Category Archives: Apologetics

Whom do you trust? The Real Presence, the Gospel, and traditional Christianity

-by Joseph Heschmeyer, a former lawyer and seminarian, he blogs at Shameless Popery.

“There are a great many intelligent Protestant Christians, well-versed in Scripture, faithfully seeking to know and follow the will of God, who have concluded that Jesus’ words about the bread and wine of the Last Supper becoming his body and blood are merely symbolic.

What if they’re right?

At first, it seems as though such a revelation would be a tragedy. Receiving the Eucharist is the most intimate encounter with Jesus Christ possible this side of eternity. Suddenly to discover that this intimacy was a sham, and that what we thought was God was actually just bread, would be disheartening, to put the matter mildly. Worse, it would mean that those hours spent in adoration were something approaching idolatry rather than proper worship of God.

But the true tragedy would be greater still—it would mean that the Church has been wrong about the Eucharist from the beginning. For the earliest Christians universally believed in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The well-respected early Church historian J.N.D. Kelly, a Protestant, has acknowledged that “Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood” (Early Christian Doctrines, 440).

Take, for example, the church at Smyrna, in modern-day Turkey. In the latter half of the first century, the apostle John had delivered a message directly from Jesus Christ to the Smyrnaeans, encouraging them in their faithfulness amid their sufferings (Rev. 2:8-11). Shortly thereafter, a student of John, St. Ignatius of Antioch, wrote to this same local church on his way to be martyred in Rome early in the second century.

In his letter, Ignatius warns the Smyrnaeans to “keep aloof from” the heretical Gnostics “because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 7). Notice that Ignatius doesn’t feel the need to convince his readers of the truth of the Real Presence. For him, it’s enough to say that since the Gnostics reject the Real Presence, we should not even “speak of them either in private or in public.”

This is the way that Christians approached the Eucharist throughout the first few centuries of the Church. It was not just that a theologian here or there taught the Real Presence, but that it was the Christian position on the topic. In a series of lessons given to catechumens about to enter the Church, St. Cyril of Jerusalem reminded them that “you have been taught and you are firmly convinced that what looks and tastes like bread and wine is not bread and wine but the body and the blood of Christ” (Catechetical Lecture 22). Cyril is comfortable assuming that even those not yet baptized know enough about Christianity to realize that Christians believe in the Real Presence.

Even more telling than the many Church Fathers teaching and preaching on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is the absence of Christian leaders either rejecting this Catholic position or teaching a contrary position.

If a Baptist pastor got up on Sunday and declared that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, you could expect that there would be angry letters denouncing him as a heretic, or at least seeking to correct him. That’s because Baptists don’t believe in the Real Presence.

The fact that we don’t see this sort of outcry in the early Church is compelling evidence that the early Christians didn’t believe what modern Baptists do about the Eucharist. Rather, they were united in belief about the Real Presence at a time when Christians weren’t afraid to squabble with one another over relatively smaller matters.

Why is this important? Because it means that these Protestants are saying not just “I think Jesus’ words at the Last Supper are meant to be merely symbolic,” but “I think that the entire Church misunderstood one of the most basic aspects of Christianity for centuries.” Call this the “everybody got the gospel wrong” position.

At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “I will not leave you desolate” (John 14:18), a promise not to abandon the Church or to leave us as orphans. Specifically, Christ promised to preserve his Church by sending “the Spirit of Truth,” the Holy Spirit, to “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:17, 26). How is belief in this promise compatible with the idea that the whole Church lost the true meaning of the Last Supper, and that no Christians successfully followed his instructions to “do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24)?

To be sure, left to our own devices, you and I would get some aspects of the gospel wrong. That’s why there are so many competing Protestant denominations. But the solution to that is to turn to the Church and to have the humility to be guided, rather than trusting that our own reading of Scripture is superior to everyone else’s. This is the model laid out in Scripture itself. When Philip the Evangelist found an Ethiopian official reading the book of Isaiah, he asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” to which the man replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:30-31). But the Protestant view undermines all of this by suggesting that the visible Church, and indeed all Christians everywhere, might be the ones in the wrong.

This is about not just rejecting the Church’s teaching authority, but rejecting all of Christianity prior to a certain point in history. If you can simply throw out all of (say) pre-1517 history as heretical and off the mark, why not throw out all pre-2018 Christianity? What appears on the surface to be a question simply about the Eucharist or the perpetual virginity of Mary is really a question about whether we can trust Christ’s promise not to abandon us, leaving us to our own private theological interpretations.

What’s more, if everybody got the gospel wrong then, what makes us think that anybody has the gospel right now? If we could all be wrong on the literality of the Eucharist for centuries, why couldn’t we be wrong about the literality of the Resurrection or of any other aspect of Christian teaching? If all of Christianity can get the core message of Christianity wrong, then it seems that we simply can’t be trusted to get the basics of Christianity right. But holding that, of course, undermines our ability to trust Christianity itself.”


I AM WHO AM – Ex. 3:14

-by Parker Manning

“Defenders of divine simplicity often say that God is existence itself, and that God’s essence and existence are the same. What does this mean? Let’s break it down.

When we talk about the essence of God, we mean what God is. So God’s essence being equal to existence is just another way of saying that God is existence itself.

This topic has the ability to go down a massive rabbit hole that would be too long for article form, and I am in the process of finishing up a book on it. For now, I wanted to go over three things that defenders of divine simplicity are really saying when we say God’s essence and existence are equal:

God plus creation is not greater than God.
This makes sense when you think about it. If God is infinitely great, then adding to him would not be greater. We probably wouldn’t want to think of God’s act of creating as something he needed to do to make the world greater, either. Humans do not make the world more great; we just participate in the greatness of God.

God necessarily exists.
This one needs some explaining. Because God exists necessarily, sometimes Christians use this language to mean just that. Confusing, I know. Theologians have a habit of making things more complicated than they need to be.

God creates from Himself.
When God creates, He uses His knowledge and power to create. Defenders of divine simplicity will also say that God’s power and knowledge are intrinsic and necessary to God, so we can conclude by saying power and knowledge (God) created the universe.

To make this essence/existence thing make more sense, let’s look at an example of a thing where its essence is different from its existence. If I asked you to describe a woolly mammoth, you would likely talk about how it had tusks and fur and whatnot. That would be the woolly mammoth’s essence. Then say I asked you where they are living today. Of course, this is an illegitimate question. Woolly mammoths no longer exist. Although we can talk about what this thing was, it no longer is. This is a clear example of what a thing is being different from that it is. Because God can never not exist, we say that what God is that He is.

Let’s imagine another example. Say I have the pleasure of meeting the current pope. Say when I come home, people ask what he’s like. In response, I say, “He exists.” They would probably look at me as though I’m crazy. Why? Because what Pope Francis is like (what his essence is) is different from the fact that he exists.

We can also talk about problems that we would run into if essence and existence were different in God. For one, if there is a possibility that God stops existing, we would have a problem. This is a real possibility if essence and existence are not equal in God. We can also speak about the issues relating to creation. If essence and existence are different in God, it’s possible that creation made the world more great. This is an issue because it presupposes that God is not great enough on His own.

These problems are important to consider, but there is one key issue with saying that God’s essence and existence are different. If God’s existence is not the same as His essence, it either comes from His essence or is because of something outside Himself. Obviously, God cannot exist because of something outside Himself. He also cannot come from His own essence because that would mean he causes his own existence. (See John Lamont, “Aquinas on Divine Simplicity” in The Monist, 80.4 [1997]: 530.) God cannot cause Himself to exist. This conclusion must be avoided at all costs.

It’s worth noting, also, that essence and existence can be the same in only one thing. Why? First, let’s remember what essence means. Essentially, God’s essence is what God is. So if we were to talk about Parker Manning’s essence, we would be talking about what Parker Manning is. Another way we can think about this is that my essence is how someone would describe me to someone else.

Now that we understand that, why can’t we have two things where their essence (how you would describe them) is equal to existence? If there were two things where essence and existence were the same, they would still have some sort of properties that would differentiate them. In that case, their essence (what they are) would just be how you would describe them, which would not be equal to existence itself. Going back to the Pope Francis example from earlier—it would not make sense for me to describe Pope Francis by saying, “He exists”.

Aquinas explains it as such: “In every simple thing, its being and that which it is are the same. For if the one were not the other, simplicity would be removed. . . . Hence, in God, being good is not anything distinct from Him; He is His goodness” (Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 38).

In summary, if, for instance, we had a situation where two things’ essence were equal to existence itself, we would have composition or accidents to distinguish the two. If something has composition, its essence is that of the composition and not existence itself. For instance, if someone were to describe me, he would likely say things like “Catholic male with dark hair.” In this scenario, my essence (the words you use to describe me) is made up of composition and is not equal to existence itself.

But not so with God—and that makes all the difference.”

He is. Love,

Sola Scriptura – Illogical

-by Parker Manning

“One of the biggest things that separates Protestants from other Christians is their belief regarding the authority of Scripture. Protestants will claim that only Scripture is infallible—the only thing that cannot be wrong.

Protestant apologist James White defined sola scriptura in a debate with Jerry Matatics in 1992. Here he is making his case:

The doctrine of sola scriptura simply states that the Scriptures and the Scriptures alone are sufficient to function as the regula fide, the rule of faith, for the Church. All that one must believe to be a Christian is found in Scripture and in no other source. That which is not found in Scripture is not binding upon the Christian conscience. . . .

The Bible claims to be the sole and sufficient rule of faith for the Christian Church. The Scriptures are not in need of any supplement. Their authority comes from their nature as God-breathed revelation. Their authority is not dependent upon man, Church, or council. The Scriptures are self-consistent, self-interpreting, and self-authenticating. The Christian Church looks to the Scriptures as the only and sufficient rule of faith, and the Church is always subject to the word and is constantly reformed thereby.

There are a few things that a Catholic would agree with White on here. For instance, no Catholic will claim that Scripture’s authority relies on someone believing that those specific books are inspired. The Church did not make the canon inspired; the Church articulated which books are inspired. Regardless, in this article, I will explain why the claim that Jesus taught that only Scripture is infallible makes little sense logically.

First, let’s remember that Catholics believe that Scripture is infallible. As St. Paul says, it is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). However, Catholics would claim that Jesus also left an infallible interpreter on earth.

Setting aside theology from a logical perspective, sola scriptura makes little sense. Let’s say that James White and other Protestants are correct when they claim that Jesus did not leave an infallible interpreter on earth. Now consider that Jesus, in his infinite wisdom, told us things like “If you blaspheme the Holy Spirit, you will never be forgiven” (Matt. 12:31, Mark 3:28-30, Luke 12:10) and “Unless you are born of water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

Both of these statements are ambiguous, with extensive connotations. What makes this even worse is that Protestants disagree on what these verses mean. Lutherans will say that in John 3:5, Jesus is saying people have to be baptized to be saved, whereas other Protestants, such as James, would say that that is not the case.

What are we to make of this? Are we to conclude that Jesus made these statements without clarification and encouraged us to figure it out independently? And if we are wrong, send us to an eternal torment? Nonsense—Jesus would have done no such thing.

This poses another problem for Protestants regarding their belief in Scripture. Sola scriptura requires the essential things to be evident in Scripture. As many Protestants have said, “The main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.” If two Protestants disagree on a verse, what happens? They would likely claim that they are not disagreeing on something that is salvific, and that is what is meant by importance. But the above two verses are salvific. Jesus says we must do something (be baptized) and must not do something (blaspheme against the Holy Spirit) to enter the kingdom of heaven. If we fail to follow these commands, we will not be saved.

So a Protestant will struggle to explain why these verses are unimportant. I doubt that many of them would try. However, a significant problem still needs to be solved. If these verses are important, and everything necessary is clear in Scripture, we should not have disagreement in Protestant circles about what these verses mean. But there is disagreement.

For this reason, a Protestant is left with three options:

  • Claim that these verses are not essential or salvific. This is impossible and would be going against explicit Scripture.
  • Claim that the Protestant who disagrees is misreading Scripture. It would be hard, in the framework of sola scriptura, to make this charge with charity, or even for it to make sense. So if Protestants do not want to go this route, they are left with option 3 . . .
  • Admit that sola scriptura is false.

As you can see, Protestants are in a pickle. And the problems continue: a Protestant is going to claim that sola scriptura is not ahistorical, and that believing that Scripture is the sole infallible authority does not mean we ignore history. But at the same time, Protestants like James White will deny baptismal regeneration despite it being unanimously accepted in the Patristic Era. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a Protestant historian on the subject: “From the beginning baptism was the universally accepted rite of admission to the Church. . . . As regards to its significance, it was always held to convey the remission of sins” (193-194).

A Protestant who believes in the salvific nature of baptism would likely be on my side in this scenario. However, the problems continue beyond there. Even sola fide (faith alone), the most essential doctrine in Protestant theology, said by Luther to be the article upon which the Church stands or falls, was unknown in the early Church.

For instance, Protestant author Alister McGrath admits in his book on the history of the Christian doctrine of justification that sola fide was a “theological novum.”

A fundamental discontinuity was introduced into the Western theological tradition where none had ever existed or been contemplated. The Reformation understanding of the nature of justification as opposed to its mode must therefore be regarded as a genuine theological novum (186).

Notable anti-Catholic Church historian Peter Schaff also admits in his book about Church history that those looking for the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone in the Church Fathers will be “greatly disappointed.”

The doctrine of the subjective appropriation of salvation, including faith, justification, and sanctification, was as yet far less perfectly formed than the objective dogmas, and like the case, must follow the latter. If anyone expects to find in this period, or any of the Church Fathers, Augustine himself not excepted, the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone, as the “articulus stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae” he will be greatly disappointed (588).

All in all, I would encourage Protestants to think about the conclusions they are making when they say that Scripture is the only infallible authority on earth. In their attempt to prop up Scripture to the highest degree, they are making Jesus out to be an unusual leader who makes ambiguous statements with extreme implications and leaves no infallible authority to tell us what he meant. It also seems clear that despite Protestants’ best efforts in claiming that sola scriptura is not anti-tradition, Protestant theology as a whole embraces even the most wholly absent doctrines in the Patristic Era.

Love & truth,

Catholics cannot be anti-semites

-by Bp Robert Barron, Bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota.


“A few weeks ago, at the commencement of Hanukkah, my Word on Fire team published on our social media platforms a graphic of a Menorah accompanied by a text from St. John Paul II celebrating the spiritual bond that connects Catholics and Jews. Harmless enough, right? Wrong apparently. For this simple image and quote were met with a firestorm of angry protests from, it appears, even some Catholics who gave vent to frankly shocking expressions of anti-Semitism. Mind you, I’ve been on social media for over twenty years, and I’m well acquainted with how vile that space can be, but this outpouring of rage staggered even this grizzled veteran. Let me give you just a sample: “Did they fill your pockets with shekels to say this?” “Judaism is the anti-Christ religion.” “Semites literally steal everything . . . literally worthless thieves.” “Sin-o-gogue of Satan anyone?” “Well, there is the deicide thing.” “If by brother you mean Cain.”

Look, I know there are lots of crazy people on the Internet, but, once again, the sheer volume and intensity of these responses—and I’m giving you only a hint of the hundreds of similar remarks—signals that we have a serious problem on our hands. For Christianity collapses in on itself without constant reference to its Jewish antecedents. As St. Paul put it, Christ is “the yes to all the promises made to Israel.” And as Pope Pius XI declared, “We are all spiritually Semites.” Hence, if you don’t get the Jews, you won’t get Jesus. It’s as simple and important as that.

One of the very earliest doctrinal disputes within Christianity was the battle against Marcion and his disciples in the second century. A clever and articulate theologian, Marcion argued that the Old Testament presented a crude and morally compromised god who had nothing to do with the true God revealed by Jesus. Accordingly, he recommended that the entire Old Testament be struck from the collection of sacred texts and even large swaths of the New Testament that he considered insufficiently clean of contagion.

Though it was fiercely opposed from the beginning, most notably by the great St. Irenaeus, Marcionism has proved to be a very enduring heresy. In the early nineteenth century, it reasserted itself in the writings of Friedrich Schleiermacher, the founder of modern liberal Protestantism, who openly extolled Marcion and presented an understanding of Jesus that was entirely non-Jewish.  Schleiermacher’s banner was picked up in the early twentieth century by the deeply influential theologian Adolf von Harnack, who not only wrote a biography of Marcion but also, in imitation of his intellectual hero, recommended that the entire Old Testament be struck from the canon!  Harnack had numerous disciples among the most prominent theologians and biblical scholars in the twentieth century, many of whom presented Jesus in radically de-Judaized form, as either a Hellenistic sage or a teacher of timeless spiritual truths. One can hear echoes of Marcionism, by the way, whenever someone says, “You know, I love the gentle and compassionate God of the New Testament, not the violent and blustering God of the Old Testament.”

And such a Jesus, truth be told, is as dull as dishwater and completely uncompelling evangelically. It is of crucial significance that, in the story of the Road to Emmaus, when Jesus speaks in earnest to the two disciples, he doesn’t trade in Gnostic nostrums; rather, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.” In a word, he presents himself as the fulfillment of salvation history, the culminating point of the story of the Jews, the full expression of Torah, temple, and prophecy. And it was in the course of that speech that the hearts of the disciples commenced to burn within them. It was that deeply Jewish speech that led them to conversion.

Now happily, in recent decades, a new generation of biblical scholars have emerged who have endeavored to recover the Jewishness of Jesus. One thinks of, among many others, E.P. Sanders, Richard Bauckham, James D.G. Dunn, N.T. Wright, Joseph Ratzinger, Brant Pitre, and Richard Hays. Their instincts are in line with the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, which insisted upon the positive relationship between Judaism and Catholicism and with the consistent teaching of St. John Paul II, the first pope to visit the Roman synagogue.

When William F. Buckley was endeavoring to launch his journal National Review in the 1950s, he was eager to recruit the best and brightest among the conservative thinkers in the Anglosphere. But he was scrupulous in eliminating from consideration any who exhibited anti-Semitic attitudes, for he knew that they would undermine his project, both morally and intellectually. If the comments on my social media regarding a simple statement of amity between Catholics and Jews is any indicator, we have come, in the Church, to a similar crisis. In the great work of evangelization, I want all the help I can get. I want the most convicted and intelligent Catholics. Period. But I cannot have anti-Semites, because they are, by definition, enemies of Christ.

And as Christmas approaches, may we rejoice in the God who deigned to become a little Jewish baby.”

Lord, have mercy,

Indulgences 2 – The original viral post

-a bronze statue of Martin Luther in Hanover, Germany.

-by Katherine Arcemont, The Washington Post
October 31, 2017

“It was the original viral post.

On Oct. 31, 1517, an obscure German professor of theology named Martin Luther launched an attack on the Roman Catholic Church by nailing his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church — a story that has been repeated for hundreds of years. Luther’s act of rebellion led to the Protestant Reformation, which is being marked by millions of Christians around the world Tuesday on its 500th anniversary.

But did that dramatic moment — Luther defiantly hammering his critique to the church door — really happen?

The story was first told by Philipp Melanchthon, a fellow professor at the University of Wittenberg, a close friend of Luther’s and a leader of the Reformation, after Luther’s death in 1546. And the church door did serve as a public bulletin board of sorts.

But Melanchthon was not in Wittenberg on the day he supposedly witnessed the nailing. He didn’t join the university faculty until 1518. And Luther, a prolific writer who published 30 pamphlets in three years and later translated the Bible into German, never recounted the story.

In 1961, Erwin Iserloh, a Catholic Luther researcher, argued that there was no evidence that Luther actually nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door. Indeed, at the 1617 celebration of the Reformation, Luther was depicted as writing the 95 Theses on the church door with a quill.

Iserloh’s assertion set off a debate among Luther historians that remains unresolved.

A decade ago, Martin Treu, who works for the Luther Memorials Foundation of Saxony-Anhalt, discovered a handwritten note by Luther’s secretary, Georg Rörer, made in a revised copy of the New Testament before Luther’s death. It reads: “On the evening before All Saints’ Day in the year of our Lord 1517, theses about letters of indulgence were nailed to the doors of the Wittenberg churches by Doctor Martin Luther.”

While Rörer was also not an eyewitness, Treu noted, “he was one of Luther’s closest staff.” Treu’s conclusion: 95 Theses may have been nailed to several church doors in Wittenberg, not just at Castle Church.

What’s not in dispute: Luther mailed his attack on the Catholic sale of indulgences to the archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, Albert of Brandenburg, on Oct. 31, 1517. The indulgences were meant to assure their buyer that their sins would be forgiven — a form of corruption in Luther’s eyes.

“Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” quickly spread across Europe and reached Pope Leo X sometime in 1518. After a series of disputes, Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church on Jan. 3, 1521.

The theologian became a celebrity, and with his celebrity came a following and a new religion: Lutheranism. And the founding symbol of the Protestant Reformation remains the door of Castle Church, now inscribed in bronze with Luther’s 95 Theses.”

-bronze doors of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany now cast in bronze containing Luther’s 95 theses.

-by Joseph Heschmeyer, a former lawyer and seminarian, he blogs at Shameless Popery.

“On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses against papal indulgences, or the atonement of sins through monetary payment, on the door of the church at Wittenberg, Germany.” That line from a piece by David B. Morris posted by the Library of Congress on its website (“Martin Luther as Priest, Heretic, and Outlaw”) summarizes the popular view of how the Reformation began. But it’s rife with errors.

To start with the most trivial, the popular image of Luther nailing his theses to the church door is almost certainly a Protestant fiction. Joan Acocella, in a piece for the New Yorker (“How Martin Luther Changed the World,” Oct. 30, 2017), points out that modern scholars

“…differ on many points, but something that most of them agree on is that the hammering episode, so satisfying symbolically—loud, metallic, violent—never occurred. Not only were there no eyewitnesses; Luther himself, ordinarily an enthusiastic self-dramatizer, was vague on what had happened. He remembered drawing up a list of ninety-five theses around the date in question, but, as for what he did with it, all he was sure of was that he sent it to the local archbishop.”

Acocella also points out that the theses were not “a set of non-negotiable demands about how the Church should reform itself in accordance with Brother Martin’s standards,” but rather “like all ‘theses’ in those days, they were points to be thrashed out in public disputations, in the manner of the ecclesiastical scholars of the twelfth century.”

In terms of more serious errors, what was at the heart of the 95 Theses? According to Morris, Luther was protesting “papal indulgences, or the atonement of sins through monetary payment.” Wrong. Luther not only defended papal indulgences, the only anathema in the entirety of the 95 Theses was his Thesis #71: “Let him who speaks against the truth concerning papal indulgences be anathema and accursed.” In other words, the people that Martin Luther condemned weren’t Catholics but (modern) Protestants. 

Nor are indulgences “the atonement of sins through monetary payment.” Not only do indulgences not bring about our atonement, “an indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven” (Pope Paul VI, Indulgentiarum Doctrina, norm. 1). Our atonement is won not by monetary payment but by Jesus on Calvary. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race” (Summa Theologica III:48:2).

So, if the popular theory of Luther’s protest is almost entirely wrong, what’s the truth of it? Luther’s argument was multipronged (there’s a reason there were 95 theses) and a mix of good and bad. Part of his dispute was over the nature and extent of indulgences: where the pope derived the power to grant indulgences and the kinds of penalties that could be remitted through an indulgence.

Luther, who still believed in purgatory at that point, argued that the “power which the pope has in general over purgatory corresponds to the power which any bishop or curate has in a particular way in his own diocese and parish” (Thesis 25). Luther’s views here are idiosyncratic, and neither Protestants (who quickly gave up on indulgences and purgatory) nor Catholics have attempted seriously to defend them.

More significant was Luther’s critique not of indulgences as such but of the sale of indulgences. He rejected the teachings of indulgence preachers (Johann Tetzel, O.P. and others) who “say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory,” countering that “it is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone” (Theses 27-28).

Luther was largely correct on this point. After all, while indulgences don’t bring about our atonement (as Luther well knew), they are a spiritual good. And the sale of spiritual goods is anathema to Christianity, the sin of simony, named after the unhappy Simon Magus: 

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power, that any one on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “Your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:18-20).

There’s a long history in the Church both of simony popping up and of the Church condemning it. The second canon of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) ordered that “if any bishop performs an ordination for money and puts the unsaleable grace on sale,” he was upon conviction to “lose his personal rank,” while the ordained lost “the dignity or responsibility” he had attempted to purchase. A cleric found to have served as a go-between was likewise “demoted from his personal rank,” or, in the case of laymen and monks, anathematized.

So Luther stood in a long (and holy) tradition of rejecting simony, and the Council of Trent vindicated him on this point. The Council, desiring that “the abuses which have crept therein, and by occasion of which this honorable name of indulgences is blasphemed by heretics, be amended and corrected,” explicitly outlawed “all evil gains” for the obtaining of indulgences (“Decree on Indulgences”).

But that still leaves a question: how did these abuses happen in the first place? How hard is it to simply not sell spiritual goods? Well, a bit harder than it seems. One way of answering would be to trace the precise history: canon 2 of the Council of Clermont (1095 AD) decreed that “whoever for devotion alone, and not for the purpose of gaining honor or money, heads for Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God, that expedition is to be imputed to him [as satisfaction] for all penance.” That makes sense: what’s more worthy of an indulgence than risking your life to defend the Church?

Later Crusades expanded beyond the careful nuance of the Council of Clermont, offering indulgences through what became known as “vow redemption.” In short, those unable (due to age or illness) to go on crusade were given the opportunity to receive an indulgence by paying for someone else to go. And again, the expansion makes a sort of sense: it seems unfair to deprive someone of an indulgence when they were ready and willing but physically unable to go on crusade. 

But this expansion was controversial in its day. In the thirteenth century, Thomas of Cantimpré, O.P., complained that indulgences were being acquired for relatively trivial amounts, amounting to as little as one percent of a person’s moveable wealth (Christoph T. Maier, Preaching the Crusades, 155-56). And it was only a short step from this point to the Church in Luther’s day, when preachers such as Tetzel made indulgences sound like purchasable get-out-of-purgatory-free tickets.

But tracing the history of the sale of indulgences is incomplete if we don’t also recognize the spiritual tightrope walked by the medieval Church and by all of us today. All Christians (whether they believe in indulgences or not) need to grapple with two core Christian ideas: first, that God really does reward generosity; and second, that it’s impossible to bribe God and evil to try. How we understand (and even “balance”) these two ideas makes a world of difference, since they sit in what seems like an uneasy, even paradoxical, relationship with one another.

This paradox is captured in the thirty-fifth chapter of the book of Sirach. In verses 10-11, the goodness of giving back to God is proclaimed: “Give to the Most High as He has given, and as generously as your hand has found. For the Lord is the One Who repays, and He will repay you sevenfold.” But in the next verse, there’s immediately a warning against transactional spirituality: “Do not offer Him a bribe, for He will not accept it; and do not trust to an unrighteous sacrifice; for the Lord is the judge, and with Him is no partiality.” In other words, give generously to God, Who will reward your generosity, but don’t think that you bribe Him or buy heaven.

While those verses from Sirach aren’t in Protestant Bibles, the underlying ideas are. St. Paul reminds the Corinthians to give generously since “God loves a cheerful giver” and “he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Cor. 9:6-7). He continues:

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God; for the rendering of this service not only supplies the wants of the saints but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God (2 Cor. 9:10-12).

St. Paul hints at the fact that God may give us rewards in this life, saying that “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8). But God’s generosity is no less true in terms of heavenly rewards. As Jesus says to the rich young man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21).

Tobit 12:8-9 (also not in Protestant Bibles) says that “prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than much with wrongdoing. It is better to give alms than to treasure up gold. For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin.”

Jesus describes this as a sort of spiritual fortune-building: “Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:33-34). And “give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:38).

The idea that giving generously ensures spiritual riches in heaven isn’t some medieval corruption of the gospel: the Bible actually teaches it. And yet we have, alongside this message, warnings such as Sirach 35:12 and Acts 8:18-20 telling us not to try to buy the spiritual gifts of God.

The easy—and hard—answer is to love God for His own sake and before all else. Those rewards aren’t bad: it’s good that God blesses generous givers, and that He answers prayers, and that He considers our meager almsgiving seriously. But the spiritual life was never about the rewards and must never become about the rewards. The gifts God gives are to draw us to Him and to reveal something about His generous and loving nature, not to replace Him. After all, God wants to give us not merely some reward but Himself.

Jesus is happy to multiply loaves to feed the hungry crowds. But He’s also quick to warn them not to follow Him for that reason. A day after the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-14), Jesus rebuked His followers, saying, “you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (v. 26). It’s easy for us to judge His hungry followers, just as it’s easy to judge the medieval Christians giving money to try to get indulgences for their loved ones. But before we do that, it’s worth asking: are we so different today?”

Love & truth,

The dubia

Left to right: German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, Mexican Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, American Cardinal Raymond Burke, and Chinese Cardinal Zen Ze-Kiun.

Listening to the Vatican, internal Catholic Church communication, is an art, requiring much experience and sensitivity to foreign languages and cultures. It is not an easy do.  I am the poorest and most ignorant example of one who tries.  However, here are some of the best sources I have come across in trying to understand.  I hope they prove useful to you as well.  The Vatican is a master of language.  I do not believe there is another human counterpart. It is about nuance, not soundbite.  Listen carefully, pray, let the Holy Spirit speak to you, have compassion and pray for all parties involved, sinners are we all.  It is incumbent upon the Catholic to constantly inform and educate their consciences, the highest authority in the Church and for the person.  Imagine the pressure and gravest of responsibilities to govern and helm the barque of Peter with the responsibility for ~1.8 billion souls with the mission to reunify and/or evangelize ~8 billion, and to show the compassion and love of Jesus Christ as well as the truth of His teachings for the last two thousand years.  Listening to soundbites and headlines is equivalent to ignorance, only more sinful.  Human beings, human politics, God help us!  He will.

October 2, 2023 . 7:39 AM

“A group of five cardinals asked Pope Francis this summer to answer five “dubia,” or doubts, related to the synod on synodality.

The request was made public on the eve of the long-awaited gathering in Rome, which Vatican watchers say could lead to far-reaching changes in the Church.

The five dubia, presented Aug. 21 to the pope and the Vatican’s doctrine czar, posed questions about doctrinal development, same-sex blessings, the status of the synod on synodality, women priests, and the conditions for sacramental absolution.

An initial draft of the five questions — signed by the German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, the U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, the Mexican Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, the Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, and Hong Kong’s Cardinal Joseph Zen — was presented July 10 to Pope Francis and Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, the then prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The pope reportedly replied the next day with an extensive letter in Spanish. But according to the Italian Catholic journalist Sandro Magister, the cardinals believed that it did not answer their questions.

“Although signed by Francis, the letter displayed the writing style of his trusted theologian, the Argentine Victor Manuel Fernández, who would soon take on the new role of prefect of the dicastery for the doctrine of the faith,” Magister wrote in an Oct. 2 post on his Settimo Cielo blog.

The five cardinals then sought to reformulate the questions so that they could only be answered “yes” or “no.”

Pope Francis has not responded to the rephrased dubia more than 40 days after they were submitted, Magister said.

But in an Oct. 1 report, Rome’s Il Messaggero newspaper quoted Fernández, who formally took up the role of doctrinal prefect in September, as saying that the cardinals “obviously always have doubts, it’s a constant, you have to respect their passions though, everyone has their passion.”

Fernández, who received the cardinal’s red hat Sept. 30, reportedly added: “The pope has the freedom to respond or not, to consider whether to close a question or discuss it as will also be done at the synod, freely.”

In an Oct. 2 “Notification to Christ’s Faithful,” the five cardinals said they had decided to publish their questions ahead of the Oct. 4-29 synod on synodality so that Catholics “may not be subject to confusion, error, and discouragement but rather may pray for the universal Church and, in particular, the Roman Pontiff, that the Gospel may be taught ever more clearly and followed ever more faithfully.”

The cardinals’ first question asked whether it was possible “for the Church today to teach doctrines contrary to those she has previously taught in matters of faith and morals, whether by the Pope ‘ex cathedra’, or in the definitions of an Ecumenical Council, or in the ordinary universal magisterium of the Bishops dispersed throughout the world”.

The second said: “Is it possible that in some circumstances a pastor could bless unions between homosexual persons, thus suggesting that homosexual behavior as such would not be contrary to God’s law and the person’s journey toward God?”

This was followed by a related question asking: “Does the teaching upheld by the universal ordinary magisterium, that every sexual act outside of marriage, and in particular homosexual acts, constitutes an objectively grave sin against God’s law, regardless of the circumstances in which it takes place and the intention with which it is carried out, continue to be valid?”

The third question was: “Will the Synod of Bishops to be held in Rome, and which includes only a chosen representation of pastors and faithful, exercise, in the doctrinal or pastoral matters on which it will be called to express itself, the Supreme Authority of the Church, which belongs exclusively to the Roman Pontiff and, ‘una cum capite suo’ [‘together with its head’], to the College of Bishops.”

The fourth asked: “Could the Church in the future have the faculty to confer priestly ordination on women, thus contradicting that the exclusive reservation of this sacrament to baptized males belongs to the very substance of the Sacrament of Orders, which the Church cannot change?”

The fifth and final question said: “Can a penitent who, while admitting a sin, refuses to make, in any way, the intention not to commit it again, validly receive sacramental absolution?”

The five dubia echo a set of five questions presented to Pope Francis in 2016 regarding the interpretation of Amoris laetitia, his apostolic exhortation on love in the family, which received no response.

The 2016 dubia were presented by two of the five cardinals who signed the 2023 request for clarification — Cardinal Brandmüller and Cardinal Burke — as well as the Italian Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, who died in 2017, and the German Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who died the same year.

The Vatican released the pope’s eight-page response in Spanish to the initial dubia following their publication Oct. 2. An English translation of the reply was published on Cardinal Burke’s official website.

In the translation posted by the U.S. cardinal, Pope Francis said that the time of the synod on synodality, which is due to end in October 2024, was a period in which questions were being asked about the Church’s structure and mission.

“With great sincerity, I tell you that it is not very good to be afraid of these question marks and questions,” the pope wrote. “The Lord Jesus, who promised Peter and his successors indefectible assistance in the task of caring for the holy people of God, will help us, also thanks to this synod, to keep ourselves always more in constant dialogue with the men and women of our time and in total fidelity to the Holy Gospel.”

“However, although it does not always seem prudent to me to respond to the questions addressed directly to me (because it would be impossible to answer them all), in this case I think it is suitable to do so because of the closeness of the synod.”

The response addressed the five July dubia one by one, beginning with the first question, “about the claim that we should reinterpret Divine Revelation according to the cultural and anthropological changes in vogue.”

The pope offered an eight-part reply, which began: “The answer depends on the meaning you give to the word ‘reinterpret.’ If you mean ‘interpret better,’ the expression is valid.”

It continued, citing the Vatican II document Dei Verbum: “In this sense, the Second Vatican Council stated that it is necessary that the work of the exegetes — I would add of theologians — ‘may help the Church to form a firmer judgment.’”

In response to the second question, on “the claim that the widespread practice of the blessing of same-sex unions would be in accord with Revelation and the Magisterium,” the pope wrote: “The Church has a very clear conception of marriage: an exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of children. She calls ‘marriage’ only such a union.”

He went on: “This is why the Church avoids any kind of rite or sacramental that could contradict this conviction and imply that something which is not marriage is recognized as marriage.”

“In dealing with persons, however, we must not lose the pastoral charity that must permeate all our decisions and attitudes. The defense of the objective truth is not the only expression of this charity which is also made of kindness, patience, understanding, tenderness, and encouragement. Therefore, we cannot make ourselves into judges who only deny, reject, exclude.”

“Pastoral prudence must therefore properly discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more people, that do not convey a misconception of marriage. Because, when a blessing is requested, it is a request for help from God, a plea to be able to live better, a trust in a Father who can help us to live better.”

Concluding his answer with reference to his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia, the pope said: “Decisions that may be part of pastoral prudence in certain circumstances need not be transformed into a norm. In other words, it is not appropriate for a diocese, a conference of bishops, or any other ecclesial structure to authorize constantly and officially procedures or rules for every type of affair, since everything that ‘is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule’ since this ‘would … lead to an intolerable casuistry.’”

“Canon law should not and cannot cover everything, nor can conferences of bishops pretend to do so with their various documents and protocols, because the life of the Church runs through many channels besides the normative ones.”

Responding the third question, about whether synodality is a “constitutive element of the Church,” the pope wrote: “As you well recognize that the supreme and full authority of the Church is exercised either by the pope in virtue of his office or by the college of bishops together with its head, the Roman pontiff … nevertheless, with these dubia, you yourselves manifest your need to participate, to give freely your opinion and to collaborate, and thus claim some form of ‘synodality’ in the exercise of my ministry.”

He went on: “The Church is a ‘mystery of missionary communion,’ but this communion is not only affective or ethereal, but necessarily implies real participation: that not only the hierarchy, but all the People of God, in different ways and at different levels, can make their voices heard and feel part of the Church’s journey. In this sense we can indeed say that synodality, as a style and dynamism, is an essential dimension of the life of the Church.”

But he said this was this quite different from trying “to sacralize or impose a particular synodal methodology that one group likes, to make it the norm and the obligatory channel for all.”

Replying to the fourth question, about a belief among pastors and theologians that priestly ordination can be conferred on women as the Church’s theology has changed, the pope stressed that “when St. John Paul II taught that the impossibility of conferring priestly ordination on women must be affirmed ‘in a definitive manner,’ he was in no way denigrating women and giving a supreme power to men.”

Referring to Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, Francis added: “On the other hand, to be rigorous, we should recognize that a clear and authoritative doctrine on the exact nature of a ‘definitive statement’ has not yet been fully developed. It is not a dogmatic definition and yet it must be complied with by all. No one can publicly contradict it and nevertheless it can be the object of study, as in the case of the validity of ordinations in the Anglican Communion.”

In answer to the fifth question, about whether repentance is a necessary condition for sacramental absolution, Pope Francis wrote: “Repentance is necessary for the validity of sacramental absolution and implies the intention not to sin. But there is no mathematics here, and once again I must remind you that the confessional is not a customs house.”

“We are not masters, but humble stewards of the sacraments that nourish the faithful, for these gifts of the Lord, rather than relics to be guarded, are aids of the Holy Spirit for the life of persons.”

“There are many ways of expressing repentance. Often, in people with a very wounded self-esteem, to declare themselves guilty is a cruel torture, but the very fact of approaching confession is a symbolic expression of repentance and of the search of divine help.”

October 3, 2023 . 3:51 AM

Pope Francis, the Church learned Monday, answered the dubia.

Not — to be clear — the questions posed to him after the 2016 publication of Amoris laetitia — questions so long unanswered that “answer the dubia” has become a meme in some Catholic circles.

But the pope answered this summer another set of dubia — questions asked and answered back in July, pertaining to the synod on synodality, and released Monday in a kind of piecemeal fashion, with two sets of questions asked by five cardinals first reported by Italian journalist Sandro Magister, and then the Vatican taking the unusual step of releasing the pope’s answers to the first set of questions.

When he did so, the pope set off international headlines — and a great deal of controversy — regarding the prospect that he might permit the liturgical blessing of same-sex couples.

Of course, it’s a matter of debate whether Francis actually said something to merit that speculation. But on this issue, it’s worth looking beyond what Francis has said, to what he has done, and what he has chosen not to do.

There is a lot contained in the pope’s dubia responsa, with the answers to five questions spread across eight pages in the original Spanish. And while much of what the pontiff said he has said before, there will be debate over several topics addressed in the text — and debate over the dubia themselves, and what exactly the cardinals meant to accomplish by asking the pontiff questions and then, unsatisfied with his answers, rephrasing the questions and asking them again.

But the biggest headline to emerge from the story is the notion — repeated in both the Catholic and secular press — that Pope Francis has approved the prospect of “blessing” same-sex couples, signaled “openness” on the subject, or, as one newspaper put it, “softened” the Church’s “ban” on the practice.

The story came from language in the pope’s July 11 letter, published by the Vatican. In response to a question about whether it is possible for the Church to consider same-sex unions as “possible goods,” the pope wrote several paragraphs which emphasized that there are relationships — presumably same-sex relationships among them — which are “not morally acceptable.”

The pope added that “the Church avoids any kind of rite or sacramental that could contradict” its doctrine regarding marriage, or “give the impression that something that is not marriage is recognized.”

Still, Pope Francis also allowed for the possibility that some kind of blessing could be conferred on one or more Catholics in “not-marriage” unions.

“Pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not transmit a mistaken conception of marriage. Because when a blessing is requested, one is expressing a request for help from God, a plea to be able to live better, a trust in a Father who can help us to live better.”

In short, the pope seemed to say, when people in an irregular union — perhaps a same-sex union — come to the parish for a blessing, it is worth discerning what they’re really asking for, and whether there is some way the Church can respond to that, even while avoiding the appearance of a nuptial blessing.

That idea got framed as a “softening” or an “openness” to the blessing of same-sex unions, and controversy erupted on Monday, across media outlets, among the commentariat, and across social media.

To some, the pope’s language is not entirely different from what the DDF said on the subject in 2021.

But some Catholics say the devil is in the differences — and that some small differences should be taken very seriously.

In 2021, the DDF, with Francis’ approval, clarified that it is not possible for the Church to bless same-sex unions, because God “does not and cannot bless sin.”

That clarification — which also came in response to a dubium — was widely seen as a surprisingly conservative move in the Francis papacy, hailed by many orthodox Catholics, and maligned by Catholics hoping that Francis would usher in change to the Church’s doctrine on homosexuality.

But while it prohibited liturgical blessings of same-sex couples, the DDF statement also affirmed that the prohibition on nuptial blessings did not preclude the possibility of “blessings given to individual persons with homosexual inclinations, who manifest the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by Church teaching.”

Some observers note that while the 2021 statement spoke about “individuals,” the 2023 responsa spoke about “one or more persons.”

And while the 2021 statement “declare[d] illicit any form of blessing that tends to acknowledge [same-sex] unions as such,” the 2023 statement made no such proviso.

Still, some argue that Francis didn’t rescind the 2021 statement — which was published with his explicit approval — and that the 2023 statement, and its seemingly limitless possibilities, are actually curtailed by the DDF statement — that the 2023 text should be read in light of the earlier statement on the subject, which could be understood as a kind of limiting principle.

But for some Catholics, Francis seemed to be broadening the scope of possible blessing well beyond the 2021 statement, allowing for the possibility that self-identified gay couples might receive together a kind of blessing that would, in some ways, resemble marriage — despite the pope’s explicit prohibitions of that possibility.

One observer called such a possibility “nuclear,” and others have pointed out that Francis risks an actual schism — or at least a concerted pushback from bishops around the world — if he adopts even a semi-official “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on the prospect of liturgical blessings for same-sex couples.

Except, by appearances, the pope already has — at least tacitly.

Of course, only time will tell what the pontiff means about same-sex blessings in principle — his July 11 answer can be read in more than one way, and, indeed, it has been.

But in practice, it’s worth noting that Belgian bishops published last year a text allowing for a ritual blessing of same-sex couples, and the pontiff has — to date — not yet intervened.

Even while the pope’s 2023 responsa said explicitly that episcopal conferences should not produce such ritual texts, the pope has not intervened to stop the Belgian bishops from publishing one, stepped in after a German bishop said last month that he would not penally sanction priests who offer liturgical blessings to gay couples, or addressed a kind of protest-blessing performed by priests for gay couples in the cathedral plaza in Cologne.

That might be the point on which everyone can agree — that regardless of whether the pope’s July 11 letter was permissive or restrictive on same-sex blessings in principle, the pontiff himself has already been at least passively permissive on the subject in practice, without any public response to the European dioceses where the practice is quickly becoming enshrined as a matter of course.

While Catholics argue over whether Francis made his policy of toleration explicit in the July letter, it might not actually matter much.

Despite the scandal of official tolerance, or published ritual texts, at the diocesan and episcopal conference level, Francis seems content to work behind the scenes on episcopal discipline — if he is working at all — with no public statement on the decisions in Belgium and Germany.

In fact, few serious observers in the Church have expected that any clarity will come on orthopraxy regarding same-sex liturgical blessings until after a future conclave — Pope Francis does not seem inclined to address the pragmatic realities of bishops who are ignoring Vatican directives on the subject.

After the dubia — and the responsa heard round the world — most Catholics will be looking to the synod on synodality, to see whether Pope Francis will signal again more openness to the prospect of liturgical blessings for same-sex couples.

The pope likely won’t. And while he might be asked about it on his next airplane trip, and he might offer more reflections, it’s not likely they’ll be concrete. It’s most likely that when he speaks about the subject, the pope will continue to focus on welcome, and pastoral discernment, without elaborating on the clear limits that might give definition to his reflections, but making some reference to the 2021 statement when pressed.

In short, his future reflections are most likely to be vague enough to be subject to broad interpretations.

It is not clear that the decisions of Belgian bishops, and the clergy in Germany, reflect what the pope actually thinks about the issue of liturgical blessings for same-sex couples. But the pontiff is more than a theologian — he is the governor of the universal Church. And some Catholics will be looking closely in the months to come at the parishes of Flanders, and the cathedral square in Cologne.

There, the question will be not what the pope chooses to say, but what he chooses to do — if anything.”

Love and truth,

Why believe in God?

“Here’s the problem with philosophical arguments for God (the good ones, anyway): they’re complicated.

This shouldn’t surprise us in the least. Philosophical arguments for God are supposed to reveal something about the nature of fundamental reality and can take years to puzzle through. What should cause us to think that would be easy?

So, although folks will often attempt to pass off comparatively simple arguments, they are, despite being accessible, just plain wrong, or at least poorly formulated—and neither the doubter nor the believer is served by simplistic takes for God.

All this to say that distilling philosophical arguments for God without diluting or distorting them is difficult. Fortunately, as complicated as philosophical arguments for God can be, their general thrust is, for the most part, intuitive. With that in mind, let’s present the general idea of some of the more sophisticated and convincing philosophical arguments for God and to make the presentation simple . . . but not simplistic.

Keep in mind that when we present arguments like these at an introductory level, various details will be truncated or omitted. So I must insist that this is a worthwhile tradeoff for means for initial exposition, and that the arguments below are, in fact, good arguments, though we will ultimately have to pursue their fullest development elsewhere.

With those disclaimers, let’s begin.

1. The Argument from Adequate Reason

Common experience reveals stuff that doesn’t explain its own existence—that is, stuff philosophers call contingent. Here’s a list of some such stuff: Graham crackers, Yngwie Malmsteen, photons, corn. These things exist but could have been otherwise or not been at all. Reality did not have to include them, yet here they are. Why?

Philosophers have long claimed that stuff like this—that is, all the contingent things, considered collectively—must have some cause or explanation, and this cause or explanation cannot itself be contingent. That means it must be necessary, a being that must exist no matter what, a being whose nature or essence somehow guarantees its own existence.

A being like that would obviously be very special, quite unlike the beings of common experience, no matter how talented (Yngwie Malmsteen) or tasty (Graham crackers). Indeed, philosophers have argued that a necessary being would have to lack all the features that imply contingency (otherwise, it wouldn’t be a necessary being), such as being arbitrarily limited (say, in power, shape, location, knowledge) or composite (made of parts, physical or metaphysical), or changing and thus acquiring new modes of existence.

When thought through, it turns out that a necessary being would inevitably bear the traditional divine attributes: omnipotence, immateriality, immutability, eternality, simplicity, etc. Philosophers call this the Argument from Adequate (or sometimes SufficientReason.

There are two main obstacles the argument from adequate reason must overcome. First, we have to support the principle that all contingent things do in fact have some adequate cause and don’t just exist as a matter of “brute fact,” with no explanation to be found. The second is closing off the so-called infinite regress objection, or making it clear that even if there were an infinite regress of contingent things—meaning each contingent thing is caused by some prior contingent thing, forever and ever—this would not provide the adequate explanation we require.

There is much that can be said to overcome these obstacles, but here are two quick rejoinders. First, it is highly rational to expect an explanation for something unless there is principled reason not to. After all, how else would we pursue science and philosophy, or increase our understanding of the world? To arbitrarily abandon this “explain everything (or at least as much as we can)” principle, particularly in the face of some fact that crucially seems to require explanation (like contingency), simply because its application converges upon theism, smacks of evasion, not objection, and is quite irrational. So, unless we have some good reason to think the fact of contingency cannot possibly find explanation—and we don’t!—it is far more rational to go with even just a conceivable explanation than no explanation at all.

As for the infinite regress objection? Is it really just turtles all the way down? Here seventeenth-century philosopher Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, one of the original formulators of this line of argument, offers a satisfying response: suppose there were an infinite line of geometry books, with each one having been copied from the one previous. Does this infinite regress remove all relevant mystery?

Leibniz says obviously not, and I agree. After all, we would still want to know why there is that infinite line of geometry books instead of nothing, and why the subject is geometry and not, say, biochemistry instead. Thus, according to Leibniz, even if an infinite regress of contingent causes is possible, it is irrelevant. The fact of contingency cannot be adequately explained by further contingency, no matter how much contingency there is and no matter how that contingency is arranged (in a line, circle, etc.).

Finally, a bonus consideration: While it seems that a necessary being is useful for explaining all contingent being, we should still like to know how contingency can arise from necessity. If fundamental reality is necessary, then why isn’t everything necessary? Here again, classical theism has the advantage, since we can argue that God—the single, simple, necessary being—freely chose to create the physical world. God’s act of free choice preserves the fact of contingency (that the world need not have been) while anchoring everything in necessity. Great result.

2. The Argument from Morality

Many of us take morality to be objective, which is to say, we believe that our moral statements and beliefs (e.g., that murder is wrong) are not merely describing people’s attitudes or preferences, but relating to what it means to live an objectively good life and flourish as the kinds of things we are.

If morality is objective, then specific people can be wrong in their moral beliefs, because what makes a moral belief true or false is beyond what a person happens to desire. This ought to be common sense, since most of us think desiring to love our fellow man is really good, whereas desiring to oppress our fellow man is really bad, and we think people who believe or act otherwise are gravely mistaken.

The traditional atheist, who claims that fundamental reality is just indifferent mindless stuff, and that everything about human existence reduces to atomic and evolutionary theory, veers toward nihilism. In other words, our moral sentiments, according to the atheist, are evolutionarily acquired beliefs insofar as they are useful for getting us to “have sex and avoid bears,” not because they are in any sense “true.” For the nihilist, moral beliefs are just personal preferences, mere sentiments or attitudes or tastes, like what we express when evaluating tapioca pudding or Nickelback’s “Photograph.”

It is commonly understood that many atheists, new and old, are nihilists. “There are no objective moral facts,” Nietzsche once pronounced. In modern times, naturalist philosophers like Alex Rosenberg argue that Darwinian theory (conjoined with naturalism) is an acid that dissolves our traditional understanding of morality, and that nihilism is the only consistent atheistic story about morality. As atheist philosopher Michael Ruse tells us, morality is “flimflam” . . . “an illusion” . . . “just a matter of emotions.” All fairly common atheistic commitments—and, I would add, consistent, coming from their naturalistic starting point.

On the other hand, if some atheist is reluctant to abandon objective morality, as many (thankfully) are, he must complicate his worldview to accommodate morality. Doing so invites two serious problems.

First, such complications will be suspiciously ad hoc and render the atheist’s theory less likely to be true. Why? Because simpler theories are more likely to be true, and the simpler atheistic theory is obviously the one that explains away objective morality through “blind” evolutionary forces, as many naturalists convincingly argue.

Moreover, the moral dimension appears extremely rich, which means the complications made by the atheist will have to be extensive to cover everything. For example, the atheist needs not just to explain moral facts (e.g., that rape is always wrong), but moral knowledge (e.g., how we know that rape is always wrong?). Imagine how much we would have to add to a theory that otherwise veers strongly, if not inevitably, to nihilism to accommodate these many features of moral experience. It’s a lot, building in a ton of complications, making the naturalist’s theory not very believable.

Second, recall that the mode of intellectual operation for the naturalist is scientistic, meaning, in cliché form, that we ought not “go beyond the science” in our claims to knowledge. However, moral facts are clearly not something science can tell us about, since nobody can see moral facts through a microscope or telescope, to put it crudely. This “breach of conduct” from a naturalist is problematic, since naturalists are effectively admitting that science isn’t the be-all and end-all and does not exhaust the intelligible content of reality. But if that’s the case, then what’s stopping us from running philosophical arguments for God, including as the best explanation for moral facts and knowledge and human dignity?

Once again, classical theism has considerable advantages, as theism can explain all the relevant moral features of reality with a simple and highly unified theory. For the classical theist, fundamental reality—God, who just is supreme being and supreme goodness—is where being and value converge at their climax. He provides a stable, traditional, and definitely rationally decidable way of thinking about the moral landscape. God can also equip us with reliable ways of forming moral beliefs and would be interested in doing so. So moral knowledge is expected if God exists as well.

For these reasons, if we think morality is objective, that we can know at least some moral truths, and that human beings really do have a special place in the universe, we really should endorse classical theism over atheistic naturalism.

3. The Argument from Consciousness

Life presents to us an extremely rich qualitative dimension, which is to say, the entire “what it is like”-ness to being you and experiencing the things you experience. The spicy scent of ginger tea, the easy sight of the flamingo, and the luscious guitar sounds of Ratt drive the point home.

The way naturalists usually tell it is that consciousness is a late and local phenomenon, something that emerges from purely mindless physical stuff. Simply put, whatever is fundamental to the naturalist is, effectively, whatever consciousness is not: it is not feeling, not sensing, and not “about” anything (the way thoughts are about things).

But the immediate problem is that it seems extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, to construct consciousness from an utterly unconscious base, as described by naturalism.

Just think about it. How does one take mindless atoms and make a unified center of conscious awareness, a subject that binds together so many different thoughts and feelings through intervals of time?

The problem is not just a matter of trying to establish sufficient material complexity, but also how one leaps, as if by magic, across profoundly different kinds of reality. Compare: just as the number and arrangement of white LEGO blocks is irrelevant to constructing a purple tower (even infinite time and number of pieces won’t help), it seems that the same problem, if not significantly worse, applies when it comes to constructing a unified conscious being from the disparate mindless blocks that the naturalistic worldview has to offer.

The problem doesn’t end there, however. For even if the naturalist can make sense of how consciousness could emerge from an unconscious base, he doesn’t have a good story for explaining why it would emerge. Consciousness seems wasteful for the naturalist, since it’s the mindless atoms that do all the work, anyway. (Remember that according to naturalism, the physical realm causes and determines the mental realm, not the other way around.) Thus, there is no good naturalistic-evolutionary account for why the emergence of consciousness would happen, even if the emergence of consciousness could happen.

Classical theism avoids both issues since theism isn’t committed to everything reducing to physics (which is absurd anyway, but whatever—set that aside). In a real sense, molecules aren’t fundamental in classical and Christian theism. Persons are. Theism starts not from a principle of indifference, but a principle of perfection, where everything in the created world is not just less than, but infinitely less than what stands at the foundation. Surely it is easier to think of how we can get something lesser from something (infinitely) greater than it is to think of how one can get something so profound as consciousness from something entirely bereft of thoughts and feelings, like atoms.

Moreover, theism gives reason to expect conscious beings. We are good to have around. God would know this and would be motivated to bring us about. So not only is our emergence possible on theism, but it is also expected. All this gives another powerful reason to accept classical theism over atheistic naturalism.

4. The Argument from Fine-Tuning

We have a basic intuition that stuff that seems “well put together”—i.e., complex stuff, with functionally interrelated parts—is the product of intelligence. This intuition is frequently applied in experience: we see a mousetrap or a Nintendo Switch or the Mona Lisa, and we naturally think some intelligent being produced it. By and large, this intuition is frequently confirmed in experience. Certain things seem to obviously be the product of forethought, which implies that creative intelligence (the ability to engage in relational thinking), not blind (unintelligent) natural forces, is responsible.

But the atheist says, “Not so fast: evolution shows us how things that appear designed are actually the product of totally unintelligent, pitiless forces of nature.”

However, as the best science informs us, evolution requires a very special physical setup to occur, and the physical setup of our universe is incredibly “fine-tuned” or “really well put together” concerning the necessary conditions for the emergence of interactive life. Physicists tell us that if things were just a teensy-weensy bit different concerning, say, the expansion rate of the universe, the strength of the strong nuclear force, the weight of the electron, or many other examples, the emergence of intelligence life would not be possible, because in many cases chemistry would not be possible, or the universe would have collapsed back in on itself, or some other catastrophic scenario. This conclusion enjoys overwhelming expert consensus, from theists and atheists alike. Where the disagreement largely lies is in what explains the fine-tuning.

From the best of what we know, scientifically speaking, evolution requires a physical system that appears “well put together,” a sort of “Goldilocks” situation, where things are just right for evolution to take hold and eventually produce beings like us. Once all that is understood, it becomes clear that evolution does not defeat our frequently confirmed intuition that stuff that appears well put together is best explained by intelligent agency, something capable of foresight.

At this point, the atheist might say the multiverse could explain fine-tuning. The theist can respond, maybe it does. But how does that help? As physicist Luke Barnes explains, any theoretically plausible model of the multiverse itself requires fine-tuning; thus, the problem is just relocated, not actually resolved. So until someone can propose a multiverse model that is predictively useful as a physical theory and does not itself appear well fit together (finely tuned), the theist is justified in maintaining his intuition that things that appear well put together are well put together because something intelligent is behind them.

The basic intuition is undefeated “all the way down.” There is thus no reason—from science, anyway—to think things that strongly appear to be the product of intelligence somehow aren’t.

Finally, when it comes to an entire physical universe being well put together, it does not take a lot of imagination to suppose whose intelligence is behind it.

(A note: Someone might worry that God is a poor explanation of the physical universe because God would be more complex than the physical universe. This is false. In the most relevant sense, God is far simpler than any physical reality, since God is an unrestricted act of understanding. In other words, God is the absolutely simple and immaterial first principle of all, a being of pure positiveness, with zero limitations or arbitrary restrictions, lacking all internal complexity, especially physical complexity. That makes God not only simpler than any possible physical explanation, but the simplest conceivable explanation there is.)

5. The Argument from Suffering

Recall the argument from consciousness. There it was made clear that the naturalistic worldview holds that our mental life is something late and local, preceded by and entirely caused by unthinking, unfeeling physical bits. Such commitments are what cause many naturalists to endorse a position called epiphenomenalism (an epiphonema is just something that is itself caused but causes nothing) when it comes to our mental life, or our thoughts and feelings. This is a spooky position and contrary to common sense, since it implies, for example, that our desiring coffee—that is, the feeling of wanting coffee—has nothing to do with our going and getting coffee. Such a feeling just coincidentally (magically?) attends to blind physical forces causing the action of “getting coffee.”

Now, to be clear, epiphenomenalism is as self-evidently false as anything in philosophy could be, and to the extent that naturalism is committed to epiphenomenalism, is even more reason to reject naturalism.

But there is yet another problem. Typically, the naturalist tells us that the vast suffering of our experience is far better expected if God does not exist and if naturalism is true, and so we should endorse naturalism over theism. But this story is way too superficial and ignores too much of what actually goes on in naturalistic research programs, including philosophy of mind. So let’s connect some dots.

Evolution selects for outcomes and functions that confer survival advantage, not feelings, per se, and human functions for the naturalist are possible without feeling. For example, the function of me pulling my hand away from the prick of a pin does not require any painful feeling—it requires no feeling at all within the naturalistic understanding, because the feeling is causally irrelevant. Further, if there is a feeling attendant to some function of human behavior, the feeling could have been literally anything; pulling my hand from the pin could have been correlated with the feeling I feel when listening to the Barney theme song, tasting a grape, or looking at my grandmother’s bunion. Why? Again, because the feeling plays no role in what “the physics” is doing, since the feelings are determined by the physics and the physics is in no way determined by the feelings. (For the naturalistic, remember, the causality is entirely in one direction.) Thus, the outcome would have been the same no matter what the feeling is, or if there is any feeling at all, because it is entirely the unconscious, unfeeling physical processes that matter, that do the functional work and that, ultimately, are selected for. Feelings don’t have anything to do with it, and so it just doesn’t seem there is any need for feelings to be there at all, or to be as “fitting” as they are, if the common naturalistic account of things is correct.

We can only scratch the surface of this argument here. The point for now is simply that once these (admittedly subtle) points concerning the mental and physical are understood, naturalism has no real story to tell for the actual distribution of suffering in our world. Things could have gotten along in just the same way they have without any feelings, good or bad. Things could have been far better or far worse, feelings-wise. The problem is that naturalism, when systematically articulated and consistent with its own inner logic, does not adequately predict any specific degree or distribution of suffering. It leaves all possibilities wide open.

However, once we grant a few plausible points about suffering, including that suffering can be spiritually medicinal (soul-healing and soul-building) alongside other plausible stories about God’s governance (particularly about letting natures play their part, including the natures of free beings), there is a strong theistic story we can tell that makes the distribution of suffering in this world not entirely surprising.

I cannot rehearse this story now, but the simple point is this: naturalism has no explanatory story to tell—ultimately—anyway, about the suffering we experience. Some story is better than no story, and so even the suffering of our experience is evidence for rather than against the existence of God.”

Love and truth,

When did “conversion” become a dirty word?

-Caravaggio, ca. 1600/1601, oil on cypress wood, 237 cm × 189 cm (93 in × 74 in), Odescalchi Balbi Collection, Rome, please click on the image for greater detail.

-by Bp Robert Barron, Bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota.

“I have recently returned from World Youth Day in Lisbon, where I gave five presentations, each one of which, as I promised, was evangelical in purpose. I made that promise in response to Cardinal-elect Américo Aguiar, the organizer of the international gathering of young people who had assured us, a week before the meeting, that he had “no interest in converting anyone to Christ or to the Catholic Church.” Though my talks were enthusiastically received by crowds ranging up to twelve and thirteen thousand, I found myself rebuked, upon my return, by papal biographer Austen Ivereigh in the pages of Commonweal. Apparently, I did not understand the subtleties of Bishop Aguiar’s mind and had failed to grasp the key distinction between evangelization and proselytism. On Ivereigh’s reading, the former is, evidently, “facilitating an encounter with the living Christ” while the latter is “converting others to the Catholic Church.” In fact, Ivereigh goes so far as to say that any effort at conversion to the Church “contradicts” authentic evangelization.

Well, one scarcely knows where to begin responding to the confusions on display here. The most obvious is the painful wedge that Ivereigh drives between Jesus and his mystical body. The Church is not a collectivity of like-minded devotees of the “living Christ,” whom they presumably have found outside of the stifling confines of the ecclesial institution. Rather, the Church is Christ’s body, the visible means by which he is known, the vehicle that he employs to convey his life to the world. This understanding of the Church is implicit in the Lord’s famous parable of the sheep and goats—“Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do it to me”—as well as in the various accounts of Paul’s conversion, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Therefore, if one wants an encounter with the living Christ, in the full sense of that term, she must seek communion with Christ’s mystical body, the living organism of the Church. The late Cardinal George of Chicago often remarked, “Just as you can’t know me apart from my body, you cannot know Christ apart from the Church which is his body.” A Jesus existing apart from his Church, it seems to me, is not “the living Christ” but rather a gnostic fantasy.

A second confusion is terminological. What Ivereigh is calling “evangelization” is, in point of fact, “pre-evangelization.” One can indeed prepare the ground for Christ in a thousand different ways: through invitation, conversation, debate, argument, the establishment of friendship, etc. One might legitimately say, at this stage of the process, that one is not pressing the matter of conversion, but one is most definitely paving the way for it. Unless it conduces toward real evangelization, pre-evangelization is an absurdity. And Ivereigh’s identification of “proselytism” and “converting others to the Catholic Church” is just plain ridiculous. If he is right about this, then Pope Francis, who has for ten years consistently spoken out against the p-word, is a fierce opponent of converting people to the Catholic Church! I can offer a correction, as it were, from the horse’s mouth. When I was still a bishop in California, I participated, with my brothers, in a wide-ranging, three-hour conversation with the Pope, during our ad limina visit. In the course of that session, one of the bishops asked Francis to clarify the distinction between evangelization (which the Pope obviously favors) and proselytism (which he obviously doesn’t). The Holy Father clearly stated that by “proselytism” he means an attempt at evangelization that is aggressive, brow-beating, condescending, and disrespectful. I can assure you that he most certainly did not imply that it is tantamount to bringing people into the Church.

During the confusing and often heated discussions around the meaning of “synodality,” I have found it useful to turn to the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and I believe that consulting that classic text might prove helpful in this context as well. Jesus walks with and carefully listens to His erstwhile disciples, even as they move in the wrong direction. All of Pope Francis’s teaching on listening and accompaniment is beautifully congruent with the opening of this narrative. It was a necessary propaedeutic, but what emerges from this, if I might put it this way, pre-evangelistic conversation is a relatively superficial and disjointed understanding of the Lord: they have many of the facts right, but they don’t see the pattern. It was indeed an encounter with Christ, but no careful reader of the story would conclude that it rendered anything close to an adequate understanding of Jesus.

After listening for some time, Jesus speaks and does so definitively: “How foolish you are; how slow to understand.” Then He immerses them in the Scriptures, explaining how all of the revealed word points toward Him, relating to Him as type and pre-figurement. Though their hearts are burning within them, the two disciples still do not fully see the Lord. Only when He breaks the bread do they recognize Him, whereupon He vanishes from their sight. At that, the two disciples, who were initially walking the wrong way, turn back to Jerusalem and, with excitement, join the eleven apostles. As commentators from the ancient world to the present day have remarked, this story is a sort of icon of the Mass, including a kind of Liturgy of the Word and a Liturgy of the Eucharist, and concluding with a sending on mission. The point is that Jesus is fully encountered only in and through the Eucharistic liturgy, the prayer par excellence of the Church. Apart from a real conversion to the Church, where word and bread are broken open, people will have, at best, a fragmented sense of who Jesus is.

Ivereigh concluded his criticism of me by maintaining that I was someone who, out of fear, is “clinging to identity and difference.” Well, I can assure him that fear has nothing to do with it, but otherwise, guilty as charged. I proudly cling to the identity of the Church of Jesus Christ and declare it to all the world as something different indeed, a uniquely liberating form of life.”

Love and truth,

CCC 846 – Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus

-please click on the image for greater detail

Vatican Piazza

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Explicit & implicit faith: who can be saved?

CCC 846 How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers?335 Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is His Body:

Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; He is present to us in His body which is the Church.

He Himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door.

Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.336

-by Bp Robert Barron, Bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota.

“You have probably heard by now that a statement made by Bishop Américo Aguiar has caused quite a stir. Aguiar is the auxiliary bishop of Lisbon, Portugal, and he is the chief coordinator of the upcoming World Youth Day. Moreover, he was, in a very surprising move, just named a cardinal by Pope Francis. So he is a man of considerable weight—which is one reason why his remarks have gotten so much attention. He commented, in reference to the international gathering over which he is presiding, “We want it to be normal for a young Catholic Christian to say and bear witness to who he is or for a young Muslim, Jew, or of another religion to also have no problem saying who he is and bearing witness to it, and for a young person who has no religion to feel welcome and to perhaps not feel strange for thinking in a different way.” The observation that excited the most wonderment and opposition was this: “We don’t want to convert the young people to Christ or to the Catholic Church or anything like that at all.” I will admit that the remark of his that disturbed me the most, however, was this one: “That we all understand that differences are a richness and the world will be objectively better if we are capable of placing in the hearts of all young people this certainty,” implying that fundamental disagreement on matters of religion is good in itself, indeed what God actively desires. Lots of Catholics around the world have been, to put it mildly, puzzled by the cardinal-elect’s musings.

In the wake of the controversy, Bishop Aguiar, to be fair, has walked back his statements quite a bit, insisting that he meant only to criticize the aggressive, brow-beating manner of sharing the faith that goes by the unlovely name of “proselytizing.” (I must say that this clarification still does nothing to explain his straightforward assertion that he does not want to convert young people to Christ or to the Catholic Church.) But for the moment, I will let that go and take him at his word. Nevertheless, I would like to address a wider cultural issue that his intervention raises—namely, the simple fact that most people in the West would probably consider his original sentiments uncontroversial.

Behind so much of the language of tolerance, acceptance, and non-judgmentalism in regard to religion is the profound conviction that religious truth is unavailable to us and that it finally doesn’t matter what one believes as long as one subscribes to certain ethical principles. Provided one is a decent person, who cares if he or she is a devout Christian, Buddhist, Jew, or Muslim—or nonbeliever? And if that is the case, then why wouldn’t we see the variety of religions as a positive, one more expression of the diversity that so beguiles the contemporary culture? And given this epistemological indifferentism, wouldn’t any attempt at “conversion” be nothing more than arrogant aggression?

As I have been arguing for years, and pace the current cultural consensus, the Catholic Church places an enormous emphasis on doctrinal correctness. It most assuredly thinks that religious truth is available to us and that having it (or not having it) matters immensely. It does not hold that “being a nice person” is somehow sufficient, either intellectually or morally; otherwise, it would never have spent centuries hammering out its creedal statements with technical precision. And it most certainly does maintain that evangelization is its central, pivotal, most defining work. St. Paul himself said, “Woe to me if I do not evangelize” (1 Cor. 9:16); and Pope St. Paul VI declared that the Church is nothing but a mission to spread the Gospel. Neither the first-century St. Paul nor the twentieth-century St. Paul thought for a moment that evangelizing is tantamount to imperialism or that religious “diversity” is somehow an end in itself. Rather, both wanted the whole world to be brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This is precisely why every institution, every activity, every program of the Church is dedicated, finally, to announcing Jesus. Some years ago, when I was an auxiliary bishop in California, I was in dialogue with the board members of a Catholic high school. When I commented that the purpose of the school was, ultimately, evangelization, many of them balked and said, “If we emphasize that, we’ll alienate most of our students and their parents.” My response was, “Well, then you should close the school. Who needs one more secular STEM academy?” Needless to say, I was never invited back to address that board! But I didn’t care. When any Catholic institution, ministry, or outreach forgets its evangelical purpose, it has lost its soul. 

The same goes for World Youth Day. One of Pope St. John Paul II’s greatest contributions to the Church, World Youth Day has always had, inescapably, an evangelical élan. It delighted the great Polish pope that so many of the young people of the world, in all of their diversity, came together at these gatherings, but if you had told him that the true purpose of the event was to celebrate difference and make everyone feel comfortable with who they are, and that you had no interest in converting anyone to Christ, you would have gotten a look to stop a train.”

Love & truth,