Questions Answered – January 2023

Are the Son and the Father Equal?

Question: How can the three persons of the Trinity be equal if Father and Son is a hierarchical relationship?

Answer: Your question strikes at the very heart of the Christian religion and was the first question which had to be defined by a Council. It is obviously the whole issue between Christ and Islam and is the basic question of the mother of all heresies: Arianism. Many of the statements in the Nicaean Creed that Catholics say on Sundays and solemnities at Mass are meant to counter this.

The heresy is also known as “subordinationism” because the Word then is not God and so even is liable to sin. In fact, Arianism (a name which comes from a cleric in the fourth century) has a number of tenets which must be answered. They are: the Word is a perfect creature, but not God; the Word had a beginning; since Jesus is the Word his grace is that of adoption, the same as ours; thus the Word is in principle liable to sin as was Adam.

The first Ecumenical Council was called at Nicaea to answer this error which divided the Church so much that St. Jerome stated, “The whole world groaned and was astonished to find itself Arian.” The Creed formulated at this Council uses the word “consubstantial” precisely to avoid this error. Though the basic teaching of the Church is that the Father and Son are in a hierarchical relationship, this is one due to a relation of origin and implies no division of nature.

A later Creed attributed to the great opponent of Arius, Athanasius, is explicit: “Such as the Father is, such is the Son and such is the Holy Spirit; the Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated; the Father infinite, the Son infinite, and the Holy Spirit infinite; the Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet not three eternals, but one eternal, as also not three infinites, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated, and one infinite. So, likewise, the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty; and yet not three almighties but one almighty.”

The theological problem is caused by a philosophical error in which the term “Son” is taken in exactly the same sense as a human son. In human sons, they differ in persons from their fathers and are also different beings or substances. Catholic doctrine, on the other hand, does not use terms of God and his creation in a univocal or equivocal sense, but in an analogical sense.

The term “Son” when applied to the Trinity does not mean that the Word differs from the Father in being. The Word is not subordinate to the Father in the sense of a human son. It merely signifies a relation. The Father is without origin, the Son takes the origin of his infinite existence from the Father. The Word is therefore a distinct person that is Begotten or receiving all that he is from another (the Father). This unique procession is a perfect one so the same eternal God is shared by both the Father and the Son though in different ways: one without origin, the other with origin.

The same thing is true of the Holy Spirit who is also the same infinite God, but receives this Godhead as a unique person who has a real relation to the Father and the Son which is different from the one the Son has with the Father, that is a procession from both together.

Orthodox theology customarily distinguishes four real and one ideal relation when it comes to the Trinity: unbegotten which is negative and so a relation only in our mind; Paternity, Filiation, Active Spiration and passive Spiration. The only distinction in the Trinity is a real one which has its source in the “relation of origin”.

“The divine persons are really distinct from one another. ‘God is one but not solitary.’ [Fides Damask: DS 71.] ‘Father’, ‘Son’, ‘Holy Spirit’ are not simply names designating modalities of the divine being, for they are really distinct from one another: ‘He is not the Father who is the Son, nor is the Son he who is the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit he who is the Father or the Son.’ [Council of Toledo XI (675): DS 530:25.] They are distinct from one another in their relations of origin: ‘It is the Father who generates, the Son who is begotten, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds.’ [Lateran Council IV (1215): DS 804.] The divine Unity is Triune.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 254) Though one can never prove the Trinity, one must avoid the dual errors of treating the relation of the Persons as merely ideal or just different ways of conceiving the same being (Modalism) or being so real that they divide the substance (Arianism).

Society of the Universal Church

Question: Why is it difficult or impossible for those in heaven to communicate with those on earth?

Answer: Christ is the Head of all Men through a unique grace given to him. This is called the Capital Grace. He is head of his body, the Church. (Col. 1:18) Pius XII went to great lengths to explain that the Church of which Christ is the head is not just limited to people who are on pilgrimage now on this earth. In his grace as Head, all the virtues, gifts, and graces of the Holy Spirit are now mediated. The invisible mission of the Holy Spirit, sanctifying grace, now cannot be experienced except by some relation to the visible mission of the Son (the Incarnation).

The visible mission of Christ is, of course, experienced in his life on earth. But by implication as he is now gone to heaven, it is extended in the sacraments and in that society which is the visible successor of Israel, Holy Mother the Church. Christ himself established this Church while he was personally present here on earth. All men except the damned in hell are either actually or potentially members of his Church which has been called his Mystical Body. The difference between an actual, physical body and a mystical body is that the latter includes those who are potential members. All members of the society of the Church are either actually or potentially members of Christ in a social way, so they enjoy a social relationship. This social relationship means that the Church as a society is not limited to those we really know in this world, but includes all who relate to Christ, either living or dead.

During the month of November, this is celebrated in several feasts: All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The Church then has been variously described as the Church Militant on earth, because she is still in the struggle to heaven; the Church Suffering (in Purgatory); and the Church Triumphant (in Heaven). Far from being out of touch with each other, all three parts of this society are in intimate communication with each other through their association with Christ, but it is a spiritual relationship which causes a spiritual communication of truth and love rather different than the one on earth.

This association of friendly communication is like the friendship human beings have in heaven with the angels and saints. Thomas Aquinas says that strictly speaking, such friendship is not necessary as God alone suffices. But since there are many in heaven all enjoying God, this completes the friendship on earth, and those in heaven help the souls in Purgatory and human beings who still struggle on earth.

“If we speak of the happiness of this life, the happy man needs friends, as the Philosopher says (Ethic. ix, 9), not, indeed, to make use of them, since he suffices himself; nor to delight in them, since he possesses perfect delight in the operation of virtue; but for the purpose of a good operation, viz. that he may do good to them; that he may delight in seeing them do good; and again that he may be helped by them in his good work. For in order that man may do well, whether in the works of the active life, or in those of the contemplative life, he needs the fellowship of friends. But if we speak of perfect Happiness which will be in our heavenly Fatherland, the fellowship of friends is not essential to Happiness; since man has the entire fullness of his perfection in God. But the fellowship of friends conduces to the well-being of Happiness. Hence Augustine says (Gen. Ad lit. viii, 25) that ‘the spiritual creatures receive no other interior aid to happiness than the eternity, truth, and charity of the Creator. But if they can be said to be helped from without, perhaps it is only by this that they see one another rejoice in God, at their fellowship.’” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, 4, 8, ad corp.)

From this it is clear there is the strongest communication between the living and the dead and this is the origin of the strongest of friendships.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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