I was taken aback by Michael Tkacz’s reply to Andrew J. McCauley in Letters, February 2009. Dr. Tkacz states, “If one conceives God as a sequential or episodic Creator, then one is not thinking of the Christian God.” I cannot see how this statement can be reconciled with the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“Creation has its own goodness and proper perfection, but it did not spring forth complete from the hands of the Creator. The universe was created ‘in a state of journeying’ (in statu viae) toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained, to which God has destined it” (CCC 302).
Later, Dr. Tkacz declares, “[O]ne cannot include in one’s exegesis an account of God’s creative agency that violates his divine nature as the ultimate source of order.” Quite true, but one can include in one’s exegesis an account of God’s creative agency that violates St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy. With all due respect to Thomas, he did not speak with the authority of the magisterium.
If Dr. Tkacz portrays Thomas accurately, apparently his philosophy did not take into account God’s role not only as a Creator but also as a sustainer of the universe (CCC 301). Thomas made a mistake trying to work backward from this philosophy into theology when his ideas on ensoulment led him to discount the belief in the Immaculate Conception. That was not exegesis, but isegesis, and apparently much the same happened in regards to Thomas’s lack of understanding of God as a sustainer, if Dr. Tkacz renders him correctly.
Dr. Tkacz also claimed, “As for creation, it cannot be that God creates sequentially or episodically, nor does he create by intervening in nature.” Yet, God certainly does create episodically with the creation of each new soul, “The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God—it is not ‘produced’ by the parents” (CCC 366). More importantly, to deny that God can intervene in nature is to deny the Incarnation: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14).
No doubt the Church has rightly praised the work of the Angelic Doctor. Still, the Church has never felt herself constrained to his every word—neither should we.
Michael T. Tkacz replies: A central doctrine of the Church is the absolute transcendence of God, and St. Thomas Aquinas was quite concerned to defend this teaching throughout his writings. This is why he insists that God does not create sequentially or episodically. God creates in a single absolute and eternal divine act. The passage cited from the Catechism (302) is not claiming that God created the universe sequentially, but that the perfection of the world is not realized all at once. What is in statu viae is not God or his act of creation, but the universe as it journeys toward its divine destiny. The Catechism is here discussing divine providence and it makes clear (306-308) that God acts through secondary causes—that is, through natural causes. This is precisely the point that Thomas is making: God does not intervene in the universe, if we mean by “intervene” acting in opposition to natural causes. Rather, God causes natural things to exist in such a way that they are the real causes of their own operations. God is certainly at work in every operation of nature, but not in a way that compromises the autonomy of nature. This is, as the Catechism says, not a limitation of God’s power, but an indication of his goodness.
Thomas certainly holds that God is the sustainer of the universe, but this does not imply that God creates sequentially or episodically. From the temporal point of view of the creature, God’s creative act is continual, but in itself it must be one. Thomas says:
It ought to be said that God does not produce things into being by one operation and conserve them in being in another. The being of permanent things is not divisible, except accidentally as it is subject to some motion; being, however, exists in an instant. Whence the operation of God does not differ according as it makes the beginning of being and as its makes the continuation of being. (De Potentia Dei 5.1, ad 2)
Were one to consider that God acts sequentially in separate acts of creation and conservation, one would be denying God’s immutability, as do some modern process theologians who hold that God evolves or changes. For Thomas, such a view fails to do justice to God’s absolute perfection.
In addition, Thomas holds that the same God who transcends the created universe is also intimately and immanently present within that order upholding natural causes in their operations. Every natural being and natural process is immediately caused to exist by God’s immanent power and goodness. This extends to those effects that we cannot explain in terms of natural causes, such as the Incarnation. Yet, none of this implies sequential or episodic creation—indeed, argues Thomas, quite the contrary.
It is true that Thomas does not speak with the authority of the magisterium, but there is nothing in his analysis of the doctrine of creation that is contrary to the teachings of the Church. This is why the Church has so often turned to him for assistance in articulating her magisterial teaching.
. . . and Round Four
I am an avid supporter of Catholic Answers, and have been for years.
One thing recently that has been troubling me is a series of articles and responses by a Dr. Michael Tkacz. I admit that I am not a trained theologian or philosopher, but I have read Thomas, Church documents, the Bible, and the Catechism extensively. There have been several statements made by Dr. Tkacz that I find quite troubling, two of which follow:
- God does not intervene into nature, nor does he adjust or “fix-up” natural things (“Aquinas vs. Intelligent Design,” November 2008)
- God is always bestowing his goodness upon us in an eternal act of benevolence and prayer opens us up to receive what God already provides (Letters, January 2009, emphasis added)
Do these statements, especially the first one, or anything else Dr. Tkacz said, mean that:
- Our Lord did not change the water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana.
- He did not make the blind to see.
- He did not grant the prayer of the Canaanite woman, after her persistence in asking him.
- He did not raise Lazarus from the dead. Sounds like he “fixed-up” Lazarus, at least!
- He does not create souls at conception, before which these souls did not exist.
- The requirement of miracles for the canonization of a saint is meaningless because God would have to heal (intervene) somebody, because of the prospective saint’s intercession.
I am not saying that Dr. Tkacz implied any of the above statements, but the average reader of your magazine would infer them. Further, in the January 2009 issue, a letter from a reader brought up several of these same points and neither Dr. Tkacz, nor a priest, nor anybody, took the time to clearly say that the article didn’t mean these things. This causes the average reader (myself included) to question his faith, the usefulness of prayer, and God’s involvement in our own lives, all in a negative way. Why pray for things, if God will not intervene in some way? Maybe it was the furthest thing from Dr. Tkacz’s mind to imply that God does not intervene in any way in our lives, but not to answer these questions implies to the average reader that God does not do these things.
Because your magazine has always been a source of faithful Catholic teaching, these series of articles have affected me so much, and I think most of your readers would feel the same way. I view Catholic Answers as a clear voice among many that are unclear. You often go to great lengths to clear up misconceptions about the faith, which is what an apologetics organization is supposed to do, yet by Dr. Tkacz’s articles and responses, combined with the silence in clearing up these basic questions, some of the very basic Christian teachings are seemingly trodden upon.
— John Kirby
Michael T. Tkacz replies: I fully understand Mr. Kirby’s concern about what seems to him a denial of the reality of miracles and the efficacy of prayer. I also understand how one may come to have such a concern after reading an account of Thomas’s analysis of the doctrine of creation. This analysis is philosophically sophisticated and demands careful study to understand correctly. Let me reassure Mr. Kirby that nothing in Thomas’s analysis is contrary to Church teaching on these issues, nor did I intend to defend any unorthodox position in my article. Indeed, I affirmed both the reality of miracles and the efficacy of prayer in the responses to my readers. Nonetheless, Mr. Kirby is quite correct that neither my article nor my responses provided an extended account of these subjects. My article focused on the correct understanding of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, naturally leaving many related issues unaddressed. One cannot do everything in one article, but perhaps I can put some of Mr. Kirby’s concerns to rest.
Regarding miracles, Thomas points out that God cannot do anything contrary to the order he established in nature. If he did, then God would be acting contrary to his own intention and goodness, which is impossible. So, whatever miracles are, they are not opposed to nature. Rather, says Thomas, miracles are God acting apart from nature. One way in which God reveals himself to us is through rarely occurring, unexplained events that trigger our admiration and draw our attention to his revelation. This is not God adjusting or fixing-up nature to make it better. God created nature and it is, therefore, already good. Rather, God is doing another good in addition to the good he is already doing in creating and sustaining nature. Thus, Thomas’ point, that creation is not a natural change, is confirmed by miracles, because miracles are no more a part of the natural order than is creation. As Thomas says about the raising of Lazarus, it is not as if something went wrong in nature and God intervened to fix it up. Lazarus’ death is a natural process operating precisely according to the order God gave nature in creation. In raising Lazarus, God is doing good by giving life in a way different from the way new life is caused in nature. God does this as a revelation, providing us with a type of the Resurrection of Christ. Thomas is hardly denying miracles here. Instead, he is providing a better understanding of them through a more consistent and correct account of divine action.
As for prayer, Thomas warns that we must avoid misunderstanding that may lead to false doctrine. God is absolutely unchangeable and his goodness is absolutely constant and pervasive. The purpose of prayer, then, cannot be to change God’s eternal providential disposition, for this is impossible. We cannot change God and we cannot move him to do what we want in any way. Rather, the purpose of prayer is to dispose us to receive the good God intends for us. This he already provides, not in the sense that he does so before the time we pray (there is no “before” in God’s actions), but in the sense that he does so independently of our prayer. God intends our good whether we pray or not. The point of the necessity of our being steadfast in prayer is not that we can thereby somehow force, pester, embarrass, or manipulate God into giving us what we want. God does not need our prayer, nor does he depend on it in order to intend our good. Rather, the point is that we need our prayer; we need to be constantly acknowledging our dependence on God for all good things.
A central doctrine of the faith is the absolute transcendence of God. He is the unchangeable absolute reality that is the source of all being and good. He created everything from nothing and makes it good. Yet, this very transcendence makes it difficult to understand what God is and how he acts. The best we limited human knowers can do is to use analogies with ourselves and the rest of the natural world. For this reason, we must, in speaking of God, be careful not to be misled by our analogies. We cannot explain with scientific precision just how God does what he does, for God transcends human understanding. We can, however, be clear about what God is not: God is like nothing else; he acts in a way that is radically different from anything we know in nature. God does not act as natural causes do, nor does he from time to time substitute for a natural cause. What God does do is to create sustainingly in a single divine act of power and goodness. Thomas affirms that we can use our natural analogies for God, provided we are constantly aware of them as mere analogies. This is the point of Thomas’s analysis of the doctrine of creation and of my article: Failure to exercise proper care in our theological claims can result in the misunderstandings and inconsistencies that undermine true doctrine. Additionally, strongly to affirm God’s transcendence in the way Thomas does most certainly confirms the reality of miracles and the efficacy of prayer.
What about the Irreverent Ones?
“Both Pharisee and Publican Call the Church Home” (January 2009) was a challenging read.
I’m one of the “counter-cultural” Catholics Dr. Mirus describes, stumbling my way toward being “true to the demands of the faith.” And I have to confess to losing sight sometimes of both my own spiritual “messiness” and of the welcoming arms of the Body of Christ for all who want to be held by them.
I also must admit that Dr. Mirus’s delicate, profound distinction between the deep “consolations” of, say, a particularly reverent liturgy, and the unfathomable depths of God himself has never occurred to me. How to remain conscious of the distinction, and how to shift focus from the one to the Other, will keep me pondering and praying for a long while to come. But I’m most grateful for being forced to begin.
I also feel an urgency to challenge Dr. Mirus on two aspects of his thoughtful piece, again with gratitude for his having stirred me to thinking about them more deeply.
First, he was excessively charitable, I think, in his reference to our fellow Catholics “who, in major and even public ways, show no serious effort to accept and follow the Church’s teachings” and who would be “appalled by their participation in the sinfulness of the Church” if they truly recognized it. That term “public ways” instantly brought to mind the Ted Kennedy-Catholics of our time.
Such public figures, having drawn so much attention (including that of a few courageous bishops) to their obstinate disobedience on the life issues, can hardly be unaware by now of their part in the “sinfulness of the Church,” let alone be appalled by it. I think this particular form of sinfulness was worth considerably more of Dr. Mirus’s attention, given that so much is at stake in it. It’s not enough to chalk it up to messy human practice, akin to exhausted parents rushing through the rosary late at night because the Down Syndrome baby they so trustingly gave birth to has deprived them of precious sleep. Not all sinfulness is equal.
Second, Dr. Mirus reminded me of the 14-year-old girl who came to midnight Mass this year, with her nicely dressed twin sister, her 40-something parents, and the reindeer antlers on her head. They gathered in a forward pew, directly in front of the tabernacle, as if nothing at all was unusual about them, while the antlered teenager defiantly folded her arms across her chest. Not a soul, including me, said a word to her or her parents.
I had just settled in to enjoy the consolations of that uniquely beautiful liturgy when the antlers intruded. Consolations shattered, I struggled to pray for her, for my own forgiveness, and for the blessed Christmas I had hoped to savor. As Dr. Mirus so rightly admonished, our Church of “here comes everybody” naturally includes the most unexpected messiness from time to time. In fact, we should expect our loving God to allow us such opportunities to draw closer to him. But the pain I felt that night really wasn’t for myself. It was, I think I can honestly say, for our Lord, in his humbly reposed presence in that tabernacle, and about to be broken and poured out for us again on his altar of sacrifice. When is it time for us to put aside our own messiness, sinful and unresolved as it is, and take up a humble, charitable, higher obligation to our living God, ignored and insulted in his own house? I know Dr. Mirus touched on this, but again I think it worth considerably more emphasis. Neither our priests, with their primary responsibility, nor we lay faithful, with our co-responsibility, seem to be able anymore to step outside of ourselves long enough, as humanly unworthy as we are, to attempt to defend him in his humble silence. I have no doubt that the girl wearing the antlers at midnight Mass is totally loved by God and will be completely forgiven, should she ask to be. But what of those of us who are older, probably wiser, certainly convicted of his real presence among us, and who know an insult when we see one? Are we not too constrained by our own messiness now, or too tolerant of the messiness of others, to bear any responsibility for the gum-chewing on the way to Communion, or the raucous restaurant conversation immediately after Mass, or—already real in some dioceses—the political demonstrations disrupting Mass and the “taking” of Holy Communion by angry protesters? When I am standing alone before him at the particular judgment, I don’t know that he will accept as sufficient all the silent prayers I offered at times like that.
— Patricia Bucalo
Jeffrey Mirus replies: I very much appreciate Patricia Bucalo’s kind comments on my article. She raises a very good question about those who publicly oppose the teachings of the Catholic Church, using the designation “Ted Kennedy-Catholics” to indicate the kind or class of person she has in mind.
I want to emphasize again what I said in the article: “None of this means that we should not spend time thinking about what is wrong in the Church or working hard to strengthen her against both the particular sins of her members and the general sins of the culture from which she draws them.” To take the example of Catholic politicians who advocate abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, gay marriage or other policies which are condemned by the Church as intrinsically evil, it is extremely important for those in ecclesiastical authority to deal forthrightly with this problem, to admonish the sinner, and to exclude notorious public sinners from Communion. Sometimes formal excommunication may be required. Those of us who are not in positions of ecclesiastical authority should continue to work to strengthen the faith of all, and to encourage bishops and priests to be firm—as is, in fact, required by canon law. (Similarly, anyone who seeks Communion as part of an obvious protest against Catholic teaching should be denied the Eucharist.)
But of course the focus of my article was to emphasize that we should not be surprised that the Church is not as effective in dealing with such things as we would like, and we must resist any temptation to separate from the Church because her leaders frequently fear to deal forthrightly with the rich and powerful. Rest assured that there has never been a period in history—and never will be one—in which problems of this kind are nonexistent. (We might even draw some spiritual benefit by reflecting on how ineffectively we often deal with those within our own sphere of influence who go astray, for example co-workers, friends, and family.)
But it is a long mile from hardened pro-abortion Catholic politicians to a teenager wearing an antler hat at Christmas Mass! Let us presume that this girl was in something of a funk—even perhaps in prolonged resistance to her parents’ spiritual efforts on her behalf—and let us assume that her antler hat, though very probably a special Christmas accoutrement, was in poor taste. I agree with Patricia Bucalo that it would be distracting, but I part company with her in feeling pain “for our Lord.” Our Lord may have been chuckling, or he may have been rejoicing that the parents bit the bullet and dragged her along, or he might have thought it a pretty good lesson for all those who came seeking consolations but found antlers instead—the lesson being, I would suggest, that we should not stew over such things for a moment, let alone for days afterwards.
For this reason, I congratulate Patricia Bucalo for praying for this girl, who appeared to be in spiritual distress, and I congratulate everyone present for their reluctance to approach her father or mother. They did exactly the right thing. The correct assumption was that this family was doing the best it could at the time. Moreover, those who noticed the antlers pleased God far more by struggling to maintain their own spiritual composure (whether tempted to laugh, cry, or scream) than they could have done by taking consolation in the beauties of the liturgy.
But to answer the question at the end of the message, I recommend that everyone strive to increase reverence, both by giving good example and by working with pastors, teachers, liturgists and all others who are in a position to instruct the faithful on the meaning of the Real Presence, including its implications for decorum in Church.
“We know,” says St. Paul, “that in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rom 8:28).
Your January 2009 Damascus Road article (“The Endless Gift”) troubled me. Mary L. made reference to her first marriage to a lapsed Catholic which ended in divorce, followed by a second marriage to another Catholic man in a civil ceremony. She never mentions that she must have surely needed an annulment from her first marriage. Please clear this up.
— Jim Sponsler
Editor replies: Although not stated explicitly in the article, Mary L.’s second marriage was fully in accord with Church law, which the editors verified.