Mona Lisa’s Mustache

The other day on an obscure channel on TV I saw a fundamentalist preacher interviewing two young Catholics at the Minnesota State Fair. The two Catholics were utterly unable to match wits with the Protestant old-time-religion preacher. It was painful to watch, almost as painful as reading Vatican press releases over the last several years (the latest with the Holy Father using a particularly vulgar and near-obscene term in connection with irresponsible journalism).

When asked about their destination after death, to their credit, the young lady tentatively brought up Purgatory. The response was red meat for the preacher: “Where do you find ‘Purgatory’ in the Bible?” he chided. It was a rhetorical checkmate for the dear young things. Biblical fundamentalists hold it is not possible for a Christian to believe in Purgatory any more than it is possible for an art critic to hold the Mona Lisa has a mustache. A mustache (if memory serves) cannot be found on the painting and the word “Purgatory” cannot be found in Scriptures. Such is the logic of the human doctrine of sola Scriptura.

But Catholicism is not a religion of “Scriptures alone” or the “Book of the Word.” The “living Word” is Christ, not only ruling from his heavenly throne but present in his Mystical Body, the Church throughout the ages, and present under the appearance of bread and wine in Holy Communion. But a “living Word” may (incorrectly) imply Church teaching “evolves” just as a so-called “living Constitution” implies novel civil rights can be found in the “emanations of the penumbra” of the U.S. Constitution.

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But the Catholic Faith insists that all revelation came to completion with the death of the last Apostle. This “Deposit of Faith” is handed down with integrity over the ages through Sacred Tradition. The Deposit of Faith, like the original image of the Mona Lisa, cannot and does not change. Over time and with careful theological study, the Church merely comes up with appropriate and precise words to represent and to further define the Deposit of Faith—or to apply the principles of the Faith to the concrete circumstances of contemporary life. (John Henry Newman’s thought on the “development of doctrine” without losing moorings to the early Church is particularly apt.)

In a sense, every human word, even beyond the words used in Scripture—carefully and accurately defined—is potentially part of the doctrinal arsenal of the Catholic Faith. This is only appropriate. The Church of the “Word made flesh” should have recourse to all words in the vocabulary in the service of Truth. This is the stuff of theology, faith seeking understanding.

So it is perfectly natural and part of the organic growth in understanding the teachings of Christ when theologians and the Church devise a word like “Purgatory” to define the place of purgation and purification from sin as revealed in the Book of Wisdom 3:1-5: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead… But they are in peace… Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself.” There are hints of the doctrine elsewhere, such as the Book of Maccabees (i.e., praying for the souls of the sinners who fell in battle).

If, as a student of the Bible, you’re not happy with the word, come up with a different word, but don’t tinker with God’s revelation. And be precise. Don’t dare place an awkward mustache of error or ambiguity on the Deposit of Faith.

The use of extra-Scriptural words and concepts to help us understand Revelation gives us an opening for authentic ecumenical dialog. Even a fundamentalist preacher would agree with Catholics in believing in “the Trinity”—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But, according to the sola Scriptura Protestant tradition, where is the word “Trinity” found in Scriptures? (For that matter, where in the Bible is the concept of, much less the term, sola Scriptura?) The word “Trinity” cannot be found, we all agree. But it is a perfectly reasonable concept and precisely defines the reality of the Three-in-One Godhead. “Trinity” is a word like “Purgatory” that accurately defines a Scriptural revelation.

The Deposit of Faith is like that image of the Mona Lisa, unchanging but in need of those intelligible words and phrases to represent the image in every generation. Even when the words and phrases we use are clumsy and imprecise, we cannot change the reality and nature of the image. Catholic “doctrines” are nothing other than conceptual statements that attempt to depict existing and unchanging realities inherent to the Deposit of Faith. Over time, words like Trinity, Purgatory, Transubstantiation—and terminology of Catholic moral theology such as “intrinsically evil” and “natural law”—become indispensable. These concepts help accurately represent the unadulterated faith of the Apostles who knew the Lord face-to-face.

It should be clear a pope’s authority is not his own and is essentially “conservative” in a non-political sense. The pope, as the “minister of Catholic unity,” is responsible for “conserving” and representing Catholic truth with as much clarity as possible. He uses, or should use, words and phrases and conceptual statements that do not violate the Deposit of Faith any more than a good faith description of the Mona Lisa does no violence to the memory of her actual image.

But to give our fundamentalist preacher his due, to some extent he’s right: neither the Church nor the pope—nor a fundamentalist preacher—can claim authority to alter the Deposit of Faith by an inaccurate or careless or irresponsible use of words. Even a pope has no authority to insist da Vinci’s image of Mona Lisa has a mustache.

Nor does a priest, prophet, or king—or pope—have the authority to deny the grave responsibility to abide by—for example—the inviolable bond of marriage in Christ. “What God has joined, let no man put asunder.” The translations of the words of Christ are clear enough with no distortions.


  • Fr. Jerry J. Pokorsky

    Fr. Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington who has also served as a financial administrator in the Diocese of Lincoln. Trained in business and accounting, he also holds a Master of Divinity and a Master’s in moral theology. Fr. Pokorsky co-founded both CREDO and Adoremus, two organizations deeply engaged in authentic liturgical renewal.

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