The Three Temptations of the Church

In Volume I of Jesus of Nazareth, authored by Pope Benedict XVI before he became pontiff, the three temptations of Christ in the desert before entering public life are considered.  The devil poses these temptations to try to confirm his suspicions that Jesus is the chosen one of God, and the temptations themselves are geared to be attractive to one who wants to be accepted as the promised Messiah. The Pope also makes applications of the temptations to the Church – three tempting approaches that would assure the acceptance of the Church and its message, but would be unworthy of the Church.

1) Regarding the first temptation, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread” (Mt. 4:3), it is clear that an easy way for Jesus to win acceptance of his Messiahship would be to become a “bread king.” One thinks of the incident in which he multiplied the loaves and fishes for a crowd of five thousand, which incited the crowd to try to take him by force and make him king (Jn. 6:15) – so that he had to flee into the mountain to escape.  If he provided such largesse often, an easy path to acceptance by the masses would be paved for him.

As applied to the Church, Benedict envisions the Church being afflicted by the same temptation:

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Is there anything more tragic, is there anything more opposed to belief in the existence of a good God and a Redeemer of mankind, than world hunger?…   Are not social problems—the primary, true yardstick by which redemption has to be measured?…  Marxism—quite understandably—made this very point the core of its promise of salvation. Should we not say the same thing to the Church? If you claim to be the Church of God, then start by making sure the world has bread—the rest comes later.

A very serious temptation of the Church is to gain acceptance of its authority and message by solving social problems.  Liberation theologians during the 70s allied themselves with Marxism, thinking this alliance would draw people to the message of the Gospel.  But the Kingdom of God is a separate message, connected, but not identical, with social justice.

Liberal Catholics, identifying the Gospel with social justice, often are willing to literally “throw out the baby with the bathwater” – voting for rabidly pro-abortion candidates on the grounds that they are for social justice (along with most atheists and secularists).  The right to life of the most vulnerable human beings is considered somehow irrelevant to this “social justice.”

2) In the second temptation, the devil transports Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and challenges him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge concerning you’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (Mt. 4:5-7). This challenge to “push the envelope” of God’s forbearance would satisfy the devil’s curiosity, but Jesus responds that we “should not tempt the Lord God.”

The Pope comments,

The structural question concerning the remarkable scriptural discussion between Christ and the tempter thus leads directly to the question about its content. What is this dispute about? The issue at stake in this second temptation has been summed up under the motif of “bread and circuses.” The idea is that after bread has been provided, a spectacle has to be offered, too.

Imagine the instant influence and adulation Jesus could have acquired, if there had been a crowd gathered down below the temple, looking up and seeing him literally being carried down by the angels; or if, in his preaching, he had used his miraculous powers to draw attention to himself in front of crowds, e.g. by levitating.

There is a temptation among some segments of the Church to draw people in and make conversions through “signs and wonders.”  The Medjugorje cult now is the chief example of this. Pilgrims have been coming in the tens of thousands for over thirty years to an unauthorized Marian shrine, where the Madonna is alleged to have been appearing almost on demand to six visionaries over 33,000 times.  Visitors often return with tales of seeing solar phenomena imitating the miraculous “dance of the sun” at Fatima in 1917, and having their rosaries mysteriously turn a golden tint; Randall Sullivan, in The Miracle Detective, reports an incident when the visionaries were pulled miraculously in two minutes to the top of Cross Mountain at Medjugorje.

But the messages of the “Gospa” at Medjugorje are heterodox messages: “all faiths are identical;” some people are in hell because “they have committed grave sins that God cannot pardon;” people in heaven are “present with the soul and the body;” and a disobedient priest-director, Fr. Zovko, is a “saint,” in spite of his suspension from priestly functions. This Madonna allegedly entrusted ten secrets to the visionaries, none of which have been revealed; predicted a “great sign” which never appeared; and said that her last appearance would be on July 31, 1981, but apparently changed her mind, and decided to continue appearing. This Madonna also, strangely and uncharacteristically, supports the Franciscans in their disobedience to Vatican orders, and tells the visionaries to ignore their bishops. These are strange “fruits” of a visitation by the Madonna. Disobedience is the sin Satan (famous for his own non serviam) identifies with most closely; once inculcated, it branches out into greed, lust, wrath, and other capital sins.

Medjugorje supporters point to many “good fruits” – conversions, return to the sacraments, etc. – but one can also be sure that there would have been all manner of conversions and repentance, possibly lifelong, if Jesus had decided to manifest his supernatural powers in public.

Yves Chiron chronicles 71 apparitions supposed to have taken place after Medjugorje, between 1981 and 1991.  This is a spectacular way to get some people to flock to the sacraments and convert, complementing the “bread” with “circuses.” But lasting faith ordinarily grows in low-key surroundings in the silence of the heart.

3) In the third temptation, from a very high mountain, the devil “showed [Jesus] all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory, and he said to Him, ‘All these things will I give you, if you fall down and worship me’” (Mt. 4:8).

The Pope observes that, as applied to the Church,

The tempter is not so crude as to suggest to us directly that we should worship the devil.  He merely suggests that we opt for the reasonable decision, that we choose to give priority to a planned and thoroughly organized world, where God may have his place as a private concern but must not interfere in our essential purposes…. Faith and religion are now directed toward political goals. Only the organization of the world counts. Religion matters only insofar as it can serve that objective.

First of all, one should notice that Jesus did not contradict the devil regarding the alleged power he had over the world. Like a Mafia boss, Satan, within the limits allowed by God, has tremendous power to reward those who are forwarding his purposes, and make things difficult for anyone who gets in his way. But Jesus was not interested in any kind of “power sharing” or détente with evil.

The temptation of the Church, similarly, is nothing so gross as devil worship, but much more subtle – making accommodation with evil, to be seen as “progressive,” and thus winning many of a progressive mentality to its side.  For example, the current rush of some Catholic institutions to accept the Presidential mandate for coverage of contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilizing procedures is an accommodation that has mustered much support from liberals, who congratulate such institutions for no longer being “stuck in the dark ages,” inimical to modern progress.  Some, seeing how “progressive” the Church has become, might overcome their hesitancy and desire to become associated with this modernized Church.  This sort of Church, in their eyes, would be an asset for their plans of organizing or reorganizing society, no longer an unwelcome obstacle. But power-sharing with evil has a way of boomeranging.

At the end of these three temptations, the Gospel tells us that angels came to minister to Jesus.  Likewise, if the Church is able to avoid easy, pragmatic ways of evangelizing the world, we can be sure that supernatural help will arrive to give an extra boost to its efforts.


  • Howard Kainz

    Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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