Sunday, November 30, 2008

Brief Reflection on How to Stop Legal Childkilling

Comments about abortion (both from women) on the CHNI board:

We think we are so "enlightened" in this day and age. And yet, that woman is so blind. As you said, how can she not see that those fingers and toes belonged to a person who surely felt fear and pain in their last moments of life? We are blind AND insane.

It is absolutely unfathomable how deceived people can be.

It's precisely because abortion is absolutely insane and irrational and diabolical, that neither science nor philosophy nor reason nor fact nor moral argument (nor photos) have much effect on those who promote the murder.

It has to be stopped by either:
1) Force of Law (some major ruling or law), that in a generation starts to become respectable as a moral guideline, as true law should be.

[not likely in the near future, esp. now with Obama and the Supreme Court possibly lost to the pro-life cause for 10-20 years, after we were right on the verge of a pro-life majority for the first time since 1973. Thanks very much, all you Christian Obama voters!]

2) Spiritual Revival, including personal conversion and transformation and Christians actually having lots of children again, like we used to.

[God determines that in His Providence]

3) Outreach and love shown to women who have also been the victims of abortion.

[we're doing pretty good here, with CPCs, etc.]

4) Appeal to self-interest (health and emotional aftermath factors).

[increasingly being utilized as a pro-life approach to reduce abortions]
#1 and #4 work in a secular context (though #1 would cause a huge uproar in the short term); #2 and #3 are more spiritual and take longer to have a full effect. But it is a combination of all these things, rather than rational argumentation of any sort (which clearly has been ineffective, because we have all the superior arguments), that will make a difference in the long run.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Alvin Plantinga's Decisive Refutation of the Atheist Use of the Problem of Evil

--- as a Disproof of God's Existence, Goodness, or Omnipotence ---

(originally uploaded on 12 October 2006)

Alvin Plantinga (who was born in 1932 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and started his teaching career at my alma mater, Wayne State University, in Detroit; see a collection of his online articles) is considered (by his Christian or theist admirers and atheists alike) to be the greatest living Christian philosopher and philosopher of religion. He wrote a very influential book in 1974, called God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans / New York: Harper & Row), which is now widely regarded as the best (and indeed, a decisive) refutation of the atheist use of the clasic Problem of Evil in order to disprove God's existence, or His character as all-good and all-powerful, or to claim that Christian belief involves an inherent contradiction therein. John G. Stackhouse Jr., in an article from the 11 June 2001 issue of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, noted his influence:

Alvin Plantinga is arguably the greatest philosopher of the last century.

The Dutch-American Calvinist raised in the Midwest and now the John A. O'Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame is not just the best Christian philosopher of his time. No, Plantinga is the most important philosopher of any stripe.

Plantinga deserves this accolade for three reasons.

First, he has taken up the two most important questions of our day: the problem of evil (arguably the most important philosophical question of any era) and the problem of knowledge (undoubtedly the key philosophical question of our era).

Second, he has made fundamental contributions to these two questions. On the problem of evil, Plantinga's vaunted "Free Will Defense" (to which we'll return in a moment) responded to the most trenchant form of this problem with a success rarely found in philosophy: for almost 20 years now, the discussion of the problem has shifted to other grounds because of the widespread acknowledgment of Plantinga's argument.

. . . Plantinga has dealt with these two crucial issues on behalf of orthodox Christian faith. Because of the excellence of his labors, the Christian view of things simply has to be taken seriously by any questioner with the integrity to appreciate sound philosophy.

. . . In the so-called Free Will Defense, Plantinga answered the logical problem of evil, an apparently lethal argument that boldly claims theists cannot simultaneously affirm three propositions: that God is good, that God is all-powerful, and that evil exists. Therefore, says the argument, theism is incoherent, and one can thus dispense with it.

Plantinga's response is complicated—the shortest published version (God, Freedom, and Evil, Eerdmans, 1974) ran to more than 60 pages—but it essentially was this: God desired to love and be loved by other beings. God created human beings with this end in view. To make us capable of such fellowship, God had to give us the freedom to choose, since love cannot be either automatic or coerced. This sort of free will, however, entailed the danger that we would use it to go our own way in defiance of both God and our own best interests.

For God to grant human beings free will was to grant us the awful dignity of making real choices with real consequences. If God prevents us from sinning, he is preventing us from truly free action. And if God constantly and instantly repairs our mischief, then it is likely that we would never face our sin and need for redemption. (Then again, God could have looked ahead and seen which human beings would sin and which would choose well, and then actualized only the latter human beings; God thus would not have compromised human freedom but would also have allowed no evil to result from it.)

In any event, Plantinga suggests that perhaps we human beings suffer from what he calls "transworld depravity," a condition in which, no matter what the circumstances, each of us will commit at least one sin, and maybe many. We do so, that is, because it is somehow in each of our individual essences to do so. If God, for some reason (perhaps known only to God), wants to enjoy the fellowship of these particular beings (each with particular flaws), then God must let us be who we are, sin and all.

Why then does God put up with all the evil wrought by generations of human beings through the ages? God does so, Plantinga argues, because on the whole it is for the best—or, at least, for the better. God deems the cost of evil to be worth the benefit of loving and enjoying the love of these human beings. So, the Free Will Defense concludes, theists can simultaneously affirm that God is good, that God is all-powerful, and that evil yet exists.

It is important to remember that the original charge of inconsistency is an absolute one: there is no way for the theist consistently to hold belief in God's power, goodness, and the existence of evil. All Plantinga had to do in response was to show at least one way to hold all three together—regardless of whether each detail of the defense is true or even plausible. The consensus among philosophers of religion (and consensus doesn't emerge easily among this crowd) is that Plantinga has done this successfully.

Indeed, the argument for the last decade or so has shifted to so-called probabilistic arguments: that it is highly improbable that there is a God who is good and all-powerful, given the existence and extent of evil. Plantinga has joined in this discussion alongside many other doughty Christian thinkers. It remains to be underscored that this is where the battle is now joined, since Plantinga removed from the skeptic's arsenal the knockout punch of the sheerly logical objection.

. . . Plantinga, then, has established the intellectual grounds for Christians to continue to believe in God, and particularly the God of historic orthodoxy, in the face of the two most daunting philosophical challenges of this century. He has done so, however, in distinctly 20th-century fashion. He has not, that is, offered a theodicy, an explanation for how God does, in fact, run the world. All Plantinga has done is show that it is not contradictory to believe that God is good, that God is all-powerful, and that evil yet exists. Whether one should go on to believe the gospel—well, that is not for him, as a philosopher, to say.

Nor has Plantinga offered an argument for the truth of Christianity. Again, all he has done is show that it is not improper for Christians to believe their religion is epistemologically well-grounded. Whether Christianity is actually true—well, that is not for him, as a philosopher, to say.

What Plantinga has done is to prevent the world's main philosophical challenges from pressing Christianity out of the realm of reasonable options. He has helped preserve a space for intellectually respectable Christian belief. Whether anyone should go on, then, to believe in the Christian faith—well, that is for theologians and apologists and evangelists, and for every individual Christian and every Christian congregation, to show through faithful witness. That is for the Holy Spirit, ultimately, to say. Alvin Plantinga has masterfully done his part as a philosopher, and circumspectly steps aside for the rest of us to do ours.

Now, one might reasonably maintain that this is a biased account from a partisan evangelical Protestant source. Very well, then, let's look at some secular philosophical estimations of Plantinga's philosophical sucess and influence, regarding the question before us in particular. James R. Beebe, in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on "The Logical Problem of Evil," writes:
What might God's reason be for allowing evil and suffering to occur? Alvin Plantinga (1974, 1977) has offered the most famous contemporary philosophical response to this question.
. . . How would you go about finding a logically possible x? Philosophers claim that you only need to use your imagination. If you can conceive of a state of affairs without there being anything contradictory about what you're imagining, then that state of affairs must be possible. In a word, conceivability is your guide to possibility.

Since the logical problem of evil claims that it is logically impossible for God and evil to co-exist, all that Plantinga (or any other theist) needs to do to combat this claim is to describe a possible situation in which God and evil co-exist. That situation doesn't need to be actual or even realistic. Plantinga doesn’t need to have a single shred of evidence supporting the truth of his suggestion. All he needs to do is give a logically consistent description of a way that God and evil can co-exist. Plantinga claims God and evil could co-exist if God had a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil. He suggests that God's morally sufficient reason might have something to do with humans being granted morally significant free will and with the greater goods this freedom makes possible. All that Plantinga needs to claim on behalf of (MSR1) and (MSR2) is that they are logically possible (that is, not contradictory).

[MSR1: God's creation of persons with morally significant free will is something of tremendous value. God could not eliminate much of the evil and suffering in this world without thereby eliminating the greater good of having created persons with free will with whom he could have relationships and who are able to love one another and do good deeds.]

[MSR2: God allowed natural evil to enter the world as part of Adam and Eve's punishment for their sin in the Garden of Eden.]

Since (MSR1) and (MSR2) together seem to show contra the claims of the logical problem of evil how it is possible for God and (moral and natural) evil to co-exist, it seems that the Free Will Defense successfully defeats the logical problem of evil.

. . . J. L. Mackie[:] one of the most prominent atheist philosophers of the mid-twentieth-century and a key exponent of the logical problem of evil has this to say about Plantinga's Free Will Defense:

Since this defense is formally [that is, logically] possible, and its principle involves no real abandonment of our ordinary view of the opposition between good and evil, we can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another. But whether this offers a real solution of the problem is another question. (Mackie 1982, p. 154)
Mackie admits that Plantinga's defense shows how God and evil can co-exist, that is, it shows that "the central doctrines of theism" are logically consistent after all. However, Mackie is reluctant to attribute much significance to Plantinga's accomplishment. He expresses doubt about whether Plantinga has adequately dealt with the problem of evil.

Part of Mackie's dissatisfaction probably stems from the fact that Plantinga only gives a possible reason for why God might have for allowing evil and suffering and does not provide any evidence for his claims or in any way try to make them plausible. Although sketching out mere possibilities without giving them any evidential support is typically an unsatisfactory thing to do in philosophy, it is not clear that Mackie's unhappiness with Plantinga is completely warranted. It was, after all, Mackie himself who characterized the problem of evil as one of logical inconsistency:

Here it can be shown, not that religious beliefs lack rational support, but that they are positively irrational, that several parts of the essential theological doctrine are inconsistent with one another. (Mackie 1955, p. 200)
In response to this formulation of the problem of evil, Plantinga showed that this charge of inconsistency was mistaken. Even Mackie admits that Plantinga solved the problem of evil, if that problem is understood as one of inconsistency. It is, therefore, difficult to see why Plantinga's Free Will Defense should be found wanting if that defense is seen as a response to the logical problem of evil. As an attempt to rebut the logical problem of evil, it is strikingly successful.

. . . all parties admit that Plantinga's Free Will Defense successfully rebuts the logical problem of evil as it was formulated by atheists during the mid-twentieth-century.

. . . Plantinga's Free Will Defense has been the most famous theistic response to the logical problem of evil because he did more to clarify the issues surrounding the logical problem than anyone else.


Mackie, J. L. 1982. The Miracle of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mackie, J. L. 1955. "Evil and Omnipotence." Mind 64: 200-212.

Plantinga, Alvin. 1974. The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Plantinga, Alvin. 1977. God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Michael Tooley (atheist), in his article, "The Problem of Evil," in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, states:
One of the more striking illustrations of this phenomenon is provided by Alvin Plantinga's discussions of the problem of evil. In God and Other Minds, in The Nature of Necessity, and in God, Freedom, and Evil, for example, Plantinga, starting out from an examination of John L. Mackie's essay “Evil and Omnipotence”, in which Mackie had defended an incompatibility version of the argument from evil, focuses mainly on the question of whether the existence of God is compatible with the existence of evil, although there are also short discussions of whether the existence of God is compatible with the existence of a given quantity of evil, and of whether the existence of a certain amount of evil renders the existence of God unlikely. (The latter topic is then the total focus of attention in his long article, “The Probabilistic Argument from Evil”.)

Not only, however, does Plantinga concentrate exclusively on very abstract versions of the argument from evil: he also seems to believe that if it can be shown that the existence of God is neither incompatible with, nor rendered improbable by, either (1) the mere existence of evil, or (2) the existence of a specified amount of evil, then no philosophical problem remains. People may find, of course, that they are still troubled by the existence of specific evils, but this, Plantinga seems to be believe, is a religious problem, and what is called for, he suggests, is not philosophical argument, but “pastoral care”.

Tooley - as an atheist - finds this unsatisfactory (as we would suspect):
This view is very implausible. For not only can the argument from evil be formulated in terms of specific evils, but that is the natural way to do so, given that it is only certain types of evils that are generally viewed as raising a serious problem with respect to the rationality of belief in God. To concentrate exclusively on abstract versions of the argument from evil is therefore to ignore the most plausible and challenging versions of the argument.
But I think Plantinga is right in this respect also. If the classical formulation of the argument was indeed designed to make the charge of logical incompatibility and thus a decisive disproof of God, to disprove the accusation is to render at least the classical Problem of Evil argument null and void. Understandably atheists would want to then pursue the essentially different probabilistic argument from evil, lest they lose this favorite weapon in their arsenal altogether, but it is a far weaker version, and thus, much more difficult to make stick. The Christian can simply poke holes in the more subjective premises over and over, and appeal to any number of possible Christian answers, now that God's existence is safe, logically speaking, from the attacks of the classic argument, meant to hit God with a knockout punch. If God (even the Christian God) hasn't been removed from the equation, then the Christian can quite logically propose any number of scenarios whereby the existence of evil however great, is not inconsistent with a good or omnipotent God. Tooley continues, later on:
What are the prospects for a complete, or nearly complete theodicy? Some philosophers, such as Swinburne, are optimistic, and believe that “the required theodicy can be provided.” (1988, 311). Others, including many theists, are much less hopeful. Plantinga, for example remarks:
… we cannot see why our world, with all its ills, would be better than others we think we can imagine, or what, in any detail, is God's reason for permitting a given specific and appalling evil. Not only can we not see this, we can't think of any very good possibilities. And here I must say that most attempts to explain why God permits evil -- theodicies, as we may call them -- strike me as tepid, shallow and ultimately frivolous. (1985a, 35)

Plantinga, Alvin (1985a) “Self-Profile,” in Tomberlin, James E., and Peter van Inwagen, ed. (1985) Alvin Plantinga, (Dordrecht: D. Reidel), 3-97.

Swinburne, Richard (1988) “Does Theism Need A Theodicy?” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 18: 287-312.

Daniel Hill, apparently a theist (presumably a Christian), wrote in Philosophy Now (Issue 21: 1998):
. . . Catholics and Calvinists

Most philosophers of religion also fall into one of two camps from the religious point of view too: the majority are either Roman Catholics or Reformed Calvinists. (There are a few important exceptions, such as William Alston and Peter van Inwagen, who are both Episcopalians, and Richard Swinburne of Oxford, a member of the Orthodox Church.) Notre Dame itself seems to have cornered the market in philosophy of religion by recruiting both Roman Catholics and Reformed Calvinists.

Big Alvin

Notre Dame's brightest star is Alvin Plantinga, whom everyone agrees to be the current world-leader in the field. He is a product of the analytical school of philosophy and of the Dutch Reformed Church.

. . . The topics on which Plantinga has written have been the most important ones in the philosophy of religion over the past thirty years, important because he has written on them.

. . . It is very rare these days to see the problem of evil held up as a knock-down argument for atheism. This is due to the pioneering work of Alvin Plantinga (you guessed it), who has shown that it is impossibly difficult to establish any sound proof of God's non-existence using this argument. Instead, it is usually now presented as showing just that God's existence is improbable. Debate continues to rage fiercely about whether it succeeds in this. If God did exist, would we necessarily know God's reasons for allowing suffering? People even disagree on whether the burden of proof here lies with the atheists or the believers. This brings up a distinction drawn by Plantinga between a theodicy and a defence. Plantinga only claims to offer a defence, that is a demonstration of why the atheist's arguments do not succeed. He says that he is not able to offer a theodicy, that is, an explanation of why God allows suffering.

. . . To conclude, the prospects for philosophy of religion look brighter than they have done for many moons. The general standard of discussion in the analytical philosophy of religion is high - in my judgment, as high as in any other branch of philosophy. It is also provoking much interest both amongst professional philosophers in other fields (David Lewis and Martin Davies, for instance, have both written articles on the philosophy of religion) and amongst students taking philosophy at university (at Oxford, philosophy of religion is the second most popular optional subject, after philosophy of mind). In addition, it is a lively, interesting and accessible area, whose questions are surely relevant to all (don't atheists need to consider the arguments for God, and perhaps provide some reasons for their rejection of theism?). If you would like to study it, there are many easy ways into the academic subject, and I feel sure that it will amply repay your time and attention.

Atheist philosopher Evan Fales conceded, "Alvin Plantinga has convinced most of us - if indeed, we were not already convinced - that the free will defense exonerates God from the imputation of a certain kind of incapacity. Not even an omnipotent being can guarantee the best of all possible worlds, for if such a world must contain created free beings, it will be partly up to them what transpires." ("Should God Not Have Created Adam?", Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 9, No. 2, April, 1992).

Plantinga himself, in his lecture, Christian Philosophy at the End of the 20th Century, noted the important role of "negative apologetics":

Roughly speaking, negative apologetics is the attempt to defend Christian belief against the various sorts of attacks that have been brought against it: the argument from evil, for example, or the claim that science has somehow shown Christian belief wanting. It is the part of Calvinism to hold that Christians are not complete; they are in process. John Calvin, himself no mean Calvinist, points out that believers are constantly beset by doubts, disquietude, spiritual difficulty and turmoil; "it never goes so well with us," he says, "that we are wholly cured of the disease of unbelief and entirely filled and possessed by faith" (Institutes III, ii, 18, p.564 ) . It never goes that well with us, and it often goes a good deal worse. There is an unbeliever within the breast of every Christian; in the believing mind, says Calvin, "certainty is mixed with doubt". (No doubt the proportions differ for different people and for the same person at different times.) But then objections brought by the atheologians--the Freud's, Marx's and Nietzsche's, the Flew's, Mackie's and Nielsen's--these objections can and do trouble the Christian community and need to be answered . And that is, in part, the function of negative apologetics: to refute such objections, thus removing one kind of obstacle to the spiritual peace and wholeness of the Christian community. Of course negative apologetics can also be useful for those who are not in the Christian community, but perhaps on its edges, perhaps thinking about joining it. And it is can also be useful for those who are not on the edges but adamantly opposed to the Christian truth; perhaps once they really see just how weak their arguments really are, they will be moved closer to it. Well, how has negative apologetics fared during our century? Reasonably well, I think, but not as well as one might hope.

. . . there has been a good deal of work on the argument from evil, and in fact it is now, as opposed to 40 years ago, rather rare for an athelogian to claim that there is a
contradiction between the claim that there is a wholly good, all powerful, all knowing God, on the one hand, and the existence of evil on the other. This is due in large part to the efforts of Christian philosophers. Those atheologians who now press the argument from evil must turn instead to the probabilistic argument from evil: given all the evil the world contains, it is unlikely, improbable that there is a wholly good, all powerful and all knowing God. This argument is much messier, much more complicated, and much less satisfactory from the point of view of the objector. In other ways, however, this probabilistic argument is more realistic and perhaps more disturbing. Christian philosophers--
William Alston and Peter van Inwagen, for example--have done good work here, but much remains to be done.

In his paper, Advice to Christian Philosophers (Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers, vol. 1, October 1984), Plantinga takes on the lesser probabilistic Problem of Evil argument, now fashionable among atheists:
Many philosophers have claimed to find a serious problem for theism in the existence of evil, or of the amount and kinds of evil we do in fact find. Many who claim to find a problem here for theists have urged the deductive argument from evil: they have claimed that the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and wholly good God is logically incompatible with the presence of evil in the world-a presence conceded and indeed insisted upon by Christian theists. For their part, theists have argued that there is no inconsistency here. I think the present consensus, even among those who urge some form of the argument from evil, is that the deductive form of the argument from evil is unsuccessful.

More recently, philosophers have claimed that the existence of God, while perhaps not actually inconsistent with the existence of the amount and kinds of evil we do in fact find, is at any rate unlikely or improbable with respect to it; that is, the probability of the existence of God with respect to the evil we find, is less than the probability, with respect to that same evidence, that there is no God-no omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good Creator. Hence the existence of God is improbable with respect to what we know. But if theistic belief is improbable with respect to what we know, then, so goes the claim, it is irrational or in any event intellectually second rate to accept it.

Now suppose we briefly examine this claim. The objector holds that

1. God is the omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good creator of the world

is improbable or unlikely with respect to

2. There are 10E+13 turps of evil
(where the turp is the basic unit of evil).

I've argued elsewhere that enormous difficulties beset the claim that (1) is unlikely or improbable given (2). Call that response "the low road reply." Here I want to pursue what I shall call the high road reply. Suppose we stipulate, for purposes of argument, that (1) is, in fact, improbable on (2). Let's agree that it is unlikely, given the existence of 10E+13 turps of evil, that the world has been created by a God who is perfect in power, knowledge and goodness. What is supposed to follow from that? How is that to be
construed as an objection to theistic belief? How does the objector's argument go from there? It doesn't follow, of course, that theism is false. Nor does it follow that one who accepts both (1) and (2) (and let's add, recognizes that (1) is improbable with respect to (2) has an irrational system of beliefs or is in any way guilty of noetic impropriety; obviously there might be pairs of propositions A and B, such that we know both A and B, despite the fact that A is improbable on B. I might know, for example, both that Feike is a Frisian and 9 out of 10 Frisians can't swim, and also that Feike can swim; then I am obviously within my intellectual rights in accepting both these propositions, even though the latter is improbable with respect to the former. So even if it were a fact that (1) is improbable with respect to (2), that fact, so far, wouldn't be of much consequence. How, therefore, can this objection be developed?

Presumably what the objector means to hold is that (1) is improbable, not just on (2) but on some appropriate body of total evidence- perhaps all the evidence the theist has, or perhaps the body of evidence he is rationally obliged to have. The objector must be supposing that the theist has a relevant body of total evidence here, a body of evidence that includes (2); and his claim is that (1) is improbable with respect to this relevant body of total evidence. Suppose we say that T is the relevant body of total evidence for a given theist T; and suppose we agree that a brief is rationally acceptable for him only if it is not improbable with respect to T. Now what sorts of propositions are to be found in T? Perhaps the propositions he knows to be true, or perhaps the largest subset of his beliefs that he can rationally accept without evidence from other propositions, or perhaps the propositions he knows immediately-knows, but does not know on the basis of other propositions. However exactly we characterize this set T, the question I mean to press is this: why can't belief in God be itself a member of T? Perhaps for the theist-for many theists, at any rate-belief in God is a member of T. Perhaps the theist has a right to start from belief in God, taking that proposition to be one of the ones probability with respect to which determines the rational propriety of other beliefs he holds. But if so, then the Christian philosopher is entirely within his rights in starting from belief in God to his philosophizing. He has a right to take the existence of God for granted and go on from there in his philosophical work-just as other philosophers take for granted the existence of the past, say, or of other persons, or the basic claims of contemporary physics.

Likewise, in Intellectual Sophistication and Basic Belief in God (Faith and Philosophy 3, 1986: 306-12) Plantinga argues:
So far as I can see, no atheologian has given a successful or cogent way of working out a probabilistic atheological argument from evil; and I believe there are good reasons for thinking it can't be done.

Footnote 9: See my paper "The Probabilistic Argument From Evil," Philosophical Studies (1980): 1-53.

Some atheists, however, are behind the times, with regard to the now-defunct status of the classical logical Problem of Evil, courtesy of Dr. Plantinga. Misguided triumphalism can still be found. For example, S. Daniel Morgan, a former Christian, wrote on my own blog (10-6-06):
It is just that the arguments for atheism (or arguments against God's existence, if you prefer) seem to be absolutely airtight.
He linked to a page of his containing many atheological arguments. On this page is included "The Problem of Evil." Here is his entire section:
The problem of evil is the problem of reconciling the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent God with the existence of a world full of evil and suffering. If God is omniscient then he knows how to bring it about that there is neither evil nor suffering. If God is omnipotent then he is able to bring it about that there is neither evil nor suffering. If God is benevolent then he wants to bring it about that there is neither evil nor suffering. But if God knows how to, is able to and wants to bring it about that there is neither evil nor suffering, then why does he not do so? The simplest answer is that God does not do so because he does not exist. This is by far the most popular argument for atheism.
Excellent. Therefore, the "by far the most popular argument for atheism" has now been demolished, insofar as it supposedly proves God's nonexistence.

We shouldn't conclude, however, that because Alvin Plantinga disposed of one variant of the Problem of Evil (albeit the one with the biggest punch) that he is, therefore, untroubled by the evils we see, and about how to reconcile particular instances with God's lovingkindness. He is highly disturbed by that, as are most thoughtful Christians I know (very much including myself; I should make clear, given the nature of this paper). Hence he wrote:

. . . "why does God permit all this evil?" We don't know. All we know is that it's perfectly possible that He could achieve a better overall total state of affairs by creating free beings and permitting evil than by not dong so; and perhaps that's why He permits it. What we do know is that He (God) has promised that all things work together for good, for those who love and follow Him.

(in The Intellectuals Speak Out About God, edited by Roy Abraham Varghese, Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1984, 167)

Elsewhere, Plantinga commented that the existence and prevalence of evil was "a source of genuine perplexity" to him, "deeply baffling" and some manifestations of evil or suffering "particularly perplexing." He continued, after presenting horrible examples of slow painful diseases or young people or children cut down:
. . . what could be the point of these things? . . . What is supposed to be the good in that? Why does God permit these things? The sheer extent of suffering and evil in the world is appalling . . . Why does God permit so much evil in his world? . . . Why does God permit . . . evil of these horrifying kinds, in his world? How can it be seen as fitting in with his loving and providential care for his creatures?

Christians must concede that we don't know. That is, we don't know in any detail. On a quite general level, we may know that God permits evil because he can achieve a world he sees as better by permitting evil than by preventing it; and what God sees as better is, of course, better. But we cannot see why our world with all its ills would be better than others we think we can conceive, or what, in any detail, is God's reason for permitting a given specific and appalling evil. Not only can we not see this, we often can't think of any very good possibilities. . . . This can be deeply perplexing and deeply disturbing . . . it can tempt us to be angry with God, to mistrust God, like Job, to accuse him of injustice, to adopt an attitude of bitterness and rebellion. No doubt there isn't any logical incompatibility between God's power and knowledge and goodness, on the one hand, and the existence of the evils we see on the other; and no doubt the latter doesn't provide a good probabilistic argument against the former. No doubt; but this is cold and abstract comfort when faced with the shocking concreteness of a particularly appalling exemplification of evil. What the believer in the grip of this sort of spiritual perplexity needs, of course, is not philosophy, but comfort and spiritual counsel. There is much to be said here, and it is neither my place nor within my competence to say it.

I should like, however, to mention two points that I believe are of special significance. First, as the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, coolly observing the suffering of his creatures. He enters into and shares our sufferings. He endures the anguish of seeing his Son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross . . . He [Christ] was prepared to accept this suffering in order to overcome sin and death and the evils that afflict our world, and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine.

. . . of all the antitheistic arguments, only the argument from evil deserves to be taken really seriously.

("A Christian Life Partly Lived," in Philosophers Who Believe, edited by Kelly James Clark, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993, 69-72)

With this background, let us proceed to Plantinga's classic Free Will Defense, which I have abridged; taken from God, Freedom, and Evil (1974 edition, published by Harper & Row), pp. 7-64. I will indicate short text breaks with ellipses (". . ."), longer ones with ( "[ . . . ]" ). Page numbers will be indicated by brackets ( "{ x }" ). All subsequent words are his own, from that work:

{10} Or suppose that the theist admits that he just doesn't know why God permits evil. What follows from that? Very little of interest. Why suppose that if God does have a good reason for permitting evil, the theist would be the first to know? Perhaps God has a good reason, but that reason is too complicated for us to understand. Or perhaps He has not revealed it for some other reason. The fact that the theist doesn't know why God permits evil is, perhaps, an interesting fact about the theist, but by itself it shows little or nothing relevant to the rationality of belief in God. Much more is needed for the atheological argument even to get off the ground.

{11} . . . The theist believes that God has a reason for permitting evil; he doesn't know what that reason is. But why should that mean that his belief is improper or irrational? . . . To make out his case, therefore, the atheologian cannot rest content with asking embarrassing questions to which the theist does not know the answer. He must do more -- he might try, for example, to show that it is impossible or anyhow unlikely that God should have a reason for permitting evil.

[ . . . ]

{12} According to Mackie, then, the theist accepts a group or set of three propositions; this set is inconsistent. Its members, of course, are {13}

(1) God is omnipotent
(2) God is wholly good
(3) Evil exists.
Call this set A; the claim is that A is an inconsistent set.

[ . . . ]

{14} . . . a formally contradictory set is one from whose members an explicit contradiction can be deduced by the laws of logic. Is Mackie claiming that set A is formally contradictory?

If he is, he's wrong. No laws of logic permit us to deduce the denial of one of the propositions in A from the other members.

[ . . . ]

{16} And when Mackie says that set A is contradictory, we may properly take him, I think, as holding that it is implicitly contradictory in the explained sense. As he puts it:

However, the contradiction does not arise immediately; to show it we need some additional premises, or perhaps some quasi-logical rules connecting the terms "good" and "evil" and "omnipotent." These additional principles are that good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible.

["Evil and Omnipotence," in The Philosophy of Religion, ed. Basil Mitchell (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 93]

{17) . . . What he means, I think, is that to get a formally contradictory set we must add some more propositions to set A; and if we aim to show that set A is implicitly contradictory, these propositions must be necessary truths -- "quasi-logical rules" as Mackie calls them. The two additional principles he suggests are
(19) A good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can
(20) There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do.
. . . he must hold that (19) and (20) are not merely true but necessarily true.

But, are they? What about (2) first? What does it mean to say that a being is omnipotent? That he is all-powerful, or almighty, presumably. But are there no limits at all to the power of such a being? Could he create square circles. for example, or married bachelors? Most theologians and theistic philosophers . . . concede that not even an omnipotent being can bring about logically impossible states of affairs or cause necessarily false propositions to be true.

[ . . . ]

{21} . . . we don't get a set that is formally contradictory by adding (20) and (19c) to set A. This set )call it A') contains the following six members:

(1) God is omnipotent
(2) God is wholly good
(2') God is omniscient
(3) Evil exists
(19c) An omnipotent and omniscient good being eliminates every evil that it can properly eliminate
(20) There are no nonlogical limits to what an omnipotent being can do.
Now if A' were formally contradictory, then from any five of its members we could deduce the denial of the sixth by the laws of ordinary logic. That is, any five would formally entail the denial of the sixth. So if A' were formally inconsistent, the denial of (3) would be formally entailed by the remaining five. That is, (1), (2), (2'), (19c), and (20) would formally entail {22}
(3') There is no evil.
But they don't; what they formnally entail is not that there is no evil at all but only that
(3") There is no evil that God can properly eliminate.
so (19c) doesn't really help either -- not because it is not necessarily true but because its addition [with (20) ] to set A does not yield a formally contradictory set.

Obviously, what he atheologian must add to get a formally contradictory set is

(21) If God is omniscient and omnipotent, then he can properly eliminate every evil state of affairs.
. . . we must take a look at (21). Is this proposition necessarily true?

No. To see this let us ask the following question. Under what conditions would an omnipotent being be unable to eliminate a certain evil E without eliminating an outweighing good? Well, suppose that E is included in some good state of affairs that outweighs it. That is, suppose there is some good state of affairs G so related to E that it is impossible that G obtain or be actual and E fail to obtain . . . Now suppose that some good state of affairs G includes an evil state of affairs E that it outweighs. Then not even an omnipotent being could eliminate E without eliminating G. But are there any cases where a good state of affairs includes, in this sense, an evil that it outweighs? Indeed there are such states of affairs.

{23} . . . someone's bearing pain magnificently, for example -- may be good. If it is, then the good present must outweigh the evil; otherwise the total situation would not be good. But, of course, it is not possible that such a good state of affairs obtain unless some evil also obtain . . .

The conclusion to be drawn, therefore, is that (21) is not necessarily true . . . One wonders, therefore, why the many atheologians who confidently assert that this set is contradictory make no attempt whatever to show that it is. For the most part they are content just to assert that there is a contradiction here.

{24} . . . the atheologian must find some necessarily true proposition p (it could be a conjunction of several propositions) such that the addition of p to set A yields a set that is formally contradictory. No atheologian has produced even a plausible candidate for this role, and it certainly is not easy to see what such a proposition might be.

[ . . . ]

. . . all we can say at this point is that set A has not been shown to be implicitly inconsistent.

{25} . . . to show that a set S is consistent you think of a possible state of affairs (it needn't actually obtain) which is such that if it were actual, then all of the members of S would be true.

{30} . . . we can make a preliminary statement of the Free Will Defense as follows. A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can't cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren't significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can't give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God's omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.

[ . . . ]

{33} . . . replies Mackie . . . surely it's possible that there be a world containing perfectly virtuous persons -- persons who are significantly free but always do what is right. Surely there are possible worlds that contain moral good but no moral evil. But God, if He is omnipotent, can create any possible world He chooses. So it is not possible, contrary to the Free will Defense, both that God is omnipotent and that He cold create a world containing moral good only by creating one containing moral evil. If He is omnipotent, the only limitations of His power are logical limitations; in which case there are no possible worlds He could not have created.

[ . . . ]

{38} . . . Could God have created just any world He chose? Before addressing this question, however, we must note that God does not, strictly speaking, create any possible worlds or states of affairs at all. What He creates are the heavens and the earth and all that they contain. But He has not created states of affairs . . .

{39} What He did was perform actions of a certain sort -- creating the heavens and the earth, for example -- which resulted in the actuality of certain states of affairs . . . He actualizes the possible world that does in fact obtain; He does not create it. . . .

Bearing this in mind . . . Is the atheologian right in holding that if God is omnipotent, then he could have actualized or created any possible world He pleased? Not obviously. . . . if God is not a necessary being (and many, perhaps most, theists think that He is not), then clearly enough there will be many possible worlds He could not have actualized -- all those, for example, in which he does not exist . . .

{40} . . . perhaps the atheologian can maintain his case if he revises his claim to avoid this difficulty; perhaps he will say something like this: if God is omnipotent, then He could have actualized any of those possible worlds in which He exists . . . any of those possible worlds in which He exists and in which there exist free creatures who do no wrong. He could have actualized worlds containing moral good but no moral evil.

[ . . . ]

{45} . . . we must demonstrate the possibility that among the worlds God could not have actualized are all the worlds containing moral good but no moral evil . . . suppose we think about a morally significant action such as taking a bribe. Curley Smith, the mayor, is opposed to the proposed freeway route; it would require destruction of the Old North Church along with some other antiquated and structurally unsound buildings. L.B. Smedes, the director of highways, asks him whether he'd drop his opposition for $1 million. "Of course," he replies. . . . Smedes then offers him a bribe of $35,000; . . . {46} . . . Curley accepts. Smedes then spends a sleepless night wondering whether he could have bought Curley for $20,000 . . . let us suppose that

(31) If Smedes had offered Curley a bribe of $20,000, he would have accepted it.
If (31) is true, then there is a state of affairs S' that (1) includes Curley's being offered a bribe of $20,000; (2) does not include either his accepting the bribe or his rejecting it; and (3) is otherwise as much as possible like the actual world. Just to make sure S' includes every relevant circumstance, let us suppose that this is a maximal world segment. That is, add to S' any state of affairs compatible with but not included in it, and the result will be an entire possible world. We could think of it roughly like this: S' is included in at least one world W in which Curley takes the bribe and in at least one world W' in which he rejects it. If S' is a maximal world segment, then S' is what remains of W when Curley's taking the bribe is deleted; it is also what remains of W when Curley's rejecting the bribe is deleted. More exactly, if S' is a maximal world segment, then every possible state of affairs that includes S', but isn't included by S', is a possible world. So if (31) is true, then there is a maximal world segment S' that (1) includes Curley's being offered a bribe of $20,000; (2) does not include either his accepting the bribe or his rejecting it; (3) is otherwise as much as possible like the actual world -- in particular, it includes Curley's being free with respect to the bribe; and (4) is such that if it were actual then Curley would have taken the bribe. That is,
(32) If S' were actual, Curley would have accepted the bribe.
is true.

Now, of course, there is at least one possible world W' in which S' is actrual and Curley does not take the bribe. But God could not have {47} created W'; to do so, He would have been obliged to actualize S', leaving Curley free with respect to the action of taking the bribe. But under these conditions Curley, as (32) assures us, would have accepted the bribe, so that the world thus created would not have been S'.

. . . Of course, there are possible worlds in which he is significantly free (i.e., free with respect to a morally significant action) and never does what is wrong. . . . But at least one of these actions -- call it A -- has the following peculiar property. There is a maximal world segment S' that obtains in W' and is such that (1) S' includes Curley's being free re A but neither his performing A nor his refraining from A; (2) S' is otherwise as much as possible like W'; and (3) if S' had been actual, Curley would have gone wrong with respect to A. (Notice that this third condition holds, in fact, in the actual world; it does not hold in that world W'.)

This means, of course, that God could not have actualized W'. For to do so He'd have been obliged to bring it about that S' is actual; but then Curley would go wrong with respect to A. Since in W' he always does what is right, the world thus actualized would not be W'. On the other hand, if God causes Curley to go right with respect to A or beings it about that he does so, then Curley isn't free with respect to A; and so once more it isn't W' that is actual. Accordingly God cannot create W'. But W' was just any of the worlds in which Curley is significantly free but always does only what is right. It therefore follows that it was not within God's power to create a world in which Curley produces moral good but no moral evil. Every world God can actualize is such that if Curley is significantly free in it, he takes at least one wrong action.

{48} Obviously Curley is in serious trouble. I shall call the malady from which he suffers transworld depravity . . . By way of explicit definition:

(33) A person P suffers from transworld depravity if and only if the following holds: for every world W such that P is significantly free in W and P does only what is right in W, there is an action A and a maximal world segment S' such that
(1) S' includes A's being morally significant for P
(2) S' includes P's being free with respect to A
(3) S' is included in W and includes neither P's performing A nor P's refraining from performing A
(4) If S' were actual, P would go wrong with respect to A.
(In thinking about this definition, remember that (4) is to be true in fact, in the actual world -- not in that world W.)

What is important about the idea of transworld depravity is that if a person suffers form it, then it wasn't within God's power to actualize any world in which that person is significantly free but does no wrong . . .

We have been considering a crucial contention of the Free Will Defender: the contention, namely, that

(30) God is omnipotent, and it was not within His power to create a world containing moral good but no moral evil.
How is transworld depravity relevant to this? As follows. Obviously it is possible that there be persons who suffer from transworld depravity. More generally, it is possible that everybody suffers from it. And if this possibility were actual, then God, though omnipotent, could not have created any of the possible worlds containing just the persons who do in fact exist, and containing moral good but no moral evil . . . Such persons go wrong with respect to at least one action in any world God {49} could have actualized and in which they are free with respect to morally significant actions; so the price for creating a world in which they produce moral good is creating one in which they also produce moral evil.

[ . . . ]

{54} The Free Will Defense Vindicated

Put formally, you remember, the Free Will Defender's project was to show that

(1) God is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good
is consistent with
(3) There is evil.
What we have just seen is that
(35) It was not within God's power to create a world containing moral good without creating one containing moral evil
is possible and consistent with God's omnipotence and omniscience. But then it is clearly consistent with (1). So we can use it to show that (1) is consistent with (3). For consider
(1) God is omniscient, omnipotent, and wholly good
(35) It was not within God's power to create a world containing moral good without creating one containing moral evil
(36) God created a world containing moral good.
These propositions are evidently consistent -- i.e., their conjunction is a possible proposition. But taken together they entail
(3) There is evil.
For (36) says that God created a world containing moral good; this together with (35) entails that He created one containing moral evil. But if it contains moral evil, then it contains evil. So (1), (35), and (36) are jointly consistent and entail (3); hence (1) is consistent with (3); hence set A is consistent. Remember: to serve in this argument (35) and (36) need not be known to be true, or likely on our evidence, or anything of the sort; they need only be consistent with (1). Since they are, there {55} is no contradiction in set A; so the Free Will Defense appears to be sucessful.

[ . . . ]

{61} . . . How indeed, could one argue, from the existence of evil, that it is unlikely that God exists? I certainly don't see how to do it.

[ . . . ]

{64} . . . The Free Will Defense, however, shows that the existence of God is compatible, both logically and probabilistically, with the existence of evil; thus it solves the main philosophical problem of evil.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Biblical Evidence Concerning Alleged Marian Excesses by Pope Benedict XVI, the Immaculate Heart of Mary Devotion, and Mary Mediatrix

This came about as a result of some questions asked on the CHNI forum, from a few people who are seriously considering conversion to Catholicism.

* * * * *

I struggle with this and don't know what to make of it. I hear or read Catholics make comments or prayers to Mary that seem over the top. I can understand the idea of asking Mary to intercede for us, but sometimes the praise and prayers given to her seem to take the place of God. Things like 'Mary saves us' or when prayer is directed to her saying we give our heart to Mary or asking Mary to do whatever the request is - as though she herself has the power to grant our request. In the past I've put this down to Marian devotion gone wrong, but then I've also read Catholic explanations for these types of prayers or praise along the lines of 'well, that's not really what we mean' - to which I tend to respond 'then say or pray what you mean' - speak & say according to your actual theology. To do otherwise seems like mental gymnastics, or dancing around the issue semantically - and not quite honest. I feel like it's misleading to pray or praise Mary in terms that in a non-Catholic's mind should be reserved for God alone.

This is especially difficult when the comments are from Pope Benedict XVI: "We implore you to have pity today on the nations that have gone astray, on all Europe, on the whole world, that they might repent and return to your heart." It almost seems to undermine the whole persuasive argument for the fullness of truth being found in the Catholic Church. This is a huge stumbling block to me and the last few days has felt like a complete roadblock on the journey I've been on back towards the Catholic faith. I know this may sound angry, but I need some good answers & honesty without someone dancing around this issue with words. Thanks.

Good and fair questions. I hit the specific issue you inquire about head on in this paper, and explain the language in context (which is rarely considered by our severe critics):

Does St. Alphonsus de Liguori, in The Glories of Mary, Teach That Mary is "Above God" and Can "Manipulate God"? (Corrections of Protestant Misunderstandings of Catholic Mariology)

Now, to start from scratch (if that is possible) in explaining Catholic Mariology, my own papers that I recommend first to people are the following:

The Imitation of Mary

"All Have Sinned . . . " (Mary?)

I'd be more than happy to address any further questions you might have. I think the main difficulty you are expressing can probably be adequately explained, for the most part, in terms of:
1) Flowery, poetic language that is not intrinsically literal in nature or intent.

2) Interpreting the words in context (especially a Christological context).

3) Taking into account the many less or inadequately educated Catholics who don't understand the fine distinctions in Catholic theology. They aren't helping matters any.

4) Protestants have so minimized and underemphasized Mary and have categorized any devotion to her in terms of rank idolatry, and this has so penetrated the entire Christian community (especially in Protestant-to-the-bone North America), that now virtually any devotion at all can seem to be excessive, because of the stark contrast. We all (bar none) pick up influences from our surroundings.
* * *

Let's not get carried away here, with the "save" terminology. To speak of a human being as participating in "saving" others is perfectly biblical:

1 Corinthians 9:22 I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.

[Paul "saves" other people]

1 Timothy 4:16 Take heed to yourself and to your teaching: hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

[ Doesn't Paul know that only God can save??!!!]

Philippians 2:12b-13 . . . work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

[If someone says that God is mentioned in the second part, the Calvinist "monergist" still has to explain how a human being can participate at all in what only God can do (according to the monergist) ]

2 Corinthians 4:15 For it [his many sufferings: 4:8-12,17] is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

Ephesians 3:2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for you...

Ephesians 4:29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.

[Paul distributes divine grace, just as we believe Mary does, and teaches that others can do the same]

St. Peter also joins in this folly of teaching that Christians can distribute divine grace to each other:

1 Peter 4:8b-10 . . . love covers a multitude of sins. Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another. As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace.

Even the angels help to give grace:

Revelation 1:4-5a John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ . . .

[ it was nice of John to add in Jesus Christ at the end, along with his own and the angels' giving of grace, just so we'll remember that there is but one mediator of God's grace. Not a lot of "monergism" there, I reckon . . .]

This is especially difficult when the comments are from Pope Benedict XVI: "We implore you to have pity today on the nations that have gone astray, on all Europe, on the whole world, that they might repent and return to your heart."

There is nothing whatever wrong with this prayer, or the Holy Father's reciting of it. It is perfectly orthodox. I would caution young Catholics and those considering the Church against judging high forms of Catholic pious expression. These things are not simple. It takes years to learn to appreciate them and to spiritually "resonate" with them, so to speak. One cannot do that in a few months' time.

Believe me, I'm still learning lots of things all the time, and I've been a Catholic for 18 years, and defend the Church almost on a daily basis. I consider myself to have a fairly strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin, but there are still some prayers that strike me even now as "excessive."

But the difference is that I recognize the limitation in myself, from years or Protestant and secular thinking (32 years, before I converted). I acknowledge that I am insufficiently Catholic, rather than concluding that the Church is insufficiently correct or biblical. It is because my "lens" through which this material is "filtered" is not yet fully Catholic, or without impurities that blur my vision and reception, that I think any of it is excessive, not because it actually is.

It's fine to say that one doesn't fully understand something, but to start judging popes and the Church when one still personally has a great deal to learn about the faith; that is where it becomes wrong, in my opinion, and presumptuous. It requires a lot of humility to admit to ourselves that there are things we don't yet know: that saints and doctors of the Church have pondered and thought about for centuries.

This is one such instance. This is how a Catholic thinks. He or she bows to the superior wisdom of the Church of the Ages and recognizes that it is Holy Mother Church that determines truth and falsehood in the end, not the lone individual, stock-full of many biases and cultural / philosophical / religious (sometimes ethnic) influences hostile to the Church.

I wouldn't expect a brand-new Catholic who is barely starting to understand Mariology in all its fullness, to grasp a prayer like this. It would be like asking a person who just learned their time tables, to comprehend algebra, or calculus, or trigonometry. Does that make any sense?

Mariology and Marian veneration is a very high level of spirituality. That's precisely why millions of Protestants don't engage in it at all. They have jettisoned this whole aspect of Christianity from their faith, and have never learned about it. Every Protestant has to "unlearn" that built-in hostility and then be willing to learn to think in a very different way: a Catholic, traditional way (that is, when closely examined, more deeply and profoundly "biblical" than any form of Protestantism).

The way to deal with this is not to quickly determine that the pope is wrong, or sinful, or that this is proof that Catholicism isn't perfect (like every other option out there). No; it is a time to dig in and do some serious study, to understand why these expressions are used, and why they seem so foreign and "unbiblical" and "excessive" to us (if that is how we feel about it).

There are reasons for these things. We are what we eat. We take in the philosophy of our surroundings. America was a thoroughly Protestant country, and now is increasingly a secular one. American thought is not exactly renowned for its deep understanding of the Catholic worldview. We all deal with this. It's a constant process. Romans 12:2-3 states:

Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him.

It's like any debate. We shouldn't feel that we can comment authoritatively on the wrongness of some other position (much less in public!) until we have first learned about that thing inside and out, and know the position as well or even better than our "opponents" who hold it.

Now, as to young Catholics and all aspects of Catholic Mariology; sorry, there are a ton of things that have yet to be learned. But if you already know pretty much that the Catholic Church is the One True Church and the fullness of the faith, then I would strongly urge you to be most reluctant to judge her devotions, no matter how difficult it may be for you at this time to completely understand the basis of them.

In this instance, there is a quick judgment upon a holy person who has been deemed to be "Blessed" by Holy Mother Church (and upon the present Holy Father: who is himself an extraordinary theologian: not all popes are). Does anyone really think that his Mariology would be horrendously heretical, seeing that he has been declared "Blessed"? The Church takes painstaking care to make sure everyone who is being considered for sainthood has orthodox views.

Here, we are talking about Blessed Bartolo Longo (see Wikipedia). His writings are used as part of the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary.

You can read the original prayer that the Holy Father recited in an article about it. But be prepared to be jolted yet again if you are not familiar with the most florid expressions of Catholic Marian piety. I reiterate what I stated above: if these things trouble you, it is a time for you to start from scratch and learn the basis of this sort of Marian piety in Catholic spirituality. Resolve to learn, not to judge. That is my advice, for whatever it is worth. The newest person on a sports team does not immediately start judging the actions and decisions and rationales of the coach, does he? Is it not his place to be quiet and to learn a bit before taking on the coach (if he ever does so)?

First of all, like all truly authentic Marian piety, this prayer is not without many references to Jesus Christ, Whose ultimate authority as God is always presupposed and deeply ingrained in the consciousness of Catholics who are also devoted to Mary. When one presupposes something they do not always mention it again and again. Outsiders may misunderstand and think that the assumed thing that is not always mentioned in every other sentence, is therefore, denied, but that doesn't follow, logically, at all. That said, here are some references to Jesus in the prayer:

. . . redeemed through the blood of our sweet Jesus . . .

. . . That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. . . . [four times, recurring in the prayer]

. . . we, . . . are the first who crucify Jesus in our hearts . . .

. . . the testament of our dying Redeemer. And this testament of a God, sealed with the blood of a Man-God, appointed thee our Mother, the Mother of sinners. Thus, as our Mother, thou art our Advocate and our Hope.

. . . yet wound the loving heart of thy Son.

Did not Jesus entrust to thy hands all the treasures of his graces and mercies?

The divine Child we behold on thy knees, . . .

Certainly no Protestant could object to any of these references to Jesus. They're in there, and they can't be dismissed and discounted. I can see that probably the most controversial passage in the prayer would be the line:

Thou art almighty by grace, and therefore thou canst save us.

Before anyone drops dead from shock, this is perfectly explainable in an orthodox, biblical sense. The language of "save" is (as I have shown above) perfectly biblical. The Bible teaches that God uses His creatures to distribute His grace, that always originates from Him and He alone. Paul uses the same language.

Catholics believe that God uses Mary in the distribution of grace, even for all graces received (yes, that is firm, longstanding Catholic doctrine, reaffirmed by all recent popes: just not yet defined at the very highest dogmatic level). God can do that if He so chooses. It is neither impossible nor contrary to the Bible, nor denigrating of God. It is, we believe in faith, how God chose to act. Here one who is just starting to explore Catholic Mariology, needs to take a deep breath, relax, and read a few elementary, prerequisite treatments of the topic. I have provided a few of those myself (in addition to the two I mentioned above):

Catholic Marian Doctrines: A Brief Biblical Primer

Is Mary Worshiped by Catholics? (The Latria / Dulia Distinction)

A Biblical and Theological Primer on Mary Mediatrix

Human, Pauline, and Marian Distribution of Divine Graces: Not an "Unbiblical" Notion After All?

"Why Do Catholics 'Pray to Mary'?" (+ Discussion)

Those who want to pursue the topic in greater depth can read many more papers on my Blessed Virgin Mary web page.

I've written about the language of "almighty" as applied to Mary before, but I'm having difficulty finding it. No matter; I remember the argument. The definition of the word "almighty" is not limited to reference to God alone, as literally all-powerful. It can also have a second meaning of "great power." For example, Merriam-Webster online, gives as a second definition:

relatively unlimited in power almighty board of directors> b: having or regarded as having great power or importance almighty dollar>

Note that in the prayer, Mary is "almighty by grace," which precisely expresses that whatever power she has comes from God, by grace. God needs no grace; only His creatures do, including Mary, who was saved by her immaculate conception, by the sheer grace of God. God gives her extraordinary grace to be very powerful ("almighty" in the second permitted sense of the word). confirms the above, in its first entry, from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2006):

2. having very great power, influence, etc.: The almighty press condemned him without trial.

So this becomes a simple matter of understanding the language, and the permitted latitude in language, according to dictionary definition. But people often see what they want to see, don't they?: according to their predispositions coming in. Many Protestants who see this (already hampered by a highly distorted notion of what Catholics believe about Mary) will immediately conclude that Mary is being equated with God, and given power that only He has (omnipotence). They do the same in how they interpret our asking Mary to pray for us. That is simply not the case. And if they don't give Catholics the least benefit of the doubt, then they will continue on with their distortions and calumnies.

There seems to be some fundamental objection also, to referring to Mary's "heart." But that is derived from the longstanding Catholic pious tradition of devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary (see the Catholic Encyclopedia article on that), which was highly developed over centuries, from an implicit biblical basis in passages like the following:

Luke 2:16-19 And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.

Luke 2:35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul [heart in some translations] also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed."

Luke 2:51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.

The devotion is analogous to the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus (see Catholic Encyclopedia article). St. Paul refers to his own "heart" in similar fashion, in several passages:

Romans 9:2-3 . . . I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.

Romans 10:1 Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.

2 Corinthians 2:4 For I wrote you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.

2 Corinthians 6:11 Our mouth is open to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide.

2 Corinthians 7:3 I do not say this to condemn you, for I said before that you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together.

(cf. Acts 21:13)

Therefore, one could speak of Paul, based on explicit biblical data, in much the same way as Mary, referring to his "saving" of others, and of returning to his "heart" -- that is, to conform to his will, just as he urged his followers to imitate him (1 Cor 4:16; Phil 3:17; 2 Thess 3:7-9), as he imitated Christ (1 Cor 11:1; 1 Thess 1:6).

* * *

All I'm saying, basically, is that someone just coming into a worldview will likely not understand some of its most complex points. That (itself self-evident, I think) would seem to me to call for an approach of a bit more reluctance to make the strong criticisms that we have seen: against the pope, no less. It's okay to not understand and even to disagree at this point, but please understand that these are complex matters and have a full justification from a Catholic perspective. That is the point I was trying to make. Sometimes we apologists gotta say things that are a little difficult for others to hear. Part of the job.

As the "novice" coming in, it is proper, I think, to realize that a person that much more wise would obviously have a good reason for what he says, and we can recognize that we may not yet know or fully understand what that reason would be. The Marian doctrines are all solidly established over many centuries. But the least we owe the Holy Father is to understand why he might say such a thing, and not to presume without any analysis and examination that he was saying or believing some awful, indefensible notion.

It's an issue of where the lines should be drawn, and how to properly disagree, within a Catholic framework. This is stuff where new and prospective Catholics have a lot to learn: quite understandably so. I'm not blaming anyone for being an inexperienced Catholic or insufficiently aware of "Catholic stuff." That would be silly. I'm simply calling for a restraint and a recognizing that this is probably the case: over-dogmatism is not commensurate with being new in any given thing or environment. That was my analogy to a sports coach: saying that the rookie on the team doesn't start telling the coach what to do.

I'm saying that anyone struggling with Catholic Marian doctrines (and they are legion!) should also take the time to learn more about why Catholics use this sort of language about Mary. No one has to be in the dark. There is plenty of material out there. I've tried to do some of that educating in this thread, which is my job. non-Catholics can disagree with it. But those considering conversion need to understand that the prayer is Catholic, and is part of the faith that they would be adopting, should they decide to become Catholic. The Holy Father was not mistaken at all, within the framework of Catholic orthodoxy.

That may bother and offend and alarm some folks; it may even set them back on their journey towards the Catholic Church, for all I know, but I can't sit here and pretend that it is not part of orthodox Catholic faith. It is. I would be negligent of my duty as a Catholic teacher if I denied that. Any possible convert can choose to learn more about it and perhaps be convinced of it or not. They're not obliged to engage in every form of Catholic Marian piety even after they are Catholics, or to say the Rosary, or say any Marian prayer if they don't want to.

Apologists and catechists and priests and anyone who is sharing the Catholic faith are, however, duty-bound to accurately explain what a convert is "in for" once they become Catholic (doctrine-wise). Some things are far more complex and take more time to grasp (Mariology being the classic case) but if we don't try to explain Mariology when questions come up we are guilty of selling someone a bill of goods, when they are considering conversion. I don't see the point of trying to do "Catholic Lite" or "Protestantizing" the faith to make it more palatable to Protestants.

I myself use lots of Scripture in my apologetics because that is what Protestants can relate to, and I love to study the Bible in the first place, but I never attempt to water down the faith or not say what it teaches, if asked. This is one such occasion. And that is because I believe that the entirety of the Catholic faith (not all actions of Catholics for all time) can be reasonably defended, and shown to be completely harmonious with the Bible.

If "checking my mind at the door" had been a requirement of Catholicism, I would never have become Catholic myself. I was quite happy as an evangelical. I think my experience was that of folks like G.K. Chesterton and the vast majority of Catholic converts: we were challenged in our minds far more deeply than we ever were as Protestants. I have learned far more about the depths of Scripture, too, than I ever did as a Protestant. The liberation and the joy (even intellectually) come with the realization that Catholicism is profoundly true. What is true will never shackle the human mind. To the contrary, it liberates and illumines it to the highest degree.