A Brief Metaphysical Excursus on the Words “First” and “Second”

If you have survived the magniloquent name of this little piece, you should easily get though the rest, for the grandiose title heads a subject matter well within reach.

It occurred to me while I was deep in thought — philosophers do that, you know — that a firm grasp of the concepts “first” and “second” is highly useful in explaining certain key Catholic truths, such as those pertaining to the Church, the sacraments, the papacy, priesthood, episcopacy, Our Lady, and other points of Catholicity.

As my fellow philosopher, Brother Francis, often points out, while there are terms in the philosophical sciences that constitute a technical jargon (e.g., hylomorphism, polysyllogism, enthymeme), most of the vocabulary is comprised of every-day words to which a precise, canonized meaning is given. Essence, nature, being, matter, form, cause: these are not highfalutin words; but their philosophical use is so careful and exact that they are worthy of serious study and even contemplation in order to grasp them. Two examples of simple yet weighty philosophical words come to us in the duet “first” and “second.”

Get out of your mind the notion of chronology. “First” in philosophy does not mean “preceding in time,” as in “I took off my left shoe first, then my right shoe.” Here, first means having a primacy in the fundamental order of being. (Or, as we philosophers say, an ontological primacy.) An example of “first” in this sense is God’s causality. He is the “first cause.” I can make a chair, but, in artfully fashioning all the materials at my disposal, I am the last link in a chain of causes that goes back to God. Without God’s causality, I could not cause anything, for I would not even be, and neither would the stuff that I form into a chair. If I can cause at all, I am a “second cause.” This means that my causing something is radically dependent on God as the first cause.

So, second does not mean “coming after in time”; it means “contingent upon.”

Now, while God is the ultimate and absolute “first,” we can speak of something being “first” in a particular chain of events. God is absolutely first, but a creature can be relatively first. Thus, while my trip to the Quickmart at two in the morning was facilitated by many secondary causes — such as an air and gas mixture being ignited by spark plugs, and all the other mechanisms making possible my car’s mobility — the “first cause” of this little trip was my hankering for a pint of milk and some macadamia-nut-chocolate-chip cookies, both of which I know to be available at that convenience store.1 Without that first cause, ignoble as it may be in this case, the secondary causes would not be set in motion.

Now, apply your newfound grasp of these concepts to any of the Catholic truths I mentioned above and you will see their practical value in apologetics and theology. You will also see that this is an extension of common sense, as all good philosophy is.

Consider the sacraments. The classical Protestant objection to the seven sacraments is that they are something which gets between us and God. Christ did it all, so why should we receive grace through these created elements? The simple answer is that Christ instituted the sacraments as a continuation of His own work. Here we see that Christ’s meritorious death on the Cross is a “first” upon which all else in the order of redemption and salvation is radically contingent. None of the seven sacraments would have any power at all if it were not for the Man-God’s Crucifixion, and so says the Council of Trent.2 Saint Paul, a bishop who administered sacraments, said of himself and his fellow bishops, “Let a man so account of us as of the ministers of Christ, and the dispensers of the mysteries of God” (I Cor. 4:1). Here, he is placing himself as a “secondary” cause of holiness and even salvation by dispensing God’s mysteries to men. Elsewhere he is more explicit: “I became all things to all men, that I might save all” (I Cor. 9:22; see also Romans 11:14). Christ, as our separated brethren often and correctly point out, is the only Savior. But there must me some acceptable meaning to these words of Saint Paul. The Apostle is truly acting as a “savior”; he is really saving sinners, but in a way totally dependent on the one Savior.

Or take the Marian doctrines. We say Mary is the mediatrix of grace, that she is an intercessor, that she is even co-redemptrix. All this is branded quite blasphemous by the evangelical or fundamentalist, yet these doctrines do not in the least detract from the glory of the Trinity or the work of Christ. They rather exalt God and His gifts, as the divine causality is the “first” upon which Mary’s “second” entirely depends. She included these ideas in her Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. … Because he that is mighty, hath done great things to me; and holy is his name…” (Luke 1:46-47,49). The moon does not rob from the sun when reflecting its light, yet heaven’s evening lamp has a luminous beauty all its own, which depends upon the sun’s effulgence entirely. Mary is a creature whose holiness, merit, and role in the Church are completely contingent upon the grace of God and the merits of Christ. Yet, with those in place — with the power of infinity working in her — she is elevated to a unique role in Christ’s Mystical Body that sets her above all other creatures, even the highest of the angels. “One is the glory of the sun, another the glory of the moon, and another the glory of the stars. For star differeth from star in glory” (1 Corinthians 15:41).

Do some thinking of your own on this. The priesthood, intercessory prayer, the authority of the Church to teach, govern, and sanctify, holy images, relics, the Mass, devotion to the saints — these and many other doctrines can be explained better with the simple notions of first and second.


1 Late-night philosophizing gets me hungry.

2 Read Chapter VII of the Sixth Session (on Justification) and you will see an explanation of the divine causality of justification. Keep that in mind when you read what the Seventh Session says on the sacraments (that “through [them] all true justice either begins, or being begun is increased, or being lost is repaired”) and you will see the truth of my statement.