Catechism on the Angels Part I

10-07-2021From the desk of Fr. VillaFr John Hardon S.J.

Although human reason can reasonably speculate that angels exist, the existence of pure created spirits requires divine revelation to make the fact absolutely certain. Indeed a fair index of sound Christianity is the acceptance of angels as created by God and now living in two states of being: those in heaven who also minister to our needs, and those in hell, who are demons and bent on the destruction of the human race through estrangement from God. Why a catechism on the angels? Because we need one. There is such a preoccupation with human psychology and physiology as almost to exclude the whole world of reality which is at once intelligent and deeply involved in the affairs of men. Even in Christian circles, the complaint has been justly made that "the angels have taken flight from Catholic schools of thought," with only token attention from some professional theologians.

There is another reason why a catechism on the angels is necessary. As a reaction to the prevalent secularism in so-called developed countries, an avalanche of cults and movements has gone to the other extreme. Preoccupation with the invisible powers of the world has produced scores of pseudo-religions that have also penetrated Catholic circles. The New Age movement, borrowed from the Oriental non-Christian world, has deeply penetrated Catholic thinking in Europe and North America. The angels play a major role in the history of God's dealing with the human race. From the dawn of creation when the evil spirit successfully tempted our first parents, to the Incarnation announced by the angel Gabriel, angelic spirits are an essential part of Messianic history. Since the coming of Christ, angels are more than ever the messengers of the Good News which they first announced to the shepherds at Bethlehem.

Why a catechism on the angels? Because there are also demons who seduce human beings into sin. We had better know how to recognize when we are being inspired by the good angels and when we are being instigated by evil spirits. In the present catechism we shall cover six distinct propositions of our Catholic faith: that God created angelic world, composed of beings that are pure spirits; that among these some remain faithful to God and reached their heavenly destiny, while others, though gifted with divine grace, lost it and were thereby condemned to eternal punishment; that it is part of God's ordinary providence to have the heavenly spirits minister our needs and assist us to reach heaven; and correspondingly it is part of divine permissive providence to allow the fallen angels to try and tempt us into sin in order to keep us from our eternal destiny. Before we enter on what our faith teaches us about the angels, it will be useful to explain some of the basic terms in what we technically call angelology. Then we should say something about the adversaries who either deny the existence of angels altogether or dissent from the Church's official teaching about the spiritual beings created by God.

Explanation of Angelic Terms

The best way to enter our catechetical study of the angels is to express this study in the form of a thesis. The thesis is a compendium of the Catholic Church's teaching on the angels. This thesis comes in two declarative sentences, each of which is a profession of the Catholic faith on who the angels are and how are they part of the providence of God: There exist angels, who are pure spirits; of whom some persevered in grace and entered heaven while others sinned and were damned. The good angels are sent as guardians, but demons tempt men to sin. The logic of this catechism will follow the sequence of ideas expressed in the above thesis.

1. What is the meaning of the word "angel"? The word "angel", from the Greek angelos, etymologically means "one who is sent" or a "messenger."

2. What is an angel? An angel is a spiritual creature, especially one in heavenly glory, who is superior to human beings and often commissioned by God for certain duties on earth. As explained by St. Augustine, "the name angel belongs to his office, not to his nature. You ask what is the name of his nature. He is a spirit. You ask what is the name of his office. He is an angel."

3. What is the meaning of "angel" in Catholic theology? In Catholic theology the term "angel" refers to all spiritual creatures whether in glory with God or eternally separate from God in hell. We may therefore define angels as purely spiritual created substances where each word in the definition has special significance.

4. How are angels substantial beings? They are substantial because they exist of and by themselves. They are not mere personifications of God's activity in the world. The angels really exist.

5. How important is it to know that the angels are created? It is most important to distinguish the angels from God and specify their essentially contingent nature. They are contingent because they were brought into existence and are preserved in the same by the power of God. Among the polytheistic religions, what we call angels are considered deities or gods.

6. How are the angels spiritual substances? They are spiritual substances because they are both different from and superior by nature to human beings, who are a composite of matter and spirit. Otherwise than angels, human beings are rational animals. Moreover, angels are still further removed by their spirituality from all material things that are not endowed with and intellect and will.

7. How are angels purely spiritual substances? They are purely spiritual substances to further distinguish them from us who are not purely spiritual but also material. Furthermore the angels are purely spiritual to distinguish them from disembodied human spirits or souls which still have, as we call it, an aptitude for reunion with the body. We know on faith that our souls will be reunited with our bodies in the final resurrection.

(To be continued)