Saturday, June 20, 2009

Purging Misconceptions of Purgatory

Dealing with a non-Catholic Christian’s objections to the Church’s doctrine of purgatory can be incredibly intimidating. The average Evangelical or Protestant is well versed in Scripture which can present a formidable challenge to the average Catholic who is typically not as well versed in the details of Scripture. While we may be quick to speak of scriptural stories, the scriptural precision of the non-Catholic appears to override the Catholic’s own Scriptural acumen pressuring the faithful Catholic to back away from the sacred text and turn to the rather impotent phrase, “Well, that is what we believe!” Such a response only vindicates the non-Catholic’s belief that the Catholic Church is deeply erroneous in doctrine AND that she is “clearly” anti-Scriptural. While both beliefs are unequivocally false, one can sympathize with the non-Catholic in light of the Catholic’s lack of intellectual ability to answer objections to their faith.

How easy it is for each of us to conclude something about an organization simply based upon a nearly universal observation about each of its members. If we want to heal the rift that was created by the Protestant Reformation, if we want peace, if we want justice, if we want Jesus Christ to be visibly and powerfully manifested in this world then the buck begins and ends with each one of us in a sense. While ultimately peace, salvation and reconciliation come from Jesus Christ, it is in God’s loving will that He asks us to participate in this mission (cf. Mt. 28.18-20). In light of this truth, we are being asked by God to love Him with our entire mind (cf. Mat. 22.37) so it is our duty and privilege to prepare ourselves to be able to give a defense for what we believe (cf. 1 Ptr. 3.15). To this end, let us examine and critique the objections to the Church’s teaching on purgatory.

The two common objections made by non-Catholic Christians are that the doctrine is nowhere found in Sacred Scripture and that the concept of purgatory makes a mockery of the of cross since the belief implies a second safety net for salvation which lay outside the meritorious act of Jesus Christ. In other words, the accusation being made is that purgatory implicitly states that Jesus Christ was not sufficient for salvation and so purgatory exists for the sake of the deficiencies in Christ. The second objection is a strong accusation which explains the hostility many non-Catholic Christians have toward purgatory; their hostility comes from a deep love for Jesus Christ and what He has done. Fortunately, the accusation is entirely wrong and based upon distortions of the Church’s teaching.

To begin, the Church teaches that Jesus Christ is the sole mediator for salvation (for the distinction between Christ's role as mediator for salvation and the Christian's role as mediator of salvation, see article on intercession of the saints). Purgatory is not a second chance for salvation because it is exists exclusively for those who have already been saved in the blood of Jesus Christ. At this point, purgatory may appear to be a superfluous teaching. After all, if we are already saved, what is the need for purgatory? The answer to this question articulates the necessity of this teaching! In fact, whether one believes in imputed or infused righteousness the logical and theological necessity of purgatory still holds.

For the sake of the argument, let us say that justification is simply through declaration (cf. God says you are righteous but it doesn’t mean you actually are). This is different from Catholic theology which states that justification is both declarative and transformative (cf. Rom. 5.19). If life lived in justification on earth is one of declaration but not necessarily transformation, what then about heaven? Is heaven simply an eternal life of “declaration” not necessarily tied to transformation? Of course not! Heaven is not a place where fornicators continue to fornicate or even feel tempted to fornicate while simply being declared righteous. Nothing unclean can ever enter into heaven whether that is in thought or deed (cf. Rev. 21.27). If I were to die today, while being fully redeemed in the blood of Christ, I would die with a tendency toward sinful desires which often times concretize in the form of selfishness. What is God to do with a dead man redeemed in Christ yet not perfectly virtuous which is the exclusive criteria for a life lived in heaven? Purgatory is a logical necessity if we are to understand heaven as that which is completely free from sin, the direct beatific vision of God. For the overwhelming majority of us, purgatory serves as a state of loving purification for those who have been saved in Jesus Christ. We are sanctified and made perfectly holy in purgatory through the blood of Christ so that we may enter into the marriage banquet in heaven without spot or wrinkle (cf. Eph. 5.25-27).

After having understood purgatory’s theological and logical necessity, and recognizing purgatory’s intrinsic relationship to Christ’s meritorious act rather than seeing it as something outside or in addition to the cross, what does Scripture have to say about this teaching? While Scripture never explicitly mentions the world purgatory (which simply means “a place of purification”), there are a number of passages that speak of a state of purification after death. This should be no cause for concern as there are many things that both Catholics and non-Catholics alike believe in that are not explicitly stated in Scripture (i.e. hypostatic union of Christ, divinity of Christ, Trinity, Infant Baptism, etc).

One of the clearest attestations of purgatory in Scripture can be found in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In chapter three of his letter, St. Paul speaks about a day of judgment which has a particular three pronged judgment. There are those whose works will be tested and be seen as worthy of a reward which contextually refers to heaven (cf. 1 Cor. 3.14). On the other hand, there are those whose works are destructive and so are worthy of damnation (cf. 1 Cor. 3.16-17). However, there is a third peculiar judgment where a person’s works are judged and neither found to be universally accepted nor condemned. This person’s bad works will be “burned up” and “will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3.15). St. Paul’s explanation fits very well with the Church’s teaching on purgatory as a state of purification for those who have been saved in the blood of Christ yet must undergo a cleansing from the residual effects of sin.

We also know that Judaism believed in a type of purgatory which urged them to pray for their fellow dead (cf. 2 Macc. 12.46). This places the Church’s teaching in integrity with the teachings of God’s chosen people of the Old Covenant. This is all the more important when we understand that the New Covenant did not come to abolish the Old Covenant, but to fulfill it (cf. Mat. 5.17)! Finally, Christ Himself appears to allude to a sense of purification in the life to come (cf. Mat. 5.25-26; 12:31-32).

This is clearly far from an exhaustive treatment of the Church’s teaching on purgatory, but I pray it has better equipped you to be able to give a defense for the love you have for Christ and His Church! May you love Him more with all your soul, body, strength, and mind. May God be Praised!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Self-Mastery & Gadgets

Those who know me know that I love technology! Although I have been formally removed from the world of software development for nearly ten years, my hunger for new technology has not dissipated in the least. Like Moore’s Law which states that technology roughly doubles every 18 months, my desire for a new gadget intensifies almost proportionately to that law. While I think it is safe to say I’m exaggerating my gadget addiction, I do want to recognize a potential disproportionate desire for new technology at times. I typically rationalize my longing through my deeper desire for organization. Anything that helps me quantify every aspect of my daily life is incredibly alluring! After all, the more I can use technology to quantify things (including myself) the more I will be able to know myself better and be more responsible, right? Such a belief almost makes my disproportionate desire for technology a noble quest. Believe it or not, it wasn’t until last week that a pin-leak was discovered in this inflated rationality of mine which is soon to become a full-blown flat.

The error in my thinking was revealed shortly after a grueling run with a friend of mine who is currently on summer break from seminary. For the sake of my friend, I must admit that it was a grueling run for me and not him. As we were walking back to our cars I brought up the topic of my new fancy running watch which records about everything you could possibly record about yourself and the surrounding landscape. He then told me about a mutual friend of ours who is currently a cross country runner for CU and an active member of our campus ministry. He explained to me how this runner begins every race deliberately in the “back of the pack.” Basically, what he does is take inventory of himself, the landscape, and the surrounding runners before engaging the race with intensity, and he doesn’t do this by a gadget but through self-evaluation and observation. He has trained himself to translate accurately the breathing patterns of himself and others. The student can quickly determine if his body is starting to go anaerobic thus enabling himself to make the proper corrections almost instantaneously. Hearing all this was both breathtaking and humbling!

Up until this point of the conversation, I had thought that my constant connectivity to gadgets was only aiding my quest for self-mastery through accurate knowledge, planning, et cetera. What I quickly learned was that I really did not know myself like I thought I knew myself. One may easily make the excuse that as long as you are in tune with your soul, you are doing well, but that is bad theology. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the body was created as the form of the soul. In other words, our soul and body are so intimately tied together that what you learn about the body can lead to knowledge about the soul and vice versa. This runner’s intimate knowledge of his body can easily be translated into virtue of the soul!

Take for instance the student’s ability to gauge his physical heart incredibly well during a run. Having the ability to modify his pace correctly given the slightest change in the rhythm of his heart offers him the opportunity to run efficiently, giving his best each time. One can only assume that such self-awareness is equally present off the trail as it is on the trail. How much more is the runner able to perceive physiological stimuli that are heading toward temptation well before the temptation becomes enticing? While the phrase “listen to your body” may sound too new aged to some, it is deeply Catholic!

We live in a plugged-in world. Everywhere I go I see people plugged into laptops, cell phones, and ipods. While technology is a great gift, it also can be an enormous impediment to knowing oneself. The impediment largely comes in the form of only knowing two dimensions of ourselves: zero and sixty miles per hour. Unfortunately, we are plugged in during those times when we move from 10 to 20 mph which consequently doesn’t register on the radar screen. I would like to challenge all of us to unplug ourselves a little more from the distractions that may be preventing us from knowing ourselves. This is a hard challenge to offer since I’m arguably the most plugged in among us. Our bodies are all too often against us; it is with excitement that I’m able to see a profound way for our bodies to work for us by drawing us deeply into our spiritual lives, further enabling us to give ourselves to another through the art of self-mastery and virtue! May God be Praised!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Moral Difference Between Contraception & NFP

A student from my Theology of Body class asked a very common question a few weeks ago. Apparently she was discussing the moral implications of contraception with a friend when this friend posed an unanticipated question. The question went like this: “If it is true that the Catholic Church believes marriage must be open to life, then wouldn’t Natural Family Planning (NFP) also be immoral when used to prevent pregnancy in light of the Church’s teaching? After all, both NFP and contraception are being used as a means to prevent life which the Church says one must be open to in marriage. It appears as of the Church is arbitrarily picking and choosing what is moral and immoral.” The question is a good question worthy of a good response. I must admit that my initial answer to this student was deeply unsatisfactory in my own mind, so I spent the next week looking for a better answer. What I discovered was rather alarming.

When I followed up with the question at my next class, I began with a true/false quiz to the students. I asked them to answer ‘true’ or ‘false’ to the statement, “The Catholic Church believes marriage must be open to life?” The answer was a unanimous ‘TRUE’ which I then replied, “You are unanimously incorrect.” Before I continue I feel obligated to try and curb any initial responses one might have when reading what I just wrote. I am NOT saying that the Church approves of contraception. I simply ask for your patience as I unpack the Church’s wisdom on human sexuality.

My alarming discovery mentioned above was in the realization that many people (including myself) have a misconceived notion of the Church’s understanding of marriage and its relationship to life. If it were true that “marriage” was to be open to life at all times then it would follow that NFP used to prevent pregnancy would be morally illicit since it would be closing the “marriage” to life. However, this is not what the Church teaches. Humanae Vitae (Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on Human Life) states that “each and every marriage act must remain through itself open to the transmission of life” (HV, 11-12). Notice that Paul VI carefully stated that it is the “marriage act” not marriage itself* that must be open to life! One may argue that since the Church views the marital/conjugal act to be reserved exclusively for marriage (even “consummating” the marriage itself) then the marital act and marriage ought to be considered equivalent. It is true that the conjugal act is intrinsically related to marriage but we must not mistake a part of marriage for marriage itself otherwise we risk reducing marriage simply to the conjugal act (this is called the Fallacy of Composition).

Another way to express this necessary distinction is through an example: It is true that all atoms are colorless. We also know that all dogs are made of atoms. However, no one in their right mind would make the conclusion that this means all dogs are colorless. The error is in attributing a quality from a part of something to its whole. Thus, the Church’s teaching does in fact permit couples in marriage the right to delay pregnancy as long as such reasons are just and moral and the means by which they obtain this end are just and moral.

With the misunderstanding corrected, we may now begin to understand why the Church views contraception and the use of NFP differently. The questions the Church seeks to address are: 1) Is it possible to engage in the marital/conjugal act in a way that is morally illicit? 2) If so, what does such a marital/conjugal act look like? The Church answers ‘yes’ to question one and proclaims such an act exists when the nature of the sexual act is compromised. I recognize that the previous sentence desires extrapolation but space limits me from addressing this which is not necessary for the subject at hand. The important element to notice is that the object of moral inquiry is the activity of the conjugal act within marriage. Thus NFP, even when used morally and justly to prevent pregnancy, has no voice in the discussion above. When NFP is used to prevent pregnancy it is done so through abstaining from the sexual act during the woman’s fertile period. Again, the Church’s teaching is about the actual engagement of the sexual act and its morality. There is nothing wrong with abstaining as I’m confident all of you are doing as you are reading this column! While the couple may be intending not to get pregnant, they do so in a way that respects the value and nature of the conjugal act through abstaining. This is fundamentally different from intending not to get pregnant by sterilizing the womb before intercourse so as to remove a fundamental and natural value of the conjugal act. In the same way we make moral distinctions between death by means of “natural death” and death by means of an “unnatural death” (i.e. murder, euthanasia), the Church is calling us to apply the same distinctions to the conjugal/marital act.

Where the use of NFP appears to become the subject matter of Humanae Vitae is when the married couple actually engages in sexual activity during the infertile periods. If the object of moral inquiry is the sexual act and if each sexual act necessitates an openness of life, then is not the couple breaking the Church’s teachings by engaging in the sexual act during infertile periods? While they may not be actively sterilizing the act, their intentions are to engage in a sexual act without getting pregnant. Do not their intentions make this equivalent to a contraceptive act? The answer is no since you cannot intend something which cannot actually happen. While the statement “I do not intend to get a woman pregnant” has meaning, the statement “I do not intend to get a man pregnant” sounds absurd! The reason for its absurdity is based upon an absurd intention which is in fact no intention at all. One cannot engage in a conjugal act that is infertile with an intention to either get pregnant or not get pregnant any more than one can intend to make a square circle. Thus, even the marital/conjugal act during infertile periods is free from this particular moral scrutiny as the act maintains the integrity, value and nature of the sexual act.

Contraception was NOT invented to prevent pregnancy as there was already a fully effective way to prevent it which, again, I’m confident all of you are practicing as you read this column: abstinence. Contraception was invented to sterilize the fertile period so that if the urge to have sex were to arise during that period, neither the man nor the woman would need to muster up the energy to deny that urge in the fear of pregnancy. It is precisely this truth that opens new horizons of understanding between contraception and NFP. While contraceptive sexual acts risk enslavement to the sexual urge, NFP frees one from the all-too-real threat of sexual addiction through periods of abstinence. This makes NFP not only permissible but even virtuous! After all, one’s ‘yes’ is meaningful only when one has the self-mastery to say ‘no.’ However, this level of self-mastery is impossible outside the grace of God concretely and most powerfully manifested through the sacramental life of the Church! May God be Praised!

* I have received some questions/criticisms about the statement that “marriage” must not be open to life but rather the “marital act.” While I firmly believe the statement is technically accurate, I do acknowledge that it can be misleading to some. As an accurate compromise, another way to articulate what I have mentioned above is to say that marriage must be open to life as it corresponds to the marital act.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Calling All Parishioners & Alumni

I find it hard to believe that the academic year is finished. It feels like only yesterday we were hosting open house BBQ’s for the newly received freshmen, dorm storming, celebrating Mass on Norlin Quad, attending the Great Debate and so many other activities that this ministry has been blessed with. I’m always humbled by the zeal of the St. Thomas staff who are constantly willing to go the extra mile if only to reach one soul. Given that, I can confidently say that the success of this year would never have happened if it were not for the parish community of St. Thomas. I cannot thank you enough for the time you have put into this campus ministry for the sake of Christ, the treasure you have poured into this ministry because of your belief in the mission, and the talent you have offered so as to take this ministry to the next level! Be assured that your labor was never in vain, and because of you we have seen incredible growth in our ministry just in this year: bible studies have nearly doubled, student daily Mass attendance has nearly tripled, Buffalo Awakening retreats are reaching record breaking numbers in retreaters, the number of attendees to the annual debate tripled, and the student center is continuously bustling. These examples are simply the first things that come to mind. We have been blessed and I thank all of you for what you have accomplished!

While it is wonderful to pause and celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit, we must move forward with renewed ardor, open hearts, and creativity as we begin planning for another year of campus ministry. If this ministry were not critically important we could embrace the transition between one academic year and another a little longer. The fact of the matter is that campus ministry is a most important dimension of ministry if the purpose is to transform a culture through the light of Jesus Christ. The ideologies presented in the university classrooms today will inevitably become the practical wisdom of our culture tomorrow. If we want to transform the world then we must be willing to pour our resources into campus ministry as the majority of our future leaders, CEO’s, policy makers, priests, fathers, and mothers will come from universities such as CU.

One thing I have observed around the student center is that the students are asked to volunteer for many things throughout the year. So much so that many of these students can sometimes have hesitations in visiting the center in fear that they may be “solicited” to do yet another thing. I would love to diffuse this tension that is often felt by opening up new areas of volunteer service for the parish community of St. Thomas. This would free the students to do what they do best; building peer friendships in hope for an opportunity to present the Gospel to them. Between the wonderful parishioner and alumni support from last year and the new requests to volunteer coming in as I write this, I would love it if we could get 100 parishioners and alumni to sign up for next year’s volunteer needs. This is a tall order but I am confident that this parish community is convinced of the importance of campus ministry, especially this one.

The majority of volunteer needs will be in the form of socials whether that is hosting a few BBQ’s throughout the year, baking cookies for the fall dorm storm, or helping host a weekly social throughout the year. These activities alone would free our students up tremendously so that they may be more effective in their own evangelization efforts. Together we can take this great ministry to the next level and transform the culture by the light of Jesus Christ.

Let the sign up for the 100 volunteers begin! All you have to do is set this column down for a moment and either email or phone Matt Boettger and give him your contact information (i.e. name, number, email address), and let me know you are interested in volunteering for the 2009-2010 year of CU ministry! May God be Praised!

Matt Boettger, Director of Outreach & Evangelization 720.564.1111 ext. 265