Revised and abridged for today's liturgical readings and for new Sky View readers:
"Mediocrity and compromise characterize the lives of many Christians. Many read the same novels as modern pagans, educate their children in the same godless way, listen to the same commentators who have no other standard than judging today by yesterday and tomorrow by today, allow pagan practices such as divorce and remarriage to creep into the family.”
-Bishop Fulton Sheen, Communism and the Western Conscience 1948
The question posed to the elders of the temple by Our Lord put them in quite a dilemma. However, such dilemmas arise when people depart from a principled stand. Indeed, the very question that exposed the moral weakness of the elders of the temple also says something about your average nominal Catholic (i.e. Catholic by name only). And it is nominal Catholicism from within that has greatly burdened the mission of the Church, leaving America and the Western Civilization at large vulnerable to the decaying effects of secular-liberalism. The illusion of picking and choosing what to believe and observe from what Christ taught is the Church's greatest challenge for the 21st century.
Saturday, June 2nd Gospel reading: Luke 20:1-8
One day as he was teaching the people in the temple area and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and scribes, together with the elders, approached him and said to him, "Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Or who is the one who gave you this authority?" He said to them in reply, "I shall ask you a question. Tell me, was John's baptism of heavenly or of human origin?" They discussed this among themselves, and said, "If we say, 'Of heavenly origin,' he will say, 'Why did you not believe him?' But if we say, 'Of human origin,' then all the people will stone us, for they are convinced that John was a prophet." So they answered that they did not know from where it came. Then Jesus said to them, "Neither shall I tell you by what authority I do these things."
For the sake of context, it should be noted that just before the chief priests, scribes, and elders posed the question, “By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus had just cleansed the temple with a great show of anger. Evidently, it was after this episode that Jesus began to teach the people; this, at the end of his three, nearly four, year public ministry.
From the outset it should also be mentioned that Jesus rarely answered questions from his critics in a forthright manner; that is, by responding with a “yes” or a “no.” When asked about paying taxes, he said give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. When asked about why his disciples did not fast, he answered by telling the Pharisees a parable about wine skins and wine. Even when the Apostles asked him about the restoration of Israel just before he ascended in heaven, he refused to answer it. He never acted as though he was under the obligation to entrust himself to people’s curiosity or whims.
The Elders Dilemma:
To repeat the question posed to Jesus in the temple by the elders: "Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Or who is the one who gave you this authority?" In response to this question, Jesus is surgical in asking the very question that exposes their weakness. Mind you, this weakness afflicts your average nominal Catholic. Our Lord asked his critics: “Tell me, was John's baptism of heavenly or of human origin?"
Now, if the elders of the temple were principled they would have answered our Lord’s question immediately. But they were not principled. Instead, they weighed the consequences of two possible answers. If they answered that if John’s baptism was of a heavenly origin, they would have no grounds on which to accuse Jesus of wrongdoing. After all, if John’s baptism was from God, then they would have to believe what John the Baptist said about Jesus Christ (being the Lamb of God etc.). Hence, Our Lord’s divine authority would be beyond dispute. His actions of cleansing the temple and his teaching within it precincts would be justified. On the other hand, if they were to affirm that John’s baptism was of human origin they would be renounced by the Jews. Since they opposed Jesus’ authority more than they loved the truth, they committed themselves to neither answer. They simply said they didn't know.
Jesus knew that they were, in no way, interested in the truth so he did not tell them the truth. Our Lord simply refused to answer the question. And does he not continue to do the same thing today? Indeed, he does not commit himself to those who are not interested in knowing the truth about him. This is a practice the Catholic Church has emulated for centuries.
The Nominal Catholic’s Dilemma:
The nominal Catholic finds himself in a similar dilemma as the elders in the Temple; an impossible situation, if you will. Perhaps this is why Catholicism and secular-liberalism simply do not mix. Catholic institutions and religious orders which are inspired by the latter do not present enough of the former to attract souls. This is why many of these Catholic venues, influence by the spirit of the world, are dying.
The dilemma of the nominal Catholic is that, on the one hand, they choose not to believe in any number of Catholic doctrines: the real presence of the Eucharist; the moral teachings on chastity, contraception, homosexuality, abortion and the indissolubility of marriage; the teachings on purgatory and hell; and the teaching on a male-only priesthood. For them, the corpus of Christ’s teachings as taught through the Catholic Church is like a menu: you order some of the food but certainly not all of it.
On the other hand, these same nominal Catholics belong to a Church that teaches certain things about herself; certain things they are manifestly at odds with. For instance, the Catholic Church sees herself as the only prophetic and infallible voice of Christ; a true oracle of God Almighty. In other words, what she also teaches about herself is that she is infallible on matters of faith and morals; as such, her teachings are guaranteed by Jesus himself. Did not Our Lord say, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19) And did not St. Paul confirm this when he wrote that the church of the living God is the pillar and foundation of truth? (cf. I Timothy 3:15) Yes, he did.
Now, one of two things must be true; both cannot be true. Either the Church is who she says she is; that is, the infallible voice of Christ or she is just another church appropriating certain privileges for herself that do not belong to her. If she is that infallible voice of Christ then the nominal Catholic can no longer be nominal and hence pick and choose among her doctrines; he or she must believe all that Christ has taught through his Church…all of it! But if she is not infallible on faith and morals then the nominal Catholic must come to terms with the following truth: he or she belongs to a Church that suffers from a serious delusion. As such, if they were principled people, they would leave this delusional Church that they happened to be a member of.
As for our Lord, many people said that he was a good teacher but they hardly take seriously that he is who he claimed to be, namely, God. If Christ wasn’t God, he could not be a good teacher because he would be under a delusion or a deceiver. This dilemma applies equally to the Church for the reasons we stated. An organization claiming to be the spokesman for God, but in reality is no such thing, is a cult and nothing more. Yet, the nominal Catholic continues along his way, going to church on Sundays, having his children baptized etc., and selectively believing in some teachings while rejecting others. But the truth is that the nominal Catholic is a living contradiction.
The question becomes: Can we really blame the nominal Catholic when nominal Catholicism is encouraged in our pastoral practices? Can we blame the person who wants the best of both worlds and his made to believe he can have it all when the pastoral practices of the Church to do not discourage it? Can we criticize the nominal Catholic for only going half way on the road to heaven when we do not insist on him going the distance? If each parish and diocese within the Holy Catholic Church takes Christ’s as their model, then they would have to consider the high standards he and his Apostles set for those who want to belong to his Church.
Division from Within:
As it stands today, however, the contradiction remains. The crux of nominal Catholicism can be summed up with this passage from the Letter of James: “For whoever keeps the whole law, but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it.” (James 2:10) Falling short in one particular part of God’s law not only undermines the salvation of the nominal Catholic, but divides Catholics among themselves. St. Augustine elaborates on this principle by saying the following: "There can be nothing more dangerous than those heretics who admit nearly the whole cycle of doctrine, and yet by one word, as with a drop of poison, infect the real and simple faith taught by our Lord and handed down by Apostolic tradition." Again, partial beliefs- not believing all that Christ taught -are not only dangerous to the individual Catholic but it also poses a threat to the Church’s expression of unity.
It is important to note that when access to holy things is granted indiscriminately by the Church to partial believers or unbelievers alike (in other words, a nominal Catholic who accept some but not all of Christ’s teachings), then sin and error end up existing side by side with virtue and truth. And when sin and error are tolerated and thus gain a foothold within the Church, it leads to division and confusion among Catholics.
Regrettably, this pastoral laxity and toleration gave birth to nominal Catholicism. No longer does the word “Catholic” denote a person who actively follows Christ, believing and observing all that he taught. No, it can mean any number of things nowadays. For that reason, dioceses, bishops, parishes, priests, lay teachers and diocesan staff members differ from one another on the most fundamental doctrines and issues. The sad reality is that we are not on the same page in our beliefs or in our message. As such, the inner unity of the Holy Trinity or that unity inherent in the Church herself is not clearly expressed; at least not as clearly as it could be. But a vivid expression of unity is absolutely necessary in communicating the truth of the Gospel and making it stick in our culture!
To better appreciate the lack of unity within the Catholic Church, consider what a faithful Catholic must do if he is to move from one town to another. Upon moving to a different location, he or she has to do some research as to which parish is most faithful to the teachings of Christ, which parish is Christ-centered, which parish places a high priority on the spiritual exercises of perpetual adoration and praying the rosary, and which parish puts a high premium on orthodoxy etc. Needless to say, parishes differ from one another just as faithful Catholics differ from nominal Catholics. However, it wasn’t always this way. It used to be the case as recently as the mid-twentieth century that all parishes were pretty much on the same page.
As the world continues to watch just how long America will endure, we, as Catholics, need to consider this truth: What happens to Catholic Church in America happens to America. The Church is very much like a pregnant mother. As such, her diet, her health and the choices she makes has a profound effect on the preborn child (i.e. society). So too does the integrity of the Church determine the integrity of culture. The culture war that has divided America over the last twenty to thirty years had its conception in the bosom of the Church. To make a long story short, when public dissent by members of the clergy and laity was tolerated in the late 1960’s, the division between faithful Catholics and the unfaithful was created, a house divided was the effect, and from there, a culture war was underway.