Monthly Archives: January 2014

Love God, Love People . . .

Years ago, I got into an intense theological exchange with a fellow student just before one of my graduate classes. I was more or less oblivious to the people around me, to the demands of the classroom, or to time. I was only focused on the discussion. Finally, the professor herself walked out of the room. “Let me know when you’re ready to begin class,” she said. In a flash, I came back to reality deeply embarrassed. How could I be such a jerk?

argument clinic

Argument Clinic

The experience got me thinking. What made me act this way? I could see that my behavior was rude and insensitive. However important my discussion, it was not as important as the people around me. But worse, I began to realize that I tolerated a degree of boorishness in religion that I would never tolerate in sports, politics, entertainment, or any other realm of human behavior. My faith (not yet a Catholic) was literally making me an obnoxious person. This bothered me a good deal. I asked myself, “Why?”

At the time, I was a non-Catholic Christian who believed firmly that salvation comes “by faith alone.” I worshiped in churches that placed a high value on evangelism, but for whom evangelism meant, in large measure, making people think like us. (A logical consequence of our doctrine of salvation.) We also emphasized a “personal relationship with Jesus.” But, again this basically meant having affecting and private experiences in prayer. It did not necessarily translate into kindness or love extended to others.

Gradually, I began to see how my almost exclusive interest in dogma-for-its-own-sake and on private religious experience could hardly fail to produce an inconsiderate, self-regarding boor. Hardly a model of love and holiness! So, I started to question the relationship (or lack thereof) between my theology and the life of virtue. I also noticed that many of my theological heroes (Martin Luther, John Calvin) suffered from my same vices. The original Protestant Reformers were known as great polemicists, debaters, and propagandists. They were not known for being deeply charitable.

These realizations began nudging me towards the Catholic Church. The Church teaches that faith is essential to salvation, but it is only the beginning of eternal life, not its consummation. To save, faith must be “working through charity.” This faith, which we receive from the Church, is not inert. In the encyclical Lumen Fidei, the Pope writes, “Faith in Christ brings salvation because in him our lives become radically open to a love that precedes us, a love that transforms us from within, acting in us and through us.” Likewise, the Church teaches that dogma is essential to our spiritual life. But dogma is not an end in itself. The Catechism says “Dogmas are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure.”(CCC 89)

Mother Theresa

In my case, Protestant theology was a stumbling block to the life of charity. Thus, I turned to the Catholic Church hoping for more than new information. I needed a renewal of my moral and spiritual life through grace and the sacraments. But Catholics, too, can make many of my same mistakes. In his classic Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales warns about the kind of Catholic who makes the elements of devotion into ends in themselves. “All these people are conventionally called religious,” he writes, “but nevertheless they are in no true sense really devout.” “In order to be good,” he adds “a man must be filled with love, and to be devout, he must further be very ready and apt to perform the deeds of love. And forasmuch as devotion consists in a high degree of real love.”

Pope Francis

As I read him, Pope Francis is also deeply concerned about this kind of faith. In his recent document Evangelii Gaudium, the Pope seemed to be writing directly to my past experience when he spoke of “a purely subjective faith whose only interest is a certain experience or a set of ideas and bits of information which are meant to console and enlighten, but which ultimately keep one imprisoned in his or her own thoughts and feelings.” Such a life, the Pope says, “is nothing less than slow suicide.” Similarly, the Pope warns against an evangelism in which we make ourselves out to be “grandees who look down upon others.” The Pope writes, “we are told to give reasons for our hope, but not as an enemy who critiques and condemns. We are told quite clearly: ‘do so with gentleness and reverence.’” (1 Pet 3:15)

I can appreciate this warning. I remember one time I was in a religious argument with a non-believer. I felt that I had won the “debate,” but I lost moral victory. To all my fine reasoning, my friend said simply, “But, David, I just don’t like Christians.” Ouch!

Francis de sales

St. Francis de Sales

Last Friday, we celebrated the Feast of St. Francis de Sales. He was one of the greatest missionaries in Catholic history. He wrote powerfully in defense of the Catholic faith and of the Council of Trent. He attacked false doctrine, and led literally thousands of Protestants back to the Church. But he was also the author of Introduction to the Devout Life and The Treatise of the Love of God. He knew that all the trappings of dogma and devotion are worthless if we fail in the most crucial thing: Love God, and Love People.

Two Ways of Being Human

This week we recognize two milestones in American history. On Monday, January 20th, we celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. On Wednesday, we confronted the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Each has profound implications for the soul of our nation, for how we understand what it means to be a human being.


There is a naive progressivism that would see these two milestones as parallel. Both would seem to represent a rejection of the past and tradition. Both symbolize a new understanding of freedom and human dignity. But the similarities end there. King grounded his argument for human freedom and equality on the transcendent dignity of the human person, the solidarity of the human race, and the law of love. But when treating abortion, the Supreme Court specifically denied that questions of transcendent human dignity can be decided by reason or by jurisprudence. They recognized only the absolute autonomy of the capricious and arbitrary will to power. These are two very different ways of understanding human freedom. They remain at war in our culture: civilization vs. barbarism.

A year ago in this column, I wrote about “The Catholic Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr.” In that article, I did not intend to suggest that Dr. King embraced all things Catholic. He was a Baptist minister, not a Catholic. But I pointed out strong affinities between King’s social vision and the social vision of the Catholic Church. Not the least was Dr. King’s belief in an objective moral order, accessible to reason, which supersedes all particular laws and customs. This is the Natural or Eternal Law affirmed by the Catholic Church, and championed by King in texts like The Letter from the Birmingham Jail.

King affirmed the other pillars of Catholic social teaching. In “The Ethical Demands for Integration” (1962) King spoke of the transcendent dignity of the human person, made in the Image of God. “Man is not a thing,” King said, but “a person sacred in himself . . . a person of sacred worth.” Dr. King called for more than mere desegregation, but for a true integration based on the solidarity of the human race. He decried “physical proximity without spiritual affinity.” And his concerns were universal, not parochial. He sought what the Church calls The Common Good. “At the heart of all that civilization has meant and developed, “King says, “is ‘community’ – the mutually cooperative and voluntary venture of man to assume a semblance or responsibility for his brother.”

Dr. King’s calls for freedom are grounded in this very profound analysis of the human person. In a brilliant passage, King contrasts a proper understanding of freedom from mere freedom of will:

In speaking of freedom at this point I am not talking of the freedom of a thing called the will. The very phrase, freedom of the will, abstracts freedom from the person to make it an object; and an object almost by definition is not free. But freedom cannot thus be abstracted from the person, who is always subject as well as object . . . So I am speaking of the freedom of man, the whole man and not one faculty called the will. Neither am I implying that there are no limits to freedom. Always freedom is within predestined structure . . . Freedom is the chosen fulfillment of our destined nature.

How different is the philosophy embraced by the Supreme Court! In Roe v. Wade (1973), the Court said, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins . . . the judiciary . . is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.” And in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the Court went even farther. J. Kennedy wrote that freedom simply means the right to decide matters of life, death, and human dignity for oneself. “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Supreme Court

I need hardly point out that the court’s reasoning flies directly in the face of Dr. King’s philosophy. For the court, there is no human dignity discoverable by reason, no transcendent meaning to human life that norms our behavior. There is only the autonomous will and the absolute right to say for oneself what is or isn’t a human being. The danger inherent in this philosophy should be obvious. If my choices are not bound by reason, then they can be bound only by another’s will. Absolute freedom thus devolves into tyranny.

It is impossible to say how King’s thought might have evolved had he survived. Perhaps, like his niece Dr. Alveda King, he would have recoiled at the logic of Roe v. Wade and subsequent court decisions on abortion. But we can say with certainty that the philosophy of human freedom we find in his writings and speeches runs flat contrary to the absolute autonomy, the tyranny of the unbounded will. And this is incredibly important to remember. Our culture is still shot through with these conflicting approaches to being human. At stake is human dignity and freedom, confronted by “The Dictatorship of Relativism.”

Can you show me in Scripture . . . ?

I wrote last week about the doctrine of Mary’s divine maternity and its implications for her Immaculate Conception. In response, I received an email from a non-Catholic gentleman challenging me to “show him in Scripture where it says that Mary was Immaculately Conceived.” I really appreciate this kind of question because it gives me an opportunity to discuss foundational differences between Catholics and Protestants. The most important of these differences is not the Immaculate Conception. The most important difference is how we claim even to know what the Christian faith is.

search the scripture

My Protestant interlocutor assumed, without argument, that we know the Christian faith by deriving it immediately from the words of Scripture. It is a strange position to hold (though I once held it myself) both because the Christian faith predates the completed canon of Scripture and because Christ himself never instructed us to learn the Christian faith in this way. On the contrary, when Christ commanded that the faith be passed on to posterity he specifically enjoined apostolic authority and liturgical tradition as the proper modes of its transmission. (Matthew 28; Luke 22:19; Luke 10:16) He says not a word about relying on the Bible alone.

This makes it quite illegitimate to attempt to settle theological disputes by referencing the Scripture alone. In an effort to get my friend to see this I asked, “Would you try to ground Christian theology only in the book of Genesis?” “Not at all,” he replied, “I’d look at the whole Scripture.” “Exactly,” I said. “You can’t limit yourself to only one part of God’s word. You need all the data of revelation. Not just the Bible, but apostolic tradition as well.”

Not that the Bible is irrelevant. Scripture is God’s inspired Word. It is the Church’s primary text for theological reflection, for prayer, liturgy, worship, and moral instruction. But it is not a textbook, a constitution, or a user’s manual. There are many things it cannot do alone. It’s more like a love letter. Can you imagine trying to make sense of a relationship based only on a few occasional letters? Without the gestures, rituals, memories, and long history that give those letters a context? Who but a lover can know what to make of an elliptical phrase or an allusion? “I know what he meant here,” she might say. “It’s that time we were walking on the beach, and we both smiled at the seagull without speaking?” Who, but the lovers, could know such a thing?

Christ and his Church are the lovers. The prayers, liturgy, works, and sufferings of the lovers are the context. Dogmas are the memory. The apostles and their successors are the bearers of that memory. They alone can say, with authority, “This is what he means here.”

With this in mind, we can turn again to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Is this doctrine mentioned in Scripture? Of course! But obliquely, indirectly, by hints and allusion. In a way only a lover could know. The Fathers of the Church find the doctrine especially in Luke 1:28: “Hail! Full of Grace.” This is closely followed by Luke 1: 41 “Blessed are you among women.” Tradition also sees the doctrine implied in Genesis 3:15, 1 Corinthians 15, and Romans 5. “The woman” and “her seed” definitively crush the head of the serpent. Together, as “New Adam,” and “New Eve” they stand in antithesis to the first Adam and first Eve. But the first Adam and the first Eve were created in Original Justice. Therefore, the Second Eve also escapes the curse of original sin. (Only through the merits of her son, however.)

Mary QUV

As I write this, I can almost hear my friend object: “But you haven’t proven anything! None of those verses say anything about the Immaculate Conception!” But, again, I reject the premise. It is not the job of Sacred Scripture to teach or even to prove Christian doctrine. This job Christ entrusted to the Church. Scripture is a witness, an inspired testimony to the life of Christ and to the history of God’s people. It is enough to prove that the Church, in reflecting on the Scriptures, finds Mary Immaculate. And that is easy enough:

We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful. – Pope Pius IX, 1854, Ineffabilis Deus

The Most Important Thing About Mary

Catholics love Mary. It is one of the things that make us distinct. We celebrate her with rich devotions, profess our faith in beautiful Marian doctrines, and glory in her powerful intercession. But in our faith and devotion one article stands above all else – that Mary is the Mother of God. She gave birth to Jesus, the God-man. Marian dogma is perhaps the most misunderstood part of our Catholic faith. To grasp Mary’s divine maternity is the best way to understand and explain the whole mystery of Mary.


Mary has been revered under the title Mother of God (Greek theotokos) for a very long time. We find the title in the prayers of the Church in Alexandria in the 250s. The theology underlying this title is even more ancient. Scripture clearly affirms the both divinity of Jesus and his birth of the Virgin Mary. Mary’s role in the incarnation is affirmed in the most ancient creeds of the Church. The title – Mother of God – was finally affirmed as dogma at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The whole mystery of redemption is tied up in that title.

The title “Mother of God” or theotokos is, above all, a confession about the true nature of Christ. In the fifth century, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, denied that Mary could be truly “The Mother of God.” He confessed that she was “Mother of Christ,” but did not see how we can credit her with divine maternity. But the Council of Ephesus (and later, the Council of Chalcedon, 451) understood that our redemption is essentially connected to Mary’s divine maternity. In Christ, the divine and the human are truly joined. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things.” (Colossians 1:19-20)

Because Jesus is both God and Man, St. Paul likened him to a New Adam (Romans 5; 1 Corinthians 15). In him the human race is restored. What we lost in Adam, we regain in Christ: namely, a share in the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:4) Furthermore, the parallel with Adam led the Church fathers to consider Mary’s role in this equation. If Jesus is the New Adam, they confessed, then surely Mary is the New Eve. At the annunciation, she said “Yes” to God, whereas Eve said, “No.”

Mary’s role as The New Eve is also connected to her virginal conception. The first Eve was physically the mother of the human race. But Mary’s role was to bring forth, in Christ, those born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:13) Also, unlike the first Eve, the New Eve was totally consecrated to the will of God. (“Be it done to me according to thy word!”) Thus, her perpetual virginity is a sign of that total consecration. This is the more excellent way of discipleship that both Jesus and Saint Paul commend (Matthew 19; 1 Corinthians 7).

Because Mary is the Mother of the God-Man, she is also the Mother of the Church. In a mystical sense, Christ’s body is the Church. (Colossians 1:24). What we say of one, we can say (in a mystical way) of the other. When Saul of Tarsus was persecuting the Church, Christ said to him, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) For this reason, we can truly celebrate Mary as our Mother.

When we contemplate the divine maternity of Mary, we are led to consider the incredible dignity of her position. Only one person in the entire history of the human race can claim to be the Mother of God. In view of this dignity, in view of her role as the second Eve, as mother of the Church, as the maternal progenitor of a new race of spiritual men, and the most perfect exemplar of that race – it is more than fitting that Mary participate in our redemption in the most eminent way. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb. The Blessed Virgin was sanctified from the very moment of her conception. Hence, we confess her Immaculate Conception.

January 1 is the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. As you might suppose, it is my favorite Marian feast. Many years ago, I was struggling with the decision to become a Catholic. Like many non-Catholics, the Marian dogmas were initially a stumbling block to me. But as I began to contemplate Mary’s divine maternity – something which Protestants have also traditionally confessed – I realized the incredible dignity of the Blessed Virgin. Moreover, I began to see how the Marian dogmas fit together with the Church’s doctrine of salvation. In the end, the Blessed Virgin became not an obstacle to my Catholic faith, but a delightful motive. I, too, wanted her as my mother. Happy Feast Day!