Q: some of the eastern orthodox catholics (not sure which ethnic ones) are part of the roman catholic church. do the patriarchs participate in a conclave? (i know they participated in vatican II) OR were the 115 cardinals voting most recently are only roman /western ones? and the patriarchs participate and don't vote? or did they? what about the greek orthodox? or do they have their own "pope"? what about the "national church of poland" ? there is some reference to that in the very back of the book at church wherein it gives a commentary about recieving holy communion....(who should and shouldn't receive) who is organized under the holy roman catholic church? what event/theology/thought separates the east from the west?

A: There are a couple of important distinctions here.  One is between "Catholicism" and "Orthodoxy."  Those who are Catholic are in full communion with the Church of Rome.  The Orthodox are not (yet).  The history of that separation is way, way too complex to give a fair answer to here.  The date most commonly appealed to is 1054, when the papal delegate to Constantinople excommunicated the Patriarch and the Patriarch excommunicated the delegates.  However, this event was precipitated by centuries of growing difference between East and West (keep in mind the waves of Barbarian invasions that greatly hindered communication).  Likewise these mutual excommunications were not in and of themselves the cause of a millennium-long rift.  For several decades, the impression was that the schism would soon be healed.  Various attempts were made, including the Council of Florence, which arrived at a common formula of union that the Orthodox delegates agreed to - but was rejected by the clergy and faithful when they returned home.

Theologically speaking, the Orthodox had (and tend still to have) reservations about papal primacy.  They are willing to recognize a certain primacy of the See of Rome, but generally no more than being a "first among equals."  They also had (and often still have) serious problems with the Western profession of filioque ("and from the Son") that is, that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father and the Son."  Some Orthodox see our view of the Trinity as heretical and as an obstacle to full communion.  On the Catholic side, we tend to view these differences of describing the Trinity as legitimate theological diversity, but not Church-dividing ones.  The main dividing issue is whether the Bishop of Rome (the pope) has universal jurisdiction.  Practically speaking, he rarely exercises that jurisdiction, aside from promulgating Canon Law and appointing bishops - and even there, Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict made it very clear that the one-day-reunited Eastern Churches would be autonomous, able to formulate their own legislation and appoint their own bishops.

But the quest for reunion has been much slower than hoped for.  Part of the problem is now another 1,000 years of doctrinal development since the rift began.  Another problem is that the Orthodox themselves are rather splintered, and vehemently disagree with each other.  Finally, there is still much need of healing of the wrongs of the past.  Probably one of the greatest contributing factors to the wound was the Fourth Crusade, when the crusaders never made it to the Holy Land, but instead sacked and looted Constantinople and ruled it for 57 years.  For many Greek Orthodox, those events are as fresh and bitter in the memory as the "War of the Northern Aggression" is for some Southerners in the U.S.  We'll keep hoping and praying.

But the other key distinction here is between Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.  There are many Eastern Churches that are Catholic, in full communion with Rome.  Their liturgy, theology, spirituality, and law are thoroughly Eastern.  They are not Roman Catholics, but Byzantine Catholics, Coptic Catholics, Syro-Malabar Cahtolics, etc.  The Maronite Catholics (in Lebanon) pride themselves on always having been in communion with Rome.  The others are typically Orthodox Churches that chose at one point to reunite with the Roman Church.  We Catholics refer to them as Oriental Catholics or Eastern Catholics.  The Orthodox tend to refer to them as "Uniate Churches" - those Churches that chose to re-unite with Rome.  Some Orthodox are upset that popes in the past used situations of political advantage to pressure reunion, and resent the "Uniates" for caving in.  But, regardless of the history, they are reunited, and they are Catholic.

There are four basic "families" or "hubs" or "branches" that developed in the first few centuries of the Church: 1) Roman, 2) Byzantine, 3) Antiochene, 4) Alexandrian.  Each of these four local Churches held great prominence in the early Church, and had great influence on the other Churches in their center of gravity, as it were. Each developed its own unique liturgy, theology, spirituality, and law.  At their essence, of course, they are the same, but also having legitimate diversity of tradition.  From these branches you have a few dozen "Rites" or "Churches."  In the Roman tradition of the West, we have the Latin Rite that most of us are familiar with, but also the Ambrosian Rite (in Milan) and the Mozarabic Rite (in Toledo, Spain).  There are various Byzantine Rites that all celebrate basically the same liturgy, but rooted in different cultures/languages: Ruthenian, Melkite, Slavonic, etc.  The Copts are the heirs of the Alexandrian tradition.  The Maronites (Lebanon), Chaldeans (Iraq/Syria) and Syro-Malabar (India) the heirs of the Antiochene.

Like I said, there are no Maronite Orthodox (and no Mozarabic or Ambrosian Orthodox of course) - but those other Eastern Rites/Churches each tend to have Orthodox branches and Catholic branches (the Orthodox being much larger in overall number).  Even here I am overgeneralizing, however, because the Copts tend to reject the Council of Chalcedon (451) and the Chaldeans to reject the Council of Ephesus (431) - so they call themselves "Orthodox" but are considered by many Greek Orthodox to be unorthodox.  I trust I am making myself obscure?

In addition to the 1983 Code of Canon Law (which governs Catholics in the 3 Roman Rites), there is also a Code of Canon Law for the Oriental Churches, reflecting the legitimate diversity of their traditions and giving them their own church governance structure.  In the quest for full Communion with the Orthodox, the goal is not to make them Roman Catholics, but to respect their own legal, spiritual, theological, and liturgical traditions while having unity in the essentials.  That goal is taking longer than hoped, but I'm sure Pope Francis will keep at it.

So to get back to Vatican II and to the Conclave, the voting bishops at Vatican II and the voting Cardinals at the Conclave were Eastern Catholic bishops, not Orthodox bishops (although there were Orthodox visitors at Vatican II).  They tend to wear, not the traditional Cardinal garb, but a crown or whatever other funny hat their tradition has developed for bishops/patriarchs to wear.

What is a "Patriarch"?  He's a bishop who has jurisdiction over more than just his diocese.  There's a Patriarch in Constantinople, one in Antioch, and of course one in Rome.  The extend of the pope's jurisdiction is the major theological issue to be resolved in those dialogues.

As far as receiving communion goes, Catholics and Orthodox are still in schism with each other and so we normally do not share communion.  However, in the event that an Orthodox is far removed from the opportunity to receive the sacraments, we permit them to receive ours.  Likewise, a Catholic in a similar situation in Orthodox lands is allowed to receive the Orthodox sacraments - but only if he/she approaches the Orthodox pastor and receives permission (often not granted).  As for the National Church of Poland, that is a schismatic Polish-American church that broke away from full communion with the Catholic Church about 100 years ago.  Hopefully that answers your questions!

Q: someone mentioned to me the other day that the only requirement to be pope was to be a man, not necessarily a priest (?) if the cardinals elected a layperson to be pope, would he first have to agree to be ordained to then assume the papacy? have we had laymen serve as popes in past history?

A: There definitely have been laymen in past who were chosen to be bishops/popes.  But keep in mind that the pope is a bishop who bears a special ministry, not just to the Roman Church, but (by his tie to that Church where Peter gave his life) to the universal Church.  So whenever laymen were chosen they were then ordained - back then most likely through the "minor orders" of tonsure / porter / lector / exorcist / acolyte and then as subdeacon / deacon / priest.

Today, the 1983 Code of Canon Law (Canon 332.1) simply states that any bishop who is elected, if he says yes, immediately becomes pope.  Any non-bishop must be ordained as a bishop (which would require him also to be ordained as deacon, then as priest, then as bishop - the three "holy orders" still given in the modern rite following the reforms of Vatican II).  There is no explicit specification further about requirements in the Code.  The learned opinion of most canonists is that the male in question has to be baptized member in full communion with the Catholic Church, and having reached the age of reason sufficiently that he is capable of freely accepting the office.

Q: I thought all priests take the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. i now understand that only ordered priests do. (my growing up years the priests were all franciscan and university years all jesuits) so, what about diocesean priests? is the poverty vow optional? is the obedience vow optional? if so, can a diocesean priest tell the bishop "no" to an assignment /particular job (in absence of a compelling reason - like maybe health or something?)? ...and, given the recent news, could pope francis I have said "no" to the job upon getting elected in the conclave and re-start the voting for someone else or appoint the runner up? (and the world wouldn't necessarily know that either, i guess) what about selection of becoming a bishop or cardinal? can you turn it down if you have a good reason? would you have to state such reason, if you had one or would it be presumed to be a good one if you did turn a job or appointment down, if you could? or does things change given pope emeritus benedict's abdication /resignation? meaning, you can turn things down?

A: As you point out, we diocesan priests are not religious - not in the technical sense of the term, that is.  Religious make solemn vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.  We diocesan priests (sometimes historically called "secular priests") do not.  We live among the people, in the world but not of the world.

We make promises before the bishop and God's people upon our ordination.  What is the difference between a "vow' and a "promise"?  I guess we can look to Canon Law there:

"A vow is a deliberate and free promise made to God concerning a possible and better good which must be fulfilled by reason of the virtue of religion" (Canon 1191, 1).

So a vow is a very specific kind of promise, made to God Himself as an exercise of the virtue of religion (cf. CCC 2101-2102).

All diocesan priests are first ordained as deacons.  At that diaconate ordination, we made the following promises:

--celibacy for the sake of the kingdom
--holding to the mystery of faith with a clear conscience and proclaiming that faith in word and action
--a spirit of prayer, and particularly to pray for the Church and the world through the Liturgy of the Hours
--shaping our way of life after that of Christ
--obedience to our bishop and all his successors

Then at priesthood ordination we make the following promises:

--to discharge the office of the priesthood faithfully
--to preach the Word of God and teach the Catholic Faith worthily and well
--To administer the holy mysteries faithfully and reverently
--To be men of prayer, ceaselessly imploring God's mercy on our people
--To be configured to Christ
--obedience to our bishop and his successors [in case we forgot since our diaconate]

Obviously, there are at least some limits to obedience to one's bishop.  If he orders us to go against our well-formed conscience (in a way that would be sinful for us) then we must not obey.  If he exceeds the bounds of his office as bishop as laid out in Canon Law, then we can push our own rights.  But normally, our duty is to obey our bishop - including and especially when he asks us to move, to resign, etc.

As for being elected pope or appointed as a bishop, these are not matters of strict obedience.  One is ordained as a bishop - and none of the sacraments can be forced.  One always has a right to say "No."  Anecdotally, I know that this happens with bishop appointmentsThe days of being ambitious to be a bishop are long since over in the United States!  Virtually no one wants that anymore, and some do say no.  A Cardinal who has been elected by his brother Cardinals is always asked if he will accept - and if he said "no" we would never know about it.

Morally speaking, of course, the duty to accept is probably a little stronger.  Canon Law establishes the bare minimum requirements of obedience, but our moral duty often takes us well beyond the letter of the law. If the pope chooses a man to be a bishop, or if the Cardinals elect a man to be pope, he ought to take that choice very seriously and (unless he has a grave reason to decline) be prepared to empty himself and offer loving service to God's people.  Jesus makes it very clear that discipleship is all about taking up our Cross daily and following Him.

Q: not sure where this fits (or will fit) in any of the topics in the series. i am curious about the title "son of god" and "son of man" - i think one of those terms may have been used in the old testament in prophetic writings (?) are they interchangeable terms? what is the literal translation? how and why are they used differently in the gospels?

A: Very good questions - and ones that have been debated at great length by Scripture scholars over the past century.  Back in 2000 I had an excellent course on "Mark and the Historical Jesus" by Fr. John Michael McDermott, S.J. - a great scholar and a great priest. He gave lots of attention to both titles and their use. Your questions  prompted a trip to the attic to dig out the course notes - which of course were in the last cranny of the last box I checked. 

The literal meanings of "Son of God" and "Son of Man" are exactly as they sound.  Both terms do go back into the Old Testament.  "Son of God" seems to have multiple uses: 1) Israel collectively as God's son (cf. Isaiah 11:1), 2) Angels as "sons of God" (cf. Job 1 and Daniel 3:25), 3) Kings as sons of God (cf. 2 Samuel 7:12-16; Psalm 2:7).  Fr. McDermott pointed out to us that "Son of God" does not seem to be a messianic title.  Another interesting point is that Jesus does not, in the Gospels, refer to Himself as "Son of God," but rather is called that by others.  By contrast, the title He claims for Himself is simply "the Son."  That title is definitely a novelty.  By referring to God as "my Father" and Himself as "the Son" he brings  a radically new revelation both about God and about Himself.  Scholars have quibbled about whether the title "Son of God" actually implies divinity in the way it is used by this or that New Testament author.  Most of these debates, in my opinion, are rather pointless and fruitless - the bottom line is that Jesus is divine; He revealed Himself as such; He was professed as such by the primitive Church and by the Church throughout the centuries.

The "Son of Man" discussions are even more convoluted.  In the Old Testament, bar nasha has a few different connotations: 1) simply meaning "man" or "a man" or "the man" (cf. Psalm 8); 2) A prophet (cf. Ezekiel 2 and Daniel 8:17); 3) Daniel's vision of "one like a/the Son of Man..." (Daniel 7:13ff).  This final usage led to a great deal of eschatological messianic expectation over the coming Son of Man.  But is this promised "Son of Man" an individual Messiah or an entire Messianic people?  Scholars debate that point.  If you ask me, it was both and it is both - Jesus Christ is the promised "Son of Man" and the Church is collectively a Messianic people "in Christ" - as the new Israel.  When the Church is eschatologically perfected in Christ all these promises will be definitively fulfilled.

Anyway, in the New Testament, there are three kinds of "Son of Man" sayings: 1) referring to the present moment; 2) Foretelling the Suffering, Death, and Resurrection of the "Son of Man"; and 3) eschatological statements about the "Son of Man" coming in glory,  #1 and #3 are in continuity with what came before Jesus, but #2 is quite new.  In contrast to "Son of God" (which Jesus Himself does not utter in the Gospels), "Son of Man" is only spoken by Jesus - with the one exception of Luke 24:67, but even there it is an angel who is quoting Jesus.

In Luke's Gospel, it seems, Jesus tends to use "Son of Man" in reference to Himself.  In Matthew's Gospel, that point is abundantly clear (see, e.g., Matthew 16).  As for Mark's Gospel, some scholars have suggested that we don't know whether Jesus was referring to Himself or some future "Son of Man."  First of all, those scholars tend to be devoid of Christian faith in their reading of Scripture, being perfectly comfortable with a void between the "Jesus of history" and the "Christ of faith."  But secondly, if these sayings are not self-referential, Mark 8:38 would really not make any sense: "Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when He comes in His Father's glory with the holy angels."

The radical newness of the way Jesus used the "Son of Man" sayings was by combining the understanding of Himself as Messiah and as the Suffering Servant (predicted in Isaiah 53).  Both the Messiah and the Suffering Servant played a prominent role in the centuries of Jewish thought leading up to Jesus, but (it seems) no one imagined that in God's plan of salvation these two would be put together in the same person - and again, that this person would actually be "the Son," God made flesh for our salvation.

Q: After watching the video of this talk, I am interested in reading more about the things in the Old Testament that prefigure Christ and the Church. You mentioned that some early church Fathers wrote on the subject. Is there any particular book you can recommend that wouldn't be too difficult to understand?

A: Throughout the 2,000 years of the Church's living Tradition, there have been great Catholic thinkers who understand all of Scripture as one whole gift from God, and who explain how the Old is fulfilled in the New.  The Fathers of the Church did this in beautiful ways, but so did many medieval theologians and even modern theologians like Newman, Danielou, and de Lubac. Vatican II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church continue to emphasize this way of reading Scripture: "As an old saying put it, the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 129).

For reading, I guess the first thing I would recommend all those paragraphs in the Catechism: nn. 101-141.  I would also encourage taking a look at the writings of the early Church Fathers themselves.  Authors like St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory the Great wrote beautiful homilies and Scripture commentaries - most of them readily available on the internet.  Some parts of them are challenging reading, but others are quite relevant today.  We priests get a heavy dose of the Fathers as we pray the Liturgy of the Hours each day.  The Office of Readings always includes a 1-2 page passage either from a Vatican II document, a saint, or an early Church Father.

Many books have been written on this way of reading Scripture - most of them more scholarly and less for everyday people.  I can't think of any one that is just what you are looking for.  However, I haven't read Scripture in the Tradtion by Henri de Lubac.  It's not overly long and will probably have a lot of examples for you to consider. I'm guessing that it's a bit challenging, but readable.  It certainly wouldn't be as overwhelming as his multi-volume Medieval Exegesis.  If I come across a better recommendation, I'll post it here. 

Q: During the talk on hell purgatory, and heaven. you briefly mentioned the second death. the person next to me had never heard of it, or had questions about it. the second death is mentioned in revelation 2:11, 20:6 ,20:14, and 21:8. also your thoughts on how the readings in john 3:3-6 might fit into all this.

A: The "second death" is mentioned a handful of times in the Book of Revelation, and is otherwise not very prominent either in Scripture or Tradition.  Rather unanimously, the Fathers and later theologians understood the "second death" to be another way of describing eternal damnation.  This interpretation seems especially obvious in Rev 20:14 - "(this pool of fire is the second death)".  Others at times have taught that God annihilates the damned, or that all the damned are eventually saved - but both views have always been condemned by the Magisterium.

As for John 3:3-6, the Fathers of the early Church were rather unanimous in affirming that Jesus is teaching about the necessity of Baptism.  In English this passage is typically translated "born again," but perhaps a better translation of the Greek is "born from above."  Baptism fits in because of God's plan to purify all of us and make us totally like Him.  By living our Baptism (which means conforming ourselves to Christ) this plan becomes reality.  That is how John 3 fits in.

Q: "...in [the Angels and Demons] talk around the 1:02.46 mark you mention that demons are more powerful than us, (only to the extent that god allows). but in luke 10:17-20 it seems to say otherwise. thank you and may he lead us not into hard testing but deliver us from the evil one. "

A: Actually what I said fits in very well with Luke 10.  If we consider angels (and demons) by their nature, there is no question that these spiritual beings are more intelligent and more powerful than we embodied spirits are.  For that very reason, the 72 disciples are filled with amazement and joy in this passage.  By the power of Christ (not by their own human natures) they had power even over evil spirits.  With Christ, we have nothing to fear from demons.  He is more powerful than them.  With our unaided human nature alone, they are much more powerful than us.

Q: Hello Father. I have a question regarding your Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven talk. You mentioned a quote from C.S. Lewis about the doors of Hell being locked from the inside. I have always understood that the souls in Hell are there because, of their own free will, they have turned away from God, but I have always assumed that Hell is such an undesirable place that the souls, if they had a choice, would leave. The Lewis quote suggests that they are content in Hell. Would you mind sharing your thoughts on this matter? Thank you.

A: Well, the most important answer is that we simply do not know for sure what the experience of Hell is like, only that it is real and that people really go there (that much is quite clear from the teachings of Jesus in the Gospel).  Many of us theologians are sympathetic to C.S. Lewis' suggestion that the doors of Hell are locked from the inside.  The Church does not teach one way or another on that issue - except insofar as she teaches that there are no second chances after death.

I think it's also very safe to say that the souls in Hell are in no way "content."  They are, by all accounts miserable - and C.S. Lewis makes that point very clear. But (if he is correct) they would rather wallow in their misery than allow the transforming power of God's love to take over - even if God were to offer that opportunity.

That sounds hard to believe, I know, but I have seen it repeatedly in this life in my ministry as a priest (and in my own personal life, as I resist total conversion).  We tend as human beings to prefer the misery that we know to the "threat" of change - especially if it demands dying to self.

Lewis makes a rather compelling case.  I would definitely recommend reading The Great Divorce when you have a chance.  In that book, he portrays everyday human beings - not so different from you and me.  Yet these everyday people, even when offered the (impossible) chance of being transported to heaven and aided to enter eternal life, refuse the assistance and insist on remaining unchanged - and are allowed to go back to Hell with their freedom respected.

Posted 11.15.12

Q: Hello, Father. I attended last night's talk,"Are You Saved?" and was impressed about your knowledge of early church leaders' thoughts and writings. However, I don't feel you really answered the question, "Are You Saved?" There were a lot of confused faces among the group I was sitting with and on the faces of others in the audience at the end of your presentation. In fact, one person I talked to afterward, after I asked them if they got their answer to "Are you saved?" said, "I guess no one can know the answer to that question."  Church teaching and the Bible say otherwise. So I guess my question is: Can you answer in layman's terms the question, "Are you Saved?" or "How does one become saved?" Thank you for your time.

A: Okay – that is a very fair question to ask!  There’s a reason why I put the Charlie Brown “bait and switch” slide into the PowerPoint.  I’m sure many people who came to the talk expected a discussion of whether faith gives us assurance of salvation – the whole “Once Saved Always Saved” belief.  Bait and switch is very illegal – so good thing we’re not charging admission, right?

I originally did have a few slides on that question, but because of time constraints I had to take them back out. As I mentioned in yesterday’s presentation, I do intend to address this question of assurance of salvation during the Nov. 28th talk, “Faith and Good Works.” If you want an in-depth answer, I encourage you to come to that presentation (and, for that matter, to come to the Nov. 14th talk on Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven).  Between those two talks, I think you’ll get a much more complete answer to your questions.

 But I can give you a short answer now.  The Catholic Church rejects the teaching of “Once Saved Always Saved.”  We are justified by Christ in faith through baptism – which commits us to a lifelong journey of discipleship.  Even now, we live as members of His heavenly Body, but we can lose that privilege.  As the Catechism explains, “Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity is not saved. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but 'in body' not 'in heart’” (CCC n. 837).

 Admittedly, there are a few Scripture passages that seem to imply “Once Saved Always Saved.”  For example:

 “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8-9).

 “The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household’” (Acts 16:30-31).

 “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13 – a quotation from Joel 3:5).


But “saved” in the New Testament can mean three things:

1) already “saved” (i.e., justified by the merits of Christ)

            Example: “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph 2:8)

2) in the process of “being saved”

            Example: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:13)

3) persevering to the end

            Example: “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22)


The full picture of “salvation” has to include all three dimensions.  The theory of “Once Saved Always Saved” ignores #2 and #3. 

We are “saved” now – in one sense of the word, but according to Scripture, we cannot have any absolute confidence that we will remain “saved.”  Just to give three different examples:

“Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall!“ (1 Cor 10:12)

“Be sober and alert!  Your opponent the Devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”     (1 Pt 5:8)

“Behold I am coming quickly! Hold fast to what you have that no one take your crown.” (Rev 3:11)

Finally, perhaps your question also relates to those who have already died.  Can we make any determination as to whether they are in Heaven or in Hell?  Hopefully my talk last night made it clear that we reserve that judgment to God alone.  No matter how terrible a person may have seemed or how little faith he seemed to have, God alone knows whether he is in Hell.  Likewise, no matter how great a person may have seemed, God alone knows that person’s heart.  The only exception to this rule can be found in canonizations, when the pope speaks on behalf of all the faithful and attests that God has manifested to us the holiness of this or that saint.  In that one case we can have full confidence that this person is in Heaven.  The rest we leave in God’s very competent hands.

That’s a “short” answer for now.  More in November!

Posted 10.4.12

Q: I recently read an article on Catholic.com. Here is what it said: "The Fathers likewise affirm the possibility of salvation for those who lived before Christ and who were not part of Israel, the Old Testament People of God. However, for those who knowingly and deliberately (that is, not out of innocent ignorance) commit the sins of heresy (rejecting divinely revealed doctrine) or schism (separating from the Catholic Church and/or joining a schismatic church), no salvation would be possible until they repented and returned to live in Catholic unity." Can you explain this for me? I personally know a Protestant pastor in Wisconsin that grew up Catholic, then went to a Protestant Bible college, and is now a pastor of a very large church. He has no contempt for the Catholic Church, and I can tell he loves God and has a personal relationship with Him. Is he saved or not?

A: You ask a complex question here, with several pieces that must be answered.  Let’s begin with your final question, “Is he saved or not?”  If you look at the question and answer immediately before this one, you will see a brief Catholic response to the “Once Saved Always Saved” theory.  We Catholics don’t tend to speak of ourselves as “saved” while still living.  It’s true that the language is there in Scripture (e.g., Eph 2:8).  By grace and through faith, I am “saved” in the sense of justified/redeemed by grace through faith.  But Scripture is also quite clear that salvation is an ongoing process, and one in which I must persevere.  The Fathers of the Church are even more clear on this point.  Picking up on the parables of the weeds and wheat, the wheat and the chaff, or the mixed catch of fish, St. Augustine (in the De Baptismo and in Contra Petilianum) explains how the present Catholic Church is a mixture of saints and sinners, only to be separated at the end.  Only then can we definitively speak of someone as “saved.”

 So the answer to your final question is as follows: “It’s too early to know.”  His life isn’t over yet.

 But your deeper question is about Catholics today who make a choice to join a non-Catholic denomination.  Assuming they never re-enter the Catholic Church, can they still go to Heaven? This is an excellent question, and one that I didn’t have enough time to get to.  I did quote Unitatis Redintegratio (n. 3), in which the bishops remind us that non-Catholics who are born centuries after the original rift are not necessarily blameworthy for their beliefs, even if (objectively) some of them go against Catholic and apostolic doctrine.  It’s still at least possible for them to make it to Heaven, even if they never become Catholic.

 But what about those who choose to leave the Catholic Church?  Even there, it’s not so simple. In light of the developments of Vatican II (not new doctrines, but developments of apostolic teaching), I think we must say in all humility, we don’t know; God does.

 Objectively speaking, leaving the Catholic Church and aligning with a non-Catholic denomination and practice constitutes and act of heresy and/or schism. Objectively, one is turning away from the fullness of Catholic and apostolic doctrine and embracing certain errors. Thus there is always cause to be alarmed when a Catholic chooses to leave the Church.

 But the subjective side of the question is whether the person is doing so knowingly and freely.  For example, I know someone who went to college in the 1970’s and was (rightly) outraged by some of the outrageous teachings and practices that he encountered at the Catholic student center of his university.  He found much greater fidelity to the Gospel among his Baptist friends and wound up leaving the Catholic Church.  Subjectively speaking, I think you could make the case that he was embracing more truth, not less.  God alone knows his heart in the matter.

 Since that time, he’s heard some of my funeral homilies, and they’ve caused him to realize the Catholic Church is much more faithful to Scripture than he had previously thought. He said, “I wish I had heard a Catholic say this 40 years ago.”  That comment could suggest that he now has an obligation to return to the Catholic Church (both objectively and subjectively) – but again, God alone knows the subjective side of it.

 The key line from Vatican II for this question is in Lumen Gentium (n. 14). After strongly affirming the necessity of grace, faith in Christ, baptism, and the Church, the Council Fathers concluded: “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.”  None of us have the omniscience to know others’ knowledge and others’ freedom.  We can judge their objective choices, but not their subjective knowing and willing.

So in questions like these, we must, like Job, place our hand over our mouth and be in silence before the mystery - in this case the mystery of divine grace and human freedom.

Posted 10.4.12

Q:  Did you say the Church included everyone from Abel forward in time?  What about Adam and Eve?

A:  That is indeed what Vatican II says (Lumen Gentium, n. 2), quoting St. Augustine directly.  The reason why Augustine focuses in on Abel is probably due to his understanding of "religion" as genuine worship that truly re-connects us with God (Augustine traces the Latin religio from re-ligare, "to bind again").  Abel is the first human being in the Bible who is described as offering pleasing worship to God.  The Catholic Church is the church that offers right worship, pleasing to God, and so includes Abel, Melchizedek, and Abraham--all of whom are specifically mentioned in Eucharistic Prayer 1.

But  the Fathers of the Church trace the Church back to Adam, or even before the creation of the world.  And they all commonly understood Adam and Eve as being redeemed during Christ's Descent into Hell.

My concern last week was not with picking out one particular moment, but in emphasizing that the Church as "catholic" denotes a universality that extends to all the holy men and women who ever have lived, presently live, or will live.  On that point, there is a strong conviction that runs through the greatest Christian thinkers of every age.

Posted 10.2.12