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Where did Lent come from?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 02, February 2012 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality,Doctrines & Beliefs
Christian cross
The entire church year spins on the axis of Easter faith. (photo:

The celebration of Lent is a long-established tradition in the church—and I use the word celebration deliberately. The prayers of the liturgy refer to Lent as “this joyful season.” Though the character of the season is penitential, the intent of Lent is to prepare our dispositions for the greatest feast of the church year, the always-jubilant Easter. With all that to look forward to, Lent could hardly be a mournful time.

So where did Lent come from? Let’s start by saying that Christianity embraces one key belief: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This central article of faith shapes everything we do as Christians, how we live and die, and certainly how we express our faith in worship. Easter is therefore the primary day of rejoicing. Every Sunday is considered a “little Easter,” a commemoration of how Jesus triumphed over sin and death through the power of God for the sake of humanity’s emancipation from those ancient twin evils that bound it. The entire church year spins on the axis of Easter faith.

In the first three centuries of the church Christians prepared for this mother-of-all-feasts by fasting—between two days to a week depending on local custom. In Rome the “paschal fast” may have lasted as long as three weeks. This extended fast was linked to the preparation of new members for baptism at the Easter Vigil.

By the 4th century a full 40-day period of preparation was observed, imitating the 40-day fast of Jesus in the desert before undertaking his great mission. Fasting and prayer were natural components of the season because that’s how Jesus prepared himself. Almsgiving was added to the practices of Lent as it, too, was a traditional way of making sacrifice to God in the wake of sinfulness. Following a calendar of feasts and seasons dependent on one’s faith is an idea rooted in Judaism. The Law of Moses established fixed times annually to recall the saving actions of God, centered on the commemoration of Passover. A liturgical calendar allowed Israel to practice gratitude and thanks, repentance and conversion, each in accord with the natural seasons, rains, and harvests. A cycle of liturgy also provided a way to instruct new generations about the faith in ritual and storytelling.

Easter, the Christian Passover, was fixed by the Council of Nicaea in 325 to coincide with the first full moon after the vernal equinox. That makes Lent the annual “springtime” of faith, quite literally, as the word Lent means "spring."

Mark 1:12-13; Matthew 4:1-2; Luke 4:1-3; Leviticus 23

“Grave matters: Take away the Resurrection and the center of Christianity collapses,” article by N. T. Wright 
• For fun: Wiki article on computus,” the complicated story of calculating the date of Easter

Embracing the Sacred Seasons of Lent and Easter: Daily Reflections and Prayers by Janis Yaekel (Twenty-Third Publications, 2005)
Living Liturgy: Spirituality, Celebration, and Catechesis for Sundays and Solemnities (Liturgical Press)

What is meant by "just war"?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 22, November 2023 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Just War Theory
Just war theory offers eight criteria for engagement.

Begin with the Christian premise that obliges us toward peace and against war. Just war theory is the body of moral reasoning developed to discern when the primary bias against war may shift toward an obligation to protect and defend. History proves there are times when violence can't be avoided and must be engaged. Just war theory insists that war can never serve a political or economic purpose. Military action must serve a fundamentally moral purpose. Both societies and individuals are accountable for the decision to fight and must soberly consider why they do.

The first principle of just war tradition, then, defines war as a moral issue. The second holds that even a just war can't be engaged without limits or restraints. Theologian Paul Wadell notes that even a legitimate war is an occasion to be mourned, not celebrated. The duty not to harm or injure another is "intrinsically binding" for Christians. Acts of violence even during wartime are to be avoided when possible and limited when necessary, to protect the innocent and to restore justice.

In the early church, pacifism preceded just war tradition. Until Constantine's reign in the fourth century, soldiers who became Christians laid down their arms. Pacifism was necessary for two reasons: because military service involved idolatry toward the emperor, and because killing was a direct violation of the command of Jesus to love your enemy. The alliance of church with state under Constantine ensured that church policy leaned toward supporting the interests of the empire. Christianity's original pacifism wavered. Fourth-century theologians Ambrose and Augustine developed arguments that could, under limited conditions, make war not only permissible but obligatory in the service of a victimized neighbor. Augustine particularly emphasized that a sinful world often presents no perfect solutions to unjust situations.

Just war theory offers eight criteria for engagement. Seven determine whether a conflict is justified, including: just cause, competent authority, last resort, comparative justice, proportionality, right intention, and probability of success. The eighth consideration is reserved for an inevitable engagement and involves right conduct in wartime. In his 2020 encyclical Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis urged us to consider that “it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war.’ Never again war!” Clearly, it's never enough simply to declare a cause righteous in one's own mind and issue a call to arms.


Isaiah 9:5-6; 11:1-9; 57:19; Jeremiah 6:14; 8:11; Matthew 5:9, 21-26, 38-48; Luke 6:27-36

The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response by USCCB, 1983

What Does the Church Teach About Just War? by Paul Wadell (Liguori, 2005)

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What does it mean to repent?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 20, November 2023 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality,Sacraments,Scripture,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

(Photo: Pickpik)Love is willing to share the journey toward reunion and reconciliation. (Photo: Pickpik)

We’re not served well in our appreciation of the word repent by the many films featuring some be-frocked priest or Puritan shaking a cross in people’s faces and demanding, “Sinner, repent!” Repentance doesn’t necessarily require falling on our knees and beating our breasts, though sometimes that may be the appropriate response—as it was for skeptical Thomas, when the resurrected Lord whom he'd doubted stood before him. Basically, to repent means to change course. That can mean movement if we’ve been standing still, or stopping if we’ve been in frantic motion. It can mean changing our minds or our hearts, our direction or our behavior.

The word has several important root meanings. The earliest is the Hebrew word t’shuvah, meaning "return." It’s a crucial concept to prophets like Amos, Hosea, and Jeremiah. Their fellow citizens have wandered far from God's ways, and it’s time for them to return home. The rabbis tell a story of a young man who falls in with a bad crowd and winds up far from home, destitute and ashamed. His father sends word for the son to return. “I cannot,” the young man replies, “It is too far.” Too far in distance, surely, but also in moral stature. His father responds: “Come as far as you can, and I will come the rest of the way.”

This story reminds us how our failures put us at a distance from those whom we love, from the community of faith to which we belong. Yet love is willing to share the journey toward reunion and reconciliation. We return to God, and God returns to us.

If t’shuvah is the Old Testament word for repentance, metanoia is the New Testament Greek term that carries a similar meaning. John the Baptist first issues the call to change direction, signaled by baptism in the Jordan. Jesus uses this term when he invites his listeners to change their dispositions—to turn their hearts and lives around—in response to his teaching. Our word repentance carries the additional meaning of expressing regret for past actions and attitudes—along with the expectation that real change is forthcoming. In addition, the word conversion means turning around, implying a reorientation of intentions and actions. In the sacrament of reconciliation, we include the stipulation of “making reparation” for what we’ve done or failed to do that has caused harm.


Amos 4:6-11; Hosea 5:15—6:3; Jeremiah 3:12-22; Mark 1:4, 14-15; Matthew 3:1-2; 4:17; Luke 3:3; 13:1-5; Acts 2:37-39; 3:19; 26:17-20; 2 Peter 3:9


The Forgiveness Book – Alice Camille and Paul Boudreau (Chicago, IL: ACTA Publications, 2008)

Radical Forgiveness – Antoinette Bosco (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009)

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Is Epiphany about giving gifts or getting them?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 20, November 2023 Categories: Liturgy,Scripture,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

Gold symbolizes wealth and power. Frankincense, used in prayer, represents the divine Presence. Myrrh prepares bodies for burial.

“We three kings of Orient are/ bearing gifts we traverse afar.” Nowhere in Matthew does it claim there are three. And Matthew never calls them kings. They are magi, hereditary priests of the ancient Medes and PersiansFrom this talented crew we get the word magic. But you can’t make a decent song out of “we unnumbered magi.” At least the carol gets one thing right: This group of wise fellows does bear gifts.

So how did kings get into the picture? Lay this at Isaiah’s door. He prophesies that kings will walk by the light of the Lord to Jerusalem. Their caravans will indeed bring gifts of gold and frankincense—but alas, no myrrh in Isaiah's vision of this scene. Gold symbolizes wealth and power. Frankincense, used in prayer, represents the divine Presence. Myrrh prepares bodies for burial. It's an ominous sign that would make a startling gift.

Matthew’s gift-bearers are wise men for sure. There is something "magical" about their foresight. Power, divinity, and death are three sober elements that will accompany Jesus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. These were strange birthday presents to be sure. But they were appropriate honors for the King of the Universe, the Divine Son, and the crucified Lord.

Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh. These were the gifts Jesus received long, long ago. But we also bear him gifts at every Eucharist: Bread. Wine. Our financial sacrifice. These are all "made by human hands" one way and another. And, as Jesuit Roc O'Connor suggests, these are gifts transformed and returned to us as Body and Blood of Christ, and redistributed resources for those in need.

More gifts come to us by way of this shared Table. Grace pours out on the assembly. But grace can seem like one of those white elephant gifts: Now that we have it, what do we do with it? Church teaching describes grace as internal sanctification. We're made holy, fit “temples of the Holy Spirit,” as Paul assures us. This isn’t about spiritually fumigating your chest cavity. It’s about becoming, like Mary, God-bearers: those who carry the divine presence wherever we go.

Grace moves at God’s initiative. We can’t muster it up by sheer force of moral living. Paul says we can try to save ourselves by obedience—but we will surely fail. Grace forgives sin, and rescues us from every evil. This is one gift you don’t want to put at the bottom of a closet.



Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:2-6; Matthew 2:1-12; 1 Corinthians 6:19


At the Supper of the Lamb: A Pastoral and Theological Commentary on the Mass - Paul Turner (Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publication, 2011)

In the Midst of Our Storms: Opening Ourselves to Christ in the Liturgy - Roc O'Connor, SJ (Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publication, 2015)

Why are Catholics so focused on the Eucharist?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 26, September 2023 Categories: Sacraments,Liturgy,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
The Second Vatican Council sought to restore "full, conscious, and active" participation in the Eucharist so that the people of God might again remember that the "why" of Eucharist is more vital than the "how."

A Eucharistic spirituality is ground-level for life as a Catholic. It's built on the three gospel accounts of the Last Supper, in which Jesus urges his friends to "do this in memory of me." While John's gospel doesn't recount the Last Supper meal narrative, John does have an extended teaching on Jesus as the bread of life in chapter six. Saint Paul also reiterates the Last Supper instruction in his First Letter to the Corinthians: "For I received from the Lord what I also handed onto you."

Jesus employed one or perhaps two well-known forms of Jewish prayer from lifelong ritual practice. One is the berakah or prayer of thanksgiving to God commonly prayed over the bread and the cup. Another is the todah or sacrifice of praise in which leavened bread was used along with prayers of praise. Christians use the word Eucharistthanksgivingfor our communion liturgy as a whole.

How Eucharist was celebrated developed over time and was distinctive geographically from Jerusalem to Rome to Carthage, and from East to West. But early teachers like Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Cyril, Ambrose, and Augustine agreed that Eucharist had several significant meanings. One was the impact of the Passion of Christ for human history. Another was the unity in which all Christians shared as the Body of Christ. A third meaning was that engaging this sacrament had profound moral implications for those who did.

The medieval church made a swing away from this "symbolic" thinking about the Eucharist to an "instrumental" focus. That is, we went from reflecting on WHY Jesus makes this self-offering to HOW it's accomplished ritually and theologically. This impoverished the church's communion in many ways. The complicated rhetoric was harder to teach to the uneducated, and so fewer understood what was being celebrated. As a result, reception of the sacrament declined. Passive piety and miraculous stories about the Host replaced an active embrace of a moral life formed by an incorporation into Christ's Body. Believers sought to adore the Host than to live a life of thanksgiving and praise.

In the early 20th century, Pope Pius X advocated frequent reception of the Eucharist and to younger-aged children. Pius XII added to those reforms. The Second Vatican Council sought to restore "full, conscious, and active" participation in the Eucharist so that the people of God might again remember that the "why" of Eucharist is more vital than the "how."

Scriptures: Exodus 24:5-8; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Mark 14:22-25; Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 22:14-20; John 6:1-15, 22-65; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; (see also Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Vatican II documents, 1963)

Books: Pope Francis on Eucharist: 100 Daily Meditations for Adoration, Prayer, and Reflection, by Pope Francis, with foreward by Cardinal Blase Cupich (Liturgical Press, 2023)

Communion Ecclesiology: Vision and Versions, by Dennis M. Doyle (Orbis Books, 2000)

What is grace?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 13, August 2023 Categories: Sacraments,Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs
Like any present offered in love and presented in grand style, grace comes to us free of charge.

A big question to address in a small space! The simple definition of grace is God's favor. But what it means to receive such benevolence is demonstrated in boundless ways. As a child in religion class, I remember imagining grace as a birthday present in a brightly wrapped box with a big bow on top. That's because Sister told us grace is a gift, and the only gifts I'd ever seen looked like this.

The Old Testament describes God's favor differently. It's expressed in the act of creation, as well as the covenant with Israel, and the liberating force of Exodus. In the New Testament, Saint Paul rightly calls Jesus Christ the grace of God, using the Greek word charis, from which also comes charisma, the empowering gifts of the Spirit. 

So how do we "get" grace, or know it when we see it operating? Divine grace comes to us through the mercy, forgiveness, and rescue of God at work in our lives. The classic definition of a sacrament is that of a sign rooted in Christ which provides grace. So add the sacraments of the Church to the ways in which we receive this gift. The Eastern Fathers went so far as to say that sacraments "divinize" us: God becomes flesh so that flesh can share in the divine life, including God's immortality.

In the West, Saint Augustine argued that grace heals and liberates our sin-inclined wills so that we can do the will of God. Without grace, we're literally lost. Saint Thomas Aquinas envisioned grace as elevating us to a higher level in closer union with God. Thomas Merton saw grace as the antidote to the "death dance" in our blood. The bottom line on all of these approaches to understanding grace—life-giving force, bonded relationship, liberating power, incarnation and participation in divine gifts, healing, uplifting, unifying, detoxifying—is that it comes to us free and unmerited. We can't earn it by obeying laws or racking up spiritual points. God doesn't "owe" us grace even if we're saintly every moment of the day. In a sense, my childhood notion of grace still applies. Like any present offered in love and presented in grand style, grace comes to us free of charge.

But just like any gift that comes in a pretty package, grace is hardly received if we don't open the box and actually make use of it.

Scriptures: Isaiah 55:1-3; John 1:14-17; 14:23; Acts 6:8; 11:23; 13:43; 14:3, 26; 15:11, 40; 18:27; 20:24; Romans 1:5-7; 3:24-26; 5:1-2, 15-21; 6:1-23; 11:5-6; 12:3-8; 15:15-16; 1 Corinthians 1:4-9; 3:10-17; 4:7; 15:10; 2 Corinthians 1:12; 4:15; 6:1-2; 8:1-2; 9:8; 12:9-10; Galatians 1:6, 15; 2:19-21; 5:4, 22-23; Ephesians 1:3-14; 2:4-10; 3:2-12; 4:7; Philippians 1:7; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 2:9; 4:16; 13:9; James 4:6; 2 Peter 1:4-10

Books: The Experience and Language of Grace, by Roger Haight, SJ (Paulist Press, 1979)

Idol and Grace: On Transitioning and Subversive Hope, by Orlando O. Espin (Orbis Books, 2014)

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What does it mean to be saved?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 09, June 2023 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

God's desire to save includes everything.

Salvation is one of those churchy words we use all the time with relatively little reflection. To Catholics of a certain generation, or Christians of some denominational persuasions, it simply implies you're not going to wind up in hell for your sins. But that's a very reductive idea. Being saved is so much more than that.

In theologian Jon Nilson's wonderfully rich definition, salvation is the condition of the ultimate restoration and fulfillment of humanity and all creation effected by God's action in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. I mean, wow! This is so much bigger than the singular rescue of your soul or mine from eternal flames, so to speak. God's desire to save includes everything. This reminds us of the words of Jesus after the multiplication of loaves: "Gather up the fragments that nothing may be wasted." It's God's plan that no crumb of creation is wasted.

The important question this raises is: Is this your plan and mine? Climate change reveals how human beings are very careless about the stewardship placed in our hands for all of life. Pope John Paul II's admonitions concerning our "culture of death" point toward the many ways we "waste" life: in warfare, poverty, capital punishment, and abortion among others. Pope Francis likewise warns about our "throwaway culture," which pollutes the air, soil, and water in its consumptive production, then tops off landfills as we discard it for more. And of course there are other ways in which we squander life: in the wasteful use of our time. In exploitative careers founded in personal greed rather than meeting social needs. In addictive habits, injustice, racism, hate speech, attitudes of resentment, and so much more.

What seems clear is that, if we are not saved, if we are in fact wasted or lost, it's not because God wills it to be so. God's design and desire are to rescue all. The story of salvation history traced in Scripture describes the perpetual efforts of a "saving God" who seeks to rescue and reconcile a people repeatedly and stubbornly choosing to wander into harm's way again. Heaven and hell, properly understood, are images that invite us to participate now in the happiness or misery we ultimately want. In Nilson's words, "Taken seriously but not literally, [heaven and hell] are reminders of the ultimacy involved in one's everyday decisions." There should be no mystery in how we spend eternity. Just contemplate how you spend today.

Scripture: Mark 3:4-5; 10:50-52; Matthew 1:21; 8:25-27; 14:30-32; Luke 1:46-55, 68-79; 2:10-11, 29-32; 7:50; 17:19; 19:9; Acts 4:10-12; Romans 3:21-26; 5:9-10; 8:19-24;  1 Corinthians 1:18; 15:1-2; 2 Corinthians 2:15-17; Galatians 2:15-21; 1 Thessalonians 5:8-10 

Books: Teresa of Avila, the Holy Spirit, and the Place of Salvation, by André Brouillette (Paulist Press, 2021)

Jesus and Salvation: Soundings in the Christian Tradition and Contemporary Theology, by Robin Ryan (Liturgical Press, 2015)

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Who invented the sacraments?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 19, March 2023 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Scripture,Sacraments
Sacrament is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace."
(photo: Pixabay)

The classic definition of a sacrament is that it's an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. "Instituted by Christ" is a curious phrase. It clearly does not mean that Jesus, in his lifetime on earth, listed seven and only seven actions that will forever be known as sacraments. In fact, Jesus never uses the word.

The definition derives from fifth-century Saint Augustine, who taught that a sacrament is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace." He left out the part about where they came from. Third-century theologian Tertullian seems to have begun calling the initiating rituals of the church by the term sacramentum, which at the time was used for the oath of loyalty a Roman soldier vowed to the emperor. This Latin root word for sacrament means hidden or secret, similar to the Greek word for mystery.

Augustine advances the understanding of a sacrament by linking it to efficacy: that is, it effects what it signifies, does what it says. So baptism's waters bring death to sin and new life to us. Bread and wine become Christ's body and blood. However, Augustine fails to supply a definitive list of which actions do this. Nor does he limit sacraments to rituals but also includes objects. Across his writings, some 300 actions and elements are deemed signs of sacred realities; it's unclear that Augustine doesn't intend them all to be sacraments.

The church over time limits sacraments to ritual acts. Things—like holy water, ashes, palms—can be "sacramentals": elements that derive meaning from the sacraments. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 delineated the list of seven sacraments Catholics celebrate today.

In the New Testament, the ritual acts routinely practiced by the early church were baptism of new members and the breaking of the bread on the first day of the week. The Letter of James recommends anointing the sick, in imitation of Jesus who frequently touched those he healed. The practice of laying hands on those chosen for leadership is attested in the Acts of the Apostles. Both Jesus and Saint Paul rigorously support faithful marriages and forgiveness of sins in their teaching. Communicating the Holy Spirit as a seal of mature faith is also demonstrated by Jesus and later the apostles. Theologian Mark R. Francis implies that God "invents" sacraments as they exist to save us. It's the whole reason we have them—and the church.

Scriptures: Mark 1:9-10; 6:41-44; 8:23; 10:2-12; 14:22-24; Matthew 18:18; 19:1-9; 28:19; Luke 22:19-20; John 2:1-11; John 20:22-23; Acts 2:38, 41-42; 6:3-6; 8:14-17; 1 Corinthians 7:10-16; James 5:14-16

Books: Shape a Circle Ever Wider: Liturgical Inculturation in the United States - Mark R. Francis (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2007)

The Sacraments: Historical Foundations and Liturgical Theology - Kevin Irwin (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2016)

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Are halos biblical, or just an artist's idea?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 18, March 2023 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints

God's glory is understood as a form of radiance. 

Halos are visual shorthand, part of the symbolic vocabulary of Christianity that was for centuries the only catechism for multitudes of believers who couldn't read. In a more literate age, such symbols are no longer necessary. But we still use them, since they reveal at a glance that this person is a guide and helper on our own road to sanctity.

The idea that light emanates from holy ones is also biblically attested. God's glory is understood as a form of radiance. When Moses goes up Mt. Sinai to encounter God face to face, he returns so radiant that he must veil his face from the community so as not to risk contact between the sacred and profane—always a hazardous business. Thereafter, whenever Moses enters the Tent of Presence to meet with God, he covers his face afterwards. Close encounters with God appear to place us in contagious proximity to divine glory. The emanation from Moses was later translated from Hebrew by biblical scholar Saint Jerome as horns rather than rays of light, which is why some artists depicted Moses with horns. 

It may not have been a mistranslation. Egyptian and Mesopotamian gods and heroes wore horns as a sign of their glory, honor, and authority. Later on, horns and rays are rounded out into the more familiar halo, often painted with gold foil or set with precious metals and jewels in icons. Circles are perfect, like divinity. Christ receives the first round halo in art, then the angels, and finally the saints. Interesting, rare portraits of God the Father employed a triangular halo instead to recall the Trinity. Baby Jesus sometimes has one too–perhaps because he so recently departed the Trinitarian realm for earth. Jesus may also be crowned with a cruciform halo, which is uniquely his.

Faith, Hope, and Love are sometimes shown in art as human figures and when they are, they wear hexagonal halos. So too the cardinal virtues Justice, Prudence, Fortitude, and Temperance. The very rare square halo was used to denote a living person popularly proclaimed a saint, but technically not yet eligible for the crown of light. As minimalism became fashionable in art, the halo was reduced to a disc hovering overhead, or even a mere circlet of gold. Animals that symbolize holy ones—the Lamb of God, the Holy Spirit dove, and the four Evangelists of Revelation—might also wear halos. You and I, too, hope to do so.

Scripture: Exodus 34:27-35; Deuteronomy 5:23-27; 2 Chronicles 5:14; 26:18; Psalm 19:2; 79:9; 89:16; Isaiah 35:2; 60:1-3; Baruch 5:1-3, 9; Ezekiel 8:4; 43:2; Daniel 12:3; Wisdom 7:10, 25-30; Sirach 43:9; Mark 15:38; Matthew 27:51; Luke 23:45; John 1:3-9; Acts 7:55-56; Romans 8:16-17; 2 Corinthians 3:12-18; 4:3-6; Revelation 21:11, 22-24 

Books: The Square Halo, and Other Mysteries of Western Art: Images and the Stories That Inspired Them - Sally Fisher (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc, 1995)

Dictionary of Christian Art - Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1994)

Do Catholics believe in fate?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 18, March 2023 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

The key word for Catholics is providence, not fate.

Benedictius Fate's an interesting word. It derives from the Latin fatum, "that which has been spoken." It's been described as the handwriting on the wall or the inevitability of life's course. When we meet the love of our lives, we may feel this encounter was meant to be. Or we may sense that our vocation, discovered early, was the only career track or direction we were destined to walk.

Truly we're not in control of many factors governing our lives. In some ways we can describe ourselves as pre-determined: our place of origin, race, genetic code, moment of history, an so on. Elements that profoundly affect our course aren't ours to choose, including the unavoidability of death.

So, on the one hand, our faith tells us we're free choosers and co-creators of our destiny. Yet in other ways, we recognize volition isn't the whole story. We plan, but plans may be undone by outside forces. It's no wonder some folks surrender to a suspicion that scientific randomness is the true force that governs history; or, that most or all of what happens to us is already "in the cards" or predestined. Even people of faith may shrug and speak of "God's will" as if God is the divine face of fate, fixing our state of life just as it is.

What does the church teach about all this? The key word for Catholics is providence, not fate. The biblical word is often translated as God's plan, design, or order, but providence is not to be confused with a prewritten history. God's plan, as the sacred stories make abundantly clear, is that creation flourishes and the human community enters into its fullness. This fullness is described as shaloma word meaning peace, justice, happiness, and goodness. If there's a divine design, it's not that we should tread on an immutable path, but that we follow the path that leads to ultimate joy: union with God. God's goal for all creation is the road to salvation, a "new creation."

Providence is the authority governing and illuminating this path. Teachers instruct and prophets may warn, but we won't always attend to their direction. Providence doesn't force us down a chute of decision, but is rather a divine intention we can always trust. Perhaps Julian of Norwich expressed it best: "All will be well, and all manner of things will be well." The happy ending awaits.

Scriptures: Deuteronomy 7:9-11; 11:26-28; Job 10:12; Psalm 33:11; 36:6-13; Isaiah 44:6-8; Jeremiah 7:4-7; Ezekiel 18:1-32; Daniel 12:1-3; Wisdom 6:6-8; 8:1; 11:2; 14:3-7; 17:2; Sirach 32:14-24; Matthew 6:25-34; Acts 2:37-39; Romans 1:1-7; 11:22-24; Hebrews 4:13

Books: Predestination, Grace, and Free Will - M. John Farrelly, OSB (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1964)

Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology, Consciousness - Ilia Delio (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2015)

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What do theologians do all day?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 18, December 2022 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Scripture,Prayer and Spirituality
Scripture and tradition are the central tools of the theologian's trade. Whatever they propose must be grounded in these primary foundations.

Good question! It doesn't seem one might make a living talking about God. Most theologians have a day job teaching at universities. Yet their vocation remains to pursue "the science of God." These studies aren't merely academic. Theologians invest in the work of understanding as believers themselves, and for the sake of believers everywhere.

Fourth-century Augustine urged seekers of truth to "believe that you may understand." Later Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury coined a phrase from this idea, "faith seeking understanding," to describe the task of theology. Needless to say, theologians don't make stuff up, spinning theories about divinity from their imaginations or faculties of reason. Scripture and tradition are the central tools of the theologian's trade. Whatever they propose must be grounded in these primary foundations. 

In addition, theologians may use methodologies from philosophy, history, and science to stretch toward new horizons of thought, to take in advancements in human learning.  Many theologians specialize in certain approaches or subjects. Systematic theology, for example, explores motifs of church dogma: Trinity, Creation, or Incarnation, say. Soteriology is concerned with the workings of grace and the meaning of salvation. Moral theology examines how to discern value choices. Christology meditates on the mystery of Jesus as both human and divine. Ecclesiology studies the church in its mission, governance, and future directions. Pastoral theology considers how preaching, teaching, and liturgy promote the gospel and connect with the lived situations of real people.

I like Jesuit J.J. Mueller's listing of four major influences shaping the path of contemporary theology. The first is the renewed appreciation for Scripture's privileged role in any conversation about God: not the Bible taken literally and fundamentalistically, yet still embraced foundationally. Secondly is historical consciousness: ways of viewing and valuing the past as central or irrelevant, ongoing or finished business. Next is the opening of new avenues of interpretation: feminist, black, LGBTQ+, and liberation readings, among many others. Finally, we have to be mindful of the quickening of global interconnectedness and the responsibility to make theology universally applicable and respectful.

I also love Mueller's acknowledgment that theology isn't the exclusive domain of theologians. We all participate in God Talk with family, friends, coworkers, and in the public sphere of politics and the marketplace. What we say to each other, to children, and to the wider world with our values and decisions is part of the greater work of seeking, understanding, and teaching what we believe.

Scripture: Psalm 119; Wisdom 1:1-7; John 1:1-18; Romans 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; 2 Timothy 3:10-17; 1 John 1:1-4; 2:7-11

Books: Theological Foundations: Concepts and Methods for Understanding Christian Faith, by J.J. Mueller, SJ. (St. Mary's Press, 2007)

World Christianity: History, Methodologies, Horizons, by Jehu J. Hanciles (Orbis Books, 2021)

What is heaven?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 11, December 2022 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

The kingdom of heaven Jesus repeatedly teaches in Matthew's gospel isn't a spiritual land elsewhere.

When our loved ones die, faith prompts us to speak of them as being in a better place. This pinnacle of betterment is theologically described as perfect union with God. What could be better, truly, than to be finally and completely overtaken by the love that made us in the first place? We also speak of heaven as being God's home as well as our ultimate destination. Those whom we love and lose are therefore not lost at all in death. They've simply "gone home."

However, Christian salvation is even more comprehensive than we sometimes imagine. The world God created is not made in vain, but is even now groaning for its own version of rescue in a new heaven and new earth identified as the "new creation." Just as our beloved and beautiful world was never destined for the scrap heap, so our mortal bodies aren't intended to end as "ashes to ashes, and dust to dust." All is to be renewed, restored, revitalized in a "world without end" confirmed in our every doxology. Cosmically speaking, in eternity the material world matters—pun very much intended.

So the kingdom of heaven Jesus repeatedly teaches in Matthew's gospel isn't a spiritual land elsewhere. It's an immediate reality that has ramifications both now and forever. This makes it imperative that we do our "inner work," since our internal condition (traditionally called our state of grace) is represented in that now-and-everlasting realm. We also have to be mindful stewards of our social relationships, as well as the direction history is taking as a whole. I like Jesuit Paul Crowley's phrase here: "Heaven is thus not a radical interruption of these dimensions of human personhood; rather, the entirety of human personhood is taken up into God in the glory of risen life which bears the name heaven." Simply put, heaven isn't "where" we meet God face to face. It's "when." And it's not an interruption of all we presently know and love. It's a glorification of it all. How wonderful is that?

Another Jesuit, theologian Karl Rahner, has something else to say about heaven that's equally fascinating. He suggests that Jesus didn't return to a pre-existing place called heaven at his Ascension. Rather, Jesus established the possibility of heaven–that is, perfect and eternal union with God—by entering into his glory. Heaven is possible for those prepared to be overwhelmed by love.

Scriptures: Genesis 1:1; Pss 2:4; 11:4; 139:8; Isaiah 66:1; Wisdom 3:1-9; Matthew 3:16-17; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34; Romans 8:18-23; Revelation 21:1-5

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

The Unmoored God: Believing in a Time of Dislocation, by Paul G. Crowley (Orbis Books, 2017)

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How are we to understand Jesus as both divine and human?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 08, August 2022 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History
In Jesus, God surrenders divine presence into human form in an act of self-emptying called kenosis.

Great minds have struggled to get this right, so it's no wonder you and I have to wrestle awhile with the concept of incarnation. Theologians quite descriptively call it "the scandal of the particular": why would the Eternal choose to be time-bound, the limitless One to assume shape in space? As writer Annie Dillard points out, you and I are up to our necks in this particular scandal. How reassuring that God chooses to be here too. 

Jesus is Emmanuel or God-with-us. In Jesus, God surrenders divine presence into human form in an act of self-emptying called kenosis. This doesn't mean God loses divinity in the moment of incarnation; only that the prerogatives of divinity are freely suspended. 

We see how this works in Jesus' temptation in the desert. Hungry after weeks of fasting, it was possible for him to command stones to become bread. But the divine privileges that would preserve his life are precisely those that would nullify his humanity and render it a farce. Similarly, to be angelically protected from harm, or to exercise control over the nations, were things a God-man certainly could do. Jesus refrains from such indulgences not only in the desert that day, but more significantly in Jerusalem in his final days. Instead of turning stones into bread in Jerusalem, Jesus turns bread into his own self-sacrificing body. Instead of preserving his life and enthroning himself in Jerusalem, he allows his life to be seized and his body to be enthroned on a cross. 

Every way to get this idea wrong has been tried and promoted in history. The Arians declared Jesus a created being inferior to the Father. Docetists taught that the humanity of Jesus was basically a mirage. Adoptionists viewed Jesus as a Spirit-filled person whom God "adopted" as a divine son. The Monophysites insisted Jesus had only one nature after his birth. The Apollinarians imagined Jesus as without a human soul. Nestorians believed Jesus wasn't one person but strangely two: one human, one divine.

Incarnation embraces Jesus as the Eternal Word, the true and everlasting God. It also celebrates that Jesus shares fully and unequivocally in the reality of mortals, knowing family and friendship, weariness, rejection, pain, and death. Jesus is the meeting ground of heaven and earth, the reconciliation of every division. This is a precious understanding not to be compromised.

Scriptures: John 1:1-5, 14-18; 8:52-58; 1 Corinthians 1:21-24; Galatians 4:4-5; Ephesians 5:32; Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:15-20; 2:2-3, 9-10; 1 Timothy 3:16


Books: Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations for the New Evangelization, by Robert P. Imbelli (Liturgical Press, 2014). On the Incarnation, by Saint Athanasius, with forward by C.S. Lewis (St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2012).

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What are the marks of the church and why are they important to know?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 02, July 2022 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

Since we are the church, we need to recognize whether our experience of church, and our personal expression of it in and out of the pews, is authentic.

When we profess the Creed, we say: "We believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church." Beyond reciting this litany, we may not consider how these four marks, also called notes, distinguish the authentic church from any counterfeit versions we may encounter. Yet this is why the marks were established: so we can tell the difference between the church and its imposters.

Why is this essential? Well, one day I was sitting in a jury room debating a tax evasion charge against a man claiming that his home was a church. This guy had deducted more than a decade of his life as church-related expenses. I was the only person in the jury box who doubted his claim. His "church" had none of the marks.

It may seem rare to be required to testify if a presentation of church is the real deal. In fact, it's closer to home than we think. Since we are the church, we need to recognize whether our experience of church, and our personal expression of it in and out of the pews, is authentic. First, consider oneness. The church must maintain unity among its members. Some obvious questions might be: How united is your parish? Your diocese? The universal church in this generation? Yet also: how united are we to the mission of the church?

Next, reflect on holiness. It's easy to take aim at the holiness of particular church leaders. Yet we also have to examine our own call to be as God is: loving, compassionate, just, truthful, kind, slow to anger, etc. Do you and I still qualify as a version of church the world will recognize?

Catholicity seems more opaque; substitute the word universality. This doesn't mean the whole world is Catholic or even that it should be. Catholicity defines the church as non-elitist, open to all. No one is excluded because of who they are. Is this true of your parish? And: are you and I, in Christ, a welcoming presence to all comers?

Finally, there's the matter of being apostolic. This mark is often thinned to imply merely that our hierarchy derives authority from the first apostles through the laying on of hands. It also and more urgently intends that there's a discernible continuity between our mission and that of the early church leaders. Can we trace a link between their goals and ours? The four marks can, indeed, keep us honest. 

Scriptures: ONE: Matthew 13:25-30; John 17:20-23; Ephesians 2:19-22; 4:3-6; HOLY: 2 Cor 5:21; Ephesians 1:3-4; 5:25-27; Hebrews 2:16-17; 7:26; 1 John 1:5-10; CATHOLIC: Matthew 28:18-20; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21; Ephesians 1:22-23; 1 Timothy 2:4;  APOSTOLIC: Mark 3:13-14; Matthew 16:15-19; John 5: 30; 15:5; 17:18-19; 20:21; Acts 1:8; 20:28; 2 Corinthians 3:4-6; 5:20 

Books: Understanding Catholicism, by Monika Hellwig (Paulist Press, 2001)

The Church We Believe In: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, by Francis Sullivan (Paulist Press, 1988)

I'm not at peace. Is there a Catholic way to get there?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 02, July 2022 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Prayer and Spirituality

Peace isn't a thing to "have" so much as a "way." To enjoy peace, we travel the road of peace: or "go in peace" as is proclaimed at the end of every Mass. The gospels tell us this Way has a name: Jesus.

There's certainly a Catholic way to understand peace. We normally think of peace as a condition of no conflict. Yet the biblical concept of peace, shalom, assures us it's a fullness rather than an absence of something. In fact, shalom could be described as wholeness altogether, including immersion in right relationships. To experience peace, we must get right with God, neighbor, and creation itself. 

That sounds big. It is. But it's also simple. Peace isn't a thing to "have" so much as a "way." To enjoy peace, we travel the road of peace: or "go in peace" as is proclaimed at the end of every Mass. The gospels tell us this Way has a name: Jesus. Isaiah announced him as the Prince of Peace. John the Baptist heralded one who would "guide our feet in the way of peace." Saint Paul tells us plainly that Jesus IS our peace. And Jesus himself offers his friends at the last supper a peace the world cannot give.

How does this work? Consider the gospel story of the woman healed of a hemorrhage. She believes the merest contact with Jesus will end her misery. Which it does. The moment Jesus acknowledges that she's been healed, he invites her to go in peace, to continue in the wholeness she's received. As healthcare specialist Sister Juliana Casey puts it: "Peace appears when God is near." A wonderful wholeness of being is our introduction to shalom. All that's left is to remain in this way, not to lose this precious wholeness.

Does holding onto peace come cheaply? Not to Thomas Aquinas, who insisted harmonious relationships require a soul governed by love. Pope Leo XIII defined peace as rooted in justice and guided by love. Pius XII chose as his motto Opus institiae pax: "Peace is the work of justice." John XXIII expanded this idea beyond the personal to the social order. Only when truth, justice, love, and freedom are universally accessible can there be peace. My favorite phrase arrived courtesy of Pope Paul VI, in noting the struggle of the world's poor: "Development is the new name for peace." Pope John Paul II reframed the quest for peace as "solidarity" with our neighbor, particularly the most marginalized. 

The angels at Bethlehem sang that peace comes "to people of good will." If our minds or hearts are troubled, it may be we're not harboring good will toward all—even if we just withhold our love from a single one.

Scriptures: Isaiah 9:5-6; 48:18; Mark 5:25-34; Matthew 5:9; Luke 1:76-79; 2:14; 8:43-48; John 14:27; 20:19-29; Ephesians 2:13-18

Book: The Gift of Peace: Personal Reflections, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (Loyola Press, 1997)

The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response, NCCB (United States Catholic Conference, 1983)

As a Catholic, what do I need to know about racism?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 02, February 2022 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

This is something our Catholic faith teaches us: that the existence of evil anywhere is a clear and present danger to us all.

Let me begin by saying, as a white Catholic, I knew almost nothing about the black Catholic experience until I heard Father Bryan Massingale speak at a conference. Massingale is a theologian, and also has to talk about racism a lot because he's black. As he says, when he was ordained, he only meant to become a priest. But he's obliged to be a black priest because that's what people see when they look at him. After hearing Massingale speak, I read his book on the church and racial justice (see below). Then I sat with him at another conference and got to talk with him more personally. He convinced me that I needed to read Cyprian Davis' history of contributions that black Catholics have made to this country—and how they were treated in return by country and church. Davis' history is an illuminating, breathtaking, and harrowing journey toward understanding. It made me realize that confronting the sin of racism takes time, education, and will—the same way building a society woven through with the thread of racism took time and teaching and deliberate decisions to create.

What becomes clear in an examination of the past and present is that racism is about everything in this country: poverty, education, health care, criminal justice, immigration, workers' rights, gender bias, the environment. Name an issue, and you discover there's a racial component to it that a white person may not have considered. This is what's meant by white privilege, a volatile term that a lot of people don't like to hear and don't properly understand. It doesn't imply that a white person is automatically richer, better educated, or has more career opportunities available to them—an obvious untruth. The privilege is that white people don't have to think about race. In every situation we face, we don't have to ask: what's the "white angle" on this? How will my skin likely affect my outcome here?

If you're black, Asian, Native American, or Latinx, you're never separated from the realities of race and what it may mean for you in any situation. And if you're white like me, you may be unaware that racism is a wound that harms us all.  A spiritual danger, that is. We can't live contentedly knowing about Lazarus at the gate, sick and hungry and in need, without being complicit in his suffering. We can't live adjacent to injustice and not be summoned to speak out against it until it's defeated. Most white people I know don't "have it out" for people of color, and therefore don't see racism as a problem they have. We ALL have the problem. It's our problem, until it's no one's problem.

Scriptures: Compassion is the counterpart to racism when it leads to solidarity, as follows: Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 7:11-17; 10:29-37; 15:11-32; 16:19-31; Romans 12:9-18; 1 Cor 11:17-29; 2 Corinthians 5:12, 16-21; Galatians 3:27-28 new creation

Books: Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, by Bryan Massingale (Orbis Books, 2010)

The History of Black Catholics in the United States, by Cyprian Davis (Crossroads, 1991)

Understanding and Dismantling Racism: The Twenty-First Century Challenge to White America, by Joseph Barndt (Fortress Press, 2008)

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Why is Jesus called the Lamb of God?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 02, February 2022 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Scripture
The Paschal mystery remains the focal point of salvation: that the innocent one bears away the world's guilt.

Lamb of God, or Agnus Dei, has come to be a familiar liturgical formula referring to Jesus. This is interesting, as the term only occurs twice in the New Testament, and not at all in the Old. 

Of course, sheep and lambs are pervasive images in both Testaments, as you would expect in an agrarian culture. Lambs were essential to the religious sacrifices of Israel, including the centrally significant Passover lamb whose blood marked the doorposts and lintels of Hebrew houses in Egypt on the night when the angel of death passed over the land. Yearling lambs were also sacrificed at Israel's priestly ordination rites, and lambs served as peace offerings and sin offerings as well. It's clear from the earliest usages that the blood of lambs had special authority as a sign of God's protection, guidance, and forgiveness.

In the prophecies of Isaiah, the theology is advanced. Isaiah sees the lamb as an innocent and vulnerable animal, gentle and peace-loving. Contrast it with the lion, wolf, or bear, always in search of prey. In the songs of the faithful servant, Isaiah envisions the servant as a lamb led to slaughter, bearing the guilt of many without protest.

These early Hebrew understandings of the lamb's role in purifying the community of sin, and in making peace between the people and God, certainly contributed to John the Baptist's meaning when he identifies Jesus to the crowds: "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" In John's gospel, this phrase is in the Baptist's mouth twice. From that same Johannine community emerges the image of the victorious Lamb of Revelation, who sits at God's throne and illuminates the New Jerusalem as its sole source of light.

It's no wonder that, when Philip the deacon encounters the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts, the man is puzzling over Isaiah's references to the lamb led to slaughter and trying to pierce the mystery. Why would God send a lamb to do the work of communal restoration? Why indeed? The Paschal mystery remains the focal point of salvation: that the innocent one bears away the world's guilt.

So we sing of this mystery in the Gloria at Mass, and in the three-fold "Lamb of God" before communion. "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world," the priest intones. "Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb." 

Scripture: Exodus 12:3-9; Leviticus 3:6-11; 4:32-35; Isaiah 11:6; 53:7; Luke 10:3; John 1:29, 36; 21:21:15; Acts 8:32; 1 Peter 1:19; Revelation 5:6-13; 7:9-17

Books: At the Supper of the Lamb: A Pastoral and Theological Commentary on the Mass, by Paul Turner (Liturgy Training Publications,  2011)

The Lamb and the Beasts, by Stephen J. Binz (Twenty-Third Publications, 2006)

E-Resource: Website "Art and Theology: revitalizing the Christian imagination through painting, poetry, music, and more" - Don't miss Victoria Emily Jones' articles on liturgical art. And please, enjoy a hymn or two.

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Please sort out these words for me: catechesis, catechetics, catechism, catechumen. What's the difference?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 02, February 2022 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Prayer and Spirituality

They all derive from the same Greek word, which means "to echo." But as you suspect, they don't all mean the same thing.

Catechesis is the process of awakening a person to faith. We typically think of catechesis as instruction: children's religion programs, or RCIA formation for adults preparing for baptism. While catechesis involves teaching, textbooks aren't central to the process. "The study of the sacred page" is the heart of the matter (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, nos. 21-26). Catechesis is a ministry of the word: not only reading Scripture but entering into dialogue with God's word so that it dwells in us. Our lives literally become an echo of what we hear.

Catechetics is the theory behind catechesis—something you may not consider unless you're a catechist (one who provides catechesis to others). But it's something to think about if you suspect your parish programs have an agenda more partisan than pastoral. Catechetics since Vatican II aims not merely to pass on "the deposit of faith"—those traditions and teachings governing church life. Catechetics recognizes the human element in the process of awakening faith. It's not about indoctrinating future disciples through the memorizing of immoveable truths. Catechetics seeks to use age-appropriate and culturally sensitive methods of instruction so that faith formation, and not indoctrination, is the result. Catechists must not only know church teaching, but also grasp the social and moral context of their times and how their communities might be called to respond to them. 

Catechism was once the fundamental way religious instruction was accomplished. A catechism is a manual of instruction involving a question-and-answer format. It typically follows the organization of the creed, the Ten Commandments, and the seven sacraments. The point of such instruction was literally to echo the catechism in memorizing the answers to each question and to reiterate them verbatim. The present Catechism of the Catholic Church, contrary to popular belief, wasn't intended to be a personal manual of instruction for the classroom. It's meant to guide bishops in the formation of diocesan programming.

Catechumen is the easiest to distinguish in this echo chamber of similar-sounding terms. It refers to an unbaptized person seeking to be joined to the church. Catechumen is often contrasted with candidate, the term for a baptized Christian who seeks to become Catholic.

Scripture: Deuteronomy 32:2; Psalm 119; Matthew 5:1-7:29; 22:34-40; Acts 5:27-42; 1 Timothy 4:6-16; 2 Timothy 3:14-17

Books: Catechesis in a Multi-Media World: Connecting to Today's Students, by Mary Byrne Hoffman (Paulist Press, 2012)

The Art of Catechesis: What You Need to Be, Know, and Do, by Maureen Gallagher (Paulist Press, 1998)

How many church councils were there, besides Vatican I and II?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 16, September 2021 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History

Only two are known as Vatican Councils because the rest were held elsewhere than the Vatican Basilica in Rome.

Altogether, 21 ecumenical councils are recognized by the church. These gatherings have moved the church forward in an evolution of self-understanding that is by no means complete today.

Only two are known as Vatican Councils because the rest were held elsewhere than the Vatican Basilica in Rome. Five gathered in the Lateran Basilica, also in Rome. Four convened in Constantinople. Two took place in Nicaea, and two in Lyons. The longest and certainly one of the most fateful councils was held in Trent. Other locations include Ephesus, Chalcedon, Vienne, and Constance. One curious council is known by the names of four cities it migrated through: Basel-Ferrara-Florence-Rome. 

And of course, though it doesn't make the official count, a very significant council was called in Jerusalem by Peter, James, and John not long after the time of Jesus. It was there that Paul was granted special permission to bring non-Jews into the church without circumcising them first.

What did the rest of the councils decide? The first seven (from 325 to 787) condemned a lot of divergent theologies: Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, the Three Chapters of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Monothelitism, and iconoclasm. These teachings mostly involved divergences in the way Jesus is perceived: whether in relationship to God, or to his own humanity or divinity. The last one, iconoclasm, was a movement to destroy icons used in veneration. Those of us who love our holy images might be grateful that one got condemned.

The eighth council, the fourth held in Constantinople (869-70), broke the church apart into East (Constantinople) and West (Rome). The Eastern Church doesn't recognize any of the councils that followed. After that, the council agendas become largely, well, churchy: determining relationships between popes and kings, dealing with the phenomenon of anti-popes, reining in misbehaving clergy, ruling on how popes should be elected. 

The very important Fourth Lateran Council (1215) defined Eucharistic transubstantiation and ruled that Catholics should go to confession annually. It also made the infamous decision to require Jews and Muslims to wear distinctive dress. Several later councils attempted to bring the Eastern and Western halves of the church back together again—without success. The Council of Trent (1545-63, with several interruptions) dealt with the significant challenges of the Protestant Reformation. Vatican I (1869-70) declared papal infallibility. Which brings us to the still-recent reforms of Vatican II (1962-65), with its agenda opening onto an engagement with the broader world. Which makes you ask: what should the next church council do?

Scripture: Matthew 18:20; Acts 15:1-35

Books: The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church: A History, by Joseph F. Kelly (Michael Glazier, 2009)

21 Ecumenical Councils that Shaped Catholic History and Beliefs (Audiobook), by John W. O'Malley (Now You Know Media/Learn 25, 2017)

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What are we to believe about "the Fall" in Genesis?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 16, September 2021 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Scripture
Saint Paul later hooks this story about the origins of suffering to the gospel accounts of the passion of Jesus.

First, the term never appears in the Bible. The theology of the Fall evolves over time and reflection by church fathers, especially Augustine who popularized the term "original sin" to define humanity's "fall from grace." (See Questions Catholics Ask:  "What is ‘original sin’ "?)

Which is not to say biblical texts concerning the first sin don't provide ample material to support the doctrine that followed. The story is dramatically simple: God makes a man and woman in the divine image and instructs them not to eat from a single tree in the garden. Eating its fruit would be fatal. Yet the couple prefers to take advice from a fellow creature in the Garden. This serpent claims the fruit doesn't cause death, but actually delivers fullness of life as God enjoys. This turns out to be the worst fake news in history.

This ancient myth is etiological, in the manner of Rudyard Kipling's stories of how the leopard gets its spots and the rhino its wrinkles. Why is life so hard? people wonder. Is God doing this to us? Do we deserve to suffer? The story of the Garden assures us that God doesn't cause harm. People do this; and we do it with every choice we make against God's benevolent guidance.

Saint Paul later hooks this story about the origins of suffering to the gospel accounts of the passion of Jesus. Paul simplifies the math by condensing the story to two crucial actors. One chooses the way of disobedience (not listening to God), launching the story of sin and suffering. Another chooses perfect obedience and, by means of his voluntary suffering, reverses the consequences of sin and death. One man falls, and another is lifted into the heavens. The point is clear: the self-willed path leads to ruin. Pursuing the will of God leads to salvation. Choose wisely.

The theology of the Fall becomes problematic when it narrows its focus on two "original" persons; one historical choice; and the dreadful consequences for the rest of us. Because of a single defining moment most of us didn't participate in, men and women are perpetually alienated from each other and the earth, between generations, and from God. Most parochial school kids figure out early on this is a pretty raw deal for a piece of fruit. To transfer our gaze to the significance of every human decision—toward self-will, or for the holy will—is to recognize that we each choose to fall, or to rise.

Scriptures: Genesis 2 & 3; Isaiah 14:12-21; Ezekiel 28:12-19; Sirach 25:24; Wisdom 2:23-24; Romans 5:12-21

Books: An Introduction to the Old Testament: A Feminist Perspective, by Alice L. Laffey (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1988)

A New Heaven, A New Earth: The Bible and Catholicity, by Dianne Bergant and Ilia Delio (Orbis Books, 2016)

The New Testament doesn't mention seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. So why was I taught about them at Confirmation?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 14, May 2021 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Sacraments
We have to become "docile" to the work of the Spirit, to make ourselves habitually open to the Spirit's influence.

How did the church arrive at the idea that we receive seven divine gifts at Confirmation? We memorized them once—wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord—in case the bishop quizzed us before the sacrament. While Acts of the Apostles and Saint Paul's writings say a lot about the Holy Spirit's activity, bestowing these seven particular gifts never comes up.

The prophet Isaiah lists the gifts as we know them (see Isa 11:1-2). The Hebrew translation of this passage lists only six; the seventh, piety, derives from the Septuagint translation from which the Catholic Bible emerges. Isaiah foretells that these special characteristics will be revealed in the one who comes "from the stump of Jesse"—that is, the promised king of David's lineage who will come to rescue the people. This future king is often identified as the Messiah (Hebrew for "anointed one").

When Jesus arrives, born of David's line eight centuries after the time of Isaiah, he's recognized as the possessor of such divine gifts and therefore the fulfillment of the prophecy. He's acknowledged as the Christ (Greek for "anointed one"). In turn, Jesus promises to send the same Spirit that dwells in him to his disciples. In the upper room at Pentecost, his promise is fulfilled. So when you and I are anointed with the oil of chrism at Confirmation, it follows that we "anointed ones" are recipients of these divine gifts.

Perhaps you don't feel wise or courageous. I'm not the best specimen of piety either. Manifesting these gifts isn't something we do automatically after we're confirmed, the way superheroes suddenly manifest their superpowers. As theologians say, we have to become "docile" to the work of the Spirit, to make ourselves habitually open to the Spirit's influence. That means putting the ego aside—something we don't do without a great deal of practice.

At the same time, we understand that we are granted genuine spiritual superpowers known as charisms. These special favors bestowed by the Spirit are provided for the benefit of the church. Saint Paul recites a litany of such charisms including wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, mighty deeds, prophecy, discernment, and the gift of tongues. Paul later lists teaching, service, and administration as additional spiritual gifts. These aren't meant to override Isaiah's list of seven. On the contrary, they suggest that the Holy Spirit is ready to provide whatever gifts the church requires.

Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-3; Psalm 143:10; John 14:15-17, 25-26; 16:7-15; 20:22-23; Acts of the Apostles 2:1-4; Romans 8:14-17; 1 Corinthians 12:4-31

Books: Fire of Love: Encountering the Holy Spirit, by Donald Goergen, OP (Paulist Press, 2006)

The Holy Spirit: Setting the World on Fire, edited Richard Lennan and Nancy Pineda-Madrid (Paulist Press, 2017)

If you do something you didn't know is wrong, or break a church rule you didn't know exists, is it a sin?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 14, May 2021 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Church pews
The culpability we hold for our actions is mitigated in many ways, including: "ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological factors."

In civil law, we hear the phrase: ignorance of the law is no excuse. Yet in moral theology, nuances determine the amount of responsibility we have for rules and laws of which we may be unaware. Our ignorance is measured, and at some degree we do hold a certain amount of responsibility.

But first, let's consider what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about human freedom and responsibility in general. The culpability we hold for our actions is mitigated in many ways, including: "ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological factors." (CCC 1735) These factors spell out reasons we may be less guilty, or even absolved of guilt, based on the conditions under which we act. If we're honestly unaware of the moral value of what we do, we're much less liable for it. If we didn't intend to do the thing, or were forced to; if we operated under powerful influences like fear or outside pressure; if we've repeated the offense so many times we're practically compelled to it; or if we suffer from mental illness in a variety of forms—these conditions qualify our culpability to a great extent.

The question you're specifically asking is one of vincible ignorance: that which is not invincible, but can be readily overcome. How responsible am I for the ignorance under which I as a moral agent have operated? It depends on how easily I might have known or should have known that I did wrong. Vincible ignorance is defined in three degrees: simple, crass, and affected. Say, for example, you learned the holy days of obligation as a child, but missed Mass on the Assumption on August 15th. As a Catholic, it's your responsibility to observe the holy days but you were on vacation and just forgot. That's simple ignorance and it's not a serious moral failure.

However, it becomes a crass moral fault if you miss Mass every year on August 15th because you make no effort to re-educate yourself regarding obligatory holy days (Mary the Mother of God, Ascension, Assumption, All Saints, Immaculate Conception). And it becomes an affected or studied kind of ignorance if you refuse to acknowledge that the church considers these feasts to be significant and worthy of reflection in the life of the faithful and pay no attention to the liturgical calendar. Not knowing the holy days then becomes a morally weighty matter.

Scripture: Genesis 3:11-19; 4:10-15; 2 Samuel 12:1-15; Psalm 119:105-106; Sirach 15:14-15; Mark 7:18-23; Romans 1:18-21; 2:14-16; 6:17; 2 Timothy 3:14-17; 1 John 3:19-24

Books: The Call to Holiness: Embracing a Fully Christian Life, by Richard Gula, SS (Paulist Press, 2003)

Making Choices: Practical Wisdom for Everyday Moral Decisions, by Peter Kreeft (Servant Press, 1990)

The Bible prohibits images, but Catholic churches are full of them. Explain?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 14, April 2021 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Divinizing any creature (including wealth, power, celebrity) remains a fundamental religious prohibition.

Images have been a part of worship since the era of cave paintings. But they have a bad reputation in the Bible, starting with the First Commandment. As a result, both Jews and Muslims ban the use of images in their art and architecture (but please read Chaim Potok's wonderful novel My Name Is Asher Lev for insights into how an artist's inspiration to create clashes with the prohibition against images). The biblical problem is spelled out in that original commandment:

"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them. It is written: 'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'"

The law's primary concern is exclusive fidelity to the God of Israel. Having just emerged from Egypt—a culture of abundant images from its hieroglyphic writing and statues to pyramids and the Great Sphinx—it was paramount not to confuse Israel's God with the deities of the land of slavery. Yet also and more poignantly, the liberating God who effected the nation's rescue is a Lord who is fundamentally free as well. Image-making can only shrink the divinity in the people's imagination. Just think how depictions of the Ancient of Days in a long white beard convinced many generations that being made in God's image implies being white and male. A God carved by human hands seems easily controllable by human rituals or reprisals. So: if God doesn't come through on your request, just withhold next year's harvest sacrifice.

Of course we know how the story goes. Even while Moses is actively receiving this prohibition on Mount Sinai, the community below is shaping a golden calf with its treasure. Ignorance of the law (that wasn't a law five minutes ago) evidently is no excuse! Yet consider how the fashioning of the Ark of the Covenant includes two cherubim of beaten gold in its design, just five chapters later. God also commands Moses to make an image of a seraph serpent to cure the people at a later date. Cherubim are likenesses of heaven above, serpents of earth below—both pointedly forbidden. The commandment's goal is even sharper here: not to forbid all image-making, but only that reverenced and served as a rival deity. "No graven images" discouraged idolatry and, simultaneously, any images that might limit or define the liberating and liberated God.

Divinizing any creature (including wealth, power, celebrity) remains a fundamental religious prohibition. The catechism notes, however, that by his incarnation Jesus introduces a new "economy" of images that assist us in venerating, not the images themselves, but the God incarnate whom they represent. (CCC no.2131-2132)

Scripture: Genesis 1:26-27; Exodus 20:2-6; 25:17-22; Leviticus 19:4; 26:1-2; Numbers 21:8-9; Deuteronomy 5:6-10; 6:4-5; Judges 17:1-6; 1 Kings12:28-30; Isaiah 30:22; 45:16; Matthew 4:10 

Books: The God of Life, by Gustavo Guttierrez/ trans. Matthew J. O'Connell (Orbis Books, 1991)

Icons in the Western Church: Toward a More Sacramental Encounter, by Jeana Visel, O.S.B. (Liturgical Press, 2016)

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What does it mean to have faith?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 14, April 2021 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

Believing in a set of ideas about God is quite different from putting our confidence in a vital relationship with the God who saves.

When we put our faith in other people, it means we trust them to do as they say and to follow through on their promises. It doesn't mean we believe that they exist. Yet this minimalist definition of faith seems to be what's most often applied in the realm of religion. Faith in God, in this sorry little sense, merely implies giving intellectual assent to an eternal Being out there somewhere. Faith can further imply our adherence to a certain list of beliefs taught by a group that purports to represent God: church, synagogue, mosque, or meeting hall. 

Believing in a set of ideas about God is quite different from putting our confidence in a vital relationship with the God who saves: the God who rescues us, personally, and whose promises are true. Settling for the former notion is probably the most short-changing proposition we can make in our spiritual lives. Contrast that with what happens if we extend the same faith to God we offer to people. As Jesuit theologian Michael Cook describes it, we only surrender our trust to those with whom we have a shared history that recommends such confidence. Committing our faith to another person is a "self-transcending" hour that involves risk. We become vulnerable to betrayal, deceit, or disappointment. Who would take such a risk unless the one to whom we give our faith has proven credible and worthy of it?

This is precisely the kind of faith Abraham surrenders to the God who invites him to leave home and extended family, and to embark on a future that's unseen and unknown. God promises land and descendants. If Abraham hadn't believed God was good for it, he would never have left his father's tents.

What reason might you and I have to commit our destinies to God? The Bible reveals a shared history between God and humanity in which people are frequently deceitful and disappointing. Yet God is steadfast. We can also meditate on creation itself, in which God's commitment to life, beauty, and prosperity are clearly seen. Ultimately, it's only in taking the plunge into trusting God, and accepting the invitation to journey with God as Abraham did, that we learn for ourselves that God's promises are true. As Karl Rahner says, we can settle for the mind grasping divine mysteries. Or we can permit ourselves to be grasped.

Scripture:  Genesis 12:1-7; Matthew 17:14-20; Luke 11:9-13; Romans 4:1-3, 13-25; 5:1-5; 10:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:12-13; 2 Corinthians 5:7; James 2:14-18; 1 John 1:1-4

Books: Christology as Narrative Quest, by Michael L. Cook, S.J. (Liturgical Press, 1997)

Why Stay Catholic? Unexpected Answers to a Life-Changing Question, by Michael Leach (Loyola Press, 2011)

Is it true that receiving the vaccine for COVID-19 is a sin because of how it is made?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 10, March 2021 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
All pronouncements from the Vatican and the USCCB conclude that inoculation with the anti-COVID-19 vaccine does not constitute material cooperation with abortion. 

According to the church’s moral theologians, this is not true. The morality of using vaccines tested with fetal cell lines has been debated by theologians for years and has consistently been resolved in favor of vaccination. Many common vaccines we routinely give our children—including those for measles, mumps, rubella, and chicken pox—were developed and tested using the same cell lines utilized in the manufacture of the current vaccines for COVID-19. 

Here’s where your sister’s pastor finds matter for concern and confusion. In the U.S., cell lines used in lab research were originally cultivated from fetal tissue from abortions that occurred fifty years ago—before the moral debate on utilizing such tissue was engaged. It’s important to grasp that the fetal cell lines used in the production and testing of vaccines today are not the same fetal tissue from those abortions. Fetal cell lines are grown and reproduced in laboratories. They are thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue and are no longer capable of differentiating as human cells do.

The fear among those who reject the use of vaccines as immoral is that receiving the vaccine means materially cooperating with the sin of abortion. However, the distance from the source of the fetal cells and the laboratory process involved in growing and reproducing the cells is sufficient to remove all culpability, in the estimation of moral theologians.

All pronouncements from the Vatican and the USCCB conclude that inoculation with the anti-COVID-19 vaccine does not constitute material cooperation with abortion. Additionally, the immediate good of preventing infection and ending the pandemic is sufficient to offset the distant evil of abortion. It becomes a moral imperative for Catholics to be vaccinated: to participate in the moral good of protecting others from infection. Failure to do so could constitute a sin of omission.

In the words of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF): “All vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion.” And “The morality of vaccination depends not only on the duty to protect one’s own health, but also on the duty to pursue the common good.”

Pertinent Documents:

—“Moral reflections on vaccines prepared from cells derived from aborted human fetuses” - The Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV) 2005

Dignitas Personae (On Certain Bioethical Questions) - Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) 2008 

—“Clarifications on the medical and scientific nature of vaccination” - (PAV) 2017 

—“Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines” - (CDF) December 2020 

—“Moral Considerations Regarding the New COVID-19 Vaccines” - (USCCB) Committees on Doctrine and Pro-Life Activities, December 2020

Do Catholics believe in faith healing?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 10, March 2021 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Prayer and Spirituality
The body isn’t the only place where sickness lodges and healing is needed; mind and spirit need restoration as well to achieve wholeness.

Most of us equate faith healing with a miraculous resolution of a medical condition that can’t be explained by other means. In charismatic instances of faith healing, a sick person receives the laying on of hands, is prayed over often in an unintelligible language of tongues, and may experience being “slain in the Spirit”—falling to the ground involuntarily. In the movies, this is the moment when the person gets up, throws away the crutches, and walks away restored.

But let’s not be dismissive about the gift of healing. In the gospels, healing is frequently achieved by a touch or word from Jesus. In the early church, James exhorts the community to lay hands on the sick and pray for them—presuming a curative effect. Our Sacrament of the Sick today is an anointing with oil that seeks to restore the sick person to wholeness in body, mind, and spirit.

But what exactly are we praying for when we pray for healing? Theologian John Craghan distinguishes between seeking God’s intervention, and trying to assert mental control over the illness. Movements like Christian Science attempt the latter, while Catholic tradition invokes divine help. Craghan outlines four elements particular to Catholic teaching on healing: All healing is a gift from God. Sickness is not merely a result of incorrect thinking but a real condition. Medical help available through science cooperates with the goal of healing and should not be rejected as contrary to faith. And finally, the body isn’t the only place where sickness lodges and healing is needed; mind and spirit need restoration as well to achieve wholeness.

This understanding suggests it’s not enough to insist, “If it’s God’s will, I’ll get better”—denying a doctor’s recommendations or prescriptions. Likewise, those suffering from depression shouldn’t imagine that if only their faith were stronger, their condition would evaporate overnight. The loss of physical or mental health is distressing enough without the addition of unwarranted blame or guilt. 

The church has always invested in healing by means of the sacraments, as well as in caring for the sick by the construction of hospitals worldwide. Modern health care too often depersonalizes and dehumanizes the sick person in clinical settings and procedures. The Sacrament of the Sick restores the sick to the community of faith, and reveals them as a sign of Christ’s enduring suffering and compassion.

Scripture: Exodus 15:26; 1 Kings 17:17-24; Sirach 38:1-15; Mark 1:21-34; Matthew 14:13-14; 25:31-46; Luke 7:21-23; John 9:1-5; James 5:13-16

Books: Healing Through the Sacraments, by Michael Marsch (Liturgical Press, 1989)

Healing the Future: Personal Recovery from Societal Wounding, by Dennis, Sheila, and Matthew Linn (Paulist Press: 2012)

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Exactly how is the Pope, a human being, infallible?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 16, October 2020 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Significant restrictions apply on how infallibility is to be claimed.

You’ve identified the issue! The Pope isn’t infallible, precisely because he’s mortal like the rest of us. God alone is infallible. So why does the church talk about infallibility?

The issue arose as to how the church of Jesus Christ might express its authority on matters of faith and morals. The First Vatican Council ((1869-71) issued the constitution Pater Aeternus (“Eternal Pastor”), which describes “the infallible magisterium [teaching authority] of the Roman Pontiff.” Note: the Eternal Pastor is Jesus, not the pope. Also note, it’s the teaching authority exercised by the pope, not the man himself, which is described as error-free. The pope is neither infallible (immune from error) nor impeccable (immune from sin). A brief survey of the history of the papacy will demonstrate this.

Significant restrictions apply on how infallibility is to be claimed. It’s only in effect when the pope speaks ex cathedra (“from the chair” or office of Peter). So nothing he says casually over breakfast is intended. Only when the pope “defines a doctrine of faith and morals that must be held by the Universal Church” are his words deemed empowered with “that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed to endow his Church.” 

Since the promulgation of Pater Aeternus, infallibility has been invoked explicitly once: in the declaration of the Assumption of Mary by Pope Pius XII in 1950. Belief in the Assumption was professed since the early centuries of the church and was not a novel revelation by Pius. Which is significant, since infallibility isn’t intended to grant popes the power to invent new doctrines. So don’t feel anxious about waking up some morning to discover some trending idea grafted onto Catholicism. 

Debate and discussion regarding infallibility, meanwhile, have been non-stop. Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) submitted that magisterial infallibility doesn’t necessarily attach to the pope but to the church. This means the college of bishops, in communion with the bishop of Rome, exercise infallibility. It’s a corporate endowment: your local bishop doesn’t get to speak infallibly as an individual.

Not everyone got on board with the infallibility clause. A dissenting group left the church to begin the “Old Catholic Church.” Some bishops felt the teaching was unnecessary, ambiguously stated, or seriously flawed. Theologians also warn of “creeping infallibility” undermining the need for teaching to evolve and church practice to reform. It helps to keep in mind that even infallibility has its limits.

Scriptures: Isaiah 22:22; Matthew 16:13-19; Luke 22:32; John 1:42; 17:20-21; 21:15-17

Books: Teaching with Authority: A Theology of the Magisterium of the Church, by Richard Galliardetz (Liturgical Press, 1997)

The Liminal Papacy of Pope Francis: Moving Toward Global Catholicity, by Massimo Faggioli (Orbis Books, 2020)

In this era of fake news, is it a sin to share juicy but unsubstantiated reports?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 07, October 2020 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
The ubiquity of social media muddles an already complex issue by presuming a right to the communication of all truth—which the Catechism teaches is not an unconditional right but must be considered with the precept of fraternal love.

Yes. The very common activity you’re describing is known as calumny. It’s a sin against the eighth commandment, which decries bearing false witness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has an entire section on our mutual responsibility to uphold the truth (nos. 2464–2513). This is a special duty at a time when credible information is harder for well-meaning folks to discern.

God is the source of all truth. Jesus calls himself “the way, the truth, and the life.” Jesus also says “you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Peddling questionable information because it’s entertaining, or supports a position we favor, means participating in the shadow trade of falsehood. The Prince of Lies runs that operation and isn’t a spirit we want to encamp with.

Our obligation to truth prompts us to speak with candor: that is, with freedom from bias or malice. Traditionally, one’s word was one’s bond, which is why we still trust people in court to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth simply because they say they will. (And face a serious offense if they don’t.) We admire those whose word matches their deed. To act against one’s word is considered hypocrisy.

Martyrs aren’t defined as those who die in the name of religion. They’re witnesses to the truth who value it even above their own lives. Valuing the truth includes respecting the dignity of other people. The Catechism lists three errors against the truth concerning others. First, rash judgment: assuming the moral fault of a neighbor without sufficient evidence. Secondly, detraction: disclosing someone’s faults for no good reason. Calumny is last: harming another’s reputation by spreading misinformation. Both detraction and calumny are sins against charity and justice.

While lying is a direct offense against the truth, the Catechism also cautions against flattering, boasting, and malicious caricature. Some of our favorite comedians may be at fault lately with the latter. The ubiquity of social media muddles an already complex issue by presuming a right to the communication of all truth—which the Catechism teaches is not an unconditional right but must be considered with the precept of fraternal love. We must measure whether a divulgence ensures the common good or simply exposes the private lives of others—even if they are public figures. Gratuitous invasion into the privacy of others doesn’t serve the cause of truth or charity.

Scripture: Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20; Matthew 5:33-37; John 1:14; 8:12-18, 32, 44; 12:46; 14:6; 18:37-38; Acts 24:16; Romans 3:4; 1 John 1:5-10;

Books: The Truth Will Make You Free: The New Evangelization for a Secular Age, by Robert F. Levitt, PSS (Liturgical Press, 2019) 

Paraclete: The Spirit of Truth in the Church, by Andrew Apostoli, CFR (Franciscan Media, 2005)

How should Catholics decide how to vote?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 07, October 2020 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

The dignity of the human person, subsidiarity, the common good, and solidarity should inform the Catholic conscience on any occasion.

Thanks for presuming Catholics should vote! I recently met a retired woman who proudly claimed her Catholic faith. And then even more proudly admitted she’d never voted in a single election: “My trust is in God, not in dirty politics.” 

If politics is dirty, it’s because people of good will aren’t engaged in public life. The U.S. Bishops (USCCB) affirm: “As Catholics, we bring the richness of our faith to the public square.” And also: “In the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation.” (13) Both statements appear in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility (Nov. 2019). This document on social responsibility has been edited and reissued every four years since the 1976 elections.

Regrettably, the latest edition came out before the pandemic, which would surely have shaped the content. Still, it underscores the timeless principles of church social justice doctrine: the dignity of the human person, subsidiarity, the common good, and solidarity. These four pillars should inform the Catholic conscience on any occasion.

Human dignity requires a passionate defense of the unborn. Yet “equally sacred,” Pope Francis insists, are the lives of the poor, the infirm, elderly, and children. Human dignity is threatened in many ways: indifference to immigrants and refugees, xenophobia, racism, torture, human trafficking, capital punishment, gun violence, global conflict, and the environmental crisis. All must be properly viewed as life issues. All are jeopardized by the “throwaway culture” that labels some lives expendable. 

The principal of subsidiarity involves a concern raised by Pope John Paul II: that “all structures of sin are rooted in personal sin… linked to the concrete acts of individuals.” A person may feel helpless to influence institutional evil. Yet Pope Benedict XVI noted that charity is vital not only in micro-relationships (friends, family members, small groups) but also in macro ones (social, economic, political). (9) The morality of groups matter, from the family to the corporation to the international community. Larger groups have responsibility to smaller ones.

The common good is upheld when the basic unit of society, the family, is nurtured and protected. Children and women must be valued. Workers must earn a living wage. Food security, shelter, education, health care, employment, and freedom of religion must be guaranteed rights. The economy must serve people and not vice versa.

Finally, solidarity remains a Catholic value. Our relationships across society must have a “Eucharistic consistency,” with a preferential option for the poor and a welcome for the stranger. Support leaders and policies that affirm these truths.


Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (USCCB, Nov. 2019)

Why is Christianity so negative about the human body?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 21, August 2020 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Theology of the Body
Since the body is an expression of our creatureliness, respect for the body is extended to the whole creation.

This perception comes from a limited exposure to church teaching. Actually, the church is very positive about the body. What relates to the body also relates to the spirit, since in biblical understanding body and spirit comprise the human person. “To be holy is to be whole,” as theologian Colleen Griffith expresses it. The human body has a sacramental character to it, as the literal embodiment or incarnation of divine grace. 

Because the church takes this incarnation of divine grace seriously, Catholics take what pertains to the body just as seriously. What we do with our bodies and those of others matters. This is expressed in teachings about sexual morality which get the lion’s share of attention; but also much more. Our positivist stance on the body includes championing the rights to food, shelter, clothing, and protection for all God’s people. The unborn have our allegiance, but also the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, the dying, and the unwelcome. Every instance of injustice demands a Catholic response because injustice resides in tangible systems and affects children of God in the here and now. Since the body is an expression of our creatureliness, respect for the body is extended to the whole creation, mandating profound responsibility to the natural world in which we live and move and have our being.

Scripture has no preferred word for the body. In the Old Testament, the literary device of synecdoche is widely used; that is, a part represents the whole, as when a heart is proud, hunger affects many bellies, or flesh is described as grass. Clearly the entire person is intended, but only the part is mentioned. In Daniel the word used for the whole body translates as “that which is palpable.” In Hebrew understanding, the human person is comprised of body/spirit, and to lose either aspect is to lose what is palpably human.

Jesus preserves this integrated sense of the person in his teaching that one who perceives clearly brings light to the whole body. Yet he cautions that we must avoid the one who can kill the spirit at least as much as the one who visits violence on the body.

Paul opposes any purely mystical proposals about resurrection: it’s all or nothing, body and soul together. For this reason, we must regard our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, not spiritualizing matters of religion as if they existed apart from the daily palpable life of every body.

Scripture: Exodus 34:18-23; Psalm 51:12; Isaiah 10:18; Micah 6:14; Daniel 5:21; Matthew 6:25; 10:28-31; Luke 11:34-36; 12:4-7; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 6:15-20; 12:12-26; 15:1-58

Publication: "Spirituality and the Body," Reading in Moral Theology No. 17: Colleen M. Griffith.  (Paulist Press, 2014)

Books: Spirit, Soul, Body: Toward an Integral Christian Spirituality, Cyprian Consiglio, OSB Cam. (Liturgical Press, 2015)

A Body for Glory: Theology of the Body in the Papal Collections: the Ancients, Michelangelo, and John Paul II, Elizabeth Lev and José Granados (Paulist Press, 2017)

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What kind of authority does the church really have?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 21, August 2020 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History
St. Peter
The Church acknowledges God as the source of all earthly authority.

It’s the power of the keys. Jesus hands to Peter “the keys of the kingdom”: a commission to “bind and loose” on earth what will be, in mirror fashion, bound and loosed in heaven. This language recalls the authority of Jewish scribes who interpret the Law of Moses. Peter, and by extension his successors on the Chair of Peter, have the power to interpret what flies and what doesn’t in church teaching.

The territory of this authority is subject to ongoing definition. The First Vatican Council (1869-70)—see essay: "What happened at Vatican I?"— determined that the holder of the keys speaks infallibly in definitive teachings on matters of faith and morals. To some, this sounded like an expansion of the papal footprint. To others, it merely made explicit what had been implicit in Jesus’ commission. 

The footprint seemed to shrink a little when Pope John Paul II insisted in an apostolic letter that "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.” (Ordinatio sacerdotalis, May 1994) Apparently there are some doors these keys cannot open. Some argue the teachings of Jesus are not subject to reinterpretation even by the key holder. Others point out that while Jesus initially chose twelve men to follow him, no teaching restricts the binding and loosing authority to males.

The Latin word from which authority emerges (auctoritas) means to grow or produce. One in authority governs communal growth and direction by persuading or dictating thought, opinion, and action. This invests a leader with great social power, not only over ideas and behaviors but also with the power of decision. The decider, it’s been said, gets to decide.

The Church acknowledges God as the source of all earthly authority. Jesus reminds Pontius Pilate of this during his trial: “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.” In turn, God subjects all worldly dominion to Christ Jesus, putting everything at his feet. Human beings, as Pilate is warned, participate in this authority by faithfully serving God’s will alone. Peter makes this point to the Sanhedrin: “Obedience to God comes before obedience to men.” 

In addition, church authority can be delegated, and is most certainly shared by the Spirit’s own choosing. Paul’s delineation of gifts—apostle, prophet, teacher, leader—conveys the bounty of authority bestowed on the church. Finally, all church authority imitates the service demonstrated by Jesus at the Last Supper, humbly washing the feet of others. 

Scriptures: Matthew 9:8; 16:17-19; John 13:13-17; 19:10-11; 20:22-23; Acts of the Apostles 4:19; 5:28-32; Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-31; 15:25-28; Philippians 2:5-11

Books: By What Authority? Foundations for Understanding Authority in the Church. Rev. Ed., Richard Gaillardetz (Liturgical Press, 2018)

Struggles for Power in Early Christianity: A Study of the First Letter to Timothy, Elsa Tamez (Orbis Books, 2007)

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You always hear about Vatican II. What happened at Vatican I?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 21, August 2020 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History
Vatican I
In December of 1869, Vatican I was the first council at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The numbering makes it sound like popes have convened only two councils in the church’s history. Actually, Vatican I was the 20th. Councils are named according to their location. In December of 1869, Vatican I was the first council at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was interrupted by war in September 1870 and never completed.

Pope Pius IX viewed the Council originally as “a remedy for present evils in Church and society” (Aeterni Patris). A few years earlier, he had published a Syllabus of Errors condemning pantheism, rationalism, indifferentism (the belief that any religion can lead to God), socialism, communism, secret societies, liberalism; as well as errors concerning the nature of the church, society, ethics, marriage, and papal authority. The pope hoped a council would offer solemn endorsement of his condemnations.

Over 50 draft documents were made, but only six were debated, and two adopted. The first adopted article is rarely mentioned, a theological treatise on faith and reason. The second is more familiar: the formal defining of papal infallibility. 

Papal infallibility was presumed by many Catholics and wouldn’t have been debated by most. The Ultramontane (“beyond the mountains”) movement described those who held that a strong papacy was the only defense against liberal ideas launched by politics, science, and philosophy. Most bishops supported strong papal authority but disagreed on its reach. Some theologians, among them British convert William George Ward, felt every pronouncement of the pope ought to be infallible. Many bishops insisted infallibility belonged to the church, not just to the pope; or that the pope enjoyed infallibility in certain situations but not all; or that infallibility was contingent on the pope speaking in harmony with past church teaching and his fellow bishops. Some leaders—including John Henry Newman of England, Archbishop Martin Spalding of Baltimore, and Archbishop Peter Richard Kenrick of St. Louis—believed defining infallibility was a mistake, obviously undone by examples from history. 

Oppositional factions grew among German, English, and French bishops. Dozens left the Council in protest before the final vote. Of the original 774 participants, only 433 were present to vote in favor of infallibility. Two bishops voted against the teaching, including an Italian and Bishop Edward Fitzgerald of Little Rock, Arkansas. Only two German church leaders refused to accept the teaching once it was passed. Both were excommunicated.

Books: Revered and Reviled: A Reexamination of Vatican Council I, John R. Quinn (Crossroad Publishing Co, 2017)

Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church, John W. O’Malley, SJ (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2018)

What do you have to do to get kicked out of the church?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 21, August 2020 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
A major criterion for censure is the public effect of an errant stance.

It’s not as easy as you think. Being a sinner isn’t enough, since that describes all of us. Size doesn’t matter: a grave sin doesn’t necessarily put you on the curb. However, when a publicly visible attitude or action “provokes a disturbance within the faith community,” the need to “protect the integrity of the community’s faith, communion, and service” may make an equally visible separation necessary, says canonist Thomas J. Green. This separation is achieved by censure of the stubbornly disobedient (“contumacious”) Catholic. Levels of censure may include excommunication, interdict, and suspension. 

Bottom line: A major criterion for censure is the public effect of an errant stance. The main objective of censure is medicinal: separation may restore the penitent to the church.

The Catechism calls excommunication “the most severe ecclesiastical penalty” [no. 1463], barring one from reception of the sacraments. Excommunicated clerics are also denied the capacity to minister, govern, hold office, or receive benefits. Excommunication doesn’t expel you from the church; it distances you from the community. Nor is it final: it can be lifted by pope, bishop, or authorized priest. In danger of death, any priest can hear the confession of an excommunicant. 

Interdict was historically applied to errant groups; personal interdict differs only slightly from excommunication. Suspension is applied only to clerics: bishops, priests, deacons. Depending on the offense, some or all liturgical and governing exercise may be denied.

Offenses that lead to automatic excommunication are grave and few. They include: 

—apostasy (renouncing your faith publicly)

—heresy (rejecting a church dogma like the divinity of Christ)

—schism (joining a group willfully separated from the church)

—profaning the Eucharist

—physical attack on the pope

—priestly absolution of an accomplice 

—unauthorized consecration of a bishop

—direct violation of the seal of confession by a confessor

—procuring an abortion

Excommunication may also be externally applied for the pretended celebration of the Mass or conferral of absolution by a non-priest, and for violation of the confessional seal by an interpreter or others. Mitigating factors like mental illness, intoxication, ignorance, fear, coercion, or lack of malice naturally affect the grounds of censure.

Scripture: Leviticus 19:17; Sirach 19:13-17; Matthew 7:1-5; 18:15-18; John 20:23; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; Galatians 6:1; 1 Timothy 5:20

Books: The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary, Ed. Thomas J. Green, et. al. (Paulist Press, 1985). See canons 1311-1399 and tables following.

Canon Law as Ministry: Freedom and Good Order for the Church, James Coriden (Paulist Press, 2000)

Why would a global pandemic happen? Is God doing this?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 13, May 2020 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Scripture
COVID mask
The crucifixion testifies that God isn’t “doing this”: God is suffering this with us.

This question was raised, sheepishly, by a friend who considers herself a progressive-thinking Catholic. She doesn’t imagine God as a big punishing dude on a throne, exacting vengeance for humanity’s crimes—which are considerable, when you think about it. She’s been thinking about it: counting ways that maybe we “deserve” a global reckoning. We destroy rainforests, fill oceans with floating continents of plastic, poison the soil, make the air unbreathable, contaminate freshwater with hazardous waste. We torture Creation to make a buck, while the gap between rich and poor widens. Honestly: why wouldn’t God “do this”?

It’s not a stupid question. It’s an ancient biblical question: is human suffering a measure of divine wrath? Is God “pleased to crush us with infirmity,” to restore balance to a celestial justice we’ve disregarded?

The biblical character of God does seem to exact justice by means of catastrophe: The expulsion of humanity from Eden. The great flood in Noah’s time. The ten plagues visited on Egypt. Israel’s trials in the desert due to relentless ingratitude. Babylonian exile. Sequential occupations by Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome. The death of Jesus “for the sins of the world” can be viewed as ringing evidence that God expects satisfaction for offenses against divine justice. From this perspective, human suffering is the currency in which God is to be paid.

Some routinely see God’s wrath expressed in famine, war, and disease, as when half of Europe’s population died in the Black Death, or the 1918-1920 Spanish flu infected one in three people worldwide. AIDS has claimed 35 million lives and counting, causing some to point to divine judgment. Yet at least once a century, flu season results in a million deaths. The odds of getting cancer across a lifetime are roughly one in two for men, one in three for women.

The biblical story of Job objects to drawing clean lines between human guilt and periods of devastation. Job is just; why would God punish him? The book argues that the why of suffering is a mystery best left to God. The more meaning-laden question may be: when suffering comes, what will we make of it? Jesus refused to blame a blind man or his parents for this misfortune. The crucifixion testifies that God isn’t “doing this”: God is suffering this with us. The cross invites us to take all our pain and to consecrate it to God’s benevolent purposes. God redeems human misery and, indeed, saves the world. That’s a promise.

Scriptures: Genesis 3:1-24; 6:5-13; Exodus 7:14-11:10; Deuteronomy 11:26-32; Jeremiah 15:1-4; Isaiah 53:4-12; Book of Job; John 1:1-14; 9:1-40

Books: Job - Study Set, by Kathleen O’Connor, (Liturgical Press, 2012); Through the Dark Field: The Incarnation Through an Aesthetics of Vulnerability, by Susie Paulik Babka (Liturgical Press, 2017)

What should we do if we can't go to Mass?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 21, March 2020 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality,Doctrines & Beliefs,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints
Consider it an invitation to choose a devotion and Act of Spiritual Communion that enables you to stay connected  to the universal Body of Christ.

If Mass is suspended in your diocese due to COVID-19 or for other public safety concerns, there are other ways to observe the Fourth Commandment: Keep holy the Lord’s Day. Consider it an invitation to choose a devotion and Act of Spiritual Communion that enables you to stay connected to the universal Body of Christ. You might:

“Virtually” attend Sunday Mass on TV or online. Most dioceses have a Mass for shut-ins, a term that now applies to many of us under "stay at home” orders. The Paulist Fathers in Rome also have a user-friendly sing-along Mass in English uploaded weekly at YouTube. See for the current offerings on their home page.

Read and reflect on the Scriptures for Sunday available from the U.S. Bishops’ site:

Make use of the church’s traditional Liturgy of the Hours by downloading the popular breviary app at

During this season of Lent, meditate on the Stations of the Cross or other spiritual practices.

Or, pray five decades of the rosary, or make this the year you finally read your Bible—neither of which requires any technology.

Below are recommended prayers for an Act of Spiritual Communion when unable to participate in the Mass. Feel free to adapt them for personal or family needs!


My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the Most Holy Sacrament.
I love you above all things, and I desire to receive you into my soul.
Since I cannot at this moment receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart.
I embrace you as if you were already there and unite myself wholly to you.
Never permit me to be separated from you.



Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, embolden me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me.
Within thy wounds hide me.
Never permit me to be parted from you.
From the evil Enemy defend me.
In the hour of my death call me.
And bid me come to thee,
that with your saints I may praise thee
for age upon age.



O Mary, you always shine on our path as a sign of salvation and of hope. We entrust ourselves to you, Health of the Sick, who at the cross took part in Jesus’ pain, keeping your faith firm.

You, Salvation of Your People, know what we need, and we are sure you will provide so that, as in Cana of Galilee, we may return to joy and to feasting after this time of trial.

Help us, Mother of Divine Love, to conform to the will of the Father and to do as we are told by Jesus, who has taken upon himself our sufferings and carried our sorrows to lead us, through the cross, to the joy of the resurrection. Amen.

Under your protection, we seek refuge, Holy Mother of God. Do not disdain the entreaties of we who are in trial, but deliver us from every danger, O glorious and blessed Virgin. Amen.

What is temperance and do we still need it?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 19, January 2020 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Temperance is one of four cardinal (“hinge”) virtues, along with prudence, justice, and fortitude. It refers to the development of self-control, which is the hallmark of the mature person.

The virtue temperance is often conflated with the Temperance Movement, a social phenomenon of the 19th-20th centuries. The movement decried consuming alcohol to the point of intoxication. Its adherents promoted moderation or, in some expressions, teetotalism: complete abstinence from liquor. The movement was fueled by some effects of drinking in the industrial age, including injury, crime, disease, death, and suicide. Churches took up the cause, as alcohol often had an adverse affect on families. Emerging religious groups, like the Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons, promoted teetotaling as a pillar of their teaching. Other groups sought to close saloons early, restrict sales, or increase taxes.

In 1920, the movement led to the legal measure of Prohibition in the United States. The Eighteenth Amendment banned the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcohol across the nation. Other countries like Russia preceded the U.S. in prohibition, while Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Canada attempted selective restraints. By 1933, the U.S. was ready to repeal nationwide Prohibition with the Twenty-First Amendment. It was determined that making drinking essentially illegal had proved cumbersome to enforce, encouraged unhealthy drinking habits, fostered organized crime, and hurt the nation’s economy.

This history clouds the issue of what the virtue of temperance offers to those who practice it. Temperance is one of four cardinal (“hinge”) virtues, along with prudence, justice, and fortitude. It refers to the development of self-control, which is the hallmark of the mature person. Temperance is gained by educating one’s passions to orient habitually toward the good. Resisting temptations to indulge in over-eating, excessive drinking, casual sex, fits of rage, money lust, monopolizing conversations, aggressive displays of ego, or other unbridled exercises of desire isn’t enough to qualify one as a temperate person. Genuine temperance must lead a person to organize each choice toward a greater good.

So, while severe dieting may seem temperate, if it harms the health, it isn’t. Sexual abstinence to prove one’s personal righteousness would also not qualify. Withholding your anger and giving someone the silent treatment doesn’t resolve the argument. When the good choice also becomes the natural one, the virtue of temperance is on display. And yes: we still need it.

Scripture: Genesis 3:6; 9:20-21; Leviticus 10:8-11; Deuteronomy 21:20; Psalm 68:31; Proverbs 20:1, 3, 13, 21; 23:2-8, 19-35; 31:1-7; Sirach 18:30-33; 19:2; 23:6; 31:12-31; 37:27-31; Isaiah 5:8-16; 28:1-3, 7-9; 56:9-13; Daniel ch. 13; Matthew 11:18-19; Luke 12:16-21; Galatians 5:16-23

Books: Public Dimensions of a Believer’s Life: Rediscovering the Cardinal Virtues, by Monika Hellwig, (Sheed & Ward: 2005)

The Virtue Driven Life, by Benedict Groeschel, CFR (Our Sunday Visitor, 2006)

When we give a blessing, what do we actually do?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 19, January 2020 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Prayer and Spirituality
Jesus at the Emmaus supper
Jesus demonstrates blessing activity in the miracle of loaves and fishes, at the Last Supper and the Emmaus supper, and at the moment of his Ascension.

Since blessings are delivered during solemn liturgies but also after the most mundane sneeze, one might wonder what a blessing involves. Biblically, a blessing communicates divine life to the recipient. Which implies that God alone can supply a blessing. God blesses us with strength, peace, success, children, and every good thing. When a representative of God performs the blessing act, it’s God’s blessing and not a personal bounty that s/he invokes.

Creatures are first blessed as they’re launched in Genesis. The seventh day, on which God rests, becomes a source of blessing itself. Patriarchs are each blessed and bestow blessings in turn. The tribe of Abraham becomes a fulcrum of blessing on earth, and Israel a vehicle of blessing for all the nations.

Blessings may literally flow from one person to another with the imposition of hands between fathers and sons. (There are no biblical stories of mothers blessing daughters, but I know plenty of women who do.) Once a blessing is spoken, it can’t be undone—which is what makes the story of Jacob cheating his brother Esau of his paternal blessing so tragic and impactful. These examples convey the seriousness of the blessing act: it’s not magic, but it is real and vital.

While it’s clear the power to bless originates with God, in the psalms we’re urged to “bless the Lord” frequently. In what capacity might we bless God? The intent is to offer thanks or to recognize God’s glory. In “blessing the Lord” we don’t add to God in the same way that God adds to our welfare in the act of blessing. 

Jesus demonstrates blessing activity in the miracle of loaves and fishes, at the Last Supper and the Emmaus supper, and at the moment of his Ascension. Jesus also taught that we should answer each curse pronounced on us with a blessing: crossing the streams of bad intent with benevolence, we might say. Paul compares the church’s Eucharist with the blessing cup of Jewish rituals. Finally, it helps to remember that Mary of Nazareth was called “blessed among women” by Elizabeth, and claimed that blessing in her Magnificat.

All of which may give us pause the next time we casually “bless ourselves” with the Sign of the Cross. What aspect of divine blessing do we need, and what do we hope to receive?

Scripture: Genesis 1:22, 28; 2:3; 12:2-3; 27:18-40; 32:27-29; 39:5; Numbers 6:22-27; chs. 22-23; Isaiah 19:24; Matthew 14:19; Mark 14:22; Luke 1:42, 48; 6:28; 24:30, 50-51; 1 Corinthians 10:16

Books: The Priestly Blessing: Rediscovering the Gift, by Stephen Rossetti (Ave Maria Press, 2018)

Blessed Beautiful, and Bodacious: The Gift of Catholic Womanhood, by Pat Gohn (Ave Maria Press, 2013)

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Does the church teach pacifism?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 26, December 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Pope Francis
In 2018, a tweet by Pope Francis exploded in cyberspace: “Do we really want peace? Then let’s ban all weapons so we don’t have to live in fear of war.” The Pope was derided for “hippie eco-pacifism” and his naïve “ark of fraternity.” The world’s a cruel place, naysayers asserted. Weapons keep what little peace is left intact. 

Historically, Christians held two main traditions regarding conflict: pacifism and just war theory. Originally, Christians refused to fight for the empire. They stood down if they converted to Christianity while soldiers. Saint Martin of Tours was the poster child for all who chose to follow Christ and no earthly commander. Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren persist in this stance, while insisting that pacifism is not passivity. Rejecting the logic of war, Christian pacifism actively pursues non-violent solutions to social and international conflicts. Even the ark of fraternity recognizes that abstainers are sitting ducks without strong creative engagement.

Under Constantine, Christianity became a state religion, creating confusion. Not following a pagan king into battle made sense; how about a Christian monarch? A church-state partnership meant rulers now expected a blessing on their wars. Saint Augustine posited that Christians might fight in a just war. He left the defining of terms to Thomas Aquinas. 

Aquinas sought to restrict war. First, violence can be waged only by the proper authority. Also, the purpose must be just: national interest is insufficient. Thirdly, peace must be the goal of every soldier. Students of Aquinas added that violence must be the last resort. War was permissible in self-defense. The means must be proportionate. A just fight loses legitimacy if civilians or hostages are harmed. 

The position of “just peace” was ventured by Pope John XXIII (Pacem in Terris, 1963). Peace is more than the absence of war, he argued; it’s grounded in the justice that sustains peace. Recent popes have questioned if proportionality is possible in a world with doomsday weapons. Pope Paul VI, in his 1965 speech at the U.N., declared: “Never again war, never again war! It is peace, peace, that has to guide the destiny of the nations!” Pope John Paul II hoped the world would learn to “fight for justice without violence.”

On the 50th World Day of Peace, Pope Francis described humanity as “engaged in a horrifying world war fought piecemeal”—through war, terrorism, crime, violence against women and children, abuse of migrants, human trafficking, and environmental devastation. The pope recommended: abolishing nuclear weapons, an ethic of fraternity, the will to resolve conflict diplomatically, and a commitment to active peace-building at every level.

Scripture: Isaiah 2:2-5; Micah 4:1-4; Proverbs 8:15-16; Psalm 118:8-9; 146:3-4; Matthew 5:9; 38-48; Romans 13:1-4; Ephesians 4:23; 6:10-17; 1 Peter 2:13-17

Books: I’d Rather Teach Peace, by Colman McCarthy (Orbis Books, 2008); Jesus Christ, Peacemaker: A New Theology of Peace, by Terrence J. Rynne (Orbis Books, 2014)

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If Jesus is God, isn’t his humanity a form of play-acting?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 26, December 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Sooner or later, religious seekers ask this question. Being divine does seem to give Jesus a celestial advantage that puts him in a whole different category from the rest of us. In fact, our creed confirms his distinctness. Jesus is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in being with the Father.” These statements are variant ways of saying Jesus shares the essence of the one he calls Father, who is the source of life and all that is.

Does this mean the sinless life and brutal death of Jesus is, in reality, a mirage? It seems contradictory to claim, as Christians do, that Jesus is truly God and truly human. One cancels out the other, since God is eternal, while mortals suffer and die. Divinity enjoys special super-natural powers over creation, whereas humans are subject to the laws of space and time and endure significant limitations.

One way to reconcile these opposing natures is through the concept of kenosis, or self-emptying. Saint Paul is the first to take this approach in the Hymn to Christ quoted in the letter to the Philippians. It’s unclear if Paul wrote this hymn or simply refers to it. But it describes how Jesus, who’s in the form of God, chooses not to cling to his privilege. Instead, Jesus empties himself of favored status and commits to the human condition. He doesn’t cease to be divine, but he elects to embrace mortal existence.

Consider a missionary from the U.S. who chooses to go live in the developing world. She may spend the rest of her life, privileged education, and talent in bringing her advantages to a community that can’t even dream of them. While the missionary never ceases to be a person of privilege who could easily make a phone call and be swooped away from human misery, she elects not to make that call. Such a person may well be martyred in her chosen land, subject to the same dangerous forces that claim the lives of those with whom she has cast her lot.

Is the missionary’s sacrificial life a mirage? Is her violent death mere play-acting? When Jesus chooses to be incarnate in our humanity, the stakes are real. Kenosis is the kind of self-emptying we can all make, of whatever privileged status we enjoy, for the sake of others.

Scripture: Genesis 1:26-27; 3:5-6; Isaiah 52:13—53:12; Matthew 26:39; John 1:1-5, 14; 10:17-18; 17:5; Romans 8:3-13; 2 Corinthians 8:9; Galatians 4:4-7; Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 2:9; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:16-18; 5:8-10; 12:2

Books: Jesus Our Brother: The Humanity of the Lord, by Wilfred Harrington, O.P. (Paulist Press, 2010); The Disciples’ Jesus by Terrence Tilley (Orbis Books, 2008)

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Are parishes necessary?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 13, October 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History
While the gathering was essential to becoming the Body of Christ, registering for membership and weekly envelopes wasn’t the point.

Christianity existed well before the present parish system. Before there was a church building on the corner—with its Mass schedule, programs, pastor, and support staff—the followers of Jesus still managed to preach the gospel and share Eucharist. So technically, the answer is no: the parish structure as we know it is not essential. But if by parish you mean a defined and stable community that assembles for worship and embraces a certain responsibility for one another, the answer is yes: such a community is vital to the fabric of Christian life. 

It’s helpful to distinguish Christian faith from an individual spiritual practice. The goal of Christianity isn’t personal enlightenment, getting your act together, or building a satisfying moral ethos. From the beginning, Jesus chose to gather a community of disciples to live with him, share resources in common, and learn his teachings. There was never a time when Christian life was envisioned as a set of principles to live by that could be adopted and practiced on your own terms. From the first generation of the church, believers met in each other’s homes, prayed together, and shared what they had with those in need.

The gospel teaches how to live responsively with others. Loving our neighbors and enemies too, forgiving offenses, welcoming strangers, caring for the unfortunate—we engage these actions in service of others. Our faith is proven out by how we treat others. “Faith without works is dead,” says the Letter of James. Onlookers of the early community could rightfully say: “See how these Christians love one another.” No one was ever quoted as saying: “See how these Christians go to church.” While the gathering was essential to becoming the Body of Christ, registering for membership and weekly envelopes wasn’t the point.

The pre-parish house churches were more intimate, and perhaps more attractive, than today’s sprawling parishes which can feel alienating especially to newcomers. Meeting in homes was also necessary for a community that was vaguely suspect—and that dove into the catacombs when later judged to be outright criminal. Public worship, in buildings established for this purpose, was the gift (and in some ways the curse) of Christianity’s legality under Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. As the nature of community in our media age is transformed, how we are church tomorrow will doubtless evolve too.

Scriptures: Matthew 4:18-22; 25:31-45; 26:26-28; Luke 24:13-35; John 15:11-17; 18:20-26; Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35; 1 Corinthians 12:1—13:13; Ephesians 3:14-22; 4:1-16; James 2:14-18; 1 Peter 2:4-5

Books: We Are All One: Unity, Community and Commitment to Each Other, by Joan Chittister, O.S.B. (Twenty-Third Publications, 2018)

A New Way to Be Church: Parish Renewal from the Outside In, by Jack Jezreel (Orbis Books, 2018)

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Isn’t it a sin to vow something for life to God and then break it? Don’t fully professed sisters sin if they leave their order?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 10, September 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Vocation and Discernment
Religious persons released to the lay state remain baptized Catholics in good standing.

“A vow is a deliberate and free promise made to God concerning a possible and better good which must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion.” So says The Code of Canon Law (CCC 1191). Another section outlines rules for taking public religious vows (CCC 654-658). Yet just as God is merciful, the church must also be merciful. Which is why Canon Law includes a process known as dispensation to relieve a person from such vows (see CCC 85-93). Dispensation is “the relaxation of a merely ecclesiastical law in a particular case” (CCC 85).

Church law is flexible when applied to individuals and specific cases. The law recognizes that human circumstances aren’t static; therefore, some changes receive the favor of the law’s flexibility. For a just cause, a religious sister or brother may request and receive dispensation from solemn or perpetual vows. “Just cause” may be a grave or debilitating difficulty fulfilling the requirements of religious life. No penalty is exacted for being released from perpetual vows. In no way does it remove the person's right of access to the sacraments. Religious persons released to the lay state remain baptized Catholics in good standing.

No shadow of sin is attached to the request for dispensation from solemn vows. Dispensation is offered under the grace and peace of Jesus—who gave Peter the keys of the Kingdom as a symbol of the church’s authority “to bind and to loose.” If a religious person is released from vows on earth, s/he is also assured such release in the sight of God.

To remain in good standing with the Church, a person seeking dispensation must follow the procedure of release from religious life. The dispensation must be sought from the “competent authority”: the major religious superior or bishop in some cases, the pope in others. Once a sister or brother has prayerfully discerned to leave religious life, the order or congregation is obliged to do everything possible to assist in requesting the dispensation. The order or congregation is also required to help the person financially in the transition to lay life.

Scripture has lots to say about taking vows—and breaking them. People are weak and prone to err. Therefore Jesus considers that vows and oaths should be made only sparingly. Thank God that mercy is given to those who show mercy!

Scripture: Genesis 28:20 (first vow); Leviticus 22:20-25 (unfulfilled with imperfect sacrifice); 27:2, 8 (require adjustment); Numbers 6:1-21 (binding for a time); Numbers 31 (women’s vows: inferior?); Deuteronomy 23:22-24; Judges 11:29-39 (keeping an illicit vow); Ecclesiastes 5:1-6; Matthew 5:33-37

Books: Religious Life at the Crossroads, by Amy Herford, CSJ (Orbis Books, 2014)

A Different Touch: A Study of Vows in Religious Life, by Judith Merkle, SNDdeN (Liturgical Press, 1998)

How can I prove the existence of God to atheists?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 10, September 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Faith isn’t an argument. It’s a fundamental commitment we each make for ourselves.

Proofs for God’s existence have been regularly proposed by the learned. Christian apologetics—which doesn’t manufacture apologies, but rather justifications, for believing—has also been busy offering defenses for the faith since the second century. None of this is guaranteed to make your spiritually skeptical buddy fall on his knees and profess the Creed. Faith isn’t an argument. It’s a fundamental commitment we each make for ourselves.

Justin Martyr (100-167) was among the first apologists to present Christianity in a way his Greco-Roman culture might find both reasonable and appealing. Thomas Merton (1915-1968), with his autobiographical Seven-Storey Mountain, attempted to do the same for 20th-century skeptics. Folks as diverse as missionaries, scholars, fiction writers, and filmmakers have tried to make faith reasonable and attractive to those outside the church. See a recent attempt in the 2018 film “An Interview with God,” starring David Strathairn in the title role.

The watchmaker analogy is often invoked to demonstrate the plausibility of belief. Say you find a watch on the beach. Even though you don’t see a watchmaker, you know there must be one. A watch is too perfect a mechanism to have evolved on its own. So too, one might say, the world itself.

Saint Anselm (1033-1109) claimed God must exist since we can imagine the most perfect Being. What would make this Being even more perfect is to actually exist. Other scholars like Baruch Spinoza (1232-1677), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) also formulated intellectual proofs. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) offered five possible proofs: there must be an Unmoved Mover at the back of all movement, an Uncaused Cause at the start of all being—and ditto for contingency, gradation, and design.

Blaise Paschal (1623-1662) offered a wager rather than a proof. We have the option to believe or not. If we believe and are wrong, we live a good life with the respect of friends, enjoy the consolations of religion, and are none the wiser after death. No harm done! If we don’t believe and are wrong, we have lots of explaining to do, and possibly face eternal damnation. If however, we believe and are correct, we receive eternal reward. Belief is a better wager than unbelief.

Perhaps the best choice of all is not to argue, prove, or bet. Just offer the example of a life of genuine discipleship, and see who’s attracted!

Scripture: John 20:24-29; 1 Corinthians 13:8-13; 2 Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 11:1; James 2:14-18; 1 John 1:1-4 

Books: Chasing Mystery, by Carey Walsh (Liturgical Press, 2012)
Holy Clues: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes (Vintage Books, 1999)

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Who or what is the Holy Spirit?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 03, July 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Holy Spirit
The spirit of God is part of the story from the beginning.

We’re primed to think of the Holy Spirit as the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, “preceding from the Father and the Son,” who debuts at Pentecost and inaugurates the church. This last idea overlooks that the spirit of God is part of the story from the beginning. God’s spirit is a divine wind or breath blowing over the waters of chaos at Creation. This same breath brings humanity to life. As such, spirit is hardly a latecomer to the party. (Don’t be alarmed by the lower case “s”: neither Hebrew nor ancient Greek employed case distinctions.)

Spirit suggests a subtle and immaterial being, in contrast to the tangible Jesus. But the original spirit in Scripture may not be a being at all: “a principle of action, not a subject,” as scholar John McKenzie describes it. Early references to the divine spirit involve a communication that variously clothes, pours out, leaps upon, or fills up the one who receives it. The spirit can be given or removed, at God’s desire. The spirit can possess a person, as it does to judges in the Book of Judges, who are suddenly snatched up for divine service. This possession isn’t experienced in the negating way of a demon who eliminates the will of the host. Spirit enhances the recipient’s abilities, enabling the person to do feats beyond his or her skill. Such a person is charismatically charged for divine action, literally “inspired”.

Examples of the spirit at work include: the ecstasies of prophets in Saul’s time; the spirit passing from King Saul to David after his anointing; Elisha acquiring a double portion of the spirit given to his predecessor Elijah; Ezekiel’s trances; the bestowal of divine gifts like wisdom and counsel; the divine spirit released on the servant of God in Isaiah’s poems; the promise of a new heart and spirit rejuvenating Israel after the exile. 

The Spirit shows up in the gospels as early as the Annunciation. Mary is told, “The holy Spirit will come upon you… therefore the child to be born will be called… the Son of God.” Christian writers perceive more than a communicating action here; rather, a manifestation that modern translators honor with uppercase distinction. John the Baptist foretells a baptism of Spirit. At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends dovelike upon him. This Spirit drives Jesus into the desert to encounter temptation. Spirit drives the action in Luke and Acts, showing up fifty-six times as the principal actor. Jesus promises that the arrival of this Advocate ensures that we’ll not be orphans through the end of the age.

Scripture: Genesis 1:2; 2:7; Exodus 31:3; Numbers 11:17, 25; Judges 6:34; 14:6, 19; 1 Samuel 10:10; 19:20-24; 2 Kings 2:9; Psalm 51:13; Isaiah 11:2-3; 42:1; 61:1; Ezekiel 36:26-28; Mark 1:8, 12; Luke 1:35; 3:22; John 14:16-18, 26; Acts 2:1-18

Books: The Other Hand of God: The Holy Spirit as the Universal Touch and Goal, by Kilian McDonnell, O.S.B. (Liturgical Press, 2003)

The Holy Spirit: Setting the World on Fire, edited by Richard Lennan and Nancy Pineda-Madrid (Paulist Press, 2017)

What exactly is the Easter duty?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 15, June 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Sacraments

The Easter duty

The Easter duty is again viewed properly as a minimal requirement rather than a recommendation.

The Easter duty has seen some flux in church tradition. The Eucharistic Precept, as it’s formally called in the list of Church Precepts, was conceived in the 6th century as a way to ensure that the Sacrament of Holy Communion wouldn’t be neglected by the faithful. Early church councils enforced regional versions of the precept, which in one form mandated receiving communion three times annually: at Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) reduced the mandate to once annually at Easter time, widening its application to the whole church. The Council of Trent and the Code of Canon Law restated this obligation. Ironically, the attempt to safeguard reception of the Eucharist by insisting on minimal participation had the opposite effect. Clergy preached on the evils of taking communion in a sinful state a little too effectively. Churchgoers developed a fear of receiving the Eucharist “unworthily.” Many were convinced they could never be in the proper state of grace to merit the privilege. Add to that the phenomenon of what we might call “mortal-sin creep”: in the hands of a number of confessors, venial sins got an automatic upgrade to fatal status.

It wasn’t until the 20th-century arrival of Pope Pius X, “the pope of frequent communion,” that Catholics returned to the sacrament more regularly. The Easter duty is again viewed properly as a minimal requirement rather than a recommendation.

What hasn’t always been clear in the Easter duty is the definition of Easter. Technically Easter is not a day on the church calendar so much as an Octave (eight-days-long feast) contained within a seven-week celebration. The latest Code of Canon Law (1983) defines the fulfillment of the Easter duty to the time from Palm Sunday to Pentecost Sunday. This period, from Holy Week through the Easter Season, offers an eight-week window to meet the obligation.

However, in the United States, the Eucharistic Precept can be fulfilled from the First Sunday of Lent until Trinity Sunday. Lent adds an additional five weeks; the time from Pentecost to Trinity Sunday, another week. Altogether, this opens 14 weeks of the church year to fulfillment of the Easter duty.

Many Catholics are under the impression that the Easter duty also requires going to Confession. While receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation annually is certainly a good idea, it’s not part of the requirement.

Scripture: Psalm 119 (In praise of precepts and instructions); Proverbs 1:2-7; 4:13; 8:33; 10:17; 23:23; Mark 14:22-24; Matthew 26:26-28; Luke 22:14-20; John 6:27, 34- 35, 48-59; Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 11:23-27; 14:26; 1 Timothy 1:5

Books: 101 Questions & Answers on the Eucharist, by Giles Dimock, OP (Paulist Press, 2006)

The General Councils: A History of the Twenty-One Church Councils from Nicaea to Vatican II, by Christopher Bellitto (Paulist Press, 2002)

What are beatitudes, and why are they so important?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 15, June 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Scripture
Beatitudes are assurances that we’re on the right track.

The simplest understanding of beatitudes is that they’re a form of congratulations. If words were awards, beatitudes would be blue ribbons. Most people associate this term with THE Beatitudes, the famous blessing lines of Jesus—“blessed are the peacemakers,” etc.—delivered at the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew’s gospel) or on the Plain (in Luke’s account). But beatitudes are found in the Old Testament also, in psalms and wisdom writings. Apart from the sermons, other New Testament beatitudes appear in John’s gospel, letters of James and Peter, and even the Book of Revelation.

To appreciate how beatitudes operate, we might compare them with commandments. The well-known Commandments in the Decalogue tell us bluntly which actions to take or evils to avoid. Commandments speak in imperatives (“Honor your father and mother”) or issue orders (“You shall not kill”), and their sole justification is in the authority of the God who set them in stone. Only incidentally may commandments offer a rationale for keeping them. For example, we’re told to honor our parents so that we may have a long life in the land up ahead. This stick-and carrot approach is not to be misread: promised land or not, the mandate to respect elders still stands.

By contrast, beatitudes are assurances that we’re on the right track. They don’t instruct so much as highlight the reward of certain behaviors. As Sirach extols the happiness of a husband with a good wife, he reminds us why it’s great to choose the right mate: “A loyal wife brings joy to her husband, and he will finish his years in peace.” Before we frown at the lack of reciprocity, please note that Ben Sira, author of these instructions, ran a boys’ school and had no reason to describe the joy of wives who choose the right guy—not that many had the option. Beatitudes recall that keeping the Sabbath doesn’t just make God happy; who doesn’t want a day off?

The two most famous lists of beatitudes aren’t identical. Matthew includes nine attitudes that lead to happiness: things like poverty of spirit, a hunger for justice, meekness. In contrast, Luke speaks of real poverty, actual hunger, public humiliation in his list of four blessings, and balances that list with four corresponding woes, or old-world curses. They warn us that choosing vice over virtue leads to misery on the far side of that decision.

Scripture: Exodus 20:1-17; Pss 1:1; 41:1-4; 65:5; 84:5; 106:3; 112:1; Sirach 25:8-9; 26:1; Isaiah 56:2; Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-26; John 13:17; James 1:12; 1 Peter 3:14; Revelation 16:15

Books: Blessings for Leaders: Leadership Wisdom from the Beatitudes, by Dan Ebener (Liturgical Press, 2012)

What’s So Blessed About Being Poor? Seeking the Gospel in the Slums of Kenya, by L. Susan Slavin and Coralis Salvador (Orbis Books, 2012)

Has Pope Francis changed church teaching on birth control?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 05, April 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Church teaching on birth control
Current teaching permits natural family planning (a form of birth control) and affirms martial sex as a vital part of the marriage bond as well as a means of procreation.

You might revisit the QCA essays from October 2016, “How can I understand and explain the church’s position on contraception?” 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, garnering more attention on how/if the church’s position on birth control is evolving.

What’s lost in the debate is how church teaching is always evolving. Saint Augustine took the position that sexual activity was a negative expression only redeemed by procreation. Medieval theologians allowed that sex had other positive values, including health, pleasure, and the deepening of marital love. Pope Leo XIII chose to write a major encyclical on marriage (1880) that never addressed contraception at all. Pope Pius XI (1930) maintained that any sexual act not open to procreation was sinful. Yet Pope Pius XII (1951) sanctioned the rhythm method, suggesting that it wasn’t birth control but artificial contraception that was contrary to church teaching. Current teaching permits natural family planning (a form of birth control) and affirms martial sex as a vital part of the marriage bond as well as a means of procreation.

Pope Francis builds on what previous modern popes have written. When the Zika virus threatened unborn children in Latin America, Francis noted that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil” and that mothers in affected areas might do so. “Paul VI, a great man, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape,” Francis noted. Under threat of harm, procreative sex is not an absolute good.

In 2015, Pope Francis clarified that church teaching does not insist Christian parents “must make children in series." Paul VI had also recommended "responsible parenthood" in Humanae Vitae (1968), citing "physical, economic, psychological and social conditions" involved in creating a family. While still a Cardinal, the future Pope Benedict ventured that couples with several children must not be reproached for not having more. He declared family size a personal pastoral matter that "can't be projected into the abstract."

In preparation for the international Bishops’ Synod on “The Vocation and Mission of the Family” (2015), theologians considered “natural methods for responsible procreation” and also “the need to respect the dignity of the person in morally assessing methods in regulating births.” They reflected: “The choice of adoption or foster parenting expresses a particular fruitfulness of married life, not simply in the case of sterility.” They also noted that conscience trains us to listen to God’s voice, to avoid both selfish choices and also insupportable burdens. These recommendations place responsible family planning in the hands of parents, where in fact such discernment ultimately resides.

Scripture: Genesis 1:26-28; 2:18-24; Tobit 8:6-8

Books: The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World: Instrumentum LaborisSynod of Bishops, XIV Ordinary General Assembly (Vatican City, 2015)

Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis (Vatican City, 2016)

After we die, we “see God face to face.” Then what?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 05, April 2019 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
What unites us with God, ultimately, is love, which is the very nature of God, according to Christian theology.

You’re quoting Saint Paul. In his passage on the nature of love in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul describes our present sense of what’s going on as a dim reflection of the reality awaiting us. Even prophecy doesn’t tell all, and knowledge is imperfect. Death’s “big reveal” leads us “to know God fully,” as we are fully known. At present, God has the advantage in knowing us comprehensively. In eternity, God returns the favor.

If this sounds like a big claim, Paul goes further in Philippians stating that, in the life to come, we’ll share in the glorified nature of Christ. The First Letter of John confirms this, declaring that we’ll not only see God, but we’ll be like God in the upcoming realm. From Genesis, of course, we already knew we bear God’s likeness—but Paul and John’s assertions sound like it’s much more than a family resemblance.

In reflecting on such passages full of celestial hints, theologians arrive at what they call the Beatific Vision. Some prefer to emphasize the beatific part: the very sight of God will be a blessing to us. Others lean into the vision part: the direct encounter with God will open our eyes so that we finally truly see. The goal isn’t merely viewing God (“So that’s what Divinity looks like!”) or knowing God (“Pleased to make your acquaintance!”) The eternal goal is union with God, which is what both Paul and John are driving at.

What unites us with God, ultimately, is love, which is the very nature of God, according to Christian theology. In John’s words: “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God.” Paul agrees when he declares that only three things persist for eternity—faith, hope, and love—and that love outshines the other two as the greatest virtue. John and Paul reaffirm what Jesus says in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”

But your question is “Then what?” Beatific Vision unites us with God and allows us “full personal participation in the Trinitarian life of God,” in the words of Jesuit theologian Paul Crowley. Does that sound like enough to keep you everlastingly occupied? The Sister who taught art at my high school used to say: “If God bores you, who in the world will entertain you?” I suspect the Beatific Vision will satisfy.

Scriptures: Genesis 1:26-27; Psalm 8:5-10; Wisdom 2:23; Matthew 5:8; John 17:25-26; 1 Corinthians 13:8-13; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 5:7; Ephesians 1:5; Philippians 3:21; Hebrews 11:1; 1 John 3:1-3; 4:7-21

Books: Seeing God: The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition, by Hans Boersma (Eerdmans, 2018)

Toward a Theology of Beauty, by John Navonne, S.J. (Liturgical Press, 1996)

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Is it appropriate to speak of “lay ministries”?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 08, December 2018 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Clergy,Vocation and Discernment
Lay ministry
Can a layperson be said to “preach”; or should we call what they do—if they do it at all—by some other term?

Believe it or not, this was a matter of heated debate two decades ago. The concern was whether the word “ministry” could be applied to anything done by non-clergy. This same proprietary use of nomenclature affects the realm of preaching and proclamation. Can a layperson be said to “preach”; or should we call what they do—if they do it at all—by some other term?

As a laywoman and catechist of the church, I’m invited to do a lot of things that were once the official domain of priests or religious. Fundamentally I teach; but rarely in a classroom. I give religious instruction as a writer of books, magazine columns, and Scripture commentary. I also make presentations at retreat centers, give diocesan workshops, speak at Catholic conferences, and offer parish missions. It’s when I appear in person that the business gets murky. When I do in person the same things I do in print, what am I doing?

When asked to give a parish mission, for example, it’s expected that the mission leader (traditionally a priest) would preach at the weekend Masses to introduce himself and the themes of the mission to the assembly. When I give missions, some parishes invite me to do this—but are careful to call it something else: a reflection, talk, pious exhortation, or catechetical teaching. I’ve written homiletic reflections that priests use in their preaching for 20 years. But when I deliver these words myself, it isn’t preaching.

Nomenclature first showed its sticky side when I attended the Franciscan School of Theology. Enrolled in the Master of Divinity program, I spent four years surrounded by men studying for the priesthood. They spoke of their context as “being in seminary.” However, when I talked of being in seminary, I learned it was appropriate to say I was in theology school. We sat in the same classrooms, attended the same lectures, and took the same exams. We earned the same degree. But our experience was “ontologically” distinct. That’s a big word meaning the very being or essence of our pursuit was different. In the end, they would be ordained. I would look for work.

It’s in this context that I’m happy to say that, yes, these days, we do have a name for what lay people who work professionally in the church do: lay ecclesial ministry (LEM). It’s a nuanced and delicately controlled term. But it’s a start.

Scripture on ministry (as service): Luke 10:40; John 2:5, 9: Acts 6:1-6; 2 Corinthians 3:5-6; 4:5-18; 11:23; Romans 12:6-8; 1 Timothy 3:8-13

Books: Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry (USCCB, 2005)

Lay Ecclesial Ministry: Pathways Toward the Futureedited by Zeni Fox (Sheed & Ward Books, 2010)

What are the “four last things”?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 02, October 2018 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

Last four things
The Last Judgment, deserving of its capital letters, is defined as the event after Jesus returns in glory to pronounce the last word on human history and all of its participants. 

Older Catholics may view this as a simple question. Traditionally, the four last things were: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. The concern was for the ultimate destination of the individual soul. It was understood that, at death, a particular judgment determines a person’s immediate fate: Ready for heaven? Need more purification time? A lost cause? The Last Judgment, deserving of its capital letters, is defined as the event after Jesus returns in glory to pronounce the last word on human history and all of its participants. Heaven, or total unity with the God of love, is the logical result of lives that can be summed up by love. Hell, the complete absence of God, is the final result of lives that prefer an existence of indifference to divine love and its ways.

What happens at the end of life and time is technically known as eschatology—Greek for “furthest”. The four things were compiled in the Middle Ages by Hugh of St. Victor, and affirmed by the Councils of Florence (1439) and Trent (1563). The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes them in sections 1020-1050. Twentieth-century theologian Karl Rahner regarded the last things as a way of underscoring the “fundamental option” free beings have to determine their fate. What we become, here and always, is in our hands and nowhere else.

Bible scholars widen the conversation. They trace how biblical faith assumes a “future consciousness.” History can’t be seen as a random series of events; it’s going somewhere. For believers, history seeks its fulfillment in God’s original intentions for it. The Bible is clear on what those intentions are: unity, justice, peace, reconciliation, life in abundance. Biblical eschatology isn’t focused on individual redemptions, yours or mine, but rather the rescue of the world altogether. There’s a kingdom, a mansion, a banquet, a new creation out there!

In the writings of Vatican II, eschatology has shifted away from a preoccupation with personal survival in an otherworldly realm. The church’s mission in the here and now is the proper focus of the believer. As the Council affirms, Jesus sums up the meaning of history: God and humanity are to be united in goal and will. The coming kingdom is not something we can build with our own hands and bring into being, as some contemporary prayers seem to suggest. But a collaboration of faithful human effort and radical divine transformation will bring us to last things that will certainly surprise us all.

Scripture: Isaiah 2:2-4; 19:18-25; 56:6-8; 60:1-22; 65:17-25; Zephaniah 3:8-13; Zechariah 9:1-10; Wisdom 2:1—3:12; Daniel 12:1-3; 2 Maccabees 6:12-17; 7:1-42; 12:38-46; Matthew 5:1-12; 6:19-21; 7:13-14; 13:24-30, 44-50; 21:28-32; 22:1-14, 23-33; 25:1-46; Revelation 20:11—22:21

Books: 101 Questions & Answers on the Last Four Things, by Joseph Kelley (Paulist Press, 2006)

What is canon law and why do we have it?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 02, October 2018 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Canon law
What territory is governed by canon law? Norms for the sacraments, worship, preaching, clerical and religious life, Catholic education, the use of church property, how to resolve internal conflicts, when to administer penalties, and both the rights and obligations of the faithful.

I didn’t do well in canon law class, so here’s a chance to redeem myself. Canon comes from the Greek word for rule; the church applies it to its own unique law. The early church began to develop codes and standards as early as the household codes recommended by St. Paul. Church fathers in the first several centuries added their recommendations. Church Councils throughout history augmented these. Different regional bishops assembled their own regulations, and for a long time, the church had competing laws in different places.

Then came Gratian, an Italian canonist of the twelfth century. He organized and reconciled some 4000 rulings in a compilation that remained in wide usage until 1917. In that year, the first codified universal canon law was put into effect. While intended for periodic updating, such evolution was neglected until the present code of 1983.

The use of the word canon in regard to church law can be confusing. The canon of Scripture, for example, doesn’t change, and canonized saints are presumed to be in place for good (but remember what happened to poor St. Christopher!) Canon law, by contrast, is obviously not permanent. Much of canon law concerns church discipline, which certainly does evolve over time. Even laws presently in force can be dispensed for “due cause”. Some laws, however, are considered representative of “natural law”: reasoned according to the created order. Some follow “divine positive law”: revealed by God, as in Scripture. These latter two kinds of law within canon law are considered unchangeable.

What territory is governed by canon law? Norms for the sacraments, worship, preaching, clerical and religious life, Catholic education, the use of church property, how to resolve internal conflicts, when to administer penalties, and both the rights and obligations of the faithful. It’s a big book, and if you’re intent on viewing it, my recommendation is to go to a library, and get a volume that includes the very helpful commentary.

Pope John XXIII called for the revision that emerged by 1983. Pope Paul VI oversaw ten guiding principles for that new version. Three are especially helpful for our understanding: Law is necessary so long as it’s employed pastorally. Law is subsidiary; that is, rulings are not created equal and some are clearly more urgent. And finally, protecting the rights of the faithful is paramount.

Scripture: Exodus 20:22—24:18; 34:17-27; Deuteronomy 5:6-21; Matthew 5:17—6:8; 15:1-9; Luke 10:25-28; Galatians 2:21; Romans 2:12-24; James 2:8-13

Books: The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary, by Canon Law Society of America, edited by James Coriden, et. al. (Paulist Press, 1985)

A Concise Guide to Canon Law: A Practical Handbook for Pastoral Ministers, by Kevin McKenna (Ave Maria Press, 2000)
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Do I have to take a saint’s name at my Confirmation?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 23, August 2018 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints
The most recent Code of Canon Law (1983) softens the requirement by stating that a saint’s name is not required, but the chosen name must not be “foreign to a Christian mentality.”

The ruling on Confirmation names borrows from the practice at Baptism. The earlier 1917 Code of Canon Law required a Christian name be used, including saints’ names but also virtues “or the like.” Unfortunately for my mom, her parents chose the name Evelyn, derivative of the biblical Eve. That didn’t sit well with the priest, who exercised his canonical right to add a Christian name, baptizing her as Mary Evelyn Prudentia. “Mary” alone met the requirement; the priest added the third name from the virtue category, just to be on the safe side. The idea of an unfettered Eve really bothered him! Mom never used Mary or Prudence after that day, but they show up on the paperwork.

The most recent Code of Canon Law (1983) softens the requirement by stating that a saint’s name is not required, but the chosen name must not be “foreign to a Christian mentality.” (n.855) That is, it should not be alien or contradictory to Catholic beliefs. So, Buddha and Zoroaster are out, and you probably want to avoid Caiaphas or Nero.

It helps to keep the purpose of the sacrament in mind when claiming your new identity. The sacramental action is an expression of faith. You are embracing a “name in religion”–not unlike the traditional custom of being renamed when joining a religious order. While it may work as your Internet handle, do you really want to ritually declare an identity like “Wonderwoman” or “GameBoy”?

The Roman Ritual notes that in non-Christian regions, any name that has a Christian meaning might be chosen. This broadens the field to include theological words like Grace, Truth, Justice, Nativity, or Cruz. Or place names like Fatima, Guadalupe, and Lourdes. You can select last names of saints as well as first names: Drexel, DePaul, Jogues, McAuley. And if you have more than one favorite saint, there’s no impediment to using a hyphen. Check out under “Creative Catholic Names” for more clever ideas.

In the end, you may find it best to go all old-fashioned and take a saints’ name. As Life Teen advises on its helpful blog about Confirmation names: Choosing a saints’ name is a way of saying, “Yes, you may always pray for my poor and weary soul.” Why travel alone through this world when you can have a friend? Share the journey!

Scriptures: Genesis 2:20, 22-23; 17:5; 35:10; 1 Samuel 25:25; 2 Kings 24:17; Job 18:17; Isaiah 43:1; 48:1-2; 62:2; Luke 1:13, 31-32, 59-64, 76; 2:21; Matthew 16:17-18; John 1:42; Philippians 2:9-11

Books: Saints and Patrons: Christian Names for Baptism and Confirmation, by Joanna Bogle (Catholic Truth Society, 2012)

The Catholic Baby Name Book, by Patrice Fagnant-MacArthur (Ave Maria Press, 2013)

Where does the Catholic teaching on abortion come from?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 23, August 2018 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
We hold that the fundamental value of human life is not measured by personal achievements, but by our origin and destiny in God.

Our faith acknowledges God as the author of life. This understanding makes all life deserving of welcome and respect. As moral theologian James Hanigan explains: “Conception, pregnancy, and birth are not, in the Church’s eyes, private matters as the Supreme Court would have it, but matters of fundamental concern to God and to the entire human community.”

Early church documents (see the Didache and the Letter of Barnabas) categorically prohibited abortions. Christian writer Athenagoras (2nd c.) compared any abortive measures to homicide. Not all church fathers agreed. Jerome and Augustine taught that human life begins when the “scattered elements” form a discernible body, while Basil dismissed distinctions based on fetal development. As late as the first codified canon law (ca. 1140), the gravity of abortion was measured by whether or not the fetus was formed and “ensouled”. The abortion of an unensouled fetus was considered a serious sin, but not grave enough to require excommunication. By 1869, the biology of fertilization was better understood, and canonical distinctions of ensoulment were dropped.

Today, three principles frame the church’s argument against abortion. The first two are not derived from revelation but from science. First, it’s scientifically conceded that a fertilized egg is a genetically unique life. If its progress is not interrupted, this life will eventually be universally identified as a human being. This defines abortion as the evident taking of a human life—a clear violation of the fifth Commandment.

Second, science cannot distinguish a moment in the developmental process in which this genetically unique life departs some preliminary or potential nature to “cross the line” into full humanity. Therefore, attempts to draw that line at a given stage are mere decisions, not actual determinations of humanity. Third, we hold that the fundamental value of human life is not measured by personal achievements, but by our origin and destiny in God. Life in the womb is as valuable to God as the person at life’s end. This is, to God, the same person.

These arguments aren’t about civil rights but about the meaning of life altogether. They don’t pretend to address the social and economic realities faced by women and girls who conceive in undesirable or unsupportive circumstances. Nor do they speak to the real jeopardy sometimes faced by the other inestimably valuable life in the equation of birth, the mother herself. More teaching is needed.

Scripture: Genesis 1:26-28; Exodus 20:13; 21:22-23

Books: The Seamless Garment: Writings on the Consistent Ethic of Life, by Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin (Orbis Books, 2008)

Tough Choices: Bringing Moral Issues Home, by Sean Lynch (Ave Maria Press, 2003)

Who decided we should have holy days of obligation and what they should be?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 15, June 2018 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Holy Days of Obligation
There are only five holy days not on Sundays that most U.S. Catholics are asked to remember and observe: Christmas, Solemnity of Mary, Immaculate Conception, Assumption, and All Saints.

Every Sunday is essentially a holy day. That is, Catholics set aside the first day of the week to “abstain from those labors and business concerns” which are an impediment to worship, joy, works of mercy, and proper relaxation of mind and body. Each Sunday becomes for us a “little Easter,” commemorating the Lord’s Resurrection. Certain other days on the liturgical calendar have come to share the obligatory pull of the Sunday observance. But how was it decided which events qualify for this attention?

As early as the second century, Christian communities celebrated the feasts of local martyrs as standard observances. By the fourth century, the Western church added Christmas to this list, and the Eastern church included Epiphany. Both feasts went universal within a century. Special feasts caught the religious imagination, and the liturgical calendar exploded with commemorations of other events in the life of Jesus, as well as that of his mother, John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul. As holy days multiplied locally, popes and bishops tried to untangle and clarify the level of importance of each. In 1642, Pope Urban VIII all but banned the forming of new mandatory feasts. What was left was the work of dialing back the number of feasts that claimed this non-negotiable character.

When the 1917 Code of Canon Law was issued, ten holy days of obligation were officially recognized. These included the feasts of Christmas (Dec. 25), Epiphany (Jan. 6), Ascension (Thursday, Sixth Week of Easter), Corpus Christi (Thursday after Trinity Sunday), Holy Mary Mother of God (Jan. 1), Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8), Assumption (Aug. 15), St. Joseph (Mar. 19), Sts. Peter and Paul (Jun. 29), and All Saints (Nov. 1). Local bishops’ conferences have the authority to transfer or remove these obligations, which they may do circumstantially—as when a particular feast falls on a Monday—or permanently.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has permanently reassigned Epiphany and Corpus Christi to Sunday observances. All but nine U.S. dioceses have done the same to Ascension. The USCCB has removed the obligation from the feasts of St. Joseph, and Sts. Peter and Paul. Which leaves only five holy days not on Sundays that most U.S. Catholics are asked to remember and observe: Christmas, Solemnity of Mary, Immaculate Conception, Assumption, and All Saints.

Scripture: Genesis 2:1-3; Mark 16:1-2; Matthew 28:1; Luke 24:1; John 20:1; Acts of the Apostles 2:42-47; Hebrews 10:24-25; 12:28

Code of Canon Law: See canons 1246-1248 

Books: The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity, by Paul Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson (Liturgical Press, 2011)

Holy Days in the United States: History, Theology, Celebration,Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (USCC, 1984)

What do Catholics believe about demons?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 15, June 2018 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Jesus gives a teaching about demons, suggesting they take up residence not in folks who are particularly bad, but in those who don’t take care to fill themselves with the spirit of goodness.

Evil is real. Demons are a trickier subject. So start with evil, defined as that which opposes the will of God. Free beings can choose against God’s will with a single act (a mean word) or habitually (a selfish lifestyle). We can socialize evil, as when acquisitiveness becomes a cultural value that’s accepted and perhaps celebrated. We may even institutionalize evil, passing laws that counter the common good.

But is there a way in which evil can “take over” the will of a person surrendered to its thrall? Ancient peoples certainly viewed evil as a spirit that might inhabit a person. Often that person isn’t responsible for the possession, like the unhappy bride Sarah in the Book of Tobit, whose interior demon kills seven prospective husbands on the wedding night.

In the New Testament, Luke shows great concern for the authority of demons. The first recorded miracle of Jesus is the cure of a demoniac in Capernaum who disrupts a synagogue teaching. Later, a Gerasene demoniac contains so many demons, they fill a herd of swine. A boy suffers from seizures, which his father attributes to a demon. Luke also describes Mary Magdalene as a woman from whom Jesus banishes seven demons—without suggesting she’d drawn this situation upon herself.

The ability to cast out demons is a signal to the seventy-two disciples sent on mission that the name of Jesus has power over dark forces. It vexes John when someone not of their association has success utilizing Jesus’ name in the presence of demons. Eventually, some in the crowds are perplexed that demons are answerable to Jesus. Is he in league with the prince of evil, that he commands demons so effortlessly? Jesus gives a teaching about demons, suggesting they take up residence not in folks who are particularly bad, but in those who don’t take care to fill themselves with the spirit of goodness.

Clearly demons find a stronger foothold in those who actively make an overture toward evil. Luke tells us Satan enters Judas and propels him to betray Jesus. Judas cultivated the spirit of greed from the start, which opened the door to admit greater evil. Our modern perspective would describe many of these phenomena in terms of biological or mental illness. But the choice for evil remains open and real to all of us. The more we choose it, the larger the territory it governs in our lives.

Scripture: Tobit 7:9—8:18; Luke 4:31-37; 8:26-39; 8:1-3; 9:38-43; 10:17-20; 9:49-50; 11:14-25; 4:13 and 22:3-6; Matthew 8:28-34; 9:32-34; 10:8; 12:22-32, 43-45; 17:14-20; Mark 1:21-27; 3:23-30; 5:1-20; 6:7, 13; 9:14-29, 38-41

Books: Evil: Satan, Sin, and Psychology, by Terry Cooper and Cindy Epperson (Paulist Press, 2008)

101 Questions and Answers on Angels and Devils, by Irene Nowell, O.S.B. (Paulist Press, 2011)

Why do older folks keep quoting the Baltimore Catechism?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 12, April 2018 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History
Baltimore Catechism
The revised Baltimore Catechism of 1941, which is the one folks of a certain age love to quote, arrived on the scene in three versions: for very young children, those receiving First Communion, and adults.

U.S. Catholics brought up between 1885 and the Second Vatican Council in 1964 learned their religion lessons from this ubiquitous text. The concept of a catechism—in Q&A format reviewing doctrine and belief—is attributed to Martin Luther in the 16th century. Luther’s invention worked so well for the Reformation that the Catholic Church embraced the catechism as an educational tool for the next four centuries. Two Jesuits, Dutchman Peter Canisius and Italian Robert Bellarmine, wrote influential catechisms in the following century. These were joined by French, Spanish, English, and Irish versions. The proliferation of national catechisms ignited debates on the need for a universal text. Until the 20th century, no such document was attempted.

As the U.S. church coalesced under Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore in the late 18th century, the need for an American catechism became apparent. Immigrant Catholics were learning their faith from a multiplicity of foreign texts. “The Carroll Catechism” (sponsored but not written by the Bishop) was based largely on catechisms from England, embracing the introductory questions familiar to anyone who remembers the final text: “Who made you?” and “Why did God make you?” In use through the 19th century, the Carroll Catechism was never mandatory; it merely joined the European texts preferred by local bishops.

American bishops argued for a catechism until the Third Plenary Council, which finally produced a serviceable version in 1885 under Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore. Known by the unwieldy title A Catechism of Christian Doctrine, Prepared and Enjoined by the Order of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, it ran 72 pages, included 421 questions and answers, and was organized in groupings covering the Creed, Sacraments, and Commandments.

Almost immediately, this effort was labeled an educational and theological failure, incomprehensible to children, dull, and monotonous. Among its problems was the lack of priority assigned to beliefs. (Incongruously, a single question addressed the Resurrection, central to our faith, and that weakly: “On what day did Christ rise from the dead?”) Yet for fifty years it endured, before receiving a considerable revision. The revised Baltimore Catechism of 1941, which is the one folks of a certain age love to quote, arrived on the scene in three versions: for very young children, those receiving First Communion, and adults. After the Second Vatican Council, faith formation took another direction, and the Baltimore Catechism became a footnote of history.


Exodus 24:12; Proverbs 1:1-7; Wisdom 3:11; Isaiah 2:3; Mark 4:2; Romans 15:4; 1 Corinthians 14:6; Ephesians 6:4; 1 Timothy 1:5


Pride of Place: The Role of the Bishops in the Development of Catechesis in the United States, by Mary Charles Bryce (The Catholic University of America, 1984)

The Catechism Yesterday and Today: The Evolution of a Genre, by Bernard L. Marthaler, O.F.M.Conv. (Liturgical Press, 1995)

Why is Easter Season so long?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 06, March 2018 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Liturgy
Empty Tomb
What happens next in the story is nothing less than the birth of the church.

The Easter Season is determined by the seven weeks it takes to get from the Resurrection to Pentecost (which means “50th day”). While many of us might do with a little more Advent and a little less Lent, at least we’re clear what these seasons signify and what we’re to be about. During Advent, we await and prepare for the coming of Jesus. In Lent, we embrace penitential practices as we anticipate the resurrection of Jesus. But after Easter, liturgical time feels frankly anticlimactic. Once the tomb is discovered to be empty, really, what else is there?

What happens next in the story is nothing less than the birth of the church. But let’s not rush past the Easter event too quickly. The practice of the church certainly doesn’t. The Easter Vigil is the longest and most elaborate ritual of the church year. It’s the final segment of a three-part liturgical movement, known as the Triduum, which begins on Holy Thursday, continues on Good Friday, and culminates on Holy Saturday night. We keep vigil with Jesus through the commemoration of his Last Supper, the anguish of his crucifixion, and the dark void between the death of hope and the dawn of resurrection. We listen to a well-chosen train of Scripture readings that trace the story of our walk with God through time. It takes a while to process this much intense human experience, and it’s wise to go slowly and thoughtfully through these days.

Easter itself is an Octave, or eight-day feast, just like Christmas. In terms of liturgical practice, the Octave is like a week of Sundays as we light the Paschal candle, sing the Gloria, and continue to contemplate the wonder that death has a door, Jesus has passed through it, and so will we. Is a week too long to ponder this idea?

After Easter, Jesus continues to appear to disciples in groups large and small. Luke says he teaches them more about God’s kingdom for 40 days, a sacred number that symbolizes completeness. Then Jesus returns to his Father in the Ascension—which we celebrate 40 days after Easter (or on the nearest Sunday, in some dioceses). The disciples devote themselves to prayer from that hour until Pentecost morning, when the Spirit comes and the church is launched into prime time. What should we be doing from Easter through Pentecost? Imitate the disciples in celebrating, contemplating, learning, and praying to prepare for the mission ahead.


Mark 16:1-20; Matthew 28:1-20; Luke 24:1-53; John 20:1—21:25; Acts of the Apostles 1:1—2:47; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11


Easter, Season of Life and Fire, by Barry Hudock (Liturgical Press, 2017)

A Spirituality of Mission: Reflections for Holy Week and Easter, by Mark G. Boyer (Liturgical Press, 2017)

What do I need to know about Mary?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 06, March 2018 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints
Blessed Virgin Mary
The church continues to develop a Marian theology that honors both who Mary has been historically and who she remains in the life of the faithful.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, as she’s familiarly known, is best approached from several directions: biblically, doctrinally, devotionally, and theologically. First, there’s the biblical Mary of Nazareth. She fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy in giving birth by the power of the Holy Spirit to Emmanuel, “God with us.” The canticle Mary sings about her conception gives praise to God for the same activity her son Jesus will one day proclaim as the coming of God’s Kingdom: that the mighty will be toppled, while the poor will be lifted up. Mary plays noteworthy roles after the Nativity, including advocating for the miracle at Cana, her presence at the cross, and her participation in the Spirit’s release at Pentecost.

The church teaches four doctrines about Mary. Two declarations from the early church are that Mary remains a virgin perpetually and that she is the Mother of God. Both doctrines point to the divine origin of Jesus. Two later doctrines are that Mary herself was conceived immaculately (that is, without original sin) and that at the point of death, she was assumed body and soul into heaven. These are related teachings: since death is a consequence of sin, and Mary is spared sin’s effects, her body does not undergo the corruption of the grave.

Devotionally, Mary has played a large role in the church’s popular piety. Her icon has been venerated since the early centuries in the East, and by means of the rosary, litanies, and pilgrimage, people of many lands have felt a special closeness to the mother of Jesus who is mother to all. Throughout history, Mary has been known to pay singular visits, known as apparitions, to humble folk around the world. These appearances underscore Mary’s concern for her children and their needs.

The church continues to develop a Marian theology that honors both who Mary has been historically and who she remains in the life of the faithful. In the spirit of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI offered principles for consideration. First among them is that Christian faith must be rightly prioritized: nothing said about Mary can detract from the honor due to God. Also, that Christ alone mediates between God and humanity. Finally, since Mary is the first disciple of her son, she is the ideal model for what we all can do. Pope John Paul II also advanced the idea of Mary as the special champion of the poor.


Isaiah 7:10-15; Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-56; 2:1-52; 8:19-21; John 2:1-12; 19:25-27; Acts of the Apostles 1:14


Marialis Cultus / For the Right Ordering and Development of Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary - Pope Paul VI (Pauline Books and Media, 2003)

Redemptoris Mater / Mother of the Redeemer - Pope John Paul II (Daughters of St. Paul, 1987)

What is spirituality?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 31, January 2018 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Prayer and Spirituality
Spirituality has to make a difference. Its purpose is to infuse meaning and direction into everything else.

My theology professor Francis Baur used to say: spirituality has something to do with the living of our lives; otherwise it’s not spirituality, just pious embroidery. The idea that spirituality is woven into our corporeality is key. It can’t be a vague cloak of values added on top of a lifestyle established and immutable. Spirituality has to make a difference. Its purpose is to infuse meaning and direction into everything else.

We’re tempted to think of it as some sort of technique we elect to practice: I do yoga, you do centering prayer, he does the rosary, and they join the Third Order Carmelites. Spirituality-as-technique deceives us into imagining it as a skill we can acquire with enough rehearsal, like making tolerably good birdcalls. It also lures us into magical thinking: if I tough out 30 days of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, I will ascend to a higher moral plane.

Rather than a method of praying, spirituality informs our perception of reality, then moves us toward the values and behaviors that further such a vision. The end of spirituality is not “the mastery of practices but the quality of our very existence,” says Baur. Which means it’s not as esoteric as “spiritual” people sometimes make it sound. Spirituality isn’t for the elite but for all, since we all have an existence, and its quality is largely in our hands.

The pursuit of spirituality will take us through the thickets of theology: What do I believe about who God is and what God wants from me? What is life for? What is the church for? Who is Jesus to me, and how does that affect my decisions? If for example I believe God is love and God wants a relationship of love with me, then the path is plain: the ways of love must inform my spiritual quest. The church’s assembly, teachings, and worship must aid in my learning how to be a more loving person. Following Jesus means becoming a disciple in his school of love.

A piecemeal approach to spirituality will never lead to wholeness or viability. Focusing on procedures for contacting the Divinity makes religion too much like Star Trek’s quest for contacting new life forms—and spirituality truly isn’t rocket science. Faith, in the end, is about faithfulness; not what you believe, but what you do about it. What are you willing to settle for, with your one life? That’s a question worthy of spirituality.


Matthew 5:1—7:29; 10:37-39; Luke 5:33-39; 9:23-27; 11:1-13; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Galatians 5:16-26; Colossians 3:5-17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22; James 3:13-18; 1 Peter 1:13-25


Life in Abundance: A Contemporary Spirituality, by Francis Baur, O.F.M. (Paulist Press, 1983)

What Is the Point of Being a Christian? byTimothy Radcliff, O.P. (Burns & Oates, 2005)

What do Catholics believe about the Eucharist?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 31, January 2018 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Sacraments
Our participation in this supper transforms us into the Body of Christ for the world right now.

The centrality of Eucharist to Catholic life can’t be overemphasized. It’s “the source and summit” of Christian life. (Lumen Gentium, no.11) This means our life as disciples begins at the Table of the Lord and always returns here.

Eucharist means thanksgiving. Eucharist refers to the ritual of the Mass as a whole, or is shorthand for the Body and Blood of Christ we share in communion. The term reminds us that what brings us together is gratitude. What are we grateful for? The mystery of Christ who has died, is risen, and will come again in glory. This past/present/future reality of Christ includes us in its magnificent unfolding. We’re not bystanders at a miracle, but participants in a never-ending feast.

Like many of our Protestant sisters and brothers, Catholics celebrate Eucharist as a memorial of the last supper Jesus shared with his friends. However, we also believe this sacrament renews the sacrifice Jesus makes of his life expressed in his words: “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my Body… Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood….” What was, now is. Our participation in this supper transforms us into the Body of Christ for the world right now.

When the early church gathered for what they called “the breaking of the bread” or “the Supper of the Lord,” they did more than eat and drink. They also listened to instruction from local leaders, prayed, supported each other, shared financial resources with those in need, and received teachings from the apostles—whether in person, delivered by an eyewitness, or by means of a letter passed among the communities. The gathering also served in a variety of ministries as the Spirit inspired the members to do. We preserve these elements of Eucharist in the prayers, Scripture readings, homily, and collection, as well as opportunities for faith formation and service practiced in various ways by each parish community.

Recent Catholic theology also directs our attention to the “dangerous memory” contained in our Eucharist. Christ’s passion points to the reality of unjust suffering, the need for its redress, and the hope of transcendence from a world marred by sin and death. Our Eucharist reminds us that the call to justice sounds every time we “proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes.”


Mark 14:22-25; Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 22:14-20; John 6:34-59; Acts of the Apostles 2:42; 4:32-35; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26


The Eucharist: A Mystery of Faith, by Joseph M. Champlain (Paulist Press, 2005)

The Eucharist and Social Justice, by Margaret Scott (Paulist Press, 2009)

What does the phrase “consubstantial with the Father” in the Creed mean?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 12, September 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Shamrock as symbol of Trinity
Jesus puts it more elegantly when he declares in John’s gospel: “The Father and I are one.”

If you’d recited the Creed before the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, the line you indicate would have read: “Of one substance with the Father.” After Vatican II and before 2011, that phrase was: “One in being with the Father.” The Greek word translated all three ways is homoousion, “single essence.” The Latin word is consubstantialis, bringing us to the current translation, consubstantial—a word you probably won’t hear in any context other than reciting the Creed.

Jesus puts it more elegantly when he declares in John’s gospel: “The Father and I are one.” He makes a similar proposal to Philip, when the disciple innocently asks to see the Father: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

The first Christian leader to use the term consubstantial was Origin (185-254). He insisted: “There is no dissimilarity whatever between the Son and the Father.” He further declared “the power of the Trinity is one and the same” by quoting Saint Paul: "There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are diversities of administrations, but the same Lord; and there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God who worketh all in all.”

The Council of Nicaea (325), dominated by Athanasius, eliminated any hint of subordination within the Trinity. Meanwhile Arius and his followers, who questioned the equal natures of Father, Son, and Spirit, were branded heretical.

Expressions of the single essence of God became the matter of many early homilies. Irenaeus (130-202) trusted that “When Christ comes, God will be seen by men.” Peter Chrysologus (400-450) affirmed that God becomes known to us in being born for us. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) preached: “In the fullness of time, the fullness of divinity appeared” in Bethlehem.

Some church fathers took consubstantiality a radical step further. Hilary (315-368) proposed: “We are all one, because the Father is in Christ, and Christ is in us…. With Christ we form a unity which is in God.” Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386) went so far as to say: “If we have given up our worldly way of life… it must surely be obvious to everyone that … our nature is transformed, so that we are no longer merely men, but also sons of God, spiritual men, by reason of the share we have received in the divine nature.” Augustine (354-430) dared to speak the phrase that still stuns us: “God became man so that man might become God.” Complete communion with God remains the goal.

Scriptures: John 1:1-5, 14; 5:19-30; 14:7-11; 17:20-26; Romans 13:14; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; Galatians 2:19-20

Books: The Trinity: Insights from the Mystics, by Anne Hunt (2010)

The Trinity: An Introduction on Catholic Doctrine of the Triune God, by Gilles Emery, O.P. (2011)

What does Pope Francis mean by “rapidification”?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 12, September 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Climate change
Unsustainable production, consumption, and disposal is NOT progress, the pope insists.

We humans have an expression for the pace that makes us impatient: “glacially slow.” Not too slow, we imagine, if you’re a glacier. The biological world moves at a pace quite natural to it, with the rhythm of seasons, centuries, and eons performing an ecological waltz that’s both graceful and, yes, glacial. But human history is running a marathon against time, our little lifetimes being the scale by which we measure what’s an acceptable momentum for change.

This intensified pace of social evolution leads to a phenomenon the pope calls “rapidification.” In Chapter 1 of his encyclical Laudato si, he expresses concern that “the myth of progress” accepts that our present technological juggernaut is sustainable, and that any collateral “ecological problems will solve themselves.” This confidence is irrational, the pope notes. Natural ecosystems are circular: taking, using, and returning goods for the next cycle of life. Human production, by contrast, is linear: taking resources, passing them through non-biodegradable, toxic, and radioactive processes, and returning hundreds of millions of tons of often poisonous waste to the earth.

Our rapidified consumption of resources is having immediate critical effects. The planet is warming. Glaciers are melting at a not-so-glacial pace. Sea level is rising, biodiversity is shrinking, and tropical forests are being lost. Overfishing threatens the oceans’ abundance. Essential resources such as water and agricultural production are waning in availability. Within a few decades, water scarcity is likely to affect billions of people. Animals and plants alike are migrating in an attempt to adapt. This dramatic shift affects human lives, as the poor too must migrate to survive.

The global migrations we’ve already seen, from south to north, are posing complex problems for countries that cannot or will not receive those in motion. Environmental degradation will only worsen these social pressures, setting the scene for more violence and new wars. As the pope says: “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together.”

Rapidification is a lifestyle that must be reconsidered. This is not to denounce progress. Unsustainable production, consumption, and disposal is NOT progress, the pope insists. A fundamental shift in our thinking is needed: to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family. We need to think and act together. The planet is too small, and life is too fragile, to take sides.

Scripture: Genesis 1:26-31; Leviticus 19:9-10; 25:1-7; Deuteronomy 8:7-20; Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Joel 1:16-20; Matthew 6:25-34; Revelation 22:1-5

Books: Care for Creation: A Call for Ecological Conversion, by Pope Francis (2016)

Apocalyptic Ecology: The Book of Revelation, the Earth, and the Future, by Mical Kiel (2017)

I don’t read papal documents. What do I need to know about Laudato Si?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 14, August 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Pope Francis
Laudato Si
The pope puts the urgency of his argument bluntly: “Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet.”

I don’t read many papal documents either. Nor bishops’ letters, to be honest. I make exceptions for those that are turning points in the church’s self-understanding. These would include Vatican II Constitutions, like those on the church (Lumen Gentium), on divine revelation (Dei verbum), and the church in the modern world (Gaudium et spes).  When I read statements like these that express a bold gospel vision for the future, it makes me wish I read more papal documents.

Pope Francis’ graceful encyclical on the environment (Laudato Si, “On Care For Our Common Home”) is one such game-changing text. The pope puts the urgency of his argument bluntly: “Now, faced as we are with global environmental deterioration, I wish to address every person living on this planet.” This is no dry repetition of churchy ideas: God made the world, life is sacred, respect the planet, and love your neighbor as you recycle. In fact, the pope’s been criticized by some for NOT writing that document. Instead, he’s presenting a vital summons to the global conscience anchored in the language of the age—science, economics, and social theory—yet cradled in scripture, prayer, and passionate moral appeal. The pope touches third-rail politics and tramples on toes; but who wants a pope who minces pieties or holds his tongue? As Teresa of Avila said: “The world is in flames! Let’s not waste our prayer bothering God with trifles!”

Impressively, this is not just a Vatican document. The pope quotes his fellow bishops around the world, voices that are seldom heard: from Canada, Japan, Paraguay, Bolivia, Portugal, New Zealand. He’s as comfortable citing the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church as he is the canon of saints, leaping from international conference findings to sacramental realities. Laudato Si sounds the warning to this generation and points toward hope. If you’re not stunned, breathless, and convicted by this message, go back and read it again.

And yes, it has 246 paragraphs, which is a lot to read in one sitting. Read a paragraph a day and be done in eight months. But I bet you can’t stop at one. You’ll be collecting pearls like I did: “We need to strengthen the conviction that we are one single human family.” “We are not God.” “The earth is essentially a shared inheritance.” “Purchasing is always a moral act.” Happy collecting.

Scripture -

Genesis 1:31; 2:15; 3:17-19; Psalm 24:1; 104:31; Sirach 38:4; Wisdom 11:24; Luke 12:3; John 1:1-18; Colossians 1:16

Website -

Laudato Si

(On Care for Our Common Home)

Pope Francis    

Is God a name, like Allah or Jesus?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 14, August 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
God the Father
Monotheism clearly doesn’t mean God responds to one name only.

Most Christians tend to use God as the proper name of our Deity. As monotheists (believers in one Divine Being), we profess that all other gods are false. This is another way of saying our God IS God, and there is no other. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah was very keen on this point, in an era when his fellow countrymen were perfectly content to worship any divinity that might help them get ahead.

The claim that the Holy One of Judeo-Christian tradition is a singular Divinity doesn’t necessarily imply that God the Father doesn’t answer to other names or respond to worshippers of other religions who make their prayers in other forms. In Scripture, the writers use many names for the Holy One of Israel: El, Elohim, El-Shaddai, and especially the name too sacred to say out loud—YHWH—usually replaced with Adonai, which is the respectful title “Lord”. In most Bibles, when you see the all-caps rendition of LORD, you know the name intended is the four unspeakable letters known as the Tetragrammaton. Monotheism clearly doesn’t mean God responds to one name only. It simply rejects the notion that there are multitudes of gods out there who must be appealed to separately or even selectively. God is ONE.

Having said that, please note that the name of God we invoke does matter greatly, since traditions vary as to the nature of the Holy One to whom we are appealing. The God of Judeo-Christian tradition is a self-revealing God who seeks an intimate relationship with us. By means of our sacred history, we understand our God to be moral and just, not simply powerful and capricious. The Bible reveals God to be Lord of creation and history, stronger than empires but also respectful of human freedom. Finally, in the person of Jesus, God’s self-revelation takes a dramatic turn. God makes common cause with us by sharing our life, with its limitations and suffering, including death. Through this daring and loving incarnation, the God we profess changes the rules of time and mortality.

All of this sidesteps the question: if God isn’t really a name, what is it? Linguistically, God is a noun that describes what theologian Terrence Tilley calls “the irreducible center of meaning, power, and value.” This definition covers all the kinds of gods we may chase after: money, control, celebrity, love. We need to be clear, not only which name we choose for God, but which God we choose for ourselves.

Scripture -

Exodus 3:13-14; 6:2-8; 20:2-3; Deuteronomy 5:6-7; 32:39; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10-13; 44:6-8; 48:12-13; John 1:1-18; Acts 17:22-31; 1 Corinthians 3:21-  22; 2 Corinthians 1:3-7

Books -

Chasing Mystery, by Carey Walsh (Liturgical Press)

What Is the Point of Being a Christian? – Timothy Radcliffe (Burns & Oates)

Why should I go to church?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 08, June 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Liturgy,Prayer and Spirituality
Pope Francis sees servile obedience as the wrong spirit in which to develop a mature faith. The church exists to console, clarify, and challenge us.

It’s interesting that Richard Gaillardetz asks the same question—and he’s a professional ecclesiologist, whose business it is to explain the church. Yet he admits convincing his own children of the necessity of going to church is another matter entirely. Why does church attendance need persuasion?

Gaillardetz identifies four troublesome modern obstacles. The first is widespread institutional distrust. We just haven’t seen all that many churches, banks, governments, or schools with a sterling track record lately. Add to that the more recent conflation of religion with partisan politics. Now, it seems, your church comes with obligatory party affiliation attached! That is understandably distasteful to many. A third problem with church affiliation is the social decline of absolutes. We once hung our hats on doctrine with confidence. But today a black-and-white approach to any issue seems simplistic, self-righteous, and begging to be debunked. Frankly, we don’t want some exterior machinery regulating what we’re allowed to believe about our reality. Finally, there’s the “fragilization” of religious identity. This lovely term expresses how religion, once the defining principle of a person’s life, has recently been downgraded to a lifestyle choice: a thing you have, rather than a thing you are. So, Catholic paraphernalia may be in your ethical toolkit. But you don’t see yourself as “a Catholic” anymore.

All of which explains why more people are skipping church. It doesn’t argue why they might not want to. Gaillardetz suggests that church might benefit from a reintroduction: not as mind-controlling Hall of Obedience, but a re-imagined School of Discipleship. Such a school exists to form us in the way of Jesus, not to keep us on the straight-and-narrow (much less save us from eternal fires). Old-school church asks different questions of us: “What do you think or believe about God, morality, your place in the scheme of things?” The School of Discipleship model asks, rather: “Whom do you love?”

This approach is in keeping with the teaching of Pope Francis, who sees servile obedience as the wrong spirit in which to develop a mature faith. The church exists to console, clarify, and challenge us. It shouldn’t simply deliver to the adherent a longer set of reliable truths than the person down the street enjoys. In the School of Discipleship, we would decree or forbid less, and trust ourselves as “liturgical animals” more. Rituals work on us as we worship, teaching and shaping us as we say grace, give alms, fast, stand in praise, kneel in humility, or share a meal. This is what church does best.

Scripture: Exodus 20:8-11; Isaiah 2:2-5; Joel 2:12-17; Matthew 18:20; John 17:20-26; Acts 2:1-4, 42-47

Books: A Church With Open Doors: Catholic Ecclesiology for the Third Millennium – Richard Gaillardetz (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 2015)

Go Into the Streets: the Welcoming Church of Pope Francis – Thomas Rausch and Richard Gaillardetz, eds. (Mahwah, MJ: Paulist Press, 2016)

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What is the common good?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 08, June 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Pope Francis
Common good
“The attainment of the common good is the sole reason for the existence of the civil authorities,” Pope John Paul II declared.
Human nature may be viewed from two perspectives: the individual or the social. Which perspective reveals our true identity? Our society ensures we’re well schooled in individual rights and freedoms. From these principles I will navigate toward goals that satisfy my longing for the good life. I may believe that striving for what I want leads to my fulfillment. I may expect the state to safeguard the pursuit of my prosperity by whatever means necessary.

The common good, a tenet of Catholic social justice teaching, moves from the opposite assumption. It presumes human nature is essentially social. It’s not good for us to be alone, as our Creator originally determined. Our fulfillment involves creating conditions that are good for all of God’s children, with whom we share an origin and destiny. This creates a different expectation of the state: “the attainment of the common good is the sole reason for the existence of the civil authorities,” Pope John Paul II declared in Pacem in Terris.

Once we embrace the social nature of the person, the common good becomes a new lens through which to view social policy. What do rights and freedoms look like from a social perspective? Pacem in Terris defends the right to bodily integrity for all, including what’s necessary for life’s proper development: food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and social services. The common good requires freedom to worship, work, and form associations—to gather for mutually beneficial reasons. Immigration becomes a universal right, to care for one’s family or security. All should be free to take an active role in public life as well.

Some resist the common good ideal as a brand of totalitarianism: a system that subordinates the individual to the group. Totalitarians don’t value a universal good, but only their party’s vision of the good. The common good has also been suspect as a communist value. It doesn’t erase individual rights or deny private property; it does view them as limited by and subordinate to the needs of others whose existence is in jeopardy. Pope John Paul II spoke of  “the universal destination of goods”; that the good things of this world are intended to be shared. He also boldly proposed that “personal property is under a social mortgage”. What belongs to us is ours as stewards of God’s gifts, not as guardians of our personal stash.

Scripture: Genesis 2:18; Isaiah 2:2-5; 25:6-10; Romans 14:7-9; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4:1-6, 15-16; Philippians 2:3-4

Website: Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue (ICCD) A free resource related to the common good can be found at 

Books: Common Good, Uncommon Questions – William C. Graham, ed. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014)

Public Theology and the Global Common Good – Kevin Ahern, ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016)

Why does going to Mass on Saturday night “count” to fulfill the Sunday obligation?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 04, May 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Liturgy
Saturday evening Mass
The Hebrew definition of a day is measured from one desert sundown to the next.

Plenty of folks, including my Dad, have viewed the “Saturday Five” Mass as an unwelcome innovation. It’s been decried as one more Vatican II accommodation to flabby Catholicism: dumbing down our vigorous commitment to the Precepts of the Church. Most decriers would be surprised to hear that a prior evening anticipatory Mass was recommended and defended by 4th-century heavyweights including Augustine and Jerome. Where does the idea come from?

The fifth verse in the Bible declares: “Evening came, and morning followed—the first day.” The phrase is repeated after each of the first six days of creation, giving rise to the Hebrew definition of a day as measured from one desert sundown to the next. Examples in both Testaments testify that time makes a significant shift at sundown: the Temple is closed as shadows lengthen, or crowds bring their sick to Jesus as night falls. Even Easter is counted as “the third day” when the women approach the tomb under cover of darkness.

To be on the safe side in observing erev (Hebrew “evening”), rabbis say wait for three stars to appear in the sky. When you think about it, the concept that the a.m. (ante meridiem, Latin for “before noon”) period begins at midnight is not much more than a decision. The day has to start somewhere.

Jewish practice carries over in the anticipatory Mass for Sunday, or the Vigil Mass of a feast. In 1969, Paul VI wrote that ''the observance of Sunday and solemnities begins with the evening of the preceding day.” Although this was a moto proprio (personal papal initiative), it built on formal teaching issued two years earlier granting permission for the anticipatory Mass. It also acknowledged what the Liturgy of the Hours had promoted for centuries: a Sunday celebration lasting from Evening Prayer on Saturday night until Evening Prayer on Sunday.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law notes that “assist[ing] at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day itself or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass." (no.1248) The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass. The precept … is satisfied by assistance at a Mass which is celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the holy day or on the evening of the preceding day.” (no.2180)

Scriptures: Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31; Leviticus 23:5, 32; Nehemiah 13:19; Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1-2; Luke 4:40; 2 Peter 1:19

Books: Celebrating the Easter Vigil – Rupert Berger, Hans Hollerweger, eds. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1983)

Let Us Pray: A Guide to the Rubrics of Sunday Mass – Paul Turner (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012)

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Don’t we have to obey what the church teaches, or be kicked out?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 15, April 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Catholic school teacher
Teaching is not about imparting abstract truths written in stone but awakening an appreciation for the rules that govern reality.

The phrasing of this question suggests a difficult academic experience! The church’s role as teacher, expressed as magisterium, describes the church as “master” in the school of faith. But who, precisely, holds this authoritative position? Thomas Aquinas applied the term magisterium to the university professor (master of a given subject) as well as to the bishop. Our present understanding limits the teaching role to popes and other bishops, who in turn rely on Scripture and tradition.

Most of us are lulled by our past schooling to equate teaching with telling—and not listening as grounds for failure or even expulsion. “I am teacher, hear me impose!”, as a professor once summarized. This relationship to the teacher/headmaster presumes that teaching is a matter of laying down the law or the truth. If teaching is merely telling, then what the bishop says, rules. Not submitting is therefore a kind of crime with consequences that match the severity of the offense.

The Old Testament word for law or commandment is also understood as guidance. Law dominates from a higher position; guidance operates as a benevolent companionship—like the fellow holding the lamp just ahead so you can find your way on the footpath. This fellow may call out instructions—“Avoid the thorny branches on the left!”—because if you don’t, there will be consequences, some costly. Yet this fellow’s not out there to identify and punish your failures along the route. His intent is always that you make your way safely.

“Teaching is a real-world intervention,” as professor Molly Hiro notes. It’s not about imparting abstract truths written in stone but awakening an appreciation for the rules that govern reality. History is full of competing truths that have led along some pretty dark routes. When the church teaches, it shines light on the path to assist our discernment of the morally secure way. Just as in mathematics, not all rules are created equal. Some bend, others are unyielding. It takes practice and experience along the path to know which is which.

When Augustine reflected on a more biblical relationship to law, he arrived at this conclusion: “Love, and do as you will.” If love truly does shape and inform our will, then we can safely follow it. The church describes this condition as “the informed conscience,” the highest authority to which we must answer. This doesn’t mean we should ignore the fellow with the lantern, calling out from his long mastery of this road. Love is the subject he’s mastered, and it’s the lamp he shares with us.

Scripture: John 8:31-32; 13:34-35; 14:6; Romans 13:8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:4—13:13

Books: The Church, Learning and Teaching: Magisterium, Asset, Dissent, and Academic Freedom – Ladislas Orsy (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1987)

With the Smell of the Sheep: the Poe Speaks to Priests, Bishops, and Other Shepherds – Pope Francis (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017)

How do I reconcile patriotism and faith? Sometimes it feels like dueling citizenships!

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 15, April 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
American flag
Our greatness as a nation doesn’t have to come at the expense of our goodness as a community.

Is there anything wrong with wanting our country to be the best, the first, the greatest? Of course not. Most of us have a natural loyalty to the land of our birth, as well as to any later adopted country. I think of my grandparents, three of whom were born in Europe. They were the most enthusiastic U.S. boosters you can possibly imagine, and no one celebrated the Fourth of July like they did. Yet they also spoke wistfully of the old country: about the communities, customs, and languages they surrendered to come here. Citizens of two places, they held allegiances to both. Yet it would be wrong to say their hearts were divided or in any way compromised by these loyalties. They each had very clear reasons why they had chosen the difficult path of immigration.

Is it any different for us who count ourselves as citizens of this world AND the kingdom of God? In this case, we’re not talking about geographic territories, but alternate realms with often competing values. For example, in your country a thing may be legal that is nonetheless immoral to a Christian. So yes: we must acknowledge that sometimes our values as citizens of countries are on a collision course with Christian values that compel us in a primary way. That may make us conflicted; it should. When values collide, we’re obliged to choose among loyalties, which is never that simple.

Back to wanting to be the greatest: Is this idea in conflict with the spirit of the reign of God, in which the last will be first, and the meek shall inherit the earth? I don’t think one could sell many hats that say “Make My Country Meek.” But I do think Christians need to ask the question: What is the basis for my country's greatness: For what should my country be great? For whom? For ALL residents, or just some? ONLY for my country, or for the common good of the international community that shares this little planet? Our greatness as a nation doesn’t have to come at the expense of our goodness as a community. It doesn't have to come in a limited, materialistic, or military sense; and only for an exclusive number of approved citizens. This interpretation of greatness is obviously in conflict with the great goodness of God. When such conflicts happen, it does require us to consider, which citizenship do I value more: that of my country or that of God's kingdom?

Scripture: Genesis 12:1-3; Isaiah 2:2-5; 49:6; Matthew 5:1-16; Luke 6:20-36; Acts 3:25

Books: Politics, Religion, and the Common Good – Martin E. Marty (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000)

On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good – Jim Wallis (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2013)

Our priest cancelled Saturday Vigil Mass, citing Dies Domini and pastoral necessity. Is this valid?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 01, April 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Liturgy
Saturday evening Mass
The Saturday evening Mass isn’t a Vigil, but an anticipatory Mass for Sunday.

This column isn’t designed to challenge local pastoral decisions, which can be more complex than they appear. But let’s start by clarifying terminology for the nitpickers: the Saturday evening Mass isn’t a Vigil, but an anticipatory Mass for Sunday. On Saturday night, we use the same Scripture readings and prayers prescribed for Sunday. So the Saturday evening 5 p.m. liturgy IS a “Sunday Mass,” liturgically speaking.

Vigil Masses have distinct texts, or “Propers,” associated with them. Vigils are approved for: Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension Thursday, Pentecost, St. John the Baptist, Sts. Peter and Paul, and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mother. When you attend Vigil Masses, the readings and prayers are different from (though thematically related to) those used on the feasts themselves.

Dies Domini (“The Lord’s Day”) is a 1998 Apostolic Letter from Pope John Paul II "to the bishops, clergy and faithful of the Catholic Church on keeping the Lord’s Day holy.” It affirms the important role of Sunday in the life of the believer, and the vital part Eucharist plays in the context of the Sunday Sabbath. It expresses concern that the significance of a Sabbath day not be obscured by the separation of the celebration of Eucharist from the traditional morning observance.

Does Dies Domini address the validity of attending a Saturday anticipatory mass? Yes. #49 of the document states: “Because the faithful are obliged to attend Mass unless there is a grave impediment, Pastors have the corresponding duty to offer to everyone the real possibility of fulfilling the precept. The provisions of Church law move in this direction, as for example in the faculty granted to priests, with the prior authorization of the diocesan Bishop, to celebrate more than one Mass on Sundays and holy days, the institution of evening Masses and the provision which allows the obligation to be fulfilled from Saturday evening onwards…”

“Pastoral necessity” refers to the modern reality that many Catholics need to work on Sunday in order to provide for their families. Because of this, it becomes pastorally necessary to provide an opportunity for people to celebrate the Sunday Eucharist during non-working hours, specifically Saturday evenings. To my knowledge, there’s no impediment preventing a person who doesn’t work on Sunday from attending the Saturday anticipatory Mass. Nor have I met many pastors eager to have the greeter do a “necessity check” at the church door on Saturday nights.

Scripture: Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:8-11; 31:12-17; Deuteronomy 5:12-15

Books: Dies Domini: Apostolic Letter – Pope John Paul II (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2000)

“Anticipating the Sunday and Feast Day Masses on the Previous Evening,” Instruction on Eucharistic Worship. Sacred Congregation of Rites (Washington, DC: USCC, 1967)

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Is Pope Francis the first Catholic leader to address the environment?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 06, February 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

The beauty of creation is a long-appreciated path to knowledge of God. 

While Catholics may seem late to the topic of ecology, Pope Francis was not being a maverick with his widely heralded (and in some quarters, loudly denounced) encyclical, Laudato Si’. In 1988, Philippine bishops had already produced a pastoral letter titled: “What Is Happening to Our Beautiful Land?” Pope John Paul II spoke on the World Day of Peace concerning “The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility” in 1990. U.S. bishops followed with a statement of their own in 1992: “Renewing the Earth.”

Of course, Saint Francis of Assisi was all about preserving the harmony between us and the natural world in the 13th century. Even the birdbath saint was beaten to the game by Hildegard of Bingen a century earlier. Fourth-century Augustine was earlier still, with his lengthy commentaries on Genesis and Creation. Benedict of Nursia followed suit in his attentiveness to creation in the 6th century, though he’s remembered mostly for his monastic rule. As fellow creatures, we have a lot invested in our stewardship of this planet. Our role as Gardener-in-Chief is well established in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

To appreciate the scope of church teaching on the environment, it’s necessary to consider documents that aren’t explicitly about ecology. For example, in 1991 Pope John Paul II wrote Centesimus Annus to mark the century since the issue of Pope Leo XIII’s bold social teaching, Rerum Novarum. In it, the Pope criticized scientific advances that come at the expense of the environment, as well as the toll of warfare, and the disparity of adverse environmental impacts on poorer communities.

What makes it seem like Catholics have ignored the green movement is the otherworldly emphasis of our public profile—and in some cases, a genuinely imbalanced focus on the life of the world to come among some Catholics. Such imbalance is corrected with a renewed appreciation of a few long-standing teachings. The common good, for instance, maintains the good things of the earth belong to all of us. This includes the right to live in a safe environment, whether poor or rich. At the same time, the poor are not to be cut out of progress and development; therefore, ways to sustainable development must be found that serve all. The value of solidarity further insists we must act with other nations to achieve what’s beneficial to global health. Finally, the beauty of creation is a long-appreciated path to knowledge of God. To lose it is to lose a source of profound communion.


Genesis 1:1—2:15; Psalms 8, 19, 104, 148; John 1:1-5; Romans 8:18-23; Colossians 1:15-20


Option for the Poor and for the Earth: From Leo XIII to Pope Francis – Donal Dorr (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016)

Living Cosmology: Christian Responses to Journey of the Universe – eds. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016). This includes a book, documentary film, and conversation series.

Do all Christians basically agree on the purpose of baptism, Eucharist, and ministry?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 06, February 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Sacraments
Christian unity
The bishops see much that’s mutual, but not enough for Christians to share Eucharist together.

Such agreement is crucial to hope for Christian unity. Many find hope in the 1982 documents, “Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry.” BEM, for short, was produced in Lima by the World Council of Churches—a 348-member organization including most denominations you’ve heard of: Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Mennonite, and Quaker. The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t belong to the WCC, the rationale being that the Church of Rome IS the Church. Joining an organization that renders us one “church” among equals sends the wrong message.

BEM was a work in progress since 1928. The resulting documents have been closely studied by the U.S. bishops. Here’s a short summary of their assessment. BEM on Baptism has much to be admired. Its teaching on Baptism as a cleansing from sin, gift of the Spirit, incorporation into the Body of Christ, all in the name of the Trinity, is sound. BEM recognizes Baptism’s “unrepealable” nature. It describes it as the foundation of, but no substitution for, a life of faith—a nod to both infant and adult baptism.

The bishops’ takeaway: BEM needs work in treating the Spirit’s and the church’s role in Baptism. The unity of all sacraments of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist) should be clarified. The BEM distinction drawn between infant baptism and “believer’s baptism” (for adults) is an “unfortunate” phrase. But a movement toward a formal mutual recognition of Christian baptisms is plausible.

Regarding Eucharist, BEM calls it a “thanksgiving, memorial, invocation, communion, and meal of the kingdom.” BEM churches agree with Rome that frequent celebration of Eucharist is desirable. They concur that the entire Eucharistic celebration, not a single “moment of consecration,” makes Christ really present. BEM rightly stresses the social and ethical dimensions that travel with us from the Table to the world.

The bishops would like to see more about how the nature of the church is a direct result of our Eucharist; clarification of how Christ is present as spiritual food; how Christ remains present even when the sacrament is reserved, as in the Tabernacle. The bishops see much that’s mutual, but not enough for Christians to share Eucharist together.

BEM views Ministry as the vocation of all Christians, while holding a distinct place for the ordained kind. It acknowledges the apostolic origins of bishop, presbyter, and deacon. U.S. bishops agree on “interdependence and reciprocity” between the laity and the ordained. They await more clarity on the uniqueness of ordination, its relationship to sacramental ministry, particularly in the forgiveness of sins. Finally, the ordination of women remains a sticking point between BEM and Rome. Reason to hope for unity? Yes. But not for holding your breath.


Mark 6:34-44; 14:22-25; Matthew 16:18-19; 28:19-20; John 6:22-58; Romans 6:3-11; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; 12:1-31; 1 Timothy 3:1-13


World Council of Churches site for entire BEM text:

USCCB site for bishops’ statements regarding BEM:

What is natural law?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 05, January 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Natural law
Natural law remains a fundamental principle in Catholic moral teaching today.

Natural law is the principle that there are higher truths than those dictated by societies and their institutions. It claims these truths are embedded in the natural order of creation. This tradition originated in the Roman Republic with thinkers like Cicero, who reacted against Aristotle’s fierce support for the state centuries earlier. Aristotle had held that society was justified in subjecting women, slaves, and barbarians since they were incapable of moral judgment. Proponents of natural law held that all humans were moral beings; therefore institutions of subjugation were unjust. It was a radical proposition to take back then! 

Natural law adherents admitted that government, while “unnatural,” was a necessary force in society to ensure the protection of the weak from oppression by the strong. Church fathers like Augustine would embrace natural law to express just war theory: that while killing was a moral evil, in certain circumstances it was a necessary action to protect the weak.

For many centuries, natural law was wielded by reformers as much as by conservative factions. In the Middle Ages, however, thinkers began applying these ideas to questions of personal morality as well as to social institutions. Sexual and medical choices were scrutinized according to their biological fittingness. Aquinas was less likely to consider natural law in terms of social systems as Augustine used it.

By the time of the Enlightenment, natural law had bifurcated. Philosophers based the doctrine of universal human rights on its principles and urged political reforms that would incorporate this ideal. Catholic thinkers utilized natural law almost exclusively in terms of personal morality. The Catholic position contrasted the natural design of creation with “the unnatural”—against God’s directive and therefore beyond argument.

Natural law remains a fundamental principle in Catholic moral teaching today. At its best, it admits the existence of universally binding moral principles that all humanity might embrace by reason alone. Yet many modern theologians are uncomfortable with a complete capitulation to a law that admits no conversation with Scripture or expanding church tradition. What’s in and what’s outside the immutable boundaries of natural law continue to be hotly debated.

Scriptures: Genesis chapter 1; Exodus 20:1-17; Psalms 8, 19, 104, 119; Proverbs 1:20—2:22; 9:1-12; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Matthew 5:3-12, 17-20; John 1:1-5, 14; 3:31-36; 14:15-27; Hebrews 8:7-12; 10:16

Books: Searching for a Universal Ethic: Multidisciplinary, Ecumenical, and Interfaith Responses to the Catholic Natural Law Tradition –eds. John Berkman and William Mattison III (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014)

Catholic Moral Theology and Social Ethics: A New Method – Christina Astorga (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2013)

Some of my friends view belief in God as anti-intellectual.

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 05, January 2017 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Faith versus reason
Faith and reason spring from the same created reality and are in this sense mutually dependent on divine revelation.

The relationship between faith and reason can seem complicated, but is not contradictory. I admit when I was in college, I went to the Newman Center with the same agenda. It seemed there were two camps on campus: the Christians and the thinkers. I went to the priest to find out if it were necessary to choose between the two, which I was not at all comfortable doing.

The priest pointed me toward something wonderful—the rich Catholic intellectual tradition. I learned a valuable teaching from Vatican I: there can be no contradiction between faith and reason, since God is the author of both. Faith and reason spring from the same created reality and are in this sense mutually dependent on divine revelation. This may sound strange, since we think of revelation as a mysterious process involving heavenly apparitions and miraculous unfoldings. Yet talk to a researcher uncovering a new principle concerning the way time operates, or how the human brain functions. Revelation is a word not inconsistent with that scientific seeker’s experience.

If something is discovered to be true, therefore, it cannot be an obstacle to faith. Faith must expand to admit what is true. This explains why the same church that once condemned Galileo’s teachings as a threat to religious belief had to apologize and restore Galileo’s integrity as a Catholic thinker in the long run. God is truth, and truth cannot deny itself.

Needless to say, it would have been better if church leaders hadn’t rejected Galileo to start with! Frequently the obstacle to embracing truth is our faith in our own fallible perception, rather than faith in God.  It takes courage to remain open to the possibility that we’re wrong in our present opinions, comprehension, and vision. More recent popes have viewed science as a partner in the quest for truth rather than an adversary to religious faith.

Two positions are unhelpful to those who think and believe. One is fideism, the other rationalism. Fideism imagines that all truth drops from heaven unaided by human activity. Moral principles are to be accepted and incorporated without nuance, reflection, or relationship to other avenues of knowledge. Fideists don’t want to argue, they just want to imbibe right principles. Rationalists believe all truth can be apprehended and judged by human reason alone. Religious ideas improvable by scientific means are deemed irrelevant if not invalid.

Scriptures: Job 38:1—42:6; Psalm 8; Isaiah 55:6-9; John 1:1-4; 14:6; Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 13:9-12; Hebrews 11:1; 1 John 1:1-4

Books: The Bible and Science: Longing for God in a Science-Dominated World – Vincent M. Smiles (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011)

Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think – Elaine Howard Ecklund (New York; Oxford University Press, 2010)

How did the veneration of relics get started?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 29, November 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Prayer and Spirituality
Mother Teresa relic
A relic of Saint Teresa of Calcuttaa drop of her bloodat St. Ita Catholic Church in Chicago.

A relic is an object kept in tribute to a holy person. Some relics are body parts such as bone chips or teeth. Others are items once belonging to the person, most often snips of clothing. Catholics aren’t alone in collecting relics. Other religions like Buddhism employ them. People of faith backgrounds that permit it keep cremains of loved ones in an urn on the mantle (See here for Vatican instruction on Catholic burial, cremation). I have a shirt that belonged to my dad, which I still wear. Relics are a traditional way of keeping in touch with someone special.

Catholic relics are as old as the church. Martyrdom was a frequent if not typical cause of Christian death. The faithful collected the martyrs’ remains, often in pieces, for secret burial in places like catacombs. When available, the instrument of death was spirited off as well. Think: relics from the True Cross. Christians gathered at martyrs’ tombs to celebrate Eucharist. When the persecutions finally ceased, churches were erected on the gravesites. Christians considered burial near a martyr a privilege. A tug-of-war over these bodies became typical; some were exhumed and re-interred on the properties of those who could afford it. In the Middle Ages, Crusaders pilfered lots of relics and carried them to Europe.

Relics were catechetically useful. They spurred interest in the saint whose virtues might be imitated. In 410, a council in Carthage ruled that saints’ shrines had to contain authentic relics or be destroyed. In 767, a Nicaean council determined that every altar must contain a relic or Mass could not be celebrated on it. This decree echoes the original practice of celebrating Mass on the graves of martyrs and is upheld in current canon law (no.1237). Exceptions are made today for portable altars such as those used in wartime.

Selling relics has always been forbidden. Church law says significant relics can’t even be moved around without express permission from the Vatican (no. 1190).

Attributing magical powers to such items is considered an abuse, but the tendency to be superstitious about holy objects is not unknown in the modern church. From the Holy Grail to the Shroud of Turin, the curious and the credulous will always find a less than edifying fascination with such objects. Church teaching draws a distinction between proper and improper veneration. Worship belongs to God alone. Even if a saint should appear suddenly in an apparition, human honor is the limit of our tribute.

Scripture: The Bible regards holiness as a divine attribute communicable to people, places, and things (e.g. Moses’ shining face, the Ark and its sacred utensils, the Temple’s Holy of Holies.) The topic of relics, specifically, is not treated. But see 2 Kings 13:20-21; Mark 5:25-34; Acts 5:12-15

Books: Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics – Thomas Craughwell (New York: Image Books, 2011)

Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe – Charles Freeman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012)

Why do we worship in buildings instead of in God’s beautiful creation?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 29, November 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

Church building
The word temple means "to be cut from": to be separate from ordinary use and reserved for sacred encounter.

The fixed sanctuary of meeting between God and mortals is an old concept. Your instinct is correct that creation seems perfect for the job. Sacred space is meant to display the cosmos in miniature: a unified center where heaven, earth, and the underworld intersect. Just as mountains reach into the heavens, and roots push deep into the soil, the holy place conjoins the three anciently acknowledged realms. The achievement of this unity is evident in the designs of temples, cathedrals, pyramids, ziggurats, pagodas, monoliths, and even the towering sacred trees venerated in northern lands.

As in many religions, the Judeo-Christian tradition regards this design as divinely supplied. So Moses gets the blueprint for a sanctuary from God at Sinai, as does King Solomon for the Jerusalem temple. Ezekiel receives a revitalized one in a vision after the first temple is destroyed. John at Patmos envisions the Lamb as an incarnate temple in the reign of God at the end of time. In these episodes (which have parallels across ancient cultures), the leader or seer is given precise measurements for the job, including careful attention to the worship space’s orientation toward nature’s four directions and often including a source of living water. Other traditions incorporate architectural elements to interact with the sun and moon, and the seasonal calendar. The design of sacred space always acknowledges the superiority of God’s world design and is not intended to replace it, but rather to celebrate it.

Attention is likewise paid to the meaning of creation, and not just its patterns. The story of creation—again, in our biblical tradition and in other world religions—is a triumph of divine order over primordial chaos. Sacred geometry is therefore strictly observed in these designs, which explains the astonishing exactness of many structures from antiquity, as well as the patience of builders who begin a cathedral which none of them will see completed.

The word temple means "to be cut from": to be separate from ordinary use and reserved for sacred encounter. Our word contemplate reflects the understanding that contemplation is an activity enhanced by the temple, and also that the temple’s mysteries ideally reside inside the worshipper as well as around him or her. Jesus epitomized this understanding when he identified his own body with the Jerusalem temple. Paul repeated this teaching when he called each believer a temple. The more we consider sacred space, the more it can teach us.

Scripture: Genesis 28:10-22; Exodus 25-31; 1 Kings 5:15-7:51; Isaiah 28:16; Ezekiel 40-47:12; Matthew 16:18; John 2:13-22; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; Revelation 21:22-22:5

Books: The Temple: Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth – John Lundquist (London: Thames & Hudson, 2012)

How to Read a Church: A Guide to Symbols and Images in Churches and Cathedrals – Richard Taylor (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press/HiddenSpring, 2005)

How can I understand and explain the Catholic position on contraception?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 21, October 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Affectionate couple
In 1965, the unitive value of intercourse was embraced along with its procreative meaning in Catholic teaching. The right and duty of couples to responsibly limit the size of their families was accepted; a distinction was drawn between natural and artificial means of doing so.

Start with two basic teaching tools: That life is a sacred gift from God. And that the family is the primary social unit and what happens within it is of great social consequence. Hang onto these ideas as you reflect on the history below, which demonstrates the evolution of these principles in regard to contraception.

Until the 20th century, the church viewed procreation as the sole meaning of sexual activity. Sex designed to prevent a life, therefore, was an obvious contradiction of its meaning. Ethicist James Hanigan identifies six developments that made this perspective less obvious to many. First, 18th-century biology studied the human reproductive system well enough to prevent pregnancies artificially. Next, sociology pointed to a population explosion in a world with limited resources. Third, political valuing of the dignity of the person as a free chooser rose in the social consciousness. Fourth, as family farms gave way to factories, economic burdens increased with the number of children. Fifth, the contemporary recognition of women as full persons led to aspirations beyond traditional roles. Finally, a reappraisal of the significance of sexuality in human identity led to an acceptance of the unitive meaning of sexual activity.

Modern popes have shown a desire to acknowledge these factors while not abandoning fundamental teachings about life and family. In 1965, the unitive value of intercourse was embraced along with its procreative meaning in Catholic teaching. The right and duty of couples to responsibly limit the size of their families was accepted; a distinction was drawn between natural and artificial means of doing so. Pope Francis reiterated this teaching in 2015, noting Catholics weren’t compelled “to breed like rabbits.” Exceptions regarding the use of artificial contraception have been introduced three times: in the 1960s, Pope Paul VI approved birth control for religious sisters exposed to the risk of rape in the Belgian Congo. In 2010, Benedict XVI noted that condoms used by prostitutes to prevent the spread of AIDS could be seen as a moral choice. In 2016, Pope Francis cited Benedict’s teaching in declaring that women endangered by the Zika virus might use birth control as a responsible choice.

Church teaching in 2016 illustrates how popes are still listening and nuancing: “The just way for family planning is that of a consensual dialogue between the spouses, respect for the times of fertility and consideration of the dignity of the partner.” (Amoris Laetitia #63) 

Scriptures: Genesis 1:27-28; 2:18-24; Ruth; Song of Songs; Ephesians 5:25-32 

Books: Just Ministry: Professional Ethics for Pastoral Ministers – Richard Gula (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2010)

Theology of the Body for Beginners: A Basic introduction to Pope John II’s Sexual Revolution – Christopher West (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2009)

What are Catholics to believe about the Antichrist?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 21, October 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

Fires of hell
Technically Antichrist is not a proper name, but rather the description of any power in the universe opposing God’s anointed (hence, anti-Christ).

Antichrist is a term found only in the first two Letters of John in the New Testament. Technically it’s not a proper name, but rather the description of any power in the universe opposing God’s anointed (hence, anti-Christ).

The Book of Daniel contains earlier biblical references to an apocalyptic monster known as the fourth beast. This terrifying creature appears in direct opposition to “one like a son of man”—a human being who is God’s special champion. The Book of Revelation later retrieves the son-of-man figure and identifies him with Christ. This pits Christ against the beast of Revelation associated with the number 666. This beast is clearly anti-Christ, though the term isn’t employed in either context.

Other references both in and out of the New Testament are corralled into the Antichrist category: Belial or Beliar, Gog and Magog, the ruler of this world, the lawless one, the deceiver. Some would include Old Testament anti-God figures such as Rahab the dragon, Leviathan the sea monster, or the Satan who plays adversary in God’s court. All are allusions to figures sufficiently arrogant to challenge the purposes of God. The Antichrist litmus test in John’s letters is unwillingness to pledge belief in God and Christ “in the flesh.” This test is directed at Gnostics, who viewed Jesus as a sort of divine mirage, not a human being. To John, anyone in the Gnostic camp is anti-Christ.

Paul warns against a “man of lawlessness” who would claim to be divine. Christians throughout history have deemed this figure THE Antichrist and have pointed him out in their own generations: Nero, Caligula, Arius and his followers. Martin Luther viewed the papacy as a likely candidate for the Antichrist. He wasn’t the first: as early as the 13th century, Catholics themselves wondered if popes such as John XII didn’t fit the bill.        

The notion of Antichrist became useful to medieval preachers, who rightly declared every sinner contains a spirit that counters Christ. Literature of the period drummed up backstory for the Antichrist: born of a human couple by demonic power, his biography is a mirror-image mockery of the story of Jesus complete with counterfeit miracles. Movies like “The Omen” play on this idea that a child will arrive at the end of time and inaugurate the full horrors of Revelation. Most Catholic scholars would say there’s no need to wait. A spirit in contradiction to Christ inhabits every generation. 

Scriptures: Isaiah 51:9; Pss 74:13-14; 89:11; Job 1:6-12; 26:12; Daniel 7; 8:23-25; 9:27; Mark 13:22; Matthew 24:24; John 12:31; 2 Corinthians 6:15; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-10; 1 John 2:18-23; 4:3; 2 John 7-11; Revelation 13:1-18; 20:8

Books: Who Is Satan? According to the Scriptures – Joseph F. Kelly (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2013)

Sacra Pagina; 1, 2, and 3 John – John Painter (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016)

How is it determined that someone is a saint?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 11, September 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints
Mother Teresa
The common thread in all of these saintly lives is that they were lights along the way to Christ for others to follow.

Canonization, the process of adding a name to the canon of saints, has been a formal procedure in the church since the 13th century. Informally, the church has noted saints (“holy ones”) since the first generation, when such recognition was given to martyrs. Those who died for belonging to Christ, even if flawed individuals, earned the claim of “no greater love” since they did indeed “lay down their life for a friend.”

Sainthood was soon extended to confessors: those who defended and suffered for the faith even if not murdered for it. The category opened next for those who gave their testimony in lives of austerity and penance—living martyrs known as white martyrs in contrast to those defined by the color of their blood. Those who taught Christian doctrine with insightful new clarity—doctors of the church—were admitted to the circle of sanctity, along with evangelists and models of heroic virtue who spread the faith by word or deed. A reputation for miracles never hurt.

The common thread in all of these saintly lives is that they were lights along the way to Christ for others to follow. Their lives “corresponded with grace,” as James McGrath puts it, as if grace were a lifelong dancing partner with whom they came to share perfect synchronicity.

The process discerning that synchronicity has gone through various phases. Originally a saint was simply locally declared as such. Needless to say, unsubstantiated accounts of largely or entirely fictitious lives worked their way into the canon: Saint Christopher medals, anyone? Saint George fought a dragon? Church authorities began intervening in the process in the 6th century, but the first papal paperwork to be filed on a saint was for Saint Udalricus, a German bishop, in 973. It wasn’t until 1738 that Pope Benedict XIV wrote a treatise on the proper way to discern and attest to sainthood. His guidelines became part of canon law and were observed until the revised Code of Canon Law in 1983.

Church teaching is cautious in its claims about the saintly canon. It reminds us the church doesn’t make saints: God does. The church, through the work of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, simply acts to lift up some of these holy lives to the world for contemplation and imitation. Saints can intercede for the world as well. They’re useful lives on both sides of eternity.

Scripture: Matthew 27:51-53; John 15:12-17; Ephesians 4:11-24; Philippians 1:9-11; 2:13-16; 3:12-14, 20

Books: Saints: Men and Women of Exceptional Faith – Jacques Duquesne (Paris, France: Flammarion, SA, 2012)

Making Sense Of Saints: Fascinating Facts About Relics, Patrons, Saint-Making, and More – Patricia Ann Kasten (Huntingdon, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2014)

What can we expect from the Vatican Commission on women deacons?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 11, September 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Church History,Clergy
Women of the early church
What’s at stake: not the idea that women might have been deacons once upon a time. We already know they were.

The Commission was formed to address a question Pope Francis frankly admits he doesn’t have the answer to: can women be deacons? What the Commission will do is study the history of female deacons in the church. What it won’t do is determine what the Pope will do with the information. As some will recall from 20th-century study commissions on birth control and women’s ordination to the priesthood, popes are free to reject the findings of such commissions and go their own way. The guy in Peter’s Chair gets to make the call.

Which is not to say the appointment of this commission is unimportant. Earlier popes, including most recently John Paul II, not only rejected ordained ministry for women at any level: John Paul emphatically said the church has no authority to ordain women. By calling a commission together, Francis suggests that the church may find such authority buried in historical precedent.

What’s at stake: not the idea that women might have been deacons once upon a time. We already know they were. The record is clear, from Paul’s letters to church history, that the church employed female deacons as early as the year 55. Paul calls Phoebe a deacon (not deaconess) in Romans 16:1. In 1 Timothy 3:8-12, after a description of what makes for a good male candidate for diaconate, the letter states: “Women, similarly, should be dignified ... temperate and faithful … .” The next sentence continues the description of the ideal deacon. It’s evident both male and female candidates made viable deacons.

What the Commission will seek to determine is whether women deacons were “ordained” or “installed” to their office. It makes a difference to the sacramental character, if any, of their service. Here, lines are drawn in the sand. Some scholars insist the rites of diaconate for men and women were identical as evidenced by existing materials. Others disagree. Still others say it doesn’t matter whether the rites were the same; what matters is how they were understood. The differences in service rendered by male and female deacons are less clear to some scholars. Others question whether past practice must dictate present needs. A bishop was once required to be “the husband of one wife,” according to 1 Timothy 3:2. That’s no longer true. The church evolves. For the moment, it’s up to Francis: is it time for the church to restore the women’s diaconate? And how?

Scriptures: Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:2, 8-12

Books: A New Phoebe: Perspectives on Roman Catholic Women and the Permanent Diaconate – ed. Virginia K. Ratigan and Arlene A. Swidler (Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1990)

Women in Ministry: Emerging Questions about the Diaconate – Phyllis Zagano (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012)

Women Deacons? Essays With Answers – Yves Congar, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016)

Is the Bible infallible?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 03, August 2016 Categories: Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs
Is the Bible infallible?
Biblical truth is sometimes a matter of historical record, but always a matter of revelation.

The reliability of Scripture is an important issue. Let’s start with a basic Catholic position: The Bible is true. And some of it really happened. In other words, our understanding of Scripture has to address not only whether it’s true but how it’s true. Biblical truth is sometimes a matter of historical record, but always a matter of revelation. These texts were produced to impart the lived tradition of believers. If you trust in the God of Israel and commit to the way of Jesus, the Bible is a primary means of exploring the truths of your faith.

Does this imply that the Bible contains no mistakes? Obviously, ahistorical sections won’t necessarily square with “the facts” as we appreciate them archaeologically. Plus the Bible’s pre-scientific origins frequently betray a sense of the world we moderns flatly reject. The ancients’ lack of concern with historical method and complete innocence of scientific principles place sacred texts like Scripture in the category of mythos, or “higher truth.” This creates a dilemma for modern folk, who rely on science to “tell us the truth” about reality. Our ancestors used storytelling to convey what’s genuine and reliable.

Should we expect discrepancies between the cultural and scientific sophistication of writers who lived 2,500 years ago and today? Absolutely! Nonetheless, antique perceptions of the world don’t jeopardize the sacred writers’ transformative revelation: that God is creator, redeemer, and sanctifier of us all.

Vatican II explained the Bible’s validity in this way: "The books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures" (Dei Verbum, 11). This careful statement underscores that the truth we need for our ultimate rescue from sin and death is entirely and safely transmitted by these sacred stories.

Catholics view Scripture as a collaboration between inspired authors and the Holy Spirit. Wherever human beings are involved, naturally, human limitation can’t be far behind. Early church fathers such as Origen and Augustine accepted biblical inaccuracies and literary exaggerations as a natural feature of God’s full partnership with the sacred authors. Thomas Aquinas accepted “something imperfect” in any prophetic work for the same reason. Acknowledging pre-scientific miscalls and literary license is a far cry from insisting the Bible must either be inerrant or bogus. For believers, truth is bigger than history or science.

Scripture: Baruch 3:36-37;John 1:1-3, 14; 14:6; 20:30-31; Romans 1:19-20;2 Corinthians 4:6; Ephesians 1:9-10; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-2; 2 Peter 1:19-21; 3:15-16

Books: The Inspiration and Truth of Sacred Scripture – Pontifical Biblical Commission (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014); Biblical Fundamentalism: What Every Catholic Should Know – Ronald Witherup, PSS (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001)

Can Catholics practice yoga?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 05, July 2016 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality,Doctrines & Beliefs


Full disclosure: I’ve been taking yoga classes on and off (mostly off) for 30 years. Fuller disclosure: I’m lazy and this is the closest to exercise I’ve ever come. So I admit I’m stunned whenever the suitability of yoga for Christians comes up. My first yoga teacher from 30 years ago is today a well-respected Catholic priest. My current teacher is a devout Russian Orthodox woman whose 40-day fast during Lent put my wobbly lenten observance to shame.

Those who are suspicious of yoga quote the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue’s document: Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life. This text considers New Age beliefs in a discerningly critical light, and I agree with its principles. As a catechist I don't espouse New Age religion, and as a former librarian I know quite a bit about how flakey and narcissistic New Age teachings can be. Religion loses something vital when reduced to a spiritual selfie. On the God quest, God necessarily displaces the ego as the center of meaning and authority.

The anxiety about yoga seems to reside in its origins in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jainist spiritual practice. Nobody seems anxious that the Olympic Games began as a religious festival honoring the Greek god Zeus. Catholics who borrow the Sedar celebration from Judaism during Lent don’t fret about whose faith it properly belongs to. Contemplation is a prayer form that Thomas Merton shared with Buddhists with no apparent harm done.

Is yoga a valid form of prayer for Christians? The Catechism of the Catholic Church (especially #2697-2719 on "The Life of Prayer") offers a good understanding of what Christian prayer is and is not. So, while many fishermen, mountain climbers, and camping enthusiasts tell me they find God in these activities, the Catechism makes it clear that the experience of physical fitness and enjoying nature, while good in themselves, are not the same thing as praying or worship. This means Sunday morning is for Mass; put on your running shoes later.

A distinction might be drawn between restless Catholics who go to ashrams to explore alternative spiritualities to their faith, and folks who do yoga or tai chi at the gym for the exercise. I go to church to express my Catholic Christian relationship with God. When I leave church, I seek to bring the encounter with God everywhere I go. To the laundromat, the grocery store, and yes, to the gym.

Scripture: 2 Samuel 6:14-15; John 8:31-32; Romans 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Books: Prayer of Heart and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice – Thomas Ryan, CSP (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001); Holy Goals for Body and Soul: Eight Steps to Connect Sports with God and Faith – Bishop Thomas Paprocki (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria, 2013)

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Where can Mass be celebrated?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 05, July 2016 Categories: Sacraments,Liturgy,Doctrines & Beliefs
Saint Ita Catholic Church in Chicago

The Eucharistic celebration is called “the source and summit” of our faith—both the origin and epitome of what we believe—in church documents. The Table of the Lord, AKA the altar, is at the center of our lives as Catholic Christians. Everything we do emanates from that starting point.

So where that celebration takes place is of no small consideration. According to the General Instructions for the Roman Missal (GIRM 288), the People of God normally gather in a church. When the local building is too small for the assembly, as for a papal Mass, another “respectable” setting (auditorium or stadium) can be employed. Another lovely provision is this: “sacred buildings and requisites for divine worship should be truly worthy and beautiful and be signs and symbols of heavenly realities.” So all that floor polishing and statue dusting my mother does in her home parish with her friends is canonically approved.

Canon Law (n. 932) specifies that Mass is to be celebrated on a dedicated or blessed altar, as well as in a sacred place—unless “necessity requires otherwise.” Necessity has made the hood of a Jeep into an altar in wartime; wooden pallets or crates can be fashioned into a vineyard altar for farm workers; a hut can serve as a chapel in mission lands. In lands where Mass is prohibited, the celebration can be held in hidden places like mines, caves, or tents. Leading youth groups on hikes, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla (Saint John Paul II) celebrated Eucharist on a flat boulder in the woods. In any setting, the traditional cloth and corporal should be used to designate the table or surface commandeered for divine service.

Here’s a surprise: When the cause is just and with proper approvals, a priest can also celebrate Mass in an ecclesial community or church structure that is not in full communion with the Catholic Church “so long as there is no scandal.” (n. 933) The aforementioned scandal might include the confusion that results if some did not appreciate the difference between, say, the Lutheran host church and the Roman Catholic liturgy being offered. Such time-shares are often necessary when a Catholic church has been damaged or destroyed by natural disaster, terrorist attack, or military forces. The bottom line is that sacred space with an attention to beauty and respectful worship is the norm for Mass. But even more important than the venue is the necessity to make the Eucharist available to all under every circumstance.

Scripture: Mark 14:22-24; Luke 21:5-6; 2 Corinthians 4:7-11; 5:1; 1 Peter 2:4-6

Books: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011); The Liturgical Environment: What the Documents Say – Mark G. Boyer (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015); The Ministry of Liturgical Environment – Joyce Ann Zimmerman (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016)

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I've been told Catholic devotion to saints contradicts what the Bible says about graven images.

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 15, June 2016 Categories: Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Golden calf

Let's talk about that. Someone knocks on your door and presents you with some Bible passages: Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 5:8-10. They advise you to take down your Madonna and Child statue and to stop wearing your St. Anthony medal. Does the Bible view these objects as dangerous or even blasphemous?

In the first of the Ten Commandments, the passage reads: "You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them." This command has been interpreted in Orthodox Judaism as a complete ban on image-making, even in art. Muslims also ban images of any living creatures, although the Qur'an does not. Protestant founders John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli forbade the use of religious images specifically. Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists view religious statues, stained glass images, and icons as blasphemous. This battle has been actively engaged at many points in church history. Churches have been destroyed, windows smashed, art burned because some saw such images as contradicting the First Commandment.

Iconoclasm, as image-busting is called, is not just a religious phenomenon. In the ancient world, smashing the statues of a previous ruler was often a political maneuver more than a religious reform. When modern terrorist groups destroy religious artifacts that are also culturally significant sites, it's unclear whether the destruction is about restoring religious purity or asserting control.

Biblically, Moses did destroy the Golden Calf permitted by his priest brother because it imitated religious practices that predated the religious movement Moses was attempting to establish. But later, Moses commands that a bronze serpent be made to heal the people—a beneficial image, but still an image. Still later, King Hezekiah will have the bronze serpent destroyed because the people have begun to worship it. The message is clear: it's not art that God doesn't like. It's the use of idols that limit the idea of divinity or divert a believer's fidelity away from the one God of Israel.

I've rarely met a Catholic in danger of idolatry in relationship to images of the Sacred Heart or devotion to a patron saint. If religious images assist you in prayer or widen your appreciation of divine mysteries, then use them. If they interfere with or narrowly define your sense of wonder, let them go.

Scriptures: Exodus 20:4-6; 32:1-35; Leviticus 26:1; Numbers 21:9; Deuteronomy 4:15-24; 5:6-10; 1 Kings 12:26-31; 2 Kings 18:4; Isaiah 40:18-20; 44:9-20;  Jeremiah 10:1-15

Books: The Laws of Yahweh: A Handbook of Biblical Law - William J. Doorly  (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002)

Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction - Lawrence Boadt  (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012)

Where in the Bible does it say Jesus' birthday is December 25th?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 02, June 2016 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

You won't find a biblical text verifying the date of the birth of Jesus. December 25th has a 1-in-365 chance of being the historical date. It's simply the liturgical date the church settled on to celebrate Incarnation, the mystery of God-made-flesh, officially called the Nativity. We have no idea what time of year Jesus was born. There are debates about what the actual year may have been. Because of calendar anomalies like leap years and other early errors made in the Gregorian calculations that established the Western calendar, the year Zero isn't an accurate starting point for the life of Jesus. Scholarly speculations generally include a range between what we call 7 B.C. to 4 B.C.

December 25th wasn't immediately selected for the celebration of the Nativity. Early Christian observances had strong Jewish roots. For example, they utilized the Jewish calendar in Sabbath observance, shifting allegiance early from the last day of the week to the first to honor the resurrection day. The original Christian feast was therefore Sunday, when Eucharist was celebrated. Easter became the first annual Christian liturgical season to be put in place universally, fixed as it was to the Jewish observance of Passover. It soon grew to a constellation of before-and-after observances, including an entire preparatory season (Lent).

 As the church expanded into the Hellenistic world, feast days were added, typically wedded to whatever local civil calendars were in operation at the time. The Nativity was the second universally popular observance, developing its own preparatory season (Advent), but the length of the season varied and even the date wasn't uniform.  The Western Church chose December 25th to coordinate with the already popular secular celebration of the Winter Solstice, when days began to lengthen with the sun's annual return and winter darkness was conquered by light. The solstice made a useful pairing and natural catechetical tool in declaring the arrival of Jesus, the light of the world, vanquishing the darkness of sin and death.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Church celebrated the Nativity on January 6th, now the feast of Epiphany in the Western Church. These dates were never intended to imply historical accuracy, but rather a theological reality to be recalled and honored. The liturgical calendar focuses on uniting the universal church in commemorating the birth, life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus as cosmic realities, not past occurrences.

Scriptures: Isaiah 9:1; John 1:3-5, 9; 3:19-21: 8:12; 9:5; 12:35-36, 46

Books: The Origins of Christmas - Joseph F. Kelly(Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014)

The Feast of Christmas - Joseph F. Kelly (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press,  2010)

Is Jesus truly the Son of God or is it just a story?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Sunday 15, May 2016 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

This question hinges on the term "Son of God," which sounds simple but is actually theologically dense. "Just a story," of course, implies the alternative to claiming Jesus as God's Son is to admit it's a false identification. I should probably say up front that, for Christians, Jesus is truly the Son of God. It's fundamental to our faith that Jesus is the divine Son. But we further embrace that Jesus enjoys a dual nature: born of a woman and therefore truly human; yet with origins in God and therefore truly divine. Fully human, AND fully divine. Jesus is both, Christians say. To claim him as one or the other—as merely an exemplary mortal, or a divinity who presents a brief human mirage—is to express any number of heresies recorded in church history.

If you accept Jesus is the Son of God, what are you saying? In the Old Testament, son of God was a title used to describe heavenly beings altogether: angels or superhuman creatures sent to enact the divine will. In ancient Hebrew idiom, the word "son" implied membership in a species: so "son of God" suggested a being of a celestial subset none too specifically parsed. Please note: the nation Israel was also identified as God's son. The covenant bond made Israel an adopted child of God. Israel's identity as son of God was not, however, equivalent to other nation's identification of their leaders as divine sons, as the Pharaoh of Egypt was considered to be. For Israel, it was a designation of relationship, not substance or essence.

In the New Testament, Son of God is applied to Jesus 31 times in Matthew, Mark and Luke's gospels, and 23 times in John's, where it is the preferred title.  The NT letters employ the term 42 times. Clearly the first generations of the church found this title key to their understanding of Jesus' identity. They didn't limit it to the definition implied by OT usage, nor to the title's meaning in Greek culture: that of a hero, king, or demigod. For early Christians, "Son of God" became a unique category for Jesus. While we are all "children of God," Jesus is "Son of God" in a way no one has been or will be. More than a statement of relationship or location with the celestial ranks, Jesus shares God's very substance (is "consubstantial," in the Creed) and cannot be known apart from this essential unity.

Scriptures: Genesis 6:2; Pss 29:1, 89:7; Job 1:6; 38:7; Exodus 4:22-23;Deuteronomy 14:1-2; 32:19; Isaiah 1:2; 43:6; Jeremiah 31:9, 20; Hosea 2:1;     11:1; Mathew 3:17; 16:16; John 1:34; 11:27; Romans 5:10; Galatians 4:4-7
Books: God: Three Who Are One - Joseph Bracken, SJ (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008)
What Are They Saying About the Historical Jesus? - David Gowler (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007)

If you're married, is it still possible to become a priest? If yes, what are the steps needed?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 11, May 2016 Categories: Clergy,Doctrines & Beliefs
Priest kissing baby

If you're a Roman Catholic male, this is a thorny issue with no clear solution in 2016. But the surprising truth is, the answer is not exactly no for others. Consider: the 1965 Vatican II Decree on Priestly Ministry and Life, states that "(Celibacy) is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood, as is apparent from the practice of the early Church and from the traditions of the Eastern Churches where . . . there are also married priests of highest merit." (no. 16) While this statement appears in a section on the gift of celibacy, it opens a door to other priestly possibilities.

Celibacy was practiced by many priests from early in the church’s history. However, at the Second Lateran Council of 1139, a rule was adopted forbidding married priests in the Roman church. The Council of Trent reaffirmed the tradition of priestly celibacy in 1563. A married clergy in the Roman tradition seemed a closed issue.

Then in 1951, Pope Pius XII permitted some married Lutheran clergy in Germany and Sweden to be ordained Catholic priests. In 1967, Pope Paul VI called for a study of the effectiveness of married ministers in other denominations. He entertained the possibility of admitting to the priesthood married ministers received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI allowed married Episcopal and Anglican clergy to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church under certain circumstances.

Today, around 200 married Catholic priests from other communions serve in the U.S. clergy. In order to ordain such a candidate, a bishop must appeal to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The petition for a "dispensation from the impediment of marriage" can only be granted by the pope.

In February of 2015, Pope Francis addressed priests in Rome, noting the question of married priests “is on my agenda.” Asked whether priests who had left to be married could receive a dispensation to celebrate Mass, the pope replied that the Congregation for Clergy was looking into it, but “it is a problem that does not have an easy solution.” The problem is not Scriptural, since the prophet Jeremiah was the only person in the Bible obliged to celibacy. Historical practice and a rich spiritual tradition have made priestly celibacy seem inevitable. But a door once slammed shut seems to be opened just a crack in recent times.

Scripture: Jeremiah 16:1-4; Matthew 19:12; Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9    
Books: Accompanied By a Believing Wife: Ministry and Celibacy in the Earliest Christian Communities - Raymond F. Collins (Liturgical Press, 2013)
The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological     Foundations - Alfons M. Stickler (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995)

What's a halo, really?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 11, April 2016 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Virgen de Gudalupe

Technically, it's a visible depiction of an otherwise intangible characteristic: glory. In biblical stories, glory describes the "shine" of God, an emanation of light so powerful, it "afflicts" Moses, who's the one human being routinely standing close to God in the Old Testament. When Moses enters the Tent of the Presence, he comes out with an unbearable brightness in his face that requires him to veil himself. Either Moses is protecting the vestige of God's glory from being viewed by profane onlookers, or protecting the unprepared onlooker from a potentially dangerous contact with divinity's afterglow. As we know from other stories, unworthy contact with holy things can kill you. The tribe of Levi was dedicated to God as the only Israelites allowed to touch, tend, or transport utensils and objects used in ritual sacrifices for this reason. They made a living out of keeping themselves pure enough to perform their duties.

The Greeks also imagined sunbursts emanating from Helios, their sun god. Pharaohs of Egypt wear a crown of light in some depictions. It makes sense that Christians would employ the halo when portraying Christ, later extending the usage to angels and finally to saints. Jesus and Mary alone are honored with full body haloes, called aureoles—the most familiar of which surrounds the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Most saints are portrayed with round haloes in the West, which can be thin circlets of gold or full discs of yellow. The circle is a perfect form, which hints at heavenly perfection. Some artistic renderings utilized a square halo when depicting a still living person who is revered: the square is an earthly, less perfect geometric form recalling the four elements, winds, or directions. A triangular halo is reserved for the less common depiction of God the Father, to recall the Triune nature of the divine. Very occasionally, Jesus will wear the triangular halo for the same reason. Jesus is the only icon who is permitted to be defined by the cruciform halo.

Sometimes anthropomorphic images of the Virtues—theological virtues like Faith, Hope, and Love, or the cardinal virtues Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance—will wear hexagonal haloes, to remind us they are attributes of God. So altogether, we conclude that the "shine" on a person or thing speaks to us of their nearness to God or their out-and-out resemblance to the divine. We should all be working on our shine!

Scriptures: Exodus 33:7-23; 34:27-35; Numbers 1:49-54; 1 Samuel chs. 4—6; 2    Samuel 6:1-19; 1 Kings 8:10-11; 1 Chronicles 23:25-32

Books: The Square Halo and Other Mysteries of Western Art - Sally Fisher (New York: Harry N. Abrahms, Inc., 1995).

Saints and the Symbols: Recognizing Saints in Art and in Popular Images -Fernando and Giolia Lanzi (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004).

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Is the parish expected to give the pastor and secretary a bonus at Christmas?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 14, March 2016 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs

Full disclosure: I was a parish secretary, so I have a personal investment in this question. "Expected" is a telling word in your query. Since a bonus is a gift, and a gift is not obligatory, the short answer is no. The parish isn't obliged to offer a gift to anyone at Christmas or at other times.

But does that absolve the parish from considering doing so? Canonically speaking, church law says this: "The Christian faithful are obliged to assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for apostolic works and works of charity, and for the decent sustenance of ministers." (Canon 222—my emphasis. See also c. 231 and 1286 regarding the same for lay workers.) Unless things have changed drastically since I sat at the front desk, I can assure you parish staff members are not lavishly compensated for their labor. Many are glorified volunteers, work part-time without benefits, or accept modest salaries for the privilege of serving the parish. While service is its own reward in many ways, justice requires that folks can make a livelihood and provide for their families. 

Many dioceses have a recommended pay scale as a standard for positions across their parishes. Such a rate can be modest according to the means of a wealthy parish and still entirely out of the question in a poorer one. To make up for the lack of parity, many pastors offer other forms of compensation to make a parish position more appealing: say, more personal time off, or flexible hours. A bonus at Christmas or after a special assignment is another way to let your staff know they're appreciated. I remember spending a month redrawing the map of the parish cemetery, locating graves long obscured or lost. I received a bonus for this, since the cemetery beat wasn't normally a part of my job description. I would have done it anyway when asked.  But it was nice to go home with that extra check.

Most of us in parish work appreciate this isn't Wall Street. We're not here to make a killing. The diocesan priest salary is measly compared to any other professional career scale. While I'd look twice if the pastor gives himself bonuses without oversight, once the finance council clears it, that's enough for me. As for most parish secretaries, who are the backbone of parish life, I'd say give them a bonus. And flowers on Valentine's Day. And take them to dinner on their birthdays....

Scripture: Deuteronomy 25:4; 1 Corinthians 9:9-12; Matt 10:9-10; Luke 10:7;  1 Timothy 5:17-18

Books: The Laborer is Worthy of His Hire: A Survey of Priestly Compensation in the Roman Catholic Dioceses of the United States - William P. Daley (National Federation of Priests' Councils, 1999)

Catholic Parish Administration: A Handbook - Paul F. Peri (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012)


Is it necessary to attend Mass on Sunday? I can't go to church because of my job. What should I do?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 13, February 2016 Categories: Liturgy,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Priest with parish

Attendance at Sunday Eucharist is one of the most solemn commitments in the life of a Catholic Christian. The 1983 Code of Canon Law states: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.” (canon 1247)

This obligation is naturally suspended in time of illness, or when there is no means of satisfying the obligation, as when traveling through territory in which there is no opportunity to attend Mass.

It should be noted that "Sunday Mass" also includes the celebration of Eucharist on Saturday evening. "Sunday" in secular culture follows a morning-to-evening definition of the day. The biblical day is counted from one evening to the next. (See the repeated usage starting in Genesis 1: 5— "Evening came, and morning followed: the first day.") This liturgical appreciation of a day makes possible the fulfillment of the Sunday obligation by attending Mass on Saturday evening. In most dioceses, opportunities to attend Sunday Mass extend from around 4:00 pm on Saturday until 5:00 pm on Sunday—even later in contexts like a campus Newman Center where students keep late hours and might more likely attend a 9 or 10 pm liturgy.

It would be rare for a person to have a regular work schedule that extends for 24 hours from Saturday evening to Sunday evening.

Canon law does provide for circumstances in which Eucharist is simply unavailable, as in the absence of ordained clergy. Canon 1248 says: “If participation in the eucharistic celebration becomes impossible because of the absence of a sacred minister or for another grave cause, it is strongly recommended that the faithful take part in a liturgy of the word if such a liturgy is celebrated in a parish church or other sacred place according to the prescripts of the diocesan bishop or that they devote themselves to prayer for a suitable time alone, as a family, or, as the occasion permits, in groups of families.”

A local pastor has the authority to judge particular cases and grant dispensation from the obligation of participating in Sunday Mass (canon 1245). When there is truly no opportunity to participate, there is no obligation. At the same time, a faithful Catholic might seriously consider a vocational or geographic context in which he or she never has the opportunity to participate in Sunday Mass.

Scripture: Exod 16:22-30; 20:8-11; Deut 5:12-15; 1 Cor 11:23-26

Books: Sunday Mass: Our Role and Why It Matters - Anne Y. Koester (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007)

Mass on Sunday: And Other Ways of Being Catholic - Charles E. Miller (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004

Can Catholics be cremated?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 03, February 2016 Categories: Liturgy,Doctrines & Beliefs
Urn and flowers

The teaching on cremation is one more evidence that Catholic traditions evolve in time, responsive to both external circumstances and internally developing theological understanding. Cremation—the reduction of a dead body to ashes through burning—has been a commonly accepted form of body disposal in many cultures, including the Greco-Roman world from which Christianity emerged. The utility of the practice is evident in that ashes require little space for deposition where land is scarce. Cremation also prevents the spread of disease during epidemics. Yet Christians traditionally avoided the practice. One reason was Christian reverence for the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.  Another was  the teaching on the resurrection of the body. A third concern was the many non-Christian ideologies frequently attached to the act in some cultures. Catholics in particular were forbidden to cremate their dead except when public necessity intervened—as with epidemics or natural disasters when the death tolls were great. The ashes of those who were cremated were not permitted to be buried in consecrated ground, as in a Catholic cemetery.

 When the 1983 Code of Canon Law was introduced, the restriction against cremation was lifted. The new Code still "earnestly recommends" burial of the body as the preferable option. Yet unless the intent is to deliberately contradict Christian teaching on the resurrection by its practice (canon 1176.3), cremation is now permissible, especially where land resources make it more feasible than burial.  I've personally known several devout Catholics who held fast to the hope of resurrection yet nonetheless requested cremation after death because of the exorbitant cost of modern burials and a concern that surviving family members would be obliged to absorb the debt.

 The Order of Christian Funerals published in 1989 contains instructions for the funeral rite when a body is not present for the service, as well as prayers for the interment of ashes. In the end, the funeral rites are meant for the "spiritual assistance" of the departed and to honor them, while bringing "the solace of hope to the living." If these ends can be accomplished with cremains, there is no impediment. 

Scripture: Gen 23:1-20; Deut 28:26; Jer 7:32-33; Matt 27:57-60; Luke 23:50-53; John 11:33-44; 19:38-41; Acts 9:36-41

Books: Honoring the Dead: Catholics and Cremation Today - H. Richard Rutherford, CSC (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000)

Order of Funerals Appendix Cremation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997)

Is it a sin to eat meat on Fridays during Lent or just a suggestion?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 13, January 2016 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

As early as the 2nd century, the Didache notes the practice of abstaining from meat on all Fridays of the year as a penitential observance recalling the crucifixion. There is no corresponding insistence on eating fish. (Some members of my family consider seafood a form of poison, so not everyone shares your enthusiasm for it.) It was Pope Nicholas I (9th c.) who made this practice binding under pain of mortal sin—and not because his family owned a fish market, as is sometimes suggested. Pope Innocent III (12th c.) made an exception for when Christmas falls on a Friday.

Thomas Aquinas considered meat, milk, and eggs all foods that incite desire. Fasting and abstinence were meant to bridle "the concupiscences of the flesh, which regard pleasures of touch in connection with food and sex.” Vegans might find incidental common cause with this doctor of the church.

It wasn't until 1966 that Pope Paul VI advised local church officials to modify the abstinence rule as they saw fit. That same year, U.S. Bishops issued the Pastoral Statement On Penance And Abstinence allowing a substitution of some other form of penance in place of abstinence on all Fridays except for those that occur in Lent. However, persons in good health between the ages of 14 and 59 must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and lenten Fridays.

Some bishops or pastors make exceptions for St. Patrick's and/or St. Joseph's Day when they fall on lenten Fridays. In 2012, the U.S. bishops reconsidered reinstituting abstinence for all Fridays of the year, but preferred to make it optional to abstain on Friday for the intentions of life, marriage, and religious liberty. In 2010 the bishop of New Orleans reclassified alligator as a non-meat item on the menu.

The practice of abstinence from meat is intended as a penitential practice. Obviously, if you're wild about fish, that may not be the best substitution with which to observe the sacrifice. While fish, lobster and other shellfish are not categorized as meat and can be consumed without violating abstinence, indulging in a seafood buffet isn't in the spirit of a penitential act. 

Scripture: Pss. 69:11; 109:24; Isa 58:3-12; Dan 9:3; Joel 2:12-17; Neh 1:4; 9:1;             Tobit 12:8; Judith 4:13; Esther 4:3; 9:31; Matt 6:16-18; 9:14-15; Lk 2:37; Acts 13:2-3; 14:23

Books: The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity - Paul Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2011)

The Spirituality of Fasting: Rediscovery of a Christian Practice - Charles M.Murphy (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2010)

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) 

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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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)

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)

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)


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)

Why do we "respect life"?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 17, November 2014 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
Second Vatican Council

From the opening pages of our scriptural tradition, we learn that life is a gift from God. Human life is literally animated with the divine breath, imparting a dignity to humanity that is indelible. For this reason, we declare that life is sacred, holy, participating in God's own life at its roots.

In the Bible we also learn that life is a choice, freely and fatefully determined: "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live by loving the LORD...." (Deut 30:19-20) Throughout the generations of the Bible, we come to appreciate that life is so precious to God that God will sustain, heal, and restore it when necessary. Jesus comes into the world as "the way, the truth, and the life," and offers himself as "the bread of life." (Jn 14:6; 6:35) In fact, because life has such significance, God proposes resurrection as the ultimate measure to preserve our lives for eternity.The motto "respect life" originated in the pro-life movement which sprung into action after the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision to legalize abortion in Roe v. Wade. This movement certainly found strong grounding in biblical tradition as well as church history. Its call to honor the human dignity and rights of every person also echoed teachings of the Second Vatican Council like Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the World). Church theologians later broadened the call to respect life by speaking of a "consistent ethic of life" that considers human dignity and rights at both ends of the spectrum and in every circumstance throughout life. This is sometimes referred to as the "seamless garment" ethic, a term popularized by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago.

A consistent ethic of life concerns itself with decisions pertaining to conception and child-bearing, as well as death and dying. It also considers justice issues like poverty, immigration, capital punishment, the conditions of warfare, a living wage, the treatment of workers, racism and prejudice, and any stance that threatens the dignity or rights of a person or group. It would be inconsistent to respect the right of every person to be born, and otherwise to deny certain people rights and dignity once they're among us.

The phrase "respect life" remains popularly associated with the pro-life (anti-abortion) movement. A consistent ethic of respect for the gift of life is not a boutique option for Christians, however, but central to our purpose.

Scriptures: Gen 2:7; Ps 36:10; Ezek 37:1-14; Jn 10:10; Rom 14:7-9; Gal 2:20

Books: The Consistent Ethic of Life - Thomas Nairn, ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008)

The Seamless Garment - Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008)

What is a patron saint?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 07, November 2014 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs
St. Monica

Depending on the name we received at baptism, each of us has a special intercessor or protector in the heavenly communion known as our patron saint. The saint can also, technically, be an angel. But either way, having help on the celestial end of Christian reality is a distinct advantage.

The practice of selecting a patron has early roots in Christianity, as the catacombs make clear. When the mostly-adult converts of the Roman Empire were received into the church through baptism, they often took the names of apostles or early martyrs. The history of a particular patron might figure into the identification one felt with him or her: by manner of occupation, personal suffering shared, or desirable virtue to be emulated.

In time, the patronage of saints was extended to entire nations, professions, illnesses, or other special needs. Also, individual parishes and whole dioceses are given into the patronage of particular saints. In light of these layers of patrons, each of us probably has quite a few celestial personalities to call upon in time of need. 

If you're a United States citizen, you have the patronage of Mary under her title Immaculate Conception. If your home is in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, you have a link to Francis of Assisi as well. Your parish may be St. Gabriel's, so add an angel to your spiritual Rolodex. If you're a lawyer, you can call upon Thomas Moore. If you're a lawyer in San Quentin, you have the attention of Dismas, the "good thief" at Golgotha and patron of prisoners. Trouble with your eyes? Call on St. Lucy. Lose something? St. Anthony is your guy. Have a headache? Teresa of Avila can help. In desperate situations, keep St. Jude Thaddeus especially close. And if you ever get to go fishing again, Andrew the Apostle is at your service. Your baptismal name, or a variant of it, will tell you who your number one patron is.

Some of us have distinctly modern names that don't evoke our Christian ancestry. Families in recent times have unevenly considered the celestial partnership between the communion of saints in this world and the next. Yet in each generation, names tells us we belong somewhere: to this clan, that nationality or society. Some are named for no other purpose than fashion, or to engage a veneer of second-hand celebrity. If you don't seem to have a natural patron, by all means choose one. There are plenty standing by and at your service.


Scripture: significance of naming: Gen 2:19; 3:20; 17:5, 15-16; Exod 3:13-15; Matt 1:23; 16:17-18; Luke 1:59-66

Books: Dictionary of Patron Saints' Names - Thomas Sheehan (Huntingdon, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2001)

This Saint Will Change Your Life - Thomas Craughwell (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2011)

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Why is there a church calendar?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 03, December 2013 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality,Liturgy,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Catholic Church Year
Liturgical Calendar

Calendars are about time and the human need to harness it. Starting in the ancient world religions employed calendars, but you didn’t have to be a Mayan priest or a Stonehenge druid to care when the sun and moon were in this phase or that. You just needed to be a farmer—or to depend on one for your survival.

Ancient Israel’s calendar traced the turn of the seasons and celebrated their influence on the natural world. Sowing was an occasion for intercessory prayer and harvesting the time for praise and thanksgiving: “Those who sow in tears will reap with cries of joy” (Psalm 126:5). The feasts of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Tabernacles were all originally harvest festivals.

Calendars, however, do more than note predictable, cyclical events. They also commemorate significant past events, such as battles won or important goals achieved. So Passover became the ultimate commemoration, remembering the signature victory over Pharaoh’s armies and captivity itself. Hanukkah, a more minor feast, reminisces about another victory regarding religious liberty. It should be noted that none of these events were considered secular occasions, because God was understood to be the source of all movements in the created order.

Christianity, with its roots in Jewish thought and practice, adopted its sense of the sacred character of time from Israelite history. Jesus grounded the meaning of the first Eucharistic ritual in the liberation event of Passover; as a result the celebration of Easter is configured each year with the Jewish Passover, and the entire liturgical year conforms backwards and forwards from that date. The need to embrace the sacred character of all of life’s seasons, both tearful and joyful, remains evident in the longing of Advent, the penitential nature of Lent, and the alleluias of Easter.

The church continues to acknowledge divine victories won over sin and death in both the Incarnation and the Paschal mysteries celebrated at Christmas and Easter. It honors the harvest of the church reaped at Pentecost and the long season dedicated to growth—both seen and unseen—in Ordinary Time.

Today’s religious calendar commemorates mystical events and spiritual victories rather than agrarian events and military battles, but it still assists in harnessing time and organizing it for optimal use. Liturgical cycles help us remember our story and the identity we bear as heirs to this history. It acknowledges the sacred character of time in witnessing to the goodness and faithfulness of God. Most of all it reminds us of the many reasons we have to give thanks.

Leviticus 23; Deuteronomy 16:1-17; Isaiah 9:2; Hosea 8:7; Matthew 13:37-43; John 4:35-38; 1 Corinthians 9:10-11; Revelation 14:15-20

• The Roman Catholic calendar for A.D. 2014

Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God by Bobby Gross (InterVarsity Press)

What is Baptism?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 08, January 2014 Categories: Sacraments,Doctrines & Beliefs

Let's start with a misconception about Baptism: that it's some sort of "blessed insurance" for the afterlife. For the record, the church doesn't teach that baptism gets you into heaven any more than it says it definitively slams the door on those who are not baptized. So, if it doesn't guarantee salvation, what does it do?

Since the earliest generation of the church, baptism was regarded as the rite of membership in the Body of Christ. According to Saint Paul, it makes us one with Christ as surely as it provides us with the indwelling Holy Spirit. The third aspect, in Paul's theology, is that it makes us church. The deep respect the church holds for this sacrament is illustrated most profoundly in the fact that the Catholic Church doesn't re-baptize Protestants who later join in full communion. Once a Christian, you're already "in Christ.”

The sign of water as purifying and healing is older than the New Testament era. In bathing rituals of ancient times, lepers are cleansed (see General Naaman's story in the Book of Numbers) and impurities reversed (after touching the dead or being in contact with blood). Just before the gospel era, Gentile converts were received into Judaism through a process involving circumcision, baptism, and Temple sacrifice. The Jewish sect at Qumran, which we know as the Dead Sea Scrolls gang today, was already insisting that the interior disposition of a person had to change or the ritual was meaningless.

The baptism of John—which John himself admitted awaited a greater "baptism by fire" from "one who is to come"—explicitly added the dimension of repentance to the rite. John's baptism was available to Gentile soldiers as well as Jewish citizens and wasn't intended to make anyone Jewish, much less Christian.

Jesus accepts baptism from John, but not because he needs to repent. Jesus identifies himself with the sin of humanity which John is so anxious to wash away. Just as Jesus embraces human weakness by his baptism, we gain a share in divine strength through this same action. We repent sin and its ancient claim on us (“original sin”). Adults are instructed in the way of faith before receiving the sacrament (through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), just as children are instructed (catechized) after receiving infant baptism. In both instances the conversion of heart, mind, and life are imperative. Baptism inaugurates the journey. The close identification with Christ it anticipates remains the work of a lifetime.

Leviticus 14:8-9; Numbers 19:17-21; Isaiah 1:16-18; Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:4; Acts 1:5; 19:1-6; Romans 6:3-11; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27-29

"Baptism in the New Testament: Origins, Formulas, and Metaphors" by Arland J. Hultgren in Word & World

Baptism (Understanding the Sacraments series) by Lawrence E. Mick (Liturgical Press, 2007)
To Live in Christ—Baptism (Growing in Daily Spirituality series) by Richard Reichert (Paulist Press, 2006)

What is the Roman Catholic view of work?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Thursday 23, January 2014 Categories: Mission & Evangelization,Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs

Consider what we’re doing right now. You want to learn something. I need to earn something. What you learn and I earn in this exchange is good for both of us and by extension for our families and communities and our employers. It honors the dignity of the human need to grow and produce, contribute and participate. In that sense, God, who spent the first six days of the world working and who made us in the divine image, gives us the vocation of work as our contribution to the ongoing creation of the world.

CATHOLIC teaching supports the dignity and
well-being of workers, including their safety.
Credit: GRP Technique & Service, Dresden.

People often think of work as that dreaded something they have to do. The church teaches that work is a human right and also a duty. It’s good for individuals and good for society—that is, it serves the common good. Three conditions are imperative for the dignity of labor: that what is produced is not more important than the person producing it; that work contributes to the unity of society and doesn’t tear it down; and that workers have a say in what they’re doing and the conditions under which they do it.

If that sounds incompatible with certain present economic formulas, that's because it is, or can be. Here church social teaching meets and debates with the marketplace. Since the time of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter Rerum Novarum, Catholic social doctrine has emphasized that economies ruled strictly by supply-and-demand, exalting product-derived wealth over every other consideration, are not compatible with Christian principles. People have obligations to each other: to work hard and honestly and to make their best contribution to their employer, coworkers, and community.

At the same time, the employer has responsibilities, too: for workers’ safety and welfare, to pay a just wage which provides a fair living for employees and their families, and to permit the organization of unions. The state likewise owes the worker legal protections. Workers are not means to an end; rather, their dignity is the end, and that’s safeguarded only when their livelihood is.

Catholic social teaching rejects a pure market standard; insists on a living family wage; questions great compensation disparities between the highest and lowest salaries in an organization; challenges discrimination in hiring and wages; is concerned with workplace conditions; and addresses the right to nonsalary benefits like accessible health care. In Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical On Human Work, written on the 90th anniversary of Rerum Novarum, he examines not only the dilemmas of the modern corporate world of work but also explores the spirituality of work as it enhances shared human life.

Genesis 1:27; 2:1-3; Deuteronomy 24:14-15; Psalm 62:11; Matthew 6:19-21, 24; 20:1-16; Luke 10:7; 12:16-21; 1 Timothy 5:18; 6:8-10, 17-19

On Human Work (Laborem Exercens) by Pope John Paul II

From the Heart of the Church: The Catholic Social Tradition by Sister Judith A. Merkle, S.S.N.deN. (Liturgical Press, 2004)
Spirituality@Work by Gregory F. Augustine Pierce (Loyola Press, 2005)

Is it OK for Christians to be rich?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Saturday 08, February 2014 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality,Doctrines & Beliefs
Stacks of Benjamins

Wealthy folks have told me they reject Christianity categorically because it's a religion for poor people. The gospel, however, is for "all the world," including every zip code. The task for rich Christians is to make sure that the distance between zip codes isn't so vast that the wealthy forget their commitments to the disadvantaged.

The suspicion that the well-to-do aren't welcome among the people of God doesn't come from the Old Testament. In biblical theology prosperity was a key way Israel's God was understood to demonstrate who the righteous were. Even within the ancient "prosperity gospel," however, was an admonition to care for the stranger, widow, and orphan—those most at risk in society. Practices like gleaning leftovers in the fields, community-wide festival days, and jubilee remittance of debts were ways Hebrew society provided for all its members and sought to restore the balance when the gap between haves and have-nots became too wide.

The writing prophets of the 9th through 5th centuries B.C. were very vocal about the plight of the poor and the responsibility of the rich precisely because this balance had not been maintained. The wider the chasm between a society's privileged and needy classes, the louder the prophetic call for justice became.

Jesus does come among us as a poor man without property or high station. Through him God chooses to identify with the vulnerable who also have no place to lay their heads at night. The Gospel of Luke is particularly strident in its reprimands to the wealthy class—an indication that "Theophilus," to whom this gospel is addressed, is a well-heeled Greek or representative of a community of Greeks for whom the urgent call to establish justice is especially appropriate. Stories like that of the rich man who came to Jesus and went away sad; of Zacchaeus who actively cheated his neighbors; or that of the rich man who ignored poor Lazarus to his peril, were alarms intended for Luke's target audience. None of these stories condemn the reality of wealth, but all compel the listener to make better choices.

It's the love of money, not proximity to it, that's defined as the root of all evil. In this sense the poor are just as likely to fall into the idolatry of money as the rich are. If "in God we trust" is really your motto, giving some coins away won't hurt.

Proverbs 29:7, 14; 30:7-9; Sirach 4:1-10; 13:23; 27:1-3; 34:21-22; Amos 6:1-11; Luke 21:1-4; 1 Corinthians 11:18-29; 1 Timothy 6:6-10; James 2:1-13; 5:1-6

Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium

The Moral Measure of the Economy by Chuck Collins and Mary Wright (Orbis Books)
All They Want Is My Money? Tips for Stewardship
by Patricia Rice (Liguori Publications)

Does God get angry?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 01, April 2014 Categories: Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs

Does God have emotions like ours? As God is the great Unseen, it's impossible to guess. What the Bible does reveal is that Jesus, the divine Son, enjoyed the full complement of human feelings while in our human midst. These included love and friendship, pain and fear, amusement and frustration, and certainly anger. The righteous anger of Jesus is demonstrated in several memorable events, like the cleansing of the Temple, the rebuke of Peter with the words "get behind me, Satan!", or the denunciation of the "whitewashed tombs" of the Pharisees and scribes whose religious example was largely hypocrisy.

The Bible does have a lot to say about what we popularly describe as the wrath of God. While it's easy to interpret that as divine outrage, it's properly understood as an expression of divine justice. Because we get even when we get mad, it's not instinctive for us to imagine that God is simply about the business of restoring justice by means of judgment. We're convinced God must be "punishing" us because he's really, really mad. In the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, God's wrath is directed sometimes at the enemies of God's people and sometimes at the people themselves—depending on who's in the wrong. Historical books like Joshua, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah hold plenty of examples of God's wrath, sometimes described as a future "day" when divine debts will be settled.

Job mentions God's wrath nine times; the psalms refer to it 25 times. The theme of divine wrath is developed most powerfully in the prophetic tradition, where it comes up 85 times. Even Isaiah, the prophet of soft themes like “Emmanuel” and the faithful servant, mentions God's wrath 17 times. Meanwhile Ezekiel, who never shrinks from wild expressions, brings up divine wrath 28 times.

Compare these numbers with the gospels, where God's wrath is mentioned exactly four times over four accounts—a dramatic reduction. While Pauline letters return to the wrath theme 15 times, many of those refer to judgment rendered to those who trust in the law, which they cannot hope to fulfill, rather than Christ, who bears the burden for us. Revelation, the big book of judgment, mentions divine wrath a relatively slender 13 times and restoration at least as often. The Wisdom tradition (Proverbs, Sirach, Wisdom) and later writings contain references to wrath, but it's often that of kings, criminals, and family members as much as of God. The biblical bottom line seems to be that God's anger is nothing to worry about. God's justice, however, is a much greater concern.

Exodus 32:10-12; 34:6-7; Joshua 22:20; 1 Samuel 28:18; Isaiah 63:3-6; Matthew 3:7; 16:21-23; 23:13-36; Luke 21:23; John 2:13-25; 3:36

A Faith That Frees: Catholic Matters for the 21st Century by Richard Malloy (Orbis Books)
A Worker Justice Reader, edited by Kim Bobo (Orbis Books)

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Why do we fast?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 07, March 2014 Categories: Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs

Religious Fasting
Why fast? Survival requires us to eat and drink. When we refrain from these most basic activities, it reminds us that "we do not live by bread alone." Fasting provides you with an opportunity to affirm your faith in God's providential care. It's the most direct act of faith you can make.

Fasting as a spiritual practice falls into the category of sacrifice, which has a long biblical tradition. Ancient peoples gave over the first fruits of their harvests and the choicest animals of each herd in seasonal, ritual sacrifices to God. These were sometimes burned, sometimes consumed by the priests (who were landless and had no other source of income), and sometimes shared with the entire community in celebration of the abundance God provides. As in other acts of religious sacrifice, fasting takes something away: in this case, the prerogative to sustain yourself at will. Surrendering this freedom for a predetermined period of time fortifies humility and reminds you of your vulnerability and weakness.

Fasting stirs you to contemplate justice. Many in this world go without food routinely. How might you respond to their need with charity, in service, or by changing systems and choices?

Fasting motivates you to pray in a deeper, richer way. The spirit of humility and the call to almsgiving that self-denial initiates in you enhances your prayer. It removes the barriers of false pride and possessiveness that can diminish prayer or make it superficial. Fasting makes you ready to get real with God.

Nobody enjoys giving up the freedom to eat, even when it's a short-lived preparation for a medical procedure or a voluntary "cleanse" of the body. Because you don't want to do it, it's regarded as a penitential practice. It enables you to enter into solidarity with the sinner as well as your hungry sisters and brothers. Just as you're tempted to break the fast and eat, others are tempted to actions that are personally or communally destructive. Resistance is a symbolic resistance for the sake of those who are led into temptation.

When you think of everything fasting can do—encourage fidelity and humility, awaken the spirit of justice, enhance prayer, assist those who are tempted—the question becomes: why not fast?

Deuteronomy 8:3; 1 Samuel 7:6; 2 Samuel 1:12; Ezra 8:21; Joel 1:14; Jonah 3:5-10; Luke 4:3-4; Acts 9:9

Fasting by Carol Garibaldi Rogers (Sorin Books)
The Spirituality of Fasting: Rediscovering a Christian Practice
by Charles M Murphy (Ave Maria Press)

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Why do we have a Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 24, March 2014 Categories: Sacraments,Doctrines & Beliefs,Liturgy
 RCIA symbols
To those who recall a time before 1988—the year when the church mandated the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults for every parish—the RCIA feels like a new thing Catholics are doing. Actually it's a very old thing the church ceased to do long ago and decided to revive for good reasons.

These days we number seven discreet sacraments: Baptism, Eucharist, Penance, Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick. This list was codified at the 16th-century Council of Trent, when many church practices were enshrined to define Catholicism against its rivals during the Protestant Reformation. Inadvertently that led to a loss of the interconnectedness of all sacramental actions: the relationship between the “healing sacraments,” for example, or the mutual dignity of the “vocation sacraments.” Above all, parsing distinct sacramental theologies broke the integrity of the “initiating sacraments”: Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist. These were originally inseparable events which the RCIA process seeks to restore in the Catholic consciousness.

From the time of the early church it was understood that Baptism confers the Holy Spirit on the recipient, as the New Testament frequently attests. The activity of the Spirit is the "confirmation" the initiate now shares with the whole church. To withhold that sign for years, as we routinely do with children who receive Confirmation a decade or more after Baptism, creates a chasm in understanding this sacramental pairing. It's why some theologians call Confirmation "a sacrament in search of a meaning."

Similarly, once a person is baptized and confirmed, he or she is eligible for full participation in the life of the church–including a place at the Table of the Lord. The early church rightly understood the three initiating rites as a single event to be celebrated together after the proper season of preparation. What the modern RCIA process does is restore the period of preparation and the natural integrity of these sacramental actions. It gives us all a richer understanding of what these sacraments mean, even if we didn't receive them in a threefold way ourselves.

The modern church has yet to figure out how all this should work in light of infant baptism, practiced with urgency since the 4th-century development of the doctrine of original sin. Right now children receive slivers of membership until maturity, as the church "supplies" their faith by proxy until they're fully catechized.

Acts 2:41-47; 19:1-6; Romans 6:3-11; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27-29

Explanation of the RCIA from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

The Heart of Faith: A Field Guide for Catechumens and Candidates by Nick Wagner (Twenty-Third Publications, 2010)
Invitation to Catholicism by Alice Camille (ACTA Publications)

What is virtue?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 14, April 2014 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
VIRTUES trampling vices from Strasbourg Cathedral.

The 4th-century bishop Gregory of Nyssa described the aim of the virtuous life as "to become like God." That may sound intimidating as a life goal, but it's certainly moving in the best possible direction. Virtue comes from the Latin word for "force" and you can think of it as the driving force of good behavior. The more we exercise a particular virtue, the more habit-forming it becomes. Because the same is true of vice, choosing to create easy habits of virtue is a better match for the Christian life.

The church speaks of four cardinal ("hinge") virtues upon which a moral lifestyle depends. These are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Prudence is the pilot virtue: It guides you in discerning what the right course of action is. It relies on habits of prayer, reflection, and spiritual counsel. Justice is pro-active in seeing that relationships between individuals, or between society and individuals, are correctly enacted. Justice is especially concerned with the common good—that what emerges from a course of action brings about the best for all concerned.

Fortitude is the strength that enables you to persevere in right actions despite opposition, suffering, and temptation. Temperance is the virtue Saint Paul often calls self-control or modesty. It is the mastery of the self that releases you from slavery to the senses or passions so that you can choose your way with the freedom of the children of God.

Along with the cardinal virtues, the church has identified three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. Saint Paul defines them as the three things that last when the whole world passes away. As the term theological suggests, these three pertain to God because they begin with divine instigation, are motivated by the Spirit, and seek God as their ultimate end. Faith means trusting in God with every life decision—not simply believing doctrinal statements about God. Hope enables you to look beyond your present circumstances, no matter how troubling or limiting, into future "Kingdom" realities confidently. Love, the "greatest" virtue according to Paul, is also the one that binds the rest together. The best definition for the practice of love remains Paul's wonderful passage in 1 Corinthians: "Love is patient, love is kind."

Wisdom 8:7; Romans 5:1-2; 8:18-25; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, 13; Colossians 3:15; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 10:23

The virtues in the Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Good Life: Where Morality & Spirituality Converge by Father Richard Gula, S.S. (Paulist Press)
Everyday Virtues
by John W. Crossin (Paulist Press)

How do can you deal with sinful thoughts?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 22, April 2014 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

I'd like to introduce the word temptation into the discussion. Say, for example, you see something desirable in a store and are seized with the impulse to take it. While having the thought cross your mind isn't sinful in itself, the contents of the thought are unethical and could lead to actions that are properly the realm of sin. Because thoughts are the starting point of action, Jesus said the contents of your heart are a matter for concern. When you hate, you are already on the road to murder. When you lust, you are already on the path of sexual impropriety. When you think about stealing, you have awakened the spirit of greed.

So when confronted with the so-called sinful thought, the goal is not to entertain it. Deliberately choosing to mull over the idea and spending time on developing the outcome gives temptation a chance to root down and develop into tangible action. A fleeting thought becomes an occasion of sin when you cultivate and enjoy the fantasy of stealing, causing injury to an enemy, or ravishing the stranger or coworker. Therefore it's appropriate to identify a thought as sinful at once and by its proper name: Hello, Greed! Here's that old serpent Lust again! Why, Envy, long time no see! Anger, my old friend, sorry you can't stay long. Most of the thoughts you term sinful have a root in one or more of the seven “capital” sins: pride, greed, anger, envy, lust, sloth, and gluttony.

Once you name a fleeting impulse properly, you can do what Jesus did when confronted by a tempting idea: banish it with authority. We see how this works in a gospel scene where Saint Peter suggests that Jesus doesn't have to suffer in order to fulfill his mission. Not willing to escape the reality of his redeeming role even for a moment, Jesus cries: "Get behind me, Satan!" If the spirit of evil has a long history in you and won't retreat easily, you can do what the apostles did: invoke the authority of Jesus: "In the name of Jesus Christ, get lost!" Jesus also notes that some forms of evil have great staying power and can only be driven out by prayer. When dealing with addictive forms of temptation, communal support as found in recovery programs may also be useful.

Genesis 3; Matthew 6:13; 16:21-23; Mark 14:38; Luke 4:1-13

Support for the obsessively scrupulous person at Scrupulous Anonymous

Freedom from Sinful Thoughts by J. Heinrich Arnold (Ploughshare Publishing)
Understanding Scrupulosity: Questions, Helps, and Encouragement by Thomas M. Santa, C.Ss.R. (Liguori Publications

Is there truth in other religions?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 23, September 2014 Categories: Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs,Ecumenism

World Religiions1
"In this age of ours, when men (sic) are drawing more closely together and the bonds of friendship between different peoples are being strengthened, the Church examines with greater care the relation which she has to non-Christian religions." So begins a breakthrough document from Vatican II, Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions). This statement released a theological revolution in 1965. Catholicism went on record calling the human family one community sharing a common destiny in God.

All religions seek answers to the great human questions about life, meaning, happiness, death, and mystery. To the extent they arrive at a revelation of the true God, they participate in truth known to the Christian faith. Nostra Aetate notes that Hinduism deeply respects meditation and divine mystery, expressed in stories and philosophies that support the ways of love. Buddhism critiques the present world's inadequacies and proposes disciplines to liberate the human spirit through compassion and mindfulness. Other religions of the world present a "program of life" inclusive of doctrines, moral precepts, and sacred rites. All of these assist human beings in the quest for God and truth and are therefore honorable.

 "The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions." (no. 2) This is a strong proclamation that deserves to be more widely known. It doesn't absolve the Church of its obligation to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, which it regards as the fullness of truth.

 Muslims have a great affinity with biblical religion as heirs to the faith of Abraham. Islam acknowledges one Creator God, almighty and merciful, who chooses to be revealed to humanity. Muslims honor Jesus as a prophet and Mary as a holy woman, and anticipate final judgment and the resurrection of the dead. They practice prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, all mutually esteemed by the Church.

Judaism is mentioned in Nostra Aetate and a second Council document, "Guidelines on Religious Relations with the Jews." Both affirm the intimate place of the Jewish people in the designs of God, never forsaken by the covenant which binds them for all time. Linked to Christians by biblical tradition; the Jewish leadership of the early church; liturgy, feasts, and ritual formulas—there is no room for discrimination or prejudice against the Jewish community. New global realities make dialogue and understanding between all who seek God a mandate for the future.

Scripture: Acts 16:26-27; Rom 2:6-8; Gal 3:7; Eph 2:14-18; 1 Tim 2:3-4

Books: No Religion Is an Island: The Nostra Aetate Dialogues - Edward Bristow (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998)

Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue (Rediscovering Vatican II) - Edward Idris Cassidy (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005)

What do Catholics believe about war and peace?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 15, September 2014 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Mission & Evangelization,Church History

Church teaching on international order was first comprehensively presented in 1963, with Pope John XXIII's encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). It declares that peace can only be realized on earth if God's will regarding social obligations are established first. This document treats the imperative for observing human rights to food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care and other necessary services, linking these rights to duties. Pacem in Terris also obliges governments to serve the common good of their people, and asserts that nations have rights and duties that must be respected by other nations. Relationships among nations must operate in the spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and liberty.

Recognizing that problems between nations can surpass the ability of the nations in question to resolve them, Pacem in Terris calls for a collaborative worldwide authority to assist in finding effective solutions. The outline for peace on earth is therefore four-fold: between individuals, within nations, between nations, and across the planet altogether. Each has both rights and responsibilities to observe.

When war becomes a reality nonetheless, how are Catholics to respond? Until the time of Constantine in the 4th century, Christians did not take part in war. Origin took a dim few of soldiering and a brighter view of the contribution Christians made to society through prayer. Augustine introduced just war theory: that the use of force could be a legitimate response to evil if other means failed. In the Middle Ages, Franciscans and Protestant Waldenses started movements of nonparticipation in war craft. Later "peace churches" like Anabaptists, Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren emerged from these roots. When Pope Paul VI became the first pope to speak to the United Nations, his declaration—"No more war! War never again!"—reflected his experiences in the two devastating wars of Europe. It also reflected a growing emphasis in church teaching that the morality of war in the modern military age often nullifies the old criteria for just war, since the waging of such war creates as much evil as it seeks to curtail.

Church teaching since Vatican II doesn't forbid Catholics military involvement. It does praise all who renounce violent means. It recommends thoughtful consideration of just war principles in the decision to take up arms. Catholic organizations like Pax Christi are dedicated to the peaceful resolution of world conflicts. But the discernment of the individual remains an open question.

Scriptures: Hos 2:14-23Ps 85:10-11Isa 9:6; Lk 1:79; Matt 2:13-145:5-9Jn 14:27Eph 2:13-22

Books: After the Smoke Clears: The Just War Tradition and Post War Justice - Mark Allman and Tobias Winright (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010)

Christian Peace and Non-Violence: A Documentary History - Michael Long, ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000)

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How do you figure Transfiguration?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 11, August 2014 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs,Scripture
Christ at the Transfiguration
Transfiguration, St. George Orthodox Cathedral, Toledo  (Flickr)

This question engages Scripture scholars and casual gospel readers alike. The Transfiguration is easy enough to describe: Jesus the teacher and miracle worker is suddenly and visibly changed on a mountaintop. He is revealed to his three closest disciples as a heavenly-connected personality claimed by a celestial voice as the Beloved Son. Jewish scholars also note that the other two heavenly beings appearing with Jesus—Moses and Elijah—shared with Jesus special roles in the age to come because of their unique end-of-life celestial "translations". This event seems more like the metamorphoses of gods familiar to Greco-Roman mythology than the Jewish tradition, however. So what's it doing in the New Testament?

First thing to note: Gospel Greek deliberately avoids the term metamorphosis in this account, an attempt to sever any "pagan"
comparison. The brilliance of Jesus' face recalls the radiance of Moses after his mountaintop communication with the Divine. The enveloping cloud also echoes the Sinai experience, and Peter's suggestion of booths or tents evokes the Tent of Meeting where Moses later encountered the Holy Presence. The simultaneous appearance of Moses and Elijah, representatives of Law and Prophecy, serve as firm anchors to the Hebrew story. No reference outside the tradition is intended or necessary.

But what are we to take away from this event? Scholars offer three possibilities. One is that this event, first noted in Mark and later retold in Matthew and Luke, is Mark's misplaced resurrection story. Early versions of Mark did not include the resurrection narrative, so this story might have been intended to foreshadow the hope of Easter. The second idea is that this story is a theological reflection of the first-generation church: a symbolic way of reconstructing what Jesus meant to them—and to us. He is the New Moses, the ultimate Prophet, the Teacher-Messiah anticipated by both Moses and the prophets.

The third theory is that the Transfiguration is a private vision Peter had—perhaps on the feast of Tabernacles or Booths while reading the appropriate Scriptures—in which the truth about Jesus "came together" for him, before or even well after Easter. Both the gospels and the Second Letter of Peter suggest that Peter had a special understanding of this event that carried with him into anticipation of the Second Coming of Jesus. Saint Paul goes further to declare that we will ALL be transfigured if we keep our sights trained on Christ.


Scripture: Mk 9:1-13; Matt 17:1-13; Lk 9:28-36;Deut. 18:15; Exod. 24:15-16; 34: 29, 35; Lev. 23:42; 2 Kgs 2:11; 2 Cor 3:18; 2 Pet. 1:16-18; see also Jn 12:28-30

Books: Rooted in Detachment: Living the Transfiguration - Kenneth Stevenson (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007)

Seeing the Word: The Transfiguration (The Saint John's Bible series) - (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010)

Is it possible to prove the existence of God?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Tuesday 06, May 2014 Categories: Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Thomas Aquinas
by Fra Bartolomeo

This modern question has a medieval backwater through which we must wade to consider a coherent response. Ancient peoples rarely questioned the existence of a divine being (or beings), although they often wondered whether the Deity was rooting for or against humanity in any given circumstance. Even as late as the Middle Ages, the theologians who posited arguments for God's existence didn't personally question the matter: They were merely tying up loose philosophical ends. Eleventh-century Saint Anselm was first, offering an ontological proof—that is, a proof based on the meaning of the term "God": If we can imagine the greatest reality which is God, and a real thing is greater than an imaginary thing, then God must be that real and not only imaginary greatness.

Two centuries later Saint Thomas Aquinas raised five proofs for God's existence— motion, causality, possibility and necessity, gradations, and governance—each of which follows a similar argument. Take motion, for example: When something moves, there is a mover that causes the motion. God is the First Mover that set everything in motion. Or consider causation: Actions have consequences, but somewhere there is a Cause which originally caused everything else. Or gradation: A good thing points to a better, which presumes a best. God is that which is Best.
Arguments like these are philosophically neat, but they didn't withstand the keen rational edge of the 18th-century Enlightenment gang. In Philosophy 101 courses every student learns how David Hume and Immanuel Kant discovered flaws in the medieval proofs. Kant, at least, saw the idea of God as necessary for morality to be possible. In the same period William Paley argued for God's existence from the intricate design of the world, which presumes a grand Designer the way a watch found on a beach presumes that someone left it there because it didn't just spring from the sand. This proof isn't really much distinct from the Aquinas approach.

The Bible offers no proofs for God's existence. As a product of revelation, it seeks to tell us about God's nature, not to prove that God is real. Revelation is abundantly useful for people of faith and quite problematic to people without it. So when the church says that the Creator can be known from creation, that is a statement of how God can be understood by those who seeking understanding. It doesn't suggest how God can be rationally proven to those who are skeptical of the religious enterprise altogether.

Mark 10:51-52; 11:22-24; Luke 11:9-13; 2 Corinthians 5:7

Thomas Aquinas, "Reasons in Proof of the Existence of God" from the Summa Theologia

An Introduction to Catholic Theology by Richard Lennan (Paulist Press)
Spirituality Seeking Theology by Roger Haight (Orbis Books, 2014)

What is humility?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Friday 16, May 2014 Categories: Prayer and Spirituality,Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints,Doctrines & Beliefs
HumilityHumility is just about the exact opposite of everything you see in the world nowadays! Our 21st-century moxie is entirely egocentric. As the T-shirt says, "It's all about me." So to discover the essentials of humility, you have to experiment with self-emptying and change the channel from us to the Ultimate Other.

Here's a channel-changer. In describing the virtue of humility, the Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes Saint Augustine's saying: "Man is a beggar before God." Pride leads you to exalt yourself, rely on your own resources, and claim your own achievements. By contrast humility recognizes that everything comes from God and belongs to God. Therefore to God alone go all praise, honor, and glory.

When you begin with God and not with yourself, your perspective on reality does a dramatic shift. God's will comes first. "Not my will, but yours be done," as Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. The radical humility of the Son of God is echoed in the submission of his mother to that same divine will in the story of the Annunciation: "Let it be done to me according to your word."

Love also begins from God and is not initiated from your personal well of goodness. "God is love," John's first letter declares. Therefore: "We love because God first loved us."

Life itself has its genesis in God—hence the name of the Bible's first book. When you choose the perspective of a humble heart, you become aware that your proper orientation as creatures should be one of obedience—that is, attentive listening—to God's call rather than egoistic self-determination. It's precisely the attitude of obedience that led to the salvation of the world, as Saint Paul tells us in his letter to the community at Philippi: "[Jesus] humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross." Paul explains that humility means putting other people ahead of yourself, thinking of their needs rather than monologuing about yours. That is so countercultural, jaws will drop whenever you attempt it.

Yet humility was the avenue of the saints that got them where they were going. Abbot Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was so convinced of its necessity that he urged his monks to adopt the four most important virtues: "Humility, humility, humility, and humility." Take it from Jesus, Mary, the the gospel evangelists, and the saints: If you're not coming from humility, you're not going anywhere in the spiritual life.

Mark 14:35-36; Luke 1:38; 18:9-14; Philippians 2:3-11.

The Way of Humility by André Louf, O.S.C.O. (Cistercian Publications)
The Way of Humility by Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio (Pope Francis) (Ignatius Press)
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What do Catholics believe about scripture and tradition?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Wednesday 01, October 2008 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

This question is a little like asking, "To whom must I listen: my mother or my father?" For those who view scripture and tradition to be separate—or even in opposition, the answer may be surprising. “Sacred tradition, sacred scripture, and the teaching authority of the church,” says Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council’s document on divine revelation, “are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others.”

Let me ask the question in another way: Which came first, scripture or tradition? Our impulse is to answer, "Scripture, of course!" But in reality, tradition did. Where did scripture come from, after all? Centuries of prophets, sages, and evangelists wrote down the community's experience of God as it unfolded through revelation, ritual, and history. Lots of things got recorded, many of which are not included in our Bible today.

Which brings us to the second level of tradition: Some group of people had to sift through piles of traditions to determine which would be included in the "canon" of scripture (authoritative texts) and which would not be binding on the community for the future. Jewish teachers made that determination for the documents known as the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. A later group of Christian leaders made that decision for what would become the New Testament. As Dei Verbum puts it, “Through . . . tradition the church's full canon of the sacred books is known.”

So in a nutshell, teachings became traditions and were later selected by leaders whose authority itself was determined by tradition. These leaders in turn shaped the scriptures we have today. In the most meaningful sense, then, scripture is the very heart of tradition.

To separate scripture from tradition as if they were alien concepts is to misunderstand the origin of scripture. If the Bible had dropped from the sky as is, cover to cover, you could talk about scripture as your sole authority. But without tradition, there would be no scripture, and the reading of scripture itself has contributed to ongoing development of tradition.

Luke 4:16-21; John 1:1-5, 14; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21; Hebrews 1:1-3; 4:12

Church document
The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum) of the Second Vatican Council

Scripture in the Tradition: Milestones in Catholic Theology by Henri de Lubac (Crossroad)

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"Sin" is such a negative word. Can't we just talk about “failure”?

Posted by: Alice L. Camille   🕔 Monday 15, September 2008 Categories: Doctrines & Beliefs

I wish I had a dollar every time someone objected to the word sin! And guilt, too. Our objection to both words comes from the same source: our discomfort at the implication of blame. No one likes to be accused. We'd rather say noncommittally, "Mistakes were made" than to admit, "I was wrong"!

The beauty of our religious language is that it's unblinkingly honest. There's no spin with sin; no campaign launched to cover up the mess. When we talk "sin," we're saying: "My bad. I knew that house was on fire when I entered it!" So let's say we're sinners, firstly because it's true and also because telling the truth is an incredibly healthy choice to make. Our society is so geared to the airbrushed image we may begin to accept that hiding a blemish here or a gray hair there is normal.

But the airbrushed image is phony. Sooner or later the real person will tumble out from behind the artful deception. Religious language provides us the chance to be authentic, apart from the spandex and the posturing. When we admit we've done wrong, we take a big first step into freedom.

Where does that step take us? From personal responsibility we can move into some pretty wonderful territory. Owning our sinfulness gives us access to forgiveness and the joy known only to the children of God. By contrast, where does the denial of responsibility get us? From the vague nod that "mistakes were made" we can't move to forgiveness and healing. If we refuse the identity of the sinner, we're shrugging our shoulders, burying the injury under the rug. As we know from our experiences with physical healing, wounds that are not cleansed, treated, and brought into the open air tend to fester, become infected, and lead to more serious conditions.

So it is with the spiritual wounds human sinfulness causes. One lie creates the foundation of the next. Unaddressed pride leads to uncontrolled egotism. Sexual irresponsibility prompts a habit of exploiting others. Self-righteous anger justifies an inner world of aggression that paves the way to violence.

The traditional daily habit of examining your conscience and admitting fault is the best antidote to living in the land of self-justification. I'm a sinner! I'm also, thanks be to God, forgiven.

Psalm 51; Matthew 9:1-13; Mark 7:1-23; Luke 15:1-32; 18:9-14; 19:1-10; Romans 5:6-6:23; James 3:1-4:10

Forgiveness prayers


Reconciliation by Bishop Robert Morneau (Orbis)
The Forgiveness Book
by Paul Boudreau and Alice Camille (ACTA Publications)

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