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September 15, 2003



I've had problems with St. Augustine for some time. This summer I re-read Peter Brown's biography of Augustine and I saw a lot more than I did over 20 years ago.

He did go overboard in his anti-Pelagian writings, showing a lot less charity than he had in his earlier confrontations with heresies and schisms. His understanding of Scripture had some gaps, caused mostly by his lack of language skills. But he did have an enormous faith that drove him ever forward and he left a huge written legacy for us to benefit from.

As Catholics, we sometimes want our saints not only to be holy, but to be perfect and infallible as well. St. Augustine was neither perfect or infallible, but he was a holy and faithful bishop, who tried hard to be even better. Origen, John Cassian and even Pelagius himself produced a variety of writings, some of which were later appreciated and some of which were rejected. We should appreciate the best of what they wrote and accept the fact that some of their works are problematic. In the end, we don't follow Augustine or Origen, Cassian or Pelagius, but Jesus, who is the way to the Father.

Carrie Tomko

For of course, the group that Tertullian associated himself with - the Montanists - was a rigorist group, and Tertullian was drawn to it because of that, and because he deplored what he perceived as moral laxity among Christians....

One could site Origen as another figure who is grouped with as an early Church father, but also produced problematic works. Heck, you could even say that about Augustine - those later anti-Pelagian works are pretty harsh and were rather inspirational to the likes of John Calvin and are still not really part of his Greatest Hits for Catholics.

Or in other words, Amy, one could say that "cafeteria Catholicism" has been with us for a long time, as your comments point out.

Our only hope of knowing who God is, is grounded in the teaching of bishops. Our only hope of knowing Jesus Christ relies on the bishops who have codified the faith and handed it on to us. Apart from the hierarchy we can know nothing.

Today the Pope is making statements that conflict with what prior Popes have proclaimed, as John Vennari consistently points out. Some Catholics are taking Vennari's research to heart and recognizing that there is inconsistency of teaching at the very top. Others are rejecting Vennari himself because they can't find a way to reject what he says. And still others are trying to explain away Vennari's reality that they can't deny by citing "development of doctrine".

When we realize that the Pope and the bishops disagree with each other and with past teaching of the Church, we say that we can look to the Fathers and Doctors of the Church for authentic teaching. Then when we do so look, we discover the reality that you have pointed out.

We must study the history of theology very carefully or we can go badly astray, just as we believe Elaine Pagels has done. The sort of study required takes the amount of time that most Catholics don't have to devote to it. It takes the kind of time that only someone who makes his living doing it has to spend. Which throws us back on the words of the bishops again. And brings us full-circle in the realization that the bishops don't agree with each other. That's the long story. The short story is that in the current climate, it is impossible to know the Truth with conviction.

The man and woman on the street, working non-religious jobs and raising families, doesn't have the time to devote to learning the faith that those of us who engage in Catholic debates on the web throughout the day can spend; and even we disagree. The average Catholic requires reliable teaching that comes to them in non-contradictory sound bites, from the homilies primarily, and from a few good and short books that they can read in brief leisure moments. Unless they narrow their search to one and only one source, they are not likely to get what they need. If they do seek information from only one source, they come much closer to being cultists than to being Catholics.

Which means to me, at least, that today Catholicism is a faith in search of itself. Saying that makes me unpopular in some circles. But for me it is the only reality that makes any sense. Having taken a week off from all of the Catholic debates on the web, I am more certain than ever, in coming back to them, that this is the only reality of Catholicism in America in 2003. We are sheep without reliable shepherds wandering aimlessly in search of life-giving food and too often not finding any. Prime targets for the wolves in the bushes.

Frank Sales

Andrew Sullivan reveals much when he says that the Catholic hierarchy has "lost its way". Sullivan denies the sinfulness of homosexual behaviour, is not sure about the absolute prohibition of abortion, and suggests fornication can be integrated into a spiritually healthy and salutary life. His anger that the Church adheres to two thousand years of moral instruction in contradiction to his views on these matters is really an anger that the "hierarchy" has failed to follow him and other moral relativists on an exit ramp from Catholic tradition.

Lisa Williams

I'm currently reading the book. That quote is hardly Tertullian's only appearance in the book, which is a chronicle of how the four gospels that appear in the Bible got to be the ones that were chosen. Surprise! It was a political process. I guess we can add "making the Bible" to "sausage" and "legislation" of things you might not want to watch being made...

Carrie's point ("Our only hope of knowing who God is, is grounded in the teaching of bishops. Our only hope of knowing Jesus Christ relies on the bishops who have codified the faith and handed it on to us. Apart from the hierarchy we can know nothing. ") actually recapitulates one of the major themes of the book: that the gospels that ultimately got into the bible were the ones that encouraged and supported a hierarchical church; gospels like that of Thomas, which has Jesus encouraging people to look within for spiritual authority, were left out (Pagels thinks that the gospel of John may have in fact been written in opposition to the gospel of Thomas).

Also, Pagels is a historian and not a Catholic, so whether her teaching squares with current teaching of the church -- well, I don't think she is concerned with whether she "goes astray" from current church teachings.

Carrie Tomko

The only Pagels' book I've read so far is The Gnostic Gospels which does mention Tertullian in several places.

Claiming that the Gospels we consider authentic were chosen by a poltical process is a mantra of Gnosticism. You will find it in the currently popular The Da Vinci Code as well. I think we can anticipate more of the same as Gnosticism gains an ever greater foothold. It will be interesting to see whether the Harry Potter series will present this idea as well.

Still we can't deny that those writings which became our Scripture were selected by the hierarchy. If we dispense with the hierarchy as a source, we are left to pick and choose among the many writings available, especially since the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library were discovered. Since some of these writings contradict others, doing this will quickly lead to greater confusion. We are dependent upon our hierarchy to codify and elucidate Scripture. So to the extent that we look to them for truth, Pagels and I agree. Where we disagree is at the point where she says the selection was merely the work of man, and where I believe, that the selection was the leading of the Holy Spirit revealing the faith through the leadership of the Church Christ founded.

Pagels sees in this hierarchy a devious effort to cast certain concepts into the outer darkness. I believe those ideas which were cast into the outer darkness were the work of Satan. Gnostics, too might agree that they were the work of Lucifer, but to them Lucifer is the Angel of Light who brings wisdom.

Our cosmologies will not mesh. Our understandings of the world are incompatible. We do not speak the same faith language. Yet I will not forfeit my view of Pagels cosmology as defined by the Catholic Church. It is from the Church that what she proposes is called "heresy." Those who reject the Church will also reject the definition. It takes a great deal of reading to come to an understanding of this. For that reason Pagels ideas are alarming and threatening to the faith. Especially for those who have difficulties with Church teaching that conflicts with their lifestyle, and which can easily be resolved by adopting Gnosticism. Perhaps Andrew Sullivan falls into this category.

Tom Kelty

The above considerations prompt me at age 73, a happily married priest for 32 years to meditate often on the Creed and the Our Father very slowly and as often as I find time. The truths apply to every soul God created since the dawn of creation and it is a love story. Each generation has colored the story in its own way but they have not changed the core truths. To live each day as though we really believed everything that Christ taught us is quite another story, involving much more than listening and simple assent. Too often, we are not even good listeners. Our pride drives us to heckle and correct others. Only a loving God could have the patience to listen to us and bring us home kicking and screaming. Life is never boring or risk free. We can always cop out by claiming it is beyond us or by flat-out choosing to live as though there is no God. As the Psalmist said, "The fool cries in his heart that there is no God."

Carrie Tomko

If you are a happily married priest for 32 years, Tom, does that mean that you are an Eastern Catholic?


Carrie, why would you think the Harry Potter books would get into the Gnostic gospels? Sure, they celebrate Christmas in the books, but they don't go into *why* they celebrate it any more than Charles Dickens did in _A Christmas Carol_. It's a cultural prop in the books, a bit of the familiar in the other-world.

Carrie Tomko

The HP books are steeped in occult terminology. Occultism has grown out of Gnosticism. The Catholic Church is the enemy of Gnosticism. So it stands to reason that Gnostic Christians would be interested in discrediting the Catholic Church. As Dan Brown and an assortment of additional writers show us. So it would be in keeping with this "tradition" that a writer who uses occult terminology would include this particular formula.

She may not, but it would be entirely logical to speculate that she might do it. And it has nothing to do with her use of Christmas in the story.

Jimmy Mac

Carrie, you must know that Catholic teaching about ordination is that once ordained, always a priest. Tom has married, albeit not in accordance with church discipline, so he can indeed by happily married and a priest in the Latin Rite.

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