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 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, 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 or one pound brick 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 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 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” (Hebrews 12:2).
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,
“whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16).
Or if someone has been baptized, then she receives forgiveness by repenting and confessing her sins:
“Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23, see also, Matthew 18:18).
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” (Matthew 5:48).
Indeed, the reason Jesus became man and died on the cross was not only to atone for our guilt, but also to allow and empower us to become perfect and pure, capable of sharing in God’s life.
And the way we attain holiness and perfection is, in part, through penance – difficult or painful experiences endured out of love. As Jesus says,
“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
Again, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, God disciplines us
“for our benefit, in order that we may share his holiness . . . that holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:10,14).
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.” (1 Corinthians 3:13-15).
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” (1 John 5:16).
Deadly, that is, mortal, sin is not helped by prayers, but the other kind, venial sin, is.
And Saint Paul tells us,
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church” (Colossians 1:24).
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 (Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24).
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 (Revelation 7:9,14-17).
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. (John 6:40)
Now this is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ (John 17:3)
And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever possesses the Son has life; whoever does not possess the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:11-12).
Indeed, throughout the New Testament, heaven, while a place of unending life and joy, is often spoken of in terms of mystery.
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
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 (1 John 3:1-3).
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. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
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 (Hebrews 12:10,14).
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” (Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28).
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 (1 John 4:7-12).
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” (Galatians 2:20).
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. (1 Timothy 2:1-5).
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 (Revelation 8:3-4).
Mary, the Mother of God
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?” (Luke 1:41-43)
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” (Luke 1:46-49).
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. (CCC 490)
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. (CCC 491)
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. (CCC 971)
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 (Revelation 12:1-2,5,17).
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 (John 19:26-27).
It is a question that still arises in Catholic circles and among other Christians more generally, so I thought I would repost the answer as I had done on other venues in years past.
The Short answer is No. Halloween is a thoroughly Christian and Catholic celebration whose date was set as an accident of history and has nothing whatever to do with ancient, Celtic pagans. It is the evening pre-celebration, or Evening Vigil, of All Saints Day – All Hallows Evening became Hallows E’en which became Halloween. And the All Saints’ Day celebration in the Christian Church in honor of all the holy men and women (and angels) in heaven started in Rome in 609 AD, when the Roman Pantheon temple was re-dedicated to all saints and the feast day was celebrated on May 13.
Pope Gregory III (who died in 741 AD) moved the Feast of All Saints or “All Hallows” to November 1 when he dedicated All Saints Chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in the 8th century. In the 9th century, Pope Gregory IV decreed that All Saints Day should be observed everywhere and eventually the feast day came to Ireland which had been Christian for over 400 years.
No pagan celebration had anything to do with the Catholic Church instituting the celebration of All Saints’ Day on November 1st.
“But didn’t the Church take over a pagan, Celtic holiday?” you may ask. Again, No.
Ancient Celts of Ireland and Britain did celebrate a minor festival called Samhain (pronounced SOW-in) on October 31 for the end of harvest. But they also had a festival on the last day of most other months of the year. There was no ‘god of the dead’ by this name. Celts/Druids in Gaul and Britain, however, were persecuted and absorbed by the pagan (not Christian) Roman Empire in the 1st century AD.
It wasn’t until 300 years later that St. Patrick (and others) converted Ireland to Christianity from Roman/Celtic paganism, starting in 431 AD. But Samhain was not a thing for those pagans by that time, and the Christians would not celebrate All Saints’ Day (starting in Rome) for another 200 years. Samhain had nothing to do with the Catholic Church instituting the celebration of All Saints’ Day on November 1st, which it did, as we said, in 8th century – over 700 years after Samhain was forgotten by the Celts whom the Romans destroyed.
What about All Souls’ Day?
In 998 AD, St. Odilo, the abbot of the powerful monastery of Cluny in Southern France, added All Souls Day, a day of prayer for the souls of all the faithful departed (in purgatory) to the calendar for his monastery on November 2nd. Eventually this spread from France to the rest of Europe.
So, when did Halloween get spooky?
Sometime after the 10th century, Irish Catholic peasants apparently began to wonder, if the Church had feasts for all those in heaven and all those in purgatory, “What about those in hell?“ They seem to have thought that if the living didn’t remember the souls in hell, they might get upset and cause trouble. So, it seems it became customary in Ireland to bang pots and pans on All Hallows E’en to let the damned know they were not forgotten. (And maybe to scare them away?) Even for these Catholics in Ireland, they knew nothing about pagan Celts and Samhain, as it had been blotted out by Roman brutality 900 years prior!
To sum up:
Samhain (a minor Celtic feast on October 31st) ceased being celebrated anywhere in Europe because of suppression by pagan Romans in the 1st century.
Ireland became Christian in the 5th century.
All Saints’ Day (on May 13) was instituted in Rome in 609 AD with the rededication of the pagan Pantheon temple as a Christian Church (which it still is today).
In Rome, All Saints’ Day moved to November 1st in the 8th century, but All Saints Eve (October 31) did not have any special significance.
All Souls Day on November 2nd was added in the 10th century to pray for souls in purgatory.
In the 11th century, the Catholic Irish invented the custom of banging pots to remember the damned on October 31st (but not wearing costumes) completely unaware of Celtic Samhain.
It was not until the 16th century or later in Protestant England that people tied the ancient pagan Celtic celebration of Samhain to the Catholic Feast of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (as part of the general anti-Catholic Black Legend in England).
In my ongoing quest to finish a series of explanations and analyses on the Five Ways of proving the existence of God from Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae I, q. 2, a. 3, I updated the translation of the Third Way which “is taken from the possible and the necessary” along with a graphical depiction of the argument as a flowchart.
I decided to start with a rather literal translation of one version of the Latin text because, in this case, the dispute about the text (and its translation) seem to make a difference in how one reads, understands and decides upon the effectiveness of the argument. The pretty standard reading and translation by the English Dominican Fathers (the Benzinger edition) does not seem to be the best, and it leads to a common misunderstanding of Saint Thomas’s argument with, many a critic accusing him of committing The Birthday Fallacy (to conclude from the fact that everyone has a birthday (one day on which each person was born) that there must be one day (the same day) on which everyone was born). The troublesome text and translation, it seems to me, contributes to the belief that St. Thomas argues from the fact that all possible beings at some time do not exist, to the conclusion that, (absent a necessary being) there was some time (the same time) when all possible beings did not exist, and that if this were the case (absent a necessary being (God), there would be nothing now.
As I say, this reading of the text and Saint Thomas’s argument are both troublesome. I cover the particular issue of the Birthday Fallacy in a recently published paper. But I hope to fit these insights into an overall explanation and analysis of the Third Way.
I also revised the graphical depiction of the argument as a flowchart to give a visual overview of how I understand the argument, and to include what I think are the most common and challenging contemporary objections. It will come as no surprise that I believe the Third Way is successful in showing that there must exist in reality a Self-Necessary Being which is the cause of the existence of everything that is real. (Or perhaps will be a surprise given that I do not think the First Way is successful.) I also link to an essay on how Saint Thomas is able to identify this Self-Necessary Cause as the God he believes in.
I am not sure the flowchart depiction is helpful for very many people, but it helped me sort out the logic and “flow” of the argument. At any rate, a more traditional text-based approach is in the offing.
A few weeks ago, Bishop Robert Barron wrote an op/ed piece for the New York Post bemoaning the singing of John Lennon’s utopian manifesto pop song “Imagine” at the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics. Quoth His Grace:
While its melody and arrangement are indeed beautiful, the lyrics are an invitation to moral and political chaos.
Consider the opening verse: “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try / No hell below us, above us only sky / Imagine all the people livin’ for today.”
I frankly can’t imagine anything worse. To say that there is no heaven or hell is to say that there is no absolute criterion of good and evil — no way of meaningfully determining the difference between right and wrong, no standard outside of the subjectivities of each moral actor by which to say any one agent is better than any other.
In his YouTube video on the same topic, Barron makes a connection to God more explicit. He declares at 2:41 that Lennon’s imagining is “an invitation into a very dangerous place, the place described by Dostoyevsky: Once you stop believing in God, anything is permitted.”
Overall, I agree with Barron; I have never liked Lennon’s song once I started paying attention to the lyrics, and generally along the same lines that Barron lays out in his op/ed and video: it is naïve, utopian, hypocritical and condemnatory of a caricature of patriotism and religion.
I do, however, have a couple of points of divergence with Barron’s analysis, one a quibble and one more substantive.
The crux of Barron’s denunciation of the message of “Imagine” is that the song advocates a rejection of an “absolute criterion of good and evil,” i.e., an objective moral standard which is to be found in belief in God. Imagining there is no heaven or hell, according to Barron, is denying objective right and wrong. Lennon may have (and probably did) not believe in God or objective right and wrong (see his song “God“). But as an interpretation of “Imagine,” one does not have to take the song so far as to be challenging objective morality.
“Imagine no heaven … no hell below us,” etc. seems to be Lennon’s critique of the carrot and stick of religion: the self-interested hope for heaven and fear of hell. He seems to me to be saying instead that we ought to be good, not to gain rewards and avoid punishments — pie in the sky/fire insurance — but for its own sake: “Imagine all the people/Livin’ for today.” I agree that Lennon sees religion, nations, wealth and acquisitiveness as sources of conflict, war and misery, but he shows this by contrasting these ‘evils’ with “Livin’ life in peace” and “Sharing all the world.” I agree that such contrasts are naïve, simplistic and based on libelous caricatures, but these contrasts are how Lennon structured his song. Likewise, Lennon’s contrast is not heaven/hell vs. no moral absolutes, but rather heaven/hell (self-interest) vs. here-and-now morality (altruism).
The more substantive point has to do with the sentiment expressed by Dostoyevsky’s dictum “without God, all things are permitted.” One of the most popular pages on the Thomistic Philosophy site is an essay explaining the Thomistic account of Natural Law. Given that St. Thomas Aquinas says that the natural law is the participation by human reason in the Eternal Law (the rational ordering of creation in the mind of God as He creates and sustains that creation), not a few of the web pages linking to my essay dismiss the Thomistic account as being hopelessly dependent on the Christian commitments of Aquinas and his followers. I fear that those who see the natural law as an objective, universal moral standard that nevertheless depends on a belief in God in general or the Christian God in particular are confusing two different senses of ‘depends on’ in its justification or explanation an absolute criterion of good and evil.
On the one hand, one can say that an objective moral standard of right or wrong depends on God in an epistemological sense: without religious faith (in a divine Lawgiver), anything is permitted (nothing is forbidden). That is, unless one believes there is a God who commands and forbids specific actions (and rewards good behavior and punishes the bad), human beings will not be restrained, but indulge anything and everything. I am inclined to think that is what Dostoyevsky had in mind. The extreme in viewing God as the epistemic ground for objective morality is often today called “Divine Command Theory,” which asserts that moral good and evil, right and wrong, are just what God commands (love your enemies) or forbids (do not steal) in his explicit and public revelation (the Bible). One only knows (and so can follow) objective moral norms is if they are spelled out in a public and explicit set of scriptures, and one has religious faith to accept them as divine revelation. Without God or belief in what He reveals, there is no right and wrong to guide human behavior; anything would be permitted. For reasons I am endeavoring elsewhere on this blog to explain, this epistemological dependence of morality on belief in God is an intellectual outgrowth and implication of nominalism that has haunted Western civilization since the 14th century. This is decidedly not what Saint Thomas means by natural law or its dependence on God.
On the other hand, one can say that an objective moral standard of right or wrong depends on God in a metaphysical sense: the natural inclinations inherent within rational human nature comprise a natural law as an objective, universal standard for morally good behavior, but without a governor (one who gives order and direction) of nature, there would be no order and direction in nature, and so no moral order to be derived from nature by rational human creatures. I agree with Barron that one needs a transcendent ground for moral absolutes, and absent that, all things become permissible; good and evil would only have subjective meaning. An objective, fixed human nature with inherent and immutable natural ends and purposes, however, can and does serves as that transcendent ground, even for those without any religious faith. Though it naturally points to God as the cause of nature and natural ends, one can discover and be bound by natural law without concluding to (or even inquiring after) the Divine Lawgiver as Author and Governor of nature.
Against this pretty basic misunderstanding of what Saint Thomas means by natural law, I felt the need to expand and update that essay. I expanded it to include more explicitly how Aquinas believes the natural law applies to all people, at all times, cannot be changed and cannot be abolished from the human heart. I also added an explanation how the natural law, for Aquinas, serves as the standard against which to judge whether positive human law is just or unjust, especially as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. makes use of this idea in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” Hopefully the revised and expanded essay will give a more complete understanding of Thomistic natural law.
The greatest obstacle to understanding his Second Way, it has seemed to me, is determining precisely what Aquinas means by “the nature of the efficient cause” and “an order of efficient causes,” and how the Second Way is distinct from the First and Third Ways. For all three make use of efficient causes: motion, i.e., accidental change, in the case of the First, or generation and corruption, i.e., substantial change, in the Third. It seems unnecessary for Aquinas to use efficient causality in a general sense as the basis of a proof distinct from these two species of it.
In my treatment of the Five Ways in Context, I claimed that each way embodies and employs a distinct perspective on the physical world of which Aquinas pursues an ultimate explanation in God. It therefore seems unlikely that Aquinas would produce an argument for the existence of God that focuses on the genus of causality that is operative in two of his other arguments.
Nor did it seem to me that the efficient causality that he has in mind is the coming to be of substances, even though this is probably the most popular way of reading “In the world of sense, we find there is an order of efficient causes.“
For reasons I explain in the essay, I conclude that Aquinas is basing his argument from efficient causality on a third type of ‘change’ or ‘alteration,’ what he elsewhere calls immanent activity or operations of cognition and volition. Please view this exploration of an alternate reading of the Second Way here, and please share or comment.
Every Good Friday, the question is raised again, “Why did Jesus have to die?”
A common answer, though not really the Catholic answer, says that Jesus is a substitute victim, an innocent, and infinitely holy person, the Son of God, who suffers the punishment which sinners deserve in their place, and thereby frees them from this just punishment they deserve. He thus allows them to receive a reward of eternal life they do not deserve. God the Father, being infinitely just, demands a sacrifice for sin, but also being infinitely merciful, sends His Son, Jesus, to offer the only sacrifice that could pay that infinite debt.
To many people skeptical of the Christian gospel, this makes no sense, and seems to show that God is cruel and arbitrary in dealing with offenses against himself, as well as being abusive toward His Son. It is reasonably asked, could not God just forgive our offenses, as he asks us to do to those who offend us? As anyone might, in mercy, turn the other cheek, or cancel a debt owed to themselves, it seems God could simply not be offended by an offensive act. And if God cannot simply cancel and forgive the injury to his infinite dignity, but satisfaction must be made for it, it is not clear how a third-party might provide the satisfaction for an offence committed by someone else. For, while one might justly pay for damage caused by another’s actions as when I was a boy and my father paid for a car window that I shot out with a bb gun, or a kind benefactor could pay a traffic fine or gambling debt for another. Judicial, punitive sentences imposed on the person of wrongdoers are not transferable. A good and just God cannot just declare the punishment imposed as a personal sentence on one or all people as having been satisfied by substituting one prisoner for another, just as nobody’s father can go to prison or be executed in the place of his son. To many a skeptic, it is unfathomable how it is supposed to be an act of justice for the innocent Son of God to bear the punishment of death in the place of disobedient human beings.
The Catholic position, as articulated by Saint Thomas Aquinas, contends that the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross was not strictly necessary. God could have forgiven and redeemed us in some other way unknown to us. But, the cross of Christ is how God did choose to do it, and there are good reasons for it.
To be sure, Catholics believe that Jesus did suffer for our sins, and by his suffering, we are redeemed. But the cross of Christ does this as manifesting God’s love for us, as showing forth in a profound and supremely appropriate way the forgiveness God does wish to give freely. And further, Jesus’ suffering and death redeems and sanctifies humanity, for by it he realizes in his own human nature perfect love and obedience to the Father, and he becomes the means by which all who have faith in him can share in this perfect love and obedience.
In order to see how the cross is redemptive in a way that is not a substitutionary punishment, one needs to consider what we need redemption from. In his original plan for us, God made us for love, and not in just a human way, but as he loves, to share in his life in the Trinity of Love. That is heaven: loving God in the way God loves, and loving everything else God loves in the manner that He does: in the total self-giving willing of good for the other. But we, the human race, are not capable of this kind of love on our own.
Moreover, we failed at the love we are capable of. This was the first sin, and from it, all of us have been infected so that none of us loves humanly as we should. So, we “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Humanity, then, was (and left to itself, is) an enemy of God. As enemies, none of us can do anything to make peace with God since the offence against God, who is infinitely good and holy, is infinite. God is willing to forgive every sin committed, but human beings (prior to being redeemed) are not capable being friends with God, of acting in obedience to him. The only one who could make peace would be a man already at peace with God, who would do it on behalf of other humans. This Divine Mediator, the man Jesus Christ, does not just suffer what we should suffer. But his suffering is done in love, in perfect obedience to the Father, and so he does what no fallen human is capable of doing.
Left to ourselves, there is an infinite gulf between humanity and God, and it is a kind of debt and punishment, but it is made up for, not by an innocent third-party being punished in our place, but by God himself, as a man, acting with the loving obedience all people ought to give to God. Jesus, the Eternal Son of the Father, and God made man, by his perfect obedience to the Father (an obedience unto death, death on a cross (Philippians 2:8)) restores humanity to friendship with God. And being God, he rightfully inherits a place in the Kingdom of his Father (i.e. heaven). Or put in terms of love, Jesus perfectly loves the Father and atones for the lovelessness of mankind, and being God, is able to fulfill the purpose for which God made humanity: Jesus is able to love as God loves forever in heaven.
Jesus’ loving obedience in accepting the cross is an act of love, the most dramatic and revelatory act of the love that is God, which transforms the very sin which inflicts that cruelty and violence on him. The Jewish leaders, the people of Jerusalem who reject him, the Roman authorities who cynically use him, the soldiers who beat and ridiculed him, his disciples who deserted him, all are manifestation of human sin: your sins, my sins. But Jesus accepted this rejection, abuse, isolation, betrayal, brutal violence and made out of this our sin, his loving act. He, as it were, absorbs hate and sin with his infinite love and obedience, and thereby changes it. He makes of a cross of torture and execution, a means of loving those who are torturing and executing him, a means of displaying for all the world and for all time how completely and profoundly God loves those whom he created. And without such terrible sin, God could not have manifested the depth of his forgiving love. He could and does forgive, but there is no forgiveness without sin to forgive, and the horror of the sin which nailed Jesus to the cross is fitting (if not strictly necessary) to manifest the sublimity of God’s love and his wish for mankind to share in a life of that love forever (which is what heaven is).
Further, the manner of manifesting God’s love also redeems humanity. The cross of Jesus 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” (Galatians 2:20). As he shares in our humanity, we share in his divinity, and are empowered by grace to love our enemies with supernatural love, and bear our crosses as his cross.
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 (2 Peter 1:4). 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 love with a super-human, 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.