By Dr. John Larrinaga
One of the greatest challenges facing the Church today is the ongoing exodus of members who seek to satisfy their religious and spiritual needs outside the walls of Holy Mother Church. Sadly, this includes not only its marginally practicing members but also a not insignificant minority of the more traditionally faithful as well.
Why Some Leave the Catholic Church
Some who have left may have become disillusioned, if not frankly disaffected, in the wake of the recent wave of sexual abuse scandals that seems to be capsizing the Church. Others have simply become tepid toward the faith and are seeking a more stimulating environment in which to grow spiritually but the majority who have split away form a more diverse group of individuals that have left for a myriad of personal reasons, with a recurring being that many have elected to disassociate from organized religion altogether.
These are what sociologists now refer to as the “nones”: persons who choose not to identify with any specific religious tradition. This latter phenomenon is a growing trend, not just within the Catholic Church but within other faith traditions as well. Given the increasingly large number of defections from the Church, some might suggest that the appropriate thing for the Church to do would be to determine exactly what it is these members are seeking and then try to address those needs in an effort to stem this increasing tide of defectors. Others believe that the Church needs to do a better job of catechizing its members and thereby help them to better understand and embrace their Catholic faith through deeper personal conversions.
Do Christians Need Moral Guidance?
Regardless of how or even whether the Church chooses to respond to such issues, this ultimately begs the larger and far more important question, does the Church actually serve a vital role in helping to guide the moral choices of the faithful in the first place, or is this something we can do just fine on our own? After all, we all have ready access to the Bible. Shouldn’t that be sufficient to help guide us all to Heaven, provided we actually read and heed it, or is it possible that Christ had different plans for the shepherding of his flock in the wake of his death and resurrection?
Increasingly, it seems that the broader Christian community has sought to reinvent itself in a way that often trivializes not only the significance of sin but of its consequences as well. As our culture has evolved in more recent times, the insidious creep of moral relativism has all but replaced our nation’s traditional Judeo-Christian ethos, blurring those time-honored and divinely prescribed lines that have historically helped us distinguish right from wrong. Perhaps in an effort to expand the appeal of their sermons, more liberal-minded pastors have placed a premium on the rhetoric of inclusivity and “nonjudgmentalism”. As a consequence, traditional messages of more stringent scriptural morality are being replaced with “feel-good” preaching—preaching that seems more intent upon preserving the sizes of congregations than on saving souls. All but gone from many sermons and homilies is any mention of personal sin, let alone the eternal consequences of it. But is this really in keeping with Christ’s message?
Personally, I don’t believe that it is, and I’m not alone. In an October 1946 radio message, Pope Pius XII poignantly stated, “Perhaps the greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin.” These same sobering sentiments have been echoed in more recent times by both Saint Pope John Paul II as well as by our current pontiff, Pope Francis. Yet never have the prophetic words of Pope Pius XII rung truer than they do today.
Even among sincerely devout Christians, there seems to be a growing sense that, while certainly undesirable, our sin is no longer offensive in God’s eyes or, at the very least, no longer of any eternal significance. Many non-Catholic Christians will assert that because our sins are covered by the blood of Jesus Christ, once we accept Him as our personal Lord and Savior, our future sins will no longer have any lasting impact on the fate of our souls. But if we look at Jesus’ message in the gospels, his own words do not actually support this premise. In fact, Jesus repeatedly draws attention to the consequences of our actions, admonishing us that sin brings death while righteousness brings eternal life (Matt 7:19; Matt 12:36; Matt 13:24-30; Matt 18:7-9; Matt 25:31-46).
Yet many well-intentioned non-Catholic Christians will cite verse after verse (generally from one of the Pauline epistles) in an effort to support their claim that, once you’ve said the “Sinner’s Prayer” (a prayer of repentance coupled with a stated desire to form a personal relationship with Christ), you are irrefutably and irreversibly saved. It’s just that easy. However, when we carefully consider the actual recorded spoken words of our Savior himself, you’ll find that he defines a rather different—a much more challenging— path to salvation.
The Consequences of Our Actions
By our Lord’s own admission, “ How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are fewMatt 7:14). In other words, it’s going to require a bit more from us to pass through that “narrow gate” than simply reciting the “Sinner’s Prayer”. Jesus expects something from us in return for this extraordinary gift of eternal life, a gift he freely and so generously offers to each and every one of us. In return, he’s looking for a sincere conversion of our hearts, an earnest desire to turn from our former sinful life and a heartfelt pledge to sin no more. In short, he’s looking for true disciples. He’s seeking sincere doers of his Word, not merely passive hearers of it (Matt 7:24-27; Rom 2:13). He wants us to actively live out our faith in obedience to the Father’s will.
There are passages in Matthew’s gospel that shine a seemingly harsh yet vitally illuminating light, not only on the importance of our actions but on their consequences as well (Matt 18:7-9). In response to such claims, some might assert that Christ’s words were merely mirroring the more legalistic views of the Jewish people living under Old Testament law at that time; but that now, as a consequence of Christ’s death and resurrection, we have been delivered from the bondage of such “legalism”. Yet does it really stand to reason that Christ would preach one message during his ministry here on earth—the pernicious effects of sin upon the fates of our souls and its detrimental impact on our relationship with God—only to have that message rendered null and void upon his death?
No One is an Island
For most Christians, our faith is formed not so much from a comprehensive in-depth reading of the Bible itself, but from listening to priests, ministers or other religious authorities and from reading religious articles and popular Christian literature. When individual Christians do take to shouldering the more weighty yet very laudable task of studying scripture on their own, they run the distinct risk of inadvertently (if not intentionally) “cherry-picking” verses that fit their own preconceived notion of God; molding their ideas and understanding of the Bible from this preacher and that book, this sermon and that talk, slowly cobbling together an incomplete if not potentially unbalanced collection of miscellaneous scriptural “truths”.
In effect, they become their own popes, fashioning “golden calves” for worship that has been branded with their personal stamps of approval. However, since all people are fallible, no matter how learned or pious they may be, how can any of us know which opinions will be reliable sources of divine truth from which to fashion our own faith? If one Christian interprets a biblical passage one way and a different one another, who is to say that one opinion is right while the other is wrong? Who among us has the authority to distinguish between the two?
How can we know with certainty which is the way God intended for us to understand and apply biblical teaching to our lives? For this very reason the apostle Peter warned us that we must be cautious and discerning in this regard, as there will be people who will ” distort to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:16)—and doubtless, countless others who will follow in their misguided wake. How then can we know with certainty that the person we’re listening to or the book we are reading is truly transmitting God’s pure, unadulterated truth and not some dangerously twisted facsimile thereof?
Objective, Absolute Truth
As Christians, we must all necessarily accept and embrace the concept of objective, absolute truth—truth that ultimately has its origin and foundation in God. And it is by these objective truths that we are expected to live and govern our moral lives. Without them, we would all be left to flounder in a sea of self-determined subjective truth and a morass of moral relativism. Even for those of us who accept the premise of absolute truth, the question that still remains is: “To whom or what do we turn to determine what those absolute truths are and how those truths should be applied to our lives?”
If one’s answer to that question is, “Me, my Bible and the Holy Spirit”, how then can one reconcile significant differences of opinion with another person who alleges to draw from that same basis of personal inspiration but then comes to a different, if not potentially contrary, conclusion? We can’t all be right. God’s revealed Truth must, by its very nature, be constant and universally applicable to all persons and for all times. It must be immutable. Its meaning cannot change to suit the personal interpretation of the individual or it would be of no lasting value to any of us (2 Pet 1:20). There must, therefore, be a higher authority to which we can turn rather than simply leaving each individual Christian to rely upon his or her own personal faculties to discern truth, no matter how earnest that person may be in their efforts.
Without the assurance that Christ left us with a reliable means to find our way to His Truth, we would have no legitimate basis upon which to justify our own hope for salvation. And while he did not personally leave us a written record to help guide us to that “narrow gate that leads to life”, he did leave us his Church, the Roman Catholic Church, which is “the pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Tim 3:15). It is through the discerning hands of that Church, guided infallibly by the Holy Spirit, that we have the very Bible we Christians are blessed with today—that invincible Church He built upon the rock of Peter (Matt 16:18a); the Church He promised the gates of Hell would not prevail against (Matt 16:18b); and the very same Church—the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church—that continues to stand strong to this very day.
It is the Catholic Church, the universal church founded by Jesus Christ himself, which has been tasked with infallibly delivering to us the fullness of God’s revealed truth. Most importantly, it is the Catholic Church’s primary purpose, its divinely ordained mission, to help guide all of us, both Christians and non-Christians alike, in this most important of personal journeys, the journey home to our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ.