False Teachings on Prayer–Getting to the Root of the Problem

False Teachings on Prayer: the Root of the Problem

My recent series on avoiding false teachings on prayer (Part I, II, III) drew much ire and fire from a number of readers. Yes, the series received an amazing response with respect to the number that read it – approximately 20,000 pageviews – and you passed it along on your Facebook pages more than 6,000 times. I am still in the midst of a series of radio interviews from a number of different talk shows about the posts. So yes, the positive comments and reactions far outweigh the negative, even in the light of the appropriate focus on World Youth Day in the past weeks.

But even so, one common bit of angst surfaced both in the combox and in personal notes to me (all dripping with charity): the expression of the idea that any kind of prayer is just fine. I mean, it’s prayer. And as long as folks are praying, I should leave them alone and not criticize them.

Well, truth be told, I didn’t personally criticize anyone in these posts – especially those souls of good will who genuinely desire to know and love God. For them, I have nothing but admiration and a profound passion that they achieve what they desire. I did, however, point out teachings about prayer that directly contradict our Catholic faith but are, unfortunately, popular in a few confused corners of the Church today. These teachings promise to lead people to “good feelings” and a kind of peace in some cases, but they don’t lead to true contemplation or the fulfillment of all desire that so many seek.

From whence comes the authority of my observations?

Among many sources, including the Catechism and the Doctors of the Church, much of what I wrote in the series is reflected in a document distributed by the Holy See in 1989 entitled, “A Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.” This letter was written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and distributed in response to growing concerns that many false teachings about prayer were creeping into the Church. The source of these problems emerged from well-intentioned, but seriously flawed, efforts to follow the admonition of Vatican II to properly honor those of other religious traditions.

Unfortunately, there was a common and serious misunderstanding among some groups of the intent of the council regarding why and how we can and should honor the truth found in other traditions. For instance, Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions), paragraph 2b states that:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.

Some have taken this affirmation as a call to Catholics to seek to learn from – even emulate – non-Christian faith traditions about prayer and the spiritual life. Nostra Aetate calls for no such thing.

It only takes an attentive and honest reading of these carefully crafted words to realize the error in this interpretation. When Nostra Aetate points to the fact that non-Christian religions often “reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men,” it is critical to note that the word “Truth” in the document is capitalized in its second use and thus refers to Christ himself. So, the point is that the truth of Christ does reflect, if even in a limited way, through the religious thoughts, intentions and practices of men outside of the Catholic faith. Man is made in God’s image and will always in some way reflect this reality.

The “why” of Nostra Aetate is that even if non-Christian religions only reflect truth in a very limited way (a “reflection” of a “ray”), we need to find points of agreement in order to foster mutual respect and then to help those who see this “ray” of Truth to come to the fullness of Truth. This point is made clear in the next sentence:

Indeed, she [the Church] proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.

Here we see that there is an important and clear contrast between a “reflection” of a “ray” of truth and the “fullness of religious life,” which is found in Christ.

The Church, by the grace and work of the Holy Spirit, provides the clearest, wisest, most beautiful, and most complete teachings on the spiritual life that are available to humanity. Though we must be respectful of other faiths, we need not seek an incomplete truth from them when we have the fullness of the Truth in the Catholic Church. To do so is beyond foolish.

For further reading on this topic, in 2000, in response to many misinterpretations of the intent of the Council on these matters, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (by the hand of Cardinal Ratzinger) and the authority of Pope John Paul II issued the document, Dominus Iesus – On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church.


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