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Commonly asked questions for Catholics

The following offers a guide for Catholics wanting to talk about their faith with others. However, it should not be seen as a source of rebuttal or proof statements, but rather used to help in conversations about our faith. Arguments and stand-offs never get us very far. It has been said that the church is at the service of the truth wherever that is to be found. As such, it is important to listen to and respect the other’s viewpoint and share our own.
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This document is available in a printable form here: Questions and Answers.pdf [213 Kb]

Has science disproved God? (eg through evolution)

Belief in God is not provable via science – that is not the role of science. God offers us a framework to make sense of what science describes, and offers us meaning beyond what can be measured.

Has science disproved God? Read more...

It is sometimes claimed that scientific breakthroughs have disproved God, or at least make the need for God redundant. At its extreme, people may use science to demand a proof of God.

While belief in God is ultimately an act of faith, it is not blind faith. We do not have to ignore scientific claims in order to embrace Christian beliefs. On the contrary, many Christians are scientists, and over the years have made wonderful contributions to the field of science. Notable Christian scientists have included Francis Bacon, Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, James Joule and Arthur Eddington.

At its heart, science seeks to understand how the universe works. It does not ask questions of why the universe exists or what it is intended for. Believers point to the magnificent complexity of the universe, and celebrate it as a masterpiece and wondrous gift of God.

Catholics do not take the Bible literally, so there is no inherent contradiction between the Genesis account of creation and a theory of evolution. This is eloquently addressed in a talk by Vatican Observatory Director Jesuit Father George V. Coyne in 2006.

It is unfortunate that… creationism has come to mean some fundamentalistic, literal, scientific interpretation of Genesis. Judaic-Christian faith is radically creationist, but in a totally different sense. It is rooted in a belief that everything depends upon God, or better, all is a gift from God. The universe is not God and it cannot exist independently of God. Neither pantheism nor naturalism is true.

…. If they respect the results of modern science, religious believers must move away from the notion of a dictator God, a Newtonian God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly. ... God is working with the universe. The universe has a certain vitality of its own …

The universe as we know it today through science is one way to derive analogical knowledge of God. For those who believe modern science does say something to us about God, it provides a challenge, an enriching challenge, to traditional beliefs about God. God in his infinite freedom continuously creates a world which reflects that freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process to greater and greater complexity. God lets the world be what it will be in its continuous evolution. He does not intervene, but rather allows, participates, loves…

Finally, there are those who consider that truth can only be arrived at via scientific method (using techniques such as observation of phenomena, description, classification, explanation and verification). Sometimes called scientism, this belief refutes philosophy and religion as purely subjective. They may argue that God does not exist because God cannot be scientifically proved. The problem with this approach is that our knowledge is not derived purely through scientific observation. Truth can be deduced from human reason, and religions draw truth from revelation, in the light of faith. Indeed, love, beauty, personality, virtue are not provable by scientific means.

Belief in God is not provable via science – that is not the role of science. God offers us a framework to make sense of what science describes, and offers us meaning beyond what can be measured.

How do we know the Bible is historical?

Where the Bible describes battles, towns and people, we can draw upon other Ancient Near Eastern texts, to see if they also refer to these events, places and people. Furthermore, archaeological evidence helps validate the Biblical picture.  Many ancient manuscripts still survive and their authenticity can also be validated through carbon dating.

How do we know the Bible is historical? Read more...

The Bible may be the most popular book in the world, but that does not make it factual.
How do we know it was not a product of someone’s vivid imagination?

It helps firstly to appreciate the Bible is not one book but a library of 73 distinct works, spanning a range of literary genres, written by a number of authors, over a period of about 1600 years in different cultural settings. Manuscripts appear in three ancient languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Works include histories, but also legal codes, short stories, songs, poems, prophecies, collections of wise sayings and so on.

Where the Bible describes battles, towns and people, we can draw upon other Ancient Near Eastern texts, to see if they also refer to these events, places and people. Furthermore, archaeological evidence helps validate the Biblical picture.  Many ancient manuscripts still survive and their authenticity can also be validated through carbon dating.

However, as mentioned, the books of the Bible coming from many different sources and most authors did not intend to write a history for its own sake. The Bible is divided into two parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The books of the Old Testament (meaning covenant or agreement) have as their main purpose to communicate the promises of God to the Jewish people, and record in various ways how the Jews responded to God’s call and God’s enduring faithfulness. The New Testament relates to the fulfilment of God’s promises to the Jews in Jesus Christ, and the birth of a new community in Christ, who are known as Christians.

So while we can assess the Bible historically, it is more important for someone interested in faith, to ask whether the Bible accurately details the story of faith for both the Jews and the early Christians. History remains an important consideration (as we want to know the faith story is grounded in actual events!) but does the Bible reflect the community’s faith experience?

The best answer for this lies in the fact that certain books have been included in the Bible while others are not. For instance, more Gospels were written then the four accounts of Jesus’ life which appear in the Bible. But the community of the day, the people who actually had lived and passed on the story of Jesus’ life and teachings, judged which accounts were authentic to their own understanding of faith in Jesus Christ. This process occurs for all books included in what is known as the Canon of the Bible. These included works are thus termed in Christianity as inspired by God.

If the Bible is historical, if it’s God’s Word how come there is so much violence in it and that some things seem inaccurate?

It is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that human authors wrote these passages and they were doing their best to interpret the action of God in their lives. If God’s chosen people won a great battle and butchered their enemies, then this would be seen as God being faithful. They triumphed because they were faithful to God. We read the works of the Bible in the context they were written and consider why they were written and what faith message they are seeking to convey.

What about all the violence and inaccuracies? Read more...

Reading the Bible is not like picking up a newspaper, a novel or a text book. For one thing, it is a collection of works - some are poems, others letters, others chronicles. (See above)

More specifically, the works of the Bible were gathered because we believe the authors are conveying something about God's relationship with humanity. In other words "to interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words." (Dei Verbum, 12), Catechism of the Catholic Church, 109

In order to discover the sacred authors' intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. "For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression." (Dei Verbum, 12), Catechism of the Catholic Church, 110

But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. "Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written." (Dei Verbum, 12), Catechism of the Catholic Church, 111

This means, if there are inaccuracies in a place name or details of some battle, this should not concern us if our desire is to understand the faith message the passage is seeking to convey.

A more significant challenge occurs when we struggle to interpret scriptural passages which speak of violence, rape, slavery and destruction. These seem to be at odds with the message of a loving God.

It is important that we do not lose sight of the fact that human authors wrote these passages and they were doing their best to interpret the action of God in their lives. If God’s chosen people won a great battle and butchered their enemies, then this would be seen as God being faithful. They triumphed because they were faithful to God.

However, as the books of the Bible progress, the Jews encounter exile and enduring hardship. Where is their faithful God now? The human authors need to interpret God’s actions in the light of their new settings. Finally, with the New Testament, God’s own Son reveals the fullness of God’s approach to humanity. Far from coming as a victorious warrior, Jesus comes as a helpless babe, spends his life offering healing and forgiveness, and commanding his followers to love their enemies and do good to those who hurt them. He gives the perfect example of this by dying on the Cross, and in his final agony still praying to his Father to forgive those who are the architects of his final suffering and death.

Therefore, it is important that we read the works of the Bible in context and consider why they were written and what faith message they are seeking to convey.

Is the resurrection of Jesus myth or miracle?

The accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection are recorded in all four Gospels in the New Testament of the Bible. So, beyond a simple faith response, enquirers are asked to judge the evidence presented in the Gospels.

The resurrection of Jesus? Read more...

This question can be extended to any of the miracles of the Bible, but the account of Jesus’ resurrection is pivotal for Christian belief.

Many people believe that Jesus was a good man, but stop short of believing he is God, because they cannot accept his many miracles, especially his resurrection.

The accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection are recorded in all four Gospels in the New Testament of the Bible. So, beyond a simple faith response, enquirers are asked to judge the evidence presented in the Gospels.

The method of Jesus’ death was by crucifixion, a cruel punishment widely practiced by theRoman empireof the day. Some argue that Jesus did not die, either faking his death or only losing consciousness. However, it must be remembered that his execution was a public event with many witnesses. The Roman soldiers were charged with the duty of checking that those suffering crucifixion actually died. The checking of Jesus’ body is recorded in the Gospels.

Again, after he had died, the Romans and Jewish authorities would have been mindful of Jesus’ claims that he would rise again, and it reasonable to assume they would have guarded the place of his burial against attempts to steal the body, and thus fake the claim of his resurrection.  Again, the Gospel records guards being placed at the tomb.

Finally, the resurrection stories which appear in the Gospels need to be assessed. Why fabricate the whole experience of Jesus’ resurrection? What would it achieve? We know that the early followers of Jesus were actually persecuted and killed. Why risk all that for a lie?

If, against all recorded evidence, Jesus did fake his own death, it would be a deceitful act, something incredibly at odds with the way he lived the rest of his life.

Another rather obvious point is that people of Jesus’ day were quite aware that humans don’t rise from the dead. They would not have expected it, hence the excitement around the accounts. It is worth noting that Jesus’ followers were either in hiding or returning back to their former lives following the crucifixion.

Finally, the Gospel accounts include some details which actually weaken their credibility in the eyes of people of the day. One of these, is that women first encountered the empty tomb and the risen Jesus. Women’s testimonies were not considered reliable in Jesus’ day. In a culture which did not value the testimony of women, why make up a story which includes women as the eyewitnesses?

Much has been written on this central belief of Christianity, this section simply gives a sense of why Christians believe in the resurrection beyond it being a nice idea.

How can there be a God of love when there is so much suffering?

While there is no simple answer, we recognise that God does not abandon us in our suffering, and suffers with us. Indeed, Christian faith does not shy away from suffering but wrestles with it as a central belief, since we have a crucified God. However, God also promises that suffering and death do not have the last word, a promise fulfilled through Jesus rising from the dead.

A God of love and suffering? Read more...

Suffering is a condition of being human. We can ask why did God put it there if God loves us so much. Theologians can give us clever answers about suffering being part of our condition because humanity turned away from God. However, this is cold comfort to those who struggle in their personal lives or shrink from the horrors faced by our world.

Again, it can be argued that much suffering can be due to the failings of humanity. When humans fight one another, or cheat or steal or take more than their share, then there is suffering. Because we have been gifted with free will, God will not intervene, even when we choose to do evil. But what of natural disasters, cancer or other seemingly random accidents or hurts which can cause such grief?

We cannot puzzle out the reason why we suffer. But once we accept it is a given part of this life, we then discover that the Christian faith has much to say about suffering. BishopPeter Inghamin this year’s Lenten pastoral letter said: “If we truly understand what it means to be in relationship with God, then we will gain a better perspective on the crises in our lives, be they large or small. If God who is, truly loves me, what should I fear? Why should I not trust? Why should I be anything other than at peace? If I can grasp something of the depths of God's love for me, and recognise that God holds me in the palm of his hand, regardless of the crisis that may befall me, "All will be well, and all manner of things will be well" as Julian of Norwich said. We are reminded of this so beautifully in today's Psalm: You are my hiding place, O Lord; You surround me with cries of deliverance. (Ps 31: 1-2)

In no way do I mean to trivialise our present fears or difficulties. I know the bushfires, the floods and the economic crisis are affecting many of us deeply. These personal sufferings are real and take their toll.

But it is also true that the power and sure hope of God's love shine far more brightly than any of the darkness in our lives. Good Friday represents God's participation in the pain of the world. Easter assures us that the pain of our life, the pain of the world, does not have the final word.”

Don’t all roads lead to God?

No one can know who will be saved. Even when someone seems to have lived a very destructive life, we cannot judge whether that person has been saved or not. People can always repent, even at the last minute, and turn to God.

All roads lead to God? Read more...

At the same time, there is no guarantee that everyone is saved. Jesus said: “Try your best to enter by the narrow door, because I tell you, many will try to enter and will not succeed.” (Lk 13:2). However, God ‘desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:4).

Christians testify that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and the one way of reaching God. While this sounds arrogant, if we really believe Jesus Christ is God, and his claims as being saviour of the whole world, then we cannot simply offer him as one option among many.

Once one comes to belief, then in following Christ, we are called to follow his teachings on faith and Baptism (cf Mk 16:16; Jn 3:5). We are baptised into Church as Christ remains present to us in his body which is the Church.

Catholics believe there is only one Churchof Christthat is fully in possession of the truth of the Gospel; that is the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. This partly stems from apostolic succession, the understanding that these churches can trace an unbroken and faithful line back to the first apostles.

What then of other Christians the other great religions of the world? The Second Vatican Council holds that "2. ... The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and teachings, which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all people."  "Nostra Aetate,"

However, the sure path is through belief in Jesus Christ and entry into the community of faith via Baptism into the Catholic Church.

Why do you pray to Mary and the Saints?

While Catholics sometimes speak of praying to the saints, we actually mean we are asking the saints to pray with us or for us to God. Just as we ask one another to pray for intentions, Catholics also ask the community of saints in heaven, to join us in praying to God for the needs of the world.

Praying to Mary and the saints? Read more...

If a person prayed directly to a saint that could be understood as idolatry. But in the Catholic tradition we talk to the saints as our brothers and sisters, and ask them to pray for us, just like we ask our friends and family now to pray for us.

People can be uncomfortable with the strong devotion Catholics have for Mary, the Mother of God. We understand that she is a saint - a friend of God - and so we ask for her prayers or for her to pray for us. In the Hail Mary, we say “pray for us sinners.” We venerate her in a special way, particularly because she is the mother of Jesus and thus also appropriately called the mother of God, and that God has honoured her above all other humans. She is completely holy and already glorified by God. We revere her as the first disciple and as chief among the followers of Jesus, and attempt to model our lives on her example of abiding faithfulness.

Why go to Mass?

Our community is not simply a social club. Since Christ is our head, we respond to Christ’s call. Therefore, we go to Mass because as followers of Christ, we wish to follow his command, “do this in memory of me”  which he expressed at his Last Supper with his friends. He wants us to continue to offer the sacrifice of the Mass, not to repeat Christ’s sacrifice, but to enter into that one sacrifice, to join with Him in dying to sin and rising to new life. We seek to be in communion with the real presence of Christ, and then nourished through this gathering, share ourselves with the world.

Why go to Mass? Read more...

One aspect of Catholic faith which is distinctive is our belief that we don't simply encounter God through nature and scriptures, but through sacramental actions.
"When people think about what is distinctive about Catholicism, they easily think of the sacraments. No other religion, I would venture to say, takes the material world more seriously. Catholics believe that in the simple actions and words of the seven sacraments, Jesus Christ becomes present and acts within the souls of believers to nourish and strengthen their relationship with him. They do not work like magic, of course. The believer must approach the sacraments with faith and with the desire to receive what Christ wants to give us. For those that do, the sacraments are times of personal encounter with the God who came that we might have life in abundance." (John 10:10)

Through our scriptures, we see that we are called to be united with God - not just as individuals, but in a faith-filled community, which we call Church. Jesus invited his followers to be baptised, again, not only into God but into a community of believers who care for one another and the human family. Within this family, I can be encouraged and encourage others, and share in a vision wider than myself.
Of course, while we are baptised in the Holy Spirit which gathers us into one family, we are also capable of getting things very wrong, through our own frailties and failings.

Our community is not simply a social club. Since Christ is our head, we respond to Christ’s call. Therefore, we go to Mass because as followers of Christ, we wish to follow his command, “do this in memory of me”  which he expressed at his Last Supper with his friends. He wants us to continue to offer the sacrifice of the Mass, not to repeat Christ’s sacrifice, but to enter into that one sacrifice, to join with Him in dying to sin and rising to new life. We seek to be in communion with the real presence of Christ, and then nourished through this gathering, share ourselves with the world.

Isn’t the church hypocritical with all its wealth and abuses by priests?

The church has done great wrongs, has caused pain and suffering over all the years of its existence. While some priests have been perpetrators, so too have many other members of the Catholic community. We apologise for wrongs done and grieve with those who have suffered, seeking to help and make amends and to change practises to ensure new sufferings are not afflicted.

A hypocritical church? Read more...

One simple truth is that the church is not God. The following quote goes someway to describing a response to this question:

"For two millennia the church has withstood wars, schisms, scandals, abuses of power, and controversy upon controversy. In that same time, it has given physical and spiritual healing to the sick, homes to the impoverished, courage to the frightened, understanding to the intolerant, and love to the hard hearted. In a way, the church's history is much like the people, clergy and lay, in every parish in the world - an embodiment of good and evil, sin and holiness....This does not mean the church can be complacent about its defects. The worst weeds can and should be rooted up. But the church will never be perfect. And we do not belong to the church because we are good and holy. We belong precisely because we are sinners and needy and weak and imperfect. As someone once said, 'The church is a mansion for saints, but a hospital for sinners.' We know we cannot overcome our problems or grow spiritually merely by our own efforts. We need help - from hearing the word of God in Scripture and praying together as a fellowship of sinners striving to become saints." p123

(Rev. Martin Pable, Remaining Catholic, Six Good Reasons for staying in an imperfect Church, ACTA Publications, 2005)

Why follow what the Pope, bishops and priests say – why not just the Bible?

Our Church has been around for a long time, and traces its beginnings to the first-century Christian community of the apostles and the generations that immediately followed. Why is this important? Well, if we are followers of Jesus Christ how do we know that we are being true to his teachings and the way of life he calls us too? Can we simply rely on the Bible? For Catholics, the Bible is understood through the ongoing, living Tradition of the Church (meaning the central church teachings, beliefs and practices).

Why not just follow the Bible? Read more...

"It is not that Scripture and Tradition are two separate sources of divine truth. The Second Vatican Council taught that together both form "one sacred deposit of the Word of God," which is entrusted to the teaching authority of the church...In other words, the Bible, alone without the guidance of Tradition, is not a complete guide to God's revealed truth. This is because the meaning of biblical passages is not always self-evident..." p34. Our Tradition and structures also help to manage with conflicts. Over the years, Christians have been pained by continual divisions into new communities that believe they have a better way of living Christ's message. Having our structure of Bishops and priests all united with the Pope may seem to some to be too prescriptive, but actually is designed to ensure we both hold onto the belief entrusted to us all the way back to the time of the apostles, as well as ensuring the unity of Christ's followers today.”

(Rev. Martin Pable, Remaining Catholic, Six Good Reasons for staying in an imperfect Church, ACTA Publications, 2005)

If you were baptised as a baby, how can you say you chose to believe in God?

The Catholic Church addresses baptism of infants and baptism of adults differently. Ancient testimony regarding infant baptism dates back to the second century and actual practice may date back to apostolic times. It is a sacrament celebrated with the faithful of the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism". In other words, God loves us into life, from the moment of conception, and desires for us to be one with him. Infant baptism witnesses to the free gift of God. Just like we do not choose our own parents, infant Baptism affirms that God chooses us first.

Primarily the parents and also our community of faith then have the care of bringing the child up in the faith. As they mature, like all Christians, they will be called again and again to make a conscious decision to remain a faithful member of God’s family.

  • Thursday, 24 November 2011
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