The great Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc once defined heresy as a “dislocation of some complete and self-supporting scheme by the introduction of a novel denial of some essential part therein.” He used the example of Newtonian physics as a type of self-supporting system wherein the scientific statements are not freestanding propositions that can be withdrawn independently without upsetting or affecting the rest of the system. The situation, said Belloc, is analogous in Christianity. Whenever one of the truths of Christianity is denied or replaced with something novel, the result is not an improved Christianity but rather a new religion.
Belloc articulated this definition of heresy in his discussion of the great heresies that developed down through the ages, but it also has application at the parish level in current times when our fellow Catholics propose for us novel denials of traditional Catholic beliefs. Typically the denial applies to an isolated event, but, owing to the interconnectedness of Christian truths, the result is nothing less than a new religion.
It is in this context that a trendy reinterpretation, being circulated at the parish level of how Jesus really fed the hungry crowds that had followed him out from the cities, is really a call for nothing less than new religion. If you have not yet encountered this story, please let me introduce it to you, since you are bound to encounter it anyway. It has even shown up in Catholic family publications and thus is being spread to thousands of Catholic readers without any explanation of its errors.
The traditional Christian belief about these Gospel events has always been that Jesus fed the crowds by the miracle of multiplying a few loaves of bread and a few fish into enough food for all. The new interpretation tells us now that Christ did not really feed the crowds but rather created circumstances wherein they fed themselves. When the disciples worried that there was not enough food to feed the people, Jesus ignored their advice to send the crowd away, but not because he was about to work a miracle. He knew that only some of the people did not have any food, while others had more food than they needed hidden away in their robes. He knew this because first-century Jews excelled in the art of surviving on the road, and so most could be expected to be carrying extra bread.
With this in mind, he had everyone sit down, took the loaves and fishes from the disciples, “looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd” (Luke 9:16). The people saw the example of Jesus sharing the food, and those who had extra food were moved to share what they had with their fellow men. They dropped their extra food into the baskets that were being passed rather than take any out. In fact they dropped in so much extra food that there were several full baskets left over after everyone was fed.
This version of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes is not presented as a call to overthrow Catholicism. It is presented as the application of common sense to an isolated biblical event. From a secular perspective, it appears to be a plausible interpretation of Scripture. What looked like a miracle is explained by a little knowledge of the habits of first-century Jews. In the process we have obtained a good moral lesson about sharing.
A false gospel
The only problem with this theory is that it is not an interpretation of Scripture at all. It is an invention, inserted into Scripture. It teaches a false gospel, that people can become morally better, not by the supernatural grace of Jesus, but by seeing the example of Jesus. In conveying that message, and because of the interconnectedness of Christian teaching, it undermines the dogmas of the divinity of Christ, the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and the sacramental role of the priesthood.
The first assertion about it—that it is an invention rather than an interpretation of Scripture—is the easiest to demonstrate. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in speaking on the interpretation of Scripture, tells us that, “according to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual” (CCC 115).
In the literal sense we look at the words and the intent of the inspired writer to see what Christ actually said and did during his public ministry. In the spiritual sense we look deeper in a number of ways to see what Christ is teaching us by way of his words and deeds. The Catechism goes on to quote Thomas Aquinas, who observed that, when we speak of the various senses of Scripture, “all other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal” (CCC 116).
Thus we know that Christ literally carried a cross during the Passion, and we have come to understand that he did so as part of the suffering he endured to atone for our sins. Christians have come to see that with this act, Christ was showing us that we too will carry crosses as Christians and that we should bear them with patience as he did, even when we receive them unjustly. All of this interpretation, though, springs from the literal interpretation of the written words “he went out, bearing his own cross” in John 19.
In this manner, all valid interpretation must be anchored somewhere in the written words of Scripture that describe actual events. And there must be a reality to the events that Scripture describes. If Christ did not really carry a cross at some point in his Passion, then we are simply silly in our traditions such as the stations of the cross and in our teachings about carrying crosses with patience.
The ninth chapter of Luke describes the feeding of the crowd that had followed Christ out from the city in these words:
Now the day began to wear away; and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away, to go into the villages and country round about, to lodge and get provisions; for we are in a lonely place.” But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Make them sit down in companies, about fifty each.” And they did so, and made them all sit down. And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And all ate and were satisfied. And they took up what was left over, twelve baskets of broken pieces (Luke 9:12-17).
The first thing that becomes apparent in reading this passage is that there are no words written down about food hidden in robes, no words saying that Jesus knew about hidden food, nothing about anyone having more than he needed, nothing whatsoever about anyone putting any extra food into the baskets. What the people were wearing is not mentioned. What they may or may not have been carrying is not mentioned. There is, in fact, no word from which the new interpretation can spring.
When one looks at what is written, one is forced to conclude that the new interpretation actually runs counter to the text. If anyone believed anything in this incident, the disciples believed that the people had no food. “Send the crowd away, to go into the villages and country round about, to lodge and get provisions” (Luke 9:12).
If we read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John, we find in these reports that Christ himself says that the people had no food: “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days, and have nothing to eat” (Matt. 15:32). In John’s Gospel, Jesus tests Philip by asking, “How are we to buy bread so that these people may eat?” (John 6:5), implying that it was common knowledge between Christ and the disciples that the people had no food.
The new theory, therefore, is not rooted in the word of God as committed to writing by the inspired author. It is an alien concept imposed upon it. It is not only alien but diametrically opposed to Scripture, because every reading of the text indicates that the words and intent of the author were to show the very opposite: that the people had no food and the disciples did not have enough to even begin feeding them. The inventor of the new interpretation has in reality created a new Gospel event regarding the feeding of the crowds.
Diminishment of Christ
The next question to ask is, What happens to the teaching of Christ if the original Gospel event is replaced with a story like this? At the simplest level the obvious result is that the divinity of Christ is either diminished or denied. Throughout the Gospels Christ is depicted as working miracles as signs of who he is.
When John the Baptist sends a message asking Christ, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt. 11:3), he is asking if Jesus is the Messiah. “And Jesus answered them, ‘Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up’“ (Matt. 11:4). It is through these signs that he prepares the people to understand that he is indeed the one they expect, but also much more.
When he works his miracles, he does not call on the power of God like the prophets of past, “O Lord my God, let this child’s soul come into him again” (1 Kings 17:21), but he acts by his own power: “Young man, I say to you arise” (Luke 7:14). When he works the last great sign, when he raises himself from the dead, we come to understand that this man is God incarnate. From that time on there is no reason to search for mundane explanations of his miraculous works. To do so can only be rooted in disbelief.
There is a more subtle and complex reality to the miracle of the loaves and fishes than the simple demonstration of Christ’s divine power. It occupies a unique position in the history of salvation. It looks back to the Old Covenant and the appearance of manna to feed God’s people. Israel would have perished in the desert for lack of food, were it not for the miraculous appearance of manna every day.
The Jews at the time of Christ’s public ministry expected the miracle of this bread to reappear in the messianic age. It would signal the arrival of the anointed one of the Davidic line, the Messiah who would be king and who would reestablish the kingdom of the Jews. They recognized the multiplication of the loaves and fishes as the expected miracle and wanted to make Jesus their king because of it—hardly the reaction one would expect if there had been no miracle.
So it is by this miracle that Christ is progressively revealing himself to them in a way they understand. They were divided over whether or not Christ was the Messiah. He shows them that he is, indeed, the expected one. Later, with his death and resurrection, he will expand the meaning of “Messiah” beyond any understanding that the title previously held, but first he shows himself to them on their terms.
To do this required a real miracle. If anyone who had seen the miracle had suggested that the bread had simply been hidden in the robes of the people, he would have been denying the messianic role of Christ. Nothing has changed in 2,000 years. To suggest now that the bread did not appear in a miraculous way is still a denial that Christ fulfilled the messianic role.
Diminishment of the Eucharist
But there is still more to this miracle. The miracle is a prologue to the institution of the Eucharist. The blessing, breaking, and giving of the bread to the disciples correspond to his actions at the Last Supper. Previously, these blessings and actions occurred at any Jewish meal, but now they are associated with the visible miracle that announced the arrival of the Messiah.
The character of the act is changed and charged with new significance. By associating these acts with the miracle, Christ sets them apart for a special purpose. No one who saw the miracle could feel complacent when seeing these same acts performed again in the upper room the night before his Passion. The blessing, breaking, and giving of the bread to the disciples, which brought about the miracle, later bring about the greatest ongoing mystery in the world: God the Creator made present to us under the appearance of the bread and wine.
Finally, in the context of the interconnected truths of Christianity, there was no small significance in the fact that the multiplication of the loaves occurred in the hands of the disciples. Jesus blesses and breaks the bread and gives it to them. It multiplies as they give it to the people. The apostles were not just witnesses, but were participants in the miracle and served as intermediaries between Christ and the people. By this Christ leads his followers to understand how the Eucharist will come to us, which is by his overflowing grace, but through the hands of the priests.
All of this points not only to an actual miracle, but to a miracle that is perhaps more central and foundational than any other that Christ worked save the Resurrection. It is the only miracle that occurs in all four Gospels, and it appears in Matthew and Mark twice. It is on a cusp in sacred history looking back to the feeding of Israel with manna in the desert and looking forward, first to the Eucharist, then to the final banquet in the heavenly Kingdom. The Old Covenant and the New Covenant come together in Christ’s hands with the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.
The message is the same in each: we do not have the means within us to sustain ourselves or make ourselves better. We are dependent upon the grace of God. What we give to each other must first be given to us by Christ. Christ did not come to point out the good in us, but rather to be good in us.
A denial of this truth at the root can only lead to a denial of all subsequent truths and teachings which are based on it. If Jesus did not feed the crowds with bread miraculously multiplied, then he is not feeding us with his body in the Eucharist mysteriously transformed. If the crowds fed themselves with plain bread out in the country, then we are feeding ourselves with plain bread at Mass. If the miracle of the loaves and fishes did not occur in the hands of the disciples, then the Eucharist is not confected in the hands of the priests.
A different Church
If the new interpretation of the Gospel were really true we would have a different church, and the new interpretation tells us everything we need to know about the new church. It would be a church without miracles, where everything happens in three dimensions and is known to us only by our five senses.
It would be a church where Christ is a teacher like Gandhi or Buddha or Confucius, so that no one in any other religion would need to be offended by the fact that the Christian’s church was personally founded by the one true God. It would be an egalitarian church where there is no one set apart, where there are no intermediaries and no hierarchy.
Lastly, it would be a church where the bread of life is found not on the altar but in your neighbor’s pocket, to be extracted by marketing, or taxation, or a type of spiritual jazzercise where the people follow in unison the gyrations of a totally human Jesus.
But a church like this cannot be the Catholic Church. John Henry Newman, when speaking on the papacy four years before the First Vatican Council, tells us why. Then, as now, there were those who found the authority and the hierarchy of the Church to be stumbling blocks. Newman reminds them that God and the things of God do not change from age to age; he quoted Paul: “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom. 11:29).
Newman says that if God does not change, “his Church, then, in all necessary matters, is as unchangeable as He. . . . Therefore, as it was in the world, but not of the world in the Apostles’ times, so it is now; as it was in honor and dishonor, in evil report and good report, as chastised but not killed, as having nothing and possessing all things, in the Apostles’ times, so it is now; as then it taught the truth, so it does now; as then it had the sacraments of grace, so has it now; as then it had a hierarchy or holy government of Bishops, priests, and deacons, so has it now.”
A proper response
How then should one respond when such false teaching is being circulated among the faithful? Well, it is true that we live in an age of great confusion, but it is also an age when there has been a great response from the Church to cure that confusion.
One of the most significant responses of the Church has been the issue a universal catechism, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The significance of this document can be seen in the fact that the Church took such a step only once before and that was with the issuance of the Roman Catechism after the Council of Trent. The new Catechism continues the classical catechesis of the Roman Catechism, but in ways particularly suited to the needs of our times. It is intended to be a compendium of Catholic doctrine for those who will develop catechisms for local communities, but it is also “offered to all the faithful who wish to deepen their knowledge of the unfathomable riches of salvation” (CCC Introduction).
It is in this capacity that it especially suited to our times. Get it, read it, deepen your faith with it. Where there is false teaching, refer to it and give it to the teacher. In this catechism of the post-Vatican II Church he will find that miracles are still called miracles and that “the miracles of the multiplication of the loaves . . . prefigure the superabundance of this unique bread of his Eucharist” (CCC 1335).
He will also find that intermediaries are set apart by Christ, since “only validly ordained priests can preside at the Eucharist and consecrate the bread and wine so that they become the Body and Blood of the Lord” (CCC 1411). There are ninety-nine paragraphs dedicated to the Eucharist. One is an invitation to return to the truth for those who are having a hard time believing in miracles and mysteries: “The Eucharist and the Cross are stumbling blocks. It is the same mystery and it never ceases to be an occasion of division. ‘Will you also go away?’ (John 6:67): the Lord’s question echoes through the ages, as a loving invitation to discover that only he has ‘the words of eternal life’ (John 6:68)” (CCC 1336).
Even when these words were first spoken, there were some who went on their way to seek a less demanding religion. Those who teach and believe a new gospel today are also, unbeknownst to themselves, on the same path. The Church will not change to fit their new beliefs or their novel denials, and they will eventually have to take their new religion elsewhere.