updated 14 August, 2019
(The questions and answers on this page are also posted in their respective categories below. As they are replaced here with new q & a, they will remain in their permanent categories for future reference. This process will be repeated in future postings)
Q 1: In the fall of my eighth grade year at the parochial school I attended, one of the nuns who taught us religion advised my class that the Chair of Unity Octave was observed in the last parish the she had been assigned. She added that the week of observance was usually in January but was not sure if our parish celebrated it, having just arrived at the start of the school year. What was or is the Chair of Unity Octave? Was it eclipsed by the changes undertaken subsequent to Vatican II?
A 1: The chair of Unity Octave is a misnomer, probably due to the fact that the week of prayer begins on the feast of the Chair of St. Peter. It ends on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.
It was originally called the Church Unity Octave, but the current name is "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity." It was started a little over a hundred years ago by Fr. Paul Wattson, S.A. who also founded the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement. Their primary work is to promote Christian Unity.
The week of prayer continues today. Nothing at the Second Vatican Council contradicts anything the week stands for. In fact, quite the opposite. These days the World Council of Churches works with the Vatican in determining sub-themes and texts to be used each year during the octave . I suppose that, unfortunately, with everything else going on these days, many parishes do not emphasize this week of prayer. This is, indeed, a worthy cause and a good call for prayer.
Q 2: I have a close friend of many years who wants me to be a reference for him and his gay partner to adopt a son. I think both he and his partner are loving, mature, good people. I am a devout Catholic and do believe that their lifestyle, however, is disordered. If I write the the reference, and I guilty of grave sin?
A 2: Thank you for your thoughtful question. I think I understand your concern and your uncertainty about your response to your friend. Let me try to answer this way.
As you probably know, the official Catholic teaching on homosexuality uses the term "disordered." However, the Church's use of disordered in not the same as our everyday use. It is a philosophical concept that does not imply any moral judgment on a person's behavior. And although the Church opposes homosexual activity, it also teaches that homosexual individuals should not be discriminated against.
It seems that this issue ultimately comes down to a judgment on your friend's lifestyle. Or perhaps more accurately, a question about what kind of person he is. You say that he and his partner are loving, mature and good people. It sounds like a wonderful home for a child to grow up in. The fact that they are a gay couple is somewhat accidental. The point is that they are a couple—a loving couple. I know that there are some people who claim (because they do not approve of homosexuality) that we should shield children from this lifestyle. The truth is, of course, that the gay lifestyle, as well as gay marriage, is becoming more and more acceptable—and is now legal in many countries, including the United States. So children will be exposed to it, even if only through their friends and classmates.
In the final analysis, your question is about your action and any possible culpability on your part. You are only being asked to provide a reference, to verify that they are good people and would make good parents. You are not being asked to approve or disapprove of their sexual orientation. Providing you tell the truth, you would not be guilty of any sin, grave or otherwise.
I have a friend in a similar situation. He and his partner have two children and stye have provided a wonderful, loving home for them to grow up in. The children are happy, and well-adjusted. I don't think they could grow up in a better home. If your friend and his partner are anything like my friends, then your positive reference might help make another child's life happy and fulfilled.
Q 3: I am a Catholic teenager who is wondering if the act of masturbation is still considered to be a sin. I am 18 years old and I am somewhat late going through changes—physically and mentally. I do believe that it is a natural way to find out about one's body and how it can be used. I have heard that it is not a sin but a natural and healthy thing to do. I have also heard that it is a sin. I have heard that a vast majority of both boys and girls do it. I can understand if one does it while thinking about other people then it is a sin. But if one doing it to get rid of old stuff then does it count as a sin? I have done it recently and I am going through puberty. There are no thoughts, images or fantasies involved. I do think it is better than having a nocturnal emission and having to clean your underpants and to hide it so no one thinks that I wet the bed. I also believe that it is better to masturbate rather than waking up to find a sticky mess in my underpants which has happened to me and it was not fun. I don't want to have to go to bed worrying about a mess in the morning. I have also heard that it can help reduce the risk of prostate cancer. Is it normal to fee confused about it after doing it? I am planning to talk to my parents and a priest to see what they think of it. If my parents say that it is natural and a normal thing to do, does that mean it is all right to do it? The only tricky thing is that I am not entirely sure how to approach the subject with them. I have mentioned it to my mother and she doesn't seem to be bothered by it. She said that it is better to do that than to be out having intercourse with girls. I haven't done it in three weeks and I feel conflicted over it. I don't want to feel guilty for doing something that has been labeled natural and normal. I love and believe in God and want to know what the views are on it. I do not have any addiction whatsoever. I have used very good control over myself. I am just a curious teenager wondering if masturbating is a sin or not.
A 3: The simple answer to your question is no. Masturbation is not a sin. But perhaps there are some nuances that should be included.
You have heard correctly that this is a natural and normal thing to do. And it does not matter whether or not there are any specific images or fantasies. As you say, you may be late coming to puberty, but the experience is relatively the same. And yes, the vast majority of boys and girls do it. I suggest that the only ones who not are those whose attitude toward sex has been distorted and corrupted by others, leaving them to sublimate their normal feelings. Also, masturbating will not eliminate all nocturnal emissions, since they happen pretty much on their own.
Most priests that I know also say that masturbation is not a sin. But it might help to know a little about the origin of the idea. We take for granted today that the science we know, in this case biology, has always been known. But that is not the case. There was a time when people thought that the sperm were little babies that merely incubated inside a woman. Therefore, masturbating or deliberately spilling one's sperm was akin to abortion. A silly idea today, but that was what people thought.
The fact that we have a better knowledge of science does not, in and of itself, mean that the former teaching about masturbation was wrong. But if the premise of the teaching has been proved incorrect, then the conclusion is at least suspect.
Although I say that masturbation is not a sin, I would add that almost anything can be a sin. For example, I know of a man who used to masturbate in bed with his wife next to him, knowing that she was awake. She was willing to have sex, but he would masturbate just to be mean, trying to hurt her feelings and damage her sense of self-worth. He would not even get up and go to the bathroom to do it in private. I'm sure you can see how that is a terrible way to treat someone you are married to, even if you no longer love that person. That seems to me to be an example of sinful masturbation—not because of the masturbation itself, but because of the intent to hurt.
But even for those who consider masturbation to be a sin, there is an element that many people either do not know or seem to have forgotten. In a very traditional approach to moral theology, when someone acts out of habit, their culpability or responsibility for the act is diminished. For me, however, and for many other priests that is not the real issue.
Another thing to consider, something that comes from the world of psychology, is that masturbating can relieve great stress and tension. Those things build up inside all of us for many different reasons. And for our psychological health they must find some outlet. As we grow older we may find other ways of relieving stress. But for both the young and the old, masturbation is fundamentally victimless. And it can be an aid in developing healthy sexual relationships in the future. For example, it might be good to tell your partner what things you like, what things arouse your sexual passions, so that you can share them together. Ultimately, it is difficult to comprehend how such a normal part of life can be sinful, other than in the kind of example I cited above.
From my perspective, people who are obsessed with this issue, such as some priests or bishops who make a big point of it, especially those who claim very dogmatically that masturbation is a serious sin, have their own very serious problems with sexuality. Why should anyone make a point of it, causing additional stress in someone's life and creating an unnecessary sense of guilt? Other than learning about one's sexual development in general, I don't see why masturbation should be discussed at all. But it certainly does not rise to the level of a sin. And even if it did, it would not constitute a serious sin.
I know longer use the terms "mortal" and "venial" because they can be very misleading. But in that older terminology, masturbating is clearly not a mortal sin. And if it were a venial sin, it would be erased by the mere act of receiving communion.
I hope this helps you I especially hope that my answer eliminates or calms any fears you may have. You sound like a fairly normal young man and you should not let this be a concern.
Q 4: Submitted for your consideration, the case of a thirty-seven year old gay Catholic man who lives alone in his apartment, vaguely aware that he is gravely ill and perhaps little by little becoming emergent. After a day or so his landlady knocks on the door with a message to tell him that the office where he works has called to find out why he has not reported in. When there is no response she unlocks the door and finds the gay man on the couch, sweaty and disheveled and barely breathing. She immediately dials the 911 line before he is able to demur and when the EMTs arrive they conclude that he is in an advanced stage of pneumonia. As the attending technicians are preparing to expedite him to the ambulance, he tells them in a rasping, nearly inaudible voice, "I regret that you were summoned. Don't save my life. I have no one and nothing to live for and I never will. Loneliness is the world's slowest poison and I've resisted the venom as long as I could. My life is empty and loveless and now I have the chance to lay down this burden. Don't feel that you have failed in your duty towards me. I am glad to die."
Can this man licitly refuse treatment for his condition? If he has become ill incidentally, through no fault of his own, shouldn't he still be in adherence with the norms of self-mastery? In this particular case can he as a Catholic opt for non-intervention?
A 4: This is a very good question. I do not know the context, whether this is academic, or applies to someone you know, but I believer the answer is the same. Although if you know someone in this situation, there is certainly the added element of emotion.
It seems clear from your use of the word licit and the fact that the person in question is Catholic that you are asking about the morality of this issue, not whether it is lawful or not. The Church's traditional teaching regarding medical treatment is that no one needs to take extraordinary means to preserve life. That concept, however, is a sliding scale. What was extraordinary in a previous time, might be commonplace today.
At the same time, what is commonplace today, may be extraordinary for some people—at least in terms of cost, time and suffering.
At its core, the traditional ethics on medical treatment say that people cannot take any direct steps to end their lives. They are free to refuse treatment that has little or no hope of healing or restoration. For example, a person who has been given only months to live due to cancer, is not required to undergo chemo therapy. Someone who is at the end stages of life and liver disfunction is not required to undergo dialysis.
In your question you describe someone suffering from a very advanced stage of pneumonia, literally taking his last breaths. The fact that he is gay, alone and depressed; that he feels he has nothing to live for, does not alter the physical reality of his life. It is very likely that his pneumonia is only one symptom of a body in the last stages of degradation. Ethically, there is no problem with his refusing treatment.
There is an added dimension to this issue that often goes unspoken. For those of us who believe in the resurrection, death is not the end of life. Rather, it is a transition into the fullness of the kingdom. While we are called to live this life fully and completely, we are also destined for something more.
Q 5: The "Ministry to Persons with Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care" (November 14, 2006 disparages moral relativism on Page 14 stating, "For example there is a strong tendency toward a moral relativism in our society. Many do not admit an objective basis for moral judgments."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church enjoins, "Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that 'homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.' They are contrary to the natural law….Under no circumstances can they be approved."
In Second Samuel, Chapter 17, the New Revised Standard Version reads:
Jonathan and Ahimaaz were waiting at En-Rogel; a servant girl used to go and tell them, and they would go and tell King David; for they could not risk being seen entering the city. But a boy saw them, and told Absalom; so both of them went away quickly, and came to the house of a man at Bahurim, who had a well in his courtyard; and they went down into it. The man's wife took a covering, stretched it over the well's mouth, and spread out grain on it; and nothing was known of it. When Absalom's servants came to the woman at the house, they said, "Where are Ahimaaz and Jonathan?" The woman said the them, "They have crossed over the brook of water." And when they had searched and could not find them, they returned to Jerusalem.
After they had gone, the men came up out of the well, and went and told King David. They said to David, "Go and cross the water quickly; for thus and so has Ahithophel counseled against you." So David and all the people who were with him set out and crossed the Jordan; by daybreak not one was left who had not crossed the Jordan.
The wife of the man from Bahurim told a lie. She said Ahimaaz and Jonathan has departed, but in fact they were still there. She perpetrated a falsehood verbally with full advertence. Beyond that she actively participated in a deception, covering the cistern where the two were hiding and sprinkling it with grain, better to divert suspicion. Given the premise of an act-centered Catholic moral theology, how do exegetes assess the liceity of the lie told by the wife of Bahurim? Lies are moral evil just the same as homosexual acts. Is it not likewise true that "under no circumstances can they be approved?"
A 5: It seems to me that there are several issues in your question.
I think the place to begin is by pointing out that there are problems with the Pastoral Declaration that you reference, both scriptural and philosophical. However, I do not want to go into those right now. What is more important regarding your interpretation of the declaration is the idea of "act-centered" morality. That is not an accurate understanding of the underpinnings of Catholic morality. For example, we can say that a particular act is objectively wrong. We can never say that it is a sin. That is always a determination between an individual and God. The objective right or wrong of something gives us only a guide. Intentionality makes the determination. A classic example is killing. We say it is objectively wrong to kill. However, it is acceptable for someone to kill in self-defense or in defense of another.
Next, I think it is too black and white to suggest that all lies are moral evil. There is an old principle in Catholic moral theology. It is called a "mental reservation" and its application could certainly be in play in the story from Second Samuel, although it is not expressly suggested. The basic concept behind the mental reservation is that there are circumstances when someone asking a question has no right to the answer, and withholding certain information serves a greater good. The act of the mental reservation involves speaking a partial truth while retaining the full truth in one's mind.
In the case of the passage you cited, the use of a mental reservation would be morally acceptable. The story, however, does not state if such a reservation is in play. In fact, it appears that the woman told an outright lie about the men crossing the brook. Perhaps they did cross the brook and then crossed back. That is not stated in the passage, either. Then again, the concept of mental reservation—at least as we understand it in moral theology—did not exist in those days. It also would not have been an issue. This leads me to the third problem.
Thanks in no small part to fundamentalists, there is a widespread corruption of understanding regarding the Bible as God's word. This has led to a literal (and false) idea that everything in the Bible is true exactly as it is written, as if God dictated to a secretary. That is not the Catholic approach, nor the approach of other mainline denominations. The best phrase I have ever heard regarding this is: "The Bible is the Word of God in the words of the men and women who wrote it." The Second Vatican Council further expressed truth in the Bible in its document Dei Verbum. The Council declares that what is true in the Bible is what is necessary for salvation. Therefore, not every word, not every story is true. Some may not even be factual, which leads us to the formula:
Fact is the opposite of Fiction — Falsehood is the opposite of Truth
Thus, something that is fictional can still be true A good example can be seen in both of the creation stories at the beginning of the Book of Genesis. They tell the same truth: That God created the world. The how is not a matter of faith. It is a matter of science. The two stories, both the Word of God, do not agree on the how. Clearly, the how of the two creation stories is fiction, but they contain truth. Other examples are the parables of Jesus. These were stories that Jesus concocted in order to convey some truth. The stories are fictional. The points behind them are true.
For the people of ancient biblical times, truth was associated with justice and a right relationship with God. In the case of the passage you cite from Second Samuel, it may be that the only thing that mattered to the writer was that Jonathan escape from Absalom as a matter of justice and in order that God's will be accomplished.
To say that the woman lied is to project our contemporary understanding of truth onto people who thought very differently than we do. This should not be a cause for concern.