Today is the Feast Day of Pope Saint Pius V. He is the greatest of the four Dominicans to be elected pope. He reigned as pontiff during one of the most difficult times in the history of the Church. Known to be a man of great prayer, austerity and zeal for the welfare of Holy Mother Church and the souls entrusted to her care, he was above all, even after being raised to the episcopate and the pontificate, a faithful Dominican friar and one of the Order’s greatest saints.
Saint Pius was born to a poor family in the small village of Bosco in northern Italy, January 17, 1504 and given the name Antonio Ghislieri. He showed remarkable intellectual aptitude as a boy, but his family was too poor to provide any advanced education. At the age of twelve, however, two Dominican friars happened through Bosco, and the boy approached them and demonstrated his knowledge, unusually advanced for his age. With his parents permission, the two friars took him with them for a period of preliminary education and probation for the Novitiate. He entered the Dominican Order at the age of 15, taking the name Michele, and continued his studies until he was ordained at the age of twenty-four.
Soon after his profession, he was sent to a Provincial Chapter to defend the faith against the then young Lutheran heresy. Afterward, he served as prior in several convents until finally he was sent as Roman Inquisitor to Como in northern Italy to stop the spread of Protestantism. There he endeavored to halt the heresy and braved ecclesial and civil opposition and threats of violence to preserve the faith from corruption.
In 1551, he was made Commissary General of the Roman Inquisition. He visited convicted heretics in prison and sought to convert them through reason and his example of charity. A famous story told of him at this time concerns Sixtus of Sienna. Sixtus was a Jewish convert who had entered the Franciscans. He became a professor of theology but fell into heresy and was subsequently convicted and imprisoned. He eventually retracted and was released, but again he strayed from orthodoxy. He was convicted a second time and condemned to death by fire. Friar Michele visited him and eventually converted him with his persuasion, charity and prayers. Michele was able to use his influence to arrange for Papal pardon for Sixtus. He then received Sixtus into the Dominican Order.
When Paul IV became pope in 1555, he made Ghislieri bishop and eventually Cardinal, much to his reluctance and opposition. Pope Paul also made Ghislieri Grand Inquisitor. He adopted the religious name Alexandrine, and as Cardinal took as his titular church the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. He continued to wear his habit and tried to keep to the observances of the Order as much as possible.
Side note: The custom of the pope wearing white is believed to have begun with Pope Saint Pius V, and has continued after his pontificate down to our present day. The current customary daily attire of the pope is not exactly the Dominican habit, but a white version of the simar, the floor length garment worn by bishops; it is similar to the cassock a Catholic priest might wear (which is usually black). The pope also wears a white sash around his waste, and a white shoulder cape called a mozetta. He wears a white zucchetto, the skull-cap also worn by bishops and a pectoral cross, another sign of his office as a bishop, the bishop of Rome.
In 1565 Michele, or Cardinal Alexandrine, was elected pope mostly due to the influence of St. Charles Borromeo. He protested his election with many tears, but the conclave finally prevailed upon him to accept. As pope he faced one of the most troubled times in the history of the Church: in Rome and the Papal States there was widespread corruption and disorder, in America to the West there were problems with the missions and colonists, the Church was in a state of decline and badly needed reform, in the North there was the Reformation and the persecution of Catholics in England, and finally to East there was the threat of a European invasion by the Ottoman Empire.
Pope Pius V had to deal with the problems over which he had direct temporal control and those in the New World. He set about to reform the decadent lives of the Roman citizens and the rampant banditry in the Papal states. Within a year of his accession, he had purged his domains of the worst of its vices. In America, the Spanish colonists were treating the natives with severe cruelty and injustice. He appealed to temporal leaders to correct these crimes for the sake of sheer human dignity and proper Christian conduct and because of the problems they were creating in missionizing efforts.
In religious matters he had to contend with both Protestantism and Church reform. In regards to the Protestants, he is best remembered for having excommunicated Elizabeth I of England with the Papal bull Regnans in Excelsis in 1570. Remembering the compassion and mercy he showed as Commissary General, it seems likely he was driven to this extreme action as remedy to call her and her subjects to repentance, not as a punishment. He issued the bull only after the persecutions in England reached unprecedented cruelty. It unfortunately had the effect of causing resentment among the British rather than resulting in Elizabeth’s reconciliation.
Pius also implemented the sweeping reforms mandated by the Council of Trent. He promoted seminaries for the education of priests. He published a universal Roman rite of the Breviary (in 1568) and Missal (Tridentine rite in 1570) while preserving those rites with a 200 or more year history. (Notable among such is the Dominican rite, still sometimes celebrated by priests of the Order). He also fought vehemently among ecclesial circles against Nepotism and Absenteeism. In 1567, he declared his Dominican brother, Saint Thomas Aquinas a Doctor of the Church and established his feast day as equal to those of the four great Latin Fathers of the Church: Sts. Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Jerome and Gregory.
His greatest contribution to Western civilization, however, was the halting of the invasion of Europe by the Ottoman Empire. Seeing the threat posed by the Turks, Pius sought to unite the Catholics nations in an alliance named the Holy League. He was only able to unite Venice, Rome and Spain against the Eastern menace. These three powers assembled a fleet of about 200 ships to meet Turkish fleet of 300 ships. Supported by a rosary crusade as well as other spiritual aids, the Christian fleet met the Turks at Leponto on October 7, 1571 under the command of Don Juan of Austria. The Christian fleet won the battle, which began the slow decline of the Ottoman Empire.
The pope was given a vision of the victory the exact hour that it occurred. As a result, he instituted the feast of Our Lady of Victories that was ultimately changed to Our Lady of the Rosary (October 7th) or Rosary Sunday (the first Sunday in October).
Pope Saint Pius V died a few months after the victory at Leponto, on May 1, 1572. His feast day is April 30. His undying fidelity to the Church and her faith and his constant zeal are certainly inspirational. Despite all his honors, he was always a humble Dominican friar.
I noted on the actual — that is to say, observed (by the Holy Church of Rome) — Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas on January 28, 2022 and 2021, that that date is not the one on which the Angelic Doctor entered upon his eternal reward, but the date when his relics were transferred from the Benedictine monastery of Fossa Nova in Italy, to the Dominican convent in Toulouse, France. The date of his death is today, March 8, and until the reform of the General Roman Calendar after the Second Vatican Council, this was the day on which the Universal Church celebrated his Feast Day and Sainthood. In 1969, Pope Paul VI issued a reformed calendar of saints’ feasts and moved that of Saint Thomas (among others), it is believed, to allow Lent to retain a more penitential tone without being interrupted by the celebration so many saints, especially that of so important a Doctor of the Church. In turn, this allowed Thomas’s feast to be celebrated apart from the penitential air of Lent.
I think there are some Catholics and devotees of Saint Thomas who consider March 8 to be the real Feast Day of Saint Thomas Aquinas, and continue to celebrate it, even though it falls in Lent, and even though the pope moved it to February 28 over 50 years ago. But Saint Thomas himself was ever the faithful son of the Church, and would have, and indeed did, defend the prerogative of the Church to set the celebration of feasts, as these are not Divine institutions and actual instruments of grace as the Sacraments are. As such, they are left to the discretion of the Church.
But in the sacred things [wherein] no grace is given: for instance, in the consecration of a temple, an altar or the like, or, again, in the celebration of feasts. Wherefore Our Lord left the institution of such things to the discretion of the faithful, since they have not of themselves any necessary connection with inward grace.
It is, I believe, good to be dispensed from penitential practices on Feasts and Solemnities during Lent, as we do for the Solemnities of Saint Joseph and the Annunciation, when we even go so far as to use the regular Gospel acclamation (the A-word) and sing the Gloria at Mass, for these feasts remind us of God’s mercy and the joy of heaven to which we are called, and for which the penances of Lent are meant to prepare us.
Nevertheless, I encourage you to redouble your Lenten sacrifices on this non-feast day of Saint Thomas, and practice extra mortification as an act of obedience and fidelity to the liturgical authority of the Holy See to institute and move the celebration of feasts. It’s what Saint Thomas would want, I believe.
Unless, of course, you have a special devotion to Saint John of God, whose optional memorial is celebrated on March 8. Then, rejoice with that saint.
Over the years I have produced a lot of content explaining the reasons for Catholic hope (1 Peter 3:15), which I presented in videos, blog posts, philosophical web pages, class notes or in good, ol’ fashion, print material. A curious public wishing to find this content scattered across various and disparate media can now be satisfied in their anguished quest, for much of it is now available on one web page, TMC Catholic Apologetics, with more exciting Catholic, Christian and theist apologetic content to come.
The collection contains all your favorite classics like, “Catholics and the Bible” and “Are Catholics Saved?“. Plus, the page features new favorites, like “Does God’s Omniscience Mean There Is No Free Will?” and “Will There Be a Rapture?“. The essays will be updated frequently with all the latest-breaking innovations in God-related explanations and cutting-edge Catholic clarifications. Readers will want to check back often to find out the most up-to-date, trailblazing advances in information and insights into an eternal God and a 2,000 year-old Church. Exciting developments are always afoot!
Nor, does the collection shy away from contentious topics as “Can Non-Believers Go to Heaven?” and the Anointing of the Sick. Future additions will cover similarly controversial questions, such as “Why Can’t Women Be Priests?” and “Why Do Catholics Fast (and Do Other Acts of Self-Denial)?” and “Why Does the Pope Wear White?” No Catholic belief or practice is beyond thoughtful and honest treatment. Readers might not always agree with the teachings presented, but every effort will be made to “do it with gentleness and reverence,” (1 Peter 3:16), remaining faithful to God’s revelation and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.
From this Facebook post by the friars of the Western Dominican Province, I just learned that yesterday, February 18, was the feast day of one of my favorite artists and Dominican saints and blesseds, Fra Angelico, or Blessed John of Fiesole. Bl. John was born in 1395 and died on yesterday’s date 1455. In his ministry as a Dominican friar and priest, he preached with color and brush, and became a master of the early renaissance who incorporated perspective and proportion into his work, innovating naturalism and realism in Western Art.
He painted many portraits of Saint Dominic and Saint Thomas Aquinas, or incorporated them among the saints in attendance in his Biblical or theological frescos which he painted in the friars’ cells in the Dominican convent of San Marco in Florence.
I was excited to visit the Museo di San Marco for the first time in 2018 and to see the paintings that I have come to know from my time in the Dominican Order. I did not realize, however, that almost all of Fra Angelico’s work was painted into the convent as frescos, and so I was not prepared to see all at once two of the works most important to me, personally, to be in the cloister garden of the friary.
As soon as one enters the cloister after entering the museum, one immediately encounters the fresco of Saint Dominic contemplating the Crucifixion. I was given a post card of this fresco when I was a novice with the Dominicans, and I kept it displayed on my desk through out my years in seminary and later in graduate school, often contemplating it while studying (or idling when I was supposed to be studying). To see the larger-than-life painting on the wall of the cloister was quite overwhelming.
Also in the cloister is a portrait fresco of Saint Thomas Aquinas that is quite famous and which I use as the sort of logo of the Thomistic Philosophy Page. This image also accompanied my in my studies. Some years into my graduate studies, my uncle who was a priest, Msgr. William Magee, willed to me some of his personal effects when he died, among them a wooden statue of Saint Thomas he had acquired in Rome when he studied at the Angelicum as a young priest, and a framed copy of the portrait of Saint Thomas.
Again, to see it there adorning a space above a door out of the cloister was quite unexpected, and a little unnerving. I’m not sure where I thought these images were supposed to be, but in San Marco, Fra Angelico’s work is everywhere. I was delighted to be there, and tried to spend time contemplating all of the works, but like most museums, it can be pretty overwhelming. I certainly spent more time with Bl. John’s painting than my wife was ready to, and when we returned in 2019, she had had quite enough of San Marco, and by the end of that trip, enough of Florence.
I include below a few of my favorite images of Fra Angelico I took on our two trips to Florence including this one of his tomb I literally stumbled upon in the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, near the Pantheon.
In my last post, I bemoaned the misconceptions under which Hollywood labors when averring that anyone disagreeing with Saint Thomas Aquinas’s faced testicular peril from the medieval Church (and possibly still does). For some contemporary confirmation that no such threat persists, one can look to the case of Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., who has declared his aversion to the teaching of transubstantiation (as championed by Saint Thomas) because of his, Reese’s, disbelief in Aristotelian accidental and substantial forms [NB, prime matter does not figure into the doctrine of transubstantiation]. And I wager no knife wielding functionaries from the CDF have come after him to make of Fr. Reese a eunuch.
Last year on the Feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas, I noted that January 28, the present date for its celebration, comes not from the date on which he died in 1274 (March 8, the date of his feast day until the reform of the general calendar of the Roman Church after the Second Vatican Council), but from the date on which his relics were translated in 1323 from the Benedictine monastery of Fossa Nova, where he died. In that religious house not of his own order, the monks, seeing the value of his relics as an object of pilgrimage, interred his body (or (according to a tradition (legend/myth) I was told) after boiling down his body, his bones). Part of my point in that post was to note that the eyes with which we view Aquinas differ greatly from 13th century ones, our concerns being far-removed from the concerns and sensibilities of his own time.
In reflecting again on his upcoming feast day, I am reminded of another way we tend to view the saint differently than his contemporaries did, in that we are mostly concerned with his academic writings on theology, and probably more so, on the philosophy contained therein: the Summa Theologiae, and Summa contra Gentiles, his Quaestiones Disputatae, his commentaries on works of Aristotle, his opuscula such as De Principiis Naturae and De Ente et Essentia, and to a much lesser extent, his commentaries on Scripture. These were not, for the most part, Saint Thomas’s primary concerns, nor what he was known for to his contemporaries, for he was, first and foremost, a Catholic priest, and a Dominican friar, a member of the Order of Preachers.
This fact was underscored for me when I attended a weeklong workshop on campus ministry to Hispanic and Latino/a/x students wherein a certain theologian introduced, apologetically, Aquinas’s conception of justitia(as right order) as the theme of our discussion. I say ‘apologetically,’ for, we were informed, Aquinas had been a product and chief example of Scholasticism which of its nature was far-removed from pastoral concerns of prayer, social justice, or practical, lived morality. Surprised by this assertion, I pointed out that, to be fair, Saint Thomas wrote liturgical poetry used for the feast of Corpus Christi, and, as a Dominican friar and holder of a Chair in Theology at Paris, was required to, and often did, preach. Our theologian presenter granted my observation, but insisted it did not refute the point that Scholasticism was out-of-touch with the real concerns of lived Catholicism (especially of Hispanic/Latino/a/x Catholic college students – the focus of our workshop. This was only one of several times my observations grated against this theologician’s implicit biases, I think.)
So, for this year’s feast day, I want to bring to the reader’s attention some details about the pastoral sensitivities of Saint Thomas as displayed in his sermons.
as a Master of the Sacred Page at Paris, one of Thomas’s official duties, along with lecturing on the Bible and engaging in disputation, was preaching. All of his extraordinarily valuable commentaries on the works of Aristotle were, by contrast, largely products of his spare time.
Indeed, according to his earliest biographers, Thomas was renowned as an excellent preacher, not only to educated, “academic” audiences, but to simple uneducated laymen as well. William of Tocco, who in his old age spoke as a witness at Thomas’s canonization enquiry in 1319, testified that he himself had heard Brother Thomas preach and that, on these occasions, “many people came to hear him preach.”
Another early biographer, Bernardo Gui, says of him that:
To the ordinary faithful he spoke the word of God with singular grace and power, without indulging in far-fetched reasoning or the vanities of worldly wisdom or in the sort of language that serves rather to tickle the curiosity of a congregation than do it any real good. Subtleties he kept for the Schools; to the people he gave solid moral instruction suited to their capacity; he knew that a teacher must always suit his style to his audience.
The people, reports Gui:
heard him with great respect as a real man of God. He was a teacher who taught others to do what he himself was already doing, or rather God in him, according to that saying of the Apostle, “I dare speak of nothing except of what Christ has done in me” (Rom 15.18). Hence his words had a warmth in them that kindled the love of God and sorrow for sin in men’s hearts.
Indeed, you can see this warmth and pastoral concern in a sermon Saint Thomas delivered, it is believed, during his second Paris residency (1268-1272). Saint Thomas preached this particular sermon at about the same time of the liturgical year as we find ourselves in, the weeks following Christmastide. His theme is the adolescence of Christ as an example for those who are in the years they are coming to discernment, i.e., their own adolescence. He addresses an age-old puzzle about the Incarnation of the Son of God as a human baby: how could Jesus grow physically and mentally if He is all knowing as True God (as well as being truly human)? Many people genuinely struggle with such questions, especially young people, as obstacles to accepting the truth of the gospels and the teaching of the Church. It is interesting to see Aquinas apply a very medieval academic approach to the question (leading with objections (“we must be amazed”) and distinguishing various sense of words, in order to synthesize them into a coherent whole) in a bit of popular theology in order to serve a very pastoral end. His skill as a preacher is a testament to the pastoral service intellectual and academic efforts can be put. Note well, ye preachers in our midst!
Luke 2:52- The boy Jesus advanced in age and wisdom and in grace with God and the people.
All the things together that the Lord has done or undergone in the flesh are salutary lessons and examples. Hence we read this in John 13:15: I have given you an example, that whatever I have done you may do likewise. And because there is not any age from which the way of salvation is absent—and to the highest extent this applies to the years in which one comes to discernment— the adolescence of Christ is made an example for adolescents. Growth and progress are proper to adolescents. Therefore, the progress of Christ is made an example for adolescents.
But, to begin, let us ask God to enable us to say something about the progress of Christ for the honor of God and for the salvation of our souls.
The boy Jesus. If we want to consider these words carefully, we will find in them four progresses of Christ, namely, the progress of age in regard to the body, the progress of wisdom in regard to the intellect, the progress of grace with God, and the progress also of grace in view of his living together with the people.
Truly, all these progresses are amazing, yes, even full of astonishment and amazement.
For we must be amazed that eternity advances in age, for the Son of God is eternity and from eternity. Psalm 117 and Psalm 119: in eternity, Lord, your truth remains (Ps 119:90, 160; cf. 117:2).
Likewise we must be amazed that the truth advances in wisdom, because the progress of wisdom is knowledge of the truth, whereas Christ is himself the truth, as we read in John 14:6: I am the way, the truth, and the life.
Likewise we must be amazed that the One from whom grace originates advances in grace; Christ is the One who renders grace. Thus we read in John 1:17: grace and truth came through Christ.
Likewise we must be amazed that the One who exceeds all people advances with the people. Even more, the people ought to advance in grace with him. Psalms 113:4 says: the Highest is he above all the nations.
How, then, would Christ advance in these respects? I say that if we want to consider this properly, immediately the reason regarding his progress in age comes to our mind: the eternal Son of God willed to become temporal, so that he could advance in age. Isaiah 9:5 says: a little child is born unto us. If he is born as a little child, why then would he not have grown as a little child does?
The other progresses of Christ contain a greater difficulty. Christ took on the full human nature: according to the flesh he was born as a little child, but not according to the soul. For, from the beginning of his conception, his most blessed soul was full of every grace and truth, because it was connected with God. Thus we read in John 1:14: we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. He was full of every grace and truth because he was the only-begotten Son of God. Well, from the beginning of the conception he was the only-begotten Son. Hence from the very beginning he was full of grace and truth and perfect in virtue. Jeremiah 31:22: a woman will encompass a man; not in age, but as for the perfection of the mind.
But in what is meant by advancing in wisdom and grace? We must say that someone is said to advance in wisdom, not only when he acquires a greater wisdom, but also when the wisdom in him is more evident. It is true that Christ from the beginning of his conception was full of wisdom and grace, but he has not shown it from the beginning, but at an age when others usually show it. In that case we speak of advancing in wisdom, not in the absolute sense of the word, but in view of the effect through which he advanced amidst other people.
If he had willed to show his wisdom when he was seven years of age, people could have doubted the truth of the assumed human nature. And because of this, Christ wanted to be similar to others. Thus the Apostle says in Philippians 2:7: he has emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being made in the likeness of men. Christ has made himself little by taking on our littleness, in order to show that he truly was little: he was made in the likeness of men. Baruch 3:38 reads: he is seen on earth, and he has lived with the people. At the time when a sign of wisdom normally appears for the first time in a human being, Christ manifested his wisdom for the first time, namely, when he was twelve years of age: thus little by little. He did not will to show his [full] wisdom, so that the truth of the human nature in him would be acknowledged and in order to give us an example of advancing in wisdom.
So, fourfold, as was said, is Christ’s progress, namely, of age, wisdom, grace, and the human life.
I just finished watching The Tender Bar starring Ben Affleck, Ty Sheridan, and Daniel Ranieri (among others) on Amazon Prime Video. Overall, I liked the movie with pretty good performances from a pretty good cast. But, at one point JR (Sheridan), the story’s protagonist and narrator, complains about having to read Aquinas in his studies at Yale, to which Affleck’s character, Uncle Charlie says:
“What? Thomas Aquinas. Needed to believe there was a God, so he offered the world concrete proof. If you didn’t believe his concrete proof, the Church would cut your nuts off. What are you worried about?”
While it is heartening to see that students at Yale in the mid-1980’s were still reading St. Thomas Aquinas, and that a Hollywood movie would see fit to mention this fact, as someone who has studied Aquinas, his ‘concrete proof,’ and the Church in which serve as a priest and teacher, I have to say that this comment fails to grasp how he distinguished proof from belief, and indeed the sense in which it could be said that he “needed to believe there was a God.” To begin with, Saint Thomas acknowledges that what can be known about God from natural reason alone” would only be known by a few [learned people], after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.” (Summa Theologiae Ia, q. 1, a. 1). Neither Aquinas, nor indeed any churchman living during his time, would have thought failing to grasp (or “believe”) what was so difficult to attain would warrant any punishment, much less the need to “cut your nuts off.” And one “needed to believe there was a God” only to the extent that it would be a prerequisite to accepting the salvation that God offered.
Moreover, I do not believe that medieval authorities ever imposed the penalty of castration for religious-related crimes, nor that it would have been a crime to dispute the conclusions of a particular theologian’s arguments. Aquinas views were not well accepted in his own time, except by his Dominican confreres (and this was not universal), with some of his teachings even apparently being condemned by the Stephen Tempier, Archbishop of Paris in 1277, some three years after Aquinas’ death. As far as I know, no one has ever lost a testicle for having opposed Aquinas’ thought, which were very much opposed by some of his contemporaries, most notably Scotists.
So if a Hollywood movie is going mention Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Church of the 13th century in the course of a coming-of-age story set in the waning decades of the 20th, the film’s producers should devote more than 18 seconds of their over 100 minutes to giving some context to the Angelic Doctor’s thought and provide some deeper understanding of philosophy and theology beyond demonstrating the dismissiveness that results from the autodidacticism of the proprietor of the films’ eponymous establishment.
C’mon! Why do we watch movies if not for accurate references to medieval philosophers and theologians?
In my last post, I indicated that part of the reason I am (still) Catholic (and you can, too) is that, besides not being driven away by bad Catholics, I came to understand that God’s existence can be demonstrated (to at least as high a level of certainty as one finds in other areas of life, yet short of absolutely apodictic or geometric certainty), and so one prerequisite for believing that the Catholic faith is true (that God is real) was for me met and never in much doubt, for as long as I can remember.
I had indicated in earlier posts that I attended an all-boys Catholic high school in Orange County, California, which at least in my memory of that time in the early 1980s was not, in its daily culture, terribly Catholic or religious. (Or, maybe it did prioritize the religious formation of us boys, and I was too absorbed in other things to notice.) But it was there that I was exposed to some more rigorous philosophical and theological thinking, in particular in my sophomore and senior years, and these left a lasting impression on me. And despite the social and cultural inertia of that time and place that was carrying me along toward the study of engineering, these classes probably planted in me seeds which would take root in my later academic choices.
I remember in the religion class of my sophomore year, which was ostensibly on Church history, sometime in the fall being introduced to proofs for the existence of God, in particular the proofs of Saint Anselm (later known as the Ontological Argument) and the Five Ways of Saint Thomas Aquinas (of which I presented a distilled version of the Third Way). I remember finding them really interesting, though not understanding them well (especially Anselm), and being quite interested in them for the three or four weeks we went over them in class. But then, quite abruptly, the instruction and discussion about them ceased, and Church history resumed its ponderous march past the middle ages. Looking back, I think the teacher must have been told to move the class along to cover the necessary material in time. But I think that foray into medieval metaphysics must have been when I came to the conviction that belief in God was rational (and not merely some kind of emotional attachment, or irrational conviction). My experience of growing up Catholic did not, of itself, lead me to think religious faith might be irrationally emotional; Mass had a routineness to it, and I know some of my contemporaries found it, as no doubt many still do (and tbh sometimes I still do), rather boring and attended with only perfunctory attention. Emotional exuberance it was not, and that was fine by me.
I think the only experience I had of people being emotionally and irrationally religious were those zealots from that era who were burning rock albums and Dungeons & Dragons books for their alleged Satanic effects. Being the nerdy kid I was in the late 70s and early 80s, I knew these to be great cultural achievements and no threat to souls beyond the normal temptations of the flesh and the world.
Around this time, however, a friend’s girlfriend came into the Church, and I first discovered that every year Catholics celebrate a quite elaborate and beautiful Easter Vigil Liturgy and Mass, which until then, I had never even heard about. This beautiful liturgy – beginning in darkness with a bonfire lit outside from which the paschal candle is lit (symbolizing the Resurrection of Jesus into a world darkened by sin), and that light spreading into and throughout the church as each congregant has their own candle lit and lights, in turn, their neighbor’s candle – was really quite moving for me.
This discovery of hidden depths to Catholic liturgy, more than any personal religious experience from attending the Easter Vigil, led to an interest in attending the old (Tridentine) Latin Mass, which had just been made available by special and unusual permission. (I was blissfully unaware of the fraught history of this rite of the Mass, nor of any ecclesio-political implications my attendance, much less any “statement,” might be taken to be making.) I didn’t really get what all the hype about the Traditional Latin Mass was about, so I didn’t pursue it further. But the wealth of Catholic history and tradition, coupled with the aforementioned interest in Dungeons and Dragons and fantasy adventure literature, also led me to learn more about the middle ages: knights, castles, and monks.
It was also about this time that I had a pretty bad accident while biking to the aforementioned all-boys Catholic high school, on account of which I broke my back and spent some weeks initially in bed, and then saddled with a back brace. At the time, I thought it a pretty trivial mishap, but looking back it could have been much worse. This pretty significant personal injury affected my religious outlook almost not at all, though it is fairly common for such accidents to lead their victims to confront their own mortality and discover a greater need for or connection and reliance on God. I experienced neither, though perhaps I should have.
At this point, I have the feeling that at least some readers’ interest in why I am Catholic might be aroused by these more personal reminiscences of my religious upbringing and awakening. But, at least one underlying point to this my exercise in giving an apologia from a cradle Catholic is to provide an intellectual and reasoned account of my Catholic perdurance (fidelity is too strong a word to describe one so prone to moral failure). These personal experiences, and personal experiences in general (mine or others), just didn’t have as much impact on me as did intellectual considerations and philosophical and theological arguments. I am not saying that no one should be swayed or affected by a person’s encounter with God or spiritual experience of the sacraments of the Church (or whatever), but my own personal and emotional experiences and that of others just does not affect me as much as arguments do and have.
If you are inclined to find such experiences moving, there are many, many more and more dramatic stories of saints or other converts to convince you to become (or return to being) Catholic. For instance, in 1841, Blessed Bartolo Longo converted from being a priest of Satan (of all things), to becoming a devout Catholic and a lay member of the Dominican Third Order. Or the case of Marie-Alphonse Ratisbonne, a Jewish man who reported seeing an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a side chapel in the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte in Rome in 1842, which led him to convert to the Catholic faith from vehement opposition to it (his conversion itself being declared miraculous). If such stories interest you, or they might spur or deepen your own Catholic faith, that’s great, and is all for God’s glory. But, of course, one has the problem of there being dramatic stories of non-Catholic conversions, too, so which story to believe is already, it seems to me, a case of selection bias. Which is precisely why I am not as moved by such stories, my own or of others.
I suspect that the interest in personal religious odyssey over and beyond argumentation is linked to the nominalism that was implicitly adopted (at least in part) by Protestantism and Scientific Materialism with their emphasis on personal faith or sense experience (in the absence of knowledge of objective essential natures), to which the Catholic faith, in opposition to these alternatives, provides a salutary remedy. Offering a reasoned defense of the Catholic faith and highlighting it in terms of an alternative to counter such latent nominalism is another underlying point of my apologia.
Philosophy and theology (with some history in the mix) are definitely the major reasons why I am (still) Catholic, and you can, too. If you’re just not that into this kind of thing, this may not be the apologia for you. I, however, will return to a consideration of the arguments against the anti-theistic position of Scientific Materialism, as well as arguments in favor God’s existence which I have previously presented, and in another post, I will address objections to these arguments.
I return now to my ongoing project of giving an apologia, or a reasoned defense of why I am Catholic and why I believe as I do, provoked, as I was, to provide one as by a certain religiously skeptical college student. This project I began in the post All Good and Deserving of All My Love. In the course of this exercise, I have come to see, that for me at least, religious belief is a matter of choosing among alternatives, different systems of thought and living which explain the world, give meaning to it and my place in it, and the purpose for living and acting in specific ways. I found that I agree with Walker Percy, that besides Catholicism, what else is there? Thus, the short answer for why I am Catholic (and why everyone else (all things being equal) should be, too) is that the Catholic faith is true and nothing ever seemed truer. If such an answer is unseemly in its directness (especially the claim about what others should do or believe), I could also say that I have found the Catholic faith to be true, or that the Catholic faith makes the most sense of the world, of myself and of my place within it among the alternatives I have considered. (I have thought long and hard on this and I am pretty sure these three manners of expression (x is true (and everyone should believe x); I find that x is true; and x make the most sense to me) are logically equivalent, but that the last two are more palatable to the epistemically sensitive.) But of course, the short answer leaves a lot out.
I tried to give some detailed account why Scientific Materialism is no alternative to Catholic faith, as Scientific Materialism must be false because it cannot explain any cognitively veridical process (or truth revealing argument) even and especially science, and worst of, even itself (if it were true (which it cannot be for this very reason)). It may perhaps have been unclear in that blog post that there is a clear distinction between science, on the one hand, which offers explanations of the natural world in terms of physical objects, their properties and the necessary laws that describe and predict such objects’ behavior; and Scientific Materialism, on the other, which claims that the explanations and objects employed by science are the only valid means of discovering truth, and that physical objects are the only things that exist. In one sense, science and Scientific Materialism may appear the same in that science focuses exclusively on physical explanations as a matter of methodology, and follows these physical explanations to their limit without invoking any non-physical or supernatural agency. But a good scientist will not pronounce on what is beyond the limit of his science, and thus not assert the non-existence of the non-physical, but merely limit himself to his area of the physical world. Scientific Materialism goes beyond mere methodology, and denies the reality of anything non-physical. At the end of the day, and what I hoped to convey, but may have not emphasized well enough, is that science, good; Scientific Materialism, bad.
Since Scientific Materialism is false (or seems false to me, or just doesn’t make sense to me) I did not view it as an alternative to Catholic faith. I did not undertake these arguments against Scientific Materialism explicitly in the course of my faith/intellectual history in leaving the study of engineering for the seminary and religious life, but I deepened my commitment to and understanding of the Catholic faith as I implicitly rejected a secular worldview that I knew was hollow in ways that I would later study and articulate in arguments outlined in that previous blog post.
I had intended, at this point in my apologia, to give a positive account of what cognition is, and what the Scientific Materialist account of cognitive process fails to account for. I have spent a lot of intellectual and academic effort on aspects of this positive account of cognition. And the truth of this account, and the implication that mind (and thereby the soul) operates with some independence from the body, is another part of why (I have continued to believe that) the Catholic faith is true. I am still at work on this positive account of cognition and the soul’s spiritual nature for this apologetic project, but am not ready to present it yet.
But in addition to that intellectual and academic effort, I have also been occupied filling out this web site, The Thomistic Philosophy Page, and of late, have been seeking to complete my analyses and explanation of the Five Ways of proving the existence of God of Saint Thomas Aquinas, as seen in recent blog posts here, and here. So while an understanding of the nature of cognition and the soul are part of why I have remained Catholic (and why I believe everyone should be or become Catholic), the fact that God exists, and can be known to exist through rational arguments (proofs in a loose sense), is also an important part of this story.
My very recent work on the Five Ways has been on the Third Way, which I think is one of the more compelling (along with the Fourth and Fifth), but I have gotten bogged down in the issue of Aquinas’s alleged commission of the Birthday fallacy. I am coming to find this particular issue is more of a textual one and a distraction from the central argument of the Third Way. I then tried to present for myself that central argument in graphical form, fittingly enough, as a decision tree testing the various alternatives that arise in considering why and how there are things which come to be.
This is what I consider to be a cogent and compelling argument for the existence of God distilled from Aquinas’s Third Way.
Argument from Contingency
1. Things come to be.
This is a matter of direct, though rational, observation. One can see things coming into being, either eggs from chickens, or any kind of offspring from parents, or rust from iron, and so on and so forth. Some things which did not exist begin to exist. These are contingent beings.
2. Whatever comes to be has a cause distinct from itself.
This also is a matter of direct, rational observation, and is known as “the principle of causality” (or in a more general form as “the principle of sufficient reason”). There is no know case, nor indeed is it possible, that a new thing comes to be except from some cause that already exists. We generalize this principle from our observation of the processes of substantial changes ubiquitous in nature, so it is empirical in the broad sense, and not a mere stipulation. (This, of course, has been doubted, most famously by David Hume (and more recently JL Mackie (as applying only to an ultimate cause of the universe), but such skepticism if applies consistently makes science impossible, and the everyday life (especially of the skeptic) completely incoherent. Such irrational skepticism need not be any serious threat to the line of reasoning being developed here.)
3. Whatever comes to be is temporally finite (has a beginning); what does not come to be is atemporal and eternal.
This is just a definition, and an implication, of what it means for a thing to come to be. A thing comes to be within time, or the temporal succession of causes. If something is real and exists, but did not come to be, by that very fact it would not be temporal, but rather, eternal. NB, an atemporal, eternal being, if it were causally related to temporal ones, would be equally related to them for all of their time, since the atemporal one has no moments, before or after others, whereby it can be related to temporal beings at one time or another.
4. The universe is the collection of all the things that come to be.
This is another definition; it just stipulates that what we mean by ‘universe’ is comprised of only temporally finite things that come to be. The temporal limitation is only for each thing that comes to be, not necessarily for the collection as a whole, though it may be temporally limited, too. Any atemporal, eternal being would, by definition, be excluded from the universe, so understood.
5. What is the cause for all the things that come to be (the universe)?
Science begins and proceeds on the basis of the insights contained premises in 1 and 2. It is a natural, though not strictly a scientific question, to apply these insights to the universe of things that come to be. This is a philosophical question (to which almost all people turn their attention at some point).
NB, that although this is not a scientific question, it might be occasioned by science. A scientist can be perfectly competent and complete in her investigation of nature and things that come to be (under some scientific perspective) as a scientist and not ask this question. She would go beyond her ken, however, if she either affirmed or denied there were a cause, or even an answer to this question. She may be correct in her affirmation or denial, but not in her capacity as a scientist. This is a philosophical question for which guidance should be sought in those trained in the discipline (despite the wild variation in such training). This present exercise is intended to offer just such guidance.
There are two exhaustive options for answering this question.
5a.1. Therefore, the universe is temporally finite. (3, 5a)
5a.2. Therefore, the cause of a temporally finite universe does not come to be; if it did, it would be temporal and so part of the universe. (2, 4, 5a.1)
Something must have caused the Big Bang, and it must stand outside of the universe and time. This option is just considering the situation wherein the collection of all things that come to be begins to be. If there were a prior physical, temporally transient state “before” the Big Bang, from which it came, it would either itself be temporally limited or not. If the former (for which there is much evidence against according to Big Bang cosmology), it would fall under 5a, and the true beginning of things that come to be would be pushed back farther in the temporal succession of the universe. The causal initiator of the succession, if there was one, would still stand outside of the succession. If the latter, it would fall under 5b, below.
5b. Everything that comes to be has a cause within the universe, but the universe does not come to be; it is temporally infinite (has no beginning).
This is another postulate, a possible alternative to a temporally finite universe (which the evidence seems to confirm began in the Big Bang). Aristotle though that the universe was not temporally finite, but that things have been coming to be forever. There are many cyclical, or steady-state, or otherwise creative theories for a universe that does not come to be. On all of these theories, each thing within the universe that comes to be has a cause, and so satisfies premise 2, but the universe as a whole does not need to satisfy the premise (since it does not come to be).
6. Therefore, some thing (the universe or an extrinsic cause) exists that does not come to be. Its being is atemporal and eternal. It is necessary.
This is a conclusion from 3 and either 5a.2 or 5b. Whether the universe was caused to begin to be (in the Big Bang or some prior event), or whether the universe has always existed, either way, there must be something that does not come to be. There must be something that is atemporal in itself and eternal, and so necessary. At this point, the argument is not claiming to have proved a necessary being apart but causative of the universe. It may be the case that the universe is the ultimate necessary being that sustains, and so causes, the coming to be of everything within it.
7. Does this necessary being have a cause?
This, again, is a philosophical, not a scientific question, and it applies the insight of premise 2, though in an analogous way, for while premise 2 supposes there must be a cause for things that come to be, here, we wonder whether things which do not come to be must have a cause, and what sort of cause might apply to things which are atemporal and eternal. The exhaustive options are:
7a. A necessary being is necessary of itself (uncaused).
This is a postulate. It considers the possibility that the necessary being which always exists (whether universe or its cause) must exist, of itself and uncaused. That is, it is postulated as an option that the necessary being cannot not exist, its existence being necessary in and of itself, not merely that it timelessly and eternally exists. For, as the other option considers, a being that is necessary in the sense of not coming to be, need not be such that it has to exist. But at this point in the argument, it is only a postulate that there is a self-necessary being.
7b. A necessary being has its necessity caused.
This is the other, alternate postulate. The necessary being which always exists (whether the universe or its cause) might have a cause for its eternal, atemporal being. How can something which always exists have a cause? This can be hard to understand. Even though a being that is necessary in the sense of not coming to be, but being atemporal and eternal, still might not have been. Even though from the perspective of the universe (either being the universe itself or the external cause of it), the necessary being has always existed, if it is not necessary of itself, it might not have existed. There could be nothing, after all. If it does exist (and this was established in 6), it is still legitimate to ask if it has a cause for its always atemporally and eternally being. It is, as it were, a contingent fact that a being that does not come to be nevertheless always is, and to this fact it is legitimate to apply a generalized principle of causality or the principle of sufficient reason. If a necessary being exists (by not coming to be), though it still might not have (since, ex hypothesi, it is not self-necessary), its necessary and eternal existence would still require an explanation, a cause for why it does, in fact, exist.
7b.1. A caused necessary being must be caused atemporally, simultaneously.
This is a rational (though not strictly empirical) observation or insight into what the cause of a necessary, eternal and atemporal being would have to be in order to cause such an effect. It can cause an eternal effect by sustaining its being. As a house is sustained by the being of the bricks which make it up, and the bricks by silicon and carbon etc., the sustaining cause is simultaneous with its effect, though obviously there is a causal priority to what sustains over what is sustained, as the silicon, carbon, etc. are prior to the bricks, which in turn are prior to the house.
7b.2. A series of atemporal, simultaneous causes cannot be infinite.
This is an empirical observation. Though we do not observe with the senses necessary, eternal and atemporal causes sustaining effects that are likewise necessary beings, we do observe sustaining causes of motions, as when a stone is pushed by a stick and the stick by a hand. Or, other, perhaps clearer, examples, as when the last in a series of cogs is turned due to the turning of a prior cog, which is, in turn, turned by the cog prior to that, and so on. Or, a last train car is pulled by the one prior, and that one is pulled by the one prior to that, and so on.
What we observe in these simultaneous series of caused causes is that the series cannot be infinite. There just would be no series of causation without a first initiating cause of the whole causality that is being simultaneously transferred down to the last effect. On rational reflection, it is just obvious that there cannot be an infinite number of intermediary sticks pushing the last stone without a first moving hand causing the whole line of sticks to move, and thereby push the stone. Likewise, there just cannot be an infinite series of turned cogs turning subsequent cogs without a first moving, driving cog, which is the source of the turning motion that is being transferred all along the series. And, similarly, there cannot be an infinitely long train with no engine, or other source for the motion being transferred. We recognize the similarity to these familiar cases in the series under consideration: the series sustaining in being of atemporal, eternal, necessary beings is similarly simultaneous, and the caused effects of prior necessary beings are themselves causes of subsequent necessary beings. This causal series of necessary beings is relevantly similar to the familiar sustaining causal chains, and thus we can know and conclude that neither can the series of caused necessary beings be infinite.
8. Therefore, there is some self-necessary cause of all things that come to be.
This conclusion results from the insight that since the causal series of caused necessary beings cannot be infinite, such as series could only be sustained by a necessary being outside of it, i.e., by something that is self-necessary. We conclude, therefore, that option 7b requires 7a. Whether there is a series of sustaining necessary causes, or only one, there has to be just one self-necessary being that is causally first to the universe and the things that come to be. We have not said anything about the nature of what this real, existing self-necessary being is. It is thus appropriate to ask:
What is the self-necessary cause? The exhaustive options are two: the universe or something apart from it.
9. The universe is self-necessary.
If this were true, there are only two ways to relate it with the universe as we experience it:
9a. Either, no ‘things’ come to be. All is made out of the universe and exists secondarily.
One option for the universe, composed only of things which come to be, to be self-necessary and not able not to be is for these ‘things’ to not really come to be at all, but to ‘exist’ in a secondary sense, as the arrangement, or higher-level state of whatever the universe is or is made out of in its most basic and causally primary and sustaining sense. In this option, the chicken, the iron, the rust, you and I and everything under the sun, etc. would not come to be at all in a self-necessary universe, because all of these ‘things’ just ‘are’ (in the secondary sense of being ‘made out of’ or an arrangement of)) what make up the universe, which, ex hypothesi, cannot not be. If chickens or people appear to come to be, they are mere appearances; the reality is that the self-necessary universe is just rearranging itself. Our observation 1 (Things come to be) falsifies this option, as does our own experience of ourselves as ontically independent things (with a unity and integrity of our own (not a collection or amalgam)). Not to mention the serious problem that result in supposing that everything that happens in the world is the necessary result of physical objects obeying necessary physical laws (such as rendering all reasoning otiose and ineffectual).
9b. Or, the collection of things that come to be (universe) is more necessary than its components.
This second option accepts the full ontological reality of things that come to be, but asserts that somehow the collection of all such things cannot not be, that it exists necessarily of itself. It is falsified by a first principle of reason, not unlike the principle that no part is greater than the whole of which it is a part. That is, it is just absurd to suppose that a collection of things has some qualitative attribute, in this case uncaused necessity, that all of its constituent members lack. No more could the collection of temporally limited and causally dependent beings be, of itself, eternal and uncaused than could a wall built of red bricks be blue. Quantitative attributes, of course, do accrue so that the quantity of a collection is equal to the sum of the quantities of its part; a wall composed of one foot, one pound bricks will not be one foot long or weigh one pound, but its length is the sum of the length of the bricks in each row and its weight the sum of the weight of all the brick (plus the mortar, rebar, etc.). While the duration of the universe would coincide with the sum of the duration of the things that come to be (accounting for overlap), the eternality of the temporal succession cannot be of itself, without a cause, since none of its constituent things has temporal duration apart from being caused.
10. Or, the self-necessary being is separate from the universe, atemporal (eternal) and cause of everything in the universe.
Since no version of option 9 is true, the other alternative, 10, must be true. That is, since the supposition of an eternal, self-necessary physical universe does not accord with other well-known facts about this universe and the things that come to be which make it up, that supposition must be false. This leaves the conclusion that there must be a self-necessary being, something that cannot not be, that is separate from the universe, but is the ultimate cause of everything within it.
This is what theists mean by God.
This further conclusion, or implication, is not strictly a necessary result from the premises of the argument, but a matter of seeing that the First Self-Necessary Cause of the universe fits the description of essential attributes of God, and can be identified as the object of a theist’s religious faith. Of course, “First Self-Necessary Cause of the universe” is not everything that a theist means by God. But if one knows, as one should by accepting this argument’s premises and understanding their logical implications, that such a First Cause exists and is real, one can make a small leap that this is what religious theists believe God to be, and believe in.
NB, the simplest explanation for things that come to be is that the first, atemporal, eternal, self-necessary cause is the immediate cause of the Big Bang, though there could be a finite series of atemporal, simultaneous causes of the immediate last cause of the Big Bang, and that this finite series is initiated and sustained by the First Self-Necessary Cause. That is, the simplest explanation for the Big Bang (for which there is a lot of compelling scientific evidence) is that God caused this temporal succession to begin (and He has sustained, and now continues to sustain, the continued existence of the universe (and everything that comes to be within it)).
That God can be known to exist (and some limited amount of what his nature is) by means of rational argument is another part of the reason I remained Catholic (as everyone should, or should come to be). It took me a long time to consider this a compelling argument, certainly more than one read-through, and of course, it was supplemented by other study. I enjoy this kind of stuff, which is why I got degrees in philosophy, but I do think other people should find it, and other similar arguments, compelling.
After All Saints Day and its spooky (though thoroughly Catholic) vigil, Halloween, we come to the third of the fall Triduum of the Afterlife: All Souls Day (or in its Mexican (and thoroughly (or at least mostly) Catholic) manifestation, Dia de los Muertos). And after discussing who the saints are, and what constitutes life in Heaven, it is common to wonder why the Church turns our attention to any others who have preceded us in death. If the goal of this life is eternal life with God in Heaven, and all of us either end up enjoying the unending happiness of this beatific vision, or cut ourselves off from it (and so consign ourselves to the eternal frustration and torment of Hell), it seems there could be no third possibility. Yet, after celebrating those who are enjoying the first alternative, the Church encourages us through the liturgy, to remember and pray for others of the faithful departed in neither final destination. So, why does the Church believe that some of the dead need our prayers, being in a state of the afterlife, purgatory, that is neither Heaven (where they would not need them) nor Hell (where the dead are beyond our prayerful help)?
Choices Have Consequence
To understand what purgatory is and why we (or most of us) need it, we can start with recognizing a pretty common part of the human experience: choices have consequences, not only to others and our relationships with them, but even to ourselves. Sometimes, when we make a bad choice, its effects stay with us. This is obvious in the choices that affect us in our bodies: what we eat and drink, and what we do to ourselves that leave a permanent mark on our person. What is true of actions done in and through our bodies, is true of all our bad choices, our sins, and even more than affecting our bodies, they affect our souls – creating dispositions or tendencies to act in similarly disordered and destructive ways. These dispositions or tendencies to act in disordered, that is, sinful ways are vices, or bad habits, and habits, good or bad (virtues and vices) collectively constitute a person’s character.
Our sins, beyond being offences against God, leave their effects on us, causing damage to our souls, and impeding our ability to live and function, especially to love, as God intended. This damage, so long as it remains, keeps us from attaining complete and perfect communion with God, for it keeps us from sharing fully in God’s own life, which is a life of self-giving love. This kind of effect of sin stays with us; it clings to us, and we have to rid ourselves of it in order to cling fully and completely to God.
As the Letter to the Hebrews says,
let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.
And these effects of sin continue to cling to us, even though God forgives our offenses through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Yet, these effects are temporary so long as we are fundamentally in friendship with God, having accepted (and not subsequently rejected) His forgiveness, so that we remain in a state of His grace.
Purgatory is the temporary state after death wherein God’s grace purifies souls, and they are rid of the after-effects of bad choices.
Thus, sin has two effects:
First, and foremost, sin damages our relationship with God. Sin is fundamentally a rejection of the friendship God offers us, the offer to share in His life. In order to make us co-heirs with the Only-Begotten Son (and True Heir) of God, God gratuitously offers to adopt us as His children into the Divine community. Indeed, this is why He created us, to share in His Trinitarian life of love. To reject His offer of Himself in Love is the essence of sin, and this rejection results in our guilt before Him, our estrangement from Him. The Only Begotten Son of God therefore became a man in Jesus Christ, and died on the cross, just to atone for this guilt and overcome our estrangement (see Why Jesus Died on the Cross).
Now, we can damage our relationship with God, and thereby incur the guilt of sin, either
totally, in a deadly manner, killing the life of God in the soul. This is called mortal sin (see 1 John 5:16 below), or
or partially. This is called venial sin.
The effect of mortal sin, if unrepented, is in the loss of eternal life. It is the rejection of heaven (i.e., hell) and it is called eternal punishment because this effect, if unredeemed, lasts forever. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, unrepented mortal sin makes us incapable of eternal life (CCC 1472). So, hell is not the torture God (arbitrarily) inflicts on sinners for failing to worship him as he (narcissistically) demands. Rather, it is what the damned do to themselves in choosing themselves over God and self-giving love; it is the eternal effect of finally and completely rejecting God and cutting themselves off from Him.
God forgives the guilt (eternal punishment) we all incurred from our sin in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and faith in Christ’s sacraments gives access to this forgiveness and to eternal life. As Jesus says,
With venial sin, one still has the life of God in the soul because, while acting against God’s will, she has not rejected God’s friendship completely and totally. Such a person would still be in a state of grace and have God’s life active in her soul, but that life is strained or weakened, but not dead. And so, a soul that dies with unconfessed venial sin does not lose salvation and heaven. But neither is that soul ready for heaven. Even if one receives complete and total absolution of the guilt of both mortal and venial sins in the Sacraments of Reconciliation or Anointing of the Sick immediately before death, she may still not be ready for heaven because of the “burden and sin that clings to us.”
This is the other effect of sin: the damage it does to ourselves. This is called temporal punishment (as opposed to eternal punishment), and it remains with us temporal beings even after God has forgiven the guilt of both venial and mortal sins. Both mortal and venial sins attach us too much to things other than God – pleasure or power or revenge, love of self over love of God. And this attachment isn’t a guilt that God forgives, but an impurity that must be cleansed, but it is cleansed also through God’s merciful grace. Again, as we are temporal beings, a temporal process is necessary to remove this impurity, either in this life or after death.
Thus, the reason there is purgatory is that we have to be made perfect, to love as God loves, in order to dwell with him in Heaven. Jesus tells us
So be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Holiness and perfection, thus, are necessary to see God in Heaven. The holiness and perfection we attain comes through the remission of temporal punishment incurred due to venial, but especially mortal sins, and this purification comes through patiently enduring suffering and our own personal crosses, bearing them out of love as Christ did (and indeed with His grace).
Some people do attain perfect holiness in this life, i.e., the martyrs and saints (officially recognized by canonization, or not), and they go immediately to heaven. But the souls who die in a state of grace and without mortal sin are redeemed and forgiven by God’s mercy given in Christ; as such, their eternal punishment is remitted. But they may still have to suffer the temporal punishment for their sin, and they cannot be admitted to heaven until they are sanctified and made perfect. Such souls have to be purified in purgatory.
Purgatory is the state after death where temporal punishment, the damage to one’s soul or character (which makes one a sensuous or an angry person, for example) is healed or cleansed away (i.e., purged as by fire) as the damage was meant to be healed by penances while a person was still alive.
Saint Paul tells us that on Judgment Day, the work a person has done,
will be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation (of Christ), that person will receive a wage [i.e., enter heaven]. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.
Purgatory is “where” this purging “as with fire” happens. Of course, this is metaphorical language for the very real spiritual realities of becoming purified and made holy through suffering.
And, the prayers and sufferings of fellow Christians in the Body of Christ can help heal the spiritual hurt that others suffer. This is what the Church means by Indulgences. (CCC 1471)
Saint John tells us to pray that a fellow Christian who sins – but not mortally – be given life.
“If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray.
Saint Paul is not saying that Jesus did not suffer enough on the cross. Instead, he is saying that the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, needs to suffer the afflictions which purify it through Christ’s total suffering. Saint Paul is able to make up for the sufferings that other members of the body of Christ still need to endure. He rejoices in what he suffers for the sake of others.
And this spiritual aid applies even to those souls who are suffering the purification of purgatory. The Second Book of Maccabees, relates that Judas Maccabeus, upon discovering that his slain soldiers had been wearing forbidden amulets of idols, “prayed that their sin might be fully blotted out” and so, he had a sacrifice offered in Jerusalem on their behalf. (2 Maccabees 12:43-45). His prayers and sacrifices made up for, “blotted out” or removed the temporal effects of their sins, Scripture tells us; if the sins had incurred damnation, i.e., eternal punishment, no amount of atoning actions by the Maccabee would have had any effect.
To sum up:
Only Christ’s sacrifice atones for the guilt of a person’s sin (eternal punishment) and restores that person to God’s grace and life; only through Christ is anyone saved.
But through our prayers, sacrifices and sufferings, and most especially through those of Christ Himself and His saints, the whole Body of Christ (the Church) can make atonement for the harmful effects, the temporal punishment, which our own or other people’s sins have had on themselves and on the world. Indulgences are these prayers, sacrifices and sufferings of others that are applied to sinners in need of purification in this life or the next (in purgatory only, not hell). Saint Thérèse of Lisieux says, “when we love God our heart expands, and we can give incomparably more tender love to those who are dear to us than when our love is selfish and barren… Love is fed by and develops from sacrifice.”
We can gain indulgences for others in this life through our own efforts, as Saint Paul did, or we can, through the merits of Jesus and the saints, make up for the afflictions lacking to the faithful departed and our loved ones as they are purified after death in purgatory. In this way, the Church offers indulgences (from a storehouse, as it were, of temporal merit) to faithful Christians for certain pious acts, which can then be applied to the suffering souls who need it.
Here are some of the spiritual practices you can do to gain a plenary indulgence (the full remission of all the temporal punishment) either for yourself or for a soul in purgatory. For a full list, see the Enchiridion of Indulgences issued by the Holy See.
Make special pilgrimages
Pray during special years (Year for Priest, Jubilee Years (every 25 years)).
Read the Bible for 30 minutes on any given day
Pray the Rosary in public
Pray for dead on All Souls’ Day: attend Mass, visit a graveyard.
To gain a plenary indulgence, the following conditions have to be met:
Attend Mass and receive communion on the day of doing the work
Go to confession within a week of the work
Pray for intentions of the Pope
Be free of all attachment to sin.
This doesn’t mean you have to be perfectly holy (a living saint); you may still commit occasional venial sins, but you would not regularly commit serious or habitual sins.
This might be somewhat difficult, but even without it, you can still gain a partial (if not a plenary) indulgence. And the more you engage in selfless spiritual practices (gaining partial indulgences), the less you will be attached to sin, and so able eventually to gain plenary indulgences.
Amid the annual fall questions and confusion about the alleged pagan origins of Halloween on October 31, and the role of purgatory in the celebration of All Souls Day (November 2), Catholics pay less attention to the celebration of All Saints Day (November 1) than they should. For, the life of the saints in heaven is really the principle upon which the Church grounds the other two commemorations that go to make up this unofficial Triduum of the Afterlife. For, the Hallows E’en celebration is only an anticipation of All Saints, and we pray for All Souls precisely because they, and we, hope to share in the life of all the saints in heaven. Indeed, it is good and salutary for the Church to remind us of the goal of the Christian life with the celebration of the Solemnity of All Saints, as well as to warn us away from missing the eternal mark.
What Is Eternal Life?
While it is true that Christians often proclaim that “Jesus saves,” what this means is often understood negatively: Jesus saves us from sin, death and, ultimately, hell. Implicit in this, of course, is that salvation consists in life, even eternal life. But, for reasons I have briefly begun to explore elsewhere, non-Catholic understandings of the Gospel give little positive content about what the nature of eternal life is. This is not because the Scriptures do not offer us a positive understanding of salvation and the life of the Blessed in Heaven (because as we will see below, they do). Rather it is because the nominalism that Protestantism absorbed in its foundation sees salvation as beyond having any intelligible universal nature (having only a ‘name’ (nomen)) and so views salvation primarily in terms of God’s sovereign will to ‘save’ sinners who do not, and cannot, merit it. The only criterion and rationale for a sinner not receiving the eternal punishment he deserves is the (ultimately unintelligible, nay arbitrary) will of God mercifully to grant the sinner eternal life in heaven. This same nominalism, likewise, gives rise to the “penal substitution” view of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, which I have also presented the Catholic view as an alternative, and to which I will refer below.
It is especially helpful, then, for the Church to direct the attention of Catholics on one feast day of the year to what it means to attain eternal life, and so receive final salvation. This Catholic understanding is thoroughly Scriptural, and is ultimately grounded in the belief that God reveals His own inner, intrinsic nature, that we can come to have some intelligible grasp of it (though not complete by any means), and most marvelously, we can actually come to share in this nature, becoming adopted sons and daughters.
Who Are Saints?
One way Scripture uses “saints” or “holy ones” is to refer to fellow living Christians (Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 14:33). This is especially true when Saint Paul refers to the ‘saints’ in Jerusalem whose financial support he asks his audience to contribute to (1 Corinthians 16:1-3). But, Scripture also says that the saints in heaven are connected to us, being integral to what is attractive about the salvation found in Jesus Christ and the Church, something that is contrasted with a frightening, threatening God of wrath and vengeance.
You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them. . . . No, you have approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and countless angels in festal gathering, and the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, and God the judge of all, and the spirits of the just made perfect, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood that speaks more eloquently than that of Abel.
The Book of Revelation especially talks about Christians who are already in Heaven:
After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they stand before God’s throne and worship him day and night in his temple. The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
This depiction includes much symbolic language: ‘white robes’ refers to a purification the saint received because of the ‘blood of the Lamb,’ Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, and they hold ‘palm branches’ as a sign of their victory. As a result of this victory and purity, won through Jesus, they are given life and are freed from hunger, thirst, sorrow and hardship. But the precise nature of the victory, and its relationship to purity is not spelled out.
Jesus, especially, speaks of the salvation he offers in terms of eternal life, but it depends on knowing and believing in Him.
For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.
See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.
So, while there is a mystery in what the eternal life of heaven will be, Scripture is clear that it involves knowing God in a way He knows us. And furthermore, this knowing and being known will make us like God, and this will require moral purity. This connection between the saints in heaven extends to us here and now, and contributes, it would seem, to our own sanctification.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.
So the life that brings us into communion with the saints, the holy ones in heaven, is at once a life in which we are purified of sin through some effort of ours, yet also one through which Jesus perfects us through having faith in Him.
And as the Letter to the Hebrews continues, this comes about by God disciplining us
for our benefit, in order that we may share his holiness . . . that holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
All of these elements of eternal life come together if one understands the saints are the holy ones who share in the fullness of God’s life in heaven by becoming the completion of Jesus’ saving mission. For they now manifest in themselves the true, intrinsic nature that God manifested in His Son by becoming one of us in Jesus. For as the Son of God shares in our human nature in Jesus, so through Him, the saints share in His divine nature in Heaven (2 Peter 1:4). But this divine nature is not unintelligible, and inaccessible in nominalistic obscurity, but rather the saints ‘see’ and ‘know as they are known’ and share in the divine nature, but mysteriously so. And they have been brought to this glory precisely through the Son of God manifesting God’s love and redeeming humanity. As Jesus says of Himself and His mission,
For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
The cross of Jesus thus manifests the true, intrinsic nature of God, a God Who is Love
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us.
And the cross not only manifests God’s nature, it effects the saints’ sharing in that nature. The cross reconciles sinners to God, for those who accept what Jesus does on their behalf, in faith, are incorporated into Him and participate in His saving act. His life of obedience to the Father becomes the life of obedience for everyone who, as His disciple, places their faith and trust in Him. As St. Paul says,
Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.
As He shares in our humanity, we share in His divinity, and are empowered by grace to love our neighbors, indeed even our enemies, with supernatural love, and bear our crosses as his cross. The saints, as a cloud of faithful witnesses surrounding us, live out this divine life in Heaven.
In this way, the whole of Jesus’s incarnation, but as culminated on the cross, is precisely how we come to be sharers is his divine life. Through the cross, through our sin and hate and selfishness and pride, God, in Jesus, loves us sinners into becoming His beloved children, brothers of the Eternal Son of God. The cross of Christ heals our estrangement from God, not by satisfying the blood requirement of a vengeful deity, but by fulfilling on our behalf the plan and purpose for which God created free creatures, capable but failing of human love. Not only does Jesus’ sacrificial love overcome our failure to love, through faith and being incorporated into Him Himself, as members of His very Body, we become sanctified, and by His grace, able to love with a superhuman, divine love – the very Love between the Father and the Son which is the God’s own inner life, the life of the Holy Trinity.
Prayers of the Saints
All Saints Day also reminds us to pray to the saints to intercede for us. Just as we are encouraged to pray for each other and so we benefit from the prayers of other Christians on earth, we Catholics believe that we can also be helped by the prayers of those who have been made perfect in following Christ, the saints in heaven. It is clear that we should pray for, and ask for the prayers of, each other.
First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, Christ Jesus, himself human.
But since all who follow Christ are bound together as His Body, the saints who have gone before us are in an especially good position to present our prayers and petitions to God. If it is good and pleasing to pray for each other here on earth, so much more can those in the presence of God in heaven hear and present our prayers on our behalf. As it says in Revelation, the saints in heaven offer our prayers to God under the form of “gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones” (5:8).
Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a gold censer. He was given a great quantity of incense to offer, along with the prayers of all the holy ones, on the gold altar that was before the throne. The smoke of the incense along with the prayers of the holy ones went up before God from the hand of the angel.
The unique, and privileged place of Jesus’ mother, Mary, among His disciples is also clearly presented in Scripture. The angel Gabriel, in announcing that she would play a special role of bringing Christ and His redemption to the world addresses her, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28) and tells her “you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). The special favor and grace that God gave her is confirmed in the exchange with her cousin, Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
And Mary said: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
Mary was blessed by God in this unique way in order that she would be worthy to bear in herself, and raise as a human boy, the Son of God.
To become the mother of the Savior, Mary “was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role.” The angel Gabriel at the moment of the Annunciation salutes her as “full of grace”. In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God’s grace.
In order to be the Mother of the Son of God who would redeem the world from sin, she was kept free from sin by the very redemption her Son would bring about on the cross.
Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, “full of grace” through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854: The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.
The honor given to Mary, the Mother of God, should not be confused with the worship which is reserved for God alone. The Church honors her for the grace God showed her in preserving her from sin, in choosing her to be the earthly mother of His Son, and her obedience to and faith in His word. We also ask for her to pray to God on our behalf. But the Church never offers her praise, adoration, sacrifice or worship; all of the honor given to her is on account of the favor God showed her.
The Church rightly honors the Blessed Virgin with special devotion.
From the most ancient times the Blessed Virgin has been honored with the title of ‘Mother of God,’ to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs. . .. This very special devotion . . . differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration.
Indeed, it is from two Scripture passages in particular that the Church understands that Jesus gave His Blessed Mother to be our mother, and so she is due maternal honor.
A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. . . .She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. . . . [H]er offspring [are] those who keep God’s commandments and bear witness to Jesus.
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.