ASK FATHER (Number 4)

ASK FATHER (Number 4)

Fr. J Michael Venditti

Subj: Sin
Date: 94-07-12 18:17:02 EDT
From: Therese

If a person is asked to do something that he/she thinks may be sinful but does it anyway though not totally convinced it isn't, are he/she in the state of sin? venial or moral?

Dear Therese,

In teaching about conscience, the Church makes several distinctions, one of which is the difference between a certain conscience (whether correct or erroneous) and a doubtful conscience; the former being when one believes himself to be certain regarding the morality of an action (even if he is wrong about it, i.e. he has been misinformed), and the latter being when one is consciously doubtful about the morality of an action. She teaches that, while a certain conscience must always be obeyed, a doubtful conscience must never be acted upon until one has removed the doubt.

Therefore, if I think that something may be sinful, but I'm not completely sure, I may not do it. I must first resolve the doubt, one way of the other.

Subj: Father?
Date: 94-07-14 01:18:23 EDT
From: Benjamen

I am a Christian of the non-denominational persuasion. I attempt to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. There seems to be things about the Catholic religion that are contrary to His teaching. However, in the interest of Christian growth, I would like to ask you questions from time to time if you don't mind. I will remain non-confrontational if you will. Maybe we can both learn something.

I suppose the first question, one that has bothered me for some time is this, Why do you guys get called "Father"? Christ said, "And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven." Matthew 23:9. I did ask someone this question. He said I may ask him anything I wanted about the Catholic religion, I asked this question as my first question, he got mad and I have gone several years now without an answer.

If you don't like non-Catholics asking questions, just tell me and I'll stop.


Dear Ben,

Welcome to the Ask Father folder. You should feel free to post whatever questions you like.

One of the fundamental difference that exists between Catholic belief and that of many Protestant groups is the understanding of the history and the authority of the Sacred Scriptures, and their proper use in the Church. How one views this depends on how one views the Holy Scriptures and interprets them. That was the reason, in a post some time back, that I mentioned how Catholics will refer to the teaching authority of the Church—not to belittle the meaning of the Scriptures for the individual, but because the Scriptures, having come out of the Church, are a PART of the revelation of God to his people, Tradition and the living Spirit of God working through the Church today being the other "parts."

Let me give you a few examples...

Many Christians will use 1 Timothy 4:3 to show that the Catholic Church in the West is wrong in requiring her priests to be celibate, but without any reference to 1 Cor. 7:1. Like all literature, the Bible can be made to mean just about anything, since the meanings of words, in any language, are never exact. In this case, the Church guides her faithful to understand that since no man is forced to be a priest, she is forbidding marriage to no one. And, in fact, she has never claimed that the reasons for celibacy are to be found in Scripture alone. But that can't prevent an individual from deciding, on his own, that Paul's words to Timothy mean something else. So, naturally, a Christian who holds that everything believed and done by Christians must be found explicitly in the Bible is going to be confused by this practice.

Sometimes confusion results from a faulty translation of the original into the vernacular language. Take, for example, Matthew 19:9, where Jesus seems to allow for divorce on the grounds of marital infidelity. How does one translate the Greek word "pornea"? Some scholars will translate this to mean "sexual infidelity;" while others say that it more probably means "unlawful cohabitation," and is a reference to a practice of some Greeks at the time who entered into marital unions with their widowed parents, or even their siblings. It's important because which meaning you choose will determine whether a person can divorce his or her spouse on grounds of adultery. For the Catholic it is not a difficulty because he knows, from the writings of the sub-Apostolic Fathers and the Spirit-filled teaching of the Church, that marriage is indissoluble; so, he knows that, whatever the Lord means by the word "pornea," he does not mean that you can divorce your wife if she's unfaithful. It's in this way that God's revelation to man through Tradition and the living authority of the Church can clarify the Word of God in Scripture. If one, however, believes that Scripture must stand alone, as in Martin Luther's "solas scripturas" theory, then there can never be a definitive answer, and each individual will continue to interpret the passage as he sees fit.

It's on the basis of this kind of approach to Scripture that I can satisfy myself that Jesus is not concerned that I am referred to as Father, anymore than he is concerned that you call your own father, Father. Or are we to suppose that it's OK to call your father "Daddy" but not "Father" because of what our Lord says? To me, as indeed to the Church, it seems incongruous that the Lord would reveal Himself to us in the Gospel in order to police our vocabulary. Surely his concern must be for something else, such as not attributing to any man what truly belongs to the Lord alone. And if I thought that any Catholic were thinking me to be God because I am called Father, then I would have them call me something else, to be sure.

Thanks for your question.

Subj: Re: Father?
Date: 94-07-16 22:40:35 EDT
From: Benjamen

Having read several of your responses to several different issues, I have come to the conclusion that you reply to all issues about the same. (Issues concerning questions about how Catholics bend scripture). You simply say that scripture is for the church and we (non-Catholics) can't understand it. Your very answer to me took a very simple question about calling you father, you expanded it to include divorce and said the church does not believe a verse means it is OK. I can't understand this because the Catholic church gives so very many exceptions. (Maybe you don't, not meant to be personal).

Anyway, I find fault with believing the scripture is not meant to be literal. And I do not believe any of you should be called father.

Please believe that I have respect for your convictions. I just can't believe they are correct.

In Christ, Ben

Dear Ben,

Thanks again for posting.

On a message board such as Ask Father, it's very common for questions to come up more than once, and when they do I try my best to be consistent, often referring back to what I may have said in answering a similar previous question. This is the reason that some of my answers may seem familiar.

In considering your question regarding our Lord's admonition, "Call no man your father," my intention to was to point out that those Christians who restrict our Lord's words to their absolute literal interpretation have an understanding of Scripture which is very different from that of Catholics; and, in citing the other passages I mentioned, I was merely giving other examples of how this different understanding relates to one's appreciation of the sacred texts in general. I also attempted to show how different translators of the Scriptures can often give totally different meanings to the same passage, as in the case of the passage from Matthew regarding divorce, and how certain passages can be clarified by reading them in the original languages rather than in an English translation. In many respects, the fundamentalist who reads the Scriptures only in English is at the mercy of whatever translator he is reading with regard to what certain passages are saying.

The bottom line of my post was the notion that the Bible did not fall from heaven bound in leather and in the King's English; rather, the Holy Scriptures have a history in the Church, in which they developed over time into the form they have today. Christ did not leave the Church with a book; he left her with the Spirit, which remains alive and active in her even today. It was that Spirit, working in and through the Church, that guided the historical development of the written word of God into the Bible that we know today. And according to a saying of the Fathers, Sacred Scripture is written principally in the Church's heart rather than in documents and records, for the Church carries in her Tradition the living memorial of God's Word, and it is the Holy Spirit who gives her the spiritual interpretation of the Scripture. As St. Augustine said in the 4th century, "But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me."

Naturally, it is recognized that the fundamentalist approach to the Bible is radically different from that taken by the Catholic Church, which is why I began my last post by pointing out that it is in the understanding of Scripture that the differences between Catholicism and fundamentalism are most acute.

Thanks again for posting, and feel free to write again.

Subj: Sin vs. Ignorance
Date: 94-07-04 23:04:32 EDT
From: Elijah

Hi Father M!

Your homily for this past Sunday brought to mind a question that I've contemplated a long time.

Your homily talked about people who decide that they can do things which the Church calls "sin" because of their own understanding about the action. To avoid all the arguments about particular Church laws, I'm not going to use any example: just assume that there is something which God truly considers a sin, and which the Church rightly identifies as such.

I'm wondering about who is worse off, or more sinful: a person who engages in the behavior knowing it is a sin but unable to make a better choice for some reason (emotional problems, addiction, personality defects) or someone who has developed the idea that it isn't really a sin.

It seems to me as though the first person is in some ways "closer" to God because s/he at least knows God's will and feels regret at not being able to follow it, while the latter does not even really attempt to know God's will.

But I've heard the argument made that the first person is willfully disobeying while the second is not, and thus the second person is somehow "less sinful."

Dear Elijah,

The last point of view you mention is essentially the "ignorance is bliss" argument; namely, that since one can't be guilty of a sin if he is unaware the act is sinful, then he's better off not knowing. The problem with it is that it denies that there is an intrinsic goodness in the truth.

It is absolutely true that invincible ignorance excuses, or at least severely mitigates, guilt. But the operative word here is "invincible." In other words, only the individual knows whether he or she has exhausted all the opportunities available to inform the conscience. I would tend to agree with you that the person who knows the truth is better off, since the door remains open for that person to make a change. Yes, they are responsible for acting contrary to the truth, but no change at all would be possible if they had no contact with it.

Subj: The Third Commandment
Date: 94-07-23 21:58:08 EDT
From: Joesephus

Dear Father, I was just wondering, and this is not a trick question, for I have a reputation of being somewhat of a rogue on AOL. The Third Commandment states, "Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath Day. My question is "If we call AOL on Sunday, and I guess if we stay in the Catholic folders, it shouldn't be a violation, but if we wander off to Games, or other non religious folders, are we in violation of the Third Commandment?

Thank you...Josephus

Dear Josephus,

Thanks for your question, and please don't worry about your reputation. Everyone is equal here at Ask Father. :)

The Catholic understanding of the Third Command begins with understanding the replacement of the Jewish Sabbath with the weekly commemoration of the Resurrection of our Lord. "The Catholic Catechism" treats this subject in length, but it's not to the point of your question here.

Assuming that we understand the meaning of the Sunday observance, we then have to come to an understanding of how we are to interpret the command to keep it holy. The New Testament clearly indicates what this meant for the early Christians: the letter to the Hebrews admonishes the brethren to "not to neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but to encourage one another" (Heb. 10:25); and an ancient Christian document, the "Didiche," which is based on the post-resurrection preaching of the Apostles, indicates that it was already understood in their life-time that participation in the Eucharist on the Lord's Day was an obligation of every member of the brotherhood of the Christians.

So the Catholic's understanding of the Third Commandment centers, first and foremost, on the Mass, the paschal celebration of the Lord, as it did for the early Christians. St. John Chrysostom, close after the time of the Apostles, exhorted his people saying, "You cannot pray at home as at church, where there is a great multitude, where exclamations are cried out to God as from one great heart, and where there is something more: the union of minds, the accord of souls, the bond of charity, the prayers of the priests" (De incomprehensibili 3, 6: PG 48, 725).

With regard to the idea of resting from work on Sunday, the Catholic Church views the question in relation to the Eucharist as the center of the Lord's Day. In other words, that which would hinder us from the worship owed to God on this day should be avoided. The focus should be, in the words of the Catechism, "the worship owed to God, the joy proper to the Lord's Day, the performance of the works of mercy, and the appropriate relaxation of mind and body." It then goes on to say that "Family needs or important social service can legitimately excuse from the obligation of Sunday rest. The faithful should see to it that legitimate excuses do not lead to habits prejudicial to religion, family life, and health" (Art. 2185). The Catechism goes on to say that those Christians who have leisure should be mindful of those who, because of poverty or hardship, so not; and should remember that Sunday is also a day given to good works, service of the sick and the elderly, and family obligations difficult to do on other days.

So, the short answer to your question is that Sunday should be a day dedicated first and foremost to the worship of God through the Eucharistic celebration, and that whatever else we may do must not in any way interfere with this. So playing games on-line or browsing other folders can certainly be done on Sunday.

Sorry for making this so long, but I like to be as complete as possible for those who like to read the posts and who may find something said here helpful to them. Thanks again for your question.

Subj: Holy Water at home
Date: 94-07-25 17:12:44 EDT
From: Xenophon

Hi Father,

I have received as a gift an antique Holy Water font intended for use in the home. I haven't heard of anyone doing this anymore these days... is it still an accepted practice? Are there any particular "rules" about keeping Holy Water at home? Is there a preferred location in the home for installing the font? (I was thinking it would be nice to have it near the front door, inside the house of course... so family members can recall their baptism prior to heading out the door every morning!... )

Thanks for whatever you can tell me about the custom of having Holy Water at home!


Dear Xenophon,

Not only do I have such a font in my room, but I recently gave one to my sister and her husband.

Holy Water is just one of a variety of objects, prayers, gestures, etc. which the Church refers to as "sacramentals." Although they cannot transmit to us Sanctifying Grace, as do the Sacraments of Christ, they can become instruments of actual graces, but only according to the disposition of the one who uses or receives them. A good example of a sacramental is a blessing by a priest. Genuflecting and kneeling, folding one's hands in prayer, making the sign of the cross over oneself or another, bowing the head and sprinkling with holy water are all commonplace among the faithful, and they testify to the faith that inspires them; and, on the Church's authority, carry with them the promise of God's help, always in spirit and often also temporally in body.

Symbolically, holy water recalls our baptism, as you mention. When used upon entering church, it also recalls our Hebrew roots, as found in the ancient Jewish practice of purifying one's hands with water before entering the temple in Jerusalem (believe it or not, there is no custom in Christian tradition of using the holy water when leaving church, though most people seem to do it anyway). As a blessed object, holy water symbolizes a tangible reference by which we can see the blessing of the Church transmitted by people or objects. It is often used by the priest in various rites of blessing, not that the holy water itself can do anything "magical," but that it represents the blessing of the Church in a concrete way that's easy for us to see.

The custom of using holy water in the home is a long and well established one. Not only does it remind us of our baptism, but, as a blessed object, it represents an "intrusion" of the supernatural into our everyday lives. Tradition speaks of blessing oneself with holy water upon retiring, upon rising in the morning, when entering the home, or when entering one's own room. There's no "official" place in the home for a holy water font, but next to the front door, or the door to one's own room, seems to be common.

Like any sacramental, it's always important to keep in mind the true character of it and it's use, to avoid any exaggerated notions of superstition or magic. Like any blessed object, it should be treated with respect, and never disposed of haphazardly.

Thanks for you question.

Subj: Sacraments
Date: 94-07-28 09:51:00 EDT
From: Carolinian

Father, in the parish we were attending, the practice was to prepare the children for Eucharist without first going to confession. I have discovered this is wrong practice (reference para 1457 of catechism). If this is wrong, why are parishes getting away with it. When I asked the pastor, he acted like just because it was in canon law, it didn't mean it had to be obeyed. Don't priests have an obligation to obey the law same as us lay folks? any help would be appreciated. Thanks Caroline


Subj: Re: Sacraments
Date: 94-07-28 20:55:50 EDT
From: Pythagorus

Parents are responsible for the preparation of children for the sacraments, the parish only helps. If you want the sacrament of reconciliation first then you, as a parent, should take that initiative. The documents you refer to are guidelines. Go back to the instruction you received at the Baptism of your child that said that you are the first and best teacher of your child (it comes in the final blessing), there you find your authority. Assert your authority with your child within the context of your parish. (We did that and our children and they were admitted to the fellowship of the table [communion] a year before the common discipline.) You are responsible for the education of your children.

Dear Carolinian,

The obligation of a pastor to see that children receive the sacrament of Penance before receiving the Eucharist for the first time is a serious one. But the practice of some pastors doing the opposite is an old one, and may have its foundation in the fact that the practice has varied.

Keep in mind that, prior to 1910, it was generally necessary for one to be confirmed before receiving Holy Communion. Children never received, and most adults did not receive more than a few times a year. In fact, in many parishes, Holy Communion was not even offered at most Masses on Sunday. Some parishes would have a special Mass on Sunday, usually the first Mass in the morning, called the Communion Mass, at which Holy Communion was offered for those who wanted to receive.

While the Fourth Lateran Council had encouraged frequent Communion and had decreed that Holy Communion could be given to anyone who had reached the age of reason, these decrees had been largely ignored. On August 8, 1910, St. Pius X laid down in the decree "Quam Singulari" that, in accord with Canon 21 of the Fourth Lateran Council, children might receive the Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist, in that order, as soon as they attained the use of reason, and that this was to be applied throughout the Church without delay.

On April 11, 1971, the Sacred Congregation for Clergy confirmed the custom of requiring children to receive Penance before their first Communion, but did allow certain places to do the opposite by means of an experiment with the prior approval of the Holy See. But two years later, on May 24, 1973, a joint decree from the Sacred Congregation for Clergy and the Sacred Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments ended the experiment. That document reads in part:

"After mature consideration and having taken account of the view of the bishops, the Sacred Congregations for the Discipline of the Sacraments and the Clergy declares by this present document, with the approval of the Sovereign Pontiff, Paul VI, that these experiments, which have lasted for two years up to the end of the school year 1972-73, should cease and that everybody everywhere should conform to the decree 'Quam Singulari'" (Sanctus Pontifex, 24 May 1973). Subsequent decrees by the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship (which replaced the above mentioned congregation during the reorganization by Pope John Paul II) have confirmed this decree and insisted that it is the last word on the subject.

So, it's quite possible that your pastor, if he's an older man, is confused by the fact that the contrary practice of allowing children access to Communion before Confession was allowed for two years in a few places. This has often been the case in situations where regulations have changed over the years. But since the mind of the Church has now been made clear, there can be no excuse for not doing what is now required. The notion that what is contained in Canon Law need not be obeyed by all is certainly not legitimate; and, besides, this particular requirement has been made clear by the Church in other places as well, to wit the above mentioned decree.

Brian's notion, that parents are somehow authorized to decide this issue for themselves regardless of the discipline of the Church, is an example of taking a principle that the Church applies to one area and trying to apply it artificially to another. Parents are the first teachers of their children in the ways of faith, as the Rite of Baptism states; but the care and guarding of the Sacraments belongs to the Church's teaching authority and not to individuals. As the Second Vatican Council taught: "...every legitimate celebration of the Eucharist is regulated by the bishop, to whom is confided the duty of presenting to the divine majesty the cult of the Christian religion and of ordering it in accordance with the Lord's injunctions and the Church's regulations..." (Lumen Gentium, Art. 26).

Subj: Father...
Date: 94-08-06 02:09:19 EDT
From: Magdalena

My Boyfriend and I (who have been dating for a year and a half ) broke up recently, because , among other things, I would only go so far in the sexual part of the relationship, wanting to put off sexual relations until marriage. I am disappointed, because , after all, this man WAS respectful of my religious beliefs for a year and a half, and tried not to pressure me, but stated at our last meeting that he was "bored" with that aspect of the relationship. I must admit I felt like our relationship couldn't continue without some step in that direction, but I was unwilling to go against Jesus' teachings...

I guess my question, now that I sit here alone, is how does a Catholic couple go past the friendship stage, and find out if they really have the passion which sustains a marriage—and the compatibility—without going against what the Bible says... And what aspects of romantic contact are considered permissible out side of marriage, and what isn't permissible, according to Catholic teaching...

Thanks in advance, Father

Dear Magdalena,

Thanks for your question. What you are going through is very common. Young people are under enormous pressure to become sexually active today, partly due to the pressure put on them by their peers, and partly due to the constant misinformation about sex that is given in the media and sometimes even in school sex-ed classes.

Your feeling that the relationship should move forward is a normal one—we all want our relationships to grow—but the problem lies in equating that growth with sexual activity which is particularly ordered toward marriage and children. Even in your question you betray the idea that there are only two types of relationships: friendship and love, with love being identified by sexual activity. Friendship is not a "stage," nor is love or sex; and so many young people ruin what chances they have for establishing lasting, loving relationships because they convince themselves that they can't be in love if they are "just friends." So they start playing around with sex, thinking that this qualifies them as lovers. Convinced that they are no longer friends but lovers, they continue this way sometimes even into marriage, without the friendship between them continuing to grow. One of the divorce statistics they never tell you is that for couples who were not sexually active before marriage, the divorce rate is practically non-existent. There are probably several reasons for this, but one of them is most likely the fact that these couples never regarded sexual intercourse as the "be all and end all" of human relationships. It isn't sex that makes one a lover, it's love itself; and love, after all, is a form of friendship. The couple that doesn't continually work on deepening their friendship doesn't stand a chance, no matter how much "passion" they may share.

Another problem here is the way the whole subject of "romance" is presented today, to which you refer in your question. Watch just one hour of television on any channel and you'll be persuaded that romance = sex. If two people become obsessed with the idea that, without some from of intimate physical contact, they are "just friends" and it's not going anywhere, then they have not yet discovered what real love is. In marriage, sexuality is a very important part of love; but it is not the sex that makes the love. Sex in marriage is an expression of love (one of many), and thus is a vital compliment to love; but sex, even in marriage, does not define the relationship. Otherwise we would have to conclude that older couples who may have stopped having sex are no longer in love.

Which brings us to the million dollar question: "How far can I go?" Certainly, any sexual activity outside of marriage that leads to orgasm is a misuse of the sexual gift. But on a deeper level, we must consider not only what is a sin, but what is an occasion of sin. An occasion of sin is anything we may do which, while itself may not be sinful, will lead ourselves or others to be tempted toward sin. Certain forms of kissing or touching, for example, may not be sinful in themselves, but could arouse one to a point beyond which resisting temptation becomes more and more difficult. There is no way that I can say what is an occasion of sin for you, only you know that. But always remember that we have an obligation in charity to not only avoid occasions of sin for ourselves, but also what would be an occasion of sin for another. For example, a girl resting her hand on her boyfriend's knee may not be an occasion of sin for her, but it might be for him. By keeping mindful of his limitations and sensitivities, she shows a love for him which is mature in the fullest sense of the word.

I salute your desire to do what is right; I hope this has helped in some small way. Thanks for your question.

Subj: Mary
Date: 94-08-08 17:05:19 EDT
From: Adam

Dear Reverend Father Venditti

I saw your invitation in "This Rock" and thought that I would ask you.

Recently I had a friend over (a non-denominational) and he commented on one of the images of Mary we have in our home. I had a hard time defending her could you please give me some line of defense for our Blessed Mother.


Dear Adam,

You might want to begin by showing your friend the color plate which appears after page 12 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church showing the most ancient image of the Blessed Virgin ever found. It dates from the third century and is a testimony of the veneration with which the early Christians held the Mother of God.

Catholic Christology (meaning the study of Christ) is unintelligible without reference to the role of Christ's mother in the development of faith from the simple narrative of the Gospels to the elaborate Mariology of modern times. From the earliest recorded post-Scriptural documents we see that Mary's divine maternity and perpetual virginity were primary concerns for the ancient Fathers; and with good reason. Unless Mary could be called the Mother of God in a true sense, and unless her divine maternity meant that she gave birth to a mere man and not to the divine Word incarnate, the union of God and man in Christ is denied and Mary is not the Mother of God because her son was not also the Son of God.

Catholic devotion to Mary, then, is based on the certain conviction that Mary was chosen by God from all eternity to be the vehicle by which God would come into the world in the person of Jesus. At the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and "announced" that she was to be the Mother of the Savior, for one brief moment Mary held in her hands the salvation or damnation of the whole human race (Luke 1:26-38). Being a human being with free will, Mary was free to accept or refuse the divine commission. Her "fiat" (I will it) was the instant that the salvation of mankind was guaranteed. It was through Mary that Jesus came into the world; hence, all that we receive from Jesus comes to us indirectly through her. This is what is meant by Mary's title of "Mediatrix of all Grace." The early Fathers of the Church would often refer to Mary as the "New Eve," meaning that whereas Eve brought ruin on mankind by disobedience, Mary co-operated with Christ in perfect holiness to bring about man's restoration.

True devotion to Mary, therefore, far from taking away anything owed to Jesus, can only result in drawing the Christian ever more deeply into union with the Son of God. As the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen was fond of saying, "What son would not be pleased with love for his mother?"