There is an innate pessimism in all of us that leads us to believe we are living in the worst of times. So ingrained is this habit are we that we surround ourselves with prophets of gloom—paid professionals whose sole task is to point out how bad things are. We can hardly imagine things getting worse and we simultaneously pine for the good ol’ days when things were so much better. Paralyzed by nostalgia we feel the darkness of doom surrounding us; surrounding us, that is, until we ask “when exactly were the good ol’ days?” History becomes the elixir of pessimism. The more we examine it, the more convinced we become that we are living in neither the best of times nor the worst of times. We find examples of when things were better certainly, but we also find times where things we far worse.
The Church, for her part, has no shortage of prognosticators of peril promising that the collapse of the Church is imminent. But history, if we study it, tells us otherwise. The Church survived far worse circumstances than our own and we are assured it will survive the worst. Talk about optimism! The worst is yet to come, but the best will follow shortly thereafter.
The Gates of Hell and the Church
The Church holds an insurance policy against the gates of hell will not prevail, underwritten by the Divine Son of God, but we also have plenty of historical examples giving the promise a certain amount of street cred. Hardly a century has gone by in which the Church did not seem to be on the verge of destruction and yet rebounded. Our time is likely to be no different—the Mystical Body may enter the tomb like its Head, but it will always be a sign of His resurrection as well.
No worries, right? Well, not exactly. When you love someone, you not only want them to live, but you want them to be healthy. The Church most certainly will survive, but her health is another issue altogether. The Church may have been in great peril in the first three centuries, but her health was never in question. She may have been big and rotund 1000 years later, but her health was delicate.
It may seem odd to go to these lengths for the sake of making a proper distinction, until we carry out the implications of this. The Church as she sits here in 2017 is not healthy. If we love her then we ought to greatly desire her health. This is not pessimism, but realism. The disease may not be terminal, but many members, especially in the extremities may end up being amputated unless we can properly diagnose the problem and apply the remedy.
Diseases in the Mystical Body of Christ have a very specific name—we call them heresies. Rather than being infected from without, these are like autoimmune diseases that attack the body from within. To fight them, God injects saints as antibodies. These saints witness in a particular way against the prevailing error in the Church and then attack those errors with truth and charity, that is, by their words and way of life.
What makes our time particularly unique, is that it would be very difficult to name the heresy plaguing the Church. St. Athanasius could identify the pathology he was fighting—Arianism. St. Dominic could name his—Albigensianism. And St. Therese of Lisieux could name hers—Jansenism. The list goes on and on. God raised these men and women up and formed them to fight the diseases in the Church. While there seem to be a lot of heretics, there is no great heresy. Some will say modernism, but that, as dangerous as it is, is really a catch all and doesn’t quite capture it. Some would say it has to do with the moral authority of the Church, but again that is not quite it either. Try as you might, you would be hard pressed to name the one heresy.
The Mother of All Heresies
That is because the heresy we are facing is really the mother of all heresies—ambiguity. Ambiguity is really a heresy of omission—it sows error not so much in being silent, but in not saying anything. It is animated by the spirit of Pope Honorius, the 7th Century pope who was condemned for fanning the flames of heresy by remaining silent when he could have spoken clearly regarding the Monthelite heresy.
In this environment we should not be surprised to see the re-emergence of all the past heresies because all truth is now hidden under the veil of ambiguity. It is a circumstance that Pope Pius VI anticipated in his 1794 papal bull Auctorem Fidei.
“[The Ancient Doctors] knew the capacity of innovators in the art of deception. In order not to shock the ears of Catholics, they sought to hide the subtleties of their tortuous maneuvers by the use of seemingly innocuous words such as would allow them to insinuate error into souls in the most gentle manner. Once the truth had been compromised, they could, by means of slight changes or additions in phraseology, distort the confession of the faith which is necessary for our salvation, and lead the faithful by subtle errors to their eternal damnation. This manner of dissimulating and lying is vicious, regardless of the circumstances under which it is used. For very good reasons it can never be tolerated in a synod of which the principal glory consists above all in teaching the truth with clarity and excluding all danger of error.”
There is a demonic cleverness to the heresy of ambiguity that makes it difficult to grasp or even accuse someone of. It says everything and nothing all at once. It tells a different truth depending on where you are standing. It is not either/or or even both/and, but both/or. And like most heresies historically speaking they spread from the top down. Nearly 80% of the Bishops in the mid-4th century were Arians as well as most of the Roman army, but it was the rank and file Catholics and faithful Bishops like Athanasius that stemmed the tide.
The Church may be a field hospital, but it is the unambiguity of divinely revealed truth that allows her to apply the salve of mercy. There can be no mercy without justice, no mercy without acknowledging a truth that has been transgressed. Take away the truth and mercy soon follows. The Church is left defenseless and ineffective in her saving mission. Eventually even her own children will be cut off with nothing to tether them to the Body.
Looked at through the lens of history, the saints of our age will be witnesses against ambiguity, fighting against the honorary Honoriuses of our age. They will be marked by a clarity in their teaching that is matched by an unambiguous way of life. They will be unambiguously joyful because they will be unambiguously holy. They will accept unambiguous suffering at the hands of those afflicted with ambiguity and offer it for their sake (Col 1:24). They will hold fast to the truth, but always in a way that speaks of love and mercy. They will be true saints.