Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Blaming Doctrine Rather than Moral Weakness

Father John J. Lombardi

"History is a voice forever sounding across the centuries the laws of right and wrong." -James Froude…

But: are we learning those lessons? False assumptions are the cause for great errors in history and life. Dictator Adolph Hitler falsely assumed the allied forces would not cross the English Channel on D-Day; then his forces were surprised and overtaken. Scientists assumed the world was flat until Columbus proved otherwise; and Western science placed the earth at the center of the universe until enlightened by scientists Copernicus and Galileo. And so: can the bad assumptions a secular society made "yesterday" plague human understanding today? St Jerome, wise Bible translator, said: "Presumption is the highway to ruin." St Paul, knowing these perils, encourages us to impart "the truth without deviation" (II Tim. 2:15).

In this series and present article we consider the challenges and confrontations of Jesus' extension of Graces and Truth on Earth-the Catholic Church (cf. Jn. 16:7ff). In the 1300-1500s, erroneous theories lead to widespread misunderstanding of Catholic teaching. Surprisingly, these theories originated within the Church (St Paul reminds us: "Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall" I Cor 10:12). William Ockham, a Franciscan monk, unwittingly planted the intellectual seed of secularism, while the Augustinian monk Martin Luther laid the intellectual groundwork of Protestantism. Ockham was concerned with man's ability to know God's goodness, and to simply know anything in itself. Luther wanted to reform the Church and restore her witness of holiness, and to changing what he perceived to be erroneous teachings. Most Catholics today would agree with Ockham and Luther that reform was necessary within the Church.

However, in that process, we should learn from yesterday's lessons--not to reject, replace, or water down the Truth all people seek in the conversion process! Jesus says: "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free" (Jn.8:32). So, today, ask: amidst needed reform, are we guilty of watering down the truth or not speaking up when faced with issues such as abortion, "alternative sexualities and families," or wanton promiscuity? The prophet Isaiah cries about the needing reminders: "For Zion's sake I will be silent" (62:1). "Zion" today is our world, and the "Isaiah" should be each of us. But: are we silent or is there, today, as a book/title implies: "The Death of Outrage"? Jesus calls us in this Sunday's Gospel to repent from sin (Lk. 13:1-9). He wants us to change-from worldliness to heavenliness (Phil 3:21). Are you more of the world than of God? Don't forget the graces offered thru Our Lord's Church (I Th 5:12ff), and remember what St Paul said: "I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the entire plan of God" (Acts 20:27).

Okay, back to the monks: Ockham sought reform by changing our rational understanding of God and revelation, while Luther sought to reform the Church by challenging the doctrines rather than by changing the sinful individuals. Neither monk initially intended division in the Church; however, Christianity was in the throes of tumultuous times as Europe's political turmoil continued into the fifteenth century. Amidst Europe's repulsion of the Islamic conquest of Spain, the fall of Eastern and North African Christendom, and failure of the Crusades to repel the Muslims from the Holy Land, it would not be until the Council of Trent, some 200 years after Ockham, before the Church would decisively address the doctrinal errors of the time period spanning 1300-1500. By that time, faulty theories were accepted as truth and enjoyed widespread acceptance due to invention of the printing press and the corrosive effect of poor witness by many bishops and priests (as in Bible times: "For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine…"-II. Tim 4:3). As Moses encountered the Living God in the Burning Bush (Ex 3:1-15) and then extended truth the Hebrews, so must we teach truth and not error. But: the allure of error is great.

Writer Jim Kruggel explains Ockham's unintended effect on the Church and society at large as the birth of secularism: "Western man began to despair of the belief that he really knew reality in itself-that body and soul really communicated to disclose reality in itself to him. (St. Thomas Aquinas had achieved an epistemology (theory of human knowledge) of body-soul unity that described the form of the thing known crossing from senses to intellect by means of an "impressed species" or from existing in the thing in one way and the mind in another. But the friar Ockham denied, for the first time explicitly in mainstream Western philosophy, the doctrine of forms-the metaphysical cause of the object which was just as real as the object itself, and by which the mind perceived and knew the object. To Ockham, we know things in name only…and not the essence of the thing."

The Bible says, oppositely, we can know Nature's laws and purposes: "For all creation, in its several kinds, was being made over anew, serving its natural laws, that your children might be preserved unharmed" (Wis. 19:6). Today, there are knowable norms which govern medicine: for instance, it is good to do blood transfusions, but evil to use contraception and cloning techniques, since these actually distort nature's laws and God's purposes for the body. Catholic and biblical wisdom have "investigated" the inner laws and actions of Nature (body and soul) and show us what the essence of human beings is, and what is best for us, as well as most harmonious with God's intentions (contraception turns our thinking into "barnyard morality" while cloning turns humans into animals for harvesting).

With Ockham's attack on the "body-soul composite," people were (and are) forced to decide whether to accept this "new dis-unity" or trust the traditional model. The average European, who at this point could not read much less study philosophy, nevertheless was well-disposed to despair of the basic truth of God's goodness and personal presence to us; this turned into a kind of "skepticism" which we are dealing with today. To accept Ockham, however, is not to completely reject God; but his thinking accelerates and degenerates into a relativistic and hedonistic philosophy ordered to man, versus God, and to pleasure rather than objective truth. Do you pursue God's will like the saints, or do you reject God in order to pursue pleasure? Contrary to Ockham and contemporary relativism (whose "skepticism" subtly promotes hedonism, or pleasure seeking), we can find both purpose in creation and also find the Maker-"for the Original Source of Beauty fashioned them" (Wisd.13:3).

Ockham's theories would give birth to Renaissance values which, in extreme forms, overstressed the individual against the community; the West is severely crippled by his error. As illustrated by abortion cunningly pitting "private rights" against a living baby. Reason over Faith-this error is known as "rationalism." Today, Americanist public policy, on the whole, is basically anti-God, as politics really is religion--under a different guise. The European Union illustrates this by explicitly denying its Catholic culture and roots. Man contra God: the Ten Commandments and natural-law-truth (God's inner laws) are regularly discounted (as we can see today, the family and human person are now being "redesigned").

While Ockham's faulty theory underpins modern skepticism, Martin Luther's theory formulates the separation of Christian from Church. Again, each man attempted much needed reform; however, they took issue with foundational doctrines, rather than the weakness and rebellion of individual Christians. Likewise, the Israelites' in their disobedience of the Ten Commandments, should not have questioned the Law as faulty, but should have pointed to their own weak resolve as a source of reform. "When you turn back to Him with all your heart to do what is right before Him then He will turn back to you" (Tob. 13:6). History has a strange way of wreaking unintended consequences from the supposed good intentions of people . Remember: you can be sincere but also be wrong.

Luther's "Reformation" was at first not principally about theology; his early concern was visible morality; only later did he develop doctrinal errors. In the sixteenth century, this devout Augustinian priest tried to make himself more pious through acts of mortification (i.e., fasting). But the more he tried, the more he felt unacceptable to God (cf Rm. 7:15 ff) . During this time, he desired to 'purify' the Catholic Church whose leaders were, he thought, predominantly morally bankrupt. Luther traveled to Rome during the papacy of Pope Alexander VI, a papacy wrought with political intrigue and illegitimate children. When Luther went back to Germany, he saw priests with vows of poverty and chastity living in illicit relationships and profiting from the sale of indulgences; he witnessed lay Catholics living immoral lives as well. Luther was scandalized, and heartbroken. St Paul exhorts us, for this reason, even amidst abounding sin: "Christ loved the Church and handed Himself over for her, to sanctify her" (Eph 5:25). Today we must remember that amidst clergy scandals

Widespread immorality within Christendom, coupled with Luther's noble inclination toward self-mortification, led him to interpret Romans 4:5 in a new way "But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness". The more he tried to 'earn' Heaven, the more he realized that faith was necessary. So much did Luther interpret faith apart from works that he could not reconcile the remainder of the text. Luther stated, ""Be a sinner and sin on bravely. Do not for a moment imagine that this life is the abiding place of justice: sin must be committed. The sin cannot tear you away from him, even though you commit adultery a hundred times a day and commit as many murders." False doctrines lead to bad assumptions which lead to disastrous consequences!

We need the Church (a Sacred Tradition guided by Jesus Christ- cf. Mt. 16:18) to help guide and correct our errant human nature. If we do not have proper moral guidance and authentic reform (based upon the Bible, the earliest Church and Tradition-keeping-Saints), and holistic Faith (not a "pick and choose" kind), we will despair, or possibly live hedonistically, since we will perpetuate what we subtly want. Morals today are becoming unhinged because, like Luther, some people deny or denigrate sacred tradition, and therefore Relativism reigns: there are fewer absolutes, or "Thou shalt not's" to deter spreading individualistic hedonism. Holiness is countered with homosexualist marriages, and has been exemplified by recent clergy abuses scandals. Religion is the enemy of abortionists who have turned their individualism into a kind of "religion" (worship of self). Individualism has burgeoned in so many divisive, anti-Divine, ways.

There is faultiness with this modernist thinking as with Luther's. How could he possibly reconcile his quote above with the Pauline text: "You are storing up wrath for yourself for the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God, who will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works, but wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness." (Rm. 2.5-8)? Neither Luther nor predominant Lutheran doctrine today reflects St. Paul's view of faith and works cited here. Luther's attempt to reconcile his false doctrine of "faith alone" (for salvation), with the Bible teaching, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (Jas 2:24), excluded it from his translation of the Bible. To further his new doctrines, Luther also added the word 'alone' after the word 'faith' in Romans 2:28. He also omitted the seven so-called "Apocrypha" or deutero-canonical books from the Old Testament.

Luther's "false view of justification" led to another equally false view: that man has become, in consequence of Original Sin, incapable of willing or doing anything good. All his acts are sins and cannot bear good fruit (St Paul says: "Where sin abounded grace abounded more"-Rm.5:21). These doctrines, which Luther believed he had found in the Epistles of St. Paul, and which became the fundamental dogmas of the "new gospel" according to Luther, were publicly taught by Luther in his lectures at Wittenberg as early as 1516."

We Catholics have a moral obligation to inform our minds and hearts with proper holy, authentic doctrine and moral teaching. St Paul emphasizes teaching, teaching!: "Attend to reading, exhortation and teaching…Do not neglect the gift you have…Be absorbed in them so that your progress may be evident to everyone. Attend to yourself and to your teaching" (I Tim 4:13-16). Got it?

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi