Comment Opinion & Features

Dear Fr Rutler: Do I have to give up smoking to go to heaven?

I noticed there’s a new family in my parish this Sunday and I was struck by one of their girls. She has curly brown hair and the sweetest, most bashful smile. I managed to keep my mind on the Mass, but now I can’t stop thinking about her. Is there such thing as love at first sight?
Frederick J from New York, NY

I assume that you are a guileless youth, unburdened by any pathology. What you describe is not without precedent in human history. Jacob fell for Rachel that way and, before that, so did Isaac when he saw Rebekah. Less fortunate was the case of David and Bathsheba, but the problem there was not that he saw her, but that he saw too much of her.

Love at first sight is a gift of eros, and our Creator has wired man for that, but not as an end in itself. As Lorenz Hart lyricised, “Falling in love with love / Is falling for make-believe.” Hart himself was a depressed bachelor who died from alcoholism.

In order to get eros right, as well as friendship and affection, you need agape, which is love that moves outside the self toward God. Bear in mind that God does not love us because we are loveable, which to be honest we are not, but because He is love (1 John 4:8). Focus on that, and you will not be so distracted at Mass – not even by a girl’s hair and bashful smile. With more experience you may come to learn that she is not as bashful as you think.

My husband and I decided to homeschool our children due to the appalling state of public and Catholic schools near our home. However, we’re concerned they’re not socialising enough outside our homeschool group. You can tell we’re products of the Age of the Internet. Where did Catholics use to go to socialise before social media?
Carol L from Pasadena, CA

Homeschooling is not the problem, because social skills have deteriorated across the population, largely because of narcissism. A morally isolated Gen Z is said to be the loneliest age group ever surveyed. One study by a life insurance company, concerned about the volatile increase in suicides among the young, claims that loneliness causes more deaths than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

A happy home life is more important than many social events. The breakdown of cohesive neighbourhoods where parishes were social centres is serious, but the family is the ecclesiola or “little church”. Gatherings where young people are riveted to their smartphones foster collective loneliness.

I betray a prejudice when I say that classic films and books can teach more about the manners of living than what are ominously called “youth events”.

Our priest is always going on about the evils of tobacco and booze. I’m sure Jesus wouldn’t have completely approved of my conduct as an undergrad, but now I’m a practising Catholic with a wife and six children. I say my rosary every day and I volunteer with the St Vincent de Paul Society. Surely a glass of whiskey and a few cigarettes aren’t going to damn my eternal soul. Or are they?
Abraham P from Sarasota, FL

In the 19th century the Capuchin Fr Theobald Mathew had success in promoting abstinence, in no small part because of his affability – unlike Carrie Nation, who drove men to drink more than they had before. We cannot think that monks are damned because they perfected distilleries and breweries. In Ireland, whiskey was once identified religiously, with Jameson being Catholic while Bushmills was Protestant. Pope Leo XIII, who died at 93, gave a gold medal to the inventor of Vin Mariani which he kept in a hip flask, unaware of its cocaine content; and it was the preferred drink of St Pope Pius X. They also gave snuff boxes as souvenirs. But if Our Lord had wanted people to smoke vile cigarettes, he would not have given the world cigars. Chesterton always made the Sign of the Cross with his match before he lit up.

I have a few rosaries given to me as gifts that are so beautiful, they’re distracting. It’s like baking a cake that looks so good you don’t even want to eat it. I can’t pray with them. What’s a good rule of thumb for rosaries? Can they be too ornate? Would I be ungrateful if I went on using the wooden number I bought for $7 on Amazon?
Anne C from Boston, MA

We put a man on the Moon, but it is still hard to make a rosary that does not break. I prefer industrial strength rosaries to fancy ones, but beauty can attract as well as distract. Were that not so, we should put Venetian blinds on the stained-glass windows of Chartres.

Fr George Rutler is the pastor of St Michael’s Church in New York City. To seek his advice, write to [email protected]