Monthly Archives: February 2014

Do the Saints Pray for Us?

Last week (February 14, 2014), my local paper –  The Birmingham News – published an article critical of Catholics and their devotion to the saints. The article suggested that we don’t really need the saints. It argued that Christians should pray to God on their own and not ask the saints for prayer.  As a convert to Catholicism, I thought the article really missed the point of devotion to the saints. I would now like to explain why.

Revelation

In the Bible (especially in the book of Ephesians) we learn that God wants to do more than save individuals. He wants to create a new human community, a family of God. We call this family the Church.  This community is not like a normal human society.  It is a supernatural community that transcends time and space. It encompasses everyone who is joined to Christ through faith – those on earth as well as those in heaven.   It is a communion of love.  In it, we support one another especially through prayer. As St. James says, “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another.” (James 5:16)

We find a beautiful picture of this community in the Book of Revelation. The biblical writer depicts angels and saints in heaven, “elders” who have already passed through death.  These saints are praying and worshipping God and offering up the prayers of those still on earth. (Revelation 5:8; Revelation 8:3)  It is a picture of the next life we also find reflected in Jewish literature from before the time of Christ. (2 Maccabees 15:12-16; Tobit 12:12-15)

This biblical picture of the Church explains why the earliest Christians found no difficulty asking for the prayers of the saints. This wasn’t a distraction from Christ. It was proof that the faithful on earth and the faithful in Heaven are still joined through Christ in holy friendship.  Nor was devotion to the saints something that medieval Catholics made up. Even Protestant historians like Joachim Jeremias and secular historians like Peter Brown recognize that the practice  is of Jewish origins.  It reflects a thoroughly Hebraic, biblical, and communal picture of salvation. (Passages like 2 Kings 13:20-21 show how old these attitudes are.)

Peter Brown also notes that pagans in Rome were perplexed by Christian devotion to the saints and their relics. Early Christians worshipped in cemeteries, catacombs, and among the dead.  This was something pagans did not do. But the pagans failed to grasp why Christians did this. The earliest Christians believed in resurrection: the dead in Christ will rise again. Devotion to the saints and their relics witnessed to this faith. For Catholic Christians, death does not have the last word.

Again, devotion to the saints is not something that appeared in the middle ages. It’s been part of Christianity from the beginning. Nor is it simply a Roman Catholic practice. Wherever you look in the ancient Christian world – Latin, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, Malabar (Indian), Assyrian (Persian), Catholic or Orthodox – we find devotion to the saints. Consistent opposition to the practice arose only in the Protestant Reformation – some 1500 years after the resurrection of Christ.

Some non-Catholics wonder, “Why bother praying to saints? Why not just pray directly to God?” This objection simply doesn’t do justice to Catholic belief and practice. Of course Catholics pray directly to God! But biblical religion is a corporate affair. We pray directly to God, but we also pray and suffer for one another. St. Paul says we are Christ’s co-laborers. (2 Corinthians 6:1) He could even say, “I fill up in my own flesh whatever is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” (Colossians 1:24)

The Bible says the church is “a mystery.” (Ephesians 5:32)  One great mystery is why God would use men to accomplishes his purposes.  God can give grace and forgiveness to each one directly, of course, but he also chooses to use human instruments. Christ told his apostles, “Whoever sins you forgive are forgiven.” (John 20:23). “What you bind on earth is bound in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18).  God struck down St. Paul, but then sent him to Ananias to be baptized. (Acts 9:11-19)

One reason for this great mystery is that Christ wants to identify with us in the work of salvation. He identifies with us so closely that whatever you do to Christians, you do to Christ. When Saul was persecuting the infant Church, Jesus said to him, “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) The early church father St. Gregory of Nyssa once said, “He who beholds the church really beholds Christ.”  This captures the logic of Christian devotion to the saints. We do not worship the saints. We venerate Christ in his members.

If you are a non-Catholic Christian, we commend you for praying to God. By all means keep on praying! But Catholics are not wrong to love our brothers and sisters in heaven, or for also believing that they love and pray for us. Catholics and non-Catholics alike ask Christian friends to pray for them.  How much more our Christian friends in heaven!  Scripture says they do, and so does the unbroken practice of Christian faith down through the centuries.

God and Evil

How can a good God allow so much evil in the world? Historically, this question has posed the single most important atheist challenge to theism, and is one of the most vexing theological problems. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that evil is “a mystery.”  This side of Heaven, we can never fully understand why God freely created a world in which He knew there would be pain and suffering. Still, the Catholic faith offers an approach to this problem that can be deeply satisfying.

pieta

Why do some atheists find this question an insoluble dilemma for religious believers?  One famous statement of the problem comes from the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776). In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume wrote, “Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”  Some thinkers, like Atheist J. L. Mackie thought this dilemma positively disproved the existence of God.  Others, like philosopher William Rowe, think it just counts as good evidence against God’s existence. What are we to make of these claims?

The Catholic answer to this problem was stated most succinctly by St. Thomas Aquinas: “This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.” (S.T. 1.2.3. ad.1)  God is able to bring such a good out of evil that even the worst evils we experience can be overcome.  Sometimes this greater good may be apparent to us. Far more often, it will not be apparent. But whether we recognize this good or not, this answer solves the logical problem of evil. A child who gets his immunization shots may not understand why a parent would subject him to suffering. But the fact that there is a  reason means that the parent is neither cruel nor capricious.

But are there good reasons for believing that evil and suffering may be purposeful? Absolutely. To begin with, the Catholic holds that God’s goodness and His providence follow simply from a proper understanding of the evidence for His existence.  Philosophically, Catholics defend the idea of God as Subsistent Being, Being itself. God is not just one powerful being among many. He is the ground, condition, and source of all being. As such, God is perfect.  He lacks noting in His Act of Being. There is no potential good that He has failed to actualize.  To understand the positive case for God’s existence, therefore,  is, at once, to understand that God cannot fail to be absolutely good.  Whatever God has brought about is also good. His providence (which includes allowing limited evils) cannot fail to bring about the greater good He intends.

But there is another reason to believe in God’s goodness, derived from revelation. Catholics believe that God has revealed his purposes for us in Christ. God wills to raise us up to a participation in His divine life, to a destiny that far outstrips our every natural capacity. God’s plan for this elevation is the most sublime mystery of all. In the person of Jesus, God himself has entered into solidarity with us our suffering. By giving up himself, Christ has displayed the depth of His love for us.  Furthermore, Catholics believe that we can enter into solidarity with Christ. We can positively offer our sufferings to God through Christ. In this way, they take on a supernatural dignity and purpose.

 

How can we confront the problem of evil? There are only a very few options.:

1)      The atheist concludes that God does not exist, that my pain and suffering are meaningless, and that reality is absurd. For the atheist, the best I can do is suppress my pains through various forms of escapism.

2)      The deist or pagan may conclude that a god exists, but that He is impotent, detached, or malevolent. Again, my only hope is “suppress and escape.” For the Catholic, these first two philosophies are hardly distinct. An impotent or malevolent God is really no God at all.

3)      The Christian believes that God does exist, that He loves me intensely, that He loves all things, and intends all things for good (including my pains) even if I cannot see the reason. Inspired by both reason and faith, I entrust myself to this providence.

4)      The Catholic, finally, confesses that my pains and sorrows are redemptive through their union with the passion of Christ. God condescends to include even me in His plan for redeeming the world.

Which God don’t you believe in?

“I don’t believe in God?” “God does not exist.” What do people mean when they say these things? Often, people who say this do not really understand what Catholics mean by the proposition “God exists.” So, when dealing with atheists, it becomes very important to clarify, “What do you mean by God?” What do you mean by “exist?” You may find out that the atheist is rejecting a phantom, a “god” Catholics also reject.

the thinker

Let me illustrate.  I read once about a camp for children run by atheists. Their goal was to inoculate children against religious belief, and they used a number of techniques. One stuck in my memory. The children were given the task of proving that unicorns do not exist.

Once you begin the task, you realize it is impossible. There is no way to prove that unicorns don’t exist. The best you can do is show that there is no good reason to believe in unicorns. The point of the exercise should be obvious. The camp counselors wanted the children to think of God (or the gods) like unicorns: mythical beings for whom there is no scientific or empirical evidence.

The problem with this plan is that it totally misrepresents what Catholics mean by the word “God.” Catholic philosophers go to great pains to explain that God is not a being among other beings. He does not belong to the genus or class “things that exist.” In fact, he is not in any genus or class at all. (For example, see St. Thomas Summa theologica I. 3.5.)  If there were a unicorn, it would be one thing among many – like a squirrel, or a fish, or a stone. Similarly, if the Greek gods existed (Zeus, Hera, Hercules), they would also be things, material substances, beings. But, St. Thomas says, this does not at all capture what we mean by the word God.

The unicorn exercise also misrepresents what we mean by exists. Many atheists assume that there is only one way that a thing can exist – by taking up space, the way a unicorn in the forest would take up space (and be susceptible to scientific investigation) if it were to exist. This is what Aristotle would have called a [material] substance. But this is clearly not the only way we can think of existence. Consider the following:

Numerical relations are real – they exist – in a way,  but not in the way a cat or a unicorn would exist. Numerical relations are abstract entities. Attributes or qualities (accidents) are also real – things like tall, green, round – but they exists differently from substances. The Mind is real – a conscious entity  constituted by concepts, intentions, reasons, memory and personal identity, but the mind does not exist at all in the same way that  bricks or dogs or even hearts and livers exists. Minds depend on matter (the brain) for their operation, but they cannot be reduced to matter. The mind is an immaterial reality- (If you doubt this, try explaining how mental concepts like democracy, or the quadratic formula, or logical operations are material entities.)

These distinctions are very important when we explain to atheists what we mean by the words “God exists.”  At the very least, when we say “God” we mean the ultimate explanation of all beings, the  ground of their intelligibility. And so to say, “I don’t believe in God” is as much to say, “I don’t think that reality is intelligible. There are no ultimate explanations. Reality is absurd.”  Most modern atheists (with their love of science) are not willing to go there. The real debate, therefore, is not such much whether God (so defined) exists, but what God is like? Is ultimate reality (God) complex, material, and random?  Or is it immaterial, simple (indivisible), and purposeful?

Likewise, when we say that God exists – we do not mean that he exists in the manner of a material substance. Material substances are subject to change, they are composed of parts, and they depend on a certain bodily integrity or form for their existence. (To illustrate, if you smash a cat into something shaped like a pancake, it stops being a cat.)  But this is not what exists means when applied to God. God’s existence is more like (but not exactly like) that of minds and abstract entities. In technical terms, we speak of God as Subsistent Being – not a being, but the ground of all being, the ultimate fact or reason for finite beings.

Proving the existence of God (so defined) boils down to showing that material substances cannot be the source of their own existence. They depend, here and now, on deeper and deeper layers of reality that become less and less like material substances the more you investigate them. Even an infinite number of material substances in a causal chain would still depend on deeper realities – like being and causation itself – to explain their existence.  This reflection leads us to a reality that is not subject to change (for there is nothing prior that could cause it to change), that is simple, that has no parts (for there is nothing prior that could explain its composition), and that is purposeful or goal-directed – inasmuch as reality proceeds from it as a consistent effect from a cause. We are led to a reality in which existence itself does not depend on form (the way a cat depends on cat-form to exist), but to a reality in which being and essence (form) are one.

What do you mean by God? What do you mean by exist? Our philosophical answer to these questions does not bring us all the way to the God of Catholic Christianity.  There are still many things that Catholics believe that cannot be proved by reason. But the Catholic doctrine of God presupposes the philosophical definition. (So says the First Vatican Council.)  We cannot have a rational discussion with an atheist if we don’t understand this.  In some cases, the atheist has never really considered the case for God. He is rejecting a God we dont’ believe in either. Only after we establish this can we move on to considering the case for Catholic revelation.