What are angels?
Angels are purely spiritual beings created by God. Strictly speaking, the word angel (from the Greek for “messenger”) refers to their office, not their nature. In other words, the good spirits who interact with human beings are called angels, whereas those who operate strictly in heaven are more precisely called spirits. However, it is traditional and acceptable to call all of them angels. They are not eternal in the way that God is, that is, existing before the outside of time. Rather, they are eternal in the same way human souls are: once created, they exist forever. Because they do not have bodies, they do not experience the separation of body and soul which we call death.
God used his intellect in conceiving of the universe, and his free will in choosing to create it. Like human beings, angels are created in the image of God, which means they have intellect and free will; they are capable of thought and can choose courses of action. Unlike human beings still on earth, angels do not have to think about what God wants them to do; God enlightens them as to his will, or it may be the case that they consult the divine will as to what should be done (Summa Theologica I:107:3). Since seeing the glory of God perpetually gives them happiness to the utmost capacity of their natures, it is impossible for angels not to desire and follow his will.
Being purely spiritual affects the intellectual capabilities of angels in several ways. They do not have emotions as human beings do, so their choices are not influenced by passions such as fear and anger; rather, they act based purely on their intellect. Because the angelic intellect is not physical, i.e., is not connected to a brain, angels do not reason step-by-step to a conclusion as human beings do; instead, they have concepts in mind all at once. For example, when choosing a course of action, angels do not spend time considering different possibilities; they can see all the possibilities at once and immediately make their decision.
Time is also different for angels than it is for material beings. Humans comprehend the passage of time by physical means, such as the intellectual capacity of the brain, changes in the body, and the perceptions of the senses. Angels don’t use such physical agency, so they do not experience time passing in the same way. Whether keeping a star in motion for billions of years or speaking for a few minutes to a human being, angels do not tire, do not grow bored, and do not wonder how long until God wills them to do something else.
Adapted from a Q&A published by Catholic Answers “20 Answers: Angels & Demons" (San Diego: Catholic Answers, 2016) www.catholic.com
Can angels be male or female? I thought they were neither.
You are correct. Angels are pure intellects that do not have physical forms and do not reproduce sexually. Indeed, angels do not reproduce at all; God created each of them out of nothing at the dawn of creation. They are numerous, immaterial, and immortal, so they don’t need to reproduce.
Sexual reproduction is something God designed many earthly creatures to do. Others he designed to reproduce asexually (for example, by mitosis). But since he designed angels not to reproduce, he didn’t design them to be male or female.
Angels may appear to have gender in visions or in artwork, but that is just symbolism that makes it easier for us to think about them. If we were being strictly literal they couldn’t be seen in visions or depicted in artwork because, according to their immaterial nature, they have no visible or physical forms at all.
Is there is a Vatican document stating that we are not to name our guardian angels? Do you know which document and why?
The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy states: “Popular devotion to the holy angels, which is legitimate and good, can, however, also give rise to possible deviations . . . [such as the] practice of assigning names to the holy angels [which] should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael whose names are contained in holy Scripture” (217).
Perhaps the practice is discouraged because guardian angels are creatures of God, with their own personal dignity and vastly superior nature and intellect. They guard us because it is the will of God that they do so, but we should not presume to know the name given them by God and should not presume to demand a name of them. If such a name is revealed without our initiative, then that would be a private revelation that should be vetted first for supernatural origin by a trusted confessor or spiritual director.
I heard that we get our guardian angels at baptism. Is this true, and does it mean that the babies of non-Christians do not have guardian angels?
The idea that we get our guardian angels at baptism is a speculation, not a teaching of the Church. The common opinion among Catholic theologians is that all people, regardless of whether they are baptized, have guardian angels at least from the time of their birth (see Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma [Rockford: TAN, 1974], 120); some have suggested that prior to birth babies are taken care of by their mothers' guardian angels.
The view that everyone has a guardian angel seems well founded in Scripture. In Matthew 18:10 Jesus states, "See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven." He said this before the Crucifixion and was speaking about Jewish children. It would therefore seem that non-Christian, not just Christian (baptized) children have guardian angels.
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