct, I see no reason why we must assert that there is such a finality of death for infants that they cannot come to desire or reject God after their deaths in order that they might merit heaven or hell. Since they made no choice in this life–indeed, they were incapable of making a choice in this life– it is hard to see how the “choice” they made in this life was final.
Thanks for the references to St. Thomas on whether the angels can administer the Sacraments. I will enjoy reading them.
Person A: Why do we have to go to Confession to a priest when we can just go directly to God?
Person B: Why did God become man to die on the Cross when he could have just said that we were redeemed?
Person A: Because it was important for us to see how much God loved us.
Person B: Is it possible for someone to just know how much God love them without needing proof?
Person A: Well, yes, but humans tend to process things better if they are able to experience them.
Person B: And is not Christ’s death on the Cross like a Sacrament?
Person A: How so?
Person B: Is a Sacrament an outward sign of an inward reality instituted by Christ to mediate grace?
Person A: Yes.
Person B: And is not the Crucifixion an outward sign of God’s inward love for us, instituted by Christ to mediate grace?
Person A: Yes.
Person B: And couldn’t every event of Jesus’ life be considered sacramental? For example, could not his healing miracles be seen as an outward sign of the inner, spiritual cleaning, a manifestation of the hidden grace of God working in that person’s soul?
Person A: I suppose so.
Person B: And can’t we consider nearly all of Jesus’ life in this way, as a manifestation of what is otherwise hidden, instituted by Christ to mediate grace?
Person A: I suppose so.
Person B: So if Jesus came to earth rather than not in order for us to experience him sacramentally, does it not make sense that the medium by which we encounter Christ after his death be sacramental?
Person A: It does make sense.
Person B: So even if Jesus could have forgiven men by non-sacramental means, does it not make sense that he chose to make a Sacrament the ordinary means of obtaining forgiveness?
Person A: Yes, it does make sense.
If God does not have free choice to create this world rather than that world, then how do we explain contingency in the world? St. Thomas distinguishes between two types of necessity: absolute necessity, and necessity by supposition. For example, it is a necessity by supposition that Socrates sits, supposing that he sits. In other words, God created Socrates such that at this time and place he would sit, such that Socrates cannot stand when God creates him to sit. However, it is not absolutely necessary that Socrates sit, because absolutely speaking God could have created Socrates to stand rather than to sit.
But what happens if God has no choice what he creates rather than not creates? Then there is no distinction between absolute necessity and necessity by supposition. There is no supposing that God could have created Socrates any other way than sitting, and it is absolutely necessary that Socrates sit. But since contingency does exist in the world, God could choose what to create and what not to create.
I wonder how Plotinus managed to preserve contingency in his system. He subscribed to the principle of plenitude, meaning that the one emanates every possible species necessarily: since the One is also the Good, it cannot do anything other than what is best. Thus, this world is the best possible world, and it cannot be otherwise. How, then, does Plotinus account for contingency in the world?
Note that if God necessarily creates–even if God can choose which world to create–it becomes difficult to account for the differences between Plotinus’ One and the Christian God. Christians want to say that God exists separate from the world and is not dependent upon the world in any way. If God is not free to create rather than not create, then he cannot exist apart from the world. Perhaps we can even say that God somehow depends on the world, though I’m not quite sure how to explain that dependence yet.
There is a place called Medjugorje at which the Virgin Mary is reported to be appearing to a group of Catholics on a daily basis. If true, these apparitions are the longest-running and most frequently occurring apparitions to date. Opinions on Medjugorje tend to be very polarized: most people have strong opinions one way or the other, and few have a “let’s wait and see” approach. It is not my purpose to rehash the debate here; for those who are interested in figuring out what this debate is about, read Patrick Madrid’s blog entries on the topic for a more skeptical approach, and Medjugorje.org for the believer’s perspective.
This post is about the proper interpretation of Matthew 7:16, which reads: ”"By their fruits you shall know them.” I hope to advance the debate on Medjugorje by making a set of distinctions that I think are often overlooked by both sides. Both sides of the debate make different claims about the “fruits” of Medjugorje: those who support the apparitions often point to the massive number of conversions and the good work that is being done as a result of Medjugorje. How can so many good fruits be produced if they are the work of the devil or of con men? On the other hand, skeptics point to the infidelity of certain priests heavily associated with Medjugorje, the lack of religious vocations among the “seers” to whom Mary is appearing, and supposed lies told by seers to the bishop or anti-ecclesiastical or false statements made by the Virgin Mary herself.
I don’t think that many people in this debate have devoted enough time to examining what a “fruit” is. Jesus says that a good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot produce good fruit. Jesus does not seem to allow for any middle ground: he says nothing about mediocre trees producing mediocre fruit, or good trees sometimes producing bad fruit. And yet, we see bad people do good things all the time. For example Fr. Maciel, the now disgraced founder of the Legionnaires of Christ, created a vast organization that has done many charitable things in the Church; but when he died people realized that he was also a very good conman, building up the organization for his own personal gain. Are his fruits good, or are they bad? If Fr. Maciel’s fruits are both good and bad, then Jesus is wrong, and bad trees can produce at least some good fruit. But that is unacceptable; so how do we make sense of Jesus’ advice?
This post is in three sections: a) Reject the consequentialist account of ‘fruits’. b) Establish a virtue ethics account of ‘fruits’. c) Apply my account to Medjugorje.
a). Most people in the Medjugorje debate seem to think of a fruit as a consequence. (For brevity, I’ll consider just one side of the debate, albeit the side on which I think the error most frequently occurs). Medjugorje supporters point to the conversions, prayer, spiritual renewal as fruits of the events. Because all of these good things are happening, they argue, the seers must be telling the truth because these things would not be happening if God were not somehow involved. But this line of thinking seems problematic. Like any consequentialist account of the world, it is difficult to determine what counts as a consequence of a particular action or person. For example let’s say some man asks me for directions to Busch Stadium, and I give them to him, and he goes there and bombs the stadium. Am I responsible for the deaths of those people? If not, then why not? And if not, then what account of morally significant consequences can we give that would make me morally blameless in the Busch Stadium bombing but also allow that the seers are somehow responsible for the good fruits being produced at Medjugorje? Furthermore, if the many purported conversions are consequences of Medjugorje, then why can’t also the disobedient priests be a consequence of Medjugorje, too? How are we going to define “fruit” so as to include one but exclude the other? How do we define a consequence so that the bombing of Busch stadium is not the fault of the direction-giver while showing that the consequences of Medjugorje are the consequences of the seers?
Now some may object that I am making a sleight of hand: it is not the seers that are producing the good fruits at Medjugorje, but God or Mary. But if that’s the case, then Matthew 7:16 does not apply to Medjugorje–in fact, it is difficult to see how it would be useful advice at all! Read Matthew 7:15-19:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. 16 By their fruits you shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? 17 Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit, and the evil tree brings forth evil fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can an evil tree bring forthgood fruit. 19 Every tree that brings not forth good fruit, shall be cut down, and shall be cast into the fire. 20 Wherefore by their fruits you shall know them.”
Jesus is not telling us how to discern whether events are from God: he is telling us how to judge whether persons are from God. A real prophet produces good fruit; a bad prophet produces bad fruit; and it is by these fruits that we shall know them to be true or false prophets. The objector, therefore, is in a bit of a dilemma. If the many conversions are the fruit of the Holy Spirit and cannot be attributed to the seers themselves, and Matthew 7:15-19 does not test prophets at all, then Matthew 7:16 doesn’t apply to Medjugorje. But if we can determine the truth of whether Mary is appearing at Medjugorje apart from examining the prophets themselves in some way, then what good is Jesus’ advice in the first place? How can such events be called a prophet’s fruit if they have nothing to do with the prophet? Under the consequentialist interpretation, the only way Matthew 7:16 can be used as a test of prophets is if the good and bad consequences of Medjugorje can somehow be linked to the prophets themselves. It is in no way clear how this is possible. If it were, it would run into the same objections I presented above.
I think that the idea that a fruit is somehow a good or bad consequence following from an action faces too many difficulties and absurdities to be of any use. There just isn’t any good, non-arbitrary way to determine what is a fruit and what isn’t if a fruit is a consequence. My point is validated by reading debates about this topic: defenders will without fail point at the good things going on as signs of the authenticity of the apparitions while dismissing the bad consequences as not fruits. Meanwhile, those same fruits rejected by the defenders are touted as fruits by skeptics. In this sense, this discussion of consequences mirrors discussions in moral philosophy. What counts as a morally significant consequence is notoriously difficult to determine. And even if there were a coherent account of fruits-as-consequences, it is unclear that a faithful Catholic should adhere to it. My intuition is that one cannot import consequentialism in this instance without also importing consequentialism as a moral philosophy. I say this because the account I am about to give flows directly from my own moral philosophy, and I don’t see how my account of “fruit” can be separated from what I consider a fruit in moral philosophy.
b). I think a better way to conceive of a fruit is not as a consequence of an action, but as an action of an agent. Fruits are not consequences, but acts. This way of conceiving of a fruit has many advantages. First, it avoids the difficulties involved with consequentialism, which I discussed above In my account, a person can end up producing good consequences and yet still produce bad fruit, i.e. a bad act. For example, let’s say that a billionaire gives millions of dollars to the poor in order to feed his own good opinion of himself and seduce another man’s wife with his altruism. Despite the good consequences, the act is still immoral: for an act to be good, both the further intentions of the act (i.e. making himself look good and seducing another man’s wife) and the moral object (giving money to the poor) must both be good. If one is bad, the entire act is bad. The consequences may be good insofar as many poor people are fed and clothed. But these consequences tell us nothing about whether the act itself is good or bad. Consequences or circumstances can tell us the degree of goodness that the act has; it cannot tell us that an act is good or bad.
Second, it is now clearer what counts as a fruit and what doesn’t: if we are judging the Medjugorje seers by their fruits, we are not judging them on the consequences of their acts, but on their acts themselves. Are they honest people? Are they holy people? Do they act for self-gain or out of selflessness? Has their encounter with Mary made them desire to pursue virtue? (Brief side note: It still may be difficult–at least initially– to determine what the seer’s intentions are (and therefore whether their acts are good or bad), because intentions are sometimes hard to ascertain from an outsider’s perspective. Still, it is better than the consequentialist account because it gives us a definite way to determine what is a fruit and what isn’t; also, while intentions can be somewhat private, it is still possible to determine intent from people’s actions. Think of how we determine in court whether a murder is premeditated.
Third, my virtue account of fruits makes sense of Jesus’ words by giving a consistent account of why good trees only produce good fruit, etc. In Augustine’s and Aquinas’ account, “A virtue is a good quality of the mind, by which we live righteously, of which no one can make bad use, which God works in us, without us” (ST I-II q.55, a.4). Note that a virtue cannot be abused: if you have a virtue, you cannot abuse that virtue and act badly. Thus, a person with a virtue always produces good fruits, and a person with a vice always produces bad fruits. The “virtuous” person who knowingly does an evil act never had the virtue in the first place.
What, then, about the people who have neither a particular virtue or its opposed vice, but are only self-controlled or incontinent? Both of these people are capable of doing good things and evil things, but they are only good or evil analogously, i.e. not in the same way that a virtuous person is good and a vicious person is bad (Aristotle argues this in Book VII of the Nichomachean Ethics). To see why, let’s explain what each of these terms mean:
-a virtuous person’s reason and inclinations are in harmony, aimed at the good.
-a self-controlled person’s reason masters unruly inclinations.
-an incontinent person’s reason cannot overcome his inclinations.
-a vicious person’s reason and inclinations are in harmony, aimed at the bad.
Now if intentions make an act good or evil, then the virtuous person and the self-controlled person both do good, but not in the same way. The virtuous person loves the good and does the good for its own sake. The self-controlled person does the right thing, but must struggle because they desire to do evil. Thus, they do good, but they still must master their desire to do evil, and thus they do not intend the good the same way the virtuous person does. The same analysis can be given to the incontinent, the vicious person, and evil actions.
Returning to Matthew 7:16: ”Good” and “bad are analogous terms. In my account, a “good tree” is a virtuous person, and a “bad tree” is a vicious person. Thus good trees produce only good fruit, and bad trees produce only bad fruit. The self-controlled and incontinent, whose acts are sometimes good and sometimes bad, are not discussed by Jesus, at least not directly. Jesus’ advice, while not telling us how to deal with an incontinent or self-controlled prophet whose acts are sometime good and sometimes bad, is nevertheless wise and sound advice when the prophets are virtuous or vicious. For the non-virtuous and non-vicious prophets, I suggest we use two tests, which build on Jesus’ advice without altering it: a) Examine the supposed prophet’s general character. Are they generally dishonest? Do they seek holiness? Etc. b) Has their possible-encounter with the Virgin Mary changed their lives and led them to greater conversion of heart and soul? Since these people produce neither virtuous or vicious actions, we need to judge them by how deeply they seek the things of God.
Finally, my account gives a very neat and clear way of telling why someone like Fr. Maciel was a false prophet, whereas I’m not sure the defenders of Medjugorje can. Because Maciel built the entire Legionnaire organization for his own person benefit, he is a false prophet regardless of whatever good consequences followed from that organization. So even though Fr. Maciel is a false prophet we can still argue that the people within his organization did good and holy work without attributing those good works to Fr. Maciel. Furthermore, we can argue that God’s work was being done in the Legionnaires despite their founder’s many sins. Similarly, it’s possible that God is doing good work at Medjugorje even if the prophets are lying about Mary appearing to them. This is because Jesus’ test in Matthew 7:16 is a test of prophets, not consequences. If we judged Fr. Maciel on the consequences of his actions, what would count as fruits? The founding of the order which did so much good? The lack of conversion in his own life? Would it be possible that he did so much good that he is to be considered a prophet despite being a morally depraved man who apparently even refused to receive the Last Rites before he died?
c). Do we yet have enough evidence to ascertain whether the seers at Medjugorje are true prophets? Perhaps a definitive answer is difficult to ascertain at this point. After all, it took many, many years for Fr. Maciel’s evil actions to come to light. It is even said that his children came to see him at his death bed, and he refused to receive the last rites. He made his Legionnaires vow never to criticize those in authority, in part so that his own scandalous acts would be covered up. This, in spite of the many good deeds done by those under him, and despite years of deceiving John Paul II and many powerful cardinals and laymen. Also, it took many years after Mother Theresa’s death to see how amazingly holy she really was. The correct way to judge a prophet’s character is prayer, personal conversion, and time. Prayer to know God’s will; conversion to develop a sense of what is good and what is not; and time, because God works in his own time.
Returning to Medjugorje. If my account is correct, then there are immediate consequences for future debates. First, the good and bad consequences of Medjugorje–the conversions and the evil Franciscans, the prayer and the constant bickering among Catholics–have no place in a debate about what is a fruit of Medjugorje. Matthew 7:16 is a test for prophets, a test which examines character, not consequences.
To always see the good in others does not imply that we ignore the evil. On the contrary, it is to find God in spite of the evil.
A professor of mine recently defended St. Jerome for his use of invective in his writings. St. Jerome is often found making comments about his opponents from which many contemporary readers shy away. For those readers not familiar with St. Jerome’s style, consult the first paragraph of his work, On The Perpetual Virginity of Mary. Here are the arguments given in class in favor of the use of invective, as well as some arguments not mentioned but could nevertheless be used:
1. Many saints used invective in their writings, including St. Jerome and the Fathers of the Trinitarian and Christological controversies. Therefore, invective is morally permissible.
2. Invective was an acceptable literary style in Jerome’s time. Invective helps to break of the monotony of an otherwise technical discussion and helped popularize his writings, which contained sound doctrine.
3. Our Lord uses invective, calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers and hypocrites. Since Jesus is incapable of acting outside of charity, invective is not wrong in itself.
4. Those who don’t like invective confuse charity with niceness. It is often the case that being charitable requires doing something that isn’t nice. Invective is not nice, but it may be a vehicle for charity.
5. Invective is acceptable in other spheres of debate, e.g. political discourse. But if it is acceptable in political discourse, it is acceptable in religious discourse as well.
On the contrary, St. Thomas argues that charity is friendship (ST II-II q.23 a.2). But friends do not belittle one another, even when correcting each other. Thus, invective is not charitable.
Our Lord often criticized the pharisees using strong, offensive language. Since our Lord is a model of charity, it is clear that some acts of invective are also acts of charity. Nevertheless, it is also true that our Lord knew perfectly the souls of those whom he was criticizing, and thus knew perfectly when his use of this device produced the right effect. Just as our Lord on earth was free to judge on earth whether a person was destined for heaven or hell (whereas we are not), so too did our Lord know perfectly when invective was appropriate for the instruction of the ignorant and conversion of sinners. Thus, Invective speech is not intrinsically disordered.
But, since no human person is God, no human person is capable of knowing perfectly when invective will produce the right effect. Hence, it is difficult to judge whether invective is an appropriate tool in a given set of circumstances for correction or instruction. For invective used wrongly more often than not has the effect of shutting down discussion rather than enhancing it. Furthermore, invective tends to place the person in a disposition in which he is unwilling to listen.
Although invective is not intrinsically opposed to charity, nevertheless it is frequently viewed as a sufficient condition of a lack of charity because it is more often than not used in a manner beyond of the limits of Christian charity, as is abundantly clear from experience. But if invective is so frequently misused and rarely used as a vehicle of charity, and because there are numerous ways to correct and instruct that make no use of invective, we can formulate a general rule that it is better to err on the side of avoiding invective than to err on the side of using invective. The reason for this general rule mirrors the argument used by St. Thomas when he argues that we ought to interpret our doubts about a persons character for the best (ST II-II q.60, a.4, ad.1):
“He who interprets doubtful matters for the best, may happen to be deceived more often than not; yet it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man, because in the latter case an injury is inflicted, but not in the former.”
The parallel argument against invective is this: a person never using invective may at times fail to use a tool that is at his disposal for the correction or instruction of another, but he does not sin in failing to use invective when correcting and instructing. But to use invective wrongly inflicts undue injury on the person being insulted and gives an example of uncharitable behavior to those watching or listening. Thus, it is better to err on the side of not using invective and not harming the subject than to err on the side of using invective and sinning.
In response to the objections:
1. The Church Fathers were sinners by their own admission. It therefore does not follow that because certain Fathers exhibited a certain behavior that therefore that behavior is permissible. Furthermore, if we give the Fathers the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were acting in a manner in adherence with the principles of charity, then it must be said that they used invective in such a way that it constitutes a counterexample to the general rule expounded above. Nevertheless, the general rule stands, and unless one is sure that he possesses the same prudence that is exhibited in the Fathers, then invective is best avoided.
2. From the fact that such and such was an acceptable cultural phenomenon of the time, it does not follow that therefore such and such is a permissible practice, just as it does not follow that child sacrifice was permissible for the Aztecs because it was an acceptable cultural phenomenon of the time. Furthermore, the question of whether such and such is morally permissible takes precedence over whether such and such is entertaining.
3. The body of this article is sufficient to answer this objection.
4. While invective may be a vehicle for charity, it is more often than not abused rather than used correctly. Since failing to use invective when correcting or instructing does not possess the same potential to fall into sin, it is better to err on the side of not using invective than to sin in its abuse.
5. While invective is certainly used in political discourse, it does not follow that it is acceptable in political discourse. More often than not, invective is used in place of argument in political discourse, not for the correction of the ignorant, and is thus more often than not used not for the sake of charity, but for the sake of something more reprehensible.
ADDENDUM: Question 72 on reviling from the Summa Theologiae II-II directly pertains to the question at hand. Note what Thomas means by “the dishonoring of a person” and honoring another. The honor we owe one another extends not just to his good features. In other words, as in a.1, ad.3, reviling consists in revealing someone’s faults to others. To use invective against a person clearly falls into this category. See also a.2, ad.2, in which Thomas discusses when it is permissible to use invective. Note that he says it should be used seldom, only when very necessary, and for God’s service, not our own. Thus, to use invective for the purposes of entertaining an audience–as some argued was acceptable–is ruled out.
There is an argument that I hear frequently from catechists of a certain generation. The faith, they argue, cannot be taught, it must be caught. To have the faith is to have a relationship with a person, not just to know facts about that person. Thus, the focus of our catechism classes ought to be on developing this relationship, not on facts.
I never accepted this argument: I usually denied the conclusion because of the implicit premise that we can love a person without knowing facts about them. There is, however, another problem with this argument that just occurred to me. If the faith cannot be taught, and our goal in catechizing is to spread the faith, then there is no purpose to catechism classes whether we are attempting to teach facts or whether we are trying to teach a relationship. In other words, the argument proves too much: by denying that the faith can be taught, they deny the very approach to catechizing that they promote.
Two additional thoughts. First, there is a lack of clarity in what is meant by ‘faith’ in this argument. ”The Faith” can mean two things: first, it can mean a set of propositions to which the mind gives assent. If someone asks us what we believe, we respond by giving a set of such propositions. ”The Faith” can also mean the virtue of faith, a virtue obtainable only by grace. The Faith in the former sense can be taught; the Faith in the latter sense cannot be taught.
Second, while it is our hope that our children inherit the faith in the latter sense, it is not the case that it can be taught. Thus, if we are to teach “the Faith”, it cannot be in this latter sense, as noble of an end as it may be. I suggest that “the Faith” must be taught in the more modest, first sense of the word. To catechize is to teach children a set of facts about the community to which they do or will belong. God works through nature to achieve his ends: he often uses such facts about himself as a means by which to give the virtue of Faith.
Augustine famously threw up his hands as he wondered why God would wish to resurrect the body. His Platonist metaphysics denigrated the body, making Augustine accept on faith rather than reason that the resurrection of the flesh is a good thing.
I’m having an Augustinian moment regarding prayer. I know we are supposed to pray for our daily bread, as it were; but why? If Christ taught us anything, it was that salvation comes through following Him to His passion and death. Why, then, do we pray to eliminate our suffering? Rather, should we not pray for the strength to carry the crosses that we are given?
The obvious response seems to be that the Church has always acknowledged that prayer for strength in times of persecution is more valuable than prayers for material needs; i.e. that the Church agrees with my assessment. But that’s only half of the answer. Even if the former type of prayer is more praiseworthy, God still answers the prayers of those who ask for healing. Give what Jesus taught, those healings seem counterproductive. Why not answer those prayers with the grace to endure the suffering with dignity and holiness rather than granting a quick healing?
I guess this is more evidence that we will never have access to God’s plan from this side of heaven.
Over the years I have heard many Anglicans and Orthodox criticize the Catholic Church for teaching innovative doctrines not taught by the early Church. In particular they will cite St. Vincent of Lerin’s words in his Commonitory that “we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” (Commonitory chapter 2, paragraph 6) In other words the orthodox tradition has a claim to universality, antiquity, and consent that the heterodox traditions lack (I refer to this doctrine as the Vincentian Canon, or VC, throughout this paper). These critics of the Catholic Church cite the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption of Mary as novelties not taught everywhere, always, and by all; thus the Catholic Church does not have a claim to be the true Church.
I want to demonstrate that these objections miss the point of St. Vincent’s argument. I think we ought to take St. Vincent at face value and see him as writing for a man already in possession of the tradition (i.e. himself; see chapter 1.1) rather than for a man outside the tradition trying to determine which tradition is correct. When I first read the Commonitory I was reading it like those Orthodox and Anglicans I mentioned earlier read it; the result, I found, was a point so poorly argued that I began to wonder a) if St. Vincent was a very poor thinker, or b) I had misunderstood what St. Vincent sought to demonstrate in the first place. After reading his work as advice to those already in the Church rather than those hoping to find the true Church, the argument of the Commonitory made much more sense. In this post, I assume for the sake of argument that St. Vincent really seeks to give criteria on how to discover the true Church. In showing how bad his argument is when viewed in this way, I hope the reader begins to understand why this interpretation cannot make sense of the text. As I will show, the VC must first assume prior knowledge of the correct tradition as a standard by which to judge a particular doctrine as a ‘novelty of words’. Any appeal to the VC as a means of determining which church is orthodox will inevitably end up begging the question against its rival traditions.
The first criterion for determining which tradition is correct is to find the tradition that is held universally, i.e. throughout the whole world (chapter 2.6). If there are a few who hold a different teaching, St. Vincent appeals to the General Councils to determine what the ancient faith is: “But what, if in antiquity itself there be found error on the part of two or three men, or at any rate of a city or even a province? Then it will be his care by all means, to prefer the decrees, if such there be, of an ancient General Council to the rashness and ignorance of a few.” (Commonitory 3.8) Does Vincent of Lerins judge General Councils to be orthodox because they conform to what has been held “everywhere, always, and by all,” or does he determine what has been held “everywhere, always, and by all” by an appeal to the General Councils? The latter seems to conform to the text, as the quotation cited above indicates. But from where do the General Councils derive their authority? St. Vincent cannot answer that a General Council is authoritative if it conforms to the preceding tradition held “everywhere, always, and by all” because such a move would make his reasoning circular.
In fact, St. Vincent never addresses how the man of simple faith is to determine which Councils are orthodox and which are not. In chapter 31.79 he gives an example of a council that conforms with the Tradition (i.e. the Council of Ephesus); but to say that a council is orthodox is not to explain why a council is orthodox. The early years of the Church saw many councils, many of which dissented from those traditions which St. Vincent calls orthodox in the Commonitory. These councils were attended by a great number of bishops who ultimately taught doctrines contrary to the teachings laid forth in the VC.
Although St. Vincent never addresses how we are to determine which councils are orthodox, perhaps his second criterion may help. The second criterion for determining which tradition is orthodox is to determine whether the doctrine taught conforms to the faith of antiquity. We can distinguish orthodox councils from heterodox councils by seeing which councils contain some novelty of words that was not previously contained in the deposit of faith. In order to determine which councils are orthodox and which aren’t, we ought to refer to Scripture or the teachings of the Apostles, whose faith was guaranteed to be pristine.
St. Vincent makes this very move in chapter 28.71 to determine the means by which the true believer can detect and condemn the novelties of Heretics. Against new heresies, he argues, it is enough to investigate the ancient consent of the holy Fathers to determine what is true doctrine. In the case of long-standing heresies, however, ought not to be dealt with in this way; rather, we should appeal to “the sole authority of Scripture”, or “to shun them as having been already of old convicted and condemned by universal councils of the Catholic Priesthood.”
Now obviously the second criterion cannot be used to establish the authority of a council without begging the question; what about the first way, by appeals to Scripture? Here St. Vincent seems to contradict himself. In chapter 2.5 St. Vincent argues that Scripture—although sufficient in every way—requires the Church’s interpretation. For, “owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters.” Furthermore, when arguing for the necessity of the ancient Tradition for the interpretation of Scripture, St. Vincent notes the variety of interpretations of Scripture: Novatian interprets it one way, Sabellius in another way, etc. Later on, he complains that the heretics are very good at using Scripture to support their own novelties. Thus, an appeal to Scripture in order to determine which doctrines are heresies assumes that one is already in possession of the tradition of the Church in the first place.
The VC faces other difficulties. In chapter 23.54-59 St. Vincent argues that there is such thing as a genuine development of religious knowledge. Such knowledge cannot be contrary to or in addition to the knowledge that was taught by the Father’s of the Church. Real progress is not an alteration of the faith, but an adornment of it. It is the job of brilliant minds to fashion and polish, consolidate and strengthen those ancient doctrines that antiquity had left shapeless and rudimentary (23.59), not to mutilate it with an addition, subtraction, or mutation. A true development designates an old article of faith by a new name. In this way we are able to move from that which was believed in simplicity to that which is believed intelligently.
St. Vincent contrasts truly developed religious knowledge to what 1 Timothy 6:20 terms “novelties of words.” But how does a sincere seeker of the truth determine what is real development and what is not? The sincere seeker of truth by definition does not have, but seeks to obtain, the orthodox tradition. But how does he go about doing this? He does not have the luxury of the ancient Tradition to aid him in his reading of Scripture in determining which tradition is the correct one. Nor can he decide which councils possess authority and which do not. Thus, what the Arians would call sound doctrine is a novelty to the Nicaean Fathers, and what is sound doctrine to the Nicaean Fathers is accused of being a novelty by the Arians. The only way of accurately labeling one of these sets of teachings as novel or sound doctrine is to have knowledge of what the correct tradition is in the first place.
Taking all of these considerations into account, I conclude that the VC has little value in helping an outsider determine which church is possession of right doctrine. In order for the VC to be of any use in the first place, the reader must first assume that he already is in possession of the orthodox Tradition. There is no non-question begging way to use the VC to separate true doctrine from long-standing false doctrine. None of the criteria—what is believed everywhere, always, and by all—can be used in a non-question begging way to determine what is true and what is novel.
Thus, the VC cannot be used in a non-question begging way to demonstrate that the Catholic Church’s doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary are noveldoctrines. The Catholic believer without inconsistency can claim that these doctrines are truly developed religious knowledge, developed from premises contained in but not developed adequately by the preceding Tradition. Far from being “novelties in word”, these doctrines are legitimate developments of religious knowledge. The means of distinguishing the orthodox tradition from its heterodox opponents must be a means other than the VC.
Edit: I did a major overhaul on the introduction to this post. I struggled and struggled, and finally said want I want to say. I also added a link to the Commonitory in the first paragraph.