Many modern people have the notion that the principal mission of the Catholic Church is to impose belief on unbelievers. The reality is that most of its time is spent trying to restrain belief in everything from spoon-bending to the aliens who allegedly speak to us through a cat in Poughkeepsie.
The riptides and cross-currents of religious enthusiasm in American culture are kaleidoscopic and dizzying. Cradle Catholics can be forgiven for just ignoring the whole thing and many of them do. But it’s still worth taking into account because some religious trends can have decided real-world effects.
Some of the effects of unrestrained belief can be amusing.
For instance, after five centuries of being told by Protestant polemicists that we “Romanists” do not trust the saving grace of Jesus Christ and ignorantly seek salvation by the works of the law, it is a weird thing for a Catholic to see the spectacle of kooky apocalyptic Protestants eagerly excited about the birth of red heifers because this will (they hope) be the prelude to rebuilding the Temple of Solomon and the re-institution of the Mosaic sacrificial system. Just how that Temple will be rebuilt when the Dome of the Rock is situated on the site of the Temple is not quite as clearly worked out.
Which brings me to something just as kooky, but less amusing.
Recently, James Dobson, a leading Evangelical and a usually sensible man, hosted on his show one Joel Rosenberg, author of something called Epicenter: Why Current Rumblings in the Middle East Will Change Your Future. Rosenberg claims to know “what the Bible says” about what is happening in the Mideast and is not shy about making “predictions regarding the fate of the Middle East regarding issues such as Iran’s nuclear threats against Israel, the arms race and ultimately ... Armageddon.” Here’s a snippet:
Dobson: “Well, Joel, let’s explain to everybody how Ezekiel 38 turns out, because Israel is about to be attacked, and a huge number of troops from Russia and Iran are coming toward Israel to destroy it, and what happens?”
Rosenberg: “Well, God is going to move. You won’t find in the Scriptures that the United States is coming to rescue Israel or the European Union, but God says he is going to supernaturally intervene — we’re talking about fire from heaven, a massive earthquake, diseases spreading through the enemy forces. It is going to be such a clear judgment against the enemies of Israel that Ezekiel 39 says that it will take seven months to bury all the bodies of the slain enemies of Israel. “
Such standard-issue Evangelical prophetic cocksureness is an excellent example of why a magisterium is so useful and necessary.
Not only does the magisterium help us know what is essential to the faith, it also helps us remain free of what is unessential. For the various species of Protestantism, in addition to denying real biblical truths such as the Real Presence or infant baptism, also have a tendency to invent “biblical truths” that do not exist and impose them by means of a sort of cultural pressure via charismatic preachers with pet theories who, in their own sphere, are granted an infallibility the Pope could never dream of.
Now, a Catholic is quite free to have a kooky private reading of Ezekiel 38-39 as a prophecy of the “coming resurgent Soviet Union” and its alliance with Muslims, communist Chinese or whoever, all in a vast Cecil B. DeMille battle against Israel. The Church has all sorts of room for eccentrics, and everybody needs a hobby.
But a Catholic is not free to go around telling everybody that “this is the clear teaching of the Bible” and demand it be believed. For the fact is, this kooky theory is emphatically not the clear teaching of the Bible, nor does it have any sanction whatsoever from the Church, the tradition, the Fathers, the councils or the popes. It is a pure novelty we can and should ignore.
What we should not ignore is Rosenberg’s claim that, “Given the events going on in our world today, people at the Pentagon, people at the CIA, people at the White House are asking to sit down and talk about these issues, to understand the Biblical perspective, because it is uncanny what is happening out there and it deserves some study.”
I suspect that Rosenberg is exaggerating his clout with the big cheeses in DC. I doubt that the Pentagon’s intel meetings are dominated by exegeses of Ezekiel 38.
But I do think it matters if a significant portion of the American polity drinks in such bizarre theories as if they were God’s revealed Truth.
Ideas have consequences, especially crazy ones. Most crazy ideas do no harm.
Crazy ideas about the Middle East, backed by the force of arms, stand a better than average chance of killing millions.
Mark Shea is
senior content editor