One of the most common complaints waged against Catholics (and Orthodox) by Protestants is the sacrament of confession: “Why do you need to go to a priest for confession? Why can’t you go straight to Jesus?” While seemingly an easy question to dismiss (just Protestants ignoring tradition, right?) there is actually an interesting theological question at work here, not unlike the question of baptism: Is it really required? When we use that word, we’re not simply saying required for the standards of the Church, but signifying that it is the only way that it is possible for something to happen.

Surely this is not what we mean when we say that one must confess their sins to a priest.

For starters, we accept that the Eucharist is a sacrament of reconciliation, meaning that all who receive it are freed of their venial sins. So, right there, we see an exception. You don’t HAVE to confess to a priest to have your sins forgiven.

But even beyond that, as I outline in this video, the idea that confession is the only way that God can forgive a sinner is ridiculous. OF COURSE God can forgive whomever God wants whenever and however God wants. The sacraments do not bind God or limit what God can do!

Instead, it is much better to say that the sacraments are the clearest forms of God’s grace, and, the crux of the matter, the only form that offers assurance of that grace. While God can show mercy and forgiveness in an infinite number of ways, it is only through the sacraments that we can be sure that we have received it, for they are visible signs of invisible graces. You can’t miss them!

So, does someone have to go to confession to have their sins forgiven? Obviously not. And the Church doesn’t teach that. What it does teach is that, if someone wants the surety of absolution and wants to be a part of the community once more (because the community wants that assurance as well!) then there is only one ordinary means: the sacrament that Christ instituted.

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“Vatican II is the reason for all our problems!”

Welcome to 20% of the comments I receive on YouTube. I have to say… I find it a bit tiring. Besides just the nonsense of scapegoating in any situation, it’s just ludicrous if you’ve ever actually read the documents of the Second Vatican Council. People are upset with the world as it is and must find something to project onto. Because change is often unwelcome, the thing that caused the change must be the reason for their dissatisfaction, a la Vatican II is the reason for all our problems.

While I am often not able to muster up the amount of patience and respect needed to engage such comments, when I am, my response is always to quite the council itself: don’t go by hearsay or conjecture, read for yourself. As we have seen of late, there are more than a few news sources that have a vested interest in something other than the truth; even in the Catholic world, sites like LifeSite News and Church Militant churn out garbage every day that does more to misinform and create division that it does to edify God. For those faithful who do not know any better, it can be easy to believe what some sites say about the Catholic Church, when in fact it is a serious distortion of the truth.

Read the documents yourself.

In this week’s episode of Catholicism in Focus, I offer a primer for the first document of the Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. I hope that it will inspire others to read the document (which is very short) for themselves, and see that Vatican II did nothing of what people blame it for, but was a profound and holy document of the council that called for much needed changes.

What does it mean to think like a Franciscan? When people imagine our spirituality, I imagine many picture a tree-hugging hippie communing with nature, a jovial cartoon character with a big belly, or a humble beggar with tattered clothes. And there’s certainly some truth to all of these images! (Stereotypes exist for a reason…)

Unfortunately, what often gets lost in these caricatures is the fact that Franciscans were masters of theology in the Middle Ages. While many will think of St. Thomas Aquinas as the foremost theologian of Church history, the fact of the matter is that his popularity grew long after his death (after, of course, he his writings were suppressed and then reinstated…) As strange as it might sound today, it was actually the Franciscans that held the greatest and widest influence in scholastic thought for many centuries.

I guess some really do peak early.

With the rise of Thomism in the late Middle Ages, and the subsequent crowning of Thomas as the primary theologian of the Church after Trent and Vatican I, Franciscan thought took a backseat and was often forgotten by serious theologians. This was a great tragedy, and today some are beginning to rediscover the treasure that is the Franciscan Intellectual Tradition.

The problem, as so many understand, is that our Tradition is not a school with uniform principles of study. There is no such thing as a “Franciscan” way of studying or thinking. Unlike the Dominicans or Jesuits that have very clearly defined modes of theology, the Franciscans tend to be very experiential and personal, meaning that naming it is about as allusive as catching an electron: we know it’s there, and it’s certainly important, but there is just no way of fitting it neatly into a box.

Instead, as I have tried to capture in this video, there are broad categories of inquiry that Franciscans tend to focus on, and contributions made by specific Franciscans. None of them are universally held by every Franciscan, but they offer a starting point that may help us understand a different way of thinking in our Church.

One of the most common things I hear from non-Christians is that “Jesus never claimed to be God.” While people like Peter and Paul professed his divinity and later councils defined what that meant, Jesus never speaks of himself as God. Taken with the fact that Jesus always defers to the Father, and, at times, even admonishes the disciples for giving him too much credit, it’s easy to see why some would question his identity.

That is, if all they ever knew of the Bible were a few random passages that supported their opinion.

The fact of the matter is that Jesus does claim to be God and does expect worship all throughout the Gospels. He may not say those words explicitly, but when you know where to look and if you do a little digging, there is more than enough evidence to show that he knew himself to be God.

The issue of communion, particularly “who is allowed to receive,” is a topic that I run up against often. Many people have questions, and I am happy to talk about it.

That said, I find it to be one of the most frustrating topics to discuss. I can talk myself blue in the face and make no progress. There is a disconnect in communication, it seems, and I never seem to be speaking the same language as those who are curious.

The problem, I see, is that I can never get people to break out of a fundamentally private, individualistic notion of faith. Many think that because they believe in the real presence of the Eucharist and are approaching the altar with good faith that they should be welcomed. Who are we do “deny” them entry to Christ. “I am a follower of Christ. I believe in the real presence of the Eucharist. Why can’t I receive?” It seems wholly unChristian, just the work of an exclusivist Church that wants people to jump through hoops.

At work here, whether fully expressed or not, is a very problematic Eucharistic theology, at least from the Catholic perspective. Driving one’s desire to attend and receive is the notion of the Eucharist as a holy commodity, a “thing” that will bring us closer to God and make us better people. Even the way we speak of it betrays this idea: “We go to mass to get grace.” (For further evidence, notice how many leave right after receiving communion rather than staying for the closing prayer and blessing.) While others might be gathered in the same place for the same reason, at its core, Mass is nothing more than a very holy convenience store: we come in, follow the protocols, wait in line, and get what we want. There could be 1000 people or just me, it wouldn’t matter. We come to get Jesus.

From that mindset, I completely understand their frustration. It does seem exclusivist for the Church to restrict this. If Mass is nothing more than a believer wanting to come to Jesus and receive grace, then who are we to deny them that opportunity?

Of course… Mass is much more than that.

And here’s the point that I work so hard to get people to understand but find myself constantly running into a wall: the Eucharist is not a private act. Personal, yes. Absolutely. It is deeply personal. But there is hardly a less private act in the entire life of the Church! What we do, we do together. What we receive, we receive together. In the Eucharist, we receive the body and blood of Christ, yes, but we also give of ourselves to God and one another; we lay our sacrifices on the altar, pray in one voice, confess our need for mercy, and share peace with one another. The Eucharist is not simply the reception of a commodity, not simply about what God does for me; it is a communal celebration in which we gives thanks for what God has done for us.

Christian life is not a solitary act but one that is innately communal. When we speak of the body of Christ, we of course mean the Eucharistic species we receive from the altar, but we must also speak of the community that does the receiving: when we take Christ into ourselves, we become that body, united with Christ and one another. This act of receiving serves as a covenant in blood for those who receive, symbolizing the one baptism that we all share, but also constituting the one community that we make. That’s the beauty of the sacraments: they make present what they symbolize. In this case, what the sacrament makes present is not simply the Eucharistic species, but the community, bound by the blood of the lamb.

If someone is not a part of the community, doesn’t want to be a part of it, or has actually hurt the community, how can they take part in a celebration that symbolizes and constitutes community? That is the question we as Catholics ask when people who do not regularly come to Mass want to receive. It is not enough to believe in the real presence just as it is not enough to call him “Lord”; even the demons recognize this. To be a part of the celebration, one must break out of their private, individualistic notion of faith and realize that faith is inherently communal; they must make a commitment beyond themselves to be a part of the larger mission of Christ; they must be willing to pour out their own blood, lay down their own lives, and carry their own cross for the person to their right and to their left.

Anything less, really, and all the Eucharist becomes is a private commodity meant for me. Surely, it’s more than that, right?