The Three Temptations of the Church

In Volume I of Jesus of Nazareth, authored by Pope Benedict XVI before he became pontiff, the three temptations of Christ in the desert before entering public life are considered.  The devil poses these temptations to try to confirm his suspicions that Jesus is the chosen one of God, and the temptations themselves are geared to be attractive to one who wants to be accepted as the promised Messiah. The Pope also makes applications of the temptations to the Church – three tempting approaches that would assure the acceptance of the Church and its message, but would be unworthy of the Church.

1) Regarding the first temptation, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread” (Mt. 4:3), it is clear that an easy way for Jesus to win acceptance of his Messiahship would be to become a “bread king.” One thinks of the incident in which he multiplied the loaves and fishes for a crowd of five thousand, which incited the crowd to try to take him by force and make him king (Jn. 6:15) – so that he had to flee into the mountain to escape.  If he provided such largesse often, an easy path to acceptance by the masses would be paved for him.

As applied to the Church, Benedict envisions the Church being afflicted by the same temptation:

Is there anything more tragic, is there anything more opposed to belief in the existence of a good God and a Redeemer of mankind, than world hunger?…   Are not social problems—the primary, true yardstick by which redemption has to be measured?…  Marxism—quite understandably—made this very point the core of its promise of salvation. Should we not say the same thing to the Church? If you claim to be the Church of God, then start by making sure the world has bread—the rest comes later.

A very serious temptation of the Church is to gain acceptance of its authority and message by solving social problems.  Liberation theologians during the 70s allied themselves with Marxism, thinking this alliance would draw people to the message of the Gospel.  But the Kingdom of God is a separate message, connected, but not identical, with social justice.

Liberal Catholics, identifying the Gospel with social justice, often are willing to literally “throw out the baby with the bathwater” – voting for rabidly pro-abortion candidates on the grounds that they are for social justice (along with most atheists and secularists).  The right to life of the most vulnerable human beings is considered somehow irrelevant to this “social justice.”

2) In the second temptation, the devil transports Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and challenges him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give his angels charge concerning you’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (Mt. 4:5-7). This challenge to “push the envelope” of God’s forbearance would satisfy the devil’s curiosity, but Jesus responds that we “should not tempt the Lord God.”

The Pope comments,

The structural question concerning the remarkable scriptural discussion between Christ and the tempter thus leads directly to the question about its content. What is this dispute about? The issue at stake in this second temptation has been summed up under the motif of “bread and circuses.” The idea is that after bread has been provided, a spectacle has to be offered, too.

Imagine the instant influence and adulation Jesus could have acquired, if there had been a crowd gathered down below the temple, looking up and seeing him literally being carried down by the angels; or if, in his preaching, he had used his miraculous powers to draw attention to himself in front of crowds, e.g. by levitating.

There is a temptation among some segments of the Church to draw people in and make conversions through “signs and wonders.”  The Medjugorje cult now is the chief example of this. Pilgrims have been coming in the tens of thousands for over thirty years to an unauthorized Marian shrine, where the Madonna is alleged to have been appearing almost on demand to six visionaries over 33,000 times.  Visitors often return with tales of seeing solar phenomena imitating the miraculous “dance of the sun” at Fatima in 1917, and having their rosaries mysteriously turn a golden tint; Randall Sullivan, in The Miracle Detective, reports an incident when the visionaries were pulled miraculously in two minutes to the top of Cross Mountain at Medjugorje.

But the messages of the “Gospa” at Medjugorje are heterodox messages: “all faiths are identical;” some people are in hell because “they have committed grave sins that God cannot pardon;” people in heaven are “present with the soul and the body;” and a disobedient priest-director, Fr. Zovko, is a “saint,” in spite of his suspension from priestly functions. This Madonna allegedly entrusted ten secrets to the visionaries, none of which have been revealed; predicted a “great sign” which never appeared; and said that her last appearance would be on July 31, 1981, but apparently changed her mind, and decided to continue appearing. This Madonna also, strangely and uncharacteristically, supports the Franciscans in their disobedience to Vatican orders, and tells the visionaries to ignore their bishops. These are strange “fruits” of a visitation by the Madonna. Disobedience is the sin Satan (famous for his own non serviam) identifies with most closely; once inculcated, it branches out into greed, lust, wrath, and other capital sins.

Medjugorje supporters point to many “good fruits” – conversions, return to the sacraments, etc. – but one can also be sure that there would have been all manner of conversions and repentance, possibly lifelong, if Jesus had decided to manifest his supernatural powers in public.

Yves Chiron chronicles 71 apparitions supposed to have taken place after Medjugorje, between 1981 and 1991.  This is a spectacular way to get some people to flock to the sacraments and convert, complementing the “bread” with “circuses.” But lasting faith ordinarily grows in low-key surroundings in the silence of the heart.

3) In the third temptation, from a very high mountain, the devil “showed [Jesus] all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory, and he said to Him, ‘All these things will I give you, if you fall down and worship me’” (Mt. 4:8).

The Pope observes that, as applied to the Church,

The tempter is not so crude as to suggest to us directly that we should worship the devil.  He merely suggests that we opt for the reasonable decision, that we choose to give priority to a planned and thoroughly organized world, where God may have his place as a private concern but must not interfere in our essential purposes…. Faith and religion are now directed toward political goals. Only the organization of the world counts. Religion matters only insofar as it can serve that objective.

First of all, one should notice that Jesus did not contradict the devil regarding the alleged power he had over the world. Like a Mafia boss, Satan, within the limits allowed by God, has tremendous power to reward those who are forwarding his purposes, and make things difficult for anyone who gets in his way. But Jesus was not interested in any kind of “power sharing” or détente with evil.

The temptation of the Church, similarly, is nothing so gross as devil worship, but much more subtle – making accommodation with evil, to be seen as “progressive,” and thus winning many of a progressive mentality to its side.  For example, the current rush of some Catholic institutions to accept the Presidential mandate for coverage of contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilizing procedures is an accommodation that has mustered much support from liberals, who congratulate such institutions for no longer being “stuck in the dark ages,” inimical to modern progress.  Some, seeing how “progressive” the Church has become, might overcome their hesitancy and desire to become associated with this modernized Church.  This sort of Church, in their eyes, would be an asset for their plans of organizing or reorganizing society, no longer an unwelcome obstacle. But power-sharing with evil has a way of boomeranging.

At the end of these three temptations, the Gospel tells us that angels came to minister to Jesus.  Likewise, if the Church is able to avoid easy, pragmatic ways of evangelizing the world, we can be sure that supernatural help will arrive to give an extra boost to its efforts.

Howard Kainz


Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

  • My only concern would be with the section on Medugorje as i think the situation with the Priest and visionaries is misrepresented. I have visited there and it is a holy place. Other Marian apparitions have been opposed in the past, including Lourdes. At the same time in the past miracles have much more readily been accepted. If the Laciano miracle, which gave us Corpus Christi, happened today the Church would still be studying it and of course it would not be necessary to believe in it to win salvation. We do live in an age of apostasy and faith in miracles has dimmed terribly. We also live in an age of technological wonders so God’s wonders are often out done in men’s minds by the inventions we feel we have wrought. Unlike the writer I feel God is challenging us today by providing us with wonders (not dependent on the Church or science) but totally dependent on God and asking us to believe more firmly that ‘with God, all things are possible’. Often these wonders are under reported, scrutinized to death and minimalized.

    • Schinmd

      I have been to Medjugorje and believe it’s autheticy by it’s fruits.  You can feel God’s Peace as soon as you arrive.  I was there in 1988 and me Vicka who was very humble.
      I am not as sure of the monthly messages that continue till this day, maybe they are true, possibly not.  The way this article described Medjugorje seemed incorrect to me.

    • Tom

      Mary Zore
      A couple of years ago I downloaded all the “messages” from the “seers”. How could Mary make thousands of banal statements? If one looks at the syntax, there is a half a dozen of sentence structures that repeat themselves, in various iterations. They are either uplifting, or warnings against sin. If one sorts them in sequences, they become a sort of litany. To me, these seem either generated by a word processor using a template, or by some mechanical device. And how do you explain the statements that are strangely, a little self serving for the “seers”, like disobedience to the bishop, and calling the priest that supported the ‘seers”, and later on the side impregnated a women, a saint?
      Fifteen years ago, I visited two “unapproved” Marian apparition sites, one in Marmora Ontario, and the other one in Conyers GA. In both one could find truly religious people. There were amazing stories of sky events, incredible apparition, etc, in both sites. Once one arrived, to “prove” these wonderful apparitions, both sites displayed prints of photos people took (this is before cell phone cameras). Although both sites had nothing to do with one and there, the pictures were almost the same in both sites: blurry pictures taken with cameras aimed at the sun, with images of clouds, sun reflections, vaguely looking like misshaped crosses, or a poorly drawn persons. That was it.
      That people “feel” a “conversion” in such places is totally understandable. Scientology converts have the same “feelings”. But our Faith is much deeper. It’s not just about “feelings”, as St Ignatius recognized and warned against, 500 years ago.
      Yet today, in the Church, it’s again much about “feelings”, both on the left and the right. Such “feelings” are unfortunately exploited in cult like “new movements”, to recruit gullible paying members.  These movements are now causing a mess in Rome (OD, LCRC, NC, and C&L in particular).
      BTW, speaking of “movements” what happened to a crisismagazine article posted today:
      From Marx to Maciel: What An Ex-Communist Can Teach Us About False Catholics
      by R.J. Stove 6/5/12

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Concerning the excitement surrounding the “miracles of the Holy Thorn,” in 17th century Paris, the holy Abbé de Saint-Cyran warned that miracles were a distraction from the need for austerity and discipline in religious practice and for an interior mortification of the senses.

      His friend, the theologian Pierre Nicole, remarked that God usually sends miracles to convict the reprobate and to leave them without excuse, rather than for any benefit
      that they bring to the little number of the elect.

      They would certainly have agreed with Mgr Ronald Knox, when he wrote, “How to explain
      these phenomena — Camisard child-prophecy, or Jansenist convulsions, or Methodist swoonings, or lrvingite glossolaly — is a question that need not detain us.  What is important is that they are all part of a definite type of spirituality, one which cannot be happy unless it is seeing results.”

  • What you have written concerning the Church is what Thomas Aquinas wrote about and what Fulton Sheen expounded on the last century. 

  • Great article. Efficiently cuts through so many heresies.

  • TeaPot562

    A nice meditation on three common types of temptation.  Thank you.

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  • Jim M

     This is a good article that reminds us of the mine-field out there..
    However, with Medjugorje, Mary’s message is not “all faiths are identical” – the message you may be referring to is this one: (it was an answer to a question) “Tell this priest, tell everyone, that it is you who are divided on earth.  The Muslims, and the Orthodox, for the same reason as Catholics are equal before my Son and me.  You are all my children.  Certainly, all religions are not equal, but all men are equal before God, as St. Paul says.  It does not suffice to belong to the Catholic Church to be saved, but it is necessary to respect the Commandments of God in following one’s conscience.  Those who are not Catholics are no less creatures made in the image of God, and destined to rejoin someday the House of the Father.  Salvation is available to everyone, without exception.  Only those who refuse God deliberately are condemned.  To him who been given little, little will be asked for.  To whomever has been given much [to Catholics], very much will be required.  It is God alone, in His infinite justice, Who determines the degree of responsibility and pronounces judgement.”
    & Jesus Himself spoke of unpardonable sin (which if I’m not mistaken is refusing God’s mercy) – which would be the only reason they are in hell..
    I don’t have time to go through this – but I’d encourage you to look more closely at Medjugorje.  I am an engineer, and very sceptical about “signs & wonders”.  I’ve studied Medjugorje at length, and believe something very significant is happening there.  When I went there, there were numerous “events” that happened (and I even personally witnessed the miracle of the sun — which looked a communion host directly in front of the sun & allowed me to look at it for over an hour) — But the most significant things that happened were the conversion of hearts.  & instead of the emphasis being on extracurricular phenomena – it was on the sacraments, the Mass & conversion.
    Your article says “Medjugorje supporters point to many “good fruits” – conversions, return
    to the sacraments, etc. – but one can also be sure that there would have
    been all manner of conversions and repentance, possibly lifelong, if
    Jesus had decided to manifest his supernatural powers in public.”
    First – please don’t write-off these good fruits, & second, Jesus did manifest His supernatural powers in public (fed a lot of people, raised the dead, cured people, etc.).  God chooses how He manifests His supernatural power – & He leaves it to us to discern the real from the fake (& thankfully, He’s given us His Holy Spirit to do this)

    • Howard Kainz

       The message I’m referring to is from October 1, 1981, when the visionaries were asked if all faiths were identical.  Response of the Gospa was “Before God all the faiths are identical.  God governs them like a king in his kingdom…’ Fr. Laurentin, a supporter of Medjugorje, asked Vick for a clarification, and she answered rather ambiguously, “The Blessed Virgin told me that ‘All religions are equal before God…. That is to say, that all men are equal before God.”

      • Jim M

        What book are you getting this from?  The book I have, “Words from Heaven” published by Caritas in Birmingham, has that that Oct 1, 1981 transaction as:
        “Q: Are all religions good?
        A: Members of all faiths are equal before God.  God rules over each faith just like a sovereign over his kingdom.  In the world, all religions are not the same because all people have not complied with the Commandments of God.  They reject and disparage them” 

        • Howard Kainz

           Your version is just a different English translation based on the “Chronicle” of the visions, edited by Fr. Tomislav Vlasic, and cited in books and websites on Medjugorje.  Fr. Laurentin in “Messages and Teachings of Mary at Medjugorje: Chronology of the Messages, the Urgency to return to God” cites the “Chronicle” and uses the version you have. There is no difference in meaning.

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  • Alex

    Mr. Kainz,

    I understand the Pope’s conclusions from the first two tempations, but not the third.

    How does “He merely suggests that we opt for the reasonable decision, that we choose to give priority to a planned and thoroughly organized world” come from “All these things will I give you, if you fall down and worship me.’?



    • Howard Kainz

      I think the Pope is referring to the temptation of “getting along,” not “rocking the boat” too much, compromising with evil and with the evil designs of the powers that be.  The Pope after the passage you refer to, continues:  “God may have his place as a private concern but must not
      interfere in our essential purposes.” In other words, the ideal of an evil regime, if it cannot completely do away with the Church, would be to force the Christian faith into something purely private.

  • Marissa Nichols

    That was my favorite chapter of that volume.  Thank you so much for illuminating it furthe with this excellect article!

  • lori

    This is a great article.  Thank you for pointing out the ways our Church leaders have been fooled and are still being fooled by the devil.  It’s so scary to think they end up decieving millions in their Churches with their fake love.  Charity has been substituted for social justice where gov’t money is used to feed the poor, give sterile needles to the drug addict and free Gardasil vaccine to young girls all under the name of Catholic charity. 

    Of course, it falls into looking good.  The bigger the social justice or charity the better they look.  They brag about their hospitals, universities, charities, and nursing homes as the kingdom of God but forget they’ve watered down the faith so the kingdom of God is not longer living in the hearts of men where God wants it. 

    All of the above is rationalized in what I’ve heard our own bishop and parish priest say, ” Prudence is the king of all virtues”.  Of course, looking at the apostles, none of them were earthly prudent but spiritually prudent.  They followed Christ to the cross out of love for God and man.  Our leaders seem to be all about a kingdom made of brick and mortar!  Which reminds me of what Jesus said about not being able to serve both God and money.  The Catholic faith is Truth and beauty but too many have made it a business.  When sisters in Leavenworth, Kansas run a health association that is rated on the Fitch report something is wrong.  When Catholic Charities pulls in 3 billion a year and 65% is from gov’t money something is wrong.  When Catholic leaders run over the unborn for their tax exempt status or for universal healthcare with ‘abortion neutral’ language something is wrong.  Charity is no longer from the heart and gratuitous but a business of gov’t grants, business grants and our tithe.

    God is good and is now making our leaders take a public stand.  Although most of our leaders are still silent on contraceptives, even though it’s called the contraceptive mandate, many articles are being written on birth controls horrible health risks, not only that it’s an abortifacient but the health risks to the woman, her relationships, and the environment.

  • Robert Charron

    Some well founded observations. However it would be a mistake for Catholics to not speak up for legitimate issues of Social Justice. Actually most conservative/traditionalist Catholics distance themselves from any concerns involving social justice, and instead embrace the Republican liberal Gospel that the “free market” will automatically provide social justice and ignore the encyclicals on this very subject. They fear they will look like liberals should they speak out for any social justice issues, thus leaving the field to those liberal Catholics who have succumbed to the liberal social goals, and whose efforts in that regard give legitimate Catholic conserns for social justice a bad name. So conservative/traditional Catholics find themselves arrayed with the  Corporatist Republicans in denouncing labor unions, paying a living wage, and protecting the very, very rich. They also support our wars that result in destroying other nations, that create more terrorists, and activities like torture.  This is just as mistaken as the actions of liberal Catholics in supporting abortions and making available federally funded contraceptives.

    • Poor sap, still believing in that the factions of the oligarchy that rules this country are matter of factly different one from the other…

  • Cbloommd

    So how does one explain Rosaries turing to gold or weeping fluid from a statue or people seeing visions in the sun while staring at the sun for over 20 minuntes without going blind or even people becoming priest and nuns? All very well documented so it is happening.The devil is doing this the convert people away from his kingdom? Any writer can take the standard opposing view sound bites to come off as smarter that than rest of us. However, the real truth is in exaiming the complexities of the matter as a whole and not pass judgemnent yet. Medjugorje is the confession and communion capital of the world wether you agree it’s tre or not. And without a doubt supernatural things are happinging. So our dercernment on the matter should be why would evil want confession, communion and faith conversion to florish?

    • The Church has already passed judgement: “there is nothing supernatural in Medjugorje.” (Bp. Zanic)

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  • Lisa Hurley

    “Medjugorje supporters point to many “good fruits” – conversions, return to the sacraments, etc. – but one can also be sure that there would have been all manner of conversions and repentance, possibly lifelong, if Jesus had decided to manifest his supernatural powers in public.”

    This is not true, Jesus did manifest His Supernatural powers in public throughout His whole public ministry, to bring souls to God.

  • Under the leadership of Francis, the Church was thrown under the bus driven by the devil with these temptations as passengers.