Three Common Catholic Misconceptions

Sometimes even the faithful can get things wrong (perhaps that’s why we’re called “practicing” Catholics.) I believe the following rank among Catholics’ most common misconceptions about our own Faith:

Myth #1: “The Immaculate Conception was Jesus Becoming Man”

Although Jesus’ conception is also a holy miracle, the Immaculate Conception refers to the creation of his mother, Mary. The Church has believed in Mary’s perfect sinlessness from ancient times. Consider that the loaded Greek word with which the Archangel Gabriel hails her at the Annunciation identifies her as ‘one having been graced by God in the past with the result continuing in full effect to the present.’ (Luke 1:28)

On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius IX infallibly defined the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception in these words: “We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of mankind, was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin, has been revealed by God, and therefore should firmly and constantly be believed by all the faithful.

Myth #2: “The Anointing of the Sick is Only for One’s Deathbed”

Among the seven sacraments, Anointing of the Sick is the one especially intended to strengthen those who, having reached the age of reason, begin to be in danger due to sickness or old age. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, this “is not a sacrament only for those who are at the point of death. Hence, as soon as any one of the faithful begins to be in danger of death from sickness or old age, the fitting time for that person to receive this sacrament has certainly already arrived.”

Catholics on their deathbeds should certainly ask a priest for “the Last Rites,” that is, Anointing of the Sick with special prayers for the dying. But Catholics facing major surgery (such as ones involving general anesthetic) or those feeling elderly frailty should request this sacrament as well. Anointing may be repeated if the sick person’s condition becomes more grave during the same illness, or if they recover and then become seriously ill again.

Myth #3: “Divorced People Cannot Receive Holy Communion”

Faithful to Christ, the Catholic Church teaches that a consummated sacramental marriage endures for as long as the bride and groom both live. However, being divorced does not, in and of itself, bar someone from worthily receiving Holy Communion. (For instance, an abandoned spouse may bear no fault for his or her divorce, and in some cases—like domestic abuse or a gambling addiction—it can be appropriate for a spouse to procure a legal separation.) Merely being divorced is not necessarily a sin; it is divorce followed by remarriage outside of the Church that is the issue. Jesus said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:11-12)

So what should a person who is divorced and remarried outside the Church do? The first step is to approach your pastor. Together, you can begin exploring seeking an annulment. A sacramental marriage cannot be undone by any power on earth, but if something essential to marriage was absent or withheld from the very beginning then such a marriage is invalid (not sacramental) and may be annulled. After obtaining the needed annulment(s), a person is free to be married in the Church. But what should remarried persons do if an annulment is not possible? Even these may receive Holy Communion following a good confession if they are resolved to begin living chastely, “as brother and sister,” in their present relationship.

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