Abstinence Key to Sacraments?


I have difficulty in accepting Fr. Vincent Serpa’s reply to one of the questions in the December 2006 issue of This Rock, which concerned a return to the Church. The person was refused absolution because he was living in a non-sacramental marriage with his agnostic wife even though they are abstaining from sexual relations.

In his reply, Fr. Serpa stated that as long as he was living a chaste life, he was entitled to receive absolution and receive Holy Communion where his situation was not known so as not to give scandal—and to find another confessor.

Well, his reply shocks and puzzles me. Is the basis for receiving Holy Communion simply a lack of sexual relations? Is the fact that the person lives in a non-sacramental marriage of no importance despite the fact that he is a Catholic (though a non-practicing Catholic at the time of his marriage)? Does he have no responsibility for any of his former actions? What kind of message is being sent—that it is all right for a Catholic to enter into a non-sacramental (invalid) marriage so long as the couple abstains from sexual relations? Is abstaining the entire key?

— Agatha Reason
Novi, Michigan

Fr. Serpa responds: No one is suggesting that the lack of sexual relations is the only necessary preparation for receiving the Eucharist. One must be in the state of grace (i.e., no mortal sins on one’s soul). Living in an invalid marriage is not a mortal sin. Having sexual relations with a person to whom one is not validly married is. We do not know the whole context here, only that part that the question reveals. We don’t know if children are involved. We don’t know his moral responsibilities to his wife, and there probably are some since she entered into the marriage innocently enough. Remember, she is not a Catholic.

I can’t imagine many people deliberately entering into a non-sacramental marriage with the intention of abstaining from sexual relations until death. Such could very well be an occasion of sin, though. Sexual abstinence in such an intimate situation cannot be easy for most people.

Most importantly, the man is taking responsibility for his actions. That’s the whole point of the question! He made mistakes in the past and has since been given the grace of conversion. Grace comes from the Holy Spirit. It is the role and obligation of the priest to help the person who has been so graced to cope with the context of his current situation. We don’t know where his relationship with his wife is going. What we do know is that he needs the grace of the sacraments now and is entitled to them.


Good Art is a Matter of Knowledge

I greatly admire the work of Karl Keating. So, no offense, Karl, but your recent article entitled "Architectural Aberrations" (December 2006) prompted me to write.

Mr. Keating makes the observation that a lot of ugly art and architecture has been made for the Church recently. That is true. He then proposes that we have a moratorium on church renovation. There are a few problems with this. First, churches are renovated because there is a need for space or because they are ugly. Here in Texas our churches are growing and there are few priests. If you want to have a priest you must make your building big—space is the real driving force behind renovation and new construction. He also proposes that this moratorium last until the retirement of those priests ordained around the 1970s, as he feels those priests are the culprits in all this. Well, kind of. Those of us old enough to remember those times remember that the traditional style had been done to death. A new wind was blowing and it was encouraging to see that the churches were a part of this. Give these 70s buildings a few years and they may be desired again.

So, let’s get rid of fashion, you say! But all the great examples of church art were just as much a part of the fashion of their times as the bad works were. Architecture and art are a reflection of the times and the artists that made them. Don't misunderstand me. We are in an artistic crisis and this affects even how important we think God is. Some of what we think about God (for good or ill) we learned by looking at the great art or the tawdry art made about him. The arts are greatly neglected by Christianity as a whole, and if no one is communicating the Gospel, the people perish.

I am a painter and sculptor. Very few of my colleagues think of making art about Our Lord. When I tell them what I am up to, they try hard not to let me see their disappointment. The art you see today often is not good and this is true of religious art as well—only more so.

So what can you and I do? Don't stop making churches. Instead, teach artists well and hire them. When you see inspiring art, bring a photo to your priest or art and architecture committee. Volunteer for this committee. Encourage knowledgeable people you know to join. It is axiomatic with average folks that art preference is just a matter of opinion. It is not. It is a matter of knowledge. So, learn something about it.

The Lord once said during His entry into Jerusalem that if the people failed to cry "Hosanna," the rocks would cry out instead. We sculptors and architects have been put in charge of the rocks to make them cry out. All we want is to keep doing just that.

— John Collier
Via e-mail

Karl Keating responds: It may be that in Texas everything already is big or needs to be made big, churches included, but most church renovations I am familiar with were not undertaken because an existing structure was too small. When a parish outgrows its facilities, usually a new parish is established nearby, and the congregation is divvied up between them.

Be that as it may, the artistic problem remains. Whether it is a small building being made large, a crumbling building being repaired, or a new building being erected from scratch, in most places the result is bad art. There frankly was not much to be said for Catholic church architecture in the 40s and 50s, but the 60s and 70s saw a real decline from that modest level, and the mindset that produced the lesser architecture still prevails.

In light of Mr. Collier's remarks, I am willing to modify my recommendation regarding a moratorium: Let's build afresh or renovate where needed, but let's have all designs vetted by an unbiased committee of two, Mr. Collier and myself. If we both vote aye, the work goes forward. If either one of us votes nay, a new design must be produced. If both of us vote nay, the architect is sent into exile.


Christ’s Right Side

I am writing regarding Michelle Arnold's answer regarding the depiction of Christ's wounds on most crucifixes (Quick Questions, December 2006).

Some additional reasons could account for this tradition:

Ezekiel 44:1-2 is often cited as a prophecy of Christ's sacrifice; the temple faces east and water flows from the south side of the altar (hence the right side as facing east). The hymn sung during the sprinkling rite after the renewal of our baptismal promises during the Easter Season echoes this prophecy: "I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple..." Christ's body is the temple (John 2:19-22).

The image on the Shroud of Turin may have been known by many of the artists in the centuries during which these images were created. The Shroud shows the wound on the right side of the body.

The French surgeon Pierre Barbet, in A Doctor at Calvary, disputes the popular notion that the heart is located on the left side. He says it is mesially located behind the sternum, and the right auricle of the heart is on the right side of that mesial line. He goes on to point out that Roman soldiers knew that the "blow at the heart from the right was always mortal" and that in Caesar's Commentaries "the expression ‘latus apertum. . . the side being opened’ were the classical words for denoting the right side." In addition, "blows to the intercostal spaces on the right side of the breastbone do not allow of recovery, because they open up the very thin wall of the right auricle." From his experiments on cadavers, Barbet is convinced that "the blow of the lance which was given to the right side reached the right auricle of the heart, perforating the pericardium," thus permitting the flow of both blood from the auricle and "water" from the pericardium.

Barbet quotes from St. Augustine that the wound was in Christ's right side, so even as early as the fourth century, the tradition was already entrenched.

I always enjoy This Rock, and Quick Questions is often one of the first features I read when the magazine arrives. Back issues have provided many really useful apologetic articles and I'm grateful to have an orthodox source for answering questions about the faith. Thanks for your great work.

— Judith A. Smith
Fort Collins, Colorado

Correction: February’s feature on the plight of the Anglican church omitted a line of text. On page 22, the first sentences should read: "A man from the neighboring parish summed it up. A young liberal . . . " We apologize for the confusion.


This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 3.