Thursday, May 31, 2012

Why evangelicals need to confess their sins to a priest, too

Even after we initially become a Christian and are forgiven of our sins, we all continue to sin and thereby are in regular need of the grace of Jesus for forgiveness.

Evangelicals would certainly agree that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3.23) and that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6.23). Jesus, the Son of God, came "to save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1.21), and died "once for all" (Hebrew 9.12, 26) on the cross, and "it is finished" (John 19.30).

The grace has been won. How can this grace be applied to our lives?

Faith is certainly a requirement, since "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Hebrews 11.6). In two previous posts (here and here), I have explained how baptism was instituted by Jesus Himself as the ordinary means of applying the grace of Christ to us for, among other things, the washing away of Original Sin as well as sins that we have personally committed, and is therefore necessary for salvation.

But what of sins that we commit after baptism? What if, after having been washed with the blood of Christ, we again stain ourselves with sin? God must have known that Christians would continue to sin after their baptism. Keep in mind that as sin separates us from God, it also separates us from Christ's Body, the Church. How are we to deal with sin among members of the Church?

Did Jesus provide a means for the grace that he won on the cross to be applied to us for the forgiveness of sins we commit after baptism?

This is exactly what the Sacrament of Reconciliation is for, as the Council of Trent explains:
If such, in all the regenerate, were their gratitude towards God, as that they constantly preserved the justice received in baptism by His bounty and grace; there would not have been need for another sacrament, besides that of baptism itself, to be instituted for the remission of sins. But because God, rich in mercy, knows our frame, He hath bestowed a remedy of life even on those who may, after baptism, have delivered themselves up to the servitude of sin and the power of the devil, --the sacrament to wit of Penance, by which the benefit of the death of Christ is applied to those who have fallen after baptism. (Trent, session 14, ch 1)
And, as we all know, this Sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as Penance or Confession) involves a person confessing their sins to a priest who then absolves the person of his or her sins. The question (or accusation) most evangelicals have next is:

Why in the world do Catholics think that priests can forgive sins? The answer might surprise many evangelicals: because Jesus said so in the Bible:
19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20.19-23, my emphasis)
We see a similar power granted elsewhere by Jesus first to Peter (Matthew 16.19) and then to all the Apostles (Matthew 18.18) when he tells them that "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

Of course, no human being, by himself, has the power to forgive a person's sins. A priest has the power to forgive sins only because he forgives in Christ's name and has received this authority from Jesus himself (as we just saw above), as passed down from the apostles through the succession of bishops. In other words, when one confesses to and receives absolution from a priest, one is confessing to and receiving absolution from God. Lest anyone accuse the Catholic Church of teaching otherwise, the Catechism is clear:
Only God forgives sins. Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, "The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins" and exercises this divine power: "Your sins are forgiven." Further, by virtue of his divine authority he gives this power to men to exercise in his name. 
Christ has willed that in her prayer and life and action his whole Church should be the sign and instrument of the forgiveness and reconciliation that he acquired for us at the price of his blood. But he entrusted the exercise of the power of absolution to the apostolic ministry which he charged with the "ministry of reconciliation." (2 Cor 5.18) The apostle is sent out "on behalf of Christ" with "God making his appeal" through him and pleading: "Be reconciled to God." (2 Cor 5.20) (CCC 1441-1442)
Does a person really have to confess every single little sin? No. The Catholic Church follows the Bible (cf. 1 John 5.16-17) in making a distinction between sin that merely wounds our relationship with God (which we call venial) and sin that severs our relationship with God (which we call mortal).
  • venial sin comes from everyday weakness and may be confessed in prayer without going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
  • mortal sin is any sin we did on purpose (full intentionality), we knew was wrong when we did it (full knowledge), and is regarding a grave matter (not petty, but something serious). A mortal sin can only be forgiven through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (or, if one is impeded from receiving the sacrament, the desire thereof - explicit or implicit - accompanied by perfect contrition or sorrow for one's sin out of love for God and not simply threat of punishment).
Pay close attention to that caveat in that last sentence. Because the Sacrament of Reconciliation reconciles one not only with God but with His Church, which is present fully only in the Catholic Church, a person cannot receive the sacrament without being a full member of the Catholic Church (or being accepted by a priest after demonstrating an explicit desire to join). In other words, an evangelical can't just go to confession as they are, but must be reconciled with the Church first.

But then can an evangelical who committed a mortal sin but wasn't reconciled with the Catholic Church, and thereby receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, before their death be saved? Only if they meet those criteria above: that they were truly sorry for their sins out of love for God and not simply the threat of hell, and that were disposed towards God such that if they had known that God instituted the Sacrament of Reconciliation they would have received it. Nonetheless, it is much better for a person to come into full communion with the Catholic Church and actually receive the sacrament.

Although it has developed in its form over time, the Sacrament of Reconciliation was not a late medieval corruption of the faith, but instead dates back to the early Church. We all can be challenged by this exhortation given by St Cyprian of Carthage in the mid-3rd century:
"Moreover, how much are they both greater in faith and better in their fear...with grief and simplicity confess this very thing to God's priests...I entreat you, beloved brethren, that each one should confess his own sin, while he who has sinned is still in this world, while his confession may be received, while the satisfaction and remission made by the priests are pleasing to the Lord." (On the Lapsed, 28-29)
When a person, through sin, has cut himself off from God, and thereby also Christ's Body the Church, that person will not be saved. The person must repent and again receive the grace of Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, thereby reuniting them with God and Christ's Body the Church. Jesus, in his wisdom, provided us with a means for doing just that: the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Since it is the means established by Christ for the forgiveness of sins after baptism, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is thereby "necessary for salvation" for those who have sinned mortally after their baptism. (Trent, session 14, ch 2)

All Christians, Catholics and evangelicals, continue to sin after their baptism and are in regular need of the grace of Christ, and thus are in need of confessing their sins to a priest.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Lesser Known Depictions of Mary

Most people have seen a Madonna and Child, Pieta, or a depiction of the Nativity. But have you seen Mary clubbing a demon or squirting her breast milk at a saint?

I'm no art expert, but over the last few years I've come across a number of very interesting depictions of Mary that I had never seen before, and that I suspect many people have never seen before. These might give you a different perspective of our Blessed Mother.

The Lactation of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux

St Bernard of Clairvaux was a 12th century monk and is revered today as both saint and doctor of the Church. Apparently, later in his life he was suffering for an eye ailment and the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him and squirted to some breast milk at him (depending on the depiction, either in his face or mouth) which immediately healed him. True or not, this scene has been depicted by many artists.


























The Knitting Madonna

Scripture says that Jesus' tunic was seamless (John 19.23-24). In the medieval period, several artists depicted the Blessed Virgin Mary knitting together Jesus' seamless tunic.


























Exterminatrix of Heresy

Jesus gave us Mary to be our spiritual mother (John 19.26-27). She is also the fulfillment of the Woman in Genesis, of whom God made the enemy of the serpent (Genesis 3.15). As Christ's servant, she does all she can to protect Christ's faithful from the evil one.


























Christ Taking Leave of His Mother

In the 15th and 16th century, artists in Germany started painting an imagined scene in which Jesus says goodbye to his mother before his final trip to Jerusalem for his passion. (more)























Mary as Depicted as Different Races

Most of the Marian art that most people have seen is European and reflects European culture and appearances. The most notable exception is the most famous Virgin of Guadalupe which depicts Mary as a mestizo, or Aztec/Spanish mix. You can now find art depicting Mary with all sorts of appearances.


























Mary as a Child

According to the tradition, Mary was raised by her parents St Anne and St Joachim. She was not only conceived without Original Sin but also, full of God's grace, remained sinless. What was her childhood like? We don't know much, but many artists have chosen to depict it for us.


























The Mother and Grandmother of Jesus

Some artists have depicted the young mother Mary watching the child Jesus with St Anne, her own mother and thus grandmother of Jesus.



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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

St Catherine of Siena on the Importance of Church Discipline - and Why It Doesn't Happen

St Catherine of Siena
Mystic, theologian, and stigmatist, it is said that she ate nothing but the Eucharist for 19 years. She met personally with Pope Gregory XI and successfully convinced him to move the papacy from Avignon back to Rome. And she is revered as both saint and one of only 33 (soon to be 34doctors of the Church.

And she accomplished all of this before her death at age 33.

I'm talking about the great 14th century Italian nun, St Catherine of Siena.

If you've been following me on Twitter, you know that lately I've been reading through one of her most famous works known as The Dialogue of St Catherine of Siena. Dialogue is the text of a mystical conversation she claims to have had with God the Father that she dictated to a friend. Below is an excerpt of what God supposedly said to Catherine.

It should be noted that this claimed conversation with God is private revelation, as opposed to the public revelation which culminated and was completed in the person of Jesus Christ. The Catechism explains the Church's posture toward private revelations (CCC 67):
Throughout the ages, there have been so-called "private" revelations, some of which have been recognized by the authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete Christ's definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully by it in a certain period of history. Guided by the magisterium of the Church, the sensus fidelium knows how to discern and welcome in these revelations whatever constitutes an authentic call of Christ or his saints to the Church. 
Christian faith cannot accept "revelations" that claim to surpass or correct the Revelation of which Christ is the fulfillment, as is the case in certain non-Christian religions and also in certain recent sects which base themselves on such "revelations."
Whether they are of divine or human origin, I thought these to be wise words, and very relevant to our own day.

The subject of the excerpt below is the effects of proper and improper discipline given by clergy to their flocks. You'll see right away the importance that God gives to firm discipline, as well as the reasons He gives as why better discipline doesn't occur.

It's easy to say that this is something that has been lost in the American church. Of course, when I'm the one needing the discipline, I always appreciate getting off easy. But perhaps we would all be better off if we were held more directly accountable.

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Mary as Exterminatrix of Heresy
[B]ecause they first had done justice to themselves, they therefore did justice to those under them, wishing to see them live virtuously, and correcting them without any servile fear, because they were not thinking of themselves, but solely of My honor and the salvation of souls, like good shepherds, followers of the Good Shepherd, My Truth, whom I gave you to lead your sheep, having willed that He should give His life for you.

These have followed His footsteps, and therefore did they correct them, and did not let their members become putrid for want of correcting, but they charitably corrected them with the unction of benignity, and with the sharpness of fire, cauterizing the wound of sin with reproof and penance, little or much, according to the graveness of the fault. And, in order to correct it and to speak the truth, they did not even fear death. They were true gardeners who, with care and holy tears, took away the thorns of mortal sins, and planted plants odoriferous of virtue.

Wherefore, those under them lived in holy, true fear, and grew up like sweet smelling flowers in the mystic body of the holy Church (because they were not deprived of correction, and so were not guilty of sin), for My gardeners corrected them without any servile fear, being free from it, and without any sin, for they balanced exactly the scales of holy justice, reproving humbly and without human respect. And this justice was and is that pearl which shines in them, and which gave peace and light in the minds of the people and caused holy fear to be with them, and unity of hearts.

And I would that you know that, more darkness and division have come into the world amongst seculars and religious and the clergy and pastors of the holy Church, through the lack of the light of justice, and the advent of the darkness of injustice, than from any other causes.

Neither the civil law, nor the divine law, can be kept in any degree without holy justice, because he who is not corrected, and does not correct others, becomes like a limb which putrefies, and corrupts the
whole body, because the bad physician, when it had already begun to corrupt, placed ointment immediately upon it, without having first burnt the wound.

So, were the prelate, or any other lord having subjects, on seeing one putrefying from the corruption of mortal sin, to apply to him the ointment of soft words of encouragement alone, without reproof, he would never cure him, but the putrefaction would rather spread to the other members, who, with him, form one body under the same pastor. But if he were a physician, good and true to those souls, as were those glorious pastors of old, he would not give salving ointment without the fire of reproof. And, were the member still to remain obstinate in his evil doing, he would cut him off from the congregation in order that he corrupt not the other members with the putrefaction of mortal sin.

Jesus as the Good Shepherd
But they act not so today, but, in cases of evil doing, they even pretend not to see. And do you know why? The root of self-love is alive in them, wherefore they bear perverted and servile fear. Because they fear to lose their position or their temporal goods, or their prelacy, they do not correct, but act like blind ones, in that they see not the real way by which their position is to be kept. If they would only see that it is by holy justice they would be able to maintain it; but they do not, because they are deprived of light.

But, thinking to preserve their position with injustice, they do not reprove the faults of those under them; and they are deluded by their own sensitive self-love, or by their desire for lordship and prelacy, and they correct not the faults they should correct in others, because the same or greater ones are their own. They feel themselves comprehended in the guilt, and they therefore lose all ardor and security, and, fettered by servile fear, they make believe not to see.

And, moreover, if they do see they do not correct, but allow themselves to be bound over with flattering words and with many presents, and they themselves find the excuse for the guilty ones not to be punished. In such as these are fulfilled the words spoken by My Truth, saying: 'These are blind and leaders of the blind, and if the blind lead the blind, they both fall into the ditch.'

My sweet ministers, of whom I spoke to you, who have the properties and condition of the sun, did not, and do not (if there be any now) act so. And they are truly suns, as I have told you, because in them is no darkness of sin, or of ignorance, because they follow the doctrine of My Truth. They are not tepid, because they burn in the furnace of My love, and because they are despisers of the grandeurs, positions, and delights of the world. They fear not to correct, for he who does not desire lordship or prelacy will not fear to lose it, and will reprove manfully, and he whose conscience does not reprove him of guilt, does not fear.

Friday, May 18, 2012

GK Chesterton: Three Characteristics of Every Great Heretic

From The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic (click here for my full review)

"Every great heretic has always exhibited three remarkable characteristics in combination.

First, he picked out some mystical idea from the Church's bundle or balance of mystical ideas.

Second, he used that one mystical idea against all the other mystical ideas.

Third (and the most singular), he seems generally to have had no notion that his own favorite mystical idea was a mystical idea, at least in the sense of a mysterious or dubious or dogmatic idea.

With a queer uncanny innocence, he seems always to have taken this one thing for granted. He assumed it to be unassailable, even when he was using it to assail all sorts of similar things.

The most popular and obvious example is the Bible. To an impartial pagan or sceptical observer, it must always seem the strangest story in the world; that men rushing in to wreck the temple, overturning the altar and driving out the priest, found there certain sacred volumes inscribed 'Psalms' or 'Gospels'; and (instead of throwing them on the fire with the rest) began to use them as infallible oracles rebuking all the other arrangements. If the sacred high altar was all wrong, why were the secondary sacred documents necessarily all right?

If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he not have faked his Scriptures? Yet it was long before it even occurred to those who brandished this one piece of Church furniture to break up all the other Church furniture that anybody could be so profane as to examine this one fragment of furniture itself."

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

TrueStory: Praying with the college admissions interviewer

I said a prayer as I walked into my admissions interview at the University of Chicago.

It was the summer before my senior year of high school and my dad and I were on a trip across the country to visit colleges. We had just spent the day before visiting the nearby Wheaton College, and had some extra time in the morning before our flight out of Chicago to the northeast to see more schools.

I wasn't praying so much that I would do well - I wasn't too nervous, and wasn't that interested in the University of Chicago anyway - but just that God would use our time for His purposes. I didn't have any kind of agenda; I simply wanted to be open to what God might have planned.

I sat down with the interviewer, who pulled out a questionnaire that I had filled out earlier. He immediately pointed to the question about what I wanted to do as a career, to which I had written "minister". At this time I was still firmly Protestant and thought I'd be a Protestant pastor.

"So you want to be a minister?" he asked.

"Yes, that's what I'm thinking now."

He paused. "I...I'm just moved that someone at your age would have such strong convictions to want to dedicate your life in that way." He laughed. "You do realize that the University of Chicago is a hotbead of atheism? Why would you want to come here?"

I found it funny that he would describe his school in such straightforward terms, particularly in an admissions interview. "Well, I'm looking for a good education, and maybe an place like this could be something that really stretches me."

He said again that he was really moved that someone at my age believed in Jesus so strongly, so I asked him what his beliefs were. He explained that he had studied philosophy and was working on a masters degree in religion, and not just to study things in a detached way, but to really seek Truth. He said that depending on the day he was either convinced that there was no God at all or that Christianity was absolutely true.

Lately he had been thinking a lot about when Pontius Pilate asked Jesus 'What is truth?': "Do you remember how Jesus answered?"

I remembered the passage: "Yeah, doesn't Jesus say that whoever listens to him hears the truth?"

Antonio Ciseri's Ecce Homo!, 1871
"No." He grabbed a Bible - I can't remember if he had the Bible with him or if I had one in my bag - either way, a Bible was quickly produced in the admissions interview for the University of Chicago. "That's what most people think." He flipped to John 18.37-39 and showed me the passage. "See, that's what Jesus says before Pilate asks the question. Then Pilate asks him 'What is truth?' and Jesus doesn't give an answer!" He looked up at me. "That's a philosophical question! And Jesus is given the opportunity to answer, and he doesn't!"

We didn't talk about anything else on my questionaire or about the school; we talked about the Gospel the rest of the interview until we were past our time.

It seemed to make sense to ask him, "Do you want to pray?"

He looked at me and laughed. "Uh, we don't normally pray in admissions interviews."

"Well I don't think this has been a normal admissions interview."

He hesitated for a second. "Good point. All right, let's pray."

We bowed our heads. I prayed that God would lead him to the Truth and bless the rest of our day. We said Amen, shook each others hands, and I headed back out to my dad.