Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Question of Faith

Recently a group of priests from a European country issued a summons to disobedience, and at the same time gave concrete examples of the forms this disobedience might take, even to the point of disregarding definitive decisions of the Church’s Magisterium, such as the question of women’s ordination, for which Blessed Pope John Paul II stated irrevocably that the Church has received no authority from the Lord.

Is disobedience a path of renewal for the Church? We would like to believe that the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the Church, that they are convinced that the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures, in order to open up new paths and to bring the Church up to date.

But is disobedience really a way to do this? Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?
But let us not oversimplify matters. Surely Christ himself corrected human traditions which threatened to stifle the word and the will of God? Indeed he did, so as to rekindle obedience to the true will of God, to his ever enduring word. His concern was for true obedience, as opposed to human caprice.

Nor must we forget: he was the Son, possessed of singular authority and responsibility to reveal the authentic will of God, so as to open up the path for God’s word to the world of the nations. And finally: he lived out his task with obedience and humility all the way to the Cross, and so gave credibility to his mission. Not my will, but thine be done: these words reveal to us the Son, in his humility and his divinity, and they show us the true path.

Homily, Chrism Mass, 2012

Reflection – So now we dive headfirst into controversy. Oh well… it is worth noting here that the Pope is not putting words into the mouths of these Austrian priests: their letter was in fact entitled “A Call to Disobedience.” And of course this is the section of the homily that got all the media coverage, mostly saying the Pope had ‘railed’ or ‘thundered’ or ‘denounced’ these priests. I challenge anyone who has ever heard Pope Benedict’s mild voice and gentle demeanour to picture him ‘thundering’ about anything!
Mind you, he speaks strongly and clearly. And he calls us to obedience. I suppose that is a radical enough concept today that the very idea of it is thunderous.

To obey the Church—how hard this seems to be for us today! I have to admit here, that for me personally I happen to agree with the Church’s teachings on all matters of faith and morals, and so my own obedience is no great virtue, perhaps. Mind you, I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me that, say, sex outside of marriage was morally wrong, if the Church had not taught me so. And it was very long time ago indeed that I did make a fundamental choice to be taught by the Church in these and all matters.

And it seems to me that this is the issue. Are we willing to be taught? The Church, in relation to its non-infallible teachings, asks its members to practice the attitude of obsequium fidei. The Latin word does not sound attractive to us—the English equivalent ‘obsequious’ has strong negative connotations of servile, cringing toadyism.

But the Latin sense is precisely this: to be willing to be taught by the Church. To be docile, to accept to be led. The opposite attitude would be to insist that the Church prove by strict logical argument every one of its positions before we will sign onto them, to insist that the Church meet every need of ours for certainty and emotional satisfaction before we will consider (maybe) conforming our life to what it tells us are God’s laws.

It is a question of faith, ultimately. Is this Christ’s Church? Did He establish it? Did He bestow His Spirit upon it? Did He give to its apostolic leadership real authority to teach?

If he did these things, should we not trust Him by letting the Church guide us in our moral decision-making? Oh, I can hear the objections already: but the Pope is a sinner! The bishops covered up sexual abuse! The Pope tortured heretics in the Middle Ages! My bishop is a jerk! The Pope… etc., etc., etc.

I repeat: is it Christ’s Church? Did He establish it? Did He bestow his Spirit upon it? Did He give to its apostolic leadership real authority to teach? Not authority to live morally perfect lives themselves, but to teach. What is our answer to these questions? If we answer ‘no’ to them, then (congratulations!) we are Protestants. And there are all sorts of Protestant denominations we can go to if that’s what we decide we are. But if we are Catholics, then we are Catholics, and obedience is our call.

And it is a call, the Pope reminds us, that we share with Christ. His obedience led him to the Cross. Our obedience may and probably will lead us to some suffering. We have to be clear about the deep connections between these two realities. Ecclesial obedience may not ‘feel’ good, may ‘feel’ like we are being done in. Having nails driven through hands and feet also did not ‘feel’ good. Who are we following? Who is our Lord? What is our idea of life and how it should unfold, what a good life is and how we are to get there?
Well, that’s enough for one blog post. The Pope will continue to reflect on these matters, and I will continue to reflect along with him. See you tomorrow!

Update: Welcome, Shea readers! When I sent Mark my links on this series on obedience, I forgot to send him this one on Obedience and Renewal, which is actually a pretty important part of the Pope's homily and my reflections on same. So there it is...


  1. The word caprice is inflammatory, and not a word used to describe those who have dedicated their lives to God and what they believe is church.

    Of course, the wrd disobedience is inflammatory too. Unless, you have a different idea about ecclesial obedience means.

    Perhaps these are examples of the twin errors of defect and excess? But, I am no theologian.

    1. Well, don't forget the Pope was preaching in Italian - I wonder what the word is that he actually used? The English translation is not authoritative, and so we shouldn't get hung up on the one word... I agree that 'caprice' is at best infelicitous.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.