"Then if any man shall say to you: Lo here is Christ, or there, do not believe him. For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders, insomuch as to deceive (if possible) even the elect." Matt 24: 23, 24
Comm: Lo, here is Christ. These words are very aptly applied by Catholics to the conventicles of heretics; and would Christians attend to the injunctions of their divine Master, "Go ye not out: believe it not, we should not see the miserable confusion occasioned in the Catholic Church, by unsteady Christians; who are guilty of schism, in forsaking the one true fold, and one shepherd, to follow their blind and unauthorized leaders. E.
The language of Holy Scripture is unmistakable: all religion other than that of Christ and His Church arises from false teachers, false teachers who are deceivers and antichrists, says Saint John (2 John 7 ); liars who organize their followers into sects of perdition, says Saint Peter; impostors who teach the doctrines of devils (1 Timothy 4:1,2), ravening wolves and perverters (Acts 20:29, 30), enemies of the Cross of Christ, says Saint Paul (Philippians 3:18).
Of Saint Paul's command in 2 Corinthians 6:14ff., "Do not be yoke fellows with unbelievers. For what partnership have innocence and iniquity? What has light in common with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? How can a believer have part with an unbeliever?"; of this command, the fathers who prepared the Rheims New Testament say, in their note upon this passage: "Here is forbidden dealing with unbelievers in prayers, or meetings at their schismatical service, or other worship service whatsoever."
"Give a heretic one warning, then a second," says Saint Paul, "and after that avoid his company; he is perverted, and in sin, and is self-condemned" (Titus 3:10, 11). In their note on this text the translators of the Rheims New Testament declare that "heretics must not marvel if we warn all Catholic men, by the word of the Apostle in this place, to take warning against them, and to shun their preaching, books and meeting-places." Saint Paul, writing to the Ephesians, elaborates upon Our Saviour's warning that we "must beware of false prophets" (Matthew 7:15). "Let no one deceive you with empty arguments," he says, "these are what brings down the wrath of God on unbelievers; do not associate with them" (Ephesians 5:6, 7). Here is an express command not to have any contact with those who teach false religion, to avoid their meetings and sermons, lest we be deceived by them, and incur the anger of Almighty God, provoking Him to withdraw His grace from us and leave us to ourselves, in punishment of our disobedience.
The same Apostle renews this command in his Epistle to the Romans. "Brethren," he says to them, " I beg of you, watch out for those who are causing dissension and scandals, contrary to the doctrine you have learned, and avoid their company. Such men do not serve our Lord Christ but their own belly; by their pleasing speeches and flatteries they seduce the hearts of the innocent" (Romans 16:17, 18). See
here whom we are to avoid: those who cause dissension contrary to the traditional doctrine. Aid why we are to avoid them: because they are not servants of Christ but slaves to themselves whose appeal is not to faith and reason but to emotions and passions.
"Now these avoid," Saint Paul commands his beloved disciple Saint Timothy, speaking of false teachers, even though Timothy was a bishop of the Church, and fully instructed by the Apostle himself in all the truths of the Faith; because, besides the danger of seduction, which none can escape who voluntarily expose themselves to it, all such communication is evil in itself, and therefore to be avoided by all, and especially by bishops and priests, whose bad example would be most poisonous to others.
Saint John the Evangelist says of the doctrine of the Faith that "if any one comes to you who does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house; do not even greet him; to greet him is to share the guilt of his wicked works" (2 John 10, 11). If the holy Apostle declares that even greeting such people is a participation in their wickedness, what would he say of going to their meeting-places, hearing their sermons or joining in their prayers? It is a great and damnable sin in any one to do any of these things, but a much greater crime in those who are learned and powerful.
The Church's Constant Practice
The conduct of the Catholic Church in this matter has been uniformly the same in all ages with what the Holy Scripture teaches. She has always forbidden her children to have any communication, in religious matters, with those who are separated from her, and this she has sometimes done under the most severe penalties. In the Apostolic Canons, which are for the most part handed down from the apostolical age, it is thus decreed:
"If any bishop or priest or deacon shall join in prayer with heretics, let him be suspended from communion." Also: "If anyone, clergy or lay, shall go into the synagogue of the Jews, or the meetings of heretics, to join in prayer with them, let him be deposed and deprived of communion."
The Council of Carthage held in 398, at which the great Saint Augustine was present, enacted that: "No one must either pray or sing psalms with heretics; whosoever shall communicate with those who are cut off from the communion of the Church, whether clergy or layman, let him be excommunicated."
Pope Paul IV wrote thusly to the Catholics of England, at a time when the most severe persecutions were raised against them, unless they agreed to go from time to time to the Protestant church:
"Great has been the grief of our mind for the calamities you have had to undergo for your adherence to the Catholic Faith; and as we understand that these trials are become more severe at present, our affliction is increased exceedingly. We are informed that you are compelled, under the most grievous penalties, to go to the churches of heretics, to frequent their meetings, and be present at their sermons. But we are fully persuaded that you who with so much fortitude and constancy have hitherto endured almost infinite miseries that you might walk without stain in the law of the Lord will never consent to be defiled by communicating with those who have forsaken the Divine law. Nevertheless, urged by the zeal of our duty, and by our paternal care for you, we admonish and command you that on no account you go to the churches of heretics, or hear their sermons, or join in their rites, lest you incur the wrath of God, for it is not lawful for you to do such things without dishonouring God, and hurting your own souls."
The constant practice of the Church shows that any attempt to authorize or excuse communication in religion with those who are separated from her falls under the curse pronounced by Saint Paul on all novelty in religion, and is contrary to the Gospel which has been preached from the beginning and handed down from the holy Apostles.
The Law Unalterable
No power on earth can make that allowable which the law of God forbids; and to say that because there are those Who do go to heretical churches and hear heretical sermons and read heretical books,without being censured, it is therefore allowable, is the same as to say that because great numbers curse and lie and drink to excess it is therefore allowable to commit these sins. No, the law is by no means altered by the fact that it is widely disobeyed; it stands as a testimony against those who flaunt it, and though they here and now escape the censure of men, they will not escape the just punishment of their transgression at the tribunal of God.
Whatever is a sin to do, is a sin to appear to do; and it is evident that whoever goes to non-Catholic churches, even though his motive is mere curiosity and no more, appears to join with what is done there, whatever be in his own mind; and Our Lord not only condemns those who deny Him in their hearts, but also all those who deny Him before men, whatever be the inward disposition of their hearts.
Do not the texts of Scripture we have cited forbid the very going to such places at all, do they not command us to avoid them? and how can one be said to avoid them who goes to them, whatever his intention? Does not the Scripture say that there is no fellowship, no participation, no concord, no part, no agreement between the faithful and the unbeliever? and how can this be said of one who goes to their religious meetings, is present at their service, and hears their preachings? Does not the Scripture expressly affirm that he who so much as greets them, communicates in their wicked works? how much more he who honours their meetings with his presence?
As for the motive of curiosity, it is certainly a disgrace for a Christian to fly to such an excuse for doing a thing forbidden by any lawful authority, but much more for doing what is so frequently, so severely, and for such important reasons, forbidden by the law of God and of His Church. Whatever useful purposes curiosity may serve in the acquisition of knowledge, however blameless it may be when employed about innocent objects, yet curiosity is, without doubt, a very great sin in itself when to gratify it a person either does what is criminal, or prohibited by lawful authority, or exposes himself to the danger of doing so.
The Learned No Less Obliged
It is no argument to say that a person might go to see and hear what passes among heretics so long as he is well grounded in the true Faith, and so unlikely to be seduced from it. Even if we grant that such a person would run no risk o losing his faith, yet this is only avoiding one of those reasons for which going to heretical places is forbidden. It would still be, at least in the eyes of the world, a seeming approbation of the heresy, and a transgression of an express command of God and His Church, and a very grievous scandal to the faithful. In fact, the scandal arising from the example of such more learned people must be greater than from others, because every one of the faithful well knows that it is a sin to go to such places, and therefore all must be more offended to see a person who ought to know his duty better than others acting so contrary to it, and the weaker sort among them will be more influenced to do the same from the example of such a person, than if less learned and less instructed in his religion. But even the most learned cannot answer for themselves when, contrary to their duty, they culpably expose themselves to the danger. Saint Paul assures us that "it is by grace that you are saved, with faith for its instrument, and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8).
Our faith, then, being God's gift, our perseverance in it is no less so. If therefore a person, though ever so learned, offends Almighty God by doing what is dishonourable to His holy Faith, is this not provoking God to withdraw that gift from him, of which by his disobedience he renders himself unworthy?
In the primitive ages, Tertullian and Tatian were most learned men, and great champions of the Catholic Faith, having written many excellent things in defense of it, yet by exposing themselves to these very dangers they were miserably seduced, lost their faith, and fell into the most unreasonable heresies.
It is impossible that there should be any solid reason in favour of falsehood capable of convincing the understanding of a person who is well instructed in the Faith of Jesus Christ, but the most learned and best instructed are not proof against their own passions, and the seductions of the heart, and therefore can have no security against these if they culpably expose themselves to the danger, by which they offend God, and provoke Him to withdraw His grace from them, and leave them a prey to their passions. On this account was the command to avoid all fellowship with false teachers given to all without exception, to the learned as well as to the unlearned, to priests as well as to people.
Even Refutation a Poor Excuse
But might a well instructed person go to such heretical meetings that he might be the better able to confute the heretics? This case is the same, as to the danger, as that of reading bad books with the design of confuting them. To read bad books is forbidden by the law of God, by the natural law, and by the law of the Church, precisely because of the danger of being seduced by them to evil. Even a person thoroughly learned and in no probable danger of being seduced by them cannot read them with a safe conscience, even with the design of confuting them, unless he has received permission from his spiritual superiors to do so. Should he read them without such leave, he runs the risk of being hurt by them, all his learning notwithstanding, in punishment of his disobedience to what the law of God requires of him. But if he has the required permission, and reads with the intention of confuting them, he may do it lawfully; and he has reason to hope that God will preserve him from danger.
In like manner, if a learned person, by permission of his lawful superiors, should go to the meetings of those of a false religion, precisely to learn their ways and teachings that he may be able the better to confute them, this will take away the sin as to this one point of exposing himself to the danger; but this will not excuse the other evils of his doing so, namely, its being an apparent communication with
a false religion, a seeming approbation of it, and a source of offense and scandal to the faithful, most of whom, hearing of his doing so, and not knowing either the permission he has got, or the intention with which he goes, cannot fail to be greatly offended and scandalized by it.
So except in circumstances where all these evils could also be prevented, such permission could not be granted; and though granted, would not, I fear, give him full security before the tribunal of God—especially when it is considered that there seldom or ever can be a necessity for granting such permission, since the teachings of all false religions can easily be known from their books, or from the relation of others, without doing a thing so detrimental to the honour of the true religion, and so obnoxious in the eyes of all pious members of the Church of Christ.
Source: The Works of Bishop Hay, "The Sincere Christian," Imprimatur 1871