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Q. Our breakfast group (made up of people older than 80) worries that they may not be able to pay for their funerals and wonders if cremation is acceptable. We realized that an old-fashioned funeral with burial costs as much as an automobile! Can we, alternatively, donate our bodies to science?
B.B., Manchester, Mo.
A. Here’s a reply from OSV columnist Msgr. M. Francis Mannion:
While, traditionally, Catholicism did not allow for cremation -- because it was associated with disbelief in the resurrection or disdain for the physical -- it has in recent decades accepted cremation, as long as there is no anti-Christian motive involved.
The Church also allows that one's body may be donated to science, with the same proviso as that just mentioned. Christians should always be concerned, however, that the body is ultimately properly disposed of, and there should certainly be some kind of memorial service (a memorial Mass or liturgy of some kind costs nothing).
The cost of funerals is something that many readers have struggled with over the years. While no one wants to be a burden to their children or grandchildren, I would caution against an undue sense of obligation for taking care of one's funeral. If one has lived one's life well and responsibly, then the traditional understanding that one's descendants should take care of the dead is one that I highly commend.
Ashes on Ash Wednesday
Q. Why do we get ashes put on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday?
A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin:
The Church acknowledges seven sacraments, material elements or words that Jesus chose to be sources of his grace. “Holy Mother Church has, moreover, instituted sacramentals … signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments . . . signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1667).
The Sign of the Cross, especially with the holy water that recalls our baptism, is probably our best-known and most widely used sacramental. However, the catalog is vast, and includes the ashes we accept at the beginning of Lent.
Throughout the history of our salvation, ashes have been a powerful sign of sorrow (see Job 28) and penance. Jesus criticizes the places that would not acknowledge him, “…if the mighty deeds done in your midst had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would long ago have repented in sackcloth and ashes” (Mt 11:21). Ashes are also a sign of life’s impermanence, and Abraham describes himself as “but dust and ashes” (Gn 18:27).
On Ash Wednesday, ashes remind us of our insignificance, and command us to soften our hearts. The minister who puts ashes on our foreheads says either, “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” or “Repent, and believe the Good News.”
Right After Death?
Q. Where are people sent right after death according to Catholic teaching?
A.R., via e-mail
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D
The word "where" in common usage often refers to location. The Church has no teaching about the location of souls right after death. Her teaching focuses on the state of souls right after death.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church succinctly sums up that teaching: "Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death" (No. 1022). That retribution is the ultimate verdict on a life, the end results of all its merits and its deserts.
Such a verdict, the Catechism goes on to say, is given "in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven -- through a purification or immediately -- or immediate and everlasting damnation" (No. 1022).
In short: Immediately after death comes an individual ("particular") judgment by God. The souls of those who died in friendship with Him either go to heaven or begin the purifying process (purgatory) that ultimately leads to heaven. Those who died without being in friendship with God go to hell.
Q. Why does the Church have the right to make laws (the precepts of the Church)? I recall in grammar school discussing this issue, but have forgotten most of it.
Are there concrete biblical references or writings from the early Church Fathers that we can refer to on this subject? Are they as binding as the Ten Commandments? If so, why?
P.H., Hicksville, N.Y.
A. Here is a reply from Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:
The Church has the right, power and obligation to make laws, because not only is the Church the mystical body of Christ, it is also a visible society of persons, and a society must have laws by which it is organized.
Moreover, Our Lord said to St. Peter: "I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Mt 16:19).
All valid ecclesiastical laws must be consistent with the natural law, and as such would be as binding as the Ten Commandments, all other things being equal.
“Fathers” and “Doctors”
Q. What’s the difference between Doctors of the Church and Fathers of the Church?
The Church embraces two sources, which convey the message of Jesus. One is Scripture, especially the Gospel accounts. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “This Gospel was to be the source of all saving truth and moral discipline” (No. 75).
Our other source of knowledge is the preaching and teaching of the apostles’ successors. This is Tradition, “…distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition “the Church…transmits to every generation all that she herself is, [and] all that she believes” (No. 78; see also No. 688).
Early Church writers — for example, Ignatius, who learned from Sts. Paul and Barnabas, during their stay in Antioch — are called “Fathers” because they are associated with the apostles, and because, like fathers of families, they teach us by their word and example.
“Doctor” is an official title the Church confers on an individual known for “great sanctity [and] eminent learning” (New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. IV, p. 938). The title comes from the Latin docere, which means “to teach,” but the holiness of an individual’s life is essential to earning the title, which is granted only to canonized saints. Thus Thérèse of Lisieux, though not a profound scholar, is a “Doctor,” while many early Church writers are “Fathers,” but not “Doctors.”
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