I recently ran across this reflection about “popes” from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (B16, now Pope Emeritus)…
“We have grown accustomed to making a clear distinction between Peter the rock and Peter the denier of Christ—the denier of Christ: that is Peter as he was before Easter; the rock: that is Peter as he was after Pentecost, the Peter of whom we have constructed a singularly idealistic image. But, in reality, he was at both times both of these…. Has it not been thus throughout the history of the Church that the pope, the successor of Peter, has been at once Petra and Skandalon—both the rock of God and a stumbling-block? In fact, the faithful will always have to reckon with this paradox of the divine dispensation that shames their pride again and again.”1
I’m typically a “big picture” type of guy and I like taking the long view. One could take a long view of Judeo-Christian history in terms of leadership, like reviewing the “good” vs. “bad” kings of Israel and then the “good” vs. “bad” popes of Church history. Seems to me we’ve had a pretty good run of popes in the past 100 years or so with the current papacy in a TBD category or perhaps “stumbling-block under construction”.
But another interesting way to look at Church history is via the history of heresy. I have a comprehensive list of all the major heresies courtesy of study materials from “Epic: A Journey Through Church History” and there seems to be a trend of sorts.
In the early Church (2nd & 3rd centuries) a major theme in heresy had to do with the nature of God:
- Gnosticism – Matter is evil and spirit is good; God is the creator of heaven (good), not earth (evil).
- Modalism – Denied the separate Persons of the Trinity.
- Monarchianism – God is one Person, not three.
During the 4th – 7th centuries a major theme had to do with the nature of Jesus:
- Arianism – Denied the divinity of Christ. Jesus was a created being.
- Nestorianism – Christ is two persons (divine and human) and only the human person was in the womb. Therefore, Mary is not the Mother of God
- Monothelitism – Christ has only one divine nature and therefore one divine Will
Moving on to the 14th– 16th centuries a major theme had to do with the nature of The Church:
- John Wycliffe – Denied Transubstantiation, papal authority; predecessor to Protestantism
- Jan Hus – Denied Sacred Tradition as part of the Deposit of Faith; predecessor to Protestantism
- Protestantism – Scripture alone, faith alone, denied papal authority, free will, sacrificial nature of the priesthood, sacraments, etc.
Seems that heresy in today’s postmodern world has a lot to do with the nature of man
- Modernism – Faith and reason are opposed; an anti-Catholic worldview
- Relativism – Right and wrong are relative to the individual or culture
- Absolute Autonomy – BYOG…Be your own god!
Note: How ironic that even the question “What is the nature of man?” is seen as sexist and will invoke a politically correct reaction relating to the very problem it asks about.
Being more specific about heresy in our day and age, I think it’s fair to say that almost all dissent from Catholic teaching involves what it means to be human in terms of human life and human sexuality. Abortion, euthanasia, artificial fertilization methods, homosexuality, marriage confusion, gender confusion, contraception, women’s ordination, fornication, divorce and remarriage all relate to what it means to be human, both male & female.
If you’ve been concerned about things the Pope and other Church leaders have said or written lately, like “Who am I to Judge?” or the now infamous footnote #351 of Amoris Laetitia, you might also be concerned about what is not being said or written in the face of modern heresy; sometimes the silence is deafening. Instead of boldly speaking Truth to power consistently, lovingly and intelligently, some leaders seem to be compromising the ideals of Catholicism by softening the hard lines of Catholic moral teaching with respect to what it means to be human.
The Church councils of the past addressed the heresies of the past and the Nicene Creed we say at each Mass reflects the clarity which was ultimately achieved:
- I believe in one God…(clarity about the nature of God)
- I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ… (clarity about the nature of Jesus)
- I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church…(clarity about the nature of the Church)
It’s also no coincidence that the very first pillar of the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches at great length about the creed, since it is foundational for the other three pillars.
The Church can be very clear when she wants to be. Maybe one day there’ll be a new council and then a new section to the creed all about the nature of man. In the meantime, what are we to do? I’m not exactly sure, but I do know this much…“Faith in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church requires us to soldier on, minding our consciences, upholding the truth out of love, and avoiding evil and false doctrine.”2
- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Co-workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1992) p. 208.
- Richard Rex, First Things [Website], “A Church in Doubt”, (1 April 2018), Site address: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2018/04/a-church-in-doubt