Q. Recently my pastor told me, “The Catholic Church never taught it was a mortal sin to miss Mass on Sunday.” I find this hard to believe. Please help me as I am somewhat confused.
Name withheld by request, Port Jefferson Station, N.Y.
A. Your pastor is seriously misinformed. The Code of Canon Law states, “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass” (Canon 1247).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives the reason for the Mass obligation and clearly states the penalty for willfully ignoring it: “The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (No. 2181).
In the Church’s teaching, “grave sin” always means “mortal sin.”
Q. TCA is truly a blessing. I look forward to every issue! I have a question about the end times. In grade school we were taught by the nuns that everyone would be Catholic. While attending Boston College, I received the impression of a consensus that “a large and notable number” would be Catholic. Then I heard or read that in the “Wrath of God” the count dwindled to a “little flock” of a few thousand. In Matthew 24:36, Jesus said, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” In Luke 21:32, Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” How should “this generation will not pass away” be interpreted?
John Porter, Lynn, Mass.
A. First, consider Jesus’ saying He did not know when the end of the world would occur. In effect, He was telling His disciples that the mystery of the end of the world was not part of what He had been sent to reveal. Just before His ascension, His disciples asked about restoration of the kingdom to Israel. He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).
Now think about Jesus’ assurance that the present generation would see the accomplishment of what He was describing. In the Olivet discourse (see Mt 24-25), Jesus speaks of heavenly signs and cataclysms cosmic in scope. If He meant to say these literally would occur within the generation of His contemporaries, obviously He would have been mistaken.
Go back to the beginning of the discourse. In Matthew 24:2, Jesus told His disciples: “You see all these things, do you not? Amen, I say to you, there will not be left here a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” These words set the theme of the entire discourse. It is best understood as referring to the destruction of the Temple.
Here’s the reason. The Israelites regarded their Temple as a microcosm of the universe — that is, they believed it was a model, so to speak, of God’s universe. As the converse of that, they also believed the universe was a model of the Temple. In Psalms 78:69 we read, “He built his shrine like heaven, like the earth which he founded forever.” Consequently, for the Israelites the destruction of their Temple would seem to be a cosmic event.
Less than 40 years after Jesus spoke these words, as a result of a rebellion the Roman forces destroyed the Temple and the city. The Romans killed more than a million Jews. Jesus’ young and middle-aged hearers would have been alive when that catastrophe occurred.
Q. Adam and Eve were the first human beings created by God. My questions are these. Then where did Neanderthal man and Cro-Magnon man come into the picture? Are they not considered Homo sapiens?
Name withheld by request, via email
A. The evidence for and about these ancient creatures you speak of seems very slight, though the speculation about them seems more than abundant. Assuming there were forerunners of humanity, we may ask, as you have asked, where do Adam and Eve fit into the picture?
In “The Problem of Pain,” C.S. Lewis offers his “guess” on this subject:
“For long centuries God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of himself. … The creature may have existed for ages in this state before it became man: it may even have been clever enough to make things which a modern archaeologist would accept as proof of its humanity. But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends.
“Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say ‘I’ and ‘me,’ which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty, and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past.”
This “new organism” would have been created in the image and likeness of God. In other words, Adam and Eve.
Q. In reading the Book of Ezekiel, I came across this passage: “When a virtuous man tuns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because the iniquity he committed that he must die” (18:26). Does this mean that even though a person has lived a good life, if he commits a serious sin he will be damned?
Name withheld by request, via e-mail
A. The passage from Ezekiel and your question recall a point of doctrine on which the Church issued in an instruction in 1975 (Persona Humana). The Church spoke to the correct and the incorrect use of the term “fundamental option.”
The phrase “fundamental option” refers to the basic moral and spiritual orientation of a person’s life. There are only two possibilities: either orientation to God, or orientation to self. This is common Catholic teaching.
Around the middle of the last century, some Catholic theologians erroneously used the concept of “fundamental option” to explain mortal sin. They claimed that only if one formally rejected one’s “fundamental option” of orientation to God could one commit mortal sin. These dissenters acknowledged there are serious sins, but they would be truly mortal only if the person formally and subjectively rejected God. It necessarily follows from this that no single act in itself could constitute mortal sin.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith condemned the proposition that “individual human actions cannot radically change this fundamental option” (see Persona Humana, No. 10), Again, “it is wrong to say that particular acts are not enough to constitute a mortal sin.”
No matter how filled with goodness a person’s life may be, if that person commits mortal sin and does not repent and receive absolution, he could not be saved. As the passage in question says, “None of the righteous deeds which he has done shall be remembered” (Ez 18:24, RSV).
Q. According to Genesis 16, Abram agreed with his wife, Sarai, to have sex with her slave Hagar. This is a sin. Genesis 30 tells us also that Jacob had sex with the slave Bilhah. Why did these patriarchs do these sinful things?
Name withheld by request, Mishawaka, Ind.
A. Clearly these are adulterous acts, and therefore seriously sinful. Yet we must remember that the persons involved did not regard them as sinful. In that ancient culture it was a disgrace for a wife to be unable to conceive. It was her right to ask, even require, her husband to conceive a child for her by a surrogate mother (always a slave). The child so conceived would be considered the wife’s own child.
According to Genesis 16:2, Sarai said to Abram: “The LORD has kept me from bearing children. Have intercourse, then, with my maid; perhaps I shall have sons through her.” Abram heeded Sarai’s request. When Rachel was unable to conceive, she said to her husband Jacob: “Here is my maidservant Bilhah. Have intercourse with her, and let her give birth on my knees, so that I too may have offspring, at least through her” (Gn 30:3). Jacob’s other wife, Leah, did the same. “When Leah saw that she had ceased to bear children, she gave her maidservant Zilpah to Jacob as a consort. So Jacob had intercourse with Zilpah, and she conceived and bore a son” (Gn 30:9-10). Under the same arrangement Zilpah bore a second son for Leah and Jacob.
The culpability for adultery here would be greatly limited because of their ignorance. They were simply following the moral standards of their culture. Only gradually did they come within the truth of God’s revelation about marriage.
Though their capability was limited, these adulterous acts still worked harm in their lives. After Hagar, Sarai’s slave, bore her a son, Hagar despised her mistress. Sarai banished Hagar and her son into the wilderness. The integrity of Bilhah and Zilpah was greatly diminished by their being used for breeding purposes. A person’s lack of awareness of sin may reduce his guilt, but it does not free a person from the harmful consequences of that sin.
A brief analogy. You awaken in the middle of the night with a splitting headache. You go to the medicine cabinet for your favorite remedy. When you take what you think is that remedy, you make a terrible mistake and take deadly poison. In a short time, you die. Are you guilty of the sin of suicide? No. But still, you’re dead! Regardless of the circumstances, it’s impossible to break God’s moral law without suffering the consequences.
Q. If before Jesus came down to earth to save us He was one with God, when He was on earth did He remember being in existence in heaven with His Father? If that is so, it seems like that would have made his life on earth less human, since he was aware of His divine status.
Jane, Muskegon, Mich.
A. In Eucharistic Prayer IV we affirm that Jesus was “a man like us in all things but sin.” You and I have been created in the image and likeness of God. The purpose of our creation is to be fully united with God. The deeper our union with Him, the more we become fully human.
In His incarnate life Our Lord was perfectly one with the Father in will and in love. He was therefore the only perfectly human person in all of creation. In Him we see what God intends for each of us ultimately to become.
Q. How do you explain Catholicism to non-Catholic friends, including the crucifix?
Jeanne Lunasco, Ewa Beach, Hawaii
A. Start with the crucifix. It’s the central symbol of the Catholic faith. It always reminds us of the agonizing death Our Lord willingly accepted, to cleanse us from our sins. Gazing upon the crucifix reminds us of the horror of our sins, which helped put Jesus on that cross. That gaze can strengthen our resolve to avoid sin and thereby free Our Lord from further suffering.
Your asking how to explain Catholicism to non-Catholics is a tall order. Here are some essentials to keep in mind.
Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Son of God who though His life, death, resurrection and ascension has redeemed the entire universe. He created His one true Church to carry on His work of redemption by making His saving love available to the human race. His Church, the Catholic Church, offers the world the fullness of Christ’s truth and His means of grace. Speaking through His Church, Jesus Christ guides our lives in basic matters of belief and practice. Only by submitting to Jesus Christ through His Church can we be assured of submitting to Him on His terms and not on our own terms. Every Christian tradition other than the Catholic Church can offer only a partial Gospel.
Q. I have always believed that our Blessed Mother was and is still a virgin. A non-Catholic (Baptist) pointed out to me a passage in the Bible that disturbs me, and I did not know how to answer. The Protestants do not believe in the Blessed Mother. The passage is Matthew 1:24-25: “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.” Please explain this.
Aloysius Doyle, Valrico, Fla.
A. Non-Catholics who reject our Lady’s perpetual virginity use the Scripture you quoted as one of their arguments. In ordinary language, the phrase “knew her not until she had borne a son” would imply that she and Joseph had conjugal union after the birth of her Son. The Bible of the Virgin’s time (the Old Testament) sometimes uses the word “until” (and the word “to”) in a different sense. Here are some examples.
The raven that Noah set free “went forth and did not return until the waters were dried up upon the earth” (Gn 8:7, RSV). In fact, the raven never came back. In somewhat the same sense the Old Testament occasionally uses the preposition “to.” We read in 2 Samuel 6:23 that “Michal the daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death” (RSV). Would your non-Catholic informant imply this means Michal had children after her death? Or what about Moses’ grave. Deuteronomy 34:6 reports that no one knows where Moses was buried “to this day.” Again, this does not imply someone would know the location after the time when the sacred writer wrote. The use of “until” and “to” only means an event did not occur up to a certain point.
You may read in 1 Maccabees the use of the word “before” with a similar meaning. After victory in battle, the Maccabean forces “went up to Mount Zion with gladness and joy, and offered burnt offerings, because not one of them had fallen before they returned in safety” (5:54, RSV). This clearly does not mean they were slain after they returned.
St. Luke, therefore, is not reporting or even implying that the Virgin and Joseph lived as husband and wife after she had borne her Son. St. Luke’s account of the Visitation makes this even clearer. When the angel Gabriel told the Blessed Virgin she was to bear a son, she was astonished. She asked, literally, “how can this be since I do know not man?” (1:34). The Old Testament commonly speaks of sexual union as a man and woman “knowing” one another. (Among other instances, Genesis 4:1 [RSV] records, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain….”)
Ordinarily, a young woman engaged at this time, soon to be married, would not be surprised at being told she would give birth in the future. Why was Mary obviously amazed? Because she had vowed perpetual virginity within the bounds of her approaching marriage. This has always been the Church’s understanding of her consternation. Non-Catholics sometimes argue that a virginal marriage (known technically as a “Josephite” marriage) is “unnatural.” That may be true, but it’s no argument against there being such a marriage. It was “unnatural” for a virgin to bear a Son. And it was certainly “unnatural” for a couple to raise a child who was God in the flesh.
Another argument used by non-Catholics is taken from St. Luke’s reference to Our Lord as the Virgin’s “first-born son” (2:7). Among the Israelites, a woman’s first son was always called “first-born,” even though she later may have had no more sons. In the Old Testament the term “first-born son” primarily connoted the bearer of special privileges and rights in the family. An appendix to the Catholic version of the RSV explains that the term does not necessarily mean the first of several. “The word is used even in modern times without necessarily implying subsequent births.”
Finally, in Matthew 12:46 and Mark 6:3, we read about “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus. Non-Catholics assume this refers to children of the Virgin and St. Joseph. But the Greek and Hebrew words for “brother” and “sister” are ambiguous terms. Sometimes they refer to an ally (as in Dt 2:37). At other times “brother” means a friend (see 2 Sm 1:26). Christ’s Church has always taught that that the meaning of “brother” or “sister” as it pertains to Jesus refers to relatives or friends, never blood brother or blood sister.
St. Michael Prayer
Q. Recently, in my parish, we have begun reciting the prayer asking St. Michael’s protection. I have heard that this prayer was once used at Mass, but was dropped sometime in the last century. What is the origin of this prayer?
Name withheld by request, via e-mail
A. On Oct. 1, 1884, Pope Leo XIII had a deeply disturbing mystical experience at Mass. He had just finished celebrating in his private chapel when he suddenly stood transfixed in front of the altar. For perhaps 10 minutes he stood there as if in a trance, his face drained of color. Then he went to his office and composed a prayer to St. Michael. He told his staff the prayer should be offered throughout the Church.
He explained that he had heard two voices in the vicinity of the tabernacle. He believed they were the voices of Our Lord and of Satan. Pope Leo heard Satan boast that he could destroy the Church in 75 or 100 years, if given the opportunity. Then he heard Our Lord give Satan permission to try. (This sounds somewhat similar to what we read in Job 1.)
The prayer which Pope Leo XIII composed was 10 times the length of the version we use today. Use of the prayer was discontinued in 1964. Thirty years later, in his Regina Coeli address, Pope John Paul II revived use of the prayer. He said, “Although the prayer is no longer recited at the end of Mass, I ask every one not to forget it and to recite it to obtain help in the battle against the forces of darkness and against the spirit of the world.” The pope clearly intended that we should offer this prayer in our homes as well. The prayer, by the way, is as follows:
St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.
Q. I read that the Catholics and Orthodox split centuries ago, and one of the reasons was over the filioque. I know it has something to do with the Holy Spirit, but what exactly was the filioque?
Name withheld by request, via email
A. The word “filioque” (“and the Son”) in the Nicene Creed refers to the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and from the Son (see Jn 15:26 and Acts 2:33). What has been revealed to us about the external relationships of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity reflects their internal relationships. The Father’s sending the Son into our world reflects the Son’s eternal procession from the Father. The Spirit’s being sent into the world by the Father and the Son also mirrors His eternal procession from the Father and the Son. Sacred Scripture speaks of the Spirit as Spirit of the Son (Gal 4:6) as well as Spirit of the Father (Mt 10:20).
Further, to enshrine and safeguard revelation, this word, “filioque,” was added to the original Nicene Creed by the Church in the West. Only as they gradually distanced themselves from the jurisdiction of Rome did the separated Eastern churches reject use of this word in the Creed. They claimed that the Spirit proceeds “through the Son.” This, they said, is not the same as “from the Son.”
The Catholic Church’s teaching is often spoken of as one of the chief obstacles to the return of the separated Eastern churches to Catholic communion. In recent decades, however, prominent Eastern Orthodox theologians and prelates have begun to recognize that procession from the Son and procession through the Son are complementary, not contradictory, statements. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the matter in these words: “This legitimate complementarity, provided it does not become rigid, does not affect the identity of faith in the reality of the same mystery confessed” (No. 248).
The basic issue dividing the separated Eastern churches from the Catholic Church is, of course, the issue of authority. This is true of all Christian divisions. Jesus Christ did establish one Church and endow it with His authority and all His means of grace. Apart from the communion of that Church, the Catholic Church, Christians East and West cannot have access to the fullness of Christ’s revelation. Only in communion with that Church can Christians ever hope to be united as Christ plainly intended they should be.
In the May/June issue of TCA, the Rosary mystery of Finding Jesus in the Temple was denoted as a Glorious Mystery. Several readers pointed out, correctly, that Finding Jesus in the Temple is the Fifth Joyful Mystery. We apologize for the error. TCA
Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D.,J.D., serves as chaplain for several national Catholic apostolates,an adjunct professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and an assistant pastor at St. Peter’s Church in the same city.