Boundaries and God’s Church


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From time to time our friend Bosco tells us that Catholics believe that their Church is the only real Church. This is not quite accurate. We certainly believe it is the Church Christ founded, but we believe that the Orthodox Church, although not in communion with us, is also a valid church; we believe that other Chrisian communities also have in them, to a greater or lesser extent, something of the true faith. The question of orthodoxy is one which has occupied the Church from the beginning. It is precisely what Apostles such as John, Paul and Jude, as well as St. Peter himself, concerned themselves with. Those who ‘preached another Gospel’ are not to be received. Even in Apostolic times, as we can see from St. John’s Epistles, it was not easy to assert authority or orthodoxy. One of the main themes of the history of the early Church us the working out of this problem.

That someone as wealthy and influential in the very early church as Marcion was excommunicated, shows that there was a mechanism for determining authority; that there were still Marcionists a couple of centuries later, shows how difficult it was to maintain unity. It also bore witness to another theme of our history – the extreme difficulty of securing reunion once communion is broken. It is 1600 years since Chalcedon, and the distance between the Oriental Orthodox and the Catholic Church is not wide in theological terms; historically it is a chasm which is probing next to impossible to bridge. The two sets of Orthodox cannot agree, either. For all the efforts of the ecumenists, it is hard to point to a schism which has been healed.

It was to deal with such matters that the Ecumenical movement was formed. But it has tended to proceed on the assumption that the tent must be big enough and the compromises wide enough to comprehend just about everyone. In turn, that has led conservatives in all churches to regard ecumenism as a dirty word, synonymous with syncretism. The urge to find a common ground of agreement has too often led to a search for the lowest common denominator – and few will follow there.

Pope Benedict was true ecumenist,he offered the oloive branch to the SSPX, he made overtures to the Orthodox, and he established the Ordinariate. All of this was real ecumenism – offering those interested in the Church the chance to get to know it better, and, if possible to be fully part of it. The Pope is the one Bishop who, historically, has been recognised as the first among equals. Only Rome can offer a real ecumenism, and it behoves her to behave, as she did under the last Pope, in a manner which shows that the father always welcomes the prodigal home – and no fatted calf is safe when then happens.

One of the most common misunderstandings by those outside the Church concerns the degree to which the faithful can believe what th Church has not explicitly approved. Because of the ‘black legend’ and the nonsense propagated by those who do not even know they are influenced by it, there is a view which holds that unless the Church has explcitly approved a devotion or belief, Catholics cannot practice it. Exactly the opposite applies. Until and unless the Church explicitly disapproves a devotion or belief, the faithful are free to hold it. Those who see in ecumenism a deliberate attempt at syncretism are free to hold that belief, but it is not the teaching of the Church. The Church holds the fulness of the truth, but it does not own it, it is happy to share it with all who want to receive it; it is, after all, a Church and not a museum.


Declaration of Faith in the Sacrament of Marriage

I have largely kept silence in respect of the present abominable Sex Synod, for two reasons: 1) I need to look after my health, 2) people who seek to pervert doctrine on account of their own attachment to mortal sin cannot be reasoned with. Language in their hands is a weapon, not a medium for communicating Truth.

It will do simply to restate the Church’s teaching on the Sacrament of Marriage, and various sins against it, for the edification of dear brothers and sisters in Christ and the condemnation of the wicked.


We believe:

  1. That marriage is the union of one man and one woman, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, for the procreation of children and the companionship and mutual help of the spouses. (Genesis 2:23-25)
  2. That the Second Person of the Most Blessed and Undivided Trinity Incarnate elevated marriage between baptised persons to the dignity of a Sacrament. (Eph. 5:32)
  3. That according to Our Lord’s solemn injunction whoever divorces his lawfully wedded spouse and marries another commits adultery (Luke 16:18).
  4. That the bond of sacramental marriage, duly ratified and consummated, can in no wise be severed by any human power, even if it be the Pope, but only by death. (Mark 10:9)
  5. That neither can the bond of natural marriage be severed, save in favour of the faith, that is, by the action of God. (1 Cor. 7:12-15)
  6. That any decree purporting to effect a divorce absolute, except in such cause, is invalid.
  7. That any decree of nullity issued concerning a marriage sacramental duly ratified and consummated is invalid.
  8. That any person wittingly issuing or procuring such a decree is suspect of heresy, an adulterer, and commits a sacrilege.


Further, we believe:

  1. That sodomy is a sin crying out to heaven for vengeance, and an abomination. (Gen. 18:20, Lev. 20:13)
  2. That bestiality is an abomination (Lev. 20).
  3. That simple fornication is a mortal sin (Eph. 5:5).
  4. That adultery is a mortal sin (Lev. 20:10, Ex. 20:14).
  5. That Onanism, namely, any wilful attempt to frustrate the marital act in its procreative end, is a mortal sin (Gen. 38:9-10).
  6. That incestuous unions are not lawful or valid, and wilful incest is a mortal sin (Lev. 20:9-21 passim).

Cursed be he that lieth with mankind as with womankind. Amen.
Cursed be he that lieth with any beast. Amen.
Cursed be the adulterer and  the fornicator. Amen.
Cursed be he that lieth with any of his kindred within the lawful degree of affinity. Amen.
Cursed be he that spilleth his seed contrary to the order of nature. Amen.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Prosperity Gospel?


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The 12

One of the most puzzling phenomena of modern Christianity for me is the idea of the ‘prosperity Gospel’. The notion that giving your life to Christ can, in any way, bring profit in the secular world seems both a perversion of what Our Lord promised, and something of a delusion; but it was there from the beginning.

When the first Apostles said their momentous ‘yes’ to His summons, they could have had no idea what they were in for. That exemplar of Jewish mothers, the wife of Zebedee, wanted to know that it would all be worthwhile for her precious sons, James and John. But Christ promised her nothing, speaking, as so often, in words which would be understood fully only after the Resurrection. He asked whether they would be prepared to undergo the same baptism and drink of the same cup – to which they all said an easy ‘yes‘.It is plain enough that they had no idea what they were promising, as they all set to arguing which of them would be greatest in the kingdom of God; men do not follow Messiahs to make sacrifices, but rather to gain rewards.

Do we recognise ourselves there at all? Not just in the obvious, and very human, preoccupation with status, but in the swiftness and the optimism of our promise? After all, what was it the Apostles got? James was killed, as were Peter and Andrew, and of them all, only John seems to have survived to a good old age. They lived lives of hardship which ended in violent death at the hands of their enemies. Like the Son of Man, they gave their lives for the ransom of many.

Silver and gold was there none. St. Paul, famously, paid his own way, although insisting that the labourer was worthy of his hire. But we are told that ‘the world is passing away, and the lust of it’, although we, like the Apostles, seem firmly attached to it and its rewards. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, so he tells us too, the world in its present form is ‘passing away’.

Yet we are creatures of this world. It is the only one we know, and perhaps it was as well for the Apostles, as it is for us, not to know the full implications of our promises to the Lord’s Christ. let us be contnt with Newman, to say – ‘I do not ask to see the distant scene – one step enough for me.’

In the end, the Faith which compels our ‘yes’, compels what follows it – and we must trust to the strength to bear whatever Cross He asks of us. Bode’s wonderful hymn sums it up: ‘My hope to follow duly is in Thy strength alone.’ It is all too easy to think that our faith gives is strength to persevere, but it does so only in so far as we stand in Him.

The Gospel is foolishness to those who have not received its message. What is this – a crucified Messiah? If, as we say, He is omnipotent, then why did he hang and siffer there for us? Why did he not come down from the Cross and with the Angel host show us the fulness of his power? It was not because he could not, it was because he would not. If we are to enter into the kingdom, we have to understand that, and know that he is the way, the truth and the light, and though we cannot know the way, we can follow him.

The nature of God


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Geoffrey’s recent posts on the nature of God, and our several reflections on heaven and hell and love, prompt some further thoughts on what can be known about the ineffable – that is God and his nature.

We have to begin by acknowledging that the moment we think we have captured that nature, whatever it is we have captured is not God; St Paul was right about seeing through a glass darkly. But from Scripture, and most of all from the self-revelation we get through the Incarnation, we can put together some thoughts.

Every now and then someone on a newspaper blog or an Internet site will weigh in with the ‘your God is a monster’ assertion. This will be followed by various Old Testament verses designed to show God is a vengeful tribal god who wants his enemies slaughtered and who rewards his people with victory and spoil. It must be admitted that there are times when some of the OT writers seem to have seen him as such – but the record does not suggest that that is what he is – the fate of the Jews, and indeed of the Christians over the centuries does not suggest a one on one correlation between believing in God and prosperity.

There are certainly Christians who will advance the idea that since God can punish us, we should worship him – a form of preemptive cringe. But there is no sign that that is what God wants from us, and if he did, it becomes impossible to imagine why he should have sent Christ into the world as he did; it becomes equally difficult to account for Christ’s mission if fear were sufficient to win us for God.

In all of this there is something about the individual reading of Scripture which is off-kilter. It is almost possible to understand why, in the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, catechumens were not allowed to read the Sacred Texts. This was not, as some people would have it, because priests were trying to keep knowledge from the people, but rather the result of the belief that, read without proper catechesis, people would misunderstand what they were reading;it is hard in the age of the Internet not to thik they had a point.

The Old Testament must be read in the light of the New Testament. If we take it purely in its own terms, we read it as faithful Jews might. But we are not devotees of Judaism, we are Christians and, oddly enough, we are able to distinguish between what the Jews of old believed about God with the self-revelation offered in the NT. So, whilst it was natural for those Jews to see the Father as a vengeful tribal God, that reflected their own limitations, not those of God. Only in the Christian revelation do we see something more of His True Nature.

Christ did not save us by coming in Power and smiting His enemies, but by being the suffering servant who took on Himself our sins. That is the Christian God, and that is why we believe in Him, love Him, and worship Him.



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With the Synod on the family about to start, already the rumour mill is doing overtime with conspiracy theories. It was, alas, ever thus, although in times past it was only among the bishops and senior clergy, and most of the faithful got to know about it, if at all, years later.  If we look for a moment at the first great schism in the Church, we shall see how it was them.

In A.D. 451 at Chalcedon, the Fathers of the Oriental Orthodox argued that the Council had agreed to a definition of the Two natures of Our Lord which was novel (in that it needed the use of new, and non-Biblical language to define it); they declined to accept it. Over the next century and a half, despite many efforts, the split proved impossible to heal and goes on to this day. The Oriental Orthodox argue that they have changed nothing; it is everyone else who has added to the ‘faith once received’. In the end this, as with all theological arguments, comes down to a question of authority: who defines what is orthodox and by what right?

The Orthodox, Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian, argue for the Monarchical bishop on the Ignatian model; where the people are gathered around the Bishop, there the Church is. But what happens when Bishops fail to agree on points of doctrine and dogma? That question was regularly asked and answered in the early Church; a Council would decide. But as Chalcedon showed, there were limitations in that – what did you do when a whole section of the Church rejected the majority view? That question has never been answered.

The Catholic Church, whatever shortcomings are laid to its charge, has an answer to the question: in the final analysis the Pope is the arbiter; he speaks with the authority given to St. Peter by Our Lord Himself. Leaving aside, for now, those Churches and ecclesial communities which reject such a view, the question arises as to why the Catholic Church itself is beset with dissident groups?

In an article in the Daily Telegraph, Peter Stanford collected a set of dissident voices and assembled them into a piece questioning the whole Curia and the Pope. Those quoted, including a journalist who cried when Benedict XVI was elected, represent a not insignificant number of British Catholics whose attitude towards much of the teaching of their own Church appears close to contempt. They don’t like opposition to women priests, gay marriage, they do like opposition to celibacy and an all-male priesthood. Quite how this differs from much Protestantism seems hard for me to tell; it bears the main hall-mark of it – dissent from the authority of the Pope. All that has now changed for them is that the current Pope seems, to them, to be in agreement with some of their agenda. That he is not in complete agreement is something they tend to disregard, but which may be significant all the same.

No doubt such people would regard their dissent as ‘licit’, even as those in the SSPX would also apply that therm to themselves; has there ever been a religious dissenter who regarded himself as ‘illicit’? If, as is the case in the Catholic Church, there is a clear authority which decides this question, what are we to make of those who glory in the name of Catholic but disregard it? Are those who once supported the Pope in the form of St John Paul II and Benedict XVI now to swap places with the Stanfords of this world?

Gospel: 27th week in OT: Year B

Sermon on the Mount

Mark 10:2-16

Tertullian begins by pointing out that God could have given Adam and infinite number of partners, but he gave him just the one, thus enshrining the law of monogamy in our very origins. One man and one woman, that is the relationship which the church cements in marriage. As Origen tells us, the mystery of the one man and the one woman becoming one flesh is viewed, by analogy, to the joining of God and humanity in the Incarnation. St Augustine adds that it is also the protoype of the union between Christ and the Church.

Clement of Alexandria commented that guilt in divorce lay not only with the man who initiated the divorce, but also to the man who took on a divorced woman – a second marriage is ‘veiled adultery’, Athenagoras adds. The tempter promotes a more permissive view of marriage and remarriage, but this is not what Christ tells us.

Both woman and man are equally bound by their marriage vows, and no further union is possible without the implication of adultery, St Augustine wrote. God created marriage, and as the union of one man and one woman is from God, for divorce is of the devil. Divorce is allowed only for adultery, since it means that one or more of the two never wished to preserve conjugal fidelity.

Origen commented that Jesus was not vexed when he was challenged by deceptive questioners who were really hoping to trap him; he was always able to turn the tables.

Heaven and Hell


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We’ve given a good run this week to questions about hell – and by implication, heaven. I think we’ve no choice other than to accept the position we’ve outlined that God alone knows who goes to hell, but I think we have given a good answer to those who argue that God must be a sadist for sending people to hell. That, we have suggested, is the choice of the individual, and it might well be, a C suggests, that for a proud and inveterate sinner, the sight of God’s mercy would, itself, be a form of hell. We know only that God’s mercy is without limit, and that his love is infinite – he loved us first; but not everyone will respond to that love, and those who don’t may well wish to blame others for their eventual plight.

Less has been said about heaven, and that’s not surprising, since we know even less about it. At the end of time, as I read it, Jesus will come again to the living and the dead and his kingdom will be established. I don’t read what the Bible says as implying some place in the sky with us all in night-shirts with wings. We are told we, and everything will be transformed, and we look forward to living in God’s presence for ever more; for that to be at all possible, we shall indeed have to have been transformed into that image of God in which we were made, so I am assuming that, too. But I can imagine that about as well as I can God – which is to say through a glass darkly.

Bosco responded to my post on ‘What is the point of Christianity’ with this: ‘Saved is short for”saved from the wrath of the great and terrible God’. I am sure he speaks for many here, and he would once have spoken for me, but no more. The ‘great and terrible’ God is omnipotent. He could have ‘saved’ us anyway he chose – if not, he’s not God because he’s not omnipotent. He did not choose to save us by coming down in all his terrible glory and making it perfectly plain to us that we either followed his commands or we went to hell. He could have done that, and given what is at stake – the eternal salvation of his children – we might well wonder why he didn’t? An appearance every generation or so and surely all but the most recidivist among us would be there saying ‘yes. God, I will do as I am told.’ But we’d be doing that because we were frightened. What father among us would want our children to do as they were told because they were frightened of our wrath. This line of thinking is why Dawkins and others think there is something wrong with Christianity and Christians, and if that was why I obeyed God’s precepts, they’d be right.

I obey them because I know God loves me and wants what is best for me. I know from simple observation that if I do what he wants, it is good for me and those I love, and that departing from them tends to lead to trouble. I am grateful that he will forgive my foolish ways when I err, but if I thought I was doing his will out of fear, I would wonder what sort of heaven it would be to spend eternity with such a being? But then such a being would not have become incarnate and been crucified, so I shall dwell with the Lord, and hope that at the end he will receive me.

The world and the Pope


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pope in philly

The temptation to remind us that Jesus said the world would hate his disciples, and then comment on the disjunction between that and the Pope’s reception in America, has not always been resisted, and, with the Synod on the Family almost upon us, one can almost touch the tension; whatever the Pope’s achievements, making his flock feel as though they were safe from wolves appears not to be one of them. We should, I think, beware of seeing things in terms of the American ‘culture wars’ however tempting that is. To say that a man opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage is a ‘liberal’ is a strange definition of that word. It would be a brave person who said they knew precisely what the Pope wants on the issue of marriage, but in so far as I can work it out, it looks rather as though he’d like to make it less difficult for people to get a decision on whether their failed marriage was valid or not, whilst tightening up on marriage preparation; that might not pleases everyone, but it seems an over-reaction ot see it as Catholic approval of divorce; but then over-reaction is something Pope Francis attracts in the way wild flowers do honey bees.

Everything we see of the Pope is through the media, and the media always has its own agenda; that he speaks in Spanish and that the media in pretty illiterate when it comes to Catholic teching, all combine to make the problem of public perception even more difficult. It seems unfair to criticise Francis for talking about the need for ‘love’ and ‘mercy’ by saying the Church has always preached that, when nothing he has said implies the opposite. It would be equally unbalanced to say that the Church has always practised what it preached; much as those of us here who are Catholics dislike the tone of much that Bosco says about the Church, it is a reminder that some of the things it has done has made such smears easier to believe.

Would it be better for the Church if the Pope were hated and despised? It would, I suppose, depend on what he was being hated for? Those committed to a totalitarian view of same-sex marriage will continue to hate the Pope because he upholds Catholic teachin; the same will be true of those hoping for women priests (not, one would have thought, a hugely popular cause outside Catholics of a certain age?) or for Catholic approval of divorce. Whatever alarmists claim, these things are not going to happen; they cannot as they run counter to the teaching of the Church.

Is it possible, as in the area of declarations of nulluty, to make changes which might be helpful from a pastoral point of view? Yes, it is, and if there are other areas, then the Church has a duty to explore them and to see what can be done. The world has changed, and the pressures it puts on ordinary Catholics are greater in some ways than ever before. Divorce is at an all-time high, family life more complex, and the temptations to which people are exposed likewise. For the Church to react by adapting to these things by accepting them, would be wrong; but it would be wrong for it not to consider how to react to the places in which so many Catholics find themselves. If it is mindful of its own failures in catechesis, that will help.

So yes, it is easy and tempting to imagine that if the world seems to love the Pope, the Pope must be wrong, but we should resist temptation.

Spiritual hunger?


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St Isaac sand

It is clear enough that in the West the tide of Christian faith is ebbing – and equally clear that in Africa and Asia it is rising. But that does not mean that people in the West are only interested in materialism – as a quick tour of any book shop will show you. There are growing sections dealing with ‘spirituality’, and it is not only in Hollywood that Buddhism is fashionable; the vogue for ‘eastern mysticism’ or ‘new age spirituality’ shows little sign of waning. But how many of those who slake their appetites here really know much about the true aastern mysticism which has been engrafted in the West these many millennia? Christianity did not originate in the West. As Betjeman’s poem, ‘Christmas’ reminds us, no earthy pleasures ‘Can with this single Truth compare / That God was man in Palestine / And lives today in Bread and Wine’. Yet how many of us read the Christian mystics which are part of our tradition?

One of my own favourites, and I passed the taste on to Jessica is St. Isaac of Nineveh, (or the Syrian). A seventh century hermit who was briefly a bishop (and gave it up for the good reason he felt it took him further from God), his writings have survived and been translated by the great Syriac scholar, Sebastian Brock. But they are not readily available. The Russian Orthodox bishop and scholar, Hilarion Alfayev, has produced an excellent study, full of good quotations here:   There is a good website here:

St. Isaac understood, as perhaps few have, the depths of what St. John meant when he wrote that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8):

If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe Himself in the body in order to bring the world back to His Father using gentleness and humility? And why was He stretched out on the Cross for the sake of sinners, handing over His sacred body to suffering on behalf of the world? I myself say that God did all this for no other reason, except to make known to the world the love that He has, His aim being that we, as a result of our greater love arising from an awareness of this, might be captivated by His love when He provided the occasion of this manifestation of the kingdom of heaven’s mighty power – which consists in love – by means of the death of His Son

It is our response to this love which God seeks to draw forth. We come to Him because He loved us first, not because we fear Hell. As Mar Isaac reminds us: ‘Among all God’s actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us.’ [Part II, chapter xxxix, 22]

Mar Isaac come close to universalism, but stops short, simply saying that in the end we cannot be sure who will and who will not be saved, or, indeed, know that we will not all be in heaven, with the sinful experiencing it as hell – the burning that comes from being in God’s presence – and hating it because to them his perfect love is unbearable. They perceive all things in their image, and to their eyes, a God who is perfect love and mercy is not what they wanted from their God. It is an interesting speculation – and Mar Isaac claims no more for it than that. But he reminds us that there were all sorts of ways God could have redeemed us – but none which would have shown us how powerful his love was than by sacrificing his only Son for our sin. Love that immense should, and can, call from us a response of love.


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