Category Archives: Philosophy

Does free will exist?

With free will, we truly are responsible for our own actions. We are even responsible for proper formation of our own moral compass and informed conscience. And, also those of our brothers and sisters. Gen 4:9

-by Bahar Gholipour, 9/19/2019, for The Atlantic, a New York–based tech and science journalist who covers the brain, neuroscience and psychology, genetics and AI.

“The death of free will began with thousands of finger taps. In 1964, two German scientists monitored the electrical activity of a dozen people’s brains. Each day for several months, volunteers came into the scientists’ lab at the University of Freiburg to get wires fixed to their scalp from a showerhead-like contraption overhead. The participants sat in a chair, tucked neatly in a metal tollbooth, with only one task: to flex a finger on their right hand at whatever irregular intervals pleased them, over and over, up to 500 times a visit.

The purpose of this experiment was to search for signals in the participants’ brains that preceded each finger tap. At the time, researchers knew how to measure brain activity that occurred in response to events out in the world—when a person hears a song, for instance, or looks at a photograph—but no one had figured out how to isolate the signs of someone’s brain actually initiating an action.

The experiment’s results came in squiggly, dotted lines, a representation of changing brain waves. In the milliseconds leading up to the finger taps, the lines showed an almost undetectably faint uptick: a wave that rose for about a second, like a drumroll of firing neurons, then ended in an abrupt crash. This flurry of neuronal activity, which the scientists called the Bereitschaftspotential, or readiness potential, was like a gift of infinitesimal time travel. For the first time, they could see the brain readying itself to create a voluntary movement.

This momentous discovery was the beginning of a lot of trouble in neuroscience. Twenty years later, the American physiologist Benjamin Libet used the Bereitschaftspotential to make the case not only that the brain shows signs of a decision before a person acts, but that, incredibly, the brain’s wheels start turning before the person even consciously intends to do something. Suddenly, people’s choices—even a basic finger tap—appeared to be determined by something outside of their own perceived volition.

As a philosophical question, whether humans have control over their own actions had been fought over for centuries before Libet walked into a lab. But Libet introduced a genuine neurological argument against free will. His finding set off a new surge of debate in science and philosophy circles. And over time, the implications have been spun into cultural lore.

Today, the notion that our brains make choices before we are even aware of them will now pop up in cocktail-party conversation or in a review of Black Mirror. It’s covered by mainstream journalism outlets, including This American Life, Radiolab, and this magazine. Libet’s work is frequently brought up by popular intellectuals such as Sam Harris and Yuval Noah Harari to argue that science has proved humans are not the authors of their actions.

It would be quite an achievement for a brain signal 100 times smaller than major brain waves to solve the problem of free will. But the story of the Bereitschaftspotential has one more twist: It might be something else entirely.

The Bereitschaftspotential was never meant to get entangled in free-will debates. If anything, it was pursued to show that the brain has a will of sorts. The two German scientists who discovered it, a young neurologist named Hans Helmut Kornhuber and his doctoral student Lüder Deecke, had grown frustrated with their era’s scientific approach to the brain as a passive machine that merely produces thoughts and actions in response to the outside world. Over lunch in 1964, the pair decided that they would figure out how the brain works to spontaneously generate an action. “Kornhuber and I believed in free will,” says Deecke, who is now 81 and lives in Vienna.

To pull off their experiment, the duo had to come up with tricks to circumvent limited technology. They had a state-of-the-art computer to measure their participants’ brain waves, but it worked only after it detected a finger tap. So to collect data on what happened in the brain beforehand, the two researchers realized that they could record their participants’ brain activity separately on tape, then play the reels backwards into the computer. This inventive technique, dubbed “reverse-averaging,” revealed the Bereitschaftspotential.

Images from the 1964 experiment show the Bereitschaftspotential (left) and one of the finger-tapping subjects. (Lüder Deecke)

The discovery garnered widespread attention. The Nobel laureate John Eccles and the prominent philosopher of science Karl Popper compared the study’s ingenuity to Galileo’s use of sliding balls for uncovering the laws of motion of the universe. With a handful of electrodes and a tape recorder, Kornhuber and Deecke had begun to do the same for the brain.

What the Bereitschaftspotential actually meant, however, was anyone’s guess. Its rising pattern appeared to reflect the dominoes of neural activity falling one by one on a track toward a person doing something. Scientists explained the Bereitschaftspotential as the electrophysiological sign of planning and initiating an action. Baked into that idea was the implicit assumption that the Bereitschaftspotential causes that action. The assumption was so natural, in fact, no one second-guessed it—or tested it.

Libet, a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco, questioned the Bereitschaftspotential in a different way. Why does it take half a second or so between deciding to tap a finger and actually doing it? He repeated Kornhuber and Deecke’s experiment, but asked his participants to watch a clocklike apparatus so that they could remember the moment they made a decision. The results showed that while the Bereitschaftspotential started to rise about 500 milliseconds before the participants performed an action, they reported their decision to take that action only about 150 milliseconds beforehand. “The brain evidently ‘decides’ to initiate the act” before a person is even aware that decision has taken place, Libet concluded.

To many scientists, it seemed implausible that our conscious awareness of a decision is only an illusory afterthought. Researchers questioned Libet’s experimental design, including the precision of the tools used to measure brain waves and the accuracy with which people could actually recall their decision time. But flaws were hard to pin down. And Libet, who died in 2007, had as many defenders as critics. In the decades since his experiment, study after study has replicated his finding using more modern technology such as fMRI.

But one aspect of Libet’s results sneaked by largely unchallenged: the possibility that what he was seeing was accurate, but that his conclusions were based on an unsound premise. What if the Bereitschaftspotential didn’t cause actions in the first place? A few notable studies did suggest this, but they failed to provide any clue to what the Bereitschaftspotential could be instead. To dismantle such a powerful idea, someone had to offer a real alternative.

In 2010, Aaron Schurger had an epiphany. As a researcher at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris, Schurger studied fluctuations in neuronal activity, the churning hum in the brain that emerges from the spontaneous flickering of hundreds of thousands of interconnected neurons. This ongoing electrophysiological noise rises and falls in slow tides, like the surface of the ocean—or, for that matter, like anything that results from many moving parts. “Just about every natural phenomenon that I can think of behaves this way. For example, the stock market’s financial time series or the weather,” Schurger says.

From a bird’s-eye view, all these cases of noisy data look like any other noise, devoid of pattern. But it occurred to Schurger that if someone lined them up by their peaks (thunderstorms, market records) and reverse-averaged them in the manner of Kornhuber and Deecke’s innovative approach, the results’ visual representations would look like climbing trends (intensifying weather, rising stocks). There would be no purpose behind these apparent trends—no prior plan to cause a storm or bolster the market. Really, the pattern would simply reflect how various factors had happened to coincide.

“I thought, Wait a minute,” Schurger says. If he applied the same method to the spontaneous brain noise he studied, what shape would he get? “I looked at my screen, and I saw something that looked like the Bereitschaftspotential.” Perhaps, Schurger realized, the Bereitschaftspotential’s rising pattern wasn’t a mark of a brain’s brewing intention at all, but something much more circumstantial.

Two years later, Schurger and his colleagues Jacobo Sitt and Stanislas Dehaene proposed an explanation. Neuroscientists know that for people to make any type of decision, our neurons need to gather evidence for each option. The decision is reached when one group of neurons accumulates evidence past a certain threshold. Sometimes, this evidence comes from sensory information from the outside world: If you’re watching snow fall, your brain will weigh the number of falling snowflakes against the few caught in the wind, and quickly settle on the fact that the snow is moving downward.

But Libet’s experiment, Schurger pointed out, provided its subjects with no such external cues. To decide when to tap their fingers, the participants simply acted whenever the moment struck them. Those spontaneous moments, Schurger reasoned, must have coincided with the haphazard ebb and flow of the participants’ brain activity. They would have been more likely to tap their fingers when their motor system happened to be closer to a threshold for movement initiation.

This would not imply, as Libet had thought, that people’s brains “decide” to move their fingers before they know it. Hardly. Rather, it would mean that the noisy activity in people’s brains sometimes happens to tip the scale if there’s nothing else to base a choice on, saving us from endless indecision when faced with an arbitrary task. The Bereitschaftspotential would be the rising part of the brain fluctuations that tend to coincide with the decisions. This is a highly specific situation, not a general case for all, or even many, choices.

Other recent studies support the idea of the Bereitschaftspotential as a symmetry-breaking signal. In a study of monkeys tasked with choosing between two equal options, a separate team of researchers saw that a monkey’s upcoming choice correlated with its intrinsic brain activity before the monkey was even presented with options.

In a new study under review for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Schurger and two Princeton researchers repeated a version of Libet’s experiment. To avoid unintentionally cherry-picking brain noise, they included a control condition in which people didn’t move at all. An artificial-intelligence classifier allowed them to find at what point brain activity in the two conditions diverged. If Libet was right, that should have happened at 500 milliseconds before the movement. But the algorithm couldn’t tell any difference until about only 150 milliseconds before the movement, the time people reported making decisions in Libet’s original experiment.

In other words, people’s subjective experience of a decision—what Libet’s study seemed to suggest was just an illusion—appeared to match the actual moment their brains showed them making a decision.

When Schurger first proposed the neural-noise explanation, in 2012, the paper didn’t get much outside attention, but it did create a buzz in neuroscience. Schurger received awards for overturning a long-standing idea. “It showed the Bereitschaftspotential may not be what we thought it was. That maybe it’s in some sense artifactual, related to how we analyze our data,” says Uri Maoz, a computational neuroscientist at Chapman University.

For a paradigm shift, the work met minimal resistance. Schurger appeared to have unearthed a classic scientific mistake, so subtle that no one had noticed it and no amount of replication studies could have solved it, unless they started testing for causality. Now, researchers who questioned Libet and those who supported him are both shifting away from basing their experiments on the Bereitschaftspotential. (The few people I found still holding the traditional view confessed that they had not read Schurger’s 2012 paper.)

“It’s opened my mind,” says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London who collaborated with Libet and reproduced the original experiments.

It’s still possible that Schurger is wrong. Researchers broadly accept that he has deflated Libet’s model of Bereitschaftspotential, but the inferential nature of brain modeling leaves the door cracked for an entirely different explanation in the future. And unfortunately for popular-science conversation, Schurger’s groundbreaking work does not solve the pesky question of free will any more than Libet’s did. If anything, Schurger has only deepened the question.

Is everything we do determined by the cause-and-effect chain of genes, environment, and the cells that make up our brain, or can we freely form intentions that influence our actions in the world? The topic is immensely complicated, and Schurger’s valiant debunking underscores the need for more precise and better-informed questions.

“Philosophers have been debating free will for millennia, and they have been making progress. But neuroscientists barged in like an elephant into a china shop and claimed to have solved it in one fell swoop,” Maoz says. In an attempt to get everyone on the same page, he is heading the first intensive research collaboration between neuroscientists and philosophers, backed by $7 million from two private foundations, the John Templeton Foundation and the Fetzer Institute. At an inaugural conference in March, attendees discussed plans for designing philosophically informed experiments, and unanimously agreed on the need to pin down the various meanings of “free will.”

In that, they join Libet himself. While he remained firm on his interpretation of his study, he thought his experiment was not enough to prove total determinism—the idea that all events are set in place by previous ones, including our own mental functions. “Given the issue is so fundamentally important to our view of who we are, a claim that our free will is illusory should be based on fairly direct evidence,” he wrote in a 2004 book. “Such evidence is not available.””

-by Bernardo Kastrup, 2/5/2020, for Scientific American

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Most recently the author of The Idea of the World: A Multi-disciplinary Argument for the Mental Nature of Reality, Bernardo Kastrup has a Ph.D. in philosophy (ontology, philosophy of mind) and another in computer engineering (reconfigurable computing, artificial intelligence). He has worked as a scientist in some of the world’s foremost research laboratories, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), and authored many academic papers and books on philosophy and science. For more information, freely downloadable papers, videos, etc., please visit www.bernardokastrup.com.

“At least since the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, one of the most central questions of human existence has been whether we have free will. In the late 20th century, some thought neuroscience had settled the question. However, as it has recently become clear, such was not the case. The elusive answer is nonetheless foundational to our moral codes, criminal justice system, religions and even to the very meaning of life itself—for if every event of life is merely the predictable outcome of mechanical laws, one may question the point of it all.

But before we ask ourselves whether we have free will, we must understand what exactly we mean by it. A common and straightforward view is that, if our choices are predetermined, then we don’t have free will; otherwise we do. Yet, upon more careful reflection, this view proves surprisingly inappropriate.

To see why, notice first that the prefix “pre” in “predetermined choice” is entirely redundant. Not only are all predetermined choices determined by definition, all determined choices can be regarded as predetermined as well: they always result from dispositions or necessities that precede them. Therefore, what we are really asking is simply whether our choices are determined.

In this context, a free-willed choice would be an undetermined one. But what is an undetermined choice? It can only be a random one, for anything that isn’t fundamentally random reflects some underlying disposition or necessity that determines it. There is no semantic space between determinism and randomness that could accommodate choices that are neither. This is a simple but important point, for we often think—incoherently—of free-willed choices as neither determined nor random.

Our very notion of randomness is already nebulous and ambiguous to begin with. Operationally, we say that a process is random if we can’t discern a pattern in it. However, a truly random process can, in principle, produce any pattern by mere chance. The probability of this happening may be small, but it isn’t zero. So, when we say that a process is random, we are merely acknowledging our ignorance of its potential underlying causal basis. As such, an appeal to randomness doesn’t suffice to define free will.

Moreover, even if it did, when we think of free will we don’t think of mere randomness. Free choices aren’t erratic ones, are they? Neither are they undetermined: if I believe that I make free choices, it is because I feel that my choices are determined by me. A free choice is one determined by my preferences, likes, dislikes, character, etc., as opposed to someone else’s or other external forces.

But if our choices are always determined anyway, what does it mean to talk of free will in the first place? If you think about it carefully, the answer is self-evident: we have free will if our choices are determined by that which we experientially identify with. I identify with my tastes and preferences—as consciously felt by me—in the sense that I regard them as expressions of myself. My choices are thus free insofar as they are determined by these felt tastes and preferences.

Why, then, do we think that metaphysical materialism—the notion that our choices are determined by neurophysiological activity in our own brain—contradicts free will? Because, try as we might, we don’t experientially identify with neurophysiology; not even our own. As far as our conscious life is concerned, the neurophysiological activity in our brain is merely an abstraction. All we are directly and concretely acquainted with are our fears, desires, inclinations, etc., as experienced—that is, our felt volitional states. So, we identify with these, not with networks of firing neurons inside our skull. The alleged identity between neurophysiology and felt volition is merely a conceptual—not an experiential—one.

The key issue here is one that permeates the entire metaphysics of materialism: all we ever truly have are the contents of consciousness, which philosophers call “phenomenality.”’ Our entire life is a stream of felt and perceived phenomenality. That this phenomenality somehow arises from something material, outside consciousness—such as networks of firing neurons—is a theoretical inference, not a lived reality; it’s a narrative we create and buy into on the basis of conceptual reasoning, not something felt. That’s why, for the life of us, we can’t truly identify with it.

So, the question of free will boils down to one of metaphysics: are our felt volitional states reducible to something outside and independent of consciousness? If so, there cannot be free will, for we can only identify with contents of consciousness. But if, instead, neurophysiology is merely how our felt volitional states present themselves to observation from an outside perspective—that is, if neurophysiology is merely the image of conscious willing, not its cause or source—then we do have free will; for in the latter case, our choices are determined by volitional states we intuitively regard as expressions of ourselves.

Crucially, the question of metaphysics can be legitimately broached in a way that inverts the usual free will equation: according to 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, it is the laws of nature that arise from a transpersonal will, not the will from the laws of nature. Felt volitional states are the irreducible foundation of both mind and world. Although Schopenhauer’s views are often woefully misunderstood and misrepresented—most conspicuously by presumed experts—when correctly construed they offer a coherent scheme for reconciling free will with seemingly deterministic natural laws.

As elucidated in my concise new book, Decoding Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics, for Schopenhauer the inner essence of everything is conscious volition—that is, will. Nature is dynamic because its underlying volitional states provide the impetus required for events to unfold. Like his predecessor Immanuel Kant, Schopenhauer thought of what we call the “physical world” as merely an image, a perceptual representation of the world in the mind of an observer. But this representation isn’t what the world is like in itself, prior to being represented.

Since the information we have about the external environment seems to be limited to perceptual representations, Kant considered the world-in-itself unknowable. Schopenhauer, however, argued that we can learn something about it not only through the sense organs, but also through introspection. His argument goes as follows: even in the absence of all self-perception mediated by the sense organs, we would still experience our own endogenous, felt volition.

Therefore, prior to being represented we are essentially will. Our physical body is merely how our will presents itself to an external vantage point. And since both our body and the rest of the world appear in representation as matter, Schopenhauer inferred that the rest of the world, just like ourselves, is also essentially will.

In Schopenhauer’s illuminating view of reality, the will is indeed free because it is all there ultimately is. Yet, its image is nature’s seemingly deterministic laws, which reflect the instinctual inner consistency of the will. Today, over 200d years after he first published his groundbreaking ideas, Schopenhauer’s work can reconcile our innate intuition of free will with modern scientific determinism.”


-by Matt Nelson

“For those who reject the notion of free will, our experience of making our own decisions is nothing more than a deep-seated illusion. “The reality is,” insists biologist Anthony Cashmore, “not only do we have no more free will than a fly or a bacterium, in actuality we have no more free will than a bowl of sugar.”

Those who argue for the nonexistence of free will often do so on scientific grounds. And those who offer a scientific “proof” against free will point to one type of experiment more than any other—namely, those done and inspired by neurobiologist Benjamin Libet.

In 1983, Libet seemed to prove that the unconscious processes of the brain—the interaction of molecules, electrical discharges, and the like, which are associated with decision-making—are ultimately in control. In other words, our voluntary decisions begin unconsciously in the brain. So it is the brain, not the person, that decides the actions we “feel” to be voluntary.

Libet-style experiments involve having a subject carry out a simple prescribed behavior (flexing the wrist, bending a finger, etc.) whenever he feels the urge to do so. Watching a special clock while he executes his movement, the subject notes the specific time at which he decided to move. The goal of the researchers is to plot a timeline of averages, noting the typical sequence of brain activity (e.g., by EEG), muscle activity (e.g., by EMG), and conscious urging (by subjective reporting). The expectation is that if our intentional actions are truly free, associated brain activity will follow the moment of decision. But this is not what Libet found.

Why does this matter? Well, it has obvious implications for the truth of the Catholic worldview. It also concerns human nature and how we understand ourselves as human beings. For if we don’t have free will, then this may dramatically change how we govern ourselves and interact with others. Much of how we operate as individuals, communities, states, and institutions presuppose that we are personally responsible for our actions. But if it were proven that we are not, this would entirely undermine our rationale for structuring and governing society on the assumption that we are free creatures.

So did these experiments really succeed in proving that free will is an illusion? They did not.

First of all, the experiments look exclusively at spontaneously willed behavior with brain activity. Participants were asked to act when they felt the urge. These experiments, then, say little about choices resulting from rational planning. At most, they suggest the nonexistence of free will in the restricted case of willful spontaneity. The voluntary actions with which they are concerned are barely more than split-second reactions. As some critics have observed, such studies tell us more about “picking” than “choosing.”

But even that conclusion might be overly hasty, for the concept of free will is not as plain as often presumed. Free will is a spiritual appetite for the intellectually known good. A decision, moved by free will, is not a quantifiable event like a neuronal discharge. Nor is it reducible to an instantaneous impulse or urge. And a willed movement is not always a purely linear cause-then-effect event like a cue ball striking an eight-ball into action. The activity of the will is more “smoothed out” and pervasive than an impulse. And it is enacted in layers. Thus, even in a setting like the Libet-style experiments, the free will cannot be isolated as cleanly as many assume.

For each study participant, in carrying out the prescribed movement, the will to move in this way at this time is nested within a multiplicity of other intentions motivating the same action. A singular act of wrist flexion is driven also (presumably) by the will to participate in the study; by the desire to follow the specific instructions given; by the desire to contribute to neuroscientific advancement; and in the will to do something for the common good. Additionally, the subject may bend his wrist because he desires to fulfill a class requirement—a class he desires to pass—or because he thinks it will hold the attention of the attractive research assistant across the room. The point is this: due to the complex integration of intentions involved in a single choice to move a body part, these studies cannot account for all the reasons that cause a person to conduct a singular movement. There is a sense in which the free decision of the research subject to flex his wrist “now” originated even before he entered the research lab.

We find ourselves here at an important juncture. It shows that once we have started making claims about free will’s reality or unreality, we have turned from all observation, measurement, and data analysis. We have reached the far side of the physical and have (perhaps unwittingly) thrust ourselves into the realm of philosophy.

Let’s turn to some further considerations. The Libet experiments relied on machines to capture brain and muscle activity. But it must be noted that neither EEG nor fMRI, nor any other form of advanced imaging, can capture the qualitative content of brain activity. When researchers carry out Libet-style experiments, they note the onset of brain activity and compare it to that of muscle activity and, more importantly, the time when the subject reports consciously willing the prescribed movement. But there is no precise way for scientists to know—even when the subject acts on an urge—whether the brain activity recorded or observed is representative of decision, or decision-making, or planning to make a decision.

In fact, more recent research shows the same brain activity believed to induce conscious decision-making is also found in subjects even when they do not make a conscious decision. Libet’s initial conclusion was “that cerebral initiation even of a spontaneous voluntary act . . . can and usually does begin unconsciously.” But these recent studies call such a conclusion into serious question.

There are several other critiques and limitations that have a significant impact on how much (or little) Libet-style studies actually prove. For an excellent detailed discussion of these limitations and their philosophical implications, read Alfred Mele’s little book Free.

At most, Libet-style experiments prove that a constrained subset of willed behaviors is not as freely executed as we are inclined to assume. But as we have seen, they hardly prove even that much. As far as Catholics traditionally conceive human freedom, such experiments pose little threat—and thus, the human person has every reason to believe that he remains infinitely more free than a bowl of sugar.”

Love, freely willed,
Matthew

Conscience

-United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

What is conscience?
God creates us with a capacity to know and love him, and we have a natural desire to seek the truth about him. Fortunately, we don’t search for God unaided; indeed, he calls us to himself and writes his law on our hearts to help us draw closer to him.

Conscience helps us hear the voice of God; it helps us recognize the truth about God and the truth about how we ought to live. Conscience is “a judgment of reason”1 by which we determine whether an action is right or wrong.

Jesus told the apostles, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). We deepen our relationship with God by following him, and in doing so, we become more fully ourselves.

Importance of a Well-Formed Conscience
Have you ever made a decision that turned out badly, but if you had more information beforehand, you would have made a better decision? Sometimes, we may have the best of intentions to do good, but choose an action that is, in itself, wrong.

For example, think of learning a new language. We can only speak with the language we have, and if we have not received good education in vocabulary and grammar, we will communicate poorly, and others will not understand us. It is similar with conscience.

If our conscience isn’t well-formed, we aren’t well-equipped to determine right from wrong. All of us have the personal responsibility to align our consciences with the truth so that, when we are faced with the challenges of daily life, our consciences can help guide us well.

How to Form Our Consciences
Wherever we are on our journey with Christ, we can grow deeper with him by continuing the work of forming our consciences well, so that we may follow him ever more closely. Although not a complete list, these suggestions can help us as we seek to inform and strengthen our consciences with God’s truth.

Pray
Through prayer and participation in the sacraments, especially Confession and the Eucharist, we encounter the living God. Spending time with the Lord, such as in silent adoration, opens our hearts to him. In drawing closer to the Lord, we allow God’s grace to conform our minds and hearts to Christ, so that we might better discern in every moment how we ought to act.

Learn
Without a foundational, practical formation, it is difficult for our consciences to guide us well in concrete situations. As Catholics, we have the immense gift of the teaching authority of the Catholic Church and can turn to it for help forming our consciences. For example, learning about Christian moral principles, reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or researching what the Church says about a challenging teaching will help us grow in knowledge of the truth. In turn, this helps us understand a little more how to live in a way that leads to our true happiness.

Reflect
We are formed by the stories we hear and tell. We may be uncertain how we ought to respond to various challenges as followers of Jesus, but there are many saints who have faced similar questions throughout the ages. Immersing ourselves in the stories of holy women and men can encourage us and help us develop habits of mind that allow us to grow. Stories help us hone our instincts.

Nurture friendships
A life of following Jesus is exceedingly difficult without help from a community. When we devote energy to holy friendships with people who are also trying to know, love, and serve the Lord, we gain partners who can lighten the load. Conversation with other Christians about how to respond to challenges in the life of discipleship are vital.

Two Challenges
A couple challenges we may face in following our consciences are worth noting.

Indifference
When we are bombarded with news, images, stories, and sound bites, it’s easy to become numb to other people and the world around us. Conscience requires us to be attentive. We must listen to God, who speaks to us. Having a well-formed conscience doesn’t mean we have all the answers to the complex problems in the world, but it does mean that we are sensitive to the needs and struggles of other people.

Coercion
Increasingly, we are seeing that certain groups use the power of the media and even of the state to coerce people to violate their consciences. We can see how unjust these types of actions are that insist that popular opinion, rather than conscience, should be our primary guide for action.

Our Response
Inspired by the example of Sister Agnes Walsh and her mother superior, let us devote ourselves anew to following wherever the Lord leads. Let us take courage from their example of faith and, when facing our own trials, remember what Jesus promised his apostles before ascending into heaven: “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Be not afraid; God is with us.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd. ed., 1778.

-Archdiocese of St Paul/Minneapolis

What does it mean to have a well-formed conscience?
The formation of a good conscience is another fundamental element of Christian moral teaching. “Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act” (CCC, no. 1796). “Man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary” (GS, no. 16).

Conscience represents both the more general ability we have as human beings to know what is good and right and the concrete judgments we make in particular situations concerning what we should do or about what we have already done. Moral choices confront us with the decision to follow or depart from reason and the divine law. A good conscience makes judgments that conform to reason and the good that is willed by the Wisdom of God. A good conscience requires lifelong formation. Each baptized follower of Christ is obliged to form his or her conscience according to objective moral standards. The Word of God is a principal tool in the formation of conscience when it is assimilated by study, prayer, and practice. The prudent advice and good example of others support and enlighten our conscience. The authoritative teaching of the Church is an essential element in our conscience formation. Finally, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, combined with regular examination of our conscience, will help us develop a morally sensitive conscience.

Because our conscience is that inner sanctuary in which we listen to the voice of God, we must remember to distinguish between our subjective self and what is objectively true outside ourselves. We can be subjectively in error about something that is objectively true. On the objective level, if our conscience is “correct,” then there is no error between what is internally perceived to be true and truth itself. If there is an incorrect conscience, that means that the conscience is erroneous in its view of truth.

On the subjective level we can have a “certain” conscience, which means we believe that our conscience is in conformity with what is objectively true. A person can have a “certain” conscience on the subjective level but an “incorrect” one on the objective level. For example, a person thinks that Ash Wednesday is a Holy Day of Obligation and chooses to miss Mass anyway. The person thinks it is a Holy Day (certain subjectively but incorrect objectively) and acts on it. This person has a certain but incorrect conscience. But because the conscience acted against what it perceived to be objectively the good, the conscience chooses to sin.

There are some rules to follow in obeying one’s conscience. First, always follow a certain conscience. Second, an incorrect conscience must be changed if possible. Third, do not act with a doubtful conscience. We must always obey the certain judgments of our conscience, realizing that our conscience can be incorrect, that it can make a mistake about what is truly the good or the right thing to do. This can be due to ignorance in which, through no fault of our own, we did not have all we needed to make a correct judgment.

However, we must also recognize that ignorance and errors are not always free from guilt, for example, when we did not earnestly seek what we needed in order to form our conscience correctly. Since we have the obligation to obey our conscience, we also have the great responsibility to see that it is formed in a way that reflects the true moral good.

Through loyalty to conscience Christians are joined to other men in the search for truth and the right solution to many moral problems which arise both in the life of individuals and from social relationships. Hence, the more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and try to be guided by the objective standards of moral conduct. (GS, no. 16)”


-by Fr. Christopher Pietraszko, Ignitum, Fr. Christopher serves in the Diocese of London, Ontario.

“The Church is not called to micromanage consciences – because a conscience is a throne for Christ living in a unique way in the individual, whereby their own subjective experience of objective reality is called to become docile to God’s will in freedom (aligned). Micromanaging the conscience is ultimately dehumanizing, trivializing the the sacredness of the individual will in relationship with God’s particular call in that person’s life.

Egalitarianist tendencies can govern the mind of any form of leadership, whereby seeking “sameness” in all things is perceived to be equalizing, fair, and simple. This however is contrary to the gospel which expounds on the unity manifest in diversity. These two dimensions of unity and diversity are sometimes exaggerated or not integrated and in such a case one has not reached what we might call an intellectual or affective maturity in discernment.

Sacred Scripture indicates that the ‘body of Christ’ is made up of members who accept diversity for the sake of unity, and unity for the sake of accepting diversity. These two dimensions, when rightly ordered to God’s mission, not man’s vision, embody the Church as the hands and feet of Christ. When diversity is emphasized to the neglect of unity we become individualists or “rogue” or “lone-rangers.” However, every extreme generates the other as a result of tribalism. Thus, those who emphasize unity at the neglect of diversity find themselves promoting an oppressive type of conformity. With this, what we discover is an abuse of power. With the former we discover an excessive acquiescence of power.

A healthy understanding of the moral law helps us understand why the Church needs to butt-out of people’s decisions, while also enforcing others. Both respecting a person’s individual conscience and enforcing certain disciplines are for the sake of the common-good. Typically the enforcement of law is seen as the sole proprietor of working towards the common-good, however to Aquinas this is an incomplete truth. In fact, he would state, that if a law isn’t followed by the masses, it may be the case that the law needs to he changed.

Developing a deeper understanding of the law that gives way to the subjective discernment within the Church that does not require a micromanaging paternalism is discoverable in the distinction between positive precepts versus negative precepts. Negative precepts require solid teaching that is unwavering because they are “negative” statements that involve the rejection of what is always objectively the case. The term we would use here is “intrinsically wrong/evil.” Negative precepts of the law are universal, and as such, teachings on contraception according to the Infallible Document of HV are considered as such. These therefore require enforcement.

Positive precepts however can pertain to what is licit, but not necessarily in every circumstance. For instance, pregnant women cannot receive the vaccine due to health concerns since the vaccines themselves are still in the experimental phase and we do not have enough information pertaining to the effect they may have on both the mother and child. Another example could be in regard to evangelization. It is true that we are all called to evangelize as baptized Christians, but not in every circumstance. For instance, when I sleep, I am not consciously able to dialogue with another using my charisms as such to explicitly generate faith in the lives of others. What of vocations?

To some degree, it is both the discernment of the Church and the discernment of the individual. Thus involving both in this discernment process, like a marriage involves listening to the voice of Christ who speaks through the conscience/discernment of what Christ is saying. Therefore one does not force a person against their will to enter into a vocation (arranged marriage/enslaved-priesthood). What of the number of children a couple have? Although there are given principles that are universal, the application of those principles to their concrete circumstances are not always clear: health conditions, mental health, and as such: grave-impediments. The priest does not dictate to the family that no matter what they must have 8 children. In an egalitarian manner, the priest does not say: all couples must have 8 children.

Being formed in our family or origin, our relationships, or even our monastery/convent/seminary, in the way these principles are set forward will have an impact on how we live out our vocation. If in one environment conscience is not respected or the law is not enforced when it ought to be, then this disordered approach to unity (egalitarianism) or diversity (individualism) will be copied, reacted to (thus opposed in its opposite extreme).

The Church, government, in respect to human wisdom is never perfect. Thus it must ongoingly examine the complexities of the day, and do its best to first ask the question: “What do you will God?” How we listen to that voice, while in humility and mortification suspending our own natural vision, and preferences, will give us the interior freedom to be led by Christ and navigate a healthy integration of these two principles. We must be patient in the discernment process, accepting that some mistakes will be made, because it can be challenging to know how to integrate two principles that exist in a perpetual state of changing tension (cf. Cardinal St John Henry Newman)”

Love & Peace,
Matthew

City of God, City of Man


-“The City of God”, AD 426, opening text, manuscript c. 1470, De civitate Dei contra paganos, please click on the image for greater detail

Rome has fallen! -410 AD


-by Steve Weidenkopf

“Augustine’s magnum opus not only answered the immediate objections of his contemporaries; it provided (and provides) a foundation of authentic Christian historical perspective. As a young man, Augustine had known well the pagan mentality, as he rejected the Faith and embraced the cults of false gods. Eventually, through the patient prayers of his saintly mother Monica, Augustine converted and found peace. The pagan scapegoating of the Church disturbed Augustine, so he dedicated thirteen years to writing a response and developing a Catholic understanding of history. Subtitled Against the Pagans, the City of God is a Catholic manifesto on interpreting history and maintaining a proper perspective of human events.

The work comprises two parts containing twenty-two books. Part one (books I-X) articulates a defense of the Faith in response to the pagan charge that the Church was the reason for the empire’s decay. Part two (XI-XXII), which forms the majority of the work, illustrates Augustine’s historical perspective, wherein history is viewed as a great drama between two cities: the City of Man and the City of God. The City of Man, founded on self-love, is where pride, ambition, greed, and expediency reign supreme. In contrast, the City of God is founded on selflessness and love of God, and in it humility, sacrifice, and obedience are paramount.

Membership in the City of God is not exclusionary. As Augustine wrote: “So long, then, as the heavenly City is wayfaring on earth, she invites citizens from all nations and all tongues, and unites them into a single pilgrim band.” The cities are distinct yet comingled in time. Each individual struggles with membership in both cities. At times, the citizen finds himself immersed in the City of Man and at other times he is safely ensconced in the City of God, but, more often than not, he bestrides the two. Augustine’s construct is meant to illustrate that the “meaning of history lies not in the flux of outward events, but in the hidden drama of sin and redemption.” For Augustine, the sack of Rome, as devastating as it was, did not constitute the end of the world, as some feared, nor a repudiation of the Faith, as the pagans claimed. Rather, the event can be understood through the prism of an authentic historical perspective as the free-willed action of inhabitants of the City of Man, focused on selfish goals.

Embracing Augustine’s perspective gives us the ability to maintain calm and hope in the midst of earthly calamities. Sadly, that perspective is sorely lacking in the modern age.

Modernity has lost a proper sense of historical perspective and lacks historical memory. Perhaps this mindset is widespread because modern man is too entrenched in the City of Man and has rejected, or at least ignores, the City of God. The Catholic author, historian, and politician Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) opined on this modern mindset in his 1929 work Survivals and New Arrivals. In it he analyzed the strength and vitality of the Church in the modern world by focusing on the various forms of attacks against it and how likely the Church was to survive these assaults. He categorized these attacks into survivals and new arrivals. Survivals were centuries-old attacks that were not sustainable into the future. The main opposition came from the new arrivals: attacks present in Belloc’s day, such as nefarious political ideologies that seek to replace the Church with the state as the citizen’s object of love and obedience. Within this group Belloc included also the modern mind, which he qualified as not so much an attack as a resistance—something that tries to render faith unintelligible. With its three main vices of pride, ignorance, and intellectual sloth, the modern mind impedes a vibrant faith life.

It also views history with disdain, believing that modernity is superior to the past. As a result, the present becomes the sole focus of human activity and thought. Reflection on the past in order to learn from history is rejected. The future is ignored because it cannot produce immediate and tangible results. God is ignored, partly because the principal benefit of a relationship with him is in the future (eternal life), and instead, modern man worships himself. Belloc argued that changing the modern mind proves extremely difficult, because indoctrination in this false mindset is achieved through universal compulsory education, which is centered on the accumulation of information rather than on forming virtue.

Additionally, Belloc noted that the modern mind lacks the skill of critical thinking, in part, because it focuses on the pursuit of temporal pleasures in the present and because the popular press enables this “sloth by providing sensational substitutes.”

Love,
Matthew

Personal hermeneutics


-please click on the image for greater detail

“Those who leave out the context really leave out the conception. They have a mysterious power of making the world weary of a few fixed and disconnected words, and yet leaving the world entirely ignorant of the real meaning of those words.”
– G.K. Chesterton

“The preunderstanding of the interpreter, even when it includes a faith posture and a rigorous historical approach, generally incorporates a wide variety of other assumptions as well. These other assumptions will influence the outcome of the hermeneutical effort. Across the history of the church these assumptions have generally revolved around the nature of the Bible and more particularly the intersecting concepts of revelation, the Word of God, inspiration, authority, tradition, and function.”
– Duncan S. Ferguson


-by Fr. Christopher Pietraszko, Ignitum, Fr. Christopher serves in the Diocese of London, Ontario.

“A lack of wisdom often occurs to us based upon our own personal hermeneutics. What I mean by “personal hermeneutics” is the pre-established categories/language by which we have already accepted and ascribe to, consciously and unconsciously. The mind itself becomes “closed” when we remain unopen to licit, new categories or distinctions that can help us discern the truth, nuance it and understand its application in more dynamic manners. For instance, if all we have is the moral imperative of following the law, then when a tornado chases us down the road while we are driving, we will continue to follow the speed limit because “we must follow the law.” And while the latter quote is quite right, if we add the nuancing truth from St. Thomas Aquinas about appropriate times when we should suspend a secondary precept/law to preserve the principle or primary law which roots speed-limits in saving lives, then we will speed away, hopefully to safety.

According to Josef Piper, there are two scholastic categories of thinking: ratio and intellectus. Ratio pertains to the discursive, systematic approach to thinking and knowing. This part of our intellect is what “seeks” or is “active.” The intellectus is the more spiritual side of things, where understanding exists or what we might call “integration.” Here there is not so much a discursive logical process occurring, but rather an immediate type of knowledge which Aquinas considered superior to ratio. This part of our intellect is the closest to the angels and is considered to be docile and passive/receptive. Both of these parts of our thinking are important: for those who eat (active) must also digest and assimilate (passive).

Let’s apply this to the spiritual life – scripture often speaks about eating as a spiritual exercise – eating a scroll, eating the word, eating Christ’s flesh. It can taste sweet, but when digesting it, it often becomes bitter and difficult. The bitterness we experience is the consequences of the good consolations changing our world-view, our internal hermeneutics, leading us to a type of spiritual maturity in Christ where we meet the cross He calls us to carry. It is the prophet who falls in love with God, yet must also face the crowd.

Now, the intellectus is typically grown by the grace that comes from virtue. When speaking about having a relationship with Christ, having the discipline/virtue of a deep, abiding relationship with Jesus, generates an interior hermeneutic whereby we can interpret the law, the prophets, all of revelation, our life, and everything through this lens. The intellectus becomes unconscious, perceiving all things in conjunction with a love for Christ in the same way that our left hand doesn’t know what our right hand is doing. This type of “automatic” wisdom that does not require an exerted effort from our ratio means that our entire way of thinking, our way of approaching life, has become integrated, or infused.

Now if we run into a Christian, baptized or ordained, that does not have the transcendent type of relationship with Christ, but only a ratio relationship (head-knowledge, entirely discursive) with Christ, things will constantly be interpreted incorrectly. It would be as though the person chews on the word, but then spits it out.

Imagine it like this: the unconscious or passive or automatic aspect of our soul has boxes or totes that assimilate content, events, and experiences. They enable the soul to “digest” the truth, to safeguard it, “to treasure it in her heart”. If we do not have a transcendental relationship with Christ, but an entirely natural, almost-secular type of relationship with Him, then we will only be capable of digesting (understanding) the Gospel in an earthly manner. We will read His parables incorrectly, twisting the narrative to only fit in the totes of worldly categories, and like the crowd seek to make Him a worldly King rather than enthrone Him in our conscience. To be puzzled by His parables therefore may suggest to us that we are missing something that helps us assimilate/understand the content to which He communicates. And if we, in our pride insist that as a teacher we understand the parable, we will teach it incorrectly, likely in the process contradicting ourselves. How many would see the parable about the wages as unfair? Yet a deeper understanding of grace seems to be the tote which enables this parable to be received, accepted, digested, and in fact a way of living.

So if we hear prelates, or laity, proclaim a type of secular humanism, or idolatry of externals, and rarely mention a relationship with Christ that involves the will, the heart, the mind, and all our strength, then God is possibly revealing to us a deficit in that person’s life. They may not be able to identify it in their own life, but as evangelists we might be able to. What it reveals to us is a need to return or engage the soul in the life of the supernatural: in a deep, penetrating way, where the soul seeks not the accidental (non-essential) realities of the faith, but rather its Substance: which is communion with the Divine.

We cannot be moralistically critical here, but we must be like doctors to the soul, pointing to an awareness of a need to grow in our relationship with Christ.”

“We trust ourselves to a doctor because we suppose he knows his business. He orders an operation which involves cutting away part of our body and we accept it. We are grateful to him and pay him a large fee because we judge he would not act as he does unless the remedy were necessary, and we must rely on his skill. Yet we are unwilling to treat God in the same way! It looks as if we do not trust His wisdom and are afraid He cannot do His job properly. We allow ourselves to be operated on by a man who may easily make a mistake—a mistake which may cost us our life—and protest when God sets to work on us. If we could see all He sees we would unhesitatingly wish all He wishes.”
— Fr. Jean Baptiste Saint-Jure, p. 90, an excerpt from “Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence

Love,
Matthew

What is the soul?


-“The sparkling circles of the heavenly host”, Gustave Doré, c.1868, engraving, The vision of Purgatory and Paradise by Dante Alighieri (London and New York: Cassell, Petter, and Galpin)

taylor_marshall
-by Dr. Taylor Marshall

“I was at a coffee shop yesterday and I got pulled into a conversation with a stranger about metaphysical nature of the soul.

This man emphasized that we are not simply a soul and body, but that we are spirit, soul, and body.

So what is the Catholic to say?

This the bipartite vs. tripartite debate on human anthropology. The majority position in the Catholic Church is that we have a physical element (body headed by the brain) and a metaphysical element (soul headed by the spirit). The spirit is the highest intellectual faculty of the soul.

The locus classicus on this topic is Hebrews 4:12

“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Tripartite advocates point here showing that “soul and spirit” are distinguished and thus separate. The problem here is that if soul and spirit are different entities then our body is also twofold with different entities, namely joins and marrow.

Soul Vocab in Scripture

Let’s review the terminology in Hebrew and Greek:

Hebrew

Basar(בָּשָׂר): flesh or body. In Genesis, this comes from dirt, mud, or grime. It is the lowest basest element of man.
Nephesh(נֶ֫פֶשׁ): soul or life force. In Genesis this is the life of a living thing. It can be said that animals and perhaps plants have nephesh or a living force within them.
Ruach(רוּחַ): spirit or breath. In Genesis, God breathes this into Adam and it is what makes human unique from all other animals. It is something we share with God – the intellectual and voluntary faculty that makes us rational animals or human.

Greek

Sarx(σάρξ): flesh. In Greek it is the body but also includes the animal passions of the body for nutrition and sex. Saint Paul typically uses sarx to include the effects of original sin in all humans. Hence sarx has a somewhat pejorative meaning in the New Testament as in the sinful “law of the flesh.”
Soma(σώμα): body. This is a physical body and doesn’t necessarily include the passionate elements of sarx above, but it can. Used 129 times in NT.
Psyche(Ψυχή): soul or life force. The Greeks explicitly stated that all living things have a “soul” or psyche, including plants, animals, and humans. Some speculated whether each star and planet had a psyche since they also had an interior principle of motion similar to life. Used 105 times.
Nous(νόος): mind. In Greek this refers to the highest intellectual faculty of the human.
Pneuma(πνεῦμα): spirit or breath. This is a spiritual or supernatural element in man. Used 385 times, but about 80 times for the human spirit, as opposed to the Holy Spirit.

The Church Father Origen (who spoke Greek) speculated that “nous” referred to the human mind, but “pneuma” referred to the human mind redeemed and filled with grace. I rather like Origen’s suggestion. It makes a lot of sense to me.

Early Gnostics (drawing from Paul in 1 Corinthians, esp. chs. 2 and 15) spoke of three kinds of people:

  • sarkic or fleshly people. He relates this to Jews and unsaved people who have not the ability to see Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior. They live according to sight and according to the flesh. For Paul, the Jewish preoccupation with circumcision is an example of them living “by the flesh.”
  • pscyhic or soulish people. Common people in the mainstream church who have not been initiated into the deeper knowledge of the Gnostic teachers.
  • pneumatic or spiritual people. Those who have acquired the secret teachings passed along by visions or by secret traditions allegedly derived from the Paul or the Apostles.

Church Fathers on Bipartite vs. Tripartite

The Eastern Orthodox Church tends toward a tripartite anthropology and this likely derives from the distinctions of Saint Paul, but especially from the writings of Origen and, through his influence, the writings of the three Cappadocian Fathers Saint Basil, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and Saint Gregory Nazianzus.

In the West, the Pelagian heretics wrongly taught that the soul and body were corrupted by sin, but that the human spirit remained unaffected by sin and remained righteous and good. Consequently, Saint Augustine and others blew a hole in the Pelagian tripartite anthropology showing that the moral state of the soul was the same as the moral state of the human spirit. The strict tripartite arrangement was associated with Pelagianism and was thus held suspect in the Latin West.

What and How Can We Speak of “Spirit and Soul”?

When speak of the soul by the Hebrews (nephesh) and by the Greeks (psyche), they spoke chiefly of life and motion. Oak trees, weeds, crabs, fish, squirrels, and gorillas possess this “life force” or “soul.” The Jews by divine revelation and the Greeks through philosophy were speaking of the same thing.

Even more, both understand that within the human person, there was something beyond the life force. Beyond our motion across earth. Beyond our pursuit for food and sex. It was something that set us apart. Something that made us religious and reflective. It is what made us homo liturgicus. It was the rational spirit they sparks within us the questions of “Why am I alive? What is the purpose of life? Who made us? What are we supposed to be doing? Where are we headed? What happens after all this?”

In the Latin West, we call this the “rational soul” or the “intellectus.” Those terms work, but I rather like the poetic distinction between the “soul” and the “spirit” in Scripture. As Saint Paul said, Adam had for us a soul. But Christ became for us a “life giving spirit.” Here Paul doesn’t mean that Christ was a docetic or solely spiritual phantasm. Rather, he is capturing that Christ becomes for us the means by which we find the answers to the spiritual questions that I’ve listed above.

And as Origen (though not a saint and somewhat dangerous as he was a heretic) observed, his suggestion that “mind/intellect” and “spirit” are simply two ways of referring to the same thing but from different points of view – with the spirit being the way to refer to the illuminated and redeemed mind.

It seems that the presence of the divine Holy Spirit in our soul transforms our intellect into a spiritual intellect or into a spirit. My guess is that the liturgical response “and with your spirit” is an acknowledgment of this reality in the communal life of the Church. When we respond that way, we aren’t just saying “and also with you,” but we are acknowledging the transformative power of the Holy Spirit within the celebrant.””


-by Karlo Broussard

“If you bring up the topic of the soul, it’s not uncommon for folks to give you a blank stare. And even if folks do have something to say about it, they often think of it as some separate thing in us that’s interacting with our body—like how a puppeteer might manipulate a puppet or a poltergeist might maneuver a body as its own.

But this is far from what the soul is.

To get a proper understanding of what we’re talking about, let’s start with two simple things: a rock and a plant. Is there a difference between the two? Any kid will tell you there is. The plant is alive; the rock is not.

So there’s something to the plant that makes it a living thing rather than a non-living thing. St. Thomas Aquinas, and Aristotle before him, identifies that something as the soul, “the first principle of life of those things which live” (Summa Theologiae I:75:1).

Therefore, everything that is living—plants, animals, humans, and all the rest (e.g., fungi, monerans)—has a soul and lives because of a soul. The soul is what makes a thing a living being.

But not all souls are created equal. In fact, plant souls, animal souls, and human souls all belong to different orders. These are called the vegetative, sensitive, and rational orders.

In 1914 and 1916, the Church’s ordinary Magisterium confirmed this truth when it published in the Acta Apostolica Sedis (the official journal of the Holy See) a list of twenty-four theses derived from the theological and philosophical tradition of Aquinas. Thesis 14 reads as follows:

“Souls in the vegetative and sensitive orders cannot subsist of themselves, nor are they produced of themselves. Rather, they are no more than principles whereby the living thing exists and lives; and since they are wholly dependent upon matter, they are incidentally corrupted through the corruption of the composite.”

Regardless of what order of soul we’re talking about, the next thing we need to know about a soul is that it is the form of a body. Aquinas follows Aristotle on this (ST I:76:1). The Catechism even adopts this explanation, enshrining it in official Catholic teaching:

The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body (365).

Form is just a word we use to signify that which makes a thing the kind of thing it is. For example, when we look at a table, it may happen to be made of wood or iron, but regardless of the material used to construct it, it nonetheless has the form of a table. In other words, it’s not a chair, a plate, a fork, a spoon, etc.—it’s a table. Form is the organizational pattern that makes the matter of a thing what it is—in this case, a table.

A soul is a form that makes a living thing the kind of living thing it is—a plant, an animal, a human person. It’s “the organizational pattern or form of all the parts and all the parts of all the parts,” coordinating the matter to be the kind of living thing it is. The soul of a plant informs and makes the plant’s matter that of a plant. The soul of a lion informs and makes the lion’s matter that of a lion. The soul of a human being informs and makes the human’s matter that of a human being.

By contrast, the matter of a plant that has died is no longer that of a plant. Immediately after death, the matter takes on new distinct forms. What these new forms are exactly may be hard to discern. But we do know they are now actually individual material substances that accidentally constitute what we see to be a single thing. These individual material substances would have been present virtually (not present as an actual substance) in the plant only before the loss of its soul. We may still call it a plant—but given that it no longer has its life principle to unify the matter and allow it to operate as plants do, the matter is no longer that of a plant. Likewise with a dead lion or human being. It’s the soul, then, that makes the body not only a living body, but the kind of living body it is.

Now, there are a couple of important points about the soul that follow from it being the form of the body. One is that the soul is not a separate substance from the body, like a ghost trapped in the machine of the body. Rather, the soul and body together (whether for a plant, an animal, or a human being) make up one thing—one substance.

We see that this is true by considering how the soul is the first principle of life not only in a thing, but also in all a thing’s activities. As the form of a living thing, the soul makes a thing what it is. Being a particular kind of thing involves having certain powers and activities that go with being the kind of thing it is. So a plant does what a plant does—takes in nutrients and grows. An animal does what’s proper to animals—like plants, it takes in nutrients and grows, but unlike plants, it senses and has the power to move. Human beings do what’s proper being a human—take in nutrients, grow, sense, move, and rationally know and love.

Since the soul makes a thing what it is, and since being a particular kind of thing involves having certain powers and activities, it follows that the soul is the seat of all of a living thing’s powers and activities.

Now, as Aquinas argues, vegetative and sensory powers and activities (which plants, animals, and humans have) belong to the bodies of corporeal beings (ST I:75:3). Since the soul is the seat of those bodily powers and activities, it follows that vegetative and sensory powers and activities proceed by way of both body and soul. And since these activities are of one thing—an action being performed by a single thing (the plant growing, the lion running, the human seeing)—it follows that body and soul together form one thing.

Another point is that the soul is entire in the whole body and in each of its united parts. A branch that’s cut from the tree, for example, no longer has the form of the tree. The matter takes on new distinct forms and thus becomes a conglomeration of individual material substances, just as the matter of the whole tree would if it were to die. The same goes for a limb that’s cut off from a human body: the cut off hand is no longer a human hand because it no longer has the person’s soul as its form. So there’s no dividing up the soul.

Given the different powers and activities that each order of souls allows for, we can see a certain hierarchy. As we move from plants to humans, we see the powers climb the ladder of perfection: nutrition and growth to sensation and self-local motion to rational knowledge and love.

There are many more questions that arise concerning the nature of souls. Can they exist without the body? Even if some can exist without the body, can they be destroyed? These we’ll have to save for some other time. But suffice it to say for now that as the form of a body, the soul is not all that mysterious after all.”

Love & soul,
Matthew

John Calvin’s total depravity. Why does evil exist?


-by Tim Staples, Tim was raised a Southern Baptist. Although he fell away from the faith of his childhood, Tim came back to faith in Christ during his late teen years through the witness of Christian televangelists. Soon after, Tim joined the Marine Corps.

“In John Calvin’s magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, he presents a view of man that is very much like Luther’s but contrary to what we find in the pages of Sacred Scripture. Calvin used texts such as Genesis 6:5—“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”—and Romans 3:10ff—“None is righteous, no not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one ”—to prove that man is utterly depraved through the fall of Adam and Eve.

Calvin’s conclusion from these texts and others was to say, “The will is so utterly vitiated and corrupted in every part as to produce nothing but evil” (Institutes, bk. II, ch. II, para. 26).

What say we?

The context of the texts Calvin used actually demonstrates the opposite of his claim. For example, if we read forward just four verses in Genesis 6, we find: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. . . . Noah was a righteous [“just”] man, blameless in his generation” (Gen. 6:8-9). While we Catholics agree that God’s grace or “favor” was essential for Noah to be truly “just” before God, nevertheless Noah was truly just, according to the text.

As far as the quote from Romans is concerned, the greater context of the entire epistle must be understood. One of the central themes of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is the fact that it is through “the goodness of God” that we are led to repent (cf. Romans 2:4), to be justified (Romans 5:1-2), and persevere in the faith (cf. Romans 11:22). It is solely because of God’s grace that we become truly just:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God (Rom. 5:1-2).

Further,

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death . . . in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:2,4).

Notice the emphasis on the fact that man is made truly just so much so that he can fulfill “the just requirement of the law.” It doesn’t get any more just, or righteous, than that!

Thus, Romans 3:10ff simply does not teach total depravity in a Calvinist sense. It cannot when the context is understood.

Moreover, if we examine the verses where St. Paul paints his picture of the wicked who have “turned aside” and “done wrong,” we find he actually quotes Psalm 14:3. The next two verses of this Psalm explain who these “evil ones” are:

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord? There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous.

The Psalmist clearly refers to both evildoers and the righteous.

These and other passages from Romans tell us that Christ came to make us just, not that there are absolutely none who are just. We must stress again that it is because of the justice of Christ communicated to the faithful that their actions and, indeed, they themselves are truly made just. But they indeed are truly made just.

Little children, let no one deceive you. He who does right (Gr., ho poion tein dikaiousunein/ὁ ποιῶν τὴν δικαιοσύνην—“the one doing justice”) is righteous (Gr., dikaios estin/δίκαιός ἐστιν—“is just”) as He is righteous (Gr., kathos ekeinos dikaios estin/καθὼς ἐκεῖνος δίκαιός ἐστιν—“as He is just”). -1 Jn 3:7

Scripture couldn’t be clearer that the faithful are made truly just in their being and in their actions through the grace of Christ.

The problem magnified

More grave problems arise when we begin to follow the path Calvin lays for us with his first principle. Even when considering the unregenerate, Calvin is wrong about total depravity, because Scripture tells us even those outside of the law can “do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14-15).

Though Catholics agree with Calvinists that grace is necessary even for those who are ignorant of the law in order for them to be just before God—in other words, this text is not saying these pagans can be justified apart from grace—the text does infer that nature is not totally depraved, because man can clearly act justly on a natural level and by nature.

But an even more grave error comes to the fore when we consider his notion of the depravity of the just.

“Depravity of the just?” Yes. That was not a typo. According to John Calvin, even those who have been justified by Christ “cannot perform one work which, if judged on its own merits, is not deserving of condemnation” (Institutes, bk. III, ch. 9, para. 9). What a far cry this is from “he that acts justly is just” (I John 3:7) or the plain words of the Psalmist, who uses similar words as found in Genesis with regard to Abraham being justified by faith: “[Abraham] believed the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). In the Psalms we read: “Then Phineas stood up and interposed, and the plague was stayed. And that has been reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation” (Ps. 106:30-31).

Clearly, Phineas was justified by his works and not only by faith. In other words, Phineas’s works are truly “just as he is just,” to use the words of I John 3:7.

There are a multitude of biblical texts that come to mind at this point, but here are only three:

“For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned”? (Matt. 12:37).

“By works a man is justified and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24).

“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).

These texts do not even come close to saying all of these works were “worthy of condemnation.” They say just the opposite!

We should be clear here: All “good works” man performs that contribute to his salvation are first and foremost God’s gifts, which, along with his cooperation, truly make him just and worthy to “walk with [Christ] in white; for [he is] worthy” (Rev. 3:4) by God’s grace and mercy. But we cannot escape the biblical fact that these works are truly just and they are truly the fruit of the just man himself.

Understanding the strange

When John Calvin says man is utterly dependent upon God for every single just thought in his mind (cf. Institutes, bk. II, ch. II, para. 27), Catholics will happily agree. And they would be correct: We do agree. However, appearances can be deceiving, because there is meaning beneath those words that Catholics cannot agree with.

With Calvin, there is no sense of grace aiding and empowering our wills as St. Augustine taught and the Catholic Church teaches. For Calvin, being “dependent upon God” means our free cooperation or free will has no part to play. God does not merely empower our wills; He operates them.

In the end, this may well be the most disturbing idea stemming from Calvin’s notion of total depravity: Man is essentially God’s puppet, a notion that led to Calvin attributing both the good and the evil actions of man to God.

And mind you, Calvin rejects and ridicules the Catholic notion of God merely permitting evil and working all things together for good. In his words:

Hence a distinction has been invented between doing and permitting, because to many it seemed altogether inexplicable how Satan and all the wicked are so under the hand and authority of God, that He directs their malice to whatever end He pleases” (Institutes, bk. I, ch. XVIII, para. 1).

Evildoers do not commit acts of depravity in spite of the command of God, but because of the command of God, according to Calvin (ibid., para. 4)!

Isaiah 45:7 and Amos 3:6 are used to teach that there is no evil that occurs that is not “impelled” by God’s positive command (ibid., para. 2).

God is the author of all those things that, according to these objectors, happen only by his inactive permission. He testifies that he creates light and darkness, forms good and evil (Is. [45:7]); that no evil happens which he hath not done (Amos [3:6]) (ibid., para. 3).

As Catholics we understand, as St. Paul teaches, “[S]ince they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct” (Rom. 1:28). This means God may well remove grace that is rejected. He may also hold back grace as well, but this is, as St. Augustine said, God’s “just judgment.”

But according to Calvin’s unbiblical teaching, God does not give grace in the first place and then “impels” men to act sinfully. As quoted above, according to Calvin, God causes evil. And we are not talking about physical evil here; we are talking about moral evil. That is categorically absurd! God cannot “do” or “impel” moral evil because He is infinitely and absolutely good.

God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:8, Numbers 23:19); “He cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim. 2:13) or act contrary to His nature. If God’s nature is one of love and pure being, it is absurd to say that He can “do” evil, which is by nature a lack of some perfection that ought to be present in a given nature. In fact, James 1:13 tells us that God not only cannot cause this kind of evil, He cannot even tempt anyone with evil. That is contrary to His nature.

The bottom line

When Isaiah 45:7 and Amos 3:6 say God “creates evil” and “does evil,” this must be seen only in a sense in which it does not contradict God’s nature and what is clearly revealed to us about God in Scripture. God can directly cause physical evil, such as the ten plagues he released against Egypt in Exodus. But this was an act of justice, which was morally upright and justified.

We can also say that God permits evil in view of the fact that He chose to create us with freedom. But even there, God permits evil only in view of His promise to bring good out of that evil, as is most profoundly demonstrated through the greatest evil in the history of the world: the Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through this greatest evil God brings about the greatest good: the redemption of the world. God did not kill Christ, nor did he “impel” anyone to kill Christ.

But by virtue of His Omnipotence, He brings good out of the evil acts committed.”

Love,
Matthew

Ontology. What is the definition/meaning of being? What is our identity? God decides. NOT us.

God determines our identity.  We respond in grace and free will; either correctly or incorrectly, either in good or evil, either in obedience or disobedience, as God defines them and us.  We do not decide.  God does.  THY WILL be done.  Thy Kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.


-by Fr. Christopher Pietraszko, Ignitum, Fr. Christopher serves in the Diocese of London, Ontario.

“Philosophically there is much attention to the concept of identity. In sacred scripture the same is the case. What constitutes our identity?

In the philosophy that examines “being” or ontology, our identity is rooted in our “whatness.” What you are, determined who you are. This whatness is not merely your essence, but it’s tied intrinsically to your “why-ness” that is a pre-determined purpose that is imposed upon you by your existence. To some this seems oppressive, to others it’s a matter of discovery and humility. In this category one does not determine their own purpose. Psychologically that would be absurd since one is drawing from their nature to determine a preferential purpose, thus at least latently basing their existential self first in their own nature. This is where the notion of dignity stems from, and since it is rooted in our being, personal choices do not dissolve this dignity, nor do states of development.

The second type of identity is sometimes called “moral character.” This, while of itself springs from our nature, nonetheless does carry with it existential notions of self-creation. Here, we are not creating “being” or “what/why we are” but “how” we are. For the Christian, this is what, in part, determines our our salvation, in conjunction with or without our cooperation with grace. We are responsible here for our moral character, and sometimes this is how people identity.

Today, sexual relativism defines identity around sexual attractions, or affective states. The primary focus is not on one’s ontology as a human (male or female), but rather the sexual inclinations and affective-guided self concept. Sexual attraction is often conflated with the tautology “love is love.” Love is not initially defined as to will the good of the other here, otherwise further phrases such as “you don’t choose who you love” would not accompany the movement. This is about desire, since in disinterested friendships love can be chosen and should be as such.

Since Christ, our identity has been rooted in His choice to adopt us as His children, not in one’s sexual disposition, or affective desires in any particular regard, including pleasure, wealth, money or power. In baptism the Church teaches that one is changed “ontologically.” Thus the identity in whatness and whyness has also changed. God extends this call to be changed by His love, which transcends mere sexual desires, but pertains to a concern primarily for the good of the other.

Knowing these distinctions is important as it will help people navigate chronic shame, and be rooted in not something ultimately hedonistic or defined primarily by affective desires, but rather rooted in the Creator Who defines us by the relationship He freely and universally extends to all, that some may be saved.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

St Anselm’s argument for the existence of God


-by Matt Nelson

St. Anselm’s ontological argument for God’s existence often gets a bad rap, even from many Catholics. For one thing, it can be a difficult argument to understand. Though its premises are rather simple, something about it makes us think we are being tricked. For another thing, we know that eminent authorities like St. Thomas Aquinas have expressed their discontent with the argument.

Nonetheless, I think it is wrong to discard the argument without a second thought. Indeed, I think there is still much of value to be gleaned from it. For simplicity’s sake, here’s a basic sketch of the argument:

  1. God is the greatest conceivable thing.
  2. But if something is only in the mind and not in reality, then a greater thing can be conceived.
  3. So, God cannot only be in the mind.
  4. Therefore, God exists in reality.

In short, the very idea of God necessitates His existence. Thus, the Psalmist is right when he writes, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1). Whether or not this is a perfect representation of Anselm’s argument, it should serve our purposes today.

I would like to set aside for now the objections against it as an argument for God’s existence, not because it’s not an important question. It is indeed a very important question! But before defending the argument, we have to understand better what Anselm was saying. In fact, unbelievers who point out what they believe to be its weaknesses tend to miss Anselm’s meaning, and thus end up “defeating” a straw man. Engaging in an argument without clarifying meanings is never a good idea.

Christian apologists have long been frustrated to deal with popular skeptics railing against God as something other than what he truly is. Comparisons of God to the tooth fairy or Santa Claus are often flippantly made, particularly among the New Atheist types. Pathetic as such caricatures are, they betray a conception among non-believers that God is a finite creature. But for St. Anselm, that is precisely what God is not.

In an age when religious indifference is rampant and serious contemplation of spiritual things is scarce, St. Anselm’s argument is valuable because it takes on the form of a spiritual exercise.

In reality, God is not a thing at allthings in the sense of “beings in the world” have limitations. They can always be imagined to be greater in some way. But as Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe writes, “God cannot be a thing, an existent among others. It is not possible that God and the universe should add up to make two.”

What he means is that God’s mode of existence is completely different than everything else. Indeed, God is the creator of everything, and keeps it in being every moment it exists. This is the kind of God St. Anselm has in mind when he imagines “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”

The Anselmian proof invites us to do away with the caricatures—a challenger cannot even begin to refute the proof until he seriously entertains the notion of God presented by Anselm. From that starting point, then, all lesser kinds of “divinities”—from Zeus to the Flying Spaghetti Monster—are necessarily ruled out. We must ask the question soberly: what is the greatest conceivable thing? It is certainly not a beast composed of pasta.

There is more than one way to approach the question. We can think about God as unrestricted existence—that is, existence itself. Or in Aristotelian terms, we can think about God as being pure act and no potency—which just means that God is utterly perfect and lacks all possibility of further perfection. Technically (and as St. Thomas affirmed), to think of God as existence itself is probably the best way to think about “what” God is.

But there is another way to think about what it means for God to be, as Anselm put it, “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Let’s think about this in concrete terms. What is greater—a God who loves everyone who loves him back, or a God who loves everyone unconditionally? Clearly the latter, for his love is perfect. Now, such “negative theology” can help us understand what God isn’t, but it proves nothing about whether such a thing exists. Still, it can help to clarify the nature of the thing considered—the first step of serious argumentation.

In his influential book, The God of Faith and Reason, philosopher Robert Sokolowski considers another contrast, one that sheds light on St. Anselm’s meaning of God. The first “god” Sokolowski asks us to consider is one who becomes greater as the result of his creation. In this first case, “god + the world” is greater than the god alone. He contrasts this version with another in which God is so great that his creation adds nothing to his perfection. In the latter case, “God + the world” is not greater than God alone. And clearly, argues Sokolowski, this latter God is a greater conception of God than the former. Indeed, no greater God could be conceived. And there are important implications that follow from this.

One implication is that if God creates but gains nothing for himself by doing so, then it follows that God’s act of creation is completely gratuitous and unsolicited. We—the created—have everything to gain by virtue of the gift of our existence.

So, aside from what it contributes to the debate about God’s existence, St. Anselm’s ontological proof helps us to re-establish who God is and what it means for us to exist. It gets us thinking about the big questions again, for we have been created for our own good by a God who is unlimited in perfection. Our lives, then, should be lived in a way that reflects uncompromising gratitude, humility, and trust in God.

If St. Anselm’s argument fails as a proof for God’s existence, it nonetheless does great service in establishing a firm starting point for determining what it is we are trying to prove in the first place. Moreover, it compels us to think seriously about whether such a grand contention could be true.

Love,
Matthew

The responsibility of free will


-by Fr. Hugh Barbour, O. Praem., a convert from Episcopalianism

“Freedom!” To hear contemporary people speak, you would think that this notion gives us the essence of human dignity and happiness. Well, freedom is surely closely related to our human dignity and to our acquiring of happiness but not because it is the most important component of either human nature or human fulfillment. It is a condition of our participation in the good things that we need to receive or accomplish in order to be good or happy, but it is not the best aspect of our goodness or happiness.

Free will, as it is called, is simply a composite effect of the fact that we are knowing, rational beings who thus have the power to choose among several (and “several” can mean a whole lot!) means to accomplish a desired end. [Ed. There is no true, real, honest love w/out free will.]  We can go by foot, by ten-speed, by motorcycle, by skateboard, by bus, by car, or by plane or boat. Our freedom is precisely our rational ability to choose between a number of means to an end. This means that our freedom is not an end in itself—it is itself a kind of means to the end.

The frequent problem with people, at least in our culture, is that they think everything is just fine as long as you get to choose (Ed. w/out truly considering the dramatic responsibility of the power they exercise}. The classical and Catholic view is different. For us, everything is fine if we use our understanding in order to arrive at our true good. How stupid it would be to say, “Well, it doesn’t matter that you decided to go shopping for a new smartphone and so missed your mother’s funeral, because at least you were using your freedom!”

A silly approach like this, which is obviously wrong when we apply it to practical things, often ends up being our excuse for serious defects in our relationship with God and with each other. You even hear people say that that it is a better thing for people to be free to go to hell, since that proves that God made us free. This is nonsense.

Misuse of free will is a defect, not a perfection. It doesn’t prove anything except that we are not God, and so we are capable of not reaching the goal of our existence. We should never speak as though God had no choice but to make us capable of going to hell, otherwise he would not show us the respect due our nature, which is dignified by our free will!

Not at all. God gave us free will in order to reach Him according to our reasonable and loving nature, not to prove a philosophical point. Of course, not even God can make a creature that is radically and totally incapable of falling short of its end and goal, but this ability to suffer so awful a defect does not constitute the dignity of the creature; rather, it is just a natural liability of not being God.

This is so deeply part of the modern view of things, even among Catholics, that they fall into the error of Pelagius, against which Pope Francis is always speaking, the idea that our salvation requires our previous activity and that damnation is a proof of our dignity. This is not Christian thought—it is rationalist, pagan thought.

It would be better for us to esteem the power of divine grace and the ability of God effectively to attract our free will to Himself so that we can persevere in grace and be saved. As St. Augustine, the great doctor of grace and theologian of free will, prays, “Give what You command, and command what You will.”

Our free will is only a snare and a road to inevitable disaster without the grace of God, and we will be very happy one day when, seeing the supreme Good, our end, and, possessing Him eternally, we will unable to choose anyone or anything else. Then freedom will have achieved its perfect goal, and we will be at rest in ecstatic joy all together in the kingdom of God’s grace.”

Love,
Matthew

The Cruelty of Error

Tolerance is NOT a Christian virtue.


-by Br Philip Nolan, OP

“Here’s an open secret: Many young Catholics disagree or struggle with the Church’s teaching on human sexuality. Not only do they struggle—as have generations—with the call to chastity, but they also doubt the Church’s basic claims about what sexuality is for. Even among those who wish to be faithful, many simply can’t see how the Church’s teaching about sexuality could ever be something other than an embarrassment. And, from a cultural standpoint, it’s easy to see why.

Consider the experience of teenagers and college students. Every day, they confront a certain set of questions. “You want to be accepting of others, right?” Yes, I’m no bigot. “You want to support people in their pursuit of happiness?” Of course! “Well, these people, perhaps some of them good friends, have discovered that they are attracted romantically to someone of the same sex and, therefore, unless you are bigoted or against people being happy, you will support their seeking to fulfill this desire.” This line of questioning becomes even more acute if one has some uncertainties about one’s own attractions.

Now, more and more, we see the same logic spreading. “You want to be accepting, right?” “You want to support people in their pursuit of happiness?” “Well, these people have discovered that they have to surgically reconfigure their bodies in order to be happy, so you will support them, right?”

Young Catholics find themselves caught between the latest form of self-identification and a Church whose precepts they do not understand. Humans can only live with this cognitive contradiction for so long, before having to jettison either Church teaching or the ideologies of the day.

They have many motivations to reject Church teachings: being on “the right side of history,” acceptance by peers, perceived self-fulfillment, and, increasingly, employability.

What’s the case for staying true to the Church? On this matter, the Church preaches two words of good news: First, although the world has fallen in profound ways, God made the world good and providentially guides it. And second, the Church preaches the truth of Christ crucified.

God’s good ordering shapes the world. How is this good news? Our interior experience does not create the world. Especially in an age in which the young are consumed by anxiety and depression, this truth is great news. We can confront our fears by contemplating the way the world actually is. You will not die if you get a C on one test. Your life won’t be over if you make a fool of yourself in front of friends. God is totally in control.

As our fears can deceive us, so too can our desires. So often we desire what will in reality make us miserable. The Church’s teaching frees us from the tyranny of our often misaimed desires by introducing us to the designs of God.

The goodness of the world does not negate the fact that we suffer. Unfulfilled desires cause us to suffer—this is true whether the desires point us to something contrary to what the Church teaches or not. But by suffering the unfulfillment of desires we know to be misaimed, we allow God to begin to heal us at the deepest level. Christ crucified gives meaning to our suffering. His suffering makes ours a place of profound intimacy with God. He has given us a promise that the suffering we bear for Him is not in vain.

Perhaps these two points don’t immediately seem to sway the balance in favor of choosing God and His Church. To sum up the case: we will suffer if we let God reshape our hearts to accord with the goodness of reality. But, in the long run, we will be much more miserable if we try to reshape the world according to our broken desires. So we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Rom 13:14), knowing that “the world and its desires are passing away” (1 John 2:17). In the end, it is cruel to affirm otherwise. The choice is becoming starker—in one sense harder, in another sense clearer: God or the world, truth or error, life or death. The Church teaches a freeing truth, and “blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:28).”

“See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to Him, and to keep His commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to His voice, and hold fast to Him. For the Lord is your life, and He will give you many years in the land He swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” -Dt 30:15-20

Love & truth,
Matthew