Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

With the Fathers, we are forced into constant battle

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 19, 2023

Perhaps nothing illustrates the life of controversy that goes hand-in-hand with being a committed Catholic more than the pontificate of Francis. As additional evidence, see Phil Lawler’s acute analysis of the problems with Pope Francis’ appointment of Victor Manuel Fernandez as Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith (With this appointment, the Pope repudiates his predecessor). But because this appointment will unleash a new and even more turbulent period of controversy as faithful Catholic thinkers seek to strengthen their own defensive positions—and to make their own statements exactly and precisely correct—we might take some solace in another assertion that is equally appropriate in our present context:

Perhaps nothing illustrates the life of controversy that goes hand-in-hand with being a committed Catholic than the work of the Fathers of the Church.

Each human culture represents a temporarily dominant worldview around which the life of the human community is generally organized. Each human culture is perceptive in some matters and blind in others. And each human culture stands in a different relationship to the sources of truth available to us generally—namely nature and Divine Revelation. Those who understand that Divine Revelation includes an ecclesiastical teaching authority which can infallibly articulate a proper understanding of particular points of natural law and supernatural truth must also understand that this authority can neither anticipate every question that may arise under the headings of natural law and Divine Revelation, nor exhaust their meaning.

There have been, of course, defining moments, but between these moments even the various popes who can exercise this authority are swayed to and fro by their own priorities, interests, and incomplete human understanding. Indeed, all human persons who seek to conform their minds to reality (we call this conformity “truth”) face constant challenges amid an ongoing intellectual and moral turmoil. Once again, I emphasize that our presumed recollection of more stable periods of Catholic life are largely illusory, arising from our forgetfulness of history, a selective lack of interest in some of the problems that have disturbed the Church over the centuries, and our invariable sense that the challenges we face today (which are of such compelling interest to us now) are somehow more difficult, more important, or more pervasive than those which plagued Catholics in other places and periods.

An example: St. Jerome

But I have mentioned our likeness to the Fathers of the Church. To illustrate this likeness, I will take the case of one of the greatest of the Fathers, St. Jerome, who combatted a series of four closely-related errors during much of his life, often having to revise and improve his awareness of and responsiveness to these errors in later work. He also had to defend himself constantly against those who misinterpreted both his assertions and his motives, especially in his use of the monumental (but not always sound) works of Origen. As a result, he was constantly distracted from such deeply personal goals as effecting a superior Latin translation of Scripture (for which he had to learn Hebrew in addition to the Greek he already knew) and establishing linked (but appropriately separate) monasteries for both men and women living ascetical lives in service to God.

  1. The ascetical life: Jerome has a somewhat dodgy beginning (as many of us have) with respect to avoiding the temptations of the flesh, and it took considerable discipline over many years before he was firmly habituated to a live of complete continence. Nonetheless, his understanding of the Christian life convinced him that greater perfection could be sought through ascetic practices, and he gradually committed himself to a way of life which was physically and spiritually disciplined. Unfortunately, a popular Christian leader named Jovinian gained many followers by questioning the notion that a more perfect life was attainable through ascetic practices. For Jovinian, only Baptismal regeneration counted. For him, the difference between what Christ called the sheep and the goats was simply the difference between those who had been baptized and those who had not. Jerome spent years combatting this error, which seemed at times to concern the various bishops of Rome far less.
  2. Dubious theological sources: Before Jerome had even been born, the great Origen had written a massive number of sound Catholic works and also a number of highly speculative theological works, which (as was later decided) contained some errors. In his earlier writings, Jerome had frequently cited Origen (usually with great care) but calling specific attention to his errors was not always his primary concern. During Jerome’s later life, however, the bishop of Cyprus, Epiphanius of Salamis, came to regard Origen as the Church’s most damaging heretic. He invited Jerome to repudiate Origen’s errors (which Jerome did) but Jerome’s friend and rival Rufinus revised and defended Origen, sometimes quoting Jerome without permission—in effect associating Jerome with Origen’s errors, and giving the impression that Jerome himself held heretical views. This led to a breach between the two men, and a major effort on Jerome’s part to defend his reputation.
  3. Asceticism, unnecessary and unproductive: The highly-regarded priest Vigilantius held that the veneration of relics of martyrs and saints, prayers to them, lighting candles in their honor, all-night vigils, and the entire ascetical system of virginity, fasting and monastic withdrawal were incompatible with an authentic Catholic spiritual life, which was to be lived with a far more open worldly embrace. This was, of course, an attack on precisely the form of life which Jerome most defended. The result was a long debate in which each man sought to sway the Church to the acceptance of his own position. Jerome’s views became the Catholic standard, though we might not know this today….
  4. Pelagianism: In another wrinkle on the theme of how we must live, Pelagius disagreed with Jovinian in attacking ascetical practices but agreed with him that after Baptism, human persons can avoid each and every sin simply through their own natural powers, without recourse to asceticism (that is, spiritual and corporal disciplinary practices) or any other form of life deliberately oriented toward increasing grace. Jerome combatted this Pelagian-Jovinian-Origenist line of through, insisting instead of St. Paul’s emphasis on Divine mercy, God’s free gift of grace in response to those who actually seek it—so that, human virtue and acceptability to God, as St. Paul said, “depends not on man’s will or exertion but on God’s mercy” (Rom 9:16), for although we must will to accept God’s mercy, nonetheless, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
  5. Certainly not unlike today

    I have chosen these example not because they are so strange and ancient but because they are so eerily similar to our own controversies today. After all, what lies at the root of so much theological and spiritual trouble today if not this: The modern assumption that, being loved by God, we can all follow our own inclinations with no self-discipline whatsoever and expect to be welcomed by God for all eternity in Paradise—or that God’s salvation does not await our acceptance but takes us as we are, as if there are no goats at all to be separated from the sheep.

    Although the precise issues were different in some ways from what we face today, the mindsets behind the erroneous positions were quite similar: The failure to insist that the human will must be continuously subordinated to God’s will; the need for each person to lead a devout life, seeking actively to be corrected and strengthened by grace; and the value of ascetical practices to discipline our passions so that our wills may more freely respond to God. I admit that even these highly similar issues are not framed in precisely the same ways, but very similar mindsets underlie the errors and recriminations which St. Jerome, along with the other Fathers of the Church, endured and combatted throughout their lives of service to the Faith.

    Drawing particularly on Jerome’s handling of Origen, we might also add the difficulty we have in accounting for every aspect of a problem when we take positions on the issues and authors of our day. Moreover, we must recognize the need both to correct our own past errors (or oversights) and to revise and enrich our own arguments as we mature. Above all, we have an immense spiritual need for intellectual humility if we desire ever more fully to reflect God’s intellectual light to those around us, be they friends or enemies of the truth.

    St. Jerome was far from perfect. He had to struggle early on against temptations of the flesh. He remained his whole life very caustic in his attacks on those who undermined the Catholic Faith. But for his troubles, not only was St. Jerome constantly attacked and denounced in high places by the confused and frequently heretical writers of his day, but his most beloved achievement—the double monastery named Eustochium which he established in Bethlehem, with separate facilities for men and women—was burned to the ground by his theological enemies.

    In other words, in every way we have our work cut out for us, just like those who have passed on the faith in every preceding age. If we are surprised or disheartened by this, we know too little of the history of the Church, and have forgotten that even Churchmen can be confused, weak, and worldly. But if we are frightened or in despair, we have also forgotten John 16:33, where Christ reminds us of the troubles we will face in this world—and that we need only sacrificially unite ourselves to Him, Who has already overcome them all.

    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: mary_conces3421 - Jul. 19, 2023 9:40 PM ET USA

      Thank you for the historical analysis. I knew a bit about St. Jerome’s struggles, but not the whole picture. Catholic truth is so comprehensive and beautiful that it makes all the alternatives pale in comparison, but I didn’t realize until my middle age—& now old age how much it must be fought for—within & without.