Category Archives: Theology

We need Negative theology

Thinking about the way we come to understand the contours of our relationship to God we have the work of negative theology. We inhabit a world in which human beings have faith and reason and they pursue the beauty of Truth. The truth here is not an object but a person. Christians call truth by the name of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the second Person of the Trinity. I like Father Dumitru Staniloae’s theological work since I encountered his writing a decade ago in theology school. Father is now deceased but he was an Orthodox priest and theologian of the Romanian Orthodox Church, who, in my opinion, has relevance for Catholics today.

Negative theology is still a mental operation, the final one, mixed, however, as prayer is, with a feeling of the powerlessness to comprehend God. It is related to the comprehension of God through nature, history, Holy Scripture, art, dogma and in general through everything which is between us and God either as an external reality or as a system of concepts and symbolic images. Every reality, concept or symbolic image mirrors God as well as awakens in us the proof or unexplainable feeling that God is totally different, in comparison with them; so they compel us to negate all the positive attributes which, because of them, we ascribe to God. In other words,  all things in between open for us a perspective to God; at the same time they confront us with an infinite abyss of divine reality which we can’t grasp with our minds, and which first of all doesn’t show us anything that created realities, concepts and symbolic images do. But our mind, faced with this abyss still doesn’t give up looking at things, concepts and symbolic images, but turns its gaze from this to that and finds that they don’t give it the means to describe the abyss. It tries, we might say, to measure it with every measure in the world, in other words with every attribute or image, or with every concept based on created things. Finally, the mind realizes that not one is suitable. So it eliminates them one by one. Negative theology is therefore a mental operation because it investigates the context of various attributes and concepts and compares them with the divine abyss, which it lives somehow with feeling, and finds they are insufficient.

In a certain sense, negative theology is still a rational operation; it is still an exact weighing of each concept, whose limits only now appear to the mind in all their clarity. But the comprehension of the definite content of a concept is made at the same time as we cast our gaze over the divine abyss which reason can’t encompass, but which the mind gains by intuition, by a look or feeling of another nature; so this operation, although on the one hand mental, isn’t only rational, not only deductive, but has an intuitive element in it, the ascertaining of which is limitless and therefore can’t be described. It is a rational operation by which the mind concludes, nevertheless, that reason isn’t sufficient.

Father Dumitru Staniloae
Orthodox Spirituality, in the section titled “Negative and Positive Theology: A Dynamic Relationship”

Theology: Catholic and Orthodox?

What does it mean to say “Theologically… thus and such….”

There are many “professional” theologians and types of reflection on God, the biblical teaching, ecclesial tradition, prayer, the spiritual life, etc, how do you discern who to read? Sometimes the professionals lack the lex agenda (that is, the law of life) that’s required for an authentic Christian life.  By nature, we worship, believe, live and act in accordance with the promptings of the Holy Spirit. It will make your head spin in trying to make a good decision on what to read and what to avoid. We know that not everything in print (or on a blog) is worth the time.

Admittedly, Catholics, clergy and laity alike, can stand behind the veil of something they know little about and the implications of what is published. Selecting a good book in theology is often made in a knee-jerk way. For example you will hear some priests say, “I will never read anything written by a Jesuit” or “she’s fema-nazi, a heretic” or there is a perspective that contends that “reading outside the ecclesial family is wrong.”

It is true, not everything in the field of liberation theology is germane to an authentic Catholic life. But that can be said of all the allied fields in theological reflection. An honest intellectual will say that you have to know what reasonable people are saying. We need less ideology and more openness to faith and reason is needed. Faith and reason are oriented in loving the truth. So while one could argue that the theological reflection of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger is far more satisfying than Hans Kung and Karl Rahner when you read, study and pray with sacred Scripture, knowing a something of the other is good.  A critical reader ought to be able to enter into a respectful and lively dialogue with thinkers; there can’t be an a priori stance that one or the other is always wrong. The default answer to every question doesn’t have to be NO. Yet. dialogue is not negotiation; openness to the other doesn’t mean you compromise the truth. The point is that we have to have an objectivity (know the the sources of claims made) about what believe and teach and live.

I have long argued that a Catholic’s first theological reflection is liturgical. The maxim of St Prosper of Aquitaine guides: legem credendi lex statuat supplicant. Meaning: The Church’s faith precedes the faith of the believer who is invited to adhere to it. When the Church celebrates the sacraments, she confesses the faith received from the apostles – whence the ancient saying: lex orandi, lex credendi (or: legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi, according to Prosper of Aquitaine [5th cent.]). The law of prayer is the law of faith: the Church believes as she prays. Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition (Catechism, 1124). Let’s start here rather than attend to confessional lines of how catholic one is, or not.

The point of theology is reflect in a public way who God is and God’s grace operative in our world. Theology is in pursuit of wisdom and of making disciples.

A 2008 blog post at Erenikon, “What is Orthodox Theology?” asked the same questions regarding but for the Orthodox believer. I would say that much of is held and live in the Orthodox Church coheres with Catholic theology. Several Catholic theologians I know use the thinking of professional theologians who belong to the Orthodox Church.

Is Purgatory necessary?

Purgatory is a state, or condition of temporal purification, a purgation, punishment for temporal things in which a soul is purified of the attachment to sin; it is a condition to cleanse sins, and to more perfectly open the heart to love God more; it is a place prepare us to enter into full communio with the Trinity. The Church does not teach that purgatory is a place. The theological presumption is that before death the person is reconciled to God, others and self through the reception of the sacrament of Confession and hopefully the reception of Holy Communion (Viaticum) and the Apostolic Pardon.

Purgatory is only available to the soul found worthy by God; therefore, we say it is by God’s grace that we enter into purgatory. The word “purgatory” comes from the Latin word, “purgare” defined as to make clean, to purify. This communio is also spoken of as the beatific vision, beatitude, heaven.

What’s the purpose of the doctrine of purgatory? We have to made pure by a cleansing that happens in the state of purgatory. Once you leave earth you can’t change the direction of your soul: either heaven or hell. Purgatory is a preparation for heaven, if that is the judgement of God. It is a common error to think that if your soul goes to purgatory that you are eternally damned. Not so. That a soul goes to purgatory one is saved. They are the second happiest souls after the saints.

Souls in purgatory can’t pray for themselves but our prayers and good works help the souls in purgatory in the process of purification so that in God’s time they can enjoy life eternal with God, and they can pray for us.

Sins in this life are a part of a purgatory on earth and before entering into God’s presence those sins need to be forgiven, purged and the soul made pure. Suffering does put us in touch –it is a matrix of holiness– with our dependence on God.

The bible’s teaching on purgatory is based on 2 Maccabees 12:43-46, Matthew 12:32, Luke 21:59, 1 Corinthians 3: 11-15, Hebrews 5:7, Hebrews 7: 25, Hebrews 12:11, Revelation 21:27.

The Church refined her teaching several times in history due to greater knowledge revealed by God. The Fathers of the Church and certain other theologians taught the doctrine of purgatory as necessary for salvation and each has a his or her particular nuance on the truth but none contradict the substance. At the Council of Trent, due to the Protestant critique, formally taught:

Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has from the Sacred Scriptures and the ancient tradition of the Fathers taught in Councils and very recently in this Ecumenical synod [Trent] (Sess. VI, cap. XXX; Sess. XXII cap. ii, iii) that there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar; the Holy Synod enjoins on the Bishops that they diligently endeavor to have the sound doctrine of the Fathers in Councils regarding purgatory everywhere taught and preached, held and believed by the faithful. (Denzinger, Enchiridon, 983)

While this passages does not spell out the doctrine, it does say that the Church’s teaching is consistent.

Who are Church Fathers referred to in the above paragraph? Among them, they are: Isidore of Seville, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, Jerome, Origen, Tertullian, Gregory the Great, Bede the Venerable, Bernard, and Robert Bellarmine; the popes of the 20th and 21st centuries have this teaching.

With the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we have a clear teaching (1030-31):

On 4 August 1999, Pope John Paul II said,

It is necessary to explain that the state of purification is not a prolungation of the earthly condition, almost as if after death one were given another possibility to change one’s destiny. The Church’s teaching in this regard is unequivocal and was reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council which teaches:  “Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed (cf. Heb 9: 27), we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed, and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the eternal fire, into the outer darkness where “men will weep and gnash their teeth’ (Mt 22: 13 and 25: 30)” (Lumen gentium, n. 48).

There is more one can say of the doctrine of purgatory, but I hope these few paragraphs a door is opened.

The Door-to-door death opens wider

“I do not want to live on as a shadow of myself” and “I also don’t want to be sent off to a nursing home … If I have to decide myself, please abide by my wish” or “How much longer will my life be liveable in dignity?”

Such are the thoughts of a Catholic priest and theologian, Father Hans Kung, now 85. If you don’t remember the protagonist here, let me remind you. Father Kung is famous for his relentless agitation for ecclesial reform, even it may be said reduction. With all the reforms and renewal happening following the Second Vatican Council, where this Swiss priest theologian was an adviser/expert arguing for a decentralized church authority, a married priesthood and contraception and abortion etc. The Church did not adopt these ideas. Since 1960, Kung has been a professor at Tubingen but he taught there without a license to teach Catholic theology since 1979. But as John Paul said, he didn’t remove Kung’s baptism. It was Kung, as you may remember, got the young theologian named Joseph Ratzinger his first job teaching. Soon after being elected the Roman Pontiff, Pope Benedict invited Father Kung to dinner.

A friend posted a disturbing story of Kung thinking about ending his life. I am shocked that a Catholic priest would consider such. I can’t help but be sad for Kung and others who believe suicide is a dignified way to go to the next life. Here is the article that talks about Father Kung’s consideration of suicide.

This a long way of saying that the issues of euthanasia and the people considering this way of living and ultimately dying.

The Telegraph’s writer Tim Stanley wrote about a distressing embrace of euthanasia in an article “Door-to-door death units: Belgium and Holland abandon humanity as they embrace euthanasia.”

Stanley’s article is worth reading in detail and is provide you some grist for the mill of prayer today. He paints an ever crisis of being human, and the beauty of living. Stanley many of the fears people face when considering suicide as a reasonable option. Though living is not easy for some people.

Despair is real; depression and addiction is a crisis of the separation from reality as it is given. There is a fundamental recognition of need to live with dignity in each person; there is a capacity in each to love and to be loved; to be in relationship with others and with God. That is, we are hardwired to live in community with more than just the self. But suicide rejects this dignity and become encounter with selfishness and hopelessness; it rejects the fullest sense of freedom.

We are now seeing a growing trend of people voting in favor of euthanasia. It is now legal in countries like Belgium, Switzerland , the Netherlands, Luxembourg and four states in the United States of America. Connecticut and Massachusetts are among the states who have already proposed making assisted suicide legal. The desire for acting in favor of death is being entertained more and more. We are now facing squarely the fruit of the philosophy of nihilism now so linked to secularism and its standard of judgement.

A catechist is a Christian who keeps the memory of God alive, Pope Francis tells

Mass offered today by Pope Francis marked an International Day for Catechists organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization for the Year of Faith. Patriarch John X of the Syrian Greek Orthodox Church was present.

It is a day to remember what teaching the faith to others means. Indeed, we can focus on the gifts of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. Key to any method of teaching is knowing what the role of the teacher has. In the Church, we say that Catechists are not the focus of our attention in passing on the Tradition of the faith, Christ the teacher is. We who teach the faith to others, especially the young, don’t replace the parents as the first teachers of the faith, nor do we, when it comes to adults, obscure the fact that each person makes the decision to freely follow Jesus doing the hard work to know what Jesus said and did.

As Pope Francis said, catechists reflect the memory of God in concrete ways; a line of thinking that Pope Benedict also taught us. Attend to what Francis says. Keeping the memory of God is an intriguing idea: the gift of being able to give clear witness to the Creator, indeed the work of the Holy Trinity. In Ignatian terms, we know God to labor for us but do we recognize this fact? This is one of the reasons we are to be familiar with narrative of divine revelation. There are many patron saints for catechists but we ought to consider important to go to are Saint Robert Bellarmine, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Saint John Bosco and Saint John Baptist de la Salle, among others. Go to the saints help you to remember God.

Pope Francis’ homily follows:

1. “Woe to the complacent in Zion, to those who feel secure … lying upon beds of ivory!” (Am 6:1,4). They eat, they drink, they sing, they play and they care nothing about other people’s troubles.

These are harsh words which the prophet Amos speaks, yet they warn us about a danger that all of us face. What is it that this messenger of God denounces; what does he want his contemporaries, and ourselves, to realize? The danger of complacency, comfort, worldliness in our lifestyles and in our hearts, of making our well-being the most important thing in our lives. This was the case of the rich man in the Gospel, who dressed in fine garments and daily indulged in sumptuous banquets; this was what was important for him. And the poor man at his doorstep who had nothing to relieve his hunger? That was none of his business, it didn’t concern him. Whenever material things, money, worldliness, become the centre of our lives, they take hold of us, they possess us; we lose our very identity as human beings. The rich man in the Gospel has no name, he is simply “a rich man”. Material things, his possessions, are his face; he has nothing else.

Let’s try to think: How does something like this happen? How do some people, perhaps ourselves included, end up becoming self-absorbed and finding security in material things which ultimately rob us of our face, our human face? This is what happens when we no longer remember God. If we don’t think about God, everything ends up being about “me” and my own comfort. Life, the world, other people, all of these become unreal, they no longer matter, everything boils down to one thing: having. When we no longer remember God, we too become unreal, we too become empty; like the rich man in the Gospel, we no longer have a face! Those who run after nothing become nothing – as another great prophet Jeremiah, observed (cf. Jer 2:5). We are made in God’s image and likeness, not that of material objects, not that of idols!

2. So, as I look out at you, I think: Who are catechists? They are people who keep the memory of God alive; they keep it alive in themselves and they are able to revive it in others. This is something beautiful: to remember God, like the Virgin Mary, who sees God’s wondrous works in her life but doesn’t think about honor, prestige or wealth; she doesn’t become self-absorbed. Instead, after receiving the message of the angel and conceiving the Son of God, what does she do? She sets out, she goes to assist her elderly kinswoman Elizabeth, who was also pregnant. And the first thing she does upon meeting Elizabeth is to recall God’s work, God’s fidelity, in her own life, in the history of her people, in our history: “My soul magnifies the Lord … For he has looked on the lowliness of his servant … His mercy is from generation to generation” (Lk 1:46, 48, 50).

This canticle of Mary also contains the remembrance of her personal history, God’s history with her, her own experience of faith. And this is true too for each one of us and for every Christian: faith contains our own memory of God’s history with us, the memory of our encountering God who always takes the first step, who creates, saves and transforms us. Faith is remembrance of his word which warms our heart, and of his saving work which gives life, purifies us, cares for and nourishes us. A catechist is a Christian who puts this remembrance at the service of proclamation, not to be important, not to talk about himself or herself, but to talk about God, about his love and his fidelity.

Saint Paul recommends one thing in particular to his disciple and co-worker Timothy: Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, whom I proclaim and for whom I suffer (cf. 2 Tim 2:8-9). The Apostle can say this because he too remembered Christ, who called him when he was persecuting Christians, who touched him and transformed him by his grace.

The catechist, then, is a Christian who is mindful of God, who is guided by the memory of God in his or her entire life and who is able to awaken that memory in the hearts of others. This is not easy! It engages our entire existence! What is the Catechism itself, if not the memory of God, the memory of his works in history and his drawing near to us in Christ present in his word, in the sacraments, in his Church, in his love? Dear catechists, I ask you: Are we in fact the memory of God? Are we really like sentinels who awaken in others the memory of God which warms the heart?

3. “Woe to the complacent in Zion!”. What must we do in order not to be “complacent” – people who find their security in themselves and in material things – but men and woman of the memory of God? In the second reading, Saint Paul, once more writing to Timothy, gives some indications which can also be guideposts for us in our work as catechists: pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness (cf. 1 Tim 6:11).

Catechists are men and women of the memory of God if they have a constant, living relationship with him and with their neighbor; if they are men and women of faith who truly trust in God and put their security in him; if they are men and women of charity, love, who see others as brothers and sisters; if they are men and women of “hypomoné”, endurance and perseverance, able to face difficulties, trials and failures with serenity and hope in the Lord; if they are gentle, capable of understanding and mercy.

Let us ask the Lord that we may all be men and women who keep the memory of God alive in ourselves, and are able to awaken it in the hearts of others. Amen.

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]
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