Last time I talked about God ultimately being in charge, so we could trust Him to protect the Church when things grew beyond our control. This time, I want to talk about the other side of that coin—the fact that God established a Church as the ordinary means of bringing His salvation to the world. Unlike Protestants and Orthodox, Catholics hold that Our Lord established His Church on the rock of St. Peter and his successors. We hold that God gave this Church under Peter, the Apostles, and their successors the authority to bind and loose. When the magisterium teaches, we are obligated to give assent—our full acceptance of that teaching.
Remember John 14:15. Loving Him is keeping His commandments. Remember Luke 10:16. Our Lord makes clear that rejecting His Church is rejecting Him. Remember Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18. What His Church binds/looses on Earth is bound/loosed in Heaven. Remember Matthew 18:17. Refusing to hear the Church is a very serious matter. Remember Matthew 7:21-23. If we do not keep His commandments, we will be barred from the Kingdom of Heaven.
I stress this because there is a temptation to separate Our Lord from Church teaching—a claim that Our Lord is merciful but the Church is focussed on “rules.” This temptation claims, “God doesn’t care about X.” It accuses the Church of Pharisaism. But what it tends to mean is, “The Church should not judge my sin.” Let’s be clear here. I’m not equating the Church with individuals who insist you do things according to their preferences, like vote for a certain candidate or you’re damned. I’m talking about the authority of the Pope, as well as the bishop and the priest who properly use their authority in communion with the Pope, to make known how we should live if we would be faithful to Christ, our Lord.
One cannot separate God from the Church, because the Church teaches with God’s authority. It is that simple. So if we dislike what the Church teaches on a subject, our issue is with God. Remember, if we accept the fact that God is in ultimate control, and that He has given the Church the authority to teach in His name, then we must accept what the Church teaches, trusting Him to protect His Church from error.
That doesn’t mean God retroactively turns falsehood into truth. It means God prevents the Church from teaching error. When the Church binds, saying a certain action is gravely sinful, then the person who knows this and freely chooses to do it, commits mortal sin. We do not appeal to God as if He were a higher court. Nor can we use the bad behavior of corrupt Churchmen or harsher methods of law enforcement in harsher times to justify disobedience. If we do, God will no doubt remind us of Matthew 23:2-3. Or as St. John Chrysostom commented on it,
I mean, that lest any one should say, that because my teacher is bad, therefore am I become more remiss, He takes away even this pretext. So much at any rate did He establish their authority, although they were wicked men, as even after so heavy an accusation to say, “All whatsoever they command you to do, do.” For they speak not their own words, but God’s, what He appointed for laws by Moses.
John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel according to St. Matthew,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. George Prevost and M. B. Riddle, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 436.
When the Pope and bishops in communion with Him teach, they do not do so from their own authority, but God’s. If some members of the hierarchy behave unjustly, that does not absolve us from being faithful to the Church under the bishop of Rome. So, if we don’t like the fact that the Church teaches that abortion, contraception, divorce/remarriage, or homosexual acts are sinful, we have to remember that when we know the Church calls these things to be gravely sinful, yet we freely choose them, we sin against God, and don’t just “break a rule.”
But what about Pope Francis? But what about mercy? I answer, his stance is not contrary to the teaching about sin and Hell. His Year of Mercy presumes that we are sinners, and we are in need of forgiveness. But his Year of Mercy was not about dispensations permitting sin. They were about reminding us that now is the acceptable time of salvation, and making the Church available to bring God’s mercy to us. This meant if we would receive God’s mercy, we must repent. This isn’t a radical traditionalist screed. This is Our Lord, Himself telling us, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15).
Bishop Robert Barron points out the mistakes some make about the Holy Father:
A good deal of the confusion stems from a misinterpretation of Francis’s stress on mercy. In order to clear things up, a little theologizing is in order. It is not correct to say that God’s essential attribute is mercy. Rather, God’s essential attribute is love, since love is what obtains among the three divine persons from all eternity. Mercy is what love looks like when it turns toward the sinner. To say that mercy belongs to the very nature of God, therefore, would be to imply that sin exists within God himself, which is absurd.
Now this is important, for many receive the message of divine mercy as tantamount to a denial of the reality of sin, as though sin no longer mattered. But just the contrary is the case. To speak of mercy is to be intensely aware of sin and its peculiar form of destructiveness. Or, to shift to one of the pope’s favorite metaphors, it is to be acutely conscious that one is wounded so severely that one requires not minor treatment but the emergency and radical attention provided in a hospital on the edge of a battlefield. Recall that when Francis was asked in a famous interview to describe himself, he responded, “a sinner.” Then he added, “who has been looked upon by the face of mercy.” That’s getting the relationship right. Remember as well that the teenage Jorge Mario Bergoglio came to a deep and life-changing relationship to Christ precisely through a particularly intense experience in the confessional. As many have indicated, Papa Francesco speaks of the devil more frequently than any of his predecessors of recent memory, and he doesn’t reduce the dark power to a vague abstraction or a harmless symbol. He understands Satan to be a real and very dangerous person.
Barron, Robert (2016-03-31). Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism (Kindle Locations 613-625). Word on Fire. Kindle Edition.
Mercy is not about turning a blind eye to sin. Mercy is about sparing the person from the penalty justice demands. See, we deserve damnation for our sins. But God desires our salvation. So He sent His Son to save us. Yet, we can refuse to accept His mercy, and we do when we choose to do what God forbids. During our life on Earth, God gives us every chance to repent and accept His mercy. But if we refuse to do so, we will face His justice. When the Church teaches something is a grave sin, it’s not because she is obsessed with rules and power. it is because she is concerned for our souls, and wants to save us from the fires of Hell.
Remember that while Our Lord spoke of love and mercy, He also spoke of Hell:
13 "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. 14 How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13–14)
He’s the one who talked about casting sinners out into the darkness (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30). These are not contradictions or additions to Jesus’ message of love and mercy. They’re warnings about what happens if we reject His commandments. Neither God nor His Church are cruel or judgmental for warning about sin and Hell. They don’t make dire threats to cow us into submission. We’re warned about Hell because it is real and we can go there if we refuse to keep Our Lord’s commandments.
What we need to remember about the difference between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) was not that the Tax Collector was a better person. It was the Tax Collector repented, while the Pharisee did not. But not all tax collectors repented—The publicani (tax collectors under contract) were recognized across the Roman Empire as a scourge because of their rapacious ways that bankrupted entire provinces to boost their profits. Likewise, not all Pharisees were unrepentant. Some became Christians, after all.
The point is, God loves each one of us, and desires our salvation—but that call requires a response. If we demand the benefits, while refusing the call of Our Lord—Repent, and believe in the gospel—we show we do not love Him, regardless of how we profess it otherwise. Instead, we simply want cheap grace. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it:
Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Martin Kuske et al., trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, vol. 4, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 44.
We should think of this when we’re inclined to accuse the Church of being in opposition to Christ. Our Lord established the Catholic Church to be His means of bringing His salvation to the whole world through the sacraments and teaching His way (cf. Matthew 28:19). It is true that as missionaries to the world, we must not be harsh. But as sinners in need of salvation, we must not demand that the Church change to suit us. If we do, we are spurning The Lord who desires to save us. If we spurn Him, and do not repent, we risk facing the reality of Hell.