“Kids do not need wishy-washiness. They need us to graciously, firmly, consistently stand up for the truth.
At my son’s large public high school it is not uncommon to see kids in various states of “gender fluidity,” but not simply in the sense of feminine boys and tomboy girls as I saw back in my own public high school in the 1980s. No, these kids are either formally “transitioning” or experimenting with opposite-sex alter-egos, both of which have become trendy and faddish.
As parents, we are often lulled by a misguided compassion that keeps us from sharing the truth, even in a loving way. If your compassion (or, let’s face it, cowardice) leads you to silence about or sympathy for sin, you are playing into the hands of a truth-denying culture that endangers many souls.
Kids do not need wishy-washiness. They need us to graciously, firmly, consistently stand up for the truth.
Remember the words of St. Paul, who hoped that “we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:14-15).
Your gracious confidence in these discussions is paramount, so ask the Holy Spirit to give you plenty of it! After all, Jesus said “Ask and it will be given to you!” (Matt 7:7).
It’s one thing for a person to claim to be transgender, but quite another to force others to go along with this claim against their will
One source of conflict in your kids’ culture might be which pronouns to use for those who identify as transgender. Your teen might be caught up in a discussion about a transgender celebrity, or have a biologically male classmate who now has a female appearance and a new name, and who demands to be addressed with “she” and “her.”
These pronoun battles actually present an opportunity for Catholics to turn the tables on critics and point out how they are imposing their morality on us. After all, it’s one thing for a person to claim to be transgender, but quite another to force others to go along with this claim against their will, even requiring them to speak words they don’t believe.
If your teen gets cornered on this subject, or even challenges you on it, return to first principles: it’s wrong to lie. Additionally, a lie becomes more serious when it is spoken about something significant. This shifts the focus from your child (or you) to the real issue. Here’s how this might play out:
Tom: Why do you keep saying [man who claims he’s a woman] is a he? That’s really hurtful!
Mary: I’m not trying to hurt anyone, but please see where I’m coming from. It’s wrong to lie, and if I say [man who claims he’s a woman] is a woman, that would make me a liar.
Tom: But it’s not a lie! If she says she is a woman then she is a woman.
Mary: Wait, are you saying that merely saying or believing you’re a woman makes you a woman? Why should I believe that? Can a person change his race or his species in the same way?
Tom: Well, it’s her own sense of self that matters!
Mary: But that still doesn’t make it true. There’s no evidence, in science or in anything we can measure, that “gender” exists except in the imagination. Morally, I am not allowed to lie for anyone. I hope you can respect that my faith requires me to be honest and speak only what is true.
Identity or Reality?
When a person has body dysphoria unrelated to sex or “gender,” everyone understands that the person needs help. When an anorexic looks in the mirror, she might see someone who is obese, even if she weighs much less than everyone else her age. We don’t tell that girl, “That’s right, you are overweight, and we will help you reach the weight that’s right for you.”
Instead, we say, “What you perceive yourself to be, well, that isn’t you. In reality, you are dangerously underweight, and because we love you, we aren’t going to help you harm yourself.” That is the loving response.
Another body dysphoria concerns people who identify as being amputees or paraplegics even though they have all their limbs and can walk. Doctors call this Body Integrity Identity Disorder (BIID), but some who have this disorder say instead that they are “trans-abled.” Like those who identify as transgender, these people feel disconnected from their own bodies; they seek out doctors to paralyze them or amputate their limbs so that they can be who they “truly are.”
One researcher in Canada (who identifies as transgender but not trans-able) explains that the transgender community hasn’t supported the trans-able community because the former doesn’t want its recent momentum in the court of public opinion to grind to a halt by association with the latter, which almost everyone still understands to be a serious pathology.
Yet if we are rightly disgusted that a doctor would amputate the healthy limbs of a person who suffers from BIID, then why aren’t we equally disgusted by doctors amputating the healthy genitals of persons who identify as transgender? This mental gymnastics of holding both positions at once (trans-able = bad; transgender = good) is not tenable unless we completely obliterate in our own minds that man and woman mean something objectively, as we know that healthy and disabled do.
Issues vs. Individuals
The way we talk about issues generally is going to be different from the way we talk to people personally, especially those who are working through these issues. This means that we must meet each person where he is and as prudence dictates while refusing to be silenced from speaking Christ’s truth generally.
I wholeheartedly believe, as the Church teaches, that transgender ideology is unreasonable and dangerous; however, my heart breaks for those who are truly confused about their own nature and identity, and who struggle with any kind of body dysphoria or disorder.
Teach your older children that, when they talk with someone who identifies as transgender or loves someone who does, they should spend time listening and asking open-ended questions that allow the person to share his experience. This builds rapport and goodwill and will give them time to put their own thoughts together when sharing the truth that applies to all. Then, they can discuss our common identity as children of God and stress that we don’t want to lie about people or treat them with disrespect.
Your teen can express to the person that one’s “sense of gender” is not what ultimately defines human identity. The goodness and fulfillment of each person can only be found in the God who loves us, created us, and who can even use the trials and sufferings in our lives to make us complete and truly happy.
When your child’s friends have been lied to and gone down dark paths that can never bring true or lasting happiness, when they are weary and broken and at the end of their rope, your well-formed child may be the only one left who has never lied to them. This is what we want our children to be for others—imitating Christ in both love and truth—and it’s what a confused world needs them to be. As long as they are strong enough in their own interior faith life and in their understanding of natural law truths, they will be the ones to help pick up the pieces for their friends and others who have been victims of a merciless culture.
Remember . . .
We should tell those who force transgender ideology that we cannot lie about people, biology, and human nature, and that it is unfair for them to demand that we do.
People clearly recognize other body dysphoria and identity disorders related to race or disability. We should point out the double standard when those same symptoms in “gender” identity issues are ignored or denied.
We must be compassionate with those who struggle with their identity, encouraging them to find their true identity in the loving God who created them in His image.”
“It’s no secret that the Catholic Church has rules. Catholics are obliged to attend Mass every Sunday and every holy day of obligation. We have to fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstain from meats on Fridays during Lent. We have to confess our sins at least once a year, and so on.
Some Protestants have a problem with this since they tend to associate rules with the kind of vain, works-based religion that Christ has done away with. A favorite passage of those who make this challenge is Galatians 5:1, where Paul writes, “For freedom, Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
With all its rules, is the Catholic Church submitting Christians to a yoke of slavery?
The answer is no.
First, the yoke of slavery that Paul is talking about is clearly intended to be the yoke of the Mosaic Law, not laws in general. For example, in the verses following the passage in question, he writes,
“Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace . . . For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.” (Gal. 5:2-6)
Notice that circumcision, which is an example par excellence of a precept from the Mosaic Law, is the focus of the passage. This is a clue that it’s the rules associated with the Mosaic Law or “works of the law” (Gal. 2:16) that Paul is calling the “yoke of slavery,” not rules in general.
Second, all communities and families need rules—Christianity is no different. Virtually all Protestants agree that rules can serve a good purpose. Nations and communities need laws. Sports need rules and referees to enforce them. Households have family rules for how children should behave. You can’t just do whatever you want in a family if you want peaceful coexistence.
If rules are good for family life, especially in a home where parents love their kids and one another, then they are good for the Church—since the Church is the family of God (1 Tim. 3:15). If God’s Church is his household, then it’s reasonable for him to have rules to govern its members for the sake of maintaining peace and order.
Of course, Protestant communities aren’t strangers to rules and laws. For example, many say that a person has to be fully immersed in water for his baptism to be valid. Some forbid the drinking of alcoholic beverages.
Other examples involve the governance of marriage. Many Protestant groups require that spouses profess their vows in the presence of witnesses. Most have the precept that divorce and remarriage are permitted only on the condition that a spouse has committed adultery. If Protestant communities have these sorts of rules or laws, then wouldn’t they be subject to this challenge as well?
Third, the New Testament gives evidence that rules were a part of the Christian life in the early Church. Let’s start with Jesus.
In Matthew 28:19, Jesus stipulates that the nations would be made disciples through baptism. So, baptism is a New Covenant precept or rule, if you will. Another is the celebration of the Eucharist. Jesus commands the apostles in Luke 22:19 to offer the Last Supper as a memorial offering: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reveals his intention that rules would be a part of the Christian life. For example, he gives us a variety of ethical precepts:
We must not be angry with our brother nor insult him (Matt. 5:22).
We must reconcile with our brother before we offer our gifts at the altar (Matt. 5:23).
We must not look at others lustfully in our hearts (Matt. 5:28).
These are just a sample of the ethical rules that Jesus intends Christians to live by. Jesus also intends certain pious actions to be part of the Christian life: almsgiving (Matt. 6:2-4), prayer (Matt. 6:5-15), and fasting (Matt. 6:16-18). He even gives instructions (rules) on how those who disobey the judgment of the Church are to be dealt with: “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17).
Paul follows suit, stipulating a number of rules to govern the local churches. For example, he instructs the Corinthians to keep the feast of the new Passover, which is the Eucharist (1 Cor. 5:8). He even gives instructions concerning the reception of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, forbidding anyone to eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord “in an unworthy manner.”
In 1 Timothy 5:9-11, Paul lays down certain rules concerning proper implementation of consecrated celibacy with regard to “enrolled” widows. He instructs the Thessalonians in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 to “hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul gives rules to govern the Corinthians and their practice of speaking in tongues as they gather in church.
Now, some Protestants will probably concede that at least some rules can be part of the Christian life, especially in light of the evidence presented above. But they still might reject the number of rules in the Catholic Church.
But how do we know how many rules is too many? What’s the magic number of rules that a church should have? Whatever number someone comes up with, it would be completely arbitrary—whatever feels right. But Christians of all kinds have different feelings, and their different churches have varying numbers of rules.
And despite the charge that Catholicism has too many rules, in truth, it has relatively few when compared to other groups of comparable size. For example, the United States has around 325 million citizens. The 2012 edition of the United States Code (federal law) totals 45,000 pages in thirty-four volumes. By comparison, a standard English edition of the Code of Canon Law, the main legal text for the large majority of the Church’s one billion members, totals a little more than 500 pages in a single volume. (According to the Census of the 2020 Annuario Pontificio (Pontifical Yearbook), the number of baptized Catholics in the world was about 1.329 billion at the end of 2018).
Finally, we can also point out that not only is the Church’s code of laws relatively short, but many of those laws apply to specific situations that an ordinary Catholic rarely—if never—encounters. So only a fraction of them impact his daily life. As for the rest, Catholics can be instructed on the “dos and don’ts” as the situation arises.
In the end, it’s simply unreasonable to think that no rules are binding just because the Bible says that some rules aren’t binding. And on top of that, the Bible gives plenty of positive evidence that rules are a part of the Christian life. When it comes to rules, the Catholic Church turns out to be a bible-believing Church after all!”
Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). This grim edict is a fitting epitaph for the short-lived but intense heresy of Donatism. Its hundred-year life-span–a rather brief one, as heresies go–was marked from beginning to end with violence and death.
North Africa was roiling in political, social, ethnic, and religious controversies when, in 311, Donatus, schismatic bishop of Carthage, replaced Majorinus, rival of the validly elected bishop Caecilianus. Donatus was a shrewd leader with impressive intellectual and rhetorical abilities. He had a skill for exploiting to his own advantage the ethnic unrest that simmered among the Berbers and Punics. These rustic people chafed under the rule of the Latin-speaking Roman Empire, and Donatus skillfully harnessed their discontent as the engine of growth for his heresy.
The schism had gotten under way before Donatus came to power, but it became identified with him thereafter. His predecessor, Majorinus, was elected as a rival bishop in Carthage because the bishops who had elected Caecilianus had dealt leniently with the traditores, men and women whose faith was compromised during Diocletian’s brief but bloody persecution, initiated in February, 303. The Catholic Church was outlawed, and professing the Catholic faith was a crime punishable by death. Those who refused to offer incense to Roman idols were executed. Churches were razed, relics and sacred vessels were seized, and any copy of Scripture that could be found was burned.
The traditores were those who renounced Christ to avoid martyrdom or who, when their churches and houses were searched by the Roman authorities, handed over sacred artifacts rather than face death. In light of the many who endured martyrdom rather than renounce Christ, those who survived the persecution (which ended in 305) were outraged that priests and deacons who were traditores were allowed to resume their ministry after being reconciled to the Church through confession. This perceived injustice provoked a popular backlash with grave theological implications.
Majorinus and other leaders of this faction asserted that the sacraments were invalid, even wicked in the eyes of God, if dispensed by a traditor bishop, priest, or deacon. This view expanded to include clergy who were in a state of mortal sin of whatever sort.
By denying the intrinsic efficacy of the sacraments the Donatists claimed the sacraments could be celebrated validly only by those in the state of grace. They required the re-baptism of any Catholic who came over to their sect.
Donatists had the outward forms of Catholicism, including bishops, priests, and deacons, Mass, and the veneration of the relics of martyrs. The heresy of Donatism lay not primarily in the denial of particular Catholic doctrines but in the assertion that only “sinless” men could administer the sacraments validly. The schism was effected by the rejection of the lawful authority of validly-elected Catholic bishops and culminated in illicit but valid ordinations of schismatic bishops, priests, and deacons.
Growth of the Heresy
Donatus advanced his theology with vigor, drawing over many of the common folk who were fed up with Roman imperial rule and who began to equate Catholicism with foreign domination. His organizational skills and charismatic personality attracted huge numbers to his cause. He ordained hundreds, who fanned out across Numidia to establish schismatic churches.
Church historian Frederick van der Meer describes Donatism’s proliferation:
“It was the strangest mixture of African and Numidian particularism, early Christian idealism, and personal resentment, but the Church which it created rose up in every town and locality as a rival to the Church Catholic, altar set against altar in every neighborhood where a Catholic church was to be found. Everywhere at the edges of the ancient towns two great basilicas towered over the houses, one Catholic, one non-Catholic. . . . Donatism was from its inception a popular movement, poor in original ideas, but nevertheless full of people who were easily inflamed and drawing from these its principal strength. Indeed, once the leaders had got the Punic-speaking masses on to their side, no power on earth could heal the schism” (Augustine the Bishop [London: Sheed and Ward, 1961], 80-81).
Donatists adopted “Deo laudes” (“God be praised”) as their slogan to counter the ancient Catholic “Deo gratias” (“Thanks be to God”). This was the rallying cry with which they harangued Catholics. One distinctive characteristic of the Donatists was their desire for martyrdom. Donatus taught that death for the “cause,” even death by suicide, was holy and merited a martyr’s crown and eternal life. They did their best to incite Catholics and pagans to kill them. When their provocations failed, they sometimes took their own lives, a favored method being to leap from high cliffs with the cry “Deo laudes!”
A humorous if bizarre incident is recounted by Augustine. He tells of a Catholic man who was accosted by a group of zealous Donatists. They threatened to kill him if he refused to “martyr” them. Thinking quickly, he agreed to kill them, but only if they first allowed him to bind them with rope to make his work easier. They consented, and when he had them secured he took a large stick, beat them soundly, and walked away.
In keeping with their penchant for violence there arose among the Donatists a vile faction known as the Circumcellions. These ruffians’ main goal was to harass, despoil, and even kill Catholics. They preyed on the cellae (farms, rural chapels, and country estates). Although Donatus himself was not a Circumcellion, he gave tacit approval to the depredations of these gangs and wielded influence through them to force Catholics to convert to his religion. Those who refused were relieved of their property or their lives.
In a letter to Victorinius, a Spanish priest, Augustine lamented, “We too have nothing but misery here, for instead of the barbarians we have the Circumcellions, and it is an open question which is the worse of the two. They murder and burn everywhere, throw lime and vinegar into the eyes of our priests; only yesterday I heard of forty-eight helpless persons who were compelled to submit to [Donatist] rebaptism in this place” (Letter 111:1-2).
While killing Catholics was a favored pastime, the principal aim of the Circumcellions was the destruction of Catholic churches, Bible manuscripts, and sacred objects. This aroused the ire of the government, which enacted anti-Donatist laws which confiscated their property and forced their re-entry into the Catholic Church. The North African Catholic bishops welcomed the first intervention, but not the second.
Originally Augustine opposed the eradication of heresy by force (cf. Letter 23), preferring argumentation to physical coercion. He believed that heresy must never be tolerated, but that heretics themselves must never be forced to join the Church. As time wore on, Augustine’s view changed as he warmed to the idea of the state having a role in the suppression of heresy after the theological persuasions failed. He is regarded by some historians as being the “Father of the Inquisition” since he became a supporter of the state’s right to suppress heresy (cf. Letter 185).
Although Optatus of Milevis was the first notable bishop to write against the Donatists in The Schism of the Donatists, it was the indefatigable Augustine who, in numerous works almost single-handedly demolished the Donatist challenge. He gave a biblical and theological explanation of the sacraments (especially baptism, the Eucharist, and holy orders), of the unity of the Church, and of the evils of schism.
This energetic bishop was not content to rely solely on the pen. He engaged Donatist apologists in public debates, knowing that public disputations would draw crowds of Catholics and Donatists; the Catholics would be strengthened and the Donatists converted. Augustine was as forceful and brilliant an orator (he had received excellent training in rhetoric during his youth) as he was an author, and even the most skilled Donatist spokesmen were no match for him.
He even composed apologetics songs designed to inculcate Catholic doctrine and refute Donatism, notes van der Meer. “Augustine did not neglect to protect his people from the insidious effect of Donatist catchwords, and sometimes to the detriment of good artistic taste. It was probably as early as 393 that he composed an alphabetical psalm against the Donatist party for the more unlettered among his followers. This tells in very simple verses the story of the origin and development of the schism, its malice, and the only possible cure for it. . . . He wanted the nature of the Donatist issue brought to the knowledge of the simplest person and thus to stamp it into the memory of even the most uneducated” (van der Meer, 104-105).
This hymn was long (293 verses) and employed a melody and poetic meter that was popular among the common people who were accustomed to singing similar songs (with profane lyrics, of course) in taverns and theaters. Catholics learned the hymn enthusiastically and sang it in public as a rebuke to the Donatists. Under Augustine’s aggressive leadership the Catholic Church in North Africa gradually overpowered the Donatists by force of argument. In time entire Donatist congregations and even dioceses came back to the Catholic Church.
By 411 the Donatists were still quite numerous in Numidia and the rest of Northern Africa, but, with their theological errors so thoroughly refuted by Augustine, Optatus, and other Catholic apologists, their vigor waned quickly, though it would take two centuries more before they finally disappeared. In keeping with its violent past, the last vestiges of Donatism vanished in the seventh century as its adherents were mowed down by the sword of Islam, the cry of “Deo laudes” being replaced by “Alahu Akbar,” which heralded the Muslim subjugation of North Africa.
In its retention of the liturgical externals of Catholicism and most of its doctrines, while rejecting a single doctrine or practice, Donatism is mirrored by groups that might be characterized as rigorist. Among similar groups have been the Jansenists of Port Royal (seventeenth through nineteenth centuries) and certain “Traditionalist Catholic” factions of our own time.
The Donatist heresy of rebaptism is alive in the Baptistic churches of Protestantism, although Baptists do not regard baptism as a means of grace and regeneration as the Donatists did. The Donatist tactic of forcing Catholics to “convert” to their heresy was adopted by the Calvinists (especially under John Calvin in Geneva) and most notoriously by the Anglicans (under King Henry VIII, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, and Queen Elizabeth I).”
“Virtually as soon as the revelation brought by Christ was delivered to the Church he had established, some of those within the Church got it very wrong about what it meant and entailed. Even some of the bishops, successors of the apostles, got it wrong. The history of the first four or five centuries of Christianity, especially as reflected in the first four ecumenical councils, is largely a history of how the Church developed, formulated, and explained its Creed—beliefs based on the teachings of Christ.
In the process of developing and formulating that Creed—the same Nicene Creed that we profess today at Mass—the Church was obliged to identify and to eliminate various false and mistaken ideas about Christ’s original revelation. These false and mistaken ideas about the Church and the faith came to be called heresies. The word heresy comes from the Latin haeresis, meaning “act of choosing.” Those adhering to these false and mistaken ideas, i.e., heretics, were understood to have chosen a different interpretation of the faith than the one the Church proclaimed.
Once they were identified as false doctrines, there was no question in the minds of the Fathers of the Church but that these heresies needed to be condemned. Today, of course, the idea of condemning anybody for holding any belief is not very popular. Indeed, the idea that heresy is something necessarily false and harmful is not very popular. In the modern mind heresy is often thought to be something to be proud of; “heretics” are as likely as not to be considered cultural heroes. But if all ideas are accorded equal status regardless of whether or not they are true, then very soon truth itself inevitably goes by the board.
To a great extent, this is what has happened in our world today: Toleration is valued more than truth. Pope Benedict XVI just prior to his election called it a “dictatorship of relativism.” It is a situation that the Fathers of the Church, who believed in the primacy of truth, would not have understood at all.
Today’s failure to identify and affirm truth doesn’t mean that there are no harmful consequences. On the contrary, the harm to souls in need of sanctification and salvation becomes all the greater to the extent that people believe it doesn’t matter whether or not they adhere to true belief and practice. For heresy is necessarily harmful—and even fatal—to souls.
Moreover, heresies abound today every bit as much as they did in the days when the Creed was being hammered out at the first great ecumenical councils. Indeed, some of the heresies that are commonly encountered today are virtually the same as those condemned in ancient times—they just go by different names. Let us look at a few examples.
“A Great Moral Teacher”
Arianism was perhaps the most typical and persistent of the ancient heresies. Basically it involved a denial of the divinity of Jesus Christ. It was first effectively advanced by Arius (256–336), a priest of Alexandria in Egypt, who denied that there were three distinct divine Persons in the Holy Trinity. For Arius, there was only one Person in the Godhead, the Father. According to Arian theory, the Son was a created being. The Arians liked to say that “there was a time when he was not.” For them, Christ was “the Son of God” only in a figurative sense, or by “adoption” (just as we are children of God by adoption), not in his essential being or nature.
Arianism was formally condemned by the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Indeed, it was the spread of Arianism and Arian ideas among the faithful, and the disputes and disorders that resulted, that prompted Emperor Constantine to call the Council of Nicaea in the first place. What the Council decided—against Arius and his adherents—was that the Son was homoousios (“one in being” or “consubstantial”) with the Father. In other words, that the Son of God was himself God, was therefore eternal, and hence that there never was a time when he was not.
The fathers of Nicaea issued their Creed precisely to insist on the three Persons in one substance in the Trinity and on the divinity of Christ. If Christ was not divine, then the world was not redeemed by his sacrifice on the cross. Eventually the faith itself dissolves if Christ is not understood to be divine; after all, he very plainly insisted in the Gospels that he was (cf. John 10:30, 38; 14:10, 11).
Yet today nothing is more common, even among some who consider themselves Christians, than to hold that Christ was not really divine: He was just a good man, a great moral teacher, a model to follow; perhaps he even represented the highest ideal of a man for mankind. But, as an all-too-common human skepticism asserts, he was surely not God for the simple reason that no human being could be God. Common sense revolts against it. Indeed, the Church teaches that it is only by divine grace infused in our souls that we can believe in the divinity of Christ.
Thus, there is a human temptation to believe the doctrine of Arianism. Today’s Arians, though, do not call themselves Arians; for the most part they are not aware that they are Arians. Yet a religion such as Unitarianism is nothing else but Arian in its denial of the divinity of Christ and of the Trinity. Similarly, a modern American religion such as Mormonism is wholly Arian in its account of a divine being, even if it is ignorant of Arianism historically.
Because it is so easy to doubt that any human being could possibly be divine, though, Arianism was not only the most basic and persistent of all the ancient heresies; it also assumed a number of variant forms. Adoptionism is the belief that Jesus was just a man to whom special graces were given when he was “adopted” by God. Modalism held that there is only one Person in God who manifests himself in various ways or modes, including in Jesus. Semi-Arianism held that the Son was of like substance with God (homo-i-ousios), though not of identical in substance with Him. All of these variants of Arianism were sometimes classified under the name Subordinationism (i.e., Christ as “subordinate” to the Father). Even today, poorly instructed Christians can be found espousing one or more of these variants when they are examined closely concerning Who and What they think Jesus Christ was and is.
What Is a Person?
Growing out of the long-running Arian controversies were the two opposed heresies of Nestorianism and Monophysitism. Nestorianism was a heresy promoted by a bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius (d. c. 451), who held that there were two distinct persons in Christ, one human and one divine. Thus, the Nestorians claimed that it could not be said that God was born, was crucified, or died. Mary merely gave birth to a man whose human person was conjoined to that of God. The Nestorians saw Christ’s divinity as superimposed on his humanity.
Nestorianism was condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431, where the argument raged over the question of whether Mary was Theotokos (“God-bearer” or “Mother of God”) or was merely the “mother of Christ,” a man conjoined to God. From the words of the Hail Mary we can figure out what the Church decided at Ephesus, but even today poorly instructed Christians can be found opining that Christ was a “human person.” (The same characterization is sometimes even to be encountered today in defective catechetical texts.)
But Christ was not a “human person.” He was a divine person who assumed a human nature. The whole question of what a person is was a key question in the Trinitarian and christological definitions formulated by the ancient councils. The ancients were not clear in their minds about what constituted a “person”; it was not apparent to them that there was a “somebody” in each human individual. It was as a direct result of the Church’s definitions concerning the three distinct divine Persons in the Trinity that the very concept of what we understand as personhood today was achieved and that the Roman philosopher Boethius (480–524) was able to formulate his famous definition of a person as “an individual substance of a rational nature.”
Once this concept of personhood became clear, the Church was able to promulgate the truth that remains valid and operative to this day, namely, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Second Person of the blessed Trinity, is a divine person but possesses both a divine and a human nature.
Monophysitism, the heresy opposed to Nestorianism, arose as a corrective to the latter, but it went too far in the other direction, holding that in Christ there is only one nature (Greek: mono, “single,” physis, “nature”), a divine nature. This position entailed a denial of Christ’s true human nature. Monophysitism was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This great Council taught that Christ was true God and true man, a divine person possessing both a divine and a human nature, thus rounding out the Church’s permanent understanding of Christology.
Yet even today some ill-instructed Christians will tell you that Christ, being the Son of God and hence divine, must also necessarily have a divine nature, without understanding that Christ had a fully human nature as well. Professing some form of Monophysitism is rather common among self-consciously “spiritual” people, as a matter of fact—people who, meanwhile, are not always prepared to affirm and follow Christian moral teaching as the Church defines it.
Entire churches or communities broke away from the Church as a result of the christological definitions of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Some of these breakaway communions still exist today in the ancient churches of the East, such as the Assyrian, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian (Jacobite), etc. Today many of these ancient communions, in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church, are rethinking their positions and are close to agreement with the Catholic Church on doctrinal essentials, stating that their ancient disagreements stemmed at least in part from misunderstandings of exactly what Ephesus or Chalcedon had taught or affirmed—for these ancient councils also had condemned by name certain individuals (such as Nestorius) who commanded personal followings. In ancient times, some of these communities were unwilling to accept the judgments of the councils regarding their then-leaders.
Holier Than Thou
Donatism was a fourth- and fifth-century African heresy that held that the validity of the sacraments depended upon the moral character of the person administering the sacraments. Donatists also denied that serious sinners could be true members of the Church. Donatism began as a schism when rigorists claimed that a bishop of Carthage, Caecilian (c. 313), could not be a true bishop because he had been ordained by a bishop who had caved in under pressure and apostatized during the Diocletian persecutions around 303.
The Donatists ended up as a widespread sect that ordained its own bishops, one of whom was Donatus, who gave his name to the movement. Vigorously opposed by the great St. Augustine (354–430), the Donatist movement persisted in northern Africa until the Muslim conquest in the seventh century.
Today the continuing temptation to a modern kind of Donatism can be seen in such phenomena as the Lefebrvist schism after Vatican II, when some people who objected to certain teachings and acts of the Council decided to found their own little church, the Society of St. Pius X. The SSPX has its own bishops, validly but illicitly ordained by French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. The group is thus not just a group of disgruntled traditionalists who want to retain the old Latin Mass; rather, the SSPX has serious doctrinal and pastoral disagreements with the Church. They consider the pope and the bishops who have governed the Church since the Council to be unworthy to carry on what they hold to be the true “tradition” of the Church. Basically their reasoning is that the leaders of the Church were wrong at and after Vatican II; hence their acts since then have been invalid. This kind of reasoning is similar to that by which the ancient Donatists decided that the ordination of the bishop of Carthage was invalid because of the unworthiness of his ordaining bishop.
But the truth is, of course, that sacraments correctly administered with the proper intention by a validly ordained minister are valid regardless of the moral character or condition of the minister. Thus, even if mistakes were made in the implementation of the Council, the pope and the bishops nevertheless remain the Church’s legitimate rulers, in accordance with the Church’s constant teaching going back at least to the condemnation of Donatism. The powers and authority conferred by Christ on the apostles and their successors are not dependent upon the worthiness of those on whom they are conferred—think of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ!
We also see a revival of Donatist-type thinking in those who have recently left the Church because of the much-publicized sins of priests guilty of sex abuse and bishops guilty of enabling and covering up for them. The idea that the wrongs or sins of the clergy invalidate their acts or status has frequently recurred in the history of the Church. As early as the second century, for example, a morally rigorous priest named Novatian set himself up as an anti-pope in 251 because the followers of the true pope, St. Cornelius, were allegedly too lenient toward Christians who had lapsed during the Decian persecutions in 249–251. The Novatianists rejected the Church’s authentic belief and practice that the lapsed and other serious sinners could be readmitted to Communion after doing penance.
“If It Feels Good, Do It”
A recurring phenomenon in the history of the Church is that heresies often arose because of either moral rigorism or moral laxity. An example of the latter was the heresy of Pelagianism, championed by a monk from the British Isles named Pelagius (355–425). Pelagius denied that divine grace in the soul is necessary to do good; his doctrine included a number of heretical tenets such as that Adam would have died even if he had not sinned and that Adam’s fall injured only himself. Essentially, Pelagianism amounted to a denial of the doctrine of original sin, and it also entailed a denial of the supernatural order and of the necessity of divine grace for salvation. Augustine, who had discovered from bitter personal experience that he could not be chaste without the help of grace, strongly and persistently contested Pelagius and his teaching.
In modern times, Pelagianism has sometimes been called “the British heresy” because of its resemblance to a certain species of modern British-style liberalism (which, the suggestion is, goes all the way back to Pelagius!). But nothing is more common in modern thinking than the denial of original sin. Outside the Catholic Church, it is nearly universal, and it persists in the face of all the evidence against it.
Probably the whole range of behavior related to the contemporary sexual revolution, for example, as well as to the theological dissent that is still rife in the Church—particularly on matters of sexual morality—can be ascribed to a basic Pelagian impulse. People today, including too many Catholics, simply do not recognize or take seriously that there are or could be any harmful consequences stemming from what is erroneously thought to be sexual liberation, as evidenced, for example, by the widespread rejection by Catholics of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. The harmful consequences have long since been obvious to anyone who cares to look at today’s multiple plagues of divorce, pre- and extramarital sex, cohabitation, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and abortion, not to speak of the contemporary acceptance of homosexuality as a normal condition.
In an important sense, even the clerical sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church goes back to the explosion of sexual immorality that began in the 1960s and both helped cause and was in part caused by the rejection of Humanae Vitae. Modern opinion nevertheless generally goes on stoutly and obstinately maintaining that the so-called sexual liberation ushered in by the sexual revolution, along with the moral acceptance of contraception, is a good and necessary thing. All this is Pelagianism with a vengeance.
“I’m in with the In Crowd”
Gnosticism is the idea that salvation comes through knowledge—usually some special kind of knowledge claimed by an elite. Think of the New Age, for example. Think of Dan Brown’s runaway bestseller The Da Vinci Code, which, along with other falsehoods, exhibits a good deal of Gnostic-style thinking that the book’s millions of readers seem to have embraced wholly and uncritically. Most varieties of Gnosticism also hold that matter and the body are evil while only “spirit” is good. Some forms of Gnosticism even see human beings as trapped in our bodies. The theory thus denies the truth of the biblical teaching that “God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). For the true Gnostic, the Incarnation is a scandal—God would not contaminate his spirit by taking on a body.
Gnosticism existed before Christianity and attached itself to it as a convenient vehicle for its own very unChristian ideas about reality and God’s creation. The surprising thing, perhaps, is that it ever attempted to use Christianity for its purposes. The historical fact of the matter, though, is that Gnosticism has been a persistent element in practically every major Christian heresy. Probably one of the reasons for this is that, in some ways, our bodiliness is a burden to us. As Paul remarked, “the whole creation has been groaning in travail” (Rom. 8:22) until we can realize the fullness of our salvation in Christ—thus the temptation to look for salvation in some kind of escape from our bodiliness and creatureliness as God has created us in this world.
But true salvation lies elsewhere; it comes uniquely from Jesus Christ: “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). This revelation of salvation in Christ is essentially what Gnosticism denies. Like all heresies to which we might be tempted, any form of Gnostic thinking is therefore to be avoided as we cleave to the truths revealed by and in Jesus Christ and unerringly taught by the magisterium of the Catholic Church.”
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” “In sudore vultus tui vesceris pane, donec revertaris in terram de qua sumptus es: quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris.” -Gen 3:19
‘To the woman also God said: I will multiply thy sorrows, and thy conceptions: in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children, and thou shalt be under thy husband’s power, and he shall have dominion over thee. And to Adam God said: Because thou hast hearkened to the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat, cursed is the earth in thy work; with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee, and thou shalt eat the herbs of the earth. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth, out of which thou wast taken: for dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return.’-Genesis 3:16-19
-sackcloth or gown of repentance, 18th century, formerly used in the parish church of West Calder, Midlothian, Scotland, National Museum of Scotland
What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist -by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, published 1838
Tell me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream!
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
In the world’s broad field of battle,
In the bivouac of Life,
Be not like dumb, driven cattle!
Be a hero in the strife!
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!
Let the dead Past bury its dead!
Act,—act in the living Present!
Heart within, and God o’erhead!
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;—
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
-by Frederick George Holwick, Frederick George Holweck (1856–1927) was a German-American Roman Catholic parish priest and scholar, hagiographer and church historian.
“Today, February 2, Catholics mark the presentation of Christ in the temple. But not all Catholics are aware of the cultural origins of this feast.
According to the Mosaic law, a mother such as Mary who had given birth to a male child was considered unclean for seven days; moreover, she was to remain “in the blood of her purification”—i.e., outside the temple—for thirty-three days more. If the woman had borne a daughter, the time that she was excluded from the sanctuary was doubled.
When the time (forty or eighty days) was over, the mother was to “bring to the temple a lamb for a holocaust and a young pigeon or turtle dove for sin”; if she was not able to offer a lamb, she was to take two turtle doves or two pigeons; the priest prayed for her and so she was cleansed (see Leviticus 12:2-8).
Forty days after the birth of Christ, Mary complied with this precept of the law. She redeemed her first-born from the temple and was purified by the prayer of Simeon the just in the presence of Anna the prophetess (see Luke 2:22).
No doubt this event, the first solemn introduction of Christ into the house of God, was celebrated in the early Church in Jerusalem. We find it attested to in the first half of the fourth century by the pilgrim of Bordeaux, Egeria or Silvia. The day—February 14—was solemnly kept by a procession to the Constantinian basilica of the Resurrection and and Mass that included a homily on Luke 2:22.
At that time, the feast had no proper name; it was simply called the fortieth day after Epiphany. This latter circumstance shows that, in Jerusalem, Epiphany was when the feast of Christ’s birth was celebrated. From Jerusalem the feast of the fortieth day spread over the entire Church and later was kept on February 2, since within the last twenty-five years of the fourth century the Roman feast of Christ’s nativity (December 25) was introduced.
The feast appears in the Gelasianum (manuscript tradition of the seventh century) under the title of Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but the procession is not mentioned. Pope Sergius I (A.D. 687-701) introduced a procession for this day. The Gregorianum (tradition of the eighth century) does not speak of this procession, which fact shows that the procession of Sergius was the ordinary “station,” not the liturgical act of today.
The feast spread slowly in the West; it is not found in the Lectionary of Silos (A.D. 650) nor in the Calendar (A.D. 731-741) of Sainte-Genevieve of Paris. In the East it was celebrated as a feast of the Lord; in the West as a feast of Mary, although the Invitatorium (“Gaude et laetare, Jerusalem, occurrens Deo tuo”—”Rejoice and be glad, O Jerusalem, to meet thy God“), the antiphons, and responsories remind us of its original conception as a feast of the Lord.
The blessing of the candles did not enter into common use before the eleventh century. In the Middle Ages it had an octave in the larger number of dioceses; also today the religious orders whose special object is the veneration of the Mother of God (Carmelites, Servites) and many dioceses (Loreto, the Province of Siena, etc.) celebrate the octave.
The blessing of candles
According to the Roman Missal, the celebrant, in stole and cope of purple, standing at the epistle side of the altar, blesses the candles (which traditionally were of beeswax). Having sung or recited the five orations prescribed, he sprinkles and incenses the candles. Then he distributes them to the clergy and laity while the choir sings the canticle of Simeon, Nunc dimittis. The antiphon “Lumen ad revelationem gentium et gloriam plebis tuae Israel” (“A light to the revelation of the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel”) is repeated after every verse, according to the medieval custom of singing the antiphons.
During the procession that follows, participants carry lighted candles and the choir sings the antiphon “Adorna thalamum tuum, Sion” (“Adorn the bridal chamber, O Zion”) composed by St. John of Damascus, one of the few pieces for which the words and music have been borrowed by the Roman Church from the Greeks. The other antiphons are of Roman origin.
The solemn procession represents the entry of Christ, who is the light of the world, into the Temple of Jerusalem. The procession is always kept on February 2, even when the office and Mass of the feast is transferred to February 3.
Before the reform of the Latin liturgy by St. Pius V (1568), in the churches north and west of the Alps, this ceremony was more solemn. After the fifth oration a preface was sung. The “Adorna” was preceded by the antiphon “Ave Maria.”
While today such processions are held inside the church, during the Middle Ages the clergy left the church and visited the cemetery surrounding it. Upon the return of the procession, a priest, carrying an image of the Holy Child, met it at the door and entered the church with the clergy, who sang the canticle of Zachary, “Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel” (“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel”).
At the conclusion, entering the sanctuary, the choir sang the responsory “Gaude Maria Virgo” or the prose “Inviolata” or some other antiphon in honor of the Blessed Virgin.”
France, Belgium and Swiss Romandy On the feast known as the “Chandeleur” in French-speaking countries, many Catholics will enjoy eating pancakes, or “crepes” today. This stems from the 5th-century Pope Gelasius I who had pancakes given to pilgrims visiting Rome. Some believe the tradition goes back further to the Vestal Virgins, who offered up cakes during the pre-Christian Roman feast of Lupercalia.
Tenerife On this island off the Spanish coast locals celebrate the feast of The Virgin of Candelaria, or “La Morenita”. The city of Candelaria is the main site of celebrations, where locals venerate the Virgin as the Black Madonna.
Luxembourg This small European country focuses on children during “Liichtmëssdag.” Youngsters will gather together with lanterns and go from door to door singing, with sweets or coins given for their musical efforts.
Philippines In Silang, in the province of Cavite, the Virgin of Calendaria’s feast day is also celebrated at Candlemas. It is celebrated over a triduum, or three-day religious observance, with the feast day falling on February 2.
Peru The patron saint of the city of Puno is the Virgin of the Candelaria. To honor her, the city holds a huge festival for a whole fortnight including the country’s different cultures. Thousands of musicians and dancers come together every year in what is the country’s largest festival.
“In C. S. Lewis’s novel That Hideous Strength there is a scene where the non-religious protagonist, Mark, is instructed as “part of an exercise” to trample an image of a large crucifix. Because Mark is not a Christian, he is puzzled as to why he should bother with this exercise and not just leave this silly superstition alone. The professor who is leading the exercise tells Mark, “Of course it is a superstition: but it is that particular superstition which has pressed upon our society for many centuries. . . . An explicit action in the reverse direction is therefore a necessary step towards complete objectivity” (ch. 15). In other words, if religion is to be purged from society it cannot simply be ignored; it has to be ridiculed.
Lewis’s novel, published in 1945, was set in the future. Nearly seventy years later, that future is our present, and the author’s descriptions of religious ridicule pale in comparison to the current mockeries of Christianity found on the Internet. Yet while the vileness of the ridicule has increased, the attitude embodied by the professor remains the same. The best way to see how Lewis’s fiction has become prophecy is to contrast the “Old Atheism” with what some have called the “New Atheism.”
The “Old Atheism”
Throughout most of the twentieth century, public profession of atheism was synonymous with communism or the endorsement of totalitarianism. In a 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone titled “The Obsolete Man,” a librarian in a police state is executed for the crime of believing in God. Ultimately the librarian (portrayed wonderfully by the late Burgess Meredith) turns the tables on his executioner, but the image of a believer being crushed under the jackboot of totalitarian atheism was, at the time, not mere fiction. In his 1967 memoir, Tortured for Christ, Richard Wurmbrand describes how Soviet guards would tell prisoners, “I thank God in whom I don’t believe. Now I may indulge the evil in my heart” (p. 34).
These horror stories may have something to do with atheism’s low approval ratings. Gallup compared two polls conducted in 1958 and 2012 about people’s unwillingness to elect certain minorities to the U.S. presidency. In 1958, 38 percent were willing to elect an African-American and 18 percent were willing to elect an atheist. In 2012, while 96 percent were willing to elect an African-American, only 54 percent were willing to elect an atheist (Jeffrey Jones, “Atheists, Muslims See Most Bias as Presidential Candidates,” Gallup Polling, June 21, 2012).
Faced with such dismal levels of public approval, atheists felt the need to show believers that they were good people and not amoral communists. Beginning in the 1970s, the philosopher Paul Kurtz promoted what he called “secular humanism,” which focused on promoting human well-being without religion rather than converting people to atheism. Secular humanists even praised religion for its beneficial effects on society.
The Second Humanist Manifesto affirmed, “In the best sense, religion may inspire dedication to the highest ethical ideals.” The Manifesto went on to point out that while religion can hinder society, so can many nonreligious ideologies that are not based on humanism (Paul Kurtz and Edwin H. Wilson, “Humanist Manifesto II,” 1973). But this attitude of congenial disagreement changed for many people on September 11, 2001.
The “New Atheism”
I remember getting ready for school on that fateful day when my dad ran into my bedroom and turned on the television. Because I went to high school in Arizona, the attacks were in progress by the time I woke up. I stared in disbelief as the news replayed over and over again the surreal sight of the World Trade Center collapsing into a pile of dust. How could 19 human beings (the 9/11 hijackers) do something so terrible? The answer from the New Atheists was simple: Religion alone has the power to cause people to do such terrible things.
In 2004 American atheist Sam Harris, after reflecting on the September 11 terrorist attacks, published The End of Faith. In the book, Harris argued that religion is a form of mental illness and not part of a rational worldview. He writes, “[I]t is difficult to imagine a set of beliefs more suggestive of mental illness than those that lie at the heart of many of our religious traditions.” (p. 70). In 2006 British biologist Richard Dawkins went so far as to claim that religious education for children is child abuse: “Even without physical abduction, isn’t it always a form of child abuse to label a child a possessor of beliefs that they are too young to have thought about?” (The God Delusion, p. 354). These books were followed by others, such as Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great and philosopher Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon. Before Hitchens died in 2011, these authors were known as the “four horsemen” of the “New Atheism.”
What made these atheists “new” weren’t their arguments against religion but their attitude that religion should be reviled. At the 2012 “Reason Rally,” about 10,000 atheists gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where Dawkins instructed them regarding Christians: “Mock them, ridicule them in public. . . . Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion” (Lillian Kwon, “Atheists Rally for Reason; Urged to Mock the Religious,” The Christian Post, March 24, 2012).
To be fair, there are atheists who do not see religion as a bad thing and don’t support ridicule as a way to combat it. Atheistic philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong writes, “Like law, science, art, and guns, religion is a powerful tool that can be used for great good as well as for great evil. I have no desire to obstruct the benefits of religion” (William Lane Craig and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist, 82). But other atheists think this “accommodation” is dangerous. Harris writes, “I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance—born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God—is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss” (TheEnd of Faith, 15).
Most atheists do not want the government to outlaw religious belief, but they do want government to no longer be associated with it. One common tactic is to file lawsuits to ban the display of nativity scenes or crosses on public land. When that strategy fails, some atheists opt for a “heckler’s veto.” In a recent case, the city of Santa Monica had hosted a life-size nativity display in Palisades Park since 1953, which earned it the nickname “City of the Christmas Story.” In 2011, atheist Damon Vix encouraged other atheists to apply for booths in the park so that of the twenty-one available spaces nearly all were reserved for atheist displays dedicated to parodies of religion. These included displays that paid homage to the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” (the deity of the parody religion Pastafarianism) and compared Jesus to Santa Claus and the ancient Greek god Poseidon. The latter display included the sign “37 million Americans know MYTHS when they see one. What myths do you see?”
In response to the controversy, the city of Santa Monica banned all private displays from Palisades Park and the ban has been upheld in Federal Court. Vix later said, “If I had another goal it would be to remove the ‘under God’ phrase from the Pledge of Allegiance—but that’s a little too big for me to take on for right now” (Doug Stanglin, “U.S. judge blocks Nativity displays in Santa Monica” USA Today, Nov. 19, 2012).
Another atheist group that uses the strategy of public ridicule is the American Atheists. They are a national group that sponsors billboards with messages such as “Christianity: Sadistic God; Useless Savior.” When asked about the controversy about the billboards, the group’s president, David Silverman, said, “I respect people; I respect humans. I do not respect religion. And I do not respect the idea that religion deserves respect” (Dan Merica, “Atheist organizer takes ‘movement’ to nation’s capital,” CNN Belief Blog, March 23, 2012).
The Internet: The church of atheism
One popular way atheists ridicule religion is through the use of Internet memes, or ideas that spread through a population like viruses. These are usually ironic oversimplifications of religious doctrines that are designed to make the doctrines look silly. One popular meme depicts Jesus with rotting flesh and glowing red eyes along with the caption, “Christianity: the belief that a cosmic Jewish zombie who was his own father can make you live forever if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically accept him as your master . . . yeah, makes perfect sense.”
Besides allowing memes spread at an exponential rate, the Internet has provided a community for atheists to interact with one another. Christians have always had community at their churches, but prior to the invention of the Internet atheists could only hope to run into each other in the Nietzsche section of the local used book store. But now atheists’ presence on the Internet dwarfs that of their religious counterparts.
The popular forum website Reddit, which describes itself as the “front page” of the Internet, has various “subreddits” that are devoted to different communities. At the time of this writing, the Catholic “subreddit” has about 5,000 subscribers, the Christian subreddit has about 50,000 subscribers, but the atheism subredditt has more than 1.4 million subscribers. Keep in mind that Catholics make up about 25 percent of the population, non-Catholic Christians make up about 50 percent of the population, but atheists make up only three percent of the population. While some net-savvy Catholics have harnessed the evangelistic power of memes and other internet tools such as blogging, they still have a lot of catching up to do. To quote Mark Twain, “A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth has time to put its shoes on.”
Being gentle and blameless
How should Catholics respond to atheist ridicule? First, because critics of the Church sometimes use ridicule does not mean Catholics have a license to do the same. 1 Peter 3:15-16 says, “[B]ut in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence;
and keep your conscience clear so that, when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. ”
On a recent Catholic Answers Live radio show an atheist caller claimed that the reason I was Catholic was because my mother taught it to me and I blindly accepted what she told me. I corrected the caller gently and told him that my mother is not Catholic and I was in fact a convert to the Catholic Church. He apologized and we continued our discussion over whether or not atheism is true. This is a good example of using charity so that others may “themselves be put to shame” when they defame us.
Watch out for smelly fish
Second, Catholics should be ready to give a well-reasoned answer to the arguments put forward by atheists. Several books and media resources are available to help Catholics answer atheist arguments with objective tools like science and philosophy. My own book on the subject, Answering Atheism, is due out this year. Unfortunately, when some atheists are confronted with thoughtful arguments for the existence of God they will take the low road in discourse and attack our faith instead of attacking the arguments used to defend it.
For example, if you present scientific evidence for God (such as the universe’s beginning in time) an atheist might say, “But what about all the scientists, like Galileo, that the Church has persecuted?” If you present objective moral truths as evidence of an objective moral law-giver an atheist might say, “But what about the Crusades, or the sex-abuse scandals, or the fact that the Bible condones slavery and genocide!”
As you can see, these arguments have nothing to do with the existence of God. Instead, they are designed to lead you away from that topic and keep the debate focused on an irrelevant detail. In logic this type of gambit is a fallacy called a “red herring.” The name comes from the practice of dragging a smelly fish called a herring across a game trail. This was done so that the hunting dogs could practice not being distracted by other scents and instead stay focused on the object of the hunt. You should take a lesson from the dogs and stay focused when people present these red herring arguments. Simply respond, “That may be true, but which premise of my argument for the existence of God do these facts refute? How would these facts show there isn’t a God?”
But along with strong, well-focused arguments, 1 Peter 3:15-16 requires that our defense of the faith must be so charitable that we are beyond reproach if atheists criticize us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church points out that atheists may be less morally responsible for their atheism because they were poorly evangelized by believers. Quoting Gaudium et Spes, the Catechism states:
The imputability of [atheism] can be significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances. “Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion” (CCC 2125).
What not to do
A recent case where Christians concealed rather than revealed God’s love can be found in the recent controversy surrounding high school student Jessica Ahlquist. Ahlquist, who was a student at Cranston West High School in Rhode Island, spoke publicly in favor of removing a 47-year-old banner from the school auditorium that was emblazoned with religious phrases like “Our Heavenly Father” and “Amen.” In 2011 the American Civil Liberty Union, with Ahlquist as plaintiff, sued to have the banner removed. Ultimately the district court ruled in favor of Ahlquist.
Members of the community who supported keeping the banner, many of whom described themselves as Protestant Christians or Catholics, expressed extreme hostility toward Ahlquist, who described herself as an atheist. Three local flower shops refused to deliver flowers that were purchased for her. Police were dispatched to escort Ahlquist between classes because she had received death threats. State Rep. Peter Palumbo called Ahlquist an “evil little thing” in a local radio interview (Abby Goodnough, “Student Faces Town’s Wrath in Protest Against a Prayer,” The New York Times, Jan. 26, 2012).
While it is acceptable to have a civil debate about the constitutionality of prayer in public schools, the bullying of a teenage girl by adult Christians is a sheer embarrassment for the Body of Christ. It should serve as a lesson to follow the words of Jesus when he says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:44-45).
The real enemy
Finally, we should have confidence that the Church will survive attacks from atheists, just as it has survived similar attacks throughout history. During the French Revolution the altar at the historic Notre Dame cathedral was torn down and replaced with an altar dedicated to Liberty. The inscription “To Philosophy” was carved over the massive cathedral doors. But in the next century France would give rise to saints like Thérèse of Lisieux and John Vianney. After World War II, the Communist party gained control of Poland, seized Church property, and imprisoned thousands of priests. But after the Iron Curtain fell the Church began to flourish and now nearly 90 percent of Poland is Catholic.
Jesus said to Peter that the powers of death would not prevail against the Church (Matt. 16:18), and Paul said that no force, natural or supernatural, could ever separate us from the love of God (Rom. 8:38-39). Instead of obsessively worrying about atheist mockery that makes the Church look ridiculous, we should take steps to not become ignorant or offensive Christians who accomplish the same thing. We would do well to remember the immortal words of one Pogo Possum, who said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Fortunately, if we kill this “enemy,” what we actually kill is what Paul called “the old self” (Col. 3:9), and in dying to this self we will rise with new life in Christ and be able to face any attacks, verbal, physical or spiritual, our critics lob at us.”
-by Carl Olson, Carl grew up in a Fundamentalist Protestant home and attended Briercrest Bible College, an Evangelical school in Saskatchewan, Canada. He and his wife, Heather, were married in 1994 and entered the Catholic Church together in 1997. Their conversion story appears in the book, Surprised By Truth 3 (Sophia Institute Press, 2002).
“Deepak Chopra, a former medical doctor turned New Age sage (he was once described by Time magazine as “the poet-prophet of alternative medicine”) has written some 50 books. His most recent, The Third Jesus (2008), is subtitled, “The Christ We Cannot Ignore.”
If only we could ignore this book and the false Christ it presents. But Chopra, who has earned millions of dollars from his particular brand of neo-Hindu monism for the masses (he studied under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation), is quite popular. And The Third Jesus, published in February 2008, has sold well, having spent several weeks on The New York Times top-ten bestsellers list for “Hardcover Advice” books.
Worse, The Third Jesus features blurbs by Catholics, including Fr. Paul Keenan, the host of “As You Think,” a program on The Catholic Channel/Sirius 159. Fr. Keenan states, “In The Third Jesus, Deepak Chopra unfolds for us the spirit of Jesus and with a reverence that is at once simple and profound makes his spirit accessible to us in our everyday lives.” And Sr. Judian Breitenbach, a longtime adherent to Chopra’s teachings, gushes, “In this intriguing study of the sayings of Jesus, Deepak Chopra gently releases this highly evolved spiritual teacher, light of the world and Son of God from the limitations of dogmatic theology.” But, far from gentle, Chopra’s approach to Jesus is heavy-handed, arrogant, shoddy, and often downright nonsensical.
The Third Jesus Is a (New Age) Charm
The Third Jesus consists of three main parts. The first, “The Third Jesus,” presents Chopra’s Christ and urges readers to abandon the Jesus found in the Bible and Church teaching. The second, “The Gospel of Enlightenment,” interprets various sayings of Jesus, including some from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, and concludes with a section titled, “Who Is The ‘Real’ Jesus?” The final part, “Taking Jesus as Your Teacher: A Guide for Seekers,” offers 15 steps to “God-consciousness” and concludes with a withering attack on orthodox Christians—”fundamentalists,” in Chopra’s simplistic estimation.
Chopra begins by saying that Jesus left a “riddle” that “2,000 years of worship haven’t solved.” The riddle: “Why are Jesus’ teachings impossible to live by?” For Chopra, traditional, orthodox Christianity has not only failed to help people follow Christ, it has created a false Christ who keeps Jesus’ true intentions hidden. What Jesus really intended, we are told, was “a completely new view of human nature, and unless you transform yourself, you misunderstand what he had to say. . . He wanted to inspire a world reborn in God” (2).
There is a sense, of course, in which Jesus did indeed intend a new understanding of human nature, but it does not flow from man’s self-transformation, but from a transformation wrought by God through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. But Chopra insists man can save himself if only he recognizes what made Jesus stand out in the crowd: “What made Jesus the Son of God was the fact that he had achieved God-consciousness” (3-4). And, a few pages later, in what is clearly a thesis statement (emphasized by italics): ” Jesus intended to save the world by showing others the path to God-consciousness ” (10). This is a variation on the general New Age belief that man is meant for a “higher” or “cosmic” consciousness, in which the material realm and morality disappears.
The New Know-Nothings
Chopra flatly states that the first Jesus “is historical and we know next to nothing about him” (8). Chopra employs contradictions in striving to do away with this Jesus. “The first Jesus was a rabbi who wandered the shores of northern Galilee many centuries ago. This Jesus still feels close enough to touch.” And yet, while he seems so close and knowable, he is completely unknowable. Why? “This historical Jesus has been lost, however, swept away by history” (8). While this is apparently intended to be pithy and devastating, it actually sounds like something a high school freshman might write in a 1,000-word essay titled, “What I Learned from The Da Vinci Code This Summer.” Granted, Chopra’s remark about history is absurd, but it is also significant: absurd, since it makes no sense; significant, because it sets the tone for the entire book, which revels in contradictory and illogical statements.
This is in keeping with much of Eastern mysticism, which revels in being “supra-rational” and unhindered by traditional reason and basic logic. Thus, 200 pages later, readers are informed, “History may blur Jesus’ biography, but it can’t put out the light” (217). So, which is it: swept away or merely blurred?
Not only is Chopra consistently inconsistent with his “arguments” and observations, he demonstrates a lack of interest in actual Christian doctrine and theology. This is readily apparent in his dismissal of the “second Jesus,” who is “the Jesus built up over thousands of years by theologians and other scholars.” This Jesus “never existed” and “doesn’t even lay claim to the fleeting substance of the first Jesus” (9). As if to underscore his complete lack of theological knowledge, Chopra writes that the supposedly nonexistent Jesus created by the Church “is the Holy Ghost, the Three-in-One Christ, the source of sacraments and prayers that were unknown to the rabbi Jesus when he walked the earth” (9). But if the historical Jesus has been “swept away by history” (just three paragraphs earlier!), how do we know what was known or unknown to him? Where does the Catholic Church teach that Jesus is the Holy Spirit? Is Chopra familiar with any Christian theology? Considering that the only post-apostolic Christian thinkers named in The Third Jesus are Dante (in passing) and Kierkegaard (a brief mention of Either/Or), the obvious answer is, “No, he’s not.”
Chopra, in fact, contemptuously tosses aside theology and metaphysics: “Theology shifts with the tide of human affairs. Metaphysics itself is so complex that it contradicts the simplicity of Jesus’ words” (9). In his world, mind-baffling theology and complex metaphysics are, oddly enough, used by Christian “fundamentalists.” For example, Chopra later assures readers, “Trying to find ‘the real Jesus’ is basically a fundamentalist effort” (139). His pronouncement must be amusing to the many highly educated New Testament scholars who are also orthodox Christians.
Scripture Could Mean Anything at All?
Despite praising “the simplicity of Jesus’ words,” Chopra later complains, “Anyone can devise a new interpretation of the New Testament. Unfortunately, this great text is ambiguous and confusing enough to support almost any thesis about its meaning” (139). The reason for Chopra’s disdain for theology—from the Greek words theos (God) and logia (discourse or discussion)—seems simple enough: He doesn’t like thinking logically about God (at least the personal God of the Jews and the Christians). And when Chopra encounters an argument or position he disagrees with, he simply dismisses it: “Theology is arbitrary; it can tell any story it wants, find any hidden meaning” (136). Chopra’s own arbitrary methods and findings are apparently exempt from any such criticism.
Then there is Chopra’s open disdain for the Catholic Church and Church authority. (Chopra, it should be noted, spent some of his childhood attending a Catholic school, and he dedicates the book “to the Irish Christian Brothers in India who introduced me to Jesus . . . “) So the second Jesus—described as “the abstract theological creation”—”leads us into the wilderness without a clear path out” (9). Christianity is marked by division and sectarianism, endless argument, and an unhealthy appeal to authority: “But can any authority, however exalted, really inform us about what Jesus would have thought?” And yet this remark comes right before 200 pages that declare, in an authoritative and sometimes exalted tone, what Jesus did think, would have thought, and must have thought about a host of topics. So, yes, some self-exalted authority by the name of Deepak Chopra does attempt to do the unthinkable.
Jesus and “God-consciousness”
The Third Jesus, according to Chopra, “taught his followers how to reach God-consciousness.” This Jesus was “a savior,” but “not the Savior, not the one and only Son of God. Rather, Jesus embodied the highest level of enlightenment . . . Jesus intended to save the world by showing others the path to God-consciousness ” (10). Then, having already claimed that the historical Jesus cannot be known and that the second Jesus is a nasty lie, Chopra offers an unconvincing olive branch: “Such a reading of the New Testament doesn’t diminish the first two Jesuses. Rather, they are brought into sharper focus. In place of lost history and complex history, the third Jesus offers a direct relationship that is personal and present” (10). But if the historical Jesus cannot be known and Jesus of doctrine and theology is a fabrication, how can they be “brought into sharper focus”?
Upon what evidence does Chopra construct his portrait of Jesus? Chopra doesn’t reveal much about the sources he used (there are no footnotes, nor a bibliography). They are most likely a combination of Jesus Seminar-like works, radical feminist texts, neo-Gnostic tomes, and standard New Age tomes. Whatever the sources, they apparently aren’t interested in the first-century context in which the Gospels are written, especially the Jewish context. Apart from mentioning Jesus’ conflicts with various religious leaders and some comments about Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, the explicitly Jewish character of the Gospels is given short shrift. Chopra simply assumes that most of the New Testament is historically inaccurate, written by followers of Jesus who manipulated their Master’s words for their own ends. No evidence or arguments are provided, no scholars are quoted, no effort is made to show how and why Chopra accepts one verse as authentic while dismissing or ignoring others. Call it a low-level variety of the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Or call it convenient, self-serving, and dishonest. Either works.
Chopra makes errors that could have been avoided with a modest amount of study. He writes: “Jesus calls himself the New Adam” (15). No, he didn’t; the only use of “Adam” in the Gospels is in Luke’s genealogy. The term “new Adam” doesn’t appear in the New Testament; rather, Paul compares the “last Adam” (Jesus) to the “first man, Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45). Yes, Jesus is understood to be the New Adam (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 504, 505, 539), but the Gospels don’t record Jesus referring to himself in such a way.
Having quoted from John 8 (“I am the light of the world . . . “), Chopra gives this context: “Jesus had entered Jerusalem for the last time. Within hours he would be arrested by the Romans . . . ” (Third Jesus, 22). Wrong. That was still some time away, as the Feast of Dedication had yet to take place (John 10:22), as well as raising Lazarus, (John 11), the triumphal entrance into Jerusalem (John 12:12-19), and the Last Supper discourse (John 13-17).
Chopra claims that “Jesus railed against the law . . . ” (Third Jesus, 23). Woefully incorrect. Jesus praised the Law—it was the misuse and abuse of the Law that angered him. He said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17-18). And Jesus, insists Chopra, “didn’t dramatize the End of Days,” which will come as a surprise to those familiar with Matthew 24 and 25, Mark 13, and Luke 21. He describes the pre-Christian Paul as “a worldly skeptic,” which directly contradicts Paul’s clear testimony about his zealous adherence to Judaism (Acts 26:4ff; Phil. 3:4ff).
Chopra Ignores Core Christian Beliefs
More importantly, Chopra has little interest in what Christians have always understood to be the heart of the Gospels: the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He makes the strange remark that “with the Resurrection a flesh-and-blood man was transformed into completely divine substance—the Holy Spirit” (136), and implies that the early Christians, desperate to have Jesus back with them, created the belief in the Resurrection (179). Other than that remark, he is silent on these core Christian beliefs.
Of course, there is much talk of Jesus pointing man toward “God-consciousness,” but it is invariably ephemeral and vague. Reading Chopra trying to explain the nature of his Jesus’ life and work is like watching a madman shooting fog with a shotgun. He claims to have hit the target every time, but the fog remains and nothing has really happened, even while the shooter’s cockiness grows with every blast.
Chopra’s Christ disregards the material world. He has nothing to do with Christianity or the Church, or with the God of the Jews and the Christians. He has no interest in faith, concerned only with enlightenment and a higher state of consciousness: “Once we see Jesus as a teacher of enlightenment, faith changes its focus. You don’t need to have faith in the Messiah or his mission. Instead, you have faith in the vision of higher consciousness” (62). This Jesus does not ask us to believe in him, but to seek out “his essence, which is the light of pure consciousness” (63). Divine intelligence, the mad shooter opines, “manifests whatever we can imagine” (65).
This is self-help monism for the masses, which promises spiritual and physical wholeness if only readers will look inside themselves for the answers. To focus on Jesus and our response to him, says Chopra, is to miss the point. When one achieves God-consciousness “wholeness prevails. There is no more going in and going out of God, coming to God and moving away. The experience of God turns into a constant for one reason alone: ‘I’ and ‘God” become one and the same ” (212, emphasis added). Jesus may be a good example, but he is not the goal: “But Jesus is the very thing you and I won’t be like once we arrive at God-consciousness” (213).
The New-Age (Anti)christ
Despite his many contradictory remarks, Chopra clearly presents his Jesus as the real Jesus: unique, fresh, and newly recovered after centuries of dark oppression on the part of the Church. Yet this Jesus is hardly unique; he is essentially identical with a host of New Age Christs who have been created, recreated, and reincarnated over the past century by authors such as Levi Dowling, José Silva, Edgar Cayce, Richard Bach, Matthew Fox, and many others.
Evangelical apologist and philosopher Dr. Douglas Groothuis has written several excellent books on the New Age movement. In Jesus in an Age of Controversy, he outlines common traits of the New Age Jesus, all of which are found in Chopra’s book:
Jesus is a spiritually advanced being who provides an example for us to achieve our own “spiritual evolution.” He is often compared to, or paired with, Buddha. Thus, Chopra insists, “the Christian seeker who wants to reach God is no different from the Buddhist. Both are directed into their own consciousness” (Third Jesus, 87).
The historical Jesus is distinct from the universal and impersonal “Christ consciousness” or “God-consciousness,” which he embodies but does not monopolize. Orthodox Christian understandings of Jesus are considered narrow-minded, provincial, and limiting. Or, in Chopra’s words: “Clearly Jesus did not have a provincial view of himself. Although a Jew and a rabbi (or teacher), he saw himself in universal terms” (Third Jesus, 20).
Jesus death on the cross and his Resurrection are of little or no importance. Thus, a significant part of the Gospels (roughly a quarter of those texts) is simply ignored or dismissed as unimportant.
Jesus’ Second Coming is not a literal, visible event at the end of the age, but a stage in the evolutionary advancement of humanity. As Chopra states, “the Second Coming will be a shift in consciousness that renews human nature by raising it to the level of the divine” (Third Jesus, 40).
Extra-biblical documents, especially Gnostic texts, are used and regarded as authentic sources for the life of Jesus. Meanwhile, the Gospels are quoted selectively and often “corrected” by other sources. “Other documents may be as old as the four Gospels,” Chopra writes, “and therefore make their own claim to authenticity” (Third Jesus, 133).
Bible passages are given esoteric interpretations that contradict orthodox understandings, as well as historical facts. Chopra especially enjoys reinterpreting texts about “light,” ignoring (as in the Gospel of John) the context of the Feast of Lights, and the connection being made in John’s Gospel to the Shekinah glory of God.
Like so many before him, Chopra does not appeal to history, facts, or logic in presenting his version of Jesus. He is completely derivative and unoriginal, despite his attempts to appear otherwise. His assumption that his “Third Jesus” should be accepted simply because he, Deepak Chopra, believes in him, reveals a belief system that is not just illogical but makes no real attempt at engaging the difficult, challenging questions—historical, philosophical, theological—that should be taken seriously.
The Road to Spiritual Narcissism
An essential message of The Third Jesus is the tired-but-popular mantra: Spirituality is good; religion is bad. We need, Chopra exhorts readers, to discard “the model of religion. To gather together on the path isn’t the same as forming a sect. There is no need for dogma, prayer, ritual, priests, or official Scripture. No one is to be elevated above the rest” (171). But if The Third Jesus (and many of Chopra’s other books) is anything, it is a dogmatic work, a scripture that provides rituals and meditation. Chopra is a sort of priest, the spiritual leader who provides teaching and guidance.
James A. Herrick, in his excellent study, The Making of the New Spirituality, writes about how the New Religious Synthesis (his term for New Age movements and related belief systems) does away with history in order to open the way “to universal religious insights.” Religious belief is detached from historical events and the focus becomes inward. In this context, the gate is opened to
[T]he self-styled mystic, the spiritual charlatan, the religious expert or just the self-deceived neighbor, each operating in a realm of private interpretation of elusive evidences largely inaccessible to their followers or any would-be critic . . . Shamans, gurus, scholars of religion and even laboratory scientists now intervene between the public and the divine as a new class of priests. (256)
Chopra is one such guru, and his elevated status is not based on reason but on a system of subjective interpretation he describes as “secular spirituality.” It is, in reality, a religion: the worship and divinization of self. Herrick, further pondering the tension between those who believe in a personal God and Jesus Christ, and those who espouse an impersonal oneness and the need to achieve a higher form of “consciousness,” writes of this spirituality of self-obsession:
The New Religious Synthesis calls us to self-adoration as spirituality, to the exaltation of our own rational self-awareness—”the divinity operating within us” . . . —as an act of worship. The Other Spirituality’s journey away from submission to a personal and sovereign deity, away from moral responsibility before a Creator God, away from community built on worship of the Wholly Other, arrives at no more interesting destination than spiritual narcissism. (New Spirituality, 259)
“Spiritual narcissism” is a perfect description of The Third Jesus. Chopra’s book is only superficially about Jesus; in fact, he hardly makes any effort to find the real Jesus, having dismissed—without providing compelling reasons—the “historical” Jesus and the Jesus of doctrine and theology. On the contrary, this book is a self-absorbed exercise in pseudo-mystical navel-gazing, the sort of book whose beautiful cover disguises a hollow, empty work that is intellectually confused and spiritually toxic.”
Catholics and the New Age (Charis, 1992), by Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J.
An excellent Catholic examination of the New Age movement is the Vatican document, “Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the ‘New Age,’” released in 2003 by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Available at www.vatican.va.
Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Harvest House, 1996), and Confronting the New Age (InterVarsity Press, 1988), by Douglas Groothuis.
The Making of the New Spirituality (InterVarsity Press, 2003), by James A. Herrick is an excellent overview, with a wealth of historical background.
A fine popular introduction to Eastern pantheism and New Age beliefs can be found in The Universe Next Door (InterVarsity Press, 1988; 2nd ed., especially pages 136-208), by James W. Sire.
Ignorance is NOT a synonym for stupid. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge, NOT mental capacity.
-by Jimmy Akin
“In moral theology, ignorance is defined as a lack of knowledge that a person ought to have. Ignorance is distinguished from mere nescience, which is a lack of knowledge that a person has no need of. For example, a person who did not know the square root of 1429 would be ignorant of it if he were taking a test that required him to know the answer, but he would be nescient of it if performing a task that didn’t require the number.
Moral theology divides ignorance into a number of categories. The two I will consider here are invincible and vincible. Ignorance is invincible if it a person could not remove it by applying reasonable diligence in determining the answer. Ignorance is vincible if a person could remove it by applying reasonable diligence. Reasonable diligence, in turn, is that diligence that a conscientious person would display in seeking the correct answer to a question given (a) the gravity of the question and (b) his particular resources.
The gravity of a question is determined by how great a need the person has to know the answer. The answers to fundamental questions (how to save one’s soul, how to preserve one’s life) have grave weight. The answers to minor questions (the solution to a crossword puzzle) typically have lightweight.
The particular resources a person has include (a) the ease with which he can obtain the information necessary to determine the answer (e.g., a man with a good textbook on the subject may be able to find the information with greater ease than a man who lacks such a textbook) and (b) the ease with which he can make an accurate evaluation of the evidence once it is in his possession (e.g., a smart man may be able to evaluate the evidence with greater ease than an ordinary man). The graver the question and the greater the resources available, the more diligence is needed to qualify as reasonable. The lighter the question and the fewer the resources available, the less diligence is needed to qualify as reasonable.
Just as it is possible to show less than reasonable diligence, it is also possible to show more than reasonable diligence. Diligence can be supererogatory (and praiseworthy) if one shows more diligence than would be expected from an ordinary, conscientious person. Diligence can be excessive or scrupulous (and blameworthy) if someone spends so much time seeking the answer to a particular question that he fails to attend to other matters he should attend to, or if he refuses to come to a conclusion and continues seeking even when he has enough evidence.
Depending on its type and degree, ignorance may remove, diminish, leave unaffected, or even increase one’s culpability for a materially sinful act (cf. CCC 1735, 1746, 1859). Conversely, it may have the same effects on one’s imputability for a materially righteous act. Here we will deal only with the effects of ignorance on one’s culpability for sin.
Invincible ignorance removes one’s culpability for a materially sinful act, whether one of omission or commission (CCC 1793). Vincible ignorance may affect one’s culpability for a sinful act, depending on the kind of vincibility. If some insufficient diligence was shown toward finding the answer, then the ignorance is termed merely vincible. If little or no diligence was shown, the ignorance is termed crass or supine. If one deliberately fostered the ignorance then it is termed affected or studied.
If vincible ignorance is merely vincible, crass, or supine, it diminishes culpability for the sinful act relative to the degree of diligence that was shown. If a vincibly ignorant person showed almost reasonable diligence, most of his imputability for the sin could be removed. If he was crassly ignorant, having shown little or no diligence compared to what was reasonable, little or none of his imputability would be removed.
Affected or studied ignorance can increase culpability for a sin, especially if it displays hardness of heart, whereby one would commit the sin irrespective of any law that might exist concerning it. Such an attitude shows contempt for moral law and so increases culpability (cf. CCC 1859).
Potentially, ignorance can diminish or remove imputability for any kind of sin. However, no one is presumed to be ignorant of the principles of moral law since these are written on the heart of every man (CCC 1860). It is possible for a person to be invincibly ignorant that an act is required by natural law. This may be true if the act involves a point that is not obvious, if the person is not mentally quick enough to discern the application of natural law to the case, or if he has been raised to strongly believe in a system that denies the point of natural law. However, such ignorance must be proven, not presumed.
In practical use, the terms vincible and invincible may pose problems for those unfamiliar with Catholic moral terminology. For many, vincible is a wholly unfamiliar term and invincible can suggest that which can never be overcome, no matter how much diligence is shown. Because of these difficulties, it may be advisable in practice to speak of innocent (invincible) and culpable (vincible) ignorance when addressing such people.
However, other individuals (notably radical traditionalists and Feeneyites) may view one as suspect if one substitutes the innocent/culpable ignorance terminology. When addressing such individuals, the standard terminology should be used.
A special case is the application of vincible and invincible ignorance to salvation. Failure to embrace the Christian faith (infidelity), total repudiation of the Christian faith (apostasy), and the post-baptismal obstinate denial or willful doubt of particular teachings of the Catholic faith (heresy) are objectively grave sins against the virtue of faith. Like any other grave sins, if they are committed with adequate knowledge and deliberate consent, they become mortal sins and will deprive one of salvation.
Also like any other grave sins, their imputability can be removed, diminished, unaffected, or increased by the varying types of ignorance. Invincible ignorance removes culpability for the sins against faith, merely vincible ignorance diminishes culpability (sometimes to the point of being venial), crass or supine ignorance will affect culpability for them little or not at all, and hard-hearted, affected ignorance will increase culpability for them.
For those who have had their culpability for sins against faith removed or diminished to the point of veniality, they are not mortal sins and thus will not of themselves deprive one of heaven. A person who is ignorant of the gospel of Christ and his Church through no fault of his own (or, by extension, through his merely venial fault) can be saved-if he otherwise does what is required for salvation, according to the level of opportunity, enlightenment, and grace God gives him (CCC 847, 1260).
In such cases, people are not saved apart from the true Church. Though they are not “fully incorporated” into the mystical Body of Christ, they are “joined” or “related” to the Church (to use Vatican II’s language) by the elements of saving grace God has given them. One might thus speak of them as having been “partially incorporated,” though not obtaining membership in the proper sense (Pius XII, Mysitici Corporis 22).
Unfortunately, there are a number of erroneous views regarding salvation and invincible ignorance that need to be pointed out. First, the fact that someone is invincibly ignorant of the true faith is not a ticket to heaven. A person who is not culpable for sins against faith may still be culpable for other mortal sins-the same ones people of faith can commit-and may be damned on that account.
Second, the fact that someone is invincibly ignorant does not mean that they should not be evangelized. The farther from the center of God’s truth a person is the more spiritual jeopardy they are in. Even if they are not culpable for sins against faith, the fact they are ignorant of the true religion and do not have access to the sacraments means that they are more likely to commit mortal sin and thus more likely to be damned. Christ did not leave us the option of only evangelizing some peoples (Mark 16:15) or of only teaching them some doctrines (Matt. 28:20). Consequently, it is a false understanding of evangelism or a false spirit of ecumenism that would suggest that classes of people can be left in total or partial ignorance of the true faith on the pretext that they are invincibly ignorant and should not be disturbed.
Third, those who have accepted the Catholic faith are in a special position concerning innocent ignorance. Vatican I taught that God gives special grace to those who have embraced the true faith so that they may persevere in it, “not deserting if he [God] be not deserted.” As a result of this special grace, “those who have received the faith under the teaching authority of the Church can never have a just reason to change this same faith or to reject it” (Dei Filius 3; ND 124, D 1794, DS 3014). It then infallibly condemned the proposition that “the condition of the faithful and of those who have not yet attained to the only true faith is the same, so that Catholics could have a just reason for suspending their judgment and calling into question the faith that they have already received under the teaching authority of the Church, until they have completed a scientific demonstration of the credibility and truth of their faith” (ibid., canon 3:6; ND 130, cf. D 1815, DS 3036). This applies, of course, to those who have genuinely accepted the Catholic faith under the influence of the Magisterium, not those who-though baptized or received into the Church-never actually accepted the Catholic faith due to absent or grossly defective catechesis.
Fourth, some radical traditionalists, those known as Feeneyites, assert that while invincible ignorance might excuse sins against faith, one would not thereby be excused from the necessity of baptism for salvation. This is false, since invincible ignorance excuses from acts of omission (such as failure to be baptized) as well as acts of commission. If one is invincibly ignorant of the requirement of baptism but would seek baptism if one knew it was required then the lack of baptism will not be held against one. This is expressly taught by the Church (CCC 1260). One would thus be recognized as having baptism of desire, at least implicitly.
Fifth, Feeneyites sometimes assert that there are no individuals who are invincibly ignorant of the necessities of baptism and embracing the Catholic faith. This position reflects a misunderstanding concerning what constitutes reasonable deliberation for many in the non-Catholic world. If someone has never heard of the Christian faith, or if he has been taught all his life that the Catholic Church is evil, then it could well be that he would not discover the truth of the Christian faith or the Catholic Church merely by exercising reasonable diligence in weighing the various religious options presented to him.
In many parts of the world it is easy for people to display reasonable but not supererogatory diligence and be invincibly ignorant concerning the Christian faith in general or the Catholic Church in particular. The assertion that there are no invincibly ignorant people also is manifestly contrary to the teaching of the Church, which acknowledges that there are “righteous people in all religions” (CCC 2569; cf. 847, 1260).”
“I pray that they will all be one, just as You and I are one—as You are in me, Father, and I am in You. And may they be in Us so that the world will believe You sent Me.” -Jn 17:21
-by Jimmy Akin
“Recently, friends called to our attention the existence of a new Facebook group, calling itself “Catholic Answers,” that serves as a forum to attack Catholic teaching as false and unbiblical. Its description page includes the group’s “one rule”:
Because all liars will have their part in the lake of fire (Rev 21:8), so, If a Roman Catholic decides to make the false claim that there are “x number of denominations”, they will be required to name them all, by name [sic].
The multiplication of Protestant denominations and sects following the Reformation is a common talking-point for Catholic apologists and often a sore spot for Protestants. It’s a licit point for Catholics to raise—after all, Christ came to build one Church whose members would live and believe in unity with each another, not many churches that disagree over important points of faith and morals. But it’s also one that should not be exaggerated.
What are the different varieties of Protestantism?
There are many varieties of Protestantism, and they display an enormous amount of theological diversity. For this reason, it is almost always a mistake to speak of “the” Protestant position on any subject. Even the core distinctives on which Protestantism is based—sola fide and sola scriptura—are understood in markedly different ways. When we move to other doctrines, the diversity only increases.
There are literally thousands of independent Protestant denominations and many more independent congregations. Catholic apologists have pointed to these numbers as illustrations of the tendency of Protestant principles—especially sola scriptura—to cause fragmentation and doctrinal confusion.
This is a valid point. However, sometimes apologists cite misleading numbers, claiming—for example, that there are something like 33,000 Protestant denominations. This number is given as the total number of Christian denominations in the World Christian Encyclopedia, but the methodology used to count them is flawed. It considers two groups to be separate denominations if they are in different countries, even if they are in communion with each other. Because the Catholic Church is found in many countries, the Encyclopedia counts Catholicism as being 242 separate denominations!
Even when denominations operate independently of each other, it doesn’t mean that they disagree theologically. A Presbyterian denomination in America may be totally independent of a Presbyterian denomination in Uganda, but they may have the same doctrinal views.
About half of Protestants worldwide belong to one of six major traditions—Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, or Pentecostals—with the remainder belonging to smaller traditions, including nondenominational groups.
These major traditions historically have all been Trinitarian in theology, and they broadly accept the results of the early ecumenical councils dealing with the Person of Christ. Use of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed is common in many of them, though some clauses (e.g., those regarding belief in the communion of saints, baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and especially the Catholic Church) may be understood in different senses.
Although the majority of groups stemming from the Reformation are Trinitarian, there are movements that reject this teaching. Whether Unitarianism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Oneness Pentecostalism fall under the definition of Protestant is open to debate.
Over time, a number of movements have emerged in Protestantism that cut across these traditions. By the twentieth century, many historic Protestant denominations had become more theologically liberal, though they still contained conservative congregations and individuals. In the 1920s, they came to be known as “mainline” Protestant churches, and they include representatives of all the major Protestant traditions except Pentecostalism.
Mainline denominations were criticized by more conservative ones, who came to be called “fundamentalists” because they favored The Fundamentals—a twelve-volume set of books advocating conservative positions. Over time, the origin of the term was largely forgotten, and today fundamentalist is a term used to refer to very conservative Protestants (as well as members of other groups and even other religions, e.g., “fundamentalist Muslims”). The term also has taken on negative connotations. If someone is called a fundamentalist, it suggests that he is doctrinally rigid and hostile to other viewpoints. For this reason, the term should be used only for those few Christians who apply it to themselves. Otherwise, it becomes an insult that adds more heat than light.
Because of the negative connotations the term acquired, conservative Protestants needed a different and more positive term for themselves, and in the United States they began to call themselves “evangelicals.” This can be confusing since the term evangelical has been used in other senses. In Europe, it is applied to mainline Protestant churches or, alternately, to anyone who strongly favors evangelism (i.e., preaching the gospel).
However, in the United States evangelical generally indicates a conservative Protestant who distances himself from the rigidity associated with fundamentalism, though the term is fluid and not all who identify themselves as evangelical fit this profile.”
Love & unity,
Summa Catechetica, "Neque enim quaero intelligere ut credam, sed credo ut intelligam." – St Anselm, "Let your religion be less of a theory, and more of a love affair." -G.K. Chesterton, "I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men and women who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, and who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it."- Bl John Henry Newman, Cong. Orat., "Encounter, not confrontation; attraction, not promotion; dialogue, not debate." -cf Pope Francis, “You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.” -St Athanasius, "To convert someone, go and take them by the hand and guide them." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP. 1 saint ruins ALL the cynicism in Hell & on Earth. “When we pray we talk to God; when we read God talks to us…All spiritual growth comes from reading and reflection.” -St Isidore of Seville, “Also in some meditations today I earnestly asked our Lord to watch over my compositions that they might do me no harm through the enmity or imprudence of any man or my own; that He would have them as His own and employ or not employ them as He should see fit. And this I believe is heard.” -GM Hopkins, SJ, "Only God knows the good that can come about by reading one good Catholic book." — St. John Bosco, "Why don't you try explaining it to them?" – cf St Peter Canisius, SJ, Doctor of the Church, Doctor of the Catechism, "Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering theological eye glasses of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across theological eye glasses that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision." -Karl Keating, "The more perfectly we know God, the more perfectly we love Him." -St Thomas Aquinas, OP, ST, I-II,67,6 ad 3, “But always when I was without a book, my soul would at once become disturbed, and my thoughts wandered." —St. Teresa of Avila, "Let those who think I have said too little and those who think I have said too much, forgive me; and let those who think I have said just enough thank God with me." –St. Augustine