Some years back, my mother gave me an unusual Christmas present: a book entitled The Greek Fathers: Their Lives and Writings by the late Fr. Adrian Fortescue.
I say unusual, because I don’t think she had ever given me a book as a gift before, nor did I have any idea why she gave me this particuar book. After all, it wasn’t a topic I had expressed an interest in.
“I thought it looked interesting,” she said.
And to be honest, it did, but I was immersed in other topics at that moment, so I thanked her, put the book on my shelf with all the others, and before long, I forgot about it.
Until very recently.
As the crisis in the Church has bloomed, and the idea that God would intervene sooner rather than has come to feel more like a desperate hope, I have struggled to understand how to come to terms with what is happening. Like many Catholics in these trying times, I have suffered moments of doubt — sometimes extreme doubt — and find myself often grasping at straws.
Why is God allowing this?
How do we deal with what’s happening?
If God loves us, why is he subjecting us to such tribulation and confusion that they make even His own Church, the means of our salvation, appear repugnant and alienating?
It finally occurred to me, in part because of the advice of a friend, that to find answers to these questions (and others like them) I needed to search the depths of the Church’s treasure trove of knowledge.
I didn’t need another book on current events, or the mind of recent popes, or the problems with the most recent council, or the state of the liturgy.
I needed to consult the ancient wisdom of the Church Fathers.
Although like many Catholics, I’ve run into their writings here and there, I’ve never undertaken a focused study of the Fathers, not even in the course of earning my theology degree. I had no idea where to begin.
And it was then that I thought of my mother’s gift.
I was at first somewhat disappointed to learn that this book is less a collection of the thought of the Fathers themselves and more a biographical sketch of their lives. As Fortescue says in his preface, “The only object of the book is to give in a small space, and in English, a general account of what is commonly known about these Fathers. I have described their lives and adventures rather than their systems of theology.”
But sometimes stories are more understandable than theology, so I dove in anyway.
The first chapter is about St. Athanasius, and I knew immediately that it was going to be helpful.
Interestingly, however, the profile of Arius, the nemesis of St. Athanasius who gave birth to his own eponymous heresy, also really caught my attention. Within only a page or two, their interconnected story began to look rather similar to the one we’re watching every day.
Consider this (emphasis added):
The great heresies were coming as successors to the great persecutions, and the Church was to be more troubled and to suffer greater evils from her own children than she had from the sword of the Roman magistrates. The first heresy was already brewing while the happy bishops were reading the new edict and thanking God for having sent his servant Constantine. During the very lifetime of the heroes who could show the glorious wounds they had received under Diocletian, the Christian Church was tossed by a raging storm that nearly wrecked her. Bishops fell on every side, intruders and counter-intruders filled every see, anathemas and counter-anathemas thundered across the empire from Tyre to Milan, so that the wretched layman who wanted to serve God in peace may well have wondered whether the old cry of Christianos ad leones were not on the whole pleasanter than the shouts of Homoousios and Homoiousios, of which he understood nothing except that, which ever he said, some one was sure to excommunicate him.
The wretched layman who just wanted to serve God in peace might have preferred being fed to lions than to sorting out whom and what to believe.
A bit hyperbolic, perhaps, but I think many of us can identify with the sentiment.
Look at the arguments we’re having amongst ourselves now. Is Amoris Laetitia magisterial, or is it a violation of the Gospel? Is the change to the Church’s perennial teaching on the death penalty heretical, or is it a valid development of doctrine? Should we really be concerned about the Abu Dhabi statement’s assertion that God wills all religions? Does the doctrine of infallibility preclude the possibility of Pope Francis acting or teaching in ways that seem contrary to the Faith? Can women truly be sacramentally ordained? Does Hell exist, and is anyone in it? Is Pope Benedict XVI still the true pope and Francis an antipope? Conversely, is reaching such a conclusion a violation of the Church’s infallible and authoritative judgment on papal elections, and thus an act of schism?
Some Catholics today may think the argument over Christ’s divinity was a clearer cut issue than these, easier to recognize and reject. I’m not so sure. And Fr. Fortescue, writing in 1908, long before the confusion of even the Second Vatican Council, let alone the Francis pontificate, and only a year after the ink on the anti-Modernist encyclical Pascendi had dried, seems to agree (emphasis added):
In the beginning of the fourth century Bishop Alexander reigned at Alexandria. He too, no doubt counted on peace for his old age since Diocletian was gone, and he certainly did not foresee how great a storm would grow out of a little cloud that rose in his own city. For among his priests was one Arius, a Libyan from the South. Few men have left so unsavoury a memory as this Arius (Ἄρειος). He had been a well-meaning and zealous person once, and had narrowly escaped in the Diocletian persecution. If the Roman governor of Egypt had been a little more zealous, we should, perhaps, now honor St Arius as a holy martyr, instead of shuddering when we hear his ill-omened name.
Think about that for a moment. Arius was not, as history might lead us to think of him, some cartoon villain who entered the narrative of salvation history with his evil, faith-destroying Christological errors fully formed.
He was, instead, a parish priest who was merely trying to do the right thing during a time of persecution. Had he been martyred by Diocletian before he had imbibed the error of Subordinationism — the subordinating of God the Son to God the Father — he might well have been remembered as a martyr and a saint, instead of one of the most notorious arch-heretics in Church history.
Are we immune from a similar fate?
Any of us can fall into damnable error, not only through a lack of zeal, but also through an excess thereof. Arianism didn’t begin as an arrogant rebellion against God or His Church, but as the outgrowth of a series of mistaken ideas and the consequent reactions to them. As Fortescue writes (emphasis added):
We know now that no heresy ever really began like that. It is never the case that one man out of sheer wickedness suddenly invents a false doctrine. We can always trace germs and tendencies, that afterward develop into the heresy, back to many years before the father of the sect was born. A movement begins, often very rightly, by insisting on one aspect of the faith; very often at first it is a vigorous and extreme opposition to some patently false teaching. Then this way of looking at things crystallizes and hardens; it is taken up enthusiastically by some school, it becomes a point of honor with a certain party to insist upon it, it is the national teaching of some country. At last someone gets hold of the theory, oversteps every limit in his defense of it, and is eagerly supported by the rest of the party. And then he finds himself condemned by the Church and his name goes down to history as that of a heresiarch.
The section I have placed in bold in the preceding quote is, I think, where the greatest danger lies for all of us in these times.
We are faced nearly every day with “patently false teaching.” Desirous of correcting these errors, we react.
But do we react correctly? Is our “vigorous and extreme opposition” truly righteous, or do we get carried away? Does our “way of looking at things” crystallize and harden or “become a point of honor with a certain party to insist upon it”? Does it become the understanding of an entire group — not, in our times, a nation, but perhaps a movement of like-minded Catholics online, which eventually spills over into the people in the pews wherever our ideas might reach?
I’ve been criticized a good deal of late for promoting the idea that even now, while our Church appears to be led by wolves in shepherd’s clothing, we must not go too far in our response. We must not overreact to the crisis, must not presume that in the absence of leadership willing to take action, our own private judgment can or should usurp the public judgment and authority of Holy Mother Church.
Even when it feels so right that we just don’t want to hold back. Especially then.
After being condemned and excommunicated by his patriarch, “it did not occur to [Arius],” writes Fortescue, “to submit and retract his views. We have seen that he had large ideas about the independence of the clergy from their superiors …”
In fact, when he first faced excommunication, he had two bishops at his side, whom he had already won over to his cause.
But he was excommunicated, and, feeling outmaneuvered in Egypt, Arius went to Syria and Asia Minor, where he continued teaching his errors. He was clever. He dissimulated. He insisted that he did, in fact, teach that Christ was divine. He complained that he had not been given a fair hearing. He was a popular figure, and his ideas spread widely, gaining him a significant following.
“Arius had the courage of his convictions as much as the Catholics,” Fortescue notes, “and of course, quite rightly, neither side would consent to tolerate the other.”
Although he banished Arius following his solemn excommunication at the Council of Nicaea, the emperor Constantine eventually relented, rehabilitating Arius a decade later at the request of his (Constantine’s) dying sister, who was one of his adherents. Athanasius resisted any attempt to reinstate the unrepentant heretic and was therefore subjected to a “long career of calumny against him, and of persecution, that lasted nearly till his death.” Among the indignities he suffered was exile and eventual excommunication — the latter widely believed to have been invalid, but a penalty never lifted as long as he lived. Nevertheless, Athanasius persevered in faith, even remaining obedient despite protesting his innocence.
There’s a great deal more to this story than I have space to relate here, but it was those first steps of Arius toward heresy, before the error had yet fully hardened, that especially caught my attention. It suddenly struck so much closer to home. I think we should all be concerned, as we try to make sense out of all the theological confusion and error that plague the Church at this time, of becoming something like him. One can see how easily such a thing could happen.
Once a person, however well intentioned, has the moral certitude that his misguided way of looking at things is the only true path — that God Himself is on his side — it’s incredibly difficult, perhaps even impossible (barring a miracle of grace), to pull him back. He will find a way to justify even his worst choices. He will thunder with convincing righteousness against those who would seek to still his voice. And he will win many converts to his cause — to his own tragic detriment when he stands before judgment.
We know that Arius’s position eventually became just this intractable — so much so that the sainted patriarch of Constantinople prayed that God would strike him down rather than allow him to receive a sacrilegious Communion — a prayer God answered when Arius died a horrible death that very day.
Some day, rest assured, people will be reading about our moment of crisis in their history books, just as we read about Arianism in ours. When all is weighed and measured, will we have been on the right side?
Let’s pray for each other that the answer will be yes.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.