Some years ago a parishioner wrote to me about a Christian sect which had started up back in 1916 in England which had chosen the name Liberal Catholic Church. There is an American branch and in its literature it is said to be growing, but they seem to have only 14 small parishes in the whole country. This new schismatic sect describes itself as an open church that invites everyone to receive its sacraments regardless of their beliefs: This is quoted directly from their own literature:
The Liberal Catholic Church came into being in order that people who insist upon complete freedom of belief in their search for truth could have free access to the traditional Catholic Sacraments without having to give even lip service to creeds or dogmas to which they could, not honestly and wholeheartedly subscribe.
The parishioner wryly commented that she thought this was a religion tailor made for the me generation and folks who wanted to feel good about themselves without any obligations, even to God. Of course these new religious movements are anything but new – scepticism is a religion as old as western civilization. Religious scepticism can be found in ancient Greece, and its modern offspring is found in the Modernist religious notions of a century ago.
But religions without dogma seem a bit disingenuous when they say you don’t even have to “pay lip service” to any creeds to be a member or to receive their sacraments. I wonder how well received a member would be who started spouting beliefs like the Klan, say a belief that Jews were less than human, or that homosexuals were worse than animals. I mean how do you remain “open” and exclude people with those beliefs. Such an open attitude can only be sustained if we believe that truth is what each person thinks it is; so how do you exclude any belief from your open Church? It’s a problem.
Perhaps they would say that you don’t have to believe anything, but you can’t believe things that are opposed to what the leadership expresses in its own statement of doctrine, which is very brief, and which is not binding on anyone, and thus they avoid the term creed. In their statement of the leaders’ beliefs, number 6 states simply “Man has ethical duties to himself and to others” and then quotes the two-fold commandment of love. That’s it; that’s their ethical content in a sentence. The rest is left up to you.
So what does love of neighbor really entail? That’s up to each member to decide. So, if one decides that love of neighbor means having relations with the Bishop’s wife, what’s wrong with that? Or if love of neighbor means not wanting people to suffer, what’s wrong with killing a neighbor who is suffering, or is making me suffer? How far does one have to go down this line of reasoning to discover that in the real world love of neighbor cannot exist in any group without certain moral doctrines or convictions being held in common, and that the principle that this religion’s members can believe whatever they choose is simply an appeal to the anti-authoritarian attitude of so many people today when it comes to religion. Every religion, even this non-dogmatic, open sect, will in the end have some bottom line when it comes to required beliefs, a kind of basic orthodoxy demanded of all, for without some commonly held beliefs life in common is impossible, and authentic love an illusion.
Moreover, I don’t see how Jesus could possibly be at home in this religion which claims his name and authority for getting rid of any requirement of dogmatic belief. This new Catholicism even claims that Jesus never thought other religions had false doctrines, he was an “open” teacher, and one of its leaders’ stated beliefs is that in the end every man will be saved, because from the beginning every man has had the divine spark in him. Man is God without Jesus and God is not really man in Jesus, who’s just the best exemplar of the divine spark in every man.
But the real Jesus whom we heard in today’s Gospel was no relativist when it came to truth or doctrine. He was, as the people then said, a teacher who spoke with true, and we might add absolute, authority when it came to his message. Search the Gospels -you will look in vain for a Jesus who in any way qualifies his teachings by expressions like, “or so it seems to me” or “but that’s just my opinion” or “you may see it another way.” There are simply no such qualifications to be found. Jesus says simply this is the way it is. In fact, in the Sermon on the Mount, he even corrects the religion of Israel, his own inherited religious tradition: “You have heard it said,” such and such … ” but I tell you….”
There is no room for maneuvering here. You either believe Him or you don’t, follow him or walk away. Love Him, or end up despising Him.
What other great figure in religion said things like Jesus did with such absolute authority? That is what astounds the people who heard him then – he speaks with a real authority, and does not equivocate like the scribes of Israel, and that is what troubles the sceptics today. Note how the people of his own day first describe his preaching: “What is this? A new teaching with authority!” But we must ask, whose authority? God’s absolute authority, for only God can claim such absoluteness. That’s who the people recognized behind this new teaching, and they were “astounded!”
Just think about it, who but Jesus ever called himself the Truth? Who ever claimed that his teachings were Truth itself, and would, if they were followed with true faith, set the believer free, free from sin and free from falsehoods that enslave? These claims did not sit well with many then, and they do not sit well with anyone who thinks that truth does not matter when it comes to religious practice.
Now Jesus does proclaim a doctrine of universal love as the basis of true religion. And certainly Jesus loved all mankind and died even for those who would not believe him, as well as those who would. But the love that Jesus taught, lived and commanded us to live, is not a love which denies the importance of truth. For if that were possible, it would have denied the importance of his own person and mission -for Jesus, recall, claimed to be the Truth. Man cannot love his neighbor, in the way that God loves, and in the way that Jesus commands us to love, without also loving Truth. Without the love of truth, “love” of neighbor becomes very uncertain, and can lead to the death camp as surely as hate can lead to the killing fields. Without the love of truth to complement and support the love of neighbor, the lover can become as much of a threat to the beloved as someone who hates that person.
In reality, Jesus taught a whole world of truths concerning the origin, nature, destiny and value of every human person, and it is this universe of truth about my neighbor that makes possible loving every neighbor as Jesus commanded, even the enemy, or the one who hates us. Jesus and his doctrine remains that rock for us always, for He is indeed the way, the truth and the life for man. He is the answer to man’s deepest questions, in this age, and every other age. But those who have never heard his message need to glimpse its absolute truth, its divine authority, and they can do so perhaps only in the way we base our lives upon its absoluteness. Indeed, the crowds today, blinded by such deep scepticism, will not likely see the real truth of His teaching unless we believers live it ourselves, in all its absolute demands, and thus bear witness to its divine authority. That is real love of God and love of neighbor, as Jesus taught it and lived it, and we must do the same today.