Monthly Archives: June 2014

Does the Big Bang Make God Unnecessary?

This week a man asked me, “Does the big bang make God unnecessary?” One could give a simplistic answer: “Of course not! Where do you think the big bang came from?”  But there is a better answer, one more complex and more true. At root, this man’s question reveals a profound misunderstanding of the Catholic doctrine of God.   It is a misunderstanding shared by many atheists. Let me explain why.


Catholics holds that the existence of God can be known by the light of human reason. The most famous arguments for God’s existence are summarized in St. Thomas Aquinas’s Five Ways. (Summa Theologica 1.2.3.) These arguments proceed by considering what is evident to our senses and then they reason backwards to its source and origin in God.

Many people assume that St. Thomas reasons backwards in time, as if he were trying to account for the beginning of the universe in time.  This is what my interogator thought.  If he could account for this beginning on other terms (a highly questionable thesis), then why invoke God?  The problem is that this is not how St. Thomas argues for God’s existence. As a Catholic, Thomas believed that the world had a beginning.  He just didn’t think you needed to prove this in order to show that God exists. Accounting for the beginning of the world just doesn’t enter into his argument. Even an eternal world, for St. Thomas, would still stand in need of explanation.  Invoking the big bang, even an infinite series of “bangs” and “busts,” would not change this.

St. Thomas does reason backwards, from effect to cause, but not backwards in time. A true cause (what he calls a per se cause) exists at the same time as its effect. As I write with a pen, for example, my hand is the cause of the pen’s motion, but it is a cause that exists at the same time as the pen’s motion.  For St. Thomas, any kind of change, any kind of motion, has to be explained by causes of this sort, operating here and now, and not just in some distant past.  

To illustrate, we can explain the pen’s motion by pointing to the hand, but then we have to explain the hand’s motion as well. We do so by identifying a host of hierarchically ordered causes all operating here and now, each one addressing deeper and more fundamental layers of reality: the muscles and nerves of the hands, the firing of the motor neurons, the chemical changes of the brain, the motion of subatomic particles, etc. At each step we can ask, “Is this mover moved by something else?”  Eventually, at the deepest level, we must posit a mover that is not moved itself, “The Unmoved Mover.”

Why can’t we proceed to infinity in movers of this sort?  Why, at the deepest level, must we arrive at an unmoved mover? The reason is simple. The pen has no “intrinsic motion” – no actual motion –  unless unless it is moved by something else.  In fact, we can divide all of reality like this, into that which is actualand that which is merely potential. Now imagine an infinite series of real, per se causes that possess their causal power only potentially, and none of them actually or intrinsically. The thing is absurd! It is like positing an infinite number of train cars but  no engine. Such a series (if it could exists) would have no instrinsic causal power.  Therefore, we must arrive at a cause that causes not just potentially, but actually. In fact, we arrive at that which is pure actuality.

What is true of motion is also true of existence itself. For every being in the universe other than God, the act of existence is not something instrinsic to its nature. It is possible for it “not to be.” Unless actualized by another, its essence or nature has being “only potentially.” Thus,we explain its existence with reference to a series of ordered causes. Eventually, we arrive at that which contains within itself the reason for its existence. One whose very nature is to be. In fact, Catholic philosophers define God as “the very act of ‘to be’ itself,” ipsum esse subsistens.

The God of Catholic faith is not just a powerful artist or craftsman who builds a world and then sets it moving, like a watchmaker. Such a god would be simply one being (albeit a very powerful being) among many, his being essentially disconnected from the being of his creatures.  But Catholics believe in a God who is actively causing the being of the universe here and now, not simply at some point in the finite past.  This is why the question (Does the big bang make God unnecessary?) profoundly mistates the Catholic understanding of God. If it could be shown that the universe came into being at the big bang, this would do absolutely nothing to destroy the case for God. (It might strengthen it, since “coming-into-being” is precisely what something does when it derives its being from another.)

When atheists say they don’t believe in God, many times they have in mind the kind of watchmaker God that Catholics also reject. (This fellow who asked about the big bang obviously did.) They think that if they can explain motion or change within the ordered system of nature, that they have no need for God.  As if God were simply a hypothesis to account for gaps in our understanding. The God of the Gaps!  But this just isn’t what Catholics mean by God. He is not simply the explanation for this or that discrete event, but rather the ground of every explanation, the actuality behind every potential, the very act of “To Be” itself.  As St. Paul says, “In Him we live, and move, and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

“For us Men and for Our Salvation” What the Creed Teaches us about Salvation in the Ancient Church

Church history made me a Catholic. Specifically, the early Church and its doctrine of salvation made me a Catholic.


Constantine and the Bishops at Nicaea

I grew up an evangelical Protestant in Birmingham, Alabama. I “prayed to receive Jesus” at an early age, trusting Christ, and Christ alone, to get me to Heaven. I understood that faith alone could settle the issue of my justification before God. Pastors, parents, and teachers told me that Christ had paid for all my sins – past, present,and future. All I had do do was receive this gift by faith. No amount of good works on my part could earn, or even contribute, to my justification before God. In fact, my best moral efforts were blameworthy, detestable to God. If I relied on good works, I was sunk.

My leaders taught me that this “faith-alone Gospel” was the doctrine of the early Church.  According to legend, Martin Luther recovered this gospel from antiquity after sifting through the wreckage of medieval Catholicism. The problem was – when I went looking for this “faith-alone Gospel” in the early Church, it was nowhere to be seen.

My first doubts emerged when reading St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430), a great favorite of Martin Luther’s.  Augustine wrote a lot about faith, grace, justification, and salvation, but not a word about “faith alone.” In fact, he specifically denied it. For Augustine, grace and faith bring not only forgiveness, but a transformation of the moral life – “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts,” as St. Paul says. (Romans 5:5) It is this transformation (Christ’s love dwelling within us) that makes us acceptable to God (Romans 8:3-6), not just the forgiveness of our past sins through baptism or penance.

Reading Augustine was a major blow to my Protestant upbringing, but it took more than “Augustine alone” to make me a Catholic. Next I went looking in earlier Church fathers, from the first, second, and third centuries. This search was even worse for my Protestant faith. Augustine at least spoke at great length about grace and justification. He used a vocabulary I knew, even if he used it in an unfamiliar way. But the earliest Church fathers did no such thing.

The second and third-century fathers were intensely moralistic – perfectionistic even – and framed their work entirely around the Church’s sacramental and liturgical life. Their big question was not whether Christians could merit salvation. (They assumed they could.) It was what to do when Christians sinned. Hard liners like Tertullian (160-220) wanted to kick them out of the Church. “Softies,” like Pope Callixtus, (d. 223) thought they should be forgiven if they did sufficient penance.  Clearly, this was not the world of evangelical Protestants.

This issue was still alive at the time of the Nicene Council (325). What to do with those excluded from communion because of public sin?  (The canons of Nicaea deal with this issue, making sure penitents are readmitted to communion if in danger of death.) Many Protestants who recite the Nicene Creed do not appreciate this context. They think Nicaea dealt only with Arianism, or the question of Chrit’s divinity. They do not realize that the Church fathers insisted on Christ’s full divinity in part because of their understanding of salvation.  The divinity of Christ was no mere abstraction. It had everything to do with the practical, moral demands of the Gospel.

We find the earliest detailed theology of salvation in the works of St. Ireneaus (130-202).  Ireneaus spelled out the theory of recapitulation or theosis: that God became a man in order to infuse a new principle into human life, to restore what was lost in Adam. (Against Heresies 3.18.1; 5.21.2) Ireneaus explained that God confers immortality “on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments.” He continued, “The Lord did not abrogate the natural [precepts] of the law, by which man is justified.” (Against Heresies, 1.10; 4.13.1)

The very same theology of salvation remained constant up to and including the Nicene Council. St. Athanasius (296-373), the great defender of Nicaea, summed up this theology in his famous phrase, “For He was made man that we might be made God.”(On the Incarnation, 54.3)  After the council, St. Gregory Nazianzus (330-390) explained how Nicene theology fits with the Church’s doctrine of salvation:

That which is united to His Godhead is also saved . . .  if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole. (Letter to Cledonius)

“For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven and was incarnate.”  Like Ireneaus, Athanasius, and Nazianzus, the Nicene Creed ties salvation directly to the incarnation and the sacraments. (“One Baptism for the Forgivness of Sins.”) The doctrine is one of moral transformation, a new principle of keeping the law “by which man is justified.” This is what the Church fathers found in Sacred Scripture. (Romans 2:13, Romans 5:5, Romans 6: 1-7) It’s what the passed on to St. Augustine, to the medieval Catholic Church, to the Council of Trent, and today.  It was this discovery, above all, that moved me towards the Catholic faith.

Why Can’t I Go to Communion?

Last week I spoke to a Protestant woman who wanted to know why she could not receive the sacrament of reconciliation from a Catholic priest. Similarly, I hear sometimes from Protestants who want to know why they cannot receive communion in a Catholic Church. I think these kinds of questions are usually sincere and evidence a desire to “get along” with Catholics, and to affirm our common Christian faith. These Protestants want to know why the Catholic Church seems to hold them at arms length, to refuse their overtures of peace.

francis eucharist

What lies beneath this question is an often unstated assumption about the meaning of the Church and the sacraments. For many Protestants, the great variety of Christian belief and practice is proof that God doesn’t insist on absolute uniformity. All that matters is a personal relationship with Jesus. Differences over Church government or sacraments are so many flavors of ice cream. The eighteenth-century revivalist George Whitefield may have been the first Protestant to give voice to this point of view. He said:

I saw regenerate souls among the Baptists, among the Presbyterians, among the Independents, and among the Church [i.e., Anglican] folks — all children of God, and yet all born again in a different way of worship: and who can tell which is the most evangelical. . . It was best to preach the new birth, and the power of godliness, and not to insist so much on the form: for people would never be brought to one mind as to that; nor did Jesus Christ ever intend it. (Cited in Mark Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys, 2003: 13-15)

For the evangelical Protestant, “The Church” consists simply in all the faithful souls who believe in Jesus. A Protestant who thinks like this, and who wants to commune and worship with Catholics, may even feel himself to be quite magnanimous. He’s “letting Catholics into the club,” as it were. He is conceding that Catholics, too, have a true faith in Christ. So when the Catholic Church says, “No, we’re sorry, you can’t come to communion,” the Protestant assumes we are writing him off completely, that we are denying he is really a Christian.

The first thing to say in response is that Catholics by no means reject our Protestant brother and sisters, nor do we deny that they have received God’s saving grace. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council repeatedly affirmed that elements of truth and sanctification are found among non-Catholic Christians, and that their communities “have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation.” (Unitatis redintegratio)

The problem, rather, is that Catholics do not share the Protestant conception of Church.  Whitefield was just plain wrong. In Sacred Scripture, we learn that Christ founded one Church, in which there is but one faith and “one baptism.” (Ephesians 4:5, Ephesians 5:23, Matthew 16:18)  When St. Paul writes on the Church, he insists on both doctrinal and liturgical uniformity. (1 Corinthians 1:10, 11:16)  The unity of the Church is not simply spiritual or emotional, but visible and concrete. (1 John 2:19) The principal expression of this visible unity is the Eucharist. (1 Corinthians 10:17)

From the Catholic point of view, the Eucharist is something like a flag or standard that proclaims, “Here is the Church” (in that very robust sense of Church).  In the confessional, likewise, the priest is a kind of icon of Christ as well as Christ’s minister. He is the visible representation of that authority: ” Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them.” (John 20:23) To receive these Sacraments is to say, “I believe the Church that offers me these sacraments.”

The Catholic Church doesn’t say to Protestants, “you’re not a Christian,” but rather, “you’re missing something. You are missing that full, visible communion with Christ’s faithful to which we are all called.” (John 17:21) In fact, if the Church were to admit non-Catholics to communion it would be like saying that visible unity in Christian belief is neither possible nor desirable. It would be to affirm Whitefield’s unbiblical definition of Church.

When Protestants ask me about receiving Catholic sacraments, I usually ask them a question: Do you believe everything the Church teaches? Do you understand that taking the Eucharist is a pledge of your faith and obedience to the Catholic Church? If you do believe that, then why on earth aren’t you a Catholic? But if you don’t believe that, then why would you want to testify by your actions to a faith you reject? Once I put it in these terms they usually rethink their objections.

Two Words Commonly Misunderstood

There are two words in Catholic tradition that are very often misunderstood. These words are mystical and contemplative. They are misunderstood because they are frequently used in common English to mean something different, but only subtly different, from the Catholic sense. The confusion is important because it obscures important Catholic truths.

teresa of avila

St. Teresa of Avila

In common English, mystical, mystic, or mysterious means something strange or hard to understand.  “A mystic” seems like one who delves into recondite matters in ghostly or spooky ways.  To speak of Christianity as “mysterious” leaves one with the idea of initiation into secret rites or knowledge that defies rational understanding.

But this is subtly different from what Catholics mean by “mystery.” In biblical language, “mystery” (from the Greek musterion) means something previously hidden which has now been made known. (Romans 16:25) The paradigm case  of “mystery,” according to St. Paul, was God’s decision to reconcile Jews and Gentiles through the death of Christ. (Ephesians 3:9)  This is a matter we could not have known apart from revelation, but it hardly counts as irrational or impossible to understand.

This is the sense in which we speak of “mysteries of the Rosary.”  I have known new Catholics confused by the talk of these “mysteries.” They want to know, “What’s so mysterious about the Annunciation, or the Visitation?”  The question shows a misunderstanding of the word “mystery.” Biblical “mysteries” are not spooky imponderables, but beautiful truths we know only because God has revealed them.

There is also a deeper sense of “mystery” in Catholic tradition. These are things we know only from revelation, but whose inner nature is also hidden from us. This  would include the mysteries of the Blessed Trinity, transubstantiation, and sanctifying grace. We know by divine authority that these dogmas are true, but we cannot see how.  But again, this does not mean that these truths are irrational or known through some sort of spooky illumination.

Misunderstanding of “mystery” leads to a related confusion regarding the words “mystic” and “mysticism.”  Outside the Catholic family, historians and scholars sometimes use the word “mysticism” to mean any religious experience that purports to convey direct experience of the absolute. So one might hear about “Hindu mysticism,” “Buddhist mysticism,”   Jewish mysticism,”” Islamic mysticism,” or “Christian mysticism,” as if there were a common experience shared across these varied traditions. One gets the impression that any powerful religious experience, particularly of  a distinctly non-rational or intuitive character, counts as “mystical.”

This may be the way that some historians and sociologists use the word, but it does not do justice to what Catholics mean by “mystical” or “mysticism.” In Catholic tradition, the “mystic” is one who seeks more than intellectual knowledge of God. She seeks an experiential knowledge, but not just any experience. St. Paul prays:

that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)

The Catholic “mystic” is one who has been given a deep and abiding awareness, an experiential knowledge even, of the truths of the Catholic faith. The singular mark of this experience is love.  The saints are its exemplars.  It’s an experience that may be found in the darkened corners of far away monasteries, but it may also be found in the most mundane settings, like dinner parties. (Luke 10:38-42)

This brings us to our next word: contemplative. In common parlance, “to contemplate” just means to think deeply or carefully about something. The ancient Greeks (like Aristotle) urged “contemplation,” meaning a consideration of philosophical truths. Because of this, some people think a Christian “contemplative” is one who sits around thinking all the time about religious or philosophical truths. But this is not what Catholic tradition means by “contemplative.”

In Catholic tradition, true contemplation is a supernatural gift.  The pagan Aristotle may experience a purely natural contemplation, a deep intellectual view of the truth.  The Christian contemplative experiences something greater, something that cannot come by human effort but must be given by God.  St. Teresa of Avila, the great master of the contemplative life, writes:

Do not think that this recollection can be obtained by the work of the understanding, by forcing yourself to think of God dwelling within you, or by that of the imagination . . . What I mean is quite a different thing . . . It takes place only when God sees fit to give us this grace. (Interior Castle)

Christian contemplation, like mysticism, does not require (though it does not exclude) extraordinary states like visions, levitation, or trances. The essence of contemplation is an infused love and knowledge of God and of the truths of the faith. Sometimes we find great contemplatives in strange and exotic places, having extraordinary experiences. But we find them as well in homes and parishes, schools and businesses, among clergy and laity.

Catholic tradition promises profound and supernatural experience of God. The words “mystical” and “contemplative” refer to that experience, to something within reach of every Christian.  At heart, they promise something we could only know of by revelation, something we can only experience by God’s grace. But they do not require us to renounce the intellect, to affirm the irrational, or to seek gnostic enlightment from strange and extotic rites. All they require is our openness to God’s grace in the sacraments, a willingness to renounce ourselves and follow Christ.

What is Catholicism?

In my apostolate, I have the great blessing of routinely answering questions about the Catholic faith. People call or write me with questions, and I do my best to answer. Usually, I get the same ten or twenty questions over and over again. Sometimes I get a question out of left field. (I got a call once from a man who claimed to be the Messiah.)  But occasionally, I get a question that is just a gift, one that is both surprising and a delight to answer.  I got a question like that last week when a man asked me, “What is Catholicism? What is the Catholic Church? Where did it come from?”

Mass in Notre Dame

Mass in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris


Catholicism is such an obvious fact in the world’s history that it is easy to take this question for granted. It’s hard to imagine someone in the Western world who didn’t already have a settled opinion on this, whether true or false. But here he was, asking the most open-ended question I can imagine about the Catholic faith.  Could you answer this question to your own satisfaction in two minutes or less? Could you satisfy St. Peter’s exhortation, “Always be ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15)  I’m sure I could have said much more, given time and reflection but here, more or less, is how I responded:

“Thousands of years ago, the Hebrew prophets spoke of a time when the God of Israel would be worshipped throughout the whole earth (Isaiah 2).  They prophesied that God would make a covenant with the whole human race, gentile and Jew. (Isaiah 49:6) This covenant would not be based on national or ethnic identity, nor on ritualistic prescriptions about food or clothes or civil law. Rather, God would pour out his spirit on all flesh. (Joel 2: 28-19).  He would write his moral law on the heart, and place it in the mind.  He would forgive sins.(Jeremiah 31:1) He would renew the interior life of those who respond to him in faith. He would circumcise the heart, and not merely the flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)

“The prophets saw that this time would arrive with the coming of a divine king (Isaiah 9:6),  a heavenly figure who would mete out judgment, (Daniel 7:13) a descendent of King David (Psalm 89:20), a suffering servant who would make atonement for the world (Isaiah 53).  They said where he would be born –Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).  They even specified the time that these things would happen (Daniel 9:24-27).  Then, during the reign of Tiberius Caesar (right on schedule), a man appeared in Judea and Galilee who declared these things to be fulfilled. “The Kingdom of God is here,” he said.

“This man shocked and offended his contemporaries by welcoming sinners and the outcast (Matthew 9:11). He performed miracles and healed the sick. He seemed to overturn the ritual prescriptions of Mosaic law (Mark 7:14-23). He reemphasized the moral content of the law and called mankind to a higher practice of virtue, charity, fidelity, and chastity. (Matthew 5-8, Matt. 19) For this great task, he promised the assistance of God’s spirit. (John 7:37) He offered the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 7:48) He claimed identity with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (John 8:58). He gave proof of these things by rising from the dead. (Acts 17:31)

“This man Jesus also gave himself up to death at the hands of his contemporaries (John 10:18). Echoing the prophecies of Isaiah, he called this death a ransom, a sacrifice, for the sins of the world (Mark 10:24). He called all men to share in this death by imitation (Luke 9:23), but also by a mysterious communion in a new rite of worship. More than a symbol, it is his very self — body, blood, soul, and divinity. “This is my body, he said, which is given for you.” (Luke 22:14-23) He promised divine and eternal life to those who would commune with him in this way. (John 6:51)

“Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. But first, he commissioned apostles, representatives to carry his message and mission to the world. He promised them God’s help. (Matthew 28). He gave them to power to forgive sins. (John 20:21-23)  He promised to ratify in heaven their decisions on earth. (Matthew 18:18) To one, Peter, “the rock,” he gave unique authority: the keys to the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 16:18)  Before these men died, they appointed successors. (Titus 1:5)  These also enjoy divine assistance. We call them bishops. (1 Timothy 3; 2 Timothy 1:14)

“In the second century A.D, this community of faith continued to grow. The apostles died, but their successors the bishops were clearly visible, their succession established by public and universally acknowledged fact.  Among all the lines of succession, none was more eminent or important than that of Rome. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III, 23, 2-3)  Even her detractors recognized Rome’s claim to supremacy, founded as it was on Petrine origins. (Tertullian On Modesty, 21)

“It is a simple thing, today, to trace the continuation and development of this body down through the centuries. Throughout the world, we find believers who hold to the teachings of Jesus, practice the rites he commanded, and hold fellowship and obedience to the authorities he established. This community of faith is called the Catholic Church.  It is the most obvious thing in the world, as visible as the Nation of France. Would you like to see the Catholic Church? You will find us with our bishop, gathered around the Eucharist.