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Leaving the Church
Q. If a baptized Catholic turns away from the Catholic faith to become a Protestant, will he or she be denied salvation?
— V.E., Nelsonville, Ohio
A. Here’s a reply from OSV columnist Msgr. M. Francis Mannion:
At the level of objective principle, leaving the Catholic Church is always a most serious matter. While the Second Vatican Council recognized Christian authenticity to one degree or another in other Christian churches and communities, it asserted that the Catholic Church is the central instrument of God’s saving work in the world and contains the fullness of the means of salvation. To leave the Church is to depart from that community in which God in Christ is uniquely active and to abandon the rich divinely-inspired heritage of grace and salvation that comes from the apostles.
Will a person who leaves the Church be denied salvation? The answer depends a great deal on the outlook of the person involved and on how he or she understands departure from the Church. People leave the Church for all kinds of reasons. Some simply slip away over time and no longer practice their faith. Others depart because they were hurt by a minister of the Church. Still others leave because they have lost faith in the Church. (There are many Catholics who no longer practice their faith — or have joined another church — because of the sex abuse scandals of recent decades.)
Certainly those who leave the Church because they have given up on trying to live the Gospel and whose lives have taken a long turn toward selfishness, moral carelessness, and a failure to deal justly and charitably with their fellow men and women — such people will have a lot to answer for on the Day of Judgment.
However, those who leave the Catholic Church for what they think are good motives (the failure of clergy to preach the Gospel well, malfeasance in the Church or because they are sincerely convinced that they can be better Christians in another denomination) will not be denied salvation. The God of ultimate wisdom, understanding and mercy does not abandon his children no matter how much they have strayed, if they are in good conscience and are sincere in their search for truth and virtuous living. Salvation, as Vatican II and the constant tradition of the Church held, is not found only within the confines of the Catholic Church; therefore former Catholics who find themselves in other Christian denominations can hope to reach eternal salvation.
Attitudes among faithful Catholics (clergy and people) to former Catholics range all the way from condemnation to indifference. The authentic attitude is that of Christ: seeking out the lost sheep; awaiting the return of the prodigal son; having mercy on the departing rich young man. The wise Catholic priest or layperson who comes across a former Catholic should take every opportunity to reach across whatever alienation is found and to seek to rebuild a connection to the Church for the one who has departed.
As I said at the outset, departure from the Catholic Church is an objectively serious matter. But one has to be careful in making judgments about the states of soul of those who have left and joined another church — or simply drifted away to non-practice of the faith. Following the way of Jesus, we should first examine the beam in our own eye first before judging others. Only God can be the final judge in the matter of the eternal salvation of a fellow human being.
Q. Someone recently asked if I have been “born again.” What is the best way to respond to this question? Will greatly appreciate any response.
A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin:
If anyone asks, a baptized Catholic should reply that she or he is, indeed, “born again.” If asked for proof, the individual may turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states the Church “takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are ‘reborn of water and the Spirit’” (No. 1257). If that answer proves unavailing (and it probably will), the individual might turn to the letters of St. Peter, which state unequivocally, “You have been born anew…through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pt 1:23).
The person asking the question usually wants to know whether the baptized individual has undergone an adult experience in which he or she approached a Christian community and asked for a laying on of hands or other ritual to renew the baptismal experience. In many cases the action will result in some dramatic outward sign, such as fainting or speaking in tongues.
Catholics need surrender to nothing more than baptism, received in infancy or adulthood, and brought to completion in confirmation. We renew our baptismal commitment whenever we recite the creed, but need not apologize for not submitting to anything else.
Did God Die?
Q. When Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross on Good Friday, did God die? The Father and the Spirit did not die. But in killing Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, the God-man, can it be correctly said God died? Did sinful humanity kill and/or murder God that day? Thank you for your consideration of these questions.
L.W., via email
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D
None of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity died on the cross on Good Friday. Because they are Being itself, Life itself, they cannot die. God the Son came to be our Redeemer through a sacrificial death. But, as numerous saints have pointed out, he had to take on our nature, our humanity, in order to die on the cross. It was that humanity, that man Jesus, who gave his life for us.
The First Church Ever Built?
Q. Do we know when the first church building was constructed and where it was located? If not, what is the oldest known church building that has survived — if not intact, then at least in ruins?
C.H., via email
A. Here is a reply from Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:
You ask a question about Christian archaeology, a very important topic because of the Catholic Church’s claim of apostolic origin. We can trace the Catholic Church back to the time of Christ by means of the unbroken succession of the Roman pontiffs. In fact, we know exactly where St. Peter was buried.
There are various archaeological claims for the oldest Catholic Church in the world, and each has its own merits, whether in the Holy Land at Rihab in the Jordan, or in the Vatican at St. Peter’s. The Church of St. Simeon Stylites in Syria dates back to the fifth century and is well preserved. Parts of the ancient burial monument of St. Peter are embedded in the foundations of that great basilica and date from around A.D. 67; also, parts of the original Constantinian Basilica of St. Peter (c. 320) can be found in the current version of St. Peter’s.
But my pick for the oldest known Catholic Church building that has survived and currently in use is the “Pantheon” in Rome, built by Hadrian in A.D. 126, appropriated by the Catholic Church during the seventh century and dedicated to “St. Mary and the Martyrs.” It is in perfect condition; a marvel to behold.
Divisions of Angels
Q. I am very interested in angels, but I'm having a hard time finding any good information on them. I would like to know about the different choirs of angels, and what their different roles are. I know that angels are to protect us here on earth and then escort us up to heaven when we die. But what are the roles of the seraphim or cherubim, thrones, dominations, etc. Can you recommend a book that has this information?
— Deborah Scalzetti
Modern popular culture’s interest in vampires and demons has confused our understanding of the nature of angels and their place in creation. St. Gregory the Great reminds us that angels are spirits chosen by God as messengers. “Those who make minor announcements,” he wrote in one of his sermons, “are called angels, those who make important ones are called archangels.”
In addition to angels and archangels, the Book of Genesis identifies cherubs (see 3:24) and the Book of Isaiah mentions seraphs (6:2), while St. Paul refers to principalities (Rom 8:38), powers and dominions (Eph 1:21), and (Col. 1:16) thrones and principalities (Col 1:16). The function of these latter spirits is not at all clear, although the Letter to the Hebrews states they are all “ministering spirits sent forth to serve, for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation” (1:14).
To learn more about angels, consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Nos. 328-336). St. Thomas Aquinas is named “The Angelic Doctor” for his writing on angels in the Summa Theologiae, Pt. I, Questions 50-64. St. Thomas’ writing is the basis for the Church’s theology of angels and is very thorough. The online books catalogs for Our Sunday Visitor, the Catholic Company and St. Ignatius Press all carry interesting titles dealing with angels.
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