May 2021 Print

Complex Questions & Simple Answers—Part Six

Part Six: Prof. Felix Otten, O.P. and C.F. Pauwels, O.P.

Editor’s Note: This article continues the series of straightforward responses to frequently-encountered questions and objections concerning the Catholic Faith. The questions and answers are adapted from Professor Felix Otten, O.P. and C.F. Pauwels, O.P.’s The Most Frequently Encountered Difficulties, published originally in Dutch in 1939.

Catholics apply the Fifth Commandment’s prohibition, “Thou shalt not kill,” very consistently with respect to abortion, but not to war. Why is there such an inconsistency in Catholic teaching? And why are there blessings for instruments of war? Did Christ not admonish St. Peter to put away his sword?

According to Catholic teaching, war, however terrible it may be, cannot be called simply good or bad; there can be just and unjust wars. A war can be justified and just, especially a defensive war. War may, however, be used only as a last resort and only to save the vital interests of the State, and all other means must first be exhausted.

When Catholic doctrine says this, it cannot be answered that it is inconsistent and interprets the Fifth Commandment in a very different way. Because the prohibition to kill does not mean just war. This is evident from this alone, that the same God who gave this commandment on Sinai several times commanded the Jews to make war against the Canaanites.

Every person is therefore obliged to help prevent a war if possible. But if the lawful government of his country decides that now all other means have failed and must be taken to the last resort, then he must take up arms to fight for his country. For an individual will seldom be able to judge whether the government is right or not, if only because he does not know enough about the facts.

Then the question of blessing weapons comes up. And in doing so, we must pay attention to two things: first, the weapons are not only used to kill and bring misery, but also to defend a good cause with legitimate means. Secondly, it is not only about the weapons themselves, but also and much more about the men who have to handle and operate them. They are actually blessed and not so much the weapons. And those men will be blessed when they come to fulfill an extremely difficult and dangerous duty and make great sacrifices. If we look at the blessing of the weapons this way, it looks a bit different!

And as for the quoted word of Christ to Peter, this, as with all biblical texts, must be read in context to understand it properly. And then we see this: Christ willingly wants to go to His death in order to redeem the human race. He would have been defended by legions of angels if He had willed. And yet Peter drew his sword and went against Christ’s will. So as you can see this incident has nothing to do with warfare per se.

Catholics, like the Protestants, believe that Sunday is the Lord’s day. How is it, then, that they sanctify so little on that day? Catholics hold meetings, festivals, and even go to work on Sundays.

The accusation of Sunday desecration is mainly made against Catholics. That in itself is quite unfair. Taking together the Protestants of all shades, it is difficult to maintain that on average they sanctify Sunday better than Catholics. It is especially the Dutch Reformed who have a strict conception of Sunday sanctification and Sunday rest.

However, these are often exaggerated. They pretend that the Jewish laws on the observance of the Sabbath still applied to the observance of Christians on Sunday. The Jews were not allowed to travel and hardly even engage in household activities. The Reformed have an almost equally strict view. And we must admit that, like the Orthodox Jews, they do try and live out their beliefs. For instance, they will strictly close their businesses, even if they would still have to suffer economic losses as a result.

But although we may admire this in a sense, we still maintain that those Jewish laws are no longer in force under the New Covenant, just as, for example, the dietary laws of the Jews are no longer in force. For example, we see no objection to traveling on Sunday. And if one objects to this, because the railway staff then have to work on Sundays, one should also object to the use of the water mains, the burning of electric light, and using the telephone. After all, that also entails work for others!

Sunday is two things at the same time for us Catholics: first, the day of God, on which we are to especially worship and adore God; second, the day of rest that God gave to the people to recover from hard labor. The Church has prescribed how we should keep Sunday holy as the Lord’s day. We must attend Mass on that day. Further, we are urged to attend other services such as Vespers as well. That’s the Catholic idea of ​​Sunday sanctification.

Furthermore, according to God’s will, Sunday must be a day of rest, which is why the Church has forbidden Christians to perform so-called slavish work on that day outside of necessity (nursing the sick, bringing in hay in case of a thunderstorm, etc.). When it comes to rest, we cannot apply that concept too narrowly. Relaxation, sports, hiking, etc. are also rest, and a form of rest that helps modern people better than sitting still and doing nothing. And as long as those things do not hinder going to church, we do not believe that they are contrary to the observance of Sunday. And because we feel that way, Catholic Sunday is undoubtedly a bit more exuberant than Protestant Sunday.

As far as Catholic conventions and meetings on Sunday are concerned, there would be much more to say against it if they could be held on a weekday. But that is simply not possible for many people and Saturday afternoon is also insufficient for national gatherings, which can also be of great use. So, if it is ensured that all participants can attend Mass (and that happens!), and if a religious ceremony is also involved in the afternoon (and that happens very often!), we think a demonstration or celebration for a truly Catholic affair is not so bad.

And then there are those shops that remain open. Here we have to take into account that our Sunday law is outdated. We would like to cooperate in making all trading that is not strictly necessary on Sunday impossible, but we are not there yet. And if the Catholic shopkeeper did not make use of what the law allows (and even the law of a country that Protestants like to call a Protestant country!), he would fall so far behind the others that he could no longer compete. That is why the ecclesiastical authorities have not strictly imposed a prohibition on work on Sundays but allowed Catholics to adhere to existing customs and conditions.

With this defense we do not, of course, claim that Catholics never do wrong against Sunday observance, or that everything that happens in Catholic communities is equally commendable. But we do not admit that Catholics celebrate Sunday worse than the others, nor that the strictest views are always the best! However, Protestants will always accuse Catholics of not properly observing Sundays and we must live with it as best we can.

Christ expressly forbade the taking of the oath (cf. Mt. 5:34-37). How, then, is it possible for Catholics and even clergy to take oaths on different occasions?

It is not only Catholics who consider oaths to be lawful. The great majority of Protestants do not object to this either, and it is only small groups among them, such as the Mennonites, who, on the basis of Scripture, have conscientious objections to swearing oaths.

If we found nothing in the Holy Scriptures on the oath other than the quoted words of Christ, we might think that He really intended to forbid it as a bad thing. But if we also take into account that Holy Scripture itself shows us how the Apostle Paul repeatedly calls on God as a witness, for example: “God is my witness, how I long for you all with the warm love of Christ” (Ph. 1:8), then it becomes clear that Christ at least could not have had that intention. What then is the meaning of Christ’s admonition in the Gospel of Matthew?

Christ here indicates first of all that it would be better if one never had to make God a witness to the truth of his words and that swearing is “evil” because it comes from the weakness of men, who therefore cannot simply be believed by their own statements. If only people were better, oaths wouldn’t be necessary. So, Christ indicates what should really be regarded as the ideal for us.

Consequently, there is also an admonition in these words not to take an oath frivolously and to limit swearing to those cases where it is necessary. And finally these words contain a reproach against the Pharisees, who had devised all kinds of subtleties in order not to have to use God’s name and still be able to swear, such as when they swore by Heaven or by sacrifice.