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What Makes Catholic Materials Really Catholic?

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J

Not many years ago, it would have been a strange title for a lecture to ask, “What makes Catholic materials really Catholic?” The reason is obvious. Catholics were Catholics. They were not Protestants, or Mormons, or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

But much has happened in the last thirty years. Nowadays there are so many people who call themselves Catholic, but really are not. There are books and periodicals published; there are conferences given, and symposia sponsored; there are religious programs and celebrations sponsored - and all professedly Catholic. But so many of these are Catholic only in name, and not in reality.

In plain English, a revolution has taken place. The revolution is a revolution in doctrine and morality. Our Holy Father wrote the encyclical, The Splendor of Truth, because, as he said, a flood of errors in our day either distorts or denies the Church’s twenty centuries of divinely inspired teaching.

Just a one sentence insertion: Errors in doctrine undermine Christian morality, and unchristian moral conduct inspires doctrinal error.

As the Pope makes clear, it is no longer a question of limited or occasional dissent. It is a systematic calling of Catholic teaching into question on the basis of certain philosophical and ethical presuppositions. What is the root of these erroneous presuppositions? The root is to detach human freedom from its essential and necessary relationship to truth.

We return to our title for this conference: “What makes Catholic materials really Catholic.” I would like to subdivide this title into two parts.

  • What are the qualifications necessary to be able to recognize what is really Catholic material?

  • What are the basic norms for identifying truly Catholic media?

Necessary Qualifications

The most fundamental qualification for recognizing what is really Catholic material is for a person to be an authentic Catholic. To be authentically Catholic, we must know the truth, live the truth, and suffer for the truth. The truth, of course, is the teaching of Jesus Christ who is Truth Incarnate.

Know the truth. To know the truth is to believe what the Incarnate God told us about Himself, about ourselves, and our purpose for existence. Christ could not have been clearer. We are human beings who live here on earth for a short time, in order to prepare ourselves for a heavenly eternity. Nothing in this world has any value except as a means of leading us to our eternal destiny. We are to use our free wills to choose what Christ told us we must do, and avoid, at any cost, what He forbade.

On Mt. Sinai, God gave the chosen people the Ten Commandments through Moses the prophet. But when God became man, He personally taught His followers that the Ten Commandments were to be understood as He explained them. The fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel are a compendium of what Jesus called the New Law.

It is one thing, however, for Christ to have revealed the truths of Christianity. It is something else for us to know them. To know this truth, we must submit our minds to the divine mind of the Son of God who became the Son of Mary. This is not as easy as it may seem. We must choose to tell our minds to believe. It is easy enough to believe what is easy or pleasant or satisfying to our natural inclinations. It is hard when we are told to believe what is demanding on our human nature.

In His Sermon on the Mount, Christ told us that we are to be meek and merciful under provocation. He told us to control not only our actions, but even our thoughts. He ordered us to control our eyes and not look at everything we see. He told married people they are to be two in one flesh, that Christian marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power. And the Beatitudes, I don’t say warn but actually promised His followers to expect to be calumniated, persecuted, and even hated by the world for their fidelity to His name.

Every human being is a believer. My favorite definition of man is not that of Aristotle who defined man as a rational animal. I prefer to define man as a believing animal.

But what a difference between believing what you like and believing that you are to do what you strongly dislike.

All of this is locked up in what is the first condition in being an authentic Catholic. An authentic Catholic submits his mind in accepting everything that Christ taught us we must do to please Him in this life and possess Him in the eternal life for which we were made.

Live the truth. There is no substitute for knowing the truth that Christ told us to believe. But knowing this truth by faith is not enough. We must put it into practice. Authenticity in the Catholic religion is not only a matter of faith. It is also, and, especially living what we believe. From the dawn of Christianity the followers of Christ found that their contemporaries did not like the moral practice of believing Christians. I will never forget the inscription etched on stone in Pompeii. Remember Pompeii was destroyed by volcanic eruption in the year 70 A.D. The inscription reads, Christiani delendi sunt (Christians must be exterminated). For 300 years, the pagan world of the Roman Empire did everything in its power to destroy Christianity. This has been the history of the Catholic Church ever since.

I wish to be very clear. To live up to Christ’s moral demands is not easy on selfish sexually preoccupied human nature. But that is not all. To live up to the moral precepts of the Savior is to irritate, antagonize, and arouse the opposition of one’s contemporaries.

Suffer for the truth. We are now in a position to answer the hardest question on how to be an authentic Catholic. To be an authentic Catholic means to pay dearly for one’s loyalty to Jesus Christ. It is impossible to exaggerate; shall I use the word “expensive”? It is not just to call oneself a Catholic or be considered a Catholic, but to be a Catholic.

As we said in the beginning of this conference, we are now living in a world that has literally destroyed each person. Anyone’s free will is now considered the norm of morality.

Those who challenge this new paganism are faced with a difficult option. Either they conform to this philosophy or they are faced with the prospect of martyrdom.

To the best of my knowledge, never in the history of the Church, has any pope spoken and written more clearly about the need for martyrdom than has Pope John Paul II. The reason is obvious. He has no illusions of what it means to be an authentic Catholic on the eve of the third millennium. He quotes from Sacred Scripture to show that Jesus Christ was the primary witness for looking for the truth. Christ was followed by Stephen, and by now twenty centuries of men, women, and even children who laid down their lives rather than deny or compromise the teaching of Jesus Christ.

The Holy Father asks how martyrdom is a witness to both God’s holiness and man’s personal dignity. He answers: Martyrdom witnesses to God’s holiness by testifying to the grace that God gives the martyr. He also testifies to man’s personal dignity, because our highest act of virtue is to suffer martyrdom rather than deny a revealed truth or disobey a divine law.

The Vicar of Christ finally asks if there is such a thing as a living martyrdom. He answers without qualification; yes, we are living martyrs when we love the difficulties of this world for the sake of eternal rewards. For the last time, therefore, we ask how are we to be authentic Catholics. We answer: to be an authentic Catholic we must love the Cross - because we love the God who became man.

Anyone who thinks that this is pious rhetoric or mere poetry is living in a dream world. Thank God, you and I know better. One last word: the more dearly we love Jesus crucified, the more Catholic we shall be, and the more qualified to recognize authentic Catholicity in everything that people write or say or portray in the media of social communication.

Basic Norms

Time was when you could look at the cover of a book and read the book with security that you were getting the Catholic truth. But in case you have not heard, no longer! I am speaking of Christian truth and specifically of revealed truth. Too many once trustworthy sources of religious truth have either become dried up or so polluted that sometimes it makes a Catholic feel like the Greek Diogenes who went in search of an honest man with a lamp and he would cry out if he found one, “Eureka!”

Let me suggest three simple norms for discovering Catholic truth in today’s miasma of very sophisticated and very learned confusion. Ask yourself three questions.

Question one: does what I am hearing or reading correspond to what the Church has always held to be true?

If it does you can trust it. If it does not, distrust it. The Church has always held that Christ is bodily present in the Eucharist; that the Pope is infallible in teaching the universal Church; that marriage is indissoluble by any human authority, civil or ecclesiastical; that adultery and fornication and homosexuality are the mortal sins that deprive those who die thus estranged from God of the vision of God; that the priesthood is reserved for men; that personal, auricular confession is necessary to obtain sacramental absolution; that the Mass is a sacrifice and not just an elaborate liturgical meal; that direct abortion is murder; that obedience to rightful authority is a divine law; that religious life is part of divine revelation; that celibacy is pleasing to God; that contraception, no matter what the intention, is a grave sin; that prayer is necessary for salvation; and that angels are sent by God to minister to our human and especially our spiritual needs. All of these, and I could go on, are truths the Church has always held. Anyone who contradicts or casts doubt on what has been the heritage of historic Christianity, no matter how articulate or learned or highly placed he or she may be, is not telling the truth.

Second question: does what I am hearing or reading conform to the present teaching of the Roman Catholic Church as expressed by the Vicar of Christ?

If it does you can trust it. If it does not, distrust it no matter how otherwise pious or scholarly the opinion or theory may be. That is all it is, an opinion or theory, and it should be treated accordingly.

Third question: what kind of a person, morally, is the one who is teaching or writing what I hear or read?

We did not have to ask these questions two generations ago. We do now. Is he or she humble and prayerful and charitable and patient and chaste, or the opposite? More than once the Savior used this norm, and He wants us to use it, too. This explains why His critics who finally crucified Him, the Scribes and Pharisees, were not teaching the truth. Their pride and envy, among other vices, as He said, disqualified them from being taken seriously.

One more question, a kind of addendum, but it should also be asked: “What are or have been the consequences of the ideas I am reading or hearing?”

Again the Savior is our Master in applying this precious norm when He tells us that by their fruits you shall know them. Ideas have consequences. True ideas have good consequences. False ideas have bad consequences. There is no escaping the logic of this divinely ordained law of spiritual fertility: truth always begets goodness, falsehood always begets evil.

A good checklist of the procreative power of truth and the corresponding power of falsehood to beget evil is given by St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians. His study in contrast between the progeny of error and truth is worth quoting in full. What is the offspring of error? It is “fornication, gross indecency and sexual irresponsibility, idolatry and sorcery; feuds and wrangling, jealousy, bad temper and quarrels; disagreements, factions, envy; drunkenness, orgies and similar things.”

What is the offspring of truth? It is the very opposite: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Here we have a divinely revealed and easily applied rule for the discernment of spirits. If the untruth is active, the moral effects of false ideas are invariably bad. If the Spirit of truth is at work, the moral results are correspondingly, and infallibly, good.

By now, we have whole nations that have been de-christianized, demoralized and, shall I say, paganized by the media of social communication, especially the media of print. I like Marshall McLuhan’s unforgettable statement, which he wrote to a priest friend of mine while I was teaching at the University of Ottawa, in Canada. McLuhan declared, “The modern media are engaged in a Luciferian conspiracy against the truth.”

Never before in the two millennia of Christian history has there been greater need to recognize what is nominally Catholic material in books and the media from what is really Catholic. This is not merely a need. It is a desperate necessity. Why? Because so many writers who call themselves Catholics are only Catholics in name and not in reality. Many of them are openly hostile to the faith of their fathers, and shrewdly clever in hiding their hostility.

One closing word. In the Gospels, we read that so many blind people asked the Savior, “Lord, that I may see.” If there is one strong recommendation I would make to store owners who sell books or media material, in the name of God, “Pray!” Ask our Lord that you may see what you are selling, not as a piece of literature or a communications product, but as a channel of God’s grace. Christ, who is the Light of the World, will answer your prayer.

Copyright © 1996 by Inter Mirifica

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