Holy Cross Seminary

Frequently Asked Questions About Catholicism
Answered by Fr. Peter Scott

Question: How can I get my four year old to participate in our daily Rosary?

Answer: The prayer of little children is a very delicate thing. Not unlike the disciples, who rebuked those who brought little children to be blessed by Our Lord, we find it difficult to understand that children can do what we find so difficult ourselves, namely prayer. Yet Our Lord was clear: “Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me: for the kingdom of heaven is for such” (Mt 19:14).

Children can indeed pray, but only within the limits of their capacities, namely their understanding, concentration and attention span. Moreover, their prayer must retain childlike simplicity to be genuine, that is spontaneity in asking for what they need, in praying for Mommy and Daddy, in telling Jesus they are sorry for their faults etc. Mary Reed Newland’s article Teaching children to Pray in Raising Your Children (available from Angelus Press) has some practical suggestions: “Children have such simple faith in the efficacy of prayer that it is easy for them to form the habit of praying on all sorts of occasions…occasions of minor crises during the day…They will voice their prayer aloud, matter of factly, and with the simplicity of the faith that is as a grain of mustard, they wait for the mountain to be moved….It is very easy to plant the habit, and their world is so much more secure, because of this faith that God is ready and willing to help them on every hand, that calling on Him is second nature to them.” (pp. 137 – 138)

If the family Rosary is not to become an interminable chore for little children, these principles must be applied. It must first be recognized that every family and every child is different. There are some families and some children, used to a more strict discipline, who will kneel or sit quietly during the recitation of the Rosary. There are others who find it impossible to stay still. The discipline required for the Rosary must be in proportion to the discipline required for the rest of their lives. If family life as a whole is disciplined, little Johnny will know how to sit still and be quiet during the sacred time of prayer. However, flexibility needs to be shown on the exterior details, depending upon the individual circumstances for each child (e.g. age, temperament and maturity) and each family.

Furthermore, unless they be malicious disruptions, distractions and lack of concentration should not be punished, lest prayer become onerous and painful. The emphasis should rather be given to positive rewards for good efforts, such as a fun activity or a treat after the recitation of the Rosary. The active involvement of the children, according to their age level, is crucial. This does not just mean saying the Our Fathers and Hail Marys, when they are able to do so. Each decade could be preceded by a very brief discussion of the mystery, and the children could be asked their intentions for each particular decade. A special virtue can be asked for, as well as sorrow for a fault. In this way the spontaneity can be renewed at the beginning of every decade.

Another key help to profiting from the daily Rosary is to take advantage of children’s ease in praying always, as Our Lord suggested. Their trust in Providence can be so profound, their sense of right and wrong so acute, that it can bring on a spontaneous prayer for God’s help or forgiveness. Very short but fervent prayers can punctuate the day. A parent can do well to take advantage of this and spread out the mysteries of the Rosary during the day.

However, above all else in importance is the example of the parents themselves. If the parents are bored and distracted during the recitation of the Rosary, irritable and picky towards their children, and if they recite the Rosary in a mechanical and routine manner, without unction or fervor, then the same will be found in their children. However, if they are recollected and fervent, able to verbalize the object of their meditation and the graces to be obtained, and if the parents find this an enjoyable time in God’s presence, rising above the million and one interruptions of fidgety children, then their children will strive to follow their example.

Question: Is a marriage valid if a couple agrees beforehand to limit the number of children by artificial birth control or natural family planning?

Answer: The Church’s teaching is summarized in Canon 1013 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which states that “the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children”. The intention of having children, provided that this is possible, is consequently essential to the very substance of the matrimonial contract, which is for “acts which are in themselves capable of engendering children”. Cf. Canon 1081 (1917 Code).

The importance of children as the primary end of marriage was again stressed by the Holy Office under Pope Pius XII: “To the question: ‘Whether the views of certain recent writers can be admitted, who either deny that the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children, or teach that the secondary ends are not necessarily subordinate to the primary end, but are equally principal and independent’ the reply was: In the negative” (Quoted in Bouscaren & Ellis, Canon Law, p. 400).

Yet the 1983 Code of Canon Law embraces the personalist conception condemned less than 40 years earlier by not only placing the two ends of marriage on an equal and independent level, but even listing first the secondary end (i.e. mutual support, or the personal good of the spouses): “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring” (Canon1055, §1, 1983 Code).

It is ultimately this new concept of marriage, as being for the couple themselves, and not so much for children, which has resulted in the refusal of Catholics since Vatican II to have large families. Artificial birth control, which is the destruction of Catholic families, is no longer condemned as a mortal sin, for marriage is now considered in a selfish way, as being for the couple itself, rather than an outpouring of love desiring to participate in God’s work of creation and sanctification of His children. The so-called practice of Natural Family Planning, propagated in the post-conciliar church as a “catholic” method of contraception, derives also from the same contraceptive mentality. Since marriage is considered primarily for the couple itself, they consider themselves free to determine the number of children and their spacing. This can be a mortal sin if NFP is employed without sufficient reason, as approved by the Church (e.g. serious eugenic, social or medical reasons, such as danger to the life of the mother through additional children). Whether it be through artificial or natural means that the first purpose of marriage is frustrated, such couples who are not willing to accept all the children God sends them do indeed fail to live up to their marriage vows.

However, this does not mean the marriage vows of couples who limit children by artificial contraception or natural family planning are necessarily invalid. The exclusion of children is certainly a grounds for a declaration of nullity, but only when there is an explicit, provable and positive act of the will to avoid children, that is only when the obligation of having children, as being the fulfillment of the first purpose of marriage, is explicitly excluded. For this is an intention contrary to the substance of marriage itself. The difficulty in such cases is to determine whether it is the obligation of having children which is refused, or whether it is simply the fulfillment of this obligation. (Cf. Bouscaren, Canon Law Digest, I, pp. 532, 533).

Those couples who accept the obligation of having children are certainly validly married, even if they do not always fulfill this obligation, e.g. by limiting the number of their children. This is the case of those selfish couples, without Faith in Divine Providence, who are determined to limit the size of their family for reasons of convenience or simply because they prefer it that way. They commit a grave sin, even if it is by NFP that they presume to do this. They are truly married, but they will never be able to communicate to their children generosity, the spirit of sacrifice, the love of the Cross, of souls and the Church.

Moreover, even if a couple deliberately excludes all children, the Church always presumes, until proven otherwise, that it is the fulfillment of the duty that is excluded, and not the obligation of having children itself, and that consequently the marriage is valid.

Question: Why is sterilization immoral, and is a reversal procedure ever necessary?

Answer: Sterilization is a particular form of artificial birth control, characterized by the additional evil intent that the frustration of the marriage act is meant to be permanent. It is surgically accomplished in a man by a double vasectomy, preventing the sperm from having access to the prostate and the seminal fluids. It is done in a woman by tubal ligation, preventing the fertilization of the ovum by the sperm from taking place.

It is a mortal sin, and is forbidden by the Church’s law precisely because it is against the natural law. The natural law is man’s participation in the Eternal law of God, and through it every rational creature recognizes in his conscience his own goal and the right means to attain it. It is a secondary but clear precept of the natural law that “the primary end of matrimony is the procreation and the education of children”, as is defined by Canon 1013, §1 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Sins that frustrate this end, inscribed by the natural law in every man’s conscience, are called sins against nature because they are a willful perversion of the order of nature.

Pope Pius XI has this to say about all such forms of artificial birth control: “No reason, however grave may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good. Since, therefore, the conjugal act is destined primarily by nature for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose sin against nature and commit a deed which is shameful and intrinsically vicious. Small wonder, therefore, if Holy Writ bears witness that the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times has punished it with death….the Catholic Church…through Our mouth proclaims anew: any use whatsoever of matrimony exercised in such a way that the act is deliberately frustrated in its natural power to generate life is an offense against t6he law of God and of nature, and those who indulge in such are branded with the guilt of a grave sin”. (Casti connubii, Pauline Books, pp. 28 & 29). All artificial birth control is consequently against the Church’s positive law, as well as against the natural law.

Pius XI has this to say in particular about sterilization: “Furthermore Christian doctrine establishes, and the light of human reason makes it most clear, that private individuals have no power over the members of their bodies than that which pertains to their natural ends; and they are not free to destroy or mutilate their members, or in any other way render themselves unfit for their natural functions, except when no other provision can be made for the good of the whole body”. (Ib. pp. 35 & 36). The theologians (e.g. Prummer, Manuale theologiae moralis, II, §6) further explain that a person does not have an absolute dominion or right over his body. He simply has control over its use, as a steward over his master’s property. He must consequently always use it according to the will and law of God. Sterilization is a form of self-mutilation, like the cutting off of a hand, and is a grave insult to God who gave the faculty to engender children.

The perversion involved in sterilization is that it is a procedure which is never done for the health of the whole body, but only and simply to frustrate procreation. Even in the case of a mother who already has many children, and who is too sick to bear any further children, sterilization (i.e. tubal ligation) is immoral and a mortal sin, for it is only through the frustration of the natural end of the marriage act that her health is helped, that is only through a perversion of nature. The ends does not justify the means. One cannot do evil that good may come of it. In such an instance a couple must practice abstinence.

It may be objected that sterilization is not such a grave sin as it once was, since this aspect of the natural law has been obscured. It cannot be denied that the modern personalist vision of marriage, namely that it is primarily “ordered towards the good of the spouses” (Canon 1055, §1of the 1983 Code of Canon Law and C.C.C. §1601) and only thereafter towards the procreation and education of children, has caused a radical and unnatural change in the manner of thinking. According to this new conception artificial birth control, and in particular sterilization, are seen to be a right, instead of a radical perversion of God’s plan, and the method of periodic continence is even praised. Although it is true that sterilization is still technically condemned by the post-conciliar church (C.C.C. 2297), it is only in passing, and in an ineffective and watered down manner. The consequence is obvious. Catholics everywhere have lost the sense of the moral law, and feel that they have a “right” to sterilization if they judge that they have had enough children, and it is for their personal good to stop now. Although this may diminish somewhat the subjective culpability of the couples involved, it does not change the fact that these procedures are an objective mortal sin and a perversion.

The question of reversal frequently arises, especially in the cases of couples who have become traditional after having had such a sterilization procedure performed. Fortunately it is frequently possible to reverse such sterilization procedures. The success of such procedures will depend upon the methods originally used, and upon the time that has evolved since. A simple ligation (e.g. of the fallopian tube or of the vas deferens) can be repaired. However, the tubes can be destroyed in the procedure, so that reversal is much more difficult. The passage of ten or more years makes the success rate markedly lower, particular with vasectomy reversal, on account of the slow down in sperm production which is the consequence of the vasectomy, and of the build up of antibodies against the sperm, due to blowout of the epididymis.

Clearly, however, there is only one way to remedy the defect caused by sterilization, only one means to make restitution for the offense caused to Almighty God; it is the reversal of the procedure. Any Catholic couple that is still of child-bearing age, who would maintain that they are sorry for having the procedure done, but would refuse to have it reversed, would be manifestly guilty of hypocrisy, and would have no firm purpose of amendment. This is why the confessor will necessarily impose as a condition to the granting of absolution that the penitent accept to have the reversal of the sterilization performed, if it is at all possible. If the urologist or the gynecologist insists that it is not possible to reverse the sterilization, or if he maintains that the chances of success in this particular case, are extremely low, then the couple is no longer bound in conscience to have the reversal done. Since reversal procedures are expensive and generally not covered by health insurance, it often happens that a couple does not have the funds for a reversal procedure. They should do all in their power to borrow or save up the funds to have the reversal done, but if this truly is not possible and for as long as it is not possible, then they are not bound to do what they cannot do.

Can a couple, of whom one is sterilized, request and render the marriage debt? If it is through no fault of their own that the reversal cannot be done, or if they have the intention to have the reversal performed as soon as it is possible, then it is permissible for both parties to request and render the marriage debt, after having accomplished a suitable penance and made reparation for any scandal that they have caused. A guilty party who would refuse to have the reversal procedure performed (presuming that it is possible), would lose his right to request the marriage debt, and would have to be refused absolution if he did.

However, it often happens that an innocent party never consented to his or her spouse’s sterilization procedure. Again Pius XI gives us the principle to know what to do: “Holy Church knows well that not infrequently one of the parties is sinned against rather than sinning, when for a grave cause he or she reluctantly allows the perversion of the right order. In such a case, there is no sin, provided that, mindful of the law of charity, he or she does not neglect to seek to dissuade and to deter the partner from sin”. (Ib. p. 30) Consequently it is permissible for the innocent party to request or render the marriage debt to his or her sterilized spouse, in order that the secondary purposes of marriage be fulfilled, namely mutual help and affection and the calming of the concupiscence.

A further objection is made that the vasectomized man is technically permanently impotent, being unable to provide sperm, and that consequently he cannot enter marriage and has no right to the marriage act if he is married, since he will never be able to fully accomplish it. This was the opinion of the older moral theologians, but theologians from the first half of the 20th century taught that the marriage act is substantially complete even without true sperm, since the other seminal fluids are present and suffice for the accomplishment of the secondary end of marriage (Bouscaren & Ellis, Canon Law, 1946, p. 470). This opinion was confirmed by decree of the Sacred Congregation for the Faith dated May 13, 1977. Consequently, if a reversal procedure should prove impossible, the vasectomized man does not lose the right to the marriage debt.

Is it a mortal sin to refuse one’s husband or wife the marital debt?

Answer: Conjugal relations are rightly called the "marriage debt", which each spouse owes the other in justice the relations that are apt to engender children. It is this very particular right over one’s body that is given up to one’s spouse by marriage vows. St. Paul is very explicit about this: "Let the husband render the debt to his wife, and the wife also in like manner to the husband. The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband. And in like manner the husband also hath not power of his own body, but the wife."  (I Cor. 7:3 & 4)  A debt in justice obliges under pain when a serious matter or quantity is owed. However, marriage relationships are a serious matter and of great importance. Furthermore, the refusal of the marriage debt may cause a danger of incontinence. Consequently, it is a mortal sin to deprive one’s spouse of these relationships. The typical example of this is when a wife feels that she is justified in withholding the marriage debt because her feelings are hurt, or she is not appreciated enough. However, there is no excuse for the husband to withhold the affection and care for his wife’s feelings, for is responsible for them as head of the family.

However, it is possible for the couple to agree, by mutual consent, to abstain for a short period of time, for example for penance, during Lent. However, it must be by mutual consent, and on the understanding that either spouse can withdraw it at any time. St. Paul speaks of this also: "Defraud not one another, except, perhaps, by consent, for a time, that you may give yourselves to prayer" (I Cor 7:5).

There can, however, be good reasons that excuse a husband or wife from rendering this marriage debt, such as adultery of the other spouse, or unreasonable demands (e.g. frequency, intoxication) or grave danger to health or life (e.g. by the possible communication of infectious diseases), or a husband who refuses to perform his duty of supporting his family (Jone, Moral Theology, pp. 557 & 558). There can also be special circumstances that reduce the culpability of refusing the marriage debt, so that it is only a venial sin, for example "if the petitioner will readily renounce his right, or if rendering it is only briefly postponed, or when the use of the marriage right is frequent and its refusal is only rare" (Ib.).

Question: Would a person with Celiac disease be protected by transubstantiation from being harmed by gluten in the host?

Answer: The argument that the accidental qualities of bread cannot harm the intestine of one who suffers from Celiac disease (non-tolerance of gluten in wheat bread) is false. It is of course true that the substance of the bread does not remain after the consecration of the sacred species. However, all the accidents remain, which includes not just the exterior appearance, but everything that is subject to the senses and that science can investigate, including the chemical composition. The chemical effects of the gluten on the intestinal wall will consequently still remain, just as much as the appearance and texture of bread, for they are just as accidental to the real nature of what is there as the appearance and texture. Here lies the miracle and the mystery of the Blessed Eucharist. It would be a miracle if the accidental qualities of gluten were not to harm the intestine. Although such miracles can happen, we cannot depend up on such an extraordinary intervention of Almighty God. Consequently, a person who suffers from Celiac disease needs to ask the priest to give him or her a very small portion of the host. It is never forbidden to manufacture the host out of rice or a non-wheaten material that does not contain gluten. Such hosts are not valid matter for the Holy Eucharist.

Question: Is a Catholic in mortal sin if he allows more than one year to pass since his last confession?

Answer: It is one of the six precepts of the Church, and is explicitly stated in Canon 906 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law: "All Catholics of either sex who have reached the years of discretion, that is the age of reason, are obliged to confess all their sins accurately at least once a year". Since this is a clear obligation in a serious matter, established by the Church for the salvation of souls, it is clear that it is under pain of mortal sin, and that if a person deliberately omits to confess his or her sins, he commits an additional mortal sin.

However, there is a change in the wording of the corresponding canon in the 1983 Code. Instead of all sins, it now says "serious sins" (Canon 989).This leaves some ambiguity, but it must be understood as meaning "mortal sins" to use the precise term employed by the traditional code of Canon Law. This seems to take away all obligation to confess sins if one thinks that one has no "serious" or mortal sins on one’s soul. This is the common practice in the post-conciliar church, in which many practicing Catholics go for many years without seeing the need to go to Confession. It is a great tragedy, for their conscience becomes extremely lax. Who are they to judge of themselves that they have not committed any mortal sin? It is hard to understand how one who is familiar with the traditional teachings of the Church could be excused from the sin of presumption.

However, it must be admitted that "strictly speaking, only those are obliged by this precept who have committed a mortal sin" (Jone, §395, p. 279). This is confirmed by Woywood and Smith’s Practical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (pp. 512 & 513). It is there pointed out that the obligation of confessing one’s mortal sins is of divine law, coming from Our Lord Himself. The time for the confession of sins was specified by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), but the Council of Trent interpreted this as applying only to those sins that have to be confessed by divine law. Furthermore the 1917 Code of Canon Law itself states explicitly (Canon 902) that the confession of venial sins is optional, and one canon cannot contradict another. Hence it was never strictly obligatory under pain of mortal sin for a Catholic who was sure that he had no mortal sin to go to Confession every year.

However, putting aside this technical and unreal exception, (for who can really pretend to be free of mortal sin when he is so lax as to go to Confession only once a year?), it remains that the spirit of the Church is that which is contained in the letter of Canon 906 from the traditional code, and not that contained in the new code, namely that every Catholic should consider it his duty to go to Confession at least once per year.

In fact, it is not just once a year, but frequently that we should confess our venial sins if we hope not only to stay in the state of grace, but also to advance in virtue. This is what Pope Pius XII had to say on this subject in 1943: "It is true that venial sins may be expiated in many ways which are to be highly commended. But to ensure more rapid progress day by day in the path of virtue, We will that the pious practice of frequent confession, which was introduced into the Church by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, should be earnestly advocated." (Mystici Corporis Christi, §88) Condemning the younger priests who "lessen esteem for frequent confession", the Pope described some of the many advantages to the soul of the regular confession of our venial sins. "By it genuine self-knowledge is increased, Christian humility grows, bad habits are corrected, spiritual neglect and tepidity are resisted, the conscience is purified, the will strengthened, a salutary self-control is attained, and grace is increased in virtue of the Sacrament itself." (Ib.) Is it any wonder that the Church requires that we go to Confession 8 days before or after gaining a plenary indulgence?

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