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.