Friday, 26 August 2011

What is a Catholic, anyway?


Those of us considering the Ordinariate (a structure for Anglicans coming into full communion with the Holy See) ponder what we believe, what we have been and what we are becoming in terms of our membership in the Body of Christ. We must also consider what a Catholic Christian affirms as distinct from those of other faiths or of no faith.

Catholics are not . . .

First of all it may be helpful to consider what being or becoming a Catholic is not, despite what popular opinion and prejudice may say.

1.     Entering or being received into the full communion of the Catholic Church does not mean being “re-baptized”. If one is already baptized by water in the Name of the Holy Trinity, one is already a member of Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Here is a helpful thought from Fr. Sam Edwards, an Anglican priest who is entering the Ordinariate:

    Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, “I am a part of all that I have met,” and it is a part of me. I was baptized into the Great Belonging of Christ’s body in the Methodist Church, but that act did not make me a Methodist, but a catholic Christian.  This is true in the case of all baptisms administered with water “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”  (Methodism claims nothing less; the Catholic Church entirely agrees, for while she teaches that the Church of Jesus Christ “subsists” visibly and most fully in that body whose bishops are in full communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome, she does not thereby deny the reality of the Christian identity and commitment of those who are outside those limits, but instead invites them inside . . .)

2.    Being a Catholic does not mean you must be a member of the Western Latin Church (mistakenly called "Roman" Catholic, a term which refers officially only to those in the Diocese of Rome). Catholics who are, by definition, those in full communion with Rome may equally be members of Eastern churches. In fact, Christianity, like Judaism, is originally an oriental religion. Some Eastern churches in full communion with Rome are: Ukrainian, Melkite (Arab) and Maronite (Syrian/ Lebanese) Catholics. These churches are fully Catholic along with many other Eastern churches in a variety of countries using a variety of liturgies and languages: Coptic Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Chaldean Catholics. There are over 20 distinct self-governing (sui juris) Eastern churches in full communion with the Pope and the Holy See. They are Catholic but not Roman.

3.    All those who are not in full communion with Rome are not considered heretics. There are degrees of communion since all the baptized are part, by definition, of the one universal Catholic Church of Christ on the most basic level. A number of Eastern churches, apart from those mentioned above, are not yet in full communion with Rome but have bishops, priests and deacons who are recognized by the Pope as legitimately ordained sacred ministers. These clergy hold the Orthodox Christian faith and celebrate what Rome considers valid sacraments but are not yet in full communion with the Holy See e.g. the Greek, Russian, Romanian and Bulgarian Orthodox along with the Orthodox Church of America and other Orthodox churches as well as the Assyrian Church of the East, amongst others. .

4.   These churches professing Catholic faith but not in full communion with Rome are not excommunicated. As noted, they participate in a degree of unity or communion and may, in certain circumstances, share in or even administer the sacraments to Roman Catholics.  Canon 671 of the 1991 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, states: 

    "If necessity requires it or genuine spiritual advantage suggests it and provided that the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, it is permitted for Catholic Christian faithful, for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister, to receive the sacraments of penance, the Eucharist and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers, in whose Churches these sacraments are valid. Likewise Catholic ministers licitly administer the Sacraments of Penance, the Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick to Christian faithful of Eastern Churches, who do not have full communion with the Catholic Church, if they ask for them on their own and are properly disposed."

5.    Being a Catholic does not mean practising every tradition or custom found in the various churches which are part of Catholic Church.  There is a difference between doctrine as set forth in The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the devotions or practices of various groups in the Catholic Church.  For example, nothing requires a Catholic to say the rosary, go on a pilgrimage, venerate relics, kiss icons or light candles at shrines to saints. Blessed John Henry Newman, a famous Anglican who was received into full communion with Rome, did not like some of the practices and attitudes nor some of the art of continental European Catholicism. On the other hand, every Catholic is required to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation unless hindered by sickness or another legitimate reason and to prepare for and receive Holy Communion at least once a year at Easter. 
So there are customs and spiritual practices that vary from place to place as well as doctrinal rules that apply to all Catholics. The former are a matter of taste and preference and are not obligatory; the latter are the basic rules of membership in the Body of Christ and so are for all. Many outside the Church confuse popular piety and a mistaken emphasis given by some Catholics to certain practices with the actual teaching of the Church.

So, what does a Catholic believe?

Catholics, like other Christians, are followers of Jesus Christ; believing that Jesus is fully God and fully man, the Son of God and their Lord and Saviour.

Catholics believe that Jesus Christ commissioned the leadership of his Church, which is, in a mystical way, his body. Jesus insisted upon the unity of the Church based upon the rock of Peter. (Matthew chapter 16 verse 18). Those who hold the Catholic faith are called to unity with each other in the body of Christ and with all Christians, indeed with all humanity, through the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Christian unity reflects the unity of the one God, perfectly united in Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the vocation of every Christian to pray for, seek and serve unity in the Church.

Catholic unity requires both allegiance and sacrifice. There are levels of unity between people and with God. The Catholic faith requires that we join our Lord in his prayer ut unum sint – that they all may be one. We join in his sacrifice, his self-giving for the life of the world by seeking to nurture the unity for which he gives his life through the Church and the ministry of all baptized people for the life of the world (John 6:51).

If one holds the Catholic Faith it is imperative, then, to find ways to grow in unity with the leadership of the one Church commissioned by Jesus and to bring others into that unity. The principle ministry of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope or Holy Father, is to nurture this unity. 

It is central to the Catholic faith that all bishops seek and nurture unity and that bishops be in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the centre of unity and successor of St. Peter of whom our Lord said, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
This is a contentious issue for some because they profess Catholic faith but have difficulty with the history of the papacy or with the history of the Catholic Church as they understand it or have been misinformed about it. These are understandable concerns as there is much of fallen human nature that has wounded humanity and the witness of the Church. Yet the principle of unity is essential since there is one God, one Christ and one Church and Jesus commands it.

How do we square the fallen nature of humanity, the fallenness and corruption of some people in the Church, indeed at times of some at the highest levels of the Church, with the holiness of the Church as proclaimed in the Catholic creeds. How is this possible when we have the promise of Jesus to Peter and to us, his followers that the gates of hell shall not prevail against his Church? (Matthew 16:18)

This question is pertinent to what it means to be a Catholic Christian and requires a fuller treatment elsewhere.  We need say here, however, that the Church, the centre of unity for humanity, is the Body of Christ but the body has been and continues to be wounded by the sinful actions of human beings – “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23; cf. Romans 1:18-3:20; 11:32; Gal 3:22). 

Since all have sinned, this includes all those in the Church and those leading the Church. Jesus did not say that Satan would not be able to influence some in the Church, but that evil would not prevail against the mission of Christ and his Church.  The struggle goes on.

This struggle and the occasional defeat does not and will not stop Christ’s reconciling love and his giving of himself for us and others in and through the Church – the Bride of Christ. Christ continues to give us his very life – his body and blood in the Eucharist bringing healing and unity through the proclamation of the Word and Sacraments in and through the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church despite the fallen nature of those who serve the Church.

Forgiveness is always available and always necessary for members of the Church especially as they prepare to receive and offer Christ in the sacraments. The sacraments are the outward and visible signs of his love for us and are the assured means of his grace for those who will receive and, in turn, minister his love to others. This constant need for forgiveness does not affect the Church’s call to holiness or the ideal of perfection which she holds out to all those who seek the City of God. In a family no member is perfect but all are called to serve the good and the unity of the family by seeking forgiveness from God and from one another so that the family may continue to pursue its ideals and help others.

So, being a Catholic means recognizing the holiness and vocation of the Church (which is God’s doing and grace) to bring others to reconciliation with God and with one another as a witness to the world that God so loves (John  3:16). 

As stated recently in an article here on Confession, “The Seal of the Confessional”, unity in the vocation to holiness requires that the Sacrament of Penance i.e. the ministry of justice, forgiveness and healing be participated in by every member of the Church including the Pope and those leading the Church. This sacrament of reconciliation is a witness to the world, a sign of unity and a call to the rest of humanity to seek the same unity that Christ wills for all. This is entirely the work and power of God conveyed through ‘earthen vessels’ (2 Corinthians 4:7), by frail human beings whom God has chosen to be his partners in the ministry of his justice and love.

To be a Catholic means, then, to be a penitent receiving God’s forgiveness and then forgiving others by the power of the Holy Spirit, a power which is communicated in the assurance of the healing sacraments: Baptism, Penance, Eucharist, Unction (anointing of for healing) and in various other acts of love and mercy.

This recognition of the fallen nature of humanity is widely rejected in the West today, but remains true and all the more necessary because it is so widely denied. Ironically, those who stand outside of the Church to judge her do so based upon the very principles of the Christian faith, which they have absorbed but failed to attribute to Christ and his Catholic Church. The standards of justice and mercy in the West are directly attributable to Christianity (see Rene Girard: Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World, Stanford University Press; and The Scapegoat, CBC Ideas:)


What about Protestant Objections?

This issue of God’s justifying us through faith and our continuing participation in the life of Christ or sanctification and growth in love and service goes to the root of the thorny problem of justification and sanctification that has been an obstacle for Protestants since the Reformation. 

The justification/ sanctification issue is a very large topic to be dealt in another article but is one that has been discussed extensively in recent years and has been discerned not to be an insuperable barrier to further unity in Christ. In recent Lutheran-RC dialogues and in the discussions that the Catholic Church continues to have with other Christian ecclesial communities these matters bring forth agreements leading to a deepening of Christian unity.

A Catholic Christian believes that by God’s forgiving and justifying grace we are open to the goodness of God’s creation and sanctifying grace. Though imperfect as human beings, we are forgiven for our sins and empowered by the Holy Spirit to seek God and the good of others by means of faith, hope and love. We accept grace by faith in Christ. This faith is freely bestowed as a gift by which we are empowered to co-operate and so bring forth the fruit of God’s love in works of mercy for the good of all.  

Grace abounds and as members of the Body of Christ, the universal Catholic Church, we participate as free human beings growing in grace now and beyond the grave as we are purified by God’s burning love along with the prayers of all the faithful here (the Church Militant), those in the Church Expectant (those who have gone before us in faith) and those in the Church Triumphant (the saints in heaven).

One recent example of the reconciling negotiations on this and other matters is The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, a document created by and agreed to by the Catholic Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999. It affirms that the Lutherans, Catholics and others now share "a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ." This agreement resolves the conflict over the nature of justification that was at the root of the Protestant Reformation and removes another barrier to unity in Christ.

The excommunications relating to the doctrine of justification by the Council of Trent  no longer apply to the teachings of the Lutheran churches and others who affirm the agreement. In 2006 the World Methodist Council, meeting in South Korea, voted unanimously to adopt this document.  Anglicans who did not share the same level of doctrinal concern on this issue generally accept the text as well.

This kind of agreement is important because it removes another barrier to unity and contributes to acceptance of the Petrine ministry, the ministry of unity exercised by the Pope and the Catholic Church for all Christians. Discussions continue about various aspects of universal Catholic Christian faith and how it may be more widely accepted by all those bodies separated from full communion with the Holy See.


Finally

A Catholic affirms all efforts to bring about co-operation and increase communion with people of faith and good will who affirm life, seek healing for themselves and others and are open to dialogue and co-operation with the Holy See. Being in communion with the Catholic Church links us to the largest and most universal community of all time and one which seeks the good of every human being from conception to natural death. The Catholic affirms that everything good in human nature and the world comes from and returns to God who loves and holds the universe in being.








Wednesday, 24 August 2011

The Blessed Virgin Mary in Anglican and Catholic Devotion


As I consider the questions that have come to me about Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the doctrines of her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, I am listening this morning to CBC Radio 2.  


The host is presenting the chamber music of Healey Willan, one of the Canadian treasures of the Anglican patrimony and for years organist and choirmaster at the Church St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto. Willan was also the composer of some fine motets in honour of our Lady, the octave of whose Assumption we are just concluding.


The following is excerpted from The Pondering Heart
for this octave of the Assumption of our Lady. It may be a good introduction to the Novena for the Ordinariate in North America being offered here in Toronto from the Feast of the Nativity of the BVM (Our Lady of Walsingham) September 8 - 16. This nine day period takes us through the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and Our Lady of Sorrows.

Rather than lay out a prescribed Novena for this period, I refer you to the Pondering Heart blog to use the resources for the rosary and other devotions there adding this intention for the nine days:

"For the appointment of ordinaries to serve those from the Anglican tradition in North America in the patrimony which our Holy Father Benedict XVI has welcomed into the full communion of the Catholic Church."


The Catholic Doctrines about Mary

It must be understood that the essential fact about the Catholic doctrines concerning Mary is this: they are all ultimately about Jesus.  From the Annunciation Mary has known that her life is all about Jesus.  


Her exaltation by God – “henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” – is precisely the consequence of the fact that “he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is his Name.”  Her fundamental counsel as “the handmaiden of the Lord” [Luke 1:38] to us is, “whatsoever he saith unto you, do it” [John 2:5].  
The essential facts and Catholic doctrines about Mary founded upon them are as follows:


1. She was conceived of the union of her mother and father in the normal way, but with the “singular privilege” (that is, hers alone) of being so conceived without taint of original sin.  This was done in anticipation of her call to be the Mother of God (see number 7 below), and solely in virtue of his merits.  (This is called the Immaculate Conception of our Lady, and should not be confused with the following.)


2. In genuine freedom accepting the call of God and by her obedience undoing the disobedience of her (and our) foremother Eve, she conceived our Lord “of the Holy Ghost,” and without a human father.  (This is called the Virginal Conception of our Lord, not to be confused with the preceding.


3. She remained a Virgin after the birth of the Lord.  (This is called the Perpetual Virginity of our Lady, and was believed by all orthodox Christians and most heretical Christians until quite recently.  These included the great Anglican theologians as well as Luther, Calvin, the Wesleys, and even Zwingli.)


4. She was present at the Cross, where Jesus commended her into the care of his beloved disciple [see John 21:25-27], and she was present and praying in the company of the Apostles and other disciples in the Upper Room from the Ascension until the Day of Pentecost [see Acts 1:14 and following].  


5. At the end of her earthly life, she was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory.  (This is called the Bodily Assumption of our Lady.


Because of her unique relationship to her divine Son, the King of heaven, she is rightly regarded as the Queen (or if you prefer, the Queen Mother) of heaven and so is entitled to the greatest degree of veneration (not worship, which is proper only to God) among all creatures.  


This veneration is technically referred to by the Greek word hyperdulia, which is an intensification of the term dulia, which signifies what is properly rendered to the saints at large, and which also is the word lying behind our English word “due” – meaning that which is owed someone because of who they are.  The Greek word for worship is latreia.   The distinction between dulia and hyperduliais one of degree; that between them and latreia is one of kind.


Blessed Mary continues – together with all the faithful, but to a supreme degree – to participate in the mediatorial ministry that is her Son’s and to intercede on behalf of the whole Church.  Therefore, it is at least as good and right to ask for her intercessory prayers as it is to ask for those of any other member of Christ’s Church, and her intercessions, at least as much of those of any other member of Christ’s Church, are effective.   [1 Timothy 2:5].) 


She is rightly titled Theotokos (“birth-giver of God” or “Mother of God”) because the Lord Jesus is God in Person, and because his human and divine natures, though they can be distinguished, cannot be separated without grievous error.  This dogma is sometimes referred to as the dogma of the Divine Maternity.
Now, most modern traditionalist Anglicans (yes, I’m aware of the paradoxical phrase, and it’s there on purpose) and other non-Roman and non-Eastern Orthodox Christians, have no difficulty affirming items 2, 4, and 8 on the list above.  The problem seems to come with items 1, 3, 5, 6 and 7.
I understand the difficulties, since (with the exception of 8), I’ve shared them at some point along the way.  (In the interests of full disclosure, I affirm every last one of them now.)
It recently occurred to me that the usual objections for orthodox-evangelical-catholic Anglicans all seem to derive from a reading of one of our basic Anglican principals for determining what is and is not dogma (that is, essential teaching):  “...that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” (Article VI., emphasis added.) 
Now, contrary to what is usually assumed (because for so long the Articles of Religion have been subjected to an essentially Puritan/ Calvinist “spin”), this does not mean that “if I don’t see it written explicitly in the Bible, I don’t have to believe it and the Church can’t require that I do.”  This is not catholic – Roman, Anglican, or Orthodox – teaching, but instead is characteristic of a particular literalist strain of American Protestantism, perhaps most noticeably present in the Church of Christ. 
You will note that Article VI clearly indicates that what is read in (that is, is plainly evident from) Scripture, is not the sole test of dogma.  In addition, that which can be “proved” from Scripture may be denoted as dogma. 
“Proof,” as anyone familiar with rules of evidence will know, is not confined to smoking guns.  It can include more circumstantial kinds of evidence, so long as it is conformable to what is more certainly evident.  “The Church to teach, the Bible to prove” does not mean that plain biblical words must give explicit testimony to the Church’s teaching, but that what purports to be Church teaching must not deviate from what the Bible – taken as a whole, not as a collection of proof-texts – says.  The Bible may be interpreted in its own terms, but it is not self-interpreting in the sense in which that notion (which is nowhere found in scripture, by the way) is usually applied, which is really an attempt to avoid both the teaching authority vested in the Church and the evident deficiencies and risks of private interpretation (which, not by the way, is explicitly condemned in scripture).  There still needs to be an authoritative source to elaborate and apply the principles of interpretation, and that is why we have been given the gift of the Church’s teaching authority, sustained in truth by the Holy Spirit.
As an example, an Anglican might object that, since the Assumption of our Lady is not recorded in Scripture, it is not right that belief in it be classified as an essential component of the faith.  If he is applying the narrow (Church of Christ-type) definition of Scriptural proof, he is correct.  However, apart from the difficulties he is letting himself in for when someone applies this principle to other items that he might consider essential, such as, say, the legitimacy of infant baptism, he is not applying the standard as the Articles themselves present it.  Further, he gets into difficulties when some smart-alec (like yours truly) asks, “If Enoch and Elijah – who no one will deny were sinners as are we, notwithstanding they “walked with God,” – were assumed bodily into heaven, by what standard can you pronounce that Mary was not assumed into heaven?”  In other words, the Assumption of our Lady is entirely conformable to Scriptural standards (provable by Scripture), and being so, is capable of being asserted as an essential component of the faith on grounds which, though not explicit in Scripture, are in full conformity with it. 
Now, let us look in order at the items that seem to pose difficulties for a number of Anglicans:
1.  The Immaculate Conception.  This is a recognition, not only of the uniqueness of the role of Mary in the history of salvation, but of the fact that God was directly involved at every stage of its preparation.  In brief, the doctrine asserts that in view of the merits of her Son (to borrow Peter’s phrase from his Pentecost sermon, “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God”) Mary was conceived without the deficiency – the “stain of original sin” – which is the handicap we inherit from our first parents.  One might say that its purpose was to give her the ability to render a genuinely free consent to the unique and unrepeatable mission which was to be laid before her by the Archangel Gabriel – capable of possessing such fear-expelling perfect love that Perfect Love Himself could dwell within her without destroying her. If she were to be the agent for the undoing of the damage Eve began and Adam ratified, Mary had to be as free to obey as Eve had been.  In other words, she had to be made consecrated – that is, made holy so that she could receive the Holy One himself.  As is abundantly clear from the way the Immaculate Conception was defined in 1854, Mary is made holy as we are:  in virtue of the merits of her Son.  From our perspective inside time (which is other than God’s perspective, which is that of eternity, or “all time at once”) this means they were applied in anticipation, but this sort of application is not a difference in kind, but one of method.  In our case and in hers it is the same grace from the same source.
3.  The Perpetual Virginity.  As I have already mentioned, all orthodox Christians – including the “magisterial Reformers” of the sixteenth century (Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli, together with the Anglicans) – believed it, or at least would not countenance its denial.  Its denial, except by evident and isolated heretics, did not become common until quite recent times – from the miscalled “Enlightenment,” which had a tendency to corrupt even some elements who stood in opposition to it.  Though never formally defined in the same way as the Immaculate Conception, the Divine Maternity, and the Bodily Assumption, this is no less an essential component of the Church’s teaching about Mary and – because of that – about God.
Why is this?  Well, why are we scandalized when we hear of a consecrated church converted into a bar or a restaurant or a private home? It is not because we think that food and drink and family life are in themselves bad things:  At least it shouldn’t be, or we probably have a heresy to repent of.  Rather, it is because we instinctively sense that there is something not quite right about converting something that has been set aside for the worship of God to any other use, however legitimate.  The proof that Belshazzar was “weighed in the balance and found wanting” was his taking the sacred vessels that had been looted from the temple by his father Nebuchadnezzar and using them for drinking cups at a pagan banquet.  [See Daniel 5]
My point here is this:  What kind of God would give someone a unique and unrepeatable calling – to be the Mother of his unbegotten Son (and, we might add, the sole supplier of that Child’s genetic inheritance) – and then set her aside as if she were some sort of disposable Dixie cup?  Our God does not merely use people who actively obey him; rather, he rewards them with a share of his own life and glory appropriate to the obedience they give him.  As the calling God gave Mary was unique and unrepeatable and incomparable, so the marriage between Mary and Joseph had to have been unique and unrepeatable and incomparable, and the catholic sensibility knows this is true.  It was a marriage like no other at least in part because, unlike any other marriage between living people, it was a marriage in which the final purpose of that “honorable estate” – which is the union of the partners in God – was already fully present.  There is much more that I could write about this, and likely will at some point in the future, but for now I’ll stop here and deal with the most common objections.
“But,” someone always will say, “the Bible says Jesus had brothers and sisters.”  Yes, it does, but to use these terms in the restricted sense we commonly use them today (referring to biological siblings having at least one parent in common) is anachronistic:  The multiple sharp distinctions we now draw between brothers and half brothers and cousins  and such were not really a part of Palestinian Jewish usage in the first century.  A brother was a kinsman, a male relative from the same family group, as a sister was a female relative from the same family group.  In day to day speech, your uncle’s daughter was your sister, and if further clarification of the exact degree of relationship was needed, it would be provided.  “James, the Lord’s brother” was not what we would call Jesus’ full brother – the child of Mary and Joseph after the firstborn.  (Indeed, in the strict sense, no one could have been Jesus’ full brother in that sense, given his true Paternity.)  Rather, this James could have been a cousin or even a child of a previous marriage by Joseph, assuming that the Lord’s foster father was a widower when he became Mary’s husband. 
It also will not work to argue that, since Jesus was Mary’s “first-born son,” she must have had other children.  In biblical terminology, the “first-born” is the one who “opens the womb,” and there is no necessary implication of other progeny.  “First” can as easily mean “first and only” as it can mean “first of several.”
5.  The Bodily Assumption.  Although this has already been dealt with in part above, it is worth noting further that the significance of this doctrine cannot be more relevant to a generation which, for all its idolatry of the flesh, really despises the body.  It should be noted that when the Assumption was defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950, it was explicitly defined as a “bodily” assumption:  “When the course of her earthly life was ended she was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.”  While this formulation leaves open the question of whether she died and then was assumed (most, including me, believe that she did) there is no room in this formulation for interpreting the event in a symbolic/ “spiritual”/ immaterial sense.  What awaits each of us at the general resurrection is what Mary already enjoys:  The final perfection of body and soul in a spiritual body like that of her Son’s resurrected body. 
6.  Hyperdulia/ the heavenly Queenship of Mary.  In addition to what was set forth in the above description of this doctrine, it helps to understand it in the context of the role of the Queen Mother in the ancient Near Eastern world.  As the mother of the King, the Queen Mother – being more closely related to him than any other person – would have unique access to him and authority under him.  In Mary’s case (unlike that of earthly queen mothers, such as Bathsheba for example) this does not involve attempts to wheedle and persuade the king to act to her personal advantage:  After all, if Mary has a motto, it is “whatsoever He saith unto you, do it.”  The Lord will do what he will do, and in his will Mary does not merely acquiesce, but unreservedly consents.  So such authority she exercises and such benefits as are put within her gift are always (a) derived from Jesus and (b) exercised and granted according to his will.  If there is no room within evangelical theology for “Another Mediator” separate and independent from the “One Mediator between God and Man, the man Jesus Christ,” neither is there room for it in catholic theology.  All ministry under God – including that of the Mother of God – is delegated and is derived from him.  It is in this sense that all Marian titles that cause evangelical hackles to rise – such as “Mediatrix,” “Co-mediatrix,” “cause of our joy,” etc. – must be understood. 
This brings us at last to …
7.  Mary as intercessor. Here, I will quote from the preface to my as-yet-unpublished Rosary manual, The Pondering Heart:
The reality of (and the lawfulness of asking for) the intercession of the Virgin Mary, or indeed that of any saint, is not one of those things that is so clear in Scripture that belief in it is obligatory on that basis alone. However, it needs to be noted that it is not contrary to Scripture, it is rooted in the Scriptural doctrine of the Church as the one Body of Christ, and it has been a part of Christian tradition for so long that its historical origins cannot be traced to their root.  As Dr Austin Farrer writes, “no Christian is obliged to invoke the prayers of any saint,” and that includes those now living among us as well as those departed to be with the Lord.  However, assuming that the suppliant recognizes that every grace comes from the Father through the Son in the Holy Ghost, there is no harm in invoking the prayers of the saints who have gone before us.
The trouble starts when one goes from saying that he is not comfortable with doing this himself to making the positive assertion that it is something no Christian ought to do.  At this point he enters dangerous territory where, if he is to be logically consistent, he must finally deny either the essential unity of the Church as a communion of believers in Christ or the lawfulness of its members asking one another’s prayers. 
In this context it is perhaps not very helpful that the longstanding custom in the West of referring to the Church as Militant (here on earth), Expectant (in paradise), and Triumphant (in heaven) can easily lead people who have not been adequately instructed to think that there are three distinct Churches when in fact there is only one Church that has three inseparable aspects.  If there is only one Church, then an argument against asking the prayers of any of its members who happen no longer to be living in this world can logically – if absurdly – be pursued to the conclusion that it is impious to ask the prayers of any who are still living in it. 
The excuse that the prohibition of the invocation of the saints’ prayers is necessary to prevent idolatry in the end makes no more sense than the assertion that the sale and use of alcohol must be prohibited to prevent alcoholism.  The capacity of any thing to be abused cannot be used as an argument against its use; the primary problem is not with the thing abused, but with the intelligent entity who abuses it.
So there ... but so what?
Much of the importance (the “so what”) of the doctrines about Mary has already been dealt with in the body of what has preceded, and I won’t repeat that here (at least, not much of it).   There are still some things to be said, however.
One of the items of practical importance is the fact that, if we in the ACA and at Saint Peter’s are to become part of the Anglican Ordinariates – if we are to enter into full communion with Rome’s Bishop and those in communion with him – the acceptance of the four Marian dogmas (the formally defined dogma of the Immaculate Conception [1 above], the Divine Maternity [8], and the Bodily Assumption [5], as well as the dogma of the Perpetual Virginity [2]) will not be optional:  Each of them is considered an inseparable component of the Church’s core doctrine.  
As ought to be evident from what I have written already, it is my opinion that both the post-Reformation dogmatic definitions (the Immaculate Conception and the Bodily Assumption) can be accepted on grounds that are entirely consistent with Anglican theological method and with the plain language of the Anglican Articles of Religion.  There is an argument for not doing so on the grounds that previous definitions of essential Christian teaching – such as the definitions concerning the relationship between Jesus’ natures and his Person made in the first four to seven Ecumenical Councils – were made in the context of a major heresy which openly denied the teaching at issue. 
For a long time, I found this pretty convincing, but recently I’ve begun to question whether I’ve been missing something – whether, in fact, these two doctrines needed to be recognized as essential dogmas because of the presence in the modern world of ideas and attitudes which, however subtle and cloaked (unlike the previous heresies), are no less dangerous to the Church’s mission of presenting to the world Christ the Real Man as the only Savior of  humanity and the King and Mediator of the New Humanity.  My reflections on this are not fully formed, but their trajectory is clear:  Already, in the discussion of the Bodily Assumption above, I’ve suggested that it is a dogma that once and for all puts paid to the false notion that bodily existence is no essential part of redeemed humanity.  People who believe that are as likely to assume that, so long as you are suitably “spiritual” it doesn’t really matter what you do with your body and those of your fellow persons, nor does it signify anything important that when God called you into being, he made you a woman or a man.  In defining the Assumption, the Church is again affirming that what God redeems, he means not to destroy, but to fulfill and to glorify.
Increasingly, it also seems to me that the definition Immaculate Conception (the last of the Marian dogmas that I have come wholeheartedly to affirm), as well, is pointed at the heart of a major attitude of modern and post-modern people, which is the functional denial of God as the sole source of genuine holiness.  This dogma makes it abundantly clear that Mary’s sanctification was not the result, but the source, of her goodness, and that the source of that sanctification was the grace that pours out from the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit in virtue of the Son’s redeeming work.  Who she is, she is entirely because of Him; likewise who we are becoming, we are becoming entirely because of Him (“It doth not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” – 1 John 3:2).  This dogma puts paid to the false notion that we can achieve genuine holiness in virtue of our works and on our own initiative.  It affirms that people are not in heaven because they have earned it by being good, but that if they are good at all it is because heaven is in them, and that heaven is in them because they first have been purified in heart.

Conclusion … for now, at least

This essay, as is not uncommon with me, began with a title and grew from there.  Now it is time to wrap it up, for now, and return to the title:  “Getting right with Mary.”  Of course, this is a play on the road signs one often sees here in the Southern mountains counseling us to “Get right with God,” and that is the best advice you’re likely to see on any road sign.  So far as I can see, “Getting right with Mary” is an inevitable component of that advice, and through it lies the way to the healing offered to a hurting world through the divine Son of God and Son of Mary.
Although I am still developing the thought – with a big assist from the writings of John Paul II on the “theology of the body” – I think that getting right with Mary is a necessary component of the healing of our world’s twisted notions of sex and sexuality and gender identity and children and so much else that tortures or desensitizes so many millions.  Through it lies the recovery of genuine femininity from the dual depredations of clinging-vine dependency and butch feminism, and through it as well lies the recovery of genuine masculinity from the dual depredations of machismo and metro-sexuality.  How this is to be – is being – accomplished is not altogether clear enough for me to articulate at this time, but that it is being done I have no doubt.  And there is one clear image that emerges already, and that is of a circle of beads and a medallion and a crucifix, and men and women praying.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Seal of the Confessional


The furor in Ireland over the mishandling of child abuse cases has caused the Irish government to propose legislation that would break "the seal of the confessional" i.e. the absolute requirement that priests not reveal what is confessed to them in the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance).

These secular authorities and others with prejudice against the Catholic Church are now using this issue to undermine a healing sacrament so necessary in our culture.

Without for a moment suggesting that any abuse of children should not be taken with the utmost seriousness (and it now appears that abuse under the Irish secular social services was equally to blame) a challenge to confidentiality in the confessional has profound implications for the restricting of help for the very people who have been abused as well as undermining the healing effects of sacramental ministry for those who have gravely offended.

The nature of the Sacrament of Reconciliation for Catholics is that we confess to God our sins with the assurance that with true contrition and the willingness to make reparation we will be forgiven and so begin again on the path of healing for ourselves and others


Any suggestion that a Catholic can simply confess a grievous sin, have a priest pronounce words of absolution (with the priest bound not to tell the police anything) and then walk away forgiven is totally contrary to the teaching of the Church.

To begin with, what motive other than a sense of guilt for sin would take a child molester (or any other sinner) to Confession?  The truly hardened sinner either does not think himself guilty or does not care. The one who goes to Confession is seeking God. The priest acts as the agent of God who is both just and merciful.  There is hope then that through the sacrament the individual sinner as well as those harmed may be helped to find healing.

Absolution which is the pronouncing of God's forgiveness through the ministry of the Church in the Confessional is always contingent upon true contrition i.e. real sorrow for sin. True (or technically 'perfect') contrition is known only to God and to the penitent. Along with contrition, the priest must see a willingness to do penance for serious sin i.e. make restitution or some other act which expresses the penitent’s contrition. All of this precedes the priest’s pronouncing the assurance of God’s forgiveness through the sacrament and so absolving the penitent. 

In the case of child abuse, the only restitution possible before absolution can be granted, is for the penitent sinner to bring the matter to the authorities, take the consequences of his or her action and enter into incarceration, treatment or whatever is offered by Church and State law and equity in each particular case.

Only once the individual penitent has agreed to these detailed conditions can absolution be pronounced by a priest since both justice and mercy must apply in the Confessional. 

The notion that a person would confess a mortal sin (murder, adultery, incest, child abuse) and hold the priest hostage to silence stretches the bounds of credibility and shows no understanding of actual sacramental practice.  

Despite Hollywood movies like Hitchcock's "I Confess" with Montgomery Clift, in which a priest is held hostage to the secret of a demented criminal, there is no evidence to indicate that breaking the seal of the confessional would do anything to prevent the heinous crime of child abuse (or any other sin) nor would such legal interference with the sacrament bring more cases to the attention of the authorities. 

In fact, just the opposite is true; removal of confidentiality would hinder the opportunity for penitent offenders to seek spiritual counsel and so bring their cases to light. This is not to mention the negative effects for millions of ordinary sinners, like you and me, who might hesitate to go to the confessional for fear of exposure.

As awful as child abuse is, state interference in the Sacrament of Penance requiring priests to reveal the content of confessions would completely undermine the sacrament while producing just the opposite of the desired result. There would be fewer people confessing these crimes in the confessional i.e. perpetrators who might then be counseled to go to the authorities. They would simply not be going to Confession and so priests would not be able to encourage them to reveal information to authorities. Breaching the seal would mean that many people who might confess would not be reconciled to the Lord and the community of faith.

With the removal of the seal of the confessional, those burdened by guilt for any other sin would also fear that they could be exposed and so would avoid potential healing through the ministry of a priest who holds each sinner's soul dear and who prays and acts for redemption by requiring an expression of penance and restitution as the response to forgiveness of a truly contrite person. 

Breaking the seal of the Confessional is actually akin to having a father tell a child that any time he or she does something wrong and comes for advice, it might be told in detail to others. Yes, in certain circumstances a father will counsel that matters need to be shared by the child with others, but infinite damage is done to a relationship when confidence is broken between parent and child.

Many offenders without confidential advice would be left in their silence without a trusted advisor and so might well do nothing to deal with the situation or even move more deeply into sin, avoidance and denial. Other offenders who do not care or do not consider themselves responsible will not seek a confessor in any case. The net result would be that fewer offenders would be uncovered and more souls: the abused, the abusers, and others would be left without an opportunity for healing.

When there is a car accident with people injured on the scene, we don’t ask who caused the accident before we render first aid.  Hindering the healing ministry of the Church with a law against the seal of the confessional would allow both the innocent and the guilty to suffer more. Such a removal of confidentiality would only hinder the chance of saving those wounded in the horrible circumstances of child abuse.