Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Since this Halloween week is always a good time for facing the things we fear, I thought it might be good to post a recent conversation I had. A reader sent along a video link from some “visionary” with this request:
Will you please opine on this video? It's about ten minutes long but you could probably just watch the first four or five minutes.
It is a young woman claiming to have been given a vision of Hell by Jesus. She says she John Paul II in Hell.
I know I shouldn't be disturbed by such things, but sometimes I find it hard not to be disturbed because... we just live in dark times.
So, would you be your kind, generous, and knowledgeable self and please opine as to whether a video such as this could possibly have any merit?
Is it possible that in the end times even the leaders of Church would lead us astray? I suppose this is my greatest concern. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that these are the end times. What has the Church taught us through the ages are the indications we should follow to safety through the end times?
What possible reason should anybody have for taking some random person with a video cam as a source of divine revelation?
The Church has always, always, always lived in dark times. And times considerably darker than our own. As in, a third of Europe dead from plague, Borgia Popes, and Thirty Years War bad. As in large portions of Christendom lost to Islamic Conquest bad. As in Great Schism bad. As in three claimants to the papacy bad. And yet she survives because it is not possible to destroy the Faith. Precisely the promise Jesus gives the Church is that he will be with it always and that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Our trust is not and never has been that our bishops and popes are perfect, but in the Holy Spirit as the soul of the Church.
My reader replies:
But how do we follow the Holy Spirit in the Church?
By doing what that Church says to do. Go to Mass. Say your prayers. Obey the Commandments. Believe what the Church teaches. The usual.
I follow Communion & Liberation; I understand you have some familiarity with them. My friends and I follow the Church in the ordinary ways (e.g., availing ourselves of the Sacraments, prayer, following Christian norms of conduct). We also follow the Holy Father closely and of course we follow the charism.
I guess the heart of my concern is modernism. This is the thing that has continually bugged me for the last couple of years now. It is difficult to be peaceful following the charism I follow, and to follow the Holy Father, having these worries about modernism.
Why? He has said absolutely nothing heterodox. Nothing. It is not Modernism to teach things in ways that make some conservatives nervous. It is merely to make conservatives nervous. And quite honestly it is not a disservice to conservatives to force them to confront the fact that conservatism and the Faith are not identical.
Is modernism really a problem in the Church today? How can I find clarity on this issue?
Study the Catechism. Don’t start with fear of modernism and trying to avoid what you are afraid might be modernism. Treasury agents don't start by focusing on all the permutations of possible counterfeit bills. They start by learning what a real bill looks like. Start with what the Church actually teaches and let it challenge your assumptions about what you think is orthodoxy and might well simply be some political and cultural prejudices you need to lose. I repeat: the Pope has said and done nothing—nothing whatsoever—that is heterodox. Indeed, much of his catechesis consists of saying, "Learn what the Catechism says". Since that is so, it is an opportunity—if we find him discomfiting—to ask ourselves how it is we might be being challenged by the Faith to think differently.
Several months back I was speaking with a man who wrote up a website against CL and, well... he seemed to oppose anything that wasn't scholastic theology.
De gustibus. Different people have different preferences.
He compared The Religious Sense by Don Giussani to Pius X's Pascendi Dominic Gregis and he seemed to think this was a startling revelation of some kind.
Are you saying he had some kind of paranoid reaction to Giusanni and charges him with modernism for not talking like Pius X? But that is silly. Different is not opposed. If that's the problem, don’t worry about it. Spiritual writers—including even saints—are not supposed to be infallible guides whose every word we canonize. They are simply good guides with whom we are supposed to wrestle and argue and from whom we can learn. Take what is good from Giussani and don’t worry about the rest. CL is, rather obviously, bearing good fruit.
I'm just an ordinary guy trying to follow the Church. Sometimes I can't stand how complicated it gets.
So is your real question, “Is Giussani a modernist and am I being led astray into modernism? Was I a fool to trust JPII, who might not be 100% pure and perfect on everything and may therefore be a liar from the pit of hell that the 'visionary' claimed?” That’s what I’m gathering from your fears about this crank mystic putting him in hell, coupled with the anti-CL guy who thinks anything not rooted in Scholasticism must perforce be heresy.
If I'm right that this is what you are worried about, then please understand: the Church is not and never has been populated by anything other than imperfect people. But being imperfect does not automatically make a person a fraud, heretic, and liar. The promise of the Holy Spirit is not that he will give you perfect people to teach you, but that he himself is the soul of the Church and that he will not allow it to define error as truth. When (not if) some member of the Church is shown to be flawed, that is not an appalling revelation of the horrible truth that everything you have ever believed is a lie. It’s a confirmation of what we’ve known ever since Jesus himself chose 12 doofuses to be his apostles and suffered betrayal and abandonment at their hands. And the chief of them was, in Chesterton’s phrase “a shuffler, a coward, and a snob—in a word, a man”. That’s good news, because it means that if Peter can be a saint, so can a couple of drips like you and me.
Am I saying there are no problems in the Church? Of course not. As I say, the times are always dark for the Church and we face crisis now as we always did. Indeed, I will not deny that there is a dark conspiracy against the gospel at work in the world. Of course there is! There always has been. John wrote about it 2000 years ago:
“Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18).
Likewise, Paul tells us that, yes of course, there are demonic powers arrayed against the Church:
For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)
But that has, again, always been the case and always will be till the Second Coming. Which means that the way you deal with it now is the way the Church has always dealt with it. There is no new set of rules that is supposed to kick in as we approach the Second Coming (whenever that will be). There’s just the same old stuff: trust that God’s promise to Peter stands to the end of time and that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. Indeed, the suggestion that the safeguards Jesus promised the Church will somehow disappear in the End Times has only one practical result: it tells fearful people "You're on your own. Abandon the Church and try to save yourself." That's advice straight from hell. In military terms, it is the standard strategy of "divide and conquer". Catholics who fall for it are begging to have themselves and their families destroyed by the overwhelming cultural forces arrayed against us.
The Church is not your enemy. It remains what is always was: the sacrament of salvation and the recipient of the promise of Jesus that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. That promise, by the way, does not mean that we Catholics in the Fortress will not be overwhelmed by the powers of hell. It’s that the powers of hell are in the Fortress and the Church is the battering ram at the gate. Gates are not weapons. They are defensive structures in walled cities and Jesus is using a military metaphor from ancient siege warfare. The Church plays offense, not defense. No small part of what is wrong with the mentality of an awful lot of modern Catholics is that we do not understand that and therefore talk as though we are on the losing side, fighting a rear guard action when we have, in the Resurrection, already won.
That doesn’t mean the Church will win in this world. As she has always warned:
675 Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the "mystery of iniquity" in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.
676 The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the "intrinsically perverse" political form of a secular messianism.
677 The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God's victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven. God's triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world.
So the Church’s way of defeating hell—a defeat that is absolutely assured—will not be by the world getting better every day in every way. It will be by the way of Christ—through death and resurrection. As Revelation tells us, the brethren of Jesus overcome the Accuser, not by Modernist dissent of compromise with the world, nor by Reactionary Dissent of bolting from the Church in panic, but "by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death."
We’ve already seen many many many dress rehearsals for that through history, just as we have seen many antichrists promising the same boring program of “I will give you heaven on earth if you will just listen to your fears and/or follow your selfish desires, ditch the Church and her teachings, and do evil that good may come of it.” And there is no shortage of Catholics willing to make that Faustian Bargain.
In your case, I think the attack you are experiencing is coming via your fears, not your desires. You seem to fear that you are living in some unique age when the Church’s teaching can no longer be trusted for some reason. This is false. The Church’s teaching is as reliable as ever. Her bishops are all sinners, of course—like you and me. But that’s been the case since the choosing of the Twelve. The Church’s teaching is not reliable because her bishops are impeccable nor, typically, because they are exercising a charism of infallibility (a rare occurrence from the Magisterium), but because the Holy Spirit is the guarantor of the revelation. And despite the arguments of some Reactionary Dissenters from the Magisterium (who are the equal opposite mirrors of Modernist Dissent), the reality remains that the revelation is reliable.
As to the complexity of the Church’s teaching: welcome to reality. The Church’s teaching exists to reflect the truth about God’s revelation of himself to us. It’s complex because the world is complex and we are complicating creatures due to our slowness to trust that God really loves us and means to save us. If you want simplicity, I'd recommend Islam or The Force. If you accept things like the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Real Presence in the Eucharist (not to mention Divine Sovereignty and Human Free Will) you'd best resign yourself to the fact that the Revelation is going to propose complex and difficult things. And the best way to make sure that it will be needlessly complicated is to abandon trust in the Holy Spirit and decide that every single thing the Church says and does is probably a sign of demonic infiltration that needs to be personally scrutinized by our puny intellect until it passes muster. The “guilty till proven innocent” approach that many Catholics are, in their fear, adopting toward the Church’s teaching is a quick ticket to madness. Behind it lies a deep well of distrust, ultimately, in Jesus himself and a fear that he has ditched the Church or is just about to do so. He hasn’t ditched the Church. He hasn’t decided to check out before the end of the age. His promise to Peter still stands. His promise to guide the Church into all truth still stands (which means the development of doctrine still continues). His promise to the Magisterium that “he who listens to you listens to me” still stands. Doesn’t mean the Church is a black and white monolith of “That which is not forbidden is compulsory”. Doesn’t mean you won’t find real and substantial disagreements between Catholics of good will. Doesn’t mean you won’t have to use your heart and mind to the full to make prudential judgments and obey you conscience in morally ambiguous circumstances. Doesn’t mean you won’t find even great Popes making mistakes. But it does mean that we need not live in perpetual fear that the Church is a gigantic prank God is playing on us, because God has not abandoned us and will not do so.
So we put one foot in front of the other and stick with the basics: The Blessed Trinity, the love of God, Jesus Christ Crucified and Risen, the Mass, the creed, the Ten Commandments and Beatitudes, the Sacraments, the prayer life of the Church, fasting, almsgiving, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Don’t waste time on end times scenarios, crank "seers", and fruitless fears about conspiracies. The Church has enemies, both within and without. She always has and always will. Still and all, greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world.
This Halloween, instead of being afraid, remember all the saints—including Pope John Paul II, who is (according to the judgment of Jesus Christ’s Holy Church) in heaven.