Monday, December 31, 2007


The Sunday in the octave of Christmas is the feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (it is celebrated on December 30 when there is no Sunday between December 25 and January 1), the model for all families. It is an invitation to revisit Catholic doctrine on the family. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states:

“A man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children, form a family. This institution is prior to any recognition by public authority, which has an obligation to recognize it. It should be considered the normal reference point by which the different forms of family relationship are to be evaluated.” (CCC, No. 2202)

“The Christian family is a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. In the procreation and education of children it reflects the Father’s work of creation. It is called to partake of the prayer and sacrifice of Christ. Daily prayer and the reading of the Word of God strengthen it in charity. The Christian family has an evangelizing and missionary task.”(CCC,No.2205)

“The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.” (CCC, No. 2207; italics in the original)

Contemporary social philosophy owes to Father Joseph M. De Torre* the explanation—of the notion that the family is the “original cell” of society—in terms of society’s “ultimate causes” (from the classical paradigm): The "formal cause" (what gives a thing the act of being what it is), the “form”, of society is the “union of wills” of its members; society’s "efficient cause" (what directly gives rise to and maintains it in existence) is "love" or "solidarity" (the minimum of which is “justice”); the "final cause" (ultimate purpose), the “end”, of society is “the common good”. The family is the "material cause" (what gives a thing the potency or capacity to become what it is), the “matter”, of society.

The family, rather than the individual, is the “matter” of society because the individual’s participation in social life is normally mediated by the family, an entity different from the individual (the family is a group) and from society itself (the ties that bind members of the same family are different from those that bind in society). From birth until the age of majority (when he can vote, enter into contracts, etc.), the individual participates in social life through parents and family; and even in adulthood, his participation in social life is mostly colored by family considerations (concern for spouse and children).

The individual stands as the “remote” material cause of society. The “immediate” matter of society is the family. Accordingly, social policy should be primarily directed towards the well-being of families, rather than the individual; otherwise, society would fall into the error of “individualism” (which translates, politically, into anarchistic “liberalism” and, in the field of economics, into unbridled or laissez-faire "capitalism"). On the other hand, if social policy were made to serve, primarily, neither the individual nor the family, it would end up serving society itself, the State, which is the error of “collectivism” (politically, “totalitarianism”, and as to the economy, “socialism”). Individualist and Collectivist ideologies spring from a disordered operation of our basic instincts for self-preservation (self-assertion) and for association, respectively, which, in the right order, find expression in the principles of “subsidiarity”** (independence) and “solidarity” (inter-dependence).

The right order of society is linked with recognition of the family as the “basic cell” or matter of society that public policy must first serve, above the individual or the collective. This is so because, while Individualistic ideologies would have “(individual) freedom”, and Collectivist ideologies, “equality”, as the highest value of social life, in truth, it is neither freedom nor equality but “justice”.

Justice, as the “minimum” of love, is the “manageable” aspect of the “efficient cause” of society (what brings and keeps society in existence). While love itself cannot be a matter of compulsion, justice can be. Thus, the promotion of “justice” (giving everyone his due)—not “freedom”, not “equality”, although these are good in themselves—should be the primary function of government (the political authority operating as the legal system). As St. Augustine expressed it, “a State which is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves” (De Civitate Dei, IV, 4; quoted in Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Letter Deus Caritas Est, 28).

At present, attacks against the family consist, precisely, in advocacies (that have, in some places, ripened into laws) which place the individual above the family—“freedom” to renege on the marriage vow (divorce), “freedom” to eliminate unwanted babies (abortion), “freedom” to enjoy the pleasures of sex in denial of its procreative purpose (contraception and same-sex marriage)—or which place the State above the family (and the individual), as in State-sponsored population-control programs that dictate the number of children families could have, whether by force or by fraud.

St. Josemaria writes: “In order to draw close to God, we must take the right road, which is the Sacred Humanity of Christ” (Friends of God, No. 299). God became man so that we could become His in Christ, imitating Christ, and collaborating with Him in the work of Redemption; in our case as laypeople, “by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God” (Lumen Gentium, No. 31). Not the least of these "temporal affairs" is family life. “The first thing Jesus sanctified with his presence was a home” (F. Fernandez, In Conversation with God, Vol. 1, No. 31.1). May the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of the Family, help us to defend “the value of family life” (Opening Prayer, Feast of the Holy Family).

A blessed new year to all!

* See, among Father De Torre’s many books, The Roots of Society (Manila: Sinag-Tala Publishers, 1984). Father De Torre is Professor Emeritus of Social and Political Philosophy at the University of Asia and the Pacific.

** The principle of subsidiarity states: “(A) community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good….By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” (John Paul II, Encylcical Letter Centesimus Annus [1991], No. 48).

Friday, December 21, 2007


Advent is a time of preparation for the arrival of the Messiah. One of the best acts we can do in this direction is to go to the Sacrament of Penance or Reconciliation.

A Sacrament is a “sensible” (can be perceived by the senses) and “efficacious sign” (it effects what it also signifies) of “grace” (invisible help for our sanctification) instituted by our Lord. The seven Sacraments of our Faith are the normal channels of grace willed by God—“powers that come forth from the body of Christ,” the Church, to continue his ministry down the centuries. The Sacraments fit perfectly with the essence of man as “being incarnate”, a unity of “spiritual soul (form) and material body (matter)”: man receives spiritual helps through material or sensible elements.

Christian philosophy identifies the “essence” (manner of being) of a thing as the combination of its “form” or formal cause (what gives a thing the “act of being” what it is) and its “matter” or material cause (what gives a thing the potency or capacity to become what it is). In the case of the seven Sacraments, the formal cause is the set of words or prayer of the authorized minister (whence, our colloquial “formula”); while the material cause consists in the “sensible” material or action used in the process. Thus, in Baptism, the form is the set of words, “I baptize you in the name of…”, while the matter is obviously the water poured over the person being baptized. In Confirmation, the form consists in the words, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit,” while the matter is the anointing with chrism (consecrated oil) by a laying on of the hand. In the Eucharist, the form consists in the words of consecration (“This is my body…my blood”) while the matter is the bread and wine that is changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. In Holy Matrimony, the form is the exchange of vows of the bride and groom (“I do”) while the matter is their bodies. In Holy Orders, the form is the “prayer of consecration” said by the ordaining Bishop while the matter is the imposition of hands on the head of the ordinand. In the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the form consists in the prayer of the minister (“Through this holy anointing…”) while the matter is the anointing of the sick person (forehead and hands) with the holy oil.

It it not clear exactly when our Lord instituted the Sacrament of Penance (Confession), but on the evening of the day of His Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the apostles and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (John 20:19-23). It is clearly implied here that the sins must be told to the minister so that they may be forgiven. Thus, the matter of Confession is the sin or sins of the penitent heard by the minister/confessor (“hearing” is indispensable to this being a “sensible” sign); while the form is the set of words uttered by the confessor in absolution (“I absolve you from your sins in the name of…”).

Confession reconciles the sinner with God and with His Church (community), and restores “sanctifying grace”— replaces one in the “state of grace”, of being in Christ—which he may have lost through mortal sin. It also remits at least part of the temporal punishment due, and strengthens the penitent to avoid sin. If sanctifying grace was not lost, it is increased by Confession. Catholics are obliged by Church law to go to Confession at least once a year (as an absolute minimum) and encouraged to do so frequently (many lay people go weekly).

While one’s “perfect contrition” (sorrow for sin because of love for God) forgives even his mortal sins, Church law also commands that he who is conscious of having mortally sinned must first go to Confession before he can receive Holy Communion (because no one could be sure that his contrition were, in truth, “perfect”). Strictly speaking, only mortal sins need be brought to Confession; but even venial sins can be the matter of a good confession (especially when one has no un-confessed mortal sins, as may be the case with those who practice frequent Confession). Mortal sins are mortal (from the Latin, mors, “death”) because they “kill” the divine life in a person by his radical turning-away from God, i.e., with full advertence (knowledge and consent) and in a serious matter.

A good Confession requires prayerful preparation (examination of conscience); contrition or faith-motivated “sorrow” over having sinned (because of love of God, "perfect contrition", or out of fear of losing heaven or of suffering the pains of hell, "imperfect contrition"); “purpose of amendment” (a decision to avoid sin); actual Confession to a priest (withholding no un-confessed mortal sin) and willingness to perform the “penance” (satisfaction) prescribed. The Sacrament does not depend on the “feelings” of the penitent but involves his intelligence and will, thereby protecting him from self-delusion and complacency, on one hand, and uncertainty and despair, on the other. As long as one meets these requirements of a good Confession, he infallibly receives the benefits of the Sacrament.

St. Josemaria writes: “You wrote to tell me that you have at last gone to confession and that you experienced the humiliation of having to open the sewer—that is what you say—of your life to ‘a man’. When will you get rid of that feeling of vain self-esteem? You will then go to confession happy to show yourself as you are to ‘that man’, who being anointed is another Christ—Christ himself—and gives you absolution, God’s forgiveness.” (Furrow, No. 45)


Friday, December 14, 2007


“Virtues” (from the Latin, virtus, for “strength”) are “habits,” “firm dispositions” or “habitual inclinations” in an individual to do what is good in every situation. Every good act is potentially a virtue, i.e., if it becomes a habit. Conversely, every bad act is potentially a “vice”, a bad habit, the opposite of virtue.

To facilitate discussion, since there could be an infinite array of particular virtues, Christian philosophy identifies four “cardinal” moral virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. Prudence is the cardinal moral virtue which habitually disposes a person to make right judgments in every situation. Justice is the habitual inclination to give everyone his due. Fortitude disposes a person to do the good despite the difficulties involved. Temperance inclines a person to control his desires. These virtues are “cardinal” (from the Latin, cardo, “hinge”) in the sense that all the other virtues may be classified or “hung” under them. The virtue of “chastity”, for instance, which disposes a person to control his sexual desires (to the right use—or non-use—of the sexual capacity, i.e., within marriage and open to fruitfulness in offspring), may be classified under the cardinal virtue of Temperance. Likewise, the virtue of “religion” or “piety”, which disposes a person to give to God the worship which is due, falls under the cardinal virtue of Justice.

The cardinal virtues of Prudence and Justice correspond to our two spiritual powers (faculties), the intelligence and free will, respectively. The cardinal virtues of Fortitude and Temperance, on the other hand, correspond to the two sensual appetites: the “irascible appetite” (from the Latin, ira, “anger”)—which drives a man to avoid or reject what his senses perceive to be inimical to his well-being—and the “concupiscible appetite” (from concupiscere, “to desire”)—which drives a person to want (and go after) what is perceived to be necessary or beneficial to him. Fortitude is the cardinal human virtue that regulates the irascible appetite; Temperance, the concupiscible appetite.

Incidentally, Christian philosophy wisely points out that our “passions” (synonymous with “feelings” and “emotions”) are the “acts” (operations) of our sensual appetites. They belong to our pre-rational dimension (animals, too, have feelings); hence, should not be allowed to direct our human conduct. Our feelings should be subordinated to our higher faculties, the intelligence and free will.

The moral virtues make it easier to do what is morally right (in accordance with the objective norms of the natural moral law and the judgment of one’s conscience) in every situation. On the other hand, virtuous acts involve the exercise of even greater human freedom (i.e., intelligent and voluntary) than isolated, “spontaneous” or emotions-driven good deeds, because acquiring the virtue assumes prior, deliberate, and constant repetition (“practice”) of the good acts involved. Further, virtues are what define a person’s character: one may act honestly in a given instance but dishonestly in nine other instances; but a person is truthful or possesses the virtue of “honesty” because he is habitually disposed to stick to the truth in every situation. He is an “honest man” even while asleep. It is character—our virtuousness or viciousness, the “condition or disposition of the heart”— which, at the end of our earthly lives, will be decisive of our eternal happiness or misery.

In practice, a person’s struggle to live a morally upright life, i.e., a life that is truly human (neither animal-like nor disembodied or out-of-the-world), in accord with man’s “authentic” nature (as designed by God, and as opposed to the disordered tendencies of our “wounded” human nature), will consist in growing in the virtues, i.e., increasing in the firmness of the inclination to do what is right in every situation.

Even more directly related to our eternal happiness are the so-called “theological” virtues (because God is the direct goal) of Faith, Hope, and Charity. Faith is the virtue which disposes us “to believe all that God has revealed because it is God revealing them, Who can neither deceive nor be deceived”. Hope inclines us to trust in God, that He will bring us to His eternal happiness, which this virtue also inclines us to desire. Charity disposes us “to love God above all else for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God”.

Faith, Hope and Charity are “supernatural” virtues, i.e., beyond our natural capacity, acquired as gifts with “sanctifying grace” which we first received through Baptism. Sanctifying grace—and these supernatural virtues—may be lost through mortal sin but may be recovered through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession). These supernatural virtues increase with our cooperation, i.e., by our constant, deliberate effort to make acts of Faith, Hope and Charity; nor should we allow them to remain at the (seminal) level which we received at Baptism, most probably as infants.

We need to struggle to acquire all the virtues and to grow in them (as we mature humanly), i.e., to increase in the firmness of our inclination towards the good, so that at death, the moment we are to be judged, our interior dispositions shall be firmly oriented towards God, the fullness of Good, without any attachment to whatever is incompatible with God.

The vocation to holiness—union with God, sanctity, beatitude, eternal happiness—is also a call to perfection: “You must therefore be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). This is not attainable by human effort alone; but “with God, nothing is impossible” (Lk 1:37).