Q: Does the Church approve of attempts to combine the four Gospels? I know that the Church did not approve the Diatesseron, an early attempt to harmonize Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Was the objection to any attempt to combine them or was the objection to the fact that Tatian, who drew up the Diatesseron, later became a heretic?
Is it dangerous for me to read a text combining four Gospels into a single account? What does the Catholic Church teach about this?
A: Since my ancestors were Irish, I’ll invoke the Irish prerogative of answering a question with another question—(three in fact!): “Why is the possibility of harmonizing the four Gospels important to you? What would you gain from that? Do you find the present diversity of perspectives among the Gospel writers an obstacle to your faith?”
The Diatesseron interweaves the four Gospels and two non-Gospel sources into a single text. It was completed around the middle of the second century and was probably written in Syriac. This text was certainly very influential in Syria and has been translated into many other languages.
The Catholic Church generally favors a both/and approach while employing an either/or position whenever that is necessary.
The four canonical Gospels can easily look messy. For example, Matthew’s Gospel implies that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem just before Jesus’ birth; Luke’s Gospel clearly states they lived in Nazareth during that time period and only went to Bethlehem shortly before Jesus’ birth. The Diatesseron’s approach allows one interpretation to prevail by silencing the other viewpoint.
Did Jesus heal a single blind man after leaving Jericho (Mark 10:46) or as he entered that city (Luke 18:35)? Or did he heal two blind men (Matthew 20:30-34)?
The Diatesseron is not so much a dangerous document as it is overconfident, tempting readers to believe that Tatian reconstructed events in a you-are-there way.
Harmonizing is important if you think of the Gospels as written transcriptions of videotapes of the actual events. The Church, however, does not understand them as that. People should take their lead on this from the faith community that recognizes all four Gospels as inspired by God.
A book of Gospel parallels or cross-references for the four Gospels can be very helpful for study, but each Gospel’s distinct personality must be recognized and respected. Some things work well in blenders; the Gospels don’t.
Q: A married couple, good friends of mine, wed in the Church and have been trying unsuccessfully to have a second child.
Unfortunately, because of problems with her fallopian tubes, this has not been possible and they are considering in vitro fertilization, using his sperm and her egg.
They are wonderful people, great parents and devoted parishioners; we have been praying for them to have this second blessing.
What is the Church's position on in vitro fertilization? If the Church does not condone this, could the child be baptized and raised within the Catholic faith?
If the conception results from the union of her egg and his sperm within her body (even if medical procedures were needed for this to happen), the Catholic Church would not object. It does object to the union of the same sperm and egg in a petri dish and later transferred into the woman's body—or the introduction of someone else's sperm or egg.
Regardless of the circumstances of a child's conception, he or she can be baptized if there is a reasonable assurance that the parents will raise this child as a Catholic.
You can click on "Helping Childless Couples Conceive" for a good article by Father Richard Sparks, C.S.P., on the morality of the various techniques that are currently used to assist conception.
Q: I don't understand the difference between the Orthodox Churches and the Eastern Catholic Churches. They basically seem the same.
A: The Orthodox Churches look to the Patriarch of Constantinople as the “first among equals” among their patriarchs. Many of the Eastern Catholic Churches have their own patriarch but look to the Bishop of Rome as the particular successor of St. Peter and thus head of the world’s college of bishops.
Many Orthodox Churches have a corresponding Eastern Catholic Church, for example, the Greek Orthodox Church/the Greek Catholic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church/the Coptic Catholic Church, and so on.
Members of the Orthodox Churches sometimes refer very negatively to these Eastern Catholics as “Uniates.” Eastern Catholics use the same liturgical language and customs as their corresponding Orthodox Church. “Eastern Catholic” is the preferred generic term when speaking about all these Churches together.
Sometimes political force was used to suppress one Church to benefit the other one. Josef Stalin, for example, banned the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and forced its members to join the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
At other times, Church decisions prompted such a move. Many members of Orthodox Churches in the United States are descended from those who originally belonged to Eastern Catholic Churches here. They joined Orthodox Churches in the 1920s when the Holy See decided that the Eastern Catholic Churches could have a married clergy in their country or region of origin but not in countries where most Roman Catholic priests are celibates.
To someone who is not a member of an Orthodox Church or an Eastern Catholic Church, they might look the same. We owe it to ourselves and to the larger Church to appreciate their distinctiveness.
Q: Why do Catholic Bibles have more books than Protestant Bibles like the King James Version or the New International Version?
Why did Catholics add books? Was it because some pope said to do that?
A: Seven Old Testament books are not found in the Old Testament section of the King James Version or other Protestant Bibles. Although these seven books were originally written in Greek—or their Hebrew texts were no longer known in the late first century A.D.—during Jesus’ lifetime some Jewish people regarded these books as inspired by God. Some of the Gospels quote from or allude to these books.
About 60 years after Jesus’ death, however, rabbis at Jamnia in Palestine drew up the list (canon) of the Scriptures used by Jewish people to this day. That shorter list includes only works composed in Hebrew, excluding the two Books of Maccabees, the Books of Wisdom, Judith, Tobit, Sirach and Baruch, as well as several parts of the Books of Daniel and Esther.
For centuries, Eastern and Western Christians accepted the longer list as inspired; Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians still do. When Martin Luther translated the Bible in the 16th century, he decided to use the shorter list.
Sometimes, these seven books are printed in Protestant Bibles under the heading “Deuterocanonical” or “Apocrypha.”
A 1546 decree from the fourth session of the Council of Trent affirmed the Catholic Church’s use of the longer list, including the seven books and parts of two others.
Q: In the Apostles' Creed, we say that Jesus "descended into hell" before he rose from the dead. I've never understood this expression and haven't been able to find anyone to give a satisfactory explanation. Isn't hell forever—with people entering but no one leaving?
A: The term “hell” in the Apostles’ Creed does not mean “place of eternal punishment.” This is actually a poor translation of the Hebrew Sheol (place where all the dead go, in the Old Testament understanding, regardless of the type of life they lived) or of the Latin ad inferos (the underworld).
The Creed uses this expression to link the saving death and resurrection of Jesus with the salvation of all the good women and men who died before Jesus did. All the saints invite us to believe in God and act accordingly.
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