"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Justification and Living Faith

"The Anatomy Lecture of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp"
Rembrandt (1632)

This is a follow-up to "Justification: Divided over Charity", and presumes familiarity with it.

A dead body is not the same thing as a living body. What distinguishes a dead body from a living body is that the former does not have life. A dead body is a body that has lost its life. So, necessarily a living body is a composite of body and life, otherwise, necessarily every body would be a living body.

Likewise, a dead faith is not the same thing as a living faith. What distinguishes dead faith from living faith is that the former does not have life. So, necessarily, living faith is a composite of faith and that which makes faith living; otherwise, there would no such thing as dead faith. But we know that there is such a thing as dead faith. (cf. St. James 2:17, 26) Therefore, living faith is a composite of faith and that which makes faith living.

For this reason, if a person claims that we are not justified by dead faith, and claims that we are justified by faith alone, then we can take this position in two possible ways. Either the position is self-contradictory, since [faith + life] is not "faith alone", or the term 'alone' in "faith alone" should not be taken absolutely, so as to exclude that which makes faith living, but should be taken relatively, so as to exclude something else (e.g. a product of living faith, or something co-present with living faith, but not that by which faith is made to be living). The latter way of understanding the position is more charitable, so that's the way I will understand it.

This factor that makes faith living, call it L (for 'Life'). Now, L cannot be a product of [faith without L], for two reasons. First, dead faith cannot produce anything, being dead, and therefore useless. Second, since nothing can give what it does not have, [faith without L] cannot produce L. Just as a dead body cannot produce life, so [faith without L] cannot produce L.

Not only that, but for faith to be living, L cannot merely be co-present or juxtaposed alongside or simply with faith, for then we would just have L co-present or juxtaposed alongside or with dead faith. Therefore, L has to be informing faith in the same sort of way that a soul informs (i.e. animates) a living body.

This raises three questions for those who hold all three of the following claims to be true: (1) faith alone justifies, (2) dead faith does not justify, and (3) charity does not make faith alive or contribute to making faith alive. First, what is L? Second, what is your evidence that L does not at least contain or include charity? Third, is your evidence for (3) strong enough to warrant forming or perpetuating a schism from those who do not hold (3)?

"I remembered how one of my favorite theologians, Dr. Gerstner, once said in class that if Protestants were wrong on sola fide -- and the Catholic Church was right ... "I'd be on me knees tomorrow morning outside the Vatican doing penance." - Scott Hahn, Rome Sweet Home, p. 31.

Friday, January 30, 2009

"Us and Them Ecumenicism"

Fr. Dwight Longenecker, prompted by Giles Pinnock's "The Unrealism of Ecumenicism?", writes "Us and Them Ecumenicism". Both articles identify and clear away common ecumenical confusion.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Louis Berkhof, Justification and the Lord's Prayer

A discussion at De Regnis Duobus about justification and "forgive us our trespasses" in the Lord's Prayer prompted me to look up what Louis Berkhof says about this in his Systematic Theology. Berkhof was a Reformed theologian who taught theology for many years at Calvin College. The question is this: When we ask God daily in the Lord's Prayer to forgive us our sins, were these sins already forgiven at the moment of our [initial] justification? The Catholic answer is 'no'. For Catholics, all past sins are washed away at baptism, but not future sins; that is the purpose of the sacrament of penance. What does Berkhof say? Here is an excerpt from his Systematic Theology:

"The usual position of Reformed theology, however, is that in justification God indeed removes the guilt, but not the culpability of sin, that is, He removes the sinner's just amenability to punishment, but not the inherent guiltiness of whatever sins he may continue to perform. The latter remains and therefore always produces in believers a feeling of guilt, of separation from God, of sorrow, of repentance, and so on. Hence they feel the need of confessing their sins, even the sins of their youth, Ps. 25:7; 51:5-9. The believer who is really conscious of his sin feels within him an urge to confess it and to seek the comforting assurance of forgiveness. Moreover, such confession and prayer is not only a subjectively felt need, but also an objective necessity. Justification is essentially an objective declaration respecting the sinner in the tribunal of God, but it is not merely that; it is also an actus transiens, passing into the consciousness of the believer. The divine sentence of acquittal is brought home to the sinner and awakens the joyous consciousness of the forgiveness of sins and of favor with God. Now this consciousness of pardon and of a renewed filial relationship is often disturbed and obscured by sin, and is again quickened and strengthened by confession and prayer, and by a renewed exercise of faith." (p. 515)

Berkhof is claiming that in [initial] justification, God removes the penalty for all sin (past, present and future), but not the subjective feeling of guilt for whatever sins we continue to commit. Because we feel these guilty feelings, even though after our [initial] justification we are no longer subject to punishment for any sins we commit (past, present, and future) but perpetually stand entirely cleared by God's declaration, we still feel the need ("urge") to confess our sins and gain assurance of forgiveness. According to Berkhof, this urge we feel indicates that it is an "objective necessity" for us to continue to confess and pray for forgiveness, so that as we do so, the fact of our having been already forgiven for all our sins (past, present, and future) will sink more deeply into our consciousness.

According to Berkhof's position, after our [initial] justification, feelings of guilt are untrue; they have not yet caught up to what one knows by faith to be true about one's standing before God. Therefore, it would follow that we should welcome the overcoming or cessation of such feelings. We should outgrow them as our feelings conform to the truth. At least, if we can outgrow such feelings we should. Berkhof claims that the standard Reformed position on the purpose of confessing our sins and asking God for forgiveness after our [initial] justification is that it is not to gain forgiveness of sins, but to relieve the subjective urge we feel to confess, and to acquire the comforting feelings of assurance that our sins are forgiven. This seems to me to be a rather Freudian/Jungian psychologizing of the purpose of "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us" which we pray in the Lord's Prayer, and of the Apostle John's statement, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:9)

What I find most strange about this notion is that in order to convince ourselves in our feelings that all our sins (past, present, and future) were forgiven at the moment of our [initial] justification, we are encouraged by Berkhof to do certain acts that imply that our sins still need to be forgiven. So it is good that we daily confess and ask forgiveness, and in doing so, comfort ourselves by making ourselves think that in confessing our sins daily and in asking God daily to forgive them, somehow that activity ensures that God has forgiven us, even though in actuality our sins (past, present and future) were all already forgiven at the moment of our [initial] justification. Doesn't this daily activity teach the exact opposite? If you were trying to compose a prayer that teaches that our sins still need to be forgiven, isn't something like the line in the Lord's Prayer what you would write? Wouldn't a better practice for teaching Berkhof's theology of justification be the replacement of that line in the Lord's Prayer with this one: "I thank you Lord that all my sins, past, present, and future were already forgiven when I first believed"?

If Berkhof is correct that this psychologized notion of the purpose of continued confession and asking for forgiveness is the standard Reformed position, then it seems to me that Reformed teachers and pastors would be urging all believers to try to get over this urge to confess and ask for forgiveness. The goal would be to get over the felt-need to say that line in the Lord's Prayer. True integration of mind, heart and feelings, that is, true spiritual maturity would be to get to the point where we would simply leave out that line when praying the Lord's Prayer, and feel no guilt or compunction in doing so (or in doing anything else). Pastors, being mature, would tell their congregations that they [the pastors] no longer confess their sins or ask God for forgiveness, because they don't feel those inaccurate feelings any more. They are fully convinced, in mind and feelings, that all their sins (past, present and future) were forgiven at the moment of their [initial] justification, and their sheep should all seek to reach that same mature state.

But if that is not their practice or their goal, then they should consider the possibility that sins are forgiven progressively, over the course of a believer's life, through the application of the work of Christ to the believer through prayer and the means of grace offered to us by the Church. That conception of justification is closer to the Catholic notion of justification.

400,000 Anglicans reconciling with Rome

The story is out at The Record, and Deacon Keith Fournier discusses it here. Here's an excerpt from The Record.

The TAC is a growing global community of approximately 400,000 members that took the historic step in 2007 of seeking full corporate and sacramental communion with the Catholic Church – a move that, if fulfilled, will be the biggest development in Catholic-Anglican relations since the English Reformation under King Henry VIII. TAC members split from the Canterbury-based Anglican Communion headed by Archbishop Rowan Williams over issues such as its ordination of women priests and episcopal consecrations of women and practising homosexuals. The TAC’s case appeared to take a significant step forwards in October 2008 when it is understood that the CDF decided not to recommend the creation of a distinct Anglican rite within the Roman Catholic Church – as is the case with the Eastern Catholic Churches - but a personal prelature, a semi-autonomous group with its own clergy and laity. Opus Dei was the first organisation in the Catholic Church to be recognised as a personal prelature, a new juridical form in the life of the Church. A personal prelature is something like a global diocese without boundaries, headed by its own bishop and with its own membership and clergy. (emphasis mine)

This helps pave the way for other Anglo-Catholics seeking reconciliation with Rome.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

St. Thomas Aquinas on Angels and Grace

"The Fall of the Rebel Angels"
Luca Giordano (1666)

Today is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas who is known as the Angelic Doctor. (He is also my patron saint). Pope Pius X, in Pascendi Gregis, wrote, "none can depart from St. Thomas's teaching, especially in metaphysics, without danger." One of the reasons Aquinas is the supreme Doctor of the Church is that his understanding of the angels allowed him better to understand both God and man, because in the order of being, angels stand between God and man. So consider Summa Theologica I Q.62 a.1. There Aquinas asks the following question: Were the angels created in beatitude? In other words, were the angels created such that they were already perfectly happy? (Aquinas's words are in green.) Aquinas begins his answer with a very simple argument. He writes:

"To be established or confirmed in good is of the nature of beatitude. But the angels were not confirmed in good as soon as they were created; the fall of some of them shows this. Therefore the angels were not in beatitude from their creation."

If the angels were not created in beatitude, does that mean that they were created in misery or wretchedness? No. Aquinas proceeds to show that there are two kinds of happiness possible for any rational creature. He writes:

"By the name of beatitude is understood the ultimate perfection of rational or of intellectual nature; and hence it is that it is naturally desired, since everything naturally desires its ultimate perfection. Now there is a twofold ultimate perfection of rational or of intellectual nature. The first is one which it can procure of its own natural power; and this is in a measure called beatitude or happiness. Hence Aristotle (Ethic. x) says that man's ultimate happiness consists in his most perfect contemplation, whereby in this life he can behold the best intelligible object; and that is God. Above this happiness there is still another, which we look forward to in the future, whereby "we shall see God as He is." This is beyond the nature of every created intellect, as was shown above (Question 12, Article 4)."

Every rational creature, by its very nature as a being with rationality, naturally desires its perfection. It can be perfected in two ways. First, by what it can attain by its natural power. This is the kind of happiness Aristotle describes in Book X of the Nicomachean Ethics. It consists in the contemplation of God, insofar as God can be known by us through our natural intellective power from the things that have been made. But there is a more perfect happiness possible for us, because there is a higher possible knowledge of God. That higher knowledge of God is knowing God as God knows Himself, in His essence, not merely from what He has made. Yet, as Aquinas as already shown in ST I Q.12 a.4 no rational creature can by its own natural power alone attain to the knowledge of God's essence, for God's essence is above our nature. Hence in ST I Q.12 a.4 his argument concludes:

"Therefore the created intellect cannot see the essence of God, unless God by His grace unites Himself to the created intellect, as an object made intelligible to it."

In order to attain perfect happiness, rational creatures need God to unite Himself to them in such a way that they participate in the divine nature, and thus can know God as God knows Himself. (That's what Aquinas means by "as an object made intelligible to it"). For Aquinas, this is precisely what grace is, a supernatural gift infused into the substance of the rational creature making the creature a participant in the divine nature, capable of knowing God as He is. Only in this way can the rational creature know God as He is in His essence, and thus attain perfect beatitude. Aquinas concludes ST I Q.62 a.1 by showing that the angels were created with natural beatitude, but not with the ultimate beatitude that consists in knowing God in His essence. Aquinas writes:

"So, then, it remains to be said, that, as regards this first beatitude, which the angel could procure by his natural power, he was created already blessed. Because the angel does not acquire such beatitude by any progressive action, as man does, but, as was observed above (58, 3,4), is straightway in possession thereof, owing to his natural dignity. But the angels did not have from the beginning of their creation that ultimate beatitude which is beyond the power of nature; because such beatitude is no part of their nature, but its end; and consequently they ought not to have it immediately from the beginning."

Aquinas explains that the angels, if left to their natural powers alone, could never have attained the perfect beatitude that consists in knowing God in His essence. Such a knowledge is beyond the power of their nature to attain. Hence, in the following article, Aquinas argues that the angels needed grace to turn to God as the object of perfect beatitude. He writes:

The angels stood in need of grace in order to turn to God, as the object of beatitude. For, as was observed above (Question 60, Article 2) the natural movement of the will is the principle of all things that we will. But the will's natural inclination is directed towards what is in keeping with its nature. Therefore, if there is anything which is above nature, the will cannot be inclined towards it, unless helped by some other supernatural principle.

In ST I Q.60 a.2, Aquinas taught that angels were created with a natural love, that is, a fundamental appetite toward their end (i.e the beatitude of knowing God). Their natural love is like our natural desire for happiness; it is part of our nature, and we cannot remove it or change it. The angels also have what he calls "love of choice". That is a love which they freely will for the sake of their natural love. This is akin to what we freely choose to love, for the sake of attaining happiness. Here in ST I Q.62 a.2, he is arguing that the will's natural inclination is directed towards what is in keeping with its nature, which in the case of angels is a knowledge of God as known through the angelic nature, not as God is in His essence. For Aquinas,
without supernatural help the angel's natural inclination cannot be directed toward the beatific vision. He continues:

Now it was shown above (12, 4,5), when we were treating of God's knowledge, that to see God in His essence, wherein the ultimate beatitude of the rational creature consists, is beyond the nature of every created intellect. Consequently no rational creature can have the movement of the will directed towards such beatitude, except it be moved thereto by a supernatural agent. This is what we call the help of grace. Therefore it must be said that an angel could not of his own will be turned to such beatitude, except by the help of grace.

Then in Q.62 a.3, drawing from Augustine, Aquinas argues that angels were created with grace. This entails, of course, that those angels who rebelled, did so while in a state of grace. Aquinas anticipates this objection and replies:

Every form inclines the subject after the mode of the subject's nature. Now it is the mode of an intellectual nature to be inclined freely towards the objects it desires. Consequently the movement of grace does not impose necessity; but he who has grace can fail to make use of it, and can sin. (ST I Q.62 a.3 ad 2)

Here we see Aquinas making use of the principle that grace perfects nature. Grace does not impose coercive necessity on the will, or hinder the freedom of the will. Those who while having grace reject God are more culpable than they would have been had they rejected Him without grace. Aquinas then addresses the question of the role of merit with respect to angelic beatitude. He writes:

Perfect beatitude is natural only to God, because existence and beatitude are one and the same thing in Him. Beatitude, however, is not of the nature of the creature, but is its end. Now everything attains its last end by its operation. Such operation leading to the end is either productive of the end, when such end is not beyond the power of the agent working for the end, as the healing art is productive of health; or else it is deserving of the end, when such end is beyond the capacity of the agent striving to attain it; wherefore it is looked for from another's bestowing. Now it is evident from what has gone before (1,2; 12, 4,5), ultimate beatitude exceeds both the angelic and the human nature. It remains, then, that both man and angel merited their beatitude. And if the angel was created in grace, without which there is no merit, there would be no difficulty in saying that he merited beatitude: as also, if one were to say that he had grace in any way before he had glory.

This is a fairly straightforward argument. Only God has beatitude intrinsically. (cf. ST I Q.26) Creatures attain their end through their proper operation, which either directly produces the end (when the end is within the creature's powers) or, when the end is beyond the creature's powers, merits the end to be bestowed by a higher power. Since ultimate beatitude exceeds the natural capacity of angels and humans, therefore both angels and humans attain that end not by direct production but by merit. But there cannot be merit [to the ultimate end] without grace. Why? Aquinas explains in ST I-II Q.114 a.2, writing:

Now no act of anything whatsoever is divinely ordained to anything exceeding the proportion of the powers which are the principles of its act; for it is a law of Divine providence that nothing shall act beyond its powers. Now everlasting life is a good exceeding the proportion of created nature; since it exceeds its knowledge and desire, according to 1 Corinthians 2:9: "Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man." And hence it is that no created nature is a sufficient principle of an act meritorious of eternal life, unless there is added a supernatural gift, which we call grace.

Therefore, angels could only fulfill their proper operation and reach their ultimate end by merit, and they could only merit this if endowed with the supernatural gift of grace.Then in the fifth article of Q.62, Aquinas asks whether the angels obtained beatitude immediately after one act of merit. He writes:

The angel was beatified instantly after the first act of charity, whereby he merited beatitude. The reason whereof is because grace perfects nature according to the manner of the nature; as every perfection is received in the subject capable of perfection, according to its mode. Now it is proper to the angelic nature to receive its natural perfection not by passing from one stage to another; but to have it at once naturally, as was shown above (1; 58, 3,4). But as the angel is of his nature inclined to natural perfection, so is he by merit inclined to glory. Hence instantly after merit the angel secured beatitude. Now the merit of beatitude in angel and man alike can be from merely one act; because man merits beatitude by every act informed by charity. Hence it remains that an angel was beatified straightway after one act of charity.

According to Aquinas, angels have a higher nature than do humans. That is why they do not reason discursively, or by composition and division into subject and predicate. Unlike humans, who learn in time, what angels can know through their intellect they perceive all at once. Furthermore, grace perfects nature according to the manner of that nature; every perfection is received in a subject capable of perfection, according to the mode proper to the nature of that subject. Also, as the angel is by his nature inclined to natural perfection, so by merit (for which grace is a prerequisite), he is inclined to glory (i.e. beatific vision). Therefore, by one act of charity, that is, a free grace-enabled movement of the will toward God, the angel instantly merited perfect beatitude. Likewise, by one act of rebellion, the fallen angels instantly merited eternal damnation.

Aquinas goes on to say that there are different degrees of glory in the various angels, according to their various gifts. He also argues that in acquiring the knowledge of God as He is in Himself (i.e. knowledge of God's essence), the angels do not lose their natural knowledge of God. In addition he argues that once the angels have attained the beatific vision, they cannot advance in happiness, because their happiness is perfect. In article eight he points out that the angels who chose to love God and so have attained the beatific vision
, can never sin. There he writes:

The beatified angels cannot sin. The reason for this is, because their beatitude consists in seeing God through His essence. Now, God's essence is the very essence of goodness. Consequently the angel beholding God is disposed towards God in the same way as anyone else not seeing God is to the common form of goodness. Now it is impossible for any man either to will or to do anything except aiming at what is good; or for him to wish to turn away from good precisely as such. Therefore the beatified angel can neither will nor act, except as aiming towards God. Now whoever wills or acts in this manner cannot sin. Consequently the beatified angel cannot sin.

Once again Aquinas is applying the principle that grace perfects nature. He is drawing from Aristotle's elucidation of the intrinsic and unchangeble directedness of rational creatures toward goodness. We cannot choose evil except under an aspect of goodness. That is, we can never choose evil for its own sake. It is impossible for us to do so. We do not perceive this intrinsic and unchangeable directedness of our will toward goodness as restricting or limiting our freedom. We recognize, on a few moments reflection, that it is a good thing that our will is intrinsically and immutably aimed at goodness, for otherwise we would necessarily have no criteria for deciding anything; we would not be rational, and hence *we* would not exist. Just as we do not perceive our intrinsic and immutable directedness toward goodness as a restriction on our freedom, but as a necessary condition for our freedom, so also in the beatific vision, when we are confirmed in beatitude through our will being immutably directed to God in charity, our 'inability' to turn away from God will not be perceived as a restriction on our freedom, but as an enhancement and perfection of our freedom.

What does all this have to do with the union of all Christians? It provides an explanation for why it is that the claim that we are "justified by grace alone through faith alone" entails that the faith is not entirely alone. Faith is produced by grace that has been infused into the soul by the Holy Spirit. Grace cannot be mere divine favor, because mere divine favor would not by itself enable the angels to attain to the knowledge of God's essence and thus to attain their ultimate beatitude. Man, like the angels, is a rational creature, and likewise needs a supernatural gift in order to attain his supernatural end. So when Aquinas reaches the question, "Was the first man created in grace?" (ST I Q.95 a.1), he first refers back to what he has already said regarding the angels. (I have discussed here Aquinas' argument that Adam and Eve were created in grace.)

In ST I-II Q.113 a.2, Aquinas asks whether the infusion of grace is required for the remission of guilt, i.e. for the justification of the ungodly. He answers:

By sinning a man offends God as stated above (Question 71, Article 6). Now an offense is remitted to anyone, only when the soul of the offender is at peace with the offended. Hence sin is remitted to us, when God is at peace with us, and this peace consists in the love whereby God loves us. Now God's love, considered on the part of the Divine act, is eternal and unchangeable; whereas, as regards the effect it imprints on us, it is sometimes interrupted, inasmuch as we sometimes fall short of it and once more require it. Now the effect of the Divine love in us, which is taken away by sin, is grace, whereby a man is made worthy of eternal life, from which sin shuts him out. Hence we could not conceive the remission of guilt, without the infusion of grace.

Here's Aquinas's argument. We cannot truly be at peace with God (due to our sin) until there is mutual love between God and us. But God's love for us is eternal and unchangeable. So, in order for us to be at peace with God, we must love God. We cannot do that without grace, for grace disposes us to know God and love God, and so be worthy of eternal life (i.e. to share in God's divine life). So therefore, we cannot be at peace with God without the infusion of grace. But wherever there is remission of sins there is peace with God. Therefore, there cannot be remission of sins without the infusion of grace.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Paradigm Inversion and Ecumenical Humility

The Conversion of St. Paul
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

Today is the eighth and final day of the week of prayer for Christian unity. Today is also the feast day of the Conversion of St. Paul. This event is more significant this year because this is "the Pauline Year", during which the Church marks St. Paul's 2,000th birthday. The conversion of St. Paul provides an example for us as we seek the full visible reunion of all Christians.

Paul, then known as Saul, was a learned rabbi, educated under the renowned Gamaliel, and unparalleled in his devotion and zeal for God. He had been "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord". (Acts 9:1) He persecuted the Christians, entering house after house, binding men and women, beating them (Acts 22:19), putting them in prisons, and casting his vote against them when they were being put to death, including the stoning of St. Stephen. (Acts 7:58, 8:3) He also tried to force Christians to blaspheme, "being furiously enraged at them". (Acts 26:11) He describes his pre-conversion self as "a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor". (1 Tim 1:13)

As a result of this persecution led by Saul, many Christians fled to other cities, including Damascus. Saul determined to hunt them down and stamp them out. While on the road to Damascus, he was met suddenly by Jesus Christ, who confronted him quite literally like a bolt of lightning. Saul fell to the ground, and a voice from heaven said to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" Saul recognized, of course, that the speaker was divine. But the situation was not entirely unlike Nathan's "You are the man" (2 Samuel 12:7), and Queen Esther's similar fingering of Haman in the presence of King Ahasuerus (Esther 7:1-6). The expectations were completely reversed. What Christ was saying about Saul persecuting Him did not fit Saul's paradigm, in the least. Saul persecuting God? That's impossible. Saul was a "Hebrew of Hebrews" (Phil 3:5), advancing in Judaism beyond many of his contemporaries, (Gal 1:14), his zeal for God indicated by the very thing he was doing (Phil 3:6), traveling to Damascus to stamp out these followers of Jesus.

That is why Saul replied, in confusion, "Who are you, Lord?" Jesus then replied, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting." (Acts 9:4-5) Saul discovered to his horror that he had been terribly wrong. Not only had he been persecuting the followers of the true Messiah, he had been persecuting the divine Messiah Himself, by persecuting the Messiah's Body, the Church, as he says in Galatians 1:13, "I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it." Saul had completely failed to discern the identity of the Church. Yet, he was shown mercy "because he acted ignorantly in unbelief." (1 Tim 1:13)

Saul had been blind. Now Jesus reveals Himself to Saul, and blinds his physical eyes. Jesus shows Saul physically what his theological condition had been like: "though his eyes were open, he could see nothing". (Acts 9:8) Saul had been leading a group of men to persecute Christ's Church; now these men lead the blind Saul like a child. Five minutes before this encounter, the notion that he was theologically blind, and fighting against God, would have been unimaginable to Saul, preposterous!

Christ tells Saul, His persecutor, that He is sending him to the Gentiles to open their eyes "so that they may turn from darkness to light". (Acts 26:18) A paradigm shift of this magnitude does not take place instantly. Saul was in intellectual, spiritual and emotional shock. He had to absorb what had happened, come to terms with the evil that he had done to Christ and His Church, and accept the astounding mercy God had shown to him in revealing Himself to him and healing his spiritual blindness. Saul couldn't eat or drink for three days. (Acts 9:9) During those three days, he prayed, seeking direction. (Acts 9:11) When Ananias came and laid hands on him, and the scales fell from his eyes, he regained His sight, and got up and was baptized. He too was now a Christian, a follower of Christ.

St. Paul's conversion, more than any other in Scripture, teaches us intellectual humility, because he shows that it is possible to be entirely convinced that others are wrong about divine matters, and then come to realize that you yourself have been wrong, even fighting against God. He also shows us an example of a divinely provoked paradigm inversion. The very thing he had thought was heresy turned out to be the truth. He had been trying to get people to deny or curse this 'heresy'; it turned out that he had unknowingly been trying to make them blaspheme God. He had been found to be, as Gamaliel his old teacher had warned, vainly "fighting against God". (Acts 5:39) A paradigm inversion is not just an addition or adjustment to an existing paradigm; it is an entirely different way of seeing. What was previously seen as blasphemous, heretical or cause for division, for example, is now perceived as a beautiful and mysterious blessing.

I was recently in two separate conversations involving Catholics and Protestants. In one, the Protestant said, "my approach to ecumenism with Rome is to call all Roman Catholics to faith and repentance". In the other, a self-styled Catholic apologist jumped into a long-running conversation and almost immediately accused the participating Protestants of "rebelling against God" and "concocting another Gospel". Neither of these seem like intellectual humility to me. I'm not suggesting that we should not hold our beliefs passionately, or that certainty is always unjustified. On the contrary, we may be called to face death for our beliefs; many have. But the example of St. Paul's conversion reminds us all that we are not beyond error. And in the face of actual theological disagreement, the law of non-contradiction entails that at least one of us is *wrong*. That too ought to keep us humble in any ecumenical dialogue.

Tonight, Pope Benedict gave a homily at the celebration of vespers for the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. This ceremony was held at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, which is built over the tomb of St. Paul. Pope Benedict said the following:

St. Paul's conversion offers us a model that shows us the way to full unity. Unity in fact requires a conversion: from division to communion, from broken unity to healed and full unity. This conversion is the gift of the Risen Christ, as it was for St. Paul. We heard this from the Apostle himself in the reading proclaimed just a moment ago: "By the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Corinthians 15:10).

The same Lord, who called Saul on the road to Damascus, addresses Himself to the members of the Church -- which is one and holy -- and calling each by name asks: Why have you divided Me? Why have you wounded the unity of My Body?

Conversion implies two dimensions. In the first step we recognize our faults in the light of Christ, and this recognition becomes sorrow and repentance, desire for a new beginning. In the second step we recognize that this new road cannot come from us. It consists in letting ourselves be conquered by Christ. As St. Paul says: "I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been conquered by Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:12).

Are we closer to being united since the close of last year's week of prayer for Christian unity? The answer is not easy to determine. It is easier to see the ecumenical progress when we look back over the past 101 years, since the initiation of this annual week of prayer for Christian unity. Think about what you can do to help bring us all closer to unity by this day next year. Pray daily for the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers. Talk with other Christians about what still divides us, always in a spirit of charity and sincerity. Don't conduct your ecumenical discussions in a question-begging way; try to seek out together the root causes historically behind the divergences. If you discover a truth that helps resolve a disagreement or dissolve a misunderstanding that perpetuates division, share this truth with everyone you can. Taking into your heart the passion for unity revealed in the heart of Christ Jesus in John 17 is a form of devotion, a participation in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Since love pursues unity, a devotion to the unity He loves nurtures the love that effects such unity. Apathy and hatred toward others cannot coexist with a continually nurtured desire for genuine and complete unity with them in the Body of Christ. Let us keep pursuing this unity, as brothers and sisters in Christ, for the sake of our Lord's Sacred Heart.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Apostolicity and the Ecumenical Challenge

"The Sacrament of Ordination"
Nicolas Poussin (1636-40)
(click on the painting for a larger image)

Today is the seventh day of the week of prayer for Christian unity. It is also the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, who brought 72,000 Calvinists back into the Catholic Church. Recently I came across Michael Spencer's post titled "Spiritual Depression and the Search for the One True Church", and it prompted the following reflection.

The greatest challenge to the goal of reconciling Protestants and Catholics in full unity is not coming to an agreement regarding whether charity is merely coexistent with justifying faith (Turretin) or whether charity is that which makes faith to be living faith, and thus to be justifying faith (Trent). (See here.) I suspect that only a very small percentage of contemporary Christians has even thought about that question. Many Protestants, I suppose, if they didn't know the source, probably would be open if not sympathetic to Pope Benedict's recent talk on justification. In my opinion the greatest challenge for reuniting Protestants and Catholics has to do, rather, with reconciling two very different ecclesial paradigms that differ on the question of whether or not Christ founded His Church with a perpetual hierarchy in unbroken succession from the Apostles.

In the ecclesial paradigm of contemporary Evangelicalism, the Church Christ founded is something spiritual, and faith in Christ is a sufficient condition for full membership in Christ's Church. Of course Christians are called not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25), and so some local organized congregation or regional organization (i.e. denomination) is practically useful if not necessary. But these are all merely man-made organizations. That is why, in the Evangelical mind, it is fine to initiate and form entirely *autonomous* congregations of all different sorts and styles, even in the same town. The Church is the invisible spiritual entity to which true believers are invisibly joined by the Holy Spirit, regardless of any organizational or institutional affiliation. We can see this ecclesial paradigm in the consumeristic way evangelicals determine which congregation or denomination to join, and in the way they decide for themselves which doctrines are essential and which are non-essential.

We can see this paradigm implicit in the common notion that it is more important to join an imperfect denomination than to continue searching for a 'perfect church'. The notion of finding "the Church that Christ founded" is typically not even on the conceptual radar, precisely because the Evangelical ecclesial paradigm does not recognize that Christ established and endowed His Church with a perpetual hierarchy of leadership in succession from the Apostles. But, it was to this perpetual hierarchy that the Holy Spirit, speaking through the inspired author of Hebrews, commanded us to submit and obey (Heb 13:17) -- not to those whom we have accumulated to ourselves who teach according to our own interpretation of Scripture (2 Tim 4:3).

When the Apostle Matthew records Jesus saying to Peter in Matt 16:18, "upon this rock I will build My Church", and then saying, in Matt 18:17, "tell it to the Church", and "listen to the Church", the most natural way of understanding these passages is that the term 'ekklesia' ('Church') is being used in the same way in all three places. And it is clear in the Matthew 18 passages that 'ekklesia' there refers to the visible Church, not a merely spiritual entity. That implies that Matt 16:18 is also referring to the visible Church. This is the one, holy, catholic (i.e universal) and apostolic (i.e. hierarchically organized in succession from the Apostles) Church.

When we look at the transition in the early Church from Apostolic to post-Apostolic leadership in the first century, we find a very different ecclesial paradigm from that of contemporary Evangelicalism. We see apostolicity understood as an apostolic authorization to hold ecclesial authority, to speak and teach in Christ's name, and with His authorization. Ecclesial authority could not come from non-authority; it could come only from those having authority from the Apostles.

This conception of ecclesial authority carries with it a very different ecclesiology, because to be a member in full communion with the Church thus requires being in full communion with this perpetual hierarchy. To be in full communion with Christ's Church, it is not enough simply to believe in Christ and love Christ. I discussed apostolicity in more detail here and here. Only in rediscovering what apostolicity meant in the early Church as taught in the fathers can Evangelicals and Catholics come to share the same ecclesial paradigm by which we can be truly united.

The early Reformers had a more accurate understanding of the visibility of the Church than do contemporary Evangelicals. Consider the following quotation from Keith Mathison (a Protestant):

Unlike modern Evangelicalism, the classical Protestant Reformers held to a high view of the Church. When the Reformers confessed extra ecclesiam nulla salus, which means "there is no salvation outside the Church," they were not referring to the invisible Church of all the elect. Such a statement would be tantamount to saying that outside of salvation there is no salvation. It would be a truism. The Reformers were referring to the visible Church… The Church is the pillar and ground, the interpreter, teacher, and proclaimer of God’s Word… The Church has authority because Christ gave the Church authority. The Christian who rejects the authority of the Church rejects the authority of the One who sent her (Luke 10:16). (Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, pp. 268, 269.)(H/T: David Waltz)

Or consider what Scott Clark (a Protestant professor at Westminster Seminary in California) says about connectionalism in his ecclesiology article. There he writes, "It is often assumed in the American Church that the New Testament Churches were independent of one another and autonomous, that is, subject to no one's authority but their own. In fact this is less a New Covenant picture than an amalgam of the historic Anabaptist view of the Church with traditional American self reliance." Clark's article implies that the visible catholic Church that Christ founded consists of local congregations *networked* together and subordinate to the decisions of general assemblies such as in Acts 15.

It is to that visible catholic Church that the promises of Christ to the Church refer. The gates of hell shall not prevail against the visible catholic Church (Matt 16:18). Christ will be with the visible catholic Church to the end of the age (Matt 28:20). The Holy Spirit will guide the visible catholic Church into all truth (John 16:13). Whatever the visible catholic Church binds on earth will be bound in heaven (Matt 16:19, 18:19). The visible catholic Church is the pillar and ground of truth (1 Tim 3:15). These promises would be superfluous and unhelpful if intended only for the set of all the elect.

So when asked "Which is the visible catholic Church that Christ founded?", we should at least be able to refer to the network of congregations constituting the visible catholic Church. If we're left scratching our heads, then there are only three possibilities: either Christ's promises didn't apply to the visible catholic Church (and the visible catholic Church simply faded out of existence at some point in history), or Christ didn't found a visible catholic Church, or it is *we* who have lost sight of the visible catholic Church. In Evangelicalism, there is no such thing (conceptually) as a visible catholic Church. In confessional Protestantism there is at least a familiarity with the concept of the visible catholic Church, but the question "Which is the visible catholic Church that Christ founded?" nevertheless leads to the scratching of heads. Few are willing to say that it is their own denomination.

The offense that some Protestants took to Responsa ad quaestiones in July of 2007 is due precisely to their unfamiliarity with what it means that Christ founded one, visible catholic Church. The visibility of the Church is entailed by what the Church has believed and taught from the beginning about apostolicity as ecclesial authority derived in succession from the Apostles through the laying on of hands by those having that authority. (Reducing apostolicity to formal agreement with the Apostles' doctrine therefore vitiates the grounds for ecclesial visibility.) It should be no surprise that if we want to reunite all Christians, we have to be united together in Christ's Church. And further it should be no surprise that if we are going to find and be united in Christ's Church, we have to dig deeply into her four marks as repeated in the Creed: Credo in ... unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam.

St. Francis de Sales, focusing on apostolicity, wrote the following to the Protestants of Geneva:

"First, then, your ministers had not the conditions required for the position which they sought to maintain, and the enterprise which they undertook. ... The office they claimed was that of ambassadors of Jesus Christ our Lord; the affair they undertook was to declare a formal divorce between Our Lord and the ancient Church his Spouse; to arrange and conclude by words of present consent, as lawful procurators, a second and new marriage with this young madam, of better grace, said they, and more seemly than the other. ... To be legates and ambassadors they should have been sent, they should have had letters of credit from him whom they boasted of being sent by. ... Tell me, what business had you to hear them and believe them without having any assurance of their commission and of the approval of Our Lord, whose legates they called themselves? In a word, you have no justification for having quitted that ancient Church in which you were baptized, on the faith of preachers who had no legitimate mission from the Master.

St. Francis de Sales, pray for us, that we would all be one in the visible catholic Church that Christ founded.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Justification: Divided over Charity

Council of Trent
Paolo Farinatis (c. 1524 - c. 1606)
(click on the painting for a larger image)

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Protestantism, there are three primary theological principles separating Catholics and Protestants. These principles have to do with justification, Church tradition, and Church authority. Here I want to focus on justification, briefly laying out the fundamental difference between the Catholic and Protestant positions on this doctrine only with respect to the role of charity.

Protestants and Catholics have somewhat different definitions of the term 'justification'. For Protestants, 'justification' refers not only to an initial justification at the moment of faith, but also to a final justification at the Final Judgment (see, for example, here and here). The Catholic understanding of the term 'justification' includes a third aspect: ongoing justification (see here). That is partly because the Catholic Church defines 'justification' such that sanctification is intrinsically included within it (see here), while Protestants define 'justification' such that sanctification is not included within it per se, but is supposed to attend or follow it.

These disagreements between Protestants and Catholics are partly semantic differences. Mere semantic differences are not substantive differences. But the disagreements are not entirely semantic. In this post, however, I will focus only on one aspect of [initial] justification, namely, its relation to charity.

Recently, Pope Benedict spoke about justification as the topic of one of his weekly general audiences. That address is something I hope all Protestants will carefully and prayerfully read. In that address he said the following:

"For this reason Luther's phrase: "faith alone" is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love.

Responding to Pope Benedict's statement quoted above, R. Scott Clark, professor of Church History & Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary [a Protestant seminary] wrote [UPDATE: his post has been moved to his new blog here] the following:

That conditional, that "if," makes all the difference in the world. That one little conditional is the difference between Rome and Wittenberg. Why? After all, Protestants affirm that faith alone is not opposed to charity (love) or sanctification. That's certainly true, but the question here is whether [...] Benedict means by "faith" what we mean by it and whether we're talking about the same justification and the same role of faith? For us Protestants, charity is the fruit and evidence of justification. Is it so for Benedict? If so, he's abandoned his own catechism and magisterial Roman dogma since 1547. That would be remarkable indeed! (emphasis mine)

Clark suggests that the fundamental point of disagreement between Catholics and Protestants regarding justification is whether charity is or is not necessarily present with justifying faith as its form. In other words, Is the faith by which we are justified necessarily formed by charity [fides formata caritate ] or not?

Catholics understand charity to be that theological virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God - see CCC 1822 and ST II-II Q.23 a.3. And Catholics do believe that charity is evidence of justification, and that charitable actions are the fruit of justification. But the fundamental point of disagreement between Protestants and Catholics with respect to the role of charity in [initial] justification seems to be whether charity is necessarily present within the person having justifying faith, or whether charity only necessarily follows justifying faith as its fruit. We can see the Catholic position on the relation of justifying faith and charity in Chapter VII of Session VI of the Council of Trent in 1547:

For though no one can be just except he to whom the merits of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ are communicated, yet this takes place in that justification of the sinner, when by the merit of the most holy passion, the charity of God is poured forth by the Holy Ghost in the hearts of those who are justified and inheres in them; whence man through Jesus Christ, in whom he is ingrafted, receives in that justification, together with the remission of sins, all these infused at the same time, namely, faith, hope and charity. For faith, unless hope and charity be added to it, neither unites man perfectly with Christ nor makes him a living member of His body. For which reason it is most truly said that faith without works is dead and of no profit, and in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision, but faith that worketh by charity. This faith, conformably to Apostolic tradition, catechumens ask of the Church before the sacrament of baptism, when they ask for the faith that gives eternal life, which without hope and charity faith cannot give.

(To avoid the technical part of this post, skip over the following section between the dashed lines.)

Why does the Council of Trent teach that charity must be present in us in order for our faith to be justifying? St. Thomas Aquinas addresses the relation of charity and justifying faith in Summa Theologica II-II Q.4 a.3, where he argues that charity is the form of faith. First, consider some background philosophical anthropology.

Rational beings each possess two rational powers: intellect and will. The intellect is by its nature directed toward the true; the will is by its nature directed to the good. These two powers (i.e. intellect and will) have habits, i.e. dispositions. Good habits are called virtues; bad habits are called vices. The virtues can be divided into the natural virtues and the supernatural virtues. The natural virtues can be acquired (though not perfectly) through the use of our own powers, without supernatural infusion. There are three supernatural virtues, called 'supernatural' because they can be acquired only by supernatural infusion. Hence they are also called the "theological virtues". They are faith, hope, and charity. Faith is a virtue of the intellect; charity is a virtue of the will. The theological virtue of hope also is a virtue of the will.

Why then, according to Aquinas, is charity the form of faith? In ST II-II Q.4 a.3 he writes:

As appears from what has been said above (I-II, 1, 3; I-II, 18, 6), voluntary acts take their species from their end which is the will's object. Now that which gives a thing its species, is after the manner of a form in natural things. Wherefore the form of any voluntary act is, in a manner, the end to which that act is ordered, both because it takes its species therefrom, and because the mode of an action should correspond proportionately to the end. Now it is evident from what has been said (art. 1), that the act of faith is directed to the object of the will, i.e. the good, as to its end: and this good which is the end of faith, viz. the Divine Good, is the proper object of charity. Therefore charity is called the form of faith in as much as through charity the act of faith is perfected and is formed.

What is Aquinas saying here? His argument can be analyzed in this way:

(1) Voluntary acts take their species from their end, which is the will's object. [From ST I-II Q.1 a.3 and ST I-II Q.18 a.6]

(2) That which gives a thing its species is its form, in the manner of a form in natural things.


(3) The form of any voluntary act is, in a manner, the end to which that act is directed. [From (1) and (2)]

(4) An act of faith is related both to the object of the will, i.e. to the good and the end, and to the object of the intellect, i.e. the true. [ST II-II Q.4 a.1]

(5) The act of faith is directed to the object of the will, i.e. the good, as to its end. [From (4)]

(6) This good which is the end of faith, viz. the Divine Good, is the proper object of charity. [From ST II-II Q.24 a.1]


(7) Charity is the form of faith inasmuch as through charity the act of faith is perfected and is formed. [From (3), (5),(6)]

Premises (1)-(3) are quite straightforward. To understand the basis for premise (4), we have to look back at ST II-II Q.4 a.1. Recall that faith is "the substance of things hoped for". (Hebrews 11:1) Because hope is a virtue of the will, faith is a virtue of the intellect, and because faith is defined as "the substance of things hoped for" (ST II-II Q.4 a.1), therefore the act of faith on the part of the intellect is directed to the same object and end that the act of charity on the part of the will is directed to (i.e. the Divine Good). Premise (5) follows directly from (4). Premise (6) is drawn from ST II-II Q.24 a.1, where Aquinas argues that the subject of charity is not the sensitive, but the intellective appetite, i.e. the will, which is ordered to the good. (To understand why charity is a virtue of the [rational] appetite, see also my post titled "Love and Unity: Part 2".) Charity is thus the form of faith [forma fidei], in that it is only through charity that the act of faith attains the end by which it is given its species.

Aquinas makes this even clearer in the following article (ST II-II Q.4 a.4), where he argues that unformed faith [fides informis] is the same habit as formed faith. He writes:

We must therefore hold differently that formed faith and unformed faith [fidei formatae et informis] are one and the same habit. The reason is that a habit is differentiated by that which directly pertains to that habit. Now since faith is a perfection of the intellect, that pertains directly to faith, which pertains to the intellect. Again, what pertains to the will, does not pertain directly to faith, so as to be able to differentiate the habit of faith. But the distinction between formed faith and unformed faith [fidei formatae et informis] is in respect of something pertaining to the will, i.e. charity, and not in respect of something pertaining to the intellect. Therefore formed faith and unformed faith [fides formata et informis] are not distinct habits.

What is this unformed faith [fides informis]? Aquinas identifies it with the faith referred to in James 2:20, where St. James writes that "faith without works is dead'. Thus according to Aquinas, fides informis is "dead faith". What makes it dead is the absence of the virtue of charity in the will, for as St. Paul says in Galatians 5:6, "faith worketh through charity". [cf. ST II-II Q.4 a.2 arg.3] In other words, what distinguishes formed faith [i.e. living faith] from unformed faith [i.e. dead faith] is nothing in the faith itself, that is, nothing in the habit in the intellect. Rather, what distinguishes formed faith (i.e. living faith) from unformed faith (i.e. dead faith) is that the former is accompanied by the supernatural virtue of charity in the will, while the latter is not accompanied by the supernatural virtue of charity in the will.

The interesting thing here is that Protestants do not believe that anyone is justified by dead faith. Protestants believe, with Catholics, that a justifying faith must be a living faith. So the difference between Catholics and Protestants with respect to this point is that Protestants do not believe that charity is what makes faith living (though they do believe that charity necessarily follows living faith), while Catholics believe that charity is precisely what makes faith living.

This raises the following questions for Protestants: What is the difference between dead faith and living faith? More specifically, what does living faith have per se that dead faith does not? Are they two species of faith? If so, are they both gifts of God? If so, when a man moves from dead faith to living faith, does God take away His previous gift of dead faith? If God does not do so, then does the gift of dead faith remain in the man, but inactive for the rest of his life as a believer? On the other hand, if dead faith is *not* a supernatural gift of God, then how is it different from any belief about God we might come to merely through our natural power of reason? And if dead faith is no different from any belief about God we might come to merely through our natural power of reason, why is it rightly called 'faith'? Moreover, how can charity be the fruit of living faith if living faith does not contain charity? In other words, how can charity come from non-charity?

In his Institutes, John Calvin briefly treats the relation of charity to faith. There he writes, "For the teaching of the Schoolmen, that love is prior to faith and hope, is mere madness; for it is faith alone that first engenders love in us." (Institutes, III.2.41) Aquinas discusses this question in ST II-II Q.4 a.7 and ST II-II Q.17 a.8. Aquinas makes a distinction between the order of generation and the order of perfection. In the order of generation, faith precedes hope and charity, because we cannot hope in or love what we do not know. This is because the movement of the will toward its end depends upon the intellect presenting this end to it. But, according to Aquinas, in the order of perfection, charity precedes hope and faith. This can be shown from what St. Paul himself says in 1 Corinthians 13:13.

When Calvin claims that "faith alone first engenders love in us", there is a certain *qualified* sense in which a Catholic can agree, because faith precedes charity in the order of generation. But the question is whether faith without charity simultaneously co-present, is living, and thus justifying, faith. In his article, Clark cites Calvin's commentary on Galatians, where Calvin writes: "When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle." (Commentary on Galatians 5.6, 1548). By "the exclusive particle" Calvin means the term 'alone', as in "faith alone". So we see here Calvin at least implicitly denying that charity is necessarily simultaneously co-present with justifying faith.

The Catholic Church teaches that the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity are infused into us when we receive the Holy Spirit in the sacrament of baptism. St. Paul writes that "the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Romans 5:5). Only when faith is living (i.e. accompanied by the virtue of charity as its form), is faith justifying. Notice that this does not mean that the deathbed convert must do charitable works in order to be justified. It does mean, however, that unless there is charity in his will, whatever virtue of faith is present in his intellect is not a justifying faith.

Professor Clark seems not recognize that justification being progressive is fully compatible with an initial justification. For example, Pope Benedict claims that "Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into his love." Clark responds by saying, This is code for "to be gradually sanctified and gradually justified." Of course Catholics do believe that being conformed to Christ and entering His love is something that does continue over the course of a believer's life, insofar as the believer makes use of the means of grace. But, Catholics also believe that in our [initial] justification in the sacrament of baptism, we are at that moment "conformed to Christ and enter into His love", for at that moment we receive His life and love and Holy Spirit into our hearts. The death-bed convert who converts in his dying breath, is at that very moment truly "conformed to Christ", even though at that moment he might not yet be as conformed to Christ as he possibly could be, and will be in heaven.

If Clark is right that this disagreement between Protestants and Catholics regarding the role of charity in [initial] justification is "the difference between Rome and Wittenberg", then I'm left wondering how Protestants can be so sure that charity is not what makes faith living, that they are willing to make (or perpetuate) this 488 year-old schism on account of it. I invite my Protestant brothers and sisters, in this week of prayer for Christian unity, to consider prayerfully this fundamental point of disagreement. It is tragic and ironic that we should be divided over the role of charity. May charity break down this division between us, by the gracious operation of the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

"That They May Become One in Your Hand"

Chair of St. Peter

Today is the first day of the 101st Church Unity Octave, or "Week of prayer for Christian unity". January 18th was chosen as the first day of the Octave because it was one of the two feast days of the Chair of St. Peter, the other being February 22. (For an explanation of the three-fold relation of the chair, ecclesial unity and the name of this blog, see my post from this day last year.) This year's theme is "That They May Become One In Your Hand", drawn from Ezekiel 37:17, where the prophet shows God's power to reunite Israel and Judah. The first meditation for this week can be found here.

There we recall that while division, quarreling, strife and separation characterize the city of man (i.e. fallen man separated from Christ) on account of his self-worship and narcissism, it is not to be so among those within the city of God (i.e. those united to Christ). The divine life of the Most Holy Trinity is a life of perfect unity and peace. This divine life is the new life we receive at baptism, for we are baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. A name, as Plato points out in his Cratylus, is a sign of the essence. And this is why unity is one of the four enduring marks of the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" we speak of in the Nicene Creed, for her members are baptized into this divine life of perfect unity. Disunity among Christians always therefore in some respect involves movement away from the Church, and thus away from Christ.

Before us now, if we look with the eyes of men, stands a bleak ecumenical landscape. Seemingly only a small percentage of Christians are consciously aware of our disunity as disunity. Many Christians now seem to think that the present state of denominational divisions is natural, or unavoidable until Christ returns, a kind of necessary evil that we must simply put up with until then. Some even think these divisions are "healthy". Someone recently said to me, "I'm very glad for all these divisions. It means that no one has a monopoly on truth. Competition is good for the Church." To this person, the alternative account, namely, that these various sects and divisions are schisms from the Church, and thus separated in some sense from the life and truth of Christ, was literally inconceivable.

When evil is redescribed so that it appears good, you can bet that the "angel of light" (2 Cor 11:14) is involved, because manipulating light is his specialty. He makes evil appear good by selectively redirecting and obscuring the light of truth upon it, hiding its ugliness and destructiveness in the shadows and highlighting only its desirable aspects. In this way he works to justify evil in our eyes. Those who have adopted some form of utilitarianism attempt to justify evil actions by pointing to the good effects of those actions. "See, look at the good that comes from all these divisions among Christians." But St. Paul condemns such reasoning in Romans 3:8. We may not do evil or perpetuate evil so that good may result. No matter what good God has brought or will bring out of the evil of our disunity, that does not justify making or perpetuating schisms between Christians.

Of those Christians who recognize our disunity as contrary to Christ's heart as revealed in His prayer in St. John 17, relatively few are actively engaged in ecumenical efforts. Some conceive of ecumenicism as a misguided idealism that intrinsically involves compromise of the truth. Others simply lower the bar of unity, seeking merely some sort of bare unity on 'essentials'.

But, we are not without firmly grounded hope, because our hope is in Christ, with whom all things are possible. I am continually reminded of 1 Kings 7:1-2, where the condition Elisha promises for the following day seems impossible from the human point of view. And the same is true of Ezekiel 37:17. The reunion of all Christians can happen, more suddenly than we imagine, by the power of God. This does not mean that we should bury our ecumenical 'talent', leaving this task to God. Rather, we should be assured that God delights to receive our gifts of loaves and fishes, and multiply them beyond anything we can imagine, as He multiplied Abraham's descendants beyond the number of the stars. We should take courage, therefore, and stand firm and determined in our pursuit of the reconciliation and reunion of all Christians, as Pope Benedict today urged that we do.

Consider how long William Wilberforce labored to abolish the slave trade in England before finally seeing the results of his efforts. Consider the endurance and determination manifested by Martin Luther King Jr. If he had concluded from the pessimism of those who said "Racism you will always have with you this side of heaven", that we should not strive to eliminate racial injustice, we might still be drinking out of separate drinking fountains, and we would not now have a black president. Likewise, we too should not allow the fact that sin and disorder will never be eliminated from this present age to lead us to turn a blind eye to the present schisms and disunity among Christians. We can make a difference as peace-makers, with God’s help, but not as long as we believe that fate or sin makes such efforts futile.

Where is the hue and cry for our denominational leaders to take seriously our present state of division? Are the leaders of all the various denominations vowing to remain in constant dialogue until unity is achieved? Do you see or hear anyone calling out repeatedly in print or other media, for every effort to be made by denominational leaders to reconcile divided Christians? Or has the implicit denial of the visibility of the Church become the widespread yet unreflective assumption?

When I was younger I tended to think that whatever important things needed to be done in the world would be done by people older and more competent than myself. Only in recent years have I come to realize that what I am now is just what those "older and more competent" persons were then. And that is true for all of us. If we all simply waited for someone older and more competent to come along, the challenging ecumenical task that lies before us would never get done. If we want to hear a hue and cry, we have to raise it.

I'm not one who thinks that the younger generation is better than the previous generations, but I do believe that the younger generation is much more open than previous generations. The loss of 'denominational loyalty' might reflect a loss of loyalty as a virtue. But perhaps it suggests that this generation is open and willing to dialogue, confronted with its fragmentation and longing for the unity and security of the Church as our new covenant family, and for the rest that comes from finding our true ecclesial home. In this generation, with God's help we can undo the schisms of the past, by suffering with Him for His sake, in the patient labor of love in the spiritual works of mercy. This was the vision of Fr. Neuhaus. May he rest in peace, and may hundreds rise up to take his place.

"On the two pieces of wood, which form the cross of Christ, the Lord of history takes upon himself the wounds and divisions of humanity. In the totality of Jesus' gift of himself on the cross, he holds together human sin and God's redemptive steadfast love. To be a Christian is to be baptized into this death, through which the Lord, in his boundless mercy, etches the names of wounded humanity onto the wood of the cross, holding us to himself and restoring our relationship with God and with each other."

"Let us also go, that we may die with Him." (St. John 11:16)

Heal, Lord, our many divisions. May we be your instruments to bring your perfect unity to all your people. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.