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May 2004

Book Review

Christianity Pure and Simple - "A fresh, practical and inspiring presentation of the Catholic Faith" - by Dwight Longenecker, CTS publications, 2003.

Daphne McLeod

As this series is intended to evangelise non-Catholics and to inform Catholics about their Faith, one feels that "Catholicism Pure and Simple" would be a better title, particularly as there is no agreed Christian faith. However, if the booklets really were a ‘presentation of the Catholic Faith,’ this initiative would be admirable. Unfortunately it is not.

I have now studied all five booklets but rather than go through them one at a time I will treat them as a whole. They contain so many departures from the Truth that I cannot cover them all without writing an article as long as the booklets themselves, so I will just deal with examples of the major discrepancies.

1. The Blessed Trinity

This is the core and centre of our Faith and although a profound mystery there is definite teaching which must be accepted by Catholics. For instance we believe that three distinct Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, possess one Divine Nature and that this truth, revealed to us by Jesus Christ, has since been explored by His Church.

Mr Longenecker tells us that "God is relationship" [p.48] and that this is why ‘Christians have understood God to be three Persons in One.’ Apart from the fact that we could never have deduced the Trinity for ourselves, God defined Himself not as relationship but as the One Whose essence is Existence. He told Moses in Exodus Ch 3 v.14 "I am Who Am," a title claimed later by Our Blessed Lord when he told the Pharisees "Before Abraham was made, I am." The Jews recognised that he was claiming to be God but if he had said ‘I am relationship’ they would not. So why complicate matters by introducing such an idea?

The Blessed Trinity is dealt with in more detail in Book 3, The Fire of Life. After stating correctly on page 29 that images of the Trinity such as St Patrick’s use of what Mr Longenecker calls a clover leaf (though in the story it was a shamrock) cannot give a satisfactory idea of the Trinity, we are told that "some people see the three aspects of God as his three different ways of working in the world"! This is the heresy of Modalism long since condemned by the Church. But not only does Mr Longenecker fail to point out that it is totally wrong, he pursues the heretical theme, saying that "the best term we have for these three different ways of working is ‘persons’." And again, on page 33, Mr Longenecker writes about "The three way God of Love…" instead of ‘The three Divine Persons in the One God of Truth and Love…’. This misconception of Catholic teaching on the Blessed Trinity permeates the whole series.

2. The Divinity of Christ

Although this is not denied specifically and book two is called The God Man, where Jesus is often described as ‘The Son of God’, He is never given the title ‘God the Son’. Faithful Catholics will interpret ‘Son of God’ as synonomous with ‘God the Son’ but this is not what is written, not what less well informed Catholics will see it as, and maybe not what Mr Longenecker means, as some of his later references to Our Blessed Lord seem to indicate. For, although Jesus is sometimes spoken of as divine, in many other places He is spoken of as if He were merely human.

For example, on page 56 of book two we are told "Jesus Christ was totally who he was created to be" (Arianism). While on page 26 of book three we read that "Jesus is the connecting point between God and the Holy Spirit." This is not consistent with passages on page 39 of book two and will cause confusion. Jesus always referred to the First Person of the Blessed Trinity as ‘the Father’ or ‘My Father’ but Mr Longenecker usually calls Him God as distinct from the Son and the Holy Spirit, and says on page 27 of book three: "Jesus actually acted like God in human form." This confusion probably stems from the misconception of the Blessed Trinity already referred to.

3. The humanity of Christ

We are told all through the booklets that Jesus is merely ‘God in human form’. Angels take human form when they appear to us to pass on messages from God but this is not incarnation. It is never explained that Jesus Christ, God the Son, second Person of the Blessed Trinity, became Man with a body and soul like ours which He still possesses. The title of book two would reflect Catholic teaching better if it was called "God Made Man" instead of The God Man.

4. About us

We are, rightly, described as made in the image and likeness of God. Mr Longenecker, however, seems to think this likeness consists solely of goodness [see page 4 book two]. This is not true. Every human being, including the worst sinner, has the powers of Intellect and Free Will and that is what makes us human, like to God, different from the rest of creation on this planet and with the potential to become God’s friends in this life and in heaven. But when we read what Mr Longenecker always describes as "The ancient story of Adam and Eve," it is made to appear that they did not know good from evil until they ate the forbidden fruit. All normal humans must by definition know good from evil. Eating the forbidden fruit meant deciding for themselves what is good and what is evil - a right which belongs only to Almighty God. Also, essential teaching about our immortal spiritual souls is not given anywhere.

5. Original Sin

This is another basic teaching which cannot be omitted or distorted without undermining all the rest. As para. 389 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: "The Church which has the mind of Christ knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation of Original Sin without undermining the mystery of Christ". The Biblical description of the Fall is given by Mr Longenecker but is always treated as a story, which "outlines the stark truth about our human condition" one which "symbolises the fact that we wander here in a hard and dangerous land,"[p. 39 Book One].

Constant use of the description "story" for this teaching is ambiguous as it can be understood to imply that these important events are merely fables or myths. When the story image is dropped we get God "created men and women to be his sons and daughters" [p. 3 Book Two]. Actually, it is de fide that He first created a man and a woman from whom we are all descended. However, Mr Longenecker doesn’t seem too sure of this, for on page 54 of Book One he tells us the writers of Genesis "are keen to show that Abraham was a descendant of that first person God established a special relationship withAbraham as Adam’s descendant is also part of the same family. This is a curious detail and one that becomes important later." Curious it certainly is, for Abraham, like all the rest of us, is descended from Adam, the first person God created. The family tree is given in Genesis to establish the passage of time.

Original Sin is wrongly defined several times - as for instance on page 25 in Book Four, where it is described as "that inborn tendency to do wrong," from which "baptism cleanses us." The tendency to do wrong is concupiscence, a consequence of original sin, and sadly, it is not true to say that "baptism cleanses us" from it as we all have it until we die. Baptism restores the Sanctifying Grace lost by original sin but not our inclination towards evil. As St Paul remarked, "The evil that I would not that I do…" - and we know he was baptised.

6. Redemption

Because original sin is not properly covered, our Redemption does not have its rightful place. We are only told on page 10 of book two, The God Man, that in His great love for us God "planned to send a messenger to communicate his love in an unforgettable way" - instead of saying God became Man to save us from sin and hell and to teach us the way to Heaven. Later, on page 39, we are told that "Jesus knew that we didn’t need more religion. We needed someone to wrestle with this enormous question of how God can be good yet allow suffering… we need someone to rescue us from the suffering each one of us are in." But as we all know, many are still suffering unrescued.

7. Baptism

Baptism is described only as joining the community Jesus has set up [p. 57 Book Two]. We are told: "In this ceremony they declared their desire to turn from their own way, they expressed their belief in Christ and vowed to join his continuing fight against evil in the world." There is no mention of the necessary cleansing from original sin and the restoration of Sanctifying Grace, a share of God’s own supernatural Life.

Becoming a Christian is described as ‘turning from our way and accepting Christ’s way…’ [p.4 Book Five]. "All we need to do is acknowledge the fact (that Jesus released power in the world) and ask for his Spirit in our lives" [p.40 book three]. But Jesus taught that we need to be born again of water and the Holy Spirit i.e. baptised [see John 3].

A few lines later, we read: "Trusting he will give us the power to change is called ‘faith’."[p.40 book three]. This is Protestantism. Catholics believe that Faith is a supernatural gift given us at Baptism which enables us to believe without doubting everything that God has revealed.

Trusting in God is called Hope, the second theological virtue, which is also received at Baptism.

8. Grace

As well as omitting Sanctifying Grace at Baptism ‘a state of grace’ is described on page 41 Book Three as meaning "we dwell constantly in an awareness that we need God and that he is always by our side." This is not true. What it really means is that we are baptised and have not lost our Sanctifying Grace by unforgiven serious sin.

9. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass

We are told that at the Last Supper "Jesus transformed the Jewish ceremonial meal into a new kind of meal…" and that "…Jesus told his Apostles to celebrate this physical/spiritual covenant or ‘sacrament’ until the end of time" [p.35 Book Four]. And a few lines later: "After he rose from the dead his Apostles realised that he (Jesus) was with them in an astounding way through the ceremonial meal…" In the next few pages the Mass is described merely as a meal five more times and never once as a sacrifice.

This is a grave error made all the more surprising in the light of the recent encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia where the Holy Father specifically states that this "reductive understanding of the Eucharistic Mystery" must be corrected. We must no longer "strip the Mass of its sacrificial meaning" or celebrate it as if "it were merely a fraternal banquet." Yet here we have Mr Longenecker ignoring the sacrificial meaning, treating the Mass as a meal - "food for the troops" - and the priest offering this holy Sacrifice as merely a "presider."

Also, on page 41, after describing the readings at Mass as "spiritual food for our mind and soul," Mr Longenecker goes on to say: "After that we celebrate the ceremonial meal together. Just as Christ did, the priest takes the bread, breaks it and blesses it. He then gives it to us as food for the journey, and as the living presence of Christ in our lives…". Why leave out the Consecration which is the holiest and most important part of the Mass?

10. The Church

Mr Longenecker seems to see the first duty of the Church to "change the world" and to "relieve poverty and establish peace and justice" [pp.56 & 58 Book Four]. These are fruits which should develop but the first duty entrusted to the Church by Jesus was "To teach all nations everything He had commanded…" [Matt 28]. As He told Pontius Pilate: "For this was I born, for this came I into the world, that men might know the Truth".

Mr Longenecker describes a Church of conservatives and liberals "with many opinions and ways that don’t suit you" but you "find a way forward which is right for you" [p.11 Book Five] as if there were a choice about which ‘truth’ to subscribe to. Opinions, however, don’t enter into it. Divinely Revealed Truth is One and Objective and must be accepted by all who want to describe themselves as Catholic [see the Encyclical Veritatis Splendor].

He claims that "Catholics want to learn from non-Christian religions" [p.39]. This seems odd. It is unlikely that man-made faiths have Truths that God forgot to reveal when he founded the Catholic Church.

Describing the role of bishops, he states that "because of this historic truth we can rely on the leaders of the Church to teach truth without error" [p.48]. In point of fact, we can only rely on the Pope to teach infallibly when teaching the whole Church on matters of faith and morals, though of course the bishops who are in full communion with him will also have it right. After all, except for St John Fisher, we could not rely on our bishops during the so-called Reformation. Unfortunately, Mr Longenecker reduces the Pope’s Infallibility to speaking "as the Church’s spokesman" although he has the power to teach infallibly in his own right and not as a spokesman for anyone, see Lumen Gentium 25.

11. The other Sacraments besides Baptism

These are explained without reference to the Grace they bestow. Indeed, we are told that "They are given us to help us lead a new kind of life, not to be that life" [p.42 book four]. But the Sacraments each give us Grace, the Supernatural Life we need to live a new life.

The Sacrament of Penance doesn’t mention the essential element of repentance. "We tell him (the priest) what we have done wrong and ask him to pray with us for God’s forgiveness" [p.27]. Mr Longenecker goes on to admit that Jesus did give his disciples the power to forgive sins and that this power is still available through his priests, but the first impression is that we merely ask for prayer.

The Sacrament of Confirmation is described as when "a baptised person is formally received into the Church." Yet a baptised person is already in the Church, and Confirmation is not strictly speaking necessary for Salvation though eminently important in contributing to Christian perfection.

Good intentions not enough

There are more problems such as Mr Longenecker’s strange views on the Reformation (see page 19 book 5) but I think those mentioned are enough to show these booklets are unacceptable.

I am sure Mr Longenecker is full of good intentions but unfortunately, like so many converts these days, he has not been properly instructed himself and is still ignorant of Catholic teaching. Consequently, he cannot instruct others. After all, no one can pass on what they do not possess themselves. Fortunately there are good priests who do understand the Faith who could write replacement books which, by presenting our glorious Faith clearly and correctly, will inspire Catholics to greater fervour and make non-Catholics anxious to learn more about Catholic teaching.

The CTS will, of course, have to recall these booklets and replace them with sound Catholic booklets as quickly as possible before they cause further damage. For although they contain some truth, these booklets are by no means a fair "presentation of the Catholic Faith" and should not be promoted as such by the Catholic Truth Society, if it is to continue to deserve the proud title of Catholic and Truth.

Neither do I feel that money donated by Catholics to spread the Faith should be used to subsidise this mixture of confusion and dissent. Apart from the moral question involved, I am concerned that if the Charity Commission get wind of this they will feel bound to withdraw the CTS’ charitable status, which might be difficult to get restored.

* * * * *

EDITOR’S COMMENT

Although one detects in the above review of Christianity Pure and Simple the direct or indirect influence of a range of suspects, from Teilhard to Rahner to von Balthasar, its impossibly fuzzy mixture of the orthodox, heterodox and heretical clearly owes much to the filtering down of Cardinal Ratzinger’s more progressive ideas as explained in James Larson’s recent series of articles in Christian Order [see Oct. and Nov. 2003, and Feb. and March 2004].

In particular, Mr Longenecker’s mantra that "God is relationship" - the subjective core of process theology and Modernist flux - is the very foundation of the Cardinal’s Personalist/Phenomenological system of thought in which he posits that "God is entirely relationship" [see "Heart of Betrayal, CO, Nov. 2003]. Mr Larson has pointed out the corrosive ramifications of this spurious view in precisely the sort of erroneous or confusing scriptural, ecumenical and sacramental notions that Mrs McLeod has discovered in Mr Longenecker’s work.

The marginalisation of St. Thomas Aquinas, and consequent shoring up of ecumenism, appears to underlie this new Personalism. Accordingly, we find that Christianity Pure and Simple evinces a complete lack of Thomistic precision. It is also important to understand that the well-meaning and zealous Mr Longenecker is very much a mainstream neo-conservative figure on the English scene, and his writings, books and talks are received as uncritically by the unsuspecting, dumbed-down faithful as are those troubling aspects of Cardinal Ratzinger’s views critiqued in the Larson series.

We hasten to add that CO has always given the Cardinal full credit down the years, praising his strong support for the Old Mass and his admirable defence of orthodoxy in many areas. We are all deeply appreciative of his efforts. However, human respect must never blind us to that which we consider threatens the integrity of our Holy Faith, especially in these tumultuous times.

In our March edition exorcist Father Gabriel Amorth stated, apropos of the Vatican, that "The smoke of Satan has entered everywhere. Everywhere!" Modernism – "the synthesis of all heresies" - is surely central to that observation. Viewed in that light the Larson revelations are not so surprising. Like many of his peers, Cardinal Ratzinger, the first non-Thomistic Prefect of the CDF in centuries, is simply a product of his era. Regarded as a ‘reformed liberal’ who gradually distanced himself from the excesses of his ultra-liberal brethren, His Eminence appears not to have jettisoned all the progressive nostrums he imbibed down the years. He is only human, after all, and even a few Popes have been guilty of personal ‘skirmishes’ with the heterodox or heretical.

We do not suggest, of course, that Mr Larson’s articles are the last word on this matter. Not at all. While they were considered too important not to print, they are now open to further comment and critique, positive or negative. Interested readers are encouraged to communicate with the author directly - 26283 202nd St., Long Prairie, MN 56347, USA. Email: reditus2003@yahoo.com - and/or the editor.

It is also hoped that this controversy will now be taken up and addressed in more specialist journals because the charges made and questions raised by Larson are pressing, as the Ratzinger-effect revealed in Mrs McLeod’s review so shockingly illustrates. Moreover, they are amplified following the recent lauding of Karl Rahner by the Cardinal’s secretary at the CDF. (Rahner’s heretical beliefs were outlined by Father George Duggan SM in the Aug/Sept 2001 CO.)

Indeed, it seems that everyone is being ‘rehabilitated’ nowadays except Aquinas - even though few things in the Church are in more urgent need of restoration than Thomism! In this regard, the following essay outlining the historical roots and development of Thomistic philosophy is timely. But if advocates of Phenomenology and Personalism believe the insights offered by their system will eventually do for Thomism what St. Thomas himself did for Aristotelianism, perhaps they should read Christianity Pure and Simple - and think again!