“Angels in the History of the Church,”
by Father John Hardon
(The Catholic Faith, September/October 1998)
Father Hardon writes, “Towards the end of the first century, about 90 AD, Pope St. Clement I published a famous letter to the Corinthians … he urged them to ‘consider the whole multitude of the angels, how they stand to minister to the divine will.’ The logic of Pope Clement was that the angels who remained faithful by their submission to God's will were rewarded with heavenly beatitude. They are also the ones who are sent to help us cope with the deepest problem in our own lives. This is the problem of subjecting ourselves to those in legitimate authority as an act of loving submission to the will of God.
“Four centuries later, a bishop by the name of Priscillian developed his own ideas about God and the world of creation. He made the astounding claim that the angels were mere emanations of the Godhead.
“Clearly this was simply a form of pantheism, which claimed that spiritual beings are not really distinct from God…. Priscillian himself was executed by civil authority in 385 AD, but his ideas… are still pervasive in our day. At root, Priscillianism is just another form of Manichaeism. Both heresies claim that there are two creators, one good and the other evil. They are in constant conflict with one another. … Behind these errors is the basic falsehood that the material world is essentially evil. It is supposed to be the creation of the evil spirit, who is himself a deity. As the Church's history shows, this is almost a pattern of all moral error, denying that we ourselves have a free will.”
Centuries later, the article continues, “the most authoritative declaration of the Church on the angels was made by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 AD. … Fourth Lateran had to cope with a resurgent Manichaeism, now masked under a new name as Albigensianism…. Once again, the underlying issue was the origin of moral evil in the world…. This time the issue at stake is how the devil became a devil. Was it because he is an uncreated evil being, or did he become evil by his own free will? ‘The devil and the other demons were created by God good according to their nature, but they made themselves evil by their own doing…. As for man, his sin was at the prompting of the devil.’ We may say that the whole foundation of the Church's doctrine on the angels is contained in this irreversible teaching of the Fourth Lateran Council.
Not only are the angels real but they are our constant guides and protectors as we go through time into eternity.
“The most extensive dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church … was occasioned by the rise of Protestantism…. Even when [Protestants] speak eloquently about the providential role of angels as agents of God, they never budge on what is basic Catholic teaching, that we can invoke the angels and ask them to obtain from God what we need.”
Father Hardon then discusses “a new series of six conferences by Pope John Paul II” on the role of angels, in which “the Holy Father first of all defends the existence of angels,” but his main focus lies on their providential roles as pure spirits by which they “are nearer to him than material creatures, and… constitute as it were the closest circle to the Creator.”
John Paul II then draws “on the massive evidence of Scripture and Tradition” to “bring out how important the angels are in our own spiritual lives. … Our materialistic culture has seduced millions into identifying reality with materiality and has practically identified spirituality as unreality. Not only are the angels real but they are our constant guides and protectors as we go through time into eternity.” They are moral counterparts of the devils, who “use deceit for the mind to mislead the will into sin. The most basic lie in the devil's vocabulary is the claim that we, and not God, are masters of our own lives.”
“Anyone who sees what is going on in the modern world has no doubt how active the devil is in our day,” Father Hardon writes. “What Pope John Paul warns us against is discouragement that may even tempt some people to despair… Christ and not Satan will win the final victory over the human race.”
Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidsonville, Maryland.