The Placement of a Tabernacle in a Church

ISSUE: Where should the tabernacle be located in a parish church?

RESPONSE: “The tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved should be placed in a part of the church that is prominent, conspicuous, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer” (canon 938 section 2).[1]

DISCUSSION: Different opinions have circulated within the Latin Rite regarding the placement of the tabernacle in a parish church. As churches are renovated or built in the United States, decisions have been made to house the Real Presence of our Lord in a tabernacle located outside the main body of the church. These decisions have been an occasion for confusion and, at times, scandal among the faithful. The intent of this Faith Fact is to help dispel the confusion by providing information on the historical, theological, and magisterial aspects of this issue.

One God, One Ark, One Place of Worship

With the advent of sin, man gradually fell away from God and worshiped many gods. To bring man back to Himself, God revealed Himself to Abraham as the one true God, and demanded that Abraham worship only Him (cf. Gen. 17:1-14). This revelation was so important that it became the first of the Ten Commandments (cf. Ex. 20:1-6). This worship of the one, true God was one of the primary distinctions between the Israelites and the other nations. Throughout the Old Testament, God dealt harshly with violations of this commandment (cf. Ex. 32; 2 Chron. 7:19-22). When He gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, He also ordered the ark of the covenant to be built (cf. Ex. 25:10-22). His presence resided upon the Ark, and from it He directed Moses and the children of Israel. He also ordered Moses to build a tent to house the ark of the covenant (cf. Ex. 26). This tent was called the “tent of meeting,” for it was there that God met with His priests, prophets, and people. The tent had two rooms, one called “the most holy place” (Ex. 26:34), in which Moses placed the ark of the covenant. When King Solomon built the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, he followed a similar plan and separated the sanctuary from the most holy place with a curtain. The ark was placed in this most holy place (2 Chron. 5:7). In both the “tent of meeting” and the Temple, “the most holy place” was the central focus of the structures, even though access to it was restricted.

God cannot be contained in one place, and the purpose of the ark and the Temple was not to contain Him. Rather, the ark was to be a place where God’s presence was known in a special way, where He revealed Himself, and the Temple was to house for God’s presence. His presence preceded the Temple. The Temple became a place of common worship, where the People of God would assemble to offer sacrifice and praise, lift their petitions, and receive from Him guidance and continued revelation (cf. 2 Chron. 2:6). Furthermore, having one place of common worship discouraged idol worship. The Temple thus became the center of faith for the Israelites.

The Word Became Flesh

Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, is the fullness of God’s revelation. He fulfilled the Old Law and instituted a New Covenant sealed in His very flesh (cf. Heb. 5-10). We no longer know God veiled in the most holy place, but in the Person and flesh of Jesus Christ. He reveals the Father to us (cf. Jn. 14:8-11).

Formerly, God revealed Himself to the Israelites as His chosen people. His presence descended upon the Ark and was concealed in the most holy place. Only the high priest was allowed to approach this presence, and then only once a year. Under the New Law, God is revealed to all in the person of Jesus Christ. He has become man and His Real Presence, in flesh and blood, is contained in the tabernacle so we might approach Him. There is no longer one ark in one Temple, but there is one Lord, who is present in tabernacles all over the world. Just as the Temple was built as a place where the people knew the presence of God in a special way, so Catholic churches are built today to allow the presence of Christ to continue in the world.

Church or Chapel?

Much of the confusion over placement of a tabernacle involves two related points. First, many people do not know the proper authoritative weight of different Church documents. Second, many do not understand the use of the words “church” and “chapel,” and give them meanings not intended in Church documents.

There is an order of authority whereby certain documents are more important than others. In general, canon law does not regulate liturgical actions, but when it does, it takes precedence (canon 2). Canon law also regulates sacred places, and liturgical law must reflect the current canon law on the issue.

Instructions are not laws in themselves. Rather, instructions are given to “clarify the prescriptions of laws and elaborate on and determine an approach to be followed in implementing them” (canon 34 §1). Because they are not laws, instructions cannot demand something contrary to law. “If any [instruction] cannot be reconciled with the prescriptions of laws, they lack all force” (canon 34 §2). Furthermore, instructions lose their force when the law for which they were written ceases to exist (canon 34 §3). In short, instructions rely entirely on the law for their interpretation and use.

Regarding placement of the tabernacle, the current law of the Church is clear and unequivocal on this issue: “The tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved should be placed in a part of the church that is prominent, conspicuous, beautifully decorated, and suitable for prayer” (canon 938 §2).

Unfortunately, many people refer to certain instructions given under the previous law (1917 Code of Canon Law) and believe that the tabernacle should be placed in a room apart from the body of the church. Some believe the documents discouraged placing the tabernacle within the sanctuary. Such interpretation of these instructions was not in harmony with the 1917 Code of Canon Law, nor does it reflect the current law of the Church. To better understand this, we must understand what the law means by the words “church,” “oratory,” and “private chapel.”

Canon 1214 defines “church” as “a sacred building intended for divine worship, to which the faithful have right of access for the exercise, especially the public exercise, of divine worship.” Canon 1219 states that “all acts of divine worship may be carried out in a church which has been lawfully dedicated or blessed.” The law clearly establishes that a church is the ordinary place for the faithful to go and pray, particularly to offer public worship. The law
does not restrict the church to public worship alone, but only states that the faithful have a right “especially” to the public exercise of divine worship in a church. Regarding private devotion, the law makes a clear exhortation that all churches should be open at least some hours of the day for the convenience of the faithful who wish to enter and pray (canon 937).

Canon 1223 defines “oratory” as “a place which, by permission of the Ordinary, is set aside for divine worship, for the convenience of some community or group of the faithful who assemble there, to which however other members of the faithful may, with the consent of the competent Superior, have access.” An oratory has privileges similar to those of a church. It is meant to be a place of public and private worship for the convenience of a particular group of the faithful (e.g., religious). In contrast, a church is meant to be the ordinary place of worship for the parish. Canon 1225 notes that “all celebrations may take place in a lawfully constituted oratory, apart from those which are excluded by the law, by a provision of the local Ordinary, or by liturgical laws.” In this regard, the laws favor the parish as the place for the celebration of Baptisms, Marriages, Confirmations, and other acts of divine worship that primarily occur for the benefit of the faithful in the parish. In contrast, those acts of divine worship that occur primarily for the benefit of the community for which the oratory was erected should take place within the oratory (e.g., professions, community prayers, etc.). The celebration of Mass, and
any divine worship requiring the presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist (adoration, benediction, etc.), is not excluded by the law within the oratory, and the presence of a tabernacle is presupposed.

It is important to note that the term “chapel” as often used by the average layman actually refers to “oratory” as defined in law. It is not uncommon that a bishop erects a “chapel” on the grounds of the diocesan offices, or in a hospital for the use of employees and other visitors. “Chapels” are also erected within seminaries and colleges. Usually, these “chapels” are really oratories by the definition of law.

Canons 1226 defines “private chapel” as “a place which, by permission of the local Ordinary, is set aside for divine worship, for the convenience of one or more individuals.” In marked contrast to churches and oratories, private chapels accommodate individuals, not groups. This wording is significant. A private chapel is erected primarily for private prayer of individuals, not public worship of a community. Canons 1227 and 1228 provide important norms that explain the role of private chapels. These canons state: “Bishops can set up for their own use a private chapel which enjoys the same rights as an oratory”
(canon 1227). “Without prejudice to the provision of can. 1227, the permission of the local Ordinary is required for Mass and other sacred celebrations to take place in any private chapel” (canon 1228). Although a bishop erects a private chapel for one or more individuals, this does not mean sacred celebrations, such as Mass, and the other sacraments, can take place there. Furthermore, canon 938 excludes the private chapel as a place where a tabernacle may be housed. Ordinarily, a tabernacle cannot be placed within a private chapel.

In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the term “chapel” or “private chapel” is not used. Rather, the terms “church or public oratory,” “semi-public oratory,” and “private or domestic oratory” were used to refer to what are now known as “churches,” “oratories,” and “private chapels” respectively. Although the terminology has changed somewhat, these three categories of sacred space have not changed.

In various instructions issued after Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Holy See noted that the tabernacle could be placed in a “chapel suitable for private prayer and for adoration by the faithful.”[2] Some have interpreted the word “chapel” to mean a separately enclosed space apart from the main body of the church. Contrary to the intent of the Magisterium, they reason that “private prayer” is done in a place other than the church, and the church is reserved for Mass. Based on the law itself, this does not seem to be the most reasonable conclusion, nor is it reasonable in law to apply these instructions and this interpretation to church buildings today.

Because the word “chapel” did not refer to a specific place of divine worship at the time the instructions were issued, it is reasonable to conclude that “chapel” does not refer to a separately enclosed space. Rather, “chapel” would refer to an area within the church itself. For example, a side altar within an alcove could be set up as a “chapel.” This interpretation is consistent with the instruction Eucharisticum Mysterium (The Mystery of the Eucharist)
issued by the Sacred Congregation of Rites in 1967. This instruction implemented both Sacrosanctum Concilium and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Mysterium Fidei (The Mystery of Faith). In Eucharisticum Mysterium we find:

The Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a solid, inviolable tabernacle in the middle of the main altar or on a side altar, but in a truly prominent place. Alternatively, according to legitimate customs and in individual cases to be decided by the local ordinary, it may be placed in some other part of the church which is really worthy and properly equipped (54).

More importantly today, the 1983 Code of Canon Law abrogated existing laws and gave need for further instructions. Because the new code did not accept the terminology of the previous instructions when legislating on placement of tabernacles, but rather made it explicitly clear that the tabernacle is to be in a “distinguished place . . . conspicuous, suitably adorned, and conducive to prayer,” it is reasonable to assume that the legislator did not envision the tabernacle being placed in a separate room or location outside the main body of the church.

Significantly, “private chapels” are not the normal place for a tabernacle to be located. The presence of a tabernacle requires the celebration of Mass twice each month, and is reserved habitually to churches and oratories. As oratories are not the normal building for use in a parish, it is reasonable to conclude that the tabernacle is to be located within the “church” and not a separately enclosed room or “private chapel.” This is further emphasized within canon 937 which states “the church (not chapel or oratory) in which the blessed Eucharist is reserved is to be open to the faithful for at least some hours
every day” (emphasis added).


As noted above, some believe that Church documents encourage the placement of the tabernacle in a separate room (chapel) that is not part of the church proper. Aside from misunderstanding the terms noted above, they raise several objections. Some argue that having the tabernacle in the sanctuary detracts from the celebration of Mass, because Jesus’ presence in the tabernacle “takes away” from His presence on the altar at the time of consecration. They argue that the Mass is an “active” presence, while the presence in the tabernacle is “static” or inactive. Because the Mass is an action of the people, the
“static” presence is confusing and detracts from the “active” one.

Others argue that the ancient Church did not repose Jesus in a tabernacle for the purpose of devotion and adoration, but only for taking Him to the sick and dying. Thus, there is no need to have access to the Real Presence in the tabernacle except when one is sick or dying. Based on this argument, they wrongfully conclude that the best place to put the tabernacle is in a separate room where it will not be a distraction. Finally, some point out that the tabernacle in St. Peter’s Basilica is not in the main body of the church, but in a separate room, thus establishing an example given by the Pope himself. None of these objections have merit.

The Church has always taught that the Real Presence, though present in tabernacles throughout the world, does not multiply “the unique and indivisible existence of Christ the Lord.”[3] God cannot detract from Himself. Furthermore, God’s presence is never static. He is eternally active.[4] To believe God is “static” or “inactive” at any given point in time would be to deny His omnipotence and eternity. Furthermore, such an opinion implies that the Blessed Sacrament is not the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, who is God. The Mass is not merely an act of the people, but primarily an act of God, who delivered Himself over to death in order to save us from sin. In a mysterious way, the Mass is a representation of this sacrifice (cf. Catechism, no. 1366). Whether the congregation is present or not, the Mass takes place through the actions of the priest. When we are present, His sacrifice demands that we participate through our adoration, praise, and thanksgiving.

While it is true that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved for the sick and dying, historical also evidence shows that the faithful reserved the Blessed Sacrament for the purpose of adoration and private prayer.[5] Further, the tabernacle at St. Peter’s Basilica is located in the main body of the church. It is in full view on an altar of its own, highly decorated and in an area of the basilica that is conducive to prayer. It is not in a separate room.

Even if the tabernacle at St. Peter’s were not in the main body of the church, a basilica such as St. Peter’s is an exception provided for by law. In a church where large numbers of people visit for purposes other than prayer, the tabernacle may be placed outside the sanctuary in a side chapel or alcove that is part of the main body of the church. This allows the faithful to pray without undue disruption by visitors. It also allows the visitors to freely walk through the church without dishonoring the Blessed Sacrament.

How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place?

The presence of Jesus Christ in the world came before any tabernacle or church that houses His presence. Because of His Real Presence, they are built. Just as the Temple of the Old Testament was built “around” the ark of the covenant, so must the church building be designed so that the tabernacle is “prominent and conspicuous.” The most prominent and conspicuous place is generally within the sanctuary. Because of Christ’s Real Presence in the church, the church becomes a focal point for the parish community.[6] This presence of Jesus Christ in the tabernacle makes the church structure distinctly Catholic and encourages true worship of His Real Presence. When His Real Presence is removed from the church itself, the focus is placed not on God but on the community. This runs contrary to the true purpose of the Church. For the community that seeks Christ must lose itself in the process (cf. Jn. 3:30).

If confusion or even scandal exists in your parish concerning this issue, it is important that you provide an example of faith and charity for love of God. The Church has provided a clear line of authority and proper means for addressing conflicts. To guard against further confusion or scandal, these means should be used to address the situation. Our Effective Lay Witness Protocol explains the necessary steps. For a free copy, call CUF at (800) MY-FAITH (693-2484).


1. How do I understand the significance of the tabernacle in my parish church? Do I show proper reverence and respect for the Real Presence within the tabernacle?

2. How is the placement of the tabernacle and Eucharistic devotion related?

3. How can I charitably encourage a better understanding of the Church’s position on placing the tabernacle within the main body of the church?


Holy Bible (Catholic edition)

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Vatican II Documents

Eucharisticum Mysterium (Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery)

Pope Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei (Mystery of Faith)

Fr. Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., and James Monti In the Presence of Our Lord

Michael Gaudion-Parker, Real Presence Through the Ages

Hahn and Suprenant, eds., Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God

Leon Suprenant and Philip Gray, Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions

Ted Sri, Mystery of the Kingdom: On the Gospel of Matthew

Leon Suprenant, ed., Servants of the Gospel

Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Without a Doubt: Bringing Faith to Life

To order these and other titles, call Emmaus Road toll-free: (800) 398-5470.


• “This Is My Body”: The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist • St. Augustine’s Real Faith in the Real Presence • Come, Worship the Lord!: Promoting Adoration of the Most Holy Eucharist • Defending Our Rites: Constructively Dealing With Liturgical Abuse • Following Our Bishops • “We Believe in One God….”: The Nicene Creed and Mass

© 2002 Catholics United for the Faith

Last edited: 12/2014


[1] Translation from: Code of Canon Law, Latin-English Edition, (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America) 1983.

[2] Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Inaestimabile Donum (Instruction Concerning the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery), 1980, no. 24. Cf. General Instruction to the Roman Missal (GIRM), no. 315.

[3] Pope Paul VI, Credo of the People of God (1968).

[4] Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia. xiv. 2.

[5] Cf. Very Rev. H. A. Ayrinhac, D.C.L., Administrative Legislation in the New Code of Canon Law (New York: Longman’s, Green and Co., 1930), vol. 3, 132-36; Pope Paul VI, encyclical letter, Mysterium Fidei (Mystery of Faith), no. 56.

[6] Cf. Mysterium Fidei, no. 68.

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St. Augustine’s Real Faith in the Real Presence

ISSUE: Did St. Augustine believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist?

RESPONSE: Yes. St. Augustine did believe that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ at the time of consecration.

DISCUSSION: Some Protestants, including academically noteworthy ones like F. F. Bruce, wrongfully claim that St. Augustine’s view of the Eucharist was more like that of modern Protestants than the faith of Catholics. They use their arguments to discredit the Catholic Church and “prove” the Protestant position on the Real Presence.

A Truly Catholic Bishop

St. Augustine is one of the greatest and most influential Church Fathers of the West. He was also indisputably Catholic. To this fact he gave testimony many times over when defending the Catholic faith:

[The Catholic Church’s] authority, inaugurated in miracles, nourished by hope, augmented by love, and confirmed by her age, keeps me here. The succession of priests, from the very see of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave the charge of feeding His sheep, up to the present episcopate, keeps me here. [Even] the very name Catholic, which, not without reason, belongs to this Church alone, in the face of so many heretics [keeps me in the Church] (Against the Letter of Mani Called ‘The Foundation’ 4:5).

We believe in the holy Church, that is, the Catholic Church; for heretics and schismatics call their own congregations churches (Faith and Creed 10:21).

Any claim that St. Augustine, a Catholic bishop, was anything but Catholic in his faith and practice has no merit.

Protestant Objections

Given St. Augustine’s clearly stated position, how could anyone argue otherwise? The arguments to the contrary are based on two mistakes: selective quotation of St. Augustine (if he is directly quoted at all) and misunderstanding the meaning of his words. There are passages in the writings of many Church Fathers which explain that Christ is present in the Eucharist “spiritually” or “symbolically.” Some moderns confuse this with the belief that Christ is present only in spirit or symbol as opposed to actual flesh and blood presence. This is a misunderstanding of both context and meaning.

When the Fathers say Christ is present “spiritually,” they may mean more than one thing. Jesus’ Spirit is present in the Eucharist, which is why modern Catholics say “body, blood, soul, and divinity.” The Catholic Church understands the Real Presence is to be “known spiritually,” that is, by faith and not by sight (Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 1381). By faith we know He is there in “body, blood, soul, and divinity,” but we cannot see, taste, feel, or smell Him. This Presence is mysterious and beyond our understanding.

When the Fathers say Christ is present “symbolically,” they mean more than just a sign pointing to His presence. They mean His actual Presence.

The Fathers were concerned to resist a grossly sensual conception of the Eucharistic Banquet and to stress the necessity of the spiritual reception in Faith and in Charity (in contradistinction to the external…reception); passages often refer to the symbolical character of the Eucharist as “the sign of unity” (St. Augustine) [I Cor. 10:16-17]; this in no wise excludes the Real Presence.[1]

Because sacraments are what they symbolize, “symbolically” means the actual Presence. This was the understanding of the early Christians, and provides the context for the use of the word “symbol.” As God humbled Himself and took the form of a man, becoming man that we might become like God (Phil. 2:1-11), so He takes the form of bread and wine to nourish us on our journey to God (Jn. 6:42-59). In a mysterious way, Jesus looks and tastes like bread and wine, but the Presence is His. The accidents that remain (what the Sacrament looks, feels and tastes like) are symbols of the Real Presence and what we are to do with Him, namely eat and drink Him. Because it is a mystery, we can only grasp this spiritually through faith. To those without this faith in His Real Presence, the sacrament is a stumbling block (Jn. 6:60-69; I Cor. 1:23).

St. Augustine’s Teaching

Catholics believe, and have always believed, that Christ is present spiritually and symbolically. The difference is that neither ancient nor modern Catholics hold that the Presence is merely spiritual or symbolic in the Protestant sense. Jesus Christ is present in body, blood, soul, and divinity as the Eucharist—or more simply, the Eucharist is Jesus Christ (c.f. Catechism nos. 1373-1381). If the “spiritual” and “symbolic” passages from the writings of the Church Fathers were returned to their larger context,[2] the misunderstanding would be solved.

Specifically regarding St. Augustine, the previous quotes and those noted below provide the larger context and meaning of his teachings. St. Augustine certainly believed that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.[3]

Christ was carried in His Own hands when, referring to His Own body, He said, “This is My body.” For He carried that body in His hands (Explanations of the Psalms 33, 1, 10).

[Jesus] received earth from earth; because flesh is from the earth, and He took flesh from the flesh of Mary. He walked here in the same flesh, and gave us the same flesh to be eaten unto salvation. But no one eats that flesh unless he first adores it… and not only do we not sin by adoring [His flesh], we do sin by not adoring (Explanations of the Psalms 98, 9).

I promised you [new Christians], who have now been baptized, a sermon in which I would explain the sacrament of the Lord’s Table, which you now look upon and of which last night were made participants. You ought to know what you have received, what you are going to receive, and what you ought to receive daily. That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the Word of God, is the body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the Word of God, is the blood of Christ…. What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ (Sermons 227).

The faithful know what I am saying. They know Christ in the breaking of the bread. For not all bread, but only that which receives the blessing of Christ, becomes Christ’s body (Sermons 234, 2).[4]

St. Augustine did not endorse idolatry when he taught his readers to adore the Eucharist before eating—which the Church still does today (Catechism no. 1378). He really believed and taught that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ. Because of the Real Presence, we must adore Him.


Misunderstandings like this one frequently arise, as implied above, from taking sayings out of their original contexts—the problem of selective quotation. They can also arise from too much dependence on secondary sources. What does that mean? A primary source, in this example, is St. Augustine’s own writing, like St. Augustine’s Confessions. A secondary source would be a book by another person about St. Augustine’s writing, like Augustine on Evil by G. R. Evans. A tertiary source would be about secondary sources, and so on. While secondary sources can often give the reader valuable insights about the original, primary sources, they may sometimes be erroneous or misleading, even when written by a great scholar. The value of reading primary sources cannot be overestimated, because St. Augustine is the best of all Augustine “experts”! If more people read what St. Augustine actually wrote, instead of taking someone else’s word for it, fewer people would be confused when they read secondary claims about what he wrote.[5]

Recommended Reading:

Holy Bible (Catholic edition)

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Vatican II Documents

This Is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence; Mark Shea

The Faith of the Early Fathers; published by Penguin

Real Presence Through the Ages; Michael Gaudion-Parker

Catholicism and Fundamentalism; Karl Keating

On the Incarnation; St. Athanasius (St. Vladimir Seminary Press edition)

Hahn and Suprenant, eds., Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God

Leon Suprenant and Philip Gray, Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions

Ted Sri, Mystery of the Kingdom: On the Gospel of Matthew

Leon Suprenant, ed., Servants of the Gospel

Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Without a Doubt: Bringing Faith to Life

To order these and other titles, call Emmaus Road toll-free: (800) 398-5470.

Available Faith Facts:

• “This is My Body:” Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist • Without the Church There Is No Salvation • What’s in a Name?: Protocanon, Deuterocanon and Apocrypha • “We Believe in One God….”: The Nicene Creed and Mass • Sola Scriptura?: Not According To The Bible • It Works For Me: The Church’s Teaching of Justification • Going God’s Way: Moral Conscience

© 1999 Catholics United for the Faith

Last edited: 1/2/1999


[1] Ott, Ludwig, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Tan, Rockford, IL, 1974, p. 378.

[2] “Larger context” means two things here. First, quotes like those should not be removed from the context of the writer’s complete works. Second, neither the quotes nor the writings should be removed from the larger context of the Catholic faith, which all the Church Fathers professed.

[3] See also Catechism no. 1372 for a St. Augustine quote about the Eucharistic sacrifice, and no. 1375 for a St. Ambrose quote about the substantial change which takes place at the consecration. St. Ambrose was St. Augustine’s teacher in the Catholic faith.

[4] These quotes, and others, may be found in William A. Jurgens’ The Faith of the Early Fathers vol. 3 (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press; 1979).

[5] For an inspiring defense of old books and primary sources, see the C. S. Lewis essay “On the Reading of Old Books,” which also serves as an introduction to the Christian classic On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).

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The Church’s Teaching on Justification

ISSUE: How does the Catholic understanding of justification differ from the Protestant understanding? Do Catholics believe in salvation by grace alone? Is the Catholic understanding biblical?

RESPONSE: When Catholics and Protestants use the words “righteousness,” “justification” and “sanctification,” they have different, though similar, definitions for these words. These differences lead to a lot of unnecessary and divisive confusion between the two groups. However, if we learn the different ways Protestants and Catholics use these words, we can better understand our differences and points of agreement, providing a basis, with God’s grace, for our ultimate reconciliation.[1]

The Catholic Church teaches, and most Protestants[2] also believe, that people can be saved only by the grace of God, i.e., “free and undeserved help” from God,[3] which is mediated through Christ, the God-man (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 606-18). We can never “earn” salvation by our own good works; nothing we do is “repaid” by God in a strict tit-for-tat sense (Rom. 11:35, Catechism no. 2007). So on this crucial issue—justification (and ultimately salvation) by God’s grace through Christ (Rom. 3:24)—Catholics and most Protestants agree. The Church differs with Protestants, however, regarding the means of righteousness, justification, and ultimately salvation.[4] Protestants believe that people are “justified through faith alone,” while Catholics believe that people are “justified through faith and works.” The Catholic view of justification, properly understood, is not only very convincing and satisfying, it is also biblical and true (cf. Catechism nos. 1987-2029 for more information on grace, justification and merit).

DISCUSSION: To understand justification, we must first understand “righteousness.” Catholics and Protestants use the word “righteousness” differently. Protestants usually use “righteousness” to mean either legal righteousness, which they identify with the term “justification,” or behavioral righteousness, the acquisition of which they call “sanctification.” “Legal righteousness” is extrinsic, i.e, foreign or external to the individual, and acquired solely by God’s decree. “Behavioral righteousness” is a growing disposition or inclination to doing good, which occurs only after justification.[5] Catholics almost always use the word “righteousness” with a third and very different definition: They almost always mean “ontological righteousness.” Ontological righteousness is intrinsic (inherent to or part of the individual),[6] a transformation and growth brought about by God. Catholics use the words “justification” and “sanctification” interchangeably, but for two different phenomena: initial justification/sanctification (inner or intrinsic transformation) and progressive justification/sanctification (ongoing spiritual growth).[7] The use of different definitions in Protestant and Catholic theological camps is what confuses so many people. The following illustration will make the difference clear.

Justification Illustrated: Protestant and Catholic Views

In the dominant Protestant view, “justification” is like a court procedure. A guilty man stands before a judge who decides to decree him “innocent” on the basis of another man’s innocence. That is, we as sinners stand before God the Father who declares us innocent because of Jesus’ sinlessness and His saving actions. So Protestant justification is like covering a dirty man with a clean robe, declaring him to be clean when he is really not. Martin Luther frankly acknowledged this position, describing a justified man as a snow-covered pile of dung, clean on the outside but not on the inside. The robe is not a part of the dirty man, nor is the snow part of the dunghill; they only hide the filth while remaining exterior and separate. The sinner himself isn’t clean or just, but he appears (or is called) clean and just.

The Catholic view of initial justification is more like bathing or healing, such as a hospitable man washing a dirty man or a physician medicating a sick man to make him healthy. In other words, God doesn’t simply call a man clean and justified or make him look clean and just, He actually makes him clean with no dirt or sickness remaining. The Protestant claim is that God makes us appear just with no interior transformation, but the Catholic teaching is that God actually transforms us into just people.

Catholics do not deny that God “declares” people clean and innocent, as if by legal decree. They believe that He goes further, however, and actually makes people clean and innocent. God is not a liar (Num. 23:19); He would not call a man clean and just without making him clean and just, for “nothing unclean shall enter [heaven]” (Rev. 21:27). God’s Word is efficacious; i.e., He brings about, in reality, what He decrees. Creation itself is a powerful example of this truth. God said, “Let there be light,” and light was created (Gen. 1:3). If God declares that we are clean of sin, we become truly clean: “So shall My word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Is. 55:11).

Having illustrated both the Catholic and Protestant perspectives on justification, we turn now to a closer examination of which perspective the Bible really teaches. Does the Bible depict justification as merely a “covering” of legal righteousness, or does the Bible portray justification as both a covering and an interior transformation and cleansing? The Bible conveys that when God forgives our sin He does not simply “cover” our guilt, as Protestants assert, but actually removes it, as the Church teaches:

Have mercy on me, O God, . . . blot out my transgressions [legal terms[8]]. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin [intrinsic terms]! Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow [intrinsic terms]. . . . Hide thy face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities [legal terms]. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me [intrinsic terms] (Ps. 51:1-2, 7, 9-10).

Psalm 51 clearly uses both legal and intrinsic terms, which supports the Catholic, rather than the Protestant view. There are places where the Bible speaks of “covering” sin or “imputing” righteousness (both legal terms), but they must be read in the larger context that includes sins being washed away, taken away, removed, purified, sent away and remitted (all intrinsic terms). Furthermore, the Bible supports the Catholic belief that God transforms the inner man when He justifies him: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

“Initial justification” happens at the beginning of the Christian life and is communicated to people by God through the Sacrament of Baptism (Catechism, nos. 1262-1284). At this time, God completely cleanses people of sin, grants them sanctifying grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and gives them new life by incorporation into Christ and adoption into the family of God, the Church. This initial justification cannot be earned or merited by any action prior to it, not by faith or any other work, because it is the free gift of God: “[W]e are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification” (Council of Trent Decree on Justification, chapter 8).

Provided that he remains in God’s grace,[9] nothing will hinder the justified man from gaining heaven:[10]

For in those who are born again [initially justified] God hates nothing, because there is no condemnation to those who are truly buried together with Christ by baptism unto death, who walk not according to the flesh, but, putting off the old man and putting on the new one who is created according to God, are made innocent, immaculate, pure, guiltless and beloved of God, heirs indeed of God, joint heirs with Christ; so that there is nothing whatever to hinder their entrance into heaven (Council of Trent, Decree on Original Sin, section 5).[11]

Progressive Justification

If “initial justification” makes us clean and pure and even fit for heaven (ultimate salvation), what’s the point of “progressive justification”? Protestants think of righteousness in one dimension, its quality, because they limit righteousness to “legal” or “behavioral”[12] meanings (see above). Catholics think of righteousness in two dimensions, quality and quantity, because they almost always mean intrinsic righteousness. Another illustration will help.

The quality of our initial justification is perfect. Think of a glass of 100% pure water with no additives or contamination. Initial justification makes us as clean, i.e., without sin, as Jesus is. But the quantity of our righteousness is finite, while Jesus’ righteousness is infinite. In other words, there’s a big difference between a glass of pure water and an ocean or spring of pure water. Progressive justification doesn’t make us any cleaner, but it gives us a greater capacity for righteousness and virtue. It’s like trading a four-ounce glass of pure water for a 12-ounce glass of pure water. We may never approach Jesus’ infinite quantity of righteousness, of course, but we can possess more righteousness than we currently have.[13]

We acquire more righteousness by doing good works within God’s grace and with the help of God’s grace (Phil. 2:12-13, 1 Cor. 3:9). This is how human works contribute to justification (Jas. 2:14-26). Good works are worthless for salvation without God’s grace, but within God’s grace they are precisely what God intends for us (Eph. 2:10). They are a way of showing faithful gratitude to God,[14] and they are made possible by God Himself (Jn. 15:5). If we do not express our faith through our loving works, our faith is dead (Jas. 2:26, 1 Cor. 13:2) and we have not persevered in grace.

There are certain actions or good works, like participation in the sacraments and living virtuously, which God has promised to reward when those within His grace perform them. God does not “have to” reward these actions because He is never actually indebted to us (Rom. 11:35, Catechism, no. 2007); but, because of His loving generosity, He has decided to reward us for doing these good works anyway. (This is what Catholics mean when they talk about “merit”—Catechism, no. 2008.) Furthermore, God gives us the grace that we need to actually perform good works, which is why St. Augustine said that God is, in effect, crowning or rewarding His own actions (see the Catechism, specifically the quote immediately preceding article no. 2006). God rewards good works by giving us a greater capacity for intrinsic righteousness. All just people, i.e., people who are within God’s grace, ultimately go to heaven and all enjoy it to the full extent of their capacity; but some have a greater capacity because they progressed further in “progressive justification.”

Neither initial nor progressive justification gives us any right to brag to others or be proud before God. Even our truly active participation in progressive justification is enabled and rewarded by a gift of God’s generosity, His grace, because He does not ever owe us anything (1 Cor. 4:7; Rom. 11:35). Our response should be humble gratitude, faithful obedience and open thanksgiving, rejoicing in the salvation that is from God.

To fully appreciate and understand this Faith Fact, Catholic Reponses recommends carefully reading the Faith Fact with all the Scripture and Catechism references.

Recommended Reading:

Holy Bible

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Vatican II Documents

Butler, Dahlgren, & Hess, Jesus, Peter, & the Keys

Mark Shea, By What Authority? …Catholic Tradition

Hahn and Suprenant, eds., Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God

Leon Suprenant and Philip Gray, Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions

Ted Sri, Mystery of the Kingdom: On the Gospel of Matthew

Leon Suprenant, ed., Servants of the Gospel

Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Without a Doubt: Bringing Faith to Life

To order these and other titles, call Emmaus Road toll-free: (800) 398-5470.

© 1998 Catholics United for the Faith, Inc.

Last edited: 1/98


[1] The work of James Akin, a convert from Protestantism, contributed significantly to this Faith Fact. Readers may access Akin’s article “Righteousness and Merit” at on the world wide web.

[2] Regarding justification, this Faith Fact examines the general theological heritage of mainline Protestants, e.g., Lutherans, Calvinists, etc., and does not presume to cover their various nuances on this issue.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1996.

[4] Catholics identify “salvation” with the glorification of heaven so that, unlike Protestants, they do not generally say “I’ve been saved [past tense].” If someone asks, “Have you been saved?” explain that the answer “I hope to be saved” really means “I hope, in Jesus Christ my Savior, to go to heaven, but I am not there yet.” For more information on this matter, see CUF Faith Facts: “Persevering to the End: The Biblical Reality of Mortal Sin” and “Sola
Scriptura?: Not According to the Bible.”

[5] Because it is not relevant to justification itself, this is the last time we will directly address “behavioral” or “dispositional” righteousness. This growing disposition to doing good works, which is gained through cooperation with God’s grace, is what Protestants also call “sanctification.” According to the traditional Protestant position on sanctification, a person is able to do good works more easily over time but, oddly enough, there is no accompanying internal change; i.e., the person’s soul remains unclean or “depraved,” meaning the person never possesses, let alone grows in, intrinsic righteousness.
The logical and biblical untenability of this position will be developed in this Faith Fact’s treatment of “initial justification” and “progressive justification.”

[6] The term “intrinsic” is crucial to understanding the Catholic position on justification, an important point that will be developed in this Faith Fact.

[7] People are often tempted to equate initial justification with the Protestant meaning of justification, and also progressive justification with the Protestant meaning of sanctification; but this is a mistake. Protestants and Catholics use the terms differently. These terms are further clarified in footnote four and the rest of this Faith Fact.

[8] This request can be understood legally, as God blotting out “bad marks” in the book of works (Rev. 20:12), or intrinsically, as God removing guilt from the soul. Here, we grant the legal understanding the benefit of the doubt, but that does not undermine the Catholic position. Because both legal and intrinsic terms are already used in the larger passage, the “legal only” Protestant case is untenable.

[9] For more information on the subject of perseverance in grace, see CUF Faith Fact: “Persevering to the End: The Biblical Reality of Mortal Sin.”

[10] Remember, the ultimate destination of all souls in purgatory is heaven; purgatory is not a hindrance, but a help.

[11] Bible verses quoted within this quote include Romans 6:4, 8:1; Ephesians 4:22, 24; Colossians 3:9-10; and Romans 8:17.

[12] See footnote four to review the Protestant view on “behavioral” righteousness/sanctification.

[13] See Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma. Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1960, 262.

[14] Paul calls this faithful gratitude, the purpose for the Letter to the Romans, the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26) or “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Faith must be an active faithfulness.

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Doctors of the Church

ISSUE: What does it mean to be a doctor of the Church? Who are the doctors of the Church?

RESPONSE: The doctors of the Church are certain men and women who are revered by the Church for the special value of their writings and preaching and the sanctity of their lives. Thirty-three saints have been declared doctors of the Church. The most recent addition is St. Theresa of the Child Jesus (a.k.a. St. Thérèse of Lisieux), who was declared a doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II in 1997.

DISCUSSION: The title “Doctor of the Church” has been applied since the Middle Ages to certain saints whose writing or preaching is outstanding for guiding the faithful in every age.

There are three requirements for being named a doctor of the Church:

(1) Great Sanctity. Only those who have already been declared to be saints by the Church may receive this title.

(2) Eminent Learning. Those who are declared doctors of the Church are known to be great teachers of the Faith.

(3) Proclamation by the Church. Typically, such proclamation is made by the Pope, as was the case when Pope John Paul II declared St. Theresa of the Child Jesus a doctor of the Church in 1997.

The four great western doctors are Ss. Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory. They were declared doctors of the Church in 1298. The original eastern doctors are Ss. John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, and Athanasius. Pope Pius V recognized these saints as doctors of the Church in 1568. The thirty-three saints who have been declared doctors of the Church are listed below.

The Doctors of the Church

St. Albert the Great (1200-80). Dominican. Patron of natural scientists; called Doctor Universalis, Doctor Expertus.

St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787). Patron of confessors and moralists. Founder of the Redemptorists.

St. Ambrose (340-97). One of the four traditional doctors of the Latin Church. Opponent of the Arian heresy in the West. Bishop of Milan.

St. Anselm (1033-1109). Archbishop of Canterbury. Father of scholasticism.

St. Anthony of Padua (1194-1231). Franciscan friar. Evangelical Doctor.

St. Athanasius (297-373). Bishop of Alexandria. Dominant opponent of Arianism. Father of Orthodoxy.

St. Augustine (354-430). Bishop of Hippo. First doctor of the Church and one of the four traditional doctors of the Latin Church. Doctor of Grace.

St. Basil the Great (329-79). One of the three Cappadocian Fathers. Father of monasticism in the East.

St. Bede the Venerable (673-735). Benedictine priest. Father of English history.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). Cistercian. Called Mellifluous Doctor because of his eloquence.

St. Bonaventure (1217-74). Franciscan theologian. Seraphic Doctor.

St. Catherine of Siena (1347-80). Dominican stigmatist and mystic. Reconciled the Pope with the Roman Republic.

St. Cyril of Alexandria (376-444). Patriarch. Opponent of Nestorian heresy. Made key contributions to Christology.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-87). Bishop and opponent of Arianism in the East.

St. Ephrem of Syria (306-73). Biblical exegete and ecclesiastical writer. Called the Lyre of the Holy Spirit.

St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622). Bishop, leader in Counter-Reformation. Patron of Catholic writers and the Catholic press.

St. Gregory I the Great (540-604). Pope. Fourth and last of the traditional doctors of the Latin Church. Defended papal supremacy and worked for clerical and monastic reform.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (330-90). Called the Christian Demosthenes because of his eloquence and, in the Eastern Church, the Theologian. One of the three Cappadocian Fathers.

St. Hilary of Poitiers (315-68). Bishop. Called “The Athanasius of the West.”

St. Isidore of Seville (560-636). Archbishop, theologian, historian. Regarded as the most learned man of his time.

St. Jerome (343-420). One of the four traditional doctors of the Latin Church. Father of biblical studies.

St. John Chrysostom (347-407). Bishop of Constantinople. Patron of preachers and called Golden-Mouthed because of his eloquence.

St. John Damascene (675-749). Greek theologian. Called Golden Speaker because of his eloquence.

St. John of the Cross (1542-91). Founder of the Discalced Carmelites for men, following St. Teresa of Avila. Doctor of mystical theology.

St. Lawrence of Brindisi (1559-1619). Vigorous preacher of strong influence in the post-Reformation period.

St. Leo I the Great (400-61). Pope. Wrote against Nestorian and Monophysite heresies, and also against the errors of Manichaeism and Pelagianism.

St. Peter Canisius (1521-97). Jesuit theologian. Leader in the Counter-Reformation.

St. Peter Chrysologus (400-50). Bishop of Ravenna. Called Golden-Worded.

St. Peter Damian (1007-72). Benedictine. Ecclesiastical and clerical reformer.

St. Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). Jesuit. Defended doctrine under attack during and after the Reformation. Wrote two catechisms.

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-82). Founder of Discalced Carmelite order and great mystical author.

St. Theresa of the Child Jesus (1873-97). Patroness of the missions. Carmelite nun who offered her life for the salvation of souls and the growth of the Church.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). Dominican philosopher and theologian. Called Angelic Doctor. Patron of Catholic schools and education.


Recommended Reading:

Holy Bible (Catholic edition)

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Faith of the Early Fathers (3 Volumes)

Glimpses of the Church Fathers

Thy Will be Done; St. Francis de Sales

St. Therese of Lisieux: Doctor of the Church?

The Saints Show Us Christ; Rawley Myers

The Confessions of St. Augustine; St. Augustine

Hail, Holy Queen; St. Alphonsus Liguori

An Introduction to the Devout Life; St. Francis de Sales

Hahn and Suprenant, eds., Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God

Leon Suprenant and Philip Gray, Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions

Ted Sri, Mystery of the Kingdom: On the Gospel of Matthew

Leon Suprenant, ed., Servants of the Gospel

Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Without a Doubt: Bringing Faith to Life

To order these and other titles, call Emmaus Road Publishing toll-free: (800) 398-5470 or visit

Other available Faith Facts:

• All In The Family: The Communion of Saints • Going God’s Way: Moral Conscience • Honor Thy Mother: Praising Mary and the Saints is Biblically Correct

Call 1-800-MY-FAITH (693-2484).

FAITH FACTS are a free membership service of Catholics United for the Faith.

Catholics United for the Faith
827 N. Fourth St., Steubenville, OH 43952
(800) 693-2484

© 1998 Catholics United for the Faith

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The First Marian Dogma, Mother of God

Issue: What is the Church’s teaching concerning Mary’s divine maternity?

Discussion: The first and foremost revealed truth about our Blessed Mother, from which all her other roles and honors flow, is that she is the Mother of God.

Catechism, no. 509 summarizes the teaching as follows: “Mary is truly ‘Mother of God’ since she is the mother of the eternal Son of God made man, who is God himself.” The title “Mother of God” points to the sublime truth of the Incarnation, that Jesus Christ is true God and true man.

The Church’s teaching concerning Mary’s divine maternity is deeply rooted in Scripture and Tradition, and was dogmatically defined at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The Church celebrates this mystery of our Catholic faith on January 1.

For many Catholics, Mary’s “divine maternity”—in other words, her status as the “Mother of God”—is almost second nature. One of our oldest and most recited prayers, the Hail Mary, explicitly invokes “Holy Mary, Mother of God.” We typically call Mary our “Blessed Mother,” which points to our participation in the divine life as adopted children of God (cf. Rom. 8:15-17; Gal. 4:4-7; Rev. 12:17). We could not call her our Blessed Mother unless she was first and foremost His Blessed Mother.

Since the fifth century, Mary’s title as “Mother of God” has been firmly established, and is easily the least controversial of the Christian doctrines concerning Mary. This teaching thus is a good starting point for ecumenical discussion and, as will be shown below, preserves correct teaching concerning who Jesus Christ is.

As we prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ 2,000th birthday, let us take a closer look at His mother, from whom “the Word became flesh” (Jn. 1:14).

The Logic of Scripture

The Bible nowhere uses the expression “Mother of God.” But Mary is clearly identified as the “mother of Jesus” (cf. Mt. 2:13, 20; Lk. 1:31; 2:34; Acts 1:14) and mother of the Son of God (cf. Lk. 1:35; Gal. 4:4). Even before the birth of Jesus, Elizabeth proclaims that Mary is “the mother of my Lord” (Lk. 1:43; cf. Catechism, no. 495). Clearly, Mary is identified throughout the New Testament as the mother of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Catechism, no. 481 summarizes the fundamental Christian belief that Jesus Christ is true God and true man: “Jesus Christ possesses two natures, one divine and the other human, not confused, but united in the one person of God’s Son.” Therefore, Saint Paul can write that in the fullness of time, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman” (Gal. 4:4).

And so at the appointed time, the eternal, divine Word of God (cf. Jn. 1:1), the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, “became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). Scripture teaches that Christ is Emmanuel—God is truly with us (cf. Mt. 1:23).

If we take these two biblical teachings, that (a) Mary is the mother of Jesus and (b) Jesus is truly God, then we must conclude that Mary is the mother of God. To conclude otherwise would be to deny either (a) or (b) or both, and thereby fall into one of the ancient heresies rejected by the apostolic Church.

What Is Motherhood?

To understand the Church’s teaching on Mary’s divine maternity, it is important to clarify what we mean by motherhood.

Motherhood is the relationship that is established when a woman communicates her own human nature to her children. This gift of nature occurs at conception, and is continually nurtured through gestation, childbirth, and the life of the child. At conception a human person, a real son or daughter—and not simply a physical body—comes into being. And this is true even though we know that the mother did not create the child’s soul, which is created and infused directly by God.

Mary did not give Jesus His divine nature or His divine personhood, which was His from all eternity. Nor did she give Him His human soul, which was infused when He became man in her virginal womb (cf. Catechism, no. 471). As a true mother, Mary did give Jesus a human nature identical to her own, and she is the mother of a person, not merely a body or a nature.

Now here is the twist. In Jesus Christ, there are two natures—human and divine—and these natures are united without confusion in one divine Person, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, in what is called the hypostatic union. Since Mary is the mother of Jesus and Jesus is a divine Person—that is, God—then Mary is rightly called the “Mother of God.”

There are two sonships, but only one Son. Christ is the true Son of God the Father from all eternity, but He is also the true Son of Mary, born in the fullness of time (cf. Gal. 4:4).

What About the Fathers?

Early Christian Tradition, particularly the liturgy, bears witness to the Christian belief that Mary is the Mother of God. In the oldest profession of the Christian faith, the Apostles’ Creed (cf. Catechism, no. 194), the faithful for nearly two millennia have professed their faith in “Jesus Christ, His Only Son, Our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” The ancient Marian prayer Sub tuum praesidium (“We fly to thy protection … “), which dates back to the third century, explicitly addresses Mary as “Mother of God.”

Mary’s divine motherhood is richly attested to in the writings of the Church Fathers. For example, Saint Irenaeus (d. 202) wrote, “The Virgin Mary, … being obedient to His word, received from an angel the glad tidings that she would bear God.”[1]

Saint Ephrem of Syria (d. 373), in his poetic Hymns of the Nativity, authored the following:

In the womb of Mary, the Infant was formed, who from eternity is equal to the Father. . . .

The Virgin became a Mother while preserving her virginity; And though still a virgin she carried a Child in her womb; And the handmaid and work of His Wisdom became the Mother of God.[2]

Saint Athanasius (d. 373), in his treatise On the Incarnation of the Word of God and Against the Arians, wrote:

The Word begotten of the Father from on high, inexpressibly, inexplicably, incomprehensibly, and eternally, is He that is born in time here below, of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God—so that those who are in the first place born here below might have a second birth from on high, that is, of God.[3]

These are just a handful of the many patristic references to this Marian teaching during the first four centuries of Christianity. Of course, after the dogmatic definition of the Council of Ephesus in 431 (see below), this teaching was firmly established as part of the deposit of faith entrusted to the Church (cf. 1 Tim. 6:20).

How Can We Go Wrong?

Historically, there have been three errors concerning Mary’s divine maternity. First, some have held that Christ was true God, but not true man. Therefore, since Christ did not receive a human nature from Mary, she could not be called His mother.

The second error, much more prevalent today, is that Christ is truly a man, but not God. Therefore, Mary is truly the mother of Christ, but in no sense the mother of God.

The third error, called Nestorianism, is what occasioned the Church’s definition at the Council of Ephesus. According to this view, there were two persons in Christ, one divine and one human, and Mary gave birth only to the human person. She could rightly be called the Mother of Christ (Christotokos) or even the Receiver of God (Theodokos), but not the Mother of God (Theotokos).

Let’s take a closer look at how this error was resolved by the Church.

Showdown at Ephesus

In his encyclical letter “On the 1500th Anniversary of the Council of Ephesus” (Lux Veritatis, 1931), Pope Pius XI traces the events leading up to the decisions of this ecumenical council.

Nestorius, a monk of Antioch who in 428 became the patriarch of Constantinople, publicly preached that Christ was not God, but that God only dwelt in Him as in a temple. In other words, he taught that there were two persons in Christ, and thus Mary was Christotokos (Mother of Christ), but not Theotokos (Mother of God). “Christotokos” became the watchword of the Nestorians.

The true Christian teaching was championed by Saint Cyril, who was the patriarch of Alexandria. Saint Cyril not only strenuously defended the Catholic faith among his own flock, but he also addressed letters to Nestorius in a charitable, brotherly attempt to lead him back to the Catholic faith.

When these attempts failed, Cyril appealed to Pope Celestine, writing that “the ancient custom of the Churches admonishes us that matters of this kind should be communicated to Your Holiness.”[4] Celestine condemned the teaching of Nestorius and appointed Cyril as his representative for settling the controversy.

Meanwhile, Emperor Theodosius convoked an ecumenical council at Ephesus to facilitate the resolution of the dispute. Under the presidency of Saint Cyril, and with full papal approval and authority, the Council condemned the false teaching of Nestorius and fully affirmed Christ’s divinity:

Scripture does not say that the Word associated the person of a man with Himself, but that He was made flesh. But when it is said that the Word was made flesh, that means nothing else but that He partook of flesh and blood, even as we do; wherefore, He made our body His own, and came forth man, born of a woman, at the same time without laying aside His Godhead, or His birth from the Father; for in assuming flesh He still remained what He was.[5]

The decision of the Council of Ephesus is a classic example of how authentic Marian doctrine flows from and will always protect and safeguard authentic teachings concerning the Person of Christ. By proclaiming that Mary is Theotokos, the Church is affirming that Mary is truly a mother, thus affirming Jesus’ humanity. By affirming that she is the Mother of God, the Church is not only affirming Jesus’ divinity, but also the union of Jesus’ human and divine natures in His one divine Person.

Ecumenical Concerns

It is important to emphasize that the pronouncement of the Council of Ephesus, despite the necessary refutation of the Nestorian heresy, was a cause for rejoicing and celebration in the streets of Ephesus:

And the populace of Ephesus were drawn to the Virgin Mother of God with such great piety, and burning with such ardent love, that when they understood the judgment passed by the Fathers of the Council, they hailed them with overflowing gladness of heart, and gathering round them in a body, bearing lighted torches in their hands, accompanied them home.[6]

To this day, devotion to the Theotokos is a point of unity among many Christians, particularly among the Eastern Orthodox Churches, as Vatican II teaches:

It gives great joy and comfort to this sacred synod that among the separated brethren too there are those who give due honor to the Mother of Our Lord and Savior, especially among the Easterns, who with devout mind and fervent impulse give honor to the Mother of God, ever virgin ( Lumen Gentium [LG], no. 69).

Among Protestant Christians in the West, there are diverse views concerning Mary’s role in the work of salvation (Unitatis Redintegratio, no. 20). Interestingly, the three fathers of the Protestant Reformation—Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli—all affirmed Mary’s divine maternity.

“All Generations Will Call Me Blessed” (Lk. 1:48)

The Church has, from the earliest times, honored Mary with the title “Mother of God” (Catechism, no. 971). Because of her intimate, mother-Son relationship with the Redeemer of the world, the Church recognizes her “high office” and “dignity,” as well as the fact that she is also “the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit” (LG, no. 53).

In a singular but subordinate way, she freely cooperated in her Son’s saving work by her obedience, faith, hope, and burning charity (LG, no. 61). She is our mother in the order of grace, the new mother of all those who are alive in Christ (cf. Gen. 3:20), the mother of all of Christ’s beloved disciples (cf. Jn. 19:27), who keep the commandments and bear witness to Him (cf. Rev. 12:17).

For that reason, the Church honors Mary “with filial affection and devotion as a most beloved mother” (LG, no. 53). This devotion is not the adoration that is proper to God alone, but rather the love for a mother who always reminds us to follow her Son (cf. Jn. 2:5), so that He may be known, loved, and glorified, and that all people may be gathered into one family in Christ, to the glory of the Most Holy Trinity.

The Protestant Reformers on Mary

Martin Luther: “In this work whereby she was made the Mother of God, so many and such good things were given her that no one can grasp them…. Not only was Mary the mother of Him who is born [in Bethlehem], but of Him who, before the world, was eternally born of the Father, from a Mother in time and at the same time man and God.”

John Calvin: “It cannot be denied that God in choosing and destining Mary to be the Mother of His Son, granted her the highest honor…. Elizabeth calls Mary Mother of the Lord, because the unity of the person in the two natures of Christ was such that she could have said that the mortal man engendered in the womb of Mary was at the same time the eternal God.”

Ulrich Zwingli: “It was given to her what belongs to no creature, that in the flesh she should bring forth the Son of God.”

— As quoted in Beginning Apologetics: How to Explain and Defend the Catholic Faith (Farmington, NM: San Juan Catholic Seminars, 1993-96)

Questions for Reflection and Group Discussion:

1. What was decided at the Council of Ephesus? How does the title “Mother of God” preserve an orthodox understanding of who Jesus Christ is?

2. Since Mary is never called the “Mother of God” in the Bible, how can I explain this title to a Christian who rejects the authority of the Church?

3. Jesus is the “first-born among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). If I am Jesus’ brother or sister, what should my attitude be toward Jesus’ mother? Toward other Christians?

Recommended Reading

  • Holy Bible (Catholic edition)
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church (Paperback and Hardback available)
  • Vatican II Documents
  • Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer)
  • Précis of Official Catholic Teaching on Mary
  • Mark Miravalle, Introduction to Mary: The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion

Hahn and Suprenant, eds., Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God

Leon Suprenant and Philip Gray, Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions

Ted Sri, Mystery of the Kingdom: On the Gospel of Matthew

Leon Suprenant, ed., Servants of the Gospel

Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Without a Doubt: Bringing Faith to Life

To order these and other titles, call Emmaus Road toll-free: (800) 398-5470.

Available Faith Facts

  • Mary’s Perpetual Virginity
  • Mary, Conceived Without Sin: The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception
  • Mary, Mother of the Church
  • Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • What’s A Mother To Do: Mary’s Role In Our Salvation
  • All in the Family: The Communion of Saints
  • “Honor Thy Mother”: Praising Mary and the Saints is Biblically Correct

© 1999 Catholics United for the Faith

Last edited: 12/31/08


[1] Saint Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, 5, 19, 1, as quoted in William A. Jurgens, ed., The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 1 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1970), 101.

[2] As quoted in ibid., vol. 1, 312.

[3] As quoted in ibid., vol. 1, 340.

[4] As quoted in Lux Veritatis, no. 12.

[5] As quoted in ibid., no. 28; cf. Catechism, no. 466.

[6] Ibid., no. 41.

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ISSUE: May a member of the lay faithful self-communicate?

RESPONSE: “Self-communication” refers to the reception of Holy Communion without the assistance of a minister.

A lay person may not self-communicate. Rather, a lay person should receive Holy Communion from an ordinary minister (bishop, priest, or deacon) or an extraordinary minister (duly authorized lay person). The minister says “Body of Christ” (host) or “Blood of Christ” (chalice), to which the person receiving Communion says “Amen” and then receives the sacred species from the minister.

DISCUSSION: According to Inaestimabile Donum (ID), a 1980 document of the Vatican Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, the lay faithful are not to self-communicate: “Communion is a gift of the Lord, given to the faithful through the minister appointed for this purpose. It is not permitted that the faithful should themselves pick up the consecrated bread and the sacred chalice; still less that they should hand them from one to another” (ID, no. 9).

In Holy Communion, we really receive the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as our spiritual food. For this reason, the Church has always required that the faithful show reverence and respect for the Eucharist at the moment of receiving it. The minister of the Eucharist represents the bishop, who in turn is responsible for fulfilling Jesus’ command to His apostles at the Last Supper. “Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19). Receiving Communion from a minister is not only a rule of the Church, but a practice that vividly symbolizes the fact that we receive Jesus through the ministry of the Church.

It should be noted that receiving Communion in the hand does not constitute “self-communication,” because a minister is placing the host on the recipient’s hand. Receiving Communion in the hand is a legitimate way of receiving Communion, as is receiving on the tongue.

Self-communication is most frequently an issue in the case of self-communication by intinction. This means that the person receives Holy Communion on the hand, and then takes the host and dips it himself or herself in the chalice. In a document entitled This Holy and Living Sacrifice, the U.S. Bishops have clearly taught that such practice is improper. Communion by intinction is not customary in the United States, but it may be done when the intinction (i.e., dipping) is performed by the minister.

Further inquiries in this matter can be directed to CUF, your diocesan liturgy office, or, if necessary, the Secretariat for the Liturgy, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 3211 4th St., N.E., Washington, D.C. 20017-1194.

Recommended Reading:

Holy Bible

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Mysterium Fidei; Pope Paul VI

The Hidden Manna; Rev. James T. O’Connor

This Is My Body; Mark P. Shea

What Catholics Really Believe; Karl Keating

“Eucharistic Day at Marytown”; Scott Hahn; audiotape series

“Corpus Christi: A Father’s Day Celebration”; Scott Hahn; audiotape series

Précis of Official Catholic Teaching on Worship and Sacraments

To order, call Benedictus Books toll-free: (888) 316-2640. CUF members receive a 10% discount.

Hahn and Suprenant, eds., Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God

Leon Suprenant and Philip Gray, Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions

Ted Sri, Mystery of the Kingdom: On the Gospel of Matthew

Leon Suprenant, ed., Servants of the Gospel

Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Without a Doubt: Bringing Faith to Life

To order these and other titles, call Emmaus Road toll-free: (800) 398-5470.

Available Faith Facts:

• “This Is My Body:” The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist • Approved Bible Translations for Mass Use • St. Augustine’s Real Faith in the Real Presence • Holy Communion Under Both Species • Communion Services • Reception of Holy Communion • Who Receives Holy Communion First?

© 1997 Catholics United for the Faith, Inc.

Last edited: 10/2014

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Mary’s Perpetual Virginity

Issue: What does the Church teach concerning Mary’s virginity?

Response: The Church has always professed that Mary was a virgin “ante partum, in partu, et post partum,” i.e., before birth, during birth, and after the birth of Christ. Mary conceived Jesus in her womb “by the power of the Holy Spirit” without loss of her virginity. She remained a virgin in giving birth to Jesus; His miraculous birth did not diminish her virginal integrity but sanctified it (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, no. 57). Following the birth of Jesus, Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her earthly life, until such time as she was taken body and soul into heaven, where she reigns as Queen ( Lumen Gentium, no. 59).

Discussion: In examining Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, or any Church teaching, the most fundamental questions is: “How do we know this is true?” We do not gain such knowledge through intuition or through merely human effort or reasoning, but from the obedience of faith that we give to God who has revealed the truth to us (Vatican II, Dei Verbum, nos. 2, 5).

In examining this revealed truth, we must acknowledge that Tradition and Scripture make up a single sacred deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the Church (Dei Verbum, no. 10). We must further recognize that the task of safeguarding (cf. 1 Tim. 6:20) and interpreting the Word of God, oral or written, has been entrusted to the Magisterium alone (Dei Verbum, no. 10; 2 Thess. 2:15).

The doctrine of Mary’s Perpetual Virginity brings to light two distinct errors that are rooted in misconceptions concerning the nature of divine Revelation. The first error is the “sola Scriptura” approach that collapses the Word of God to merely that which has been written, thereby denying the role of Tradition and the Magisterium. Curiously, such a position, developed during the Protestant Reformation, is not taught in Scripture. Indeed, the testimony of Scripture conveys otherwise. For example, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, St. Paul exhorts his followers to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions [they] were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter. . . .” In 1 Timothy 3:15, St. Paul further states that the Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.” Sola Scriptura constitutes an attempt to understand Scriptures apart from Mother Church, even though the Church was “alive” for decades before the New Testament in its entirety was written, and for centuries before the Church definitively determined which texts were inspired.

The other error is an approach that fails to accord the necessary weight and dignity to Scripture. This error can manifest itself in many forms, often so as to render “truth” an elusive, if not illusory, reality (see St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, nos. 3, 24-26). An example would be an inclination to relegate the infancy narratives to the level of pious fables, as additions that are merely the product of the so-called second or third generation Church. Against such an “enlightened” modern interpretation of Scripture, Vatican II, citing the encyclical Providentissimus Deus by Pope Leo XIII, affirms “that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to Sacred Scripture” (Dei Verbum, no. 11; Catechism, no. 107). The sacred authors consigned to writing what the Holy Spirit wanted, and no more (Dei Verbum, no. 11; Catechism, no. 106; see also Providentissimus Deus, in which Leo XIII unequivocally confirms that this is the “ancient and unchanging faith of the Church”). As if the foregoing reaffirmation of scriptural inerrancy were not enough, the Council then “unhesitatingly affirms” the historicity of the Gospels (Dei Verbum, no. 19).

Aside from the relative merits of particular methods of Scripture study, the simple fact remains that the charism of authentic interpretation resides with the Magisterium and not the supposed “experts.” Any scholarship that calls into question established doctrine, or even produces conclusions in conflict with doctrines affirmed by the Teaching Church, must necessarily be defective.

In treating Mary’s virginity ante partum, in partu, and post partum, we see in action “the supremely wise arrangement of God,” whereby Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium work together under the action of the Holy Spirit to communicate the truth about Mary to successive generations of Christians (cf. Dei Verbum, no. 10).

Mary’s Virginity Before the Birth of Christ

Both Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38 provide explicit scriptural evidence for Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus.

St. Matthew describes the virginal conception as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14: “The virgin shall be with child, and give birth to a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel.” St. Matthew’s Gospel is also unique in that it presents the virginal conception from the perspective of St. Joseph, to whom an angel appeared to confirm, by a special revelation, the miraculous origin of the child. Scholars draw the reasonable conclusion that Mary and Joseph themselves probably recognized the accomplishment of Isaiah’s prophecy.

It is clear from Luke’s account of the Annunciation that the angel appeared “to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph,” and that “the Virgin’s name was Mary” (Lk. 1:27). The critical verses, however, are verses 34 and 35, in which Mary asked how this conception would occur (since she was a virgin) and was advised by the angel that she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit. If Mary at some time in the future intended to consummate her relationship with St. Joseph, her question would have been nonsensical. The literal-historical sense of these passages, which provide that Mary conceived Jesus without the loss of her virginity, is simply beyond reasonable dispute.

The teaching of the Fathers, dating back to St. Ignatius of Antioch, unanimously supports the teaching of the virginal conception, as does the testimony of the earliest creeds and Marian prayers. The popes seem to take as a given the virginal conception when addressing the issues of Mary’s virginity during or after the birth of Christ.

The expression “ever virgin” was taken up by the Second Council of Constantinople (553), which affirms that the Word of God, “incarnate of the holy and glorious Mother of God and ever virgin Mary, was born of her.” This doctrine is confirmed by two other ecumenical councils, the Fourth Lateran Council (1214) and the Second Council of Lyons (1274), and by the text of the definition of the dogma of the Assumption (1950) in which Mary’s Perpetual Virginity is adopted as one of the reasons why she was taken up in body and soul to heavenly glory.

Objections to the Virginal Conception of Christ

Since Luke 1:34-35 establishes beyond all doubt the virginal conception of Christ, critics have had no other means of escape in their arbitrary denial of the doctrine than to deny the genuineness and authenticity of these verses. Yet not a single manuscript containing the first chapter of Luke omits verses 34 and 35. It is rather clear in such a circumstance that the text is being interpreted according to uncritical, preconceived biases—e.g., the impossibility of miracles, angelic messages, etc.—which are radically divorced from an obedience of faith to divine Revelation.

One point that is raised is the contention that a better translation of the original Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 would use “maiden” or “young woman” instead of “virgin.” Leaving aside the relative merits of etymological arguments, the point remains that from the beginning the Church (as reflected in St. Matthew’s Gospel) has interpreted the passage as the prophecy of the virginal conception of Christ in the womb of Mary. The argument originally made by St. Justin Martyr in the second century is still instructive: “If a virginal conception were not the clear, literal sense of the passage, there simply would be no question of a ‘sign.’”

The act of calling into question the certainty of biblical truths that have been dogmatically defined by the Church betrays a convergence of several Modernist attitudes identified by the Church last century. Such attitudes unfortunately have resulted in a questioning of the virginal conception in contemporary Catholic circles. This modern doubt, which obviously does not affect the status of the teaching, stems from an attempt to conduct biblical study without considering—and at times systematically rejecting—the inspired, ecclesial nature of Scripture.

It is beyond dispute that there is no explicit reference to the virginal conception in the New Testament outside the infancy narratives. The reason this is an important area of inquiry is because of the Modernist charge that the virginal conception was unknown to (i.e., not yet “invented” by) the first generation of Christians, and for that reason the supposed earliest New Testament writings (St. Mark’s Gospel and St. Paul’s epistles) make no mention of a virginal conception. This line of discussion again betrays a misunderstanding of the sources of Revelation, and in any event, the point remains that the Church’s teaching on the virginal conception is, at minimum, not in conflict with St. Mark and St. Paul. This issue is beautifully laid to rest in the Catechism, no. 498:

People are sometimes troubled by the silence of St. Mark’s Gospel and the New Testament Epistles about Jesus’ virginal conception. Some might wonder if we were merely dealing with legends or theological constructs not claiming to be history. To this we must respond: Faith in the virginal conception of Jesus met with the lively opposition, mockery, or incomprehension of non-believers, Jews and pagans alike; so it could hardly have been motivated by pagan mythology or by some adaptation to the ideas of the age. The meaning of this event is accessible only to faith, which understands in it the “connection of these mysteries with one another.” . . . St. Ignatius of Antioch already bears witness to this connection: “Mary’s virginity and giving birth, and even the Lord’s death, escaped the notice of the prince of the world: these three mysteries worthy of proclamation were accomplished in God’s silence” (footnotes omitted).

The Virgin Birth

The Church has traditionally understood Mary’s virginity in partu (during birth) as meaning that Jesus passed from His Mother’s womb into the light of day without the womb being opened and consequently without the destruction of the physical signs of virginity possessed by one who is virgin in conception. Secondly, Mary’s virginity in partu involves the absence of labor pains and usual infirmities (e.g., rupturing, bleeding, etc.) involved in gestation. It was, in reality, a miraculous birth, which relates more to her role in the New Creation (and thus her Immaculate Conception and Assumption) rather than her virginity before and after.

The teaching on Mary’s virginity in partu and the “miraculous birth” that did not violate her physical integrity has been clearly taught throughout the life of the Church. While the teaching of Mary’s virginity in partu “protects” the miraculous nature of birth, in turn the miraculous birth points to a physical integrity that goes beyond the mere absence of sexual relations, and which further is a sign of Mary’s interior virginity. Mary’s virginity in partu is fundamentally (albeit not exclusively) a biological statement, which is “embarrassing” only to those theologians who would systematically exclude the possibility of miracles.

There are several Old Testament images that are offered in support of virginity in partu. St. Ambrose in the above letter refers to Mary as the closed gate of Ezekiel 44:2. Isaiah 66:7 refers to the delivery of a male child born without labor pains. Lastly there is the reference in the Song of Songs (4:12) to the bride being an enclosed garden and a sealed fountain.

Matthew 1:22-23 is not the only New Testament reference cited in support of this teaching. There is the statement that Mary wrapped the Child in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger, which some conclude points to the absence of the usual pains and infirmities of childbirth—because Mary was able to wait on Jesus—and consequently to virginity in partu. There is also the reference in the account of the Presentation (Lk. 2:22-30) to Leviticus 12:8, which deals with the consecration of a child to God, but omits the part about taking away the uncleanness of the mother. A less obvious scriptural basis is found by some in the words “Blessed art thou among women,” (Lk. 1:42) understood in light of Genesis 3:15 and the New Eve image.

St. Ambrose wrote on the eve of the Synod of Milan in 390 that the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 “declares not only that a virgin shall conceive, but also that a virgin shall bring forth.” Thus, St. Matthew’s use of this prophecy in his Gospel at least implies a virgin birth. It should also be noted that St. Ambrose’s interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 as referring to the virginal conception and the virginal birth represents the interpretation of the early Church Fathers, and indeed St. Ambrose’s teaching on Mary’s virginity in partu was adopted by the Synod of Milan in 390. Meanwhile, in the East, Mary’s virginity in childbearing is a constantly recurring theme in the writings of St. Ephraem of Syria (circa 373), who taught the sublime truth that Emmanuel was able to “open the womb” of Mary without violating her virginity. At the turn of the fourth century, St. Augustine and St. Jerome also give important testimony concerning the miraculous nature of Christ’s birth.

Pope St. Leo the Great, in his famous “Tome,” provided the following teaching concerning the virgin birth:

[Jesus] was born in a “new type of birth” in that undefiled virginity experienced no concupiscence, yet supplied the material for the flesh. . . .[T]he Lord Jesus Christ, born from a virgin’s womb, does not have a nature different from ours just because His birth was an unusual one.

This remarkable work was read to the assembly at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, at which it was accepted unconditionally and enthusiastically, thereby reflecting both universal acceptance of this teaching.

Virginity Post Partum

In one sense, Mary’s virginity post partum (after birth) is the easiest aspect of Mary’s virginity to accept, inasmuch as her virginity ante partum and in partu required a miracle, whereas virginity post partum, while granting the first two aspects, merely means that Mary remained a virgin (and consequently had no more children) after the birth of Christ.

In another sense, virginity post partum can be the most difficult aspect to explain, inasmuch as (1) those who would reduce divine Revelation to Scripture alone cannot find evidence to support this contention in the New Testament, and (2) there are New Testament passages that seem to suggest that Mary was not in fact continent after Jesus’ birth. Without a proper understanding of the sources of Revelation, the first point cannot be overcome, because indeed it is true that a compelling case for Mary’s Perpetual Virginity cannot be made explicit by Scripture alone. However, for the confused Catholic and curious Protestant alike, it is important to demonstrate that this Church teaching is not in conflict with the inspired text, lest Mary’s Perpetual Virginity needlessly serve as a stumbling block for one who rightly venerates Sacred Scripture. In other words, it must be shown that a Church teaching firmly rooted in Tradition (i.e., the oral word of God) and proposed by the Magisterium does not—at minimum—contradict the witness of Scripture. If this cannot be done satisfactorily, the Catholic view of divine Revelation lacks plausibility.

Mary’s virginity post partum, while not explicitly taught in Scripture, is repeatedly taught by the Latin, Greek, and Syriac Fathers. Outstanding among the patristic sources is St. Jerome’s zealous treatise On the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary Against Helvidius (383), which not only affirms the teaching but specifically addresses the objections against Mary’s virginity post partum that are typically raised in Protestant circles even today.

The following statement comes from Pope St. Siricius (circa 392), in the course of approving the refutation of a certain Bonosus, who had asserted that Mary had other children:

We surely cannot deny that you were right in correcting the doctrine about children of Mary, and you were right in rejecting the idea that any other offspring should come from the same virginal womb from which Christ was born according to the flesh. . . . For if they accept the doctrine on the authority of priests that Mary had a number of children, then they will strive with greater effort to destroy the truths of the faith.

Perhaps the most persistent objection to Mary’s virginity post partum is the frequent scriptural references to Jesus’ “brothers” (e.g., Matthew 13:55, Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:20, John 2:12 and 7:3-5, Acts 1:14, Galatians 1:19 1 Corinthians 9:5). The most fundamental response is that the Greek word rendered “brother” in English (i.e., adelphos) can be used to designate not only a blood brother, but it also can be used to denote varying and even remote degrees of relationship. “Adelphos” (i.e., “brother”), standing alone, is thus inconclusive on the point. Further examination of the biblical texts alone reveals that at least some of these purported “brothers” were not the children of Mary. Indeed, nowhere in Scripture is the Blessed Virgin Mary ever explicitly identified as the earthly mother of anyone other than Jesus. There is additional argument that the “brothers” appear to be older than Jesus, and there is ample scriptural support for the proposition that Mary had no children before Jesus (e.g., Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:26-38 and 2:7).

Another objection is the reference to Christ as being a “firstborn” son. St. Jerome convincingly responds that every only child is a firstborn child, and he further explains that the Jewish practice was to offer sacrifice upon the birth of a “firstborn,” without the necessity of waiting for subsequent children to be born. Scripture scholars recognize that prototokos (“firstborn”) is only a legal status and only means no prior child, and it is sometimes the equivalent of monogenes (“only-born”).

Similar analysis can be used to dispel the inference drawn from Matthew 1:18, 25 that Joseph and Mary had relations after the birth of Jesus. (In these passages, reference is made to the time “before [Joseph and Mary] lived together” and to Joseph and Mary’s not having relations “until she bore a son.”) These passages merely assert that up to a definite point in time the marriage was not consummated, but does not speak to the issue of consummation after Jesus’ birth. St. Jerome cites many scriptural passages to support this thesis, including Isaiah 46:4; Matthew 28:20; 1 Corinthians 15:23-26; Psalms 122:2; Psalms 118:123; Genesis 35:4; Deuteronomy 34:5-6; Genesis 8:7; 2 Samuel 6:23.

The fourth major objection is based on an inability to reconcile post partum virginity with Mary and Joseph’s having a “true marriage.” Marriage involves unconditional self-donation that may be physically expressed, but not necessarily. One may possess a right without its exercise. Consent, not consummation, is “the indispensable element that ‘makes the marriage’” (Catechism, no. 1626). John Paul II makes it clear in his apostolic letter Guardian of the Redeemer (no. 7) that Joseph and Mary had a true marriage.


It is critical to understand Mary’s Perpetual Virginity in light of the mystery of Christ (Eph. 3:4, 11) and in light of the unfolding of God’s plan in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4-5). The special favors granted to the Mother of God—including permitting a creature’s voluntary participation in the “New Creation” to be, in a sense, necessary—are a mystery of God’s loving providence rather than the inevitable result of logical deductions concerning the data of divine Revelation. The meaning of the announcement of the angel Gabriel to Mary about the virginal conception (Lk. 1:35) is well-summarized by Cardinal Ratzinger:

Our gaze is led beyond the covenant with Israel to the creation: In the Old Testament the Spirit of God is the power of creation; He it was who hovered over the waters in the beginning and shaped chaos into cosmos (Gen. 1:2); when He is sent, living beings are created (Ps. 104[103]:30). So what is to happen here to Mary is a new creation: The God who called forth being out of nothing makes a new beginning amid humanity: His Word become flesh ( Introduction to Christianity, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990, 206).

Mary’s Perpetual Virginity, then, is not only an exhortation to imitate Mary’s charity, discipleship, fidelity, continence, etc. (cf. Lumen Gentium, nos. 63-64), but also highlights the uniqueness of the Incarnation, of God’s taking the initiative to recreate the human race through His Son, the New Adam, Who was really “born of the Virgin Mary.” We can no more deny the “physicality of Mary’s virginity any more than we can deny the physicality of Mary’s motherhood. Mary’s Perpetual Virginity points us unmistakably to the Christological mystery of the eternal Word’s becoming flesh in Mary’s womb, in the marriage (without commingling) of the human and the divine through God’s “marvelous condescension” (cf. Dei Verbum, no. 13).


Holy Bible

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Documents of Vatican II

Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God; Hahn, Scott, et al.

Catholic for a Reason II: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mother of God; Hahn, Scott, et al.

Queen Mother: A Biblical Theolgy of Mary’s Queenship; Sri, Edward

Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions; Suprenant and Gray

Courageous Love: A Bible Study on Holiness for Women; Mitch, Stacy

Mission of the Messiah: On the Gospel of Luke; Gray, Timothy

Servants of the Gospel; Suprenant, Leon, ed.

A Catholic Handbook for Engaged and Newly Married Couples; Marks, Frederick

To order, call Emmaus Road Publishing toll-free: (800) 398-5470.

Related Faith Facts

• Honor Thy Mother: Honoring Mary and the Saints is Biblically Correct • Mary, Mother of God: The First Marian Dogma • What’s a Mother To Do?: Mary’s Role in Our Salvation • Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary • Mary, Conceived Without Sin: The Dogma of the Immaculate Conception

© 2004 Catholics United for the Faith, Inc.

Date edited:

Papal Authority and Our Response

ISSUE: What is the origin and purpose of papal authority? What obedience is due the Pope by the People of God?

DISCUSSION: Papal authority has divine origin. The Lord made Simon alone, whom He named Peter, the “rock” of His Church. He gave him the keys of His Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock.

The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, “is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful” (Lumen Gentium [LG] 23). “For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ … and as pastor of the entire Church, has full, supreme and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (LG 22).

When the Pope speaks on matters concerning faith and morals, or even Church discipline, the faithful are bound by divine obligation to obey. As faithful Catholics, we must embrace his pronouncements with docility. Only in this way will our hearts be open to the truth found within.

Christ established the Church in such manner that her authority is part of her nature. He established her as “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) and gave her divine authority to preserve unity and truth (cf. Mt. 28:18-20).

Divine Origin of the Papacy

As Isaiah 43:1 points out, the act of naming claims the one named. This “claiming” includes the recognition of a particular purpose or mission. Scripture makes this evident in the passages about God’s naming of Abraham and Israel (Gen. 17:5, 32:29). When Nebuchadnezzar appointed Mattaniah as king of Judah, he changed Mattaniah’s name to Zedekiah as a sign that the new king’s authority came from the king of Babylon (2 Kings 24:17). In this same way, Jesus claims Peter and his successors to be the visible source of authority in His Church.

Our Lord said to Simon:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Mt. 16:18-19).

Until Jesus named Peter, Scripture only referred to God as “rock,” in the sense of an unfailing bulwark against the powers of evil. By making Peter the “rock” of His Church, Christ grants him divine authority over the Church on earth as His universal Vicar. He gives Peter divine power to fulfill his mission. The name “Rock” identifies Peter’s mission with the authority of Christ. The primary function of this authority is unity (cf. Lk. 22:31-32).

Because of Baptism, the Catholic faithful have a divine obligation to maintain unity with the Catholic Church. Profession of faith, ecclesiastical governance, and the sacraments constitute the visible bonds of unity between the Catholic faithful and the Church of Christ ruled by the Pope and bishops in union with him. As Christ conveyed to Peter and the first apostles, if any of these bonds of unity are lacking, unity with the Church is lacking: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk. 10:16).

By divine will, unity demands obedience to lawful authority in the Church. Because the Pope is the supreme authority in the Church and has the specific obligation to ensure unity of faith, obedience to him is an act of the will required of the Catholic faithful. Such obedience expresses the faith by which we are saved.

Expressions of Papal Authority

To understand papal authority, we must understand the authoritative nature of the deposit of faith. Jesus Christ is the fullness of all Revelation. He is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Word made flesh. Through Him, all have access to the Father through the Holy Spirit. Through His words and deeds, especially His death and Resurrection, He has entrusted the sum total of all truth to His bride, the Church. The fullness of Christ’s Revelation is the one deposit of faith. Because it is given by Christ, the deposit of faith is inerrant, unchangeable, and has application in every culture for all ages. Being the source of all divinely revealed truth, the one deposit of faith is the wellspring from which all doctrines and definitions of the faith flow. To summarize:

All that is contained in the written word of God or in tradition, that is, in the one deposit of faith entrusted to the Church and also proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church or by its ordinary and universal magisterium, must be believed with divine and catholic faith; it is manifested by the common adherence of the Christian faithful under the leadership of the sacred magisterium; therefore, all are bound to avoid any doctrines whatever which are contrary to these truths (canon 750).

To ensure unity of faith, the Magisterium of the Church has the task of interpreting the deposit of faith and applying it to specific times and circumstances. The Magisterium of the Church sometimes offers a solemn definition on a matter pertaining to faith or morals. These definitions provide absolute certainty that the teaching belongs to the deposit of faith. In other instances, the Magisterium identifies the truth found in the deposit of faith without providing a solemn definition. In these instances, though not solemnly defined, the teaching cannot be changed because it is true. These teachings are infallible.

If the Pope appeals to the deposit of faith, whether by pronouncement of the solemn or ordinary Magisterium, the teaching must be believed with divine and catholic faith. Additionally, the manner in which he speaks requires a certain docile acceptance by the Catholic faithful. The level of docility depends on the type of pronouncement and the manner in which it is given.

Solemn and Ordinary Magisterium

Pronouncements that demand full assent of divine and catholic faith require precise wording. These magisterial teachings fall into two categories: solemn and ordinary.

When, in exercise of the solemn Magisterium, the Pope speaks ex cathedra, the faithful are bound to accept the teaching with divine and catholic faith and must avoid any doctrines that are contrary to these truths. The exercise of the solemn Magisterium by the Pope occurs when he proclaims with a definitive act that a doctrine of faith or morals is infallible teaching. This infallibility derives from the authority Christ entrusted to His Church, and extends as far as the deposit of faith itself, as well as to doctrinal elements needed to preserve, expound, or observe this deposit and the precepts of the natural law (cf. 1 Tim 6:20; Catechism, nos. 2035-36, 2051).

Infallible character is not given to a document as a whole, but only to that portion which explicitly defines a doctrine of faith or morals. The wording of such definitions must reflect the intention to define infallibly. It must be precise and clear. An excellent example of this type of wording can be found in an apostolic constitution of Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus. This pronouncement defines the Assumption of Mary and states:

[B]y the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. Hence if anyone, which God forbid, should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined, let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith.[1]

More frequently, the Pope appeals to the deposit of faith by use of the ordinary Magisterium. This occurs when he definitively confirms a teaching as pertaining to the deposit of faith. Examples of such teachings include: male-only priesthood (Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis), the intrinsic evils of abortion and euthanasia (Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter, Evangelium Vitae), and the intrinsic evil of contraception (Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter, Humanae Vitae).

While these documents do not contain explicit definitions as noted above, their wording clearly appeals to the authority of the Pope to confirm what proceeds from the deposit of faith. As such, these teachings enjoy infallibility and demand the assent of divine and catholic faith.

An excellent example of this type of pronouncement is found in Humanae Vitae (HV). Pope Paul VI did not use definitive language appealing to the solemn Magisterium. He did appeal to the ordinary Magisterium and the pronouncement’s basis in the deposit of faith and the natural law:

It can be foreseen that this teaching will perhaps not be easily received by all…. [Y]et she does not because of this cease to proclaim with humble firmness the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical. Of such laws the Church was not the author, nor consequently can she be their arbiter; she is only their depositary and their interpreter, without ever being able to declare to be licit that which is not so by reason of its intimate and unchangeable opposition to the true good of man (HV 18).

Because these teachings have not been proposed or confirmed through a solemn definition, many mistakenly believe that such teachings can be revised. As Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, the secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, explains:

[T]he truth and irreformability of a doctrine depend on the depositum fidei [deposit of the faith], transmitted by the Scripture and Tradition, while infallibility refers only to the degree of certitude of an act of magisterial teaching…. In the light of these considerations, it seems a pseudo-problem to wonder whether this papal act of confirming a teaching of the ordinary, universal Magisterium is infallible or not. In fact, although it is not per se a dogmatic definition . . . a papal pronouncement of confirmation enjoys the same infallibility as the teaching of the ordinary, universal Magisterium, which includes the Pope not as a mere Bishop but as the Head of the Episcopal College.[2]

Authentic Magisterium

The authentic Magisterium represents the Pope’s authority to teach. The Pope exercises the authentic Magisterium whenever he teaches on faith and morals. Whether the document contains infallible statements or not, the document as a whole carries this authority. “[T]he faithful ‘are to adhere to it with religious assent’ which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it” (Catechism, no. 892, quoting LG 25). This level of obedience is further defined in canon 752 of the Code of Canon Law as “a religious respect of intellect and will…. [T]herefore the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid whatever is not in harmony with that teaching.”

The Pope commonly uses encyclicals to communicate such pronouncements. Humanae Vitae, for example, contains teachings of the ordinary Magisterium that require the assent of divine and catholic faith. However, the primary intent of the encyclical was not to define such teachings, for they had already been recognized by the Church. Rather, the intent was to lead the faithful in a better understanding of Revelation and apply the deposit of faith to the particular circumstances of our time. The faithful are obligated to embrace such teaching with religious assent of intellect and will and avoid whatever is not in harmony with the encyclical as a whole.

Constitutions and Decrees

Canon 754 of the Code of Canon Law identifies another level of obedience pertaining to constitutions and decrees issued to establish discipline and answer erroneous opinions. While not demanding a full assent of faith, these documents call for an assent of will that flows from faith, and the faithful are obliged to observe them. One example of this type of pronouncement would be the apostolic constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister, which sets forth the norms for beatification and canonization. Another example is the apostolic constitution Sacrae Disciplinae Leges, which was used to promulgate the Code of Canon Law for the Latin Church. As the means of promulgating the Code, this constitution binds the faithful to observe these laws and disciplines.

Obedience to Christ demands obedience to the Pope. There is no authority on earth who can legitimately amend decrees or judgments of the Pope. Other than God Himself, there is no authority above the Pope. Obedience to him must flow, not so much from an understanding of faith, but from faith itself, which guides and nourishes the will. Thus, whether dealing with infallible doctrine or a decree that concerns a Church discipline, obedience to the Pope exemplifies a unity of faith founded on the will of Christ.

The Papal Office

Pope John Paul II is the 264th pope in the history of Christendom. One of the earliest witnesses to the unbroken chain of papal succession is Saint Irenaeus (c. 140-c. 202), the second Bishop of Lyons, who wrote:

The blessed Apostles, having founded and built up the Church, they handed over the office of the episcopate [of Rome] to Linus. Paul makes mention of this Linus in the Epistle to Timothy. To him succeeded Anencletus – Clement – Evaristus – Alexander – Sixtus – Telesphorus – Hyginus – Pius – Anicetus – Soter – and now, in the twelfth place after the apostles, the lot of the episcopate has fallen to Eleutherus. In this order, and by the teaching of the Apostles handed down in the Church, the preaching of the truth has come to us.

—Against the Heresies, 3, 3, 3

Questions for Reflection and Group Discussion:

1. Do I believe in everything the Church teaches, or just those teachings I agree with or find easy to accept?

2. Everyone is tempted to doubt. Do I give in to this temptation? What can I do to strengthen my faith, especially during times of temptation?

3. The word “docile” literally means “teachable.” Do I have the virtue of docility? Do I accept the God-given authority of the Church and allow her to teach me?

Recommended Reading:

Holy Bible

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Documents of Vatican II

Code of Canon Law; Latin-English Edition

Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae

Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae

Pope John Paul II, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis

Précis of Official Catholic Teaching on the Church

Hahn and Suprenant, eds., Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God

Leon Suprenant and Philip Gray, Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions

Ted Sri, Mystery of the Kingdom: On the Gospel of Matthew

Leon Suprenant, ed., Servants of the Gospel

Most Rev. Thomas J. Tobin, Without a Doubt: Bringing Faith to Life

To order these and other titles, call Emmaus Road toll-free: (800) 398-5470.

AVAILABLE Faith Facts:

• Choose Life, That You and Your Children May Live: The Truth About Birth Control • Doctors of the Church • All Aboard!: Without the Church There Is No Salvation • Following Our Bishops • Gregory the Great and Papal Primacy • Indulgences • “On Earth As It Is In Heaven”: The Necessity of Law and Right Order • Defending Our Rites: Constructively Dealing With Liturgical Abuse • Going God’s Way: The Church’s Teaching on Moral Conscience • A Friend in Word and Deed: Pius XII and the Jews • Should I Obey?

© 2004 Catholics United for the Faith, Inc.

Last edited: 8/20/99


[1] Pope Pius XII, Apostolic Constitution Defining the Dogma of the Assumption Munificentissimus Deus (1950), nos. 44-45.

[2] Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, S.D.B., “Magisterial Documents and Public Dissent,” L’Osservatore Romano (English ed., January 25, 1997), 6-7, original emphasis. See also Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter To Protect the Faith Ad Tuendam Fidem (1998), which reiterates the faithful’s obligation to assent to the teachings of both the ordinary and solemn Magisterium of the Church with a “divine and Catholic faith.”

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Pius XII and the Jews

Issue: During and after World War II, and again upon his death in 1958, Pope Pius XII was praised by secular and Jewish leaders for his efforts against the Nazi-induced Holocaust. During the last threeand- a-half decades, however, many people, including some Catholics, have accused the Pope of “silence” and even criminal negligence, saying that he could have said and done much more to lessen the genocide that claimed six million Jews. Both before and after he became Pope, what was Pius XII’s record regarding the Jewish people and the Nazis? How and why did his policies continue and change after the onset of World War II?

Response: As a papal envoy to Germany from 1917-29, Vatican Secretary of State in the 1930s, and Pope during World War II, Pius XII established a clear record of supporting the Jewish people against the German National Socialist Workers’ Party, more commonly known as the Nazis. Because of a defamatory drama in the early 1960s, Pius XII’s wartime record has been unjustly tarnished. By their own testimony, the Nazis knew they had an enemy and Jewish leaders a faithful ally in Pius XII. To maximize Church efforts and minimize Nazi backlash, Pius XII modified his tactics during the war, but his pro-Jewish efforts continued unabated. As former Israeli diplomat and historian Pinchas Lapide says, the Jews saved by the Catholic Church under the Pope’s direction—an estimated 700,000 to 860,000—“exceed by far those saved by all other churches, religious institutions, and rescue organizations combined.”[1]

Discussion: When the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews issued its long-awaited document on the Holocaust earlier this year, the general response
was international criticism. The Vatican reaffirmed its longstanding condemnation of Nazism and the Holocaust; sought forgiveness for many Catholics, including bishops, who failed to speak out and intercede for the Jews in other ways; and lamented how, since the time of Constantine, Jews have been “isolated and discriminated against” in the Christian world.

All the News That’s Fit to Print?

The document’s defense of Pius XII irked and outraged many members of the media and Jewish leaders. The New York Times March 18, 1998 editorial was typical, announcing that “a full exploration of Pope Pius’ conduct is needed. . . . It now falls to [Pope] John Paul and his successors to take the next step toward full acceptance of the Vatican’s failure to stand squarely against the evil that swept across Europe.” The Times fails to note that the Vatican has already issued an enormous 11-volume work that addresses, in large part, the very subject of Pius XII’s wartime conduct.

The Times also fails to note that, for almost three decades, the Pope did indeed “stand squarely against” the evil of Nazism. For example, in his 1942 Christmas message, Pius XII denounced the growing Holocaust. He cried out for the “hundreds of thousands who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or progressive extinction.” In fact, in a 1937 encyclical against Nazism drafted for his papal predecessor Pius XI, the prospective pontiff warned against the potential of a Jewish genocide.

In an exercise of culpable journalistic amnesia, the Times further fails to recognize its own praise for the Pope’s Christmas messages in 1941 and 1942: “No Christmas sermon reaches a larger congregation than the message Pope Pius XII addresses to a war-torn world at this season,” the Times editorialized in 1942. “This Christmas more than ever he is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.”

Given the praise he received after the war and upon his death in 1958, particularly from many Jewish leaders, the continued campaign to distort and even defame Pius XII’s record would seem unthinkable. Mainly by providing false birth certificates, religious disguises, and safe-keeping in cloistered monasteries and convents, the Pope oversaw efforts that helped save hundreds of thousands of Jews from deportation to Nazi death camps. The Chief Rabbis of Jerusalem and Rome, the World Jewish Congress, and Jewish leaders from Hungary, Turkey, Romania, and the United States all praised Pius XII. Golda Meir, then Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, delivered a eulogy on behalf of the nation of Israel to the United Nations, stating:

“We share the grief of the world over the death of His Holiness Pius XII. During a generation of wars and dissensions, he affirmed the high ideals of peace and compassion. During the 10 years of Nazi terror, when our people went through the horrors of martyrdom, the Pope raised his voice to condemn the persecutors and to commiserate with their victims. The life of our time has been enriched by a voice which expressed the great moral truths above the tumults of daily conflicts. We grieve over the loss of a great defender of peace.”[2]

From Hero to “Criminal”: a Calumny Takes Shape

While acknowledging his many wartime efforts, some criticized the Pope for not denouncing the Nazis strongly enough during the war. These included prominent Jewish writer Dr. Leon Poliakov, who addressed the subject in The Jews Under Italian Occupation and elsewhere.

The criticism became calumny, though, with Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play The Deputy. To bolster his argument, the German playwright appended 46 pages of documentation, including citations from Poliakov and French Catholic writer Francois Mauriac. But Hochhuth distinguished himself with his defamatory thesis, summarized in the words of his main protagonist, the young Jesuit Riccardo Fontana: “A Vicar of Christ who sees these things before his eyes and still remains silent because of state policies, who delays even one day . . . such a pope is a criminal.”

Ironically, as a boy, Hochhuth was a member of the Hitler Youth and his father an officer in the German Army.

Examining the Pope’s Record

Pius XII’s work on behalf of the Jewish people predates World War II by more than two decades. As a papal envoy to Germany from 1917- 29 and as Vatican Secretary of State from 1930 to his papal election in 1939, then Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli distinguished himself as a faithful ally of the Jews. Pope Pius XI “had good reason to make Pacelli the architect of his anti-Nazi policy,” writes Lapide. “Of the 44 speeches which the Nuncio Pacelli had made on German soil between 1917 and 1929, at least 40 contained attacks on Nazism or condemnations of Hitler’s doctrines. . . . Pacelli, who never met the Führer, called it ‘neo- Paganism.’”[3] Many criticize the concordat that Secretary of State Pacelli helped negotiate with the Nazis in 1933, failing to recognize that the Church used the agreement as a means to promote the rights of all Germans, not just Catholics.

Besides Lapide, the late Dr. Joseph Lichten has been one of Pius XII’s leading defenders. Lichten was a Polish Jew and diplomat who later served as director of intercultural affairs for the influential Anti- Defamation League of B’Nai B’rith. Along with Lapide’s Three Popes and the Jews, Lichten’s monograph Pius XII and the Jews: A Question of Judgment remains required reading for anyone who wants a substantive counterpoint to Hochhuth’s and others’ distortions and defamations. Both authors ask why the Vatican is singled out, while the National Council of Churches, the International Red Cross, and others are left alone after having said and done much less. In contrast, writes Lichten, the future
Pope was not afraid to severely criticize the Nazis, as he did on April 28, 1935, in addressing 250,000 pilgrims at Lourdes, France:

“They [the Nazis] are in reality only miserable plagiarists who dress up old errors in new tinsel. It does not make any difference whether they flock to the banners of the social revolution, whether they are guided by a false conception of the world and of life, or whether they are possessed by the superstition of a race and blood cult.”[4]

In addition, Archbishop Pacelli oversaw the drafting of Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Anxiety), which was uncharacteristically published in German, not Latin. It was read in German churches throughout the country on Palm Sunday. Drawing on a Gospel parable about the “enemy” who sows weeds among the wheat, Archbishop Pacelli added a historical introduction to the document. The introduction condemned the Nazis and their collaborators as doing the devil’s work (cf. Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43) and warned of the Holocaust’s imminence:

“The experience of these last years have fixed responsibilities and laid bare intrigues,which from the outset only aimed at a war of extermination. In the furrows, where We tried to sow the seed of a sincere peace, other men—the “enemy” of Holy Scripture—oversowed the cockle of distrust, unrest, hatred, defamation, of a determined hostility overt or veiled,
fed from many sources and wielding many tools, against Christ and His Church. They, and they alone with their accomplices, silent or vociferous, are today responsible, should the storm of religious war, instead of the rainbow of peace, blacken the German sky.”[5]

Der Führer Is No Dupe: The Nazis Take Notice

As an apostate Catholic, the sober comparison to Satan was not lost on Hitler. The encyclical also called Catholic priests, religious, and laity to resist the Nazis’ evil.[6] Not surprisingly, the Berlin Morgenpost did not celebrate the new Pope in March 1939: “The election of Cardinal Pacelli is not accepted with favor in Germany because he was always opposed to Nazism and practically determined the policies of the Vatican under his predecessor.[7]

“The new Vicar of Christ showed no softening after his election toward Hitler’s brutal policies,” adds Lichten. His 1942 Christmas message provoked a Nazi counterpoint to The New York Times’ analysis: “In a manner never known before,” conveys a Gestapo report, “the Pope does not refer to the National Socialists in Germany by name, but his speech is one long attack on everything we stand for. . . . Here he is clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews.” Six months later, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, expressed his own dismay: “Again and again reports reached us that the Pope is feverishly at work during this entire crisis.”

It is a grave error to suggest that Pius XII believed that “the Nazi regime was as an indispensable bulwark against the advance of atheistic communism,” or that, “to the leaders of the Church, Hitler was clearly preferable to Stalin.”[8] The Nazis knew they had a formidable enemy in the Church and so did the world. The Church prudently informed the world regarding the war’s gravity without jeopardizing her own rescue efforts in the process. In 1942, an experience of the Dutch bishops affirmed this approach. Following the bishops’ strong denunciations of Jewish deportations, the Nazis retaliated on the
Jewish Catholic population of Holland, sending many converts to their death, including Edith Stein. The Pope promptly burned a related four-page protest he had written for the Vatican newspaper.

That another, more strongly worded encyclical on racism would have helped, as some suggest, is naive.[9] Pius XII was not working with his own flock gone astray, he was dealing with a nefarious demagogue and the Third Reich’s bloodthirsty associates:

“Would these neo-heathens, who shamelessly disregarded the divine law and the basic commands of Jesus, have listened to any appeal from Rome? And would Pius have been able to defy Hitler, with absolutely no power—and at the same time have been able to go on saving Jews? . . . Whoever is of the opinion that the situation could not have gotten any worse, should remember that after all far more than two million Jews—more than one quarter of the European Jews—did indeed survive Hitler’s butchery, even if just barely—thanks to the help of the Church, bishops, priests, laymen. . . .”[10]

The Allies are also more deserving of criticism, adds Lichten, writing in 1987: “Only recently was the ‘terrible secret’ of Western complacency revealed. Only in the past few years have people begun to ask why Auschwitz was not bombed.”[11]

Understanding Those Who Defame the Church

Hochhuth’s calumny lives on in writers like James Carroll, a former Catholic priest who wrote against Pius XII and the Church in the April 1997 New Yorker. Like many others, Carroll is annoyed that the Church, despite her imperfect leaders and lay members, has the audacity to claim that she speaks infallibly for God on faith and morals. Carroll implies that any wrongdoing by her members necessarily disqualifies the Church as a moral
authority. Such a view fails to recognize the divine origin and sustenance of the Church. For example, just as David’s adultery couldn’t abrogate God’s covenant with Israel, so sinful Catholics can’t nullify Christ’s guarantee to preserve the Church (cf. Mt. 16:18; 28:18- 20).

Deep down, the critics seem to understand this reality. They despise the Church, yet doggedly seek her approval or apology. If they can get the Church to discredit herself or approve their behavior, they apparently think they will somehow be set free. For Hochhuth, it could be his own family’s guilt regarding the Holocaust from which he seeks liberation. For Carroll, he desires a repeal of the Sixth and Ninth Commandment proscriptions regarding “abortion, contraception, divorce, homosexuality, celibacy, women priests.” In any event, their need for validation from the Vatican indirectly substantiates the Church’s divine pedigree. No other institution in the world commands such attention.

But for those of goodwill— including most Jews—the pervasive defamation of Pius XII only serves as a stumbling block to their taking the Church and her divine claims seriously. In any case, may any attention focused on the Vicar of Christ ultimately lead all to Christ Himself, the God-man who alone can set us free, now and forever (cf. Jn. 8:32; 14:6).

Editorial Flip-Flop: The New York Times They Are a Changin’

Christmas Day, 1942: No Christmas sermon reaches a larger congregation than the message Pope Pius XII addresses to a war-torn world at this season. This Christmas more than ever he is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent. The Pulpit whence he speaks is more than ever like the Rock on which the Church was founded, a tiny island lashed and surrounded by a sea of war. . . . [W]hen he assails violent occupation of territory, the exile and persecution of human beings for no reason other than race or political opinion . . . the “impartial judgment” is like a verdict in a high court of justice.

March 18, 1998: The [C]hurch’s attitude toward the Jews began to change three and a half decades ago under Pope John XXIII. . . . [Pope] John Paul, however, has resisted a critical look at the Catholic response to the Holocaust and has defended the silence of Pope Pius XII during the Third Reich. . . . The document does not even mention Pope Pius’ failure to speak out against Nazi atrocities. . . . A full exploration of Pope Pius’ conduct is needed. He did not encourage Catholics to defy Nazi orders.


[1] Pinchas Lapide, Three Popes and the Jews (New York: Hawthorn, 1967), 215.

[2] Dr. Joseph Lichten, Pius XII and the Holocaust: A Question of Judgment (Washington, DC: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1963); as reprinted in Pius XII and the Holocaust: A Reader (New York: The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, 1988), 129.

[3]Lapide, 118.

[4] Lichten, 106-07.

[5] Pope Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge (1937), no. 4; emphasis added.

[6] Ibid., nos. 32-43.

[7] Lichten, 107; emphasis added.

[8] Dr. Marc Saperstein, “A Medieval and a Modern Pope”; The Washington Post, April 1, 1998. To his credit, though, Dr. Saperstein recognizes that “the fundamental responsibility for the Holocaust lies with its Nazi perpetrators,” not the Church or her teachings.

[9] See Georges Passelecq and Bernard Suchecky, The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997). The authors repeat the charges that the Vatican did not do enough to fight Nazism and the Holocaust before or during the war. They ignore the fact that in October 1939 the Pope issued an encyclical (Summi Pontificatus) reaffirming the basic anti-racism, pro-Jewish message of Mit Brennender Sorge: “There is neither Jew nor Greek nor Gentile . . . all are one” (cf. Gal. 3:28). But the war’s escalation and Nazi retaliations prompted subtler, yet still unmistakable criticism of the Third Reich.

[10] Lapide, Die Welt (The World), July 16, 1966; as reprinted in Fr. Lothar Groppe, S.J., “The Church and the Jews in the Third Reich,” Fidelity, November 1983.

[11] Lichten, 35.

Recommended Reading

Pius XII and the Holocaust: A Reader; Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; call (212) 371-3191.

Three Popes and the Jews; Pinchas E. Lapide (for availability, call Loome’s Theological Booksellers at (612) 430-1092).

The Pope and the Holocaust, Fr. John S. Rader and Kateryna Fedoryka, Family Apostolate, 1994 (send $7.50 + $2.50 s/h to: Family Apostolate, P.O. Box 55, Redfield, SD 57469).

“Speech to Symposium on the Roots of Anti-Judaism,” Origins, Nov. 13, 1997, vol. 27.

“Reflections: The Vatican Statement on the ‘Shoah’”; Cardinal Edward Cassidy, President of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews; Origins, May 28, 1998 (Vol. 28, no. 2), 28-32.

“We Remember: A Reflection on the ‘Shoah’”; Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews; Origins, March 26, 1998 (Vol. 27, no. 40), 669 et seq.

For Origins articles call (202) 541-3290.

“In Defense of Pius XII”; Kenneth L. Woodward; Newsweek; March 30, 1998; p. 35.

“The Silence of Pius XII: A Re-Examination”; Inside the Vatican, June 1997; call (800) 651-1531.

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ISSUE: What does the Church teach concerning purgatory? What is its biblical basis? What are common misconceptions to the doctrine and how can they be refuted?

RESPONSE: Purgatory is a doctrine of the Catholic Church. It refers to the state of being after death in which people do penance for sins not atoned for on earth. It’s biblical basis is found in both the Old and New Testaments. Just as the doctrine of purgatory flows from the Catholic understanding of grace, so misconceptions flow from a misunderstanding of grace. Errors concerning this doctrine are most prevalent among Protestants due to their teaching of sola fide.[1]

DISCUSSION: Pope Innocent IV (1243-1254) provided a synthesis of the doctrine of purgatory and declared its name for the Universal Church. He wrote to the Bishop of Tusculum stating:

Finally, in the Gospel the Truth declares that whoever speaks blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this world or in the world to come (see Matthew 12:32). By this it is to be understood that certain faults are pardoned in this life, and certain others in the life to come, and the Apostle says that “the fire will assay the quality of everyone’s work,” and “if his work burns he will lose his regard, but himself will be
saved, yet so as through fire” (I Cor. 3:13, 15). And it is said that the Greeks themselves unhesitatingly believe and maintain that the souls of those who do not perform a penance which they have received, or the souls of those who die free from mortal sins but with even the slightest venial sins, are purified after death and can be helped by the prayers of the Church. Since the Greeks say that their Doctors have not given them a definite and proper name for the place of such purification, We, following the tradition and authority of the holy Fathers, call that place purgatory; and it is Our will that the Greeks use that name in the future. For sins are truly purified by that temporal fire—not grievous or capital sins which have not first been remitted by penance, but small and slight sins which remain a burden after death, if they have not been pardoned during life.[2]

The Second Council of Lyons (1274), the Council of Vienna (1311-1312), the Council of Florence (1438-1445) and the Council of Trent (1545-1563) affirm this definition of doctrine.

When we sin, there are both eternal and temporal consequences. Through the ministry of forgiveness, the eternal consequences of sin—namely, hell—are remitted simultaneously with the guilt of sin. Temporal consequences remain, requiring one to atone for or repair the sins we have committed. When a man dies without having atoned for these sins, he requires purification before entering heaven (Rev. 21:27). This purification takes place in purgatory.[3]

Though the word “purgatory” is not found in the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments provide textual support of the doctrine. Matthew 12:32 offers a strong point on which to begin. “And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” This age obviously refers to our time on earth now. The age to come refers to a time after death. It cannot refer to hell because hell is an eternal state and no sins are forgiven there. It cannot refer to heaven, because when we enter heaven we will already be cleansed of all sin.[4] There is an implied temporal, third state after death where sins may be forgiven. In the “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus teaches that those who do not live according to the New Law in this life, even by being unduly angry, will be liable to judgment and imprisonment in the next. But in saying this, Jesus also implies that this punishment is not necessarily eternal: “Truly I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny” (Mt. 5:21-26).

Both St. Peter and St. Paul write about a cleansing fire which tests a man and his works (1 Cor. 3:10-16; 1 Pet. 1:7). In 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, the gold refers to righteous works which will be purified and remain while the straw (sin and sin’s consequences) will be burned away. “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15). This test man will undergo cannot be hell since it also states that the man who builds on the foundation of Christ will be saved. It cannot be heaven since there is no suffering in heaven (cf. Rev. 21:4). St. Paul teaches us that “God is a consuming fire” and that through Him we are purified.[5] As noted in the Catechism, the Catholic Church teaches that those who have not been completely purged of sin and its consequences here on earth can be purged of sin and its consequences after death.[6]

The tradition of praying for the dead is not practiced solely by Catholics. Jews offered such prayers since before Christ. As recorded in 2 Mac. 12:45[7], “[I]t was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” They still offer prayers for the dead for one year after their death and on the anniversaries of their death. This prayer is known as the “kaddish.”[8] The early Christians, including those living at the time of St. Paul, already had a well developed tradition of praying for the dead.

Two common misconceptions exist concerning the Church’s doctrine of purgatory. The first has root in the Protestant concept of faith and works. Proponents allege that Catholics made up the idea of purgatory. Those holding this view believe no biblical basis exists for the teaching. They contend that the existence of purgatory would contradict the work of Christ; His suffering and death in atonement for our sins. They believe once we accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior, nothing can keep us from heaven. Therefore, a belief in purgatory is superfluous. The second misconception is held by some who believe in Purgatory and focuses on our call to holiness. Believing sainthood is only for really holy people like Mother Theresa, these people believe it sufficient to make purgatory our goal in this life.

Regarding the first misconception, Protestants often claim that purgatory was fabricated by Catholics. However, they do not agree as to when this fabrication actually occurred. Protestants have claimed that the Council of Trent, the Council of Lyons, and the Council of Nicea were individually responsible for making up purgatory. As noted above, there is a wealth of reference in Scripture supporting the existence of purgatory.

Many Protestants also claim that purgatory contradicts the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Since through Christ the demands of justice were totally fulfilled, they argue that purgatory would render Christ’s death incomplete. This assumes a contradiction between redemption and our own suffering in reparation for our sins. In reality, as the teachings on grace and free will affirm, there is no contradiction. Christ did accomplish all of our salvation for us through His death on the cross. However, He did not preclude us from taking part in our own salvation through personal sufferings while here on earth, or in purgatory.[9] God has chosen the best way for us to get to heaven and that is to participate with His Son in our own salvation. He does this, in part, by allowing us to carry personal crosses, by allowing us to suffer.[10] He created purgatory as the last stage of sanctification to help us complete our journey to heaven.

An analogy we can use is that of the sick man and the charitable rich man. There was a man who lived a meager life, eking out a living collecting cans. One night he fainted and was found laying unconscious along the side of the road. A rich doctor found him. The doctor could tell that the poor man was in need of a heart transplant but he also knew that even if the poor man collected hundreds of trash bags of cans, he would never be able to make enough money to save his own life and pay for the transplant. The doctor took pity on the man and carried him to the hospital. He then paid for the operation out of his own pocket. To stop the story there would make it incomplete. For this story to have a happy ending, the poor man must still undergo the operation and receive a new heart.

Just as the poor man had to have his chest cut open and his bad heart removed and replaced by the charitable doctor, so we too must be healed and made holy by God. To say that the generous man’s gift—comparable to Christ’s objective redemption 2000 years ago—means the poor man need not have the lifesaving operation—comparable to our subjective redemption here and now—is silly. Yet that is the reality at the heart of the claim that Catholics don’t think Christ’s suffering and death was sufficient for us. Christ’s gift was complete. He paid the full price for our sins. However, we must still undergo the operation or application of the payment: the sanctification, the purification for our sinfulness.

Some also argue that in light of Christ’s death we do not have to make reparation for our sins. The Bible tells us otherwise. 2 Samuel relates a conversation between the prophet Nathan and King David after David had committed grave sins against God. “The Lord also had put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die” (12:13-14). David, though he repented of his sin and was forgiven by God still had to make reparation for his sins. The reparation, in this case, took the form of the death of David’s son by Bathsheba.

We know that God is the most perfect Father. How, then, could He be irresponsible in matters regarding our discipline and formation? No earthly father would pay off his neighbors so his children could run wild through the neighborhood, breaking into homes, stealing cars, and scandalizing people without concern for their actions. One of the ways God cares for us is by giving us free will and then making us responsible for our actions. The responsibility includes making reparation to our neighbors and to God for the homes we break into, the cars we steal, and the people we scandalize. If God did not require reparation of us we would become like children of a lax parent, wild and wanton and selfish. Having to bear some of the burden of our own sinfulness makes us into responsible Christians. Purgatory exists for that very purpose. It has been given to us by God so that we may participate actively in our own salvation and enter into heaven as pure and clean as God intended when He created Adam.

Fundamentalist Christians would have us believe that once we accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior, neither good works nor sins can affect our salvation. They believe that, upon death, all who have been born again are covered in the mercy of God and allowed into heaven no matter the quality or quantity of their sinfulness. C.S. Lewis refuted this argument in his book, Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer:

Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know.’ ‘Even so, sir.’

Why must this be? Paul says “[f]or now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then (after death) face to face.”[11] After death, the truth of the state of our souls will be radiantly clear to us. We will see ourselves and those around us as God sees us. If we are not really clean, but remain in wretchedness with souls not purified but merely covered, how can heaven be everything God promised? It simply cannot.

Regarding the second misconception, there are two reasons why purgatory should not be our goal in spiritual life. First, the suffering and purification we go through while we are alive are meritorious. The pain and suffering we go through in purgatory are not. While alive, if we cooperate with God’s plan for us and “offer up” the pain we experience, we merit grace not only for ourselves but for the Church, both living and suffering in purgatory. After death,
our suffering in purgatory can only be applied to ourselves. It would behoove us to follow the example of the saints and offer up our prayers and sacrifices to ease the pain and suffering of those who must go through the sanctifying fires of purgatory. Most important, as the Church teaches and Scripture affirms, God created us for Himself. He desires to share heaven’s glory with us. In His will, our goal must be God.

Recommended Reading:

Holy Bible

Catechism of the Catholic Church

Documents of Vatican II

Faith Facts: Answers to Catholic Questions; Suprenant and Gray

Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God; Hahn, Scott, et al.

Courageous Love: A Bible Study on Holiness for Women; Mitch, Stacy

Mission of the Messiah: On the Gospel of Luke; Gray, Timothy

Servants of the Gospel; Suprenant, Leon, ed.

A Catholic Handbook for Engaged and Newly Married Couples; Marks, Frederick

To order, call Emmaus Road Publishing toll-free: (800) 398-5470.

Available Faith Facts:

  • Indulgences
  • Sola Scriptura: Not According to the Bible
  • All in the Family: The Communion of Saints
  • It “Works” for Me: The Church’s Teaching on Justification
  • Hell: The Self-Exclusion from God
  • Where Do We Go From Here: The Concept of Limbo
  • “Who Art In Heaven”: The Dwelling Place of God

© 1998 Catholics United for the Faith, Inc.

Last edited: 7/98


[1] Understanding the teachings of the Catholic Church on grace, the Communion of Saints, indulgences and the reality of mortal sin allow for a greater understanding of purgatory. See CUF’s Faith Facts on these topics.

[2] Pope Innocent IV, Letter to the Bishop of Tusculum, translation found in: The Church Teaches, translations by Rev. John F. Clarkson, S.J., et al., Tan Books and Publishers, 1973, 347-348.

[3] Catechism, no. 1030, 1031.

[4] Rev. 21:27.

[5] See also Mal. 3:2, where the Lord is compared to refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap (both cleansing agents). “Purgation” literally means “cleansing,” and purgatory is a state in which Christ’s merits are applied to men to make them fit for heaven.

[6] Cf. Catechism, nos. 1030-1032. The only sins which are forgiven in purgatory are venial sins.

[7] Though Protestants do not accept Maccabees as part of their canon of scripture, they certainly do not dispute its place as an historical account; that it is a factual record of Jewish practice and belief.

[8] Jews have historically believed, and many still believe, that the souls of the faithful departed undergo a period of purification which may be aided by the prayers and charity of the living. The Kaddish Foundation is a modern example of this ancient belief in action.

[9] Rom. 5:3-5

[10] Col. 1:24

[11] 1 Cor. 13:12

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