Wednesday, October 24, 2012

God's Plan From the Beginning for Our Salvation

Could you clarify the Church's position on Romans 8:28-30 and predestination?

This can get a little confusing, but try to hang with me here. First of all, here is the passage in question:
28 We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
You might be surprised to learn that Catholics believe in predestination, we just don't understand it the same way that Protestants (particularly Calvinists) understand it.

Now, what is predestination? It involves a lot of things. Catholics believe that God has a plan for the world and everything in it. This plan was written from the very beginning. We also believe that this plan mysteriously incorporates the free-will actions of men. As the Catechism says, "To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of 'predestination', he includes in it each person's free response to his grace" (no. 600). God alone initiates salvation (in other words, the first initiative is always His), and this salvation is extended to all men. It is possible for all men to be saved. If some of them aren't, it is not because God has decreed that they be sent to Hell, but because they have destroyed the divine life within their souls and have persisted in this state. "God predestines no one to go to hell" (CCC, no. 1037).

These are the basic parameters of the Catholic understanding of predestination. Within these parameters, there is room for debate concerning how all of this works itself out.

Regarding, Rom 8:28-30, we see that some are selected for divine adoption by an eternal decree of God. That’s basically what predestination is. These elect were chosen because, in His foreknowledge, God saw that these souls would respond to His grace and persevere in it. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined” (vs. 29). When they respond to this grace they are added to the family of God, so that Jesus becomes “the first-born among many brethren” (vs. 29). They are justified, and ultimately glorified (vs. 30).

Essentially, this passage is about the plan of God for our salvation and the power of God’s grace to achieve it. Nothing here is contrary to Catholic teaching.

Pax Christi,

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

No Salvation Outside the Church: Council of Florence vs. Second Vatican Council

How do you explain the dramatic contrast between the Council of Florence on the topic of salvation for those outside the church and Vatican II?

First, it’s important to have in front of us the statements in question, so that we can analyze them together. Here is what the Council of Florence said on salvation outside the Church, from the "Bull of Union with the Copts":
It firmly believes, professes and preaches that all those who are outside the catholic church, not only pagans but also Jews or heretics and schismatics, cannot share in eternal life and will go into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless they are joined to the catholic church before the end of their lives; that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is of such importance that only for those who abide in it do the church's sacraments contribute to salvation and do fasts, almsgiving and other works of piety and practices of the Christian militia produce eternal rewards; and that nobody can be saved, no matter how much he has given away in alms and even if he has shed his blood in the name of Christ, unless he has persevered in the bosom and the unity of the catholic church.
The Second Vatican Council speaks of salvation outside the Church in Lumen Gentium, nos. 14 and 16. Here are the pertinent sections from those two articles:
14. This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5) and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved. [. . .]

16. [. . .] Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. [. . .]
Having the documents before us, we could say that the Council of Florence provides a strict expression of the salvific necessity of the Church, whereas Lumen Gentium provides a broader expression. I think there is a way to reconcile the two.

First of all, we have to remember that this "Bull of Union with the Copts" was written in 1442, 50 years before anyone in Europe knew anything of the Western Hemisphere. The mindset of the time was that the gospel had already been proclaimed to all the nations and if anyone was not a full member of the Catholic Church it was because he refused to be, not because he was invincibly ignorant or innocent of failing to join Her. That this mindset was at work is confirmed by the fact that: 1. These words are directed to “Jews or heretics and schismatics”, in other words, formal heretics, people who knowingly and obstinately reject the truth of the Church; and 2. The last clause of the passage in question is, according to Fr. William G. Most, a quotation from the early Church father Fulgentius, whose words were directed specifically to heretics.

What all of this means is that the Council of Florence does not have in mind people who had no opportunity to know Christ and His Church, or who are prevented in some way from accepting this truth. When read in this light, the Council is in agreement with Lumen Gentium. After all, we do read in no. 14, “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.”

What this also means is that no. 16 is not a contradiction, but a caveat, a further explanation upon the Church’s teaching on salvation outside the Church. The Second Vatican Council is merely wishing to clarify that the Church’s teaching on this (and there have been many strict expressions of it, besides what we see from Florence) is not meant to condemn those who are non-Catholic through no fault of their own. It’s important to point out that Lumen Gentium is not the first time we find a broad expression of the teaching on salvation outside the Church.

Pius IX, in Quanto Conficiamur Moerore of August 10, 1863, taught:
7. [. . .] There are, of course, those who are struggling with invincible ignorance about our most holy religion. Sincerely observing the natural law and its precepts inscribed by God on all hearts and ready to obey God, they live honest lives and are able to attain eternal life by the efficacious virtue of divine light and grace. Because God knows, searches and clearly understands the minds, hearts, thoughts, and nature of all, his supreme kindness and clemency do not permit anyone at all who is not guilty of deliberate sin to suffer eternal punishments.

8. Also well known is the Catholic teaching that no one can be saved outside the Catholic Church. Eternal salvation cannot be obtained by those who oppose the authority and statements of the same Church and are stubbornly separated from the unity of the Church and also from the successor of Peter, the Roman Pontiff, to whom "the custody of the vineyard has been committed by the Savior." [. . .]
On August 9, 1949, the Holy Office condemned (here) the error of Leonard Feeney who held that those who failed to enter the Church formally, even with no fault of their own, could not reach salvation. The decree says (numbering is mine):
12. [. . .]Therefore, that one may obtain eternal salvation, it is not always required that he be incorporated into the Church actually as a member, but it is necessary that at least he be united to her by desire and longing.

13. However, this desire need not always be explicit, as it is in catechumens; but when a person is involved in invincible ignorance God accepts also an implicit desire, so called because it is included in that good disposition of soul whereby a person wishes his will to be conformed to the will of God.
Pius XII had said that a man can be "ordered to the Church by a certain desire and wish of which he is not aware," that is, the one contained in the good dispositions mentioned by the Holy Office (cf. Mystici Corporis, no. 103)

Gaudiem et Spes, another document from the Second Vatican Council, cites Lumen Gentium no. 16 when it says:
22. [. . .] All this holds true not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way (cf. Lumen Gentium, no. 16). For, since Christ died for all men (cf. Rom 8:32), and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery. [. . .]
There is also this, from Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio:
10. The universality of salvation means that it is granted not only to those who explicitly believe in Christ and have entered the Church. Since salvation is offered to all, it must be made concretely available to all. But it is clear that today, as in the past, many people do not have an opportunity to come to know or accept the gospel revelation or to enter the Church. The social and cultural conditions in which they live do not permit this, and frequently they have been brought up in other religious traditions. For such people salvation in Christ is accessible by virtue of a grace which, while having a mysterious relationship to the Church, does not make them formally part of the Church but enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation. This grace comes from Christ; it is the result of his Sacrifice and is communicated by the Holy Spirit. It enables each person to attain salvation through his or her free cooperation.
What we see from this is that Lumen Gentium is not a novelty or an aberration. Instead it is a further development and elucidation of the one Catholic faith.

I am quite indebted to the following articles for the bulk of what I have written here. They are also yours to consult for more information.
Pax Christi,

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Catholic Q&A: Part 31

This post continues my series of short answers to common questions about Catholicism. For the previous parts in the series, see the "Catholic Q-A Series" blog label.

Is predestination practically encouraging or assuring to you?

Yes. One of the most reassuring passages in all of Scripture has to do with the unfolding of God’s plan for us:
Jer 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
It’s good to be reminded that God is not an angry deity out to get us, but a loving Father who has great plans for our salvation.

What is the point of all the severe penances of a Rose of Lima or Teresa of Avila or Catherine of Siena?

I’m sure each saint had her own reasons, but generally, penances are performed for two reasons: 1. To gain mastery over one’s fleshly desires, and 2. To atone for the negative effect of sin upon the Body of Christ. If these penances are especially severe, it is because the penitent has much to gain mastery over, or because there is a great deal of sin that must be atoned for. Note that a person can atone for his own sin, or the sins of others. Since there is great sin in the world, great acts of penance are in order.

Severe acts of penance (such as self-flagellation, wearing an undershirt made of hair, eating only bread and water for a prolonged period of time, etc.) are only recommended for those who have made extensive progress in the spiritual life. Otherwise, it’s difficult to sustain such a practice, and easy to lose sight of why you’re doing it.

Whom do you think the Bible is talking about when its speaks of those through whom Satan would perform powerful miracles, whom God would deceive by a powerful delusion so that they would believe the lie, etc?

You must be referring to 2 Thes 2:9-12. Here is the passage in question:
9 The coming of the lawless one by the activity of Satan will be with all power and with pretended signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. 11 Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, 12 so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
Now, first of all, Satan doesn’t perform his powerful miracles through those who are deceived but through the deceiver, the “lawless one” who is mentioned. This lawless one is the “man of lawlessness, the son of perdition” from a few verses prior (cf. vs. 3-4). He is most often identified with the Antichrist (cf. 1 Jn 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 Jn 1:7), or with the second beast from Rev 13:11-18. Exactly who this lawless one will be is difficult to say. Most scholars identify the beast with the Roman Empire.

Those who are deceived, who are handed over to a powerful delusion, are those who “refused to love the truth and so be saved” (vs. 10). Since Paul talks right after this about holding on to “the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter,” I can’t help but think that those who forsake this tradition will be the ones who will easily fall prey to the lawless one and his claims of authority and divinity.

What do you do with all the biblical passages that seem to skip over purgatory? To have died is to be freed from sin? (Rom 6:7) We who are still alive will be caught up to meet him in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever?(1 Thess 4:17)

First of all, these passages don’t refute the Catholic understanding of Purgatory. The “death” referred to in Rom 6:7 is not physical death but the death to sin and to the old man (the former way of living) that takes place in baptism, when we die with Christ and rise with him to new life. This passage has nothing to say about Purgatory.

1 Thes 4:17 refers to the Final Judgment that takes place after the Second Coming of Christ. The purging of sins has already taken place at this point, so obviously all that is left is eternal life with Christ.

That said, the Bible does not skip over Purgatory. The idea of a purging after death is present in the Word. I grant that it may be implicit, but it is still present. Since it is all too much to provide here, I’ll refer you to my two-part defense of Purgatory: Part 1 and Part 2.

Why all the bowing in church (genuflecting, bowing during songs/liturgy, etc.)?

We perform various gestures and postures during the liturgy because the liturgy engages the entire person, body and spirit. In the liturgy, we want to communicate with our bodies what is our interior disposition and belief.

We stand when the priest processes towards the altar to begin the Mass because we believe an important person has just entered our midst, the man who will stand in persona Christi (“in the person of Christ”) and make the Sacrifice of the Mass present to us. We sit during the readings from the bible because that is the posture of listening and reflection. God is speaking to us through his Word, and so we must be able to receive Him. Bowing is a gesture of respect, and so when we recite the Creed during the Mass, we bow during the phrase, “by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man” out of respect for the Incarnation. We kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer (when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus) because kneeling is the greatest act of reverence, rightly reserved for when the Savior Himself is in our midst.

Everything we say and do say something about what we believe is happening at that moment in the Mass.

Pax Christi,

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Catholic Q&A: Part 30

This post continues my series of short answers to common questions about Catholicism. For the previous parts in the series, see the "Catholic Q-A Series" blog label.

What do you think justification by faith, not works, means? What does it mean to you personally?

As a Catholic, I would not make the dichotomy between faith and works that you have made here. Faith is never “not works.” In fact, the kind of faith that saves is that which is “working through love” (Gal 5:6). So, I don’t place a wedge between the two. Instead, I have always considered them to be two sides of the same coin.

As to the role of faith, it is necessary for salvation, as the Catechism explicitly states (cf. no. 183).

Are we really justifed by faith, or are we actually justified by love?

I think this is another false dichotomy. Faith and love are not at odds with one another. If I have faith so as to move mountains, but I have not love, I am nothing (cf. 1 Cor 13:2). Faith and love together make the breastplate from the armor of God (cf. 1 Thes 5:8). Love issues from a sincere faith (cf. 1 Tim 1:5). Grace causes an overflowing of faith and love (cf. 1 Tim 1:14). As such, I say we are justified not by one or the other, but by both. We are really justified by faith and love.

How do or should Catholics think about their eternal destiny? Who can have confidence and under what conditions? Again, a personal answer would be helpful.

Catholics believe that, by God's grace, we can enter into friendship with the Lord and receive the forgiveness of our sin. We have absolute certitude that, if we were to die in this state of righteousness, then heaven would be ours. But, we also believe that, because of free will and the concupiscence that comes with our fallen nature, this same person can choose to sin against God so grievously that he destroys the divine life within himself. In other words, he can fall from the state of grace. Because of this radical possibility, there can really be no absolute certitude of final perseverence, or of remaining in that state of righteousness and friendship with God for one's entire life.

Note that this doesn't mean that Catholics live in fear. Such mortal sins are generally rare, and they are usually the end result of a long and steady decline deeper and deeper into sin, as man continues to indulge certain unhealthy desires. People don't just wake up one day and commit mortal sins. The typical Catholic slips and stumbles with everyday vices as he strives to grow closer to the Lord, to be obedient to Him and to discern His will. When the Catholic falls, he simply returns with a contrite heart to the Lord, who forgives him and restores him to his former state of righteousness. When, by God's grace, he succeeds in doing God's will, the divine life within him increases and his attachment to sin decreases, to the point where certain sins no longer have the same luring appeal that they once had.

Salvation is a process, and as long as the Catholic continues this process of striving for the Lord and always seeks His grace, then he can have a "moral certitude" that he will persevere to the end. In other words, he has good reason to believe that he will stand before the Lord one day with his grace and faith intact. This certitude increases as he gains mastery over himself and his fleshly desires and he gains freedom from his attachment to the various sins that used to tempt him and cause him to fall. His hope is that, by God's grace, he will not only be cleansed of all sin, but even all attachment to sin, and he will grow closer and closer to God to the point of achieving eternal bliss with Him in heaven.

Note, the prevailing Catholic virtue is not fear, or guilt. It is hope: hope in the Cross, hope in the resurrection, hope in God's grace to bring us into eternal beatitude with His Son.

What does it mean to prepare oneself for grace?

I guess you could say that preparing oneself for grace takes place through prayer, when you ask God to soften your heart and make it open and docile to grace so that when you receive grace (primarily through the sacraments) it will have true, transformative power in your life. God does not make anyone a saint against his or her will. We must be open to the grace of God, and to me, preparing oneself for grace means praying for this openness.

Of course, the preparation that God makes within us to receive His grace is itself a grace. Grace always has the first initiative.

What does it mean for God to love us if he constantly threatens to take his love away, and even for an individual act? Or conversely, if God's love is reduced to a desire for our salvation whether we're presently in or out of grace, what kind of love is it that suddenly ceases at death and becomes hatred?

We should not understand the effect of sin as God taking His love away, as if He were a petulant child who decided to take his ball and go home because you displeased him in some way. God IS love. Everything He does and every experience of Him is a consequence of this love. He always, always loves us. The problem is, we don’t always love him. We fall from the state of grace (or, to put it another way, we destroy the divine life within us) whenever we fail to love God, not when He fails to love us.

It can only be this way. One cannot commit grave sin and expect to remain in a state of righteousness. It is unjust (and as such, unloving) for sin to go unpunished, or for God to declare righteous a soul that is marred by sin. Note however that even someone at odds with God, or in an unrighteous standing before God, is still loved by God. The very life and being of said person has sprung forth from and is sustained by the love of God. Every grace and blessing and good thing this person has ever received was the fruit of this love. This love will also cause God to shower His grace upon the sinner, to compel him to repent of his sin and return to the Lord. And when the sinner repents and seeks God’s forgiveness, it is the love of God that will justify and sanctify him.

Pax Christi,

Sunday, October 14, 2012

No One Is Good But God Alone

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18). Jesus seems to be denying that He is God! Is that really what He is doing?

Of course not! Jesus affirmed His divinity in many places in Scripture. He took upon Himself the divine name (cf. Jn 8:58). By calling God His Father He meant to make Himself equal with God (cf. Jn 5:17-18). The Jews picked up rocks to stone Jesus after He said to them, “I and the Father are one” (cf. Jn 10:30-31). He is the “son of man” who told John, “Fear not, I am the first and the last” (Rev 1:13, 17).

Jesus certainly made no secret of the fact that He was God and would never deny His divinity. In fact, when Jesus had the opportunity to clear up any misunderstanding as to His nature, He did not do it. During Jesus' trial before the Jewish leaders, the High Priest said to Jesus, "I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God" (Mt 26:63). Jesus responded by saying, "You have said so," or as the NIV has it, "Yes, it is as you say" (vs. 64).

What all this means is that there must be some other way to understand this passage. It appears to me that the rich man thought that flattery would get him somewhere with Jesus, that if he addressed Jesus with enough complimentary words then Jesus would declare him righteous. Notice how the rich man ran over and knelt down in front of Jesus, instead of just walking over to Him. And, he began his address by saying, “Good Teacher.”

Of course, Jesus knew what was in the rich man’s heart. Recall the second reading. Jesus is the one who is “able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” As the Letter to the Hebrews goes on to say, “No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account.”

So, when Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone,” He is basically saying to the rich man: “If you are going to call me ‘good’, let it be because you acknowledge my divinity, not because you think that by calling me good you can get something from me. I am good because I am God. Period.”

And since Jesus is God, He knew that greed was what kept the rich man from embracing God fully and so was able to tell the man exactly what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. The rich man, of course, did not expect such a penetrating analysis of his weaknesses, and so he went away sad. But that’s Jesus for you. When you encounter God you encounter yourself.

Pax Christi,

Sunday, October 07, 2012

"Lepanto" by G. K. Chesterton

On this day, the anniversary of the Christian victory over the Muslim Turks in the Battle of Lepanto, hear this from G. K. Chesteron, his beautiful and rousing poem devoted to that victory:

Our Lady of the Rosary, of Fatima, and Help of Christians ... ora pro nobis

For more on the Battle of Lepanto, go here.

Pax Christi,
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