Inquiring Catholics want to know

One true Church

Question: I am confused as to how to understand non-Catholic Churches. Before the Second Vatican Council, the Church claimed to be the one true Church. Now do we believe that all churches are equal?

Answer: On this matter, you could not do better than read both the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and the Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican II. The Constitution on the Church states that there is one Church of Christ and that this Church "subsists" in the Catholic Church (No. 8). The word "subsists" is entirely consistent with traditional claims that the Catholic Church is "the one true" Church of Christ.

The word "subsists" however, also allows the Church to regard other Christian churches positively. The Decree on Ecumenism provides the key principle here when it states: "Some, even very many, of the most significant elements and endowments, which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written Word of God; the life of graces faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements."

Accordingly, "the separated Churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from [some] defects," have been "by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation." In varying degrees, the liturgical life of each church or community "can truly engender a life of grace" and "can aptly give access to the communion of salvation" (No. 3).

You should also read Dominus Iesus (On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church), published during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II.

Unbaptized babies

Question: At the funeral of an unbaptized baby, one of our friends said publicly that the baby will not go to heaven. Everyone was upset.

Answer: Your friend appears to possess the excessive theological certainty, plus a poor sense of occasion and timing.

On this matter, the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares: "As regards children who have died without baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children caused him to say: 'Let the children come to me, do not hinder them' allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without baptism" (No. 1261).

General absolution

Question: Communal penance services with general absolution have become a tradition in our area. Those who go do not seem to be aware of any requirement for subsequent private confession of serious sins.

Answer: Generally, the conditions for the use of general absolution do not exist in the United States. Communal penance services with general absolution are designed for extraordinary situations in which large numbers of people show up for the sacrament, an adequate number of confessors is for genuine reasons unavailable and the people would otherwise be deprived of the sacrament for a long time (see Code of Canon Law, No. 961).

You are right in pointing to the requirement that a person who has had serious sins remitted by general absolution must go to individual confession as soon as there is an opportunity to do so (see No. 963).

Is the requirement of subsequent individual confession merely legalistic? No. Individual confession stands at the heart of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. General absolution is a stopgap measure. It is a bit like a doctor at the end of the day going into the waiting room and telling the remaining patients that he cannot see them individually now, quickly checking each one, giving them something to tide them over and asking them to come back again.

While general absolution does forgive sins, personal follow-up is necessary for true healing of the soul. Regarding the confession of sins, St. Jerome said, "The medicine cannot heal what it does not know."

Communion andnon-Catholics

Question: I am confused about why the Church does not allow non-Catholics to receive Communion in the Catholic Church. Don't confuse me with canon law. What's the bottom line here?

Answer: You want the bottom line? Here it is. The Catholic view of Communion is that, in the Eucharist, we don't only receive Christ in a personal way, we are also expressing and deepening our commitment to the living Body of Christ, his Church on earth. To receive Communion in the Catholic Church is to affirm publicly all the Church believes, teaches and does.

When we walk to the altar of the Lord in a Catholic Church, we are expressing belief in the Catholic doctrine of the real presence of Christ, in Catholic teaching about the authoritative role of the papacy and the episcopacy, in the Catholic moral tradition -- in short, in the whole of Catholicism.

Because of this, well-informed and committed non-Catholics would not wish to receive Communion in the Catholic Church. To do so would be tantamount to stating that they wish to be Catholic. This is a very rough and ready answer. If I had 25 pages to deal with the matter, I would refine the above, dotting the "i's" and crossing the "t's." A lot more needs to be explained. But there's your bottom line.

No 'Catholic' divorces

Question: Aren't annulments really just "Catholic divorces"? I hear horror stories about how much annulments cost, only the rich get them and that they make children illegitimate. I find all this scandalous.

Answer: You must have been watching some old Phil Donahue reruns on this topic. The Catholic Church does not grant divorces (the breaking up of true marriages) but rather annulments (declarations that a valid marriage did not exist). The expression "Catholic divorce" is entirely inappropriate, and the Church is vigilant about abuses creeping into annulment procedures.

It is not true that annulments are expensive and are only given to the rich. A modest fee is generally requested to cover secretarial expenses, but an inability to pay is not an impediment. The poor comprise a large portion of those who seek annulments. Actually, the rich and famous probably have a more difficult time getting annulments because of the dangers of misperception.

In no way does a marriage annulment make already born children illegitimate. Prior to annulment, marriages are considered valid and enjoy positive regard in the Church. Children born of such marriages always retain the benefit of ecclesiastical good standing.

Holy Day confusion

Question: I am confused about the number of holy days in a year. Some have obligations one year but not the next. Why are some holy days on Sundays?

Answer: The 1983 Code of Canon Law lists 10 holy days of obligation for the universal Church: The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension and the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary Mother of God and her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, St. Joseph, the Apostles Sts. Peter and Paul and finally, All Saints (Canon, 1246). However, the code goes on to say, "The conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See."

By "abolish" it is meant that a country's conference of bishops can abrogate the obligation attached to one of the feasts listed, but not the feast itself. When certain holy days occur on Saturdays or Mondays, the obligation for that year may be suspended in order to avoid imposing undue hardship on people. The bishops' conference may (following certain norms) transfer some holy days to Sunday in order to encourage greater population participation.

In the United States, there are six holy days of obligation: Christmas (Dec. 25); Mary, Mother of God (Jan. 1); Ascension (Thursday in the Sixth Week of Easter -- except, since 1998, in the western United States, where it occurs on the Seventh Sunday of Easter); Assumption (Aug. 15); All Saints (Nov. 1) and Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8).

Scattering cremains

Question: I get the impression that the scattering of cremains is discouraged but not forbidden. This seems to imply scattering is permitted.

Answer: The Church "requires" that cremated remains not be scattered. That is the operative language on this matter. In 1997, the Holy See approved an appendix to the Order of Christian Funerals for the United States. No. 416 of that document states: "The created remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given the human body from which they come. This includes the use of a worthy vessel to contain ashes, the manner in which they are carried, the care and attention to the appropriate placement and transport and the final disposition.

"The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, on the ground or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires."

The Church is powerless if, after the funeral, people choose to ignore Church norms on this matter. The best means of prevention is a clear presentation in parishes and dioceses -- and among funeral directors -- of the Church's norms and rationale behind them.

Who is Msgr. M. Francis Mannion?

  • Personal: Priest of the Salt Lake City diocese
  • Born: Galway, Ireland
  • Residence: Utah
  • Education: Catholic University of America
  • Years in the Catholic press: 23
  • Expertise: Sacramental theology, pastoral theology

Books:

  • "Pastoral Answers," (OSV, $13.95),
  • "Masterworks of God Essays in Liturgical Theory and Practice," (Hillenbrand Books, $18)

Do you have more questions?

Over the years, the Church's leaders and its people have developed various resources to educate the faithful about what we believe. Here are some suggestions of where to look to find answers to your questions:

Books

  • Catechism of the Catholic Church
  • U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults

Websites