Sunday, August 17, 2008

Asperges Me...Part One: Superstitions

"The spell lies in two words," replied Wamba--- "'Pax vobiscum' will answer all queries. If you go or come, eat or drink, bless or ban, 'Pax vobiscum' carries you through it all. It is as useful to a friar as a broomstick to a witch, or a wand to a conjurer. Speak it but thus, in a deep grave tone,---'Pax vobiscum!'---it is irresistible---Watch and ward, knight and squire, foot and horse, it acts as a charm upon them all. I think, if they bring me out to be hanged to-morrow, as is much to be doubted they may, I will try its weight upon the finisher of the sentence.

From Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, Chapter 26.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

May the Heavenly Father bless this work, and by it, for His honor, achieve much good for the salvation of souls. ~ Father Heinrich Theiler

I had indicated in an earlier post that I would offer a piece defending the presentation of Nick Hardesty aka PhatCatholic made in an debate between him and Turretinfan where the parties debated the following resolution:

RESOLVED: That the application of Holy Water is an effective means for stopping demonic forces.

When I first set out to write this paper, I thought it only necessary to put before the reader some biblical texts and several quotes from the works of the Early Church Fathers corroborating PhatCatholic's arguments pertaining to the efficacy and benefits of Holy Water and to refute Turretinfan’s argument that the practice of using Holy Water was merely a superstitious innovation of some nameless medieval monk. After all, while this Calvinist talking point is often raised in discussions involving the Catholic faith, it also one that can be easily refuted from the writings of St. Hippolytus, St. Serapion, St. Epiphanius, St. Jerome and St. Augustine, all of whom lived much earlier than the Dark or Middle Ages. However, once I had done my research and sat down to actually write it, I soon realized that it would not be enough to address the matter in that manner. Hence, the long delay.

The problem is twofold. First, the resolution itself is not worded correctly. The Catholic Church has never taught that Holy Water IS an effective means for stopping demonic forces, only that it MAY BE efficacious. To be more precise, the Catholic Church has never taught that the use of any sacramental, such as Holy Water, will always produce the grace they signify ex opere operato. Rather, whatever efficacy to be derived from the use of a sacramental is due to the devotion of the user of the sacramental (ex opere operantis) or from the power and prayers of the Church itself (ex opere operantis ecclesia).

Thus, while Mr. Hardesty very adequately expressed how Holy Water has been efficacious throughout the history of the Church and demonstrated through Scripture how sacramentals were used in both the OT and NT, he faced the impossible task of attempting to affirm a resolution which the Catholic Church, itself, has never taught.

Since I believe that the underlying premise contained in the resolution is flawed, I will not attempt to defend the resolution as it is presently constituted. Rather, I will endeavor instead to show how Holy Water may be an effective means for stopping demonic forces.

Second, as the resolution was worded, Turretinfan was provided an opportunity to disparage the Catholic Church’s use of Holy Water (although in fairness to him, he did so in an irenic and courteous manner) by claiming that the practice is merely a superstitious medieval innovation:

“There is simply no mention of the practice of using holy water against demonic forces in either Scripture or the early fathers. It is a superstition based on the mistaken assumption that water consecrated by Catholic priests is “holy,” it is not. The concept of “holy water” is a medieval innovation. It is also based on the mistaken assumption that demons are repulsed or afraid of holy things. They are not. Satan even goes about disguised as an angel of light. They must, however, submit to the authority of God, which is why Michael invoked the Lord’s authority in his argument with the Devil (see Jude 9). Furthermore, we may have boldness against the devils, for we are promised that if we resist them, they will flee from us (see James 4:7). Thus, we need not be afraid, and resort to talismans or the like to protect us from the power of the devil.”

From the Conclusion from Turretinfan’s Opening Statement posted on January 5, 2008 found here.


“American baseball players are notorious for their superstitions. Some always enter the batters box the same way, and some have a “lucky” way of digging in their spikes before each pitch. We can write these superstitious traditions off, because we know that it takes strength, speed, and a good eye to be a baseball great, not drinking exactly three ounces of water before warming up with two bats of the same weight. Even if we like the superstitions, we expect baseball managers to play the numbers, not rely on talismans.

In this debate we’re posed with something similar. PhatCatholic (PC) has attempted to defend a resolution that the application of Holy Water is an effective means for stopping demonic forces. It is a superstition (or, at a minimum, PC cannot establish otherwise), and we don’t have a valid basis for accepting it.”

From Turretinfan’s Conclusion to the Holy Water Debate posted January 25m 2008 found here.

Here, we see Turretinfan bandy the word “superstition” about like Wamba, the fool, in the Walter Scott novel, Ivanhoe bandied the phrase “pax vobiscum” about (See, Chapter 26). However, unlike the brave jester, Turretinfan used his “superstition” to close doors rather than to get them opened. By asserting that the use of Holy Water was merely a superstition, Turretinfan foreclosed Mr. Hardesty from presenting any anecdotal evidence in support of the proposition. It matters not whether St. Bede or any other saint used a sacramental to dispel demons-the practice is superstitious, or worse, pagan or demonic. It matters not that Mr. Hardesty could place before the reader the testimony of an army of exorcists or bring to the marketplace of ideas a whole array of miraculous events connected with Holy Water-they, too, would be dismissed as superstitious.

While such a tactic may be a great debate strategy, it is a poor theological one. After all, wasn’t the point of the debate to discuss the efficacy of Holy Water? By labeling the practice as “superstition,” Turretinfan played to his Protestant audience’s prejudice rather than address the argument head on; which is, “Does God use the physical things of this world as a means to impart His grace to us, His children, to help protect us from the Evil One and his minions?"

Turretinfan’s assertions that he understands the Catholic doctrine with respect with Holy Water notwithstanding, it was apparent to me that his understanding is based merely on a Protestant myth. The claim that practice of using Holy Water is no different than a person using carrying a lucky rabbit foot or a magic talisman, demonstrates actual ignorance of the Church’s teaching about sacramentals. However, Turretinfan can hardly be blamed for following one of the hoary old traditions of his Calvinist elders for it has been a long and venerable custom in certain Protestant apologetic and controversialist circles to label the devotional practices of Rome as a repackaging of the superstitious practices of pagans.

Here are some examples:

From the Rev. Rufus Wheelright Clark’s book, Romanism in America. Boston: J.E. Tilton, 1859 (found here) :

"In issuing the present work, a present want is met. From the beginning of its foothold, as the following pages will show, Rome has steadily advanced in the United States. Wily as ever, it in general adopts a more courteous policy than abroad; it appears meek and shorn of its hideousness ; but circumstances show that it only hides its aim. Occasionally a feeler is put forth, or an imprudent priest heedlessly reveals its purposes. Recent events in our own midst, where a single foreign priest has introduced anarchy into one of our public schools, and with characteristic impudence has endeavored to ride over the rights and laws of Americans, not only illustrates the spirit of Rome, but calls attention anew to this arch enemy of the Republic.

To summon again the spirit of national freedom, and to remind American citizens of the spirit and object of Roman tyranny and superstition these pages are now given to the public." (Preface)

Of course, what better way is there to show Rome’s tyranny and superstition than by making a diatribe against Holy Water:

"The use of holy water is also a pagan as well as Romish rite. In both systems it is regarded as possessing great efficacy. On entering a Romish church, you may observe a stone basin containing water, into which the faithful dip their fingers and cross themselves. The process by which the holy element is imparted to the water, and the uses to which it is applied, are supremely ridiculous. After being prepared by the priest, by making signs and breathing upon it, and casting into it a little fine powder, it is used for a great variety of purposes. It is sprinkled upon houses, furniture, horses, mules, dogs, and sheep ; upon the clothes of the living and the coffins of the dead. It is supposed to bless every thing that it touches. The ignorant and superstitious are taught to believe that this water purifies the atmosphere, heals diseases, drives away evil thoughts, gives strength to resist temptation, expels Satan and wicked spirits from the house, and secures the presence of the Holy Ghost.

In Rome, on a certain day, the horses and mules of the city and surrounding country are gayly decorated, and brought before the Church of St. Anthony, to be sprinkled with holy water by the priest. A small sum is paid to the priest for every animal that he sprinkles, and the people are made to believe that unless their animals are thus sprinkled, they will die during the year, or meet with some accident or great calamity. In order to keep up the delusion, the pope annually sends his horses to be sprinkled. Now, the common-sense spectator will naturally ask, Whence this silly and ridiculous custom? Where is the doctrine found that a little water sprinkled upon a beast will save his life and protect him from accident? Not in the Bible, certainly — not in the teachings of the primitive Christians. It is simply a heathen custom transferred from paganism to Romanism." (Pages 145-146)

The Rev. J.J. Smith in his book, The Impending Conflict between Romanism and Protestantism in the United States. New York: E. Goodenough, 1871 (which may be found here), likewise assaults Catholic doctrine by denigrating the use of Holy Water:

"And now the question arises, From whence did this silly practice [of using Holy Water] come? Surely not from the Bible. Not a single passage can be adduced from the word of God to support such a blasphemous ceremony. What then was its origin? The answer to this question is plain. It came from heathendom, the cesspool of religious abominations. It has no higher origin. It is a Pagan rite, that should have been left for only heathens to practice, instead of being incorporated among the rites of the Church to disgrace her service." (Pg. 190)

The same author goes on to say a little later:

"But what shall we say of Roman Catholics, who profess to be enlightened by the rays of divine truth, following so closely in the footsteps of ignorant and superstitious heathens, who are groping their way amid the darkness of idolatry? Romish priests, who ought to know better, and who ought to be heartily ashamed of this Pagan superstition, are found, by prayers and ceremonies, making holy water, for the ignorant, superstitious devotees of their faith, to carry to their homes, to be placed in their rooms, or under their pillows, and to sprinkle on their persons and about their dwellings for the purpose of protecting them from heathen influences, just as heathens do; but that they should sanction this Pagan rite by carrying it to the ridiculous extent of sprinkling the dead, is truly astonishing.

The heathens had their holy water because they had nothing better. They had by tradition received a knowledge of their defilement, and their consequent need of purification, and consequently, in their blindness, they applied to the creature instead of the Creator. As water was the great purifier for physical impurities, it was readily conceived that by the infusion of a supernatural quality through the ceremony, and prayer of consecration by a priest or some divinity, it then would cleanse the soul.

This idea has been well nigh universal in heathen lands. We meet with it in ancient Egypt. They had their sacred Nile, which was regarded with the same superstitious reverence by them as the Ganges was by the Hindoos. This was what made the plague by which the waters of the Nile were turned to blood so great a calamity to Pharaoh and his people. The Thibetians, in their worship of the Grand Lama, have among their rites the use of holy water prepared and used very much as in Hindostan. Mahomet, who, in forming a new system of religion, drew largely on Paganism for materials, did not forget their holy water. Accordingly the waters of the well Zem Zem were consecrated to religious purposes, which it is affirmed are not only efficacious for curing many bodily diseases, but also for healing all spiritual disorders, and even procuring an absolute remission of sins. This water is conveyed by pilgrims in bottles to all parts of the Mahomedan dominions, to protect them against all manner of evil.

Now, can any one fail to see from whence Rome obtained her idea of holy water, and her teachings respecting its efficacy to heal diseases, expel devils, and cleanse the soul ? It must certainly be admitted that she has not only borrowed this nonsensical practice from Paganism, but that she has, in this respect, followed remarkably close in its footsteps. She has, to a great extent, substituted holy water in the place of the Holy Ghost.

The Bible, which so expressly and pointedly condemns the whole system of image worship as held by Rome, and which must ever in its teachings oppose the use of holy water, or any other Pagan rite that would in any measure usurp the prerogatives of the Holy Ghost, can never be held by Romanists in the high estimation it deserves. Hence her opposition to the Bible." (Pgs. 192-195)

Now lest the reader believes that this phenomenon was a 19th century affectation:
"The use of holy water is purely pagan; and the pagan aspersorium is exactly the same kind of vessel as the Catholic churches use; and it occupies, in the Catholic Church, the same position which it occupied in the pagan temple. Do you happen to know how the Catholic priest makes holy water ? It is enough to make a sane man wonder whether he is dreaming or not, when he sees so many intelligent men and women pretending to believe in this monstrous superstition of holy water.

The priest bends over the vessel which contains the water, mutters some cabalistic words (in Latin, of course), traces the sign of the cross with his finger on the face of the water, three times, puts his lips to it, saying : "Receive thou the Holy Spirit" — making it "blubber" with his breath — makes other motions with his hands over it, pours oil into it, in the form of a cross; also another liquid, in the same form: then holding both vessels in his right hand, he pours the uniting liquids into the tub, in the same cross-like form; sprinkles a white powder into it, and in the end, pronounces it holy, after having washed his hands in it." (Emphasis added)

From, Watson, Thomas E. The Roman Catholic Hierarchy: The Deadliest Menace to American Liberties and Christian Civilization. Thomson, Ga: Jeffersonian Pub. Co, 1915, pg. 61. Also found at Google Books here.

And of course how can one leave out the inimitable Loraine Boettner who offers these heady insights in his book, Roman Catholicism:

"There are certain benefits, however, which in a way seem to accrue to the Roman Church as it conducts its ceremonials under the veil of a dead language. Most importantly, it adds to the air of mystery that surrounds its service, and helps set the priest apart from the people as a man with special wisdom and special powers. Every priest at times has to bless the “holy water” with which Roman Catholics sprinkle themselves, and which is sprinkled on various objects to purify and consecrate them. The prayer by which it is done intimates that its object really is drive out devils out of this common water, and indirectly keep them from the people who are sprinkled. Probably not one priest in a hundred really believes that, and it doubtless would seem rather crude and awkward to go through the ritual in English. But they do not seem to mind doing it in Latin." (Pg. 277) (Emphasis added)

And later,

"Fraud is practiced in the Roman Church, not only in exhibiting relics of the saints, but also in attributing supernatural powers to them. ... Many priests have little or no faith at all in relics, even though it is part of their work to recommend them and to supervise their use by the pious faithful. Priests who have been to Rome for any length of time lose any reverence they may had for such things when they see the shameless traffic that is carried on in that city in bits of bones and pious objects of all kinds. ... The amazing thing about this whole business is that presumably intelligent and educated Roman Catholics, clerical and lay alike, even in an enlightened country such as the United States, either tacitly accept such relics as genuine or fail to denounce them for the gross superstition that they know them to be.

Closely akin to the subject of relics is that of “Holy Water,” so-called, which is nothing more than ordinary water with a pinch of salt added and blessed by a priest. A holy water font is found just inside the entrance of every Roman Catholic church. That is another empty superstition from the Dark Ages, borrowed from paganism, and introduced into the church in the ninth century. Pagan temples in Rome had holy water stoups or basins long before they were introduced in the Christian churches, and all of those entering were expected to sprinkle themselves." (Pg. 292) (Emphasis added)

Quotes taken from, Boettner, Loraine. Roman Catholicism. Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973.

Now by making the charge of superstition, none of these gentlemen had to actually address the theology behind sacramentals. After all, why let the facts get in the way of good ghost story, even when that ghost happens to be the Holy Ghost. Unfortunately, the charge of superstition is just that, a charge. As a jury is instructed in a court of law, an indictment is not proof. It is merely a claim that must be proved by at least the requisite weight of evidence.

G.K. Chesterton addressed this Protestant tactic of labeling Catholic doctrines as superstitions in an essay titled The Protestant Superstitions, which was published in his book, titled, The Thing (found here):

“It is hardly a final refutation of Spiritualists to prove that they believe in Spirits; any more than a refutation of Deists to prove that they believe in Deity. Creed and credence and credulity are words of the same origin and can be juggled backwards and forwards to any extent. But when a man assumes the absurdity of anything that anybody else believes, we wish first to know what he believes; on what principle he believes; and, above all, upon what principle he disbelieves.” (Emphasis added)

Mr. Chesterton goes on to say:

“But why a man should accept a Creator who was a carpenter, and then worry about holy water, why he should accept a local Protestant tradition that God was born in some particular place mentioned in the Bible, merely because the Bible had been left lying about in England, and then say it is incredible that a blessing should linger on the bones of a saint, why he should accept the first and most stupendous part of the story of Heaven on Earth, and then furiously deny a few small but obvious deductions from it-- that is a thing I do not understand; I never could understand; I have come to the conclusion that I shall never understand. I can only attribute it to Superstition.” Ibid.

I submit, dear reader, that it is the notion of Holy Water that Turretinfan presented in his debate with Mr. Hardesty that is superstitious, and not the Catholic practice itself. Now that I have made the charge, I will attempt to follow Mr. Chesterton’s advice and lay before you why I believe so. To do so, I will need to first lay a foundation by discussing the Catholic belief in sacramentalism in the next installment.

God Bless!


Anonymous said...

I really apreciate your pointing out why Phatcatolic had such difficulty with TAO. To my mind "debates" are not helpful because the point of a debate is to win for your side (like a football game). Not to seek truth. I will continue to maintain that this goes to show the continued uselessness of discussing anything with someone who thinks (if I dare to use that word) all Catholics are sub-human trolls.


Paul Hoffer said...

Hi Martin, I truly do not think that Turretinfan believes that Catholics are sub-human trolls. His views, to be sure, are heavily colored, but in a recent post on his blog asking for prayers for those affested by the recent Russia-Georgia conflict, he did acknowledge that those who follow the Orthodox tradition are Christians. One could infer from such a post that he may consider that Catholics might be Christians, too.

This inference would be in line with the fact that Dr. Turretin, who TF worships and idolizes, recognized (albeit very reluctantly) that it was possible for Catholics to be saved even though they remain members of the Catholic Church. See, "Institutes of Elenctic Theology," 1696 Latin, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing (English translation, 1997, Vol. 3, p. 121). It is too bad to see how far most modern day Calvinist e-apologists have strayed even from their reformer forefathers as I have never seen the likes of Professor James White or Mr. Swan come anywhere as close as Turretin in stating whether Catholics may be Christians. Perhaps debates between Catholics and Protestants would become more meaningful if they did as it would allow the participants to focus on a higher aim of argument than mere "winning" a debate.