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On False Prophets
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"For, professing themselves to be wise, they became fools." (Romans 1:22)

 

Errors can be corrected and trends reversed if only our faith and determination does not fail us in our earnest quest for the truth.

On False Prophets:
The Most Rev John Mac Hale, D.D.,
Archbishop of Tuam (1883)

"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. By their fruits you shall know them." — St. Matthew 7:15-16

Of the various tenets which the spirit of error has attempted to circulate, there is none more industriously or triumphantly asserted, than that mere difference of belief is no obstacle to salvation. The moment the authority of the Church is discarded; such a doctrine is substituted by an easy and necessary consequence. After the memorable revolt which in the sixteenth century severed so many churches from a union with the parent stock, each particular church—nay, every individual claimed the same privilege by which this independence was originally established.

The spirit of discord was kept alive, because the principle of unity was not acknowledged; and the rival sects proscribed each other with the same rancor which they first exhibited towards the Catholic Church. Weary at length of a warfare in which they wasted their mutual strength without being comforted by the hopes of victory, the counsels of peace were at length adopted, the contending parties stretched the hand of fellowship to each other, and charitably extended to their dissenting neighbor the hope of salvation which they claimed for themselves. Such mutual kindness is quite natural; for why should anyone attempt to impose his belief on another, whose right to interpret the Scripture is equally independent?

From this principle another is deduced, that the Scripture is reduced to precepts of morality, and that points of doctrine are matters of little or no importance, which may safely be abandoned to each one's reason or discretion.

To show you, my brethren, the inconsistency of those who insist upon this point, I need only to open and read to you the chapter of the Gospel from which my text is taken. There you see Christ cautioning His disciples against those impostors who would come in sheep's clothing to corrupt His doctrine. For what purpose, then, did He so diligently strive to guard us against the delusion of those impostors, if He did not consider the purity of our faith of the utmost importance to our salvation?

If, then, I dwell today on this unpalatable subject; I only repeat and enforce the admonition of our Redeemer. I do not wantonly introduce it, but avail myself of a subject suggested by the Gospel; and if I were, through a timid compliance with the reigning indifference of the day, to neglect to convey the instruction with which it is pregnant, I should incur the reproach made in these words of St. Paul: "If I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ." (Galatians 1:10) I should, therefore, first point out the dangers of listening to these false prophets or seducers, and then exhibit the features by which they may be distinguished.

If we weigh well the nature of man and the nature of the Christian religion, we will not be surprised that all the powers of the one have been constantly levelled against the authority of the other. Christ Himself has predicted there should be heresies. St. Paul says, in the Acts of the Apostles:

"I know that after my departure ravenous wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock; and of your own selves will rise up men speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them." (Acts 20:29-30)

It is clear, then, from the authorities of St. Paul and Christ Himself, that the Christian religion will be attacked by many, who will endeavor to substitute for its precepts the fruits of their own invention. And indeed, my brethren, we cannot doubt the truth of this prediction. The sum of the Christian doctrine consists of mysteries, that is, truths above the reach of reason, and precepts of morality that are at war with the corruption of the heart.

Hence the pride of the understanding has been engaged in constant hostility against the apparent repugnance of its doctrines; and the corruption of the heart has inveighed with equal acrimony against the austerity of its moral maxims. Behold, then, my brethren, the two prolific sources of error in every age:

  • the presumption of human reason, and

  • the corruption of the human heart.

We all know how far pride may lead one in defending a favorite maxim; and, if you but consult your own hearts, you will there discover how the indulgence of its corrupt desires makes you cling with a desperate attachment to a criminal passion, which in the cool and sober moments of reflection you would condemn. Hence impostors have arisen in every age to impugn the doctrine and oppose the authority of the Church, and not one of their heresies that has not sprung from one of the principles I have mentioned. There is not a mystery of Christianity that has not been combated by their pride, nor a maxim of morality that has not been arraigned by their profligacy. The austerity of the Gospel has been laid aside, and a milder standard of life has been substituted; and man's opposition to control has been flattered by invectives against authority. While men will be fond of doctrines that are flattering to their passions, designing men will not be wanting to minister to their depraved appetites; and hence the continual succession of the ministers of imposture in every age.

To recite the long story of human errors, and the misfortunes that sprung from them, would exceed the limits I proposed to myself in this discourse: I will only remark that history records of the different sectaries, scenes at which decency would blush and humanity would shudder. But as what has been once done may be again and again repeated, as these impostors may yet appear as they appeared in past times, and as men may be equally desirous to drink the poison of their errors, I will point out to you the means to distinguish them and to guard against their errors.

My dear Christians, as we are commanded to preserve unaltered the doctrine which Christ has bequeathed to us, and cautioned against the false prophets who would fain deprive us of so valuable an inheritance, it must be supposed that God has left within the reach of every individual the means of ascertaining who are these apostles of delusion. These means, my brethren, cannot be such as to require much learning to understand them.

No; they must be plain and simple, and brought down to the capacity of the lowliest individual that listens to me this day; otherwise the end of Christ would have been defeated, who came to preach His Gospel to the poor as well as to the rich, to the illiterate as well as to the learned; for, according to Himself:

"To preach the Gospel to the poor He sent Me." (St. Luke 4:18)

Now, my brethren, what is the first mark by which you will distinguish them? Here it is:

If they come to you not sent, not appointed, not commissioned by that authority in which the fullness of Christ's power resides, by virtue of the unbroken succession, which can be traced back to the time of the Apostles.

This is an obvious mark; for it is not to be supposed that one ever can claim to himself any power, unless granted by Him who alone can withhold or impart it.

Thus St. Paul, speaking of the ministry of the Word, says:

"Neither doth any man take the honor to himself but he who is called by God, as Aaron was." (Hebrews 5:4)

That is, no one can intrude himself into the ministry but he who, like Aaron, is publicly and solemnly invested with the priesthood.

Now, my brethren, Christ has jealously reserved this honor for his Apostles and their successors, saying:

"He that heareth you, heareth Me: and he that despiseth you, despiseth Me:" (St. Luke 10:16) "... he that will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as a heathen and a publican." (St. Matthew 17:17)

And again: "Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained." (St. John 20:23)

"All power is given to me in heaven and on earth: go teach all nations, and behold I am with you until the end of time." (St. Matthew 28:18-20)

Can any commission be more solemn, vesting in the Apostles and their successors, to the end of time, the plenitude of Christ's power? And can temerity be more impious than when one dares to grasp at a ministry which Christ has reserved for His own special appointment.

Again, St. Paul, speaking to the Bishops whom he assembled together at Miletus thus addresses them:

"Take heed to yourselves and to the whole flock wherein the Holy Ghost hath placed you, Bishops, to rule the Church of God, which He hath purchased with His Blood." (Acts 20:28)

According, then, to the inspired Apostle, the Bishops are the supreme rulers of the Church of God, a commission which they have not assumed to themselves, nor derived from any earthly power, but which, according to St. Paul, has been immediately received from the Most High.

Consequently they, and they alone, are empowered to delegate any portion of that power with which they have been invested. Whosoever, then, comes to you not deputed by them you are not to receive him; nay, you are to treat him as a thief or a robber, according to the words of Christ, unless he is able to produce the authentic seal of his commission.

Those, then, impressed with this character you will hear; but those who are self-appointed God reproaches in these words of Jeremias:

"The prophets prophesy falsely in My name I sent them not, neither have I commanded them, nor have I spoken to them: they prophesy unto you a lying vision, and divination and deceit, and the seduction of their own heart." (Jeremias 14:14)

And again he says:

"I did not send prophets, yet they ran: I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. . . . How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies, and that prophesy the delusion of their own hearts?" (Jeremias 23: 21, 26)

Finally, the Prophet Jeremias closes a long invective against those deceitful enthusiasts by the following denunciations:

"Therefore, behold I am against the prophets, saith the Lord: who steal my words every one from his neighbor. Behold I am against the prophets, saith the Lord: who use their tongues, and say: The Lord saith it. Behold I am against the prophets that have lying dreams, saith the Lord: and tell them, and cause my people to err, by their lying and by their wonders: when I sent them not, nor commanded them." (Jeremias 23:30-32)

Here, then, my brethren, is a mark by which you may know these false teachers — a mark that is obvious to the humblest capacity among you, that is, that they come of themselves; for, according to St. Paul, "how can they preach unless they are sent?" (Romans 10:15)

But, my brethren, it may be said, and it has been said; why not hear the Word from anyone who dispenses it: the doctrine of their preaching is sound, and calculated to promote the interests of morality, and is generally drawn from the Scripture itself? The moment you would listen to suggestions like these, that moment you would expose yourselves to the most imminent danger. A few words only will be sufficient to expose their fallacy. You know, my dear Christians, from your incapacity to learn the first elements of Christianity in the Catholic Church, how unequal you would be to the task of deciding on the soundness or the danger of any doctrine which might be addressed to you.

If, then, you were the judges of the purity of doctrines, you would be left at the mercy of every knave or enthusiast, and after attaching yourself to one leader you would be still solicited by another more bold or artful to join his standard; and in the strong and emphatic language of St. Paul, you would be "carried about with every wind of doctrine." (Ephesians 4:14)

You would be in the perplexity in which Tertullian, one of the Fathers, represents a man importuned by the adverse heretics of his day.

  • Marcian says: "Seek with me, and you shall find."

  • Basilides says: "Seek with me, and you shall find."

  • Carponates assails me with a similar demand: "Seek with me, and you shall find."

And thus I shall be always seeking, and never finding. But no, my brethren, such a state of continual insecurity cannot be reconciled to Christ's plan of imparting his religion to the little ones. You have a more sure and summary answer for them in the words of the same Tertullian: "Why do you invade my possession; why do you fell my wood; why do you cross my waters. I am the heir of the Apostles; you they have disinherited." Besides the mark of self-appointment, which is sufficient to defeat the claims of the false prophets, the Scripture gives us another in these words: "By their fruits you shall know them."

It must be confessed, my brethren, that these words require some explanation, because they have been abused ever by the false teachers to discredit the authority of the lawful pastors of the Church. Often do they come with language smooth and insinuating, with a demeanor wearing the appearance of devotion, contrasting their own piety with the profligacy of others. But, my brethren, beware of their insidious disguise; for Christ Himself says that the mildness of the sheep will cover the rapacity of the wolves.

You will know them by their fruit, not, perhaps, by the sanctity of every individual, because their sanctity might lead us into as intricate an examination as the purity of their doctrine. But the fruit by which you will know them is their obedience or disobedience to their pastors, from whom they received their mission, and by whom they should be guided in conveying their instruction. This is the true touchstone by which their mission must be tried. Often does a meek and humble exterior conceal a proud, presumptuous spirit, which at length breaks out into open mutiny against a superior.

If, then, such preachers should be visited with the censure of the Church, no matter how sound their doctrine or soothing their address, they are ranked among those against whom we are cautioned by our Redeemer. In vain, my brethren, will they represent to you the disorders of your own clergy, to withdraw you from their obedience; in vain will they tell you a bad tree cannot produce good fruit, and, therefore, a bad clergyman cannot be productive of good. Often, my brethren, has the Church wept over the vices of her pastors, and labored with a pious solicitude to reclaim them.

But, behold the difference between their disorders and those of the false pastors. The ministry of the lawful pastor is not necessarily dependent on his good or bad life; the prayers which he offers, the sacraments which he administers, borrow their efficacy not from him, but from the sacred office to which he has been appointed; and hence, though we may deplore the scandal of his life, we are still obliged to acknowledge the validity of his ministry. The priest may be a sinner; nay, his sins may be deeper than those of the penitent that falls prostrate at his feet; yet still, because he acts by virtue of his divine commission, the graces of which he is the minister are not infected by the impurity of the channel.

Not so is the false prophet who is stripped of his power, or who steals into the fold: he receives no divine commission; God has promised no graces to his ministry; therefore, his sacraments are null, and his preaching is a mockery. Who is there that does not bow to the decision of a judge, though he may be a bad man, and that does not obey the authority of a magistrate, though an indifferent member of society? And why? Because they are the representatives of the supreme power of the State.

I know not whether the man would excite your pity or indignation more who would attempt to despise the judge because he was a bad private character, and "attempt by force or fraud to intrude himself into the seat of judgment. And if the jurisdiction of the judge is withdrawn by the power that conferred it, you no longer revere him as the representative of majesty.

Equally presumptuous, then, would be the man who would force himself into the office of a pastor when not appointed by the Supreme Shepherd, and equally so is the priest divested of his jurisdiction, though his character cannot be blotted out, when that jurisdiction is withdrawn by his legitimate superior. Be not, then, dear Christians, seduced by such people. With St. Paul:

"I beseech you, brethren, to mark them who make dissensions and offences contrary to the doctrines which you have learned, and avoid them; for, by pleasing speeches and good words, they seduce the hearts of the innocent." (Romans 16:17)

You see, then, from the words, or rather the predictions of St. Paul, that their teaching will be distinguished by pleasing speeches, nay, sometimes by good words. But should you be in danger of being betrayed by their flattery, the same Apostle furnishes you with a sovereign antidote in the following admonition:

"Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a Gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema." (Galatians 1:8)

What language could be stronger? Were a man's eloquence almost divine; did his austerities seem to exceed the measure of human weakness; yet still, if he departs from the inherited doctrine delivered by the saints, let him be accursed. Such was the doctrine of the Holy Fathers in the primitive times, which are acknowledged by all to have been the brightest period of Christianity. In the time of St. Cyprian, a proud priest, separated from the Church, had, by an insinuating eloquence and a semblance of sanctity, seduced a number of unsuspecting people into an espousal of his cause.

On the saint being asked by one of his abettors, what heresy had Novatian introduced, he replies, and his reply was sanctioned by the Church: "No matter what he teaches, who teaches out of the fold." Let, then, this be your reply to all: no matter how sanctimonious their airs, no matter how mortified their appearance; for, my brethren, such false apostles are deceitful laborers, transforming themselves into the Apostles of Christ: for Satan himself transformeth himself into an angel of light, therefore it is no great thing if his ministers be transformed as the ministers of justice: let your reply be; no matter what his doctrine is, who teacheth out of the fold.

From what has been said, you must be convinced how false and pernicious must be the accommodating principle of hearing the Word of God, wherever it may be preached. Independent of a lawful authority, experience tells us that preachers are found to flatter the follies of the hearers: men who would call good evil, and evil good; who mistake the illusions of their fancy for the inspirations of heaven. In a word, if such a tenet were once admitted, as there is no doctrine, however vile that has not been preached, it would follow that one could hear the Word of God in one of those obscure conventicles, where the language of Scripture is blasphemously perverted to the hope of a new Messiah.

Now, my brethren, that you are aware of the danger of false teachers, I trust you will guard against the delusion of their doctrines. But I must caution you, at the same time, not to force from the instruction of this day consequences of which it is not susceptible. He that would leave this church to indulge the insolence of triumph, would, indeed, derive but little benefit from this discourse. If you are blessed with the true faith, labor diligently to preserve it; but treat with indulgence the prejudices of others.

You may rest assured that your religion alone will not save you; on the contrary, unless you fulfil its practical precepts, it will aggravate your condemnation. If God has been so merciful to you as to transmit to you from your father the Catholic religion, show by your pious observance of its duties that you are worthy of the sacred inheritance.

Study to bequeath the same legacy to your children. The name of Catholic is the most valuable possession you can leave - it is a name inscribed in the creed of the Apostles — a name which attached St. Augustine to his religion — a name which has survived the vicissitudes of time, and has been never lost by the true believers, nor adopted by the sectaries. But let it be a substantial, significant name, not retained merely because it was a family distinction, preserved, like the empty pageants of heraldry, of which the spirit is gone and the memory is forgotten. Know that the barren tree that beareth no fruit will be cut down and cast into the fire.

Know that it is not everyone that will say: Lord! Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of Christ, but he that doeth the will of His father. And with regard to your conduct towards your dissenting neighbor, it may be comprised in the strict but comprehensive admonition of St. Augustine: "Love the men, destroy their errors." Do, my brethren, love them; they deserve your pity and your prayers. But let not your compassion for them fill you with presumption. He to whom much is given of him much shall be required. Your judgment will be severe in proportion to your lights.

To conclude, my brethren, I exhort you with the Apostle to walk worthy of the vocation in which you are called, with all humility and mildness, with patience, supporting one another in charity; careful to keep the unity of spirit in the bond of peace, that you may enjoy hereafter that eternal peace which Christ has promised to those who fulfil His commandments.

Amen.


- Pax Tecum

 

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