You Do Not Know What You Ask

The other day, when I probably should have been working, I read with interest more outrageous remarks from Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines. So that good may come of evil, and my procrastination bear fruit, we do well to ponder those remarks, since they disclose all that is lost when we repudiate the hard teachings of the Church.

This time, Duterte tried his hand at blasphemy, from which I will spare you, while lodging an old objection to an ancient doctrine: original sin, and its relation to infant baptism. The latter he saw as a money-making scheme for the Church, while the former he saw as illogical. “You were not involved,” he complained, “but now you’re stained with an [sic] original sin… What kind of a religion is that? That’s what I can’t accept, very stupid proposition.” Not surprisingly, he later questioned the existence of hell and, even less surprisingly, the existence of heaven.

Now Duterte deserves to be pitied, not pilloried; he is entitled to our prayers and still more to our penances. Thus, his notion that the Church practices infant baptism to bilk the faithful out of a few extra bucks is, of course, ludicrous, and need not detain us. The easiest reply to make is that if the Church counsels infant baptism for profit, she is a poor businesswoman indeed. For though the evil of contraception is still held and taught, its neglect from the ambo is well-known. It would seem that in all the centuries the Church has been accumulating wisdom she has yet to add the power of advertising.

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And although I think Duterte is entitled to a response “on the merits,” as we say in my profession, since the hard doctrines are, after all, hard, that is not what I think worth considering at length here. Rather, what I think is worth our time is to ponder the ramifications if a Duterte could have his way and the hard doctrines could simply be abolished because they are distasteful, because they seem, to borrow his own words, “very stupid.” To Duterte and those who think like him about whatever particular tough teaching, I think the proper initial reply takes the form, though not the original meaning, of Our Lord’s words to the Sons of Thunder: “You do not know what you ask.” A Duterte and his ilk do not realize, or do not care, what the real outcome would be if they jettisoned the doctrines they cannot accept. For the loss of one doctrine always entails the loss of others.

If we do away with original sin, we clearly lose infant baptism, for what need is there to cleanse what is not stained? To Duterte, this seems no loss but rather a gain: the perceived injustice of being conceived with original sin is eradicated, and the innocent babe preserved pristine. But consider one of the subtler losses. If a baby is conceived without original sin, then he is conceived in a state of original justice, of original holiness. And this would hold true of every person, from Abel to Zeke. But, leaving aside Our Lord, of the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve, only Our Lady was conceived free of the stain of original sin. Do away with original sin, then, and you abolish the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, or at least extend it, in cheerful democratic fashion, to everyone. I suspect that if our Protestant brethren find the Immaculate Conception difficult to accept, far more difficult still would it be for them to accept that everyone is immaculately conceived. Yet if Duterte were to prevail, I would await with avidity the postman’s delivery of Ineffabilis Deus with my name, mutatis mutandis, substituted for the Mother of God. I am afraid, though, that the serpent might shortly cause my Fall with the offer of a visit to Duterte himself for the fleeting pleasure of showing him, through deeds rather than words, what I think of his own “very stupid proposition.”

We could continue with the same line on the same teachings, and reflect on further losses if original sin were abolished, such as the diminishment of redemption by the free grace of God or the impairment of the substantial brotherhood and unity of all men, but let us move on. In reality, Duterte’s approach is the same as the Reformers: to reject a difficult doctrine, with direct and indirect losses as a result. The Reformers could not accept the magisterium, and especially the pope. Consequently, they obviously lost unity: Luther and Zwingli parting ways over the Eucharist at the Marburg Colloquy is the epitome of the Reformation. But they lost something more. They lost Scripture: lost books, of course, and lost the authoritative interpretation of what they retained, such that Marburg is the continuing pattern of Protestant “growth,” a pattern which is itself a conclusive argument against the Reformation. But they lost still more.

Reject a universal spiritual authority and you gain at length a universal temporal authority: universal, if not yet in extent yet certainly in its claims. For once men rebel against spiritual authority they grow accustomed to rebellion, and eventually they rebel against that truth the authority was meant to protect, because scorn for dogmatists leads to scorn for dogma. Truth, now shorn of its guardian, falls, and man, a creature whose very essence it is to obey, casts about for someone or something else higher than himself to which he may swear fealty. Enter the state: more exacting than the Catholic Church ever was, yet often unresisted by men now that they no longer adhere to God through his divinely-appointed regent. And this because, no longer believing that there is a truth higher than the state to which they owe their allegiance, or no longer accepting a sure guide to that truth and to conducting themselves in accordance with it, they are at the mercy of the state—often willingly and even gladly so. Reject the kingdom that is not of this world and you get, at last, the kingdom of this world.

So the loss of the magisterium was the loss of unity and the loss of the Bible, but it was also the loss of the only consistently effective safeguard against the encroachment of the state. The loss of the magisterium was the loss of freedom. Not that I mean to say the Reformers held all this, or would agree that their position led to all this. But I do say that these are among the unanticipated results of denying one teaching of the Catholic Faith, and I do not say they are the only ones. Reflect on the rejection of authority, the ascent of the individual and his exercise of reason unmoored and unrestrained, the sprouting up of thousands of congregations all claiming to have the truth although they cannot all be right—reflect on all these fruits of the Reformation, and see if they do not lead at length to relativism and religious indifferentism, to agnosticism and atheism.

Now all this would not be much worth noting—Duterte is one man who is here today and will be gone tomorrow, while the Reformation is long over—were it not that the very same approach is taken today by those within the Church who would see this or that “hard” teaching abandoned or moderated. It is too difficult, we are told, for validly married couples to follow Humanae Vitae, so let us “reinterpret” it in such a way to allow them to use contraception licitly in limited circumstances. Ah, but you do not know what you ask. Prevent sex, in limited circumstances, from being potentially procreative and you do not just lose Humanae Vitae. You lose much more because the encyclical serves as one of the Catholic Church’s most powerful claims today to be the Church founded by Christ, since over and against almost the whole world Blessed Paul VI stood firm, such that we may one day say Paulus contra mundum as we say the same of Athanasius.

No, you do not just lose this encyclical, you also lose the Church’s teaching that homosexual acts are sinful because they are intrinsically disordered. For if in the one case the sexual act need not be procreative, why condemn the other because it cannot be? If sex need not be potentially procreative, but may be freed for pleasure alone, then what reason is there to oppose an absolutely infertile act done, so I am informed and so I accept on sheer faith, for pleasure? Surely not because the marital act is still unitive, while the homosexual act can never be, for there is no total unity where there is no total self-giving. I do not perceive that Our Lord said to us, “Lo, I am with you some of the time, even to perhaps the twenty-first century.” Rather, he promised to be with us always to the end of the age, and the promise is fulfilled most fully in the Holy Eucharist, the very sacrament of unity.

Is not genuine unity with God in the Eucharist always a matter of the communicant being open to the fruitfulness of God? But if the union of husband and wife need not be open to life, even in limited circumstances, does this not suggest that the union of God and man in the Eucharist also need not be open to the divine fecundity? After all, the union of husband and wife is not just a mystery of Christ’s union with the Church, but also mirrors the soul’s union with God in communion: in both cases there ought to be total, mutual, fruitful self-giving for there to be genuine union. And while in neither case need there always be the most extraordinary fruit—a child need not always be conceived nor the heights of mystical vision reached—it remains that there must be some fruit in any case: some growth in charity, some deeper affection, some greater self-sacrifice.

So diminish Humanae Vitae ever so slightly and you do not just lose the Church’s teaching on marriage. You also lose the Church’s teaching on the sinfulness of homosexual acts, and you impair her teachings on the Eucharist. Reject or modify a doctrine because it is too hard, then, and you lose not only the doctrine itself and not only those immediately connected with it, but others as well.

No, keep the Faith whole and entire or you do not keep it at all. That is the lesson of history, and it is the lesson our discontented co-religionists would do well to learn. But, of course, the Catholic Church will keep the Faith whole and entire today as she always has. She did not follow Luther and she would not follow Duterte, nor will she follow Chiodi. Rather, her response to those who say of her teachings, “This is a hard saying; who can accept it?,” is precisely the same as that of her Founder: to maintain the doctrine all the more emphatically and all the more deeply, and then to reply, not without pity, “Do you also want to go away?” Do not think she is glad when they do. Here again she is like her Master, weeping over her lost children as he wept over Jerusalem.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is President Rodrigo Duterte delivering a message to the Filipino community in Vietnam during a meeting held at the Intercontinental Hotel on September 28, 2016. (Photo credit: PCOO EDP / Wikimedia)


  • Justin Bradford Smith

    Justin Bradford Smith practices law in Texas, focusing on criminal and civil appeals. He is a graduate of Baylor University School of Law. Smith and his wife have three children.

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