TCA Faith for May/June 2010

Why Wisdom Books? 

Q. If the Wisdom books of the Old Testament, such as the Book of Proverbs, don’t contribute to the story of salvation history, what is their purpose in Scripture? Much of it sounds as if it could be included in any secular collection of folk wisdom. 

Gary Kinders, via e-mail  

A. It is true that some of Israel’s wisdom literature is quite similar to that which was widespread throughout the ancient Near East. It focuses on the individual: how to live successfully — that is, happily. 

Yet unlike that of her neighbors, Israel’s wisdom literature always had in its background the religion of Israel. Israel recognized that all wisdom comes from God. We can see development of doctrine in Israel’s literature. Whereas other literature contrasted wisdom with folly, Israel began to see the contrast as that between virtue and vice. And then, gradually, there emerged a contrast between true religion and false religion. 

In the early chapters of Proverbs (especially in 8:22-31), we find wisdom personified in the female gender (see also Jb 28; Prv 1 and 9; Sir 24; Wis 7:7—9:18). Wisdom speaks as a person, eternally present with God, actively involved in the creation of the world. “Before all ages, in the beginning, he created me, and through all ages I shall not cease to be” (Sir 24:9). Though the personification of Wisdom here may be only a poetic device, still it foreshadows the revelation of Persons within the Godhead. And that, in my opinion, is its chief merit and purpose.

Extraordinary Form of the Mass? 

Q. In the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, only the Lord’s Body is distributed to the faithful, not the Precious Blood. I assume, then, that this custom was practiced for centuries. Why was this the liturgical tradition? 

Gary Lessing, via e-mail  

A. Down to the 12th century, the Church commonly distributed Communion under both species ( sub utraque specie ). Yet in certain instances the practice of giving Communion under only one kind existed from earliest times. 

When the Church was under persecution by the Roman Empire in the early centuries of Christian history, Communion under one form only was widely practiced. From their sharing in the liturgical assembly on Sunday, the faithful were allowed to take the Precious Body to their homes for Communion during the week. Furthermore, Communion for the sick was ordinarily given under one species. In addition, children were usually given Communion under one species. Yet Communion under both species has always been required for the celebrating priest. 

Various factors entered into the Church’s gradual change to giving Communion under one species only. There was always the danger of spilling the Precious Blood. The administering of the chalice to large numbers inconveniently prolonged the length of the Mass. Hygienic reservations about receiving from one chalice caused many to communicate very infrequently. 

The Church’s teaching is crystal clear: one who receives under one species receives the whole Christ, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. 

Start of Tonsure? 

Q. I understand that ancient Israelites cut their hair or even shaved their heads as a sign of grief over bereavement or sins. Is this the origin of the old custom among monks who received the tonsure, and of nuns who cut their hair short? 

Janice Beers, via e-mail 

A. The early medieval origins of monastic tonsure are obscure. We do know it was never an outward sign of grief. Rather, it symbolized the monk’s renouncing worldly fashion and esteem. In Roman times it was common practice to shave the heads of slaves. The tonsure, therefore, was also a symbol of slavery (“servants — slaves — of God”). 

How Many Orthodox Sacraments? 

Q. Do the Eastern Orthodox Churches have the same number of sacraments as the Catholic Church? 

Barry Hodgson, via e-mail 

A. The answer you get to this question depends on whom you ask. Modern Eastern Orthodox apologists boast that Eastern Orthodoxy has never defined the number of sacraments. 

This claim — which is true — raises two issues: the meaning of “Eastern Orthodoxy,” and the ultimate doctrinal authority for the separated Eastern Churches. 

The phrase “Eastern Orthodoxy” is an abstraction. There is no entity which we can call “Eastern Orthodoxy.” Rather, the phrase is a generic term designating a dozen or more totally independent ethnic national Churches of the East. 

Centuries after the Eastern Churches broke away from the pope’s universal jurisdiction, Eastern apologists came up with a totally new theory of doctrinal authority to justify their separation. They began to claim that the ultimate authority for the Church is (a) an ecumenical council (b) whose decrees are received [accepted] by all the faithful. 

First of all, these apologists accept some of the decrees only of the first seven ecumenical councils. Again, not one of those councils ever decreed or even suggested that the council itself is the ultimate authority in doctrine. The decrees of each became effective only after being approved by the pope. Furthermore, the decrees of each of those councils were never “received” by all the faithful. Significant numbers of Eastern Christians rejected the decrees of each council. Still further, modern Eastern apologists admit there is no way by which to determine whether or when the faithful have accepted a given council. Finally, Eastern theologians also admit their Churches have no way of convoking an ecumenical council. 

Now back to your question. Some Eastern Orthodox writers agree there are seven sacraments, like those of the Catholic Church. Others agree with that number, but disagree about which are sacraments. A 13th-century monk, Job, added tonsure as a sacrament, combining penance and anointing of the sick into one. Authors in the 15th century, like Joasaph, Metropolitan of Ephesus, held there are 10 sacraments. He added to the list the funeral service, the monastic tonsure and the consecration of a church. 

Two facts are clear. One, there is no definite answer to your question. Two, the varying answers — indeed, every Eastern Orthodox disagreement with Catholic teaching — is purely personal opinion of the writers. None have been ratified by what they claim is their ultimate authority. 

Mystics? Prophets? 

Q. Is there any correlation between Old Testament prophets and modern-day mystics? 

Melissa Ginther, via e-mail 

A. The only correlation that occurs to me is, in fact, a contrast. The Church recognizes the prophets as spokesmen of God, and their proclamations as authentic revelation, to be accepted and lived. The visions, apparitions, locutions and writings of the mystics, on the other hand, are private revelation, binding on none other than the mystics themselves. 

Masculine Angels? 

Q. Why, if angels have no gender, are the angels in the Bible given masculine names? And why do they seem to take on masculine forms when they appear? 

Mary Hinson, via e-mail 

A. In most cultures, it is customary to refer to a person as masculine when nothing is known about the person’s gender. I think this is the explanation for giving masculine names and forms to angels, who, as you say, are without gender. 

Gifts of the Holy Spirit? 

Q. Why do we receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit at confirmation, when the Holy Spirit came down on Jesus at baptism? 

Danielle McClay, via e-mail 

A. Our first sacramental encounter with the Holy Spirit is at our baptism. Recall some of the themes in our baptismal liturgy for children. “Send your Holy Spirit to dwell with him (her)”; “We now ask God to give this child new life in abundance through water and the Holy Spirit”; “By water and the Holy Spirit” the child will “receive the gift of new life from God, who is love”; speaking to the child, the celebrant tells him (her) that God has “given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit.” 

Then notice the address to the parents and godparents after the child is baptized. “In confirmation he (she) will receive the fullness of God’s Spirit.” 

To understand what the Church means by receiving the “fullness of God’s Spirit,” try this analogy. A young man is sworn into the Navy. From that moment on, he is the Navy’s man. Later, he receives orders to go on active duty. Then he begins to live his state of life bestowed on him at his swearing in. 

Baptism makes us integral parts of Christ’s mystical body. We will never belong to Christ more fully than we do after baptism. The strengthening gifts of the Holy Spirit we receive in confirmation — “the fullness of God’s Spirit” — constitute our orders to active duty. The youth who receives confirmation publicly accepts the responsibility for living the Christian life. 

Communion for a Granddaughter? 

Q. Recently, a female friend revealed to me that while receiving Communion, she took her 8-year-old granddaughter with her, and after receiving the Host in her hand she broke off a little piece and gave it to the little girl (who had yet to receive her first Communion). I told her what she did was wrong, and she responded: “What’s wrong with what I did? She’s an innocent 8-year-old.” I offered a few reasons, but she stood firm in her belief that what she did should be acceptable. What would be the proper response? 

Charles Mazzei, New Castle, Pa. 

A. For many reasons, your friend did wrong in sharing a sacred Host with her granddaughter. (a) The lady was not authorized by the Church to give Communion to another. (b) The child was not yet authorized to receive Communion. (c) The Host was given to the lady for one purpose only: for immediate consumption. (d) It was an act of sacrilege for her to presume to handle it and pass part of it on to another. (e) There was also the very real risk of breaking and dropping parts of the Host on the floor. 

Jews and Salvation History? 

Q. Why did God select the Jews? 

Bob O’Neill, Palm Coast, Fla. 

A. As God’s spokesman, Moses told his people God had chosen them simply because of His love for them and His promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. “It was not because you are not the largest of all nations that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you, for you are really the smallest of all nations. It was because the Lord loved you and because of his fidelity to the oath he had sworn to your fathers, that he brought you out with his strong hand from the place of slavery, and ransomed you from the hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt” (Dt 7:7-8). 

Why did God choose the Jews? Because He loved them. But God loves all His children. Perhaps God knew the Jews were a uniquely qualified people for His mission. Undoubtedly, God had a reason, apart from His love for them, but He has not revealed it to us. 

A Final Chance? 

Q. I have always understood the Church taught the state of grace or the state of relationship with God that you die in determines where you will live in eternity. However, I am a bit confused now, because many people, including Maria Simma, have stated that after death we receive “a final chance” to turn to God and accept Him. But this contradicts what the Church has always taught. If God gives us all one last chance, then doesn’t that allow for sinful behavior in life, if God will show compassion to the unrepentant? 

Colin P., via e-mail 

A. Maria Simma (1915-2004) was an Austrian lady who claimed to have received visitors from purgatory over a period of more than 60 years. If she thought souls in purgatory told her about a “final chance” after death, she totally misunderstood her informants. Souls in purgatory, who are on their way to heaven, certainly would not teach heresy like the notion of a “final chance” after death. Having themselves undergone the particular judgment at the moment of their death, they would know there is no such thing as a “final chance.” 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church expresses the Church’s teaching quite clearly. “Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, 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).

Changing the Sabbath? 

Q. I am confused. I recently read where Pope Benedict XVI stated that the Sabbath was changed by Jesus and the apostles, and yet I have read over the years many quotes claiming the Catholic Church herself changed the day from Saturday to Sunday. Can you help explain the change in views? 

Tim Hukill, via e-mail 

A. I, too, have read many repetitions of the claim that the Catholic Church changed the Christian day of worship from Saturday to Sunday. Every single one of those statements was made by an enemy of the Church. The claims were made as an indictment of the Church. They were entirely false. 

I have not read Pope Benedict’s statement, but I believe he would say that Jesus Christ himself changed the solemn day of worship for Christians from Saturday to Sunday. Our Lord made that change by His rising from the dead on the first day of the week. The New Testament clearly shows “the first day of the week” (Sunday) was the day on which Christians came together for “the breaking of bread” (the Eucharist). For example, you might read Mark 2:27 and Acts 20:7.

An Unforgivable Sin? 

Q. Is there any unforgivable sin? 

Dana, via e-mail 

A. A quick answer is, there are no unforgivable sins, but there can be unforgivable sinners. To explain: there is no sin which in itself cannot be forgiven if the sinner is truly contrite and seeks forgiveness. But if a person does not seek forgiveness, he cannot be forgiven. God the Father never forces forgiveness on a person. That forgiveness would be meaningless.

Mortal and Venial Sins? 

Q. I am a strong believer in the Catholic faith and in Christ, the final offering for our sins. Briefly describe the difference between a mortal sin and a venial sin. Is not a sin, great or small, in God’s eyes a sin? 

Robert Reynolds Reesh, via e-mail 

A. Let’s start with the general definition of sin. “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is a failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity” (Catechism, No. 1849). Sin is always serious in that it adversely affects our relationship with the Father and with those around us. 

Three factors must be simultaneously present for an act to be mortal sin. The object of sin must be “grave matter.” The sinner must understand that what he or she does is mortal sin. The sinner must give full consent to the sinful act itself. If any one of these conditions is lacking, the sin is not mortal. The Catechism describes in some detail the effects of mortal sin, especially the loss of sanctifying grace. Persistence in mortal sin leads to what it calls “the eternal death of hell” (No. 1861). 

Venial sin, which involves less grave matter, does not completely cut the sinner off from God’s grace. Yet it reflects “a disordered affection for created goods” (Catechism, No. 1863). It impedes one’s growth in virtue. If persisted in, it can lead one into mortal sin. 

In teaching us about sin, the Catechism quotes an invaluable warning from St. Augustine: “While he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call ‘light’; if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap. What then is our hope? Above all, confession.” (No. 1863). TCA