Not since the fourth century, when the Arian crisis, like a cannon ball aimed at the heart of faith, nearly destroyed the Christian world, has the Church been so beset by basic distortions of the truth entrusted to her by Christ. Moreover, the odds of her not succeeding in vanquishing the enemy seem every bit as dicey today as they were back when poor Athanasius stood alone against the world. It was scarcely an exercise in hyperbole, therefore, when St. Jerome, surveying the wreckage wrought by one upstart priest from Alexandria, Egypt, declared that “the whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian.”
And while Arianism did not finally sweep all the pieces off the chessboard, it was no thanks to the clerics, who, almost without exception, took a pass on the controversy, leaving it largely to the laity to settle the matter. “The laity,” as John Henry Newman reminds us,
as a whole, revolted from it in every part of Christendom. It was an epidemic of the schools and of theologians, and to them it was mainly confined….The classes which furnished martyrs in the persecutions were in no sense the seat of the heresy.
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In other words, there is no seduction to which you will not find some learned fellow or two eager to succumb. There was no shortage of experts back in the fourth century, I am saying, for whom the allure of Arianism would not prove fatal.
And so it was left to the simple ones who, in spirited contestation with the errors of Arius and his countless clever disciples, joined issue with what Fr. John Courtney Murray describes, in an elegant little book called The Problem of God, as “perhaps the last great religious argument of the Western world.”
He wrote that in 1962 as part of a lecture series at Yale University, an institution which, since then, has gone completely bonkers. There is not a chance that the current regime, at Yale or elsewhere in the Ivy League, would welcome expositions, however erudite, on the subject of God. But leaving all that aside, the argument adverted to by Fr. Murray, far from being settled at Nicaea in the fourth century, has not gone away in the twenty-first.
Like Dr. Johnson’s clergyman acquaintance, who tended to unsettle everything yet never settle anything, the struggle is ongoing and has never been more relevant than at this charged moment in our history. What are we to think of Christ? Is He the Incarnate Word of the Father, who, taking leave of the precincts of eternal felicity, came down among us for the world’s salvation? Or, recoiling from the central doctrine of faith, is Christ only a finite creature like everyone else, for whom, as the Arians would monotonously insist, “there was when he was not”?
If that’s the takeaway line on the Catholic Thing, that Jesus Christ is no more divine than any other “jack, joke, poor potsherd,” then our prospects are irretrievably bleak. And we might as well pack it all in and go join the circus.
On the other hand, if Catholic conviction about Christ, grounded in history from the time of the first stirrings of the Church’s life on the day of Pentecost, is true—and therefore binding upon the faithful—then we’re all obliged to defend it. We shall have to answer before God Himself, in other words, on how well we have done in discharging our duty, which means upholding the dignity and identity of the Son of God. Nicaea is the yardstick here; and if its champion, Athanasius, was willing to endure exile and persecution on behalf of a Creed he had a hand in writing, we can do no less.
Are our bishops and priests up to the task? Are the cardinals? And His Holiness, Pope Francis, is he resolved to go to the wall on this? Has he got the requisite fire in the belly to take this on? He’d certainly be in good company were he to lead the charge.
H.W. Crocker III, in a rollicking chronicle of the past two thousand years of Church history called Triumph, awards very high marks for papal performance during the Age of Arius. “The only institution that stood firmly against Arianism was the papacy,” he informs us. And while “heretical embers continued to glow for the next three hundred years, until completely quenched by the Church of the Middle Ages,” the popes were there manning the pumps—all the while exhorting a laity, whose instincts were most wonderfully orthodox, to stand tall in the same saddle.
Must we still look to the pope for leadership on this matter? Well, of course, we must. Where else can we go? He is Peter, after all, and however faltering he may appear at the moment, particularly in light of past statements he’s made which suggest that Christ may only be one of several equally valid ways to God, it is not for us to simply write off the current occupant of the Chair of St. Peter because, well, he isn’t exactly Leo the Great, who bested both the Arians and Atilla the Hun. Few popes are.
As for the bishops and cardinals who remain silent, who appear acquiescent in the face of this crisis, how are we to awaken them? How does one get them, as it were, to play the man and speak truth to power? It is not a want of faith, surely, that keeps them supine; but rather, it is a lack of courage, holy courage, which only the Spirit can bestow. As for the bishops and cardinals who remain silent, who appear acquiescent in the face of this crisis, how are we to awaken them?Tweet This
How the Church needs another St. Catherine of Siena at this moment! In letter after letter to bishops and cardinals and popes, she sought no less than to summon the “bellowing lion.” That lion’s loud and sustained roar over the body of the Church might once again awaken her dead sons to the truth of Jesus Christ—that not only did He walk among us as a man like other men, but that it was God Himself, the Incarnate Word, who, in the flesh of the human being Jesus came among us to live and to die.
Standing athwart the petty pluralisms and diversities of the age, we have the voice of the living God, whose presence among us is attested to by the Church He founded upon St. Peter and all the popes thereafter. Let us hold fast to Him, who redeemed us by His blood, resting in Him so that nothing can shake our resolve to remain steadfast in the coming days.
[Image Credit: Vatican Media]