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All Life is Precious
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.


'What Am I Still Doing Here?'
Could They Be Saved?
Will It Ever Go Away?
12-Step Programs Helpful
Conceived in Evil?

Q: My 93-year-old grandmother is in a nursing home. Her 90+-year-old cousin is in a different nursing home. Their letters to each other often include the questions: “What am I still doing here? Why does God still want me on earth?”

I could answer that they are still here so that they can pray for the rest of us and offer their sufferings to Christ. Both of them, however, would have been dead long ago if medicine had not advanced so much in the last half century. Each of them has survived medical conditions that 20 years ago would have been fatal. Is it God or medicine that is prolonging their lives?

I know that life is always precious, but how can I answer the “Why am I still here?” question other than to say: “Modern medicine has increased your life span. Though you would rather be in heaven, God isn’t so much an interventionist as to alter the natural order, which includes us”?

A: Over the centuries, medicine has advanced because human beings have used their God-given intelligence to develop and refine new drugs, new surgeries and new therapies. God should be credited for their length of days—at least, indirectly.

God has also given us the ability to ask, “Just because something is technically possible, does that guarantee that it is morally good?” No, that is not automatically true.

It’s wonderful that your grandmother and her cousin have energy enough to write letters to one another. Do they have enough energy to write letters to affirm relatives, soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan or other people who would appreciate a letter?

Could they contribute to a family oral-history project or use some other talent for the benefit of others? Does God have something else in mind for them to contribute?

Some of their fellow residents or staff members in those nursing homes would probably be grateful for an extra smile or a kind word. I have two friends who are in their 90s, and they are still a very positive influence for many people.

Not every possible medical treatment must be accepted by a person who is sick. This has caused the Catholic Church to speak of “ordinary” (required) and “extraordinary” (optional) means of preserving life. See "Are Feeding Tubes Morally Obligatory?" for a good article on this subject. Such decisions are perhaps not imminent for your grandmother and her cousin, but they and your relatives need to prepare for them.

Could They Be Saved?

Q: After I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I began to ask myself: “What happened to the men, women and children who lived and died before Jesus was born? Did they have a chance to be saved?”

A: The Catholic Church teaches that good people who lived and died before Jesus, in fact, entered heaven immediately after his Resurrection. Hence, the Apostles’ Creed speaks of Jesus as “descending into hell,” a bad translation of “descending ad inferos [into the underworld].”

In the Middle Ages, there were many paintings and drawings of this event— with Adam and Eve in the forefront. Three years ago at the Chora Church in Istanbul, I saw a beautiful fresco depicting this event. Similar artwork can be found in many churches in other parts of the world.

Your question raises at least two others: Could good people who lived and died after Jesus—but who never had a chance to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ—be saved? Is accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior a one-time event that guarantees salvation, no matter what future decisions that person makes?

The Catholic Church answers yes to the first question and no to the second one. Only God knows a person’s heart well enough to make a judgment about salvation. On the other hand, no human decision can force God into a corner, so to speak, and compel a certain result.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer” (#605, quoting the Council of Quiercy, held in 853). That does not guarantee that every human being will be saved, but that is clearly God’s intention.

Q: I keep falling into temptation for the same sin. I thought that by now it would have gone away. Will it ever? If not, how can I be better prepared the next time?

A: This side of death, you will never reach a point where all temptation to every sin fades away. Will this particular sin ever lose its ability to ensnare you? I hope so.

We can always ask for God’s help in advance so that we do what we know is right. If you think about it, every sin is some form of the lie, some type of shortcut, “Do this and your life will be wonderful.” In fact, every sin is a dead end and never yields the promised reward. God helps us to remember this if we call on God’s help.

At the Easter Vigil, the celebrant asks the congregation three questions: “Do you reject Satan? And all his works? And all his empty promises?” Indeed, Satan’s promises are “empty.”

The Sacramentary provides this alternate set of questions: “Do you reject sin, so as to live in the freedom of God’s children? Do you reject the glamour of evil, and refuse to be mastered by sin? Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness?” For good reason, Satan has long been described as “the father of lies.”

Our notions of sin, freedom and glamour frequently become twisted. Sin presents itself as the path to freedom and glamour but, in fact, offers only a form of slavery. Although sin claims that it will lead us to glamour, it yields only the boring selfishness of a world increasingly centered on the person who is sinning.

Even though this description of sin is accurate, we still sin, we continue to accept “shortcuts” that frequently turn out to be dead ends. One way to resist temptation is to remember those dead ends, to recall that what was presented as bringing greater freedom has, in fact, often brought greater slavery.

Moral theologians have spoken about the need to avoid the “near occasions of sin,” those situations or circumstances that we know from experience make a particular sin more likely.

Discouragement is one of Satan’s strongest weapons. I invite you to find your courage in God—and confess your sins as needed.

12-Step Programs Helpful

One reader found my answer to “Adult Daughter Seems Uninterested in the God of the Bible” distressing because it seemed not to respect 12-step programs. In fact, I respect them highly and know people who have been greatly helped by them. Although God can indeed be called a “Higher Power,” the Bible prefers much more intimate language for God. My point was simply that “Higher Power” can be understood as aloof; the biblical God is definitely not aloof.

Conceived in Evil?

Q: Some friends and I were having a discussion recently about two questions: “Is any child conceived evil? Or is evil strictly a matter of environment?” I promised to write and see if you could shed some light on these issues.

The conception of a child is never evil—even if the child is conceived through rape or incest. He or she is a separate person created by God and has a right to life.

Some children are born into very difficult situations, but that is not because their conception was evil. The people who ought to be nurturing them are simply incapable of doing that or refuse to accept those responsibilities. Family members and others try to soften the blow to a child who has been victimized in this way.

If evil were simply a matter of environment, wouldn’t the notion of personal responsibility totally vanish? In fact, we would never accept as a rapist’s defense, “That action was determined by my environment.”

Environment is a strong influence in anyone’s life, but it is never the total explanation of a person. Identical twins raised in virtually the same environment usually turn out quite differently.

God’s gift of human freedom is both wondrous and awesome. We use it in ways that reinforce or deny our dignity as people made in God’s image and likeness.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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