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Is astrology compatible with Christian belief?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 08, December 2015 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Considering the role that a certain star of Bethlehem plays in one of our most celebrated stories, one might wonder. Astrology's appearance in the Western world occurred in the 3rd century B.C. It was a rather peculiar mash-up: Chaldean and Egyptian astral religion meets Greek mathematics and astronomy. But once it caught on, every corner of Hellenistic thought was affected by its influence.

This explains why the Old Testament, mostly compiled around the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., shows little interest in the topic. Isaiah pooh-poohs Chaldean astrologers in a poem about the fall of Babylon (Chaldean country, remember). The Book of Daniel, probably written in the 2nd century, makes four references to Babylonian wise men with a Hebrew word that may refer to astrologers.

New Testament evangelists, right smack in the middle of Hellenism's fascination with astrology, take up the subject more often. Matthew introduces a star that foretells the birth of Jesus, and a solar eclipse at his death. Mark and Luke also mention the eclipse. Reading into heavenly portents was discouraged, however, by Jesus himself. While noting that the whole world would be aghast at terrifying sights in the sky and attempt to interpret these signs, Jesus warned his followers against investing in such deceptive ideas. Jesus doesn't negate the significance of heavenly signs, only the meanings attached to them.

Saint Paul, true to his Pharisaical purist roots, is very critical of those who look for signs in zodiac placements (see Rom 8) or celebrate annual celestial events (Gal 4). To Paul, placing trust in "elemental powers of the world" (Col) betrays a lack of faith in Christ.

Church fathers like Tertullian and Augustine viewed astrological predictions as demonic, Augustine insisting that the whole system of astrology was an affront to human freedom. Christianity encountered enthusiasm for astrology again 800 years later with the spread of Islam. Both Thomas Aquinas and Dante treated the potential influence of the stars with guarded respect. During the Reformation, some Protestant leaders denounced astrology and others accepted it. It should be noted, some popes were advised by astrologers (Julius II and Paul III) while others vehemently opposed the practice (Innocent VIII). Astronomical discoveries in later centuries eventually disproved astrological claims as pseudo-science. Since Christianity seeks the truth in all things, it would be incompatible with a belief in astrology today.

Books: The World of the Early Christians by Joseph Kelly (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997) The Sky Is Not a Ceiling: An Astronomer's Faith by Aileen O'Donoghue (Maryknoll, NY:Orbis Books, 2007)

What does Advent have to do with Apocalypse?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 05, December 2015 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
John Martin Last Judgement Apocalyptic imagery

The Last Judgement by John Martin (Tate Britain via

A perceptive liturgical question! For most of us, Advent is our happy place. We think of it as the prequel to Christmas, an elongated season of joy and warm human feeling toward people of good will. But Advent is not to be confused with Christmas cheer from the perspective of the church calendar, nor from the view of the solar calendar. December is literally a dark time, full of long nights and end-of-year regrets for many. What we have done or failed to do is scrawled in the dust of the eleven months behind us.

Advent was conceived in a cultural context where the promise of the sun's return with the winter solstice was still devoutly anticipated and celebrated. A tinge of anxiety invaded that waiting space. Longing for the light—well before the dream of electricity—was bigger than some of us can imagine. All of which fit in nicely with the construction of a church season that celebrates the return of Christ our Light. "Return" is the operative word here. Just as the sun comes back around at solstice time, Christians anticipate that Jesus Christ will come again.

Most of us aren't thinking about the Second Coming, the End of the World, Last Judgment, or Apocalypse Now as we decorate O Tannenbaum, admittedly. "The Last Things," as this set of ideas is theologically catalogued, is not what we're consciously waiting and longing for during December. When we set up the empty crèche in our parishes, we anticipate the arrival of a little baby in the straw, not the dissolution of all things. But when you think about it, isn't one the same as the other?

The Incarnation is the shattering belief that the eternal God entered the realm of time as one of us. This unprecedented event does dissolve business as usual in human history. It opens a door on one side of reality, just as the Resurrection leaves one open on the other side. Heaven—which is the realm that apocalyptic or hidden writing is most concerned with—has just stepped into time and made it possible for us to anticipate stepping beyond it ourselves. When we read the Book of Revelation, or Daniel, or gospel passages with apocalyptic themes, we awaken to the game-changing reality of our faith.

This is why the first two weeks of Advent each year are given over to Apocalypse. It really is the end of the world as we know it!

Books: A Time of Fulfillment: Spiritual Reflections for Advent and Christmas by Anselm Grün, OSB ( Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013); Come, Lord Jesus: A Study of Revelation by Mark Braaten (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007) 

Petra is the coolest historical site in Jordan. Is it biblically significant?

Posted by: Jennifer Tomshack   🕔 Wednesday 21, October 2015 Categories: Church History
Petra, Jordan
Petra’s most famous ruin, Al Khazneh (“the Treasury”). The Hellenistic facade is carved into sandstone.
Of course Petra is cool—just ask Indiana Jones! The climactic scene in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—in which the main character goes on a quest for the Holy Grail (which is, according to legend, the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper)—was filmed in Petra.
That in itself does not qualify it as a biblically significant site (sorry, Harrison Ford!). In fact, the ancient Nabataean city of Petra, located in the modern country of Jordan about 50 miles south of the Dead Sea, is not specifically named in the Bible—although it’s possible that Petra is mentioned in the Old Testament under other names, including Sela and Joktheel. But it was indisputably a significant trade center in the region during biblical times. Today, the stunningly dramatic archaeological site is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is Jordan’s most visited tourist attraction.
Enclosed by cliffs, Petra is accessed through a natural split in the rock, called the Siq (“shaft”), which winds for about a mile. At the end of this narrow crevice is Petra’s most famous ruin, Al Khazneh (“the Treasury”), whose Hellenistic facade is carved into the sandstone.
Petra is in what was once the land of the Edomites, who were descendants of Esau, the son of Isaac and Rebekah and the brother of Jacob. Moses and the Israelites passed near Petra, and it is believed that the spring at Wadi Musa (“Valley of Moses”), just outside Petra, is where Moses struck the rock and brought forth water. Moses’ brother Aaron was buried in Petra at Mount Hor, or Jabal Harun (“Mount Aaron”), where a Byzantine church and an Islamic shrine were built.
The Edomites were eventually supplanted by the Nabataeans. Petra flourished as the wealthy capital of the Nabataean kingdom from the 3rd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D. The three kings who traveled to Bethlehem to honor the infant Jesus likely got their gifts in Petra, from which the Nabataeans controlled the Incense Route that connected the Mediterranean world with Eastern sources of incense, including Arabian frankincense and myrrh. One of the three kings is believed to have been Aretas, the Nabataean ruler of Petra.
The city was eventually abandoned by all but local tribes. Petra was unknown to the Western world for centuries, until it was visited by a European explorer in 1812.

Scripture: 2 Kings 14:7; Isaiah 16:1; Numbers 20:10-11; Matthew 2:1-12; 2 Corinthians 11:32

Where is Moses buried?

Posted by: Jennifer Tomshack   🕔 Tuesday 20, October 2015 Categories: Scripture,Church History
Serpentine Cross on Mount Nebo in Jordan
The Serpentine Cross on Mount Nebo in Jordan.

According to the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ journey from Egypt to the Promised Land ended just short of him entering it—on Mount Nebo in what was then called Moab and what is today modern Jordan. The Israelites—so close to their final destination—camped “in the valley near Beth-peor” (Deuteronomy 3:29), a small lush area northeast of Mount Nebo that is known today as Ayun Musa (“Springs of Moses”).

God told Moses that he would not cross the Jordan with his people and commanded him to go to the top of Mount Nebo—which overlooks the Dead Sea, the Jordan River valley, and Jericho—to view the land of Israel. (Today, on a clear day, Jerusalem is visible from Mount Nebo’s promontory.) Moses died and was buried in the vicinity, but even at the time of the writing of Deuteronomy, the exact place of his tomb was unknown.

Joshua was anointed by Moses to be his successor. After Moses died, Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. The crossing point has been identified as the ford directly opposite Jericho known as Bethabara, or Beit ‘Abarah (“House of the Crossing”).

Centuries later, according to 2 Maccabees, just before the Babylonian invasion of Israel, Jeremiah hid the Ark of the Covenant (the chest containing the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written) at Mount Nebo in a cave and sealed the entrance. The location of the lost Ark is, of course, a matter of great conjecture.

In the 4th century, Christians built a church at Mount Nebo that has been expanded into the large basilica there today, which houses a collection of Byzantine mosaics. Outside the sanctuary is the Serpentine Cross, which commemorates Christ’s crucifixion and the bronze serpent God instructed Moses to erect to stop a plague (all who looked upon the serpent were spared death).

Ancient Moab was the home of the Ammonites. Known as the Plains of Moab in the Old Testament and Peraea in the New Testament, it includes the lands east of the Jordan River and along the Dead Sea in the western part of modern Jordan, where today more than 100 biblical sites important to Jews and Christians have been identified and protected. Moab is where Jacob wrestled with an angel, where Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt, where Job suffered and was rewarded for his faith, and where Elijah ascended to heaven. And it is where Jesus was baptized by John.

In the 20th century, American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. prophetically referenced Moses gazing from Mount Nebo at the Promised Land he would never reach in King’s last speech before he was assassinated. The speech is popularly called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

Scripture: Deuteronomy 3:27-29, 34:1-6; Joshua 1, 3; 2 Maccabees 2:4-8; Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14

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Settle an argument for me. Was Jesus baptized in Jordan?

Posted by: Jennifer Tomshack   🕔 Monday 19, October 2015 Categories: Sacraments,Church History
Pope Francis visited Bethany Beyond the Jordan in 2014.
Pope Francis visited Bethany Beyond the Jordan in 2014.

Fittingly, there is quite a backstory to the location of Jesus’ baptism.

The Jordan River runs along the border between Jordan and Israel. (The width of the river, the distance between the two countries, is about 20 feet.) On the Jordan side of the Jordan River is a place called, then and now, Bethany Beyond the Jordan. There is strong biblical and archaeological evidence, as well as support from Byzantine and medieval texts, that this is where John the Baptist baptized Jesus of Nazareth in the river.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan has two distinct areas. The first is Tell Mar Elias (“Elijah’s Hill”), and the second is a cluster of remains of churches dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, a monastery, caves used by hermits, and baptismal pools. It has been a place of Christian pilgrimage for millennia.

According to 2 Kings, Elijah parted the waters of the Jordan River and crossed over, and then ascended to heaven on a chariot of fire, it is believed, at Tell Mar Elias.

Elijah and John the Baptist shared many similarities. Both were fiery men, who preached repentance and announced the coming of the Messiah. In fact, some believed John was Elijah, which John specifically denied. Still, it makes sense that John would conduct his ministry from a place associated with Elijah. Also, John’s preaching wasn’t popular with authorities and doing it on the other side of the river was probably more prudent.

When Jesus went to John for baptism, John initially objected, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” (Matthew 3:14). But when Jesus insisted, John complied. And so began Jesus’ public ministry. He gathered his first disciples there: Peter, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael. Multiple times, Jesus went to Jordan, and specifically Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where he taught and healed.

In keeping with the solemnity of the site, it has been restored to look much like it probably did 2,000 years ago. There are no signs marking the dirt path that leads to the rock and stone steps down to the water’s edge.

Bethany Beyond the Jordan is considered a national treasure by Jordanians. Its restoration and preservation is funded by the Jordanian government. John the Baptist is the patron saint of Jordan.

Pope John Paul II visited Bethany Beyond the Jordan during his 2000 pilgrimage to Jordan and the Holy Land, and it was designated as a Jubilee Year 2000 pilgrimage site by the Catholic Church, along with Mount Nebo, where Moses viewed the Promised Land before dying. Pope Francis visited Bethany Beyond the Jordan in 2014.

Scripture: 2 Kings 2; John 1:21, 28, 35-51, 10:40; Matthew 3:5-6, 13-17; Luke 3:21-22

Is the clerical sexual abuse crisis over?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 14, October 2015 Categories: Clergy
Church pews

Anyone who imagines the clerical sexual abuse of minors, explosively uncovered in the U.S. media in 2002, is a contained scandalous episode fading in the church's rearview mirror is mistaken. The facts speak for themselves: between 1950 and 2002, an emerging 10,667 victims accused 4,392 priests of sexual abuse. The numbers touched 4.2 percent of diocesan priests and 2.7 percent of religious order priests, including four percent in every region in this country. The time frame of 1970-1974 was the most volatile for abuse, as social factors contributing to it were rooted in the generation born between 1920 and 1949. This suggests that while the wave of abuse is receding, the most hard-hit generation of victims are currently in mid-life.

Children who suffered direct and shocking abuse aren't the only victims of this period. Their families, past and present, have shared this terrible anguish with them. And since the revelations have gone public, the Catholic community across the nation and around the world has been crushed by the shame, blame, and guilt of this horror. The loss of institutional credibility in the public eye is immense, but perhaps more significant is the enormous loss of faith that many Catholics themselves suffer in regard to their leadership, their church, and in some cases their God. This won't "blow over" as the media finds other headlines to pursue. What has rent the Body of Christ so violently and intimately must be healed.

The healing of this scandal involves tending to the direct victims of abuse with therapeutic care and just recompense. It also requires the identification, isolation, treatment, and/or incarceration of the clerical perpetrators (and in some cases, some visible penalty rendered to their enabling bishops) as the law allows. The genuine full confession and penitence of the institution that in many cases protected its priests and its reputation over and against its children is necessary. But all of these measures are only the beginning of the cure.

The final phase of the healing process will begin when the structures and attitudes that inadvertently fostered and then covered up such egregious behavior are addressed and undergo conversion, as we all do. As church historian Joseph Chinnici suggests, "operating relationships between the clerical and lay, male and female, celibate and married, elite and nonelite, sacred and secular dimensions of the church" must all come under review. Our willingness to do this reflects our genuine readiness to repent, and to restore what has been lost in this scandalized generation.

Websites:, which since 2003 keeps documents related to the scandal

Books: When Values Collide: The Catholic Church, Sexual Abuse, and the Challenges of Leadership by Joseph Chinnici, OFM (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010)

Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus by Bishop Gregory Robinson, Donald Cozzins (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008)

Who is Karl Rahner, and why is he important?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 06, October 2015 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Karl Rahner portrait painting

Theologian Karl Rahner is often described as a 20th-century Thomas Aquinas. He fearlessly brought Christian faith and contemporary thought into fruitful conversation. Rahner (1904-1984) joined the Jesuits in a church era still haunted by the fear of "Modernism"—a flirtation with secular ideas deemed dangerous to faith. To combat Modernism, the institutional church of Rahner's generation presented itself as the sole possessor of truth and the singular dispenser of divine grace. It viewed with deep suspicion anything that arose from the secular world, especially ideas, values, and politics.

Rahner changed the starting point of the conversation. What if grace is not exterior to the world at all, but an intrinsic aspect of the universe as God created it? If grace is not added to nature but embodied within it, then all people have grace at their disposal, however improperly perceived or understood. Non-Christian religions, then, aren't automatically dismissible as false, but are potential mediators of grace. What's more, grace need not be viewed as restricted to religious contexts but might be sought in all human endeavors that move toward the blueprint of the Kingdom: social and economic justice, and other movements that seek to liberate God's people from corrupt or evil circumstances.

Approached this way, contemporary times and secular events lose their "enemy threat" status and become dialogue partners in the releasing of grace. While the initiative of grace remains with God, the forces of history are primarily human-driven. This insight leads to Rahner's work being described as a theological anthropology: what we say about divinity always includes a statement about our humanity, since the Christian God is revealed in relationship to us.

The Rahner approach to theological analysis begins with the idea that the human person is the place where divine revelation occurs. If we take Jesus seriously, as Rahner does, we can't overlook that humanity is where the self-communication of God is most perfectly expressed. If we accept this, then humanism is no threat to faith. Christians are actually the ultimate humanists, professing as we do that God assumes our humanity into divinity by deliberate intention.

Rahner's vision was influential at the Second Vatican Council, especially in the "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" (Gaudium et Spes). A church that perceives its mission in dialogue and friendship with the world can lift its truth higher and dispense its storehouse of grace farther.

Books: The Mystical Way in Everyday Life: Karl Rahneredited by Annemarie S. Kidder (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010)

A Brief Introduction to Karl Rahner by Karen Kilby (New York: Crossroads Publishing, 2007)

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Is there a protocol for paying the priest: for marriages, sick calls, last rites?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 07, September 2015 Categories: Clergy
Wedding with couple and priest

A lot of us would be glad to have a sacramental "tip chart". But there's no universal standard. The services of a priest to his parishioners are without charge. We don't pay for blessings or for the sacramental ministry of the church. These are the rights of every baptized member, and the duty of every ordained minister of the church.

Each bishop sets a marriage stipend for his diocese. This fee covers marriage preparation (i.e. Pre-Cana classes, weekends, counseling) and paperwork (publishing banns, contacting your parish of origin for records). It includes heat, lights, use of the church facility, and janitorial cleanup. When you approach a parish, they'll inform you what the marriage stipend is. This is not, I want to stress, an offering for the priest's services or payment for the sacrament.

So the priest himself isn't paid for services rendered. HOWEVER: Your hairdresser gets a tip. Your garbage collector gets a Christmas bonus. Anyone who provides good care is acknowledged by your generosity. So it's customary to acknowledge the priest, music director, and all who serve you with an offering of thanks. As follows:

Wedding Offerings: Priests I've talked to say this varies depending on the means of the individuals. A poor couple might not make any offering; a rich couple may offer $1000. The average wedding offering to the priest is $100. If a couple requires a great deal of extra time and investment (say, to annul a former marriage, or two, or three) and the priest does a wonderful job getting all that paperwork rolling, the couple may want to acknowledge this with a larger stipend.

Sick calls: Hospital calls often occur in crisis and there's no expectation of an offering. If family members are at the bedside and the priest has come a long distance, gas money is a thoughtful gesture. If the priest comes to the home at the family's request during a long illness, a gift of $5 to $50 is typical—depending on the family's means.

Funerals: Funeral offerings are often overlooked. Families may be consumed by loss, especially if death was unexpected. A gift of $5 to $50 is a typical offering, depending on the family's means.

Bottom line: Offerings are truly gifts, not coerced and not payments. Especially when the priest does a spectacular job of assisting the family, it's a kindness to let him know you're grateful.

Scripture: Luke 10:1-9; 1 Timothy 5:17-18

Are priests obliged to say mass every day?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 01, September 2015 Categories: Clergy
Priest preparing for communion

Older churches still include side chapels and altars in various locations throughout the building, mute witnesses to a time when private masses were celebrated by multiple priests. Most parishes don't have the luxury of multiple priests these days. But the question remains: was there ever a time in church history when a priest was obliged to offer a daily mass, and is it true today?

The 1985 Code of Canon Law provides us with current normative church practice in such matters. Canon is Greek for "rule", but the rules it supplies don't generally pertain to faith and morals and therefore are subject to change. For example, since the 11th century, priests have been restricted in the number of masses they can celebrate daily. This is to limit the number of mass stipends a priest might collect, curtailing certain abuses. Today a priest may accept only one stipend per day and is not permitted to celebrate more than one Eucharist daily (Can. 905) —except under conditions elaborated elsewhere in the law (as with a nuptial mass). On Sundays and holy days a priest may celebrate twice or more if a shortage of priests makes it necessary. I've been in a lot of parishes where one priest and three-plus weekend masses is standard practice.

In Canon 904, priests are "earnestly" urged to celebrate mass frequently, even daily. But this is a "recommendation," and there is no mandate to do so. Also, Canon 906 states that"Except for a just and reasonable cause, a priest is not to celebrate the eucharistic sacrifice without the participation of at least some member of the faithful." Those private side altars where Father might "say his mass" are no longer deemed normative.

It's interesting to note that the 1917 Code of Canon Law offered strikingly different recommendations: that a priest say mass only "several times a year," although he was still obliged to attend mass on Sundays and holy days like every other member of the faithful. This practice reflected a time when vocations to the priesthood crowded the field of presiders. These varying prescriptions indicate that, historically, the obligation to celebrate mass has been determined more by the needs of the community than a perceived mandate for the priest himself.

 Books: Surprised by Canon Law - Pete Vere, Michael Trueman (Cincinnati, OH: Servant Books, 2005. Priesthood: A History of the Ordained Ministry of the Catholic Church - Kenan Osborne (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2003)

Scripture: Hebrews 9:1-28

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I heard all the big heresies were invented by the 5th century

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 23, July 2015 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Questions Catholics Ask: I heard all the big heresies were invented by the 5th century

Most modern heresy has roots in the big five from that period. Just about all the ways you can deviate from Christian orthodoxy were explored as the gospel moved from culture to culture in the ancient world. Before that time—the era of Augustine and Ambrose, Jerome and John Chrysostom and more—the church's theology was argued but not much codified. The canon of Scripture itself was only loosely uniform from place to place. Once the Council of Nicaea (famous for the Nicene Creed) began to nail down what is and is not Christian teaching in 325, any novel thinkers had to pass muster or be excommunicated:officially declared not in communion with the church.

Heresy had its territorial hotbeds. In the Eastern church, most heresy involved the Trinity; in the West, the nature of sin was a wider concern. Eastern heresies gathered like moths to the flame with alternative understandings of Jesus. They included Arianism, Nestorianism, and Monophysitism. Arius was an Egyptian priest who believed Jesus was the son of God, but not an eternal being like God. He viewed Jesus as a creature like the rest of us, therefore denying his divinity. Arianism was answered by the orthodox teaching that Jesus is "begotten, not made, one in being (consubstantial) with the Father." A council in Constantinople fifty years later declared the Holy Spirit also one with the Father and the Son.

Nestorius, a bishop of Constantinople, proposed that Jesus had two distinct persons within: one human, one divine. This idea threatened to make the humanity of Jesus a mirage over his more real, divine nature—essentially pronouncing the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection a charade. Nestorianism was condemned by the third council in Ephesus in 431.

The next heresy proceeded from the last one: Jesus had two natures before his birth and afterwards had one (monophysis). The Monophysites had a lot of support in the Near East and some sects exists today. Meanwhile in the West, Augustine began as an adherent in the Manichaean movement, which saw good and evil spirits in an equal pitched battle for control of the world. That God could have an "evil twin" in the devil was contrary to the teaching of One Supreme Being. Manichaeism was condemned, with no small help from Augustine.

Pelagius in Rome was the last big heretic of the period. He taught that human beings could save themselves by spiritual and moral perfection alone—which contradicts the need for God's grace. A lot of Catholics unconsciously harbor the spirit of Pelagianism today.

Scripture: Genesis 1:1-3; Exodus 1-6; Isaiah 45:5-7; John 1:1-18; 3:16-21; 14:15-31; Books: I Believe in God: A Reflection on the Apostles' Creed by Thomas Rausch, SJ  (Liturgical Press, 2008); Beginning to Read the Fathers by James Boniface Ramsey (Paulist Press, 2012)

What does the church have to say about suicide?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 23, July 2015 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs


What does the church have to say about suicide?

Suicide is the deliberating taking of one's own life. It may sound simple to pass moral judgment here, but many factors influence the moral value of the decision according to Catholic teaching. For example, a person who witnesses to faith under threat of death is choosing, not death, but the testimony of faith—though death is the sure result. In the same way, medical personnel fighting highly infectious diseases may hear from their relatives that entering such a medical arena is "suicide"—yet the choice is clearly not to die, but to serve.

 Modern health care offers extensive means of maintaining biological life. To refuse ordinary care is considered suicide in church teaching, but to refuse extraordinary means of care is not. These distinctions may seem unclear to the layperson but consultations with doctors and chaplains will help clarify the categories. To refuse extraordinary treatments allows the pathology of a disease to run its course, not to actively terminate a life. My sister, for example, was pronounced terminally ill but told that radiation treatments would extend her life for a few months. She tolerated treatment poorly, however, and chose palliative care (for the alleviation of pain only) for the last months of her life instead.

In our times, euthanasia (mercy killing) and assisted suicide have gained many advocates.  Euthanasia is a decision made on behalf of the sick person by a third party, as when someone is comatose or mentally incapable of rational choice. Assisted suicide, sometimes called aid-in-dying, involves a deliberate choice to end one's life with medical assistance. Popular arguments in favor of assisted suicide are the principles of autonomy and utility. Autonomy argues that human beings have a right to freely choose their path. It presumes that a person is free to make the decision to die unimpeded by coercion, stress, crisis, or narcotic substances. Utility argues that an individual's death might be best for all concerned due to economic factors or the burden placed on caregivers.

Catholic teaching on suicide does not accept arguments from autonomy or utility. Our moral tradition is based on four positive principles: the sanctity of human life, the sovereignty of God, personal stewardship, and the commandment against killing. Still, pastoral practice no longer passes judgment on the suicide, as most such acts are not fully voluntary but rather entered under duress. Christian burial is therefore available for the victim of suicide.

Scriptures: Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 30:19-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Job 1:21; Isaiah 45:4-25. Books: Suicide, Despair, and Soul Recovery  by Ken Stifler (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2008); Moral Discernment, Moral Decisions Guide by Richard Gula, SS (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1997).

Where did Limbo come from?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 30, June 2015 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Resurrection Icon

When dealing with speculation about the life of the world to come, the admission must be made that we who are living don't know the details of what happens after we die. Having said that, we're obliged to weave into a comprehensive whole the theological threads the church advances with integrity. This, in a nutshell, is how we arrive at limbo (Latin for edge or hem). Limbo is a theological thread that seeks to make sense of other threads already in our Christian pattern of talking about salvation.

The church has much to say about the universal salvific will of God: that God so loves the world, all of it, that God desires to save all of it. That doesn't mean everyone will be saved; only that God desires this end and offers the possibility of salvation to all. It's therefore incompatible to imagine that some parts of humanity never had a fighting chance to be saved: those who lived in the generations before Jesus, or who died before birth or in infancy. The "limbo of the Fathers" and the "limbo of infants" were derived to be of service to these two categories of persons.

Limbo talk resulted from a war of words between Pelagius and Augustine in the 4th century regarding original sin. Pelagius maintained baptism wasn't necessary to erase it, and Augustine vigorously insisted it was. Augustine's view prevailed and Pelagius' position was consigned to the realm of heresy. To be consistent, Augustine was willing to consign all unbaptized babies to hell; however, he softened their suffering there since they weren't guilty of personal sin.

Augustine inhabited the black-and-white theological universe of the Manicheans, who saw good and evil, heaven and hell, angels and demons, as the backdrop for all human dramas. Medieval theologians were uncomfortable with this ruthless perspective, and proposed limbo as a pastoral kindness. Limbo was viewed as a temporary state of separation from God—temporary meaning related to the temporal and therefore coming to a close at the end of time in final judgment. In the meantime, those in limbo enjoy a natural state of happiness exclusive of God's presence. What happens at the end of time to the denizens of limbo is up to God. Presumably, those who choose Jesus Christ at that final hour will enjoy solidarity with redeemed humanity. After all, there's only one kind of redemption, and it's for keeps.

Is limbo still on the books? Since it's never been formally defined by the church, it's never been formally abolished.

Scripture: Deuteronomy 30:19-20; Matthew 10:32-33; 1 Corinthians 15:20-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 21:1-8, 27

Books: Visions of a Future: A Study of Christian Eschatology by Zachary Hayes (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 1989); Eschatology and Hope by Anthony Kelly (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006)

Mary's parents aren't mentioned in the Bible. How do we know their names?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 30, June 2015 Categories: Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Scripture
Joachim and Anne

You're right: the names of Mary's parents, like everything else said about Mary before the biblically related story of the Annunciation, belongs to the realm known as church tradition. Think of family stories narrated year in and year out until they're as much legend as they are history. It becomes hard to separate historical aspects from mythological ones. With such stories from family or church tradition, determining the strictly factual elements of the saga may miss the point of the telling. The truth of most stories is larger than history, and seeks a higher meaning.

Stories about Mary's parents satisfy our curiosity for "the rest of the story," or the familiar story from a fresh point of view. Think of modern stories like Ahab's Wife, that retells the classic Moby Dick from the perspective of one who awaits the vengeful captain onshore; or The Red Tent, that presents the biblical patriarch Jacob through the experience of his lesser-known wives. Extra-biblical writings like The Protevangelium of James and The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew are likewise attempts from later centuries to fill in the gaps regarding Mary's back-story. Where did this remarkable woman come from? How did she become the one known for all time as "full of grace"?

As the story goes, Joachim and Anne are as virtuous as they are childless, giving two-thirds of their resources to the temple and to the poor. They long for a child and pledge to give their offspring to the Lord if their prayers be answered.

After Joachim, from a priestly family, is denied the chance to bring his offering to the temple—his childlessness is ridiculed by the high priest as a sign of God's rejection—Joachim retires to the territory of shepherds in shame, afraid to return home. There he meets an angel who promises him the birth of a highly favored daughter and is urged to meet his wife at the golden gate of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Anne at home receives a similar angelic messenger, and rushes to the gate to meet her husband. Their kiss at the gate is rendered in popular art of the Middle Ages.

Joachim and Anne keep their promise, delivering their daughter Mary into the service of the temple at the age of three. In this way we learn how Mary is prepared for her unique life of purity and grace.

Scripture: Matthew 1—2; Luke 1—2

Books: The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden, edited by Rutherford H. Platt (New York: Penguin Books, 1974); In Quest of the Jewish Mary by Mary C. Athans (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013)

Was there ever such a thing as a deaconness?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 18, May 2015 Categories: Church History
Saint Phoebe icon

Yes. Some early writers preferred the term deaconness, and others called them deacons as with the men. Still others implied that these women were simply wives of deacons. The existence of the female office of deacon is not in question, however. What the responsibilities of the office were is less certain: whether or not female deacons carried out the same ministries as their male counterparts.

The scriptural basis of the office depends on Paul's reference in Romans to "Phoebe our sister, who is a minister (diakonos) of the church." Another passage in 1 Timothy describes the qualifications of a deacon and continues, "Women, similarly, should be dignified, not slanderers, but temperate and faithful in everything." The passage continues to delineate qualities of deacons, and it is fair to assume that the women in question were also deacons. Early in the 2nd century, Pliny the Younger notes the presence of women deacons, and documents from the church of the East mention them, including the Council of Chalcedon (451) which makes note of their ordination.

What did female deacons do? Acts of the Apostles describes the first seven male deacons as preaching, teaching, baptizing, healing the sick, casting out demons, serving the poor of the community, and being martyred for their faith. Paul adds the job of fundraising to that resume. Luke describes women as the financial patrons of Jesus' ministry in chapter 8: they might fit Paul's concept of the deacon role. Paul's coworkers Pricilla, Chloe, and Lydia also served, taught, and led the community in various ways, although the term deacon was not scripturally applied to what they do.

In the 3rd-century Syrian church, deaconesses assisted at the baptism of women, and visited the sick and elderly. The Apostolic Constitutions of the 4th century describe deaconesses as virgins or widows, subordinate to male deacons, who served their communities based on current pastoral needs. This document also includes the ordination ritual for deaconesses, who received laying on of hands from the bishop. Like her male counterpart, the deaconess did have a liturgical role, but was not eligible to preach. For the first six centuries, the office of the female deacon was well established in the East.

Early evidence in the Western church shows opposition to an ordained office for women deacons, although their service to the church is uncontested. As late as the sixth century, places like Gaul still utilized widow-deaconesses.

Scripture: Luke 8:1-3; Acts of the Apostles 6:1—7:60; 8:4-40; 16:14-15, 40; 18:1-3, 18-28; Romans 16:1-4; 1 Timothy 3:8-13

Books: A New Phoebe: Perspectives on Roman Catholic Women and the Diaconate - ed. Virginia Ratigan (Kansas City: Sheed  & Ward, 1990)

Women of Bible Lands - Martha Ann Kirk (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004)

Who was Origen?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 10, May 2015 Categories: Church History

Few church leaders in Origen's generation (ca. 185-254) were as influential and colorful as this theologian-commentator-teacher-priest. From a wealthy family in Alexandria, Egypt, Origen enjoyed a superior education. His father's martyrdom during the persecution of Severus in 202, however, powerfully impacted Origen's teen years. He gave himself to fasting, nights of prayer, poverty, and self-castration, according to 4th-century historian Eusebius. While still in his teens, Origen was appointed a catechist by the bishop of Alexandria. His most promising students shared his ascetical life and lived under the possibility of martyrdom as did all Christians of those times.

Origen's dedication to understanding Scripture compelled him to visit Palestine, where because of his great learning he was invited to preach—though still a layman at the time. His bishop in Alexandria objected and ordered him home. In 230 the bishops of Caesarea and Jerusalem convinced Origen to be ordained, which may have led to his formal break with Alexandria. He established a school of theology in Palestine and proceeded to the most influential work of his career. 

Origen invented the first Bible parallel: the Hexapla, a six-column comparison of texts that attempted to validate the Septuagint translation in wide use in Alexandria. Thanks to his patron Ambrose, Origen also authored hundreds of commentaries and homilies on possibly every book of the Bible—though much of his work would later be suppressed or destroyed, a fraction surviving only in translations by Jerome and others. What did survive of the commentaries became a blueprint for biblical scholars: looking beyond the literal stories to the moral, dogmatic, or spiritual layers of meaning.

His treatise On First Principles outlined Origen's fundamental theology: centrally Trinitarian, with a focus on the twin poles of creation and salvation. It was Origen's interest in speculative theology that became most controversial. He was passionate about describing how the problem of evil entered into the human picture, how it made angels of some of us and demons of others, and how God was going to resolve it all in the end.

During the Decian persecution of 250, Origen was imprisoned and tortured. His health broken, he died after his release. Church historians were not always kind to Origen's theology. But his analysis of Scripture is still quoted relentlessly.

Scriptures: 1 Timothy 3:14-16; 4:1-16; 6:2b-16; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; 4:6-8

Books: History and Spirit: the Understanding of Scripture According to Origen - Henri de Lubac (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007)

When the Church Was Young - Marcellino D'Amboriso (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2014) 

How do you know if you're committing heresy?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 13, April 2015 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430).

Most Catholics don't think much about heresy, but that doesn't mean we don't flirt with it daily. Canonically, heresy involves an "obstinate denial or obstinate doubt... of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith" (can. 751). Scan the Creed for a reminder of what that grave level of truth involves. If you're not stubbornly denying the existence of God, the divinity of Jesus, the efficacy of the Holy Spirit, or the fidelity of Christ to the church, chances are you're not a heretic. Disagreements with your pastor don't weigh in at this level.

Look again at that word obstinate. The occasional doubt about God's personal care for you isn't enough to qualify. And it's not enough to have a general sense of alienation about the church or fulfilling distinct obligations. You have to deliberately and continually reject a dogmatic teaching. Most would-be heretics are far too vague about what the church actually teaches to make that kind of wholesale rejection. When we simply have unresolved issues regarding current church understanding or practice, that's known as heterodoxy (departure from belief) as opposed to orthodoxy (right or straight belief). There could well be some heterodoxy in most pews in our assembly. While heterodoxy is nothing to be complacent about, it does suggest we're still in the dialogue.

Apostasy, by contrast, is the total willful repudiation of Christian faith: no God, no resurrection, no forgiveness of sins. And schism occurs when we refuse to submit to the Pope and deny being in communion with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. (Your Protestant brother-in-law, therefore, is not a heretic but,doctrinally speaking, is a schismatic.) These are very sober positions to take, and can't be wandered into aimlessly as drivers sometimes drift into the opposing lane of a highway. You won't miss Mass for a few weeks and wake up an accidental apostate; or marry a Protestant and instantly contract a schismatic pallor. These positions require sincere dedication to achieve.

The phenomenon of heresy didn't evolve until the fourth century. Before then, Christians believed much about Jesus and the church that varied with culture, language, and local leadership. Since there is no ex post facto heresy—you can't be held to a dogma invented after your generation!—early believers are not accountable for their theological variances. Since the official formulation of the Creed, we are. 

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; 15:1-58; Hebrews 2:1-4; 2 Peter; John 1:1-10


History and Heresy: How Historical Forces Can Create Doctrinal Conflicts - Joseph F. Kelly (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012)

Dissent from the Creed: Heresies Past and Present - Richard M. Hogan (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2001)

Do Catholics believe in psychology?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 13, April 2015 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality,Doctrines & Beliefs
In 1953, Pope Pius XII addressed the Fifth International Congress on Psychotherapy and Clinical Psychology, imparting a cautious but discernible green light on the fields.
 Pope Pius XII addressed the Fifth Congress on Psychotherapy

 The church's relationship with the mental health fields wasn't always cooperative. The clinical disciplines you mentioned arose with 18th-century European pioneers who sought to move beyond traditional institutional restraint to "moral" treatments. In this country, Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush and later Dorothea Dix pushed for gentle, private rehabilitative asylums at the turn of the century. But theirs was viewed as a Protestant effort in that decidedly anti-Catholic phase of American history.

In the century of immigration that followed (1820-1920) with its tremendous stressors on newcomers, the numbers of mentally ill patients overwhelmed U.S. asylum hospitals. The rehabilitation ideal quickly degenerated to basic custody of the ill. Meanwhile, the diagnosis and understanding of mental illness with its physical, conscious, and unconscious elements were advancing under the work of Germans like Wilhelm Wundt and Sigmund Freud. Unfortunately, Freud's theories regarding the basis of sexual morality seemed threatening to Catholic teachings on sin and human responsibility. The church formally viewed the new disciplines as examples of a wayward modern world and did not lend support.

Father Edward Pace, a former student of Wundt, added a psychology department to Catholic University at its founding. Other prominent clergy criticized psychological disciplines as rife with "dogmatic error." In 1953, Monsignor Pericle Felici wrote that Catholics who entered into psychoanalysis were committing mortal sin. Felici was made a cardinal, and popular Catholic mistrust of psychiatry only grew. It should be mentioned that in the same year, 1953, Pope Pius XII addressed the Fifth International Congress on Psychotherapy and Clinical Psychology, imparting a cautious but discernible green light on the fields.

Twentieth-century Catholic lay doctors advanced the cause of psychiatry, including Leo Bartemeier and Francis Braceland, both presidents of the American Psychiatric Association. Gradually the mental health disciplines became less critical of and more receptive to religion as a component of human life. The church's attitude toward these disciplines likewise softened. Today many Catholic clergy view counseling and psychiatric care as a valuable component of pastoral care, and a necessary partner in maintaining good spiritual health.

Scripture: mental illness in biblical times: 1 Samuel 16:14-23; Job 3:1-26; Pss. 13; 22:2-12; 31:10-19; 69; 70; 102; 130; 143; Daniel 4:1-34; Matthew 6:25-34; 8:28-34;  Mark 1:21-27; 9:14-29 

Called to Happiness: Where Faith and Psychology Meet - Sidney Callahan (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011)

Transforming Our Painful Emotions - James and Evelyn Whitehead (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010)

Is there a heaven? What is it like?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 23, March 2015 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Correggio, Assumption of the Virgin, 1526-30

Most people define heaven as the place where God lives. They may add that it's where souls go after they die. None of that is exactly wrong. But there's more to say about heaven from a Christian perspective. Heaven is less a place than it is a condition of complete and final fulfillment for creation in relationship with its Creator. Heaven is "when" we get to be who we were destined to be all along.

We look up instinctively when talking about heaven. The vault of the sky is where we've biblically imagined God to dwell. The ancients put God at the highest point available to the eye: on mountain tops, above the clouds. When Jesus returns to his Father, he ascends. Glory to God in the (literal) highest!

The New Testament raises our expectations about heaven as more than the dwelling place of God, however. It's also the ultimate meaning of home and life for us. We hope to experience the maturity of our being in God's presence, as Franciscan theologian Zachary Hayes explains. When Christian believers are reunited with Jesus, our divine likeness will be revealed in our kinship with God's Son. So when we ask what heaven is like, we might well be asking: what will we be like when we reach spiritual maturity?

The religious imagination of the church through the centuries has created images of a celestial realm that have inspired many to lead holier lives. That realm is the place of final joy, eternal rest, the ultimate family reunion. Most of us hope that eternal transcendence won't mean a loss of our selves: we've rather grown to love and identify with our histories, societies, and relationships, and it would be a letdown to find ourselves in an eternal "oversoul" of un-individuated life. The Borg Collective of Star Trek fame is no one's idea of heaven!

Rather than interrupting our humanity, heaven is interpreted as the fulfillment of it. Theological insistence on the resurrection of both body and spirit is a way of saying this. You and I remain "you and I" in the life of the world to come. Heaven is also the attainment of direct and unmediated knowledge of God, AKA the Beatific Vision. Catherine of Genoa perceived heaven as the moment when everything standing between us and perfect love is finally purged away. Only endless joy with the One who is love remains.

Scripture: Genesis 1:1, 8; Isaiah 6:1-8; 65:17; 66:1; Pss 11:4; 19:1-7; 139:8; Mark 1:9-11; Matthew 3:2; 5:8; 10:32; Luke 24:50-51; 1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2

Books: And the Life of the World to Come: Reflections on the Biblical Notion of Heaven - John F. Craghan (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012)

C.S. Lewis on the Fullness of Life: Longing for Deep Heaven - Dennis J. Billy, C.Ss.R. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2009)

What's important about the Avignon papacy and the Great Schism?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 17, March 2015 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Pope Gregory XI returns Catholic Church headquarters to Rome.


This story includes enough drama for a mini-series. Apostolic succession presumes a direct line of authority proceeding from Peter the Apostle to Pope Francis I. That line got blurred during the Western Schism, which inadvertently sprung from the Avignon papacy.

In the 14th century, Rome was in a state of political anarchy and became too dangerous to contain the pope. One pope was imprisoned, and a later one elected under military pressure. In 1309, Clement V moved to Avignon, France, for safety and stability. Six more popes remained at Avignon, and the papal office became increasingly worldly in what was described as "the Babylonian captivity of the papacy". Saint Brigitta of Sweden pleaded with Avignon Pope #6 to return to Rome, but it took Saint Catherine of Siena's relentless spiritual clout to convince Pope Gregory XI (Avignon Pope #7) to comply in 1377.

Not long after returning to Rome, Gregory XI died. The next papal election was influenced by rioting Italians who called for a native successor, and cardinals still behind in Avignon didn't get to vote. The mentally unstable Urban VI was the result. The French cardinals rejected Urban and held their own conclave, electing Clement VII. England and most of Italy sided with Rome; France, Sicily, Scotland, Naples, and Spain preferred the French pope. This led to a 39-year schism that confounded rulers and bishops. Double appointees were obliged to duke out the details in monasteries, religious houses, even parishes.

Urban returned to Avignon and was probably poisoned. Roman cardinals elected Boniface IX, who was promptly excommunicated by the French Clement VII. Boniface reciprocated. Clement died and was replaced with Benedict XIII by the French. The Roman Pope Boniface died, followed by Innocent VII and then Gregory XII. While several popes on both sides had wanted to end the Schism, Gregory and his counterpart Benedict agreed to sponsor the Council of Pisa in 1409 to resolve the problem. The Council deposed both popes and elected another, Alexander V. The other two popes refused this solution. Now there were three popes. Alexander soon died—probably poisoned.

 The Pisa Council replaced him with John XXIII who was hardly better than a pirate. Another Council was held in Constance in 1414 and it elected Pope Martin V. All other contenders lost their supporters and the Petrine successors were thereafter traced through the Roman line of popes.

Mark 3:16; Matthew 16:18; Luke 22:32; John 21:15-17; Acts chs. 1–15

Authority in the Church - David J. Stagaman, SJ (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999)

The Popes of Avignon: A Century in Exile - Edwin Mullins (Ketonah, NY:BlueBridge Books, 2011)

What do I need to know about the Crusades?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 12, March 2015 Categories: Church History

All of us in the modern world need to know more about the Crusades! These events have done much to shape East-West relations to the present time. There were nine altogether, from the 11th through the end of the 13th centuries: armed expeditions of western medieval Christians against "infidels" in general, and Muslims occupying the Holy Land in particular. Many Crusades were disasters, and few achieved the goals set for them.

Crusades were holy wars with a biblical pedigree, as historian Joseph Kelly puts it. Their rationale was pasted together from the books of  Joshua through Revelation to support the idea that fighting to secure the Promised Land of Israel is a divinely ordained mission. Since the 7th century, Muslim Arabs had taken charge of Palestine, Egypt, Syria, and northern Africa by means of jihad or their own version of holy war. Specifically they attacked both the Persian and Byzantine Empires on the threshold of their desert territories, incidentally cutting off access to Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria from the West. The Arabs and Byzantines eventually found a way to co-exist, and pilgrim access to the Holy Land was restored.

By the late 11th century the Byzantine emperor wanted to be rid of his enemies and appealed to Western leaders for help. Pope Urban II couldn't drum up support for the Byzantine cause but knew that Catholics would fight to liberate the Holy Land, sweetened with the offer of indulgences. The Crusades invited the religiously fervent, the adventurous, the greedy, and especially landless younger sons who were assured of getting a plot of their own in the bargain. The First Crusade actually did manage to recapture Antioch and Jerusalem, but at the cost of mass slaughtering of Muslims, Jews, and indistinguishable local Christians.

After that, the holy places of the Near East would exchange hands many more times. Crusades were launched to retake them, or to achieve whatever political aims the kings and popes of the West had in mind. Wholesale slaughters, rape, looting, and destruction became programmatic. While some of these wars restored the holy places to Western control, it would be hard to describe the military actions that accompanied them as holy.

holy war theology in
Book of Joshua; Deuteronomy 20:4; the campaigns of King David in 1 and 2 Samuel; Joel 3:10; Book of Revelations

101 Questions and Answers on the Crusades and the Inquisition
- John    Vidmar, OP (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2013)

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes - Amin Maalouf (New York: Schocken/Knopf Doubleday, 1989)


What's an abbess, and what power does she wield?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 10, March 2015 Categories: Consecrated Life,Church History
 Hildegard of Bingen
 Famous abbesses of the past include Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century visionary,
theologian, composer, artist, and healer.

An abbess is the female counterpart of an abbot. This title derives from abba, "father" in Aramaic and Syriac, which makes the abbess the mother of her community. Hers is an elected office over a group of twelve or more nuns in an abbey. (Abbey and monastery are interchangeable words.)  The term abbess has been used since the sixth century within the Benedictine order, though now it's generally applied among religious cloisters of women. The abbess was originally a woman of noble rank as recognized within the structures of feudal society. She had the capacity to sit on councils, and in some situations governed double monasteries of both monks and nuns.

Was she powerful? You bet. In the feudal period, an abbess wielded temporal, spiritual, and ecclesial authority that bordered on the episcopal: that is, she held a rank similar to a bishop within the borders of her cloister and associated territories, and was answerable to no authority under the pope. Today's abbesses hold a more limited authority over their communities in spiritual and temporal matters.

Famous abbesses of the past include Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century visionary, theologian, composer, artist, and healer. She ran into conflicts with clerical leaders and eventually moved her community to Bingen in order to govern without interference. Her power was so strong and she inspired such devotion in her nuns and priest spiritual directors that it's no wonder she filled some clergy with alarm. Her canonization was delayed for centuries, and only in 2012 did Pope Benedict XVI recognize her as a Doctor of the Church.

Teresa of Avila in the 16th century was a remarkably capable abbess who reformed the Carmelite order and encouraged John of the Cross to do the same with the monks under his charge. Teresa is another Doctor of the Church named belatedly in 1970, and at the time of her death the Spanish Inquisition was investigating her for possible heresy. Eleventh-century Abbess Heloise of the Paraclete community was considered a brilliant scholar and governor of her community. Heloise is remembered mostly for her tragic love for Peter Abelard. Finally, Scholastica, twin sister of Benedict, was co-founder of the Benedictines with her brother. While the term abbess was not used in the 5th century to describe her, Scholastica fulfilled that role admirably for her nuns. As Gregory the Great said of her: "She could do more, because she loved more."

Films: "Hildegard" (Gateway/Vision Video 1994) "Teresa de Jesús" miniseries (Televisión Espanola, 1984)

Books: The Life of Teresa of Jesus: the Autobiography of St, Teresa of Avila  - transl. E. Allison Peers (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960)

The Life of the Holy Hildegard - The Monks Gottfried and Theodoric (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995)

Is premarital sex a sin?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 27, January 2015 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Engagement ring exchange

We'll start with sin. Sin too often gets interpreted as "Oh, I'm so bad and awful" and "God must hate me." Actually, sin means missing the mark of ultimate goodness set by the God who loves us literally to death! Sin is any action that falls short of what we might achieve if surrendered to God's loving purposes instead of our own short-sighted ones. As the church views marriage to be the context in which intimate sexual expression achieves its fullest good, then yes: sexual intimacy short of marriage is missing the mark and qualifies as sin.

Is it going to "send you to hell?" Going to hell is the formal result of a mortal sin that remains unreconciled: a sin grave enough, premeditated enough, and deliberately chosen to separate you from God for all eternity. You literally have to plan on doing something that creates a permanent breech between God and you: like choosing a life of hatred and destruction rather than the way of love and goodness. Most people in monogamous relationships are choosing to love, however imperfectly, and not signaling their eternal rejection of God.

When someone asks questions like these, I presume it's because a Catholic family member, friend, or pastor is voicing them. Or it may be an echo of something heard in Catholic school or religion class. When you hear this echo in your head, try to imagine that the speaker is primarily voicing his or her concern for you. He or she probably believes (and may have been taught by another well-meaning person) that sex outside of marriage equals hell-in-a-handbasket, no questions asked. Just as they probably won't convince you that a non-marital monogamous relationship separates you from God forever, you won't convince them that non-marital sex isn't a chute straight to hell. This is not a winnable argument.

But if you're able to accept the premise that a monogamous relationship that's not a marriage is not a perfect arrangement, then you might consider why you're choosing it. Living together is at best a prelude to marriage—and at worst an avoidance of deeper commitment. You might ask each other: Is this a trial marriage, or a pairing of mutual convenience until something better comes along? Are we open to marriage and if so, what circumstances keep us from taking that step? When it comes to loving commitment, hitting the mark is always preferable to missing it.

Scripture: Genesis 2:23-24; Song of Songs 8:6-7; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; 6:18-20;Colossians 3:14

Books: In Pursuit of Love: Catholic Morality and Human Sexuality - Vincent J.Genovesi, SJ (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996)

Marriage and the Catholic Church: Disputed Questions - Michael Lawler (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002)


Do the Eastern churches have popes?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 27, January 2015 Categories: Ecumenism,Church History
Pope Francis meeting Patriarch Bartholomew in Turkey Dec. 2014
Pope Francis meeting Patriarch Bartholomew in Turkey Dec. 2014

Not popes, but patriarchs. This answer is embedded in history which is where things always get interesting and make more sense. There were five ancient patriarchates: basically self-governing territories under a chief bishop and his synod. Those five were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Remember that distances were greater when the whole world operated without technology and on foot or horseback. It was hardly practical for a centralized office to handle every local decision about the universal church, especially as languages and cultural contexts of each diocese were quite different. The law of the church (canon law) wasn't even informally standardized until the Middle Ages. Bishops came together for universal councils in places like Ephesus and Chalcedon for rulings on controversial questions and to resolve major conflicts. But for the most part, the patriarchates ran their dioceses effectively.

The papacy's profile soared after Pope Leo I's reign in the fifth century. Two hundred years earlier, Irenaeus had affirmed Rome as a "more powerful principality" rooted in the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul in that city. Popes before Leo I had also seen the Roman bishop as holding "pastoral care of all the churches." But Pope Leo was the first to declare that the Bishop of Rome assumed the fullness of power conferred on Peter by Christ. To be in communion with Rome, therefore, is to be in communion with all bishops and churches who confess now, have confessed, or will confess the Catholic faith.

Tensions gradually arose between the Eastern patriarchs and Rome over matters of theology, liturgy, and church practice. Authority and governance became a flashpoint, culminating in the Great Schism between East and West in 1054. The Eastern church claimed the name Orthodox, viewing the See of Rome as a "papal church." Eastern and Western leaders excommunicated each other and their constituencies, a ban that wasn't lifted until the time of Pope Paul VI in the twentieth century. Nationhood advanced as a preferred political identity, and increased nationalization of the churches proliferated. Some Eastern patriarchs remained loyal to the Pope including the Armenian, Chaldean, Coptic, Maronite, Melkite, and West Syrian patriarchates. Over twenty unique Catholic rites exist in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church today. The rest allied with the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox patriarchs. They have not been in communion with Rome for almost a thousand years. The dialogue of East and West continues.


101 Questions and Answers on Eastern Catholic Churches - Edward Faulk (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007)

You Are Peter: An Orthodox Theologian's Reflection on the Exercise of Papal Primacy - Olivier Clement (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2003)

What is papal primacy and where does it come from?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 08, January 2015 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Chair of St. Peter

Primacy means "first." What makes the pope first in the church? The idea goes back to Peter the Rock, upon whom Jesus chooses to build his church. Peter's at the top of every list of the Twelve and the obvious spokesperson for the bunch. He receives the threefold command to feed the Lord's sheep, and he's the one whose faith must strengthen his brothers, according to the prayer of Jesus. Because Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome, the bishop of that city was early seen as the one who assumed Peter's leadership. Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Dionysius in Corinth, and Tertullian all viewed this authority as the destiny of the one who occupies Peter's Chair in Rome.

Papal primacy is in a constant balancing act with the collegiality of all bishops worldwide. Collegiality too dates back to the early church and doesn't contradict primacy, as Vatican II confirmed. (See Lumen Gentium's concluding explanatory  note.) The first Vatican Council addressed primacy with the now-famous doctrine on papal infallibility. We often forget this Council was interrupted by war in 1870 and that clarifications about the role of the other bishops in preaching, teaching, and governance—already on the agenda—had to wait another century for a second Council to treat them.

Papal primacy hasn't always led to the unity it suggests. Papal power is juridical, not political, meant to judge all matters in light of the gospel. Yet the church has certainly wielded its share of temporal power since Constantine gave Christianity a privileged place in his empire. The bishop of Rome was originally an ecclesial referee: addressing controversial theological questions; mediating conflicts to protect the rights of other bishops; and making the call on excommunications when necessary. Papal judgments expressed the communion of local churches and weren't meant to swallow up all ecclesial power in the room. The authority of local bishops, according to Vatican I, is essential to the life of the church and is not reducible to mere capitulation to the Boss in Rome. Each bishop is the Vicar of Christ in his own territory, not the Pope's local representative.

When Pope Francis talks about wanting to hear from his bishops about how best to shape church leadership in the future, he's working from a papal model that has deep roots in church history. Papal primacy makes him the head of the episcopal college, not a supreme private ruler.

Scriptures: Mark 3:16; Matthew 16:18; Luke 22:32; John 21:15-17; Acts chs. 1–15

Books: Papal Primacy From Its Origins to the Present - Klaus Schatz, SJ             (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996)

A Service of Love: Papal Primacy, the Eucharist, and Church Unity - Paul McPartlan       (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 2013)

What does Jesus have to say about family?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 06, January 2015 Categories: Scripture,Church History
Holy Family icon

Biblical family values sound similar to a 1950s American nuclear household setting. The creation story says that a man and woman leaves their parents in order to form a new unity. Yet "Honor your father and your mother" is the nucleus around which Hebrew tradition positioned its model of family dynamics. There's a certain tension in these ideals: how do we make a clean break with the original family while still living up to the obligation to honor those ties? Every modern marriage struggles to juggle these conflicting priorities.

The Mosaic tradition was built on a system that gave the eldest father, or patriarch, authority over the clan, including the power to bless or curse its members for the future. This gradually led to laws permitting divorce in circumstances of male displeasure with the union. Children had to obey their parents in terms described at length in the wisdom tradition: "Children, pay heed to a father's right; do so that you may live." The mother's influence isn't left out of the equation: "For a father's blessing gives a family firm roots, but a mother's curse uproots the growing plant." (Sir 3:1 and 9) Children had the responsibility to care for aging parents, but parents had the duty to discipline, instruct, and protect their children.

In between Moses and the later sages, the prophets showed less interest in family dynamics and more in social justice and fidelity to Israel's God. When Jesus began his teaching ministry 1200 years after Moses and a century or two after the wisdom sages, his emphasis seems rooted in prophetic concerns: the poor and the sick, the outcast and the sinner. When Jesus speaks of family, it's often to translate it into new terms. Jesus prefers to identify with the child rather than the way of the powerful patriarch. Mother and sister and brother are not primarily ties of blood but of loyalty to the word of God. The goodness parents show to children is a fraction of what God has for us. The teachings of Jesus won't necessarily strengthen families but will serve to tear many apart. In fact, following Jesus may involve choosing his way over the way of family altogether— an idea forcefully expressed as "hating" family. This family of faith is poignantly illustrated at the cross, where the disciple receives a new mother, and the mother a new child. The Jesus family isn't just a contradiction of ancient family patterns. It's a total transfiguration of the ideal.

Scriptures: Gen 2:24; Deut 5:16; Prov 31:10-31; Sir 3:1-16; 7:18-28; 26:1-18; 30:1-13; 42:9-14; Mk 9:36-37; Lk 8:19-21; 11:27-28; 12:49-53; 14:25-26; 18:29-30; Jn 19:26-27

Books: The Gospel of the Family - Cardinal Walter Kaspar (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014)

A Christian Theology of Marriage and Family - Julia Rubio (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2003)



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