Original Sin or Original Blessing?

Being in my sixties now, I can remember when Holy Mass was celebrated in Latin and the priest had his back to the congregation and was busy doing ‘holy things’ while the rest of us quietly watched on from a distance or just fingered our rosary beads. I was certainly brought up in a pre Vatican II milieu where religion was taught in a dogmatic and fundamentally ‘black and white’ moralistic way. As Catholic school children, we were drilled – religiously – every week with Mass, Benediction, rote-learning of catechism and of course frequent confession.

I have to say I was never aware of, nor a victim of, any sexual abuse by priests and nuns – and there were plenty of them around me – but clearly it was going on. If I suffered any abuse from these ministers of religion I would have to say that it was a theological and spiritual oppression, based on a scary view of human nature and – crucially – a scary view of God. It may be strange to say that I then went on to become a priest myself, but one factor in that was certainly that Vatican II had made some impact on the local Church by the time that I was old enough to discern my way in life. But while the ‘fresh air’ generated by Vatican II was liberating for me as a young person, it was also clearly destabilising and threatening to many others, particularly the older folk.

At the heart of the Church’s traditional understanding of the Gospel and therefore how it presented the ‘things of God’ and humanity’s role, was the centrality of sin. It might be overstating the point but when I was young sin was everywhere. Sin had its precise gradings, into venial (minor) and mortal (serious) sin. Many folk, good decent folk, lived in constant terror of the possibility of committing a mortal sin and suddenly dying before managing to get to confession and receive absolution: thereby going straight to hell, which was eternal damnation and the everlasting loss of God and His heaven. And mortal sin was certainly doable in those days! Not surprisingly confession was widely frequented and especially before Mass, because receiving Jesus in Communion while being in a state of serious sin was anathema, a kind of mega-mortal sin, if that were possible.

In those days of my youth, the nineteen fifties and sixties, churches were packed and Catholic practice was impressive in terms of numbers. Numbers… But did we ever really evaluate the quality of our personal and collective faith? Was it perhaps that folk attended their religious duties out of fear, sometimes fear of societal pressure, sometimes naked fear of damnation? What levels of neurosis and stress did people carry in their psyches? And what picture of God did we all hold in our hearts?

When I ministered as a priest in the nineteen eighties, the emphasis had shifted in the main from Crucifixion to Resurrection; from sin to grace; from our attempts to love God to His freely given love for us; from God as stern Judge to God as loving Father; from Original Sin to Original Blessing. I say ‘in the main’, because there were many who never really accepted the renewed theology of Vatican II: often these were older people but by no means always older people.

I was – thankfully – formed as a priest in the spirit of Vatican II, and sought as best I could to preach its values. For such as me, Original Blessing trumped Original Sin: God and His love were primary, the absolute starting point for any journey of faith. As a parish missioner I frequently met people who were profoundly alienated from the Church, either by a traumatic experience at the hands of a priest or nun, or through a failed marriage and an unsympathetic and unforgiving Church, or indeed by being thoroughly sickened by the sin-soaked mentality of those earlier days. I met folk who were terribly constricted by scrupulosity: religious scrupulosity is a terrifying and immensely difficult psychological neurosis, akin to paranoia, and easily induced by an over-sensitivity to the sin-obsession of that time. It would be hard to over-emphasise how debilitating and literally soul-destroying religious scrupulosity can be.

Ultimately, the pre Vatican II mentality centred on ‘going through the motions’, a surface religious practice, regimented by fear and authority. This of course also reflected a wider societal milieu. There was no emphasis on inner spiritual experience, and not that much on emotional fellowship either. In contrast, the message of Vatican II is broad, fundamentally positive and in direct opposition to the earlier sin-centric mentality. But many of us ask, has the spirit and the practice of Vatican II been diluted or even reneged on in the years since the nineteen sixties?

Is the Catholic Church of today thoroughly convinced of the veracity and relevance of Original Blessing, or is it still clinging on to many aspects of the Original Sin mentality?

Catholics, love the Church, because we are the Church!

Martin

Should We Pray For the Dead?

My dear old dad, dead these past four years, would have just turned ninety-nine. I pray for him and mum, who pre-deceased him by some ten years, every day as part of my morning and evening spiritual routines. I am sure that even now they enjoy the very face of God and live in the bliss of His eternal kingdom of love. I base this belief on the simple fact that they were decent and loving folk who cherished their Catholic faith.

Assuming there is an afterlife, it might well be asked: if you are confident that they are in heaven, why bother to pray for them? And if by some terrible happenstance they had actually ended up in hell, then surely no prayers would help them at all? Why indeed should we believers ever pray for the dead?

The Catholic Church teaches that there is a state after death called Purgatory. This can be understood as a kind of staging post for heaven, where those who are not perfect at the point of their death – and what good soul is perfect – await entry into heaven. As such it is a conveyor belt to heaven, and is therefore a cleansing and healing realm. Although not directly mentioned in the Bible, it is partly based on the affirmation in scripture that: “nothing defiled can enter heaven” Revelation 21: 27. In a strict sense, not even the greatest saint is fit to enter straight into heaven.

I find Purgatory is actually a very consoling doctrine in that it seems to respect the reality of human nature, that we are never completely good or completely bad. It avoids the error that some more extreme Protestant sects fell into that a person was either saved or damned, that is, that there was no middle ground at death or room for God’s mercy to intervene. That can lead to a very stern and intolerant spirituality.

It follows from belief in Purgatory that there is a real purpose in praying for the dead: to express our love (as the living) by in some way assisting the deceased’s passage through Purgatory and onwards into heaven. Sadly this long established belief also gave rise to some awful abuses in the history of the Church. As if we could ever calculate time in Purgatory… Abuses of course do not automatically invalidate the doctrine.

There is however another scripture text that directly affirms the practice of praying for the dead. In the second book of Maccabees 12: 46 we read: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins.” This text actually suggests that we can have an affect on their path into heaven, and this also fits in with a theology where God is delighted to respond to human agency, and is therefore not an aloof and unheeding deity.

Whether we believe in a state of Purgatory or not I think there is another fundamental grace in praying for the dead, a grace that isn’t connected to their eternal destination. This grace is simply that whenever we pray – we receive grace, and strength and renewal of our souls. And specifically in praying for the dead, we are convicted and reminded of our own death. As Psalm 90: 12 says: “Make us know the shortness of our life, that we may gain wisdom of heart.” Our dead, as it were, give us this grace whenever we remember them with love and pray for them – they remind us of our own death, of the fragility and brevity of this life, and therefore encourage us to think about the things that really matter. While there is always a danger in becoming too morbid, on balance it is a healthy and sensible attitude to be aware of the certainty of our own death and to live today with that awareness. Jesus himself taught that we should be ready and awake, for we know not the hour! (Matthew 24: 42; Mark 13: 33–37; Luke 21: 36)

Ultimately, when we pray in humility and from the heart, we can never demand that God change His course, but we can be absolutely certain that we change – for the better. Praying for the dead, at the very least, brings us benefit. It is an avowal of our love for them, a love which did not cease at their death, and of our hope that our loved ones are with God, or even God-bound. As such, it is love expressed.

In His love,

Martin

God versus Democracy?

In our world today, democracy seems to be everywhere under threat. Democracy is predicated on the will of the enfranchised majority, in contrast to other systems of governance which may rely on the will of a few, usually powerful males – sometimes even just one leader.

And while it may be a simple truth that even if the majority of people were to assert that the Earth is flat, it would not make it so, it is generally acknowledged that in a democratic system the majority determines what is normative. Properly legislated laws rarely suit everyone but they are there for the coherence of society, and it follows that it is reasonable for all members of a society to respect laws that are carefully and legitimately promulgated.

It is however a sad fact that the Christian churches were very slow to accept democracy, preferring instead to hold on to systems of rule such as monarchy and male dominated oligarchies. One reason for this resistance stems from religion itself: ultimately all moral norms come from God, and are not as such open to human debate such as we may find in democratic systems. In this regard some have even argued for rule by the ‘holy’ – those who are supposedly close to God and know His will and can therefore best guide and govern the rest of us. The problem with this system, known as a theocracy, is precisely in the assumption that there are people who can effectively mediate the divine will. The fact that someone is regarded as holy, perhaps living a life of great spiritual sacrifice and wisdom, doesn’t actually mean that they are equipped to govern a society.

I think we can reject any form of theocracy as being simply too far a stretch for any small group or individual to safely interpret God’s will for the rest of us. While it might be sometimes beneficial, such as certain historical examples of saintly kings who ruled with justice and integrity, it is also highly possible for it to become corrupt and essentially just another form of dictatorship: in other words, an autocracy.

I think it also follows that any system which gives undue or even supreme power to a small group of clerics is extremely dangerous. This gives leverage for fundamentalists and for those who have a cause which is often little more than a perceived anger at foreigners or those who don’t follow their faith. Such groups can and do subvert religion to their own needs. Moreover they, as we all do, make God in their own image, which can all too often be an angry and bloodthirsty one. This allows some so-called religious groups to legitimise killing and maiming in the name of God. Their God is simply an angrier and scarier extension of their own prejudice and malice. Sadly today we see suicide bombings and other atrocities being perpetrated in God’s name, and the indoctrinated individuals actually longing for death so as to become martyrs and enter into some sort of paradise. What a surprise they will get when they come before the throne of God… Yet the greater blame will fall on those who set them up by preaching their vicious ideologies.

To come back to democracy – it isn’t perfect, and any democracy at any one time will only be as healthy as the mindset of the people. If a country’s population are angry for any reason, such as the German people were in the years after the First World War when their country had been punished and humiliated by the victorious powers, and thereby actually voted in Hitler’s Nazis, then the consequences can be horrendous. Democracies can be and are hoodwinked by populist demagogues who give the people simple answers to complex questions, often aided and abetted by partisan media.

Maybe at some point in the far future there will be a benign one world government which respects diversity, and wars and oppression will be no more, but until that far off time, I think God understands that democracies are the only practical forms of national government that have the potential to both empower the majority and also, importantly, respect minorities.

If you have a vote, cherish it and use it for the greater good,

Martin

The Holy Trinity: a Mystery that makes Sense

I think most people would accept that – assuming God exists – our knowledge of (Him) is hugely constrained by our own human limitations. God is mystery, and mystery is simply those realities that are beyond our ability to explain.

That said, there are I think two things we can state about God which are relatively incontestable:

~ God is eternal, with no beginning or end;

~ God is entirely self-sufficient, needing nothing outside of (Him)self.

These two aspects spring from what is the very notion of a divine being.

In regard to the second aspect, that God must be completely self-sufficient in Himself (that is: needing nothing outside of His own being to fulfil His existence), I want to suggest that this aspect directly leads on to another crucial point about God:

~ God cannot be one person.

One of the key revelations and strengths of Christianity is that Jesus’ life and teaching emphasises God’s love. Love is at the centre of the Christian Gospel. St John in his first letter actually states that “God is love” (1 John 4: 8). This is the essence of God’s nature, and what we know of authentic love is that it must be expressed to another. There is no solitary in love. And it follows that relationship is fundamental here, whether one to one, one to many, or many to many.

If God, who is love, is to be utterly self-sufficient, then God must be a community. Period.

There is no getting around this truth. And even if God’s nature wasn’t love, it surely follows that any being who is posited as entirely self-sufficient, must be in a relationship to at least one other being? If God was hate – God forbid! – He would still need another to hate! Otherwise He would be very frustrated indeed!

What I’m trying to say here is that God – any divine being – must be ‘multiple’. He/She/It/They must be in a relationship. It cannot be otherwise! A lone divine being who is self-sufficient is illogical and patent nonsense.

We should not be surprised therefore that Christianity, stressing love, teaches that God is indeed a community, a trinity of three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who are so deeply united in an eternal mutual love relationship that they effectively are also a unity: three in one.

The Holy Trinity is of course a profound mystery in its own right and impossible for us humans to properly understand. It certainly is mystery, but we can begin to see that it does make sense – it has to be so, if ‘God’ is ever to be self-sufficient in His own essence. God has to be in an eternal relationship within His own reality. He – forgive the limitations of human language here – has never needed anything or anyone outside of His inner community. Never ever.

That of course leads us to another astonishing fact, stemming from Jesus’ teaching:

~ God did not need us.

He did not need to initiate the drama of Creation. He certainly did not need to create humanity. It follows that we can only be: the overflowing of His love. If we exist at all, it is because of His free decision and delight to share His love with us. That’s worth meditating on…

One God. Three persons. Eternally united in perfect love. Utterly self-sufficient and complete in their own community. Our world and our place in it, and our destiny: their irrevocable and free choice to share their ever-lasting bliss. Praise God!

Martin

God did Nothing Wrong

Some years ago a saintly aunt of mine passed away at the venerable age of ninety-seven. She was truly a holy and devout soul who not only went to daily mass but also kept a welcoming home and always a cheery smile though she had been widowed for many years. Her funeral was a glorious, and I mean glorious, celebration of a life well lived and the victory of our Christian faith.

The reason I mention her here is that one of her sons gave a wonderful panegyric at the funeral mass, and he recalled how an acquaintance had asked her how she could possibly remain a faithful Catholic after all the terrible clerical child abuse revelations and especially after the Church had compounded the evil by trying to protect its image rather than minister to the victims. Her reply was succinct and – I believe – inspired by the Holy Spirit:

“God did nothing wrong”.

In her reply she didn’t try to excuse the Church nor indeed to minimise the awful life-wounds inflicted on innocent and vulnerable children by those who abused a sacred trust. Rather she ‘reset’ the accusation implied by the questioner. Surely the intent of the question was: why on earth, as a reasonable and moral person, had she not given up on the Church? Her wisdom indicated that no matter how sinful and wretched the Church can be – as let’s face it, the long history of the Church includes many shocking and murderous incidents as well as long periods of scandalous behaviour by its leaders and centuries of resistance to the voices of renewal and repentance – it is still the Church, and as such, of God.

I hesitate to try and expound on her simple but profound wisdom. To me, her attitude, born of long years of prayer and selfless devotion, is a rebuff to all those who have scorned the Church and used its evident failings to disabuse themselves from any commitment. They may well have justified their position by pointing to a Church that has spectacularly soiled its moral authority and especially damaged the integrity of its priesthood – but – as Jesus Himself said: “the gates of the underworld will never prevail against it”. That statement by Jesus is both a clear indication that the Church is never ‘finished’ but also a frank avowal of His enduring love and support for what is His spiritual body on earth.

No matter how besmirched the Church may become, and that has been excessive in recent years, it is still His Church, and beloved of God.

My brilliant and revered theology lecturer, Fr Eric Doyle OFM, used an image from the gospels which for him was a metaphor for the Church: the woman taken in adultery (John 8: 3 – 11).

In this gospel incident, which the Jewish authorities were using to trap and incriminate Jesus, it is clear that the woman’s sin was not in doubt. Feminists may well ask where was the man in all this – well, that probably says more about a very patriarchal and male dominated society and befits a separate discussion. Anyway, in the story the poor woman is cast down before Jesus – guilty as charged. The crowd wanted to see if Jesus would condemn her and thus ruin His reputation for mercy, or to see if He would let her go and thereby disobey the Mosaic Law and compromise His legitimacy as a prophet. The trap was set for Him and the woman was their pawn. Jesus of course ‘reset’ the accusation and famously declared: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. And the crowd slunk away.

The point of this story for Eric was that the sinful woman is an image of the Church. She stands condemned by the ‘world’, and with some justice for all her many sins, but Jesus will never write her off, and at the end of time will say in love: “Where are your accusers? Neither will I condemn you.”

If you are a Catholic, practising or not, then you, and I, are the Church! Instead of condemning or abandoning it we need to take responsibility for renewing and healing the Church, both locally and globally. Let’s make the effort to discern what the Holy Spirit is asking of us?

Pope Francis is calling a synod in 2023 and he wants to hear from ordinary Catholics on their feelings for the Church, warts and all. Perhaps something we should take seriously and get involved in?

in the merciful love of Jesus,

Martin