New Advent
 Home   Encyclopedia   Summa   Fathers   Bible   Library 
 A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z 
New Advent
Home > Catholic Library > Quick Questions > 1993

Quick Questions (1993)

I've always thought that the Holy Family was poor and that in their poverty and humility Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are models for all families. But recently I read someone's claim that the Holy Family was not poor because the Greek word describing Joseph's profession (Tekton) indicates that he was a "master craftsman," a class of artisan who made a very comfortable living at his trade. What light can you shed on this?

It's true that Joseph is called a tektonos in Matthew 13:55, but the Greek word tekton simply means "craftsman" and does not connote anything with regard to level, skill, or income, and the rendering "master craftsman" is not etymologically supportable. The scanty biblical evidence indicates that the Holy Family was poor, not middle-class, certainly not affluent.

Luke writes, "When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was born. When the days were completed for their purification [40 days (Lev. 12:2-8)] according to the law of Moses, they [Mary and Joseph] took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, 'Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,' and to offer the sacrifice of 'a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons,' in accordance with the dictate of the law of the Lord" (2:22-24). This passage suggests that Mary and Joseph were poor. According to the Mosaic law the mother had to purchase and have sacrificed in the Temple a young lamb as a burnt offering and a turtle dove as a sin offering (this being done to expiate ritual impurity related to blood and childbirth, not personal sin). If the parents were too poor to afford the lamb, they were allowed to substitute two turtle doves or pigeons (Lev. 12:8).

Other than this brief glimpse at the Holy Family's financial circumstances, the Bible tells us very little about their economic status. While it's true that the three Magi offered Jesus expensive gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt. 2:11), there's no biblical evidence to suggest that they kept these items.

Is it true that at Trent the Church added the seven deuterocanonical books (Judith, Tobit, 1 & 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Baruch, and Ecclesiasticus) to the Bible?

No. The Council of Trent (1545-1564) infallibly reiterated what the Church had long taught regarding the canons of the Old and New Testaments. Pope Damasus promulgated the Catholic canons at the Synod of Rome in A.D. 382, and later, at the regional councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397, 419), the Church again defined the same list of books as inspired.

The canons of the Old and New Testaments, as defined by Pope Damasus and the Councils of Hippo and Carthage, were later ratified (thought the books were not enumerated individually) by the later Ecumenical councils of II Nicaea (787) and Florence (1438-1445). Although the Council of Trent, in response to the Protestant violation of the Bible by deleting the seven Deuterocanonical books plus portions of Daniel and Esther, was the first infallible conciliar listing of each individual book, it certainly did not add those books to the canon.

If that were the case, how could Martin Luther and the other Reformers have objected to the presence of those books decades before the Council of Trent if they weren't in the canon to begin with and were added by the Council of Trent?

Although I know what the Church teaches, I have no idea where to go to find out when and where the Church officially defined its teachings. How can I as a layman find out which councils and papal encyclicals taught a given doctrine? I'd be willing to go to the library and do the research but I wouldn't know where to begin, nor even if a public library would carry the types of books I'd need (our parish library has nothing that's helpful). Where can I find such information?

You don't need to spend long hours of drudgery at the library, just a few minutes of drudgery in the comfort of your own home. There are two books that, between them, will furnish you with all the specifics of Church teaching you could ever want. We use them all the time.

The first is The Christian Faith in the Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church (Staten Island: Alba House, 1982). Jesuit theologians J. Neuner and J. Dupuis, the editors of this excellent one-volume resource, have catalogued the major doctrines of the Catholic faith according to the official documents of the Church.

The categories include Scripture and Tradition, the Trinity, Christology, justification and salvation, the sacraments (individually treated at length), Marian doctrines, the Mass, ecumenism and the fate of Protestants and other non-Catholics, grace, sexual ethics, the veneration and intercession of the saints, and the use of icons and statues. Relevant passages from the Church Fathers on each subject are cited, as well as pertinent passages from encyclicals and conciliar documents.

The second book you need is Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, by German theologian Ludwig Ott (Rockford: TAN, 1974). Under each of its sections Fundamentals cites the Bible verses which explicitly and implicitly demonstrate Church doctrine (a handy feature when dealing with Evangelicals and Fundamentalists). It cites the works of the Church Fathers, and it lists the Church councils which dealt with the issue.

Another reason this book is so helpful is that Ott has outlined the arguments against each doctrine, listing the opponents and explaining why their arguments fall flat. Each doctrine is classified according to its degree of certitude--from de fidei definita (such as the Trinity, the Eucharist, and purgatory) down to opinio tolerata, a theological opinion which is merely tolerated by the Church but is in no way binding on the faithful.

A book I'm reading made a reference to "Pascal's Wager" but without any explanation. I gather it has something to do with proving the existence of God. What light can you shed on this?

"Pascal's Wager," so-called because it was devised by the brilliant Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), is an apologetics method in the form of a wager aimed at getting atheists and agnostics to consider the possibility that God exists and that there is a heaven and hell. The beauty of Pascal's Wager is that it is an appeal to the chief God worshipped by atheists; their reason. Fr. Joseph H. Cavanaugh, C.F.C., explains in his apologetics handbook, Evidence for Our Faith (available from This Rock for $19.95):

Pascal addresses his argument to the typical man of the world who regards making money and amusing himself, not as a means to an end, but the real purpose of existence. Even if he refuses to consider his ultimate destiny, Pascal maintains such a man cannot avoid wagering about it. In practice, he must stake everything on one of two propositions, either (A) that there is a purpose in life (God made us for life with him); or (B) that there is not. Man cannot refuse to wager for by doing so he implies that there is no purpose in life.

Under one guise or another, human selfishness is always urging man to stake everything on "B." Pascal tries to show that it is far more reasonable--even from the viewpoint of self-interest--to stake all on "A." If you bet everything on "B" and "A" is the truth, you lose an eternal good. But if you stake all on "A" and "B" is the truth, you lose only a few temporal pleasures.

Pascal describes the thoughts of the typical man in these words: "I know not whence I came or whither I go. I only know that on quitting this world, I shall fall forever either into nothingness or into the hands of an angry God [Heb. 10:31] . . . And yet I conclude that I should pass all the days of my life without bothering to inquire into what must happen to me. Perhaps I might find some solution to my doubts, but I do not want to take the trouble . . . I intend to go forward without looking ahead and without fear toward this great event, facing death carelessly, still uncertain as to the eternity of my future state [Pensees III, 194]. . . . In other words, Pascal thinks it is not merely a moral tragedy but an intellectual blunder to wager on "B," that is, to refuse to recognize a purpose in life. He feels sure the typical man would soon have faith if he renounces pleasure. At least he should search for the truth. "According to the doctrines of chance, you should search earnestly for the truth, for if you die without worshipping the True Cause, you are lost. 'But,' you say, 'if God had wished me to worship him, he would have left me signs of his will.' Indeed, God has done so [Rom. 1:18-21; 2:14-16]; but you ignore them."

Where can I get solid Catholic apologetics materials in Spanish?

Contact the Spanish language Catholic bookstore Libreria San Pablo at 3852 E. First St., Los Angeles, CA 90063, (213) 268-5010. Libreria San Pablo also carries audio tapes and videos, as well as an extensive selection of excellent Spanish books and pamphlets which contain biblical refutations of the errors of Mormonism, Fundamentalism, and Evangelicalism, the Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, and other sects. Titles we recommend are

The New Testament mentions three categories of Church leaders: bishops, presbyters, and deacons. So how can the Catholic Church justify its office of "priest"? The New Testament writers seem to understand "bishop" and "presbyter" to be synonymous terms for the same office (Acts 20:17-38).

The English word "priest" is derived from the Greek word presbuteros, which is commonly rendered into Bible English as "elder" or "presbyter." The ministry of Catholic priests is that of the presbyters mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 15:6, 23). The Bible says little about the duties of presbyters, but it does reveal they functioned in a priestly capacity.

They were ordained by the laying on of hands (1 Tim. 4:14, 5:22), they preached and taught the flock (1 Tim. 5:17), and they administered the sacraments (Jas. 5:13-15). These are the essential functions of the priestly office, so wherever the various forms of presbuteros appear--except, of course, in instances which pertain to the Jewish elders (Matt. 21:23, Acts 4:23)--the word may rightly be translated as "priest" instead of "elder" or "presbyter."

Episcopos arises from two words, epi (over) and skopeo (to see), and it means literally "an overseer"--we translate it "bishop." The King James Version renders the office of overseer, episkopen, as "bishopric" (Acts 1:20). The role of the episkopos is not clearly defined in the New Testament, but by the beginning of the second century it had obtained a fixed meaning. There is early evidence of this refinement in ecclesiastical nomenclature in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (d. A.D. 107), who wrote at length of the authority of bishops as distinct from presbyters and deacons (Epistle to the Magnesians 6:1, 13:1-2; Epistle to the Trallians 2:1-3; Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8:1-2).

The New Testament tendency to use episcopos and presbuteros interchangeably is similar to the contemporary Protestant use of the term "minister" to denote various offices, both ordained and unordained (senior minister, music minister, youth minister). Similarly, the term diakonos is rendered both as "deacon" and as "minister" in the Bible, yet in Protestant churches the office of deacon is clearly distinguished from and subordinate to the office of minister.

In Acts 20_17-38 the same men are called presbyteroi (v. 17) and episcopoi (v. 28). Presbuteroi is used in a technical sense to identify their office of ordained leadership. Episcopoi is used in a non-technical sense to describe the type of ministry they exercised. This is how the Revised Standard Version renders the verses: "And from Miletus he [Paul] . . . called for the elders [presbuteroi] of the church. And when they came to him, he said to them . . . 'Take heed to yourselves and all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you guardians [episcopoi], to feed the church of the Lord.'"

In other passages it's clear that although men called presbuteroi ruled over individual congregations (parishes), the apostles ordained certain men, giving them authority over multiple congregations (dioceses), each with its own presbyters. These were endowed with the power to ordain additional presbyters as need to shepherd the flock and carry on the work of the gospel. Titus and Timothy were two of those early episcopoi and clearly were above the office of presbuteros. They had the authority to select, ordain, and govern other presbyters, as is evidenced by Paul's instructions: "This is why I left you in Crete . . . that you might appoint elders in every town as I directed you" (Titus 1:5; cf. 1 Tim. 5:17-22).

In your three-tape set, "I Escaped from the Watchtower," the former Jehovah's Witness being interviewed recommended a book entitled The Finished Mystery. What is the book about, who wrote it, and why is it important?

Leonard Chretien, an ex-witness who spent 22 years as as official in the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (the Jehovah's Witnesses), recommended The Finished Mystery because it is an example of the bizarre metamorphosis of Watchtower theology over the last hundred years and is useful in showing Witnesses the problems and contradictions in their religion.

The Finished Mystery was the seventh and final volume in Studies in the Scriptures, a series of books written by the sect's founder, Charles Taze Russell. It is a hodgepodge of false prophecies, rambling discourses on the interpretation of Scripture, and the obligatory rantings against the Catholic Church. The Finished Mystery was printed posthumously in 1917 and was touted as an unanswerable critique of "Christendom."

As the years passed, and as elements of its theology changed, the Watchtower trumpeted a series of bogus prophecies concerning the date of Christ's return. To its embarrassment, the Watchtower was unable to reconcile either its new theology or its more recent spate of failed prophecies with Russell's book. In an understandable act of damage control, the Jehovah's Witness leadership withdrew from circulation all volumes of Studies in the Scriptures.

Most Witnesses are unaware of the existence of Russell's books, and for obvious reasons the Watchtower is careful not to allow the rank and file access to them. But you can get a photographically reproduced copy of the book from Witness Inc., an Evangelical apologetics group that focuses on refuting the errors of the Watchtower (P.O. Box 597, Clayton, CA 94517, [415] 584-3838).

As with all Evangelical apologetics organizations, however competent they may be in their particular field, there is always the problem of faulty Protestant theology being offered as the "solution" to the errors of the "cults." You need to read around this Protestant bias. The organization's research is still helpful because of their expertise in documenting the errors and contradictions in Watchtower publications such as Awake! and the Watchtower, as well as in many out-of-print works.

How can you say that Peter had authority over other Church leaders when he referred to himself as only their "fellow elder" (1 Pet. 5:1). This proves Peter did not see himself as having any "primacy" in the Church. He was just a presbyter.

No, it doesn't. To assert that Peter had no primacy is to ignore the clear passages to the contrary, such as Matthew 16:18-19, Luke 22:33, John 21:15-17, and Galatians 1:18. The answer to your question is found within the very context you cite. Peter says, "Clothe yourselves in humility in your dealings with one another, for God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble. So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time" (1 Pet. 5:5).

By humbly calling himself a "fellow elder" Peter was not implying he was merely equal in authority to the presbyters of the Church; rather, he was practicing something he enjoined on others. This self-effacement is the virtue of humility which Jesus calls all Christians to cultivate: "Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant, whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave" (Matt. 20:26-27).

Peter elsewhere reminds his readers that he is an "apostle of Jesus Christ" and as such had authority to preach and teach in the name of the Lord (cf. Luke 10:16). The very facts that Peter sent his epistles to instruct and guide the Church, and that the Church revered them as inspired, inerrant Scripture is sufficient testimony that Peter possessed an authority above that of a presbyter.

The sort of humility in dealing with the Church is evident throughout the apostolic writings. The lowest level of priestly minister was the deacon. The apostles ordained men to this office originally to distribute food to the needy and to wait on tables (Acts 6:1-6). Yet Paul, the great and eloquent writer of about half of the New Testament, describes himself as a mere deacon on several occasions (1 Cor. 3:5, 4:1; 2 Cor. 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23, 25).

If you're going to be consistent in claiming that Peter had no special authority above that of a presbyter, you'll be forced to conclude that Paul was only a deacon and therefore had no authority over bishops, priests, or other deacons. But nobody would make such a patently unbiblical assertion.

Paul, like Peter, presents himself in a humble, unassuming way--"I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God" (1 Cor. 15:10), "To me the very least of all the holy ones, this grace was given" (Eph. 3:8)--but such humility does not indicate that Paul did not have jurisdiction over others. After all, he said rather pointedly, "Although I have the full right in Christ to order you to do what is proper, I rather urge you out of love" (Phi. 8-9). Only people in authority can issue orders.

If the Holy Spirit inspired the whole Bible, why don't the books all possess the same style of writing? If God never changes, why would his writing styles change so radically? Doesn't this prove the Holy Spirit wasn't the "principle author" of each book in Scripture?

No, it proves that the Holy Spirit, although the principle author of each book in Scripture, worked through human authors, preserving and making use of each one's particular style of writing. Catholic theologians and Scripture scholars in the early Church used a particularly apt musical analogy. They explained that, when a piece of music is played on various instruments, it will obtain a different sound and aural texture from each one, yet each rendition will be the same melody coming from the hand of the same composer.

The Star Spangled Banner, when played on a harmonica, piano, clarinet, guitar, tuba, or a kazoo, will sound markedly distinct on each different instrument, yet it's the same song being played in each rendition.

The same is true for the books of the Bible. The Holy Spirit, like a composer, selected different men to be the inspired "instruments" through which the melody of Scripture would be "played." That's why the style and elegance of the Greek composition of Luke's Gospel contrasts with the terse style found in Mark's Gospel, and the Old Testament books differ widely in their choice of vocabulary and literary style.

In each case the Holy Spirit inspired the biblical writer to write what he wanted written, all the while preserving, in an admittedly mysterious way, their free will and personal style of expression. To learn more, read the encyclicals Providentissimus Deus (Leo XIII, 1893), Spiritus Paracletus (Benedict XV, 1920), Divino Afflante Spiritu (Pius XII, 1943), and Humani Generis (Pius XII, 1950), and don't omit Vatican II's Dei Verbum.

Did Aquinas say a baby has no soul until forty days (for a boy) or eighty days (for a girl) after conception, so abortion is okay before those times?

This is only half true. Aquinas did say an unborn baby receives a soul forty or eighty days after conception, depending on gender. But he also said abortion is a violation of natural law and is always wrong, no matter when a soul may be infused into the developing child's body.

The forty/eighty-day view is based on the writings of Aristotle, who said a child becomes human at "formation," the point at which it first "has a human form"--that is, when it looks human. He said this was forty days for boys and eighty days for girls. Probably this distinction was based on the point at which genitals could be observed on miscarried children. Keep in mind that fetal embryology was then a restricted science; all observations could be made only by the naked eye, the microscope being in the distant future.

Aquinas accepted the idea of formation, which he said occurs when a child receives a soul. But since abortion violates natural law whether or not the child has a soul, Aquinas taught that abortion is always gravely wrong.

Today we have better scientific tools than did Aristotle or Aquinas. We know unborn males and females look human at the same time, and we know they are human long before they look human. Modern science verifies that the unborn have a human genetic code from conception, and this is when their humanity begins.

The ancients did not know about the genetic code, of course--we had to wait for Gregor Mendel, a nineteenth century monk for that--and relied on outward appearances to identify species and gender. Appearance was the best test available to them, but it was hardly reliable.

Aquinas overlooked the fact that the biblical view of the soul cannot be squared with Aristotle's. In Psalm 51:5 David says he was a sinner from conception, but sinfulness is a spiritual quality, so David must have had a spirit, a soul, from conception.

Is it true that the new universal catechism of the Catholic Church is intended only for clergy and that lay people should not bother to read it because it's too technical? That's what our associate pastor said from the pulpit last Sunday. He made it clear he felt lay people should ignore it and let the experts decide if it's worthwhile or not.

Your priest is misinformed. The Church's new catechism can and should be read by all Catholics (some might say especially by associate pastors). The language is not at all technical and is within the grasp of the average adult Catholic.

The catechism is laid out in an orderly, systematic style with copious citations to Scripture, to the Fathers of the Church, and to the ecumenical councils. Of particular help are the summary statements at the end of each section. The Church desires that all Catholics--especially lay Catholics--study the new catechism as a means of growing in knowledge of the faith.

Many Catholics are confused about what the Church really teaches because they have received conflicting messages from priests, nuns, and others. Perhaps one reason some are opposed to the promulgation of this catechism is that they'll no longer be able to say the Church has "changed its teachings" on issues such as purgatory or Marian doctrines, or that there is no official teaching on issues such as contraception and homosexuality. When the English edition is available, buy two copies: one for yourself and one as a gift for your associate pastor.

What are the Nag Hammadi writings, and do they reveal anything we don't already know about Christ or the Bible?

Discovered in 1945 near the village of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, they are fourth-century papyrus manuscripts that formed part of a gnostic library. The writings are a valuable source of information about gnostic beliefs and practices. From them we can see more clearly the arguments and the theology the gnostics used in their attacks on the Catholic Church.

Although some writings are fragmentary, enough are still intact that a fairly clear picture of gnosticism emerges in the pseudo-gospels and epistles. Included in the Nag Hammadi collection are such spurious works as the Apocryphon of John, the Gospel of Phillip, the Apocalypse of Paul, and the Gospel of Mary.

Scholars were delighted to discover several works whose existence was known in the early centuries of the Church but which were presumed lost. Perhaps the best treatment in English of these writings is The Nag Hammadi Library (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988).

Many Catholic theologians of the first several centuries devoted themselves to refuting the gnostic arguments, in particular, Irenaeus of Lyons (140-202), who wrote a devastating critique of gnosticism in his masterful five-volume work, Detection and Overthrow of the Gnosis Falsely So-Called, more commonly known as Against Heresies.

What is gnosticism?

Gnosticism, which gets its name from the Greek word gnosis ("knowledge") was a religious movement beginning, possibly, before the time of Christ and extending into the first few centuries of the Christian era. Gnostics viewed themselves as "those who know." Their heretical teachings varied from group to group and can't be pinned down with specificity, but common gnostic beliefs included these:

Gnosticism was similar in some ways to the modern New Age movement. Like New Agers, gnostics used Christian terminology and symbols, but placed them in an alien religious context that gutted the essential teachings of Christ. It's unclear when gnosticism began. Many Church Fathers thought gnosticism was founded my Simon Magus, the Samaritan sorcerer who converted to Christianity (Acts 8:9-24). Some contemporary scholars think gnosticism started a few centuries before Christianity and then invaded it from the outside through the conversion to Christianity of Jewish and Gentile gnostics. Other scholars believe gnosticism started as a Christian heresy.

It seems clear, though, that the apostles themselves had to contend with a form of gnosticism (Col. 2:8, 18, 1 John 4:1-3, Rev. 2:6, 15). Paul said, "Avoid profane babbling and the absurdities of so-called knowledge [gnosis]. By professing it some people have deviated from the faith" (1 Tim. 6:20-21).

How should I respond to an atheist who denies creation, claims there has been an infinite number of universes before this one, and believes that the universe was made not by God but through the "big bang," part of the universe's endless cycle of expansion and contraction?

There are several points you could make. First note that in order for the universe to fall back in on itself there would have to be enough mass for gravity to overcome the outward force of the expansion. But according to the best estimates scientists have, there isn't enough matter to cause such a contraction. Consequently, if the universe cannot contract, there could have been no previous big bangs and no endless cycles. At most you could posit one big bang.

There is nothing that would cause the universe to expand again after it had collapsed. If such a collapse occurred--a big crunch, so to speak--the universe would remain in an unimaginably compressed state, never capable of expanding again. The tremendous gravity exerted by such a great mass would prevent any expansion. Black holes, which are most probably collapsed stars, are an example of this phenomenon on a much smaller scale. A black hole's gravitational pull is so strong not even light is able to escape from it.

If all the matter in the universe were compressed into a single black hole or something like a black hole, the gravitational forces would be incalculable, and it is hard to imagine anything that could overcome them. If they couldn't be overcome, nothing could escape in the form of another big bang.

Even if there were a mechanism to re-expand the universe, each cycle of expansion and contraction would lose energy because of entropy, the tendency of matter to run down, much as a spring-driven clock runs down. The extent of the universe's expansion would diminish with each cycle--consider how swings of a pendulum slowly diminish--and eventually the universe would cease expanding entirely, its mass remaining collapsed. There could never be an infinite number of successive expansions and contractions.

Keep in mind that the idea that the universe came into existence as a result of a cataclysmic explosion of highly compressed matter is not inconsistent with the Catholic teaching that God created the universe. A big bang could have been part of his method of creation.

But an atheist has a problem here. If there really was a big bang, and if there could not have been an infinite series of big bangs before the present one, then there are only two possibilities: Either God created matter out of nothing and (arguably) set things going through a big bang--this alternative destroys atheism--or matter existed for an infinite amount of time in a primordial black hole state. But if it existed that way for an infinite amount of time, it never could have exploded in the big bang.

If an infinite amount of time passed without a big bang, then every combination of protoplasmic matter and energy would have existed at one time or another within that black hole, without any one combination leading to the big bang. All the combinations would have been tried, and none of them would have produced the explosion. (Remember, this presumes and infinite amount of time.) If none of the combinations could have produced a big bang, and if a big bang occurred anyway, it could have arisen only from outside intervention, not from anything inside the black hole.

Since the whole of the universe--all matter and energy, even space itself--was compressed into the black hole, "outside" must imply a non-natural force, a force above nature, and that is the definition of supernatural. No matter which alternative an atheist takes, he ends up with God.

What is a miracle? Is it a violation of a law of nature? Didn't people in the past believe in miracles only because they didn't know much about science?

A miracle may by defined as an event that occurs in nature but that has a cause lying outside nature, that is, a supernatural cause. Miracles are not violations of the laws of nature. The way we know if an event is a miracle is by seeing if it could have been caused by natural forces.

For example, when Jesus changed water to wine (John 2:1-11), it would have been impossible for random movements or any other natural stimuli to have effected this transubstantiation. If the water could not have turned into wine by natural means, the change must have had a supernatural cause. Since we know nature could not effect this change, we infer that a miracle took place. In fact, it is precisely because of our knowledge of science that we can identify miracles when they occur.

As C.S. Lewis pointed out, the Virgin Birth is only perceivable as a miracle if one first knows the laws of nature that virgins don't normally give birth. Joseph understood this law of nature. When he discovered Mary was pregnant, he initially suspected her of unfaithfulness (Matt. 1:19). It took a visit from and angel of the Lord to convince him of the miraculous nature of Mary's pregnancy.

To learn more about how eminently scientific it is to believe in miracles, get hold of these books: Miracles, by C.S. Lewis, Miracles: A Catholic View, by Ralph McInerny, Scaling the Secular City, by J.P. Moreland, and That You May Believe and Miracles and the Critical Mind, both by Colin Brown. Highly recommended are the now out-of-print works of Catholic apologist Arnold Lunn, Revolt Against Reason and And Yet So New.

What is the Catholic Church's official position on Freemasonry? Are Catholics free to become Freemasons?

Freemasonry is incompatible with the Catholic faith. Freemasonry teaches a naturalistic religion that espouses indifferentism, the position that a person can be equally pleasing to God while remaining in any religion.

Masonry is a parallel religion to Christianity. The New Catholic Encyclopedia states, "Freemasonry displays all the elements of religion, and as such it becomes a rival to the religion of the Gospel. It includes temples and altars, prayers, a moral code, worship, vestments, feast days, the promise of reward and punishment in the afterlife, a hierarchy, and initiative and burial rites" (vol. 6, p. 137).

Masonry is also a secret society. Its initiates subscribe to secret blood oaths that are contrary to Christian morals. The prospective Mason swears that if he ever reveals the secrets of Masonry--secrets which are trivial and already well-known--he wills to be subject to self-mutilation or to gruesome execution. (Most Masons, admittedly, never would dream of carrying out these punishments on themselves or on an errant member).

Historically, one of Masonry's primary objectives has been the destruction of the Catholic Church; this is especially true of Freemasonry as it has existed in certain European countries. In the United States, Freemasonry is often little more than a social club, but it still espouses a naturalistic religion that contradicts orthodox Christianity. (Those interested in joining a men's club should consider the Knights of Columbus instead.)

The Church has imposed the penalty of excommunication on Catholics who become Freemasons. The penalty of excommunication for joining the Masonic Lodge was explicit in the 1917 code of canon law (canon 2335), and it is implicit in the 1983 code (canon 1374).

Because the revised code of canon law is not explicit on this point, some drew the mistaken conclusion that the Church's prohibition of Freemasonry had been dropped. As a result of this confusion, shortly before the 1983 code was promulgated, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement indicating that the penalty was still in force. This statement was dated November 26, 1983 and may be found in Origins 13/27 (Nov. 15, 1983), 450.

My priest, who is normally orthodox, recently returned from Ireland and was excited about using something called a divining rod. He had two sticks, one in each hand, and when he would pray they would twist in his hands and cross over each other. Does the Church permit this?

No. This practice is known as dowsing, water-witching, and using a divining rod. It is commonly used to find water, gold, oil, or lost objects. There are three principal ways in which it is done. One way involves using a forked stick which is grasped by the two forks, usually with the hands facing inward and downward. Another way is by using two separate sticks or rods (sometimes made out of coat-hangars). A third way is by using a pendulum.

Dowsing is a form of divination, as is obvious from the fact one is using a divining rod. Since divination is an occult practice forbidden by the Church, extreme caution must be used when dealing with any practice that resembles it.

The idea of saying a prayer over the divining rods before or while they are being used might or might not render the practice innocuous, depending on what else was being done, such as whether one was trying to gain information by using the divining rods. If one is trying to get supernatural information by the use of the rods, then it is definitely an occult practice that is forbidden by the Church.

Even if one is not using the rods to conduct divination, the practice of associating them with anything supernatural (such as prayers to God) makes the practice too similar to divination to be safely presented to the faithful. It has the appearance of superstition and of the superstitious use of occult practices (much as the religion of Santeria takes African god-spirits and gives them the names of Christian saints, overlaying a pagan practice with a Christian veneer). Dowsing therefore should not be taught to the faithful.

Do we become angels when we die, as some popular songs suggest?

No. Angels are a completely separate order of beings from men. Angels are pure spirits whose natural state is to be disembodied. Men are only partially spiritual beings whose natural state is to be embodied (Gen. 2:7).

These natural states correspond to the final destiny of the beings in question. Since angels are by nature disembodied (Summa Theologiae, I:50:1, 51:1), they will remain disembodied throughout eternity. Men are naturally embodied, so even though they are temporarily separated from their bodies by death, they will eventually be re-embodied and spend eternity in a physical state (Job 19:25-26, 1 Cor. 15:53; cf. ST III sup.:75:1, 3). This is what we mean when we confess that "we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come" (Nicene Creed).

The connection between a man and his body is so strong that while dead he is not fully a human being, only a disembodied soul, as Thomas Aquinas taught (ST I:75:4). The soul is so closely united to the body that it is the essential form of the body (this is a defined Catholic doctrine; see Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 97). As a result, the body begins to break down when the soul departs; it has lost the essential form that holds it together and keeps it alive (Jas. 2:26).

The notion that a man is a soul contained in a body is a false idea that comes from Plato, who viewed the body as the prison of the soul. We occasionally speak of the body in this way (2 Cor. 5:1-4), but this language is not to be pressed. The twentieth-century philosopher Gilbert Ryle was wrong when he said Christians view man as "a ghost in a machine." It would have been more accurate to say man is a ghost and a machine.

This makes it clear that expressions of pop culture that imply men can become angels, such as the songs "Johnny Angel" and "Teen Angel" or the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," are misleading on this point, whatever their other merits may be.

This has been bothering me for ages. Who was Felix Culpa?

Let's see. He was Jack Klugman's roommate in the Italian version of The Odd Couple, right? No?

Now we've got it: If we remember our Latin rightly, culpa is "the cat," so Felix Culpa is the cartoon character Felix the Cat. Still no? Okay, here is the truth: Felix is Latin for "happy" (so the Roman governor to whom Paul spoke in Acts 24 was known as "Governor Happy"), and culpa is Latin for "fault" (so the apology "mea culpa" means "my fault"). The phrase felix culpa literally means "happy fault."

This term is used in theology to refer to the sin of Adam. By eating the forbidden fruit, Adam committed a grave sin (fault), but this fault had a happy side-effect since it set the stage for the redemption of man, the most important event in history. Because of this unexpected consequence of the Fall, people sometimes speak of Adam's sin as a felix culpa.

When a Catholic and a non-Catholic get married, does the non-Catholic have to promise to raise the children of the marriage in the Catholic faith?

No. This used to be the case, but the current Code of Canon Law (1983) does not require the non-Catholic to make this promise. The Code does state that "the Catholic party . . . [must] promise to do all in his or her power to have all the children baptized and brought up in the Catholic Church" (c. 1125), but the non-Catholic party does not have to promise to have the children raised Catholic.

This rule attempts to do justice to the consciences of both the Catholic and the non-Catholic. The non-Catholic party is not asked to violate his conscience if it requires hime to refuse to promise to raise the children Catholic, and the Catholic party is asked to live out the belief that Catholicism is true by doing all that is possible to have the children raised in the truth. The final decision about how the children will be raised is to be a joint decision made by both parents. Canon law requires that all of this be understood by both parties before the marriage is contracted.

How can Catholics say that Christ does not die again on the altar when the Council of Trent states that he is immolated in the Mass?

Simple. "Immolate" does not mean "kill." It is a synonym for "sacrifice," a concept which does not require the sacrificial gift to be killed (Num. 8:11-21, Rom. 12:1).

According to its root-words, "to immolate" means to sprinkle with sacrificial grits or meal. In ancient times the sacrificial gift was sprinkled with this meal as part of the ritual. Eventually the word "immolate," which originally referred to only part of the ceremony, was extended to cover the whole act of sacrifice, and so it became detached from its original meaning of "to sprinkle with meal" and became a synonym for sacrifice.

Because sacrifices often involve killing, the term immolate can have this association, but that is not the way in which the Church is using it. This is obvious from the language Trent uses, that in the Mass "Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner" (session 22, ch. 2)--an unbloody manner being one that does not involve killing.

I converse with Protestants who say the power to forgive sins has been given to all Christians. Why do Catholics say it has been given only to priests?

Because Christ was talking only to the apostles when he gave the power to forgive sins (John 20:21-23). Only a small number of disciples were present, for they were in an enclosed room (20:19). In fact, one disciple, Thomas, was not even there and had to have a special encounter with Jesus (20:24ff). This shows it was not all the disciples generally who received the power to absolve, but only the core group of the disciples--the apostles.

Confirmation for the fact that only clergy can absolve is found in James 5:14-15, where the sacrament of holy anointing is discussed: "Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters [priests] of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil . . . and if he was committed sins, he will be forgiven."

In the sacrament of anointing we see forgiveness tied to the clergy, therefore how much more will it be when we are dealing with the sacrament of confession itself.

Could you explain the criteria used in naming a church a basilica? A church in my area may be designated a basilica soon, and some of my non-Catholic friends have been asking about this subject. I need an answer.

The term "basilica" originally was used for a building with a certain type of architecture, but it has become an honorific title acknowledging a special status among churches.

Basilicas are ranked above all churches except cathedrals, and they are divided into two classes: major and minor. Major basilicas have greater prestige, plus privileges that minor basilicas generally don't share, such as having certain indulgences associated with them.

In the past, some churches became basilicas through the popular custom of referring to them as such, but in the sixteenth century it was stipulated that no new basilicas could be made without papal approval. Typically, minor basilicas are made from churches that have some special historical significance.

For example, here in San Diego we have the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala, which was the first church in California. It was founded in 1769 by Blessed Junipero Serra and was constructed near the site of California's first Mass.

One distinctive feature of minor basilicas is a sanctuary fixture known as a pavilion (or conopoeum), a tall, cone-shaped canopy that is composed of alternate band of red and yellow silk (colors of the papal government). This canopy has a circular wooden frame at its base and is capped with a copper cross. The original function of the pavilion was to shelter the patriarch.

What is semi-Pelagianism? Recently a Protestant apologist said that the Catholic position on grace is a textbook case of semi-Pelagianism. And is there something called just plain Pelagianism?

The apologist does not know what he is talking about. Some conservative Protestants accuse Catholics of semi-Pelagianism, but most don't know what the term means. (Ask them to define it the next time you hear them make this accusation.)

Semi-Pelagianism was a theological movement common in France in the fifth and early sixth centuries. It was an attempted compromise between Augustine's teachings on grace and those of the heretical monk Pelagius.

Pelagius said the human will freely commits good or evil and that grace is needed only to help the will do what it already can do on its own. He said that we do not inherit original sin, physical death, or spiritual death from Adam. We learn to sin only by following the bad example of our parents and others.

Finally, Pelagius said that Christ does not bring us new life; he merely helps us by the good example he set for us on the cross, and by following his example we gain grace and are saved.

Semi-Pelagianism was nowhere near this extreme, but it still denied important points of the faith. Its basic claims were: (1) the beginning of faith (though not faith itself or its increase) could be accomplished by the human will alone, unaided by grace; (2) in a loose sense, the sanctifying grace man receives from God can be merited by natural human effort, unaided by actual grace; (3) once a man has been justified, he does not need additional grace from God in order to persevere until the end of life.

All of these propositions, together with those of full-blown Pelagianism, were condemned in 529 at the second Council of Orange (can. 5, 10, and 18) and again in 1546 by the Council of Trent (Decree on Justification, chs. 5, 6, 8, and 13). It is thus impossible to say that Catholic views on grace and free will are semi-Pelagian, for the Church explicitly condemns the errors of the semi-Pelagians.

Some people in the Church of Christ movement argue that theirs must be the true church, the one established by Jesus, since it has a biblical name (Rom. 16:16 refers to "the churches of Christ"). They note that when a husband takes a bride, she acquires his surname. Since the Church is called, especially by Catholics, the bride of Christ, they argue that the true Church's name will be the Church of Christ.

There are two arguments here. One is biblical and one is cultural.

The biblical argument is easily dismissed. Romans 16:16 is the only verse that refers to the "churches of Christ." In this verse the phrase is not used as a title, but as a geographical reference to the local congregations of the one true Church established by Christ. It is not to be taken as meaning that Christ established several different churches.

So far as the cultural argument goes, while wives may take their husbands' names, they usually do not take their titles. "Christ" is a title, not a name. If the Church were to be named after Christ, it would be the "Church of Jesus" (a phrase which does not appear in Scripture). To be really accurate it would use the Aramaic form of his name and be called the "Church of Yeshua." To our knowledge there is currently no denomination calling itself this, but, given the sorry history of Christian schisms, there may be one before long.

The "churches of Christ" argument seems to be the chief one used by members of that denomination. Be on the lookout for it. You may not find it convincing, but thousands have.

A fellow religion teacher insists that the Catholic Church accepts other theologies of the Eucharist besides transubstantiation. She says that Pope Paul VI had said this in his encyclical Mysterium Fidei. Is this so?

It depends on what you mean. The Church does permit a variety of explanations of the transformation of the elements, so long as these explanations do not contradict transubstantiation. In the 1960s it became popular for some theologians to say that what happens to the bread and wine is a transfinalization or transignification.

Transfinalization would be a fundamental change of the entity's purpose (e.g., physical nourishment made into spiritual nourishment). Transignification would be a fundamental change in what the entity signifies (e.g., from signifying food into signifying Christ).

In Mysterium Fidei Pope Paul VI stated that it is permissible to say these things happen on the altar--so long as one says transubstantiation also occurs. In fact, the pope stated that transfinalization and transignification occur precisely because of transubstantiation.

He said: "As a result of transubstantiation, the species of bread and wine undoubtedly take on a new signification and a new finality, for they are no longer ordinary bread and wine but instead a sign of something sacred and a sign of spiritual food; but they take on this new signification, this new finality, precisely because they contain a new 'reality'...For what now lies beneath the aforementioned species [that is, what is now the new substance of the elements] is not what was there before, but something completely different...the body and blood of Christ" (Mysterium Fidei 46 [1965]).

There is also room for different explanations of how transubstantiation occurs. So long as one says that the whole substance of the unconsecrated elements is changed into the whole substance of Christ--body, blood, soul, divinity--with only the appearances of bread and wine remaining, flexibility of explanation is permitted.

I know that God is the most perfect being possible, yet he does not have the ability to make a being equal to himself. Wouldn't he be even more perfect if he had the ability to copy himself?

No. If God had the ability to make a being equal to himself then he would actually be less than perfect. God is all-perfect ("omniperfect") and so has all possible perfections. One is the kind of existence he has.

Theologians and philosophers distinguish between two kinds of existence: necessary and contingent. Something which necessarily exists is something that could not fail to exist. Something which exists contingently is something that depends on something else for its existence. All created beings are contingent since they depend on their Creator to bring them into existence. (This is true even if they are outside of time.) Since God has the most perfect form of existence as a consequence of his omniperfection, God is a necessary rather than a contingent being.

Suppose God did create a being equal to himself. This duplicate or clone, to whom God would be equal in every way, must be contingent, since created. But this would mean that God himself would have only contingent existence (if the clone were a true clone) and would lack the perfection of necessary existence. Thus God would be less than perfect if he had the ability to copy himself. For him such an ability would be a weakness, not a strength.

A couple I know wants to have their marriage ended by the Church, and a priest told me that they should ask about the Pauline Privilege. What is that, and how does it differ from an annulment?

A Pauline Privilege is the dissolution of a purely natural marriage which had been contracted between two non-Christians, one of whom has since become a Christian. The Pauline Privilege is so-named because it is based upon the apostle Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16.

In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul gives instructions concerning problem marriages. In verses 10-11 he discusses sacramental marriages (marriages between two baptized people) and indicates that they are indissoluble. It is possible for a husband and wife in a sacramental marriage to separate, but they cannot remarry. They must remain separated and not attempt to marry again, or they must reconcile with one another.

In verses 12-16 Paul gives instructions concerning the thornier case of a couple who have only a natural marriage. A sacramental marriage, one that communicates supernatural grace, requires that both partners be baptized. If neither is or only one is, their union is only a natural one. Sometimes one party to a natural marriage converts and becomes a Christian, which can cause the marital problems that Christians are expected to face (Luke 12:51-53, 18:29-30).

While natural marriages should be preserved if at all possible (1 Cor. 7:12-14, 16), they can be dissolved in some cases. Paul tells us in verse 15 that if the unbelieving spouse refuses to live with the Christian partner, the unbeliever can be allowed to withdraw from the marriage, leaving the Christian partner unbound, free to remarry. The Pauline Privilege thus may apply when the Church dissolves a natural marriage after one partner has become Christian and there is a just cause, such as the non-Catholic's refusal to live at peace with the Christian partner.

The Pauline Privilege differs from an annulment because it dissolves a real but natural marriage. An annulment is a declaration that there never was a valid marriage to begin with.

The Pauline Privilege does not apply when two baptized people marry and later one quits being Christian. These people had a sacramental marriage forged between them, and this marriage is indissoluble, even if one partner is failing to fulfill his marital responsibilities. In that case 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, which concerns such problem marriages, applies.

The Pauline Privilege also does not apply when a Christian has married a non-Christian. In those cases, a natural marriage exists and can be dissolved for a just cause, but by what is called the Petrine Privilege rather than by the Pauline Privilege. The Petrine Privilege is so-named because it is reserved to the Holy See, so only Rome can grant the Petrine Privilege (which it seldom does).

A biblical precedent for the Petrine Privilege, where some of the faithful marry unbelievers and then are permitted to divorce them, is found in Ezra 10:1-14, where the Jews put away their foreign (pagan) wives.

Doesn't the fact that religions contradict each other imply that they are all wrong and that we should listen to none of them?

Not at all. It merely proves that one of the claims of Christianity is true: The world is a messed-up place.

This is a more important insight than it may appear at first glance. The fact there are so many competing, contradictory religions is tragic. It means that a great many people are believing falsehoods. But this very thing gives us a clue about which religion is true: If the world is so topsy-turvy that most people are in false religions, then the true religion will recognize this. Any faith that says the world is not mired in religious confusion can be eliminated from consideration; it fails to give us a clear account of a basic and evident fact.

Since there are so many religions in the world, the odds of picking one at random and being right are very low. Shouldn't I then refrain from picking any of them and just be an agnostic?

No. There are three problems with your argument. First, it commits a logical fallacy. This fallacy can be seen in a well-known puzzle in philosophy called the lottery paradox. Suppose there is a lottery where the winner is drawn from a pool of a hundred tickets. If you took the first ticket and assessed the odds it would be the winner, they would be very low: one in one hundred. It probably would not be picked. But the same can be said about the second ticket, and the third, and all of the remaining tickets. Taken individually, the odds are against any given ticket being drawn. But it is a logical fallacy to conclude from this that no ticket will be drawn. Someone has to have the winning ticket. The same logic applies to the consideration of religions: Even if the odds are low that any given religion, picked at random, is true, this does not mean that no religion is true.

Second, by refusing to pick one of the established religions you are still taking a religious stance: agnosticism. This is only one religious option among many, and the odds that it is the correct one are no better than the odds that any other religion, picked at random, is the correct one. In fact, the odds are lower. Agnosticism, the religion of no-religion, is the one option guaranteed not to give you the truth about the world. Even atheism has a greater chance of giving you the truth about the world than agnosticism, since the whole point of agnosticism lies in not deciding the question!

Third, who said we have to pick a religion at random? We have evidence we can look at, weigh up, and use as a basis for our decisions. We can look at the arguments for God's existence, the evidence that Christ rose from the dead, and the reasons why the New Testament is historically reliable.

As soon as we admit the first piece of evidence for consideration, we are no longer picking at random, and the odds for and against given religions change. They are no longer equally probable. Some are more probable, some less. Thus the odds of choosing the right one increase.

In one of your tapes on Mormonism you claim Mormons believe God "cursed" certain people by giving them dark skin. Can you give me the references?

The Book of Mormon says that the Lamanites and some Nephites (Jews who are alleged to have migrated fro Palestine to the New World around 600 B.C.) were punished by God for their wickedness. The "punishment," inflicted in the form of a curse, was to turn them from white-skinned Semites into dark-skinned Indians (cf. 1 Nephi 12:23; 2 Nephi 5:20-24; Jacob 3:3-5; Alma 3:5-9; Mormon 5:15-18). The Book of Mormon adds that those who receive the curse and later repent can have their skins turned white again (Jacob 3:8; 3 Nephi 2:14-15; Alma 23:18).

Why is Natural Family Planning accepted by the Church while contraception is condemned? They both do the same thing--prevent pregnancy.

Because you don't judge the morality of actions by their effects or consequences. You judge their morality by what they essentially are. Using contraceptives such as condoms or diaphragms may accomplish the same end result as NFP, but the ways they go about it are very different.

Humanae Vitae defines contraception as "every action which, in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible" (14). Such an action actively eliminates or witholds the procreative good of the marital act. This is sinful because "every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life" (11). Since one of the two ends of sexual intercourse is procreation (the other being unity of husband and wife, 12), engaging in sex while deliberately frustrating the procreative act is, as Pope John Paul II has repeatedly called it, "a lie in the language of the body."

If practicing contraception is to lie in the language of the body, to practice NFP is to take the Fifth. Natural Family Planning involves restricting sexual relations to infertile periods in the woman's cycle. Although intercourse during these times is less likely to produce a conception, a couple always remains open to the possibility, having taken no action to render it impossible; therein lies the difference (see Humanae Vitae 16). During fertile periods abstinence is practiced, a sacrifice which shows respect for God's gift of sex and its proper ends. Conversely, practicing contraception during these times displays a lack of respect for this gift and a focus instead on selfish pleasure.

One further difference needs to be pointed out. Contraception is often a practice of convenience, while NFP, to be licit, must be a practice of necessity, requiring "serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions" (16). Thus it is not, as some have accused, "contraception Catholic style."

I'd like to become an apologist, but don't know how to start. Where can I find a good school of apologetics?

You can't, because there isn't one yet. Even the better Catholic colleges offer few or no courses in apologetics per se, and we're not aware of a single seminary offering such a course to prospective priests. Although many dioceses have programs to train evangelizers, we have not yet heard of a program that outfits students with the knowledge and techniques need to handle, say, door-to-door missionaries.

In contrast, Fundamentalists have scores of "Bible colleges" designed in part to train proselytizers, Mormons have their Missionary Training Center, and Jehovah's Witnesses get regular training at Kingdom Halls. Evangelical parachurch organizations, such as Campus Crusade, train their evangelists well, and several "Bible Christian" groups hold joint seminars on converting Catholics.

All this means we're behind, but we intend to catch up. At Catholic Answers we have a long-range plan to establish a school of apologetics and evangelization. Please keep this plan in your prayers.

A priest told my girlfriend that it is okay for us to touch one another intimately before we are married. Is this correct?

No. Jesus stated in Matthew 5:28 that a person can commit sins of sexual impurity even in his thoughts. He stated, "But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." The same thing is true of fornication (premarital sex).

Looking at a woman to whom you are not married and indulging in lustful thoughts counts as committing fornication in your heart. If indulging yourself in mental lust for a woman to whom you are not married counts, how much more will intimate touching, in which you partially act out the sexual desire you have for another.

Though some preist may not like to say so, fornication is a grave (mortal) sin. The apostle Paul states, "Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness . . . and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Gal. 5:19-21). This is a severe teaching. It is one many unmarried people find hard to accept, but it is the clear teaching of Scripture, and we must hold to it.

Sometimes people rationalize extramarital sexual practices on the grounds that by committing a lesser sin one may avoid a greater one, such as fornication, but there are two problems with this.

First, as the Holy Father has made clear in his recent encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, one may never do something intrinsically wrong in order to avoid a problem. We cannot do evil that good may come of it.

Second, this strategy simply doesn't work. If you find it difficult to restrain yourself sexually, following that priest's advice will not make it easier to control yourself--quite the opposite.

I read in a priestly newsletter that deacons will ask Rome for permission to offer the sacrament of holy anointing. Since we were taught in seminary that this could only be offered by a priest, I wonder how this might be done. What's next? "Extraordinary ministers" of the sacrament of penance?

If some liberals who wish to dismantle the priesthood had their way, it would be. But the Church will not allow deacons to celebrate holy anointing, even though some have talked up this idea. The issue was already infallibly settled at the Council of Trent.

In its Canons on Extreme Unction the council dealt with the interpretation of James 5:14-15, which proclaims the institution of the sacrament and directs the faithful to seek it from the presbyters (the New Testament term for priests) of the Church:

If anyone says that the priests of the Church, whom blessed James exhorts to be brought to anoint the sick, are not the priests ordained by a bishop, but the elders by age in each community, and that for this reason a priest alone is not the proper minister of extreme unction, let him be anathema [excommunicated].
Whenever an ecumenical council issues an anathema (a solemn excommunication), it dogmatically defines the issue being discussed by definitively settling the controversy. Trent thus settled the question of whether non-priests could celebrate this sacrament by ruling that "a priest alone is . . . the proper minister of extreme unction"--the sacrament known today as holy anointing. This canon is cited and its teaching reinforced in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1516, cf. 1530).

The issue of who can celebrate the sacrament of penance is also definitively settled. In its Decree on the Sacrament of Penance (section 6), Trent stated, "With regard to the minister of this sacrament the holy synod declares false and entirely foreign to the truth of the gospel all doctrines which perniciously extend the ministry of the keys to any other men besides bishops and priests." It rendered the matter infallible in canon 10 of its Canons on Penance: "If anyone says . . . that priests are not the only ministers of absolution, but that [Mat. 18:18 and John 20:23] were spoken also to each and all of the faithful . . . let him be anathema."

All questions excerpted from This Rock magazine and reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1993 Catholic Answers.

Copyright © 2023 by New Advent LLC. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.