Aquinas Doesn’t Care That Much About War

When the ethical topic of war comes up, as it does often enough and with intensity every so often, St. Thomas Aquinas is usually mentioned as a defender of a long-standing Catholic endorsement of the idea of “Just War.”  That’s not wrong exactly, but let’s subvert the claim for a bit.  I’m a teacher; being ambiguously provocative is basically my whole life. Continue reading Aquinas Doesn’t Care That Much About War

Translating Psalms (47)

Someone who knew a thing or two about grace and happiness used this Psalm to open up his famous autobiography.  He liked this psalm so much he also used part of the first line as the title of another mildly famous book.  Memorize this psalm by reciting it every day, then go back and read his books.  You’ll be happier and you’ll understand both him and this psalm a lot better.

“Magnus Dominus” (Psalm 47)

[1] Psalmus cantici. Filiis Core, secunda sabbati.

A Psalm of a canticle.  For the sons of Korah, second of the Sabbath. Continue reading Translating Psalms (47)

Ratramnus on the Eucharist (V)

Concluding my translation series of Ratramnus of Corbie’s book on the Eucharist.  Outline here, introduction here, part one here, part two here.

Where will I go next?  Backward in time to Radbertus or forward to Berengar?  First a break for Lent while I work on other pieces, I think.

Without further ado: Continue reading Ratramnus on the Eucharist (V)

Ratramnus on the Eucharist (IV)

Wherein Ratramnus concludes his arguments about the nature of the Eucharist.  For how we got to this point, see my previous posts here, here, and here.  Next post in the series here.

The main thing to comment on here, setting aside some of his really interesting claims about identity and difference, is the structure.  This section of the letter seems to have been rewritten at some point, or perhaps even reworked by a later author.  Why?

The formatting of the first section of the letter was very straightforward: terms, analysis, Scripture, Fathers, conclusion.  This latter section, however, does a few things differently.

First he begins with a lengthy presentation of St. Ambrose’s thoughts on the Eucharist.  With very little commentary added in his own words, this essentially amounts to a twenty-paragraph appeal to Patristic authority.  This is no big shock; perhaps Ratramnus felt he was on riskier ground here and wanted to give himself as much advance cover as possible for his views.

Second, and I think more interesting, Ratramnus embeds his subsequent analysis on identity and difference inside a surprising inclusio: the Eucharist is a two-fold figure of not only Christ, but also of His mystical body–us.  Between raising this in #73-75 and closing out with St. Augustine’s take on the same in #93-96, he lays out differences of attributes and definition in a way that doesn’t really depend on the Two-Fold Figure idea.  The opening of the inclusio is based on liturgical practice, but when he returns to liturgical texts inside his analysis he shows no notice or dependence on the earlier material.

Third, his use of Fulgentius in #90-92, while still pursuing the same kind of dichotomies as the earlier analysis, is far subtler an argument than anything used previously.  There are some new text markers in the last ten or so paragraphs as well, most notably referring to St. Augustine by the hitherto unseen Pater Augustinus.

Now I’m pretty skeptical of authorship claims based on text variation, but at the very least it should be well-noted how different “part two” of this letter is.  I’m open to any number of interpretations here, including the possibility that I’m over-pressing the claim or missed structure in “part one,” but one thing I know: I had a lot more outline-thinking to do for this part of the text!

Without further ado: Continue reading Ratramnus on the Eucharist (IV)

Ratramnus on the Eucharist (III)

See my outline with introductory remarks here and the opening paragraphs with brief commentary here.  Next post in the series here.

Now we come to the first phase of the argument that Ratramnus wants to make: when Catholics consume the sacrament of the Eucharist, do they consume the body and blood of Christ in mystery or in truth?  He runs down a basic primer of Augustinian signification (which, sadly, I did not study at any length in my school years) before launching into an account of change and some Scripture commentary before finally covering his bases with some Patristic authorities.

By later standards of Lateran orthodoxy, to say nothing of Tridentine, and even by the laxer standards of 20th and 21st century Catholic theology, much of what Ratramnus writes in this book can only be described as heretical.  Some of it is highly dubious even in his own context, and I have no interest in playing the game of defending or rehabilitating the man or his work.  But it is interesting throughout, often thought-provoking, and in the end serves as an excellent set of objections for a quaestio format.  Indeed, that last is the thin justification I gave myself for this project–to prepare material for teaching the theology of the Eucharist to students at my school.

But if you prefer strict adherence to more recent Church teaching on the matter–and I don’t blame you if you do–then you might want to look away from some of what comes next.  There are some eyebrow-raisers!

Some of my grammar notes are still scattered throughout, and the entire work could use a good proof-read.  I’ve gone back over some of the rougher spots but surely there are many errors to be fixed.  A hobby for another day!

Continue reading Ratramnus on the Eucharist (III)

Ratramnus on the Eucharist (II)

For my introduction to this little project, see here.  Next post in the series here.

The interesting thing about these opening lines, other than the statement of the two questions in #5, is the way in which Ratramnus frames his entire project.  In the opening paragraphs of his letter to Charles the Bald, Ratramnus sets up Charles as a New Constantine solving a new Arian controversy for the sake of both the spiritual and political realms. Is this flattery of the cleverest sort, addressed to the grandson of Charlemagne?  Or did Charles himself set the terms of the argument this way?  Or did Ratramnus’s entanglement in matters Greek influence him to see the situation this way?  In any case, it seems unlikely to have been the real theo-political situation, since no wide controversy seems to have erupted from the exchange and no councils took canonical action on the matter for generations.

Still, the theological claim is interesting: should St. Paul’s classic exhortation to unity of thought and confession (ut idem sapiant et idem dicant omnes) apply to this question about the Eucharist?  It seems unlikely at the time to have been much more than an academic battle over how to interpret St. Augustine and the other Fathers on the Eucharist, nor does there seem to have been much appetite within the Church to settle the matter definitively.  But in that sense Ratramnus was either ahead of his time or forced the issue himself, since indisputably this set of questions would soon come to be critical and would become a definitive chapter in the deposit of faith.

Grammatically there are a few frustrating points throughout the paragraphs but I’ve streamlined out all but one: the irritating relative pronoun in the second sentence.  The sentence as a whole is clear: What could be worthier than A and B, where A is to understand something (sapere) and B is to allow something (pati).  Each of A and B are further modified by their own relative clause whose antecedent “must” be found inside A and B respectively.  B’s relative clause is quite clear: the antecedent is the last phrase of B, the body of Christ, in which is found the “source and summit,” to steal a much later phrase, of the Christian life.  But now the irritating part: A’s relative clause “must” have some hidden masculine noun as its antecedent, and the only nouns in A are mysteriis (neuter plural) and the hidden noun modified by catholicae (feminine singular).

While it deeply offends my grammatical sense, and while I fear I must be overlooking some better solution in which illius is somehow a masculine form referring to Charles, I have judged that qui must in fact be quae and refer to the Church.  Checking a critical edition would help a lot there, but what can you do?  It’s just a hobby!

Enough of that problem.  Without further ado: Continue reading Ratramnus on the Eucharist (II)

Ratramnus on the Eucharist

The blog has been long-quiet while I struggle to regain full use of my reasoning faculties blasted to rubble by the raising of my toddler son.  Rather than allow my writing to atrophy entirely, I set myself a hobby task: translate into English one of the famous texts on the Eucharist from Church history, that of Ratramnus of Corbie.

Ratramnus composed this work in the 9th century as a counterpoint to the position taken by his own abbot, Paschasius Radbertus.  The mind thrills to imagine the frosty relationship in the cloister after that became known!  While their “argument” does not seem to have created a major controversy in the 9th century, it signals the start of the generational haggling that culminates in the Fourth Lateran Council’s definition of transubstantiation in 1215. Continue reading Ratramnus on the Eucharist

And The Rock Was Christ

Brethren, let not your instruments of music rest in your work: sing one to another songs of Sion. Readily have ye heard; the more readily do what you have heard, if you wish not to be willows of Babylon fed by its streams, and bringing no fruit. But sigh for the everlasting Jerusalem: whither your hope goes before, let your life follow; there we shall be with Christ. Christ now is our Head; now He rules us from above; in that city He will fold us to Himself; we shall be equal to the Angels of God. We should not dare to imagine this of ourselves, did not the Truth promise it. This then desire, brethren, this day and night think on. Howsoever the world shine happily on you, presume not, parley not willingly with your lusts. Is it a grown-up enemy? Let it be slain upon the Rock. Is it a little enemy? Let it be dashed against the Rock. Slay the grown-up ones on the Rock, and dash the little ones against the Rock. Let the Rock conquer. Be built upon the Rock, if you desire not to be swept away either by the stream, or the winds, or the rain. If you wish to be armed against temptations in this world, let longing for the everlasting Jerusalem grow and be strengthened in your hearts. Your captivity will pass away, your happiness will come; the last enemy shall be destroyed, and we shall triumph with our King, without death.

–St. Augustine, Ennarrationes in Psalmos, 136

Conversational Pelagianism

Last year I had the good fortune to accidentally end up teaching Pelagianism to my Third Formers.  Like many accidents in teaching, it worked out very well and I think I’ll repeat the lesson this year.

As the academic year came to a close I realized I had a timing problem.  With only 3 or 4 class days left, I did not have time to teach my usual close-out lesson on the basic moral content of the Gospel.  Typically I take 5 or 6 class days to go through the Sermon on the Mount and the basic Pauline exhortations so that my students will have some idea what Catholicism is about outside of their primary source of information, the TV and the internet.

Since I was short on time, I let my students choose their final lesson.  I could teach a shortened version of my Sermon on the Mount material, or I could teach any topic they wanted me to tackle.  Any at all!  I have a lot of theological hobbies and many had come up over the course of the year without us having a chance to do more than touch upon them.  New astronomy?  Church history myth-busting?  Thorny scriptural interpretations?  Philosophy of science, the nature of numbers?

Most students were indifferent but the active voters lobbied for “cool-sounding heresies.”  I’d already covered the most famous ones–you can’t teach Trinity without talking about Arius, for example–and in fact I’d already covered Pelagianism indirectly.  It’s quite astonishing just how much of the basic Catholic catechism is influenced by a repudiation of Pelagianism and the later battles over the same topic (*cough* Protestantism *cough*).  But when I suggested Pelagianism they jumped, with one of them slyly asking me if I’d ever heard the tragedy of Darth Pelagius the Wise (that’s a Star Wars joke, for my non-nerd audience).  Topic settled!

So how do you teach Pelagianism to 9th-graders?  I’m glad you asked! Continue reading Conversational Pelagianism

My Old Friend Hawthorne

It’s been a barn-burner of an academic year for me.  I retreated to an old friend and laughed at myself:

So little adapted is the atmosphere of a Custom–house to the delicate harvest of fancy and sensibility, that, had I remained there through ten Presidencies yet to come, I doubt whether the tale of “The Scarlet Letter” would ever have been brought before the public eye. My imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would not reflect, or only with miserable dimness, the figures with which I did my best to people it. The characters of the narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable by any heat that I could kindle at my intellectual forge. They would take neither the glow of passion nor the tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of dead corpses, and stared me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance. “What have you to do with us?” that expression seemed to say. “The little power you might have once possessed over the tribe of unrealities is gone You have bartered it for a pittance of the public gold. Go then, and earn your wages” In short, the almost torpid creatures of my own fancy twitted me with imbecility, and not without fair occasion.

It was not merely during the three hours and a half which Uncle Sam claimed as his share of my daily life that this wretched numbness held possession of me. It went with me on my sea–shore walks and rambles into the country, whenever—which was seldom and reluctantly—I bestirred myself to seek that invigorating charm of Nature which used to give me such freshness and activity of thought, the moment that I stepped across the threshold of the Old Manse. The same torpor, as regarded the capacity for intellectual effort, accompanied me home, and weighed upon me in the chamber which I most absurdly termed my study. Nor did it quit me when, late at night, I sat in the deserted parlour, lighted only by the glimmering coal–fire and the moon, striving to picture forth imaginary scenes, which, the next day, might flow out on the brightening page in many–hued description.

If the imaginative faculty refused to act at such an hour, it might well be deemed a hopeless case. Moonlight, in a familiar room, falling so white upon the carpet, and showing all its figures so distinctly,—making every object so minutely visible, yet so unlike a morning or noontide visibility,—is a medium the most suitable for a romance-writer to get acquainted with his illusive guests. There is the little domestic scenery of the well-known apartment; the chairs, with each its separate individuality; the centre-table, sustaining a work-basket, a volume or two, and an extinguished lamp; the sofa; the book-case; the picture on the wall;—all these details, so completely seen, are so spiritualized by the unusual light, that they seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect. Nothing is too small or too trifling to undergo this change, and acquire dignity thereby. A child’s shoe; the doll, seated in her little wicker carriage; the hobby-horse;—whatever, in a word, has been used or played with, during the day, is now invested with a quality of strangeness and remoteness, though still almost as vividly present as by daylight. Thus, therefore, the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. Ghosts might enter here, without affrighting us. It would be too much in keeping with the scene to excite surprise, were we to look about us and discover a form, beloved, but gone hence, now sitting quietly in a streak of this magic moonshine, with an aspect that would make us doubt whether it had returned from afar, or had never once stirred from our fireside.

The somewhat dim coal-fire has an essential influence in producing the effect which I would describe. It throws its unobtrusive tinge throughout the room, with a faint ruddiness upon the walls and ceiling, and a reflected gleam from the polish of the furniture. This warmer light mingles itself with the cold spirituality of the moonbeams, and communicates, as it were, a heart and sensibilities of human tenderness to the forms which fancy summons up. It converts them from snow-images into men and women. Glancing at the looking-glass, we behold—deep within its haunted verge—the smouldering glow of the half-extinguished anthracite, the white moonbeams on the floor, and a repetition of all the gleam and shadow of the picture, with one remove farther from the actual, and nearer to the imaginative. Then, at such an hour, and with this scene before him, if a man, sitting all alone, cannot dream strange things, and make them look like truth, he need never try to write romances.

But, for myself, during the whole of my Custom–House experience, moonlight and sunshine, and the glow of firelight, were just alike in my regard; and neither of them was of one whit more avail than the twinkle of a tallow–candle. An entire class of susceptibilities, and a gift connected with them—of no great richness or value, but the best I had—was gone from me.


Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom-House.”

There.  Now I feel better.