Recollections from a Conversation with a Priest-to-be
Last Wednesday night I went, as usual, to the USC Catholic Center to attend the course taught by Father Ed, ‘Catholicism 101.’ It is a basic introduction to the theology of the Catholic Church, and in past weeks I had found it to be very interesting and rewarding to sit in on. I have found that there are a great many philosophical principles on which I disagree with the Church- for example, the Church sees the inherent goodness of matter while I see its inherent neutrality, the Church teaches that Man can know objective truth with certainty of mind, I do not believe it is possibility to escape one’s own subjectivity, etc- but it is nonetheless quite refreshing and enlightening both to discuss these grand issues with actual theologians and to attain a higher understanding of what it is that has informed my conscience since as long as I can remember going to Church.
This last week, however, Father Ed was out of town. In his stead was Ethan, a seminarian only a few years older than I, who is presently studying at a seminary up on a mountain in Ventura with hopes to become a priest in about three years, around the time I graduate. Ethan has been sitting in on the classes too, helping Father Ed, but this time was the first time he taught the actual class. As luck would have it, we were just out of midterm season and I presume most of the brains normally in attendance were too exhausted to ponder great metaphysical issues; so I was the only other person in attendance. I being the awkward individual I am, and Ethan having the somewhat odd and mystical demeanor of one inspired by the Spirit, I figured that this would probably be one of the more awkward evenings of the semester, so I held my breath as we went up to one of the conference rooms to discuss Catholic theology.
As it turned out, this was one of the most interesting evenings I’ve had all year. After a brief prayer, Ethan began to lecture on the nature of the Holy Spirit, and as I was the only student in attendance, I felt quite comfortable asking questions liberally. What started as a lecture turned into an impassioned conversation, and his passion to share complemented my thirst to know. I had a meeting I had to get to at eight o’clock so I was only able to stay for one hour, but in that window Ethan explained to me quite clearly the Church’s teachings on three key issues I have never quite understood, and in fact still do not understand. Yet his understanding passed somewhat onto me, and though I am admittedly somewhat agnostic about all these issues, I nonetheless hold a greater respect for the traditions of the Church and a greater awe for God’s majesty now that I understand the metaphysics of the Church a bit more clearly. The three issues we discussed were the Trinity, Marriage, and Communion. I will endeavor to explain what I have learned below, however poorly.
The Holy Trinity
The basic conception of God in most monotheistic faiths is an all-powerful, all-knowing being with his own purposes and his own ways. “High above the ways of Man are the ways of God,” say a thousand different aphorisms and hymns, and in general this explains the humility of most of these monotheistic faiths- as Man cannot know much about God except that he is the prime mover, the first force, the eternal judge, there is not much to do but to accept his existence and worship him. It is a somewhat grave outlook, but nonetheless a majestic one.
In Catholic Christianity, however, (and I am in no way qualified to discuss the teachings of Protestant or Eastern Orthodox Christianity,) there is the odd paradox taught, that God is one Being, yet three distinct and separate Persons. This almost looks like polytheism, when compared to the traditional monotheism of One God who is one Supreme Being and one Person. The Catholic Church teaches that God exists in the three persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
It is tempting to simply revert to a semi-polytheistic view, and suggest that God the Father is the traditional monotheistic all-powerful Being, God the Son (Jesus Christ) is his entirely holy iteration on Earth, and God the Holy Spirit is his mystical delivery boy and courier and messenger.
This, however, pays no homage to the actual subtlety of the teaching. Bear in mind that each of these three persons is said to be ENTIRELY the essence of God, not merely an independent divine entity. There is a much subtler explanation, inspired in part by the metaphysical works of Plato and Plotinus, which is hard to grasp but mind-blowing to understand.
In short, the Church teaches that the Creator of the Universe, God the Father, thought about himself and the subtle truths of reality which he had written, and in so doing begot God the Son, who was entirely an image of God the Father. God the Father did not CREATE God the Son; but God the Son came into existence by God the Father’s pondering himself. And into God the Son, God the Father poured all his love, his devotion, his ESSENCE. And God the Son looked back at God the Father and returned all that love, and devotion, and essence. And thus God the Father and God the Son were bound together in an inseparable cord of love, which might be described as a two-way field of cosmic energy pulsating and flowing throughout all reality. From this field, from this essence, arose God the Holy Spirit, literally the spirit of the love of God. And when this image is visualized, it is somewhat easier to understand why the symbol of the Holy Spirit has always been Wind, or Fire- a flowing, untouchable mass of energy that is there, that can be felt, that can be known, but cannot be understood. (Modern science notwithstanding; it is the symbolism that matters here.)
These three entities- the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit- each have their unique roles in the Catholic understanding. The Father created the Universe and wrote its laws. The Holy Spirit is his prime actor, and it is generally understood that Creation is governed by the Holy Spirit’s bidding. These two concepts, the creator and the messenger, are accepted and shared by many religions. Where Christianity is distinct from most other religions is in the existence of God the Son as a Savior. It is the heart of all Christian doctrine, that God saved Mankind through Jesus Christ as Savior. Catholic theology teaches that God the Son came to Earth for two main purposes- first, to teach Men the proper way of living, and second, to die for their sins out of love. (More on that particular principle in the Communion section.) It is a long and convoluted thing to understand- perhaps sometime around Easter I will post a long and sappy essay detailing it- but in essence, by coming to Earth and sacrificing himself for humankind, by allowing himself to die, God redeemed humankind from its sinfulness and showed how much he loved the human beings he had created. Thus the role of God the Son is the primary connection between God and Man- the messenger who teaches Men how they ought to live, and the sacrificial lamb who redeems Mankind’s sinfulness out of love.
Now, it is crucial to remember that, although each of these persons plays a very different role, THEY ARE ALL OF THE SAME ESSENCE- they are all God. And they all must exist with each other, and cannot exist without each other. The image of two radiant balls of light with a steady stream of cosmic energy flowing between them is perhaps the best visual impression I can give of how this might look physically.
I hope I have adequately explained the doctrine of the Trinity, for both my Catholic and Non-Catholic readers. I will proceed to detail the Church’s teachings on two of its most important sacraments, two of its most important institutionalized rituals- Marriage and Communion. It is critical to understand at least at a basic level the principles of the Trinity in order to understand why it portrays Marriage and Communion as it does.
When the Church speaks of Marriage, it does not primarily refer to the civil compact bequeathed by human political entities, though it often seeks to influence this compact. When the Church speaks of Marriage, it primarily refers to Marriage within the Church, in terms of the union between a man, a woman, and God which is taught to be the highest form of love possible on Earth, second only to the love of God.
I want to make it clear that this is not an argument against gay marriage, though it should explain why the Church teaches against gay marriage. I merely wish to explain the teaching of the Church as I understand it.
A man and a woman able to procreate engage in the sexual act and, in so doing, CREATE new life- a child who is theirs. This is important primarily as an analogue for the Holy Trinity- as God the Father and God the Son loving each other create the Holy Spirit, so a man and woman loving each other create a child.
It is important not to misconstrue this analogy, as I have stated it is incredibly imperfect (as everything in our world tends to be.) Jesus and God are not literally having sex, man and woman do not correspond to God and Jesus, and an infant does not correspond to the Holy Spirit. What is important here is the notion of creation through love as the ultimate reality of the Universe, and the ultimate good attainable by Man save loving God alone. It is in essence Man’s connection to the eternal, that act which brings him in contact with his Maker by making him slightly more like him.
Funny and ironic that the Church, so stringent and puritan about sexuality, should view sex as the ultimate form of love! I hope it is obvious, however, why the Church is so prudely and dedicated to strict rules. It views the sexual act as a tool of ultimate love; and when that act is used for different purposes, for self-gratification or otherwise, sex is misused and cheapened, tarnished and disgraced. It is not so much that the Church condemns sex, but that the Church advocates sex in what it views as its proper role.
Note, too, that the Church marries infertile people and supports adoption. It is not entirely idealistic and has its practical moments; but like so many other teachings of the Church, its teaching on Marriage is based on a theological view of how human society ought to be and the tradeoffs between metaphysical purity and sheer practicality which it must use to march forward.
There is another analogue in Marriage and Parenthood, perhaps stronger than the analogue with the Holy Trinity. This is the analogue of the Creator to the Created. We refer to God as the Father because the Church’s teaching of God’s nature most closely resembles the ideal role of a father figure- strong, strict, yet loving and merciful. As a parent raises a child through the child’s helpless years and provides them with those things necessary for them to grow independent and strong, so God protects his Creations and provides them with the opportunities to most closely realize themselves. As a parent loves their child unconditionally, so God loves his Creations. Yet this, too, is an imperfect analogy, for parents are mortal and God is immortal, and parents’ power is limited while God’s has no bounds. The same is true of the wisdom of parents compared to the wisdom of God. Thus the family is sacred in Catholic teaching, for by the relations of Marriage and Parenthood, the fundamental realities of human existence are, however imperfectly, symbolized on Earth.
I hope I have made somewhat clearer the Church’s perspective on the institution of Marriage. I do not intend it to be a political diatribe, but an explanation of theology which can inform both political discussion and those thinking on metaphysical issues, as well as those thinking about Marriage personally.
This last part will cover the greatest sacrament of the Catholic Church, Communion, and its relationship to the mysteries of Catholic lore.
I discussed at short length the mystery of the sacrifice of Christ in the first section above. I will presume that most of my readers are at least nominally familiar with the Passion and the Crucifixion (to have gotten this far without being bored out of your mind implies that you likely have some previous interest in theology) and proceed to detail the significance of Communion in light of the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.
Now Jesus, God the Son on Earth, incarnate as a human, had spent his life on Earth doing good, preaching good, showing through his life and his teachings how Man ought to live in order to attain salvation, etc etc etc. He knew how the events which would end his life as a man would transpire, and when the time came called his followers together at the Last Supper.
When he prepared the bread and wine, he essentially told his disciples that it was his actual flesh and blood- that it was his body that his disciples now ate and drank, his sacrifice that they might be purified. And when the next day he died on the cross, the sacrifice was complete. The best explanation Ethan gave me for this- how can you actually consume Jesus’s body if he’s still alive? How can he be sacrificed if he’s not dead yet? How does he transfer his essence to the bread and wine before the Crucifixion?- was, and it should be noted that profound mysteries never really have satisfying answers, “Because he’s God.
I would ask my readers to pause and consider the implications of this for a moment.
God the Son, a definite part of the Holy Trinity, definitely God, loves Mankind so much that he comes to Earth with the intention of teaching them, suffering for them, and dying for them. He takes upon himself the sinfulness of Mankind, soaking it in like a sponge; and makes himself one with the bread and wine. He has his disciples consume that bread and wine, and dies. In effect, in essence, his disciples consume his flesh and blood, and by so doing are cleansed, are purified, for he died for their sins as a sacrificial lamb. The ritual is formalized and repeated time and time again until it is institutionalized among the various Christian churches serving over a billion people worldwide today.
The oddity and confusion of this ceremony can only be understood in the context of so many other similar rituals in peoples around the world- it is basically sacrificial ritual cannibalism. But it is done out of God’s love for his Creations, to save them from their sinfulness. And that is Christ’s purpose in the Holy Trinity.
I hope I have clarified, to some mean degree, the place of Communion in Catholic theology. It is a very confusing topic and, in truth, as I read over it again, I doubt I have done service either to the Church in explaining it adequately, or to my readership in explaining it coherently. In any case, it is what it is, and hopefully I have sparked some thought and discussion.
This concludes my dialogue on some of the metaphysical and ritual teachings of the Catholic Church. In writing it, I do not expound my own opinion, but my understanding of the opinions of the Church.
Indeed, I disagree with the Church on any number of critical issues. I already noted, in my introduction, my disagreements with the Church on the nature of knowledge and the morality of nature. I also have grave doubts about the conception of the Trinity, the logic of a God who exists outside of history choosing to act within history, the idea of love as the universal force, the teleological conception of a Universe advancing slowly towards a perfect ending, the political, social, and moral stance that there is an ideal society which ought to be striven for, and countless other points.*
Nonetheless, these beliefs, as well as those which I agree with and those I am dispassionate about, have helped to shape my worldview and understanding, as well as those of essentially all Catholics. Thus it is critical that we discuss them and ponder them, that we might know better ourselves and our faith.
I would here invite all Catholics attending USC to come to the Catholicism 101 sessions. They are usually Wednesdays at 7PM at the Catholic Center, and the topics of lecture and discussion are only getting more interesting. Moreover, the course has been woefully under-attended in recent weeks, and profound knowledge is flitting past all those who may show up but do not.
Finally, all those non-Catholics reading this who are interested in theology, would like to understand Catholicism for their own purposes, or are curious about the Church- you, too, are welcome to attend. All are welcome.
*This does not even begin to cover my political quarrels with the Church, both in the realm of practicality in social and social justice issues, and in the ideologies of perpetual world peace, just wars, and win-win solutions.