Photo: Pantocrator mosaic at the top of the southern cupula of the inner narthex of the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, in Istanbul.
This is what love does — it speaks the truth and warns of error
By Msgr. Charles Pope, EWTN News, 6/11/18
On Trinity Sunday we recited the Athanasian Creed at the end of the homily. In case you are unfamiliar with it, you can read it by clicking on the link here: Quicumque vult. The Creed, written in the fourth century painstakingly sets forth the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Incarnation. In several places there is a warning:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith everyone must keep whole and undefiled, or, without doubt, he shall perish everlastingly.
After Mass I was approached by a rather animated woman who was quite displeased that we had recited this Creed. And, while acknowledging that it was an ancient creed, she had strong objections to the warning that those who did not hold it would perish. She wondered if I really thought that every non-Catholic was going straight to Hell.
I attempted to explain that the statement in the Creed must be understood properly and that certain nuances were in order, but that it remained a doctrine of the Faith that one cannot knowingly reject the faith as revealed by God and expect to be saved. (See Catechism 846-848)
She replied by saying that the creed, and particularly its warning, was unwelcoming; that Jesus never spoke like this, and that even if I should insist on having this creed recited again, I should give an explanation so that people are not offended; the main point is that we should not offend people.
I’d like to take each of the four spokes of her argument and address them. For indeed, these are common objections raised today about many of our teachings. Each of them is addressed in turn below.
Objection #1 — This is not welcoming
When one goes to the doctor’s office they are usually welcomed by a friendly receptionist. (Let’s overlook that little demand to see the insurance card.) Shortly, a friendly nurse or other medical assistant escorts them to the back and obtains vitals, etc. It’s all very nice and cheerful in the best offices. The doctor too enters and extends a cheerful welcome.
But next we get down to business. Perhaps the doctor reviews the vitals or looks at recent lab work. And now the friendly doctor must speak truth. It is likely (for most people over 30) that some of the numbers are problematic. Perhaps the weight or body mass index is too high. Perhaps the cholesterol, sugar or pressure are not ideal. Suddenly the welcoming doctor has the obligation to call us to repentance, to a change of lifestyle, lest we go from bad to worse. Indeed, life and death may well be in the realm of possibilities.
Most of us would say that a doctor who looked at bad numbers and said everything was fine was guilty of lying and should be sued for malpractice. But if a priest or parish gets down to business and warns of bad choices that affect eternal life or death, this is unwelcoming?
In other words, like a doctor’s office, welcoming people with warm greetings has its place in a parish. But eventually, it’s time to get down to the business of speaking the truth; of warning against sin and summoning to virtue; of calling for repentance and warning of consequences. This is what love does. It speaks the truth and warns of error and the many rabbit holes of half-truths and compromise. It warns that embracing such things makes salvation more difficult, even doubtful.
Objection #2 — Jesus never spoke like this; he was welcoming
Actually Jesus did talk like this, on many occasions. For example, he said,
I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:16).
If you do not come to believe that I AM, you will die in your sins (John 8:24)
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16).
There are many other texts where the Lord warns the unbelieving and the unprepared. And while texts like these are seldom explained or nuanced, we need not interpret them to mean that someone who cannot reasonably know that Jesus is the only way to heaven and to the Father will go to Hell. God, who is just, does not demand that people meet requirements they cannot reasonably know or meet. But, they do set forth an obligation on the Church to announce that Jesus is the only sure way and to realize that, due to sin, many are lost without Christ and the call to repent and believe in Him. We are under serious obligation to draw souls to Christ and to warn them about resistance and unbelief. The notion that “there are many ways to God” and related notions such as “it doesn’t matter what one believes as long as they are nice and sincere” do not pass biblical tests. It does matter.
And even if those in invincible ignorance may get some lenience from God, the Second Vatican Council teaches:
Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life.
But very often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair.
Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature,” the Church fosters the missions with care and attention. (Lumen Gentium 16).
We cannot over look the phrase “very often” which should spur us to call people to Christ and realize that he compels a choice: either believe in him and be saved; or refuse to believe and be lost. Even those who never experience this clear choice risk “vain reasoning,” worldly thinking, error and lies that set them in wrong directions and cause them to refute even what their own conscience knows is wrong. Hence, while the unbelieving are not universally condemned, neither do they get a blank check of universal salvation. Rather they remain subjected to the darkness of error and false claimants to their worship and loyalty. It is frankly, harder for them to be saved, even though not impossible.
Objection #3 —You should explain this every time you say the Creed
Perhaps, but my sermons are long already. Sometimes we must speak to a limited range of truths, and permit time later for balancing concepts.
There is a tendency today for listeners to absolutize many things and then object. But the speaker may not present an absolute truth, but rather, a general one that admits of exceptions and distinctions. But to present every possible exception or distinction would take too much time.
Sometimes too it is good to permit hard truths to provoke questions and usher in a teachable moment. Jesus often used parables that were riddle-like. When one teaches to a hostile or cynical crowd it is often effective to tell a puzzling story that leaves them hungry for explanations or irritated and demanding clarifications.
Simply explaining everything exhaustively or speaking merely to entertain, console and confirm people is not always an effective way to advance the ball of truth.
Objection #4 — The main point is that we should not offend people
This view is common in our times. But we should also admit that many people easily take offense and do not presume good will on the part of the one who speaks. In the Church we often refer to Scripture and other ancient texts that were written in less dainty times where urgency and a zeal to announce revealed truth were more central to the task than the desire to please, affirm, welcome without conditions and never even possibly offend.
Certainly, prudence has a place in the proclamation of the Gospel, prudence looks to the goal in the light of circumstances and ponders the best way to get there. But if the goal is to preach the saving Gospel, then watering down that very gospel misses the whole point and amounts to “throwing away the baby with the bathwater.”
Strangely too, we live in paradoxical times. For, many, stridently demand in an unfriendly way to be “welcomed,” and many gruffly insist on being treated tenderly, and still others become very intolerant at the slightest hint of what they see as intolerant. A sort of double standard sets up of which the Lord once quipped:
To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at this glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and of sinners!’ But wisdom is vindicated by her actions.” (Matt 11:16-19)