Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Evangelium gaudii, 7: Sactifying grace for pagans

There is one really troubling paragraph in the Exhortation.

It's not the bit in which the Holy Father rejects 'trickle down theories'. Economics is not 'faith and morals' and his views on this subject don't bind Catholics, although Catholics would be foolish indeed to take up dogmatic economic liberalism.

It isn't the bit about promethean neo-pelagians, which could mean a lot of different things and is not exactly news, coming from Pope Francis.

It isn't even the bit about the Jewish Covenant. This is a bit unclear, but this kind of thing has been said a lot in official (not necessarily magisterial) documents, and the problem, if it is one, is a long-established one.

No, the problem is this.

"Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live “justified by the grace of God”, and thus be “associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ”. But due to the sacramental dimension of sanctifying grace, God’s working in them tends to produce signs and rites, sacred expressions which in turn bring others to a communitarian experience of journeying towards God. While these lack the meaning and efficacy of the sacraments instituted by Christ, they can be channels which the Holy Spirit raises up in order to liberate non-Christians from atheistic immanentism or from purely individual religious experiences.(EG 254)"

Remember, first, that Jews are excluded from this generalisation: their situation has been addressed separately (247-249). They are not part of conventional 'inter-religious dialogue', they are sui generis. The section on inter-religious dialogue has two paragraphs on Islam preceding the paragraph just quoted; this looks like taking a step back to make a generalisation about all non-Christian and non-Jewish religions.

It appears to be saying that when individual non-Christians, who have some intimation of the existence of God and even some kind of relationship with him, get drawn into some kind of possibly idolatrous cult, this is not only a good thing but a means of salvation for them. This would appear to invert the teaching of the Church, which is that all are bound to believe in God and worship Him (by prayer, for example), and that idolatry is not a way of doing this, but a way of not doing this. It is the worship of something other than God - idols - and is against Natural Law.

This comment, left on on earlier post in this series, deserves wider attention.

I don't see that the statement 'Non-Christians, by God’s gracious initiative, when they are faithful to their own consciences, can live “justified by the grace of God”, and thus be “associated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ”', is unclear. The key notions are being a non-Christian, being faithful to your own conscience, and being justified by the grace of God. Being a non-Christian is self-explanatory. Being faithful to your conscience means doing whatever your conscience tells you is right, and the fact that it is applied to non-Christians means that the commands of conscience in these cases are not considered to include conversion to Christianity. Being justified by the grace of God means that you are saved.

The passage insinuates, but does not clearly state, that the rites of non-Christian religions can be channels of sanctifying grace, but it does clearly describe such rites as good and even as sacred. Things can of course be good and sacred without being channels of sanctifying grace, and not all grace is sanctifying grace. It is reasonable to describe the work of the Holy Spirit as a grace of some kind, so since the passage describes the rites of non-Christian religions as works of the Holy Spirit, it describes these rites as conveying grace.

Of course you will be puzzled by this passage if you begin with the a priori assumption that the Pope cannot be describing idolatry as good or as a channel of grace. But there is no basis for this assumption. The Pope is not God, and this document is not an infallible definition or even clearly intended to teach authoritatively on matters of faith and morals. It is the personal opinion of the Pope, and thus there is no barrier to its expressing claims contrary to the Catholic faith, if that is what the Pope happens to believe.

My concern from the start in blogging about Pope Francis has not been to hide those views of his with which I don't agree, or to twist his words into meaning something different from what he intended. My concern, rather, has been twofold: to understand his thinking, and to come up with ways in which Catholics attached to the Traditional Mass can engage positively with it. Ways, for example, in which to make those influenced by the Holy Father stop and think, that perhaps really their concerns are not best served by attacking the Traditional Mass.

In this case the best approach might be to consider the possible scenarios the Holy Father may have in mind. I differ from the commenter I quote above in thinking that, even at a purely human level, Pope Francis can't have idolatry in mind. If you said to him: 'Pope Francis, idolatry is a sin isn't it?' He wouldn't say, 'Oh no, not at all, the First Commandment has been abolished by Vatican II.' As a matter of fact, he is quite fond of talking about the sin of idolatry, interpreted in quite a broad sense. In this very document he says (55)

The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.

When he says that the rites of non-Christian religions can be 'channels of the Holy Spirit', he doesn't have, at the front of his mind, the example of the worship of the Golden Calf. Either he has forgotten that many non-Christians are idolatrous, or he believes that they are not.

The second possibility can be expressed like this. It may be argued that the condemnation of idolatry we hear in Scripture does not apply to the religious rites of, for example,  modern Hindus and Animists. You often hear Christian homosexual activists saying that what St Paul condemned is not what homosexuals do today, it is different somehow. And it is true that we need to exercise some caution in applying the categories found in the Book of Deuteronomy and so on to people we meet today. Specifically, the point of idolatry as condemned in the Bible is that the worshipper addressed himself to the idol, and not to a (genuine) supernatural reality which it represented. Depending on the Hindu you ask, you may hear arguments to the effect that this criticism does not apply to them, any more than to the Catholic cult of icons.

This is all far too complicated to attribute to the Holy Father, of course, on the basis of this paragraph. I mention it because it is one line of thought which his defenders or those influenced by him might wheel out. And it doesn't work. Because the Catholic cult of images is premised on the Incarnation. We have an incarnational religion because it is the religion of the incarnation. The ancient Jews were right not to use images in the way we use icons and holy statues because God had not taken flesh, which is the pre-requisite for Him to be represented and honoured by way of honouring that representation. (Images of God the Father are visual metaphors, and are not given the honour accorded to images of Our Lord. We don't light candles in front of images of the Ancient of Days.)

I can only leave this issue with the hope that it will be clarified in some authoritative way. There is enough confusion about interreligious dialogue already.

Pictures: honouring images of the Virgin and Child, at Walsingham, at Willesden, and at Caversham.


  1. Does this not simply follow from what S. Thomas says about the generation of rites among religious pagans before the institution of circumcision, ST III q 70 a 4?

    1. Funny thing. In my copy of the Summa that article is about circumcision under the Old Law. What is it talking about in yours?

  2. The reason that Gentile rites before the Incarnation could sometimes be ways of remitting original sin is that they could be professions of faith in the Redeemer to come. Now they cannot be, as the Redeemer has already come. This is why St Thomas says that explicit faith in the Incarnation is now necessary for salvation.

  3. I don't share your view that the Two Covenant problem doesn't matter; but I offer a real anxiety which attends both your problem and mine. It is that these things in papal documents will gradually mount up, one document citing another in its footnotes, until we have an interlocking set of 'magisterial' assertions on the basis of which we shall be told that such-and-such has become the teaching of the Church. I think it is possible to be very worried indeed. If this pontificate lasts a long time ...

  4. Here is Cardinal Burke saying that he doesn't think that Evangelii Gaudium is a magisterial text, but rather a series of personal 'reflections'. The remark comes at 21:28.

  5. Sorry, I forgot the link!

  6. It seems to me from the quote that the Pope's understanding need not be problematic. If it is possible for pagans and those of non-Christian religions to be in something that at least anticipates the state of grace, then it seems that the Pope is simply highlighting that might have a communal and even ceremonial aspect. Louis Bouyer draws attention to the mystery cults of ancient Greece (so beloved of some liberals) and sees them as nature's prophecy of the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery. If grace allows a certain anticipation of the rites of the new and eternal covenant even outside Israel, then we might expect that same grace to work in a similar way after it is established. To my mind, that is fairly unproblematic although if a Pope says it, we are surprised.

    I think a clearer understanding, and one the Pope may stumble across, is that of Blessed John Henry Newman, expressed when he was an Anglican, found in "Faith the Title for Justification" (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 6, Sermon 12) where he preserves the insistence on belonging to the visible Church while arguing that the faith of non-conformist Christians is both genuine and something of an earnest of their future justification:

    "None are justified but those who are grafted into the justified body; and faith is not an instrument of grafting, but a title to be grafted. It is baptism, "whereby, as an instrument, they that receive it rightly," that is, by faith, "are grafted into the Church." And with the Church go all its privileges; and on communion with it depends the inflowing into the soul of its privileges. He who never has entered into the Church has not the privileges; he who has seceded from it, or sinned grievously in it, or is born in a schismatical branch or heretical sect, to him the privileges are suspended. There are great numbers, then, all about us, vast multitudes, who, for one reason or other, through their own fault or the fault of their fathers, are in a position which fails of the enjoyment of the privileges of regeneration. The power of the Spirit, the cleanness and lustre of the new creature, the intercourse with heaven, the light of God's countenance, the fulness of justification, are not participated by these masses of men, at least according to the provisions of the Gospel covenant. But in spite of this, we may humbly, yet confidently say, that where there is true faith, there justification shall be; there it is promised, it is due, it is coming, somehow, somewhile."

    Louis Bouyer reminds us those mystery cults were unfulfilled, part of the "types and shadows" though remarkable in what they did show. Likewise, that grace and obedience that leads to Catholicism is a title and one we can only pray will receive its prize.

  7. To say that explicit faith in the incarnation is necessary to salvation is not the teaching of the pre-conciliar Manuals, a good example of which would be Prümmer, because the letter to the Hebrews clearly states that those who believe in God and that He rewards those who draw near him are saved (11.6). So among those who have never heard the gospel it seems perfectly possible that sacraments of nature working ex opere operantis might avail this drawing near, although in an uncovenanted way. Presumably the same applied to that half of the Jewish nation for which ritual circumcision was unavailable.

    1. Hebrews 11,6 says nothing of the sort! It simply says that it is impossible to please God without faith:

      11,6 "But without faith it is impossible to please God. For he that cometh to God, must believe that he is, and is a rewarder to them that seek him."

      It most emphatically does not say that all who have faith are saved, but rather that faith is a minimal requirement for coming near to God.

      The whole point about Hebrews 11 is given in the last 2 verses which nobody seems capable of reading. After listing all the OT examples of faith, St Paul tells us:

      11,39 "And all these being approved by the testimony of faith, RECEIVED NOT THE PROMISE, 40 God providing something better for us, that they should not be perfected without us."

  8. Well Lumen Gentium 16 seems to think it does: 'Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.'

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. I believe we should consider that the meaning of words can change from culture to culture, for example: the word liberal has one meaning in America and has a totally different meaning in Europe. Also South American Spanish is different from European Spanish. The translation can be a little bias depending on the disposition of the translator so it would be useful to have a copy in the original language.
    Pope Francis also speaks plainly, a language that the ordinary folk can understand. Therefore I believe the document should be read with the ignorance of a simple lay person.
    God By His own initiative can guide non Christians, though not ALL, if they are faithful to their conscience to live in favour with Him, (what comes to mind is how the Lord guided Saint Augustine through his youth to convert and use his skills to become a Great Saint)and thus be associated with God's dying on the cross for the redemption of many. But Since God uses matter the sacraments to communicate his perfecting grace, God working in them for their conversion brings about signs and rituals which are considered holy acts( for example, praying) which can bring people who share the same feelings together and help each other journey towards God.(so I guess praying in the mass( the sacrament of the Eucharist) for the conversion of the non Christians can bring about grace for their conversion.) therefore the holy spirit can liberate the non Christians through these signs and rituals from falling into the trap of materialism and religious individualism.
    I Hope I made some sense. I am sure God Knows what he is doing with Pope Francis. I believe God is trying to show us through Pope Benedict and pope Francis the greatest commandment.
    " And there came one of the scribes that had heard them reasoning together, and seeing that he had answered them well, asked him which was the first commandment of all. And Jesus answered him: The first commandment of all is, Hear, O Israel: the Lord thy God is one God. And thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength. This is the first commandment. And the second is like to it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these." (Mark 12: 28-31.(
    "God hath spoken once, these two things have I heard, that power belongeth to God,] And mercy to thee, O Lord; for thou wilt render to every man according to his works." (psalm 61:12,13.)

    We have to learn to put things in the right order. God is First, but also important is love of neighbour. There needs to be balance in due proportions. Initially I though, how can we evangelise when our church is shipwrecked? We need to make sure that our church is good enough to “float” then we can find people to come aboard. Now, I believe that God is showing us through these two pontiffs that it isn’t an “either, or” but a “both, and.” We need to build the church but we need more hands to do the job. Didn’t the various liturgies (I mean Eastern and Western rites) develop over time while the Apostles were evangelising? Our roman rite did not just come into being at the council of Trent.
    Long live Pope Emeritus Benedict, Long live Pope Francis.

  11. So basically, a satanist and an atheist can be saved by God's grace if they obey their consciences, and that God is the author of pagan rites(God's working in them produces signs etc). Well isn't that great?

    1. I wanted to say: "So basically this means that" etc.

    2. Thanks for taking the effort to consider my comment. I do not think it is right to say that Pope Francis is fond of talking of the sin of idolatry in any non-metaphorical sense. That sin consists in offering religious worship (latria) to anything other than the one God. No-one worships money in that sense. Pope Francis does not of course state that worship so defined is good; the question is whether he describes acts that are in fact idolatrous as being good or potentially good. The worship of Jews is not idolatrous, but as you state, this is not covered by the passage in question. One might argue as well that Muslim worship is not idolatrous. But the passage refers to the rites of non-Christians generally. It is obvious both from reason and revelation that the rites of non-Christians (with, again, the possible exception of Muslims, and perhaps of some other non-Christian monotheist groups if there are any) are idolatrous. If you want to make a case for some of these rites not being idolatrous, it remains absurd to claim that none, or even many, of the rites of non-Christians are idolatrous. The fact that non-Christians are capable of being in a state of grace does not imply that non-Christian religious rites are potentially good. For one thing, this fact does not state that non-Christians who practice idolatrous worship can be in a state of grace; and the weight of Scriptural argument against the claim that they can be in a state of grace is overwhelming. For another thing, even if non-Christians can be in a state of grace despite engaging in idolatrous practices, that does not imply that their state of grace is in any way due to these practices. You cannot get grace through committing terrible sins, which is what idolatrous practices are. Such non-Christians would have to owe the preservation of their state of grace to their being ignorant of the fact that they are sinning in committing idolatry.

    3. I do not know how far your twofold intention to 'understand his thinking, and to come up with ways in which Catholics attached to the Traditional Mass can engage positively with it' is capable of realisation. 'Engaging positively' is rather a vague expression; is the engagement in question supposed to take a positive attitude to the Pope and assertions, or a positive attitude to the truths of the faith? On the face of it these two engagements are mutually exclusive. The positive engagement that is called for here is that referred to by St. Thomas in 2a2ae q. 33 a. 4, where he says that 'It must be observed, however, that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly.'

      I think that one thing that has been neglected in your study of Evangelii gaudium is the context of the sorts of things that it contains. They are not new; they are familiar to Catholics from the last 50 years or so. The contents and approach of this document are just like the rhetorical approaches taken by unbelieving prelates, priests, and religious who want to destroy the faith of their hearers in a effective way. This involves a mix of praiseworthy expressions of the faith, dubious and vague passages that insinuate the falsity of Catholic teachings without their meaning being clear, the occasional passage - such as the one discussed here - that is plainly incompatible with belief, and a good deal of selective indignation that condemns carefully unidentified people whose attributes are nonetheless obviously meant to pick out those Catholics who adhere to to the faith, practice their religion in a traditional way, and stand up for moral and religious causes that are unacceptable to secular society; while at the same time treating as praiseworthy and acceptable those Catholics who betray the faith.

      Maybe the Pope follows this poisonous modernist approach unintentionally, without actually intending it to produce the results it was designed to produce. Even if this is the case his following it is a terrible sin that needs to be denounced. But we are among adults and we should face up to realities; the idea that his approach is not intentionally designed to produce the results it does produce is ridiculous.

    4. What are you talking about? Outside the Church there is no remission of sins. There can be no sanctifying grace outside of the Church.

      Wake up and realize that this man is a total apostate, thus not a Catholic, and thus not a Pope.

  12. One thing I'd say: the metaphorical application of the 1st commandment implies the truth of the 1st commandment, logically. I can't say: love of money is terrible- it's like idolatry!! Unless I think idolatry is bad.

    St Paul calls sodomy idolatrous in a similar sense. Again, 'their god is their belly ' etc..

  13. Frankly, this passage immediately put me in mind of JPII's Assisi ecumenical prayer events. I remember asking a doctrinally orthodox Catholic theology professor-friend back then what he thought of these as I was disturbed by them. He said that, while he was not keen on them at all, he thought that JPII was very influenced by De Lubac's theories about non-Christian religions (i.e. that they were better than atheism because they involved an actual use of man's religious dimension). So, ideas like this are not novel with Pope Francis, they go back to at least the 1940's-50's. The professor-friend then went on to tell me - and I admit it is hazy in my memory as it was over 10 years ago - that there has always been a bit of a dichotomy in Catholic intellectual history on this subject: one side seeing pagan rites as always idolatrous, the other as seeing them, to some degree, as either prefigurements or sincere, but poorly-informed responses to God's grace. (I can't cite historical examples as it was a long time ago.)

    And notice that Pope Francis doesn't say that the pagan rites give grace. He only says that the grace which God gives them leads *them* (mistakenly, I might add) to create rites which at least free them from atheism (very De Lubac) and purely individual religious experiences. Anyway, it is a theological opinion - and a very positive one (typical of Pope Francis) - but not one without precedence.

  14. "the followers of Islam; the Muslims/the Muslims ... TOGETHER WITH US THEY ADORE/ALONG WITH US ADORE the one, merciful God/the one and merciful God" (Evangelii Gaudium, 252.; Catechism of JPII, 841/Lumen Gentium 16.).

    So, The Holy Trinity = Allah? The One Who Begets (Nicene-Const. Creed) = the one who doesn't beget (Quran, 112:1,3)?

    Does The Catholic Church profess to believe in Allah and to adore Allah and that Mohammed is the greatest prophet?

    Do YOU profess to believe in Allah and to adore Allah and that Mohammed is the greatest prophet?

    Those unbelievers pretending to be Catholics, Catholic bishops and Popes profess to adore demon Allah along with the Muslims.

    YOU pretend to be a Catholic and YOU adore demon Allah along with them and the Muslims if knowing the quoted sentences above you nevertheless support them.

  15. This is even worse than §247 on the Jews because it supports a heretical conception of justification that could be termed "sola conscientia," reaffirms Lumen Gentium's "subsistit in" ecclesiology, and destroys the supernatural order by saying sanctifying grace operates in purely natural religions (naturalism).

  16. I'll stick with Jesus' view; He told the Jewish leaders of his day that if they didn't come receive him as savior that they would die in their sins.

    If one didn't need to believe the gospel to be saved then why did the Apostles hazard their lives to announce it?

    Remember Revelation chapter 13 and Jesus' warning of a False prophet rising in the ranks of Christianity He looked like a lamb but spoke as the serpent.

    The apostle Paul also warned that many would depart from the faith giving heed to doctrines of the devil.

    Further the angel Gabriel in the book of Daniel warns that in the last days the Truth would be cast to the ground in favor of a counterfeit. We are seeing that very thing in these papal comments diluting rather, vacating the Gospel message.

    Jesus is Lord and as the Apostle John says, you need not have a man teach you, but the anointing of the Holy Spirit will teach you. That anointing is the baptism of the Holy Spirit given to all those who receive Jesus personally into their lives having their sins eternally blotted out. Hold fast to that doctrine and do not let anyone rob you of your crown of life. The Catching away of the church is soon and then comes the tribulation of revelations.