TCA Faith for May/June 2009

Confess to a Priest?

Q. A non-Catholic friend is curious about the Sacrament of Penance. She asks me, "Why should I confess my sins to a priest when I can go straight to God and ask His forgiveness?" How shall I answer her?

M.N., via e-mail

A.To adequately respond to this question, we must start with the nature of sin itself.

Imagine yourself standing beside a small quiet pond and tossing a large rock out into the middle. From the point of impact you see concentric circles going out and out, until you finally lose track of them.

Sin is like that. In each instance of sin we usually know the prime target of our sin, in addition to our sinning against God. But our sins, no matter how private, always affect other people in ways we cannot know.

The effects of our sins go out and out, like the concentric circles in the pond we mentioned. We can ask forgiveness from the person or persons we know we have offended, and make necessary acts of reparation.

But what about the other persons whom our sins have harmed, persons whose identity we cannot know? We need forgiveness from them, too.

That is why Jesus Christ established the Sacrament of Penance. He authorized certain persons (His priests) to speak in His name and in the name of the community we have offended by our sins.

Through the priest, therefore, we are enabled (1) to ask pardon of all the persons affected by our sins, and (2) to receive their forgiveness. The unknown persons whom our sins have affected may not know about our asking their pardon. But the important thing is that we have repented, and through the priest have sincerely asked for the pardon of all whom we have offended.

I must regularly confess my sins to God alone. But that's not enough. I must also regularly and frequently confess to a priest who represents members of the Church as well as God.

Jesus Christ never dealt in mere options. When He established the Catholic Church, He intended that all His followers should be part of it. When He gave us the Sacrament of Penance, He intended that we all should make use of it.

Catechism or Bible?

Q. In my readings of different Catholic magazines and the question-and-answer sections, it seems to me that the priests and laypeople answering the questions use the Catechism of the Catholic Church rather than the Bible. I thought that the Bible is the "Word of God." Why such extensive use of the Catechism, which is an interpretation of God's Word?

Bill Sega, Duluth, Minn.

A. Sometimes people with serious questions do find answers in their reading of Scripture. However, few of the questions appearing in Catholic journals (like this one) can be answered simply by quoting Scripture.

G.K. Chesterton once was asked, "What does the Bible say about such and such?"

He answered: "It says nothing. The Bible can't speak. Like any other book, it has to be interpreted."

To interpret any writing is to attach meaning to the words. No one can read the Bible (or any other book) without attaching some meaning to what he reads. The Bible is interpreted in thousands of different ways, many of them contradictory.

Knowing this would happen, God provided a way by which the true interpretation could be known through the centuries. He entrusted interpretation of His Word to His Church.

The Church's Catechism gives us the Word of God as received and authoritatively interpreted by God's one true Church, the Catholic Church. That's why we have to consult the Catechism regarding questions about the Faith.

Bible Proof?

Q. Sometimes I try to share the Catholic faith with a devout evangelical Protestant friend.

Invariably she asks me to "prove"our teachings to her from the Bible. How should I respond to her request?

Name withheld by request

A. You should give your friend this challenge: "Prove to me from Scripture that I must prove my faith from Scripture." Nowhere does Scripture even remotely suggest that the Catholic faith must be proved from Scripture. Your friend's demand is itself non-scriptural.

Tell her who wrote the New Testament. It was members of the Catholic Church, working under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And what did they enshrine in the New Testament books? Key elements of the Church's teaching and tradition.

The Church's teaching, therefore, is not based on the Bible, because the Church came first. We must say rather that the Church's teaching is reflected in the Bible.

But not the whole of the Church's teaching. Remind your friend of what the Fourth Gospel tells us at the end of each of its last two chapters:

"Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [His] disciples that are not written in this book" (Jn 20:30). "But there are also many other things that Jesus did" (Jn 21:25).

The wholeness of God's revelation comes to us through what the Church has written and through the ongoing life of the Church (what we call "Tradition").

Offer your friend this hypothetical situation. Assume she comes from a large family of Joneses. A publisher asks them to write a book that completely describes what it means to be a Jones in that family.

Assume further that the whole family works diligently for years to produce a large volume on this theme. When they submit the book to the publisher, he asks, "Is this all there is to tell about living in your family?"

They would have to admit that their book is far from exhaustive. Only by living in the family could one gain any fullness of understanding of that family's life.

So it is with the proper reading of the New Testament. Only by living in the family of Christ's Church, sharing in its traditions, can we have access to the fullness of God's revelation.

Alpha Course?

Q. Our parish in England is "very pleased to announce that we are about to introduce our very own Alpha Course for 10 weeks starting in April -- it's free and it's fun." I am certain that Alpha is not healthy for untutored minds and wonder if you have anything that I could use to respond to this questionable exercise. Could you provide a few notes outlining the Catholic teaching on this policy?

Pat Ryan, London, U.K.

A. The Alpha Course claims to be an introduction to the Christian faith. It originated in a Church of England parish in London. It involves video presentations, small group discussions, talks and a weekend away.

As far as I can determine, the Church has taken no stand with regard to Alpha. Several Catholic leaders have endorsed it. You can find a wealth of information, negative as well as positive, about Alpha on Google.

The fact that Alpha is so closely associated with the "Toronto Blessing" movement gives cause for concern. Alpha leaders such as Nicky Gumbel have endorsed and borrowed from the "Toronto Blessing." The latter involves scandalous behavior in a church: violent movements, howling like animals, shouting, compulsive laughter -- all presumably as gifts of the Spirit.

The descriptions of the "Blessing" that I have read seem to make it sound like another version of so-called primal-scream therapy, which briefly enjoyed vogue in this country late in the last century.

Married Bishops?

Q. I have been reading my Bible, and I am confused by what I have read about bishops. I remember it saying twice in the New Testament that bishops should marry only once. What is the foundation for the current rule that priests and bishops must not marry?

Bob McGarvey, via e-mail

A. Both 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6 specify that a bishop must have been "married only once" (literally, "the husband of one wife"). First Timothy 3:12 states the same requirement for deacons. To understand the meaning of these verses, we must turn to the early history of celibacy.

In the early centuries of the Church, the Church ordained some men who were married. Before they could be ordained, however, they and their wives had to make a vow of perpetual continence. The earliest canons of which we have record are those of the Council of Elvira (ca. 305).

The canons dealt with infractions of traditional Church rules, such as the vow of perpetual continence by married couples, and called for obedience. So did the Council of Arles in 314. In 385, Pope Siricius reminded all married clergy that the rule of continence for married bishops, priests and deacons is in fact "indissoluble."

In response, some of the married clergy cited 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6 as justification for continuing to live with their wives. Pope Siricius declared that "married only once" did not mean that a married bishop could continue conjugal relations after ordination. Rather, he said, those verses mean that a man who had been faithful to one wife reasonably could be regarded as sufficiently mature to practice the perpetual continence required of him and his wife after he was ordained.

This is the first magisterial exegesis of these passages. It has been repeated consistently down through the ages. This interpretation of the Timothy and Titus passages was reaffirmed most recently in the Congregation for the Clergy's Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests (1994).

Modern scholarship has shown conclusively that from the time of the apostles celibacy was the rule for the Church's bishops, priests and deacons. The Eastern Orthodox practice of allowing married priests and deacons dates from the year 690.

A dissident council at Trullo rejected the traditional Catholic discipline of celibacy and allowed married men to function as priests and deacons. But even in that irregular situation, the bishops were still required to be celibate.

The Church's magisterium, in recent decades, has repeatedly declared the Church's firm commitment to clerical celibacy. The rule is not about to be changed.

God or Satan?

Q. Who incited David to count the fighting men of Israel? Two scriptural passages that refer to the incident seem to contradict one another. According to 2 Samuel 24:1, God did it. According to 1 Chronicles 21:1, Satan did it.

Name withheld by request

A. The Old Testament clearly reveals that everything which happens is somehow part of God's overall plan for creation. Even evil occurs only because God allows it to happen. To emphasize this point, the Old Testament frequently indulges in what we may call hyperbole (exaggeration for the sake of emphasis). It speaks of God as himself bringing about evil.

The 1 Chronicles account may be taken literally; David's wrongful act was incited by Satan (though David should have resisted). The 2 Samuel version may be taken as meaning that God allowed (rather than incited) David to do a sinful act.

Satan or Adversary?

Q. I am becoming very confused over all the "new and improved" translations of words in the Bible. I know there is ongoing study to determine some words, but how could basic words have been mistranslated as badly as some people are claiming?

There have been many, many instances of such claims, but the most recent was when I was told that the word "Satan" in Matthew 16:23 doesn't actually mean either Satan or the devil. Instead, I was told, the word means only an adversary or someone who disagrees with someone. So the Bible passage in question should actually say something like this: "Quit arguing with me, Peter."

Please tell me the Church understood correctly how the word was used all the way back in the beginning, and that it really meant Satan! It is nearly impossible for me to believe that, from the beginning, the Church misunderstood the real meaning of so basic a word, but now suddenly it understands.

Name withheld by request

A.The opinion you cite errs in confusing the literal meaning of a word (Satanos) with its use in Matthew 16:23 and 4:10.

Satanos does literally mean "adversary." In these two passages, however, it clearly denotes the leader of the fallen angels: "Satan," "the devil," just as it does in numerous other Gospel passages (see Mt 12:26; Mk 1:13; 3:23; 3:26; 4:15; 8:33; Lk 10:18; 11:18; 13:16; 22:3; 22:31).

Here is a reminder to the authors of the erroneous opinion you have quoted. The Catholic Church wrote the New Testament; the Church preserved and canonized the books of the New Testament. She alone is qualified to say what her use of the words therein really mean. In both the passages from Matthew we have discussed, she called the devil by the name she has given him: Satan.

"Pray Constantly"?

Q. One of the clear commands in the New Testament has always puzzled me. It's a very short verse, only two words: "Pray constantly" (1 Thes 5:17, RSV). This is impossible. How must we interpret this verse?

Name withheld by request

A. As you say, it's literally impossible to "pray constantly." But it's not impossible to spend our day, or at least much of it, in a state of prayer.

The state of prayer involves first of all frequently recalling ourselves to a conscious realization of God's presence. We do this with frequent aspirations, which may only require a few seconds of our attention. A word, a phrase, a sentence: whatever suffices to make us keenly aware of God's presence within us and around us. To acquire this habit, some find it helpful at first to count their aspirations, ensuring a minimum number offered during the day.

To live in a state of prayer also requires our determination to dedicate our tasks to God. We can offer the fulfillment of our daily responsibilities to advancing the glory of God. As St. Thérèse of Lisieux explained it, "If you wish to be a saint -- and it will not be hard -- keep only one end in view, always to do everything in order to please Jesus." This helps to put us on our guard against words or deeds or thoughts which we know cannot please Jesus.

Another dimension of living in a state of prayer is trying always to do our best in all we have to do. God is not honored with slipshod work. Nor will we ourselves find satisfaction in work poorly done.

In these ways we work through the day in a state of prayer until we commit a sin. That brings our state of prayer to an end. Immediately we must turn back to the Father in true contrition and repent of our sin as we ask His forgiveness. Then we're ready to enter once again into the state of prayer.

Masonic Pope?

Q. Could you please tell me if there was ever a pope, possibly named John, who was a Mason? Is it true that the reason the popes do not choose the first name of John is that all the heads of the Masons down through the years have always chosen the name John?

I know a couple who claim to have knowledge of this and state that there are Vatican documents to prove it. Could you please tell me whether this is true, and where I can go to read these documents (hopefully online) for myself?

This couple also says that there are many bishops in Rome today who are Masons! I find these claims very disturbing. I can dismiss what these folks are saying, but my son is good friends with them, and I am afraid they will lead him away from the truth.

Melody Gentilcore, via e-mail

A. First, a bit about the Church and Freemasonry. A primary objective of Freemasonry in Europe was to destroy the Catholic Church. In this country Freemasonry is primarily a social club. Yet the religion it claims to hold in many ways contradicts the Catholic faith.

The Catholic Church long ago imposed the penalty of excommunication on Catholics who join the Freemasons. That penalty was clearly stated in Canon 2335 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

It was implicit in Canon 1374 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Because the penalty was not explicitly stated in the 1983 code, some wrongly concluded the Church no longer condemns Freemasonry.

However, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith quickly acted to dispel this illusion. Even before the 1983 code was promulgated, the congregation issued a statement declaring that the penalty remains in effect.

It is not true that popes do not choose the name John. Remember Pope John XXIII? Obviously there were 22 popes before him also named John.

Your friends claim there are documents to prove this nonsense. You should tell them that you cannot believe their assertions unless they produce proof. Challenge them to do so.

Tell your son that because the Catholic Church is the one true Church of Jesus Christ, Satan constantly puts forth lies like these in his vain effort to do her harm. TCA

What's an Antipope?

Q. What is an antipope, and who were the antipopes?

B.W., via e-mail

A. An antipope is someone who makes a false claim to be the pope based on a process of election, installment or even self-appointment that is contrary to the Church's laws. Historians typically recognize as antipopes only those false claimants with a significant following, such as large numbers of the faithful, powerful political backing or some portion of the College of Cardinals.

Lists of antipopes compiled by scholars vary because questions have arisen in particular cases over how to harmonize historical criteria with those of theology and canon law. The Annuario Pontificio (Pontifical Yearbook), the annual directory of the Holy See, lists 37 antipopes, beginning with Hippolytus, whose false claim to St. Peter's throne lasted from A.D. 217 to 235, and ending with Felix V (1439-1449). There are actually a few people today who claim to be the true pontiff in opposition to Pope Benedict XVI, but none of them have a substantial enough following to be included in the Church's list.

Antipopes in the early Church were typically promoted by rival ecclesiastical parties in Rome. In later centuries, they were more often puppets of secular rulers attempting to undermine or co-opt papal power. A few, however, had broad enough international support within the Church itself to become serious rivals to the popes they opposed.

For more information and a complete list (including two disputed names that don't appear in the Annuario), see the article on anti-popes in Matthew Bunson's "The Pope Encyclopedia" (Three Rivers, 1995).

What Are Gargoyles?

Q. What exactly are gargoyles, and why are they found on churches?

P.J., New York

A. A gargoyle is a waterspout (usually made of stone) that projects from a roof gutter or upper part of a building to throw water clear of walls or foundations. It minimizes water erosion. The term is derived (as is the word "gargle") from the French gargouille, meaning "throat."

Some gargoyles are undecorated, but the memorable ones -- most popular in the Gothic-style churches of the Middle Ages -- are carved into fanciful, often grotesque, shapes. They may portray humans, beasts, human-beast hybrids, animal hybrids (chimeras) or demons.

By extension, any similar figure adorning a building has come to be called a gargoyle. But technically, if it's not a waterspout, it should be called a grotesque.

So why were medieval churches adorned with these bizarre-looking characters? The short answer: We don't really know for sure. Scholars have suggested various theories:

They reminded churchgoers that the enemies of their souls lurk outside the holy place, ready to tempt them to sin.

They were intimidating "guardians" to frighten away demons.

They were pre-Christian pagan symbols, "baptized" for Christian use.

They were whimsical or mischievous, a form of medieval humor.

The vulgar ones may have been carved as retribution for mistreating the stone carver.
Perhaps at least some gargoyles were created for each of these reasons.