“Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God.” — Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2113
“For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world…” — Titus 2:11-12
This past summer, shortly after the news broke about Theodore McCarrick’s many alleged acts of abuse and the cover-ups of the same, I asked a young priest (who had spent many years in Rome) what he thought of the idea that the entire sordid matter was first and foremost about homosexuality. “It is all about homosexuality,” he said, and then added, “and it is not about homosexuality.” His point, I think, is that any explanation or analysis that avoids the fact of homosexual actions, predatory behavior, and groups of homosexually-active clerics covering up for each other is a false narrative. But the deeper problem (and that really is saying something) is a profound lack of fidelity and a devastating, soul-destroying embrace of idolatry.
Idolatry is a topic that has long fascinated me and 2018 was, in far too many ways, a year filled with numerous examples and intimations of idolatry.
For those of us who work in Catholic news and follow closely the many tangled and discouraging events in the Church, terms such as “abuse” and “scandal” have become commonplace, a sad part of the daily grind. The first half of 2018 was discouraging; the second half of the year was almost beyond description—or at least description fit for print. Any morning free and clear of bad or worse news was usually just a passing eye of the hurricane, as more revelations, accusations, or pontifications would surely come before the day would slide into a dull darkness analogous to the grotesque gloom enveloping the Church.
But it is within darkness, as Saint John’s great Prologue indicates, that God chooses to reveal his glory, if only we will see it: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). As any artist or photographer can tell you, it is darkness that reveals form and shape—not on its own, of course, but because of how it provides contrast. As such, it distinguishes and separates. And so the Evangelist, in the famous third chapter of his Gospel, writes:
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. (Jn 3:19-20).
The connection to certain revelations of 2018 are obvious. But what has this to do with idolatry? Everything.
There have been countless (and necessary) pieces of analysis written about McCarrick’s evil actions, Viganó’s surprising testimonies, Pope Francis’ promises (and scoldings), and a host of related topics. But few of them, from what I’ve seen, attempt to reflect on matters with reference to the scope of Scripture and salvation history.
In short, while Scripture has numerous themes and can be read on different levels (or in varied senses), the heavy thread of fidelity versus idolatry runs through it like blood in the veins—from the Fall to the Golden Calf, from Solomon’s slide to Daniel’s stand, from Peter’s denial to Peter’s restoration, from the failures of the seven churches to the triumph of the saints who stand in the throne room of heaven. “Idolatry,” as the Catechism summarizes it, “consists in divinizing what is not God.” And Scripture is filled with stories of men and women trying to divinize and worship people, objects, and even experiences.
There are dozens of references to idols and idolatry throughout the Bible, but even that number doesn’t do justice to the deep focus so often placed on conflicts between worshipping the one, true God and following after false gods and graven images. “The history of Israel also shows us the temptation of unbelief to which the people yielded more than once,” wrote Pope Francis in Lumen Fidei, his encyclical on faith. “Here the opposite of faith is shown to be idolatry.” And fidelity (fidelitas) is faithful devotion. It is, it can be said, the living out of faith in a spirit of worship and self-gift, demonstrated by inward disposition and outward moral uprightness.
There is, after all, a reason that the heart of the Torah is found in the words: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:4-5). Note that the people are not told to merely acknowledge or serve God, but to love Him. Completely. This same uncompromising demand is made of by Jesus, who tells the lawyer: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” (Mt 22:37-38).
The same tension and conflict is at the heart of our lives today. Technology and modernity have not done away with idols; they may, in fact, have spawned spawned countless new variations on the ancient themes. Idolatry “remains a constant temptation to faith” (CCC 2113) precisely because we are made to worship—that is, to declare, profess, and proclaim that God alone is worthy of our praise and adoration—and we will either worship God or something else. And “if you do not worship God,” wrote Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “you worship something, and nine times out of ten it will be yourself. If there is no God, then you are a god” with your own law, your own rules, and, essentially, your own religion.
And what do these numerous, autonomous little gods do? They use, they abuse, they lie, they indulge, they corrupt, and they destroy.
To lie and mislead about evil is to be at the service of idolatry. To cling to position and power rather than confess the truth is a form of idolatry. Idols claim to be good while undermining and eventually replacing the good—that is, God. After Adam and Eve had embraced the lie of the serpent, and thus grabbed ahold of and clutched their idol (that is, themselves), what then did they do? They tried to hide from God, and then they lied to God. Their idolatry created chaos, distorted the truth, and severed communion.
This deviant dynamic is captured well in Lumen Fidei:
Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. (par 13)
Let’s put it in plain terms, in light of the darkness of 2018: the abuse of children is a form of idolatry. Homosexual acts are a form of idolatry. Adultery, fornication, pornography, and masturbation, and every other sexual sin are, at the heart, forms of idolatry.
In the ancient Near Middle East (cf Deut 23:17; 1 Kngs 14:24) and in the later Hellenistic/Roman culture (cf 1 Cor 6:19ff, Rev 2:14, 20) the worship of the pagan gods was often intertwined with sexual immorality. The connection between fornication, corruption, and idolatry is summed up this way by the author of the Book of Wisdom: “For the idea of making idols was the beginning of fornication, and the invention of them was the corruption of life” (Wis 14:10).
A fairly short line could be drawn from what one believed was acceptable sexually and what one believed about God or the “gods”. The same is true today. The notion, for instance, that consenting adults should be able to do whatever they wish, as long as “no one is hurt” (so goes the standard qualifier), is usually rooted in a deeply materialist or utilitarian view of man, which in turn flows from amoral assumptions without any notion or consideration of a God who is holy. Man is supposedly free to create his own standards, all of which—surprise!—serve his appetites and desires.
Whereas the Church describes marriage as “an apprenticeship in fidelity” (CCC, 2350), marriage has become for many today an arrangement based on emotional satisfaction and material comfort. Spouses become partners, and partners become tools, and tools are always expendable.
The Apostle Paul, in the opening chapter of his epistle to the Romans, directly links sexual immorality, with an emphasis on homosexual acts, with idolatry, writing that those Gentiles who claimed to be wise became, in fact, fools, “because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:22ff). Today we are flooded with such “wisdom”, being told that pornography is harmless, fornication and adultery are often necessary and acceptable, homosexual relations are natural and wholesome, and transgenderism is not only healthy but an absolute imperative.
The Sexual Revolution spawned the Reign of Gay, which in turn has quickly metastasized into the Tyranny of Transgenderism. While the ancients bowed before graven images and idols built with human hands, we moderns exult in our alleged autonomy from reality and exalt ideologies built with raw, sentimental hubris.
These unnatural actions and dishonorable doctrines have been accepted—in whole, or in part, or in wilting acquiescence—by many in the Church. More than a few bishops and priests employ the ambiguities of selective sociology and the babble of trendy psychology while refusing to proclaim the clear teachings of the Church, not just about immorality but also about the nature of man and the reality of a just and holy God. Many of these men are simply weak; others are compromised; some are completely complicit.
Both clergy and laity fail in so many ways to identify, expose, confront, and denounce the gods of our age; they refuse to be “destroyers of the gods” that the early Christians were, as described in Larry W. Hurtado’s book on the distinctiveness of those first believers. And as Hurtado demonstrates, those early conflicts over worship and piety were directly related to power and prestige, for the traditional gods of the Roman world “represented the empire itself … and that conferred legitimacy to Roman rule.” And so, echoing the priest quoted at the start, Christopher Altieri has rightly emphasized this relationship as it exists at the heart of the current crisis:
We could move all the predators out of the priesthood and into jail cells, and there would still be a crisis of moral culture in the clergy, high and low, almost as bad as it was the day before the purge. That is because the motor of the clerical culture we have right now – and this is true across the board, top to bottom, without respect to ideological leanings or theological inclination – is the intrinsically perverse libido dominandi (will to power), rather than a perversion of the libido coeundi (sex drive). The former makes use of the latter, and the latter is often a consequence of the former. But the only way men given over to the latter gain any power or place in any society is by addiction to and direction of the former. Therefore the underlying problem is power.
“Faith,” wrote Pope Francis in Lumen Fidei, “tied as it is to conversion, is the opposite of idolatry; it breaks with idols to turn to the living God in a personal encounter.” The heart of fidelity is found in turning away from staring at dead (but deadly) idols and gazing upon the face of the Savior. This gaze is not merely a look or a glance, but the complete gift of self. As Paul exhorted the Christians in Rome:
I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:1-2).
This is, without doubt, much easier to say than to do. But it must be said. The call to fidelity, free of jargon and ambiguities, must be uttered again and again. The destructive reality of idolatry—as real today as it was in the times of Moses, Solomon, the Prophets, and Paul—must be exposed. Who will do it?
“The Catholic Church exists for the sole purpose of insisting, in season and out of season, that God be recognized for what He is, and as so recognized, worshipped,” noted Dom Aelred Graham in the 1950s. “The Church is society’s permanent rampart against idolatry. This is the ultimate, in a sense it is the only, sin, the root of all disorder.” This year certainly could be worse than 2018 unless the Church insists without wavering on the truth about God and man, rebuilds the needed ramparts against idolatry, and pursues righteousness with love and fidelity.
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