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Attitudes towards religious polemics: What would Jesus do?

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

We have just completed Episode "E" of A-Z of DisicpleSHIP and would like to thank all our readers and podcast listeners for persevering in this program. This is an unusual break but is hopefully fitting to mark the completion of the first five episodes of the A-Z of DisicpleSHIP program.

In the past decade, there has been a notable increase in the polarisation within the US Catholic Church, with the fallout arguably spilling over to the rest of the Anglo-speaking Church. The Eucharist, for example, has become a battleground, with various fronts around it being fought, from debates around the liturgy, manner of receiving communion, to propriety of communion ban. To those trying to learn more about the faith, this looks like a minefield that one should never step into.

And yet throughout history, many saints passionately put themselves in the middle of polemics. Many heresies were precisely denounced, and dogmas were formulated because of their involvement. We would not be reciting the Nicene Creed had no one debated the contents of the faith. As we noted in the 3rd episode of our program, orthodoxy is not secondary to orthopraxy.

In this post, I am proposing basic attitudes that we should have when facing such polemics. As part of the Catholic Theology Network, I believe that these polemics are not just challenges, but also opportunities for us to understand the Catholic faith, to see its beauty, and help others in the same way. Above all, it is an exercise in reproducing Christ in our own person.

And so, to Christ we look.

We know that the first century was not lacking in religious polemics. Jesus would have found himself amid various sects of Judaism including various interpretations of the Law. The school of Hillel and the school of Shammai, named after the two leading rabbis, were two schools of thoughts (or ‘Houses’) that had been vigorously debating rituals, morality, and theology by the first century AD. Their effect was so lasting that it shaped the Mishnah – the oral tradition compiled in the 3rd century – and even Judaism of today.

In general, the school of Hillel is thought to be more liberal and adhered more to the spirit rather than the letter of the law; whereas the school of Shammai, on the contrary, had the tendency to “bind” rather than to “loose”. For example, the former allowed one to divorce his wife for light transgressions, whereas the latter restricted it to serious transgressions. The House of Hillel opened the teaching of the Torah to all students, whereas the House of Shammai only allowed it to “worthy” ones.

It is tempting, therefore, to say that Jesus took the side of the House of Hillel (some scholars even posited that the House of Hillel influenced Jesus’ teachings), as demonstrated by his emphasis on mercy. In some cases, Jesus indeed appeared to relax the rigour of the Law (such as the Sabbath observance cf. Mrk 2:24-28). In other cases, however, Jesus increased the rigour of the Law: vengeance, used to be restricted, was absolutely prohibited (cf. Mat 5:38-42); divorce, allowed by both houses, were also prohibited (cf. Mat 5:31-32).

Jesus, in other words, did not react to the polemics of his time by framing it through an “us-vs-them” mentality. There was no tribalism in his mission work (cf. Mrk 9:38-41); he undercut the teachings of both Houses when he proclaimed his own teachings that he received from the Father from all eternity. There was an indifference, a holy indifference that allowed Jesus to focus on his own teaching and mission without trying to avoid the questions posed by the two houses or other sects.

With the Sadducees, for example, Jesus did not avoid confrontation by shying away from answering their question (cf. Luk 20:27-40). He took on their question on the general resurrection of the dead by telling them outright that they were “greatly misled”. Jesus, in other words, did not remain silent when the need to enlighten others arises, even when it led to others thinking that he was on the side of the Pharisees (who believed in the general resurrection).

It is also noteworthy that Jesus equally (if not more so) condemned the Pharisees for their hypocrisy (cf. Mat 23:13-36). And yet, Jesus did not disregard their authority. He encouraged his disciples to follow their teachings though not their conduct, even going as far as to concede that together with the scribes, the Pharisees occupied the Chair of Moses (cf. Mat 23:1-4). Jesus, as someone with the full authority of God himself, acknowledged and respected his enemies’ authority!

This does not mean, however, that just because a teaching comes from an authority, assent is therefore immediately demanded. “Forget about the universal Church’s infallible teachings on matters of faith and morals exercised by the Ordinary and Extraordinary Magisterium; forget about the rest of our theology that anchors our understanding on the matter but that this new teaching has subverted; if a prelate teaches a new teaching, it is therefore authoritative”, so the logic goes, “Our understanding ‘develops’ and therefore creates rupture from the past.”

This, unfortunately, would be “presentism” (what matters is the “present”) and “clericalism” (what matters is that a high-ranking clergy has taught it) simultaneously. The New Covenant that Jesus incorporated us into is not a rupture from the Old Covenant, but its fulfilment. When Jesus justified his teaching on divorce, he appealed to “the beginning”, the original plan of God (cf. Mat 19:8). The Old Covenant was not meant to exhaust all our understanding of God, unlike the New. With the coming of Jesus and the ministry of the Church, a definitive understanding of God and his teachings that cannot be abrogated by any human has been established. There needs to be, therefore, a proper understanding of the “development of doctrines” in this regard – that unfortunately needs far more space to explain than this post allows.

So far, we have managed to identify certain dos-and-don’ts when facing polemics, which can be summed up into the following:

  • Beware of tribalism!

  • Beware of trying not to appear to be taking sides (evasion)!

  • Beware of rejecting authority!

  • Beware of accepting any authority (clericalism)!

  • Beware of presentism!

Jesus has provided us with a model of staying faithful to his path amid a plethora of religious polemics. For many Catholics, the spiritual act of mercy of enlightening others regarding doctrinal matters may not be our mission, but it is certainly not something to be avoided as a matter of principle. There is space for the laity to help others in understanding the faith and increasing conviction in their faith through such engagement.

As part of this endeavour, the Catholic Theology Network is holding a talk on Vatican II, a huge point of contentions for many Catholics especially those that held that Vatican II was in essence problematic. This talk, titled “Defending Vatican II: Tradition, Continuity and Magisterial Authority”, to be held on the 16th June 2022, hopes to answer some of the concerns of the so-called “radical traditionalists”, with underlying attitudes consonant with what I have outlined above.

Until next time!

Chandra Nugraha

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