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Briefly Stated

In his novel Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) relates his own experience of religious education through the words of his main character, Charles Ryder:

The view implicit in my education was that the basic narrative of Christianity had long been exposed as a myth, and that opinion was now divided as to whether its ethical teaching was of present value, a division in which the main weight went against it; religion was a hobby which some people professed and others did not; at the best it was slightly ornamental, at the worst it was the province of "complexes" and "inhibitions"—catchwords of the decade—and of the intolerance, hypocrisy, and sheer stupidity attributed to it for centuries. No one had ever suggested to me that these quaint observances expressed a coherent philosophical system and intransigent historical claims; nor, had they done so, would I have been much interested.

The deficiencies of Waugh’s education in 1920s England are pretty much what they might be today—minus the catchwords. It is our hope that this bird’s eye view of Catholicism, describing its essential doctrines and features, will chip away at some of that educated ignorance and natural indifference, and occasionally even spark a lively interest. If you would like to comment on anything you see here, you can find my email at Basic Philosophy. Links to other Catholic web sites can be found at the bottom of this web page.


The Essence and Destiny of Catholicism

The Incarnation and Redemption

The Divinity of Jesus

The Resurrection of the Body

The Trinity

The Fall of Man

The Sacramental System

The Pope

A Male Priesthood


What is Faith?

Quotes, Aphorisms, Scripture

The Essence and Destiny of Catholicism

The central doctrine of Catholicism is that humanity and all of nature are destined to be recreated and spiritualized through the entry of the Divine not only into human history, but also into human nature. To the Catholic, Jesus Christ is not merely a prophet, or a teacher, or even the divine revealer of God to man: He is the restorer of the human race, the New Man in whom humanity has a fresh beginning, and through whom man acquires a new nature. Thus the Catholic ideal is to bring the natural order into intimate contact with the absolute and transcendent element which is inseparable from any true religious ideal. For the supernatural is not the contradiction of the natural, but its origin and fulfilment, and every faculty of man, whether high or low, is destined to have its share in his new supernatural life.

Such a belief may seem incredible, but it is not absurd. Intuitions of an ultimate reality are common to all profound thought about the universe and, indeed, it would be strange if reality did not transcend man’s earthly experience qualitatively as well as quantitatively. Rationalism’s rejection of those intuitions, far from being based on reason, springs from a deep secular faith in the human intellect as the highest form of spiritual reality, and the measure of all things. Catholicism, on the other hand, proclaims that God is the ultimate Reality. Apart from Him, nothing exists; in comparison with Him, nothing is real. The universe exists only in so far as it is rooted and grounded in His Being. At the same time the Church has undeviatingly maintained its faith in a historical revelation that involves the consecration not only of the world, but also of the human body. Neither wholly metaphysical nor merely ethical, Catholic Christianity occupies an intermediate position between the two spiritual ideals which have divided the civilised world and the experience of humanity. To the West its ideals appear mystical and other-worldly, while in comparison with the Oriental religions it stands for historical reality and moral action. Thus the Church stands as the mediator between East and West, between the ideal of spiritual intuition and that of moral and social activity.

Since the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, Western civilization has become increasingly detached from its Christian spiritual roots, and as a consequence the Church has gradually lost much of its intellectual and social influence on modern culture. Yet it has something to offer which modern society desperately needs: a way to restore the traditional synthesis between religion and culture. For history shows that the Church possesses a principle of life which is capable of assimilating the most diverse cultures and materials. Inevitably there are periods when this spiritual vitality is weakened or obscured, and then the Church tends to be judged as just another self-serving worldly power, and identified with the faults and limitations of its members. In its essence, however, the Church is a divine society; it is Christ living on in the world, the external organ through which the Spirit enters society and builds up a new humanity.

If modern scientific civilization were to completely lose its religious ideals, it would be little more than a technological and economic order resting on a spiritual vacuum. But no society can survive for very long without some kind of spiritual vision, for man was a religious animal before he was a political or an economic one. Nothing but a transcendental view of reality, and a mystical or religious insight into man’s ultimate nature and destiny can satisfy him. No one can identify the precise moment when the mood of a civilization starts to shift, or predict from what quarter the new spirit begins to blow. But the time must come when humanity turns once again in search of a higher and more universal range of reality than the finite and temporal world to which the state and the economic order belong. And then the Church will renew her strength, and her inherent divine energy will go forth, as in the past, in the conversion of new peoples and the transformation of old cultures.

The Incarnation and Redemption

By the Incarnation Catholicism means that right in the middle of historic times the original, invisible being, the mysterious master and maker of the world visited his world in person. Christianity is the only religion to claim that God set aside His omnipotence to take on the limitations of His creatures. During his time on earth He was a dutiful son, a humble artisan, an itinerant preacher, a popular healer, an apocalyptic prophet, a religious rebel, and finally, a condemned criminal. Treacherous disciples, fickle mobs, hostile authorities, and state power conspired to murder one generally acknowledged to be the wisest and most virtuous man who ever lived. But out of that epic career of service and sacrifice came something that mere virtue, or heroism, or doctrinal innovation could never produce—a capacity for life and love that far exceeds man’s natural endowment. However weakly and sporadically, humanity has always believed, in the words of Shakespeare, ‘there is a world somewhere,’ a world that answers every yearning and corresponds to the soul’s deepest desire. The permanent possession of that world, or state, is what Redemption ultimately signifies. But to enter it we must first believe Jesus’ claim to be ‘the way, the truth, and the life’, and then we must follow His teaching and example. In essence we must become "other Christs." Only then can He say to us, ‘Take possession of the kingdom which has been prepared for you since the foundation of the world, For I was hungry, and you gave me food, thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you brought me home, naked, and you clothed me, sick, and you cared for me, a prisoner, and you came to me’ (Matt 25:34-36). And that kingdom is nothing less than the power to know as God knows and to love as He loves. Without losing his own nature man is admitted to a participation in the Divine nature, a participation that begins in this life through the theological virtue of faith, and culminates in the next in vision.

The Divinity of Jesus

Catholicism has always insisted on the extreme and startling doctrine of the divinity of a historical person. Consider for a moment just how extraordinary this assertion is. To a poor family in a remote province of the Roman Empire a child was born that created its own mother, in fact a child that can be identified with the absolute energy that created the sun and the stars. One might reasonably expect the brain of the believer to reel, when he realized his own belief. Certainly the unbeliever has every right to laugh; but not to judge. For when one considers all the puzzles presented by Jesus of Nazareth as we meet him in the Gospels, the traditional Christian interpretation of this colossal figure, incredible though it is, is the one that makes the most sense: Christ was either divine or mad. For if Christ was merely human, He was simultaneously the noblest and most exalted creature the human race has ever produced, and a deluded lunatic who suffered from a conceit staggering in its absurdity.

In trying to make the shocking statement that Jesus was a divine being more intelligible to the intellect, Christian theologians long ago arrived at the following formula: Jesus was true God and true man. In other words this particular person had two natures, the nature of God and the nature of man. A theological term was coined for the union of the divine and human natures in the person of Jesus: the ‘hypostatic union.’ While terms like this may not be much help to the non-believer, it is important to remember that theology is the attempt to interpret the documents of sacred tradition and the revelation embodied in that tradition. It is the element of reason in religion, the thing that prevents it from being mere emotion. But because theology typically follows faith, many people will probably find an approach that appeals to the historical imagination more helpful. The Catholic convert and apologist G. K. Chesterton provides such an approach in the following excerpt from his book The Everlasting Man:

Normally speaking, the greater a man is, the less likely he is to make the very greatest claim. Outside the unique case we are considering, the only kind of man who ever does make that kind of claim is a very small man; a secretive or self-centred monomaniac. Nobody can imagine Aristotle claiming to be the father of gods and men, come down from the sky; though we might imagine some insane Roman Emperor like Caligula claiming it for him, or more probably for himself. Nobody can imagine Shakespeare talking as if he were literally divine; though we might imagine some crazy American crank finding it as a cryptogram in Shakespeare’s works, or preferably in his own works. It is possible to find here and there human beings who make this supremely superhuman claim. It is possible to find them in lunatic asylums; in padded cells; possibly in strait jackets. It is by rather an unlucky metaphor that we talk of a madman as cracked; for in a sense he is not cracked enough. He is cramped rather than cracked; there are not enough holes in his head to ventilate it. This impossibility of letting in daylight on a delusion does sometimes cover and conceal a delusion of divinity. It can be found, not among prophets and sages and founders of religions, but only among a low set of lunatics. But this is exactly where the argument becomes intensely interesting; because the argument proves too much. For nobody supposes that Jesus of Nazareth was that sort of person. No modern critic in his five wits thinks that the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount was a horrible half-witted imbecile that might be scrawling stars on the walls of a cell. No atheist or blasphemer believes that the author of the Parable of the Prodigal Son was a monster with one mad idea like a cyclops with one eye. Upon any possible historical criticism, he must be put higher in the scale of human beings than that. Yet by all analogy we have really to put him there or else in the highest place of all. In fact, those who can really take it (as I here hypothetically take it) in a quite dry and detached spirit, have here a most curious and interesting human problem. If Christ was simply a human character, he really was a highly complex and contradictory human character. For he combined exactly the two things that lie at the two extremes of human variation. He was exactly what the man with a delusion never is; he was wise; he was a good judge. What he said was always unexpected; but it was always unexpectedly magnanimous and often unexpectedly moderate. Take a thing like the point of the parable of the tares and the wheat. It has the quality that unites sanity and subtlety. It has not the simplicity of a madman. It has not even the simplicity of a fanatic. It might be uttered by a philosopher a hundred years old, at the end of a century of Utopias. Nothing could be less like this quality of seeing beyond and all round obvious things, than the condition of the egomaniac with the one sensitive spot on his brain. I really do not see how these two characters could be convincingly combined, except in the astonishing way in which the creed combines them. For until we reach the full acceptance of the fact as a fact, however marvellous, all mere approximations to it are actually further and further away from it. Divinity is great enough to be divine; it is great enough to call itself divine. But as humanity grows greater, it grows less and less likely to do so. God is God, as the Muslims say; but a great man knows he is not God, and the greater he is the better he knows it. That is the paradox; everything that is merely approaching to that point is merely receding from it. Socrates, the wisest man, knows that he knows nothing. A lunatic may think he is omniscience, and a fool may talk as if he were omniscient. But Christ is in another sense omniscient if he not only knows, but knows that he knows.

Contrary to the assumption of the above writer it is sometimes said that Jesus never claimed divinity. It is quite true that the words, "I am God," never occur in His utterances. Possible explanations for the absence of such a direct claim might include the need to avoid arousing the authorities until after the teaching and healing part of His mission had been completed; divine modesty; the importance of allowing his listeners to come to faith in Him in a way that respected their freedom; the pointlessness of saying something that would sound foolish or even absurd to his listeners. There are, after all, some statements that are bound to sound foolish, irrespective of their truthfulness: "I am God" surely must be one. A selection of some of the more astounding passages to be found in the four Gospels are presented below. They, and others like them, have led hundreds of millions of people over twenty centuries to regard Jesus’ assertions of His divinity as emphatic and self-evident. The reader is invited to seriously consider the implications of these passages. If he remains unconvinced that Jesus ever intended to claim for Himself a divine status, he might find it an interesting challenge to invent the words that Jesus should have spoken had He wanted to claim divinity in an manner that was forceful and unambiguous, yet indirect and sometimes ironic in deference to the freedom of his hearers. (Note that a disproportionate number of the following passages are from the gospel of St. John. St. Augustine said that the Fourth Gospel is essentially the Gospel of contemplation, the gospel that declares the mysteries of the Divine Nature. Nevertheless, we submit that with respect to Jesus’ claims to divinity, the tone of St. John’s Gospel is entirely consistent with that of the other three, even though the claims made in the latter tend to be implied rather than explicit.)

As for your father Abraham, his heart was proud to see the day of my coming; he saw, and rejoiced to see it. Then the Jews asked him, Hast thou seen Abraham, thou, who art not yet fifty years old? And Jesus said to them, Believe me, before ever Abraham came to be, I am.

John 8:56-59

What sign canst thou show us as thy warrant for doing this? Jesus answered them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.

John 2:19

No man has ever gone up into heaven; but there is one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man, who dwells in heaven.

John 3:12-14

I myself am the living bread that has come down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he shall live for ever. And now, what is this bread which I am to give? It is my flesh, given for the life of the world.

John 6:51-52

I am the light of the world, he said. He who follows me can never walk in darkness; he will possess the light which is life.

John 8:12

Dost thou believe in the Son of God? Tell me who he is, Lord, he answered, so that I can believe in him. He is one whom thou hast seen, Jesus told him. It is he who is speaking to thee.

John 9:35-39

I am laying down my life, to take it up again afterwards. Nobody can rob me of it; I lay it down of my own accord. I am free to lay it down, free to take it up again; this is the charge which my Father has given me.

John 10:17-18

Just as the Father bids the dead to rise up and give them life, so the Son gives life to whomsoever he will.

John 5:21-22

At this, Philip said to him, Lord, let us see the father; that is all we ask. What, Philip, Jesus said to him, here am I, who have been all this while in your company; hast thou not learned to recognize me yet? Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father; what dost thou mean by saying, Let us see the Father? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me?

John 14:8-10

My Father and I are one.

John 10:30

Art thou the Christ, the Son of the blessed God? Jesus said to him, I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God’s power, and coming with the clouds of heaven. At this, the high priest tore his garments, and said, What further need have we of witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy for yourselves.

Mark 14:62-63

My father has entrusted everything into my hands; none knows the Son truly except the Father, and none knows the Father truly except the Son, and those to whom it is the Son’s good pleasure to reveal him.

Matt 11:27

I am the vine, you are its branches; if a man lives on in me, and I in him, then he will yield abundant fruit; separated from me, you have no power to do anything. If a man does not live on in me, he can only be like the branch that is cast off and withers away; such a branch is picked up and thrown into the fire, to burn there.

John 15:5-6

For so it has been written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of his flock will be scattered. But I will go on before you into Galilee, when I have risen from the dead.

Matt 26:31-32

Put thy sword back into its place; all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword. Dost thou doubt that if I call upon my Father, even now, he will send more than twelve legions of angels to my side?

Matt 26:52-54

Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them.

Matt 18:20

All authority in heaven and on earth, he said, has been given to me; you, therefore, must go out, making disciples of all nations, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all the commandments which I have given you. And behold I am with you all through the days that are coming, until the consummation of the world.

Matt 28:18-20

Though heaven and earth should pass away, my words will stand.

Mark 13:31

Men will be saying to you, See, he is here, or See, he is there; do not turn aside and follow them; the Son of Man, when his time comes, will be like the lightning which lightens from one border of heaven to the other.

Luke 17:23-24

Then he (the good thief) said to Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said to him, I promise thee, this day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.

Luke 23:42-43

The Resurrection of the Body

One of the most vivid characteristics of Christianity, and of Catholicism in particular, is its emphatic insistence on the resurrection of the body. Numerous religions and philosophies hold out the hope of some kind of afterlife, but it is typically expressed in vague or mystical terms. Perhaps Islam most closely resembles Christianity in its unambiguous promise that man survives death. However, the emphasis is on an earthly and sensual description of paradise rather than on the mysterious promise of a resurrected and transfigured body.

There are two main reasons that bodily resurrection is a central tenet of the Christian faith: one is that Jesus repeatedly prophesied that He would accomplish this feat three days after His death; the other is that seven weeks after His execution by the authorities His disciples began to preach that He had been true to his word. What is the contemporary mind to make of such a claim? Except perhaps for the few instances recorded in the Gospels it is contrary to all human experience for a decayed corpse to return to life, animated by the spirit of its original owner. Moreover, such an occurrence would clash with a huge and ever-expanding body of scientific knowledge about the normal biological processes of living creatures.

The first point to make is that science, in a certain sense, cannot explain the incredible; for the inability to find a scientific explanation is what makes a thing incredible in the first place. The second point is that experience teaches us that what is incredible is not necessarily untrue. For example, under ‘Levitation’ the Encyclopedia Britannica states, ‘The puzzling thing about levitation is that while it is intuitively rejected as impossible by the mind accustomed to scientific habits of thought, there is nevertheless a great weight of evidence in favour of its occurrence. This evidence would indeed be regarded as overwhelming if the phenomenon were intrinsically more likely.’ That last sentence should run, ‘This evidence would indeed be regarded as overwhelming if the phenomenon were not so incredible,’ since it’s obviously impossible to assign a degree of probability to the truly incredible, the totally inexplicable.

Let us begin by concentrating on the alleged resurrection of Jesus, since if Jesus was able to raise Himself from the dead it makes His promise to do the same for us immeasurably more believable. Nobody needs to be told that even for someone as remarkable as Jesus bodily resurrection is incredible and contrary to the ordinary course of things. What we want to know is whether there is good evidence to support the Christian assertion that this incredible event actually happened. It must be recognized, however, that by the nature of the event the evidence can only be used to support a reductio ad absurdum type argument. For if the body remained in the tomb, then it would positively prove that Jesus hadn’t risen; but if the body vanished from the tomb, then the only equally positive proof that He had risen would be his physically verifiable presence among us. There can be no such positive proof, since our essential autonomy requires that we come to truth freely through faith and not by the brute force of irrefutable evidence—moreover, the notion that everyone would be pleased, and nothing but pleased, if only we could conclude that all the dead will rise again is highly dubious. A mode of reasoning that preserves the freedom that belongs to faith is perhaps epitomized in a maxim from Sherlock Holmes: When you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable (or incredible), must be the truth.

The five most common explanations for the empty tomb to emerge in the twenty centuries that have elapsed since Jesus’ death are as follows:

1. Jesus did not die on the cross, but recovered in the tomb from which he subsequently escaped.

2. The women made a mistake and went to the wrong tomb.

3. The sepulchre in which Jesus was first buried was never intended to be a permanent tomb. Joseph of Arimathea removed the body and transferred it to another sepulchre.

4. The body was thrown into some dishonourable place with those of other executed criminals; and the disciples had no opportunity of seeing the body before decomposition made it impossible to identify, either by them or by the authorities who wished to discredit them when they began preaching the resurrection.

5. The disciples stole the body from the tomb.

We propose to examine only the last of these possibilities, and recommend The Third Day by Arnold Lunn (1945) to anyone who is interested in a discussion of the other four. The reasons for this, apart from space, are twofold. Though many have tried, no one has succeeded in making a convincing case—that is, a case commanding widespread acceptance over an extended period of time—based on any of the first four explanations. Even more importantly, the Jewish authorities, who knew immeasurably more than we do about these long ago events, advanced the last explanation as the true one. In their view Christianity was a schism from Judaism, and in such cases the parent religion invariably has a lot to say about the credibility and dubious methods of the schismatics. It would be entirely in the interest of this keen-witted group to provide the explanation which was most consistent with public knowledge of the facts, and therefore most plausible. To put it more simply, the Sanhedrin (a political-executive and judicial body headed by the high priest) knew what they could get away with.

But there is at least one fact which suggests that some of the Sanhedrin were not particularly impressed by their own hypothesis. When St. Peter was summoned before the Council and refused to cease preaching Christ, many of the Council wished to put him to death, but ‘a lawyer named Gamaliel, who was held in esteem by all the people (Acts 5:34)’ warned them ‘if this is man’s design or man’s undertaking, it will be overthrown; if it is God’s, you will have no power to overthrow it. You would not willingly be found fighting against God. And they fell in with his opinion’ (Acts 5:38-40). It may be doubted that they would have gone along with this argument had they been wholly convinced by their assertion that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus and were therefore preaching something which they knew to be false.

Had the Pharisees known or been able to come up with an entirely satisfactory explanation for the empty tomb, it is inconceivable that this explanation would not have been recorded by the great Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus, who wrote a twenty volume history of the Jews, was born in 39 A.D., or about ten years after Jesus’ death. A member of a distinguished priestly family, he familiarized himself with both the Sadducees and the Essenes (the other two Jewish sects) before joining the party of the Pharisees at the age of nineteen. Having visited Rome in connection with a legal case he was acquainted with Roman power and methods, and on his return to Palestine he remonstrated with the disaffected Jews who were bent on rebellion. Nevertheless, when the Jewish revolt broke out in the year 66 Josephus found himself dragged into the conflict. The Sanhedrin sent him to Galilee (he said) to persuade the revolutionary faction to lay down their arms and return to the Roman allegiance. In this he failed. He was captured after the fall of the fortress of Jotapata and was a witness to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Thanks to luck and remarkable survival skills, Josephus eventually ended up as a Roman citizen with a pension and an estate in Judea. Here is what he wrote about the Jesus whose claims he was prepared neither to accept nor deny.

About this time lived Jesus, a man full of wisdom, if one may call him a man. For he was the doer of incredible things, and the teacher of such as gladly accepted the truth. He thus attracted to himself many Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ. On the accusation of the leading men of our people, Pilate condemned him to death upon the cross. Nevertheless, those who had previously loved him, still remained faithful to him. For on the third day he again appeared to them living, just as, in addition to a thousand other wonderful things, prophets sent by God had foretold. And at the present day the race of those who call themselves Christians after him has not ceased (Jewish Antiquities, chapter xviii).

It should be noted that the genuineness of this famous passage has been attacked, but no criticism has met the objection that it occurs—there are a few slightly modified versions—in all the codices and manuscripts of Josephus’ work. The tendency of modern scholarship has been to accept its authenticity. Being, as he was, in the pay of the Romans (for whom the trial and execution of Jesus was an embarrassing miscarriage of justice) and intimately related by blood and association with the priestly nobility (who were collaborating with the Romans and, naturally, favoured compromise) Josephus would have been highly motivated to expose Jesus as a troublemaker and a fanatic if he had at his disposal the facts to substantiate it. However, his failure to attack Christian claims and to repeat the official explanation that the disciples had stolen the body is not difficult to understand.

If the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus, they would have known that he had died the death of a deluded fanatic, and that he had not risen from the dead. Why should the disciples conspire to impose upon the world a new religion which they knew to be false? An outrageous deception could not have fortified the disciples to preach with such unflinching courage a doctrine that was certain to put them on a collision course with the authorities. They had seen what had happened to their Master. With the first reports of the empty tomb some of them had reacted with scepticism, and all of them had been fearful. Now, in one of the strangest reversals of mood and morale every recorded, they not only fervently believed, but translated their belief into action. What other compensation than utter conviction could have motivated them to break with their family and friends and religious traditions, and to accept martyrdom in the propagation of something they knew themselves to be a hoax? ‘I readily believe those witnesses who get their throats cut,’ wrote Pascal. Was there ever an effective contemporary refutation of the resurrection? If so it has vanished without trace from Jewish history and tradition.

If resurrection from the dead was an infrequent, but none the less universally admitted phenomenon, no one would dispute the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. For the overwhelming majority of our decisions are based not on demonstrable certainties but on an estimate of probabilities. That is why judges remind juries that they should find the prisoner guilty if his guilt has been established beyond all reasonable doubt, not beyond all possible doubt. The real difficulty in accepting the resurrection lies in attitudes and motives that are unaffected by evidence.

One such attitude that may lead otherwise receptive people to reject Christianity has to do with the way humanity has often felt about the human body, and matter generally. We know that the prospect of physical resurrection had very little appeal to Greeks and Romans, especially Greek and Roman philosophers. One school of philosophy, Manicheanism, has at its core a mystical loathing for physical reality, and at various times and places throughout history it has made its influence strongly felt. The medieval Cathars of southern France are its most famous exponents. According to many eastern philosophies, evil is not in man’s will, but is essentially bound up with the existence of the body and the material universe. Therefore this life must not be spiritualized; it must be left behind, and man must return to the one, absolute, undifferentiated Being, or Not-being, of which his spirit is a part. Even the father of the modern self-help movement, M. Scott Peck, has expressed this recurrent, age-old revulsion for the body: ‘I find distasteful the traditional idea of Christianity which preaches the resurrection of the body. Frankly, I see my body as more of a limitation than a virtue, and I will be glad to be free of it rather than having to continue to cart it around. I prefer to believe that souls can exist independently from bodies.’ As old age and physical decay take their toll, there will be times when many of us can sympathize with this view of the human body.

There are metaphysical reasons, however, for believing that our bodies will rise again. Christianity holds that man is a composite creature, half animal and half spirit. His animal body is mortal, but his soul, the life principle of his body, is a spirit; and spirit is immortal. Unlike the body the spirit has no parts, and therefore cannot disintegrate into its component elements. With the death of the body man ceases to be man and becomes a disembodied spirit. He can know and love since these are operations of spirit, but since his nature is to be an embodied spirit he is no longer a man. To fully realize the nature that God has given him he needs his body; thus Jesus taught that, saved or damned, all men will rise again. However, the bodies to which our souls will be reunited will reflect in every detail the interior transformation wrought by grace. It has been said that the only thing we can take to heaven with us is our character.

It is important to understand that our body is ours by virtue of its form and not by virtue of the matter it contains. In many respects we all take this for granted. We cut our hair, clip our nails, even shed thirty pounds without feeling in the least that we are losing bits of our physical being. We are happy to lose them because we naturally focus on form. From a philosophical understanding of the concept of form we realize that our physical resurrection does not involve gathering up and reconstituting all the atoms and molecules that once made up our earthly bodies. Medical science tells us that most of these atoms are replaced every ten years or so anyway. Indeed, it would seem that nothing is what it is except because it is in a relationship with something else. The subatomic particles that make up a polished cylinder of the purest platinum are identical to those in a heap of rotting refuse; they are merely arranged differently. And if the relationship that matter has with other matter is so significant, how matter stands in relationship to the infinite spirit of God is even more so. Without the presence of God to sustain it matter would dissolve into nothing; ‘God made everything out of nothing,’ said the French poet Paul Valéry, ‘but the nothingness shows through.’ The phrase may sound irreverent and was perhaps meant to be, but from a Christian standpoint it is just another illustration of the derivative nature of material being.

It could be argued, moreover, that the Christian view that matter is secondary and dependent fits in very nicely with twentieth century discoveries in physics that reveal matter itself to be indefinite and unsubstantial. The dominant interpretation of quantum theory in the physics establishment is known as the Copenhagen interpretation. It addresses the ‘reality question’ and consists of two distinct parts: There is no reality in the absence of observation; observation creates reality. The Christian solution to the paradox of deep reality revealed by quantum physics—namely that deep down there is nothing there—is that God, whose essence is to exist, communicates being to the natural world. This is what is meant by the divine act of creation: communicating being. Unlike the physicist who probes deep into matter only to find nothing but mathematical probabilities, the Christian infers the reality of the material world from the principle of utter reality from which it derives: God.

The relationship of dependence that our lives, our bodies, all of our powers bear to God’s presence is more absolute, more essential, and more intimate that any relationship we have to the laws of nature—in the words of St. Paul: ‘in Him we live and move and have our being.’ Nature is not our mother but our sister, and we are both dependent on His Presence. But God can communicate being in different measures, and the word ‘indwelling’ is used to signify a fuller participation in divine life, a greater degree of intimacy than the word ‘presence.’ These distinctions will not enable us to imagine what a resurrected body would be like; such a thing lies too far beyond our sense experience. They can, however, help convey some glimmer of understanding to terms like glorified, or transfigured, or spiritualised, terms which are used to describe the resurrected bodies of the sons of God.

Ultimately, every person’s outward appearance will be forced to conform with his inward reality. We often see the transformation begin in this life. Such is the creative power of the spirit that with the passing years it manifests itself in the face, the hands, the whole body. And C. S. Lewis reminds us, ‘it is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.’

There is a final reason, and a very important one, for the resurrection of the body. In the Catholic scheme of things man has always been regarded as an intermediate creature in the great chain of being, something higher than the animals but lower than the angels. He therefore has the quality of a link. The Incarnation, God made man, has made possible the marriage of Heaven and Earth—the Redemption. By cooperating with God’s redemptive plan man becomes the bridge between the world of sense and the world of spirit, the channel through which the whole material world is spiritualized and raised to a higher plane. Then matter will be the extension of spirit and not its limit, the instrument of spirit and not its enemy. Thus, while Catholicism recognizes the distinction and the autonomy of the natural and the supernatural orders, it can never accept their permanent segregation.

The Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity states that three distinct persons called the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all possess the nature of God. And yet, mysteriously, there are not three Gods, but only one. Christian theologians have tried to shed some light on this mystery in the following way. The Father knows Himself perfectly. But because the Father is infinite and eternal, his knowledge of Himself must also be infinite and eternal. From this line of reasoning it is held to follow—though not without mystery—that the Father’s knowledge of Himself is not something, but Someone. This Someone is God the Son who is said to be ‘begotten’ of the Father. Furthermore, the infinite dialogue and self-giving that exists between the Father and the Son expresses itself in a third person, the Holy Spirit, who is said to ‘proceed’ from the Father and the Son. Each of the three persons is distinct and possesses the divine nature in its totality. Yet they exist in a perfect unity of love. Thus God is a divine society, and the life of God is one of companionship without the tiniest element separation or aloneness.

This doctrine bewilders the intellect, but utterly quiets the heart. The Muslims must have felt they were merely being sensible by cutting down the creed to a belief in one God. The God of Islam is good, powerful, just, merciful and compassionate. But in the world of human psychology such a God cannot easily be conceived as a God of love, for He is a lonely God. There is no adequate object to receive His love since love only reaches its full height between equals. His love for creation must forever remain a condescending love, and to Muslims the Incarnation is a kind of blasphemy. But Jesus tells his disciples, ‘I do not speak of you any more as my servants; a servant is one who does not understand what his master is about, whereas I have made known to you all that my Father has told me; and so I have called you my friends’ (John 15:12-15). Friendship implies equality and, in some inconceivable way, man is raised to a kind of equality with God. The scriptural term for this status is ‘a son—or a child—of God.’ According to the Catholic view man’s destiny is to participate in the life of the Trinity in such a way that Man becomes Godlike.

The Fall of Man

Throughout most of its history the Church has taught that God is the true author of Scripture. Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903), for instance, said that the books of the Bible, "with all their parts, have been written under the dictation of the Holy Spirit." In accordance with this understanding Catholics were expected (and sometimes required) to believe that Adam and Eve were historical figures who lived in a garden and were tempted by a serpent. This was equally true of the Protestant and Orthodox branches of Christianity, for there seemed to be no obvious reason why the events narrated in Genesis shouldn’t be accepted in the literal sense. This is no longer the case. Discoveries in the sciences, as well as modern developments in the analysis of texts, have made a literal understanding of some things in Scripture next to impossible for the scientific mentality—the story of Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale and three days later vomited out on to dry land to continue his prophetic mission, is a prime example. Other things, though not strictly speaking outside the realm of possibility, have a distinct air of implausibility to most modern people. Considered as a piece of history, the Genesis account of the circumstances and incidents that lead Adam and Eve to disobey the Divine command falls into this category.

Over the last two centuries, as a result of the development in the West of a scientific and sceptical cast of mind, a much more allegorical understanding of Genesis has come to predominate among Christian intellectuals; this thinking is now spreading downwards to affect the whole Church. In his general audience of November 7, 1979, Pope John Paul II made the following remarks in the course of his meditation on Genesis 2:21-22, "Following the contemporary philosophy of religion and that of language, it can be said that the language in question is a mythical one. In this case, the term ‘myth’ does not designate a fabulous content, but merely an archaic way of expressing a deeper content."

It is very likely that such statements would have been condemned by relatively recent popes. They certainly would have regarded them with great suspicion, and with good reason. Modern biblical criticism, when it first appeared, was infused with rationalism, and under the guise of ‘demythologizing’ Scripture attempted to discredit the supernatural element in Christianity. In the face of this threat the Church was forced to adopt for a time a fortress mentality, reiterating old attitudes and modes of expression. Now that the Church has passed beyond this defensive posture—notwithstanding the fact that many scripture scholars retain the old rationalist hostility to the idea of the supernatural and the miraculous—Catholics are free to recognize that many truths in Scripture are expressed in allegory. In connection with the creation of Adam, for instance, the Catholic Catechism states, ‘The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language...’ (392). As a consequence of this realization however, what Catholics must now believe about the Fall is less easy to state than it once was. In the broadest sense it amounts to this: that once man was closer to God, but in some mysterious way became estranged.

In spite of the theological difficulties, the doctrine of the Fall has tremendous implications, and sheds light on many perplexing facts: that we have misused a good world, and not merely been entrapped into a bad one; that evil arises from the wrong use of the will, and that it can eventually be righted by the right use of the will; that no social progress is ever permanent and irreversible; that man’s conquest of nature never includes human nature; that happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner a memory. Yet it remains a very mysterious doctrine and the Church has yet to fully restate it in the language of our time.

One fairly recent development is the effort to clarify what Cardinal Ratzinger calls the ‘misleading and imprecise term "original sin".’ That sin begets sin, and that the consequences of sin are passed on from one generation to the next is a lesson that life teaches as clearly as Genesis. But the primitive idea that guilt and punishment (as distinct from the consequences of sin and evil) can be inherited or meted out in a fatalistic manner is not only problematic for the modern mind, but one that Jesus, when he heals Bartimaeus, seems to reject. When asked by His disciples, ‘Master, was this man guilty of sin, or was it his parents, that he should have been born blind?’ Jesus replied, ‘Neither he nor his parents were guilty; it was so that God’s action might declare itself in him’ (John 9:1-4). Compare this incident in Jesus’ life with the story in the Old Testament (in The Book of Kings) that tells of an occasion when the Israelites were escaping with the Ark of the Covenant. In the confusion of their flight the Ark began to tip and, although it was forbidden to touch the Ark, a man reached up to steady it. He was struck dead on the spot. From an Old Testament perspective, the fact that he was probably acting with the best intentions was irrelevant. Not surprisingly, the modern sensibility is somewhat scandalized by the Old Testament sense of justice. Even if the man’s death is not interpreted as divine punishment, there is a feeling that a loving God would not cause or permit such things. Yet even in societies long permeated by Christianity, primitive ideas of honour and shame—doubtless the apparent arbitrariness of reward and punishment lends them subconscious support—are so deeply rooted in human nature that they are never completely eradicated. Not so very long ago the attitude of many believers towards babies born out of wedlock was that they were ‘conceived in sin,’ and in consequence were, to some degree, placed outside the sphere of a Christian charity which, to us, they were obviously entitled.

Sin implies personal guilt, and personal guilt implies personal freedom; but the resulting condition of the Fall that the Church has traditionally called "original sin" often seems to signify not freedom and guilt, but bondage and weakness; a tendency to sin so ingrained that it might almost be termed pathological. The Catechism explains, ‘original sin is called "sin" only in an analogical sense: it is a sin "contracted" and not "committed"—a state and not an act’ (495). Accordingly, some have suggested that the true significance of the term "original sin" would be more accurately conveyed as "the original wound."

Despite our incapacity to fully understand the Fall, various attempts have been made to penetrate deeper into this mystery. "What is meant by the Fall?" the English writer G. K. Chesterton asked himself. "I could answer with complete sincerity that whatever I am, I am not myself. This is the prime paradox of our religion; something that we have never in any full sense known, is not only better than ourselves, but even more natural to us than ourselves." Fr. Michel Quoist expands this theme by arguing that God has created man incomplete, and that man’s dignity consists in the role he is permitted to play in his own self-completion. This co-creation, though bedeviled by ignorance and sin, and disguised by the unlikelihood of the various intermediate states, is the highest expression of our creativity. Michael Mason suggests that the actual consequences of man’s incompleteness are a way of defining the Fall when he writes, ‘The human condition is patterned by that complex of mutually opposed drives which we call the Fall.’ French thinker Simone Weil universalizes the sin that brought about the Fall. For her the creation is an act of sacrifice and restraint on the part of God; God must withdraw his completeness and unity from a portion of reality in order to allow his creatures an independent existence. But it then appears to these creatures that they possess their own being, choose their own destiny, rule their own world. Morally we see ourselves at the centre of the universe and whatever is closest seems most important: our hopes and desires, our family and friends, our class and our nation. According to Weil acquiescing in this illusion constitutes our fall, our original sin.

Cardinal Ratzinger writes, ‘At the very heart of sin there lies the human being’s denial of his creatureliness...he does not want to be a creature, does not want to be subject to a standard, does not want to be dependent.’ Yet in so far as original sin has to do with the belief in our own centrality, it is obviously a natural illusion to which every human being is born in thrall. Indeed, few Christians completely liberate themselves from this illusion even after a lifetime of effort. Nevertheless, the Christian concept of working out one’s salvation is the idea that grace, God’s action in the soul, will make our efforts fruitful. Ever so slowly and reluctantly we cease believing and acting as if we were self-sufficient and a law unto ourselves. By degrees we come to an awareness of our true situation: that man, in St. Augustine’s words, is a beggar before God—or in the words of Jesus, ‘I am the vine, you are its branches; if a man lives on in me, and I in him, then he will yield abundant fruit; separated from me, you have no power to do anything.’

However satisfactory or unsatisfactory we find the Church’s historical attempt to give a theological formulation to the Fall, we should always keep in mind that any mere intellectual approval or assent is only the beginning of our journey towards understanding. To awaken to what is real and eternal it is not enough to possess the truth; the truth must possess us. This means a transformation at the very roots of our imagination and sensibility, a transformation that can only occur by giving up time and time again the illusion, the self-deception, the lie of our centrality. Until then we are, in some sense, original sinners; and the sins we commit are both the effects of the Fall and, in a paradox, perhaps also its cause.

The Sacramental System

According to Catholicism being purely spiritual is opposed to the very essence of religion. Man is composed of matter and spirit, and so too must be his religion if it is to be fully adapted to human nature. Thus Catholicism is a sacramental religion—indeed, both the humanity of Jesus and the visible Church can be seen as sacraments. The sacramental system is based on the idea that certain material acts are mystical acts, are events in the spiritual world. Baptism, for instance, is more than the ritual of initiation into the visible Church. The material act of pouring water and reciting the prayer of Baptism is the outward visible sign of the baptised person’s entry into an invisible mystical community, a community of persons, living and dead, who participate in varying degrees in the life of God. In the sacrament of the Eucharist the bread and wine consecrated by the priest is, through the power of God, transformed in substance—though not in appearance—into the body and blood of Jesus. When Catholics eat this "trans-substantiated" bread (though usually only the priest drinks the wine) this material act corresponds to an invisible nourishing or strengthening of our capacity to share in the life of God, a capacity imparted by baptism. There are five other sacraments formally recognized by the Church, and each is a visible material sign that calls forth an invisible spiritual power, a power, however, which can only transform the individual to the degree that he opens himself up to its influence.

The Pope

There is no Catholicism without the Pope. "If there were only three Catholics in the world," Marshall McLuhan told an interviewer in 1977, "one of them would have to be Pope. Otherwise, there would be no church. There has to be a teaching authority or else no church at all." Remove the special authority of the pope to interpret Scripture and define doctrine and it then falls to every Christian to do so by his own best lights, secure in the knowledge that he has as much authority in the matter as the next person. The result, as five hundred years of history have demonstrated, is disunity and an endless process of fragmentation. The old appeal ‘What does the Bible say?’ is futile because the Bible, like any other text, is subject to different interpretations. You can’t put a book in the witness-box and ask it what it really means. By itself the Bible can’t possibly be the basis of unity and agreement when it is so obviously a cause of disunity and disagreement.

Papal infallibility means that Catholics believe that God will guard the pope from teaching falsehood to the Church on those special and rather rare occasions when he is appealed to to end a controversy with a final statement of faith. His ordinary pronouncements, though naturally received with profound respect, are not infallible. His private character depends on his own free will, like anybody else’s. But the question is, given our need for a final decision to save Christianity in times of great crisis, what organ of the Church decides? The longer historical experience accumulates, the more profoundly thankful most Catholics are that the organ is a human being; a mind and not a type, a will and not a tradition or mood of a class. The best bishops ruling as a class would become a club, as a parliament does. They would have all its scattered responsibility, all its mutual flattery, all its diffused and dangerous pride. But the responsibility of a Pope is so solitary and so solemn that a person would need to be less than human not to be humbled by it.

A Male Priesthood

Rome’s position on the controversial issue of women priests is often summarized as follows: No one who was as superior to the social, moral and religious traditions of his age as was Jesus of Nazareth would have hesitated to choose women as well as men to lead his new movement—if that had suited his purpose. The fact that He only chose men therefore is a sufficient indication of the Divine will, and not to follow Christ’s example would amount to disobedience.

Whether or not such an argument is adequate to support its conclusion, there is little doubt that many Catholics find it intellectually unsatisfying, while to the secular mind it sounds unconvincing at best and self-serving at worst. There is, however, more to be said for the official position than is generally conveyed, as we now hope to demonstrate.

Perhaps the deepest objection to women priests lies in the mysterious fact of gender where gender is understood to involve a metaphysical principle that conditions the relationships between men and women and, indeed, all the higher animals. Gender means that one person proposes and another person accepts, one initiates and another responds, one leads and another follows. In this view gender is a more fundamental reality than sex, which is merely the adaptation to biological life of a spiritual polarity. The male and female of organic creatures are rather faint and blurred reflections of masculine and feminine; indeed, the gender of a creature, metaphysically speaking, may be relative to the relationship being considered—although this fact greatly complicates any discussion of the matter. To take a few examples: all creation is feminine with respect to a Creator who, though sexless, is masculine; a woman will be masculine with respect to her children and feminine with respect to her husband; an employee may be masculine with respect to subordinates and feminine with respect to superiors. However, the great benefit arising from the instinctive bias of gender is that there are many situations in life where it leads human beings to accept complimentary roles, and so prevents life from being so completely dominated by the competitive instinct.

In accordance with the understanding of gender as a metaphysical as well as a biological reality, the reason why a woman cannot fulfil the role of priest is not because she is lacking in piety, zeal, learning or whatever else seems necessary for the pastoral office. As an individual she might be better qualified (excepting her sex) than all the male candidates. The problem lies in the fact that the priest is primarily a spokesman—in fact a double spokesman. He speaks to God for us; but he also speaks for God to us. Moreover he takes the place of Christ, acting as His stand-in when he dispenses the sacraments. While a woman may, perhaps, speak to God on behalf of the Christian community without violating the principle of gender, it’s hard to imagine her doing so when she speaks for God, or performs as Christ in the sacrifice of the Mass.

The objection may be more obvious if we use a form of argument called reduction ad absurdum. One assumes the opposite of what one wishes to prove and if, reasoning from that premise, you arrive at absurd results you have proved the original proposition. Let us suppose then that a woman can represent God to us, her sex being irrelevant to that role. It would then seem to follow that all the masculine imagery in Scripture is either not inspired, but merely human in origin; or else that, though inspired, that imagery is quite arbitrary and unessential. Grant that, and there seems to be no reason why we shouldn’t use male and female imagery as if they were interchangeable. We could just as well call the first person of the Trinity ‘The Mother’ instead of ‘The Father’; we could even think of Christ in a spiritual way as the Daughter of God rather than the Son, since the Incarnation might just as easily have taken a female rather than a male form; those baptised into the Christian community are ‘Daughters’ of God every bit as much as ‘Sons’; and there is no theoretical objection to speaking of the Church as the Bridegroom and of Christ as the Bride.

Yet doesn’t every instinct of intuition and common sense tell us that to do so would be to embark on a new religion, a religion quite different in character from Christianity? There are some things that cannot be deduced; they can only be received by direct insight. Propositions such as ‘babies are cute’, or ‘murder is wrong’ fall into that category. So also, C. S. Lewis suggests, is the proposition, ‘A child who has been taught to pray to a Mother in Heaven would have a religious life radically different from that of a Christian child.’

If the fact of gender and not the ideal of equality is the key to the whole matter, one would naturally expect all sorts of practical difficulties to arise by proceeding as though something so central in human experience can be fundamentally altered through the medium of culture. With a certain amount of trepidation we will draw attention to just one such difficulty. Women will often look to men for leadership and initiative. The reverse, however, is much less true, unless we are dealing with an exceptional woman—St. Joan of Arc is probably history’s most famous example. Moreover, a woman in a position of public authority doesn’t sit particularly well with other women unless, once again, she is a very unusual woman. There is no question that education can and should be used to break down narrow gender stereotypes, or culturally sanctioned distortions of the meaning of gender. Human beings can even be conditioned to overlook or minimize innate gender differences, at least in the short term. Ultimately, however, one can only free things from accidental or alien laws; one cannot free them from the laws of their own nature. The further we push the concept of gender malleability, the more we are denying that gender is a central fact of human nature. Under the influence of such an attitude the ordination of women may be just the first step on the road to the priesthood of all believers. Although this is a concept that the Church already accepts in a form that recognizes a male priesthood with specialized and exclusive spiritual functions, the current enthusiasm to ordain women may harbour a spirit which is not averse to getting rid of priests altogether. At the very least it seems likely that the movement promoting women priests—and married priests also—would favour transforming the priesthood into what we now call the ministry.

The ordination of women to the priesthood is not a matter of defined dogma, and consequently not outside the realm of possibility. However, the present view of the Church is that to begin ordaining women would involve a change so fundamental, and a break with tradition so radical, that it could not be understood in terms of growth or development. For mere change is not growth; growth is the synthesis of change and continuity, and where there is no continuity there is no growth. Instinctive feeling is often the nose of the mind, and although it is a precept of our scientific age that we should try to keep instinctive feeling out of our intellectual processes, to do so in this case may be a great mistake. Historians tell us that the ancient Persians used to debate every question twice, once when they were drunk and once when they were sober. Perhaps we should partly follow their example by examining this issue once from a purely analytical, and once from a purely instinctive viewpoint. In any event, whatever the judgement of majority or secular opinion, the Roman authorities, rightly or wrongly, have a ‘gut feeling’ that women priests would mean the birth of something sufficiently different from Christianity as to constitute a new religion. It is a pretty safe bet that as long as that feeling persists—and not just in Rome—there will be no women priests in the Catholic Church, however hard it may be to justify to a generation whose strongest ideal is egalitarianism.


The brilliant Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan said, ‘Contraception is as natural as shaving.’ It’s a clever and paradoxical statement. Firstly, it emphasizes the undoubted truth that interfering with natural processes is perfectly natural to man. Secondly, it implies that just as it is not wrong, in general, to interfere with natural processes, so it is not necessarily wrong to interfere with the natural process of conception.

The Church disagrees, not only with Lonergan and the secular world, but also with large numbers of Catholics—probably a majority. Historically, the Church has condemned contraception, by whatever means, from its earliest days. Both Catholic and Protestant Christianity continued to condemn it as an obvious evil well into the twentieth century. However, with the invention of oral contraceptives, which coincided with and gave a boost to what has been called ‘the sexual revolution,’ almost everyone except Rome reversed their position.

Rome’s response to the contraceptive revolution, laid out in the long awaited papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, was made public in 1968 during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI. Against the advice of numerous members of the papal commission set up by Pope John XXIII to look into the question, it reiterated the Church’s centuries-old teaching. In a fine example of understatement the encyclical states, ‘It can be foreseen that this teaching will perhaps not be easily received by all.’ How right they were! Humanae Vitae was not well received and remains controversial within and outside Catholic circles to this day.

According to Cardinal Newman developments ‘which do but contradict and reverse the course of doctrine which has been developed before them, and out of which they spring, are certainly corrupt.’ Yet the Church has, beyond question, reversed certain of her teachings about the Jews. It had been taught that, because of the infidelity of the people of Israel, God’s ancient covenant with them was broken and the promises made to Israel are now only valid in the Church. The only way in which Jews could be saved was by converting to Christianity. This was known as the doctrine of Supersessionism, and was accepted by Christians everywhere. Today the Church has repudiated this doctrine, and while he was in Israel Pope John Paul II spoke of the Jews as "the people of the covenant." Since ‘development’ can, in some cases, mean reversal, why not in the case of contraception?

The Oxford philosopher and Catholic convert, Elizabeth Anscombe, argues that one must look for the "substantive teaching," as distinct from "the thinking that surrounds it" which she also calls the "rhetoric" or "blurb." Her critics (Bernard Williams and Michael Tanner) have remarked that it is curious that Catholic ‘authorities should have to surround solid moral truth with such rotten thinking.’ Rotten, or merely inadequate, the closest thing to an analytical argument advanced by Humanae Vitae against artificial forms of contraception can be found in the following three long sentences:

The Church is coherent with herself when she considers recourse to the infecund periods to be licit, while at the same time condemning, as being always illicit, the use of means directly contrary to fecundation, even if such use is inspired by reasons which may appear honest and serious. In reality, there are essential differences between the two cases; in the former, the married couple make legitimate use of a natural disposition; in the latter, they impede the development of natural processes. It is true that, in the one and the other case, the married couple are concordant in the positive will of avoiding children for plausible reasons, seeking the certainty that offspring will not arrive; but it is also true that only in the former case are they able to renounce the use of marriage in the fecund periods when, for just motives, procreation is not desirable, while making use of it during infecund periods to manifest their affection and to safeguard their mutual fidelity.

Before examining this argument it will be helpful to translate into colloquial English the somewhat pedantic prose in which it is couched:

The Church is true to her traditional teaching when she holds that restricting the marital act to the woman’s infertile periods is morally permissable, while condemning, as being always immoral, the use of any method of contraception that renders infertile a marital act that would otherwise be fertile, even if motivated by apparently sincere and honest reasons. In reality, there are crucial differences between the two methods of contraception; in the former, the married couple make legitimate use of the infertile period of a natural cycle; in the latter, they interrupt that natural cycle by artificial means. It is true that both the rhythm couple and the pill couple have the same intention, namely, preventing the conception and birth of more children for what may well be justifiable reasons; but it is also true that only the rhythm couple forgo intercourse during the fertile periods, when for legitimate reasons procreation is not desirable, while continuing to have intercourse during the infertile periods to express their affection and to safeguard their mutual fidelity.

As you may have noticed, the above argument does not specifically indicate why causal interference in the physiological course of things (even for justifiable reasons) is wrong, while achieving the same results (i.e. no children) by taking advantage of the woman’s naturally occurring infertile periods is all right. Moreover, the distinction between a couple that have merely brought it about that they have intercourse when she is infertile, and a couple that have intercourse when they have brought it about that she is infertile will seem to many too fine to be turned into such a historically divisive controversy. It may be that the case against artificial contraception cannot be adequately made by using an analytical approach. Before we consider this possibility we shall examine the analytical efforts of Elizabeth Anscombe, a philosopher in the analytic tradition who clearly thinks she can do better on this score than Humanae Vitae.

According to Anscombe there’s all the world of difference between the rhythm method and artificial methods of contraception. The difference hinges on ‘immediate intentionality,’ the intention with which you do the thing, and not the intention which is served by contraception. For although the ultimate intention of both methods of contraception is the avoidance of children, the immediate intention of the pill method is to change it from ‘the kind of act by which life is transmitted (by purposefully rendering it infertile) into another sort of act altogether.’ That sort of act, she says, is morally indistinguishable from homosexual intercourse. Indeed, she claims that if contraceptive intercourse is all right then so are all forms of deviant sexual activity. On the other hand, a couple uses the rhythm method ‘not just by having intercourse now, but by not having it next week, say; and not having it next week isn’t something that does something to today’s intercourse to turn it into an infertile act; today’s intercourse is an ordinary act of intercourse, an ordinary marriage act. It’s only if, in getting married, the couple proposed to confine intercourse to infertile periods that they’d be falsifying marriage and entering a mere concubinage.’

Her critics reply with a very interesting and possibly valid line of argument: ‘To say that the rhythm couple are having intercourse this week and not next week, or even that they are having it this week rather than next week grossly undercharacterizes what they are doing. It is on the same level as describing the pill couple merely as having intercourse after the woman has swallowed something she got from the pharmacist. If we are to characterize that latter act more specifically, as of course we should, and say that the pill is part of a regime that makes her infertile, then equally we should characterize the former act by saying that it is not a question of this week or next week, but that it is a part of a regime of having intercourse when she is infertile; and that sort of act (the sort picked out in italics) is not (in Anscombe’s words) "the kind of act by which life is transmitted."’

Surely Anscombe’s critics are at least right when they assert that, ‘The identity of sorts of actions is indeed a slippery subject, and Prof. Anscombe shows startling confidence in her hold on it.’ And if there’s more than a grain of truth in their accusation that ‘she combines a commonsense bluffness against other people’s distinctions, with the most sensitive indulgence to the niceties of her own,’ they would have done well to add that this particular fault is an occupational hazard which the most honest thinker can never completely escape. Nevertheless, even if we agree that neither Hummane Vitae nor Prof. Anscombe conclusively establish a clear moral distinction between methods of contraception which involve causal interference with a natural process (rendering infertile a marital act that would otherwise be fertile) and the rhythm method, the difference of ‘immediate intentionality’ is certainly a distinction that is worth noting.

It may well be that there is no completely satisfactory defense of the Church’s teaching on contraception in the form of an analytical argument that would suffice for unaided human reason. This, in itself, would not prove that the Church was in error. There are many ideals that most of us take for granted—equality for instance—which would also be surprisingly difficult, if not impossible, to defend on purely analytical grounds. It would, however, be disappointing and regrettable to have to leave the defense of contraception in its present state.

Perhaps the strongest possible case for the Church’s ban on artificial contraception is an argument that appeals to intuition, historical imagination, and what many would call common sense, rather than one founded primarily on analytical reasoning. Though it will not satisfy every reasonable person, at least it will be intellectually satisfying to those whose conscience puts them in sympathy with Rome. To a certain extent Humanae Vitae attempts to do this, though not as effectively, in the view of many, as it might have. We will now take up that challenge.

Any method of contraception that the Church has allowed or will allow, is to be viewed as a concession to circumstances which, however prevalent, are at odds with the good, the ideal order of things. The Church and all believers must suppose that the fertility cycle has been created by God so as to maximise the sum of the goods it promotes, i.e. procreation, the physical expression of love between husband and wife, the enjoyment of sexual pleasure, and the rate of population growth—to name the most important. It is not possible for this maximum good to be realized by every individual, or at every moment in time. Rather it accrues to societies over extended periods of time, and is subject to the vagaries of the human condition.

Now just as the rhythm method of contraception is a concession to special circumstances (such as illness or poverty) and not a desirable thing in itself, so we might be able to imagine circumstances in which the pill method, though less desirable, might also be tolerated as a concession. For instance, consider a poor, illiterate Catholic couple that has never heard of the rhythm method, but lives in a country in which the pill is aggressively promoted and freely available. Might not such a couple innocently use the pill for reasons the Church would consider justifiable were they using the rhythm method instead? Whatever the case, Anscombe's view that the marital acts of such a couple would have been changed (and corrupted) by ‘immediate intentionality’ into ‘another sort of act altogether’ is one of those many instances where theoretical reasoning seems to clash with gut feeling and instinctive common sense. However, does it then follow that the Church should teach that there is nothing wrong with, or undesirable about, a method of contraception that defeats something so basic as human fertility by the simple expedient of swallowing a pill? At best it seems imprudent, at worst irrational and incoherent, given her belief in God’s benevolent design. Whether the fertility cycle is the work of God or the purely naturalistic result of eons of evolution, both believer and sceptic alike should tremble with hesitation and uncertainty before proceeding to interfere with age-old biological processes that are at the very roots of human existence.

The desire for sex is imperative and on the level of basic instinct. The desire for children is much more temperate, and the joys and advantages of being parents are in large part concealed from young couples whose desire for affluence, personal freedom, and challenging careers are constantly nurtured by a huge and sophisticated advertising industry. So long as children followed from sexual relations in numbers determined by God’s design or Nature’s law, rather than man’s easily imposed will, the human race maintained or increased its numbers under most circumstances. Of course, contraception in one form or another has always been practised, but before the pill it wasn’t particularly easy to avoid children. Now that children can be prevented almost effortlessly, many nations face the prospect of population decline—often steep decline—unless they open their doors to massive immigration. And there is no reason to suppose that immigration will offer anything other than a temporary solution. This is the huge fact that now stares us in the face, and it is going to prove a much more intractable problem than most people imagine. In fact, our attitude to this developing crisis may one day be seen as the greatest example of group denial in history.

One of the root causes of our predicament seems to be consumer materialism. While it is notoriously difficult to entice couples to reproduce themselves for money, it is very obvious that financial considerations weigh heavily in their decision to have few or no children. Although not as durable as the acquisitive appetite, the sexual appetite was more than able to hold its own when the two came into conflict. By destroying that healthy conflict, easy, effective contraception has upset the balance between two of the most important instincts in human life. With the possible exception of the automobile no piece of technology has revolutionized the character of modern society as much as the pill; and unless there is some mysterious change of mood or outlook, the long term impact of this invention may be comparable to the use of nuclear weapons.

Anatole France, no friend of the Christian religion, said that it is in the ability to deceive ourselves that we show our greatest talent. The Church is very familiar with this aspect of human nature. She sees her refusal to condone artificial methods of contraception, except as a concession to special circumstances, as the only practical way of promoting procreation, something that in the past could be left to nature. The Church’s prohibition might thus be regarded as a form of encouragement. Allowing the rhythm method is consistent with this policy of promotion and encouragement because the degree of the commitment and self-control—and even self-sacrifice—required to ensure its success is commensurate with the sincerity of the motives for having recourse to it. It is difficult to see how the same could be said if the Church were to give her blessing to the pill. The two methods of contraception don’t share the same spirit.

When we contemplate the various dire evils—unwanted children, illegal abortions, AIDS, overpopulation—for which artificial methods of contraception are put forward as a remedy, or at least an amelioration, it would be advisable to ask the following questions: Are we certain that the evils we are trying to avoid are really escaped? If indeed those evils are escaped, are we sure that even worse ones won’t take their place? Are we trying to use technology to evade the moral challenges inherent in the human condition?

In connection with that last question it should be noted that the naive belief that technology is simply our servant is becoming less and less credible with every passing year. It is now generally admitted by theorists that science is not neutral, and even more so technology. As a technological system evolves it imposes its own logic: Technology produces more technology whether it makes sense or not, whether it is wanted or not. By its nature technology continually presents us with unintended and unforeseen consequences. According to French thinker Jacques Ellul when you put your faith in a thing like technology you make that thing your master. Perhaps, then, our implicit faith in technology is fatally misplaced, and in applying it to the ancient processes of human reproduction we may end up by discovering that on the issue of contraception the Church was sensationally right, and her critics disastrously wrong.

What is Faith?

‘It is the heart,’ wrote Pascal, ‘which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.’ This is a good example of the tendency to associate faith with the organ that feels as distinct from the organ that reasons. But the truth is more complex. Consider the case of Douglas Hyde. Hyde, a member of the British Communist Party for twenty years, was chief news editor of the Daily Worker even as he was struggling to fill the void left by his dying faith in Marxism. In his autobiography I Believed he takes the view that faith is more than intellectual assent to a system of belief: ‘I read Ronald Knox’s The Belief of Catholics and found myself in intellectual agreement with it. But it did not make me believe in God. That belief had been dead too long. Nothing stirred, nothing clicked.’ Few people would disagree thus far. The problem comes when he writes, ‘Belief meant being able to feel the existence of the spiritual, to know God and not just to know about him.’

Faith, however, is not primarily a matter of feeling or experience. Few people of deep, life-long faith would claim that they feel the existence of the spiritual, or that they know God. How much one feels has a great deal to do with one’s emotional equipment, or the effect of a powerful will on an obedient imagination. The emotional quality of faith will vary with the temperament of each believer, but the foundation of every Catholic’s faith must be theology. By theology is meant the historical effort of the Christian community to interpret the documents of sacred tradition, and to understand the revelation embodied in that tradition. Faith which is nothing but emotional conviction, devoid of the idea content that theology supplies, easily degenerates until it resembles Matthew Arnold’s definition of religion: morality touched by emotion.

It would be foolish to deny that faith can be, and often is, devoid of reason. Such faith is commonly called ‘blind faith’ and means arbitrarily believing something because you want to believe it, without benefit of evidence or rational reasons. By contrast, rational faith doesn’t mean believing in spite of the evidence or in the absence of evidence; rather it means believing on the basis of unseen and indirect evidence. In the words of Pascal, ‘Faith declares what the senses do not see, but not the contrary of what they see.’ Yet even when faith is rational it also, by its very nature, goes beyond reason. At its most profound faith is a kind of intuition or insight of the heart—as Pascal has noted. Unfortunately, because the word ‘heart’ is so often associated with romantic love and the passions, reasons of the heart are all too often identified with mere emotional conviction. We forget that among the many dictionary definitions of ‘heart’ can be found: the mind, the consciousness, the thinking faculty, the seat of the will or inclination.

All faith, rational or irrational, is belief rather than knowledge in the strict sense—although the great Christian teachers have had no scruples, on occasion, about calling faith a kind of knowledge or insight. Nevertheless, the truth of faith cannot be definitively proved by any rational argument, for when we have the proof or disproof of something it is no longer a case of believing but of knowing. Thus, although faith is a heart-felt conviction, it is not always secure, since it is part of the nature of faith to leave doubt possible. Until faith resolves itself into sight and reason, as ultimately it must, there remains an element of mental unrest. The believer who is both motivated and mentally equipped will make full use of the intellect to establish the reasonableness of his faith. (Everyone knows that there are moments in life when a leap of faith, far from being intellectually reprehensible, is not only reasonable but necessary.) Regrettably, few believers have the intellectual training and discipline to build a rational case for their faith, and it is this sad fact which misleads many into thinking that reason and faith are incompatible alternatives.

We will never understand faith until we realize that faith is a venture. It involves a turning of the will as well as an assent of the intellect. In the case of Christianity it requires trusting dependence on the word of another, believing someone about something. That someone is a divine person who can only be approached in homage, and that means approaching in the darkness of faith (which is also a kind of light), and not through the proud, conquering ways of the discursive intellect. This is why Christians speak of faith as a journey. The frequently quoted Anglican clergyman, W. R. Inge, threw a helpful light on the nature of that journey when he said, ‘Faith begins as an experiment and ends as an experience.’

The way in which Douglas Hyde eventually won his struggle for faith is very instructive. One evening, after going over the problem with his wife for the umpteenth time, he heard his voice saying "It is five to ten and we still don’t believe in God as a living reality. In five minutes’ time, at ten o’clock, let’s start. Let’s act and think as though there really were one." At ten o’clock they started. Nothing happened. Weeks passed and still nothing happened. They hardly expected miracles. How could they since they still didn’t feel they believed in the reality of the supernatural? ‘But,’ thought Hyde resentfully, ‘there might have been some psychological consequences from that act of faith.’ What he failed to appreciate at the time is that man is a creature of habit in belief as well as in behaviour. You can’t root up the first principles that you’ve held for decades and replace them with new ones overnight. Nevertheless, his strategy was a good one and eventually achieved its aim.

Faith is a paradox. It’s both a gift and a choice. To some the gift comes easily, perhaps because of temperament or upbringing. Faith often comes effortlessly to those born into a family of believers. For others faith, though still a gift, is something which has to be struggled for—another paradox. The Bengali writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri said that intellectual discipline is the purgatory through which a man must pass in order to reach the paradise of faith, and the passage can be, in fact it often is, a torture. Whether faith is easy or hard, emotional or dry, C. S. Lewis clarified the emotional dimension of the problem for believer and non-believer alike: ‘Believe in God and you will have to face hours when it seems obvious that this material world is the only reality; disbelieve in Him and you must face hours when this material world seems to shout at you that it is not all. No conviction, religious or irreligious, will, of itself, end once and for all this fifth-columnist in the soul. Only the practice of Faith resulting in the habit of Faith will gradually do that.’

That last sentence is the key, especially for those who are natural sceptics. When faith is easy because it’s a feeling as well as a choice, then we are apt to think of faith as a gift. But the more we need to make repeated acts of faith, then the more we will experience faith as a demanding commitment—or even a terrible ordeal of the kind through which some of the greatest saints have had to pass. And when faith is most a commitment and least a feeling, then it most deserves to be called a virtue, one of the three virtues the Church calls the ‘theological virtues.’ The other two are hope and charity.

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