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Home > Catholic Library > Quick Questions > 1992

Quick Questions (1992)

Isn't confession to a priest an option? If you're sincerely sorry for your sins and confess them in your own heart, aren't you already forgiven?

The power to forgive sins was one Christ gave to his apostles (Luke 10:16; 2 Cor. 5:18-20). After he rose from the dead Christ said to the apostles, "'As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained'" (John 20:22-23).

We can be truly sorry for our sins--that is essential for forgiveness--but we can't forgive our own sins. We can't absolve ourselves. That is a power reserved to God alone. Through Christ that power was conferred on his apostles and their successors, the bishops, and their helpers, the priests. Confession is not an option. It is the ordinary (normative) means through which sins are forgiven.

In my church I was taught that dancing is sinful. What I have seen of dancing confirms this is right. How can the Catholic Church condone dancing?

Given some of the dancing that has been portrayed in movies in recent years and imitated on dance floors, you are partly right. But not all dancing is "dirty dancing." Folk dancing, square dancing, ballroom dancing, and even many modern forms of dancing are not. Although you were advised against immoral dancing, what you were taught unjustly condemned all dancing. Keep in mind that the Bible shows dancing can be an expression of joy. The women of Israel danced after they crossed the Red Sea (Ex. 15:20), and David danced before the Ark of the Covenant (2 Kings 6:12-17).

Last year I left the Mormon Church and became a Catholic. I want to bolster my faith with more knowledge, especially on the subject of the nature of God so I can do a better job of explaining this to my Mormon family members. They constantly challenge my Catholic beliefs, especially that there is only one God. What do you recommend?

Start with Frank Sheed's Theology and Sanity, which contains a lucid and compact explanation of this subject. Then loan your relatives the book and offer to discuss it with them after they've read it. During the discussion cite these passages as biblical evidence there is only one true God: Isaiah 44:6; 45:5-6, 18, 21-22; 46:9. Cite these passages to show God is omnipresent: Psalm 138 (139):7-8; Wisdom 1:7; Jeremiah 23:24; Ephesians 1:23.

Why do Catholics cling so tightly to the tradition of apostolic succession when there's no biblical support for it? All you can point to are dubious opinions of a few early Christian writers.

We cling tightly to this tradition because it's true, for starters, and because all Christians are commanded to do so by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:2 and 2 Thessalonians 2:15. For biblical corroboration look at Acts 1:21-26, where you'll see the apostles, immediately after Jesus' Ascension, acting swiftly to replace the position left vacant by Judas's suicide.

They prayed for guidance, asking God to show them which candidate was "chosen to take the place in this apostolic ministry from which Judas turned away." After choosing Matthias they laid hands on him to confer apostolic authority.

Look at 1 Timothy 1:6 and 4:14, where Paul reminds Timothy that the office of bishop had been conferred on him through the laying on of hands. Notice in 1 Timothy 5:22 that Paul advises Timothy not to be hasty in handing on this authority to others. In Titus Paul describes the apostolic authority Titus had received and urges him to act decisively in this leadership role.

Lastly, please do better homework on early Christian writings. The testimony of the early Church is deafening in its unanimous (yes, unanimous) assertion of apostolic succession. Far from being discussed by only a few, scattered writers, the belief that the apostles handed on their authority to others was one of the most frequently and vociferously defended doctrines in the first centuries of Christianity.

At an adult Bible study I was trying to explain the Trinity. I said today we can understand, at least in theory, more about it than Augustine because we have the work of Aquinas to stand on, and Augustine understood the Trinity better than the first Christians. My pastor criticized me, saying we couldn't understand the Trinity at all because it's a mystery. Who's right?

You are. Your pastor seems to be confused about what a mystery is. It isn't a religious truth about which we can know nothing. It's a religious truth about which we can't know everything and about which we wouldn't know anything at all if God hadn't revealed it to us.

Frank Sheed had a good way of explaining what a mystery is and isn't. He said many people--your pastor might be an example--think of it as a museum gallery into which we can't enter at all because a brick wall blocks our way. Indeed, a mystery is more like an endless gallery. No matter how far down it you walk, marvelling at the pictures, you're still no closer to the end (the end representing complete understanding). You can understand more and more, but you'll never get the whole story.

If we really "understand nothing" about the Trinity, then we can't even talk about one divine nature and three Persons. A discussion of the nature-and-Persons issue indicates we understand at least something about the Trinity.

Postscript: Sometimes Catholics who have questions about the faith are brushed off by priests who say, "Just accept it. It's a mystery." Such a reply usually manifests theological and pastoral laziness. You may have to put up with it, but don't swallow it.

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

If you attend a Catholic Mass you will see the first part of it consists of reading and preaching; we stand for the Gospel, but we sit for the other readings and for the preaching. The Mass is a sacrifice, and there are times--especially in the last part--when the faithful pray on their knees. Kneeling shows our humility before God.

Your question is a surprise because you probably should be asking yourself why you don't kneel in your Protestant services. Scripture suggests you should. In Ephesians 3:14 Paul says, "I kneel before the Father," and in Acts 9:40 Peter "knelt down and prayed." The Catholic habit of kneeling is consistent with Scripture and is another manifestation of the continuity between the Church of the first century and the Catholic Church of today.

I can't believe anything religion teaches. I consider myself a rational person. I want to see something myself before I believe it. If I can't see it, then I don't believe it.

That is not being rational. To be rational means to use your reason, and you are not doing that. If you are going to limit your belief only to what you can detect with your senses, you are excluding a great deal of reality. The universe contains more than you can discover on your own.

If you depend only on what your eyes can see and nothing else, you are prone to error as well. Your eyes may tell you the sun rises and sets, but your reason (and your human faith in what astronomers, mathematicians, and physicists tell us) makes your realize the truth--the Earth moves around the sun.

There are many things, including spiritual things, that exist whether you have seen them or not. A person who declines to accept their existence is not working on the basis of sound reason, but on "blind faith," and someone who insists nothing exists beyond what his senses can detect--particularly someone who rejects out of hand the supernatural--might be called out of sync with reality.

We recommend you read Frank Sheed's best book, Theology and Sanity. Despite the title, Theology and Sanity has nothing to do with psychiatry. Sheed said a man who rejects the supernatural is like a physician who rejects bacteria. You begin to think he isn't all there. A physician who says bacteria aren't real operates from prejudice, not science, and someone who says the supernatural isn't real operates the same way.

I recently read a quote from the Gospel of John that disturbed me. It was John 14:28, where Jesus says "the Father is greater than I." Doesn't this mean Jesus is saying he is less than God and not equal to him?

Don't be disturbed. If you read the whole of that chapter and understand the context, it will be clear what is being said. In John 14:7-10 Christ says, "'If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.' Philip said to him, 'Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.' Jesus replied, 'Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works."

This identication of Christ with God is emphatic in this chapter and throughout John. John 1:1 explains, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." In John 11:30 Christ says, "The Father and I are one." In John 14:28 we are reaching a climax. Jesus is soon to be arrested and crucified. He is reassuring the apostles about himself. Yes, they are going to see him suffer in the flesh and die, but Jesus reminds them there is more to himself than just the human. He and the Father are one. His statement is a reassurance to them, and it should be to you as well.

I believe the Bible when it says he who divorces and marries another commits adultery, as we see in Mark 10:1-12 and Luke 16:18. But isn't Jesus leaving a loophole when he says in Matthew 19:9 "except for unchastity"?

What may appear as a loophole is a consequence of misinterpretation or mistranslation. The King James Version and others translate the passage into English words that appear to say fornication, unchastity, or adultery are exceptions that allow a divorce.

The constant teaching of the Church has been that a valid sacramental marriage can not be broken, even if one party sins. As Matthews 19:6 says, "Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate." Biblical scholars, such as J. Bonsirven, have pointed out that the Greek word that is pivotal here is "porneia," which means unlawful sexual intercourse. The Gospel does not use the Greek word "moicheia," which is the ordinary Greek word for adultery.

The intent appears to be to distinguish a true marriage from concubinage. What is being said is that if a man and a woman are in fact married, the bond is inseparable. But if they are not married, just "living together," then there is no lawful marriage and there can be a separation or annulment. The wording of the New American Bible for Matthew 19:9 is a translation that gives us this sense.

When I read the Bible I don't see much sense in the breakup of verses. Some come at the end of sentences and paragraphs, and some don't. Why was the Bible written that way?

You should be aware that the Bible originally was not written that way. The use of verse numbering was something introduced much later, shortly after the invention of printing. The early, handwritten copies of the Bible were written in Greek on papyrus scrolls without the use of punctuation or spacing. In time the codex or book formed with pages, as we know it today, was developed--later still, printing.

As printers worked on producing editions of the Bible they found it convenient to locate and mark sections of text by putting numbers beside the sections of type. This proved not only an enormous convenience for the printers, but for others who read the Bible. The numbering was not placed with anything other in mind than to help locate sections of text. You might say that it was like having latitude and longitude lines on a map.

(By the way, the division of the books of the Bible into chapters was done by Stephen Langton, a cardinal and archbishop of Canterbury, about 1226.)

What's a good way to steer a conversation with Jehovah's Witnesses who come to my door?

Focus on John 6. This seems to do it every time--or, more properly, it seems to do something every time, and the something can be one of two things.

If you're fortunate, your discussion of that chapter--it's the one in which Jesus promises the Eucharist and states emphatically that what appears to be bread and wine really will be his body and blood--will throw the Jehovah's Witnesses for a loop. Focus on Jesus' repetition; over and over he said we're to eat his flesh and drink his blood, and over and over he failed to tell his listeners he was speaking only metaphorically--for the simple reason that he wasn't. He was speaking literally, and his listeners knew it.

First the Jews walked away, shaking their heads in disbelief. Then even some of Jesus' disciples left him, unable to accept the doctrine of the Real Presence. One particular person fell away here: Judas (see verse 64). It was here, in his disbelief in the Real Presence, that Judas first betrayed Christ. Yes, later he would be a thief and a traitor, but this is where his tragedy began.

If you go through John 6 slowly, emphasizing what's really going on, the Jehovah's Witnesses will find themselves in a pickle. You'll show them how all the people mentioned in that chapter took Jesus literally--so why shouldn't we?

If you bring the missionaries this far, end your exchange with an exhortation. Use the lingo they (and you) have heard elsewhere; they'll identify with it. Tell them they need to read the Bible. Say they should ask "Jehovah God" to give them the light to understand what John 6 really means. Tell them they have to "get right with God," and let them know that means going wherever the truth leads them. Tell them they have to trust God and follow him wherever he may lead them, even if that is somewhere they think they'd rather not go.

All the above explains what happens if you're fortunate in you discussion with the Witnesses. Of course, things may go wrong--not drastically, not dangerously, but annoyingly. You may find that your consideration of John 6 produces no impression at all on the missionaries. If so, wait for their return and try again.

So many Protestants I know use the King James Bible. Who was King James, and what authority did he have to produce a Bible?

James I reigned as king of England from 1603 to 1625. He was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, and he had been king of Scotland before succeeding to the English throne at the death of Queen Elizabeth I. He was prompted to produce an English Bible because of the poor and tendentious copies being circulated in England. He feared these could be used by seditious religious and political factions.

His authority was one usurped from the Catholic Church, beginning with his predecessor King Henry VIII. Henry had broken with the Catholic Church and made himself the head of the Church in England, which soon enough became the Church of England. You could say James had no more authority in biblical matters than any head of state, basically none. What authority would a "George Bush Bible" have? The true authority and safeguard over Scripture was and has to be the Catholic Church, to which Christ gave his authority. No secular authority has any rightful authority over the Bible.

I've been told that Mormons worship Satan in their temple ceremonies and that they wear satanic symbols on their clothes. Is this true?

No and no. Mormons do not worship Satan either in their temples (which only a minority of Mormons visit) or in their regular Sunday services, nor do they wear Satanic symbols on their clothes. They do have an actor play a Lucifer character in their temple endowment ceremonies. By means of skits Mormon temple patrons witness episodes in the Mormon concept of salvation history, including Lucifer's efforts to tempt Adam and Eve, but there is never any homage given to Lucifer during these rituals. As for symbols, Mormons who have been through the temple endowment ceremony do wear "sacred undergarments" which they believe have the ability to shield them from bodily and spiritual harm. These undergarments, basically white, short-sleeved union suits, have on them embroidered markings, such as the carpenter's square, which are patterned after Masonic symbols.

I don't feel comfortable working in apologetics because I don't have a theology degree, and I don't have the time or means to get one. Any suggestions?

Yes. Stop fretting. You don't need a degree, and getting one may not help you at all in apologetics work because most schools that teach theology don't teach apologetics. (Some of them, alas, don't even teach real theology.)

Apologetics requires two things, mainly: a knowledge of answers to questions about the faith and an ability to convey those answers convincingly. You can learn the first by reading and the second by following the examples of others (listening to tapes of their talks is recommended) and by getting out and engaging in door-to-door work or something similar. Aim to master just one topic at a time.

At our seminars we tell listeners that they can learn enough to get started as apologists by reading for one hour a night for six months--not too much, really--but they have to read the right books. We recommend titles mentioned in our "Fine Print" sidebar, in our book reviews, and in our ads.

Most of these books are available through Catholic Answers. A few are out of print and can be found at your local library or can be purchased through used-book dealers. We think you'll find that reading them is not only helpful, but fun (a very Catholic attitude, by the way).

I've seen the acronym IHS all over the place--on altar cloths, holy cards, vestments, and prayerbooks--but I have no idea what it stands for. A friend signs his letters "IHS" and says it means "In His Service." What's the scoop?

IHS is the anglicized rendering of the first three Greek letters in Jesus' name. In the early Church, especially during the time of the Roman persecution, this became a popular way of writing Jesus' name as a sort of code. Since then it has become a universally-used insignia and shows up on all types of Catholic religious art and accoutrements. After a few centuries, when the monogram was integrated into the general Latin usage of the Church, many were unacquainted with the original meaning and wrongly believed it meant, in Latin, Iesus Hominum Salvator (Jesus, Savior of Humanity), Iesus Hierosolyma Salvator (Jesus, Savior of Jerusalem), and even the exquisitely banal English version your friend favors, In His Service.

My daughter recently married a Seventh-Day Adventist (against my husband's and my intense opposition). He attacks the Catholic Church whenever he gets the chance. One of his main objects of scorn is our Holy Father, who, he says, is the beast spoken of in Revelation 13. He claims he can "prove" this because the pope's title, Vicarius Filli Dei Latin for Vicar of the Son of God), adds up to 666--the "number of the beast" mentioned in Revelation 13. Is this true? How can we respond?

You were right to object to this marriage. No doubt, with his attitude, your son-in-law will do everything he can to rob your daughter of her Catholic faith and wrest her away from the Church (this is why Paul warned us not to be "unequally yoked" [2 Cor. 6:14]. Encourage your daughter to remain steadfast in the faith, and do your best to respond to her husband's attacks in a charitable but firm way.

Let's consider this accusation. Latin, Greek, and Hebrew have numerical values assigned to various letters in their alphabets. In Latin the values are: I=1, V=5, X=10, L=50, C=100, D=500, M=1,000. By extension W=10 (because W=VV, or two Vs together), and U=V (because there was no letter U for the Romans; where you see the letter U in modern writing, use the letter V instead).

As you can work out for yourself, Vicarius Filii Dei does add up to 666 in Latin: Vicarius=112; Filii=53, Dei=501. (Ignore letters which are not assigned a numerical value.) The problem is that Vicarius Filii Dei is not a title of the pope. One of his titles, in fact his chief title, is Vicarius Christi (Vicar of Christ), but, unfortunately for Seventh-Day Adventists and other anti-Catholics who attempt to use this ploy, Vicarius Christi adds up to only a measly 214, not the infernal 666.

Since the average person, Catholic or Protestant, hasn't the foggiest idea what the pope's titles are in Latin or English, anti-Catholics (some of whom know better) can get away with this subterfuge.

But what if one of the pope's titles did add up to 666? Would that coincidence prove the pope is the beast? Hardly. It would prove nothing because lots of names and titles add up to 666. By using a nifty little technique you can force a Seventh-Day Adventist to admit that the addition to 666 proves nothing, even when it's a papal title that's in question. Here's how.

Have your son-in-law do the math, and he'll be shocked to learn that the name of the woman who started Seventh-Day Adventism, Ellen Gould White, adds up to 666: Ellen=100, Gould=555, White=11. Ask him whether this "proves" that the foundress of his religion was the beast? If he says "No," then the tallying of the name means nothing. If he says "Yes," then what's he doing belonging to a church founded by the beast? Either way his argument collapses. (Isn't apologetics fun?)

I believe in the authenticity of some Marian apparitions--I've been a follower of Lourdes since I was a youngster, and that was a long time ago--but suspect some more recent apparitions aren't legitimate. I'm particularly concerned about an apparition which is occurring in a city close to us. What should my attitude be?

You're right to be cautious. That's the attitude of the Church, which knows that, historically, most purported apparitions--whether of Mary, Jesus, an angel, or one of the saints--have been spurious.

A few months ago, not far from our offices, a woman thought she saw the face of a missing child in the shadows which played across a billboard. When this news hit the media, the street on which the billboard was situated was packed with cars several nights running. All the curious were out. The police had considerable trouble keeping traffic moving. A few people claimed to see what the woman saw. Most saw only wrinkled billboard paper with shadows cast by streetlights.

Was the image really there? We didn't trek to the billboard to verify firsthand, but we were confident it was a case of wishful thinking. And so it was. In a few days the commotion died down, and that was the end of the episode.

That apparition didn't concern any heavenly being, and the woman didn't claim to receive any message from the missing girl. She just thought she saw the girl's face, much as we see animals and buildings when we lie on our backs in a field and watch billowy clouds pass by.

If this kind of thing, this seeing images where there are none, can happen in a non-religious context, think what can happen in a religious context in which emotions are high.

This woman may have had a longstanding tendency to look for signs and wonders in all sorts of matters. She may have been on the lookout for clues "from the beyond." Such clues exist, of course, in legitimate apparitions, but there can develop, even within otherwise solid Catholics, an unhealthy desire to see God "prove" himself or to confirm our worst suspicions about the state of the world.

Our suspicions may be entirely right--things may be every bit as bad as we suspect--but we shouldn't conclude, based on that sad fact, that God will vouchsafe us some special sign. Maybe he will, maybe he won't. Throughout most of history, when things have been as bad as they are today (and they have been every bit as bad in the past; only those who don't know the past think all things are worse now than ever before), God has not given any miraculous sign, at least not one given to a seer for eventual public consumption.

Yet we also know, if we look at something like Lourdes scientifically, that something is going on. The kinds of things that happen at Lourdes (referring here to the healings) have no credible explanation other than the miraculous. These miraculous events give credence to the claim that Mary appeared. True, they don't prove she did, but the weight of the evidence, we think, moves in that direction.

Had she ever appeared before Lourdes? The hard evidence suggests she had. For example, scientists can examine the cloth of Guadalupe, where Mary is said to have appeared four and a half centuries ago, and can see that even its continued existence--it's only plant fiber and should have decayed in a few years--suggests supernatural intervention and thus the legitimacy of the vision.

In the Middle Ages and even before there were reports of saints appearing, but the authenticity of most of those very early apparitions, as with so many since, relies, as a rule, exclusively on the credibility of the seer, something not easy to judge at a millenium's remove.

Anyway, it comes down to this, in our opinion: Apparitions have occurred, and they are nothing new with our times. They didn't start in modern times. Since they have occurred in the past, they may be occurring now. There is no need to conclude that apparitions stopped, say, in 1858 at Lourdes.

But we need to approach each purported apparition with caution. We must always be ready to abandon a purported apparition if the Church rules against it or if there's anything fishy about it. After all, even authentic apparitions are merely private revelations.

No private revelation is binding in conscience on anyone except the person to whom it is given. If your neighbor has a real apparition, and if he's convinced it's authentic and ultimately from God, then in conscience he's bound to follow it--but you aren't, even if you think the apparition is real.

You can be a perfectly good Catholic and pay no attention at all even to apparitions which really occurred. If you don't believe in them, or if you do not believe in them but don't pay attention to them, you aren't guilty of any sin.

You are bound to believe and follow all general revelation, but general revelation ended with the death of the last apostle, commonly believed to be John the Evangelist, who died near the year 100. This general revelation is protected and interpreted by the magisterium of the Church.

Is it okay for me to visit a Kingdom Hall, which is the name the Jehovah's Witnesses give to their church building?

Yes and no. If you've done your homework on the Witnesses and want to see for yourself how they conduct their services and what techniques they teach their people, go ahead. You won't be harmed, and you may learn some skills which you could apply in your door-to-door work.

But if it's a matter of your being intrigued by what the Witnesses at your door have been saying, and you're thinking, "I just want to find out for myself," stay away. If you have the least suspicion in your mind that the Witnesses might be on to something, you don't know enough about your own faith or about theirs.

If you did know enough, if your grasp of the Catholic faith were solid and if you knew from your studies that nothing the Witnesses could say could undermine your faith, then you wouldn't suspect that they might have some good doctrinal or historical insights. They have none.

That may sound closedminded, and it would be if we were talking about a legitimate Christian group, but the Witnesses are not Christian, and their doctrines are not well thought out--as shown by the fact that their translation of the Bible, the New World Translation, includes many deliberate mistranslations intended to support their peculiar beliefs. (Bibles issued by Catholics and Protestants don't lend support to ideas such as the non-existence of hell or that Jesus was not divine but was really Michael the Archangel.)

No matter how weak the Witnesses' theology may be, don't underestimate the power of the members' suasion. They're good convincers. Don't put yourself into a situation of intellectual temptation: "Oh, I can handle these guys, even though I don't know much about my own faith." If that's the way you think, you're just the pigeon they're looking for, because as soon as you find yourself unable to refute one of their claims and unable to back a Catholic claim, you'll toss in the towel and change your mailing address to Kingdom Hall.

Don't laugh. It happens all the time. Many Catholics tend to be a little smug: "I don't need to know my faith because my faith is true." That attitude is fine--until you suddenly find yourself empty-handed when asked a serious question about your faith. You might think today that you won't succumb to the blandishments of the Witnesses, but that's what all of their converts once said.

I know Catholic Answers staffers have had debates with leading (and sometimes unknown) anti-Catholics. I've been thinking about doing something similar in my area. Any suggestions?

Yes, and not enough room for them all.

1. First you need to know the other side's arguments. Read its literature and take notes.

2. Make sure you have a solid grasp not only of the fine points of the Catholic position on the topic of the debate, but also understand well what overview you need to give the audience. A debater can give all the right facts yet lose the audience if he doesn't explain clearly what it is he's trying to prove. As the adage has it, "First tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you've told them."

3. Don't use ad hominem tactics. Your opponent may be a dunce, but never say so. If he's a dunce, he'll show that on his own.

Make sure you work out the debate's ground rules. Some of our opponents have tried to take advantage of the format of the debate.

A speaker on the "Bible Answer Man" radio program denied Mary's perpetual virginity. He claimed that James, called one of the brothers of the Lord in Matthew 13:55, was one of Mary's "other" sons. He insisted that it was a different James who was the son of Mary the wife of Cleophas--this Mary stood at the foot of the cross.

The New Testament speaks of two men called James who were close followers of the Lord. One is James the Greater, the son of Zebedee (see Matt. 4:21, 10:2, 26:37, Mark 1:19-20, 3:17, 10:35, Luke 5:10, John 21:2). This James and his brother, John, were nicknamed Boanerges by Jesus; the nickname means "sons of thunder."

The second James, known as the Less because of his short stature, was the son of Mary, the wife of Cleophas (a man whose name is also rendered as Clopas and Alphaeus). He is the one mentioned in Matthew 13:55 (see also Matt. 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13). The problem for those who insist that James the Less was Jesus' literal brother is that both of these Jameses are identified as sons of other men and women, not sons of Mary and Joseph. Some biblical concordances give the impression that there were three different men named James in the New Testament: James, son of Zebedee; James, son of Cleophas; and James, the "brother of the Lord." This distinction is not accurate because the James who is called the "brother of the Lord" in Matthew 13:55 is identified in Matthew 27:56 as the son of Mary, the wife of Cleophas.

When I read John 6 it seems obvious to me that Jesus was speaking of "eating his flesh and drinking his blood" in a purely symbolic way.

You are wrong. Jesus said, "I solemnly assure you that unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him" (John 6:53-55).

John 6 is the classic Eucharistic passage which, along with Jesus' words of consecration at the Last Supper (Matt 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:19-20), Catholics point to to demonstrate the Eucharist in Scripture.

There are several facts which demonstrate that Jesus was speaking literally, not figuratively, in John 6.

First, his hearers understood him to be speaking literally. They asked themselves, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (v. 52). After Jesus explained himself further, they still understood him to be speaking literally, and some of his disciples said, "This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?" (v. 60). Jesus replied, "Does this shock you?" (v. 61), and he allowed those who couldn't accept his teaching to leave him. He didn't call them back and tell them they had misunderstood him (which was his custom to do when his listeners didn't grasp his true meaning [e.g. Matt. 13:36-43, Matt. 16:5-12, Mark 8:14-21]). By the way, John 6 is the only example in the Bible of disciples abandoning the Lord over a doctrinal issue.

Second, we know that Jesus was speaking literally, not figuratively, because to the Jews of his day "eating someone's flesh and drinking his blood" was the idiomatic phrase synonymous with persecution, violence, betrayal, and murder. This is clear from such passages as Micah 3:3, Psalm 27:2, Isaiah 9:20, and Isaiah 49:26.

That's why, if Jesus had been speaking figuratively, his words would have made no sense at all. He would have been saying, "I solemnly assure you that unless you persecute and betray me you have no life within you. He who does violence to me has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day." That makes no sense at all, but that's exactly what he would have been saying if his words were symbolic.

The third way we can know that Jesus was speaking literally is that the apostles believed and taught that he spoke literally (see 1 Cor. 10:16, 11:29). The same is true of the Christians of the first, second, third, and fourth centuries. Their writings show them to have understood and taught that Jesus' words in John 6 were not symbolic.

An Anglican priest tells me that his holy orders are valid and that he can consecrate the Eucharist and grant absolution. I've heard the opposite is true. What is the Catholic position?

Although Catholics and many traditional Anglicans are now enjoying an era of unprecedented friendliness and increased mutual cooperation, there still remains the touchy subject of whether Anglican orders are valid. The Catholic Church continues to regard them as invalid.

In 1896 Pope Leo XIII issued his apostolic letter Apostolicae Curae, in which he upheld the Church's position that Anglican orders are "absolutely null and void." When the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, came to power under King Henry VIII, he drastically modified the rite of ordination, eliminating all references to a sacrificial priesthood.

Since to be valid the sacraments must have the proper form and matter, grave questions immediately arose as to the validity of Anglicanism's new form of holy orders. Upon further study, the Catholic Church determined that, although an ordination might be attempted by a valid though heretical Catholic bishop, because the Anglican rite of ordination had been so distorted it could no longer effect a valid ordination.

Thus, within a generation or two after the inception of the Anglican Church there were no validly consecrated Anglican bishops (the original Catholic bishops who had gone into heresy having since died). Therefore the Anglican bishops (who technically weren't bishops at all nor even priests) couldn't validly ordain men to the priesthood.

There is, though, a further complication. Some candidates for the Anglican priesthood, recognizing the sterile nature of their church's holy orders, have received ordination at the hands of validly ordained schismatic bishops (such as the Old Catholics, who broke from Rome in the nineteenth century). Assuming these bishops used the proper rite and had the necessary intention, those ordinations would be valid, though illicit. The problem is that it's extraordinarily difficult to ascertain whether an individual Anglican priest's orders are valid or not.

That's why Anglican priests who wish to become Catholic and function as priests must be ordained anew in the Catholic Church. They are always ordained "absolutely," not "conditionally"--that is, the working presumption for all of them is that they were not validly ordained while in the Anglican Church, no matter who their ordaining bishops were.

In a recent homily our parish priest said, "No matter what anyone tells you, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was a sin against hospitality." He said that Genesis 19, where the incident of Sodom's destruction is recounted, is one of the most misinterpreted sections of the Bible. He claims the inhabitants of those cities were destroyed by God for not being hospitable to strangers. What is the official Catholic teaching on the nature of the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah? I'm worried that modern interpretations like this priest's are used to downplay the sin of homosexuality.

If there's any misrepresenting going on, it's being perpetrated by your parish priest. There is nothing in Genesis 18 or 19 which could support his theory that a lack of hospitality was the crime that caused God to annihilate Sodom and Gomorrah. In Genesis 18 God said, "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin [singular] is so grave . . ." (v. 20). What was the sin which "cried out" for punishment?

Genesis 19 recounts the story of how Abraham's nephew, Lot, entertained two angels at his home in Sodom. Word got around that Lot had some visiting men in his home, and "the townsmen of Sodom, both young and old," gathered outside his home, clamoring for the two visitors to be turned over so that they could be homosexually raped: "Where are the men who came to your house tonight? Bring them out to us that we might have intimacies with them."

Notice what's going on here. The strangers had been shown hospitality by Lot and his family (vv. 1-3). The townsmen didn't cry out to Lot that they wanted to be "inhospitable" to the visitors, but that they wanted to have intercourse with them, which is something markedly different. Lot attempts to quell the mob by offering them his two virgin daughters, suspecting that because these men were homosexuals they would refuse. The entire account revolves around a single sin: homosexuality.

While it's true that later Old Testament prophets pointed out other sins the people of Sodom and Gomorrah were guilty of (Is. 1:9-20, 3:9, Ezek. 16:46-51, Jer. 23:14), it's clear that the primary sin, the sin which provoked God's wrath, was homosexuality.

If you examine the Old Testament passages in which God outlines the sins which would merit the death penalty under the Mosaic Law (Lev. 20:27, 24:10-23; Deut. 13:5-10, 21:18-21, 22:21-24), you'll see that homosexuality was condemned alongside such crimes as murder, idolatry, and blasphemy (Lev. 20:13). Search as you might, you won't find the Lord meting out the death penalty to persons guilty of inhospitality.

You published an article called "Mary, Ark of the Covenant," in which the writer attempted to convince his readers that Mary should be venerated. I'd like to draw your attention to 1 Samuel 4, where we see that the nation of Israel put their faith in the Ark of the Covenant (like Catholics do in Mary), instead of in the true and living God. This was the reason for their destruction. They had turned from God to idols. I believe that millions of Catholics worship Mary in the same way Israel worshiped the ark of the covenant. If, as you claim, Mary is the "ark of the new covenant," I'm not sure that's something you should be proud of.

It's surprising how many biblical errors and false assumptions are present in your question. For starters, read 1 Samuel 4 again. It nowhere says that the people of Israel "placed their faith" in the ark instead of in God. Nor does it say they worshiped the ark as an idol, as you imply. In reality, the Israelites knew that when they went into battle with the ark they always won. This was due to God's protection. The ark became a strategic weapon for them.

The Catholic Church doesn't teach "Mary worship," nor do Catholics place their faith in Mary instead of God. To say they do advertises your ignorance of Catholic teaching (or, if you know better, your willingness to propagate a lie).

Then there's your attempt to hijack 1 Samuel 4 as a way to refute the thesis that the ark of the covenant imagery parallels Mary's role in salvation history. Surely you don't mean to imply that, because the people of Israel abused their God-given gift of the ark, somehow the ark itself is to blame or that it should be discarded because of such abuse? That's poor logic and bad theology.

Would you be willing to apply that principle in other biblical situations? Probably not. After all, the apostle John was (however mildly) guilty of idolatry when he fell prostrate and worshiped an angel (Rev. 19:9-11). Should we then shun angels? Should we discount John's authority as an apostle? Should we disregard Revelation because it was written by a self-accused idolater? Of course not.

The fact that some people abuse God's gifts is no reason to reject God's gifts. If an individual Catholic is guilty of worshiping Mary, that's his sin, not her fault.

A woman in my prayer group claims that all of the reported Marian apparitions around the world must be from God because their messages are consistent with the Bible and call people to prayer and repentance. She says "the devil would never do anything which would draw people closer to God" and concludes that none of these apparitions could possibly come from the devil.

Your friend is wrong. The message of an alleged apparition is not the only thing on which that apparition's authenticity should be evaluated. Besides, it's up to the Church, not to an individual, to make that decision. There have been purported Marian apparitions, later judged by the Church to be spurious, whose messages, although sensational, seemed innocuous and not contrary to orthodoxy.

Your friend is also wrong to assume that the devil would never do something that would, ostensibly, draw people to God. In fact, although the devil's ultimate goal is to remove each of us from God's presence permanently, he sometimes uses ploys which seem to lead people toward holiness, yet which turn out to be cleverly devised traps designed to impede our progress toward God.

Consider what happened when Paul and Silas were preaching the gospel in Macedonia:

As [they] were going to the place of prayer, [they] met a slave girl with an oracular spirit, who used to bring a large profit to her owners through her fortune telling. She began to follow Paul . . . shouting, "These people are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation." She did this for many days. Paul became annoyed, turned, and said to the spirit, "I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." Then it came out at that moment" (Acts 16:16-18).
There are two important details to be aware of in this passage. Notice that it was a demonic spirit who was telling people to heed Paul's teaching. The demon was calling people to believe the gospel which would, in the normal course of events, draw people to God. If you look closely you'll also see there was an error subtly embedded in the demon's message, "These people . . . proclaim to you a [not 'the'] way of salvation," implying that there are other ways to salvation. That is false, of course, and completely contrary to the gospel Paul was preaching.

There is only one way to salvation: through Jesus Christ alone. Jesus said, "I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6 [see John 10:9]). Peter echoed the Lord's teaching, explaining, "There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved" (Acts 4:12). The demon in Acts 16 was trying to introduce error sugar-coated by a perfectly laudable appeal to embrace the gospel.

Never doubt that the devil can, if he thinks he needs to, use the incongruous ploy of urging us to turn to God as part of his larger plan of introducing error and exploiting religious fervor that's not solidly grounded upon authentic Christian spirituality. That's why the first pope warned us to be on guard against his wiles.

Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in faith, knowing that your fellow believers throughout the world undergo the same sufferings (2 Pet. 5:8-9).

Revelation 22:18-19 says, "I warn everyone who hears the prophetic words in this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words in this prophetic book, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city described in this book." Doesn't this verse render the Catholic doctrine of sacred Tradition scripturally unviable since your Tradition is added to the Bible?

That conclusion might be possible if John's phrase "this book" meant "the Bible," but it doesn't. It's a common mistake of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists to assume that John was speaking here of the Bible as we know it--all 73 books (seven less in Protestant versions), from Genesis to Revelation, bound between two covers.

John wrote Revelation before the year 100, so he could not have had the Bible in mind when he penned this warning, because the Bible as we know it (and as many Protestants think he meant it) would not exist in its present form for three centuries.

The Catholic Church defined the canons of the Old and New Testaments at the councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397). Before that time Christians weren't certain exactly which books belonged in the canon because the Church hadn't yet made a definitive decision on the issue.

Besides, oral Tradition isn't something added to the Bible. Paul tells us in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 that Tradition comes to us in two forms, written and oral. He exhorts us to "stand firm and hold fast" to both the oral form and the written form of Tradition. In other words, the Lord gave the Church the Bible and oral Tradition as the two ways of preserving and handing on a single thing, the revealed Word of God.

There's another reason Revelation 22:18-19 doesn't disprove the Catholic doctrine of Tradition. Virtually the same warning is given in Deuteronomy 4:2. If we apply there the same principle that you want to apply in Revelation 22, we have a dilemma, because God would have prohibited the adding of anything to his statutes and decrees as found up to and including the book of Deuteronomy. If that were the case, all subsequent books of the Bible, including the book of Revelation itself, would be proscribed because they were added to the Pentateuch. That means Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Paul and John and all the writers of later books would have the aforementioned dreaded plagues "added unto them" because they added to what was already there.

So what was John really warning us about in Revelation 22? Simple. He had written the book of Revelation as a prophetic document for the edification and guidance of the Church, and he didn't want it tampered with--nothing added, nothing subtracted. He knew that some knucklehead in a later generation might decide he could improve on the message, or, like the Jehovah's Witnesses, twist it to better suit his personal theology. Revelation 22:18-19 is essentially a first-century copyright, designed to discourage people from altering the work.

Unfortunately, the anonymous "emendation" of texts was rife in the early centuries of the Church, and bishops had to exercise extreme caution in verifying the authorship of the many "holy books" that were in circulation.

Even in Paul's day there were con artists trying to pass of bogus "scripture" to unsuspecting Christians (many of whom only too readily took the bait): "We ask you, brothers . . . not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly or to be alarmed either by a 'spirit' or by an oral statement or by a letter allegedly from us to the effect that the Day of the Lord is already at hand. Let no one deceive you in any way" (2 Thess. 1:1-3).

My son was told by a CCD instructor that in an emergency a person desiring baptism could be baptized with soda, juice, or even urine. This sounds preposterous to me, bu I can't back up my objection, and I don't want my son to be given faulty information (either by me or by the instructor).

The code of canon law explains that "true, clean, and natural water" is necessary for baptism (canon 849). Liquids can be assessed in three categories: Those that are certainly valid, those that are doubtfully valid, and those that are certainly invalid.

Certainly valid liquids include water as found in rivers, oceans, lakes, hot springs, melted ice or snow, mineral water, dew, slightly muddy water (as long as the water predominates), and slightly brackish water.

Doubtfully valid liquids are those that are a mixture of water and some other substance, such as beer, soda, light tea, thin soup or broth, and artificially scented water such as rose water.

The last category is of liquids which are certainly invalid. It includes oil, urine, grease, phlegm, shoe polish, and milk.

The rule of thumb is that, in emergency situations, you should always try to baptize with certainly valid liquids, beginning with plain, clean water. If plain water isn't available, baptize with a doubtfully valid liquid using the formula, "If this water is valid, I baptize you in the name of the Father . . ." If the danger of death passes, the person should later be conditionally baptized with certainly valid water. Never attempt to baptize anyone with a certainly invalid liquid.

A Mormon neighbor asked if I'd be interested in a tour of the local Mormon "stake center." I declined, but, not wanting to seem ignorant, didn't ask what a stake center is. (I knew he didn't mean "steak center"; he wasn't inviting me to a restaurant.) What exactly is a stake center?

A Mormon stake center is the equivalent of a large Catholic parish, with offices for local Mormon officials, meeting rooms, a worship sanctuary (often referred to as a chapel), a kitchen, classrooms, and, in many stake centers, a genealogical records library.

Most stake centers have what's called a cultural center, a room which doubles as an indoor basketball court and an auditorium. The cultural center is separated from the sanctuary by a folding partition, which may be opened when there's an overflow congregation on Sundays or for special events.

In Mormon parlance a stake center is the organizational level that is higher than a ward and smaller than an area. Wards, which are designated by geography, usually contain only a few hundred people. A stake center is made up of several wards, perhaps as many as fifteen. Wards are presided over by bishops, and all the ward bishops answer to a stake president, who in turn is accountable to an area president.

The term "stake" comes from two Bible verses: "Look upon Zion [the Mormons see themselves and Salt Lake City as the modern counterpart to the biblical Zion], the city of our solemnities: thine eyes shall see Jerusalem, a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down; not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed" (Is. 33:20); "Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations; spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes" (Is. 54:2).

The stake center is the backbone of the Mormon Church's infrastructure. The Church's 40,000 full-time missionaries fan out in search of converts from their stake centers. The Mormon Church's annual general conferences and other functions are beamed live via satellite to all the stake centers which have a satellite dish (most do). Local genealogy work is conducted out of the stake centers, and almost all of the converts who come into the Mormon Church are baptized at a stake center.

Some facts on the rapid proliferation of Mormon stake centers: As of October, 1988 there were 1,108 stakes in the U.S. Of the ten countries boasting the largest number of stake centers, six of them (Mexico with 92; Brazil, 57; Chile, 48; the Phillipines, 32; Peru, 31; Argentina, 26) are traditionally Catholic countries. (Nowadays, well more than half of all Mormon converts are from the Catholic faith.) It took 143 years for the first fifty percent of the total stakes worldwide (1700) to be organized. It has taken only eleven years for the most recent fifty percent to spring up.

In this day and age, what's the right way to observe the third commandment, "Keep holy the sabbath day"?

The same way Christians have observed it for two thousand years: Attend Mass and abstain from all unnecessary work. Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J., explains, "Sunday should be dedicated to the Lord, at least in intention, if not by actual practice of other good works. Some activities that are in conformity with Sunday observance are reading the Bible or the life of some saint, praying the rosary, engaging in serious conversation on God and the things of the spirit, and so forth.

"Sunday should be a day of joy and relaxation. It is the time for a family meal, for healthy recreation, for sport, for taking a stroll, or for going for a drive. In these and similar activities we can both praise God for his goodness and refresh our bodies and minds after the week's work.

Since the time of Moses, abstinence of all unnecessary work has been an essential part of the Sunday observance. We have all heard that the Church forbids all 'servile' work on Sundays. Formerly, 'servile work' was defined as hard physical labor; thus, digging ditches, plowing, splitting wood, and so forth were so forbidden on Sunday except in cases of emergency or real necessity.

"In the past twenty years or so many exceptions have been placed on the meaning of servile work by moral theologians that it is just about impossible to lay down general rules. Thus, many men who spend the whole week behind a desk find real refreshment working in their garden, mowing the lawn, washing their car. Although these activities require physical labor, they are not now considered to be 'servile' in the situation of contemporary technology in America.

"It seems to me that what all should try to do is to observe the spirit of Sunday--worship, rest, and joy. If some kind of work does not fit into that pattern and is truly unnecessary, then it should be avoided. If anyone has serious doubt about whether or not he or she is violating God's law of the Sunday rest, then that person should seek the advice of a priest" (Fundamentals of Catholicism [San Francisco: Ignatius, 1982], I:174-175).

I'm distressed by a pamphlet I've seen on the brown scapular of our Lady of Mt. Carmel. On the front panel it calls the scapular "the assurance of salvation."

You're right. It is distressing that people who should know better so grossly misrepresent the Catholic Church's teaching about salvation and about scapulars. Let's set the record straight. (Pay close attention, please.)

First, the Catholic Church teaches that there is only one person who can save us, and that person is Jesus Christ.

Second, the Church considers wearing the brown scapular, like praying the rosary, to be a good and helpful way of cultivating a devotion to our Lady. The scapular is like a wedding ring. Wearing a wedding ring doesn't make one married; rather, the ring is an external sign symbolizing the inward reality of the marriage covenant. The same is true of the scapular. Its purpose is to remind the wearer and others who see it that the wearer has a devotion to our Lady. There are absolutely no magical properties ascribed to scapulars. They are not good luck charms.

Third, Mary promised that, with certain conditions fulfilled, she would intercede with God in a special way on behalf of people who die wearing a scapular. But she never said (nor would she) that the scapular is an "assurance of salvation."

Repeat: The Catholic Church teaches that salvation comes only through faith in Jesus Christ and, by his grace, in obedience to his commands ("For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not from you; it is the gift of God. It is not from works, so no one may boast" [Eph. 2:8-9; see Phil. 2:13, Col. 1:29, Jas. 2:14-26]).

Furthermore, the Church does not teach that one must wear the scapular, pray the rosary, or cultivate a devotion to Mary. Although the Church recommends these things as ways of enhancing one's spiritual life and drawing closer to Christ by asking Mary's intercession and by imitating her way of life (see Heb. 13:7), one can be a good Catholic and go to heaven never having worn a scapular or having said a single Hail Mary.

Whoever produced that pamphlet should expurgate the offending statement from future printings. The pamphlet misrepresents Catholic teaching on salvation, distorts Mary's true role in God's plan of salvation, perpetuates the false idea that Catholic piety is superstitious, and is a serious source of scandal to those who are given the impression that Catholics believe in salvation by works.

Which is more important for an apologist, holiness or knowledge?

The two aren't in opposition, and you should strive for both.

If you are holy but lack knowledge of you faith, you won't have any way to answer people's questions. It's no good to say they will learn from you by observing your example. They may learn how to live well, but they won't learn how to understand or explain well. Facts and reasons can't be passed along by a mere display of your virtues.

On the other hand, if you know all the answers but don't make at least a good stab at holiness, your spiritual state will be evident to people you speak with, and they won't take your answers to heart.

Don't be too concerned about whether holiness or knowledge is the more important to successful apologetics. Just make sure you don't fall into the trap that you must be maximally holy or maximally knowledgeable before starting out in apologetics. (Lord knows, if those were the requirements, none of us would have taken the first step.) Don't let yourself be paralyzed, thinking, "I'm not a saint yet and a genius, so I'll have to wait." No saint or genius ever thought that way, so why should you?

Is it true that Pope Gregory I denied that the pope is the "universal bishop" and taught that the Bishop of Rome has no authority over any other bishop?

No. Gregory the Great (540-604), saint, pope, and doctor of the Church, never taught any such thing. He would have denied that the title "universal bishop" could be applied to anyone, himself included, if by that term one meant there was only one bisop for the whole world and that all other "bishops" were bishops in name only, with no real authority of their own. Such a distorted version of the biblical model of bishops is incompatible with Catholic teaching.

But that isn't to say that the title didn't--and doesn't--have a proper sense which Gregory approved of. If meant in the sense that the Bishop of Rome is the leader of all the bishops, the title is correct. If it means he is the only bishop and all the other "bishops" are not really successors to the apostles, it's false.

What Gregory condemned was the expropriation of the title Universal Bishop by Bishop John the Faster, the patriarch of Constantinople, who proclaimed himself Universal Bishop at the Synod of Constantinople in 588. Gregory condemned the patriarch's act because universal jurisdiction applies solely to the pope.

Some anti-Catholics cite the following quotations to give the false impression that Gregory was rejecting his own universal authority:

I confidently say that whosoever calls himself, or desires to be called, Universal Priest, is in his elation the precursor of the Antichrist, because he proudly puts himself above all others" (Epistles 7:33).

If then he shunned the subjecting of the members of Christ partially to certain heads, as if besides Christ, though this were to the apostles themselves, what wilt thou say to Christ, who is the head of the universal Church, in the scrutiny of the last judgment, having attempted to put all his members under thyself by the appellation of the universal? Who, I ask, is proposed for imitation in this wrongful title but he who, despising the legions of angels constituted socially within himself, attempted to start up to an eminence of singularity, that he might seem to be under none and to be alone above all?" (Epistles 5:18).

Predictably, anti-Catholics neglect to informtheir audiences that the context of these statements makes it clear that Gregory was not making these statements in regard to himself or to any other pope. He believed the Bishop of Rome has primacy of jurisdiction over all other bishops.

Gregory demonstrated this in his actions. He made it his business to approve candidates for the office of bishop. He rigorously examined men proposed for bishop and, rejecting some as unsuitable for the job, ordered that others be nominated instead (Epistles 1:55, 56; 7:38; 10:7). This is hardly behavior one would expect from a pope who renounced the idea of his having jurisdiction over other bishops.

Like his predecessors and successors, Gregory promulgated numerous laws, binding on all other bishops, on issues such as clerical celibacy (1:42, 50; 4:5, 26, 34; 7:1; 9:110, 218; 10:19; 11:56), the deprivation of priests and bishops guilty of criminal offenses (1:18, 32; 3:49; 4:26; 5:5, 17, 18), and the proper disposition of church revenues (1:10, 64; 2:20-22; 3:22; 4:11).

Gregory's writings show that he regarded and conducted himself as the universal bishop of the church. He calls the diocese of Rome "the Apostolic See, which is the head of all other churches" (13:1). He said, "I, albeit unworthy, have been set up in command of the Church" (5:44). He taught that the pope, as successor to Peter, was granted by God a primacy over all other bishops (2:44, 3:30, 5:37, 7:37). He claimed that it was necessary for councils and synods to have the pope's approval to be binding and that only the pope had the authority to annul their decrees (9:56, 5:39, 41, 44). He enforced his authority to settle disputes between bishops, even between patriarchs, and rebuked lax and erring bishops (2:50; 3:52, 63; 9:26, 27).

When Gregory denounced John the Faster's attempt to lay claim to the title Universal Bishop, his words were in accord with his actions and with his teachings. He was unequivocal in his teaching that all other bishops are subject to the pope: "As regards the Church of Constantinople, who can doubt that it is subject to the Apostolic See? Why, both our most religious Lord the Emperor and our brother the Bishop of Constantinople continually acknowledge it" (9:26).

Can you offer any biblical justification for the Catholic Church's former teaching that it's sinful to eat meat on Friday?

Yes, but, if you recognize the fact that Christ's Church is divinely authorized to teach, sanctify, and govern, there should be no need to "prove" it with biblical examples. If you don't recognize that, consider the following biblical facts.

Jesus guaranteed that when his Church teaches it teaches with his authority and that anyone rejecting his Church's teachings rejects him (Luke 10:16). This authority extends to Church discipline as well as doctrine. When the Church imposes a discipline, its members are bound to obey it, unless they are dispensed for a proportionate reason.

This exercise of authority is seen in Acts 15, where the Church, in its first major council, bound all Christians to the discipline of abstaining from meat that had been sacrificed to idols or that had come from strangled animals (19-29). When the Church promulgated its teaching about not abstaining from meat (Acts 15:28-29), no Christian was free to disregard the discipline without committing sin. But since Paul explained that meat in itself is not unclean and the eating of meat is not inherently sinful (Rom. 14:1-23, 1 Cor. 8:1-13, 10:23-32), a Christian who violated the apostolic teaching in Acts 15 sinned not because the eating of meat was wrong but because he disobeyed a commandment of the Church. When the Catholic Church imposes a discipline such as not eating meat on Fridays, the same principle holds.

Consider this parallel example. A mother tells her son not to eat the cookies she just baked because it's close to dinner time and eating the cookies will spoil his appetite. The son ignores his mother's wishes and, when she's not looking, sneaks a few cookies. His sin is not the eating of cookies (a morally-neutral act in itself), but of disobedience.

Finally, we should mention why Friday abstinence was imposed. The Church recognizes that, since meat is a chief part of most meals served in most places, and since meat is usually the most valued or expensive part of a meal, abstinence from meat on Fridays is a good way for Christians to unite themselves more closely to the sufferings of their Lord (Rom. 8:16-17, 1 Pet. 2:21) by denying themselves something they enjoy. Abstinence from meat is a sacrifice which unites them in penance and strengthens the solidarity of the Church through mild suffering. It's also a good form of mortification, which disciplines the soul and strengthens its resistance to concupiscence. Paul practiced and recommended mortification: "I drive my body and train it, for fear that after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified" (1 Cor. 9:27).

Mormon missionaries recently visited my home, and we had a long discussion about differences between the Catholic Church and Mormonism. One of the things they take special pride in is their Church's teaching called "the Word of Wisdom," which proscribes smoking and the drinking of tea, coffee, and wine. How can I refute this false teaching?

Hold on there! Although the Mormon Church is in error on a lot of theological issues, its Word of Wisdom (see Doctrine and Covenants 89:1) is not a bad teachingand doesn't need to be refuted. True, Mormons have gone overboard in their rigorous denunciation of tea, coffee, and wine (they view those substances as inherently and always harmful to bodily health), but there is an underlying truth in their teaching.

The Catholic Church itself teaches that the intentional, unnecessary injuring of one's body is a sin against the Fifth Commandment. Now that medical science has shown beyond question the detriment smoking cigarettes causes to the body, many argue persuasively the people who choose to smoke (distinguishing them from those already addicted to the habit and who are unable to quit) are deliberately harming their body for no good reason and are sinning.

While this may be true in the case of smoking, it's not true in the case of tea, coffee, and wine, unless those are used to excess. Most people can drink wine regularly and in moderation and never incur any health problems as a result. (Wine even can benefit one's health, as the ancients knew: "No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments" [1 Tim. 5:23].)

Naturally, people should avoid things which always cause direct harm to the body, such as illicit drugs and smoking, but the use of foods and drinks which cause no harm when used in moderation cannot be proscribed as evil. It's fine to give up good things as a mortification or in order to enjoy greater health (after all, no one needs to drink tea, coffee, or wine and can get along perfectly well without them). As Paul said, "Everything is lawful for me, but not everything is beneficial. Everything is lawful for me, but I will not let myself be dominated by anything" (1 Cor. 6:12). Insofar as the Word of Wisdom teaches people to lead healthier lives by avoiding certain foods, its teaching is beneficial but morally neutral. But Mormons are mistaken in condemning tea, coffee, and wine as inherently and always evil.

A friend recently pointed out that Joshua 10:12 and 2 Kings 20:9 say the sun was made to stand still and that ancient Chinese astronomical records made during the time Joshua and 2 Kings were written nowhere mention the sun standing still. Isn't this evidence that the biblical accounts are incorrect?

No. Although we're not sure exactly what took place in those biblical accounts, we can be sure that, whatever the phenomenon was, it appeared to the observers that the sun stood still. The writers were perfectly correct to describe the events this way. What's more, God could have restricted the phenomenon to those in the immediate area, so people elsewhere would have noticed nothing unusual.

Such a localized phenomenon is documented to have occurred as recently as October 1917 in Fatima, Portugal. During our Lady's final apparition there, the sun began to pulsate and spin, giving off various colors, and appeared to plunge toward the earth in a zigzag motion. About 70,000 people witnessed this spectacle, all within a radius of a few dozen miles of Fatima. And it wasn't just Catholics who saw the sun's convulsions--many non-Catholics, even atheists, attested to the strange event, which was widely reported in the secular and communist newspapers. But in the rest of the world, indeed in the rest of Portugal, nothing unusual seemed to happen to the sun that day.

God is able to cause the sun or other celestial bodies to do wondrous things and restrict the evidence of the phenomenon to a localized area. This would explain why the Chinese had no inkling that God was doing something amazing with the sun on the other side of the planet.

Two excellent books dealing with the apparent contradictions in the Bible are Gleason Archer's Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982) and William G. Most's Free From All Error, the latter available from Catholic Answers.

All questions excerpted from This Rock magazine and reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1992 Catholic Answers.

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