Our lack of horror for sin and heresy
It is very hard to compare St. Thomas More’s denunciation of clerical sins and popular heresies with our attitudes toward the same things today, without realizing that we have lost a great deal of our love, gratitude and respect for the gifts we have received through Jesus Christ. While in the Tower awaiting execution, More offered several trenchant observations on the ways in which Christ is, as the gospels of Matthew and Mark put it, “betrayed into the hands of sinners.” These are found in his commentary on “the sadness, the weariness, the fear and the prayer of Christ before he was taken prisoner”. (This book was most recently published in 1993 by Scepter as The Sadness of Christ.)
While the work is mostly a consideration of the meaning of the various accounts of Our Lord’s betrayal by Judas “into the hands of sinners”, More does offer some applications to conditions in his own day. I wish to quote two of these applications in their entirety.
First, in reference to sinful priests:
At this juncture another point occurs to us: that Christ is also betrayed into the hands of sinners when His most holy body in the sacrament is consecrated and handled by unchaste, profligate, and sacrilegious priests. When we see such things happen (and they happen only too often, alas), let us imagine that Christ Himself again says to us, “Why are you sleeping? Stay awake, get up, and pray that you may not enter into temptation, for the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.” From the example of bad priests the contamination of vice spreads easily among the people. [p. 63]
Second, he makes an application of the Scriptural text to the new Protestant heretics (for More was writing in 1534-35, a mere seventeen years after Luther precipitated the widespread doctrinal revolt against the Catholic Church which mushroomed into Protestantism and has divided the Christian community now for over 500 years). On this subject, he writes at considerable length:
Finally, Christ is betrayed into the hands of sinners in a special way among those of a certain sect: these people, though they receive the venerable sacrament of the Eucharist more frequently and wish to give the impression of honoring it more piously…, nonetheless these people blaspheme against what they have received under a show of honor, some of them by calling it true bread and true wine, some of them—and this is far worse—by calling it not only true but also mere bread and wine.
For they altogether deny that the real body of Christ is contained in the sacrament, though they call it by that name. When at this late date they set out to do such a thing, against the most open passages of Scripture, against the clearest interpretations of all the saints, against the most constant faith of the whole Church for so many centuries, against the truth most amply witnessed to by so many thousands of miracles—this group that labors under the second kind of infidelity (by far the worse), how little difference is there, I ask you, between them and those who took Christ captive that night? How little difference between them and those troops of Pilate who in jest bent their knees before Christ as if they were honoring Him while they insulted Him and called Him the king of the Jews, just as these people kneel before the Eucharist and call it the body of Christ—which according to their own profession they no more believe than the soldiers of Pilate believed Christ was a king.
Therefore, whenever we hear that such evils have befallen other peoples, no matter how distant, let us immediately imagine that Christ is urgently addressing us: “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” For the fact is that wherever this plague rages today most fiercely, everyone did not catch the disease in a single day. Rather the contagion spreads gradually and imperceptibly while those persons who despise it at first, afterwards can stand to hear it and respond to it with less than full scorn, then come to tolerate wicked discussions, and afterwards are carried away into error, until like a cancer (as the apostle says) the creeping disease finally takes over the whole country [2 Tm 2:17].
Therefore let us stay awake, get up, and pray continually that all those who have fallen into this miserable folly through the wiles of Satan may quickly come to their senses and that God may never suffer us to enter into this kind of temptation and may never allow the devil to roll the blasts of this storm of his to our shores. [pp.63-65, paragraphing added]
Application to ourselves
A relatively small number of Catholics yearn for simpler days when they could simply denounce those who hold erroneous beliefs as beyond the boundaries of grace. But it is necessary to make a distinction. On the one hand, we have Catholics who, though they should know better, prefer their own ideas so strongly that they attack the Church and her certain teachings, sometimes breaking from her but often operating even more treacherously within. On the other, we have today’s Protestants who have been formed, over many generations, in an incomplete and often erroneous Christian tradition which they have been raised to accept as complete and true.
This, of course, was the distinction recognized at the Second Vatican Council which led the Council Fathers to emphasize the need for an ecumenical approach which would permit discussion and exploration, without condemnation, in order steadily to reduce the differences between the various Protestant groups and the Catholic Church, so that a corporate reunification might eventually become possible. Those who have been raised Protestant (not those who abandon the Church to find a way of life more to their “liking”) legitimately possess many of the goods Christ has made available for our salvation, and in the vast majority of cases may be presumed to be more victims than agents of the rift.
Of course this understanding ought not to make us indifferent to the Truth. Moreover, it would be seriously wrong to fault St. Thomas More for his own severity. More’s attitude is exactly the one we should have toward contemporary Catholics who “preach another gospel”, and even more if they are priests. For this very reason, St. Paul rebuked the Corinthians:
But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and preaches another Jesus than the one we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough. [2 Cor 11:4]
And to the Galatians, he wrote even more forcefully:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed. Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ. [Gal 1:6-10]
Why are we sleeping?
The word “heresy” comes from the Greek verb “to choose”, as in choosing some part over the whole, and so distorting the truth. The word “sin” most likely derives through Old English from the Latin word for “guilty”. We need to recover our horror of heresy and sin, and to become jealous once again for adherence to what is true, so that we do not prefer pleasing men to pleasing God. The target of our horror is not those who have been raised in a faulty tradition which they may, not unreasonably, presume to be true. No, the proper target is contemporary Catholics who seek to subvert the teachings of Christ and His Church from within.
This subversion seems nearly always to be motivated by the desire to legitimize one’s own temptations, prominent among which is the human tendency to curry favor with others—usually with the dominant human culture. “Why are you sleeping?” asks Jesus Christ of each of us today. “Get up and pray that you may not enter into temptation, for the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.”
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Posted by: mary_conces3421 -
May. 04, 2020 1:44 PM ET USA
I 1st tried to send this from my I-Phone on 4/25 & failed. Here's my belated comment for the record: This article is well reasoned, as usual, and temperate in tone. However, many people I know are eager to denounce fellow Catholics as heretics. Your St. Thomas More quotes indicate that one's first reaction to error should be to pray that we ourselves not contract the disease. And wasn't he good-humored in his personal confrontations? Also,St. Paul was authorized to anathematize. Not everyone is.
Posted by: Millán Yuso -
Apr. 27, 2020 7:35 PM ET USA
Time for beefing up the ratio of declarative to interrogative, active to passive, and indicative to subjunctive even though we hope our faith doesn’t offend... Thanks Dr.M for observant wisdom and to St Thomas for the example of courage. Come on your eminences, support the good men.