Blog Template Theology of the Body: May 2010

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Was Martin Luther a Manichean?

Historians such as S.J. Barnett take it as granted that Catholic apologists of the 16th century and beyond have generally "designated Luther and Calvin as Manichean heretics, from the third century dualism of Manes." (Barnett, "Where was your Church before Luther? Claims for the Antiquity of Protestantism Examined," in Church History vol. 68. no. 1, 1999). Other historians note that Luther's own marginal notes on the writings of the early fathers indicate his opinion that the Patristic rejection of the Manichean heresies was misguided. In fact, Catholics find the Luther: Manichean comparison made definitively in Pope Leo X's 1520 bull Exsurge Domine, which condemned Martin Luther's errors; in this text, the Pope describes Luther as "a new Porphyry rises who, as the old once wrongfully assailed the holy apostles, now assails the holy pontiffs, our predecessors."

As Luther well knew, the historical Porphyry referenced by the Pope was none other than an original proponent of the neo-Platonist ideals which translated into the cult following of Manicheism; St. Augustine, himself a convert from the dualist tradition of Manes, had referred to Porphyri in this passage in the City of God:

For, even when His angels hear us, it is He Himself who hears us in them, as in His true temple not made with hands, as in those men who are His saints; and His answers, though accomplished in time, have been arranged by His eternal appointment ...though Moses conversed with God, yet he said, “If I have found grace in Your sight, show me Yourself, that I may see and know You.” (Exodus 33:13)...But Porphyry, being under the dominion of these envious powers, whose influence he was at once ashamed of and afraid to throw off, refused to recognize that Christ is the Principle by whose incarnation we are purified. Indeed he despised Him, because of the flesh itself which He assumed, that He might offer a sacrifice for our purification—a great mystery, unintelligible to Porphyry's pride, which that true and benignant Redeemer brought low by His humility, manifesting Himself to mortals by the mortality which He assumed.” (City of God X.12, 13, 24)

What then is the content of the proposal that Luther might have been a Manichean, as some of his own notes on Augustine would seem to indicate? Augustine's ancient response to the Manichean heresy deal with the root proposal of God's total separation from the creature, such that it would ultimately become necessary to deny Christ's Personhood and Incarnation in human flesh. The extensions of this proposal also include such issues as those which most concerned the earliest Catholic respondants to Luther; to separate the divine from the creature in the manner of the Manicheans was and is to say, with Luther, that God is always hidden, that His power must be totally dissociated from human agency, that the true society of the elect is hidden and secret from the grubbier mass of the one Church, that humanity bears no image or likeness to its Creator, that our return to Him from our indebtedness and sin involves no bodily acts of reparation to His glory.

On the contrary, the Biblical faith of the Catholic Church resists these proposals with total allegiance to this fundamental truth: the Word has become flesh, and He dwells among us.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Indulgences: Some Useful Clarifications

A friend who attended a talk that I recently gave on indulgences passed on this helpful summary authored last year by Baylor professor Michael Foley; in my humble opinion, Professor Foley did a great job.

Professor clarifies myths about practice of indulgences

March 31, 2009

As the controversy over a recent editorial in this newspaper illustrates, indulgences are easily misunderstood by non-Catholics and even by Catholics themselves. One cannot do justice to the topic of indulgences in a 680-word article, but at least the following clarifications can be offered.

Myth No. 1: Indulgences are a part of Catholicism's doctrine of works-based salvation.

There is a double myth here, that the Catholic Church has a "works-based" soteriology (it doesn't) and that indulgences stem from it. The key to understanding indulgences is not the prism of faith and works, but of what is called operative and cooperative grace. Operative grace is grace that God works in us without us, such as the gift of faith, which none of us deserve and for which none of us has meritoriously prepared ourselves. Receiving operative grace is like being brought back to life on the operating table after spiritually flat-lining. Cooperative grace, on the other hand, is akin to our cooperating with the Divine Physician in rehab, doing what he tells us in order to facilitate our recovery.

It is not that we are "healing ourselves" through our good works; rather, we are simply cooperating with the healing process orchestrated by the Physician. In Catholic life, indulgences can be one part of this healing process.

Myth No. 2: Indulgences are an "excuse" for sin or a "do-over" of some kind.

Indulgences do not forgive or re-forgive sins; they help to remove the effects of sins that have already been forgiven. Sin is not only a transgression against God; it is also a wounding of oneself and of one's community -- and wounds leave a lingering effect.

As St. Augustine puts it, there is a difference between having a poison dart removed and having the body recover afterwards. Hence the total triumph over sin involves not only its removal (forgiveness), but a healing of those wounds (its effects). Indulgences only deal with the latter.

Myth No. 3: Indulgences are "Get out of Jail" free cards ("jail" being either Hell or Purgatory).

As should be clear by now, indulgences are not about getting off scot free but about a complete transformation of one's life such that one becomes holy--a living, shining icon of Christ, a fully restored image and likeness of God (for this is the goal of all true spiritual healing). That is why indulgences are not efficacious unless they are accompanied by a genuine conversion of heart and a devout and active life in the Church, Christ's body.

Myth No. 4: Indulgences were sold.

The term "sale of indulgences" is so commonplace in the annals of Christian history that it is surprising to learn that the Catholic Church never technically sold indulgences.

What it did was allow a donation to charity to be an indulgenced act. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with giving money to a church (it is a biblically-endorsed activity), but unfortunately, the practice was vulnerable to abuse and gave rise to all kinds of corruption, especially in the hands of the unscrupulous. That is why the Council of Trent (1565) wisely forbade charitable donations from the list of indulgences.

Myth No. 5: Indulgences are a medieval invention.

While indulgences became more explicitly defined in the early Middle Ages, they have existed in one form or another since at least the second century. For their history, see the "Indulgences" entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia on

Myth No. 6: Indulgences were discontinued.

Neither the Council of Trent nor the more recent Second Vatican Council (1965) discontinued indulgences. In fact, Pope Paul VI expanded the practice of indulgences in 1967 by allowing any prayer to count as a partial indulgence. Thus, when a contemporary Pope grants an indulgence for a particular act, it is not to "remind" Catholics of the importance of acknowledging sin, but to actually assist in the removal of sins' effects.

Exposing these myths is far from adequately explaining indulgences, but hopefully it is a start.

Michael P. Foley is an associate professor of Patristics in the Great Texts Program.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Saint Gianna Molla

This saint for our times was a wife, mother, and a highly skilled professional who lived between 1922-1962. She played tennis; she went skiing with her husband; she dressed well; she took her babies on picnics. When a tumor was discovered inside her body during her fourth pregnancy, her doctors urgently advised its surgical removal, which would inadvertently result in the death of her unborn baby. Although the Church's moral law would have permitted such a therapeutic procedure, in as much as it did not have as its end or goal the deliberate killing of her child, St. Gianna chose the heroic option and gave her own life so that her baby could live. In so doing, St. Gianna demonstrated the heroic virtue that is only made possible by God's supernatural grace, which had worked quietly in her life before her choice, and which manifested itself for the glory of God and the flourishing of the world at the appropriate time. St. Gianna joined the Church's ranks of martyrs simply by living out her motherhood to its fullest extent; her children attended the ceremonies surrounding her canonization in 1994.

As I prepare for motherhood, I've often thought about my own mother, her own heroism, and her own manifold gifts of herself to her children. My mother is a famously exquisite creature, but she offered up her body for eight pregnancies, six deliveries, and the tumultuous adolescent and adult years that followed for each of us. She chose a grubbier path than many of her friends because she believed such would be best for her babies; home deliveries, life in the country, organic gardening, homeschooling, and she accepted the criticism that came with ther choices heroically, and with a sense of humor. She was even willing to accept criticism from her children, when her loving choices sometimes seemed experimental. And with her choices, she did her part to preserve her children in chastity, curiosity, and a lot of joy in a jaded, degraded era. Most importantly, she taught us to pray- to take long walks and to rejoice in God's beauty, to console ourselves with the victorious Psalms when we were afraid, to sing and dance with the angels when we felt defeated.

And as I enjoy my own motherhood for the first few months of my baby's prenatal life, I'm beginning to understand all of the mystical awe that surrounds the relationship between mother and child. There is truly nothing like it in the world. What I already feel for my baby has got to be something like the holy love with which God looks on His creatures, simply because it is unspeakable. And the tiny sacrifices that I have to make for my baby now- little bits of physical discomfort, no champagne, carrots instead of chocolate- only make me love my baby more. They also make me pause in deep respect for all that my mother has done for me, and they make my historical complaints about some of her decisions seem terribly short-sighted.

They say that saints, those who are closest to the heart of the Father, were often people who were very difficult to live with. The record does not show this, but I wonder whether some of St. Gianna's children were ever tempted to complain about their mother leaving them for the sake of their youngest sister. Probably even the most saintly mother has done or said things that her children do not know how to accept. In this way, the saintly hearts of those who are very, very near to Heaven calls to the latent love of God in our own hearts, and requires that His love in us grow bigger, wider, higher, so that we too may become filled with what has filled them. And certainly this is the fundamental role of mothers in our lives- no matter what conflicts may have born on our relationship with our mothers, the very fact that we have life from them bears testament to the fact that their love was (and maybe is) larger than ours.

St. Gianna Molla, pray for all mothers.