Saturday, September 16, 2017

Same Church, Same Teaching, Same Authority

St. Gregory Nazianzen tells us (Oratio XLIII, #50) where an official of Emperor Valens ordered St. Basil the Great to comply with an unjust government decree, using threats. When St. Basil refused, vehemently, the exchange went like this:

50. Amazed at this language, the prefect said, “No one has ever yet spoken thus, and with such boldness, to Modestus.” “Why, perhaps,” said Basil, “you have not met with a Bishop, or in his defence of such interests he would have used precisely the same language. For we are modest in general, and submissive to every one, according to the precept of our law. We may not treat with haughtiness even any ordinary person, to say nothing of so great a potentate. But where the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else, and make these our sole object. Fire and sword and wild beasts, and rakes which tear the flesh, we revel in, and fear them not. You may further insult and threaten us, and do whatever you will, to the full extent of your power. The Emperor himself may hear this—that neither by violence nor persuasion will you bring us to make common cause with impiety, not even though your threats become still more terrible.”

 

Gregory Nazianzen, “Select Orations of Saint Gregory Nazianzen,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), 411.

I think of this exchange in these recent times. Between 2009-2016, when the Obama administration instituted policies contrary to the Church, some Catholics accused the bishops (or even the Pope) of partisan politics when they spoke out, while others rightly pointed out they were exercising their office. Today, we’re seeing the same arguments, but some of the parties involved have changed sides. Those who once accused them of partisanship, champion their stance as long as they politically agree with it. Those who once defended the bishops now accuse them, because they politically disagree with them. In both cases, the rallying cry was the Church should “stay out of politics.”

But neither the teaching nor the authority has changed. The Church has the obligation to speak out against things in opposition to God’s commandments and the natural law. This obligation does not end at the doors of the Church. Nor does it end with the baptized. The fact is, long before the Europeans first encountered America, the Church was standing against the evil of the states, both telling the Christians not to cooperate with evil and telling the rulers they needed to repent. When it comes to rendering to Caesar and to God, the bishops have always spoken out when Caesar intrudes on God’s portion.

Those Catholics who sometimes say, “Hear the Church,” and sometimes, “Ignore the Church,” undermine any profession of faith they might make.  If the Church is right when we agree, and wrong when we disagree, the nominal Catholic or non-Catholic will be led to think that Church teaching is just another advocacy platform which can be changed as needed. But the Church is not an advocacy group with a political slant. She is the same Church which our Lord built on the Rock of Peter (Matthew 16:18). She has the same authority and responsibility that the Apostles had, and the same promise of protection. Yes, Catholics in a region—Bishops, Priests, Laity—might be swept away in error. But the Bishop of Rome and those who kept communion with him have never taught error. Some have lived less than saintly lives, but that does not disprove our Lord’s protection.

This is what makes the current hostility to the Pope and bishops so alarming. If what the critics claim is true, then we must face this reality: Either Jesus made a false promise (meaning He is not God) or the Church erred in how she interpreted that promise (meaning she not only can, but does teach error). In either case, we have no guarantee that even our preferred teachings are true.

But, if Jesus’ promise is true, and the Church does correctly interpret His promise, then we can safely give assent to what the Pope and bishops in communion with him teach, when carrying out their office. As Msgr. Ronald Knox pointed out,

Here is another suggestion, which may not be without its value – if you find yourself thus apparently deserted by the light of faith, do not fluster and baffle your imagination by presenting to it all the most difficult doctrines of the Christian religion, those which unbelievers find it easiest to attack; do not be asking yourself, "Can I really believe marriage is indissoluble?  Can I really believe that it is possible to go to hell as the punishment for one mortal sin?"  Keep your attention fixed to the main point, which is a single point – Can I trust the Catholic Church as the final repository of revealed truth?  If you can, all the rest follows; if you cannot, it makes little difference what else you believe or disbelieve.

(In Soft Garments, pages 113-114).

It is not the holiness of the man holding the office which makes the teaching true. It is the authority and protection given by Our Lord. But since it is the authority and protection of Our Lord, then to fight the bishops is to fight God (see Acts 9:4-5). So, to appeal to early Church teaching against later, or to appeal to Jesus against the Church rejects God (Luke 10:16). The person who “compares” the words of the Pope to the words of Christ, or the words of the Pope to the writings of past centuries, confuses their interpretation with what the Church understands it to mean. Remember, while we are called to use our reason in being faithful, we are also to give assent to teaching the Church gives (see Code of Canon Law 752-754).

Are there times when the Pope and bishops don’t teach? Of course. A Papal press conference or interview, or privately written book (for example, the Jesus of Nazareth books of Benedict XVI). But when the Pope or bishop intends to teach using the ordinary magisterium, we are required to give assent. So, whether the Pope and bishops speak out on sexual morality, or whether they speak out on social justice, they are not offering an opinion on Obama or Trump. They are reminding us on what our obligations are before God. Whatever our politics, we cannot act in a way that they say is wrong.

With this in mind, when we face a conflict and are tempted to reject what the Pope and bishops say, we must consider the possibility that we have misinterpreted the Church teaching, what the Pope said, or (very often) both.

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