Defending the faith against secularism and relativism

Defending the faith against secularism and relativism

Bishop Kevin Manning

The following is the edited text of a talk given by Bishop Kevin Manning of Parramatta at the Thomas More Centre Spring School in Sydney on 23 October 1999.

As Christians we commit ourselves in Baptism to the teachings of Jesus Christ, who declared himself the way, the truth and the life. To-day, the truth which he revealed is not so much openly denied, as it is relegated to one opinion amongst many. Church authority is not always publicly denied, rather, it is replaced by the authority of experts, opinion polls, subjective opinions, based on contemporary ethics, sociology, and psychology. These are projected as substitutes for the truth.

Gradually, the unwitting is led to believe that Scripture, Tradition and the Catholic Creeds are no longer to be considered as authoritative, and that Christians can find sufficient guidelines for their faith and action in a conscience uninformed by Church teaching.

Many of us have encountered Catholics who speak and act in a way that says: "God's word, revealed by Scripture and developed by Tradition, is no longer the supreme authority." To challenge them is to be accused of being fundamentalist (a well rehearsed putdown). Dare I suggest that some academics, speculative theologians, and Scripture scholars assume an authority no less than that of a Pope or Bishop? The consequence is that the authoritative structure of the Church is replaced by a professedly democratic or, at times, a less than democratic, intellectual elite who suppress any attempt at a democratic voice.

Another question to be asked is whether much of the renewal undertaken (imposed?) since Vatican Council II has not seen personal preference supersede, in many ways, the Magisterium as the supreme interpreting authority for the Christian community. The evangelising thrust of the Church has been somewhat muted because individuals and communities have come to rely on their own interpretation of the Council's documents. "Lived experience" becomes the authoritative source of knowledge that governs actions and decisions. This replaces, rather than accepts the authoritative sources of Revelation.

Another insidious approach to undermining truth is to sow uncertainty and confusion by unrestrained questioning of the sources of revelation and truth. One such example is the "scientific" study of Scripture which brings with it, uncertainty. It is well known that scientific statements are susceptible to change by further scientific investigations, so one can scarcely ever conclude that something is certain on scientific fact alone. Some of this uncertainty and ambiguity has infiltrated contemporary Catholic biblical studies and undermines the clarity and certainty which is a necessary foundation for fervent Christian life. The seriousness of this development cannot be underestimated.

Edward Schillebeeckx's book, Jesus: Experiment in Christology, is a fair example of what I am speaking about. It is difficult to understand what Schillebeeckx is saying, whether he is stating that Jesus rose from the dead or that he merely lived on in the understanding of the disciples. The question which interests us is whether he affirms Jesus' divinity or not, and he leaves us in doubt.

Popular theologians

A similar problem can arise when popular theologians and experts who conduct "summer workshops" and "theological renewal seminars" are given ready access to the faithful, who are led by them to believe that their speculative opinions are legitimate. I do not discount the role of the speculative theologian. However, I do question his, or her, speculating in contexts where the uninitiated are unable to distinguish truth from personal opinion.

The result, if not the intent, is to leave the impression that Christian truth cannot be certainly known or authoritatively proclaimed or that the authorities proclaiming the truth are incompetent and inadequate. Popular journals, newspapers and media, have described Pope John Paul II's theology as disturbing, old- fashioned, theocratic, right-wing, rigid, and anachronistic, and question whether he is fit to lead the Church into the new Millennium.

Some academics, under the guise of academic freedom, have made searching and questioning an art form. They appear to despise certainty, clarity and authority where God's word is concerned and adopt a position quite in keeping with contemporary secular culture so that all truth becomes suspect, and subjected to scepticism.

Equally destructive of our faith is the relating of half-truths, or an ersatz form of truth. There are occasions when teaching, preaching, discussing, only touch certain parts of God's word, those parts which can be easily accepted by the generality of Christians. I am speaking about one-sided input. We hear much about a "caring and sharing God," a God of compassion and mercy, a non-judgmental God; but not a great deal about the God of judgement and justice.

We hear ad nauseam how to develop our self-image and to feel good, but not often about the reality of sin, the need for repentance and conversion. We hear much about being gentle to ourselves and being beautiful people, but suggest preaching the truth of the Gospel to those who do not know Christ, and you will discover there are many opponents who ask what right you have to do so. We have been told to be self-fulfilled, do our own thing; but not always invited "to leave all and follow Christ," to die to ourselves in order to live for Christ.

What happens is that the demanding, unpalatable aspects of the Gospel such as obedience, humility, and submission to God's will are not mentioned, but replaced by half- truths which modern men and women easily accept.

I am not denying, of course, that there is latitude for genuine development of doctrine. The science of theology relates the unchanging Word of God to the various cultural shifts and changes of our history. However, such development must always remain faithful to the original meaning and intent of God's Word. To counter subverted teaching one must know well the orthodox teaching of the Catholic Church, especially in the area of Christian morality.

Different disciplines of study, such as psychology and sociology, do have a part to play, but they can never bring certainty to their interpretations. As Catholics we believe that certainty rests with the Holy Spirit and the authentic interpretation of the Church.

Any form of speculation must ensure that what has previously been authoritatively held is never denied, or contradicted, but is developed and enriched consistent with previous formulations and interpretations. Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis says that the Church does not have the power to ordain women, if it is to be consistent with Church tradition and practice. Neither can the Church change her consistent teaching on marriage and human sexuality, areas where immense pressure by the speculators is exerted arising from secular influences even within the Church.

Those who would suppress the Church's clear teachings are quite adept in their use of Marxist tactics when they portray the Church as the enemy of their enlightened ideas. Their first move is to discredit the Church's authority, by fostering confusion and disunity, infiltrating and enlisting followers to their cause.

They cultivate people disposed to their mindset to unsettle others, and target people of influence within the Church. Their design is to undermine true teaching and substitute it with their own. The appeal is generally to humanitarian and "Christian" sensitivities like involvement in programs for the poor, but never to devotion or worship. They prefer to sip the truth rather than drink deeply at the wells of salvation. Church media outlets are especially targeted to publish - supposedly - Christian articles, and catechetical material, but really, information that is helpful to their cause.

Those opposed to their tactics are forced into silence by being criticised as unco-operative, reactionary, or opposed to the enlightenment. The post-Vatican II renewal is a good example. The revolutionaries pushed their own agenda in the name of Vatican II to the point where Pope John Paul II was moved to suggest that having renewed the Church, they might now go back and read the documents of the Council.

Secular humanists have instilled moral lukewarmness, and indifference, into the hearts of many, and have been successful in influencing lawmakers to reflect their goals. The secular humanist is implacably opposed to religious and moral beliefs, and attributes progress to man's own efforts. Their advice is: "Do whatever you wish, behave anyway you want as long as you don't hurt anybody else."


Their influence can be detected within the Church even though they reject the divine and affirm man's autonomy. Like Marxists, they discredit Church authority and divide Catholics from their pastors and the Pope. Their aim is to render the Church ineffective. They greatly influence the communications media which, in most cases, has little respect for Catholic authority. Even Catholic publications can be affected by their influence.

They start out by inducing people to tolerate behaviour which is clearly deviant, e.g., homosexuality, and making it appear acceptable to traditional Catholic teaching. Their argument is that pluralist societies cannot do otherwise. Deviant behaviour becomes normalised and Christian values appear abnormal, a threat to the pluralist society.

Governments and legal systems are then pushed to legitimise their plans. e.g., parents prohibited from punishing their children, children allowed to "divorce' their parents, educational programs allowed to present pre-marital sex, homosexuality and masturbation as valid life-style options. Traditional Church teaching does not escape their attention.

Some Catholics have become convinced that it is OK to pursue individual happiness at the expense of values which are central to Christian living, e.g., fidelity to commitment, service to others, self-sacrifice for the common good. In the areas of marriage, secular influence has emerged in statements such as these: "The Church has no right to stop you remarrying," "You have every right to go to Communion, even if you are divorced - God wants you to be fulfilled," "The Church has changed its thinking, be mature and decide for yourself," "You have to do what you think is right."

Some of the statements recorded in the Report on the Participation of Women in the Catholic Church indicate a strong secular humanist influence.

It is not easy to keep on rebutting the challenge of the secular media, the secular academic or secularised government members. For some the inevitable result is to remain silent about their beliefs and go with the secular humanist flow. However, being made aware of this perverse influence alerts us to be on guard against it.

Pope John Paul II insists that mankind can only be fulfilled through the Gospel. It is only Jesus who liberates men and women from the bondage of sin and allows them to live as the people God created them to be. He says that "people can only be themselves and reach their potential and become fully human insofaras they become creatures in Christ, born of water and the Spirit."

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