Easing your way into a Worldview

I want to offer a brief reflection on a phenomenon I see often which strikes me as curious; namely, the phenomenon of easing your way into a worldview by piecemeal steps.

In certain religious traditions (most commonly in those traditions typically referred to derogatorily as ‘cults’), there is a proselytic strategy of conveying certain articles of the faith (which may seem intuitive, wholesome, or otherwise welcome) but keeping information about other articles of faith hidden or secret except to the appropriately initiated. Underlying this practice is this unarticulated recognition that several of that religion’s teachings are so outlandish and counterintuitive that to even admit them in public (or in the presence of the uninitiated) would do damage to the cause of winning people over to their faith. As slimy as I’m inclined to think this practice is, there is perhaps something shrewd about it in light of the way most of us form our worldview-sized beliefs. In fact, it may be the case that for most major worldviews (worldviews which, in the free marketplace of ideas, do exceptionally well at winning over a great portion of the human race) people naturally ease their way into them by finding good reasons to affirm them and then making counter-intuitive adjustments along the way to accommodate them. We can illustrate this, in my submission, even by taking a critical look at metaphysical naturalism.

Take naturalism to be, approximately, the belief that (i) ‘God exists’ is not true, (ii) there exist at least some of the theoretical entities postulated by our best science, and (iii) that there exist no entities belief in which cannot be motivated in principle by a scientific view of the world (with the possible exception of God, caveat in casu necessitas). Perhaps naturalism sounds prima facie plausible to many people; the tremendous success of the scientific project of making sense of the world, the apparent superiority of scientific explanations over pre-scientific explanations, the relative implausibility of worldviews competing with naturalism given our new scientifically updated background knowledge about the world, all seem to lend some credence to metaphysical naturalism. One might be led, for these reasons, to adopt a naturalistic worldview and then slowly adjust their auxiliary beliefs accordingly one at a time. First, they may give up robust (or at least traditional) moral realism. Second, they may give up on affirming that there are objectively true (in the correspondence sense) mathematical propositions, or even analytic ones.1 Next they may give up correspondence theory, and then finally they end up denying things like qualia and conscious states.2 Before too long the naturalist will go from sounding soberingly sane to talking about “the illusion that thought is about stuff,”3 and insisting that there are no true sentences (including this one). The conclusions to which one arrives end up being so obnoxious to common sense, so ludicrous to the man on the street, that no sane person could ever agree to them without being eased into accepting them one small step at a time. Just as the frog who remains in slowly warming water until it boils her alive, so too the stubborn naturalist complacently gives in, incrementally, to ostensible insanity; the more comprehensive the atheist’s guide to reality gets, the more it looks like a guide to the surreal.

The very same happens with (some popular versions of) fundamentalism; one begins by finding the Christian worldview plausible for a variety of reasons ranging, perhaps, from natural theology to historical biblical scholarship, from cute arguments (like C.S. Lewis’ trilemma)4 to (Josh McDowell’s)5 systematic apologetics. However, before long one is arguing that the light of supernovae, which has taken millions of years to reach us, was created by God merely a few thousand years ago in order to create the appearance of now-dead stars, or that cancer exists because a talking snake fooled our most primitive human ancestor, or that carbon-dating is so inaccurate that it doesn’t preclude the possibility that dinosaurs were roughly contemporaneous with mankind. In this manner one slides from apparently reasonable starting points to what may as well be Alice’s wonderland.

A similar pattern holds true for lone-wolf thinkers whose worldviews end up being hodge-podge syntheses which hardly anyone else will ever find plausible or intellectually satisfying. Original thinkers from Zeno to Berkeley, from Diogenes to David Lewis put forward philosophies regarded by most to be laughable grandiloquent fictions. It is not surprising, then, that so many should regard the history of philosophy as a museum of the absurd. Even the man who abandons philosophical inquiry altogether creates for himself a view of the world riddled with inconsistencies and idiocies to which he remains blind thanks only to his refusal to reflect critically upon them.

Given this situation, it seems reasonable to ask: is there any stopping the flood of myriad derisory beliefs? The question of how plausible a worldview is seems irrelevant to the assessment of its truth unless the presumption that reality is not too counterintuitive turns out to be correct. If reality turns out to be massively counter-intuitive, then plausibility provides no guide to truth. However, if plausibility is the primary litmus test for believability (after logical coherence, etc.), then we are proverbially up the faecal creek without a paddle.

My reaction to this line of thought is as follows; just as parsimony should be regarded as a signpost of truth in the sense that between any two views, ceteris paribus, the more parsimonious is more likely to be true, so closer alignment with common sense makes a view, ceteris paribus, more likely to be correct. What qualifies as common sense may not be so easily answered, but something like nearly universally shared intuitions about plausibility will qualify (we can leave the details to be worked out elsewhere). Obviously most people are prejudiced, to some degree, in advance of the following exercise, but I think one of the most valuable procedures when it comes to worldview-selection is to take inventory of a (prima facie sufficiently plausible) worldview’s most counter-intuitive consequences and compare them to the most counter-intuitive consequences of competing worldviews. This exercise won’t provide us the means for any definitive doxastic adjudication, but I think it remains one of the best approaches we have to comparing competing worldviews.

The alternative, realistically, is for us to unreflectively slide comfortably into a worldview by taking incremental steps towards the absurd, readjusting our plausibility assignments slowly and surely, and ending up with beliefs we would never have consented to accept had we seen clearly precisely to what it was we were inevitably committing ourselves when we adopted the overarching paradigm in question.

1 See: W.V.O. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” Perspectives in the Philosophy of Language (2000): 189-210.

2 See: William Ramsey, “Eliminative Materialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta (2016), accessed March 27, 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/materialism-eliminative/

3 Alexander Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. (WW Norton & Company, 2011), 95.

4 See: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Samizdat, 2014): 29-32.

5 Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Evidence I & II Fully Updated in One Volume to Answer Questions Challenging Christians in the 21 st Century, (Thomas Nelson, 1999).

Some Miscellaneous Reactions to Some of Robert Price’s Points in Favour of Mythicism

In a not so recent debate1 between Bart Ehrman and Robert Price the topic of whether Jesus of Nazareth historically existed was explored. This provides us with one of the first and few high-profile debates with at least one bona-fide scholar where the participants are directly arguing about mythicism. Unfortunately, the debate was a disappointment in several respects in that neither Ehrman nor Price gave performances of the quality many, who were anticipating an outstanding debate, were expecting. However, Price did say a few interesting things which I thought I’d pick up on and say a few words about. This is not intended to be a comprehensive dismantling of Price’s view (I have not the time to be so ambitious), but just intended to provide a registry of some of my miscellaneous reactions to various points.

Price, in his opening speech, provided at least three examples of evidence which may insinuate that one early objection to Christianity was that Jesus never existed. First, he cites a statement which Justin Martyr puts into the mouth of his interlocutor Trypho in his famous Dialogue with Trypho. Second, he cites a statement which Origen is at pains to refute from an anti-Christian polemicist of the second century, Celsus. Third, he calls into evidence the words of 2 Peter 1:16-18 as though they indicate an implicit awareness that there was an allegation already circulating within the first century that Jesus of Nazareth may not have existed at all.

Let us begin with the passage from the Dialogue with Trypho, according to which Trypho, (a Jewish intellectual who, in the dialogue, claims to have been a pupil of Corinthus the Socratic in Argos,2 and may possibly be the second century rabbi Tarfon,3 though that is not widely accepted) makes the following provocative charge:

But Christ—if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing.”4

Does this passage contain a veiled insinuation that Jesus did not exist? It doesn’t seem so. At very least we gather from the way Justin Martyr proceeds to respond to this comment that he doesn’t have that accusation in mind. Justin promises Trypho that “I will prove to you, here and now, that we do not believe in groundless myths nor in teachings not based on reason, but in doctrines that are inspired by the Divine Spirit, abundant with power, and teeming with grace.”5 However, Justin Martyr goes on to give argument after argument from prophecy to demonstrate that Jesus is a good ‘fit’ for the anticipated messiah of the Tanakh. He never goes on to argue that Jesus of Nazareth existed; he argues on the clear presumption that he and Trypho are agreed that Jesus of Nazareth existed. The likelihood is relatively high that Justin Martyr is writing a largely or entirely fictitious dialogue, but whether it was fictitious or not there is no way to read Trypho’s (alleged) statement as an insinuation that Jesus didn’t exist. That isn’t what Justin Martyr thought the statement insinuated, and it isn’t plausible that a historical Trypho intended to insinuate that the historical Jesus didn’t exist but just let that point drop entirely for the rest of the dialogue with Justin.

My verdict, therefore, is that this provides absolutely no evidence of any early anti-Christian polemic which insinuated that Jesus never existed.

What of Price’s second example, from the second century anti-Christian polemicist Celsus? Well, Price points out that Celsus says: “it is clear to me that the writings of the Christians are a lie and that your fables have not been well enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction.”6 However, to read this as a veiled charge that Jesus never existed is implausible for a variety of reasons. First, consider how the passage from Celsus continues: “it is clear to me that the writings of the Christians are a lie and that your fables have not been well enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction. I have heard that some of your interpreters…are on to the inconsistencies and, pen in hand, alter the originals writings, three, four and several more times over in order to be able to deny the contradictions in the face of criticism.”7 That is clearly an accusation of embellishment and selective redaction; it is clearly not an accusation of having invented the historical Jesus whole-cloth. Second, consider that Celsus elsewhere argues that Jesus is a bastard child; according to Origen in his Contra Celsus, “[Celsus was] speaking of the mother of Jesus, and saying that “when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera.”89 Clearly, however, if Celsus thought that Jesus was born of illegitimate relations between Mary and a Roman soldier named Panthera, then Celsus could not have also believed that Jesus never existed. Those beliefs are so obviously logically incompatible that even an imbecile (as Origen thought) like Celsus could not plausibly have entertained both.

Finally, what of the words in 2 Peter 1:16-18? They read:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
(2 Peter 1:16-18, NRSV).

I consider it obvious that the author gives us an indication of what the allegation of ‘cleverly devised myths’ comes to by the way he responds to the charge. Clearly, however, he spends all his time emphasizing not that he was an eyewitness (or that there were eyewitnesses) of Jesus of Nazareth, but that he was one of many eyewitnesses of the majesty of Christ which was attested to and illustrated by miracles. It is the majesty and/or the miracles which the author believes are being alleged to be cleverly devised myths, not the historicity of the person, Jesus of Nazareth; we know this by inferring it from the way the author responds to the allegations he has in mind.

So, in my opinion, all three of these evidences of some early objection to Christianity to the effect that Jesus of Nazareth did not historically exist are completely bunk.

I want to end this reflection on some points brought out by Price in the debate with a few positive notes. There are some areas where I actually agree with Price over against the majority of New Testament scholars. For instance, Price maintains (and this came out in parts of the debate) that there is no more reason to think that Paul wrote Galatians than there is to think that Paul wrote 1st Timothy. Price’s conclusion is that we have reason to believe that Paul did not write any of the epistles traditionally ascribed to him. My conclusion is that Paul plausibly wrote all of the epistles traditionally ascribed to him. This was somewhat tangential to the debate, but it is a point of interesting qualified agreement nevertheless. More interesting still, Price argued that if we strip away all of the miraculous claims made about Christ, we are left with a first-century Jewish Rabbi about whom nothing would have been worth writing in the first place. He says, at one point, that if Clark Kent existed and superman didn’t, there would be no gradual embellishment of stories about Clark Kent because there would be no reason for anyone to remember any stories about Clark Kent in the first place. There either has to have been something about the Jesus of Nazareth of history which made him worth writing (talking, etc.) so much about in the first place, or else the stories about him were mythological from the beginning.

This, I think, is a very interesting point. If historians are intent on whittling down the Jesus of the Gospels to the point where he was an utterly unremarkable first century Jewish rabbi then there is no explanation for why he caused such a stir in the first place. Obviously most historians will respond, here, by conceding that Jesus claimed to be a miracle worker, and performed exorcism ceremonies in a way which presumed an immense and unprecedented amount of authority for himself. It was his innovative preaching along with what W.L. Craig has called the historical Jesus’ “unprecedented sense of divine authority,”10 which sufficiently explain why there were any stories about him in the first place. So, on the one hand, Price has, I think, failed to take inventory of what most New Testament scholars believe we can say with enormous confidence about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. On the other hand, though, Price does well to remind us that if scholars aren’t careful to preserve something remarkable and unique about the historical Jesus, if they reconstruct only a version of Jesus wholly sanitized by the presumption of naturalism, and about whom there was really nothing terribly special, they may be proverbially cutting the tree branch from which they hang.


1 Anyone interested can find the debate, at least currently, at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIxxDfkaXVY

2 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 1, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01281.htm

3 Claudia Setzer, Jewish Responses to Early Christians,Fortress Press, 1994: 215.

4 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 8, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01281.htm

5 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 9, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01281.htm

6 Celsus, On the True Doctrine, translated by R. Joseph Hoffman, Oxford University Press, 1987: 37. See: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/celsus3.html

7 Celsus, On the True Doctrine, translated by R. Joseph Hoffman, Oxford University Press, 1987: 37. See: http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/celsus3.html

8 Origen, Contra Celsus, Book 1, chapter 32. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/04161.htm

9 I have written a little bit on this before, a long time ago. Those interested may see: https://thirdmillennialtemplar.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/celsus-attack-on-the-holy-mother/

10 http://www.reasonablefaith.org/does-god-exist-1

A Passage (not) About Rape

In the last several years I have shifted the focal point of my studies from broadly theological (including, but not limited to, Biblical studies), to specifically philosophical (through the avenue of philosophical theology). However, recently I was treated to a somewhat nostalgic experience: being called upon to act as an apologist for scripture. Although it is somewhat unfortunate that the question caught me unprepared, it did catalyze my interest in looking at the passage more carefully. In the end I found the problem to evaporate entirely upon closer inspection (as I have learnt from experience to expect). However, I also found that this verse is popularly used on the internet in an attempt to undermine the credibility of the claim that the Bible is a product of divine inspiration. So, I thought maybe I’d briefly address this alleged difficulty. This treatment will be a little more anecdotal and exploratory than academic, but whatever – it’s my blog and I’ll do whatever I want.

I was presented with a passage from Deuteronomy by two young women who had interpreted it as a justification for rape and a very peculiar kind of victim blaming. The passage read as follows:

“If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.”
(Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

They had reasoned that because the term ‘violated’ had been used this was a description of a man who had raped a virgin pledged to be married. They inferred, therefore, that the young woman who had been raped would be put to death because she did not scream for help. They then argued that in actual rape cases one is not always able to call out, nor is it always acceptably safe to do so. The passage had scandalized them and they turned to me to see what I might say in its defense. Having felt pressed for time I decided to assure them that although a passage like this may look bad at first blush, I have always found that upon closer inspection one finds that understanding more of the historical, legal and literary context mitigates the scandal we originally feel. With my dinner growing cold as it sat on the table, I asked if I could get back to them after having looked at the passage more carefully for myself – and that’s when one of them accused me of sounding like a Jehovah’s Witness (I happened to know that she had grown up in that community and had a bad experience ending in her departure – in fact, it was in excommunication). Being unable to tolerate the slight, I gave them my full attention, leaving my dinner to get cold. As I tried to balance reading the passage (along with the surrounding context, etc.) with keeping up in conversation with them over the phone as they jumped from one related issue to another, I noticed that they were trying to enunciate a general view of religion in line with that of the new atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins; a view of religion particularly contagious to those who had a negative experience with a rather immature version of religion (usually found in cults like that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses).

Then, after several dozen minutes of discussion which began to trail further and further away from the original topic, I decided to read the passage again with fresh eyes, but this time my eyes seemed drawn to the very next verse:

“If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death—the young woman because she was in a town and did not scream for help, and the man because he violated another man’s wife. You must purge the evil from among you.
But if out in the country a man happens to meet a young woman pledged to be married and rapes her, only the man who has done this shall die.”
(Deuteronomy 22:23-25).

Those words contextualized the passage in a way which I thought, and continue to think, makes it impervious to the objection that it engages in victim-blaming. Even though I was at the disadvantage of no longer having my preferred bible-study software (for my laptop had recently just died), I couldn’t help but notice that in the only clear instance of ‘rape’ here, not only was that term used in contrast to the term ‘violate,’ but the punishment was supposed to be meted out differently. There are, it seems, (at least) two ways to interpret this passage. Either it suggests that a woman who is raped in a city is at fault, while one raped in the country is not – or it suggests that the woman in the city is being put to death for being a willing participant in the crime of adultery (as indicated by the fact that she did not cry out for help in an urban area where she would presumably have been heard). The first reading seems pretty wild, even on the assumption that the text is merely an uninspired primitive catalogue of ancient near-eastern jurisprudence. On the second reading, however, the alleged problem just evaporates, for the woman, far from being a rape victim, is being punished for deciding to cheat. Now, while that doesn’t mollify us completely (and, as I will shortly argue, shouldn’t), it is quite a different thing from suggesting that being raped is a capital offense (or that being raped without crying for help is a capital offense).1 The passage states, instead, that cheating (here understood as adultery) is a capital offense – worthy of capital punishment. I have read (though I cannot strictly confirm) that the Talmud calls the sin of adultery ha’averah meaning something like ‘the paradigmatic sin.’2 Interestingly, however, the way adultery is used in the Torah, it is meant to indicate illicit sex between a woman married, or one pledged to be married, and some man other than her husband (or soon to be husband). It does not apply to sex between an unmarried woman (not pledged to be married) and any man, whether married or not.3

This is for at least two reasons, as far as I can make out; first, because the law was written in a time and place where culture was inexorably (and, importantly, incorrigibly) patriarchal. I have elsewhere written about the nature of law under less than ideal circumstances of justice, but to reiterate the idea briefly; I believe that some laws, even if good, would be unenforceable given the reality of less-than-ideal circumstances. To give a simple modern example, I believe that it should (ideally) be illegal to mistreat animals intended for consumption (where by mistreat I mean abuse, put into horrible conditions, made to live through a hellish existence, et cetera). I also believe that such a law would be literally unenforceable in our current society. We would need moral and cultural progress with respect to our understanding of animal rights for that law to be feasibly enforced. I am suggesting that something similar is true nearly across the board; realistically speaking, whether we like it or not, it seems as though reforming a patriarchal society in the blink of an eye by introducing laws which would, for them, completely reorganize their societal structure and be incomprehensible to them as a culture, is just infeasible. No appeal to omnipotence (omniscience and omnibenevolence) can help one circumambulate this problem unless some good argument is provided to think that God would either prefer, or be indifferent to, a culturally-coercive revelation, rather than a sort of ’embedded revelation’ designed to catalyze progress organically by working to reorient culture from within (note the parallel, here, to the doctrine of justification by infusion, rather than by imputation). I can think of no such argument. Moreover, given the destabilizing effects of changing culture too radically too suddenly (i.e., a sort of cultural whiplash), I just don’t see how it could be incumbent upon God to demand a people, as a culture, to live up to standards which would have been entirely incomprehensible to them (such that they would appear not just mysterious, but utterly baffling). Culture, after all, is largely a product of people’s collective free expression and (in my opinion) all noteworthy theodicies rightly presume that freedom is paramount.

Now, obviously this rationalization (a sort of attempt to harmonize primitive systems of justice with modernist temperaments and moral scruples) applies to civil rights more easily than it could to natural rights. However, if no natural rights are violated in principle by capital punishment (which, I maintain, is not a violation of natural rights in principle), and no natural rights are violated in principle by inequality under the law, rather than inequality of treatment under the same law (and, again, I maintain that no natural rights are violated by some inequality under the law, whether that’s ideal or not), then I think the difficulty here is largely emotional, rather than strictly intellectual.4

I also want to note that if I am right about the realistic constraints of less than ideal circumstances vis-à-vis justice, I would expect the law, were it inspired, to on the one hand navigate its way around violations of intrinsic natural human rights, and on the other hand set a trajectory towards the good society. I would expect to see the establishment of a jurisprudential tradition which would, given its initial conditions, aim naturally towards moral progress. Do we have any reason to think this is the case with Jewish law? Well, perhaps we do. For a start, I think there is good evidence that this Jewish law already set itself apart as morally outstanding in its own era. Consider the following observation from the analytic philosopher of religion Paul Copan:

Middle Assyrian laws punished not a rapist but a rapist’s wife and even allowed her to be gang-raped. In other ancient Near Eastern laws, men could freely whip their wives, pull out their hair, mutilate their ears, or strike them –a dramatic contrast to Israel’s laws, which gave no such permission.5

These laws were clearly steps in the right moral direction. I also cannot quite see how they would violate, strictly and in principle, natural rights. It is interesting to ponder whether these laws, though they appear primitive to us (their beneficiaries who have had several thousand years to build systems of law influenced by them), really do appear to lubricate the gears of progress insofar as they really do catalyze significant legal and moral progress. Notice that David Werner Amram, a reputed legal scholar in his time, argued that progress in the holistic interpretation, understanding and application of the Pentateuch’s law concerning adultery was already observable by the end of the first century (A.D.).

Under the Talmudic law the severity of the Mosaic code was in many instances modified, and the laws relating to Adultery came under the influence of a milder theory of the relation of crime and punishment. Indeed, the rabbis went so far as to declare that a woman could not be convicted of Adultery unless it had been affirmatively shown that she knew the law relating to it—a theory that resulted in the practical impossibility of convicting any adulteress. No harm was done by this new view, because the right of divorce which remained to the husband was sufficient to free him from the woman, who, although guilty of the crime, was not punishable by the law. Upon this mild view followed the entire abolition of the death penalty, in the year 40, before the destruction of the Second Temple (Sanh. 41a), when the Jewish courts, probably under pressure of the Roman authorities, relinquished their right to inflict capital punishment. Thereafter, the adulterer was scourged, and the husband of the adulteress was not allowed to condone her crime (Soṭah, vi. 1), but was compelled to divorce her, and she lost all her property rights under her marriage contract (Maimonides, “Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah, Ishut,” xxiv. 6); nor was the adulteress permitted to marry her paramour (Soṭah, v. 1); and if she married him, they were forced to separate.6

Perhaps the sample-size (of precisely one) and the viability of several alternative hypotheses for this apparent progress (conditioned on the implementation of this Jewish legal framework) makes such an argument appear overly ambitious. However, at least as far as the test-tube of history is concerned, the Pentateuch’s laws ostensibly showed themselves to be indisputably progressive, both for their time and in their orientation.

Second, I think the true tropological richness of the passage is filtered through its anagogical (i.e., eschatological) and allegorical senses. It is pretty clear that throughout their literature the Isrealites constantly return to one particularly popular way of conceptualizing their relationship with God, and this is in the form of a marriage covenant. For example:

For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name;
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called.”
(Isaiah 54:5)

Israel’s sin and rejection of God, then, was often couched in the language of adultery:

“I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak over you, and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine… But you trusted in your beauty, and played the whore because of your fame, and lavished your whorings on any passer-by. You took some of your garments, and made for yourself colorful shrines, and on them played the whore; nothing like this has ever been or ever shall be. You also took your beautiful jewels of my gold and my silver that I had given you, and made for yourself male images, and with them played the whore… Therefore, O whore, hear the word of the Lord… I will judge you as women who commit adultery and shed blood are judged, and bring blood upon you in wrath and jealousy.”
(Ezekiel 16:8,15-17, 35, 38)

The New Testament obviously makes special use of this theme as well, in talking about the Church as the bride of Christ (the bridegroom); indeed, eschatology is ultimately expressed in the Bible using this imagery. So, with this allegorical trope in place, and the anagogical significance of adultery in place, one can see how the punishment for adultery may have been partially motivated by its archetypal significance for Israel within the context of its covenant relationship with God.

As an aside, it seems to me, at the risk of sounding a little cheeky, that the real injustice, if there is one, in the way this law was written seems to be that the man who sleeps with a woman pledged to be married is put to death, even if she seduced him and he had no knowledge that she was pledged to be married. There was obviously a presumption behind the law that men either were already aware of who was (pledged to be) married, or that they had a duty to verify that the person was not married or pledged to be married which it is reasonable to expect them to be able to do. However, just like all systems of law, this one allows for ambiguities, and this is why there are judges (and why jurisprudence develops in an organic way, much like tradition).

As a post-script, I want to acknowledge that there are, of course, other Biblical passages allegedly condoning or enjoining rape. Perhaps the most well known comes from Numbers:

“Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” (Numbers 31:17-18).

This is, I do not hesitate to say, a difficult passage, but it is largely difficult precisely because young women and girls are spared, while boys are all killed. I can understand the reasons for this; one would want to kill all the males because men are stronger than women, and they may grow up to not only resent the Israelites, but to rebel against them. The married women could be killed for the same reason, for even if they are the weaker sex (on average and in kind), their resentment and ability to rebel (by killing children, for instance, or poisoning men) cannot be ignored. Why, though, spare the young women? I think the idea was that they could be assimilated; in particular because they had obviously not participated in the immorality associated with Baal worship (due to their being demonstrably virginal). This is, however, apologetic speculation on my part. I raise the verse only to call attention to the fact that while Biblical passages can be difficult, no passages (no, not even this one) come close to enjoining rape. Although that seems a popular interpretation in the dark corners of the internet, a much more viable interpretation is that the passage recommends keeping every virgin girl alive and considering them eligible to marry the sons of Israel. In fact, I think that is the standard Jewish (and Christian) interpretation of this passage.

1 Although it is, of course, possible to be raped while being physically prevented from crying out, the law was obviously not written with this circumstance in mind. Rather, this just represents a more primitive standard for evidence establishing guilt ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’

2 I cannot confirm that this traces back to the Talmud, since I have been unable to find any such reference in the Talmud, however, that may be due to my own incompetence or unfamiliarity with the Talmud. Where I read this about adultery, originally, was from Rabbi Ronald H. Isaacs, in an online article here: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/adultery/

3 Another interesting note: the law seems to apply even if the man were seduced by a woman pledged to be married and he had no knowledge that he was participating in adultery. Ironically, then, the law seems especially unjust, if it is unjust at all, to men. I would dispute, however, that this is genuinely unjust; it simply makes presumptions about the man involved in the crime (namely, that he did so with knowledge concerning the act’s adulterous nature, and that of this the judges could be sure beyond reasonable doubt).

4 Think here, for example, of the way the modern constitutional-democratic law treats children as ineligible voters, even though arguments could be made for allowing them to vote should they feel so inclined. Indeed, they arguably have a greater vested interest in politics than do senior citizens, but they are treated unequally under the law because we believe that most of them are unable to consent to the extent we reasonably expect voters to be able to consent. Consider, additionally, whether it intrinsically violates human rights to be able to forcefully conscript men into the military (in a time of desperation and war), but not forcefully conscript women into the military (perhaps allowing them to exercise freedom in joining the military under these conditions).

5 Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011. 140.

6 David Werner Amram, “Adultery” in The Jewish Encyclopedia. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/865-adultery

Grave Findings

The recent opening of the alleged tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has attracted worldwide attention as the marble slab overlaying the tomb has been removed exposing it for the first time since 1555 (A.D.). This historic event has served as an occasion for Christians to review or explore the strength of the case for identifying that tomb as the genuine burial place of Jesus. A thought which occurs to me, as I review the evidence for the authenticity of the site, is that the evidence is actually good enough to provide some very moderate but noteworthy evidence for the historicity of Christ.

The historicity of Christ is, of course, not hotly contested among professional historians or academics, but it has gained notable popularity on the Internet among many new-atheists who adopt the ‘mythicist’ view propounded (or defended) by folks like Dr. Robert Price and Dr. Richard Carrier. In fact, as recently as October 26th, Robert Price finally debated Bart Ehrman (Ehrman being one of the preeminent biblical scholars in the world, as well as a staunch agnostic and author of the book “Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth”) on the topic of whether there was a historical Jesus of Nazareth. While I haven’t yet seen the debate (because the group uploading the content to youtube is currently still charging money to view it), initial reviews are a little disheartening. The conspiratorial views of the mythicists are a long way off from getting any serious foothold in mainstream academia, but they are (or, at least, seem to be) gaining more ground in the popular culture.

I do not presently have the time, the space, or even the inclination to take a comprehensive approach to dismantling the mythicist’s case, but I do note that, for what it’s worth, the mythicist hypothesis is regarded by academics as on a par with flat earthism, 9/11 conspiracy theories, and young earth creationism (or, as it really ought to be called, young universe creationism). It is a hack conspiracy theory for which no reasonable case can be made (I would invite the skeptic to explore the case(s) presented by Price and Carrier and contrast that(/them) with Ehrman’s work, as well as the work of figures like N.T. Wright). It will be evident to the reasonable person’s satisfaction that there was clearly a historical figure ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Mythicism is of fleeting relevance, but the opening of the tomb in Jerusalem gives me an excuse to offer a thought about how the evidence for the veridicality of the site heaps even more evidence against the Mythicist.

As to the Tomb itself, the archaeological community considers it likely to be the burial place of Christ. It fits the description of (along with everything else we’ve learned about) a first-century Jewish tomb. The Biblical accounts say that Jesus’ body was laid in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, a well respected and wealthy member of the Sanhedrin (the same council which had been instrumental in condemning Jesus). Some of the Gospels indicate that Joseph of Arimathea had become a disciple of Christ, though only in secret, and the Gospel of John indicates that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (another Jewish follower of Christ who kept his views secret) worked together to give Jesus a proper burial.

“After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.” (John 19:38-40)

The tomb itself is an authentic first-century tomb with a disk-shaped rolling stone at its entrance. Although it is true that there were two kinds of tombs with a stone-slab covering the entrance (one kind with a rolling stone, and another with a roughly rectangular stone covering a doorway), and the disk-shaped stone covering is much rarer (and reserved for the wealthy), the Gospels indicate that the tomb of Jesus was found with its stone ‘rolled’ away (Luke 24:4), indicating that it was the rarer variety of tomb in Jerusalem. Some scholars doubt that the actual tomb of Christ had one of the rare disk-shaped stones covering the entrance; Urban C. von Wahlde, for instance, has written an article titled “Biblical Views: A Rolling Stone That Was Hard to Roll.”[1] Nevertheless, I think a stronger case can be made for the disk-shaped stone, especially in light of the case for the authenticity of the tomb safeguarded by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Apart from this tomb matching the biblical description, the story of its discovery also lends it immense credibility.

The story of the tomb’s discovery is ancient history, but it is extremely interesting. William Lane Craig, speaking casually (and excitedly) on his podcast recently recounts the following:

“Scholars believe that the The Church of the holy Sepulchre has a very credible claim to be on the site of the actual tomb of Jesus, and this is based on a couple of very interesting facts about its discovery. In the year 326 (this is just one year following the council of Nicea that was convened by the emperor Constantine and then promulgated the famous Nicene creed – the following year) Constantine’s mother, Helena, went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, for the purpose of finding relics from the time of Christ and when Constantine’s mother came to Jerusalem she asked the residents of Jerusalem where the tomb of Jesus had been… The people in Jerusalem at that time pointed her to this site where a pagan temple now stood and they said the tomb of Jesus was on this site and this pagan temple was built over it. Well, Helena ordered the temple to be razed and the earth to be excavated [to] get rid of this pollution of paganism. Now, what was interesting about the site identified by the residents of Jerusalem at this time is that the site lay within the walls of Jerusalem. If you look at where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is, it’s inside the city walls, but the Gospels state that Jesus was crucified and buried outside the walls of the city; they would never allow a crucifixion site and burial of unclean corpses to be going on inside the Holy City, it had to be outside the walls, and so it was odd that the residents of Jerusalem would point Helena to a site inside the city walls. Well, as it turned out many centuries later archaeologists excavating the city discovered that the original walls of Jerusalem were more narrowly constrained in that the site that the residents of Jerusalem pointed Helena to actually lay outside the original walls of Jerusalem. They had been later expanded. … The second thing that’s interesting… is that when they began to excavate the site and remove the earth they dug down and… lo and behold they excavated a tomb exactly where the residents of Jerusalem said that it would be. Now what’s interesting is that this Pagan temple stood on that site since it was built by the emperor Hadrian in A.D. 110. Now, since Jesus was crucified around A.D. 30, that means that the memory of this temple being on the site of Jesus’ tomb goes back to within just 80 years of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, well within the time that historical memory might be preserved. And so there’s a very very good chance that this is the very tomb in which Joseph of Arimathea lay the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth.”[2]

The fact that the site originally identified was identified within the walls of Jerusalem (to the best of everyone’s knowledge), and that it came to light only centuries later through archaeological discovery that it was actually outside the original walls of Jerusalem, gives this site immense plausibility. Being originally inside the walls lowered the conditional probability of its being authentic (though the fact that there was a tomb there fitting the description of the biblical tomb and that it was identified by the residents of Jerusalem as the spot, raised the conditional probability of it being the authentic tomb). However, once it was discovered that this tomb was, in fact, outside of the walls of Jerusalem in place at the time of Jesus’ burial, that greatly raises the conditional probability of its being authentic. It is not merely that the tomb resides outside the original walls which is relevant for the conditional probability assessment here, it is that it was identified first as the tomb and was later discovered that it lay outside of the original walls of Jerusalem. That discovery raises the conditional probability tremendously. To formalize this a little bit:

Pr(A|B&W) < Pr(A|B&~W)

Pr(A|B&D&~W) >> Pr(A|B&~W)

Where A means the tomb is authentic, B stands for our background knowledge, W stands for ‘the site of the tomb is located within the city walls’ and D stands for ‘discovering after the fact that ~W.’ In the words of the archaeologist Dan Bahat, “we may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus’ burial, but… we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site.”[3] In fact, the discovery after the fact (in conjunction with the other properties which fit the description of the tomb from early sources) raises the probability of this being the authentic tomb highly enough that we can say it provides evidence that there was an authentic tomb. This entails that there was a place where the historical Jesus of Nazareth was buried, and so a historical figure, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’

Pr(J|B&D*) > Pr(~J|B&D*)

Where J stands for ‘Jesus of Nazareth existed,’ B stands, once again, for our background knowledge and Dstands for ‘the case for the authenticity of the tomb in light of the discovery that it lies outside of the original city walls.’

This case isn’t compelling. It’s just something to think about… Also worth thinking about, depending upon how strong you think the case for the Shroud of Turin is, is the following report from the U.K. branch of EWTN.[4] I leave that here, without endorsing any of it, for those of you who may be interested in a pretty far-fetched but provocative suggestion.


[1] http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=41&Issue=2&ArticleID=10

[2] http://www.reasonablefaith.org/opening-the-tomb-of-jesus

[3] http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/jesus-christ-tomb-burial-church-holy-sepulchre/

[4] https://www.ewtn.co.uk/news/latest/astonishing-discovery-at-christ-s-tomb-supports-turin-shroud

Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust

The Catholic Church certainly doesn’t have an immaculate history; from the Spanish inquisition to the atrocities committed during the crusades, history has borne witness to myriad spectacles of moral failure on the part of Catholics. This point, I take it, is beyond reasonable contest. However, having acknowledged that, I have to say that I have grown aggravated by the mindless tendency to sensationalize and exaggerate these failures, as well as to fabricate some of them wholesale. Enough is enough, and the nonsense has to be called out. Nowhere is this trend more irritating to me than in the case of the wild accusation that Pope Pius XII (one of my favorite popes of all time) was a Nazi sympathizer. So, I will break with my usual habit of blogging about strictly philosophical and/or theological issues and write a little bit in defense of venerable Pope Pius XII.

The late Christopher Hitchens, one of the famed ‘four horsemen’ of the new atheism, wrote:

“None of the Protestant churches, however, went as far as the Catholic hierarchy in ordering an annual celebration for Hitler’s birthday on April 20. On this auspicious date, on papal instructions, the cardinal of Berlin regularly transmitted “warmest congratulations to the führer in the name of the bishops and dioceses in Germany,” these plaudits to be accompanied by “the fervent prayers which the Catholics of Germany are sending to heaven on their altars.” The order was obeyed, and faithfully carried out.

To be fair, this disgraceful tradition was not inaugurated until 1939, in which year there was a change of papacy. And to be fair again, Pope Pius XI had always harbored the most profound misgivings about the Hitler system and its evident capacity for radical evil. (During Hitler’s first visit to Rome, for example, the Holy Father rather ostentatiously took himself out of town to the papal retreat at Castelgandolfo.) However, this ailing and weak pope was continually outpointed, throughout the 1930s, by his secretary of state, Eugenio Pacelli. We have good reason to think that at least one papal encyclical, expressing at least a modicum of concern about the maltreatment of Europe’s Jews, was readied by His Holiness but suppressed by Pacelli, who had another strategy in mind. We now know Pacelli as Pope Pius XII, who succeeded to the office after the death of his former superior in February 1939. Four days after his election by the College of Cardinals, His Holiness composed the following letter to Berlin:

To the Illustrious Herr Adolf Hitler, Fuhrer and Chancellor of the German Reich! Here at the beginning of Our Pontificate We wish to assure you that We remain devoted to the spiritual welfare of the German people entrusted to your leadership. […] During the many years We spent in Germany, we did all in Our power to establish harmonious relations between Church and State. Now that the responsibilities of Our pastoral function have increased Our opportunities, how much more ardently do We pray to reach that goal. May the prosperity of the German people and their progress in every domain come, with God’s help, to fruition!

Within six years of this evil and fatuous message, the once prosperous and civilized people of Germany could gaze around themselves and see hardly one brick piled upon another, as the godless Red Army swept toward Berlin. But I mention this conjuncture for another reason. Believers are supposed to hold that the pope is the vicar of Christ on earth, and the keeper of the keys of Saint Peter. They are of course free to believe this, and to believe that god decides when to end the tenure of one pope or (more important) to inaugurate the tenure of another. This would involve believing in the death of an anti-Nazi pope, and the accession of a pro-Nazi one, as a matter of divine will, a few months before Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the opening of the Second World War.”[1]

This is as naïve an analysis of Catholic theology, as well as of history, as it is possible to find.

Specialists on this issue, such as Ronald J. Rychlak,[2] had challenged Hitchens to debate the issue publicly, but Hitchens never accepted (for whatever reason), and lest one imagine that Rychlak, being Catholic, is unfairly biased, I can direct the reader just as easily to X-Catholic atheists, such as Mark Riebling (who, it just so happens, has done an interview on the topic with another one of the horsemen of the new atheism, Sam Harris).[3] It is worth noting, for a start, that Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli (better known as Pope Pius XII) ascended to the papacy as a successor to Pius XI, whose legacy of opposition to the Nazi’s is as clear as is his encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (1937), in which he denounced and condemned them unequivocally. One source reads:

“When Pius XI died in 1939, the Nazis abhorred the prospect that Pacelli might be elected his successor.
Dr. Joseph Lichten, a Polish Jew who served as a diplomat and later an official of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, writes: “Pacelli had obviously established his position clearly, for the Fascist governments of both Italy and Germany spoke out vigorously against the possibility of his election to succeed Pius XI in March of 1939, though the cardinal secretary of state had served as papal nuncio in Germany from 1917 to 1929. . . . The day after his election, the Berlin Morgenpost said: ‘The election of cardinal Pacelli is not accepted with favor in Germany because he was always opposed to Nazism and practically determined the policies of the Vatican under his predecessor.’ “[4]
Former Israeli diplomat and now Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Pinchas Lapide states that Pius XI “had good reason to make Pacelli the architect of his anti-Nazi policy. Of the forty-four speeches which the Nuncio Pacelli had made on German soil between 1917 and 1929, at least forty contained attacks on Nazism or condemnations of Hitler’s doctrines. . . . Pacelli, who never met the Führer, called it ‘neo-Paganism.’ “[5]””[4]

For example, in April of 1935 Pacelli delivered a speech at Lourdes, France, stating before an audience of no less than 250,000 pilgrims that “[Nazi’s] are in reality only miserable plagiarists who dress up old errors with new tinsel. It does not make any difference whether they flock to the banners of social revolution, whether they are guided by a false concept of the world and of life, or whether they are possessed by the superstition of a race and blood cult.”””[5] When he finally ascended to the papacy, Pius XII confirmed every worry the German elites had about him when he continued to write scathing speeches against Nazism. Not only did he remain vigilant, but he alerted the world to the philosophical horrors of Nazism long before the discovery of the death camps, particularly in one Christmas address so clear it became a cry heard around the world.

“”The New York Times at the time observed of Pius XII’s Christmas address, “This Christmas more than ever he is a lonely voice crying out in the silence of a continent.” Pius XII’s message was carefully analyzed by Reinhard Heydrich’s branch of the SS, which saw the pope’s message as an attack on the Nazi regime and its anti-Semitism. Calling the Christmas address “a masterpiece of clerical falsification,” the SS reported that the “Pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order” and noted his assertion that “all peoples and races are worthy of the same consideration.” “Here,” they argued, “he is clearly speaking of the Jews.”””[6]

How are we to believe that this man was Hitler’s Pope? This is the same man who helped write the first draft of Mit brennender Sorge,[7] who orchestrated the secret rescue of as many as 800,000 Jews,[8] who was consulted in the (unsuccessful) plot to oust Hitler from power,[9] who sanctioned the plot to assassinate Hitler,[10] and the same man whom Hitler allegedly[11] plotted to forcefully enter the Vatican and detain.[12] This was the man upon whose death in 1958 Israel’s Foreign Minister at the time, Golda Meir, issued the following statement by way of condolence communicated to the Vatican:

“When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims. The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out on the great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace.””[13]

In 1955 the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, in an act permeated with symbolism, gave a special performance at the Vatican in honour of the Pope. No less eminent a scholar than Rabbi David G. Dalin observes:

“on May 26, 1955, the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra flew to Rome to give a special performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, at the Vatican’s Consistory Hall, to express the State of Israel’s enduring gratitude for the help that the Pope and the Catholic Church had given to the Jewish people persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust. That the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra so joined the rest of the Jewish world in warmly honoring the achievements and legacy of Pope Pius XII is of more than passing significance. As a matter of state policy, the Israeli Philharmonic has never played the music of the nineteenth century composer Richard Wagner because of Wagner’s well-known reputation as an anti-Semite and as Hitler’s “favorite composer,” and as one of the cultural patron saints of the Third Reich, whose music was played at Nazi party functions and ceremonies. Despite requests from music lovers and specialists, the official state ban on the Israeli Philharmonic’s playing Wagner’s music has never been lifted.”[14]

This is the man whose example of Christian charity, virtue and faith was so great that, in the absence of intellectual argument (of which, I note in passing, he was eminently capable), he managed, by example alone, to convert the chief Rabbi of Rome (who also happened to be a doctor of philosophy) Israel Zolli, who, upon conversion to and reception into the Catholic Church in February of 1945, took as his baptismal name ‘Eugenio Maria Zolli,’ in clear homage to the pope.[15] Pius XII actually agreed to Zolli’s request to become his godfather. This conversion, it is worth underscoring, was sincere, as Zolli stresses in his book originally titled “Before the Dawn” and later released under the title “Why I Became a Catholic.”[16] It came about as an indirect result of Zolli observing the actions of Pius XII throughout the second world war, which included housing Zolli in the Vatican, as well as making the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo a refuge for a significant number of Jews, even allowing his own bed to be used at least 17 times for Jewish mothers to give birth within the safety of the Apostolic Palace.[17]

To claim in the face of such evidence that Pope Pius XII was, in any way, sympathetic to Hitler or Nazism is flatly incredible. Whence, then, this impression of him as Hitler’s Pope? The answer may surprise you. It comes primarily from a piece of propaganda in the form of a play popularized in Germany, written by Rolf Hochhuth in 1963, titled Der Stellvertreter (which is usually translated as “The Deputy” but may be better translated as “The Vicar”).[18] This eight-hour long piece of… egregious historical revisionism was used by the Soviet Union to promote communism in Germany. It was, however, only after this play was performed on Broadway that the caricature of Pope Pius XII as Hitler’s Pope gained notoriety in the West.[19] It catalyzed a slew of literature in the English-speaking world, among the most influential fruits of which we find John Cornwell’s book “Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII,” published in 1999.[20] Since then it has shoved its way into the collective subconscious of misinformed westerners everywhere. Misinformation, it seems, travels faster than the speed of thought.

To be fair, while the play is undoubtedly the primary source for the popular perception, the impression is at least partly promoted by some criticisms of Pius XII suggesting that he could have done more. The Encyclopedia Britannica has an entry an excerpt of which reads as follows:

“Pius XII… played a much more controversial role during the war, [and] has been criticized for failing to speak out more forcefully against the genocidal policies of the Nazis. His strongest statement against genocide was regarded as inadequate by the Allies, though in Germany he was regarded as an Allied sympathizer who had violated his own policy of neutrality. Pius also approved efforts to help the Jews and ordered that the Jews of Rome be given refuge in the city’s religious houses. After the war, the Vatican was involved in extensive humanitarian efforts. Pius, however, was criticized for not having done more. A cautious and experienced diplomat who feared that bold actions would cause more harm than good, he was not a prophet at a time when the world may have needed one.”[21]

This criticism is slightly uncharitable, and it fails to appreciate some of the complexities inherent in negotiating the political and religious terrain with which Pius XII was presented. It is true that Pius XII urged the allied forces to seek alternative solutions to war (see Summi Pontificatus). It is also true that Eugenio Pacelli, acting as the Vatican’s secretary of state, negotiated and agreed to the Reichskonkordat in 1933, a concordat between the Holy See and the German Reich.[22] It is fair to say that Pius XII also attenuated his tone during the second world war, particularly when he saw the Nazi’s target for imprisonment and death Catholic laity, nuns, and clergy by the hundreds in response to his own rhetoric. Hitler’s Nazi Germany showed itself to be incorrigible in the face of criticism, and Pius XII readjusted himself accordingly, focusing his energy on the ‘underground network’ he used to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

If this criticism, with all the advantage of hindsight and the luxury of idealism, is all there is to say against Pope Pius XII, then even if we conceded it without qualification it would go no considerable distance toward justifying the moniker ‘Hitler’s Pope.’ Once we clear away the debris of misinformation and bring into focus all the evidences which bear on his actions, his attitude and his general character, we can see with stunning clarity just how astounding, even scandalizing, it is to refer to this Pope as a Nazi sympathizer. Almost literally, nothing could be further from the truth. As far as asking people in the Church to pray for Hitler, that is not only standard (the Bible in 1 Timothy 2:1-4 commands Christians to pray for their political leaders, however awful they may be – and all the more the more awful they are), but to do the contrary would have been to send a very strong condescending message from the Vatican to Nazi Germany, and the Vatican had to be meticulously diplomatic in its actions (and inactions) to prevent or mitigate the complete political turmoil in Germany. As I indicated above (and others have made the point more competently than I have), the Pope could only vocally oppose Hitler to an extent before it would lead to more casualties, and Pius XII took it as his priority to save lives rather than to save face.

Allow me now, briefly, to anticipate one possible objection to this conclusion on which I insist. Perhaps it occurs to the reader that I, being a Catholic, have a vested interest in defending the Pope, in shielding the Pope from criticism, and as such I turn out to be (even if through no fault of my own) as unreliable as any inordinately biased source. Two responses come to mind. In the first place, if you think that I am guilty of misrepresenting the historical portrait, then I sincerely invite you to peruse and explore the literature on this topic and see for yourself what you make of the matter. Second, perhaps it is worth clarifying that Catholics believe in papal infallibility, but not in papal impeccability. We believe that Popes are guarded by the Holy Spirit against teaching error through the exercise of their papal authority. We do not hesitate to believe that many popes have been astonishingly and spectacularly sinful. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that Pius XII was actually horrendously evil, that he was Hitler’s pope, that he had horns growing out of his head, et cetera. What consequences would follow from this for the credibility of the Catholic worldview? Precisely none. Nothing of relevance follows about the truth or falsity of the Catholic worldview as a whole, or about any doctrine in particular. Infallibility does not entail impeccability, and Catholics regard the Pope as infallible only when, under very specific conditions, he invokes his papal authority. Nowhere does Pius XII teach anything (positive) about Hitler’s ideals, or his national socialism, so there is simply nothing here for me to defend out of any misguided sense of Catholic propriety.

The reason I defend this Pope is that I have grown to have a warm affection for both his character and his intellect. Of the veritable library of encyclicals he managed to produce during his pontificate, Humani Generis, Mystici corporis Christi, Orientales omnes Ecclesias, Sempiternus Rex Christus, Musicae sacrae, Ad Apostolorum principis, and Divino afflante Spiritu stand out as being among the most beautiful and (for me) intellectually formative encyclicals I have ever read. Pope Pius XII was a towering intellect with a solid commitment to the exploration of the beauty, truth and goodness of his faith. He also happened to have the moral fortitude and heroism of a saint. This is the reason I rush to his defense.

[1] Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Atlantic Books, 2008.

[2] See some of his extended interviews here: http://www.catholic.com/profiles/ron-rychlak

[3] https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/rethinking-hitlers-pope

[4] http://www.catholic.com/documents/how-pius-xii-protected-jews

[5] http://www.catholic.com/documents/how-pius-xii-protected-jews

[6] http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/not-hitlers-pope/

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Pius_XII_and_the_Holocaust

[8] http://www.catholicleague.org/the-real-story-of-pius-xii-and-the-jews/

[9] Peter Hoffmann, History of the German Resistance, 1933-1945. (McGill-Queen’s University Press: 1996) 161, 294.

[10] http://www.catholic.com/audio-player/40725

[11] This is hotly disputed, and may be propaganda from British and allied forces.

[12] Owen Chadwick, Britain and the Vatican During the Second World War, Cambridge University Press: 1988. And Dan Kurzman, “Hitler’s Plan to Kidnap the Pope,” June 26, 2007, accessed November 25, 2016. http://www.catholicleague.org/hitlers-plan-to-kidnap-the-pope/. Additionally, note the oddity of the British using this as pro-allied forces propaganda if Pius XII really was in league with Hitler. Thus, even if this was originally propaganda, it is propaganda which provides evidence that Pius was not a Nazi sympathizer.

[13] Rabbi David G. Dalin, “A Righteous Gentile: Pope Pius XII and the Jews,” http://www.catholiceducation.org/en/controversy/common-misconceptions/a-righteous-gentile-pope-pius-xii-and-the-jews.html

[14] Rabbi David G. Dalin, “A Righteous Gentile: Pope Pius XII and the Jews,” http://www.catholiceducation.org/…/a-righteous-gentile…

[15] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel_Zolli

[16] https://www.amazon.ca/Why-Became-Catholic-Eugenio-Zolli/dp/0912141468/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1480144352&sr=8-3&keywords=Why+I+became+a+Catholic

[17] http://www.catholic.com/audio-player/40725 (29 minutes in).

[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Deputy

[19] http://www.catholic.com/audio-player/40725

[20] Cornwell, John. Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. Penguin, 2000.

[21] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Roman-Catholicism/The-age-of-Reformation-and-Counter-Reformation#toc43758

[22] Which can be found here, but only in Italian and German: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/secretariat_state/index_concordati-accordi_en.htm

Marriage and the Code of Canon Law: a quandary about Christian disparity of cult

This post is going to be a bit of a mess, mostly because I’m an amateur clumsily stumbling my way through the code of canon law (and I only have access to the 1983 code of canon law, available here, which has been updated in various and important ways since its first edition). There is one part of canon law which, ever since I first discovered it when exploring the Catholic faith, has made me extremely uncomfortable. I’ve been struggling with it practically since having become a Catholic. It concerns the correct understanding of the (in)validity of certain marriages under the code of canon law of the Catholic Church, and how that should inform the moral attitudes of Catholics with regards to those relationships. What the code of canon law suggests, which I will explain, seems prima facie morally implausible, and has the potential to put faithful Catholics in tremendously emotionally difficult situations. What it implies, in short, is that marriages between baptized Catholics and baptized evangelicals for which no dispensation from the Catholic Church is obtained are, in fact, invalid. I will briefly explain and explore this problem below.

To get some basic principles on the table, let’s begin by noting that there is a difference between the practice or discipline of the Catholic Church, and the faith of the Catholic Church. For instance, having a celibate priesthood is a matter of discipline, and if it changed tomorrow not one iota of the theology of the Catholic Church would have changed. There have also been, at various times and in various ways, poorly thought out rules governing these kinds of disciplines and practices. However, it is contrary to faith to think that the disciplines of the Church are in no way connected to her faith. We must regard canon law, even when imperfect, as an indication of what the Church teaches and believes.[1]

Some basic distinctions to keep in mind, when thinking about what the Catholic Church believes about marriage, include the following: according to Catholicism, marriages can be valid or invalid, and they can be sacramental or non-sacramental. To be a valid marriage, whether secular or religious (whether Catholic or not), the marriage has to have certain properties. For example, if somebody gets married on false pretense then the marriage is not valid, so a marriage must be based on authentic consent (which cannot be given on false pretense). To illustrate this point, imagine if a woman loved her fiancé, but the man who showed up on the day they were set to be married was an imposter – it was actually her fiancé’s evil identical twin brother. If she made vows based on the understanding that the man before her was her fiancé, is she married to the fiancé, his twin brother, or neither? The Catholic Church teaches that a marriage failed to take place in such a situation because of a defect in the consent given, so that she remains, in reality, unmarried. The same can be said if her fiancé turned out to be a woman who was pretending to be a male, or if her fiancé was secretly a CIA operative only ‘marrying’ her for professional reasons, and so on. The marriage would also be invalid if the would-be husband is impotent, for marriage is impossible where the marital act is impossible. Although Canon 1107 specifies that: “Can.  1107 Even if a marriage was entered into invalidly by reason of an impediment or a defect of form, the consent given is presumed to persist until its revocation is established[,]”[2] presumption is not to be confused with validity.

The point is that for marriage to take place at all it has to involve legitimate vows. So, canon law states:

“Can.  1095 The following are incapable of contracting marriage:
1/ those who lack the sufficient use of reason;
2/ those who suffer from a grave defect of discretion of judgment concerning the essential matrimonial rights and duties mutually to behanded over and accepted;
3/ those who are not able to assume the essential obligations of marriage for causes of a psychic nature.
Can.  1096 §1. For matrimonial consent to exist, the contracting parties must be at least not ignorant that marriage is a permanent partnership between a man and a woman ordered to the procreation of offspring by means of some sexual cooperation.
§2. This ignorance is not presumed after puberty.”[3]


“Can.  1083 §1. A man before he has completed his sixteenth year of age and a woman before she has completed her fourteenth year of age cannot enter into a valid marriage.”[4]

Moreover, a marriage is considered sacramental by the Catholic Church if and only (i) it is a valid marriage, and (ii) both persons involved have received the sacrament of baptism (whether in the Catholic church or not). Therefore, from a Catholic perspective, all baptized protestants who marry each other are sacramentally married.

Now, sacramental marriage is special in several ways, and most notably in this respect: that it is indissoluble, for the Bible says “therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:9). That means that divorce is, for Christian marriages, a legal fiction, and an impossibility in the eyes of God (according to the Catholic faith). The vows of marriage (including ‘until death do us part’ and ‘for better or for worse’) are taken to be absolutely binding. The vows allow for no exceptions, and if people give those vows validly they are bound to them indissolubly.

Non-Christian marriages are a different story. Although Canon 1141 says “A marriage that is ratum et consummatum can be dissolved by no human power and by no cause, except death,”[5] the Church (having no mere human power) reserves the right to exercise the dissolution of marriage in two cases:

“Can.  1142 For a just cause, the Roman Pontiff can dissolve a non-consummated marriage between baptized persons or between a baptized party and a non-baptized party at the request of both parties or of one of them, even if the other party is unwilling.
Can.  1143 §1. A marriage entered into by two non-baptized persons is dissolved by means of the pauline privilege in favor of the faith of the party who has received baptism by the very fact that a new marriage is contracted by the same party, provided that the non-baptized party departs.”[6]

Canon 1143 shows that valid marriages which are not sacramental (say, a marriage between two Hindus or two atheists) can be dissolved, and aren’t considered indissoluble by their very nature. Canon 1142 technically seems to imply either that sacramentally married persons can get a divorce if they haven’t yet consummated the marriage, or else that the matter and form of the sacrament of marriage haven’t been satisfied without consummation. Obviously most Catholics would presume the latter, but the issue of whether consummation constitutes part of the matter or form of marriage has never been explicitly settled in Catholic doctrine. The Catholic Encyclopedia has an interesting paragraph on this:

“To complete our inquiry concerning the essence of the Sacrament of Marriage, its matter and form, and its minister, we have still to mention a theory that was defended by a few jurists of the Middle Ages and has been revived by Dr. Jos. Freisen (“Geschichte des canonischen Eherechts”, Tübingen, 1888). According to this marriage in the strict sense, and therefore marriage as a sacrament, is not accomplished until consummation of the marriage is added to the consent. It is the consummation, therefore, that constitutes the matter or the form. But as Freisen retracted this opinion which could not be harmonized with the Church’s definitions, it is no longer of actual interest. This view was derived from the fact that marriage, according to Christ’s command, is absolutely indissoluble. On the other hand, it is undeniably the teaching and practice of the Church that, in spite of mutual consent, marriage can be dissolved by religious profession or by the declaration of the pope; hence the conclusion seemed to be that there was no real marriage previous to the consummation, since admittedly neither religious profession nor papal declaration can afterwards effect a dissolution. The error lies in taking indissolubility in a sense that the Church has never held. In one case, it is true, according to earlier ecclesiastical law, the previous relation of mere espousal between man and woman became a lawful marriage (and therefore the Sacrament of Marriage), namely when a valid betrothal was followed by consummation. It was a legal presumption that in this case the betrothed parties wished to lessen the sinfulness of their action as much as possible, and therefore performed it with the intention of marriage and not of fornication. The efficient cause of the marriage contract, as well as of the sacrament, was even in this case the mutual intention of marriage, although expression was not given to it in the regular way. This legal presumption ceased on 5 Feb., 1892, by Decree of Leo XIII, as it had grown obsolete among the faithful and was no longer adapted to actual conditions.”[7]

The matter remains unsettled.

A common misunderstanding worth addressing, in passing, concerns the Church’s practice of giving annulments. The Catholic Church can ‘annul’ marriages by giving an annulment, but this is not to be confused with divorce, for an annulment simply removes the Church’s presumption of validity after an investigation has established, to the satisfaction of the bishop(s), that some impediment to marriage existed in the first place which prevented the marriage from ever having taken place in reality. Annulments are merely recognitions that so-called marriages were never valid in the first place. Often those seeking annulments cannot get them because there is no good reason to think that the marriage they want annulled was invalid.

Having laid out the basic principles, let me proceed to lay out the basic problem.

“Can.  1059 Even if only one party is Catholic, the marriage of Catholics is governed not only by divine law but also by canon law, without prejudice to the competence of civil authority concerning the merely civil effects of the same marriage.”[8]

This canon implies that Catholics, whether they are practising their faith or not, are, as a matter of fact, governed by canon law. A Catholic can marry a non-Catholic (whether Christian or not) so long as they get a dispensation to do so from the Church.

A necessary condition for a marriage to be sacramental is for it to be valid. Anybody who was baptized in the Catholic church and hasn’t formally defected from the Church by a formal act cannot be validly married to a non-Catholic without a dispensation from the Church (this is generally referred to as a dispensation for a disparity of cult (can. 1129)). In the absence of that dispensation, however, the marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic baptized Christian is not sacramental because it is not valid.

“Can.  1124 Without express permission of the competent authority, a marriage is prohibited between two baptized persons of whom one is baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it after baptism and has not defected from it by a formal act and the other of whom is enrolled in a Church or ecclesial community not in full communion with the Catholic Church.”[9]


“Can.  1117 The form established above must be observed if at least one of the parties contracting marriage was baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it and has not defected from it by a formal act, without prejudice to the prescripts of ⇒ can. 1127, §2.”[10]

And again:

“Can.  1086 §1. A marriage between two persons, one of whom has been baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it and has not defected from it by a formal act and the other of whom is not baptized, is invalid.
§2. A person is not to be dispensed from this impediment unless the conditions mentioned in cann. 1125 and 1126 have been fulfilled.”[11]

Those exceptions are:

“1/ the Catholic party is to declare that he or she is prepared to remove dangers of defecting from the faith and is to make a sincere promise to do all in his or her power so that all offspring are baptized and brought up in the Catholic Church;
2/ the other party is to be informed at an appropriate time about the promises which the Catholic party is to make, in such a way that it is certain that he or she is truly aware of the promise and obligation of the Catholic party;
3/ both parties are to be instructed about the purposes and essential properties of marriage which neither of the contracting parties is to exclude.
Can.  1126 It is for the conference of bishops to establish the method in which these declarations and promises, which are always required, must be made and to define the manner in which they are to be established in the external forum and the non-Catholic party informed about them.”[12]

This presents us with our first difficulty to be considered. Suppose, assuming everything canon law says, that a Catholic who isn’t practising their (Catholic) faith, but hasn’t formally defected from the faith, gets married to a baptized evangelical who is practising his/her evangelical faith. In such a case the marriage between that Catholic and their evangelical spouse is not valid. Indeed, since canon law implies that Catholics are all governed by canon law (in the eyes of God), such a couple would (presumably) be living in sin because sexual union would not, for them, be a consummation of marriage at all. Even if the non-practising Catholic had become a ‘born again’ evangelical, and intended to get married in order follow God’s will for their lives, they would be objectively living in grave sin insofar as they were living the married life. Strangely, this means that the non-Christian couple who couldn’t care less about their relationship in the eyes of God have a genuine marriage relationship in God’s eyes, but that the Catholic-evangelical couple who care immensely about God’s will are sinning merely by living ‘the married life.’ Surely, though, that seems strange and morally counter-intuitive.

In order to explain why this is so, a lot of work would have to be done (and digital ink spilt) to explain how, according to the Catholic faith, the (Catholic) Church herself is related to all Christians (as mater et magistraet imperium), and to explain what Christ’s fulfillment of the law implies about the Christian view of marriage. I have not the time or the energy to accomplish this task to my satisfaction here, but I will content myself with a few passing remarks. First, Christians take themselves to not be bound to the letter of the Old Testament laws, including the ten commandments, because they are obligated to fulfill that to which the laws directed man in the first place. Thus, when the Torah sets down laws engineered to avoid religious syncretism, Christians are to fulfill the law by avoiding syncretism with the evil in the world. When the Torah sets down laws which direct man to a certain view of marriage (as between one man and one woman, exclusively committed to each other with an inviolable love which reflects the love of Christ, which is tirelessly forgiving), Christians are obligated to fulfill the essence of that law. Moreover, Christians live in a covenant with God through the Church, and the Catholic Church does, in fact, have the right to govern her children. She does so by other means as well, such as when granting indulgences. Therefore, for one who truly absorbs the Catholic vision of what this thing we call ‘the Church’ is, it becomes obvious that the canon law of the Church is binding upon all of the Church’s members (though the canon laws only regulate the lives of those considered to be ‘in communion’ with the Bishop of Rome). That ineloquent digression will have to suffice for now.

Coming back to the matter at hand, it seems like the appropriate reaction for the Catholic to have to the situation where a non-practising Catholic is living together with his/her evangelical spouse as though married is to assume that they are entirely innocent of any mortal sin. After all, the non-practising Catholic may have such a superficial understanding of Catholicism (and canon law) that their conscience is entirely clear because they are altogether unaware of their moral obligation to obtain a dispensation from the Church. Although sex outside of marriage may be gravely immoral, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

“1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: ” Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”…

1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.”[13]


“1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. the promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.”[14]

Therefore, neither party commits any mortal sin. Indeed, if both parties are invincibly ignorant then it may be that they do not even commit venial sin, for if “the ignorance is invincible, or the moral subject is not responsible for his erroneous judgment, the evil committed by the person cannot be imputed to him.”[15] This helps mollify me significantly, but it by no means entirely dissolves the awkward tension.

To make matters worse, it is not possible to excuse non-practising Catholics by arguing that their failure to attend confession at least once a year (Canon 989), or receive Eucharist at least once a year (Canon 920 §1), or any other similar failure by omission, constitutes leaving the Church by a formal act. It would have been emotionally convenient if we could have argued that non-practising Catholics who get married outside the Church without dispensation inevitably and invariably satisfy the condition of having defected from the Church by a formal act (in some way), but this cannot be done. First, the criteria for such a formal act has never been clearly defined by the Church (so canon law provides no clear direction on the matter). Second (and more pertinently for us today), canon law has been abrogated since 1983 (which is the code of canon law I’ve been quoting from so far). There was a motu proprio issued by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI in 2009 titled Omnium in Mentem in which the 1983 code of canon law underwent explicit revision on this very point:

“Since the sacraments are the same for the entire Church, the supreme authority of the Church alone is competent to approve or define what is required for their validity and to determine the rites to be observed in their celebration (cf. can. 841). All this is equally applicable to the form to be observed in the celebration of marriage, if at least one of the parties has been baptized in the Catholic Church (cf. cann. 11 and 1108)…

Experience, however, has shown that this new law gave rise to numerous pastoral problems. First, in individual cases the definition and practical configuration of such a formal act of separation from the Church has proved difficult to establish, from both a theological and a canonical standpoint. In addition, many difficulties have surfaced both in pastoral activity and the practice of tribunals. Indeed, the new law appeared, at least indirectly, to facilitate and even in some way to encourage apostasy in places where the Catholic faithful are not numerous or where unjust marriage laws discriminate between citizens on the basis of religion. The new law also made difficult the return of baptized persons who greatly desired to contract a new canonical marriage following the failure of a preceding marriage. Finally, among other things, many of these marriages in effect became, as far as the Church is concerned, “clandestine” marriages.

In light of the above, and after carefully considering the views of the Fathers of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, as well as those of the Bishops’ Conferences consulted with regard to the pastoral advantage of retaining or abrogating this exception from the general norm of can. 11, it appeared necessary to eliminate this norm which had been introduced into the corpus of canon law now in force.”[16]

It continues:

“Therefore I decree that in the same Code the following words are to be eliminated: “and has not left it by a formal act” (can. 1117); “and has not left it by means of a formal act” (can. 1086 § 1); “and has not left it by a formal act” (can. 1124).”[17]

As the Catholic Apologist Jimmy Akin notes: “The Holy See… seems to have come to the conclusion that the formal defection law was not working as desired, and so it has now gotten rid of the whole thing.”[18] Thus, prior to 2009 any baptized Catholic who formally defected from the Church (whatever that involved) was not obliged to seek a dispensation to get married outside the Church. However, as canon law currently stands, there are no exceptions: all Catholics must seek a dispensation to get married outside the Church.

This leaves us with a problem which can be difficult to navigate through emotionally. What obligations do practising Catholics have to the people they know and love who intend to marry but who, perhaps through no fault of their own, are invincibly ignorant of the moral imperative to obtain a dispensation from the Church? If their marriage cannot be valid in the eyes of God without a dispensation from the Church, then do practising Catholics have an obligation to inform people in these circumstances that their marriage will not be valid? It appears that while ignorance can excuse the couple preparing to live the married life, ignorance cannot excuse the Catholic who is aware of canon law. The Catholic who is aware that the relationship will be objectively gravely sinful seems to have a moral duty to inform the couple of this fact. Informing the couple of this fact may do more harm than good, because it has the potential to destroy relationships and create seemingly irreparable rifts between family members, not to mention giving an appearance of legalism in place of love. Nevertheless, it is a widely accepted and fairly well established fact that Catholics are never to treat people as means to ends instead of ends in themselves, and this means that Catholics cannot lie in order to safeguard the peace of mind of those who are engaged in grave sin, or to safeguard any of the relationships which may become vulnerable. Does the Catholic have the right to remain silent on the matter (rather than lying)? This question leads to some further difficulties.

Under older codes of canon law Catholics would not even have been permitted to attend a matrimonial ceremony of this kind, but under current canon law it is up to the discretion of Catholics whether they attend. Although I’m not aware of any canon law(s) binding Catholics to this, there is a common assumption among Catholics that if one attends a presumptively invalid marriage they have an obligation to make it clear that their attendance does not constitute their condoning the relationship (since there is something about it which makes it morally problematic). Michelle Arnold, writing for Catholic.com, advises Catholics as follows:

  • “The Church does not explicitly forbid Catholics from attending presumptively invalid marriages. Catholics must use their own prudential judgment in making the decision, keeping in mind the necessity to uphold the Catholic understanding of the sanctity of marriage. To make such a judgment, you might ask yourself if you believe the couple is doing the best that they can to act honorably and according to the truth that they have. For example, you might decide to attend the presumptively invalid wedding of a couple who is expecting a child (thereby attempting to provide a family for that child); but you might decline to attend the presumptively invalid wedding of a couple you know to have engaged in adultery (thereby destroying previous marriages and families).

  • While there may be just reason to attend a particular wedding that will be presumptively invalid, I cannot recommend participating as a member of the wedding party in such weddings. There is a difference between attending as a non-participating guest and actively involving yourself in the wedding.”[19]

Obviously such advice doesn’t come with any binding authority, but it does reflect a sense for where Catholic laity who are faithful to the Church land on such issues. So, if a Catholic (aware of canon law) is invited to a wedding they know will be a celebration of an invalid marriage, they will either decide to attend, or decline the invitation. If they do not attend they will undoubtedly be asked why they won’t be attending, and lying is not a (morally legitimate) option. If they do attend there is a real danger that their attendance will be understood as an endorsement and celebration of the relationship – a relationship which they believe to be objectively gravely sinful. It seems as though they would be morally compelled to inform the couple that their attendance should not be considered to indicate an unqualified approval of the relationship, but informing the couple of this fact makes the Catholic’s relationship to them vulnerable, and has the potential to harm various other relationships as well. Either option puts the Catholic in a tremendously precarious position.

This is the source of my discomfort concerning this discipline of the Church. Would it not be better for the spiritual welfare of everyone involved if the Church simply presumptively gave all Catholics this dispensation with the exception of clergymen (including the defrocked) and those from whom the Bishops have reason for actively withholding the dispensation? It seems as though it would be better, for it would increase the number of sacramental marriages, and sacraments involve supernatural grace. However, I am not expert enough in these matters to presume to advise canon lawyers, much less the Catholic Church.

Where does this leave the Catholic who finds herself in the circumstance I’ve been imagining (i.e., of being aware of canon law, and invited to attend a wedding between a non-practising Catholic and an evangelical Christian, who have not obtained a dispensation from the Church for their marriage)? As things currently stand, and although it is difficult (and requires discernment and tact), it seems to me that the Catholic does have a duty to inform the would-be spouses that, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, their marriage isn’t a valid marriage unless they obtain a dispensation. However, one needn’t go into all the details about what this means (as though the couple wants or needs a lesson in canon law and/or Catholic moral theology). It suffices to make the couple aware that, on a technicality, from a Catholic perspective, their marriage will be ‘imperfect’ in a way which will concern them if ever they came (back) to the Catholic faith. In the eyes of the Catholic Church, the marriage will be considered invalid, so that if the content of the Catholic Church’s faith is true then the marriage will not be either sacramental or valid.

[1] I recall a quote from St. Thomas Aquinas, but I couldn’t find it. In it I recall him saying something about how it is contrary to faith to believe that the Church ever acts frivolously, and that faith enjoins us to submit to her authority even in matters of discipline. It is bothering me so much that I can’t find it – please, anyone who knows where Aquinas says something like this, share it in the comments.

[2] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_P3Z.HTM

[3] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_P3Z.HTM

[4] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P3Y.HTM

[5] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P44.HTM

[6] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P44.HTM

[7] Augustinus Lehmkuhl, “Sacrament of Marriage,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 9. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910), April 28, 2016, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09707a.htm.

[8] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P3V.HTM

[9] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_P41.HTM

[10] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_P40.HTM

[11] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P3Y.HTM

[12] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_P41.HTM

[13] CCC 1857, 1859 http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_P6C.HTM

[14] CCC 1860 http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_P6C.HTM

[15] CCC 1793 http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a6.htm

[16] http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/apost_letters/documents/hf_ben-xvi_apl_20091026_codex-iuris-canonici.html

[17] http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/apost_letters/documents/hf_ben-xvi_apl_20091026_codex-iuris-canonici.html

[18] http://jimmyakin.com/2009/12/once-a-catholic.html

[19] http://www.catholic.com/blog/michelle-arnold/to-attend-or-not-to-attend

The Beauty of the Catholic view of the Church as an Argument for Catholicism

Christianity, it has been said, is the greatest story ever told. Some Christian thinkers, like Alvin Plantinga, have gone further and said that Christianity is the greatest story that ever could have been told.[1] In no logically possible world, the suggestion goes, is there a story better than the Christian story of redemption, and the love of God, and the purpose of man, the meaning of life and so on. Now, it seems to me that some Protestants are, now and again, struck by the beauty of the Catholic story of the Church, even if they don’t accept it – meaning that when they come to see the Church, or just glance at the Church, through the lens of the Catholic tapestry of faith, they see a more beautiful picture of her than they do (or even can) through a Protestant lens. The vision of the Catholic Church as one mystical body, or person, and as being the incarnational extension of Jesus’ person, presence and ministry (in all its dimensions, from miracles to forgiving sins, and even to infallibly teaching the truth in a way in principle accessible as such[2] to all men) in the world, is a quite beautiful picture, and it is distinctive of the Catholic (and Orthodox) view(s). If this is so, then Christianity’s being the greatest story possibly told seems to imply that the Catholic and Orthodox vision of the Church is the properly Christian one after all. At least this is the case if what is gained in terms of beauty by this ecclesiology exceeds whatever net cost in beauty it would incur (or necessarily incur),[3] but that seems plausible enough, since it doesn’t seem to be necessary that we sacrifice any of the net beauty of the Christian story in order to make room for the Catholic doctrine of the Church.

Unfortunately this is an argument from beauty, and as with other such arguments from beauty, you either see it or you don’t. It impresses me, but I would not be surprised to find that it does not impress everyone (though I would be very surprised, and even perplexed, if it did not impress somebody who is both Christian and who really understood the Catholic/Orthodox/etc. vision of the Church). In any case, it is at least some kind of argument for the truth of Catholicism (and Eastern Orthodoxy, and Oriental Orthodoxy, and other autocephalous yet genuinely Apostolic forms of Christianity) which appeals to intuitions which the Protestant shares (or in any case should share, I think) with Catholics (etc.).

As a final note, I think we can both expand and contract this argument somewhat. First, we can contract this argument and say something similar about the doctrine of the Papacy, since it offers to the Christian what is missing in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and other such views of the Church; namely, a ministry by which the Church can unambiguously manifest both her unity and her orthodoxy. We might even go further, if we were feeling particularly ambitious, and draw on Thomas Aquinas’ argument in the Contra Errores Graecorum[4] (according to which the Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology takes a wrong turn precisely where it does because it takes a wrong turn in its doctrine of the Trinity insofar as it forgets the truth of the Filioque clause in the Latin Creed) to argue that insofar as the Filioque renders the doctrine of the Trinity more beautiful than it otherwise would have been, and insofar as our ecclesiology is ultimately a reflection, to some extent, of our doctrine of the Trinity, the Catholic ecclesiology of the Church is a better, fuller and more beautiful reflection of Christian doctrine than the Orthodox ecclesiologies. Second, we can expand this argument outward (in a more ecumenical direction, perhaps) and say that if God exists then it is plausible that he would actualize, to the extent possible, the best story, and this turns into an argument for the Christian story which we might give to the Deist or other non-Christian theists.

[1] https://youtu.be/N5DPneR-Rtc?t=1h18s

[2] Protestant ecclesiology can allow for the Church to teach without error, but not to teach infallibly (for infallibility is as far from ‘free of error’ as inerrancy is from ‘free of error;’ in both cases it’s not merely that there happens to be no error – as there may happen to be no error in a history book, but that wouldn’t make it inerrant – but that there could not have been any error even in principle precisely because of the nature of the source). Moreover, even if the Protestant could, by some theological acrobatics, make room for the Church to teach infallibly in some sense, and even if those teachings were somehow accessible to all men, the Church would not be able to make her infallibility manifest to all men, and thus she would be unable to present her infallible teachings to man as such (meaning, as ostensibly infallible), since she would only be able to present infallible teachings to all men in such a way that not all men could in principle tell the difference between those of her teachings which are infallible and those teachings, apparently from her, which circulate with the admixture of human error.

[3] If it doesn’t incur the cost necessarily, then there is a logically possible world in which the Christian story is more beautiful for it, but we have already stated at the outset that the Christian story is maximally beautiful.

[4] See: James Likoudis, Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism: The 14th C. Apologia of Demetrios Kydones for Unity with Rome and the “Contra Errores Graecorum” of St. Thomas Aquinas. (New Rochelle: Catholics United for the Faith, 1983), 126-189.