-Pavia, Italy. “Et Verbum caro factum est” meaning “And the Word became flesh” in Duomo di Pavia (Pavia Cathedral)
[I am always the Catholic docent on business trips with colleagues. When diversion takes us into Catholic spaces, I am called upon by colleagues to translate/interpret both art and letter in said spaces. I do what I can. I try to be helpful. It is said when Pope BXVI wanted to communicate something difficult, like his resignation, he would speak it in Latin to the Curia listening to him during a meeting. It would take a moment to process and sink in, which is why he did that way is supposed.]
“From an early date, the Church in the West has used Latin—not only for administration, study, and communication, but for prayer. This was natural for regions where Latin was the majority language, but as the centuries passed, the Western Church persisted with a Latin liturgy in evangelizing peoples on and beyond the edges of the Roman Empire not conversant with it, such as the North African speakers of Punic and the speakers of Celtic and Germanic languages in western and central Europe. By contrast, the Eastern Churches sometimes made use of the languages of their new converts, even when these had to be specially developed in their written forms for this to be possible, as with Ethiopia’s Ge’ez and Russia’s Church Slavonic.
There is thus a close association between the Western Church and the Latin language. Even today, when the liturgy can be celebrated in a huge range of languages, this relationship has left its mark, and Latin remains an option for both public and private prayer—not only in celebrations of the pre-Vatican II liturgy, but also for the reformed Mass.
Why has the Church been so attached to Latin? The answer is that liturgical Latin is not just a convenient language, but a sacred language. Many religions have sacred languages, or a sacred register of an ordinary language, for use in their liturgies. Islam has classical Arabic, a language not widely understood by its many millions of non-Arabic believers, and some distance from the Arabic spoken today in the Arab world. Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Jain religion share the very ancient sacred language of Sanskrit. Judaism has biblical Hebrew, and the languages of many Eastern churches today are specialized sacred languages: the Church Slavonic and Ge’ez already mentioned, and the koine Greek of the Greek churches.
Sacred languages, like sacred garments, sacred forms of music, and the styles associated with sacred buildings and sacred art, may derive from the non-sacred, but even in their origins, they often have distinguishing features. Koine Greek and Church Slavonic were literary creations rather than natural languages. No one ever spoke the sacred English created by Anglicanism and found in the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible: it includes archaisms and deliberately exotic syntax to mimic Hebrew and Greek. The High German of Luther’s Bible and liturgy was the language of the imperial court, not the language of most German-speakers. Similarly, the form of Latin found, first in the early Latin translations of the Bible and then in liturgical texts, is distinct from ordinary Latin. No Roman ever said, “Amen amen dico vobis”: “Truly, truly, I say to you.” The first word of many Latin prayers, “quaesumus,” “we beseech,” was already archaic when it was first used in them.
There is a powerful religious instinct to have special, separate words, things, buildings, and music for worship. These are intended not to exclude worshippers, but rather to draw them in to something supernatural, to introduce them into a sacred zone for communication with the divine, a communication that transcends mere words. Hearing a sacred language, like entering a sacred building, is a clear signal that we are leaving the ordinary world behind. In common with other religions, the Church still insists on special vestments; sacred vessels not to be used for anything else; and distinctive furnishings, artistic styles, and language, even in the context of the vernacular liturgy.
Latin is the Church’s superlative means of creating a sense that we are communicating with God and not with human beings. Even in the act of announcing the liturgical reform that would largely displace Latin with vernacular languages, Pope St. Paul VI described Latin as “sacred utterance” and “the language of the angels”. The effect of Latin on the worshipper was noted by Pope St. John Paul II, who remarked on the sense of worldwide unity it inspired and also “the profound sense of the Eucharistic mystery” it elicited.
There is a parallel with the use of silence in the liturgy. This has a place in the reformed Missal of 1970 (for example, for the “priestly prayers”), and its importance was emphasized by John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. In silence, nothing is communicated by words, but when worshippers are united in an act of adoration, a period of silent prayer can communicate at a deep level, both horizontally, in terms of a sense of solidarity, and vertically, to and from the object of worship, God. Latin does something similar in creating a meaningful frame for prayer.
It is relevant, therefore, that Latin prayers are meaningful. The liturgical formation that all adult Catholics should have should equip us to understand in general terms what is going on in Mass regardless of the language. Even people without formal Latin education know what gloria in excelsis, agnus dei, and the like mean. The Church has always encouraged the study of Latin, and this can provide us with a dimension of liturgical participation that goes beyond what we get in a vernacular translation, since (at least with prayers of ancient origin) it puts us in touch with the words used by our predecessors in the Faith, often from the time of the Fathers of the Church. We can, however, choose to focus on the words, or on the general thrust of the liturgy, just as someone praying the rosary can focus on the words of the Hail Mary or instead on the mystery being considered in that decade. Liturgy in the vernacular tends to be more insistent and demanding of our attention, word by word, particularly when we have to make responses and change our bodily posture.
The Latin of the liturgy has something special to offer those with a knowledge of Latin, since they can understand it better and be directed in their engagement with the liturgy in a more detailed way. Paradoxically, it also has something special to offer those with limited knowledge of the vernacular used in the liturgy they happen to attend. These include the speakers of minority languages and migrants. Many tens of millions of Catholics are obliged to worship not in their mother-tongue, but in a second language: in Africa, usually the old colonial language; in China, the “standard Chinese” favored by the State. The use of a vernacular inevitably favors those most at home in it, and also those who prefer verbal communication over non-verbal communication: adults over children, the more educated middle class over the working class, and even women over men.
In this way, Latin can be a leveler, like silence. As Pope St. John XXIII expressed it, Latin belongs to no one in particular, but is “gracious and friendly to all.” The experience of the sacred that Latin makes possible has been appreciated by saints and scholars, soldiers, peasants, and sinners, and even small children, since the Church’s early centuries. It remains available to us today.”
Latin is still the official language of the Church. All documents are first carefully crafted in the Latin. The Vatican is the master of the written word in any language. Colloquial languages are then carefully translated. All this work, whether Latin or vernacular are painstakingly done as language is the one foil of the Holy See and the Church in the present age.
“There is an amusing video on YouTube showing an American Latinist engaging priests in the Vatican in spoken Latin. He remarks that he spoke to a dozen priests, but only three were brave enough to go on camera with him and use Latin in actual dialogue.
Spoken Latin might sound like the preserve of hobbyists, like spoken Elvish or Klingon, but being able to speak a language is the ultimate test of fluency, and for the Church, Latin isn’t just any other language. As well as being the sacred language of the liturgy, it is an indispensable key to the Church’s theology, history, law, philosophy, and poetry. As Pope Benedict XVI described it, it is the language the Church considers as her own.
It is for this reason that Latin has always formed an essential part of the education of the clergy. The Second Vatican Council’s decree on Priestly Training, Optatam Totius, says seminarians “are to acquire a knowledge of Latin which will enable them to understand and make use of the sources of so many sciences and of the documents of the Church” (13). This means a serious grasp of the language: being able to sit down and read St. Augustine, for example—not as a homework exercise, but because you want to know what he says about something.
It is quite an irony that some in the Church who like to align themselves with Vatican II, in contrast to the practice of the Church before the Council, seem less comfortable with something that has been entirely consistent before, during, and after it: the importance of Latin in the education of future priests.
In very year of the opening of the Council, Pope St. John XXIII reaffirmed the importance of Latin for seminarians in his apostolic constitution Veterum Sapientia. Pope St. Paul VI kept up the pressure with a whole series of documents, including the 1970 Ratio fundamentalis on seminary education. The revised versions of this document said the same thing, in 1980 under Pope St. John Paul II and in 2016 under Pope Francis . It is also reiterated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (Canon 249).
One does not need to argue about hermeneutics of reform or of rupture in relation to these documents. They are consistent, repeating over and over again what had been said before the Council: that priests should be comfortable reading Latin, not just for the liturgy (for which a more basic Latin education would be sufficient), but for their studies. These documents do reveal a little weariness: their authors were conscious that their instructions were not being universally obeyed. But if one wishes to know what the Church desires, there can be no ambiguity about it. (More about these documents can be read here.)
Why is Latin regarded as so important? The documents often refer to the Fathers of the Church, but the use of Latin for important documents has continued up to the present day. Not all of this material has been translated, and even when it has been, to read a translation is always second best. You can’t fully engage with a thinker or an artist if there is a translator standing between you.
The problem is more serious still when one considers the Church’s universal nature. To make a document available in the vernacular for the Church around the world, it is not enough for it to exist in Italian. Italian is only the world’s thirteenth most widely spoken language. Few people learn it as second language at school. It is perfectly natural for the Roman Curia to use a lot of Italian, but this language is not well suited to getting a message across to the world’s two billion Catholics. English might seem the obvious alternative, but while it dominates the worlds of business and popular culture, it has much less weight in the Church, where Spanish is more widely spoken, more important modern theological texts have been composed in German, and major regions can be reached only in French or Portuguese. This raises the question: just how many languages does a cleric engaged in the Church’s international debates and administration need to know?
The days when every educated person, including every priest, knew Latin were simple by comparison. That made possible communication not only with the past, but with people in the present. When the Fathers of Vatican II gathered, it was possible for them to use Latin as a medium for the exchange of ideas. In the Synods of Bishops that have taken place in recent decades, bishops have found themselves able to communicate directly only with people from their own language groups. The proposals of each language group have to be translated into Italian, and back out into all the other languages, to be considered by others. It is a process more reminiscent of the Tower of Babel than Pentecost.
Moreover, not only does the need for multiple translations slow down the exchange of thoughts and inevitably introduce inaccuracies, but it gives immense power to the translators, whether they exercise this power deliberately or not. Studying the Church’s documents with an eye to the different language versions reveals systematic biases, though not always in the same direction. When documents composed in a vernacular language are put into Latin, they are often tightened up—made more theologically precise and, often, conservative. A famous example of this was definition of lying in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: editions based on the original French had to be corrected by reference to the Latin into which the French was translated, because although the Latin was later in time, it was the official version.
On the other hand, when Latin documents are turned into English, they are often made to appear more liberal. The liturgy is one well trodden example; the documents of Vatican II have been another battleground for translators. An endemic problem with the latter was the use of the English word reform, often used to translate Latin words such as instauratio, which means not “reform,” but “restore.” In this complexity, those without Latin are at a severe disadvantage.
As the video mentioned above makes clear, it is still possible to communicate in Latin; it just requires effort. English-speaking Catholics without Latin should reflect that they have many co-religionists with whom they have no common language, including many untranslated thinkers of the past. Just as C.S. Lewis was able to carry on a correspondence in Latin with the Italian priest, later canonized, Don Giovanni Calabria, so we open up enormous possibilities of communication by improving our Latin. This is an obligation particularly incumbent on priests.
In the words of Pope St. John Paul II on Latin, the Church has “always reckoned it to be a bond of unity, a visible sign of stability, and an instrument of mutual friendship” .”
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.””
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.”
“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.”
CA: “If you spend any amount of time on social media, I’m sure you’ve sensed a lot of division in the Church today, be it over the Latin Mass, the pope, or any other number of things. Can you liken what we’re seeing today to any other period in Church history?”
Steve: “One reason why I wrote this book is to illustrate that crisis in the Church and larger society is a constant in Church history. Although we tend to focus on the present, and social media certainly contributes to what I term the “tyranny of the present,” cultivating an understanding of the past provides meaning to the present and leads to patience during current crises and hope in the future. Knowing Church history, and especially the crises in the Church through the centuries, provides not just a simple platitude that things were also bad (or even worse) than the current situation but even more importantly proves that God brings forth reform and renewal because of the crises.”
CA: “We hear the terms heresy and schism thrown around quite a bit. Can you explain what sort of baggage is attached to terms like these and if they legitimately apply to what’s going on in the Church today?
Steve: “Both those terms have precise canonical definitions and should not be used lightly. Simply stated, heresy is an obstinate post-baptismal denial of doctrine, and schism is rejection of the authority of the supreme pontiff. History is replete with examples of these type of offenses against Church unity. Based on a review of Church history, we should not be surprised that some may embrace heresy and schism in our own day and age. Sadly, there are examples of both.”
The Church in the Age of Social Media
The modern age presents a whole new set of challenges for the Church.
CA: “Does the pontificate of Pope Francis remind you of any other in Church history? How much do you think the explosion of social media and media coverage in general play into the sequence of events we’ve seen over the past couple of years?”
Steve: “I think each pontificate is unique and faces its own challenges in the context of the ecclesial and secular situation in which it operates. I do believe that reaction to this pontificate in some circles is exacerbated by social media and media coverage in general, both of which occupy a unique place in the life of the modern Church. Of course, it would have been fascinating if social media existed at the time of Pope Formosus and the Synod of the Corpse!”
The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail Against Her
Ask Catholics about the crisis in the Church today and you’ll often get one of two responses: The end is upon us! or Everything’s fine—the Holy Spirit is in charge!
CA: “How do you see the Church finding its way out of the current situation? I know reform is the answer, but what form does that reform need to take? Is it up to the laity? Is it up to the bishops? How do you see us finding our way back home?”
Steve: “The crisis in the modern world and the troubles in the Church today will lead to great reform and renewal since this is the clear pattern from the lessons of Church history. I think the time of renewal/reform in the modern age, as I indicate in the book, will result from the efforts of the lay faithful, who love Christ and the Church and want to see it focused on its authentic mission. The Second Vatican Council and recent pontificates have highlighted the vital role of the laity in the Church and the world. Of course, these efforts must be united to the mission of the Church and in obedience to the Magisterium and the hierarchy. The last chapter of the book provides a case study of two Catholics who lived in separate times of great stress and crisis in the Church, but they approached the reform/renewal of the Church in opposite ways. St. Catherine of Siena was forceful yet faithful in calling for reform and is recognized for her sanctity. The other, Savonarola, was self-centered and mixed his faith with politics, which led him down the path of schism and heresy, condemnation, and a terrible death.”
History Doesn’t Repeat, But it Often Rhymes
Don’t get bogged down in the “Tyranny of the Present”
CA: “I believe the phrase often used is “Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” Can you think of challenges to the Church in the past that have repeated themselves throughout history, and if so, to what would you attribute that?”
Steve: “Well, I don’t think history repeats itself but there are times it rhymes. Although the historical and political context in which the Church operates changes through the centuries, there are several constant challenges. These include Church-state relationships, persecution (either external or internal and violent or nonviolent), evangelization, and catechetical efforts to ensure the gospel is spread and lived authentically. Ultimately, the Church must (and will) continue Christ’s salvific mission and should always be a missionary entity—not of the world but in the world. The key for Catholics today is to not get bogged down in the “tyranny of the present” but rather to hold fast to the long view of history, take solace in prayer and the sacraments, work diligently for reform (first of oneself and then the larger community), and trust in the Holy Spirit, who has and always will guide, guard, and animate the Church until our Savior comes again.”
Neither of those attitudes makes sense from the perspective of history, says Steve Weidenkopf (author of The Real Story of Catholic History). In his new book, Light from Darkness, Weidenkopf shows how the Church’s past ages were no less tumultuous than our own. Yet, whether it was decadent hierarchs selling out the Faith for pleasure and power, or hostile princes, heresies, or ideologies (sometimes all three at once) menacing Christendom, the Catholic Church not only persisted during hard times but came through them stronger than before.
In each case, though, Weidenkopf demonstrates how the Church’s survival was not an accident or a last-minute miracle. Instead, good Catholics (lay and clergy alike) cooperated with God’s grace to beat back error and corruption and reform the house of God from within. They resisted the twin temptations of cynical schism and Pollyanna passivism and went to work—first in their own hearts—bringing good out of evil, light from darkness.
St Catherine of Siena, OP, (1347-1380 AD)
“Born on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1347, Catherine was the twenty-third child of the wool dyer Jacopo Benincasa and his wife Lapa. From a young age, Catherine was devoted to Christ and the Church. She wished to join a group of third-order Dominican women known informally as the Mantellate or “Cloaked Sisters” and formally as the Sisters of Penance of St. Dominic. The group of laywomen wore a white woolen dress with a white veil and black cape and lived in their own homes.
Her family desired marriage for Catherine, however, and they persecuted Catherine in an effort to convince her to acquiesce to their plan. Her personal room was taken away and she was given a multitude of chores around the house to keep her so busy that she would have no time for prayer. Distraught at the behavior and unsure how to convince her family otherwise, on the advice of a Dominican friar Catherine cut off her hair to dissuade potential suitors. Finally, she informed her family of the visions of Christ she experienced as a youth and her pledge of virginity out of love for him. This admission finally convinced her father that her desire to join the Mantellate was authentic and so the family acquiesced. Catherine joined the group in 1366 at the age of nineteen.
Catherine experienced a rich spiritual life from an early age, with locutions from Christ and visions of the Savior—the first when she was six—the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Dominic, Sts. Mary Magdalen, John the Evangelist, Peter and Paul, and even King David. When she was still a little girl, a vision of the Blessed Mother prompted Catherine to request her assistance in remaining a virgin for life so that she could be espoused to Jesus. Her prayers were answered and when she was twenty-one, Jesus appeared to her and presented an invisible engagement ring as a sign of their spiritual union. Catherine could see the ring and it remained visible to her for the rest of her life, but it was invisible to others.
Catherine’s spiritual life included also great spiritual gifts and miraculous events. She had great concern for the sick and suffering in Siena, especially those afflicted with diseases that repelled others. Catherine cared for a woman afflicted with leprosy, which she contracted in her hands as a result. When the women died, Catherine buried her, and the leprosy miraculously left, and she was healed. Catherine desired the salvation of all souls and interceded with the Lord on the behalf of others; for this, the Lord gifted Catherine with the ability to know the state of another’s soul. This special spiritual illumination allowed Catherine to sense the “beauty or ugliness” of the souls in her presence but also those she could not see. Souls in a state of mortal sin reeked in Catherine’s presence. In the presence of Pope Gregory XI, Catherine would inform the pontiff that his court, “which should have been a paradise of heavenly virtues” was instead full of “the stench of all the vices of hell.” When in Avignon on a mission to convince the pope to return his residence to Rome, Catherine met a young beautiful woman, who was the niece of a cardinal. The woman could not look Catherine in the eye and when Bl. Raymond of Capua, Catherine’s confessor, asked Catherine about the woman later, that told him the young woman, beautiful on the outside, reeked of decay. The woman was an adulteress and a priest’s mistress.
In 1376, Catherine received a spiritual gift from the Lord reserved to only a few holy saints: the stigmata or the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion. But Catherine begged the Lord not to allow the wounds to be visible on her body, for fear they would attract others out of curiosity and detract from proper attention to Christ. He agreed, and so Catherine suffered silently with the wounds for the rest of her life; they became visible on her body only at death. In one of her many ecstasies, in which she was oblivious and impervious to the outside world, Catherine received a supernatural garment from Christ, which provided the ability to wear the same amount of clothing in winter or summer with no physical discomfort. Catherine wore a single tunic over a petticoat in all seasons thanks to this exceptional gift.
Catherine lived during the time of the Avignon Papacy, when the papal residence and court was in southern France, causing great scandal throughout Christendom. St. Bridget of Sweden (1302-1373) had worked tirelessly to end the scandal and bring the popes back to Rome, sending letters to the popes in Avignon urging their return.
When St. Bridget died, the holy cause passed to Catherine, who wrote to the pope in one letter: “Come, come and resist no more the will of God that calls you: and the hungry sheep await your coming to hold and possess the place of your predecessor and champion, Apostle Peter. For you, as the vicar of Christ, should rest in your own place.” However, Catherine realized that letters were not sufficient to effect such a change, so she decided that a personal visit to France was necessary to bring Christ’s vicar home.
Prayer, virtuous living, trust and hope in divine providence, and respectful obedience to the hierarchy, as found in the life of St. Catherine of Siena, are the foundation of authentic Catholic response to crises in the Church. That foundation will effect genuine change and yield enduring reform in Christ’s Mystical Body.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A couple challenges we may face in following our consciences are worth noting.
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.
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.
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.
 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)”
“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)”
“One reason that we might find it hard to believe the New Testament is because we don’t know what to do with all that talk about the devil and the demonic. Jesus drives out demons throughout the Gospels. For instance, St. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest, describing only thirteen healings, yet four of them (1:21-28, 5:1-20, 7:24-30, and 9:14-29) are exorcisms.
There are several reasons that we might struggle to believe in such accounts. Let’s briefly consider three possible objections before looking at how we might respond to them.
First, there’s the claim that belief in the devil is really an import from paganism. Elon Gilad argues in Haaretz that the Jewish belief in Satan derives from Zoroastrianism, which envisions the universe “as a battle ground between [two] opposing supreme gods[:] Ahura Mazda, the ‘wise lord,’ and Angra Mainyu, the ‘destructive spirit.’” Much of his argument is circular: for instance, he claims that the earliest biblical books don’t depict Satan but also argues that if a book does depict Satan, it must not be very old.
Gilad gets one thing right: there is an evil god of Zoroastrianism. That said, Angra Mainyu is said “to have existed ‘from the beginning’, independent of Ahura Mazda (i.e. he is coeval).” That’s not particularly similar to Satan, a creature created by God who then rebels. But still, Gilad is raising an important question: What should Christians make of the fact that many other religions do have a supreme evil figure?
Second, we might struggle with biblical accounts of possession and exorcism because such stories are common in the ancient Mediterranean world. The Lutheran theologian and New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann points out that we find similar accounts in non-biblical Jewish literature and in Greek literature, with authors like Philostratus and Lucian describing exorcisms. Bultmann argues that their common “stylistic characteristics” suggest that the New Testament description of exorcisms is really just “folk stories of miracles” that made their way into the Bible.
Third, there’s the idea that exorcisms are a belief of a pre-scientific age. The usual story goes something like this: back before we knew about disease or mental health, people believed that demons were responsible for physical and mental illness, but today we know better. Bultmann argues that “faith in spirits and demons” is “finished” by modern scientific knowledge.
“Likewise, illnesses and their cures have natural causes and do not depend on the work of demons and on exorcising them. Thus, the wonders of the New Testament are also finished as wonders; anyone who seeks to salvage their historicity by recourse to nervous disorders, hypnotic influences, suggestion, and the like only confirms this. Even occultism pretends to be a science. We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”
Bultmann’s argument calls Jesus’ ministry into serious question, since it suggests that (1) Jesus falsely believed in demons because he was ignorant of things like disease or mental illness, (2) Jesus knew about disease and mental illness but encouraged the crowds in falsely associating these things with demons, or (3) the evangelists simply made up these healing stories. How could an all-knowing and good Jesus act as if demonic possession were a real thing if it isn’t?
In short, because demons, possession, and exorcism are all real things. As C.S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity, modern readers balk at this kind of talk: “I know someone will ask me, ‘Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil—hoofs and horns and all?’ Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects my answer is ‘Yes, I do.’” Simply put, neither modern science nor Rudolph Bultmann has actually disproven the ideas of possession and exorcism.
What all three of the above objections get wrong is that they’re too narrow. It’s true that Zoroastrians believed in a powerful evil spirit that was sort of like the devil. But so do cultures on every inhabited continent. Are we to conclude that the Israelites took this idea from all of them, too, or that they all took it from Zoroastrianism? Likewise, it’s true that possession and exorcism stories are found throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. But the same goes for cultures across the world, in both the ancient and the modern world, including places that have never been Christian. As Craig Keener explains in “Spirit Possession as a Cross-cultural Experience”:
“Possession experience is not limited to either the [New Testament] or the ancient eastern Mediterranean world. One specialist, Erika Bourguignon, has observed that spirit-possession beliefs are geographically and culturally pervasive, “as any reader of ethnographies knows.” After sampling 488 societies, she found spirit-possession beliefs in 74% of them (that is, 360 societies), with particularly high ranges in the islands of the Pacific (88%) and 77% around the Mediterranean. . . .
Transcultural elements in fact include a biological element that cannot be reduced to (though may be patterned according to) cultural models. Studies reveal “an altered neurophysiology” during many possession states. While some anthropologists note that neurophysiological studies cannot resolve whether supernatural factors might supplement natural ones, it is clear that neurophysiological changes, including hyperarousal, do occur.”
It’s worth stressing that these are cultures in which possession cases are still happening. Rather than electric lights and radios and modern medicine disproving these events, modern science reveals that something is happening on a neurological level, and it’s happening across cultures and continents, including in plenty of places that don’t believe in the Bible.
This is exactly what you should expect to see if Christianity is right about the devil and his demons. Think about it this way. The Christian claim is that there are powerful spiritual beings who do harm to human beings. If we didn’t find evidence of such beings in any other culture, that would point to this being a Christian invention. The fact that we do find evidence of such beings, throughout history and today, in places that have little or nothing to do with Christianity, is evidence of the truth of the Christian teaching.
That doesn’t automatically mean that each of these possession cases is authentic. Some of the cases of alleged possession are surely misdiagnosed cases of mental illness, after all. But the fact that some cases are misdiagnosed mental illness doesn’t mean that all of them are. After all, the fact that some cases of mental illness are misdiagnosed as physical illness, and vice versa, doesn’t disprove the existence of two distinct (but related) categories of mental and physical illness. What Christianity, and countless other religions, is saying is that there are in fact three distinct (but related) categories: mental, physical, and spiritual.
Jesus wasn’t oblivious to the fact that these three categories existed. As Matthew 4:24 puts it, when Jesus’ “fame spread throughout all Syria . . . they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.” Some of those coming to Jesus had physical and viral problems, and others had neurological problems, but others had spiritual problems. And rather than debunking this idea, the fact that we find similar-sounding beliefs in Zoroastrianism, ancient Greek culture, and across the ancient and modern world suggests that it’s true.”
-Michael the Archangel by Guido Reni, Santa Maria della Concezione, Rome, 1636, please click on the image for greater detail
“Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil; May God rebuke him, we humbly pray; And do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.”
-by Rev Brian Harrison, OS, the Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., a priest of the Society of the Oblates of Wisdom, is a retired Associate Professor of Theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce, P.R. In 1997 he gained his doctorate in Systematic Theology, summa cum laude, from the Pontifical Athenæum of the Holy Cross in Rome. Since 2007 Fr. Harrison has been scholar-in-residence at the Oblates of Wisdom Study Center in St. Louis, Missouri, is well-known as a speaker and writer. He is the author of three books and over 130 articles in Catholic books, magazines and journals in the U.S.A., Australia, Britain, France, Spain and Puerto Rico. He is also parochial vicar of the parish of Saint Joseph the Worker in the city of Ponce, and a ‘Defender of the Bond’ for the island’s marriage tribunals.
He was born in Australia and, after being raised as a Presbyterian, converted to the Catholic faith in 1972. In 1979 he began studies for the priesthood in the major seminary of Sydney, and after completing his Licentiate in Theology at Rome’s Angelicum university was ordained as a priest in Saint Peter’s Basilica in 1985 by His Holiness Pope John Paul II. In 1997 he gained his doctorate in Systematic Theology, summa cum laude, from the Pontifical Athenæum of the Holy Cross in Rome.
Fr. Harrison, who has lived in Puerto Rico since 1989, is well-known as a speaker and writer. He is the author of two books and over 120 articles in Catholic magazines and journals in the U.S.A., Australia, Britain, France, Spain and Puerto Rico. His special interest in theological and liturgical matters, in keeping with the charism of the Oblates of Wisdom, is upholding a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ between the teachings of Vatican Council II and the bi-millennial heritage of Catholic Tradition.
It is now fifty years since Pope St. Paul VI, in the apostolic constitution Missale Romanum (April 3, 1969), promulgated the revised Roman-rite Missal in response to Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). And although the Holy Eucharist is meant to be our central sacramental bond of unity and love, it has in this half-century become—tragically—the occasion of serious confusion and dissension.
I respect and, in fact, share, the concern of tradition-conscious Catholics about certain features of the liturgical reform, but in this article I’d like to issue a call for fairness and moderation in the expression of such concerns. The unity of the Church surely requires this.
Fair to call them “dissident”
Some traditionalists, while celebrating and attending the classical Latin Roman-rite Mass (dubbed the “Extraordinary Form” by Pope Benedict XVI) whenever possible, refrain from attacking the post-conciliar Novus Ordo rite (the “Ordinary Form”) as bad and unacceptable in itself. Others, however, do precisely that. I think it fair to call them “dissident” traditionalists, because they openly dissent from certain official positions of the post-Vatican II Church on liturgy and doctrine.
Their flagship organization is undoubtedly the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), but they find a strident voice in many publications and websites, and some of these hold views that are outright sedevacantist (the belief that there have been no true popes since Vatican II). Their central claim is that the Novus Ordo Mass, even if valid in itself, reeks so strongly of Protestantism and modernism as to be downright illegitimate—simply unacceptable for Catholic worship.
In their utter loathing for what the Church now prescribes as the normative way of celebrating our most sacred act of worship, dissidents claim it expresses a different, non-Catholic religion so that it’s objectively immoral—forbidden by God!—to celebrate or attend Ordinary Form Masses.
And, yes, they really do go that far. The OnePeterFive.com website recently ran an article including this peremptory summons: “Laity: If you still belong to a Novus Ordo parish, it’s time to leave. . . . Nothing supersedes man’s duty to render God that worship proper to His Majesty, and the Novus Ordo just ain’t it.” And in the FAQ (frequently asked questions) section of the official SSPX website, we read (accessed Jan. 1, 2019):
“The Novus Ordo Missae assumes. . . heterodox elements alongside the Catholic ones to form a liturgy for a modernist religion which would marry the Church and the world, Catholicism and Protestantism, light and darkness. . . . [This] render[s] it a danger to our faith, and, as such, evil. . . . Even when said with piety and respect for the liturgical rules, . . . [the Novus Ordo] is impregnated with the spirit of Protestantism. It bears within it a poison harmful to the faith.”
Then, to the question, “Are we obliged in conscience to attend the Novus Ordo Missae?”, the website not only answers no but asserts that Catholics have no objective right to attend it for Sunday worship:
“If the Novus Ordo Missae is not truly Catholic, then it cannot oblige for one’s Sunday obligation. Many Catholics who do assist at it are unaware of its all-pervasive degree of serious innovation and are exempt from guilt. However, any Catholic who is aware of its harm does not have the right to participate. He could only then assist at it by a mere physical presence without positively taking part in it, and then only for major family reasons (weddings, funerals, etc.).”
Since the last sentence here expresses the stringent conditions laid down by pre-conciliar church legislation for attendance at non-Catholic services, the message the SSPX is sending is all too clear: the Novus Ordo Mass, as such, is to be regarded as a non-Catholic form of worship. That would leave hundreds of millions of the faithful without access to any legitimate Mass, because in most of Latin America, Asia, and Africa, traditional Latin Masses are very few and far between. Has Christ, then, abandoned all these brethren, leaving them with nothing more than an impious simulacrum of genuine Catholic worship?
So why do these dissidents reject the new rite so totally and implacably? They insist it’s quintessentially a matter of doctrine, not merely of aesthetic preference for the old rites. Fr. Anthony Cekada sums up their common position at the beginning of his book, Work of Human Hands: A Theological Critique of the Mass of Paul VI. The book’s “principal thesis,” he tells us, is that the new rite
“(a) destroys Catholic doctrine in the minds of the faithful, and in particular, Catholic doctrine concerning the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the priesthood, and the Real Presence; and (b) permits or prescribes grave irreverence (p. 7, italics in original).”
The space available in this article will allow me to consider only (and far from exhaustively) the first and more fundamental of these objections. As regards (b), I will simply register my view that a couple of newly permitted (i.e., optional) liturgical practices—Communion in the hand and the sign of peace just before Communion—are indeed open to abuse and can become the occasion of irreverence. However, they are not in themselves irreverent. Much less can I find anything gravely irreverent “prescribed” (i.e., obligatory) in the text of the new Roman Missal or its accompanying General Instruction.
Let’s turn to dissidents’ doctrinal objections to the Novus Ordo. First and foremost is the charge that it undermines faith in the sacrificial character of the Mass. According to the SSPX website, the new missal is marked by “the almost complete deletion of references to sacrifice.” And the OnePeterFive article cited above even makes the incredible assertion that in the Novus Ordo “the Catholic Mass has been stripped of prayers expressing Catholic doctrine.”
It’s true that some sacrifice-expressing prayers added during medieval times have been dropped from the Offertory; but far from “almost complete[ly] deleti[ng]” such prayers, every Novus Ordo Mass expresses the doctrine of eucharistic sacrifice at least five times:
The priest’s secret offertory prayer, praying that our sacrifice will be pleasing to God.
His invitation to the people, “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father.”
The people’s response, “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory . . .”
In the Roman Canon and each of the new eucharistic prayers, the sacrificial character of the Mass is clearly expressed in the texts following the consecration.
The very words of consecration of the bread in the Novus Ordo actually restore an explicit expression of the sacrificial purpose of what is being done: “This is my body, which will be given up for you.” The words italicized here (or equivalent expressions) were found in a number of ancient liturgies but are absent from the Tridentine formula.
On top of all that, there is a sixth expression of this doctrine in many Masses, found in the offertory prayer over the gifts.
It should also be noted that all the above texts except the first are pronounced out loud in the language of the people. Indeed, in the case of the third text, the people pronounce it themselves. So, it seems likely that the doctrine of eucharistic sacrifice, far from being “destroy[ed] . . . in the minds of the people,” is actually impressed in their minds more clearly by the Novus Ordo prayers than was the case in pre-conciliar days, when every single one of the prayers expressing this doctrine was pronounced silently, in Latin, by the priest alone.
Why the erosion of belief?
How about worshippers’ belief in the priesthood and Real Presence, which Fr. Cekada also claims the Novus Ordo “destroys”? It’s true that the role of the priest celebrant in some secondary rubrics is no longer distinguished so sharply from that of the laity as it was in the traditional rite, but it seems to me obvious that his unique and irreplaceable prominence in the celebration of Mass remains clear and unmistakable to all participants in the Pauline liturgy (see sidebar, below).
Yes, surveys do consistently show a marked decline in Catholic belief in this doctrine since Vatican II, and to a limited extent this may have been a side effect of official changes such as the elimination, in the interests of “noble simplicity,” of some liturgical signs of reverence that “reform-of-the-reformers” such as myself would like to see restored. But the lion’s share of blame for this deplorable weakening of faith surely rests with more direct and obvious causes: heterodox theology taught in seminaries, the resulting bad (or nonexistent) preaching and catechesis about eucharistic doctrine, the sharp decline in Mass attendance, widespread liturgical disobedience (often called “creativity”), and sloppy, irreverent celebrations.
Also, the preposterous claim that the Pauline Mass is “stripped of prayers expressing Catholic doctrine” ignores all the changing (“proper”) feasts and prayers in the new missal. In fact, all Catholic doctrines distinguishing Catholic from Protestant belief that were in the old Missal are also in the new one (see sidebar, far below).
A number of other talking-points continue to do the rounds of hardline traditionalist media outlets as supposed evidence of the Novus Ordo’s heterodox and illegitimate character. Most of them are not as telling as their purveyors suppose them to be. Let’s look at a few.
Exhibit 1: The “Ottaviani Intervention”
In September 1969, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, retired prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, signed a letter to Pope Paul VI presenting a short critical study of Paul’s recently promulgated rite of Mass. This could be considered the Bible of dissident traditionalism. The main author of the study was the Dominican theologian M. L. Guérard des Lauriers, who shortly afterward lapsed into schism as a founding father of sedevacantism.
Soon Ottaviani’s intervention, another French priest, Fr. Gerard Lafond, published a facsimile of a signed letter dated February 17, 1970, that he’d received from Ottaviani, in which the cardinal said his previous hesitations about the new Mass had now been “put to rest” by explanations coming from Fr. Lafond and Paul VI himself. More often than not, dissidents don’t mention this retraction, which undermines their appeal to the authority and prestige of the longtime head of the Holy Office. Some of them suggest that Ottaviani’s trusted secretary, Msgr. Gilberto Agustoni, fabricated this letter and deceived the near-blind cardinal into signing it.
This of course implausibly assumes not only that Agustoni was corrupt but that he would have risked his career by publishing an outright lie. Ottaviani lived on for years, receiving visitors and retaining all his faculties other than vision. He would quickly have learned that his letter retracting his intervention was published in the widely read Documentation Catholique and would surely have publicly denounced it as a forgery, if indeed it was. His permanent silence, therefore, is eloquent.
Exhibit 2: Pope Paul VI’s ‘heretical’ instruction
Well, this Protestant-friendly, ecumenically flavored text was heretical (if that’s the right word for error by omission) only in what it left out of its description of the Mass, not by what it actually affirmed or denied. And not all traditionalists who point accusing fingers at this defective instruction are candid enough to acknowledge that at least it was very short-lived.
Pope Paul, on scrutinizing this introduction more attentively, quickly withdrew it and replaced it in the 1970 Missal by a new “premium” that not only unambiguously reaffirms the Tridentine doctrines of eucharistic sacrifice, the Real Presence, and the ordained priesthood but emphasizes that these doctrines are consistently shown forth in the actual texts and rubrics of the new Missal. (See especially articles 2, 3, and 4 in the “Introduction to the General Instruction” at the beginning of the current Roman Missal)
Exhibit 3: Jean Guitton’s testimony
This French philosopher stated in a 1993 radio interview with a Lutheran pastor, “I can only repeat that Paul VI did all that he could to bring the Catholic Mass away from the tradition of the Council of Trent towards the Protestant Lord’s Supper.” But Guitton’s off-the-cuff, anecdotal, secondhand testimony scarcely counts as an authoritative and adequate guide to the mind of Paul VI, especially when we take into account the pontiff’s emphatic reassertion of the doctrinal “tradition of the Council Trent” (see previous paragraph) as well as his many formal teachings on these matters, especially his splendid 1965 eucharistic encyclical, Mysterium Fidei.
A more balanced appraisal of St. Paul VI’s intentions would, I think, conclude that while he indeed wanted a liturgical reform that would help smooth the way back to Catholic unity for Protestants by adopting some of their doctrinally unobjectionable liturgical practices—e.g., using the vernacular and adding more Scripture readings—he insisted on retaining strict fidelity to the Church’s dogmatic teaching in both texts and rubrics of the revised Missal.
The extent to which these ecumenically oriented reforms have succeeded or failed in promoting genuine unity among Christians is of course a very different question.
Exhibit 4: The six Protestant advisers
In view of what has just been said, the ecumenical input of some non-Catholic liturgists to the reform in the 1960s is not too surprising; but even though the prudence of having them there seems debatable, these gentlemen had no voting rights on the Vatican liturgical Consilium that was revising the Roman Missal, and nobody can point to any feature of the resulting Novus Ordo that was not already promoted independently by its Catholic authors.
Exhibit 5: Max Thurian
Traditionalist hardliners love to cite this Protestant theologian (one of the six just mentioned) who was prominent in the ecumenical Taizé community. OnePeterFive quotes him as making the following comment soon after Paul VI promulgated the Novus Ordo: “It is now theologically possible for Protestants to use the same Mass as Catholics” (bold type in original). Such traditionalists take this to vindicate “out of the horse’s mouth” their own claim that the Novus Ordo expresses Protestant rather than integrally Catholic doctrine.
But they never point out that Thurian was by no means a typical Protestant and certainly didn’t speak for Protestants in general. Just as not all professing Catholics adhere faithfully to Catholic doctrine, not all Protestants adhere to the doctrines of Luther and Calvin.
Thurian and quite a few ecumenically minded Protestants these days entertain ideas that approximate the Catholic doctrine of eucharistic sacrifice (and for this they are roundly denounced as traitors to the Reformation by traditional Protestants).
The relevant takeaway here is that no Protestant who takes seriously the thoroughly Catholic texts of the post-Vatican II Missal and who adheres to the classic Reformation rejection of the doctrines they express could possibly feel comfortable in “us[ing] the same Mass as Catholics.”
Harmful to Catholic unity
Let’s sum up. I’m pleading here that Catholics who prefer the ancient Latin rite (I myself celebrate it on weekdays) respect the wise provision of popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
In their documents restoring its use in the Church, these popes insist, in the interests of Church unity, that those celebrating and attending the Extraordinary Form must also acknowledge the doctrinal correctness and legitimacy of the Ordinary Form.
Unfortunately, the SSPX does not comply with that condition; nor does the OnePeterFive article cited, which even endorses the calumny that our post-conciliar rite of Holy Mass is “barely recognizable as a Catholic rite” and says, “It’s debatable whether this form of worship can even be called ‘Catholic’ in any meaningful sense.”
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski’s rhetoric, in another OnePeterFive post, is similarly disdainful. After scornfully branding the new rite “a shell, a simulacrum, a substitute,” he says, “[E]ven at its best, the Novus Ordo . . . is still a starvation diet compared with the riches in the preconciliar liturgical tradition. God can sanctify prisoners in jail fed on stale crusts and standing water, but this is not the manner in which He would sanctify most of us.”
It’s sad to see this skilled writer using his eloquence in a passionate effort to arouse contempt for our approved ordinary form of worship in Catholic hearts and minds.
Please, dear brethren! These intemperate excoriations of the Novus Ordo are manifestly harmful to Catholic unity and can even lead in a schismatic direction. Please God, the next half-century will see our inevitable disagreements carried out more in the tranquil spirit of the Holy Thursday liturgy: Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.
Sidebar 1: What of the Eucharist?
What of the Real Presence? Consider:
The priest’s required bow to the bread and chalice prior to their consecration, which is then marked by his genuflections and elevations of the host and chalice
The recommended bell-ringing and incensation for each consecration; the priest’s dramatic presentation of the host and chalice to the people proclaiming the Baptist’s immortal words, “Behold the Lamb of God . . . ”
The required kneeling of ministers and congregation for the consecration
The solemn eucharistic processions on Holy Thursday evening and Corpus Christi (a holy day of obligation that specifically honors the reality of Lord’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist)
The highly recommended services of eucharistic adoration and benediction outside of Mass
All these features of the Pauline liturgy demonstrate the falsity of the charge that it “destroys” the faith of Catholics in transubstantiation and the Real Presence.
Sidebar 2: Doctrines in the New Mass
In the current Missal we find clearly expressed not only the sacrificial character of the Mass but also:
The primacy of Peter and his successors (praying for the pope in every Mass, feasts of the Chair of Peter on Feb. 22 and Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29)
All the privileges of Our Blessed Lady (Immaculate Conception, Assumption, divine maternity, and her perpetual virginity proclaimed at the beginning of most Masses)
Our devotion to the other saints (with scores of their feast days celebrated throughout the year)
Transubstantiation (see above)
Prayers for the dead implying purgatory (briefly in every Eucharistic Prayer and more abundantly in funeral Masses and the Masses for All Souls Day (Nov. 2nd).
-by Thomas Cole, ‘Destruction’, Cole’s 1833 painting of five around Luman Reed’s, his patron, for Reed’s 13 Greenwich Street, New York City mansion fireplace: the sketch also shows above the paintings three aspects of the sun: left (rising); center (zenith); right (setting), oil on canvas, 1836, 39+1⁄2 × 63+1⁄2 in, please click on the image for greater image.
“Although the world of today has a very vivid awareness of its unity and of how one man depends on another in needful solidarity, it is most grievously torn into opposing camps by conflicting forces. Influenced by such a variety of complexities, many of our contemporaries are kept from accurately identifying permanent values and adjusting them properly to fresh discoveries. As a result, buffeted between hope and anxiety and pressing one another with questions about the present course of events, they are burdened down with uneasiness. This same course of events leads men to look for answers; indeed, it forces them to do so.” -Gaudium et Spes 4
A decade into the fifth century, Alaric the Goth sacked the city of Rome. The event caused consternation throughout the world and people searched for explanations for how something previously unthinkable became reality. When news reached an irascible translator of Scripture in Bethlehem named Jerome, he wept bitterly. The scholar struggled to comprehend how an army of Visigoths, warriors who had recently fought for the Roman Empire, could sack the historic city.
Although Jerome’s reaction was understandable, the city’s sacking should not have been a surprise. A review of imperial actions toward the Germanic tribes on the borders in the recent past would have equipped Jerome to predict the destruction of Rome. However, Jerome was focused on the present and could not anticipate it—or at least not fail to be surprised by it. But if he had been equipped with historical perspective and context, he could have been spared much the anguish caused by the devastating news of Rome’s ruin.
An historical perspective of Roman relations with the Germanic tribes on the frontier would have helped Jerome remember, for example, the annihilation of three Roman army legions at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in A.D. 9. Arminius, a chief of the Germanic Cherusci tribe, who had been a hostage in the imperial capital as a boy, served the empire in the Roman army. He was ordered to Germania to help the Romans subdue the populace but did not forget his origins; so instead, he secretly planned the defeat of the legions. Arminius’s victory ended Roman plans for conquest east of the Rhine River, which became the natural border between the empire and the northern Germanic hordes. The Romans built forts and outposts along the Rhine, which later became major European cities, to control the Germans and guard the empire against invasion.
Over the centuries, Germanic tribes along the border grew restless and desired admittance into the empire in order to enjoy its economic, political, and military benefits. Many were allowed entrance in the later fourth and early fifth centuries, as Rome turned to these warriors to provide needed manpower to staff the army. Roman anxiety concerning the Germanic peoples remained, however, and the barbarian warriors were usually treated as auxiliary troops attached to imperial units rather than as regular army units. This arrangement worked for a time until Alaric, a Romanized commander of Gothic auxiliary troops, demanded greater recognition for his troops’ courage and sacrifice. When Roman officials refused, Alaric unleashed his warriors on the majestic imperial city.
Alaric’s sack produced different reactions throughout the empire. While Jerome wept in Bethlehem, others turned to anger. Despite the legalization of the Catholic Church nearly a century prior and its recognition as the official religion of the empire thirty years before, paganism still existed in the Roman world. As they had in the Church’s early centuries, pagans again placed blame on Christians for the destruction of the imperial capital, claiming that nothing so catastrophic had happened to Rome when the empire worshipped the old gods.
The false idea that the empire flourished only until it embraced the Christian faith gained favor in public discourse and demanded a response. St. Augustine (354-430) addressed these criticisms in his influential work “The City of God.””
“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.”
“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
“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“
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, “You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine, "Without good books and spiritual reading, it will be morally impossible to save our souls." —St. Alphonsus Liguori "Never read books you aren't sure about. . . even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?" -St. John Bosco " To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer." —St. Thomas Aquinas, OP