“Considered in itself, idolatry is the greatest of mortal sins.” So begins the old Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on the topic. I was surprised to read that this is the greatest of all mortal sins. Was it worse than murder? Worse even than the sexual abuse of minors?
“For it is, by definition,” the entry continues,
an inroad on God’s sovereignty over the world, an attempt on His divine majesty, a rebellious setting up of a creature on the throne that belongs to Him alone. Even the simulation of idolatry, in order to escape death during persecution, is a mortal sin, because of the pernicious falsehood it involves and the scandal it causes. Of Seneca who, against his better knowledge, took part in idolatrous worship, St. Augustine says: “He was the more to be condemned for doing mendaciously what people believed him to do sincerely.”
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Well (I then thought), that makes sense.
That which violates the First Precept of Charity, and the First Commandment, is reasonably the worst sin. It is so bad, and so scandalous, that even the appearance of it, while interiorly not consented to, is a grave sin, according to St. Augustine. Thousands and maybe millions of Christians have died rather than render an offering to an idol. It is right that they did so. The Church teaches that we should avoid idolatry even at the cost of one’s life.
This truth establishes—if not a burden of proof to show otherwise—at least a reasonable claim to the right for clarification by a Catholic layperson. I am referring to the start of the Amazon synod, when an object that looked like an idol was brought into the Vatican gardens and placed at the center of what seemed to be a religious ceremony involving offerings and prostration. This same image was later placed in a church. Moreover, something that looked like an offering to this image—a bowl with plants—was brought up to the altar during the Offertory, during the closing Mass of the Synod, and placed on the altar, where it was left until the end of the Mass.
No one I know participated in any of this. It was not my initiative nor that of any of my acquaintances. We were minding our own business but found these scenes and these things thrust upon us. It would seem we had a right to ask: what was done here? It looks like an idol was involved in some way. Please explain to us why it was not an idol.
“Considered in itself, idolatry is the greatest of mortal sins.” Take any other mortal sin, less serious, and imagine a ceremony in which it looked like that sin was committed—for example, an unmentionable practice from a pagan cult as included in a non-Christian rite in the Vatican gardens. No one would be out of bounds if he found even the appearance of such a thing outrageous; if he asked for an explanation as to why it was not, after all, what it appeared to be; or if he wanted to know why something that appeared to be so objectively wrong was countenanced nonetheless.
No good account has yet been offered. During the Amazon Synod, the Vatican news service referred to a paragraph in Newman which they suggested justified the use of the “Pachamama” image. In an article last week in Crisis, I pointed out how the Newman passage did nothing of the sort. It merely observed, against low church Protestantism, that the Catholic Church over the centuries has incorporated various types of religious practices found in paganism, such as candles, the sprinkling of water, and roadside shrines. Newman was arguing against the claim that ancient Christianity lacked such practices. His view was that as the Church “developed” it incorporated various types of pagan practices. Of course, he also believed that the Church never did so when there was the possibility of confusion between pagan and Christian worship, or if some might use the Christian practice to invoke pagan deities. Always, the practice was recreated with an entirely different meaning in Christianity.
This mere fact is very much worth observing. It is as if a Christian were to say, as is true, that sexual intercourse between a husband and wife in holy matrimony has a completely new meaning. Suppose they were formerly promiscuous. Their chaste relations mean something different. Sex between them does not (of itself) conjure up the “false gods” of past lovers.—Because God is a jealous God, and anything that introduces loyalties to false gods is completely forbidden by Him.
That is why here I want to follow up and point out that the Newman passage conspicuously says nothing about idols. It mentions “images,” but surely meaning by this only that the Catholic Church, instead of rejecting graven images as did the Israelites, has made use of images of Our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints.
The reason is that Newman took the history of sound Christian practice to reflect his own horror of idolatry. For Newman and others in the Oxford Movement, everything hinged on whether the Romish Church was idolatrous or not. One had to show that it incorporated pagan modes of worship, while in no way flirting with pagan idolatry. Back then, as for many Protestants now, for the Church in Rome to show itself indulgent towards idolatry would be a decisive argument against becoming Catholic.
One of the most winsome personal recollections of Newman was by William Lockhart, who, after Newman died in 1891, wrote down his memories from student years in Oxford fifty years earlier. “When Newman read the Holy Scriptures from the lectern of St. Mary’s or at Littlemore,” Lockhart reminisced, “we felt more than ever that his words were the words of a Seer, who saw God, and the things of God.”
There was just one particular memory in this regard that Lockhart includes in his recollections: it is Newman’s reaction against idolatry. “I remember his reading the passage in the Book of Wisdom about the making of idols,” Lockhart writes, “and the sublime scorn with which he read of the ‘carving of the block of wood and the painting it with vermilion’ impressed me with the blank stupidity of the attempt to put the idea of God under any material form.”
Newman’s “sublime scorn” of idols is found sharply expressed in contexts where one might antecedently expect some sympathy. For instance, in his sermon, “The Gospel Feast,” he argues that Scripture has always used a feast as an image of our relationship with God. Even pagan offerings to idols of nature and of the harvest testify to this truth, he says: “Such seems to have been the common notion of communion with God all the world over, however it was gained; viz. that we arrived at the possession of His invisible gifts by participation in His visible.”
Yet, Newman in no way admits that the pagans are doing the same thing as Christians. They testified to the truth, he is very clear, only insofar as, through a feast, they succeed in communicating with devils, just as Christians now communicate with God:
St. Paul seems to acknowledge that in that way [the pagans] did communicate, though most miserably and fearfully, with those idols, and with the evil spirits which they represented. “The things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God; and I would not that ye should hold communion with devils.” (1 Cor. x. 20) Here, as before, a feast is spoken of as the means of communicating with the unseen world, though, when the feast was idolatrous, it was the fellowship of evil spirits.
The basic assumption of Newman’s novel of the third century, Callista, is that obstinate rejection of offerings to idols is the touchstone of true Christianity. The magistrates know it full well: “it was only in critical times, when some idolatrous act was insisted on by the magistrate, that the specific nature of Christianity was tested and detected. Then, at length, it was seen to differ from all other religious varieties by that irrational and disgusting obstinacy, as it was felt to be, which had rather suffer torments and lose life than submit to some graceful, or touching, or at least trifling observance which the tradition of ages had sanctioned.” Callista comes to recognize it, too; I’ll say no more, to avoid a plot spoiler.
In these matters, Newman was deeply informed by his study of the Fathers and “primitive Christians.” Remarking on followers of St. Anthony, for instance, he says, “They considered that brute nature was widely subjected to the power of spirits; as, on the other hand, there had been a time when even the Creator Spirit had condescended to manifest Himself in the bodily form of a dove. Their notions concerning local demoniacal influences as existing in oracles and idols, in which they were sanctioned by Scripture, confirmed this belief.” There is no optimistic celebration here of the ‘spirits’ venerated among the Amazonian tribes, as one finds in the final Synod document.
St. Athanasius, writing in his History of the Arians, a text which Newman painstakingly edited, even takes the introduction of idols into churches in the fourth-century Egyptian persecution to be the worst possible wickedness: “When was ever such iniquity heard of? when was such an evil deed ever perpetrated, even in times of persecution? They were heathens who persecuted formerly; but they did not bring their idols into the Churches. … This is a new piece of iniquity. It is not simply persecution, but more than persecution, it is a prelude and preparation for the coming of Antichrist.”
So they thought; so, I think we can grant, Newman supposed.
Newman so much abhorred idolatry that, in his broader thought, influenced by Francis Bacon, he uses the word “idol” in a metaphorical sense, to mean any falsely held belief in important matters. We end up serving this falsehood—this idol—as if serving a false god. If we cling to this “idol,” it keeps us from drawing near to the true God.
It is commonly recognized that Newman in his Biglietto Speech at the end of his life identified “liberalism” in religion as the error which he had spent his whole life battling. This impulse of his really is the unifying strand in his thought. Or, more obviously, that unifying strand is the opposite of “liberalism”—that is, his commitment to what he calls “the dogmatic principle.” This principle means that you believe there is a single truth in religion, that you seek it with courage and tenacity, and that you embrace it completely when you find it, even at cost to your life if necessary. (In Newman’s case, he gave up his standing in Oxford and his reputation in English society.)
If you see an analogy here between the First Commandment and “the dogmatic principle,” on the one hand, and idolatry and “liberalism” in religion, you would be correct. Another way to put it was that for Newman, relativism in religion was the same as polytheism, and polytheism is a kind of relativism. His battle with liberalism, and his hatred of idolatry, were one and the same.
Or one might say that Newman’s “sublime scorn” of idolatry, which he learned from the Fathers, found coordinate expression in this great Victorian’s “irrational and disgusting obstinacy” in affirming absolute truth in religion. Either way, it’s not easy to turn a passage in Newman into an explanation of apparent idolatry.
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