What Can We Do about all the False Teachers in the Church?

The holy Catholic Church is in a very difficult state at the present time. If She were a patient in a hospital, She would be in the intensive care unit, with multiple injuries and diseases. If not for the work of the Holy Spirit to preserve the Church ever indefectible and ever holy, the Church (if She were a mere human institution) would already have perished from the earth.

To continue the patient/hospital metaphor, all the experts of the hospital, examining the patient, cannot agree on the cause or the cure. Worse still, many unqualified persons, with no knowledge of medicine, are tending to the patient, giving Her all manner of false diagnoses and incorrect, harmful, or even poisonous treatments. The patient is getting worse, because so many unqualified persons have given themselves the roles of doctor and nurse, and have taken it upon themselves to made decisions, without knowledge.

To say the same thing more plainly, the vast majority of Catholics are poorly catechized. They do not understand, and are completely unable to give a coherent explanation, of basic Church doctrine. Moreover, they are filled with pride in their own ideas, such that no one is able to teach them. They will not accept any doctrine or theological argument contrary to their own disordered misinformed opinions. Like the Pharisees, they refuse to learn at the feet of Jesus and His Church, because they are not willing to humble themselves to become students.

Most Catholics have adopted a secular mentality and they adhere to many secular pseudo-dogmas — ideas proposed by the culture to be certainly true and a secular required belief. Sinful secular society has, in effect issued secular dogmas, which many Catholics believe, in contradiction to Catholic dogma. For example, the culture teaches that “marriage equality” includes approval for gay marriage. And the culture teaches that contraception and abortion are rights, rather than grave sins.

When the Church attempts to teach these secularized Catholics, they automatically reject the teaching, since it is contrary to the ideas they have already accepted and by which they live. If we faithful Catholics try to explain why Church teaching is true, secularized Catholics demand an explanation in secular terms, which would make sense in view of the many false ideas they have accepted as truth. And they are unwilling to accept any idea that substantially affects their lives on faith; they wish to believe only what seems right to their own poorly-catechized thoroughly secularized minds.

Worse still, many ignorant and incompetent Catholics, who have not bothered to spend the time and effort needed to learn doctrine and theology, whose understanding of Catholicism is filled with many grave errors, have decided to become teachers of the Faith. This happens online a great deal, but also in printed publications, and in classrooms and other settings. They go forth with great pride and vast ignorance to teach the Gospel — not the Gospel of Jesus Christ — but the Gospel of their own misunderstandings, heresies, and justifications for grave sin. They pretend to be spreading the Faith, but in reality they are harming the Church.

{23:15} Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! For you travel around by sea and by land, in order to make one convert. And when he has been converted, you make him twice the son of Hell that you are yourselves.

Amazingly, these false and incompetent teachers often find many willing souls, who learn these grave errors and incorporate them into their lives. False teachers are doing grave harm to the Church. They are found in the theology faculties of Catholic colleges and universities, in seminaries, in parishes, in religious orders, and very commonly among the general laity. The Catholic blogosphere and Catholic discussion groups are rife with these false teachers, who promote grave sins as if these wicked deeds were good and holy, who propose one heresy after another, as if these grave errors were Church doctrine, and who are entirely uncorrectable.

[Galatians 3]
{3:1} O senseless Galatians, who has so fascinated you that you would not obey the truth, even though Jesus Christ has been presented before your eyes, crucified among you?

Why do these false teachers find so many willing students? They use several different approaches, which work because the laity are poorly-catechized, proud, selfish, and unwilling to suffer for Christ.

False teachers remove all the sharp edges from the sword of truth which is the Gospel teaching of Jesus and His Church. They remove every difficulty, by distorting doctrine, denying revealed truths, and inventing heresies and absurd explanations. They sugarcoat the Gospel, removing every bitter truth. But why should any truth be bitter? It is only because we are fallen sinners living in a sinful world that the sweet truths of God seem bitter to our disordered palate.

On the other end of the spectrum, some ultraconservative false teachers do not dull sharp edges, nor sugarcoat harsh truths, but they have removed from the Gospel the universal salvific will of God and His infinite mercy. It is quite alarming for me to read recent comments by various Catholic leaders speaking against mercy, devising ways to push mercy into a corner. God is merciful by His very Nature, therefore every act of God and every aspect of His Nature is merciful. His truths are merciful, His justice is merciful, His punishments in this life, in Purgatory, and even in Hell are merciful. We do not need to undercut or minimize Divine Mercy to remain faithful to doctrine.

{23:4} For they bind up heavy and unbearable burdens, and they impose them on men’s shoulders. But they are not willing to move them with even a finger of their own.

I should also point out that some conservative false teachers rejoice in the harshness of their distortion of doctrine, as if the harsher opinion were necessarily more faithful. They have gone to the opposite extreme of the liberal false teachers, but their errors are no better. Jesus sharply rebuked both the conservative Pharisees and the liberal Sadducees.

Another common technique of false teachers, in the area of ethics, is to provide unrepentant sinners with theological justifications for their grave sins. They justify direction abortions, incorrectly labeling them as indirect. They justify the use of abortifacient contraception, while sexually active, and justify the resultant deaths of prenatals, by claiming this grave harm is an “unintended consequence” or by claiming that a medical purpose transforms an intrinsically evil act into a moral act. They justify all manner of grave sexual sins, in the marital bedroom, using an ever-changing set of excuses, which are in no way compatible with Church teaching on sexual sins, nor on the basic principles of ethics.

I’m convinced that many of these false teachers, whether liberal or conservative or something else, are not in a state of grace. When a theological argument is offered to correct their errors, they respond with vicious personal attacks, ridicule, false accusations, and open malice. They give no weight to any quotations from Sacred Scripture, from Saints and Doctors of the Church, and from magisterial documents, if it is contrary to their own heart and mind. They show no concern for the deaths of innocent prenatals, and have no qualms of conscience in telling their fellow Catholics to use abortifacient contraception while sexually active. They promote every type of grave sexual sin in the marital bedroom, while calling these perverse and degrading acts good and holy. Many of these false teachers are on the path to Hell.

Certainly, others among these false teachers are sincere in their errors on faith and morals. But they are culpable nonetheless. For teachers will have the stricter judgment (James 3:1). They have been negligent in learning the faith. Out of sinful pride they have taught others, using the name of Jesus and His Church, without first learning what Jesus and His Church actually teach. And they seldom accept correction.

Now someone might object to the above description by claiming that I am the one who has misunderstood, and my theological opponents are instead the ones who are correct. This objection can be answered rather easily, in two ways.

First, independent of my position on any theological question, I have often noticed persons asking a sincere question, in one Catholic discussion group or another, as to what the Church teaches on some matter of faith, morals, or salvation. But the question receives several different, incompatible answers, from several different Catholics, each one claiming that his or her answer is what the Church teaches. If there are six incompatible answers to the question, at least five must be wrong. This example proves that there are many persons teaching Catholicism, who have misunderstood what they attempt to teach.

In Catholic discussion groups, there is little actual discussion. Instead, every anonymous participant presents himself or herself as if they were authoritative teachers. Yet they fail to understand even the most basic teachings on faith, morals, and salvation. They argue incessantly, without any support for their claims about Church teaching.

Second, my theological answers to questions on faith, morals, and salvation are supported by strong and in many cases lengthy theological arguments, based on Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. My understanding and answers are certainly fallible — except when I am correctly presenting what the Magisterium teaches. But my opponents often do not even attempt to make a theological argument. They make the baseless claim that “this is what the Church teaches”, or “the Church permits” some grave sin or another. They have no works of theology, and they cannot present a sound theological argument. When occasionally they attempt a theological argument, it is easily refuted.

False teachings on grave matters of morality are particularly harmful to souls. Such false teachings are particularly common, and very popular. Most Catholics are guilty and unrepentant from multiple grave sexual sins, and yet they go to Mass and receive Communion. They ignore any sources that point out their unrepentant grave sins. But if a priest or layperson offers sometime of rationalization for grave sexual sins, immediately he is extolled as scholarly, holy, and wise.

There is a strong bias among Catholics toward any teacher who will justify their grave sins, because so many Catholics are unrepentant from grave sin. And this is essentially why false teachers are so much of a problem. They have a large audience, giving them money, notoriety, an undeserved good reputation, and “moral” support. The popularity that unrepentant sinners give to false teachers is what makes them so successful in leading astray the faithful and in promoting heresy and grave errors on morality.

Some of these false teachers use videos, DVDs, and various types of media to preach their false Gospel with worldly eloquence and “high production values”. They spread there errors more easily because parishes find it easier to attract an audience for classes if the material is presenting in an entertaining and easy to understand format. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this method of presentation, it tends to favor an overly simplified view of the Faith. In addition, when companies produce this type of material as a product to sell to parishes, they have a strong tendency to remove all the difficult truths from the presentation. It is not entertaining to tell people they need to repent from grave sins, and that they need to believe ideas which have been thoroughly rejected by society.

Before Saint Augustine converted to the Faith, he was torn between two religions, Christianity and Manichaeism. He listened carefully to a chief proponent of Christianity in his region, Saint Ambrose, and the chief proponent of Manichaeism, Faustus of Mileve. In the end, he decided that Faustus was the more eloquent speaker, but Ambrose was correct. So he became a devout Christian. Similarly, today, many false teachers offer their errors with greater eloquence, with humor and charm and wit, even with a slick multi-media presentation. But that is no guarantee that the ideas are correct.

Roman Catholic theology is not simple, and it is not easy to understand. The Faith is full of mysteries beyond complete human comprehension. And what we can understand has great breadth and depth. A lifetime of study of theology does not suffice to comprehend all that is knowable on the subject in this life. For this reason, theology does not lend itself to a simple easy to understand presentation, with lots of pictures, and music, and video. Theology requires somber study, knowledge of terminology, and much time and effort to consider complex and subtle ideas, not easily explained in a short amount of time.

What is the solution?

Can we appeal to parish priests as well as priest-theologians and priest-bloggers for help in rebuking false teachers? That is not effective. Some false teachers are priests. The faithful priests are no more successful at correcting false teachers than anyone else. Also, most Catholic priests are poorly catechized. They had some false teachers in the seminary and in college. The priest shortage and the great amount of time needed for other tasks, leaves the willing priest little time to improve his knowledge of doctrine. Most Catholic priests are faithful, but they are not qualified to teach and write theology. And those who are weak in faith do not give much weight to the teaching of priests, when it is contrary to their own ideas.

Can we appeal to Bishops and Cardinals, to use their authority to correct false teachers? This approach also does not work. False teachers and their foolish sinful supporters do not listen to anyone who teaches a doctrine they dislike for any reason. They do not accept correction from a theological argument, nor from authority.

If the Pope himself were to attempt to correct these false teachers, even if his correction were specific to their errors and done face-to-face, I don’t believe they would accept the correction. We all know how some commentators are treating Pope Francis, speaking about him with condescension, as if they could not possibly err and he could err to any extent. They do not treat Pope Francis as their Teacher, and they show zero openness to correction.

So what can a Bishop do? I’ve written to some Bishops in the past about false visionaries and the grave doctrinal errors proposed in their messages. I received positive responses, indicating that (of course) the Bishop agreed that these points were grave errors. But not much can be done about this problem. In some cases, the Bishop in question had already spoken publicly against the visionary and/or error in question. But the visionary continues to teach these same errors, and his or her followers continue to accept them.

What I am telling you about Bishops attempting to correct false visionaries applies more so to false teachers. Many Catholics are already skeptical about claimed visions and messages, so a rebuke from a Bishop does help faithful Catholics to avoid that danger. But false teachers abound. And they often claim to be presenting Church teaching. If a Bishop or even the Pope presents a teaching that the false teacher dislikes, he or she promptly gives that teaching a radical reinterpretation, so that it seems to mean whatever the false teacher wishes were true. Or else the false teacher simply claims that the Bishop or Pope in question is mistaken.

What if an Ecumenical Council were called, to respond to the false teachings that are being spread among the faithful today? In the past, the Church did use Ecumenical Councils to rebuke grave errors and to condemn heresies. But historically, the teachers of these heresies often refused to accept correction. An Ecumenical Council is commonly followed by a departure from the Church of all who disagree. So you see, false teachers and their adherents often do not accept correction, even from a Pope or an Ecumenical Council.

Would an Ecumenical Council solve this problem of false teachings? At least the unrepentant heretics would be driven out of the Church. Or would they? There are false teachers today who are openly rejecting the dogmas taught by the Council of Trent (held from 1545 to 1563). They teach abject heresies already condemned by an Ecumenical Council, the condemnation of which has an attached anathema. Yet these false teachers are popular among Catholics, continue to be hired by Catholic organizations (to write about Catholicism), and continue to receive Communion without repentance.

There is an alarmingly large contingent of Catholics on the far right who have rejected the teachings and authority of the Second Vatican Council. They have clever rhetoric and rationalizations. But in fact they do not accept any teaching from Vatican II which is contrary to their own opinions. They say that the Council was “merely pastoral” and that it did not issue any definitive teachings. I disagree. Moreover, since the time of Vatican II, every successive Pope and the body of Bishops dispersed in the world have continued to teach these same teachings of the Council, as one position definitively to be held. Therefore, these teachings are infallible under the ordinary and universal Magisterium. And yet many traditionalists feel free to disregard or contradict anything taught by Vatican II.

The bottom line is that false teachers will continue to abound in the Church until the ordinary lay faithful decide to reject all that is contrary to Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. False teachers speak to please their audience. If their own audience were to cry out against them, they would keep their heresies to themselves. If we wish to “clean house” and remove the false teachers from influencing and harming souls, we must all study the Faith, so as to recognize heresy, and show great concern that every teacher or leader be faithful to true doctrine and be competent in presenting sound theological opinion.

What did Jesus say about correction?

{18:12} How does it seem to you? If someone has one hundred sheep, and if one of them has gone astray, should he not leave behind the ninety-nine in the mountains, and go out to seek what has gone astray?
{18:13} And if he should happen to find it: Amen I say to you, that he has more joy over that one, than over the ninety-nine which did not go astray.
{18:14} Even so, it is not the will before your Father, who is in heaven, that one of these little ones should be lost.
{18:15} But if your brother has sinned against you, go and correct him, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you will have regained your brother.
{18:16} But if he will not listen you, invite with you one or two more, so that every word may stand by the mouth of two or three witnesses.
{18:17} And if he will not listen to them, tell the Church. But if he will not listen to the Church, let him be to you like the pagan and the tax collector.

He said we should have great concern when even one soul is led astray, whether by a false teacher in the Church or by sinful secular society. We should take great effort to bring them back to the Faith. For the Father does not will that any soul be lost.

Jesus taught that if a fellow believer errs in faith, or sins in deed, we should attempt a correction individually. It is sufficient, as a first defense against persons who spread grave errors on faith, morals, and salvation for any individual Catholic to speak out against those errors. But if the false teacher does not accept correction, it is useful for other to also speak out.

So we see that the first and second lines of defense against false teachers (and various other problems among the faithful) is left to the individual believers and perhaps small groups of believers. Jesus does not propose that every error immediately be referred to some authority in the Church. We faithful Catholics must go forth, teaching and correcting, so that the Church becomes ever more faithful and ever more holy. But it would do more harm than good if any Catholic were to teach and correct, without first learning the Faith.

Finally, if this approach does not work in certain cases, Jesus say that we should appeal to Church authority. The intervention of Bishops, the Pope, and finally an Ecumenical Council may be needed to rebuke false teachers and persons who promote grave sins.

Even so, there will always be false teachers in the Church, attempting to lead astray the faithful, until Christ returns and sets all things right.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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