Angels are a 'truth of faith'

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, September 25, 2011

Angels we have heard on high,” according to the Christmas carol, and “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here …” the prayer says.

Catholics also are familiar with the story of the archangel Gabriel appearing to Mary and telling her that she would become the mother of Jesus.

But most Catholics also are familiar with Clarence, the angel assigned to persuade George Bailey not to kill himself in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Clarence clearly lived sometime in the 19th century — he loved “Tom Sawyer” but never got a chance to read “Huckleberry Finn” — and was hoping to succeed in his mission so that he could “get his wings.”

Such images of angels in popular culture often obscure the truth about them, but their existence is an article of faith, said Peter Kreeft, a Boston College philosophy professor whose books include “Angels and Demons: What Do We Really Know About Them?”

The answer, Kreeft said, is quite a bit.

Angels are mentioned throughout the Bible, from Genesis to the Book of Revelation. They have their own section in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and were a topic for St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Blessed Pope John Paul II.

The catechism says: “The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls ‘angels’ is a truth of faith. The witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition” (see CCC No. 328).

In a 1986 catechesis on angels, Blessed Pope John Paul II said of angels: “Their purely spiritual being implies first of all their nonmateriality and their immortality. The angels have no ‘body’ (even if, in particular circumstances, they reveal themselves under visible forms because of their mission for the good of men), and therefore they are not subject to the laws of corruptibility, which are common to all the material world.”

He went on to say, “Let us note that Sacred Scripture and tradition give the proper name of angels to those pure spirits who chose God, his glory, and his kingdom in the fundamental test of their liberty. They are united to God by the consummate love which flows from the beatific vision, face to face, of the Most Holy Trinity.”

Created spirits

According to Scripture and tradition, Kreeft said, we know this: “Angels are created spirits.  They have intellects and wills but no bodies.  The ‘job’ of the ones mentioned in Scripture is to be God’s messengers and instruments to mankind. Jesus said that children have guardian angels. They are not ghosts or gods.”

Indeed, the church has a name for people who have died and gone to heaven: They are saints, not angels, said Joan Wester Anderson, a Northwest suburban author who has written several books recounting people’s experiences with what they believe to be angels.

Her books enjoyed a surge of popularity in the 1990s and early 2000s, when angels became something of a fad. There were angel clubs with hundreds of members, angel stores and angel lapel pins. Around the same time, “Touched by an Angel” aired on broadcast television. Most of that has died down, although the angel clubs live on with fewer members.

Many people who were involved did not seem to have a spiritual connection to angels, Anderson said, being more interested in things like collectible Hummel figurines. But if the popular interest in angels led some people to explore the real nature of angels, she said, it probably had some good effect.

‘We can only imagine’

Part of the difficulty, Kreeft said, is that people create their ideas of angels in their own images, because of the limitations of our own imaginations.

“We cannot imagine them, since they are pure spirits; we can only imagine the different ways in which they have appeared, or can appear, to our senses,” Kreeft said. “Most of these are human-looking.”
But that doesn’t mean angels are in any way cute or cuddly, he said.

“If angels were in fact cute, safe, sentimental, airy, smiley-face things, no problem.” he said. “If, on the other hand, the Bible and the saints do not lie when they say they are not like this but such that they often have to say ‘Fear not’ to us, then this is an artistic way of lying.”

It’s the same thing we do with God, Kreeft said.

“Why do you think C.S. Lewis’s Aslan (from the Chronicles of Narnia) is so powerful and beloved a figure? Because he keeps the ‘good but terrible’ paradox. Hard to do well, though. How many paintings of angels do you know that make the hair on your neck stand up?”

Kreeft and Anderson agree that angels are active in the world now, just as they were in the past. Jesus said all children have guardian angels, and he never said the angels leave those children when they grow up.

“Just as God reveals what we need to know, he sends angels when we most need them,” Kreeft said. “We do not know what times these are; that is why angels usually surprise us. God, however, does know what these times are, both in the lives of each individual and in history.”