It may come across as strange to argue that an open mind or dialogue is dangerous, especially considering our culture often asserts the exact opposite. An education is something highly valued in our culture, and rightfully so, discussion, debate, and demonstrating that we understand the opposing arguments are all signs of integrity. However, these activities only have integrity when their goal is to arrive at some sort of truth, whether it be admitting what we do not know or what can be demonstrated through logical discourse or the scientific method. Yet today, it seems that many are content with coming to a conclusion prior to researching an argument, and then seek to facilitate an argument by connecting dots and facts that are pulled out of context, twisted and bent without counter arguments entertained. St. Thomas Aquinas is a good role model for all students because he carefully studied views that contradicted Church teaching, and fairly represented their arguments prior to arguing against them. He was not interested in mischaracterizing the opposing position, because he knew that would do nothing to convince others of an alternative argument. He first validated their position insofar as he recapitulated its own argument, but then began to explain why it was in his judgment not actually reasonable by often offering a broader context. Yet if he began by merely misrepresenting an alternative position, he would have realized people would have likely tuned out any argument he would propose. This was the tradition of the Universities at the time St. Thomas Studied; in order to gain a passing mark, they were expected to critically offer arguments contrary to the thesis proposed, thus fostering an intellectual atmosphere that was in a fruitful dialogue that sought to arrive at “truth.” As G.K. Chesterton asserted, an open mind is like a mouth, it is meant to close down upon something solid. Or as I’d prefer to say: don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out!
What happens however, when we have arrived at the truth and are plunged into a dialogue that causes us to entertain an alternative view which contradicts the truth we already know. This is precisely the problem Eve experienced when in the garden with the Serpent. St. Thomas understood the truth of Catholic teaching, and sought to combat error in order to help others arrive at the truth through argument. His goal was led by wisdom and a firmness in the truth – and thus when he studied the error of others, it was not an error he “entertained” but rather an error that he sought to distinguish from truth. He was able to isolate the cornels of truth within the argument that made the error appetizing, thus with surgical precision, separating the cancer from the healthy organs. What St. Thomas Aquinas did not do was entertain the possibility that the cancer growing in the body was good for the health of the body.
Eve, when she dialogued with the serpent sinned, precisely because she listened to the devil. The term “listen” in scripture often has the connotation of “obedience” meaning that it was not merely the audible experience of hearing ideas different than our own, but rather reflects an interior “entertainment” of such ideas. It is a type of interior “surrender,” even if momentary, to the thoughts of another. When parents tell their children not to get into a car or to talk with strangers, we do not endorse them to “entertain” what a stranger says despite what the parents have commanded when an unmarked van swings around the corner. When Eve entertained the devil’s ideology about who God was, and what the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was all about, she did not merely offend God by distrusting Him, she also offended Truth itself (who is God) by entertaining a prerogative that does not objectively exist within human beings: the ability to define truth. Human beings do not create or define truth, we discover it. Eve’s fault was not entertaining a truth she could discover, but rather a truth she would invent – allowing herself to be deluded to the idea that all of creation revolved around her own free-will – hence: Pride is the first sin.
One thing that I have experienced in the lives of some of the sheep entrusted to my care, is that youth will experience great graces from God, but then when they are thrust into a “dialogue” with the world, they often become ensnared in doubt about their experiences of God in an unreasonable way. They doubt these experiences because modern psychology suggests that such experiences can be “explained away.” This truth is so abstract and general, that they begin to doubt the experience given to them for the reason of offering them faith. Anything can be doubted by a hypothetical truth that is vague and general – but that doubt isn’t necessarily reasonable. One could have doubted Lazarus’ resurrection, and supposed he was replaced with a body-double, one could doubt Christ walking on water as merely a consensual hallucination of several followers of Christ. One could even doubt their own existence as we see in the philosophy of Descartes – but all doubts are not necessarily reasonable. The doubt that Eve experienced pertained to God the Father’s goodness. Satan sought to imply that God was a moralizing tyrant by exaggerating God’s commandment to refrain from eating the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. By expanding this commandment to all the trees in the garden, he passively sowed the seed within Eve’s heart that God was a moralizing tyrant, an oppressive Father. The Church likewise is already perceived to be this by many people in the world. How often does the narrative of the press, and preachers, and legalists, and the lawless all focus on what we “cannot do.” Almost as if we develop tunnel vision with what we cannot do that we forget about all the good things we can enjoy. When this tunnel vision powerfully exerts itself, the mind begins to covet what we cannot have, because we forget to channel our desires towards what is truly good. As a result our affect becomes anchored into sin, without being able to maintain an open mind and spirit to what is true and good. In fact, our mind has ironically become preoccupied with what we cannot enjoy, and thus is closed to what is good by virtue of such an obsession. This is why many saints have insisted that sin actually is unhealthy for the mind, darkening the intellect, and closing it to the light of truth. Sin makes us fools.
Eve sought to contradict the Devil’s argument by stating the truth about what God had actually said. Yet, by continuing the dialogue one can see that she nonetheless remained open to what the devil said. When the Devil expressed an unfavourable vision of God, Eve should have simply ended the discussion. But she kept it going – the devil had already proved himself to be a liar, and to offend the love of her life, God. Yet she still thought the devil had something to offer her. The Devil continues this “dialogue” with Eve, whereby she is told that she will not die. In other words, Satan isn’t the liar, but God is. How often in arguments about injustice do people quickly deflect criticism by accusing someone else. Then the ultimate lie comes through the Devil’s words, whereby he convinces Eve that God is actually in competition with Eve, and seeks to prevent them from fulfilling their full potential of becoming “like God” – something they already are (image and likeness of God).
Therefore, what I would like to suggest for your discernment is that there are essentially four dialogues we can have. According to St. Ignatius, the influential voices we listen to can be defined as:
1) The world
2) The self
3) The Devil
4) God (the Church, and Sacred Scripture)
We know that the devil can speak through the apostles as Jesus’ own reprove demonstrates that the Apostles, even with good intentions entertain error. St. Peter sought to save the saviour by the “world’s” political ways. He trusted in his own judgment. The world, the self, and the devil are all fallible voices, God is not. In other words, the devil is able to exert his own voice through the world and through St. Peter’s own judgment. Jesus rightfully rebuked Satan, with which Peter had allowed himself to be entertained within his own intellect. This rebuke from Jesus, ended the error very quickly – and interestingly enough it might be worth noticing that Jesus identified this as Satan since the words from St. Peter were a recapitulation of the temptation Jesus experienced in the desert prior to entering into ministry.
The dialogue we should ultimately be having is with God – when we “listen to Him” in a spirit of faith, our mind is made whole, our intellect is liberated from its obsessions and tunnel vision, and our capacity to be confident about the truth asserts itself. That dialogue is not a matter of “personal interpretation” as scripture indicates. Rather that dialogue happens through prayer in tandem with the infallible Institution that safe-guards what the truth is despite its many sinful members. This becomes a bit of an awkward point, since we know that Popes, Bishops, Priests, and many leaders in the Church have all been incredible sinners. Therefore, a trust in the infallible nature of the Church is not meant to put our trust in human beings, as if infallibility is a personal capability, but rather a consequences of God’s divine-providence and the work of His Holy Spirit that can bring good out and even perfect out of a sinful genealogy and sinful individual. As Pope Benedict XVI teaches, Jesus wins in the end. This doesn’t deny the fact that the apostles of the Church will try to peddle false-doctrine. Nonetheless, Scripture and the Pillar of Truth (the Church) are useless if they are not both infallible – one cannot read an infallible book without an infallible interpreter. What good is a fallible interpreter of an infallible book? And so the dialogue we ought to have with God is tangibly experienced through the Divine Tradition of the Church, and the Sacred Scriptures.
Bishop Barron discusses the dangers of maintaining the “Spirit of the Council” in the modern era, simply because once the Church, guided by the Spirit has defined what the protocol should be, constantly revising, debating and entertaining an alternative becomes less about listening to God and more about exerting our own creativity in a lopsided way. This “creativity” must be under the limits of truth, otherwise we are attempting to create in an infinite manner, as if we can invent truths. The Church becomes an anti-Church when it replaces God as its authority with the wisdom St. Peter sought to express to help Christ avoid suffering. The temptation we often face is to avoid carrying our cross, and in Peter’s case, an attempt to relieve Christ of His own saving-cross. This is best called “enabling.”
I think, ultimately the tempter wants to enable us through dialogue. A concrete example of this might be on the subject of contraception. The Church, for instance, has explained that Contraception is “intrinsically wrong.” This means, in theological language, that there is no circumstance where using contraception is ever justifiable. When this doctrine was being debated, many bishops and priests, along with the “world” were against what Pope Paul VI defined in his encyclical. “Consequently, it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong” (HV, 14). In other words, the many Bishops, priests, and laity who like St. Peter, sought to remove a cross from others were rebuked by God through the infallible office of the Pope.
In saying all of this, I do not mean to vilify anyone who disagreed with this teaching, prior to the documents publication. If anything, there are many saints who believed various truths that were later contradicted by the Church. What matters more is after this reprove, if we listen to God. If we listen, this is what allows St. Peter, and therefore us, to eventually become a saint. Once the Church has clarified what God’s command is, do we listen? Like Eve, once we realize that our ideology or attitude is actually not from God, we sometimes continue to entertain, defiantly “exceptions” to something with which there is none. It would be better for us to be like our Blessed Mother who rather entertained a good-angel. Interestingly, many have suggested that Mary, when visited by the Angel Gabriel, sought to discern what kind of message this was. In other words – was this a dialogue with the devil or with God? She asked how she was to become pregnant: in other words by sin or by faith. The Angel did not tell her to sin, and also gave increase to Mary’s faith by reminding her that God can do all things. As a result, Mary had discerned that this was a good angel, and thus submitted her will to the word of the angel, knowing it to have come from God. Mary is thus entitled as the “New Eve” who reverses the error of the first Eve. Mary entered into the right kind of dialogue.
In order to avoid the error of enabling, I’d like to finalize this blog-post by suggesting how to discern whether we are trying to remove a cross (like St. Peter) or attempting to encourage others to carry their cross, realizing it is actually a gift, if we are spiritually mature. It might be helpful to realize there is another extreme we haven’t considered. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees who encouraged people to follow the law, but they did so without compassion. In other words, while they may have been correct, they did not do anything to help those individuals to carry the heavy burden of the moral-law, and in fact, probably exaggerated the moral law at times to exert their own ego-centric sense of moral superiority. Christ wants us to carry the cross he has given us, tailored to save us from our addiction to power, wealth, pleasure and honour.
Part of that cross involves depending on others to help us carry our own cross, because others can mediate the graces of God that give us the peace and support we need to carry and endure to the end. If a couple suddenly develops health problems and wants to use contraception as a way to perpetuate their sexual relationship without the dangers that may come as a result of a pregnancy, the couple is failing to carry their cross. However, it is insufficient for us to simply say this to another – we also have to help them carry that cross, by first finding people who are also carrying a similar cross. A celibate might be a good example, one who primarily does not resent his life of abstinence. Another might be a couple in a similar situation – and to turn to God who also forwent sexual relationships despite being involved in a marriage with the Church. We should listen to the grief that naturally results from such a sacrifice, but one that maintains the very spirit of the law, which is meant to nonetheless respect the identity of one’s spouse. In doing the good, it becomes a source of good if interiorized, whereby the sacrifice is an act of love, not of repression. Contraception, contradicts the dignity of men and women, by compartmentalizing the fertility of one’s spouse, as if it were a disease in need of a pill to supress it, a condom to offer “protection” from one’s spouse, as if it were not a part of the identity of the individual – something to be mutually hated in each other. The couple needs to not only carry their cross by white-knuckling their way through the moral-hoops of Church teaching, but also to learn how to interiorize the very moral law, so that the cross they carry is actually enabling them to love each other entirely. Jesus teaches us to interiorize the moral-law during his sermon on the mount – he rails against a purely exterior moralism, and ascribes to the spirit of the law, whereby we love the law, not as a means to an end, but as a revelation of what true love looks like.
This interiorization of the moral law is severely lacking in the members of the Church. Those who seek an exception to the rule seek an “exception to love.” If such individuals interiorized this moral law, they would never endorse something that contradicts the very nature or truth to what conjugal love truly is. Likewise, if the legalists interiorized the moral law, they would not request a cold-adherence to it, but rather encourage interior conversion by accompaniment and patience with the individual as they struggle with letting go of a false type of love.
When we enter into a dialogue about the moral-laws of the Church, this interiorizing of God’s teaching is incredibly important. It is a sign that we are truly listening to God, both from the mind and the heart, allowing our affect to be aligned to the truth itself. We are essentially allowing Christ into our hearts and minds. When we are rebuked by the infallible teaching of the Church may we grow silent and realize that we require interior conversion in regards to what we think love and justice look like.
Bishops and Priests, throughout Church history have regularly fallen into heresy; most heretics were clergy. We are under attack, and so as a result we must be prudent to whom we “listen to” and to whom we entertain ideology. Those who surround our leaders throughout the centuries can poison our minds against God’s will, and like St. Peter, become a mouth-piece for the evil one. No one is exempt from this. Consider the video below (linked), which is a scene from the Lord of the Rings. Prior to entering into the keep of the King, the good men are disarmed (mostly) by what might best describe a bureaucracy. As they are disarmed, they are meant to be intimidated and unwelcome guests. They are divested of their right to defend themselves, and essentially under the power and authority of the one who sits upon a throne. But who is really sitting on this throne? Saruman was a Wizard in Tolkien’s mythology, who was meant to depict an angel. This “angel” of course eventually is revealed to have fallen into the grasp of the evil one. He later “possesses” the mind of a King, who has been fed the “poison” of Saruman’s lies by the hand of bad-counsel: Worm-Tongue. Watch this video carefully and realize that what this instrument of a demon accomplishes is to prevent the mind of the King from seeing the truth as it truly is. He attempts to “poison the well” of the King’s heart against salvation itself, for his own political and narcissistic agenda. Worm-Tongue is eventually expelled, after the King is given clarity and space from worm-tongue. This is what we should pray for, for ourselves, but also for our leaders. How is the “devil” whispering in our leaders ears? Are we too naïve to expect the devil doesn’t have a plan to dupe us? Are we not meant to be on-guard against the devil who is like a prowling lion, looking for someone to devour? We cannot be naïve to this, while at the same time, we must also be optimistic enough to think that God also is sending his angels to also deliver us from such deceptions, and we should keep our ear to the ground in order to entertain their company instead. When we encounter others who have forked tongues (they themselves may not even realize it), it might be best to imitate Gandalf, and simply not even dialogue with them. Sometimes it may so happen that we encounter those who are able to be so crafty with their words that they elicit passionate frustration that leads to our own loss of self-control and charity. In such a case, even a little dialogue might end up poisoning our own soul, and accomplishing the will of the evil one. It is better to pray for them, and simply go back to dialogue with what the Church and God have already revealed.