“Augustine occupies a privileged place among the Western Church Fathers that Aquinas invokes. Despite their affinity, some have proposed a division between these great theologians. Augustine’s theology is often characterized as “affective” while Aquinas is labeled merely “rational.” This distinction is misleading in many ways, and it implies that Augustine’s theology lacks reason or that Aquinas’s theology is lifeless.
For both of these theological giants, affection and reason belong together. Theology is not just something nice to think about. It matters what you think, precisely because our salvation is mediated through the mysteries of the faith.
We can see this approach in both Augustine’s and Aquinas’s writings on the mystery of the Trinity. Bridging the “gap” between reason and affect, Trinitarian theology is both an intellectual and spiritual exercise. Augustine and Aquinas both modeled this, as Father Gilles Emery, O.P. explains in his essay “Trinitarian Theology as a Spiritual Exercise in Augustine and Aquinas.” Both Doctors show how understanding the complexity of man’s mind and heart reveals an intimate relationship between us who know and love and God who is the Knower and Lover. This theological investigation can be difficult; it “exercises” the soul in a real sense. But it also prepares the soul for communion with the Triune God whose very being is Truth and Love.
For Augustine, elucidating the mystery of the Trinity requires great mental effort, but it also demands devotion. Our efforts to understand God must be informed by love because “the more one loves God, the more one sees Him” (Emery, 7). Because we are seeking the most supreme truth in such an endeavor, our souls must be trained through a kind of “spiritual gymnastics.” This theological regimen strengthens us to rise to the heights to see God and is purified through prayer, penance, and a life of virtue. Moved by God’s grace, theological study prepares us to see God in a limited way in this life and propels us to behold Him in the beatific vision.
In his theology, Aquinas follows Augustine’s approach and builds on it. He delves into the mystery of the Trinity through speculative study, in order to enable believers to grasp the truth of God more deeply. Growing in knowledge of the Trinity both aids our contemplation and provides us with the means to defend the faith against error. Aquinas understands that by studying God, we come to recognize that our own knowing and loving is a mirroring of God Who is Knowing and Loving. This realization gives spiritual consolation to those who dwell in the darkness of this passing world, yearning for the light of the life to come.
As Augustine and Aquinas both demonstrate, true theology requires rational precision, but also an affective inclination to God. As the theologian—indeed any believer—rises to grasp the lofty mysteries of the Trinity he becomes ever more conformed to the God he seeks, and he receives already a foretaste of that vision he hopes to enjoy in glory.
Studying the Trinity stretches our minds. Theology that is both loving and rational lifts the soul in sacred study and puts one in contact with God. The shared theological approach of Augustine and Aquinas—integrating both reason and affection—is a model for teachers and students today. By seeking God through both wisdom and love, our deepest desire for God can be satisfied. God has made us for Himself, and both our hearts and minds are restless until they rest in Him (cf. St Augustine).”
“The other day, I tweeted something important: don’t forget to pray to your guardian angel. This received criticism from Protestants—for example, “Preferring to pray to an angel instead of to the one who commands them and is your Lord and Savior is cringeworthy.”Catholic users came in to clarify—Matthew 18:10, you know the drill. But here I want to say something different.
First, no Catholic thinks Scripture is the sole authoritative source to begin with, even if it is the highest authoritative source. Catholics also have Tradition and the Magisterium, and there we find the support we need for prayer to (that is, speaking to or asking for the intercession of) the angels. Catholics believe in a living, institutional, and hierarchical epistemic authority, which, according to the Faith, comes down to us by what is said: first, what is said by God eternally in His Son, the Logos, and from there what the Logos says to the apostles and then to the bishops, and right on down the line. This is the same authority that has given us the canon of Scripture, and having it is how we (as Catholics) can say, in a non-circular way, that this canon is the canon.
The Protestant position struggles seriously in this respect. After all, it seems as though sola scriptura—which is the operative rule for many Protestants—tells us we should not take as or make into doctrine anything that is not either explicitly taught in Scripture or clearly deducible from what is. The canon of Scripture itself must be a matter of doctrine for the Protestant, yet it is not something explicitly taught in Scripture or clearly deducible from what it is. It seems that the Protestant is committed to a contradiction in this matter. Nor does saying that sola scriptura is operative simply after the closing of the canon itself answer the pressing issue of how we reliably determine what the canon is or when it was closed, nor does Scripture indicate that such a paradigm shift is supposed to take place. Moreover, if the Church was able to reliably (that is, infallibly) guide us to the formation of the canon, it is contrived to then chop off that authoritative arm after the closing of the canon, especially since what counts as Scripture is only one of the epistemological issues facing sola scriptura—how to interpret Scripture and how to apply the lessons and consequences of Scripture in changing cultural contexts. Catholicism solves these issues with its expanded and more holistic notion of authority; Protestantism is refuted by them.
The other major point is this: the Protestant is frequently performing an illegitimate operation (i.e., often begging the question) by pushing the game onto his own turf when asking Catholics for this or that biblical proof text of his beliefs or practices—that is, by demanding that the Catholic play according to the rules of Protestantism. This is something Catholic convert Bryan Cross has pointed out various times: the question-begging assumption from Protestants that the Catholic magisterium’s understanding of faith and morals is no more authoritative than the understanding of any other Christian.
But the Catholic has every right to reject those “rules of engagement.” Why? Because the question is ultimately one of authority, not personal interpretation of biblical passages—which, we know, are often all over the place, not just between Catholics and Protestants, but among Protestants. If the Catholic view of authority is correct, and that authority substantiates prayer to the angels, then Catholics shouldn’t worry about proof-texting everything simply to cause the Protestant to think his beliefs and practices are less, as it were, cringeworthy. Whenever objections like these come up, the Catholic should highlight what the larger issue is; otherwise, the conversation runs the risk of being fruitless, since debates concerning biblical interpretation tend to go on endlessly with little to no productive resolution.
But maybe not entirely fruitless . . . as one can expose in such conversations many of the deeper issues inherent to the Protestant paradigm and sola scriptura in particular.
Apart from what has already been said, the Protestant position is frequently inconsistent, or at least conveniently lax in demanding the same standards of itself as it does Catholics. Returning to our example of prayer to angels, notice that the Protestant critic first demands biblical support for a position (asking angels for intercession), but then he gives a position that itself has no biblical support.
For example, our Protestant friend above tells us, “If Jesus’ instruction was a specific prayer and a model, then we would have ample reason to not veer off of that model unless we have equally comparable reason & authority to do so.” He continues, “The disagreement is that I’m stating that Jesus’ model does not allow for prayers to go to angelic beings, but rather should be directed to the Lord alone.”
But what is the biblical support for that? Specifically, what can we find in the Bible that tells us, either explicitly or through clear deduction, that if Jesus gives one model for prayer, then it is illegitimate to employ some other model unless we have equally comparable reason and authority to do so? (In asking what could constitute such an authority, this immediately puts the Catholic and Protestant right at the larger issue.) Or that Jesus’ model does not allow prayers to angelic beings just because it doesn’t include them? The answer is nothing—or at least nothing obvious.
Moreover, there is no teaching anywhere in Scripture that condemns speaking to angels. (Worshiping them is condemned, but that isn’t what Catholics are doing.) And just because Christ taught us to pray one way, there is no good biblical reason to say it is illegitimate to pray some other way. After all, Christ never prayed directly to the Holy Spirit. Ironically enough, I’ve heard Protestants claim that the apostles didn’t, either, and so (by extension) neither should we. But I know many Protestants who definitely do pray directly to the Holy Spirit. Either way, there is a claim being made that is not explicitly taught nor clearly deduced from Scripture, by somebody who demands that claims be substantiated by what is explicitly taught or clearly deduced from Scripture. What the Protestant is doing—if I dare say it—is putting out a tradition of man to reject what is the tradition of Christ’s Church.
And so the purpose of this article is not to defend, from a purely biblical perspective, prayers to angels. Various Catholics have already issued such defenses. (Joe Heschmeyer has a helpful article, and here’s Karlo Broussard on the intercession of saints in general.) Rather, the goal here is to point out the larger issues in these debates—issues that, I believe, expose several of the more fundamental incoherencies within the Protestant paradigm, while alerting Catholics to the fact they need not, and in fact should not, be pushed into debating according to the question-begging assumptions of the Protestant critic.”
“It’s immoral to kill an innocent human being. That’s because we all have a “right to life”—a moral claim on one another not to be killed.
But some might say that this approach creates a conflict with our general intuitions about justified lethal self-defense. Does the right to life extend even to an aggressor whose behavior will kill me (and I have no other means to effectively preserve my life)? It would seem so.
Think about it: if every human being has a right to life, and the aggressor is a human being, then the aggressor has a right to life. To deliberately kill him in self-defense, therefore, even if there is no other means of saving my life, would seem to be just as much a violation of justice as would be the deliberate killing of an innocent human person. And if that’s true, then it would be immoral to deliberately kill the aggressor.
For most of us, that doesn’t seem right. It runs contrary to our common intuitions. But long held intuitions are being washed away with the tides of modern thought—so we need to ground our intuition in something more stable. So why is it morally permissible to kill in self-defense?
We can start with an idea that we’ve looked at elsewhere: equality with other human beings in behavior that’s naturally consistent with the exercise of life, called the “equality of relations” (Summa Theologiae II-II:79:1), is naturally due to human beings. In other words, I owe it to you not to kill you—to be innocent in my behavior toward you. The same applies the other way around. St. Thomas Aquinas calls this the “equality of justice” (ibid).
Here’s where the rubber hits the road when it comes to self-defense. The obligation not to kill arises from an order of relationship that requires not only that we be innocent in will (what philosophers call “formal innocence”), but also that we be innocent in behavior (“material innocence”). When an aggressor attacks me with a behavior that by nature is going to kill me (even if the behavior is not voluntary, like in the case of a mentally crazed person), assuming that I didn’t attack him first, his behavior is no longer innocent. It has disrupted the equality in behavior that nature demands—in particular, the behavior that’s naturally consistent with the exercise of life. This being the case, the behavior is outside the order of the “equality of relations” that nature requires for the “equality of justice” and therefore is defective or disordered. How can I owe him anything then? The “equality of justice” rises or falls with the “equality of relations.”
Consider, for example, a father who tells his son, “Go into the store and steal me a beer!” Must the son obey? Absolutely not! Why? Because the father’s command is outside the proper order that nature requires for a father’s command—an order where the command directs his son to do good and avoid evil for his perfection as a human being.
And so, just as the son doesn’t owe obedience to the father’s disordered command, I don’t owe behavior that’s naturally consistent with the exercise of life as a response to the aggressor’s disordered act of aggression (an act of the kind that kills). In other words, it seems that I can defend myself by deliberately killing him without violating justice.
Not only does this seem so. It must be so. Why? To say otherwise would entail nature being defective with regard to necessary things. It would be self-defeating (Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.129).
Consider that if the aggressor’s right to life were so strong that I couldn’t kill him in the above scenario, nature would be practically safeguarding the aggressor’s behavior that thwarts the natural order for his life as a social animal. On this supposition, nature says that I can’t stop him. Remember: in this scenario there’s no other means for me to stop the behavior other than a lethal blow, and we’re assuming here that there’s no proper authority to turn to in the moment. And so there would be no one to stop the aggressor. That’s a self-defeating move: directing a human being to pursue his perfection as a social rational animal but also safeguarding him thwarting that perfection.
Also, the whole purpose of nature’s demand for another human being to refrain from killing me is to protect my life. If nature forbade me to kill the aggressor in the above scenario, then nature’s design would involve a space where there is no possibility for the protection of my life. That’s also self-defeating: setting out to protect my life while at the same time demanding that my life not be protected.
Someone might counter, “Well, there’s the possibility of proper authorities protecting your life.” But what if it’s those in authority who are trying to unjustly kill me? In this scenario, there would be literally no possible way to protect my life. My right to life would become a “duty to die.” And this would be due to nature’s design, which would be absurd.
Bottom line: it’s self-defeating for nature to give us a natural right we can’t protect. Philosopher Timothy Hsiao sums it up nicely: “If I possess the right to life, then I must also possess the corresponding right to secure or protect my life.”
Now, this doesn’t mean that I can kill an aggressor in any circumstance where his behavior violates the “equality of relations.” What I owe him (or don’t owe him) will depend on the degree of the inequality he creates with his attack.
For example, if the aggressor’s attack is such that it only limits my use of some good—e.g., he tries to steal my iPhone—I’m not thereby justified to kill him. The relation is unequal only with regard to the free use of personal goods—something that’s pretty far removed from the good of life. (Although it wouldn’t be just to kill him in order to get my iPhone back, it would be just to wrestle him to the ground [ST II-II:41:1].)
In other words, my defense must be proportionate to the inequality caused by the attack. As Aquinas puts it, “an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end” (ST II-II:64:7).
We started with the question, “Does the right to life extend even to an aggressor whose behavior lacks innocence to the degree that it’s not naturally consistent with the exercise of life?” As we’ve seen, human nature says no! The right to life extends only as far as nature allows it.
Nature sets boundaries that circumscribe a moral space in which another human being can rightly demand, in justice, that I not kill him—it’s a space of innocence, a space where there exists an equality of behavior that’s naturally consistent with the exercise of life. But those same boundaries reveal nature’s design for what I don’t owe the other person—namely, a duty to die.
So nature has given us a moral recipe for killing. Deliberately killing an innocent human being is an injustice, and therefore immoral. Deliberately killing an aggressor whose behavior will kill me, when there are no other means to preserve my life, is not an injustice—and, therefore, it’s morally permissible, and in some cases obligatory. Self-defense, therefore—even lethal self-defense—certainly can be compatible with the right to life.”
“When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before His Passion, He renounced what He willed in obedience to the Father’s will. Yet this raises a question that the Church Fathers and Saint Thomas Aquinas attempted to resolve: How can Jesus, Who is God Himself and perfectly obedient to the Father, will anything as man that is opposed to the Father’s will? For if He did will anything of the sort, His human will would already be sinful for departing from God’s will. But if Christ did not have such a will, then it seems He could not renounce His will, as He clearly does.
To answer this question, Saint John Damascene, who adapted his thought from Saint Maximus the Confessor, distinguishes between thelesis and boulesis. He identifies thelesis as the natural powerof willing that someone has. That power, to will something, has natural objects—such as, in the case of human beings, to live. Christ has a natural power of willing, and through that power he would ordinarily will to live.
According to Damascene, whereas thelesis describes the power to will something, boulesis describes what someone actually wills: that this person actually seeks to attain what he wills. Christ has a human power by which he naturally would will to live (thelesis), but instead he actually moves to obey the Father and submit himself to those who crucified him (boulesis).
The difficulty with this picture, however, is that Jesus would not be renouncing something he actuallywills or desires. Rather, he’d merely be renouncing something that He could (and would normally) will. Thus, He in fact is renouncing no actual will at all.
For this reason, Aquinas reassigns the terms thelesis and boulesis. Neither of them refers to the power of willing this or that good. Rather, thelesis describes the act of willingan end—something that is good in itself. Yet, not everything that I wish for in this way moves me to do anything about it. That is, I do not intend every good end that I will. For instance, suppose I will to live for 175 years. Too bad. I might will that good in the sense that I wish for it, but I never intendit because there are no means that I can choose by which I can accomplish that end. Every act of thelesis is a wish, but not every such act is an intention accompanying a choice of means.
If thelesis describes the will for an end, boulesis describes the act of willing the means to an end. In order to bring about the end I will through thelesis, I will the means to that end through an act of boulesis—an act of choice. But, unlike thelesis, every act of boulesis involves the person moving himself to do something. Then, upon choosing the means, the prior act of thelesis for some good becomes not only a wish but also an intention.
Jesus in the garden actively wills (thelesis) to preserve his life because he naturally wishes for something that is good in itself. That is not against God’s will: God made us so that we would naturally wish for good things. But Christ also wills (thelesis) to be obedient to the Father and save the human race, which involves choosing (boulesis) to submit to suffering and death.
In this way, Christ’s will is in perfect conformity to the Father’s will, and he has a will that he renounces. Jesus wills (thelesis) to preserve his life. But he renounces it in the sense that he does not intend to preserve his life because that would involve choosing (boulesis) to reject the Father’s will—his will would move him against the Father. Instead, he intends to lovingly obey the Father (thelesis) by choosing (boulesis) to submit himself to the cross.
With this explanation, Aquinas gently adjusts the Fathers’ solution and opens up something of Jesus’ heart, making it a little easier for the rest of us to know Him and imitate His example of loving obedience to the Father.”
“We used to laugh at a famous story about President Calvin Coolidge, a man of few words. After returning from Sunday services, his wife asks him about the preacher’s sermon. “Sin,” Silent Cal replies. His wife pleads, “What did he say about it?” “He was against it.”
Alas, modern culture no longer allows us to oppose sin, except for those politically correct transgressions such as being “judgmental” and emitting too much carbon into the atmosphere. But do priests and others have a choice to remain faithful to Jesus?
There is an interesting correlation between our culture—including Catholic parishes—and our recognition of sin. It was easier to talk about the wages of evil in a stable culture imbued with Christianity. As secularism crowds out the influence of Christianity on culture, some Church authorities—in response to the hypersensitivities of many Catholics—place too many restrictions on preaching sin and conversion from the pulpit. Whiplash changes in the culture often challenge the prudence of thoughtful Catholic preachers.
A century ago, Church authorities, including moralists and seminary professors, were reticent in speaking—even reading—about sexual sin. The four-volume Moral and Pastoral Theology manual by Professor Henry Davis, S.J. (first edition, May 1935) illustrates pastoral prudence in questions of human sexuality. In an otherwise easy read (in English) on the natural law and the Ten Commandments, Davis writes the chapter dealing with various types of sexual sin in Latin. The readers must be priests or mature seminarians trained in the mother tongue of the Church for their preparation as confessors. But a good confessor, though he always avoids impure speech, must understand—and occasionally carefully discuss—lascivious behavior.
As the sexual revolution of the 1960s transformed popular culture, orthodox Catholic moralists relaxed the prudential censorship and discussed the details of many sexual sins to confront pervasive errors. Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body” formed the foundation of John Paul II institutes on marriage and the family in Washington, D.C., and Rome. The institutes taught and wrote freely, providing the clergy and laity alike a firm foundation on the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.
Dissident moralists went farther. Human Sexuality, published by Anthony Kosnik in 1977 under the auspices of the Catholic Theological Society of America, justified sexual debauchery ranging from contraception and masturbation to sodomy and even bestiality. Today, senior prelates and friends of the pope openly speak about the likelihood of segments of the hierarchy approving “gay unions” soon. Several German bishops, including high-ranking ones, have declared their support of overhauling Catholic moral teaching to approve unions based on sodomy.
At the same time, many orthodox priests feel pressure to dodge these topics. They often avoid the issues not only from the pulpit, but also in church bulletins. Indeed, the culture and senior Catholic churchmen place us at a disadvantage. Irish bishop Ray Browne’s recent public apology for the sermons of Fr. Seán Sheehy on mortal sin is baffling, incomprehensible. Cross-dressed and occasionally mutilated males (so-called “transgender females”) conduct drag-show displays for children. As senior Catholic prelates call for gay unions, old-fashioned pastoral decorum prevents orthodox priests from asking obvious questions in the same public forums. (Here is an example of a forbidden question, with apologies to Latinists: An commercium ani vel fellatio vetatur post unionem gay agnitam vel ante tantum? Our moral manuals need an update.)
It is important to remember that the protection of the innocent must be a prime objective of every priest. Such conversations from the pulpit do risk violating Catholic prudence, especially with children present. Fr. John Hardon, S.J., refers in his Catholic Dictionary to the “latency period”: “The term mainly applies to the years between five and twelve, when children do not unless abnormally and unwisely aroused, react to sexual stimulation. The Church advises parents to cultivate this period for teaching children the principles of faith and training them in the moral habits they will need as the foundation of their adult Christian life.” So care is certainly called for and recklessness to be avoided.
Jesus is prudent but doesn’t mince words: “But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). St. Paul provides a similar perspective: “The men also, leaving the natural use of the women, have burned in their lusts one towards another, men with men working that which is filthy, and receiving in themselves the recompense which was due to their error” (Rom. 1:27). He adds, “For the things that are done by them in secret, it is a shame even to speak of” (Eph. 5:12). And he divorces Catholics from those who shamelessly promote willful debauchery: “But now I have written to you, not to keep company, if any man that is named a brother, be a fornicator, or covetous, or a server of idols, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner: with such a one, not so much as to eat” (1 Cor. 5:11).
Hence, the venues of preaching against sin determine the propriety of the language of Catholic morality. One size doesn’t fit all. What a moral textbook, theological article, scholarly monograph, episcopal encyclical, or even a popular internet piece permits may not be suitable from the pulpit. But carefully using Scripture as a rhetorical template accomplishes much.
So it seems that warnings against contraception, fornication, adultery, mutilation, and the gay agenda are well within the prudential rhetoric of Jesus in the Gospel and Paul in his letters. We need not expand the vocabulary to include the intimate details of sexual behavior. Indeed, for the most part, penitents in confession need not go beyond confessing such acts. The priest does not need to know—nor should he inquire about—the details.
But it is a great disservice and a violation of the Gospel for a priest to neglect the condemnation of sin, especially mortal sins that lead to the fires of hell. It’s always best to measure our rhetoric by the words of Jesus and the New Testament letters. Calvin Coolidge’s example of direct simplicity helps, too.”
“Saint Thomas Aquinas was a man of the Church. When he searched through the writings of the Church Fathers, it was not to bolster his own theories or to advance his own ideas. He wanted instead to know what the Church believed and to teach it to the next generation. Because of this, he paid special attention to the councils of the Church, where the heart of Christian reflection is brought to fruition. As we begin our examination of the luminaries that guided this man of the Church, then, we turn to these councils and their teaching.
The first seven ecumenical councils were held in the Eastern, Greek-speaking part of the Roman Empire from the fourth to the eighth centuries. These councils—Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople II and III, and Nicaea II—were especially concerned with teaching about Christ: He is one person who is fully God and fully man. His divinity and humanity remain distinct, but his personhood one. Unfortunately, because of a difference in culture and language, these councils were somewhat remote from the goings on in the West. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Latin theologians worked to conserve the teaching elaborated at the councils, but without direct access to the texts of the councils.
By the time St. Thomas came around, confusion had arisen regarding the personhood of Christ. The majority of theologians correctly taught that the Son of God assumed human nature, and was thus one person with two natures. There was never any merely human Jesus who was later assumed by God. Some theologians, however, “conceded the one person of Christ, but posited two hypostases or two supposits, saying that a certain man, composed of body and soul, from the beginning of his conception was assumed by the word of God” (ST III, q. 2, a. 6). This was called the Homo Assumptus theory. Although it was not popular, theologians who did not hold it generally thought it to be an acceptable Catholic position.
But Thomas did his homework. In the 1260s, while teaching at Orvieto near the Papal Court, he had the opportunity to study the texts of the early ecumenical councils. In these texts, he read about the error of Nestorius, who taught that Christ subsisted separately as human and divine. The Council of Ephesus in 431 condemned him, teaching that “If anyone does not confess that by God the Father the Word was united to the flesh according to subsistence, and that Christ is one with his flesh, namely the same God and man, let him be anathema.” The Second Council of Constantinople in 553 clarified that, “If anyone tries to introduce into the mystery of Christ two subsistences or two persons, let such be anathema” (cited in ST III, q. 2, a. 3). Nestorius’s teaching was excluded because it failed to safeguard the unity of Christ’s person.
Several years later, when Thomas took up the Homo Assumptus theory in the Summa Theologiae, he had these texts ready in mind. With the help of Boethius, a sixth-century Western Christian thinker, Thomas clarified that there can be no meaningful difference between the subsistence, hypostasis, supposit, and person. Thus, to say that there are two of any of these in Christ falls into the error of Nestorius condemned at Ephesus. Thomas was then able, unlike his contemporaries, to condemn the Homo Assumptus theory as heretical, because “it is the same to posit two hypostases or two supposits in Christ, as to posit two persons” (ST III, q. 2, a. 6). This theory was not just a bad theory. It was a condemned theory that no Catholic could hold.
Nestorianism has consequences. It would mean that Mary was the mother of Christ’s humanity, but not the Mother of God, and that the person who died on the cross was not the Son of God, but merely a man conjoined to Him. The heresy is dangerous, and that is why the early councils condemned it. The heresy could have seen a resurgence in the West if it were not for Thomas’s careful integration of sources both Eastern and Western. We who inherit Thomas’ teaching do well to attend both to his masterful synthesis and to his attention to the sources at the heart of the Church.”
“To make sense of what the Catholic Church teaches about the importance of conscience, it’s important to know what “conscience” really is, because the term is often used in popular culture in inaccurate and misleading ways.
One way we misunderstand conscience is by thinking of it as a set of emotions, reducing it to “feeling good about doing the right thing” or (especially) “feeling bad about doing the wrong thing.” For instance, it’s become commonplace to say that psychopaths are “without conscience,” but this is untrue. They may lack empathy or emotion or remorse for their actions, but what they don’t lack is conscience, properly understood. Conscience may cause you to regret something, but “conscience” and “regret” aren’t the same thing.
What does this get wrong? As the Catechism explains, “conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed” (1778). The Catechism continues with a quotation from St. John Henry Newman, who describes conscience as “a law of the mind.” That is, conscience isn’t primarily a matter of feelings; rather, it’s about forming proper judgments about the morality (or immorality) of a particular course of action.
Conscience has a trifold role. It “includes the perception of the principles of morality,” “their application in the given circumstances by practical discernment of reasons and goods,” and finally “judgment about concrete acts yet to be performed or already performed” (CCC 1780). So conscience tells you (1) that you shouldn’t steal; (2) that taking your neighbor’s lawnmower is stealing, and therefore wrong; and (3) that you should feel guilty for having taken your neighbor’s lawnmower.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, drawing upon philosophers from Plato to Aquinas, describes this first level of conscience as “something like an original memory of the good and true,” saying that we find a “tendency within man, who is created in the likeness of God, toward the divine. From its origin, man’s being resonates with some things and clashes with others.” Professor J. Budziszewski calls these the “truths that we can’t not know.” It’s why a non-Christian, and even a non-believer, can’t escape the realization that things like theft and murder are evils . . . even if they can’t explain why they know these things. C.S. Lewis calls these “basic moral intuitions” and says, “If there can be a difference of opinion which does not reveal one of the parties as a moral idiot, then it is not an intuition.” These are the most basic building blocks of morality. They are not arguable because there are no more basic principles than these to point back to.
The second level of conscience applies these general principles. Budziszewski explains,
At a certain stage of mental development, when the teacher says, “Johnnie, two plus two is four,” Johnnie can see for himself that two plus two is four; otherwise the words would be meaningless to him. At a certain stage of development, when Mother says, “Johnnie! Stop pulling your sister’s hair! How would you like it if someone pulled your hair?” Johnnie can see for himself that he should not treat another person as he would not wish to be treated himself; otherwise the command would seem arbitrary to him. Such knowledge can’t be simply pumped in. There has to be soil, or the seed cannot take root.
In this second stage, conscience takes basic moral principles (e.g., I shouldn’t do evil) and applies them to practical situations (e.g., if I wouldn’t want someone to pull my hair, it’s probably evil to pull my sister’s hair).
This leads to the third role of conscience: forming a judgment about the concrete act (e.g., pulling my sister’s hair is evil, so I shouldn’t do it). It’s here that conscience has a connection to emotions like regret, which is why we can talk about the “pang of conscience.” It’s not just regret, either: it’s here that the conscience “‘warns,’ ‘advises,’ ‘urges,’ or ‘prohibits’” regarding actions we have not taken yet, or (if we have already begun to act) it may “examine a judgment of action, intervene, stop its accomplishment,” or cause us to reconsider.
By means of these three roles, “conscience is the way that moral knowledge becomes immediately practical again.” That is, conscience uses these three steps to get from “do good and avoid evil” to “do this good and avoid that evil.” And it’s about conscience understood in this way that the Church has some shocking things to say.”
“As I walked out the door to meet my boyfriend’s parents for the first time, my mom called after me, “That skirt’s a little short, isn’t it?”
I stopped. A discussion on the appropriateness of dress had never occurred so this sudden mention, when I was eighteen years old, was surprising and confusing. “What does it matter?” I said, honestly curious.
At the time, I received an unsatisfactory answer to that question—“because!” But the way we dress and how we comport ourselves certainly does matter. Modesty is a virtue worth cultivating, most especially in the teenage years, when habits really dig their roots in, for better or for worse. This is true of everyday life, as well as during special events, such as homecoming dances and formals, when the norms of regular dress and behavior are often, in reality or expectation, stretched or broken.
It’s homecoming season now, which means many practical lessons in what makes a modest dress. But, perhaps surprisingly, modesty is not all about the clothes we wear. Fr. John Hardon writes in the Modern Catholic Dictionary that modesty is “the virtue that moderates all the internal and external movements and appearance of a person according to his or her endowments, possessions, and station in life.” This includes how we dress but also much more—our general behavior, anytime, at any occasion.
We aren’t modest for the sake of modesty, or to hold up some stodgy religious standard. Modesty goes beyond those things and plants itself in the love we have for our God-given dignity and in the love we bear for the mystical body of Christ, our Christian brothers and sisters who are striving for holiness. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. It is ordered to chastity to whose sensitivity it bears witness. It guides how one looks at others and behaves toward them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity” (2521).
Appropriate clothing and behavior fall under this definition, though the Catechism mentions dress only in passing. Why? Because what we present outwardly reflects our inward disposition and how we respect and care for “the intimate center of the person.” Do we care interiorly that God has gifted us with bodies that, per His law, form sexual relationships within—and only within—the bounds of marriage? Do we care interiorly that we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and that we ought to help lead souls to heaven , and thus guard those of the opposite sex who may be tempted to inappropriate thoughts or behavior by the way we dress and act? Do we believe that virtue is a habit worth cultivating, not something to work toward only when it is convenient?
The earnest person of faith would answer these questions in the affirmative. So how is modesty practically applied?
It is unnecessary to believe that modest dress must be somber, unattractive, or dowdy. And though modesty in dress and decorum certainly is not required only of girls, attire for girls breaks the bounds of modesty more regularly than clothing for boys. Rev. George Kelly’s advice in his 1959 book The Catholic Family Handbook still applies, more than a half century later: “A young girl need not walk about with stringy hair, a plain, pale face, or in the clothing of a widow; she can make herself attractive, using appropriate cosmetic aids and colorful fabrics. Above all, if she has a smiling, friendly disposition, it will be reflected in her appearance, and will make her more attractive than any product from the beautician’s laboratory.”
We cannot overlook the need to strike a balance in our dress—not wearing immodest clothing for our own vanity, nor seeking recognition or applause for how modest we are. As Dr. Brian Besong writes on modesty in An Introduction to Ethics, “we should restrain ourselves according to the circumstances of our culture and environment, not flouting social norms in order to stand out, or ignoring the social setting (such as who we are around) in choosing what to wear.” So if the social setting is a homecoming dance, girls can tend to their appearance with the care that the formal occasion demands, but not to the point of vanity or pride.
A proper understanding of modesty also brings us to true Christian charity, meaning that in all areas of our lives, we follow the two greatest commandments as outlined by Jesus: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. When it comes to loving our neighbors, we are to will their good, the greatest good being heaven. How we dress and behave can certainly assist our Christian brethren in their pursuit of the beatific vision . . . or hinder them. True, it is our own responsibility to practice purity and to avoid “voyeurism and illusion,” to paraphrase paragraph 2525 of the Catechism. But in that same paragraph, the Church advises the media to exercise respect and restraint. We should apply that advice to ourselves—what we do, how we behave, and yes, even what we wear.
If a person is enthusiastic about respecting and protecting our brothers and sisters in Christ, and yet still desires to dress immodestly, it’s worth getting to the root of why. Pride or vanity is probably playing a role. The same can be said if a young person “must” wear this or that style of clothing because she can’t bear what others will think of her if she is dressed modestly—or if she wants to feel sexual or elicit those thoughts in others. Running through a kind of “self-audit” to understand our inclinations over certain subjects, including clothing, can reveal things that we might not pay much mind to otherwise.
Simply answering “because!” doesn’t cut it in matters of faith. We need to pay attention—though not to the point of scrupulosity—to our human motivations and desires. Only then can we ascend beyond those factors and attain lasting happiness, far beyond the reaches of what we do or do not wear.”
“Catholics, along with other Christians who believe in the intercession of the saints, such as the Eastern Orthodox, often appeal to Revelation 5:8 as biblical support for the intercession of the saints.
And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
Since the Bible reveals that the saints in heaven offer our prayers to God, it’s reasonable to pray to them—that is, to make our requests known to them and ask them to pray to God for us.
Most Protestants don’t accept this interpretation of Revelation 5:8, and they offer several comebacks. Some challenge the assumption that “prayers of saints” refers to petitions that Christians on earth make.
Let’s take a look at a common counter-argument from prominent anti-Catholic apologist Matt Slick.
“The ‘saints’ aren’t Christians on earth.”
Protestant apologist Matt Slick challenges the assumption that the term “saints” refers to Christians on earth. He argues that the referent for the term is ambiguous and that “their identity can’t be precisely demonstrated.” Slick favors the view that the term “saints” refers to either the four living creatures or the twenty-four elders who surround the throne of the Lamb.
His reasoning is that in verse 9, John says, “They sang a new song.” Slick asks, “Who is the ‘they’?” Slick answers, “It would have to be either the four living creatures and/or the twenty-four elders since ‘prayers of the saints’ don’t sing; ‘creatures’ and ‘elders’ do the singing.”
Answering the Comeback
It’s true that the “they” in verse 9, those who sing the new song, are the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders. John lists the activity of singing along with other activities these heavenly inhabitants perform: falling down before the Lamb, holding harps, and offering the golden bowls full of incense. But his phrase “prayers of the saints” is separated from, or not included in, what the four living creatures and twenty-four elders are doing. John identifies “prayers of the saints” with the incense that the elders offer. The offering that the elders make is distinct from the “prayers of the saints,” so the twenty-four elders are not the “saints” John speaks of.
We can complement the above negative approach with a more positive one and give reasons to think “saints” refers to Christians on earth. Consider that in the New Testament, the term saint overwhelmingly refers to human beings on earth, and there are no unambiguous instances where the New Testament uses the term saint to refer to a human being in heaven. This gives us reason at least to be inclined to think “saints” in Revelation 5:8 refers to Christians on earth.
Another reason is that the Bible directly associates the prayers of the faithful on earth with incense. For example, the Psalmist writes, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before thee, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice!” (Ps. 141:2). If the Bible describes prayers being offered in heaven under the form of incense (Rev. 5:8), and the Bible explicitly associates prayers from on earth arising to God with incense (Ps. 141:2), then we have biblical grounds for identifying the prayers of Christians on earth with the “prayers of the saints.”
One more point: This phrase, “prayers of the saints,” would have been familiar to any Jew who read the book of Tobit. It comes from Tobit 12:15, where the angel Raphael says, “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who present the prayers of the saints and enter into the presence of the glory of the Holy One.”
The context reveals that the “prayers of the saints” included the prayer of Tobit and his daughter-in-law. In verse 12, Raphael tells Tobit, “When you and your daughter-in-law Sarah prayed, I brought a reminder of your prayer before the Holy One.” And so here we have explicit scriptural evidence that the phrase “prayers of the saints” includes prayers of God’s righteous on earth.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “But Protestants don’t accept Tobit as inspired.” That’s true. But Tobit still is a historical source for Jewish belief, and thus, it is acceptable for trying to discern what a Jew, like John, would have had in mind when he wrote “prayers of the saints.”
Our appeal to Tobit becomes even more reasonable when we read in Revelation 8:3-4 that the “prayers of the saints,” which are mingled with incense, also rise to God from the hand of an angel.
A sin is considered to be “mortal” when its quality is such that it leads to a separation of that person from God’s saving grace. Deprived of that grace by their own free will and the free will choice to not repent of it ultimately in sacramental confession, a person places themselves outside of God’s salvation, since God is all grace and cannot stand any imperfection of that grace in His presence. In literal fact, the person choosing to deny themselves God’s saving grace becomes unrecognizable to God and therefore cast into perdition outside of God’s grace.
“Everyone knows—or almost everyone does—that there are morally good actions and morally evil actions. But when is an action not only wrong, but sinful? And particularly mortally sinful? After all, as St. John says, “all wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal” just as “there is sin which is mortal” (1 John 5:16,17).A mortal sin is one that “destroys in us the charity without which eternal beatitude is impossible. Unrepented, it brings eternal death” (CCC 1874). That’s what makes it “mortal,” or deadly: it cuts us off from God forever, unless it is “redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness” (CCC 1861).
Thanks be to God, not every evil action is mortally sinful. So how do we know which is which? Just as there are three ingredients in evaluating a moral action (the object, intention, and circumstances), so there are three ingredients in a mortal sin: (1) “grave matter,” (2) “full knowledge,” and (3) “deliberate consent.” And the Catechism is clear that all “three conditions must together be met” (1857).
If all three are met, it’s mortally sinful. Otherwise, “one commits venial sin when, in a less serious matter, he does not observe the standard prescribed by the moral law, or when he disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent” (CCC 1862). That’s still a problem, since venial sin “weakens charity” and “impedes the soul’s progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good,” and “deliberate and unrepented venial sin disposes us little by little to commit mortal sin,” but venial sin does not (of itself) “deprive the sinner of sanctifying grace, friendship with God, charity, and consequently eternal happiness” (CCC 1863).
What does “grave matter” mean? It means that the sin is serious. But how do we evaluate the seriousness of a sin? The Catechism is explicit about the grave nature of particular sins, including sacrilege (2120), blasphemy (2148), perjury (2152), deliberately avoiding Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation (2181), murder (2268), hatred of neighbor “when one deliberately desires him grave harm” (2303), prostitution (2355), sexual relations outside marriage (2390), and adulation that “makes one an accomplice in another’s vices or grave sins” (2480). St. Paul likewise gives lists in Galatians 5:19-21 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 of sins whose practitioners will not “inherit the kingdom of God.” But none of these lists is exhaustive.
More broadly, the Catechism says that “grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments” (1858), pointing to Jesus’ words to the rich young man. When the man asks him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”, Jesus answers, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother’” (Mark 10:17,19). Jesus’ clear implication seems to be that those who do commit adultery, steal, etc. shall not inherit eternal life.
Even here, there are two important caveats. On the one hand, not every violation of the Ten Commandments is a mortal sin. For instance, the person who steals a dollar is not necessarily damned. On the other hand, not every mortal sin is a direct and obvious violation of the Ten Commandments. St. Thomas Aquinasconsiders this objection directly in considering the sin of gluttony: “Every mortal sin is contrary to a precept of the Decalogue: and this, apparently, does not apply to gluttony.” Aquinas argues that gluttony is an indirect violation of the Third Commandment (keeping the Sabbath holy) by turning us away from holiness. That’s a strange answer, but he explains: “Mortal sins are not all directly opposed to the precepts of the Decalogue [Ten Commandments], but only those which contain injustice: because the precepts of the Decalogue pertain specially to justice and its parts.” In other words, the Ten Commandments lay out “the first principles” of the moral law; they’re not an exhaustive list of every serious sin. The right question is this: is this the kind of behavior that places something else above God or turns me away from God? If so, it’s grave matter.
In considering whether or not a sin is mortal, circumstances matter. For instance, the Catechism points out that “one must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger” (1858). Likewise, stealing from the excess wealth of a millionaire is less evil than stealing the food of a starving man. Taking the example of lying, the Catechism explains how to determine the gravity of a sin: “The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity” (2484).”
Love & His mercy,
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "The harm that comes to souls from the lack of reading holy books makes me shudder . . . What power spiritual reading has to lead to a change of course, and to make even worldly people enter into the way of perfection." –St. Padre Pio, "Screens may grab our attention, but books change our lives!" – Word on Fire, "Reading has made many saints!" -St Josemaría Escrivá, "Do you pray? You speak to the Bridegroom. Do you read? He speaks to you." —St. Jerome, from his Letter 22 to Eustochium, "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori, "God here speaks to souls through…good books“ – St Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, "You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP. "Prayer purifies us, reading instructs us. Both are good when both are possible. Otherwise, prayer is better than reading." –St. Isidore of Seville “The aid of spiritual books is for you a necessity.… You, who are in the midst of battle, must protect yourself with the buckler of holy thoughts drawn from good books.” -St. John Chrysostom