The one whom the Apocalypse calls “Faithful and True” (Revelation 19:11)1 solemnly tells his disciples, “[E]very one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32–33). In his final testament to Timothy, Paul echoes his Master: “if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:12b–13).
The question has never been of the Lord’s fidelity but of ours—and that latter question has, as we all know, become especially acute and neuralgic in novissimis diebus. “[W]hen the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8).
Of course, no one in the Church is likely to reject faith in the Son of Man in so many words. Instead, denial of our Lord takes the form of more particular de facto rejections, which are framed not as denials at all but as affirmations of putatively neglected or undervalued aspects of the Gospel.
I want to propose a diagnosis of three such rejections that especially afflict the Church today.
1. “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2): The rejection of the primacy of the eternal
The primacy of the eternal is virtually a New Testament refrain, to be found in the teaching of Peter (e.g., 1 Pet 1:3–9) and Paul (e.g., Phil 3:17–21), of John (e.g., 1 Jn 2:16–17) and James (e.g., Jas 1:9–12), and of our Lord himself. “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
The early Church got the message. The preaching of the Church Fathers bespeaks a pastoral prioritization of the primacy of the eternal, which furnishes the orientation of all other doctrinal teaching and moral exhortation. Open up a collection of the homilies of Origen or Cyprian, Augustine or Chrysostom, Basil or Leo, and you’ll find it impossible to miss. Too often today, the tendency is reversed. Catholic preaching frequently sidelines the Last Things in favor of a temporal agenda.
These temporal aims are frequently dressed up in the language of a realized—and often somewhat banal—eschatology, unaccompanied by a single word about sin, repentance, judgment, heaven or hell. God appears, finally, as not much more than the guarantor of a well-balanced, contented life on earth, for individuals and for society.
The point is not, of course, that Christians should neglect temporal matters—far from it! But our posture toward them should always be calibrated in the light of eternity. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt 6:19–20). Without an eternal perspective, our estimation of temporal things will be distorted. We should remember St John Paul II’s ominous echo of Gaudium et spes in Evangelium vitae: “when the sense of God is lost, the sense of man is also threatened and poisoned.”2
Faithful Christians need to cultivate a lively sense of the primacy of God and of eternal life.
2. “Shake off the dust from your feet” (Matt. 10:14): The rejection of rejection
The Lord told his disciples to expect resistance and rejection. Nonetheless, many Christians today, “conservative” and “liberal,” “orthodox” and “progressive” alike, seem to assume that if only we articulate our message with sufficient winsomeness and little enough hypocrisy, the intrinsic appeal of the Gospel will overwhelm every heart and mind. Accordingly, evangelical failure is always our fault. If the world does not accept the Gospel, it’s because we haven’t been good enough, haven’t tried hard enough, haven’t been welcoming enough, haven’t catechized well enough, and so forth. We can and must acknowledge that we often haven’t done those things, but the supposed irresistibility of the Gospel rightly presented finds little support in the Bible. Indeed, it is full of counterindications. Our Lord invites us not only to anticipate rejection but to respond to it with rejoicing and gladness (Matt 5:11–12).3
When we don’t receive this message, one temptation is to hold to the supernatural claims of the Gospel but to become reluctant to preach them clearly and boldly, instead endlessly deferring the announcement of the kerygma, and the rejection that may well follow, by way of political, cultural, or philosophical throat-clearing that few find persuasive—or even, frankly, very interesting.
Another temptation is, of course, to become ear-ticklers (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3), truncating and reshaping the Gospel to suit the world’s tastes. Too often those who bemoan the poor marks given the Church by the world fail to interrogate the standards by which those outside the faith might evaluate what they observe. At times one almost gains the impression that baptism and the theological virtue of faith are obstacles to understanding the Gospel clearly, so that it is incumbent on the Church to consult the sensus infidelium. The basic message of the Gospel, as preached by some prominent Catholics, seems to be its own universality and appeal. The Gospel is recast as a word of unconditional acceptance, without a call to conversion, transformation, and union with the all-holy God.
Faithful Christians need to announce, lovingly and clearly, the message of repentance and redemption through the death and resurrection of the Son of God, knowing that this message will not be universally received or even respected.
3. “Hath God said…?” (Gen. 3:1, KJV): The rejection of divine revelation
The Liar’s first deception was a question: has God really spoken? Is his Word reliable and lifegiving? Rejection of divine revelation is close to the root of the other rejections, for it encloses our perspective in a this-worldly frame. Of course, revelation is always verbally acknowledged, but not as that which measures us and our “experience.” This is precisely how Jesus speaks of the judgment: “He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge; the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day” (Jn 12:48).
Rather, revelation itself, clothed as it is in human language, is thought to be measurable by external standards—almost always those of sociology and “experience.” When the biblical Word is judged before such a tribunal and found wanting, it is rather nonchalantly modified, usually through tendentiously selective quotation. For example, one hears appeals to Genesis 1 on the goodness of creation, while Genesis 3 on the Fall and its consequences goes completely unmentioned. Scripture thus may be permitted to speak after a fashion, but only selectively and mutedly, through the interpretive filter of contemporary “experience.”
St Paul sets an apostolic example by “refus[ing] to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word” (2 Cor 4:2). Yet it is now standard practice for Catholic pastors, who are called to nourish the flock with God’s unadulterated Word, to quote and interpret Scripture superficially, facilely, and selectively, ignoring or simply omitting uncomfortable verses or passages.
Such de facto undermining of divine revelation implicitly answers Jesus’s haunting question: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Lk 6:46). Because, Lord, we listen only selectively to what you tell us. Faithful Christians need to listen to and proclaim God’s Word, especially in Sacred Scripture, unreservedly.
Conclusion: “As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5)
The diagnosis is dire, but the prognosis remains good, for Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and death no longer has dominion over him (Rom 6:9). His victory is assured. Meanwhile, what are we called to do?
First, as Cardinal Pell recently put it, “If divine revelation, as found in the Scriptures, is accepted as God’s Word, we submit and obey. We stand under the Word of God.”4 We need to be committed to the primacy of Scripture. We need, as Benedict XV (not XVI!) called us to do, to be “saturated with the Bible” and thus “arrive at the all surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ” (Spiritus Paraclitus 69). For those involved in Catholic education in any of its forms, Scripture should be the sun around which our curricula and resources orbit, and from which they are constantly replenished with the light of truth and the warmth of love.
Second, the supernatural light of biblical faith affords us an eternal perspective, which, St Paul reminds us, capacitates us to “rejoice in our sufferings” (Rom 5:3) and to accept the world’s rejection without ceasing to love the world, indeed, to love it more, with the love revealed by the Father in the mission of his Son. We should, of course, hope and pray to be allowed to “lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way” (1 Tim 2:2). But we must always be preparing ourselves by way of faith, prayer, and ascetical discipline for rejection and persecution of various kinds—personal, social, cultural, even legal. Frictionless coexistence with the world has never been a guarantee. “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).
Third, if we are being called to renew our “yes” of faith to the Lord, that “yes” must finally be a doxological act. The ultimate decision has always been the same: serviam or non serviam. Our supreme serviam as Catholics is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the “source and summit of the whole Christian life.” A deepened appreciation of the liturgy’s purpose, which is not only the sanctification of human beings but the glorification of God, can help us rediscover the primacy of the eternal. In Eucharistic worship, the Holy Spirit joins believers to the Son’s perfect sacrifice for the glory of the Father.
To recover the primacy of the eternal, we need to recover an emphasis on the worship of Almighty God, above all in the Most Holy Eucharist, where we encounter the transforming and deifying love of the Trinity that will strengthen us to acknowledge our Lord before men, that he may acknowledge us before his Father.
1 RSV-2CE unless otherwise indicated.
2 EV 22, which goes on to cite GS 36.
3 Note, however, that the same Paul who joined Barnabas in “sh[aking] off the dust from their feet against” the Jews of Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:51) could also write, “I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom 9:1–3). The call to shake the dust off one’s feet is not a call to kill off compassion. The Christian can and must concur with God’s desire for “all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), simultaneously sorrowing at the rejection of saving truth and rejoicing in our conformity with Christ, who, we might add, himself lamented Jerusalem’s failure to receive him (Mt 23:37–39).
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