How Should Catholics Understand Romans 9?

In the comments on Friday's post, a Calvinist convert to Catholicism asked what to make of Romans 9:18-21, which sound like Paul's saying that God made some people for Heaven, and some people for Hell:
You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me thus?"  Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use?
I would suggest that this passage needs to be read in the context of Paul's fuller argument (which runs from Chapter 9 to Chapter 11 of the Epistle), and I'd make these points:

(1) Yes, that part of Romans 9 really does sound like St. Paul is saying that God mercifully saves some, and damns the rest.  After all, in v. 18, he says, “So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills.” He then proceeds with the three verses that the commenter cited to, in which Paul rhetorically asks and answers the question, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?

But here’s the thing. We know that, despite how it may sound, St. Paul isn’t saying that those whose hearts are hardened are eternally damned. And we know this because St. Paul explicitly denies that this is what he’s saying, when he continues this line of argumentation two chapters later.

In Romans 11:7, he says that “Israel failed to obtain what it sought. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened.” Then he says of those who have been hardened, “So I ask, have they stumbled so as to fall? By no means!” (Rom. 11:12).  On the contrary, Paul explains that part of his ministry to the Gentiles is “to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them” (Rom. 11:14). And thus, “a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:25-26).

Now, this chapter in particular, with branches being cut off from Christ, or ingrafted on to Him, quite plainly repudiates any notion of “once saved, always saved.” I’d go so far as to say that this makes sense only if election is conditional – specifically, if it is conditioned on faith, as Paul explicitly says it is in Romans 9:30-31 and Rom. 11:20-21.

(2) The term “elect” simply means “chosen,” so the obvious question is: chosen to what? Are we talking about election to graces and blessings (like having five talents, instead of one), election to participation in the life of the visible Church, or election to eternal life? Protestants tend to assume that “election” is always meant in this third sense, but I’ve never seen a good explanation for this belief. In fact, verses like Romans 11:28 seem to confound that sort of reading.  And if the election Paul is speaking of is to eternal life, then the answer to his rhetorical question in Rom. 11:12 would be “yes,” since he's defined the hardened to be those who aren't elect (Rom. 11:7).

On the other hand, if Paul is speaking of election in either of the first two senses - that of blessings and curses, or particularly, of being part of the visible chosen people - Romans 9 and 11 make a lot more sense.  After all, the famous line, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,” that Paul cites to in Rom. 9:13 wasn't originally about eternal salvation at all.  It was about the way that God had preserved and protected the Israelites, while allowing the country of the Edomites (the descendants of Esau) to be turned into a wasteland (Malachi 1:2-5).    There's no reference in the passage to the salvation of Jacob, Esau, the Israelites, or the Edomites... unless one presupposes that the prosperous are saved, and the desolate are damned.

(3) Finally, St. Paul explicitly denies that God shows any favoritism, as regards salvation, in Romans 2:4-11:
“Or do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. 
For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. 
There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.
Ironically, despite Paul's warning here not to “presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience,” Calvinists use this Epistle to justify the idea that once you're saved, you're always saved.  And despite Paul's point that “God shows no partiality” (which is literally the central argument of the Epistle, since Paul's answering the idea that God arbitrarily divided the world into two immutable groups: Jews and Gentiles), Calvinists use this Epistle to justify the idea that God shows partiality, and divided the world into two immutable groups: the elect and reprobate.

The only thing I would add to this is Fr. William Most's commentary of the massa damnata interpretation of this passage of Romans 9:
Fr. William Most
All exegetes today reject this interpretation. As Huby points out, [Cf. Joseph Huby, SJ, Saint Paul, Epitre aux Romains, Traduction et Commentaire, Verbum Salutis X, Beauchesne, Paris, 1957, p. 349.] it is altogether arbitrary to say that the "clay" in v. 21 stands for the human race, corrupted by original sin, because in the whole of chapter 9 there is not even a remote allusion to original sin. Lagrange makes a keen observation [M.J. Lagrange, OP, Saint Paul, Epitre aux Romains, Gabalda, Paris, 1931, p. 238.]: "At least the potter does not blame the vessels which he has made for ignoble uses." Hence, if God really had made certain men for ignoble roles, He should not blame and condemn these men for being such. 
Actually, St. Paul was only making a comparison, or, as Lagrange says, [Ibid.] "a simple parable." St. Paul wishes to teach that God has the right to assign men to various places in the external order of this world-which is quite different and distinct from the internal order of eternal salvation or ruin! That is, God makes some to be kings, others physicians, others laborers, etc. And similarly, He brings some into the Church in the full sense, and not others. But these assignments by no means fix the eternal lot of a man. Later in this chapter we shall examine what relation does exist between a man's eternal lot and his place in the external order of this world.
So in short, reading Paul to be talking about eternal life and eternal death in Romans 9:18-21 would not just contradict Catholic theology.  It contradicts the rest of Paul's line of argumentation in Romans itself.  It's a much stronger reading to view Paul as talking about (a) the blessing and curses of ordinary life [like giving one person five talents, and another one], and/or (b) participation in the life of the visible Church [which fits the general theme of Romans].

Luther and Calvin v. Augustine and Justin Martyr on Free Will

One of the core tenets of Calvinism is the belief that there's no such thing as free will, particularly in regards to matters of salvation.  What strikes me about this doctrine is that I'm not sure anyone really believes it.  I realize that sounds odd, but consider: even those, like Luther and Calvin, who claim that the will is in total bondage contradict themselves throughout their writings, while St. Augustine (who Luther and Calvin considered the father of the doctrine) expressly denies it.  Let's consider each man in turn:

Luther on Free Will

Martin Luther's 1525 book On the Bondage of the Will argues that free will is an illusion, and that men are either the slaves to God, or the slaves to Satan:
Title Page, Martin Luther's
On the Bondage of the Will
But this false idea of "free-will" is a real threat to salvation, and a delusion fraught with the most perilous consequences. If we do not want to drop this term ["free-will"] altogether - which would really be the safest and most Christian thing to do - we may still in good faith teach people to use it to credit man with "free-will" in respect, not of what is above him, but of what is below him. That is to say, man should realize that in regard to his money and possessions he has a right to use them, to do or to leave undone, according to his own "free-will" - though that very "free-will" is overruled by the free-will of God alone, according to His own pleasure. However, with regard to God, and in all that bears on salvation or damnation, he has no "free-will", but is a captive, prisoner and bondslave, either to the will of God, or to the will of Satan.
Read that passage carefully, and consider the numerous ways in which Luther disproves his own point:
  1. If man has no free will, how can he choose to drop the term free-will altogether, as Luther suggests?  For that matter, if man has no free will, how can he even want to drop the term free-will altogether?  Desire, after all, is tied to the will.

  2. When Luther speaks of dropping the term free-will as being the safest and most Christian thing to do,” how can he speak of actions on a spectrum of goodness?  That is, how could one Christian option be any more safe or more Christian than another, if each is the direct result of the will of God?  How could one of God's actions be any safer or more Christian than any of His other actions?

  3. If man has no free will, how can Luther speak of us as teaching anything “in good faith”?  Likewise, if man has no free will, how can Luther encourage men to “credit” themselves with free-will in respect to what is below them?

  4. Finally, and most centrally, Luther argues that “in all that bears on salvation or damnation, [man] has no "free-will",” yet still claims that a particular doctrine (the doctrine of free will) “is a real threat to salvation.”  If every man is a mere captive to the will of God (the saved) or the will of Satan (the damned) on matters of salvation, how could any doctrine pose a threat to salvation?

    If the saved are completely slaves to God, unable of doing anything contrary to His Will, how would the existence of a false doctrine overcome the will of God?  [The Calvinists ultimately recognized this absurdity, and created the doctrine of  “Perseverance of the Saints” (and the related doctrine of being “Once Saved, Always Saved”) in response.]
I mention this not to pick on Luther, but because Luther is the first of a long string of Protestant theologians to make these sort of internally-incoherent arguments. The very writers who profess to disbelieve in free will write things that only make sense if a thing such as free will exists

For example, a given theologian will deny free will, then talk about the importance and the necessity of having a saving faith in Christ, and ensuring that this faith is an authentic one.  But faith is inherently an act of the will, as St. Thomas has explained. We don’t speak of how doors or rocks have faith in God, because that’s meaningless. Without wills, they cannot have faith.  Or the same writer might say that instead of worrying about good works, we need to trust in God.  But to trust is also to make an act of the will.  It's for precisely this reason that no one can externally force you to have faith, or to trust in God, or any of the rest, because it's an operation of the will

Ironically, this is the very problem that Luther is complaining about in the section that I quoted above: that even Protestants can't seem to avoid speaking as if free will exists.  There's good reason for that.

Calvin on Free Will

Michelangelo, Ezekiel
(Sistine Chapel detail) (1510)
Another Protestant Reformer who talks himself in circles on free will is John Calvin, who carries Luther's doctrines against free will to their logical end-point.  Calvin, like Luther, denies the existence of man's free will in regards to issues of salvation.  But that poses a real problem for anyone who reads the numerous portions of the Bible that call us to convert.  For example, Ezekiel 14:6 says, “Therefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD; Repent, and turn yourselves from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations.”  Now, that's pretty plain Scripture, showing the clear existence of an authentic free will related to salvation: that the Israelites are capable of repenting, of turning away from idols, and turning away from abominations.

You might think that since Calvin denied such a will existed, he'd find some way of shirking the plain meaning of the passage.  Nope, on the contrary, Calvin's exegesis of the passage only reinforces these realities:
Now God shows why he had threatened the false prophets and the whole people so severely, namely, that they should repent; for the object of God’s rigor is, that, when terrified by his judgments, we should return into the way. Now, therefore, he exhorts them to repentance. Hence we gather the useful lesson, that whenever God inspires us with fear, he has no other intention than to humble us, and thus to provide for our salvation, when he reproves and threatens us so strongly by his prophets, and in truth is verbally angry with us, that he may really spare us.
Consider something that actually lacks a free will, like a robot programmed to perform certain tasks.  Does it make any sense to threaten, to terrify, to exhort, to inspire, to humble, or to reprove that robot?  Of course not.  If we yell at our computers, it's because we're acting in irrational anger. Yet this is exactly how Calvin describes God.

More than that, Calvin says that God does all of these things to and for us, so that we should repent, so that He may spare us.  If one believes in the existence of free will related to salvation, Calvin's exegesis makes perfect sense, and is quite good here.  But if you deny the reality of such a free will, as Calvin himself did, then this exegesis makes no sense.

St. Augustine on Free Will

Both Luther and Calvin are big fans of St. Augustine, and derive their views on predestination and free will in part from some of Augustine's writings (particularly one of his speculative works, his Letter to Simplician).  But taking a fuller view of Augustine's own writings, it's clear he was neither a Lutheran nor a Calvinist on the issue of free will related to salvation.

Joseph-Noël Sylvestre,
The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410 (1890).
For example, in his famous City of God, he writes of how when the Visigoths pillaged Rome, they raped “not only wives and unmarried maidens, but even consecrated virgins.” Augustine is aware that these women are guilt-ridden, feeling “shame, lest that act which could not be suffered without some sensual pleasure, should be believed to have been committed also with some assent of the will.

In response, he assures them that they needn't be ashamed, and indeed, that they haven't violated their vow of virginity, since “the purity both of the body and the soul rests on the steadfastness of the will strengthened by God's grace, and cannot be forcibly taken from an unwilling person.”  He explains this conclusion from the following principle:
Let this, therefore, in the first place, be laid down as an unassailable position, that the virtue which makes the life good has its throne in the soul, and thence rules the members of the body, which becomes holy in virtue of the holiness of the will; and that while the will remains firm and unshaken, nothing that another person does with the body, or upon the body, is any fault of the person who suffers it, so long as he cannot escape it without sin.
Now, this is pretty basic Christianity.  Fornication is a mortal sin, but a person isn't guilty of fornication (or any sin) by being raped.  These women were victims, not sinners, and Augustine goes to great lengths to make that unambiguously clear.  Yet to take Luther and Calvin's arguments seriously, the difference between fornication and rape would disappear, since no free will exists in either case.

Augustine's argument echoes those Fathers who came long before even his own time.  For example, St. Justin Martyr wrote, back in 151 A.D., denouncing the pagan view of immutable Fate:
“We have learned from the prophets and we hold it as true that punishments and chastisements and good rewards are distributed according to the merit of each man’s actions. Were this not the case, and were all things to happen according to the decree of fate, there would be nothing at all in our power. If fate decrees that this man is to be good and that one wicked, then neither is the former to be praised nor the latter to be blamed.”
Put another way, if the Lutheran-Calvinist view of the bondage of the will were true, every bad action we commit would be as far beyond our control as the rape of the Roman virgins was to them.  And just as they could not be justly condemned for actions that they could not resist, neither can we be condemned for the actions we cannot resist.


Admittedly, free will is a bit of a mystery.  We don't fully grasp what it is, or how it works.  It puzzles theists and atheists alike.  But we can be sure that it exists, in part because it is necessary for God's Justice, and in part because we cannot coherently speak of it not existing (any more than we can coherently speak of a self-caused universe arising without God).

As St. Justin Martyr notes, free will has to exist for God's rewards and punishments to be Just.  St. Augustine reaffirms this, and applies this principle, explaining that those actions done to us that we do not will, cannot be imputed to us as sins.  What matters is not what happens to us, but what we will.  Thus, it is wrong to condemn the virgins of Rome as fornicators when they were raped. It would be infinitely more wrong to send them to Hell for being raped.

All of this, in addition to being logically necessary, is self-evident.  That is, each of us experiences free will, even if we choose to deny it.  It's for this reason that even those, like Luther or Calvin, who set out to deny free will (at least as pertains to issues tied to salvation) cannot help but speak as if it exists.  Because it does.  And we can observe it does.

Was the Immaculate Conception Imposed on Catholics in 1854?

Earlier this month, I responded to a number of objections about Mary's sinlessness raised by a non-denominational reader. That same reader responded, via e-mail. One of his arguments against the Immaculate Conception goes like this:
Francisco de Zurbarán,
Immaculate Conception (1635)
Does it concern you that your statement was based on a dogma, the Immaculate Conception, a doctrine, incidentally, rejected by Thomas Aquinas and Ansalen, imposed on the Catholic Church in 1854 by Pius IX? Ten years later, the same pope imposed his infamous "Syllabus of Errors", which condemned virtually every civil liberty, and was rejected by virtually all Catholics Six years after that, he had the last of the papal states ripped out of his grasping hands by the Italian army. Pius also gave the Church the ex-cathedra-infallible pope and canonized Pedro d-Arbus, a fifteenth century inquisitor who presided over the forced baptism of Jews in Spain. If you reject the syllabus, and I would be surprised if you didn't, how can you justify accepting the Immaculate Conception? Wouldn't that make you a cafeteria Catholic?
This history is tendentious and misleading as far as it relates to both Aquinas and Anselm. There’s good reason to believe that Aquinas died a believer in the Immaculate Conception.  But even when Aquinas denied the Immaculate Conception, both he and Anselm were radically closer to the Catholic position than to the Evangelical position.   Here's Anselm on Mary, for example: you tell me whether he sounds more Catholic or  Evangelical.

And remember, this is the reader cherry-picking Christians out of history.  If even the ones he cherry pick sound like Catholics on the issue of Mary, could it be that it's because Catholics are the ones who hold the historic view of Mary?  The lack of Mary-bashing prior to the Reformation is because all generations of Christians prior to the Reformation, like those in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, considered and called Mary blessed.  (And yes, I feel comfortable calling this Mary-bashing: elsewhere in his e-mail, he suggests that Mary may have been an apostate).

In other words, there are really only two reasons to cite to Aquinas and Anselm on Mary in this context.  The first is that he actually cares what Aquinas and Anselm have to say.  But this plainly isn't true, since the reader rejects nearly everything else that they have to say, and doesn't even hold to either Saint's view of Mary.  The second is to show that the Immaculate Conception wasn't something that Catholics used to believe in.  But the actual history here shows the opposite: the Immaculate Conception was embraced, and the debates over Mary's sinlessness tended to be over relative minutiae about the precise moment she was cleansed of original sin.

For that matter, let's leave the double-standards behind.  The  Evangelical argument, boiled down, is that since there were some Christians who denied the Immaculate Conception, it must not be part of the historic faith, and therefore, not true.  But where are the early Christians who take the Mary held by most ordinary  Evangelicals today?  By this logic,  Evangelicals are condemning their own views.  Catholics can point to a wide variety of early Christians who believed as we do today: can  Evangelicals do the same?

Personal Attacks on Blessed Pope Pius IX?

Blessed Pope Pius IX
Having addressed Aquinas and Anselm, what to make of the rest? The Immaculate Conception isn’t true because Pope Pius IX lost control of the papal states? This line of argumentation, such as it is, strikes me as logically incoherent.

Well, worse than incoherent, really. This appears to be a thinly-veiled series of ad hominem attacks on Blessed Pope Pius IX: according to the reader, he was a bad guy, and therefore, I suppose we should conclude that the Immaculate Conception isn’t true. It’d be like me saying, you’re going to believe Paul’s letters to the Galatians… even though that man used to kill Christians?

But of course, we don't believe in the infallibility of the definition of the Immaculate Conception because of Pius' personal sanctity, any more than we believe in the inspiration of Galatians because of Paul's personal sanctity.  In each case, we're trusting the Holy Spirit's ability to work through flawed human instruments.

The “cafeteria Catholic” argument is similarly lame. If the only thing necessary to debunk Catholicism is to show that one of the popes was a sinner, the Church would have been done away with a long time ago. By Her own reckoning, the first pope, St. Peter, denied Christ three times. We don’t sweep this under the rug. We read the account of it every Palm Sunday.

So no, there’s no obligation of Catholics to agree with literally everything that the pope says or does, nor does papal infallibility say anything remotely like that. Since the reader references the definition of papal infallibility (that it consists of ex cathedra statements, which Vatican I defined), I think he knows better. Spreading this mischaracterization of papal infallibility only poisons the waters.

The History of the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception

The lynchpin of this argument is in the reader’s claim that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was “imposed on the Catholic Church in 1854” by Pope Pius IX. This is really two claims: (a) that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was imposed, from the top down, upon the Church; and (b) that the doctrine was imposed in 1854. Both of these claims are demonstrably false.

Back in 1661, Pope Alexander VII declared:
Piero di Cosimo, Immaculate Conception (1505)
Concerning the most Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, ancient indeed is that devotion of the faithful based on the belief that her soul, in the first instant of its creation and in the first instant of the soul's infusion into the body, was, by a special grace and privilege of God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, her Son and the Redeemer of the human race, preserved free from all stain of original sin. And in this sense have the faithful ever solemnized and celebrated the Feast of the Conception.” 
 Now, he said that in 1661, and even then, he’s able to refer to belief in the Immaculate Conception as both (a) a devotion of the faithful, and (b) an ancient devotion.  If that doesn't debunk the notion that the dogma was imposed by the papacy in 1854, I don't know what would.

Such was the situation the doctrine found itself in for countless centuries: it was believed by ordinary Catholics, celebrated throughout the Church as the Feast of the Conception of Mary, periodically nodded at by the papacy, but not formally defined. In the encyclical defining the dogma, Pope Pius IX describes the groundswell of pressure. And rather than it being pressure from the top down, the pressure is from the grassroots of the Church:
Accordingly, from ancient times the bishops of the Church, ecclesiastics, religious orders, and even emperors and kings, have earnestly petitioned this Apostolic See to define a dogma of the Catholic Faith the Immaculate Conception of the most holy Mother of God. These petitions were renewed in these our own times; they were especially brought to the attention of Gregory XVI, our predecessor of happy memory, and to ourselves, not only by bishops, but by the secular clergy and religious orders, by sovereign rulers and by the faithful.
In response to this, on February 2, 1849, the pope sent an Encyclical Letter asking the various bishops of the world: (a) what the local piety and devotion of their faithful was in regard to the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God, and (b) what the bishops themselves thought about defining this doctrine and what their wishes were in regard to making known with all possible solemnity our supreme judgment. Overwhelmingly, the bishops responded by asking the pope to solemnly define and declare the dogma, which, after consultation with theologians and with a special congregation, he did, on December 8, 1854.

The papacy was hardly in a hurry to solemnly dogmatize this doctrine, and it did so only after extensive entreaties from ordinary Catholics, and from the bishops of the world. To characterize this as some of nineteenth century imposition of papal power is either ignorant or dishonest, and bad history in either case.

Are All Sins Equally Bad? Are All Saints Equally Good?

Colijn de Coter,
Saint Michael Weighing Souls (detail)
(16th c.).
Protestants typically believe that all sins are equally bad, and all Saints are equally good.  For example, a Kansas middle school teacher is in hot water for writing, according to the Huffington Post, that “Being Gay Is 'The Same As Murder'.” Despite the quotation marks, the teacher didn't actually write that.  Instead, he wrote:
All this talk in the news about gay marriage recently has finally driven me to write. Gay marriage is wrong because homosexuality is wrong. The Bible clearly states it is sin. Now I do not claim it to be a sin any worse than other sins. It ranks in God's eyes the same as murder, lying, stealing, or cheating. His standards are perfect and ALL have sinned and fallen short of His glory. Sin is sin and we all deserve hell. Only those who accept Christ as Lord and daily with the help of the Spirit do their best to turn from sin will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. There aren't multiple ways to get to Heaven. There is one. To many this may seem close minded and antagonistic, but it doesn't make it any less true. Folks I am willing to admit that my depravity is just as great as anyone else's, and without Christ I'd be destined for hell, if not for the undeserved grace of God. I'm not condemning gay marriage because I hate gay people. I am doing it because those who embrace it will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And I desire that for no one.
While he's not actually saying that being gay is the same as murder, he is saying that homosexuality “ranks in God's eyes the same” as everything from lying to murder.  In other words, every sin, from the smallest lie to the largest massacre, is equally bad.  But is that right?

Are All Sins Equally Bad?

The clearest Scriptural evidence as to the degrees of sin comes from 1 John 5:16-17,
If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that.  All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.
In other words, Scripture clearly distinguishes between two categories of sin: mortal (or deadly) sin, and venial sin, which John defines as “sin which is not mortal.” A Christian who knowingly and willingly commits a mortal sin cuts himself off from eternal life.  That's what John means by “mortal” or “deadly.”  It kills the soul. So a man who, on his deathbed, is mildly rude to a family member is not going to be treated the same way as a man who, on his deathbed, renounces his faith in Christ.  A Just Judge doesn't treat those two cases the same, and God is a Just Judge.

Look at 1 Cor. 11:29-30, in which St. Paul says of the Eucharist that “any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.  That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”  Just as mortal sin is mortal to the soul, here again, it's primarily their souls that are weak, or ill, or dead.  But notice that we're beginning to see distinctions even within the two categories: that some sinners are objectively worse off than others.  So even within the categories of venial and mortal sins, we can distinguish between the degree and gravity of sin.

Jesus refers to sinners as “the sick” in Mark 2:17, and Himself as the Doctor.  But of course, there are different kinds and degrees of illness. Even if all of the sick need a doctor, and need healing, it's just not true that a headache and cancer are equally bad.  We see this also in Luke 7:36-50, in which Jesus compares sins to different sized debts, in the house of Simon the Pharisee:
Jean Beraud, St. Mary Magdalene in the House of Simon the Pharisee (1891)
One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house, and took his place at table.  And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner." And Jesus answering said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." And he answered, "What is it, Teacher?"

"A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?"  Simon answered, "The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more." And he said to him, "You have judged rightly." 
Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.  You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.  Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little." And he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven."  
Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this, who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
So this captures two different points, each of which is very important.  First, that some sins are actually worse than others, that some sinners have offended God's Justice more egregiously than others.  But second, that everyone is in need of redemption, and everyone is offered redemption, regardless of how bad their sins are.  Protestants generally grasp the second point, but in the process, they often deny the first one.  It's a shame, because each teaching is clear from Scripture.

Are All Saints Equally Good?

The flip side to the claim that all sins are equally bad is the claim that all Saints are equally righteous in the eyes of God.  But as with the first claim, this doesn't appear to be based on anything from Scripture.  Because Scripture actually paints a rather different picture.   

When God is planning to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, He doesn't talk to Lot, who lives there.  He talks to his holier cousin, Abraham, instead, even though Abraham doesn't live in either of those cities (Gen. 18:16-33).  And Abraham intercedes on behalf of his cousin, Lot, saving him and his family. Genesis 19:29 captures this succinctly: “So when God destroyed the cities of the plain, He remembered Abraham, and He brought Lot out of the catastrophe that overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.”  So it's for the sake of Abraham that Lot is spared.

And Jesus rather frequently speaks about which of His followers are the greatest.  For example, in Luke 9:48, He says, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest.”  And in Luke 22:26 says that, “the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” And shortly after this, He says to His Apostles (Lk. 22:28-30):
You are those who have stood by Me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as My Father conferred one on Me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in My Kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
Now, Jesus doesn't give all of us that authority in Heaven, but just the Apostles who were with Him in His trials.  And indeed, the image of Heaven given in Scripture is much more hierarchical than anything Protestants tend to describe.  There are various ranks of angelic beings (angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominions, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim) lists in Scripture, and rankings even among the Saints.  For example, Revelation 14:3 refers to a song that can only be sung by the 144,000 redeemed, a subgroup of the saved who are honored in a special way (see Rev. 14:1-5).

So clearly, both in Heaven and on Earth, the Saints are not merely interchangeable parts.  Some have more power and authority.  This is one of the reasons why Scripture prescribes intercessory prayer (see 1 Tim. 2:1): because we want those holier than ourselves interceding for us.


This is admittedly a bit of an overview for what should be a basic point: some sins are worse than others, and some Saints are holier than others.  This point strikes me as so basic and intuitive that the burden should really be on the one who denies it.  Where in Scripture do we ever hear that murder is no worse than, say, lying?

Does John 6:63 Refute the Real Presence?

Early Christian depiction of the Eucharist from the C
A couple of my Evangelical friends were recently talking with me about John 6 and the Eucharist. If you haven’t read it recently, you should. In it, Jesus states repeatedly, and in no uncertain terms, that He is the Bread of Life, that our eternal salvation is tied to eating His Body and drinking His Blood, that His Flesh really is true Food and His Blood really is true Drink. The question that I asked when we were going through the passage was, “If Jesus was trying to say that the Eucharist is really His Body and Blood, what more could He have said?”

Even more striking, the Jewish audience listening to Him doesn’t initially take Him literally. Their initial reaction to His claim, “I am the Bread come down from Heaven” is to be shocked that He claimed to come from Heaven (John 6:41-42). At this point, Jesus clarifies how literally He means the “Bread” part: “I am the living Bread that came down out of Heaven; if anyone eats of this Bread, he will live forever; and the Bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My Flesh.” (John 6:51). It’s only at this point that the crowd becomes shocked by the Bread imagery (Jn. 6:52).

In other words, it’s not as if we have Jesus using a metaphor, and the crowd naively assuming that He means it to be literal.  It's something nearer the opposite: we have the crowd initially assuming Jesus is speaking metaphorically, and Jesus going out of His way to make sure that they don’t think that. And after the crowd protests, “how can this Man give us His flesh to eat?” Jesus answers (Jn. 6:53-58), by explaining six different times that He means this literally in the span of six verses:
  1. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you have no life in yourselves.” (Jn. 6:53)
  2. He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life, and I will raise Him up on the last day.” (Jn. 6:54)
  3. For My Flesh is True Food, and My Blood is True Drink.” (Jn. 6:55)
  4. He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood abides in Me, and I in Him.” (Jn. 6:56)
  5. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me.” (Jn. 6:57)
  6. This is the Bread which came down out of Heaven; not as the fathers and died; he who eats this Bread will live forever.” (Jn. 6:58).
And to top all of this off, this discourse occurs at Passover time (John 6:4), one year prior to the Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (Mt. 26:20-29).

My friends acknowledged how Eucharistic the passage appears to be, but wanted to know what to make of John 6:63. Because after Jesus says all of this, and the crowd is outraged (Jn. 6:60), He says, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” One of my friends said, “I agree that if you read the prior verses 53-58 literally, it seems to support the idea of Real Presence. But doesn't verse 63 prove that He's speaking figuratively?”

Anton Raphael Mengs, Christ on the Cross (1768)
It’s a very good question. But the typical Protestant understanding of the passage is dangerously wrong: taking John 6:63 literally like that would discredit not only (a) the Eucharist, but (b) everything Christ just said about the necessity of eating His Flesh, (c) the Incarnation, and (d) the Passion of Christ. Because if Christ's Flesh is worthless, then His taking on Flesh is worthless, and His sacrificing His Flesh on the Cross is worthless.

But these conclusions can't be right (as any Christian would recognize). Instead, Christ means that the flesh profits nothing in isolation, that it needs to be quickened by the Spirit. Here are Augustine's own words:
What is it, then, that He adds? It is the Spirit that quickens; the flesh profits nothing. Let us say to Him (for He permits us, not contradicting Him, but desiring to know), O Lord, good Master, in what way does the flesh profit nothing, while You have said, Except a man eat my flesh, and drink my blood, he shall not have life in him? Or does life profit nothing? And why are we what we are, but that we may have eternal life, which Thou dost promise by Your flesh? Then what means the flesh profits nothing? It profits nothing, but only in the manner in which they understood it. They indeed understood the flesh, just as when cut to pieces in a carcass, or sold in the shambles; not as when it is quickened by the Spirit.

Wherefore it is said that the flesh profits nothing, in the same manner as it is said that knowledge puffs up. Then, ought we at once to hate knowledge? Far from it! And what means Knowledge puffs up? Knowledge alone, without charity. Therefore he added, but charity edifies. [1 Corinthians 8:1] Therefore add to knowledge charity, and knowledge will be profitable, not by itself, but through charity. So also here, the flesh profits nothing, only when alone. Let the Spirit be added to the flesh, as charity is added to knowledge, and it profits very much. For if the flesh profited nothing, the Word would not be made flesh to dwell among us. If through the flesh Christ has greatly profited us, does the flesh profit nothing? But it is by the flesh that the Spirit has done somewhat for our salvation. Flesh was a vessel; consider what it held, not what it was. The apostles were sent forth; did their flesh profit us nothing? If the apostles' flesh profited us, could it be that the Lord's flesh should have profited us nothing? For how should the sound of the Word come to us except by the voice of the flesh? Whence should writing come to us? All these are operations of the flesh, but only when the spirit moves it, as if it were its organ. Therefore it is the Spirit that quickens; the flesh profits nothing, as they understood the flesh, but not so do I give my flesh to be eaten.
If enemies of Christ had overwhelmed Him against His will, killing Him and cutting His Body to pieces, would that have saved anyone? No. The Passion works only because Christ voluntarily lays down His Life (John 10:11). That is, for the Passion (and the Eucharist) to work, Jesus must be both the High Priest (Heb. 4:14) and the Sacrifice (1 Cor. 5:7). Or put another way, the Spirit and Flesh must be operating in union.

This distinction is an incredibly important one. It's both what separates the Eucharist from cannibalism, and what separately Christianity from something like human-sacrificing pagan cults.

So in summary, I'd say a few things:
  1. “Spirit” doesn't mean “metaphor.”
  2. If Christ wanted to describe His words as metaphoric in John 6, He could easily have done so. He seems to have gone to great lengths to do the opposite (see esp. John 6:55). I'd be incredibly cautious of (a) overlooking all of John 6:25-60, for the sake of v. 63; or (b) reading v. 63 as somehow negating the rest of this Chapter.
  3. If Jesus literally means that His Flesh is worthless, this would destroy all of Christianity, not just Catholicism.
  4. Compare this passage with Romans 8, talking about living according to the Spirit, not the Flesh. That's not a denial of the Incarnation, or a condemnation of the flesh, but of our sinful natures, or living like animals. (I think most Protestants agree with this point, since the alternative is dualism).
  5. Catholics don't think that the Eucharist works apart from the operation of the Spirit (which is why we call upon the Spirit at every Mass, and consider this a necessary part of the Eucharistic Rite).
(By the way, sorry for the sporadic posting this week - I've been travelling; I'm actually posting this from a rest stop in Ottawa).  

Is the Church Simply the Set of All the Saved?

One of the major differences Catholics and Protestants have is on the nature of the Church. Is the Church a visible entity founded by Jesus Christ, or simply the invisible collection of all of the saved?, for example, includes a series of lessons from Ron Boatwright, who argues that “Only The Saved Are In The Lord’s Church”:
Benjamin West, St. Peter Preaching at Pentecost (19th c.)
In order to be in the one church the Lord established, those added to it by the Lord must be saved according to His requirements. In Acts 2:47 we read, “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” The Lord only adds the saved to His church. There are no unsaved people in His church. The Lord makes no mistakes. We are not saved just because we think or say we are. We are saved only when we have done what God has said we must do. Jesus says in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to Me Lord, Lord shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father which is in heaven.” We must do God’s will, not man’s will, to go to heaven.
But, of course, Acts 2:47 doesn't actually say that only the saved entered the Church.  It says that the saved entered the Church, but doesn't say, “these and only these!”  In context, the passage is talking about the earliest believers, who respond to Peter's message on Pentecost by getting Baptized (Acts 2:41), and are thereby joined to the Church: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”  But the idea that Baptism is the doorway to the Church is the Catholic position.

In any case, nothing in Acts 2 (or elsewhere) proves Boatwright's claims that the “Lord only adds the saved to His church” or that there “are no unsaved people in His church.”  In fact, Jesus explicitly teaches the opposite of this.  In Matthew 13, Jesus lays out a series of parables describing the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, the Church.  One of the clearest is the parable of the nets, Mt. 13:47-50:
“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away.  This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Rogier van der Weyden,
Last Judgment (detail) (1452)
That's awfully clear, isn't it? Right now, the Church consists of both the saved and the damned. At the end of time, at the Last Judgment, the damned will be weeded out of the Church, and thrown into Hell.  This is why Boatwright can't use Matthew 7:21 as a proof-text: it's dealing with the Kingdom of Heaven in Heaven, after the Last Judgment.  But Matthew 13 shows that this isn't what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like on Earth, which is the dispute at hand.

Nor is this passage in isolation: shortly before this, Jesus used the parable of the weeds and the wheat, describing the Kingdom as a field with both wheat (the saved) and the weeds, and explaining (Mt. 13:40-41):
“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
According to Boatwright, the Kingdom consists of only the saved, and works don't matter at all towards salvation.  Jesus contradicts both of these claims.  He clearly describes the Kingdom as needing to be weeded, and says that this won't happen until the harvest (Mt. 13:30), which represents the end of time (Mt. 13:39).  And some members of the Kingdom are thrown into the fiery furnace at the end of time.  That doesn't sound like salvation to me.

So I agree with Boatwright when he says that “The Lord makes no mistakes.”  But the same cannot be said for those claiming the Church consists solely of the saved.  What Scripture clearly describes in Matthew 13 and numerous other places is a visible Church consisting of both the saved and the damned, and entered into through Baptism.

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux's Parents and Vocational Discernment

Louis Martin, Thérèse's father
I've finally gotten around to reading St. Thérèse of Lisieux's autobiography, The Story of a Soul. It's a great read, but one of the things that fascinated me was actually from the introduction, which gave some background on Thérèse's family.

Thérèse's parents were holy, and wanted to give their entire lives to God.  When they were younger, each of them had pursued the religious life, going so far as to apply to particular orders. Thérèse's mother, Zélie Guérin, applied to the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, while Thérèse's father, Louis Martin, applied to the Augustinian Monastery of the Great St Bernard.  Both of them were rejected.

Zélie ended up becoming a lacemaker, while Louis became a watchmaker.  Externally, this would seem to be something of a failure -- making lace and watches seems to have little to do with bringing glory to God, particularly in comparison with being a monk or a nun.  Eventually, in 1858, Zélie and Louis met, fell in love, and three months later, married.  At first, the two did not consummate the marriage - they wanted a spiritual marriage, living as brother and sister in a non-sexual relationship.  After nine months, at the insistence of their confessor, the marriage was finally consummated.

In all, Louis and Zélie gave birth to nine children.  Three of them died in infancy, and a fourth at the age of five.  This left five children, all daughters: Marie, Pauline, Léonie, Céline, and the baby of the family, Thérèse.  Prior to Thérèse's fourth birthday, her mother, Zélie, died of breast cancer, leaving Louis to raise the four girls.  Each of them would go on to become nuns, and Thérèse, of course, went on to become the 33rd Doctor of the Church.

I think that the lives of Zélie and Louis help illustrate the mysterious way in which marriage and family are intertwined with celibacy and the religious life. The Catechism remarks on this in CCC 1620, which says:
St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Both the sacrament of Matrimony and virginity for the Kingdom of God come from the Lord himself. It is he who gives them meaning and grants them the grace which is indispensable for living them out in conformity with his will. (Cf. Mt 19:3-12.) Esteem of virginity for the sake of the kingdom (Cf. LG 42; PC 12; OT 10.) and the Christian understanding of marriage are inseparable, and they reinforce each other:

“Whoever denigrates marriage also diminishes the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent. What appears good only in comparison with evil would not be truly good. The most excellent good is something even better than what is admitted to be good.” (St. John Chrysostom, De virg. 10,1:PG 48,540; Cf. John Paul II, FC 16.)
Marriage is an amazing good, for the benefit of man, and for the glory of God. Celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God is an even superior good. But the greatest good is to do the will of God. For Louis and Zélie, this meant the married life.  And through marriage and family, they accomplished much more than they likely would have as a simple nun and monk: together, they gave the world one of the greatest Saints of all time.

In discussing vocations, it's helpful to speak of the primary vocation and secondary vocation.  The primary vocation is simple.  You're called to be a Saint.  Doesn't matter who you are, what your strengths or weaknesses are, or what your state of life is.  God designed you to know, love, and serve Him, and to enjoy eternity with Him.  That's what sanctity is.  The secondary vocation, whether you're called to be a priest, monk, nun, father, mother, or a single man or woman, flows out of the first: it's the way that you're called to live out your primary vocation.  Louis and Zélie didn't end up with the secondary vocations that either of them anticipated for themselves.  But by staying loyal to God throughout, they lived out inspiring and holy lives, and raised a saintly family.  The Church recognized this, not only in canonizing their daughter, and declaring her a Doctor of the Church, but in beatifying Louis and Zélie themselves.

Answering Common Objections About Mary

In response to this post on what the Magnificat tells us about Marian veneration, a Protestant reader raised a number of objections that I think other readers may be struggling with:
Lorenzo Costa, The Holy Family (c. 1500)
My soul magnifies (exaults) the Lord. And my spirit has rejoiced in God my savior (saved her from what?) For He has regarded the lowly state of his handmaiden; for behold, all generations will call me blessed.
Mary doesn't day that all people will call her blessed but "all generations." And I think we can say with confidence, all generations have called her blessed and will continue to do so. I've never met a Protestant who would say that Mary was not blessed.

What Mary did not say, and neither did the apostles nor the Protestants, was she would be called the Mother of God or the queen of heaven or the queen of the apostles. She also did not say people would worship her or pray to her or ask her to intercede for them. She also did not say she would perpetually be a virgin or she was born without sin or she would be bodily assumed to heaven.

The last time we read about Mary in the New Testament is Acts 1: 14. She was in the upper room with the disciples and the brothers of the Lord. There's not another mention of her after this. In Revelation we read of the consumation of all things and a new heaven and a new earth, but there's no mention of Mary.

Since neither the apostles nor the apostolic fathers, as far as I know, said a word about Mary, is it your position that they had a  Mary problem.
There's a lot to address here, but let me address the basics:

    Sixth Century Icon of Mary and Jesus
  1. God saved Mary from sin. In the same way, if I catch a vase before it breaks, I'm saving it from being broken.  Or in the same way that God saves us from all of those sins that we would commit without His grace.  So, yes, Mary is saved.

  2. I agree, Mary says “all generations,” not “all people.” My point is that the only people honoring Mary for countless generations prior to the Reformation were indisputably Catholic or Orthodox, and took a view of Mary that many Protestants (including this reader) would apparently consider idolatrous. If these generations are to be condemned for their treatment of Mary, why are they praised in Scripture for their treatment of Mary?

  3. True, Scripture doesn't say “Mother of God,” just as it doesn't say “Trinity.”  But both doctrines are still true.  That Mary is the Mother of God is obvious, in that (a) Jesus is God [John 20:26-28], and (b) Mary is His Mother [Luke 2:51]. She was declared Theotokos, meaning Mother of God (or literally, "God-bearer") at the First Council of Ephesus in 431, which all generations of Christians between 431 and the Reformation accepted.

  4. Catholics don't worship Mary.  I understand that it can seem that way to people who don't understand Catholicism and/or worship, but trust me. We don't... and we would know if we did, presumably?

  5. Contrary to the reader's claim, I'd argue that Mary is mentioned in Revelation. See Revelation 12, where the Mother of Jesus is depicted as battling against Satan, and being supernaturally preserved from evil.

  6. Mary did claim to be a perpetual Virgin, in response to the angel Gabriel's Annunciation [Luke 1:34]. This is why she's baffled at how she can become the Mother of God. The phrase that she knows not man only makes sense in the context of perpetual virginity, since she was already married.  Again, Mary's perpetual Virginity was affirmed for numerous generations amongst the pre-Reformation Church, and even re-affirmed by Martin Luther and Zwingli, as did the early Anglicans and John Wesley (and Calvin wasn't opposed to the idea).

  7. Damián Forment, Our Lady of the Chorus (1515)
  8. The Marian doctrines are described very early on. For example, St. Justin Martyr (c. 160 A.D),  Irenaeus (180 A.D.) and Tertullian (160-220 A.D.) each describe  Jesus and Mary as the parallel to Adam and Eve. Irenaeus captures this succinctly, in referring to “the back-reference from Mary to Eve,” that “the knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.”  By way of comparison, the first known use of the word  “Trinity” was by Theophilus of Antioch in 181 A.D... after Justin and Irenaeus wrote on Mary as the New Eve.  So it won't do to pretend that this is some late innovation.

  9. Finally, what to make of the claim that the apostles never said a word about “Mary”?  Read the Gospel of Matthew or the Gospel of John. Mary is repeatedly mentioned.  For starters, read Matthew 1-2, John 2:1-11, and John 19:26-27. She also gets an in-depth treatment in the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke, which appear to describe the Nativity and Childhood of Christ through her eyes.  I recognize that some Protestant communities emphasize Acts and the Pauline Epistles over the actual Gospels (for whatever reason), but if you read the Gospels, she's definitely in there.
So given all of this, I don't think it's Catholics who have a Mary problem.  We're consistent with the faith of the Apostles and the faith of historic Christianity.  And given that the Magnificat points to historic Christianity's treatment of Mary in a positive way, that's exactly where we need to be.

Worshiping with Our Whole Bodies

One of the most beautiful things about Catholic worship, particularly when it's done well, is that it's a full-body experience.  We smell the incense, we sing Psalms and hymns (and hear these being sung), we listen to the Scriptures and the homily, we see the Sacrifice of the Mass (and the priest's liturgical gestures are loaded with meaning), we kneel, sit, stand, we taste the Blessed Sacrament, we embrace at the sign of peace.  The Liturgy reflects the Catholic view of the body, and of matter, and our deep-seated belief that Creation should give glory to God.  It's also consistent with the worship of the Old Testament, of the early Christians, and of the apparent Heavenly Liturgy described in the Book of Revelation.

I. Old Testament Worship

Limbourg brothers, The Ark of God
Carried into the Temple
Worship in the Old Testament engaged each of the five senses: hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste.  Hearing was engaged, along with the gift of speech, in the proclamation of the word, in the singing of hymns, and in vocal prayer.  The Shema Yisrael, perhaps the most famous Jewish prayer, begins, “Hear, O Israel…” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

Old Testament worship was no less tied to the sense of sight.  The Mosaic Law contains incredibly precise instructions for the materials to use in worship, and both Temples were built according to plans intricately detailed by God (see, e.g., 1 Chronicles 28).  In worship, religious images and statues were used, such as the golden cherubim in front of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18), and the depictions of the cherubim on the Temple Veil (Ex. 26:31).  Full chapters deal with specific details like what priestly vestments should look like, and the materials to be used in designing them (see, e.g., Ex. 28).

Smell was engaged, in the use of incense. In fact, the Mosaic Law prescribed special incense to be used that was only permitted to be used in worship, creating a holy scent tied to worship (Exodus 30:34-38):
And the LORD said to Moses, Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; and you shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy.

And the incense which you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves; it shall be for you holy to the LORD. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.
Just as there were sacred scents, there were also objects sacred to the touch, like the altar (Ex. 29:37) and the various sacred objects associated with the altar (Ex. 30:29).  And when priests were consecrated, they had an ephod fastened on them, a turban placed on their head, and anointing oil poured upon them (Ex. 29:6-7)

Even the sense of taste was tied to worship, through the sacrificial system.  Certain sacrifices required you to eat them.  For example, in Deuteronomy 27:6-7, we hear:
Build the altar of the Lord your God with fieldstones and offer burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God. Sacrifice fellowship offerings there, eating them and rejoicing in the presence of the Lord your God.
So Old Testament worship really did use all five senses for the glory of God.

II. Early Christian Worship

Christ's Trial before Pilate, from the
Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (359 A.D.)
In the worship from the first five centuries of Christianity, we see worship that engages all five of the senses.  Sometimes, it's through sight, as early Christian art, like the funerary art found in the Catacombs (including the beautiful sarcophagus of Junius Bassus depicted on the right), attests.  Other times, it's in the sacred smells.  A fascinating example of this comes from the second-century Martyrdom of Polycarp, which tells us that when the Romans attempted to burn Polycarp alive, he was preserved from harm, and “we perceived such a sweet odour [coming from the pile], as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.

The sense of hearing, of course, is engaged in listening to the Scripture read aloud in church.  Revelation 1:3 makes clear that this is the normal way that people were exposed to the Scriptures in the early Church.  Hearing also was engaged through sacred music.  Touch is also involved.  Look at the use of oils in confirmation (which the East calls chrismation, in recognition of the use of holy chrism), and in the anointing of the sick.  James 5:14 says, “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.”  In the Liturgy, we see the sense of touch being used for the glory of God at what the early Christians called the Kiss of Peace, in which, as St. Justin Martyr tells us, “we salute one another with a kiss.”  Finally, the Eucharist draws the sense of taste into the worship of God (Mt. 26:26-29; 1 Cor. 11:23-29).  So all five senses were engaged in early Christian worship.  In a similar way, Catholics and Orthodox today use all five senses in worship.

III. Heavenly Worship

Worship Before the Throne of God,
The Bamberg Apocalypse (11th c.)
The Book of Revelation is rich in metaphor, and is liturgically rich.  It draws vivid images of the end of days, juxtaposed against what appears to be a Mass in Heaven attended by the angels and the Saints.  The liturgical worship depicted in the Book of Revelation engages each of the senses as well.  For example, read the sights described in the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:9-21, as the angel has John precisely measure the contours of the city, and shows him the various precious materials used in making it.  Or read Rev. 7:9's description of the praising masses in their white robes.  And Rev. 5:8-10 depicts heavenly worship as involving singing, harps, and incense, glorifying speech, as well as engaging the sense of hearing and smell:
And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.
There's even a sacred song known only to the 144,000 (Rev. 14:3).  The Heavenly Banquet is also described in very Eucharistic terms, as “the wedding supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9).  The image is very suggestive of the fact that taste and touch are also engaged in worship.  So here again, we see all five senses at work for the glory of God.


Old Testament, early Christian, and heavenly worship are remarkably similar: all five senses are engaged.  This worship avoids two extremes.  On the one hand, the senses aren't violated or overwhelmed, like eating Limburger cheese at a rock concert.  But on the other hand, the sense aren't shunned or ignored, as if we were beings of pure spirit, or as if the body were inherently evil.  Instead, the senses are exalted, in that they are drawn up into the worship of God.  And they're engaged in very similar ways: through sacred art and architecture, religious vestments, anointing oil, incense, sacred music, and partaking of the sacrifice through eating.  I would suggest that these things are not merely incidental, but are important elements of drawing our whole being, body and soul, into the worship of God.

Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, and the Religion in the Public Square

Carl A. Anderson gave the Address at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast last month, and spoke eloquently on the place of religion in the public square. He cited to President Kennedy's 1961 Inaugural Address, in which the president spoke of the rights for which “our forebears fought,” namely “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.Anderson added:
“Stone of Hope,” Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
No one here needs to be reminded that this belief was the driving force behind the life’s work of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his historic letter from the Birmingham jail, Rev. King said that he and his followers “were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which,” he said, “were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

But perhaps we do need to be reminded that King’s letter relied upon our own Catholic natural law tradition.

He cited Saint Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

And he asked, “How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”

He then went on to say, “To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.”

There you have the ancient teaching of the Catholic Church, summed up by a Baptist preacher under arrest for living by it.
When you visit the new memorial to Dr. King on our national mall, read carefully the 14 quotations inscribed there. You will not find a single reference to God. Not one.

Imagine how those in authority must have searched to come up with 14 quotes of Dr. King without one mention of the Almighty.
There is no much shocking symbol of the ongoing campaign to drive religion out of our public life.

Jefferson Memorial - The “God Who Gave Us Life” Inscription
King’s statue looks across the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial dedicated to the president who is now championed by secularists for inventing a “wall of separation” between Church and State.

Ironically, while the King Memorial was scrubbed of any reference to our Creator, in Mr. Jefferson’s memorial, the walls tell us that “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty.”

And they ask us, “Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?”

A great deal hinges on how we answer that question.
In case you're curious, here are the inscriptions on the King Memorial:
  • We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” (16 August 1967, Atlanta, GA)

  • Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” (1963, Strength to Love)

  • I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” (10 December 1964, Oslo, Norway)

  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” (18 April 1959, Washington, DC)

  • I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart, and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as a moral example of the world.” (25 February 1967, Los Angeles, CA)

  • If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.” (24 December 1967, Atlanta, GA)

  • Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (16 April 1963, Birmingham, AL)

  • I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” (10 December 1964, Oslo, Norway)

  • It is not enough to say ‘We must not wage war.’ It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace.” (24 December 1967, Atlanta, GA)

  • The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” (25 February 1967, Los Angeles, CA)

  • Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.” (4 April 1967, Riverside Church, New York, NY)

  • We are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs ‘down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” (5 December 1955, Montgomery, AL)

  • We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” (16 April 1963, Birmingham, AL)

  • True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” (16 April 1963, Birmingham, AL)
So you've got quotes that are infused with religion, a possible allusion to John 1:5, an unsourced quotation from Amos 5:24, and at least one quote taken from a sermon delivered in a church... yet no references to God. This should be a wake-up call.

Rembrandt Peale, Thomas Jefferson (1800)
Secularists, like the none-too-modest folks at “RationalWiki” frequently work themselves into a panic over false threats like an American theocracy, or Dominionism, and the Fundamentalists they claim are the American Taliban. This fear-mongering is absurd: if you want to see what America would look like with a greater infusion of Judeo-Christian values, just look to our own history.  We've never been a Taliban-style theocracy, and there's no serious threat of us ever becoming one.

Quite the opposite is true, in fact.  The Judeo-Christian belief that some rights come directly from God, rather than the State, is the best check against tyranny. America was founded on the idea that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Cut out the Creator, and the rights are no longer inalienable. So the true threat is the one that President Kennedy identified: that we'll forget that “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.

One of the most pernicious effects of the purging of God from the public square isn't even about religion, per se, but about our rights.  If our rights come from Nobody higher than the State, then the State has the power and authority to remove those rights, should they wish.  This is a prospect that everyone, religious or not, should be troubled by.

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