Internet veterans are familiar with “Godwin’s Law.” Formally stated, the adage proposes that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches.” No matter the argument, if it goes on long enough, someone will evoke the modern epitome of evil – Nazism – to condemn his opponents.
If a Catholic version of this adage were formulated, it would state, “As an online Catholic discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Pharisees approaches.” But in the Catholic world, this comparison is inevitably used against those who defend any traditional Church teaching or practice. Is this association of defenders of orthodoxy and tradition with the Pharisees fair? Or could this accusation have it exactly backwards? Perhaps it is those who have jettisoned traditional Catholic teachings and practices, and who have embraced the “traditions” of the past generation, who are the New Pharisees today.
To make a determination we should first see why it was that Jesus condemned the Pharisees so often during his public ministry. Was it simply because they followed rules and traditions? No. In essence, Our Lord denounced the Pharisees because they created barriers to God’s grace by imposing man-made traditions that kept people from that grace. This was especially egregious because the Pharisees wielded religious authority over others and thus were particularly positioned to block them from drawing closer to God and His grace. Jesus explains this clearly in Matthew 15:1-9:
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die.’ But you say, ‘If any one tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is given to God, he need not honor his father.’ So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’”
The problem is not rules or traditions themselves. After all, Jesus himself said, “ I have come not to abolish [the law and the prophets] but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17). In addition, he told his followers, “Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19). And St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
Although it is common in today’s antinomian world to condemn anyone who supports a tradition or rule as “Pharisaical,” this clearly was not the point of Christ’s warning. Instead, he condemned only those who support traditions that lead people away from a relationship with God, i.e., those who “make void the word of God.”
So who today is advocating man-made traditions that deny people access to God’s grace? Who teaches as doctrine the precepts of men? Imagine the following scenarios, and see if any of them seem all-too-familiar:
- A parish offers the Sacrament of Confession for only a half-hour each Saturday, at an inconvenient time, and makes no announcements promoting Reconciliation. The defense is that “no one goes anymore” and the priests are too busy.
- Requests for more traditional hymns to be sung during Mass are turned down with the response that “the songs we sing now are the songs our parishioners have always enjoyed the most.”
- Communion is advocated for the divorced and remarried, with the argument that to withhold it would be to violate the Church’s great tradition of “welcoming.”
- When an effort is made to institute a new marriage preparation program that includes substantial Church teaching, the existing volunteers resist on the grounds that the current program is “how we have always done it.”
- A priest who decides to withhold the Eucharist from a publicly same-sex couple is quickly removed and told that his actions show a “lack of pastoral sensitivity” and make the Church appear judgmental.
- A parishioner suggests to the pastor a door-to-door campaign to try to bring people into the Church, but is turned down on the grounds that “Catholics don’t do that.” Additionally he is told that “proselytization” isn’t in keeping with ecumenism.
In each case, people are being directed away from the truth found in Christ and His Church, away from healing and reconciliation, away from a lasting relationship with Christ – and the reasons given amount to no more than “that’s how we do it now.” In other words, these are our “traditions.” The New Pharisees of today downplay Catholic doctrine, minimize the importance of the Sacraments, ridicule traditional Catholic devotions, scoff at Catholic moral teachings, and diminish the uniqueness of the Catholic Church. The man-made traditions they’ve instituted over the last 40 years have become encrusted in the life of the average Catholic parish, even though, as I wrote recently, there is no evidence that any of these programs or practices actually draw people into Christ’s Church. The evidence, in fact, is overwhelming that it draws people away from Christ and his Church. In other words, “For the sake of their tradition, they have made void the word of God!”
Sadly, all too often it is exactly these New Pharisees who hold positions of authority in many Catholic parishes today. But, in keeping with Our Lord’s example, we must confront and resist their efforts. We must continue to call sin “sin” and call on people to avoid it at all costs – even sin that is now culturally acceptable – knowing that these actions can lead to the destruction of the human person and his soul. In conjunction with a renewed emphasis on sin, we must emphasize the Sacrament of Confession, so that those in need can be forgiven and reconciled to God. We must also embrace a more reverent Mass, in order to better worship God. Further, in an age of rampant sexual immorality, we must clearly explain Catholic teaching on sexuality and marriage, and urge married couples to live out the fullness of the Church’s teachings in these areas. And we must call every person to conversion to the Catholic Church, so that everyone can receive her abundant graces.
We must invite – even beg – people to return to Christ in the sacraments and the Church and to receive God’s grace, and to reject beliefs and practices that keep them from that grace. Ultimately, there is one purpose behind all these actions: to draw people into a deeper relationship with the Word of God, Jesus Christ. With this as our mission, we can hold onto the traditions that deepen that relationship, and abandon those which, in teaching as doctrine the precepts of man, lead people away from that saving relationship.
The New Pharisees fall back on the failed man-made traditions of the past generation; let us abandon these futile traditions and instead hold on to the true Catholic traditions which have stood the test of time.
Originally published on March 5, 2015.
Eric Sammons, a former Evangelical, entered the Catholic Church in 1993. He is the father of seven children and author of seven books, including The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did.