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A Question About Sterilization
Q. To assure themselves of no further children beyond the few, a Catholic couple elects sterilization. Having suffered a guilty conscience for a term of years, they gradually become anxious to confess their sin. But they hesitate for fear that their penance will require no further sexual relations. Are their fears consonant with the teachings of the Church?
E.B., Merion Station, Pa.
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:
Great question! This is an issue for many, many people today, but it really needs to be handled on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, let me provide you with some general guidance. However, it must be stated at the outset that children are always a precious gift from God.
No one should ever be afraid of confession. Fear, in this case, comes from the evil one and is a consequence of personal sin. Recall the episode of the original sin in Genesis 3 and the sad response of Adam to God: “I hid because I was afraid” (Gn 3:10). We should never allow fear of God to make us try to hide from Him, because He is our Father and loves us always.
When we sin, God calls us to conversion through the voice of our conscience. But true conversion requires true contrition. If a thief repented of his theft, an unmistakable sign of contrition would be restitution of the stolen property to the owner. In the case of sterilization, an unmistakable sign of conversion would be the reversal of the operation.
However, this may not be possible for some people because of the cost or because of the opposition of one of the spouses. Even if the reversal is unsuccessful, the attempt at reversal is a sign of true contrition, and that is what heals the soul. Nonetheless, the confessor should not mandate reversal of the sterilization in order to receive absolution, but he could suggest reversal if the case warrants it.
In other cases, the confessor could suggest that the couple refrain from sexual relations during those times when the woman would most likely be fertile, and in this way their behavior would model Natural Family Planning. Ultimately it is the Lord who reads the human heart, and He would know if the spouses were truly repentant.
Still, other cases could be more complicated. For instance, one spouse could be truly repentant of the sterilization, while the other may still be opposed to more children.
In that case, the cessation of intimate relations could put an undue strain on the marriage. It would not be prudent for the confessor to require no further sexual relations in this situation.
St. Paul in Spain?
Q. I’m a recent subscriber to your magazine (The Catholic Answer), so I don’t know whether you may have answered this question in the past. I and many in our church were studying the life of St Paul, and we could not find the answer to one question. Paul was to visit Spain; did he ever go there? If so, how and where in Spain did he go (before he returned to Rome)?
T.D., North Huntingdon, Pa.
A. The question about St. Paul in Spain arises because his biblical epistle to the Romans states his intention to visit them on his way to visit there (see Romans15:24-28).
Such a visit, though not recorded in Scripture, seems likely in view of the testimony from several ancient sources (though many historians have discounted these texts and dismissed the possibility that the Apostle ever visited Spain).
St. Clement of Rome, who probably had been a disciple of St. Paul, wrote only thirty years after the Apostle’s death that Paul had visited Spain after his imprisonment in Rome, and on his return revisited several churches in the East. According to tradition he was again arrested, sent back to Rome, and executed there on the same day as St. Peter.
This witness is confirmed by later Fathers of the Church — St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Epiphanius, St. Jerome and St. John Chrysostom (all fourth century) — not to mention two other ancient texts: the Muratorian Canon and the Acta Pauli (both second century texts).
We don’t have any details of where in Spain the Apostle might have travelled.
Life on Other Planets?
Q. Could you please tell me what the modern Catholic Church thinks about life on other planets?
J.W., Orlando, Florida
A. The possibility of life on other planets has been debated throughout the centuries, but the Catholic Church has never taken an official position on this particular issue. In recent years, remarks from scientists at the Vatican observatory seem to have been quite sympathetic to the notion, but of course these scientists don’t speak officially for the Church.
“Life on other planets” can refer both to intelligent life and non-intelligent life. The more pressing form of the question, it seems to me, is whether extraterrestrial intelligent life (ETI) exists. That possibility raises all kinds of interesting speculations about the relationship of such intelligent life to God.
Might some extraterrestrial races be fallen as we are, and others be unfallen? And if some are fallen, would Jesus Christ have a role in their salvation — or, as the second “Adam” (in St. Paul’s words; see 1 Corinthians 15:45), is He the Savior only for the race of Adam?
I recommend a book by my friend Marie I. George, professor of theology at St. John’s University in New York. It’s entitled Christianity and Extraterrestrials: A Catholic Perspective (iUniverse, 2005), and it addresses some of these issues from the carefully reasoned viewpoint of a Thomist philosopher. (Click here.)
I’ve had a keen interest in this topic for years. Someday, when I have a little more time (God grant that such a day will come), I plan to write an in-depth book on the subject, which will include the fascinating history of the centuries-old debate among Christians.
Why Did God Allow Temptation?
Q. In the Book of Genesis, I can’t understand why God put the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden and then told Adam, “You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die.”
God knew that Adam and Eve were going to be tempted and eat the fruit, so why did God let this first sin happen and all the evil to follow in the world?
S.H., via email
A. Another way to state your question is this: Why did God make human beings with free will, even though He knew they would abuse it?
Which is better: A world of robots who act only in accordance with God’s will because they are programmed to do so — or a world of sons and daughters who are free to love Him and one another, even if they sometimes fail to do so? I think that most of us would agree with God’s decision that the latter is the better kind of world, despite its problems.
As long as there exists in the world a free will other than God’s own, there exists the possibility of that will opposing His will, at least at the outset. (A human free will that chooses to love God is at last, after death, confirmed in that choice so that it can never choose against God again; but the final “ratification” of the will’s choice by God results from the will’s own free choice in the first place.)
God was willing to take the risk that free human (and angelic) wills would oppose Him because free-willed creatures are a much higher good than robots. But keep in mind as well that God is able to bring out of even the greatest of evils a greater good.
Because He has this ability (which He continually exercises), He is justified in allowing the evil. In the end, though we may not be able to see it clearly now, His Providence crafts a universe in which, as St. Paul says, “this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Sole Source of Salvation?
Q. Where does it say that the Catholic Church is the sole source of salvation? My teenage son is asking why a person of any other faith cannot automatically assume the doors to salvation are open to him or her as well as they are for a Catholic.
V.N., via email
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D.:
The Church’s doctrine extra ecclesiam, nulla salus (“outside the Church, no salvation”), does not deny salvation to non-Catholics and non-Christians. First Timothy 2:4 says that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” The Church’s teaching simply tells us how God in Christ makes salvation available to all persons. In the space available here, it’s possible to sketch only a very brief outline of the basis of extra ecclesiam.
The first fact to keep in mind is that Jesus Christ is the universal, the only, Redeemer of the world. He accomplished that redemption through the natural body He took from His blessed mother, and only through that body. That redemption is an objective fact, but it must be applied to individuals so they can share in it.
After His ascension our Lord created another body, a supernatural body, through which the fruits of His redemption could be made available to the world. That body is the Mystical Body of Christ, His redeeming kingdom on earth. That body is the Catholic Church.
Now that Jesus has accomplished His redemption, objectively speaking, the benefits of that redemption must be made available to all persons. And so, we read in Ephesians, the “plan of mystery hidden for ages in God [or “by God”] is “that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” as well as on earth (Eph 3:9-10).
Because the Church that Christ established is His means for dispensing His salvation to the world, the Church [again we read in Ephesians] is “the fullness of Him [Christ] who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23; emphases added in both quotations).
Repeatedly the Magisterium of the Church has reminded us that, as Vatican II put it, the Mystical Body of Christ and the Catholic Church “form one complex reality which comes together from a human and a divine element.” Again, the Catholic Church is “a visible organization through which [Christ] communicates grace and truth to all men” (Constitution on the Church, 8).
Echoing Vatican II’s description of the Church as the “universal sacrament of salvation,” Pope John Paul II declared: “The Church is the sacrament of salvation for all humankind, and her activity is not limited only to those who accept her message” (“Mission of the Redeemer,” 20).
Several years ago the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the document Dominus Iesus. It rejected widespread attempts (both within and outside the Church) to dilute the Church’s teaching about our Lord and her relation to Him. The English title is quite significant: “On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.” The title simply states that Jesus Christ and His Church are indivisible. He as universal Savior always works through his Church.
The Catholic Church, therefore, “has, in God’s plan, an indispensable relationship with the salvation of every human being” (Dominus Iesus, 20). Extra ecclesiam, nulla salus simply means that because Christ always works through His Church, the Church is necessary for salvation. Yet the Church doesn’t teach that one can be saved only if He is an active member of the Catholic Church.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that since Christ has come as universal Savior, the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery” (1260). Romans 1:19–20 assures us that God has given some knowledge of Himself to every person.
If persons — through no fault of their own — have no knowledge of Christ and His Church, or have misinformation about the Church, they are in a state of “invincible ignorance.” If they seek to love and serve God on the basis of the best information they have, they too can be saved. Whatever truth they have by whatever means is Catholic truth. Outside the Church, outside the Mystical Body of Christ, there is no salvation.
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