Last Sunday, August 28th, was the feast of St. Augustine – though it was superseded by the Sunday liturgy. The holy bishop of Hippo and Doctor of Grace was, of course, a prolific writer. Almost everything he wrote, however, was a response to particular situations and controversies of the time and, while this is the mark of a true pastor of souls, it also made it more likely that there would be certain exaggerations or even errors in the finer points of his teachings.
And so, towards the end of his life (c. 426-428), St. Augustine wrote the Retractationes or “Reconsiderations” wherein he offers certain clarifications and corrections to his earlier writings.
I wish to offer this post in a similar spirit. In particular, I intend to clarify points which I have made here at The New Theological Movement which could really be confusing to some readers.
The level of authority which I claim when writing
I do not intend to claim any particular level of authority when writing articles for NTM. I do write as a parish priest, but I do not thereby claim to be an expert or to have any magisterial authority. Rather, I hope only to write with a spirit of charity and true pastoral concern – the teachings I present are not my own (or at least, I try to ensure that they are not mine), but come from the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and from her greatest theologians.
However, I do readily admit that I often adopt a direct and somewhat forceful style which can give the impression that the opinion I express is meant to be taken as dogma. Certainly, that is not my intention! Still, I do believe that what we offer here at NTM is at least solid and reliable teaching based firmly in the tradition of the Church and the best of modern Catholic theology (recalling that the “modern period” extends from the 16th century to today).
Now, we turn to the reconsideration and re-presentation of certain points.
Regarding penance and the sacrament of Reconciliation
A few friends of mine have helped me to reconsider my claim that reconciliation is not valid if the penitent does not agree to the penance imposed by the confessor. First, I should be clear that I do not really hold this position absolutely. Rather, I have stated that, if the penitent directly and purposefully (with full knowledge of the seriousness of the matter) refuses to fulfill the penance given by the priest – that is, not simply desiring a different penance, but actually and intentionally refusing to do any penance whatsoever which the priest might ask – then that penitent is not disposed to receive the sacrament.
Such is the very clear teaching of the Baltimore Catechism (which I site not as a magisterial absolute, but as a sure guide for catechesis, which is the principal goal of The New Theological Movement): q.191 of the revised Baltimore Catechism n.4
“191. Q. What must we do to receive the Sacrament of Penance worthily?
A. To receive the Sacrament of Penance worthily we must do five things:
1. We must examine our conscience.
2. We must have sorrow for our sins.
3. We must make a firm resolution never more to offend God.
4. We must confess our sins to the priest.
5. We must accept the penance which the priest gives us.”
Similarly, I point to the Catechism of Pius X (question 106):
“106 Q: Is the penitent bound to accept the penance imposed on him by the confessor?
A: Yes, the penitent is bound to accept the penance imposed on him by the confessor if he can perform it; and if he cannot, he should humbly say so, and ask some other penance.”
Now, what I have written is certainly well within the teachings of the modern Catechisms. I do not claim this as a certain dogmatic truth, but I do think it is a reasonable opinion which a Catholic can hold in good faith.
I will admit that I should not have said that the sacrament would be “invalid”, since this is not the technical language which the Church uses. I should have said that the penitent will not receive the sacrament worthily, that he commits a sin (which is probably a serious sin, according to St. Alphonsus and others), and that those sins (at least those mortal sins) confessed without the intention of completing the penance must be confessed again in a later confession (insofar as our memory allows, and here we must avoid excessive scrupulosity) – this is the opinion of St. Alphonsus in his Theologia Moralis. We also ought to confess that we have made a confession without any intention of completing our penance.
Still, I must insist that my principal objective in mentioning the importance of accomplishing penance was to help people enter more fully into the fruitful reception of this sacrament. I would suppose that, on account of ignorance or confusion or misunderstanding, it has occurred (perhaps even quite often) that a particular penitent has not intended to fulfill the penance of the priest and, because this was not a purposeful and intentional fault, the sacrament has been received in a subjectively worthy manner.
The article on “How to make a good confession” can be found here.
Regarding whether most non-baptized children commit a mortal sin as their first rational act
I will deal with this only very briefly. I never claimed that it was a theological certainty that non-baptized children will commit a mortal sin as their first rational act, I only stated that this seemed most likely to me and was the opinion of St. Thomas Aquinas and others (even down to our own day, e.g. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, consultant to Pope Pius XII and the most widely respected theologian in the City of Rome during the early to mid 1900s).
The reason for this claim is quite simple: First, a man is either in mortal sin or in the state of grace. Now, a non-baptized person who comes to the age of reason is (as far as we can presume) still under original sin and therefore is not in the state of grace. However, for a rational individual to not be in the state of grace is for him to be in mortal sin.
Hence, we must presume that the first rational act (and we admit that rationality is a gradual process, but we also insist that there indeed be some act which is the first self-cognizant act) is either to turn to God or to turn away from God (even if this is only an omission). If the child turns toward God, then he is no longer in the state of original sin, but is remitted (by God’s grace) of original sin [perhaps in a quasi-“baptism of desire”] and brought into the state of grace. If, on the other hand, he turns away from God, then he has committed a mortal sin (at least of omission) – since this turn refuses grace and, without grace, the rational man is in mortal sin.
The simple point is this: No one who has the use of reason is deprived of sanctifying grace without committing an actual mortal sin. Hence, those non-baptized persons who come to the use of reason either: a) are moved by actual graces to make a supernatural act by which they receive grace and the forgiveness of original sin; or b) commit a mortal sin of omission by not receiving the grace of God and failing to turn to him in their hearts in the best way they know how.
Now, I only expressed my personal opinion that most non-baptized individuals commit a mortal sin as their first rational act. I do not claim this as certain, but I do think that the primary reason why the Gospel needs to be preached is that those rational persons who are not baptized are not yet in the state of grace, but are in great need of the grace which is ordinarily given through the sacraments.
This is a matter of opinion, but I believe can be safely taught in catechesis because it seems to be the consensus of the Fathers, Doctors, saints and theologians (even, indeed, of many theologians today). The relevant article can be found here.
Regarding the limbo of the children
Again, here I must be clear: I have very emphatically stated that the Church does not require us to believe in the children’s limbo. We are free to believe that deceased non-baptized infants have, by some working of grace beyond our knowledge, gone to heaven. I would strongly defend their salvation as a possible option.
However, we are also free to think that the children who die without baptism go to limbo. Now, I myself am slightly more inclined to this belief, but I am not even personally settled to one side or the other. It is a very difficult question, one which is particularly sensitive today on account of the vast increase of abortions and miscarriages.
What I have tried to explain in my posts on limbo is only what limbo WOULD be if it did exist – i.e. I am only trying to present what the theologians are claiming when they argue for the existence of a children’s limbo.
If there were a limbo for children who die without baptism, it would have to be part of hell because at the end of time there can be no third realm beyond heaven and hell. However, the children there would almost certainly not know that they were missing out on heaven, nor would they know that they are in hell. They would only have a natural knowledge of God – knowing he exists and loving him as the Creator, but completely ignorant of the Trinity and of Jesus. These children would probably suffer no sensible pains (according to St. Thomas), but would instead by very happy and perfectly fulfilled on a natural level.
So, considered subjectively, limbo would be a very good place! However, considered objectively, it is part of hell because the children would have missed out on the salvation which is above our nature and which is given us in Christ Jesus. Knowing and loving God on a natural level, they would still be completely deprived of the supernatural knowledge and love which brings supernatural happiness to man.
In my writing on this subject, I am doing nothing more than re-iterating the teaching of the Baltimore Catechism (and, mind you, I am only trying to present what the theological opinion of theologians has been about limbo; all I’m trying to do is present the teaching which is found in the Baltimore Catechism and other such catechetical works).
From Baltimore Catechism n.4, q. 154:
“154. Q. Is Baptism necessary to salvation?
A. Baptism is necessary to salvation, because without it we cannot enter into the kingdom of Heaven.
Those who through no fault of theirs die without Baptism, though they have never committed sin, cannot enter Heaven neither will they go to Hell. After the Last Judgment there will be no Purgatory. Where, then, will they go? God in His goodness will provide a place of rest for them, where they will not suffer and will be in a state of natural peace; but they will never see God or Heaven. God might have created us for a purely natural and material end, so that we would live forever upon the earth and be naturally happy with the good things God would give us. But then we would never have known of Heaven or God as we do now. Such happiness on earth would be nothing compared to the delights of Heaven and the presence of God; so that, now, since God has given us, through His holy revelations, a knowledge of Himself and Heaven, we would be miserable if left always upon the earth. Those, then, who die without Baptism do not know what they have lost, and are naturally happy; but we who know all they have lost for want of Baptism know how very unfortunate they are.”
Again, I do not present this as though it were an absolute teaching, but only to show that this was the common opinion of many. My point here is not to argue for the existence of the limbo of the children, but only to show what the theologians had claimed about limbo.
[The fact that the Baltimore Catechism states that limbo is neither in Heaven or Hell does not contradict my point that Limbo is a part of Hell (i.e. the fringe, which is what the Latin word “limbus” means). Rather, the Catechism is meaning to state that Limbo is not in Hell proper, since those souls do not suffer sensible torments or pains (and it is in this sense that I have stated that the children in limbo do not suffer pains, i.e. they suffer no sensible pains).]
A few lines from the Catholic Encyclopedia will suffice to summarize the traditional position:
“Now it may confidently be said that, as the result of centuries of speculation on the subject, we ought to believe that these souls enjoy and will eternally enjoy a state of perfect natural happiness; and this is what Catholics usually mean when they speak of the limbus infantium, the ‘children's limbo.’ […] Moreover, there was the teaching of the Council of Florence, that ‘the souls of those dying in actual mortal sin or in original sin alone go down at once (mox) into Hell, to be punished, however, with widely different penalties.’ […] What has been chiefly in dispute is whether this happiness is as perfect and complete as it would have been in the hypothetical state of pure nature, and this is what the majority of Catholic theologians have affirmed.” [see the whole article here (with a very good history of the discussion)]
The International Theological Commission, which is the principle consultative body to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when clarifying that limbo has never been officially taught as a matter of doctrine, has also stated that “[The children’s limbo] remains a possible theological hypothesis.” (see the 19 April 2007 document here)
Some modernists will claim that the souls in limbo (if there is a limbus puerorum) could not possibly be happy because they are completely without God. However, this is a manifest error – the souls in limbo (as well as those in Hell proper) are not completely separated from God, but are only deprived of any supernatural union with the Lord. Therefore, the souls in limbo could enjoy perfect natural happiness through a natural union with God. Nothing, not even a soul in Hell, is completely separated from God.
Are all wealthy persons guilty of mortal sin?
Though I have written several times on the importance of caring for the poor, I would never claim that all wealthy persons are in mortal sin. I would never claim to be able to judge the state of a man’s soul.
However, I will state this (and I will be as simple and direct as possible): I cannot see how, objectively, it is not a mortal sin (i.e. grave matter) for one man to be rich while his neighbor (i.e. one whom he could easily assist) starves to death or lacks the basic necessities required to continue in life. If a man has abundant resources, he is obligated to give to those whom he can reasonably help if they lack the NECESSITIES which are required for life.
Objectively, it is grave matter for a man to refuse such necessities to the poor when he could reasonably do so (and I mean to those who are truly poor, who cannot continue without assistance). In fact, such assistance is not really an act of charity or almsgiving (in the common use of the words), but is an act which is dictated by justice (so says St. Ambrose, and St. Thomas agrees).
In my article on the subject, I defend this opinion with many citations of Fathers, Doctors, Popes, and Ecumenical Councils. See the articles here and here.
Regarding whether Christ is “physically present” in the Eucharist
I don’t want to get into the whole theology of this debate, I have already discussed it many times on this blog (and will do so many more times in the future). I will simply try to explain what I am actually claiming.
I do not say that it is impossible for the Church to teach that Christ is physically present, I only state that I am quite certain that she will never in fact teach this. I base this opinion on the fact that Pope Paul VI (practically quoting St. Thomas directly) states that Christ is not present in the Eucharist as in a place: “Christ is present, whole and entire in His physical ‘reality’, corporeally present, although not in a manner in which bodies are present in a place” (Mysterium Fidei, 46).
Now, when we say that a thing is “physically present” we generally mean that it is present “in a manner in which bodies are present in a place.” But Pope Paul VI (following St. Thomas Aquinas word-for-word) has taught that we cannot say that Christ is present in the Eucharist after the manner in which bodies are present in a place.
Therefore, I don’t think that it is helpful to say that Christ is “physically present” in the Eucharist – though it is very helpful to state that he is present in his “physical reality”. Moreover, I doubt that the Church would ever state that the Christ is “physically present” in the Eucharist, since this is not be the way the Church has spoken of the Eucharist since the time of the Scholastics (or ever, for that matter).
On the “age of reason” and the mental development of children
Some (very modern) persons are intent on stating that any notion of “age of reason” or “attaining to the use of reason” is nonsense because, as they claim, the maturation of a child is a gradual process. Reading certain modern writings against the notion of the “age of reason”, one might get the impression that St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Alphonsus Liguori, the writers of Canon Law, Bl. John Paul II (who promulgated that Law), and all the other Fathers, Doctors, and theologians are complete idiots who knew and know nothing at all about human development!
Of course the mental development of a child is a gradual process – but some act must be the first self-cognizant act! Of course we cannot make an absolute statement about the “age of reason” that applies to every child – but, in general, it seems to the pastors of the Church (i.e. to the bishops) that most children only become rational enough to make morally significant decisions at around the age of seven years (and, as a priest who has heard many first confessions, I can testify to the Church’s wisdom in this matter).
In this point, it is important that we reason with the Church, with the Roman Catechism of Trent, with the (current and past) Code of Canon Law, with the current Catechism, with St. Thomas Aquinas, with the moral theologians (including St. Alphonsus Liguori), and with many others down to our own day who have taught and still teach that the words “age of reason” and “attaining to the use of reason” are meaningful ways of speaking.
If, in previous comments over the years, I have been harsh or too direct (as I surely have on occasion), I am deeply sorry and I sincerely ask forgiveness. We all (even us priests) are growing into full maturity in Christ. Please pray for me, as I pray for all of you. Know that, in all things, my one concern is the clear and accurate presentation of the Faith.
I do not present myself as a theologian or as a supreme arbiter of what is Catholic and what is not. I am only a simple parish priest, and I write for this blog in my spare time. I rejoice if I am able to help anyone learn more about our Faith and come closer to Christ our Savior.