Looking Askance at Angels

Looking Askance at Angels October 4, 2011

Over at Virtuous Pla.net, Father Ryan Erlenbush has posted a primer on guardian angels. Generally, this whole topic tends to fall into the same category as the Trinity in yesterday’s post: it’s a hypothesis so dependent on Christianity already being true that it feels pretty irrelevant to comment on here. The reason I remark on it at all is because the specifics of the piece are setting off my scriptural fanfiction detector. Here are some of the specifics Fr. Erlenbush discusses:

When did I receive my angel guardian?
At the moment of conception. Your angel was given to you even before the graces of baptism! This is because angels are given to human beings on account of our reason, not on account of baptismal grace.
Was my angel someone else’s guardian before mine?
Probably not. Every human being receives one angel. It is, however, theoretically possible (though not at all likely) that an angel could be re-assigned if their first human was condemned to hell.
Does my guardian angel know everything I do and everything I think?
Yes, your angel knows everything about you and can “read your soul”, as it were. Still, the most intimate recesses of your heart are known by God alone – this is why Mary’s angel (probably Gabriel) was amazed when her glory was revealed at the Assumption.
Do my sins make my angel sad?
Not really. Your angel enjoys the perfect vision of God and so cannot be sad; for all who see God are perfectly happy. Just as God wills to permit you to sin, so too your angel permits your fall – this does not make him sad, for he takes joy in God’s plan. Still, it is likely that your angel experiences a general displeasure at your sins.
Can my angel guardian change the physical world around me?
Yes. St. Gemma Galgani would regularly ask her guardian angel to mail letters for her – many letters were sent back and forth to her spiritual director while he was in Rome.

Ok, can anyone give me the foggiest idea where Fr. Erlenbush is sourcing this all from?  We’re only up to Jeremiah in the King and I Project, but between that and Mass readings I can’t come up with anything giving this level of detail on the topic.  I might write this off as Dante-like embroidery of doctrine, but, given that the author is a priest, should I assume he’s going on more than whimsy?

This kind of theology always seems especially suspect to me because of its self-indulgence:  human beings as so important that they merit the constant attentions of divine beings.  I almost imagine the colossal importance of humans warping the fabric of spacetime (soultime?) to keep angels in perpetual orbit.  It sounds like the kind of story people would invent, whether or not it were true.

Anyone have an explanation of where this is coming from and if it really is intrinsically bound up in Catholic theology?

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  • Not sure about these particular points, but a lot of Catholicism Angelology comes from St Thomas Aquinas (who was called the "angelic doctor" for a reason). From what I understand, apart from the basics (angels are non-material beings who were given a irrevocable choice to follow God and to protect and guide us), most of it is in the realm of theory – not required belief. I'd be interested to hear more sources.

  • Well, the Catholic word for "scriptureal fanfiction" is "pius belief" (as in, a belief basically compatible with doctrine and held by many Catholics, but not definitely taught by the Church) but as far as the details that Father Erlenbush is listing here, I think your classification of them is about right.Going from the Catholic Encyclopedia (which if anything tends to come down very much on the conservative side of things) the entry on Guardian Angels says:That every individual soul has a guardian angel has never been defined by the Church, and is, consequently, not an article of faith; but it is the "mind of the Church", as St. Jerome expressed it: "how great the dignity of the soul, since each one has from his birth an angel commissioned to guard it." (Comm. in Matt., xviii, lib. II). This belief in guardian angels can be traced throughout all antiquity; pagans, like Menander and Plutarch (cf. Eusebius, "Praep. Evang.", xii), and Neo-Platonists, like Plotinus, held it. It was also the belief of the Babylonians and Assyrians, as their monuments testify, for a figure of a guardian angel now in the British Museum once decorated an Assyrian palace, and might well serve for a modern representation; while Nabopolassar, father of Nebuchadnezzar the Great, says: "He (Marduk) sent a tutelary deity (cherub) of grace to go at my side; in everything that I did, he made my work to succeed." In the Bible this doctrine is clearly discernible and its development is well marked.http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07049c.htmThe full article goes on to trace references that seem to indicate guardian angels through the OT, NT and the writings of various saints.

  • "What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?"I wouldn't call it self-indulgence, if it begins in awe — and there are in fact some scattered lines that suggest that people (at least good and holy people) each have an angelic protector. But no Christian would regard this as a right — it's a divine gift. And St. Thomas, for one, is very clear that only the weakest and least important angels are entrusted with such a minor duty.This leads to the more important reason why self-importance is far from Christian angelology: according to most of the theologians, there are vastly more angels than people, and they are more intelligent and more powerful than any human could be. The angelic orders were to the medieval mind kind of like dark matter is to the modern mind — the invisible but indispensable preponderance of creation. There are some passages in theological works that make mankind sound almost like an afterthought.

  • Here's a link to an article by Dr. Peter Kreeft that's a good primer on angels.http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/angels.htm

  • Karen LH

    I’m not really an expert, but the Catholic Encyclopedia has a bit on the subject (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07049c.htm) and the Catechism has about one sentence in CCC335 (http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p1s2c1p5.htm#335). It looks like it’s a tradition rather than something that’s an article of faith. On the other hand, a lot of people have believed it, for whatever that’s worth.

    What I do know, however, is you should find a different angel picture. Every time an angel shows up in Scripture, the first words out of his mouth are: “Be not afraid.”

  • David F

    Almost all of the angelic material given here is nonscriptural and considered private revelation, primarily from the writings and visions of saints. This material is not dogmatically required to be believed. The most the Catholic church will say about any private revelation is that it is “worthy of belief” and that is rare.

    That said there are many angelic references in the writings of saints, but as St. Teresa of Avilla, who had her own visions, points out visions are not crucial to the faith and are in fact dangerous as they may lead to vanity. In other words, this doctor of the Church warns us to be skeptical about private revelations. In her case however the great saint is not skeptical about angels or visions but rather, what kind of angel (fallen or faithful) one is seeing and the truth of the information acquired.

  • Gilbert

    Four points:1. What Darwin said.*I think the belief that there are angels is actually revealed and non-optional. Everyone having a guardian angel is probably not obligatory but strongly suggested. There is a feast of the guardian angels (the occasion of the article) and they are also mentioned in the Catechism, so the Church has thrown some authority behind them. But that's it, all the details are clearly optional.2. Fr. Erlenbush gets most of what he says, as he notes, from the first part of the summa theologica of St. Thomas of Aquin, questions 50-64 and 106-114. St. Thomas rightly gets loads of respect because he was the Church's greatest philosopher. But he is not an authoritative source of doctrine. If fact on the question of the immaculate conception his opinion was meanwhile infallibly declared wrong. On the angels Thomas is working out the details of a philosophical system and indeed taking the most plausible turn at every junction. But this is far beyond the actual revelation and I don't think plausibility is a good guide that far from firm territory. So I would be inclined to think most of it is probably bunk, though I can't say where exactly he would be going wrong. This is the sort of stuff that gave rise to the angels dancing on pins parody. 3. Some stuff also comes from private revelation, i.e. people who claim to have been contacted by supernatural beings after apostolic times. This happens, but Catholics are not bound to believe any particular instance. The Church just sorts private revelations into "clearly false" and "optional" but doesn't have a "clearly right" bucket. 4. I would reject the self-indulgence argument though. People have only limited attention, so if we pay a lot of attention to something it is presumably very important or else we would be paying that attention to other things. But that argument doesn't transfer to God. God's attention is not limited and therefore doesn't need to be focused, so we don't have to be that special to get lots of it. And if he exercises it via angels he presumably created enough of them for all the relevant tasks.
    * In a comment at the old site, made, like this one, after the cutoff date for transfer, which he may or may not repost here.

  • Ken

    Allow for one point of clarification, please. You refer to angels as “divine beings.” They are not divine. Only God is divine. Angels are creatures of pure spirit.

  • maiki

    repost from other blog… Citations:

    Catechism reference on angels:


    Not much on guardian angels except that you have one.

    also: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/ccdds/documents/rc_con_ccdds_doc_20020513_vers-direttorio_en.html

    Around #213 it talks about popular piety and devotions to angels.