Saturday, October 25, 2008

Philosophy of St. Thomas - Summa Contra Gentiles - Providence

It often happens that a proposition seems terribly obvious once it's expressed clearly to us. What St. Thomas has to say in the Summa Contra Gentiles about Providence, and order, and law, is like that. The entire third book of SCG is on this subject, and this modest post is by no means going to attempt anything like digesting the whole of the book. Instead, this is based upon my notes from a few portions of it.
God moves all things to their ends, and He does so through His understanding, for we have shown above that He does not act through a necessity of His nature, but through understanding and will. Now, to rule or govern by providence is simply to move things toward an end through understanding. Therefore, God by His providence governs and rules all things that are moved toward their end, whether they be moved corporeally, or spiritually as one who desires is moved by an object of desire (III-64, 4).
It's not just that by his providence God directs all things, but more importantly that they are directed toward their end - for the fulfillment of God's purposes both for them and for his creation. We sometimes (and Protestants maybe more often) will talk about God having a plan for our lives, but what it means to have a plan is to have a goal, a purpose, an end in view that is to be accomplished.
[5] Moreover, that natural bodies are moved and made to operate for an end, even though they do not know their end, was proved by the fact that what happens to them is always, or often, for the best; and, if their workings resulted from art, they would not be done differently. But it is impossible for things that do not know their end to work for that end, and to reach that end in an orderly way, unless they are moved by someone possessing knowledge of the end, as in the case of the arrow directed to the target by the archer. So, the whole working of nature must be ordered by some sort of knowledge. And this, in fact, must lead back to God, either mediately or immediately, since every lower art and type of knowledge must get its principles from a higher one, as we also see in the speculative and operative sciences. Therefore, God governs the world by His providence.

[6] Furthermore, things that are different in their natures do not come together into one order unless they are gathered into a unit by one ordering agent. But in the whole of reality things are distinct and possessed of contrary natures; yet all come together in one order, and while some things make use of the actions of others, some are also helped or commanded by others. Therefore, there must be one orderer and governor of the whole of things (ibid., 5-6).
The point here is that order in creation requires an agent who has done the ordering. The fact that the whole of creation is orderly, and integrated, and that things "just work" ("always, or often" - or most of the time) is a clear indication that creation is not just a patched-up mess of random bits, but is ordered - and if it is ordered, there must be one who has done the ordering.
Furthermore, as we proved above, God brings all things into being, not from the necessity of His nature, but by understanding and will. Now, there can be no other ultimate end for His understanding and will than His goodness, that is, to communicate it to things, as is clear from what has been established. But things participate in the divine goodness to the extent that they are good, by way of likeness. Now, that which is the greatest good in caused things is the good of the order of the universe; for it is most perfect, as the Philosopher says. With this, divine Scripture is also in agreement, for it is said in Genesis (1:31): "God saw all the things He had made, and they were very good," while He simply said of the individual works, that "they were good." So, the good of the order of things caused by God is what is chiefly willed and caused by God. Now, to govern things is nothing but to impose order on them. Therefore, God Himself governs all things by His understanding and will (ibid., 9).
God made all things for the sake of communicating his goodness to them. We may be sure, as Scripture says, that "for those who love God all things work together unto good" (Rom. 8:28). God has not made us for evil purposes, but for good. Our biggest problem in remembering this is that we are so shortsighted. We can't see past our own noses. We all have ADHD when it comes to trusting in God's purposes for us: we are "easily distracted."


I'm writing about this mind-reading business again because, frankly, I find it really galling. It's not just a question of anti-Catholics being wrong about what we do; it's that they have the temerity to make judgments about what we mean by our actions that ignore or discount our own explanations of them. It's disgraceful behavior, and fantastically rude.

It's also marked by historical myopia. It may not be an American or modern evangelical thing, but for most of the world's history any man or woman who failed to kneel in the presence of nobility when expected to do so would have found himself facing terrible consequences. And rightfully so. For it was not reckoned as worship, but as a mark of respect and submission to authority. So the act of kneeling - even before a statue of a saint - is by itself indicative of nothing improper whatsoever. It could only be made an act of idolatry by the intentions of the one kneeling - and Joe Anti-Catholic isn't privy to them. And yet he presumes all the time to detect violations of the first commandment in the heart of the one who kneels. You're wrong, Joe. And the sooner you admit it, the better. Why should we bother listening to anything you say, when you think you know better than we do ourselves what we intend by what we do?

And the same goes for Joe's presumption in declaring our prayers to the saints to be "idolatrous." Hogwash. We know what we are doing, and we know why we do it, and it has nothing to do with making an idol out of a man or woman. And common courtesy, coupled with that charity which thinks the best of another rather than the worst, demands that Joe Anti-Catholic accept it when we say that we are not worshiping the saints. He doesn't know better than we do what we mean by what we do.

And for those who would downplay the significance of intention, I offer the following.
So the children of Ruben, and the children of Gad, and the half tribe of Manasses returned, and parted from the children of Israel in Silo, which is in Chanaan, to go into Galaad the land of their possession, which they had obtained according to the commandment of the Lord by the hand of Moses. And when they were come to banks of the Jordan, in the land of Chanaan, they built an altar immensely great near the Jordan. And when the children of Israel had heard of it, and certain messengers brought them an account that the children of Ruben, and of Gad, and the half tribe of Manasses had built an altar in the land of Chanaan, upon the banks of the Jordan, over against the children of Israel: They all assembled in Silo, to go up and fight against them. And in the mean time they sent to them into the land of Galaad, Phinees the son of Eleazar the priest, And ten princes with him, one of every tribe. Who came to the children of Ruben, and of Gad, and the half tribe of Manasses, into the land of Galaad, and said to them: Thus saith all the people of the Lord: What meaneth this transgression? Why have you forsaken the Lord the God of Israel, building a sacrilegious altar, and revolting from the worship of him? Is it a small thing to you that you sinned with Beelphegor, and the stain of that crime remaineth in us to this day? and many of the people perished. And you have forsaken the Lord to day, and to morrow his wrath will rage against all Israel. But if you think the land of your possession to be unclean, pass over to the land wherein is the tabernacle of the Lord, and dwell among us: only depart not from the Lord, and from our society, by building an altar beside the altar of the Lord our God. Did not Achan the son of Zare transgress the commandment of the Lord, and his wrath lay upon all the people of Israel? And he was but one man, and would to God he alone had perished in his wickedness.

And the children of Ruben, and of Gad, and of the half tribe of Manasses answered the princes of the embassage of Israel: The Lord the most mighty God, the Lord the most mighty God, he knoweth, and Israel also shall understand: If with the design of transgression we have set up this altar, let him not save us, but punish us immediately: And if we did it with that mind, that we might lay upon it holocausts, and sacrifice, and victims of peace offerings, let him require and judge: And not rather with this thought and design, that we should say: To morrow your children will say to our children: What have you to do with the Lord the God of Israel? The Lord hath put the river Jordan for a border between us and you, O ye children of Ruben, and ye children of Gad: and therefore you have no part in the Lord. And by this occasion your children shall turn away our children from the fear of the Lord. We therefore thought it best, And said: Let us build us an altar, not for holocausts, nor to offer victims, But for a testimony between us and you, and our posterity and yours, that we may serve the Lord, and that we may have a right to offer both holocausts, and victims and sacrifices of peace offerings: and that your children to morrow may not say to our children: You have no part in the Lord. And if they will say so, they shall answer them: Behold the altar of the Lord, which our fathers made, not for holocausts, nor for sacrifice, but for a testimony between us and you. God keep us from any such wickedness that we should revolt from the Lord, and leave off following his steps, by building an altar to offer holocausts, and sacrifices, and victims, beside the altar of the Lord our God, which is erected before his tabernacle.

And when Phinees the priest, and the princes of the embassage, who were with him, had heard this, they were satisfied: and they admitted most willingly the words of the children of Ruben, and Gad, and of the half tribe of Manasses, And Phinees the priest the son of Eleazar said to them: Now we know that the Lord is with us, because you are not guilty of this revolt, and you have delivered the children of Israel from the hand of the Lord. And he returned with the princes from the children of Ruben and Gad, out of the land of Galaad, into the land of Chanaan, to the children of Israel, and brought them word again. And the saying pleased all that heard it. And the children of Israel praised God, and they no longer said that they would go up against them, and fight, and destroy the land of their possession. And the children of Ruben, and the children of Gad called the altar which they had built, Our testimony, that the Lord is God (Joshua 22:9-34).
So the Transjordan tribes had built an altar, which was contrary to the letter of the Law - but it was their intent in doing so that made their act acceptable.

I'll have to say, though, that the rest of Israel acted with more charity than do Joe Anti-Catholic and his friends. Because they believed the Transjordan tribes when they explained themselves. But we Catholics can't get the same from Joe and friends.

[Update 2008-10-27]: In the combox it occurred to me that I ought to clarify one thing, lest someone get the wrong idea: I am not saying that good intentions cover everything. It is not possible for good intentions to remove the sinfulness of an intrinsically evil act. But just as it is not intrinsically evil to build an altar - see above - so it is not intrinsically evil to kneel before a statue (nor even before a man). Consequently it cannot be said on the basis of the action alone that a Catholic sins when he kneels before a statue, and it cannot be said that a Catholic is committing idolatry when he kneels before a statue. That is a matter of the heart, and it is not subject to judgment by any human court - including our anti-Catholic friends. As a matter of simple charity they are morally obliged to take us at our word when we say that we by no means worship Mary and the Saints.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


More mind reading. Nothing to see here, move along...

Shorter Cambridge Medieval History - A Mixed Bag

I finished reading it yesterday, and the best I can say is that it is a mixed bag. On the one hand, I think it's a decent overview of the Middle Ages...but on the other hand, it's only a decent overview of a specific aspect of the time. The author focuses almost exclusively on the political world, barely spending any time on other facets of medieval history.

Another thing: his writing style is incredibly tedious. At times the subject matter was fairly compelling, but rarely was his presentation. This may be because the work is a condensation of a much larger one (The Cambridge Medieval History, which is 10 or 11 volumes); it may be a reflection of the fact that P-O died before completing it, and consequently the text may only represent an early draft of his intentions. If this is so, then the editor must share at least some of the blame for not cleaning it up. The syntax is pointlessly muddled quite often.

If you can stand to wade through it, it's a decent survey of the politics of the Middle Ages. But if your interest is more in the way of the arts, or culture generally, then you may as well skip this book. You won't find much here to compensate the effort spent in reading it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Hodge's Errors Exposed, Part Two

In a previous post I looked at the first two of Hodge's objections to Catholic prayers to the saints as reported by Turretinfan. In this post I continue. Again, note that all quotations of Hodge are taken from TF's post.

After a disappointing beginning with his first two objections, Hodge follows with his third:
3. It is derogatory to Christ. As He is the only and sufficient mediator between God and man, and as He is ever willing to hear and answer the prayers of his people, it supposes some deficiency in Him, if we need other mediators to approach God in our behalf.
Now this objection, while we may well respect Hodge's concern for the dignity of our Lord, is a simply stunning example of - what? A double standard? Carelessness? I'm not sure how to describe it. In order to explain why I say this, take a look at the following, which is from Hodge's own theological argument (also in TF's post):
There is but one Mediator between God and man, and but one High Priest through whom we draw near to God. And as intercession is a priestly function, it follows that Christ is our only intercessor. But as there is a sense in which all believers are kings and priests unto God, which is consistent with Christ's being our only king and priest; so there is a sense in which one believer may intercede for another, which is not inconsistent with Christ's being our only intercessor. By intercession in the case of believers is only meant that one child of God may pray for another or for all men. To intercede is in this sense merely to pray for.
Astonishing. I can only hope that there is some gigantic lacuna in TF's post, because if there isn't, Hodge has moved from this perfectly reasonable justification of the legitimacy of Christian intercession - something he denies is in any way derogatory to Christ - to complaining that praying to the saints is nevertheless an infringement on Christ's office of Mediator, in the space of 3 brief paragraphs.

Like I said, astonishing.

And it's also just wrong, for the very reasons that he himself gives. The communion of saints is more than just a nice phrase referring to those Christians still wayfaring in this life; it is a fellowship which includes those who have gone before us, and it's silly to assume that they do not pray for us (and that we may not ask them to do so). I don't have much to say here, since Hodge has so ably refuted himself, so I'll move on to his fourth objection.
4. It moreover is contrary to Scripture, inasmuch as the saints are assumed to prevail with God on account of their personal merits. Such merit no human being has before God. No man has any merit to plead for his own salvation, much less for the salvation of others.
This is a species of a tired old argument that I have addressed many times (and - once again - not just me, but many many others). As to the Scriptural warrant, I've already quoted James 5:16 in the previous post, but let's have it again: "The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects." And this is consistent with the flipside: "If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened" (Ps. 66:18). In other words, what a man does affects whether God hears his prayers and answers them. I don't know how you can draw any other conclusion from this. Even here, though, it's worth pointing out again what St. Augustine affirms: "[W]hat else but His gifts does God crown when He crowns our merits?" Our merits are not our own as though we do not owe them to God. It may also be worth pointing out that it's not as though anyone's prayers - whether those of the saints in heaven or of believers here on earth - actually change God's providential plan for his creatures. Rather, God's purposes are such that he brings them to pass often in answer to the prayers of his people. And again, if he answers the prayers of those here on earth, how much more the petitions of those in heaven?

Finally, here is Hodge's last objection.
5. The practice is superstitious and degrading. Superstition is belief without evidence. The practice of the invocation of saints is founded on a belief which has no support from Scripture. It is calling upon imaginary helpers. It degrades men by turning them from the Creator to the creature, by leading them to put their trust
in an arm of flesh, instead of in the power of Christ. It, therefore, turns away the hearts and confidence of the people from Him to those who can neither hear nor save.
Well, I guess the summary reply is "No, and No, and Heck No." It's not superstitious ("belief without evidence") except possibly on his own standard of evidence - a standard which we certainly reject. We don't adhere to sola scriptura, and for good reason: it's wrong. The fact that the practice of praying to the saints is part of the tradition of the Church is entirely sufficient evidence.

But Hodge also omits any consideration of the sort of evidence employed by the Church when canonizing the departed: namely, the evidence of prayers directed to the departed that have been answered. And the evidence here is simply overwhelming. Now perhaps he will dismiss these miracles as demonic, but this is nothing more than to repeat the Pharisees' dodge that Christ casts out demons by the prince of demons: it's just not credible.

It's nothing but silly calumniating to dismiss the righteous in heaven as "imaginary helpers." Really, this is the sort of ranting nonsense that I would have thought to be beneath a scholar of Hodge's stature. But apparently I am mistaken. And to pray to the saints no more turns us away from God than does the prayer chain at Hodge's local congregation.

By way of conclusion: Hodge's objections don't amount to a hill of sand, and really diminish my opinion of him. I had his Systematic Theology on my shelves for years, as one of those works that I ought to read. I'm sure I'm not the only one. But if this is representative of the quality of his work, then I'm glad I didn't take the time to read more of it.

Hodge's Errors Exposed, Part One

Turretinfan has posted an argument by the renowned Reformed theologian Charles Hodge against the Catholic practice of praying to the saints. He makes a pretty poor case, and I can only say that he would have been better off sticking to Reformed systematics than dipping into polemicizing if this is any measure of the quality of his efforts.

Skipping over the theological introduction, which doesn't seem to have much to do with his argument, here's what he says as to why Protestants object to Catholic practice on this score (see TF's post, linked above, for the Hodge quotes).
1. Because it supposes a class of beings who do not exist; that is, of canonized departed spirits. It is only those who, with the angels, have been officially declared by the Church, on account of their merits, to be now in heaven, who are regarded as intercessors.
Well, right out of the starting gate Hodge gets it woefully wrong, and he exposes not just that he is wrong, but his complete ignorance of the Catholic view of the subject.

In the first place, he doesn't seem to have any idea what canonization means in the Catholic Church (with respect to the saints, not the canon of Scripture, which is a different subject).
The Catholic Church canonizes or beatifies only those whose lives have been marked by the exercise of heroic virtue, and only after this has been proved by common repute for sanctity and by conclusive arguments. The chief [thing] lies in the meaning of the term canonization, the Church seeing in the saints nothing more than friends and servants of God whose holy lives have made them worthy of His special love [Catholic Encyclopedia].
But in particular, canonization has to do with identifying those who may be mentioned and invoked in the liturgy:
It must be obvious, however, that while private moral certainty of their sanctity and possession of heavenly glory may suffice for private veneration of the saints, it cannot suffice for public and common acts of that kind. No member of a social body may, independently of its authority, perform an act proper to that body [Catholic Encyclopedia article again].
The Catholic Church doesn't create saints when it canonizes them; it simply recognizes that which already is the case. So it's a bizarre assertion on Hodge's part to object that prayers to saints are wrong "Because it supposes a class of beings who do not exist; that is, of canonized departed spirits." But the saints are departed spirits. And they have been canonized - that is, added to the rolls of those who may be publicly venerated in the liturgy. Hodge makes it sound like there is some bizarre ontological distinction ("class of beings") and that canonization has performed some constitutional change in them. But that's nearly unintelligible, and it has nothing to do with what Catholics mean by canonization.

Furthermore, it is not merely the saints to whom we may for intercession. This should be obvious from this fact: a typical means by which the Church identifies those who may be candidates for canonization is an allegedly miraculous answer to prayers offered to one who is not already identified as a saint (I say "allegedly" because such events are investigated before being accepted). The point, though, is that we seek their intercession just as we seek the intercession of our friends and family still living here on earth, only all the more so when we seek the intercession of the saints, because "the unceasing prayer of a just man is of great avail" (James 5:16). It is nothing but an a fortiori argument: if the prayers of a righteous man still living on earth are effective, how much more are the prayers of those in heaven going to be effective, whose righteousness has been confirmed by their being in God's presence! So then, Hodge gets it wrong when he says that only the canonized may be regarded as intercessors.

Hodge continues, by way of contradicting the straw man that he has just set up:
This, however, is an unauthorized assumption on the part of the Church. It has no prerogative to enable it thus to decide, and to enroll whom it will among glorified spirits.
But the Church makes no such silly assumptions, doesn't claim such a prerogative, and doesn't pretend to enroll anyone as a "glorified spirit."

Moving on from this dreadful beginning, Hodge continues with his second point:
2. It leads to practical idolatry. Idolatry is the ascription of divine attributes to a creature. In the popular mind the saints, and especially the Virgin Mary, are regarded as omnipresent; able at all times and in all places, to hear the prayers addressed to them, and to relieve the wants of their worshippers.
This is a standard and ridiculous canard. I know of no Catholics who worship the saints as gods. This is typical Protestant mind-reading to which I have objected before (and of course all Catholics object to it; there is nothing special about my complaint!).

But a second part of the objection is that the saints are asserted by Hodge to be unable to hear all the prayers addressed to them, by virtue of the fact that they are not God (and so, because we say that they do hear them, it is wrongly assumed as proven by Hodge that we treat them as deities). In response to this, I would point the reader at my patron's remarks on the subject here (ST Supp Q72 A1).
The Divine essence is a sufficient medium for knowing all things, and this is evident from the fact that God, by seeing His essence, sees all things. But it does not follow that whoever sees God's essence knows all things, but only those who comprehend the essence of God [Cf. I, 12, 7,8: even as the knowledge of a principle does not involve the knowledge of all that follows from that principle unless the whole virtue of the principle be comprehended. Wherefore, since the souls of the saints do not comprehend the Divine essence, it does not follow that they know all that can be known by the Divine essence--for which reason the lower angels are taught concerning certain matters by the higher angels, though they all see the essence of God; but each of the blessed must needs see in the Divine essence as many other things as the perfection of his happiness requires. For the perfection of a man's happiness requires him to have whatever he will, and to will nothing amiss: and each one wills with a right will, to know what concerns himself. Hence since no rectitude is lacking to the saints, they wish to know what concerns themselves, and consequently it follows that they know it in the Word. Now it pertains to their glory that they assist the needy for their salvation: for thus they become God's co-operators, "than which nothing is more Godlike," as Dionysius declares (Coel. Hier. iii). Wherefore it is evident that the saints are cognizant of such things as are required for this purpose; and so it is manifest that they know in the Word the vows, devotions, and prayers of those who have recourse to their assistance.
In short: Hodge's objection here assumes that there is no change whatsoever in what may be known by those who are in heaven. It is an unwarranted assumption, and I think that St. Thomas sufficiently responds to it.

Now I've only gone through two of Hodge's arguments, and this is getting to be ridiculously long. We'll continue in a second post.

Monday, October 6, 2008

"Catholics Hate The Bible"

No, really. At least, that's what your average anti-Catholic blogger will say - on the basis of zero actual evidence but some distortions of history.

But do we really hate the Bible?

I suppose we show that we hate it by doing things like this: a public Bible-reading marathon at the start of a synod, intended to highlight the importance of Scripture.

Maybe the anti-Catholic just plain doesn't know what he's talking about.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Philosophy of St. Thomas - Summa Contra Gentiles - We are Saved by Grace

St. Thomas usually - or at least very often - described Heaven as "the beatific vision" - that is, that state in which the redeemed see God face to face (1Jn 3:3). God made us for this, and yet it is something to which we cannot attain on our own: we can only see God by his grace.
Indeed, a lower nature cannot acquire that which is proper to a higher nature except through the action of the higher nature to which the property belongs. For instance, water cannot be hot except through the action of fire. Now, to see God through His divine essence is proper to the divine nature, for it is the special prerogative of any agent to perform its operation through its own form. So, no intellectual substance [that's us, and the angels - RdP] can see God through His divine essence unless God is the agent of this operation (SCG III, 52, 2).
The gulf between God and us is such that we cannot cross it in our own strength. It's not that he is too far away, but that he is infinite and we are not.
Seeing God’s substance transcends the limitations of every created nature; indeed, it is proper for each created intellectual nature to understand according to the manner of its own substance. But divine substance cannot be understood in this way, as we showed above. Therefore, the attainment by a created intellect to the vision of divine substance is not possible except through the action of God, Who transcends all creatures (ibid., 6; emphasis added).
Our created powers are simply not capable of seeing God. So we need his help in order to attain the vision of God.
In fact, we have shown that man’s happiness, which is called life everlasting, consists in this divine vision, and we are said to attain it by God’s grace alone, because such a vision exceeds all the capacity of a creature and it is not possible to reach it without divine assistance. Now, when such things happen to a creature, they are attributed to God’s grace. And the Lord says: “I will manifest Myself to him” (John 14:21) [ibid., 7].
So we see that those who suggest that Catholics are Pelagian, or semi-Pelagian, or "demi-Pelagian," or "demi-hemi-semi-Pelagian," are either grossly ignorant of the facts, or willfully lie about us. This error, or lie, cannot be sustained on any fair reading of Catholic dogma. Indeed, as St. Thomas makes clear in the Summa Contra Gentiles, it's not merely a doctrinal error but an error of reason to suppose that we can save ourselves: it is irrational. It would be refreshing if anti-Catholics and others could stick to the facts in their complaints about us, rather than making things up like this.

Unfortunately I fear this is unlikely to happen in most cases, particularly for those who think that they are able to judge a Catholic's heart. We see this most often when a Protestant supposes that veneration of Mary is the same as idolatry. It doesn't matter to most such folks that we deny that we worship Mary; they think they know better than we do what we are doing, and so they're perfectly happy to ignore our protest. Such people really aren't worth our time: if they can't admit that they don't know our hearts, and therefore are in no position to judge whether we worship Mary, they certainly aren't honest in their opinions about us.

The same goes for those who falsely say that we believe we are saved by works, no matter how many times we insist that we are saved by God's grace in Christ. If they will not listen to our explanations, they are not honest in their criticisms. Certainly some of those who do such things are simply ignorant, and they may be forgiven their error; but if they persist in it when we have explained ourselves, there really isn't much left to say to them. It's not simply an honest mistake nor an honest disagreement at the point where the critic ignores what we say and paints us with the brush of his choosing.