Twilight of the Idols, Part I: A Riddle

“For there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch as to deceive (if possible) even the elect.” Mat. 24:24

The purpose of this piece is to expose the prejudice that some Catholics exhibit when considering the life and the work of a specific Protestant author. Here, the prejudice is in the Protestant author’s favor. I intend to point out why this prejudice is incorrect. Let’s start:

Catholic missionaries evangelized the region around Nagasaki, Japan, in the late 1500s and early 1600s. Then the Japanese government turned against the Catholics, martyred the priests, and forced the Church underground. After Japan began to open up to the Western world in the 1800s, a Catholic priest arrived. A group of wary local women approached him and asked three questions (I paraphrase):

1.) Do you venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary?
2.) Do you obey the Pope of Rome?
3.) Do you have a wife?

The priest answered Yes to first two questions and No to the last one. The women then went away. Sometime later, the men of their village returned to the priest, revealing that they were “Kakure Kirishitan,” the secret Christians of Japan.* For 200 years, they had practiced Baptism, handed down the catechism, met in prayer, etc. The last priests they had contact with in the 1600s had given them those three questions so they could identify true Catholic priests when they arrived and not be deceived by heretics or schismatics. Catholic priests would venerate Mary, obey the Pope, and observe celibacy.** A few Kakure Kirishitan preferred their de facto independent status and went into schism, rejecting the return of formal Catholicism. As I understand it, however, most welcomed the priest and subsequent Catholic missionaries, thereby restoring the organized Catholic Church in Japan.

Now, if you’re a typical, chest-thumping, red-blooded Catholic blog-reader, this story warms your heart. The true Christians of Japan knew the true Church by three marks that distinguish Catholicism from Protestant heresy. Take that, benighted Protestants and liberal Catholics! Right?

Now, let’s imagine a different scenario. Let’s say the “hidden period” of Japanese Catholicism persisted until 1945. After World War II, a famous Christian evangelist and apologist visits a relief center at Nagasaki that offers aid to the victims of the atomic bomb. When some Japanese women see him reading a Bible in a chapel that bears a cross (a plain cross with no corpus, mind you), they furrow their brows. At last, they ask the gentleman the same three questions above. He gives the following answers:

1.) Do I venerate Mary? Well, I certainly do have high *regard* for her, but I’m not particularly effusive about it, and I wouldn’t want to go into particulars of her precise prerogatives. It’s a sensitive matter on which good Christians disagree, and it’s above my pay grade. We mustn’t step on any toes when it comes to non-essentials.

2.) Do I obey the Pope? I know many fine Christians who follow the Pope, and many who do not. It’s really not mine to say, in the final analysis, what the precise function of the Bishop of Rome is in the unity of the Church. In this day and age, it is more important to strive for unity across such denominational lines. The Supreme Governor of my own denomination is the British King, but I certainly wouldn’t enforce his rule on anyone else.

3.) Are our clergymen married? In my own tradition, yes. We came to see some time ago that this is a worthwhile accommodation to human nature and weakness, though I do admire those to whom God gives the grace to remain in celibate continency.

With each answer, the women frowned more deeply, until they went away with a heavy heart. The visitor never saw them again. For this English gentleman from Oxford was not an advocate of the True Faith. Their questions had exposed him as a heretic. And with that, the Hidden Christians of Japan refused communion with —

C.S. Lewis.

*This is the true story of Fr. Bernard Petitjean’s arrival in Japan and his discovery of the Kakure Kirishitan. Learn more here:

**Obviously, the Latin-Rite missionaries never expected married Eastern-Rite Catholic priests to arrive in Japan. Their expectation was correct.

One thought on “Twilight of the Idols, Part I: A Riddle

  1. The university for which I work recently adopted Lewis’ Mere Christianity as the summer reading for incoming students. Needless to say, no one consulted me about the choice. Your post does a great job of adding perspective on why embracing such a book betrays the cause of the Church.

    Liked by 1 person

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