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A thought on the passing of Geza Vermes

May 8, 2013

I know nothing of Geza Vermes except what I read in various obituaries for him that appeared today.

In 1999 Vermes stated: “Well of course by [1965] I was no longer a priest . . . I left Paris, Roman Catholicism, and the priesthood in 1957. By that time I had a job in the Department of Divinity in the University of Newcastle, teaching Hebrew and Old Testament . . . I myself at that time, did not consider myself any longer a Christian. I was a kind of free agent, moving along without being attached to one denomination or another . . . Five years or so later, I decided to define publicly my identity as belonging to the Jewish community by becoming a member of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue.”

Vermes’ action strikes me as classic apostasy, the total repudiation of the Christian faith (1983 CIC 751; CCC 2089). Nothing in, say, Cerafogli’s “Apostasia”, DMC (1962) I: 267-269 seems to provide any ‘cover’ for Vermes in this regard. In 1957, apostasy was punishable by latae sententiae excommunication per 1917 CIC 2314 § 1, though I see no evidence that the censure was ever formally declared or imposed.

Lumen gentium (1964) 14 comes to mind, too: “This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself upon Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door men enter the Church. Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.”

This is a point I make with my students when we hit Canon 751: Don’t assume that apostasy does not happen anymore or that, if it happens, it’s easy to spot (you know, as in creepy characters running around with meat-cleavers hacking up old ladies). Apostasy happens, every day I venture, and the consequences of it happening—mind, God alone knows whether it happened in any particular case—are eternal.

Say a prayer for Geza Vermes and for all those who met God today.

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