23 March 2010

The Dangers of False Religion

On 30 August 2009, the Twenty-Second Sunday of the Year, I preached about the danger of the false religion which arises from belonging to the tribe rather than believing the Word. Given the complicity of so many nominal Catholics in the various catastrophes now unfolding in the nation's political life, it seems timely to recall what I said following the funeral of Senator Ted Kennedy:

In the first lesson from Deuteronomy, Moses instructs the children of Israel: “In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it.”

In the second lesson from the Letter of St. James, the Apostle urges the disciples of the Lord Jesus: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves.”

And in the Gospel from Mark, the Lord Jesus excoriates the Pharisees: “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

In each case, Sacred Scripture warns us today against the danger of false religion. Here we must first note a problem for modern man: If all religion is merely a private matter of taste, how can there be true religion and false religion? This is one of the many reasons why neither a Christian nor a Jew before us may ever consent to the assertion that religion is a private matter of personal taste. Now in Christian thought, there are two kinds of false religion: worshipping false gods is the first, and worshipping the true God in a false way is the second. There are many religions in the world, but only three of them claim to be revealed by God: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Jews and Christians believe that Muslims worship the true God but in a way invented by man, and that very possibility reminds Christians of the danger posed to us by the second kind of false religion: replacing divine revelation with human wisdom and calling it faith. In the teaching of Moses and the Lord Jesus, this very simply constitutes false religion.

For the past two months, we have been reviewing the Eight Principles of Evangelical Catholicism to help us understand the challenges posed by false religion in our day, and perhaps the most dangerous false religion we face is what I call cultural Catholicism, which begins by belonging to the tribe rather than by believing the Word. “Of course I’m Catholic,” the cultural Catholic exclaims, “my great-grandmother was from Sicily.” This is false religion. Fill in the blank to account for your own tribe, but if ethnic identity is the only source of one’s religion, then that religion is false. No one is born a Christian; each man is born only a child of Adam  and a child of wrath and must be born again a child of God by water and the Holy Spirit. The sacrament of Baptism, like all the sacraments of the New Covenant, is a sacrament of faith: faith in the Word of God, the Word of God made flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. And it is belief in that Word, not the place on the map in which one’s ancestors were born, that makes one a disciple of the Lord Jesus.

The false religion of cultural Catholicism is crumbling fast before our eyes: today one in ten Americans is an ex-Catholic. This is what happens when membership in the tribe, rather than faith in the Word, is the foundation of one’s religion: once the bonds of tribal loyalty are loosened, religious identity is the first thing to be cast off. But there was once a time when cultural Catholicism, whatever its flaws, was a powerful force in American life, shaping our great cities and raising up vast networks of parishes, hospitals, school, colleges and universities, announcing the arrival on these new shores of the ancient Church. And perhaps no family in American history better embodies this sort of cultural Catholicism than the storied Kennedy clan of Boston.

This was brought to mind yesterday by the funeral of Ted Kennedy, who spent his entire adult life in the United States Senate, being known since the murder of his two brothers as the most visible Catholic in the nation’s public life. Ted Kennedy was, by all accounts, a man of rare charm and numerous gifts; he was loved by his family and friends, respected by his colleagues, and trusted by the voters of Massachusetts who faithfully returned him to the Senate no matter how scandalous or numerous his personal flaws. But whatever his political or legislative accomplishments, we must reckon with this fact: the most visible Catholic in the nation’s public life spent the past four decades defending, promoting, excusing, and seeking to pay for by your taxes the wholesale slaughter of babies in the womb.

The mind reels at this contradiction and seeks for a plausible explanation of the fact that the unrestricted abortion license which has exterminated over fifty million American children was devised and constructed, promulgated and defended very largely by men and women who call themselves Catholic. And I believe that the primary explanation of this abomination is simple: the self-identified Catholics who stoutly defend the murder of unborn children are cultural Catholics only; they belong to the false religion of the tribe, rather than the living faith of the Word, and so like the Pharisees condemned by the Lord Jesus, they do not hesitate to replace the Word of God with human wisdom, in this case replacing worship of the true God with the worship of a false god named “freedom to choose.”

But how did we come to this sorry pass? While legions of cultural Catholic politicians have collaborated in building the culture of death, it is not the work of the laity alone. In 1964, a groups of six priests (including the notorious pro-abortion Jesuit Robert Drinan) met with the Kennedy’s at their home in Hyannisport, and during a long day of debate, the six priests worked out the false theological logic used to justify the support of abortion by Catholic politicians. The details of that meeting were later revealed in a book written by one of the six priests, long after he left the priesthood and the Catholic Church, and this sorry tale is sad confirmation of the terrible fact that the false religion of cultural Catholicism includes among its adherents too many priests and religious, too many theologians and professors.

So, what are we do? In the face of such treachery and collusion with the culture of death, what can we do? Let us heed the Letter of St. James:

“Put away all filth and evil excess and humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls. Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror. He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like. But the one who peers into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres, and is not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, such a one shall be blessed in what he does. If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is in vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1: 21-27)

My friends, this is evangelical Catholicism, and once we have surrendered our minds, our wills, our bodies, our entire selves to the Word of God in the obedience of faith, then we find the perfect freedom, the evangelical freedom, of the children of God. The remedy for the false religion of cultural Catholicism is the true religion of evangelical Catholicism. We are Catholics not because we belong to the tribe but because we believe the Word, and we have work to do. The eighth Principle of Evangelical Catholicism puts it this way:

All the baptized are sent in the Great Commission to be witnesses of Christ to others and must be equipped by the Church to teach the Gospel in word and deed. An essential dimension of true discipleship is the willingness to invite others to follow the Lord Jesus and the readiness to explain his Gospel.

That is our task: to be doers of the Word and not hearers only, lest we delude ourselves and make our religion in vain. And how do we accomplish this mission?

At our Baptism, the Lord Jesus called each of us by name to follow Him in the Way of the Cross. Let us heed that call by living as Evangelical Catholics who bear witness to the Savior through radical conversion, deep fidelity, joyful discipleship, and courageous evangelism. This is how we welcome the Word that has been planted in us and is able to save our souls. This is religion pure and undefiled. This is true Catholicism. Praised be Jesus Christ! Now and forever!

Jesus Christ yesterday and today,
the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega,
all time belongs to Him and all the ages,
to Him be all glory and power through every age for ever. Amen.