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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Final Impenitence

While we can speak about the deadly effects of even one mortal sin, the Church has long recognized the danger even among venial sins as a spiritual cancer of the soul. I am reminded of the late moral theologian Bernhard Häring and his speculation about what he called “the fundamental option.” While I could appreciate such as one’s overall direction in terms of goodness and openness to salvation, I disagreed with its nod to process theology and disconnect from the categories of mortal and venial sin, as well as divine law. I would define it for myself as an honest appreciation of the human condition. We all begin as innocent babies, from the likes of Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.  What is it that happens that propels the trajectory of one to holiness and another to villainy?  Yes, we can damn ourselves with a single act and the vilest sinner can repent in the last moments of life and find divine mercy.  This is a real possibility but in all honesty it does not seem to regularly occur.  Like the old dog failing to learn new tricks, we are formed by a life of virtue or vice.  Some may dig such a deep hole with their sins that they find it difficult if not impossible to climb out.  We are impacted by the world with many factors beyond our control.  However, there is still freedom to either resist evil or to succumb to it.  Similarly, virtuous people are so driven by grace and the habit of goodness that while they can stumble, it goes against their practical nature.  When they do something wrong they almost immediately feel guilty. 

Those who turn toward the darkness often excuse their sins and become numb to their wrong-doing.  Note political leaders recently in the news laughing and celebrating the local legalization of abortion rights for the entire term of women’s pregnancies. Those with a contrasting spiritual orientation weep over children fully formed in the womb snuffed out just before they might see the light of day.  Sin brings blindness.  Grace brings the light.  The blindness of sin damages one’s conscience about right and wrong.  That is why even professed Christians and Catholics can wrongly promote a culture of death, ethnic and racial discrimination, the diminution of women’s rights and gifts, political unrest and violence, the dismissal of the needs of the poor and the oppressed, and the evil of reducing persons to commodities in sweat shops and in human trafficking.  While our leaders may publicly take sides about these problems of our day, a symptom of a sinful condition among the rank-and-file is realized by not caring about anyone else’s need, pain or cry for justice.                

As I said, I never fully subscribed to the fundamental option notion.  I would always acknowledge the place of a single act (mortal sin) to sabotage our movement to God.  The subject of final impenitence must take into consideration freedom, the objective reality of sin and human culpability. At the same time I would acknowledge that a person has a core where he finds his identity, values and motivations for what he does, bad and good.  I have often thought about this in terms of the “accompaniment” that Pope Francis wants clergy to undertake with those in irregular unions and others estranged from the Church.  My one objection has been about direction as we should all be on “the way” of Christ.  I would not want to follow another on the road to hell.  Should we not urge sinners to turn around?  It could also happen that those suffering invincible ignorance might still go to heaven but as a priest traveling with them (who knows better) I might be cast into hell for failing to preach the hard truth to them. 

While I do not believe any fundamental option trumps moral and spiritual culpability for sin, I definitely view a fundamental spiritual orientation in the many to whom I have ministered over the years. Selfishness is hard to hide as it is the kind of sin that cries out for attention.  Look at me!  An orientation of love to God and neighbor looks outward.

Good people sometimes do bad things and bad people sometimes to good things. Our free choices impact upon what kind of person we are but sometimes they go against the grain of our identity. Confessors understand this within the discussion of the “matter” of a sin and the “subjective culpability.”  Qualifying circumstances may not absolve one of all responsibility, but they can sometimes make a difference between being spiritually wounded (venial sin) and being spiritually dead (mortal sin).    

Pope John Paul II takes up the notion of a fundamental option or rather “choice” in Veritatis Splendor.  He writes that Scripture

“. . . sees the fundamental option as a genuine choice of freedom and links that choice profoundly to particular acts. By his fundamental choice, man is capable of giving his life direction and of progressing, with the help of grace, towards his end, following God’s call. But this capacity is actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions, through which man deliberately conforms himself to God’s will, wisdom and law. It thus needs to be stated that the so-called fundamental option, to the extent that it is distinct from a generic intention and hence one not yet determined in such a way that freedom is obligated, is always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. Precisely for this reason, it is revoked when man engages his freedom in conscious decisions to the contrary, with regard to morally grave matter” (67).

Along these lines aforementioned by the Holy Father, we are obliged to obey the Lord when he tells us to follow him.  Final impenitence is the fundamental choice to turn away and to reject God and his sovereignty over us.  It is the misdirection of one’s entire life.  Such a person is obstinate in his sinful status and error.  I am reminded of Satan in Paradise Lost. When cast into darkness, he cries out, “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.” Once death overtakes us, like the angels, our orientation becomes permanent.  There can be no repentance.  We are what we have made ourselves.  If saints are made by obedient love and divine grace, then the damned are fashioned by persistent disobedience and the forfeiture of grace.  The reason this is counted as a sin against the Holy Spirit is because the gift of grace is rejected.  Friendship with God is broken. Instead of realizing our consecration as adopted sons and daughters of the heavenly Father, remade into the likeness of our elder brother Christ; the damned imitate and are brought back into the bondage of the devil. We speak about them being cast into hell, but in a sense they fashion and bring this hell with them into eternity.  Again I am reminded of John Milton’s epic poem.  Accepting his fate, Satan says, “Which way shall I fly infinite wrath and infinite despair? Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell . . . .”

We are called to be saints.  But God will not force his love upon us.  Some choose to be hell-spirits, instead. How many times have we heard clergy preach that “now” is the acceptable time— that our Lord comes as a thief in the night— we do not know the day or the hour?  A few might be given and will take a final opportunity to repent and be saved even as they breathe their last breath. But will we be given that opportunity? I remember being cursed and forced from a hospital room by a man for whom I came to give the last rites. He told me bluntly where I could take my prayers and sacraments. My very presence in the hall drove him to a mad tirade. I prayed for him all the same. What became of him? He died alone. I leave judgment to God. Many years later I must accept what happened. It would not be the last such encounter.  He has been followed by others who also formally rejected the Lord’s mercy. 

What does it mean when we cannot find the humility to come to our loving Father at the end of mortal life? What causes such people to turn away from the love of God? Were they betrayed?  Did someone hurt them? Had they always fought with God? Did they not even fear of the loss of heaven and the pains of hell?

There is a terrible lesson to learn with all of this. We should never allow the faults or sins of others to drive us to despair. We trust in God, not men.  We should seek strength from God in facing temptations and disappointments. No matter what, each of us should seek to remain a living temple of the Holy Spirit.  If such is the case then when we close our eyes for the last time in this world, we will open them to eternity in the next.      

Obstinacy in Sin

Confessors will frequently urge penitents to make an earnest resolution to avoid sin.  That is why a person pledges in the act of contrition prayer, “I firmly resolve with the help of your grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.”  Note, that even while it is liable that the penitent will sin again, he or she does not say “try” but must rather fully intend to carry through their resolution with firmness of will.  The fictional green alien Yoda in the Star Wars franchise says it best, “Do or do not— there is no try.”

This assertion made to the Lord tears away at any obstinacy in sin. The fact that many believers no longer say this prayer and/or go to confession is symptomatic of such obstinacy. Many are no longer contrite or sorry for their transgressions.  They have become comfortable with their sins, even those that are most deadly.  Indeed, the expanding sexual revolution which includes various shades of gender dysphoria is increasing demanding not only tolerance from Christians but their compliance and approbation.  In other words, these recalcitrant sinners are seeking to bring others into their circle of disobedience.       

Obstinacy in sin is a refusal to change or to repent even after receiving the illumination and assistance of the Holy Spirit.  The Gospel and the living Church has made it abundantly clear what is right and wrong, but such sinners do not care.  They will not budge.  They may even celebrate their sins.  They continue in error by corrupting moral truths as relative and purely subjective.  God commands one thing and they do another.  They are literally saying to God with each transgression, “I will NOT obey!  I will do as I will, not as you will!”  While the Blessed Mother said YES to God for all humanity at her annunciation; these obstinate sinners cry out a damning, “No!” 

While there is mortal life there remains hope.  But little room is given to knock down the wall between such sinners and the Lord.  Our Lord would give them the medicine of his sacraments and grace but they would prefer to remain in their spiritual sickness— addicted to all that will destroy them. 

There can be a terrible irrationality contaminating the minds of such fallen believers.  They adopt twisted criteria for their moral judgments.  A number of these have become cliché. “If it feels good, do it.” “Do whatever you will.”  “Everyone is doing it so it must be okay.”  “Who are you to tell me what to do?”  “I am not a slave to my biology!”  Sin drives a wedge between the person and God as well as with his Church.  Justification for evil results in attacks against the Church as hypocritical or the teachings as antiquated and not reasonable for so-called “enlightened” modern people.  Pastors and others seeking to live by traditional values often have both their credulity and patience strained by such dissenters.  While the Church has often debated against competing values and ethical standards, it is almost impossible to wage a constructive dialogue with those who have no moral system at all.  What is at stake in this conflict is more than how one behaves but the very question of salvation.  If anyone should doubt this then we should be mindful of what the Lord has revealed through his apostle, St. Paul:

“Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators nor idolaters nor adulterers nor boy prostitutes nor sodomites nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. That is what some of you used to be; but now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

Envying Another’s Gift of Grace

This sin against the Holy Spirit might seem odd, especially to the ears of those who put little value in spiritual goods.  It is literally envy and resentment to another’s good standing before the Lord. We hear something of this in the derision of others as “holier than thou,” not because of pretense but because they emanate something of God’s presence and holiness.  The greater the grace, the more it seems to precipitate criticism from those who are lacking.  I recall witnessing something of this when Mother Teresa and her sisters were at a service.  A religious sister of another order (who was known for her dissent and had long since abandoned the habit) mumbled despairingly under her breath about Mother and the spectacle of humility and poverty they exhibited.  I suspect the very grace for which we loved Mother Teresa was simultaneously what brought out the venom against her from those who fell short of her radical discipleship.  Do not underestimate the involvement of the devil as spiritual forces are particularly agitated by the presence of divine grace.  Beyond the issue of envy, this grace probably had a part to play in those who questioned her motives and decisions from the non-believing world. The whole message about believers as signs of contradiction or as a witness opposed is intricately linked to a saving faith that invokes grace.  The more this faith is made real through loving obedience, the more abundant this grace becomes. 

It may be true that certain people have a greater inclination to the Lord and a capacity for his grace than others.  However, the opportunity for holiness is not denied any of us.  Such requires an open disposition to God for both saving and actual (helping) grace.  Instead of resentment, we should find inspiration in the witness of others.         

Whenever we are jealous or envious of others there is a loss of contentment or satisfaction in what we possess. We want what someone else has. Of course, when it comes to spiritual gifts it may be that some prefer cheap grace over that which requires devotion and merit to receive.  While all grace is a gift, it is acquired through faith, the sacraments and virtuous living. Obviously if a person is complacent or lazy in his discipleship, then the measure of grace is seriously limited.  Just as repentance makes room for faith, faith makes room for grace.  Some are satisfied with living in the mud of their venial sins.  They might be saved but it will be by the skin of their teeth.  Others suffer from mortal sin and thus they become the living dead— envying those who are alive in Christ by grace— but hesitant to repent and find this life for themselves.

This form of envy toward another’s spiritual good can and often does create enmity, not only with a particular person or group of people, but also with almighty God.  I actually recall a lady upset because she thought that God liked someone better than her.  During Bible Study she entered a tirade about John being the beloved apostle.  She argued that it was not right that God should love one over another.  Of course, the Scriptures were speaking about the human affection between our Lord and John.  It must be said that God loves us all with an infinite love.  The problem is that for some, even this is not enough.  He dies on the Cross for each and every one of us— not as one lost in the crowd— but personally, for each of us by name.  I suspect the envy of another’s spiritual wealth comes along with one’s own regret for spiritual impoverishment and a reluctance to appreciate what our redeemer does for each of us. 

If one is in God’s good graces, it may seem a puzzle to a number of us as to why a person would resent another’s good fortune with the Lord.  Does it matter if we should find ourselves in the basement or penthouse of heaven as long as we find ourselves in paradise with God? I recall a funny story about this.  An elderly woman was always complaining with her husband of many years about going to Mass.  She nagged him constantly about his bad habits and failure to attend church with her.  When her husband became sick, the priest came to the house and gave him absolution and the last rites. Soon thereafter he died.  The following Sunday, his wife was leaving church looking more miserable than normal. The pastor said to her, “I am so sorry about the loss of your husband.” Then she angrily responded, “That’s not what I am upset about.  For years I told him that unless he changed his ways then he was going straight to hell.  Then you come over and made a liar of me!”  Ouch.

Connected to the sin of presumption and despair, this transgression looks outside of ourselves and not only envies the good grace of another but might prefer their damnation.  It comes from the same root of thinking about ourselves too much and about our neighbor too little.  It constitutes a usurpation of divine judgment.  It violates the principal law given by Christ to love God and to love our neighbor.  Love would rejoice in the good fortune of another. 

Denial of Revealed Truth

When we speak about pervasive sins against the Holy Spirit that infect modern society, at the top of the list is a resistance to the truths of both revelation (divine positive law) and creation (natural law).  While this rejection can include doctrinal truths about God, frequently the subject matter is in the area of morality.  It is for this reason that I have sometimes thought we need a council to revise the Creed, not to deny any truths already defined, but to add to the section on the Trinity, Christ and the Church a series of clarifications on what constitutes the human being, the sanctity of life and proper behavior.   

While we as Catholics need to assent to the dogmatic truths promulgated by the Holy Father and the Magisterium (those bishops who teach in union with the Pope), such is not absolute.  The private opinions and many pragmatic decisions of the Pope would not necessarily incur the charism of infallibility.  However, given his position, we should give a general religious assent or respect to whatever the Pope teaches in his ordinary Magisterium.  Solemn definitions as with the Assumption and the Immaculate Conception of Mary are regarded as certain.  Pope Benedict XVI has made clear that his predecessor Pope John Paul II’s declaration on a male-only priesthood is also infallible.  Most things the Church teaches that compel assent are found in the Creed and catechism, as long as the Church herself regards the matters settled.  While we give them religious respect or assent, there are few items in flux like the extent of just war theory or the constantly edited teaching against the death penalty.  Sometimes the Church, herself, may grapple with the words to express something she believes. 

We posit the Bible with teaching all necessary salvation truths.  Christian doctrine is formed against the background of Sacred Tradition and the living witness of the faith in history.  While we have a healthy appreciation for mystery, we do believe that faith consists of object truths that we can come to rationally know and appreciate.  Unlike some of the Protestant churches, we do not subscribe to any faith versus reason mentality.  Rather, we hold to the notion of a reasoned faith and the complementarity of truth (in science, theology and philosophy).  Ours is not the God of chaos but of order.       

If a person after adequate religious formation still refuses to believe dogmatic truths then they can fall into heresy— especially if they are teaching falsehoods to others.  Catholics need to trust both the guiding role of the Holy Spirit in the Church and God’s inspiration over Scripture.  Some critics may fall so far that they deny the existence of God entirely through the sin of apostasy.  The conundrum today is how well do Catholics actually know their faith and did they fully cooperate with the catechesis originally given them.  I often regret that adults go through their lives with a grade-school appreciation of their holy religion.  Modern Catholics are notorious for allowing dust to build up on their bibles and for sporadic church attendance.  Formed more by a materialistic and secular society, should we be surprised by their defection and adoption of false views about God and the moral life?

Many Catholics pick-and-choose what they want to believe, and given the scandals, few give any significant respect to the learning and status of their priests.  Certain priests bear responsibility for this, either due to their poor witness or questionable preaching.  The issues are so numerous that they would defy any effort at an exhaustive list.  When it comes to the dogmatic questions, there is a poor appreciation of the Trinity, misconceptions about the incarnation of Christ as God and man, a frightful dismissal of the Holy Spirit in piety, ridicule of the necessity of the Church and her reduction to a purely human institution, the denial of Mary’s virginity, misconceptions about the afterlife and the heresy of universal salvation, etc.  When it comes to moral questions, every commandment is under assault.  Catholics rationalize away the genuine meaning of marriage as a holy sacrament— celebrating instead (without shame) the sins of fornication, adultery, homosexuality, artificial contraception and abortion.  A political and legally enforced gender dysphoria undermines the Church’s basic Christian anthropology— despite biblical mandates and the clear boundaries of natural law.  The saving value of baptism and the need for the sacraments is impugned by so-called believers who do not bring either themselves or their children to the Church and Christ. 

Dissenters now outnumber faithful believers.  No matter how ignorant a person might be, many place their personal understanding over that of the Church that is guided in the truth by the Holy Spirit. This is tragic and is a problem that will not be fixed overnight.  What can we do?

Here are some ideas to pursue:

1. Encourage the faithful remnant to practice their faith and insure that there is sound religious education.

2. Encourage the faithful to pray at home and that there is no witness from parents contrary to our faith and morals.

3. Encourage couples to pursue chaste courtship over the current dating practices that encourage promiscuity.

4. Remind believers about the danger of calumny in regard to what they say about the clergy and the Holy Father.

5. Offer religious festivals, novenas and other parish activities that will firm up the connection to local churches.

6. Offer Catholic Bible Study and Book Study Groups, share informative faith videos and promote other efforts at adult religious formation.

7. Offer Teen and Young Adult Programs as an antidote or challenge to society’s formational efforts.  

8. Offer Sunday homilies that truly inspire and feed souls.

9. Make available suitable times for the sacrament of penance.

10. Make every parish into a “Catholic Information Center” with bibles, catechisms and other books and pamphlets.

11. While being compassionate and welcoming to those who come to worship with us, encourage dialogue and reconciliation with those disturbed or estranged by irregular unions, sexual orientation and gender identity.

12.  Encourage parishioners to become more involved with efforts for racial and ethnic justice, care for the poor, and to promote the sanctity of life.  

Despair of Salvation

I have already briefly mentioned Despair of Salvation within a reflection about the sin of Presumption.  Both sins are serious assaults against truth.  Just as we must acknowledge our dependence as creatures upon God; we should not question his power to save his children, even those most burdened by weakness and sin.  Jesus gives us a direct command against this sin. He tells us, “Be not afraid!”  If presumption signifies a misdirection of love then despair is a symptom of inadequate love.  There was a popular cliché from a few years ago that bears remembering, “God doesn’t make junk!”  We are broken or wounded as a consequence of sin but what God creates is good.  We have to see ourselves as God sees us. 

If God could send his only Son to suffer the indignity of the Cross out of love for us, then who are we to spurn his sacrifice as impotent to save us?  We are loved and prized by God.  The Lord would have us return this love and embrace the solidarity we have with Christ in carrying our crosses.  The truth uttered in every baptism that permeates the Christian life is that if we die with Christ then we will live with him.

The sin of despair often leaves people despondent and possibly even suicidal. While it often engages the emotions, it is deeper than feelings— it poisons the will.  Often it is brought on by past disobedience and unforgiven sin.  It hampers faith because a necessary pre-requisite is repentance.  Sorrow for sin is rooted in love of God and a desire to share the happiness of heaven.  Imperfect contrition becomes short-circuited if the person feels there is no way to escape the pains of hell and the loss of heaven.  The person hates himself.  It could also happen that others enable such a mentality.  When a person is belittled, the one who is targeted for the ridicule might become convinced that he is no good.  The sin of cursing or damning someone fuels such a sin. 

Note that in the ministry of Jesus he usually forgave sins, even when people came to him for physical healing.  Our posture as believers is to help bring God’s mercy to others.  As long as there is breath in our bodies and we are alive there remains HOPE.  However, if one should blaspheme the Holy Spirit and then depart this mortal world, then our state becomes fixed.  There is no hope for the denizens of hell.  All they have is despair and loss.  Coincidentally, there is no hope for the saints of heaven either; all their hopes have been realized with the beatific vision.  Indeed, even the souls of purgatory have the joyful certainty of their trajectory toward heaven after their final purification. 

Returning to the matter of the curse, we should also avoid any presumption that this or that particular person is in hell.  We pray for the poor souls and leave judgment to God.  It would be a terrible sin to hate someone so much that we damned him only to find that we brought judgment upon ourselves by condemning one of God’s saints.  The verdict is still out for each of us in this world but we should take confidence in the promises of Christ.  We are not an orphaned or abandoned people.  We are loved.  God has given us everything we need to be saved. We should keep faith in Christ and live in a manner that pleases God.  If we walk with the Lord then we have no cause for fear. 

Presumption of Salvation

A chief sin against the Holy Spirit is the Presumption of Salvation. This may be one of the most prevalent contemporary sins in that many seem quick to canonize the dead. How often have we heard the expression that he or she “is in a better place” or that the person is no longer in pain? While we can hope, how can we absolutely know this?

(If there is a bookend sin to Presumption and the laxity it promotes then it is the Despair of Salvation. I am not sure we see as much of it today, except for maybe those who suffer from being overly scrupulous about their behavior and sins. Such a person believes that he or she is beyond redemption and cannot be forgiven. If the former exaggerates value, this sort of person devalues it. The presumptuous person makes a mockery of divine justice; the person who despairs impugns divine mercy. Neither one makes room to trust in God’s power and will. The sin of suicide is often discussed under the topic of such despair, but today many kill themselves not because they despair of salvation but rather for more immediate and terrestrial reasons, i.e. because they feel unloved or to escape physical pain. Often they claim an atheism which denies an afterlife entirely, viewing existence and awareness as a mean cosmic joke.)

While there was once a stigma attached to suicide, the presumption today is not that a person has committed the unforgiveable sin (since repentance is impossible), but rather that the person’s guilt must be mitigated by distress or by mental illness. In truth, we cannot absolutely presume either way, but it seems the possibility of a negative judgment is taken off the table except maybe for the most despised of reprobates.

There is an ongoing argument as to whether or not certain Protestant sects fall into the error of presumption because of their teaching about “Blessed Assurance.” It is claimed that once a person has made a faith profession in Jesus Christ as their “personal Lord and Savior” that he or she is henceforth irrevocably saved. If a person falls into egregious sin then it is posited in retrospect that the profession was counterfeit. Catholicism would argue instead that a good faith can sour. That is why we have the sacrament of penance.

Others go further and there is a presumption of a generic salvation that embraces us and everyone about whom we care. This comes along with a failure to pray for the poor souls in purgatory and an outright denial of hell. While such optimism is vocalized by many theologians, it is traditionally regarded as the terrible sin of universalism. It teaches that everyone or most everyone (Judas might be keeping the devil company, along with Hitler and Stalin) but that everyone else will be saved. Along with this mentality comes a gross sentimentality— “a good God would never damn a person to eternal fire and to exclusion from paradise.” This view makes the divine mercy superfluous and utterly destroys the reckoning of divine justice. Further, it reduces the redemptive sacrifice of Christ to something unnecessary as everyone would be saved anyway. Nonsense! We cannot save ourselves and we cannot wish ourselves to be saved. The most we can say is that there is a universal call to salvation. That call must be answered. This response that respects human freedom also finds its place within the mysterious providence and election of almighty God. Saving faith in Christ is made real by loving obedience. The Paraclete or Holy Spirit makes possible a saving faith. If it were not for the movement of the Holy Spirit within us then we could not say that “Jesus is Lord” or even pray. The gift of eternal life comes from the mediation of Jesus Christ and from nowhere else. Given that the Church is his mystical body, we can speak of salvation as in Christ and in his Church, alone. That is the doctrine of the faith from the earliest days.

While we walk in this world a saving faith can sour and we can forfeit sanctifying grace through mortal sin. It is for this reason that we are called upon by Christ to be constant in the faith and to keep our lamps burning as his sentinels. NOW is always the appointed time and we must be ever-alert for the coming particular judgment. We are realists and must admit that evil is real and that it has consumed some of our brothers and sisters. Indeed, we must not deceive ourselves about the presence of evil in us and our own personal struggles. Consciences can readily be blinded or corrupted by the flesh, the world and the devil. We must be disposed to the working of grace in our lives. We must cooperate with the Spirit of God in living out our faith in a real manner. God sees all things and merely going through the motions with avail us nothing.

We must also not underestimate the missionary mandate of the Church to which we are each commissioned in our baptism. A faith that is not shared is a faith that dies. None who are ashamed of Christ or who rebuke his saving name should expect a place with the holy ones of God. There are too many people who never pray and who give little thought to the poor; and yet, they imagine they deserve a place in heaven. Compounding their error, they do not even have a proper view as to what constitutes heaven. It is not the materialistic Islamic view where all their lusts and passions will be satisfied. Neither is it simply a fantasy abode where angels lazily sit on fluffy clouds and play harps. Heaven is literally to enter into the triune mystery that is God. The saints know happiness and satisfaction in seeing (the beatific vision) and being in the presence of God whom they love above all things. Those who have no relationship with God or even hate him would reject heaven on their own accord. I suspect that when the veil is lifted we shall find that judgment is not so much imposed by God as it is something that is willingly embraced by the creature.

Judgment will present us with a truth that none can deny— not just about God but about our own identity— who we are and what we most desire. Saints will fly to the Lord. The damned will race from his sight. While in this world, presumption of salvation is possible; however, in the next world there can be no such delusion.

The sin of presumption displaces fidelity to providence for the masquerade that comes by trusting first in the human will. Additionally, it causes us to waste the short time that we have as a people called to repent and to believe. Only God is perfect and good. If human “goodness” does not reflect this as in a prism then it is a lie. Indeed, the core or heart of this malignancy in the soul is the arch-sin of pride. While a person in mortal sin cannot find merit in his works; we must remember that the true value for a holy disciple is in the likeness to Christ— only that which the Lord does or works through us merits reward. Finally, the virtue that must displace the sin of presumption is always hope— if we walk with the Lord then we can live in the sure and certain HOPE of our salvation in Christ.

The Spiritual Fatherhood of Priests

Why is it that Catholics call their priests by the title “Father” and the Pope is called the “Holy Father” when we are told to call no man our father?

What is being cited is Matthew 23:8-12: “As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Messiah. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” The language that Jesus uses is a form known as Hebraic hyperbole, stressing matters to absurdity for exclamatory purposes to make a point. It is not dissimilar from when he says that if your eye causes you to sin then pluck it out or if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  Jesus does not mean for us literally to maim ourselves.  Note also that the apostle Paul refers to himself as a father to those whom he has brought the new dispensation.  Further, I am always perplexed as to why critics of the Catholic practice see no problem with calling earthly biological and adopted fathers by this title of endearment.  Jesus says at the same time not to call any man (master) teacher and yet we also do that all the time.  The point that Jesus is trying to make is that there is no true fatherhood that does not on some level reflect our Father in heaven.  Ultimately, there is no authority that can compete with God.  There is no authentic teacher that can propose truths in conflict with what God reveals to us.  Further, no human fatherhood can displace the caring role of God and his love for all of us as his children.  The priest is called Father because his vocation involves a spiritual paternity.  He watches over and cares for those entrusted to him. Scripture makes it abundantly clear that any notion of an absolute prohibition of the title “father” is absurd.      

Matthew 15:4-6“For God said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother shall die.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to father or mother, “Any support you might have had from me is dedicated to God,” need not honor his father.’ You have nullified the word of God for the sake of your tradition.”

Matthew 19:5 “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’”

Matthew 19:19 – “… honor your father and your mother’; and ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Matthew 21:31“Which of the two did his father’s will?”

John 8:56“Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad.”

Luke 16:24, 30“And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me.’ …He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’”

Acts 7:2“And he replied, ‘My brothers and fathers, listen ….’”

Romans 4:11-12“Thus he was to be the father of all the uncircumcised who believe, so that to them also righteousness might be credited, as well as the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised, but also follow the path of faith that our father Abraham walked while still uncircumcised.”

Romans 9:10“And not only that, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one husband, our father Isaac— ….”

1 Corinthians 4:14-16“I am writing you this not to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

James 2:21“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?”

The Pope & Christ

If Jesus is the Lord then why do Catholics follow the Pope?

There is no conflict as the Pope is the successor of Peter, made by Jesus as the ROCK or head of his Church.  The Pope does not displace Christ but stands for him as his vicar on earth.  Jesus is the invisible head of the Church and the Pope is the visible head.  The Pope, sometimes called the Holy Father, but not to be confused with God our heavenly Father, is not the master of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition but rather is their divinely protected servant and interpreter. It is true that Peter denies Christ three times but he is forgiven and with three affirmations of love is told by the risen Christ to care for his flock.

The pattern of the New Testament is retained in the life of the Church.  While the Pope usually speaks from his ordinary magisterial authority, he is also empowered by God to make special infallible statements.  This preservation from error serves the mission of Christ who said that he came to proclaim the truth.  Public revelation ends with the death of the last apostle, but the Church under the Pope transmits these truths and reflects upon them in time. The doctrine of infallibility is frequently misunderstood.  It does not mean all his practical decisions are guaranteed correct or that every personal idea or assumption is correct.  The notion of infallibility might seem incredible but most Christians, Catholic and Protestant, also believe that the Sacred Scriptures are inspired by God and are preserved from error in terms of necessary saving truths.  This can be misunderstood as well, as when people wrongly try to use the Bible as a science text.  The inspiration or infallibility of the Bible comes from God, even though the human authors were sinful and weak men. The Holy Spirit inspires the Bible (indeed the whole process in its formation), the bishops who gather in council and the papacy.  Note the unity of the Catholic Church in the universal truths that it teaches century after century.  By comparison there is a vast fragmentation in the non-Catholic or Protestant churches, as well as a wide divergence in what they believe.         

Matthew 16:18-19 – “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. l I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

John 14:15-18 – “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.”

John 21:15-17 – “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He then said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”

Catholics & the Bible

How can Catholics say they are Christians if they do not believe in and follow the Bible?

The Catholic Church is the mother of the Bible.  The bishops of the Church gathered at the synod or council of Hippo in 393 AD and compiled what is the current canon of books for the Bible.  We believe that the Holy Spirit inspires the Scriptures and protects the Church in teaching revealed truths.  All necessary saving truth can be found in the Bible, although not everything may be explicit. While we do not deny the value of God’s Word, most Protestants reject the value of Sacred Tradition and the necessary “authoritative” role of the Church.

Until the invention of the printing press, most believers did not have access to a Bible and even if they did many were illiterate.  That is why the stained-glass windows of churches often detailed important stories from biblical salvation history.  Bibles were originally made by hand and the production of one might take a scribe several years.  Some churches chained these Bibles to pulpits, not to keep God’s Word away from the people but to insure that no one stole the Scriptures regularly proclaimed at Mass.  Disagreements among believers (regarding truth and heresy) were not resolved by the Bible but by an agreed consensus of bishops in council.  This is a pattern we see from the earliest days.

Acts 15:1-29 – The Council of Jerusalem

The magisterium (the Pope and bishops in union with him) constitutes the essential interpreter of the Sacred Scriptures and the Sacred Tradition.  We believe that the Holy Spirit preserves the Church in the truths of Christ.     

1 Corinthians 11:2 – “I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold fast to the traditions, just as I handed them on to you.”

2 Thessalonians 2:15 – “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.”

2 Thessalonians 3:6 – “We instruct you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to shun any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us.”

2 Timothy 1:13-14 – “Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard this rich trust with the help of the holy Spirit that dwells within us.”

2 Timothy 2:2 – “And what you heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well.”

Misdirection in the Synodal Way

The Synodal Way is ushering demands from around the world for changes that would radically change the face of the Church, particularly in its ministries and basic values.  These issues include its attitude to women, LGBTI+ people, divorced and remarried, and single parents, most often mothers. Given scandals and charges of clericalism, there is also a growing outcry for the removal of compulsory priestly celibacy. Indeed, citing the issue of widespread abuse by clergy, critics are arguing that only changes along these lines can bring healing to those who have suffered at the hands of individual priests and the institution as a whole. Further, given the changing sensibilities of society, respondents say they want a dialogue that will legitimately consider both new forms of leadership and more effective or real inclusion.  It is asserted that this demands representation on both sides of the equation, among those in authority and to those who are the object of ministry. 

I do not believe this is entirely true. Rather, I think the issues of scandalous abuse and a lack of transparency are being hijacked to propel a liberal or revisionist agenda about ministry. However, echoing the Pope, the voices from the listening process genuinely urge a greater welcoming and inclusion in outreach, especially to those who feel neglected or rejected by the Church.  

Many among the critics are wondering whether such opinions will truly be aired at the October Synod of Bishops in 2023. The difficulty with such demands is that neither the Pope nor the bishops have the authority to change immutable doctrine revealed to us in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.  Chief among the structural changes of leadership being demanded is the ordination of women to the priesthood.  Pope John Paul II has declared such as impossible. This definition has been confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI as an infallible statement.  We are locked into the pattern given us by Christ and the apostolic church.  While mandatory celibacy could change as a discipline, there are important doctrinal implications and many of us would argue that any such change would be detrimental to Catholic ministry. 

While many of us are sensitive to matters of inclusion, the question remains as to how far we can go in welcoming the LGBTI+ community and the divorced and remarried.  When the catechism speaks about homosexuality as disorientation, the LGBTI+ community gets angry.  When we speak about “loving the sinner but hating the sin,” the LGBTI+ community again gets angry.  When we urge celibate and chaste lifestyles for the LGBTI+ community, they became furious and accuse the Church of bigotry.  The Church’s refusal to bless same-sex unions has also brought allegations of prejudice and hate.  What is the Church to do?  The situation has gone way beyond churchmen turning a blind eye to what was commonly regarded as confused sexual identification and “deviant” activity. The LGBTI+ community today is demanding full regularization and acceptance. While once themselves the subject of intolerance, they are now just as demanding that Christians change their moral thinking about the subject of homosexual sin.  The issue of gender identity or dysphoria has further complicated this matter.  The whole issue of what constitutes maleness or femaleness has been called into question.  Legal or political legislation often rubberstamps what natural law would regard as intellectual fallacy.  The fads of modernity are given precedence over objective reality and biblical imperatives. 

Similarly, there is a clamoring for the divorced and remarried to be fully regularized despite the prohibition from Christ’s lips against divorce and adultery.  The Church has made the annulment process free and has a heightened awareness of the grounds that might invalidate a nuptial union.  But in truth, if one is truly married in the eyes of God, then no ecclesial process or pastoral accommodation will make any difference— sex outside of marriage (fornication) is wrong no matter whether it is according to nature as in heterosexual adultery or in contradiction as in homosexual acts.  The ministers of our faith can act with compassion toward these people but it would be a false love to excuse without comment what is essentially the matter of mortal sin.  The whole point of the Gospel is not to make people feel good but to save their souls.

Much is being made of the fact that the Synodal Way is opening the Church to the “sensus fidelium” of the laity.  However, this is not entirely true as many of the critics are estranged from the faith, not formed by either the Bible or the Catechism, rarely if ever worship at Mass and speak more for the world than the Church in their dissent.  It should be a “no brainer” that the laity who possess the true charism called the “sense of the faithful” are the ones who are faithful. This is not necessarily measured by any kind of majority rule or democratic vote.  Many may be baptized but are not well catechized and are Catholics in name only.  The faithful who can speak the truth to the universal Church are moved by the Holy Spirit to both holiness of life and to the truth.  They stand in agreement with “orthodox” bishops on matters of faith and morals.  They are the Catholics who challenge modernity and urge faithfulness in worship and discipleship.  As in the Arian crisis, they would even stand witness against bishops and priests that would corrupt the faith.   

When it comes to single parents, there is a genuine crisis brewing. No one would criticize the woman who is faithful to life and her child despite abandonment or the death of a spouse. But increasingly, children are being born outside of wedlock. What was once regarded as a scandalous problem is today thought of as a legitimate lifestyle decision.  Women use men to get pregnant or they engage in reproductive technologies to have children without any identifiable male parent.  Once conceived, the Church would always urge the protection of life; however, the issue remains problematical.  The ideal family includes a mother and a father.  Fathers are not a dispensable component in this equation.  A single person might adopt a child but couples should be preferred.  The Holy Father has been critical of priests who are hesitant to baptize children in such situations. I would concur with Pope Francis that a child should not suffer for a parent’s sin. Neither should we seek to embarrass the people who come to us. But I could understand why some priests only baptize children at Mass who have two married parents. Their practice is that others should be baptized outside of Mass so as not to cause scandal or to give approbation to bad behavior and to illegitimacy.