A new coalition for Christian orthodoxy
Published on Catholic News Agency
There is a fierce struggle for Christian orthodoxy in the Catholic Church. It could have dire consequences for all Christians. It should prompt a serious and prolonged response of prayer from all Christians. But it needs more. It needs an active response. I propose what is needed is a new coalition for Christian orthodoxy.
I use the word orthodoxy in the lower case, not referring to the Orthodox Church, which is a vital and wonderful part of the Lord’s loving plan. Rather, referring to the whole of Christianity. The word means “right teaching.”
One of the strengths of the Catholic Church has always been its “Magisterium”, or teaching office. It used to be, you could always know what the Catholic Church taught. This clarity was particularly essential to the Catholic lay faithful. In an age infected by what Pope Emeritus Benedict referred to as a dictatorship of relativism, sound doctrine is becoming too hard to find.
The Apostle Paul instructed Timothy to guard the deposit of faith. (2 Tim. 1:14) The Christian faithful need to have the deposit protected and regularly offered, without confusion. That is why the Magisterium is so essential. Especially when too many Catholics, and other Christians, are faced with a deacon, priest or bishop teaching errant doctrine.
The Social Teaching of the Church is a part of Catholic Moral theology. It is doctrinal and not subject to change. It is revealed in the natural moral law, expounded upon in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament – and fully and definitively revealed in and through Jesus Christ. Jesus continues his redemptive mission through His Body, the Church, of which we are members.
Jesus Himself is the Teacher of the Church. He instructs us through those to whom He has entrusted His authority. Yet, that instruction is not being delivered with clarity in an increasing number of places.
This is a major problem which must be addressed.
The rejection of Christian orthodoxy is most evident in two areas of the social teaching of the Catholic Church – the dignity of human life and the unchangeable nature of marriage.
The right to life
Relying on the Bible and the natural Law, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church teaches that all human persons are created in the image of God. Because of this, all human persons have an inherent dignity and a fundamental right to life from conception to natural death.
This doctrine is infallibly taught by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. In other words, it is unchangeable. It must be embraced by all Catholic Christians, or they are being unfaithful in the practice of their Christian faith.
Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit on the Church. One of the functions of the Holy Spirit would be to guide the Church in all truth. In the Gospel of John we read His promise, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). Catholic Christians affirm that one of the ways this happens is through the teaching office, the Magisterium.
This truth concerning the right to life is also meant to inform the civil or positive law of every nation. Every human life, whether that life is found in the first home of the womb, a wheelchair, a jail cell, a hospital room, a hospice, a senior center, a soup kitchen or on a refugee boat, is to be respected and protected in the law.
There is a natural moral law in which the positive or civil law is to participate in – and defer to. When the positive or civil law denies the natural moral law, or overtly rejects it, the resulting “law” is not a law at all. It is unjust. This position has deep roots in the Christian tradition and is affirmed in every great human rights struggle.
Human rights are also goods of human persons. They are not ethereal concepts floating around in the air. When there is no human person to receive or exercise them, all the rhetoric extolling them is nothing but empty air and sophistry.
Every procured abortion is the taking of innocent human life. Period. It is therefore always and everywhere intrinsically immoral and illegal, whether the civil and criminal law of a nation recognizes this fact or not. It is revealed by the natural moral law. Without recognizing this right to life and protecting it, there can be no other derivative rights. The entire infrastructure of human rights is placed at risk.
The nature of marriage
So too, when the very nature of marriage is rejected, the social order is placed at risk. The Catholic position on the nature of marriage is clear. Or, is should be. Marriage is solely possible between one man and one woman. Period.
The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Catholic Church explained it well in 2003. “The Church’s teaching on marriage and on the complementarity of the sexes reiterates a truth that is evident to right reason and recognized as such by all the major cultures of the world. Marriage is not just any relationship between human beings. It was established by the Creator with its own nature, essential properties and purpose.”
“No ideology can erase from the human spirit the certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman, who by mutual personal gift, proper and exclusive to themselves, tend toward the communion of their persons. In this way, they mutually perfect each other, in order to cooperate with God in the procreation and upbringing of new human lives.”
The role of civil government
Marriage is the first and most fundamental social institution. It is a relationship defined by nature. It is protected by the natural law that is binding on all men and women. It finds its foundation in the order of creation. It is affirmed by Revelation and, in Jesus Christ, elevated to a Sacrament, a means of grace and sign of God’s loving plan for His Church.
Civil governments must be just. They must recognize, respect and protect the natural law right to life. In addition, civil institutions did not create marriage. They cannot manufacture a right to marry for those who are incapable of marriage. The institutions of government should defend marriage and family.
Government has long regulated marriage for the common good. For example, the ban on polygamy and age requirements were enforced to ensure that there was a mature decision at the basis of the marriage contract.
Heterosexual marriage, procreation, and the nurturing of children form the foundation for family. Family is the foundation for civil society. It is the first vital cell of the social order and the first mediating institution of government.
To limit marriage to heterosexual couples is not discriminatory. Homosexual couples cannot bring into existence what marriage intends by its definition. To confer the benefits that have been conferred in the past only to stable married couples and families to homosexual paramours is bad public policy. It will never serve the common good.
Yet, that is the current state of Western Civilization. We have lost our way. Only a renewed Christian Church can turn this situation around.
Sadly, the clarity of Catholic moral doctrine on life and marriage has been eroded by lack of proper catechetical instruction. There is also poor teaching being given right within the Church. Too often, this teaching is given by some in authority. Finally, the truth about life and marriage is being disregarded by a growing number of the Catholic faithful. It has been rejected by some unfaithful Catholics in public office.
However, none of that changes the truth of that doctrine. It is still taught infallibly by the Church and is not capable of being changed.
Infallibility is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. The doctrine insists that the pastors of the Church, the pope and bishops in union with him, can definitively proclaim a doctrine of faith or morals for the belief of the faithful (Catholic Catechism #891). This gift is related to the inability of the whole body of the faithful to err in matters of faith and morals (Catholic Catechism #92).
So, how do we explain the huge difference between what the Catholic Church teaches and what an increasing number of Catholics believe and practice? There is a great falling away occurring. Moral incoherence runs rampant among Catholic Christians.
They have embraced a separation between faith and life. The Pastoral Constitution on the Church stated it succinctly, “This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.”
Catholic Christians are called to be “morally coherent.” They are to live the faith they profess in the Creed in every area of their life. That phrase, moral coherence, was used in an instruction released in 2002 entitled a “Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life”. Here is an excerpt,
“The social doctrine of the Church is not an intrusion into the government of individual countries. It is a question of the lay Catholic’s duty to be morally coherent, found within one’s conscience, which is one and indivisible. Living and acting in conformity with one’s own conscience on questions of politics is not slavish acceptance of positions alien to politics or some kind of ‘confessionalism’, but rather the way in which Christians offer their concrete contribution so that, through political life, society will become more just and more consistent with the dignity of the human person.”
The same congregation has repeatedly addressed the right to life. Here is one example:
“The first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental – the condition of all the others. Hence it must be protected above all others. It does not belong to society, nor does it belong to public authority in any form to recognize this right for some and not for others” (Declaration on Procured Abortion (1974), no. 11. I).
A battle underway
The bulwark that is the Magisterium of the Catholic Church is being ravaged by wolves. The attack is coming from both within the walls of the Catholic Church and without. The Church is in the wilderness. Jonathan Coe explained the core of the problem in one sentence, “The Church has, in many places, become the culture. The secularists have influenced us much more than we have influenced them.”
Coe is correct.
He further opines, “The good news is that, when you look at both the biblical narrative and Church history, in a time of profound spiritual and moral decline, God usually has a consecrated person (or a group) hidden away, whom he is preparing for the purpose of meaningfully engaging the people causing the decline and the institutions they have constructed.”
Again, his prescription is the right one for the malady. We need to engage the people who are causing a decline in the Church. We must deal with errant teaching masquerading as some sort of acceptable “development.” Understanding the source of this errant teaching consists of is important.
Some Helpful Distinctions
The Catechism of the Catholic Church distinguishes between heresy, apostasy and incredulity.
“Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; …apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith “(Catechism #2089).
It is increasingly apparent that the Church is afflicted with an outbreak of all three.
There is widespread incredulity among many Catholics. There is also a growing apostasy within the Catholic Church. Both are occurring within other Christian churches and communions. The abandonment of the unchangeable truth concerning the dignity of human life and the nature of marriage is just the tip of the iceberg.
Finally, there is a growing acceptance of false teaching or heresy.
Christians are abandoning the teaching of the Bible and the Christian Tradition. That is heresy. This must be exposed and opposed. It is occurring in every segment of the currently divided Body of Christ.
A response is needed
What is needed is a new coalition of faithful Christians, formed across Christian confessional lines, and committed to defending what C.S. Lewis referred to as “Mere Christianity.” What Lewis meant by the phrase was not minimalism. Rather, basic Christian orthodoxy. The word orthodoxy, at its root, means right teaching.
This rejection of sound teaching is not a new phenomenon in the 2000-year history of the Church. All one needs to do is look at the first few centuries of the Christian Church. The same struggles existed very early in the Church. Many of the epistles in the New Testament were addressed to the early Christians to assist them in staying faithful to sound doctrine (2 Tim. 4:3).
The teaching of the Apostles continued beyond their death, through the bishops. Much of what they did in those early centuries was refute heresy and defend sound doctrine. For example, Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon, France, was born in Asia Minor in the year 125. His efforts are one example of the many early Church Fathers who contended for the truth – and pulled no punches in defending orthodoxy.
His seminal work was entitled “Against Heresies.” It was dedicated to exposing and opposing false teaching, to protect the Christians of his day from poison. His treatise is a refutation of the teachings of certain so called Christian Gnostics whose followers fell for similar errors as those which are reemerging in this hour.
Irenaeus’ goal, stated in the Fifth Book of the treatise, was to “reclaim the wanderers and convert them to the Church of God” and to “confirm at the same time the minds of the neophytes” (Preface, Book V).
This should be the mission of this new coalition for Christian orthodoxy.
A Christian response
Irenaeus loved the heretical Christians enough to speak the truth. His goal was to lead them back to the faith which was taught, lived and demonstrated by Jesus and handed down to us from the Apostles. We must follow his example today.
It now seems all too common that we read of new instances of priests, deacon, ministers, pastors, bishops and lay leaders falling away from the ancient yet ever new Christian faith.
The positions being espoused by some contemporary Christians are heretical. The lifestyles affirmed by some Christians who claim to be “progressive” are a regressive effort to turn the clock back to a pre-Christian paganism.
We are living in a new missionary age of Christianity. The mission field now includes people in the pews on Sunday morning. They need to hear anew the liberating message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in its fullness, without compromise or equivocation.
Only a renewed Christian Church, orthodox in doctrine and empowered by the Holy Spirit, can change the culture of our day. A weakened Christian church, poisoned by heresy, will not be able to rise to the challenge of this hour.
The mission to the culture
It is not my intent to debate what stage we are in. But, the evidence is clear. We are losing the Christian influence in western culture
It is the Christian vision of faithful, monogamous marriage, family, authentic human freedom, the dignity of every human person and the existence of objective truth from which we had derived a common morality to guide western civilization. That morality has also guided all true social progress.
The message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and teaching of the Christian Church, has helped to free people from the bondage of disordered appetites and live lives of virtue, for centuries. The instruction offered by the Christian Church has helped to unshackle whole cultures from the tyrannies – personal and social – which are rooted in sin and lead to various forms of slavery.
It has torn down the structures which sin fosters – and erected in their place solid foundations for authentic freedom. It was the Christian vision of the human person, the family, the just society and the true common good that helped to overcome the flawed pagan ideologies and superstitions.
From its birth, the Christian Church has been sent into cultures filled with people who thought they were progressive, when they were anything but. Many of those cultures practiced primitive forms of abortion and infant exposure – a practice of leaving unwanted children on rocks to be eaten by birds of prey or picked up by slave traders.
Ancient Christian manuscripts such as the Didache (the Teaching of the Twelve), the accounts of Justin Martyr and other early Christian sources espoused views which were radically counter-cultural. Those early Christians were culture warriors, in the best sense. They even shed their blood to set the captives free.
That is our task in this hour. We are a new counter culture in a western culture awash and adrift.
The early Christians exposed the evil in the cultures of their day – not unlike the one in which we live – where people were treated as property, freedom was perceived as a power over others and unrestrained license masqueraded as liberty. They did this by embracing, living and proclaiming truth.
They believed the words of Jesus, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31).
Contend for the truth
The early Christians did not back down from contending with the pagans of old concerning truth. They knew then – and we must reassert in our own day – that what is really at stake are two competing visions of the human person, human freedom, human flourishing and human progress.
The early Christians demonstrated the superiority of their truth claims by their compelling witness of life. They lived in monogamous marriages, raised their children to be faithful Christians and good citizens and went into the world of their age offering a new way to live.
This way (which is what they first called the early Church) presented a very different worldview than the one the pagans embraced. As a result, they stirred up hostility. Some of them were martyred in the red martyrdom of shed blood.
Countless more joined the train of what use to be called white martyrdom, living lives of sacrificial witness and service in the culture, working hard and staying faithful to the Gospel unto the end of a long life spent in missionary toil.
Slowly, not only were the ancient pagans converted and baptized, but eventually their leaders and entire Nations followed suit. Resultantly, the Christian worldview took root and began to influence the social order, transforming the culture from within.
A new culture emerged
Christianity taught such novel concepts as the dignity of every person and their equality before the One God. The Christians proclaimed the dignity of women, the dignity of chaste marriage and the sanctity of the family.
Christians insisted that freedom must be exercised with reference to an objective moral code, a law higher than the emperor or the shifting sands of public opinion; a natural Law which could be known by all men and women, through the exercise of reason, because it was written on the human heart.
Christians presented a coherent and compelling answer to the existential questions that plagued the ancient pagans. Questions such as why we existed and how we got here? What was the purpose of life? Questions like how evil came into the world and why we could not always make right choices? What force seemed to move us toward evil and how we could be set free from its power?
Christian philosophy began to flourish. The arts also flourished under the Christian worldview. Philosophies of government and economic theory began to be influenced by these principles derived from a Christian worldview.
The Christian worldview offers the same genuine liberation to the contemporary age in which we live. However, it must be presented with doctrinal clarity. We need a coalition for Christian orthodoxy to protect sound doctrine within the Church so that the Church can do what she alone is capable of doing, bring conversion to men, women, children, families and whole cultures.
Our missionary task
Some say we live in a postmodern age; others call it a post Christian age. I contend it is a pre-Christian age, ripe for the missionary work of a renewed, dynamically orthodox Church. The future belongs to such a Church. Sadly, the Church is weakened. First, by our own division within. The Body of Christ was never meant to be divided. It is not God’s fault, He is without any fault. It is our own.
But also, and this is the issue which I am addressing in this article, we are weakened because we are being ravaged by poor teaching. Jesus promised Peter “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (John 16:18). The gates of hell have not prevailed. But, they sure as hell have tried. And, they are trying in this urgent hour. It is time to band together in a coalition for Christian orthodoxy.
When we do, the Church of Jesus Christ will rise from this seeming collapse of this moment, once again strong and powerful. The message and gifts she holds can still pave the road for real progress.
Proclaiming the orthodox Christian faith is her great contribution to humanity and human history.
The contemporary re-emergence of paganism has been embraced, even by some within some Christian churches and communities. It is not the path to freedom and flourishing but to misery and new slaveries. It must be exposed, opposed and rejected by courageous orthodox Christians. They exist across confessional lines.
We need to pray for the faithful Christians within every Christian church and community in our day. Then, we must band together, across our divisions, to refute heresies by proclaiming the Truth which still sets all men and women free in a new coalition for Christian orthodoxy.