What every Catholic should know

Catholic literacy has been in steady decline. A recent Pew poll revealed that only 50% of Catholics know that the Church teaches that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. Many Catholics do not know the basics of their faith, let alone the Church’s rich historical and cultural legacy. A new series, focused on What Every Catholic Should Know, seeks to address this decline. The first two volumes, just released, have been written by Joseph Pearce, his volume focused on literature, and Michael Barber, who addresses the central theological issue of salvation. The series is published jointly by the Augustine Institute and Ignatius Press.

In Salvation: What Every Catholic Should Know, Barber helps Catholics address questions and objections posed by other Christians, such as, “Are you saved?” For Catholics it’s not a simple “yes” or “no” answer, as we should say that we have been saved in baptism, are being saved as we grow in God’s grace, and will be saved finally and completely when we reach the happiness of heaven (104).

Catholics are often perplexed by the “faith and works” debate. Barber handles this issue with dexterity, helping us to see how faith helps us to enter into a saving relationship with God. His explanations draw deeply upon the Bible, showing us how the Church follows the entire witness of the Bible, not simply some passages taken out of context.

For instance, Barber explains how in the Bible faith “means more than just holding a particular belief. ‘Faith’ involves submitting to God’s will in trust … For Paul, true faith is ultimately sharing in the life-giving sacrificial love of Christ” (108). The Church teaches that we are saved by grace through faith, not by our own efforts, but also that we must cooperate with grace and that “God will judge each person according to his deeds” (85). Barber also points out how salvation cannot be conceived individualistically, because “believers are not saved apart from one another, but through being united to the ‘whole Christ,” namely, his body, the Church” (59). He also shows us how justification, being made just, cannot be reduced simply to the juridical, because it is transformative, as “we are truly remade” and enter into God’s own life (81).

In Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know, Pearce guides us through the Church’s deep literary tradition. He begins by telling us that “there is a very good reason for every Catholic to know the great works of literature — and that is because the great works of literature help us to know ourselves … In the great works of literature we discover a deep understanding of man’s being and purpose. We discover that man is a homo viator, a pilgrim or wayfarer who journeys through mortal life with eternal life always in mind” (1). Pearce points us first to the wayfarer Odysseus, who with his fellow Greeks and Romans, proved fertile ground for the development of the Christian imagination, infused with the light of the Gospel.

Dante, whom Pearce rightly calls “supreme” and “indispensable,” and his Divine Comedy “possibly the greatest poem ever written,” provides the best example of this blossoming of the Christian mind from both the Gospel and ancient world (37; 39). From Dante, Pearce guides us through Chaucer, who shows us “the same struggle between holiness and hedonism, sanctity and sin, and vice and virtue” we see today (46); corrects the typical reading of Thomas More’s Utopia; shows us how Shakespeare stands as a “colossus who straddles the centuries” and “his plays, and the truth and morality contained within them, transcend time” (59); and how Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the world’s first novel, strikes us with compassion and humor. There are too many modern authors to summarize them all, but some highlights include Austen, Manzoni, whose work, The Betrothed, earns Pearce’s commendation as the greatest novel, Dostoyevsky, Chesterton, Undset with her masterful trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Together, these two books on What Every Catholic Should Know can help us to grow in literacy, exploring a crucial and controversial dimension of our faith, our salvation, as well as providing a map of the major achievements of Christian letters. Written in an accessible and engaging style, they open up a broader horizon of theology and culture, one that is very much needed.

Featured photo by Christoph Schmid on Unsplash

COMING UP: Has the Church been infiltrated?

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Both Jews and Greeks were scandalized by the Incarnation. Could the Son of God truly become man, taking on our weak flesh, and suffering to the point of death? That same shock and disbelief could be applied to the Church, the continuing Incarnation of Christ in the world: does God truly work through a communion of weak and even sinful human beings to teach his truth and communicate his grace? Many cannot accept this truth.

I teach Church History for the Denver Catholic Catechetical School (sjvlaydivision.org/enrichment-courses) and we explore the shocking scandals and sufferings of the Church throughout history, but also how God uses these events in his providence and draws good out of evil. In the course of the story of the Church, there are many cases of betrayal, where Church leaders have given into corruption and undermined the Church’s mission and integrity. There are also cases of infiltration, where individuals with a preexisting agenda enter the Church’s leadership to direct the power and influence of the Church to their own ends. Examples of this infiltration would be the appointment of Arian bishops by the Emperor Constantius, the use of the hierarchy by monarchs for their own political gain, and the subversion of the Church by modern regimes beginning with the French Revolution and extending to proven Soviet agents.

Taylor Marshall, a philosopher and apologist, has released a popular and controversial book, which attempts to trace a recent movement of infiltration beginning in the 19th century: Infiltration: The Plot to Destroy the Church from Within (Sophia, 2019). The book has garnered a lot of attention, including from the secular press, partly due to the thousands of people who agreed to be part of the “launch team.” It has also gotten some harsh critiques from Catholic pundits for recycling conspiracy theories. Striking a balance, I find that Marshall has raised some important questions and concerns, but also offers an oversimplified narrative that does not tell the whole story and, even when raising valid concerns, makes some unsubstantiated assertions.

In a way, the book takes on too much and too little the same time — too much by trying to connect so many dots, too little by not addressing the topics in enough depth. Many of these “dots” are significant: major changes to the governance of the Papacy through the loss of the Papal States, Marian apparitions, stated goals of infiltration by secret societies, upheaval surrounding the Second Vatican Council and liturgical reforms, and current confusions over doctrine. Accusations of Communist and Freemasonic influence are leveled in general fashion, without even distinguishing the distinctive elements of the two movements and their general historical trajectories, such as the dynamics of the Church in Communist nations.

These complex issues are strewn together in an infelicitous manner and their significance to the narrative is not always spelled out but rather implied. Sometimes they are introduced in such passing manners that their essence becomes obscured, such as in the Modernist controversy, a subject I’ve studied and taught, and which, in my opinion, is not accurately portrayed; and likewise with the nouvelle theologie, a movement of return to the sources of Scripture and the Fathers, which Marshall portrays in one sided fashion, without acknowledging contributions made by these theologians, despite genuine concerns.

Difficulties in the Church surrounding sexual morality are not presented in light of the general cultural upheaval of the sexual revolution, but rather as a long-standing plot against the Church. His narrative also oversimplifies the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI by reducing them to a few issues that fit within his perspective and does not present the full complexity of the Vatileaks scandal.

There are also some holes in the narrative. For instance, in referencing Bella Dodd’s congressional testimony in 1953 on Communist infiltration of the Church beginning in the 1920s, Marshall creates a list of possible Communist Cardinals. To take one example of Cardinal Francis Spellman, he was ordained a priest in 1916. One wonders how he could be part of a plot that began in the late 1920s to plant Communist seminarians. The former Cardinal McCarrick’s time in St. Galen, Switzerland is introduced in conjunction with the nearby presence of a bizarre Masonic group, but without evidence of any connection between them. Pope Francis is treated as the climax of Freemasonic influence without any serious exploration of his Peronist political background or the turmoil of the Jesuits during the time of his ordination. Marshall also fails to consult more recent and updated research on the death of John Paul I and the assassination attempt on John Paul II, which debunk what he implies in his narrative.

Overall, we should be concerned about the problematic influence of the modern world on the Church. Even if it is true that on occasion leading churchmen have been influenced by Masonic or Communist ideology, which appears to be true, the bigger problem is that a majority of Christians have been following the world more than Christ. Rather than addressing the multifaceted and complex difficulties facing the Church in a sober and responsible way, Marshall inflames the current crisis of the Church and in his conclusion advocates a “recognize and resist” mentality. The solution is much more fundamental: the Church must embrace genuine reform through radical conversion to the Gospel. This will not come from policies and programs, but a deeper adherence to the truth and grace offered to us by the Church through the holiness of Christ, not the strength and purity of her own members or leaders.