The disapproval many Protestants have toward the Catholic custom of displaying religious statues and images is fueled by a suspicion that Catholics must be engaging in idolatry by worshiping those statues (forbidden in Exodus 20:3-5 and Deut. 5:6-9). Take it from me. This misconception is far more widespread than you might think.
About 20 years ago, as I arrived at a suburban Chicago parish where I was to conduct an apologetics seminar that evening, I noticed a life-sized statue of Our Lady of Fatima prominently displayed on the rectory lawn.
Directly in front of her statue were three smaller statues of Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta — the children to whom Our Lady appeared. Their statues were kneeling in prayer, hands folded and heads bowed before the larger statue.
Turning to Karl Keating, who was in the car with me, I joked, “What a great religion Catholicism is! Not only can we worship statues, but our statues can worship statues.”
We chuckled at the absurdity of the thought.
I repeated this sarcastic quip during the seminar and, predictably, the Catholics in the audience laughed. Some folks, though, seemed puzzled by the laughter. The reason? As I discovered during the Q&A session, they actually believed that Catholics do worship statues. I had a good opportunity, then and there, to explain the biblical teaching about religious images in the Catholic Church.
The following explanation is excerpted from my book Does the Bible Really Say That? Discovering Catholic Teaching in Scripture (Servant Books):
Admonitions against idolatry appear throughout Scripture (e.g., Numbers 33:52, Deut. 7:5, 25, 9:12, 12:3; 2 Kings 17:9-18, 23:24; 2 Chron. 23:17, 28:1-3, 22:18-25, 34:1-7). In 1 Corinthians 10:14 St. Paulwrote, “beloved, shun the worship of idols (Romans 1:18-23).
God condemns the sin of idolatry, whether in the form of worshipping statues, or stock options, or sex, or power, or a new car, any thing as an idol. But He does not prohibit religious images provided they are used properly. For example, in Exodus chapter 25 God commands Moses to carve statues of angels.
“The LORD said to Moses . . . you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be. . . . There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel” (Exodus 25:1, 18-20, 22; cf. 26:1).
This shows clearly that there are circumstances in which religious images are not merely permissible but actually pleasing to God. Another example is the rather humorous incident described in 1 Samuel 6:1-18. In Exodus 28:31-34 the Lord commanded that Aaron’s priestly vestments be adorned with images of pomegranates. In Numbers 21:8-9 He commanded Moses to fashion the graven image of a snake that would miraculously cure poisonous snakebites (a mysterious foreshadowing of the cross of Christ [cf. John 3:14; 8:28]). And in 2 Kings 18:4, when the people began worshipping the bronze serpent, the King immediately destroyed it. What once was a legitimate sacred image had become an object of idolatry. (A cautionary tale for anyone tempted toward superstition or idolatry).
And notice what God told Solomon as he constructed the Temple: “’Concerning this house which you are building, if you will walk in my statutes and obey my ordinances and keep all my commandments and walk in them, then I will establish my word with you, which I spoke to David your father. And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel.’ So Solomon built the house, and finished it.” (1 Kings 6:12-12-14).
This statement is important because the Templecontained a vast number of statues and images including angels, trees, flowers, oxen, and lions (cf. 1 Kings 6:23-35, 7:25, 36). Solomon’s decision to include these religious images came from the gift of wisdom God had blessed him with (cf. 1 Kings 3:1-28). And far from being displeased by such images, “the LORD said unto him, I have heard thy prayer and thy supplication that thou hast made before me: I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put my name there for ever; and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually” (1 Kings 9:3).
Obviously, God would not have blessed Solomon and “hallowed” his temple filled with statues and images if He did not approve of them — further proof that images can be good when used to order our minds toward God and heavenly realities.
Remember too that St. Paulcalled Christ “the express image” of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). The Greek word here for “image” is eikonos, from which we derive the word “icon.”
Just as we keep pictures of our family and friends to remind us of them, we also keep statues and images in our homes and churches to remind us of our Lord, Our Lady and the Saints.
Additional passages to study:
1 John 1:1-3
Related Catechism Sections:
Awhile back, The Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating and deeply saddening article exploring the reasons behind the Kennedy Family’s staunch pro-abortion position.
Believe it or not, Ted Kennedy used to be pro-life.
So how did he and all the other prominent Kennedys swing so far in the wrong direction? For that matter, what about some of the other Catholic pro-abortion zealots in (or recently in) high public office, such as Nancy Pelosi, Mario Cuomo, and Tom Daschle? What happened to them?
(NB: I originally posted this blog entry on January 2, 2009. Given all the chattering right now from Catholics who feel they can vote for pro-abortion candidates with impunity and without compromising their Catholic identity (and without committing sin), I post it again because of its pertinence to the late Ted Kennedy’s life and legacy, such as it was.)
This article alleges that it was was an intentional, systematic, concerted effort on the part of a group of dissenting Catholic theologians (including Fr. Richard McCormick, Fr. Charles Curran, Fr. Joseph Fuchs, Fr. Robert Drinan, and Fr. John Courtney Murray), who spent a good deal of of time with the Kennedys in the mid 1960s employing bogus moral theology arguments to convince them they could “accept and promote abortion with a clear conscience.” Once this was accomplished, these same Judas priests undertook to literally coach the Kennedy’s on what to say and how to vote in favor of abortion in their public lives.
Given the Kennedys’ enormous influence over American politics, it’s diabolically logical for those dissenting Catholic theologians to have targeted this renowned and respected Catholic family for “conversion.” They were in the perfect position to persuade other Catholics, and even many Protestants, that it’s okay to be pro-abortion.
And this strategy worked so well that, today, it is virtually impossible to find a Catholic politician holding national public office who is pro-life. Thanks to these dissenters and those Catholics they duped, “Catholic” is synonymous with “pro-abortion” in politics.
Read here how this hideous transformation was accomplished:
Ms. [Caroline] Kennedy’s commitment to abortion rights is shared by other prominent family members, including Kerry Kennedy Cuomo and Maryland’s former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. Some may recall the 2000 Democratic Convention when Caroline and her uncle, Sen. Ted Kennedy, addressed the convention to reassure all those gathered that the Democratic Party would continue to provide women with the right to choose abortion — even into the ninth month. At that convention, the party’s nominee, Al Gore, formerly a pro-life advocate, pledged his opposition to parental notification and embraced partial-birth abortion. Several of those in attendance, including former President Bill Clinton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, had been pro-life at one time. But by 2000 nearly every delegate in the convention hall was on the pro-choice side — and those who weren’t simply kept quiet about it.
Caroline Kennedy knows that any Kennedy desiring higher office in the Democratic Party must now carry the torch of abortion rights throughout any race. But this was not always the case. Despite Ms. Kennedy’s description of Barack Obama, in a New York Times op-ed, as a “man like my father,” there is no evidence that JFK was pro-choice like Mr. Obama. Abortion-rights issues were in the fledgling stage at the state level in New York and California in the early 1960s. They were not a national concern.
Even Ted Kennedy, who gets a 100% pro-choice rating from the abortion-rights group Naral, was at one time pro-life. In fact, in 1971, a full year after New York had legalized abortion, the Massachusetts senator was still championing the rights of the unborn. In a letter to a constituent dated Aug. 3, 1971, he wrote: “When history looks back to this era it should recognize this generation as one which cared about human beings enough to halt the practice of war, to provide a decent living for every family, and to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.”
But that all changed in the early ’70s, when Democratic politicians first figured out that the powerful abortion lobby could fill their campaign coffers (and attract new liberal voters). Politicians also began to realize that, despite the Catholic Church’s
teachings to the contrary, its bishops and priests had ended their public role of responding negatively to those who promoted a pro-choice agenda.
In some cases, church leaders actually started providing “cover” for Catholic pro-choice politicians who wanted to vote in favor of abortion rights. At a meeting at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, Mass., on a hot summer day in 1964, the Kennedy family and its advisers and allies were coached by leading theologians and Catholic college professors on how to accept and promote abortion with a “clear conscience.”
The former Jesuit priest Albert Jonsen, emeritus professor of ethics at the University of Washington, recalls the meeting in his book “The Birth of Bioethics” (Oxford, 2003). He writes about how he joined with the Rev. Joseph Fuchs, a Catholic moral theologian; the Rev. Robert Drinan, then dean of Boston College Law School; and three academic theologians, the Revs. Giles Milhaven, Richard McCormick and Charles Curran, to enable the Kennedy family to redefine support for abortion.
Mr. Jonsen writes that the Hyannisport colloquium was influenced by the position of another Jesuit, the Rev. John Courtney Murray, a position that “distinguished between the moral aspects of an issue and the feasibility of enacting legislation about that issue.” It was the consensus at the Hyannisport conclave that Catholic politicians “might tolerate legislation that would permit abortion under certain circumstances if political efforts to repress this moral error led to greater perils to social peace and order.”
Father Milhaven later recalled the Hyannisport meeting during a 1984 breakfast briefing of Catholics for a Free Choice: “The theologians worked for a day and a half among ourselves at a nearby hotel. In the evening we answered questions from the Kennedys and the Shrivers. Though the theologians disagreed on many a point, they all concurred on certain basics . . . and that was that a Catholic politician could in good conscience vote in favor of abortion.”
But can they now? There are signs today that some of the bishops are beginning to confront the Catholic politicians who consistently vote in favor of legislation to support abortion. Charles J. Chaput, the archbishop of Denver, has been on the front lines in encouraging Catholics to live their faith without compromise in the public square. Most recently in his book “Render Unto Caesar,” Archbishop Chaput has reminded Catholic politicians of their obligation to protect life.
The archbishop is not alone. The agenda at November’s assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops included a public discussion of abortion and politics. The bishops’ final statement focused on concern about the possible passage of the “Freedom of Choice Act,” and referred to it as “an evil law that would further divide our country.” The bishops referenced their 2007 document, “Faithful Citizenship,” which maintains that the right to life is the foundation of every other human right. In it, they promised to “persist in the duty to counsel, in the hope that the scandal of their [Catholic congregants’] cooperating in evil can be resolved by the proper formation of their consciences.”
A claim made in this article doesn’t surprise me a bit:
“A survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that Facebook is cited as evidence in 66 percent of divorces in the United States. Also, more than 80 percent of divorce lawyers reported they “have seen an increase in the number of cases using social networking evidence” during the past few years.”
In fact, this may even understate the extent to which Facebook, like other useful and entertaining new-media communication platforms, is contributing to marital infidelity and other marriage problems.
Rather than restate what these articles say about what happens when married men and women develop private (or, worse yet, clandestine) online relationships with members of the opposite sex, I’ll just offer three common-sense suggestions that seem to me to be a set of bare-minimum rules of prudence for those who (like I) use Facebook regularly and who don’t want it to cause problems for their marriage.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that Facebook can be a great thing when used wisely, or a stick of dynamite when used foolishly.
Rule 1: Your Facebook should be a completely open book for your husband or wife.
You need to “password-protect” your marriage. No joke. This means that your husband or wife should be able to log onto your Facebook account at a moment’s notice, any time of the day or night, especially when you are not there. Aside from, perhaps, planning a surprise party for your husband, if you are keeping anything “secret” from him in terms of your online interactions with other men, you are heading down a slippery slope. How to avoid it? Simple: He should know your password and, of course, if he has a Facebook account, you should know his.
This rule isn’t intended to foster “snooping” or paranoia, but it will help you ensure transparency and honesty with your husband or wife when it comes to your dealings with others online. Guys, knowing that your wife can at any time read anything you write on your Facebook page will have a very clarifying effect on what you write. In other words, abiding by this rule will help you avoid situations in which you might be tempted to say something you wouldn’t want your wife to see. One solution (aside from cancelling your Facebook page altogether) is to simply share one Facebook page between the two of you. Doing this can help fire-proof your marriage against an unscrupulous old flame.
Rule 2: Don’t flirt on Facebook.
Not even a little bit. Not even in jest. What you think of as harmless could actually be a stumbling block of temptation to someone else. We all know what it’s like when something we’ve written in an e-mail, something intended to be completely innocuous and friendly, is misconstrued by the recipient as snarky or mean. Correcting negative miss-impressions resulting from misunderstood text can be tricky. Just imagine how much more difficult it can be to fix a problem caused be someone who thinks you’re flirting with her, especially if she is receptive to it and starts reciprocating. And, ladies, my hunch is that this is even more true in reverse. Your intentions may be entirely innocent, but under the
rightwrong circumstances, a man could misconstrue your witty repartée in a way you didn’t intend it. Don’t be brusque, of course, but do be circumspect in what you say. We all have to remember that Big Things start out small. When it comes to temptations to flirt on Facebook, the safest course by far is simply to refuse to let the small things get started in the first place.
Rule 3: Don’t waste time on Facebook.
This doesn’t mean don’t use Facebook, but definitely don’t waste time on it. And as someone who uses Facebook, I know this is easier said than done. Most of us in the modern digital age know from experience the temptation to fritter away valuable time online. Facebook can be a huge and even dangerous time-drain. Why dangerous? Because if you aren’t careful, wandering aimlessly from page to page, profile to profile, picture to picture, can quickly lead down the path of undue curiosity that can just as quickly lead to lustful thoughts, which can, if you’re not careful and willing to discipline yourself, lead to worse things. The old adage is certainly true: “Idleness is the devil’s workshop.” Or, as the famous wit wit Samuel Johnson once wrote: “If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary be not idle.”
To elaborate on this growing problem of Facebook-caused marriage troubles, here’s a sample from the first article. It’s well worth reading, sharing with your spouse, and then implementing rules like the ones above in order to help yourself avoid potentially disastrous problems.
If you’re single, Facebook and other social networking sites can help you meet that special someone. However, for those in even the healthiest of marriages, improper use can quickly devolve into a marital disaster.
A recent survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that Facebook is cited in one in five divorces in the United States. Also, more than 80 percent of divorce lawyers reported a rising number of people are using social media to engage in extramarital affairs.
“We’re coming across it more and more,” said licensed clinical psychologist Steven Kimmons, Ph.D., of Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill. “One spouse connects online with someone they knew from high school.
The person is emotionally available and they start communicating through Facebook. Within a short amount of time, the sharing of personal stories can lead to a deepened sense of intimacy, which in turn can point the couple in the direction of physical contact.”
Though already-strained marriages are most vulnerable, a couple doesn’t have to be experiencing marital difficulties in order for an online relationship to blossom from mere talk into a full-fledged affair, Kimmons said. In most instances, people enter into online relationships with the most innocent of intentions.
“I don’t think these people typically set out to have affairs,” said Kimmons, whose practice includes couples therapy and marriage counseling. “A lot of it is curiosity. They see an old friend or someone they dated and decide to say ‘hello’ and catch up on where that person is and how they’re doing.”
It all boils down to the amount of contact two people in any type of relationships –including online – have with each other, Kimmons said. The more contact they have, the more likely they are to begin developing feelings for each other.
“If I’m talking to one person five times a week versus another person one time a week, you don’t need a fancy psychological study to conclude that I’m more likely to fall in love with the person I talk to five times a week because I have more contact with that person,” Kimmons said. . . . (continue reading)
Those of you who follow the goings-on in the world of Catholic radio might be interested to know that after having the privilege of hosting the Thursday edition of EWTN Radio’s “Open Line” show for five great years, I will soon be leaving “Open Line” to take over hosting duties of a new daily show called “Right Here, Right Now,” produced by Immaculate Heart Radio.
This new one-hour show will focus on my interactions with the callers who can ask questions and make comments (some Catholic radio shows only allow listeners to ask questions, but not comment). “Right Here, Right Now” is a show about you – what’s important to you, what’s on your mind, and what makes you think. My goal is to meet listeners where they are and take it to the next level!
To be on the show, please call toll-free: 888-701-5992.
“Right Here, Right Now” airs Monday through Friday from 1:00 – 2:00 Pacific (4:00 – 5:00 ET). You can listen online at www.ihradio.org (click “listen live”) or click the link below for a complete list of IHR stations.
Starting today, it will begin airing across the rapidly expanding Immaculate Heart Radio Network on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, as I finish out the month doing my regular Thursday “Open Line” show. Then, starting October 1st, I’ll step away from “Open Line” and “Right Here, Right Now” will begin airing, M-F, across the entire EWTN Radio network of over 200 AM & FM stations across the U.S., as well as via Sirius-XM Satellite Radio, and globally via shortwave.
I’ll have more info and show updates for you soon, including a forthcoming link to where you can hear archived shows. And if you’d like to listen to any of my “Open Line” shows from the past few years, they are archived at the St. Gabriel Radio website.
Do you know what Congressman Paul Ryan identifies as the single most dangerous problem the U.S. faces right now? If you guess “the economy” or “debt” you would be wrong. His answer might surprise you when you listen to this free audio download of an eye-opening interview he did last year with the Envoy Institute.
A committed Catholic, Congressman Ryan is now the GOP candidate for vice president for the 2012 presidential election. Early last year, before he rose to his current prominence, he granted an interview with the Envoy Institute in which he explained candidly what he sees as America’s single greatest challenge today, and how he proposes to confront that challenge and, in so doing, begin the process of curing the country’s dire political, social, moral, and economic ills. You will probably never guess what he identifies as the hidden obstacle to true freedom and equitable prosperity. But you don’t have to guess, because you can download the interview right now free and start listening in moments.
This is welcome and not entirely unexpected news, given Father Barron’s meteoric ascendancy in the Catholic media world, especially on the strength of his impressive tour-de-force video series “Catholicism” and accompanying book. With a doctorate in sacred theology from the Institut Catholique de Paris, a slew of scholarly yet accessible books on the Catholic Faith, and 20 years of experience as a professor of theology at Chicago’s Mundelein (University of Our Lady of the Lake) Seminary, he is well suited to take the helm at this prestigious school. One may forgiven for wondering if his star will continue to rise, transiting, perhaps, into the episcopal firmament. God knows we need many more effective, indefatigable, and doctrinally orthodox teachers of the Faith. As far as I am concerned, when it comes to Father Barron, ad astra!
Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac quotes it, and an English politician named Algernon Sydney (d. 1683) is said to have also proclaimed it in slightly different wording. But neither man was responsible for originating this idea. Actually, the ancient Greeks appear to have coined the phrase.
Interestingly, most people assume that the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves” is from the Bible. It’s not — though there is an early patristic example of its usage. St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 349-407), the renowned Archbishop of Constantinople, expresses this idea in his Homily on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans. He explains how this principle is true (though not in the sense that men can “earn” their salvation), insofar as God grants all human beings sufficient natural revelation to know He exists and to seek Him diligently. Speaking to the Catholics of his day, he warns:
Let us then watch our own conduct on all sides, and afford to no one ever so little handle. For this life present is a race-course and we ought to have thousands of eyes on every side, and not even to fancy that ignorance will be an adequate excuse.
For there is such a thing, there certainly is, as being punished for ignorance, when the ignorance is inexcusable. Since the Jews too were ignorant, yet not ignorant in an excusable way. And the Gentiles were ignorant, but they are without excuse. (Rom. i. 20.)
For when thou art ignorant of those things which it is not possible to know, thou wilt not be subject to any charge for it: but when of things easy and possible, thou wilt be punished with the utmost rigor.
Else if we be not excessively supine, but contribute our own share to its full amount, God will also reach forth His hand unto us in those things which we are ignorant of. And this is what Paul said to the Philippians likewise. “If in anything ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you” (Phil. 3:15).
But when we are not willing to do even what we are masters of, we shall not have the benefit of His assistance in this either. . . . For this reason then, when [Cornelius the Centurion] was doing the whole of his duty with sincerity, God added unto him that which was lacking also (c.f., Acts 10:1-4).
The American actor James Farentino died yesterday at the age of 73. He is perhaps best known for his deft portrayal of Saint Peter the Apostle in the landmark mini-series-movie “Jesus of Nazareth.” Personally, having re-watched that excellent, moving, and instructive film countless times since its release in 1978, I’ve always felt that he so thoroughly “became” Saint Peter in this role that, to this day, when I think of the Apostle himself, Farentino’s face and shaggy, craggy features are what I see in my mind’s eye. (British actor Robert Powell, similarly nailed the role of Jesus uncannily well.) Farentino’s portrayal (watch a video clip here) will forever remain the image of Saint Peter that inhabits my imagination — at least, that is, until I am able to meet the Galilean Fisherman himself, face to face.
I never knew much about Mr. Farentino’s personal life, though I did see him crop up in other movies, here and there. This morning, as I read through a few sparsely detailed online stories announcing his death, I was saddened to learn that he had a tumultuous personal life. I don’t know if he was Catholic, though I assume he was, even if just nominally, given his Italian surname and that he was born in 1938, an era when non-Catholic Italian American’s were relatively rare. In any case, I mourn his passing. He was a talented actor, and he enriched my own life through his work in “Jesus of Nazareth.”
I hope he went to heaven. Maybe, who knows, at the last minute he encountered the Lord and cried out to Him, “Domine, quo vadis?” (“Lord, where are you going?”). My prayer is that Jesus smiled at him and, forgiving him his sins, turned toward heaven and said, “Veni et vide” (“Come and see”).
Eternal rest, grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. May his soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.
And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.
And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.
And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish.
Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Luke 6:31-38)
January 22, 2023
Can you believe it is already the year 2023? I’m still writing ’22 on everything! It seems like only yesterday that I was sitting in the first grade and celebrating the change to a new century.
I know we really haven’t chatted since Christmas, Mom, and I’m sorry. Anyway, I have some difficult news to share with you and, to be honest, I really didn’t want to call or talk about this face to face.
But before I get to that, let me report that Ted just got a big promotion, and I should be up for a hefty raise this year if I keep putting in all those crazy hours. You know how I work at it. (Yes, we’re still struggling to pay the bills.)
Little Timmy’s been okay at kindergarten, although he complains about going. But then, he wasn’t happy about the day-care center either. So what can we do?
Mom, the way he looked at me just about broke my heart, but I honestly believe this is better for Timmy, too. It’s just not fair to force him to live in a family that can’t give him the time and attention he deserves.
And please, Mom, don’t give me the kind of grief that grandma gave you over your abortions. It’s the same thing, you know. There’s really no difference.
We’ve told Timmy he’s just going in for a “vaccination.” Anyway, they say the termination procedure is painless. I guess it’s just as well that you haven’t seen that much of little Timmy lately.
Please give my love to Dad.
I’m in the final phase of selecting the logo for my new radio show “Right Here, Right Now.” Please take a look at the logo options below and, in the comments section, tell me your 1st & 2nd choices by the designated number (below each version). I’ll be deciding very soon, so your help now will be much appreciated. Be sure to click the image to see it larger and less compressed.
Please pick the numbers you like best and also tell me your overall impression of the logo design as a whole (i.e., too feminine? too masculine? just right? etc.).
Here are the two finalists.
On my Thursday broadcast of the EWTN “Open Line” radio show, I am often asked by callers questions pertaining to their marital status.
The twin issues of divorce and remarriage are extremely common today, and many people, including many Catholics, find themselves confused and unsure about what God and the Church require from them in this area.
This uncertainty has various causes, such as failure to seek answers from the competent authorities in the Church (e.g., canon lawyers) out of a lack of realization that they should do so (i.e., the result of poor catechesis), or because they were given erroneous information by well-meaning but ignorant fellow Catholics, or even because they are simply afraid of discovering what the Church’s answer to their situation might be and prefer instead to live in an “ignorance is bliss” cloud of unknowing. There are other reasons why many divorced Catholics don’t really understand what the Church requires, but the three just mentioned seem to me to be among the more common ones.
To help clarify these issues, I asked two canon lawyers, Jacqueline Rapp, JD, JCL, and Pete Vere, JCL, to write an article for Envoy Magazine that would cut through the ambiguity and confusion and answer the more common questions Catholics have about divorce and remarriage. Their article, “Do I Need an Annulment?” appeared several years ago in Envoy’s 6.2 issue, and I post it here as a service to all who may be wondering about that very issue, whether for themselves or for someone they care about.
As a Judge and a Defender of the Bond within our respective dioceses’ Catholic marriage Tribunal, we encounter misunderstandings every day about the declaration of nullity (or annulment) process. Often, the people who come into our offices question the need for an annulment before approaching a new marriage. Their misunderstandings commonly arise from misconception as to what the Catholic Church teaches about marriage, and consequently, why the Catholic Church judges some relationships not to be marriages.
What is a Christian marriage according to the Catholic Church?
In the law of the Church, many ingredients make up a Christian marriage. First, marriage is a covenant. The New Catholic Encyclopedia provides the following insight about the word covenant: “The theology of the covenant in the Bible is consistently a theology of divine promise. Whether in a profane or a sacred sense, the sacred authors utilize the berit [Hebrew for “covenant”] to trace the line of salvation history toward its divinely willed goal.” In short, the idea of covenant in the Bible is one of a strong pact between humans or between God and humans, in which each promises to assist the other towards a common goal.
In marriage, the covenant is between a man and a woman. The spouses establish this covenant through their marital consent, by which they intend to establish between themselves a partnership for the whole of life. This means each spouse will assist and support the other in all areas of their common life, the best he or she is able, so long as the other spouse is alive.
Marriage is permanent and exclusive (monogamous). The goal of this covenant, by its nature, is the mutual welfare of the spouses (physically, emotionally, and spiritually) as well as openness to the procreation, welfare, and education of children. The Church commonly refers to the good of the spouses and the good of children as the two elements of marriage. All genuine marriages, whether Christian or non-Christian, must contain these elements. Such a partnership is commonly referred to as a “natural marriage.”
We base this understanding of natural marriage on the text of Genesis 2:18-25, which teaches that God’s will has established all marriage. True marriage is heterosexual (between a man and a woman); it is monogamous (one man and one woman); it is exclusive (the two form a new and unique relationship; the two become one); and it is permanent (if the two become one, this new union cannot be divided; a conclusion Christ confirms in Matthew 19:3-12).
The purposes of marriage are also taught in Genesis. First, we read there how God told Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:27-28). Thus marriage is about “fruitfulness,” or bringing children into the world and raising them to maturity (procreation and education).
In addition, we read in Genesis 2:18-25 that God created all the animals and brought them before Adam to be named. But a “suitable partner” was not found for him among them. So God created the woman, and Adam responded: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (v. 23).
This passage confirms what the Church teaches about marriage: that it involves the partners being suitable for each other through the sharing of strengths and weaknesses. When Adam says, “bone of my bone,” he is saying “this one is strong where I am strong.” And when he says, “flesh of my flesh,” he is saying, “this one is weak where I am weak.”
Thus canon law defines natural marriage this way: “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its very nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children” (Canon 1055, § 1).
When both the husband and the wife are baptized Christians, this natural marriage takes on the element of sacramentality. A marriage between baptized persons is a sacrament, a visible sign of God’s love in the world. This means that the couple finds in their relationship a source of God’s grace, and through their partnership they assist one another in coming closer to God.
By the very fact that both the husband and the wife are baptized, their marriage becomes a sacrament. It is not a matter of where the wedding takes place or who officiates at the ceremony. Whether marriage is a sacrament is completely based upon the baptismal status of the parties.
When does a marriage come into being?
Marriage comes into being through lawfully manifested consent – that is, there must be a taking of the other as spouse in a way recognizable to the community. When two people give themselves to one another in order to create a partnership of life and love (marriage), and they do so in a manner recognized by the community, they marry. For two unbaptized people, this can be in front of a justice of the peace in the middle of a field. For a baptized Christian, this can be wherever their faith community recognizes the marriage.
For Catholics, as a faith community, when at least one of the parties is Catholic, the Church requires the parties to express their desire to give themselves in marriage before a priest, deacon, or designated minister, with two witnesses. We call this the canonical form of marriage. If a Catholic desires to enter marriage with a non-Catholic, a dispensation (relaxation of the law) may be granted, allowing the parties to exchange their consent in another manner. Nevertheless, this kind of dispensation is the exception.
What is an “annulment”?
A Catholic annulment, also known as a declaration of nullity or invalidity, is a statement of fact by the Catholic Church. After carefully examining the couple’s broken relationship, the Church states that a valid marriage, as the Church defines marriage, never existed. It is not “Catholic divorce,” as some have called it, since divorce looks at the moment the relationship broke down and says, “A marriage existed, and now we are ending it.” The annulment process says, on the other hand, “From the very beginning, something was lacking that was necessary for this relationship to be called a marriage.”
Quite often, what is lacking at the time of the civil contract is one of the essential elements or properties of marriage we have noted. The mature consent of the spouses in undertaking the marriage covenant may also be lacking.
Of course, the Church recognizes the couple’s initial love for one another. It also realizes that this love led to some form of relationship. In addition, the Church acknowledges that there was a valid civil contract and recognizes that the spouses were lawfully married in the eyes of the state. Therefore, all children born of this valid civil contract are legitimate, according to the Catholic Church. In keeping with canon 1137, they are known as the legitimate children of a “putative marriage.”
All these civil and legal realities the Church recognizes. But the annulment process looks at an entirely different realm – the spiritual – which falls within the Catholic Church’s domain of competence to judge.
Why is an annulment necessary?
The Church teaches that marriage is permanent. If a sacramental marriage is created, no human power can separate what God has joined together (see Mt 19:6). According to the Church, not even a civil government with the power to end the civil contract (which the state calls “marriage”) can terminate a sacramental marriage.
For this reason, once two people stand in front of God and contract a marriage, if they enter into a marriage covenant as defined by the Catholic Church, this covenant cannot be dissolved so long as both parties remain alive. The marriage bond is in place until death. As a result, no new marriage covenant can be created with someone else.
Any person who has entered a genuine marriage remains bound to that spouse. The spiritual bonds of marriage, if formed, cannot be ended by civil divorce. In the eyes of the Church, divorce ends the various civil, financial, and legal bonds previously contracted between spouses, but not the spiritual bonds.
For this reason, the Catholic Church investigates, through the annulment process, whether an actual marriage, as defined by the Church, came into being. In carrying out this investigation, the Church examines various facts presented to the marriage tribunal by those seeking the annulment and their witnesses. If the Church then determines that no genuine marriage came into being, these individuals are free to marry someone else if that person is also free to marry.
Why do I need an annulment if I’m not Catholic?
If you’re not Catholic, but plan to marry a Catholic, you might be asked to go through the annulment process. This seems odd to most non-Catholics because neither person from the first union is Catholic. Therefore, why should the Catholic Church investigate this marriage?
The Catholic Church presumes the validity of any marriage between two people who are free to marry at the time of their wedding. (They must have no previous marriages.) Basically, if the non-Catholic religious community of either spouse recognized the marriage, so does the Catholic Church. Since marriage, as God created it, is permanent, then the Catholic Church must also investigate these marriages. Because the non-Catholic wishes to marry a Catholic, the Church’s law applies to the proposed marriage, since canon law still binds the Catholic whom the non-Catholic wishes to marry.
In short, the Catholic Church believes her teachings concerning the essence and the properties of marriage bind all people, regardless of whether they are Catholic, as part of God’s natural law.
Are there options for working with previous marriages other than the annulment process?
Yes. For a person who was either Catholic or married to a Catholic, and did not marry according to the canonical form of marriage (in front of a Catholic priest or deacon with two witnesses), and if the Catholic Church’s permission was not obtained for this marriage (called a “dispensation from canonical form”), then the Church could process this case as a “Lack of Form.” The Church calls this an administrative process.
In this case, the individual must prove that one of the former spouses was Catholic, that the couple attempted marriage outside of the Catholic form without first obtaining the proper dispensation, and that the marriage is now irreparable. The individual must also establish that this marriage was never subsequently convalidated (commonly, and mistakenly, referred to as “blessed” by the Church.) Most marriage tribunals accept as sufficient proof of these circumstances the Catholic’s baptismal record, a copy of the marriage license, and the couple’s divorce decree. Nevertheless, depending upon particular circumstances, more evidence may be necessary.
If one of the spouses was not baptized during the first marriage, and the lack of baptism can be proven (provided the person applying for this process did not cause the marital breakdown), then a “Privilege of the Faith” case (or “Petrine Privilege” case) can be sent to the Holy See. If the Holy See approves, the non-sacramental marriage may then be dissolved in favor of a new marriage.
If neither of the spouses was baptized during their marriage, and now one of the spouses wishes to become baptized and marry a Catholic, provided one can prove the non-baptism of each former spouse, a Pauline Privilege is possible. In this situation, the diocesan bishop or his lawful representative, having established the non-baptized status of both parties, allows the non-sacramental partnership to be dissolved in favor of the new marriage. Of course, the spouse desiring baptism and the new marriage must first receive baptism.
A Basic Rule
If you are trying to determine whether you need an annulment, these explanations may be helpful. In any case, keep in mind one basic rule as you approach the process: If either you or your intended attempted a previous marriage, be sure to tell your priest. Before you attempt another marriage, the Church must address the previous marriage in some form or another, either by a documentary case, a privilege case, or a formal annulment process.
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