Frank discussions, advice, and opinions from a Catholic Director of Religious Education.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

All Souls Day

"In the Christian faith, there is only one dogma, splitting like light into a rainbow of colors. This one dogma is like a living body expressing itself in manifold members, each dependant on the others."
- Hans Urs Von Balthasar

The "no contraception" block was very important...
If you've been reading this blog for a little while, you know that I tend to get a bit sore when people ignore portions of Church teaching for convenience. The quote above is a beautiful explanation of why that is a dangerous practice. If Von Balthasar is too lofty for you, though, I can simplify it. Doctrine forms the Jenga tower of faith. When you start removing blocks, your tower becomes that much weaker and, ultimately, can't support itself.

Now, this doesn't mean we teach third graders at a university level, but it does mean we don't leave gaping holes in their catechesis. In my experience, this temptation to gloss over Church teaching has been most powerful regarding death and the last things. This goes especially for purgatory. This teaching just doesn't fit in with the happy-clappy, "I'm ok, you're ok" view of catechesis. Hell? Well, yeah! That makes sense for people like Hitler and Stalin, but the rest of us just fall asleep and see our long gone puppies and eat ice cream all day while floating on a cloud. Yup!

We just don't want to consider the possibility that maybe we aren't all that great. The Church knows this, and that is one reason why we have All Souls Day. On that day we remember the faithful departed and pray for the souls in purgatory. In doing so, we both perform an act of charity for our brethren in need and remind ourselves that

"...the work of each will come to light...and the fire will test the quality of each ones work.
If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage.
But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss;
the person will be saved, but only as through fire. "
1 Corinthians 3:13-15

These are very important reasons for observing All Souls, but I think there is another reason, just as important, which strikes at the very heart of salvation and justifies Von Balthasar's statement. Before we delve into this, we need a quick introduction to the Catholic view of sin and purgatory.

Essentially, Catholics believe there are two types of sin: Mortal and Venial. The mortal sin is akin to spiritual suicide. It is a conscious rejection of life with God and is therefore the reason why people go to hell. Three conditions must be met, together, for a sin to be mortal. These are:

1. Full Knowledge: You need to fully understand that what you are doing is against God's will.

2. Full Consent: You choose this course freely.

3. Grave Matter: The sin must be sufficiently grave (serious). This is tricky, but generally the 10 Commandments are a good point of reference.  

If any one of the conditions above is lacking, the sin is not mortal, but venial. It wounds our relationship with God, but doesn't reject it. We have plenty of evidence both from Sacred Tradition and Holy Scripture to prove that this is the historical view of Christians, but the following verse will be sufficient for now:
"If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life.
This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray.
All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly." 1 John 5:16 

Now, we know from scripture that nothing unclean shall come before the Lord. We also know, from the discussion above, that some sins do not warrant damnation. It is reasonable to assume, then, that some poor souls die with sins on their soul, but without meriting hell. For the Catholic, then, purgatory is necessary as a state of purification before some souls can enter heaven. This explanation is the dime novel version, of course, but we need to have this foundation because we are now going to delve into Von Balthasar's comment.

Each doctrine of the Church bolsters the others and protects against heresy. You might choose to reject the Church's teachings on purgatory, but think for a moment about what you would be embracing. By denying the need for, or at least possibility of, purification, we must embrace the idea that many of our protestant brethren have already championed. Namely, we must embrace the idea that Christ's sacrifice only "covers" our sin. In other words, as the famous saying goes, we must look at the forgiven man's soul as a "snow covered dung heap", somehow fooling God into letting us enter paradise.

This idea presents Jesus more as a clever teen trying to sneak his friends past Dad in the middle of the night than a transforming, redeeming savior. It limits God by saying that He can't fix us and tries to make us settle for a new coat of paint. The Catholic view, on the other hand, states boldly that the savior of the universe cleanses and transforms His creatures. If that transformation is taking place, but not complete by the time of death, God finishes it in purgatory, thus bringing to fulfillment the work he had started.

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