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Who Can I Trust?

November 4, 2013 by  
Filed under Can I Trust?, Dan Burke, Spiritual Direction

About a decade before I converted to Catholicism, I was struggling with aridity. Former Protestants can attest to the fact that there is little help in Protestantism for this or any other significant malady in the realm of spiritual progress. So, I began searching, and I stumbled across a priest who had written on the topic. This priest provided me with the wisdom I needed – wisdom the Holy Spirit used to not only help me get past that particular challenge, but also to deepen my understanding of how the Lord works in and through aridity to further our union with him.

After becoming Catholic, I discovered that this author had been condemned by the Church, and appropriately so, for the heresy of Quietism. Even so, I still have some affection for this priest and a great appreciation for what God did through my encounter with him – and with the portion of his writings that were in keeping with the teachings of the Church.

Even before becoming Catholic I learned that there was an abundance of wisdom available on the topic of aridity from trustworthy spiritual doctors of the Church like Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. So, I traded in the writings of this condemned priest for those who have been proclaimed great saints by the Church. To do any less would reflect a disordered clinging to a priest who served up spiritual poison alongside some important truths.

This brings me to the purpose of this post. When I personally seek out and drink from the wisdom of the Church, I do so from the purest wells possible (the doctors of the Church). But, taking it a step further, as a public figure (whatever that means), I also will not quote from questionable resources, even if I only agree with them in part. The reason is that in our culture, even a partial reference is often seen as a full endorsement of all that the quoted author has written.

In the past world of academia, this was not a problem because the academic conversation was not open to the general public. Thereby, lesser formed hearts and minds would not be damaged by a partial exploration into the thoughts of those who provided some valuable insights, but were less tethered to the truth overall. Because of the ubiquitous flow of information in our time, this kind of exploration, once it even touches the edge of the all-knowing communication vortex, becomes completely accessible to the masses – and the result is often damaging to unsuspecting souls.

As an example, Teilhard de Chardin has been quoted by Pope Benedict, Cardinal Avery Dulles and many other perfectly reliable scholars. However, I am also aware that, according to the official stance of the Holy See, Chardin has deeply flawed theological and philosophical issues in his writings – so much so that they have condemned his writings no less than twice. The second monitum was issued to reaffirm the first and can be found here. Scholars and teachers of our time must be more aware of the consequences of references to those who can and will lead unknowing seekers deeper into error.

Chardin may have innocently participated in the Piltdown Man hoax, and he may have unknowingly meandered on the edges of theological and philosophical sanity. However his ideas and the related fruits were and are sufficiently problematic to incur official sanctions from the Holy See which characterized them as having “grave doctrinal errors.” Is the phrase “grave doctrinal error” in any way unclear?

The bottom line? If we want to know who we can trust to help us understand how to pursue God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, we must look to those who lived holy lives that were beyond reproach, and those whose teachings have been thoroughly tested and found true. If we stick with the spiritual doctors of the Church and those who know them well, we will avoid the potentially severe spiritual injury caused by drinking from a poison well. Our hearts may settle for less, but they will never rest until they receive the Pure Water that truly fulfills all holy desire.

PS: If you have a deep desire to plunge into the authentic and profound spirituality that the Catholic Church provides, you might want to explore the options at the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation.


Art for this post on Who Can I Trust?: Detail of “Car-Barlick-Acid Rag” Clarence C. Wiley. Detroit, MI & NY NY: Jerome H. Remick & Co., 1905 sheet music cover., Clarence C. Wiley, 1905, PD-US copyright expired, published in the U.S. prior to January 1, 1923, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • Mom233

    Hi Dan What about the YouCat?I want to get a Catechism for my teenagers but I’ve read that it contains numerous quote from people that are dangerous (quotes Martin Luther, Friederich Nietzche etc.) but the church puts it out?Do you think I should steer clear?Thank you

    • YouCat is fine.

    • Jeanette

      If you go to and register, you can request to receive an email every day of a small section from YouCat so that in one year you can read the whole Cathechism. That is what I’m doing and it doesn’t take a lot of time at all and it is succinct and meaningful. God bless!

      • Mom233

        Thank you : )

  • Stephen Mc Elligott

    Would it be at all possible that someone at rc spiritual direction could perhaps do an article focusing on the he heresy of quietism and give some examples of such teaching?

  • Terri Lynn West

    wow I had no idea about chardin…something always kept me from finding or reading his I know why! The Holy Spirit!

  • RobinJeanne

    Ame Brother!!! I have friends who read books from the popular Protestant sect such as Joyce myers, Oral Roberts,etc…. I know they too have wisdom and knowledge but not all is trust worthy. I try to explain that if their not reading fromreliable Catholic books (and they don’t know their faith very well) how will they know when they are being taught error. We have a ton of great reliable Catholic writers to choose from. Different style of write to touch the many readers. I have my favorite. Because I am not a scolar in the faith, I do not want to be lead astry so I wont take that chance with my soul.

  • RobinJeanne

    I hear a lot of people quoting Thomas Merton whom I heard his earlier writings
    were good but that in his later years, he drifted into the eastern spirituality.
    Our deacon lent my friend a book of his on thoughts for meditation, explaining
    though it was from his early years. I didn’t understand why he would do that. He
    knows we know the mans reputation and what if she liked it so much and wanted to
    read more, how would she know a what point to stop reading his works…. she
    does try hard to be aware of the Holy Spirit, that if a books gives her that
    uncomfortable feeling she stops reading it… she, like I, only want to learn
    the truth!

    • Gabrielle Renoir

      Thomas Merton did become very interested in Eastern religions as he entered middle age, but he’s not been condemned. He was interested primarily from an ecumenical standpoint. His early works are very valuable and can teach us much, however, if he doesn’t resonate with you, I think you’re doing the best thing by not reading him. You can find excellent books on meditation and contemplation by other authors, i.e., Doctors of the Church.

      • Gabrielle – well said. We have a post that summarizes his writings from early to later years which can be found here:

        • Gabrielle Renoir

          Thank you again for the link, Dan. I read Merton’s early books, and “Seeds of Contemplation” is especially dear to me. I stay away from the books in which he seeks to integrate Eastern religions with Catholicism because I’m simply not well enough versed in Eastern religions to risk being led astray. For the same reason, I stay far away from the practice of yoga, which seems to be so very popular today. Other things Westerners are more familiar with can do everything yoga can do with none of yoga’s potential spiritual dangers.

          If the early works of Merton do not resonate with a person, it’s my personal opinion they would be better off reading Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux, or Hildegard of Bingen. And St. Hildegard wrote some beautiful music as well. As a music lover, I highly recommend her compositions.

  • So glad you named Chardin. The practical point is, we only have so many hours in a day to devote to various “projects” as I call them. Why in the world would we waste time reading someone who puts out doctrinal errors when we have fabulous saints like St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis de Sales, etc. The spiritual point is, the saints were living lives fully integrated with the truth, even though they were sinners like us. All their writings had to be approved before canonization according to the canonization process in place for centuries. Oral Roberts et al. is not fully integrated with the truth. If he were, he would have become Catholic. Not that he was a bad man, just that he lacked what Catholics have, the fullness of truth from our Magisterium. Therefore, we have to waste time picking and choosing what’s true. It’s better to devote ourselves to reading that is fully integrated. One of the best 20th century examples of this is Venerable Fulton J. Sheen. A brilliant man whose insights into contemporary issues are as fresh today as they were 80 and more years ago.

    • Well said.

    • Gabrielle Renoir

      I’m kind of surprised at the mention of Oral Roberts. It seems to me, and I may be mistaken, of course, that he was all about the money. He certainly didn’t seem to live a Christ-like life since he was always exhorting his viewers and listeners to send him their “seed faith money.” I become suspicious of anyone who constantly asks me for money as proof of my faith. I saw him as preying on the vulnerabilities of those in distress. Send your “seed faith money” and things will get better. They did – for him. I do what I can to support my parish and diocese and certain charities, but one of the marks of a true follower of Christ is not to ask for money, especially as a sign of faith. To ask for shelter for a night, a meal, that is fine. Our Lord did that. But money, and as a “sign” of faith? No.

  • tom

    I find it Interesting that in one verse Acts 17:28 Apostle Paul quotes from two pagan sources one from Epimenides, the Cretan poet (whom Paul also quoted later in Titus 1:12): Also Paul quoted the poet Aratus, from Paul’s homeland Cilicia. This second quotation was from Aratus’ work Phainomena. “ ‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

    If all truth is God’s truth, should the source matter so long as it is true?

    I know this brings us back to knowing the truth from trusted sources. However, if God can speak through a donkey in the Old Testament then He can speak through anyone. Isn’t this an invitation to read widely and explore with confidence?

    • Tom, thank you for your comments. All truth is God’s truth. Even so, why would anyone rummage around in the bin behind a restaurant? Sure, you can find something that is nutritionally sound but why do that when you have access to the best and most healthy food possible offered in the restaurant itself?
      Sent from my iPad

      • tom

        Thanks Dan for your reply, good analogy to chew on.

  • Diane4jesus

    I am not a well rounded reader, but over the years I have come across certain names being mentioned in both negative and positive lights. It really is difficult to always discern what is right and who should be avoided. Names I remember being included in a negative way in the last decade are Karl Rahner and Skillabeecz (sp). I cannot remember the contexts, only that I should avoid their writings, or to at least be cautious. However, often in my readings now I see both referenced and it makes me wonder if I am wrong. So, I say strongly, YES, it can be very confusing to a lot of us and especially beginners. I agree that we have very many accepted, tried and true, sainted writers. We should rely on them!
    Of course, we cannot exclude our modern writers, like Fr Barron, and those who contribute to our valued RCSD site, who give us a safe and up to date avenue to God.

  • bdlaacmm

    I have to disagree with you about Chardin. [Dear friend please review our FAQ’s about posting guidelines. You are more than welcome to comment but our mission here is to advance the teachings of the Church, not to oppose them. Your disagreement is with the Church not with me. As well, your response is reflective of skimbombing which is also contrary to the positive and constructive approach we seek to take here.]

    • bdlaacmm

      Never heard of skimbombing. What is that? Besides, I have no disagreement with the Church – none. I even referenced two popes sharing my opinion in my comment!

      • Hey you are back! Glad to see it. Did you read the FAQ’s? You will find clarity there. The reason I thought you were skim (not reading the post thoroughly) bombing (and then commenting anyway) is that I mentioned the same thing in the post and more. So, I may have made a faulty assumption that you didn’t read it based on the fact that you were offering information that was already in the post. Hope that makes sense.

        • bdlaacmm

          No, I read it (and enjoyed it). I guess I was the unclear one in my posting. I was mainly responding to one of the previous comments, and not to the article. (should I mention which one?)

          • Ok great. If you like. I am clear. Thanks for hanging in.

  • I’ve experienced aridity before and, like you, found resources to help me to cope and accept them as mere turns in the road on the way to God.

    However, as of late, I’ve been experiencing something that seems to be quite different: I realized that my whole prayer life for the last decade has been merely a growing bazaar, bargaining with God as if time in prayer, be it a Rosary or an Office Hour or Adoration or daily Mass, were currency in exchange for His graces, ultimately His love.

    This led me to realize that I do not accept God’s love, that I unconsciously think that it has to be earned, that it’s not gratuitous, but conditional. While I have no problems of thinking the opposite intellectually, I had to acknowledge that this is not how I live my so-called prayer life as a matter of fact. I had to put a stop to this and put my “prayer life” on hold in order to discern this. Unfortunately, help has been scarce, whether in writings or in person.

    I’d appreciate pointers about this, as well as a short elevation of my intentions to the Lord.

    Pax Christi

    • Dear Augustine – the enemy’s desire is that we not pray at all. It would be as much of a mistake to fall into the his first trap that you have described as it would to fall into the trap of pulling back too much. If you want to simplify – move to mental prayer and meditation. Pick up a copy of Fr. John Bartunek’s The Better Part and begin to rebuild there with prayer and reflection on the life of Christ. Whatever you do, don’t stop daily prayer.

      • Thank you for your advice. In a way, it confirmed a thought I had this morning in bed that perhaps returning to Lectio Divina to meditate on the Sunday Gospel, something that I’ve neglected in the past months, would be a way to reboot, or rather, to kick start an authentic prayer life.

      • Dear Dan,

        It was easier said than done for me.

        Whenever I’d try to meditate or to pray an office, I’d catch myself in the old ways, merely punching the time-card, and this provoked a reaction in me rejecting that way of praying.

        This and bad spiritual advice kept me away from prayer for about two months. After Christmas I slowly tried to pick it up again, by praying an office as if in each psalm the Lord were revealing Himself to me. If, for any reason, I couldn’t focus or fell in the old ways, I’d interrupt praying for the day and not force myself.

        It was a daily struggle, but slowly I could pray the office most of the days. It was only at the beginning of Lent after I got good spiritual advice in the confessional that I resumed attending Mass and praying one or two offices daily, besides trying to meditate daily on the Gospel.

        And then, after Easter, my prayer life was mostly restored. Or rather, refreshed, for it was not deeper, but more Heart-to-heart, which I guess made it deeper.

        Strangely, I was unable to resume the daily Rosary. I still pray it in front of an abortion clinic weekly without reluctance, but it seemingly isn’t part of my prayer life anymore.

        Unfortunately, one casualty was that I felt that my spiritual director was unable to help me in this crisis and didn’t really know me, so I concluded that it was better to stop seeing him. It’s not that he was a poor director, just that, after other deficiencies for over three years, I felt that we weren’t a good match.

        Thank you for your prayers as I recall you in mine.

  • Kanga 13

    In his books, Teilhard de Chardin never pretends to be expressing Church Doctine, but his insights are becoming more and more valuable to theologians who are seeking to find ways of reconciling faith with sciences, and particularly in reconciling evolution to the Biblical faith. As his ideas are being sifted, those insights which are valuable are being used to further theological inquiry.

    The popularity and influence of Theilhard’s work needs a considered response from the Church. The monitums are far too skimpy in that they do not identify which ideas are problematic. But the work of Ratzinger, Dulles and others indicate that the process is well under way, and that indeed, some of Teilhard’s insights are worthy.

    That being said, your advice to look to the Doctors of the Church for spiritual guidance is one that I would agree with. If one wants to go deeper in one’s relationship with God, better the Theresa’s and John of the Cross, Augustine and the Doctors of the Church as guideposts. Teilhard never addressed how to do that in his books, which are about the impact of science in the service of the truth. His work was before its time, before those questions became burning issues. If one is interested in evolution, his works must be read critically. I look forward to the day when the Church will have mulled and digested Teilhard, (or finished rummaging around in the dumpster on our behalf, if you prefer) but that task won’t be accomplished in my lifetime.

    • ThirstforTruth

      Kanga…I would suggest two things in response to your comment:
      (1) read the response to Teilhard byDietrich von Hildebrand who clearly refutesTeilhard’s “foolish theology” calling it a fiction of theology as well
      as his cosmic Christ.
      (2) As for his not pretending to be expressing Church Doctrine, the
      very fact he was a priest of the Roman Catholic faith compelled him
      morally to be the very complete expression of that Faith in and under
      all circumstances. Who would know otherwise that he was NOT speaking with the approval of the Church, unless the monitum was made.

  • ThirstforTruth

    Dear Dan,
    In your quest for imparting Truth and Who Can I Trust series, could you speak to
    us regarding the works of the late Thomas Berry and his New Story being promoted by environmentalists today? I understand he was influenced greatly
    by Teilhard as well as Christopher Dawson. Confusing influences to say the least.
    Thanks and God bless.

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