Questions Catholics Ask

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More questions...and responses

Don’t we have to obey what the church teaches, or be kicked out?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Saturday 15, April 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Catholic school teacher
Teaching is not about imparting abstract truths written in stone but awakening an appreciation for the rules that govern reality.

The phrasing of this question suggests a difficult academic experience! The church’s role as teacher, expressed as magisterium, describes the church as “master” in the school of faith. But who, precisely, holds this authoritative position? Thomas Aquinas applied the term magisterium to the university professor (master of a given subject) as well as to the bishop. Our present understanding limits the teaching role to popes and other bishops, who in turn rely on Scripture and tradition.

Most of us are lulled by our past schooling to equate teaching with telling—and not listening as grounds for failure or even expulsion. “I am teacher, hear me impose!”, as a professor once summarized. This relationship to the teacher/headmaster presumes that teaching is a matter of laying down the law or the truth. If teaching is merely telling, then what the bishop says, rules. Not submitting is therefore a kind of crime with consequences that match the severity of the offense.

The Old Testament word for law or commandment is also understood as guidance. Law dominates from a higher position; guidance operates as a benevolent companionship—like the fellow holding the lamp just ahead so you can find your way on the footpath. This fellow may call out instructions—“Avoid the thorny branches on the left!”—because if you don’t, there will be consequences, some costly. Yet this fellow’s not out there to identify and punish your failures along the route. His intent is always that you make your way safely.

“Teaching is a real-world intervention,” as professor Molly Hiro notes. It’s not about imparting abstract truths written in stone but awakening an appreciation for the rules that govern reality. History is full of competing truths that have led along some pretty dark routes. When the church teaches, it shines light on the path to assist our discernment of the morally secure way. Just as in mathematics, not all rules are created equal. Some bend, others are unyielding. It takes practice and experience along the path to know which is which.

When Augustine reflected on a more biblical relationship to law, he arrived at this conclusion: “Love, and do as you will.” If love truly does shape and inform our will, then we can safely follow it. The church describes this condition as “the informed conscience,” the highest authority to which we must answer. This doesn’t mean we should ignore the fellow with the lantern, calling out from his long mastery of this road. Love is the subject he’s mastered, and it’s the lamp he shares with us.

Scripture: John 8:31-32; 13:34-35; 14:6; Romans 13:8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:4—13:13

Books: The Church, Learning and Teaching: Magisterium, Asset, Dissent, and Academic Freedom – Ladislas Orsy (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1987)

With the Smell of the Sheep: the Poe Speaks to Priests, Bishops, and Other Shepherds – Pope Francis (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017)

How do I reconcile patriotism and faith? Sometimes it feels like dueling citizenships!

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Saturday 15, April 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
American flag
Our greatness as a nation doesn’t have to come at the expense of our goodness as a community.

Is there anything wrong with wanting our country to be the best, the first, the greatest? Of course not. Most of us have a natural loyalty to the land of our birth, as well as to any later adopted country. I think of my grandparents, three of whom were born in Europe. They were the most enthusiastic U.S. boosters you can possibly imagine, and no one celebrated the Fourth of July like they did. Yet they also spoke wistfully of the old country: about the communities, customs, and languages they surrendered to come here. Citizens of two places, they held allegiances to both. Yet it would be wrong to say their hearts were divided or in any way compromised by these loyalties. They each had very clear reasons why they had chosen the difficult path of immigration.

Is it any different for us who count ourselves as citizens of this world AND the kingdom of God? In this case, we’re not talking about geographic territories, but alternate realms with often competing values. For example, in your country a thing may be legal that is nonetheless immoral to a Christian. So yes: we must acknowledge that sometimes our values as citizens of countries are on a collision course with Christian values that compel us in a primary way. That may make us conflicted; it should. When values collide, we’re obliged to choose among loyalties, which is never that simple.

Back to wanting to be the greatest: Is this idea in conflict with the spirit of the reign of God, in which the last will be first, and the meek shall inherit the earth? I don’t think one could sell many hats that say “Make My Country Meek.” But I do think Christians need to ask the question: What is the basis for my country's greatness: For what should my country be great? For whom? For ALL residents, or just some? ONLY for my country, or for the common good of the international community that shares this little planet? Our greatness as a nation doesn’t have to come at the expense of our goodness as a community. It doesn't have to come in a limited, materialistic, or military sense; and only for an exclusive number of approved citizens. This interpretation of greatness is obviously in conflict with the great goodness of God. When such conflicts happen, it does require us to consider, which citizenship do I value more: that of my country or that of God's kingdom?

Scripture: Genesis 12:1-3; Isaiah 2:2-5; 49:6; Matthew 5:1-16; Luke 6:20-36; Acts 3:25

Books: Politics, Religion, and the Common Good – Martin E. Marty (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000)

On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good – Jim Wallis (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2013)

Our priest cancelled Saturday Vigil Mass, citing Dies Domini and pastoral necessity. Is this valid?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Saturday 01, April 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Liturgy
Saturday evening Mass
The Saturday evening Mass isn’t a Vigil, but an anticipatory Mass for Sunday.

This column isn’t designed to challenge local pastoral decisions, which can be more complex than they appear. But let’s start by clarifying terminology for the nitpickers: the Saturday evening Mass isn’t a Vigil, but an anticipatory Mass for Sunday. On Saturday night, we use the same Scripture readings and prayers prescribed for Sunday. So the Saturday evening 5 p.m. liturgy IS a “Sunday Mass,” liturgically speaking.

Vigil Masses have distinct texts, or “Propers,” associated with them. Vigils are approved for: Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension Thursday, Pentecost, St. John the Baptist, Sts. Peter and Paul, and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mother. When you attend Vigil Masses, the readings and prayers are different from (though thematically related to) those used on the feasts themselves.

Dies Domini (“The Lord’s Day”) is a 1998 Apostolic Letter from Pope John Paul II "to the bishops, clergy and faithful of the Catholic Church on keeping the Lord’s Day holy.” It affirms the important role of Sunday in the life of the believer, and the vital part Eucharist plays in the context of the Sunday Sabbath. It expresses concern that the significance of a Sabbath day not be obscured by the separation of the celebration of Eucharist from the traditional morning observance.

Does Dies Domini address the validity of attending a Saturday anticipatory mass? Yes. #49 of the document states: “Because the faithful are obliged to attend Mass unless there is a grave impediment, Pastors have the corresponding duty to offer to everyone the real possibility of fulfilling the precept. The provisions of Church law move in this direction, as for example in the faculty granted to priests, with the prior authorization of the diocesan Bishop, to celebrate more than one Mass on Sundays and holy days, the institution of evening Masses and the provision which allows the obligation to be fulfilled from Saturday evening onwards…”

“Pastoral necessity” refers to the modern reality that many Catholics need to work on Sunday in order to provide for their families. Because of this, it becomes pastorally necessary to provide an opportunity for people to celebrate the Sunday Eucharist during non-working hours, specifically Saturday evenings. To my knowledge, there’s no impediment preventing a person who doesn’t work on Sunday from attending the Saturday anticipatory Mass. Nor have I met many pastors eager to have the greeter do a “necessity check” at the church door on Saturday nights.

Scripture: Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:8-11; 31:12-17; Deuteronomy 5:12-15

Books: Dies Domini: Apostolic Letter – Pope John Paul II (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000)

“Anticipating the Sunday and Feast Day Masses on the Previous Evening,” Instruction on Eucharistic Worship. Sacred Congregation of Rites (Washington, DC: USCC, 1967)

With the recent opposition to Muslim immigrants, I wonder: Were Catholics always welcomed here?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Saturday 01, April 2017 Categories: Church History
Catholic/Muslim
The intention of the Know-Nothing Party was to curb the Catholic population—which required keeping the Irish, Polish, Italians, and half the Germans from emigrating. Image: New York Times.

Definitely not. The original American Dream didn’t include “Romish” or “Popish” adherents. In pre-colonial times, of course, a strong Catholic presence seemed likely. Of the three powers claiming New World territory, Spain was officially Catholic, with church and state operating in unison. Spanish regions such as Florida, Texas, the Southwest, and California were colonized by soldiers and missionized by priests almost seamlessly. France also exported Catholicism by means of Jesuit missionaries throughout the Louisiana Territory. 

However, the English presence in the Northeast assumed control of the American narrative in generations leading up to the Revolution. The Mayflower and subsequent ships brought all manner of Christian sects seeking freedom from the Catholic influence. Except for Maryland, the colonies were decidedly Protestant.

British law left its mark on the colonies. Public Mass was forbidden. So were Catholic schools. Catholics in Maryland were obliged to send their children to Europe for an education, since local schools were predominantly run by ministers whose biases were expressed in classroom worship and the curriculum. During the Revolutionary War, George Washington had to request special permission to permit Lafayette and his men access to priestly ministry. After independence was declared, only one Catholic signature was affixed to the document: Charles Carroll, whose brother John would become the first U.S. bishop.

Opposition didn’t disappear after the new country was launched. The Know-Nothing Party was a secret society established a half-century later. Adherents received their peculiar name for their refusal to admit any knowledge of their organization. Their intention was to curb the Catholic population—which required keeping the Irish, Polish, Italians, and half the Germans from emigrating. They lobbied for a 21-year ban on immigration. Members were responsible for church, rectory, and convent burnings, and published scandalous accusations against church leaders. They also launched a presidential candidate, Millard Fillmore, in 1856. The Know-Nothing Party was replaced by the American Protective Association, which pledged to keep Catholics out of elected office, to curtail immigration, and to lengthen the period before naturalization. At its height, the APA had more than a million members and was influential until 1911.

Scriptures: Leviticus 33-34; Exodus 15:15; Deuteronomy 10:17-19; Job 31:19-22; Jeremiah 7:5-7; Malachi 3:5; Matthew 25:31-46

Books: The American Catholic Experience – Jay P. Dolan (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985)

American Catholicism – John Tracy Ellis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969)

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Is Pope Francis the first Catholic leader to address the environment?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Monday 06, February 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

Environment
The beauty of creation is a long-appreciated path to knowledge of God. 

While Catholics may seem late to the topic of ecology, Pope Francis was not being a maverick with his widely heralded (and in some quarters, loudly denounced) encyclical, Laudato Si’. In 1988, Philippine bishops had already produced a pastoral letter titled: “What Is Happening to Our Beautiful Land?” Pope John Paul II spoke on the World Day of Peace concerning “The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility” in 1990. U.S. bishops followed with a statement of their own in 1992: “Renewing the Earth.”

Of course, Saint Francis of Assisi was all about preserving the harmony between us and the natural world in the 13th century. Even the birdbath saint was beaten to the game by Hildegard of Bingen a century earlier. Fourth-century Augustine was earlier still, with his lengthy commentaries on Genesis and Creation. Benedict of Nursia followed suit in his attentiveness to creation in the 6th century, though he’s remembered mostly for his monastic rule. As fellow creatures, we have a lot invested in our stewardship of this planet. Our role as Gardener-in-Chief is well established in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

To appreciate the scope of church teaching on the environment, it’s necessary to consider documents that aren’t explicitly about ecology. For example, in 1991 Pope John Paul II wrote Centesimus Annus to mark the century since the issue of Pope Leo XIII’s bold social teaching, Rerum Novarum. In it, the Pope criticized scientific advances that come at the expense of the environment, as well as the toll of warfare, and the disparity of adverse environmental impacts on poorer communities.

What makes it seem like Catholics have ignored the green movement is the otherworldly emphasis of our public profile—and in some cases, a genuinely imbalanced focus on the life of the world to come among some Catholics. Such imbalance is corrected with a renewed appreciation of a few long-standing teachings. The common good, for instance, maintains the good things of the earth belong to all of us. This includes the right to live in a safe environment, whether poor or rich. At the same time, the poor are not to be cut out of progress and development; therefore, ways to sustainable development must be found that serve all. The value of solidarity further insists we must act with other nations to achieve what’s beneficial to global health. Finally, the beauty of creation is a long-appreciated path to knowledge of God. To lose it is to lose a source of profound communion.

Scripture:

Genesis 1:1—2:15; Psalms 8, 19, 104, 148; John 1:1-5; Romans 8:18-23; Colossians 1:15-20

Books: 

Option for the Poor and for the Earth: From Leo XIII to Pope Francis – Donal Dorr (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016)

Living Cosmology: Christian Responses to Journey of the Universe – eds. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016). This includes a book, documentary film, and conversation series.

Do all Christians basically agree on the purpose of baptism, Eucharist, and ministry?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Monday 06, February 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Sacraments
Christian unity
The bishops see much that’s mutual, but not enough for Christians to share Eucharist together.

Such agreement is crucial to hope for Christian unity. Many find hope in the 1982 documents, “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry.” BEM, for short, was produced in Lima by the World Council of Churches—a 348-member organization including most denominations you’ve heard of: Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Mennonite, and Quaker. The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t belong to the WCC, the rationale being that the Church of Rome IS the Church. Joining an organization that renders us one “church” among equals sends the wrong message.

BEM was a work in progress since 1928. The resulting documents have been closely studied by the U.S. bishops. Here’s a short summary of their assessment. BEM on Baptism has much to be admired. Its teaching on Baptism as a cleansing from sin, gift of the Spirit, incorporation into the Body of Christ, all in the name of the Trinity, is sound. BEM recognizes Baptism’s “unrepealable” nature. It describes it as the foundation of, but no substitution for, a life of faith—a nod to both infant and adult baptism.

The bishops’ takeaway: BEM needs work in treating the Spirit’s and the church’s role in Baptism. The unity of all sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist) should be clarified. The BEM distinction drawn between infant baptism and “believer’s baptism” (for adults) is an “unfortunate” phrase. But a movement toward a formal mutual recognition of Christian baptisms is plausible.

Regarding Eucharist, BEM calls it a “thanksgiving, memorial, invocation, communion, and meal of the kingdom.” BEM churches agree with Rome that frequent celebration of Eucharist is desirable. They concur that the entire Eucharistic celebration, not a single “moment of consecration,” makes Christ really present. BEM rightly stresses the social and ethical dimensions that travel with us from the Table to the world.

The bishops would like to see more about how the nature of the church is a direct result of our Eucharist; clarification of how Christ is present as spiritual food; how Christ remains present even when the sacrament is reserved, as in the Tabernacle. The bishops see much that’s mutual, but not enough for Christians to share Eucharist together.

BEM views Ministry as the vocation of all Christians, while holding a distinct place for the ordained kind. It acknowledges the apostolic origins of bishop, presbyter, and deacon. U.S. bishops agree on “interdependence and reciprocity” between the laity and the ordained. They await more clarity on the uniqueness of ordination, its relationship to sacramental ministry, particularly in the forgiveness of sins. Finally, the ordination of women remains a sticking point between BEM and Rome. Reason to hope for unity? Yes. But not for holding your breath.

Scripture:

Mark 6:34-44; 14:22-25; Matthew 16:18-19; 28:19-20; John 6:22-58; Romans 6:3-11; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; 12:1-31; 1 Timothy 3:1-13

Websites:

World Council of Churches site for entire BEM text:

http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/documents/commissions/faith-and-order/i-unity-the-church-and-its-mission/baptism-eucharist-and-ministry-faith-and-order-paper-no-111-the-lima-text?searchterm=bem

USCCB site for bishops’ statements regarding BEM:

http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/ecumenical-and-interreligious/ecumenical/orthodox/statement-lima-baptism-eucharist-and-ministry.cfm

What is natural law?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Thursday 05, January 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Natural law
Natural law remains a fundamental principle in Catholic moral teaching today.

Natural law is the principle that there are higher truths than those dictated by societies and their institutions. It claims these truths are embedded in the natural order of creation. This tradition originated in the Roman Republic with thinkers like Cicero, who reacted against Aristotle’s fierce support for the state centuries earlier. Aristotle had held that society was justified in subjecting women, slaves, and barbarians since they were incapable of moral judgment. Proponents of natural law held that all humans were moral beings; therefore institutions of subjugation were unjust. It was a radical proposition to take back then! 

Natural law adherents admitted that government, while “unnatural,” was a necessary force in society to ensure the protection of the weak from oppression by the strong. Church fathers like Augustine would embrace natural law to express just war theory: that while killing was a moral evil, in certain circumstances it was a necessary action to protect the weak.

For many centuries, natural law was wielded by reformers as much as by conservative factions. In the Middle Ages, however, thinkers began applying these ideas to questions of personal morality as well as to social institutions. Sexual and medical choices were scrutinized according to their biological fittingness. Aquinas was less likely to consider natural law in terms of social systems as Augustine used it.

By the time of the Enlightenment, natural law had bifurcated. Philosophers based the doctrine of universal human rights on its principles and urged political reforms that would incorporate this ideal. Catholic thinkers utilized natural law almost exclusively in terms of personal morality. The Catholic position contrasted the natural design of creation with “the unnatural”—against God’s directive and therefore beyond argument.

Natural law remains a fundamental principle in Catholic moral teaching today. At its best, it admits the existence of universally binding moral principles that all humanity might embrace by reason alone. Yet many modern theologians are uncomfortable with a complete capitulation to a law that admits no conversation with Scripture or expanding church tradition. What’s in and what’s outside the immutable boundaries of natural law continue to be hotly debated.

Scriptures: Genesis chapter 1; Exodus 20:1-17; Psalms 8, 19, 104, 119; Proverbs 1:20—2:22; 9:1-12; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Matthew 5:3-12, 17-20; John 1:1-5, 14; 3:31-36; 14:15-27; Hebrews 8:7-12; 10:16

Books: Searching for a Universal Ethic: Multidisciplinary, Ecumenical, and Interfaith Responses to the Catholic Natural Law Tradition –eds. John Berkman and William Mattison III (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014)

Catholic Moral Theology and Social Ethics: A New Method – Christina Astorga (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013)

Some of my friends view belief in God as anti-intellectual.

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Thursday 05, January 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Faith versus reason
Faith and reason spring from the same created reality and are in this sense mutually dependent on divine revelation.

The relationship between faith and reason can seem complicated, but is not contradictory. I admit when I was in college, I went to the Newman Center with the same agenda. It seemed there were two camps on campus: the Christians and the thinkers. I went to the priest to find out if it were necessary to choose between the two, which I was not at all comfortable doing.

The priest pointed me toward something wonderful—the rich Catholic intellectual tradition. I learned a valuable teaching from Vatican I: there can be no contradiction between faith and reason, since God is the author of both. Faith and reason spring from the same created reality and are in this sense mutually dependent on divine revelation. This may sound strange, since we think of revelation as a mysterious process involving heavenly apparitions and miraculous unfoldings. Yet talk to a researcher uncovering a new principle concerning the way time operates, or how the human brain functions. Revelation is a word not inconsistent with that scientific seeker’s experience.

If something is discovered to be true, therefore, it cannot be an obstacle to faith. Faith must expand to admit what is true. This explains why the same church that once condemned Galileo’s teachings as a threat to religious belief had to apologize and restore Galileo’s integrity as a Catholic thinker in the long run. God is truth, and truth cannot deny itself.

Needless to say, it would have been better if church leaders hadn’t rejected Galileo to start with! Frequently the obstacle to embracing truth is our faith in our own fallible perception, rather than faith in God.  It takes courage to remain open to the possibility that we’re wrong in our present opinions, comprehension, and vision. More recent popes have viewed science as a partner in the quest for truth rather than an adversary to religious faith.

Two positions are unhelpful to those who think and believe. One is fideism, the other rationalism. Fideism imagines that all truth drops from heaven unaided by human activity. Moral principles are to be accepted and incorporated without nuance, reflection, or relationship to other avenues of knowledge. Fideists don’t want to argue, they just want to imbibe right principles. Rationalists believe all truth can be apprehended and judged by human reason alone. Religious ideas improvable by scientific means are deemed irrelevant if not invalid.

Scriptures: Job 38:1—42:6; Psalm 8; Isaiah 55:6-9; John 1:1-4; 14:6; Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 13:9-12; Hebrews 11:1; 1 John 1:1-4

Books: The Bible and Science: Longing for God in a Science-Dominated World – Vincent M. Smiles (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011)

Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think – Elaine Howard Ecklund (New York; Oxford University Press, 2010)

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How did the veneration of relics get started?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Tuesday 29, November 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Prayer and Spirituality
Mother Teresa relic
A relic of Saint Teresa of Calcuttaa drop of her bloodat St. Ita Catholic Church in Chicago.

A relic is an object kept in tribute to a holy person. Some relics are body parts such as bone chips or teeth. Others are items once belonging to the person, most often snips of clothing. Catholics aren’t alone in collecting relics. Other religions like Buddhism employ them. People of faith backgrounds that permit it keep cremains of loved ones in an urn on the mantle (See here for Vatican instruction on Catholic burial, cremation). I have a shirt that belonged to my dad, which I still wear. Relics are a traditional way of keeping in touch with someone special.

Catholic relics are as old as the church. Martyrdom was a frequent if not typical cause of Christian death. The faithful collected the martyrs’ remains, often in pieces, for secret burial in places like catacombs. When available, the instrument of death was spirited off as well. Think: relics from the True Cross. Christians gathered at martyrs’ tombs to celebrate Eucharist. When the persecutions finally ceased, churches were erected on the gravesites. Christians considered burial near a martyr a privilege. A tug-of-war over these bodies became typical; some were exhumed and re-interred on the properties of those who could afford it. In the Middle Ages, Crusaders pilfered lots of relics and carried them to Europe.

Relics were catechetically useful. They spurred interest in the saint whose virtues might be imitated. In 410, a council in Carthage ruled that saints’ shrines had to contain authentic relics or be destroyed. In 767, a Nicaean council determined that every altar must contain a relic or Mass could not be celebrated on it. This decree echoes the original practice of celebrating Mass on the graves of martyrs and is upheld in current canon law (no.1237). Exceptions are made today for portable altars such as those used in wartime.

Selling relics has always been forbidden. Church law says significant relics can’t even be moved around without express permission from the Vatican (no. 1190).

Attributing magical powers to such items is considered an abuse, but the tendency to be superstitious about holy objects is not unknown in the modern church. From the Holy Grail to the Shroud of Turin, the curious and the credulous will always find a less than edifying fascination with such objects. Church teaching draws a distinction between proper and improper veneration. Worship belongs to God alone. Even if a saint should appear suddenly in an apparition, human honor is the limit of our tribute.

Scripture: The Bible regards holiness as a divine attribute communicable to people, places, and things (e.g. Moses’ shining face, the Ark and its sacred utensils, the Temple’s Holy of Holies.) The topic of relics, specifically, is not treated. But see 2 Kings 13:20-21; Mark 5:25-34; Acts 5:12-15

Books: Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics – Thomas Craughwell (New York: Image Books, 2011)

Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe – Charles Freeman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012)

Why do we worship in buildings instead of in God’s beautiful creation?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Tuesday 29, November 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

Church building
The word temple means "to be cut from": to be separate from ordinary use and reserved for sacred encounter.

The fixed sanctuary of meeting between God and mortals is an old concept. Your instinct is correct that creation seems perfect for the job. Sacred space is meant to display the cosmos in miniature: a unified center where heaven, earth, and the underworld intersect. Just as mountains reach into the heavens, and roots push deep into the soil, the holy place conjoins the three anciently acknowledged realms. The achievement of this unity is evident in the designs of temples, cathedrals, pyramids, ziggurats, pagodas, monoliths, and even the towering sacred trees venerated in northern lands.

As in many religions, the Judeo-Christian tradition regards this design as divinely supplied. So Moses gets the blueprint for a sanctuary from God at Sinai, as does King Solomon for the Jerusalem temple. Ezekiel receives a revitalized one in a vision after the first temple is destroyed. John at Patmos envisions the Lamb as an incarnate temple in the reign of God at the end of time. In these episodes (which have parallels across ancient cultures), the leader or seer is given precise measurements for the job, including careful attention to the worship space’s orientation toward nature’s four directions and often including a source of living water. Other traditions incorporate architectural elements to interact with the sun and moon, and the seasonal calendar. The design of sacred space always acknowledges the superiority of God’s world design and is not intended to replace it, but rather to celebrate it.

Attention is likewise paid to the meaning of creation, and not just its patterns. The story of creation—again, in our biblical tradition and in other world religions—is a triumph of divine order over primordial chaos. Sacred geometry is therefore strictly observed in these designs, which explains the astonishing exactness of many structures from antiquity, as well as the patience of builders who begin a cathedral which none of them will see completed.

The word temple means "to be cut from": to be separate from ordinary use and reserved for sacred encounter. Our word contemplate reflects the understanding that contemplation is an activity enhanced by the temple, and also that the temple’s mysteries ideally reside inside the worshipper as well as around him or her. Jesus epitomized this understanding when he identified his own body with the Jerusalem temple. Paul repeated this teaching when he called each believer a temple. The more we consider sacred space, the more it can teach us.

Scripture: Genesis 28:10-22; Exodus 25-31; 1 Kings 5:15-7:51; Isaiah 28:16; Ezekiel 40-47:12; Matthew 16:18; John 2:13-22; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; Revelation 21:22-22:5

Books: The Temple: Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth – John Lundquist (London: Thames & Hudson, 2012)

How to Read a Church: A Guide to Symbols and Images in Churches and Cathedrals – Richard Taylor (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press/HiddenSpring, 2005)

What are Catholics to believe about the Antichrist?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Friday 21, October 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

Fires of hell
Technically Antichrist is not a proper name, but rather the description of any power in the universe opposing God’s anointed (hence, anti-Christ).

Antichrist is a term found only in the first two Letters of John in the New Testament. Technically it’s not a proper name, but rather the description of any power in the universe opposing God’s anointed (hence, anti-Christ).

The Book of Daniel contains earlier biblical references to an apocalyptic monster known as the fourth beast. This terrifying creature appears in direct opposition to “one like a son of man”—a human being who is God’s special champion. The Book of Revelation later retrieves the son-of-man figure and identifies him with Christ. This pits Christ against the beast of Revelation associated with the number 666. This beast is clearly anti-Christ, though the term isn’t employed in either context.

Other references both in and out of the New Testament are corralled into the Antichrist category: Belial or Beliar, Gog and Magog, the ruler of this world, the lawless one, the deceiver. Some would include Old Testament anti-God figures such as Rahab the dragon, Leviathan the sea monster, or the Satan who plays adversary in God’s court. All are allusions to figures sufficiently arrogant to challenge the purposes of God. The Antichrist litmus test in John’s letters is unwillingness to pledge belief in God and Christ “in the flesh.” This test is directed at Gnostics, who viewed Jesus as a sort of divine mirage, not a human being. To John, anyone in the Gnostic camp is anti-Christ.

Paul warns against a “man of lawlessness” who would claim to be divine. Christians throughout history have deemed this figure THE Antichrist and have pointed him out in their own generations: Nero, Caligula, Arius and his followers. Martin Luther viewed the papacy as a likely candidate for the Antichrist. He wasn’t the first: as early as the 13th century, Catholics themselves wondered if popes such as John XII didn’t fit the bill.        

The notion of Antichrist became useful to medieval preachers, who rightly declared every sinner contains a spirit that counters Christ. Literature of the period drummed up backstory for the Antichrist: born of a human couple by demonic power, his biography is a mirror-image mockery of the story of Jesus complete with counterfeit miracles. Movies like “The Omen” play on this idea that a child will arrive at the end of time and inaugurate the full horrors of Revelation. Most Catholic scholars would say there’s no need to wait. A spirit in contradiction to Christ inhabits every generation. 

Scriptures: Isaiah 51:9; Pss 74:13-14; 89:11; Job 1:6-12; 26:12; Daniel 7; 8:23-25; 9:27; Mark 13:22; Matthew 24:24; John 12:31; 2 Corinthians 6:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10; 1 John 2:18-23; 4:3; 2 John 7-11; Revelation 13:1-18; 20:8

Books: Who Is Satan? According to the Scriptures – Joseph F. Kelly (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013)

Sacra Pagina; 1, 2, and 3 John – John Painter (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016)

How can I understand and explain the Catholic position on contraception?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Friday 21, October 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Affectionate couple
In 1965, the unitive value of intercourse was embraced along with its procreative meaning in Catholic teaching. The right and duty of couples to responsibly limit the size of their families was accepted; a distinction was drawn between natural and artificial means of doing so.

Start with two basic teaching tools: That life is a sacred gift from God. And that the family is the primary social unit and what happens within it is of great social consequence. Hang onto these ideas as you reflect on the history below, which demonstrates the evolution of these principles in regard to contraception.

Until the 20th century, the church viewed procreation as the sole meaning of sexual activity. Sex designed to prevent a life, therefore, was an obvious contradiction of its meaning. Ethicist James Hanigan identifies six developments that made this perspective less obvious to many. First, 18th-century biology studied the human reproductive system well enough to prevent pregnancies artificially. Next, sociology pointed to a population explosion in a world with limited resources. Third, political valuing of the dignity of the person as a free chooser rose in the social consciousness. Fourth, as family farms gave way to factories, economic burdens increased with the number of children. Fifth, the contemporary recognition of women as full persons led to aspirations beyond traditional roles. Finally, a reappraisal of the significance of sexuality in human identity led to an acceptance of the unitive meaning of sexual activity.

Modern popes have shown a desire to acknowledge these factors while not abandoning fundamental teachings about life and family. In 1965, the unitive value of intercourse was embraced along with its procreative meaning in Catholic teaching. The right and duty of couples to responsibly limit the size of their families was accepted; a distinction was drawn between natural and artificial means of doing so. Pope Francis reiterated this teaching in 2015, noting Catholics weren’t compelled “to breed like rabbits.” Exceptions regarding the use of artificial contraception have been introduced three times: in the 1960s, Pope Paul VI approved birth control for religious sisters exposed to the risk of rape in the Belgian Congo. In 2010, Benedict XVI noted that condoms used by prostitutes to prevent the spread of AIDS could be seen as a moral choice. In 2016, Pope Francis cited Benedict’s teaching in declaring that women endangered by the Zika virus might use birth control as a responsible choice.

Church teaching in 2016 illustrates how popes are still listening and nuancing: “The just way for family planning is that of a consensual dialogue between the spouses, respect for the times of fertility and consideration of the dignity of the partner.” (Amoris Laetitia #63) 

Scriptures: Genesis 1:27-28; 2:18-24; Ruth; Song of Songs; Ephesians 5:25-32 

Books: Just Ministry: Professional Ethics for Pastoral Ministers – Richard Gula (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2010)

Theology of the Body for Beginners: A Basic introduction to Pope John II’s Sexual Revolution – Christopher West (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2009)

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How is it determined that someone is a saint?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Sunday 11, September 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints
Mother Teresa
The common thread in all of these saintly lives is that they were lights along the way to Christ for others to follow.

Canonization, the process of adding a name to the canon of saints, has been a formal procedure in the church since the 13th century. Informally, the church has noted saints (“holy ones”) since the first generation, when such recognition was given to martyrs. Those who died for belonging to Christ, even if flawed individuals, earned the claim of “no greater love” since they did indeed “lay down their life for a friend.”

Sainthood was soon extended to confessors: those who defended and suffered for the faith even if not murdered for it. The category opened next for those who gave their testimony in lives of austerity and penance—living martyrs known as white martyrs in contrast to those defined by the color of their blood. Those who taught Christian doctrine with insightful new clarity—doctors of the church—were admitted to the circle of sanctity, along with evangelists and models of heroic virtue who spread the faith by word or deed. A reputation for miracles never hurt.

The common thread in all of these saintly lives is that they were lights along the way to Christ for others to follow. Their lives “corresponded with grace,” as James McGrath puts it, as if grace were a lifelong dancing partner with whom they came to share perfect synchronicity.

The process discerning that synchronicity has gone through various phases. Originally a saint was simply locally declared as such. Needless to say, unsubstantiated accounts of largely or entirely fictitious lives worked their way into the canon: Saint Christopher medals, anyone? Saint George fought a dragon? Church authorities began intervening in the process in the 6th century, but the first papal paperwork to be filed on a saint was for Saint Udalricus, a German bishop, in 973. It wasn’t until 1738 that Pope Benedict XIV wrote a treatise on the proper way to discern and attest to sainthood. His guidelines became part of canon law and were observed until the revised Code of Canon Law in 1983.

Church teaching is cautious in its claims about the saintly canon. It reminds us the church doesn’t make saints: God does. The church, through the work of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, simply acts to lift up some of these holy lives to the world for contemplation and imitation. Saints can intercede for the world as well. They’re useful lives on both sides of eternity.

Scripture: Matthew 27:51-53; John 15:12-17; Ephesians 4:11-24; Philippians 1:9-11; 2:13-16; 3:12-14, 20

Books: Saints: Men and Women of Exceptional Faith – Jacques Duquesne (Paris, France: Flammarion, SA, 2012)

Making Sense Of Saints: Fascinating Facts About Relics, Patrons, Saint-Making, and More – Patricia Ann Kasten (Huntingdon, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2014)

What can we expect from the Vatican Commission on women deacons?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Sunday 11, September 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Clergy
Women of the early church
What’s at stake: not the idea that women might have been deacons once upon a time. We already know they were.

The Commission was formed to address a question Pope Francis frankly admits he doesn’t have the answer to: can women be deacons? What the Commission will do is study the history of female deacons in the church. What it won’t do is determine what the Pope will do with the information. As some will recall from 20th-century study commissions on birth control and women’s ordination to the priesthood, popes are free to reject the findings of such commissions and go their own way. The guy in Peter’s Chair gets to make the call.

Which is not to say the appointment of this commission is unimportant. Earlier popes, including most recently John Paul II, not only rejected ordained ministry for women at any level: John Paul emphatically said the church has no authority to ordain women. By calling a commission together, Francis suggests that the church may find such authority buried in historical precedent.

What’s at stake: not the idea that women might have been deacons once upon a time. We already know they were. The record is clear, from Paul’s letters to church history, that the church employed female deacons as early as the year 55. Paul calls Phoebe a deacon (not deaconess) in Romans 16:1. In 1 Timothy 3:8-12, after a description of what makes for a good male candidate for diaconate, the letter states: “Women, similarly, should be dignified ... temperate and faithful … .” The next sentence continues the description of the ideal deacon. It’s evident both male and female candidates made viable deacons.

What the Commission will seek to determine is whether women deacons were “ordained” or “installed” to their office. It makes a difference to the sacramental character, if any, of their service. Here, lines are drawn in the sand. Some scholars insist the rites of diaconate for men and women were identical as evidenced by existing materials. Others disagree. Still others say it doesn’t matter whether the rites were the same; what matters is how they were understood. The differences in service rendered by male and female deacons are less clear to some scholars. Others question whether past practice must dictate present needs. A bishop was once required to be “the husband of one wife,” according to 1 Timothy 3:2. That’s no longer true. The church evolves. For the moment, it’s up to Francis: is it time for the church to restore the women’s diaconate? And how?

Scriptures: Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:2, 8-12

Books: A New Phoebe: Perspectives on Roman Catholic Women and the Permanent Diaconate – ed. Virginia K. Ratigan and Arlene A. Swidler (Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1990)

Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions about the Diaconate – Phyllis Zagano (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012)

Women Deacons? Essays With Answers – Yves Congar, et.al. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016)

Who were the women at the cross?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Wednesday 03, August 2016 Categories: Scripture,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Church History

Who were the women at the cross?

The women who were present at the crucifixion of Jesus are an intriguing mystery. Several were named Mary. In the shared tradition of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the women don’t approach the cross. They stand "at a distance," probably for the usual reasons: Women tried to be invisible in public. And they would have reason to fear their treatment by Roman soldiers.

Mark, who writes first, doesn’t give us a precise number of how many women looked on from a distance. He names only three: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome. While not an original disciple, Mark offers an account reputed to be from Peter. Only John's late gospel records specifically the presence of Mary, mother of Jesus. All the women there, according to Mark, had been with Jesus since Galilee.

The names James and Joses provide a clue about one of the Marys at the cross. These men are mentioned elsewhere in Mark among four "brothers of Jesus"—possibly cousins of some degree. This makes their mother an “aunt” of Jesus, present to comfort his mother. Mary may have been a family name, the way I have four relatives named Paul. John’s account lists a Mary identified by her husband Clopas rather than by sons. Both Marys could be the same person.

Like Mark, Matthew references four brothers/cousins of Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. In Hebrew, "Joseph" and "Joses" are the same name. At the crucifixion, Matthew mentions James and Joseph as sons of a certain Mary. Matthew verifies the presence of Mary Magdalene and also the mother of Zebedee’s sons James and John. To harmonize Mark and Matthew’s narratives, Mark’s Salome is often identified as Zebedee’s wife.

In Luke’s crucifixion story, the Galilean women are described among "acquaintances" of Jesus standing at a distance. None are named. 

John locates the women directly at the foot of the cross. His list includes the mother of Jesus, his mother's sister, Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Without punctuation in the Greek, however, it’s not clear whether Mary wife of Clopas IS the sister of Jesus' mother, or two separate women. John says Jesus gives his mother into the care of a beloved disciple. Tradition claims this is John, making him the lone male disciple present. Other scholars identify Mary Magdalene as the beloved disciple who took Mary home, since only women are known to have remained near the cross.

Scripture: Mark 6:3; 15:40-41; 16:1; Matthew 13:55; 27:55-56; 28:1; Luke 23:48-49, 55-56; 24:1-11; John 19:25-27; 20:1

Sources: The Characters of the Crucifixion – Joseph Fichtner, OSC (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000); The Passion and Death of Jesus (DVD and audio CDs)– Raymond Brown (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press/ Ewloe Clwyd, Wales: Welcome Recordings, 2015)

Is the Bible infallible?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Wednesday 03, August 2016 Categories: Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs
Is the Bible infallible?
Biblical truth is sometimes a matter of historical record, but always a matter of revelation.

The reliability of Scripture is an important issue. Let’s start with a basic Catholic position: The Bible is true. And some of it really happened. In other words, our understanding of Scripture has to address not only whether it’s true but how it’s true. Biblical truth is sometimes a matter of historical record, but always a matter of revelation. These texts were produced to impart the lived tradition of believers. If you trust in the God of Israel and commit to the way of Jesus, the Bible is a primary means of exploring the truths of your faith.

Does this imply that the Bible contains no mistakes? Obviously, ahistorical sections won’t necessarily square with “the facts” as we appreciate them archaeologically. Plus the Bible’s pre-scientific origins frequently betray a sense of the world we moderns flatly reject. The ancients’ lack of concern with historical method and complete innocence of scientific principles place sacred texts like Scripture in the category of mythos, or “higher truth.” This creates a dilemma for modern folk, who rely on science to “tell us the truth” about reality. Our ancestors used storytelling to convey what’s genuine and reliable.

Should we expect discrepancies between the cultural and scientific sophistication of writers who lived 2,500 years ago and today? Absolutely! Nonetheless, antique perceptions of the world don’t jeopardize the sacred writers’ transformative revelation: that God is creator, redeemer, and sanctifier of us all.

Vatican II explained the Bible’s validity in this way: "The books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures" (Dei Verbum, 11). This careful statement underscores that the truth we need for our ultimate rescue from sin and death is entirely and safely transmitted by these sacred stories.

Catholics view Scripture as a collaboration between inspired authors and the Holy Spirit. Wherever human beings are involved, naturally, human limitation can’t be far behind. Early church fathers such as Origen and Augustine accepted biblical inaccuracies and literary exaggerations as a natural feature of God’s full partnership with the sacred authors. Thomas Aquinas accepted “something imperfect” in any prophetic work for the same reason. Acknowledging pre-scientific miscalls and literary license is a far cry from insisting the Bible must either be inerrant or bogus. For believers, truth is bigger than history or science.

Scripture: Baruch 3:36-37;John 1:1-3, 14; 14:6; 20:30-31; Romans 1:19-20;2 Corinthians 4:6; Ephesians 1:9-10; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-2; 2 Peter 1:19-21; 3:15-16

Books: The Inspiration and Truth of Sacred Scripture – Pontifical Biblical Commission (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014); Biblical Fundamentalism: What Every Catholic Should Know – Ronald Witherup, PSS (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001)

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Can Catholics practice yoga?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Tuesday 05, July 2016 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality,Doctrines & Beliefs

Yoga

Full disclosure: I’ve been taking yoga classes on and off (mostly off) for 30 years. Fuller disclosure: I’m lazy and this is the closest to exercise I’ve ever come. So I admit I’m stunned whenever the suitability of yoga for Christians comes up. My first yoga teacher from 30 years ago is today a well-respected Catholic priest. My current teacher is a devout Russian Orthodox woman whose 40-day fast during Lent put my wobbly lenten observance to shame.

Those who are suspicious of yoga quote the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue’s document: Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life. This text considers New Age beliefs in a discerningly critical light, and I agree with its principles. As a catechist I don't espouse New Age religion, and as a former librarian I know quite a bit about how flakey and narcissistic New Age teachings can be. Religion loses something vital when reduced to a spiritual selfie. On the God quest, God necessarily displaces the ego as the center of meaning and authority.

The anxiety about yoga seems to reside in its origins in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jainist spiritual practice. Nobody seems anxious that the Olympic Games began as a religious festival honoring the Greek god Zeus. Catholics who borrow the Sedar celebration from Judaism during Lent don’t fret about whose faith it properly belongs to. Contemplation is a prayer form that Thomas Merton shared with Buddhists with no apparent harm done.

Is yoga a valid form of prayer for Christians? The Catechism of the Catholic Church (especially #2697-2719 on "The Life of Prayer") offers a good understanding of what Christian prayer is and is not. So, while many fishermen, mountain climbers, and camping enthusiasts tell me they find God in these activities, the Catechism makes it clear that the experience of physical fitness and enjoying nature, while good in themselves, are not the same thing as praying or worship. This means Sunday morning is for Mass; put on your running shoes later.

A distinction might be drawn between restless Catholics who go to ashrams to explore alternative spiritualities to their faith, and folks who do yoga or tai chi at the gym for the exercise. I go to church to express my Catholic Christian relationship with God. When I leave church, I seek to bring the encounter with God everywhere I go. To the laundromat, the grocery store, and yes, to the gym.

Scripture: 2 Samuel 6:14-15; John 8:31-32; Romans 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Books: Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice – Thomas Ryan, CSP (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001); Holy Goals for Body and Soul: Eight Steps to Connect Sports with God and Faith – Bishop Thomas Paprocki (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria, 2013)

Where can Mass be celebrated?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Tuesday 05, July 2016 Categories: Sacraments,Liturgy,Doctrines & Beliefs
Saint Ita Catholic Church in Chicago

The Eucharistic celebration is called “the source and summit” of our faith—both the origin and epitome of what we believe—in church documents. The Table of the Lord, AKA the altar, is at the center of our lives as Catholic Christians. Everything we do emanates from that starting point.

So where that celebration takes place is of no small consideration. According to the General Instructions for the Roman Missal (GIRM 288), the People of God normally gather in a church. When the local building is too small for the assembly, as for a papal Mass, another “respectable” setting (auditorium or stadium) can be employed. Another lovely provision is this: “sacred buildings and requisites for divine worship should be truly worthy and beautiful and be signs and symbols of heavenly realities.” So all that floor polishing and statue dusting my mother does in her home parish with her friends is canonically approved.

Canon Law (n. 932) specifies that Mass is to be celebrated on a dedicated or blessed altar, as well as in a sacred place—unless “necessity requires otherwise.” Necessity has made the hood of a Jeep into an altar in wartime; wooden pallets or crates can be fashioned into a vineyard altar for farm workers; a hut can serve as a chapel in mission lands. In lands where Mass is prohibited, the celebration can be held in hidden places like mines, caves, or tents. Leading youth groups on hikes, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla (Saint John Paul II) celebrated Eucharist on a flat boulder in the woods. In any setting, the traditional cloth and corporal should be used to designate the table or surface commandeered for divine service.

Here’s a surprise: When the cause is just and with proper approvals, a priest can also celebrate Mass in an ecclesial community or church structure that is not in full communion with the Catholic Church “so long as there is no scandal.” (n. 933) The aforementioned scandal might include the confusion that results if some did not appreciate the difference between, say, the Lutheran host church and the Roman Catholic liturgy being offered. Such time-shares are often necessary when a Catholic church has been damaged or destroyed by natural disaster, terrorist attack, or military forces. The bottom line is that sacred space with an attention to beauty and respectful worship is the norm for Mass. But even more important than the venue is the necessity to make the Eucharist available to all under every circumstance.

Scripture: Mark 14:22-24; Luke 21:5-6; 2 Corinthians 4:7-11; 5:1; 1 Peter 2:4-6

Books: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011); The Liturgical Environment: What the Documents Say – Mark G. Boyer (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015); The Ministry of Liturgical Environment – Joyce Ann Zimmerman (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016)

I've been told Catholic devotion to saints contradicts what the Bible says about graven images.

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Wednesday 15, June 2016 Categories: Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Golden calf

Let's talk about that. Someone knocks on your door and presents you with some Bible passages: Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 5:8-10. They advise you to take down your Madonna and Child statue and to stop wearing your St. Anthony medal. Does the Bible view these objects as dangerous or even blasphemous?

In the first of the Ten Commandments, the passage reads: "You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them." This command has been interpreted in Orthodox Judaism as a complete ban on image-making, even in art. Muslims also ban images of any living creatures, although the Qur'an does not. Protestant founders John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli forbade the use of religious images specifically. Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists view religious statues, stained glass images, and icons as blasphemous. This battle has been actively engaged at many points in church history. Churches have been destroyed, windows smashed, art burned because some saw such images as contradicting the First Commandment.

Iconoclasm, as image-busting is called, is not just a religious phenomenon. In the ancient world, smashing the statues of a previous ruler was often a political maneuver more than a religious reform. When modern terrorist groups destroy religious artifacts that are also culturally significant sites, it's unclear whether the destruction is about restoring religious purity or asserting control.

Biblically, Moses did destroy the Golden Calf permitted by his priest brother because it imitated religious practices that predated the religious movement Moses was attempting to establish. But later, Moses commands that a bronze serpent be made to heal the people—a beneficial image, but still an image. Still later, King Hezekiah will have the bronze serpent destroyed because the people have begun to worship it. The message is clear: it's not art that God doesn't like. It's the use of idols that limit the idea of divinity or divert a believer's fidelity away from the one God of Israel.

I've rarely met a Catholic in danger of idolatry in relationship to images of the Sacred Heart or devotion to a patron saint. If religious images assist you in prayer or widen your appreciation of divine mysteries, then use them. If they interfere with or narrowly define your sense of wonder, let them go.

Scriptures: Exodus 20:4-6; 32:1-35; Leviticus 26:1; Numbers 21:9; Deuteronomy 4:15-24; 5:6-10; 1 Kings 12:26-31; 2 Kings 18:4; Isaiah 40:18-20; 44:9-20;  Jeremiah 10:1-15

Books: The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law - William J. Doorly  (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002)

Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction - Lawrence Boadt  (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012)

Where in the Bible does it say Jesus' birthday is December 25th?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille 🕔 Thursday 02, June 2016 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Nativity
 

You won't find a biblical text verifying the date of the birth of Jesus. December 25th has a 1-in-365 chance of being the historical date. It's simply the liturgical date the church settled on to celebrate Incarnation, the mystery of God-made-flesh, officially called the Nativity. We have no idea what time of year Jesus was born. There are debates about what the actual year may have been. Because of calendar anomalies like leap years and other early errors made in the Gregorian calculations that established the Western calendar, the year Zero isn't an accurate starting point for the life of Jesus. Scholarly speculations generally include a range between what we call 7 B.C. to 4 B.C.

December 25th wasn't immediately selected for the celebration of the Nativity. Early Christian observances had strong Jewish roots. For example, they utilized the Jewish calendar in Sabbath observance, shifting allegiance early from the last day of the week to the first to honor the resurrection day. The original Christian feast was therefore Sunday, when Eucharist was celebrated. Easter became the first annual Christian liturgical season to be put in place universally, fixed as it was to the Jewish observance of Passover. It soon grew to a constellation of before-and-after observances, including an entire preparatory season (Lent).

 As the church expanded into the Hellenistic world, feast days were added, typically wedded to whatever local civil calendars were in operation at the time. The Nativity was the second universally popular observance, developing its own preparatory season (Advent), but the length of the season varied and even the date wasn't uniform.  The Western Church chose December 25th to coordinate with the already popular secular celebration of the Winter Solstice, when days began to lengthen with the sun's annual return and winter darkness was conquered by light. The solstice made a useful pairing and natural catechetical tool in declaring the arrival of Jesus, the light of the world, vanquishing the darkness of sin and death.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Church celebrated the Nativity on January 6th, now the feast of Epiphany in the Western Church. These dates were never intended to imply historical accuracy, but rather a theological reality to be recalled and honored. The liturgical calendar focuses on uniting the universal church in commemorating the birth, life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus as cosmic realities, not past occurrences.

Scriptures: Isaiah 9:1; John 1:3-5, 9; 3:19-21: 8:12; 9:5; 12:35-36, 46

Books: The Origins of Christmas - Joseph F. Kelly(Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014)

The Feast of Christmas - Joseph F. Kelly (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press,  2010)

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