Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

What about false prophets?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 27, 2014

A Sound Off! comment raised a good question about my most recent discussion of Pope Francis’ teachings on the Church (More on Communion with the Church from Pope Francis). I had touched briefly on the ways in which non-Catholic Christians and even non-Christians can be joined to the Church. In response, loumiamo7154 asked:

Then just who are the modern day false prophets of Matthew 7? People who seem to be doing good works, even miracles? To the rest of us, they appear to be doing good, and they are doing good--a miracle is always good--and doing good in Jesus's name, but when they present themselves on judgment day, they will be complete strangers to Jesus. Have we now no false prophets to be concerned about?

Without pretending to exhaust this question, I would respond with two main points.

First, having a right orientation is different from coming into the fullness of life in Christ. There are many who are salvifically joined to the Church because they devote themselves to what they understand of God and the Good, but who have not received the fullness of God’s gifts through formal membership in the Church. We need to remember that more is expected from those who have received more. We must consider Our Lord’s words in Luke 12:42-48. Far from emphasizing the deficiencies of non-Catholics, this should make Catholics tremble!

At the same time, there can be no excuse for leaving others in a state of incomplete knowledge of God and His plan of salvation just because less will be expected of them. Just as obviously, we who know the truth are not free to choose some lesser path because it seems easier. The knowledge and grace of Christ available in the Church are the most precious of all gifts. They present an incomparable opportunity for union with God both in this life and for all eternity.

For this reason we must always follow the example of the apostles and do our best to complete the catechesis of any we meet who do not possess the full truth offered by the Church. There are several good examples of this in the Acts of the Apostles. One involves a zealous preacher named Apollo, who taught about Jesus but knew only the Baptism of John (see Acts 18:24-28).

Second, Our Lord distinguishes between two kinds of prophets and miracle workers who are not formal members of the Church, nor sent by the Church. The distinction he makes appears to be based on their fundamental openness to God, which will be manifested by their fruits. To put the question simply: Whose glory do they seek? If they are truly seeking the glory of God, they will bear good fruit and are not to be forbidden. But we must beware of those who are like wolves in sheep’s clothing, manifesting even great power for the wrong reasons, seeking glory for themselves or at least for something or someone other than God.

The statements about false prophets to which loumiamo7154 refers in Matthew 7 are echoed in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. These last three texts are more difficult to interpret because they refer to the end times and are apocalyptic in character, but there is no question that Our Lord warns against them. More helpful is His advice in the reference loumiamo7154 himself provides: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:15-17).

Another instructive passage tells about the man the apostles found casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They somewhat proudly told Jesus they stopped him because “he does not follow with us” (Lk 9:49). Our Lord’s response takes them by surprise: “Do not forbid him; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:39). He repeats the latter point in St. Luke’s account: “Do not forbid him; for he that is not against you is for you” (Lk 9:50).

In exactly the same way, those among our separated brethren are certainly with us if they have been baptized and have not deliberately rejected what we might call a legitimate psychological opportunity to fully recognize the Church. The same can be true of non-Christians, through what Pius XII called baptism by an unconscious desire and wish (desiderio ac voto), who devote themselves to the good as they have been given to know it. This means, of course, that they have not rejected a true interior opportunity to know it better.

There are deep mysteries here, all of which relate at least in part to the nature of the Church and the different ways in which we may be joined to her. Recognizing this, let us take to heart the words of St. Matthew, drawn from the prophet Isaiah, and describing Our Blessed Lord: “He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick, till he brings justice to victory” (Mt 12:20; Is 42:3).

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jun. 30, 2014 2:05 PM ET USA

    There is no need to assess blame. To John J Plick, I would say that different Catholics probably have different reasons for finding Protestantism upsetting, including sadness over divisions and frustration at the loss of so many of the goods offered by God for our salvation. To loumiamo7154, I would stress that the fruits Our Lord speaks of in Mt 7 are fruits of charity, which grow (as he points out in vv. 21ff) from hearing the Word of God and putting it into practice. Preachers who, however effective they seem, fail this test run the risk of helping to save others without saving themselves. It is given to us mortals to distinguish truth from error, but not to assess blame—which is the very first point made by Our Lord in Mt. 7.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 29, 2014 1:31 PM ET USA

    JJPlick, I respectfully disagree. I see the miracles and evangelism done by Protestants as simply examples of Isaiah 55, God's Word accomplishing His will, not returning void. The trembling should be done by the Protestant evangelists, noting that God's Word is so powerful that it can accomplish good and evil simultaneously-good for the recipient, evil for the evangelist if he is not sent by the Church to bring people to the Church-that is what Matt 7:21-23 means, imho.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jun. 28, 2014 11:47 AM ET USA

    "We must consider Our Lord’s words in Luke 12:42-48. Far from emphasizing the deficiencies of non-Catholics, this should make Catholics tremble!" And that is EXACTLY IT! And we DON'T TREMBLE... We consider that certain attitudes we hold and benefits (that we SHOULD RECEIVE) are justified and belong to us simply because we are Catholics. Bluntly, protestants upset us not because they are unsuccessful, but because they ARE!

  • Posted by: - Jun. 27, 2014 5:48 PM ET USA

    Dr. Jeff, while we cannot know what's in another man's heart, can we not say that televangelists or other evangelists not on tv, who use the Church as an example of what NOT to do or believe, have "deliberately rejected what we might call a legitimate ... opportunity to fully recognize the Church"? And, the fruits Jesus seems to be speaking of in Matt 7 is NOT the miracles, but growth of the Church. New Catholic converts is the sign that the miracle was good fruit, not bad, as I read it.

  • Posted by: mussel2188 - Jun. 27, 2014 5:10 PM ET USA

    What comes to mind when I read the question is what Jesus said in Mark 9:39-41. The Apostles too questioned those not of the flock but apparently able to do God's work.