Posted by: Yseult | July 2, 2009

Substantial Proof: Between Science and Faith

Saint Paul writing his epistles by Nicolas Tournier

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled these last few days concerning the Vatican’s press announcement of the scientific analysis of the bones in the rediscovered tomb of Saint Paul.

Of course as with anything that concerns the Catholic Church the people that doubt whatever comes out of the marbled halls of Saint Peter are there to offer their comments. What I find the most interesting are not the usual crowds however. One thing about the way this story has been brought into the media by Pope Benedict himself has struck me: it was a perfect PR move. Offering the insights of the scientific commissions that had done their analysis a while ago at the end of the Pauline year what a great move and the spiritual links are amazing. Now apart from the fact that we might not expected this pope to be so ‘calculating’ one thing the world press is most impressed with is the use and consulting of physicists and scientific analysis. As if the Vatican and the Catholic Community was some sort of pocket in time and space, cut off from modern times, cut off from the considerations of our times. It’s truly the victory of the Dan Browns, Michael Baigents and Richard Leighs who are in a long line of indoctrinators that paint the Catholic Church and it’s organisational structure as old people that are against progress and will not shy away from hard measures to consolidate their power. If anybody dares to state that the Middle Ages were Dark Ages because people couldn’t read, then today we’re not much closer to the light if the mainstream is so easily indoctrinated. But I digress.

The most annoying comments regarding the discovery and scientific proofs that the bones found in San Paolo fuori le mura are the ones from natural scientists that tell us that in no way can a radiometric analysis prove that a bone is from someone in particular. Right. Thank you for pointing us to the light here. The usual addendum that the Catholic Church is only believing what it wants to believe is just the cherry on the cake.

As a historian I look at other indices and I am shocked at the callousness of the scientific community these days. There was a time when the study of history or texts was part of that community. But then again, there was a time when common sense also held a high place in those circles. Historical documents, facts and testimonies all tell us one thing: the tomb was there, has always been there, there has been no move, no opening, no nothing. Of course there was a fire in the 4th century and it was supposed that the remains of the apostle were lost to that fire. Even with all the things we’ve lost in terms of historical indicators concerning the city of Rome and it’s architecture, there is no such thing as a historical fact that leaves no traces at all. Not even the worst of the Spanish Inquisition has managed to purge so well.

So, taking a step back, we don’t have any historical evidence that Saint Paul’s remains were moved somewhere else, and there is a set of bones and fibres that are from the right time. My old friend common sense and its friend reflection, tells me that this is enough proof that truly the apostle’s grave and bones were found here.

I would be tempted to say that faith has nothing to do with it. But that would be completely wrong. Faith has everything to do with it. Like Anselm stated: I believe and thus I understand (credo ut intelligam). You cannot understand if you can’t believe. And in science you cannot believe, not as long as the scientific community allows itself to be so ignorant of it’s brothers and sisters in the historical department.

Dominican Habit

Blessed Reginald of Orléan receives the habit for the Dominicans by the Virgin Mary

I have just been pulled into an interesting discussion. Or rather shall I say it was very revealing.

The main topic was the approval of Marian apparitions. The question arose around the question whether a pilgrimage location (Mariastein, Solothurn) was in fact an approved apparition site or not.

At first I was taken aback by the question. Then realised that I was talking to an American Catholic. (I don’t mean any disrespect when saying this like that, but it reveals something crucial to me to which I will come later.) The person in question argued that there only were 12 officially approved Marian apparitions, against how many non-approved ones. [Not to be confounded with an apparition of God, or Christ: the Theophany or the Epiphany]

Two things strike me as interesting here and that need noting.
Firstly, as a European I am used to local places of worship that have a tradition of several hundred years. Places of pilgrimage, apparitions, monasteries from the 11th century, Alp passages that have been blessed every year, year after year for the last 200 years etc. etc. I am of the firm belief that this forms a certain acceptance and reverence of places that seem dear and important to a local veneration. Rarely is the question asked whether it is a genuine apparition, condoned by the Church or not. Tradition and the numerous ex-voto plates speak for themselves most of the time. Together with the general rule of the Holy Church that nobody has to believe in private revelations such as Marian apparitions, leaves a large space for personal investigation and in the end decision on every believers own conscience whether he believes that a particular place was indeed blessed by an apparition, or a divine inspiration or not.

Philosophically speaking we decide such points (as a Catholic) by listening to the story behind the place, by witnessing the devotion of the pilgrims and by seeing the historical breacrums of the tangible influence of the place in the heart of other Catholics (again: the ex-voto for instance, but also texts and mentions in folkore culture etc).

It is not the first time that I had to remind myself that in other parts of the world Catholics do not share this… how shall I say it historical-genetically inherited attention to local points of worship. In Europe we grow up with that. Our story is full of it and the pilgrimage to Santiago is only the most widely and well known example of that culture of worship.

Secondly – and this might be the point that as a Historian worries me the most – I always feel uncomfortable when numbers are quoted. My first impulse is to have an official document to see what the Holy See or one of his Commissions really says. Maybe this is also a Euro-centric problem, since as European Catholics we are so used to prejuidice and half-baked statistics being thrown at us – the ‘high’ percentage of gay and pedophile priests is a long time runner and discussion ender over here. (This post in German on a forum I moderate may serve as an illustration.)
I have to this date never seen an official list published by the Vatican on how many Marian apparitions have been approved or not by the Commission of the Doctrine of the Faith. I doubt there is one, but would love to be proven otherwise.

Why do I doubt that there is such a list?

One needs to turn to the history of the position of the Church to understand why. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith issued the norms to which it bound itself in order to decide to approve of an apparitions only in the year 1973. (Norms can be found here or on Jimmy Akin’s page.) It’s main goal were current and future apparitions, not historical ones.
As someone that works in the history of texts and how they are transmitted from the Middle Ages to us through copies, quotations, and editions, for me it is clear why the Congregation would have a hard time pronouncing itself on Marian apparitions that date back to the 11th century for instance. The only sources we have of that are written ones that tell us of a local veneration or an ongoing veneration. Since however the texts that we have today constitute only about 10 -15% of the texts that existed in the Middle Ages, it is clear that a textual silence of such things does not warrant a judgment of non-validity or a non-approval. Simply because too much things have been lost between then and today (think of the masses of handwritten Medieval copies burnt by the French Revolution for instance when the monasteries were secularised and emptied).
So if there is no hard historical proof that lets us judge if an apparition is valid or not, the Church gives us other things to consider.

If we turn to the Guidelines of the Vatican Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy from 2001, it is clearly stated that a shrine needs to be a “place[s] dedicated to consolidating the faith, to growth in grace, refuge and consolation in affliction, by virtue of the sacramental life practised in them;…”
That for us as Catholics points to the authority of the tradition and rightly so, for who could claim that simply because Saint Dominic did not leave us a single written word, the Virgin Mary did not appear to Blessed Reginald of Orléans to show him the future habit of the new order of the Preachers? Or that the ball of fire did not appear to Saint Dominic himself to show him the place for his first women’s convent for reformed Cathar and Abligensian heretics?
In this particular example – which is close to my heart I admit – it is clear that any pronunciation of the Holy Church in this regard would undermine hundreds of years of grown history. Not to speak of the very holy Order of Preachers: the Dominicans.

This problem is similar to the Saints that have been declared as such through the ages until there even was a Commission for the Causes of Saints to research their claim. They are not any less Saints than the ones that have been declared such since the 19th century, nor will the Commission or the Holy See pronounce itself on those Saints that have been transmitted to us today by their devotional tradition. (Note that Saints that did present such historical problems have since not been taken out of the calendar, but only been retrograded exactly because of the reason of tradition. For even if one can doubt on the historical basis of such  a Saint, nobody can correctly and for sure say that a) he didn’t exist or b) doubt on the fact that there was a local tradition prior to his being taken into the Calender in the first place.)

And let us not forget that both occurences of Catholic faith are based on that: local veneration and tradition. Without it there would be no Saint today, for a local veneration cult is and has been at the basis for sanctity ever since the beginning of the Church. And similarly this can also be applied to shrines and places of pilgrimages and apparitions.
The Vatican or the Commission will only ever pronounce itself if there is conflict and the approval of an apparition or a local veneration does not depend on the voice of the Vatican. Rather the contrary. The principal responsible is the local bishop if there is doubt of the validity of a veneration. In history, the faith in the force of a local veneration was much bigger than it is today where we as humans have a heightened need for proof and confirmation.
Let us not forget either that until about the 19th century, Marian apparitions did not have any doctrinal messages or even never were vocal (again I am using only historical sources). They were savings in moments of distress and danger or great blessings when being lost etc. With Lourdes this has changed. At that moment a message has been added to the apparition itself. And this is where the Church needs to pronounce itself, because of it’s duty of the magisterium, to make sure that the content of the message is not contrary to the official teachings of the Holy Church, especially and primarily the Gospel.

In the end the Holy Church does not tell us to believe in any Marial apparition or local Saint veneration. We cannot invoke the authority of the Church in matter of personal devotion. This is what makes our Faith the richest denominations of all Christian Faith and our tradition is what guarantees that.

Posted by: Yseult | July 16, 2008

Social respect or what desecration really means

The story of biology professor P.Z. Myers (University of Minnesota) who announced publicly and under great media coverage the just as public desecration of the Eucharist, has sparked a lot of ink to flow and keyboards to heat up.

What I will try to do here is dissect the problem from a philosophical point of view, for sometimes showing how people are wrong on the basis of what is commonly considered ‘acceptable social behaviour’, opens more eyes than an internal refutation of arguments – if by applying the principle of charity Professor Myers’ raving can really be considered a string of arguments.

Common sense and Social Rules of Behaviour

Before any consideration of social “dos and don’t”s, we might first want to turn to common sense. Common sense tells us that it is wrong to attack people, groups, minorities et al. Not because some high moral authority says so, but because in doing so, we void our own right to not be attacked. Extrapolating from this basic functioning of social interaction, we arrive to the general rule of ‘do not onto others what you do not wish to be done to you‘. In philosophy this is called the Golden Rule. Kant used this golden rule to form his theory of the categorial imperative: Act only according to a maxim of which you can will that it would become a universal law. [cf. Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten, Akademie-Ausgabe Kant Werke IV, S. 420, 27–421, 5. – Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, (transl., 3rd ed. 1993), Hackett, p.30.]
The same common sense tells us that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Again based on the golden rule, if we do not grant to others their right to an opinion on a subject, we ourselves have no right such claim so ourselves. However, this presupposed something that is often too hastily overlooked. There is a difference between having an informed opinion and just having an opinion based on assumptions. In philosophy we would call that the ‘honesty presupposition’. We take for granted that the person we talk to has an idea what they are talking about. An opinion based on false assumptions is not protected by this universal right to an opinion. Simply because as it is based on false assumptions, it voids it’s own honesty agreement within a discussion. This leads us into the topic of opinions, beliefs and how one can tell if they are true, real and the direction of fit of certain propositions and would definitely take us away from the topic of this article. (For further reading I suggest these links for a quick look: direction of fit, truthmakers )

Political correctness

If we now move on to social rules and expected behaviour the same basic principle applies as we’ve seen it in the golden rule. The only real difference is that social rules are made by the body they apply to: society. And thus they can be subject to change. What in one group of society is wrong can be viewed as right and correct in another. (Canibalism, Huma sacrifice are only two examples – extreme ones I grant you – of such a ‘change’ in social norm. The most recent one might be abortion which was socially inacceptable and punishable by the law only a few decenies back. The same goes for homosexuality or women smoking in the streets.)
We have all seen in recent years how such rules change and are very fluent when it comes to the self-definition of a social group. A term that is widely known and rules the interaction between social groups that ultimately make up a society is the one of political correctness. In the beginning of the concept it was meant to designate a certain set of rules that were aimed at minimising marginalisation of minorities or certain groups. Today however it has become much more normative than that. However it still is based on the same golden rule. With one addition when concerned with minorities: social equality. If you allow the bashing of one minority, who knows who is next or to what it might lead? European History is still coming to terms with the last time something like that happened.

In an era where belief systems are so readily available over internet, through travel, books, audio testimonies and the television, a lot of things have changed however. We are all more informed and thus expected to respect people of other belief systems. Of course, we’re called to it by the golden rule as well, but in the information society that we live in, we cannot claim to be ignorant and thus weary of certain things. Wether this is justified or even a good way of things to be is not my immediate concern here. What is however is a point of current politics: muslim integration.

Professor P.Z. Myers has in various points on his blog said that the enraged muslims that reacted by burning Christian churches or shooting Christians were justified in doing so, after the publication of the derragoritory comics that showed the prophet Mohammad as a terrorist or such.
So we come to a point where the basic social rules are violated by a newspaper by publicly making fun of another faith group. As condemnable as that may be and as socially unacceptable, it does not warrant another escalation to violence. So what as happened here?

Desecration of something holy to us

Running over a holy Indian cow, touching the Qu’ran as a non believer, shaking the hand of an orthodox Jew when you are a Christian woman, eating the Eucharist for breakfast with jam… all things that violate something that is holy to one group of faith or another. Some might react with prayer for guiding people doing such acts, others might shun them, others again might try to guide them and explain and again others react with violence.
The problem is not the act in itself which cannot either be good or bad – in classical moral philosophy. (I personally however think that certain acts have a tendency to be good or bad that is either confirmed or cancelled by the intention of the one committing the act.) The real problem arrives when such acts are committed intentionally and consciously with the goal to hurt. One could muse about the stupidity of an editor that accepted the Muhammad caricatures, but we have no way of knowing whether they were intentionally hurtful. What we can say however is that Professor Mayers wants to hurt Catholics. If you spend more than a few minutes on his blog you can see that by the fact that he publicly violates the contract of trust and confidentiality when sending someone an email (he publishes the people contradicting him openly on his blog, from what I gather without asking them) or how he puts a Neanderthaler under every single quote of creationist theory he wants to discuss. Announcing publicly what he intends to do shows the same attitude. And unfortunately it seems that under the rule of political correctness it is not ok to bash a Muslim because thousands have died because the Qu’ran commands violence against the Infidels (ATTENTION: Jews and Christians are NOT considered infidels (kafir) by a strict and correct lecture of the Qu’ran, but are considered Ahl-e-kitab, People of the Book.), but it is absolutely ok to bash Catholics because they stand up against a student that took what they believe to be Holy, hostage. Because this is the reason why Professor P.Z. Myers is mounting his barricades and the media against the Catholic Ligue.

Desecration ultimately is nothing else than a will to destroy something that is not understood. Respect, tolerance or even indifference are preferable by any social standard or rule.


I have in the above small exposition not made use of one single Catholic argument against Professor Myers. Not because there are none – there are enough to be made, such as the false equalisation between chemical substance of the Eucharist and the theologically transformed substance after the transubstantiation, for instance – but because it would be a lost cause and should be done in another post and probably by others. What was important for me to show here was that this is not something that anybody should just let go on account that everyone is entitled to their opinions or that they have a right to their different views. However way you put it, desecrating consciously something that someone else holds holy on account of having the higher truth is condemnable by society, mindless whether you are a believer or part of the attacked group or not.

A last argument could be made now and it is one that is becoming more and more common when dealing with the new militant atheist movement. For the followers of Richard Dawkins believers of any colour are delusional and subjects of a mass hysteria. On account of past crimes such as the crusades or the Spanish inquisition, they violently dismiss any other opinion than their own which is ultimately nihilistic. Again, social rule would command them to accept other ways of life to their own as to not make themselves subject to attack.

Unfortunately, the rules they want to defend (liberty of spirit and exploration, speech, opinion etc.) they substract from others they disagree with. And thus ultimately, they are not much more than playground bullies throwing a tantrum. And this is where the potential dialogue is rendered impossible: shouting people cannot hear if someone wants to show them where they are wrong. They can only hear themselves.

Posted by: Yseult | July 15, 2008

Indulgences and praying for lost souls

There are moments in our life as believers where we feel the need to pray for others, living or dead. Praying for their suffering to be aleviated, their pains to be lessened and for them to find the force to turn all their hardness and whatever is holding them back over to our Saviour.

Non-believers or rather non-Christians find this a behaviour that borders onto the condescending. They think that in our wish to fortify them, we mean to judge them. As if “I pray for you …” is equal to “… because, Dear, you are so lost.” Of course in our minds and hearts as Catholics, there is such an equal sign, but because ultimately we all need all the prayers we can get. Believer or not, Christian or not. For outsiders there is a weird smell about someone who feels the need to offer up their time and heart to pray for someone else.

Be that as it may, as Catholics we have another group of people we feel the need to take care of: our lost ones. One particular friend who is now being called by the Lord to work in his sense and meaning, is particularly pressed to find a way to offer up testimony to turn her atheist family towards the word of our Lord, but above all is aching for a lost grandmother who died without ever receiving the faith. Her question to me and all of plurkville was whether she can offer up indulgences for her grandmother.

Indulgences per se can only ever be granted or achieved for living persons, because they presuppose an act of contrition and honnest repenting. This can from our side of the veil not be ascertained or seen, and thus the Church doesn’t pronounce itself. Inge’s question however opened a small discussion between me and J whether once dead, the time in Purgatory fixed, – while being dead – would hypothetically speaking be amendable or changeable by such an act of true repenting. Again the Church cannot issue an answer on such a question, simply because we cannot know. (Note the similarity between this question and the one about Limbo itself and particularly the controversy last year about unborn children or children per se. Limbus Doc to be consulted online here, and the article on that traces back the sources of the whole controversy to Augustine and Pelagius)

To help Catholics still in this world however to come to terms with their hearts and their need for closure and help, there are things that can be done, prayers that can be offered up to help and alleviate. And as always, as long as they do no harm, they can only do good in the eyes of our Lord.


The Rosary

A rosary as simple and short as it goes, as meditational as you want to put it, can always be asociated to a particular intention or prayed in the memory of a passed friend or family member. This can be done privately, but also within a parish where communal rosaries are usually prayed on Friday (in Europe). A small intention prayer can focus the whole community to such a wish for offer of the prayer.

The Sacrament of the Mass
In the Catholic Church, Masses can and are read for the memory of the deceased. Usually that happens 7 days and then 30 days after the date of the burial, and then one year later. This is usually done by the parish or in placed might be needed to be asked or reminded, but here in Europe it is still a very current thing to do. After that it is up to the family or friends to ask for prayer or mass intentions at a later date, but it is always possible and a good way to remember someone.


Pilgrimages to places where Saints worked and professed their faith can be a challenging voyage, and can in every way be associated with a particular memory for a person. Usually once the group has found together various prayer intentions are shared by the group and followed in every prayer silent or prayed together. I did a few pilgrimages when I needed centering and help with a particular prayer inent. Personally I have always had a problem with aksing things in prayer and pilgramages sort of have helped me bypass this awkward moment in which I ask the Lord for something he will give me anyway if it is indeed what I need. It can be a small walk, it can be a journey of weeks, whichever way, it is again the intention that counts.

Maybe some others can come up with more that I might have forgotten in the comments, but I hope that this helps to answer the answer that was asked. On a last note, one should never forget that the Lord above all and the One knows our heart and our intentions better than we consciously might and he knows of our pain for people that are dear to us, but do not necessarily share our belief. No prayer is lost, neither in time nor space.

Further reading:
– Very extensive article on Catholic Encyclopedia the nature of Indulgences with nice details in certain Medieval Controversy concerning Wycliff
– Pilgrimages: Catholic Encyclopedia, Documents of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People on Tourism, Pilgrimages and Shrines, and the final document of a Congress on “Ecumenism of Holiness – Pilgrimage at the Beginning of the Third Millenium
– Rosary: The Vatican Site on the Rosary (with Encyclics, official documents and meditations)

Posted by: Yseult | July 15, 2008

Turning on the mic… or better the keyboard

Welcome to everyone out there having found their way to the first post of this new blog.

The idea is rather simple: what happens if you take two professional philosophers that are believers and followers of the Catholic Faith? Some might expect a violation of their work ethics – yes, the new militant atheist movement -, some would hope for a loss of faith or even trust in God – yes, the FSSPX.

After being married over a year to a devout Catholic and having rediscovered my own strength in my faith, I can truly say that neither is the truth.

Yes, as philosophers and professionals we do compartimentalise a lot. We are forced to look at a ‘hot’ topic from an objective point of view, chew it over and over again, analyse it for what it really is and not what our emotions tell us etc. It is our job and it is our role in society.
But once the books are closed and the articles written, the true discussions, the true track back to what we as Catholics think and how we personally put ourselves towards a particular problem such as abortion, stem cell research et al. is a completely different topic.

And while it is true that ideally we should bring the two together, J and I have one without the other chosen another path: Medieval Philosophy. Before we knew each other, we both delved into the immense depths that are the sources of our faith, the backbone of Tradition. And in contributing to editing texts, studying them, we both contribute also to the knowledge of said tradition.

I have been writing a life/philosophy blog for years now, but since it is accessible to my peers, I usually keep my faith and my religion out of it. Simply because we live in difficult times and I cannot fight people head on if they take me for a lunatic (again read: the Dawkins followers). So why not finally satisfy that other side and write about how we really manage in our everday life, my husband J and I, to live both sides: philosophy and Catholic faith.

It will be a journey, it will probably be interesting, most probably painful in certain areas, but as far as testimonies go, this one is as honest as they get.