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John W. O’MalleyFebruary 28, 2019

Good stylists know that the last word in a sentence is the most emphatic word. The location of the “Rules for Thinking with the Church” as the last piece in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius can suggest, therefore, that they are the most emphatic part or even that they are the culmination of the Exercises, the goal toward which they have been tending all along. Some commentators and retreat givers have, in fact, adopted that interpretation and have gone on to see Rule 13 as the culmination within the culmination: “What seems to me white, I will believe black if the hierarchical Church so defines.”

Such interpretations raise two questions: First, what role do the “Rules for Thinking with the Church” play in the overall dynamic of the Exercises? Second, how should we interpret Rule 13? Does that rule inculcate a kind of super-orthodoxy, an orthodoxy more radical and sweeping than that of mainstream Catholics?

Regarding the first question, we are fortunate in having notes from Ignatius himself for directors of the Exercises. We also have an extensive commentary from his trusted secretary, Juan de Polanco, and 30 more notes and commentaries by other leading Jesuit of the era up to the publication of the official Directory for retreat-givers in 1599. Martin E. Palmer translated and edited these documents and published them in 1996 in On Giving the Spiritual Exercises.

Does Rule 13 inculcate a kind of super-orthodoxy, an orthodoxy more radical and sweeping than that of mainstream Catholics?

The documents have a great deal to say about the “Rules for the Discernment of Spirits.” They have little or, more often, nothing to say about the “Rules for Thinking with the Church,” just as they have little or nothing to say about the three other sets of rules in the Exercises with which they are usually grouped—“On the Distribution of Alms,” “On Dealing with Scruples” and “On the Use of Food.” Of these four, the rules about eating receive the most comments and, somewhat surprisingly, are the only ones among the four Ignatius himself commented on.

For all four rules, the advice is the same: They are to be given only to those who seem to need them. More specifically for the “Rules for Thinking with the Church,” they are especially to be given to priests who minister in places where heretics are numerous. In other words, they are intended to promote prudent pastoral practice. They are a pastoral afterthought to the Exercises. In his vast correspondence and other writings, Ignatius never makes mention of them

He composed them in Paris, 1534-35, just as he was finishing his degree there. They are the last piece of substance added to the Exercises. The date and the place are crucial for understanding their genesis. While he and his companions were in Paris, the university was in turmoil over the infiltration of Lutheranism there. In 1533, Nicolas Cop, the rector of the university, was accused of being a Lutheran and amid great public outcry forced to resign. Cop was, in fact, a friend and confidant of John Calvin.

“The Rules for Thinking with the Church,” counter-statements principally to Lutheran positions, are Ignatius’ response to the Reformation.

At Paris for the first time in his life, therefore, Ignatius came face to face with the Reformation as a public force. He must have been shocked. “The Rules for Thinking with the Church,” counter-statements principally to Lutheran positions, are his response. Since Ignatius was himself suspected of being a heretic, he most probably wanted the rules to stand as a manifesto of orthodoxy to protect the Exercises from such attacks.

Given the overall pastoral orientation of Ignatius’ life, however, the pastoral reasons for them seem uppermost. Their very wording, in fact, suggests a pastoral purpose—“we should praise,” “we must be careful in speaking,” “we should be cautious” and so forth. Like the other rules in the Exercises, they are meant to help people who find themselves in certain situations.

Rule 13 fits this pattern—“if we wish to proceed securely.” But it goes further by giving pastoral practices a theological foundation. The Lutherans (and all later Protestants) denied that “the hierarchical Church” had any claim to orthodoxy or orthopraxis and thus undercut everything in “The Rules for Thinking with the Church.” The antidote is Rule 13.

Does Rule 13 tell us, therefore, that we are to accept as an article of faith everything “the hierarchical Church” in some form or other communicates to us? Examine the text: “if the Church so defines.Ignatius wrote the rules when he had been following theology courses at the Dominican school in Paris. He was now schooled in theological language. He surely knew by this time that define was a technical term.

That simple fact puts Rule 13 into perspective. “What seems to me black, I will believe white.” Let’s translate that: “What seems to me bread, I will believe is the body and blood of Christ.” Rule 13 is not super-orthodoxy but mainline Catholic faith. It is in that regard revealing that in the 16th century not even the most severe critics of the Exercises singled out Rule 13 for comment.

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Andrew Strada
5 years 2 months ago

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell writes:
In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy.

And then there is this:

Theology is not #Mathematics. 2 + 2 in #Theology can make 5. Because it has to do with #God and real #life of #people…
— Antonio Spadaro (@antoniospadaro) January 5, 2017

James M.
5 years 2 months ago

“Do St. Ignatius’ “Rules for Thinking with the Church” call for blind orthodoxy?”

Orthodoxy, considered as a fruit of obedience, can at times be blind:

“Thirteenth Rule. To be right in everything, we ought always to hold that the white which I see, is black, if the Hierarchical Church so decides it, believing that between Christ our Lord, the Bridegroom, and the Church, His Bride, there is the same Spirit which governs and directs us for the salvation of our souls. Because by the same Spirit and our Lord Who gave the ten Commandments, our holy Mother the Church is directed and governed.”


And there is nothing unusual or idiosyncratic in calling for that kind of blind obedience. Far from being his doctrine alone, the same doctrine was taught both by St Ignatius’ younger contemporary St Philip Neri (1515-95), and by many authors before St Ignatius.

It is not *ideal* for orthodoxy to be blind - but neither is it bad. If one’s understanding leads to a conclusion contrary to the teaching of the Church, one’s duty is to sacrifice one’s own understanding, and to adopt the teaching of the Church instead. One’s own opinion is worth nothing, if it contradicts what the Church teaches.

The sacrifice of one’s understanding, memory and will, and of all one’s faculties, and of all one is, does & has, is beautifully expressed in this prayer of St Ignatius:

“Receive, O Lord, all my liberty. Take my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. Whatsoever I have or possess Thou hast bestowed upon me; to Thee I give it all back and surrender it wholly to be governed by Thy Will. Give me love for Thee alone, with Thy grace, and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.”

This expresses the unreserved and total self-giving of the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:

“4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might”


which was elaborated and reinforced by Christ:

29Jesus replied, “This is the most important: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul *and with all your mind* and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this……”


The words *between asterisks* were added by Christ, and are totally relevant to the present question. Sometimes, obedience to God has to be blind. The command to sacrifice Isaac was - on the face of it - insane, irrational, and barbaric - because Isaac was the son long promised to Abraham. But Abraham obeyed it.

The modern exaggeration, that faith and reason cannot possibly be contradictory ever, completely ignores - if it has heard of - such self-denying, “insane”, obedience as that. Nothing could be less rational than the Obedience of Christ that moved Him to walk the Way of the Cross - it was St Peter, not Christ, who was acting reasonably, in trying to dissuade Him. The modern exaggeration is rebuked as satanic, by Christ Himself. If reason gets in the way of obedience to God, the worse for reason.

Blind obedience is - in a way - a greater expression of love for God than obedience undertaken with the light of understanding and reason to assist it, because it is more humiliating to human self-sufficiency, self-esteem and self-love to obey God from a motive of obedience to God, than to obey God from a motive of obedience to God that is lit up by understanding.

To obey without understanding of why obedience to God is good, is to put into practice the words of St Anselm that “I believe, that I may understand”. Obedience is the acid test of belief, that separates mere profession of belief from genuine believing. So those words can legitimately be re-phrased as: “I obey, that I may understand”. Full understanding comes in the wake of obedience, not before it.

There are 18 Rules, not 13. FWIW.

“Does Rule 13 inculcate a kind of super-orthodoxy, an orthodoxy more radical and sweeping than that of mainstream Catholics?”

Not at all. That would have been the sin of singularity, and, a denial of the unity of the Faith of the Church. Rule 13 is an expression of unreserved, self-denying, love of God.

Father Hardon S.J. has a good defence of St Ignatius’ 1553 Letter on Obedience, here: http://www.therealpresence.org/archives/Virtues/Virtues_003.htm

See also, on the Rules in particular: http://www.therealpresence.org/archives/Christian_Spirituality/Christian_Spirituality_031.htm

Phillip Stone
5 years 2 months ago

Really enjoyed the article and then I looked at the author. His most recent book 'Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church'.

Now I have an encapsulating word to describe the people who are calling themselves traditionalists and making out they are more Catholic than the Pope.

Rhett Segall
5 years 2 months ago

I wonder if Fr. O'Malley isn't explaining away Ignatius' principle. Why not simply say that in the context of the rebellion against the principle of hierarchy by the Protestants Ignatius went too far in defending the papacy? Ignatius wasn't infallible.

Kester Ratcliff
5 years 2 months ago

This seems a far simpler and more likely explanation. We're not required to believe that saints are incapable of making mistakes.

john collins
5 years 2 months ago

To Father O’Malley:
Imagine that, prior to writing Rule 13 Ignatius first distinguished between ‘what seems to him to be’ from ‘what he knows to be.’ (His knowing was either via faith or via reason.) Then, while comparing ‘what seems to be’ with ‘what the Church declares* to be’ AND finding that his perspective was at odds with the Church’s declaration, Ignatius bowed in assent to the latter. Hence, Rule 13 . But were it the case that the Church said black when Ignatius knew it to be white, then we are—as Ignatius would be—on a quite different page than Rule 13.

Obedience to the hierarchy (pope) was elevated by Ignatius to a vow. Beware of parsing (diminishing?) this obedience.

Live, Rule 13.

* no quibbling here about ‘declare’ or ‘define’

Kester Ratcliff
5 years 2 months ago

I want to follow your explanation, but, going from "everything" to specifically the Real Presence, without a justification, seems to be a logical jump. And don't Calvinists also believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist too?

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