There are many different opinions about the nature of the universe, about principles for establishing truth, and about the ultimate good to which all our actions are to be referred. Yet all philosophical speculation falls under those three main heads of discussion. And so, although in each subject there is a variety of opinions entertained by individual thinkers, no one doubts that there is some cause underlying nature, some form of knowledge, some highest degree of life…There are also three things looked for in any human being who acts in order to accomplish something: his natural characteristics, his thoughts, and the use to which he puts them. His natural characteristics are measured by their ability, his thoughts by their intelligence, and his use of them by the satisfaction gained…So, if our natural characteristics were caused by ourselves, we should indeed also have produced our own wisdom; we should not be at pains to acquire it by education, that is, by learning it from another source. And our love would start from ourselves, and be related to ourselves; and thus we should not need any other good to enjoy. But as it is, our nature has God as its author; and so without doubt we must have Him as our teacher, if we are to attain true wisdom; and for our happiness we require Him as the bestower of the delight in our hearts which only He can give.
St. Augustine, City of God, XI, 25. (Henry Bettenson’s translation is used here, with some corrections.)
Some would answer Augustine’s assertion, “And so…no one doubts…“, by pointing out that there is a sense in which some do doubt a cause of nature, or a truly intellectual mode of knowledge, or a highest good in life. For each of these things, there are people who say, “I don’t believe it.” But even as an agnostic, atheist, materialist, etc., asserts doubt or makes a denial, some implied affirmation is not long in coming. For instance, someone says:
“Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace unadulterated liberty.” This is, logically rendered, “Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.” He says, “away with your old moral standard; I am for progress.” This, logically stated, means, “Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.” He says, “neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.” This, clearly expressed, means, “We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.”
G.K. Chesterton, Heretics, ch. 2.
So deep down, people know there is goodness. Similarly for causality, suppose a radical philosophical skeptic came home from work and saw that his or her child’s room was in a mess. He wouldn’t say, “I wonder if that simply happened uncaused. I really think it may have.” He would know that someone made the mess. Similarly for immaterial truth, ask a materialist to admit the truth of purely theoretical mathematics or rules of logic; it will be admitted. So in practice, it is as Augustine said: “no one doubts…” Was he right about the rest? If yes, what do we learn from God and how do we enjoy Him?
For the sake of brevity, a too vague question such as, “Why should I be religious?” would well be replaced by the clearer and more manageable questions, Is there a God who made me, and if so, why? Another too wide question, “Which religion teaches the truth about God?” could be replaced with the more manageable question, Is Catholicism correct and complete?, if it is. Outlining reasons as briefly as possible, and describing core beliefs of the Catholic Church in the process, we’ll answer that God exists, that He has revealed a great deal about why He created and what He expects of us, that this true set of revealed truths is what Catholicism is.
Because this is not to go on, as it were, for hundreds of pages, we should strive to be very brief, giving minimum but sufficient treatment and evidence. The slow and thoughtful reader will be rewarded, and will find that not too much time has been taken.
One word beforehand to the many people who “accept only scientific proof”: the laws of proof come from Logic, which is wholly in the domain of philosophy. For these laws science relies on philosophy, not vice versa. And valid proofs are made in every intellectual discipline, not just the sciences. And logical arguments in any branch of learning, when expounded in right order and clarity, can normally be recognized as valid by any smart, attentive, unencumbered person.
Let’s consider two arguments for God’s existence. There are many more (Peter Kreeft’s website offers useful summaries). Everyone naturally loves and knows how to love. Do you love someone, really love? Surely you do. To really love someone, you must admit deep down there is more to what that person is than atoms and reactions. And you must admit that you know, deep down, that they have real worth, not just imagined worth, a worth that no mere set of atoms joined together could have, regardless of what all their combined physical properties are. That worth indicates a real goodness in what they are, something real present in their bodies that does not come from matter. As Augustine points out, it makes no sense to say that we created our own goodness, and it makes even less sense to say that it pops into being uncaused. These things being the case, and Immaterial source of goodness in the world being a valid definition of God, it is evident that God exists.
Relatedly, let’s consider the abstract knowledge you have of a loved one’s personal reality and real worth, or for that matter, of all kinds of abstract truths. These truths and ideas are in themselves not spatial, not physical, and not contained in all the messages of bodily sensations. A purely physical thing can only act by physical means and on physical things; but we access immaterial truths and use them as tools in our reasoning. Therefore we have a non-physical component to our personhood. Further evidence of this non-physical component the fact that we act in accordance with a free will. If one considers what it means to make a choice, one can recognize the essential element of real freedom, which freedom cannot be there if there is only matter governed by physical laws. Both of these non-physical aspects of us, abstract thinking, and free willing, indicate that we human beings each have a soul. A person (body and soul) comes to be at conception. The creation of a soul implies a spiritual creator who has power to join soul and body, which is another valid definition of God. This also proves that God exists.
Our opponents often retort, “If, as you say, everything has to have a cause, then God has to have a cause.” But we do not simply say that everything has to have a cause. We say (as we said just now) that certain things evidently came into existence, and could not have caused themselves, in which case they had to have an external cause. And not only do we say it about persons in the world; science confirms that the universe itself has only existed for a finite time – in which case Something caused it. Since we have no reason to suppose that God came into existence (that is, in fact, contrary to our belief), we do not assert or think that He was caused. If our opponents want to say that we say that God also had to have a cause, when we have in fact always denied it, the burden of proof for that is on them – they will have to find such a statement in the writings that we consider authoritative. But instead of producing it, they put the words into our mouth and express disapproval. When they do that, they commit a straw-man fallacy.
As we start to turn to the question of what all is unique, great and compelling about Catholic Christianity, let avoid another common false assumption: that it is about our personal greatness or the greatness of priests (even ones in the news for their crimes). From the start, Christianity was about God and His message given completely in His perfect Son Jesus, not about the greatness of His sinful representatives. The fact of bad would-be / should-be representatives of a religion acting against its consistent good rules is therefore no excuse to ignore it or reject the system of rules or the foundation of those rules. On a large scale, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried” (G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World, part 1, ch. 5.) On smaller scales, many people have tried and done the difficult job of following Christ, becoming saints.
Those who use bad Catholics or bad religious people in general as a reason to reject religion commit either another straw man fallacy – misrepresenting to themselves and/or others what we believe, or an ad hominem fallacy – attacking the motives (reportedly self-praise) of those who promote an intellectual position, rather than identifying and addressing that position and its evidence directly.
Jesus lived in Israel during the reign of Roman Emperors Augustus and Tiberius. Highlights of His life and teaching are best learned from the eyewitness records of His closest followers and students, whom he appointed as the highest religious authorities: the apostles. At this point it would be well to read a widely accepted, current English translation of the Gospel of Matthew (skim past the genealogy at the beginning if desired) and the Gospel of John, using the scholarly footnotes as needed without getting bogged down in them. The Gospels aren’t too long. Please read these before continuing.
The beginning of the Gospel of John identifies Jesus as “the Word” of God that from “the beginning…was with God and…was God,” which “became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14). In context of the theology and usage of Ancient Israel’s Old Testament books, “Word” here does not denote an element of a sentence, or a smallest unit of meaningful speech, but “the Word” by means of which God created the universe (Psalm 33:6), which is described in further detail as the personal “Wisdom” of God:
“I, Wisdom, dwell with prudence, and useful knowledge I have…When He established the heavens, there was I…beside Him as artisan.”
For Wisdom is…a breath of the might of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty…the reflection of eternal light…the image of His goodness. Although she is one, she can do all things.
Emphasizing the personal nature of this Wisdom, this perfect image of His goodness is known as God the Son of God the Father, distinct in person but inseparable in divinity: in substance, one God. In spite of our veneration of this Wisdom, it is commonly heard that Christians unwisely propose believing what is not in any way evident, or even believing what is absurd, and what’s more, assert that the one criterion given by God for acceptance into heaven is this form of belief. But that idea does not come from Catholic teaching. (It comes most famously from a non-Catholic thinker, Soren Kierkegaard.) St. John, speaking for the apostles, speaks differently:
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life — for the life was made visible; we have seen it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us— what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you…Now this is the message that we have heard from Him and proclaim to you: God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say, “We have fellowship with him,” while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin.
1 John 1:1-3,6-7.
By this description, Jesus’ humanity and His divinity (“In the beginning…the Word…was God“) were to a significant degree a matter of direct perception, physical and spiritual. Similarly with Catholics down the ages: when we make our best efforts, we perceive God speaking and acting in the Church, especially in the Mass, in confession of sins to God through a priest, in Confirmation, Holy Matrimony and Holy Orders.
Not every truth of the religion is directly perceived; many are known only indirectly, as part of the message which as a whole is authenticated for belief. St. Thomas Aquinas described it with an analogy, referring to a method of authentication that worked in his day, not ours, but the idea is clear enough to be serviceable for present purposes:
Faith is not foolish…God proves to you that what faith teaches is true. If a king were to send letters with his own seal, no one would dare say that the letters did not proceed from the will of the king…that seal is indeed those deeds which no creature would be able to do, only God. They are the miracles whereby Christ confirmed the sayings of the apostles and of the saints.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, 1.A.5.d.
The miracles referred to were in some cases physical (for the senses), and others were miracles of the heart and mind (internal). Then as now, not everyone gets the same miracles or at the same point of their spiritual journey. But the common theme is that if someone genuinely looks for authenticating evidence, and does so with right intent while making every effort to be good and reject evil, evidence of one sort or another (or, more commonly, of many sorts) will be provided by God. Once found, it would be well to treasure and safeguard it in one’s memory for times when temptations come. That is, when reason recognizes sufficient evidence of God’s true and holy message given through the Church, which justifies the act of faith in God and His teachings, one must not just sit there and eventually forget it, but rather with God’s help respond to Him with acts of faith, hope and love. These acts should become habits, and so influence one’s other habits and lifestyle that one grows strong in holiness and wisdom. One should then advance with invigorated heart and mind on that path of learning and bettering the world.
It has been hinted at, and now needs to be stated clearly, that God is not only “the Father Almighty” and His Son/Wisdom, but also their Love, of Goodness, that is, Spirit of Holiness: the Holy Spirit. After noting the role of the Word that the Father spoke, St. Augustine observes about the first chapter of the Bible’s recurring statement about each thing that God created:
“God saw that it was good.” This statement, applied to all His works, can only signify the approval of work done with the true artist’s skill, which is here the Wisdom of God.
St. Augustine, City of God, XI, 21.
[It] makes it quite plain that God did not create under stress of any compulsion, or because He lacked something for His own needs; His only motive was goodness; He created because His creation was good. Now if the divine goodness is identical with the divine holiness, it is evidently not a rash presumption but a reasonable inference to find a hint of the Trinity in the description of God’s creative works…This hint we may find when we ask…Who? How? and Why?
St. Augustine, City of God, XI, 24.
In other words, created goodness is based on God’s uncreated Goodness, which is distinct from yet co-equal to His Power and Wisdom:
God is the who (agent), the how (means), and the why of creation. Nature’s strengths come from the Father Almighty; its beauty from His Wisdom, and its enjoyment from His Holy Love. (Some may find it useful at this point to reread the quotation from Augustine at the top of this page before continuing).
The Catholic Church teaches that the goodness of nature, especially of human nature, is undeniably real and sacred, but also insists that evils in our world are not illusions. With pain we see on the news and in our communities, our families and ourselves that our essentially good nature experiences weakness, deficiencies, and harm; our thinking weakness or errors; and our wills sometimes lack of care, arrogance or urges of cruelty. We sometimes witness lesser but still lamentable destruction, waste and pain in nature untouched by humanity.
Some anti-Catholics blame God for making humanity and the animal kingdom to be this way. But did He make it this way?
The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.”
…He who sows good seed is the Son of Man [a title of Jesus], the field is the world…and the enemy who sows them is the devil.
Jesus said about the devil, the worst of the demons, “He was a murderer from the beginning…” (John 8:44). The image of Jesus planting the world (note above, the Wisdom of God, the artisan of creation, the Word the Father used to create) is reminiscent of the Bible’s first book’s, Genesis’, second account of creation:
When the Lord God made the earth and the heavens…the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, and placed there the man whom He had formed.
Eden was a paradise on earth.
What of the first human being? Or rather, what of the first human beings, since there was a married couple?…They were not distressed by any agitations of the mind, nor pained by any disorders of the body. And equally fortunate would be the whole united fellowship of mankind if our first parents had not committed an evil deed whose effect was to be passed to their posterity, and if none of their descendants had sown in wickedness a crop that they were to reap in condemnation…
It was not merely a material paradise…And yet it was not merely spiritual…It was clearly both, to satisfy both. But after that, the arrogant angel came, envious because of that pride of his, who had for the same reason turned away from God to follow his own leading. With the proud disdain of a tyrant he chose to rejoice over his subjects rather than to be a subject himself; and so he fell from the spiritual paradise…After his fall, ambition was to worm his way, by seductive craftiness, into the consciousness of man, whose unfallen condition he envied…[B]oth were taken captive by their sin and entangled in the snares of the Devil.
St. Augustine, City of God, XIV, 10 and 11.
It is often asked, and good to ask, why did God let the devil (described as a serpent in Genesis 3) come to humanity’s first parents, Adam and Eve, and cause them to sin? There is an answer.
It was in secret that the first human beings began to be evil; and the result was that they slipped into open disobedience. For they would not have arrived at an evil act if an evil will had not preceded it…This desertion is voluntary, for if the will had remained unshaken in its love of the higher changeless Good, which shed on it light to see and kindled in it fire to love, it would not have been diverted from this love to follow its own pleasure; and the will would not have been so darkened and chilled in consequence as to let the woman believe that the serpent had spoken the truth and the man to put his wife’s will above God’s commandment…
Thus the evil act, the transgression of eating forbidden fruit, was committed only when those who did it were already evil…And I venture to say that it is of service to the arrogant that they should fall into some open and obvious sin, which can make them dissatisfied with themselves, after they have already fallen through self-complacency…We find the same thought in a verse of a holy psalm: “Fill their faces with shame, and they will seek your name, Lord” [Psalm 83:16]
…Even worse, and more deserving of condemnation, is the pride shown in the search for an excuse, even when the sins are clear as daylight. This was shown in the first human beings, when the woman said, “The serpent led me astray, and I ate’; and the man said, “The woman whom you gave me as a companion, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” There is not a whisper anywhere here of a plea for pardon, nor of any entreaty for healing…their pride seeks to pin the wrong act on another…
St. Augustine, City of God, XIV, 13.
What we call “the Fall,” therefore, was actually a number of falls whose net result was radical spiritual, physical, and emotional damage to the human nature of our first parents – which damaged human nature was passed on genetically to their children, their children’s children, and so on.
Adam and Eve’s embarrassment after they ate (described in Genesis 3) could and should have prompted repentance, but they chose otherwise. Before that, the spectacle of the devil and the foolishness of his suggestions, especially in light of God’s warnings beforehand, could and should have prompted Adam and Eve to return to God, whose goodness they had begun to abandon, but they chose otherwise. The Bible portrays Eve as unaided by Adam when she was confronted by the serpent’s lies; it seemed they were already apart. But after the Lord answered their excuses and exiled them from the paradise of Eden, they began to work together for good again.
In the New Testament, demons are described as afflicting human beings and animals; in the Old Testament (and arguably new), they are described as influencing nature in hateful ways. Such events prompted individuals and groups to recognize and flee evil, to grow in compassion for those victimized by evil, and to seek God’s help humbly. Adam and Eve and their progeny, who had been given the task of caring for the animals and the earth, would, after the fall, have to grow in humility, compassion and holiness to deal with the big and small ways that evil spirits directly and indirectly disfigured, pained and killed creatures. This compassion, humility and holy task for individuals and communities in turn could and should help sinful human beings progress in virtue towards their good Creator.
Getting back to the parable of the weeds and the wheat (mentioned above), Jesus said:
“An enemy has done this.” His slaves said to him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” He replied, “No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.’”…The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears ought to hear.
Matthew 13: 28-30,41-43.
In other words, in the present human condition, everyone has strengths and weaknesses, some history of good action and some experience of having done wrong. To use the imagery of Jesus’ parable, we have all been part “wheat” and part “weed.” Some are mostly wheat, living rightly; some are mostly weed, causing harm. We need ultimately to choose and become one or the other.
So, why does God allow so much suffering? Because it can lead, in a number of ways, to people’s more resolute rejection of evil and greater commitment to goodness; the extent to which they do or don’t do these things in turn determines whether they will, like wheat in the parable, be brought in to heaven; or, like the weeds, be thrown out to be burned to do no more harm. (More on that fate in the next section.) Terrible temporary evils are sometimes the only thing that persuade some people to direct their future away from eternal “fire” and into eternal heaven.
Furthermore, when people suffer together, this naturally motivates them to help one another and progress in goodness together. Jesus converted many by the edification of his miracles and teaching; He converted many more by how He handled suffering and death. You know from the descriptions of His death in the Gospels of Matthew and John that Jesus was slowly tortured to death with every kind of physical, psychological, and even pseudo-religious torture. His first word of instruction to His torturers was, “this is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53). Like the sin of Adam and Eve that exposed the evil inside that was growing in conceit, the sins that came together at once against Jesus exposed every kind of half-hidden and humanly accepted sin. Since every type of sin was involved, the true ugliness and logical consequences of all our own sins was exposed. He caused the weeds to show their true nature, as a necessary step in saving them. If they would not believe the wrongness of their sins from Jesus’ teaching and miracles, they would prove it to each other in their actions.
To the innocent sufferers, the “wheat” who ask why God allows it, Jesus’ own tremendous suffering and death sends a message of supreme hope: I have suffered similarly, innocently, and even more greatly in every way; many souls were improved or saved by it, and my heavenly glory is greater for it. Yours will be too if you persevere in goodness.
To those who struggle to choose between wheat or weed, who feel the appeal of innocence but feel pressured by the world to sin, Jesus showed in His life, on the cross and through His resurrection, and by His words how to maintain innocence and be victorious over the powers of evil. The last messages given to His torturers and killers, a message given to His faithful followers as well, were His resurrection from the dead, assent into heaven, and bestowal of His power and mission to His apostles and their successors.
St. Paul, who also suffered greatly and in countless ways, but who was given substantial knowledge of what heaven was like, wrote:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.
In the paradise of Eden, humanity was made loving each other and together loving the God who loved them. While we still should love God not only privately as individuals, but also together as a community – that is, as a Church – so also it is good for us to be instruments for God’s help in that community and follow His instructions. Jesus taught His apostles that particular outward signs of particular profound graces should always be used in the calling down of those graces to effect important spiritual blessings. These events and their instrumental signs are called sacraments.
So, the fundamental contamination of sinfulness, including the moral disorderliness in human nature received ultimately from Adam and Eve must be “washed”; this is the sacrament of baptism. Serious sins committed after baptism need to be repented of and treated by a bishop/priest who properly represents the Lord in this task; for this Jesus gave us the sacrament of reconciliation (a.k.a. confession) when He told His apostles, “Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23). We need to be strengthened regularly by loving direct contact with Jesus; for this He gave us the sacrament of the Eucharist. Have you ever heard someone say that if God loves them, He should come to them in a way that a human being, who is body and soul, senses and intellect, heart and will, can relate to, the answer is yes: the Eucharist. We also need the invigoration of the Holy Spirit to boldly confirm the goodness of God in our communities and despite difficulties – “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10); this is the sacrament of confirmation. And so on.
At the start of this discussion, St. Augustine observed that there are many different opinions on questions of religion and the philosophy of religion. In order to cope with the multiplicity of opinions and the need to come together somehow, non-Catholic Christian religions do something that politicians commonly do to get support: minimize the number of detailed positions openly and authoritatively proposed so as to minimize the possibility of disagreement. That is the opposite of what the Catholic Church does. You have read in the Gospels of Matthew and John that Jesus gave real, detailed answers to the hard questions that were brought to Him. He said and did a great deal that was not recorded in those summaries. He commissioned His Church, which from no later than 108 AD was called “the Catholic Church” (see St. Ignatius of Atioch’s Letter to the Smyrnaeans), to keep all His teaching and continue His mission. The Catholic Church is the only religion in the world that authoritatively gives detailed answers to every important question. We have scratched the surface of some of those answers. God’s light penetrates to every aspect of the human experience, and so does His teaching, which the Church preserves. The teaching is smart, consistent, and traceable unchanged down the ages. Our ordained authorities, that is, popes, bishops and priests, can be traced back in unbroken succession to St. Peter and the other first apostles and their bishops. Not everyone wants the complex truth, but seriously:
Do you want a Church that is right only when you are right? Or do you want a Church that is right even when you are wrong?
Attributed to Archbishop Fulton Sheen.
The official Catechism of the Catholic Church, online at the Vatican website, though long and detailed, is itself a summary – the tip of the iceberg that is Catholic teaching. But it is a great next step in your reading about Catholicism. To explore further (perhaps see our section, “Always Learning”), one can read the documents produced by the great Ecumenical Councils, countless papal letters to the world, the riches of the Bible, the wisdom contained in the classics of the doctors of the Church, such as St. Augustine, and be edified by the lives of the saints. But note – books of the Bible, like many of these other writings, must be read and interpreted in context with a mind open to the complexities of moral and spiritual realities, on the one hand, and sensitivity to or allowance of issues of translation between languages and cultures. There will be some misunderstandings to be cleared up, but you are not alone here – there are many good priests and other scholars here to help. At some point, probably before too long, the prayerful and diligent seeker will recognize in his or her heart and mind what St. Thomas Aquinas described as “the seal of the King” authenticating the message of Catholicism. But to have the strength to be meticulous enough, we must thirst for holiness, and accept God’s and, evidently, the Church’s help.
If the above seems reasonable to you, but you take issue with the Church’s teaching on a particular point (or points), please take a look at some brief discussions of commonly disputed subjects at Catholic.com.
The next section proceeds to the basics of Catholic Christian prayer, and its relationship to what we do at church.
Those who doubt the truth of Catholicism or who disagree with one of its fundamental doctrines (in particular, the love of God, the reality of moral laws, the fact of human weaknesses and the helpfulness of God and holy community) naturally ask Catholics, “Why go to church?” These are invited to read what was written above in answer to the question, “Why be Catholic?” Some Catholics also ask that question, often because they don’t perceive that they need the Church and are needed by the Church for learning and living what God has taught; or because, though perceive a degree of need, they are distracted and irritated by people with faults who come to church; or because they blame all pastors for the faults those few who break our moral rules, and then jump to the conclusion that the holiness that Christ gave the original Church, in its teaching and its living, is no longer there.
Catholics in each of these categories normally have in common, at the very least, a great reverence for “the Lord’s Prayer,” the “Our Father.” The ideas of this prayer are very useful to the question of why we should go to church. We are used to saying the prayer using archaic words and phrases like “hallowed,” “daily bread,” and “trespasses,” which are now only vaguely understood (and sometimes not understood), and without all words (specifically, ἐπιούσιον) translated. So after giving a complete current English translation of the prayer (incl. ἐπιούσιον as per Prov. 30:8), a look into the ramifications of its meaning will reveal the need to go to church. As above, we’ll try to keep the discussion brief.
1. Our Father in heaven, may Your name be exalted as holy!
2. May Your kingdom come.
3. May Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
4. Give us today what sustains us, as we need,
5. And forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us.
6. And do not lead us into situations that tempt us,
7. But deliver us from evil.
The first three requests ask for God’s supernatural help regarding three kinds of supernaturally good things. These are: God, that He be loved and glorified for His holiness; the kingdom of heaven, which is the family of angels and saints most wonderfully united to Him, that we would join them; and God’s desire for what happens on earth, that we would do, think and love all that we should. The fourth request asks for God’s supernatural help with our natural good, that what we are would be sustained. (Literally translated from the original Greek, the good is “our very essential bread for today,” but in Greek “bread” was a metaphor not only for food in general, but also for wages, and by extension for other things people need for survival.) The fifth and sixth requests in the prayer ask God to save us from actual (past and present) and potential (future) moral evils respectively, that is, evil in the soul. The seventh, being presumably a distinct request (for this does meet the requirements of a logical division), therefore asks for deliverance from evils that afflict the body. Every category of good thing we can want and should ask for – everything that we need – is there, and they are arranged in order from the greatest kind of good to the smallest (requests 1-4), and then the worst evil, in the soul, to the least, in the body (requests 5-7).
We live on earth for a short time, and it is here that we decide and prepare for eternity. The loving glorification of God is the essence of heaven. Anticipating heaven, one who loves God here feels as the Psalmist says, “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you!” (Psalm 22:22) Where is there a congregation gathered together to praise God? Obviously, at His church. Its prayers, teachings, and Eucharistic Communion with Jesus and through Him with the Holy Spirit and the Father, are the ultimate adoration.
Suppose we don’t feel like making the trip to church and taking the time to “praise God in the midst of the congregation”? Jesus indicated that we would not be forced to come, in one of His stories that appealed to common sense (parables) :
The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come. A second time he sent other servants, saying, “Tell those invited, ‘Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast.’” Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business…[The King] said to his servants, “The feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come.”
The same story as recorded in the Gospel of Luke (possibly as retold by Jesus in another circumstance to make the same point) gives extra detail:
When the time for the dinner came, he dispatched his servant to say to those invited, “Come, everything is now ready.” But one by one, they all began to excuse themselves. The first said to him, “I have purchased a field and must go to examine it; I ask you, consider me excused.” And another said, “I have purchased five yoke of oxen and am on my way to evaluate them; I ask you, consider me excused.” And another said, “I have just married a woman, and therefore I cannot come.” The servant went and reported this to his master. Then the master of the house in a rage commanded his servant, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame…For, I tell you, none of those men who were invited will taste my dinner.”
The idea of a good man wishing to give a wedding feast for his son and friends, who sent out invitations before the event but got every lame excuse at the last minute because they weren’t interested in Him, is like the problem we present to God if we in practice don’t care to make time for Him. He loves us, He wants us, and He invites us, but He doesn’t force us. If we love Him, we’ll want to come. It doesn’t take much time.
The next good that we ask for in the Our Father is the kingdom of heaven. We have a foretaste of this good on earth in the family and friends who always want what’s best for us, who care about us, make us smile, involve us in fulfilling activities, who give what they can to help us when in we’re in need, are sorry if they ever let us down, and forgive us whenever we disappoint. For most people, these traits take life-long effort, learning and practice to make consistent, splendid and unconditional. But to much smaller degrees these things happen everywhere. There is one type of place where all these aspects of being a good person are taught and practiced under the direction of an ordained priest of Jesus who gave up his own life to learn and then serve in the role of one of Jesus’s apostles. That again is of course the Church. For at regular Sunday Mass people renew their desire to do and only do what is good (God above all) to each other, wish us the blessing of peace, give money to many charities, reject sin and express sorrow for their failings, invite us to participate with them in all kinds of good activities, and try to learn how they can improve for us. This is truly the normal experience. Admittedly, there are some bad priests, even some terrible priests, and other bad people sometimes in churches, but they are not the norm; they are the opposite of it.
Those who are against the Church paint a different picture of how the Church influences the people that go there:
All I had hitherto heard of Christian theology had alienated me from it. I was a pagan at the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen…I read the scientific and sceptical literature of my time–all of it, at least, that I could find written in English and lying about; and…I read nothing else on any other note of philosophy…
As I read and re-read all the non-Christian or anti-Christian accounts of the faith, from Huxley to Bradlaugh, a slow and awful impression grew gradually but graphically upon my mind–the impression that Christianity must be a most extraordinary thing. For not only (as I understood) had Christianity the most flaming vices, but it had apparently a mystical talent for combining vices which seemed inconsistent with each other…
Thus, for instance, I was much moved by the eloquent attack on Christianity as a thing of inhuman gloom…They did prove to me in Chapter I (to my complete satisfaction) that Christianity was too pessimistic; and then, in Chapter II, they began to prove to me that it was a great deal too optimistic. One accusation against Christianity was that it prevented men, by morbid tears and terrors, from seeking joy and liberty in the bosom of Nature. But another accusation was that it comforted men with a fictitious providence, and put them in a pink-and-white nursery. One great agnostic asked why Nature was not beautiful enough, and why it was hard to be free. Another great agnostic objected that Christian optimism, “the garment of make-believe woven by pious hands,” hid from us the fact that Nature was ugly, and that it was impossible to be free. One rationalist had hardly done calling Christianity a nightmare before another began to call it a fool’s paradise. This puzzled me; the charges seemed inconsistent…The state of the Christian could not be at once so comfortable that he was a coward to cling to it, and so uncomfortable that he was a fool to stand it. If it falsified human vision it must falsify it one way or another…
The Gospel paradox about the other cheek, the fact that priests never fought, a hundred things made plausible the accusation that Christianity was an attempt to make a man too like a sheep. I read it and believed it, and if I had read nothing different, I should have gone on believing it. But I read something very different. I turned the next page in my agnostic manual, and my brain turned up-side down. Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars. Christianity had deluged the world with blood…What was this Christianity which always forbade war and always produced wars?…
It looked not so much as if Christianity was bad enough to include any vices, but rather as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with… [C]ertain sceptics wrote that the great crime of Christianity had been its attack on the family; it had dragged women to the loneliness and contemplation of the cloister, away from their homes and their children. But, then, other sceptics (slightly more advanced) said that the great crime of Christianity was forcing the family and marriage upon us; that it doomed women to the drudgery of their homes and children, and forbade them loneliness and contemplation. The charge was actually reversed. Or, again, certain phrases in the Epistles or the marriage service, were said by the anti-Christians to show contempt for woman’s intellect. But I found that the anti-Christians themselves had a contempt for woman’s intellect; for it was their great sneer at the Church on the Continent that “only women” went to it. Or again, Christianity was reproached with its naked and hungry habits; with its sackcloth and dried peas. But the next minute Christianity was being reproached with its pomp and its ritualism; its shrines of porphyry and its robes of gold. It was abused for being too plain and for being too coloured. Again Christianity had always been accused of restraining sexuality too much, when Bradlaugh the Malthusian discovered that it restrained it too little…
And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt… Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad–in various ways. I tested this idea by asking myself whether there was about any of the accusers anything morbid that might explain the accusation. I was startled to find that this key fitted a lock. For instance, it was certainly odd that the modern world charged Christianity at once with bodily austerity and with artistic pomp. But then it was also odd, very odd, that the modern world itself combined extreme bodily luxury with an extreme absence of artistic pomp. The modern man thought Becket’s robes too rich and his meals too poor. But then the modern man was really exceptional in history; no man before ever ate such elaborate dinners in such ugly clothes. The modern man found the church too simple exactly where modern life is too complex; he found the church too gorgeous exactly where modern life is too dingy. The man who disliked the plain fasts and feasts was mad on entrees. The man who disliked vestments wore a pair of preposterous trousers. And surely if there was any insanity involved in the matter at all it was in the trousers, not in the simply falling robe. If there was any insanity at all, it was in the extravagant entrees, not in the bread and wine…
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, ch. 6.
“It looked…as if any stick was good enough to beat Christianity with…” In partial defense of our opponents, many Christians have lived too luxuriously, some in unhealthy degrees of self-denial; some have been war-mongers, some too cowardly to defend the oppressed when needed, etc. And so people are right to be uncomfortable going to church and being around people who badly represent the Church. But in defense of the Church on these things, what these opponents can’t seem to understand is that (as was mentioned in the above section, “Why be Catholic?”):
The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.
G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, part 1, ch. 5.
It is left untried or only partially tried by too many. What makes up the essence of the Church – the teachings, the prayers that are the same all over the world, the rules calling for times of abstinence and repentance as well as times of celebration – are ethically gorgeous and solid. We whose failings make the Church look bad to outsiders go there to be corrected, to be forgiven, and to try again, not to be an excuse for others’ refusing to come and support what God does there.
The third request in the Lord’s Prayer, that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven, implies on our part a desire to be perfect as God is perfect. Does everyone know how to be perfect? Do we perhaps need any advice from God, or any encouragement? Obviously, people normally need these all their lives and not just to be perfect, but even just to be generally pure and actively good. Where is God’s will learned in necessary detail? Where is the encouragement done corresponding to all that detail? Only at His Church.
Sometimes our primary thought in prayer is, God, give me what I need to keep going. This paraphrases the fourth request in the Our Father. So – do we need to go to church to just get by? Many would answer “no,” for apparently (or “obviously”) it is society outside of church that prepares and supplies every kind of thing needed to sustain life. But let’s open our eyes to the realities of the world to see if it’s that simple. Do societies full of violence sustain everyone? Some real-world societies generated millions of refugees in our day, reducing them to extreme deadly poverty. Do societies with unjust economic oppression provide for all needs? Obviously not. How about societies like ours where drug addictions and other addictions weaken and destroy individuals and families? Well then, what kind of society is it that truly provides? It is truly obvious that people act in accordance with what they think and want. Therefore members of the society that will provide must think that the human person is something sacred and as therefore possesses a number of inalienable rights to what they need. And they must want to treat everyone in accordance with their rights and their needs to become happy and fulfilled. How can society be taught to believe and want these things? If someone says, “It happens automatically/naturally,” we must say again, “Let’s open our eyes to the realities of this world,” etc. If we know enough to respect the author of the Lord’s Prayer, let us also therefore consider His statement, whose truth should now be clear enough,
“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
We get these many words/messages, and taste this Word (cf. the section, “Why be Catholic?”), by going to Mass and attending to what all is being given. (Much more could be said on this topic, based on Isaiah 1:17-20, Luke 16:19-2, and John 6:22-71, but brevity is needed here instead.) In order to be strengthened by Communion, it is necessary to be properly receptive to its graces. For more details on that, please click here.
The fifth request concerns forgiveness of sins, which is not easy and not simple. Does one need to go to church to receive forgiveness from God? Jesus told His apostles after the resurrection,
As the Father has sent me, so I send you…Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.
The apostles’ authority and ministry were handed on to future bishops and priests (Acts 1:15-26, 1 Peter 5:1-6; see also the testimony of the very Early Church, in the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch and the writings of St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, etc.). If Jesus appointed the apostles (bishops, priests) to bestow or deny forgiveness, who are we to say “no”?
One indication of the complexity of forgiveness is Jesus’ saying in Matthew 21:23-40 that His Father would put to a miserable death (seemingly implying Hell) those who killed His Son, but on the cross, He said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” It was not simply that some knew and some didn’t know that they were crucifying Him to death, nor that Jesus disagreed with what the Father would do, and definitely not the case that the Father is simply just while the Son is simply merciful. Rather, those who with partial but sufficient knowledge of their sin incurred great guilt, could be brought to greater knowledge and change of heart, repent and thereby find forgiveness (Acts 2:22-43), so as to avoid the destruction that is due to destroyers of what is good. Converting to goodness and living like Jesus satisfies justice more than simply punishing as offenses deserve. Mercy and justice are means to each other here. Another indication of the complexity of forgiveness is the complexity of moral imperfections: the variety of sins of commission and sins of omission that people must overcome. Going to church once or simply showing up repeatedly isn’t enough to perfect a person.
If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 1:6-9.
When we near the end of the “Our Father,” and ask not to be led into situations that tempt us hard, if we contemplate the words, it should occur to us that if we were morally stronger people, no evil would ever be appealing to us, and therefore no situation could contain a difficult temptation. Any of us who suffer regrets when we remember sins we committed in the past know what it’s like to wish we had been smarter and stronger enough to have made a better choice, or to have had a good person with us to help us avoid the sin. That would be most of us, unfortunately. We become smarter and stronger morally by studying, practicing, and savoring every good, with God’s guiding help. That in essence is the Mass. Do we want to avoid all kinds of temptations in the future? Do we want to avoid further regrets? Then let’s go, and let’s apply ourselves to the readings and the liturgy when there.
There isn’t an obvious connection between going to Mass and being saved from the evils of pain, harm, and death, but much could be said along three lines. All three are touched upon in Jesus’ description of a future judgment day that will change the human condition to its final condition:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
In terms of deliverance from pain and death, first to be noted is Lord’s insistence that we act mercifully by, for example, feeding the hungry, tending to the ill, welcoming the stranger into one’s society, etc. These and similar most serious responsibilities to deliver others from evil are learned at church, organized at church, and done at church much more than anywhere else at the societal level. Secondly, there is the miraculous element – God raising the dead to assemble all people from all nations, for “the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:29-30). Before such absolute deliverance from death occurs, the Church’s prayer “deliver us from evil” is answered here by many miracles of healing and protection. A thoughtful, open-minded examination of St. Augustine, City of God, bk. 22, ch. 8ff, or other credible records of miracles would be useful and are recommended, but brevity requires us to focus on the third and most important relation between going to church and being delivered from evils of the body – the pains experienced by the condemned in their resurrected bodies in what is called “the second death.”
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars, their place will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.
(Note, the reference to “sorcerers” may seem strange to the average person today, because we read of them only in fantasy fiction or in accounts of foolish sounding New Age merchandise. But in the Bible, sorcerers means those who assist and direct the activities of demons, which are real and evil.)
There are some who would avoid church on account of its teaching on hell, because they think it would be unjust for God to punish evil demons and evil people forever. Details on the topic supplied by the Church, combined with some common sense, will resolve the difficulty well enough for most people. Our website’s treatment of the questions, “Why Catholic?” and “Why Church?” has been based primarily on an adult catechism from the Early Church, books XI-XXII of St. Augustine’s City of God, partly because this is our ancient Catholic Faith, not some newly invented system; and partly because it is in some ways more adult (in that it treats countless problems deeply, and in a kind of dialogue with opponents) than most adult catechisms available today.
The penetrating treatment of hell there (primarily in books XIX-XXII) reveals the following points: The lake of fire is like fire on earth in some respects, but its precise nature is unknown, but it is also created by God as something beautiful (XII, 7). Those who are punished in it are very pained to different degrees, in accordance with their degree of self-chosen evil. Those without stain of personal sin could not be hurt by it or by anything in eternal life. The injustice of sending a creature to hell is an injustice: it is the fault of those who insisted on going there, not the fault of God who enabled, motivated, requested and even demanded better choices. It is silly, even in life on earth, to say that the duration of a punishment has to be the same as the duration of the crime committed (a murder may take a second, but the punishment should be much longer). The punishment of hell prevents them from committing more and more sins forever, making themselves far worse eventually than even the devil is now, and causing even more misery than he has caused, which is unimaginable, forever. So no, there has to be an end put to their chances of making things worse: therefore, we choose between good and evil for a time, but not forever. Lastly, those who have committed evil, even much evil, have not corrupted everything in their nature, which was created good; therefore, some good remains to be given some good things, even though these things will not bring them to heaven. For instance, by perfectly understanding God’s judgment, which involves a wonderful improvement to their intellectual operation over what they wickedly chose (ignoring moral truths, ignoring others’ pain) on earth, they see and in some way feel that He is perfectly good. What more God might do for them there to make their life meaningful, we do not know.
In conclusion of this point, we can say that if, in order to be good, God must do something more for the eternally damned, then He will. We can also safely say that it is wise that such things are not made known, because that could tempt those who want to commit damnable sins, and live a life that leads to hell, to infer wrongly that life in hell is sort of ok, in which case they would likely act more terribly than they already do. Having evidence of the reality and agony of hell rightly convinces many to avoid it; let that sobering truth continue that effect.
Some would say that if God revealed to a wicked soul that hell was imminent, and it could have one last chance, and it could feel the misery of hell, it would surely repent, and no one would go there. St. Faustina reported (Diary, 1698) that Jesus told her in a direct revelation that this warning and choice is clearly offered at the point of death, invisibly, to countless evil people, the outcome being that some do turn to God and be saved, but some choose eternal sinfulness and hell instead anyway.
All of the above points being the case, even the imposition of hell, insofar as it is from God, is, to that extent, even for the damned, a deliverance from many evils, and is the imposition of punishment to whatever degree is just; what better decision in dealing with them could God possibly make?
The question, “Why Church?” began with a list of requests for everything we could and should want, the Our Father. Jesus was found to say that we are all invited by God to a heavenly celebration, which is eternal paradise, where all would be given. But He says, we won’t be dragged there against our will, and we can refuse or we can be grateful and come give our joy and be enveloped in the joy of God and all good people. It emerged that going to church helps us get every level of good thing, as much as possible in this life, and becomes a vehicle whereby we come to heaven forever. It also emerged that those who recognize God’s call through the Church but reject it for selfish reasons, or who at least refuse to be good as needed to others or themselves, will not come into the eternal church of heaven for the eternal wedding feast, but will live outside always painfully unable to cause more damage or pain by their neglect or hurtfulness, but helped from afar by God in ways that we mostly don’t know.
For further reading, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and St. Augustine, City of God, especially books XI-XIV and XIX-XXII, are recommended. St. Augustine wasn’t infallible (nor are his modern translators); the Catechism corrects and avoids a few mistakes he made (especially on some points of world history). Conversely, he engages more philosophically and theologically with all kinds of questions and erroneous interpretations of Scripture that the Catechism doesn’t go into.
May every type of good come to you and be done for you and in you. May God bless and perfect us, and may we come together in the end into heavenly paradise.
* The contents of this section of our website are copyrighted © by an anonymous person whose name is recorded in our Parish Office, 2020. All rights reserved. Used here with permission.