Every effort is made herein to discuss and explain the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, objectively and prayerfully, in accordance with Sacred Scripture, the Catholic Catechism, and Tradition. Any personal opinions offered where appropriate, by the author or other Catholic writers, are expressly noted and may not necessarily reflect the universal opinion of the Church.
Q: Is the Virgin Mary a saint, or is she something greater? A: The Virgin Mary is a saint, but the Church calls her the first among the saints because she is the purest and most perfect example of what a saint should be. She dedicated her entire life to listening to God and doing His will. This is why, when a woman sings Mary's praises to Jesus for having borne Him and nursed Him, He responds, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (cf. Luke 11:27-28). He is not dismissing the compliment to His mother or trying to downplay her role, but rather He is clarifying exactly what it is that Mary is to be praised for: her obedience to God, not her parenting skills. Mary is an “example of holiness” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2030), a model of the kind of people we are intended to be. And while every saint is indeed an example for us, Mary is more perfectly so because of her sinless nature, which Catholics believe came about through a special transmission of grace to Mary at the time of her conception in her mother's womb (the “Immaculate Conception”). Due to this extraordinary grace, Mary was free of concupiscence—the inclination to do evil—and therefore was always open to putting God's will before her own. Thus, her obedience to God was both complete and uniquely natural for her. All other saints struggled with concupiscence and sin and did not learn complete obedience to God until they were transformed by His purifying grace and entered Heaven—the same grace that has preserved Mary from sin since her conception.
Q:Why do Catholics believe that Mary was conceived without the stain of sin? A: The earliest Christians recognized this reality from the Gospel of Luke and were writing and preaching about it already by the second century, when Christianity was becoming more widespread throughout the Gentile regions. The Gentiles spoke primarily Greek, and the Gospel of Luke was originally written in Greek with them in mind as the intended audience. It is the angel Gabriel's greeting to Mary in Luke 1:28 that gives away Mary's immaculate conception. Gabriel says, “Chaire kecharitomene”--translated in most Bibles as “Hail, highly favored one!” But this English translation falls dramatically short of what the Greek phrase actually conveys. “Kecharitomene” is the passive form of the past perfect participle of the verb “to grace,” conveying an action that was perfectly completed for Mary in the past with ongoing effects into eternity. In other words, Gabriel was essentially calling Mary “one who has been perfectly and completely graced in the past and who shall remain so for all eternity.” Try reducing that into one word in English! Grace is God's life within us. Sin negates this grace. Therefore, in order to be “perfectly graced” for all eternity, Mary must have always been entirely without sin, or else the grace would be imperfect and incomplete. This is why St. Jerome translated this same phrase as gratia plena—meaning “full of grace” in Latin—to convey that Mary was never lacking in God's life within her, even from the beginning of her existence. Her nature, although entirely human, is not fallen; she was redeemed by Christ from the very start so that she might be the perfectly holy mother that the Redeemer required. Only in this way could Christ be the Son of a perfectly divine Father and a perfectly sinless human mother, making Him without blemish before the Lord in every aspect of His nature. And since God is beyond the constraints of time, He certainly had the power to redeem His mother by His death even before He was to be born into the world. So even though Mary was without sin, she was still redeemed by Christ; her particular role in Christ's life simply required that it happen a little earlier than for everyone else. No wonder Mary was so astonished by Gabriel's greeting to her! How could she ever have known the extent of the great wonders God had done for her?
Q: Is there a certain kind of music that is most appropriate for celebrating the Mass? A: There is a fundamental difference between religious music and liturgical music. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) no. 41 indicates that liturgical music should be the following: 1) sacred in character, 2) liturgical in function, and 3) capable of fostering active participation of the faithful. What does all of this mean? “Sacred” means that the music must be God-centered rather than self-centered, giving special attention to the Word of God, primarily the Psalms. Liturgical function requires that a song suitably parallel the function of the Liturgy at any given point. For example, the penitential rite should be accompanied by penitential music rather than praise music. As for fostering “active participation,” this is often misunderstood as referring to some form of mere outward activism. But this is not the case. In fact, the Latin phrase used in the Second Vatican Council when referring to “active participation” (actuosa participatio) does not mean an outward expression (such as singing or clapping hands), but refers rather to a deep inner participation—a profoundly sincere and prayerful response to the mysteries of the Mass. Ideally, this inner response would then pour forth from us in the form of singing, but silent prayer is itself an actively participatory expression, too. Therefore, active participation doesn't mean that there must be noise or movement coming from the faithful, so long as their hearts are communing with God. The key point is consciousness in one's participation. The GIRM goes on to give Gregorian chant “pride of place” in the Liturgy, meaning that chant should be the standard by which all other liturgical music is measured. Chant is steeped in the Scriptures and the early reflective prayers of the Church on the Word of God. Its primary instrument is the human voice, but was traditionally backed up by a sustained note or chord on the organ (which is also incidentally given “pride of place” in the Liturgy—see GIRM no. 393). But chant is also conducive to silent reflection and prayer, which can be very difficult to achieve with louder, more modern forms of music. A director of music would do well to consider these elements when choosing which music to employ during the Mass.
Q: Are Catholics required to have as many children as they can afford? A: No Catholic is required to try for children. However, Catholic couples are urged to be open to God's plan for their families, only actively seeking to avoid conception when there is grave reason to do so (serious financial/psychological/physical instability, for example), and only through moral means. The Scriptures teach us that God is the author of life, and Catholics believe that all human beings are directly willed into being by Him, and sex between spouses is the means by which He imparts this life. Children are considered a great blessing, and the love of families is the primary means by which holiness and love are communicated to the world. Loving families make loving people, and the more loving people we have in the world, the more loving the world will be. Therefore, sex is an inherently sacred act wherein God must always be given the prerogative to exercise His holy will for the family. If a couple must postpone having children, then they must do so without attempting to thwart or sway God's will within the sexual act. This means that the only universally acceptable form of deliberately avoiding conception is through abstinence, and only for as long as grave necessity exists. Personal preference or comfort is not considered a grave reason for avoiding conception. Additionally, Catholics are required to be receptive to children when God allows conception to occur, and must never intentionally terminate a pregnancy, encourage others to terminate a pregnancy, or deliberately participate in any way in the termination of a pregnancy. God's love is always life-giving, so the deliberate termination of human life at any stage can only be done in defiance of God's love. In short, while Catholics are asked to be open to children if they are able, an intention to have children is not fundamentally required for Catholic couples except in the case where conception has already occurred. For those who have conceived but are unable to care for the child, adoption is considered a noble option.
Q: Does the Catholic Church endorse the Rhythm Method for use in family planning? A: While the Catholic Church does not condemn the Rhythm Method, it has not officially endorsed or recommended it as an effective means for family planning. The only method of family planning that has been officially endorsed and recommended by the Church is Natural Family Planning (NFP), which is often confused with the Rhythm Method. The Rhythm Method is founded upon the erroneous assumption that every woman has a regular 28-day fertility cycle, and mathematically calculates when ovulation should occur in accordance with this rule. But most women do not have perfect 28-day cycles. Natural Family Planning is a method that makes no blanket assumptions about the user's fertility cycle, but attempts to determine when a woman is fertile in her current cycle based upon her individual signs, symptoms and fertility patterns. It is a flexible method that, when used faithfully and vigilantly, is every bit as effective for family planning as artificial methods. It also has the added benefits of being versatile enough to use for avoiding or achieving pregnancy, and without any harmful side effects. The method is also intended to promote communication and cooperation between spouses, so that family planning is a partnership and not the sole responsibility of one spouse or the other.
Q: I know I'm not supposed to eat meat on Fridays during the season of Lent, but I've heard that we're not allowed to eat meat on any Friday. I thought that was changed by Vatican II. Which is correct? A: According to Canon Law, paragraphs 1249-1253, Catholics are required to offer some form of sacrifice every Friday of the liturgical year, not just during the season of Lent. A sacrifice can consist of giving up something desirable or adopting some good habit that one is not typically inclined to do. At any rate, the focus of the sacrifice should be on increasing one's virtue and decreasing one's vice. We do this on Fridays in memory of the most sacred sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross on Good Friday. This has been the pious tradition of the Church for centuries. So in one respect, what you heard was correct; a sacrifice should be made every Friday of the liturgical year. However, it need not necessarily be meat that is sacrificed. Some Christian communities live in cultures where meat is largely unavailable or unused, so that sacrificing meat is not really anything extraordinary. For communities such as this, it is appropriate for the bishops of those regions to determine some other form of Friday penance. In the United States, since some people are vegetarian or vegan by choice and are not limited to any one particular boundary, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has determined that each individual can choose his or her own form of Friday sacrifice except on specified days of abstinence. However, abstinence from meat is still encouraged year-round, since it reflects Christ's sacrifice of His own flesh on Good Friday.
Q: Is it okay to eat meat broth or gravy on days when abstinence from meat is prescribed? A: No. Any food that contains even so much as the taste of warm-blooded animal meat is not permitted on days of abstinence. However, one may use certain products that come from warm-blooded animals but do not contain the taste of meat, such as margarine, butter and eggs.