Hearts of Flesh: Leah Libresco on Her Conversion from Atheism to Catholicism

Not every atheist's conversion to Catholicism gets covered by CNN or MSNBC or The Blaze.  But Leah Libresco did.  Why?  Well, for starters, she's responsible for what was, until quite recently, a rather popular atheist blog who is the antithesis of the caricature of Catholics, that we're irrational, misogynistic drones.  Her conversion was a surprise to many, Christians and atheists alike, to say the least.  More than that, her conversion story itself is utterly unique, even compared with other conversions.

Leah was gracious enough to agree to an interview, which I think gives some real insight into what the process of converting from atheism to Catholicism is like.  I'd love to hear your reactions in the comments section, from Christians and atheists alike:

Q. Jen Fulwiler (another atheist-to-Catholic convert) recently pointed out that we Catholics are fond of giving atheists books on the faith. What do you think of this approach?

Leah Libresco
I love giving people books on anything. But I think you have to gauge what engages the person and what background they’re coming in with. Some books might have good data, but bad tone (for example Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition has a really good introduction to Aquinas, but your atheist friend would have to have the patience of a saint to get past his snide asides at atheist writers).

And, ideally, any book exchange would be two-way. Ask your friend to share with you the books (philosophical or not) that have most informed their worldview. That way you’re tailoring your pitch to what your friend actually believes, not a straw man. If both of you are sharing recommendations and asking hard questions, it will push you both into a deeper consideration of your position, and, hopefully, the harder and more honestly you question, the easier it is for the truth to win out.

Q. Are there any books that you would recommend sharing with loved ones who are atheists?

Mere Christianity, Orthodoxy, The Great Divorce, Flatland, Godel Escher Bach, The Sequences hosted at LessWrong.org

C.S. Lewis statue (Belfast, Ireland)
Yes, only the first three are Christian books. But if you want someone to change their philosophy, start by beefing up epistemology and critical thinking. The great thing about Flatland is that it’s all about learning to about abstract things in a way that’s still useful. The book is about a square that lives in a 2D world and is visited by a Sphere. The Sphere is trying to explain three dimensions to him (which he can’t really experience directly). So as he learns to think three-dimensionally, the reader learns how to think about four-dimensional topology.

It’s a great skill to have: trying to make and test predictions about worlds or features of worlds you can’t personally experience. GEB is just possibly the most beautiful book I’ve read, and, again, great at sparking critical thinking by working through a conceptual understanding of math, computer science, and music. And the LessWrong stuff doesn’t just highlight cognitive biases (you can just go to Wikipedia for that), they spend a lot of time trying to figure out practical strategies to move past them.

All the apologetics in the world won’t be of much help if your interlocutor isn’t interested in thinking about metaphysics/philosophy/ethics/etc, and I think my recommendations can help people fall in love with Truth, which is totally a gateway drug to Christ.

Q. How big of a role did books play in your own conversion?

Huge. (Not that surprising, given that they play a big role in every aspect of my life). But reading was what made me quasi-fluent in Christian philosophy. I needed that kind of background to be able to think critically about what properties divided the world with no God that I thought I lived in from the Christian world my friends claimed I lived in.

Beyond philosophy, some books, especially The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce were pretty good at catching me out in my moral failings, including some I hadn’t thought of as weaknesses. These books were a pretty good counterpoint to the more abstract moral philosophy I was reading.

Leah in her atheist days (at the “Reason Rally” in May)
Q. What was the strongest argument you heard in favor of theism? What was the weakest?

The weakest is almost certainly the Pascal’s Wager kind of appeal. Ideas have consequences, religious ideas especially so. If you believe in God to maximize the chance of heaven, you’re being negligent to the people (yourself included) you’ll harm by following false moral dictates. (Not all commandments are as relatively harmless as kosher dietary law),

The strongest is maybe Thomistic philosophy about objects not being able to sustain themselves in existence? Honestly, I don’t find any pitch for generic theism that convincing because the theism people tend to pitch is generally to generic to be useful. A lot of these theisms look like God of the Gaps -- just pointing to whatever you’re currently confused by and saying “God did it.”

Q. What was the strongest argument you heard in favor of Catholicism? What was the weakest?

Raphael, Christ's Charge to Peter (1515)
The weakest might be: it couldn’t have lasted this long and made it through all these scandals without a Divine Guarantor! This is offered semi-in jest, but is totally unconvincing. It’s basically the equivalent of the stock tip scams where a con artist gets a big list of email addresses and sends messages to all of them saying he’s got a preternatural ability to pick stocks. He tells half that a certain stock will rise tomorrow and the other half that it will fall. After splitting and taking both sides for several days, some fraction of marks have received only correct predictions and are likely to believe him and hand over their money, but it’s just a statistical accident. The Roman empire could have made the same claim that Catholics make now, up til when they couldn’t.

One of the strongest is the weight Catholicism places on Sacred Tradition and institutional structure. It’s pretty clear that the sola scriptura approach doesn’t yield the kind of consistency it promises (it’s like the religious equivalent of constitutional originalism). So where are you supposed to go to interpret what God has given? Catholicism does a pretty good job of creating a forum for debate without getting so loosey-goosey that everyone is essentially functioning as a prophet.

Q. Do you have any other tips for Catholics dealing with friends and loved ones who are atheists, or are struggling with their faith?

I think most of that advice would be specific to the situation. Remember that everyone has access to the natural law, so you might be of the most help to your friend just helping them stick to that (and letting them help you) even if you don’t exactly speak the same language about why those choices are correct. That way you’ve got a solid friendship and, if you like, you can talk about how you both come to your moral beliefs and try and puzzle out together how it is that you’re out of step.

Raphael, St. Paul Preaching in Athens (1515)
Q. In your interactions with Christians, what were the most productive techniques that you saw used in evangelizing for the faith? What were the least productive (or the counter-productive) techniques that you encountered?

In college, I ran into tabling Christians who had pretty much no familiarity with standard atheist objections (How are the truth claims of your sect differentiated from those of everyone else? Aren’t some of your requests (pray/read the bible until you feel God’s presence) tests that can never fail, even if your claims are false?). If they hadn’t grappled with common objections, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in their conclusions, whatever the pitch.

I was in a philosophical debating group, so the strongest pitch I saw was probably the way my Catholic friends rooted their moral, philosophical, or aesthetic arguments in their theology. We covered a huge spread of topics (R: Defeat McCain, R: All the World’s a Stage, R: Eat the Apple) so I got so see a lot of long and winding paths into the consequences of belief. I know this strategy may not be available to everyone, but all the more reason to bring back debating salon culture!

Q. What’s your favorite Bible verse?

A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)

I’m much worse than I should be at making love and charity my default approach to other people. I usually have to get there by hyper-intellectualizing, but I want to be freed to act out of genuine love instead of duty, however fervent.

When I used to think primarily in terms of duty, I didn’t care much about other people. I saw them more as multiple choice ethics questions I could ace than as, well, people. This isn’t typical of atheists or anyone else as far as I can tell, but it’s what I struggle with a lot.

Ventura Salimbeni,
St Catherine of Alexandria (1606)
Q. Who’s your favorite Saint?

St. Catherine of Alexandria. Patron saint of teachers, philosophers, librarians, and haberdashers! I love that, after her conversion, the pagan emperor sent theologians and philosophers to talk her out of it, and they all kept fighting until they all yielded and converted. And I so love pugilism expressed through debate.

Q. What’s the most exciting part about becoming Catholic?

The most exciting part is having access to grace through the sacraments. It’s like an exception to moral entropy.

Q. What’s the scariest part about becoming Catholic?

I don’t understand the Church’s teaching on queer relationships, and I don’t believe that, even if they’re right, that would be sufficient reason for civil government to deny committed same sex couples the legal protection of marriage. It’s one thing for me to personally give up dating girls while I ask for explanation (and I have the luxury of being bisexual) but my queer friends feel that I’m allying myself with an institution that wants to break up their families.

Q. What more can we, as Catholics, do to help you and others in entering into the Church?

Not all of the Church’s moral teachings make sense to me, and, when I ask questions, it’s much preferable to have people point me towards explanations than to accuse me of distrusting the Church or trying to sneak in as a heretic. Some claims aren’t really available for scrutiny (the Immaculate Conception comes to mind), but the more a moral teaching touches on quotidian life, the more I’d expect to be able to see an explanation of how the Church’s stand promotes growth in Christ. When people try to quash questions or demand more fervent trust at the first sign of confusion, they’re robbing their interlocutors of the chance to engage fully with the truth they’re ostensibly defending.

P.S.  Be sure to check out the post and comments over on Leah's side.

Defending the Deuterocanon, Book by Book (Part II)

On Tuesday, we explored why we Catholics have Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, and a longer version of Esther in our Bibles. Today, we'll discuss why we have the other Deuterocanonical books: Sirach, Baruch, 1st and 2nd Maccabees, and the longer version of Daniel.

V. Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)

The Book was Probably Referenced by Jesus Christ: Sirach 27:6 says that “The fruit discloses the cultivation of a tree; so the expression of a thought discloses the cultivation of a man's mind.”  Christ seems to be quoting (or at least alluding) to this passage in Matthew 7:16-20:
Tomb of Swedish King Gustav I (d. 1560).  The inscription is from Sirach 7:40:
In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin.
You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.
Other parts of the New Testament follow this pattern - for instance, James 1:19 seems to quote Sirach 5:11.

The Book was Declared Scripture by the Third Ecumenical Council: The First Council of Ephesus, the Third Ecumenical Council, declared:
Forasmuch as the divinely inspired Scripture says, “Do all things with advice”...
The Council is quoting Sirach 32:19.  As the Protestant historian Philip Schaff notes, this is significant, since it shows that “The deutero-canonical book of Ecclesiasticus is here by an Ecumenical Council styled ‘divinely-inspired Scripture.’” Why does this matter?  Because a number of Protestant bodies claim to accept the early Ecumenical Councils, even while denying what those Councils declared on this, and many other issues.  For example, the Lutheran World Federation, in a joint statement with the Eastern Orthodox, called the first Seven Ecumenical Councils “normative for the faith and life of our churches today” and “authoritative for our churches.

The Book was Accepted by the Early Church: The Didache is a first century Christian document summarizing the faith, and the practices of the Church, for new Christians.  It goes back to virtually the beginning of the faith: in fact, it may well be older than parts of the New Testament.  In it, it says, “Do not be one who holds his hand out to take, but shuts it when it comes to giving.” That's almost a direct quotation of Sirach 4:31, “Let not your hand be extended to receive, but withdrawn when it is time to repay.

But whatever ambiguity may exist as to whether the Didache is quoting Sirach, there's no question about the use of Sirach as Scripture in a number of other early Church writings.  For example, in St. Clement's Paedagogus, written c. 189-200 A.D., we hear:
For the Father takes great care of man, and gives to him alone His own art. The Scripture therefore says, “Water, and fire, and iron, and milk, and fine flour of wheat, and honey, the blood of the grape, and oil, and clothing,—all these things are for the good of the godly.”
That Scriptural quotation is from Sirach 39:26-27.

The Babylonian Talmud

The Book was Accepted by the Early Jews: Michael Barber has described, one of the most fascinating discoveries in regards to this Book is that despite being rejected by modern Jews, Sirach is quoted as Scripture by the Jewish Talmud.  As you may know, the Jewish canon of Scripture is divided in three parts: the Law (Torah), the Prophets (Nevi'im) and the Writings (Ketubim or Hagiographa).  According to Folio 92b of Tractate Baba Kamma, the Book of Sirach belongs in this third category of Scripture, along with Books like Psalms, Proverbs, and Ezra.  Here's the relevant passage:
This matter was written in the Pentateuch, repeated in the Prophets, mentioned a third time in the Hagiographa, and also learnt in a Mishnah and taught in a Baraitha: It is stated in the Pentateuch as written, So Esau went unto Ishmael [Genesis 28:9]; repeated in the prophets, as written, And there gathered themselves to Jephthah idle men and they went out with him [Judges 11:3]mentioned a third time in the Hagiographa, as written: Every fowl dwells near its kind and man near his equal...  [Sirach 13:5]
Without a doubt, this is the Talmud quoting Sirach 13:5 (or Ecclesiasticusas Scripture.  Rabbi Dr. Ezekiel Isidore Epstein, responsible for the English translation of the Talmud, concedes as much in a footnote.

VI. Baruch

Statue of Baruch, Servite Church (Vienna)
The Book Seems to Have Been Treated as Canonical in the New Testament: In at least one instance in the New Testament (Heb. 8:9-10), the inspired author cites to the Greek version of Jeremiah.  That's important because Baruch, including the Epistle of Jeremiah (Baruch 6), was included as part of the Book of Jeremiah in the Greek version.

The Book was Accepted by the Early Church: St. Irenaeus (whose feast day is today) wrote Against Heresies in 180 A.D.  In it, he includes a lengthy passage from Baruch 4-5, ascribing it to “Jeremiah the prophet.”  Likewise, in his Scorpiace, which probably dates to about 204 A.D, Tertullian, quotes Baruch 6:3, as the words of Jeremiah, saying:
For they remembered also the words of Jeremias writing to those over whom that captivity was impending: “And now ye shall see borne upon (men’s) shoulders the gods of the Babylonians, of gold and silver and wood, causing fear to the Gentiles. Beware, therefore, that ye also do not be altogether like the foreigners, and be seized with fear while ye behold crowds worshipping those gods before and behind, but say in your mind, Our duty is to worship Thee, O Lord
By the way, due to his Festal Letter of 367 A.D., Protestants sometimes point to St. Athanasius as the “Father of the canon” – that is, as the source of their canon of Scripture.  But Athanasius' canon (in addition to excluding Esther completely) also explicitly included as one Book, “Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle.”  St. Cyril of Jerusalem does the same.  That is, this was not some oversight, or corrupted Scripture, but a conscious decision to treat Jeremiah, Baruch, and Lamentations as canonical.

VII. Longer Version of Daniel

Statue of Daniel (19th c.)
The Book Appears to have been Accepted by Jesus Christ:  Jesus' reference to Daniel 9:27 in Matthew 24:15 appears to have been to the (longer) Greek version of Daniel.  There are two reasons to believe this.  First, because the wording is different between the Greek and Hebrew versions, and second, because Jesus refers to him as “Daniel the prophet.” Why does that matter?  Because the Greek version of the Old Testament numbered Daniel among the Prophets (Nevi'im), while the Hebrew version numbered the Book among the Writings (Ketubim).

The Book was Accepted by the Early Church: In addition to numerous references to the Greek version of the Book of Daniel, which, as I mentioned, includes these longer sections, there are a few references to passages that exist only in the Greek version.

For example, St. Irenaeus instructs his readers to “obey the presbyters who are in the Church,—those who, as I have shown, possess the succession from the apostles” and deriding as schismatics or heretics those “who depart from the primitive succession.”  He then warns that bad presbyters “shall hear those words, to be found in Daniel the prophet: ‘O thou seed of Canaan, and not of Judah, beauty hath deceived thee, and lust perverted thy heart,’” and:
Thou that art waxen old in wicked days, now thy sins which thou hast committed aforetime are come to light; for thou hast pronounced false judgments, and hast been accustomed to condemn the innocent, and to let the guilty go free, albeit the Lord saith, The innocent and the righteous shalt thou not slay.
The first of the Scriptures cited there is Daniel 13:56, while the second is from Daniel 13:52-53.  That whole chapter is found only in the longer version of Daniel.

VIII. 1st and 2nd Maccabees

Wojciech Stattler, Maccabees (1842)
The Book was Probably Referenced in the New Testament: As I've mentioned before, James Swan (a Calvinist blogger with Beggars All Reformation & Apologetics) admits that Hebrews 11:35-37 appears to be a reference to 2 Maccabees 7 (h/t Nick):
It seems highly probable the writer to the Hebrews alluded to the Apocrypha in chapter 11. The parallels Catholic apologists suggest particularly in verse 35 and 2 Maccabees seem likely. “Others were tortured,” “not accepting their release” and “so that they might obtain a better resurrection” appear to be the closest points of contact with 2 Maccabees. As noted above, other vague points of contact could be inferred, but not with the same level of certitude of these three statements. Within the arena of rhetoric and polemics, the above study demonstrates that Protestant exegetes do not disagree with the possibility of Apocryphal allusions in Hebrews 11. Thus, Protestants are not hiding the fact that 2 Maccabees may be what the writer to the Hebrews has in mind.
These Books Give us Hanukkah, Which Jesus Christ Celebrated: In John 10:35, Jesus extols Scripture, telling us that “the Scripture cannot be broken.” He says this while in the Temple, celebrating Hanukkah, which we know from John 10:22-23.  Here's the problem.  The Jewish feast of Hanukkah is prescribed only in 1 and 2 Maccabees (1 Maccabees 4:36-59; 2 Maccabees 1:18), this leaves only two possibilities.  Either Christ was treating the Books of Maccabees as Scripture, and/or He was fine with extra-Scriptural Tradition.  Protestantism traditionally denies both of these things.

The Books were Accepted by the Early Church:  Origen writes, in his early third-century work De Principiis (On the Principles):
But that we may believe on the authority of holy Scripture that such is the case, hear how in the book of Maccabees, where the mother of seven martyrs exhorts her son to endure torture, this truth is confirmed; for she says, “I ask of thee, my son, to look at the heaven and the earth, and at all things which are in them, and beholding these, to know that God made all these things when they did not exist.” [2 Maccabees 7:28]
Likewise, in the twelfth of Cyprian's Treatises, he creates a sort of Scriptural index, in order to catalog, by topic, “certain precepts of the Lord, and divine teachings, which may be easy and useful to the readers.” The final product consists of a series of short chapters proving specific doctrines.  Several times, the Scriptures he cites are from Deuterocanonical Books.

For example, 1 Maccabees 2:62-63 is quoted in Chapter 4, as it 2 Macc. 9:12. In Chapter 15, he quotes 1 Macc. 2:52.  Five of the six Scriptural citations in Chapter 17 are from 2 Maccabees (the sixth is Romans 8:18). And in Chapter 53, Cyprian quotes 1 Macc. 2:60.  Each of these citations is as if the source is Scripture -- each is treated exactly the same way as, say, the Book of Proverbs, or one of the Gospels.

Nor are these two Books of Maccabees the only Deuterocanonical Books that Cyprian goes to for support. He quotes the Book of Wisdom in Chapter 6Ch. 15Ch. 20Ch. 56Ch. 58Ch. 59, and Ch. 66.  He quotes Tobit in Chapter 1Ch. 6, and Ch. 62. He quotes Sirach (as Ecclesiasticus) in Chapter 1Ch. 35Ch. 51Ch. 61Ch. 86Ch. 95Ch. 96Ch. 97Ch. 109, and Ch. 110.  Baruch is quoted, too, but just once, in Chapter 29.


As you can see, there are solid reasons for including each of the Books making up the Catholic Deuterocanon, which is exactly what the Church did.  As I've asked before, on what principled basis can Protestants justify cutting each of them out of the Sacred Scriptures handed down to us by the Church?

Defending the Deuterocanon, Book by Book (Part I)

Much has been said, here and elsewhere, on why Catholics have 73 Books in our Bibles, instead of the mere 66 that our Protestant brethren have, or why we have longer versions of Daniel and Esther than Protestants.  The Books in question, the Deuterocanon, are often defended as a group, as I did against arguments raised by Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll.

Sometimes, however, you'll get a really specific question about why we know a specific Deuterocanonical Book is inspired by the Holy Spirit.  So in case that's what you need, I've assembled a general overview, by Book, explaining why each Book deserves to be in the canon of Scripture.  Today is Part I, in which we'll examine the Book of Tobit, the Book of Judith, the longer version of Esther, and the Book of Wisdom.  In Part II, we'll address the other Books (namely, Sirach, Baruch, 1st and 2nd Maccabees, and the longer version of Daniel).

I. Tobit

The Book is Prophetic: In the Book of Tobit, the Archangel Raphael appears to Tobit disguised as a man. When he reveals his true identity, he identifies himself in this way (Tobit 12:15):
Szymon Czechowicz, Tobias and the Angel (1740s)
I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who enter and serve before the Glory of the Lord.
In this capacity, he explains (Tobit 12:12),
I can now tell you that when you, Tobit, and Sarah prayed, it was I who presented and read the record of your prayer before the Glory of the Lord; and I did the same thing when you used to bury the dead.
So the Book of Tobit is presenting a bold claim: that there are seven angels who stand in the presence of God, and who participate in the offering up of the prayers of the saints.  No other Book in the Old Testament canon of the Catholics, Protestants, or Jews includes this detail.  Yet here's the fascinating thing: according to the New Testament, this claim is true.  There are seven angels who stand in the Presence of God, and who are responsible for presenting the prayers of the saints before Almighty God.  Specifically, look to Revelation 8:2-4, which says:
Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer; and he was given much incense to mingle with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar before the throne; and the smoke of the incense rose with the prayers of the saints from the hand of the angel before God.
How could the author of Tobit possibly know such intimate details of the Inner Sanctum of Heaven if this were not part of Divine Revelation?

The Book was Accepted by the Early Church: Origen mentioned, in the middle part of the third century, that unlike the Jews, “the Churches use Tobias” as Scripture.  His opponent, Africanus, likewise says that Tobit “prophesied” about the Babylonian Captivity.

Even before this, St. Clement of Alexandria, in his Stromata, argues against the Gnostics that it's the Christians who are the true gnostics (that is, the true learned).  At one point, he says:
Therefore the Gnostic prays in thought during every hour, being by love allied to God. And first he will ask forgiveness of sins; and after, that he may sin no more; and further, the power of well-doing and of comprehending the whole creation and administration by the Lord, that, becoming pure in heart through the knowledge, which is by the Son of God, he may be initiated into the beatific vision face to face, having heard the Scripture which says, “Fasting with prayer is a good thing.”
That passage he's calling Scripture is Tobit 12:8.  And the Stromata was written between 198 and 203 A.D.  In addition, copies of the Book of Tobit were found in both Hebrew and Aramaic among the Dead Sea Scrolls, suggesting that at least some of the Jews around the time of Christ considered it canonical.

II. Judith

The Book is Prophetic:  Judith (whose name, meaning “Jewess,” is the female form of “Judah”) appears to be a symbol of Israel and the Church, and prefigures Mary in a number of ways.  Genesis 3:15 promises that the Serpent (the devil) would be an enmity with the Woman (representing Mary and the Church) and the Seed of the Woman (representing Christ), a battle we also see playing out in Revelation 12.  The Book of Judith continues this theme, pitting Judith against the Babylonians, Assyrians, Medeans, and Chaldeans.

The Marian parallels to Judith are numerous. In Judith 6:19, Judith says, “Lord, God of heaven, behold their arrogance! Have pity on the lowliness of our people, and look with favor this day on those who are consecrated to you.”  This is fulfilled in the Magnificat, in which Mary, consecrated to the Lord, declares that (Luke 1:51-52), “He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree.” Likewise, Judith says (in Judith 8:32), “Listen to me. I am about to do something that will go down through all generations of our descendants,” just as Mary promised in Luke 1:48 that “behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.”  And Judith 15:9, “You are the glory of Jerusalem, the surpassing joy of Israel; you are the splendid boast of our people,” is used in the Liturgy to describe Mary.

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes (1599)
The Book was Accepted by the Early Church: The passage referenced above, in which Origen talks about how the Christians accepted the canonicity of Tobit (despite Jewish rejection), analogizes it to the situation of the Book of Judith.  The implication is that Judith, like Tobit, is accepted by the Christians, despite being rejected by the Jews.

St. Clement of Alexandria, likewise, refers to Judith as a model of virtuous womanhood, and as a demonstration of how women are called to be Saints along with men.  After describing the great deeds of Moses in Scripture (and right before describing the great deeds of Esther), Clement writes:
But Judith too, who became perfect among women, in the siege of the city, at the entreaty of the elders went forth into the strangers’ camp, despising all danger for her country’s sake, giving herself into the enemy’s hand in faith in God; and straightway she obtained the reward of her faith,—though a woman, prevailing over the enemy of her faith, and gaining possession of the head of Holofernes. 
Clement is, without a doubt, treating the Book of Judith as Scriptural here.  And this also comes from the Stromata, written no later than about 203.

As early as this is, we can actually go back more than a century earlier to find Pope Clement making the same point, and using the same two Books (Judith and Esther):
Many women also, being strengthened by the grace of God, have performed numerous manly exploits. The blessed Judith, when her city was besieged, asked of the elders permission to go forth into the camp of the strangers; and, exposing herself to danger, she went out for the love which she bare to her country and people then besieged; and the Lord delivered Holofernes into the hands of a woman. 
Esther also, being perfect in faith, exposed herself to no less danger, in order to deliver the twelve tribes of Israel from impending destruction. For with fasting and humiliation she entreated the everlasting God, who seeth all things; and He, perceiving the humility of her spirit, delivered the people for whose sake she had encountered peril.
What's incredible is that, according to the Protestant historian Philip Schaff, Pope Clement's letter to the Corinthians, “may be dated about A.D. 97,” and could be as old as about 68 A.D.  Even assuming the later date, this is at a time when the Apostle John is still alive, and we've got the pope using the Book of Judith as if it's Scripture.

III. Longer Version of Esther (Esther 10:4-16:24)

The Book is Holy:  God is mentioned by name dozens of times in the Catholic version of the Book of Esther.  In the Protestant version of the Book of Esther, He's not mentioned at all.  Given that, perhaps a better question is: why include the Protestant version of Esther in the Bible?

The Book was Accepted by the Early Church: Those Church Fathers who accepted Esther's canonicity seemed to have overwhelmingly preferred the longer Greek (Catholic) version.  For example, in his writings against the Pelagians, St. Augustine argued:
Esther, stained glassed window, Saint Germain (Paris)
And what is that which Esther the queen prays when she says, “Give me eloquent speech in my mouth, and enlighten my words in the sight of the lion, and turn his heart to hatred of him that fighteth against us”? [Esther 14:13] How does she say such things as these in her prayer to God, if God does not work His will in men’s hearts? But perchance the woman was foolish in praying thus. Let us see, then, whether the desire of the petitioner was vainly sent on in advance, and whether the result did not follow as of one who heard. 
Lo, she goes in to the king. We need not say much. And because she did not approach him in her own order, under the compulsion of her great necessity, “he looked upon her,” as it is written, “like a bull in the impulse of his indignation. And the queen feared, and her colour was changed through faintness, and she bowed herself upon the head of her maid, who went before her. And God changed him, and converted his indignation into mildness.” [Esther 15:5] Now what need is there to relate what follows, where the divine Scripture testifies that God fulfilled what she had asked for by working in the heart of the king nothing other than the will by which he commanded, and it was done as the queen had asked of him?
The entire example that St. Augustine quotes, which he expressly identifies as coming from “the divine Scripture” is from the longer portion of Esther.

IV. Wisdom

The Book is Prophetic: One of the clearest Christological prophesies comes from Wisdom 2, about how the unjust will put to death the Just One for claiming to be the Son of God.  Despite being written long before the time of Christ, the passage tracks neatly with the account of the Passion recorded in St. Matthew's Gospel.  I've explained this before, so I won't belabor it here.

The Book was Accepted by the Early Church:  The Early Church Fathers noticed how Christological this Book was (particularly the passage I just mentioned), and applied to it Christ.  For example, the Epistle of Barnabas, probably written between 70-131 A.D., says:
For the prophet speaks against Israel, “Woe to their soul, because they have counselled an evil counsel against themselves, saying, Let us bind the just one, because he is displeasing to us.”
As Philip Schaff notes, this quotation blends Isaiah 3:9 and Wisdom 2:12. Schaff, who rejects the canonicity of the Book of Wisdom, admits (in fn. 1504): “This apocryphal book is thus quoted as Scripture, and intertwined with it.”  That's good evidence that Wisdom is not, in fact, “apocryphal.”  This is confirmed by numerous other occasions on which the Church Fathers quote Wisdom as Scripture, as St. Clement of Alexandria does in the Stromata (quoting Wisdom 2:16, 6:12-15, and 6:17-20).

Where Do Unbaptized Babies Go When They Die?

The question of where unbaptized infants go after death is one that has vexed the Church for centuries.  Some of Her greatest Saints have disagreed on this issue: St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, came to different conclusions.  And every possible answer is fraught with problems.  If we say that the unborn and unbaptized infants automatically go to Heaven, there's a serious risk of presumption (or worse, thinking of abortion as assisting these poor souls).  It also seems to undermine the Church's teaching on the necessity of infant baptism.  On the other hand, saying that these children are damned runs contrary to everything that we believe about the purpose of Hell - damning a child who is murdered in the womb (and who never had a free act for or against God, and never had the ability to believe in Him) appears to be the worst form of injustice.  And the solution proposed by many theologians - that these children go to the Limbo of Infants - looks too cute by half, and isn't apparently supported by the Scriptural evidence.

The Problem of Unbaptized Infants

Let's start examining this question by acknowledging what we do know:
  1. Nothing impure enters Heaven (Rev. 21:27).
  2. Original sin is real, and even damnable. (Romans 5:12, Rom. 5:18-19, 1 Cor. 15:22, Council of Florence).
  3. All of us (save Jesus Christ, and the Virgin Mary) are conceived with original sin.
  4. Baptism is the ordinary means of being cleansed from original sin, and being justified and sanctified before God. Put another way, Baptism saves us (1 Peter 3:21).
  5. Damnation is a punishment for deliberate (or voluntary) sins.  As Blessed Pope Pius IX put it, “Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.
Now, all of this creates an obvious problem for the question of the eternal souls of those who die, unbaptized, in infancy (including, for example, the souls of the unborn).  On the one hand, they were conceived with original sin, and did not receive Baptism.  This seems to foreclose their ability to enjoy the fullness of the Presence of God in Heaven, the Beatific Vision.  On the other hand, they commit no voluntary sin, so eternal damnation would be unjust.  Unlike an adult who died with original sin on their conscience, the infants did not refuse Baptism, but lacked the capacity to will it.  In the case of those who died in vivo, it wasn't even possible for them to receive it!

The Theory of Limbo

Considering this problem (that there seems to be no solid basis to say that unbaptized infants are either in Heaven or damned), theologians have hypothesized that these infants enjoyed a state of Limbo, similar to what was experienced by the righteous dead who died before Christ.  If you're not familiar with the Limbo of the Patriarchs, read up on the Harrowing of Hell, and what Scripture has to say about the Bosom of Abraham (see Luke 16:19-31).

We sometimes envision Limbo as being a place free of any pleasure or pain, like some sort of Christian Nirvana.  But that's not how the theologians described it at all.  Rather, they envisioned it as the state of the highest natural happiness, but without the Beatific Vision.  That's a big caveat: after all, the chief torment of Hell is the pain of loss, that the souls are separated from God.  Dante properly placed Limbo as the outer ring of Hell, just as those souls in the Bosom of Abraham prior to the Death of Christ were in Hell (just not the hell of damnation).

So the souls in Limbo suffer, in the sense that they do not enjoy the Beatific Vision of God, the purpose for which they were created; but they don't suffer what's called “pain of sense,” and (despite their suffering, at being detached from God), aren't being damned or punished by Him.  In fact, those who advocate for Limbo generally argue that they enjoy “perfect natural happiness.”  In other words, their original sin prevents them from enjoying the Beatific Vision, but they're in as close to a paradisaical state as one can get without being able to see God.

The advantages to the theory of Limbo are clear.  It respects both the reality of original sin, and the necessity of voluntary sin for damnation.  It's even consistent with what we know about what the Patriarchs experienced (who were likewise incapable of entering Heaven, since Christ had not yet atoned for their sins, but unworthy of being damned, since they lived by faith).  But the central problem with the theory is this: there's no reference to a Limbo of Infants anywhere in Scripture.

Dare We Hope?

The Visitation (detail from a 1410 German parament)
There is an alternative to Limbo: namely, that God simply saves unbaptized infants through an extraordinary grace.  This doesn't violate the truth that Baptism is the ordinary means of being cleansed from original sin.  As the Catechism notes, “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.”  So we're required to be Baptized to be saved, but God isn't required to damn the unbaptized.  He can do whatever He pleases, including welcoming unbaptized infants into Paradise.

There is also a thread (admittedly, a thin one) running through the Scriptures that provide some hope on this point.  When David's infant son died, he reasoned (2 Samuel 12:23) “now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”  This provides a basis for concluding that infants and adults arrive at the same destination, but it's complicated by the fact that this is the Old Covenant, while the Limbo of the Patriarchs still exists (that is, the opposing view may well say: yes, David did join his son... in  Limbo!).  But the implication of the passage would seem to suggest an eternity together in Heaven.

Stronger evidence is found in the Infancy Narratives of the New Testament.  First, there's John the Baptist, who Luke 1:15 promised would be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth.  In fact, even before birth, the Holy Spirit dwells in him.  We see this at the Visitation, in which, Mary (pregnant with Our Lord) goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. As Luke 1:41 says: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” Of course, it's not only Elizabeth who is filled with the Holy Spirit, here: it's also the unborn John the Baptist, which is why he leaped for joy.  For John to have an indwelling of the Holy Spirit (both in the womb and at birth) requires that he not be tainted by original sin.  The Church has long recognized this, and it's for this reason that John the Baptist's is one of only three Nativities that we celebrate (the other two being  Jesus and Mary, the other two people born without original sin).

Fran├žois-Joseph Navez, The Massacre of the Innocents (1824)
There's also the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod murdered the children in the vicinity of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18).  The Church celebrates their feast day as the Feast of the Holy Innocents, and they're considered the very first Christian martyrs.  St. Augustine himself (while expressing severe doubts as to the eternal fate of unbaptized children) was explicit that these infants were in Heaven:
In full right do we celebrate the heavenly birthday of these children whom the world caused to be born unto an eternally blessed life rather than that from their mothers' womb, for they attained the grace of everlasting life before the enjoyment of the present. The precious death of any martyr deserves high praise because of his heroic confession; the death of these children is precious in the sight of God because of the beatitude they gained so quickly. For already at the beginning of their lives they pass on. The end of the present life is for them the beginning of glory. These then, whom Herod's cruelty tore as sucklings from their mothers' bosom, are justly hailed as "infant martyr flowers"; they were the Church's first blossoms, matured by the frost of persecution during the cold winter of unbelief.
If then, these infants can enjoy the fullness of Heaven with Our Lord without water Baptism (or being old enough to form a Baptism of desire), it certainly seems possible that other unbaptized infants join them... and particularly those unborn and infants who are murdered.

The Chief Difficulty

The chief difficulty on both sides (those who think the unbaptized children go to Limbo, and those who think that they go to Heaven) is that the New Testament writings assume an audience of the age of reason.  The party of Limbo faces the difficulty that a Limbo of infants is simply never mentioned in Scripture, unlike the Limbo of the Patriarchs (which is referenced in both Luke 16 and 1 Peter 3).  The obvious answer is that the New Testament readers aren't going to Limbo (since they're not infants), so there's no need to mention it, just as Christ avoided telling Peter the fate of John in John 21:21-22.

The party of Heaven faces the difficulty posed by Christ's injunctions that “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16) and that “whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (John 3:18).  But the obvious answer here is the same: the New Testament is directed at an audience capable of belief, which infants are not.  In fact, to the extent that Jesus does directly address the salvation of children, His Message is reassuring (Matthew 18:1-3).

The Best Posture: Hope, Without Despair or Presumption

If Scripture is silent on this question, perhaps that's for good reason.  As noted above, no matter what the answer is, it may simply be best for us not to know, to avoid either despair or presumption, or to cause us to delay or neglect Baptism.

Pietro Longhi, The Baptism (1755)
That would seem to be the thinking of the Church right, and perhaps the most reasonable solution to this problem.  Pope John Paul II assembled an International Theological Commission to study this question.  In 2007, during Benedict's pontificate, they released their findings on “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized.”  It concludes:
Our conclusion is that the many factors that we have considered above give serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope that unbaptized infants who die will be saved and enjoy the beatific vision. We emphasize that these are reasons for prayerful hope, rather than grounds for sure knowledge. There is much that simply has not been revealed to us (cf. Jn 16:12). We live by faith and hope in the God of mercy and love who has been revealed to us in Christ, and the Spirit moves us to pray in constant thankfulness and joy (cf. 1 Thes 5:18).
What has been revealed to us is that the ordinary way of salvation is by the sacrament of baptism. None of the above considerations should be taken as qualifying the necessity of baptism or justifying delay in administering the sacrament. [Cf. Catechism, 1257.] Rather, as we want to reaffirm in conclusion, they provide strong grounds for hope that God will save infants when we have not been able to do for them what we would have wished to do, namely, to baptize them into the faith and life of the church.
So get your babies Baptized, and if they die before you can, simply entrust their souls to God.  This side of eternity, that may well be all that we can know on the issue for certain.

Why Memorized Prayer?

One of the questions asked in response to the live Shameless Popery series was “What is the Catholic response to Protestant/Fundamentalist ‘push back’ regarding memorized prayer?” This is a question that's been tackled before on this blog, but I wanted to address it from a different angle.

Last time, the focus was on the fact that Scripture contains lots of pre-written prayers (like the Psalms), and that Christ tells us to pray the “Our Father” (or “Lord's Prayer”) in Matthew 6:9.  But in the Office of Readings for yesterday, I read a great explanation of why we're called to pray memorized prayers: it's so that the Body of Christ can pray as one.  St. Cyprian, writing on the Lord's Prayer in 252 A.D., makes this point:
St. Cyprian of Carthage
Before all things, the Teacher of peace and the Master of unity would not have prayer to be made singly and individually, as for one who prays to pray for himself alone. For we say not “My Father, which art in heaven,” nor “Give me this day my daily bread;” nor does each one ask that only his own debt should be forgiven him; nor does he request for himself alone that he may not be led into temptation, and delivered from evil. Our prayer is public and common; and when we pray, we pray not for one, but for the whole people, because we the whole people are one. The God of peace and the Teacher of concord, who taught unity, willed that one should thus pray for all, even as He Himself bore us all in one.
This is a great point. One of the major errors that many modern Protestants fall into is envisioning salvation as atomistic: there's simply “me and Jesus,” a King without a Kingdom. This view pits the idea of a “personal relationship” with Christ against full participation in the Body of Christ, the Church.  Christ warns against this impulse explicitly in John 17:20-23, calling His future followers to total and indivisible Oneness.  But as St. Cyprian notes, the Lord's Prayer itself implicitly calls us to the same thing, to pray as One Body.  This is the same theme that St. Paul treats in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 (see especially 1 Cor. 12:12-13, 1 Cor. 12:20, and 1 Cor. 12:27).

But if we're all to pray (a) together, and (b) as one, we need to be praying the same thing.  If each of us simultaneously bursts out into whatever is on our mind or heart, we end up with cacophony.  Don't get me wrong: there's a place for offering our own personal intentions, and bringing them before the Church.  But as Cyprian notes, there's also a place for the Church to pray altogether, and for all.  And for that reason, this, the Lord's Prayer, is the ideal prayer that Jesus left us.  But as Cyprian notes, this is hardly the only time in Scripture that we see united prayer:
Cappadocian Icon of the Archangel Michael
Protecting the Three in the Furnace (13th c.)
This law of prayer the three children observed when they were shut up in the fiery furnace, speaking together in prayer, and being of one heart in the agreement of the spirit; and this the faith of the sacred Scripture assures us, and in telling us how such as these prayed, gives an example which we ought to follow in our prayers, in order that we may be such as they were: “Then these three,” it says, “as if from one mouth sang an hymn, and blessed the Lord.”
From a Protestant perspective, there's only one problem with that Scriptural support... it's from Daniel 3:51, which Protestants don't think is Scriptural (it's the opening line of the Song of the Three Holy Children, which Protestants removed from their Bibles).  As an aside, it's telling that back in 252, Cyprian could refer to that verse simply as “sacred Scripture,” and quote it with the expectation that his readers would know which part of Scripture he referred to.  It's further proof that the early Church didn't use the Protestant Bible.

Of course, even if one doubts the canonicity of Daniel 3:51, it certainly establishes an ancient Judeo-Christian view that we should pray as one.  This passage also points to another way that we do that: hymns.  Which explains why the Bible contains 150 of them in the Psalms.

This brings me around to the last point: even those who criticize pre-written and memorized prayer typically worship God with pre-written and memorized songs and Psalmody.  I've yet to hear anyone object to the great Protestant hymns on the basis that they're written down. In fact, that's consider a feature, since it means that the hymn can be sung by the whole congregation.  But it's wholly inconsistent to object to the one while praising the other.

Adam and Eve, Jesus and Mary

Yesterday was the second of the three-part “Shameless Popery” live apologetics series. It was entitled “The Priesthood of Christ & Adam and Eve, Jesus and Mary.”  The second of those two topics, on the parallels between Adam and Eve with Jesus and Mary, is something that's been covered before on this blog, but I wanted to share a few new things. First, this helpful chart that we prepared for the talk:

Adam & Eve

Jesus & Mary


“In the Beginning”

(Genesis 1:1)

“In the Beginning”

(John 1:1)

Seven Days

(Genesis 1:1-2:3)

Seven Days

 (John 1:29-2:1)

Two sinless virgins

(Genesis 2:25; Genesis 4:1)

Two sinless Virgins

(Isaiah 7:14; Luke 1:34; Hebrews 4:15)

Man is called “Adam”

(Genesis 2:20)

Man is called “the New Adam”

(1 Corinthians 15:45)

Woman called “Woman”

(Genesis 2:23)

Woman called “Woman”

(John 2:4; John 19:25-27)

Woman formed from Man

(Genesis 2:22-23)

Man formed from Woman

(Luke 1:34-35)

Woman Tempted by Fallen Angel

(Genesis 3:1)

Woman Greeted by angel

(Luke 1:26-28)

Garden of Eden

(Genesis 2:8)

Garden of Gethsemane

(Matthew 26:46)

Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil

(Genesis 2:8)

The “Tree” of the Cross

(Galatians 3:13)

Sinful Fruit of the Tree

(Genesis 3:6)

Sinless Fruit of Mary’s Woman

(Luke 1:42)

War Between Serpent & Woman

(Genesis 3:15)

War Between Serpent & Woman

(Revelation 12:1-5, 15-17)

Renaming from “Woman” to “Mother of the Living”

(Genesis 3:20)

Renaming from “Woman” to “Mother”

(John 19:25-27)

Second, the accompanying packet talked about how Adam and Eve prefigure both the relationship between Jesus and Mary, and the relationship between Jesus and the Church:
Hermann Schadeberg (?),
Crucifixion with a Dominican friar (1415)
Now, with that in mind, we sometimes see Mary and the Church fulfill this Genesis imagery in unique ways. For example, there are only two people ever described in Scripture as having a single parent; Eve, whose body is taken completely from Adam, while he slumbered (Gen. 2:22-23); and Jesus, who takes on Flesh through the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:34-35). So there, we see a very neat parallel between Adam & Eve and Jesus & Mary.

But this passage is fulfilled in a different way for Jesus & the Church. As mentioned earlier, after His Death on the Cross, a soldier lances Jesus' side, and Blood and water flow out (John 19:34), which the Church Fathers saw as representing Baptism and the Eucharist. It’s through these Sacraments that Christ forms His Church. That is, while Jesus is “sleeping” in Death, His Bride comes forth from His Side, through the saving waters and life-giving Blood. There’s no need to choose one or the other: both of these events are prophetic fulfillments of Genesis 2:22-23.

This is all part of a much larger picture painted in Scripture of Jesus bringing about a New Genesis through His Death and Resurrection. But to get the full picture, you need to understand the role played by the New Eve, which means understanding the role of Mary, icon of the Church.

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