Back to fundamentals

The undersigned, ministers and laymen of the Presbyterian Church, appeal to all our churches, ministers, church officers, and church courts to unite in action and defense of the fundamentals of our commuon faith.

In view of the deep unreset in the religious thought of the day, we believe pronounced and persistent emphasis should be placed on the integrity and authority of the Bible as the word of God, the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, his vicarious atonement on the cross–the only way of salvation—and his resurrection.

We believe these doctrines should be preached from our pulpits, and that the sessions of our churches should insist that this be done.

We suggest, furthermore, when a church is seeking a minister to be its pastor that it shall not call any man save one who unreservedly and heartily accepts the great fundamentals herein enumerated and taught by our standards.

We have been led to express this belief and to offer these suggestions under the deep conviction that only on such a basis can the Church succeed in its mission, and the Gospel of Christ be propagated to his glory and according to his own will.

May we not urge you to unite with us in prayer that all our churches, ministers, and officers may feel the supreme importance of this appeal?

Signed by Rev. Maitland Alexander, Moderator of the General Assembly, and 80 leading ministers and 118 elders throughout the United States. The Presbyterian, April 21 1915


Further adventures in the foothills of sedevacantism

Elsewhere, it is objected: “Sitting in Rome does not make a man a pope. I am not changing my beliefs because some heretic wearing a costume declares that the faith handed down from the apostles is no longer valid and must be replaced by something new.”

The proposition that there is no validly-elected incumbent of the Bishopric of Rome defines and unifies sedevacantists, although they disagree among themselves on why and for how long it has been vacant, and what that vacancy portends. This low buy-in makes it attractive to discontented Catholics, and when popes say and do stupid things—especially popes elected in anomalous and dubious circumstances—it can’t help but chum the waters for sedevacantism, to which my general response might be summarized as “walk away from the light.” I doubt that my interlocutor in that conversation considered himself a sedevacantist, any more than did my interlocutor in the conversation that is reported in The Foothills of Sedevacantism, 1 but the upshot of the reasoning in both cases leads there.

When I have encountered sedevacantists of late, my response has typically proceeded in three parts that may be worth rehearsing here. 

The first part is to establish my “creds”: I yield to no one in my hostility toward Francis, I tell them, whom I regard as a stupid, dangerous, misguided, undisciplined, arrogant, gabby oaf, very possibly a heretic, a mediocre prelate from the worst place of the worst era, 2 plunged suddenly into a job in which he is in way over his head. Don’t like him; don’t trust him; have gone so far as to strip him of the courtesy-style “pope.” 3 I have dismissed him metaphorically as “the erstwhile Tom Marvolo Card. Riddle.” He is a bad pope. No one, and I do mean no one, can accuse me of defending the Catholic imperative of adherence to the Bishop of Rome on the basis that I just like Pope Francis and want to clear away opposition to him.

The second part is fundamentally a due-process argument. Some of you have heard me make this kind of argument before. I agree that “sitting in Rome does not make a man a pope.” What makes a man pope is that he be the duly-elected successor of St. Peter, chosen by the duly-appointed Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church insofar as that is currently the duly-assigned method by which the Church chooses her pope. Whether any of us like it or not, Francis is the duly-elected pope. The only basis for even calling that into question—let alone deciding that his election was void—is the extraordinary circumstance of our beloved Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation. If that act was invalid, and if we set aside concerns to be treated in a few moments, Francis would seem to be an unwitting antipope, and any allegiance to him might seem void insofar as he would not then be the duly-elected incumbent of the See of Rome. But no one has produced anything that demonstrates the invalidity of Benedict’s resignation. Speculation about death threats—a dime a dozen for such high-profile officials—will not do it. Nor will speculation on formal problems with his resignation. 4 Heartbroken bewilderment is understandable but insufficient.

The third part is a jurisdiction problem, and it’s here that sedevacantism really founders. The gravamen of this point is that we don’t get to sit in judgment of a pope’s orthodoxy and declare his election void if we are displeased. I agree with my interlocutor that any normal Catholic may listen and discern that a given statement is heresy. With apologies to Potter Stewart, we do know it when we hear it. 5 But that capacity does not empower or authorize us to divest a prelate of his office, any more than a trial jury’s capacity to find facts empowers it to pronounce a sentence, and it’s that lack of jurisdiction that holes sedevacantism below the waterline.

It may help to provide a concrete example to serve as a needle about which to turn this yarn. Pope Paul IV’s 1559 bull Cum Ex Apostolatus Officio provides that

if ever at any time it shall appear that any Bishop, even if he be acting as an Archbishop, Patriarch or Primate; or any Cardinal of the aforesaid Roman Church, or, as has already been mentioned, any legate, or even the Roman Pontiff, prior to his promotion or his elevation as Cardinal or Roman Pontiff, has deviated from the Catholic Faith or fallen into some heresy: the promotion or elevation … shall be null, void and worthless.

From this the sedevacantist reasons that a pope who has arguably lapsed into heresy (or, presumably, can be argued to have lapsed into heresy at any point in his life) is no longer pope ipso iure. What is defective in this argument is its assumption that such a provision must be self-executing . But there is a canonical presumption against self-execution, 6 and in a matter so delicate and precarious as the validity vel non of a man’s possession of the See of Rome, it seems to me that we should insist on a clear statement rule. Cum Ex Apostolatus does not meet this standard. If the Holy See wishes to plunge the Church into the chaos that would ensue from such a rule, “it must speak more clearly than it has,” making its intention unmistakably-clear in the language of the law. 7

To be sure, it’s possible that the sedevacantists are right that a heretical pope in fact loses his office, just as does a heretical bishop. But in the case of the heretical bishop, there is a competent forum superior to the bishop who has jurisdiction and may therefore authoritatively adjudge the question and depose the bishop. But in the case of a heretical pope, there is, in his lifetime, no competent forum superior to him who can authoritatively judge the question and depose him. 8 A subsequent pope could do so; Pope Pius XIII, after his election, might turn around and say that Francis I was an antipope, that he invalidated his office as of such and such a date, and that all his acts are therefore void. But we may not. We don’t have the authority. (Nor does a council, by the way, for if a council could depose a pope, the implication would be that a council is a hierarchically-superior forum to the pope, which is the heresy of conciliarism into which the Council of Basel lapsed in 1439.)

The bottom line is that it isn’t even vaguely clear that Francis, odious though he may be, is an antipope, and even if it was, we don’t have the authority to make that call. Do not let yourself be driven into error by horror at the sight of a pope leading others into error! Do not flee the storm into the fire!


  1. 4 MPA __ (2014),
  2. For useful commentary on these points, see Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, Pondering Francis, Fr. Z’s Blog (olim WDTPRS), Sept. 27, 2014, (last visited Sept. 29, 2014); Rev. Christopher Smith, Mutual Enrichment and the Coexistence of Varying Models of Liturgy in the Church, The Chant Cafe, Sept. 25, 2014, (last visited Sept. 29, 2014).
  3. Simon Dodd, Terminology note: Pope, 4 MPA __,
  4. For example, a text circulating on Facebook and elsewhere (e.g. (last visited Sept. 27, 2014)), attributed to”J. Alberto Villasana,” argues that there is a deliberate syntax error in Benedict’s resignation which invalidates the resignation:

    “At the core of the resignation it reads: ‘Declaro me ministerio Episcopi Romae Successoris Sancti Petri, mihi per manus Cardinalium die 19 aprilis MMV commissum renuntiare’ (‘I declare to resign the ministry of the Bishop of Rome, successor of St. Peter, which has been entrusted to me by the hands of the cardinals on April 19, 2005.’) This sentence is totally unintelligible, containing a grammatical error, as ‘commissum’, which depends on ‘ministerio’, is the object of the verb ‘renuntiare’, so it should be in dative, according to it—that is, it should say ‘commisso’.

    “Now, in canon law, all legal writing containing a fault of Latin is null. Already Pope St. Gregory VII (cf. Registrum 1.33) declared null a privilege accorded to a monastery by his predecessor Alexander II, ‘due to corruption in the Latin’.”

    I would like to see a reliable authority for the asserted canonical principle that “all legal writing containing a fault of Latin is null”—a principle central to the argument—that predates and is independent of Benedict’s resignation. But even with that principle granted, it’s an awfully thin reed on which to rest so weighty a question. If Pope Pius XIII declares that Benedict’s resignation was void for that reason, I’ll be the very first to buy that argument as a rationale, but I’m chary to today buy it as an argument, for the obvious reason that sedevacantism (or sede-wasn’t-vacant-ism) and schism are too weighty a pair of matters to get into without the most clear and convincing evidence.

  5. Cf. Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184, 197 (1964) (Stewart, J., concurring).
  6. See Simon Dodd, “That is what you call a bishop who’s not afraid to bishop,” 4 MPA __, __ n.2 (2014), available at
  7. McNally v. United States, 483 U.S. 350, 360 (1987); cf. Atascadero State Hospital v. Scanlon, 473 U.S. 234, 242 (1985).
  8. See 1917 CIC 1556 (“Prima Sedes a nemine iudicatur”); 1983 CIC 1404 (same); cf. Encyc. Magnae nobis, no. 9 (Benedict XIV, 1748) (“The Roman Pontiff is above canon law, but any bishop is inferior to that law and consequently cannot modify it”). It’s vitalto cite the Pio-Benedictine Code in discussions with sedevacantists because on their premises, the 1983 code was not validly-promulgated.

Religion and wellness

Editor’s note: The premier benefit of working for a college is the opportunity to take classes. This semester, I am taking a theology class, and to the extent that my written submissions are deemed canonical and pertinent to Motu Proprio, excerpts will appear here under the TH200 tag after submission and grading. Formal errors both accidental and deliberate—such as the mandated use of “MLA style”—will be corrected, but the substance will be presented intact.

Religion, we are told, promotes good health. Frank Newport’s God is Alive and Well argues that carefully-controlled professionally-performed polls demonstrate that “very religious” people are happier and more healthful than non-religious people. In response, we are asked to consider this notion and whether it “seem[s] convincing … that religious faith would contribute to a person’s overall wellbeing,” including their psychological and emotional health. I will suggest that there are several reasons to be skeptical of the proposition in the abstract, and of Newport’s thesis in particular.

We will first consider the question at a more abstract level, and then circle back to Newport.


One can certainly propose a nexus between health and religion. Many of the commandments of the Law turn out to be remarkably prescient where health is concerned, especially health in extreme conditions. Provisions such as Leviticus 15:4-12 anticipate modern virology and bacteriology by millennia and helped keep the Israelites alive, especially in the long march through Sinai. 1 In support of the proposition that a Christian ought to seek physical health, one could cite St. Paul’s admonition that “your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you…. For you were purchased at great price. Therefore glorify and bear God in your bodies.” 2 The supplied Living Healthier video observes that substance abuse instigates or exacerbates many health difficulties 3; religion can be a major spur to heal addiction, 4 and, indeed, to avoid addiction-forming behaviors in the first place. 5 There are plenty of scriptural scraps from which to make a collage.

But it doesn’t follow that because these things could prompt good health that they will produce healthy believers. They may be unknown, ignored, or interpreted in ways that deprive them of practical existence. For example, one could read the verse from 1st Corinthians to enjoin tattoos (graffiti on the temple wall, it might seem), and yet many Christians happily conform themselves to the spirit of the current age by getting tattoos, 6 presumably having read that passage as posing no obstacle. And while virtue can be a spur to physical health, so too may vice: Sin, whether directly (vanity) or indirectly (lust) may produce the same result.

Let us turn briefly to psychological health. Our Savior bade the apostles peace: “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you.” 7 At every Mass, this same peace is proclaimed to us through the successors of the apostles and their assistants, the priests: “Pax domini sit semper vobiscum.” And yet, that which Watchman Nee called the “ordinary christian life” is hardly one of peace; to the contrary, the Christian is at war with the world and with himself. 

He is at war with the world because the Enemy is enthroned as the prince of this world. 8 Our purpose, as I have suggested before, is to conduct a rescue mission; we are not commanded simply to announce the gospel, but to disciple the world, that is, to proselytize the world. 9 We are marines sent to free the hostages taken by the Enemy: “Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death.” 10 Christians are “born for combat,” 11 and John Henry Newman captured the smoke of battle nicely when he preached:

“Oh, what a dreadful state, to have our desires one way, and our knowledge and conscience another; to have our life, our breath and food, upon the earth, and our eyes upon Him who died once and now liveth; to look upon Him who once was pierced, yet not to rise with Him and live with Him; to feel that a holy life is our only happiness, yet to have no heart to pursue it; to be certain that the wages of sin is death, yet to practise sin; to confess that the Angels alone are perfectly happy, for they do God’s will perfectly, yet to prepare ourselves for nothing else but the company of devils; to acknowledge that Christ is our only hope, yet deliberately to let that hope go! O miserable state! miserable they, if any there are who now hear me, who are thus circumstanced!” 12

So-called “battle fatigue” is bound to set in at some point, and when we are not in fight, then at least flight, for the same enemy “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking souls to devour.” 13

More importantly, the Christian is at war with himself. In the beginning, all that God created was good, but the Fall corrupted man; there is no good within us, and even for the Christian, everything that is good within us is Christ acting in us. 14 Like St. Paul, we must constantly struggle to resist what the technical vocabulary of Catholic theology has called “concupicense,” and Father Robert Barron has helpfully suggested that we might instead call our addiction to sin. To be saved from death is not, alas, to be saved from a life in which our hearts are unruly, fainthearted, and weak. 15

The tension between the peace promised by Christ and the struggle prompted by it is nettlesome. One resolution might be to suggest that what was meant was the notion that through Jesus we make our peace with God; we may obtain peace in the hereafter, even though it brings war in this world. 16 But there are serious difficulties with that interpretation, and, happily, we need not resolve them here. Rather, I raise the point merely to suggest that the tension’s existence and lack of obvious resolution must, surely, impose emotional and psychological stresses on the believer from which the unbeliever is entirely free.

Finally, we should not leave this section without remarking on the question’s presupposition of our immediate context in time and space. Perhaps the martyrs went to the grave in unshakeable psychological serenity, but Christianity was certainly not good for their physical wellbeing. To confess Christ in the first and second centuries was to risk not merely whipping and execution, but unspeakable tortures—crucifixion, drowning, burning, dismemberment, application of red-hot metal plates, breaking of teeth, being gradually submerged in boiling oil or pitch, or being placed in nets before enraged animals, for example. 17 These horrors were so ghastly that even some of those tasked with carrying them out were converted by the willingness of their victims to suffer for their faith, whence we say that the blood of martyrs becomes the seeds of the Church. 18 And, alas, the age of martyrs is not over. To say nothing of regimes such as China, North Korea and Iran, it will suffice to note that in the last few months alone, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has visited a terror on Christians that would make a Roman emperor blush:

[M]ilitants have been ‘systematically beheading’ Christian children in Mosul. According to the Anglican vicar of Baghdad, ISIS terrorists cut a five-year-old boy in half, and another witness said ISIS tore a woman in two after tying her to two vehicles. Other reports say ISIS has buried women and children alive….” 19

In sum, it seems quite precarious and context-specific to make a claim for religion’s health benefits, at least in the abstract. With these things in mind, let us now turn back to Newport’s specific claims.


Newport argues that very-religious Americans are healthier than their non-religious counterparts, and that they tend to exhibit more of the behaviors that lead to (or are at least consistent with) good health. 20 He and his colleagues conducted a study of 676,000 participants. Participants scored their health in several categories, and were divided by the researchers into three religious categories: “Very religious” people, who reported attending Church “at least every week or almost every week” and who said religion is an important part of their daily lives, “non-religious” people, who seldom attend services and who said religion is not an important part of their daily lives, and “moderately religious” people, i.e. everyone else. 21

I confess a sense of overwhelming doubt about these classifications, but I will stipulate them for present purposes, because that is not the principal problem with Newport’s thesis. What he wants readers to focus on is the headline difference between the very- and the non-religious. “The average score on the wellbeing index for Americans who are very religious … [and] those who are non-religious” has a “3.9-point difference, which is highly statistically-significant.” 22 The very-religious are also less likely to have been diagnosed with depression or to be worried or to experience stress than those who are non-religious. 23

But Newport is playing Three-card Monte with us: The numbers on which he invites the reader to focus are correct, but his thesis would be derailed by what he doesn’t encourage readers to notice. If religion correlates positively to health, we would expect its correlation to be linear. Newport makes precisely this claim, saying that “highly-religious Americans have higher wellbeing and are healthier than those who are less religious.” 24 According to this thesis, lots of religion is great, and no religion is bad; it must follow that more religion should be better, and less should be worse. That is not, however, what the data show. In virtually every example that Newport provides, it is the moderately-religious who are the worst-off. While the very-religious American has 3.9 points on the non-religious American in the wellbeing index, she has 5.5 points on the moderately-religious American. 25 The very-religious have the lowest incidence of depression at 15.1%, which is much lower than the non-religious at 17.4—but the moderately-religious come in dead last at 20.5%. 26 Of the six sub-indices of general wellbeing, the very-religious lead the pack, but the non-religious leads the moderately-religious in four, and ties for a fifth. 27 Of the sub-indices for the experience of negative emotions, the very religious does best, but the non-religious person is doing better than the moderately-religious in four out of four. 28 That result that is incomprehensible to Newport’s thesis, which, as I have said, necessarily implies a linearity that is defeated by his own data.

Newport insists that the data has been controlled for other factors, 29 but the lack of linearity makes his thesis untenable. I would hesitate to guess what is actually driving the numbers; my suspicion is that Newport is right that “something about being religious, or becoming more religious, helps people have higher wellbeing,” 30 and that that something may well be “active participation in a religious community provides individuals with friends, fellow-worshippers, social networks, and social support.” 31 Nevertheless, when the only tool one has is a ruler, there is a temptation to treat every problem as if it were a straight line, and it may well be that the real fire under the kettle eludes quantitative study. 32

* * *

Newport says that “[t]he conclusion that religion is related to wellbeing gains more support the more scientists look into it. Positive relationships between religiosity and subjective wellbeing and health have been very well-documented.” 33 To the contrary, it would seem that his own figures debunk the correlation.


  1. See, e.g., Lorna Daniels Nichols, Big Picture of the Bible: New Testament 147 (2009); cf. Frank Newport, God is Alive and Well 63-64 (2012).
  2. 1 Cor 6:19-20.
  3. Living Healthier. [Editor's note: The assignment's rubric directed that we incorporate at least one reference to this video.]
  4. See, e.g., Religiosity and Addiction Rehab,, Sept. 26, 2012, (last visited Oct. 11, 2014).
  5. See Newport, supra note 1, at 55, 61, 65.
  6. Cf. Robin Schumacher, Is Getting a Tattoo a Sin?, The Christian Post, Oct. 21, 2012,
  7. Jn 14:27.
  8. See How is Satan ‘god of this world’?”,
  9. See Simon Dodd, Evangelization is a rescue mission, 2 MPA 138 (2012); Encyc. Rerum novarum, no. 21, __ Acta Sanctæ Sedis __, __ (Leo XIII, 1891).
  10. James 5:19; cf. Col 1:11-13.
  11. Encyc. Sapientiae Christianae, no. 14, __ Acta Sanctæ Sedis __, __ (Leo XIII, 1890).
  12. John Henry Newman, Sermon 13: Love of religion, a new nature,; contra Newport, at 62.
  13. 1 Pet 5:8.
  14. See Rom 7:18; Gal 2:20.
  15. 1 Thess 5:14.
  16. Cf. Mt 10:35; Lk 12:53.
  17. Philip Moxom, From Jerusalem to Nicea: The Church in the First Three Centuries 192-93, 195-96, 198, 204 (1895). Ridley Scott’s movie Gladiator would have us remember Marcus Aurelius as a good emperor, but he persecuted the Church of God as though he were the Enemy incarnate. See, e.g., Albert Newman, Manual of Church History 156 ff (1899).
  18. Id., at 188, 199. Two recent movies, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and JJ Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness have scenes that offer interesting reflections on the limits of violence as a tool capable of moving a person, and so also with the early persecutions: “At last … the fire of persecution burned itself out. The brute force and raging fanaticism [of the pagan authorities] … could accomplish nothing against the silent endurance of the Christians.” Id., at 214-15.
  19. Anti-jihad ads coming to N.Y. buses: ‘It’s not Islamophobia, it’s Islamorealism’, Sept. 21, 2014,
  20. Newport, supra note 1, at 47.
  21. Id., at 49-50.
  22. Id., at 50-51.
  23. Id., at 52-53.
  24. Id., at 57.
  25. Id., at 50-51.
  26. Id., at 52.
  27. Id., at 51.
  28. Id., at 53
  29. See id., at 51, 56.
  30. Id., at 60 (emphasis added).
  31. Id., at 62.
  32. The rise and fall of Empirical Legal Studies demonstrate the use and limits of data-driven analyses: It was useful for phenomena that can be studied through numbers, but the temptation was always to manipulate and improperly-reduce any phenomenon one wished to study such that it was bent into a shape that could be so-studied. See, e.g., Lori Ringhand, Judicial Activism: An Empirical Examination of Voting Behavior on the Rehnquist Natural Court, 24 Const. Comment. 43 (2007).
  33. Newport, at 54.

Who’s afraid of Fundamentalism?

Elsewhere, Raymond Cardinal Burke is faulted for representing the “fundamentalist” wing of the Catholic Church, a wing to which, by implication, I was also supposed to belong. We have been conditioned to fear the “fundamentalist” boogeyman; its mere invocation is supposed to be a thought-terminating cliche, for no one, surely, would risk being associated with so benighted a notion. 1 But let us take the charge seriously and meet it head-on.

The media has transformed the word “fundamentalism” into a synonym for “religious extremism,” but it originally had (and here in “flyover country” retains) real content. A.C. Dixon’s The Fundamentals, 2 the book whence the movement that would first be called Fundamentalists and later Evangelicals took its name, could be characterized as having an almost tridentine character: It sought to synthesize a pan-protestant orthodoxy in the face of various theological challenges, especially “liberal protestantism” and the historical-critical methodology that fueled it, Mormonism, a resurgent “Romanism,” and so on. It sought to do this by clarifying those core or “fundamental” beliefs that are believed by all Christians, and placing the emphasis on these rather than on the minutiae that might divide them. Confessedly, that may be (and often was) inverted into a proposition that sounds divisive in the abstract: “All Christians must believe these things.” But let us briefly take one concrete example to dispel our fears: The virgin birth. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the greatest of the liberal baptist preachers, said that it

is one point of view that the virgin birth is to be accepted as historical fact; it actually happened; there was no other way for a personality like the Master to come into this world except by a special biological miracle. That is one point of view, and many are the gracious and beautiful souls who hold it. But side by side with them in the evangelical churches is a group of equally loyal and reverent people who would say that the virgin birth is not to be accepted as an historic fact. 3  

Against this, Fundamentalism insisted that Christians must believe the former. But so, too, does the Catholic Church; that Jesus was born of Mary ever-virgin was the common confession of orthodoxy time out of mind, 4 and it is de fide dogma. 5 On that point, Fundamentalism stood for orthodoxy against heresy. This is the boogeyman?

In its content, then, Fundamentalism is a conservative (or, arguably, reactionary) flavor of protestantism that asserts the truth of the reformed faith against various theological innovations and errors that were introduced in the 19th Century. While there is a great deal of truth and enduring  value in The Fundamentals and its progeny, when we take it as a whole and focus on its content, the notion of a “Catholic Fundamentalism” would be a contradiction in terms.

But in its attitude and concerns, or even what we could sum up as its “mood,” 6 there is perhaps something more general, which can be seen if we slightly boost the level of generality. Fundamentalism saw that the antecedent faith of the protestant churches was under attack from a modernist and liberal ideology that was mounting a hostile takeover of its parishes and precincts, converting them to a corrupted and ersatz faith that was antithetical to that antecedent faith. It sought to man the barricades (in which sense it is militant in its attitude), to reaffirm the traditional beliefs that the reformers were attacking (in which sense it is orthodox in its belief), to defend and preserve what is left of the antediluvian Church (in which sense it is conservative), and to reclaim lost ground (in which sense it is reactionary).

In this context, because much of this sounds familiar, we might be able to speak meaningfully of a “Catholic fundamentalism.” Some of the same forces that besieged protestantism in the early Twentieth Century later besieged the Catholic Church, and similarly mounted a hostile takeover of the Roman Rite after the Second Vatican Council. The character and texture of the attack looks somewhat different because of the structural differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, but the same dynamic is at play. Many different groups in the Church have realized this, and have likewise sought (with varying emphases) to man the barricades, to reaffirm the traditional beliefs, to defend and preserve what is left of the antediluvian Church, and to reclaim lost ground. Maybe there are some cross-connections here.

The difficulty, however, is that the various groups of Catholics opposed to the modernist project have little in common with and little patience for one another (there is little understanding and no love between EWTN and the Remnant, for example), which makes it a little artificial to apply any kind of group label to them. “Orthodox Catholics” is about the best one can do. And “fundamentalism” would seem a particularly-inapt candidate to replace that label, because Fundamentalism, ex vi termini, is characterized not by that which it has in common with orthodox Catholics (i.e. its opponents), but by the peculiar character of its response. The fundamentalists met their opponents by figuring out a way to bridge the differences among orthodox protestants (if you will) with what they had in common. We can’t even agree on a common vocabulary! 7 

The unforgivable sin of Fundamentalism, by which it stood convicted before the sophisticated world, was that it proposed to take religion seriously qua religion. It insisted that scripture really was scripture, not just literature; it insisted that faith really was faith, not just a social program; above all, it refused to belittle our ancestors, their faith, their salvation, and their scripture. 8 While there was much that was wrong about it, there is more that is admirable in it than the world wants us to suspect. We should not, therefore, shrink for fear of the very word. But with the considerations discussed above in mind, the notion of a “Catholic fundamentalism,” while appealing, seems misplaced.


  1. Cf. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Values in a Time of Upheaval 11 (McNeil, trns., 2006):

    Politicians of all parties take it for granted today that they must promise changes …, far-reaching reforms are demanded and promised all the more insistently. … The world is experienced as hard to bear. It must become better. And it seems that the task of politics is to bring this about. So since the general consensus is that the essential task of politics is to improve the world, indeed to usher in a new world, it is easy to understand why the word “conservative” has become disreputable and why scarcely anyone views lightly the prospect of being called conservative, for it appears that what we must do is not perserve the status quo but overcome it.

  2. Conveniently online at, but reprints are available and Amazon has a Kindle edition.
  3. Shall the Fundamentalists Win? (last visited Oct. 2, 2014).
  4. Denzinger, Sources of Catholic Dogma  13, 20, 91, 113, 144, 201-2, 214, 255-56, 282, 290, 344, 429, 462, 708, 735, 993, 1472 (Deferarri, trns. 1957).
  5. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma 203-05 (1954).
  6. Thomas O’Meara, Fundamentalism: A Catholic Perspective 5 (1990).
  7. Cf. Simon Dodd, Conservatives, traditionalists, and Traditional Catholics, 4 MPA __ (2014), available at
  8. Compare J.I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God 48 (1958) (“The Spirit has been active in the Church from the first, doing the work He was sent to do—guiding God’s people into an understanding of revealed truth. The history of the Church’s labor to understand the Bible forms a commentary on the Bible which we cannot despise or ignore without dishonoring the Holy Ghost. To treat the principle of biblical authority as a prohibition against reading and learning from the book of Church history is not an evangelical, but an Anabaptist mistake…. Tradition may not be so lightly dismissed”) with G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy 85 (1909) (“Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”).

Just to be “on the record”:

Because Motu Proprio is not written with an assumption of realtime consumption, it has not seemed necessary to write anything like this piece from Chris Ferrara, which I join in forma specifica:


Shifting the burden of proof on altar girls

One of the less attractive ideas that circulates in traditionalist circles is the notion that the vocations crisis has a lot to do with altar girls. The logic goes like this: Statistics show that thumping majorities of ordinands served at the altar, so if you increase the number of boys serving at the altar you will get more vocations, ergo we must end the altar girl experiment. 1

The problem in this reasoning is the assumption that female servers disinclines males from serving. I think that unproven and counterintuitive, and so my objection to this line of reasoning has always been “show me proof that altar girls drive out altar boys, because if my intuition is right and yours is wrong, that is, if girls serving on the altar makes boys more likely to serve, the last thing we want to do is return to male-only servers.” 

Ultimately, though, debates on this point amount to a trading of guesses, and that isn’t helpful. What is helpful is data. And happily, a number of parishes have effectively volunteered to run an experiment: They eliminated altar girls and kept records of what happened next. You will recall that Father John Lankeit did so in Phoenix, to significant success. 2 And now, thanks to Father John Hollowell, we have some limited but helpful empirical data to work with. 3 The upshot? “The average parish surveyed, when switching from co-ed servers to male-only saw their server numbers grow 450%.”

Now, evidence isn’t proof, and Fr. Hollowell’s numbers don’t overcome my objection by themselves. But they do, I think, shift the burden of persuasion. If real evidence suggests that suppressing female service at the altar produces a significant increase in the number of altar servers who are eligible to be ordained, thus increasing over the long haul the number of vocations coming out of that parish—here’s the 450% question—why doesn’t that shift the onus onto those who would prefer to retain altar girls to justify their position? Why doesn’t it create a presumption in favor of moving to boys-only? At very least, the numbers suggest the need to run this experiment at a more controlled and statistically-viable scale.

At this point, I would have to favor suppression of female altar service, if asked, albeit with great reluctance. Regular readers will know that I have no ideological dog in the fight; I have no objection to altar girls and quite frankly I am troubled by the often-gynophobic tone of their critics. But I also believe that when a policy is rationally-related to an important goal—and there are few goals more important, I should imagine,than redressing the vocations crisis—it ought to be considered seriously, and what Fr. Hollowell’s numbers demonstrate, far too seriously to ignore, is the hitherto-missing link in framing a rational relationship between a return to male-only altar service and redressing the vocations crisis.


  1. See generally Simon Dodd, Altar Girls, redux, 4 MPA__ (2014),
  2. See Simon Dodd, Another update on Fr. Lankeit’s vocations program, 4 MPA __,
  3. Hollowell, UPDATED: Statistics Concerning Male Altar Servers, On This Rock, Sept. 3, 2013, I am appreciative to Brian Williams for bringing this to my attention.


Editor’s note: The premier benefit of working for a college is the opportunity to take classes. This semester, I am taking a theology class, and to the extent that my written submissions are deemed canonical and pertinent to Motu Proprio, excerpts will appear here under the TH200 tag after submission and grading. Formal errors both accidental and deliberate—such as the mandated use of “MLA style”—will be corrected, but the substance will be presented intact.

We tend to think of faith and doubt as opposites. But Fischer & Hart suggest that, to the contrary, doubt has religious utility: “[D]oubts,” they say, “are a natural part of any faith that is alive and growing.” 1 They suggest that “[w]hat feels like the loss of faith may in fact be a movement out of the limits of one form of faith,” insofar as disillusionment can lead to reevaluation. 2 We are asked to evaluate this notion.


William Lord Kelvin believed that it is only “[w]hen you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers [that] you know something about it,” for “when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind: it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarely in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science.” 3 In the broadest sense of the word “doubt,” which might be summarized as the absence of certainty, it might be said that anything that we do not know with that kind of precision must be thought in doubt: Anything that we cannot know with such certainty is, perforce, uncertain.

But this is too general to say much of immediate use. “No one has ever seen God” 4; neither, though, has ever seen Jupiter’s core, and so its composition must perforce be reckoned “uncertain” in the sense just described. But who would say that she doubts, per se, Arthur C. Clarke’s vignette about its diamond core? 5 (Later, we will call this kind of doubt benign involuntary doubt.) N.T. Wright observes that science reasons and infers that which it doesn’t know from that which it does, 6, and of a piece with this is the Roman Catechism, which observes that “[t]he knowledge derived through faith must not be considered less certain because its objects are not seen; for the divine light by which we know them, although it does not render them evident, yet suffers us not to doubt them.” 7

Reasoned inference alone, however, does not seem to amount to the “convergence of probabilities” of Newman, 8 let alone the hard certainty of Kelvin. Wright observes that astronomers, having read their empirical data on the planets they knew, and acting on the certainty that they understood the physics involved, concluded that physics called for the existence of yet-unseen planets, 9 and they were right. But what that vignette elides is that the astronomers’ predecessors had read their empirical data on the planets that orbited the Earth (so they believed), and, acting on the same kind of certainty that they had understood the physics involved, concluded that the physics called for the planets to engage in an epic ballet of circles and retrograde motion that they called “epicycles.” 10 We now ridicule this approach as “adding epicycles”: If the observational data don’t fit the theory, we would rather add layer upon layer of complexity to mediate between the data and the theory than reconsider the theory. 11 So: When we run on reasoned inference, we are sometimes discovering new planets, but sometimes we’re adding epicycles. And other than hindsight, how can we know the difference? Human arrogance always wants to believe that it’s the former, but is that really “certainty”?


It seems that we must have a more precise account of doubt’s content before we can evaluate its utility.

The word “doubt” can mean many things. It derives from the latin dubito—to question, to waver in opinion, to be uncertain, to ponder or deliberate, to be perplexed 12—and in its broadest sense refers to a lack of certainty. It can mean to be unsettled, uncertain, undecided, hesitant, or wavering in opinion. 13 It can mean to lack conviction about or to be skeptical of something, to tend toward disbelief. 14 Suspicion and even mistrust are in its ambit. 15 But it can also mean simply a state of being undecided. 16

At the other extreme,  the narrowest and most technical definition of which I am aware is that of Rahner & Vorgrimler, who insist that “doubt,” in a theological sense, means only “the deliberate suspension of personal assent to knowledge of which the import and … the basis were and are known to the doubter,” that is, “the free and morally-culpable suspension of assent to the truths of faith.” 17 They would withhold the label “doubt” from non-compelling difficulties one might encounter with adhering to an idea or proposition, still less from a mere state of “questioning,” that is, of “seek[ing] further and fuller knowledge.” 18

Everything else falls somewhere in between; two more examples will suffice. There is a sense in which doubt is meant in the definition of the sin of pusillanimity: “A person does not abandon God by this sin, but simply does not have enough hope. He doubts whether God has forgiven his past sins, and he is afraid that he will not get enough grace from God in the future to work out his salvation.” 19 It may also be a reflex, the product of what St. Thomas Aquinas described as “wonder rather than of unbelief.” 20 Aquinas suggests that we read the shock of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Annunciation in this sense, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church suggests the same about the doubts of St. Thomas the Apostle. 21


So this is something of a menagerie. We have a term that seemed fairly precise from a distance, but turns out, on closer inspection, to cover considerable ground. Is there any kind of order or system that we can impose on it?

Let us start from the proposition that the fundamental notion of the word “doubt” is uncertainty. The Catechism of the Catholic Church proposes a useful distinction that divides the family of doubt into two genera: Doubts voluntary and involuntary.

Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness. 22

That is a good start, but we might speciate the genus voluntary doubt. Terminal voluntary doubt is what Rahner & Vorgrimler describe, which strikes me as not very doubtful at all; it seems indistinct from conviction of the contrary proposition. The agnostic doubts; the atheist is convinced! 23 Judicial voluntary doubt, by contrast, is a deliberate suspension of judgment in the face of a difficult question, either because one is studying it or believes that it does not require resolution. Until 1854, for example, the Catholic Church corporately might be said to have been “in doubt” as to the immaculate conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Individual Catholics held strong opinions—for example, the Franciscans and Dominicans clashed over it 24—but the Church herself, following the Augustinian maxim in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas, did not bind all to a single answer or formulation, leaving the faithful at liberty to follow their own consciences. 25 Thus was allowed the space for understanding to ripen and sharpen. Only with the promulgation of Ineffabilis Deus was the question settled. 26 In this sense, then, the function of an ex cathedra pronouncement might be said to be that by it, a pope says, in voce Ecclesiæ, “we are certain, we are not in doubt on this point,” where “we” means the Church corporately.

We might also speciate the genus involuntary doubt. First, benign involuntary doubt would seem to be a logical consequence of the breadth of religion and the shortness of life. Consider: Calvin’s Institutes sprawls across two dense volumes; Hodge’s Systematic Theology, three; the assembled writings of the Church Fathers, dozens. Tillich’s Systematic Theology runs to hundreds of pages; Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, thousands. Corporately, we have done pretty well! For nearly two millennia, “we” have explored every imaginable nook and cranny the faith, and then some. But what of “me”—the ordinary, individual Christian? Few of us have minutely examined every item of our professed creed. Few of us have extrapolated and weighed every implication, and have called each of the various theological ballgames, such that we are able to affirm every question with total certainty based on our personal evaluation. If we had to develop that level of certainty before deciding to believe, we might spend our entire lives with our noses in the books and never get around to believing! Not for nothing did de Lubac suggest that doubt is not the only thing to be feared in religion: One’s “faith can go down to zero without even being shaken by doubt,” becoming “empty and external,” a great tree of solid appearance disguising an empty trunk. 27 You can spend your entire life thinking and do no better than a child who confesses that her friend Jesus is Lord. 28 It follows that there must lurk in our belief any number of points on which we should not pretend to be entirely, consciously, and deliberately certain, because we have gotten around to examining them only superficially if at all.

Second, conscious involuntary doubt. All of us, surely, have had the experience of learning a religious truth that is difficult for us—that is a hard saying. 29 This is more like the reflexive sense in which we earlier saw Aquinas and the Catechism use the term, and it is perhaps the sense intended by the great Northern Baptist preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick when he memorably observed that doubt is “the hard anvil on which real faith is hammered out.” 30 Unlike the two species of voluntary doubt, the person in this state is neither rejecting a truth nor deliberately suspending judgment on it, pending further study. She is simply wrestling with it. It would be a credulous mind indeed that would accept new information with no delay; that is the sort of mind that immediately clicks “share” on every half-baked yet agreeable Facebook political meme without wondering for a second whether it is true. A mature mind takes its time to greet new arrivals at the doorstep, to size them up and get a sense of who they are and where they are going—which isn’t unfriendly, but nor is it instant.

Finally, we might note that conscious involuntary doubt may be transient or protracted. When a man is grabbed by his lapels and shaken violently by some new truth, it is to be expected that he take some time to recover his composure. Picture the grief of the man told that he has six months to live and there is nothing to be done: We all know the steps. Denial; anger; bargaining; depression; and, eventually, acceptance. This is transient conscious involuntary doubt. It passes—usually. But sometimes we get hung up and stuck in a loop; in a religious context, this means that our doubts fester. That is protracted conscious involuntary doubt. This distinction has a significance to which we shall return momentarily.


To recap, then: We have given “doubt” a general, familial definition, and classified the family “doubt” into two genera and four species: Doubts voluntary (which may be terminal or judicial) and involuntary (which may be benign or conscious).  Can any of these be helpful to faith, as Fischer & Hart suggest?

In the most general sense, in which doubt means uncertainty, an intermediary stage of doubt would seem a logical prerequisite to movement between any given certainty and another. I am far less convinced than Fischer & Hart that doubt can function as a proxy for an openness to new ideas—or, to put it more critically, that certainty betrays epistemic closure. 31 This is akin to the complaint of the dissident theologian Leonardo Boff that “[t]here is no doubt [in Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger], and those who have no doubt are unwilling to engage in dialogue; they are incapable of learning from others.” 32 As the philosopher has said, it is the capacity to entertain an idea without accepting it is a mark of an educated mind. Nevertheless, it would be a mark of intellectual immaturity to sublimate from one belief to a different and incompatible one, and so doubt, in that sense, is a necessary and inevitable fulcrum between two certainties. If the earlier certainty was wrong, one must say that doubt was a part of one’s religious growth.

Now let us consider our various species of doubt. There is certainly no religious utility to terminal deliberate doubt. It is the end of the line. But judicial deliberate doubt may be useful, because, as we have seen, a demand for total certainty on every point would be paralyzing. It is not necessary to rush to conclusions on every question, or to feel that one must have all the answers before saying “yes” to God. We should be able to “make a defense to anyone who asks … for a reason for the hope that is in [us],” 33 but we should not feel that we must be sophisticated enough to survive an interrogation from Lord Kelvin. In this sense, doubt was certainly useful to the salvation of Dag Hammarskjöld: Judicial deliberate doubt seems to have enabled Hammarskjöld to say, in effect (as many of us have), “Lord, I don’t yet understand, but I trust you, and I am yours, and I will learn the rest as we go.” 34

Benign involuntary doubt has no religious utility per se, but insofar as it is potential, insofar as it is an opportunity, the realization that we have it can be useful insofar as it forms an invitation. In 2011, for example, a corrected translation of the Mass changed the words in which the Nicene Creed’s confession that Christ is consubstantialem Patri is rendered in English, from “one in being with the Father” to “consubstantial with the Father.” Catholics who had never had much reason to ponder the phrase were invited to enter more deeply into a mystery that, if we are frank about it, we do not really understand. The believer gradually unpacks belief. Fischer & Hart capture this notion quite well: If I am “drawn to belief in Jesus as a figure of central importance for my life,” surely I must thereafter “reflect on the act of total personal trust I have placed in him.” 35 Thus, “I may turn to theology for answers to certain questions that arise: What is the meaning of the salvation Jesus offers? How can we relate to the human and divine in His life? How are we to understand the miracles of Jesus?” 36 I might have given little or no thought to these questions when I gave the steering wheel to the Savior, and therefore must, despite my faith, have been in a state of benign involuntary doubt on those questions. Piece by piece, I will learn.

By contrast, protracted conscious involuntary doubt is corrosive to faith, for just as the believer gradually unpacks belief, so too the doubter gradually unpacks doubt. Consider the situation of a Catholic who, subsequent to the promulgation of Ineffabilis Deus, cannot shake serious doubts about the dogma of the immaculate conception. The subconscious mind is always working to resolve cognitive dissonances, revolving the puzzle and trying to make straight what seems crooked; if she cannot escape her doubts, her mind is likely to resolve the dissonance in the other obvious way: She will begin to doubt that magisterium has the authority or competence to impose this vexing dogma upon her conscience. But isn’t it always the same way when you pull a loose thread? As the puzzle continues to revolve in her mind, it must eventually occur to her to wonder: Si falsus in uno, incertus in omnibus? If the magisterium lacks the authority and competence to determine that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived free of original sin, how can it be trusted to expound the concept of original sin in the first place? And so she herself becomes the authoritative interpreter of scripture, upon which she now places her emphasis, doubting those things where (it seems to her) the magisterium diverges from scripture. The puzzle continues to revolve. In time, it occurs to her that the canon of scripture is underwritten by the magisterium, and if the magisterium lacks the authority and competence to determine that the Blessed Virgin Mary was conceived free of original sin, how can it be trusted to determine that St. James’ Epistula ad tribus duodecim was scripture, or that his Protoevagelium was not? And so she herself becomes not only the interpreter of scripture, but the arbiter of which writings are scripture at all. At very best, this is the beginning of Liberal Christianity, 37 which is simply shipwreck in slow-motion 38—but the puzzle even now continues to revolve, and it may at last occur to her that if the successors of the apostles who determined the canon of scripture are unreliable, so too may be the apostles who wrote the scriptures. She has now cut herself off entirely from the earthly life of Jesus, for there is no reliable means by which she can know anything about Him. The entire infrastructure of her faith has unraveled. Ironically, she is apt to feel not despair but empowerment, for she is now at last the self-actualized superwoman of Nietzche. 39 But in fact, she has thought her way out of faith, and would have done better to stick with her simple childhood faith in her friend, Jesus.

* * *

In the senses discussed, then, we may generally affirm Fischer & Hart’s notion: Although it is counterintuitive, there are senses in which doubt may be helpful to the growth of faith.


  1. Kathleen Fischer & Thomas Hart, Christian Foundations 101(1995) [Editor's note: our principal textbook for this class].
  2. Id. (emphasis added).
  3. 1 William Thomson (1st Baron Kelvin), Electrical Units of Measurement in Popular Lectures and Addresses: Constitution of Matter 80 (1891).
  4. 1 Jn 4:12
  5. Arthur C. Clarke, 2010:Odyssey Two 189-90 (1982).
  6. N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense 24-25 (2006) [Editor's note: an assigned text for this class].
  7. Catechism of Trent 12 (Donovan, trns., 1829); cf. Col 1:15.
  8. Fischer & Hart, supra note 1, at 18-19.
  9. Wright, supra note 6, at 24-25.
  10. See, e.g., Alex Bellos, The Grapes of Math 84-85 (2014).
  11. See, e.g., id., at 85.
  12. Charlton Lewis, An Elementary Latin Dictionary 262 (1915).
  13. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language 437 (1958).
  14. American Heritage Dictionary 420 (2d ed. 1991).
  15. Webster’s New Dictionary of Synonyms 266 (1968).
  16. Oxford American Dictionary 193 (1980).
  17. Karl Rahner & Herbert Vorgrimler, Theological Dictionary 157-38 (1965).
  18. Id., at 137; cf. Matthias Premm, Dogmatic Theology for the Laity 244 (1977).
  19. Id., at 249-50.
  20. 2 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 2182 (Bezinger Bros. ed., 1945).
  21. Id., at 2182; CCC ¶¶ 644-45.
  22. CCC  ¶ 2088 (italics in original).
  23. Cf. Fischer & Hart, at 13-17.
  24. See, e.g., James Tracy, Europe’s Reformations 1450-1650: Doctrine, Politics, and Community 235-36 (2d ed. 2006).
  25. Cf. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma 9-10 (1954).
  26. Pius IX, Ap.Con. Ineffabilis Deus (1854), available at (last visited Sept. 17, 2014).
  27. Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith 21 (1987).
  28. Aquinas, one the greatest theologians in all history, certainly the greatest postaugustinian theologian, a Doctor of the Church, a man whose careful exegeses remain foundational and canonical texts for Christians of all denominations, lamented at the end of his life that “[a]ll I have written seems like straw.” See, e.g., Linda Edwards, A Brief Guide to Ideas 343 (2001). By contrast, the illiterate, uneducated Christians of past ages at whom Fischer & Hart sneer condescendingly, see Fischer & Hart, at 100, died in absolute certainty that they would that very day be with the Lord in paradise, cf. Lk 23:43.
  29. Cf. Jn 6:60.
  30. Harry Fosdick, The Importance of Doubting Our Doubts in What is Vital in Religion 92 (1955).
  31. Fischer & Hart, at 101.
  32. Anonymous, Against Ratzinger 85 (Shugaar, trns. 2008).
  33. 1 Pet 3:15.
  34. See Fischer & Hart, at 102.
  35. Fischer & Hart,at 99.
  36. Id.
  37. See, e.g., Eli Fay, Liberal Christianity (1889).
  38. For the long-term prognosis, see Charlotte Allen, Liberal Christianity is paying for its sins, The LosAngeles Times, July 9, 2006, (last visited Sept.12, 2014).
  39. See Fischer & Hart,at 15.

Religion and spirituality

Editor’s note: The premier benefit of working for a college is the opportunity to take classes. This semester, I am taking a theology class, and to the extent that my written submissions are deemed canonical and pertinent to Motu Proprio, excerpts will appear here under the TH200 tag after submission and grading. Formal errors both accidental and deliberate—such as the mandated use of “MLA style”—will be corrected, but the substance will be presented intact.

We are tasked to consider: “Is the idea of approaching religion through meaning and spirituality making sense to you? … What is your experience?”

Before approaching the first question, we must settle upon working definitions of its key terms, each of which has intuitive content that nevertheless evades precise definition.

First, “religion,” which we might tether to the notion of “holiness.” 1 Religion in abstracto, I would suggest, is the intuitive sense that the visible world is somehow incomplete or corrupt, but that there is something out there beyond our immediate vision that is complete and incorrupt (“holy”), and that it is possible for us to come into some kind of relationship with this holiness. 2 And it would seem to follow from that definition that any particular religion is a concrete, discrete, and distinctive set of beliefs built on the faith, observations, and inferences that arise from, and are prompted and contextualized by, that initial religious intuition. 3

That definition is, confessedly, ipse dixit. But it does have to commend it the “goldilocks” advantage: It affords the word content that is tolerably-precise without being intolerably-restrictive. By contrast, definitions such as “a virtue that leads man to render to god the homage that is due to him” 4 are too restrictive for an abstract definition, excluding polytheistic and non-theocentric religions, while those such as “man’s attempt to understand himself” 5 are too vague, sweeping in everything from science to what Ratzinger calls “mystical religion,” 6 the territory of the “spiritual but not religious.”

Second, “spirituality”—an especially-slippery term in the religious lexicon. McBrien helpfully defines it as one’s “way of being a Christian,” 7, and one could substitute any religion for “Christian.” Spirituality, then, is the believer’s response to religion. It comprises the forms that bridge the believer’s internal life with her external praxis, such as liturgy, devotions, disciplines, styles of prayer, emphases, attitudes, tone, and even sensibility. Thus, one religion may encompass any number of spiritualties: A Sister of Providence, a Dominican brother, and a member of Opus Dei share their religion, but each has a different spirituality. Likewise, Jews Hasidic and Sephardic, and Muslims Sufi and Salafi.

N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian seems to have in mind a different understanding of the word “spirituality.” In Wright’s usage (and I suspect in much usage—whence “slippery”), “spirituality” seems to be an ill-defined catchall term for anything that pertains to that which transcends the external, superficial, and immediately-visible world. Might we not bow to this usage, taking it as a gauzy superset of “religion”? I think not. If a word becomes vague and hazy, its content becomes shrouded in fog, “blurring the outline and covering up all the details,” 8 leaving its meaning precarious. Worse yet: Language and thought may each corrupt the other. 9 Mushy, indefinite writing not only betrays but encourages mushy, indefinite thinking. Words should connote ideas, 10, and distinct words should connote distinct ideas; when we allow words to bleed haphazardly into one another, ambiguity breeds, making the words less distinct, less definite, and therefore less useful, leaving us and our progeny less able to express thought, and, indeed, therefore, to think. A writer cannot be blamed for ambiguities in an unavoidable word as he finds it, but he should aspire to confer upon it greater precision and certainly should not leave it in a worse state. 11

Maintaining this clear demarcation between religion and spirituality will also allow us to respond confidently to the notion that something “may be true for you, but not for everyone.” 12 Whereas my proposed definition of religion makes religion in some senses objective, insofar as it is concerned with that which is true, vel non, spirituality is inherently subjective, and is shaped and mediated as much by things such as culture and individual psychology as by the substantive content of one’s faith. We are able debate a question of religion such as whether there is a God or whether Jesus of Nazareth is that Adonai, eternal logos of Adonai, and Son of Adonai because on either side of such questions are exclusive claims about what is true. 13 Of their very nature, such questions have correct answers, even if we may for now only strive to glimpse and explain them “as through a glass darkly,” 14 and therefore disagree on the answer. That answer, though, cannot be true for me and not for you, any more than absolute zero may be 0 kelvin for me and yet 15 kelvin for you. In sharp contrast, the answer to questions of spirituality (in the sense that I have suggested it must be understood) are firmly in the category “de gustibus non est disputandum.” We cannot debate a question of spirituality such as whether Taizé meditation, Gregorian chant, or “Christian rock music” most effectively lifts the Christian’s heart to God, or whether the Benedictines or the Franciscans have the “right” approach to religious life, because such things are subjective. Of their very nature, subjective questions cannot have “correct” answers. My answers to such questions may well be “true for me and not for you,” just as vanilla may be the preferred flavor of pudding for me and yet chocolate for you.

Given this understanding of the key terms, it would not be apparent to me that religion can be “approached … through” spirituality in the intended sense, because the latter is a component of the former. One can only learn so much about an engine through a detailed examination of the radiator block.

Lastly, the question asks us to discuss our own experience. … My spirituality is a product of my upbringing and my personality, as filtered through my religious and intellectual commitments. While I am a Catholic by confession (and a Roman Catholic by affiliation), it is fair to say that I remain a high-church Anglican by spirituality. This, too, evades precise definition, but as an impressionistic sketch, I can subscribe to what Marvin O’Connell says of the Church of England as the Oxford Movement found it: “The Church called her children to calm, rhythmic worship where Deity was encountered with decent English moderation”; its piety, “gently-encouraged but … not insist[ed] upon,” was “austere and self-effacing,” its mien “dignified, intellectually-respectable. It stood above the vulgar exhibitionism … which has traditionally made the Anglo-Saxon writhe with embarrassment.” 15  This may or may not be a sensible way to approach spirituality, still less the best, but in view of what I have said above, I think that it is probably mistaken to think that spirituality is chosen. To the contrary, I should imagine that one’s spirituality arises organically, instinctively, and therefore to a great extent uncontrollably, and even when we attempt to impose a different one, à la Wright’s dictator concreting over the natural springs, 16 it seems unlikely to stick. 


  1. Cf. Richard McBrien, Catholicism 365 (2d ed.,1994); Karl Rahner & Herbert Vorgrimler, Theological Dictionary 402-04 (1965).
  2. Cf. N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense 24 (2006) [Editor's note: an assigned text for this class].
  3. Cf. Jn 6:44.
  4. 12 New Catholic Encyclopedia 57 (2d ed. 2003)
  5. Charles Bailey, Beyond the Present and the Particular 117 (1984).
  6. Tracey Rowland, Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI 100-01 (2008).
  7. McBrien, supra note 1, at 1020 (emphasis added); accord Kathleen Fischer & Thomas Hart, Christian Foundations 163 ff. (rev’d ed.; 1995) [Editor's note: our principal textbook for this class].
  8. George Orwell, Politics and the English Language in Princeton Readings in Political Thought 598 (Cohen & Fermon, eds. 1996).
  9. See id.
  10. See id., at 594.
  11. See generally Henry Fowler, Dictionary of Modern English Usage 114-15, 130-33, 230-31 (1950).
  12. Cf. Wright, supra note 2, at 26-27.
  13. See Rom 10:9; Jn 1:1, 14; 1 Jn 4:15; CCC ¶ 446.
  14. 1 Cor 13:12.
  15. Marvin O’Connell, The Oxford Conspirators22-23, 39 (1969)
  16. Wright, at 17-18.

The eternity of God

I am Alpha, I am Omega, the beginning of all things and their end, says the Lord God; he who is, and ever was, and is still to come, the Almighty.” (Rev 1:8.)

The young daughter of a friend asks: Who created God? (Ex ore infantium, right?) So what of it, what can be said to that?

The bad news is that there is probably no answer that will satisfy her—or, truth to tell, any inquiring mind. To take the easier part first, the one God exists in three “facets” or “persons,” and “God the Son” and the “God the Holy Ghost” can be said to originate in “God the Father,”even if there was never a time when the one God was not three. 1 But God the Father has no beginning. He was not created, not even by himself. He is and He always was—eternal, outside of time, uncreated, with neither beginning nor end. 

It may be helpful to consider this through the lens of Aquinas’ first proof of the existence of God: Anything that moves was put in motion by something else, which in turn must have been put in motion by something that came before it, and that by something else before it, and so on. 2 “But this cannot go on to infinity, says Aquinas, so at some point as we trace the “family tree” of motion, so to speak, we must reach the “first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.” Father Robert Barron’s series Catholicism puts this in slightly more concrete terms: If we look at a beautiful cloud coming down off of the beautiful Grand Tetons, the cloud was created by weather patterns. The weather patterns were created by the flow of air over mountains. Who or what created the mountains? We can say that the mountains were created by A, and A by B, and B by C, and so on, but no matter how many letters we go through, we must, unless there is an infinite regress, be a point at which we reach something that is created without itself having been created. And there we find God. (I don’t think that this is too advanced for children to understand—or at least, I think it can be put in terms that children can understand.) 

This is mind-bending to an adult of our era, and we have marinated our entire lives in the era of Einstein, in which we are all supposed to know, intellectually if not emotionally, that time is not linear, and that it is entirely plausible to speak of things that transcend “time.” On the other hand, both Genesis and John open with these words: “In principio.” “In the beginning.” That implies that there is a beginning, doesn’t it? So the idea of a God who always was is very difficult for us, I think. For a child, I fear that it may seem total nonsense. 

At this point, an observation from my own conversion story might be helpful. Part of the reason that I did not believe in God, I suppose, was that I could not comprehend how one might believe in a God who, as He has been described above, seems impossible—indeed, incomprehensible. How can motion proceed from stillness? How can something exist before, above, and beyond time? How can existence be uncreated? Once we start paring away the gauzy, romantic ideas about God and start asking the kind of concrete questions that Aquinas addressed in the Summa, it becomes mind-bending stuff: What is God? How can he be omnipresent, immutable, infinite, invisible, perfectly-simple, and so on? Can we really know anything from what might seem to be the national myths of ancient Israel? 

For me, the answer was no until (in the vernacular of conversion stories) I met Jesus of Nazareth, who claimed to be the Messiah of Israel and the Son of the God of the Hebrews. Those claims demand an answer. 3 My faith is Christocentric insofar as I did not first believe in God and then believe in Jesus (as did the first disciples), but rather, because I came to believe that Jesus was precisely who and what He claimed to be, and because of what that implies, I came to believe that this impossible, incomprehensible Father must be precisely what His Son has revealed to us (as presumably did the early gentile converts). Jesus “vouches” for God, if you will, and vouches for the truth of the Old Testament, just as the New Testament discussion of Adam and Eve vouches for the essential truth of the Old Testament discussion of Adam and Eve. 

So while I don’t understand God, and while I don’t understand the unavoidable answer to my friend’s daughter’s question—I doubt that I ever will, this side of heaven—I know that that is the answer. We can have faith in Him whom we do not understand because we believe in Him whom we know and who is “the true likeness of the God we cannot see (Col 1:15). If we believe in Jesus, we must believe in the mystery and grandeur of Him whose Son He is. 


  1. See Jn 1:1; see generally Matthias Premm, Dogmatic Theology for the Laity 39 ff. (Heimann, trns. 1977); Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity 163 ff. (1968) (Foster, trns. 2004); Charles Coppens, A Systematic Study of the Catholic Religion 111 ff. (1907).
  2. Newton’s first law of motion, which postdates Aquinas by four centuries, puts the same truth this way: Corpus omne perseverare in statu suo quiescendi vel movendi uniformiter in directum, nisi quatenus a viribus impressis cogitur statum illum mutare, every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.
  3. I would have described myself as an agnostic. We should observe that as a general matter, we would say that there are two kinds of agnosticism, hard agnosticism, which says “we cannot know,” and soft agnosticism, which says “I do not know.” The latter was what I would have said. But having been one, and with the benefit of hindsight, I would suggest that there is no such thing. Soft agnosticism is self-delusion; let us call it what it is: It is lazy atheism. The claims of Jesus demand an answer—they are unimportant if they are false, they are supremely important if they are true, but what they cannot be, as C.S. Lewis points out, is moderately important. Faced with this dilemma, then, one that minimally has lifelong consequences and at most has eternal consequences, it would be preposterous to offer the dog-ate-my-homework excuse “I dunno, sir.” That is not an answer with which any thinking person could be satisfied.

A brief note on the notion of a parable

If I talk to them in parables, it is because, though they have eyes, they cannot see, and though they have ears, they cannot hear or understand.” (Mt 13:13.)

The parables of Jesus weren’t riddles, traps, or trick questions—and they weren’t meant to be pored over and critically deconstructed to find some deeper or hidden meaning. They were given to people aloud and in realtime, 1 with the intention that the immediate audience would grasp the meaning, if not necessarily the implications. Whatever the merits vel non of the historical-critical method in the abstract, it is well to keep this background principle in one’s mind, just as we keep in mind that parables are allegories (that is, He is not relating actual events). 

If you find yourself saying that the parables are “mysterious,” that’s your cue that something is wrong. Parables were used to explain something mysterious in concrete terms that humans can understand. For example: “The kingdom of God,” which we cannot understand, is like “a mustard-seed,” which we can (somewhat) understand. If you find yourself asking “what was the motivation of the prodigal son in returning home, did he really have a change of heart, the story doesn’t say that, the father didn’t know what motivated the son,” or similar, then you’ve missed the forest for the trees. Do you see what you’re doing? You’re deconstructing the motives of the protagonist. You’re applying the tools of critical analysis. But the parables aren’t literature—they’re allegories, simple prima facie metaphors. The reason that it doesn’t say that the prodigal son had a change of heart is that his returning home is a metaphor for his change of heart, for his repentance.

Believe me, I understand the urge to turn every religious question into something that can be raked over by a conscious, deliberate, intellectual process. But where the parables are concerned, forget all the intellectual apparatus that is clouding your view; it isn’t helpful in this context. Stop deconstructing, stop parsing, stop overthinking, and remember that this was intended to be a metaphor that would be clear to simple people listening in person. Take it at the face value at which it is intended.


  1. As Francis Cardinal George likes to emphasize, Jesus didn’t write a book. See, e.g., George, A tale of two Churches,, Sept. 10, 2014, (“The Savior that God sent, his only-begotten Son, did not write a book but founded a community, a church, upon the witness and ministry of twelve apostles”); George, Scripture within the heart and life of the Church, The Catholic New World, July 21, 2002, (“Jesus didn’t write a book, and one doesn’t have to be literate to believe that Jesus is Lord”) (each link last visited Sept. 13, 2014).