Monday, January 29, 2007

Reply to Questions About Catholic Mariology (and the Rosary) From a Recent Convert

The following is my response to a Catholic convert, Jonathan, who described himself as "struggling." He had posted these questions under a post no longer on the front page of my blog. His words will be in blue. Please encourage this brother: especially those of you who are also converts, and particularly those who may have also struggled with various Catholic Marian doctrines.

* * * * *

As a recent convert to Catholicism I must admit that the most difficult and frightening thing for me to understand is the Catholic perception of Mary.

You're not alone, believe me. Ironically, this wasn't true in my case. My biggest beef by far was papal infallibility. But most of us who went through the conversion process struggled mightily with one or both of those issues, because they are perhaps the most radically different from the beliefs of most Protestants.

As a former 27 year Protestant the issue doesn't just lie with the Protestant concern of idolatry as much as just wanting to know how to properly approach the issue without either excess or neglect.

That's good. The idolatry thing is a big hurdle.

I have read a great deal on the church's teachings and discussed her with other Catholics but I for some reason still have difficulty grasping the concept. I do think that it is largely a result of excesses that play out in my mind as well as what has been ingrained in me about her from anti-Catholics (having been one myself as well).

The effects of our past allegiances and belief-systems do not go away immediately. I notice in my own life (after 16 + years since my conversion) that this is the case, particularly with things such as the liturgical calendar. I find it difficult to "resonate" with that in the way a cradle Catholic would and does, because it formed no part of my background prior to conversion. To me all days were pretty much the same. The concept of Lent would have appeared to me as harmless, but silly and unnecessary. Now I know better, but it is still difficult sometimes to relate to the rhythmic, cyclical Catholic liturgical calendar. And that is simply because of past ingrained habit.

I must first say I have recognized the RCC as the New Testament Church and stand by the Church having been guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit. For this reason I do accept the Church's teachings to her regard but nonetheless I do struggle with fully understanding them.

There is nothing wrong with that at all. That is precisely my task as an apologist: to help people to better understand and internalize why we believe what we believe.

*** CLICK ON "Tolle, lege!" immediately below to finish this article ***

I must first point out that my trouble does not lie in what is taught about her as far as the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, etc. are concerned. My primary trouble is in the acts of veneration and prayer so I was hoping to ask you a few questions to this regard.

Sure. It's my pleasure to be of any assistance that I can be to you (and by extension, others reading this who may relate to your struggles).

1) I was listening to the Journey Home program (EWTN) and (hoping I didn't take it out of context but) one of Marcus' guests had said something to the effect that the "Hail Mary" was the most important prayer one can pray. I understand that it is not necessarily about Mary but more in line with the life of Christ. However, in reviewing the prayer I find that when prayed Mary is most oft mentioned in its entirety. Granted it is largely due to the repetition of the prayer but still I find it difficult meditating on Christ when Mary is so prevalent in the prayer. If it is a meditation on Christ then why is Mary so heavily infused into the prayer?

One must understand the nature of the Rosary and the purpose of the repetition. Most of the words of the Hail Mary are, it should be noted, straight from the Bible. And it's incorrect to say that because "Mary" may be the word repeated more than any other in the Rosary, that, therefore, she is considered more important than Jesus, or the focal point of the Rosary meditation. The intent of the repetitions of the Hail Mary prayer is to form a sort of "background music," so to speak, to the meditations on (mostly) the life of Jesus.

It reminds me a bit of an analogy from my past as a trombone player in my high school band and orchestra. We had to play at graduations every year, the famous Pomp and Circumstance, by Edward Elgar. It was extremely repetitious. We'd play the thing over and over, until all the graduates had walked across the stage to receive their diploma. Almost needless to say (if you know me very well), I got pretty bored.

Now, was the purpose of the commencement ceremony to hear Pomp and Circumstance 741 times? No, of course not. It was to honor the graduates for their accomplishment in achieving a high school diploma. The music was the background, just as a soundtrack to a movie is. It's not a perfect analogy (few are), but the Hail Marys in the Rosary are, at least in part, a sort of rhythmic background to the meditations. It's a way (rather ingenious, when fully understood) to move forward in the prayer, and to avoid distraction (something we are all very familiar with when we try to pray).

We all learn to do more than one thing at a time in other areas of life. We can drive and listen to music or a talk show. We can mow the lawn and also keep an eye on our kids playing, and enjoy the blue sky and talk to our spouse (and chew gum!) all at the same time. The Rosary is another instance of doing two things at once.

You say it is difficult to meditate on Christ while repeating the Hail Marys. This is (like my difficulty in relating to the liturgical calendar), I would venture to guess, probably mostly a function of the unfamiliarity with the Rosary. It is initially very foreign to us former Protestants: especially an old "Jesus Freak" like I was: very unsacramental and informal in my former worship, and used to non-formal prayers (and I'm a very informal type of person, generally speaking).

It's very different from much of Protestant piety, just as things like penance and purgatory and prayers for the dead or asking saints to pray for us are quite foreign at first to the typical evangelical Protestant mind, such as mine was (and, I take it, yours). It is a "learned art," to a large extent. Your experience is common to many thousands of converts. Kimberly Hahn, for example, struggled with these concepts for years, but now she loves Catholic Marian devotion (as I do).

I think that, of all the things I deal with and discuss in the course of my apologetics, I love to write about the Blessed Virgin Mary the most, because it is such a beautiful, sublime part of Christian spirituality: full of profound depth and insight. Protestantism greatly impoverished itself when it minimized or eliminated, the full Catholic Mariology that remains intact in the Catholic Church. It was not always so. Martin Luther himself had a very high Mariology (including belief even in her Immaculate Conception). He wrote:

Our prayer should include the Mother of God . . . What the Hail Mary says is that all glory should be given to God, using these words: "Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus Christ. Amen!" You see that these words are not concerned with prayer but purely with giving praise and honor . . . We can use the Hail Mary as a meditation in which we recite what grace God has given her. Second, we should add a wish that everyone may know and respect her . . . He who has no faith is advised to refrain from saying the Hail Mary.
(Personal Prayer Book, 1522)
Lastly, we find in the Bible, a similar sort of repetitious, chant-like form. Take, for example, Psalm 136, where the same exact phrase ("for his steadfast love endures forever" - RSV) is repeated for 26 straight verses! The same technique is used in popular songs, where the chorus repeats itself, and causes the hearer to remember the song better. The Hail Marys in the Rosary are somewhat like that. At least that is one way I and many others have understood the purpose of the seemingly (at first) "excessive" repetition.

2) I understand the Church looks at Mary as an example by which we should live our lives in that when God calls we should follow in absolute faith and without question. Why is Mary so highlighted in this regard over a great many others who have done the same i.e. Abraham, Moses, etc.?

Because Mary is unique, being immaculate, the Mother of God, and the New Eve, and assumed bodily into heaven. She was the one creature chosen by God to "reverse" the effects of the Fall. This is the New Eve, or Second Eve concept; discussed by many of the Church fathers, such as St. Irenaeus: Eve said no, and rebelled against God; Mary said yes to the angel and to God at the Annunciation, and was willing to bear God the son, so as to make salvation possible to men. So she is the very highest creature. Martin Luther made a wonderful commentary on this:
She became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass man's understanding. For on this there follows all honor, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of mankind, among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven, and such a Child . . . Hence men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her the Mother of God . . . None can say of her nor announce to her greater things, even though he had as many tongues as the earth possesses flowers and blades of grass: the sky, stars; and the sea, grains of sand. It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God.

(Commentary on the Magnificat, 1521; in Luther's Works, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan et al, vol. 21, 326)
Now she is the Queen of Heaven. I saw some interesting material recently (written by a young convert) that showed how, in the Old Testament, the Queen Mother was often mentioned. She had a high place of honor, right after the king. Jesus is now King, glorified in heaven, and Mary is His true nother. So she is the Queen of Heaven. It's all very biblical, and Revelation 12 even makes this a fairly biblically-explicit Marian doctrine.

For an introduction to Catholic Marian piety, I recommend reading first (of all my papers on the topic), The Imitation of Mary.

3) When Pope John Paul II was shot in Turkey he cried out repetitively "Mary my mother..." but not once to my recollection did he call out to Christ.

The two amount to the same thing. There is no need to create a dichotomy. To ask Mary's intercession is to pray to God, because Mary goes to God and intercedes on our behalf. This involves an explicitly biblical principle as well. The Bible says that "the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects" (James 5:16). The example given (5:17) was that of Elijah, who could stop or start the rain with his prayers.

Well, Catholics believe Mary is immaculate and sinless. Protestants agree with us that she is the Mother of God. This is an extraordinary person; very close to God: as close as any creature everwas or ever will be. We can and should (if we are wise) ask her to pray for us due to that proximity to God, because her prayers are more powerful than ours are. She can hear our prayers because she is (being in heaven) out of time and able to see happenings on the earth (see, for example, Hebrews 12:1).

Dead saints are far more alive than we are ourselves, and care about earthly happenings. In Revelation 6:9-10, dead saints are literally praying for those on the earth. In Revelation 8:3-4 (cf. 5:8), and angel is spoken of as having "the prayers of the saints". What is he doing with human prayers, that supposedly can only go directly from men to God?! It is because we can ask an angel (a righteous, non-fallen creature) to pray for us, too. How much more, then, can we ask Mary to intercede?

Then after his wounds healed he credited Mary to his survival and made a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Guadalupe (I think that was the one) in honor of her.

Just as the person Peter raised from the dead would naturally have thanked him, without any implication that it was not God Who ultimately performed the healing. It's a false dichotomy.

Once again I failed to hear anything about Christ's intervention on the matter.

You actually did, once you fully understand Catholic Mariology, because to attribute to Mary any good thing always goes back to God: the one Who answered the prayer and Who created her immaculate in the first place. You're making the same mistake that Protestants habitually make (which is understandable; I would submit that this is, again, the force of habit in you), saying that to mention Mary at all is to somehow detract or subtract from the glory of God. Catholics don't look at it that way at all.

To us, all the glory goes to God, just as praising a great work of art is actually giving praise to the artist who created the work. Everyone knows this. If someone says, for example, that Michelangelo's Pieta is "magnificent" or "inspired art" it is understood that he is praising Michelangelo. Likewise, when a Catholic honors and reveres Mary (not worship, that can only be applied to God!), he is, by that same act, honoring God far more. And when he attributes an answered prayer or miracle to her, it is understood (or should be), that it was God Who answered by her intercession, which is powerful because she was immaculate, which in turn goes back to God Who made her immaculate by a special miraculous grace.

If the glory belongs to God and Christ is our Mediator to Him then was this an appropriate devotional matter

Absolutely; per the above explanation.

or does it fall in line with my next question?


3) I have often heard Catholics and non-Catholics alike say that Mary has special sway over Christ because she is His mother. Does this have to do with anything about why Catholics look to her so often or is this a misguided excess?

Yes (it's not excess, if rightly-understood and practiced); I explained that above, too. Mary has a special, unique place in salvation history because of her role as the Immaculate Mother of God and Mediatrix, and now Queen of Heaven. More on her function as Mediatrix below, because you ask about it, too.

4) I read some quotes from the Catechism that if you at once accepted the Marian dogmas but then doubt the truth of them you are considered anathema. Does the RCC consider her beliefs about Mary and veneration to her as necessary for salvation?

In the sense that one must accept the whole of the Catholic faith, yes. That doesn't mean that if someone doesn't fully understand a doctrine, that they will be damned, period. It's more a matter of consistency. The Catholic accepts the entire deposit of faith and Catholic dogma, because the Catholic antecedently accepts by faith and God's grace the divinely-protected authority of the Catholic Church, to uniquely preserve the fullness of Christian truth in the first place. Therefore, it makes no sense to pick and choose. Once one accepts the Catholic principle of authority, they must accept the whole ball of wax.

Again, that doesn't mean that every catholic will or must completely understand to the nth degree, every Catholic doctrine. But he must be willing to accept by faith that all Catholic doctrine is true. Then the apologist steps in and that point and can aid the Catholic believer in better understanding the biblical, historical, and intellectual rationale behind any particular belief (exactly what I've been dong in this paper).

5) Why is it necessary to believe the Dogmas? Example: The Assumption - How does it really hold any impact on ones faith? In the end, does it really matter whether she was or was not?

Absolutely. Mary was, once could say, the first Christian. She was the first to experience the full fruits of Jesus' Resurrection, by which all saved persons will be resurrected one day. Thus, the Assumption is supremely important, because it illustrates the effect of Jesus' Resurrection on all who are saved. It was altogether appropriate that Mary be immediately resurrected, rather than undergo decay, because she was an unfallen creature in the first place, and decay only comes as a result of the fall. Hence, she simply is what we all could have been. That's why she wis immaculate and was assumed into heaven. It all works together. For more on this, see my paper: Reflections on the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

6) What is actually meant by Mediatrix and Co-redeemer?

Aside from the last question, these are things I have been pondering for quite some time now and haven't really found sufficient answers for. The last one just sprang to mind so I threw it in there having not actually looked it up yet. I know these questions are quite involved and I'm sorry for so many. Any help understanding these would be greatly appreciated.

You're welcome. No problem. I'm glad to be of any assistance. The issues of Mediatrix and Co-Redeemer are much-misunderstood and complex and not given to short summary (though not as complicated as often supposed). Therefore, I strongly recommend that people read an introductory treatment, rather than jump to inaccurate conclusions as to what is meant (which is very common). In my own work, that paper is: A Biblical & Theological Primer on Mary Mediatrix. Rather than going over the basics here, I would send (and anyone else who is wondering about the doctrine) you right to that paper. Then you can move on to others of mine (I have eight on this topic alone) in my collection of papers about the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Thanks for your questions. I look forward to interacting with you and others further, in the discussion below this post. God bless you. You have your whole life to better understand Catholic theology. You don't have to grasp everything fully all at once. Who ever achieves a truly" full" understanding, anyway? We're all constantly learning. That will never end. But we can all rest in the knowledge that there is such a thing as "the Church" - ordained by God to preserve theological truth, and protected by the Holy Spirit. We're not on our own. We dont have to reinvent the wheel in every generation, or on an individual basis. We can trust the truths that have been passed down to us. God sees to it that they are preserved intact.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Secular Humanism and Christian Humanism : Seeking After Common Ground (with Sue Strandberg)

Sue Strandberg is an Atheist/Humanist

From discussions on an Internet List devoted to the question of God's existence: May 2001. Uploaded with full permission of Sue Strandberg. Her comments will be in black; mine in blue.

Hi, Dave;

Welcome to the list. As you can tell, the volume of mail can get heavy at
times. I began last summer trying to read each and every letter with
careful attention: well, that soon went out the window. It's enough if I
can follow the threads that interest me. This one caught my eye, and
although I see that Mike is doing a fine job on his end, I wanted to butt
in quickly with an answer to a question you asked atheists in general,
since you have been requesting that we try to answer some questions -- as a
welcome change

My "philosophical commitment" is Secular Humanist, so you needn't waste time guessing ;)

You wrote:

All makes sense in the end, and there is every reason and incentive to
endure evil and suffering when there is ultimately the highest purpose
for it. Even Jesus embraced profound suffering; therefore we can as

That doesn't make it a bed of roses for us, by any means, but it is
sure a lot easier to endure than under atheist assumptions, where
one returns to the dust and ceases to exist, quite often having utterly
failed at life, or having been abused their entire life, with nothing
significant to ever look forward to. Where is the hope and purpose in that? You
tell me; I'm all ears. I truly want to understand how you deal with this
ultimate lack of hope or purpose or design, as I would see it.

Our ways of dealing with existential despair and the "sad realities of the
world," as you put it, draw on the same sorts of deep internal values that
the theist draws upon in his love for God. We are not really different. Let
me try to explain.

My understanding is that most Christians worship and venerate God for many
reasons, but chief among these is a deep admiration for God's manifestation
of love in the world. When one has truly recognised in their heart both the
sin of their own nature and the perfect goodness of the nature of God, one
is overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for the mercy of God, that He
could bestow love upon one so unworthy. As Eric once put it, God's
essential character is such that "there is no occasion where He seeks for
personal gratification (the root of evil); rather His motivations are
outward necessarily."

God's love for humanity in the face of its gross imperfection is to give a
love that is unearned. It is unselfishness, perfect love. And it is this
which motivates the Christian towards God. And it is this which the
Christian aspires to in his own life, as a model for the best way to live.
At least, this is in part the way I see it.

The world, you must agree, contains much good. If it didn't, you would not
have seen anything that pointed towards God. But as you point out, there is
much that could cause one to despair. The Good do not always prosper. The
Evil are not always punished. There is seemingly pointless suffering, and
in the final analysis death is the end for each of us. And you ask the
atheist "what gives you hope?"

I suppose one way to get "hope" is to deny that this is the case. But as a
Secular Humanist my commitment is not only towards enhancing and enjoying
life, but understanding truth. I don't think the evidence supports either
the existence of God or an afterlife. You disagree, I know that. But I
don't intend to get into an argument on this issue right now, I simply want
to note that the existence of God is not really a meaning question as such,
but an empirical one. It isn't love of life that separates the atheist from
the theist, I think, but what we see as evidence; a desire for consistency
and integrity in examining claims and determining their probability. We
don't think it's true. There you have it.

As Mike pointed out, talking about existential despair is not really an
argument for or against the existence of God, but an argument for or
against believing in God for one's own peace of mind and happiness. And I
don't think that arguing oneself into belief based on that is responsible,
or honest. I don't mean that you're not being honest with yourself in your
own belief: as I said just now, you think the evidence points towards the
existence of God. I am saying that criticising atheists for lack of belief
based on what what this means to our lives is no more justified than if
atheists were to claim that you ought to reject what you feel is good
evidence for God because it makes your life so complicated and difficult.

A wise philosopher -- or maybe it was Ann Landers -- once said that "while
we can not always choose what happens to us, we can choose how we react."
Atheists don't feel we have a choice in the matter over an afterlife or a
God who watches over us. That is out of our control, we can't wish or hope
one into being, and to choose to deny what we think is true out of a need
for "meaning" in life seems to cheapen the very values we hold highest. So
if we cannot get what we want, the wise path I think is to want what we

The atheist does not consistently think through the "eschatological"
implications of his position. Otherwise, I fail to see why he wouldn't
despair, go mad, or become an evil person (pure hedonism or narcissism
or sadist or other such excess. Why not?). The easiest way to illustrate
this is simply to ask atheists what the purpose of life and the universe is,
how you know that; what gives you "hope" and so forth.

Ok, I will try. See if you can understand my point of view:

To love the world in the teeth of what you call the "sad and devastating"
truth of our own eventual annhiliation; to care about the happiness of
other people and the beauty and knowledge we can give our lives today
despite our ability to ponder and contemplate our own deaths tomorrow; to
seek to establish justice and happiness in a world where neither one may
always prevail and we may not always succeed; and to '"look the black
universe in the face and truly reflect on its lack of any purpose" other
than our own, and not flinch but continue to strive for the Good -- is to
seek to live by a love that is not selfish, but outwards directed.
The love the atheist gives to the mindless, empty void of the world is a
free gift of pure grace. Can you relate to this? Or is this really so unfamiliar
and alien to you?

Atheists must fall back on the equivalent of Christian faith at
some point in order to do so, and that they live off the "capital" of the
image of God which exists in them whether they accept it or not.

I think you are both very right here, and a little bit wrong. What we live
off of isn't so much the secret hope that God really exists after all and
"it will all make sense in the end" and justice prevails and nobody ever
dies, but the "capital" of what the image of God means to all humans,
whether it exists or not -- the belief that a love that is bestowed upon
something imperfect, undeserving, and "unworthy" ennobles whatever seeks to
give that kind of love. And that through this meaning is created, and
purpose achieved.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not trying to say that the atheist is
more noble or unselfish or loving than the theist. I'm trying to
demonstrate that there is really very little difference between us, in the
final analysis. You can point to this desire we share and claim that this
is evidence for something that originated from God and was given to
humanity: we can point to the same thing and say that this is evidence that
the concept of God originated in the common desires of humanity. But that
is a different argument, isn't it?

Where we agree is on the value of grace, whether this is granted from the
universe outside to ourselves, or ourselves to the outside world. And the
hope and purpose isn't simply waiting for us like a present at the end of a
struggle, but is part and parcel of the struggle itself. Meaning isn't a
task, or function, but something we create by the way we live.

You wrote " God is good; we are His creatures, made in His image, so we are
good insofar as we are like Him, and united with Him in purpose and
outlook." As an atheist who does not believe in a literal God, I can still
have absolute confidence in the powers ascribed to all the good versions of
gods. We are good to the extent that we express our highest aspirations and
live by our best principles.

Is this an act of faith? Perhaps, but not faith in the truth of an
empirical claim about what exists, but faith in the ability of love and
virtue to give meaning to a life to the extent that we make it our purpose
and outlook. The universe is only as bleak and despairing as we live it,
whether there is a God or not.

As a Humanist, I stand on this. As a Christian, you say your ground is
strong only if God exists, otherwise you will fall into madness and
despondency. I do not believe that. The same faith that causes you to leap
to God would cause you to leap to the things you valued about God if you no
longer thought there was one. We are not so different. The existence of God
is a fascinating question, but not a critical one.

I could write more, but enough for now I think, it's getting long. Does
this begin to answer your question?

Peace, Love, Harmony, and All That Hippie Crap,

Sue Strandberg (Sastra)

Hi Sue,

Delighted to meet your acquaintance. I hope we will be able to dialogue a
lot more in the future; even possibly become good friends (kind of like G.K.
Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw were). I don't think you could have
made any better of a first impression. :-)

Your response was nothing less than extraordinary. I was very moved by it.
It was eloquent, bridge-building, fascinating, and filled with wise
insights. I do like to find common ground with anyone I am dialoguing with,
as well as argue (as we all like to do too). I'm the same way with my
non-Catholic Christian friends. I enjoy discussing differences (all
Christians do, with each other LOL) - I'm quite the Socratic in my
passionate love of dialogue -, but I also am concerned about finding common
ground as much as possible. I don't see that the two endeavors exclude each
other (many seem to think they do, or at least act like they do).

And this is what impressed me so much about your reply. You did very well
in representing, in your words and demeanor (i.e., how you expressed
yourself), the point you were making, that we are not that far apart as
people, after all. I would ultimately argue (as you know, no doubt) that
that is due to the image of God being in all of us (and the natural law
and so forth), but be that as it may, for now, I am just pleased to see
that there is a great deal in common in how life and its meaning are
viewed, and I'm "basking" in it, so to speak. I suspected as much (I really
did, as I have tried to express more than once on this list), but I had
never seen this topic written about by a non-Christian, non-religious
person, as profoundly as you have done it. Usually, both sides try to run
each other down, so this is a most welcome change of pace.

Mainly I was interested in simply "listening" to a heartfelt explanation
of an atheist's basic approach to life and the deepest aspects of it, which
indeed we all share, just by being human beings in the same world, with its
strange and disturbing mixture of ecstasies and agonies. For that opportunity
I am grateful to you. Don't leave! We have a lot to discuss!

Hi Dave,

I look forward to that. Thank you for your kind words: like you, I see much
more in common among atheists and theists than not. And as for those
atheists and theists who hang out in forums such as this one, I think there
is a shared passion for ideas and truth which unites us more closely to
each other than to others who may share our views, but without reflection
or much interest.

You asked in another post if -- like [name] -- I would agree that I am a
humanist first, atheist second. Short answer, yes. Humanism is an approach
to life, not a series of dogmatic conclusions. If I were to find I was mistaken
about the existence of God I would simply become a religious humanist instead
of a secular one.

I have a Catholic friend who told me the other day "if a Christian and a
Humanist disagree, then one of them doesn't understand either Christianity
or Humanism." I'm not certain I'd agree with him completely, but I think he
is right that there need be little conflict between the two. In fact, he
claims that, properly understood, Christianity leads to humanism. I think
the better forms do. E.O. Wilson once wrote that ""Religion will possess
strength to the extent that it codifies and puts into enduring poetic form
the highest values of Humanity consistent with empirical knowledge." I
agree with that.

Peace, Love, Harmony, and All That Hippie Crap,

Sue S. (Sastra)

Hi folks,

I am very curious about the response of atheists to the following
questions. They will likely generate discussion as well, but for myself,
I am primarily interested in simply seeing how you would reply, for the
sake of my own knowledge, and to understand your point of view better.

I'll make my answers short, and won't always be able to meet your criteria,
I'm afraid. I suspect my responses will go a long way towards showing the
poverty of my background knowledge, but that's valuable to know, of course,
and bound to show anyway. I'll try to make myself clear and not think too
hard, because if I do I won't ever finish this in time for lunch.

1. What do you make of Jesus? How do you classify him as a person and
ethicist? What do you make of his claims to being God in the flesh
(assuming that you agree that he made such claims)? Particularly I am
interested in your replies to what is referred to as the Trilemma
(brought up initially, I believe, by C.S. Lewis, in his Mere Christianity):
"Jesus claimed to be God; therefore, the only reasonable and logical
response to this is to regard him as either in fact the Lord, or a
liar, or a lunatic."

I am not sure what the historical Jesus may or may not have actually said.
That there was an historical Jesus is somewhat debateable, though I think
it is very likely. The accuracy of the gospels is also uncertain, since
there appears to have been a great deal of religious interpretation which
went into them both during and after they were written. Thus, I am far from
sure that Jesus actually claimed to be God. I strongly suspect he was a
wisdom teacher of approximately the first century who believed he was a
messenger of the divine, not God Himself.

My personal opinion then is that while Jesus was not God, neither was he a
liar nor a lunatic. He was sincere and no crazier than most people who
believe they have a close and insightful relationship with God, meaning not
"crazy" at all. I believe many of his teachings were valuable and
humanistic in nature; some of his teachings were given under the assumption
that the world was about to end and thus inapplicable to living in a world
that is not about to end; and some of his teachings, such as the ones on
hell and damnation, are not immoral themselves, but do not lead to a loving
and responsible attitude or approach to living with others.

2. Please name five or ten Christians whom you consider the most
intelligent and intellectually brilliant (and/or culturally
influential) of all time, and tell us (briefly) why?

I'm not sure whether you are asking for the names of intelligent, brilliant
and influential Christian scholars, or scholars who are these things and
also happen to be Christian. Assuming either/or, I would probably include
Aquinas, Erasmus, Bacon, Newton, and Locke. This is a short list, of
course: any longer and I would be leaving even more people out. ;) All of
the above showed insight, clarity, and scope. Each of them were able to
look outside of their religious paradigm to incorporate new knowledge,
scholarship, or experience either into the religion or into knowledge about
the world. Many, though not all, were also Humanists.

I might also include C.S. Lewis, since he has had an enormous amount of
modern influence and writes with masterful clarity and ability for the
general reader. I enjoy reading him for the narrative and insight into
popular Christian beliefs, though it is -- from my point of view -- like
sitting on the lap of a Mr. Rogers who most certainly does NOT like me the
way I am. Creepy, and frustrating. But what he does ... he does very well
(as Noel Coward said about Liberace.)

3. Please name five or ten Christians from history whom you admire the
most [I'm thinking more about character here, rather than merely
intellect], and tell us (briefly) why?

St. Francis of Assisi -- because I admire his humility and kindness.
Erasmus again, because his humanistic approach to the Christian world
helped to bring the Middle Ages into the Renaissance, and revealed not only
a skilled mind, but a good heart. George Fox, who founded the Quakers and introduced a simplicity and concern for character which contributed to the humanization of society and the end of slavery. Johann Sebastian Bach, whose love of God was the inspiration for some of the most beautiful music ever written, and whose meticulous commitment to his art still enhances the world today.

And Bishop John Shelby Spong, whose humanistic version of Christianity is
the one which makes the most sense to me on an emotional as well as
intellectual level -- and who had the incredible self-restraint and
integrity to examine and then renounce his strong belief in the power of
prayer when his wife's cancer went into remission after she was prayed

4. Please name five or ten Christians from history that you despise
and detest the most and consider the most harmful to society and culture,
and tell us (briefly) why?

This is actually more difficult. :) Tertullian, St. Augustine, Torquemada, John Calvin, the Televangelists (pick one.) All show an anathema towards the principles of humanism and its ethics, and a chilling willingness to live by it -- and impose it on

5. Who is the greatest living Christian philosopher, and the greatest
of all time, and (briefly) why?

Difficult. Probably Aquinas for all time, because his attempted synthesis
of Eastern mysticism and Greek philosophy lead to some of the most
influential theology and apologetics in history. Possibly Swinburne for

6. Who is the greatest living atheist philosopher, and the greatest of
all time, and (briefly) why?

Again, philosopher who is an atheist, or a philosopher of atheism? Most of
the great philosophers of atheism were theists. As for today, I am partial
to Flew, who is still alive, though I have far more books by Paul Kurtz. I
know they may not be on the level of Greatness, but I have trouble picking
someone I don't like to read and spend money for ;)

7. What is the one single argument or proof which would have the
greatest potential for proving to you that Christianity were true?

Scientific evidence for the paranormal/supernatural which is then accepted
by the mainstream scientific community. Unless the supernatural exists,
then God's existence is problematic. Unless God exists, Christianity is
moot. This would not of course be the only argument or proof that would
persuade me, but it is the one that would have the greatest potential,
which is what you asked.

8. How many of you used to be Christians, and what denomination? At
what age did you cease becoming a Christian, and (briefly), why?

I was not raised Christian, but Freethinker. I was New Age during my teens,
liberal Christian briefly in my 20's (Quaker), and agnostic and then
atheist as my definitions became sharper. In explanation -- very briefly indeed -- it became implausible to me that the fundamental nature of the universe either was or could be a special secret shared only by the enlightened through intuition or revelation. I lost my faith in the power and ability of the human mind to make direct
connections with transcendent knowledge, and became more certain that our
knowledge ought to be provisional and the evidence open to all.

9. What is the most intellectually and morally respectable religion (if
an atheist were to choose one; the "lesser of the evils," so to speak)? If
you select Christianity, please also narrow that down to a denomination,
if you can, and also tell us which Christian denomination you regard
as the least intellectually and morally respectable (or which non-Christian
religion, as the case may be), and briefly explain your rationale for
all these answers.

The religions with fewer assumptions and less anthropomorphism (God like a
Person) seem less unlikely to me. Zen Buddism and Taoism seem to lead not
only to a better self-awareness, but a kinder and more accepting attitude
towards others. I enjoy reading "pop" zen, and find it entirely consistent
with Humanism in its ethics, if not epistemically. I've a brother who is
Zen, and he lends me his books sometimes. The Eastern views of 'God' are
much grander in many ways than Western views, and more consistent with what
I would expect God to be like.

Christianity, with its claim that a Personal God intervenes in earth
history and came to earth as a man -- and this was done in order to have an
atoning sacrifice for payment of 'sin' -- doesn't even seem remotely
plausible to me, though I try hard to suspend my disbelief in order to give
it a fair hearing on its own ground. I would view Quaker and Unitarian
(heh) as most honorable, Calvinism and Pentecostal as not only least
likely, but least morally respectable given what can be legitimately
derived from their premises.

As for nonchristian religion, the Thuggees usually win the #atheism
contests of "religion that sucks the most."

10. If you had one thing to say to a Christian, in terms of the falsity
of their religion, and to persuade them of that (say you had two minutes
before a nuclear bomb was to hit), what would it be (briefly)? And what
would be your corresponding single greatest quick defense of the
atheist position?

I'm going to ignore the part about the nuclear bomb about to drop, since it
puts a rather strange and bizarre twist to apologetics (under those
circumstances I cannot imagine making metaphysical arguments.) I think
you simply want something quick and simple and off the cuff. If I had only
a couple of minutes, I would probably point out that Theism puts an enormous
amount of faith in the human propensity to put things into human terms, and that we have good evidence that our doing so is false in many cases. I would appeal to consistency. I would take the next two minutes to continue the same argument.

11. What troubles you the most about the atheist worldview (for me,
with regard to my Christian belief, it is the problem of evil)?

I'm not sure here if you're asking what troubles me the most given my
belief that atheism is true, or what most troubles my belief that atheism
is true. If it's the former, it would be my eventual death and permanent subsequent
nonexistence. As Woody Allen once said, "I don't want to become immortal by
living on in my works: I want to become immortal by not dying." I have a
lot of sympathy with that ;) Truths are not always easy to accept.
If it's the latter, then I would say that I consider arguments on the
nature of consciousness and qualia to be the most difficult, coupled with
the problems of immaterial existants and their nature.

12. What is your greatest single criticism of Catholicism?

I have always admired the Catholic attitude towards the salvific character
of Works, since it is by this back door that propositional belief in the
resurrection of Jesus can become less critical than belief in the values
that Jesus stood for, and Christianity becomes more ethically respectable.
My greatest criticism might be what I consider to be the almost
schizophrenic tendency Catholicism often has in embracing humanism,
science, scholarship, and tolerance with one hand and then pandering to
superstition, miracles, belief in demons, and intolerance with the other.
I always have to find out what kind of Catholic I am speaking to --
sometimes at the moment.

Thanks. I look forward very much to your responses. I think this will
be a lot of fun for everyone.

Heh, this survey was a bear, and you know it. Too much, and intimidating as
Hell itself. Each question would take volumes to answer. Sheesh. I only had
fun because I didn't think too hard on this and answered as casually and
quickly as I could in the amount of time I have before I eat. I suspect all
these answers will now come back and bite me, but then you will have the
fun, so it evens out ;)

Peace, Love, Harmony, and All That Humanist Crap,
Sue S.

Hi Sue,

Another extraordinary effort. I think I will post your first post to me (which I praised highly at the time), together with this, on my website, as very impressive examples of a respectable atheist worldview. Very rarely do I ever present on my website an opposing viewpoint without counter-argument (since it would be rather counter-productive to my apologetic enterprise LOL), so I hope you regard this as the gesture of respect and appreciation that it is meant to be.

On the other hand, I suppose - upon reflection - that this would be part and parcel of my ecumenical outlook. Ecumenism is the effort to acknowledge and rejoice in common ground with those of other faiths and beliefs (without for a moment denying differences). I find much commonality between us, so to further and promote that is to be ecumenical and hence, to be Catholic (as this is a large emphasis of our Church today). The pope prays with Muslims - he even kissed the Koran - , Jews, Orthodox, and various Protestants, apologizes for past sins of Catholics, builds bridges; I absolutely love that (especially as a former Protestant and secularist myself).

I think many Christians see an inherent conflict between apologetics and ecumenism which I don't see (I think they are entirely complementary). But that's a whole 'nother subject.

Reading your reply to the survey, I think I realized again (as with your initial post) that indeed there is a large amount of common ground between atheists and Christians, in terms of "humanism," broadly defined. I.e., humanism as a certain way of approaching reason, life, art, science, thought, culture, ideas, tolerance, ethics, and so forth. Erasmus was a Christian humanist, as was Thomas More. I have great admiration for both of them, and you admire Erasmus a lot. If we were to examine why that is, I think we would find much of the common ground to which I refer.

I wonder what you think of John Henry Newman. He might be regarded as a Christian humanist (especially with regard to his philosophy of education). At any rate, I think he was an extraordinary thinker, and he is one of my own Catholic and intellectual heroes. C.S. Lewis is my favorite writer, so I was delighted to hear of your high regard for him. Incidentally, on my Chesterton site, I have a link to a debate between GKC and George Bernard Shaw.

And yes, quick, off-the-cuff answers were precisely what I was looking for. Far better that, than excruciatingly-thought-out philosophical answers (I won't descend into my usual pet peeves on that score). This was very interesting to me, and no, I am not planning on responding in any oppositional sort of way. With this thread I'm strictly seeking to learn more about atheism and atheists. I've learned quite a bit thus far, thanks to you, and the others who responded.

Just my $0.02 worth.

Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 25 May 2001, from list discussions, with the approval of Sue Strandberg.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Irrational Antipathy of Luther, Calvin, and Other Protestants to Clerical Celibacy

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

St. Paul, by El Greco, 1614: Exhibit #1 of Clerical Celibacy

The frequent argument of Protestants on this score is that the Catholic Church makes a requirement out of something that Paul merely recommends. Catholics - so we are told - are guilty (once again) of smuggling in their "traditions of men" and (in this instance) their (alleged) "animus against sexuality and marriage, because virginity is so exalted in Catholicism," etc.

Catholics are being very biblical in this view. Where, I ask, in Protestantism is the calling of celibacy celebrated and honored, since it is strongly recommended by Paul and Jesus, and was the norm among the early apostles, not to mention the early priests and bishops? We honor both celibacy and marriage (both are sacraments -- means to obtain grace). Protestants, however, seem to honor only the latter. They are just as legalistic as they claim we are by enforcing the "unwritten rule" that pastors ought always to be married.

In Catholic ascetic spirituality, or what are called "the evangelical counsels," a person may voluntarily (sometimes heroically) renounce something for the kingdom of God. That principle is even found in Protestantism to some extent (e.g., giving monetary donations to the point of sacrifice). It is certainly biblical (the prophets, John the Baptist, the disciples, etc.).

There are many callings and roles to fill. Not everyone can be a Marine, or a Green Beret, or a Rhodes scholar, or an NBA all-star. Those are things that call for qualifications which not everyone can meet (if you're 5'1", chances are you’re not going to take up basketball; if you weigh 125 pounds, you won’t be a linebacker in football, etc.). The priesthood is no different.

It is not by any means clear to me that a married clergy is a preferable or superior state of affairs. Most pastors end up forsaking time with their families, and are workaholics (as are many men). Pastor's wives will quickly this! I used to observe this firsthand all the time when I was an evangelical (e.g., the "PK" – “preacher’s kid” -- phenomenon). I even had a phrase for it: "Busy Pastor Syndrome."

I can see in my own life (as a full-time Catholic apologist and writer) that I have to carefully balance my vocation, my family life, time alone with my wife, and pure leisure and relaxation for myself. I can't imagine having this family and shepherding a flock of so many hundred people. Being single in that situation makes all the sense in the world to me.

Let's proceed to now analyze how Protestant commentators approach the biblical texts that Catholics bring forth in support of their celibacy requirement for priests.

Matthew 19:12: "For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it."
John Calvin comments:
[W]hat is their species of vows? They offer God a promise of perpetual virginity, as if they had previously made a compact with him to free them from the necessity of marriage. They cannot allege that they make this vow trusting entirely to the grace of God; for, seeing he declares this to be a special gift not given to all (Mt. 19:11[-12]), no man has a right to assume that the gift will be his. Let those who have it use it; and if at any time they feel the infirmity of the flesh, let them have recourse to the aid of him by whose power alone they can resist.

(Institutes, IV, 13, 17)

This is rather odd "reasoning." Would anyone think this is a clear grappling with the biblical text? First, Calvin assumes that monks couldn't follow God’s call by "trusting entirely" His grace. How he knows this, we are not told. But in any event it is obviously no argument; rather, merely a subtle form of personal attack against an entire class of people.

Then he denies that the calling to celibacy can be known with certainty because the gift is not for everyone. This is a highly interesting assertion indeed: that no one can be sure of their gift or calling from God. From whence does Calvin derive such knowledge (certainly not from the Bible)? How does he then (assuming his desire to be logically consistent) possess certainty of his own calling? He has no problem, on the other hand, attributing inner certainty of a divine call for (Protestant) pastors. He casually assumes it:

I say nothing of that secret call of which every minister is conscious before God, but has not the Church as a witness of it; I mean, the good testimony of our heart, that we undertake the offered office neither from ambition nor avarice, nor any other selfish feeling, but a sincere fear of God and desire to edify the Church. This, as I have said, is indeed necessary for every one of us, if we would approve our ministry to God . . . those whom the Lord has destined for this great office he previously provides with the armour which is requisite for the discharge of it, that they may not come empty and unprepared.

(Institutes, IV, 3, 11)

Yet when it comes to celibacy, all of a sudden Calvin arbitrarily changes his tune and concludes that "no man has a right to assume that the gift will be his." Jesus teaches us that it is possible. Why does Calvin doubt it? Then he switches back again and says, "Let those who have it use it." We may be thankful, I suppose, that Calvin graciously allows them (despite his personal derision for the concept) to follow their consciences and the clear biblical warrant for such an estate ("each has his own special gift from God" – 1 Corinthians 7:7, below).

In context it is clear that Calvin's objection is not biblically or rationally based, but simply an emotional hostility to the Catholic Church, which is expressed in disapproval of its distinctives such as clerical celibacy. This seems to be a common tendency of the harshest critics of the Church. He refers, for example, to monks who have forsaken their solemn vows for an "honest kind of livelihood," to those who "remained entangled in ignorance and error," and entangled in "extraneous chains, which are nothing but the wily nets of Satan" and "superstition" (Institutes, IV, 13, 21).

"When one is lacking a rational, cogent argument, then it is best to insult and rail and arouse people's suspicion and disgust," seems to be Calvin’s motto here, following the pathetic example of Luther's many absurd and outrageous statements about the Catholic clergy; for example:

. . . The sum of it all is that pope, devil, and his church hate the estate of matrimony, as Daniel says [17:37]; therefore he wants to bring it into such disgrace that a married man cannot fill a priest's office. That is as much as to say that marriage is harlotry, sin, impure, and rejected by God; and although they say, at the same time, that it is holy and a sacrament, that is a lie of their false hearts, for if they seriusly considered it holy, and a sacrament, they would not forbid the priests to marry. Because they do forbid them, they must consider it unclean, and a sin, as they plainly say . . . . .

. . . the noises made by monks and nuns and priests are not prayers or praises to God. They do not understand it and learn nothing from it; they do it like hard labor, for the belly's sake, and seek thereby no improvement of life, no progress in holiness, no doing of God's will.

(On the Councils and the Churches, 1539; in Jacobs, V, 284, 286)

Elsewhere, however, when Luther is not in one of his notorious polemical, condemnatory moods, he acknowledges that, indeed, there is a category of men (albeit very small) called to celibacy (and he doesn’t qualify it by stating that this calling is merely temporary, as Calvin does):
. . . as it is not within my power not to be a man, so it is not my prerogative to be without a woman. Again, as it is not in your power not to be a woman, so it is not your prerogative to be without a man. For it is not a matter of free choice or decision but a natural and necessary thing, that whatever is a man must have a woman, and whatever is a woman must have a man.

. . . it is just as necessary as the fact that I am a man, and more necessary than sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, and emptying the bowels and bladder. It is a nature and disposition just as innate as the organs involved in it . . . whenever men try to resist this, it remains irresistible nonetheless and goes its way through fornication, adultery, and secret sins, for this is a matter of nature and not of choice.

In the third place, from this ordinance of creation God has himself exempted three categories of men, saying in Matthew 19 [:12], "There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." Apart from these three groups, let no man presume to be without a spouse. And whoever does not fall within one of these categories should not consider anything except the estate of marriage.

. . . you cannot promise that you will not produce seed or multiply, unless you belong to one of the three categories mentioned above . . . No vow of any youth or maiden is valid before God, except that of a person in one of the three categories which God alone has himself excepted . . .

The third category consists of those spiritually rich and exalted persons, bridled by the grace of God, who are equipped for marriage by nature and physical capacity and nevertheless voluntarily remain celibate. These put it this way, "I could marry if I wish, I am capable of it. But it does not attract me. I would rather work on the kingdom of heaven, i.e., the gospel, and beget spiritual children." Such persons are rare, not one in a thousand, for they are a special miracle of God. No one should venture on such a life unless he be especially called by God, like Jeremiah [16:2], or unless he finds God's grace to be so powerful within him that the divine injunction, "Be fruitful and multiply," has no place in him.

It is certainly a fact that he who refuses to marry must fall into immorality . . . For if a special grace does not exempt a person, his nature must and will compel him to produce seed and to multiply.

(The Estate of Marriage, 1522; LW, vol. 45, 18-19, 21, 45)

Calvin proceeds, in the same section - as is his wont – to state the obvious but to mistakenly think that Catholics believe something different than what Luther described: "how impossible the vow of continence is to those who have not received it by special gift, we have shown."

In another section he becomes presumptuous and unbiblical, in assuming that celibacy could not be a lifelong gift from God: "Virginity, I agree, is a virtue not to be despised. However, it is denied to some and granted to others only for a time" (in McNeill, Institutes, II, 8, 42). He gives no biblical rationale for this opinion; rather, he keeps prattling on in this section (he so often appears as if he is lecturing Catholics like small children in his Institutes) about the perfectly obvious: that celibacy is a gift from God and that no one can do it without His power.

Calvin, then, has offered us nothing in the Bible to overthrow the Catholic position on clerical celibacy. His criticisms have left our view completely unaffected (and Luther’s opinion has even strengthened it). Can the other classical Protestant commentators we have been examining produce a cogent, solid, biblical critique?

John Wesley sees in this verse the value of remaining single for the kingdom's sake, if one is called to it. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown accept the obvious spiritual utility in the practice also, and add, "such was Paul." Adam Clarke thinks that the Lord was referring to the Essenes, who were celibate, and shows no particular opposition to the idea. Albert Barnes thinks this is a possibility also. Matthew Henry understands the underlying principle, but then gets in his obligatory dig at the "papists," as if Catholics were grossly ignorant of the principle he had just correctly expounded upon (a shortcoming we have seen throughout this study):

Continence is a special gift of God to some, and not to others; and when a man, in the single state, finds by experience that he has this gift, he may determine with himself, and (as the apostle speaks, 1 Cor. vii. 37), stand steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but having power over his own will, that he will keep himself so. . . . The single state must be chosen for the kingdom of heaven's sake; in those who resolve never to marry, only that they may save charges, or may gratify a morose selfish humour, or have a greater liberty to serve other lusts and pleasures, it is so far from being a virtue, that it is an ill-natured vice; but when it is for religion's sake, not as in itself a meritorious act (which papists make it), but only as a means to keep our minds more entire for, and more intent upon, the services of religion, and that, having no families to provide for, we may do the more works of charity, then it is approved and accepted of God.
So it looks as though Protestants cannot come up with any compelling or persuasive biblical argument against clerical celibacy, or any "un-Catholic" re-interpretation of Matthew 19:12. Many of the criticisms of the Protestant opponents of the practice today are of the same non-biblical (and usually emotionally-based) nature.
1 Corinthians 7:7-9: "I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion."

1 Corinthians 7:32-38: "I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; 33 but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. 36 If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry-it is no sin. 37 But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. 38 So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better."

John Calvin keeps up his tirade against celibacy in his Commentary:
If this passage had been duly weighed, that perverse superstition connected with the desire of celibacy, which is the root and cause of great evils, would never have gained a footing in the world. Paul here expressly declares, that every one has not a free choice in this matter, because virginity is a special gift, that is not conferred upon all indiscriminately. Nor does he teach any other doctrine than what Christ himself does, when he says, that "all men are not capable of receiving this saying." (Matthew 19:11) . . . What, in the meantime, has been done? Every one, without having any regard to his power, has, according to his liking, vowed perpetual continency . . . Virginity, I acknowledge, is an excellent gift; but keep it in view, that it is a gift. Learn, besides, from the mouth of Christ and of Paul, that it is not common to all, but is given only to a few . . . As for those who, despising marriage, rashly vowed perpetual continency, God punished their presumption, first, by the secret flames of lust; and then afterwards, by horrible acts of filthiness . . . no house was safe from the impurities of the priests. Even that was reckoned a small matter; for there sprung up monstrous enormities, . . . We must also notice carefully the word continue; for it is possible for a person to live chastely in a state of celibacy for a time, but there must be in this matter no determination made for tomorrow.
Granted, this was not the most spiritually upright time in Church history, and Calvin was rightly responding to the scandals of sexual corruption in the priesthood, but that doesn’t give him a warrant to disparage the biblical teaching and act as if celibacy is the root of all kinds of evil. He again states his belief that lifelong celibacy is well-nigh impossible.

That's not what St. Paul teaches; that isn’t how the disciples lived their lives. Calvin would have it that Jesus would require His closest companions and associates to live in a state that was almost certain to produce "the secret flames of lust" and "monstrous enormities," etc. This is clearly absurd.

As with so many doctrines, here again is the early Protestant propensity for "throwing out the baby with the bathwater." If there was corruption or human failings, the Protestant solution was -- too often -- to throw out the institution rather than reform it. They claimed to be following the Bible in a special way that the "papists" were not; yet on this issue they couldn’t produce any compelling proof that celibacy of priests ought to be abandoned.

They simply didn’t like the celibacy requirement, and so they got rid of it. But Christian tradition doesn’t work that way. The Church is not at liberty to pick and choose or to discard received traditions at whim. Celibacy was not dogma but it was a very entrenched and successful practice in the Church.

The general thrust of Calvin's long comment on 1 Corinthians 7 is to downplay every instance of St. Paul praising celibacy and to emphasize (to the greatest degree) lust and the supposed universal requirement for marriage. He is, therefore, eisegeting, because his concern is precisely the opposite of St. Paul's: to disparage celibacy or virginity in practice as impossible and too easily overcome by the lusts of the flesh.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article on celibacy, gives the counter-argument to this way of thinking:

The anti-clerical animus which prompts a certain type of mind to rake these scandals together, and to revel in and exaggerate their prurient details, is at least as marked as the tendency on the part of the Church's apologists to ignore these uncomfortable pages of history altogether. In any case, it may be said in reply, that the observance of continence with substantial fidelity by a numerous clergy, even for centuries together, is assuredly not beyond the strength of human nature when elevated by prayer and strengthened by Divine grace . . .

Our argument is that the observance of celibacy is not only possible for the few called to be monks and enjoying the safeguards of the monastic life, but that it is not beyond the strength of a great body of men numbered by tens of thousands, . . . We have no wish to deny or to palliate the very low level of morality to which at different periods of the world's history, and in different periods of the world's history, and in different countries calling themselves Christian, the Catholic priesthood has occasionally sunk, but such scandals are no more the effect of compulsory celibacy than prostitution, which is everywhere rampant in our great cities, is the effect of our marriage laws.

We do not abolish Christian marriage because so large a proportion of mankind are not faithful to the restraints which it imposes on human concupiscence. No one in his heart believes that civilized nations would be cleaner or purer if polygamy were substituted for monogamy. Neither is there any reason to suppose that scandals would be fewer and the clergy more respected if Catholic priests were permitted to marry.

(Herbermann, III, 483)

John Henry Newman (in words that are just as relevant to the situation of today’s tragic sexual scandals) compared celibate and married clergy in terms of virtue, and contended that neither state is the cause of sinful behavior:
When, then, we come to the matter of fact, whether celibacy has been and is, in comparison of the marriage vow, so dangerous to a clerical body, I answer that I am very sceptical indeed that in matter of fact a married clergy is adorned, in any special and singular way, with the grace of purity; and this is just the very thing which Protestants take for granted. What is the use of speaking against our discipline, till they have proved their own to be better?

Now I deny that they succeed with their rule of matrimony, better than we do with our rule of celibacy; . . . . a Protestant rector or a dissenting preacher is not necessarily kept from the sins I am speaking of, because he happens to be married: and when he offends, whether in a grave way or less seriously, still in all cases he has by matrimony but exchanged a bad sin for a worse, and has become an adulterer instead of being a seducer.

Matrimony only does this for him, that his purity is at once less protected and less suspected. I am very sceptical, then, of the universal correctness of Protestant ministers, whether in the Establishment or in Dissent. I repeat, I know perfectly well, that there are a great number of high-minded men among the married Anglican clergy who would as soon think of murder, as of trespassing by the faintest act of indecorum upon the reverence which is due from them to others; nor am I denying, what, though of course I cannot assert it on any knowledge of mine, yet I wish to assert with all my heart, that the majority of Wesleyan and dissenting ministers lead lives beyond all reproach; but still allowing all this, the terrible instances of human frailty of which one reads and hears in the Protestant clergy, are quite enough to show that the married state is no sort of testimonial for moral correctness, no safeguard whether against scandalous offences, or (much less) against minor forms of the same general sin.

Purity is not a virtue which comes merely as a matter of course to the married any more than to the single, though of course there is a great difference between man and man; and though it is impossible to bring the matter fairly to an issue, yet for that very reason I have as much right to my opinion as another to his, when I state my deliberate conviction that there are, to say the least, as many offences against the marriage vow among Protestant ministers, as there are against the vow of celibacy among Catholic priests . . .

But if matrimony does not prevent cases of immorality among Protestant ministers, it is not celibacy which causes them among Catholic priests. It is not what the Catholic Church imposes, but what human nature prompts, which leads any portion of her ecclesiastics into sin. Human nature will break out, like some wild and raging element, under any system; it bursts out under the Protestant system; it bursts out under the Catholic; passion will carry away the married clergyman as well as the unmarried priest. On the other hand, there are numbers to whom there would be, not greater, but less, trial in the vow of celibacy than in the vow of marriage, as so many persons prefer Teetotalism to the engagement to observe Temperance.

Till, then, you can prove that celibacy causes what matrimony certainly does not prevent, you do nothing at all. This is the language of common sense. It is the world, the flesh, and the devil, not celibacy, which is the ruin of those who fall.

(Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England, Lecture 4, 1851, 134-136)

But back to 1 Corinthians 7: Adam Clarke somehow manages to completely flip the Apostle Paul’s meaning, with an astonishing contempt for the actual text he is supposedly expounding. St. Paul writes in 7:32-33: "The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife." But by some unknown, inexplicable process of reasoning from that text, Clarke can make this comment:
The single man is an atom in society; the married man is a small community in himself. The former is the centre of his own existence, and lives for himself alone; the latter is diffused abroad, makes a much more important part of the body social, and provides both for its support and continuance. The single man lives for and does good to himself only; the married man lives both for himself and the public. Both the state and the Church of Christ are dependent on the married man, as from him under God the one has subjects, the other members; while the single man is but an individual in either, and by and by will cease from both, and having no posterity is lost to the public for ever. The married man, therefore, far from being in a state of inferiority to the single man, is beyond him out of the limits of comparison. He can do all the good the other can do, though perhaps sometimes in a different way; and he can do ten thousand goods that the other cannot possibly do. And therefore both himself and his state are to be preferred infinitely before those of the other.
All this flows from Clarke's assumption that Paul is only talking this way because of the "present distress"; otherwise he would prefer marriage to singleness. When he comments on verse 35, where Paul makes his strongest endorsement of the practical and spiritual benefits of celibacy over against marriage, he again utilizes the method of "limited application" in order to evade the clear, straightforward meaning of the text: "Nothing spoken here was ever designed to be of general application; it concerned the Church at Corinth alone, or Churches in similar circumstances." Matthew Henry can’t refrain from the temptation to bash Catholic priestly vows in an irrational fashion:
Marrying is not in itself a sin, but marrying at that time was likely to bring inconvenience upon them, and add to the calamities of the times; and therefore he thought it advisable and expedient that such as could contain should refrain from it; but adds that he would not lay celibacy on them as a yoke, nor, by seeming to urge it too far, draw them into any snare; and therefore says, But I spare you. Note, How opposite in this are the papist casuists to the apostle Paul! They forbid many to marry, and entangle them with vows of celibacy, whether they can bear the yoke or no.
This is an utterly ridiculous remark. It’s as if one envisions an imaginary Catholic Church (one which seems to be lodged in every anti-Catholic's mind) where potential priests are dragged screaming and kicking (perhaps drugged up, too, and pulled from the arms of hysterical, grieving girlfriends) and forced to take their vows under gunpoint "whether they can bear the yoke or no."

Henry speaks nothing of spiritual gifts, vocation, the voluntary nature of a discernment of the calling to the priesthood, or the graces of holy orders. Rather than show how Catholic teaching is wrong from biblical teaching, he takes the opportunity to irrationally rave and present an entirely jaded picture of Catholic belief and practice. What does that have to do, however, with exegesis?

In conclusion, I would like to cite the wise words of G.K. Chesterton, written 14 years before he became a Catholic. The paradox he notes is a marvelously ironic one: the Catholic Church is simultaneously attacked for being too "pro-family" and too "pro-children" but also for supposedly being against marriage and sexuality (as the Church, we are told, stifles marital and sexual happiness in its puritanical views on divorce and contraception), due to its high regard for the celibate life devoted to the Lord in a total giving of self. Chesterton's point is that one need not choose; it’s a false dilemma from the start:

Thus, the double charges of the secularists, though throwing nothing but darkness and confusion on themselves, throw a real light on the faith. It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasized celibacy and emphasized the family; has at once (if one may put it so) been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children. It has kept them side by side like two strong colors, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colors which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates that evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty gray. In fact, the whole theory of the Church on virginity might be symbolized in the statement that white is a color: not merely the absence of a color. All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colors coexistent but pure. It is not a mixture like russet or purple; it is rather like a shot silk, for a shot silk is always at right angles, and is in the pattern of the cross.

(Chesterton, 97)


Barnes, Albert [Presbyterian], Barnes' Notes on the New Testament, 1872; reprinted by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MI), 1983. Available online.

Calvin, John, Calvin's Commentaries, 22 volumes, translated and edited by John Owen; originally printed for the Calvin Translation Society, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1853; reprinted by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI: 1979. Available online.

Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Henry Beveridge for the
Calvin Translation Society, 1845 from the 1559 edition in Latin; reprinted by Wm. B.
Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids, MI), 1995. Available online.

Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image, 1959; originally 1908. Available online.

Clarke, Adam [Methodist], Commentary on the Bible, 1825, six volumes; reprinted by Abingdon Press (Nashville), no date. An abridged one-volume edition by Ralph Earle was published by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MI), 1967. Available online.

Henry, Matthew [Presbyterian], Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible, 1706;
reprinted by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. (Peabody, Massachusetts), 1991. Available online (one /; two / three).

Herbermann, Charles G., editor, The Catholic Encyclopedia, New York: The Encyclopedia Press, 1913; sixteen volumes. Available online.

Jacobs, C.M., translator, Works of Martin Luther, Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Co. and the Castle Press, 1930; reprinted by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1982 , six volumes.

Jamieson, Robert [Presbyterian], Andrew R. Fausset [Anglican], and David Brown [Anglican], Commentary on the Whole Bible, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1961 (orig. 1864). Available online.

Luther, Martin, Luther's Works (LW), American edition, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (volumes 1-30) and Helmut T. Lehmann (volumes 31-55), St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House (volumes 1-30); Philadelphia: Fortress Press (volumes 31-55), 1955.

McNeill, John T., editor and Ford Lewis Battles, translator, John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960 (from 1559 edition).

Newman, John Henry, Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England, London: 1851; reprinted by Longmans, Green and Co. (London), 1918. Available online.

Wesley, John [founder of Methodism], Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, 1766; reprinted by Epworth (London), 1958. Available online.

Uploaded by Dave Armstrong on 21 February 2004.