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Ask a Franciscan: How Old Is the Earth?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Q: Does the Catholic Church agree with geologists about the age of the earth? Why would God create dinosaurs, have them roam the earth for millions of years and then create human beings?

Why doesn’t the Book of Genesis explain this? What does the Catholic Church teach about this?

A: I leave the issue of how old the earth is to scientists, who have frequently revised their estimates within my lifetime. The people whom God inspired to write the books of the Bible may not have known about dinosaurs. Did the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who died in 180 A.D., know about them? All the books of the Bible were written by that date, with the Book of Genesis finalized almost 700 years earlier.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word dinosaur entered the English language only in 1841. You ask why God would create dinosaurs before creating human beings. Who are we to dictate to God about such things?

It is important that we accept the Bible for what it is (the self-revelation of God) and not complain that it is not something else (an encyclopedia of all knowledge). Even encyclopedias need to be updated as our knowledge grows!

The opposition between religion and science is really a false opposition because a single God stands behind both of them. At times, some religious people have claimed too much (the sun moves around the earth because the Bible presumes that). At other times, a few scientists have claimed too much (scientific research is not subject to moral limits).

In heaven, you can ask God about the decision to create dinosaurs before human beings.

To Whom Do Bishops Report?

Q: To whom do bishops and dioceses report their activities? To archbishops? To cardinals? To the pope?

A: Residential bishops (heads of dioceses) ultimately report to the pope. One way of doing this is through the reports they submit every five years, about six months in advance of their ad limina [“to the thresholds”] visits to the pope. On these visits to the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul, residential bishops and their auxiliary bishops meet with the Holy Father, plus officials from offices of the Holy See.

In a much more limited way, bishops who head dioceses sometimes indirectly report to one another through national or regional conferences of bishops. For example, after adopting the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (June 2002), the U.S. bishops wrote Essential Norms to implement it. The bishops obliged themselves to follow these norms once the Holy See confirmed them, as it did in December 2002.

In this instance, the bishops and the Holy See collectively made “particular law” (legislation supplementary to the 1983 Code of Canon Law) for the Catholic Church in this country. The bishops publicly pledged to report to one another and to the general public that they would follow these Essential Norms to implement the Charter.

The pope conducts most of his business with local bishops through the Congregation of Bishops and his official representative in each country, a nuncio (ambassador to that country) or an apostolic delegate (representative to the Catholic Church in that country).

Each diocese is in an ecclesiastical province, which includes an archdiocese headed by an archbishop. The United States has 22 Latin-rite archdioceses. Bishops in Eastern Catholic Churches are responsible to their patriarch or major archbishop and ultimately to the pope.

For the Latin-rite Church, canons #435 and #436 of the Code of Canon Law specify the very limited responsibilities that a residential archbishop has regarding the bishops in his ecclesiastical province. A cardinal enters into the reporting relationship only if he heads the province to which a particular bishop belongs.

Auxiliary bishops report to the head of the diocese to which they are assigned.

Not all bishops are heads of dioceses, auxiliary bishops or retired bishops. Bishops and archbishops who work directly for the Holy See are known as “titular” bishops or archbishops. They have their own supervisors, depending on the office for which they work.

Bishops are collectively the successors of the apostles, working always in union with the pope, the successor of St. Peter and head of the “college” of apostles.

Problem With the Stigmata

Q: I became a Catholic in 1991 and am very happy to be one. The phenomenon of the stigmata, however, troubles me.

After researching this, I cannot understand why God would inflict this on anyone.  Do the stigmata come from God?

Because I have found no reference to the stigmata in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I doubt that this is part of the official teaching of the Catholic Church.

But why do Catholics venerate stigmatics? Why have they been canonized? I can accept that Saint Francis of Assisi was a stigmatic because his spirituality so closely resembles that of Jesus. Other stigmatics, however, give me the creeps. Am I “out of step”?

The body of St. Padre Pio is carried in procession in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 5. Pope Francis had asked that the relics of Padre Pio and St. Leopold Manic be brought to Rome for the Year of Mercy. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See POPE-PADRE-PIO-LEOPOLD Feb 6, 2016 and PADRE-PIO-LEOPOLD-MERCY Feb. 4, 2016.
The body of Saint Padre Pio is carried in procession in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican February 5. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

A: The stigmata are not part of essential Catholic teaching. You could deny that any person other than Christ ever received the marks of his passion—and be a good Catholic.

The Church has canonized several people who apparently had these wounds, but the Church does not commit itself on their authenticity.

I do not deny that some people (like Saint Francis of Assisi) have had the stigmata. In the best situation, the stigmata remind us that Christ’s passion and resurrection are very real and that we need to be open to God’s grace. The stigmata cannot be the object of faith but could, if properly understood, be a support to faith.

Someone could use claims regarding the stigmata for a very unspiritual motive. In the case of Padre Pio, who died in 1968, and was canonized in 2002, some unscrupulous people tried to use his stigmata to their advantage—commercial or otherwise.

Why Are These Symbols Connected With Saints?

Q: I have noticed that many paintings of Saint Jerome include a lion lying at his feet. In other paintings there is a skull. I have noticed similar images in paintings of other saints. I am intrigued by these symbols. What do they mean?

A: Yes, the lion is a very common symbol for Saint Jerome, whose feast we celebrate on September 30. Picturing a wild animal with a saint is a way of saying that holiness restores people to the kind of innocence that Adam and Eve enjoyed at creation. God’s grace leads them full circle.

The conflicts that we take for granted were not part of God’s plan for creation from the very beginning.

In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we read: “Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair” (11:6-8).

When a Bishop Resigns

Q: What happens to a Catholic bishop when he resigns? Where does he go? Does he still have a rank within the Church? What financial assistance does he receive?

A: He remains a bishop and could receive some other assignment from the pope. Or the bishop could retire completely because of age, illness or some other serious reason.

A retired bishop chooses where to live. If he resides in the diocese of which he was bishop, his residence is worked out with the diocesan administrator and eventually the new bishop.

A retired bishop could move back to the area of the country where he grew up or where many of his relatives live. A retired bishop who belongs to a religious order could move to one of his community’s houses.

Although a retired bishop is still a member of the national conference of bishops and is welcome to attend its meetings, there are some matters on which he no longer has a vote. Every diocese is responsible for contributing to the living expenses of its retired bishops, including auxiliary bishops.