Compendium of Round Table Responses
Below, you can find an up-to-date catalog of my responses to various Conciliar Post Round Tables, as well as links to where they originally appeared. I pray that these thoughts will be helpful to some, and will encourage all to delve further into the mysteries of faith.
February, 2019: Confession
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. –1 John 1:9
These words are forever imprinted upon my mind. Growing up in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, I heard them every Sunday. They are words of comfort. They are words that dedicate hearts to worship and praise. They are words that hold us accountable. Most importantly, they express the act of repentance that is so necessary for salvation. As Iwrote nearly four years ago:
When we confess our sins—whether in an assembly, before a priest, to friends and family members, or privately—we are doing something. We are acting. We are acknowledging failure and brokenness and we are resolving to amend, to heal relations with God and neighbor. When we repent, the goal is growth in grace. Repentance enables us to stop destructive behavior and start building up the kingdom of God in ourselves, in others, and in the world.
The Sacrament of Confession is the Christian’s practical avenue for fostering a real, lived relationship with Christ (the head) and the Church (his body). Confession is all about restoring harmony to the world—beginning with individuals and branching outward to universal reconciliation. If we visualize this process in the broadest possible terms, there’s a sense in which motive matters more than medium. Anyone can admit they’re wrong and resolve to turn from sin. No matter the circumstances, God is always offering grace and humans can always open their hearts. Confession, viewed through this wide-angle lens, is happening whenever a person resolves to break down barriers separating them from Love.
All this being said, I was missing something quite important when—despite being technically allowed to do so as a Lutheran—I was never given the opportunity to confess directly to a minister. There is something immensely powerful about confronting your failures in the presence of another individual. The sense of personal responsibility in this act is far more palpable than it is in corporate confession as a mandatory part of one’s liturgy. When I acknowledge my brokenness to a representative of the Church, within the very walls of a church, it reminds me that I am called to rebuild what has been fractured, to renew the promise of my baptism, and to worthily partake of Christ’s true body and blood. All of this happens in the same place.
The Roman Catholic practice of conversion, confession, reconciliation, and penance is a life-changing activity. It provides a frame of reference for my actions. It unites me with other members of my parish and with our priests. It inspires me to avoid sin and pursue sanctity. It reminds me of the effect that even my secret sins have on the living network of saints that is Christ’s body. While I do not see confession as a “make-or-break” point of division among Christians (and certainly not between Catholics and Orthodox), I do sincerely wish that all would come to experience the fullness of this sacrament.
July, 2018: Euthanasia
My response focuses on physician-assisted death. My argument against it is twofold: (1) Doctors, by definition, must care for patients. Killing can never be considered a “treatment” and is therefore beyond the purview of the medical profession. A doctor qua doctor cannot purposefully end the life of a sick person. (2) While a sick patient can refuse treatment, it is immoral for that patient to willfully end their own life or ask another to do so. This is because it is an offense against God’s providence (i.e. God’s agency over life and death) to intentionally end a human life.
(1) Care of the sick. Care of souls. These phrases describe the vocations of medical practitioners and priests. The burden of taking someone else’s life into your hands (both literally and spiritually) is serious, and involves dealing with difficult situations. The gravity of these callings—one could argue that they are the two most important and inclusive vocations related to “health”—demands a careful and nuanced approach when moral quandaries present themselves. As such, those called to these forms of service must abide by rigid principles that can never be compromised. For example, a priest must always be willing to absolve a penitent person. A doctor must always be willing to treat the sick, even if the sick person is a murderer or a member of a hostile military force. These vocations are defined by care and self-gift. As I mentioned above, it is not “care” at all to simply eradicate a sick person from this world, as if this would make things better or “easier” for all parties involved. End-of-life care is not easy.1 As such, doctors must do everything they can to treat illness. However, a patient can choose to forgo treatment, provided they do so in a manner that respects God’s providence.
(2) God is the author of life and death (see 1 Sam 2). Humans should not take matters into their own hands by willingly ending the life of another. As I have written elsewhere, I believe that Catholics can make a strong, unqualified argument against the use of lethal force. The same principle applies in matters of medicine. Removing an individual from treatment that is keeping them alive is not the same thing as willfully killing them. As Dr. Daniel Sulmasy puts it: “Treatments can be considered futile and terminated. But patients should not be considered futile and terminated.” The cessation of overzealous treatment is also allowed by the Church, for “here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted.”2 In fact, one can still hope that (and there are many examples where something “miraculous” has occurred) God will preserve life even without the aid of medicine. In other words, the decision to forgo excessive treatment does not mean that a person is “choosing death.” Instead, they are allowing nature to run its course; and Christians believe that natural processes are governed, in some mysterious way, by God’s providence. To instigate the death of one’s self or another bypasses that providence, and effectively sets a human being in the place of God.Show Sources
(1) For example, many who are suffering from terminal illness also suffer from depression. But should the response of doctors to a depressed person with suicidal thoughts be: “I respect your wishes, and will take the action necessary to end your life?” You would be hard-pressed to find someone advocating that doctors prescribe life-ending “medication” to the depressed. The same principle should apply to end-of-life care.
(2) As the Catholic Catechism explains: “Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of ‘over-zealous’ treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.”
April, 2018: Can We Be Certain of Our Salvation?
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
The assurance of salvation is, sadly, a topic that divides followers of Christ. Whether one’s tradition takes a stand for or against it, there are merits to both sides of the debate (and much depends on the definition of “certainty”). Proponents of certainty argue that we can trust God’s promises—God does not withhold salvation from those who “seek his presence” (Ps 105:4).1 As our Lord says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matt 7:7). Christians should not be plagued by doubt when it comes to the free gift of God’s love. After all, “we love because God first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19).
At the same time, Scripture warns against taking salvation for granted. Although God makes it possible, humans are the ones who “work out” the faith through the ups and downs of life’s journey. And salvation is just that: a journey. Salvation is an ongoing process that takes place within the Body of Christ, in and through the communion of saints. God does not see us as isolated individuals slogging toward salvation alone. Rather, God—who humbled himself to rely upon others for daily needs—recognizes that we, too, reach the end of our journey with and in a community. We rely upon others (whether they be parents, teachers, ministers, or even historical figures) to sustain our faith and lead us toward the truth. They show us how salvation “works out” in the complex, often troubling, circumstances of daily life.
In this light, the statement “we are being saved” seems more accurate than “I am saved.” Ultimately, it is God who will judge the world (Jn 12:44-50). If our assurance of salvation is defined as “100% certainty,” then we impinge upon divine agency and elevate ourselves to the position of Arbiter.2 “Not everyone,” Jesus tells us, “who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). The great exemplars of our faith, such as those listed in Hebrews 11, all made a decision to trust God. They held fast to an “assurance of things hoped for,” and by this they “received approval as righteous.”3 Catholics acknowledge that anyone, including ourselves, is capable of squandering the gift of God (Matt 5:13-16). As painful as it must be (see Matt 23:37), God gives humans the freedom to reject Love. While we dare to hope that all will join in the renewed life of salvation, we also understand that “the threat of eternal perdition is addressed, indeed, to me!”4
Perhaps it is appropriate to end with this exhortation from the book of Hebrews:
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion … But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’, so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.
(1) For a similar observation, see Jarrett Dickey’s essay in this Round Table.
(2) I find this ironic because, oftentimes, those who seek to diminish the role of humanity in salvation (i.e those attack “works-righteousness”) at the same time put forward the notion of absolute certainty.
(3) It is interesting to note the conclusion of this chapter: “Yet all these [saints], though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, without us, be made perfect.” Salvation is, in the end, a communal experience.
(4) Hans Urs Von Balthasar, A Short Discourse on Hell, 248-49.
May, 2017: Angels and Demons
Spiritual beings—whether angelic or demonic—exist on a plane of reality separate from our own and are essential to the biblical worldview. Today, awareness of these beings has either been relegated to the realm of the occult and “paranormal” or jettisoned as antithetical to the thoughtful empiricist. What should we as Christians do in light of this situation? We should first examine what our own Scriptures say about angels and demons. We will find that these spiritual beings play many important roles, including helping us probe the universal question of evil’s origin and charting the way for our participation in divine life.
Let us begin with Gen 6:1–4: “When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose … The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them.”
Although rarely discussed by Christians today, this text has not always been ignored. A significant corpus known as “Enoch Literature” arose to elaborate upon and fill in the gaps of Gen 6:1–4.1 Lest we assume that Enoch Literature has been overlooked with good reason, note that a canonical book of Scripture (Jude 14–15) directly cites 1 Enoch 1:9.2 As it pertains to the problem of evil’s origin, Genesis 6 and pertinent passages in Enoch Literature attribute the corruption of the human race—at least in part—to interbreeding with the angelic “sons of God.” The Book of Enoch describes an angel named Asael who artificially enhanced the beauty of human women through jewelry and cosmetics, thus drawing other angels to earth. In this Promethean account, the “technology” of Asael and the arcane teachings of his companions were accepted by humans—splitting the culpability for humanity’s corruption between the two types of creatures.
I humor you with this extended treatment because we must recognize it as paradigmatic of the larger manner in which the Bible speaks of angels: as spiritual beings who can either help or harm humanity, and who are irrevocably entangled in our fate. When Isaiah speaks of a “Day Star that fell like lightning from heaven,” we are meant to understand that we too can fall, in the same manner as Lucifer, through pride. Stories like those found in the Enoch Literature expand upon the classical teaching that angels were the first rational creations of God, endowed with their own agency and their own capacity to choose goodness or evil. As the traditional narrative goes, the first “angelic” fall precipitated the entrance of the snake into the garden. This was, of course, followed by humanity’s decision to follow the deceitful one down the path of destruction. Yet there is no doubt that, from the creation story onward, the Bible portrays angels and demons as powerful and influential in human choices (including the most important choice that led to the original sin).
All of this prepares us to see what Paul means when he speaks of “principalities, powers, virtues, and dominions in high places” (Eph 1:20–23).3 Now perhaps the elaboration of Pseudo-Dionysius—whose exegesis of Paul’s text establishes a celestial hierarchy with three orders of angelic being—does not seem so strange or out-of-place. In fact, Dionysius is simply doing the same thing that the authors of the Enoch Literature and the interpreters of Isaiah did: he is taking texts of Scripture and filling in the gaps, with the goal of teaching us to reach beyond ourselves and to see creation outside the lens of anthropocentrism.
Dionysius teaches that we become more like God by imitating the orders of being above us, while we distance ourselves from God by allowing pride and base desires to drag us from the source of Goodness and Life. So in this Round Table discussion of angels, let us move beyond overused tropes of “guardian angels,” and even beyond analysis of the visiting angelic messengers found in passages like Luke 1. Let us instead see the bigger picture—let us stretch our minds to imagine the universe as a place governed by orders higher than our own, a mysterious place wherein the music of the spheres testifies to the harmony of the one Creator and the fecundity of its creation. Let us imitate the Seraphim, who continually cry “Holy, Holy, Holy.”4 It is to such an awareness that Bonaventure calls us, when he says: “In prayer we speak to God, hear him, and converse with the angels as if we were living an angelic life.” I hope this generation will continue the process of reflection on angels and demons by applying such insights within the scientific paradigms of our day—paradigms that are constantly stretching the limits of reality.Read more
1 This literature was composed sometime between the second century BCE and the first century CE. For resources on this topic see: George W. E. Nickelsburg and James C. VanderKam. 1 Enoch: The Hermeneia Translation. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012; Annette Yoshiko Reed. Fallen Angels and the History of Judaism and Christianity: The Reception of Enoch Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005; John J. Collins. “The Apocalyptic Technique: Setting and Function in The Book of Watchers.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly: 44 (1): 91–111; Mitchell G. Reddish, editor. Apocalyptic Literature: A Reader. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.
2 The story recounted in 1 Enoch 1–36 (known as “The Book of Watchers”) is also the background for Jude 6 and 2 Peter 2:4, as well as for the punishment of Satan and his angels in Rev 20.
3 The Vulgate text shows the traditional reading more clearly: quam operatus est in Christo, suscitans illum a mortuis, et constituens ad dexteram suam in cælestibus: supra omnem principatum, et potestatem, et virtutem, et dominationem.
4 Annie Dillard relates an enlightening anecdote on this subject in Holy the Firm: “The seraphs are born of a stream of fire issuing from under God’s throne. They are, according to Dionysius the Areopagite, ‘all wings,’ having, as Isaiah noted, six wings apiece, two of which they fold over their eyes. Moving perpetually toward God, they perpetually praise him, crying Holy, Holy, Holy … But, according to some rabbinic writings, they can sing only the first ‘Holy’ before the intensity of their love ignites them again and dissolves them again, perpetually, into flames” (Harper & Row, 1977, p. 45).
November, 2016: Hell and Universalism
[Adapted from “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?“]
In his General Audience of 28 July 1999, Saint Pope John Paul II stressed that hell is “the state of those who definitively reject the Father’s mercy, even at the last moment of their life.” Likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1033 teaches that “to die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called hell.” Hell is primarily a “state,” rather than a “place.” Hell is thus the experience of those who condemn themselves—by rejecting God—to separation from God. Whether this experience can be permanent (i.e. whether the human will can “hold out” forever against God) is not readily knowable, and there are good arguments for either side.1
Regardless, the Catholic Church definitively teaches that, if a person dies in a state of mortal sin (rejecting God, sinning against the Holy Spirit), then condemnation to hell follows:
The Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs (CCC 1035).
These facts, however, should not stop Christians from praying that 1) any particular person repented before his or her death, or that 2) God’s mercy will prevail, in a general sense. In John 12:32, Jesus says that his sacrifice on the cross will “draw all people to himself.” The crucifixion was a universe-changing event. Because of Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice, and in light of God’s overflowing love that provides the offer of salvation to all, it is possible to pray that all will be saved. Indeed, such prayer is an exercise in loving even our worst of enemies.
Christ’s command, “do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matt 7:1) applies to us when we are tempted to direct passages in Scripture about eternal punishment against other people. Rather, we should really be looking to ourselves. We are the ones who need to repent! So in humility, let us turn to the Lord. In humility, let us consider others better than ourselves. In humility, let us dare to hope that God will save all people—not naively, in the sense of a “blanket” of universal salvation thrown over the recalcitrant—but in the sense that all will eventually come to their senses and stop placing obstacles in the way of God’s love.Show Sources 1 Consider the following line of reasoning in light of both Scripture passages quoted above: If God desires something, then that something must be good. If God desires something good, it seems very hard for me, as a human, to say that God can’t have what God wants! God isn’t like a child (or even an adult human), who often wants something that is not truly good. What God wants (or what God “wills”) is only thwarted by the freedom God has granted to rational creatures. Yet if we are too insistent about the power of this disobedience, it would seem as if we are placing the human will to rebel on par with God’s loving will to curb or redirect that rebellion. The situation wherein a person is continually rebelling forever and ever against God’s desire is theoretically possible (again, given human freedom), but highly implausible. Hence my stance on the issue is that we are in no position to go about saying that God can’t get what God wants. In fact, it makes more sense to align our “wants” to God’s “wants,” and pray that all be saved.
September, 2016: Suffering
Why does suffering exist? This question is one of the primary mysteries of human life, and one which all religions must address. Both as mystery and as proper subject of religious experience, the problem of suffering belies full or complete rational explanation. That said, I believe it can be approached or outlined by searching out the origin of evil on three levels of existence: God, humanity, and the universe.
1) God. “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1:5). There can be no evil or inclination toward evil in God. As the Book of James teaches: “Every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow” (1 Ja 1:17). The cause or origin of evil (and therefore, of suffering) cannot be attributed to God.
2) Humanity. At minimum, there is an inclination toward evil in humanity. We are all aware of the atrocities human beings can commit—one need look no further than the mirror to recall the multitude of ways humans are capable of hurting one another and our world. As the Book of Jeremiah proclaims: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings” (Jer 17:9-10). In the Christian origin story, it is the willful choice of Adam and Eve that has subjected human beings, and earthly creation, to suffering and death. Their sin was the choice to turn away from God and value earthly goods higher than heavenly goods. Roman Catholics teach that this original sin has created a “stain” or blot upon human nature, revealed by our irrational desire for power, in our vaunting pride, and through our weakness before temptation (cf. 1 Jn 2:16).
3) The Universe. Can the original sin of human beings really account for all of the evil and suffering in the entire universe? Here we can only speculate; it is impossible for the limited mind of a human to search out the cosmos. As the Apostle Paul writes: “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12). Human beings must recognize that we are not, and cannot be, responsible for evil as a whole. There was a snake in the garden before Adam and Eve made the choice to sin. Hence, there are many things that occur on earth—such as natural disasters, diseases, etc.—that may be caused not by direct human agency, but by “forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The question of why God allows these forces to exercise dominion over creation resonates with the following one: “Why did God allow human beings to sin in the first place?” The answer is creaturely freedom. While it is not a complete or fully-satisfying answer, it is what we have. God has given rational creatures the freedom to exercise the power of choice—even if it means turning away from God’s goodness.
As stated above, suffering is a mystery. We don’t know why some live and some die, why the wind blows where it will, and why God seems so absent. Perhaps God is using the mystery of suffering to teach us patience, and to impress upon us the true consequence of love in the face of evil. In the end, what we do know is what we choose: Brutality, or Beatitude.
Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? The short answer is: “Yes, but Muslims do not acknowledge the fullness of revelation about God.” Before I elaborate on this sensitive issue, I would like readers to engage with the Catholic Church’s “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” (Nostra Aetate). Paragraph 3, on Islam, reads as follows:
The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all descendants of Abraham. These three groups venerate the Hebrew Scriptures. In addition, they share many important beliefs about the identity of God and the place of creation in the story of salvation (see Chris Casberg’s paragraph on Islam as a “Semitic monotheistic tradition”). Unfortunately—with the exception of mystics like Ibn-Al-Arabi—Muslims do not acknowledge that one can speak of God as Triune. Because of this, Christians are easily tempted to name Islam a false religion like any other (rather than focusing on what we have in common—the approach taken by the Vatican II Council Fathers). Given the current global hostility between Christianity and Islam, it is now more important than ever for Christians to look charitably on our Muslim brother and sisters. As Pope John Paul II said:
In today’s world where God is tragically forgotten, Christians and Muslims are called in one spirit of love to defend and always promote human dignity, moral values and freedom. The common pilgrimage to eternity must be expressed in prayer, fasting and charity, but also in joint efforts for peace and justice, for human advancement and the protection of the environment. By walking together on the path of reconciliation and renouncing in humble submission to the divine will any form of violence as a means of resolving differences, the two religions will be able to offer a sign of hope, radiating in the world the wisdom and mercy of that one God who created and governs the human family.
Although Muslims do not yet see the quintessential place of Christ in the economy of salvation, their sincere prayers to the God “who is” (Ex 3:14) are heard. We in turn should pray that followers of Islam would come to the fullness of truth, i.e. to the realization and awareness that God is both Unity and Trinity, a divine communion of persons bonded together by the Love of the Holy Spirit.
March, 2016: Self-Defense
Violence begets violence. If you run around wild, you get smacked and that’s it; that’s the laws of the universe … Do everything for peace. —John Lennon
In one sentence: It is not appropriate for a Christian to use potentially lethal force in self-defense. There are times when non-lethal force can be used in clear conscience, but such force is still never the most appropriate course of action.
First, life is always a gift, and our goal as Christian individuals should be to preserve life in all possible circumstances. If someone is attacking and threatening you, your response should not be to seek to end this person’s life.
That being said, and second, there are situations when the use of force is justifiable. When your life (and/or the life of another) is threatened with immediate destruction, force can be used as a last-resort option. But the end goal of this force cannot be to end the life of another.1 Non-lethal force can thus be used in clear conscience, yet it is never the appropriate “first response” to a dangerous situation. This is due to: 1) the risk inherent in non-lethal violence, namely, that it will escalate the conflict and bring about more violence; and 2) the preferability of deescalating the situation, fleeing the situation, or committing to pacifism full stop.
Third and finally, we must keep in mind that self-defense scenarios are often high-stress situations in which the ethical course of action is difficult to determine. Acknowledging that each case is unique,2 I have laid out these general principles because I think they make us worthy of our calling (Eph 4) and prevent us from descending into evil actions.
One of our rationalizations for violence is the illusion that we have control over history. Let us prayerfully strive to avoid the path of domination and instead follow the example of our Lord, who turned the other cheek (Matt 5:39).Show Sources
2 John Howard Yoder does an excellent job addressing unique situations in his book What Would You Do? From the Amazon synopsis: “John Howard Yoder helps answer the age-old question, What would you do if someone was attacking your grandmother, husband, wife, daughter, or son?”
October, 2015: Martin Luther
Luther means many things to many people. As someone who was nourished in the bosom of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (you can find my story here), Luther played an essential role in my identity as a follower of Christ: Church history began with Luther, who jumped onto the scene at a time when the truth had been lost because the Catholic Church had fallen into error. In this brief reflection, I aim to show two “faces” of Luther. The first face corresponds to the narrative I learned as a child; it is the face of an ardent reformer with admirable pastoral goals. The second face is more dour; it is the face of a man unwilling to exercise charity in his conversations with other Christians.
Face #1: The Ninety-Five Theses. Without doubt, the proliferation of this text across Europe was a critical moment in Western history. Many of its items are scathingly accurate critiques of a corrupt system of indulgences: “It is certain that, when the money rattles in the chest, avarice and gain may be increased—but the suffrage of the Church depends on the will of God alone” (#27). Luther points out recent changes in the Church’s teachings on penance (#12) and downplays the role of the hierarchy in pardoning sins (#’s 49, 56, 82). At the same time, he clearly works within a system where the Church has a role to play in the salvation of each person (#’s 7, 26, 49, 69). Finally, the thrust is one of encouragement. Readers are instructed not to take their salvation for granted, and urged to increase their charity:
Theses 94 and 95: “Christians should be exhorted to strive to follow Christ their head through pains, deaths and hells, and thus trust to enter heaven through many tribulations, rather than in the security of peace.”
Thesis 44: “By a work of charity, charity increases, and the man becomes better.”
Face #2: The Bondage of the Will (a translation of this text is available online; but the version I cite from ishere). The Luther of this text has become a demagogue, an uncharitable and pugnacious man who raises his opinions to the level of truth itself. He claims that “assertions” are the core of Christianity (Chapter 2, page 108), and continually slanders his interlocutor Erasmus for making the wrong ones. Perhaps worst, he removes the possibility of finding common ground with Erasmus by disparaging Church Fathers (Chapter 7, pages 114–15) and assuming that Catholics are “unwilling for souls to be redeemed” (ibid). Finally, the theological argument Luther puts forward is based on a perceived dichotomy between “God’s work” and “human work.” This dichotomy leads him to conclude that: “We must go to extremes, deny free will altogether and ascribe everything to God!” (Chapter 5, page 135).
To conclude, while there are many faces of Luther, the sharp contrast between these two shows a volatile—if brilliant—figure whose words should always be heard with critical judgment and caution. Speaking as a Catholic, I would like to affirm that Luther is not (and never was) an “enemy.” It may be fitting to end with Pope Leo X’s plea:
“Let Martin himself and all those adhering to him … through the merciful heart of our God and the sprinkling of the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ by which and through whom the redemption of the human race and the upbuilding of holy mother Church was accomplished, know that from our heart we exhort and beseech that he cease to disturb the peace, unity, and truth of the Church for which the Savior prayed so earnestly to the Father.” (Exsurge Domine)
Charity among Christians is exactly what we need today, in light of the proliferation of divisions which Luther, willingly or not, now serves as head and exemplar.
September, 2015: What is Christianity?
Christianity is not a religion based solely on belief. In the end, love is what defines members of the Christian community: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). God’s love is fully expressed when, united by the Holy Spirit, we consume—and thus become—the Body of Christ.
Eucharistic communion was first performed by Christ and his disciples nearly two thousand years ago. Authority is necessary for this ritual to continue, uncorrupted, throughout time. Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe that Christ gave this authority to his Apostles.
On earth, the group of communities who trace their lineage—together—through Apostolic Succession are the One, Holy, and Apostolic Church. This Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Without the Church, Christianity cannot be taught or passed on to future generations. The Church is where we learn to live the life of Christ. The Church marks the presence of God in history, through the communion of saints giving and receiving spiritual gifts. As St. Cyprian famously stated: “He cannot have God as his Father who does not have the Church as his Mother” (On the Unity of the Catholic Church, 6).
There is no room here to provide a complete exposition, so I will take this opportunity to point toward primary sources that substantiate the claims made above: The Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Church Is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic”; Lumen Gentium Chapters 1 and 7; Johann Adam Möhler, Unity in the Church; Orestes Brownson, “The Church and its Mission”; and Yves Congar, as quoted in this author.
Note: This doctrine is not a naive disparagement of non-Apostolic communities, or a censure against Christians who simply did not grow up Catholic or Orthodox. The Catholic Church affirms that “the children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation, and the Catholic Church embraces upon them as brothers, with respect and affection … All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ’s body, and have a right to be called Christian, and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church” (Unitatis Redintegratio, 3). Churches that are not in full communion with one another are, however, “wounds to unity,” and do not reflect the reality of Christ’s undivided Body.
March, 2015: Genesis and the Origins of the Universe
Johannes Kepler published the Astronomia Nova in 1609. Its purpose was to provide evidence that “the earth is moved and the sun stands still.”1 Yet one of his first concerns is not scientific in nature. In fact, he dedicates more than half of the work’s introduction to Biblical exegesis. Why? To show that a heliocentric universe is not contrary to the revealed truth of Scripture. There were many in Kepler’s time who believed that the Bible—particularly passages such as Ps 93:1 and Josh 10:12—definitively placed the earth at the center of the universe.2 To them, Kepler stated: “Holy Scripture, when treating common things (concerning which it is not their purpose to instruct humanity), speaks with humans in the human manner, in order to be understood by them.”3 You’ve probably heard the phrase, “The Bible is not a science textbook.” Kepler not only advances this sort of argument, he also provides a viable hermeneutic for interpreting difficult passages: God speaks to humans in ways that they can comprehend.
Let us consider the context of the Joshua 10. It would have made no sense for Joshua to petition the Lord to “make the earth stand still.” When this miracle occurred, Joshua naturally assumed what is now recorded in Scripture, that the sun stood still. This is, after all, what he observed! God understood what Joshua was asking for, and God allowed the Sacred Text to record something astronomically incorrect in order to pass on the more important message of God’s providence and care. As Kepler brilliantly asserts, we should “regard the Holy Spirit as a divine messenger, and refrain from wantonly dragging Him into physics class.”4 Today, the rotation of the earth around the sun has been firmly established. So why bother rehashing old arguments? Because Kepler’s principles, expanded in light of the current teachings of the Catholic Church, are also applicable to Genesis 1 and 2.
How to read Genesis 1 and 2—this is first and foremost a question of how to read the divinely-inspired Word. In the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), the Second Vatican Council Fathers maintain a delicate balance between divine and human agency in the process of inspiration: “God chose men, and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.” (11) The authors of Scripture write in human fashion and are, like us, conditioned by their cultural contexts and by their knowledge of this world. Because the Bible as a whole transcends and illuminates those contexts with its salvific message of God’s love for humanity, it will never lose its freshness, and it will never cease to speak to humanity.
The primary purpose of the opening chapters of Scripture is not to give a literal account of the origins of the universe. For one, these passages do not even agree on whether human beings or animals were created first (see Gen 1:24–26 vs Gen 2:18–19). More importantly, what they do show is that God is the creator of all things, that God has ordered all things rightly, and that God and humanity share a special relationship. The fact that no human being can wrap his or her mind around the origin of the universe—a philosophical quandary quite separate from theories of growth in time—takes nothing away from these truths. Lest we become like the geocentrists of Kepler’s day, who were forced to separate “truths of faith” from “truths of science,” let us defend the value of our Sacred Text with poise and precision, remaining sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit, in and through human words.Show Sources
1 See Selections from Kepler’s Astronomia Nova, ed. William Donahue (Green Lion Press, 2004), 8.
2 Such observations aligned with Aristotle’s philosophy, and astronomers were able to account for the motions of the planets and stars using geocentric models.
3Selections from Kepler’s Astronomia Nova, 19.
4 Ibid., 21.
December, 2014: The Incarnation
The Catholic Catechism lists four reasons why Jesus Christ took on flesh. The first is perhaps the most obvious: “to save us by reconciling us with God.” All notions of “substitutionary atonement” emerge from this basic truth. Examples spring to mind from the book of Hebrews—Jesus was like us in every respect (Heb 2:17), yet without sin. Hence he fulfilled the role of humanity’s true high priest (Heb 4), serving as the pioneer of faith (Heb 12:2) leading the way back to God. Another commonly encountered metaphor is Anselm’s “satisfaction” theory, articulated in Cur Deus Homo. Finally, Athanasius’s general narrative in De Incarnatione also falls within this first category. Since humanity was sliding towards nothingness due to the consequences of sin, Christ appeared “lest what had been created should perish and the work of the Father for human being should be in vain.”1 The beauty of this first explanation is that it summates the primary truth of Christ’s pro nobis (“for us”) in the most basic and universal terms, and is open to many beautiful and complementary expressions.
The second explanation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “the Word became flesh so that thus we might know God’s love.” Placing the grace of God as the primary effect of Christ’s reconciliation, this distinction also hints at the inseparable relationship between love and knowledge—the former serving to completely fulfill the latter. As Paul articulates, love is the greatest of the three perduring virtues (1 Cor 13:13). Without love, exemplified in Christ himself by the act of taking the form of a servant (kenosis, Phil 2), it would not be possible for us to relate to God or to our neighbor.
Our neighbor plays a constitutive role in the third explanation provided: “the Word became flesh to be our model of holiness.” Christ’s disciples were struck to the core by the person Jesus. His words and deeds were so compelling that humans have felt compelled (doubtlessly, through the compunction of the Holy Spirit) to preserve them in unbroken oral and written Tradition. As Augustine famously fleshed out (no pun intended), we ascend to the divinity of Christ always through the humanity.2
Finally, we come to the most interesting and controversial explanation: “The Word became flesh to make us ‘partakers of the divine nature.’” Interestingly enough, the Scripture passage quoted here also mentions knowledge. It begins, “His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness” (2 Pet 1). The Christian philosophical tradition has had a field day elaborating upon the mystery of human elevation to God. Let us remember, though, that Christ himself used language of divinization: “Jesus answered, ‘Is it not written in your law, “I said, you are gods”? If those to whom the word of God came were called “gods”—and the scripture cannot be annulled— can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son?’” (John 10:34-36). Acknowledging, with the Council of Chalcedon, that Christ is “consubstantial with us in our humanity,” it becomes clear that “leading the way back to God”3 means leading human nature back to full communion with the Triune God. Paul’s depiction of Christ as the “Second Adam” (1 Cor 15) also bolsters this view of the redemption of human nature. We were created to find rest in God. Assenting—with heart, mind, and soul (Matt 22:37)—to the love, knowledge, and humility given by Christ, we grow in grace toward the super-luminous summit of Christian life: the eternal movement from glory to glory in God (2 Cor 3:18).Show Sources
2 Michael Cameron’s monograph Christ Meets Me Everywhere is a brilliant exposition of this theme.
3 See Section I, above.