Archive for the ‘Roman Catholic’ Category
A couple of weeks ago, I assigned my students one of the hymns by the Wesley brothers to talk about Protestant challenges to the Eucharist (“Victim Divine, Thy Grace We Claim”). In their journals, many of my students reflected on how refreshing it was to read a hymn, even one that was so richly theological and complex as this one. As one student wrote, “Songs can be theology too.”
Indeed they can. This is one of the reasons I love studying the Medievals like Thomas Aquinas. Although Aquinas is known most for his Summa Theologica (which I think is a remarkably beautiful work even if it is intellectually rigorous), Aquinas also did theology in other forms besides the Scholastic disputational method we see in the Summa. For example, he wrote commentaries on Scripture, sermons, prayers, and yes, even songs. One of the most beautiful and most commonly sung is the “Tantum Ergo”:
Tantum ergo Sacramentum
et antiquum documentum
novo cedat ritui:
praestet fides supplementum
laus et iubilatio,
salus, honor, virtus quoque
sit et benedictio:
procedenti ab utroque
compar sit laudatio.
Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail;
Lo! o’er ancient forms departing,
newer rites of grace prevail;
faith for all defects supplying,
where the feeble sense fail.
To the everlasting Father,
and the Son who reigns on high,
with the Holy Ghost proceeding
forth from Each eternally,
be salvation, honor, blessing,
might and endless majesty.
It is uncommon today for a theologian to do more than dapple in such a range of theological genres as someone like Aquinas, as my colleague Jana Bennett bemoans over at catholicmoraltheology.com. There are a lot of reasons for this (which she identifies), including time, ability, and tenure track requirements. One reason, however, that we do not witness the same aesthetic pursuit in academic theologians today as we did in the Medieval period may have to do with the way we think of wisdom.
In our post-Kantian world, wisdom is purely a matter of intellect. The wise person is the smart person, the educated person, the person who can make and win rigorous intellectual arguments. For the Medievals, wisdom is an intellectual virtue, but it is an intellectual virtue with a strong affective component. Take, for example, the following discussion from Denys the Carthusian’s Prefatory Questions on the Sentences:
Just as, then, those heroic men who are perfect in love, through the gift of wisdom that they have according to a perfect degree, are as it were the counselors, and secretaries, and the familiar friends of God, from whom they are strongly illuminated as they stand in a certain contact with the sun of uncreated Wisdom, and who by a supernatural and abundant internal taste know and taste the divine things to be believed and who judge well and certainly about the same things through the conformity and connaturality of their affections for them, so through the gift of understanding by which they are adorned to a perfect degree they understand most clearly, most certainly and most subtly those things that belong to our faith, and they also understand the connections and order of things to be believed and the supernatural reasonableness of the Catholic truth. . . Hence, this illumination is not given only to students in theology and to all of them, or to people who have great natural abilities, but to those who more stand out in their purity of heart and in their charity. One of these is the holy Brother Giles, who did not with say ‘I believe in God’ but rather “I know God.’ And another was the Seraphic Saint Francis.
Wisdom, it seems, is not just based in the intellect, but is based rather in “a supernatural and abundant taste of divine things to be believed.” Denys is appealing here to the etymology of wisdom [sapientia] which is rooted in sapor [to taste].
For Aquinas, wisdom is the gift of the Holy Spirit discussed in the context of his treatise on charity, a virtue rooted in the will. Aquinas treats wisdom both as an intellectual virtue (and intellectual gift), and as virtue with a strong affective component, rooted not just in the activity of the intellect, but also, and primarily, in the loving relationship (a connaturality) with God:
Wisdom denotes a certain rectitude of judgment according to the Eternal Law. Now rectitude of judgment is twofold: first, on account of perfect use of reason, secondly, on account of a certain connaturality with the matter about which one has to judge. Thus, about matters of chastity, a man after inquiring with his reason forms a right judgment, if he has learned the science of morals, while he who has the habit of chastity judges of such matters by a kind of connaturality (II-II, 45.2).
Returning to the quote from Denys, Aquinas would agree that the unschooled St. Francis was wise, not as a result of rigorous philosophical and theological study, but rather, because of the indwelling of grace that had brought him into union with God who is Wisdom himself. For Francis and others who possess such wisdom, their theological writings may lack the intellectual character of a figure like Aquinas, but are nevertheless still works of genuine wisdom. Francis did not need to study to be wise; the source of his wisdom was not learning but love.
What is the lesson here? As a theologian and an academic (like Thomas in kind but not in degree) I am firmly convicted that the study of theology is important for the development of wisdom. It is important to engage in disputation, to explore in depths the principles of the faith, and to deduce conclusions (especially ethical conclusions) from those principles. But it is also important, perhaps even more important, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” The liturgy is a powerful source of this sapor, where the music and the psalms and the incense and the light infiltrating in through the stained glass all culminate in the reception of the Eucharist as the senses, intellect, and will are all brought into union with Christ who presents himself bodily at the altar. From this sapor, a different sapientia flows forth in poetry and song: “Sing, my tongue, the Savior’s glory, of His flesh the mystery sing,” as we sing with Thomas in the Pange Lingua.
The taste of this wisdom depends also on our ability to let ourselves be passive recipients of the God who offers himself to us. For Aquinas, wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a free gift of grace. Our inability to taste is often, I think, rooted in our desire to feed ourselves, rather than to let ourselves be fed. In the Anima Christi, we pray, “Blood of Christ, inebriate me,” indicating, I think, that we need to let our guard down, lose a little of our self control, and be rendered vulnerable to the working of the Spirit who offers us a foretaste of that Divine Banquet where “ we shall be drowned, lost in that ocean of divine love, annihilated in that immense love of the Heart of Jesus!”
Cathleen Kaveny, professor in the law school and the theology department at Notre Dame, has an important article up at America Magazine, in which she reflects on the Catholic Church and its effort to define “feminism.” Kaveny, in her typically moderate, rational, and sensitive way explores the varieties of ways in which the word “feminist” is used and the manifold ways in which the Church both is and is not what it claims.
On the one hand, if we take “feminism” to be a general affirmation of the well-being and the dignity of women, the Catholic Church is most definitely “feminist”:
It has done an enormous amount of good for women, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, in precarious circumstances throughout the world. To take only one example, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, Gender & Women runs programs around the world that help women organize into cooperatives for the production and marketing of goods; it also provides shelters for basic needs, educational programs in literacy and training in business knowledge and empowerment.
However, despite the many ways in which the Church works to advance the flourishing of women, it is often subject to criticism from both secular and religious feminists who claim the Church takes two steps back for every step forward in its refusal to sanction the use of contraception (and more controversially, soften its restriction on abortion in cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother). Kaveny does a good job portraying the limbo-like status many Catholic women find themselves in affirming both the progressive nature of the way the Church views women and way in which the Church still has miles to go in truly affirming the dignity and equality of women:
Catholic women can sometimes find themselves caught in the middle, loving their church and their faith but dispirited by occasional statements that suggest that the Vatican views them as disordered or defiled simply because they are women. Last July the Vatican caused a public relations firestorm after its announcement of two grave crimes under canon law: sexual abuse by members of the clergy and the attempt to ordain a woman. Even women who support the church’s restriction of the priesthood to males winced at the decision to group these two acts in the same document.
In order to advance a more rigorous analysis of feminism and Catholicism, Kaveny suggests three areas of focus: equality and difference, nature and nurture, and complementarity and collaboration. It is really the last area–the issue of complementarity–where the most work needs to be done in light of John Paul II’s distinctive for of feminism, re-affirmed by Benedict XVI:
With women flooding the educational system, men find themselves competing with them for advancement and academic honors. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, expressed concern about such competition between men and women and called instead for a collaborative relationship between the sexes (“On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World,” 2004).
His view is this: The basis of a collaborative relationship is the recognition of the complementary gifts and skills of men and women. Women in particular should not aim to emulate the strengths of men but should instead nurture their own distinct gifts. Complementarity is most clearly visible in the roles that men and women play in marriage and family life but should be visible in other contexts as well. One of the hallmarks of John Paul II-style feminism, in fact, is an effort to define the “feminine genius” in all spheres of women’s existence in terms of the virtues of motherhood.
For their part, many other feminists are worried about the call to complementarity, not necessarily because they are opposed to the idea that both men and women bring some distinct and important gifts to human society but because of the way that idea tends to work out in practice. In fact, they fear it undermines collaboration, because it tends to promote separation and practical inequality.
The great Protestant theologian Karl Barth explicated male-female complementarity in terms of A and B—one need not be a psychic to guess which sex is which. The way the concept of complementarity works in geometry also reveals the potential problem: Two angles are complementary if they add up to 90 degrees, so a complementary angle is all and only that which the primary angle is not. Analogously, if one begins with a man, then a woman must be all and only that which a man is not—her role is to fill in the gaps. If complementarity is taken too far, then, it does not facilitate collaboration but rather fosters entirely separate spheres of interest and specialization.
The concept of complementarity rightly affirms the importance—and unique demands—of motherhood on women. But how does it account for the gifts, ambitions and concerns that men and women have in common, even in parenting? For men and women to strive for excellence—together—in the many areas and interests they share ought not to be considered a destructive form of competition. The common pursuit of excellence, or virtue, is a key element of the classical definition of friendship.
The question of complementarity and collaboration has come up recently in regards to another question: the role of women reporters in war zones. In an important article in this weekend’s NYTimes, Kim Barker argues that, despite the dangers of sexual assault and physical violence, women can cover war time reporting just as well as men, if they have the courage. Not only can women do the same job men can, they also provide a necessary angle to war-time reporting not accessible to their male counterparts.
More important, they also do a pretty good job of covering what it’s like to live in a war, not just die in one. Without female correspondents in war zones, the experiences of women there may be only a rumor.
Look at the articles about women who set themselves on fire in Afghanistan to protest their arranged marriages, or about girls being maimed by fundamentalists, about child marriage in India, about rape in Congo and Haiti. Female journalists often tell those stories in the most compelling ways, because abused women are sometimes more comfortable talking to them. And those stories are at least as important as accounts of battles.
Kim Barker seems to provide a challenging alternative to the sort of complementarity Kaveny is addressing, without throwing out the issue of complementarity all-together.
In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II’s encyclical on the dignity of women, JPII wrote that women should employ their “feminine genius” in building a culture of life. This “genius” includes the feminine characteristics of receptivity, generosity, sensitivity, and maternity. Is it not possible that all of these characteristics make women powerful and important war-time reporters? Receptivity in their ability to grasp the unique experiences of women in war-torn areas or in uprisings like the ones going on now in Egypt and Bahrain; sensitivity in her ability to see beyond the material to the heart of the matter, to report not just on the events but on the spiritual and emotional movements underlying these events; generosity in her ability and willingness to sacrifice herself and her body for the sake of truth; maternity in her ability to see and hear also the children in a given place, and weave their stories also into the final story she tells as a reporter.
Like many women, everdaythomist has problems with the ways in which the concepts like “complementarity” and other aspects of John Paul II’s feminism have been used, but I think these concepts gain at least new rhetorical force when put in dialogue with the sort of secular feminism that Kim Barker offers in her argument for the important and unique role of female war-time reporters. Complementarity offers us a way of seeing these female reporters as offering a unique perspective not so easily offered by their male counterparts, thus justifying their work on grounds not so much of equality, but on difference. This is important, I think, because if women reporters are offering the same perspective as their male colleagues, it seems too easy for an editor to pull all women reporters out of war zones by appealing to the dangers of their job and the ability of men to do their tasks without the same risks.
In practice, I think putting JPII’s notion of complementarity in dialogue with Kim Barker’s secular feminism effectively serves to help bridge the divide between Catholicism and feminism that Kaveny is trying to encourage. It offers us a way of keeping the concept of complementarity without keeping some of the rather unfortunate ways this concept has been put in practice to keep women from doing the sorts of things that men do.
Unless you live under a rock, you probably know the pope is in England where he will preside over the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman. Newman, who will probably be canonized in my life time, was a towering 19th century theologian, with a controversial life and a controversial legacy. He’s the perfect saint for a deeply-divided, still little-c Catholic Church.
Newman, who was born in England, was a Catholic convert. Born an Anglican, Newman was a leader in a conservative movement within the Church of England called the Oxford Movement, whose goal it was to bring the Anglican Church back to its Catholic roots in terms of faith, morality, and in particular, worship. The Oxford Movement was by no means an effort to make the Anglican Church become Catholic, and, in fact, Newman published many harsh words against his Roman brethren. Nevertheless, he converted in his 40’s to the Roman Catholic Church (after retracting many of his former anti-Catholic sentiments).
In many ways, though Newman is often remembered as a Conservative, he was actually considered quite a progressive voice within the Church. He is famous for his emphasis on conscience and his criticism of papal infallibility (“I shall drink to the pope, if you please, but to conscience first”). If you read a lot of the recent articles on Newman, they will claim that this criticism of papal infallibility makes him a hero among liberal Catholics who want to oppose Benedict on various issues like gay marriage, liturgy, etc. In fact, it is quite consistent with Catholics, conservative and liberal alike, to be skeptical of papal infallibility. Thomas Aquinas himself was wary of giving any bishop so great a power, and indeed, the infallibility of the bishop of Rome was not even defined dogmatically until the First Vatican Council in 1870. The doctrine developed in order to check the power of the pope, not expand it, and papal infallibility has only been used once since Vatican I, in order to dogmatically define the Assumption of Mary into Heaven in 1950.
Infallibility does not mean the pope doesn’t err, nor that Catholics can just listen to him or the magisterium for whatever they hold to be true. And Newman reminds us of this. Conscience reigns, and that inner sanctuary where God judges our thoughts and actions, is a sacred core both of our humanity and of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Newman is a bridge between those who would emphasize authority and infallibility to the neglect of conscience, and those who would emphasize the freedom of thought and opinion (by no means equivalent with conscience) to the neglect of authority and the objectivity of truth.
Newman is, in a way, already the patron saint of scholars and of the liberal arts. In The Idea of the University, Newman warns of the dangers of overspecialization and the dismissal of theology from the university curriculum, an increasing danger in the US, especially in light of the financial turmoil our country seems to be in. Fewer people are choosing to study the humanities, instead tending towards the more profitable disciplines of finance, communications, medicine, and law. Newman, recognizing the importance of the practical and servile arts, still also recognized the need of the humanities (the “liberal” arts) to train professionals in how to be human. And of those liberal studies, theology was queen. Theology unified the various sciences and directed each toward its proper telos. Newman is the bridge between those who are so practical and profitable to the neglect of pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and those whose knowledge is so ethereal and irrelevant that they forget to be practical.
The most recent news is that Newman was possibly gay. There is no hard evidence that he was, but there are speculations. I don’t know, but even if he was, it simply makes Newman more of a saint for a divided and still-universal church. The Catholic Church is big enough for gay people who are saints, big enough for critics of the pope and fans, big enough for scholars and workers, big enough for converts and lapsed. Newman is the man the Church needs now, a nuanced voice that both conservatives and liberals (whatever those titles may mean in the RCC or in Christendom at large) can both claim as their own. So, Blessed Newman, for this church of ours, we ask you to pray for us.
My good friend Charlie Camosy (check out his blog No Hidden Magenta) helped organize and host the Fordham Conversation Project a few weeks ago. The FCP (which I heard him refer to in conversation as the “anti-conference”) was an opportunity for young, non-tenured Catholic theologians to come together to discuss the divisions in the church and the future of Catholic theology. I was honored to be invited to Fordham to participate.
The FCP kicked off with a keynote address by Peter Steinfels, author of A People Adrift, on the current sociological data on the 70 million American Catholics. The data doesn’t look good. For example, only 10% of Catholic teens say their faith is extremely important in shaping their daily life, as opposed to 40% of Mormon teens and 30% of Evangelical teens. One-third of the adults raised Catholic have left the Church, and three Catholics leave for each one that enters. Steinfels noted tongue in cheek that the problem of declining members wasn’t exclusively a Catholic problem: “If it weren’t for people leaving the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church would have died a long time ago.”
Steinfels went on to describe two opposing concerns in the Church: concerns of identity and concerns of inclusion. Those Catholics who emphasize more the former tend to want a smaller, more homogeneous church, while those who identify the latter want a larger, more diverse church. If we think of these two concerns on a supply and demand graph, argued Steinfels, the best place for the church is where the two lines meet.
The next day, we listened to Catholic reporter John Allen talk about two trends from his new book The Future Church: globalization and the rise in Evangelical Catholicism. Regarding the first, Allen and others are adamant that the Church is moving south, and that this new “southern majority” is going to bring big changes to the current Euro-American dominated church. First of all, southern Catholics (those who live below the southern hemisphere) tend to be conservative on sexual issues but liberal on social justice. They tend to be more biblical than European and American Catholics and they tend to place a heavy emphasis on the supernatural. Southern Catholics are also more likely to prefer an “incluturated” liturgical celebration that incorporates elements of their own indigenous culture. Clearly, these southern Catholics challenge our traditional Catholic stereotypes.
At the same time, in the US we are seeing a different trend which Allen calls the rise of Evangelical Catholicism. These Catholics are characterized by their efforts to revive a traditional form of Catholic identity (on Steinfels’ chart, these are the “identity Catholics”). Evangelical Catholics are likely to say the Rosary regularly, go to confession regularly, prefer more traditional forms of liturgy, and choose a religious vocation.
So essentially, we have two opposing trends in the southern hemisphere and in the U.S. What does this mean? It means that the church is in a state of tension. We might say that U.S. Catholics are tending to emphasize “identity” more while southern Catholics are tending to emphasize “inclusion.” It also means that the Catholic Church looks and sounds very different depending on where you are. So are we doomed? Is the Catholic Church a church divided?
I don’t think so, and if you want to see some of my thoughts on this, check out my comments on the National Catholic Reporter “Distinctly Catholic” site. To draw from some of Fr. Robert Imbelli’s remarks at the conference, I think that in light of all the negative sociological data on the Catholic Church, there is still hope, a hope that is based in an incarnational reflection on the global Church. Despite the vast differences in the church on specific matters of faith, politics, morality, and liturgy, the center of the Church is strong enough to hold it all together. That center is Christ.
The essence of the Catholic Church’s identity is not a specific liturgical form (though some forms may be better than others; I, for one, would like to see more acapella singing and fewer organs drowning out the feeble voices trying to offer up a suitable worship to God). Nor is the essence of the Church its Marian devotions, its emphasis on the sacrament of confession, its Catechism, or its popes and bishops. Don’t get me wrong, all of these are incredibly important. They may not make the Church, but they surely do make her strong. No, the essence of the Church is her firm, enduring, unchanging conviction that Jesus Christ, the only son of the one eternal and immaterial God, became flesh for our sake, living among us and dying as one of us so that in dying, He might defeat death and the power of sin that had enslaved humanity. The essence of the Church is that we believe that Jesus lives still and works with us still through His Holy Spirit, until that day when our work will be through, and we can join Jesus where he reins.
This does not mean that our differences are not unimportant, nor does it mean that everybody who calls themselves “Catholic” is right about everything he or she holds. But it does mean that our center is not ideology, but Christ, and through that Center, we can, God-willing, work with Christ to reconcile the whole world to Him.
The Fordham Conversation Project was a wonderful opportunity for theologians and teachers like myself to think about how we might do just this—maintain unity in the face of diversity while at the same time, working to speak and live the truth. Catholic theologians, like every theologian since the time of Augustine who invited the Donatists back in the fold despite their heresy and apostasy, have to figure out how to address and reconcile the differences that exist in the Church without letting those differences ultimately triumph over us.
EverdayThomist is a big fan of Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of the Dominican Order and author of numerous very fine books, including two of my favorites: What is the Point of Being a Christian? and Why Go to Church? His recent treatment of the the sex abuse scandal in The Tablet is characteristically insightful and nuanced.
First, Radcliffe addresses those who want to leave the Roman Catholic Church in protest of the way the sex abuse crisis has been handled.
Some people feel that they can no longer remain associated with an institution that is so corrupt and dangerous for children. The suffering of so many children is indeed horrific. They must be our first concern. Nothing that I will write is intended in any way to lessen our horror at the evil of sexual abuse. But the statistics for the US, from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004, suggest that Catholic clergy do not offend more than the married clergy of other Churches.
Some surveys even give a lower level of offense for Catholic priests. They are less likely to offend than lay school teachers, and perhaps half as likely as the general population. Celibacy does not push people to abuse children. It is simply untrue to imagine that leaving the Church for another denomination would make one’s children safer. We must face the terrible fact that the abuse of children is widespread in every part of society. To make the Church the scapegoat would be a cover-up.
Then he addresses the much stickier issue of the cover-up within the Church. After all, people are not angry primarily because priests abused young children, but because the bishops and other members of the Vatican hierarchy did nothing to stop it. Radcliffe admits that the bishops have, at times, “been shockingly irresponsible in moving offenders around, not reporting them to the police and so perpetuating the abuse.” “But,” he goes on,
the great majority of these cases go back to the 1960s and 1970s, when bishops often regarded sexual abuse as a sin rather than also a pathological condition, and when lawyers and psychologists often reassured them that it was safe to reassign priests after treatment. It is unjust to project backwards an awareness of the nature and seriousness of sexual abuse which simply did not exist then. It was only the rise of feminism in the late 1970s which, by shedding light on the violence of some men against women, alerted us to the terrible damage done to vulnerable children.
Moreover, he notes, we should remember that the Vatican is a tiny organization, with only 45 employees working for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which must deal with the doctrinal and disciplinary issues for 1.3 billion Roman Catholics (comprising 17 percent of the world’s population, 400,000 of them priests). He notes, “When I dealt with the CDF as Master of the Dominican Order, it was obvious that they were struggling to cope. Documents slipped through the cracks. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger lamented to me that the staff was simply too small for the job.”
But Radcliffe is not trying to simply defend the Vatican. For those who are sick of the New York Times’ seemingly anti-Catholic coverage (see here and here), Radcliffe reminds us that we “owe a debt of gratitude to the press for its insistence that the Church face its failures. If it had not been for the media, then this shameful abuse might have remained unaddressed.”
What I love especially is how Radcliffe concludes with the implication for Catholics debating whether or not to stay in the Church. Catholicism, Radcliffe insists, is not a choice, and he insists he is “not a Catholic because of a consumer option for an ecclesiastical Waitrose rather than Tesco.” His response deserves to be cited in full. I am a Catholic, he says, “because I believe it [the Church] embodies something which is essential to the Christian witness to the Resurrection, visible unity.
When Jesus died, his community fell apart. He had been betrayed, denied, and most of his disciples fled. It was chiefly the women who accompanied him to the end. On Easter Day, he appeared to the disciples. This was more than the physical resuscitation of a dead corpse.
In him God triumphed over all that destroys community: sin, cowardice, lies, misunderstanding, suffering and death. The Resurrection was made visible to the world in the astonishing sight of a community reborn. These cowards and deniers were gathered together again. They were not a reputable bunch, and shamefaced at what they had done, but once again they were one. The unity of the Church is a sign that all the forces that fragment and scatter are defeated in Christ.
All Christians are one in the Body of Christ. I have deepest respect and affection for Christians from other Churches who nurture and inspire me. But this unity in Christ needs some visible embodiment. Christianity is not a vague spirituality but a religion of incarnation, in which the deepest truths take the physical and sometimes institutional form. Historically this unity has found its focus in Peter, the Rock in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the shepherd of the flock in John’s gospel.
From the beginning and throughout history, Peter has often been a wobbly rock, a source of scandal, corrupt, and yet this is the one – and his successors – whose task is to hold us together so that we may witness to Christ’s defeat on Easter Day of sin’s power to divide. And so the Church is stuck with me whatever happens. We may be embarrassed to admit that we are Catholics, but Jesus kept shameful company from the beginning.
The Catholic Church, indeed, all of Christendom, is deeply flawed. All those who call themselves “Christian” belong not only to the mystical body of Christ, but also to the “frail, fearfully, and wonderfully made” human institution. If we are critical for the way the humans within the institutional hierarchy have behaved, our response should not be abandonment, but rather, reform. In pushing for this reform, the press is absolutely indispensable, much as they may rile us sometimes. But if the Church is to remain unified, this means that we must bear with one another. We must be content to be a church of sinners dependent on the grace of Christ to hold us together. The Church is not a fraternity or a sorority of like-minded people, nor is it a voluntary association. It is a body consisting of diverse members, often in virulent disagreement, but all standing on the solid rock, not of Peter, but of Christ. And it is from Christ, not the bishops, or the the CDF, or the pope, that we derive our unity. The sex abuse scandal is a tragedy, but it should compel us to ever more turn to Christ for our strength, for our truth, and for our knowledge of the good. And it is from Him that we will ultimately find the source of our reform efforts. Who knows, maybe this scandal, in forcing us to see Christ as the solid rock on which we stand, will be an opportunity for the Roman Catholic Church to forge greater unity with the rest of Christendom.
In New Wine, New Wineskins, Christopher Steck, SJ has an article entitled “Saintly Voyeurism: A Methodological Necessity for the Christian Ethicist?” In this essay, Steck notes the lack of attention to the personal qualities and character of the professional ethicist, and argues that contemporary Catholic moral theology should incorporate of his proposed method of “saintly voyeurism” into moral education. “Saintly voyeurism” according to Steck is a return to concrete models of Christian holiness as found in the stories of the saints in order to facilitate a neglected goal for the moral practitioner, namely, their own holiness.
Steck’s concern is that contemporary moral theologians are not sufficiently rooted in and transformed by the Christian story. On an institutional level, Steck complains that that there is insufficient support both from the church and the academy to support the development of catholic ethicists own development of Christian disciples as they practice their trade. He writes,
Achieving such a vision [of Christian discipleship for the professional ethicist] is complicated in the academic culture in which Catholic ethicists practice their trade. That culture is given shape by a constellation of values whose form does not align well with that of the field of Christian ethics, especially insofar as it is concerned with questions of what constitutes the holy life. This misalignment, I argue, is due in part to the dominance of rationalistic and acutely critical modes of contemporary research, along with a lack of concern for the personal moral character of the one engaging in research. . . More though needs to be given too how Catholic moral theologians can ‘form’ themselves into Christian ethicists and address issues of Christian discipleship and the holy life.
In essence, Steck’s concern is that not enough attention is being directed towards making ethicists more ethical, and within a Christian context, more holy. Instead, the virtues of the professional ethicists encouraged in the academy are the virtues which Steck identifies with scientific rationalism. They are
• Agorism: the virtue of argumentation and debate, or the “need to position one’s work in opposition to someone else’s and disprove others’ arguments in order to be original, [to] make a contribution and demonstrate intellectual ability” (28).
• Circumscription: the inclination against universalist or comprehensive claims
• Unmaking: a kind of hermeneutic of suspicion or “belief that truth claims conceal subtle and pernicious advancements of self-interest (whether personal, group, social, or institutional) and unconscious desires of power” (28-9).
Such critique-oriented rationalistic virtues have their advantages in the academy and particularly for scholarly research, but Steck worries that such virtues are not in themselves sufficient for the development of the scholar, and particularly the Catholic ethicist. That is, such virtues encourage intellectual competency but neglect other fundamental parts of the academician’s character. As Steck puts it, “Our ends [as scholars] are not just intellectual ones; they have to do with what brings us emotional well-being, psychological peach, and deep satisfaction about a life lived well” (30).
What we need in the academy, argues Steck, are spiritual practices that nurture a more comprehensive vision of the Christian life for the professional Catholic ethicist. That is, the Catholic academy needs institutionalized ways of encouraging Christian discipleship and Christian holiness among its professional ethicists.
What Steck recommends is a sort of “saintly voyeurism,” or as he describes it, “ethical reflection on the ordinary acts of a holy existence to better understand the demands of Christian discipleship” (36). Concretely, this takes the form of a kind of revised hagiography, a study of the lives and actions of the saints with an eye toward discerning which actions are most consonant with a saintly life. He quotes Richard McCormick who says “that the meaning of Christian discipleship is best gathered from the lives of the saints” (37):
Elizabeth of Hungary’s disobedience of her husband’s wishes in order to serve the poor, Elizabeth Ann Seton’s engagement with religious antagonism of her time, and Ignatius of Loyola’s apostolic choice to minister not only to the poor but to the powerful represent choices that raise interesting ethical issues for those wishing to better understand the saintly life.
Steck does not recommend an exact imitation of the saints, but rather a “casuistry at a distance,” that is, an observation of what sort of actions might be considered saintly in a given situation in order to train the ethicist’s own vision of holiness. This moral tutoring through hagiography can occur in five ways, according to Steck:
1. It can confirm for the ethicist the viability of the Christian vision, and strengthen the ethicist’s commitment to living as a Christian disciple even in the face of great adversity
2. Studying the lives of the saints can reemphasize the theological dimension of the Christian life by emphasizing such features as surrender, obedience, participation in the paschal mystery, and trust in the abiding power of love
3. The saints can offer new paradigms for how Christian discipleship can be lived out in changing historical situations
4. The lives of the saints can offer a context for examining how holiness can break through the trial and limitations of creaturely existence.
5. Finally, the saints challenge us always to respond to the situations we find ourselves in, rather than passively accepting the lot we are given. The saints give us options for our own lives for how to live out a life of holiness.
Christian moral theology is not simply a deductive or rationalistic science. It requires that its practitioner have a well-formed heart that is attuned to the Gospel and the values at its core. In an ideal world, Catholic moral theologians would be saints and scholars. However, Catholic ethicists now perform their trade in a context that often does not sustain the kind of Gospel vision associated with a saintly existence. The indifference of the academy toward traditional virtues and the loss of preconciliar spiritual practices within Catholicism leave Catholic moralists more susceptible than moralists of an earlier generation to an almost exclusively secular and narrowly rationalistic formation. . . . Scriptural mediation, prayer, devotional practices, and liturgical participation are just some of the practices that form the Christian into a disciple. But examining the lives of the saints, ordinary people achieving great moral character, is one practice that allows ethicists to practice their art—that is, scholarly reflection on human action—and thus represents a distinctive resource for moralists.
I think Steck is right on the money. I would recommend two developments to his argument. First, I think we need to accept the fact that much of the lives of the saints can be psychologized in today’s rationalistic environment, but that need not deter us from recognizing moments of great holiness or the fact that God has worked throughout history through very flawed individuals. My pet example is St. Catherine of Sienna who allegedly went seven years eating nothing but the Eucharist and occasionally some bitter herbs. Clearly, this part of her life seems psychologically unsound, and for good reason. However, the important point to be gleaned from a study of her life is that God inspired her to do great feats of holiness requiring great courage, like caring for victims of the plague and confronting the pope concerning matters of politics, despite the fact that she was a flawed, psychologically fragile and vulnerable individual. Clearly, a great lesson for us all.
Second, I would encourage Catholics to look beyond the boundaries of Catholicism to identify both historical and contemporary saints that were not necessarily a part of the Catholic faith. Due largely to my husband’s influence, I consider the Christian singer Rich Mullins a great saint. Mullins, inspired by the Christian message and anxious to live a life of Christian witness, gave his profits from his singing career to charity, and dedicated large portions of his life to charitable activities not associated at all with his career, like moving to a Native American reservation to teach the children there about music. When I listen to Rich Mullin’s music, I cannot help but be inspired by the vision of the Christian life he encourages both through his music and the story of his life. Clearly, Rich Mullins can be considered a contemporary saint for Catholics today.
I’m interested for all the professionals or soon-to-be professionals reading this post: (1) what role do the lives of the saints play in your own professional and personal life, and (2) what ways institutionally can you think of that you are encouraged to live a life of holiness within your profession, rather than a life of pure academic achievement?
This summer, I read a great book called New Wine, New Wineskins edited by William Mattison III. Here’s a review of one of the essays by Christopher Vogt who questions whether Catholic theologians should not be given an invitation by the bishop to start preaching during Mass. His essay is entitled, “Finding a Place at the Heart of the Church: On the Vocation of a Lay Theologian.”
In this essay, Christopher Vogt’s main complaint, drawn largely from his own personal experience, is that theologians are not engaging in practices that make them better Christians. The vocation of the theologian has become, he claims, disconnected from the life of the Church. Theologians do lots of things that might in some way be considered for the Church like writing papers, teaching, or presenting at conferences, but such activities are not conducted in the Church. He writes,
There is no venue in which I regularly interact with the people of God as an audience or as a source for my work. There is no mechanism in place for me to be heard by local clergy or my local bishop, nor is there any ongoing practice in place for me to hear the concerns, criticisms, or ideas of pastoral leaders. In the absence of such practices, I am becoming a professional academic but one with only loose, informal connections with the church (48).
Vogt acknowledges that lay theologians might just be encouraged to go to Mass more, to pray the liturgy of the hours, or to attend regular devotions like rosaries or Eucharistic adorations. Such practices, while valuable in their own right, are insufficient for lay theologians who wish to strengthen the connection between their profession work and their life of faith as Christians. What is needed, he argues, is not a replacement for these practices, but an additional practice specifically for the lay theologian to become more connected to the life of the church. The practice he argues for is preaching.
Vogt says that the local bishop should support lay theologians by inviting them to preach during mass. The first reason for this is that it is important for the theologian to have a deep connection to the community of faith in this community’s worship, a connection that is currently missing in the church. Theological reflection is not meant to be undertaken by a neutral observer in a context wholly separate from the life of the church, but rather, theology exists only in and for the church. Allowing lay theologians the opportunity to preach would draw them into a closer relationship with living church, and would thereby strengthen them in their vocation to speak about this living church and the faith that it holds.
Vogt identifies several ways theologians can benefit from an invitation to preach. First, they can talk about theological reflection in a more personal (i.e. “first-person”) way that the academy does not encourage. Vogt complains that theological argumentation, while valuable academically, is not necessarily a practice that strengthens one’s spirituality. Second, preaching gives the opportunity for the lay theologian to become more immersed in the liturgy by following the liturgical calendar and presenting theological reflection on scriptural selections that the theologians may not have chosen for themselves. Third, allowing the lay theologian to preach provides an opportunity for the theologian to understand in a deeper, more profound way, the lives of the people of God who hold the faith.
Vogt also thinks that the church itself will benefit by inviting lay theologians to preach. He notes that many priests give quite bad homilies due to insufficient theological knowledge (think of how bad the homilies frequently are on Trinity Sunday). Other priests might be “morally absent,” meaning that the presiding priest is physically present, and thus able to say mass, but unprepared to preach. And there is also the problem of the priest shortage. The German bishops have already received permission from Rome to allow lay people to preach on a regular and ongoing basis at Sunday liturgy. In the U.S., lay people can lead a Liturgy of the Word when a priest is absent.
Moreover, there is both historical and juridical precedent to allow lay theologians to preach regularly. Pope John Paul II lifted to outright ban on lay preaching in 1983, though the current code prevents lay people from preaching a homily. Vogt claims that the term homily has taken on a legal meaning such that it simply means “preaching by a priest or deacon in the context of the regular liturgy.” He argues that “if a lay person performs the same task of ‘offering a reflection,’ by definition it cannot be a homily, and therefore it can be permitted” (58). He concludes,
Given the lack of a definitive theological closure on this issue, I would humbly suggest that it should be reconsidered whether the current discipline of an absolute prohibition on homiletic preaching by lay people is the best discipline by which to ensure the unity of the Liturgy of the Word and Eucharis and to preserve the theological distinction between ordained priesthood and the universal priesthood of the baptized. . . Regular preaching would be a practice appropriate for theologians because their vocation demands that they serve the church as interpreters of the Word and because preaching would draw on their considerable training in a way that complements their pursuit of teaching and research and leads them to be more pastorally aware (59).
Vogt’s recommendation is bold, provocative, and initially very persuasive. Actually, maybe because I am married to a member of the Church of Christ where lay people, including my husband, preach all the time, I did not think Vogt’s recommendation was that shocking or provocative at first read. Nevertheless, Vogt is right to say that theologians have both a professional and a spiritual vocation to engage in faith seeking critical understanding. The theologian should also definitely have a strong connection with the Christian community. I disapprove highly of theologians and theology students who stop going to mass or church all-together. One cannot be a theologian if they are completely disconnected from the life of the church. That being said, the vocation of a theologian is not an ecclesial vocation. In other words, Christian theologians have a distinct (i.e. different) vocation from priests and bishops.
As important as it is for the theologian to be immersed in the life of the church, it is also important to keep a critical distance between the university and the episcopate. Theologians must be given a certain freedom to think freely, to make provocative inquiries into the nature of the faith, and to challenge the church’s teaching when necessary. It would, however, be very dangerous if ordinary lay people were exposed to the sort of critical inquiry that theologians engage in. The job of the theologian is to critically examine the faith; the church in both the people of God and the magisterial teaching body discerns what should get passed on to the flock.
I think that Vogt has recommended a practice that in some cases could be very good for some churches. There are lay theologians, like ordained theologians, that have been given a gift to preach. In these cases, it should depend on the prudential discernment of the bishop to decide who, where, and under which circumstances a lay theologian should give a sermon during Sunday liturgical services. I think that it is probably wise for canon law for allow for this possibility. But I also think it would be rash to suddenly allow lay theologians to preach in a liturgical role that should be occupied for someone as both a theological authority and a spiritual shepherd.
I have one friend who said that this issue should call us as a church to rethink ordination. That some people are called and given the grace by God to be teachers, preachers, healers, and evangelists, and you should not have to be ordained as a priest to have the church sanction you in your work in any one of these given areas. So there could be a sort of analogous ordination for people to preach, whereby the church “lays hands on” the person and sanctions their work for the good of the church’s body. This could also be one way of addressing the issue of women’s ordination, without saying that women need to be made priests.
Perhaps a more prudent immediate step would be to encourage more communication and hands-on work with priests and theologians. That is, rather than having a theologian give a sermon or homily, theologians could be given roles as theological advisers to parish priests who may have had improper theological education. Of course, this does not solve the problem of the shortage of priests, or the problem of “morally absent” priests, as Vogt calls them. In parishes where this is a problem, it might be a good idea for the bishop to find some trusted theologians to take over, or at least heavily supplement, the preaching responsibilities. Nevertheless, Vogt’s essay encourages us to think about the vocation of the theologian and the relationship of the theological profession and the life of the church.
I wanted to write a blog post exploring Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of baptism, partially in honor of today’s feast celebrating the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John the Baptist, and partially because Thomas treats baptism in the Tertia Pars (third part) of the Summa, which hardly anyone reads. Moreover, I have been very interested in the possibility of Christian unity recently, maybe because I am a Roman Catholic marrying a member of the Church of Christ, and a good place to start is baptism, which is the sacrament of Christian initiation.
The Sacrament of Baptism
Baptism, Aquinas says, is outward washing which is a sacramental sign of inward justification (III, Q. 66, art. 1). It was initiated at Christ’s own baptism, because it was at Christ’s baptism that the act of washing received the power to impart grace. John’s baptism was different because it only pointed at the fulfillment of the meaning of washing, but did not actually confer grace. John’s baptism simply pointed to Christ, but when Jesus entered the Jordan to be baptized, the heavens were ripped open and the Holy Spirit descended.
The opening of the heavens has a threefold significance for Aquinas. First, it shows that heavenly power would sanctify the practice of baptism. Second, baptism is a practice of faith, and faith is about “heavenly things which surpass the senses and human reason.” Third, Jesus’ baptism opened up the gates of heaven which had been previously closed through sin. The opening of the heavens showed that the heavens were now accessible to the baptized.
So baptism is important, but the sacrament alone is not enough for the believer to gain heaven. Thomas says, “Now after baptism man needs to pray continually, in order to enter heaven: for though sins are remitted through baptism, there still remain the fomes of sin assailing us from within, and the world and the devils assailing us from without. And therefore it is said pointedly (Luke 3:21) that “Jesus being baptized and praying, heaven was opened”: because, to wit, the faithful after baptism stand in need of prayer” (III, Q. 39, art. 5).
Form, Matter, and Accidents
Like all sacraments, baptism has form and matter. The form is the essence of baptism, the principle that makes it what it is. The form points to the principle cause of the sacrament, which is God, and specifically the God Christians know to be triune. So the form of baptism is the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” which points to the source and purpose and end of baptism–the Trinity. The matter is how the form is instantiated, and so the matter of baptism is water. Matter alone is not enough to make a sacrament; the matter becomes something special when enlivened on the form.
There are lots of what Aquinas calls “accidents” attached to baptism. These are the things that are not essential to the sacrament, though nevertheless important for some reason. “Accidents do not diversify the essence of the sacrament,” Aquinas says. This means that there are lots of things that one could do in the act of baptism that might vary, while not changing the essential nature of the act which is still baptism.
One of these accidents is how the water is conferred to the baptized, namely whether the baptized is immersed or sprinkled. Catholics typically sprinkle water over the head, but they might be surprised that Aquinas thinks sprinkling is acceptable, but immersion is preferred because it more closely represents Christ’s burial and the idea that the baptized dies with Christ. Thomas identifies a few circumstances where sprinkling would be acceptable. These include a shortage of water, a huge number of baptismal candidates (we’re talking thousands) which would make immersion cumbersome, and the feebleness of the candidate whose life might be endangered by immersion. This last reason is why Catholics sprinkle, because they baptize infants, too small to be heartily dunked. We’ll come back to this.
Another accident Aquinas addresses is whether the baptized need to be immersed or sprinkled three times. I had never really thought about this question until the priest doing pre-Cana with my fiancé and me informed us that my fiancé had only been immersed once, which was not consistent with the form of baptism which requires trine immersion or sprinkling. This meant we had to get a “disparity of cult” dispensation because the Catholic Church did not recognize the validity of his baptism. Turns out, Aquinas would disagree “since the Trinity can be represented in the three immersions, and the unity of the Godhead in one immersion” (III, Q. 66, art. 8). Moreover, the matter of washing is an accident, which does not change the validity of the sacrament, only its licitness. He does say that trine baptism is now universally recognized by the Church, and baptisms conducted otherwise would not be consistent with the ritual of the church, though they would nevertheless remain valid. As a good Thomist, I don’t think the “disparity of cult” dispensation was appropriate.
What about rebaptism? Aquinas says that there is only one baptism for the remission of sins. Here, because so many Christians practice rebaptism, it is worth quoting Aquinas in full.
First, because Baptism is a spiritual regeneration; inasmuch as a man dies to the old life, and begins to lead the new life. Whence it is written (John 3:5): “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, He cannot see [Vulgate: 'enter into'] the kingdom of God.” Now one man can be begotten but once. Wherefore Baptism cannot be reiterated, just as neither can carnal generation. . . Secondly, because “we are baptized in Christ’s death,” by which we die unto sin and rise again unto “newness of life” (cf. Romans 6:3-4). Now “Christ died” but “once” (Romans 6:10). Wherefore neither should Baptism be reiterated. For this reason (Hebrews 6:6) is it said against some who wished to be baptized again: “Crucifying again to themselves the Son of God”; on which the gloss observes: “Christ’s one death hallowed the one Baptism.” Thirdly, because Baptism imprints a character, which is indelible, and is conferred with a certain consecration. Wherefore, just as other consecrations are not reiterated in the Church, so neither is Baptism. . . Fourthly, because Baptism is conferred principally as a remedy against original sin. Wherefore, just as original sin is not renewed, so neither is Baptism reiterated, for as it is written (Romans 5:18), “as by the offense of one, unto all men to condemnation, so also by the justice of one, unto all men to justification of life.”
“Men are bound to that without which they cannot obtain salvation. Now it is manifest that no one can obtain salvation but through Christ; wherefore the Apostle says (Romans 5:18): “As by the offense of one unto all men unto condemnation; so also by the justice of one, unto all men unto justification of life.” But for this end is Baptism conferred on a man, that being regenerated thereby, he may be incorporated in Christ, by becoming His member: wherefore it is written (Galatians 3:27): “As many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ.” Consequently it is manifest that all are bound to be baptized: and that without Baptism there is no salvation for men.”
The Christian tradition and the Scriptural witness are clear, as this above quote makes clear, that baptism is an essential part of the Christian faith. No interior change of heart suffices–you must be baptized. Doesn’t mean that God can’t save a person without baptism, but perfect conversion to God belongs to those who are regenerated in Christ, by baptism. Thomas relies heavily on the example of Christ to back up this point. If Jesus, who had no sin, saw it fit to be baptized and it was at this event that the heavens opened up to him, so too should we see it fit to be baptized.
What about children? This seems to me a big sticking point in the practice of baptism between different Christian churches who disapprove of the practice of baptizing infants, as Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and some others do. Aquinas justifies this practice first with the words of Paul: “For if, by the transgression of one person, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ. In conclusion, just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so through one righteous act acquittal and life came to all.”
When Paul says that condemnation came to all, Aquinas takes him to mean everyone, regardless of age. Infants come into this world marked with the sin of Adam. Infants come into this world burdened with the punishment for sin, which is death. Infants come into this world already needing salvation. And when Paul says that acquittal and life come to all through the one righteous act of Jesus, Aquinas takes him mean that everyone can gain new life through baptism into Christ, regardless of age. “Our Lord Himself said (John 3:5): “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Consequently it became necessary to baptize children, that, as in birth they incurred damnation through Adam so in a second birth they might obtain salvation through Christ” (III, Q. 68, art. 9).
More generally, Aquinas thinks that the saving act that happens in baptism is an act of God, not an act of the believer. Baptism is necessary because human beings on their own cannot achieve salvation, but rely exclusively on God. In light of this, it makes no sense to Aquinas to say that only believers should be baptized. Aquinas doesn’t think that we even can believe, apart from grace. Faith is a gift, not an achievement. In order to make it more likely, therefore, that children grow up in faith, baptism is necessary. He says “it was fitting that children should receive Baptism, in order that being reared from childhood in things pertaining to the Christian mode of life, they may the more easily persevere therein; according to Proverbs 22:5: “A young man according to his way, even when he is old, he will not depart from it” (ibid.). For the same reason, Aquinas thinks that baptism should be offered to the mentally ill, those lacking in reason who cannot make a rational statement of faith. “The little child is made a believer, not as yet by that faith which depends on the will of the believer, but by the sacrament of faith itself,” which causes the habit of faith” (III, Q. 69, art. 6).
The Effect of Baptism
Baptism takes away sin, both original and actual. It is the initiation of a new life, a life of faith. Baptism also frees the believer from the punishment of sin, which is death, because just as we die to Christ, so too do we rise with him. Baptism also confers grace and the virtues of faith, hope, and love onto the baptized. This means that the baptized have a diminished concupiscence (proclivity to sin) so as to no longer be enslaved by sin. In other words, Aquinas thinks that baptism makes it easier to be good, because baptism unites us into the body of Christ, and so we become part of Christ’s good works. He writes, “so from their spiritual Head, i.e. Christ, do His members derive spiritual sense consisting in the knowledge Of truth, and spiritual movement which results from the instinct of grace. Hence it is written (John 1:14-16): “We have seen Him . . . full of grace and truth; and of His fullness we all have received.” And it follows from this that the baptized are enlightened by Christ as to the knowledge of truth, and made fruitful by Him with the fruitfulness of good works by the infusion of grace.”
Most importantly, as so many Christians heard in the reading from Mark 1 today, baptism rips open the heavens. The gates of heaven, once closed to human beings because of sin, are now opened through Christ’s baptism and his passion, death, and resurrection. This is why it is so clear that baptism is the work of God, not man, because man could never open those gates on his own. We depend on Christ for our salvation, not our own efforts. And we accept the great grace of baptism in obedience in order gain the grace necessary to join him in eternal life. All Christians are called to be baptized, and I see no better place than this sacrament of Christian initiation to lay the foundation for Christian unity.
It may be imprudent to post a blog on the Democratic position on abortion, but after listening to a podcast from Joe Biden’s September 7 appearance on Meet the Press, I can’t help but make a few contributions from the perspective of theological ethics. Tom Brokaw asked Sen. Biden a similar question to the one he had posited two weeks before to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi regarding when human life begins. This has become a more hotly-debated political issue in the wake of Barack Obama’s highly publicized interview with Pastor Rick Warren at the Saddleback Church in California, during which Obama claimed that answering the question of “when human rights began” either from a theological or a scientific perspective was above his pay grade. Pelosi’s opinion on the beginning of life, as a Roman Catholic, was more developed:
As an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue that I have studied for a long time. And what I know is, over the centuries, the doctors of the church have not been able to make that definition. St. Augustine said at three months. We don’t know. . . I don’t think anybody can tell you when life begins.
When Brokaw pressed her to respond specifically to the current Roman Catholic position that life begins at conception, Pelosi responded that this position had emerged within the last fifty years or so and again emphasized that “over the history of the church, this is an issue of controversy. But it is also true that God has given us, each of us, a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions.”
Biden’s answer differed from Pelosi’s and it is worth quoting in full:
Look, I know when it [life] begins for me. It’s a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I’m prepared to accept the teachings of my church. But let me tell you. There are an awful lot of people of great confessional faiths–Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others–who have a different view. They believe in God as strongly as I do. They’re intensely as religious as I am religious. They believe in their faith and they believe in human life, and they have differing views as to when life–I’m prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception. But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society. And I know you get the push back, “Well, what about fascism?” Everybody, you know, you going to say fascism’s all right? Fascism isn’t a matter of faith. No decent religious person thinks fascism is a good idea.
First of all, Obama is right in his statement that determining when human rights begins is above his pay grade. Debating human rights is a job for philosophers and theologians. Applying the conclusion of those debates to public policy is a job for politicians.
Regarding Pelosi, she is also right on a number of things. The Roman Catholic Church has not always held the position that life begins at conception, as it does now. Augustine did not know when life began. He took on the topic as a theological matter, specifically regarding resurrection. Would an unformed fetus be resurrected? He did not have a clear answer to the question. Either the unformed fetus would perish like a seed, or God may apply what was lacking in the fetus and raise it up on the last day:
Abortions, even supposing they were alive in the womb, did also die there shall rise again, I make bold neither to affirm nor to deny although I fail to see why, if they are not excluded from the number of the dead, they should not attain to the resurrection of the dead. For either all the dead shall not rise, and there will be to all eternity some souls without bodies, though they once had them—only in their mother’s womb, indeed; r if all human souls shall receive again the bodies which they had wherever they lived, and which they left when they died, then I do not see how I can say that even those who died in their mother’s womb shall have no resurrection (The City of God, Book XXII, 13).
In an earlier work, likely the one that Pelosi was referring to, called “On Exodus,” Augustine argued that early abortions procured before “ensoulment” were not equivalent with homicide: “…the law does not provide that the act [abortion] pertains to homicide, for there cannot yet be said to be a live soul in a body that lacks sensation…” (“On Exodus” 21.22). This passage refers to the idea of “delayed hominization” which Augustine adopted from the Rabbinic and Greek tradition. According to this idea, the soul was infused into the fetus forty days after conception for males and eighty days after conception for females. The basic rationale was that the fetus was formed by a mixing of the menstrual fluid and the semen producing after a period of time a “formed” fetus. Aquinas also held this position of delayed hominization, but to cite him as an authority is a little misleading considering how rare his remarks about abortion and ensoulment are. In the entire Summa Theologica, Aquinas mentions abortion only once, under the heading of “Murder.” In Q. 64, art. 8, ad. 2, Aquinas writes: “He that strikes a woman with child does something unlawful: wherefore if there results the death either of the woman or of the animated fetus, he will not be excused from homicide, especially seeing that death is the natural result of such a blow.”
Where Pelosi is mistaken is identifying these early conceptions of “hominization” and “ensoulment” with the contemporary debate about the morality of abortion. Augustine, Aquinas, and indeed every major authority in the early and Medieval Church held that abortion was a sin, although they differed in the severity of the consequences of such a sin depending on the circumstances of the abortion (before ensoulment, for example). Here are a few examples of early authorities on the topic of abortion:
- The second commandment of the teaching: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not seduce boys. You shall not commit fornication. You shall not steal. You shall not practice magic. You shall not use potions. You shall not procure [an] abortion, nor destroy a newborn child (Didache 2:1–2 [A.D. 70]).
- Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born” (Letter of Barnabas 19 [A.D. 74]).
- In our case, a murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb, while as yet the human being derives blood from the other parts of the body for its sustenance. To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to birth. That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed (Tertullian Apology 9:8 [A.D. 197]).
- He that kills another with a sword, or hurls an axe at his own wife and kills her, is guilty of willful murder; not he who throws a stone at a dog, and unintentionally kills a man, or who corrects one with a rod, or scourge, in order to reform him, or who kills a man in his own defense, when he only designed to hurt him. But the man, or woman, is a murderer that gives a philtrum, if the man that takes it dies upon it; so are they who take medicines to procure abortion; and so are they who kill on the highway, and rapparees (Basil the Great, First Canonical Letter, canon 8 [A.D. 374])
- I cannot bring myself to speak of the many virgins who daily fall and are lost to the bosom of the Church, their mother. . . . Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when, as often happens, they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder (Jerome, Letters 22:13 [A.D. 396]).
In the early and Medieval church, the issue was not whether or not abortion was a sin, but rather, whether it was equivalent to homicide, one of the gravest sins. There were developments in the modern period on this question in light of embryological studies that revealed how conception and fetal development occurred. With the knowledge that conception marked the beginning of a new and distinct life (with its own chromosomal arrangement distinct from the mother and father) and not a gradual process of “hominization” through the mixing of menstrual and seminal fluid, Catholic moralists began to advance a position that abortion at any stage was homicide.
What Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden fail to recognize is that the position that life begins at conception is most definitely not a matter of faith in Catholic morality. Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively on the relationship between faith and reason as two orders of knowledge. Faith is an order of knowledge which has as its object the revealed truths as manifested in Scripture and tradition. Accepting that God is one God in three persons is a matter of faith. Accepting that God became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ is a matter of faith. Accepting that the earth goes around the sun is not a matter of faith. This type of knowledge belongs to the order of natural reason, and has as its object the empirical world which can be grasped with the human mind.
It is fallacious to call the position that life begins at conception a matter of faith. The Catholic Church did not get this position from revelation—that is, from Scripture or Tradition. One does not have to be a Roman Catholic specifically or a Christian in general or any other type of believer to know that life begins at conception. Rather, the Church has appropriated this fact from the scientific community into her moral teaching in order to better articulate how the commandment “thou shalt not kill” should be fulfilled. But the position is based on empirical, not philosophical nor theological arguments. Answering when human life begins belongs to the field of natural science.
Obama told Rick Warren that he could not discern when human rights begin “from a scientific perspective,” he was absolutely right, but neither can anybody else. The question of human rights is a philosophical and theological matter, as distinct from the natural sciences. There are rational, philosophical arguments in favor of human rights, including human rights for the unborn, that do not depend on revelation or any religious belief. The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights relies on such philosophical foundations for its human rights arguments. There are also theological arguments for human rights that refer to the human soul, the imago Dei, the “sinfulness” of murder, and divinely-granted human dignity that do, in fact, depend on revelation. But the point that I am trying to make is that the Catholic position that life begins at conception is not revealed knowledge, nor does the Church say that this position should be accepted on faith as a personal and private matter, as Joe Biden argues. Rather, the Roman Catholic position on abortion argues that scientific evidence indicates that human life begins at conception, and then uses philosophical and theological arguments to articulate why all life, including life in the womb, should be protected. It is important that dissenting Roman Catholic politicians distinguish what the Church is asking them to accept on reason, and what they are being asked to accept on faith.