Questions Answered

Interpreting the Book of Job; Spiritual Communion: what it is, and what are its benefits.

Job Rebuked by His Friends, by William Blake (1805).

Question: One of the more problematic books in Scripture is the Book of Job. Many Scripture scholars find it impossible to interpret. Is there some interpretation which might see a unifying theme?

Answer: The Book of Job occupies a unique place, not only in Scripture studies, but also in the history of moral theology. The only commentary on this book, which existed in either the Eastern or Western Churches for more than a thousand years, was the Moralia of St. Gregory the Great.  While this commentary is very important, it is to be understood only in the allegorical sense, but not in the literal sense.

Modern Scripture scholars find the book very problematic. One interesting take on the literal sense of Job is the commentary of Thomas Aquinas, who attempted to find a unifying theme in the book. His was the first attempt in the history of the Church to make a literal commentary. As most scholars today find this book puzzling, his interpretation may be as valid as any.

St. Thomas maintained that this book came naturally, after the Law and the Prophets, as an attempt to deal with probable, but not demonstrative, arguments concerning the fact that human events were ruled by divine providence. The suffering of the just was a special instance of this. This problem flew in the face of Old Testament values, which maintained that material prosperity was a reward for virtue, and material adversity, a punishment for sin. Job is declared to be just, and yet he suffers, not only the loss of his family and possessions, but also an assault on his health.  Compounding this general difficulty was the fact that Job is declared just, and a model of patience, and yet he curses the day of his birth, and wishes he were an aborted fetus.

To resolve the first difficulty, it is important to examine the original charge of Satan against Job.  “Not for nothing does Job fear God” (Job 1:9). Satan charges that Job fears God as a means to an end—his material prosperity—and, thus, for a wrong intention. He fears God, not from love, but from profit. This shows a lack of love for God in himself. Man cannot make God a means to an end morally, as God is the final purpose of everything that exists. God permits his testing to demonstrate that Satan is wrong.

The personal reaction of the suffering of the just man is then examined on three levels: passion, reason, and faith. Job’s first reaction to his suffering is from the passions. Those influenced by the Stoics maintained that Job could not have been a just person because his reaction to his sufferings is so passionate and intense. For them, the passions were the enemies of the soul. St. Thomas counters, along with Aristotle, that virtues produce ordered passions. Ordered passions, for him, do not mean slight ones, but those which befit the case. Job’s sufferings were obviously very intense, and so, an intense reaction from sorrow is not evil. In fact, Jesus felt such intense sorrow at his passion that he could say: “my soul is sorrowful even unto death” (Mk. 14:34). Job demonstrates that he is not irrational, because he does not curse God, but accepts this suffering.

The arguments with the friends, which occupy the bulk of the book, demonstrate a reasoned argument about the suffering of the just. Aquinas maintains that the conclusion is that since the resurrection of the dead is the final reward for being a just person, God can permit the just to suffer material injustice, because their souls will still hope in him, and remain fixed in him. This fact glorifies God because God is seen as the ultimate reward for human life. Material goods are means to this end. He treats the wicked with patience because, since they are materialists, they might despair if they suffered a complete denial of material goods. He does this in the hope of their conversion.

In the last section of the book, God resolves the question under dispute from the point of view of eternity. He convicts Job of speaking rashly, but convicts the friends of errors in theology. God always permits evil for good. In this case, the good is that Job’s right and proper intention of loving God is demonstrated to Job himself, to the friends, and, finally, to the confounding of Satan. This problem has also allowed God to reveal in faith that the nature of man can only finally be fulfilled in heaven, and that the material sufferings of this earth are never directly willed by God.


Question: In the recent discussions concerning the Synod on the Family, the question was broached about spiritual communion. Pope Benedict recommended that people who are divorced, and in an irregular second marriage, could make a spiritual communion. Some suggested that if that were the case, why they could not receive Holy Communion also? What is spiritual communion, and what are its benefits?

Answer: In a landmark article published to guide synodal reflection in Nova et Vetera, August 2014, “Recent Proposals for the Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried: A Theological Perspective” (henceforth: RP), a number of theologians offered guidance in this regard.

The term “spiritual communion” can be interpreted in many ways. It could refer to the union of the soul with God, which is the inner completion of the actual reception of Communion. It could also refer to an act of faith motivated by charity, which a person could make when he or she could not attend Mass every day, in place of the actual reception of Communion. A third possibility is that it could also refer to “the desire for Communion of a person conscious of grave sin or living in a situation that objectively contradicts the moral law, who does not yet have a perfect communion with Christ in faith and charity” (RP, 11).

The third case is certainly different from the other two. In the first two cases, the person is merely expressing an extension of a rich spiritual life which is founded in the sacraments, and presumes that one is already in the state of grace.

The third case presumes that the impediment to the sacramental reception of Holy Communion is based on a moral difficulty which cannot be resolved except by confession, and amending the condition which renders sacramental Communion impossible at the time. In this situation, making a spiritual communion, stimulated by actual grace, can effectively lead a person to desire to renounce the impediment which precludes him receiving the sacrament. “But—and this is the key—this desire is valuable precisely insofar as it aids him to renounce the obstacle”(Italics Original) (RP, 11).

If there were a general permission on the part of the Church to engage in sacramental Communion, without removing the moral impediment, this would give ecclesiastical blessing to a condition in which a person received Holy Communion while still in the state of objective sin. This would certainly give the impression that such a reception is, not only possible, but desirable.

It would be impossible for the Church to maintain that confession was necessary for other grave sins before the reception of Holy Communion. It is under this rubric that the authors of this fine article view the encouragement of Pope Benedict to “spiritual communion.” It was his hope that this would lead them to repent of their situation, and seek to regularize their marital state.  Equivocation on this point simply communicates that this resolution is unnecessary. Could not adultery and premarital sex, pornography, masturbation, or child abuse be viewed under the same umbrella?

The Church has always encouraged Catholics in this state to not separate themselves from Christian practice. This includes attendance at Mass on Sunday to fulfill their obligation. One must remember that the precept is fulfilled by attendance at the Sacrifice of the Mass, and not by sacramental Communion, though this is desirable, and the most complete participation. The Church certainly does not wish to abandon those who are in difficulty from union with the Church, insofar as their condition allows. Christian mercy demands that they be treated with respect and encouragement, and not shunned.

The authors view the tendency to simply omit interest in this immoral condition as an affirmation of the “fundamental option” school of thought which was so roundly condemned by Pope John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor. This school of thought, based in existentialism, argued that no single act can ever so separate one from grace that the sinner could be condemned to hell for that act. Instead, “the whole of one’s life option” has to be considered. This school of thought made a distinction between grave sin, which they interpreted as merely material violation of the commandments, and mortal sin, which would involve a choice completely against God. The impression was left that individual evil acts are grave sins, but not necessarily mortal sins. Only things like apostasy would be a “complete life option” against God. One had to be intending to deny God by committing a particular act in order for that act to preclude the existence of grace and, therefore, be a mortal sin.

The long and the short of it is that the “spiritual communion” generally recommended by the Church is not an attempt to deny the actual condition of loss of grace, which some individual acts cause, but rather an invitation to repent.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, “Questions Answered.”

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Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
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  1. Avatar Alphonsus M. Gusiora says:

    Thank you for the opportunity rehook once again with my cherished magazine: HPR. It had been a sort of a resource material to me. Here I’m put in touch with some of my favorite one time professors like Fr. Mullady OP.
    It is more grease to your elbows.
    Fr. Alphonsus Mary Gusiora SFO.