From all false doctrine, heresy, and schism; from hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word and commandment, Good Lord, deliver us.
This petition for deliverance in the Litany addresses the brokenness of the Church, with its consequences for its witness to the world and the lives of individual believers.
While it is Christ’s mystical Body, it remains a vulnerable, physical body on earth, just as Christ’s earthly body was vulnerable in his Passion and Crucifixion. Precious, but vulnerable. But to what form of illness is the Church vulnerable in its physical life today? The petition examines this in some detail.
False doctrine, like an inviting but ultimately misleading off-ramp from a freeway, takes us far from “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” making us prisoners of a skewed or half-truth rather than the fullness of the Catholic Faith. We need to take stock of wherever false doctrine is being preached, taught, or received in the Church. We are called to repent of it and to flee from it.
Heresy almost always takes some part of the wholeness of Christian faith and amplifies it far beyond its proper place. Often, heresies result when people choose one side of an antimony (a pair of seeming opposites) which must be held together in order to enter into the fullness of belief (e.g. that Christ Jesus was “fully divine” and “fully human,” or that humanity is made in the image of God while at the same time fallen and distorted through sin). All of us have a “preferred heresy,” one we tend to gravitate towards. We should be very attentive to this, being watchful for those conditions and attitudes which invite us to trade in the Gospel in its wholeness for some diminished, partial caricature. Very often, people choose heresies because they seem easier than the paradoxical and challenging nature of true Christianity. We need to remember, though, that nowhere does Christ tell us the way of discipleship should be easy – in fact, he tells us quite the opposite. The more we gravitate towards a religion of comfort, the more likely we are choosing a heretical version of the genuine article.
Perhaps one of the most unspoken wrongs in Christianity is schism. This breaking of the natural and essential unity of the Faith into fragments is easily the most “heretical” witness to the world we make. Like a shattered mirror, contemporary Christianity reflects Christ to the world in a broken, partial, and often confused manner.
If Christians come to take schism for granted – almost as if it were no “big deal” – they show how little they understand the perspective of the unchurched, and how little they care for the expressed will of Our Lord for us. When Christianity looks like the rest of the world (divided, bickering, hateful, &c.) no amount of verbiage or appeals to “relevance” will overcome this basic failing. The unity of the Holy Trinity is the hallmark of the Kingdom of God, and the Church must pray for deliverance from the schisms marking it today if we are to reclaim our proper witness to the Gospel.
The petition continues with a wise awareness of what illness in the Body of the Church translates to in the lives of individual Christians: the bitter hardness of heart (often after becoming partisans in church battles of various types) and contempt for God’s Word and commandments. When we fail as a body to live up to the pattern set for us by Christ (or, worse, institutionalize this failure as somehow “normal”), we betray the work of the Holy Spirit in us, and there are painful consequences for parishes, denominations, and whole communions as a result. Whenever we offer the Litany, we are reminded of this, and bidden to question the condition of our own hearts, and the ways in which we have grown lax, loose, or downright contemptuous of God’s word and commandments to us – as communities of faith, yes, but also as individuals: for, we cannot ask of others what we will not observe ourselves.