Some Fundamental Principles of Catholic Theology

The Gratuitous Nature of the Redemption

One student of mine recently asked me: "If God the Son joined Himself to a human nature and offerred the sacrifice of reparation on our behalf, why is it that it goes unacknowledged by most people? She could not understand how it could possibly be true that so important a Person as the Person of the Son could enter into the darkness of this world, suffer and die for us without an acknowledgment equal to the nature of the deed. Most people go on their merry way as beneficiaries of a redemption that they are probably not even aware of. And how many of us who are so aware acknowledge it or appreciate it enough?

Her insight underscores the utter generosity of the deed. Our redemption is sheer gift, and it does not depend upon our acknowledgment of it. We have been reconciled to God whether we are aware of it or not, and so many graces proceed from that redemption that make our lives so much richer in meaning, and these graces are communicated to us without our having earned them and often without our being explicitly aware of them: "From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace" (Jn 1, 16).

But Christian conversion is precisely the recognition of that redemption and an opening of the heart to a new birth. One is no longer divided, but given over to the kingdom, despite the fact that one's love is still relatively impure. The difference is that he does not settle for such imperfection and division, but spends the rest of his life trying to achieve a completely undivided love: "Blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God" (Mt 5, 8). It is possible to speak of a relatively unconverted Catholic, one whose heart is divided, who has not turned his eye to the heavenly city, but who has not entirely rejected it either. Such a precarious situation will not last too long, though, because man is a creature of habit. But such lives can be compared to the child who takes his parents for granted and is focused almost exclusively on the gifts he receives from them. Hopefully he will come to realize that his parents are themselves the gift. And if, after they have died, he keeps anything that they at one time had given him, he does so not for the sake of the thing itself, but rather because it came from them. He has learned to love the person over the gift. But it is not inevitable that he will do so. Some people never learn to love God over his gifts, and such people will never be as happy as they can be. And some, like the child spoiled rotten with avarice, will choose never to acknowledge the giver of all that they've been given. And God loves these latter so much that He will indeed allow them to reject Him for all eternity.

But the more we turn our gaze upon the Word made flesh, the more we succeed in becoming the persons we are intended to be. This is because all things came to be through the Word, including ourselves. The Word is our origin and end. We discover who we are in our origin and in our end, that is, in the Word who spoke us into existence.

Matter, the Sacraments, and the Spiritual Life

Divine grace, as we said earlier, is a participation in the divine life. The human person is not born in a state of grace. In other words, grace is not natural to human beings, but is rather a supernatural quality (habit or disposition) infused by God. God is present to everything naturally as first existential cause of a thing's act of being, but he is not present to everything supernaturally, that is, through the habit of grace. Grace is God's self-communication, a self-communication that is over and above His natural presence. If this was not the case, it would be impossible to speak of the sacred. For the word "sacred" means "set apart". As an example, consider that if God is no more present in the tabernacle than He is in a garbage can, then a chapel is not a sacred place.

We are made holy through this supra-natural presence, and it is this divine favor that Christ came to restore. This favor is ours in Him, to the degree that we share in his perfect act of religion (the sacrifice of the cross): "Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me" (Mk 8, 34). In a sense, this is what is meant by the kingdom of God: the redemptive presence of God, through the power of his reconciling Spirit. The world now belongs to Christ, eternal life is ours for the asking, and it is in Him that we have the forgiveness of sins. We will taste death, but if we die in Him, we will also live with Him: "If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him" (Rm 6, 8). We still suffer from a dulling of the intellect, but the more we grow in grace, the more we share in the personal gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially wisdom, knowledge and understanding. And we still suffer from an inclination to sin, but we have all that we need to rise above this tendency, namely divine grace: "God is faithful and will not let you be tempted beyond your strength; but with the temptation he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it" (1 Cor 10, 13).

But man is a unity of spirit and matter. In other words, he is a psychosomatic unity. Matter plays a very important role in every aspect of our lives, and this includes the spiritual life. Material substances are existing natures which we come to understand not directly, but through sense observation. More specifically, we understand the nature of things gradually as we observe their activity. This is in accordance with the psychosomatic nature of the human person. That is why the spiritual life, if it is to accord with the nature of the human person, must also be intimately bound up with matter. This is another way of implying that the spiritual life is sacramental. For the Catholic, grace is normally communicated sacramentally, through the instrumentality of matter, that is, through matter that is both visible and tangible, such as water, oil, or bread and wine.

Baptism and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

The sacraments are the activity of Christ's Mystical Body, the Church. More specifically, sacraments are channels of grace. Each sacrament is a unity of sign (matter) and word (form). For example, the matter of the sacrament of baptism is water; for water is a natural sign of purity, cleansing, and new life. What makes baptism to be "what it is" is the form or words: "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." Water is the most fitting sign for baptism because water is a natural sign of life; for life depends upon water. It is also an apt sign of death in that water is the most perful force in nature -- too much water kills. Baptism is both a death and a resurrection to new life. Through the waters of baptism, a person dies to the old adam and becomes a new creation: "Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with Him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life" (Rm 6, 3-4).

This does not mean that grace cannot be communicated outside of baptism. But the graces of baptism effect a radical conversion or regeneration in the human person. One receives a spirit of adoption, and one thereby becomes a new creation: "So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: theold thing have passed away; behold, new things have come" (2 Cor 5, 17). The baptized is cleansed from Original Sin.

Baptism also infuses the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. These are not natural virtues that one can cultivate on one's own efforts. Faith is pure gift, and there is nothing we can do to earn or acquire it. And it is the greatest gift that a human person can receive; for there is nothing else by which a person may enter the fullness of heaven. And although a person cannot not give to himself faith, he alone is the cause of his own loss of faith. There is no tragedy greater than that of a person who was given the gift of faith as sheer gift, but who lost it through his own indifference. That is why faith must be nourished through prayer, the sacramental life, and study.

Baptism also confers the seven personal gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, piety, fortitude and fear of God. These too are not natural gifts -- although they do have their natural counterparts. For example, Aristotle was profoundly wise, but he did not have the wisdom that is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is profund insight into the things of God. One need not have a university education to receive a sharing in this gift. In fact, this gift is an effect of the theological virtue of charity -- loving God under the aspect of personal friendship. Love begets knowledge, for the more we love a person, the more we desire to know them, and friends have a more intimate knowledge of one another than do others who do not enjoy such friendship. St. Therese of Lisieux, who entered the convent of Lisieux at 15 and died when she was only 24 years of age, had a very profound sharing in the gift of wisdom. To read her letters that she wrote in her early 20s, one gets the impression that the author had spent a good sixty years on the road of the spiritual life.

The gift of knowledge enables a person to see the hand of divine providence in every day occurences. Where before a person would regard an occurence as a mere coincidence, faith opens up a whole new perspective on life. One readily sees that God is intimately involved in our every day lives, providentially ordering things for the best: "We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose" (Rm 8, 28). Mother Teresa of Calcutta had a rather profound sharing in this gift, for in her writings she very often calls attention to the hand of providence in her day to day life and the lives of her sisters.

Understanding is the gift by which we are given an understanding of the mysteries of our faith. This does not necessarily imply that the person will be able to explain the mysteries, but there exists a certain grasp and recognition of the truth of these mysteries, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, etc.,. For example, sometimes a person who has never taken a theology course in his/her life will sense that there is something wrong with the homily that is being delivered. They may not know what exactly, but they know that something is amiss. This is the gift of understanding at work.

Counsel is that gift whereby a person is given the ability to discern that course of action most in accordance with God's will. Of course, no one has a perfect sharing in this gift, but as one grows spiritually, as one grows in the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, one grows in the gifts, especially counsel. St. Catherine of Siena was said to have had a strong gift of counsel and was often consulted by Popes in the fourtheenth century. She too had an astounding gift of wisdom, for she only lived for thirty three years, but to read The Dialogue, which she wrote when she was 31, one inevitably has the impression that the author is well advanced in years.

Piety in the natural order is that virtue whereby we render due honor to our parents and country. In the order of grace, the gift of piety is that by which we render due honor to the Church, Christ's Mystical Body, and to Mary, the Blessed Mother who is, by virtue of our incorporation into Christ's Mystical Body, our mother; for Jesus received his body from his mother. If we are one body in Him, she too becomes our mother. And the fourth commandment is to honor one's father and mother. In imitation of Christ, we have a duty to honor Mary. Piety also includes devotion to the communion of saints, who are our older siblings that have gone before us, but who are still in communion with us. They can intercede for us and will do so if we ask them. We can come to know these saints while we are here through devotion to them, and by studying their lives.

Fortitude also has its natural counterpart. It is the virtue that moderates the emotions of fear and daring so that we may achieve the ends required by justice, ends that are often difficult to achieve and give rise to fear. But supernatural ends proposed by faith are even more difficult to achieve. In fact, they are simply impossible to achieve without the theological virtues. The martyrs of the Church all had the gift of fortitude. Consider St. Thomas More, who had a wife and four children, an estate in Chelsea, and a solid political career. He refused to take the oath of succession that declared King Henry VIII the head of the Church of England, because as a Catholic he believed that the head of the visible Church was the successor of Peter (Pope), and nota king. He was committed to the tower of London for two years for not taking the oath of succession, with the annotation that he acted ungratefully and unkindly to the King, his benefactor. It was More's understanding that if he was to be found guilty of treason, he would be hanged drawn and quartered. This means he would be hanged in the normal way, but cut down while still conscious. The genitals would then be cut off and the stomach slit open. The intestines would then be removed and burned before him. The other organs would then be torn out and finally the head would be cut off, and the body divided into four quarters. The King had mercy at the last minute and commuted the sentence to beheading. But in the 16th century, 105 Catholic martyrs were hanged drawn and quartered at Tyburn in London for refusing to recognise the official religion of the day. If More had chosen, for the sake of his family, to take the oath of succession and declare Henry the head of the Church of England, he would have been immediately restored to his former political and social status. But integrity of conscience was of greater value than any temporal advantage. More could not have remained faithful to his conscience without the supernatural gift of fortitude.

In the 17th century, here in Canada, St. Jean de Brebeuf knew that he would likely die a horrible death at the hands of the Iroquois, but he committed his life to proclaiming the good news of the resurrection nonetheless. When captured, his eyes were gouged out and red hot coals were put in their place, his lips and nose were cut off, chunks of his thigh were cut off, fried and eaten, he was scalped and then "baptized" with boiling water in mockery of the sacrament, he was forced to wear a necklace of red hot hatchets, and finally his feet were cut off. The Indians were so impressed with his fortitude (for he suffered "like a rock") that they cut out his heart, drank the blood while it was still warm, and ate his heart, believing that by doing so they would receive his spirit of courage.

What was it that enabled the martyrs to willingly give their lives and endure the most horrible torments? They knew something that most of us do not. They had a faith that was so real, a hope that was so alive, and a love so strong that it would willingly endure unspeakable suffering for the honor and glory of God. These are just two illustrations of the gift of fortitude.

Finally, the fear of God, which Scrpiture says is the beginning of wisdom. The gift of fear is divided into servile and filial. It is through servile fear that one chooses to avoid sin merely out of fear of punishment, in particular eternal punishment. I have taught some young people in the past who have had absoluely no fear of God, servile or otherwise. Despite its imperfection, servile fear would have done these kids a great deal of good. Those pastors who refuse to preach on the real possibility of hell do the Church a great disservice. It is a mistake to assume that most people are beyond the level of servile fear. Very few ever grow beyond this level, and refusing to call attention to the existence of hell does not and will not take anyone beyond servile fear to a higher fear, rooted in genuine love. Ironically, this neglect does the reverse. Perhaps that is why Christ so often spoke of hell (Cf. Mt 5, 22; Mt 5, 30; Mt 7, 13; Mt 7, 19; Mt 7, 21-23; Mt 10, 39; Mt 11, 23-24; Mt 12, 37; Mt 13, 30; Mt 13, 40-43; Mt 13, 49-50; Mt 21, 40-41; Mt 22, 13-14; Mt 23, 15; Mt 23, 33; Mt 24, 50-51; Mt 25, 11-12; Mt 25, 30; Mt 25, 31-46).

Filial fear avoids sin not primarily out of fear of punishment, but out of a fear of offending God. Such a person has so genuine a love for God that the throught of offending the divine love is more painful than the pain that might be involved in avoiding a sinful action. The more one grows in supernatural charity, the more one's fear becomes reverence.


In the sacrament of Confirmation, a person is sealed with the Holy Spirit. The matter of this sacrament is oil; for in the Old Testament oil was a sign of blessing (wealth), strength (Christ exhorted us to rub oil on our face when fasting in order to appear strong, rather than weak through fasting), and a sign of joy. Kings would be anointed with oil, and the very word "Christos" (Messiah) means "anointed one". All the personal gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as the virtues of faith, hope, and charity are strengthened in the Sacrament of Confirmation. We are given a more profound sharing in the threefold identity of Christ, for we are anointed priest, prophet, and king. The oil of Confirmation is chrism oil, and it contains some aromatic substance that is blessed by the bishop on Holy Thursday. This aromatic substance quickly spreads its fragrance, symbolizing the way goodness and holiness "spreads" and influences others.

Confirmation imparts the grace to fulfill certain obligations that stem from this new state of life established by this sacrament. A confirmed teenager has a tremendous responsibility. He or she is anointed priest (not to be confused with the ministerial priesthood), and a priest is one who offers sacrifice. The confirmed teenager is called to offer his life in sacrifice, to live no longer for himself, but for Christ and his kingdom. He or she is anointed prophet, and so he is called to proclaim the good news of eternal life first and foremost through the witness of his/her life. By living for truth, he/she is witnessing to the truth. And finally, he/she is anointed king. A king is one who governs and one who serves. The grace of Confirmation enables us to more readily order the various elements of the self, such as the complex network of human emotions, in accordance with the demands of reason in order to more readily serve the ends of justice.


Love desires to give itself. We see this especially in the love between husband and wife who give themselves to one another bodily. That is why Christ offers us his entire self (body, blood, soul and divinity) in the Eucharist.

But a person who will not eat will soon die. The same law applies in the spiritual realm. A person who cuts himself off from the Eucharist is one who will eventually die spiritually, and one who feeds on the Eucharist periodically will suffer from a kind of spiritual malnutrition.

A friend of mine was studying theology in Nebraska one summer when he was approached by a former Satanist. She made the comment that Catholics are largely unaware of the tremendous power that is available in the Eucharist. She informed him that a true Satanist can tell the difference between a consecrated host and one that is not consecrated (one that is merely a wafer of bread). For the Eucharist is literally Christ's body. I am always astounded at the number of students who typically regard the Eucharist as merely a symbol of the body of Christ. They do so not because they refuse to believe Catholic teaching, but rather because they have never heard otherwise -- or if they have, never gave it much thought.

A priest is one who is given the power to change the substance of ordinary bread and wine into the substance of Christ's body and blood. This is traditionally known as transubstantiation. Recall the work we did regarding Aristotle's ten categories of being. The primary mode of being is substance, while the secondary mode of being is accident. Accidents (from the Latin: ac-cidere - to inhere in) exist in a substance. Their mode of being is to "exist in". But substance exists per se (through itself). Accidents, such as quantity and quality, depend upon substance in order to be, but substance does not depend upon accidents in order to be (but in order to be known). The first accident of a material substance is quantity (extension into parts outside of parts). Following upon quantity is the accident of quality, which is further divided into affective qualities (color, taste, smell, etc.), figure and form, habit and disposition, and finally abilities and debilities. The substance, recall, is not the same as its extension and qualities. These inhere in the substance; for these can change while the substance remains the same, as is the case with all accidental change. But what happens during the consecration is the complete reverse. It is the substance that changes, while the accidents remain the same. Such a change is logically possible because substance is really distinct from accident. Whether or not it actually occurs depends upon whetherGod chooses to work the miracle. We believe that He does; for we believe that Jesus is the eternal Person of the Word (Son), and he spoke: "Take this all of you and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you ... this is the cup of my blood, [which] ... will be shed for you ..." In John we read:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world....Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. (Jn 6, 51-56)

The Church has always believed that what we receive in the Eucharist is the real body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. Very early on, around the year 150 AD (about 60 years after the gospel of John was written), Justin Martyr wrote in chapter 66 of his Apology I:

This food we call Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true,...For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Saviour being incarnate by God's word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus.

But not only do we receive the substance of Christ's body under the appearance of bread, and the substance of his blood under the appearance of wine. What we receive is his body "given up for you", his blood "shed for you." It is his body in the act of self-giving, in his perfect act of self-sacrifice. It is the sacrifice of Calvary, the perfect act of religion made on behalf of the entire human race that we receive literally into ourselves. In the Eucharist, we are joined to Christ's perfect act of religion. We become that act. The Mass is a sacrifice, the one sacrifice of the cross made present, that is, re-presented at each moment when and where it is celebrated validly. This is the miracle of the Mass, namely that the one, historical, unrepeatable sacrifice of Calvary can be made present on the altar throughout history, such that anyone present at an ordinary Mass is in reality just as present at the foot of the cross as Mary and John were two thousand years ago. There is literally nothing greater that we can do than to attend an ordinary Mass, especially on a daily basis.6 Happy indeed are those who have the faith to believe this.

Next Page: Reconciliation
1, 2, 3