Two More Reformation Day Ironies

Last year, I compiled a list of three Reformation Day ironies. In a nutshell, they were that Reformation:
(1) is celebrated by making graven images of Reformers who hated images;
(2) is intended to Christianize a “pagan” holiday, yet is celebrated by many of the same Evangelicals who refuse to celebrate Christmas for fear that it’s a Christianized pagan holiday;
(3) avoids celebrating “evil” [Halloween] by celebrating evil [schism].
This year, I want to add two more Reformation Day ironies: that it celebrates a document (Luther’s 95 Theses) that damns Protestants; and that, despite its name, it celebrates the failure of the Reformation.

Irony # 4: Reformation Day Celebrates a Document Damning Protestants

On this day in 1517, according to legend, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, challenging the religious practices of the Catholic Church. While the “Wittenberg door” story is probably legendary, the 95 theses were very real.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portrait of Martin Luther
as an Augustinian Monk
These were a series of 95 theological claims made by Luther, who was then an Augustinian monk. The irony here is that the 95 Theses are far more Catholic than they are Protestant. The most famous portion of the 95 Theses, and the area that Luther devotes most of his attention, is against the sale of indulgences, and the idea that indulgences can replace contrition for sin or bring about salvation: both Catholics and Protestants agree that he was right here. Luther also argued that indulgences were valid against canonical penalties, but not the penalty of Purgatory: both Catholics and Protestants agree that he was wrong here, although for very different reasons.

But when it comes to the areas in which Catholics and Protestants disagree, Luther was still rather Catholic. For example, he expressly affirmed the treasury of “the merits of Christ and the Saints” (# 58), and said that “it is clear that for the remission of penalties and of reserved cases, the power of the pope is of itself sufficient” (# 61). He affirmed that Mary is “the Mother of God” (# 75), and referred to priests as God’s vicars (# 7). One of Luther’s major frustrations was that indulgences were being too liberally given, and he argued that “true contrition seeks and loves penalties, but liberal pardons only relax penalties and cause them to be hated” (# 40).

None of this sounds remotely Protestant, as the term is understood today, but the kicker is canon #71, in which Luther declares: “He who speaks against the truth of apostolic pardons, let him be anathema and accursed!”  Or, in the original Latin: Contra veniarum apostolicarum veritatem qui loquitur, sit ille anathema et maladictus.

As Dr. Andrew Waskey, a Protestant professor at Dalton State, explains that an Apostolic Pardon is “an indulgence, given by a priest, for the remission (releasing from guilt) of sins.” That’s not actually right, but it’s close. An Apostolic Pardon is an indulgence, but (as Luther rightly pointed out) an indulgence doesn’t remove sin: it removes the temporal punishments due to sin. And Apostolic Pardons are those indulgences given to the dying.

So the bizarre irony is that Luther writes a document damning those who deny the truth of indulgences, and a bunch of Protestants who deny the truth of indulgences celebrate that document’s anniversary every year.

Irony # 5: Reformation Day Celebrates the Failure of the Reformation

In response to the last irony, Protestant readers might be tempted to respond: “But that’s not the point. Luther’s 95 Theses may have been largely wrong, but they opened the floodgates of the Reformation.”  And that brings us to the last irony.  Reformation Day, despite its name, doesn’t celebrate reforms within the Catholic Church, but a split away from the Catholic Church.

Giotto, Dream of Pope Innocent III (1299)
There are essentially two ways of understanding the term “Reformation.” The first is as a “reform” movement, seeking to correct abuses within the Church in the way that “reform schools” seek to correct bad behavior. There has been plenty of “reformation” in Church history in this sense.

St. Francis of Assisi, for example, began a reform movement within the Church after a dream in which Christ appeared to him and said, “repair my Church, which is falling into ruin.”  When he approached Pope Innocent III about his ideas, the pope initially refused to meet with him, until he had a dream of his own, in which he saw the Lateran Basilica in Rome leaning, being prevented from falling by St. Francis.

Luther intended this first sense of “reformation.”  His 95 Theses were intended to spark theological reflection and internal Church reform.  Had he been more patient, he may well have lived to see these reforms succeed.  In fact, this reflection and reform did occur within the Church, culminating in the Council of Trent’s decree concerning indulgences which both restricted the use of indulgences, and forbade their sale.  But that was 1563, by which point Luther had already: rejected pope’s authority; split from the Church; been excommunicated: and died (still outside the Church, sadly).  In his stead, he left behind a growing number of followers who were in no hurry to return to the Catholic Church.

As a reform movement, then, Luther largely succeeded within Catholicism, but failed within Protestantism. In the words of G.K. Chesterton:
G. K. Chesterton
It is perfectly true that we can find real wrongs, provoking rebellion, in the Roman Church just before the Reformation. What we cannot find is one of those real wrongs that the Reformation reformed. For instance, it was an abominable abuse that the corruption of the monasteries sometimes permitted a rich noble to play the patron and even play at being the Abbot, or draw on the revenues supposed to belong to a brotherhood of poverty and charity. But all that the Reformation did was to allow the same rich noble to take over ALL the revenue, to seize the whole house and turn it into a palace or a pig-sty, and utterly stamp out the last legend of the poor brotherhood. The worst things in worldly Catholicism were made worse by Protestantism.  
But the best things remained somehow through the era of corruption; nay, they survived even the era of reform. They survive to-day in all Catholic countries, not only in the colour and poetry and popularity of religion, but in the deepest lessons of practical psychology. And so completely are they justified, after the judgment of four centuries, that every one of them is now being copied, even by those who condemned it; only it is often caricatured. Psycho-analysis is the Confessional without the safeguards of the Confessional; Communism is the Franciscan movement without the moderating balance of the Church; and American sects, having howled for three centuries at the Popish theatricality and mere appeal to the senses, now “brighten” their services by super-theatrical films and rays of rose-red light falling on the head of the minister. If we had a ray of light to throw about, we should not throw it on the minister.
So within Catholicism, there is a sense that Luther could be described as a reformer (in a narrow sense), but not so in Protestantism.  Within Protestantism, Luther reforms nothing (and his proposed reforms are quickly ignored, as Chesterton noted).

Instead, we must speak of “reformation” in a very different sense: in the sense of a re-Formation of the Church.  Rather than changing the existing Church, simply discarding Her like so much snake skin and starting over.  Put this way, the problem of Protestantism is immediately obvious. This Church was founded by Jesus Christ, who promised Her that the Gates of Hell would not overcome (Mt. 16:17-19) and that His Holy Spirit would be with Her forever (John 14:16). To arrogate to oneself the power to re-found the Church is blasphemous, for two reasons.  First, it puts a created man (Luther, Calvin, etc.) in the place of Jesus Christ.  Second, it declares Christ’s promises false.

Ary Scheffer, Jesus Weeping Over Jerusalem (1851)
So the final irony is that Reformation Day is celebrated by the very people for whom Luther was not a religious reformer, but a religious founder.  Luther is treated as having built an alternative to Catholicism, and modern Protestantism has almost completely lost sight of the idea that it was created to be a reform movement within the Catholic Church.  For this sort of Protestantism, Luther is not a reformer, but a founder.  Instead of a St. Francis, he’s commemorated by Protestants precisely as a sort of Jefferson Davis or a George Washington: that is, as a rebel and a revolutionary, rather than a reformer.

Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist, put all of this better than I could in a moving 1995 Reformation Day homily.  While his whole homily is worth a read, I specifically wanted to highlight this portion:
I must begin by telling you that I do not like to preach on Reformation Sunday. Actually I have to put it more strongly than that. I do not like Reformation Sunday, period. I do not understand why it is part of the church year. Reformation Sunday does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure. Of course, the church rightly names failure, or at least horror, as part of our church year. We do, after all, go through crucifixion as part of Holy Week. Certainly if the Reformation is to be narrated rightly, it is to be narrated as part of those dark days.  
Reformation names the disunity in which we currently stand. We who remain in the Protestant tradition want to say that Reformation was a success. But when we make Reformation a success, it only ends up killing us. After all, the very name ‘Protestantism’ is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations in America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate Reformation Sunday. [....] 
Of course, the Papacy has often been unfaithful and corrupt, but at least Catholics preserved an office God can use to remind us that we have been and may yet prove unfaithful. In contrast, Protestants don’t even know we’re being judged for our disunity.
This Reformation Day, I urge my Protestant readers to take seriously the question of what exactly, it means to be “Reformed.” What is being “reformed,” who is doing the “reforming,” and when can this horrible process, this terrible and sinful Christian divorce, be put behind us?

Does the Real Presence Violate the Old Testament Law?

One of the arguments raised against the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is that it violates Genesis 9:4, which forbids eating anything with the blood still in it.  So, for example, Roger Oakland makes the argument this way, in trying to explain away Christ’s Eucharistic discourse from John 6:
Master of Sigena,
Jesus Amongst the Doctors of the Law (1519)
Jesus is not the perishable manna that their descendants ate in the wilderness—He is the eternal bread of life that lives forever. Only by partaking in His everlasting life can we hope to live with Him forever. This contrast strengthens His main message, where Jesus says, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life” (vs. 47). Notice, Jesus said that as soon as we believe in Him we have—present tense—eternal life. It is not something we aim at or hope we might attain in the future, but rather, something we receive immediately upon accepting Him by faith. 
When Jesus said these words, He was in the synagogue in Capernaum, and He had neither bread nor wine. Therefore Jesus was either commanding cannibalism, or He was speaking figuratively. If He was speaking literally, then He would be directly contradicting God the Father: “But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat” (Genesis 9:4). Therefore, because Jesus Himself said, “[T]he scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35), He must be speaking metaphorically.
In other words, taking Christ’s words literally here would apparently violate the letter of the Law. Does this prove that Christ was speaking metaphorically, as Oakland suggests? Not remotely.

Christ comes to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17), but He doesn’t do this by following it in a legalistic manner. That’s because that’s not how the Law was meant to be followed. This is the central heresy of the Pharisees: they obsess over the letter of the Law so much that they miss the spirit of the Law. St. Paul shows, in Romans 2:29, that the Jewish Law is fulfilled in the heart, by obeying the spirit of the Law, rather than in Pharisaic legalism. This is exactly what we see Christ doing: fulfilling the Law by obeying (and revealing) the spirit of the Law, the purpose for why the Law exists.   Three examples will illustrate how this is so.

I. The Son of Man and the Sabbath

This is made explicit in Mark 2:23-28:
One sabbath he [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath.
Note: although Christ is declaring Himself Lord of the Sabbath, He’s still not violating the Law (or else, He failed His mission, as described in Matthew 5:17).  Rather, He goes against the letter of the Law, in order to fulfill the spirit of the Law. The spirit of the Law was a call to rest, and in idly plucking heads of grains, the Apostles are doing a better job of resting on the Sabbath than the Pharisees.  The Pharisees become so concerned about accidental violations of the Sabbath Law that they are unable to actually rest: ironically, resulting in them violating the spirit of the very Sabbath that they were trying to protect.  So to fulfill the Law, Christ violates the letter of the Law.

II. The Disciples and the Washing of Hands

A second clear example is from Matthew 15:1-3, in which the Pharisees criticize the Disciples for not washing their hands before eating:
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”
Jesus has a two-part answer:  He first shows that the Pharisees violate both the letter and spirit of the Law (Mt. 15:3-9).  But then, in v. 10-11, Jesus gathers the crowd to explain what this was all for:
And he called the people to him and said to them, Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.
In other words, the ritual washing laws existed for a particular reason: to remind the people of the need to be spiritually clean.  But it is the Pharisees, and not the Disciples, who have missed this.  While fulfilling the letter of the Law, the Pharisees have emptied it of any meaning.  By transgressing the letter of the Law, Jesus and His Disciples are shocking the people into understanding why the Law existed to begin with.

III. The Eucharist and the Drinking of Blood

Having established the pattern from the last two examples, look to the institution of the Eucharist (Matthew 26:26-28):
Pascal Adolphe Dagnan-Bouveret, The Last Supper (1896)
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins."
Once again, Christ is transgressing the letter of the Law in order to preserve and fulfill the spirit of that same Law.  How so?  Go back to the passage that forbids the drinking of the blood.  Why is the drinking of blood forbidden?  Genesis 9:3-5:
Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man's brother I will require the life of man.
The blood represented a creature’s life.  That’s because even ancient cultures could recognize the vitality of blood in preserving life: bleed out too much, and you die.  So to consume an animal’s blood would be to go beyond simply eating its flesh. It would be partaking of its very life.   And this, of course, is why Jesus calls us to drink His Blood. Because we’re supposed to partake of His very life, so that we can share in eternal life with Him (John 6:51, 54).

There’s a very neat parallel here with Deuteronomy 21:22-23, which (on the surface) would seem to make even the Crucifixion a violation of the Law, by placing a curse on anyone who is hung upon a tree.  St. Paul directly addresses this in Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us--for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree.’”  In other words, the very reason that the Law forbade being hung from a tree is the very reason Christ consented to it: He voluntarily took the penalties upon Himself.  The same thing happens in the Eucharist: the very reason that the Law forbade drinking an animal’s blood is the reason that we are supposed to drink Christ’s.

For more on why Genesis 9:4 points towards (rather than away from) the Eucharist, I’d suggest Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers’ The Mass in Sacred Scripture.

IV. How the Law’s Prohibition Disproves the Protestant View of the Eucharist

Maurycy Gottlieb,
Christ Preaching at Capernaum (1879)
As a bonus, this very feature of the Law is one of several ways that we can know that the Protestant 
interpretation of the Eucharist is wrong.  Why?  Because Protestants take this bit about drinking Christ’s blood as a figure of speech.  Given serious thought, that interpretation is already a stretch: while certain Scriptural phrases have obvious analogical meanings, this one doesn’t. We can easily understand what the imagery of Jesus being “the Gate” means, or His being “the Good Shepherd, but what’s the metaphorical meaning Jesus means to convey by telling us to drink His Blood?

It’s even more of a stretch when compared to the Last Supper. Here in John 6, the claim is that the Flesh and Blood is literal, while the eating and drinking is figurative. At the Last Supper, where Jesus repeats His message, the claim is that the eating and drinking is literal, while the Flesh and Blood is figurative. But if “eat my Flesh” is tied to the merely-symbolic bread and wine, it’s striking that (as Oakland acknowledges, above) there’s no bread or wine around when Jesus says this.  We know this because Jesus was in the synagogue, a point that the Apostle John makes sure to include after describing Jesus’ Eucharistic discourse (John 6:59).

So even before we get to the Law, the metaphoric theory is already weak.  But the already-strained metaphorical interpretation becomes unsustainable in the Jewish context. There’s a reason, within Judaism, that you don’t encounter positive pork-related figures of speech like “bringing home the bacon,” or why phrases like “pearls before swine” (Mt. 7:6) has distinctively negative connotations: handling or consuming pork was a serious violation of the Jewish Law.  But this is true of drinking Blood, too.  Look at how Scripture uses the imagery of drinking blood:
  • For I lift up my hand to heaven, and swear, As I live for ever, if I whet my glittering sword, and my hand takes hold on judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will requite those who hate me. I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh--with the blood of the slain and the captives, from the long-haired heads of the enemy.'” (Deut. 32:40-42)

  • William Blake, Whore of Babylon (1809)
    God brings them out of Egypt; they have as it were the horns of the wild ox.  For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel; now it shall be said of Jacob and Israel, 'What has God wrought!' Behold, a people! As a lioness it rises up and as a lion it lifts itself; it does not lie down till it devours the prey, and drinks the blood of the slain.” (Num. 23:22-24)

  • That day is the day of the Lord GOD of hosts, a day of vengeance, to avenge himself on his foes. The sword shall devour and be sated, and drink its fill of their blood. For the Lord GOD of hosts holds a sacrifice in the north country by the river Euphrates.” (Jer. 46:10)

  • As for you, son of man, thus says the Lord GOD: Speak to the birds of every sort and to all beasts of the field, 'Assemble and come, gather from all sides to the sacrificial feast which I am preparing for you, a great sacrificial feast upon the mountains of Israel, and you shall eat flesh and drink blood. You shall eat the flesh of the mighty, and drink the blood of the princes of the earth--of rams, of lambs, and of goats, of bulls, all of them fatlings of Bashan. And you shall eat fat till you are filled, and drink blood till you are drunk, at the sacrificial feast which I am preparing for you.” (Ezekiel 39:17-19)

  • And he carried me away in the Spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and bedecked with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; and on her forehead was written a name of mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth's abominations.’ And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her I marveled greatly.” (Revelation 17:3-6).
All of these passages share a common connotation: to drink of another’s blood is an expression meaning to kill them.  When God threatens to make His arrows drunk on the blood of His adversaries in Deut. 32:40-42, He’s not threatening to make His arrows believe in His adversaries. He’s threatening to lay them low.  Same with the three passages following.  And in the final passage, Babylon drinks the blood of the Saints and the martyrs of Jesus. That doesn’t mean she believes in them. It means the opposite: that she murders them. Needless to say, this interpretation of the words of institution makes no sense.  Why would Christ be ordering His Apostles to murder Him, in remembrance of Him?


In the end, then, there are two basic ways of interpreting Christ’s words at the Last Supper. You can take them literally, as His earliest followers did, in which case He’s fulfilling the spirit of the Law (even while transgressing the Letter), literally fulfilling the Law in His own Person, and inviting us into Communion with His very life. Or you can take Him metaphorically, in which case He’s apparently inviting us to repeatedly murder Him, every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

What a Priestly Heart Looks Like

St. Isaac Jogues statue,
Shrine of the North American Martyrs
Today is the optional memorial of the North American Martyrs: Sts. Isaac Jogues and John de Brebeuf, and their companions, a group of truly heroic Jesuit martyrs.  St. Isaac Jogues was influential in my vocational discernment.  I knew next to nothing about him prior to winter 2010, when he became my saint for the year for 2011.  When I began seriously discerning later that year, Jogues kept popping up in unusual places.  For example, my vocations director gave me Fr. Brett Brannen's To Save a Thousand Souls to assist in my discernment (by the way, I highly recommend this book to any man contemplated diocesan priesthood).  In the book, Fr. Brannen describes Jogues as a model of what a priestly heart looks like.

Given his priestly heart, it’s fitting that the Shrine of the North American Martyrs was one of the stops on the Archdiocesan seminarian pilgrimage this year. As a pilgrimage, it was spiritually fruitful for all of us.  Here is how I described Jogues last year:

He was a Frenchman by birth, but joined the Jesuits to spread the Gospel and save souls.  He was sent as a missionary to the Hurons, the tribe also known as Wyandots.  This went well until the Hurons were attacked by the Mohawks, a tribe so notorious that their name means “man-eaters.” 

The Mohawks believed the Jesuits, who they called the “blackrobes” (in reference to their cassocks), were sorcerers, both because of the sacraments, and because disease seemed to follow in their footsteps.  They'd also learned enough about Catholicism to have some shocking cruel forms of torture.  For example, they burnt off or ate several of Isaac's fingers, to make it impossible for him to consecrate the Eucharist. 

For thirteen months, he underwent constant torture at the hands of the Mohawk, without even attempting escape.  It wasn't until the Mohawks planned to burn him alive that Isaac allowed himself to be rescued by some Dutch Calvinists.  He went back to Europe, where he received a special dispensation to consecrate the Eucharist with his remaining fingers.  Said Pope Urban VIII: “It would be shameful that a martyr of Christ not be allowed to drink the blood of Christ.”  And indeed, that's what Isaac was: a living martyr.  He voluntarily laid down his life for Christ, only to be allowed to take it up again (see John 10:18). 

Then Isaac did the unthinkable.  He laid down his life a second time for the same people, saying as he left his home country again, “I go, but I shall not return.”  And indeed, he didn't.  Although he was at first well-received, after the Mohawks' crops failed, they turned on him, torturing him with knives, tomahawking him to death, and beheading him.  
Even in death, he lead others to Christ.  He inspired his colleague, Father Jean de Brébeuf, to face his own martyrdom three years later, with bravery and confidence in the Lord,.  And incredibly, Isaac Jogues' killer even converted to Christ, taking the baptismal name Isaac Jogues.

Now, Jogues was not the first of the North American Martyrs: that distinction goes to his companion, St. René Goupil, S.J., for whom Jogues had been something of a mentor.

The Iroquois killed Goupil quickly, and in front of Jogues.  Later, Jogues attempted to hide Goupil’s body in a nearby valley, so that he could properly bury him, and to protect his body from further desecration. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours in this valley, together with my Archdiocesan brothers, surrounded by writings and statues of the life of these holy men was a powerful experience.

On the walk down into the valley, the trail is lined with a series of signs containing excerpts from the diary of St. Isaac Jogues, describing Goupil’s death.  The most moving of these is below, and says:
We paused near the gate of the stockade to hear what the two Iroquois had to say. One of them drew a tomahawk from under his blanket, and Rene’ a blow on the head. Rene fell prostrate to the ground, uttering the holy name of Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.  
We had often reminded each other to end our speech and our lives with that most Holy Name…

North American Martyrs, pray for us!

P.S.  These martyrs sowed the seed that bore fruit in the next generation in the life of Kateri Tekakwitha, who will be formally declared a Saint this coming Sunday.

Pitting Jesus Against His Bride (Pt. II)

Yesterday, I began my response to David Mathis’ critique of the Catholic Church (which he writes as if he’s Jesus).  In that post, I answered his criticisms of Mary and the Saints, the Eucharist, and the papacy.  Today, I will address the remaining three topics: sola Scriptura, priestly celibacy, and justification.

Sola Scriptura

Jan Braet von Überfeld,
Portrait of a young woman with Bible (1866)
At the end of the section on the papacy, discussed yesterday, Mathis’ fake Jesus raised an argument for sola Scriptura:
“At my word, it was the apostles’ spoken and written words that served as the early church’s final authority — and when the apostles had passed, it was their preserved writings that have carried my voice as the church’s final authority these two thousand years, not the accumulated traditions of the church.”
What’s amusing is that Mathis doesn’t cite any Scripture for this, and can’t, because sola Scriptura isn’t found in the Bible. It’s why he’s left making up sayings of Jesus to defend Protestant doctrines and traditions.  In fact, Scripture says that we’re to hold fast to Scripture and Tradition (2 Thessalonians 2:15), and doesn’t have an expiration date of “until the Apostles have passed,” or “until you don’t feel like it anymore.”

Mathis has two more paragraphs after this attempting to defend sola Scriptura, but not one of the passages he cites to actually supports his position.  Like most defenses of sola Scriptura, Mathis is guilty of an invalid A to A simple conversion.  Put simply, proving that “all cats are mammals” doesn’t prove that “all mammals are cats.” Likewise, proving that “All the Scriptures are the word of God” doesn’t prove that “all the word of God is Scripture.” Otherwise, the (true) statement, “all four Gospels are the word of God,” would prove that the word of God consisted only of the Gospels, an obviously-false conclusion.

Logical fallacies aside, Mathis manages to show only that the Scriptures speak about God, Jesus is the Word of God, and Jesus is the final revelation of God.  Ironically, the passages he’s citing to are the Catholic response to sola Scriptura: that the ultimate revelation isn’t Scripture but Christ, Who alone is the Word in the truest sense. It’s only by virtue of a circular argument that Mathis thinks this proves Scripture alone is correct.

Once again, Mathis’ arguments against the Church (in this case, the Church’s undeniable role in establishing the canon of Scripture) are rooted in the idea that Christ and His Bride must be at odds: “In my new-covenant marriage with my bride, the Groom speaks the authoritative final word, not the Bride.” Compare Mathis’ fake Christ, whose authority is so easily threatened by His empowered Bride, with the real Christ, who pours Himself out completely for His Bride, and for her sake, not to show that He’s the Boss (Ephesians 5:25-27).  The real Christ is not only unafraid to empower His Bride, but actively empowers Her (Luke 9:1; Luke 10:19) and sends His Holy Spirit to do the same (Acts 1:8), power which remains with us (2 Tim. 1:7; Col. 1:29).

Priestly Celibacy

Adamo Tadolini, St. Paul (1838)
On some level, it looks like Mathis realizes that his argument here is weak. His first argument is:
But I say to you, I appreciate that you’re listening to 1 Corinthians 7, but what about the other things I have to say through my inspired spokesmen?
That’s the opening critique? That we’re not ignoring 1 Cor. 7 for the sake of other passages of Scripture? In the end, Mathis’ Jesus says that the Catholic Church excludes married men “from your priesthood, except upon special exception.” Unfortunately, Mathis’ Jesus doesn’t know very much about the Catholic Church. Only the Latin Rite prohibits married priests. The other Rites don’t requires any “special exception.”

Of course, in generally requiring celibacy, the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church is actually less strict than St. Paul appears to be.  In his instructions to Timothy in regards to the Order of Widows, he refers to the possibility of younger widows marrying, and notes that this would be a violation of “their first pledge” (1 Tim. 5:11-12).  That “first pledge” appears to be a vow of celibacy of some kind, Paul speaks as thought it’s mandatory for anyone to be enrolled in the Order of Widows, to the extent that someone who can’t live up to the pledge simply can’t be enrolled. The only difference between what Paul required then and what the Latin Rite requires now appears to be that the Latin Rite is more flexible.


On justification, Mathis writes:
It is true that you get involved in your ongoing holiness as my righteousness is imparted to you after you have been fully accepted (Romans 6:12–14). But don’t jump the gun by thinking you could ever muster holiness enough to earn your acceptance with the thrice-holy God. It is not the godly that my Father justifies, but the ungodly (Romans 4:6).
As far as I can tell, he’s actually defined what the Catholic Church teaches on justification. As St. Thomas Aquinas explained in the Summa,“it belongs to grace to operate in man by justifying him from sin, and to co-operate with man that his work may be rightly done.” Nothing we do can bring about our initial justification. God has to begin every good act with what’s called operative grace. But grace doesn’t overwhelm our free will: it liberates it, enabling us to do the good that God wants us to do. At this point, God and man cooperate: or as Mathis put it, “you get involved in your ongoing holiness.” So Mathis is answering some Pelagian stereotype of Catholicism, while supporting the actual teaching of the Catholic Church.


Paris Bordone,
Christ as 'The Light of the World'
The fact that pastors like John Piper and David Mathis are as woefully ignorant about the Catholic Church as they are is a two-sided coin. On the one hand, as a fellow Christian, this is an embarrassment. This is the age of the Internet, yet they seem to have no interest in checking their facts or making sure that the claims that they’re making are actually true. It’s both intellectually lazy and morally caviler, and these men are steering souls astray.

On the other hand, it always gives me a glimmer of hope. Even in writing an entire post to condemning the Catholic Church, Mathis came off as more ignorant than angry. And from their descriptions of Catholicism, it’s not clear to me that Mathis or Piper have ever met a Catholic, much less had a serious, open-minded discussion about theological differences.

My hope is that by exposing the falsehoods of Mathis, Piper, and a host of other Protestant theologians and apologists, they and their readers will be open to hearing the truth about Catholicism. God is more powerful than a mountain of ignorance.

Pitting Jesus Against His Bride (Pt. I)

David Mathis, a Baptist elder from South Carolina, has written a post pretending to be Jesus, and rebuking the Catholic Church. One of the problems with the approach of pretending to be Jesus is that Mathis doesn’t actually spell out his arguments, making it harder to show where his reasoning goes wrong. This is compounded by the fact that Mathis’ grasp of Catholic teaching appears to be rather tenuous.

How Bad is it?

Saint Peter (6th c. encaustic icon).
For example, one of Mathis’ arguments against the papacy is that: “All my [Jesus’] specially appointed apostles, not just Peter, are my expressly commissioned authoritative spokesmen for my church.” Is there any Catholic on Earth who denies this, who thinks that Jesus had only One Apostle?  On the contrary, here’s how the Catholic Church describes Her own ecclesiology: “Just as in the Gospel, the Lord so disposing, St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together” (Lumen Gentium 22).

So how does Mathis’ argument disprove the papacy?  If anything, he seems to be proving our point, but too ignorant of Catholicism to know it.  I suppose if the Catholic Church consisted only of the pope, with no other bishops, this would be a good argument. But surely, Mathis realizes that’s not how the Catholic Church is structured.  Nor does pointing out the fact that Jesus had Twelve Apostles disprove that Peter has a unique role within the Twelve, a fact that (the real) Jesus demonstrated several times in Scripture (e.g., Luke 22:31-32).

This is the general pattern: a string of Protestant proof-texts battling straw-man parodies of Catholic teaching, written from the perspective of fake Jesus. Ordinarily, this kind of intellectually-lazy anti-Catholicism is what you’d expect find on the fringes of the Evangelical blogosphere. But in this case, Mathis has quite a soap box, since he’s the executive editor of John Piper’s popular blog, Desiring God. So here are some very basic responses to the arguments that Mathis raises (or, often as not, hints at).

My answer will be in two parts.  Today, I want to address the first three arguments he presents: Mary and the Saints, the Eucharist, and the Papacy.  Tomorrow, I’ll address the last three: Sola Scriptura, Priestly Celibacy, and Justification.

Mary and the Saints

Mathis starts with the usual proof-texting of 1 Timothy 2:5, and his argument against prayer to the Saints gets worse from there:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, “Pray to Mary, and petition the Saints.” But I say to you that there is only one mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5). You need no other go-between than me. Do you not know that you already have an advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1)? Do you not know that I am the way, and the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6)? So, when you pray, ask in my name, that the Father may be glorified in the Son (John 14:13).
I’ve previously said that this use of 1 Timothy 2:5 is “the most egregious use of proof-texting, taking a verse wholly out of its context, and severing it even from the second half of the sentence.” I stand by that characterization.  Here’s the context (1 Tim. 2:1-6):
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, the testimony to which was borne at the proper time.
In context, then, 1 Timothy 2:5-6 is saying that Jesus, and only Jesus, bridges the divide between God and man through the Ransom He paid on the Cross. His uniqueness is true in two senses. Christ is the only man who makes this ultimate sacrifice, but He’s also the only Person of the Trinity to serve as our Ransom. So Christ is our Mediator in a sense that even the Holy Spirit isn’t.

Georg Pencz, Holy Trinity (1530)
But Mathis tears v. 5, half of a sentence, out of its Scriptural context, and conflates it with intercessory prayer, or having “an advocate with the Father.”  So from Christ is the sole Mediator, Mathis concludes that Christ is the sole Intercessor and sole Advocate.  That’s a two-fold problem:
  • Intercessor: St. Paul begins the passage in question by asking for intercessory prayer (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
  • Advocate: 1 John 2:1 simply says that Christ is “an” Advocate before the Father. To say that Christ is the only Advocate would be to deny that the Holy Spirit is also our Advocate. But in John 14:26, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit our Advocate. 
Reflect for a moment on the role that Each Person of the Trinity plays in the economy of salvation. Christ’s Death serves as a sort of Bridge between the Father and fallen mankind. The Holy Spirit leads us to the Bridge, and applies Christ’s merits. We cooperate with the Holy Spirit in bringing souls to Christ, and in this way, can save others (I know that Protestants are often uncomfortable with saying that anyone besides God “saves” someone, but Scripture is clear -- Jude 1:22-23; 1 Tim. 4:16; Ezekiel 3:18-19).

One of the ways that we cooperate with the Holy Spirit is in praying for one another. James 5:14-16 says:
Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.
Pitting Christ’s unique role in the plan of salvation against this model of intercessory prayer is pitting Jesus against Scripture (and Scripture’s Author), not just “Rome.”

The Eucharist

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim,
Seder (The Passover Meal) (1867)
The next proposition that Mathis’ fake Jesus sets out to rebut is this one:
You have heard that it was said, “Kneel before the consecrated host, and worship the one sacrificed in the mass.”
Incredibly, Mathis manages to avoid all of the Scriptural evidence that’s explicitly about the Eucharist. For example, he ignores it when Christ says of the Eucharist, “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood” (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25), or the six different ways that Jesus says that the Eucharist is really His Body and Blood in John 6:53-58.  Instead, his argument boils down to a misunderstanding of the “once for all” nature of Christ’s Sacrifice, which I’ve already answered recently.

He ends his argument: “I [Jesus] meant it when I said on the cross, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30).” It’s true, Jesus did mean it. But Mathis has no idea what Jesus was referring to in that passage. The best exegesis of this passage, in my opinion, is the “Fourth Cup” Passover explanation given by Scott Hahn.

In a nutshell, it’s a Passover reference, and actually proves the connection between the Eucharist and Calvary that Mathis spent the rest of the paragraph trying to refute. The Passover Liturgy consists of four stages, marked by four cups of wine.  After the third cup, “the cup of blessing,” Jews pray the Great Hallel (Psalm 136) and drink the fourth cup.

From 1 Cor. 10:16, we know that the cup of blessing is the Eucharistic Chalice. But instead of finishing the Passover Liturgy, Jesus has the Apostles pray Psalm 136 and then leave (Mark 14:26). He then avoids drinking anything for nearly twenty-four hours so that He can drink the Fourth Cup on the Cross. That’s why John 19:28 tells us that Jesus says “I thirst,” not just because He was thirsty (He’s surely been thirsty for hours), but “so that Scripture would be fulfilled.Now read John 19:30: “When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” The first underlined part is tied to the second: “it” that Jesus just finished is the fulfillment of the Passover.  In completing His Passover Liturgy in this manner, Jesus forever united the Last Supper and Calvary as a single Liturgical Act.

The Papacy

Like the arguments against Mary and the Saints and against the Eucharist, Mathis’ arguments against the papacy rely on proof-texting passages stripped of context. Here’s what his fake Jesus says:
The Rock on which I have built my church (Matthew 16:18) for two millennia is not Peter alone, but the band of the apostles together (Ephesians 2:20).
In context, the claim that Jesus meant the Rock to refer to the Apostles banded together is easily debunked. In Matthew 16:15, the real Jesus says to the Twelve, “But who do you [plural] say that I am?” Only one of the Twelve answers, Simon. He acknowledges Jesus by His proper Title: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16). Jesus responds by blessing Simon, and bestowing a title upon him (Mt. 16:17-19):
“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
In the span of those three sentences, Jesus clarifies that He’s talking only to Peter eleven times:

“Blessed are you,...”
The “you” is singular, in contrast to the “you” in v. 15.
If there was any question who Jesus was referring to, there shouldn’t be now.  He’s just called Simon by name.
If that wasn’t enough, He then calls Simon by his lineage, so we even know it’s not some other Simon.
“For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”­ ­
The “you” is singular: He’s talking only to Simon.
“And I tell you,…”
The “you” is singular: He’s talking only to Simon.
The “you” is singular: He’s talking only to Simon.
“…are Peter,…”
After this, were all of the Apostles renamed Peter? Or just Simon? 
“…and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.”
Jesus specifies this rock.  And Simon’s new name, Peter, means Rock.
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and…”
The “you” is singular: He’s talking only to Simon.
“…whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and …”
The “you” is singular: He’s talking only to Simon.
whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
The “you” is singular: He’s talking only to Simon.

Commission to St. Peter,
Sarleinsbach altarpiece (1904)
So Jesus refers to Peter in the second-person singular eleven times in three sentences. He seems to go out of His way to emphasize that, unlike His prior question (Mt. 16:15, which was directed to the Twelve), this blessing is directly only to Peter. And how does Mathis handle this? By inventing a Jesus who says “The Rock on which I have built my church (Matthew 16:18) for two millennia is not Peter alone,” and  invoking Matthew 16:18 as the Scriptural support!

What about the second half of the argument here, then, the one about Ephesians 2:20? In 1 Corinthians 3:11, St. Paul says that Jesus is the Foundation of the Church. But in Ephesians 2:20, he says that the Apostles and prophets are. And Jesus refers to Peter as the Rock upon which He’ll build His Church in the passage we just saw. Are these three images contradictory? Only if you try to meld them together into a single, overly-literal metaphor. In context, each of the three makes sense, and there’s no contradiction. In fact, Matthew 16 shows how they can be rectified: Peter is individually blessed after confessing Christ on behalf of the Twelve. So it’s not Jesus v. Peter v. the other Eleven. It’s Peter leading the Eleven in service of Jesus Christ.

Mathis doesn’t seem to get this. He seems to think that if the Body of Christ has authority, this is somehow a threat to Christ, so his fake Jesus says things like this about the Apostles: “Their authority is not their own, but mine. I am the one who has authority (Matthew 7:29), not your ecclesiastical scribes.” The real Jesus gave His authority to His Apostles (Luke 9:1; Luke 10:19), and poured out the power of the Holy Spirit upon them (Acts 1:8). That’s because the real Jesus isn’t threatened by His Church.

I think that’s enough for today.  Tomorrow, I’ll address his arguments on Sola Scriptura, Priestly Celibacy, and Justification.  If you couldn’t guess, they don’t fare much better.

What Does Jesus Have Against Wealth?

Ordinary Time
28th Sunday - Year B
October 14, 2012

How would you respond to the young man’s question in today’s Gospel? Imagine that someone at work or school asks you how to get into heaven. How would your respond to this person? Is the sole criteria simply living a generally good life, a life without any grave sins, a life according to the commandments? Or, is there something more to it?

Our readings today teach us that eternal life is not about being good, it is about being with God. 
Nicholas Colombel,
Christ Expelling the Money-Changers from the Temple (1682)

In our Gospel we hear about a unique man who came to Jesus not wanting physical healing or food. He didn’t come to trick Jesus like the Pharisees. This man came with a question. He was a wealthy man, but he wanted something more. He wanted the greatest of all possessions: eternal life. Little did he know that Eternal Life was standing before him and inviting the man to come follow Him.

By the man’s reaction, we know Jesus found the man’s weakness. Sharper than any sword, Jesus penetrated the man’s heart and revealed that there was “one thing” he was lacking: an unconditional yes to God. He was attached to his earthly wealth and not attached to the ways of God. This zealous man who had run to the Son of God and knelt before Him was now walking away from Him sad. The young man was a good man, he followed the commandments, but now he turns his back on God’s love and turns towards his earthly possessions! He wanted eternal life, but he wasn’t willing to give up his earthly possessions to attain it. 

What does Jesus have against wealth?

Jesus is not opposed to wealth. Wealth can give glory to God. There is the example of the woman who anointed Jesus with expensive oils before His death, and the example of Joseph of Arimathea who wrapped the body of Jesus in fine linen and placed it in a new tomb. Jesus is simply teaching us today that there is a danger that comes with wealth. Wealth can enslave a person. It can keep a person from following God. And frighteningly, it can even keep a person from entering into heaven.

With modern technology, this is even more of an issue. The world is ever more full of noise and distractions that lead us away from an intimate union with God. The modern world tries to convince us that we simply cannot be happy without this or that, or this that goes with that, or that which comes in three different colors. Yet, why is it that with all these time saving devices and apps, we still have so little time? Families still don’t have time to eat together. There still doesn’t ever seem to be enough time in the day for prayer. And why is it that with all these technologies that connect us with each other, people feel more alone than ever? 

True happiness cannot come from material things. It simply can’t. We were made from love and for love. Anything less than love will inevitably bring us sorrow. Material things, therefore, are only good in so far as they help us to love more. I can’t help but think of the classic film A Man for All Seasons in which St. Thomas More says to Richard Rich, “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the world. But for Wales?”  

Before telling the young man what he must do to attain treasure in heaven, the Gospel says Jesus looked at him and loved him. Jesus didn’t reprimand the man, He loved him. And this was no ordinary love, this was God’s love. The same love with which God sent His Beloved Son and the same love with which the Beloved Son accepted the Cross. God loves each and every one of us with an inexhaustible love. This young man caught a glimpse of that, yet he turned the other way. Jesus gave him love, and the man gave him his back. God knows what will make you happy and He wants to give it to you, but He will never force it upon you. Jesus let the man walk away.

We don’t know what ended up happening to the young man in our Gospel reading today. We never even learn his name. We just know he left in sadness. Do not go away sad today. You have something this man did not. Jesus Christ, Eternal Life, gives Himself completely to you this day at the altar. Don’t turn your back on this Love. Strive each day to remove whatever will keep you away from this Love. In so doing, you will find true happiness.

Could It Be That Jesus Had a Wife?

While seminary life prevents me from being able to post as often as I used it, it also connects me with a whole world of thoughtful, orthodox Catholic thinkers in the form of professors, formators, and fellow seminarians. I wanted to take a moment to highlight one of them, a fellow barbate seminarian for Kansas City, Kansas: Deacon Nathan Haverland.  Below is the homily that he gave this past Sunday at St. Clement of Rome parish, here in St. Louis.  

Ordinary Time
27th Sunday - Year B
October 7, 2012

Deacon Nathan Haverland
Our readings this Sunday invite us to reflect on the topic of marriage. They are readings that are just as relevant today as they were when they were written. Not long ago Blessed John Paul II used them as the basis for 129 talks given over 5 years in what is called the “Theology of the Body.” There’s a great richness to the readings given to us today.

The Pharisees were out to trick Jesus and so they asked Him if divorce was permissible. By this point, you would think that the Pharisees should have expected that Jesus would not fall into their trap. But they didn’t, and Jesus gave them an answer they never expected. Jesus recognized the law written by Moses, but He invites the Pharisees to look at a law written much earlier: the law written in nature. Yes, the Mosaic Law allowed divorce, He said, but that was because of the hardness of man’s heart. There is law much older than the law of Moses that was not written out of the hardness of man’s heart.

 From the very beginning God had a plan for humanity, a plan that He wrote into the very depths of our human nature. Jesus says clearly, “From the beginning of creation, God made them male and female...the two shall become one flesh...what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” Jesus is the Word of God “through whom all things exist.” He is the Word of God that existed from the beginning. Jesus certainly then has authority on the matter of how things were from the beginning.

Jesus explained to the Pharisees that the indissoluble union of a man and woman was always a part of God’s plan. From the beginning, he wrote this plan in the depths of our physical and psychological nature. From the beginning, man has always pointed towards woman, and woman has always pointed towards man. If viewed alone, neither man nor woman make sense. But viewed together, they show that each is designed to be a gift of self to the other. They compliment each other perfectly. From the beginning, God had a plan to unite man and woman so intimately that they would become one flesh, a union that God has bestowed with the capacity of producing new life.

Johann Friedrich Overbeck, Marriage of the Virgin (1836)
Marriage has never been easy though. Moses saw this himself. The giving of one’s self to another for a few moments is one thing, but giving of one’s self to another over the course of a lifetime, that is a challenge. Selfishness can easily creep into marriage and slowly eat away at that union made by God. But, it is only in giving of ourselves that we will truly be happy. Selfishness can never bring about happiness.

Why did God write this in our human nature?

A few weeks ago Jesus made big news all around the world. This time, a small fragment from an unknown document, from an unrevealed source, from an uncertain time period, analyzed by a scholar with a questionable intention, just happened to have an incomplete sentence referring to someone named Jesus mentioning a wife. This caused quite a stir all over the world. Could it be that Jesus had a wife?

We don’t have to look any further than the New Testament to see that Jesus did indeed have a Bride. Jesus is the Bridegroom in the New Testament, and the Church is His Bride. Just as Eve was born from the side of Adam, the Church was born from the side of the New Adam, Jesus, on the Cross. Jesus does indeed have a Bride, and at each Mass He gives Himself body, blood, soul, and divinity to His Bride. This intimate union of God with man is what marriage has always foreshadowed. Here, at the altar, that union between God and man becomes realized. The two truly become one flesh.

This union of Christ with the Church has always brought about tremendous amounts of new life throughout the ages. We see this, for example, in the life of the saints. They are children of God who lived life to the fullest. This morning in Rome, our Holy Father proclaimed two new doctors of the Church: a german nun named St. Hildegard and a spanish priest named St. John of Avila. This is a title rarely given to a saint. Of all the saints that the Church has had over the past 2,000 years, the total number of doctors of the Church is now only up to 35.

This Thursday will mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Holy Father will use that day to begin a “Year of Faith” in the Church in which he has called for “a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord.” These new doctors of the Church and this “Year of Faith” will certainly be sources of new life coming from that union of Christ and the Church.

We give thanks this Sunday for the gift of marriage. And we pray that all marriages will come to image that selfless and unending love of Christ and the Church.

Su Doku and the Development of Doctrine

Lorenzo Veneziano, Apostle Peter Preaching (1370)
The Catholic Church teaches that the Apostolic faith, including “everything which contributes toward the holiness of life,” was “handed on once and for all” to the Apostles (Dei Verbum 8; see Jude 1:3). Jesus entrusted to the Apostles, through the power of the Holy Spirit, a Deposit of Faith, expressed in Scripture as well as Apostolic Tradition.

 In saying, with Jude 1:3, that this Deposit of Faith is handed on “once for all,” the Catholic Church is rejecting both (i) the idea that this Deposit of Faith could become corrupted, and need to be restored by a mere mortal like Luther or Calvin, and (2) the idea that this Deposit of Faith would need to be added to or improved upon by some later “prophet” like Muhammad or Joseph Smith. Put more simply, if the faith Jesus established is assured (under Divine Providence) to continue from generation to generation, we can know that Protestantism, Mormonism, and Islam are false.

But in the same breath that She affirms the “once for all” of Apostolic Tradition, the Church proclaims that the “tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit” (Dei Verbum 8).  So what gives? Is the Church talking out of both sides of Her mouth? Is She trying to smuggle in the ability to invent new teachings, while paying lip service to the “once for all” nature of Apostolic Truth? Not at all. But to understand how these two teachings are compatible, let me indulge in a truly geeky analogy.

Su Doku and Doctrinal Development within the Deposit of Faith

If you’re not familiar with how su doku is played, it’s pretty simple: you start with a 9 x 9 grid with certain numbers filled in, like this:

From this starting point, you have to deduce which numbers belong in the other rows and columns, in accordance with the following rules:
  1. Each of the bold 3 x 3 blocks must contain every digit from 1 – 9, with no duplicates; 
  2. Every row must include every digit from 1 – 9, with no duplicates; and 
  3. Every column must include every digit from 1 – 9, with no duplicates.
Revelation and Doctrinal Development

Those bolded numbers in the board above are revealed.  We couldn’t have deduced those numbers on our own, and we couldn’t play the game without those numbers. So those numbers are necessarily a product of revelation, just as the Deposit of Faith is within Christianity.

This revelation gives us all we need, in the sense that the entire board can be figured out from this starting point. But it doesn’t give us everything that we’ll ever need, in the sense that it doesn’t fill in the entire 9 x 9 board. Much of the board remains blank, and it’s our job (using the numbers we’ve been given) to figure out what they mean for the other numbers.  So, for example, here is how we might determine where the 5 goes in the upper right block:

We know that it has to be in the top right 3 x 3 region (that’s rule 1), we know that it can’t be in a row that already has a 5 (that’s rule 2), and we know that it can’t be in a column that already has a 5 (that’s rule 3). That leaves one, and only one, possibility: that it’s in the box marked in green. 

Now that we know that there’s a 5 in this green box, we also know that there aren’t 5’s anywhere else in that column or row (rules 2 & 3).  So placing one number can make it easier to determine where other numbers go.  That’s also similar to the development of doctrine: once we hammer out the contours of one doctrine (on the basis of revelation), other doctrines become clearer. Understanding the doctrine of Original Sin is important to understand the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (since it teaches that Mary didn’t have original sin).  Trying to jump right from revelation to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, we might not be able to put the pieces together, just as we might not be able to figure out where the 6 in the bottom-middle region without putting some other numbers in place, first.

The Role of Theological Opinion

There’s one more twist, though. Sometimes, you don’t figure out where a number goes by building off of all of your successes. Sometimes, you figure out where a number goes by building off of your failures.  For example, maybe you decide to start with placing that 6 in the bottom-middle region.  You can determine that there has to be a 6 in the bottom-middle quadrant (rule 1), and it cannot be in the top row, since it already has a 6 (rule 2).  But that still leaves two options: does it go to the left or the right of the 8?

At this point, you can do two things.  First, you can simply leave the question open until the matter is clearer: eventually, you should be able to figure out by figuring out the other numbers.  But the other option is simply to make a guess.  Imagine that you do so, and pencil in a 6 to the left of the 8. In building off of this guess, you’ll eventually discover that you guessed wrong. You’ll arrive at an impasse where it’s impossible to place a number without violating one of the three rules.

So you go back and erase all of your pencil-work. But you know what? It wasn’t a total waste. Now you know that the 6 isn’t to the left of the 8.  That answers your original question, by showing you that it must be in the square to the right.  So you can finally write the 6 in boldly, and in pen, because you can be positive that it is correct.

What This Means for Catholicism

Church history really does work somewhat similarly. We start from Divine revelation, parallel to the revealed starting numbers in the su doku analogy. We also start with a few basic rules, like that truth can’t contradict truth. Some truths necessarily flow from revelation, and these can be held with the same confidence as Divine revelation itself. These are the answers (like the 5 in the green square, in the first example), that can be written in with pen. But there are also areas where theologians venture opinions (on everything from the Trinity to Limbo). Sometimes, these theological opinions turn out to be correct; other times, they turn out to be false. The Church can learn from each. From this, we can put the pieces together.

Let’s use the doctrinal development of the Trinity as an example. Divine revelation doesn’t specifically spell out the Trinity: there’s no absolutely-clear Scriptural passage on point, for example. But revelation does give us all of the necessary pieces, by revealing that (i) Jesus is God (John 20:28), (ii) the Father is God (Col. 1:3), (iii) Jesus is distinct from the Father (John 8:42) (iv) there is only One God (1 Cor. 8:4).

From this, several heretics penciled in answers that didn’t work: that Jesus wasn’t God, or that He was almost God, or that He was a separate God from the Father, etc. Each of these answers violated at least one of the things which had been revealed. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church determined why all of these heresies were wrong on the basis of revelation. For example, claiming that Jesus was a separate God from the Father violates the revealed truth that there’s only one God (1 Cor. 8:4); claiming that Jesus wasn’t God violates the revealed truth of His Divinity (John 20:28); claiming that Jesus was the Father violates the revealed truth that Jesus and the Father are distinct (John 8:42), etc.

So the revelation doesn’t directly spell out the Trinity, but it did give the Church all of the tools necessary to show why each of the non-Trinitarian heresies was false. In showing why each one was false, the Church more fully articulated Her own beliefs about the Trinity. Having seen that every option besides the Trinity was heretical, and violated revealed truth, the Church boldly and infallibly proclaimed.

But here’s the key: even if it can be a little laborious to solve a hard su doku puzzle, or to figure out the Trinity, the hypostatic union, and so on, the Church already has all of the tools She will ever need.  So it’s legitimate doctrinal development to build off of what’s been given. It’s not legitimate doctrinal development (1) to reject what’s already infallibly known, or (2) to claim that we need some other source of truth, like a later prophet, a Newer Testament, another religion’s revealed texts, the zeitgeist, etc. The tools we need have existed from the first century, and will remain firmly in the Church’s possession until the Second Coming.

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