"ASK FATHER" FORUM
Fr. Michael Venditti
Here are some more examples taken from the Ask Father forum on America Online. In this batch, I've included some typical questions dealing with personal or emotional matters and not with doctrine, to further show the broad range of topics encountered on the board. Naturally, many of these require not so much a knowledge of the faith as sound prudential advice. Your comments are, of course, welcome.
PS: You may notice that in a couple of instances I don't really know what to say. Sometimes the hardest thing for a priest to do in fielding questions is to say, "I don't know." It's certainly better than saying something wrong.
The following topics are covered below:
Once & for all? (Are you saved?)
Absolution (Must we confess venial sins?)
Can a Catholic become a mason?
Should we seek relief from suffering?
Subj: Once & for all?
Date: 93-11-20 00:46:35 EST
I have heard some people claim that once a person accepts Christ into their lives, they are "saved" once and for all, and never have to fear losing their salvation no matter what they may do. What is the Catholic view on this?
I think that a person is asked to choose each moment, like an ongoing decision that we must ask ourselves constantly. The vow of 'conversion of manners' in the monastic communities is based on this view, isn't it?. Doesn't God's gift of freedom give us the freedom also of rejecting Him if we should choose to do so?
Your understanding of salvation is quite correct. The Calvinist notion, which seems to be the substance of most Evangelical preaching among Pentecostal Christians, is that salvation is a kind of "one-shot deal." By that, I mean that you accept Jesus, declare him as your savior, and at that moment you are saved. The Catholic Church does not find this notion in the Scriptures. We understand that man enters this world in a fallen state, due to the sin of our first parents; that that sin is expiated through baptism; but that, because of that sin, we tend to rebel against God, and therefore require his constant grace and assistance to do his will. Thus, salvation is not something that I can say I have at any particular moment in my life; rather, it is a process which begins on the day of my baptism and ends the day I leave this world. Along the way, I am faced with many choices, and many temptations which would tend to pull me away from Christ; and sometimes I fail. In order to reach my destination, I need God's help in the form of grace, which I know I can receive in many ways, but most particularly through the sacraments which Christ himself established. When I fail, I can seek his forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance; I can be strengthened again and again by receiving his very self in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. But I am always vigilant because I know that at any of the crossroads I come to, I am capable of making the wrong choice and giving in to temptation. Without grace, I know I will never attain salvation.
When Jesus said that he had come to save all mankind, he did not mean that there was one simple thing you had to do and that was it, after which there was nothing to worry about. His death and resurrection offer us redemption; whether or not we use the grace which that makes available to us is entirely our affair. Life is, as the saints have often called it, a "spiritual combat." My whole life as a Christian is to try to eliminate from my life all that is not of Christ, so that Christ permeates my whole being. This takes a lifetime. Even St. Paul, in the midst of the most productive part of his ministry, complained of a "thorn in the flesh" and temptations; so clearly there is no "one-shot" to salvation. We will know for sure if we are saved when we leave this world. Until then, we do our best, hope in God, and rely on his grace.
Date: 93-03-28 21:06:59 EST
Didn't the Council of Trent define that the ordinary sacrifice of the Mass was sufficient for the remission of venial sin and that private confession was for reconciliation of mortal sin? I understand that this premise was re-affirmed by both Vatican I and II.
I know the passage from Trent you are thinking of. During the 14th session, the council fathers dealt exclusively with the sacraments of Penance and the Anointing of the Sick. In Chapter V, after explaining how all mortal sins must be confessed, they then add the following: "As regards venial sins by which we are not excluded from the grace of God and into which we fall more frequently, it is right and profitable, and implies no presumption whatever, to declare them in confession, as can be seen from the practice of devout people; yet, they may be omitted without guilt and can be expiated by many other remedies" (ND 1626).
The "many other remedies" the fathers speak of can take a variety of forms, most especially the reception of the sacraments, and the devout reception of Holy Communion in particular; hence, the teaching of the Church that only mortal sins must be confessed under ordinary circumstances. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving, works of charity and mortification are also recognized by most spiritual writers, modern and ancient, as ways to expiate the guilt of venial sin.
The Second Vatican Council spoke only briefly about the sacrament of Penance, just enough to call for a new rite to be composed, and to reaffirm the necessity of priests who hear confessions to avail themselves frequently of this sacrament.
Nevertheless, it's important to remember that the Church (including Trent) taught that there were two principle effects of this sacrament: not only the remission of sin, but also a particular grace to avoid sins and to conquer habitual attachment to sin, both venial and mortal. Hence, the spiritual doctors never cease to encourage recourse to the sacrament as the best way to overcome all sin, both mortal and venial, and to continue to grow in grace and friendship with God. This was part of the reason that Trent (and Vatican II) requires all the faithful to make sacramental confession at least once a year, whether conscious of sin or not.
Subj: Hi, Fr M....
Date: 93-10-12 22:45:12 EDT
....Got a quick question for you.
The office I work in has a strong Masonic influence (three of twelve of us are members). While I myself have no interest in joining, I was just wondering: is it still a Big No-No for a Catholic to join the Masons (that is, from the Church's perspective)? I've heard rumor that that restriction had been lifted, but I'd like to be sure. (If it is a no-no, it'll help me keep them off my back.)
I understand your confusion regarding Masonry. For a long time, many people had argued that the old ban against joining the Masons should no longer apply since, at least in this country, they appear to be little more than a philanthropic organization, while European Masonry remains solidly anti-Catholic.
But in 1983, just one day prior to the promulgation of the new Code of Canon Law, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a declaration reinforcing the ban in the United States, in which they stated that "the stated goals of Freemasonry remain incompatible with the Gospel of Christ and the teaching of the Catholic Church," and that it was still to be regarded as serious sin for Catholics to involve themselves in the activities of Masonic lodges. The entire text of the declaration can be found in the book, "Christianity and American Freemasonry," by William J. Whealon, published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.
Subj: Making Global statements
Date: 94-03-24 02:09:35 EST
In a reply to a question about Jesus teachings on non-violence, you said something like the Church should refrain from making global statements which will last forever. I am intrigued. We know that a committee of advisors appointed by Paul VI recommended allowing artificial birth control by married couples, advice the Pope chose to discard. In light of your global comments observation and the realization that there was high-level and legitimate disagreement with Humanae Vitae, what do you make of John Paul II's remarks regarding birth control as an intrinsic evil?
In order for the comparison you make to work, one would have to pretend that the teaching contained in Humanae Vitae is new and never heard before then. Paul VI's encyclical did not invent this teaching and nothing new it contained in it. Rather than making the kind of "global statement" that I mentioned, Humanae Vitae simply restates what has been the constant and consistent teaching of the Church for centuries, teaching which, in fact, fulfills all the criterion for infallibility as laid out in Lumen Gentium of Vatican II.
Medical papyri describing contraceptive methods are extant from 2700 BC in China and form 1850 BC in Egypt.
Given the widespread contraceptive practice of the first century, euphemistically referred to as "using magic" and "using drugs," it is logical to see in the New Testament prohibition of "mageia" and "pharmakeia" an implicit condemnation of contraception. This is especially true in the context of Galations 5:20 and Revelation 21:8,22:15, which refer to sins against chastity.
The Didache (c. AD 100-150), which explicitly condemned abortion, also implicitly condemned contraception. This document, believed to be a compendium of notes made on the post-Ascension preaching of the Apostles, refers toand condemnsthe practice of using medical means to avoid conception because the failure of those means results in a temptation toward abortion or infanticide.
Before the end of the second century, St. Clement of Alexandria wrote the catechetical treatise "Paidagogos," which synthesized the pattern of Christian education in the East and in North Africa in the first generation after the Apostles. He defends the holiness of marriage and the goodness of marital intercourse, but is adamant on the right use of marital relations: "To indulge in intercourse without intending children is to outrage nature, whom we should take as our instructor" (II, 9-10) (the idea of using natural birth control with the proper intention and for serious reason not yet having been developed).
In succeeding decades, St. Justin the Martyr and Origen, Lactantius and Epiphanius, St. Ambrose and St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine repeated the Church's stand on contraception. It was wrong because it imitated the malpractice of the pagans; it placed carnal pleasure before the love that wants children; it profaned the generative act, which is sacred; it was indifferent to God's intention to create a soul as the normal aftermath to intercourse; it denied that God's grace will sustain a married couple who practice continence; it made those who practice it willing to commit murder by abortion if contraception fails; it was like the idolatry of those who offer up human semen to their obscene gods; it debauched the human person by making it subject to unnatural lust; it was an act of ingratitude to God, who offers the gift of human life; it was an injustice against the laws of God; and it was irrational to have sexual intercourse while excluding the desire to have children.
It is noteworthy that up to the beginning of the 5th century, most of the Church's spokesmen on the sinfulness of contraception were writing from the Near East and Northern Africa, rather than from the "juridical West." And in many cases they wrote so strenuously no only because it was a moral aberration but because, by then, it had become part of a heretical mend-set that had infected Christian circles, eg., Manichaeism. It was St. Augustine who wrote most extensively on contraception, which the Manichaes had come to defend on ideological grounds (Pope Pius XII quoted extensively from this part of Augustine's works in his encyclical on Christian Marriage). Augustine points out that even the married can give in to their unruly passions, no less than the unmarried, the later by fornication and the former by contraception.
A list of declarations about contraception form the 4th century to the 12th would be interminable. In country after country and in every century, bishops and councils forbid "contraceptive potions," "herbs or other agents so you will not have children," "spilling the seed in coitus," "coitus interruptus," "poisons of sterility," "avoiding children by evil acts," "putting material things in the vagina," and "cause temporary or permanent sterility."
On document worthy of note, because it is so concise, is the Decretals of Pope Gregory IX (1148-1241).It defines contraception as any action taken to prevent generation, conception, or birth; and declares all such acts to be homicidal in the sense that they intend to destroy life at any stage of the vital process.
In the late 16th century, Sixtus V passed a series of laws to curb the immorality of the day, including some directly concerned with both abortion and contraception. During the reign of Pius IX (1846-78), at least 5 decisions were handed down by the Holy See with regard to contraception. One of these specifically mentions that the practice is opposed to natural law, and authorizes confessors to question penitents if they have reason to suppose that contraception is being practiced. It also quotes Innocent XI's censure against those who theorize that contraception is opposed only to divine positive law and not to natural law.
In 1930, the Anglican Church allowed contraception (the first group of Christians ever to do so), which prompted Pope Pius XI to lament: "They urge married people carefully to avoid this burden, not by means of virtuous continence, which is permissible even in marriage with the consent of both parties, but by vitiating the act of nature." He then made two famous statements that have since made Catholic moral history: one on the essential sinfulness of contraception, and the other on the right of the Church in modern times, and over the centuries, to pronounce on the morality of human behavior.
Neither Pius XII, nor Paul VI, added anything new to the Church's teaching on this subject, but only restated what had always been so. So, for Paul VI's to accept contraception as moral simply because some commission says so would be to go against the whole of Catholic teaching on the subject, which is of one mind. It would also require abrogating Vatican II's criterion for infallibility which, as I said, this teaching fulfills. So, the statement I made, that the Church should refrain from inventing new teaching, remains true.
Subj: Re: MB: Making Global statements
Date: 94-03-27 22:02:18 est
To: Fr M
My background in Augustine, St. Thomas, and the rest is very limited, so I won't try to match you point for point. Neither am I well versed in the work of the commission of theologians he appointed to advise him on Humane Vitae; I have read only of their conclusions.
I think your argument is flawed in a number of areas:
1) given the tradition you cite, if there were not room for revisiting this question (or what you call creating new teaching), why did the Pope appoint the Commission in the first place? Granted he was free to reject their recommendations, but it could not have been as open-and-shut a question as you suggest.
2) the Church long ago gave up condemning people who wanted to enjoy sexual intercourse because it is pleasurable, so I'm not sure why you raise that piece of historica. The current teaching (as I understand it) is that each act should be open to the possibility of procreation. Augustine (I believe it was) was a teacher of the former position; the Church having moved on from there, is that a new teaching as well?
3) In Gaudium et Spes, when the Council proclaimed that the Church is the People of God, with the title also went the authority of the magisterium; not completely, of course, but it is no longer solely the domain of the Curia. One of the great wisdom of the Council was recognizing that the Spirit speaks to all people (even non-Christians!!) in valid ways; the Spirit speaking to you and me is no less valid than the Spirit speaking to the Holy Father; he doesn't hold the only lease on the truth
4) the Church is a human institution, capable of error and sin as any other institution. It is a product of its culture and its time as well as its history. The Church used to defend slavery; was it wrong to change that position?
5) Given 3&4, I think the current Pontiff's list of those things "intrinsically evil" was ill-considered (curious that sexual abuse of young children was absent from the list)
I need to move on, but would love to continue this dialogue with you. It will be more than a week before I am able to get back on-line, so please don't think I am ignoring you.
To answer your questions: the Holy Father appointed the commission to perform a scientific study of new birth control drugs to ascertain whether they would fall under the proscription of Catholic teaching on contraception, ie., were they truly contraceptives in the classical sense. This being done, the commission went on to comment on Catholic teaching on contraception in general, which was not its function. These comments the Holy Father rejected, since it was not the question at hand.
I cited the passages I did because they bear testimony to the historicity of the teaching. Contrary to popular opinion, St. Augustine did not teach that it was wrong to enjoy sex.
No where in Gaudium et Spes do I find any notion that the authority of the magisterium is to be shared with the laity. Lumen Gentium is crystal clear about who enjoys teaching authority in the Church: the Holy Father and the bishops in union with him. The idea that the Holy Spirit could speak one thing to the Holy Father and something completely different to you and me would make the Spirit schizophrenic.
I am unaware of any magisterial document of the Church which defends the institution of slavery.
Your remark about the Holy Father not condemning child abuse along with contraception is a non-sequitur, unless you intend to deduce from that that he approves of the practice.
Subj: Hoping for wise counsel from you
Date: 94-06-05 04:03:38 EDT
To: Fr M
Thank you so much for taking time to write to us on AOL, and to post your homilies: I always look forward to reading them.
A few months back, I asked you about how to find a spiritual director, and your answer helped me a great deal. But now my spiritual director is out of town for the entire summer and I'm grappling with something hard, so I'm asking your help again.
I was raised by parents who were devout atheists, and expected to follow that "faith." I converted to Catholicism in 1972, but my faith wasn't very deep for many years.
Since last December, I've had an ever-deepening experience of God in prayer. At first, this was all roses: experiencing God's love in a way I never had before, and surrendering myself to God's will more than ever before. As time went on, some very difficult emotions (loneliness/despair) arose, all connected with recollections of my childhood. Eventually, in late March, I admitted to myself and to God that the correct name for the events (not vague memories, but things that were practiced openly in the home) was sexual abuse and massive parental neglect that started very early and continued, in one form or another, until I escaped at 16 to go to college. In a verbal form, they continue to this day (26 years since I left home).
At first, I thought that I should be able to deal with this on the basis of faith alone. It quickly became clear that I couldn't, and I started working with a good therapist, and reading a lot. The therapy helps me surface & recognize the feelings; to discover my disordered thinking, sense of worthlessness, and repressed anger and other effects of the neglect and incest. And to work on trying to heal those wounds.
My question revolves around how I think about this work, what I see as the goal. At first, I thought mostly of seeking eventual relief from my own emotional misery. I don't see God as sadistic and wanting me to suffer "just because." At the same time, I have a very strong belief that my suffering does have meaning when I can accept it as an opportunity to learn to imitate Christ, to understand the humiliation and pain of the crucifixion in a new way. So maybe it's wrong to try to heal these wounds and so avoid the suffering?
But at the same time, I also believe that God put me on earth for some reason. Much of my life until the last 2 years was a spiritual wasteland; my conversion was to the moral values of the Church rather than a commitment of faith and obedience to God: rule oriented rather than faith-based. Now that I've come to know a deeper spiritual life, I find my only desire to be asking God's help to clear away any debris that keeps me from knowing Him more fully, from living my life in His presence. It seems that all of these overwhelming emotions are just such debris, and that the therapy work to heal the wounds is therefore in some sense "holy" work because it provides more space for God to come into my life. If so, then this therapy is part of my spiritual growth and it's not self-serving to continue it in, even though it also alleviates my own pain.
The latter paragraph describes what I think most often. But I sometimes have trouble concentrating on therapy-as-spiritual growth and get sucked back into thinking "what can I do to feel better than this terrible depression?"
I will really appreciate any words of wisdom you can give me about this situation, and whether it's selfish to seek healing from this suffering. Thank you for your help.
Think of the analogy of someone suffering a more conventional illness, such as cancer. Certainly that person's suffering offers an opportunity to participate in the sufferings of our Lord, and can therefore be of great spiritual benefit. But does that mean that he should take no step to make himself well? By no means. While God, in his goodness, has the ability to turn evil into good and give spiritual significance to our pain, that doesn't mean that the evil becomes good, nor that God necessarily desires it to continue. And when, God willing, you are able to put this suffering behind you, the growth you have experienced by internalizing that suffering and giving it relevance in your spiritual life will remain with you. I believe that you should continue to make every effort to heal the wounds of this pain.
Thanks for writing. I'm glad I could be of help in some small way.
Date: 94-03-15 08:14:19 est
To: Fr M
Dear Father M,
I could really use your advice about something. I have a half brother that I have never met. My mother refuses to even discuss him except to say that my father isn't really his biological father. She said that he was tricked into marrying someone who was already pregnant. My father never discussed it and all and had nothing to do with his legal son after he divorced the woman. I found out that some years ago the boy (now a man probably in his 50s) tried to contact our family a few times over the years. My father has been dead now for a number of years and my mother still refuses to discuss any of this. Anyway, I never gave it too much thought until lately. I really felt like I should contact this man who at the very least, is my legal brother and possibly my biological brother. I think that he was raised to believe that my father was his real father. I think he must have felt truly abandoned. I want to write to him and see if he is interested in discussing the situationI want to let him know that I accept him as part of our family. But I know nothing about him or what kind of person he is. I don't want to open old wounds and hurt him. Also, if my family found out, wellmy mother anyway, would be extremely upset. She already hasn't spoken to me in a couple of years due to other problems. Even though she refuses to accept my olive branch, I still don't deliberately want to hurt her. On the other hand, I feel like I owe this "brother" something. I'm not even sure what I can offer him other than validation. I know that this is confusing, I certainly feel confused about it. I have prayed for guidance and was reminded that we should resolve any problems with our brothers before bringing our gifts to the altar. (Yikes, a terrible paraphrase) I have tried to reconcile with my mother and she still refuses. But what about this man? Do you think I should write to him or just let it go. I don't want to cause more harm than good? Any advice you could give me would be gratefully accepted.
Sorry to take too long to answer your letter.
I'm not sure what advice I could give you in your situation. The idea that this man might feel some abandonment is only a supposition on your part, since you have never met him. Whether or not your mother would be hurt by your seeing him depends on whether or not she would know about it at all, seeing that you don't seem to be on speaking terms with her anyway. So, it really isn't a moral problem, but just one of figuring out what it is you want, and how disappointed you might be if things don't turn out the way you foresee. I can only keep you in my prayers and wish you the best in whatever decision you make.
Sorry I can't be of more help.