Tuesday, June 12, 2012

How did Jesus answer the question?

Evangelicals pride themselves on keeping their spirituality alive and emphasizing the unique work of Christ for salvation, both of which are laudable. However, in doing so, evangelicals sometimes condemn the very answers that Jesus gave to questions about the faith. Here are two examples:

Prayer: Reciting memorized prayers? To some evangelicals, that sounds like dead religion. Real prayer, they counter, should be spontaneous, like we're having a conversation with a friend. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was specifically asked to teach a person how to pray. What did Jesus say?
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation." (Luke 11.1-4)
Jesus simply gives the person a prayer to pray. While spontaneous prayer is certainly acceptable, the way Jesus chooses to answer the question may make evangelicals want to re-evaluate the way they teach people to pray.

Salvation: What must a person do to have eternal life? If a person answered "keep the commandments", I think most evangelicals would immediately condemn the person as espousing a religion of works that belittles the work of Christ on the cross. The problem, however, is that that is exactly how Jesus responded to the question:
And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19.16-22)
Of course, the story doesn't end with Jesus telling him to "keep the commandments". The man says that he has kept the commandments and asks what else he needs to do. But in his response, Jesus doesn't back down from telling him that he needs to keep the commandments to be saved or say that the man just needs to have faith. Instead, Jesus gives the man an even more stringent commandment to follow.

Scripture must be taken together as a whole. I do not mean to say that the Lord's prayer or memorized prayer is the only way to pray (cf. John 17, Psalms, etc), or that the only thing a person needs to ever hear about regarding how to attain eternal life is "keep the commandments" since the person also needs faith (Hebrews 11.6), repentance (Luke 5.32), and baptism (John 3.3-5), to name a few other parts of the process.

What I do mean to point out is this: Catholics follow Jesus in embracing memorized prayer and teaching the importance of the moral life after baptism to attain heaven. Evangelicals, on the other hand, in the way they approach both questions, sometimes - albeit unintentionally - condemn the very answers that Jesus Himself gave.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A response to Albert Mohler's piece "Can Christians Use Birth Control?"

Albert Mohler
Albert Mohler, current president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently re-posted a piece on his website he wrote back in 2006 entitled, "Can Christians Use Birth Control?"

It's a great piece that says a lot with which I can agree, and I'm glad to see evangelicals taking another look at the question of contraception. I do, however, have a few comments:

First: in the fourth paragraph, Mohler writes:
When Pope Paul VI released his famous encyclical outlawing artificial birth control, Humanae Vitae, most evangelicals responded with disregard — perhaps thankful that evangelicals had no pope who could hand down a similar edict.
In saying that Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae outlawed contraception, Mohler seems to be implying that Humanae Vitae was the Church's first word on the subject. In actuality, Humane Vitae simply reaffirmed what the Church had taught for centuries. Most recently before Humanae Vitae, Pope Pius XI's 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii had also reaffirmed the Church's teaching against the use of contraception.

And it wasn't just Catholics who were against the use of contraception. All Protestant denominations had also rejected the use of contraception for centuries until the mid-20th century, just before the advent of the Pill. The first Christian denomination in the whole history of the Church to approve the use of contraception under any circumstances was the Anglican Church in 1930 at its Lambeth Conference of that year (Pope Pius XI's encyclical Casti Connubii was written in response to this). For a history of Protestant teaching on contraception, I recommend the article "Children of the Reformation" by the Lutheran scholar Allan Carlson.

Second: later in the article, he writes:
To demand sexual pleasure without openness to children is to violate a sacred trust.
And soon after that:
Once the sex act was severed from the likelihood of childbearing, the traditional structure of sexual morality collapsed.
But then in the next paragraph he writes:
For most evangelicals, the major break with Catholic teaching comes at the insistence that “it is necessary that each conjugal act remain ordained in itself to the procreating of human life.” That is, that every act of marital intercourse must be fully and equally open to the gift of children. This claims too much, and places inordinate importance on individual acts of sexual intercourse, rather than the larger integrity of the conjugal bond.
So he affirms the need for sex to remain linked to procreation, but then says that this doesn't have to be true every time? This is problematic because each sex act is its own act. A sex act cannot be reduced to only part a couple's "sex life", so to speak, as though a "sex life" is an item. If it is a perversion to separate sex from procreation, then it doesn't make sense to say that a sex act can sometimes be perverted but other times not perverted. One does not make-up for the perversion in one sex act by doing other sex acts properly. E.g. Lying is not occasionally permissible as long as one is usually honest, etc.

Third: soon after that he writes:
The focus on “each and every act” of sexual intercourse within a faithful marriage that is open to the gift of children goes beyond the biblical demand.
Christians have always read the story of Onan in Genesis 38.8-10 as teaching that Onan's perversion of the sex act was why he was punished (see John Calvin's commentary on Genesis 38.9-10; the most commonly used English edition omits some of what he says, with a footnote that says that they are omitting it without saying why, so you'll need to find a commentary that doesn't omit everything he said there). In fact, the focus on each and every act is based on the fact that each and every sex act is its own moral act. You could have sex once, you could have sex a hundred times - contraception is always a perversion of the sex act.

Lastly: he writes:
Since the encyclical does not reject all family planning, this focus requires the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” methods of birth control. To the evangelical mind, this is a rather strange and fabricated distinction. Looking at the Catholic position helps, but evangelicals must also think for themselves, reasoning from the Scriptures in a careful consideration.
It's not clear to me what is strange or fabricated in the distinction there. In the natural order, a woman is not fertile every single day of the month. Since a couple is certainly not morally required to have sex on any given day, to intentionally have sex only when the woman is infertile is to work within the natural order of our bodies - or, with nature. Contraception, on the other hand, works only by impeding the natural order - or, against nature (cf. Romans 1.26-27). Thus, the Catholic position of simply abstaining from sex if one has a just cause for avoiding conceiving a child is clearly and qualitatively distinct from actively engaging in an intentionally contracepted sex act.

In any case, I'm glad to see the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary thinking through this most important issue of our times. This post was based on a response I emailed Albert Mohler privately. I'll give an update if he responds to me in an email.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What goes on in the Confessional

Aside from what they've seen in movies, most evangelicals probably don't really know what Catholics do in the confessional. Of course, they know we're doing Confession (nowadays usually referred to as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Reconciliation for short), but what does that mean exactly?

In my last post, I explained why all Christians are in great need of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Since the Catholic Church is not in the business of keeping its gifts from the Lord secret, here is, for your reading pleasure, exactly what happens:

Examination of Conscience

Preparation for the Sacrament of Reconciliation actually begins outside of the confessional where one is supposed to prepare oneself for confession. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a time for humility and repentance before the Lord and thus should not be taken lightly or engaged in flippantly.

A person should make what's called an examination of conscience (example) in which they prayerfully think through what they have done since their last confession so that they are prepared to make a good confession. Once one is ready, one can enter the confessional.

The Confessional

A confessional is not actually necessary for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Confessionals are simply places that are specially designed and set aside for the sacrament. For example, I work for a parish and thus am at our parish offices everyday, so I often confess to our priest in his office.

And regarding what the inside of confessionals are like, different confessionals have different designs. Some give you the option of sitting in front of the priest or kneeling behind a screen, while some only have the option of kneeling behind a screen.


Once you are situated in the confessional, the priest begins with the Sign of the Cross.

You then begin by telling the priest how long it has been since your last confession (e.g. "It has been 3 weeks since my last confession...". This gives the priest some context to what you're about to confess: e.g. confessing having lied three times to your spouse in the last week might be different than confessing one has lied to one's spouse three times in the last year.

Then you confess your sins. You don't need to go great length, going into every detail, but you do need to say enough that the priest knows exactly what sin you are confessing and how many times you have sinned in that way (this is known as confessing "in kind and number"). And since you only need to confess a sin once, you only need to confess sins since your last confession.

In addition, one is not required to confess every single little sin that one has committed since one's last confession. As I explained in my last post, the Catholic Church follows the Bible (cf. 1 John 5.16-17) in making a distinction between a sin that merely wounds our relationship with God (which we call venial) and a sin that severs our relationship with God (which we call mortal). Though one may confess venial sins, only mortal sins must be confessed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. (For more on the distinction between mortal and venial sins, see my last post or this article.)

The 10 Commandments
Can my priest use my confession against me? The seal of confession is supposed to prevent this problem: a priest that in any way discloses or uses the knowledge of a person's sins confessed during the sacrament is by automatically excommunicated, as it made clear in the Code of Canon Law:
"The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason." (Can. 983 §1
"A confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal incurs a latae sententiae excommunication reserved to the Apostolic See; one who does so only indirectly is to be punished according to the gravity of the delict." (Can. 1388 §1)
Frankly, I don't think many priests would be interested in using a person's confession against them anyway. And remember, a priest is hearing everyone's sins and most sins really aren't that unusual ("No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man." 1 Corinthians 10.13). I've had priests tell me that in all their years of being a priest they've heard just about everything.


After hearing your confession, the priest may then offer you some advice and/or encouragement. In case you're wondering, I've never had a priest attack or scold me. If anything, most of the time the priest is probably way too nice.

The priest then gives you your penance. Traditionally, there are three kinds of penance: fasting (for sins of the flesh), almsgiving (for sins against neighbor), and prayer (for sins against God) (cf. Matthew 6.1-18). Personally, I have almost never had a priest give me anything other than prayer as my penance, and usually something very small (e.g. pray the Our Father three times, etc).

The word 'penance' is related to the word 'repentance'. If one is truly sorry for one's sins, then one should do something to correct the disorders created by one's sin. The Catechism explains:
Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must "make satisfaction for" or "expiate" his sins. This satisfaction is also called "penance." (CCC 1459)
The Council of Trent makes clear that all penance is effective only insofar as it is done in and through Christ:
[W]hilst we thus, by making satisfaction, suffer for our sins, we are made conformable to Jesus Christ, who satisfied for our sins, from whom all our sufficiency is; having also thereby a most sure pledge, that if we suffer with him, we shall also be glorified with him. But neither is this satisfaction, which we discharge for our sins, so our own, as not to be through Jesus Christ. For we who can do nothing of ourselves, as of ourselves, can do all things, He cooperating, who strengthens us. Thus, man has not wherein to glory, but all our glorying is in Christ: in whom we live; in whom we merit; in whom we satisfy; bringing forth fruits worthy of penance, which from him have their efficacy; by him are offered to the Father; and through him are accepted by the Father. (Trent, session 14, ch 8)
 Doing penance actually makes us more Christ-like.

Act of Contrition

Then the priests asks you to make an act of contrition. Although only God can see a person's a heart, the priest needs to at least hear you express your sorrow to God aloud. A person may pray spontaneously, though people are encouraged to pray a standard Act of Contrition prayer. Here's one commonly used today:
My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy.

Then priest grants you absolution, or forgiveness of your sins. Here is exactly what he says:
God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of your son, you have reconciled the world to yourself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace. And I absolve you of your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The grace of Christ has now been applied to you and you are set free from all of your sins.

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 (see John 20.19-23; also Matthew 16.19 and Matthew 18.18; for more, see my last post)


You are then dismissed by the priest and should leave to complete your penance. The time following confession can be a special time, thanking God for the inexhaustible riches of his love and mercy.