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This Rock

Q  u  i  c  k    Q  u  e  s  t  i  o  n  s

This Rock
Volume 7, Number 9
  September 1996  

  Up Front
By Karl Keating
  Confession of a Historical Critic
By A.C. McGiffert
  Conversion Story
The Long and Winding Road
By Terrye Newkirk
  Fathers Know Best
The Real Presence
  Quick Questions



Q: The nun teaching my RCIA class said the Second Vatican Council changed the Church’s teaching on the reliability of Scripture, saying that it has only “limited inerrancy” or inerrancy only on matters of faith and morals. Is thus true?

A: Not by a long shot. Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), states, “Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation” (no. 11).

Proponents of the theory of “limited inerrancy” claim the last clause of that is restrictive: Inerrancy extends only to things pertaining to our salvation, not to other things that may be found in Scripture.

You can show this is false just by reading the rest of the sentence. It says that “everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit.” Every single time one of the authors of Scripture makes a factual assertion (as opposed to using a figure of speech or a literary device, which are common in Scripture and which we often don’t recognize) it means that the Holy Spirit himself makes that same assertion.

Since the Holy Spirit knows everything and does not lie, he cannot make a false factual assertion on any topic he speaks about. Because his infallibility is not limited to faith and morals, anything he says is automatically true. Since everything Scripture asserts is asserted by the Spirit, all biblical assertions are automatically true, too.

The “for the sake of our salvation” clause thus is not a restrictive clause, but a purposive clause-it explains why God put this truth in Scripture.

What most people don’t know is that the original draft of Dei Verbum contained a more ambiguous phrase (which said that Scripture faithfully taught “saving truth”), and, when multiple bishops cried out against this phrase because of its potential to be misunderstood, the pope himself intervened to make sure that the document would not be understood to be changing the Church’s teaching on inerrancy. This fact is omitted by people who deny the unrestricted inerrancy of Scripture.

Q: I don’t understand how the Church can throw out tradition, when that is one of the things on which we base our faith. I’ve been told that tradition doesn’t change-yet we no longer have the Latin Mass, which was certainly our tradition for centuries.

A: There is a distinction between sacred Tradition (which is revealed truth handed down from apostolic times) and ecclesiastical tradition or custom. Sacred Tradition has been given by God, either through the Bible or through the oral teaching of Christ or his apostles. That Tradition may not be altered by anyone, even the pope.

Ecclesiastical tradition (lowercase “t”), on the other hand, arises from the Church’s pastoral and disciplinary authority. It governs administrative matters, customs, the “details” of ecclesiastical life. These may be changed to suit particular epochs or cultures.

Mass in Latin falls into the category of ecclesiastical tradition. The first Mass, the Last Supper, was probably in Aramaic, possibly in Hebrew. Later, as Christianity spread throughout known civilization, the liturgy was translated into Greek and Latin, the vernacular languages of that day. They were as common then as English is today.

Latin continued to be the common language of the liturgy in the Western Church until recently. In the Eastern churches in communion with the Catholic Church, Greek and other languages, including Aramaic, are used.

The Mass in the vernacular isn’t an alteration of divine Tradition, therefore, but of ecclesiastical custom. The Church determined that, for pastoral reasons, Mass should be available in languages understood by the faithful. So long as the Church follows the strictures of Tradition in establishing liturgical norms, it is free to modify the merely cultural elements of the Mass at any time.

Q: Who are the “Church Fathers” you are always writing about, and what did one have to do to be counted as a Church Father?

A: The Fathers of the Church were individuals who lived and wrote during the early ages of the Church.

In order for a person to be recognized as one of the Fathers of the Church, four conditions have to be met. He must have been a writer of antiquity (before the death of John Damascene around A.D. 750), he must have been orthodox in his teaching, he must have been holy in his personal life, and he must have received Church approval.

In addition to the Fathers, there are certain other writers from the period whose works are still useful even though the writers did not deserve being called Fathers of the Church.

For example, Tertullian, who died in the early 200s, left many useful writings but is not a Father of the Church because before his death he left the Church and joined a false prophecy movement known as Montanism.

Those who are counted as Fathers include Pope Clement I, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Cyprian of Carthage, Athanasius, Augustine, Jerome, and many others. You can read what these men, as well as other early Christian writers, said on various topics in our regular “Fathers Know Best” column and in the forthcoming books to be published by Catholic Answers under the title The Fathers Know Best. (When these books are ready, we will make an announcement in these pages.)

Q: What is the best way to show a person who is not religious that abortion is wrong?

A: Try this: Point out to him that our society is built on the principle that every innocent human being has an inalienable right to life. If we can show the unborn are human beings, then we must accord them the right to life.

Next, ask him to look at the question of the unborn’s humanity from a strictly scientific perspective-no religious propositions intruding. Scientifically, what is a human being? The answer is: a living human organism. If it is a human organism, and if it’s alive, then it is a human being.

Do the unborn meet this definition? Yes. They are living human organisms.

The fact that they are living is demonstrated (among other things) by their growth. Dead fetuses don’t grow, and they grow from the moment of conception. (Scientifically, there is no debate over when life begins.) The only question here is: Are these living things human?

They are; they possess a human genetic code (not a rabbit or a carrot or a turtle genetic code). If they did not possess a human genetic code, we would be able to match their code with some other living thing’s-no other animal’s or plant’s code matches.

So, if they are living and human, are they organisms? Yes; they are organic wholes with their own inner principle of life and development. The unborn are not just globs of cells but complete organisms. Take a glob of cells, leave it alone, and it will remain a glob of cells. Take an unborn, leave it alone, and it will turn into a adult human being. We must conclude, therefore, that the unborn are living human organisms, which means that scientifically they are human beings, and so must be accorded the same right to life as anyone else.

Q: I believe Jesus was a good and wise teacher, nothing more but you Christians must be crazy for saying he was the divine Son of God.

A: Many people today hold your view. They try to give a pious nod to Jesus as a great religious leader of the past, while denying that he was anything more than human.

Unfortunately, this position is internally unstable, because if one honors Jesus as a teacher then one has to look at his teachings. One of his teachings was that he was more than human. He claimed to be much more than just a pious religious teacher, saying in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”

He also claimed to be a pre-existent Person who was around since before the dawn of time: “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (John 17:5).

When Peter declared to him, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus answered: “Blessed are you Simon bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:16-17).

You can’t maintain your position that Jesus was a good and wise teacher but not the unique, divine Son of God. Good and wise teachers who are merely mortal do not go around saying, “I am the Son of the living God; I have been around since before time began; nobody gets to heaven except through me.”

Either you must recognize that he was right in making such claims for himself, in which you must honor him as more than just a holy man, or you must say he was wrong in making such claims for himself, in which case he could in no way be a good and wise teacher.

Q: Baptism must be by immersion only, not by the Catholic method of sprinkling. Acts 8:38-39 records that when the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized, “both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away.”

A: You have the general Catholic practice wrong. Sprinkling (aspersion) is not used; pouring (affusion or infusion) is-so, for that matter, is dunking (immersion).

The Code of Canon Law states: “Baptism is to be conferred either by immersion or by pouring, the prescriptions of [one’s] national conference of bishops being observed” (CIC 854), and the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Baptism is performed in the most expressive way by triple immersion in the baptismal water. However, from ancient times it has also been able to be conferred by pouring water three times over the candidate’s head” (CCC 1239).

All Acts 8 shows is that Philip and the eunuch were standing in water at the time of the baptism. It may well have been by immersion, but the text does not show that because in the early Church baptism by pouring was often performed while the candidates stood ankle-deep in water. The walls of the catacombs, for example, show depictions of this form of baptism, and all the early representations of Christ being baptized by John at the Jordan show him standing in shallow water, with John pouring water onto his head from a shell.

Sometimes people try to get immersion out of Acts 8 by stressing the fact that they “went down into the water” and “came up out of the water,” but this won’t do because the text says they both went down and came up. If that meant immersion then Philip got baptized, too-which is certainly not the case as he had been a baptized Christian (in fact, a deacon) for some time-or it means that Philip went under the water with the eunuch and baptized him there, but who would try to pour water while under water? (Could you even tell whether the poured water reached the head of the candidate?)

Q: Why doesn’t the pope use his power of infallibility to define every theological issue there is and get it over with, instead of letting things go undefined for centuries?

A: For several reasons: First, it is not God’s will to have everything defined with crystal clarity at once. Jesus told the disciples, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears” (John 16:12-13a).

It was thus Jesus’ will not to give the apostles all doctrines at once (they couldn’t bear it), but to have the Holy Spirit lead them into truth over time.

The same is the case with us: In every age, there are things for which people are not yet ready. Note God’s leading of the Old Testament faithful, over time, into an acceptance of monotheism, as opposed to polytheism, and into a greater understanding of God’s moral law. Dumping too much on them at once would have been overwhelming.

If the pope tried to define every doctrine, he would be trying to jump ahead of the Spirit’s lead and would deliver a great shock to the body of Christ. The pain of adjustment would be too great, and many souls would be lost.

Second, the pope cannot define every doctrine because he does not know the answers to every doctrinal question. Infallibility does not give this to him. In order to know the answer to a question, he has to study the matter, just like we do, and some theological issues are so subtle that they require an entire career to study (which is why theologians have to specialize in just a few areas). Some need to be studied over centuries, with the answers coming only after prayerful reflection and the lived experience of the Church.

All things considered, it’s much better for the pope to follow the lead of the Spirit by studying and then defining the doctrines that need to proclaimed in his day. He is a shepherd who must meet the needs of his sheep, not a computer that must churn out all possible inferences from a set of data.

Q: What’s the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation? Both affirm the Real Presence of Christ, don’t they?

A: Yes they do, but there is still a difference. Consubstantiation teaches that in the Eucharist the body and blood of Christ are present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. What is on the altar is thus bread and wine plus Jesus Christ.

The problem is when Jesus said the first Mass, he did not tell the apostles, “This contains my body” and “This contains my blood.” He said, “This is my body,” “This is my blood.”

The Catholic Church, taking Jesus at his word, says that the elements do not just contain Christ’s body and blood, but actually are his body and blood (together with his soul and divinity), meaning that the substance of the bread and wine must have been changed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood (hence, “transubstantiation,” a change of substance). Only the appearances (sensory or empirical properties) of the bread and wine remain.

The theory of consubstantiation is believed by Lutherans and many Anglicans, though Anglicans tend not to use the term. Transubstantiation is believed by Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and all of the other Eastern churches, though they don’t tend to use the term (“transubstantiation” being derived from Latin roots, and Latin not being the historic language of those areas).

Q: Doesn’t excommunication send a person to hell? At least I’ve been told it does.

A: You’ve been told wrong. Only the person himself can do that. Excommunication is a medicinal sanction the Church applies to try to get a person to wake up, realize what he has done, and repent of his sin. It presupposes that the person has already fallen into grave sin and needs to be brought to his senses. The Church is incapable of severing his connection to God-through any means. Only he can do that. By applying excommunication, the Church is hoping to restore him to fellowship with God by making him realize the gravity of what he has done.

This, incidentally, is a thoroughly biblical practice. Jesus himself told the apostles they would have to use it (Matt. 18:15-17), and Paul provides us with an early example of its use.

He told the Corinthians: “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn?

“Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:1-5).

When the man repented, Paul told them: “For such a one this punishment by the majority is enough; so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything” (2 Cor. 2:6-9).

In Paul’s day, as in ours, the purpose of excommunication was medicinal, and when the person repented, he was to be absolved and welcomed back into fellowship with a reaffirmation of the Church’s love and concern for him.

Q: Why do Catholics kneel during their services? This seems unnecessary. Why not just sit still and listen to the preaching of God’s word?

A: Kneeling is one of the postures of worship. It shows our humility and reverence toward God and is commended to us by scriptural example and command. In fact, a song popular in Protestant circles records the words of Psalm 95:6: “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!” Kneeling is also a New Testament practice. In Ephesians 3:14 Paul says, “I kneel before the Father,” and in Acts 9:40 Peter “knelt down and prayed.”

By kneeling, Catholics are doing what Christians (and Jews) have long done. It is an unbiblical innovation to reject this posture of worship, which is one reason that in some churches “worship” services have degenerated into a lecture accompanied by a couple of songs-not at all the biblical model for corporate worship.



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