Questions Catholics Ask
More questions...and responses
- I'm having trouble finding a religious community that will consider me as a candidate because I'm older. Why?
- I don’t read papal documents. What do I need to know about Laudato Si?
- Is God a name, like Allah or Jesus?
- Why should I go to church?
- What is the common good?
- Why is prejudice against Catholics called “the deepest bias in the history of the American people”?
- Why does going to Mass on Saturday night “count” to fulfill the Sunday obligation?
- Don’t we have to obey what the church teaches, or be kicked out?
- How do I reconcile patriotism and faith? Sometimes it feels like dueling citizenships!
- Our priest cancelled Saturday Vigil Mass, citing Dies Domini and pastoral necessity. Is this valid?
- With the recent opposition to Muslim immigrants, I wonder: Were Catholics always welcomed here?
- Is Pope Francis the first Catholic leader to address the environment?
- Do all Christians basically agree on the purpose of baptism, Eucharist, and ministry?
- What is natural law?
- Some of my friends view belief in God as anti-intellectual.
- How did the veneration of relics get started?
- Why do we worship in buildings instead of in God’s beautiful creation?
- What are Catholics to believe about the Antichrist?
- How can I understand and explain the Catholic position on contraception?
- How is it determined that someone is a saint?
- What can we expect from the Vatican Commission on women deacons?
- Who were the women at the cross?
- Is the Bible infallible?
- Can Catholics practice yoga?
- Where can Mass be celebrated?
- I've been told Catholic devotion to saints contradicts what the Bible says about graven images.
- Where in the Bible does it say Jesus' birthday is December 25th?
- Is Jesus truly the Son of God or is it just a story?
- If you're married, is it still possible to become a priest? If yes, what are the steps needed?
- What's a halo, really?
- Why do Catholics put so much emphasis on Mary and the saints?
- Is the parish expected to give the pastor and secretary a bonus at Christmas?
- I recently became a Freemason but feel a calling to be a priest. Do I have a canonical impediment?
- Is it necessary to attend Mass on Sunday? I can't go to church because of my job. What should I do?
- Can Catholics be cremated?
- Is it a sin to eat meat on Fridays during Lent or just a suggestion?
- What exactly is a "Jubilee Year"? What's a "Holy Year"? I hear the Year of Mercy called both.
- Is astrology compatible with Christian belief?
- What does Advent have to do with Apocalypse?
- Petra is the coolest historical site in Jordan. Is it biblically significant?
- Where is Moses buried?
- Settle an argument for me. Was Jesus baptized in Jordan?
- Is the clerical sexual abuse crisis over?
- Who is Karl Rahner, and why is he important?
- Is there a protocol for paying the priest: for marriages, sick calls, last rites?
- Are priests obliged to say mass every day?
- I heard all the big heresies were invented by the 5th century
- What does the church have to say about suicide?
- Where did Limbo come from?
- Mary's parents aren't mentioned in the Bible. How do we know their names?
- Was there ever such a thing as a deaconness?
- Who was Origen?
- How do you know if you're committing heresy?
- Do Catholics believe in psychology?
- Is there a heaven? What is it like?
- What's important about the Avignon papacy and the Great Schism?
- What do I need to know about the Crusades?
- What's an abbess, and what power does she wield?
- Is premarital sex a sin?
- Do the Eastern churches have popes?
- What is papal primacy and where does it come from?
- What does Jesus have to say about family?
- Why do we have priests?
- Why do we "respect life"?
- Why do we honor martyrs?
- What is a patron saint?
- Is there truth in other religions?
- What do Catholics believe about war and peace?
- Why do some buildings have feast days?
- How do you figure Transfiguration?
- What is the Immaculate Heart of Mary?
- What is the Sacred Heart of Jesus?
- What is humility?
- Is it possible to prove the existence of God?
- How “Roman” is the Roman Catholic Church?
- How do can you deal with sinful thoughts?
- What is virtue?
- Does God get angry?
- Why do we have a Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults?
- What’s the purpose of fasting?
- What are the qualifications for being pope?
- Is it OK for Christians to be rich?
- What is the Roman Catholic view of work?
- What is Baptism?
- What do we know about Saint Joseph?
- Why is there a church calendar?
- What is the “deposit of faith”?
- What’s the purpose of incense?
- What is “mission”?
- Why is marriage a sacrament?
- Where did American Catholic schools come from?
- As Pontius Pilate asked: What is truth?
- What is the Anointing of the Sick?
- Why do we hear scripture readings at Mass?
- What about the violence in the Old Testament?
- What’s the difference between “the gospel” and “the gospels”?
- What is the Sacrament of Confirmation?
- Why are there cults?
- What’s in a papal name?
- What is Pentecost?
- What is Christ’s Ascension?
- What are the different forms of prayer?
- What is the Real Presence of Christ?
- How can the pope resign?
- Can Catholic doctrine change in light of new information?
- Why is the Lord’s Prayer so important?
- Love thy extraterrestrial neighbor: Does the church believe there could be life on other planets?
- What do Catholics believe about the divine inspiration of scripture?
- Who was John the Baptist and what was his relationship to Jesus?
- What is the structure of the church and what do the people in it do?
- Are there other kinds of Catholics besides Roman?
- What does the "Word of God" mean?
- What are visions?
- What is Purgatory?
- What are third orders, oblates, and associates?
- Why sing at Mass?
- What about all the different gods in Hebrew scripture?
- Is there a place for dissent in the church?
- Do Catholics believe in evolution?
- What does the Bible say about God?
- Why do we say Jesus "descended into hell"?
- Why does God let bad things happen?
- Is it OK to use “real” bread at Mass?
- What is Wisdom?
- Is there a “right time” to be called by God?
- How can I understand the Holy Trinity?
- Why are there two Creeds?
- “How can I live as a Christian in the modern world?”
- Saint Thomas Aquinas did what, exactly?
- Why did American Catholicism begin in Baltimore?
- Do religious communities work for human rights?
- Why isn’t the "Gloria" sung during Lent?
- Should people in discernment date?
- Why do Catholics wear ashes on Ash Wednesday?
- Where did Lent come from?
- What’s so important about the Council of Trent?
- What are the “Precepts of the Church”?
- Do Catholics take the biblical creation story literally?
- Why can’t a woman be ordained?
- Why does the liturgy change?
- Which religious community is right for me?
- Is Purgatory still “on the books”?
- Why is it important to participate regularly in the Mass?
- Why pray the rosary?
- Why can people go to Mass on Saturday evening instead of Sunday?
- I feel called to be a sister, but I am not yet 18 years old
- Did King David compose the psalms?
- Who were Jesus' “brothers and sisters”?
- Is there really a Catholic Index of Forbidden Books?
- What can I do about my student loan debt if I want to join a community?
- What are the corporal and spiritual works of mercy?
- Is a long or short discernment process better?
- What’s the difference between celibacy and chastity?
- Is it “Catholic” to be vegetarian? Do Catholics care about animal suffering?
- What does the Bible say about Judgment Day?
- How can I talk to my parents about my vocation and get their support?
- Why do Christians believe Jesus is God incarnate?
- What’s that picture of Jesus with rays flowing from him?
- What is the Triduum?
- Can someone change religious communities?
- Who chose the "Seven Deadly Sins"?
- What should I believe about hell?
- Why are there different kinds of Franciscans?
- Is the Mass a “holy sacrifice” or a “celebration”—or both?
- Pulpit, lectern, ambo: What’s the difference?
- What was the Reformation?
- If you have a mental illness, can you still join a religious order?
- What is “discernment of spirits”?
- Why would someone want to be a priest, sister, or brother?
- Is environmentalism “Catholic” or a political football?
- Why do Catholics believe in the Immaculate Conception?
- Why are there parishes?
- Do Catholics believe in ghosts?
- Who was Saint Augustine?
- Is a college degree needed for religious life?
- What is "sanctuary"?
- What is the Liturgy of the Hours?
- How do I discern my calling to priesthood or brotherhood?
- How does God “answer” prayers?
- As a sister, would I have to give up sports?
- What does “salvation history” mean?
- Why do Catholics believe in the Assumption of Mary?
- Can I keep doing my music when I enter religious life?
- Why do priests wear vestments?
- Do miracles still happen?
- How can I find a good spiritual director?
- What do deacons do?
- How is the Mass “prayer”?
- What is Catholic decision-making?
- Can I have a job if I join a religious community?
- Who wrote the gospels?
- Can converts become sisters or brothers?
- What is “original sin”?
- How does the Catholic Church view other religions?
- The "Five C's" of Confession
- Discerning your vocation
- What's the difference between chapels, churches, cathedrals, and basilicas?
- Where do the Stations of the Cross come from?
- What's the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament?
- What about wearing habits and and taking "religious" names
- When and where is it appropriate to bow inside Catholic churches?
- Older vocations
- Can I come back to the church?
- Why does the priest talk after the readings at Mass?
- Is being divorced an obstacle to religious life?
- What's the difference between catechesis and evangelization?
- Didn't Saint Paul write all the letters attributed to him?
- Are we supposed to believe in angels and demons in the 21st century?
- Who are the saints and why do we pray to them?
- How does a religious community start?
- Why pray for the dead?
- Dealing with stage fright
- Who are the "Doctors of the Church"?
- How were the books of the Bible chosen?
- What's the difference between saying "set" prayers and prayers in my own words?
- Paying for seminary
- If I join a religious community do I have to change my name and cut my hair?
- What do Catholics have to believe?
- Who were the prophets? Does God still call people to prophecy?
- What is the lectionary?
- Why do Catholics bless themselves, genuflect, and so on?
- How did we get from following “the Way” of Jesus to the church?
- What do we mean by the church’s “magisterium”?
- Is there salvation outside the Catholic Church?
- What do people in religious life do for fun?
- Why is celibacy important to religious life?
- Vocation: For all of life, or only "religious life"?
- What is contemplation?
- Is my vocation from God or just my imagination?
- What does the Bible say about discipleship?
- How do I know whether be an order priest or a diocesan priest?
- What do Catholics believe about scripture and tradition?
- "Sin" is such a negative word. Can't we just talk about “failure”?
- Why should I read the Bible?
- How can I be happy?
- How can I live a holy life?
I don’t read many papal documents either. Nor bishops’ letters, to be honest. I make exceptions for those that are turning points in the church’s self-understanding. These would include Vatican II Constitutions, like those on the church (Lumen Gentium), on divine revelation (Dei verbum), and the church in the modern world (Gaudium et spes). When I read statements like these that express a bold gospel vision for the future, it makes me wish I read more papal documents.
Pope Francis’ graceful encyclical on the environment (Laudato Si, “On Care For Our Common Home”) is one such game-changing text. The pope puts the urgency of his argument bluntly: “Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet.” This is no dry repetition of churchy ideas: God made the world, life is sacred, respect the planet, and love your neighbor as you recycle. In fact, the pope’s been criticized by some for NOT writing that document. Instead, he’s presenting a vital summons to the global conscience anchored in the language of the age—science, economics, and social theory—yet cradled in scripture, prayer, and passionate moral appeal. The pope touches third-rail politics and tramples on toes; but who wants a pope who minces pieties or holds his tongue? As Teresa of Avila said: “The world is in flames! Let’s not waste our prayer bothering God with trifles!”
Impressively, this is not just a Vatican document. The pope quotes his fellow bishops around the world, voices that are seldom heard: from Canada, Japan, Paraguay, Bolivia, Portugal, New Zealand. He’s as comfortable citing the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church as he is the canon of saints, leaping from international conference findings to sacramental realities. Laudato Si sounds the warning to this generation and points toward hope. If you’re not stunned, breathless, and convicted by this message, go back and read it again.
And yes, it has 246 paragraphs, which is a lot to read in one sitting. Read a paragraph a day and be done in eight months. But I bet you can’t stop at one. You’ll be collecting pearls like I did: “We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family.” “We are not God.” “The earth is essentially a shared inheritance.” “Purchasing is always a moral act.” Happy collecting.
Genesis 1:31; 2:15; 3:17-19; Psalm 24:1; 104:31; Sirach 38:4; Wisdom 11:24; Luke 12:3; John 1:1-18; Colossians 1:16
(On Care for Our Common Home)
Most Christians tend to use God as the proper name of our Deity. As monotheists (believers in one Divine Being), we profess that all other gods are false. This is another way of saying our God IS God, and there is no other. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah was very keen on this point, in an era when his fellow countrymen were perfectly content to worship any divinity that might help them get ahead.
The claim that the Holy One of Judeo-Christian tradition is a singular Divinity doesn’t necessarily imply that God the Father doesn’t answer to other names or respond to worshippers of other religions who make their prayers in other forms. In Scripture, the writers use many names for the Holy One of Israel: El, Elohim, El-Shaddai, and especially the name too sacred to say out loud—YHWH—usually replaced with Adonai, which is the respectful title “Lord”. In most Bibles, when you see the all-caps rendition of LORD, you know the name intended is the four unspeakable letters known as the Tetragrammaton. Monotheism clearly doesn’t mean God responds to one name only. It simply rejects the notion that there are multitudes of gods out there who must be appealed to separately or even selectively. God is ONE.
Having said that, please note that the name of God we invoke does matter greatly, since traditions vary as to the nature of the Holy One to whom we are appealing. The God of Judeo-Christian tradition is a self-revealing God who seeks an intimate relationship with us. By means of our sacred history, we understand our God to be moral and just, not simply powerful and capricious. The Bible reveals God to be Lord of creation and history, stronger than empires but also respectful of human freedom. Finally, in the person of Jesus, God’s self-revelation takes a dramatic turn. God makes common cause with us by sharing our life, with its limitations and suffering, including death. Through this daring and loving incarnation, the God we profess changes the rules of time and mortality.
All of this sidesteps the question: if God isn’t really a name, what is it? Linguistically, God is a noun that describes what theologian Terrence Tilley calls “the irreducible center of meaning, power, and value.” This definition covers all the kinds of gods we may chase after: money, control, celebrity, love. We need to be clear, not only which name we choose for God, but which God we choose for ourselves.
Exodus 3:13-14; 6:2-8; 20:2-3; Deuteronomy 5:6-7; 32:39; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10-13; 44:6-8; 48:12-13; John 1:1-18; Acts 17:22-31; 1 Corinthians 3:21- 22; 2 Corinthians 1:3-7
Chasing Mystery, by Carey Walsh (Liturgical Press)
What Is the Point of Being a Christian? – Timothy Radcliffe (Burns & Oates)
It’s interesting that Richard Gaillardetz asks the same question—and he’s a professional ecclesiologist, whose business it is to explain the church. Yet he admits convincing his own children of the necessity of going to church is another matter entirely. Why does church attendance need persuasion?
Gaillardetz identifies four troublesome modern obstacles. The first is widespread institutional distrust. We just haven’t seen all that many churches, banks, governments, or schools with a sterling track record lately. Add to that the more recent conflation of religion with partisan politics. Now, it seems, your church comes with obligatory party affiliation attached! That is understandably distasteful to many. A third problem with church affiliation is the social decline of absolutes. We once hung our hats on doctrine with confidence. But today a black-and-white approach to any issue seems simplistic, self-righteous, and begging to be debunked. Frankly, we don’t want some exterior machinery regulating what we’re allowed to believe about our reality. Finally, there’s the “fragilization” of religious identity. This lovely term expresses how religion, once the defining principle of a person’s life, has recently been downgraded to a lifestyle choice: a thing you have, rather than a thing you are. So, Catholic paraphernalia may be in your ethical toolkit. But you don’t see yourself as “a Catholic” anymore.
All of which explains why more people are skipping church. It doesn’t argue why they might not want to. Gaillardetz suggests that church might benefit from a reintroduction: not as mind-controlling Hall of Obedience, but a re-imagined School of Discipleship. Such a school exists to form us in the way of Jesus, not to keep us on the straight-and-narrow (much less save us from eternal fires). Old-school church asks different questions of us: “What do you think or believe about God, morality, your place in the scheme of things?” The School of Discipleship model asks, rather: “Whom do you love?”
This approach is in keeping with the teaching of Pope Francis, who sees servile obedience as the wrong spirit in which to develop a mature faith. The church exists to console, clarify, and challenge us. It shouldn’t simply deliver to the adherent a longer set of reliable truths than the person down the street enjoys. In the School of Discipleship, we would decree or forbid less, and trust ourselves as “liturgical animals” more. Rituals work on us as we worship, teaching and shaping us as we say grace, give alms, fast, stand in praise, kneel in humility, or share a meal. This is what church does best.
Scripture: Exodus 20:8-11; Isaiah 2:2-5; Joel 2:12-17; Matthew 18:20; John 17:20-26; Acts 2:1-4, 42-47
Books: A Church With Open Doors: Catholic Ecclesiology for the Third Millennium – Richard Gaillardetz (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 2015)
Go Into the Streets: the Welcoming Church of Pope Francis – Thomas Rausch and Richard Gaillardetz, eds. (Mahwah, MJ: Paulist Press, 2016)
The common good, a tenet of Catholic social justice teaching, moves from the opposite assumption. It presumes human nature is essentially social. It’s not good for us to be alone, as our Creator originally determined. Our fulfillment involves creating conditions that are good for all of God’s children, with whom we share an origin and destiny. This creates a different expectation of the state: “the attainment of the common good is the sole reason for the existence of the civil authorities,” Pope John Paul II declared in Pacem in Terris.
Once we embrace the social nature of the person, the common good becomes a new lens through which to view social policy. What do rights and freedoms look like from a social perspective? Pacem in Terris defends the right to bodily integrity for all, including what’s necessary for life’s proper development: food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and social services. The common good requires freedom to worship, work, and form associations—to gather for mutually beneficial reasons. Immigration becomes a universal right, to care for one’s family or security. All should be free to take an active role in public life as well.
Some resist the common good ideal as a brand of totalitarianism: a system that subordinates the individual to the group. Totalitarians don’t value a universal good, but only their party’s vision of the good. The common good has also been suspect as a communist value. It doesn’t erase individual rights or deny private property; it does view them as limited by and subordinate to the needs of others whose existence is in jeopardy. Pope John Paul II spoke of “the universal destination of goods”; that the good things of this world are intended to be shared. He also boldly proposed that “personal property is under a social mortgage”. What belongs to us is ours as stewards of God’s gifts, not as guardians of our personal stash.
Scripture: Genesis 2:18; Isaiah 2:2-5; 25:6-10; Romans 14:7-9; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4:1-6, 15-16; Philippians 2:3-4
Website: Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue (ICCD) A free resource related to the common good can be found at www.iccdinstitute.org.
Books: Common Good, Uncommon Questions – William C. Graham, ed. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014)
Public Theology and the Global Common Good – Kevin Ahern, ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016)
Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr.—not a Catholic—made the oft-quoted assertion. It acknowledges that England rallied to Protestantism with the establishment of its national church, and British mistrust of Rome was imported to the New World. So few Catholics came to the colonies (35,000, or 1% of the population by 1790) that no threat seemed apparent. Catholics kept to themselves in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The 1800s, however, saw a century of massive immigration. The spirit of nativism arose in some Protestant enclaves, as migrating waves from historically Catholic countries arrived on “their” shores. Catholicism gained an official foothold with the appointment of John Carroll as Bishop of the new See of Baltimore. Carroll put an emphasis on opening seminaries and schools, to create a homegrown, educated leadership and laity capable of engaging the national conversation. The schools attracted religious orders from Europe to staff them, and as convent schools sprung up in the Northeast and Midwest, nativist alarms grew louder.
A church was burned in Charlestown, Massachusetts, followed by two more in Philadelphia. Convents and rectories were likewise visited with arson. A visiting papal nuncio was burned in effigy in many cities. In Indiana, Mother Theodore Guerin’s sisters were spat upon in the streets and denied the customary store credit. Wherever Katharine Drexel purchased land for schools, she typically worked through agents so the sellers didn’t know the buyer was Catholic.
Nativist groups assumed names such as the “United Sons of America” in 1844 and “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner” in 1849. The latter became known as the “Know-Nothings” for their secrecy about their membership. Future U.S. saints including Guerin, Drexel, Philippine Duchesne, John Neumann, Marianne Cope, and Frances Cabrini all reported dealings with Know-Nothings and their offshoots. Finally, the most aspiring opposition group, the American Protective Association, was founded in 1887. APA members swore not to hire Catholics, enter into business with them, or elect them to public office. They sought to curtail immigration to stanch the Catholic population, and falsified scandalous documents from the pope or bishops to perpetuate fear of Rome. At its height in 1894, a million Americans were on the rolls of the APA, and the group controlled local governments in Detroit, Milwaukee, and Kansas City.
The APA fizzled by 1911; by 1915, a reconstituted Ku Klux Klan added anti-Catholicism to its principles. The story of U.S. bias has hardly reached its end.
Books: Documents of American Catholic History – John Tracy Ellis (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1987)
The Party of Fear – David Bennett (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988)
Plenty of folks, including my Dad, have viewed the “Saturday Five” Mass as an unwelcome innovation. It’s been decried as one more Vatican II accommodation to flabby Catholicism: dumbing down our vigorous commitment to the Precepts of the Church. Most decriers would be surprised to hear that a prior evening anticipatory Mass was recommended and defended by 4th-century heavyweights including Augustine and Jerome. Where does the idea come from?
The fifth verse in the Bible declares: “Evening came, and morning followed—the first day.” The phrase is repeated after each of the first six days of creation, giving rise to the Hebrew definition of a day as measured from one desert sundown to the next. Examples in both Testaments testify that time makes a significant shift at sundown: the Temple is closed as shadows lengthen, or crowds bring their sick to Jesus as night falls. Even Easter is counted as “the third day” when the women approach the tomb under cover of darkness.
To be on the safe side in observing erev (Hebrew “evening”), rabbis say wait for three stars to appear in the sky. When you think about it, the concept that the a.m. (ante meridiem, Latin for “before noon”) period begins at midnight is not much more than a decision. The day has to start somewhere.
Jewish practice carries over in the anticipatory Mass for Sunday, or the Vigil Mass of a feast. In 1969, Paul VI wrote that ''the observance of Sunday and solemnities begins with the evening of the preceding day.” Although this was a moto proprio (personal papal initiative), it built on formal teaching issued two years earlier granting permission for the anticipatory Mass. It also acknowledged what the Liturgy of the Hours had promoted for centuries: a Sunday celebration lasting from Evening Prayer on Saturday night until Evening Prayer on Sunday.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law notes that “assist[ing] at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day itself or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass." (no.1248) The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass. The precept … is satisfied by assistance at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day.” (no.2180)
Scriptures: Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31; Leviticus 23:5, 32; Nehemiah 13:19; Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1-2; Luke 4:40; 2 Peter 1:19
Books: Celebrating the Easter Vigil – Rupert Berger, Hans Hollerweger, eds. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1983)
Let Us Pray: A Guide to the Rubrics of Sunday Mass – Paul Turner (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
Genesis 1:1—2:15; Psalms 8, 19, 104, 148; John 1:1-5; Romans 8:18-23; Colossians 1:15-20
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.
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.
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
World Council of Churches site for entire BEM text:
USCCB site for bishops’ statements regarding BEM:
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)