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Home > Catholic Library > Quick Questions > 1991

Quick Questions (1991)

As a Bible-believing Christian, I think the Catholic claim to interpret the Bible infallibly is false. This is just what the Watchtower claims for itself.

You cannot deduce from the Watchtower's false claim to interpret the Bible infallibly that the Catholic Church's claim to do so is also false. (Analogously, the disproof of the claims of false Messiahs doesn't disprove the claims of the true one, Jesus Christ.)

Yes, there are superficial similarities between the Catholic Church and the Jehovah's Witnesses, but so what? There are also similarities between the Witnesses and so-called "Bible-believing Christians." Does this automatically refute the claims of people who believe as you do? Certainly not.

What's important isn't how the Catholic Church and the Witnesses are similar, but how they're different. While there's a good historical case for the Catholic Church's claims (the Catholic Church and its doctrines can be traced back to the beginning of Christianity), the same can't be said of the Watchtower, which didn't exist before 1879.

We don't need all the ethical rules of organized religion. I think all we need to know about how to live is summed up in the Golden Rule.

If so, you disagree with the one who gave us that rule. Christ never confined moral truth to this principle, as important as it is. Treating others as you'd like to be treated isn't enough. If it were, a masochist would be justified inflicting pain on others simply because he derives pleasure from receiving it himself.

Jesus made it clear that sin can be committed even when no action against another is involved. In his teaching about lust, for example, he said you don't have to commit adultery with another to be guilty of the sin. Merely to look lustfully on a woman is to commit adultery with her in your heart (Matt. 5:27).

If Jesus didn't believe the Bible was the sole rule of faith, why did he quote it in his disputes with the Pharisees and the Sadducees?

The mere quoting of the Bible as authoritative doesn't imply the quoter thinks only the Bible is authoritative. Catholics, after all, cite Scripture in support of their views, yet this doesn't mean they believe the Bible to be the sole rule of faith.

The Jews of Jesus' day quoted the Bible to defend their beliefs, but they also followed their traditions (Matt. 15:2). Some were legitimate, some not. Look at Jesus' attack on one of the illegitimate traditions: the Pharisees' custom of the Corban (Matt. 15:4-9).

His attack is taken by some as a rejection of all tradition and as an affirmation of sola scriptura, but it really shows only that he opposed human traditions which contradicted Scripture, not that he rejected all tradition. You can't conclude, then, from Jesus' mere citing of the Bible, that one needs to believe only in the Bible or that the Bible is the sole rule of faith and all tradition must be rejected.

Jesus quoted the Old Testament because it's the Word of God and as such is authoritative for settling the theological questions it addresses. Furthermore, because Scripture was accepted by bother Jesus and his opponents, he could appeal to it as common ground between them. Here he followed his usual practice of using what his enemies, in theory at least, would accept as binding.

Consider his dispute with the Sadducees in Matthew 22:23-33 over the resurrection of the body. The Sadducees, who accepted as inspired only the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), didn't believe in the resurrection of the body.

In refuting them, Christ quoted only from the Pentateuch (Ex. 3:6), not because he didn't acknowledge other Old Testament books which explicitly mention the resurrection of the body (such as Daniel 12:2, 13), but because the Sadducees didn't accept these other books. An appeal to an authority which they didn't accept would have been useless, so Jesus proved his point by referring to one the Sadducees would affirm.

Does the Catholic Church believe in the devil? I saw on television a priest who said this isn't official Catholic teaching.

The priest you saw on television, if he said what you say he said, is mistaken. Based on the teaching and example of Jesus (Matt. 4:1-11; 12:22-30; Mark 1:34; Luke 10:18; 22:31; John 8:44), the Catholic Church has always held that the devil is real, not a mythical personification of evil. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215), in its decree condemning the Manichaean dualism of the Catharists, taught that "the devil and the other evil spirits were created good in nature, but they became evil by their own actions."

The Church's teaching on the subject is clear from its liturgy. At baptism, those to be baptized are called upon to reject Satan, his works, and his empty promises. The Church provides an official rite of exorcism, which presupposes, of course, the existence of Satan.

In 1975 the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship issued a document called Christian Faith and Demonology. It explained the Church's teaching on the subject. This document quotes Pope Paul VI's teaching regarding the devil:

It is a departure from the picture provided by biblical and Church teaching to refuse to acknowledge the devil's existence; to regard him as . . . a conceptual and fanciful personification of the unknown causes of our misfortunes. . . . Exegetes and theologians should not be deaf to this warning.

Presumably this exhortation extends to priests who appear on television.

More recently, Pope John Paul II, in his general audience of August 13, 1986, expounded at length on the fall of the angels and, in speaking on the origin of Satan, said:

When, by an act of his own free will, he rejected the truth that he knew about God, Satan became the cosmic "liar and the father of lies" (John 8:44). For this reason, he lives in radical and irreversible denial of God and seeks to impose on creation — on the other beings created in the image of God and in particular on people — his own tragic "lie about the good" that is God.

Where did the idea come from that Jesus was a carpenter? My Bible says this was Joseph's profession and that Jesus was regarded as "the carpenter's son" (Matt. 13:55). Do we have any reason, apart from tradition, to believe Jesus took up Joseph's trade.

Yes. The Bible says so. In Mark 6:3, the people of Nazareth, Jesus' hometown, astonished by the way he spoke with authority, ask, "Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary?" Jesus is spoken of here as "the carpenter," rather than as "the carpenter's son," as in the passage you cited.

Why does the pope kiss the ground after he disembarks from an airplane? My friend considers this practice to be nothing but superstition.

Your friend is reading too much into the gesture. The act of kissing the ground of a country one has just set foot upon, whether done by the pope or any other world leader, isn't superstitious. It's merely a way of expressing love and respect for the country and its people.

I keep hearing about "social sin" and "structural sin." Whatever happened to personal sin?

Nothing. Unfortunately, it's alive and well. The Church hasn't abandoned the idea we commit personal sins. "Social sin" and "structural sin" are legitimate terms, but shouldn't be interpreted as negating personal accountability.

In his encyclical on social justice, Solicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II says "social sin" or "structural sin" proceeds from the accumulation of personal sins. It is, says the Pope, "a question of a moral evil, the fruit of many which lead to 'structures of sin.'"

Since the source of "social sin" or "structural sin" is personal sin, the solution to it rests with our personal actions. We must do more than change "the system," as important as that may be. We must change ourselves.

How do you explain Jesus' statement in Mark 2:23-27 that David and his men "entered the house of God when Abiathar was high priest" when in fact, according to 1 Samuel 21:1-6, Ahimelech, Abiathar's father, occupied that office at the time?

A number of solutions to this problem have been offered by biblical scholars, one of the most interesting of which involves the meaning of the Greek phrase epi Abiathar archieros used in Mark 2:26. Your source renders this as "when Abiathar was high priest." The Greek translated "when" here is epi. Usually it conveys a sense of location, as when translated "upon." Since 18 of the 21 times Mark uses the genitive form of epi he does so with reference to location rather than time, "when" probably isn't the best rendering in Mark 2:26.

Bible scholars have observed a possible parallel in Mark 12:26 where epi refers to the place in Scripture "concerning or entitled the Bush." If we translate Mark 2:26 along similar lines, then Jesus is referring his listeners to David's actions recorded in the section of Scripture "concerning" (epi) Abiathar the high priest.

Because David's eating of the showbread is mentioned in the chapter preceding the section on Abiathar, and since Abiathar is the more important of the two priests in 1 Samuel, it would make sense to refer to this whole section of Scripture as "concerning" Abiathar. Such as interpretation retains the sense of epi as related to location.

Revelation 3:7 proves Christ is the one who holds the key of David, not Peter. Isaiah 22 prophesies Christ's coming and his authority rather than Peter's. Matthew 16:18 has nothing to do with either.

As the royal son of David, Christ is the owner of the key of David, but this doesn't mean he can't give it to Peter, as his "prime minister," the keys to his heavenly kingdom.

In the passage to which Revelation 3:7 alludes, Isaiah 22:20-23, Eliakim is made master of the palace, a post roughly equivalent to prime minister. As the king's right-hand man, the master of the palace is given the "key of the House of David."

Keys symbolize authority, so bestowing the key to the House of David upon Eliakim is equivalent to giving him, as the king's duly appointed representative, authority over the kingdom.

Revelation 3:7 speaks of Jesus as "the holder of the key of David." Some argue this means he fulfills the role Eliakim foreshadowed in Isaiah 22:20-23. They claim this excludes a prophetic application of this text to Peter by Christ in Matthew 16:18-19.

There's a problem with this argument. In Isaiah 22 Eliakim is master of the palace--the king isn't. Eliakim possesses the key of the kingdom not as its owner, but as one deputed to oversee the king's affairs. If we apply this to Christ, Then we must conclude he's not the true messianic king, merely his prime minister, the Messiah's chief representative!

Although Jesus is called the "holder of the key of David" in Revelation 3:7, he doesn't hold it as Eliakim did. As the son of David, Jesus is the heir to the throne of his ancestor (Luke 1:32-33). He really is the king, not the master of the king's palace, as was Eliakim. As king, Jesus is free to bestow the keys of his kingdom on whomever he wishes--without losing the authority those keys represent.

It's the Catholic position that this is precisely what Jesus does in Matthew 16:18-19. Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah, which means, among other things, acknowledging his kingship. Christ then shows his kingly authority by bestowing on Peter something only the king could give--the keys of the kingdom of heaven--thus making Peter the messianic equivalent of Eliakim.

Explain to me our Catholic understanding of tradition. One book I read on the subject said tradition cannot change, yet it seems to me it has. The vernacular Mass is a prime example. Before Vatican II, we believed the Latin Mass was part of our tradition. Since then, it seems that it isn't.

We must distinguish divine Tradition from mere ecclesiastical tradition or custom. Divine Tradition comes from God, either through the written word of the Bible or through the oral teaching of Christ himself or his apostles. Because it is revealed by God, divine Tradition may not be altered by men.

Ecclesiastical tradition or custom, on the other hand, originates with the Church's pastoral and disciplinary authority and may change.

The example you mentioned, the Mass in the vernacular, falls into the category of ecclesiastical tradition. The first Mass, the Last Supper, was probably in Aramaic--possibly in Hebrew. As Christianity spread into the pagan world, the liturgy was translated into Greek and Latin (the vernacular languages of the day). Only with the passage of time and the abandonment of these languages as universal tongues did they take on the quality of sacred languages.

In the Western Church, Latin continued to be the common language of the liturgy until recently. In the Eastern churches in communion with the Catholic Church, Greek and other languages, including Aramaic, are used. The Mass in English isn't an alteration of divine Tradition, but of ecclesiastical custom.

Your answer to the question about cannibalism and the Eucharist in the December 1990 issue of This Rock disturbs me. The promise in John 6 of the flesh of Christ to eat and his blood to drink sounds literal. Christ is present substantially (rather than supernaturally); if we eat only the accidents (appearances), how do we eat Christ, who said unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood we will not have life?

Your question unnecessarily posits a conflict between a supernatural presence and a substantial one. Jesus is both substantially present (bread and wine really become his body and blood) and supernaturally present (transubstantiation occurs by the supernatural action of God; the accidents of bread and wine remain without the substances of bread and wine).

In consuming the Eucharistic elements, the physical mechanisms of eating injure only the accidents of bread and wine. The process of consuming the host doesn't involve ripping and tearing Christ's body, despite its substantial presence. This is why the charge of cannibalism won't work.

We can still say Christ's flesh and blood are consumed sacramentally in Holy Communion because what is eaten is literally his body and blood, even if the physical action of eating affects only the accidents of bread and wine.

What is the answer to a friend sho says we are worshiping the Babylonian goddess Ishtar when we honor Mary? He uses Jeremiah 44 as proof because we call Mary the Queen of Heaven.

The fact that a pagan deity was known as the queen of heaven doesn't mean this term can't rightfully be applied, in another sense altogether, to Mary. The pagan king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzer, is called the king of kings by Daniel (Daniel 2:37), yet this doesn't preclude Jesus from being called by the same title (Rev. 17:14; 19:16).

Since the destiny of all Christians is to reign as kings and queens with Christ in heaven (Eph. 2:12; Rev. 1:6; 5:10), and since Mary is the preeminent Christian, there's nothing wrong with giving her the title which Christ, the King of kings, bestowed upon her in making Mary his mother.

I'm tired of all of this theological stuff. Why can't we have the simple gospel of Jesus? Too much head and not enough heart, that's the problem with Christianity today.

Your objection is well-intentioned--Christianity means more than knowing the catechism. At the same time, God gave us heads as well as hearts, presumably because he wants us to use them. The man who refuses to think well about religion is condemned to think poorly about it. Jesus said he was the truth as well as the way and the life (John 14:6). Truth involves knowledge and obliges us to study to the extent our station in life permits. This is why Peter could write, "Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, virtue with knowledge" (2 Pet. 1:5).

I don't have a problem with Christianity per se. I believe Jesus was a holy man and a prophet, even though I don't think he was unique as God's only Son.

You may not think you have a problem with Christianity, but you do, because Christians believe Jesus was (and is) God incarnate. It won't do to call Jesus a mere prophet or holy man. Prophets and holy men claim to speak for God, but they don't claim to be God, which is exactly what Jesus did. He identified himself with the all-powerful Lord (John 8:58; 10:30). Either he was who he claimed to be, or he wasn't. If he wasn't, he wasn't a holy man or a prophet, but a wicked man or a fool.

I was told by a priest that sexual intercourse between unmarried persons is acceptable so long as it reflects a relationship of love. Lots of people seem to believe this, but is it true?

The only "relationship of love" that makes sexual intercourse acceptable is a marital one. The priest who told you otherwise wasn't presenting Catholic teaching on the subject, but his own (erroneous) opinion.

In its Declaration of Certain Problems of Sexual Ethics, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reaffirmed the traditional Catholic teaching on the subject of sexual relations outside marriage:

Nowadays many claim the right to sexual intercourse before marriage, at least for those who have a firm intention of marrying and whose love for one another, already conjugal as it were, is deemed to demand this as its natural outcome . . . This opinion is contrary to Christian teaching, which asserts that sexual intercourse may take place only within marriage" (no. 7)

I read a book by a scripture scholar who said the Bible is inerrant only in religious matters that pertain to our salvation. He quoted Vatican II as the source of this "limited inerrancy" doctrine.

The documents of Vatican II don't limit biblical inerrancy to religious truths necessary for salvation or even to religious matters in general.

The 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 "limited inerrancy" claim this last clause is restrictive: Inerrancy extends only to things pertaining to our salvation. Whether or not this is the case (such a reading isn't required by the Latin), the "limited inerrancy" position is still weak.

First, even granting (though not conceding) that Dei Verbum restricts inerrancy to matters of salvation, this isn't the same as limiting it to religious or moral truths. Historical or scientific assertions made "for the sake of our salvation" would be inerrant too.

Second, the theological commission at the Council stated that the term salutaris ("for the sake of our salvation") doesn't mean only the salvific truths of the Bible are inspired or that the Bible as a whole isn't the Word of God. (See A. Grillmeier's "The Divine Inspiration and Interpretation of Sacred Scripture" in H. Vorgrimler, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. III, p. 213.)

If the whole of Scripture is inspired, and if what the biblical writer asserts the Holy Spirit asserts, then, unless error is to be attributed to the Holy Spirit or unless the biblical authors assert only religious truths (which isn't the case--some make historical assertions, such as the historical existence of Jesus), inerrancy can't be limited to religious truths.

Third, the language of Dei Verbum no. 11 is taken directly from previous conciliar and papal teaching on the subject. The footnotes to this section refer to Leo XIII's Providentissimus Deus and Pius XII's Divino Afflante Spiritu, documents which reject the idea that inerrancy is limited to religious matters. It seems unlikely the Council would be teaching a position contrary to these documents.

Although inerrancy isn't limited to religious truths which pertain to salvation but may include non-religious assertions by the biblical authors, this doesn't mean Scripture is an inspired textbook of science or history. Inerrancy extends to what the biblical writers intend to teach, not necessarily to what they assume or presuppose or what isn't integral to what they assert. In order to distinguish these things, scholars must examine the kind of writing or literary genre the biblical writers employ.

Mormon missionaries visited my home recently and, among other things, condemned as unbiblical the Catholic custom of paying priests and bishops. They were quite proud of the fact that the Mormon Church has no paid clergy, claiming they follow the pattern set by the first Christians. I was uncomfortably silent because I had no idea where to look in the Bible for verses that support the Catholic position. Are there any?

Yes. Start your response with 1 Corinthians 9. In verses 7-12 Paul takes up this very topic, asking, "Whoever serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating its produce? Or who shepherds a flock without using some of the milk from the flock? Am I saying this on human authority or does not the law also speak of these things?

"It is written in the law of Moses, 'You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.' Is God concerned about oxen, or is he not really speaking for our sake? It was written for our sake, for the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher in hope of receiving a share. If we have sown spiritual seed for you, is it a great thing that we reap a material harvest from you? If others share in this rightful claim on you, do not we still more?"

He goes on to specify that even though he would be completely justified in being paid for his ministry (v. 18), he chose to forego that right in order to eliminate a potential source of criticism from his detractors. He explained in verses 13 and 14, "Do you not know that those who perform the temple services eat what belongs to the temple, and those who minister at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord ordered that those who preach the gospel should live by the gospel." Also see Romans 15:26-27, 2 Thessalonians 2:6-10, and 2 Timothy 2:6.

If the Church has the power to interpret the Bible, why doesn't it just issue and inspired, infallible commentary on the whole Bible and be done with it? Then we would know exactly what each verse means.

Your question confuses inspiration, revelation, and infallibility. Church documents aren't inspired the way Scripture is. God doesn't positively move the authors of Church documents so they write everything and only those things which he wants written, as he did with the biblical authors (Dei Verbum, no. 11).

Furthermore, the Church's power to teach Christian truth infallibly isn't the same as revelation. It's not a matter of God miraculously illuminating the minds of the pope and the bishops to new or heretofore overlooked truths in Scripture. The pope and the bishops come by their knowledge of the Bible (and Catholic theology in general) the same way everyone else does--through study.

Infallibility doesn't even guarantee the pope and the bishops will always know what a given biblical author means at a literal level (the meaning of some passages may be beyond biblical science's ability to penetrate with any certainty--what Paul refers to as "baptism for the dead," for example). What infallibility does guarantee is that when the Church puts forth a definitive interpretation of Scripture, this interpretation cannot distort or misrepresent what the Bible teaches. Although scholarship and study are needed for the Church to determine what the Bible teaches, once such a conclusion has been reached, the Holy Spirit protects the Church from teaching wrongly about it.

The Bible says the sins of the fathers are visited on their children down to the fourth generation. How do you square this with Mary's Immaculate Conception, given she had a sinful human father?

Granted, Mary was conceived, biologically speaking, according to the normal order of things, unlike her son, who was conceived without a human father; this doesn't mean she necessarily inherited original sin. It indicates only what would have happened had not God intervened.

As for the sins of the fathers being visited upon their children down to the fourth generation, you're misapplying a general observation about how sinful behavior (and divine punishment) can be and often is passed down to descendants.

A "father's" fourth generational descendant would be a great, great, grandson or granddaughter. This would make the "father" a great, great, grandfather. By your argument, Jesus would have had to have been a sinner because his great, great, grandfather (on his mother's side) was a sinner. Since you don't believe the principle that "the sins of the fathers are visited on their children down to the fourth generation" implies this, there's no reason for you to think it implies Mary's sinfulness.

Jeremiah 25:9-12 says that the southern kingdom of Judah would be taken into captivity by Nebuchadnezzer, king of Babylon, for seventy years. Didn't the captivity last only forty-seven years and didn't Nebuchadnezzer die before it was over? This sounds like a false prophecy, so Jeremiah would be a false prophet.

If Jeremiah and his prophecies were so obviously false as your question implies, why were his prophecies preserved by the Jews after the Babylonian exile? They knew better than we the commandments regarding false prophets (Deut. 18:20-23).

There's no reason to suppose Jeremiah intended the seventy years to be exactly seventy. The Bible frequently employs numbers for their symbolic value at the expense of their numerical accuracy. We do similar things today, when we speak of something as having happened a month ago when in reality only (say) nineteen days have passed.

It's also possible the Jews understood the captivity to have lasted seventy or nearly seventy years, but measured the start and finish of it differently than we do. Some scholars argue the captivity began in 586 or 587 B.C. with the destruction of Jerusalem and ended in 515 B.C. with the restoration of the temple. Others pick the first invasion of Nebuchadnezzer in 605 B.C. as the start and the decree of Cyrus in 537 B.C. as the end. However the captivity is measured, there's no reason to say Jeremiah was a false prophet.

As for Nebuchadnezzer, the text you cited doesn't say he would be alive when the captivity ended, only that God would punish the king of Babylon.

All questions excerpted from This Rock magazine and reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1991 Catholic Answers.

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