"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Over the years, I have learned to my chagrin that the issue of condom use for prophylactic purposes, by those married couples in which one of the members is HIV-positive, evokes more extreme reactions on both sides than any other in contemporary Catholic moral theology. I suppose I should not be surprised: we're dealing simultaneously with sex and death, a combination that only a Woody Allen can treat with consistently detached humor. From one side, the Vatican is regularly accused of mass homicide for urging people, in countries where AIDS is pandemic, not to use condoms for prophylactic or indeed any purposes. I needn't multiply examples; the rhetoric of Garry Wills is typical. Of course the accusation is absurd on strictly empirical grounds, never mind moral ones. That distinct minority of people who take the Vatican seriously enough to obey such a stricture are also among the least likely either to have contracted HIV by the most common means (illicit sex) or, if already infected, to risk killing their partners by insisting on sex. But on the other end of the theological spectrum I find accusations that, though not absurd, are curious to say the least. It is to those that I want to respond in detail today.

My own position is the same as what I understand the Vatican's official one to be, at least if its most extensive document on the subject be taken at face value. Given the relative frequency of condom misuse and/or failure, and condom use's counterproductive effect of encouraging sexual excess, even strictly prophylactic condom use is manifestly imprudent as a general course of action. On the personal level, the only prudent way to handle the sort of situation in question is abstinence; on the policy level, strengthening marriage, the family, and sexual morality would be far more effective than promoting the illusion of "safe sex" by distributing condoms. There is, though, a possible exception: the case when somebody aims to protect herself from an infected husband who demands his "conjugal right" regardless of both the situation and her inclination. That indeed is the crucial test case. Like Cardinals Barragan and Martini, who cite it as one in which "the lesser evil" could be justified, I am not willing to say that every act of condomistic sex is an inherently immoral sort of act aside from any considerations of prudence, intention, or anything else. I am unwilling to say that because it would rule out even the self-defense intended in the test case. But even that little bit of "give" gets me into trouble with the other end of the spectrum.

Privately in 2006, I was told by a prominent, scholarly absolutist at that end that the Barragan-Martini view ('BMV' for short), and thus my own, is flatly incompatible with the entire logical structure of the Church's teaching about sex and marriage. In the combox of my most recent post pertinent to this topic, it has even been suggested that my defense of said view is incompatible with the very idea of certain sorts of act being intrinsically evil, and thus with a pivotal, irreformable principle of Catholic moral teaching: evil may never be done so that good might come of it. Both charges are very serious, indeed decisive rebuttals if true. Such reactions are not of course as emotionally extreme as the homicide accusation from the other end; but conceptually, they go almost as astray. I shall now show how. At the end, I shall restate my position to accommodate the critics' concerns.

In general it is a necessary condition, for any action or omission A to be subject to moral evaluation at all, that A be an intentional action or omission. That means the agent must be able, at least in principle, to answer the question "Why did you do [not do] that?", and the answer must constitute a reason for what was done or not done. Many acts are of course voluntary without being intentional. E.g., I voluntarily if marginally contribute to air pollution by operating a car; but that is not my reason for operating a car and therefore not my intention in doing so, so that ceteris paribus I can't be held blameworthy for driving a vehicle that contributes to air pollution. In general, to be held blameworthy for an undesirable side effect of one's action, it is not enough that one foresee it and voluntarily cause it. One must intend it, either as an end in itself or as a means to the end in view. Of course omissions can be intentional. E.g., if I own a factory that fouls the river-water some people need, foreseeing but not positively "intending" the pollution, I can still be held to intend the pollution by omission if it is practically possible for me either to deal with the waste by-products by a safer means or, if not, to earn a living by some other means. From the perspective of just-war theory, considerations of such a kind are especially important for evaluating actions both ad bellum and in bello. Yet given what's at stake in the dispute over BMV, I shall now confine myself to discussing positive actions as opposed to omissions.

In order for positive action A to count as intentional, it must "embody" an intention, to use a term from the late Elizabeth Anscombe's classic book Intention. To specify the intention embodied, the question "What are you doing?" has to be answerable by a description of the person's physical action that makes the action intelligible precisely as intentional. For that purpose, however, it is not enough to cite some further or ultimate intention of the agent. E.g., if I go to the grocery store, pick some healthy foods off the shelves, pay for them and leave, it is not enough, for purposes of answering the question "What are you doing?", to say "maintaining my health," even though that would often be true. That might indeed be my ultimate intention; but since there are still indefinitely many other actions that could just as readily be described as "maintaining my health," I do not describe my action in particular by calling it health maintenance. No, what I am doing is "getting groceries," which is the intention embodied by all the little sub-actions I perform in the store. What I'm doing in the store embodies the intention of getting groceries, so that the complex, intentional action I'm performing is "getting groceries." Typically, getting groceries can also be cited as a means to the further end of maintaining health. But what characterizes the intention embodied by my action is not my further end of maintaining health as a reason for action; rather, the intention embodied is described by that answer to the question "What are you doing?" which makes my complex physical action itself intelligible as intentional.

Now in Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II spoke of the "object" of an action thus: "The primary and decisive element for moral judgment is the object of the human act, which establishes whether it is capable of being ordered to the good and to the ultimate end, which is God." (§80). By the "object" of an action I took and take him to mean the intention embodied in the action, where embodiment is to be understood as I have just explained it. So if the object, so understood, is of such a sort that it is a disorder of the will to intend it, then the intentional action itself is of an intrinsically evil sort, irrespective of the further intention with which somebody might do it. That principle is essential for upholding the still more basic principle that evil may never be done so that good might come of it, which rules out "proportionalism," "utilitarianism," or indeed any variety of what is now called (to use another term Anscombe coined) "consequentialism." I am as opposed to consequentialism as any of my conservative critics. So if anybody wants to say that BMV is consequentialist, they would have to show that it either assumes or entails consequentialism even if its proponents do not intend as much. That is not easy to do. And that's mainly because the conservative critics of BMV do not have a cogent way of specifying just what object of action in prophylactic condom use is of a sort that it is a disorder of the will to intend, thus making a sexual act involving such use an intrinsically evil sort of act irrespective of the further end of defending the health of the uninfected partner.

To appreciate the difficulty, consider first that it is agreed on all sides that, if and when a given sexual act A intentionally culminates in male ejaculation, A is morally acceptable only if A is a "conjugal act" between spouses. Thus, if A is not a conjugal act, then A is of a intrinsically evil sort, and thus morally unacceptable regardless of its further or ultimate intention. So, the question under dispute may be framed thus: Can an otherwise "conjugal" act of sexual intercourse still be conjugal if a couple, one of whose members has AIDS, use a condom for the sole purpose of preventing the virus' transmission to the uninfected partner? The critics of course say no. Obviously, the cogency of their position depends on that of their definition of a conjugal act. It is on this point that the discussion needs to focus.

The critics take their cue from magisterial documents. Thus Andrew McCarthy:

Church teaching on this subject appears to be settled by Pope Paul VI’s official confirmation on 28th January 1978 of a CDF declaration dated 13th May 1977 which dealt with the question of what is required in order for a sexual act to be capable of consummating a marriage. See Sacra Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei, Decretum circa impotentiam quae matrimonium dirimet, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 69 (1977), p426, Pope Paul VI, Allocutio ad Tribunalis Sacrae Romanae Rotae Decanum, Praelatos Auditores Officiales et Advocates, ineunte anno iudiciali, die 28 ianuarii 1978, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 70 (1977), pp183-184. For more on this whole debate see McGrath Aidan O.F.M, "A Controversy Concerning Male Impotence," Editrice Pontifica Universita Gregorina Roma (1988). The basis for understanding what is and is not correct behaviour in sexual ethics is a correct understanding of the conjugal act. The conjugal act must be, minimally, an act capable of consummating a marriage. Deliberately ejaculating outside of a woman's vagina cannot constitute a consummatory act of a marriage and therefore cannot be a conjugal act. An ejaculatory act that is not a conjugal act is grave matter. The traditional teaching of the Church has always condemned ejaculatory acts deliberately aimed at places other than a spouse's vagina. The 1978 confirmation of Pope Paul VI clears up this matter and shows that a condom affects the act per se, not per accidens.

But as it stands, that does not suffice to rebut BMV. For in the sort of case we're considering, the man does indeed ejaculate within the woman's vagina. Of course it is replied that that doesn't count, because the man does not actually deposit seminal fluid in the woman's vagina. So the key question then becomes: is it a necessary condition for a sexual act to count as a conjugal act that seminal fluid actually and intentionally be deposited in the vagina, not merely ejaculated within it? If the answer is yes, then no act of condomistic sex can count as a conjugal act, regardless of the purpose of the condom's use. If so, and given premises already shared, then any act of condomistic sex embodies an intention to do something that, objectively speaking, it is a disorder of the will to intend. Therefore, any such act would be of an intrinsically evil sort, and thus evil regardless of how laudable the ultimate intention might be.

Even so, to the question why deposition of semen is thus necessary, the answer is by no means obvious. Following McCarthy, one might think that such deposition is a necessary condition of a sexual act A's being procreative per se, and that A's being procreative per se is itself a necessary condition for A's being a conjugal act. But it is simply not the teaching of the Church that, for a sexual act A to count as a "conjugal act," A must be procreative per se. In what is perhaps its most widely quoted sentence, Paul VI's Humanae Vitae (§11) asserted that "...each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life." (The original Latin of HV's assertion reads quilibet matrimonii usus ad vitam humanam procreandam per se destinatus permaneat; the Vatican translation I've used, though not literal, is superior to the better-known one using the phrase "open to the transmission of life," but I mention that only to minimize confusion about which passage I'm discussing.) That means that the act must be procreative per se even if it happens to be non-procreative per accidens (which, incidentally, is how it is possible for NFP to be sometimes right even though contraception is always wrong). Now if a given sexual act is a "marital act," a matrimonii usus, then it is a conjugal act, i.e., an act of a kind that would count as consummating a marriage. That can and often does hold even if the couple are contracepting, which is why it is possible to consummate a marriage even if, say, the wife is taking birth-control pills. Yet according to HV, contraception is wrong because it severs the conjugal act's "intrinsic relationship to the procreation of life." If contraception does that, then contraceptive intercourse between spouses of a kind that nonetheless involves deposition of semen in the vagina fails to qualify as procreative per se, but is still a conjugal act. Therefore, being procreative per se is not a necessary condition of a sexual act's being a conjugal act. Being procreative per se is a necessary condition only for the conjugal act's being morally licit. And so, if condomistic sex fails to qualify as a conjugal act inasmuch as it embodies the intention to avoid depositing semen in the vagina, that cannot be because its embodying such an intention prevents the sex from being procreative per se.

Alexander Pruss, a philosopher at Baylor, has suggested what one might view as a way round that objection. According to him, a "positive intention to transmit genetic material" from husband to wife is a necessary condition for an act to be "marital" and thus conjugal. If that were so, then no act of condomistic sex could be a conjugal act. But Pruss' answer can't be right either. Suppose a widower who had undergone a vasectomy during his marriage goes on to marry a woman who is well past her childbearing years. As a Catholic of newly invigorated orthodoxy, he now regrets his vasectomy and would have it reversed if he were marrying somebody capable of bearing children. But given his wife's perfectly natural infertility, he sees no point in going to the trouble and expense of reversing his vasectomy. So he doesn't. Accordingly, no sexual act of his could embody the positive intention to transmit his genetic material. For he knows he cannot transmit the sperm that carry such material, and nobody can be said to positively intend to do something he knows he cannot do. Does that mean that this man and his new wife are incapable of performing a conjugal act and thus of consummating their marriage? Of course not. But if a "positive intention to transmit genetic material" were a necessary condition for a conjugal act, that obviously true answer would be false.

One might still maintain, however, that even if condomistic sex can sometimes qualify as a conjugal act, it is intrinsically evil inasmuch as condom use that is purely prophylactic and without contraceptive intent still precludes the sexual act's being procreative per se. From this point of view, condomistic sex is morally no different from ejaculating within a human orifice other than the vagina: even if there is no intent to block procreation, neither is there an action bearing any "intrinsic relationship" to procreation. But I don't think that will do either. Vaginal intercourse just is the sort of act that is procreative per se, and condomistic sex is vaginal intercourse; that is precisely why conception can occur when condoms fail, even when one's intent is contraceptive, whereas ejaculating within some human orifice other than the vagina cannot lead to conception even if one wishes, perversely, that it could. It would be more sensible to say that condomistic sex fails to qualify as procreative per se, and is thus immoral, when it embodies the intent to contracept. But ex hypothesi, condom use for purely prophylactic purposes embodies no such intent; so if such use is intrinsically wrong, it must be so for some other reason.

The only specific such reason I've seen suggested is that of Luke Gormally and Hugh Henry: deposition of semen in the vagina is a necessary condition for the conjugal act to retain its unitive significance, even aside from the question whether condomistic sex is procreative per se or not. Relying on JP2's theology of the body, they argue that each and every conjugal act must embody the intention of complete "self-donation," and that no sexual act which is incomplete, in virtue of withholding from one's partner something natural to the act, could embody the intention of complete self-donation. Of course it is important to remember here that condom use for purely prophylactic purposes does not prevent semen deposition as a mere sexual preference or as a way of withholding love. Semen retention by the condom is intended only a means to the end of prophylaxis. But the point being made by LG and HH is that regardless of the further end in view, the intended means deprives the conjugal act of the unitive significance it must retain in order to be morally licit.

Now one must certainly concede that condomistic sex is truncated sex. I've never met anybody who claims to prefer it to, or even to like it as much as, purely natural sex. Something is indeed missing. But provided that the intent is purely prophylactic, I confess being unable to follow the argument that what's missing in condomistic sex is something essential for complete spiritual self-donation. Perhaps others can find something in the argument that I've missed. But I find myself unpersuaded that condom use in the sort of case under consideration is intrinsically evil qua anti-unitive, as distinct from a lesser but still tolerable evil, physically truncated and thus less satisfying than purely natural sex.

In the sort of case under consideration, though, most of this debate may turn out to be inconsequential. One could plausibly argue that an HIV-infected person who insists on sex with their spouse, despite the spouse's wishes, intends an act that really does lack unitive significance apart from the question of condoms. And so the sort of self-defense intended by condom use in such a case would be a defense against an act of rape not a conjugal act. Of course there are always those cases in which both spouses are willing to take the risk of sex. For such couples, I can only cite the same considerations of prudence that Cardinal Trujillo did in the Vatican document I've already cited. In either case, I do not believe it can be accounted an act of love, as distinct from an act of mere physical gratification, to have sex under such conditions. And maybe that's all one needs to specify what it's a disorder of the will to intend in such a case.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Theophany and vocation

For the benefit of the few readers who don't already know, I note that today's feast in the Roman calendar, the Baptism of the Lord, is really the same feast that the Orthodox celebrate as the Holy Theophany or "Epiphany." When I first learned of that correlation in college, I at once associated the idea of theophany with that of vocation and that of baptism with both. Apparently, that helped fool some progs into thinking I might be one of them. For back in the 1970s, Roman Catholics were still trying to wrap their minds around the idea that baptism was something more than the spiritual equivalent of mandatory neonatal therapy: the "washing away the stain of original sin" the Church did for babies lest they die and get stuck in limbo before we got round to doing right by them. Vatican II had quite explicitly recovered the richer, ancient understanding of the "baptismal vocation," of course; but the idea that people other than priests or vowed religious had vocations seemed, and in many quarters still seems, a rather newfangled idea among Catholics.

Still, it is no coincidence that the only place in the Gospels where all three persons of the Trinity are presented as manifesting themselves perceptibly and together is Jesus' ritual baptism by his cousin John. The occasion was the inauguration of Jesus' public ministry: the end of his time of preparation and the beginning of his actual mission. Just as it was the baptism he would undergo in his humiliating Passion that would give all baptism its power, so the humility he showed by letting his divine Person be baptized, when he himself did not need it, was the beginning of that passion. That the power of sacramental baptism ex opere operato, by which we are initiated into the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, is our ontic incorporation into the divine life, is manifest in the theophany of the Trinity at Jesus' own baptism. When baptized into Christ, each Christian becomes the Father's pure and beloved child, filled with the Holy Spirit to carry out in this world a mission special to them.

Many people have little or no idea what that mission is. That is partly because most of us who have not undergone a well-conducted RCIA grasp only dimly, at best and if ever, what baptism itself makes us into and calls us to. Whether our day-to-day environment is secular—as in most cases—or religious, the lingering effects of original sin seem a lot more real to cradle Catholics than our divinization; and so it seems even to converts once the initial glow wears off. It has long been so. Once the Roman world became nominally Christian, so that being baptized became the cultural norm, it was inevitable. Most Catholics even today were baptized as infants and therefore remember nothing of the event. For them, there's no there there. Consequently, and absent a kind of spiritual progress that is all too rare, being Catholic can seem more a burden than a blessing: either a set of cultural and psychic baggage one can't quite shake, or another compartment of life with its own ceaseless demands and challenges, ones that must somehow be balanced with all the others in all the other compartments. It does not occur to most Catholics that the most beautiful and important thing about each of them, as individuals, is a pure divine gift: their being re-fashioned, in baptism and on through to the grave, in the image of Christ. For they are each members of his Mystical Body, whose purpose is to bring her Head, God's only-begotten Son, into the world even as each is formed for life eternal. Most of us are much more concerned with measurable performance, especially in tasks the world sets us and approves. The minority who consistently succeed at all that are often among the least likely to understand what their most important task really is.

And so today, with full knowledge of my failures in love and work, I am grateful to God and hopeful for the future. God has allowed me to retain no illusions about my worthiness or success; but neither am I exempt for a moment from obeying his commandments and using my gifts to the full. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, each the same God as the others, do not exempt me because, calling me to become one of the "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4), the Trinity offers me the power to do those things. That power is the life of the Trinity itself, drawing me into itself, beyond this world but very much in it. My prayer today is that I never lose sight of that, and that I always act accordingly. That is my prayer for each of us.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Who can be saved: reconceiving the question

Today is the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord in the Roman calendar, in which the Scripture readings culminate in Matthew 2: 1-12, the story of the three Magi "from the East." The most frequent theme of preaching on that, at least among Catholic priests, is thus the universality of God's salvific will. As St. Paul says, the "mystery hidden from former generations" and now revealed is that the Gentiles are "co-heirs" with the Jews, "members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel." As the Acts of the Apostles suggests, however, it took a while for that message to sink in even within the first-generation Church. A special apostolic council at Jerusalem was needed to settle once for all the first great theological controversy in the Church: whether Gentiles had to become Jews in order to become members of the body. The answer which came down was decisively in the negative: the Apostles made clear that faith in Christ, repentance, and baptism were all that was necessary. Paul's interpretation of the gospel thus prevailed over that of "some people from James." But later in the Church's history, a question similar in pattern has had to be wrestled with: is it always and everywhere necessary for people to have explicit faith in Christ in order to be saved?

For centuries now, that question has evoked passionate intensity among Western Christians. People are understandably reluctant to believe that those whom they have loved, and who seemed to be "good people" during their lives, are damned to hell forever just because, for whatever reason, they either did not make an explicit act of faith in Christ or belonged to the wrong church. People are especially reluctant to to believe that their conceived children who are miscarried, aborted, or stillborn are damned. That was the motivation for the medieval theory of limbo. But what impressed the broader question on the Western mind was the discovery, during the age of exploration in the 16th and 17th centuries, of entire races who had never heard of Christ or the Gospel.

Cardinal Avery Dulles asserts, in a new First Things article entitled Who Can be Saved?: "The New Testament and the theology of the first millennium give little hope for the salvation of those who, since the time of Christ, have had no chance of hearing the gospel." I think that calls for qualification in light of some of the Eastern Fathers; but as a generalization about Western theology, it is pretty accurate. There were fairly obvious reasons for that. At first, the pagan world through which the Church first spread was precisely "the world" from which Christians were assumed to be saved. Not long after the Roman Empire became Christian, Augustine introduced the influential idea of original sin as personal guilt, not just corruption of human nature. And so, for centuries thereafter, when the then-known world had already had the Gospel preached to it in some-or-other fashion, Catholics generally believed that all those who did not convert and accept baptism were culpably rejecting the Gospel, thus belonging to the massa damnata of humanity. Yet the exploration of the "New World" overturned those old assumptions, and with it the assumption that membership in the Church, "the body," had to be formal and explicit in this life. That left a theological lacuna; and as Dulles says: "If God has a serious salvific will for all, this lacuna needed to be filled, as it has been by theological speculation and church teaching since the sixteenth century." That is what motivated Pius IX's assertion that those who are "invincibly ignorant" of the Gospel can still be saved.

Of course it is possible to go too far with that idea, as for instance Karl Rahner did with his theory of "anonymous Christianity." If, as Rahner argued, it is possible to have "saving faith" without even being some sort of theist, then it's hard to see the point of missionary activity in particular, as distinct from that charity which all Christians are enjoined to exhibit in their daily lives. No theory that weakens the imperative of proclaiming the Truth in his fullness, as itself a work of love for those preached to, can be right; no form of religious relativism and indifferentism is acceptable. Dulles, therefore, understandably questions the idea, first formulated in such terms by Pius XII, of "implicit faith," which is "vague" and thus too readily lends itself to a relativist or indifferentist interpretation. As I do, Dulles prefers the language adopted by Vatican II's Lumen Gentium and subsequent popes. Yet there remains a difficulty.

After adducing several key considerations, Dulles ends:

We may conclude with certitude that God makes it possible for the unevangelized to attain the goal of their searching. How that happens is known to God alone, as Vatican II twice declares. We know only that their search is not in vain. “Seek, and you will find,” says the Lord (Matt. 7:7). If non-Christians are praying to an unknown God, it may be for us to help them find the one they worship in ignorance. God wants everyone to come to the truth. Perhaps some will reach the goal of their searching only at the moment of death. Who knows what transpires secretly in their consciousness at that solemn moment? We have no evidence that death is a moment of revelation, but it could be, especially for those in pursuit of the truth of God.

Meanwhile, it is the responsibility of believers to help these seekers by word and by example. Whoever receives the gift of revealed truth has the obligation to share it with others. Christian faith is normally transmitted by testimony. Believers are called to be God’s witnesses to the ends of the earth.

Who, then, can be saved? Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God’s promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice. God’s saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted. But that same grace brings obligations to all who receive it. They must not receive the grace of God in vain. Much will be demanded of those to whom much is given.

Now in substance, I agree with that. It conforms with, indeed follows from, the developed teaching of the Church. But especially as regards atheists, Dulles's formulation does not clearly distinguish between Church teaching on this point and Rahner's theory of anonymous Christianity. A lot of people, including not a few Catholics, still do not see how to reconcile the imperative of evangelization with the real possibility of non-Christians being saved. If we are not to speak, then, of "implicit faith," just what are we talking about?

The medieval Church dogmatized the patristic formula extra ecclesiam nulla salus: "outside the Church there is no salvation." And rightly so. Membership in the Church is necessary for salvation because incorporation into Christ is necessary for salvation, and the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ comprises with him "the whole Christ." But that doesn't close or even raise the question what, exactly, suffices for membership in the Church. Nothing defined by popes or councils has closed that question either. One can and should ask, e.g., whether membership a strictly binary matter—you're either in or you're out—or a matter of degree. We know what suffices for full membership: professing the faith of the Church and undergoing the sacraments of initiation. That has always been clear. But what suffices for some sort of membership has not always been so clear. Baptism by blood—i.e., martyrdom by death—and by explicit desire—on the part of believers who, through no fault of their own, didn't manage to get baptized before death—were recognized rather early, but nothing beyond that has been uncontroversial. I suggest that the key to resolving the controversy (at least in Catholic terms) is to understand the Church as sacrament, of which Lumen Gentium was the first magisterial document to speak.

In general, a sacrament is a tangible sign that helps to effect what it signifies. Theologically, a sacrament is a tangible sign of grace, of God's divinizing, self-giving presence, which punctualizes that presence in and for those who celebrate the sacrament. In a still more particular sense, a sacrament is a celebration by the Church of a specific means of grace instituted by the Lord. Thus the "seven" sacraments are said to be, by divine decree, the "ordinary means" of sanctification for members of the Church. Yet grace is ubiquitous, far wider than the celebration of sacraments by the Church in space and time. Similarly, the Church as Body of Christ is the "sacrament of salvation and unity" for the human race as a whole; she is thus the "ordinary means" of salvation, the "ark" into which are all called; yet the presence of grace in the world is ubiquitous, far transcending the boundaries of the visible Church. That is because Christ, by whose merits all grace is granted, is far more than the visible Church: he is a cosmic Christ, indeed God himself. Yet grace is ubiquitous in the world also because of his Church, because she is his Mystical Body. The existence of the Church is therefore necessary for all the grace that God offers in this world, and the scandal of the Church's particularity is part and parcel of the universality of God's love
"reconciling the world to himself" in Christ. Divine grace is offered to humanity through the visible Church and never without her. And yet grace, understood as God's divinizing, self-giving presence to humanity, pre-exists and far overflows the visible Church. Some people can and do respond positively to divine grace without even being in a position to consider the question of the Church. That is why the Church is the "sacrament" of salvation and unity without its following that full membership in her is necessary for salvation.

The question for us, then, is whether and to what extent a real, positive response to grace can incorporate a person into Christ, and therefore into the Church, without that response leading to full membership in the Church before death. Yet short of formal incorporation into the Church, that is not a question which anybody is in a position to answer for themselves. Even to raise such a question for oneself is to seek excuses for not undergoing a full conversion of mind and heart. Nor can the Church answer the question with certainty in any particular case. That is one reason why inviting people to full membership is so important. What we can and must say, however, is that the death and resurrection of Christ has destined all for "eternal life" in and through him. Such life is and will be some sort of union with God that death and time cannot end. As individuals, each of us is in a position to decide by our choices whether that union will be bliss or torture for us: "heaven" or "hell." That holds for everybody: non-Christians as well as Christians. The advantage of full membership in the Church is that one is given to understand what is at stake and is given the ordinary means for conforming one's mind, heart, and life to Christ. But given that God's grace suffices for the salvation of each and every person, even the unevangelized; and given also that membership in the Church is necessary for salvation, any real, positive response to God's ubiquitous grace that objectively orients one's life to Christ sets one on the path to full incorporation into the Church. If a person's failure to be fully incorporated is inculpable for some reason, God can and does count that person's positive response to grace as a measure of incorporation into Christ, and therefore as a degree of membership in the Church. If a person is on that path when they die and meet their Maker, then their response to him will be an act of explicit faith, and constitute their salvation.

Accordingly, the question "Who can be saved?" is to be answered not by citing formal religious affiliation, but thus: "Whoever dies while being headed in the right direction." Full incorporation into the Church gives one all one needs to head in the right direction; those whose membership is only partial are in a position that then-Cardinal Ratzinger called "gravely deficient." As the recent CDF document on evangelization indicates, therefore, it is an imperative of love to preach the truth fully to all and invite them to full incorporation into the Church.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A note on the latest CDF Note

On my desktop, I keep a Notepad file listing theological topics in which I've promised readers I will post. Each is quite beefy enough for my more academically inclined readers to sink their teeth into, the latest being that ol' AIDS-condom thing. Even the Vatican has considerably delayed its long-anticipated magisterial document on that topic; I have it on good authority that that is because of sharp internal divisions which are about presentation as much as about substance. I find difficulties of almost the same degree, if not always of the same kind, about most of the topics in my list. But one topic about which it is relatively painless as well as useful to comment is evangelization, at a time in Church history when many Catholics seem to believe that evangelization and ecumenism are mutually incompatible. As is clearly its intent, the CDF's new Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization (SAE) rebuts that belief. So I want to draw attention here to how.

As Cardinal Levada and Archbishop Amato remind us in §3:

There is today...a growing confusion which leads many to leave the missionary command of the Lord unheard and ineffective (cf. Mt 28:19). Often it is maintained that any attempt to convince others on religious matters is a limitation of their freedom. From this perspective, it would only be legitimate to present one’s own ideas and to invite people to act according to their consciences, without aiming at their conversion to Christ and to the Catholic faith. It is enough, so they say, to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion; it is enough to build communities which strive for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. Furthermore, some maintain that Christ should not be proclaimed to those who do not know him, nor should joining the Church be promoted, since it would also be possible to be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ and without formal incorporation in the Church.

The above-described problem is quite real among progs, many of whom believe that efforts to get people to become Catholics are "proselytism"—now a dirty word—and are thus immoral. Confusion about the matter has also spread among rank-and-file Catholics, many of whom have never had it explained to them what missionaries are for if religious freedom must be respected and non-Catholics can be saved. What the CDF does not point out, however, is the fact that trads blame Vatican II, and the corresponding ecumenical program pursued by the subsequent popes, for that state of affairs. They agree with the progs that Vatican II and the subsequent popes have left it unclear at best why we should bother encouraging people to become Catholics, the difference being that progs approve of that fact and the trads disapprove. Once again, the Left party and the Right party among the hermeneuts of discontinuity agree on the diagnosis but not on the prescription. On this topic, applying the hermeneutic of continuity that the Pope called for two years ago, and practices, is long overdue.

B16 no doubt intended that SAE be published when it was: only two weeks after Spe Salvi (SS). The point of SAE may thus been seen as explaining with greater precision why the Church must communicate to the world that "hope" which is described in SS. The two documents do the job together: SS offers more inspiration, SAE more explication. The latter makes very clear how encouraging people to become Catholics can and ought to be done consistently with their human freedom and dignity. But rather than merely summarize the document, which should be read in its entirety (13 pages, printed), I shall focus on the main point pressed by hermeneuts of discontinuity.

Recall first a key point I cited yesterday: what distinguishes Christianity from all other religions is that, through the Incarnation, it signifies God's search for man. So, if Christianity is true, then "man's search for God" should be a response to that divine initiative. But it is not easy to make such a response if the nature of the initiative is not clearly and fully proclaimed. With that in mind, consider SAE §7:

Although non-Christians can be saved through the grace which God bestows in “ways known to him”,[21] the Church cannot fail to recognize that such persons are lacking a tremendous benefit in this world: to know the true face of God and the friendship of Jesus Christ, God-with-us. Indeed “there is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with him”.[22] The revelation of the fundamental truths[23] about God, about the human person and the world, is a great good for every human person, while living in darkness without the truths about ultimate questions is an evil and is often at the root of suffering and slavery which can at times be grievous. This is why Saint Paul does not hesitate to describe conversion to the Christian faith as liberation “from the power of darkness” and entrance into “the kingdom of his beloved Son in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of our sins” (Col 1:13-14). Therefore, fully belonging to Christ, who is the Truth, and entering the Church do not lessen human freedom, but rather exalt it and direct it towards its fulfilment, in a love that is freely given and which overflows with care for the good of all people. It is an inestimable benefit to live within the universal embrace of the friends of God which flows from communion in the life-giving flesh of his Son, to receive from him the certainty of forgiveness of sins and to live in the love that is born of faith. The Church wants everyone to share in these goods so that they may possess the fullness of truth and the fullness of the means of salvation, in order “to enter into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). (Emphasis added).

That is why (§9; emphasis added)

[t]he incorporation of new members into the Church is not the expansion of a power-group, but rather entrance into the network of friendship with Christ which connects heaven and earth, different continents and ages. It is entrance into the gift of communion with Christ, which is “new life” enlivened by charity and the commitment to justice. The Church is the instrument, “the seed and the beginning”[27] of the Kingdom of God; she is not a political utopia. She is already the presence of God in history and she carries in herself the true future, the definitive future in which God will be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28); she is a necessary presence, because only God can bring authentic peace and justice to the world. The Kingdom of God is not – as some maintain today – a generic reality above all religious experiences and traditions, to which they tend as a universal and indistinct communion of all those who seek God, but it is, before all else, a person with a name and a face: Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the unseen God.[28] Therefore, every free movement of the human heart towards God and towards his kingdom cannot but by its very nature lead to Christ and be oriented towards entrance into his Church, the efficacious sign of that Kingdom. The Church, therefore, is the bearer of the presence of God and thus the instrument of the true humanization of man and the world. The growth of the Church in history, which results from missionary activity, is at the service of the presence of God through his Kingdom: one cannot in fact “detach the Kingdom from the Church”.[29]

That well explains why encouraging people to be formally incorporated into the Church is a vital service of love to them. Along with other passages, it also helps to explain why forcing people to profess Catholicism, which has admittedly occurred at certain times in the Church's past, is incompatible with the true rationale for evangelization and conversion. We can debate with trads ad infinitum the question whether the Church was once right to insist that public heresy be accounted a civil crime and severely punished. But it cannot be seriously argued that forcing people to be Catholics gives them what makes incorporation into the Church a service of love to them. Nor can it be seriously argued, on the basis of developed Church teaching, that becoming Catholic gives "good people" nothing essential that they could not have got without being Catholic. The hermeneuts of discontinuity are therefore wrong. The one-two punch of SS and SAE shows why.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Mother of God!!!

The title under which the Virgin Mary is honored by today's feast is the most sublime title a human being could bear. I don't know quite how and when it entered the lexicon of expletives, but my hunch is that such usage originated in the Middle Ages as a faith-filled invocation of Mary herself in face of an unusual and overwhelming occurrence. By now the expletive has been vulgarized, like so many other words in our age. But given what was probably its original sense, the title as expletive is an apt reaction to the reality referred to by the title as description.

Why? Well, really think for a moment about this line from an ancient hymn: “He whom the entire universe could not contain was contained within your womb, O Theotokos.” Catholics and Orthodox tend not to think about that much because they take it so much for granted. It's like: "Yeah, sure, what else is new?" But taking such a reality for granted is just plain silly, at least from the standpoint of faith. We have here what should be a constant source of meditation and inspiration. For that purpose, I shall say two things.

First, as a callow young conservative I learned to love that line because it is so very un-PC. It reminds us of how Christianity differs from other religions. As Pope John Paul the Great wrote:

Jesus was born of the Chosen People, in fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham and constantly recalled by the Prophets. The latter spoke in God's name and in his place. The economy of the Old Testament, in fact, was essentially ordered to preparing and proclaiming the coming of Christ, the Redeemer of the universe, and of his Messianic Kingdom. The books of the Old Covenant are thus a permanent witness to a careful divine pedagogy. In Christ this pedagogy achieves its purpose: Jesus does not in fact merely speak "in the name of God" like the Prophets, but he is God himself speaking in his Eternal Word made flesh. Here we touch upon the essential point by which Christianity differs from all the other religions, by which man's search for God has been expressed from earliest times. Christianity has its starting-point in the Incarnation of the Word. Here, it is not simply a case of man seeking God, but of God who comes in Person to speak to man of himself and to show him the path by which he may be reached. This is what is proclaimed in the prologue of John's Gospel: "No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known" (1:18). The Incarnate Word is thus the fulfillment of the yearning present in all the religions of mankind: this fulfillment is brought about by God himself and transcends all human expectations. It is the mystery of grace.

Second, this distinctive mark of Christianity, the Incarnate Word, is also a paradox: "He whom the whole universe could not contain..." God brought us eternal life by dying as a man; but given the purpose of his dying as a man, he had to be born as a man. As the living, active receptacle of the paradox of the Incarnation, the Virgin Mary is herself part of it: Mother of her Creator. She didn't understand the thing when it was first announced to her; but never doubting it, she never withheld her cooperation.

Meditating on such facts is no mere pastime for those who have little else to worry about. By experience, I learn that the littleness of God in the Christ Child is what brings his greatness to me and strengthens me when all else fails. The littleness of Mary is also what enabled her to become the greatest among us. Starting as the humble maidservant by whom the Creator of the world entered the world to save it from itself, she continues to bring him to us by her prayer, intercession, and appearances. She as great power over that Adversary whose power in the Church can sometimes seem to approach his power in the world. In all such ways, she is the one through whom her divine Son now saves the Church from the Church. Very timely, I should think.