Category Archives: Catholic

Girl Scouts and Planned Parenthood

Girl Scouts OK Pro-Abortion Planned Parenthood Sex Guide at United Nations Mtg

by Terrence McKeegan, J.D.
March 11
, 2010 Note: Terrence McKeegan writes for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. This article originally appeared in the pro-life group’s Friday Fax publication and is used with permission.

New York, NY ( — The World Association of Girl Scouts and Girl Guides hosted a no-adults-welcome panel at the United Nations this week where Planned Parenthood was allowed to distribute a brochure entitled “Healthy, Happy and Hot.” The event was part of the annual United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) which concludes this week.

The brochure, aimed at young people living with HIV, contains explicit and graphic details on sex, as well as the promotion of casual sex in many forms. The brochure claims, “Many people think sex is just about vaginal or anal intercourse… But, there are lots of different ways to have sex and lots of different types of sex. There is no right or wrong way to have sex. Just have fun, explore and be yourself!”

The brochure goes on to encourage young people to “Improve your sex life by getting to know your own body. Play with yourself! Masturbation is a great way to find out more about your body and what you find sexually stimulating. Mix things up by using different kinds of touch from very soft to hard. Talk about or act out your fantasies. Talk dirty to them.”

The brochure also tells students that national laws requiring HIV-positive people to reveal their status to their partner(s) “violate the rights of people living with HIV” and calls for advocacy to “change laws that violate your rights.” It explains, “There are many reasons that people do not share their HIV status. … They may worry that people will find out something else they have kept secret, like they are using injecting drugs, having sex outside of a marriage or having sex with people of the same gender.”

The Girl Scouts, along with the YMCA have been co-moderating a young women’s caucus that included an “Intergenerational Conversation” side event on “universal access” and “reproductive health.” One recent Girl Scout project “aims at securing the right of women, men and adolescents aged between ten and twenty-five, to better reproductive and sexual health.”??

Also at CSW last week, the heads of various powerful UN agencies including the UN Population Fund, UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), UN Children’s Fund and the World Health Organization released a “UN Joint Statement” under the name of the “UN Adolescent Girls Task Force,” which calls for their agencies to promote and support programs “that empower … adolescent girls, particularly those aged 10 to 14 years.”

One of the chief priorities for empowerment is ensuring access to “life-skills based sexuality education, HIV prevention, and sexual and reproductive health.”

The New York Times recently reported that UN Population Fund had co-sponsored a very controversial curriculum with UNESCO, that included teaching children as young as five to be sexually active and training adolescents to advocate for abortion.

Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women of America told the Friday Fax, “Governments and NGOs should be aware of Planned Parenthood’s insidious plan to work with UN agencies and girls’ organizations in order to profit from encouraging kids to be sexually active.”


What Does The Prayer Really Say?»Blog Archive » Agnes… lambs… Popes…. nuns… pallia


via What Does The Prayer Really Say?»Blog Archive » Agnes… lambs… Popes…. nuns… pallia.

21 January 2010

Agnes… lambs… Popes…. nuns… pallia

CATEGORY: “But Father! But Father!” — Fr. John Zuhlsdorf @ 11:58 am

The Holy Father blessed lambs today, the feast of St. Agnes, as usual.

The lambs are associated with Agnes, because of the Latin similarity of their names, Agnes and agnus.  Get it?

Those sisters in the background are Benedictine nuns from the convent at St. Cecilia in Trastevere.  When I first lived in Rome, I would go there everyday, into the cloister, and serve Mass for the rector of the basilica.  I got to know them a bit.

In the morning the rather heavily drugged lambs are, tied down on a small litter, decorated with flowers, and brought to the Basilica of St. Agnes out on the Via Nomentana, where Mass is said.  You are thereby entertained by their bleating…. better than the Sistine Choir, actually.

Now that I think of it….it’s a good thing they don’t mix that agnus thing up with angus. That would make the litter harder to carry!  (Where is Vincenzo when you need him?)

Then they are taken to the Pope.

Then they are taken to St. Cecilia’s.

Later they will be shorn and, traditionally, their wool is used for the pallia distributed to new archbishops on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.  Of course there are so many archbishops these days that they would need a whole flock of lambs.

Then they are taken out to a beautiful farm, Timmy, where they can play with other lambs.

Well… honestly… I am not sure about the fate of the lambs.

But I do know that Romans are neither overly sentimental about critters nor are they sparing in their appreciation of abbacchio scottaditto.

“But Father! But Father!”, the fluffly lamb-lovers will blurt, as they recoil in horror from the screen.  “Would you… would you….?!?  You’re baaaaahd!”

I would.  When I see lambs, I think “Supper and sweater.”

And for the record, in June the new archbishops get the better design of the pallium.   Just in case the Pope was going to ask.

• • • • • •

The Commonplace Book of Zadok the Roman: The Miracle of Bl Piux IX at St Agnes Outside the Walls


via The Commonplace Book of Zadok the Roman: The Miracle of Bl Piux IX at St Agnes Outside the Walls.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Miracle of Bl Piux IX at St Agnes Outside the Walls

I made a pilgrimage this morning to the Basilica of S.Agnese Fuori le Mura and came across the following fresco in a chapel which leads off the courtyard just inside the main entrance from the Via Nomentana.
I had read previously that Bl Pius IX had miraculously escaped injury whilst visiting the Basilica, and a little digging turned up the following article from the New York Times of 13 April 1905:

To Canonise Pius IX
Pope Receives Surviving Witnesses of Supposed Miracle of 1855.

ROME, April 12. — an interesting ceremony took place this morning in the Basilica of St Agnes, 2 miles outside of Rome. The building stands over the catacombs, where, among others the body of St Agnes is buried.
While Pius IX on April 12, 1855 was receiving the College of the Propaganda in the Basilica the floor gave way and all present were precipitated into the catacombs, 20 feet below. Nobody was injured, and this, by some persons, was considered a miracle.
The only survivors of the accident the Rev. Dr. Richard L. Burtsell of Rondout, N.Y., and Archbishop Rubian, the resident representative of the Armenians in Rome. In the Basilica this morning Dr. Burtsell celebrated high mass and Archbishop Rubian intoned the Te Deum and bestowed the benediction on the members of the College of the Propaganda.
The Pope later in the day received Dr. Burtsell and Archbishop Rubian. The Pontiff took the occasion to speak of Pius IX. He says that many persons were urging him to begin the informative process towards his canonisation.
“Miracle of the Basilica of St Agnes,” the Pope continued, “is one of the events which will be brought forward to establish the fact that Pius IX performs miracles. It is a good thing that there are living witnesses to give evidence.”

On either side of the picture are lists of those who survived the incident. To the left are the various dignitaries who escaped, and to the right is a list of seminarians from the Propaganda College who survived, including Burtsell and Rubian. It would be interesting to establish whether the figures in the painting true to life. Bl Pius IX is, of course, clearly recognizable and I suspect that at least the senior dignitaries portrayed are intended to be realistic. If you look at the figure of the Cardinal who is lying underneath a fallen beam in the bottom left of the picture, you will see that he bears a more than passing resemblance to Cardinal Antonelli who was certainly present.

Edited to add:
I forgot to mention that there’s another interpretation of what happened to Bl Pius IX. Some superstitious sorts believed that he had the ‘evil eye’ – not that he himself was evil or malevolent, but that he was an involuntary bringer of ill-fortune. This book explains:

Ask a Roman about the late Pope’s evil eye reputation, and he will answer: “They said so, and it seems really to be true. If he had not the jettatura, it is very odd that everything he blessed made fiasco. We all did very well in the campaign against the Austrians in ’48. We were winning battle after battle, and all was gaiety and hope, when suddenly he blessed the cause, and everything went to the bad at once. Nothing succeeds with anybody or anything when he wishes well to them. When he went to S. Agnese to hold a great festival, down went the floor, and the people were all smashed together. Then he visited the column to the Madonna in the Piazza di Spagna, and blessed it and the workmen; of course one fell from the scaffold the same day and killed himself. He arranged to meet the King of Naples at Porto d’Anzio, when up came a violent gale, and a storm that lasted a week; another arrangement was made, and then came the fracas about the ex-queen of Spain.
“Again, Lord C—— came in from Albano, being rather unwell; the Pope sent him his blessing, when, pop! he died right off in a twinkling. There was nothing so fatal as his blessing. I do not wonder the workmen at the column in the Piazza di Spagna refused to work in raising it unless the Pope stayed away!”

What Does The Prayer Really Say?»Blog Archive » 21 January: St. Agnes of Rome, virgin and martyr


via What Does The Prayer Really Say?»Blog Archive » 21 January: St. Agnes of Rome, virgin and martyr.

21 January: St. Agnes of Rome, virgin and martyr

CATEGORY: “Who Am I?” – Identify Saints & Symbols, SESSIUNCULA — Fr. John Zuhlsdorf @ 11:11 am

Here is something I have posted in the past… about St. Agnes of Rome.  Newcomers to WDTPRS may not have seen it.

Behold the skull of Agnes.

The dies natalis (“birthday into heaven”) of Agnes was recorded in the register of the depositio martyrum as 21 January.

St. Agnes was slain probably during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian in 304. Some say she died during the time of the Emperor Valerian (+260).

The little girl was buried by her parents in praediolo suo, on their property along the Via Nomentana where there was already a cemetery.

This cemetery expanded rapidly after that, because many wanted to be buried near the grave of the famous martyr. The ancient cemetery grew in stages between the Basilica which Constantina, daughter of Constantine and Fausta began over her tomb from 337-350 and the small round Basilica of Constantia (Constantine’s daughter).

There was an acrostic inscription from that time in verses about the dedication of the temple to Agnes:

Constantina deum venerans Christoque dicata
Omnibus impensis devota mente paratis
Numine divino multum Christoque iuvante
Sacravit templum victricis virginis Agnes…

You get the idea.

The Basilica of St. Agnes was reconstructed towards the end of the 5th c. by Pope Symmachus (+514). Honorius I (+638) rebuilt it as a basilica with three naves, adding a wonderful fresco of Agnes. It was worked on again in the 16th c. by St. Pius V and in the 19th by Bl. Pope Pius IX.

Excavations in 1901 uncovered the silver sarcophagus made by Pius V for St. Agnes together with St. Emerentiana.

It contained the headless body of a young girl.

Zadock gave us a photo of the miraclous protection of Bl. Pius IX when once at the Basilica there was a near disastrous cave-in/collapse and no one was injured.While Agnes’s body is in her tomb on the Via Nomentana, her skull is now at the place of her supposed martyrdom at the Piazza Navona in Rome’s heart. It is a fitting place to venerate a saint so much in the heart of the Roman people even today. It is not unusual for people to name their children Agnes in honor of this great virgin martyr, whose name is pronounced in the Roman Canon.

The skull was bequeathed to that church at the Piazza by Pope Leo XIII who took it from the treasury of the Sancta Sanctorum.

The Piazza itself was in ancient times the Stadium of Domitian (+96) a place of terror and blood for early Christians, far more than the Colloseum ever was. The Piazza is thus called also the “Circo Agonale” and the name of the saint’s church Sant’Agnese in Agone. “Navona” is a corruption of “Agonale”, from Greek agon referring to the athletic contests of the ancient world. St. Paul used the athlete’s struggle as an image of the Christian life of suffering, perseverance, and final victory even through the shedding of blood. Early Christian tombs often have wavy lines carved im the front, representing an iron instrument called a strigil, used by athletes to scrape dirt and oil from the bodies after contests. Victory palm branches are still used in the iconography of saints, as well as wreathes of laurels.

We know about St. Agnes from St. Jerome, and especially St. Augustine’s Sermons 273, 286 and 354. St. Ambrose wrote about Agnes in de virginibus 1,2,5-9 written in 377 as did Prudentius in Hymn 14 of the Peristephanon written in 405.

Ambrose has a wonderful hymn about Agnes (no. 8), used now in the Roman Church for Lauds and Vespers of her feast. The Ambrosian account differs somewhat from others. For Ambrose, Agnes died from beheading. Prudentius has her first exposed to shame in a brothel and then beheaded.

Here is the text of the hymn from the Liturgia horarum for the “Office of Readings” with a brutally literal translation.

Igne divini radians amoris
corporis sexum superavit Agnes,
et super carnem potuere carnis
claustra pudicae.

Shining with the fire of divine love
Agnes overcame the gender of her body,
and the undefiled enclosures of the flesh
prevailed over flesh.

Spiritum celsae capiunt cohortes
candidum, caeli super astra tollunt;
iungitur Sponsi thalamis pudica
sponsa beatis.

The heavenly host took up her brilliant white spirit,
and the heavens lifted it above the stars;
the chaste bride is united to the
blessed bride chambers of the Spouse.

Virgo, nunc nostrae miserere sortis
et, tuum quisquis celebrat tropaeum,
impetret sibi veniam reatus
atque salutem.

O virgin, now have pity on our lot,
and, whoever celebrates your victory day,
let him earnestly pray for forgiveness of guilt
and salvation for himself.

Redde pacatum populo precanti
principem caeli dominumque terrae
donet ut pacem pius et quietae
tempora vitae.

Give back to this praying people
the Prince of heaven and Lord of the earth,
that he, merciful, may grant us peace
and times of tranquil living.

Laudibus mitem celebremus Agnum,
casta quem sponsum sibi legit Agnes,
astra qui caeli moderatur atque
cuncta gubernat. Amen.

Let us celebrate with praises the gentle Lamb,
whom chaste Agnes binds to herself as Spouse,
he who governs the stars of heaven
and guides all things. Amen.

We can note a couple things from this prayer. First, the reference to fire probably a description of Agnes’s death related in a metrical panegyric of Pope Damasus about how Agnes endured martyrdom by fire. On the other hand, St. Ambrose, when speaking of her death, speaks of martyrdom by the sword.

Pope St. Damasus composed a panegyric, an elogia, inscribed in gorgeous letters on marble (designed and executed by Dionysius Philocalus) in honor of Roman saints, including Agnes.  This was the period when the Roman shifted from Greek to Latin.  Damasus was also trying to make a social statement with these great inscriptions, set up at various places about the City.   The panegyic of St. Agnes was placed in the cemetery near the saint’s tomb, but through the ages it was lost. Amazingly, it was at last rediscovered in 1728 inside the basilica, whole and complete: it had been used upside down, fortunately as a paving stone!

Now it is affixed to the wall in the corridor descending to the narthex. Its discovery was a find of vast importance (thanks to Zadok for the photo of the inscription).


It is told that one day the holy parents recounted that Agnes, when the trumpet had sounded its sad tunes, suddenly left the lap of her nurse while still a little girl and willingly trod upon the rage and the threats of the cruel tyrant. Though he desired to burn the noble body in the flames, with her little forces she overcame immense fear and, gave her loosened hair to cover her naked limbs, lest mortal eye might see the temple of the Lord. O one worthy of my veneration, holy glory of modesty, I pray you, O illustrious martyr, deign to give ear to the prayers of Damasus.

Damasus used the sources available. There were the stories told by her parents, the 4th edict of Diocletian against Christians in 304 (lugubres cantus tuba concrepuisset). Agnes did what she did of her own free will (sponte). Note the reference to the body as temple of God (1 Cor 3:16 and 2 Cor 6:16).

St. Agnes of Rome, has two grand churches in Rome.  She has two feast days in the traditional Roman calendar.  Since the reform of the calendar, Agnes now has only one day, alas.

• • • • • •

New Liturgical Movement: Feast of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr (c. 291-304)


via New Liturgical Movement: Feast of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr (c.291-304).

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Feast of St. Agnes, Virgin and Martyr (c. 291-304)

At Rome, the passion of St. Agnes, Virgin, who under Symphronius, the prefect of the City, was cast into the flames. At her prayer they were extinguished, and she was slain with the sword. Blessed Jerome writes thus concerning her: “The life of Agnes is praised in the literature and speech of all peoples, especially in the Churches, she who overcame both her age and the tyrant, and consecrated by martyrdom her claim to chastity.”
— Martyrlogium Romanum, January 21

* * *
The feast of St. Agnes, which we observe today, is particularly known to many for the wonderful custom wherein two lambs are brought to the Pope to be blessed. The wool from these lambs will be used to make the pallium, which pallia will be bestowed upon the new Metropolitan Archbishops on the Feast of Ss. Peter and Paul on June 29th.

Blessed Ildefonso Schuster notes of today’s feast that “[in] ancient times that station was held in the Basilica of St. Agnes on the Via Nomentana, where on the occasion of this feast St. Gregory preached one of his forty celebrated homilies on the Gospel. The Fathers of the Latin Church, Jerome, Ambrose, Damasus and Prudentius all join in singing the praises of this virginal ‘Lamb’ who fearlessly faced the sword and the stake…”

While the original Constantinian basilica of St. Agnes is no longer standing, here is the 7th century basilica of S. Agnese fuori le mura, built by Pope Honorius I:

(Image source)

The Apse Mosaic of S. Agnese shows St. Agnes in the centre with Pope Honorius and Pope Symmachus on either side

Prudentius describes the martyrdom of St. Agnes in the Liber Peristephanon in his hymn, The Passion of Agnes — the entirety of which, despite its length, was found in the Lauds and Vespers of her feast in the Mozarabic breviary. Here is that hymn in its entirety:


The native home of Romulus now enshrines
The tomb of Agnes, virgin and martyr blest.
Reposing there in sight of its lofty towers,
The maiden watches over the sons of Rome,
And pilgrims, too, enjoy here protecting care,
Who pray to her with pure and believing hearts.
With splendid twofold diadem she is crowned:
Virginity unmarred by the stain of sin
And glory won by freely embracing death.

That maiden, they relate, who was not yet ripe
For marriage vows and still but a child in years,
Her soul aflame with rapturous love of Christ,
Withstood the impious edict to sacrifice
To idols and abandon her holy Faith.

Assailed at first by every art and wile,
Now by the coaxing words of a fawning judge,
Now by the butcher’s sinister threats of doom,
Dauntless she stood, nor shrank from her stern resolve,
Willing to give her body to torments sore,
Nor quailing from the threat of a cruel death.

Then spoke the angry tyrant: ‘If she can face
The thought of grinding torture and woeful pangs,
And sets at naught her life as of little worth,
Her consecrated chastity she holds dear.
Into a common den of impurity
I am resolved to cast her unless she bows
Before Minerva’s altar and begs her grace,
That virgin she, a virgin, has dared despise.
There all the youths in wanton delight will rush,
To seek this newest slave of their lustful sport.

Then Agnes answered: ‘Never will Christ forget
His own nor let our precious virginity
Be snatched from us. He will not abandon us.
He ever shields the chaste and will not permit
The gift of holy purity to be soiled.
My blood may dye your sword, if it is your will,
But never will my body be stained with lust.

So spoke the maid; the prefect then gave command
That she should stand exposed in the public square.
As there she stood, the pitying throngs fell back 40
And turned their eyes away in respectful awe,
None daring to regard her with brazen look.

It chanced that one was forward enough to fix
His gaze upon the maiden and did not fear
To look with lustful eye on her sacred form,
But lo, a flame as swift as a lightning flash
Quick struck his wanton eyes with its trembling dart.
The youth fell down and, blinded by glaring light,
Lay panting in the dust of the crowded street.
His fellows lifted him from the ground, half-dead,
Bewailing him with clamorous words and tears.

The virgin went forth singing a hymn of praise
In thanks to God the Father and Christ, His Son,
That when exposed to peril of vilest stain,
Her chastity had triumphed, and she had found
The den of squalid infamy clean and pure.
Some tell that Agnes, asked to implore of Christ
That He restore the sight of the guilty wretch,
Poured forth a fervent prayer, and the prostrate youth
Regained the breath of life and his vision whole.

In her ascent to heaven the saint had passed
But the first step; a second was yet to come.
The bloody tryant burned with revengeful ire.
‘I am outdone,’ he groaned. ‘Go, unsheathe your sword,
You soldier there, and carry into effect
The laws our prince and sovereign lord decreed.

When Agnes saw the furious headsman stand
With weapon drawn, in transports of joy she cried:
Tar happier am I that a swordsman comes,
A wild uncouth barbarian, fierce and grim,
Than that a languid suitor pays court to me,
A lovesick creature, scented with rare perfumes,
Who would destroy my soul with my chastity.
This butcher is the lover who pleases me:
His bold advances I shall go forth to meet
And will not try to hinder his ardent suit.
I gladly bare my breast to his cruel steel
And deep into my heart I will draw his blade.
Thus as the bride of Christ I shall mount above
The darkness of the world to the realms of light.

Eternal King, unfasten the gates of heaven
That till of late were closed to the sons of earth,
And call Thy virgin spouse to Thyself, O Christ,
A victim to the Father now sacrificed.

As Agnes spoke these words, she inclined her head
In humble prayer to Christ, that her gentle neck
Might readier be to suffer the threatened wound.
Thus was her ardent longing fulfilled at last,
For with one blow the soldier struck off her head
And speedy death prevented all sense of pain.

Then putting off the garment of flesh, her soul
Flies forth and speeds untrammelled into the skies,
Her shining path surrounded by angel choirs.
In wonder she looks down on the world below;
On high she views the darkness beneath her feet,
And at the circling wheel of the sun she laughs
As round its orb the heavenly spheres revolve.
She sees the raging whirlwind of human life
And all the vanities of the fickle world:
Despots and kings, imperial power and rank,
The pageantry of honor and foolish pride,
The thirst for gold and silver, which all men seek
And gain by every species of wickedness,
The stately palaces with their gilded walls,
The vain display of richly embroidered robes,
The hatreds, fears, desires and impending woes,
The long enduring griefs and the fleeting joys,
Black envy with its smoking firebrands that blight
The hopes of men and tarnish all human fame,
And last, but worse than every other ill,
The sordid clouds and darkness of pagan rites.

All these things Agnes tramples beneath her feet,
And with her heel she crushes the dragon’s head,
That monster vile who poisons all things of time
And plunges them into the infernal pit.
But vanquished now and under the virgin’s foot
He lies crestfallen, prone in the dust of earth,
His fiery head not daring to lift again.
Meanwhile the virgin martyr’s unsullied brow
God circles with a glorious twofold crown:
One glowing with the rays of eternal light,
A sixty-fold reward, and the other fruit,
Increased a hundred-fold, of celestial grace.

O happy virgin, glory but lately dawned,
O noble dweller in the celestial courts,
Adorned with thy resplendent twin diadem,
Deign now to turn thy face on our miseries.
To thee alone the Father of all has given
Power to make pure the dwelling of sin itself.
I, too, shall be made clean by thy radiant glance
If thou wilt fill my heart with its gracious light.
All is pure where thou deignest in love to dwell,
Or where thine own immaculate foot may tread.

Tea at Trianon: Execution of Louis XVI

On this date in 1793, HIs Majesty, Lousi XVI, King of France and Narre, was murdered in Paris.

via Tea at Trianon: Execution of Louis XVI.

Execution of Louis XVI

January 21, Saint Agnes day, is the dies natalis of the Roi-Martyr, when two hundred and fifteen years ago, Louis XVI was taken from the Temple prison to be guillotined. The previous night he had said farewell to his family, and their reaction was so hysterical that he decided not to see them again in the morning, for fear of faltering in his own courage. His fifteen year old daughter fainted. He rode to his death in a coach accompanied by the Irish priest, Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont, who had been Madame Elisabeth’s confessor and who had refused the oath to the government. Together they recited the seven penitential psalms, as described in the novel Trianon.

Arriving at the scaffold, the executioner tried to bind Louis’ hands behind his back but he resisted, not wanting to be treated like a criminal who might try to run away. Abbé Edgeworth, fearing the king might be struck, convinced him to submit to the indignity by saying that it was one more way in which he resembled his Master. Louis raised his eyes to the sky as if seeing beyond this world and then with hands bound he ascended the scaffold unassisted. The drummers drowned out his last words to his people.

Some observers later reported that Abbé Edgeworth cried out,”Ascend to heaven, son of St Louis!” although the priest said he did not remember, being overwhelmed. Many ran forward with handkerchiefs to dip in the king’s blood, as the executioner raised the head aloft, making obscene gestures. Some of the handkerchiefs were later preserved as holy relics.

The king’s last words were:

“I die innocent of all the crimes imputed to me. I pardon the authors of my death, and pray God that the blood you are about to shed will never fall upon France.”

Writings and Statements – Archbishop’s Journal – Free Will, Conscience and Moral Choice: What Catholics believe


via Writings and Statements – Archbishop’s Journal – Free Will, Conscience and Moral Choice: What Catholics believe.

Archbishop’s Journal – Free Will, Conscience and Moral Choice: What Catholics believe

  • January 15, 2010

By Archbishop George H. Niederauer

In a recent interview with Eleanor Clift in Newsweek magazine (Dec. 21, 2009), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was asked about her disagreements with the United States Catholic bishops concerning Church teaching. Speaker Pelosi replied, in part: “I practically mourn this difference of opinion because I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess, and that we are all endowed with a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions. And that women should have the opportunity to exercise their free will.”
Embodied in that statement are some fundamental misconceptions about Catholic teaching on human freedom. These misconceptions are widespread both within the Catholic community and beyond. For this reason I believe it is important for me as Archbishop of San Francisco to make clear what the Catholic Church teaches about free will, conscience, and moral choice.
Catholic teaching on free will recognizes that God has given men and women the capacity to choose good or evil in their lives. The bishops at the Second Vatican Council declared that the human person, endowed with freedom, is “an outstanding manifestation of the divine image.” (Gaudium et Spes, No. 17) As the parable of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, makes so beautifully clear, God did not want humanity to be mere automatons, but to have the dignity of freedom, even recognizing that with that freedom comes the cost of many evil choices.
However, human freedom does not legitimate bad moral choices, nor does it justify a stance that all moral choices are good if they are free: “The exercise of freedom does not imply a right to say or do everything.” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1740) Christian belief in human freedom recognizes that we are called but not compelled by God to choose constantly the values of the Gospel—faith, hope, love, mercy, justice, forgiveness, integrity and compassion.
It is entirely incompatible with Catholic teaching to conclude that our freedom of will justifies choices that are radically contrary to the Gospel—racism, infidelity, abortion, theft. Freedom of will is the capacity to act with moral responsibility; it is not the ability to determine arbitrarily what constitutes moral right.
What, then, is to guide the children of God in the use of their freedom? Again, the bishops at the Council provide the answer—conscience: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment . . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God . . . . His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” (GS, No. 16) Conscience, then, is the judgment of reason whereby the human person, guided by God’s grace, recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act. In all we say and do, we are obliged to follow faithfully what we know to be just and right.
How do we form and guide our consciences? While the Church teaches that each of us is called to judge and direct his or her own actions, it also teaches that, like any good judge, each conscience masters the law and listens to expert testimony about the law. This process is called the education and formation of conscience.
Catholics believe that “the education of conscience is a lifelong task.” (CCC, No. 1784) Where do we go for this education of our consciences? Our living tradition teaches us that “In the formation of conscience the Word of God is the light for our path; we must assimilate it in faith and prayer and put it into practice. We must also examine our conscience before the Lord’s Cross. We are assisted by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, aided by the witness or advice of others and guided by the authoritative teaching of the Church.” (CCC, No. 1785)
Our Catholic beliefs about free will, conscience and moral choice are rooted in the Good News of Jesus Christ’s teaching and his redemptive life, death and resurrection: “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1); “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2Cor. 3:17); we glory “in the liberty of the children of God.” (Rom. 8:17). Common caricatures of Christian morality portray believers as living in fear of punishment or concerned only with an eternal reward. Long ago, however, St. Basil the Great, a fourth-century bishop and theologian, taught that the Christian, in living a moral life according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, “does not stand before God as a slave in servile fear, nor a mercenary looking for wages, but obeys for the sake of the good itself and out of love for God as his child.” (CCC, No. 1828)
As participants in the life of the civil community, we Catholic citizens try to follow our consciences, guided, as described above, by reason and the grace of God. While we deeply respect the freedom of our fellow citizens, we nevertheless are profoundly convinced that free will cannot be cited as justification for society to allow moral choices that strike at the most fundamental rights of others. Such a choice is abortion, which constitutes the taking of innocent human life, and cannot be justified by any Catholic notion of freedom. Because of these convictions we commit ourselves to a continuing witness to, and dialogue about, the Gospel values that underlie our understanding of freedom, conscience, and moral choice.

This column (“Archbishop’s Journal”) by Archbishop George H. Niederauer was published in the Jan. 15 issue of Catholic San Francisco, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.