Friday, February 15, 2013

On veneration of ancestors

Since it is Chinese New Year again, the topic of ancestral veneration done in certain Novus Ordo churches crops up again and here are some thoughts from yours truly and the response from Rev. Fr. Daniel Couture and Rev. Fr. Francois Lainey on this matter.

This is mostly in response to the articles written by Rev. Fr. Michael Cheah (of the Penang Diocese) part1, part2 and Deacon Sherman Kuek (Melaka-Johor Diocese)

Many Catholics in Malaysia of ethnic Chinese-descent are converts. I do not agree if it is done during Holy Mass. Even Fr. Michael Cheah concedes that it is to be considered as a 'para-liturgy', but you can't force everyone to take part in it if it is a 'para-liturgy'.

As a Chinese, we must also bear in mind the common pagan/superstitious belief that the spirit of the dead ancestor resides in the tablet ( a.k.a. 神主牌 or 神位 (seat of the spirit). See also I would think that the very idea of the dead having power or effect over the living descendants would have been anathema .

I still cannot find a valid reason why is there a need to do it in church, more so since it is also causing scandal among Catholics (Chinese and non-Chinese alike). We can visit the graves to clean it, but I don't see a need to offer joss-sticks, food, tea/wine, paper money, etc.

Some Catholics might not have those pagan/superstitious ideas when they perform the rites, but certainly it can't be said for all Catholics. Thus, I think Deacon Sherman Kuek's article is considered the moderate approach to this controversy.

"In other words, our way of evangelization should not make it more difficult than necessary for people to accept the Gospel. In the days of ancient China, to insist on terminating veneration rites actually scandalized the populace and prevented them from accepting the Gospel.
This cannot be said of most disapora Chinese today. It is reasonable to hold that neither forbidding nor permitting veneration of ancestral tablets would gravely affect the success of the Church’s mission to evangelize the Chinese community in a place like Malaysia.
If anything, non-Christians probably find it strange that Catholics would do such a thing in the course of performing our liturgical rites. It is perhaps wise to ask ourselves if such a practice truly serves its evangelistic purpose or if we do it just because we can."

Response by Rev. Fr. Daniel Couture:

In all these matters, one has to remember some essential doctrinal issues:
1) At death the soul is separated from the body, is judged, and goes to heaven, purgatory or hell (we speak here of those who have reached the age of reasons “ancestors”)

2) We can only know for sure the state of a deceased soul in the case of a canonisation, when the Church, and only the Catholic Church, tells us that that soul IS in Heaven, and we can pray TO it. For all the other souls, we can only pray FOR them (although the saints do say that we can also pray TO the souls in Purgatory). (I do not enter here in the questionable modern canonisations.)

3) Reincarnation – in another person, an animal or a tablet – is absolutely false, both philosophically and theologically.

4) Souls separated from their body do not eat.

5) We can certainly honor the memory of our ancestors, honor their photo, out of filial piety, but it must have nothing that includes or implies their presence in a thing, their power of intercession, their material needs.
Response by Rev. Fr. Francois Laisney:

Father Couture has given all good principles on the matter. There is one additional consideration that I would add: to distinguish between natural and supernatural veneration. But first of all, let us explain what is veneration.

To venerate, to honour, means to give a testimony to the excellence of someone, as St Thomas teaches. Now there are four kinds of excellence on earth that is given special honour: 

1) excellence of knowledge: e.g. Nobel prices for scientists, titles (such as university titles: Doctor …), and even prizes in school (e.g. first prize of English, of science, of math, of history…)

2) excellence in virtue: e.g. military medals to reward the courage of some soldiers, even Olympic medals (for bodily virtue…)

3) excellence in authority: presenting arms when a general reviews his army, or titles given to people in authority (your lordship,…). This is given to government authorities, to judges, … 

4) the special excellence of parents, which St Thomas explains is the excellence of being at the ORIGIN of what the children have: they received their life from their parents, and a very great many other things. If we would reckon how much we owe our parents, we would easily understand that we can hardly repay them enough. To honour them is to acknowledge this excellence that THEY have over us. Note that benefactors – in a much lesser way – also participate of that kind of excellence, and honour is due to them for that reason.

Now every one can easily see that in all these four domains, God possesses the supreme excellence:

1) He knows absolutely everything, not only which has existed, exist and will exist, but also all that could have existed if He had so created them… and above all the created things, He knows Himself comprehensively.

2) He possesses the supreme virtue, i.e. goodness in all His actions, His being is pure Act, pure Goodness. Thus He always acts with supreme wisdom, supreme goodness, fortitude, kindness, mercy, etc.

3) God possesses supreme authority, and all authority come from Him (Rom. 13:1)

4) God is at the origin of all created beings, of all good.

And in this matter of excellence, there is an essential difference between God’s excellence, which He possesses by Himself, not having received it from anyone, and any creature’s excellence, which is only relative: it always came ultimately from God, Who is the First Cause of all good and therefore of all excellence. God alone can be the FIRST in any of the above domains. He also is the source of life; parents only transmit life; He alone is the source of goodness; anyone else can only transmit goodness… 

Therefore there is due to God a unique veneration, called Worship. It is a very grave sin to worship anyone else than God.

So now we come to my point. There are two levels of excellence: natural excellence and supernatural excellence. All the examples above were of natural excellence. But God also offers to men a supernatural excellence: sanctifying grace, a participation in the divine life. Not all men accept it and live it. It is received at baptism, is lost by mortal sin, is recovered by penance, grows through the Sacraments and prayer and the practice of good works, etc.

One can find also supernatural excellences of the four kinds expressed above:

1) the Doctors of the Church had an excellent knowledge of Revelation, of the Doctrine of Christ, and they receive for that reason a special honour: the title of Doctor of the Church. 

2) Saints excelled in supernatural virtue, and receive the veneration of “dulia”. 

3) those in authority in the Church: Pope, bishops, priests receive for that reason special honours. 

4) Those priests and others who have given us the supernatural life in Baptism, the supreme Food in the Holy Eucharist, and many other supernatural benefits ought also to be honoured for that reason too.

Now the business of the Church is above all to give worship to God and in a lesser degree to give that supernatural honour to those who deserve it, i.e. to the Saints. It is also the business of the Church to pray for our departed relatives.

It is NOT the business of the Church to give NATURAL veneration to those who – even truly – deserve it: the Church does not confer Nobel prizes, Olympic medals, etc. Hence it seems to me that it is not befitting to have in the church the veneration of ancestors – which, when done without superstition, is perfectly legitimate, acknowledging all the good natural things one has received from them, as explained above. That natural veneration may well be done at home, when it is without superstition.

In order to clearly distinguish between the natural veneration of ancestors and the supernatural worship to God and (lesser) honour to the Saints, it is particularly important not to mix things up: venerating the ancestors in the church brings the danger to forget that essential difference. Thus it is not only out of place, it is also dangerously misleading.

It should be noted that when Pius XII permitted the veneration of ancestors, it was NOT in the churches, but only as a natural honour as explained above. To bring it into the churches is the wrong inculturation of Vatican II. It seems to me that this settles the matter. What do you think?

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