Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves:
by their fruits you will know them.
Dominica Septima post Pentecosten
15 July 2012
Epistle: Rom. 6:19-23
Gospel: Matt. 7:15-21
When He was about to ascend to Heaven, Our Blessed Lord commanded His disciples to go throughout the world, teaching all nations and baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. This commission to evangelize the world is implied in today’s introit, wherein all the nations are exhorted to clap their hands and shout for joy to God in a voice of exultation. We should not, however, take this psalm text to mean that the world is in no way hostile to the message of the Gospel. Indeed, a watershed moment in history that demonstrates that hostility occurred two hundred twenty-three years ago yesterday in France in what is known as the French Revolution, the spirit of which still animates the world today.
Ever since 1880, France has celebrated every 14th of July its “Fête Nationale”, also known as Bastille Day. This national holiday, officially commemorates the huge celebration that took place in 1790 on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. When this anniversary, known as the Fête de la Federation, was actually celebrated, many viewed it as the conclusion of the Revolution. History had other plans, however. Less than three years later, on January 21st, 1793, King Louis XVI was beheaded.
In his Last Will and Testament, the King included what may be described as a profession of faith or oath of fidelity:
“I die in communion with our Holy Mother, the Catholic, Apostolic, Roman Church, which holds authority by an uninterrupted succession, from St. Peter, to whom Jesus Christ entrusted it; I believe firmly and I confess all that is contained in the creed and the commandments of God and the Church, the sacraments and the mysteries, those which the Catholic Church teaches and has always taught. . . .”
According to the memoirs of his chaplain, when the King mounted the scaffold, he said in a very loud voice these memorable words: “I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France.” Well, God had other plans: nine months later, during the Reign of Terror, the king’s wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, followed him to the guillotine, along with some 40,000 other victims — including one of my own great uncles, l’Abbe Pierre Fromageot. And so, in the name of Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality, unparalleled butchery descended upon the eldest daughter of the Church.
Today, the ideas that once enkindled the fires of revolution in France (particularly those of untrammeled liberty and radical equality) continue to drive those who are determined to transform the world either into a socialist paradise, or else into an amoral libertarian state of anarchy. Nor is the Church immune from agitators, who seek to subvert the divinely revealed Deposit of Faith, so that it may conform to their own misunderstanding of equality and freedom. For this reason, we ought to take particular heed of Our Lord’s dire warning about false prophets. This warning comes towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount, right after his description of the path to life. “Enter by the narrow gate,” Our Lord exhorts us, “for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” And just because someone professes to be Catholic, crying out “Lord, Lord”, it does not follow that He will enter the kingdom of heaven. In order to enter the kingdom of heaven, one must submit to the will of God as regards what He has revealed to us to be believed and to be done.
Every era has its share of false prophets who seek to entice the faithful to abandon the narrow path that leads to eternal life. Ours is no exception. Plenty of false prophets today would have us embrace a false notion of freedom. In our day, freedom means complete autonomy from the restrictions imposed by external authority, or even from the internal authority of natural law. Nowadays, such irksome restrictions, including man’s own nature, are often ignored or denied. As a result, it is left to the human faculty of choice to decide the moral rectitude of this or that action. In short, the complete autonomy of every man is said to extend to his own nature: to define who he is and what he ought to do.
What, then, happens, when the false prophets of such freedom attempt to redefine the Catholic faith according to what they believe it should be? What eventually happens is that the Magisterium of the Church, at one level or another, passes judgment and thus guards the Deposit of Faith from such attacks.
Take, for instance, the squabble taking place in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. Last May, as part of an effort to take full advantage of the approaching Year of Faith announced by Pope Benedict XVI, Bishop Loverde expressed his desire to reinvigorate the catechetical programs of his diocese. Included in this reinvigoration was a new diocesan policy, which stipulates that “every catechist … publicly make an annual Profession of Faith”, or what may be called an oath of fidelity. Such public professions of faith, the bishop explains, represent “a further sign of our catechists’ commitment to teach in communion with Christ and His Church.” Well, it turns out that this new diocesan policy did not sit well with some of catechists of the diocese. Last Friday, Dr. Rosemarie Zagarri, a history professor at George Mason University, and a fifth grade catechist in Arlington, VA, wrote a letter to Bishop Loverde, the chief catechist of the diocese, asking him to reconsider this new policy. Although Dr. Zagarri claims to “fully understand the authoritative role of the Catholic hierarchy in defining the teachings of the faith,” in her view, “only a person who is willing to abandon her own reason and judgment, or who is willing to go against the dictates of her own conscience, can agree to sign” an oath of fidelity. One of her arguments is that such oath-taking expresses “mistrust” on the part of the bishop “either in [her] sincerity in transmitting the faith or in [her] capacity to convey the tenets of our faith authentically.” She does not consider what King Louis XVI took for granted; namely, that her willingness to take such an oath publicly is meant to be an expression of her desire to submit to what the Church believes.
Essentially, Dr. Zagarri is contending that those who exercise the Magisterium of the Church have no right to bind and form the consciences of the faithful as regards what they are to hold definitively as belonging to the Catholic Faith. On the contrary, the freedom of conscience must enjoy autonomy from such authority. Otherwise, it cannot truly be free. Thus, an autonomous conscience, not the divinely imparted and protected teaching authority of the Church, is to be the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes the Church’s deposit of faith.
At bottom, Dr. Zagarri’s refusal to take the oath of fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium manifests an appalling lack of docility towards the Church’s teaching authority, which is precisely what the submission to oaths of fidelity is meant to express. It matters little that Our Lord and Savior Himself imparted His own authority to the Apostles and to their successors, such that He who hears the Church hears Christ. It matters little to her that the Church’s Magisterium is charged with guarding the Deposit of Faith, so that it may be handed down intact from one generation to the next, even as the articulation of the same doctrines take on greater precision.
Now, judging from her letter, it’s obvious that Dr. Zagarri takes issue with at least some of the doctrines taught by the Magisterium of the Church. That she fails to specify those doctrines is understandable: had she done so, she would most likely have been summarily dismissed from her catechetical post. Nevertheless, it would be safe to assume that she takes issue with the usual set of doctrines that oppose modern notions of freedom and equality. Chief among them would be the Church’s teaching on the ordination of women to the priesthood of Jesus Christ. If that is the case, she joins the ranks of those for whom the historical fact that “Priestly ordination … has in the Catholic Church from the beginning always been reserved to men alone” makes little difference. And even though “the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents”,such malcontents remain unyielding in their dissent. They refuse to respect or accept the completely free and sovereign manner in which Christ acted when He chose only men as His Apostles. Finally, when the Church speaks authoritatively, decisively, and infallibly on the matter, they refuse to submit to the voice of Christ. Thus, the following judgment made by Pope Blessed John Paul II in May 1994, is waved aside:
“Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
In short, the Church has no authority to change what Christ established to be what theologians call the “matter” of the sacrament of order (men), just as it cannot use something other than water for baptism, bread and wine for the Holy Eucharist, and one man and one woman for the sacrament of holy matrimony.
Accordingly, anyone who advocates or agitates for the ordination of women may certainly be held to be a heretic, a false prophet who would lead others astray in the name of freedom and equality. Zagarri may or not be one of these, but she should not be engaged in catechesis if she objects to making a basic profession of faith.
It should be noted that the catalyst for the 1994 judgment was the Vatican's acquiescence to the novel practice of using female altar servers and the confusion that decision caused:. Women could now serve priests. Could they one day hope to become priests? John Paul definitively answered that question in the negative. This Arlington flap will most likely not elicit a similar official response from the local bishop or from the Pope. But it does serve as a reminder that some Catholics have difficulty with the magisterial authority of their Church.
In one of his sermons, Pope Benedict XVI points to the foundation of true human freedom when he cites the words St. Peter uttered before the supreme religious authorities of Israel: “We must obey God rather than men.” A Catholic who rejects the divinely sanctioned authority of the Church to guard the Deposit of Faith will never enjoy true freedom. A Catholic who strives to redefine the Deposit of Faith to suit her own ideas has lost the Faith. May we always follow the example of King Louis XVI who, though imprisoned and eventually murdered, enjoyed true freedom in the profession of His faith and submission to the authority of the Catholic Church.