Q. Since Mary was conceived and born without original sin, was she also given the preternatural gifts?
Jim, St. Paul, Minnesota
A. No, not as such. Mary did share in some aspects of them, but not in all of them. The term preternatural refers to that which is outside the usual qualities of human nature. They are distinct from supernatural gifts, which are above what humans can do and which overrule the laws of nature.
Preternatural gifts are rarely if ever seen, but one can imagine that they are within the realm of what is possibly human and do not break the laws of nature.
More specifically, the preternatural gifts are gifts or traits that Adam and Eve possessed before the Fall, but were lost due to sin. The human nature we have now is wounded in certain ways, and thus we, who are descendants of Adam and Eve, lack these gifts. However, we will one day have them restored (along with other qualities) in the resurrection of our bodies.
Theologians usually distinguish four preternatural gifts that Adam and Eve possessed and then lost: impassibility (freedom from suffering or pain), immortality (freedom from death), integrity (freedom from concupiscence, or disordered passions) and infused knowledge (freedom from ignorance and the need for discursive learning in matters essential for happiness).
Regarding Mary’s possession of the preternatural gifts, we can see that she was not free from suffering or pain. Scripture also indicates she did not have a general infused knowledge since it is affirmed that, at times, she did not understand what was being said to her (see, for example, Lk 2:50) or had to ponder the meaning of things in her heart (Lk 2:51). Whether Mary died a natural death and was then assumed into heaven, or was directly assumed, is a matter of differing views. Thus it is possible, but not certain, that she had the gift of immortality. It is taught that she had the gift of integrity in the sense that she lacked concupiscence.
Q. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that fallen angels have irrevocably rejected God (see Nos. 391-393). Why is that choice irrevocable? Why is their sin unforgivable? Can they not repent?
Eric, Livingston, Texas
A. They cannot and will not repent and, therefore, forgiveness is not possible for them.
In this life, you and I are in statu viae (in the state of journeying). Thus we can and do change and make decisions that gradually form our character. But that is not so for the souls of men and angels who are caught up into eternity. For something to be everlasting demands that its essence be fixed or unchanging.
St. Thomas Aquinas considers the angels in his Summa Theologica by saying: “Everlasting stability is of the very nature of true beatitude; hence it is termed ‘life everlasting.’… Sacred Scripture, [also] declares that demons and wicked men shall be sent ‘into everlasting punishment,’ and the good brought ‘into everlasting life.’ Consequently … according to Catholic faith, it must be held firmly both that the will of the good angels is confirmed in good, and that the will of the demons is obstinate in evil…. [And] as Damascene says (De Fide Orth. ii), ‘death is to men, what the fall [from the heavens] is to the angels.’ Now it is clear that all the mortal sins of men, grave or less grave, are pardonable before death; whereas after death they are without remission and endure forever.”
He also taught: “Man by his reason apprehends movably, passing from one consideration to another; and having the way open by which he may proceed to either of two opposites. Consequently, man’s will adheres to a thing movably, and with the power of forsaking it and of clinging to the opposite; whereas the angel’s will adheres fixedly and immovably.”
Thus for the angels, and the souls of men and women who have passed from this changing world, their decision for or against God and the values of His kingdom is forever fixed.
Brothers and Sisters?
Q. I know that the Church believes in Mary’s perpetual virginity, but what are we to make of the passages in the Gospel that refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters?
Rose, via email
A. There are a number of places in the New Testament (see Mk 3:31-34; 6:3; Mt 12:46; 13:55; Lk 8:19-20; Jn 2:12; 7:3-10; Acts 1:14; and 1 Cor 9:5) where Jesus’ kinsfolk are mentioned using terms such as “brother” (adelphos), “sister” (adelphe) or “brethren” (adelphoi). But “brother” has a wider meaning both in the Scriptures and at the time they were written. It is not restricted to our literal meaning of a full brother or half-brother in the sense of sibling.
Even in the Old Testament “brother” had a wide range of meaning. In the Book of Genesis, for example, Lot is called Abraham’s brother (see 14:14), but his father was Haran — Abraham’s brother (Gn 11:26-28). So, Lot was actually a nephew of Abraham.
The term “brother” could also refer widely to friends or mere political allies (see 2 Sm 1:26; Am 1:9). Thus, in family relationships, “brother” could refer to any male relative from whom you are not descended. We use words like kinsmen and cousins today, but the ancient Jews did not.
In fact, neither Hebrew nor Aramaic had a word meaning “cousin.” They used terms such as “brother,” “sister” or, more rarely, “kin” or “kinsfolk” (syngenis) — sometimes translated as “relative” in English.
James, for example, whom St. Paul called the “brother of the Lord” (Gal 1:19), is identified by Paul as an apostle and is usually understood to be James the Younger. But James the Younger is elsewhere identified as the son of Alphaeus (also called Clopas) and his wife, Mary (see Mt 10:3; Jn 19:25). Even if James the Greater were meant by St. Paul, it is clear that he is from the Zebedee family, and not a son of Mary or a brother of Jesus (in the strict modern sense) at all.
The early Church was aware of the references to Jesus’ brethren, but was not troubled by them, teaching and handing on the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. This is because the terms referring to Jesus’ brethren were understood in the wider, more ancient sense. Widespread confusion about this began to occur after the 16th century with the rise of Protestantism and the loss of understanding the semantic nuances of ancient family terminology.
Correcting the Pope?
Q. When four cardinals recently said they can request a correction to the teaching of Pope Francis regarding Communion for divorced and remarried, what do they mean? How could this play out?
Anonymous, via email
A. Questions regarding the proper interpretation of Church law, liturgical norms and other directives are very common. Hence Pope Francis’ silence in clarifying the proper interpretation of his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia is puzzling. This is especially the case since it is being interpreted in different ways from diocese to diocese throughout the world.
There are different scenarios that could play out, given the silence of the Pope.
One possibility is that the cardinals seeking clarification will decide to do nothing and allow the strongly differing views to continue. This seems unlikely, though, given the serious disunity of discipline in a matter relating to the very nature of marriage. Thus the cardinals (as you note) have signaled an intention to press the matter.
So, if the Pope’s silence continues, the four cardinals could be joined by more. They could issue a declaration that Amoris Laetitia must be understood in the light of the Church’s constant teaching and practice, and that no one who is divorced and remarried can approach holy Communion. Further, their only possibility is to seek validation of their marriage through the tribunal of the Church, which may be able to declare their prior marriage null if the evidence permits. The Pope may or may not respond to this.
In the unlikely event that the Pope was to react negatively to their correction (or clarification) and formally state that the ancient teaching is to be overturned, this could provoke a serious crisis. Recall that the teaching that divorce and remarriage is considered ongoing adultery and excludes one from holy Communion is rooted in the very words of Jesus (see, for example, Mt 5:27-32, Mt 19:1-12, Mk 10:1-12) and of St. Paul (1 Cor 11:27-33), and it has been constantly reiterated by Church councils and papal encyclicals.
For the Pope to state, without ambiguity, that the ancient teaching is overturned could provoke the charge of heresy (no charge of heresy has yet been made), which could lead to the calling of a council to depose the Pope. While this has happened twice in Church history, it would be wrenching and likely lead to schism. Pray that this does not happen and that fruitful dialogue between the Pope and cardinals will lead to a clarification upholding the teaching given us by the Lord!
Q. What did Jesus mean when he gave Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven?
Rich, Springfield, Vermont
A. In terms of his own elaboration of the meaning, Jesus links the keys to Peter’s power to bind and loose (see Mt 16:19). Keys are a symbol of authority since keys provide access. In human government, roles such as prime minister or chief of staff have a kind of power to grant others access to the king, president or other leader. They also commonly speak on behalf of the leader or represent him in some way. Peter (and each lawful successor), having the keys, takes up the role of representing Christ and speaking for Him in definitive ways when the Petrine office is invoked.
It is interesting, as well, to look at the original Greek text, of which the English is rendered as, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19). Given Greek syntax, it is difficult to precisely render the phrase in English with the context implied in the original Greek. So, a more literal rendering of the phrase might be, “Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven.” But here, too, English does not fully convey the sense no matter how we seek to render the Greek. It is subtle.
And these technicalities all paint a picture that is more of a collaboration between heaven and Peter than a merely autocratic authority by him. Thus, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, when Peter binds or looses, it is not as though heaven is caught off guard or forced to comply. Rather, it is that Peter has been inspired from heaven concerning what to bind or loose. And this comports well with the overall context when the Lord said to Peter — regarding his accurate proclamation of the identity of Jesus — “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father” (Mt 16:17).
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.