Sunday, August 23, 2009

On Being, and Being Catholic

My inspirational concept here comes secondhand from a homily, so if I get any important details wrong, I hope Isaac will correct me in the comments. Or anyone who knows more Thomistic philosophy than I do (which is several of you).

The initial point which caught my attention was the claim that the popular American Life League slogan "You can't be Catholic and Pro-Abortion" is untrue and contains a logical fallacy. (Mind you, the intended point of the slogan is not in dispute, only its philosophical accuracy.) So the argument goes something like this:

Existence is the first act.* At baptism, our existence is ontologically changed, and we become Catholic in our very essence. Thus things like knowledge and opinions are irrelevant; we ARE Catholic in a much more fundamental sense than we are, say, American or pro-life or traditional. Even partisanship within the Church is false insofar as it separates us based on our thoughts, not our essence.

Damn those Enlightenment thinkers** (well, not really; I'd like to put a little more trust in God's mercy than that, but you know what I mean)! I have had such a thorough, solid Catholic education (thanks to my university, my friends, my parish, my reading material, etc); it scares me when I discover that I've been caught by so fundamental a lie as that.

I would like it if this post inspired some discussion. Pretty please, with sugar and a cherry on top?

*That is to say, the existence of every human being is the fundamental aspect of his personhood and is necessarily first and foremost.

**e.g., Descartes (Cogito ergo sum: "I think, therefore I am")


  1. I think you did a pretty good job in summing up the argument as I originally heard it in Fr. Steve's homily. I would like to see someone with a strong background in theology and philosophy critique the argument. It still doesn't sit 100% with me.

    Another symptom of the Enlightenment heresy is the gender confusion we see in America. There's this idea that thought precedes nature- that what you think yourself to be (in terms of gender) is more important than what's imprinted in your body. It's as if Descartes were to say, "I think I'm a girl, therefore I am"

  2. Michael11:31 PM

    I'm not much of a philosopher and know only enough theology to get by (in my opinion), but I am really ridiculously smart. So, obviously, I can figure this out. /s

    I think that if ALL (are they even acronymed?) really wanted to argue the point, they could argue about the use of the verb. The be verb is an incredibly complex one (see any dictionary), and its meanings can vary a whole lot (see "This is my body" and the arguments that follow).

    While the very basic meaning has to do with essence, ALL could argue that they mean be in a far less metaphysical way. I'm too tired to parse it out, but I'm sure you get the idea.

    Or maybe there is something with being excommunicated by supporting abortion. A bit more tenuous to generalize that, but whatev.


  3. Michael, your humility never fails to astound me.

    Isaac, what about Father's argument doesn't sit well with you? It would seem to me that the crux of the issue is whether the indelible mark that's placed upon our soul at baptism causes an ontological change.

    I'm still waiting upon comments from my resident Thomists (Joe and Mark) for confirmation. Thoughts, anyone?

  4. Claire,

    I think that this slogan and the argument could be taken in a couple of different ways, so I am unsure as to what I think of both. Michael here is probably right that ALL is not intending to make any metaphysical claims. As a slogan, it ought to be taken as a rhetorical claim, and as Aristotle points out to us, rhetoricians have to use logically invalid arguments to make their points. We just have to remember that the genre is rhetorical argument not demonstrative argument. And of course it is quite clear what ALL's point is, and it may even be a good point, though I am unsure about that too.

    As you've presented it, the terms 'existence' and 'essence' are used kind of sloppily in the priest's argument. Thomas introduces the distinction (following Avicenna) to make it clear that we can consider /what/ we are apart from the fact /that/ we are. What I am--the essence--is my essence--that is, my essence is this instantiation of human nature, with all that follows from that e.g. my rationality, my bones, my kidneys, my sense of humor, my ability to will things within certain limits, etc. But we can think about my essence without thinking about whether that essence actually exists, just as we can think of the essence of e.g. a unicorn without thinking about whether it exists. So essence is what I am and existence is the fact that I am. But I don't exist in and of myself, but only by the causality of God. Thus existence is a participation in God: I share in His existence, for He exists in and of Himself, and He gives existence to me as a gift. My soul provides me with both my essence, and, insofar as it participates in God, with existence. Now existence or 'to be' comes in various forms: the rock just exists, but the plant exists insofar as it exists and is alive, and the animal exists insofar as it has exists and is alive and can sense and desire, and I exist insofar as I exist and am alive and sense and desire and understand. Thus my way of existing is different from other things' way of existing. To say that my existence is my first act is to say that prior to doing this or that act I participate in God's gift of existence in this way. God causes my essence to be in such a way that it participates in God in a particular way. From this existing essence flow all my powers, and based on these powers, I can do certain acts. The powers (such as those I listed above when considering essence) flow from my essence and are able to really act because I have existence. This is what it is to be a human being (Thomas doesn't use the word 'person' in the sense that we use it, and in my opinion, it's a term that nowadays does more harm than good in most contexts, especially when linked up with the term 'rights')

  5. Now at Baptism, Thomas says, we get two things: an indelible character and a gift of sanctifying grace. As I understand him, Thomas doesn't think that the character alone is nearly as spectacular as this priest thinks it is. As Thomas understands it, the character is a gift of a new power, the power to worship God and lead others to do so too. This power can't be lost. But it isn't in and of itself a modification of the essence of the soul; althought it is a new power that can never be taken away, it isn't necessarily a new mode of existence (we have to distinguish between the existence that makes us be a particular way in the first place, and and the abilities that flow from this) The grace on the other hand, is, he says, a new form in the soul: a new way of living, and so a new way of existing, and so a new way of participating in God (this is my understanding of Thomas, but I think you could possibly interpret him differently). And this grace, this new way of being and living, can be lost. One still has the power to worship God in the Christian way, but one is not justified because the life of God--the participation in God or the new way of being--is destroyed by mortal sin, and one can't exercise the power of the indelible character of baptism.

    So we would have to ask then what it is 'to be Catholic': is it to have the power or to have the participation in the life of Grace? Personally, I think that membership in the Church, like existence itself, is a matter of participation and so comes in degrees. One isn't just a member of the Church or not a member of the Church. Baptism makes one minimally a member of the Church (though I would argue that those who lack baptism can still participate in the Church in some even more minimal way) but sanctifying grace is required to participate in the true life of the Church. The saints participate even more in the life of the Church, and some of them do more than others e.g. the Blessed Virgin participates in the life of the Church more perfectly than anyone else.

    So it seems to me that since existence must be taken as admitting of degrees insofar as it isn't just something I have but something I both have and a larger reality I participate in, it seems to me that the ALL slogan is true in some senses and not true in others. One can be Catholic and pro-abortion in a minimal sense of being Catholic, but in a more robust participatory and justificatory sense, one can't. It would be more true to say "One can't be Catholic and not be baptized" though even there perhaps there is something false about that statement. It would also be more true to say "One can't be Catholic and deny the doctrine of the Trinity" though perhaps that would be less true than the first statement. Probably the statement "One can't be Catholic and pro-abortion" is more true than "One can't be Catholic and deny the doctrine of the social kingship of Christ". We can talk about more or less true, because true is the coming together of my mind with being, and being is something that comes in degrees since there are different degrees of participation in God, as I've said, and so there are different levels of truth too.

    Does that make sense? Did I go wrong somewhere here? I guess this isn't very conclusive. I'm not really sure that I'm into "conclusive" though. Being conclusive in a definitive sense would put me out of a job.


  6. I've never heard that baptism changes our essense before, nor did I know that there was such a thing as a Catholic essense, nor do I really understand what that means.

    I think Mark's comment make things clearer though for me.

    I had a question. If we gain Catholic essenses in baptism, and those who are baptized in Christian churches do not need to be re-baptized when they convert to Catholicism, then do their baptisms also give them Catholic essenses? I would have to conclude yes, but perhaps in a minimal sense. Would it be correct to say that all Christians are part of the one true universal Catholic church in some minimal sense? Think so. But this is not how we understand the word Catholic in most usages.

  7. Wow. I am so glad I posted this / asked for feedback! You guys clarify so much (and inspire me to use my catechetical training to research and clarify further).

    Mark, any confusion between essence and existence is my own error. I only dabble in philosophy, after all, and am much better at understanding the words of others than expressing myself philosophically, precisely because I make such semantic errors.

    "[As] Aristotle put it, rhetoricians have to use logically invalid arguments to make their points." <-I love this! I was not trying to argue ALL's rhetoric, only to question their logic in light of this priest's provocative comment.

    According to the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church, baptism "signifies and actually brings about death to sin and entry into the life of the Most Holy Trinity through configuration to the Paschal Mystery of Christ" (CCC 1239). Its "two principal effects are purification from sins and new birth in the Holy Spirit" (CCC 1262). I can find nothing about metaphysical effects of baptism in either the CCC or my class notes, save that "baptism makes the neophyte 'a new creature,' an adopted son of God," etc (CCC 1265).

    Regarding the indelible mark of baptism: I suppose one could argue that it constitutes an ontological change, as it is unrepeatable and even sin cannot erase it. Still, I am unconvinced, now that Mark pointed out distinctions.

    Tim, you bring up an excellent point: baptism is not a specifically Catholic sacrament! Sure, we have a Catholic liturgy of baptism, but it is a Christian sacrament; I daresay that the essential sacramental graces received in Catholic baptism are no different from those received in, say, a Lutheran baptism. (cf. Unitatis Redintegratio, 22)

  8. Anonymous1:14 PM

    Wow, I love it that I/my friends have smart/ridiculously nerdy friends :D

    Firstly, I think the fact that baptism is a universal Christian sacrament is an interesting addition to the discussion of whether one can be Catholic and pro-abortion. For the purposes of this discussion, we should instead consider whether one can be Christian and pro-abortion. Keep in mind that St. Thomas Aquinas lived in the 1200s, approximately 300 years before the 95 Theses were posted. The only understanding he had of Christianity was within the Catholic Church and some other fairly similar, (or at least more similar than the denominations that claim themselves as Christian today), Christian churches that left in the schism. The fundamental point of the "I am" being transferred is meant to a universal Christian act; that is, when one is baptized one does not necessarily gain membership in the Catholic Church, but instead becomes part offamily of Jesus Christ. The graces are the same because the ultimate transformation is the same.

    Not only has the sacrament of baptism changed in the sense that it is not limited to Catholics becoming members of Christ's family (aka "an adopted son of God"), but it has also developed over time as a sacrament performed on infants rather than on adults. Jesus's baptism by John the Baptist was a conscious decision that He made just as through most of the history of the Church, adults chose to be baptized. Even though those adults may not have been completely properly catechized as to what they were doing, adults were still no less making a decision to subscribe to Catholic teaching at that time, in a similar way to how RCIA works for previous non-Christians. The transformation into the new "I am" was voluntary.

    Now, baptism is performed on infants at the request of their parents or relatives. When satan is renounced, the Godparents make that decision on behalf of the children, who are absolutely unable to do so themselves. At the time most children are baptized, they have little to no ability to verbally express anything, including a promise to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church. The transformation of the new "I am" is completely involuntary.

    The choice in transformation is key to whether one can hold views heretical to the Catholic Church's teachings and still be Catholic. When baptism was a sacrament that was chosen, one can assume there would be both a proper catechesis as well as a proper filtering. It is likely that a priest would not allow a person to enter the Catholic Church who is not fundamentally Catholic in thought and practice first. Thus, I would argue that in the days of adult baptism, it would like have been very difficult to be Catholic and pro-abortion. A decent priest would have likely excluded that person or corrected the error in his/her thinking.

    Today, though, it is common for people to be Catholic in essence if not Catholic in belief or practice because of when that Catholic identity was given to them. Many argue, similar to the point made by ALL, (which, Michael, does often use its acronym and, given the mission of the organization, likely chose its name purposefully considering its acronym), that those Catholics who vote for pro-abortion candidates are not actually Catholic. We cannot strip away that identity which was given to people prior to the formation of thoughts and beliefs. One becomes part of Christ's family and a follower of Christ in baptism, whether one actually chooses to act like it through life. Thus, I question one of the fundamental points of Mark's argument, given the nature of choice and when it occurs.

  9. Anonymous1:15 PM

    The definition of baptism as becoming a member of Christ's family is key to understanding whether excommunication from the
    Catholic Church as a result of being pro-abortion (not an excommunicable offense), having an abortion (an excommunicable offense), performing an abortion (an excommunicable offense), or aiding and abetting abortion (an excommunicable offense) actually removes one's Catholic identity. In the sense that one is no longer a member of the Catholic Church, excommunication for some kind of offense related to abortion would absolutely strip one of his/her Catholicism.

    However, most accurately Catholic is something one is rather than something one belongs to. Therefore one's Catholic identity cannot be taken from the Catholic Church or any institution in this world. We cannot remove someone from position of the God's child any more than we can engage in any action that is creative or destructive; all of that power belongs exclusively to God. Excommunication is effectively irrelevant as to whether one is actually Catholic as one became in baptism.

    Thus, one can absolutely be Catholic and pro-abortion just as much as one can be Catholic and pro-life. I would like to add, however, that the number of people in this country and world who are Catholic and pro-abortion is a clear picture of how our Catholic catechetical efforts need a lot of help. While one can be Catholic and pro-abortion, the fundamental dignity of all human life that is inherent in knowing that we were created so that our Lord could spend eternity with us lends itself to the perspective that one really shouldn't be Catholic and pro-abortion.

    PS Along this line of thought, please go to and join the PFL cause, Pray to End Abortion. May we invoke our membership in the family of Christ so that we can allow His will to work through us to save His children. Further, you can see a picture of the celebrity daughter of one of the contributors to this discussion by joining the cause.


  10. This is a very interesting discussion--thank you, Claire, for starting it.

    But I'm not so sure about some of the things that have been said about baptism, so I want to throw my two cents worth into the mix.

    First of all, Thomas seems to think that the indelible mark is a ontological change, that is, a change in one's being, just not a change in one's essence or existence, but the addition of a new power. It is the sanctifying grace that changes one's very existence, the very way in which one participates in God. It is this that is justificatory, that is, which remits all sin and which gives new life in the Spirit--as you point out, Claire, based on the new Catechism.

    But this sanctifying grace, we believe, can be lost through mortal sin. I don't think the issue of excommunication is important here, Anne, (though I could be wrong, as I don't understand excommunication as well as I should) because excommunication has to do with one's juridical state in the Church, whereas mortal sin in and of itself, with or without juridical intervention from the Church, destroys the life of God in the soul. And in the sense that to have the life of God within is to be part of Christ's bride, the Church, then mortal sin removes one from the Church. And I take it that to knowingly deny the Church's teaching on abortion is a mortal sin.

    And of course there is only one Church. Thus baptism /must be/ a Catholic sacrament, insofar as the sacraments were given by Christ to His one Church as means of salvation. Now other Christians can still validly perform baptism since they use the right formula, but baptism still initiates them into the same Church that Catholic baptism does--but they have less membership in that Church than do Catholics. There is only one Church, only one family of God, the Catholic Church--those outside the visible Catholic Church who are nonetheless in the Church participate in this one Catholic Church. I don't see any other way to preserve the real and indissoluble unity of the Church and the oneness of baptism. And those other Christians can destroy their membership in the life of grace the same way the rest of us do, by committing a mortal sin. Finally, I don't think that the distinction between infant and adult baptism is all that important here: it isn't the act of faith that justifies, but the free gift of grace by God in and through the minister of His Church. Yes, lack of faith or consent can limit or even prevent the sacramental grace from getting there in the first place, but, as with infant baptism, in many cases, the Church's faith supplies what is lacking. Thus it seems to me that every baptized person ought to believe everything the Church teaches. Some can't because of age, but they should be taught when they are able; others can't because they are Protestant and were never taught, so they aren't responsible. Each person (including those in the visible Church) participates in the Church to a greater or lesser extent based on their sanctity (also a gift from God) and all can lose grace through mortal sin. Thus I think that if there is an essential change with baptism, it is a change in virtue of sanctifying grace, and that can be lost, and denying the Church's teaching on abortion might lose it for some people (but not for others, such as the poorly catechized). But this would not eliminate the indelible character given at baptism, which is not an essential change.

    Let me know what you all think,

  11. "Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark (character) of his belonging to Christ. No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation*" (CCC 1272, *Cf. Rom 8:29, Council of Trent (1547): DS 1609-1619). So: this indelible mark cannot be lost through sin (which would make sense if it is an ontological change). Then how does this fit in?

    And I like how you solve the dilemma of Catholic vs other Christian baptisms, Mark.

    Anne, I love the plug for your work website. Your heart really is SO in this that you can't stay away! :)

  12. Let me know if this makes sense at all.

    Could it be that at baptism, the indelible spiritual mark or character that changes us is that we become a recepticle for sanctifying grace? So that we can recieve grace, and we can also dump it out through mortal sin. So we still have that recepticle and the potential for salvation, even if that potential is never actualized in our salvation.

    This may beg the question, what about those who die without being baptized? Do they not even have the potential for salvation? But just because baptism may be the only normal means by which we can recieve that potential for salvation, doesn't mean God doesn't have other extraordinary ways we don't know about. In fact I believe if someone is going through an RCIA program and preparing for baptism but dies unexpectedly before they are able to recieve, the Church says they probably go to heaven anyway? God is good!


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