TCA Faith for July/August 2015

God’s Plan?

Q. Can you tell if there is a difference between God’s plan for us and what God wills for us?

Alan Reifenheiser, via e-mail

A. This terminology is more common among some Protestant groups. Catholic theology emphasizes that God wills “simply.” And although we may see His will as having 10,000 moving parts and unfolding through millennia, He himself wills in a more singular way and dwells in eternity, where His will does not unfold as plans.

To illustrate, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Now the Father’s will is ‘to raise up men to share in his own divine life.’ He does this by gathering men around his Son Jesus Christ. This gathering is the Church” (No. 541). And thus we see in this statement God’s singular will, to raise us to divine life, and then some particular aspects of that singular will. Some may wish to call these particular aspects God’s “plan,” and that is fine. But we must recall that God does not view linear time like we do, looking down the road to the next part of a plan. Neither does He look back in time. All is present to Him in the comprehensive “now” we call eternity. Hence His will and His plans for us are ultimately one.

Some Protestants, and perhaps some Catholics, too, also distinguish between God’s executive will (what He directly wills and does) and His permissive will (what He permits — for example, evil). But here, too, these are not Catholic terms per se. To distinguish these is not wrong so long as we do not forget the ultimate oneness of God’s will and of His sovereignty as Lord of history. He is the Primary Cause of all things, even if He permits and wills the unfolding of His will through secondary causes.

Non-Catholics and Mortal Sins?

Q. Our Catholic faith teaches us that if we die with mortal sin on our souls (not having gone to confession) we are destined for hell. How is it that non-Catholic Christians, who I don’t believe practice confessions as Catholics do, who have committed a grave sin can be saved from hell?

R.W. Halker, Temperance, Mich.

A. Well, one can only hope that they have what amounts to “invincible ignorance.” Invincible ignorance refers to a kind of ignorance that could not be easily overcome given a person’s background or situation. In some cases, a person may never have heard of the need for confession as taught by the Catholic Church regarding mortal sins. While such complete ignorance is not usually presumed these days, a different kind of invincible ignorance might emerge when a person is taught explicitly against a practice such as confession and piously believe those who taught them against it. Given their piety, and presuming that they have sincerely sought the truth and think they are living it, they can be said to have an invincible ignorance of the need for confession of mortal sins.

Therefore, presuming they are sorry for their sins of the past, God can, on His own initiative, forgive them in other ways than confession. For, although we are bound by the sacraments, God is not. And he can take into account situations and conditions which can override the general need for the Sacrament of Penance.

This might even be true in the case of a pious Catholic who, having mortal sins cannot formally celebrate the sacrament, say, for example, because they are dying in the aftermath of a sudden car accident or heart attack. In such situations, for the Catholic who is dying and a priest cannot be summoned in time, he or she can make an Act of Contrition and trust in God’s capacity to forgive, even outside the sacrament.

None of this should be understood that the Church makes light of the need for the Sacrament of Penance. Catholics who know better are obliged to go to confession when and if they are aware of mortal sins, and are encouraged to do so regularly even if not aware of mortal sins. Reasonably catechized Catholics cannot claim invincible ignorance.

It should also be said that confession brings with it many graces, and, sadly, even those in invincible ignorance do not attain to many if not most of those graces. Hence, we rightly argue that it is more difficult to be saved outside the clear practice of the Catholic faith. Because of God’s grace and mercy, it is not impossible to be saved, but it is more difficult. It is like trying to overcome a serious illness without having access to all the medicines. It can be done, but it is more difficult. So we should work earnestly to bring everyone to the full practice of the Catholic faith.

Apostolic Pardon?

Q. In the January/February 2015 issue, Msgr. Charles E. Pope said that saints would need some purgation after death (“Are Saints in Purgatory?”). But why didn’t he mention the Apostolic Pardon, which removes all temporal punishment due to sin? Then the person would not go to purgatory.

Michael, via e-mail

A. For the sake of readers unfamiliar with the Apostolic Pardon: The Apostolic Pardon forgives temporal punishment due to sins (not the sins themselves). Presuming that we die in a state of grace, anything for which we have not done adequate penance in this life (which is also called the “temporal punishment” due to those sins) can be forgiven us through the Apostolic Pardon. The Apostolic Pardon is often given when it is rather certain that the person is nearing death. It is given after the conferral of the Sacraments of Penance, the Anointing of the Sick and viaticum.

The current form of the blessing is: “Through the holy mysteries of our redemption, may almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come. May he open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting life.”

The Handbook of Indulgences states: “Priests who minister the sacraments to the Christian faithful who are in a life-and-death situation should not neglect to impart to them the apostolic blessing, with its attached indulgence. But if a priest cannot be present, holy mother Church lovingly grants such persons who are rightly disposed a plenary indulgence to be obtained in articulo mortis (‘at the approach of death’), provided they regularly prayed in some way during their lifetime. The use of a crucifix or a cross is recommended in obtaining this plenary indulgence. In such a situation the three usual conditions required in order to gain a plenary indulgence are substituted for by the condition provided they regularly prayed in some way” (No. 28).

Therefore as to your point, the granting of the apostolic blessing (or pardon) is not an automatic guarantee that no purgation is necessary. Surely, the blessing helps, but as the norm states above, the usual conditions for obtaining a plenary indulgence apply: confession, Communion and (if possible for the dying) prayer for the intention of the pontiff. It is further required that all attachment to sin, even venial sin, be absent. If the latter disposition is in any way less than perfect, the indulgence will be partial only.

The last condition especially is difficult to attain to, though perhaps easier if death is near. Nevertheless, while we cannot know the state of anyone’s soul perfectly, even of those who would be later canonized as saints, neither can we simply presume they met the required conditions, one of which is difficult.

That the Church canonizes a saint is not a declaration that they attained to perfection before death. It is a declaration that he or she lived an exemplary and holy life and is now, based on evidence (especially miracles ascribed to his or her intercession), in heaven and in a state of perfection. Hence the previous answer stands, though your inclusion of the Apostolic Pardon is appreciated.

Christ’s Circumcision?

Q. We know that Christ was circumcised on the eighth day per the blood covenant with Abraham. I also understand from Leviticus that the presentation of the male child, per the law of Moses, shall not occur until after the “purification” days of the woman’s bleeding after the birth are over, which could be as much as six weeks, according to my wife, or more perhaps. So where does the Epiphany fit in? Luke says that after the Presentation, they returned to Nazareth. It makes sense to me that they would stay in Bethlehem after the circumcision for Mary to rest up and to attend the Presentation at least. It doesn’t make sense that the Epiphany occurred between the two since they fled to Egypt, apparently immediately after the Magi visitation, due to Herod’s wrath. Anyway, it just doesn’t add up for me.

Larry Foster, Salinas, Calif.

A. Part of the solution to your questions centers on the fact that the timeline for the visit of the Magi isn’t clear. Matthew simply says their visit occurred “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem “ (Mt 2:1, NIV). The popular imagination often thinks of their visit occurring on the same night of the birth when the shepherds visited. But this is unlikely since Matthew says that they found Jesus with Mary in a house (oikian in Greek). Hence, at least some time has elapsed since the night of the birth, wherein they found lodging.

If we seek to reconcile the two accounts of Matthew and Luke (who emphasize different things), then it would seem that the Magi did not find Jesus until at least 40 days after His birth. Why is this?

As you note, Luke mentions the circumcision of Jesus on the eighth day, in accordance with the Law. And though the place of the circumcision is not mentioned, it was likely in Bethlehem.

There is also the event of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. The presentation of the firstborn generally took place about 40 days after birth (which Christian tradition recognizes). It seems likely that the Holy Family went to Jerusalem from Bethlehem for this. As you note, it would be unlikely that Mary, who was observing the usual period of convalescence for a woman after giving birth, would have gone all the way back to Nazareth, a round-trip journey of 140 miles.

After the Presentation we may presume that the Holy Family returned at least briefly to Bethlehem, and some time after their return the Magi made their appearance. This was followed shortly after by the flight to Egypt.

Some scholars put the visit of the Magi as late as two years after the birth of Jesus since Herod called for the death of all boys two and under. However, it is difficult to understand why the Holy Family would have stayed in Bethlehem that long, and we can reasonably assume that the Magi visited sooner than two years.

Some are troubled by the fact that Luke seems to say that they returned to Nazareth after the Presentation and that he makes no mention of the flight to Egypt, though Matthew does. But Luke’s silence about the Holy Family’s travels to Egypt does not amount to a denial of it, any more than the fact that Matthew makes no mention of the circumcision or the Presentation does not amount to a denial that they happened. Both Evangelists are merely selecting the material they deemed important.

Hopefully, the proposed timeline, though rooted in some speculation, is helpful in answering your question.

Ephesians 5?

Q. My sister-in-law does not like to go to church because she says that the Church is sexist. She cites the ordination of men only, but she also talks all the time about Ephesians 5, about wives submitting to their husbands. How can I answer her questions and critiques so that she understands properly?

Cassandra, Bridgeport, Conn.

A. Questions like these are generally asked and answered over and over to little effect because such questions are usually rhetorical — that is, they are in the form of a question, but are really meant as a statement. Answering rhetorical questions is not normally useful because an answer is not sought.

In situations like this, I often recommend the “Socratic method,” wherein you ask her some questions and request she answer seriously. The following questions I list would not be asked all at once. Rather, ask the first one respectfully, and wait for an answer. The questions that follow may or may not be relevant depending on the nature of her answers. But I list them here as the kind of questions that might be helpful to ask in conversations like this.

So for example, you might begin: What do you mean by sexist? Can you be more specific? And then, some of the following questions might also be helpful: Do you think that “equal” means “same”? Why or why not? Does the fact that men and women might have different gifts and roles mean they are unequal? Why do you think men and women have different bodies? Did God, in making them different, make them unequal or just different? Why do you link ordination to power? Do you think women have no leadership in parishes today? Are only men hired to be on parish staffs? Why do you think so many women go to church and are on parish staffs and organizations? What do you think of them? Have you talked with any of them? Why do you think that Jesus, who broke many conventions of His time, chose only men to be apostles? If you don’t think this should bind us today, why? What other things did Jesus do that no longer bind us today? Can you give examples and say why they are different than things that should bind us? Have you asked a priest or catechist why the Church does not ordain women?

Regarding her concerns about marriage and submission, you might ask: What do you think Scripture means by the word submission? Have you ever asked a priest how the Church understands this? Since it was St. Paul who said wives should be submissive, have you read what he then says about how a husband should treat his wife? What do you think of this? How should the family be structured? Do you think there is any relationship to the high divorce rates today and modern rejection of the biblical models? Is depriving yourself of the sacraments a helpful response to your concerns? How does it help you? Do you think these teachings will change because you stay away? Why?

This technique is valuable since it encourages the person,(in this case your sister-in-law, to examine some of the facts and premises of her own critique and to ponder if the premises of her criticisms are valid. Ask these questions respectfully and wait for an answer. Do not do her work for her. Ask respectfully, wait, and insist on an answer.

This is not a refusal to answer her questions, but in an atmosphere of rhetorical criticism answers from you are not always going to be effective, since she may not really be looking for answers, just an opportunity to criticize. Respectfully asking her to explore her own premises is usually more effective. I hope this helps.

Catholics and Icons?

Q. I am a Roman Catholic, but I really love icons. A friend told me that Latin-rite Catholics should not keep or collect icons because they are only for Eastern-rite Christians. She says, too, that the Orthodox and others put too much importance on icons. I know she is wrong, but how do I tell her that?

Anonymous, Newark, N.J.

A. There is no rule against Latin-rite Catholics keeping or honoring the presence of icons. Neither is there any norm restricting them to Eastern-rite Christians. The use of images, including statues, has long been permitted by the Church as a salutary reminder of Our Lord and of the heroic saints who are members of our Church family and the Body of Christ. Especially since the Incarnation of our blessed Lord, the ancient Jewish reticence toward depicting God or the image of God in man has been set aside.

The Church has also rejected iconoclasm, an ideology in the early years of the Church, which sought to reject and destroy all images and keep churches barren and empty of them.

As for your friend, rather than presenting lengthy defenses of icons and other images, ask her to present written evidence of official Church documents that they are forbidden to Roman Catholics and are only for Eastern-rite Catholics. Ask her further for written declarations from authoritative sources that you, or the Orthodox, or any Christian, place “too much importance” on icons, or if this is just her own opinion. She will not find any documents because there are none. You might also ask her to read the decrees of the seventh ecumenical Council at Nicaea, at which iconoclasm was condemned, and the ancient and classic work of St. John Damascene, “On Holy Images.”

How to Form a Conscience?

Q. What should take priority in the examination of conscience? I mean, where do you start? And can you make some suggestions on some resources?

F.X., via e-mail

A. In the Sacrament of Penance, Catholics are obliged to confess serious (mortal) sins in kind and number since their last confession. If one is uncertain of the number, then an estimate is acceptable. Hence, one should always begin there: What are the more serious sins I have committed that may likely be mortal sins? No exact list of mortal sins can be given here since circumstances are important and because many sins have a range between serious and lighter matter. For example, gossip is usually not a mortal sin, but it might become so if reputations are ruined. Regarding lies, there are serious lies that cause harm and smaller lies that do less harm and are told merely to avoid awkward situations.

That said, we could generate something of a “hot list” of sins that tend to be more serious. There are sins against faith, such as idolatry and serious superstition. There is the sin of missing Mass without a serious reason, refusing the worship that is God’s due and refusing holy Communion, which is essential for us. There is invoking the name of God to curse rather than to bless, or making false oaths invoking God’s name. Serious disrespect to parents and lawful authority or the refusal to obey significant and just laws can become serious. Significant neglect of parents in their old age can also be serious.

Endangering the lives of others through reckless behavior can be serious as is the harboring of hateful and vengeful feelings, violent outbursts and other forms of destructive anger, whether verbal or physical. Abortion, or helping others to procure abortion, is gravely sinful, and so is the neglect to assist or warn others whose lives are endangered physically or spiritually. The willful viewing of pornography and the masturbation that often accompanies this, engaging in fornication, adultery and homosexual acts, are all mortal sins.

Stealing significant items or the intellectual or creative property of others can be mortal, as is damaging the goods or property of others in significant ways. Withholding the truth and lying can become serious, especially if the matter involves the reputation of others or important information they must have. Greed (coveting), too, can become serious when we act on it in ways that harm others significantly.

Circumstances will sometimes reduce culpability even in objectively serious matters. But these sorts of sins are a place to begin.

Another way to focus when going to confession when mortal sins are not a huge problem is to focus on a particular part of our life, such as family relationships, or on a particular sin, such as gluttony. Perhaps, too, we can look to sins of omission, not merely to what we have done. Attitudes such as fear, prejudice, pettiness, ingratitude and so forth can also be a particular focus to bring to the sacrament.

Should you name your Guardian Angel?

Q. Should you, or even can you, name your Guardian Angel? I feel as though my Guardian Angel has always been looking out for me, so how do I talk to him/it? Can I give a name, or is that considered inappropriate?

Sheila, Nashville, Ky.

A. Generally, the Church advises against the practice of naming our angels. In a document written in 2001 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments entitled “Directory on Popular Piety in the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines,” it says, “The practice of assigning names to the holy angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael and Michael, whose names are contained in holy Scripture” (No. 127). While the congregation does not offer reasons for discouraging the practice, I would like to offer a couple.

First, there is the understanding of what a name is. For most of us in the modern Western world, a name is simply a sound we go by. But in the ancient, biblical world, and even in many places today, a name has a far deeper meaning. A name describes something of the essence of the person. This helps explain the ancient practice of the Jews to name the child on the eighth day. The delay gave the parents some time to observe something of the essence of the child, and then, noting it, they would name the child. Indeed, most biblical names are deeply meaningful and descriptive.

But it is presumptive to think that we can know enough of the essence of a particular angel in order to be able to assign a name. Hence, assigning a name seems inappropriate.

The second reason is that assigning a name indicates some superiority over the one named. Thus in the case of children, parents, who are superior over their children, rightly name them. However, in the case of angels, they are superior to us. And, even though we often speak of them as serving us, they do this on account of their superior power and as guardians. Thus God commands us to heed their voice (see Ex 23:20-21).

You are surely encouraged to speak to your angel, and the usual practice is to say something like, “Dear Guardian Angel….” or simply “Guardian Angel, please help….”

I usually get a lot of pushback when I have given this answer elsewhere, whether in print or in talks. I realize that many have strong feelings to the contrary of what the Roman congregation advises. And though I think the caution is reasonable and that we should not name angels, neither should we abandon charity among one another over this issue or allow it to loom too large as something permitted or forbidden.

The bottom line should be to avoid the practice but to preserve charity and gently correct if possible, or tolerate it with kindness where necessary.

Redemption vs. Justification?

Q. What is the difference between redemption and justification? How does the Protestant position differ from the Catholic Church? Sorry if this is a big question!

Raymond, Baltimore, Md.

A. Redemption speaks more to how God saves us and justification speaks more to what God does for us in saving us.

The word redemption refers to the price that is paid for something. Thus when we say today that we are going to redeem a coupon, what we are really saying is that the coupon will affect the price of what we pay. In the ancient world, when someone had high debts they could not pay they might be put in debtors prison, or enslaved. In such cases family members would often strive to assemble funds to “redeem” their loved one — that is, pay their debts so they could go free.

And this concept is applied to us who have a debt of sin that we cannot repay. So Christ, our brother and Lord, pays our debt; He redeems (purchases) our freedom. Scripture says, “You were ransomed [redeemed] from your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb” (1 Pt 1:18-19).

But He does not pay the devil! God owes the devil nothing. Rather the “price” that is paid is reflective of what it cost the Lord to effect this work of setting us free.

Consider, for example, if you were to warn me to stay away from the edge of a cliff, but I were to scoff and refuse. Then suppose I do slip and fall down into a deep ravine. Every bone in my body is broken, and from my bloody and semiconscious state I seek your forgiveness and help. In your goodness you do forgive my insolence.

However, now a costly work is going to be necessary to restore me. You will have to come down into the ravine, perhaps on a rope, and carry me out in your outstretched arms and then see to my healing, possibly to even offer some of your blood in transfusion for me. All of this is costly in terms of time, physical effort and medical assistance.

And this is what Jesus has done for us. He not only forgave us, but paid the price of coming to our rescue and lifting us out of the deep ravine of our sin in his outstretched arms on the cross, and, by shedding His blood in obedience, He effects our redemption and healing. So this is redemption; it is the way, by undertaking the cost, that Jesus pays for and effects our salvation.

Justification is what the Lord does for us. To be justified is to be restored to a right relationship with God. Scripture says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access [by faith] to this grace in which we stand” (Rom 5:1-2).

So Jesus has restored us to peace with our Father and gained access to Him for us. He has, through the redemption He accomplished, restored us to a right relationship with the Father. To have peace with God means that by God’s increasing grace gained for us by the Lord Jesus, there is present in the relationship what should be present: love, proper gratitude, the experience of being sons and daughters, and sanctity in increasing degree. And this right and increasingly perfect relationship through grace is what we mean by justification.

To speak of “Protestant thought” in any matter is problematic since there are so many different denominations among them who all have rather vigorous differences in many areas, including grace and soteriology (the understanding of how we are saved). Generally speaking, however, classical Protestantism (especially the first generations of Lutherans and Calvinists) differs with Catholicism most essentially on the nature of justification.

In their view, justification was understood in an essentially juridical way. Justification was imputed to us — that is, it was legally ascribed to us but did not really change us. It would be like a person in court being declared not guilty (but, in fact, he really was) and so goes free. Classical Protestantism speaks of justification as an “alien justice” which is extrinsic because it is declared of us, but is not really in us. We are in effect “covered” by the justice or righteousness of Jesus, but are not really or intrinsically rescued from our “depraved” state.

The Catholic teaching of justification emphasizes that it is a relationship that intrinsically changes and transforms us; it sanctifies us. If we respond to grace and abide in the relationship with God that justification is, increasingly we become the very holiness of God and share in His divine nature. While Protestants do speak of sanctification it is generally less tied to justification per se, and less clearly spelled out as to how it happens. In Catholicism justification is tied to sanctification and lived out through grace in a more explicit way through prayer, liturgy, sacraments and conformity to sacred teaching.

Please understand that a brief article cannot really do justice to positions described here. Whole books and libraries have been filled describing the differences and nuances. This is but a simplified sketch of the differences.

Rev. Msgr. Charles E. Pope has a Master of Arts in Moral Theology from Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, Md. He was ordained to the priesthood on June 24, 1989, and is currently a pastor in Washington, D.C.