- apostasy a Fide or perfidiae, when a Christian gives up his faith;
- apostasy ab ordine, when a cleric abandons the ecclesiastical state;
- apostasy a religion, or monachatus, when a religious leaves the religious life.
In standard Catholic reference works, the first type of apostasy -- apostasy a fide or perfidae -- is understood as a complete and voluntary (that is, categorical and willful) abandonment of the Christian religion, whether the apostate embraces another religion or merely makes a profession of atheism. Catholic tradition, as far back as the Shepherd of Hermas -- a work written in Rome in the middle of the second century -- holds that there is no forgiveness for those who have willfully denied their Lord (Similit. ix. 26, 5; Funk, Opera Patrum apostolicorum [Tübingen, 1887], I, 547; v. "Apostasy," Catholic Encyclopedia). Apostasy in this sense is the very definition of mortal sin.
There is, however, also another sense of apostasy found in the New Testament that involves spiritual deception. This is particularly evidenced in certain apocalyptic passages about the eschaton, or end times. For example, near the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: "Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another ... And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And ... then the end will come." (Mt 24:10-14) Several verses later, He adds: "For false Christs and false prophets will arise ... so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect." (Mt 24:24) In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus goes so far as to ask, forebodingly: "... when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" (Lk 18:8) In warning the Thessalonians concerning these troubled times preceding the return of Christ, St. Paul assigns them the term αποστασία, 'apostasy': "Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the apostasy (αποστασία) comes first ..." (I Thes 2:3) What is the nature of this great apostasy, this apostasy of deception?
Deception is a complicated business. Some kinds of deception (though not all) involve self-deception, and therefore subjective culpability. St. Paul writes to Timothy: "But understand this, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves ... proud, blasphemers ... unthankful, unholy ... lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it." (II Tim 3:1-5) He adds: "For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths." (II Tim 4:3-4) Subjective culpability has its fingerprints all over this. In fact, the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews minces no words about such apostasy: "For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit ... if they then commit apostasy ..." (Heb 6:3,6) Although the word translated 'apostasy' here is not αποστασία, but rather παραπεσόντας ("to fall away," "commit apostasy"), the meaning is essentially the same. The only difference is that here the apostasy involves the voluntary consent of the will so that there is no hope of repentance.
Yet if some deceive themselves, others are themselves deceived by others. If there are those, as Paul says, who willingly "turn aside to myths" and "refuse to endure sound doctrine," and "accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires," there are also others who are led astray by these sorts of apostates. If one may speak of those who willingly deceive themselves, one may also speak of others who are less culpably, or perhaps even innocently, deceived by others -- deceived often by those very apostates who culpably assent to being deceived. Why else would Jesus have said that it is inevitable that temptations should come, "but woe to the one by whom temptations come"; and that it would be better for "whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble" that he should have a "heavy millstone hung around his neck and be cast into the sea"? (Mk 9:42; Mt 18:6-7) Those whom Jesus describes as "led astray" by "false prophets" would seem to fall within this slot. What of those entire generations of Catholics who have been deprived of their birthright as Catholics, deprived of proper catechesis and nurture in the Faith, who, if catechized at all, grew up in AmChurch parishes, with books and films like The Celestine Prophecy, Stigmata, and Da Vinci Code as their formative influences and icons like Sr. Joan Chittister, Mary Daly, Hans Küng, Andrew Sullivan, Richard McBrien, Dominic Crossan, Matthew Fox, and Charlie Curran as their intellectual mentors? What about that large cross-section of the population sometimes described as the second largest 'denomination' in the United States today, which, I'm told, consists of non-practicing, lapsed Catholics? Many of my nominally Catholic students don't think of themselves as having rejected their Catholic Faith. They simply have no understanding of it and therefore see no point in practicing it. When they're home with their parents, they may or may not go to church with them; and, if they do, they may receive Holy Communion, even if they have not darkened the door of a confessional in years. One way or the other, it doesn't make much difference to them. Short of a miracle, sadly, most of them will quite likely end up a statistic in the "ex-Catholic" column of a future edition of Kenneth C. Jones' bleak Index of Leading Catholic Indicators: The Church since Vatican II.
Because this kind of apostasy does not clearly involve a conscious and voluntary rejection of the Faith, but a falling away or being led astray into deception and unbelief, two inferences follow. First, this apostasy falls under none of the foregoing classifications offered in the standard Catholic reference works; and, second, it is objectively no less serious an apostasy from the Faith, even granting the amelioration of subjective culpability due to deception.
Much of the talk one hears these days about "invincible ignorance" and subjective innocence of non-Catholics and non-Christians, moreover, strikes me as an unconsciounable pretext for evangelical indolence. The truth is that deception is deception whether one is innocently or culpably deceived. One cannot bank on "invincible ignorance." To attempt to do so would be the moral equivalent of playing Russian Roulette with people's souls. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the opening pages of his Summa Theologiae (I, I, art. 1), says that it was in order that the salvation of men might be brought about "more fitly and surely" that it was necessary that they should be taught the divine truths entrusted to the Church -- and not left to those truths about God such as reason could discover, which "would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors." (Cf. Summa Contra Gentiles, I, 4 for a fuller treatment of this point.) Moreover, St. Paul offers little comfort in addressing the responsiveness of individuals to God's revelation of Himself in nature, when he says that they "suppress the truth in unrighteousness." He says they "are without excuse" because God has never left Himself without a witness -- even if it is the witness to Himself "from the things that have been made" in nature. (Rm 1:18ff.) Any falling away from the fullness of Faith, for whatever reason, is gravely serious. "Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ," said St. Jerome. Lack of concern over proper formation of faith among any of God's children betokens nothing less than a lack of compassion for those for whom Christ died.
Then there are those who consciously break communion with the Church and leave, not because they have made a complete and voluntary abandonment of the Christian religion, but perhaps because they have ceased to believe, or have never believed, the fullness of the Catholic Faith. While cases such as this might involve a sort of "falling away" if the individual in question had initially adhered voluntarily and without reservation to all that the Church teaches, it is clear that it cannot be classified as 'apostasy' in any of the standard textbook senses. If the individual was first a believing Catholic and then rejected those Catholic beliefs, he would be described canonically as a heretic, not an apostate. If he never actually believed what he professed as a Catholic, then I suppose one would have something like the ecclesiastical equivalent of a tribunal's judgment of nullity in the case of a presumed marriage. Only God could possibly judge the individual's heart. The Church, like anyone else, could do no more than construe according to the person's profession and actions.
Of this sort is the recently much-discussed case of Rod Dreher, the conservative Catholic columnist and editor at the Dallas Morning News, who recently left the Catholic Church for Eastern Orthodoxy. "Breaking Communion - Reactions to Rod Dreher's Eastward Turn" (Against the Grain, Oct. 30, 2006) offers a thorough synopsis of linked articles and debates surrounding the affair for anyone still interested in reading it. What were Dreher's reasons? From his own statements, the upshot of the matter seems to come down to two principal issues: (1) problems in the Catholic Church, and (2) problems of doctrinal belief. In the first category, he cites disillusionment and repulsion over the Catholic sex-abuse scandals and related corruption of the hierarchy (which he witnessed "up close and personal"), along with worry about raising Christian kids in the confused state of US Catholic parish life, as reasons for leaving. Al Kimel wrote responses to each of these concerns, first, upon hearing that Dreher was contemplating leaving the Catholic Church, in "Ten thousand scandals do not make one doubt" (Pontifications, 5/8/06); and, second, in "Dare we entrust our children to the Catholic Church?" (Pontifications, 5/11/06). Both are historically and theologically well-informed, thoughtful reflections, well-worth revisiting.
In the second category, Dreher says he "came to seriously doubt Rome's claims," although some have been less than sanguine about the seriousness of his statements, which, they claim, seem more like pretexts offered after the fact. For example, Scott Carson writes, in "Scandal and Bad Reasons" (The Examined Life, October 14, 2006): "Precisely because he is an intelligent person, he knew that Catholicism is right, and he needed an intellectual justification for doing what he was doing, and the only possible way to get that justification would be to call into question the teachings of the Church. In short, he made a conscious decision to become a functional protestant, while wishing nonetheless to continue enjoying the fruits of the genuine Sacraments [in the Eastern Orthodox tradition]." Probing the spiritual and psychological motives animating such examples of defection, the Venerable Cardinal Newman writes, in his "Discourse on Doubt and Faith":
And so . . . when a man has become a Catholic, were he to set about following a doubt which has occurred to him, he has already disbelieved. I have not to warn him against losing his faith, he is not merely in danger of losing it, he has lost it; from the nature of the case he has already lost it; he fell from grace at the moment when he deliberately entertained and pursued his doubt. No one can determine to doubt what he is already sure of; but if he is not sure that the Church is from God, he does not believe it. It is not I who forbid him to doubt; he has taken the matter into his own hands when he determined on asking for leave; he has begun, not ended, in unbelief; his very wish, his purpose, is his sin.Newman's statement is stark indeed; but it demands notice. It cannot be brushed aside as a matter of inconsequence. While no one can judge the heart of another, such as Dreher, the unbelief referenced by Newman would in this instance entail, if it applied to Dreher, not the strict apostasy of voluntarily renounced Christian belief, but the heresy of withdrawing assent from all that the Catholic Church teaches, including her own authority to so teach, as well as the heresy of embracing doctrines judged by the Church to be untrue. A term less abrasive in its connotations than "heresy" today would be the term "error."
Yet again, others raise the speculative question whether Dreher was ever Catholic. For example, after Dreher publicly announced his decision and declared his reasons for leaving the Catholic Church, Al Kimel wrote a response in "When a Catholic leaves the Catholic Church" (Pontifications, 10/11/06), in which he rises this question:
In light of Dreher’s departure from the Catholic Church, I only have one question: Was he in fact a Catholic? I do not have access to Dreher’s heart and soul, and I certainly do not condemn him for his decision. I regret that he has left the Catholic Church, and I grieve the sins of the Church that led him to renounce the divine authority of the Vicar of Christ. I pray that I may never be so tested.Kimel then quotes from the Venerable Cardinal Newman's Grammar of Assent, which addresses precisely this question:
My interest at this point is purely theoretical. How are we to understand a person who enters into the communion of the Catholic Church and then departs from that communion?
A man is converted to the Catholic Church from his admiration of its religious system, and his disgust with Protestantism. That admiration remains; but, after a time, he leaves his new faith, perhaps returns to his old. The reason, if we may conjecture, may sometimes be this: he has never believed in the Church’s infallibility; in her doctrinal truth he has believed, but in her infallibility, no. He was asked, before he was received, whether he held all that the Church taught, he replied he did; but he understood the question to mean, whether he held those particular doctrines “which at that time the Church in matter of fact formally taught,” whereas it really meant “whatever the Church then or at any future time should teach.” Thus, he never had the indispensable and elementary faith of a Catholic, and was simply no subject for reception into the fold of the Church. This being the case, when the Immaculate Conception is defined, he feels that it is something more than he bargained for when he became a Catholic, and accordingly he gives up his religious profession. The world will say that he has lost his certitude of the divinity of the Catholic Faith, but he never had it.Newman's inexorable logic drives home a hard reality that many today are reluctant to face. As Kimel observes: "I wonder how many priests and RCIA instructors understand what Catholic assent is. I wonder how many converts to Catholicism have been instructed in the irrevocable, definitive, full assent to magisterial teaching that is being asked of them when they enter into the communion of the Catholic Church." The case is not altogether unlike the question of the assent required in Holy Matrimony, or the question of how well prepared individuals are before entering upon the matrimonial covenant involved in professing their wedding vows.
Some have spoken accusingly of Dreher's "apostasy." Others have been nearly vociferous in their outrage. Fr. Richard Neuhaus's response to Dreher's move, in my opinion, strikes an important balance. He writes: "Yes, his decision is in large part reactive. But he is reacting to very real corruptions in the Catholic Church. I hope every Catholic bishop and priest will read his essay, and especially those bishops and priests who are inclined to heave a sigh of relief that we have weathered the sex-abuse scandal." I have vented my own spleen recently in "Welcome aboard the shipwreck: what converts don't know" (12/13/06), where I wrote:
. . . when you invite someone to become a Catholic, you're inviting him not only to board the Ark of Salvation. You're inviting him to come aboard a shipwreck. You're inviting him to join an association at the parish level whose collective acquaintance with Scripture is piecemeal, whose knowledge of Tradition is negligible, whose hymns are embarrassing, whose religious art has become ugly, whose churches look more like U.N. meditation chapels than sanctuaries, whose ethics are slipshod and often dissident, and whose aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities are so far from being sublime that they often look ridiculous.Some of my readers took offense at this rant; and I should make quite clear that nothing is more precious to me than the Catholic Faith. Yet until we face the reality of our own diocesan catastrophes, we have little business pointing the finger at those inclined to jump ship. Dreher may not believe in the Catholic Church. Yet, whatever his sins and theological errors may be, he has not ceased believing in the fundamental truths of the Christian Faith as would be affirmed by our Eastern Orthodox brethren. He is not an atheist. He has not simply ceased to believe. Can we say even that much of all of our clergy, theology professors? Dreher concludes his reflection with this: “Still, those of you more charitably inclined, please just pray for me and my family, that we always live in truth, and do the right thing, and be found pleasing to God, the Father of us all.” Should any Catholic hesitate to join in that prayer?
Falling away, apostasy (αποστασία) -- whether a voluntary abandonment of the Christian religion, or a falling away via self-deception or deception by others -- is always to be lamented and resisted wherever it is found. Likewise with the falling away of heresy, confusion and error. The statistics of Catholics falling away from the Faith over the last several decades are staggering. The question we must all face is this: whence is the greatest threat of such falling away? St. Francis de Sales is credited with the observation that those who give scandal are guilty of the spiritual equivalent of murder, while those who take scandal are guilty of the spiritual equivalent of suicide. Both are real dangers. However, the capacity to resist taking scandal depends upon the spiritual resources of the Sacred Tradition of which the Church is guardian. When scandal given consists in the failure to effectively transmit these indispensable resources to a whole generation of Catholics, we face a crisis indeed.
Of related interest:
- Gerald J. Mendoza, "Why Do Catholics Become Evangelicals?" (Homiletic & Pastoral Review) [Hat top to J.M.]