Each weekday, you'll find a new question and answer. Check back for the new question and scroll down to see previous day's entries! Let us know what you think - - or question! -- by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Catholic Signers of the Declaration of Independence?
Q. How many Catholics signed the American Declaration of Independence?
L. M., via e-mail
A. A happy Independence Day to everyone!
Apparently, only one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence has been identified as a Catholic. He was Charles Carroll, a member of the famous Maryland family of John Carroll, the first bishop of the first diocese of the United States (Baltimore).
Charles Carroll was in fact the last survivor of the signers of the Declaration. He died in 1832 at the ripe old age of 96. For information about each of the signers, click here.
Can Saints Help Only Through Intercession?
Q. I recently heard someone pray to Saint Joseph, asking him to “spare the unborn.” I thought that the only way saints could help us was through their intercession with God, not through direct action. Is it legitimate to ask a saint to do something other than intercede for us?
J. K., via email
A. The notion that the only way the saints can help us is to pass on our requests to God is common but mistaken, not in keeping with Scripture or Tradition. Both Scripture and Tradition tell us that the perfected saints, by God’s grace, have come to possess an actual share in His divine power. He is pleased to make it possible for them to help us in many ways — not just through their intercession. So it’s appropriate to ask them to “spare” the lives of the unborn or to do other things.
The Scripture tells us that God has made certain “precious and very great promises” through which we will “come to have a share in the divine nature" (2 Pt 1:3, 4, emphasis added). This is possible because in Christ, the nature of God Himself has been joined to the nature of humanity, and the resulting redeemed human nature, which is “in Christ,” now has new possibilities. As the ancient theologians put it: What God is by nature, we can become by grace.
We must not limit God by presuming that He is somehow incapable of sharing His power with those who are in Christ. We already see glimpses of His ability and, indeed, His readiness to do so in the lives of certain saints while they still walked the earth. Many of them accomplished deeds and possessed knowledge far beyond what was proper to their human nature, because God’s grace was already at work to share with them His divine nature. Scripture in fact speaks of how “God has appointed in the Church … workers of miracles” (1 Corinthians 12:28 RSV).
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his “Disputed Questions on the Power of God” (Quaestiones disputatae de potentia dei, Q. 6, Art. 4) touches on this matter. He first notes that St. Augustine had wrestled with the question, prompted by several miracles that took place in association with the relics of certain saints. It was obvious to Augustine that ultimately, God had worked the miracles, but it was unclear whether He had accomplished them “by Himself … or by His ministers, or by the souls of the martyrs [saints].”
Thomas goes on to note, however, that Pope St. Gregory the Great (in his Dialogues ii, 31) had given “a decisive answer to the question”:
“He says that holy men even in this life work miracles not merely by prayer and impetration [intercession] but also authoritatively, and therefore by cooperation: and he proves this both by reason and by examples.
“His reason is that if men were given the power to become sons of God [see John 1:12], it is not strange that by that power they can work miracles.
“The examples he offers are that of Peter, who without any previous prayer, pronounced sentence of death on the lying Ananias and Sapphira by mere denunciation (Acts 5:4, 9): and of the Blessed [St.] Benedict, who ‘looked on the bonds of a poor countryman and thus loosed them more speedily than it were possible to human hands.’ Wherefore he concludes that the saints work miracles sometimes by prayer, sometimes by power.”
Thomas’s conclusion: “It is true that God alone works miracles by His authority [that is, “by His sole command”]; and it is also true that He communicates to creatures the power to work miracles, according to the creatures’ capacity and the order of divine wisdom: to the effect that a creature may work a miracle ministerially by grace.”
It’s simply another instance of the sacramental principle by which God so often operates.
One other point is important here: Even if we recognized only the saints’ ability to intercede, we could still pray the prayer you noted asking St. Joseph to “spare the unborn,” because the Church has always recognized that there can be both primary and secondary causes for a particular effect. For example, we can say either that a hammer drives a nail or that the person holding the hammer drives the nail; both statements are true, but in different ways.
Even if all that St. Joseph were doing is praying that God would act to spare the unborn, then he would still be taking part in that action through his prayers; he would in fact be acting to spare the unborn.
One True Church?
Q. While there may be no “smoking gun” proving that the Catholic Church is the one true Church, what would you say might be our best defense that can hardly be argued?
A. C., via email
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D.:
There are various ways of approaching this matter. Here is one approach, centering on the person of St. Peter.
Jesus Christ founded only one Church. Only one scriptural passage reports how Jesus founded His Church: Matthew 16:13-20. In this passage, we see that Jesus established Peter as earthly head of the Church. In giving Peter the “keys of the kingdom,” as we know from Isaiah 22:15-24 and Genesis 40:37-45, Jesus was putting Peter in complete charge of the Church, Christ’s kingdom on earth. Before His death, Jesus gave Peter the task of strengthening (leading, guiding the members of the Church (see Luke 22:31-32).
After His death and resurrection, Jesus commanded Peter to “feed” Christ’s sheep and also to “tend,” “direct,” “superintend,” “rule,” his sheep (see John 21:16). This is the meaning of the Greek word poimane in Jesus’ second command to Peter. Having given Peter this special role of leading his Church, Jesus’ parting words to His apostles endowed them with his authority (see Matt. 28:18-20). At the first gathering of the apostles to deal with a doctrinal question, Peter stated what must be their decision and the apostles concurred (see Acts 15).
Jesus intended that all His followers should be intimately united with him and with one another (see John 17:11, 20-21.) Apart from communion with the successor of Peter, groups of Christians always remain disunited. Among Protestants today, there are more than 25,000 separate denominations, and the number of new denominations grows steadily.
The Eastern churches, which have preserved the apostolic succession and therefore valid sacraments, are themselves divided. The term “Eastern Orthodoxy” is a generic term for a dozen or more totally independent ethnic national churches that have no overarching unity. Some Eastern Orthodox apologists claim that the Eastern Orthodox churches are “the one true Church.” But how can this be, when they are not even one Church?
In retrospect, note this. The two basic issues in the Gospels with regard to Jesus Himself are His identity and the extent of His mission. Both issues were settled for all time by special divine revelation to Peter himself—see Matthew 16:19 and Acts 10.
Until the Eastern churches finally went into schism in the ninth or tenth century, the popes as successors of Peter were acknowledged throughout the Church as the guardians of, and ultimate spokesmen for, the authentic Catholic faith. Today when many Christian traditions succumb to cultural pressure and surrender basic Christian doctrine and moral teaching, only the Catholic Church continues to speak Christ’s truth with a clear voice.
By Christ’s own promise (see Matt. 16:18), she will speak that truth until the end of time.
These are some of the Church’s credentials as the one true Church.
Was John Immaculately Conceived?
Q. Our celebration last week of the Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist (Thursday, June 24) prompted a question. When the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and tells him about the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:15), he says, “and he [John] will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” One commentary on this passage states: “To prepare Israel for the Lord, the Lord first prepares John with grace. He and the Virgin Mary were sanctified before birth.”
This seems to imply that John was full of grace just like Mary. But to have the Holy Spirit in him, as the text says, he would have to be full of grace. And to be full of grace, he would have to have no sin in him, in this case, original sin. This would make John the equivalent of the Immaculate Conception, which I know cannot be correct. Only Mary was born without sin.
So where do we place John in all this? What would his status have been? Perhaps it’s just this translation, but it really does sound like John was born with no sin.
B.D., Savannah, GA
A. In interpreting this Gospel passage, we need to keep several things in mind. First, we shouldn’t assume that someone was sinless and “full of grace” in the same sense Our Lady was, just because the Scripture says that the person was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” As you noted, Our Lady’s privilege in this regard, through the merits of her divine Son, was unique.
Other characters in the New Testament were also said to be “filled with the Holy Spirit” at various times, with no suggestion or even implication that they shared Mary’s privilege. In that same chapter of Luke, for example, Elizabeth herself was “filled with the Holy Spirit” when John leaped in her womb (v. 41). The Apostles were all “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:4; 4:31), as was St. Peter (Acts 4:8) and St. Paul (Acts 9:17; 13:9). In fact, St. Paul tells us all to be “filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18).
Nevertheless, the commentary you cite is probably alluding to the ancient teaching that St. John was in a special category in this regard: He was sanctified in the womb at the moment he leapt for joy when his mother, Elizabeth, met Jesus’ mother at the Visitation). In that case, both Mary and John were sanctified before their birth.
The Church’s liturgy reflects this special status. There are only two saints whose nativities we celebrate as universal liturgical feasts: John and Mary.
Nevertheless, there’s an important difference between the two here. Conception and birth are not at all the same thing. Our Lady was preserved from original sin from the first moment of her conception — from the very beginning of her existence. John, however, was not conceived without sin as she was.
Nevertheless, John was born without sin. Though he was conceived in original sin, he was sanctified months later by the Holy Spirit before he was born, while still in Elizabeth’s womb (as if he were baptized in the womb).
Of course, the other great difference between the two is that Our Lady was preserved as well from all actual sin throughout her life, while John was not.
When to Refuse Communion?
Q. I am a priest, and I sometimes wrestle with the question of when (or whether) I should refuse Communion to someone who I know is in grave sin. For instance, I have a couple in my parish living in an invalid marriage, though this fact is not publicly known, so it does not cause scandal. I have warned them privately that receiving the Eucharist in their present state is dangerous to their souls, but they continue to come forward for It.
Should I continue to communicate them? Might my refusing them the Sacrament cause a scandal in itself?
Name withheld by request
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:
Thank you for your question, Father. We all support you with our prayers because your question shows just how difficult it can be for a priest to be clear and unequivocal in giving doctrine, and at the same time pastorally prudent, sensitive, and effective. It can also be quite painful for a priest to give Holy Communion to persons he knows are in a state of grave sin.
According to Canon Law, “Those upon whom the penalty of excommunication or interdict has been imposed or declared, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin, are not to be admitted to holy Communion” (Can. 915).
It is important to note, given the current widespread discussion and confusion on the point, that the burden of this canon is on the minister, not on the communicant. The canon obliges the Minister of the Holy Eucharist to refuse Holy Communion, rather than the potential recipient to refrain from Communion. The phrase in the official Latin version is “ne admittantur,” and this use of the passive voice is accurately translated as “they are not to be admitted,” rather than “they should not present themselves.” The distinction is more than a fine point.
In your case, we need to determine whether the couple in the invalid marriage is “obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin.” The pivotal point here is the word “manifest,” which normally means “publicly known.” For the sake of the discussion, I am assuming that the marriage is indeed invalid, and that they persist in their behavior even after clear instruction and correction from you.
If their situation is not known to others in the external forum, then it is not manifest, and hence the possibility of scandal is remote. Therefore, apart from warning them privately, you are limited in what you can do. You cannot deny them Communion because you will be defaming them (not a good idea for you to commit a sin, even if it is in order to prevent a sacrilege).
On the other hand, if the matter is publicly known (“manifest”), you will not be defaming them when you deny them Communion. In fact, were you to give them Communion, you would be the one causing scandal.
But you know what to do. Continue to pray and work with them and reassure them that God in His infinite mercy and justice will give them more grace by refraining from the Holy Eucharist than He will by their ignoring the clear teachings of the Church. Encourage them to regularize their situation. Oremus pro invicem!
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