I believe that there are three key principles for understanding Catholicism,and that the majority of misunderstandings about our Faith arise from ignorance of these three principles.

The first is Grace, which I covered in the preceding articles. Some people perceive Catholicism as a legalistic, guilt-ridden religion which heaps up burdensome rules on its followers and condemns them when they fail. The beautiful truth of grace can change that perception, since grace is the divine help to do good and forgiveness when we fail.

The second principle is Sacramentalism, covered in the next set of articles. With its statues, rosaries and relics, Catholicism seems superstitious and animistic to non-Catholics. Yet an understanding of how God works through creation shows that the use of physical devotional objects is but a natural result of the Incarnation.

Finally, the third key principle to understanding Catholicism is Family. We will discuss this in the present series of articles.

Some non-Catholics cannot understand our veneration of Mary and the Saints. It seems to them too close to polytheism; they feel that we spend so much time praying to saints that we shortchange the Creator, or even put the Saints before God in our hearts!

They also have difficulty with our love for the pope and submission to a heirarchical clergy. At worst this seems to them idolatrous worship of mere mortals (hence the occasional charge that we "worship the pope"), or at best a needless interposing of human mediators between the Christian and God ("Why confess your sins to a priest? You can just go straight to God.").

The key to understanding these Catholic beliefs and practices lies in our understanding of family.

The Eternal Family

Scripture presents God as Father - a familial relationship implying the existence of at least one offspring. The New Testament tells us that, in the Godhead, there are Three Persons, one is a Father, the second a Son, and the third is their "Spirit". This means that God is an Eternal Family - a Father and a Son living together in the loving unity of their Holy Spirit.

Yet God did not wish to just remain alone in this Triune Family. So God created rational beings - angels and humans - to be a kind-of "extended family" if you will. The very purpose of our existence is to become true children of God, sharers in God's very own nature, and thus members of His family by grace (see Grace and the Divinization of Humankind for more on this mystery).

The Fatherhood of God

The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives a good overview of the many meanings of God's Fatherhood in Scripture:

Many religions invoke God as "Father." The deity is often considered the "father of gods and men." In Israel, God is called "Father" inasmuch as he is Creator of the world. Even more, God is Father because of the covenant and the gift of the law to Israel, "his firstborn son." God is also called the Father of the king of Israel. Most especially he is "the Father of the poor," of the orphaned and the widowed, who are under his loving protection -CCC 238
These are the four basic aspects of God's Fatherhood as revealed in the Old Testament: God as Father of all creation (Deuteronomy 32:6; Malachi 2:10); Father of Israel (Exodus 4:22; Jeremiah 31:20); Father of the Davidic kings (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 89:27) and Father of the fatherless (Psalm 68:6). The first of these is the primarily basis of the last three.

The New Testament reveals two more aspects of the Fatherhood of God:

  1. The First Person of the Trinity is the Eternal Father of Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God (Matthew 11:27).
  2. God becomes the Father of all who are "in Christ" (Ephesians 1:5).
The first of these is, as we saw above, a literal, Eternal Fatherhood. Theologians like to call it the Divine Paternity. The second is derived from the first, since Christians become sons and daughters of God by partaking in the Sonship of Christ.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Fatherhood of God is not a mere metaphor, particularly in Christianity. God is the true Father of Jesus Christ and the adoptive Father of Christians. God's Fatherhood of all creation is somewhat allegorical, since God does not generate creation from the divine nature (as the Son proceeds from the Father). Yet God is a true Father by nature; it's not just a title we give to our Maker.

In fact, human fatherhood is the metaphor for Divine Fatherhood, not visa versa! Ephesians 3:14-15 states "I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom all paternity in heaven and on earth is named". All paternity in heaven and on earth is merely a created image of the Divine Paternity.

God also possesses by nature all the perfections which we associate with motherhood. In Isaiah God says to Israel "Can a woman forget her infant, so as not to have pity on the son of her womb? If she should forget, yet I will not forget you" (49:15) and again, "As one who the mother caresses, so will I comfort you" (66:13). The Catechism also speaks on this issue:

God's parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasizes God's immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature...God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman; he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard...

In no way is God in man's image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective "perfections" of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband. -CCC 239, 370

Yet it is kind of hard for us to conceive of a Being Who is both Father and Mother, since we are used to having two separate parents: a woman as a "mother" and a man as a "father". Also, the image of a Father/Mother deity is androgynous, and not everyone is comfortable with that. So God has chosen to reveal Himself primarily as "Father" and to reveal the "divine maternity" primarily through Mother Church and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Maria-Ecclesia, Our Heavenly Mother

Mary is not God, she is a mere creature. Yet God often reveals Himself through created persons. Maybe you've heard someone say about a very holy person "I see God in him". That person is not God Incarnate like Jesus, but he is so close to God that something of God actually shines through his personality. He is filled and overflowing with the Holy Spirit!

That is how Mary is; filled and overflowing with the Holy Spirit, to such an extent that she reflects perfectly the maternal perfections found in God. So in a certain sense we can "see God" in this mere creature. Some people try to explain this phenomenon by calling Mary the "feminine face of God". I have a problem with such language, because it is imprecise and thus misleading. Ones "face" is part of ones body, so calling Mary the "feminine face of God" sounds like she is part of God. This gets many Protestants upset, since it sounds like Catholics are deifying Mary.

Of course, the few Catholics who use this term don't mean it literally; it is just a poetic way of saying that we can see God's maternal love reflected in Our Lady. But poetry isn't theology, and I prefer to avoid terminology that can cause a misunderstanding and so scandalize my separated brethren.

Yet the fact remains that we can see God's maternal love in the Godbearer, and in Holy Mother Church. Now the Church does have a "divine" aspect, as we discuss in Ecclesia, the Cosmic Mother. She is the Mystical Body of Christ, and participates in the divine nature through Him. The Holy Spirit is also her Uncreated "Soul", the Source of her Being, Life and Unity. It is not hard to see how she reveals the maternal love of God.

The Clergy: Icons of the Fatherhood of God

One may well ask, "Is God's Fatherhood mediated to us through creatures as well?" The answer is Yes; through the Pope, the bishops and the priests. As Mary puts a "human face" on God's Mother-love, so the Church's heirarchy puts a "human face" on the Fatherhood of God.

Like Mary, the clergy are human beings, not God. Contrary to popular belief, Catholics do not "worship" the Pope or think he is divine, but we look up to him as a spiritual father-figure (in fact, the word "pope" means father!). We also call our priests "Father" because they, too, are spiritual fathers to us.

But doesn't Jesus tell us not to call anyone on earth "father" (Matthew 23:9)? Well, he said that about the religious leaders in His time, who claimed that title for themselves even though they weren't the fathers of their followers. They wanted the title because of the status it conveyed - and Jesus was saying that they deserved neither the title nor the status!

But Christ would certainly not object to you calling the man who physically sired you "father", since that is what he is. And your earthly father deserves any honor you might give him, since God said "Honor your father and mother" (Exodus 20:12).

There is nothing wrong, therefore, in calling a real father "father". And the priests are real fathers; they are our spiritual fathers since they represent Jesus Christ, who is our Father (Hebrews 2:13) and the Spouse of the Church, our Mother (Galatians 4:26). A priest is an alter Christus, "another Christ"; he acts in the person of Christ in dispensing the Sacraments (I Corinthians 11:23-25), preaching the Gospel, counseling and blessing us.

Thus Saint Paul, who was a priest, calls himself "father" in his first letter to the Corinthians:

I am writing this not to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. Even if you should have countless guides in Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel. -4:14-15 NAB
Now surely if Jesus objected to a Christian clergyman calling himself "father" then the Holy Spirit would not have inspired Paul to write this! This passage gives biblical proof that Christ did not ban us from calling His earthly representatives "father".

The Pope, bishops and priests receive their fatherhood from Christ; they do not possess it innately. Jesus Christ is the only one who is innately a Priest. When they receive Holy Orders, they become true priests and fathers; that is, partakers in Christ's priesthood and fatherhood. They also become mystically "married to the Church", as Christ is the Bridegroom of Mother Ecclesia.

When we honor the clergy, we are actually honoring the priesthood itself more than the individuals who were given the grace to participate in it. Before a man becomes a priest, he does not receive the honor due the clergy. Jesus makes the difference by marking his soul with the Sacrament which makes him His representative in the midst of the Church Militant. So in honoring the priest we are ultimately honoring Christ Who makes him a priest.

Singificance of These Truths

God, the Origin and Standard of fatherhood and motherhood, has created the human race and established the Church in order to create an "extended family", in which creatures can participate (to a finite extent) in the Eternal Familial relations of the Holy Trinity. In this great Heavenly Family, God is our Father in heaven and the Pope and clergy are our spiritual fathers on earth, who mediate the Fatherhood of God to us. Mary is our personal Mother and the Church is our mystical Mother; both of them reveal God's tender, everlasting love.

But what family would be complete without children? In the next article we will learn about all the kids in this great Family of God.

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