In case you missed it, I had a blast on “At Home With Jim and Joy” on EWTN. I was able to share a bit about my conversion story, the Blessed Mother and more. Check it out here:
To say there is confusion and misrepresentation among non-Catholics on the topic of Indulgences may well qualify as the proverbial “understatement of the year.” In this post, we are going to consider four of these misapprehensions. But first, we need to understand the truth concerning Indulgences. CCC 1471 gives a succinct definition:
An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.
An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.
The theology of Indulgences is rooted in four very biblical notions.
1. Sins that are forgiven by God may still require temporal punishment. This is a matter of common sense as well as it is a matter of Public Revelation. For example, if one of my sons were to put a rock through the window of our house, I would forgive him of this transgression as soon as he expresses sorrow. However, in justice, and for my son’s good, I would require him to repay the cost of the damage. This would serve to teach him of the serious nature of his actions as well as the damage that disobedience causes. Moreover, in the process of working to earn the money to pay for what he has done and in giving up some of that hard-earned cash, he will become a more virtuous person.
I use the analogy of my relationship with my sons for a reason. In Scripture, we find that God is revealed to be our Father who disciplines us—his children.
[God, the Father] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:10-11).
The Greek text indicates that this discipline of God, the Father, leads to the fruit of justification (Gr.—dikaiosunes). This suffering imposed by God is part of the very process of justification where the believer is finally made just and worthy of heaven.
King David is perhaps the classic example of just what we are talking about. In II Samuel 11-12, we read the sad tale of how David committed the sins of murder and adultery, but then later acknowledges his sin and repents. In 12:13, the prophet Nathan declares to David:
The Lord has put away your sin, you shall not die.
Notice, David’s sins were forgiven, yet that same prophet also declared:
Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife… Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun… because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die (II Sam. 12:10-14).
This is some pretty severe punishment to be sure, but you’ll notice it is temporal by nature, not eternal.
Later in his life, after having reflected upon all that happened to him, this same King David would write in Psalm 119:71: “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn thy statutes.” The temporal punishment imposed by God upon him, he knew, was for his own growth in virtue—for his own good.
2. The People of God have always been understood in Scripture to be able and responsible to make atonement for the temporal punishment due not only to their own sins, but they can also aid others in this purification process as well. Proverbs 16:6 says, “By loyalty and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for…” That text could hardly be clearer. Moreover, St. Paul says, in Colossians 1:24,
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church…
The “iniquity” mentioned as being able to be atoned for cannot be mortal sin. Even one mortal sin against an infinitely holy God requires an infinite expiation. Only the infinitely meritorious sacrifice of Christ can expiate this sin. The implication here is temporal punishment can be atoned for, with God’s help, by our own prayers and sacrifices, or as Proverbs 16:6 said, “by loyalty and faithfulness…”
Colossians 1:24 adds our sufferings as efficacious in remitting punishment due for sins in the lives of others as well. This is an important factor in the doctrine of the Communion of Saints that underlies the Catholic and biblical notion of Indulgences. As members of the body of Christ, we have the power to effect healing in one another when it comes to sins and faults that are not mortal.
I John 5:16-17 explains it this way:
If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.
Notice, St. John says one Christian can ask and God will communicate “life” (Gr.—zo-ay, which refers to the divine life of God communicated to the believer through grace) to the one who sinned as long as the sin was not mortal. This is true because the one who sins mortally would be cut off from the body of Christ and there would be no way to communicate healing directly to the one who sinned mortally.
This really makes sense when we consider the metaphor of the “body” St. Paul uses for the People of God in both I Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. If one member of a body, let’s say a hand, is wounded, the rest of the body will immediately and organically affect healing in the wounded part. So it is by analogy with the “Body of Christ.” If one member is wounded the rest of the body can affect healing by virtue of the fact that “the body” is organically linked, so to speak, as members of the same body. St. John says we, as members of Christ, can communicate “life” or healing to the wounded member through our prayers.
But notice, St. John also says if the person commits mortal sin, “I do not say that one is to pray for that.” St. John would hardly be commanding non-prayer in any sense. Jesus tells us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” in Matt. 5:44. St. Paul tells us to “pray for all men” in I Tim. 2:1. His point is we cannot pray for and directly affect healing in the one who is in mortal sin because he is cut off from the divine life that flows from member to member in the Body of Christ. Of course, we can pray the one cut off from Christ in mortal sin be restored to Christ through the particular grace of repentance.
3. There is nothing in Scripture indicating this communication of divine life between members of the Body of Christ ceases at the end of life on earth. Indeed, if there is need for purification at the time of death, this purification must occur in order for the Christian to attain heaven (see Matt. 5:48; Heb. 12:14). II Maccabees 12:46 is a great example from the Old Testament that this purification can in fact continue in the next life:
Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead that they might be delivered from their sin.
Many Protestants will respond claiming this text is meaningless because they do not accept II Maccabees as Scripture. But really, that is beside the point. Even if one does not accept its canonicity, as an historical document, it provides accurate information about the life and faith of the Jewish people shortly before the advent of Christ, and specifically, that they already believed they could pray for the dead to be forgiven. Or, as II Maccabess 12:39-46 says it,
Judas and his men… turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out… [Judas Maccabeus] also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering…
The Jews believed that the sacrificial offerings of members of the People of God could “wholly blot out” the sins of those who had died. This makes all the more significant Jesus words in Matt. 12:32:
And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
Not only do we simply have nothing in Scripture that condemns this common practice of ancient Jews—a practice, by the way, that continues to this day in Orthodox Jewish circles—but Jesus himself implies this to be a good and pious practice.
4. The Church, through the ministry of the forgiveness of sins communicated to her by Jesus Christ himself, has the power to remit not only the eternal consequences of sin through the Sacrament of Confession, but also the temporal punishment due for sin through Indulgences. In John 20:21-23, in the plainest of terms, Jesus communicated his power to forgive sins to the apostles:
Jesus said to [the apostles] again, “Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
In Matt. 16:18-19, Jesus promised the authority of the keys of the kingdom to St. Peter as well as the authority to “bind and loose.” Two chapters later, in Matt. 18:18, he promised the power to “bind and loose” to all of the apostles in union with Peter. This authority of “binding and loosing” involves not only a declatory power in defining the faith of Christians, but it also involves restoring the fallen to full communion with God and the Church in the forgiveness of sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares:
(1444) In imparting to his apostles his own power to forgive sins the Lord also gives them the authority to reconcile sinners with the Church. This ecclesial dimension of their task is expressed most notably in Christ’s solemn words to Simon Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” “The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of the apostles united to its head.”
(1445) The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.
One way to understand the Church’s authority to remit temporal punishment due to sin is via a fortiori argumentation. This is an argument that says, “If X is true, then how much more is Y also true.” Both Jesus and St. Paul use this type of argumentation (see Matt. 6:25-34; Luke 11:13; Romans 5:8-10; 8:31-32; 11:22, etc.).
Thus, if Jesus Christ gave his Church the power to forgive mortal sins and the eternal punishment due to these sins, how much more would that same Church be able to forgive the merely temporal punishments due to sin.
1. The Catholic Church teaches (or has taught) Indulgences not only remit sins, but they can remit sins before the fact. And for a price, of course! Thus, this first point really covers two misconceptions: 1) Indulgences remit sins before the sin is committed. 2) You can buy Indulgences.
Several years ago, my wife and I watched a video put out by “New Liberty Videos” called “The Forbidden Book,” a hit-piece targeting the Catholic Church, wherein the narrator presents a document allegedly written by Pope Leo X cataloguing various prices the Roman Pontiff declared one had to pay to the Church for Indulgences so that one could freely sin without guilt! For a price, you could (among other things, I just jotted down a few of them):
• Ravish a Virgin – $2
• Kill a man – $1.75
• If a priest, keep a mistress or concubine – $2.75
Or, how about this one?
• To be absolved of all sins whatsoever – $12.00
What a deal!
Of course, this list is a complete fraud. The folks at www.apologetica.org have several articles in English (it’s a Spanish-language site, but these articles are in English) that do an excellent job in exposing this fraud:
Unfortunately, these lies are found peppered across the board among anti-Catholic literature. So what is the truth of the matter?
First off, Indulgences do not even remit sins at all; they remit the temporal punishment due for sin. And, of course, this is only so after the sin has been committed and one has been forgiven of the guilt of that sin in Confession!
And just for the record: the Catholic Church does not teach and has never taught that one can “buy” Indulgences.
The confusion here is at least partially rooted in the fact that the Church used to grant what are referred to as “alms-Indulgences.” There is nothing inherently wrong with the practice; in fact, it is very much rooted in the Scriptures inasmuch as almsgiving has always been considered a meritorious and salvific act. It’s mentioned by Jesus himself in Luke 11:41:
But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you.
Jesus is here emphasizing alms must be given out of the right motivation in order to truly be meritorious before God.
In Acts 10:3-4, and 34-35, both the angel Gabriel and St. Peter combine to tell us that Cornelius’ alms were instruments whereby he merited from the Lord:
About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius”… “What is it, Lord?”… “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God…”
(34) And Peter opened his mouth and said: [with regard to Cornelius] “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”
Thus, almsgiving is still, as a matter of Faith, taught to be meritorious if done with the proper motives. However, there was confusion among some of the Catholic faithful in the late 15th and early 16th centuries with regard to Indulgences in relation to alms. The perception was, among some, that the act was a mere mechanical process. You give this, and you get this (the remission of temporal punishment due for sins), apart from the necessary predispositions that must be present. As a result, Pope St. Pius V eliminated “alms-Indulgences” in 1567. That discipline of the Church remains in force.
But this in no way means the Church once used to “sell” indulgences. That is a non-sequitur.
3. This misconception goes straight back to Martin Luther who, in his notorious “95 Theses,” no. 82, famously asked:
Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there…?
The question itself shows a rather childish understanding of Purgatory and Indulgences. That would be like saying, “If the Church can remit the eternal consequences of sin though the Sacrament of Penance, why doesn’t she just declare everyone in the world to be forgiven?”
The Church cannot do either because there are divinely mandated prerequisites that must be fulfilled before the Church can remit either sins or temporal punishment due for sins that have been forgiven.
In the case of Confession, one has to be sorry for his sins, confess his sins with a firm purpose of amendment to avoid sin in the future, and be absolved by a validly ordained priest, in order to have his sins forgiven.
In the case of Indulgences, one must perform whatever God through his Church prescribes as being necessary to gain an Indulgence. With regard to a plenary Indulgence, he must be detached from all sins both mortal and venial, pray for the intentions of the Pope, make a good Confession, and receive communion within about a week of performing the requirement for the Indulgence. If all of these requirements are not met, he would receive a partial Indulgence, in accord with his disposition at the time he performs the required works. So the Church just can’t say “whammo” and it’s done!
4. There is much confusion over the idea of numbers of “days” with regard to Indulgences. Jimmy Akin clears up the difficulty in his new book, The Drama of Salvation, (p. 74):
… in the past, a certain number of “days” were attached to many indulgences. These were not days off in Purgatory. Instead, they expressed the value of an indulgence by analogizing it to the number of days’ penance one would have done on Earth under the penitential practices of the early Church.
Moderns had lost touch with the ancient system, which made the reckoning of such “days” confusing. The practice was abolished in 1967 in Pope Paul VI’s constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina.
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How can Catholics claim “works” are necessary for salvation for Christians who have reached the age of accountability when Romans 3:28 says:
For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.
Romans 4:5 says:
And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.
And Ephesians 2:8-9 says:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast.
On the surface, these texts may sound problematic, but once we examine their respective contexts, the problems go away rather quickly. First, let’s take a look at the context surrounding Romans 3:28. St. Paul had already made very clear in Romans 2:6-7 that good works are necessary for eternal life, at least in one sense:
For [God] will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life…
One of the problems in Rome St. Paul was dealing with was a very prominent heresy known to us today as the “Judaizer” heresy. Those attached to this sect taught belief in Christ and obedience to the New Covenant was not enough to be saved. One had to keep the Law of Moses, especially circumcision, in order to merit heaven.
The problem with this teaching, of course, is, among other things, according to Hebrews 7:11-12, the old law has passed away in Christ:
Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further needtwould there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchiz’edek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.
According to this text, the law of Moses had passed away with the advent of Christ. Moreover, according to St. Paul, Christians are under the new law, or “the law of Christ,” not the old.
To those outside the law I became as one outside the law — not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ — that I might win those outside the law (I Cor. 9:21).
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2).
This is not to say that we have now exchanged one list of rules for another and if we follow a list of rules, apart from grace, we can be saved. Absolutely not! Following the letter of the law, even the new law, cannot save because as St. Paul says in II Cor. 3:6:
[God] has qualified us to be ministers of a new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit; for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.
We are bound to follow “the law of Christ” as St. Paul said in I Cor. 9:21, but we must understand that we are saved by grace through the instruments of faith and obedience. That obedience includes keeping the Ten Commandments, but the keeping of the commandments is an instrument—a necessary instrument—through which the grace of God flows and keeps us in Christ, the principle of reward for us. Thus, we have to keep the commandments to be saved, but we understand it is only through grace that we can do so.
At any rate, there is a great description of what was happening in the early church with these “Judaizers” in Acts 15:1-2:
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.
Notice the emphasis on “circumcision” and the law of Moses? St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans is steeped in responses to the positions of these same “Judaizers.” It becomes obvious St. Paul has them in mind when he says in Romans 2:28-29:
For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal…
It is very interesting to note that this same St. Paul would tell us that the true “circumcision of Christ” is New Covenant baptism in Colossians 2:11-12.
At any rate, it is in the context of dealing with the “Judaizers” that St. Paul says we are “justified by faith apart from the works of law.” He did not eliminate works as necessary for salvation in any sense. He specified the works of law because these were the very works without which the Judaizers were claiming a person “cannot be saved.”
At this point our Protestant friends may point out that Romans 4:5 does not specify “works of law.” It simply says, “to him who does not work, but believes…” And even more, what do you do with Romans 7:6-7 where St. Paul uses the ninth and tenth commandments as his example of “the law” that has passed away and cannot save? This is talking about “the Ten Commandments!” Would the Catholic Church say the Ten Commandments have passed away with the advent of Christ?
But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I should not have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”
How do we respond? First, it is true that St. Paul does not say works of law in Romans 4:5. But the context makes it very clear that St. Paul was referring to circumcision in particular and the same “works of law” he was referring to in Romans 3:28. Romans 3:28 down to Romans 4:5 represents one continuous thought in answering the Judaizers and their insistence upon circumcision and keeping the Old Covenant in order to be saved.
When it comes to Romans 7:6-7, we need to go a bit deeper in our response. St. Paul does use the ninth and tenth commandments as examples of “law” that cannot save us. St. Paul is using the example of the “Judaizers” to teach all of us a deeper truth about the nature of justification and works. The works that justify us (as we saw in Romans 2:6-7) are works done in Christ. When the “Judaizers” were insisting a return to the Old Covenant was necessary for salvation, they were, in essence, saying Christ and the New Covenant are not enough. And in so doing, they were ipso facto rejecting Jesus Christ and the New Covenant.
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” The “Judaizers” were attempting to be justified apart from Christ. St. Paul’s main emphasis is that we can only perform salvific acts in Christ! If we are not “in Christ”, even our outwardly “righteous deeds” will never and can never merit eternal life.
In other words, the law, whether old or new, cannot save us apart from the grace of Christ. In fact, St. Paul goes beyond declaring the keeping of the law alone cannot save us. He even says, in I Cor. 13:3:
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
The truth is, it is the grace of Christ alone that saves us by our cooperating with that grace in fulfilling the “law of Christ.” This is precisely what St. Paul teaches in Galatians 3:2-3, 5:2-6. And take note how he writes concerning these same “Judaizers:”
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh… (5:2) Now I Paul say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness (Gr. dikaiosune—justification). For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.
Notice St. Paul’s emphasis on our being in grace and our working through the Spirit and in Christ in order to remain in Christ. Back in Romans, St. Paul said it very similarly:
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. (Romans 5:1-2)
In Romans 6:16, St. Paul goes on to tell us that after baptism (cf. Romans 6:3-4) obedience to Christ (that means good works!) leads us to justification while sin (that means bad works!) will lead us to death:
Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death (Gr.—eis thanaton, “unto death”), or of obedience, which leads to righteousness (Gr.—eis dikaiosunen—unto justification).
Notice: St. Paul makes it very clear. Obedience leads to justification and eternal life while sin leads to eternal death (see also Romans 6:23). Thus, St. Paul’s emphasis is not just on works, but works done in and through the power of Christ. In Romans 8:1-14, St. Paul tells us in no uncertain terms that we must be in Christ and continuing to live our lives in Christ in order to do works that please God.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus… who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit… and those who are in the flesh cannot please God… So, then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God.
The key, again, is to remember St. Paul is emphasizing our continuing in Christ, or, in his grace or “kindness.” In Romans 11:22, he says it this way:
Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off.
Just so no one would get the wrong idea of what St. Paul was saying, it seems, he put it plain and simple in Galatians 5:19-21 and 6:7-9. There is no way we can get “justification by faith alone” that excludes works as necessary for justification in any and every sense if we read these texts carefully. St. Paul makes clear that if Christians allow themselves to be dominated by their “flesh,” or lower nature, they will not make it to heaven.
Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God… (6:7) Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption (eternal death); but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.
Here St. Paul teaches that through good works, or continuing to “sow to the Spirit,” we will be rewarded with eternal life, but only if we persevere.
Works in Ephesians 2:8-9:
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast.
Once again, context is going to be key. In verses 4-6 St. Paul had just said:
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ… and raised us up with him…
Here St. Paul is talking about the initial grace of salvation or justification by which we Christians were raised from death unto life. The Catholic Church teaches in agreement with Scripture that this initial grace of salvation is entirely and absolutely unmerited.
My heavens, the Catholic Church baptizes babies! What more could she do to demonstrate this truth! What kind of works could a newborn baby have done to merit anything?
However, once that baby grows up and reaches the age of accountability, he must begin to “work out [his] own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in [him], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). Or, as St. Paul says in Ephesians 2:10—the very next verse after Eph. 2:8-9:
For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
St. Paul is in no way eliminating works in any sense, to be necessary for salvation; he is simply pointing out what the Catholic Church has taught for 2,000 years: there is nothing anyone can do before they enter into Christ that can justify them. But once a person enters into Christ… it’s a whole new ballgame (see Phil. 4:13; Rom. 2:6-7; Gal. 6:7-9, etc.).
In the final analysis, I believe the text that is about as plain as any text could be concerning works and justification is James 2:24—that is, it is about as plain as can be in telling us both that “faith alone” is insufficient for our justification, and that “works” are indeed necessary. Are we justified by faith? Certainly! By faith alone? No way! It’s both faith and works, according to Scripture.
You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Jesus says it similarly. Are we saved by faith in Jesus? Certainly! John 11:25:
I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.
Are we saved by faith alone? No way! In Matthew 19:16-19, Jesus himself said to a rich young man who had asked him what he needed to do to have eternal life:
… If you would enter life, keep the commandments… You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
Or, how about Matthew 12:36-37? Here, Jesus says:
I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.
That sounds like there is more to this justification thing than faith alone.
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If you are a military buff as I am, you will appreciate this video of the F-22 Raptor defeating 5 F-15 Eagles in simulated combat. The F-15 is known as the very best fighter in the world. Well, it was anyway, until the F-22 came on the scene. With stealth technology, avionics, and maneuvering ability unparalleled. Well, check out this video and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about…
Want to see a vertical takeoff? Check this out:
In an earlier blog post I wrote about the biblical evidence for the Assumption of Mary. And in my book, Behold Your Mother, I go into even more detail on the topic. In this post I want to deal with the question of history when it comes to the Assumption. Is there compelling historical evidence for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary?
In summary, the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary began with an historical event that is alluded to in Scripture and has been believed in the Church for 2,000 years. It was passed down in the Oral Tradition of the Church and developed over the centuries, but it was always believed by the Catholic faithful. Let us examine the facts:
1. Archaeology reveals two tombs of Mary that still exist today, one in Jerusalem and one in Ephesus. The two tombs are explained by the fact that Mary had lived in both places. But what is inexplicable apart from the Assumption of Mary is the fact that there is no body in either tomb. And there are no relics. Anyone who would peruse early Church history knows that Christian belief in the communion of saints and the sanctity of the body—in radical contrast to the Gnostic disdain for “the flesh”—led early Christians to seek out with the greatest fervor relics from the bodies of great saints. Cities, and later, religious orders, would fight over the bones of great saints. This is one reason why we have relics of the apostles and so many of the greatest saints and martyrs in history. Yet, never was there a single relic of Mary’s body? As revered as Mary was, this would be very strange, except for the fact of the assumption of her body.
2.On the historical front, Fr. Michael O’Carroll, in his book, Theotokos – A Theological Encyclopedia of the Blessed Virgin Mary, pg. 59, says:
We have known for some time that there were wide-spread “Transitus Stories” that date from the sixth century that teach Mary’s glorious Assumption. It was the promulgation of the dogma of the Assumption by Pope Pius XII that re-kindled interest in these stories of the end of Mary’s life. In 1955, Fr. A.A. Wenger published L’Assomption.
Indeed, and Fr. Wenger found a Greek manuscript that verified what scholars had previously believed to be true. Because there were whole families of manuscripts from different areas of the world in the sixth century that told a similar story of Mary’s Assumption, there had to be previous manuscripts from which everyone received their data. Fr. Wenger discovered one of these earlier manuscripts, believed to be the source later used by John of Thessalonica in the sixth century in his teaching on the Assumption. Fr. O’Carroll continues:
Some years later, M. Haibach-Reinisch added to the dossier an early version of Pseudo-Melito, the most influential text in use in the Latin Church. This could now, it was clear, be dated earlier than the sixth century…V. Arras claimed to have found an Ethiopian version of it which he published in 1973; its similarity to the Irish text gave the latter new status. In the same year M. Van Esbroeck brought out a Gregorian version, which he had located in Tiflis, and another, a Pseudo-Basil, in the following year, found in Mount Athos.
Much still remains to be explored. The Syriac fragments have increased importance, being put as far back as the third century by one commentator. The whole story will eventually be placed earlier, probably in the second century.
This is significant. Recently discovered Syriac fragments of stories about the Assumption of Mary have been dated as early as the third century. And there are undoubtedly more manuscripts to be found. It must be remembered that when we are talking about these “Transitus stories,” we are not only talking about very ancient manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts, but we are talking about two different “families” of manuscripts written in nine languages. They all agree on Mary’s Assumption and they presuppose a story that was already widely known.
Gnostic Fable or Christian Truth?
What about those who claim the Assumption of Mary is nothing more than a Gnostic fable? Or those who claim the historical narratives about the Assumption of Mary were condemned by Pope Gelasius I? James White, on page 54 of his book, Mary – Another Redeemer? goes so far as to claim:
Basically, the first appearance of the idea of the Bodily Assumption of Mary is found in a source that was condemned by the then-bishop of Rome, Gelasius I! The irony is striking: what was defined by the bishop of Rome as heresy at the end of the fifth century becomes dogma itself in the middle of the twentieth!
Mr. White’s reasoning fails for several reasons.
1. Even if it were a Papal document, Decretum Gelasianum would not be a “definition” by the bishop of Rome declaring the Assumption of Mary to be heresy, as White claims. The document does not make such an assertion. It gives us a rather long list of titles of apocryphal books after having listed the accepted books of the Bible. That’s all. One of these titles declared to be “apocryphal” is referred to as: “Liber qui appellatur Transitus, id est Assumptio sanctae Mariae,” which translates as “A book which is called, ‘Having been taken up, that is, the Assumption of Holy Mary.’” White evidently thought this document condemns as untrue the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary. But it did not. As a matter of history, this document does not condemn any doctrines in the books it lists at all; it declares the books themselves to be apocryphal and therefore not part of the canon of Scripture.
This would be something akin to the Church’s rejection of The Assumption of Moses and The Book of Enoch as apocryphal works. The fact that these works are apocryphal does not preclude St. Jude (9; 14) from quoting both of them in Sacred Scripture. Because a work is declared apocryphal or even condemned does not mean that there is no truth at all to be found in it.
2.There is real question among scholars today as to whether what is popularly called the Dectretum Gelasianum was actually written by Pope Gelasius. According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Faith, p. 462, it was probably written in the sixth century (Pope Gelasius died in the late fifth century) in Italy or Gaul and was most likely not a Papal work at all. In fact, it was falsely attributed to several different Popes over the years.
3. If the teaching of the Assumption had genuinely been condemned by the Pope, great saints and defenders of orthodoxy like St. Gregory and later St. John Damascene would not have taught it. Further, we would have found other writers condemning this teaching as it became more and more popular throughout the world. And we certainly would not see the Assumption celebrated in the Liturgy as we do as early as the fifth century in Palestine, Gaul in the sixth, universally in the East in the seventh century, and in the West in the eighth century. Far from a condemnation of the Assumption, this reveals just how widespread this teaching truly was.
Why Don’t the Earliest Fathers Write About the Assumption?
The most obvious reason would be that when Gnostics, who were some of the main enemies of the Faith in the early centuries of the Christian era, agreed with the Church on the matter, there would have been no need to defend the teaching. In other words, there is no record of anyone disagreeing on the matter. We don’t find works from the earliest Fathers on Jesus’ celibacy either, but that too was most likely due to the universal agreement on the topic. Much of early Christian literature was apologetic in nature. Just like the New Testament, it mostly dealt with problem areas in the Church that needed to be addressed.
Even so, it is not as though there is no written evidence to support the Assumption either. According to Fr. O’Carroll (Theotokos, 388), we now have what some believe to be a fourth-century homily on the prophet Simeon and the Blessed Virgin Mary by Timothy, a priest of Jerusalem, which asserts Mary is “immortal to the present time through him who had his abode in her and who assumed and raised her above the higher regions.” Evidently, there was disagreement in the circulating stories of the Assumption of Mary as to whether she was taken up alive or after having died. But whether or not she was assumed was not in question. Indeed, the Church even to this day has not decided the matter of whether Mary died or not definitively, though she does teach Mary to have died at the level of the Ordinary Magisterium, for example, in Pope Pius XII’s Munificentissimus Deus, 17, 20, 21, 29, 35, 39, and 40.
Rethinking St. Epiphanius
I believe St. Epiphanius’ work needs to be re-examined when it comes to the Assumption of Mary. This great bishop and defender of orthodoxy may give us key insights into the antiquity of the Assumption, writing in ca. AD 350. In his classic Panarion (“bread box”) or Refutation of All Heresies, he includes eighty-eight sections dealing with scores of the most dangerous heresies of his day. But in sections 78 and 79, he deals with one particular sect comprised mainly of women called the “Collyridians.” Evidently, this sect was “ordaining” women as “priestesses” and adoring Mary as a goddess by offering sacrifice to her. St. Epiphanius condemns this in the strongest of terms:
For I have heard in turn that others who are out of their minds on this subject of this holy Ever-virgin, have done their best and are doing their best, in the grip both of madness and of folly, to substitute her for God. For they say that certain Thracian women there in Arabia have introduced this nonsense, and that they bake a loaf in the name of the Ever-virgin, gather together, and attempt an excess and undertake a forbidden, blasphemous act in the holy Virgin’s name, and offer sacrifice in her name with women officiants.
This is entirely impious, unlawful, and different from the Holy Spirit’s message, and is thus pure devil’s work . . .
And nowhere was a woman a priest. But I shall go to the New Testament. If it were ordained by God that women should be priests or have any canonical function in the Church, Mary herself, if anyone, should have functioned as a priest in the New Testament. She was counted worthy to bear the king of all in her own womb, the heavenly God, the Son of God. Her womb became a temple, and by God’s kindness and an awesome mystery, was prepared to be a dwelling place of the Lord’s human nature. But it was not God’s pleasure that she be a priest.
These women who were adoring Mary as if she were a goddess would no doubt have been well acquainted with the “Transitus Stories” and would have been teaching Mary’s Assumption. In fact, it appears they were teaching Mary never died at all. This would be in keeping with John of Thessalonica, Timothy of Jerusalem, and others who taught this among Christians. However, these women were taking Mary and the Assumption to the extreme by worshipping her. What is interesting here is that in the midst of condemning the Collyridians, St. Epiphanius gives us, in section 79 of Panarion,a point-blank statement that is very-much overlooked today by many:
Like the bodies of the saints, however, she has been held in honor for her character and understanding. And if I should say anything more in her praise, she is like Elijah, who was virgin from his mother’s womb, always remained so, and was taken up, but has not seen death.
St. Epiphanius clearly indicates his personal agreement with the idea that Mary was assumed into heaven without ever having died. He will elsewhere clarify the fact that he is not certain, and no one is, at least not definitively so, about whether or not she died. But he never says the same about the Assumption itself. That did not seem to be in doubt. By comparing her to Elijah he indicates that she was taken up bodily just as the Church continues to teach 1,600 years later.
A Final Thought
Since the time of the promulgation of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, there has been much new discovery. We now have written evidence of the Assumption of Mary as far back as the third century. Though it is not necessary for there to be written evidence all the way back to the second-century for us as Catholics because we have Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture as interpreted by the Magisterium of the Church first and foremost that has already given us the truth of the Matter, I believe it is really exciting that new historical discoveries continue to be made and once again… and again… and again, they confirm the Faith of our Fathers.
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Pope Paul VI wrote what may well be the greatest single work ever written on evangelism in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, promulgated December 8, 1975. This one letter informs, inspires, and challenges us in ways unparalleled and serves as the perennial document on the topic of evangelization that should be our guide for evangelism in 2016 and beyond.
Among the many points we could discuss in this great letter, here are six that I’ve excised that I consider to be absolutely crucial for all of us who are engaged in evangelism today:
Point #1: Evangelism is not a nice option for Catholics!
In paragraph 5, Our Holy Father hammers the point:
Such an exhortation [to evangelism] seems to us to be of capital importance, for the presentation of the Gospel message is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved. This message is indeed necessary. It is unique. It cannot be replaced. It does not permit either indifference, syncretism or accommodation. It is a question of people’s salvation. It is the beauty of the Revelation that it represents. It brings with it a wisdom that is not of this world. It is able to stir up by itself faith—faith that rests on the power of God. It is truth. It merits having the apostle consecrate to it all his time and all his energies, and to sacrifice for it, if necessary, his own life.
In fact, in paragraph 59, Pope Paul declares evangelism as to be a “Basic Duty” of each and every one of the people of God.
In paragraphs 13-14:
Those who have received the Good News and who have been gathered by it into the community of salvation can and must communicate and spread it. (14) The Church knows this. She has a vivid awareness of the fact that the Savior’s words, “I must proclaim the Good News of the kingdom of God,” apply in all truth to herself: She willingly adds with St. Paul: “Not that I boast of preaching the gospel, since it is a duty that has been laid on me; I should be punished if I did not preach it” It is with joy and consolation that at the end of the great Assembly of 1974 we heard these illuminating words: “We wish to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church.” It is a task and mission which the vast and profound changes of present-day society make all the more urgent. Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize…
I love the way His Holiness brings in St. Paul’s famous line from I Cor. 9:15-16, “Woe be unto me if I preach not the Gospel, for necessity is laid upon me!” Prophets are great at declaring “woe” on everybody else! “Woe” represents the divine oracle of judgment. This immediately brings to mind the Prophet Isaiah. The Book of Isaiah is laden with “woes” all over the place aimed at Israel as well as the surrounding nations. But notice when Isaiah has a revelation of God and “sees” the Lord, he says, “woe is me” in Is. 6:1-9:
In the year that King Uzzi’ah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say…”
St. Paul “sees the Lord” in his calling to evangelize. And just as Isaiah before him, he exclaims “Woe is me!”
Perhaps the reason we don’t evangelize as we should today is we fail to see the awesome nature of the call!
Point #2: This Apostolic Exhortation Dispels Myths!
In paragraph 21, Pope Paul proclaims what we have re-learned all too painfully with the advent of the recent priest scandals: If we do not live the message, our message will not be heard!
Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness. Take a Christian or a handful of Christians who, in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good… Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one. Here we have an initial act of evangelization…
Now here comes the myth-buster. How many of us have heard the line famously and falsely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel, use words when necessary?” Not only did St. Francis never say that, unfortunately, that line is often used today as an excuse to avoid evangelizing with words as well as deeds! Paragraph 22 quickly and decisively dispatches that myth!
Nevertheless this [silent witness] always remains insufficient, because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified – what Peter called always having “your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have” – and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.
Point #3: We must evangelize in keeping with our vocation:
And virtually all vocations are mentioned.
Paragraph 60 emphasizes that each act of evangelism, no matter how isolated it may seem must be seen as “deeply ecclesial.” Paragraphs 63-69 emphasize the fact that individual churches in the Church, religious, etc. each bring their needed charisms to the Universal Church to build up the body of Christ, and 65-69 emphasizes all must be done in union with the Vicar of Christ, the successor of St. Peter. That should go without saying. But for our purpose here I would like to move down to paragraph 70, which shifts the focus to the lay vocation:
Lay people, whose particular vocation places them in the midst of the world and in charge of the most varied temporal tasks, must for this very reason exercise a very special form of evangelization.
Their primary and immediate task is not to establish and develop the ecclesial community- this is the specific role of the pastors- but to put to use every Christian and evangelical possibility latent but already present and active in the affairs of the world. Their own field of evangelizing activity is the vast and complicated world of politics, society and economics, but also the world of culture, of the sciences and the arts, of international life, of the mass media. It also includes other realities which are open to evangelization, such as human love, the family, the education of children and adolescents, professional work, suffering. The more Gospel-inspired lay people there are engaged in these realities, clearly involved in them, competent to promote them and conscious that they must exercise to the full their Christian powers which are often buried and suffocated, the more these realities will be at the service of the kingdom of God and therefore of salvation in Jesus Christ, without in any way losing or sacrificing their human content but rather pointing to a transcendent dimension which is often disregarded.
Wow! Did you catch that word, “suffering?” In every area of life and even in death and suffering, there are opportunities to evangelize. In suffering well, we evangelize. In proclaiming the truth about human dignity in suffering, we evangelize. That could be an entire article in and of itself!
Point #4: The Importance of Truth!
The Gospel entrusted to us is also the word of truth. A truth which liberates and which alone gives peace of heart is what people are looking for when we proclaim the Good News to them. The truth about God, about man and his mysterious destiny, about the world; the difficult truth that we seek in the Word of God and of which, we repeat, we are neither the masters nor the owners, but the depositaries, the heralds and the servants.
Every evangelizer is expected to have a reverence for truth, especially since the truth that he studies and communicates is none other than revealed truth and hence, more than any other, a sharing in the first truth which is God Himself. The preacher of the Gospel will therefore be a person who even at the price of personal renunciation and suffering always seeks the truth that he must transmit to others. He never betrays or hides truth out of a desire to please men, in order to astonish or to shock, nor for the sake of originality or a desire to make an impression. He does not refuse truth. He does not obscure revealed truth by being too idle to search for it, or for the sake of his own comfort, or out of fear. He does not neglect to study it. He serves it generously, without making it serve him.
Point #5: No excuses and a Solemn Warning!
Our appeal here is inspired by the fervor of the greatest preachers and evangelizers, whose lives were devoted to the apostolate. Among these we are glad to point out those whom we have proposed to the veneration of the faithful during the course of the Holy Year. They have known how to overcome many obstacles to evangelization.
Such obstacles are also present today, and we shall limit ourself to mentioning the lack of fervor. It is all the more serious because it comes from within. It is manifested in fatigue, disenchantment, compromise, lack of interest and above all lack of joy and hope. We exhort all those who have the task of evangelizing, by whatever title and at whatever level, always to nourish spiritual fervor.
This fervor demands first of all that we should know how to put aside the excuses which would impede evangelization. The most insidious of these excuses are certainly the ones which people claim to find support for in such and such a teaching of the Council.
Thus one too frequently hears it said, in various terms, that to impose a truth, be it that of the Gospel, or to impose a way, be it that of salvation, cannot but be a violation of religious liberty. Besides, it is added, why proclaim the Gospel when the whole world is saved by uprightness of heart? We know likewise that the world and history are filled with “seeds of the Word”; is it not therefore an illusion to claim to bring the Gospel where it already exists in the seeds that the Lord Himself has sown?
Anyone who takes the trouble to study in the Council’s documents the questions upon which these excuses draw too superficially will find quite a different view.
It would certainly be an error to impose something on the consciences of our brethren. But to propose to their consciences the truth of the Gospel and salvation in Jesus Christ, with complete clarity and with a total respect for the free options which it presents- “without coercion, or dishonorable or unworthy pressure”- far from being an attack on religious liberty is fully to respect that liberty, which is offered the choice of a way that even non-believers consider noble and uplifting. Is it then a crime against others’ freedom to proclaim with joy a Good News which one has come to know through the Lord’s mercy? And why should only falsehood and error, debasement and pornography have the right to be put before people and often unfortunately imposed on them by the destructive propaganda of the mass media, by the tolerance of legislation, the timidity of the good and the impudence of the wicked? The respectful presentation of Christ and His kingdom is more than the evangelizer’s right; it is his duty. It is likewise the right of his fellow men to receive from him the proclamation of the Good News of salvation. God can accomplish this salvation in whomsoever He wishes by ways which He alone knows. And yet, if His Son came, it was precisely in order to reveal to us, by His word and by His life, the ordinary paths of salvation. And He has commanded us to transmit this revelation to others with His own authority. It would be useful if every Christian and every evangelizer were to pray about the following thought: men can gain salvation also in other ways, by God’s mercy, even though we do not preach the Gospel to them; but as for us, can we gain salvation if through negligence or fear or shame- what St. Paul called “blushing for the Gospel” (quoting Romans 1:16—I am not ashamed…)- or as a result of false ideas we fail to preach it? For that would be to betray the call of God…
Point #6: Brass Tacks
For the Church, evangelizing means bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new: “Now I am making the whole of creation new” (Rev. 21:5). But there is no new humanity if there are not first of all new persons renewed by Baptism and by lives lived according to the Gospel.
This idea of “bringing the Gospel into all the strata of humanity” is peppered throughout Pope Paul Vi’s exhortation and is, in simple terms, another way of saying we are called to be ”leaven” (see Matt. 13:33). In paragraph 53, Pope Paul says we must evangelize those who have not heard the Gospel. In paragraph 54, Those who have heard, be they in the Church or our separated brethren. Here we have ”the New Evangelization” before ”the New Evangelization.” In paragraph 55, we must evangelize unbelievers and skeptics. In paragraph 56, Catholics who do not practice the Faith. In paragraph 59, His Holiness calls us to do so in small associations, small groups. We must become “all things to all men, that by all means we may save some!” (I Cor. 9:22). The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 900, immediately comes to mind:
Since, like all the faithful, lay Christians are entrusted by God with the apostolate by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation, they have the right and duty, individually or grouped in associations, to work so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all men throughout the earth. This duty is the more pressing when it is only through them that men can hear the Gospel and know Christ. Their activity in ecclesial communities is so necessary that, for the most part, the apostolate of the pastors cannot be fully effective without it.
According to Pope Paul VI, our calling is most clear. The task is daunting, yet we know the Lord is with us. He will never fail to strengthen us for the task. All we have to do is ask… and engage.
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I have to say this was one of the most enjoyable conferences I’ve been to in a long time. The April 23rd “OneFaithExperience” was a conference extraordinaire!
It was wonderful to see so many of my friends (Fr. Larry Richards, Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, Hector Molina, Teresa Tomeo, Jerry Usher, and more), and to make new friends like Adam Blai, the incredible “Demonologist!”
Check out this article to get a sense of what we experienced:
My thanks to all of the folks at “OneFaithExperience” who made this possible!
In the wake of the first (human) sin of Adam and Eve, God spoke directly to our original parents and indirectly to all mankind concerning some of the far-reaching consequences of that sin: Physical death and disorder would be the lot of all mankind until the end of time. Indeed, in some sense, all of creation was changed for the worse as a result of this cataclysmic sin. But for our purpose we want to focus on Genesis 3:16 and one particular effect of Original Sin:
To the woman [the Lord God] said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.”
Scripture teaches that as a result of Original Sin, God would “greatly multiply” the pangs of labor not only for Eve, but for all women. Many Fathers of the Church and theologians down through the centuries deemed it fitting that Mary alone would be exempt from such pains as a sign of her unique holiness. Thus, Mary’s freedom from the pains of labor is one of many reasons for belief in the Immaculate Conception of our Lady.
The Church has taught this as well on the level of the Ordinary Magisterium, but not with the same degree of authority with which she has taught Mary remained an “intact” virgin in giving birth to Jesus. However, we should note the fact that it has been taught on the level of the Ordinary Magisterium and that it was taught by many fathers of the Church. This is significant.
While there is certainly no argument from necessity here, and this teaching is a matter of legitimate debate in the Church today, we argue it to be most fitting as a sign of hope for the entire body of Christ. All can see in this unique gift to Mary a sign of the ultimate deliverance from all bodily pain and suffering that awaits the Church. Analogous to God preserving the Mother of God in virginal integrity in giving birth to our Lord, Mary demonstrates in a more profound way both the truth of the Immaculate Conception and the saving power of Christ in preserving her from this effect of Original Sin.
Moreover, when we consider Mary in one of her many titles demonstrating her sinlessness – “the beginning of the new creation” – (for more on this, check out my book, “Behold Your Mother“) a topic we will cover in a future blog post, how fitting indeed is it that the “new creation” would be inaugurated without the pains of childbirth—one of the principle effects of sin in the first creation.
What evidence do we have for this belief? We will examine it from three sources—Scripture, history, and the teaching of the Catholic Church as it is communicated to the faithful through both Magisterial teaching and in the Liturgy. And we will then examine some of the most common objections.
In a chapter laden with references to the coming of the New Covenant, or “the new heavens and the new earth” as we see in Isaiah 66:22—a text referenced in Revelation 21:1—we find this startling prophecy:
Listen, an uproar from the city! A voice from the temple! The voice of the Lord, rendering recompense to his enemies! Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she was delivered of a son. Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things?
Not only do we find the Fathers of the Church referencing this text as referring to the miraculous birthing of Christ, but we find it difficult to apply it in its fullest sense to anything else.
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
Some critics will say the fact that Mary “brought forth” Jesus would mean she experienced labor pains. Not necessarily. The teaching claiming Mary was freed from labor pains would agree Mary “brought forth” Jesus, but miraculously aided by God. There would be no reason not to use the language of Mary having “brought forth” Jesus.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas (who references St. Jerome), Mary being depicted as “wrapping” and then “laying” Christ in a manger is an indicator that she did not endure the normal pains of labor. Even in our day, doctors or nurses would do this kind of work. In the first century, it would be a mid-wife. Yet the Bible seems to indicate Mary did this by herself.
The Bar of History
The Gnostics of the first centuries of the Christian era were prolific. And as a result, we find much of Christian writing during this period to be apologetic responses to Gnostic claims. Not surprisingly, Gnostic writers affirmed Mary’s freedom from labor pains because they characteristically denied Christ possessed a physical body at birth. Mary would naturally be free from pain in bringing forth a phantom Christ.
What is fascinating to discover is that some of the very earliest Christian writers who were engaged in writing specifically against Gnosticism agreed with the Gnostics that Mary gave birth without pain. Here are some examples to give us a sense of the antiquity of this teaching:
Odes of Solomon
These are Coptic Christian hymns discovered in 1909 and dated to the late first century or early second century. Their emphasis on Christ’s physical body indicates that they are not Gnostic. Note the mention of Christ “[taking] on [human] nature.” These ancient hymns seem to acknowledge Mary’s freedom from the effects of original sin in childbirth as a matter of history, rather than for a particular theological reason.
He became like me so I could receive him, he thought like me so I could become him and I did not tremble when I saw him for he was gracious to me.
He took on my nature so I could learn from him, took on my form so I would not turn away.
I was crowned by God, by a crown alive. And my Lord justified me. He became my certain salvation. I was freed from myself and uncondemned. The chains fell from my wrists…
They became the limbs of my body and I was their head.
The Spirit opened the Virgin’s womb and she received the milk.
The Virgin became a mother of great mercy; she labored, but not in pain, and bore a son. No midwife came.
Ascension of Isaiah
This book “is a composite work comprising three originally distinct writings, the Martyrdom of Isaiah…which is of Jewish origin; a Christian apocalypse, known as the Testament of Ezekiel; and the Vision of Isaiah, also of Christian origin.”
The Ascension of Isaiah also dates back to the first and second centuries and the Jewish part perhaps before the first century. It is noteworthy that it may well have been alluded to in the New Testament—in Hebrews 11:37. In the midst of referencing the great and heroic virtue of men and women of the Old Covenant, the inspired author of Hebrews here mentions that “they were sawn in two” just as the Ascension of Isaiah recounts of Isaiah. This work shows heavy Gnostic influences, but because it was most likely alluded to in Scripture, it is worth considering.
And while they were alone, Mary looked up and saw a little child, and she was frightened. And at that very moment her womb was found as it had been before she had conceived.
The Protoevangelium of James (A.D. 140)
This text was quoted often by Fathers of the Church and is definitely Christian. It is this ancient writer who gave us our traditional names of Mary’s parents, St. Anne and St. Joachim. In it, there is a very graphic depiction of the birth of the Lord. Luigi Gambero writes (in his book, “Mary and the Fathers of the Church”):
The absence of labor pains and the sometimes crudely realistic examinations carried out by the midwife and a woman named Salome, who was then punished for her unbelief, confirm Mary’s virginity in the act of giving birth. At the same time, the realism with which the Lord’s birth is described leads one to think that the apocryphal gospel means to oppose the error of Gnostic Docetism, which considered Christ’s body to be a mere appearance or phantasm.
Because this work was anti-Gnostic in nature, it gives a strong argument for the belief of Christians to coincide with Gnostics concerning this matter of Mary’s freedom from labor pains. As Gambero mentioned, the author went to great lengths to make it clear that Jesus possessed an actual body and Mary was actually pregnant, yet that she gave birth in a miraculous fashion.
Perhaps even more important is the second-century work of St. Irenaeus. No one would say he was influenced by Gnosticism. He was the second century’s strongest defender of orthodoxy against Gnosticism. Yet, in his “Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching,” we find:
For Behold, [the prophet Isaiah] saith, the Virgin shall conceive and bring forth a son: and he, being God, is to be with us… And yet, concerning his birth the same prophet says in another place: Before the pains of travail came on, she escaped and was delivered of a man-child (referring to Is. 66:22).
St. Gregory of Nyssa, brother of St. Basil and one of the three “Cappadocian Fathers” gives us a window into what was the commonly held view of the birth of our Lord in the fourth century, writing ca. AD 380:
His conception did not result from the union of two humans; his birth was not polluted in any way: there were no labor pangs; his bridal chamber was that of the power of the Most High, which covered virginity like a cloud; the bridal torch was the splendor of the Holy Spirit; his bed was a personal condition devoid of vices; his nuptials were incorrupt . . . his birth alone occurred without labor pains… “Before the pangs of birth arrived, a male child came forth and was born” (Isa. 66:7) . . . Just as she who introduced death into nature by her sin was condemned to bear children in suffering and travail, it was necessary that the Mother of life, after having conceived in joy, should give birth in joy as well. No wonder that the angel said to her, “Rejoice, O full of grace!” (Luke 1:28) With these words he took from her the burden of that sorrow which, from the beginning of creation, had been imposed on birth because of sin.
St. Proclus of Constantinople (ca. AD 420)
What, then, is the mystery celebrated in yesterday’s solemnity? The unexplainable mystery of the divinity and the humanity, a birth that leaves the Mother uncorrupt, an Incarnation that gives a form to the incorporeal Divinity, while it undergoes no passion, an extraordinary birth, a beginning for a generated One who has no beginning.
St. Peter Chrysologus (ca. AD 430)
She conceives as a virgin, she gives birth as a virgin, and she remains a virgin. Therefore, her flesh knows the power of the miracle but does not know pain. In giving birth, it gains in integrity and knows nothing of physical suffering.
St. John of Damascus (ca. AD 730)
His birth was in accordance with the laws of parturition, while in that it was painless it was above the laws of generation. For, as pleasure did not precede it, pain did not follow it, according to the prophet who says, Before she travailed, she brought forth, and again, before her pain came she was delivered of a man-child (Is. 66:7).
Though this teaching has never been the object of a formal definition of the Church and therefore is not infallible, the Catechism of the Council of Trent gives perhaps the clearest example of the general understanding of the Church through centuries past:
But as the Conception itself transcends the order of nature, so also the birth of our Lord… just as the rays of the sun penetrate without breaking or injuring in the least the solid substance of glass, so after a like but more exalted manner did Jesus Christ come forth from his mother’s womb without injury to her maternal virginity.
From Eve we are born children of wrath; from Mary we have received Jesus Christ… To Eve it was said: In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children. Mary was exempt from this law, for preserving her virginal integrity inviolate she brought forth Jesus… without experiencing, as we have already said, any sense of pain.
It seems fitting: Eve’s sin is causally linked to labor pain. The New Eve was uniquely free from the sin of Eve and did not experience that pain. Indeed, we would argue it would seem contrary to our sense of Jesus and Mary as the “New Adam” and the “New Eve” and—as we have seen—together the beginning of the New Covenant—to inaugurate this great and glorious covenant by experiencing pains that were the result of failure in the Old.
Pope Alexander III (1169)
[Mary] indeed conceived without shame, gave birth without pain, and went hence without corruption, according to the word of the angel, or rather (the word) of God through the angel, so that she should be proved to be full, not merely half filled, with grace and (so that) God her Son should faithfully fulfill the ancient commandment that he had formerly given, namely, to treat one’s father and mother with honor.
The Liturgical Tradition
The Church at prayer, both East and West, reveals a common understanding of Mary having been freed from labor pains. In the Mass of “Mary at the Foot of the Cross II,” celebrated in the Latin Rite before the 1969 reform of the liturgy, the Church prayed:
In your divine wisdom, you planned the redemption of the human race, and decreed that the new Eve should stand by the cross of the new Adam: as she became his mother by the power of the Holy Spirit, so, by a new gift of your love, she was to be a partner in his passion, and she who had given him birth without the pains of childbirth was to endure the greatest of pains in bringing forth to new life the family of your Church.
In the Byzantine liturgy, from the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ and from the Synaxis of the Theotokos, Tone 2:
Behold! The Image of the Father and his unchangeable eternity has taken the form of a servant. Without suffering he has come forth to us from an all-pure Virgin, and yet he has remained unchanged. He is true God as he was before, and he has taken on himself what he had not been, becoming man out of his love for all. Therefore, let us raise our voices in hymns, singing: O God, born of the Virgin, have mercy on us.
The liturgy of the Church has always been an exemplary tool of catechetics and moral certitude theologically as well as the primary instrument of our spiritual nourishment in Christ. Thus, the fact that the Church asks all her children to affirm Mary’s freedom from the pangs of labor in liturgical prayer at Mass is a testimony as to the authority of this teaching of the Church.
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Folks, the conference (“One Faith Experience”) at St. Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri, is just two days away and there are still plenty of tickets left. There are going to be thousands there, six speakers (Yours Truly, Fr. Larry Richards, Teresa Tomeo, Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, Hector Molina, and Adam Blai, along with two bands, which includes “The Thirsting” and the inimitable “Matt Maher!” This thing is going to rock! Check out:
And you have to check out this video:
See you there!
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am going to be speaking at an absolutely awesome conference at St. Louis University on April 23, 2016, at St. Louis University. There will be thousands attending and it is called the “One Faith Experience Conference.” I will be speaking along with Fr. Larry Richards, Teresa Tomeo, Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, Hector Molina, and Adam Blai. And it will be followed by a concert featuring “The Thirsting” and “Matt Maher.”
Check out the website at:
Not only are there subsidized tickets available, as I mentioned in my earlier post, but EWTN (the Eternal Word Television Network) is now going to televise the conference live! I will be speaking at 3pm Central Time (1pm Pacific, 2pm Mountain, 4pm Eastern).
And when you call, check out the unbelievably low prices for tickets to begin with. There will be thousands there, folks! Don’t miss this event! Whether you are alone or with a group, I hope to see you there!