Last week the Catholic Church celebrated the Feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael on Tuesday, and the Memorial of the Guardian Angels on Friday.
Curious Catholics may wonder what exactly the Church teaches about angels (and demons) and what it allows as—even encourages, but does not definitively teach to be—common piety, spirituality, or theological opinion. The surprising answer is that the Church definitively teaches very little about the angels.
What does the Church hold as truths of faith concerning the angels? Simply, that they exist, that they are created ex nihilo by God (like all other creatures), and that they are persons, and therefore spiritual (that is, having within them in some mode of reason, intelligence, will, and freedom). They are agents for good.
Similarly, there exist fallen angels. These—the devil and his demons—were also created good and ex nihilo by God, sinned, and are permanently separated from God’s friendship. The nature of their choice, and no deficiency in divine mercy, accounts for the irrevocability of their perdition. They are agents of evil.
Scripture speaks of angels often. Of the archangels whom we celebrated last week, two appear in the New Testament. Raphael appears only in the Book of Tobit. Gabriel appears only in Luke’s Gospel narrative of the Annunciation and once in the Book of Daniel. Michael also is mentioned in Daniel and appears in the Book of Revelation and Jude’s epistle.
Angels commonly assist in the carrying out of God’s will. They do this both by executing divine commands and assisting those faithful to God. Angels stand watch over the Garden of Eden after the Fall. Christ reveals that legions of angels are at his command (Mt 26:53). We are told that angels ministered to Christ in the desert after he had passed Satan’s temptations (Mt 4:11) and that the angels in heaven ascend and descend the realm of heaven, ministering to Jesus (Jn 1:51).
At other times, angels communicate divine messages to human persons. Each of the Gospels places an angel (or two!) in the empty tomb of Christ to announce his resurrection. Gabriel tells Mary of God’s plans for her.
The angels praise God in Heaven. The Book of Job tells us that during creation, “the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy” (38:7). The Book of Revelation speaks of angels eternally praising the throne of God.
Finally, Scripture speaks also of the fallen angels. One of these fallen angels is supreme among the rest (the devil), and other angels fell with him. Together they tempt man, were implicated in the sin of Adam, and work against God’s plans. Though powerful, the devil and his demons are still creatures; their power does not rival God’s and is ultimately subordinate to and permitted by it.
Etymologically, our word “angel” derives from the Latin angelus and the Greek ἄγγελος (aggelos), both of which mean “messenger.” We can see why. Angels in scripture most commonly fulfill the role of “bearing messages,” either by carrying out God’s commands or by communicating his will to others or by signifying (as messengers do) God’s presence and comfort to the afflicted or the imperiled.
Many other Catholic beliefs about angels abound in liturgy, piety, and theology.
The liturgy of the Eucharist, in the Mass, mentions angels at several points, including as having functions to perform in the Mass. Satan is mentioned in Baptismal vows and renewals of vows.
Saint Basil the Great (d. 379) was one of the earliest figures in the Christian tradition to speak recognizably of guardian angels: “Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life.” Prayerful devotion to one’s guardian angel, and to the intercessory power of the angels generally, is widespread.
Several great theological traditions, gathered up most decisively in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, speculate about the nature of the “nine choirs” of angels, about their relative powers and duties in this world and in heaven, and about how angels relate to time and space. While much of this theological opinion is widely held and affirmed, it has not been definitively taught by the Church as necessary for Catholics to hold.
While the angels and their nature(s) and particular vocation(s) are fascinating subjects, we should remember that God’s revelations through Scripture and Tradition make known to us only what we need to know for our salvation. Whatever Scripture and Tradition reveal and teach about angels, good and evil, presents these powerful persons only as in relationship to the mysteries of the faith, including, centrally, the mysteries of Jesus Christ.
While theological speculation and pietistic devotion about the angels can be informative and fruitful, we should resist the temptation to indulge idle curiosity regarding them. Satan’s evil works and empty promises are already all too familiar to us, and we can and should hope that we will communicate with the good angels themselves, someday, in the heavenly kingdom in which they await us.
Michael Bradley is pursuing a master’s degree in theology from Notre Dame and is editor-in-chief emeritus of the Irish Rover. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org