Swimming the Tiber 21: The Sacraments: Anointing of the Sick

And [they] were throwing out many demons, and [they] were anointing with olive oil many sickly [people] and [they] were treating [them].

– Mark 6:13 (my translation)

Is anyone among you sickly? Let [him] summon the elders(presbyters) of the church, and let [them] offer prayers upon him, having anointed {him} with olive oil in the name of the lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sicklit. toiling / working [man], and the lord will wake him; and if [he] is [one] having madeor has made; this periphrastic construction focuses on his current state–i.e., that he is in a state of sin–rather than the action specifically errors, [it] will be forgiven for him. Confess, therefore, to each other [your] errors and prayer on behalf of each other, in order that [you] may be cured.(cure [each other’s illnesses]) An efficacious petition of a just man is very powerful.

– James 5:14-16 (my translation)

To be perfectly honest, I don’t have much to say about this sacrament. As a Protestant, I never put much stock in anointing sick people–in a twist of position, I considered it a little too unscientific–but I didn’t have any sort of problem with the practice. It is Scriptural, after all.

In the Catholic Church, where miracles are evaluated fairly regularly, the idea that a holy process could cure the sick isn’t so far-fetched. In fact, the biggest problem in the Church regarding this sacrament is what to call it. The older name for the sacrament (starting in the early-to-mid twelfth century) is “Extreme Unction,” literally meaning “last anointing.” The point of the word “extreme” here is not entirely clear; it could refer simply to being the last in a series of anointings (a Christian is anointed at baptism and confirmation as well), but–especially in modern parlance–it is more likely due to the sacrament’s association with the “Last Rites.”

The phrase “Last Rites” should not, by the way, be used synonymously with this sacrament. The Last Rites actually refer to the administration of three sacraments–penance (or confession, or reconciliation), the Eucharist (because it is the source and summit of our faith, so let’s receive it as often as possible), and “extreme unction” or the “anointing of the sick.”

The name was changed in the mid-twentieth century to avoid the association. Properly, the sacrament can be received any time a person is in a dangerous position, medically speaking. Naturally, the deathbed fits this description, but so does the surgical table or a cancer diagnosis.

The only other controversies I can imagine around this sacrament involve questions of a loving God and the nature of suffering, but that is beyond the scope of this particular post. If you want to read more about the Catholic position on this sacrament, the Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses it beginning in paragraph 1499 and continuing through 1532. If you have specific questions, of course, feel free to ask them, and I will seek out the answers if I don’t know them already.

Otherwise, enjoy having a light week, and look forward to next week when I talk about something quite a bit more controversial: sacramentals and the declaration that some objects are holy before the Lord.

Swimming the Tiber 20: The Sacraments: Holy Orders

About three months ago, I talked about the priesthood of believers. A month after that, I talked about how virginity is a virtue. I’ve also talked a few times about how Catholic priests operate in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ.”

All of this works into my examination of the sacrament of Holy Orders. Ordination is not, in and of itself, particularly controversial; almost all Protestant denominations refer to the process of naming someone a pastor as “ordination,” in no small part because it’s Scriptural (Luke 6:12-13; Acts 6:2-6; 13:2-3; 14:23; 1 Timothy 2:7; 4:14; Titus 1:5-9). Technically, the term refers to the appointment of someone to a particular office or responsibility, and so it also appears elsewhere in Scripture in that context.

Controversy comes from two places primarily. First, many Protestants are offended at the requirement of celibacy for Catholic priests, and second, many groups altogether are offended at the requirement of masculinity. These are not similar objections, for the requirement of celibacy is mutable (it is a discipline, not a doctrine), and the requirement of being male is not.

For the question of celibacy, this really should be a non-issue. Recall that virginity is a virtue, which St. Paul recommended and the Church has always admired throughout history. Second, this discipline is not set in stone. It is the way things are currently done in the Roman rite of the Church, but Eastern Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox priests) are allowed to be married before becoming ordained. Similarly, if you are a Lutheran minister or Anglican priest and are married, and you convert to Catholicism, you may be allowed to become a Catholic priest and remain married. Likewise, widowers are not prevented from becoming priests. Marriage and the priesthood are not mutually exclusive states by essential doctrine, but merely in practice.

Nevertheless, it is the practice at the current time. I think anyone seeking to change that practice would have a difficult go of it–but certainly they would have a much easier time than those opposing my next point.

Being in favor of “women’s ordination” is a fairly popular position these days. I recently watched a sermon on the subject, in fact, which outlined the “major objections” to the practice and then refuted them. Each and every argument the teacher opposed was about putting women in positions of authority, and I agreed with almost everything he said (some of his exegesis was bad, but that happens sometimes). That’s because I have nothing against putting qualified women in positions of authority, but Catholic priesthood is so much more than a position of authority.

For example, if a woman obtains the proper education, I have no objection if they teach in a seminary. I have no objection if they lead a Bible study. I have no objections, likewise, if a woman of appropriate disposition works as an administrator or counselor or in any other position in which pastors find themselves. In short, assuming basic qualifications, I have nothing against women as Protestant ministers, and as much as any man, women participate in the priesthood of believers.

But a woman cannot be the vicar of Christ.

It’s not about qualifications or education or disposition. It’s about nature. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born as a man. (Recall that priests act in persona Christi. Maleness is essential to this function.) The essential functions of the priesthood – the conveyance of the sacraments being the prime example – are reserved to men in the New Testament (to the Twelve especially, and by them to other men); only men are told by Christ or his apostles to forgive sins (John 20:22-23), to anoint the sick (Matthew 10:5-8; James 5:14-15), to baptize (Matthew 28:16-20), to share the Eucharist (Luke 22:19-20), and to ordain (Acts 1:12-26; note especially St. Peter’s requirement that the replacement be a man in verse 21).

“But,” some will say, “it’s unfair for men to be given this advantage of power over women! We should all be equal!”

Or perhaps you do not use these words, but you have some gut feeling that there is inequality here, because priests have authority which women do not have. Let us take a moment to see the advantage of power given to men in this office.

First, they must attain to a higher standard than the rest of us:

Many [of you], do not become teachers, my brothers, knowing that [we] will receive a larger judgment.

– James 3:1 (my translation)
(see also Ephesians 4:11-16; Titus 1:5-9; 2:7-8; 2 Timothy 2:14-26)

In this, they must especially be humble, not seeking power, but seeking only to serve:

When therefore [he] washed their feet {and} [he] took his clothes and [he] reclined again, [he] said to them, “Do [you] know what [I] have done to you? You call me ‘the teacher’ and ‘the lord,’ and [you] speak beautifully, for [I] am. If, therefore, I have washed your feet as the lord and the teacher, then also you are bound to wash the feet of others; for [I] have given a sign to you in order that, just as I did to you, you may also do. Amen, amen, [I] say to you, a slave is not greater than his lord nor [is] an apostle greater than the [one] having sent him. If [you] know these [things], [you] are blessed if [you] do them. [I] speak not about all of you; I know whom [I] chose; but [it is thus] in order that the writing may be fulfilled, ‘The [one] eating my breadsome manuscripts: bread with me; others: my bread with me lifted up his heel against me.’ From now on [I] say to you before the happening, in order that [you] may believe when [it] happens that I am. Amen, amen, [I] say to you, the [one] receiving whomever [I] send receives me, but the [one] receiving me receives the [one] having sent me.

– John 13:12-20 (my translation, emphasis original)
(see also Matthew 20:25-28)

They will be specially targeted by the devil and evil people:

Offer yourselves also to the whole flock, in which the Spirit, the holy [one], placed you as overseers to shepherd the church of God,some manuscripts: the lord and God which [he] preserved through blood–his own. I know that, after my departure,lit. arrival grievous wolves will go in among you, not sparing the flock, and out of you yourselves [they] will rise up, prattling distorted [things] in order to tear off students after them. Wherefore be fully awake, remembering that for three years, night and day [I] did not cease, with tears, admonishing each one.

– Acts 20:28-31 (my translation, emphasis original)
(see also 1 Peter 5:6-8)

The people will not appreciate them (2 Timothy 4:1-5). They must at all times beware hypocrisy in themselves (Romans 2:21-23) and, should they err, they will be held to account, not only for their own sins, but for the sins of those who follow them:

For amen, [I] say to you: until the sky passes by, and the earth, not one jot or one serif will pass by from the law, until all [things] come to be. Whoever, therefore, releases one of these commands, [even one] of the smallest [ones], and teaches people thus, [he] will be called smallest in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does [these commands] and teaches [them], this [man] will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

– Matthew 5:18-19 (my translation)
(see also Ezekiel 13:8-16; Matthew 7:15-20; Titus 1:10-16; 2 Peter 2; 2 John 1:7-11)

And whoever welcomes one child such as this upon my name welcomes me. But whoever trips one of these little [ones], the [ones] believing in me, [it] is expedient for him that a millstone be hung around his neck and [that he] be drowned in the depth of the sea.idiom; lit. the ocean of the sea or similar Woe to the cosmos because of stumbling blocks; for [it is] a necessity that stumbling blocks come, except woe to the person through whom the stumbling block comes.

– Matthew 18:5-7 (my translation)
(see also Ezekiel 33:7-9; Luke 17:1-2; 1 Timothy 5:17-22)

The priesthood is not a privilege or a boon or power or authority or superiority. It is an act of self-sacrifice, not self-aggrandizement. It is self-giving, not taking. If it is unfair that only men may be priests, then it is unfair toward men. Women, by contrast, are held in high honor in the Catholic Church, for only a woman was deemed worthy to bear the Savior (Luke 1:30-31); only a woman was able to persuade Christ, the Lord, to perform miracles before his time had come (John 2:1-11); throughout the Gospels, Jesus treated women with respect and honor; a woman was praised for her contemplative life (Luke 10:41-42), women saw him laid in the tomb (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55), and a woman first saw the risen Lord (Matthew 28:8-10; Mark 16:9-10; John 20:11-18).

The priesthood is not restricted to men because women are inferior to it; on the contrary, women are treated as equal to men in the Lord (Galatians 3:28) and honored besides. The restriction, then, established first by Christ and then by his apostles, throughout the whole tradition of the Church, has that cause which I have already detailed: priests act in persona Christi, and by the command of Jesus Christ and his chosen apostles, this office is exclusive to men. God is the head of Christ, Christ the head of the Church and of men, men the head of women and the household (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 1:22-23; 5:23; Colossians 1:18). This is the order designed by God.

I’ve barely talked about the sacrament of Holy Orders, so I have likely done it a disservice. Like the other sacraments, it bestows grace on those who receive it, giving them the capacity to grow in holiness and be obedient to God. I have never had any dispute with the sacrament as such, so I felt compelled only to address (some of) the controversy about it.

Next week, I will talk about the last of the seven sacraments, after which I will return to a few more general Catholic topics. So look forward to a brief examination of the anointing of the sick/last rites/final unction when Swimming the Tiber returns!

Swimming the Tiber 19: The Sacraments: Marriage

I hope everyone is having a blessed Lent! (I thought about making an interlude post on the subject, but such an interruption would make no sense to people reading the series from start to finish, and talking about such things may fit in better at another time. Oh, well.)

For there is nothing stronger and better than this, that a man and a woman keep their household working in unity of thought: this is a great pain to their enemies, but a delight to their friends, and it is their very greatest source of glory.

– Odysseus in Homer, The Odyssey 6.182-185 (my translation)

May God bless your marriage; may the devil fear it; and may the rest of us be blessed by it.

– Me, 18 June 2016

Last year, I was fortunate enough to be the best man at my brother’s wedding. The highlight of my speech (for me, because I’m a nerd, but possibly not for anyone else) was the quote from Homer’s Odyssey above. This quote, like 1 Corinthians 13, talks about interpersonal love in poetic terms. It is tempting for a pragmatist like myself to say, “That’s just poetry; real life is hard.” But poetry like this moves us because it does describe reality–an ideal reality, one which we hope to achieve, and one which most of us do not have today, but the reality nevertheless.

And yes, real life is hard, but mostly because we make it hard through sin. We, as sinners, cause problems not only in our own lives, but in the lives of our family–and especially in the lives of our spouses. After all, a married couple is no longer two, but now one flesh (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5-6; Mark 10:8; 1 Corinthians 6:16). A husband and wife are still two persons, but mystically, they are united before God and men. This union is for life (Matthew 19:6 again; Mark 10:9). As a result of this union, a man and woman are bound to each other for as long as the union lasts (“until death do us part”).

This union has certain benefits and drawbacks. The drawbacks are that a husband and wife are beholden to each other; their concerns are for each other first. (See 1 Corinthians 7.) In this way, too, sin by one affects the union, and both suffer for it. The benefits are a great blessing of grace (it is a sacrament, after all) for obedience to the first commandment of God (Genesis 1:28) and the joy and blessing of fulfilling and representing the union of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-33).

Over the years, and most especially in the past hundred or so, folks have often complained about some of the verses I’ve referenced. Most especially, 1 Corinthians 11:3-15; Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18; and 1 Peter 3:1-6 seem to be very offensive to people. There are a few important things to consider here, in increasing order of importance:

  1. The context of the New Testament includes a patriarchal society where women had very few, if any, “rights.” These statements are not surprising in this context. (This does not negate the teaching. Remember that this point is the least important.)
  2. Humility is a virtue (Psalm 25:9; 37:11; 69:32; 76:9; Proverbs 6:3; 11:2; 16:19; 29:23; Zephaniah 2:3; Matthew 18:4; 23:12; James 4:6, 10; 1 Peter 5:5-6). This is not an admonition, just a reminder. (We’re still not to super-important.)
  3. Men are not told to be less humble toward their wives. Consider 1 Corinthians 11:11-12; Ephesians 5:21, 25-33; Colossians 3:19; and 1 Peter 3:7. Mostly consider the Ephesians quote, because the others don’t help my point as much. A husband ought to treat his wife as Christ treats the Church: that is, love her even in her sin (see Hosea 1 and following), give himself up for her completely (holding nothing back), and die for her (Romans 5:8).
  4. (Hint: here’s the super-important one.) Subordination does not imply lesser value or importance. For we know that Christ is subordinate to the Father (Luke 22:27, 41-42; John 5:19-24; 6:37-40; 7:16; 14:28; 1 Corinthians 11:3; 15:28; Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 10:5-9), but we also know that he is God (John 1:1-3; 8:16-19, 57-58; 10:27-38; Philippians 2:6; Colossians 1:13-20; 2:9-10; Hebrews 1:8-12). Do you say that, because of his subordination, he is objectively inferior? That he lacks the value, the importance of God? That they are not of the same nature? Only heretics say such things.

So men and women are equal in nature and before the eyes of God (Galatians 3:27-28). We are all human persons in Christ.

It is this equality that is the basis for the “Theology of the Body,” the subject of over one hundred sermons given by Pope St. John Paul II between 1979 and 1984. These sermons have been collected into books, annotated, abbreviated, explained, and otherwise discussed quite broadly (search “Theology of the Body” on Amazon for examples, including a compilation of those sermons). But before those sermons–before, indeed, he was Pope, and he was just Auxiliary Bishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, in 1960–he published Miłość i Odpowiedzialność (Love and Responsbility); this was first translated into English in 1981, and it’s how I was introduced to the Catholic philosophy of personalism.

Personalism, as a Catholic philosophy, states essentially that we are all persons, and we should act as such. In the context of the Theology of the Body, adhering to personalism means treating our spouses as complete human persons and not as objects for our utility. We consider not only how a person may serve us, but especially how we may serve them; not only how they may give to us, but how we may give to them.

You have probably heard marriage advice like this before, at least in broad terms (“Put each other first,” “Don’t think only of yourself,” etc.). The challenge arises when you extend this to every part of your married life. In the first place, I mean your commitment to marriage; in the second, I mean your sexual life.

“Oh, no!” you may say, “Here it comes. This is the part where you tell me it’s a sin to use contraception. Typical Catholic.”

Well, I certainly hope that is typical of Catholics, although a couple of organizations founded by prominent political opponents to Catholic teaching try to say otherwise. But I’ll get to that shortly. First things first.

Marriage is for life. Scripture is pretty clear on this point. Recall again Matthew 19:8-9 and Mark 10:5-9; see also Malachi 2:13-16 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11. Divorce is not a natural part of the plan, and does not fit with what God says that marriage is and should be. I’m not going to dive into all of the reasons for divorce now (more on that much later), but the short version is this: anyone who argues that a marriage should end because “we’re just too different” or “we just don’t love each other anymore” is not treating their spouse as a person, but merely an object for emotional use. If you spend time with your spouse and it makes you feel good, then excellent; but if you don’t keep getting the same good feelings from your spouse, and you decide you’ve “fallen out of love,” then you did not love them (i.e., want the best for them), but you enjoyed the positive emotions you got before and do not get now.

That is to say, marriage is not about getting good feelings, or even necessarily about being “happy.” Marriage is a sacrament and an institution designed to represent God’s love on earth, between imperfect people who still live for each other, sacrifice for each other, serve each other. Allowing your emotions to control you is to be driven about at the mercy of the wind. Marriage is a commitment that, if done right, will make you eternally holier–but it is not designed to make you temporally happier. Being more righteous and closer to God will, inevitably, bring you joy, but you can’t expect your emotional state not to fluctuate a little, and marriage comes with stress and responsibility. This is because you’re working with a person, seeking the good of a person, striving to better yourself and another person; you’re not feeding coins into a happiness vending machine.

If that sounds unromantic, I warned you: I’m a pragmatist. Good romance is a good thing insofar as it pushes us to renew our commitment and strive to be a better reflection of God’s love for us; romance is decidedly unromantic if it encourages us to pursue nothing but good feelings. (If it helps your opinion of me, I wrote a poem and got roses and lit candles when I proposed to my wife.)

Now, to the second topic: your marital sexuality and how personalism perfects it.

First, let’s quickly get out of the way the historical argument: supporting contraception is pretty new to Protestantism. All Christians opposed contraception until the Anglicans started that revolution in the 1930 Lambeth Conference. (Perfunctory slippery slope fallacy of the day: More recently, much of the Anglican Communion now supports having actively homosexual priests.) If you want to keep to the faith of your fathers, give up contraception.

But if you’re a modern Protestant, you’re probably saying, “Hey, I think for myself, and I came to all of my religious conclusions by studying Scripture on my own. There’s nothing in Scripture that condemns contraception!”

Well, we know that children are a blessing from God (Psalm 127:3-5, et al). And what about the story of Onan (Genesis 38:6-10)? He clearly acted in a way (coitus interruptus, in another use of Latin-as-euphemism) with the explicit intention of preventing pregnancy. Of course, the story of Onan is dismissed by supporters of contraception on the grounds that when he did it, his intentions were bad (he didn’t want to share his inheritance), but when modern Christians do it, their intentions are good (preventing overpopulation or poverty or something). I mean, saying, “I have $100, but if a child is born of my wife, I will need to spend that money on the child,” is nothing at all like what Onan was thinking, right?


Oh, wait.

Let’s look closer at the personalism angle. We can only be treated as persons when we are accepted wholly as persons, and no part of us is used as an object. But contraception divides the person into parts, making it possible to use one part (sexual organs) without another part (fertility). By using contraceptives in marriage, a husband withholds his fertility from his wife, or a wife her fertility from her husband; their marital embrace is not a union into one flesh, but a utility of one another’s flesh for pleasure.

There are a few important caveats to run through here:

  1. Yes, you are allowed to enjoy the marital embrace. Pleasure is one of its ends. But marriage is naturally unitive and procreative, and contraception cuts both of those short in favor of merely pleasure.
  2. No, not every marital embrace must result in a child. To be procreative means to be open to the possibility, not trying to achieve it. In the same way, naturally infertile couples are not sinning by making love, nor is it a sin to make love during times of natural infertility (as determined by the woman’s menstrual cycle or after menopause). We can be open to pregnancy even when we know it is exceedingly unlikely.

In relation to that second point, it’s also important to point out that the Catholic Church does not enforce the approach of so-called “quiverfull Christians.”1 (It doesn’t declare it immoral, necessarily, but it doesn’t do the opposite, either.) Natural family planning (NFP) is a valid method to avoid and achieve pregnancy, with one important consideration: Catholics must have “serious reasons,” based on their circumstances, to avoid pregnancy. (This includes, for example, an inability to clothe or feed the child.)2

(If you’re curious about the science and success of NFP, my wife and I were once a teaching couple for the Couple-to-Couple League and are current users of the Billings Ovulation Method. Reach out to me/us, or to those organizations. There are also several other methods available, such as Creighton, Northwest Family Services, and more! If you’re a woman, there’s an entire forum of NFP-using women that can help.)

This has been a short-short-short introduction to personalism and marital love. (Love and Responsibility is over 300 pages and the print is kinda small.) Remember the progression to get here: Scripture says that we are all equal persons before God (Galatians 3:28); Scripture says that, in marriage, the two become one flesh (Genesis 2:24) in a holy union (Ephesians 5:31-32) that cannot be separated (Matthew 19:6); if we are all equal persons, and marriage is supposed to unify us so completely that it makes one flesh from two, we should never treat each other as objects for use, but as whole persons in Christ. That’s the simple summary, and if you have more questions, I really recommend you explore how personalism relates to marriage more deeply.

I think that about does it for this week. I was originally thinking I’d split this into multiple posts, but when I decided to move my thoughts on divorce to a later section and not delve into any specifics on NFP (this is meant to be a theoretical overview of Catholic theology, not necessarily a practical guide), I reduced it to one long post. So now, instead of another post on marriage next week, I’ll be going straight to the sacrament of Holy Orders (that is, the ordination of priests). Like baptism and confirmation (and like marriage if you’re the first spouse to die), Holy Orders can only be received once. I probably won’t talk about the form of it too much; just the controversy! Huzzah!

1 This is a movement of mostly Protestant Christians. The term comes from Psalm 127:5. The defining characteristic of this movement is that one ought to strive to have as many children as possible. The Duggars (of “19 Kids and Counting” fame) exhibit a similar ideology, although they have stated explicitly (in their second book) that they are not associated with the movement itself.
2 Full quote: “With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.” (Humanae Vitae 10)

Swimming the Tiber 18: The Sacraments: Confession

But all [these] things [are] out of God, the [one] having reconciled us to himself through Christ and having given to us the service of reconciliation, that God was, in Christ, reconciling to himself [the] cosmos, not reckoning to them their blunders, and having placed in us the word of reconciliation. On behalf of Christ therefore, [we] are ambassadors,1 as with God summoning [others] through us; [we] beg [you] on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. On our behalf, [he] made the [one] not knowing error [to be] error, in order that we may become [on a particular occasion] [the] justice of God in him.

– 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 (my translation)

“But we don’t need a mediator for confession!” you may say. “Requiring priests for the confession of sins was the old covenant (Leviticus 4), not the new!”

This is another one of those times where I’m going to talk about the ordinary and the extraordinary means of receiving something from God. Certainly, God can forgive any sins he wishes at any time, and indeed he does so–of that I am certain. But what is the proper means by which we obtain that forgiveness? Do we ask him directly, or do we confess to another?

When I was younger (and Protestant), I held pretty firmly to the “ask him directly” path. “Of course, only God can forgive sins!” said I. “Why even involve anyone else?” I was also given to understand that for the really big sins, I was supposed to take them before the church (meaning the local church, for reasons I was never clear on). But naturally, I had never committed any of those sins. (Remember, I was working under a faulty understanding of the magnitude of sins, not yet understanding the difference between venial and mortal sins.) And so I would sin, usually in private, and I would confess, always in private, and I would feel kinda sorta maybe a little better, but not really. The weight of my sins never quite left me, and the stain of my wickedness was never quite washed clean.

Which is not to say that my emotions are the proper judge of whether or not I was truly forgiven. Of course, I had to forgive myself, and I had to accept the mercy of God, whether I thought I deserved it or not. These are still true even now, when my confessions work quite differently. But my emotional state illuminated something that I didn’t really know before: when my confession is only between me and God, my reconciliation is only between me and God. Sin does not only separate us from God; it separates us from each other. It fractures the Church herself (2 Corinthians 2:5); it fractures our very souls. And as a Protestant, I had no means–at least no means I could see–that could restore a right relationship between me and other people. Could I go before the whole local church? I suppose so, but what could they offer that would restore me to the spiritual union of the Church?

Cue Catholicism, which has an ordinary means of acquiring reconciliation, not only between us and God, but also between us and the Church. It heals those fractures, and the balm of penance soothes our divisions. This ordinary means is called the sacrament of Confession, or Reconciliation, or Penance. (They’re all equally valid terms, often used interchangeably.) It’s called confession because that’s how we start it; we go to confess our sins. It’s called penance because that’s how we finish it; we pray or engage in charity or otherwise perform an act that restores what our first (sinful) act broke. And it’s called reconciliation because that’s what it provides to us when we are faithful and obedient in it.

Now, before you jump on my case, let me clarify something: God is absolutely capable of forgiving sins and restoring right relationship with his Church without involving anyone but you and him. Certainly he is capable of that, or else we wouldn’t have so many Psalms (like Psalm 32:5 or Psalm 51) and wisdom literature (like Proverbs 28:13; Sirach 4:26; 21:1) telling us how important confession is. We know that God has authority to forgive sins and his authority in this matter is absolute, or else the Jews would not have claimed blasphemy by Christ for his statements of the same (Matthew 9:2-3; Mark 2:5-7; Luke 5:20-21).

So why does the Catholic Church insist on this mediation through priests? Well, for one thing, Scripture makes it pretty clear we should confess to one another, and not just in silence (Proverbs 28:13 again; James 5:16; 1 John 1:9). But to whom should we confess? To everyone? Sometimes, yes (2 Corinthians 2:5-10). But to whom should we regularly confess? To those ordained by God and granted this authority by his Word (John 20:21-23), and those to whom they pass along that authority (recall the end of this post on the papacy, specifically the section on the succession of apostolic authority).

That’s what it means for “us” to have this ministry of reconciliation (see the quote at the top of the post): that the apostles (St. Paul included) had the authority to forgive sins, granted to them by God, which they granted to the bishops that came after them. Those bishops, in turn, granted it to the priests of the local parish. But recall again, from my post on mortal sin, that some sins are so heinous that they can only be forgiven by the Pope, and of course, Scripture is quite insistent that there is one sin that no one has the authority to forgive (Matthew 12:31; Mark 3:28-29; Luke 12:10).

Remember, priests are special in this forgiving business. They are the vicars of Christ (as I talked about in my post on the priesthood of believers), so the sacraments they perform are done in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ.” They are limited and finite and broken like the rest of us, but they have dedicated themselves to God, and so Christ works through them to forgive sins and work wonders on earth.

So what does this sacrament really look like? Confession and penance are fine terms, but how do they work?

Well, there is a standard form to confession. You greet the priest, request a blessing, tell them how long it has been since your last confession (this can help them select an appropriate penance, among other things), then identify your mortal sins by type and number (and your venial sins as accurately and completely as possible). The priest will provide instruction on what penance will restore your relationship with the Church, which you agree to accomplish, and then you say an “act of contrition,” a prayer that indicates your repentance and desire to follow Christ. If you miss those parts (i.e., if you don’t confess honestly, if you don’t do penance, and/or if you don’t repent), then any absolution given is not valid.

The opener is almost word-for-word what you see in movies and TV shows (“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; it has been X days/weeks/months/years/forever since my last confession”). We’ve already talked about how to differentiate and identify your mortal and venial sins. And the act of contrition is just one of several prayers you can memorize that focus on your repentance and desire to repudiate sin and follow God’s commandments. (Of course, you can also communicate those points–(1) I’m sorry, and (2) I’ll try to do better–without memorizing a prayer, but the act of contrition makes it easier to remember.)

Which leaves the “penance” part. What is penance? It depends on the priest and on the sins you’re confessing. Some priests always give the same penance–“Say a prayer for the sick of the parish.” Your job, of course, is not to question your penance, demand a heavier (or lighter) penance, or to try to do the priest’s job for him; your job is to obey, do your penance, and restore your relationship with God and the Church. Other priests will work in your sins–“Say these three prayers for yourself to grow in humility and love for your family, and for the driver that cut you off in traffic.” Some will work in physical penance–“Say the ‘Our Father’2 and spend the next three nights sleeping on the floor without a pillow.” If your sins are criminal, your penance almost always includes turning yourself in to the civil authorities and making appropriate recompense.

Whatever it is, penance is always a sacrifice–of time, of pride, of money, but especially of self. In this way, it restores our relationship to God and to others, because it forces us to return things to their proper order: Jesus first, others second, yourself last (J-O-Y, for those who haven’t heard the backronym I first heard about twenty years ago, but which my local pastor mentions almost every week).

Self-sacrifice is crucial to the whole process: First, we “examine our conscience,” that is, we identify our sins. During this process, we ought to be careful not to think of our sins too lightly; we cannot ask forgiveness for something we intend to keep doing under the presumption that God will keep forgiving us (Sirach 5:4-6). Second, we humbly confess our sins and beg God’s forgiveness, showing this humility by going to another person and being open about our sins (even if it takes some prodding–2 Samuel 12:12-13). Third, we accept our penance, obey God’s will, and work to restore what we have destroyed. Fourth, we must acknowledge the great gift we have been given by holding nothing against our fellows, but forgiving as we are forgiven (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:23-35; Colossians 3:13).

And in case you’re wondering, that whole “priests aren’t allowed to break the seal of the confessional” thing is legit. Many priests talk about not even remembering what was said afterward. And if they do tell tales out of school, so to speak, they are committing one of the few sins that only the Pope has authority to forgive.

Next week, I’ll be diving into the sacrament of marriage. This has a lot of political entanglements attached to it, but I’m going to try to focus on what God and the Church say positively about this sacrament and its benefits. (In a month or three, when I get to ethical behaviors in the Church, I’ll address some of the challenges of a holy marriage in modern society.)

1 Literally, “Over Christ, therefore, [we] are elder,” but based on context, the “ambassador” translation is most appropriate. It is important to note, though, that this verb is closely tied to presbyter, a term frequently used for bishops.
2 You might know this prayer better as “the Lord’s Prayer.” Catholics name prayers after the first 2-3 words in them.

Swimming the Tiber 17: The Sacraments: The Eucharist (Part Two)

I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, A Charmed Life.) She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife Elizabeth Hardwick. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the “most portable” person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.

– Flannery O’Connor, in a letter to “A.,” 16 December 1955

No doubt this quote from a famous Catholic author is scandalous. How dare someone use such terms about Holy Communion, right? But that’s the whole point of what I talked about last week: without the Real Presence, it’s just bread and wine (or grape juice). If that’s the case, there’s not much communion, and it’s not particularly holy. It has some benefits–it can focus the mind on God, and help us remember the sacrifice of Christ. But so too can reading Scripture, hearing a good sermon, singing a hymn or a worship song, attending a prayer group, or watching a sunset. Is the Eucharist not worth more than these things?

And, of course, many Protestant denominations have realized this. How do I know? Frequency. Most Baptist churches I attended as a child had communion once a month–some only once a year (on Good Friday, ironically,1 or on Easter). Songs and Scripture readings and sermons, on the other hand, were every week, and encouraged among the faithful every day. These were easier to understand, and thereby, easier to participate in. I couldn’t comprehend the oddity of Holy Communion as a child, so I embraced the Scripture, teaching, and singing to encounter God instead. So it didn’t bother me that we didn’t receive communion very often; to my mind, it wasn’t more special than any other encounter with God, and no one had ever tried to convince me otherwise.

Catholics, of course, still can’t comprehend the Eucharist. (It is a mystery, after all.) But the Real Presence means that partaking of the Eucharist is a truly Holy Communion, uniting finite man to infinite God. As I said last week, reading Scripture and hearing sermons and singing hymns is an encounter with God, but it pales next to the Eucharist. And again, this explains why we’re so careful about partaking of it (alongside Matthew 5:23-24 and 1 Corinthians 11:27-29; consider also Romans 7; 1 Corinthians 6:15-17). It is absolutely essential that our souls be prepared before encountering God in this way. (We’ll talk about how to get prepared next week, when we talk about the sacrament of confession.)

What does all this mean, though? What does the Eucharist actually accomplish for us? It’s quite nebulous to say that it’s an encounter with the living God and leave it at that.

Well, I’ve already said that the Eucharist is the third step of the rites of Christian initiation. This sacrament unites us to the Body of Christ by allowing us to partake of his Flesh; by extension, uniting us to the Church seems a simple and small matter indeed. What began in baptism and was furthered by confirmation is now brought to the full in the Eucharist, bestowing on us graces to overcome evil and turn to the Lord. As our bond to the Lord is strengthened, we are also enabled to love others more freely and more fully in the Body of Christ.

The Eucharist is also the first sacrament we’ve looked at that can be received more than once. Baptism happens once (Ephesians 4:5); confirmation happens once (throughout Acts, no one receives the Holy Spirit more than once, though they are filled with Him several times); but the Eucharist can be received many times. Of course, the sacrifice only happened once (on the Cross; see 1 Corinthians 5:6-8; Hebrews 7:26-28; 10:1-25), but the priest (in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, who is the perfect high priest) makes that sacrifice present for us in the Mass. This repetition, even ubiquity, means that we can keep gaining the graces of the Eucharist, which converts us continually to the love of God.

I keep mentioning “graces,” and you’re probably saying, “What graces? You talk about them like they’re enumerated.” Well, they sort of are. Graces are, first and foremost, the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), which obviously direct us toward God (and make us holier). Part of making us holier, of course, is forgiving sins, which is why receiving the Eucharist can forgive venial sins (but not mortal;2 if you’ve forgotten the difference, look back over my post on that subject).

You may say that this sounds suspiciously utilitarian. “You mean you just eat this bread and get grace from God? That’s a little too quid-pro-quo to be Christian.” Well, of course, there’s no magical formula here. You can’t chant your way to a sacrament, nor can you buy the secret ingredients for any price (Acts 8:14-24). The mystery of the Eucharist being as great as it is, I’m not about to rule out that it could be efficacious even if you didn’t believe in it, but that would be an extraordinary means of grace (a phrase you may be growing tired of by now); the ordinary means of grace through the sacrament requires us to unite ourselves spiritually with God. Christ sacrificed himself once for all, and the priest makes that sacrifice present at the Mass, but the Church sacrifices herself daily to be united to the Lord in spirit and in truth (Psalm 51:17). That sacrifice repeats.

I don’t have much more to say on the subject. Accepting the Eucharist was all too straightforward once I studied the history of the sacrament, and even easier in light of the transcendence of Christ’s resurrected Body (Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-29). As a result, this post is (as promised) rather short. If you want to read more about the Eucharist, of course, the Catechism of the Catholic Church talks about it in some detail, with references to still more texts on the subject. You could probably spend years studying the Eucharist; I’m trying to limit this blog series to just one, so I’m going to move on to more sacraments. Next week, as I said, is confession. Look forward to it!

1 This is ironic because Good Friday is the one day a year Catholics don’t celebrate the Mass (that is, the consecration of the host as the Eucharist). In commemoration of Christ’s death, we fast absolutely. There are no church bells, no songs, and any services are quiet and respectful. Sometimes the Eucharist is received on Good Friday, but the host comes from the Mass on Maundy Thursday. Except for Good Friday, Mass is being celebrated at every hour somewhere in the world. It is the constant prayer of the Church.
2 Mortal sins are the sort of things warned against in Matthew 5 and 1 Corinthians 11. We ought not receive the Eucharist unworthily, but we are not perfect; our concupiscence does not keep us from the Eucharist, but can actually be healed by It.