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Catholicism: Defending the Faith, Living the Faith
To know, love and serve Christ in His Holy Catholic Church
To know, love and serve Christ in His Holy Catholic Church

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Essence and Existence: the difference

Probably the single most famous “proof” in all of philosophy is refuted if the topic of our discussion is legitimate. In his Proslogion, St. Anselm lays out the following argument for the existence of God:

“And certainly that than which a greater cannot be imagined cannot be in the understanding alone. For if it is at least in the understanding alone, it can be imagined to be in reality too, which is greater. Therefore if that than which a greater cannot be imagined is in the understanding alone, that very thing than which a greater cannot be imagined is something than which a greater can be imagined. But certainly this cannot be. There exists, therefore, beyond doubt something than which a greater cannot be imagined, both in the understanding and in reality.”1

St. Thomas, of course, rejects this “proof” of St. Anselm in his Summa Theologica:

“Granted that everyone understands that by this word “God” is signified something than which nothing greater can be thought, nevertheless, it does not therefore follow that he understands that what the word signifies exists actually, but only that it exists mentally. Nor can it be argued that it actually exists, unless it be admitted that there actually exists something than which nothing greater can be thought; and this precisely is not admitted by those who hold that God does not exist.”2

The problem is basically this: to ask the question “is it?” the same as to ask the question “what is it?” Or is one a question of concept and the other a question of judgment? For to say what something is, according to Aristotelian logic, is the understand an essence, but this is not the same thing as to affirm the existence of that essence.

The ontological proof offered by Anselm was certainly defended by Descartes, and his rationalist proof for the existence of God is very similar in its construction and assumptions. Even to say “I think, therefore I am” implies a somewhat related premise, but this is not the place to go further into that.

Of course, a refutation was made to Anselm, “on behalf of the fool,” where one simply asked about “imagining a perfect island” and then seeking to see how this would prove the existence of this island, and Anselm responded accordingly. This is, of course, not the place to enter into that particular dispute, but we see here that even the great thinkers of our Christian heritage differed vastly on this question, and it is one that ultimately comes down to the difference between essence and existence, or “being” in the “verb sense.”

According to St. Thomas, God is Ipsum esse subsistens (Subsistent Act of Existing Itself). If he is correct, God and God only is his existence. This means that in every other existing thing, essence and existence are different. And this will lead us to know that all other things are contingent, as they do not explain their own existence in their very essence. These said, it should be clear that the difference between essence and existence is of primary importance in metaphysics and in all contemplation of reality.

The philosopher Heidegger has stated that the problem in metaphysics is that we have constantly asked “what it is” but have neglected to ask what about “that it is.” Why should there be anything at all? We might say that we can understand the essence of a horse and the essence of a unicorn, but there are horses and there do not seem to be unicorns, so the essence and knowledge of it does not make a thing to actually exist.

Aristotle’s god (or gods) did not cause the being of all that exists, but merely are the primary and unmoved mover. For Aristotle, the fact that things “are” seems to be a given. Of course, it is true that things “are,” but their existence is not the explanation for their existence. Otherwise, they would not be contingent beings. This seems to go hand in hand with Aristotle’s (supposed) proofs of the eternity of the universe. The universe simply is. Bertrand Russell and the majority of modern materialists as well seem to agree. We should not, then, look for a cause of things, but accept that “things are” as our starting point.

The doctrine of creation ex nihilo seems to be the key to the philosophical discovery of the distinction between essence and existence. If things “began to be” then their existence is not explained by their essence. The reason that horses “are” and that unicorns “are not” cannot be simply explained by evolution, for example. Evolution may explain why unicorns “are not” but it only a partial explanation of why horses “are.”

Evolution, as one theory, can explain why horses “are what they are” and why they are not unicorns, but it offers no explanation as to why there are horses instead of nothing at all. An eternal world might seem at first to get rid of this problem, but even in an eternally existing world, once looked at deeper, the problem remains. As Thomas Aquinas shows, the doctrine of an eternally existing world, although contrary to revealed truth, does not deny the possibility of creation ex nihilo. The existence of anything contingent, whether eternal or not, still requires a cause, even if not a cause prior in time.

This cause, however, being uncaused (for otherwise we have the impossible infinite regress) is of necessity the explanation of its own existence. This is not to be confused with being the cause of its own existence, for it is not caused. Therefore, this uncaused cause is a “something” and whatever this is is its essence. But it is also its very existence, for that is the only way for it to be uncaused.

Without going through all the attributes of this uncaused cause as examined by Aquinas, we must say here that its simplicity, its being pure act and having no potency, all tie into its very essence being “to be.” All else, then, besides God, is not “to be” but must receive its “to be” from outside of itself.

We can see, therefore, that in metaphysics and natural theology, the distinction between essence and existence is of utmost importance. And it seems to be that from the very revealed truth of God Himself saying to Moses that His name is basically “He that Is” is the key to this discovery.

Aquinas’ distinction here is important for understanding that God is outside of any genus.

Aristotle certainly did not teach this, at least not in any explicit way. The great Arabic metaphysicians like Avicenna certainly did not see this. In fact, it is likely that, for Avicenna, God is a being, and the only being, with a “specific difference” of “necessary.” He is, then, a universal species and the sole being of that species.

But for Aquinas this is not so. God stands outside of genus, and being is not a genus, for it has no “specific difference.” Being is predicated of all things, of both God and all contingent beings, but analogously.

Although not written by Thomas himself, we must list here the first 4 of the 24 Theses of Thomism, which make explicit the basic point we have been reviewing:

1. Potency and Act divide being in such a way that whatever is, is either pure act, or of necessity it is composed of potency and act as primary and intrinsic principles.

2. Since act is perfection, it is not limited except through a potency which itself is a capacity for perfection. Hence in any order in which an act is pure act, it will only exist, in that order, as a unique and unlimited act. But whenever it is finite and manifold, it has entered into a true composition with potency.

3. Consequently, the one God, unique and simple, alone subsists in absolute being. All other things that participate in being have a nature whereby their being is restricted; they are constituted of essence and being, as really distinct principles.

4. A thing is called a being because of being (“esse”). God and creature are not called beings univocally, nor wholly equivocally, but analogically, by an analogy both of attribution and of proportionality.

A rejection of this analogous use of being and a rejection of the real distinction between existence and essence is seen in thinkers after Aquinas as well, even among Christian thinkers such as Scotus. It has in no way been simply accepted after Aquinas, even by those who may agree with him on much else.

Nevertheless, although not explicitly endorsed by the church, for “The Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others,” (FR 49) the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas is considered the “perennial philosophy.” Pope Leo XIII promulgated the encyclical Aeterni Patris and this document provided for the revival of Thomism as practically the official philosophical and theological system of the Church. It was to be normative not only in the training at seminaries but also in the education at Catholic universities.

Although the Angelic doctors contributions the philosophy and theology are almost endless, it is hard to deny that his exposition of the distinction between essence and existence and the fact that these two differ in all but God is arguably the single most important key doctrine that he has left us.

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Sacraments, Sacramentals, and the Sacramental Economy

1. - Some objections and answers that might clarify the Sacraments

A sacrament is “a sign that effects what it signifies, instituted by Christ to give grace.” As the Catechism puts it, in paragraph 1131, “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.”

If a sacrament is a sign, something that “signifies,” then fundamentalism is already concerned here, for it seems that man is making an image, bringing down the spiritual into the material, and already approaching making an idol for himself. (Never mind here that God Himself, in becoming Incarnate, has already made this real with His own authority). Rejection of the Sacraments is often an implicit (though certainly denied) rejection of the Incarnation; denial of the Sacraments demonstrates a mind that has trouble really believing that God can use matter in a sanctified way.

Now, we also see that Sacraments effect what they signify; that they confer grace. Here, we encounter, of course, the same objection: using matter for spiritual purposes. But this goes further. Grace, for the fundamentalist, is merely the favor of God imputed to the Elect. It has no intrinsic effect, in the sense of imparted righteousness as Catholics understand it, and further, it is a once for all imputation by Christ, and thus cannot be “quantified,” as they would claim Catholics must understand it. Grace, received and lived “over time,” can have little meaning in a theology of salvation by faith alone, and certainly not within the mainstream fundamentalist belief of eternal security.

Yet according to Aquinas, since God is the author of history, historical events can signify as well as effect. For example, the parting of the Red Sea both effected salvation from Egypt for Israel and also signified salvation from sin and death through Christ. Fundamentalists resist symbolism in considering historical events, and resist “real presence” and effects when considering sacramental signs. “This is my body” they interpret as wholly symbolic, merely symbolic; yet most of the rest of Scripture they see as not symbolic at all.

Fundamentalists may agree that the Sacraments were instituted by Christ, but they usually limit these to two; the Eucharist and Baptism. Of course, these are not understood in the same way as Catholicism understands them, as they are merely “done in obedience” to Christ by an “already completely justified person.” For them, they are an effect of “being saved,” but not a cause.

Most importantly, however, the Sacraments seem to be an introduction of Pagan ritual back into the Church. Equating ritual with paganism and magic, they believe all ritual, as far as religion goes, to be contrary to the “simple Gospel.”

2. – Ex opere Operato and the validity of the sacraments.

The sacraments produce grace of themselves, apart and distinct from the person conferring the sacrament. The phrase means “from the work done,” and distinguishes it from the “worker doing.” Although the phrase wasn’t widely used until the medieval period, its concept was well established by such controversies as Augustine’s rebuttal of the Donatist heresy.

The Eucharist, for example, consecrated by an ordained priest who is in the state of mortal sin, is not invalidated for that reason. Certainly, the state of the minister has effects upon him, but the objective character of the Sacrament itself remains. As Christ is the power and minister behind all the Sacraments, the Sacrament itself, if validly conferred, as far as the form and the matter, is valid.

A separate but important issue is whether or not the reception of the Sacrament is licit. Certain Sacraments, for example, presuppose the prior reception of others. One must be in a state of grace to receive the “living” Sacraments, that is, those besides baptism and confession. The Eucharist, received in the state of mortal sin, would be valid, yet received illicitly, and in this case is also a sacrilege.

For a Sacrament to be valid, there are five conditions that must be met. There must be a valid minister, a valid recipient, and a proper intention. Further, the form and the matter, particular to the Sacrament, must be correct.

The validity of the minister depends upon the Sacrament. For most Sacraments, an ordained minister is required. This is usually the Bishop, or a priest he has conferred this validity to. Some Sacraments, such as baptism in an emergency, can be performed by a layperson, even a non-believer.

The recipient of the Sacrament depends on each Sacrament in particular. By way of example, for any Sacrament besides baptism, baptism is a prerequisite. Marriage must be between two freely consenting baptized couples of opposite gender and not already married or divorced.

The minister of the Sacrament must intend the Sacrament as the Church intends it. For example, when two people get married, they must truly intend a union for life, open to children, and faithful to one another. To not do so would invalidate the Sacrament. In this example, we see that an annulment is sometimes given when it is recognized that a valid marriage never took place.

Valid form and matter are particular to each Sacrament, as established by the Church. For instance, using grape juice and the words “This represents My Blood” would be both invalid matter (grape juice) and form (wrong words of consecration).

3. – Sacraments and Sacramentals

The Sacraments, numbering seven, were instituted by Christ, either explicitly or implicitly. The Eucharist, for example, was clearly and explicitly implemented at the Last Supper. “This is My Body, do this in memory of me.” Likewise, Jesus tells us that one must be “born of water and the Spirit,” a clear institution of Baptism.

Concerning Confirmation, for example, St. Thomas tells us:

And therefore we must hold that Christ instituted this sacrament, not by showing it but by promising it, according to the text, “If I go not, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” And this because in this sacrament the fullness of the Holy Ghost is given, which was not to be given before Christ’s resurrection and ascension, according to the text, “As yet the Spirit was not given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (Summa Theologica III.72.1).

The New Catholic Encyclopedia remarks that this implies an implicit institution of the Sacrament, as understood by St. Thomas. There is no explicit institution that we saw in the examples above of Baptism and the Eucharist, yet it is not simply something the Church, in her authority derived from Christ, instituted on her own.

The sacramentals, by contrast, are instituted by the Church, and not directly by Christ. By the power and authority given by Christ, Who is the same source of grace, the sacramentals dispose men to receive the benefits of the Sacraments. More will be said of them in section 4.

The Sacraments, defined explicitly as the seven we have today, were defined at the Council of Trent. They were defined as having been all instituted by Christ. This was made explicit by the Council in Session VII:

CANON I.-If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law were not all instituted by Jesus Christ, our Lord; or, that they are more, or less, than seven, to wit, Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Order, and Matrimony; or even that any one of these seven is not truly and properly a sacrament; let him be anathema.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Sacramental rites are dependent on the Church which established them, and which therefore has the right to maintain, develop, modify, or abrogate them. After Peter Lombard the use and definition of the word “sacramental” had a fixed character and was exclusively applicable to those rites presenting an external resemblance to the sacraments but not applicable to the sensible signs of Divine institution. These include such things as blessed salt, medals and scapulars. We see evidence very early of their use. Blessed salt is likely referred to by Augustine:
Even as a boy I had heard of eternal life promised to us through the humility of the Lord our God condescending to our pride, and I was signed with the sign of the cross, and was seasoned with His salt even from the womb of my mother, who greatly trusted in You.
-St. Augustine, Confessions

4. – The nature and purpose of the sacramentals.

The sacramentals, as mentioned briefly in section 2, are sacred signs bearing a resemblance to the Sacraments proper. They were not directly instituted by Christ, but by the authority He has given the Church as intercessor, to dispose men to receive the benefits of the Sacraments.

Many of the Sacraments are received but once, while others, most importantly the Eucharist and confession, can and should be received often. However, the Christian life is such that every moment and, if possible, all things should be used for sanctification. It is here that the Church’s use of sacramentals is important for the Christian life.

The sacramentals are many and varied, always geared towards the sanctification of those who receive and/or use them. “They always include a prayer, often accompanied by a specific sign, such as the laying on of hands, the sign of the cross, or the sprinkling of holy water (which recalls Baptism).”(CCC 1668)

The Catechism continues: “Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it.” (CCC 1670) Again, they are not Sacraments instituted by Christ, but it is from the same wellspring of grace that their power flows.

Grace is certainly conferred really and truly in the reception of the Sacraments, but grace is not limited to them. God offers His grace in many ways. It is actual grace that leads one to want to seek God in the first place, even before conversion. And at conversion, grace is likewise received. “The [Sacraments and] sacramentals sanctifies almost every event of their lives with the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. From this source all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power. There is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.” (CCC 1670)

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On Conformity to Truth

Book X, On the Power of the Memory, is one of the most philosophical books of Augustine’s Confessions. Some may ask why such a deep pondering of an intellectual power in a book confessing one’s love of God. God made us different than all the animals by giving us an intellect. It would be strange for Him to despise our use of the very thing that sets us apart from the animals and thereby makes us in His image and likeness, regardless of what the fideists might say. Likewise, acceptance of the truth takes more than arriving at it through reason, and in (but not limited to) this, the rationalists fail.

“I have had experience of many who wished to deceive, but not one who wished to be deceived. Where, then, did they know this happy life, save where they knew also the truth? For they love it, too, since they would not be deceived.” (Confessions, Book X, Ch. 23)

And a few lines later:

“Why, then, does truth beget hatred and that man of yours, preaching the truth become an enemy unto them, whereas a happy life is loved, which is naught else but joy in the truth; unless that truth is loved in such a sort as that those who love anything else wish that to be the truth which they love, and, as they are willing to be deceived, are unwilling to be convinced that they are so? Therefore do they hate the truth for the sake of that thing which they love instead of the truth.”

There is a strong correlation here between Augustine’s eventual idea of man’s seeking of the good and never evil for its own sake and man being lost in untruths and thereby rejecting the truth, or rather, Truth. We all have a tendency to fall into worship of “goods” rather than the Good. Likewise, we all have a tendency to, while ultimately seeking truth, stick with the “comfortable truth” we already know.

Again, we wish to build God in our own image, that is, believe in the god we imagine instead of conforming to the one that actually exists. In the Unity of Philosophical Experience, Etienne Gilson, in his chapter beginning the period of the road to scepticism, says that:

“There is an ethical problem at the root of our philosophical difficulties; for men are most anxious to find the truth, but most reluctant to accept it. We do not like to be cornered by rational evidence, and even with truth is there, in its impersonal and commanding objectivity, our greatest difficulty still remains; it is for me to bow to it in spite of the fact that it is not exclusively mine…in short, finding out truth is not so hard; what is hard is not to run away from truth once we have found it.”

Many an enlightened moment is followed by a reversion to our old ways. We have discovered the truth, being given an insight into it, but have decided, perhaps unwittingly, that it is just easier to go back to the world we knew before.

One of the most quotable men of the last century will have yet another post end with his wisdom:

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried” – G. K. Chesterton

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