Category Archives: Theology

Hope to Die: Christian corpses (conquered the Roman Empire)

(n.b. Catholics are NOT to seek martyrdom!! Marcionite heretics did this. Catholics are to embrace martyrdom if inescapable or requires apostasy to avoid.)

“Christianity was first preached in a world where the Greco-Roman understanding of death and the afterlife shaped much of the Western world. Across the Roman Empire, most people professed their faith in the various pagan gods, including Pluto (or Hades), who they believed ruled the Underworld. At the Underworld’s entrance, the ferryman Charon moved spirits across the River Styx from the land of the living to the land of the dead. Once they made it to the other side, all the dead faced judgment, with the good going to Elysium, the bad being thrown into the pit of Tartarus, and the mediocre rest (the majority of humanity) aimlessly drifting about in the City of Pluto (or what the Greeks called the Asphodel Meadows). Some Romans also believed those who’d been judged worthy could choose to be reincarnated.

This vision of the afterlife offered some consolation to those who actually believed it, but not enough. Most Romans, like most of humanity, still feared what awaited them in the dark room of death. And that fear manifested itself in how they treated their dead.

The pagan Romans thought that if dead bodies weren’t treated a certain way and certain conditions weren’t met, the person’s soul would be denied admittance to the Underworld. Rather than receiving its eternal reward, the soul would instead endure an almost purgatory-like existence, waiting perpetually on the wrong side of the River Styx. The Romans also believed that if they failed to provide their departed loved ones with a proper burial, those waiting ghosts would return to haunt them.

For the rich, preventing this two-headed fate was a simple matter. They paid for elaborate funerals and lengthy funeral processions, which included professional mourners and friends wearing masks designed to look like the ancestors of the deceased. They also made sure to place a coin on or in the dead person’s mouth so that the soul could pay Charon to ferry them across the River Styx.

After the funeral procession concluded, a eulogy was often given. Next, the body was placed on a pyre and burned. The remaining ashes and bones were then placed in an urn, which was interred in some kind of sepulcher—usually highly decorated, with monuments to the deceased and even lifelike pictures of them. Those sepulchers were located outside the city gates, as the Romans liked to keep their dead far from them, at a “safe” distance. They did visit the sepulcher on various days throughout the year, though, believing that by making periodic offerings to their dearly departed, what remained of the person—their “shade”—would temporarily remember who they once were and earn a brief reprieve from aimlessly wandering about the Underworld.

For the poor, funerals were less impressive, with the funerary societies they frequently joined (for a small fee) providing shorter processions (just a musician or two), no eulogy, and interment of the ashes in a humbler resting site—often catacombs carved into clay and rock outside the city.

The poorest of the poor didn’t even have that. Those with no family or friends to fear a haunting and no money to join a funerary society were simply thrown into large pits or dumped into sewers.

In the late third and fourth centuries, many of these practices among the pagan Romans began to change, with inhumation (burial) gradually replacing cremation. Although some Romans had buried their dead in previous centuries, inhumation was considered a foreign (more specifically, Jewish) practice. The growing presence of Christians in their midst, however, along with other social shifts, changed that.

For the Christians, like the Romans, how they treated the dead was bound up with what they believed about life after death. But unlike their pagan counterparts, the Christians didn’t fear death. They welcomed it. Writing in the early fourth century, St. Athanasius remarked: “Everyone is by nature afraid of death and of bodily dissolution; the marvel of marvels, is that he who is enfolded in the faith of the cross despises this natural fear and for the sake of the cross is no longer cowardly in the face of it.”1

When Jesus Christ rose from the dead, He didn’t switch a bright overhead light on in heaven, completely destroying the darkness that shrouded what awaits us after death. He gave us more of a night-light, making some things clear while leaving other things a mystery. But to Athanasius and other early Christians, that didn’t matter. The nightlight was sufficient because Jesus was there. Much like the presence of a mother or father can completely chase away a child’s fears of the dark, Jesus’s presence chased away the early Christians’ fear of death. They knew He would be there to greet them, and that was enough. Athanasius explains:

‘Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed and become incorruptible through the resurrection … Even children hasten to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength.2

To those Christian men, women, and children who “hasten[ed] to die,” death wasn’t the ultimate evil or the great unknown. It was the doorway to spending eternity with their beloved: Jesus Christ. We see this conviction in the firsthand accounts of martyrs, such as Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, who faced death in Carthage’s arena in AD 203.

Both women were young wives and mothers: Felicity was pregnant at the time of their arrest, and Perpetua was still nursing her infant son. As the day of their death approached, the women didn’t want to run from it. Rather, Felicity prayed she would deliver her child soon so that she could face martyrdom with her fellow prisoners (even the Romans thought it beyond the pale to kill a pregnant women), and Perpetua gave thanks when her son finally weaned.

Felicity’s prayers were answered, and on the day of the scheduled execution, she accompanied Perpetua and their fellow Christians into the arena, “joyous and of brilliant countenances.” Perpetua sang psalms as she walked, and when the crowds demanded that the Christians be scourged before they faced the beasts, the women “rejoiced that they should have incurred any one of their Lord’s passions.” Finally, the women, like Jesus, freely gave their lives; they were not taken from them. We’re told: “when the swordsman’s hand wandered still (for he was a novice), [Perpetua] set it upon her own neck. Perchance so great a woman could not else have been slain … had she not herself so willed it.”3

In the centuries that followed, holy men and women faced death with the same eagerness that Perpetua, Felicity, and other earlier martyrs, such as St. Ignatius of Antioch, did. They wanted nothing more than to be in heaven with Christ. As Ignatius, on his way to martyrdom in AD 108, explained:

‘No earthly pleasures, no kingdoms of this world can benefit me in any way. I prefer death in Christ Jesus to power over the farthest limits of the earth. He Who died in place of us is the one object of my quest. He Who rose for our sakes is my one desire.4

One thousand years later, that same desire to be with Christ led St. Bernard of Clairvaux to describe the death of a just man not as “terrifying,” but as “consoling”:

‘His death is good, because it ends his miseries; it is better still, because he begins a new life; it is excellent, because it places him in sweet security. From this bed of mourning, whereon he leaves a precious load of virtues, he goes to take possession of the true land of the living, Jesus acknowledges him as His brother and as His friend, for he has died to the world before closing his eyes from its dazzling light. Such is the death of the saints, a death very precious in the sight of God.5

From the thirteenth century—when St. Rose of Viterbo advised, “Live so as not to fear death. For those who live well in the world, death is not frightening but sweet and precious”—to the nineteenth century, when St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote: “It is not Death that will come to fetch me, it is the good God”—saint after saint encouraged Christians to welcome death. And many listened.

In Phillipe Ariès’s landmark survey of depictions of death in the literature of Western Civilization, he classifies pre-modern deaths as “tame deaths,” noting how the protagonists almost universally faced death with calm, peace, and ease. It was death, he explains, that brought people back to their senses, focused their attention, and was welcomed, almost as an old friend.6

Christians weren’t going to imitate the pagans and, as Tertullian put it, “burn up their dead with harshest inhumanity.”8 As Tertullian explained elsewhere, those who followed Christ were to “avert a cruel custom with regard to the body since, being human, it does not deserve what is inflicted upon criminals.”9 And so, from the very first, Christians buried their dead as Christ had been buried, and they did so with no fear of being made “unclean” or “polluted” by contact with the dead body. For the Christians, the dead body wasn’t “unclean” (as the Jews saw it), nor did those who handled it fear being haunted by some remnant of the person’s soul (as the pagans did). Writing in the fourth and fifth centuries, St. Augustine discussed the reverence Christians believed was due to the dead body, noting: The bodies of the dead, and especially of the just and faithful are not to be despised or cast aside. The soul has used them as organs and vessels of all good work in a holy manner. … Bodies are not ornament or for aid, as something that is applied externally, but pertain to the very nature of the man.10

Importantly, Christians understood the injunction to care for and bury the dead as universal; it applied to all bodies—the bodies of the poor, the stranger, the diseased, even the pagan. Accounts about early Christian communities are filled with stories of them seeking out the forgotten poor and burying them with the same care they showed to family members. Tertullian also tells us that in his native Carthage and other cities, the Church’s common resources were used to pay for the burying of the dead. There was no throwing the bodies of the poor into a pit or the sewers among the Christians.

Their pagan neighbors took note of that. In his essay “To Bury or Burn?,” the Protestant ethicist David W. Jones tells us:

‘The last of the non-Christian emperors, Julian the Apostate (AD 332–363), identified “care of the dead” as one of the factors that contributed to the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman world. The church historian Philip Schaff, too, identified Christians’ display of “decency to the human body” in showing care for the dead as one of the main reasons for the church’s rapid conquest of the ancient world.11

In time, burying the dead would become known as one of the seven corporal works of mercy, considered as much an act of charity as feeding the hungry or tending to the sick. Religious associations, such as the Archconfraternity of the Beheaded John the Baptist in Florence and the Archconfraternity of St. Mary of the Oration and Death in Rome, also were formed to offer Christian funerals and burials to those who would otherwise have none.

No bodies, though, not rich nor poor, received as much attention as those of the martyrs.”

Love & Resurrection,
Matthew

1 Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 58.
2 Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 57.
3 Tertullian, The Passion of the Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, 6. 
4 Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, 6.
Bernard of Clairvaux, quoted in Charles Kenny, Half Hours with the Saints and Servants of God (London: Burns and Oats, 1882), 450.
See Phillipe Ariès, Western Attitudes Toward Death, trans. Patricia Ranum (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 1–25.
8 Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, 1.
9 Tertullian, A Treatise on the Soul, 51.
10 Augustine, On the Care of the Dead, 5.
11 Jones, “To Bury or Burn?,” 337.

Hope to Die: Powers That Come Forth

“In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we’re told that “sacraments are ‘powers that come forth’ from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving” (CCC 1116). These sacraments are the means by which God “resurrects us” in this life. Baptism restores divine life to our souls. The Eucharist nourishes that life. Confession replenishes it. Confirmation, Marriage, and Holy Orders strengthen it. And the Anointing of the Sick stirs up the divine life within us to heal our bodies and prepare our souls for eternal life. Today, as the Catechism says, the graces of all these sacraments come to us from the Body of Christ on earth, the Church. But before there was the Body of Christ, there was the body of Christ. Prior to the institution of the sacraments, Jesus is the sacrament. So, in the Gospels, it’s His actual physical body from which “powers … come forth.” In His lifetime, those powers did to people’s bodies what the sacraments have done to people’s souls ever since.

Jesus’s body does to our bodies what the sacraments do to our souls. Jesus’s body heals bodies. Jesus’s body teaches bodies. Jesus’s body feeds bodies. Jesus’s body raises bodies from the dead. Throughout His public ministry, powers go forth from His body, restoring people to the fullness of natural life. But the restoration of natural life isn’t enough. Jesus came for so much more than that. And the healings He works on earth both foreshadow the “more” and prove that more is possible. That is, they foreshadow the resurrection to come and prove that Jesus means what He says when He promises that all will rise again with Him on the last day.

“The Paschal Mystery has two aspects: by His death, Christ liberates us from sin; by His Resurrection, he opens for us the way to a new life. This new life is above all justification that reinstates us in God’s grace … Justification consists in both victory over the death caused by sin and a new participation in grace.” (cf. Eph 2:4–5; 1 Pet 1:3) (CCC 654)

“For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in a single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so it is with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence, the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled, and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be.”
Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 35.

The resurrected Christ is not a ghost or a spirit, but He also isn’t a body like He once was. He has been resurrected to a new life, in a new kind of body, and that is the kind of resurrection, that is the kind of body that is promised to us, one that is “sown in dishonor … raised in glory … sown in weakness … raised in power … sown a physical body … raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:43–44).

Love & Resurrection,
Matthew

Hope to Die: Communion with the Dead

“At the dawn of creation, God filled the universe with signs that pointed to Himself. The whole world was meant to be a type of catechesis, an instruction in Who God is, what He does, and how He loves us.

It still is. Everywhere you look, there are natural analogies of His power, goodness, and love: the sun, the moon, the stars; the mountains, the oceans, the rivers; and especially, the man, the woman, and the child. Like the sun and the oceans, the human family reveals important truths about God. We are made in God’s image, and how we care for each other, protect each other, and especially how we give life to each other—to new generations—teaches us something about God, Whose nature is life-giving love.

This is good. The world, the family, what it has to teach us—it’s all good. God created it to be good. But the good is not God, and in a fallen world, the danger always exists that we will confuse the two. That we will worship the sun instead of the One Whose light the sun reflects. That we will worship the river instead of the One of Whose power the river reminds us. That we will worship the earthly family instead of the divine family for which we were made.

This is demonic bait. The world is pointing to the world to come, but the devil doesn’t want us to see that. Or, he doesn’t want us to care. Satan wants to convince us that this world is all there is, that this life is enough.

But the natural world is passing, which means that to worship the natural is always to enter into a covenant with death. It’s the deadliest form of worship. And yet, this is and was a temptation for fallen humanity. It was especially a temptation in a world where the fullness of truth had yet to be revealed, where God was only gradually filling in the blanks about Who He is and what He has in store for us.

To prevent the Israelites from the tendency to ancestor worship is why specific mourning rites are forbidden in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, such as the shaving of the head and the gashing of the skin (Lev 19:27, 21:5; Deut 14:1). Both rites were practiced among the Canaanites, who saw those acts as a way of making sacrifices to and communing with the dead.

For similar reasons, the Israelites are forbidden from offering tithes to the dead, such as wheat or animal products (Deut 26:14). Throughout the ancient world, people commonly made offerings to the dead or buried the dead with wealth and food. But Israel was not to be like its neighbors.

Likewise, in Numbers 19:11 we read, “He who touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days.” Numbers then goes on to outline an elaborate cleansing ritual, not only for those who touch the dead but also for anyone who even goes into the tent of someone who died.

Why would God issue such laws? Because the Israelites were going to catch cooties from the dead body? Because the body isn’t hygienic? No. Because God wanted Israel to understand that physical death is a sign of spiritual death. It’s a sign of what sin does to the soul. And sin is catching. It’s as contagious as any disease and as deadly as any disease. More deadly, actually.

We see this even more explicitly in Ezekiel 37 when God has Ezekiel preach to a valley of dead bones. The bones are a symbol of Israel. They are dead and defiled. And the defilement of their physical condition is a sign of the defilement of their spiritual condition. They had forgotten God, forgotten His ways, and lost the hope He had promised them. Through that forgetting, they defiled their souls. “Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off ’” (Ezek 37:11).

Telling the Israelites that touching the dead defiles them is a pedagogical lesson to help the Israelites learn to detest sin. The same goes for the prohibition on touching a leper. God doesn’t primarily care about skin purity. He cares about soul purity. And leprosy in the Bible is a sign of sin. It does to a person’s body what breaking God’s law does to the soul.”

Love & Resurrection,
Matthew

Hope to Die: The Body as Sacrament

(Ed. sacrament = a visible sign of God’s grace.)

St. Athanasius explains:

‘What else could he possibly do, being God, but renew His image in mankind? And how could this be done save by the coming of the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image.’
-Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 39–41

Zoe/Ζωή, in many ways, is the ultimate gift of the Incarnation. It is the ultimate reason for the Incarnation. It’s the why behind Jesus coming. But, unlike the new dignity all bodies take on through the Incarnation, zoe/Ζωή isn’t imparted to all people automatically. It’s imparted through Baptism.

In Baptism, we are born anew, receiving what Adam lost—the gift of divine life—into our souls once more. It’s easy to dismiss Baptism as a mere symbol, but when you understand the difference between bios/βιο and zoe/Ζωή and between physical death and spiritual death, it becomes clear that the Sacrament of Baptism is more than figurative or symbolic. There is an ontological reality to our resurrection.

In the waters of Baptism, we die and rise by being united to Christ’s resurrected body. The divine life is restored to us so that the newly baptized person is more resurrected than Lazarus was. Lazarus got his natural, physical life back after four days. But in Baptism, we get our supernatural and divine life back, the life that Adam lost in the very beginning of time.

Baptism makes it possible for us to live the life for which God made us—a life that is more than natural—that is, in fact, supernatural. It also makes it possible for us to live a more fully human life, to enter more deeply into those things that make this earthly life worth living and have richer, more intimate connections with family and friends.

But Baptism doesn’t just affect our souls; it affects our bodies, too.

In all the sacraments, sanctifying grace—God’s own life— comes to us through our bodies. In Baptism, in Confirmation, in Marriage, in Holy Orders, and above all, in the Eucharist, God’s life enters into these bodies of ours through matter—water, wine, oil, a bishop’s hands, a spouse’s body— restoring the divine life that was lost by Adam and strengthening it within us. That grace divinizes our bodies. It makes them holy. It makes them temples. “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” asks Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:16.

In every single baptized person who is not in a state of mortal sin, God lives. He dwells within us. All human life is sacred because it is a gift from God and because man is made in the image of God. But the bodies of the baptized have a holiness that comes from the sanctifying grace abiding within them. As C. S. Lewis once remarked in his famous lecture, “The Weight of Glory”:

‘Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way [as the Blessed Sacrament], for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.’
-C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 19.

Importantly, the holiness of the baptized body doesn’t end with death. Grace continues to linger in the bodies and bones of those united to Christ. That’s why Catholic cemeteries are considered holy ground. The bodies of the baptized are buried there. And those bodies are the seed of the resurrected body.

Jesus promises to transform our resurrected bodies, to glorify them, to deify them. “As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust,” writes St. Paul, “and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Cor 15:48–49).

This promise of resurrection is our hope. It is that on which we stake our life. It is what enables us, as Christians, to face death with courage and joy.”

Love & Resurrection,
Matthew

Hope to Die: The Walking Dead

“Let the dead bury the dead…” -Lk 9:60

“The Holy Spirit is the giver of physical life, of what the Greeks called bios/βιο…there’s bios/βιο and then there’s zoe/Ζωή. Zoe/Ζωή is the word the Greek translators of the Old Testament used in Genesis 2:7: “Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [zoe/Ζωή]; and man became a living being.”

Unlike bios/βιο, zoe/Ζωή conveys so much more than mere physical existence. God didn’t just breathe air into Adam’s nostrils; He breathed life—spiritual life, eternal life, divine life. He breathed His own life into Adam. He gave Adam the life that from all eternity the Father is always communicating to the Son and that the Son is receiving and communicating right back to the Father. That life is so whole, so complete, it’s actually a Person: the Third Person of the Trinity. God breathed His Spirit into Adam, and that made it possible for him to live a life that wasn’t just natural, but supernatural.

Filled with zoe/Ζωή, Adam knew God intimately, familiarly, as a son knows his father, from the first moment of existence. He also imaged God, much as a son images his father, although his resemblance wasn’t physical; it was spiritual and intellectual.

When we understand the distinction between bios/βιο and zoe/Ζωή, God’s words to Adam and Eve in Genesis 2:16–17 start to make a lot more sense. There, God lays out the ground rules for life in Eden, explaining, “You may freely eat of every tree in the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” In the original Hebrew, even more emphasis is placed on the word “die.” The literal translation of that passage is “die the death.” God sounds serious there. Deadly serious.

But when you realize there are two kinds of life—bios/βιο and zoe/Ζωή—you also realize there are two kinds of death— bodily death and spiritual death. Adam and Eve didn’t die physically that day in the Garden, but they did die spiritually. They lost something far more precious than natural life: they lost supernatural life, divine life, the gift of sanctifying grace in their soul.

We’re born physically alive, but spiritually dead…This is what mortal sin is. It is spiritual death.

In M. Night Shyamalan’s movie “The Sixth Sense” the young character Cole reveals that he sees dead people, but more significantly, that they don’t know they’re dead. They see what they want to see. They hear what they want to hear. They ignore the reality of their own death, even though it is staring them in the face.

This is the world in which we live. Only, the people who don’t realize they’re dead aren’t physically dead; they’re spiritually dead. Some are unbaptized. Others are baptized but have fallen into mortal sin. But the spiritually dead are everywhere—on our streets and in our schools, in our workplaces and even in our parishes.

All around us are people not living the life they were made to live, who don’t have the life of God dwelling in their souls. They are the living dead—the reality to which all those zombie movies point. And they don’t even know it. They see what they want to see. They hear what they want to hear.

Importantly, these people aren’t less dead than those who are physically dead but alive in Christ. They are more dead. They are more dead than the saints, more dead than the souls in purgatory.

The sixth-century bishop, St. Julian of Toledo, noted, that’s not a warning most of us heed:

“Everyone fears death of the flesh, few fear death of the soul. All are preoccupied with the coming of death of the flesh, which sooner or later, certainly must come. And for this they weary themselves. Destined to die, humankind struggles to avoid dying, and yet, destined to live forever, they do not labor to avoid sinning. And when they struggle to avoid death, they labor in vain; in fact, the most they obtain is that death is deferred, not avoided; if rather they refrain from sinning, their toil will cease and they will live forever. Oh that we could incite humankind, ourselves included, to be lovers of everlasting life as much as they are lovers of the life that passes away!”
-Julian of Toledo, Foreknowledge of the World to Come, trans. Tommaso Stancati, O.P. (New York: Newman Press, 2010), 383–84.

A person can be alive, but not alive. A person can be dead, but not dead.

Each of us faces a choice every moment of every day. When we choose God—His laws, His will, and His way—we choose life. And when we choose ourselves—our laws, our wills, our way—we choose death.”

Love & Resurrection,
Matthew

Hope to Die

The Christian’s Last Passover

“The Christian meaning of death is revealed in the light of the Paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ in Whom resides our only hope… .

For the Christian the day of death inaugurates, at the end of his sacramental life, the fulfillment of his new birth begun at Baptism, the definitive “conformity” to “the image of the Son” conferred by the anointing of the Holy Spirit, and participation in the feast of the Kingdom which was anticipated in the Eucharist—even if final purifications are still necessary for him in order to be clothed with the nuptial garment.

The Church who, as Mother, has borne the Christian sacramentally in her womb during his earthly pilgrimage, accompanies him at his journey’s end, in order to surrender him “into the Father’s hands.” She offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of His grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory.”
-Catechism of the Catholic Church 1681–1683

CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
PART ONE
THE PROFESSION OF FAITH
SECTION TWO
THE PROFESSION OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH
CHAPTER THREE
I BELIEVE IN THE HOLY SPIRIT
ARTICLE 11
“I BELIEVE IN THE RESURRECTION OF THE BODY”

“I believe in…the resurrection of the body…”
-Apostle’s Creed (First Council of Milan, 390 AD)

“…We look for the resurrection of the dead…”
-Nicene Creed (First Council of Nicea, 325 AD)

“From the beginning, Christian faith in the resurrection has met with incomprehension and opposition. ‘On no point does the Christian faith encounter more opposition than on the resurrection of the body.’ It is very commonly accepted that the life of the human person continues in a spiritual fashion after death. But how can we believe that this body, so clearly mortal, could rise to everlasting life?” (CCC 996)

“I think many of us believe we’ll get a new body once we enter into eternal life or on Judgment Day. But we don’t see how this body—this weak, mortal body that eats and sleeps, catches cold and bleeds—could possibly be resurrected to eternal life. Surely God has better material he can work with?

Again, the Creed says otherwise. And in the original Greek, it says it even more explicitly. The first Christians who composed the Creed didn’t use the Greek word for body: soma. They used the Greek word for flesh: sarx. Every time we pray the Creed, that’s what we say: I believe in the resurrection of the flesh—of this flesh, of my flesh, of my tired, aging, imperfect flesh. I believe that this body will one day stand before the throne of Christ and worship Him with all the angels and saints. Yet, for all that we say it, so few of us really live it.

In life, we don’t treat our bodies like sacred temples that belong in the heavenly courts. We either abuse them— eating too much or too little, denying them sleep, denying them rest, filling them with toxic substances, and giving them over to immoral purposes. Or, we worship them—doing everything we can to recreate them into some cultural ideal. Sometimes, we do both, while also doing all we can to keep the signs of bodily weakness and aging at bay. Death, almost everyone agrees, is the one great evil.

But when death inevitably comes, how do we treat those bodies?

Today, more and more of us burn them. We don’t bury our bodies. We don’t treat them as our ancestors did, with reverence and care. Instead, we destroy the flesh in fire, crush the bones that withstand the flames, and then often scatter the remains, destroying all evidence that this body— this holy body in which God’s Spirit dwelt—ever existed.

We live like materialists. We die like Nihilists. And this is a problem.”

Love & Resurrection,
Matthew

Gay marriage: when loving the sinner means saying “no”


-by Drew Belsky

“On Tuesday, the Vatican’s press office included in its daily bulletin a notice that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) had ruled a hard “negative” on the prospect of the Church giving “blessings [to] unions of persons of the same sex.” The Associated Press, covering the story, built its headline from a phrase in the second-to-last paragraph of the two-page document: “Vatican bars gay union blessing, says God ‘can’t bless sin.’”

God “does not and cannot bless sin.” This is strong language from the Holy See and from Pope Francis, who explicitly authorized it. It flies in the face of the efforts of some prominent churchmen to mainstream Catholic tolerance of same-sex relationships, including the German bishops’ conference; the Austrian Priests’ Initiative; and, most famously in the USA, Fr. James Martin.

In comparison with the secular media and some Catholic observers, Fr. Martin’s reaction to the CDF’s response was subdued. It was certainly less strident than past criticism of what he sees as Catholic discrimination against persons with same-sex attractions.

For example: “In the U.S.,” Fr. Martin said in a 2020 video message, “the Church must stop firing married LGBT people from their positions in Catholic institutions—because if you’re going to fire people for not following Church teaching, that would include a lot more than just married LGBT people. Otherwise, it’s not just enforcing Church teaching; it’s engaging in discrimination.”

And he wrote in America, the Jesuits’ flagship U.S. publication, in 2018:

Do you hold the LGBT community to the same standards as the straight community? . . . With LGBT people we tend to focus on whether they are fully conforming to the church’s teachings on sexual morality. So are you doing the same with straight parishioners—with those who are living together before being married or practicing birth control? Be consistent about whose lives get scrutinized.

“Even though Jesus condemns divorce outright,” Fr. Martin continued, “most parishes welcome divorced people. Do we treat LGBT people with the same understanding?”

Fr. Martin is right to call out hypocrisy when Catholics rail against some sins and not others—although he’s off base if he thinks parishes “welcoming” divorced people into their doors means giving unrepentant adulterers Communion. Singling out people who publicly persist in only one particular sin is bad pastoral practice. In fact, God “does not and cannot bless” any sin. Neither should the Church. Neither should we.

So let’s keep going with Fr. Martin’s excellent logic—for instance, by applying it to “those who are living together before being married.”

Many dioceses provide literature on how cohabitation ruins a marriage. Yet when a cohabiting couple approach a priest for marriage prep, too often he will allow them to cohabit up to the wedding day. (In my own experience in Pre-Cana, the otherwise upbeat priest-speaker, acknowledging the many cohabiting couples among us, apologized in a mournful tone for having to relay the Church’s teaching on living together before getting married.) A 2005 guidance for priests from the U.S. bishops pointedly reminds that “the couple may not be refused marriage solely on the basis of cohabitation,” and Pope Francis even spoke favorably about certain long-term cohabiting arrangements he’d seen in Buenos Aires, saying “they have the grace of a real marriage.”

Can you see a disconnect here? The loving course is to insist that couples live separately and faithfully entrust the consequences to God, who will not abandon them. It’s not loving to send them into marriage with the albatross of cohabitation around their necks. You could even say tolerating cohabitation “does and can bless sin.”

It doesn’t stop at marriage prep. When Catholic schools hire teachers who live in a state of public and unrepentant fornication or adultery (or, yes, a same-sex “marriage”), it’s not loving to scandalize all the kids who will see a destructive lifestyle and a grave offense to God boosted. And don’t forget the teachers themselves, now instantly made into hypocrites, expected to model fidelity to Catholic teaching but rejecting it in their personal lives. It’s not loving to set them up that way.

When priests and bishops are confronted with a public figure who broadcasts his support for sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance, it’s not loving to give that public figure the Eucharist. St. Paul is uncompromising about this: receiving Christ unworthily is a ticket to hell—and not only that, but everyone who watches that sinner consume our Lord can’t help but wonder if the sins he’s promoting really are so bad after all. This is why, as Pope Benedict XVI told ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, pastors should deny Communion to anyone whose formal cooperation with sins like abortion and euthanasia “becomes manifest.” So you could say giving the Eucharist to a public, grave, unrepentant sinner “does and can bless sin.”

Those are three examples; there are many more. Whether it’s divorce or adultery or contraception or sodomy or whatever else, we don’t love our brethren in Christ by blessing their sin—expressly, or tacitly, or through omission—and thus making it easier for them to continue in that sin. The call to repentance may need to be gradual and gentle, as prudence dictates, and always done with charity at heart. But there is no charity in enabling grave sin in our fellow Christians. That can only be a form of hatred. It is the starkest possible way to say, “To hell with you.”

When Fr. Martin says we should treat “LGBT” sins the same as all the others, he’s right. So let’s do it—in Catholic hiring policies, in marriage prep, and beyond. Where these sins are private, pastors are wise to treat them privately. Where they are public, indeed even flaunted, the CDF leads the way: “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless” these things, because God “does not and cannot bless sin.”

“If you talk about chastity with LGBT people,” Fr. Martin admonishes in his 2018 America article, “do it as much with straight people.” That is a great idea. It’s a spiritual work of mercy. So, to love and save our neighbors, let’s fight sin—“LGBT” sins, yes, and all the others, too.”

Love,
Matthew

Miracles 2

“There are two ways to approach the historicity of Jesus’ miracles: a general way and a specific way. The specific assessment, which includes looking at each miracle in light of the criteria for historicity (clues that indicate an event or saying is historically reliable), is far too detailed for this booklet (xii). So we will discuss the general way.

It’s helpful to note first that the Gospel writers record things about Jesus’ miraculous deeds that are not beneficial for persuading people to believe. For example, Mark records the accusation that Jesus performs his exorcisms by the power of the devil: “He is possessed by Be-elzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons” (Mark 3:22). It’s more probable than not the scribes made this accusation because it doesn’t make sense for Mark (or the other evangelists) to make something up that could undermine the reputation of Jesus.

Now, if that’s evidence that the accusation is historical (remember the “embarrassment criterion”), then it’s reasonable to conclude that Jesus’ contemporaries regarded him as a man with remarkable powers who performed remarkable deeds. Why else would they make such a charge? It’s hard to see why Jesus’ toughest critics would acknowledge him as having supernatural power unless there was wide agreement that he was performing exorcisms.

Another point to keep in mind is that the style of Jesus’ miracles was far different from the first-century milieu of wonder-workers, which for historians suggests that the wonders he performed were historical and not part of a local myth tradition. In his book, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, Bible scholar Raymond Brown identifies five unique characteristics of Jesus’ miracles compared with those found in ancient Greek and Jewish stories. We’ll look at two of them here.

One is that Jesus performs miracles by his own authority. If you read the Gospels carefully, Jesus doesn’t say things like, “In name of God, rise and walk” but simply “Rise, take up your pallet and walk” (Mark 2:9). When he raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead, he says, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

This is unlike Old Testament prophets such as Elijah and Elisha, who call on the power of God in order to raise the dead (see 1 Kings 17:17-22; 2 Kings 4:32-35). We find a similar style of miracle working—whether through magical formulas, paraphernalia, or prayers to the gods—among Greek and Roman sources (xiii). Jesus stands apart by working wonders through his own power.

A second characteristic that is unique to Jesus is that he doesn’t perform miracles for the sake of showing off. Where other ancient wonder-workers of that era aimed to astonish and solicit admiration (xiv). Jesus shied away from drawing attention to himself.

For example, when Herod asks Jesus to perform a miracle to show off his power, Jesus refuses to do so (Luke 23:8-12). Jesus was frustrated by the Pharisees’ constant requests for a sign (Mark 8:11-12). Even Satan tries to get Jesus to show off his power but Jesus refuses (Matt. 4:5-7).

Furthermore, when Jesus did perform his miracles, he did so in a way that drew attention away from himself. This is evident in his command that the healed leper remain silent: “See that you say nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to the priest” (Mark 1:44). In many other places in Scripture, Jesus can be seen admonishing others not to publicize his identity or his works.

It’s also reasonable to accept Jesus’ miracles as history because of how restrained the Gospel narratives are in describing them. These accounts are starkly different from the frivolous and exaggerated elements found in the fraudulent Gnostic Gospels that appeared in the early centuries of the Church.

Take for example Mark’s account of the Resurrection. It’s simple and unembellished—he doesn’t even describe Jesus’ rising. You would think that if he were making it up he would have embellished it to make it sell. Why not include extraordinary details like those found in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter—giant angels, a talking cross, a voice from heaven, and Jesus coming out the tomb as a gigantic figure whose head reaches to the clouds?

Or contrast the simplicity of the miracle narratives in the Gospels with that in another Gnostic text, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which depicts the child Jesus making clay sparrows fly and twice cursing other children to death—one for spilling water and one for bumping into Jesus on the street.

It’s amazing to think the Gospel writers did not give in to the temptation to exaggerate Jesus’ miracles, to make them more dramatic and appealing to potential converts. Their restraint, along with Jesus’ unique style and the testimony of his enemies, are all evidence for the historical reliability of the accounts of Jesus’ miracles.”

Love,
Matthew

Salvation

“Why do I need to be saved?

We all need to be saved because of sin. That’s what we need to be saved from.

People today sometimes hesitate to use the word sin. For some people, this word is a reminder of a religious upbringing that they would rather forget. For others, it’s a strong word—one that can come across as intimidating. But regardless of how we feel about the word, the reality of sin is all around us.

We all know this. It doesn’t matter whether one is religious or secular, liberal or conservative. All human beings have an innate recognition that something is wrong with the world, that people do things that they should not, and that we ourselves do wrong.

It doesn’t matter who you are: Think about the things in this world that make you angry—things like cruelty, injustice, and indifference to the suffering of others. Every one of us can become morally outraged when we encounter these things in their pure, unadulterated forms.

We also have an inner sense—our conscience—that is meant to warn us when we are about to do something wrong, or that makes us feel ashamed when we have done wrong.

Regardless of what you call it, sin is a reality that is in the world and within us as well.

We also sense that sin must have consequences. If there is justice in the world, then ultimately, people can’t simply get away with doing wrong.

It’s easy to sense this when we consider evil written large—horrible conflicts that have killed millions, examples of genocide, or cases of ethnic cleansing. The people who cause these things simply cannot be allowed to get away with them! If there is justice in the world then they must somehow—someday—be called to account.

Yet we know that there are people who committed horrible crimes and seemed to get away with them entirely. Others may have suffered ome consequences for what they did, but nowhere near enough, given the horrors they committed. Dictators, terrorists, and mass murderers—without repenting or being sorry in the least for what they have done— have either died peacefully in bed or suffered only a fraction of what they did to others.

This shows us that justice is not always done in this life. Yet our hearts tell us that there should be justice in the world. And so there is, but not always in this life. Christianity holds that, while villains may get away with their deeds for a time, they will ultimately have to stand before their Creator and be accountable to him for what they have done.

This opens up a new perspective. Thus far we have been looking at evil in terms of wrongs done by one person against another. But when we consider our sins with respect to God, we see that there is another dimension.

Everything we have—every ability, talent, and aptitude—is a gift from God, and that means that every time we sin, we misuse one of God’s gifts. Sin thus involves an offense against God, a failure to love him and honor him by using his gifts properly.

Because our sins aren’t just against our fellow men, but against our infinitely good, all-holy, and eternal Creator, they carry a special gravity—one that can have eternal consequences. This adds a special urgency to our need for salvation.

When our consciences tell us that we have done wrong, and when our sense of justice tells us that we will be held accountable for what we have done, we naturally desire mercy. Our hearts call out for it. This is true both when we think of the wrongs we have done against other people and when we realize that they are offenses against God. Fortunately, in both cases, mercy—or salvation from the consequences of our sins—is available.

The human heart thus contains powerful intuitions that form the backdrop to the drama of salvation—the intuitions that sin is real, that there is justice and so sin has consequences in this life or the next, and that mercy or salvation is available for those who repent.

The Christian faith acknowledges these intuitions of the heart and the realities they point to. It recognizes the realities of sin, justice, and salvation—and the importance they have for all of us.”

Love,
Matthew

Justification


– detail from the “Last Judgment”, by Giotti, Cappella Scrovegni, 1306, Fresco, 1000 x 840 cm, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy, please click on the image for greater detail.

The chapel is entered from the west, the side on which the sun goes down. In accordance with an old tradition, the entrance wall of the chapel is filled by the depiction of the Last Judgment. This scene is as complex and crowded as the frescoes on the side walls are concentrated and reduced to essentials. This large painting occupies the entire west wall across several registers. The three-light windows of the façade also had to be incorporated into the composition.

This extensive depiction of the Last Judgment is dominated by the large Christ in Majesty at its centre. The twelve apostles sit to His left and to His right. Here the two levels divide: the heavenly host appears above, people plunge into the maw of hell below, or are led by angels towards heaven.

The way this large fresco is divided into registers is traditional. But if we look at Giotto’s invention in detail, then his novel attempts at visualizing different spheres, as well as abstract beliefs, become particularly apparent. In the center of the representation, Christ is enthroned as supreme Judge in a rainbow-colored mandorla. The deep, radiant gold background, the style of painting, and the delicate substance give the impression that the heavens have opened in order to reveal the powerful, extremely solidly modeled figure of Christ. Different levels are likewise alluded to when the choirs of angels disappear behind the real window, or when the celestial watch in the upper area of the picture rolls back the firmament, behind which the golden-red doors of the heavenly Jerusalem shine forth. The black and red maw of hell, which seems to anticipate Dante’s “Inferno”, is different again in its impact.


-by Jimmy Akin

“On October 31, 1999, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed a historic document known as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JD). This document, the fruit of almost thirty years of ecumenical dialogue, without a doubt will be widely misinterpreted in both the secular and religious press. This article is intended to help the reader understand the most important things that the document does and does not say, so that he may better sift through the inevitable misrepresentations.

How We Got Where We Are

For many years after the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics frequently portrayed the other side in the least favorable light. Too often, neither side was interested in giving the other side a sympathetic hearing. To the extent they read the works of the other party at all it was to look for theological ammunition.

Today there is a growing willingness among theologians and scholars on both sides to give a more nuanced reading to each other’s theology. One of the good fruits this openness has borne is progress on the subject of justification. Among Protestant groups, the Lutheran view of justification has always been closest to the Catholic view in many respects. (For example, Luther taught the necessity of baptism for justification, the practice of infant baptism, and the possibility of losing one’s salvation.)

As scholars from the two communities read each other’s writings, it became clear that the two sides were not as far apart on justification as had been imagined. Some apparent disputes were due to differences of emphasis rather than contradictions of belief.

Since 1972, several Catholic-Lutheran ecumenical statements on justification have been released by local groups, and the degree of agreement has been such that the Holy See and the Lutheran World Federation decided to explore the possibility of issuing a joint declaration on the subject. Beginning in 1994, representatives of the Holy See and the Lutheran World Federation drafted and circulated the proposed text for such a joint declaration. It was finalized in 1997, and the Lutheran World Federation approved it unanimously on June 16, 1998.

Then came a surprise: The Holy See announced that it would be releasing a document titled Response of the Catholic Church to the Joint Declaration of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation on the Doctrine of Justification (Response). When this document was released a few days later on June 25, it did not endorse the Joint Declaration as it stood but expressed a number of reservations and indicated that certain points needed to be clarified.

This was an embarrassment. The drafting of the Joint Declaration had been a years-long process, and the text had already been finalized. The concerns that were announced on June 25 should have been brought up and the corresponding clarifications given before the Lutherans went out on a limb by voting to approve the declaration.

Though the Lutherans were taken aback by the Holy See’s sudden reticence, they summoned admirable tact to discuss the requested clarifications. The result was the drafting of an Annex to the Joint Declaration (Annex), which the two parties released the following year on June 11, together with the announcement that the formal signing of the Joint Declaration would take place October 31, 1999, in Augsburg, Germany.

Despite the embarrassing nature of the incident leading to the Annex, it demonstrates that the Joint Declaration is not the product of false ecumenism. The fact that the Holy See was willing to pursue a last-minute course of action so painful to both sides, and not proceed until clarifications were made, shows that the Holy See was determined that the document accurately reflect Catholic teaching.

The Big Picture

The Joint Declaration expresses its general conclusion a number of times, but perhaps most clearly when it says:

“The understanding of the doctrine of justification set forth in this Declaration shows that a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics. In light of this consensus the remaining differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis in the understanding of justification described in paragraphs 19 to 39 are acceptable. Therefore the Lutheran and the Catholic explications of justification are in their difference open to one another and do not destroy the consensus regarding basic truths. . . .

“Thus the doctrinal condemnations of the sixteenth century, in so far as they relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration [emphasis added] does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration” (JD 40-41).

In the 1500s the Council of Trent was faced with a bewildering array of mutually contradictory Protestant ideas on justification. What the Council did was to condemn the gravest errors, regardless of which Protestant or group of Protestants was advocating them. As a result, the condemnations issued by Trent did not, as a body, apply to any one Protestant or school of Protestantism.

Thus Trent never intended some of its condemnations to apply to Lutherans. The dialogue that has taken place since Trent has revealed that additional condemnations-which do condemn doctrinal errors regarding justification-do not apply to the teachings of Lutherans, at least not the Lutherans signing the Joint Declaration.

One of the most important sections in the Joint Declaration is titled “Explicating the Common Understanding of Justification.” This is the “meat” of the document when it comes to clarifying contentious issues, and it is divided into seven parts: (1) Human Powerlessness and Sin in Relation to Justification, (2) Justification as Forgiveness of Sins and Making Righteous, (3) Justification by Faith and through Grace, (4) The Justified as Sinner, (5) Law and Gospel, (6) Assurance of Salvation, and (7) The Good Works of the Justified. Let’s look at each of these.

1. Human Powerlessness and Sin in Relation to Justification

Lutherans have often used language suggesting not only that humans are powerless to seek justification without God’s grace (something with which Catholics agree), but that humans are unable in any way to cooperate with God’s grace, which they must receive in a “merely passive” manner. When Catholics have failed to go along with this extreme language, Lutherans have seen it as a denial of man’s inability to seek justification without God’s grace.

The Joint Declaration rectifies this misunderstanding, stating:

“We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation . . . for as sinners they stand under God’s judgment and are incapable of turning by themselves to God to seek deliverance, of meriting their justification before God, or of attaining salvation by their own abilities. Justification takes place solely by God’s grace. . . . When Catholics say that persons ‘cooperate’ in preparing for and accepting justification . . . they see such personal consent as itself an effect of grace, not as an action arising from innate human abilities” (JD 19-20).

Unfortunately, this section went on to use the Lutheran “merely passive” description of man with respect to justification (n. 21) without fully explaining it. The Response of the Holy See asked that this be further clarified. Consequently, the Annex to the Joint Declaration affirmed that “The working of God’s grace does not exclude human action: God effects everything, the willing and the achievement, therefore we are called to strive (cf. Phil. 2:12 ff)” (Annex, 2C).

2. Justification as Forgiveness of Sins and Making Righteous

A subject of perennial disagreement has been the nature of justification. Lutherans have frequently characterized it as only a forgiveness of sins, while the Church insists that it is more than this. The Joint Declaration states:

“We confess together that God forgives sin by grace and at the same time frees human beings from sin’s enslaving power and imparts the gift of new life in Christ. When persons come by faith to share in Christ, God no longer imputes to them their sin and through the Holy Spirit effects in them an active love. These two.aspects of God’s gracious action are not to be separated. . . .

“When Lutherans emphasize that the righteousness of Christ is our righteousness, their intention is above all to insist that the sinner is granted righteousness before God in Christ through the declaration of forgiveness and that only in union with Christ is one’s life renewed. When they stress that God’s grace is forgiving love (‘the favor of God’), they do not thereby deny the renewal of the Christian’s life” (JD 22-23).

This description of justification as both forgiveness of sins and inward renewal reflects Trent’s statement that justification “is not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man” (DJ 7).

Some Catholics have been concerned that this section of the Joint Declaration does not mention what Trent called the “formal cause” of justification, which refers to the kind of righteousness one receives in justification. According to Trent (DJ 7, can. 11), there is a single formal cause of justification, which consists of sanctifying grace (cf. L. Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 251-252). But the nature of sanctifying grace has not been finally determined. According to the common view (the Thomistic one), sanctifying grace is a quality God gives the soul and that always accompanies but is nevertheless distinct from the virtue of charity. The less common view (that of Scotists) holds that sanctifying grace and charity are the same thing.

The Joint Declaration does not raise this discussion. It is content to say that in justification God no longer imputes sin (i.e., he forgives or remits it) and that he creates charity in the believer. To construe the omission of the term “sanctifying grace” in favor of the term “charity” as an endorsement of the Scotist view would be a misreading of the document. It is not intended to settle questions that are still open for Catholics, much less intended to endorse the less common of two views.

3. Justification by Faith and through Grace

Two key Protestant slogans are “justification by grace alone” and “justification by faith alone.” (These do not contradict each other since they are speaking on different levels of what causes justification.)

Catholics have never had trouble affirming the first slogan, though Protestants commonly believe they do. But both Catholics and Lutherans often have wrongly thought that Catholics must reject the second slogan.

This confusion is based on a misreading of canon 9 of Trent’s Decree on Justification, which rejects the proposition that “the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will” (emphasis added).

As a careful reading of this canon shows, not every use of the formula “faith alone” is rejected, but only those that mean “nothing else is required,” etc. If one acknowledges that things besides the theological virtue of faith are required, then one’s use of the “faith alone” formula does not fall under the condemnation of Trent.

The classic Catholic alternative to saying that we are saved “by faith alone” is to say that we are saved by “faith, hope, and charity.” It is, however, possible for these two formulas to be equivalent in meaning.

Charity-the supernatural love of God-is what ultimately unites the soul to God. It therefore is recognized as the “form” of the virtues, the thing which binds them together and gives them their fullest meaning. Catholic theologians have historically talked about virtues like faith and hope being “formed” or “unformed” based on whether they are united with charity.

St. Paul tells us that charity “believes all things, hopes all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). Thus, if you have “formed faith,” you have not only faith, but hope and charity. This is why the two formulas-“faith alone” and “faith, hope, and charity”-can be equivalent. If you assert that we are justified by “faith alone”-and by that you mean formed faith-then there is no problem from the Catholic perspective. The phrase is not being used in a way that falls under Trent’s condemnation.

Different Protestants mean different things when they use the “faith alone” slogan. Some (rank antinomians) really do mean that one is justified by intellectual belief alone, without hope or charity. Others (many American Evangelicals) appear to believe one is justified by faith plus hope, which is trust in God for salvation. Many others (including the Lutherans signing the Joint Declaration) believe that charity, the principle behind good works, always accompanies faith, and so believe in justification by formed faith.

This is the sense reflected in the Joint Declaration, which states that “justifying faith . . . includes hope in God and love for him. Such a faith is active in love and thus the Christian cannot and should not remain without works” (JD 25).

It is this understanding that also lies behind statements in the Joint Declaration such as: “We confess together that persons are justified by faith in the gospel ‘apart from works prescribed by the law’ (Rom. 3:28)” (JD, 31).

However, it should be pointed out that the “faith alone” formula is unbiblical language. The phrase “faith alone” (pisteus monon) appears in the New Testament only once-in James 2:24-where it is rejected. For those who use this language, though, it can be given an acceptable meaning.

4. The Justified as Sinner

The section of the Joint Declaration that most concerned the Holy See was not, as some might have thought, the part dealing with justification by grace and faith. Rather, it was this section, which deals with the classic Lutheran expression that man is “at once righteous and a sinner” (simul justus et peccator).

The Holy See was concerned to uphold the Catholic teaching that “in baptism everything that is really sin is taken away, and so, in those who are born anew there is nothing that is hateful to God. It follows that the concupiscence that remains in the baptized is not, properly speaking, sin” (Response, Clarification 1).

This goes back to a dispute at the time of the Protestant breakaway, when Lutherans wished to say that the concupiscence (disordered desire) that remains in the individual after justification still has the character of sin. The Catholic Church has always taught that concupiscence “has never [been] understood to be called sin in the sense that it is truly and properly sin in those born again, but in the sense that it is from sin and inclines to sin” (Trent, Decree on Original Sin 5).

The Annex to the Joint Declaration responds by conceding that “it can be recognized from a Lutheran perspective that [concupiscent] desire can become the opening through which sin attacks” (Annex, 2B). This is fine. Concupiscence is a vulnerability that leads to sin but is not the sin itself.

Because concupiscence leads to sin, “we would be wrong were we to say that we are without sin (1 John 1:8-10, cf. JD 28). ‘All of us make many mistakes’ (Jas. 3:2). . . . This recalls to us the persisting danger that comes from the power of sin and its action in Christians. To this extent, Lutherans and Catholics can together understand the Christian as simul justus et peccator, despite their different approaches to this subject as expressed in JD 29-30″ (Annex, 2A).

5. Law and Gospel

Lutherans historically have drawn a sharp distinction between law and gospel, to the point that in Lutheran theology these seem to become abstract philosophical ideas. This is not the way the terms are used in Scripture. When the Bible refers to “the Law” it almost always means the Torah, the Law of Moses, which includes not only legal demands but promises God’s grace. Similarly, when the Bible speaks about “the gospel” it does not envision a set of unconditional promises. Salvation in Christ is conditional; it requires repentance and faith.

Lutherans have at times used language that suggests that Christ is only a Savior to be believed in, not also as a Lawgiver to be obeyed. To correct this, the Joint Declaration contains the affirmation: “We also confess that God’s commandments retain their validity for the justified and that Christ has by his teaching and example expressed God’s will, which is a standard for the conduct of the justified also” (JD 31).

Lutherans are sometimes suspicious of Catholic discussions of Christ as Lawgiver, thinking that this may reduce Christ to being just another Moses who brings demands rather than salvation. To address this concern, the Joint Declaration affirms: “Because the law as a way to salvation has been fulfilled and overcome through the gospel, Catholics can say that Christ is not a lawgiver in the manner of Moses. When Catholics emphasize that the righteous are bound to observe God’s commandments, they do not thereby deny that through Jesus Christ God has mercifully promised to his children the grace of eternal life” (JD 33).

6. Assurance of Salvation

This is one of the most misunderstood subjects relating to justification. Both sides have been needlessly polarized on the question of what kind of assurance one can have regarding salvation.

Too often, Lutherans have made it sound as if you can have absolute assurance that you will be saved. But they will admit that, due to the fallen nature of the human intellect and our capacity for self-deception (not to mention the possibility of falling from grace, which Lutherans acknowledge), you cannot have infallible certitude regarding salvation.

Too often Catholics have made it sound as if it is not possible to have any assurance of salvation. This is based on a misreading of the Council of Trent. The council stated only that one cannot “know with the certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error” (DJ 9; emphasis added) and that one cannot know “with an absolute and infallible certainty, [that he will] have that great gift of perseverance even to the end, unless he shall have learned this by a special revelation” (DJ, can. 16; emphasis added).

So the two sides are really in agreement-assurance is possible, but not infallible assurance (barring special revelation). Thus the Joint Declaration affirms: “We confess together that the faithful can rely on the mercy and promises of God.

In spite of their own weakness and the manifold threats to their faith, on the strength of Christ’s death and resurrection they can build on the effective promise of God’s grace in Word and Sacrament and so be sure of this grace. . . . In trust in God’s promise [believers] are assured of their salvation, but are never secure looking at themselves. . . . No one may doubt God’s mercy and Christ’s merit. Every person, however, may be concerned about his salvation when he looks upon his own weaknesses and shortcomings” (JD 34-36).

7. The Good Works of the Justified

Lutherans have been suspicious for a long time that the Church’s discussion of good works means that one must do good works in order to enter a state of justification. This has never been the case. In fact, in Catholic teaching, one is not capable of doing supernaturally good works outside of a state of justification because one does not have the virtue of charity in one’s soul-the thing that makes good works good. Consequently, the Council of Trent taught “none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification” (DJ 8).

The Joint Declaration thus stresses that good works are a consequence of entering a state of justification, not the cause of entering it:

“We confess together that good works-a Christian life lived in faith, hope, and love-follow justification and are its fruits. When the justified live in Christ and act in the grace they receive, they bring forth, in biblical terms, good fruit. . . .

“When Catholics affirm the ‘meritorious’ character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace” (JD 37-38).

Important Cautions

The text of the Joint Declaration contains a number of important cautions to prevent the meaning and significance of the document from being misunderstood.

Neither side is retracting its position, going back on its history, or “caving in.” “This Joint Declaration rests on the conviction that . . . the churches neither take the condemnations [of the sixteenth century] lightly nor do they disavow their own past ” (JD 7).

The document does not cover all of the doctrine of justification. “The present Joint Declaration . . . does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations” (JD 5).

The Catholic Church’s condemnations of the Reformation era were not wrong. “Nothing is . . . taken away from the seriousness of the condemnations related to the doctrine of justification. . . . They remain for us ‘salutary warnings’ to which we must attend in our teaching and practice” (JD 42).

The document does not cover all disagreements between Catholics and Lutherans. “There are still questions of varying importance which need further clarification. These include, among other topics, the relationship between the Word of God and church doctrine, as well as ecclesiology, authority in the church, ministry, the sacraments, and the relation between justification and social ethics” (JD 43).

Due to the remaining differences, the two sides still cannot unite. “Doctrinal condemnations were put forward both in the Lutheran Confessions and by the Roman Catholic Church’s Council of Trent. These condemnations are still valid today and thus have a church-dividing effect” (JD 1).

This declaration applies only to Catholics and Lutherans: This is so obvious, the document does not explicitly point it out. It is, however, important to understand that the Holy See is not saying that any and all Protestant views on justification share the same status as the ones described in the Joint Declaration. The Lutherans are the closest on justification in many respects, but others aren’t nearly as close.

Consequences for Apologetics

The Joint Declaration has great ecumenical significance, but it is a watershed as well in the history of Catholic-Protestant apologetics.

It will be unnecessary now for Catholic apologists to maintain a confrontational stance on this topic when the Church is taking a different tack. This is especially true concerning the seven topics from section 4 of the Joint Declaration, including the touchy subject of the “faith alone” formula. Catholics who insist on being confrontational on these issues will increasingly find themselves facing the rejoinder, “How can you say that when your own Church says something different?”

Consequently, it is better for the apologist to be conciliatory on justification. This will have a number of positive effects. It will keep our language in conformity with the language of the Church. It will force us to learn the Church’s theology of justification in greater depth, rather than simply repeating stock formulas. And, most importantly, it will make our message more appealing to Protestants who might be interested in converting.”

Love & unity,
Matthew