In All Things, Charity

I recently had a conversation with a gentleman whose daughter had severed all communication with him over an email misunderstanding. His daughter had very narrowly misinterpreted his words in a family email in a derogatory way. He understood how his words couldbe misunderstood but it was devastating that his own daughter would choose to act so uncharitably toward him. His attempts to assert a correct understanding of his email were met with obstinace and eventual estrangement. Tragically, his daughter seemed to have made up her mind as soon as she read the email and rashly misinterpreted his words.

Saint Peter wrote, “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Pet 3:16). Indeed, even the written word of God is subject to misinterpretation. Thousands of Christian denominations exist due in part to varying interpretations of scripture. Fortunately, Jesus instituted the magisterium of the Catholic Church to guide us in biblical understanding.

If God’s word is subject to misinterpretation, how much more so must be our own words! Who hasn’t sent an email or a text message only to have the recipient take his comments the wrong way? We all think our words are clear enough when we send them out but, on further reflection, we can sometimes see how they might be misunderstood. This can be a frustrating and even hurtful experience: “How could you think that’s what I meant?”

Typed messages are especially susceptible to misinterpretation because they must be read apart from the writer’s other forms of expression that would otherwise help convey their intended meaning. Facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and other such communication devices are lost in cyberspace. Emoticons can help but they are a poor substitute for the real thing.

Knowing that our own words can be so easily misinterpreted, we must each humbly admit that our own interpretations, too, of others’ words, might not always be accurate either. It would be nice if we each had our own personal magisterium to help us correctly interpret others’ words but we don’t. We do, however, have teaching from the magisterium of the Catholic Church that I think can be helpful. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2478; quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola) instructs as follows:

Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.

This is a very sensible step-by-step approach. It begins by charitably attempting to understand another person favorably. We should not be quick to interpret others’ words in a derogatory way. Tragically, failure to observe just this first step has led to the needless destruction of countless relationships, including that of the gentlemen and his daughter introduced above.

If we are unable to understand someone in a favorable way, the next step is to ask him about it. Allow him the opportunity to explain what he means. He might shed light on how to understand him favorably. This doesn’t mean that we have to agree with him; the goal is to keep the relationship on charitable terms.

It could be that a favorable interpretation was not intended–he didn’t intend to be charitable! If charity was not intended, fraternal correction is in order. Personally attempt to lovingly restore charity. If this doesn’t work, attempt other measures for the sake of his salvation. This approach to fraternal correction is consistent with Jesus’ teaching (Matt 18:15-17):

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

While fraternal correction will certainly be necessary in some cases, I suspect that in most cases, if we begin with our own honest attempt to understand others favorably (the first step mentioned above), potential problems will be averted before we have had a chance to instigate them.

Does Jesus Want Us to Support Same-Sex “Marriage”?

Attempting to win Christians over to their side, same-sex “marriage” proponents often assert that Jesus would approve of their agenda. They claim that Jesus never said anything at all about homosexuality. Not once do the gospels record him condemning homosexual acts as being sinful. Therefore, the activists claim, Jesus would approve of same-sex “marriage” and Christians should be supportive.

Although it is true that the gospels do not record Jesus directly condemning homosexual acts, to conclude on this basis that he in any way approved of them is faulty reasoning. It commits a logical fallacy known as argumentum a silentio (Latin for “argument from silence”). “Jesus is not on record against it so he must be for it.” Such an argument bases its conclusion on a supposed lack of evidence to the contrary rather than on the existence of any evidence one way or the other. In reality, lack of evidence does not prove anything.

The fact that the gospels do not contain a record of Jesus doing something does not mean that he did not do it. It could be that the gospel writers simply did not record it. The gospels do not contain an exhaustive record of Jesus’ teaching. John tells us as much at the end of his gospel (John 21:25):

But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (514) addresses this as well:

Many things about Jesus of interest to human curiosity do not figure in the Gospels. Almost nothing is said about his hidden life at Nazareth, and even a great part of his public life is not recounted.

So, it could be that Jesus did directly condemn homosexual acts but his condemnations were not recorded in the gospels. In fact, it is reasonable to assert that he did do so because homosexual acts were condemned in the Old Testament before Jesus as well as in the New Testament after him. (For a fuller treatment of homosexuality in the bible, see:Homosexuality.)

In the New Testament, it is primarily in Paul’s letters that homosexual acts are directly condemned. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul reminds us where he got his teaching (Gal 1:11-12):  

For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Paul was the last apostle to be sent by Jesus (cf. 1 Cor 15:8) and we should expect that he received the same assurances that Jesus provided to the other apostles. Jesus promised his apostles that the Holy Spirit would (among other things) “bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26).

Paul certainly shared in this assurance. That being the case, his teaching on homosexuality may very well be what he remembered Jesus saying to him in a revelation.

Additionally, when Jesus sent out representatives he told them, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). Thus, since Paul was sent by Jesus, when we “hear” him in his letters, we also hear Jesus.

There really is no doubt that Jesus condemned homosexual acts as sinful so do not be fooled by the faulty reasoning of activists.

How to Quote the Bible Like a Pro

Are you able to quote book, chapter, and verse numbers for every bible passage that you know? If not, does it prevent you from engaging in faith discussions with people who are able to? I often hear from Catholics who admit that they are intimidated by how well many anti-Catholics seem to know the bible. When challengers come around slinging bible verses left and right, these otherwise knowledgeable Catholics clam up, shying away from the conversation in fear of embarrassment. They know what the bible says but, since they cannot cite many bible verses off the top of their heads, they feel ill-equipped to defend their faith. Do you ever feel this way? If so, you would probably like to do something about it.

One option is to invest some time and effort into memorizing bible verses. There are more than a few resources available to assist with this. Another option is to keep a handy “Bible Cheat Sheet” with you (click here to order one). This is a great resource to have when faced with many of the most common challenges to the Catholic faith.

But there is a third option that can be implemented right now: Go ahead and jump into the fray just as you are! If you have a fairly good grasp of the bible and are able to at least paraphrase what you know it says, there is no shame in being unable to pinpoint, off the cuff, precise book, chapter, and verse citations. If pressed to do so, you can always offer to look up citations later. Bible web sites and software make it quite easy to find them.

You might feel uneasy about jumping in but you shouldn’t. Chapter and verse numbers did not originally appear in the bible. In fact, the division into chapters as we have them today was introduced in the thirteenth century. Division into verses came in the sixteenth century. So, for the bulk of the history of Christendom, chapter and verse citations were not used at all. Granted, citations are often quite helpful, especially in written correspondence. But knowing them by heart simply is not a required prerequisite for discussing scripture.

Consider the examples of the sacred authors and biblical figures themselves. The bible is full of vague references to other scripture passages. For example, after Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land, the sacred author of the book of Joshua tells us (Josh 8:31) that they built an altar to the Lord as had been commanded by Moses and the elders in Deuteronomy 27:5. Of course, the sacred author did not cite the chapter and verse numbers which would not be added until about three thousand years later. Instead, he simply cited “the book of the law of Moses”.

References to “the law” are quite common in the bible and they may refer either broadly to its first five books, the Pentateuch, known as “Torah”, a Hebrew term meaning “teaching” or “instruction”, or more specifically to an individual book such as Deuteronomy, a Greek term meaning “second law”. Vague references to this part of the bible, even when citing specific points of the law, often sufficed for both the sacred authors and the biblical figures they wrote about.

We find such phrases as “the book of the law of Moses” (e.g., 2 Kings 14:6 referring to Deut 24:16), “the book of the covenant” (e.g., 2 Kings 23:21 referring to Deut 16:2), and, simply, “the law of Moses” (e.g., Dan 9:11 referring to Deut 28:15ff) each citing specific bible verses or passages that are often cited more precisely today. They often are but such precise citations clearly are not an absolute requirement, especially in casual conversation.

Some might argue at this point that the Pentateuch may have originally been one long document without divisions so people had no way to be more specific in their citations. However, even if the Pentateuch was originally one long document, more specific references could have been provided by, for example, providing more contextual information for citations. In any case, at least by the time the Septuagint appeared in the last few centuries before Christ, the Pentateuch had been divided into five books, and yet, New Testament sacred authors and biblical figures continued to use vague citations.

Luke vaguely referred to “the law of Moses” and “the law of the Lord” (citing Lev 12:2-8, Ex 13:2, and Num 18:15) in Luke 2:22-24 and Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:9, simply referenced, “the law of Moses” (citing Deut 25:4). Peter even used a much more vague reference in 1 Peter 1:16 in which he cited Leviticus 11:44-45 with nothing more than “it is written”. Jesus often used this phrase when referencing Old Testament scripture passages (e.g., see Matt 4:1-11).

Other parts of the Old Testament (e.g., the Psalms and Prophets) are often similarly vaguely cited throughout the New Testament. Many more examples could be provided but I think you get the point: It is not necessary to cite every book, chapter, and verse number when quoting scripture so don’t let your inability to do so keep you from engaging in bible discussion. Until you are able to provide more specific citations, you can always follow the example of the author of the letter to the Hebrews and simply say, “It has been testified somewhere…” (Heb 2:6 citing Ps 8:4-6).

More on Wedding Attendance…

My blog post“Should I Attend the Wedding or Not?”prompted several questions and comments last week that I would like to address.

One reader asked about the validity of a Catholic marrying an Orthodox Christian in an Orthodox Church without a dispensation from his bishop. In the interest of ecumenism, theCode of Canon Lawis less rigid in such a case. The Catholic party still has a legal obligation to obtain a dispensation from his bishop but failure to do so will not impede a valid marriage from coming into existence. Canon 1127 §1 explains:

Nevertheless, if a Catholic party contracts marriage with a non-Catholic party of an Eastern rite, the canonical form of the celebration must be observed for liceity only; for validity, however, the presence of a sacred minister is required and the other requirements of law are to be observed.

Another reader recalled that canon law once included exemptions for Catholics who had formally defected from the faith. Indeed, the code once included such exemptions but Pope Benedict XVI removed them in 2009. You can read about this in his apostolic letter Omnium in Mentem.

Several readers brought up a more general area of concern: The fear of straining relationships or even losing contact with friends or relatives over choosing not to attend a wedding that will not result in a valid marriage. One reader characterized such a decision as “instigating a break” in the relationship. It is important to remember that the problematic situation being dealt with has been instigated by the fallen-away Catholic, not the person choosing to refrain from attending the wedding on moral grounds. When a person attempts to sever his relationship with the Church he should recognize that there will be consequences to his decision. Family members and friends who remain faithful will not take his decision as lightly as he might. That said, I suspect that the fears of many faithful Catholics who are faced with such a dilemma are greatly exaggerated.

A further issue raised was concern about maintaining a relationship in the interest of bringing a fallen-away Catholic back to the Church. Some readers seemed to argue that attending a wedding that will not result in a valid marriage is acceptable if not attending would hinder one’s influence over the fallen-away Catholic’s potential future reversion to the faith. To me, this reasoning sounds perilously close to choosing to do evil (i.e., supporting another in sin) so that good may result (i.e., influence is maintained). The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1756) addresses such an attitude:

It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.

I hope this helps.

“Should I Attend the Wedding or Not?”

This time of year wedding invitations start showing up in mailboxes and Catholics begin facing difficult decisions about whether or not to attend the weddings of lapsed Catholics. At Catholic Answers, we hear from the relatives and friends of fallen-away Catholics who are planning their weddings outside the Church. What is a serious Catholic to do?

The law of the Church

When any Catholic—even a lapsed one—gets married, he must have a Catholic wedding ceremony in order for his marriage to be valid. The Code of Canon Law states: “Only those marriages are valid which are contracted before the local [bishop], pastor, or a priest or deacon delegated by either of them, who assist, and before two witnesses” (can. 1108 §1). If a Catholic wishes to validly marry any other way (e.g., in his fiancé’s Protestant Church) he must obtain a dispensation from his bishop to not have a Catholic wedding. (This is ordinarily handled through his local pastor.) If he fails to obtain a dispensation and proceed with a wedding outside the Church, his marriage will not be valid.

Unfortunately, it is somewhat common these days for a lapsed Catholic to simply ignore his obligations in the Catholic Church and get married in a Protestant wedding or a civil ceremony instead. He might think, “I’m no longer a Catholic so I don’t have to worry about it.” This is wrong thinking. Once a person is a Catholic, he remains bound by the laws of the Church even if he falls away. Canon 1117 states, “The form prescribed above must be observed if at least one of the parties contracting the marriage was baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it.” No exception is made for a lapsed Catholic.

Imagine an American citizen proclaiming, “I no longer consider myself to be an American, so I don’t have to worry about breaking federal laws.” It doesn’t work that way! A citizen cannot arbitrarily exempt himself from justly enacted laws. The same applies to state laws. If a man fails to get a marriage license, the state will not recognize his marriage. He might move to another state, but he will then become subject to the laws of that state. Being a citizen of the Catholic Church is somewhat similar, but there is no place to where one may move that he is no longer under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church: The Church has universal jurisdiction.

How can the Catholic Church defend such a claim to universal legal authority? It is God-given authority. Jesus gave the Church the authority to enact laws that bind her citizens. He said to Peter (the first pope) and then later to all of the apostles, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18; 18:18). The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:

The power to “bind and loose” connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church. Jesus entrusted this authority to the Church through the ministry of the apostles and in particular through the ministry of Peter, the only one to whom he specifically entrusted the keys of the kingdom (CCC 553, emphasis added).

The teaching of the Church

This being the case, the Church authoritatively states in canon 11, “Merely ecclesiastical [Church imposed] laws bind those who have been baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it, possess the efficient use of reason, and, unless the law expressly provides otherwise, have completed seven years of age.” Thus, Catholics ordinarily must have a Catholic wedding ceremony in order for their marriages to be valid.

Why does the Church impose such a law? The Catechism explains:

Several reasons converge to explain this requirement:

– Sacramental marriage is a liturgical act. It is therefore appropriate that it should be celebrated in the public liturgy of the Church;

– Marriage introduces one into an ecclesial order and creates rights and duties in the Church between the spouses and towards their children;

– Since marriage is a state of life in the Church, certainty about it is necessary (hence the obligation to have witnesses);

– The public character of the consent protects the “I do” once given and helps the spouses remain faithful to it (CCC 1631).

Even so, lapsed Catholics often ignore the Church. Their weddings do not result in valid marriages, yet the couples begin living together, and they expect others to treat them as though they are validly married. This creates difficult situations for family members and friends who are serious Catholics.

Should I attend the wedding or not?

The Catholic Church does not explicitly address the question of whether or not to attend a wedding that will not result in a valid marriage, but it does more broadly address words and attitudes which encourage and confirm others in objectively wrong behavior. The Catechism states:

Every word or attitude is forbidden which by flattery, adulation, or complaisance encourages and confirms another in malicious acts and perverse conduct. Adulation is a grave fault if it makes one an accomplice in another’s vices or grave sins. Neither the desire to be of service nor friendship justifies duplicitous speech. Adulation is a venial sin when it only seeks to be agreeable, to avoid evil, to meet a need, or to obtain legitimate advantages (CCC 2480).

Additionally, scandal (i.e., leading others into sin) must be a considered. What would attending the wedding say to the couple and to others? The Catechism explains:

Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense.

Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized. It prompted our Lord to utter this curse: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep’s clothing (CCC 2284-2285).

Therefore, in consideration of all this, I cannot recommend attending a wedding that will not result in a valid marriage. Instead, I recommend charitably explaining the reasons for declining the invitation as well as expressing hope and offering guidance for the couple in amending their plans.