Tag Archives: karl keating

The gift of Confession

Sin is social in its effects, so Christ established a social means for forgiveness . . . 

Karl Keating

Christ never engaged in unnecessary acts. He instituted the sacrament of Confession (aka Penance or Reconciliation) as the ordinary or normative way of having one’s sins forgiven. This means that it’s the standard way.

Yes, sins are forgiven when one sincerely repents and prays earnestly to God. In fact, before you even enter the confessional, you must say a sincere act of contrition, so the very sacrament acknowledges the need for a direct request to God that he forgive your sins. But confessions to a priest make a lot of sense: first, because of our limitations; second, because of the nature of sin.

We all fool ourselves at times. We talk ourselves into and out of doing things. We adroitly avoid unpleasantness, and little is more unpleasant than acknowledging our sinfulness. When we confess to God privately, we run the risk of only feigning sorrow. We might even fool ourselves into thinking we’re really sorry when we’re not. No sin can be forgiven unless we’re truly sorry for it. Here’s where a priest, trained in hearing confessions, can help us see past our pride or our remaining attachment to a particular sin.

After all, Jesus knew what he was doing. He gave the apostles — and through apostolic succession, the bishops and the bishops’ helpers, the priests — the power to forgive sins: “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:22-23). He wanted them to forgive or not forgive (retain) sins. How do they know which to forgive and which not to forgive? Only by being told the sins by the penitent. Then, after questioning if necessary, the priest can evaluate the penitent’s sorrow.

Jesus likened our relationship with him to a vine; he is the vine and we are the branches (Jn 15:5). Every branch is related to every other branch through the vine. If one branch becomes ill, neighboring branches become ill. Even branches far away are affected. Spiritual illness comes when we sin. It’s impossible to sin and not influence others. We may not be aware of the influence, but it’s there. Since every sin is social in its effects, Christ established a social means for forgiveness. In Confession we relate our sins and our sorrow to another human being, who represents both our Lord and the whole community of the faithful.

Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith,” page 64 (Ignatius Press, 1995).

Can the divorced receive communion?

Karl Keating: A valid Catholic marriage is binding, even if the couple is divorced . . .

Karl Keating

God’s law isn’t invalidated by sloppy theology or hearts in the wrong place. The Church (as did Christ) doesn’t recognize divorce in the ecclesiastical sense. A valid marriage, once made, can’t be undone by a divorce, even if the spouses lose all love for one another.

Although marriage is permanent, the Church also recognizes that at times spouses can’t and shouldn’t live together, perhaps for the good of the children, perhaps for the safety of one of the spouses. In such cases the Church permits spouses to separate or seek civil divorce. But divorce only dissolves the marriage so far as the civil law is concerned. Marriage is a sacrament and is unaffected by a civil determination. Some may speak loosely of Catholic marriages being dissolved by civil divorce proceedings, but that’s sloppy theology. Only death ends a truly sacramental marriage.

Although civil divorce is always undesirable, living together may be even more undesirable. Consider the case of a drunken, abusive husband. The spouses separate, custody and support are fixed by a court — and the marriage continues. Neither spouse is free to marry again.

In the case of an annulment, however, the Church has determined there was no valid marriage in the first place because no valid consent had been given by one party. For a valid, sacramental marriage to take place, both parties must be capable of giving consent — and both then must consent to a life-long commitment and openness to children. If one party participates in the wedding ceremony with no intention to have a lasting marriage or with a refusal to have children, the marriage is invalid from the start, even if the intention is kept secret and the ceremony goes off (excuse the phrase) without a hitch.

No ecclesiastical penalty, such as excommunication, applies to divorced people. If they don’t attempt to remarry and if they are otherwise in a state of grace, they may continue to receive Communion. But if one spouse remarries while the other spouse is still living, the remarrying spouse has actually entered into an adulterous relationship. Since adultery is a grave sin, such a person is barred from Communion. In our society, in which many Catholics know their faith poorly and find themselves in what they may have thought were valid second marriages, the results can be especially difficult to deal with. But we do not deal with tough situations by abandoning God’s sacramental law.

Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith,” pages 54 and 61 (Ignatius Press, 1995).

Are the gospels contradictory?

The gospels may tell stories a little differently, but they don’t have contradictions . . .

Karl Keating

There may be a few inconsistencies in the Gospels, but there certainly aren’t any outright contradictions. Passages that seem to be saying different things? There are some, but they can be harmonized — that is, they can be read together to make a sensible account.

Consider the incident in which Jesus heals two blind men outside Jericho. In Matthew, the men are unnamed and are healed as Jesus leaves the city. In Mark, only one blind man, Bartimaeus, is mentioned, and he is also healed as Jesus leaves the city. In Luke, only one blind man is mentioned, but he is not named, and he seems to be healed as Jesus enters the city, not as he leaves it.

Certainly all these passages refer to the same incident, so how can the two apparent inconsistencies (one man versus two, entering the city versus leaving it) be reconciled? Here is one way: Bartimaeus called out to Jesus as he and the crowd entered Jericho, but in the commotion Bartimaeus was not heard. By the time Jesus left the city, Bartimaeus had been joined by another blind man. Bartimaeus calls out again and this time is heard because the crowd is now subdued. Jesus cures him and the other man.

Here is another apparent inconsistency. In Matthew, the mother of James and John approached Jesus and asked that her sons might sit at his right and left when he came into his kingdom. In Mark, James and John themselves made the request.

Which evangelist are we to believe? Both. There is no inconsistency. The mother of James and John first approached Jesus, paving the way for her sons to make the second request. We see something similar in Kings. Nathan first had Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, approach the aged King David with the news that Adonijah was seizing power. Then Nathan himself went to the king with the same information.

Now consider you’re taking a vacation. You go to Hawaii and on the way home stop at the Grand Canyon. You tell one friend, “On my vacation I went to Hawaii.” You tell another, “On my vacation I visited the Grand Canyon.” If the friends compare notes, they’ll find an apparent inconsistency. Surely they’ll conclude, “Well, he must have gone to both places. After all, going to one doesn’t exclude going to the other.” So it is with the gospel stories. We find what appear to be inconsistencies, but they appear such only because the Gospels are themselves fragmentary accounts of Christ’s life, each account including different fragments.

Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith,” pages 34-35 (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1995).

Two Vatican II misconceptions

Karl Keating reminds us that the Church treasures the wisdom of pre-Vatican II scholars . . .

Karl Keating

Some believe that Vatican II was such a watershed that it’s a waste of time to read books published before the Council. That notion, however, is contrary to the Council itself. Vatican II documents are packed with references to ancient and medieval writings. After all, the Bible is an ancient writing that you wouldn’t want to drop from your reading list!

If you insist on regarding Vatican II as a dividing point for your reading, you’d do much better to read only pre-Vatican books. Yes, you’d miss recent events, but you’d keep on your shelf the very best of the world’s books. Of course, no one today should willingly accept such a silly limitation.

People in the past didn’t think that way. After Trent (1545-1563), Catholics didn’t say, “Let’s chuck all the pre-Trent books and read only modern writers, such as Robert Belarmine.” After Lyons I (1224), they didn’t say, “Let’s get rid of Augustine and read only this upstart theologian, Thomas Aquinas.”

Keep in mind George Santayana’s line: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This applies to theology, too. If you read only modern works, you’ll commit ancient errors.

The second misconception: Some think Vatican II teaches that the Church should be like a democracy, which is why we have parish councils. If the Council really taught that, even the sharpest-eyed readers have failed to find the passage. The Church has never been a democracy and never will be. Its structure is patterned after the structure of heaven, which is an absolute monarchy with God on the throne. He is the ruler, and we are his subjects.

He has appointed a prime minister, Peter, to rule in his absence, investing him with much of his own authority as king and shepherd (Mt 16:18-19). He gave Peter chief assistants, the other apostles. This pattern of government continues today through apostolic succession in the pope and the bishops in union with him.

So why do we have parish councils? Not because the Church has been changed to a democracy. Pastoral councils have several practical purposes: to relieve parish priests of administrative burdens which can be accomplished by parishioners, to give the pastor feedback from the pews, and to help develop a pastoral plan. The council is a consultative, not a legislative, body. It makes recommendations to the pastor, but doesn’t usurp his authority or duties.

KARL KEATING is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith,” pages 15-17 (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1995).

To hell with the excommunicated?

Does the Church damn those who are excommunicated. The answer may surprise you . . .

Karl Keating

Karl Keating

Not necessarily. Only God can condemn anyone to hell. It’s not within the Church’s power to do so. The Church’s role is to help people to heaven by teaching and sanctifying. Of course, people can ignore the teaching and reject the grace. If they do and end up in hell, they go there by their own choice.

Excommunication is a Church penalty which excludes a notorious sinner — or someone grossly disobedient to Church teaching — from the communion of the faithful. It doesn’t mean the person ceases to be a Christian. Its purpose is to warn the individual that he risks losing his soul unless he repents.

We’ve seen examples of excommunication in our own time. In 1953, some bishops in China ordained new bishops without the approval of Pope Pius XII. The ordaining bishops and those they ordained were excommunicated under a provision of canon law which stated that episcopal ordinations may be performed only with the pope’s approval. These new bishops had been ordained for the Chinese Patriotic Church, a government-controlled off shoot of the Catholic Church. Other Chinese bishops remained loyal to Rome and found themselves imprisoned — the penalty for loyalty to Church authority.

In 1988, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre ordained new bishops to oversee the religious society he had founded. The ordinations were done against the wishes of Pope John Paul II. Archbishop Lefebvre, another ordaining bishop, and the three new bishops were excommunicated automatically. In this case and the Chinese case, people were excommunicated not for teaching heresy, but for gross disobedience.

Excommunication is rarely used nowadays. At one time, it’s true, it was used too frequently, and the Council of Trent warned bishops to be more careful in its application. The Council said excommunication must be used sparingly. Its purpose is to bring the wayward back to the practice of the faith and to obedience. If excommunication is wielded crudely, it will lose its effectiveness and may do more harm than good.

Now to a corollary. When Paul said that anyone preaching a heretical gospel would be anathema (Gal 1:8), he didn’t condemn the person to hell. He labeled that individual a false teacher. When the Church, in an official decree at a council, accompanies its decisions with anathemas, it’s merely doing the same thing as Paul. It’s saying, “And anyone who teaches otherwise is a false teacher.” It is not condemning anyone to hell.

Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith,” pages 17-19 (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1995).

Does anyone still believe in the devil?

Karl Keating writes that the devil is real, not holdover from scary bedtime stories . . .

Karl Keating

Karl Keating

The Catholic Church teaches that the devil is real, not a phantasm or a holdover from scary bedtime stories. In 1975, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship issued a document called Christian Faith and Demonology. It quotes Pope Paul VI: “It is a departure from the picture provided by biblical and Church teaching to refuse to acknowledge the devil’s existence.”

If someone tells you something different, he does so from his own mind, not from the mind of the Church. Maybe the devil makes him do it! At the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the bishops defined that “the devil and other evil spirits were created good in nature, but became evil by their own actions.”

At baptism, adult candidates are asked to renounce Satan and all his empty promises. The Church even has an official rite of exorcism — which would be unnecessary if demons didn’t exist. If this doesn’t convince you, consider what Scripture reports Jesus said and did (Mt 4:1-11, 12:22-30; Mk 1:34; Lk 10:18, 22:31; Jn 8:44).

Our Lord certainly believed in demons, and so did his early followers, the Fathers of the Church. They were very clear on the matter. At the end of the second century, Irenaeus wrote that the devil is “an apostate angel” who tries to “darken the hearts of those who would serve him.” Writing about the same time, Tertullian said “the business [of demons] is to corrupt mankind.” And a generation later, Origen noted that “ecclesiastical teaching maintains that these beings do indeed exist.”

As frightening as the devil’s efforts may be, they are not as dangerous as the demons’ more common work: temptation to apostasy and sin. “Some will turn away from the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and demonic instructions” (1 Tim 4:1).

The most frightening kind of apostasy is outright devil worship — uncommon, but becoming less so every year with the spread of modern Satanism — but generally apostasy is milder, less dramatic, yet still dangerous. Usually it manifests itself as a slow, almost imperceptible slide into a life of dull sin.

Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith,” page 147 (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1995).

The role of conscience

Conscience warns you when you’re doing something wrong, but it needs to be formed. . .

Karl Keating

Karl Keating

Conscience is the faculty which warns you that you’re doing something wrong — or neglecting to do something right that should be undertaken. But it doesn’t work in a vacuum. You first have to learn what’s right and what’s wrong, and that’s a job for your intellect. If you learn well, your conscience will guide you well. If you learn poorly, your conscience won’t be trustworthy.

For instance, if you learn that stealing is no sin, and if you really believe that, your conscience won’t bother you when you knock over the bank. Often someone will say, “My conscience tells me this is right,” even though, objectively, the act in question is wrong.

The problem is that the person’s conscience has been inadequately formed. Although we have a duty to follow conscience, we also have a duty to make sure our conscience has been formed rightly. We do this by following the moral teaching of the Church, through prayer and through close attention to Scripture. If we neglect these, we will end up either with an empty conscience, which won’t be able to guide us rightly at all, or a cramped conscience, which sees sin where there is no sin.

The former condition is licentiousness, the latter is scrupulosity. The one never seems to see any sin except the grossest; and the other seems to see sin even in innocent things. Someone who is burdened either by no guilt at all or by much guilt should see a solid priest-confessor. These conditions are signs of spiritual malformation, and they can be corrected.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “the education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart”.

Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith,” page 63 (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1995).

Why can’t priests get married?

Very few men and women entering religious life grumble about spending the rest of their lives unmarried. They don’t have a low opinion of marriage. In fact, they have a universally higher opinion of it than married people do.

They freely embrace celibacy because they want to devote their complete energies to God and to the service of his Church. They follow St. Paul’s own example by making this sacrifice. Paul recommended celibacy for those called to that vocation, without deprecating marriage in any way (1 Cor 7:8). As our world tends to give less and less value to marriage — the divorce and “living together” statistics are revealing — a counterthrust is coming from, of all places, the ranks of the unmarried religious, whether priests, sisters or brothers.

There is another fact about celibacy that surprises even many Catholics: It has not been a rule for all Catholic priests. In the Eastern Rites, married men can be ordained. This has been the custom from early times. Once ordained, though, an unmarried priest may not marry; a married priest, if widowed, may not remarry.

In the West, the rule has been different. In the very beginning, some priests and bishops were taken from the ranks of the married. But celibacy was soon preferred, and eventually it became mandatory. The change in the rule did not imply a change of doctrine. In recent years, we have seen a few married Latin Rite priests. Some have been Lutheran or Episcopal ministers who were married at the time of their conversion to Catholicism.

Despite what some critics may say, marriage is not evil in the eyes of the Church. It’s the Catholic Church that claims Christ raised marriage to a sacrament! Moreover, neither celibacy nor marriage is forced on anyone. It’s true that Catholic priests in the West may not be married, but no one is obliged to become a priest. Marriage is not forbidden to them as human beings, but as priests. Therefore, a Catholic man is free to choose the celibate priesthood, the married life or even the single life, which is also celibate.

Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions about the Catholic Faith,” pages 130-135 (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1995).

Do Catholics impose their beliefs on others?

Tolerance seems to be touted as the supreme good these days. However, Jesus told his apostles to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). This is known as the Great Commission, not the Great Imposition. He commanded his followers to make others into Christians through conversion and baptism.

Through our evangelization, we must present the truth of the Christian faith to those who don’t yet accept it or who accept it only partially. In doing so we aren’t imposing anything on them. You can’t force people to believe. You can force them to act as though they believe, true, but you can’t force them to believe. Mere acting doesn’t count. It isn’t what Christ was after. He was, and is, looking for free acceptance of his saving message.

Catholic missionary activity is an act of charity. Through it, people discover that the Catholic Church was established by Christ as the guardian of the sacraments, which are the usual means for obtaining the grace we need for salvation. Catholics who are tempted to think they should tolerate every belief may profit from this story written by Dorothy Sayers:

Saint Lukewarm was a magistrate in the city of Laodicea. He was so broadminded as to offer asylum to every kind of religious cult, however unorthodox or repulsive, saying in answer to all remonstrances: “There is always some truth in everything.” This liberality earned for him the surname of “The Tolerator.” At length he fell into the hands of a sect of Anthropophagi for whom he had erected a sacred kitchen and cooking stove at public expense, which he was duly set on to stew with appropriate ceremonies. By miraculous intervention, however, the water continually went off the boil; and when he was finally served up, his flesh was found to be so tough and tasteless that the Chief Anthropophagus spat out the unpalatable morsel, exclaiming: “Tolerator non tolerandus!” (A garbled Christian version of this legend is preserved in Rev 3:16.).

Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers, a lay-run apologetics and evangelization organization. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions about the Catholic Faith” (Ignatius Press, San Fransisco, 1995. pp 113-114).