Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
On Trinity Sunday at my parish we recited the Athanasian Creed at the end of the Homily. (In case you are unfamiliar with it, you can read it here: Quicumque vult.) Written in the 4th century, it painstakingly sets forth the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Incarnation. In several places there are warnings like this one:
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith. Which Faith everyone must keep whole and undefiled, or, without doubt, he shall perish everlastingly.
After Mass I was approached by a rather animated woman who was quite displeased that we had recited this Creed. While acknowledging that it was an ancient Creed, she had strong objections to the warning that those who did not hold to the doctrines set forth in it would perish. She wondered if I really thought that every non-Catholic was going to Hell.
I attempted to explain that the statement in this Creed must be understood properly, that although there are certain nuances it remains a doctrine of the Faith as revealed by God that one cannot knowingly reject it and expect to be saved (see Catechism 846-848 for the teachings and some distinctions).
She replied by saying that the Athanasian Creed—particularly its dire warning—was unwelcoming, that Jesus never spoke like this, and I should give an explanation to the congregation anytime this is recited so as to avoid giving offense, and that the most important thing was that we not offend people.
I’d like address each of the four spokes of her argument, as they are common objections raised to many of our teachings.
Objection #1 — This is not welcoming.
When a person goes to the doctor’s office he is usually welcomed by a friendly receptionist. (Let’s overlook that little demand to see the insurance card). Shortly, an amiable nurse or other medical assistant escorts him to a room and obtains vitals and asks a few questions. In the best offices, the atmosphere is all very nice and cheerful.
The doctor then enters with a cheerful welcome but quickly gets down to business. Perhaps he reviews the vitals or looks at recent lab results. Now the friendly doctor must speak truth. For most of us, some of the numbers are problematic. Perhaps the body mass index is too high. Maybe the blood pressure, cholesterol level, or blood sugar is less-than-ideal. Suddenly the welcoming doctor has the obligation to call us to repentance, to a change of lifestyle, lest we go from bad to worse. Indeed, life and death may hang in the balance.
Most of us would say that a doctor who reviewed poor results and told us that everything was fine was guilty of lying and could perhaps even be sued for malpractice. Why, then, if a priest warns against bad choices that affect eternal life or death is it considered “unwelcoming”?
As in a doctor’s office, welcoming people with warm greetings has its place, but eventually, it’s time to get down to the business of speaking the truth, of warning against sin and summoning to virtue, of calling for repentance and warning of consequences. This is what love does. It speaks the truth and warns of error and the many rabbit holes of half-truths and compromise. Love warns that embracing such things makes salvation difficult—even doubtful.
Objection #2 — Jesus never spoke like this; He was welcoming.
Actually, Jesus did talk like this, on many occasions. For example:
- I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:16).
- If you do not come to believe that I AM, you will die in your sins (John 8:24).
- Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16).
There are many other passages in which the Lord warns the unbelieving and the unprepared. While texts like these are seldom explained or nuanced, we need not interpret them to mean that someone who cannot reasonably know that Jesus is the only way to Heaven and to the Father will go to Hell. God is just; He does not demand that people meet requirements they cannot reasonably know or satisfy. However, the Church has an obligation to announce that Jesus is the only sure way to salvation and to realize that due to sin many will be lost without the call to repent and believe in Him. We are under serious obligation to draw souls to Christ and to warn them about resistance and unbelief. Notions like “there are many ways to God” or “it doesn’t matter what a person believes as long as he is nice and sincere” do not pass biblical muster. It doesmatter.
Even if those in invincible ignorance may get some lenience from God, the Second Vatican Council teaches,
Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel. She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life.
But very often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair.
Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature,” the Church fosters the missions with care and attention (Lumen Gentium 16).
We cannot overlook the phrase “very often” in the second paragraph. This should spur us to call people to Christ and realize that He compels a choice: either believe in Him and be saved or refuse to believe and be lost. Even those who never experience this clear choice risk “vain reasoning,” worldly thinking, error, and lies that set them in wrong direction and cause them to refute even what their own conscience tells them is wrong. Hence, while the unbelieving are not universally condemned, neither do they get a free pass to salvation. Rather, they remain subjected to the darkness of error and false claimants to their worship and loyalty. It is, frankly, more difficult for them to be saved, though not impossible.
Objection #3 — You should give an explanation every time we recite this Creed.
Perhaps, but my sermons are already quite long. Sometimes we must speak to a limited range of truths, presenting balancing concepts later.
There is a tendency today for listeners to absolutize many things and then object. The speaker may not be presenting an absolute truth, but rather a general one that admits of exceptions and distinctions. Addressing every possible exception or distinction would take too much time.
Sometimes, too, it is beneficial to permit hard truths to provoke questions and thereby usher in a teachable moment. Jesus often did this by using parables that were riddle-like. When teaching to a hostile or cynical crowd it is often effective to tell a puzzling story that leaves them hungry for explanation or irritated and demanding clarification.
Explaining everything exhaustively upfront is not always the most effective way to teach the truth.
Objection #4 — The most important thing is that we not offend people.
This view is becoming increasingly common today. Many people do not presume goodwill on the part of the speaker and take offense easily. In the Church we often refer to Scripture and other ancient texts, which were written in less dainty times, times in which urgency and a zeal to announce revealed truth were seen as more central to the task of spreading the Faith than pleasing, affirming, welcoming without conditions, and not giving offense.
Prudence certainly has a place in the proclamation of the gospel; it looks ahead to the goal in the context of the current circumstances and ponders the best way to get there. If the goal is to preach the saving gospel, then watering down that very gospel misses the whole point and amounts to “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”
Strangely, we live in paradoxical times. Some stridently demand to be “welcomed.” Others gruffly insist on being treated tenderly. Still others become intolerant at the slightest hint of what theyview as intolerant. A sort of double standard sets up, about which the Lord remarked,
To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at this glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and of sinners!’ But wisdom is vindicated by her actions (Matthew 11:16-19).
In other words, people-pleasing on a large scale is nearly impossible; ever-changing and conflicting demands often create a no-win situation.
The problem with emotional reasoning
Perhaps, despite the ruffled feathers, I was able to reach this protesting woman; I do hope so.
However, when emotions today so easily take the place of thoughts, I have my doubts—if not for her at least in general. Too many people believe that the mere fact that they are upset means that the speaker (I or the Church) has done something wrong.
Emotional reasoning is a cognitive distortion that holds that mere feelings reveal reality and truth; most often this is a fallacy. For example, consider this statement: “I am afraid to fly, therefore flying is dangerous.” Statistically, flying is actually one of the safest ways to travel. The mere fear of something does not ipso facto make it unsafe.
Similarly, it is a fallacy to conclude that because I am angry at or upset by what you said, that you did something wrong in saying it. Not necessarily. In fact, you may have said something right. Maybe my anger means that you struck a nerve and that, deep down, I know you are right. At first, I might be mad or even sad, but the truth ultimately makes me glad!
At any rate, hang in there, fellow disciples. Offense is often taken today, even when we intend none. Be prudent and understand this and all our teachings in a Catholic way. Always keep in mind that proclaiming the ancient and ever-new Catholic faith is the goal. Prudence always considers the goal. Do not surrender the goal just to gain a few yards. A few yards are meaningless if we don’t reach the goal. Whatever premises and nuances are required, the fact remains that Faith—the true Faith, the Catholic Faith—is necessary for salvation. Jesus never diluted this teaching, and neither should we.