Forgive us our debts?

Question: I am 87 and have prayed the Lord’s Prayer all my life. I was surprised to notice in certain forms among non-Catholics they say “forgive us our debts,” where we say “forgive us our trespasses.” What does it mean to have debts forgiven and for us to forgive our debtors?

Carmine Alfano, Smithtown, New York

Answer: There is no essential difference at work. Rather, “debts” is an older English translation that has fallen away in favor of “trespasses.” Both are references to sin.

The Greek word in question is “opheilēmata,” which most literally refers to having debts. But debts are not understood as financial here. Rather, we have incurred a debt of sin. St. Jerome, who translated the most widely used Latin translation (the Vulgate) used the Latin word “debitoribus,” which most naturally came into English as “debts.” Later, because of the tendency of “debt” to refer more exclusively to financial matters, the term “trespasses” became a more common translation in English. However, “trespasses” has its problems, too, since it tends to now mean being on someone’s property illegally.

Currently, there are those who want to simply say, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” But this loses some of what the original Greek, and likely the Lord, conveyed. For what is said here is not merely that we sinned (in some abstract sense) but that we have incurred an enormous debt, and that we have strayed into places we have no business being. Indeed, our debt is huge. The Lord in summoning us to forgive one another as we have been forgiven speaks of a man who owed 10,000 talents (an almost unimaginable amount). But that man is us.

So sin is not an abstraction; it is a very heavy debt we cannot pay on our own. This is what the Greek word “opheilēmata” (debts) is conveying.

Adam and Eve’s gifts

Question: It is said that Adam and Eve had preternatural gifts. What does “preternatural” mean, and what were these gifts?

Robert Bonsignore, Brooklyn, New York

Answer: The term “preternatural” in traditional theology refers to something that is rare but nevertheless happens by the agency of created beings. It is distinct from what is supernatural. The term “supernatural” refers to acts of God. Today, preternatural acts are sometimes called marvels.

The word “preternatural” comes from the Latin “praeter” (beside) and “natura” (nature). The word “supernatural” comes from the Latin “super” (above) and “natura.” So theologians emphasize that only God has the power to disregard the laws of nature that he has created; so he can do supernatural things.

That Adam and Eve are said to have had preternatural gifts refers specifically to three gifts: bodily immortality, integrity and infused knowledge. They are called preternatural because they are not strictly due to human nature but do not necessarily surpass the capacities of created nature as such. Bodily immortality means that they would not have died. Integrity meant that there was a harmonious relation between flesh and spirit since their passions were completely subordinated to their reason. Infused knowledge refers to the fact that their intellects were granted by God immediately, rather than in the usual way through the senses by learning and experience.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.