(Unfortunately, the last two paragraphs of Desmond’s article were inadvertently omitted. Thus, I’m re-posting his piece and have added and italicized the formerly missing text. ~BH)
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Does the Catholic Church believe that one “religion” is as good as another? OR, can the faith that comes to us from the Apostles accept the belief that the basic dogmatic beliefs of all the religions in the world are essentially the same? What do you believe or think about those two questions?
How you as a Christian answer those questions essentially determines your most visceral reaction to several recent events in Rome surrounding the Amazon Synod. What are they? They are:
1. The allowance into the Gardens of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome – in solemn procession – statues that Pope Francis himself described as “pagan idols.” He is even reported to have blessed one of them. The idol was brought there for pagans in the garden to fall down and worship – in the presence of the pope and several cardinals.
Have you read the Old Testament histories lately about God’s reaction to Jews allowing worship of statues of the pagan gods, Baal and Moloch, in Jewish sacred precincts? Read up on the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews, etc., as a very basic primer on God’s reaction to the same. He lifted His protective hand over the Chosen People – due to their willful allowance and practice of idolatry.
2. The Church of St. Mary in Traspontina near the Vatican in which the carved wooden statues of a naked pregnant woman representing “Mother Earth” were part of exhibits on the Amazon region during the Oct. 18, 2019 Synod of Bishops for the Amazon in Rome.
Frankly, all of this sounds distressingly familiar to the errors called syncretism and idolatry. What are they? Their following definitions come from Fr. John A. Hardon S.J.’s 1980 “Modern Catholic Dictionary.” Fr. Hardon, who was a theological advisor to Pope Paul VI, composed this dictionary with the full approval of now St. Paul VI.
Definition of syncretism
“The effort to unite different doctrines and practices, especially in religion. Such unions or amalgams are part of cultural history and are typical of what has occurred in every segment of the non-Christian world. SYNCRETISM is also applied to the ecumenical efforts among separated Christian churches and within Catholicism to the attempts made of combining the best elements of different theological schools. BUT in recent years, the term mainly refers to misguided claims that religious unity can be achieved by ignoring the differences between faiths on the assumption that all creeds are essentially one and the same. (Etym. Greek synkrētizo, to unite disunited elements into a harmonious whole; from synkrētizmos, federation of Cretan cities.)”
Now, let us look at Fr. Hardon’s definition of idolatry. It is comprehensive and I encourage all to go through it prayerfully.
Definition of idolatry
“It is literally “the worship of idols”; it is giving divine honors to a creature. In the Decalogue, it is part of the First Commandment of God in which Yahweh tells the people, ‘You shall have no gods except me. You shall not make yourself a carved image (Greek eidolon, idol] or any likeness of anything in heaven or on earth or in the waters under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them.’ (Exodus 20:4-5)
The early Christians were martyred for refusing to worship idols, even externally, but practical idolatry is a perennial threat to the worship of the one true God. Modern secularism is a form of practical idolatry which claims to give man ‘freedom to be an end unto himself, the sole artisan and creator of his own history.’ Such freedom, it is said, ‘cannot be reconciled with the affirmation of a Lord who is author and purpose of all things,’ or at least that this freedom ‘makes such an affirmation altogether superfluous.’ (Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Church, 51)
Idolatry is always gravely sinful. Even under threat of death and without interiorly believing in the idol, a Christian may not give divine honors to a creature, thereby violating the duty of professing faith in God.”
Thus ends Fr. Hardon’s definition of Idolatry. It must be recognized that Pope Francis stated that in allowing the inclusion of pagan idols in the presence of pagan worshippers of such idols, there was “no idolatrous intent”. But the resultant open scandal to what Pope Benedict XVI used to call “the little ones in faith” was palpable worldwide. So many Catholics were scandalized by the act in the Garden. So many Protestants, who are not themselves anti-Catholic were predictably horrified, scandalized towards the Church. Yet, one might initially consider Pope Francis’ disclaimer as a satisfactory answer. You might, were it not for the fact that he subsequently allowed the same thing to reoccur within St. Peter’s Basilica itself. It must also be recognized that in formally allowing such pagan idol worship to be performed within said precincts of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, there is no reasonable way to view that allowance as anything other than accommodating such actual idolatry by those pagans present who fell down and worshipped those pagan idols. The old expression comes to mind, “A rose by any other name is still a rose.” And the level of scandal grew.
Why would a Pope accommodate such things to occur – either in the precincts of St. Peter’s Basilica or close by in a Catholic parish church which was housing and displaying for public view such pagan images? That is the parish Church from which the two young Catholic men seized several carved wooden pagan statues and threw them into the Tiber River. As a number of bishops and Catholic theologians have opined, theirs was a 21st century simile of the opposition of the seven Maccabees brothers in the Old Testament. All seven of them were martyred for their refusal to worship or in any way accommodate such worship.
With that question, we have now set the stage for a discussion of the comparison of how a Jesuit pope, Francis, and a legendary faithful Jesuit theologian who was a papal theological advisor, Fr. John Hardon, and some other Jesuits I personally knew and know could be so diametrically opposed as to what constitutes syncretism or idolatry. They also see the danger of scandal to the Church in different ways. Why? How?
I was Jesuit trained, both by dissident Jesuits and by some wonderfully faithful ones. Therefore, I will not be merely guessing in my answers to the questions posed above. When it has all been presented, you will understand as to why – even though I am so personally opposed to those events which accommodated worship of pagan carved images by pagans in precincts of the Catholic Church during the Amazon Synod – I was not in the least bit shocked when I saw that a Jesuit, even a Jesuit pope might do so. Why? Because in the normal course of events, one must be surprised in order to be shocked. I wasn’t surprised – because I became completely familiar over the last 55 or so years with the mainstream of contemporary Jesuit thought as present in their seminaries and universities.
One final caveat: According to God’s Revelation, I am not allowed to judge the heart of another. I may find his or her act to be gravely flawed. But I may not presume to know whether or not they fully understood it was so flawed. In other words, while I may judge their act or acts by God’s revealed moral law, I may not judge their heart, their intention. Every properly trained seminarian learns these things in basic courses in moral theology – which training is necessary for a priest to assess what is told to him in the Sacrament of Penance/Reconciliation – told to him by the penitent. The only exception for judging someone’s motives is if that someone has actually clearly revealed to the other that he or she understood something was gravely flawed when they did it.
In the next part of this discussion, we will look at the history of Jesuit theological training and trends in the last 70 years and more. Therein we can discover how any Jesuit priest could be confused as to what constitutes grave moral matter, of various kinds.
All my love in Christ,
Desmond A. Birch