“For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry” (1 Samuel 15:23).
Few things are more heartbreaking for a faithful Catholic than to hear someone say, “I really love the Catholic Church, but I just disagree with a few of Her teachings.” We might politely refer to such a one as a “cafeteria Catholic” in the sense that they pick and choose which teachings of the Church they like and those against which they elect to rebel.
As St. Paul said, we are to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” and we must “test everything and keep what is good.” It is appropriate that we wrestle with the teachings of Holy Mother Church until we are able to give a defense for them. But as John Henry Cardinal Newman once said, “a thousand difficulties does not make a doubt” — and here he uses the term “doubt” to mean an actual denial.
The Nature of Heresy
We embark on a journey towards dangerous territory when we reject a Church teaching before working it out. And while we may battle privately with difficulty and doubt, it is when we begin to voice dissent in private conversations that we are nearing a perilous realm. A public manifestation of picking and choosing which Church teachings are licit and which are not is quite a bit more serious than picking out different foods in a cafeteria, it is no less than heresy. The word heresy coms from the” Greek hairesis, meaning “choice.” However, it ought to be stated much more clearly that to choose one’s own law accompanied by public declaration and obstinacy is to be a heretic and to be a heretic is followed by many very serious and even eternal consequences.
It is an artifact of free will that each one of us gets to decide for ourselves whether or not we accept the revealed truths or reject them. Throughout the ages there have always been heretics and entire heretical movements. However, we live in a time where a large and increasing number of our fellow men are choosing to reject one, some or all of the teachings of Christ. Modernism as the “synthesis of all heresies” has precipitated a seismic shift in the philosophical landscape towards universal skepticism and this proliferating disbelief makes giving assent to the articles of faith much more difficult. We may wonder why there is such an upswing in disbelief in this age when we are basking in the afterglow of the “Enlightenment” (a topic for another time). Of course the problem of rebellion goes back even further than the Garden of Eden, but a brief glimpse of a more recent history might be informative.
In 1798, Joseph de Maistre observed that “since the time of the Reformation, there has been a spirit of revolt which really struggles, sometimes publically, sometimes privately, against all sovereign powers and especially against monarchies.” The rejection of Aristotelian first principles and the authority of the good teacher whose teaching is grounded in the imitation of Christ, have led to this modern climate of radical skepticism and radical individualism. De Maistre called it “the revolt of individual reason against general reason.” The spirit of revolt has nearly enveloped this entire age and has made each man his own prophet, priest and king.
De Maistre describes the set of conditions capable of leading multitudes of people into the state of universal skepticism which lays the groundwork for us to end up as St. Paul characterizes the depraved of the end times: “For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it” (2 Timothy 3:2-5).
This is not a far cry from modern man and ought to be recognizably close enough to cause the discerning Catholic some discomfort. The common roots of all men described by St. Paul is the rejection of the authority of God accompanied by willful stubbornness flowing out of self-reference.
The First Heretic
With so many heretical movements throughout the ages and so many heretics in the world today, one might reasonably wonder who the original heretic was. It ought not to surprise us that the original rebellion cast the mold for all subsequent rebellions. Of course, the first heretic we know as the prince of this world, the great deceiver, the king of lies or more directly still, Satan. He was God’s brightest and most beautiful angel originally called Lucifer for his status as the bearer of light.
In a mysterious event, this most brilliant creature caught a glimpse of his own beauty and much like the mythical figure of Narcissus, he fell in love with himself. His pride began to swell and he began to think he deserved the authority and praise reserved only for God. He chose himself over his Creator. In an irrevocable incident of revolt he arrogated to himself the authority to reject God’s authority.
Intoxicated by his swelling pride, Lucifer willfully declared, “I will not serve.” When Catholics reject one or more of the unchanging and unchangeable teachings of the Church, they echo the original declarative rejection. The original heretic who put his will above the will of our Father almighty committed such violence against the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty that his treachery swept away a third of the angels from heaven. He dwells for eternity separated from God in everlasting torment. A similar fate awaits all who imitate the fallen angel.
Church vs World
It is one thing to privately entertain a notion contrary to Church Teaching. It is another thing to act in a manner which contradicts Church Teaching. It is another thing still to publically dissent against Church Teaching in word and deed. Although these three things are different, they are different in degree, not in kind. They all comprise dissent and rebellion against the revealed word of God expressed in the Apostles’ Creed and the Doctrine and Dogma that flow from the Sacred Scriptures and the Universal Magisterium.
Satan said, “I will not serve!” The inordinate pride required to make such a statement is the stock and trade of the Devil and his minions. They have been trying to fan the flames of pride and self-love since the Fall in the Garden. Let us recognize the vast difference between the teaching of the Church and the teaching of the world. They contradict one another as the light confounds the dark. Whether or not we can at first fully understand the teaching of the Church, let us give our full assent the way we might give our assent to Albert Einstein if we would like to understand the theory of relativity.
We can rest assured that the Author of life has the authority and credibility to teach us the truth about the nature of reality, our purpose in life and the work we were designed to do. The world has answers to these questions, but they are false. In 2 Corinthians 10:5 we are wisely instructed by St. Paul to cast “down imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God,” and to bring “into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.” If we choose obedience to any other source other than to Christ, then we will surely veer off the righteous path and we will be in danger of becoming a heretic. The good Lord made us for better things than that.