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.