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).

Catholics and politics

His excellency Bishop Robert McElroy (Aux. D. San Francisco) reportedly addressed “a diverse group of political players … [gathered] at Georgetown University to discuss the moral implications of partisanship”:

McElroy noted that the founders were deeply suspicious of partisanship, or what they called “faction.” They thought parties were necessarily divisive and there is no shortage of echoes of those early American criticisms today. Gridlock is everywhere, and it is attitudinal as well as structural. “Party pressure can distort legislators’ perception of the common good,” [he] said.
. . . .
He urged Catholics to risk becoming “insurgents within their own parties,” challenging party orthodoxy when it conflicts with Catholic social teaching, leavening public discussion, and reminding all political actors that “the moral end of politics is the achievement of the common good in society.”

McElroy articulated six principles to help Catholics estimate the proper sense of values in assessing political partisanship:

  • First, parties are called to reflect broad participation in the political process, and this must take precedence over electoral advantage. One thinks of the voter-suppression efforts in some states, all justified by the false claims of widespread voter fraud.
  • Second, political culture must recognize the role of conscience for legislators, and this must trump party loyalty.
  • Third, McElroy called on politicians to examine structures that create gridlock.
  • The fourth item on McElroy’s list was vital: There is “great social peril in the fact that our party structures track with racial and ethnic divisions.”
  • His fifth principle was that parties must find ways to avoid being dominated by money, a theme that came up later in the night with the panel of political participants.
  • Finally, the bishop closed on an upbeat note, urging both parties to bring their noble history to a new generation of voters. 1

I have written several times about the intersection of Catholicism and politics. 2 I have also written about the relationship between politics in the superficial sense and the deeper psychological structures that undergird them. 3 In this post, I will offer three pieces of context, and some brief comments on Bp. McElroy’s observations.


First, a party is a barycenter; it is what lies at the center of a dance of people and ideas who are like-minded on one or more issues that join them around common axes, even though they may be diverse in their other views. Just as the barycenter exists because of the people and the ideas, however, and is in that sense their slave, the people and the ideas orbit the barycenter, and are in that sense its captive. And because a party is a system, it is subject to the pressures and tendencies common to systems. 4 In particular, parties develop inertias and programs that, as a kind of social contract, person A feels (or should feel) bound to support even if they do not feel strongly about it, because persons B, C, and n, who do feel strongly about it, reciprocally offer support for the items that are important to person A even though they in turn don’t feel strongly about that. These kinds of reciprocal, tacit, cross-factional arrangements are what make and bind together viable political parties.

Second, this logrolling/social-contract character is like, but distinct from, partisanship. Partisanship, in the sense of “following the party line” rather than “doing what’s right,” is a chimera; it is reflected by the quote of then-Senator John F. Kennedy: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer.” 5 That’s a nice sentiment, but it’s rhetoric not reality. Democrats don’t support the Democratic answer because it’s the Democratic answer any more than Republicans support the Republican answer because it’s the Republican answer. We all support the answers that we support because we think they’re the right answers; the reason that we’re divided into Democrats and Republicans is precisely because we disagree on what the right answer is! Attempts to take the politics out of politics are always driven aground by their basic failure to understand the origin and nature of political division.

Third, it’s important to note that political views and policy opinions tend to rest on deep political dispositions. Not long ago, a piece was written urging that we ought to be Catholics before we are “liberals” or “conservatives.” I saw the sense that the author was going for, which was “we should be Catholics first and republicans and democrats second,” which is, like Kennedy’s line, more sentimental than useful, but it struck me that in a deeper sense, that’s like saying that we ought to be Catholics before we are introverts or extroverts, or that we ought to be Catholics before we are blue-eyed or brown-eyed. The foundational psychologies that make us conservatives or liberals at the conscious, political level can just as well be labeled conserservative and liberal, and we can’t be anything before those things. They are the apparatus upon which our perception of the world and everything in it rest, and you can no more have views on religion apart from them than you can have views on color apart from being color-blind vel non. I am a Catholic in large part because I am a conservative—not on the crass political level and because the Catholic Church agrees with my agenda (it doesn’t, as McElroy’s comments demonstrate), but rather in the sense that tradition and continuity are important to me at a visceral level, and so, having realized that the Catholic Church traced its roots all the way back to that fateful day in Cæsaria Phillipi, that really loaded the dice as I tried to figure out, having become a Christian, which Christian sect’s truth claims were correct. 6 It seems highly improbable that a conservative would be attracted to the idea that we should abandon a tradition of some 1500 years and instead synthesize a new version of the tradition based upon a free-wheeling inquiry into what is touted as its foundational text.


Given these considerations, I am skeptical of the enterprise of separating politics from politics and beliefs from beliefs. That brings us to a point where we may comment on McElroy’s observations.

McElroy assumes that voter ID laws are about partisan advantage and may reasonably be termed “voter-suppression efforts.” He thinks that the only justification proffered for them is the “false” claim of “widespread voter fraud.” He is wrong on every particular. Voter ID laws can indeed be justified on the basis of concerns about voter fraud, and those concerns that are not false but well-documented and frequent. They may well have partisan advantage. But what motivates those laws, and what would justify them even if one could not document fraud—which means that the existence vel non of fraud is irrelevant—is the state’s interest in ensuring the integrity of the ballot and thus the public’s confidence in the ballot.

McElroy professes his adherence to the notion of “broad participation in the political process.” I disagree. I think that the optimal situation is that everyone is well-informed and everyone votes; I do not think that the next-best alternative is “everyone votes, regardless of ability, desire, or knowledge.” I do not believe in making it easier to vote; to the contrary, I think it has been made entirely too easy. We will get a better quality of participation if we increase the voting age to 21, eliminate same-day registration, and return to the traditional one-day voting with narrow exceptions for those who can document their physical absence or inability to reach the polls on that day.

McElroy thinks that legislators must be free to follow their conscience—free, that is, of the baneful influence of the party whip. If this analysis has any bite, it is in those situations where person A (recalling the setup in my first note above) is not simply uninterested in person B’s agenda, but considers it gravely wrong. That is surely what Washington envisioned when his Farewell Address says warns of partisans who

“organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.”

In those situations, yes, by all means, it is partisanship to ignore one’s conscience. But in practice, I think that happens only rarely, because again, parties are aggregations of like-minded people, and because conscious political views are rooted in fundamental psychologies, like-minded people tend to (big shock) think alike. And, indeed, to think that their plans are common counsels and mutual interest. 

(Concededly, the GOP is an unusual case, because it comprises both liberals and conservatives, even if our liberals are apt to call themselves “libertarians,” and do not understand the intellectual provenance of their own views. In that kind of party, it may well happen (as happened with the revelations of the NSA program—operation Insight or whatever it was called—that person A truly and profoundly disagrees with person B. 7)

McElroy has some nerve quoting the founders (specifically, James Madison in Federalist 10) on faction and then “call[ing] on politicians to examine structures that create gridlock.” The founders designed our Constitution to be gridlocked. (And did so over Madison’s objections, mind you: Our Constitution is not Madison’s “Virginia Plan.”) McElroy doesn’t understand this; his comments presuppose that the purpose of the federal legislative process is to legislate; it is not. It is to not legislate. The system is designed precisely to make legislating slow and difficult, to set up dams and canals that route the passions of the moment and the inevitable floods of stupid legislative ideas through long journeys during which time they may be cleaned and cooled. Gridlock is a feature, not a bug. Congress is not designed to pass legislation but to stop bad legislation, and “bad” is a very subjective idea.

I agree with McElroy’s that it is unhealthy that “our party structures track with racial and ethnic divisions,” and I look forward to his constructive criticism of the black and latino communities for the way that they treat black and latino conservatives. McElroy should ask Clarence Thomas about this.


  1. Michael Sean Winters, Catholics need to risk being political party insurgents, The National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 2014, (last visited June 10, 2014).
  2. In re the firearms debate II, 4 MPA __ (2014); In re the firearms debate, 3 MPA __ (2013); Episcopal competence and the public policy nexus, redux, 2 MPA 46 (2012); Episcopal competence and silence, 2 MPA 4; Catholic social teaching and public policy, 1 MPA 151 (2012); Is it time for a Catholic political party?, 1 MPA 43.
  3. The NSA programs, 3 MPA __ (2013); The day after, 2 MPA 223 (2012).
  4. See generally John Gall, Systemantics (1975).
  5. (citing Speech at Loyola College Alumni Banquet, Baltimore, MD, Feb. 18, 1958, Senate Files, box 899, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.).
  6. See The Catholic Proposition, 2 MPA __; __, 2 MPA 1.
  7. Refer to my post on the NSA programs.

In re the firearms debate, redux

I last wrote about Catholics and guns in 2013. 1 Kathy Schiffer notes a new book, “My Parents Open-Carry,” and asks for thoughts on gun policy. 2 I should note at the outset that I am uncomfortable with propaganda aimed at children, and this book trips the propaganda alarm for me, even though I favor exposing Americans to guns and teaching them about firearms safety from approximately 1st grade on up.

That said: So the question posed is: “Do you support tighter restrictions on gun ownership? If yes, would you prohibit ownership of handguns by private citizens? [If no,] …. what limits would you impose?” It seems to me that any gun policy has to take account of reality; you wouldn’t think that it would be necessary to say something so obvious, but neither side of this debate operates on anything close to reality.

The reality is this: The Second Amendment exists and has profound implications for the situation of guns in America and what we can do about them that make the experience of foreign countries entirely inapposite. It also means (despite the fervent desire of the left that this not be so) that guns are and will continue to be pervasive, and we can’t do anything about that, so the question is how we respond. At the same time, however (despite the fervent desire of the right that it do so), the Second Amendment does not forbid all regulations on guns. It doesn’t, for example, prohibit background checks. It may or may not forbid bans on specific kinds of weapons or ownership by specific categories of persons.

Thus, the question becomes: What regulations could we enact that would be wise and also consistent with the second amendment?

The problem is that America isn’t ready to have an adult conversation about that. I am of the view that the next step should probably be to reenact the Clinton-era Assault Weapons Ban, which is probably (but not certainly) constitutional, and small-bore stuff like closing the so-called “gun-show loophole.” And that is not because I think that those things will work, but because every time there is a gun-related tragedy, our brethren on the left insist that if we would only do those things, the mass-shootings would stop. So we should cut them a deal: We will reenact the AWB for five years, but when it fails, it won’t be renewed, and the discussion will move on, once and for all.

At that point, we may be able to address the question in a sensible manner. Without getting too far into the “wisdom” side of it, I might note that there are several examples where measures that could be characterized as “gun control” would not infringe the Second Amendment. Background checks and registration requirements might serve as examples. As to the former, background checks have to be constitutional unless you think that the Second Amendment doesn’t allow government to exclude anyone from firearms ownership: If the government may ban the insane from owning firearms, it may inquire as to the sanity of a purchaser. 3 As to the latter, to take a first amendment analogy, the government may not abridge the right to a press by throttling ink, the instrumentality without which the press is useless (so holds Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Commissioner of Revenue), but that doesn’t mean that they can’t require registration of the presses. In both instances, the amendments prohibit suppression of the right, not the taking of steps that might be helpful should the government later decide to violate the right.

Heller was also at pains to point out that “nothing in [this] opinion should be taken to cast doubt on … laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms,” all of which could be described as “gun control” measures. Again, the first amendment supplies an analogy: Reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner do not abridge First Amendment rights, so analogous restrictions likely do not abridge Second Amendment rights.

More abstractly, just as the First Amendment’s protection of “the right”—note the definite article—”to free speech” presupposes an understood content to that right, one that never included obscenity which is therefore not protected by the First Amendment, so also the Second Amendment’s protection is cabined by both the original understanding of “the right”—note the definite article—”to keep and bear arms” and by the language of the amendment. Thus, for example, there is room to debate whether it protects access to a weapon that cannot be “borne”: Does the literal language of the text “and bear” prevail, or do you treat the text “keep and bear arms” as a unit reference to that preexisting right? Those are up for debate. I have my own opinion, and so does everyone else, but it’s a debatable point. Does the amendment protect weapons that are qualitatively-different from those that the framers anticipated? Again, I have my own opinion, and so does everyone else, but it’s a debatable point.

So there are several measures that fall under the broad rubric of “gun control” that might be constitutionally-valid. Doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good ideas, doesn’t necessarily mean that we can do them, politically, but they are permissible responses.


  1. In re the firearms debate, 3 MPA __ (2013).
  2. Schiffer, A New Teaching Tool in the Gun Control Debate, Seasons of Grace, Aug. 14, 2014, (last visited Aug. 24, 2014).
  3. Heller noted the “presumptive[]” validity of “longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill” and warned that “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on” them. District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 626-27 n.26 and accompanying text (2008).

An ersatz homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, cycle A

Today’s gospel reading, Matthew, chapter 16, verses 13 et seq., presents the passage that divides the Christians from the Jesusists.

Today, as in those days, there was dispute over just who this Jesus fellow might be. In those days, some said that he was John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. I don’t think that the point here is that they thought that Jesus was actually the reincarnation of Jeremiah, or that John the Baptist, after his beheading by Herod (Mt 14:3-10), had sort of possessed the man whom he had publicly baptized only shortly before (Mt 3:13-15). Rather, I think the point is that “the man in the street” thought that Jesus might be a prophet, a wise teacher, a holy man, and so on. Today’s reading answers the question: He may be a wise teacher and a holy man and so on, but that is not what matters: What matters is that He is the Christ, the messiah, the son of the living God. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that this is the confession, the truth, on which Christianity stands or falls.

It’s also a hard saying (cf. Jn 6:60), and I don’t think I’m being unfair in suggesting that there are people today who say Jesus is a wise teacher, a holy man, perhaps a prophet, but no more, and certainly not something as threatening as the Christ who, should he exist, would imply the existence of God Almighty. This is the confession of an ersatz faith that might call itself Christianity, but isn’t, because it substitutes an acknowledgement of Jesus for a confession of Christ.

We might call this alternative religion “Jesusism.” Although Jesusism probably has almost as many variants as believers, I think that we might perceive its central tenets: Jesus was a nice man and a wise teacher who was really nice to people and said some wise things. He had a special understanding of a divine power that we might call “god” (although she—Jesusists are keen on the feminine pronoun—has gone by many names through history). He was ultimately killed by the Romans because he worked for social justice and sought to change the status quo. Naturally, the Jesusists are very keen on doing what Jesus would have done—especially that last part about changing the status quo, no matter what the predicate situation!—and imagining what Jesus might have said about modern social phenomena. That’s a tough task in which they are hindered by their internal disagreements on what exactly Jesus said: While the Jesusists all acknowledge the existence of the Bible, and while they all understand that it was written in a specific time and must therefore be corrected by our subsequently-accumulated wisdom (!), and while they all realize that it has been corrupted and interpolated by organized religion since it was written (!)—the Jesusists themselves, of course, aren’t religious, boo, hiss, because religion is a patriarchal opiate, but they are very spiritual—they nevertheless disagree among themselves on exactly how to correct these issues and on which sayings of Jesus are authentic. Naturally, they soft-pedal today’s reading, because the messiah of Israel doesn’t fit into Jesus-as-a nice-man-ism. (They also tend to insist that the commission Jesus promises Peter is a later interpolation—but it must have been added very early in the Church’s history to escape any variance in the manuscript history, and since they also insist that the papacy in the form in support of which this passage is often adduced was unknown to the same early church, you have to wonder why it might have been added.)

You can’t even really call it heresy. If you take out the “Christ” part, including anything fundamental that is implied and understood within that part, the predicate for calling it heresy disappears: It’s really not even a Christian heresy any more. It becomes an entirely different “religion,” constructed centuries after the fact on dry texts. 

So let’s not have any of this soft humanism masquerading as religion. (Cf. Chesterton, Orthodoxy 136-37 (1909).) Let us instead confess, with Peter, that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and order our lives accordingly.

Ordinatio sacerdotalis and its limits

This year, many Catholics celebrated or lamented the twentieth anniversary of St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, in which the Holy Father settled the question of whether the Church is able to ordain women. Nunc sicut tunc, the spotlight falls onto the question because of moves in the Anglican communion: Now, because of the Church of England’s decision to ordain women to its episcopate, 1 and then, as in the 1970s, because of Anglican moves to ordain them to the presbyterate. 2 This move set Rome and Canterbury at loggerheads, 3 ecumenicists atwitter, 4 and was causing controversy within the Church. It still does, of course, but with the publication of Ordinatio sacerdotalis, that controversy became illicit.

The holding of Ordinatio sacerdotalis determines, infallibly, 5 as an article of faith for all Catholics, that the Catholic Church has no authority to ordain women to the priesthood. Period. While its magisterial force is often questioned by those who would prefer that the question be open (or settled in the other direction), we can say that its holding—infallibility is not dispensed in gross 6—was given infallibly because it meets the objective criteria for such. The First Vatican Council held, inter alia, that a pope speaks infallibly when he speaks ex cathedra regarding faith or morals. 7 And it supplies objective criteria by which it may be discerned whether a holding is ex cathedra: A pope so speaks “when, [1] in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, [2] in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, [3] he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church….” 8 There can be no reasonable doubt that all three prerequisites are met by the holding of Ordinatio sacerdotalis, and that it was therefore an ex cathedra statement. 9 And being such, it is infallible if it addressed a question of faith or morals, which, in terms, it did. It would be only slightly more clear had St. John Paul II added “and yes, by the way, this is an ex cathedra statement on faith.”

It must be noted at this juncture that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith takes a different position. That congregation was formally asked to determine “[w]hether the teaching … presented in … Ordinatio Sacerdotalis [is] to be held definitively, is to be understood as belonging to the deposit of faith.” Their answer was :

This teaching requires definitive assent, since, founded on the written Word of God, and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Thus, in the present circumstances, the Roman Pontiff, exercising his proper office of confirming the brethren, has handed on this same teaching by a formal declaration, explicitly stating what is to be held always, everywhere, and by all, as belonging to the deposit of the faith. 10

This might be rich soil for ecclesiologists and philosophers to till, but for normal Catholics and practical purposes, it’s just soil. Whether Ordinatio sacerdotalis settles the question infallibly by an exercise of the extraordinary magisterium or merely notes that the question has been settled infallibly by the ordinary and universal magisterium is a distinction without a difference: Either way, the question has been settled infallibly, and clearly. 

But it is equally clear that Ordinatio sacerdotalis has limits which are often crashed through by well-meaning apologists. It has nothing whatsoever to say about lay leadership positions within the Church, or leadership positions of any kind or label in non-Catholic ecclesial groups. Female cardinals lie beyond its scope, 11 and if a presbyterian church were to appoint women as elders and then decided to label its elders “bishops,” Ordinatio sacerdotalis would have nothing to say about that, either. It addresses the Catholic priesthood, the sacramental priesthood, the order of Melchizedeck; that, of its nature, is confined to what Dominus Iesus conceives of as “valid Churches,” which have preserved apostolic succession, not “ecclesial groups” no matter what they call their (in fact) lay leaders. 12

Moreover, Ordinatio sacerdotalis has nothing to say about the permanent diaconate. It speaks only to the priesthood—yet deacons “receive the imposition of hands ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry.” 13 It seems logical that if women cannot be ordained as priests they cannot be ordained as deacons, but the question remains formally open. There is an instructive legal comparison: After the Supreme Court decided Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, the questions asked, naturally, were: “What does this mean? What happens next?” To answer that, you have to break it into three separate questions. First, what’s next for Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, the parties to the case, and those whose situation is absolutely, indisputably on all fours with them? Second, what’s next for those whose situation is substantially similar, but not identical, to Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties (i.e. closely-held corporations with expressed religious views), situations that we might say to be “within the compass of the decision’s logic”? And third, what’s next for everyone else, being beyond the compass of the decision’s logic? Potential plaintiffs in category two may certainly file suit and cite Hobby Lobby, but it’s not certain that they will prevail. Similarly here: It would seem to me that deacons are within the compass of Ordinatio sacerdotalis‘ logic. But as gun-rights advocates have been aggrieved to discover since District of Columbia v. Heller, it does not necessarily follow that their notion of what is within the compass of the decision’s logic and the court’s notion thereof line up.

So there will never be female priests in the Catholic sense, but until the western schism is brought to a close, we have to recognize that there are in fact lay leaders of protestant groups that use titles that we reserve to the priesthood, titles that mean something different to those groups and thus may be more capacious. And we also have to be a little more modest, and a little more precise, about what Ordinatio sacerdotalis holds.


  1. See Simon Dodd, The Church of England approves women bishops, 4 MPA __ (2014), available at
  2. See generally Lambeth Commission on Communion, The Windsor Report 2004 14-15 (2005).
  3. Paul VI, Letter to Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggin, 68 AAS 599 (1976).
  4. E.g. id. (“We must regretfully recognize that a new course taken by the Anglican Communion in admitting women to the ordained priesthood cannot fail to introduce into this dialogue an element of grave difficulty which those involved will have to take seriously into account”).
  5. But see Simon Dodd, The Catholic Proposition, 2 MPA 80, 136 n.122 (2012) (noting with approval the observation of Ladislas Orsy, SJ, that “’infallible’ was an infelicitous label for that charism, and ‘definition’ an infelicitous label for the means through which it is exercised, insofar as both are likely to breed misunderstanding. [Orsy] prefers the more cumbersome term ‘fidelity to the revelation’ for the former and ‘determination’ for the latter”).
  6. Sharp-eyed readers will note the use of the legal notions of “holding” and “dicta.” While the labels are imposed, the substance is received; in an instructive example, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes:

    The subject matter of infallibility, or supreme judicial authority, is found in the definitions and decrees of councils [i.e. the holding], and in them alone, to the exclusion of the theological, scientific, or historical reasons upon which they are built up [i.e. the dicta]. These represent too much of the human element, of transient mentalities, of personal interests to claim the promise of infallibility made to the Church as a whole; it is the sense of the unchanging Church that is infallible, not the sense of individual churchmen of any age or excellence, and that sense finds expression only in the conclusions [i.e. holdings] of the council approved by the pope.

    The Catholic Encyclopedia: General councils, (1908).

  7. Dog. Con. Pastor æternus6 Acta Sanctæ Sedis 40, 41 (1st Vat. Co., 1870).
  8. Id. It is the third prong of this on which we may say that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not infallible: Although promulgated by an Apostolic Constitution, 1992’s Fidei depositum, as “a sure and authentic reference text for teaching catholic doctrine,” it intends to recapitulate existing teaching, and does not set out to answer a disputed and concrete question that might focus the papal mind and give rise to a careful and precise definition.
  9. Advocates for women’s ordination are apt to pretzel themselves on this question, concurrently insisting on two contradictory positions: That John Paul intended to squelch the debate, and did everything in his power to do so, but did not give Ordinatio sacerdotalis ex cathedra or understand it to be infallible. See, e.g., Jamie Manson, The women’s ordination movement is about much more than women priests, The National Catholic Reporter, May 22, 2014, (last visited Aug. 19, 2014).
  10. (emphasis added) (citations omitted).
  11. The fatal problem with appointing not just laywomen to the cardinalate but even laymen is the essential nature of the cardinalate. Those who say that the cardinalate is a human creation and may thus be modified by humans are right, but they miss the point: What have humans created? The cardinals are in origin, and remain in legal fiction, the senior clergy of the diocese of Rome. See, e.g., Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes 118 (3d ed. 2006). That is why the cardinals elect the bishop of Rome, the pope: It is a legacy of a time in which the clergy of the diocese elected their bishop that perdures in legal fiction today. See, e.g., Paul Collins, God’s New Man 115 (2005). It is why the cardinals, no matter where their actual see may be, have titular sees in the Roman diocese. See, e.g., Mildred Tuker & Hope Malleson, Rome 201 (1906). While it is merely a legal requirement that cardinals be a certain grade of clergy (a requirement that has fluctuated over time and sometimes been waived), it is in the nature of the cardinalate that the cardinals be clergymen, just as a gaggle is an aggregation of geese, be definition, and thus a goose and a cat are not a gaggle no matter how much they might wish to be. While lay curialists were in centuries past admitted to the cardinalate, very occasionally, this shows only that rare and abberational exceptions have been made before. See also Straight talk on altar girls, 1 MPA 81, 87 (2012).
  12. See generally Dec. Dominus Iesus (CDF, 2000).
  13. CCC¶1569 (quoting LG 29); accord St. Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition (circa AD215) (the deacon “is not ordained to the priesthood, but to serve the bishop and to fulfill the bishop’s command”).

In and out of the cafeteria

Father Dwight Longenecker writes some very sharp commentaries. His most recent is not one of them. 1 It is, alas, pretty stupid.

Fr. Longenecker says that “with Pope Francis the cafeteria Catholics are the conservatives,” but the equivalence is entirely false. Let’s start by understanding what we mean by “cafeteria catholic.” That term is an established pejorative with a well-understood meaning: It describes those who are in open, public, and systemic dissent from Catholic teaching: They reject the faith, or at least feel fee to create their own version of it, an à la carte ersatz catholicism by picking and choosing which bits of Catholicism they would take and which they would leave, while clinging to the label. 2 It is the actual rejection of the Catholic proposition or a pattern of behavior that is inconsistent with belief in such. 3 Longenecker knows this; in this very piece he acknowledges this meaning: The Cafeteria Catholics “pick and choose what bits of Catholicism they like[] and reject[] the bits they d[on't] like.” And he relied on the same definition in faulting cafeteria catholicism last May. 4

While cafeteria catholicism is associated with liberals, there is no particular reason why conservatives could not be cafeteria catholics. Certainly the seeds exist: There are individual issues on which some conservative Catholics are at odds with the Church, paradigmatically John Paul II’s teaching on the death penalty, and one might think that the SSPX provides the closest thing to an example. To be sure, those issues have nothing to do with Francis, whom they predate, and their scope is both narrower and shallower than the pervasive dissent that justified the “cafeteria catholic” label. (Again, cafeteria catholicism is not isolated single-issue dissent, but rather broad and systematic assertion of a freedom to pick and choose which doctrines one might follow.) But it’s not inconceivable that such a case could be made.

But Longenecker brings no such indictment. “They”—who, specifically?—”splutter and fume” at Francis. The mysterious they “disagree[s] with him about this and reject[s] his words about that,” “pick[s] him to pieces, refuse[s] to give him the benefit of the doubt and paint[s] him as a terrible pope.” Let’s suppose that all that is true: So what? The length and breadth of Longenecker’s accusation is that conservatives don’t seem to like Francis. So what? Whatever that may make they, it doesn’t make they a cafeteria catholic. It doesn’t even allege, let alone show, that they  rejects a teaching, let alone that they has made a broad-based rejection of teachings, or actually or constructively rejected the teaching authority itself. Saying that these allegations are a case that they is a cafeteria catholic is like saying that 2 + 2 = red. It doesn’t even rise to the respectability of being wrong.

So Longenecker fails to state a claim on the face of his post; nor is there any way to parse a viable claim out of what he does allege, i.e. they‘s supposed dislike of Francis. No teaching of the Catholic Church says that Catholics have to think that a pope is wise to grant a second interview to a man who twisted and misrepresented that pope’s words in a previous interview. 5 No teaching of the Catholic Church says that Catholics have to think that a pope has his priorities right, that everything he says is well-worded or felicitously-timed, or that he is a smart man, a good man, a virtuous man, or anything like that. 6  No teaching of the Church says that a pope is ex officio above approach—tell that to St. Catherine of Sienna! The Church does teach that we must obey the governing acts of a pope, being the supreme pastor of the Church—but Longenecker doesn’t allege that conservatives are disobedient to Francis, and neither does anyone else. The Church does teach that a “religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will” 7—but Longenecker doen’t allege that conservatives do not show a religious submission of mind and will to Francis’ authentic magisterium, and neither does anyone else. And of course, an ex cathedra judgment must be submitted to—but Francis has made none. In that regard, Longenecker has not even managed to make an accusation as serious as the pretty unserious accusation made by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, who at least alleged an item on which conservative catholics were supposedly and could plausibly be in dissent, to wit the “war on terror.” 8 That was silly, but at least it stated a claim.  

The basic problem is this: Longenecker can only show that there is a broad trend toward a conservative cafeteria catholicism (as compared to narrow filaments and isolated pockets, at very most favorable) by relying on either (1) a false and contrived definition of cafeteria catholicism, or else (2) a wildly-inflated and ultramontanist view of that which is due to the papacy that is not actually reflective of Catholic doctrine. 9 As to the first, even if it were true that the treatment that Francis is getting from conservatives is “just like [what] the liberals did with Benedict,” it wasn’t their treatment of Benedict the Great or St. John Paul II that got them labelled as cafeteria catholics, so that theory is simply irrelevant. As to the second, Longenecker is free to be an ultramontane—that is a valid, permissible opinion in Catholic theology—but he is not free to fault people as cafeteria catholics if they don’t adhere to an opinion that goes beyond formal doctrine.

Because a cafeteria catholic is, by definition, a person who has a broad-based rejection of church teaching, and because Longenecker has failed to even allege any rejection of anything taught by the church, let alone that such a rejection is broad or deep, alas, his column is, as the kids say, #fail.


  1. Rev. Dwight Longenecker, The Rise of Conservative Cafeteria Catholicsism (sic.), Standing on My Head, July 31, 2014 (all web resources herein last visited Aug. 1, 2014).
  2. See, e.g., Gary Ferngren, Medicine and Religion 191 (2014); James Wehner, The Evangelization Equation 58 (2011); Jerome Baggett, Sense of the Faithful 24 (2009); Paul Lakeland, Church 83 (2009); John Allen, the Future Church 62 (2009) and All the Pope’s Men 200 (2004); Ari Goldman, Being Jewish 27 (2000); Eileen Flynn, Catholicism: Agenda for Renewal 121 (1994); Rev. Paul Duffner, Cafeteria Catholics, 46 The Rosary Light & Life, no. 4 (1993), available at Wikipedia places the term’s origin in the mid-80s and it has ever since been understood by everyone on every side of every debate to carry the described meaning and derivation
  3. See Simon Dodd, The Catholic Proposition, 2 MPA 80 (2012).
  4. Longenecker, What’s killing American Catholicism, part 3, Standing on my Head, May 7, 2013,
  5. The allusion is to Francis’ stunning decision to grant a second interview to an Italian journalist called Scalfari, who had previously provoked controversy by misreporting Francis’ words.
  6. Such a teaching would be laughed out of court if it were proposed, for the same reason that would be  a proposed teaching that the Holy Ghost chooses the pope through the conclave: The history of the papacy, as often sordid as saintly, alas, stands as an insuperable barrier to such claims. See generally John Julius Lord Norwich, Absolute Monarchs (2011).
  7. LG25.
  8. Micklethwait & Wooldridge, God is Back 203 (2009).
  9. Cf. Simon Dodd, The New Ultramontanes, 4 MPA __ (2014), available at