Does God Lead us into Temptation?

Christ-apostlesPope Francis suggests that “lead us not into temptation” is not a good translation of the words in the Our Father. The news cycle has again been thrown into chaos. The internet has again erupted.

It began when, in a television interview in Italian, the Holy Father commented on the Lord’s prayer in regard to a new liturgical French translation that asks God not to “let is fall into temptation.” (The Vatican has recently started allowing local episcopal conferences to generate new liturgical translations, rather than having them done “in house”). Pope Francis said the translation “lead us not into temptation” is “not good” and added:

The French have changed the text and their translation says “don’t let me fall into temptation,” . . . It’s me who falls. It’s not Him who pushes me into temptation, as if I fell. A father doesn’t do that. A father helps you to get up right away. The one who leads into temptation is Satan.

Pope Francis is certainly correct theologically. The Letter of James says: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted with evil and he himself tempts no one; but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire (Jas. 1:13-14).”

So whatever God does in the Lord’s Prayer, it can’t mean that he is tempting us to evil, in the sense of enticing or seducing. Some language versions, including the Spanish, have long agreed, and translate this as: “Don’t let us fall into temptation.”

But is he correct about the actual translation? What does the original actually say? Though the liturgical translations of the Our Father are from the Latin, the Latin comes from the words of the Gospel, which are in Greek.

There are two versions of the Our Father in the New Testament. The one in Luke 11:2-4 is shorter and worded somewhat differently in places than the one in Matthew 6:9-13, but in regard to the words in question it is identical to Matthew. These are the words of Jesus himself: me eisenekes hemas eis peirasmon.

The verb eisphero means “to bring into, carry into,” or by extension “lead into.” In his just-published article in the National Catholic Register, Mgr. Charles Pope is blunt, and even ferocious in his disagreement with the Pope:

Eisenenkes is an aorist subjunctive in the active voice. “Lead us not” is simply the clearest and most accurate translation of me eisenenkes. To instead render it “do not allow us” is to read into the text an extended meaning that is not there. While the intention may be to assist the reader to understand that God does not tempt us or directly cause us to fall, the effect is to imply that the inspired Greek text is inadequate.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church begs to differ:

CCC 2846 . . . It is difficult to translate the Greek verb used by a single English word: the Greek means both “do not allow us to enter into temptation” and “do not let us yield to temptation.”

I’m not enough of an expert in the language to know who is right. It is true, though, that the aorist does funny things in Greek. And we have to remember that Jesus originally spoke in Aramaic, so there is undoubtedly some nuance lost.

I suspect that the real crux, however, is in interpretation, not translation. If you pair this phrase with the phrase following it in Matthew, it becomes more understandable, as a kind of rhetorical contrast of what we don’t expect God to do with what we know he will do. Contrasts are always heightened. “Do not bring us to temptation, BUT RATHER deliver us from evil.”

There is more involved here, however. I’ll let Msgr. Pope out of his cage for a bit, to explain why Scripture often attributes things to God without mentioning any secondary cause:

In more ancient and believing times, people were more aware of and conversant with God’s role in sustaining and being the primary cause of all things. They were more comfortable with attributing things to God’s primary causality, things that today are more often attributed to the secondary causality of physical nature or man. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out regarding the more ancient appreciation of primary causality, This is not a “primitive mode of speech,” but a profound way of recalling God’s primacy and absolute Lordship over history and the world, and so of educating his people to trust in him (# 304).

This brings us back to the request in the Lord’s Prayer that God “lead us not into temptation.” Surely God does not tempt us in any direct sense. He does not will to entrap us or to confound us so as to make us fall. However, because He is the first cause of all existing things, He is also the first cause of things that tempt us. So, in asking God to “lead us not into temptation,” we ask Him, who providentially holds us and all things in existence, to lead us forward with the graces we need to resist it. This will allow us to enjoy the good things He gives without giving way to the temptations of our inordinate desires.

A quite clear and vivid presentation of this same idea can be found at the beginning of the book of Job. Satan goes up to heaven and discusses things with God. God allows Satan to put Job to the test. It is what we have always called “God’s permissive will.” Nothing can be done without that.

There is another noteworthy thing about this story. Job is not being “tempted” so much as “tried.” Satan does not dangle beautiful women or opportunities for embezzlement in front of Job. He subjects him to terrible tragedies, including the loss of his wealth and health and the death of all his children. Satan wants Job to turn against God in his misery and curse him: the ultimate temptation and ultimate fall. Job comes close at times, but doesn’t succumb (Read the Book of Job: it’s magnificent).

This brings up another possible meaning for peirasmos, (test, trial) one that some Biblical interpreters prefer. The Old Testament often refers to God testing his people:

Or did any god venture to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by testing (en peirasmo), by signs and wonders, by war, with strong hand and outstretched arm, and by great terrors, all of which the LORD, your God, did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? All this you were allowed to see that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other. (Deut 4:34-36).

Here we see that God both did the testing and allowed it, so his people could realize the extent of his power and the necessity of their complete trust in him.

These references also occur in the New Testament, for instance in 1 Peter 4:12. And perhaps it is also the meaning of peirasmos in the Lord’s Prayer.

In its commentary on Matthew 6:13, the New American Bible says “Jewish apocalyptic writings speak of a period of severe trial before the end of the age, sometimes called the ‘messianic woes.’ This petition asks that the disciples be spared that final test.”

So the words of Jesus could be referring to the warnings he frequently gave to his disciples about the coming terrible siege and fall of Jerusalem, or the persecution they were going to undergo, or perhaps the tribulation before the end times. He speaks of these things often in the Gospels, and warns the disciples that they are coming. He is teaching them in this case, as in all others, to pray that God might spare them from these things, if possible, but as in all things, to confidently say: “deliver us from evil.”

We may or may not need a new translation, but good catechesis gives us so much.

The Perils of Pope Francis, Part I: A Lesson in Multiplication

Pope_FrancisI have been meaning to write this for some time, but many things intervened. At any rate, here it is, probably long overdue.

Not long ago LifeSite News came up with a compendium: The ABCs of Our Concerns with Pope Francis. It’s a greatest hits recap of their “reporting” on the Pope’s controversial remarks, often containing denunciations of his supposed heresies. (Rather remarkably, for an outfit that is supposed to be about reporting pro-life news, they have ventured more and more into theology). The whole thing gives me a persistent image of a dastardly villain tying Pope Francis to the railroad tracks every week in some kind of ongoing melodramatic serial. So far, 26 episodes, one for every letter of the alphabet, a whole TV season’s worth.

I’ve decided it’s time for a rescue.

What I mean is that ordinary Catholics need an antidote to those on both sides who are trying to manipulate our view of Pope Francis. In a small way, I’ve been trying to do this since the beginning of his pontificate. I recently realized to my amazement that I wrote my first post defending the Pope from his critics only five days after his election. Five days. Before he had done anything whatever of substance. This shows that there is something more behind this hatred than just the Pope’s words or deeds. I plan to get back to this later.

I’m going to start by supplying some rules to to follow in reading the Pope’s words:

1. Read the whole thing. Seriously, just do it. Don’t just read the LifeSite News article or the headline in the secular press. Read the whole of what the Pope said. Yes, even if it’s longer than a paragraph. If you don’t do this, you have no right to comment.

2. Read with an open mind. If you are already convinced the Pope is a heretic, you will read everything with a mind to finding what’s wrong with his words, rather than being open to what he’s really saying. This often leads to ludicrous results. And yes, it’s just as ludicrous when “liberals” read their own presuppositions into the Pope’s words.

3. Context, context, context. Exactly who is the Pope speaking to? What was the occasion? If it’s an interview, what was the exact question asked? What cultural differences might come into play?

4. Keep translation difficulties in mind. Unfortunately the Vatican translation service is not infallible. In many cases, if you don’t know the original Italian or Spanish, you won’t be able to find the mistranslation by yourself, but at least be aware of the possibility.

More about Rule no. 1. The thing that amazes me most about the Pope’s most virulent critics is that they never read his complete reply to questions, much less a complete interview. Much of the time I suspect, they don’t read more than the headlines or the few snippets that the secular press will extract and print from a papal statement, and of course, distort into a caricature of what was really said. The Pope’s critics strangely cling to this misinterpretation, and call all efforts to correct this impression “explaining away” or “elaborate attempts at special pleading.” No folks, it’s called “adult reading comprehension.” Everybody has to do this all the time. This is no exception.

In many cases, these are the same people who when it comes to one of their cultural heroes, like Trump, will endlessly parse his statements and movements to try and prove he didn’t say or do what everyone thinks, who plead with us to look at the context, who decry everything the secular mainstream press writes as “fake news.” But with Pope Francis, they buy everything the secular press puts out, hook, line and sinker.

I will admit that it’s often not easy to get some of the Pope’s complete statements, especially in his plane interviews. You can go to the Vatican website, but his interviews might be there only in Italian and the English translation might not be put up for weeks, even months. So let’s try something simpler to start with: his sermons and Angelus addresses, which are always up on the Vatican website the day they are given. The one I’m going to discuss here shows the virtues of Rule no. 1 well, but the other three I mentioned also apply. I think we should start with something not as fraught with tension as homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion, etc. So here we go.

Multiplication or Sharing?

Here is exactly what LifeSite News wrote in the above-mentioned compendium about the “scandal” of Pope Francis talking about the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

During the Angelus of June 2, 2013, he spoke about Christ’s miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as taking place by “sharing.” “This is the miracle: rather than a multiplication it is a sharing, inspired by faith and prayer,” he said. He was even more explicit about it in July 2015 in a homily preached in Christ the Redeemer Square in Bolivia. Pope Francis said, “This is how the miracle takes place. It is not magic or sorcery. … Jesus managed to generate a current among his followers: they all went on sharing what was their own, turning it into a gift for the others; and that is how they all got to eat their fill. Incredibly, food was left over: they collected it in seven baskets.”

Though they never exactly spell it out, LifeSite News evidently thinks Francis is guilty of the typical “liberal” Christian interpretation of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes: it was not really a miracle, but Jesus teaching the crowd to share; inspired by him, they bring out the food they had all brought with them and were secretly hiding under their cloaks the whole time, and offer it to their neighbors.


Loaves and fishes – mosaic on the floor of the Church of the Multiplication in Galilee.

From the excerpts quoted, this interpretation looks plausible. But now to apply Rule no. 1: Go read the whole of the first talk, here at this link. You might as well get used to doing it. And you will quickly find out that LifeSite News did not read this talk all the way through, or if they did, they didn’t read it with any attention.

Now, Rule No. 3: the context. At the beginning the Pope notes that it is the feast of Corpus Christi. So the whole talk is in the context of the Eucharist. After summarizing the situation in the Gospel, Pope Francis contrasts the attitude of Jesus to that of the disciples, who weren’t really concerned with the crowd and just wanted them to go away. Then he comes to the point:

Jesus senses our problems, he senses our weaknesses, he senses our needs. Looking at those five loaves, Jesus thinks: this is Providence! From this small amount, God can make it suffice for everyone. Jesus trusts in the heavenly Father without reserve; he knows that for him everything is possible. Thus he tells his disciples to have the people sit down in groups of 50 — this is not merely coincidental, for it means that they are no longer a crowd but become communities nourished by God’s bread. Jesus then takes those loaves and fish, looks up to heaven, recites the blessing — the reference to the Eucharist is clear — and breaks them and gives them to the disciples who distribute them… and the loaves and fish do not run out, they do not run out! This is the miracle: rather than a multiplication it is a sharing, inspired by faith and prayer. Everyone eats and some is left over: it is the sign of Jesus, the Bread of God for humanity.

Pope Francis notes that this is a “sharing.” What sharing? Well, there is certainly no reference to anyone but Jesus and the disciples having any bread. Rather the context is: Jesus is concerned with the crowd and their needs. He wants to provide bread, but trusts in his Father to provide (note: he does not trust the crowd to provide). Francis points out the likeness of this scene to that of the institution of the Eucharist. He concludes by noting that this miracle is the sign of Jesus being “the Bread of God” for humanity.

So who is sharing? Jesus shares something of himself, out of his compassion, and inspired by his own “faith and prayer.” He shred the bread he had but also shared himself. It is a sign that he himself is the Bread of Life. Yes, you might have to work a little to get the meaning, but it is there and don’t think it’s possible to mistake it with a close attentive reading. True, Francis says that there is a lesson for the disciples and us to share what we have, but it the context of what has gone before, it is perfectly understandable: it refers of course to the loaves and fishes that Jesus and the disciples had and shared with others; in a wider sense we are to share of ourselves as Jesus shared himself.

“Aha!” you say. “But what about the second sermon, where Francis said the people “shared what they had?”

Well, back to Rule 3: the first problem is that LifeSite News destroyed the context of the sentence by leaving off the first part: Let’s read the whole thing as it appears in the Vatican translation:

The hands which Jesus lifts to bless God in heaven are the same hands which gave bread to the hungry crowd. We can imagine now how those people passed the loaves of bread and the fish from hand to hand, until they came to those farthest away. Jesus generated a kind of electrical current among his followers, as they shared what they had, made it a gift for others, and so ate their fill.

The whole of the first sentence makes it clear that Jesus himself distributed the bread, and that everyone passed the same bread back, handing what they were given on to others. This alone makes “gave what they had” stand out as awkward. If we take it to mean “their own bread (which they brought with them),” it contradicts the previous sentence.

What to do? Well, now it’s time for Rule no. 4. In this case, Francis was speaking in Bolivia, and Spanish was the original language for his talk. Since I know Spanish, I was able to find the words that were creating the difficulty and look them up. Here is the passage, with the words in question in bold:

Las manos que Jesús levanta para bendecir al Dios del cielo son las mismas que distribuyen el pan a la multitud que tiene hambre. Y podemos imaginarnos, podemos imaginar ahora cómo iban pasando de mano en mano los panes y los peces hasta llegar a los más alejados. Jesús logra generar una corriente entre los suyos, todos iban compartiendo lo propio, convirtiéndolo en don para los demás y así fue como comieron hasta saciarse

The word “propio” in Spanish does mean “his own.” or “what he had” but the specific idiom used, a verb followed by “lo propio,” means to do something “the same,” or in this case “the same way.” Here’s what a Spanish-language translation forum has to say.

Here is the correct version in English:

The hands which Jesus lifts to bless God in heaven are the same hands which gave bread to the hungry crowd. We can imagine now how those people passed the loaves of bread and the fish from hand to hand, until they came to those farthest away. Jesus generated a kind of electrical current among his followers, as they shared it in the same way, made it a gift for others, and so ate their fill.

Something else that LifeSite News did: (Now for Rule no. 2): in concentrating solely on the words they thought proved the Pope’s “error,” which they think lies in the words, “was not magic or sorcery”: they left out the Pope’s explanation of the meaning of those words, which follows in the next three paragraphs. They appear to think he meant that the multiplication was not magic or sorcery because it was a completely natural, non-miraculous event. Actually, if you read carefully, he is saying the opposite. As Catholics, we already know (or should know) that a miracle is something completely different than magic or sorcery. We are amazed, of course, at the changing of physical reality in the bread being multiplied. But that’s not all there is to a miracle. A miracle is also a sign (In his Gospel, John describes all of Jesus’ miracles as signs), just as a sacrament is a sign. A miracle points to a greater reality.

multiplication-of-loaves-and-fishes-c-ossemanPope Francis is fond of pointing out how the miracles of Our Lord show us God’s transforming power in our lives, though not in the superficial way the “liberal” Gospel sermons do. LifeSite News, in its haste to vilify the Pope, leaves out the part where he explains the Jesus’ three actions of taking, blessing and giving the bread. I cannot quote it all in this space, but read it. Among other things, he says: “Blessing has this double aspect: thanksgiving and transformative power. It is a recognition that life is always a gift which, when placed in the hands of God, starts to multiply. Our Father never abandons us; he makes everything multiply.” Francis concentrates on the meaning of the miracle: the bread is miraculous because it multiplies physically, but even more because God’s power multiplies through our hands, as in Francis’ moving account. We share what we are given by God and it multiplies in the lives of others. This whole point rests on it being bread given by God, not our own bread.

Pope Francis neither denies nor discounts the physical aspect of the miracle. It is the basis for all his remarks. But he does concentrate on the sign, the spiritual aspect, as well as on the concrete life proposals. In doing so, he is giving us perfectly good Catholic theology. Now go read the whole thing and enjoy. It really is beautiful.

Next time we’ll try something a little harder. I plan before next time to make a series of links to my own posts on Pope Francis’ controversies, to be added to as I progress.


Jesus, the Adulterous Woman and the Death Penalty — Part III

I was preparing to put up this third installment when the news about Pope John Paul I broke, so this is coming later than I had planned.

[Part I] [Part II]

The point of the objection raised by Edward Feser and others is that the Church has always and everywhere taught the legitimacy of capital punishment. Many people now think that the death penalty has always been widely accepted in the Church as it has been in our time. Yet history does show that there was a time when it was in question, and we can see this in the life and writings of St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan from 374 to 397, who, along with Augustine and Jerome, was one of the three great early Fathers of the Western Church.


This mosaic in the cathedral of Milan may have been done in St. Ambrose’s lifetime, and could be an accurate portrait of him.

St. Ambrose’s Dilemma

A little background on Ambrose will help us understand his ideas on the death penalty. He was brought up in a very devout Christian family of Roman background. His father was a civic official and Ambrose followed his path, becoming a lawyer and then judge in the court of the praetorian prefect, and later consul and civil governor of Emilia-Liguria. His was universally admired for his virtue and integrity, as well as his devout faith, though at the age of 35 he still remained a catechumen.

Then, when the see of Milan, which had been occupied by an Arian bishop, fell vacant, a riot threatened to break out between Catholics and Arians over who would fill the see. Ambrose the governor came to where the people were gathered, and began speaking to calm the tumult. Suddenly a child in the crowd shouted, “Ambrose bishop!” and everyone took up the cry. Ambrose found himself suddenly elected bishop by acclamation. It is at this point that Ambrose’s biographer, Paulinus, brings in a bizarre anecdote – one that is not usually told in modern accounts of the election. Ambrose was a conscientious governor, and he did not put people to torture under his regime. But when he heard himself acclaimed bishop, he was determined to avoid the office, feeling himself unprepared and unworthy. He went into the tribunal, and ordered (in pretense, I hope) for people to be tortured, evidently hoping that this would put people off accepting him as bishop. But the people assured him that baptism would forgive this sin.[1] The strict historicity of this account might be questioned, but it is a good indication of the attitude of people at the time.

It was common in the fourth century for officials like Ambrose to put off baptism, because public office often led to bloodshed, including torture, political assassinations and the execution of criminals. The most famous example of this is the emperor Constantine, who, although he was converted to Christianity soon after winning control of the Empire, was only baptized on his deathbed. Waiting until retirement to accept baptism to wash away those sins – and some did see executions as a sin, as we will see — was thought preferable to doing severe penance for them if they were committed after you were baptized. This gives us a likely interpretation of why Ambrose had remained a catechumen during his time in office. All of his protests about his unsuitability were unavailing, however, and within a short time he was baptized, ordained a priest, then consecrated bishop of Milan.

It is clear then, that Ambrose had considerable first-hand experience with civil law and government, more so, perhaps, than any of the Fathers of the Church. Respect for human life was very important to him. He was later very severe with the Christian emperor Theodosius for staining his hands with civil blood in the massacre of 7,000 people in Thessalonica, and would not admit the emperor to Communion again until he had done many months of penance.

A Question and Answer

This attitude of Ambrose is also clear in the letters I am going to discuss. These are two letters written sometime between 385 and 387 to a man named Studius,[2] prompted by a letter from him that has not survived, but the contents of which can be surmised. Studius has evidently become a judge, and is worried about whether a Christian in this office can order an execution, and still remain in communion with the Church. In fact, this seems to have been a very controversial question at the time. We can trace it in the followers of the rigorist heretic Novatian, who condemned the bishops of the 250′s who were willing to admit to penance those who had committed apostasy during the Decian persecution. Even in the late fourth century, many of Novatian’s followers were still around; they would not admit to Communion any judge or official who had ordered someone put to death, even justly.[3] Even some who were not heretics agreed with them on this point.

Now to the point I have been building up to for so long. In the second of his letters, Ambrose speaks of the passage on the adulteress in John as arousing a great deal of controversy, not only historical and theological, but very concrete and practical, about the question of capital punishment itself:

Indeed there has always been repeated discussion of the question of the famous acquittal of that woman in the Gospel according to John who was brought to Christ accused of adultery. . . And the question has become more heated since the time that bishops have begun to accuse those guilty of the most heinous crimes before the public tribunals, and some even to urge them to use the sword and capital punishment, while others have begun to approve of these kinds of accusations and of the blood-stained triumphs of the priesthood. For those men say just the same as did the Jews, that the guilty ought to be punished by the public laws, and therefore that it is also fitting for priests to accuse before the public tribunals those who, they assert, ought to be punished according to the laws. The case is the same, though the number is less, that is to say, the question as to judgment is similar, the odious nature of the punishment is dissimilar. Christ would not permit one woman to be punished according to the Law; they assert that too small a number has been punished.[4]

Ambrose even said elsewhere that he did not hold communion with those bishops who sought for the death penalty to be applied to heretics, such as Bishops Idacius and Ithacius, who had induced the tyrant Maximus to put the heretic Priscillian and his followers to death.[5] So Ambrose did not come to the question with any love for the death penalty, and spurned its most fervent supporters in the Church. But he gives Studius’ question a finely nuanced answer.

I recognize [in your question] a pure intention of mind, zeal for the faith, and fear of our Lord Jesus Christ. And I too should fear to reply to it: [You would be] constrained on one side by the commission you have been given to keep the laws, and on the other by the claims of mercy and clemency, if you did not have in this matter the Apostle’s authority that “the one who judges does not bear the sword in vain, for he is the avenger of God upon evildoers” (Rom. 13:4).[6]

Although this is already known to you, you did not think it useless to ask the question. For there are those, though outside the Church, who do not call into communion of the heavenly mysteries those who consider it right to carry out capital sentence on some people. A great many [judges] voluntarily abstain [from the sacrament] and are lauded indeed, nor can we fail to praise them: for them we observe the authority of the Apostle [i.e. Paul above] to the extent that we do not dare refuse them communion.

You see, therefore what power authority confers on you, what mercy persuades you to. You will have excuse if you do it [impose death], praise if you do not do it. But if you are not able to do it, or to afflict someone by causing him to waste away in the squalor of prison, but set him free, as a priest I will commend you. For it may be when the case is heard, a criminal is received for sentencing who afterwards either asks for indulgence, or certainly without grave severity, as some say, is confined in prison. I know, however, a number of pagans who are accustomed to boast that they have brought the executioner’s ax back from their provincial administration unstained with blood. If the pagans do this, what should Christians do?[7]

This was an actual practice of the time; even an emperor, though he might have killed many in war in the provinces, would be proud of the Greek title of anaimaktos, or “unstained by blood,” meaning that he had not shed the blood of civilians.[8] Ambrose continues:

But in all these matters let our Savior’s answer suffice for you. The Jews apprehended an adulteress and brought her to the Savior, with the insidious intent that if He were to acquit her He might seem to destroy the law, though He had said, “I have not come to destroy, but to fulfil the law” (Mt 5:17), and on the other hand, were He to condemn her, He might seem to be acting against the purpose of His coming.

So the Lord Jesus, foreseeing this, stooped down and wrote upon the earth . . . He raises [his head] again, as though about to give sentence, and says, “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone at her.” And again, he stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard this, they began to go out one by one beginning at the eldest, and this either because they who had lived longest had committed most sins, or because, as being most sagacious, they were the first to comprehend the force of His sentence, and though they had come as the accusers of another’s sins, began rather to lament their own.

When they had departed, then, Jesus was left alone, and lifting up his head to the woman, he said, “Where are those who were accusing you? Has no one stoned you?” She answered, “No one, Lord.” Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more.” Being the Redemption, He refuses to condemn her, being the Life He restores her, being the Fountain He washes her. And since Jesus, when He stoops down stoops that He may raise up the fallen, He says, as the absolver of sins, “Neither do I condemn you.”

Here is an example for you to follow, for it may be that there is hope of amendment for this guilty person; if he is still unbaptized, that he may receive remission, if baptized that he may do penance, and offer up his body for Christ. See how many roads there are to salvation!

This is why our ancestors thought it better to be more indulgent towards judges, so that while their sword was feared, the madness of crime would be repressed, and no encouragement given to it. For if Communion were denied to judges, it would seem like a retribution for their punishment of the wicked. Our ancestors preferred then that those who abstain [from Communion] should do it out of free will, rather than because the law requires it.[9]

So unlike Edward Feser and associates, the death penalty has not exactly had complete approval at all times in the history of the Church. I think that Ambrose would have been very happy with the position of Pope St. John Paul II and the Catechism: that the death penalty might not be an intrinsic evil but it should be avoided whenever possible. At the same time, he saw, along with many of his time, the fuller implications of the death penalty as a violation of the sacredness of human life, a question that is still with us.

Our Choice Today

In the end, what can we make of the question of “intrinsic evil” vs. “contrary to the Gospel”? If we begin with Old Testament Law, we can see its clearly articulated dividing lines between what is permissible and what is not. Sometimes there is a spectrum: The death penalty was on the permissible side of the line, but killing of the innocent is always wrong (“You shall not kill” is actually translated more correctly, “You shall not commit murder”). Using this spectrum, we can separate out the intrinsically evil acts.

I think what Pope Francis recognizes is that the Jesus in the Gospel calls us to something higher, just as he tells us “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). This doesn’t suggest being on one side or another of allowability, but choosing what is best. Jesus didn’t suggest that Moses was wrong when he allowed divorce, but that with him, there began a new and more perfect conception of marriage. The Gospel is not simply about avoiding intrinsic evils, but achieving a more perfect justice. And, as Pope Francis said, it is about respecting the inviolable dignity of human life.

Update, Nov 20: Since writing this I came across this excellent article by David Bentley Hart, with more detail of the controversy over the death penalty in the early Church.

Update, Nov. 20: Yet another excellent response to Feser by Robert Fastiggi, with many quotes from the Fathers and Councils, which show clearly that the definitely not universally accepted in the early Church.


[1] Paulinus of Milan, “Life of St. Ambrose,” 3:7, from Early Christian Biographies, trans. John A. Lacy (Washington, D.C., Catholic University of American Press, 1952), pp. 36-37.

[2] It is uncertain what his name actually was, since in the earliest texts of Ambrose’s works, the first letter is headed “To Studius” and the second “To Ireneaus,” though both are obviously to the same person. (Ireneaus should not be confused with the famous second-century Father of that name). I’ll call him Studius, just because I really love the name. For more on this question, see The Letters of S. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (Oxford: James Parker, 1881), p 182.

[3] Cf. Migne, PL 16, col. 1040, note g.

[4] Ambrose, Letter 68, 2-3. (This is the modern numbering. In the Oxford and other earlier editions it was Letter 26). I have translated from the Latin edition in Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. 16, cols. 1042-43, with some help from the Oxford translation.

[5] Letter 24, 12, Oxford ed., p. 181.

[6] The words “the one who judges” don’t appear in the Latin or even the Greek text. They were evidently inserted because this is the actual office Studius holds.

[7] Letter 25 (50 in later editions), nos. 1-3. Oxford, ed., pp. 182-83.

[8] Migne, PL 16, col 1041, note a

[9] Letter 25 (50), nos. 4-9, Oxford ed., p. 183-85.

Cardinals and Bishops: A Unaminous “Yes” to the Heroic Virtue of Papa Luciani

1333CNS-JPIWEB2Once again, I was caught by surprise by the news, just as I was back in September. And it is glorious news, thanks be to God! I’ve literally been waiting almost 40 years for this. This is my reporting, which has already gone up on the Pope John Paul I Association website.

On November 7, 2017, the Cardinals and bishops of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints unanimously approved the heroic nature of the virtue of Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I. Pope Francis is expected to soon sign the decree declaring him Venerable. When a miracle is approved, it will open the way to his beatification.

There are two possible miracles already waiting in the wings: the diocesan process has concluded for one miracle in Buenos Aires, Argentina (Pope Francis’ home diocese), and the process for a second miracle, the location of which has not specified, is still ongoing. When a miracle is chosen, it will be presented to the Congregation by Cardinal Beniamino Stella, the Postulator of Pope John Paul I’s cause. A previous potential miracle, of a man healed from non-Hodgkins lymphona in Altamura, Italy, has not been approved by the Vatican.

Pope John Paul I’s cause for beatification was opened just 14 years ago in November 2003, 25 years after his death. The diocesan process concluded in November 2006. The Roman phase finished in 2008. The first part of the Positio on his virtues was submitted to the Vatican in October 2012, and the complete Positio in October 2016. On June 1, 2017, a panel of theologians at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints approved his heroic virtue, leaving the way open for the cardinals and bishops to vote.

Reporting from La Stampa and Corriere delle Alpi. Please keep coming back for updates!

Update. There is also more news. A new book published in Italy chronicles the Pope’s death. It was written by journalist and historian Stefania Falasca, the vice-postulator of his cause. It says that of course, he died of natural causes, and suggests a heart attack. It is based on documents originating with the Vatican, and his canonization process. There are sure to be questions about this as well. I have chronicled his death for a long time myself, and it is unquestionable that the Pope died of natural causes, but there is also question whether it was a heart attack. I will go into it in a later post.

Update, Nov 9: Yes! Pope Francis has wasted no time publishing the decree approving John Paul I’s heroic virtues, announced Nov. 9 and published in the Nov. 10 Osservatore Romano.

I have bought and downloaded a digital copy of Falasca’s book Papa Luciani: Cronaca della sua Morte and have started reading it. It has a really fantastic level of detail and documentation not only about John Paul’s death but also his pontificate. I will write a lengthy treatment of it as soon as I can.

EWTN’s Nightly News has a good story with some more details about book: (when you hit play, it should start from the beginning of the story; it runs from 10:00-12:35).

Jesus, the Adulterous Woman and the Death Penalty — Part II

When I first began researching this subject in the Fathers, I didn’t quite know what I would find. I wanted to gather quotes to show their interpretation of Jesus writing on the ground. But I found a great deal more when I discovered two letters of St. Ambrose that do treat the question of the death penalty at some length in the context of this passage from John. Amazingly, though I have read a number of articles and dissertations on the woman taken in adultery, the question of whether the Fathers discussed this Scripture passage in relation to the death penalty is almost never brought up in them. The letters of Ambrose were eye-opening in this regard. I am still researching this and working on an exact translation of the letters. So I will limit myself here to a brief second installment. You can read Part I here.


Since I began writing, Edward Feser has stepped up his rhetoric against Pope Francis’s take on the death penalty, and he has been answered in this very interesting article by E. Christian Brugger.

One thing that hasn’t been discussed in these articles or the others I’ve seen is the whole question of the difference between saying something is “intrinsically wrong” or “intrinsically evil” and what Pope Francis has said, which is that putting criminals to death is “in itself contrary to the Gospel.” The Gospel, after all, contains a great many things other than lists of intrinsically evil actions, and Francis appears to be talking more about the positive teaching of the Gospel on life. Can “contrary to the Gospel” in this sense be more clearly defined? I would love to see a definition of terms in this argument. I hope to add something to this debate before the end of my discussion, so hang on.

Since this part will deal more closely with the question of the death penalty, I should add here something I neglected to put in the first part: there was a question among the Jews at the time of Jesus of whether death was the suitable penalty for adultery and whether the death penalty itself was proper.[1] And Rome did not practice or recognize the death penalty for adultery.[2] This means that the scribes and Pharisees were most likely putting a real question to Jesus, though with improper motives, that really had to do with the legality of the death penalty. So let’s go a little deeper into this story.

Writing with the Finger of God

“And Jesus stooped and wrote on the ground.” (Jn 8:6).

This is the only time in Scripture where Jesus is said to have written anything – and we are not even told what he wrote! Curiosity has given rise to all sorts of imaginative suggestions. Some believe that he was writing the names and the sins of the woman’s accusers, or a particular passage of Scripture – for instance, St. Ambrose suggested, “Earth, earth, write these men deposed (Jeremiah 22, 29, 30).”[3]

Perhaps the most plausible solution is that Jesus was following Roman practice: in Roman law, the judge first wrote down his sentence, then delivered it orally.[4] And indeed we see Jesus stooping to write, then standing up or looking up and speaking each time after he writes. Could be he have been writing down each of the two “sentences” he gives? This strikes me as very credible and likely.

Most of the better-informed Jews of the time, certainly including the scribes and Pharisees, would have been quite familiar with the legal practices of the Roman governorship of Judea. It is also likely that most of the large crowd standing in the Temple courtyard that day wouldn’t have been close enough to read what Jesus wrote. In fact, it’s clear that they didn’t: they only started going away when they heard him speak. But it would have been easy to understand his gesture of writing and what it meant when it was followed by his speaking: he was signaling to them that he was handing down a sentence.

The first sentence, in front of the accusers, suggests that they could carry out the death penalty on the condition of their sinlessness; the second takes place when he is alone with the woman; here he doesn’t so much acquit her as dismiss the case, because there are no longer any accusers and therefore no charges.[5]

But the real importance of the writing may not be in what was written, but how and by who it was written. We are told that Jesus wrote with his finger, recalling the Old Testament giving of the law to Moses:

When the Lord had finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant, the stone tablets written with the finger of God. (Exodus 31:18).

And another detail, that the first time Jesus writes, the Greek text expresses “he wrote” using the verb katagrapho and the second time the simpler form of the verb grapho.[6]

The first time:

Jesus bent down and wrote (katagrapho) with his finger on the ground (v. 6)

The second time:

And once more he bent down and wrote (grapho) with his finger on the ground. (v. 8)

This is an example of the Hebrew style of parallelism – the repetition of something that is the same, but different. This makes it a good sign that the author, whoever he was, was a Jew. But he undoubtedly had another reason for writing as he did, for in the text of the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament the evangelists used, the exact same words also occur shortly after the above passage in Exodus, and in the same order:

Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written (katagrapho) on both sides, written (grapho) on the front and on the back. (Exodus 32:15). [7]

To Jews who had Exodus almost by heart and who had this rhythm of Scripture always in their ears, the reference would have been clear: not only is Jesus above the Roman lawgivers, he is superior even to Moses. He is not just the just and sinless Judge, but the Divine Lawgiver himself. Thus he answers the challenge in the terms he was given: “the law of Moses says this – what do you say?” The answer is not only a judgment but the law written by God. It is similar to Jesus’ judgment on divorce (Mt. 19:8-9), where his word supersedes the law given by Moses. The Fathers of the Church recognized this clearly. St. Augustine wrote:

. . . you have heard, O teachers of the law, the guardian of the law, but have not yet understood Him as the Lawgiver. What else does He signify to you when He writes with His finger on the ground? For the [Old Testament] law was written with the finger of God; but written on stone because of the hard-hearted. The Lord now wrote on the ground, because He was seeking fruit.[8]

Sinless Judges

But what does this judgment say? What does Jesus really mean by saying, “Let the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her”? How does it apply to the death penalty?

St. Augustine sums up the dilemma created by Jesus’ words:

. . . This is the voice of Justice: Let her, the sinner, be punished, but not by sinners: let the law be fulfilled, but not by the transgressors of the law.[9]

Some death penalty opponents believe that in this story, Jesus did away with the death penalty. It can be argued that his judgment, which is the very judgment of God, means that only the sinless can carry out the penalty of death against sinners. Since no human beings except Jesus and Mary have ever been sinless, no human being can put someone to death.

Augustine doesn’t actually draw the conclusion implicit in his words, though others have.[10] But others reject this interpretation. One Evangelical writer, Stephen James, puts it this way: “the logical consequence [of this argument] is that there can be no criminal judgment and punishment on earth because all men are sinners. This would obstruct the express purpose of civil government, which is a ‘minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (Rom 13:4).[11]

Many Catholics would say the same. But this argument ignores the fact that the question is about the death penalty, not the whole of the law. It can be argued that the power over life and death, which actually belongs to God alone, cannot be delegated to or exercised by sinful human beings. This does not necessarily touch the rest of the law.

But there is more in the Fathers about this subject. As I mentioned in the first installment, some have suggested that the passage was originally in John 8:1-11, but was removed from the Gospel by some people. Most commentary by later writers has assumed that those who removed the passage were concerned about too lenient penances in the Church for adultery. For instance, they draw on the words of St. Augustine:

Certain persons of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning, removed from their manuscripts the Lord’s remission of the penalty (indulgentia) in regard to the adulterous woman, as if he who had said, ‘Sin no more,’ had granted permission to sin.”[12]

St. Augustine was writing here in the context of Church penance for adultery. Some translations have “forgiveness” here, probably intending “forgiveness of sin,” but this is incorrect. Indulgentia in Roman times meant remission of a legal penalty, in the Church it was also applied to the remission of a penance imposed on a sinner by the bishop. It is the legal penalty that is at issue in the original story. St. Augustine, in the context, meant it to apply to the question of penance. But he is not denying the original meaning. So it is possible that he is also speaking of those who thought adultery should be punished by law.

But there is even more in the Fathers that confirms this as a possible interpretation. In the next installment I will take up the works of St. Ambrose, Augustine’s contemporary (indeed, the bishop who baptized him and who was his mentor). He has a great many surprising things to say about the role of the passage in John in the debate – and yes, there was a debate — in the early Church over the death penalty.


[1] Markus Maienpaa, “The Pericope Adulterae and the Historical Jesus – Interpretation and Significance.” Iesus Aboensis: Abo Akedemi Journal for Historical Jesus Research 2 (2017): 79.

[2] Craig Keener, John: A Commentary, p. 736.

[3] Ambrose, Letter 25 (50 in later eds), 4.

[4] See Manson, T. W. “The Pericope de Adultera (Joh 753–811).” ZNW 43 (1952 /53) 255–256.

[5] St. Ambrose, who had a legal career before becoming a bishop, gives a great legal analysis of this last point in his Letter 68 (about which more later).

[6] Here I am using throughout the first-person singular of both verbs, which is the way a general reference to a verb is given in Greek, because the actual tenses used are less easy to recognize to those who don’t know Greek

[7] For this see the excellent treatment in Chris Keith, “Jesus Began to Write: Literacy, the Pericope Adulterae, and the Gospel of John.” Chris Keith Ph.D. thesis, University of Edinburgh. 2008, pp. 167-92.

[8] Augustine Commentary on John’s Gospel, 33, 5 (transation mine). A number of commentators have pointed out that, contrary to what most readers suppose, Jesus did not actually forgive the woman’s sin, but lets her go and invites her to repent (“sin no more”).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Works by some of the advocates of this position, including John Howard Yoder and Charles Milligan,  are listed by Stephen A. James, “The Adulteress and the Death Penalty.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22:1 (March 1979):

[11] James, “”The Adulteress and the Death Penalty,” p. 48.

[12] Augustine, On Adulterous Marriages, 2: 6, 7.