We Need "Appealing" Homilies

Mr. Bill Berry from San Diego wrote to complain about congregations burdened with stewardship talks during the homily at Mass. He argued that these situations rob the faithful of "real" teaching moments, and that they ought to be relegated to the "announcements" at the end of Mass instead (Letters, May-June 2010).

I agree that in a perfect world, every Catholic in attendance at Mass would already be faithfully participating in a sacrificial level of stewardship for the temporal needs of the Church, but that isn’t the case where I live.

Two points come to mind:

1. It is absolutely appropriate for stewardship homilies to be given during Mass, because stewardship is absolutely rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We remind ourselves every Lenten season to give alms: Is this disconnected from our faith? I think not. Jesus, after all, is "all in all." This teaches me that I need to remember to use my financial resources to promote that gospel (serving God, not Mammon), and it’s only a few times a year that we’re reminded of this truth.
2. A presentation during the homily guarantees a captive audience since it assumes that people will stay to hear it because they will stick around to receive Holy Communion. But place the stewardship appeal (or any significant announcement) at the end of Mass after Communion—forget it. The trickle of departures that occur after Communion will become a flood. As a result, no one but the folks probably giving most of the parish support already will be left to hear the message.

I join my prayers with Mr. Berry and the rest of my brothers and sisters in Christ that the faithful will respond to the needs of the Church and those it serves in a way that, someday, will make it unnecessary to have any more "saint money" talks during the homily!

—Ed Murphy
Oakville, Missouri

What Must We Know to be Saved?

I want to engage the points Fr. Brian Harrison made in his letter in the March-April issue.

His letter invites the question of what is absolutely (metaphysically) necessary for the salvation of an individual. The Catholic Church is said to be an absolutely necessary means of salvation, because it is so as a matter of the truth concerning the things that are. Actual membership in its visible communion is said to be a relatively necessary means of salvation, because some substitute for it is available to those for whom actual membership is morally or physically impossible, e.g. by reason of invincible ignorance or geographical distance. Baptism of water is relatively necessary for salvation because baptism of blood or of desire can substitute for it.

Now, baptism of desire has certain indispensable ingredients, including contrition and repentance, without which an adult of unimpaired reason cannot be saved. My starting point is that contrition and repentance are an act of the will, and that the will cannot move save in favor of something the intellect presents to it as good. Therefore, there must be present in the intellect two things. Firstly, the truth, assented to in faith, that God is good and sin is evil, otherwise the will cannot in an act of charity hate sin and love God. Secondly, the fact of God’s actual disposition to forgive the sins of the repentant, otherwise the will cannot—in an act of hope—rationally repent if the intellect does not show that it is profitable to do so.

I therefore have no difficulty with Fr. Harrison’s position that the fact that a person dies as an atheist or an agnostic is conclusive evidence that he is damned. What I have difficulty with is his apparent position that a person must, to be saved, know more than merely natural truth about God and must know that God has made a public revelation of divine mystery. Without ever having heard of Christ and the Church or of the prophets of Israel, he might yet be convinced of the irreducible minimum of truth and fact I outlined in the previous paragraph, but does he need to be otherwise fully advertent to the fact that it is God who is enlightening him?

—Michael Petek
Brighton, England

Fr. Brian Harrison replies: Here is the full text of the infallible Vatican I definition that I cited in my letter:

If anyone shall say that divine faith is not something distinct (non distingui) from a natural knowledge of God and moral matters, and that therefore it is not necessary for divine faith (ad fidem divinam non requiri) that revealed truth be believed because of the authority of God who reveals it (propter auctoritatem Dei revelantis credatur), let him be anathema. (Denzinger-Schönmetzer 3032)

It seems quite clear that the Council itself here answers affirmatively Mr. Petek’s question as to whether "a person must, to be saved, know more than merely natural truth about God and must know that God has made a . . . revelation of divine mystery." (I have omitted Mr. Petek’s word "public" before "revelation" because the Council doesn’t rule out the possibility that the supernatural truths necessary for salvation might be revealed by God privately to some people.) 

The Vatican I Fathers take it for granted here, as a truth definitively taught elsewhere, that "divine faith" is absolutely necessary for salvation. They are solemnly defining not only that this faith is something distinct from knowing "merely natural truth" about God and morality, but also that the additionally required truth must be believed for the right reason, namely, "because of the authority of God who reveals it." So believing that same truth for lesser and merely human motives—say, because of my own philosophical speculation about the Supreme Being, or on the authority of wise men in my tribe who have handed down to me such speculation—is not divine faith, and therefore will not be sufficient for salvation. This insufficiency of any motive for belief other than reliance on the authority of God’s revealing word—a reliance which by its very nature would have to be conscious and explicit (although perhaps not perfectly and fully so)—is spelled out even more clearly by Vatican I in the main text preceding the above canon (cf. DS 3008).

Many Catholics familiar only with the more benign language of Vatican II in Lumen Gentium 16 feel troubled when they learn of this earlier but de fide teaching of the Church. They try to find "loopholes" or "wiggle room" in it so as not to exclude from salvation all those pagans who are invincibly ignorant of Christ’s revelation. I too have wrestled with this issue for years—as with the Council of Florence’s shocking profession of faith (infallible ordinary magisterium) which proclaims "eternal fire" as the destiny of all who die as "pagans and Jews," as well as (formal) "heretics and schismatics." 

The solution I have come to prefer, as a synthesis of Vatican II mildness and Florentine severity, is that of St. Thomas Aquinas. He taught that those folks who are never reached by Christian missionaries or literature, but who persevere in seeking the truth and striving to follow the moral law according to conscience, will somehow be enlightened before the moment of death with at least the basic truths of the Gospel—perhaps by an angel or a direct interior revelation from God. They will thereby be enabled to make a true act of divine faith and undergo a saving "baptism of desire." 

The mounting clinical evidence and innumerable personal testimonies in recent decades regarding "near death experiences" lend indirect support to St. Thomas’ opinion. I say "indirect," because while the reported content of NDEs varies widely and could in any case scarcely be regarded as a solid basis for Catholic theological speculation, what these experiences do demonstrate very clearly is that people on hospital beds showing no signs of consciousness (or even life!) to bystanders or brain-monitoring instruments can in fact be undergoing intensely conscious, vivid, and often life-changing experiences which they later recount passionately to others. That surely underlines the fact that almighty God certainly has the power to convert sincere and good non-Christians into Christians at the very end of their life, even without anyone else on earth knowing about it.

(Unconditional) Love Is . . .

It was most refreshing to hear the Holy Father speak candidly of unconditional love when he addressed the members of the Pontifical Biblical Commission on April 15, 2010. His admonition to the illustrious members expressed my hope that someday the Holy Father would make a statement regarding unconditional love. Perhaps the Holy Father did exactly what some of us could not imagine taking place so soon when he said:

There is an exegetical trend that states that in Galilee Jesus would have proclaimed a grace without conditions, absolutely unconditional, therefore also without penitence, grace as such, without human preconditions. But this is a false interpretation of grace. Repentance is grace; it is a grace that we recognize our sin; it is a grace that we realize the need for renewal, for change, for the transformation of our being. Repentance the capacity to be penitent, is a gift of grace. And I must say that we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word penitence it seemed to us too difficult.

Let us continue to hope that those who have ears will hear the pope’s clear explanation, especially during these troubling times in the Church. The full address to the scholars can be found at www.vatican.va.

In view of this statement by the Holy Father, it should be more correct to avoid erroneous statements relating to "unconditional love," as in the past by some of your apologists (Quick Questions, April 2009, pg. 47).

—Carmelo Fallace
Via e-mail

Fr. Vincent Serpa replies: After rereading my answer about God loving us unconditionally, I don’t see any statement that I made that I would call erroneous. I certainly agree that repentance is necessary in order to seek God’s forgiveness and also that the very act of repentance is itself a grace. We cannot move toward God without the Holy Spirit’s help.

I wrote that God loves us unconditionally in that he loves us even in our sins: "but what proves that God loves us is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners" (Rom 5:8). Certainly, God cannot love our sins. 

You are alarmed at the current false notion that nothing is required of us in the face of our sins. I too recognize the presence of such erroneous thinking. This why I wrote that God will always forgive us if we repent.

This article appeared in Volume 21 Number 4.