Apologize and Don't Be Sorry!

A site dedicated to thinking through the common objections to the Catholic Faith as well as questions of a general religious nature.

Location: Prague, Oklahoma, United States

Just your basic 21st century priest trying to bring the Gospel to everyone who will give it a fair hearing.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Embryonic Stem Cell Research

I am a high school student at Bishop McGuinness. Recently in one of my classes we got into a discussion on whether or not stem cell research is right or wrong. I know that the Church teaches that this is degrading to the dignity of the human person, but the counter argument is that the research, if allowed, could save lives. How do you counter that? Also, why is this an important issue when there is do much other disrespect given to life that already exists? Thank you for any help you can give
Sarah Rosencrans, Edmond

Thank you for your very interesting and relevant question. I will address your question in a later column because it is so much in the news and will continue to be. Please permit this short answer to suffice.

Question #1: "I know that the Church teaches that "stem cell research" is degrading to the dignity of the human person, but the counter argument is that the research, if allowed, could save lives. How do you counter that?"
Answer: Scientific research of any kind cannot use a person as a means to an end. For example, I cannot force someone to take an experimental medication without first advising them of all the known and suspected risks of such a procedure. In stem cell research, the central problem rests with embryonic stem cells being used. The embryo is a human person. Life begins at conception. This is not just the teaching of the Church but also the assessment of modern science. To obtain stem cells from an embryo means its destruction. The stem cells are what the embryo fashions its tissues, organs, and systems from. It would be no different if I walk up to you, and discovering that you and I share the same blood and tissue types, took your kidney because I might need it later or it might save my life. Using stem cells, with proper consent, from an adult is not a problem and the research seems to suggest that this works better in a therapeutic sense.
The logical flaw rests on the "ends justifying the means." When we will something, both end we are shooting for and the means we use to get there must be good (CCC #1789). As a good counter, try this. Remember the movie, Jurassic Park. The crazy old rich guy knew that using technology could recreate dinosaurs and make major bucks, etc. The mathematician guy (Jeff Goldblum) reminds him, "Just because you CAN do something, doesn't mean you SHOULD do something." Then the dinosaurs go on a rampage. Just because research using embryonic stem cells could result in something good doesn't necessarily mean that it is good to do this research.
Question #2: "Also, why is this an important issue when there is do much other disrespect given to life that already exists?"
Answer: Ever play with dominoes? I love watching those elaborate designs and shows. But which domino is most important? Granted that all of them are necessary to make the design take shape and the effect to go off, which one matters the most? The first one matters most. If the first one doesn't set anything off, then the rest is left in the lurch.
So with matters of life and respect for life in its most vulnerable state. Who is going to speak for an embryo if not his big brothers and sisters? If life is not respected when it is most vulnerable, I guarantee that life will not be respected in any other venue. One example. It is curious to me that the frequency of reported cases of domestic abuse has increased in proportion to the prevalence of abortion in our society. The argument isn't that these other attacks on the dignity of life aren't evil or aren't important. It is a matter that if life is not defended in the womb, it won't be defended anywhere.
Keep up the good work and the good thinking. Pray to God that He would show you your vocation.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

How To Interpret The Sacred Scriptures

Dear Father Shane,
I was recently in Arkansas visiting friends, and they posed a question which I could not answer. How do we (Catholics) know that Jesus was speaking literally about His Body and Blood in John 6 but not literally in the Scripture referring to plucking one’s eyes out or chopping off one’s hand (I’m did not look up the citation for this verse, but I figured you would know which one I am talking about). I told my friend I would do my best to find the answer to his question. Would you help me?
K. Miller
Edmond, OK

The key to proper interpretation of the Scripture lies in three simple words: context, context, context. A fundamentalist approach to the Sacred Scripture tends to encourage reading particular verses out of context. This tendency became more widespread with the introduction of chapters and verses into the text in the 15th and 16th centuries. Before this, Christians knew the Scriptures by the context in which they were found.
We can look at this context in three levels. The first level of context comes from the unity of the Sacred Scripture (CCC #112). Since God is the primary author of the Sacred Scripture, there will be an inherent continuity of the content of the Sacred Scripture (CCC #105). Therefore, when we look to understand the Scripture, a particular passage must be read in light of what comes before it and what comes after it. The New Testament sheds light on the Old Testament; the Old Testament gives roots to the New Testament.
The second level of context involves the role of Tradition (CCC #113). For most non-Catholics, the word “tradition” gives them the willies. Tradition means what St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians “handing on what I myself have received...(cf. I Corinthians 11:23, 15:3).” The New Testament is the product of the Catholic Christians of the first century. The Church, through her teaching office, complied the texts of the Sacred Scripture, discerning which ones were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, a proper interpretation is going to be in line with Tradition handed on (cf. II Peter 1:19-21) . This explains why all of our personal interpretations of Sacred Scripture must be submitted to the authority of the Church. The Magisterium serves the Sacred Scripture to insure that proper interpretation is always available (CCC #85-86).
The third level of context concerns the overall act of Revelation (CCC #114). Christianity is not a Religion of the Book. It is a religion of the Word, Jesus Christ, who revels to us the heart of the Godhead (CCC #108). When we interpret the Sacred Scripture, if our interpretation fails to conform to either the plan of revelation or to the truths of the faith, then we have to reject that interpretation.
In addition to these three levels, there are two other consideration to take up. First, while God is the primary author, God inspired human authors to compose the actual texts. They bring their own idioms and genres of writing to the task (CCC #106,109-110). When we read the Sacred Scripture, we must try to hear it in their words if the texts are to be understood correctly. Second, ultimately, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, leads us all to proper understanding of the Scriptures (CCC #111). We should pray to the Holy Spirit, in particular, before we read or study the Sacred Scriptures that we might be lead into all truth.

Resources for Bible Study: Don't Catholics Do This?

Dear Fr. Tharp,
It seems some of the Protestant faiths have some type of question/answer books that help them study and learn about the Bible. Why do we as Catholic not have something like this or do we? If there is, where can it be found? Would it not be good for us to have an adult Bible study or “Sunday School,” after Mass, like our fellow Protestant Christians do?
Name withheld
Jones, OK

It is the obligation for every Catholic to come to know the truth of Revelation given to us in the person of Christ. For the Catholic, this one Revelation is transmitted to us in two ways: through the Sacred Scripture and through Sacred Tradition. So when a Catholic desires to become better acquainted with the truth of the Faith, they need to take both parts into account.
As to specific resources for studying the Bible, the best place to start is with a good study bible. I have found the best translations for study are the New American, the Revised Standard - Catholic edition and the Jerusalem Bible. I find the Jerusalem Bible’s page formats make for easier reading while the New American and Revised Standard make study for particular topics easier. You should look for a Bible that has good footnotes and introductory notes concerning each of the individual books. Also, a good commentary can help supplement one’s mastery of a particular text. There is a new series of brief commentaries from Ignatius Press. The commentaries contain the text of the book and can easily be carried in a purse or pocket. Right now, the series only covers the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Letter to the Romans. The Navarre Series is more complete encompassing the entire New Testament and much of the Old Testament. This one is more scholarly but yet readable.
For those looking for a program for study, I recently came across a superb program from Saint Joseph’s Communication. The program is called “The Great Adventure” and was created by Jeff Cavins. Cavins for a time defected from the practice of Faith and worked as a Protestant minister. He returned to the Faith and has been a zealous promoter of greater comprehension of both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As he observes, so many people try to read the Bible, but they get lost along the way. The names and places are out of context and therefore the reader cannot make the connections necessary to understand what he is reading. Cavins takes the participant through the main historical books of the Bible to give the necessary architecture to hang up the individual pieces of our Biblical knowledge. I recommend it very highly.
While we are growing in our knowledge and love of the Sacred Scriptures, we have to remember to study the full picture of the Faith. We should deepen our comprehension of the Church’s teaching so that we correctly interpret the Scriptures we read. There are several good overviews of the Faith that employ a question/answer format. For young adult readers, Did Adam and Eve Have Belly Buttons? by Matthew Pinto comes to mind. It features questions from young people concerning the things of interest to them. A classic among question/answer format works is the Baltimore Catechism. Many people have dismissed this work as old fashioned. I find that people retain information better when they have a specific point to focus the reflection. It is available through Catholic Book Publishers. A more recent work in this vein is Life in Christ by James Kilgallon. It was recently updated and comprehensive treats questions proposed.
As to having Bible studies, you might want to ask your pastor. From my own limited experience, I find that, with an already crowded schedule, it is hard to accommodate the extra study and preparation if I am not confident that there will be a good turnout. In my case, apart from my work in Alva, I have two missions which keep me on the road quite a bit. I would say, that if you and others in the parish are interested in having a regular bible study, having a sign up sheet available will help demonstrate to the pastor that you are committed to further study.

Donatism and Contraception: Mismatched Cousins
This one is a work in progress because it is a little complicated. The question is less about contraception and is more about how does the Church teach and how does the Church insure the veracity of her teaching. Any comments you want to send me via email would be appreciated. I'll leave a note letting you know when it is complete.

Dear Father:
With all the priests’ Scandals, etc. and Bishop O’Brien convicted of a felony, the first in U.S. History, Why ? doesn’t our Religion lift the Ban on contraception and let thousands of married Catholics stop lying about their marriages. Teach to follow sexuality outside of marriage, and stop teenagers from getting pregnant, but let legally married couples have their children and the number they can and will take care of. Look at all the starving people in the world. Received unsigned.

At the outset, let me clarify a policy of this column. I have no problem with withholding someone’s name or hometown if they so request. But I do not answer unsigned letters. I am making this one exception. After that, if the letter comes without a signature or address, it goes directly into the round file.
You seem to make the assumption that the teaching authority and the truth value of the Church’s teaching rest upon the impeccability, i.e. the personal holiness, of those who hand on the Church’s teaching. This is incorrect. The power to teach with authority comes from Christ and is imparted in the conferral of the sacrament of Holy Orders. So even if a guy is a terrible sinner or even a convicted felon, this doesn’t detract from the authoritative weight of his teaching.
Now, this may come as a surprise to most readers, but the 1969 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae is not the first instance where the Church teaches about contraception. To find that you have to go back all the way to the Book of Genesis. In Genesis , we read about the sin of Onan. Because of the death of his older brother, Onan is asked help his sister-in-law a child so there would be a proper heir. But Onan says no to this and “spills his seed on the ground.” The Church has recognized two “evils” present in Onan’s actions: 1. Selfishness in the masterbatory dimension and 2. Selfishness in trying to withhold himself from God’s plan. Children

The irony is that couples aren’t lying about their marriage when they aren’t using contraception. They lie about their marriage when they are.

Some Questions on Confession

This is part one of a two part article that I wrote for the diocesan newspaper. This article deals more directly with the nature of sin. The next article deals with the sacrament of Penance directly.

It is an interesting phenomenon to witness as a pastor. During Mass, when it is time for Communion, practically the entire assembly comes forward. During the week, I am available to hear confessions for about two hours. Few come forward to celebrate the forgiveness God desires to give. This dissonance is not unique to my parish. As I have traveled around the United States, pastors and parishioners alike describe this same scenario to me. There seems to be a serious confusion concerning the Sacrament of Penance. In addition, remaining faithful to the intention of this column, the sacrament of penance is a “hot button” issue for non-Catholics, right behind questions concerning the Pope, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Holy Mass. To renew our celebration of the Sacrament (yes, priests have to go to confession), I want to address some fundamental questions surrounding the Sacrament. In this issue, the questions will revolve around the nature and effects of sin. Next issue, the questions will pertain more directly to the Sacrament of Penance.
What is Sin? Sin is a conscious choice that goes against the Law of God (CCC #1849). It can be an act committed, for example when we act against someone, or an act omitted when we had the power to act but chose not to.
Where Does Sin Come From? To find the origin of sin, we have to go back to the Garden of Eden. In the Garden, God created man to live in perfect harmony and justice. When Adam and Eve fell, they lost these special graces and found that their natures were profoundly wounded. Their intellects were darkened. Their wills for doing good were weakened. Death ended into human history.
The ultimate source of our sins is the Fall. The proximate source for our sins is improper attachment. We essentially attempt to love a created thing as though it were God (cf. CCC #1849).
Are All Sins the Same? In their nature, all sins are the same. They represent disobedience and a heart turned from following the will of the Father (CCC #1850). In another sense, they are all idolatry in that we treated a created, limited good as though it were the ultimate Good. However, in their malice and the gravity of the act, not all sins are the same (CCC #1854). St. John in one of his letters introduces this distinction. “If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly (I John 5:16-17).” There are two degrees of sin: mortal and venial.
What Makes a Mortal Sin Mortal? The Church, through her teaching office, has determined that there are three conditions for mortal sin: 1.) the content of the act involves grave matter, 2.) the person had full knowledge of gravity of their act, and 3.) the person was acting with freedom (CCC #1857).
What Constitutes Grave Matter? We can find several sources to understand what is grave matter. Our first stop should be the 10 Commandments. Even though Christ has come to fulfill the Old Testament Law, it still retains force and meaning for Christians. Our next stop should take us to the Beatitudes as found in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke. Pay especially close attention to St. Luke’s version. Running parallel to the declarations of blessings are a series of curses on those who do not follow the way of the Gospel. This sobering reminder directs us to see the import of our actions. Then we can take into account the Seven Capital Sins: Pride, Anger, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Sloth, and Envy. We can think of these as dispositions at the heart of our sinful behavior. They represent the “why” of the wrongdoing in question. Lastly, we can find direction about grave matter from the Precepts of the Church. These precepts represent the most basic elements of what is required as an absolute minimum from Catholics. The Catechism gives a basic outline of these in paragraphs 2041-2046. Also, traditionally, the precepts assume that Catholics will follow the Church’s teaching and law concerning the sacraments of Confirmation and Marriage and will work to spread the Gospel through various apostolates.
Can Anything Compromise The Other Two Components of Mortal Sin? Paragraph #1860 covers this well. “Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.” We all have a grave obligation therefore to form our consciences and our intellects in accord with God’s eternal law.
What Effects Does Sin Have? Mortal sin kills the life of grace in us (CCC #1855). Because the gravity and the consciousness that it entails, we turn backs on God. Because of this death in the soul, “a new initiative of God’s mercy and conversion of heart” (CCC #1856) is necessary to restore the person to communion with God. Venial sin spoils the life of grace in us without obliterating it. Venial sins weaken our resolve to be faithful to Christ and tempt us to commit mortal sin as well (CCC #1855).
Who Does Sin Harm? Sin harms my neighbor (cf. CCC #1849). It harms my neighbor when he is the target of my wrongdoing. It harms my neighbor through the building up of vices or through depriving others of grace that my virtuous acts could have brought. “In this solidarity with all men, living or dead, which is founded on the communion of saints, the least of our acts done in charity redounds to the profit of all. Every sin harms this communion (CCC #953). Sin harms me. Because sin deforms my choices, it leads to me to view evil as good and vice versa. As I submit to sin, I become more vicious and less virtuous. Sin harms God. Now, we need to be careful in how we understand this. Since God is immutable and unchangeable, He is beyond being hurt, in the sense of a change in His nature. However, when we sin, we obscure His Glory. Think of the many people who deny the existence of God because of the wrong others do. In another way, we can see how sin harms God when we reflect on our Lord’s Passion. As St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, the Incarnation’s sole purpose is to make the Passion possible. While Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity, consubstantial with the Father and the Holy Spirit, through His human nature, He can undergo suffering and death for us (CCC #1850-51). This reveals the true horror of sin. God offered us life. In Adam and Eve we chose death. Jesus accepted our death and offers us new life, the life of Glory in and with the Most Holy Trinity. And we still choose death. When will we finally learn?