Thursday, July 30, 2009

Response 2 to REW on the Sign of the Cross

Thanks once again to REW for another set of thoughtful remarks. Once again, I'll respond in line with REW's text.

I'd like to clarify a couple things in my comments that appear to have been misconstrued. Most importantly, I did not intend to say, imply, or convey in any way that the sign of the Cross is, necessarily, an empty ritual. This is why I placed quotes around it.

Thank you for this clarification. Looking back, my response to the comment about "empty" ritual seems misplaced, and for this I offer my apologies. I did not mean to assume that you aligned your beliefs with those of Luther. Thus, I should have asked if Martin Luther would have been so bold as to accuse the apostles of promoting "empty" rituals (though it doesn't seem he would have, at least as far as the sign of the Cross is concerned).

As someone who has done quite a lot of reading in anti-Catholic materials (and by this, I don't mean to imply that your response is anti-Catholic), I can attest to the number of anti-Catholic apologists who believe that Catholic practices like the sign of the Cross are truly empty rituals. Given this sentiment, I always appreciate when non-Catholics distinguish between 1) what the ritual itself truly is and 2) the degree to which those who practice the ritual are aware of its profound significance and history.

I am acquainted with many Catholics for whom the act of crossing themselves carries great meaning and, I'm sure, is therefore valued by God. However, I've known many more Catholics who, themselves, do not know why they make the sign of the cross. In such cases, I would submit, it is an empty ritual.

With all due respect, I have to disagree with you here. I would suggest that the act of making the sign of the Cross has an intrinsic, objective meaning apart from the intentions of the one making it. Ideally, the person making it continually grows more aware of its meaning. After all, the sign of the Cross is God's invention, not man's; it was taught authoritatively through the first bishops of the Catholic Church from the first centuries of Christianity onward. It is our job to learn from these men why they insisted that their followers adopt this sign. (Recall here the Chesterton analogy.) For instance, is there something we can learn from their instruction about how we can use our bodies to worship God? Is there something we can learn about why God gave us bodies, and the role created matter can play in our spiritual lives? (Interestingly, many converts to the Catholic faith, especially former Protestant pastors, say that their former Protestant perspective didn't comprehend the full meaning of the incarnation in regard to the role of the body and of matter in God's economy of salvation.)

The modern, non-Christian take on sexuality might serve as another example to highlight the Christian understanding of sacramental signs. Modern non-Christians often treat the sex act merely as a means of achieving a certain pleasure; it is something, therefore, that can be enjoyed with however many partners one likes, with whatever gender one likes, etc. They take the position that sex is relative to whatever a particular subject makes of it. The Christian position is that God created sex and imbues it with a meaning that is essential to sexuality itself. The meaning of sexuality, therefore, is not the result of a subjective construction but is something objective that is discovered. In the former case, subjects puts themselves in God's position, making sex in their image. In the latter case, Christians (and others) put themselves in the humbler position of learning to understand the gift, even if the gift doesn't make that much sense at the outset.

In the case of human sexuality, we know as Christians that sexuality is made by God, and the problem is that people don't acknowledge its inherent meaning when they abuse it in various ways. In the same way, the sign of the Cross is never, in and of itself, an empty ritual, though there are some people who make the sign unaware or unconscious of its awesome power and significance. (The lack of faithfulness in making the sign limits the grace they receive from it...though who's to say if it is completely empty of grace? Who can judge the heart of the person making the sign, even if this person fumbles at an explanation of it?) Yet, the problem is not that the sign is suddenly empty, or even that God no longer values the sign. The problem is that some people don't acknowledge the power of the sign when they make it. Even more problematic are people who (often through no fault of their own) don't acknowledge the power, meaning, and origin of the sign and don't make. This is the group of people to whom my posts are directed, such that they will hear even more of the good news and through God's grace conform their lives to it.

I also believe that, generally speaking, the difference between what we perceive to be a poorly-made sign and a well-made sign is far smaller than the distance between a well-made sign and the ideal God holds for us. In other words, I don't put too much stock in how other people seem to respect or even understand the gifts of Christianity. The gifts are what they are, and no one will fully appreciate their depth until they enter heaven. The saints tell us all the time that if we truly new how much God loved us, we would die of joy. St. Pio once wrote of the Mass that "If we only knew how God regards this Sacrifice, we would risk our lives to be present at a single Mass." Similarly, I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that if we only knew how truly powerful the sign of the cross is, and how much God loves his children to "cross themselves," we would never stop making it. (Thus, I place myself under examination by my own blog post!) We would, as the earliest fathers of the church instruct us, make the sign before everything we do; we'd place the sign of the triune God on ourselves before we pray, eat, sleep, work, play, and do everything that we do each day. (See the links on the first posts to quotes from the early church fathers.)

Let me conclude by agreeing with you 100% that it is not good for people to go through rituals (whether they be the Mass, the Rosary, the sign of the Cross, etc.) without understanding their significance, for such people gain little grace from them. Who knows how much divine grace is lost when people daydream through these moments of prayer?

Further along this line, I obviously did not mean to say that what one does bears no relationship with who one is. Of course, being Christian should result in certain actions, and abstaining from certain actions.

Yes, I agree. But who decides which actions are appropriate, which actions deserve abstention, and which actions don't matter at all? Who holds the final authority?

I appreciate your desire for unity among all Christian bretheren.

I like to place the focus on Jesus's prayer in John 17, where he offers his sacrifice so that Christians may be one as He and the Father are one. (That oneness is the most central mystery of Christianity, the Most Holy Trinity, yet we are called to have and enter into that same oneness! The divisions we see between Christians today are absolutely contrary to Jesus's will.) I would next place the focus on St. Paul's command to be "perfectly united" (see 1 Cor. 1:10 and elsewhere). The only way I know of for this unity to be perfectly accomplished (or even close to it, which may be all we can get this side of heaven) is for Christ to create a living authority that would be passed down throughout the generations, which he did in Matt. 16, drawing on the very structure of the Davidic kingdom that this Son of David fulfills (see Isaiah 22).

Jesus desired unity more than all Christians could ever desire it combined, and we rely on His grace for the fulfillment of his high-priestly prayer the eve before his crucifixion. My desires are fickle and worthless things to the extent that they become disconnected from these biblical truths. May Jesus's will be perfectly accomplished in all things, on earth as it is in heaven.

But when making the sign of the Cross hinders me from communing with God in prayer and worship, I will not do it.

At one level, the idea that someone might have you do something that gets in the way of your communing with God in prayer and worship is repulsive to the sensitivities of modern culture (in general) and Christians (in particular). After all, isn't the benefit of having so many flavors of Christianity that each of us can find the one that works best for us and that enables us most readily to commune with God? Isn't that what St. Paul meant when he compared the Church to a body with many parts? (To be clear, I don't answer either question in the affirmative.)

And at another level, I'd reiterate that God commands us to follow our consciences. Please don't take my posts to be a kind of intellectual arm-wrestling with the intent of strong-arming you or anyone else into doing something that you don't think God is leading you to at this time. Though I can't (and don't) say it enough, I would encourage you to constantly be asking the Lord what he would have you do, and I trust that if your mind and heart are open to His voice, that you will follow him when he calls. That need not be today, though if today you hear his voice...

Yet, the call to share the gospel stands. The call to unity stands. Thus, the call to have open, honest, charitable dialogue stands, and honestly, I take such great pleasure in the give and take of such discussions.

That being said, let me speak to a third level at which your previous sentence becomes a bit of a slippery slope. I've had friends say that Sunday church services themselves get in the way of communing with God. I've heard pastors say that the ritual of the Lord's supper gets in the way of the ministry of the word and hence disrupts their congregations communing with God. I've heard people say that repeated prayers get in the way of their communing with God. I've heard people say that religion gets in the way of their communing with God.

Once again, the issue of authority plays a role in every decision we make about how we live our Christian life. While having an authoritative church doesn't mean that there can not be a rich variety of religious expressions (just look at the hundreds of religious orders within Catholicism: you have the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Jesuits, and many, many more), it does mean that we as Christians need to listen and honor the instructions of the authority that Jesus established. That authority is a living institution that has existed since the beginning. The Catholic Church is the only Christian organization that can (and does) make that claim, and its doctrinal and moral teachings have never changed (though they have obviously developed).

When some Christians five centuries ago decided to no longer follow that authority, they not only began teaching different doctrines new to the history of Christianity, but perhaps more destructively, they turned Christianity into something that is ultimately up to the individual to determine for him or herself. In this respect, the deepest issue dividing Protestants and Catholics is the issue of authority. But related to this issue are the issues of truth and certainty. If no final authority exists outside the individual believer, then the questions are raised: is it possible to know Christ-the-Truth in His fullness, and can I ever be certain (even if I happen to believe correctly) that I know the truth?

In sum, I would reiterate the following two points: First, it needs to be determined if things like going to church on Sunday, participating weekly in the Lord's supper, and making the sign of the Cross are up to the individual Christian (or pastor, or congregation), or if these practices are taught authoritatively and must be respected by all Christians with the obedience of faith. Second, if the sign of the cross is imbued by God with an intrinsic value and power, then there is nothing in the sign itself that would hinder one from with communing with God, since the act itself is constitutes the very act of communing with God. (One could ask if there are better ways of worshiping God with our bodies--day in and day out--that are as powerful and meaningful as this sign that has been passed down from antiquity.)

Sadly, I also agree with whw in that your apparent desire for unity and understanding amongst the denominations is very rare, in my experience.

I think that this fact (that desire for unity is rare among denominations) is somewhat ironic, since all of these denominations, all of which claim to go by the Bible alone, seem to avoid addressing or taking seriously Christ's prayer in John 17. In all of my conversations with pastors, and in all of the Protestant sermons I have studied, I've not once heard anyone seriously grapple with the implications of Jesus's prayer in John 17. (I'd be delighted if you could point me to some sources, as I don't want to think that my still-quite-limited experience is generally true of most Protestants.) The only time I have heard Protestants grapple with John 17 is when I read their conversion stories to the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church, the Church founded by Jesus two thousand years ago, is at the forefront today of the ecumenical movement, and thanks be to God, significant headway is being made.

I've been to Mass several times and in several parishes. At each one, there was a note in the bulletin, "Members of the Roman Catholic Church are welcome to participate in the Sacriment [Eucharist]"

The note actually reads (if you may offer me the flexibility of a paraphrase): "Members of the Roman Catholic Church who are in good standing [i.e., in a state of grace, or, not in a state of sin such as fornication, adultery, artificially contracepting, murdering, stealing, etc.] are welcome to participate in the Sacrament [Eucharist]."

This note is present because of 1) the objective truth of what the Sacrament is and means and 2) the warning that St. Paul gives in 1 Cor. 11:27-30 to those who eat and drink of the Sacrament unworthily.

Now, it is true in one sense that no one is, by their own power, worthy of receiving the Sacrament of Christ's Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. That is why we pray in the Mass before communion, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed."

Yet, by God's grace, He does heal us, making us worthy to commune with Him in this most precious sacrifice.

Still, Catholics who have not previously reconciled themselves with God and remain in a state of sin and separation from the Body ought not to receive the Eucharist, and our own missals (the book that contains the note) say so! Unfortunately, most priests can not read souls (some, such as St. Pio, have occasionally received the gift), and unless they have some knowledge of a public sin that remains unconfessed (such as what often happens with politicians who promote abortion), they will distribute Communion to every person who comes forward. What our Lord suffers so that people in a state of grace and full communion with the Church can receive Him!

Since non-Catholics choose publicly to remain separate from the Church, and in doing so, adopt doctrines that are not part of the original deposit of faith (for instance, thinking of the Eucharist as a symbol only), they automatically disqualify themselves from being eligible to receive communion, simply because receiving communion is to state (among many other things) "I obediently submit my life, mind, and will to Christ and His Church." To receive communion in a Catholic Church and not believe this way would be a grave insult both to Christ and to Catholics.

Just like sexuality is a gift reserved for marriage (and it wouldn't make sense to suggest that the Church is anti-love because they don't allow premarital sex between two people who "really love each other"), Holy Communion is a gift that is reserved for those who are truly in committed Communion with the entire Body of Christ. The Eucharist is the Sacrament of Unity. It is the Sacrament for those who are already unified, even if imperfectly while still on this earth. The Catholic Church is not "anti-unity" because she doesn't allow people who are not fully in union with Her to receive the Eucharist. Rather, the Church upholds the very meaning of what it means to be unified and calls all Christians, Catholics and Protestants alike, to conform their minds, wills, and hearts to this standard of "perfect unity." It is no easier for a Catholic to conform themselves to this standard than it is a non-Catholic. In fact, it is equally impossible for a Catholic as it is for a Protestant, which is why we all must rely on God's grace to shape our minds and wills to conform to the truth. But we know that not everyone is at the same stage of their walk, and thus, not everyone is in a state to receive the Sacrament. Let us pray that the entire world be converted and become unified around the throne of the Eucharistic Lamb.

To learn more about the Eucharist from the Catholic Catechism, click the tab on the right sidebar of this blog. See especially paragraphs 1398-1400, found here.

I've been told by numerous people that one is only permitted to cross ones-self if they are Catholic, and if a non-Catholic does so, it is hypocritical.

Anyone who has told you this is simply wrong, and I do apologize on behalf of all those Catholics out there who misrepresent their faith. But do be careful: in my own experience, I have heard your statement suggested not by Catholics but by anti-Catholics who are attempting to incite hatred of the Catholic Church. In all honesty, I do not recall ever once having heard, in my entire cradle-Catholic life, a single Catholic suggest the sign of the Cross was for Catholics only. Are they out there? Probably, but they are wrong. Case and point: certain Protestant denominations (not to mention the Orthodox) even use the sign of the Cross--facts that point to the history of this ancient practice and its interdenominational use. The suggestion that the sign of the Cross is only for Catholics is perhaps so rare that it doesn't even enter a recent Christianity Today (perhaps the most prominent evangelical publication in print today) article, in which the author actually encourages evangelicals to consider learning better the origin and meaning of the sign! (Here is a link to the article.)

I've been told because I am not Catholic, I am not a sister-in-Christ, and am condemned to hell.

Whoever told you this is also wrong. I would invite you to form your impression of the Catholic Church not on her weakest representatives but on her teachings and on the lives of those who embody the Church's teachings to the fullest, the saints.

Ironically, the Catholic Church is often accused by Protestant apologists in one breath of letting too many people into heaven, so to speak (such as non-Christians), and in another, of letting too few people in (such as only Catholics). Before worrying about whether you are condemned to hell by the Catholic Church, I invite you to learn what the Church actually teaches, and then to join me in correcting all of the false caricatures that get slung around by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In regard to the possibility of salvation for non-Catholics, you can turn to this section in the Catechism (see especially paragraphs 830-856, although I highly recommend the entire section).

I am deeply saddened by your experience of a false condemnation at the hands of Catholics who were wrong either in their faith or their representation of it. Only God knows how deep the wounds go when such false condemnations are made, and I am convinced that only by a profound movement of His grace will hearts be moved to forgive such condemnations and judgementalism and reunite around the Love and Truth of Jesus.

If making the sign of the cross is a way of worship for you, helps you to do God's will, and brings you closer to God; I encourage you to continue, by all means. However, making the sign of the cross does the opposite for me. (See Ro. 14:13-22)

Here again, the issues of authority, judgment, truth, obstacles, and encouragement come up in a short skein that seems to encapsulate your position.

On the surface, these sentences suggest that the sign of the cross is an obstacle for you, and that ultimately, we should encourage each other to practice in whatever manner helps us to worship God better, to do God's will, and to bring us closer to God.

I think this position is problematic, however, because it skirts the underlying issue of what the sign of the Cross essentially is. What is this thing that the apostles passed on and instructed Christians to do? Is it intrinsically an act of worship given to the church as a whole, or is it only an act of worship if individuals choose to make it one? Is it God's will for Christians to make the sign of the cross, or is it a non-issue as far as God is concerned, one that may be left up to the individual believer? After all, the sign of the Cross may not only help people follow God's will (for instance, by serving as a powerful shield against the forces of Satan), but it might BE God's will, judging from the consistency with which it was passed down from the very beginning of Christianity. This is really the argument that I am making, and in this argument, the role of authority becomes explicit. Who has the authority to instruct Christians as to what God's will is for the life of the Church and for Her worship?

Romans 14 deals explicitly with the issues of encouragement and judgment, but this chapter can too easily be taken out of context and overextended to suggest things that it doesn't say.

First, let's note the two places that the chapter references judgment:

Verse 1 says "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters."

The first part of this sentence can be read as an admonishen not to judge persons. The second part of the sentence specifically forbids passing judgment on disputable matters. "On disputable matters" is the key phrase in verse 1, for it frames the entire issue being discussed in this chapter, which involves the complex situation of negotiating between generations of obedience to Jewish dietary laws, the dietary oddities of other non-Jewish traditions, and the removal of dietary restrictions under the new law of Christ. What Paul is saying is that what people eat is a disputable matter. Even though some people whose faith is weak might not yet fully realize their new dietary freedom, their choice to consume whatever they wish doesn't in and of itself break any commandment of the new law of Christ.

One thing that is very important about this chapter is what is assumed. First, the entire premise of Paul's argument is that dietary issues are no longer "essential" or "settled" issues where one is either right or wrong; they are now (after Christ) "disputable issues," where either side is acceptable (even if the motives for choosing one side or the other might reflect a weaker or stronger faith).

I completely agree with Paul that Christians (today or back then) should not turn into obstacles issues that are disputable, in which either position is okay.

But notice the second thing Paul assumes in Romans 14: he assumes that he has the authority to tell the Romans that dietary laws are a disputable issue.

Thus, the question for us is: is the sign of the cross a disputable issue, and who has the authority to make that determination? My original blog post treated the sign of the Cross as a gift from God. These blog posts have focused a bit more on the role of authority. I have tried not to make too much an issue of the sign of the Cross itself, except to use the discussion as an occasion to exam how the issue of authority underlies much disagreement between Christians.

The second verse in Romans 14 to mention judgment is verse 13: "Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another." Here, Paul forbids Christians judging other Christians. I agree with St. Paul that we should not judge one another, as I believe that only God can judge the human heart, and only God knows the grace he has given to enable a person to follow Him. I have no way of knowing where any of my readers are on their spiritual journey, and it is not my job to be the judge of this. (Who of us, including myself, is where God wants us to be anyway? I am far from sainthood and am in need of your prayers!) I write simply to fulfill Jesus's commission to preach the gospel, which includes explaining parts of the Catholic faith that not all Christians accept.

Notice that no where in Romans 14 does Paul forbid judging ideas. In writing Roman's 14, Paul himself is judging ideas--he is judging that dietary sensitivities are a disputable issue that ought not give rise to stumbling blocks and scandal. He likely was forced to write this very passage because some well-meaning Christians were wrong about their own judgment of others' dietary sensitivities, and St. Paul judged these ideas as wrong. Having judged the truth of the matter, St. Paul is then able to encourage the Romans according to the truth. Once Paul speaks authoritatively on the subject, would we still have encouraged Paul's audience to believe whatever seemed right to them about the issue, or would we have encouraged them to conform their thinking to that of the authority?

After forbidding the passing of judgment on one another in verse 13, Paul continues to note that "Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean." The context here is clearly about an issue that is 1) disputable (according to the authority of St. Paul and ultimately Christ) and 2) that ought not become a stumbling block.

To highlight the slippery slope that occurs in overextending Roman's 14, we can imagine that any issue could potentially be considered by some Christian somewhere to be a disputable issue rather than a settled one:
  • Is Sunday worship disputable? Is Saturday worship disputable? (Seventh-day adventists reject Sunday worship and consign Sunday-sabbath worshippers to hell.)
  • Is the nature of baptism disputable?
  • Is infant baptism disputable?
  • Is abortion disputable?
  • Is circumcision disputable?
  • Is attending church on Sunday disputable?
  • Is artificial contraception disputable?
  • Is taking communion while not discerning the body disputable?
  • Is the number of books in the Bible disputable?
  • Is the sign of the cross disputable?
To these questions, some Christians (at one time or another) say yes and others say no. Yet, all of these questions require an answer before a determination can be made about being encouraging. After all, if a Christian claimed that murder (such as abortion) was permissible, St. Paul would never have encouraged such a Christian to continue holding this position simply to "avoid creating an obstacle." The New Testament is filled with authoritative determinations of what is beyond dispute and must be believed by every Christian. Other issues, such as what books should be in the Bible, can not even be decided on the basis of the Bible alone but require some outside authority.

If a pastor preaches that divorced persons can not remarry, would it be correct to say that he is creating a stumbling block between him, his congregation, and any remarried Christians? The answer depends on whether this pastor preaches disputable truth, settled truth, or error.

When we enter the realm of settled truth, it is important to note that stumbling blocks are not created when people follow authority; they are created when the proper authority is not followed. Thus, it would be the murderer or adulterer who has created a stumbling block, not the Christian who refuses to deny that murder is wrong or that divorce and remarriage is unacceptable.

Unfortunately, in today's culture, people tend to think that the people who point out the stumbling blocks are the ones who create the stumbling blocks. Sadly, we live in a state today where most Christians are kept disunified by stumbling blocks put in place generations ago. The blocks have become so old and misunderstood that simple conversations could likely clear them away. Yet, some "Christians" today have built entire structures on some of these blocks, and perhaps it is these structures that keep some of them firmly in place.

The road to Christian unity is littered with many stumbling blocks that have for too long been hidden simply by simply turning off the lights, brushing them under the rug, and making them invisible. Yet, they blocks remain and cannot be removed until someone shines a light on them and begins asking who has the authority to decide the matter. If Christians are left with the Bible alone, history has already proven that the unity for which Christ prayed for will not occur. I, for one, assume good faith for all my non-Catholic Christian brethren that they are doing their very best to follow how they believe the Holy Spirit is guiding them. But, logic tells us that the Holy Spirit can't at the same moment inspire contradictory truths. How does anyone these days know for sure if they are believing the truth?

The sign of the cross, turns out, is a tiny issue compared to these larger problems, but it is connected to them in the same way a sliver of ice above the water is connected to the iceberg below. I believe that discussing topics like the sign of the cross is useful in that it opens up for reflection areas in which Christians disagree so that we may together begin, by God's grace, finding our way home, back to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The path will not be easy, but we have the grace of God, the protection of the angels, and the prayers of the saints to assist us.

Let us continue on, then, in great hope and joy! And to this end, I include the link to one more edifying article:

Grace and peace to you, my sister!

ps. If you or any of my readers would ever like to respond with something that exceeds the word limit of the combox, please feel free to send your response directly to, and I'll post it in its entirety directly to the blog.

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