Mysterious World Episode 155 Fan Art

Lindsey P writes:

My husband (a recent Catholic convert) and I are big fans of “Catholic
Answers” and “Jimmy Akin’s Mysterious World.” We have so much respect for you and your work!

I like to crochet and sometimes make dolls of people I admire, and you
were my latest subject! I will attach a picture of my work below, and
would love to send this to you as a token of my appreciation.

Dan L writes:

Hey Jimmy and Dom, thanks for the great episode. My 9 year old daughter [Eve] drew you this Drop Bear while we listened. Thank you for making a great family friendly show.

Heather C writes:

I found [this episode on drop bears] inspiring! I made an amigurumi one…


The Burden of Proof

The burden of proof is one of the more abused concepts in apologetics today. Apologetics discussions are filled with arguing about the burden of proof, whether it has been met, and—most importantly—who has it.

The Internet is buzzing with such apologetics discussions right now. Yet many of these discussions—particularly concerning who has the burden of proof—are a complete waste of time.

There is a simple rule to tell you who has the burden of proof in a discussion. Unfortunately, most who get into disputes over which side has the burden of proof don’t know what this rule is, and an enormous amount of time is wasted on trying to figure it out.

Burden of Proof in Law and Debate
Most people are familiar with the concept from the legal principle that someone on trial in the United States is “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” The burden of proof is the requirement that the prosecution must meet in overcoming the presumption of innocence.

The burden of proof is a concept also employed in debating, where the standard principle is that the side that “takes the affirmative” must shoulder the burden of proof. In other words, the side in a formal debate that argues that you should believe or do something must produce reasons why.

As a result, the burden of proof changes depending on how you phrase the resolution. To use an X-Files analogy, “Resolved: Aliens exist” will place the burden of proof on Agent Mulder; “Resolved: Aliens do not exist” will place it on Agent Scully. The burden falls to whichever debater agrees with the resolution.

This situation would be much more complicated if the opposing debaters were expected to both knock down the affirmative team’s arguments and prove an alternative position. For example, if folks were debating the resolution “Christianity is the true religion,” it could get quite muddled if those taking a negative position were expected to both knock down the Christian arguments and prove the truth of a different religion.

That kind of muddle is judged too much for the kind of formal debating that high school and college debate teams engage in. But it is precisely the kind of muddle found in apologetics.

Burden of Proof in Apologetics
Apologetics discussions are frequently like formal debates without the formal part. In other words, debating without the rules.

If one group in a discussion accepts (or can be made to accept) the burden of proof, then the outcome of the discussion can be more easily ascertained. If you are not part of the group that has the burden, then in theory your job is easy: You simply have to knock holes in the other side’s arguments. If you succeed in doing so, you win, and your opponent must acknowledge that he was wrong and convert to your viewpoint.

If only it were so easy.

In a debate, who has the burden of proof is arbitrary. It depends on how the resolution is phrased. But in a trial, it is clear who shoulders the burden: the prosecution. Horrendous social consequences would result if the reverse were true. Human experience has shown that tyranny would result if people in court were presumed guilty.

The courts, therefore, have a rational reason for placing the burden of proof on one side rather than the other. But what about apologetics discussions? Do they have a rational way to set the burden of proof with a particular side?

It would be nice if they did. To place the burden of proof on your opponent in such a discussion would make it easy for you. As a result, many apologists, regardless of the issue, seek to lay the burden on their opponents and, when challenged, try to come up with rational reasons for this.

Most of the reasons that you hear are lousy.

Atheism and the Burden of Proof
Take the case of atheists debating the existence of God. They will commonly assert that theists rather than atheists must bear the burden of proof, that it is they who must show reasons that God exists, not the atheists who must show reasons that he does not.

They might justify this claim by saying that theists should bear the burden of proof because everyone who has a belief—regardless of what the belief is—should have a reason for it. This argument has some appeal. There seems to be a basic human intuition that we ought to have reasons for our beliefs.

But it is a lousy argument for showing that theists rather than atheists should have the burden of proof. The atheist also has a belief (namely, “God does not exist” or “There are no gods”), and he too should have a reason for his belief. The atheist should share the burden of proof to the same extent as the theist.

Some atheists have asserted that the burden of proof is on the theist because he asserts something positive—namely, the existence of God. The atheist, by contrast, asserts something negative: the non-existence of God. It is “positive beliefs,” this argument goes, that require one to shoulder the burden of proof.

But why should this be so?

After all, they are logically equivalent. “X exists” and “X does not exist” are convertible. Negate them and they switch places. They can be plugged into the same logical formulas.

Let me give a more concrete example: Why should the claim “I have a brother” be held to a higher standard of proof than the claim “I do not have a brother”? Surely, if I make either claim I should have a reason for it. But isn’t the memory that I did grow up with a brother on the same footing evidentially as the memory that I did not grow up with one? Wouldn’t the fact that a brother is listed in the birth records for my family be on the same level as the fact that one is not listed in them? Why should a claim of existence require more evidence than a claim of nonexistence?

The evidence used to argue the existence or nonexistence of a brother is the same: my own memory, the testimony of relatives and family friends, what is recorded in birth and medical records. What this evidence says should settle the matter. I don’t have to produce any extra evidence to argue that a brother exists than to argue that one does not.

Sometimes to defend the claim that they should not have the burden of proof, atheists appeal to a concept known as “the universal negative.” A universal negative is a claim that nothing of a particular sort exists. For example, “There are no unicorns” or “There is no present king of France.”

The argument is that no one should be asked to prove a universal negative because it is impossible to do so, and nobody can be required to do the impossible.

To prove a universal negative, one would have to have knowledge of the entire universe so that one could verify that the thing in question does not exist, and nowhere in the universe is a unicorn and nowhere in the universe today is a man who is the king of France.

This argument is unfair because it raises the burden of proof to a new level. No longer does it concern providing reasons for believing that the thing in question exists. It now requires universe-spanning, exhaustive proof of it. This is an important distinction.

It is easy to provide reasons that one should not believe in unicorns (e.g., they are claimed to be corporeal beings but you have never seen one with your own eyes; you can’t find photos of them in biology textbooks; biologists don’t hold them to exist; most people regard them as fictitious). It is another thing to scan all of creation and prove the point in exhaustive detail.

Similarly, one could ask the atheist to produce other reasons to think that God does not exist (e.g., most people believe God to be a fiction; there seem to be logical contradictions in the idea of God; there is an absence of any evidence of miracles in history; the universe does not appear to show traces of intelligent design). The atheist doesn’t have to scan the universe in exhaustive detail to offer such reasons. He simply has to appeal to the evidence at hand, and if the evidence at hand doesn’t allow him to make such claims, then it doesn’t offer us reasons to disbelieve in God.

Ultimately, the appeal to “universal negatives” doesn’t work, because in an ordinary discussion people don’t expect their opponents to prove their beliefs by scanning the whole universe. All they want them to do is look at the evidence that is available and make an assessment based on that.

Protestantism and the Burden of Proof
Trying to shift the burden of proof to one’s opponents is a tactic not limited to atheists. Protestant apologists also try it, and on a wide variety of subjects. One of these is the principle of sola scriptura—that we should form our theology “by Scripture alone.”

An argument that is sometimes used to defend this principle is reminiscent of the atheist’s “universal negative” argument: “I shouldn’t be asked to prove that we should do theology by Scripture alone because to show this I would have to prove a universal negative, and nobody can do that. I can’t scan the universe and show that there is no other source we should do theology by, so I’m entitled to conclude that there is not.”

This argument fails for the same reason that the atheist’s argument does: Nobody is being asked to scan the universe. All one has to do is look at the evidence at hand and see whether it indicates that we should do theology by Scripture alone.

What does the evidence at hand include? This is something we could argue about. In fact, it would be interesting to argue about the criteria by which we can know that something is a source to be used in theology. Nevertheless, in the Catholic-Protestant controversy it at least could be agreed upon that Scripture itself is relevant to the question of how we do theology. If it indicates that we should do it one way, then we should. If it indicates we should not do it a particular way, then we shouldn’t.

Things begin to look bad for the Protestant case, then, when we find Scripture saying positive things about the role of Tradition in the Christian life (cf. 1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6; 2 Tim. 2:2). Things look even bleaker when it is realized that there is an absence of verses that teach Scripture alone.

The coup de grace comes when one realizes that if sola scriptura were true then there would have to be such verses. If all principles of theology must be established by Scripture alone, and sola scriptura is a principle of theology, then it must be established by Scripture alone. If it can’t be, then it is shown to be false by its own test.

Realizing this, one discovers that the advocate of sola Scriptura doesn’t have to prove a universal negative; he has to prove a “particular positive”—namely, “Scripture teaches sola scriptura.”

It is the inability to prove this that motivates Protestant apologists to appeal to the universal negative argument in the first place.

The Rule
Sola scriptura is not the only issue on which Protestant apologists will attempt to place the burden of proof on Catholics. It is a general rule that, whenever an apologetics discussion begins, both sides will try to place the burden of proof on each other. That’s where the confusion and the time wasted begin.

But, as I indicated, there is a simple rule to tell which side has the burden of proof.

I recently pointed out this rule in an e-mail discussion I was having with a Protestant seminary professor regarding the much-discussed ossuary of James and what implications it may or may not have for our knowledge of the Holy Family. During the course of the exchange, the professor asserted to me that I would have to shoulder the burden of proof if I wanted to maintain that Mary was a perpetual virgin.

My response was simple: Yes, I would . . . if I were trying to convince you of that point. Whenever two people disagree and one wants the other to change his view, then the person advocating the change always has to shoulder the burden of proof.

In our discussion, I wasn’t trying to show him that Mary was a perpetual virgin. That’s what I as a Catholic believe, but I wasn’t trying to get him to change his mind on this point. I was simply trying to get him to acknowledge that the ossuary, if genuine, did not show that James was a biological son of Mary (a point that he grudgingly and tacitly conceded).

Had I been trying to bring him over to the Catholic view on Mary’s perpetual virginity, then I would indeed have to shoulder the burden of proof.

Any time someone wants us to change a belief we have, he has to give us reasons that we should do so, and in that he takes on the burden of proof.

The trouble arises in apologetics discussions when the two sides in the discussion are trying to mutually convert each other. That’s normal in such discussions, but it results in their being two cases argued simultaneously. In an apologetic encounter between a Protestant and a Catholic, the issues being argued frequently are “Protestantism is true” and “Catholicism is true.” On the first issue the Protestant has the burden of proof, and in the latter the Catholic does.

Such discussions will always go on because it’s human nature for each side in a discussion to want to bring the other around to his own point of view. But recognizing that the burden of proof does not simply rest with one side or the other—recognizing the true complexity of the discussion—can save an awful lot of time and emotional energy that otherwise would be wasted in wrangling over who has to prove what to whom.

Bottom line: If you want to prove something, it’s up to you to prove it.

Getting Science and Religion Wrong (Plus COVID Vaccines)

It isn’t often that I come across an editorial filled with as much factual inaccuracy and misunderstanding as the recent one by Dr. Amesh A. Adalja.

This is striking, because he’s a Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, and his editorial is on health security.

The piece is titled, “No, the New COVID Vaccine Is Not ‘Morally Compromised.’”

What’s wrong with the piece? Let’s look . . .


Pope Francis vs. U.S. Bishops?

Dr. Adalja begins by discussing the new Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine and the concerns raised about it by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes:

Is this group concerned about lower numerical efficacy in clinical trials? No, it seems that they have deemed the J&J vaccine “morally compromised”. The group is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and if something is “morally compromised” it is surely not the vaccine. (Notably Pope Francis has not taken such a stance).

Apart from the nasty insinuation that the bishops conference is morally compromised, what’s wrong with this is that he states Pope Francis has not taken a stand like the U.S. bishops.

Adalja bases this assertion on a news story headlined “Vatican Says Covid Vaccines ‘Morally Acceptable.’”

Here’s a piece of advice for Dr. Adalja: Don’t trust what the press says about religious topics. Always look up the original sources.

Had Dr. Adalja bothered to read the primary sources, he would have come across this document from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was authorized by Pope Francis, meaning that he put his teaching authority behind it.

The document holds that—although circumstances may permit taking vaccines like the Johnson & Johnson one—those that used cell lines derived from aborted children are morally compromised, and so the document states:

Both pharmaceutical companies and governmental health agencies are therefore encouraged to produce, approve, distribute and offer ethically acceptable vaccines that do not create problems of conscience for either health care providers or the people to be vaccinated.

So, Pope Francis takes exactly the same position as the U.S. bishops. Or rather, they’re taking the same position he is.


The Issue at Hand

Adalja then begins his case for why the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should not be considered morally compromised, so he argues that cell lines from aborted children are widely used in biotechnology and that they are used to find treatments for diseases.

These facts are not in question, but raises them does not engage the moral issue from a Catholic perspective.

The Catholic Faith holds that unborn children are people, and therefore they must be treated as such.

You could not kill an innocent person and then harvest his body for medical consumables. That is immoral, and that is what is happening with the cell lines in question.

The problem is not the cell lines themselves. It is the way they were harvested, which was—in essence—scavenging the body of a homicide victim.

If biomedicine needs cell lines to develop treatments, fine! But get them in an ethical way!

This is not impossible. There are perfectly legitimate ways of doing it. It’s just a question of being willing.

What the bishops want to see is not a banishing of cell lines from medicine.

Instead, they want to see public agencies and private companies—like Johnson & Johnson—get enough pushback that their consciences are activated, and they stop making morally tainted cell lines and replace them with ones that have been developed ethically.


Adalja Disagrees

Dr. Adalja does not recognize an unborn child as a human being. He states:

An embryo or fetus in the earlier stages of development, while harboring the potential to grow into a human being, is not the moral equivalent of a person.

Scientifically, this is nonsense. (Notice that he invokes the nonscientific category of “the moral equivalent of a person.”)

Viewed from a scientific perspective (as opposed to a faith perspective), a human being is a living human organism.

An unborn child—from the single-cell, zygote stage onward—is a living human organism:

  • The unborn are living (because dead fetuses don’t grow).
  • They are human (because they have human genetic codes).
  • And they are organisms (because they are organic wholes that are not part of another organism—as illustrated by the fact their genetic codes are different than those of their mothers).

Unless you want to invoke nonempirical concepts, you have to put unborn children in the same biological category as born ones, which is the category of human beings.

And unless your system of morality allows you to kill innocent human beings, you cannot kill them.

Adalja may not agree, but if he wants Catholics to disregard this purely objective viewpoint that is based on reason—and which also happens to be the teaching of their Church—he needs to provide arguments against it, which he doesn’t.


Enter the Ad Hominems

Like many who can’t produce objective arguments for their position, Adalja turns to ad hominem attacks on the Church. His overall attitude is expressed when he says:

Appeals from clerics, devoid of any need to tether their principles to this world, should not have any bearing on one’s medical decision-making.

It’s true—and irrelevant—that the bishops are clerics (as if that were a bad thing!), but they are not “devoid of any need to tether their principles to this world.”

Without invoking any nonempirical concepts, they have recognized the truth—which is entirely accessible to reason—that unborn children are human beings.

But Adalja doesn’t stop there. He then produces a brief litany of assertions that are further ad hominems.


The Dark Ages?

Adalja writes:

In the Dark Ages, the Catholic Church opposed all forms of scientific inquiry

This is factually inaccurate in the extreme. Dr. Adalja is apparently not a historian of science, for no historian of science would make such a claim.

It was—in fact—the clerical caste in the Middle Ages that contained the principal drivers of scientific inquiry, or natural philosophy, as it was then known.

Dr. Adalja should learn more about this period before he makes further assertions about it.

Allow me to recommend a good, popular level course on the subject that he should consider taking. (And so should everybody else; it’s really good.)


Lust of the Eyes?

Dr. Adalja asserts that in the Middle Ages the Church was “even castigating science and curiosity as the ‘lust of the eyes.’”

The scientific revolution didn’t occur until after the Middle Ages, so science did not exist in its present form then. Adalja’s claim that the Church was “castigating science” in the Middle Ages is thus going to be in some degree anachronistic.

But if he wants to say that “the Catholic Church” was doing this, he’s going to need to quote some official source capable of speaking for the Church—like a pope or an ecumenical council.

Yet when we click the link he has provided, we find only a statement of a single theologian: St. Augustine.

And has Adalja even understood St. Augustine?

If you read the page (from Augustine’s Confessions), you discover that the kind of curiosity he’s rejecting as trivial is the kind people have for things in theaters and circuses, about astrology, and about magic and divination. He writes:

[T]he theatres do not now carry me away, nor care I to know the courses of the stars, nor did my soul ever consult ghosts departed . . .  I go not now to the circus to see a dog coursing a hare.

Those are the kinds of things Augustine considers idle curiosities.

Adalja should really read and digest the pages he’s linking.


“Because It Is Absurd”?

Adalja continues:

One early Middle Ages church father reveled in his rejection of reality and evidence, proudly declaring, “I believe because it is absurd.”

This time, Adalja gives us a link to a Wikipedia page about a quotation attributed to Tertullian.

And we have numerous problems.

First, Tertullian did not live in the “early Middle Ages.” He lived in classical antiquity.

Second, he wasn’t a Church Father. He has been denied that title because of his problematic views.

Presenting Tertullian as a reliable representative of Catholicism is like presenting Immanuel Velikovsky as a reliable representative of mainstream science.

Third—as the Wikipedia page points out—the quotation attributed to him isn’t accurate. As Wikipedia notes:

The consensus of Tertullian scholars is that the reading “I believe because it is absurd” sharply diverges from Tertullian’s own thoughts, given his placed priority on reasoned argument and rationality in his writings.

Fourth, the sentiment that Adalja tries to attribute to the Catholic Church is, in fact, rejected by the Church. As Wikipedia also notes:

The phrase does not express the Catholic Faith, as explained by Pope Benedict XVI: “The Catholic Tradition, from the outset, rejected the so-called “fideism”, which is the desire to believe against reason. Credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is absurd) is not a formula that interprets the Catholic faith.”

Did I mention that Adalja really should read and digest the pages he links?


Finishing the Litany

Adalja finishes his litany of ad hominems by saying:

This organization, which tyrannized scientists such as Galileo and murdered the Italian cosmologist Bruno, today has shown itself to still harbor anti-science sentiments in its ranks.

The Galileo situation was much more complex that Adalja presents it—as acknowledged by Galileo scholars and historians of science. (Really, Dr. Adalja! Check out that history of science course I linked earlier!)

The case of Giordano Bruno is complicated by the fact that the needed part of the records of his trial has been lost. But his cosmological views were not the key issue. As the Wikipedia page Dr. Adalja links observes:

Starting in 1593, Bruno was tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition on charges of denial of several core Catholic doctrines, including eternal damnation, the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, and transubstantiation. Bruno’s pantheism was not taken lightly by the church, nor was his teaching of the transmigration of the soul and reincarnation.

And, needless to say, the Catholic Church would not today support what happened to Bruno, as illustrated by its stance on the death penalty.


Back to the Future

All of this raises the issue of the extent to which any of this matters.

Rather than providing evidence that would undermine the Catholic Church’s position on unborn chidren, Dr. Adalja has been giving us a litany of historical ad hominems that don’t engage the issue.

His project at this point is simply to attack the Catholic Church rather than seeking to engage and interact with its views.

Yet—despite the problems with the historical examples he cites—let’s grant him all of them. Let’s suppose that things really were as bad as he says.

What does that have to do with today?

The Catholic Church clearly has a pro-science attitude in the present. Consider this quotation from the Catechism, which is just one among many:

The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers (CCC 283).

The Church runs its own astronomical observatory, as well as a special organization dedicated to the appreciation of science—the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Members of the academy include numerous distinguished scientists, including many Nobel laureates, and they are appointed to the academy based on their contributions to science, without respect to whether they are Catholic or whether they even believe in God.

Members have included famous scientists such as Niels Bohr, Alexander Fleming, Werner Heisenberg, Stephen Hawking, Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford, and Erwin Schrodinger.

Given all this evidence, it is clear that the charge that the Church is “against” science is sweeping and unjust hyperbole.



Dr. Adalja’s conclusion that the Church “has shown itself to still harbor anti-science sentiments in its ranks” is a bit underwhelming.

Every group of humans harbors “anti-science” sentiments in its ranks. Even scientists sometimes harbor “anti-science” views.

So what?

The question is whether a particular instance involves such views, and Adalja has done nothing to show that the Catholic Church’s assessment that unborn children are human beings is scientifically false.

Indeed, he cannot do so without invoking nonempirical—and thus nonscientific—criteria, because they objectively are living human organisms.

What Dr. Adalja does do is provide a compelling illustration of how to get science and religion wrong.

Instead of entering into the thought of the bishops he is criticizing, identifying the relevant, underlying premises, and then interacting with them:

  • He hasn’t done his research (the bishops are basing their position on Pope Francis’s)
  • He makes bare assertions about unborn children without providing evidence for them (i.e., that they only have the potential to grow into a human being, when they already are living human organisms)
  • He turns to a litany of historically oriented ad hominems that he (a) gets wrong and (b) do not reflect the Church’s stand on science

This is not how the dialogue between science and religion should proceed.

People of whatever perspective should seek to enter and understand the thought of the other before attempting to critique it. In other words, they should do their homework.

In particular, they should avoid ad hominem attacks on the other.

It’s both unfair and irrelevant to use ad hominems to attack and dismiss religious claims, just as it would be unfair and irrelevant to use ad hominems to attack and dismiss scientific claims (which could easily be done if that were desired).

Let’s hope that lessons can be learned from this unfortunate example.

Fan Art for Mysterious World Episode 143

From Rachel M. of Notre Dame Seminary. She writes:

While listening to “Episode #99: Our Lady of Akita” of Jimmy Akin’s Mysterious World to celebrate the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary back in September, I felt inspired to create this very mysterious fan art. My classmates in the Lay Masters program at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans appreciated this little painting so much that I made prints to share with them. You can imagine how much a bunch of theology grad students appreciate your critical thinking model.

From Josh C:

Mary Magdalene and Mary the Sister of Lazarus

Recently, Pope Francis added a memorial for the Bethany family—Martha, Mary, and Lazarus—to the General Roman Calendar.

The General Roman Calendar is the international liturgical calendar used in the Latin Church, and it is the basis of the particular calendars used in different countries.

A memorial is a liturgical commemoration ranking below a solemnity and a feast but above an optional memorial.

Given the prominence of the Bethany family in the Gospels—they are mentioned as friends of Jesus in both Luke and John—it may come as a bit of a surprise that they didn’t already have a place on the calendar.

And there’s a reason for that.


Which Mary?

The decree announcing the new memorial indicates that the reason the Bethany family didn’t have a common spot on the calendar up to now was due to uncertainty about how three biblical women should be identified:

The traditional uncertainty of the Latin Church about the identity of Mary—the Magdalene to whom Christ appeared after his resurrection, the sister of Martha, the sinner whose sins the Lord had forgiven—which resulted in the inclusion of Martha alone on 29 July in the Roman Calendar, has been resolved in recent studies and times, as attested by the current Roman Martyrology, which also commemorates Mary and Lazarus on that day.

The three women were thus:

  1. Mary Magdalene (John 20:1-18)
  2. Mary the sister of Martha (Luke 10:39, John 11:1-12:7)
  3. And the woman whose sins Jesus forgave (Luke 7:36-50)

In the Latin Catholic Church, there has historically been a question of whether these three figures are actually one person, with various authors holding that they were.


Why Would This Cause a Problem?

The reason this would cause a problem for giving the Bethany family a common slot on the calendar is that Mary Magdalene already had one.

Mary Magdalene is mentioned in all four Gospels as one of the witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, and her liturgical day is July 22. What’s more, it’s a feast, which outranks a memorial.

So, it would be odd to have a second liturgical day dedicated to the Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, since Mary would be appearing on the calendar twice.

As a result, Martha alone had a day on the liturgical calendar—July 29—though in the current Roman Martyrology (the Latin Church’s official list of saints and martyrs) also lists Mary and Lazarus on that day.


Why the Question?

Why has there been a question about the identification of the three women?

Part of the reason is that the sinful woman that Luke mentions wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair is unnamed (Luke 7:36-50).

However, John says that Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair (John 11:2), and that could mean that they are the same person.

On the other hand, it may not, because in the very next chapter, John tells us the story of Mary wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair (John 12:3), and he does not present her as a sinner. Luke also mentions the woman weeping over Jesus’ feet, but John doesn’t mention Mary doing this.

Also, since Luke does mention Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus in his Gospel (Luke 10:39), you’d think that he’d mention her by name if she was the sinful woman.

Further, Luke presents the hair wiping incident as occurring at a very different point in Jesus’ ministry. In Luke, it’s early on—before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for Passion week, while in John, Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair the day before the Triumphal Entry.

That could be because the Evangelists aren’t required to keep events in a strict chronological order, but it also could be that two different women performed similar actions to honor Jesus.

As a result, this matter is still ambiguous. There is evidence that points both ways.


One Mary or Two?

The identity of the sinful woman has not been the key obstacle to giving the Bethany family a spot on the calendar, though. Instead, it’s been the question of whether Mary Magdalene and Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus are the same person.

There are, after all, multiple women named “Mary” in the New Testament.

In fact, more than one in five Jewish women in first century Palestine were named Mary (see Richard Bauckham’s outstanding book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, ch. 4).

With a name that common, people in the first century Jewish community needed ways to tell them apart, and since they didn’t have last names like we do, they needed to use something else.


How They Did It

One of the most common ways of telling one person from another was to use a patronym—that is, to refer to them in connection with their father.

This is why Peter’s birth name is Simon bar-Jona, or “Simon the son of John.” It would distinguish him from other Simons, since most of their fathers wouldn’t also be named John.

But, if you didn’t know someone’s father, you might refer to them by a different relative—say, a brother. Thus, Peter’s brother Andrew can be referred to as “Andrew the brother of Simon” (Mark 1:16).

Uniquely, in Jesus’ case, he is referred to as “the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3).

In the case of women, you might refer to them by the names of their husbands. Thus, Luke refers to “Joanna the wife of Chuza” (Luke 8:3) and John refers to “Mary the wife of Clopas” (John 19:25).

But what do you do if you aren’t acquainted with a person’s relatives?

In that case, they were probably from somewhere else—since you’d know everybody in your own village—and so you could use their place of origin as a substitute.

This is why Jesus is known as “Jesus of Nazareth,” because outside of Nazareth, people didn’t know his family and so used the town in which he grew up. (Inside of Nazareth, they wouldn’t have called him this and would have used his family instead.)

This gives us the information we need to figure out the puzzle.


Mary the Sister of Martha and Lazarus

Both Luke and John refer to Mary as the sister of Martha, and John adds that she was the sister of Lazarus also.

They thus follow the standard naming conventions of the time.

Modern scholars often refer to them as “the Bethany family,” because that’s where they lived.

Bethany was a small village just outside Jerusalem, on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives.

And this was their stable place of residence. In fact, John introduces Lazarus by referring to him as “Lazarus of Bethany” and follows up by saying Bethany was “the village of Mary and her sister Martha” (John 11:1).

So, they were all identified with Bethany in Judaea. If you were from somewhere else and knew only one of the siblings, you would have used “of Bethany” as their identifier.

In fact, modern scholars often refer to Mary as “Mary of Bethany” to avoid the lengthier “Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus.”


Mary Magdalene

This means that, when Luke and John refer to “Mary Magdalene,” they are referring to a different person.

They already have a way of referring to the Mary who was related to Martha and Lazarus.

They’ve already introduced her to their audience using the sibling-identifier, and so they would be misleading their audience if they suddenly switched the identifier to something else and didn’t mention to their readers that they’re still talking about the same person.

In this case, the identifier—“Magdalene”—is a place name. “Mary Magdalene” means “Mary of Magdala.”

Magdala was a major fishing port on the Sea of Galilee, which is—of course, located up north in Galilee, way far away from Bethany down by Jerusalem.

That tells us several things:

  • Mary Magdalene was a Galilean, being associated with a city in Galilee.
  • She had no relatives who were well known to the Christian community (in particular, she had no husband, which fits with the fact she was free to follow the itinerant prophet Jesus).
  • She was a different person than Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who was associated with a village in Judaea.


Putting It All Together

And so, the puzzle is resolved. Despite earlier identifications of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, they are really two different people.

This has become clear—as the Congregation for Divine Worship notes—“in recent studies” that have carefully examined the way first century Jewish names worked.

This growing awareness of the fact the two women are distinct resulted, first, in giving the Bethany family a common day in the Roman Martyrology, and now, in giving them a common day on the General Calendar.

Are Fine-Tuning Arguments for God (or the Multiverse) Circular?

In a recent video, theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder argues that design arguments for God’s existence commit the fallacy of begging the question—also known as circular reasoning.

Do they?

Before we began, I want to lay my cards on the table and say that I’m a fan of Sabine Hossenfelder. She’s smart, well qualified, and a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies.

I appreciate her commitment to explaining physics in comprehensible terms and her willingness to challenge ideas that are fashionable in the physics community but that are not well supported by evidence.

She also doesn’t reject religious claims out of hand—as many do. Instead, she typically concludes that they are beyond what science can tell us, one way or the other.


A Finely Tuned Universe?

In her recent video, she notes that many people argue that the laws of physics that govern our universe seem finely tuned to allow life to exist. Even slight changes in the constants they involve would prevent life from ever arising.

An example she cites is that if the cosmological constant (i.e., the energy density of space) were too large, galaxies would never form.

Similarly, if the electromagnetic force was too strong, nuclear fusion would not light up stars.

Given all the values we can imagine these constants having, it seems unlikely that the laws that govern our universe would be finely tuned to allow life to exist just by random chance, so the question is how to explain this.


God or the Multiverse?

One proposed explanation is that the universe isn’t finely tuned by chance. It’s finely tuned by design.

Some entity with immense, universe-spanning power (i.e., God) designed the universe to be this way, and in religious circles, this type of argument is known as a “design argument” for God’s existence.

Another proposed explanation is that our universe is finely tuned for life by chance. But since it would be improbable to get a finely tuned universe with a single throw of the dice, it’s inferred that there must be other throws of the dice.

In other words, our universe is just one of countless universes that contain other laws and constants, and we just happen to be living in a universe where the things happen to come up right for life to exist.

(After all, we wouldn’t be here if they didn’t.)

Such a collection of universes is known as a multiverse.


God and the Multiverse?

From a religious perspective, the multiverse hypothesis can look like an attempt to get around the obvious implication of the universe’s apparent design—i.e., that it has a Designer.

However, that doesn’t mean that the multiverse doesn’t exist. If he chose, God could create a vast array of universes, each of which have different laws, and not all of them may contain life. (After all, most of our own universe does not contain life!)

Similarly, from the perspective of someone who believes in the multiverse, multiple universes wouldn’t rule out the existence of God, because you could still need a God to explain why the multiverse exists at all.

The God hypothesis and the multiverse hypothesis thus are not incompatible.


Both Are Possibilities

Dr. Hossenfelder acknowledges that both God and the multiverse could be real, but she says—correctly—that this would not add to our knowledge of how our universe works.

If God exists, that doesn’t tell us what the laws of our universe are. We still have to discover those by observation.

And if the multiverse exists, that also doesn’t tell us about the laws of our universe. Observation is still necessary to figure them out.


Circular Reasoning?

Her claim is that the fine-tuning arguments for both God and the multiverse don’t work—and, specifically, that they involve circular reasoning.

She fleshes out this claim along the following lines:

  1. To infer God, the multiverse, or anything else as the cause for why our universe seems finely tuned, you need evidence that our universe’s combination of constants is unlikely.
  2. However, the only evidence we have is what we have measured, and—precisely because the constants are constant—we always see them having the same values.
  3. Therefore, we have no evidence that the combination we see is unlikely.
  4. So, advocates of these views must assume what they need to prove—that the combination is unlikely—and that’s circular reasoning.


The Pen Objection

Dr. Hossenfelder seeks to head off an objection to her argument by pointing to a parallel case: Suppose you saw an ink pen standing upright on a table, balanced on its point.

It seems very unlikely that a pen would be balanced in this way, and so you’d suspect there was a reason why the pen was standing like this—perhaps a special mechanism of some sort.

But, she says, the reason that we can rationally suspect this is because we have experience with pens and know how hard it is to balance them this way.

Therefore, it would not be circular reasoning to propose an explanation for the oddly balanced pen.

However, the only experience we have with the constants of nature is the set we see. We thus can’t estimate how likely or unlikely they are to occur, because we don’t have evidence about the probability of this combination of constants.


What Do You Mean by “Evidence”?

The problem with Dr. Hossenfelder’s argument is the way she uses the term “evidence.”

In the video, she seems to assume that “evidence” must mean empirical evidence—that is, evidence derived from observation using the physical senses (and their technological extensions, like radio telescopes and electron microscopes).

This is the kind of evidence used in the natural sciences, and so you also could call it “scientific evidence.”

However, this is not the only kind of evidence there is.

Fields like logic, mathematics, and ethics depend on principles—sometimes called axioms—that cannot be proved by observation.

The evidence we have for them comes in the form of intuitions, because they seem either self-evidently true or self-evidently probable to us.

Since each of these fields is part of or closely connected with philosophy, we might refer to this intuitive evidence as “philosophical evidence.”

Whatever you want to call it, it’s evidence that we depend on—certainly in every field that involves logic, mathematics, and ethics.

Science involves all three, and so, while the scientific enterprise depends on observational evidence, it also depends on intuitive, philosophical evidence.


Do We Lack Observational Evidence?

It’s true that we can’t observe other universes, and so we lack observational evidence of the laws and constants that might be at play in them.

But does this mean that we lack any observational evidence that constants could have different values?

Confining ourselves strictly to our own universe—the only one we can observe—we see that not all constants have the same value. For example:

  • The strong coupling constant is about 1
  • The fine-structure constant is about 1/137
  • The top quark mass is about 1/10^17
  • The bottom quark mass is about 3/10^19
  • The electron mass is about 4/10^23

Clearly, we see things that we regard as constants with different values, even in our own universe. The constants I’ve just listed span 23 orders of magnitude!

Why do all these dimensionless constants have different values?

That’s a natural question to ask!

And so, one could argue that we do have observational evidence that constants can have different values—not from universe to universe but from constant to constant—and that leaves many people asking why.


Variable Constants

Further, we even have evidence that some of these constants may vary over time.

In particular, we have evidence that the fine-structure constant—which deals with the strength of the electromagnetic interactions—may have varied slightly over time within our universe.

Dr. Hossenfelder says in her video that this “has nothing to do with the fine-tuning arguments,” but this seems false.

If we have evidence that some things scientists initially took as constants aren’t constant after all, then it further raises the question of why they have the values they do.


The Evidence of Intuition

I’m not at all convinced that we don’t have observational evidence that invites us to ask why the constants we see in our universe have the values they do.

However, even if I were to waive this point, we still have one other line of evidence: direct intuition.

People who study the constants can imagine them having different values. We can, for example, imagine the electron mass being twice—or half—what its measured value is.

That makes it rational to ask why a constant has the value it does. As theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman famously said about the fine-structure constant:

It has been a mystery ever since it was discovered more than fifty years ago, and all good theoretical physicists put this number up on their wall and worry about it.)

Immediately you would like to know where this number for a coupling comes from: is it related to pi or perhaps to the base of natural logarithms? Nobody knows. It’s one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man. You might say the “hand of God” wrote that number, and “we don’t know how He pushed His pencil.” We know what kind of a dance to do experimentally to measure this number very accurately, but we don’t know what kind of dance to do on the computer to make this number come out – without putting it in secretly!


In Search of Explanations

Finding out the explanations for things is a key part of the scientific enterprise. The same is true of the philosophical enterprise.

We have a powerful (philosophical) intuition that things we encounter have explanations, and thus we seek them.

In philosophy, this intuition is sometimes framed as the Principle of Sufficient Reason, and while precisely how to formulate the principle is controversial, some kind of sufficient-reason quest is behind the scientific enterprise.

It would not do at all—and it would not be scientific at all—to encounter phenomena like stars shining, plants growing, and objects falling and say, “Those are just brute facts that don’t have explanations.”

Our intuition tells us that they need explanations, and it is the task of science to find them—to the extent it can—based on observation of how they work.

When we discern that many of these phenomena can be explained in terms of a set of underlying laws and constants, it’s then natural to ask what the explanation for these is—particularly when we notice that if these things were even slightly different, we wouldn’t be here.


The Limits of Science

Ultimately, Dr. Hossenfelder doesn’t deny that explanations for these things exist. She specifically says:

But this does not mean god or the multiverse do not exist. It just means that evidence cannot tell us whether they do or do not exist. It means, god and the multiverse are not scientific ideas.

The problem with this is how she’s using the word “evidence.” She’s taking it to mean empirical/observational/scientific evidence.

And it’s true that, at least in any conventional sense, you can’t do a laboratory experiment that shows that God exists—or a laboratory experiment that shows the multiverse exists.

Consequently, both ideas are beyond what can be proved scientifically.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t argue for them on other grounds. You can, in fact, argue for them based on your intuitions about what needs to be true in order to explain the constants as we see them.

This makes God and the multiverse subjects of philosophical argumentation rather than scientific demonstration.


Not Circular Reasoning

And that means that the charge of circular reasoning is false.

It would be circular reasoning to simply assume that it’s improbable the values of the constants we see in our universe should have the values they do.

But it’s not circular reasoning to say, “I have a strong intuition that this calls for an explanation” and then reason your way to what you think best explains it—even if that explanation lies beyond what’s scientifically measurable.

In other words, just because you’re doing something beyond science, it doesn’t mean that you’re simply begging the question.


The Return of the Pen

Let’s apply this insight to the ink pen example that Dr. Hossenfelder brought up.

Even if I’d never before seen a pen–or any similar object–it would make sense, when I first encountered one, for me to ask why it is the way it is.

Just like scientists and philosophers ask this for anything else they encounter.

I don’t need to know how likely or unlikely it is that an ink pen would be balanced on its point. The fact I can conceive of it being otherwise makes the question of why it’s standing rational.

Just asking the question is not begging the question.

And neither is having an intuition that it’s unlikely to be standing on its point (or in any other position) without an explanation.


Tying up Loose Ends

To keep things simple, I haven’t responded to everything Dr. Hossenfelder says in her video, since I wanted to keep things focused on her main argument.

However, I would like to circle back to the God hypothesis and the multiverse hypothesis as explanations for the apparent fine-tuning of our universe.

Personally, I like the idea of there being multiple universes—not for scientific or philosophical reasons, but just because I think it would be cool.

I’d also be fine with them having different laws and constants governing them. That would only add to the coolness.

But—speaking philosophically—there would still need to be a reason why the whole collection of them exist and why the laws that govern them vary from one to another.

Elsewhere, I’ve written about this as a “cosmic slot machine”:

If there is a multiverse with every possible combination of natural laws in the universes it contains . . . what is driving the change of laws in each universe? If there is a cosmic slot machine, whose innards cause the constants to come up different in each universe, why is that the case?

To explain the existence of such a cosmic slot machine, we’d need to appeal to something beyond the multiverse itself.

And so, whether or not there is a multiverse, I favor the God hypothesis.

When Were the Gospels Written?

Here is a brief post to draw together treatments I’ve written on the subject of when the four canonical Gospels were composed.

Determining the dates of Luke and Acts is a key first step in determining the dates of the others, so it is treated first.

I also treat these in my book The Bible Is a Catholic Book.

Posts in this series:

Related to the question of when the Gospels were composed is the order in which they were written–especially the order of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (i.e., the “Synoptic Gospels”). This is known as the Synoptic Problem.

I have written about the Synoptic Problem rather extensively here.

Some additional posts related to the dating of the Gospels and other New Testament books include:

What Does the Church Actually Say About “Praying to the Saints”?

Any informed, English-speaking Catholic will tell you that the Church says it’s both permissible and beneficial to pray to the saints.

But is he right? Is that what the Church actually says?

The answer is not what you might expect.


Discussions with Protestants

The topic of “praying to the saints” most commonly comes up in dialogue with Protestant Christians.

In the older branches of Christianity—Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and other forms of Eastern Christianity—it is common to ask the saints in heaven for their intercession.

However, in the 1500s, the emerging Protestant movement rejected this practice, and it is still widely rejected in Protestant circles today.

One key argument goes like this:

  1. Prayer should be directed only to God.
  2. The saints are not God.
  3. Therefore, one should not pray to the saints.

The key premise in the argument is the first—that prayer should be directed only to God.

How might one support this?


A Biblical Argument

One way of supporting the premise would be to mount a biblical case, which might go something like this:

  1. When we look in the Bible, we find that the word “pray” is used in connection with God rather than the saints.
  2. We should model our language on the way the Bible uses language.
  3. Therefore, we should use the word “pray” in connection with God rather than the saints.

One thing we need to be careful about when evaluating the first premise of this argument is what language we are talking about.

Just checking to see what an English translation for the word “pray” isn’t enough. All that will tell you is how the English translators thought the word should be used, not how the biblical authors used the equivalent vocabulary.

We need to check the original languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek—to see what language the biblical authors used, and how.

To keep this post short(ish), we’ll focus on the Greek. In biblical Greek, the main verb for “pray” is proseukhomai, which appears 102 times in the Greek Bible, and the equivalent noun for “prayer”—proseukhê—appears 61 times.

It so happens that in Greek, these words are used exclusively to refer to communication with God or the gods. They even have that meaning in the secular Greek of the period.

In this, the Greek is like contemporary American English, which also associates prayer exclusively with God or the gods.

The initial premise of this argument thus looks good!

What about the second? In other words . . .


How Closely Must Our Language Follow the Bible’s?

In general, I think it’s a good thing to model our language after the usages found in the Bible—at least when it comes to concepts related to the Christian faith.

I don’t think we have any obligation to follow Greek usage on other terms.

For example, color terms often vary significantly from one language to another, and in dialects of ancient Greek, honey could be described as “green” (khlôros), but I don’t think that creates an obligation for English-speakers to call honey green rather than yellow or golden.

However, it is generally a good idea to model the use of faith-related words to their biblical counterparts. Thus, we’re fortunate that the English word “God/god” broadly corresponds to the Greek word theos (it corresponds less well to the Hebrew word elohim, which can refer to things we wouldn’t call gods).

Despite my sympathy for the second premise, it has limits.

The fact that languages change over time is an unstoppable phenomenon, and even when Christians try to conform their usage to what’s in the Bible, terms inevitably take on new usages over the centuries.

If we had to model our religious vocabulary strictly on biblical usage, one term we’d have to eliminate immediately is “Bible.” The Greek term this is based on is biblion, which originally referred to a sheet of papyrus and then came to mean things like “letter,” “document,” and “scroll.”

In no case did biblion mean what we refer to as “the Bible.” That’s a post-biblical usage.

Similarly, every theological community has developed religious vocabulary that differs from biblical usage in various ways.

Thus, in both Catholic and Protestant circles, the term “the elect” has taken on a theological meaning that refers to “those people who will be saved on the last day,” despite the fact that this is not how the term is used in Scripture.

In Lutheran theology, the terms “Law” and “Gospel” have taken on technical meanings that differ significantly from the way these terms are used in Scripture. (To somewhat oversimplify, Law is conceived of as any divine command, while Gospel is understood as any divine promise; but in the New Testament the most prominent usage of “Law” is for the Mosaic Law or even the Old Testament more broadly, while “Gospel” is used for the message of what God has done through Jesus.)

One may regret that these usages have developed, but the fact is that they have—and that communities are using them.

Language change over time is inevitable. The question is what to do in response.


Avoiding Word Fights

On two occasions, St. Paul warns us against “quarreling about words”:

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers (2 Tim. 2:14).

If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain (1 Tim. 6:3-5)

For St. Paul, the most important thing is what is true, not the language that is used to express it.

Therefore, when a community of Christians has developed a theological usage that differs from the biblical usage, one should not fight about the terminology itself.

Complaining about an established usage is not going to change that usage. It’s only going to generate heat rather than light.

Of course, it’s fair to point out that the usage differs from what’s in the Bible.

Pointing that out can actually be helpful! It can help people remember that they need to control for the fact their theological vocabulary is different and should not be read onto the biblical text.

But once the biblical text is correctly understood, we must allow each group of Christians to express that in the language that has become established in their community.

So what about English-speaking Catholics and “prayer to the saints”?


“Prayer” in English

Following the Norman conquest of England in 1066, numerous French words entered English, and one of them was what became “pray” in the early 1200s.

French is based on Latin, and so the term “pray” comes from Latin roots. Specifically, it comes from the verb precare.

Precare means things like “to ask,” “to beg,” “to implore,” “to entreat,” “to supplicate,” etc.

In Latin, it is used in religious contexts—like when you’re asking God or the gods for something—but it is also used when you’re asking human beings for something.

Both usages carried over into English. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, English-speaking Christians would use “pray” to refer to making requests of God and of other human beings—including the saints.

In the latter case, what they were doing was asking the saints to intercede with God on their behalf—to serve as their “prayer partners” in heaven.

When the Reformation occurred, English-speaking Protestants objected to asking the saints for their intercession, and so the verb “pray” came to be more associated with requests directed to God.

In colloquial American English among Protestants, “pray” came to refer exclusively to speech directed toward God.

Still, the other usage survived in British English. If you read Shakespeare or watch period dramas set as late as the early 20th century, you’ll see characters saying things to each other like, “I pray you,” and all they mean is “I ask you.”

So, if a young gentleman in a British drama says to a young lady, “I pray your hand in marriage,” what it means is that he’s asking her to marry him—not that he’s worshipping her as a deity.

This is also where the word “prithee” comes from. It’s a contraction of “I pray thee.”

The human-directed usage even survives in American English in at least two contexts.

One is in legal settings. If you have a lawyer file a motion with a court, the motion will contain language that says, “My client prays that the court will do thus-and-so.”

It doesn’t mean that the client is worshipping the court. It means that he’s asking the court to do something.

The other context in which the human-directed usage survives in American English is among Catholics.

They have simply retained a usage that was around before English-speaking Protestants started narrowing the verb to only God-directed communications.

Thus, it is natural for English-speaking Catholics to talk about “praying to the saints”—meaning asking for their intercession.

So, how should the two groups deal with this in conversation?


Back to the Word-Fight Issue

Per St. Paul’s dictum, we should not fight about the usage of the English word “pray” and whether it should be associated only with God-directed communications.

Words mean what communities use them to mean, and the English-speaking community originally used “pray” to mean “ask,” regardless of who was being asked.

Even though the Protestant influence on English has associated the verb exclusively with God-directed communication in many contexts, other established usages remain.

A Protestant might think it would be better for those to go away, but they remain for now, and spending time complaining about them will generate heat rather than light.

To generate light, we should recognize the different usages and what they mean and, having done that, talk about the underlying truths.

For example, a Protestant might say, “In my community, ‘prayer’ is a form of worship reserved to God. When you talk about praying to the saints, are you giving them more honor than they should have as human beings?”

Of course, an informed Catholic should say, “No, and here’s why . . .” The discussion might then turn to what kind of honor human beings—especially saintly ones—should have.

Or, a Catholic might say, “In my community, ‘praying to the saints’ means asking them for their intercession. We teach that this is both permissible and beneficial.”

And, rather than getting hung up on the word “pray,” the discussion might then turn to whether it is permissible and beneficial to ask the saints for their intercession.

(As a side note, we also shouldn’t quarrel about the word “saints.” In various biblical and post-biblical usages, it can refer to the holy angels, to all Jews, to all Christians, to those Christians who are especially holy, to those Christians who are in heaven, and to those Christians who have been canonized as being in heaven. As before, we shouldn’t fight about the usage of the word but correctly note which usage is being employed and continue the discussion on that basis.)


Responding to Our Two Initial Arguments

With all this in mind, we can respond to the two initial arguments that were made—and do so in a way that generates light rather than heat.

Concerning the biblical argument, it’s true that the Greek term proseukhomai was used exclusively for God-directed communications, but that doesn’t finally determine the way “pray” is used in English.

As a result, if you want to say—as in the first argument—that “Prayer should be directed only to God,” you’ll need to clarify what you mean by “prayer.”

“Praying” to the saints is an established usage among English-speaking Catholics that means asking for their intercession.

The real question is not the term but whether it’s permissible and beneficial to ask the saints for their intercession.

So much for discussions about the English verb “pray.”

But there’s a noteworthy fact that will surprise English-speakers, both Catholic and Protestant alike.


The Language the Catholic Church Actually Uses

This is the kind of thing that you won’t notice unless you really live and breathe Church documents and think carefully about the language they do and don’t use.

It took me a while to notice and then confirm it, but if you read the documents of the Catholic Church’s Magisterium, they don’t actually talk about “praying” to the saints.


At least not in the documents that come from Rome. (I can’t answer for every individual bishop and what he might write.)

To illustrate this, here’s a screen cap of what you find when searching the Vatican web site for “prayer to the saints”:

And here’s what we find for “praying to the saints”:

In both cases, we get no results. Zero.

It turns out that these expressions are used by English-speaking Catholics, but they are not used in official Church documents, and when those documents are translated into English, the translators are careful enough not to use colloquial English expressions like “prayer to the saints” or “praying to the saints.”

So, what do they say instead?

One thing they do is speak of “the intercession of the saints,” where the key Latin verb is intercedere (“to intercede”).

Thus, in the sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that an English-speaking Catholic would turn to for information about “praying to the saints,” you don’t find that phrase. Instead, you find “intercession of the saints” (cf. CCC 956, 2683).

However, “intercession” refers to what they do for us. What language does the Church use for what we do with respect to them?

It speaks of “the invocation of the saints,” where the key Latin verb is invocare (“to invoke,” “to call upon,” “to appeal to”).

So, we invoke (appeal to) the saints to intercede (pray for us) with God.

That’s the language the Church actually uses. “Praying to the saints” is just something we say colloquially in English.

A logical next question is: What term does the Church use in its official documents for when we talk to God?

There can be a number of them, but the key ones are the verb orare (“to speak,” “to plead,” “to supplicate,” “to pray”) and the noun oratio (“speech,” “oration,” “prayer”). These are the words you’ll find if you look in the Latin edition of the Catechism in its section on prayer.

Interestingly, in Latin these terms don’t have to be used just for communications directed to God, but they are often used that way—especially in ecclesiastical (i.e., church) Latin.

It’s thus interesting that ecclesiastical language has a preferred set of terms for God-directed communications and a different set of terms for saint-directed communications.

In that respect, it’s similar to Protestant American English.


One Last Thing About Word Fights

Given this, it could be tempting for some from the Protestant community to tell Catholics, “Hey! Your own Magisterium has a separate term for prayer that is directed to God and doesn’t use ‘prayer’ with respect to the saints! You should change your usage to fit official ecclesiastical-speak!”

Except . . . if the Magisterium was concerned that this needed to happen, it would mandate the change, and it hasn’t.

The Magisterium recognizes the organic way languages change over time, and—per St. Paul—it’s not concerned about quarrelling over every linguistic usage.

The English “praying to the saints” is a historical usage with a long pedigree—going back to when the term “pray” first came into the English language, and the Vatican isn’t concerned about it.

On the other hand, it’s fair for Catholics—in discussing the overall issue with Protestants—to say, “You know, I understand why you might want to have a term for communications directed to God that’s different from those directed to others. Both biblical Greek and ecclesiastical Latin have similar usages. English is different. ‘To pray’ originally just meant ‘to ask,’ and English-speaking Catholics have preserved this usage when it comes to the saints. But rather than quibble about English terminology, let’s go to the real issue instead: Is it a good idea ask the saints in heaven to be our prayer partners? Let’s not quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers (2 Tim. 2:14).”