Saturday, October 25, 2008


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.


Martin said...

Excellent! Were you just saving that passage for a rainy day or did you find it in your readings?


Reginald de Piperno said...


Just one of those things rattling around in my head. :-)

Actually, in some cases anti-Catholics are pretty consistent when they do this to us. For example, see the discussion of a post by TF here, where he is shocked by Catholic views about sin - namely, that mortal sin requires intention.

Of course, it's a shameful consistency to ignore someone's intentions in an act.

It's true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions - so that simply by meaning well, one doesn't excuse intrinsically sinful acts. But if the alleged sinfulness of the act is identified by the intention alone, it's a different story.



Martin said...

I remember that post. As always you're informing the clueless.

Interlocutor said...

Hi RdP,
What do you make of God striking down Uzza - did he not have good intentions in steadying the ark or was his act intrinsically evil in a way setting up the altar was not?

"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"

What do you make of the early Christian martyrs who died rather than kneel before the Roman emperors - couldn't they have done so while their intentions remained undefiled and save their lives with no sin?

Reginald de Piperno said...

Hello Interlocutor,

That's an interesting question. As I pointed out in the post update, good intentions aren't a cover for literally any action. But there was more going on there than just Uzza grabbing the ark: God also gave specific instructions for how the ark was to be moved, and they didn't include moving it by oxcart; they did it the right way (carrying it) when they successfully/safely moved it into the city. If they hadn't disobeyed by trying to use the oxcart, Uzza's act would have been irrelevant.

Can you give me an example or point me at historical documentation that kneeling was such an act that the martyrs refused to perform? My history's admittedly weak, but it is my understanding that the issue was that they refused to offer sacrifice to the emperor, or anything that even hinted at doing so. In any case - even if I'm wrong about that, the fact that the emperors were claiming deity for themselves would rather dramatically transform the nature of the act of kneeling, wouldn't it? Certainly kneeling before a king has not always been considered to be sinful, so if the martyrs refused the emperor on this point, it seems likely that some other consideration was in view than the mere act itself.


Mike Burgess said...

Indeed, Reginald, bowing before those in authority, kneeling, etc., were adopted and "baptized" by Christians specifically because of Romans 13. They were acknowledging God's authority in kneeling, but refusing to render worship by sacrificing, offering anything like incense, etc. They also followed Jesus' teaching concerning usage of coins bearing Imperial images (forbidden, ostensibly, by the Law).

As to Uzza/Oza, I recall a speculative treatment of that passage which indicated that Uzza/Oza attempted to stay the Ark due to the perceived tipping by the oxen, but in so doing, brought on himself the indignation of the Lord for Uzza/Oza's lack of faith that the Lord would preserve the Ark, not for simply touching it. The intention or lack of proper intention again appears, at least by those lights, to be the issue there.

Reginald de Piperno said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for the info! I wasn't aware of the history concerning kneeling. That's good to know.

Now that you've brought it up, that interpretation of Uzza/Oza's action sounds vaguely familiar...but maybe I'm just crazy. Certainly it is an entirely plausible reading of the passage.

Thanks for visiting - it has been awhile! I'm looking forward to the next installment in the series over at Syzygus.



Mike Burgess said...

Ah! I've visited oftener than I've commented! But thanks for the welcome. Things are looking up for me, and I am hard at work on the next installment. Thanks for your interest! And thanks, as always, for the terrific posts here!

Mike Burgess said...

Let's put our heads together and try to remember the source of the Uzza/Oza thing I think we're both half-remembering!

Reginald de Piperno said...

Okay, I've done a bit of research, and haven't had any success in finding a reference to my/our half-memory.

The Navarre Bible (Joshua-Kings, p. 333), the old Jerusalem Bible (p. 391), Jerome (here and here), St. Gregory Nazianzen (here), and St. John Chrysostom (here), along with the Jewish interpreters here and here, are all essentially agreed that Uzzah/Uzo/Uzza/Oza's fault lay in his disrespect towards the Ark as a holy thing which he was forbidden to touch.

So unfortunately I've found no sign that I could see of the idea that he lacked faith in God's preservation of the Ark. It seems not unreasonable to say that he lacked a proper intention with regard to it, in that he did not intend to treat it as holy; but it's not clear to me on this score that I could count it as additional testimony concerning the relevance of one's intentions when considering the fact that he kneels before a statue of the Blessed Virgin.

That's all I've got. :-(



Mike Burgess said...

Hmmm. I am stymied so far as well, but I'll keep looking. What I did find, like you, was the reference to the instructions for handling the Ark which specify that the Korahites were the only ones authorized to move the sacred things. There is never any indication that Uzza is a Korahite, and this, to me, indicates a combination of the sin of pride/presumption, and a lack of faith in the previous declarations of the Lord, to wit: if they touch it, they will surely die. It seems the priests neglected their responsibilities (or perhaps they didn't!) in informing the party preparing to move the Ark of the requirements.