Friday, June 8, 2007

Strike One for "Trey" on Homosexuality

A comment from "Trey" on my post regarding homosexuality writes that "The number 1 reason why God doesn't need you to worry about other people's sexuality: 1. Because he is God, and can judge us individually."

Typical of today's rationalistic mentality, Trey seems to believe that because God is the one who ultimately judges our hearts, we should back off in trying to guide one another from paths of spiritual destruction.

The truth is, however, that we are each responsible for speaking for truth and reminding others to avoid sin. It is not our place to judge another person's heart. It is not even our place to judge our own hearts, as Paul makes clear in his epistles. However, it would be silly to infer from that that we shouldn't step in when we see another engaging in behavior that is destructive to himself.

I'm sure that if Trey knew a friend of his was viewing child pornography, he wouldn't be so cavalier as to say, as he did in his comment, that God does not need us to "add to the pile of condemnation flying about on any given topic."

If he found out his own son or daughter was cheating on a spouse, would he really take the attitude that it isn't his problem because God is the only one who (again, as his comment suggests) should "guide our lives".

If Trey had read my post carefully, which he obviously did not, he would see that I absolutely did not encourage a condemnation of people with homosexual tendencies. I also did not encourage a condemnation of people who chose to act on such tendencies. What I did condemn, however, was attitudes such as Trey's, which tell us to ignore the teachings of Scripture and Tradition on homosexuality. I did write that the most unchristian thing we could do when a friend or relative is battling homosexuality is to withhold the truth of Christ from that person.

People who are tempted by sin do not need Trey's indifference. He may be perfectly content with allowing them to fall into sinful behavior. Maybe it is just easier for him to allow others to face judgement without his support and Christian guidance. Perhaps he even thinks he knows better than the Church, which was entrusted by Christ to uphold a moral standard.

He wouldn't be the first to make that assumption either. That credit goes to Adam and Eve, who chose for themselves the right to decide right and wrong.

Trey ends his comment with a snide suggestion that perhaps, instead of worrying about those who are slipping into sin, I should, "Go do some work for an elderly person instead." The hypocrisy here is that, in attempting to chastise me for condemning others, Trey, himself, condemns me (and anyone else who would uphold a moral standard), assuming that our adherence to truth means that we are callous individuals who do not contribute to social welfare. How, exactly, does Trey know my own personal contributions, either monetarily or physically, to charitable works? I have observed it to be a mark of his own brand of moral superiority that such an indignant attitude would be displayed to anyone who chooses Christian morality over a trendy political correctness. Is he not able to take to heart his own suggestion that God does not need him to "add to the pile of condemnation flying about on any given topic?"

Finally, his comment is evidence that the age of indifference in the Christian church (assuming Trey is Christian) is marked by a characteristic promotion of the social gospel to the exclusion of our first duty, which is to be God's tool in bringing others to salvation. The Christian mandate isn't a sum-zero proposition. We can be concerned for the less-fortunate (and Trey seems to assume that anyone who is elderly is less fortunate), and speak the truth of Christ and his Church.

Trey may not be willing to take on this responsibility. As he suggested in his comment, though, God will hold each of us individually accountable. I am not in a place to judge Trey's heart, but I am curious how he will explain to Christ his unwillingness to defend the teachings that Christ, himself, passed on.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Figuratively Speaking

One of the things that non-Catholics are most surprised about when they really begin studying our faith is how literally Catholics take much of Scripture. Perhaps the clearest example of this is in the Last Supper passages, where Christ says of the bread, “This is my body”, and of the wine, “This is my blood.”

Often, however, when Catholics bring these verses to the attention to someone who does not believe in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the conversation goes something like this:

Catholic: “Christ says, ‘This is my body’. Why can’t we take him at his word?
Non-Catholic: “Because Christ also calls himself a vine (John 15:1) and a door (John 10:7), among other things. Are we to believe he is actually a plant or a thing on hinges?

It’s interesting to see how an otherwise literalist student of the Bible suddenly turns figurative when it comes to reconciling his rejection of a distinctly Catholic doctrine.
The point such a person would be making, of course, is that Christ often spoke in metaphors to help his followers understand the full scope of his being. Why, the non-Catholic might ask, would we believe that the Last Supper discourse is any different?

To be fair to this perspective, here are several more “things” that God (in the person of Christ or otherwise) compares himself to through inspired Scripture:
  • The Branch (Zech. 3:8)
  • The Bright and Morning Star (Rev. 22:16)
  • The Chief Corner Stone (Eph. 2:20; 1Peter 2:7)
  • An Eagle (Deut. 32:11)
  • A Fountain (Zech. 13:1)
  • The Lamb (John 1:29; Rev. 5:6)
  • The Rock (1 Cor. 10:4)

This line of reasoning has never really made sense to me. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that, for the last eleven years, I spent a great deal of time teaching eighth graders grammar and figurative language.

There’s something of a verbal sleight-of-hand trick happening when non-Catholics try to equate the institution of the Eucharist to Christ’s many metaphorical statements about himself.

A metaphor works this way. The subject of the sentence is joined by a linking verb to a seemingly different predicate nominative, which reflectively describes something unique about the subject. A literal truth about the predicate nominative describes a figurative truth about the subject. For instance, in the sentence, “My dad is an ox”, the subject (dad) is probably big and hairy, given his resemblance to the predicate nominative (ox). It is important to note that, given the structure of a metaphor, “ox” is describing “dad”, not the other way around. The ox literally weighs near a thousand pounds and is literally covered from head to foot with hair; my dad is only figuratively an ox in that his size and hair exceed that of the average person. To understand it more clearly, one can take the metaphor and turn it into a simile by adding “like” or “as”: My dad is like an ox.

The simile approach emphasizes that it is impossible to flip the comparison around without outright changing the meaning. “My dad is like an ox” becomes outright weird when we flip it to say, “An ox is like my dad.”

Let’s take the metaphors of Scripture and state them in simple declarative sentences (using the generic “God” to simplify the process):

  • God is a vine.
  • God is a door.
  • God is the branch.
  • God is the bright and morning star.
  • God is the chief corner stone.
  • God is an eagle.
  • God is a fountain.
  • God is the lamb.
  • God is the rock.

Now, notice the problem when we look at the institution of the Eucharist:

This [bread] is my body.

Or, to make the comparison easier, I’ll substitute the word “God” for the words “my body”:

This [bread] is God.

Or, to be specific:

This [bread] is Jesus.

It would make no sense to flip the comparison (unless one’s grammar resembles that of Yoda):

  • A vine is God.
  • A door is God.
  • A rock is God.
  • A lamb is God.

These last four don’t make sense because, in the figurative examples above, God is always the subject. The predicate nominatives describe qualities of God. God is a source of life, like a vine. He is our entrance into Heaven, like a door. He is the foundation of our faith, like a “rock” or “cornerstone”. He was sacrificed for us, like a lamb.

This is how metaphors work, which is why it is outright silly to claim that in the last supper narrative, when “God” or “my body” becomes the predicate nominative. To do so would mean that we are using the divine figuratively to describe a literal truth about the bread. How is this possible? Is the bread in anyway omniscient? Omnipotent? Omnipresent? To illustrate, let’s turn our “metaphors” into similes:

  • God is like a rock. Makes sense.
  • God is like a lamb. Makes sense.
  • God is like a vine. Makes sense.
  • God is like a door. Makes sense.
  • This bread is like God. Huh?

Even the original text would fail this test (This [bread] is like my body). The reason? By putting God as the predicate nominative, the metaphor serves to exalt bread to something divine by comparison. This makes no sense and has no place in the unity of Scripture unless

Unless it wasn’t meant to be figurative …

Which would mean it was literal …

Which would mean that the bread isn’t bread anymore.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Echoes from the Past - Priesthood of the People

Of all the challenges thrown almost exclusively at Catholics, think for a moment about which is the oldest in the Book.

If you need a hint, notice that I asked which was the oldest, not in the history of Christianity, but of the Book, itself. Is it: "Why do you Catholics pray to the saints?"Or: "Why do you Catholics confess to a priest?"How about: "Why do you Catholics believe Jesus was an only child?"

Actually, from what I am able to tell, the oldest anti-Catholic argument in the book is this one: "Why do you Catholics call them priests? Don't you know that 1 Peter 2:5, 9 tells us we are all part of a royal priesthood?"

Most non-Catholic Christians are very bothered that we call a select group of men "priests" when Scripture appears to apply the term to all believers. To many, it seems to be just another example of where Catholics "add to Scripture".

What do we say to this as Catholics? Only that we agree! As Catholics, we use the same verses (1 Peter 2:5, 9) to discuss the common priesthood. We are all priests in that we offer prayers and personal sacrifices (time, money, luxuries) to the Lord. Does this mean, however, that there is not a sacramental priesthood as well?

What I would like to do is jump back to the Old Testament for a moment because the reason that this particular attack on Catholicism is the oldest in the Book is because ... the first time we see it is in Exodus! Here's a side-by-side comparison to illustrate:1 Peter 2:9 reads, "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people ..."Exodus 19:6 reads, "And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation ..."

So, the idea of a common priesthood is not some New Testament institution; it existed throughout salvation history. But look:1 Tim. 5:17; Jas. 5:14-15 shows priests (presbyters, elders) tending to the flock through preaching and by administering the sacraments.Exodus 19:21,22 reads: "And the Lord said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people ... and let the priests also ... sanctify themselves." This verse shows that there was, among the common priesthood, a special "priestly" group (in fact, later in Exodus, we see the establishment of the Levitical priesthood). Just as the New Testament "common priesthood" still allows for a sacramental priesthood, the Old Testament "kingdom of priests" allowed for a special sacrificial priesthood.

Yet, today many non-Catholics complain about a set of men set apart as "priests" in the Catholic Church, as if they are somehow exalted above the rest of us. This charge usually extends to include the bishops and the pope. However, if any of them would carefully read Numbers 16:3, they would see a prophetic foreshadowing of their charge as the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron: "You have gone too far! For all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?"

Why is this the "oldest attack in civilization"? Because it wasn't originally directed at Catholics; all through salvation history God has called for his church to have a select priesthood among the faithful. This isn't some new "Catholic invention". Rather, its roots extend all the way through the history of Israel. Unfortunately, so does the grumbling.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Why I'm Leaving the Church

The other day I removed my statues of Mary and St. Francis from out in the yard.

It bothered me to do that a little, but my Fundamentalist friend across the street explained to me very plainly that we aren’t supposed to make graven images.

“It’s right there in The Bible,” he said.


“Yeah. Statues of Mary, the saints. That’s all idolatry.”

“Oh gosh, well I sure don’t want to be an idolater.” As I turned to leave, though, I noticed the statues of Mickey and Minnie Mouse in his wife’s flower garden. “Joe,” I said, pointing at the two mice. “I don’t mean to be critical, but aren’t you afraid God will strike you dead for idolatry?”

“Oh gosh, no,” he said with a smile. “God’s okay with those fellas.”

“God’s okay with cartoon rodents, but not the Virgin Mother or saints?”

“Oh, you poor Catholics. You just don’t know The Bible that well, do you?”

“No, Joe, we sure don’t.” I remembered what he had explained to me last week about how, after the King James Bible dropped out of Heaven into Jesus’s hands, the Catholic Church did everything it could to hide it, from locking it up to burning people at the stake for reading it.

“You see,” he explained, taking a seat on his porch swing, “in 1 Samuel, chapter 6, when the Philistines stole the Ark of the Lord, God gave them a plague of mice and a bad case of the hemorrhoids.”


“You’re not kidding, ‘ouch’. Anyway, long story short, those Philistines had to give the Ark back, but they also had to make little golden mice and hemorrhoids so all their problems would go away.”

“Oh,” I said as everything clicked into place. “So we can have statues of mice and hemorrhoids –”

“And snakes,” he cut in.

“Of course, snakes,” I said. “Just not the men and women who selflessly gave their lives to Christ?”

“And definitely not Mary.”

I left with a good feeling in my heart now that Joe had set everything straight. So, I’ll let St. Francis and the immaculately conceived, ever-virgin Mother of God collect dust in my garage. After all, I found two strange shaped rocks in the woods behind my house. Spray-painted gold, they’ll make for a couple of well-formed hemorrhoids.

And they’ll look just perfect by the rose bushes out front.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Food, Not Condoms

It seems like every time I chat with someone about the Church's teaching on contraception, the
conversation always ends up on the subject of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, where the "clueless" Church and the "dangerous right-wing" conservatives are supposedly killing off the entire continent by refusing to support the mass distribution of condoms among the people there.

Well, okay, so let's look at that logic.

First off, condoms aren't working in Africa. As cited in this article, studies have indicated that there has been no meaningful difference in the number of HIV cases, and no examples of an HIV epidemic being turned back, in areas of widespread condom distribution.

On the other hand, in some poverty-stricken areas, a different approach has been tried. Programs emphasizing chastity have lowered the HIV rate from 21% to 6% in Uganda and from 30% to 10% in Kampala.

I mention that these areas are "poverty-stricken" specifically for this reason: many who push the proliferation of condoms among the poor do so under the assumption that they are not capable of the type of responsible behavior necessary for chaste behavior. How do I know this? Because they've told me. "It may work for you and your wife," I was told recently, "but we can't expect these people to have the discipline for something like that."

So much for the compassion of the "compassionate" social liberals out there.

But aren't we at least doing some good by getting condoms to the African people?

Well, consider that the general cost of a condom shipped to Africa is fifty cents. On the other hand, a meal can be provided to an African adult for twenty-five cents. For every condom we send to Africa, we could feed two hungry people. In an area such as Uganda, where the cost-effective chastity program is reducing the HIV numbers, we can focus our money on a more immediate concern: putting food into empty stomachs.

But common consensus is that we have to keep shipping condoms, boxes of them, to Africa. In fact, there are some cases in which we are shipping more condoms than just about anything else.

The website Food Not Condoms recounts the story of a woman who visited a health clinic in Africa. She opened the refrigerator where the antibiotics and medicine should have been stored and found nothing but three shelves stacked with boxes of condoms.

"Please," her guide told her, "when you get back to America, tell your country that we need band aids, and no more condoms!"

So yeah, the Catholic Church and social conservatives are a pretty heartless bunch, believing, as we do, that beans and rice make a slightly tastier meal for an African child than a piece of rubber.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Warning Label for New Birth Control Pill

The media has been abuzz about the new birth control pill that the FDA recently approved, which supposedly eliminates a woman's period during the entire time she is taking the medication. Of course, those pushing the new pill claim that its side-effects are minimal (yeah, just as they've claimed about all the cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease, depression, fetal abnormality, ovarian cyst causing contraceptives we've had in the past).

However, I thought of a few side-effects that usually don't make it into the disclaimers:

Warning, divine revelation and the Christ-given teaching authority of the Church have determined that contraception is indisputably linked to the following:
  • a chronic weakening of morality within our culture (e.g. pornography and abuse)
  • frequent exercise of dominion over the human body (e.g. embryonic stem cells and euthanasia)
  • general increase in number of abortions performed annually
  • excessive perception of women as mere objects of pleasure
  • absence of temperance within marriage (e.g. adultery)
  • abnormally high levels of divorce (up to twenty times higher in some studies)
  • artificial notions of superiority to God and his plan for marriage and the human body
  • perpetual burning sensation from rejection of grace and of God's law
It should be noted that church doctors have discovered a remedy that provides an instantaneous reversal of many of the above symptoms. If you have recently used contraception in your relationship, please see your nearest spiritual pharmacist for a prescription of absolution and penance (note: prescribed dosage of penance must be taken completely, even if symptoms appear to have diminished).

Monday, May 21, 2007

Is Infant Baptism Valid?

No area divides Christianity more sharply than that of baptism. The disagreements from whether or not baptism is necessary to the age of valid baptism. Even the very mode of baptism (immersion, sprinkling, pouring) is debated.

This, in itself, should be ample proof of the necessity of an authoritative teaching authority as the division is not simply between Catholics and Protestants. Even Christians who claim to go by the plain sense of Scripture are at sharp odds regarding baptism. As Catholics, we are fortunate to have, not only the inspired Scripture to guide us in understanding this doctrine, but the Holy Spirit guided Tradition of the Church, as well as protection from error in the magisterium.

Nevertheless, for purposes of this essay on infant baptism, we will rely solely upon Scripture. We will pull from no church fathers, church councils, or papal writings. Because of this, the argument can be seen in terms that our “Bible-only” brothers and sisters can understand. In addition, this approach will illustrate how truly “Catholic” Scripture is to begin with. Under a close examination of Scripture alone, there can be no doubt that infant baptism is part of God’s plan for salvation.

The argument against infant baptism rests upon two basic foundations: A) the absence of any direct mention of infant baptism in Scripture and B) the idea that baptism must be preceded by repentance (Acts 2:38), belief (Mark 16:16), and confession of faith (Romans 10:9), which are surely actions which are beyond the ability of a newborn.

Regarding point A, one can only agree that there are no direct references to infant baptism in Scripture. There are indirect references, to be discussed later, and there are certainly no places where Scripture directly forbids the baptism of infants and children. It shouldn’t be any surprise to us, though, that in the early Church the overwhelming majority of the Christians baptized would be adults, or that Scripture should only directly mention the baptism of adults.

After all, if Catholics and Protestants were to team up to convert all Muslims, for example, to Christianity, would we show up at the daycares? Of course not. Assuming that we all came to an agreement that infant baptism was necessary, we would still aim our efforts at the heads of the households, those who steered the faith of the entire family, the fathers and mothers. Our efforts would look strikingly similar to the efforts we see in the New Testament.

Still, how could one justify infant baptism if Scripture makes clear that baptism must be preceded by repentance, belief, and confession of faith? The simple answer is that forgiveness of sins is not the only effect of baptism. In fact, this sacramental act accomplishes three things:
  1. Baptism removes one from a condition of sin through burial with Christ (Romans 6:4) and infusion of sanctifying grace (1 Cor. 6:11) and an indwelling of the Holy Spirit (John 1:33, 3:5, Matthew 3:11)
  2. Baptism cleans one of committed sin Acts 2:37-38
  3. Mark of initiation into Christian faith
The baptisms that we witness in the New Testament are, by and large, adult baptism. This means, of course, that the baptized have come from non-Christian backgrounds. For these individuals, repentance was necessary because of the sinful lives they lead apart from the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Belief was essential to establish a break from the false Gods of their pagan (in many cases) background or from a superficial devotedness to worldly things. And, of course, confession of belief was a testimony to the completeness and whole-heartedness of the conversion.

For adults.

Children below the age of reason, however, would have no need of repentance or of a rejection of a former faith. However, even with children, baptism is necessary for introducing them into a life filled with grace and initiating them into the Christian faith. After all, by claiming that one must be of the age of reason to be baptized, aren’t we putting salvation in our hands, instead of in the sovereign hands of God? In Jeremiah 31:33, we see that, under the New Covenant, God would write his law “in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.” This foreshadowing perfectly captures the idea of infant baptism, where children are baptized so that, through the Holy Spirit, God can write his law on their hearts. Does God need us at the age of reason for this?

To truly understand Christian baptism, one must put himself into the mind of a first century Jew. After all, the New Testament was largely written to a Jewish audience (and also to a first-century Gentile audience, which would have understood the culture and customs of the Jews). In doing so, one verse in particular would stand out glaringly in a study of baptism. In Col 2:11-12, Paul writes, “In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not administered by hand, by stripping off the carnal body, with the circumcision of Christ. You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”

Paul, therefore, draws a sharp parallel between baptism and circumcision (the baptism of the heart). At first glance, this makes absolutely no sense. After all, circumcision is a surgical removal of part of the body (a very sensitive part) as an initiation into the faith. Wouldn’t an introduction into Christianity be better described as a “renewal” of the heart or a “washing” of the heart, as it is in other places? How does the idea of circumcision, an Old Testament ritual of mutilation, help us understand baptism? How could it capture of the idea of sanctification through baptism?

To a Jew, it would have made perfect sense.

Under the Old Covenant, circumcision was marked by four attributes: A) it was performed on males only, B) it was a mark of initiation into the covenant, C) it was performed on infants in anticipation of the faith, and C) it was performed on adult converts, following repentance and belief in the Israelite God.

Notice point C. Though adult conversions to Judaism were rare, they did occur but had to be preceded by a rejection of the sinful and false lifestyle from which the convert had come, just as in Christianity today. This did not, however, preclude the possibility that infants would be baptized. Just as infants in the Old Covenant were circumcised in “anticipation” of the faith, so infants under the New Covenant are baptized in anticipation of their parent’s faith. In addition, infants were circumcised as a mark of initiation into the covenant, for the same reason Christian infants are baptized today. Remember, Christ did not come to abolish the Old Law, but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17). Given the connection that Paul draws between circumcision and baptism, we should not assume differences that are not directly spelled out in Scripture.

Thus, the second point of those who believe that baptism is reserved for adults only falls flat.
We must always read the New Testament with a thorough understanding of the Old Testament and the Covenant it recorded. The New Testament was not meant to be a “from scratch” exposition of Christianity. Rather, as Christ came to fulfill the Old Law, the gospels, the epistles, and Revelation are meant to build upon and clarify what we learn in the Old Testament, but not to replace it. With this in mind, we should examine the more important verses in the New Testament regarding baptism. In order to avoid bias, however, we will not read them as 21st century Christians; rather, we’ll read them like 1st century Jews.

To begin, we need to visit Paul and Silas as they pray and sing hymns among the jailors in Acts 16. After a great earthquake, which opened the doors to the prison, the jailor woke and was prepared to kill himself, thinking the prisoners had escaped. Upon hearing Paul’s voice, however, he fell before them and asked, “Men, what must I do to be saved?” The answer is remarkable. “Believe in the Lord Jesus,” Paul and Silas tell him, “And you will be saved, you and your household.” Now, as it turns out, everyone in the jailor’s family was old enough to appreciate the message preached by the two disciples.

Yet Paul and Silas did not know this. They had not had conversation with the jailor before the earthquake. They did not ask him how old his family was. They didn’t even tell him that his family had to believe before being saved. The faith of the jailor, the head of the household, would have been sufficient to bring the entire family into the faith. It is a nice coincidence that everyone in his family was of the age of reason, but Paul and Silas were apparently not working on this assumption when they made the promise of salvation to the jailor’s entire family.

We see entire households being baptized numerous times in Scripture: 1 Cor. 1:16 (Stephanas), Acts 14:15-16 (Lydia), Acts 18:8 (Crispus), and Acts 10:47-48 (Cornelius). In Biblical times, a “household” included ones spouse and children, as well as any servants and their children.
For those who believe that baptism should be reserved to those who are of the age of reason, one of the most commonly cited proof-texts is Acts 8:12, which reads, “But when they [Samarians] believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” On face value, this seems to support adult baptism. However, just as in the case of similar verses (Acts 2:41), where many adults were baptized, we have to remember that the primary objective of the apostles was to convert the heads of the households, who would then return and have their families baptized at the newly established local churches.

Secondly, it is hard to miss that Acts 8:12 reads that “both men and women” were baptized, not “only men and women.” Why is this important? Remembering that baptism is a circumcision of the heart, we can understand that a first century Jew would have assumed that baptism was only open to males, as circumcision had been. However, Luke, in writing Acts, wanted to emphasize that baptism, the circumcision of the New Covenant, was open to both sexes, men and women. This is why the inclusive “both” is used as opposed to the exclusive “only”. Jesus came, not to abolish the Old Law, but to fulfill it. Thus, we are to follow the Old Testament types (in this case, circumcision) as they are modeled for us unless the New Testament develops the doctrine beyond that. While the New Testament is silent on forbidding children from this fulfillment of circumcision (of which they took part), it speaks to the inclusion of women.

If we are to speak where Scripture speaks and be silent where Scripture is silent, as our Bible-only friends like to say, then we must respect that Scripture has not spoken in prohibition of infant and children baptism. On the contrary, one of the most beautiful gifts of baptism is the infusion of God’s grace, which knows no age limit and isn’t restricted by some arbitrary “age of reason”.

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” Peter proclaims in Acts 2:38-39. “For the promise is made to you and to your children and to all those far off, whomever the Lord our God will call.” The promise is made to our children, and not just in the sense that they will one day, themselves, be adults. For Christ asked that the children be brought to him (Matt 19:42), and people responded by bringing even infants (Luke 18:15-16) forward for him to touch because “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

Christ touches us today, through the Holy Spirit in the cleansing waters of baptism. We are initiated into the Christian faith and receive the sanctifying grace that allows us to choose Christ over sin. For those who believe that baptism requires the ability to reason, one must reconcile with the fact that John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit while he still remained in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15), long before he reached the age of reason. Given this, should it seem so strange, if God can extend his graces to an unborn child, that he would do the same for our infant children through the sacrament of baptism?

Why Do Catholics Pray to Saints?

As my wife and I take walks with our children through the neighborhood, it is easy enough to identify some of our fellow-Catholics. The statues of Mary and (sometimes) St. Francis of Assisi are indication enough. I'd like to talk about our understanding of the saints, and in particular, the practice of asking for their intercession through prayer.

"Why do you Catholics pray to saints and Mary? Why can't you just pray to Christ, himself?"

These questions, ones which nearly all of us have been asked, have several foundational problems, not the least of which is the idea that prayer must be an either/or proposition. Either we pray to the saints or we pray to Christ. So, before exploring deeper, it is important to remember that our tradition is steeped in devotion to Christ, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. One of the problems when talking to non-Catholics, however, is with the definition of what prayer is. Typically, there are four types of prayer: thanksgiving, repentance, worship, and request. For sure, the first three belong exclusively to God. But what of the fourth?

Those who criticize Catholics for praying to saints have no problem whatsoever, with asking a co-worker, a family member, or a neighbor to "keep me in your prayers." After all, Scripture is very clear that the "prayer of a righteous man availeth much". God is pleased when we turn to one another and join together in our prayers. We are members of the same body of Christ (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:25-27) and of one another (Eph. 4:25), and the Church refers to this mystery as the "communion of saints".

Yet notice the contradiction. If I asked my Baptist friend to pray for me, he would never think of responding, "Why are you asking me to pray for you when you could spend that time praying straight to God." However, when we pray to saints, this is all we are doing. We are saying, in essence, "St. Joseph, I have a problem. Would you keep me in your prayers." Switch St. Joseph's name with that of any living relative, and the request sounds pretty normal, doesn't it? Let's apply some math. If I ask for Mary to pray for me - even though this takes a few moments that I could have prayed straight to God, himself, suddenly I have two people praying for my situation. And if I take a moment to ask St. Francis to pray for me - even though this takes a few moments that I could have prayed straight to God - suddenly I now have three people praying for me. Suddenly, for every prayer I've offered to God, I know that Mary and St. Francis have offered their own on my behalf, just as if I had walked around the office and asked my co-workers to pray for me.

It isn't that I am praying to the saints INSTEAD of Christ. Rather, we are all praying to Christ together, and for each person I ask to join me (whether living or dead), I have multiplied the prayers to Christ for that intention, not reduced them. And think about it - the prayer of a righteous man availeth much ... and who is more "righteous" than those who have already entered Heaven?

Scripture is full of examples of people interceding for others, and of God acting on one person's behalf because of the requests of another. Christ helps the wedding party (despite his inclination to remain private in his ministry) because of Mary's request (Jn. 2:3-5). In the Old Testament, the Queen Mother of the Davidic Kingdom serves as a counselor to the king (Prov. 31:8-9; 2 Chr. 22:2-4). Children have guardian angels who protect them (Mt. 18:10). Onians and Jeremiah intercede for the Jews before the resurrection (2 Mac. 15:11-16). Paul tells us to pray and make supplications for the saints (Eph. 6:18). The angel Raphael said, "I can now tell you that when you, Tobit, and Sarah prayed, it was I who presented and read the record of your prayer before the Glory of the Lord; and I did the same thing when you used to bury the dead" (Tobit 12:12).

But wait a second - its fine and good to say that praying to the saints is like asking our friends to pray for us, but aren't they dead? How could they hear us?

"As for the dead being raised," Christ says in Mk: 12:26-27, "have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God told him, 'I am the God of Abraham, [the] God of Isaac, and [the] God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead, but of the LIVING."

After we die, while our physical bodies must await the end of time, our spirits are very much alive in Christ. We are still part of the body of Christ. Some will object that only God is omniscient, so only he can hear all these prayers, but Scripture tells us that the saints share in God's divine knowledge (1 Cor. 13:9-12) and his divine authority and power (2 Tim. 2:12, Rev. 22:5; Rev. 2:26-28), and in the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19; 1 John 3:2). Saints can hear our prayers because God invites them into his beautific vision, and through his power, they are become that "great cloud of witnesses" that oversee all that we do (Heb. 12). We can see this most clearly in Rev. 5:13-14, when John writes, "And I heard every creature in Heaven and on earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, 'To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!'" Obviously the "elders", or saints, in Heaven also heard all of this praise from earth, because they fell down and answered, "Amen!" John, in his vision of Heaven, and the elders that resided there were made aware of the praise from all of existence through their closeness to God's omniscience.

In fact, despite objections to the contrary, there are actual examples in Scripture of the saints hearing and answering our prayers.

In Jer. 31:15-16, Rachel intercedes for her children after her death (Jeremiah was written hundreds of years after Rachel died, yet her "voice was heard"). Rev. 5:8 tells us that "the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each of the elders held a harp and gold bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the holy ones."

Now think about this verse from Revelation 5. The elders are offering up the "prayers of the holy ones". Some of Revelation is symbolic. I'm sure that the saints will not carry actual bowls of incense. However, the truth that shines here is that they are offering the prayers of others to God.

As Catholics, we must never be ashamed of the fact that, even after they have passed on, we embrace our fellow Christians. And we must never shy away from asking our brothers and sisters, these "righteous" men and women, to offer their own prayers to be joined with ours. On earth or in Heaven, they are part of the mystical body of Christ, and their intercession is part of God's plan for the unity of his communion of Saints.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Purgatory - Yes, It's Real!

One of the first objections with which Catholics are hit when we bring up Purgatory is this line:

"Well, I looked all through my Bible, from front to back, and I didn't see 'Purgatory' anywhere in there."

Ironically, this same objection comes from Christians who usually believe in words and phrases such as the 'Trinity', the 'divinity of Christ', 'altar calls', 'Easter' and 'Christmas', and 'personal Lord and Savior', all of which also appear nowhere in Scripture, from front to back.

Should this bother us? Of course not, because we understand that Scripture doesn't have to explicitly name a doctrine for it to be true. Some concepts are presented implicitly, which means that Scripture presents clues to which there can be no other conclusion. "Purgatory", after all, is just a word, but the concept is real enough and undeniably present in Scripture, as well as in the belief system of the early Christians. And not only is compatible with Christian doctrine, it is necessary for Christian doctrine, as we will see through this essay.

To begin, consider a wedding analogy. A new bride and her groom are standing before the priest, and as he is asking the bride for her vows, she seems distracted and distant. After the wedding, the groom asks her what the deal was. "Hank," she tells him, "You asked me to be your wife and I accepted. I will love you until death do us part ... but I just can't get my old boyfriend Hank off my mind."


Christ is our bridegroom, and when we become Christians, we accept his proposal of marriage. However, all of us are sinners and know that no matter how much we give ourselves to Christ, we still selfishly cling to earthly things, loving them more than him on occasion. Perhaps we love sleeping in more than we love Mass on some Sunday. Perhaps we love TV more than prayer. Yet, for a marriage to be truly perfect, we must be "purged" of these distractions to the love we have for our spouse.

Purgatory is not some second chance, as many mistakenly believe Catholics understand it to be. When we die, we are on our way to Heaven or to Hell. However, some of us will die still attached to those things of the flesh. While Christ made the perfect sacrifice for our sins, and while we have forgiveness for even the worst transgression, our sins damage our souls and body. If we sin once, say by indulging in pornographic material, it becomes easier to sin in that way again, even after God has forgiven us. If you doubt this (and I don't think anyone honestly could), talk with someone who has battled with an addiction, and he will tell you how giving in to the temptation once made it easier to do it a second time, and then a third, and then ...

Purgatory is the place where God, because he loves us so tremendously, allows us to break from our earthly desires and sinful attachments before entering into his glory. There are many who believe Purgatory to be a place of punishment and torture, which are misunderstandings of the strong Biblical imagery. Will there be suffering in Purgatory? Of course, just as there is suffering any time we break ourselves of something unhealthy. My body aches when I start an exercise routine, but it is a good pain because I know I am toning those muscles and reducing that fat. A drug addict sweats and shakes in a rehabilitation center, but this is a good suffering because it is a sign of the body purging itself of the poison and healing. Any suffering we feel in Purgatory will be the consequence of stripping from ourselves all that is unhealthy to our marriage to Christ.

We see the imagery in Scripture which points to suffering in these verses: Heb 12:5-6 "My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges." Peter 4:1 "[W]hoever suffers in the flesh has broken with sin" Prov. 20:30 "Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being."

Some object that Christ made the perfect sacrifice for our sins, so why should there be anything left to do? Purgatory, they insist, is an insult to his work upon the cross. Yet, the mistake here is in assuming that Purgatory is supplemental to Christ's work - something in addition. Rather, Purgatory is a manifestation of Christ's work - it owes its very existence to his redemptive act.

It should be pointed out here that Purgatory does not necessarily have to be a place. While it is a necessary dogma for Catholics (we must believe in it), the Church has never specifically defined its nature. It could be a state of being or an instantaneous process, something through which we pass on the way to Heaven. Remember, time will not mean the same thing in the hereafter as it does in this existence. Another important point is that not all of us will need to experience Purgatory. Surely some of us are working out our suffering here on Earth, such as might have been the case for the good thief who confessed belief in Christ before his crucifixion. Some of us might have completely stripped ourselves of earthly attachments and will have no need for this purging, such as is surely the case for many of our recognized saints.

One point that many non-Catholics make is that we are "clothed in Christ", and that there is no need for further cleansing after death. While it is true that we are clothed in Christ, Rev. 21:27 tells us that nothing unclean will enter Heaven. Christ doesn't simply intend to throw a tarp over our dirty bodies; he intends to make us holy and without blemish (Eph. 5).

And, as he is our bridegroom, I truly believe that, for those of us who go to Purgatory, it will be something we desire. Just as a bride wants to be pure and beautiful on her wedding day, we would want nothing less than to present ourselves in such a way to Christ. Just as the groom would be offended if she were still clinging to memories of “Hank”, Christ would be offended if our souls still clung to those things of the flesh that we should have left behind – our old “lovers”, so to speak. The word for this process of purification is sanctification, a belief that all Christians share. Even though we are forgiven for our sins, we are made Holy through the course of our lives, and if it is not complete at death, the process is finished in Purgatory.

But don't take my word for it. C.S. Lewis, the darling of Evangelical Christianity, also believed in Purgatory. In his book, Letters to Malcolm, he writes, "Our souls demand Purgatory, don't they? Would in not break the heart if God said to us, 'It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy'? Should we not reply, 'With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I'd rather be cleaned first.' 'It may hurt, you know' - 'Even so, sir.'

While all this is fine, we are ultimately left with the question of what, exactly does Scripture have to say about Purgatory? One of the classic texts can be found in 2 Maccabees 12:43-46, which states, “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they might be loosed from their sins” “Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.” Non-Catholics will often object that they do not consider 2 Maccabees to be inspired (though it is), they will surely admit that it is a historical document, which we can trust just as we would trust a non-inspired historical document to give us information about Lincoln’s presidency. Examining this ancient text, we see that it was a practice among Jews to pray for the dead. If the only possibilities after death were Heaven and Hell, this would make no sense. We have no need of prayer in Heaven and cannot be helped by them in Hell, so the prayers must be efficacious in some other place, which only leaves the possibility of Purgatory. For argument’s sake, should our prayers be beneficial for the dead (as instruments of God’s grace) the true tragedy of rejecting Purgatory, as many non-Catholics have done, is that they have missed the opportunity to offer prayers for so many friends and relatives who have already passed.

That said, the stronger verses can be found in any Bible you may pick up. Take Luke 12:42-48 for example. Here, in the parable of the three types of servants, when master returns on that "unexpected day" and "unknown hour", servant who obeys is rewarded; servant who disobeys is punished; servant who disobeys out of ignorance is punished, but only lightly. We see three fates here, one that is clearly symbolic of damnation, one of Heaven, and a third (light punishment) signifies a third place, which cannot be Hell because that is surely not a light punishment, nor Heaven where no punishment occurs.

A more powerful verse is 1 Cor 3:15 which is where Paul discusses how we must build on the foundation of Christ. Those who don't will go to Hell, of course. Of those who do, some will build with valuable materials and precious metals, while others will chose more common materials. Paul writes that each man's work will be tested with fire, and "If it [each man's work] is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames". Now, consider this - we are not saved in Hell, yet we suffer no loss in Heaven, so where is this place (or what is this "process") in which we suffer loss but are saved? Some non-Catholics argue that this verse simply refers to a glorification through which we pass in judgment. As Catholics, we agree. In fact, based in part on the Biblical evidence, we've recognized this all along. So much so that we've assigned it a name: Purgatory.

Despite the fact that a careful look at Scripture makes the concept of Purgatory necessary, some anti-Catholics still like to claim that it is a later "invention" of the church. This simply isn't true. In fact, even if we identify a certain council at which Purgatory was defined, we have to remember that church councils usually define doctrines only when they are being challenged. This doesn't mean that the doctrines are new, but rather that some group tried to challenge that teaching and the church, as a good parent, had to clearly reaffirm the truth of such a teaching. The truth is, Purgatory has been with the church throughout the centuries, from its earliest days. When we look at the writings of the early Christians, when the religion was at its purest, we see that the practice of praying for the dead was an important part of the early Christian church, which indicates that Purgatory has always been a part of Christian tradition. Prayers for the dead, after all, wouldn't benefit anyone in Heaven or Hell.

The word isn't in Scripture, but the concept is. What it finally comes down to is a willingness to admit it.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Personally Opposed

I've written before on Catholic "pro-choice" politicians (here and here), and given the last post on Senator McCaskill, I thought it was time to address the common defense given by such individuals, which is that they are "personally opposed, but cannot force that view on others."

This answer usually comes in tandem with a statement by such politicians that they believe in the teachings of their Church, but that these teachings cannot be used in determining legislation, otherwise we would be a theocracy.

Okay, so let's follow the logic and see where it takes us.

The Church teaches that life begins at conception. If a Catholic politician believes the teachings of his Church, he acknowledges that life begins at conception.

Therefore, he believes that abortion is the ending of this life.

This is murder.

So, in essence, what the politician is saying is this, "I am personally opposed to murder, but I will not impose my beliefs on others."

But other people might not agree with us that life begins at conception, you might argue.


Let's say that someone, of another faith or culture, believed that black people were less-than-human. Would any politician today get elected if he claimed that he was "personally opposed to slavery, but couldn't impose his views on others."

What about the man who believes (because of his religious convictions), that women are to completely subject to their husbands, even when they commit violent acts in marriage. Would a politician really get away with claiming that she was "personally opposed to spousal abuse, but couldn't impose that belief on others?"

If we believe that life exists, we must protect that life. Quite frankly, I have more tolerance for pro-choice politicians who are not Catholic than those who are. Because the ones who claim to follow the teachings of their church are either lying in that claim, or they are okay with allowing life to be destroyed simply to accommodate another view.

While on the subject, another argument I hear often for abortion and embryonic stem cell research is that "scientists disagree about whether it is truly life at that stage". To these people, who may not be Catholic, the arguments of the Church will hold little weight. I was in such a conversation recently.

It went like this:

Me: You acknowledge that some scientists, many in fact, believe that life begins at or shortly after conception.

Pro-Choice Friend: Sure, but there are scientists to disagree, so we don't really know.

Me: Okay, fair enough. Now, suppose you were getting ready to tear down a building. You had one expert telling you there were live people inside there who hadn't evacuated. You had another expert who disagreed. Would you just tear it down anyway.

PCF: No, I would make sure, first.

Me: Well, then, why are we tearing down the building with regards to early life when we have experts who think there are occupants in the building?

You would think this would have been checkmate. It was. This is why my pro-choice friend abandoned logic completely and closed with, "Well, then let's just tear down the building anyway."

This is why the abortion fight is so difficult for those of us who are pro-life. Logic isn't even allowed in the door.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

More Logical Fallacies

Following up my post on "begging the question", here are some more common logical fallacies that often pop up when discussing the faith with others:

Straw man – When someone sets up a “straw man” argument, he takes the opponents weakest argument (or creates it), and attacks it as though the entire foundation rests on that argument. An example of this would be if someone makes a case against confession to a priest by arguing that, if God knows everything and, therefore, knows my sins, it makes no sense to have to articulate them in confession. The reasons Catholics confess to a priest are much more substantial than (and have nothing to do with) informing God of our sins. This is a false, weak argument refuted to discredit a much more complex idea by ignoring the greater points.

Shotgun approach – In a shotgun approach, one throws as many arguments at his opponent as possible, knowing that it will be difficult, if not impossible for his opponent to answer them all (especially if there is a time restraint), implying that any unanswered challenges prove a weakness in the other’s position. For instance, upon discovering that you are Catholic, an ambitious anti-Catholic may launch into a tirade like this: "If you think the Catholic Church is in accordance with Scripture, where does the Bible tell about Mary being sinless, Mary not having other children, praying to saints, Purgatory, mortal sins, calling priests father, indulgences …" Each of the topics listed requires a serious and in depth study of Scripture. The challenge is designed to exhaust and overwhelm the opponent. Over a year ago, I was in an e-mail conversation with a preacher about infallibility. His protests were falling flat, and it was obvious that the Catholic truth was prevailing, so in a move of desperation, he sent an eight-page list of "proofs" against infallibility that he had pulled off various anti-Catholic sites, convinced this would overwhelm my attempts to respond. My first step (as should be yours in such a case), was to call his foul and inform him that, if his argument has merit, he shouldn't have to resort to tricks to make his point. Then, I shocked him by sending an eleven-page response, addressing each and every one of his points. In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have given his e-mail that dignity (it was a very weak piece of work) because it could have invited further shotgun attacks. In this case, however, he wrote back and said he needed more time for study on the subject and that he would get back with me. This was the last I heard of him.

False dichotomy – In a false dichotomy, one gives only two possibilities, and neither is usually very appealing, in order to force agreement with the more desirable. This approach, ignores, however, other legitimate possibilities: “You are either in support of this tax issue or you are against improving our highways.” The question precludes the possibility that their might be a means of improving the highways without a tax increase. In matters of faith, this fallacy often looks something like this: "Look, it comes down a simple question of whether you want to go by the Bible or to follow the traditions of men." There is another option, of course, which is to follow the Traditions of Christ that have been delivered once-for-all through Scripture and Tradition and have been preserved through 2,000 years by the Catholic Church, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Can Catholics Be Masons?

The following is the condensed text of a reply I gave to a recent convert to the Catholic faith who wanted to know if Catholics could belong to Freemason groups, especially because they do so much charity work for the community:

Canon Law number 1374, which is clarified by a Nov. 26, 1983, document signed by the man who is now pope, specifies that Catholicism is incompatible with membership in a masonic organization.

There are a few reasons for this. The first is that Masons have historically plotted against the Catholic Church and have aimed at its demise. While it may appear that today's American Mason groups do not have this goal, membership in a Masonic lodge requires a pledge of worldwide solidarity, and a Catholic cannot hold membership in an organization which aligns itself with enemies of the church that Christ founded.

Another reason is that Masonic oaths require a member to protect all the secrets of the Mason groups. Unfortunately, many of these secrets are not revealed until long after the oath has taken place, so by the time someone realizes they are contrary to his belief system, he has already bound himself by oath to protect and adhere by them.

Finally, the roots of masonry are pagan in origin, and most of its rites are built upon these roots. In fact, while as Catholics we believe in the divinity of Christ and the Trinity, Masonry requires belief in a generic "grand architect".

The Freemason meetings that are open to the general public are rather benign. Like with most fraternal organizations, much of what the masons believe is revealed only at higher levels of membership, only after one has taken oaths to protect that secrecy. In addition, higher levels of membership also requires participation in meetings which will be a bit more revealing than what they offer for the general public. Remember, as with any organization, the meetings that are offered to non-members are intended to be a hook into the organization, anything a person witnesses there will appear "completely harmless" so that prospective members are not turned off by the organization.

It is admirable that some want to get involved in charity work. Fortunately, a person does not need to be involved with the masons to do so. There are many civic organizations, like the Lions Club or the Elks Club, which do great charity work. In addition, the Knights of Columbus is a Catholic organization which does tremendous charity work.

The religious beliefs and practices that one must subscribe to in order to be a mason are reserved for committed, pledged members. Wanting to do charity work is simply not a good reason to compromise the integrity of one's faith by an organization which is contrary in beliefs and practices.

The community work that the Masons do is admirable, but this does not excuse adherence to their beliefs. Consider this analogy, the KKK also is known for community work - readers probably remember the controversy over their adopt-a-highway efforts. However, nobody would ever suggest that their service to the community is a good reason to join that "fraternal organization", considering how offensive their beliefs are.

Considering this, it is easy to realize the Church's problem. Even if many American lodges are fairly benign, if Freemason groups have at various points demonstrated anti-Catholic agendas, can we really expect the Church to explore each and every one, especially when faced with the problems of vows of secrecy? Is it not the more responsible position for the Church to ban membership outright, especially since, as you will acknowledge, one does not realize the deepest parts of commitment to a mason group until you have reached the upper levels of membership. Isn't this what a good parent would do?

For evidence of an anti-Catholic agenda from relatively recent times, the witness of the events in Portugal and Mexico when Freemasonry attacked the life of the Church in those countries should be sufficient for any Catholic to at least acknowledge that Freemasonry historically hasn't had a particularly benevolent attitude - to say the least - towards Catholicism.

Also worthwhile reading are the three encyclicals of Pope Pius XI responding to the Freemason attack on the Church in Mexico during his pontificate and continuing up to our present day:

The anti-Catholic roots of Freemasonry were in evidence in the violent attempts to overthrow the Church in Mexico, which led to many martyrdoms and expulsions from the country.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Questioning the Beggar

As my family got ready for the day last week, we had the morning news on. One story in particular sent me into a rant that nobody in my family particularly cared to hear. Actually, I don't even remember what the story was about (so I'll make that part up), but the part that got me was how the young reporter closed his commentary:

The city council decided that, though the project will provide a great source of recreation for the community, even though it will cost approximately 3.5 million ... which begs the question, "How exactly will that revenue be raised?"

As I said, the story is made up. No city councils that I know of are planning a 3.5 million dollar recreation project. No, it wasn't the content of the story, but the phrase in bold that pinched my nerve.

I guess it is because I'm an English major that things like this bother me. My wife, the accountant, gets worked up over an unaccounted for penny in our checkbook. I cringe at the misuse of a phrase like "begs the question".

Bear with me here - this will all tie into apologetics.

This reporter used the phrase "begs the question" to mean, "it raises the question", which is the way it seems that most people tend to use it anymore, much to the dismay of us language purists.

In actuality, "begs the question" is a logical fallacy, and this post is the first in a series in which I want to examine some of the fallacies that often come up when we attempt to share our faith with others. No matter how well we know the defense for the teachings of our faith, all of us have hit dead ends when the person with whom we are dialoguing throws us a question that just flies in the face of reason. If we aren't able to identify such an exit from the road to truth, our conversation will go down quickly.

To beg the question means to ask a question or make a statement that implies a conclusion, which the two parties have not yet resolved. For instance:

"Are you married to that dead-beat loser?"

"Why are you feeding your kids that poison each morning?"

In the first question, the assumption is that this person's spouse really is a dead-beat loser. Because the question is a yes/no proposition, the only possible responses are "yes, I am still married to that dead-beat loser" and "no, I divorced that dead-beat loser". Similarly, with the second example, the person asking the question is embedding the assumption that some breakfast cereal is harmful, whereas another mom may disagree.

Catholics are hit with questions that "beg the question" all the time, and many who are not able to identify the flawed logic often fall into its trap.

"Where is the word Purgatory written in the Bible?"

"Have you been saved?"

In each question an unresolved question has been "begged", that a church's teaching must be explicitly stated in Scripture (it doesn't have to be) and that salvation is a one-time, past-tense event (it isn't). When asked such questions, one must pause, step back and turn the tables on the person asking these questions. Rather than giving a lose-lose answer to the question on salvation, a better response might be to engage the dialogue with a question such as, "Can you explain exactly what you mean by 'being saved'?"

A lot of people beg the question completely by accident. They have been raised under the assumption that the Bible is the only authority for Christians (it isn't), for example, and just assume other Christians agree.

Others, however, know that their arguments lack integrity, but they use these methods anyway as quick ways of pulling people from what they see as false religions. This seems odd, though, as one would think that if a person believed strongly enough in his religion, he would be relying on truth rather than tricks.

And, as the reporter from the other morning would say, this begs the question: what exactly are they trying to hide?

Monday, April 9, 2007

Will the blind and deaf go to Hell?

A reader writes,

"What do you say (regarding salvation and entry into heaven) to those who ask ... "What about the blind, deaf and dumb person who cannot accept Christ?"

When you get to the nuts and bolts of it, this question is essentially the same that is often posed when claim that knowledge and acceptance of Christ is necessary for salvation. Someone will inevitably ask, "What about people who live in hard-to-reach tribes who, through no fault of their own, have never been preached to about Christ and his Church? Do they go to Hell?"

While some Christian churches may answer yes, to this, it has never been the position of the Catholic Church. While the Church teaches that acceptance of Christ (including all of his teachings) and participation in the sacraments are essential for salvation, she recognizes that God is not bound by this law and can extend the hand of mercy to those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of Christ.

This concept is called invisible ignorance, and the Catechism references it in paragraphs 847 and 1260. Now, it is important to note here that the concept is that ignorance which is "invincible", meaning that even with sufficient effort, a person does not have the resources or mental capability (or physical capability) to arrive at the same conclusions that we have within the fullness of the faith as Catholics. There must be an inherent desire to know God and to follow the moral teachings which he has written on each of our hearts (CCC 1860). When God, through his grace and mercy, allows such a person into Heaven, despite his never having been baptized, the Church refers to that individual as having been "baptized by desire".

Note - this teaching does not excuse those who refuse to hear one word about Jesus or the Church. It is not our place to judge them, which means we cannot assume they are on the way to Hell, but it also means we cannot "judge" that they are on the way to Heaven. We can hope that God will work a miracle in their hearts before death, but we must accept our responsibility to continue evangelizing to those around us.

So ... as for the individual who is deaf, blind, and dumb (which means "mute" in the context of the reader's question), we can rest confidently that God, through his mercy, sees past this person's handicaps and hope that, should that person have a sincere desire to know God, he too can rejoice with us for eternity in Heaven.

Indulging Ourselves

A reader writes,

"I would really like you to address this whole issue of Plenary Indulgences. I would like to believe in them but I really struggle with them. The fact that I make so many first friday masses I will reduce my time in purgatory or if I do a divine mercy chaplet from Good Friday to Easter Sunday will relieve me of all my sins during that time just doesn't sit right. Like I said, I want to believe this but I am really struggling with it. Please clarify this whole issue if you would."

First off, it is important to understand the nature of sin, including the two consequences of sin. The first of these consequences, of course, is that we have offended God, and we must obtain forgiveness from him. In the case of mortal sins, this can only happen in the sacrament of reconciliation, which Jesus Christ established. Those who believe otherwise are kidding themselves. If we do not reconcile with God, there is an eternal consequence, which is eternity in Hell.

Secondly, however, we have caused
temporal damage to our relationships with one another and with God (and with ourselves). Our goal in life, the definition of spiritual maturity, is to completely break any hold that worldly attachments have on us and to turn one-hundred percent to God. However, every time we sin, even in a minor way, we give a part or ourselves to something "of the flesh". God has forgiven us, but we have given part of ourselves over to something that is a distraction to him, whether it be impure thoughts, greed, or laziness, etc.

I sometimes use the analogy of a wedding. Imagine a young couple at the altar. Though the wife promises to love the husband, she goes through the entire ceremony thinking about her past boyfriends. In our wedding feast with God, he does not want us distracted by thoughts of our past "loves", those sins we turned to time and time again.

This is why, when we sin, not only do we need forgiveness, we need to "drive and train" our body to reject those sins in the future, and this comes in the form of penance or, if we die before accomplishing this, Purgatory. When we sin once, it so damages us spiritually that it is easier to sin again, so we must consciously chose righteous acts (such as the penance of three Hail Mary and two Our Father prayers the priest might assign us) to recalibrate our conscience. Think of it this way, if we fell into a bad habit of eating too much unhealthy food, we would need a lifestyle change of diet and exercise to correct this, and like penance, it might be uncomfortable sometimes.

Indulgences come as a result of us choosing righteous acts, such as prayer and Scripture study. Because such acts are a sign of turning
toward God, he recognizes our attempts to detach from the temporal desires, so he relieves us of the temporal consequences of our actions.

A lot of people think that indulgences are an "abuse" of the church from the time of Luther, but this is incorrect. What happened during this period was that, rightfully so, indulgences were granted for alms-giving. After all, if someone gives to the poor, using money that he could spend on selfish desires and for which he worked hard to obtain, isn't this a good and righteous act? However, one can see how abuses could creep in, which is what happened in this time period.

Another misconception, as mentioned in the question, is that indulgences knock off so many "years" of Purgatory. First off, we do not know enough about Purgatory to even say if actual
years are involved. So, when the Church speaks of relieving X number of years from Purgatory, this is saying that one can relieve, through an indulgence, the temporal punishment in Purgatory that would be equal to that many years of penance during earthly life.

One last thing worth mentioning on indulgences is that, as a member of the body of Christ, our sin affects all the parts of that body, which is why we are offending more than just God when we sin (there is no such thing as "private" sin) and another reason we confess to a priest, who stands also as a representative, not just of God, but of the entire human race. Likewise, when we chose righteous acts, God can reward us from the "treasury of satisfactions", which have been realized by the great saints in our Church's history, and he effects this through the power to bind and loosen given to the Church.

There is much to be said about indulgences, which are an infallible teaching of the Church, which means that Catholics are bound to believe in them. For the sake of keeping this post reasonable, I would like to refer readers to some great articles on the subject which have appeared in
This Rock, a magazine put out by Catholic Answers.

Primer on indulgences
Myths About Indulgences
How to Gain an Indulgence

Monday, April 2, 2007

In-Vitro Fertilization - Is It Really Wrong?

The tank pictured here contains frozen embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization.

This is probably one of the most difficult Church teachings to discuss with others for two reasons. For one, almost everyone knows a relative or close friend who has had trouble conceiving and has pursued, successfully or not, in-vitro fertilization. Secondly, unlike with contraception, which is a rejection of life, couples who use in-vitro fertilization are doing the opposite – attempting to welcome a new life into the world and into the love of their family.

Catholic couples that use in-vitro fertilization often do so without even realizing that the Church speaks against it (Catechism No. 2377). Rather, these sincere men and women are following what they perceive to be the Christian principles of being fruitful and demonstrating the love of Christ.

For that reason, this explanation isn’t meant to be judgmental toward any who have tried or who have succeeded with this method of fertilization. Children conceived in this way are still children of God, and these couples should be admired for their desire to bring life into the world (at a time when so many view children as a burden). At the same time, through a close examination of in-vitro fertilization, one can see that it is an immoral means to that end. A father, for example, may desire to put food on his family’s table. There is a moral means of doing this (working an extra job and cutting back on expenses) and an immoral means (robbing a bank). We must not fall into the trap of having the end justify the means as we attempt to discern morality.

On the other hand, we have to honest about the fact that there are some who are aware of a church teaching, but chose not to follow it anyway. “It’s just a man-made rule,” they may argue. We know, of course, that Scripture is very clear in stating that the leaders of the church have been entrusted to shepherd the flock (John 12), that these leaders had the power to bind and loosen (Matthew 6), and that the Holy Spirit would guide them to all truth in executing this power (John 6). When the church speaks on a given issue, we are called to trust in the guidance of God – that he would not have established a Church that would lead us astray in issues of morality.

Before examining in-vitro fertilization, it should be pointed out that there are many morally acceptable means of assisting couples that are having difficult conceiving. NaPro Technology (Natural Procreative Technology) has been very effecting in helping struggling couples to identify physical obstacles to conception – obstacles that can then be treated medically. By extension, then, medical steps, such as fertilization drugs and egg-stimulation are fine as long as they do not propose a danger to the mother and child that is disproportionate to the benefit of the treatment. Given the surprising fact that less than 45% of infertile couples benefit from in-vitro fertilization (after much expense and stress), the following factors with this method testify to the intrinsic immorality of this method:

1. It bypasses the marital act – The church opposes contraception, of course, because the primary ends of intercourse are procreation and unity. Contraception destroys both of these (which is why the birth rate is so low and the divorce rate is so high among couples who contracept). We cannot remove either the possibility of life or the complete self-giving from the marital act without consequently removing its inherent sanctity. Likewise, once we understand that children are a physical sign of their parents’ love, it becomes clear that we must not have conception without the sexual act – the act of unity. Secular society has done a good job of convincing us that we are owed children, which we see in the number of same-sex couples and single individuals who undergo artificial insemination. Sometimes couples are unable to conceive, even with the assistance of modern medicine. This is a truly sad fact of life. However, the act of baby-making is sacramentally tied to marital act. Just as the Father and the Son love each other so completely that a third eternal person, the Holy Spirit, spirates forth, a husband and wife are called to love each other so completely that a third human person is conceived. We mustn’t use this as a reason to upset God’s plan for marriage and procreation.

2. It violates the exclusivity of the marital covenant – Marriage is a covenant between two individuals, a husband and wife. As explained in the last paragraph, children are a sacramental expression of that mutual and complete love. When a third party, such as a fertility doctor, enters into the act of conception (and actually completes the act of conception apart from the couple in a laboratory setting), the exclusivity of the marital covenant is violated. It is one thing, a perfectly acceptable thing, for a doctor to assist through medicine or surgery – the couple must still complete the marital act independently of his assistance. In-vitro fertilization makes the husband and wife secondary and passive participators.

3. It uses an immoral means – Masturbation, of self-love, is inherently evil. By simulating the sexual act, it makes a mockery of act of intercourse. Masturbation is necessary for a doctor to collect sperm for in-vitro fertilization. Of course, the goal here is not selfish self-pleasure on the part of the husband, but we have to remember that an immoral means is not justified by the end in mind.

4. It manufactures life – As explained above, children are meant to be a sacramental sign of his parent’s love. For conception to take place in a sterile laboratory setting at the hands of a man or woman in a white coat is perversely oppose to the idea that conception should take place between a husband and wife in the intimacy of their bedroom. When we allow children to be “manufactured” in this way, this adds fuel to the desensitizing of our society toward life. We must not allow any slack in the fight to hold onto the sanctity of life. If children can be manufactured simply because they are desired (as opposed to being a sign of the unbreakable bond between husband and wife), can they not be disposed of when they are not desired, such as we see in abortion?

5. It creates frozen embryos – Anytime something is “manufactured”, there are discarded or defective products. In the process of in-vitro fertilization, not just one – but numerous embryos are created. Actual human children are created, but not implanted in the mother. Some of them are destroyed. Some of them are frozen and kept in that state as long as someone will provide financial support. For every child who is conceived through in-vitro fertilization, there are a number who have been discarded or stored away. If for no other reason, in-vitro fertilization should be opposed because of the casual way in which newly conceived human life is abandoned in the laboratory.

6. It results in a higher number of birth defects - Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, writes, “Studies have shown a six-fold elevated risk for in-vitro fertilization for children contracting an eye disease called retinal blastoma versus normally conceived babies. In-vitro fertilization is very unnatural. You’re extracting ova from the woman, culturing them and inspecting the developing embryo in a laboratory setting. They are in a completely unnatural environment for a very long time before they are put back into the womb.”

Too Many Rules?

I heard the comment recently that the Catholic Church has invented too many rules. This person was implying that she wanted a simple "love Jesus" Christianity.

Has the Church "invented" too many rules?

Or have we just "invented" too many sins?

As all Christians agree, our primary "rules" are to love God and to love our neighbors. If we did this perfectly, we wouldn't need any other rules, but our nature as creatures of the flesh mean that we keep straying and each rule of the Catholic Church is simply a way of addressing a new sin (or distraction from Christ) that we've invented.

Consider a marriage (which is appropriate considering who our bridegroom is). The one rule in a marriage is love your spouse. However, should the husband start failing in that duty, it might, over time, appear that the wife is too legalistic.

He starts sleeping in and missing work - she comes up with a rule that, if he loves her, he'll start getting up on time so the paycheck keeps coming home.

He stops giving her attention, so she comes up with the "rule" that he should say "I love you" once in a while.

He starts letting his dirty clothes lay all over - so she comes up with a "rule" that he needs to put his clothes in the hamper.

After a while, that husband might complain that his "legalistic" wife has too many rules, but in reality, he has invited too many imperfections into his love for her.

Likewise, the rules of the church are there to address the thousands of ways we keep coming up with to show less love for Christ. We don't respect the Eucharist, so the church asks for an hour fast. We start sleeping in on Sundays, so the rule is that mass is an obligation.

If we just loved Christ so perfectly that our every act was an expression of our love for him, all rules would go away. If we desire for the Church to stop inventing rules, perhaps we just need to stop inventing sin.

Necessity, after all, is the mother of invention.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

More Catholic than the Pope

First off, I have to apologize for stealing the title for this post from a book on schismatics by Patrick Madrid. However, it seemed like the appropriate title for this question, which came as a follow-up to my "In Hell on a Meat Rap" post (scroll down):

A reader writes, "A friend always tells me that it isn't much of a sacrifice when you go to fish fries and eat till you are full. What is your response?"

The rules for fasting and abstinence during Lent certainly are more relaxed than the Church might have required in the past. In the ancient times, some groups could be found who would abstain from all food until evening, and then only a small meal without meat or alcohol. One only needs to look at the number of days of obligation that have been "joined" with the nearest Sunday to get a sense that things have been relaxed a bit for us contemporary Christians, and perhaps this is an explanation for why the rules of Lent have softened.

Or ...

Perhaps another reason has to do with the rationale for lifting the abstanance requirement for Fridays during ordinary times (see "In Hell on a Meat Rap" below). Many mistakingly think that when the rules on ordinary Fridays was lifted, the Church has stopped viewing them as penitential days. Actually, the bishops (particularly in the US) decided that the act of penance might be more meaningful if each individual decided for himself what sacrifice to make. Rather than giving up meat on a Friday (outside of Lent), it might be more appropriate for me to give up my morning tea or to spend my lunch hour in private prayer rather than socializing.

During Lent, we are asked to abstain from meat and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but only abstain from meat during the other Fridays of that season. However, Catholics are also asked to make personal and personalized acts of penance. Some of us give up sweets or television. Others give up their free time for acts of charity or join Bible studies.

The important aspect is that these acts are voluntary. In lifting the rules for abstanance on Fridays outside of Lent, the U.S. bishops wrote in the document "On Penance and Abstinence" (Nov. 18, 1966), "Our deliberate, personal abstinence from meat, more especially because no longer required by law, will be an outward sign of inward spiritual values that we cherish."

Shouldn't the same hold true for us during Lent? Suppose a woman just cannot live without her morning coffee. Would that not be a great sacrifice for her to go without it during Lent? And considering she did this voluntarily, out a genuine love for Christ and a sincere desire to unite herself with his sufferings, doesn't that make the sacrifice even more meaningful?

So she enjoys a fish fry on a Friday evening. Does this negate her personal sacrifice and the prayerful attention she has given to Christ during Lent? What about the man who skips lunch as his personal sacrifice? Is it wrong for him to eat until he's full at supper that evening?

Are there some Catholics who are a bit more lax than others? Perhaps some who give up nothing of any significance at all? Sure, but to recognize that fact just doesn't seem to justify the blanket assumption that everyone who goes to a fish fry isn't making "much of a sacrifice". Do we, after all, have a personal account of each individual's voluntary sufferings and charitable acts?

I guess it's easy enough to sit at home on a Friday night and have a bit of contempt for anyone who doens't appear to be living up to our own moral standards, but in the end, I think we'll just find ourselves in a dangerous extreme. Just as there are those who don't take Lent very seriously, there are those on the other end who tend to be "more Catholic than the Pope" and more Catholic than everyone around them in the pews. For instance, it is great if I decide to say a rosary each night of the week and spent an hour in perpetual adoration every Wednesday, but is my Catholic neighbor any less of disciple of Christ because he doesn't live up to that standard? Am I slacking behind the woman who has two hours in the chapel and prays the liturgy of the hours (and her evening rosary)?

Or, in the end, is it best not to become the Lent police and to worry, instead, about my own personal sacrifice, assume the best of those around me. Perhaps I want to have a grilled cheese and a glass of water for supper on a Friday night because it seems like the right sacrifice for me. But if the guy next door, the one who volunteers at the homeless shelter during Lent, wants to eat at the St. Andrew fish fry on a Friday evening, and in doing so fellowship with dozens of his fellow Catholics who had the same idea, then God bless him.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

In Hell on a Meat Rap

Once upon a time, Catholics had the derogatory nickname "mackerel snappers" because it was church discipline that we would abstain from meat every Friday of the year (not just during Lent, as we are accustomed to doing now). It was, in fact, considered grave sin (and mortal sin if full consent and knowledge are involved) to violate this church law. In the sixties, that discipline was relaxed in the United States (surprise, surprise). As for how Catholics should view Fridays outside of Lent, you can find an interesting discussion here.

However, the fact that it is no longer a grave sin to eat meat on Fridays outside of Lent has been a frequent means of attack against our claims to truth as Catholics who point to it as a "changed" teaching. Comedian George Carlin, a fallen-away Catholic, asked during a rant against the Church, what happens to "some guy doing eternity in hell on a meat rap?"

The short answer is this: There isn't one person (nor has there ever been a person) who is in Hell on a "meat rap".

The other short answer is this: George Carlin doesn't have a clue.

Perhaps if Carlin had spent as much time studying the teachings of the Church, he would still be receiving the body of Christ instead of spitting at it so often. He's looking for a punchline, and possibly at the expense of his soul. However, there are those (including our Protestant friends) who are genuinely misinformed about the teachings of the Church. I've had a number of conversations, often with preachers of other faiths, who point at the Church's rule change regarding meat on Fridays and see it as proof against infallibility.

First off, we need to understand the difference between a dogma and a discipline. Teachings of the Church that are based on the public revelation, given once-for-all during the apostolic period cannot be abolished or changed (though they may be developed over time, such as has happened with the Christian definition of the Trinity). A male-only priesthood, the perpetual virginity of Mary, and the divinity of Christ, for instance, are dogma. We do not have the option to disbelieve these teachings, and the Church will never change its mind on them.

On the other hand, the Church was established by Christ to shepherd over His flock and to act in a parental role (hence calling priests "Father"), and any parent knows that sometimes children need temporary rules to address certain cultural situations. These are called disciplines. Unlike dogma, disciplines can change. They can disappear and be revised at the Church's will, depending on her perception of the need for that discipline. Disciplines include the celibate priesthood, abstaining from meat on Fridays, and the rule that Catholics cannot join Masonic lodges.

But like with dogmas, we do not have the option to disregard disciplines. I can't count how many times I've heard people dismiss some rule of the Church with the cavalier, "Oh, that's just a man-made rule." First off, even "Bible-only" Protestants shouldn't have a problem with disciplines. There are examples of them in Scripture, after all. One in particular is when Paul stresses in the eleventh chapter of the first epistle to the Corinthians that women must wear head coverings. Yet, today almost no Christian Church, Protestant or Catholic, requires this. Even the non-instrumental Church of Christ, perhaps the most militant "Scripture alone" church on the block, will often dismiss this as a cultural rule, applying to that specific community during that specific time.

Yes, we agree. It's called a discipline. And in the model that Paul sets, the Catholic Church has been setting them, with God's approval, for 2,000 years.

But see, the rules of the Church can no more be dismissed than could Paul's exhortation to Corinth. After all, in Luke 10:16, Jesus tells the leaders of the Church that whoever rejects them rejects God. In Matthew 16 and then again in Matthew 18, he tells them that whatever they bind or loosen on earth is bound or loosened in Heaven. In John 21 Jesus tells Peter three times to feed his sheep after his ascension.

In these and other places in Scripture, Christ is deputizing the leaders of his Church, especially the leader of the apostles, Peter, and his successors (and we know what happens when we disobey a deputy).

And when we disobey a "man-made" rule, if that rule was made by the authority of Christ, which was vested in the leaders of the Church, we are essentially telling Christ that our judgment is better than his. That he made a mistake by putting these men in charge of us. That the Church he establish was a flawed institution.

We are, in fact, committing the same sin as Adam and Eve, who ignored God's warning not to eat from the tree and decided (under the temptation of Satan) that they knew better than he did. There is nothing inherently evil about a piece of fruit, after all, but there is something inherently evil about asserting that we are superior in intellect to God.

Likewise, there is nothing inherently evil about meat or consuming it on Fridays, but there is something gravely sinful in telling the Holy Spirit-guided Church and the Pope which heads it that we know better. Just like a good parent might decide a child has to take a vacation from TV for a while, Holy Mother Church has the parental authority to set up disciplines that might steer us from our earthly attachments and help us focus more on Christ. And would any of you let your children disobey your rules because they are "man made"?

Adam and Eve were not banished from the Garden on a "fruit rap".

Nor is anyone in Hell on a "meat rap".

But there might be (who am I to know) plenty of people in Hell on an I-will-make-up-my-own-rules-and-to-Hell-with-the-Church-and-its- God-vested-authority rap.

And, to answer George Carlin's question, they would still be there today.

While we're on the subject, by the way, I don't think it would be such a bad idea, despite a change of discipline in the Church, if the word got out that ordinary Fridays are still days of penance within the Church (many are under the impression that it just went away). Again, for a detailed discussion of that, see the link in the first paragraph. In my opinion, it wouldn't be such a bad thing if we voluntarily moved back to a stricter observance of the significance of Friday.

If nothing else, it would more clearly define our Catholic identity at a time when the cafeteria folks are trying so hard to water it down.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I think it'd be kind of cool to be called a mackerel snapper again.