The Church is just a Building?

For some strange reason, in numerous conversations I have had with Protestants, the same statement has been made over and over by the other party while discussing the nature of the Church: “The Church is not a building!” The observation is most often accompanied with a special sort of emphasis — the cultivated certitude, the dead-eye look, the relish of one enlightening a fellow human being trapped in the depths of ignorance, topped off with a dramatic pause at the end allowing the auditor to savor the profundity of it all. It is same rhetorical flare that often accompanies that other great revelation:“You know, it’s not the heat; it’s the humidity.”

The curious thing is that this arresting disclosure that the Church is not a building is often said at the beginning of a discussion of what constitutes the true Church, and it has never been in response to me saying, “You know, the Church is a building.”

I am convinced that these various interlocutors all heard this negative definition of the Church from preachers versed in the same “ecclesiology”—which is probably the wrong word because what they learned is less like theology and more like bad rhetoric about the Church. My reaction to this claim has invariably been to agree with it and to point out that this higher, more spiritual, and less material reality that we are both calling “the Church of Christ” is actually the one to which I belong. After all, my objective in these conversations is — of course — to communicate to the other party that the one true Church of Jesus Christ is indeed the Catholic Church.

But I think I have been wrong in my approach all along. Consider:

“And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

“Now therefore you are no more strangers and foreigners; but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God. Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone” (Eph. 2:19-20).

“I will build…”; “built upon”: this is not pure symbolism. It would be much more true to say that the churches (oratories, chapels, etc.) that we worship in are the symbols. Regardless of the practical functions that they fulfill as places both of worship and of shelter from the elements, these earthly edifices stand as symbols of the more sublime reality that Jesus came to build, the one that extends beyond our time and space into Purgatory and Heaven itself.

My preferred hand missal, the Saint Andrew’s Daily Missal, has this gem of a paragraph in its brief commentary for the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilicas of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul (Nov. 18; spelling and styles as in original):

The Dedication of St Mary Major at Rome was celebrated on August 5, that of St Michael on September 29, St John Lateran on November 9; the local feast of the dedication of all the consecrated churches has been fixed in many dioceses about this time; finally, today we celebrate the dedication of the Roman basilicas of St Peter and St Paul. These dedication feasts are fittingly placed in this season: after having celebrated the Kingship of Christ, we have remembered two provinces of His Kingdom: the Church triumphant (All Saints) and the Church suffering (All Souls): our material churches, carved with chisels and mallets (Vespers hymn), are an image of the Church militant. [Emphasis mine.]

The “Vespers hymn” mentioned by the Saint Andrew’s editors is the Cœlestis urbs Jerusalem. It is one particularly beautiful part of the liturgy for the dedication of a church, which, in its Mass, Divine Office, and pontifical ceremonies of consecration, is itself a sublime ceremonial edifice.

Let us not forget that Jesus was derided by some of His unbelieving critics not only as “the carpenter’s son” (Matt. 13:55), but also as “the carpenter, the son of Mary…” (Mark 6:3). When the creative Logos became Man, He through whom all that is made was made had as His earthly father a carpenter from whom He received that trade. It is most fitting that the humble Patriarch of Nazareth, the great Saint Joseph, toiled at this particular craft, for he was an image of the Eternal Father, the Creator of all things, “of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named” (Eph. 3:15).

Jesus came as a builder. His saving mission included building a Church. The Church is a building.

But what a building! It is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, that “stone which the builders rejected,” who “is made the head of the corner” (Mark 12:10), and “upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20). Atop that foundation other stones are laid. Speaking to Christians, Saint Peter, who knew something about rocks, refers to this same Old-Testament passage that Jesus and the Evangelists invoke (Psalm 117: 22) and builds upon it. We Christians, he says, come to Christ, “as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen and made honourable by God”; then follows the apostolic admonition: “Be you also as living stones built up, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (I Pet. 2:4-5).

In I Cor. 3:9-17, Saint Paul employs similar imagery, concluding his exhortation with these words:

Know you not, that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? But if any man violate the temple of God, him shall God destroy. For the temple of God is holy, which you are.

There is a tropological reading of all this “building” language (see The Four Senses of Scripture if you would like an explanation of the word tropological). If we are the living stones upon which the Church, the Temple of God, is built, then we must be chiseled, hammered, shaped, scraped, and put into our place, whether visibly resplendent in the structure or ingloriously crammed into some crevice to be seen by God alone.

In other words, in this life, we must be both perfected by prayer, penance, and patient suffering, and fit into our place by accepting our proper vocation or state in life and virtuously fulfilling its duties. God willing we do so, we will overcome our enemies (the world, the flesh, and the devil) and become pillars in the New Jerusalem, that glorious heavenly temple the Apostle saw from Patmos (Apoc. 21:1-5a):

And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth was gone, and the sea is now no more. And I John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice from the throne, saying: Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people; and God himself with them shall be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away. And he that sat on the throne, said: Behold, I make all things new.

The title of this Ad Rem is ironic, if only slightly so—because of the word “just.” The Church is a building, as I believe the Scriptures make amply clear. After all, it is built by Jesus Christ. But it is a building that is also a bride, and a bride that is also a city, and a city that is also a kingdom, and a kingdom that is also a Mystical Body.

Let us make sure to remember all this when someone says to us, “The Church is not a building!”

Brother André Marie is Prior of St. Benedict Center, an apostolate of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Richmond New Hampshire. He does a weekly Internet Radio show, Reconquest, which airs on the Veritas Radio Network’s Crusade Channel. This article appears courtesy of

Featured: West Front of Rouen Cathedral at Sunset, by Henri Vignet; painted in 1903.

The Preface of the Roman Mass

As a neophyte to Catholic tradition in the early 1990’s, I was struck by the beauty of that part of the Traditional Latin Mass called the “Preface.” The chant that accompanies it, sung by the celebrant alone, is not only stirring and commanding of the congregation’s attention, but it is also remarkably anticipatory, appropriately betokening that ineffably Great Thing that is soon to happen. If done right, the chant of the Preface perfectly introduces the angelic hymn of Trinitarian adoration, the Sanctus, which, whether it be sung in one of the Gregorian tones or according to one of any number of polyphonic settings, beautifully commences the Canon of the Mass. In a feature unique to the classical Roman Rite, once the grand strains of the Trisagion die down, the Canon then proceeds in total silence that is only interrupted by the peel of the bells at the double consecration.

Here, the beauty of the rite showcases the sublime truth and supernal goodness of what is actually taking place in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Only a few years ago, when I expressed my love of this particular chant to a visiting priest from London, he told me that I was not alone in my love of the Preface Tone. No less a musician than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart considered it great music. In its entry on Ecclesiastical Music, the old Catholic Encyclopedia makes reference to this opinion of the great Austrian composer:

Mozart’s statement, “that he would gladly exchange all his music for the fame of having composed the Gregorian Preface,” sounds almost hyperbolic.

Hyperbolic or no, the appreciation it expresses from a musical genius is no doubt real.

In the earliest centuries of the Roman Rite, the text of the Preface was longer and was included as part of the Canon of the Mass. Along with the Trisagion (“thrice holy”) that we Latins call the Sanctus, it is found in all the rites of the Church. Our Eastern Christian brethren — whether of the Alexandrine, Antiochian, Byzantine, Armenian, etc., Rites, — still have what we call the Prefatio and Sanctus as part of their Anaphora, which is the “Eucharistic Prayer” that corresponds to our Canon. For them it still contains, as it did for us Occidentals in the earliest centuries, a lengthy litany of divine favors throughout salvation history for which we must be grateful.

It is, in fact, the very gratitude expressed in the Preface (Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” and later: vere dignum et justum est… gratias agere: “it is right and just… to give thanks”) that attaches the word Eucharist (Thanksgiving) to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as one of its earliest and most universal appellations. The Mass is, par excellence, the Great Act of Thanksgiving, and it is the Preface that gives words to this reality.

Aside from the shortening of the text over time—mostly before the Leonine Sacramentary came into use—the Preface went through another important series of changes. Unlike its Eastern counterparts, the Roman Preface was a changeable part of the Mass. In the Leonine Sacramentary, which was in use from the fourth to the seventh centuries, there were 267 Prefaces. That changed in the later Gelasian Sacramentary to 54. The Gregorian Sacramentary had only 10, but then added another hundred in an appendix. At the time Adrian Fortesque wrote the entry, “Preface,” for the Catholic Encyclopedia (1911), there were eleven Prefaces in use:

The Roman Missal now contains eleven Prefaces. Ten are in the Gregorian Sacramentary, one (of the Blessed Virgin) was added under Urban II (1088-99). The pope himself is reported to have composed this Preface and to have sung it first at the Synod of Guastalla in 1094.

But that needs to be updated! The 1952 Saint Andrew’s Daily Missal that I use regularly, has fifteen prefaces, which corresponds exactly to the contents of an old 1935 Altar Missal we have in our sacristy. They are:

The Holy Cross (for Passiontide and Feasts of the Holy Cross)
The Sacred Heart
Christ the King
The Holy Ghost
The Holy Trinity
The Blessed Virgin Mary
Saint Joseph
The Apostles
Common Preface
Preface for the Dead

A 1962 Altar Missal we possess has one added preface listed with these others, the Preface for the Chrism Mass, which I assume is owing to the Bugnini “reform” of Holy Week. In addition, this same Missal, published by the FSSP, lists four “particular Prefaces” that are used in certain dioceses: for Advent, the Blessed Sacrament (Corpus Christi and votive Masses), the Saints (All Saints and titular patrons of churches), and, lastly, the Dedication of a Church.

What is proper to the different Prefaces are brief, compact liturgical texts that are very useful for mental prayer.

There are two ceremonies in addition to the Holy Mass that employ the Gregorian “preface tone” so beloved of Mozart and yours truly. One is the ordination rite, and the other is the traditional Praeconium Paschale (Easter Proclamation) chanted by the deacon on Holy Saturday, known more commonly by its first word as “the Exsultet” (you can listen to it on YouTube; the melody of the preface tone comes in around the 3:15 mark of the video). The ancient Preface tone was applied to these rites later, by way of imitation of its use in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

What follows is a passage from Dom Guéranger’s masterful Explanation of the Holy Mass; it is the pious and learned Abbot’s sublime commentary on the Common Preface (all orthography, punctuation, capitalization, etc., as in the original English translation by Dom Laurence Shepard, O.S.B.).


ALTHOUGH the Priest has been making his petitions [of the Secret] in a low voice, yet he terminates this his Prayer aloud, exclaiming: Per omnia saecula saeculorum; to which the Faithful respond Amen, that is to say, we ask also, for what thou hast been asking. In fact, the Priest never says anything in the Holy Sacrifice without the assent of the Faithful, who, as we have already noticed, participate in the Priesthood. They have not heard what the Priest has been saying, nevertheless they join therein and approve heartily of all, by answering their Amen, yea, our Prayer is one with thine! The dialogue here begun between Priest and people is maintained for a while, at length leaving the final word to the Priest alone, who gives thanks solemnly, in the name of all there assembled.

The Priest then salutes the people, but this time without turning to them, saying: Dominus vobiscum, the Lord be with you: lo! now is the most solemn moment of Prayer! And the Faithful respond: Et cum Spiritu tuo, may He be with thy Spirit, may He aid thee, lo! we are one with thee! — Then the Priest says: Sursum Corda! lift up your hearts! The Priest requires that their hearts be detached from earthly thoughts, so that they may be directed on God alone; for the Prayer he is about to make is that of

Thanksgiving. Admire how well placed is this Prayer here, for the Priest is on the point of accomplishing the Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, and this Sacrifice is verily for us the Instrument of Thanksgiving; it is the Means whereby we are enabled to render back to God that which we owe Him. So Holy Mother Church, delighting with intensest relish in this magnificent Prayer, would fain arouse her faithful children with this cry: Sursum Corda! in order that they too may appreciate, as she does, this great Act of Thanksgiving, whereby she offers unto God a Something that is Great and worthy of Him. And now the Faithful hasten to express their reassurances to the Priest: Habemus ad Dominum! we have our hearts raised up unto the Lord! Then, replies the Priest, if indeed it is so, let us all unitedly give thanks unto the Lord: Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro. And the Faithful at once add: Dignum et justum est. Thus do they unite themselves wholly with the Thanksgiving of the Preface which the Priest is about to speak. — This dialogue is as old as the Church herself, and there is every reason to believe that the Apostles themselves arranged it, because it is to be found in the most ancient Churches and in all Liturgies. As far as possible, the Faithful should make an effort never to be seated on any account during these acclamations. Now does the Priest take up the speech himself and continues thus alone: Vere dignum et justum est, aequum et salutare, nos tibi semper et ubique, gratias agere: Domine Sancte, Pater omnipotens, aeterne Deus, per Christum Dominum nostrum. So it is truly just to give Thee thanks, O Almighty God, tibi to Thee, Thyself, semper et ubique, always and everywhere, and to render Thee this our Thanks, through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Yes, indeed, it is through Jesus Christ that our Thanksgiving must be made, for were we to do so in our own name, there would be the Infinite between God and ourselves, and so our Thanksgiving could never reach unto Him; whereas, made through Jesus Christ, it goes straight up, and penetrates even right to the very centre of the Divinity. But, not only must we, human creatures, go to the Father through Our Lord, but the very Angels even, have no access except through Him. Hearken once more to the Priest: Per quem Majestatem tuam laudant Angeli; by Whom, (i.e., Jesus Christ), the Angels praise Thy Majesty: for, since the Incarnation, they adore the Godhead, through Jesus Christ, Our Lord, the Sovereign High-Priest. Adorant Dominationes, the Dominations adore through Jesus Christ; tremunt Potestates, the Powers too, those beauteous Angels, make their celestial thrillings heard, and in awe, tremble before the Face of Jesus Christ: Coeli, the Heavens, that is to say, Angels of still higher order; Coelorumque Virtutes, and the Heavenly Virtues also, Angels yet more exalted; ac beata Seraphim, and the Blessed Seraphim, who by their pure love come nighest unto God, — socia exsultatione concelebrant, all these stupendous Choirs blended together in one harmonious transport concelebrate, through Jesus Christ, the Majesty Divine. The Prefaces thus terminate by mentioning the Angels, in order to lead the Church Militant to sing the Hymn of the Church Triumphant. Cum quibus et nostras voces ut dimitti jubeas deprecamur, supplici confessione dicentes; yea, fain are we to join anon our feeble voice to that mighty angelic strain, and we crave leave to begin even now whilst here below, and sinners still, the great: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, Dominus Deus Sabaoth.

Thus all Prefaces are formed on the one great idea of Giving Thanks to God, gratias agere; and of making this Thanksgiving through Jesus Christ, because it is by Him Alone that we can come nigh unto God, yea, approach in union with the Angels too, with whom we join in the celestial chorus of their Trisagion.

Besides this the Common Preface, Holy Church offers us others wherein we invite the Heavenly Spirits to celebrate with us, in one joint Act of Thanksgiving, the principal Mysteries of the Man-God, whether at Christmas or in Lent, or at Passion-tide, or at Easter, or, again, at Ascension or Pentecost. Nor does she fail to remember Her by whom Salvation came to this our earth, the Glorious Virgin Mary; as also the holy Apostles by whom Redemption was preached to the entire world.

The Preface is intoned on the very same melody used by the ancient Greeks when celebrating some hero in their feasts, and there declaiming his mighty deeds in song.

Brother André Marie is Prior of St. Benedict Center, an apostolate of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Richmond New Hampshire. He does a weekly Internet Radio show, Reconquest, which airs on the Veritas Radio Network’s Crusade Channel. This article appears courtesy of

Featured: The Mass of Saint Gregory, by the Spanish Painter; painted ca. 1490–1500.

Teilhard de Chardin: Putting an End to the Myth

Pasolini once wrote that theology is one of the branches of fantastic literature. We will reserve this assertion for the theology-fiction of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Despite eleven condemnations by the Church, which silenced him because of the “serious attacks on Catholic doctrine” developed in his books, his theology enjoyed incredible success in the 1950s and especially the 1960s, supported by the Society of Jesus. Even good souls were seduced by its lyrical prose, full of neologisms and appealing, if bizarre, poetic flights of fancy. His euphoric project of reconciling modern science and faith was very much in the spirit of a time bathed in optimism against a backdrop of technological advances.

And yet, not only are the Jesuit’s theses devoid of scientific credibility, they are also contrary to the most elementary truths of faith. This is what Wolfgang Smith demonstrates at length in a very insightful work. Smith is both an inspired philosopher and a leading scientist, physicist and mathematician, who has taught at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Teilhard was a paleontologist of no particular genius, incompetent in both biology and physics, and the knowledge he gained from his profession (the discovery of fossils) had no connection with his ideological construction, as he acknowledged in his correspondence. This explains why his theses were criticized by renowned scientists.

Teilhard’s intention was to reintroduce God into a scientific vision dominated by evolution. He made no secret of his intention to re-found Christianity—an “improved Christianity,” an “ultra-Christianity,” a “meta-Christianity,” as he put it—on new foundations. The universe was conceived in a pantheistic mode: “There is in the World neither Spirit nor Matter; the Fabric of the Universe is Spirit-Matter.” According to a great “law of Complexity of Consciousness,” “everything that exists is Matter that becomes Spirit.” For him, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is contradicted by the “temporo-spatial enormity,” the “energetic immensities,” and the “unfathomable organic connections of the phenomenal World.” For Teilhard, “grace represents physical over-creation. In other words, it is properly biological in nature.”

We must also abandon our conception of a God above time: “Around us and within us, by the encounter of his Attraction and our Thought, God is in the process of ‘changing’… By the rise of the Cosmic Quantity of Union, his radiance, his hue are enriched!” Rejecting the law of the universe’s increasing entropy, Teilhard asserts that everything converges irresistibly towards an “Omega Point,” which is none other than the cosmic Christ.

One of the stumbling blocks between Teilhard’s vision and Church teaching is the dogma of original sin. In what is perhaps the most fascinating chapter of his book, Wolfgang Smith explains how Adam’s Fall fits into a different representation of origins than the Jesuit’s: ” it is this primordial catastrophe—and not a Darwinist ascent—that is responsible for the human condition as we know it today.” On the contrary, for Teilhard, evil is simply disorder caused by natural processes. This conception led him to an astonishing relativization of man’s sinfulness. His “neo-humanist” political vision is based on the phenomenon of “socialization,” aggregation through collectivization, which brought him to a singular complacency to Nazi and Communist totalitarianism. In 1938, he wrote: “I do not know where to fix my sympathies, at the present time: where is there more hope and ideal at present? In Russia, or in Berlin?”

In the end, all the truths of faith are reinterpreted in his own way, as best he can, or, in the case of the most troublesome, abandoned.

We recommend this book to all Teilhardardians, and in particular to the Jesuits, who have just opened a Centre Pierre Teilhard de Chardin on the Plateau de Saclay [the European Silicon Valley], with the ambition of making it “a space for dialogue between science, philosophy and spirituality.” It would have been preferable to choose better sponsor.

Denis Sureau is the editor of the review Transmettre and the bi-monthly newsletter Chrétiens dans la Cité. He is the author of Pour une nouvelle théologie politique. This article comes through the kind courtesy of La Nef.

Do You Go to Hell if You Commit Suicide?

According to the World Health Organization, over 700,000 people commit suicide per year, and many more attempt it. Alarmingly, it is the fourth leading cause of death for people 15-29 years of age. The situation worsened with widespread lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. Even though suicide has been documented and studied for over 3,000 years, our knowledge of it remains quite tenuous. Although it’s been on the rise in recent years, historically, it’s been a problem since the revolution in human self-awareness that took place around 70,000 B.C.

In his 1942 absurdist philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus, journalist and philosopher (a title which he himself denied), Albert Camus, raises one of the most notable existential questions of the twentieth century, one that cuts to the core of human existence: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Camus was right about the fact that people who commit suicide, whatever their reasons, deem life not worth living, at least at the moment that the dreadful act occurs. (However, an altruistic suicide may not neatly come under such an understanding.) Sisyphus is a Greek mythological character who appears in Book VI of Homer’s Iliad. In post-Homeric times, a legend developed in which Sisyphus is said to have cheated Death and is punished eternally by having to roll up a boulder to the top of a mountain only to have it roll down each time he pushes it to the top. Camus forcefully uses this illustration to show the absurdity of endless repetition and the ultimate meaninglessness of life.

This unfortunate reality is no better captured than in the 1988 cult classic Permanent Record, starring Keanu Reeves, which, unlike many movies in its genre, poignantly depicts the great tragedy of suicide. Reeves’ character, Chris Townsend, loses his best friend, David Sinclair (played by Alan Boyce), to suicide. Outside of a high school party, David decides to take a walk toward the edge of a cliff that overlooks the ocean. Chris follows David and hides behind a boulder in the dark, to playfully sneak up on him, but when he jumps in front of the boulder, he discovers that his friend has disappeared.

One of the most heart-wrenching scenes of the movie is when Chris shares the suicide note he receives from David after his death (which makes Chris realize that David’s death was not accidental but intentional) with David’s parents; upon reading the note, the parents remain in denial, and that’s when Chris states, in reference to David falling: “There was no sound. He didn’t scream.” To which David’s father replies, “He should’ve screamed. I would’ve screamed, wouldn’t you?” It is shocking and heartbreaking for family and friends to learn that a loved one planned their own death.

Throughout the movie, Chris blames himself for David’s suicide and says he should’ve known there was some sort of crisis in David’s life. Later, Chris comes to the conclusion that he will never know the actual reason why his friend committed suicide. The movie effectively evokes the helplessness and emptiness that one endures when such a loss occurs and the unanswered questions that linger. It also illustrates the permanence and gravity of suicide, for known reasons such as the impact it will have on family, friends, and society, as well for unknown reasons such as the consequences for the afterlife.

Undoubtedly, the subject of suicide provokes many questions, such as: Do we continue to exist after death? Do humans have a soul? Where do our souls go after death? Is life sacred? Is there an ultimate meaning to life? Are there ultimate consequences to our actions? Is life worth living? Is there a heaven? Is there a hell? Where do our souls go if we commit suicide? And what does the Bible say about committing suicide and whether that person goes to hell?

The Question of Ultimate Meaning

Even though Camus was an atheist at the time and believed in the ultimate meaninglessness of life, as illustrated in his illustration of Sisyphus, he argues throughout the book that life is still worth living. Essentially, Camus tells us that life has no real meaning but that we must pretend that it does and trudge forward. Under atheism, there is no possibility for ultimate meaning, only subjective and personal meaning, since two important preconditions are not met: the existence of an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God, and immortality. Thus, life is indeed absurd in the absence of God. However, Christianity, provides ultimate meaning since God promises His followers to be delivered from sin and death into everlasting life. The God-man, Jesus, accomplishes this through His death and resurrection, redeeming and delivering humanity from eternal suffering. As Jesus states in the Gospel of John, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish” John 10:27-28. Thus, where a worldview like atheism fails, Christianity triumphs. If there is ultimate meaning, there are also ultimate consequences to our actions. Leaving that aside for the time being, let us probe deeper.

What is Suicide?

So far, we have mentioned characterizations of suicide in literature and cinema, but we haven’t given a proper definition and real-life examples. Most simply put, suicide is the deliberate act of ending one’s own life. But this definition, in and of itself, cannot speak to the moral and ethical issues surrounding each particular instance of suicide since each act of suicide can vary greatly. Consider the following examples, all of which can be considered suicide but differ greatly in intent and circumstances:

  • A young man fears failure and the uncertainty of the future, so he decides to jump off a cliff.
  • A teenage girl who is overwhelmed with bullying at school and on social media, purposely overdoses on Tylenol.
  • A father, foreseeing his own potential death, jumps in front of a spray of bullets to save his children’s lives.
  • A soldier who is captured during a time of war and takes a pill to avoid being tortured and imparting secret information.
  • A Jehovah’s Witness who refuses a blood transfusion and dies as a result of his decision.
  • A serial killer or mass murderer who evades capture by hanging himself.
  • Someone who is part of a mass-suicide, like in the case of the Jonestown Massacre, participates in ingesting cyanide due to mind manipulation.
  • A woman who suffers from medical depression kills herself and harms her husband in the process.

Some may even try, through twisted logic, to claim that the willful deaths of Jesus’ disciples and followers are a form of self-righteous suicide, but this would be best understood as martyrdom. Nevertheless, each of these cases is significantly different and mustn’t be treated equally. Intention is paramount to answering the question of what happens to someone in the afterlife if they commit suicide. (For an excellent resource on the afterlife, see Gary R. Habermas and J.P. Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality).

People may commit suicide for a multitude of reasons, including impulsive acts related to extreme stress, trauma from some sort of physical, mental, and sexual abuse, a mental disorder, substance abuse, self-sacrifice to save others, a form to end physical and mental suffering (as is the case with euthanasia and assisted suicide), relationship issues, an existential void, fear of failure, acting on false information, a way to escape justice, and others. Moral theologians and ethicists argue that there must be a distinction between the subjective and objective aspects of suicide’s morality. The subjective aspect deals with the guilt that is felt by the person who commits suicide, whereas the objective aspect refers to the morality of the suicidal act itself. What these touch upon is whether someone is blameworthy for their action or not. Although the action may be wrong, the subjective experience and surrounding circumstances, as listed in the different examples above, do make a profound difference.

The Bible and Suicide

Even though suicide is mentioned on several occasions throughout the Bible (Judges 16:29–30; 1 Samuel 31:4–5; 2 Samuel 17:23; 1 Kings 16:18; Matthew 27:3–5), it does not speak to the issue explicitly. Nevertheless, the Bible is very clear on its stance against murder, as the sixth Commandment unequivocally states: “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13), which was also stated by Jesus (Matthew 19:18). Much in the same way that someone can be blameworthy for an act of murder, so it is with suicide since it is a violation of the sanctity of life; human life is to be treated not as a means to an end but as an end itself. It also violates the natural law and the biological inclination to maintain existence, whether one must endure hardships or not; it is also a moral duty to one’s self, family, community, and to God. Biblical Christianity makes clear that our life is not our own but a gift from God: “We do not live for ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:7-9). Thus, depending on the intention of the suicidal act, it may indeed be an eternally culpable offense. God’s will ultimately determines how and when someone dies as the Owner of life and all of existence; any betrayal of this risks elevating ourselves above God and His will.

What about Hell?

Hell is one of the most frightening concepts in all of Christendom. Traditionally, hell has been viewed as a place of eternal punishment, torment, and suffering. Hell is also described as a place that is devoid of God and, by implication, of all love, joy, and goodness. Throughout the Scriptures, there are many references to hell. In the Book of Daniel, we find the following verse: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). The Gospel of Matthew warns us of hell: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). The Book of Revelation describes hell in the following way: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8). Thus, the Scriptures do not paint an alluring picture of hell. It is a place that people should avoid at all costs.

Based on the Scriptures, theologians have offered different interpretations of what hell might entail. Five views are useful in outlining the main theological understandings of hell.

First, the literal view is one of eternal conscious torment in a literal fire. Second, the metaphorical understanding views hell as a place of eternal torment, but one where the authors of the Scriptures are using hyperbole and not meant to be taken literally. Third, the purgatorial view does not deny the existence of hell but advocates for an intermittent place for those who require some temporary cleansing before they are ready for heaven. According to Roman Catholic theology, living people can aid in this cleansing through prayer. Fourth, there is the annihilationist view (similar to the conditionalist), which argues for the annihilation of any soul over eternal conscious torment. Lastly, there is the universalist view of hell. Not all theologians who advocate for this view agree whether there is a hell or not, but if there is, they believe it is temporal and for corrective purposes. Interestingly, the early Christian theologian Origen believed that all rational souls would be saved, including the devil and his demons. Nonetheless, it is all dependent on God’s charity, mercy, and willingness to regenerate these fallen beings.

So, does someone who commits suicide go to hell? The answer is far more complicated than many people believe, as it involves numerous factors. First, we must understand the subjective and objective aspects surrounding the suicidal act. Second, Christian theology allows for various interpretations of hell. And last and most importantly, we must always be reminded that no one is in a position to judge whether someone has gone to hell or not. It could be that the person repented right before the moment of death, which mind-body dualists (substance dualism) view as the separation of the soul from the body. We are also in the dark about a person’s interior life, including their moral conscience and what God has deemed just for their eternal destiny.

Salvation is an incredibly complex theological reality, and in this context, a very personal one. It could be that someone who committed suicide may go to hell for reasons aside from committing suicide, i.e., for rejecting Jesus as their Lord and Saviour throughout their lives and, as a consequence, refusing God’s forgiveness. It is also vital to understand that our conception of forgiveness is infinitely flawed as compared to God’s perfect justice and love. Nevertheless, we should take Camus’ question of suicide very seriously and help prevent the tragedy of suicide. We must also not treat the doctrine of hell lightly or as solely an intellectual endeavour but as one requiring existential action.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, seek professional help and discuss this with someone you trust. It is important to understand that life does have ultimate meaning and that the Creator of all existence wants a loving relationship with you.

Scott Ventureyra is an author, theologian, and philosopher. Further information is found on his website. He also offers full publishing services.

Featured: Melancholy, by Constance Marie Charpentier; painted in 1801.

Lord of Peace, Give us Your Promised Peace: The Prayer of Father Manuel Musallam

“Lord, may we hear the cry of the victims of conflict, especially today, those voices rising from Gaza. Forgive our deafness, open our ears and hearts to the anguish and distress of our neighbor. And we join in the prayers of our brothers and sisters in Gaza. But you, God, in whom we trust, do not keep your good grace from us. Do not stand so far away”(Psalm 10:1).

Lord Jesus, when You passed through Gaza, fleeing Herod’s threat, we protected You. We fed You. We warmed Your weakened body. Please come back to Gaza and help us. Give us Your promised Peace. Do not forget Your people: 200 Catholics, 3,500 Orthodox, 30 Baptists, 10 Anglicans and a million and a half Muslims.

Have mercy on us, God. Give us peace based on justice, growth and charity. Make us understand these words: “Rejoice in hope. Endure in distress. Devote yourselves assiduously to prayer” (Romans 12:12).

Strengthen us in our distress “so that, through the encouragement we ourselves receive from God, we may encourage those who are in all kinds of distress!” (2 Corinthians 1:4).

Lord, even if we are thirsty for peace and hungry for justice, “who will separate us from the Love of Christ? Shall distress, anguish, persecution, hunger, want, peril, or the sword?” (Romans 8:35).

We are Yours. Save us! Lord of Peace, rain Peace upon us. Lord of Peace, grant Peace to our land. Have mercy, Lord, on all Your people! But do not leave us, Lord, in enmity forever!”


Father Musallam’s message to Gaza and the world…

A Disastrous Decision that will Ruin this Pontificate

The Vatican has just allowed the blessing of irregular couples, homosexuals in particular. A crisis has ensued; and it is only just the beginning. In this short article, I would like to offer a few thoughts on this crisis, as a way of orienting oneself and considering possible options.

I think I am what is known as a staunch Catholic. I do not believe a pope is infallible all the time—but I do believe him (Vatican I) to be infallible when he teaches ex cathedra. I tend to respect his ordinary teaching. With that in mind, the pope’s absolute power is only just, like all absolute power, if it is strictly limited and framed, with absolute respect for the Deposit of Faith and the institutions willed by the Church’s Founder, Holy Scripture and Church tradition as its counterpart. I also understand that we may not always have at the head of the Church a saint who doubles as a genius and triples as a hero. More generally, my piety is not papocentric. And like John-Henry Newman, I like to drink to the Pope, but first to my conscience.

In previous years, I have always had mixed feelings towards Francis, but overall I have tended to defend his positions, attracting the hostility of high-flying Bergogliophobes.

I took the time to read the text carefully, to reflect and to pray. And now, I have to admit, I have lost it. It’s as if I have come to the end of my tether.

Perhaps we are living in one of those exceptional moments in the history of the Church, and its future now depends on the outcome of the discussion, or struggle, that is taking place.

The essential tradition of the Church is concentrated in Scripture, the Word of God. The Bible includes Paul’s epistles. Saint Paul is the major source of all Catholic theology. The most important of these is his letter to the Romans. The first chapter is absolutely fundamental. So, here is how Paul wrote to the Romans to characterize sin in its essence and root:

And they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error (Romans 1:23-27).

These are not very mysterious texts. Even without being a great theologian, or a qualified exegete, one can understand. It is very clear that homosexuality has a particularly close relationship with idolatry and the overthrow of the Glory of God.

With that said, we are all poor sinners whom Christ wants to save. We are all capable of anything. Jesus prefers the lost sheep. He prevents the stoning of an adulteress, but says to her, “Go and sin no more.”

There is nothing of the sort in Cardinal Fernandez’s text.

We understand that there are an infinite number of lost sheep, and it is not a bad idea to try to bring them into the fold with a kind offer, rather than crushing condemnation.

But Saint Paul knew the love of Christ, which surpasses all knowledge, at least as well as we do. And yet, after dwelling on the atrocious mass of sin, he concludes this first chapter with these words:

They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them (Romans 1:32).

Is it contrary to mercy to speak this way? Who are we to judge the Word of God?

Mercy means calling the sinner not to die in sin, not to lose his soul, not to tarnish the glory of God. Is this what Cardinal Fernandez’s text does?

His text is subtle, I agree. But how can we ignore what the simplifying media will say and do with it? Trouble for believers? The scandal for the weakest? How can we ignore the monstrous global LGBT propaganda? That Rome seems to be going along with these perverse, totalitarian monstrosities? What an immense scandal! What an obstacle to the evangelization of the South and East, which can no longer bear the tyranny of a degenerate West!

So, I cannot help but wonder:

Would the author of the 1st chapter of the epistle to the Romans have signed Cardinal Fernandez’s text? Who is Cardinal Fernandez, to tear up the text of Holy Scripture? Does he not understand that the whole world looks on in amazement and wonders: Has Rome lost its faith? Is the Catholic Church still worthy of faith? Is the Pope here to weaken the faith of his brothers? Has Cardinal Fernandez lost all fear of God? Does he have no fear of hell?

A friend told me: “In my doubts, I used to turn to Rome. In my doubts about Rome, where do I turn?”

And he added: “Why stop there? Every criminal association has its values. Mafiosi have a sense of family, loyalty, sacrifice and friendship. They also want, in their own time, to get back on the straight and narrow, and to gently remind themselves that God remains their Father. Eminence, why do you not bless the mafias?”

And he added: “Of course, we do not change the doctrine, but in practice we do the opposite. I cannot express the disgust I feel at this hypocrisy. How can anyone say that this won’t upset anyone? If an educated person like me is troubled, what about the weak-minded person informed by TV?”

And he said in conclusion: “Facts are facts. Either God abandons His Church, or Rome is no longer in Rome.”

What could I say?

And what will I think?

I am told I have a phlegmatic temperament. I tend to consider all hypotheses coldly.

Here are the main hypotheses:

  1. The Pope is super-Christian (A) and his critics are sinister Pharisees (B).
  2. The Pope is ill, slightly senile, not very intelligent, too much of a camarilla, and Fernández has abused his weakness.
  3. The pope is a real pope in full vigor and is joyfully heretical in good faith and freely, although hypocritically.
  4. Bergoglio is not the pope and never has been. He is an antipope, put in place by the powers of this world, who have cunningly organized an orange revolution in the Church. A legitimate pope must therefore be elected without delay.
  5. Bergoglio is a political pope, like Urban II or Julius II, a Machiavellian defender of Church freedom.

That this discussion could even take place at all might seem overwhelming.

If option 3 were true, the question would arise whether to remain Catholic. It is not the most likely.

Option 4 is the most romantic. But conspiracies are not always wrong. However, there are some facts that do not fit the hypothesis.

Option 5 seems the truest, probably, given our current state of knowledge. To be combined with 2 and 1—especially 1 B, because 1 A is not the case. And if Bergoglio is a saint, I have my chances of being canonized, too.

I will now reconstruct the (hypothetical) political reasoning:

The pressure is too great. If we say no to the gays, we will be in trouble, and the clever anti-German maneuvering (we can talk about that later) requires some veering to the left if it is to succeed.

But, of course, we cannot say, yes.

So, Fernandez is asked to give the homos the kiss that kills. He invents an ingenious, theologically-incongruous distinction between first-rate benediction and junk benediction.

And we give homos the junk benediction.

Having thrown them a bone to gnaw on, which the media will turn into a royal feast, they will leave us in peace.

This concoction will go down well, served in a sauce of merciful sentimentality. We cannot rule out the possibility that its aroma will genuinely make the Pope weep with tenderness.

Let us be politicanti. All these LGBT aberrations will soon end along with the power of the West. It is just a matter of time. In the meantime, the power of militant homos to cause trouble must be taken into account. (God knows how much blackmail power they can wield in practice.) The powerful of the world are horribly instrumentalizing poor, grassroots homosexuals. And when the tide of history turns, these unfortunates will be the ideal scapegoats for reaction. So, it is only right to love them, since they will be so much to be pitied tomorrow.

In short, it is worth it to keep our backs to the wall until all these nice people have lost their power. Good Catholics will grumble, but they will stay. There is no explaining it. Intelligent believers must understand that Francis’ word is like Pius XII’s silence.

This kind of analysis may not do Bergoglio any favors, but at least it leaves Peter essentially untouched.

Unless, that is, it is a huge error of governance. This, seen from my window of competence, is indubitable. It ruins the relationship with Islam, bears the seeds of the loss of Africa and the disinterest of Asia, and the bridges will be burned with the Orthodox, while the Evangelicals will have the argument they needed to gain the upper hand in South America. Does Francis want to sink Rome with Washington?

Catholicism needs a pope. Loss of trust now goes hand-in-hand with loss of respect. Tomorrow, the loss of authority will lead to schism, as with the Anglicans.

The Church and the world are decidedly large objects. They do not fit into a too-narrow brain, and global responsibility does not sit well with coffee-shop talk and sub-prefecture Machiavellianism.

We will have to think about that at the next conclave.

In the meantime, it seems clear to me that dismissing Fernandez would be the only way to save this pontificate, which otherwise risks ending in disaster.

Featured: The Vision of Pope Innocent III, by Giotto; painted ca., 1295-1300.

The Synod as Seen by an Ordinary Paris Priest

We don’t know much about the Synod, because we’re not directly involved. We’re out in the field, patiently ploughing through parish life and “smelling the sheep.” We pick up a few scattered rumblings, which are generally met with indifference; but for some they fuel a vague concern, for others the hope of reforms concerning the place of women or the end of a supposedly “rigid” morality. The advent of a “synodal” Church is also presented, at least implicitly, as a response to the crisis of sexual abuse committed by certain clerics. One of the unstated aims of the “synod fathers and mothers” seems to be to deconstruct the authority of the pastor in favor of collective “decision-making processes,” which would destroy the seeds of clericalism, seen as the root of all evil.

To constantly evoke the dangers of clericalism in an almost totally de-Christianized world and a Church bereft of priestly vocations, which has seen a spectacular drop in the last decade (for Paris, the number of seminarians has fallen by over 50%)—isn’t this just shooting point-blank into what’s left of our feet to walk on? We’d like to hear words about the beauty of the priesthood, implore the Lord to send laborers into His harvest, and pray that priests will be good servants of God’s people, rooted in the interior life. ” Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear,” says the Apostle (Eph 4:29). Priests, especially the younger ones, need so much encouragement and consolation in the trials of ministry.

The least we can say is that this synod is not arousing the enthusiasm of fervent young Catholics, who attended very little of the preparatory phase. In Paris, only 14% of participants were between the ages of 20 and 35. The figure speaks for itself. Young people have a thirst for identity and clarity, a desire for formation and a certain flexibility in expressing their sensibilities. They go from the Christian pilgrimage to the Mission Congress, from the Gloria of the Angels to an evening of praise and healing.

In his homily at the opening Mass of the Synod on October 4, which was overshadowed by his responses to the dubia and its many possible interpretations, Pope Francis tried to strike a balance. He wants to avoid making debates over controversial issues too tense, and dismisses both the temptation of “rigidity” and submission to an “agenda dictated by the world.” The Synod is called upon, says the Holy Father, to build “a Church that has God at its center and that, consequently, is not divided internally and is never harsh externally.” He warns against “an immanent gaze, made up of human strategies, political calculations or ideological battles.”

The Church is Not Her own Creator

It’s obvious that behind the scenes at synods and conclaves, worldly strategies, intimidations and seductions are all around us. This is the way of man, and even more so of the ecclesiastical world, which is easily covered by a veneer of Roman charity and unctuousness. We can only agree with the Holy Father’s desire for unity. This does not prevent us from reflecting and offering constructive criticism. “You can take off your hat in church, but not your head,” said Chesterton. Cardinal Fernandez accuses those who criticize the “doctrine of the Holy Father” of heresy and schism (National Catholic Register, Sept. 8, 2023). Strictly speaking, there is no “doctrine of the Holy Father,” but the Catholic faith revealed in Jesus Christ, of which we are the servants and not the masters, whatever the orientations of a pontificate.

Basically, things are simple. Does the truth about faith and morals, the fundamental structure of the Church, the sacramental life, the final ends, emanate from “below,” through a democratic dialogue supposedly “in the Holy Spirit” that finally reaches a consensus? Or is it to be accepted “on our knees” by the Revelation of a demanding love that surpasses us, transmitted in fullness by Christ and borne by the living tradition of the Church, by those who have borne witness to the faith at the price of their blood? The Church is not the creator of herself, and we don’t have to define our own moral criteria, but listen to the Lord’s Law. “Be holy, for I am holy”, says the Lord (1 Pet 1:16).

Nonetheless, it’s true that new issues are constantly arising in the parish, and that they are growing in scope, and that the Church can’t ignore them. For example, the number of “remarried” divorcees, some of whom claim the right to receive Holy Communion, invoking “the spirit of Pope Francis;” homosexual “couples” who ask baptism for an adopted child or a child born through MAR; engaged couples, almost all of whom live in a form of cohabitation; the ignorance, for many who knock on the Church’s door, of the most elementary foundations of catechesis. Priests ordained for a traditionalist community generally have the grace of being surrounded by trained, culturally homogeneous faithful who take care of them and don’t question the Church’s constant teaching. A priest in a de-Christianized parish, following decades of “inclusive” pastoral care based on an unconditional welcome that strives to avoid any “cleavage,” and focused more on the charitable pole than on catechetical formation, doesn’t have the same support. The Church needs all kinds of people. Pastors who take care of families anchored in the faith, and others who are more on the front line in the shifting sands of a “liquid” society where the Church is trying to make its way along a difficult path that rarely avoids trial and error, pitfalls or lapses in judgment.

What Catholic, what bishop, would not be preoccupied by concern for all souls? How much hidden sufferings, buried guilt and wounds we must encounter by listening to and soothing, just as the Good Samaritan poured oil and wine on the man’s wounds and led him to the inn: the image of the Church? But to love all men is also to show them, as they grow, the way to a demanding and holy life in line with the objectivity of goodness.

Don’t Try to Legislate Everything

Rome must leave it up to the pastors in the field to discern the best path to take in the face of the particular cases that arise, and avoid at all costs trying to legislate everything, at the risk of falling into unbearable casuistry and aggravating divisions. The pastoral charity of a parish priest strives to reach out to people in complex or objectively sinful situations, but “love and truth meet” (Ps 84). Giving milk does not mean renouncing solid food, still less maintaining the vagueness of revealed truths, at the risk of creating extreme confusion. Loving all people means recalling their vocation to holiness.

The wisest thing to do is to do good where we are, to keep our spleens in check, and to continue teaching the faith of the Church, taking care of the sheep where they are, with as much pastoral delicacy as possible, but never giving up on leading them to the holy mountain which, as priests, we must climb first in a tireless conversion. Not primarily that of reforming structures by initiating ecclesial “processes,” but that of a heart resolutely turned towards the Lord. Conversion is personal, or it is not. The rest will pass like snow in the sun, and the mountain may simply give birth to a mouse. Let’s hope it doesn’t nibble away at the threads that bind us to the long tradition that comes down to us from the Apostles, and that it leads us to take one more small step towards the Lord of life, who remains eternally, beyond the contradictions of mankind, Master of time and history.

Father Luc de Bellescize is the Curate of Saint Vincent-de-Paul in Paris. This article comes through the kind courtesy of La Nef.

Featured: Fridolin Assists with the Holy Mass, by Peter Fendi; painted in 1833.

Scita Et Scienda: The Dwarfing of Modern Man

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (1909 – 1999) gave this lecture at Hillsdale College in 1974. He was true Renaissance Man, with expertise in linguistics, theology, history, economics, philosophy, political science and art.

A few years ago a friend of mine, a professor of zoology at an American university, invited several of his colleagues for a little party in my honor. I was curious to know their attitude towards Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, but when I raised that question I received only blank looks. I spelled the name—still no reaction. “Well,” I finally said, “Teilhard was, after all, mainly a paleontologist and his works might not be of direct interest to you, but surely you know those of Pierre Lecomte du Nouy, a biologist. Like Teilhard he also died in this country and his books have been translated into English.” And again the learned assembly shook their heads. I gave up. Now, I do not want to be misunderstood. There was nothing specifically American about this conversation; exactly the same might have happened almost anywhere in the world—nowadays.

When all the guests had left my friend explained. “You must know,” he said, “that these professors are not only unable to coordinate zoology with the neighboring disciplines—paleontology or biology for instance, not to mention philosophy—but neither have they ever acquired a truly comprehensive knowledge of zoology as a whole. Like surgeons at an operation, denuding only a minute part of the patient’s body, they work in their own small, special compartment of science and except for their admittedly very thorough specialized research, nothing really interests them. They watch ball games and TV, read detective stories, play golf and canasta, but that’s about all. Erudition requires an enormous effort, and although it would be of an intellectual interest, it no longer has a practical, least of all a cash value.”

This kind of specialization is found all over the modern world and one of its immediate results is the Hillsdale College Hillsdale, Michigan 49242 Vol. 3 No. 10 October 1974 extinction of the polyhistor, the all-round scholar. Men like William Graham Sumner, or more recently like Roepke and Ruestow, two economists who also were at home in history, sociology, philosophy, theology, geography, politics and the fine arts, are becoming rarer and rarer. As a matter of fact, in many fields of scholarship and research—especially so in the natural sciences—great names appear hardly anymore, since larger tasks can only be accomplished by groups and teams. Prizes and honors are then accredited to an individual merely as a sort of primus inter pares. There still are discoverers, but exceedingly few inventors. The computer gradually takes over large sectors of learning, though not of the humanities, because it is unable to create a new philosophy with a new vocabulary, and so forth. It might be able to replace engineers and chemists, but not Kierkegaard, St. John of the Cross or Rouault. Thus technology, strangely enough, restored a certain hierarchy of knowledge, thought and creative work.

Specialization, however, has other effects as well. While it concentrates a man’s knowledge within restricted areas, it produces in others an increasing ignorance. And this ignorance is growing in an absolute as well as in a relative sense. A theologian-philosopher-scientist on the scale of St. Albert Magnus is quite inconceivable today. Shrinking in width, though gaining in depth, the areas of specialized knowledge are surrounded by fallow wastelands of neglected and abandoned fields of research. This relative ignorance increases inevitably and quite independently of the curse of specialization simply due to the accumulation of “registered” knowledge which the individual mind no longer can cope with.

This applies by no means only to the natural sciences; it occurs in the humanities as well. In theory somebody could develop a new, original philosophy without having gone through either extensive or intensive philosophical studies. The historian, on the other hand, has to deal with the steadily growing volume of stocked knowledge (“on file”). The subject matter grows and grows. Are men like A.J.P. Taylor to be called “historians,” an honorary term formerly bestowed on scholars of the caliber of Macaulay or Trevelyan? However, this decline is not only, nor even mainly due to narrowness, laziness, parochialism, superficiality or to the lack of a universal point of view, but is simply the result of the “practical” and excusable inability to master the Gaurisankar of classified and codified knowledge. Thus today specialization seems—justifiably? unjustifiably?—”realistic” (the great art of limitation!), whereas a universalist outlook unfortunately appears to be amateurish. The alternative seems to lie between “serious limitation” and “irresponsibly unfettered dilettantism.” “Research” today has come to imply narrow specialization.

In order to grasp the fatal proportions of our relative ignorance we have to take another aspect into consideration: the steady “shrinkage” of our globe in regard to subjective distances. In the old days it more or less sufficed to know what went on in one’s own and a few adjoining countries. Before World War I many French professors flatly refused to accept references from foreign sources in the doctorial dissertations of their students. Quotations from “barbarians” were not admitted. An “educated person” (as against a scholar) was judged and evaluated from this rather provincial point of view. But in an age when a jet takes one around the world in less than 24 hours and the daily news contains at least as many items from overseas as from the “home front,” the scholar’s outlook is necessarily directed towards other continents. The American library, the Canadian laboratory, the Australian research center, the badly (or not at all) translated Japanese or Russian periodical—he cannot disregard either of them. In fields of politics and economics, to quote some especially glaring examples, this geographical shrinking process makes even greater, more time-consuming and more expensive efforts necessary. Often we can merely cast a glance at a subject which needs to be studied thoroughly. The abundance of material within the various domains of learning leads or, rather, misleads modern man into a helpless eleaticism, and this in the very age when specialization and “complete” knowledge are trumps.

Thus we are faced with an insoluble dilemma. The desperate attempts on the part of modern medicine not to lose itself in details but to see the patient as an entity to heal, to cure man as a whole, encounters serious difficulties due to the lack of a truly comprehensive knowledge. Here especially the abyss between the scita and the scienda, between what is (generally) known and what should be known, widens from year to year. The result? On the one hand, because it has become indigestible, recorded knowledge is unavoidably more and more neglected and replaced by sheer intuition. One has to guess whenever it has become impossible to know and, therefore, to think rationally. (In medicine the diagnostician often does just that.) On the other hand, authoritarianism grows beyond measure. A layman, even a thoroughly educated one, can only listen in awe to the specialist’s elaborations, just as we listen respectfully to the watchmaker’s verdict about our ailing timepiece and pay grumbling and reluctantly whatever he charges. Gone are the times when an educated person was able to form an opinion on all the subjects that interested him or were necessary for his work. Specialized knowledge can still give strength and freedom in certain instances; thus an otolaryngologist suffering from ulcers still can judge the therapy proposed by a surgeon because, after all, he too has studied medicine. But from a general point of view the increase of accumulated and recorded knowledge also has increased our dependency in so many domains. Our self-confidence is being constantly weakened. Again and again we find ourselves facing a specialist who points out the sanction we incur if we do not follow his—to us, most incomprehensible—orders. Thus a new and outright humiliating fideism is being bred in the very shadow of rationality and scientism.

The result is man’s reduction to a dwarfish slave. The watchmaker who just pronounced a verdict beyond appeal on a customer’s alarm clock trembles before the diagnosis of his ophthalmologist or urologist who again prescribes in “good faith” medications concocted by a team of biochemists. There exist entire chains of “authorities” which, thanks to their individual monopoly of certain fragments within the gigantic complex of accumulated knowledge, exert very definite power in certain areas. This knowledge has become esoteric not only due to an artificial screening, but also due to its colossal volume. For the individual it is available only in part and with great effort. (The time required for a university degree is becoming longer and longer: the average mechanical engineer in Europe is today at least twenty-six, the practicing physician in the United States twenty-eight years old.) School knowledge too is affected by this development. A hundred or a hundred-fifty years ago a boy left school (lycee, Gymnasium) with an adequate fund of “general knowledge.” Today he has managed to grasp only a measly fragment of the scienda, the things he really needs to know in order to rate as an “educated man.” Whoever in the old days understood the working principle of the steam engine or the electromotor today ought to grasp the principles of the atomic reactor or the computer. But does he? Mathematics, philosophy, history and literature also constantly enlarge the body of accumulated knowledge. Homo discens, learning man, is being dwarfed by an immense, if not to say monstrous material.

Only the artist, the man who gives form to ideas and feelings, escapes this process. One can give piano concerts at the age of twelve, write poetry when eighteen and paint pictures not much later. This is possible. But it is interesting to see that today even art has become highly esoteric and subject to Horace’s Odi profanum vulgus. The art of the Middle Ages, of the baroque period, even of the Renaissance was somehow accessible to the average man. But how do most of the contemporary Germans react to the paintings of Marc, Klee, Kandinsky or Feininger? And the average American just managing to comprehend Melville, has he any relations to Robert Lowell or Karl Shapiro? National socialism which must be regarded as a “left” rebellion of the masses, the “regular guys” against all sorts of elites, revolted also against the esoteric character of the so-called “degenerate art” which gave little minds an inferiority complex or filled them with gnawing envy for the “easily earned money” of “infantile paint brush clowns.”

Now, there are two domains which, in theory, should be esoteric due to their great complexity, whereas in practice they are still the layman’s happiest hunting grounds: religion and politics. However, the situation is different in each case because religion has not only intellectual, but also spiritual and psychological aspects. The purely personal element which dominates in religion (as in love, whether we mean Eros or friendship) cannot be rationalized or reduced to mathematical formulas. We all are called to religious life, but not to shoemaking, cooking, race-driving or journalism. Without particular learning we can legitimately hold certain opinions in regard to religion in general, but not on a systematized level, not to theology. We can complain about the pains brought upon us by a serious illness, we can voice our despair or our impatience with the results of the treatment, but this does not give us the right to produce a scientific analysis of our ailment. Most cancer specialists have never suffered from cancer, few ear specialists from deafness. And daily communion does not put one in a position to pontificate about the Eucharistic mystery. In practice, however, the situation is quite different and, curiously enough, theology has. become an intellectual free-for-all. The tendency has always existed, but now the enterprising religious amateur has intrepidly rushed into theology. Atomic scientists will nowadays be pleased to give interviews on theological problems, zoologists lecture about the divinity of Christ and in television we find physicians and biologists dogmatizing about the Immaculate Conception (which they most invariably mix up with Christ’s birth from a virgin). Ignorance does not hamper anybody. On the other hand, a theologian would hardly ever attempt to lecture on nuclear fission, inheritance factors or the origin of thyroid diseases. He knows—or, at least, until recently knew—only too well that in this case scita and scienda are too far apart. (The intrusion of theologians into the fields of sociology, politics and economics, with very little preparation, is a very modern phenomenon.)

Theology, indeed, is a “last frontier,” as D. Riesman conceives this term, but so is politics. Man is doubtless an animal religiosum, but whether he is also a zoon politikon (and not only an animal sociale) is debatable—in spite of Aristotle. He naturally reacts towards political events and decisions and is not indifferent about administrative measures. But whether he has a natural bent to be politically active on the national level is not unequivocally established. On the other hand it is evident that the political systems of our time, either honestly motivated by ideological convictions, or hypocritically and for the sake of propagandistic “managing,” invite or force all adult citizens to go to the polls. Thus one cannot avoid the polls even in a totalitarian dictatorship. In that case, of course, only the most naive voter can harbor the illusion that he has been seriously asked for his opinion.

Things are different in the still free world because there a certain accumulation of votes has usually a decisive impact on the political process. The voter is called upon to consider and judge important questions and to form an opinion about subtle points by voting for or against the advocates of specific viewpoints. He is forced to take sides, to join this or that party, to express preference for one man or the other. This is easily said and often also too easily done.

This procedure was meaningful in the past and still is in narrowly circumscribed areas. The history of democracy in Athens has shown that there the general level of education was perhaps, in a way, sufficient for self-government, but that the passions whipped up by the demagogi (most of all envy!) had disastrous effects. Socrates was condemned to death by the democrats because he ridiculed their system of government and held monarchical views (as we know from contemporary sources). Plato, his disciple, despised democracy, and Aristotle fled from Athens in order to avoid the hemlock cup. On the other hand, direct democracy is successful and impressive even today in certain Swiss Cantons. Thus the citizens gather on the market place of Glarus in order to vote for the various propositions. In this limited framework scita and scienda are still very close. The problems concerning the Canton can be grasped by almost everybody. But this is an exceptional case in the present age.

We have the data of numerous polls in a great variety of countries which prove that the vast majority of the population is utterly baffled by the great problems facing their countries in our day. Their replies to the questionnaires testing their knowledge of current affairs would often be hilariously funny if the implications were not so tragic. However, it must be born in mind that the politics of a larger country (as against a village or small province), not to mention the global ones which directly concern the citizens of large nations, cannot be grasped without thorough preparation. This, in turn, presupposes years of time and money consuming studies far beyond the means of the average voter. True, subconsciously many people begin to suspect that they know less than they should and, in addition, they sometimes have the sinking feeling that their vote is a drop in an ocean. Their votes, as Aristotle a long time ago has stated, are counted and not weighed. The young playboy’s or prostitute’s vote has the same effect as that of a scholar or of an elder statesman. This realization still rarely affects the people in the newer democracies, but does it all the more so in the countries where the voting has been customary for centuries—in the United States and in Switzerland, for example, where now only 68 to 75 percent of the qualified voters go to the polls. In Austria and in Germany participation is way above 90 percent and in the totalitarian tyrannies it is almost one hundred.

The situation is not so very different wherever persons rather than parties are voted for. If the voter’s task facing parties is overtaxing his intellectual equipment, he is humanly helpless when he has to make choices between individual candidates. The demand on his psychological (if not psychiatric) experience is even bigger. In an age of TV and broadcasting a photogenic candidate has a huge advantage over a rather unattractive candidate, the brilliant speaker over a reticent though highly educated and experienced thinker. Undoubtedly a Hitler-type excites the masses far more than a personality like Heinrich Bruning. Here we see the fatal effects of what Ernst Junger once called “the fleeting Eros.” And since the candidates’ wives also appear in television, the male voters too can be emotionally attracted. Here, too, scita and scienda diverge sharply because the intrinsic superficiality of the mass media avoids all depths. “To dislike him properly you have to know him really well,” a disillusioned Republican once said about a Presidential candidate whose main handicap was his shortness.

The discrepancy between scita and scienda appears not only among the voters but also among those who govern. In former times rulers and administrators used to come from those layers who had the tendency to train their male progeny from childhood on for the higher forms of civil service. Promoters of the monarchist system could point out that future monarchs were given a very special education beginning in their infancy and this, together with the initial guidance of their predecessors (often the father or a near relative) enabled them to assume their duties fairly well prepared. In addition, a monarch could learn from experience in the course of many years, whereas in the modern republics a head of government is always suspected of wanting to monoplize all power and when, at long last, he finds his balance and acquires the necessary experience, he is dismissed like an insolent servant and replaced by another amateur who has to start from scratch. Of course, the monarchic system gave no special regard to talent, but is not the ungifted expert preferable to the green amateur? Who will make you a better coat: a bad tailor or a bright endocrinologist? The history of Europe with its steady ascent from 800 to 1918 and its cataclysmic descent from then on gives us without pity the right answer.

Similarly the statesman is more and more frequently replaced by the politician. The Congress of Vienna created a system for Europe which, in spite of certain deficiencies and misconstructions (like the continued partition of Poland), staved off another great war for 99 years. In this connection one also should remember the Paris Peace Treaties of 1919-1920 where rancor, meanness and sheer ignorance celebrated true orgies. At the Congress of Vienna, Talleyrand, the representative of a defeated nation, was allowed to play an important and highly constructive part, whereas in 1919 the German representatives were humiliated and the Austrian ones handled like obnoxious criminals. The Hungarian, Turkish and Bulgar delegates were, of course, given a similar treatment.

What interests us here in the first place, however, is not the purely political or moral aspect of these fateful conferences, but the problem of scita and scienda. At the time of the Vienna Congress the economic factor was not yet generally recognized as of great importance; geopolitical considerations were rare; the psychology of nations was not studied since the masses, the plebs only intermittently became politically active. All nations represented at the Congress of Vienna had more or less only one common ideological enemy: la Revolution, The Revolution, that is to say, nationalistic democracy. This alone united them all in one camp as far as Weltanschauung was concerned. For the statesmen at the Vienna Congress it sufficed to know history, geography, the genealogy of royal families, international law and a few items taken from military science. In addition, one had to be able to move deftly on the slippery parquet of the great salons and to speak French well (the language of the “enemy”), for the mere thought of conducting important and confidential discussions with the help of interpreters would have seemed preposterous (and dangerously inadequate) to everybody.

For a politician of international status today the knowledge held by a Metternich, a Talleyrand, a Castlereah or a Hardenberg would be utterly insufficient. In addition to the informed expertise of the statesmen 150 years ago he ought to be versed in economics, finance, agriculture, mining, religious affairs, nuclear fission, electoral laws, the psychology of nations, party politics and the personal background of his foreign colleagues—a truly encyclopedic volume of information. To all this comes an endless variety of problems due to a shrinking globe! A newly accredited ambassador in Washington now has to call on over 120 heads of foreign missions. And not only the number of politically active countries has increased, international organizations, too, have mushroomed. There is the Red Cross, the UNO, UNICEF, UNESCO, UNIDO, the World Bank, ILO, FAO, NATO, GATT, the European Common Market, Euratom, Comecom, the Warsaw Pact, the OAS, the World Council of Churches, the Council of Europe, the CENTO and SEATO pacts. The world has become immensely complicated and, politically speaking, all information and knowledge pertaining to government must, one way or the other, be integrated. The minister of defense has to know about nuclear fission, the foreign minister about fishing rights, the minister of commerce about gold mining in distant continents, and so forth.

Still, the specific learning of our present-day cabinet ministers and presidents is not greater—although it desperately needs to be so—than that of the statesmen at the end of the Napoleonic Wars: it is, in fact, often vastly inferior. And do not suggest that modern politicians, having been raised to the highest offices through elections or parliamentary procedure, can simply rely on the advice of experts. The effects of such advice on the mood of the electorate has seriously had to be considered, as well as the effects on the coalition partners, if any. But let us, for argument’s sake, assume that a given politician, filled with a sense of genuine moral responsibility, is prepared to proceed according to his best knowledge and without regard to public opinion, perhaps even ready to accept unpopularity and to withdraw into private life after the next elections. If he really wants to listen to the experts, what does he do if the experts disagree? This is frequently the case. How does he get the insight to coordinate the contradicting specialists, to separate the wheat from the chaff? Even the experts are sometimes overwhelmed by the immense material confronting them. How is the politician to cope with the conflicting data offered him by the various experts?

In the case of the peace conferences and treaties one has to add the passions aroused by war (and war propaganda) which render balanced decisions almost impossible. Remember the “Hang the Kaiser!” slogan of a demagogue like Lloyd George who later became a boundless admirer of Hitler. With his catchword he won the Kaaki-Elections of 1918. His ignorance of historic and geographic facts equalled that of Clemenceau and was surpassed by Wilson, a former professor of government at Princeton. Here specialization made itself felt with a vengeance. To this helpless “scholar” with a Messiah-complex, who was thoroughly duped by Italian informants with forged maps, we owe the fact that the South Tyrol is still a political cauldron. (There are some worse contemporary problems too.) After World War II only few formal treaties were signed, but the decisions of Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam are ample proof for the continued decline since 1919-1920. Compared to Roosevelt, Wilson was a sage and a saint, just as the German chancellors in World War I were geniuses when compared to Hitler.

Thus we observe in the present political development twin tendencies which, at first glance, seem paradoxical. On the one hand there is the growing number of experts who, however, are not rarely chosen for all too personal reasons; on the other hand, in democracies as well as in dictatorships, we encounter the rule of the absolute amateur who is at the mercy of experts, provided he does not arrogantly disregard all advice. Thus reason, knowledge and experience are all too frequently neglected. In the desperate dilemma caused by the contradictory suggestions of experts, clear thinking and serious study are rejected in favor of intuition and “prophetic visions.” This leads only very occasionally to the desired goal but in many more cases to disaster. Wilson, Roosevelt and Benes also boasted of their “inspirations,” and we still remember Hitler’s claim to his “inner security of a sleepwalker,” his traumwandlerische Sicherheit. They all had fatally transferred artistic principles to the art of governing. Art, religion and love are generally human, generally accessible, and universal. But, as Goethe already had pointed out, a work of art is complete, perfect in itself, whereas knowledge knows no bounds. Through art (as through religion, through love) man grows, but the realization that knowledge and science are bottomless makes him feel dwarfed. The wise will thus say with Socrates, resigned but calmly: “I know that I know nothing.” Knowledge and science are acquired with enormous efforts, yet they always remain fractionary. One also has to ask oneself whether the dictum that “knowledge renders free” is true to fact or whether it does not rather weigh man down with added responsibilities, make him his brother’s keeper, create a kind of thirst which in this life cannot be quenched. The fulfillment which art, religion or love can give is unknown to mere knowledge.

But—and this is a great “but”—knowledge brings power, or is at least a means to power. And precisely for this reason we have to ask what lies `historically’ beyond the amateurism of the popular intuition-motivated visionaries. Is the rule of experts, who still lack in scienda but represent the scita to a remarkable degree, somewhere in sight? Such a development began in Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries when the monarchs, realizing their limitations (and the increasing importance of the bureaucracies), ruled with the help of specialists. (These, in turn, had to correct subtly the blatant mistakes of diets and parliaments.) Even if today we speak of `statesmen’ we rarely think of truly popular presidents or prime ministers but rather of men who had the confidence of their monarchs and sometimes, to a certain degree, of the elected parliaments, men like Bismarck, Cavour, Witte, Disraeli, Guizot, Metternich, Richeliem, Oxenstjerna, Kaunitz, Pasic, Bratianu, Stolypin, Schwarzenberg.

This phenomenon has largely disappeared in the age of dictatorships because although the dictators need not respect the “will of majorities” they were or are almost all ideologically bound amateurs, which makes them disregard facts) The only exception is the non-ideologic military dictatorship (as in Spain, for instance) which, due to its already basically bureaucratic nature, can enter into a symbiosis with the civil service. What threatens us now in the free world is the premature fading out of our parliaments which frequently resemble low-level debating clubs, the discrepancy between microscopic scita and unassimilated scienda. Power as well as authority is shifted more and more to the ministries—and, of course, also to the trade unions. For the latter the disharmonies between the scita and scienda are not of vital importance. They make things easy for themselves: they are not genuine stewards, they merely claim to represent certain interests; they do not administrate (except if they themselves conduct enterprises); and if they feel no responsibilities toward the common good (which happens), they merely postulate and engage in blackmail.

l When once a student remarked to Hegel, the father of modern ideologies: “But Herr Professor, the facts contradict your theories,” the old gentleman looked down on him through his spectacles. “All the worse for the facts!” was his severe reply.

This growing discrepancy can become—directly or dialectically—a true threat to freedom. The masses might one day lose their self-confidence and their enthusiasm for their amateurish leaders. And the outlook is not much rosier in the case of experts who begin to feel the dormant possibilities for their power and wrangle for positions. Behind the political stages and the still party-oriented cabinets the various braintrusts make themselves more and more felt.

Governments consisting purely of experts would be exceedingly brittle, narrow and merciless. They could rule with ice-cold objectiveness in the name of reason and knowledge. We would thus be ruled “from above” without the patriarchal element and the father-image which characterized the monarchies of old. Against this concept liberal democracy promotes a fatherless “fraternity” and consequently, we only too often get the tyranny of Big Brother. The oligarchy of experts without controls might assume the character of a dictatorship of professors or, at least, of a government of governesses. But eventually it would go to the way of all flesh because of its inability to cope with the abyss between scita and scienda among its own members. Without an effective coordinating center which, I am sure, only a dynasty can provide, it would fall apart into nagging, fighting factions. Only an optimist can manage to regard our political and cultural future with equanimity.

The way to avoid a development which spells catastrophe for our freedom lies in the creation of sacrosanct domains beyond the grasp of power-hungry centralist forces, areas where the individual or limited groups can act freely, because there scita and scienda are still correlated—in the family, the small enterprise, the village, the borough, the county. Yet as far as the big central governments are concerned, we have coldly to face the realities of our technological society, which means an unavoidable increase of the technocratic element and of expertise. Nobody doubts that technocrats must have a high degree of knowledge, experience and even wisdom (which is more than cleverness). It is less realized that they also must have a high degree of character, that they must have virtue, that they have to be good men, which means men capable of love, magnanimity, tolerance, filled with humility in spite of their importance and responsibility. If this is not the case everything will be lost and the most ingenious political design come to naught.

Our freedom, after all, is menaced far more by the totalitarian than by the authoritarian principles. The latter came into being with our first parents, the former was born by the French Revolution. What we must avoid is turning humanity into an ant-heap; instead we ought to create small, individual “kingdoms” which can be governed with reason, understanding and, at least, a modicum of affection. “Where there is no love there is no law.” The tiniest of these kingdoms lies within the four walls of each home. And the thickness of these walls, as Ortega y Gasset has already pointed out, is the measure of our freedom.

This article appears through the kind courtesy of Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.

Featured: Atelierwand (Studio Wall), by Adolph von Menzel; painted in 1852.

Order, Disorder, and the Wisdom of God

Ordo ab chao—“order out of chaos”—is a motto used in various permutations of Freemasonry. It refers to the “new world order” that the revolutionary Masons will bring out of the chaos they create in their revolutions bent on first separating and then destroying “throne and altar.” At its heart, Freemasonry is diabolical, even if many of its adherents call themselves Christians. The devil being the simia Dei — “the ape of God” — many of the trappings of Freemasonry have been pilfered from that Christendom the Masons so hate: their degrees, their symbols, and even their name, that of the Catholic guild of the stone masons — all are stolen Catholic goods.

The concept of ordo ab chao, while it is a revolutionary motto put at the service of evil, is actually quite Catholic if we understand it correctly. How might we do that? When we Christians look at the world and see so much disorder, we can assure ourselves, by our divine and Catholic faith, that the Providence of the all-wise God is serenely seated above this madness and will bring an order out of it that will astonish us all — His friends and foes alike. We have good reason to believe this. “And we know,” Saint Paul tells us, “that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints” (Rom. 8:28). There is nothing omitted from those “all things”; Saint Augustine assures us that even our past sins are included.

Biblical Examples

Consider the revolutionary rejection of Jesus Christ by the official representatives of the true religion of the Old Testament. As wicked revolutionaries, they stirred up a mob and accomplished the mad crime of deicide. Yet, in God’s providence, that horrible crime was the very occasion of our salvation. (See this idea developed further in What Nobody Can Take from You, where I consider the patristic figure of Our Lord’s sacred humanity being a sort of “bait” or “trap” set by God for the devil.) Moreover, many members of that mob “had compunction in their heart” when they heard the preaching of Saint Peter (Acts 2:37); they did penance and were baptized. Later, as the nascent Church expanded, even “a great multitude also of the priests obeyed the faith” (Acts 6:7).

The revolutionaries became loyalists.

We can see a Christianized ordo ab chao even in the Old Testament. Consider the much beloved story of Joseph of the Old Testament, the son of Jacob who prefigured both his namesake, Saint Joseph, and Our Lord Himself. As literature, the true history of this amazing figure is a “comedy” in the sense that Dante and Shakespeare used the word, because, after all sorts of horrible things take place, it ends happily. These words of Joseph to his brothers are the revelation of just how happy an ending it is: “You thought evil against me: but God turned it into good, that he might exalt me, as at present you see, and might save many people” (Gen. 50:20).

God transformed the evil of Joseph’s treacherous brothers into good. Not only that, but the evil occasioned Joseph being exalted and turned into a savior of “many people”—clearly prefigurative of Jesus, the Savior.

Harmony out of Dissonance

Dom Augustin Guillerand, the Carthusian spiritual writer, wrote thus in his wonderful volume, The Prayer of the Presence of God:

My God, You are infinite order. Now, such vestiges of Your order that we can find and perceive here below are marvelous and dazzle us — and we see so little!

You are so essentially “order” that even what we call disorder is made to serve Your designs. You possess the amazing power of making harmony out of dissonance. It is true: to recognize that supreme order, we must pass beyond the duration of time and present circumstances — in short, of what is not — and wait until the passing and superficial moment has produced what Your eternal gaze sees and Your immense love wills.

Your wisdom is this gaze, seeing far beyond time and distance. It emerges from a mind that creates order and a love that gives itself. The order is the outcome of the mind that loves, the proper name for which is Wisdom.

“You are so essentially ‘order’ that even what we call disorder is made to serve Your designs,” wrote the Carthusian. That sentence is worth savoring, reflecting upon, turning over in our minds and hearts, and discussing with Our Lord.

The sentence that follows gives us a glimpse the monk’s sensitivity to music. It is worth pondering: “You [God] possess the amazing power of making harmony out of dissonance.” Those who have elementary knowledge of music theory will know that it is the dissonances which provide much of the harmonic “motion” in music. For a trite example of this, the dissonant tritone at the word “two” in “shave and a haircut, two bits” resolves into the consonant major sixth at the word “bits.” While contemporary serious music often revels in the dissonant with no resolution to consonance — making most of it cacophonous claptrap — serious music of a bygone era, like Bach, used dissonances resolving to consonances all over the place to move the harmonic structure while supporting a beautiful melody. In the context of Dom Guillerand’s book, we can imagine that, if our life has occasional dissonances in it (troubles, crosses, contradictions), Our Lord can and will resolve them into harmonious sounding consonances. If we cooperate with His grace, we are making beautiful music with God.

Perhaps it is the idea of “life as music” that led Pére Jacques Marquette to beg of his Immaculate Mother that she, “make clean my heart and my song.”

Picturing Divine Order

Another artistic allegory that we might consider in connection with this theme of order and disorder, though not employed by our Carthusian writer, is life as a painting. Imagine, if you will, an enormous canvas upon which an exquisite work of art is painted by the skilled hand of a master. If we look through a magnifying glass at a tiny segment of the work, but are, at the same time, prevented from seeing the whole, we might only see what is dark or even ugly. Extrapolating from the tiny part we are allowed at that moment to set our gaze upon, we might reason that we are beholding something hideous, only to discover that we have been pondering a small section of the eyeball of the serpent in Peter Paul Rubens’ exquisite masterpiece, The Immaculate Conception.

We even have an expression for this in our common parlance; we call it, “seeing the big picture.” But here and now, as Dom Augustin says, “we see so little!”

God is an artist; and, more than any other artist, He loves the work of His craft. We are that craft, not only as individuals, but as a Mystical Body. If at times there are dark spots in our lives, let us strive to practice the Christian virtues, prayerfully calling upon the Divine Artist with confidence that when His full canvas is revealed — when we “pass beyond the duration of time and present circumstances,” in Dom Augustin’s words — what we thought were hopeless blots and spills were but the dark contrasts of His masterful chiaroscuro.

It behooves us to consecrate ourselves totally to Jesus through Mary, generously and penitentially accepting all the chaos that circumstances impose upon us, asking God only that this disorder be made to serve His loving designs. Then we can work with God, in our own small way, to bring order out of chaos.

As a “coda,” I present Brother Francis’ meditations on order from his wonderful book of meditations, The Challenge of Faith:

  1. The heart of wisdom is the appreciation of order: putting first things first.
  2. The mission of religious life is the restoration of order.
  3. God created the world for man, and man for salvation: all order serves this one end, the salvation of man.
  4. St. Teresa of Avila commenting on the text, “Thou hast set him over the works of thy hands: Thou has subjected all things under his feet” (Ps. 8: 7-9), says that this is true principally of the saints, because most men subject themselves to the things of this world. Only the saints are truly the lords of creation.
  5. Peace is the tranquility of order; beauty is its splendor.
  6. Order is the perfect disposition of means to the end. Only those who know the true end can work for order. He who knows not the true doctrines of salvation is like a captain of a ship who does not know the destination of his journey.
  7. The only first principle of order is the Apostles’ Creed; the best prayer for order is the “Our Father”; the best grasp of the means for order is the “Hail Mary”; the triumphant shout of order is the “Hail Holy Queen”.

Brother André Marie is Prior of St. Benedict Center, an apostolate of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Richmond New Hampshire. He does a weekly Internet Radio show, Reconquest, which airs on the Veritas Radio Network’s Crusade Channel. This article appears courtesy of

Featured: Fiant luminaria in firmamento cæli (Let there be light), mosaic, Monreale Cathedral, created ca. 12th and 13th centuries.

Note of Bishop Marc Aillet Concerning the Declaration Fiducia supplicans

“The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) has just published (December 18, 2023), with the approval of Pope Francis, the Declaration Fiducia Supplicans, On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings.

Hailed as a victory by the secular world, and in particular by LGBT lobbies who see in it at last a recognition by the Church of homosexual relationships, despite the many restrictions recalled by this Roman document, it is the subject of unprecedented public disapproval from entire bishops’ conferences, particularly from Africa and Eastern Europe, as well as bishops from every continent. In addition, many of the faithful, including those renewing their faith, and many priests, who face complex pastoral situations in a society losing its bearings, demonstrating as much fidelity to the teaching of the Magisterium as pastoral charity, are all expressing their confusion and incomprehension.

In response to these reactions, and having taken the time to reflect, I would like to address a note to the priests and faithful of my diocese, as a bishop, to help them welcome this declaration in a spirit of communion with the Holy Apostolic See, by providing some keys to understanding, while respectfully questioning certain points of the declaration that may need clarification. Finally, I would like to invite the priests of my diocese to exercise prudence, the virtue par excellence of discernment. I am aware that this note is dense, but it seems important to me to treat the question with sufficient theological and pastoral depth.

Unchanged Doctrine on Marriage

Fiducia supplicans begins by recalling that the Church’s teaching on marriage as a stable, exclusive and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to the generation of new life, remains firm and unchanged (no. 4). This is why, the text insists, it is impossible to give a liturgical or ritual blessing to couples in an irregular situation or of the same sex, which would risk leading to serious confusion between marriage and de facto unions (no. 5). This is the reason why the former Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in an ad dubium response on February 22, 2021, concluded that it was impossible to give a blessing to same-sex “couples.”

Distinction Between Liturgical and Pastoral Blessings

A whole biblical journey is then proposed as a basis for the distinction between liturgical blessings (no. 10) and what we might call pastoral blessings, with a view to clarifying the possibility of a blessing being granted to a person who, whatever his or her sinful condition, may ask a priest, outside the liturgical or ritual context, to express his or her trust in God and request for help to “live better” and better adjust his or her life to God’s will (no. 20). This is, moreover, part of the Church’s elementary and two-thousand-year-old pastoral practice, particularly in the context of popular devotion (no. 23-24), where it is never a question of exercising control over God’s unconditional love for all, nor of demanding a certificate of morality, it being understood that we are dealing here with a sacramental, which does not act as a sacrament ex opere operato, but whose efficacy of grace depends on the good dispositions of the one who asks for and receives it. Thus far, the text adds nothing new to the Church’s ordinary teaching on these matters.

A Pastoral Blessing Extended to Same-Sex Couples

From the centuries-old practice of spontaneous, informal blessings, which have never been ritualized by ecclesial authority, we move on to what was presented in the document’s introduction as its proper object: “It is precisely in this context [ that of Pope Francis’s “pastoral vision ] it is precisely in this context that one can understand the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples without officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage” (Presentation). It is even specified that “a pastor’s simple blessing, which does not claim to sanction or legitimize anything” (no. 34).

Thus, in the third part of the declaration, there is a surreptitious shift from the possibility of blessing a person, whatever their situation, to a blessing granted to an irregular or same-sex “couple.”

Despite all the clarification of the non-liturgical nature of these blessings and the laudable intention “to entrust themselves to the Lord and his mercy, to invoke his help, and to be guided to a greater understanding of his plan of love and of truth” (no. 30), we are obliged to note that this has been received, almost unanimously by pro and contra alike, as a “recognition by the Church of homosexual relationships” themselves. Unfortunately, this is often how the practice—already in use in some local churches—of blessing same-sex “couples” is understood, particularly in Germany and Belgium, and in a very public way. It is to be feared that they will feel encouraged to do so, as a number of them have already testified.

Questions Requiring Clarification

We understand the Holy Father’s legitimate desire to demonstrate the Church’s closeness and compassion towards all situations, even the most marginal—is this not the attitude of Christ in the Gospel, “who welcomed publicans and sinners” (cf. Mt 9:11), and which constitutes a large part of our ordinary ministry? There are, however, a number of unanswered questions that need to be clarified, both doctrinally and pastorally.

Would not these blessings be in contradiction with the notion of “sacramental” that all blessings assume?

It is worth pointing out that the reason put forward by the Responsum ad dubium of 2021 placed less emphasis on the liturgical context of the blessing than on its nature as a “sacramental” which remains, no matter the context: “Consequently, in order to conform with the nature of sacramentals, when a blessing is invoked on particular human relationships, in addition to the right intention of those who participate, it is necessary that what is blessed be objectively and positively ordered to receive and express grace, according to the designs of God inscribed in creation, and fully revealed by Christ the Lord. Therefore, only those realities which are in themselves ordered to serve those ends are congruent with the essence of the blessing imparted by the Church” (Responsum Explanatory Note). This is why the former Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared illicit “every form of blessing” with regard to relationships that involve sexual practice outside marriage, as is the case with same-sex unions. While we must recognize and value the positive elements of these types of relationships, they are put at the service of a union that is not ordered to the Creator’s Purpose.

Is There Not a Distinction to be Made between Blessing a Person and Blessing a “Couple?”

The Church has always held that “such blessings are meant for everyone; no one is to be excluded from them” (no. 28). However, if we refer to the Book of Blessings and the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, we see that they are essentially, if not exclusively, for individuals, even when gathered in groups, such as the elderly or catechists. But in these cases, the object of the blessing is not the relationship that unites them, which is merely extrinsic, but the person.

Here we come to the novelty of the Fiducia supplicans declaration, which lies not in the possibility of blessing one person in an irregular or homosexual situation, but of blessing two who present themselves as a “couple.” It is therefore the “couple” entity that invokes the blessing upon itself. However, while the text is careful not to use the terms “union,” “partnership,” or “relationship”—used by the former Congregation for its prohibition—it does not provide a definition of the notion of “couple,” which has here become a new object of blessing.

This raises a semantic question that remains unresolved: can the term “couple” reasonably be applied to the relationship between two people of the same sex? Have we not hastily integrated the semantics that the world imposes on us, but which confuse the reality of the couple? In his apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Europa (2003), John Paul II wrote: “attempts are made to accept a definition of the couple in which difference of sex is not considered essential” (no. 90). In other words: is not sexual difference essential to the very constitution of a couple? This is an anthropological question that needs to be clarified to avoid confusion and ambiguity, for if the world has extended this notion to realities that do not enter into the Creator’s Design, should not the magisterial word assume a certain rigor in its terminology to correspond as closely as possible to revealed truth, anthropological and theological?

What about Homosexual Relationships?

Granting a blessing to a homosexual “couple,” rather than just to two individuals, seems to endorse the homosexual activity that links them, even if, once again, it is made clear that this union cannot be equated with marriage. This raises the question of the moral status of homosexual relationships, which is not addressed in this declaration. The Church’s teaching, in line with Sacred Scripture and the constant teaching of the Magisterium, holds such relationships to be “intrinsically disordered” (Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 2357): if God is not averse to blessing the sinner, can He speak well of that which is not concretely in conformity with His Purpose? Would this not contradict God’s original blessing when He created man in His own image: “Male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply'” (Gn 1:28)?

Are There Not Acts which are Intrinsically Evil?

To put an end to the controversies that had agitated Catholic moralists since the 1970s, on the fundamental option and morality of human acts, Pope John Paul II published a magisterial encyclical, Veritatis splendor (1993), on some fundamental questions of the Church’s moral teaching, whose 30th anniversary we celebrated in 2023. This encyclical, which confirms the Moral Part of the CCC and develops certain aspects of it, recalled in particular the Magisterium’s constant teaching on the existence of intrinsically evil acts (no. 79-83) which remain forbidden semper et pro semper, i.e., in all circumstances. This teaching is far from optional, and provides a key to discerning the situations we face in pastoral ministry. No doubt behavior that is objectively at odds with God’s plan is not necessarily subjectively imputable—indeed, “who am I to judge?” to use Pope Francis’s famous expression—but this does not make it morally good. The declaration Fiducia supplicans often refers to the sinner who asks for a blessing—”who acknowledge themselves humbly as sinners, like everyone else” (no. 32)—but is silent on the particular sin that characterizes these situations. Moreover, experience shows that the possibility of an “unconditional” blessing is not necessarily an aid to conversion.

Can the Exercise of Pastoral Charity be Disconnected from the Prophetic Mission of Reaching?

It is fortunate that this statement refers to the ministry of the priest, and we must give thanks to the Holy Father for creating all kinds of opportunities to enable people, far removed from the Church and its discipline, to meet a priest, as he expresses the wish in his apostolic exhortation Amoris laetitia (2016), to experience the closeness of a “tender and merciful God, slow to anger and full of love” (Ps 144:8). But then, there can be no question of two people of the same sex engaged in homosexual activity and presenting themselves as such, or of couples in an irregular situation, resorting to a blessing granted, even informally, without a pastoral dialogue to which Pope Francis precisely often encourages pastors.

In this sense, the exercise of pastoral charity cannot be separated from the priest’s prophetic mission of teaching. And the heart of Jesus’ preaching remains the call to conversion, which we regret is not mentioned in this statement. When Jesus shows compassion for the sinner, He always exhorts him to change his life, as we see, among other examples, in the story of the adulteress: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more” (Jn 8:11). What would pastoral care be if it did not invite the faithful, without judging or condemning anyone, to evaluate their life and behavior in relation to the words of the Covenant and the Gospel? These words speak of God’s benevolent plan for mankind, with a view to conforming their lives to it, with God’s grace, and according to a path of growth, called by John Paul II: “’the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance” (cf. Familiaris Consortio n. 34). Would not blessing two people in a homosexual relationship, or a couple in an irregular situation, lead them to believe that their union is a legitimate step in their journey? However, John Paul II was careful to point out: “And so what is known as ‘the law of gradualness’ or step-by-step advance cannot be identified with ‘gradualness of the law,’ as if there were different degrees or forms of precept in God’s law for different individuals and situations. In God’s plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness, and this lofty vocation is fulfilled to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God’s command with serene confidence in God’s grace and in his or her own will” (Ibid.).

Can We Set Pastoral Care Against Doctrine?

Furthermore, can we oppose pastoral care against doctrinal teaching, as if intransigence were on the side of doctrine and principles, to the detriment of the compassion and tenderness we owe pastorally to sinners? Faced with the Pharisees who put Him to the test on the subject of divorce and the act of repudiation consented to by Moses, Jesus refers uncompromisingly to the “Truth of the beginning” (cf. Gen 1 and 2), asserting that if Moses consented to their weakness, it was because of “the hardness of their hearts” (cf. Mt 19:3-9). Jesus is even the most intransigent. It has to be said that the old law did not make us righteous: but with Jesus, we are now under the regime of the New Law, which St Thomas Aquinas defined, drawing inspiration from St Paul, as “the grace of the Holy Spirit given to those who believe in Christ” (Summa Theologica I-II 106, 1). Every act of ministry, including blessings, should therefore be placed under the regime of the new law, in which we are all called to holiness, whatever our sinful condition.

As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stated in a letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on pastoral care for homosexuals (1986): “But we wish to make it clear that departure from the Church’s teaching, or silence about it, in an effort to provide pastoral care is neither caring nor pastoral. Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral. The neglect of the Church’s position prevents homosexual men and women from receiving the care they need and deserve” (no. 15).

As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, stated in a letter to the bishops of the Catholic Church on pastoral care for homosexuals (1986): “But we wish to make it clear that departure from the Church’s teaching, or silence about it, in an effort to provide pastoral care is neither caring nor pastoral. Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral. The neglect of the Church’s position prevents homosexual men and women from receiving the care they need and deserve” (no. 15).

And St. John Paul II warns: “The Church’s teaching, and in particular her firmness in defending the universal and permanent validity of the precepts prohibiting intrinsically evil acts, is not infrequently seen as the sign of an intolerable intransigence, particularly with regard to the enormously complex and conflict-filled situations present in the moral life of individuals and of society today; this intransigence is said to be in contrast with the Church’s motherhood. The Church, one hears, is lacking in understanding and compassion. But the Church’s motherhood can never in fact be separated from her teaching mission, which she must always carry out as the faithful Bride of Christ, who is the Truth in person… In fact, genuine understanding and compassion must mean love for the person, for his true good, for his authentic freedom. And this does not result, certainly, from concealing or weakening moral truth, but rather from proposing it in its most profound meaning as an outpouring of God’s eternal Wisdom, which we have received in Christ, and as a service to man, to the growth of his freedom and to the attainment of his happiness” (Veritatis splendor, no. 95). At the same time, the clear and vigorous presentation of moral truth can never disregard the deep and sincere respect, inspired by patient and trusting love, that man always needs on his moral journey, often made painful by difficulties, weaknesses and painful situations. The Church, which can never renounce the principle of “truth and consistency, whereby the church does not agree to call good evil and evil good” (Reconciliatio et paenitentia, no. 34), must always be careful not to break the bruised reed or quench the dimly burning wick (cf. Is 42:3). Paul VI wrote: ” Now it is an outstanding manifestation of charity toward souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ; but this must always be joined with tolerance and charity, as Christ Himself showed in His conversations and dealings with men. For when He came, not to judge, but to save the world, (cf. Jn 3:17) was He not bitterly severe toward sin, but patient and abounding in mercy toward sinners?” (Humanae vitae, no. 29),” (Veritatis splendor, no. 95).

“Do Not Be Conformed to this World”

I am well aware that this is a delicate issue, and I fully endorse the Holy Father’s insistence on the pastoral charity of the priest, called to bring God’s unconditional love close to every human being, even to the existential peripheries of today’s wounded humanity. But I am thinking of the luminous words of the Apostle Paul to Titus, which we hear proclaimed in the Christmas Eve liturgy, and which sum up the whole Economy of Salvation: ” For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly… He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:11-12, 14).

The pastoral charity that urges us—”Caritas Christi urget nos” (2 Cor 5:14)—to reach out to all people to show them how much they are loved by God—the proof of which is that Christ died and rose for all—also urges us, inseparably, to proclaim to them the Truth of the Gospel of Salvation. And the Truth is stated by Jesus to all those who wish to become his disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 16:24-25). Saint Luke makes it clear that he was saying this “to all” (Lk 9:23), and not just to an elite.

The words of St. Paul still resonate within me to illuminate our pastoral attitude: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). All people, including irregular or same-sex couples, aspire to the best, because the inclination to the good, the true and the beautiful is inscribed by God in the heart of every human being—to recognize this is to respect their dignity and fundamental freedom. And it is worth “sticking your neck out” to help everyone, whatever their situation of sin or contradiction with God’s plan, as revealed in the Decalogue and the Gospel, to discover it and, through processes of growth and the help of God’s grace, to move towards it. And this cannot be done without the Cross.

Practical Pastoral Approaches

Thus, in conclusion, and given the context of a secularized society in which we are experiencing an unprecedented anthropological crisis, which inevitably leads to stubborn ambiguities:

  • I invite the priests of the diocese, when dealing with couples in an irregular situation or with people involved in a homosexual relationship, to demonstrate a welcome full of benevolence: people must not feel judged, but welcomed by a look and a listening ear that speak of God’s love for them.
  • I then invite them to establish a pastoral dialogue and to have the courage, for the good of the people and with the appropriate delicacy, without judging them and involving themselves personally in the pastoral relationship, to tell them clearly the Truth that the Church teaches about their situation.
  • Finally, I invite them, if the people ask for it, to give them a blessing, provided it is to each person individually, calling them to conversion and inviting them to ask for the help of the grace that the Lord grants to all those who ask Him to conform their lives to God’s Will.

Msgr. Marc Aillet, Bishop of Bayonne, Lescar and Oloron

Bayonne, December 27, 2023
Feast of Saint John the Apostle

The original version may be read here.