I am well aware of the (often legitimate) frustrations by some Catholics that the Bishops, either individually or collectively have not always shepherded in a clearer way; a way that both disciplined dissenters and corrected liturgical abuses and also encouraged those who tried to remain faithful. I get that. These have been difficult decades for the Church and for our culture.
But frustrations should not be permitted to draw us, even subtly, toward a posture that practically speaking severs our union with the bishops. Some of the comments that routinely come in to the blog here are quite shocking in their sweeping dismissal of the bishops, even the Pope. Some of them are so strong that I cannot post them. What makes them particularly shocking is that, these days, most of the comments of this sort come from those who would define themselves as conservative Catholics. That reflects somewhat the readership of this blog (i.e. more conservative), but it is shocking to hear conservative Catholics use the language that I had always associated with dissenters back in the 1970s and 80s.
I know that I haven’t always been innocent of this myself, but I have to say that Msgr. Pope is absolutely right. What’s more, both Scripture and the Church Fathers back him up on this.
Back in about 107 A.D., St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of the Apostle John, wrote to the Smyrnaeans, warning them against undermining their bishop:
Ignatius of AntiochSee that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. […]
Moreover, it is in accordance with reason that we should return to soberness [of conduct], and, while yet we have opportunity, exercise repentance towards God. It is well to reverence both God and the bishop. He who honours the bishop has been honoured by God; he who does anything without the knowledge of the bishop, does [in reality] serve the devil.
Over 1900 years later, Ignatius’ words are still apropos.
I anticipate the obvious objection, that our bishops have repeatedly failed us, or betrayed our trust. I’m sure anyone reading this can immediately think of numerous instances from the past fifty years in which the Catholic laity were wounded by the actions (or inaction) of our bishops. But frankly, this is nothing new. The Fall didn’t suddenly begin to affect bishops in the 1960s. Just look at the performance of the English bishops under Henry, or the countless heretical bishops at the time of Athanasius. For that matter, just look at the Apostles. Judas betrays Christ, and all of the Apostles other than St. John abandon Him. The Apostles weren’t blind to their own weaknesses, as Galatians 2 makes clear. Yet here’s what Hebrews 13:17-18 tells us to do:
|Anthony van Dyck, St Ambrose barring Theodosius
from Milan Cathedral (1620)
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honorably in every way.
I’m not going to pretend that this is an easy command. But it is obviously right. As St. Paul explains, all authority (whether political or spiritual) comes from God (Rom. 13:1-2):
All of you must be willing to obey completely those who rule over you. There are no authorities except the ones God has chosen. Those who now rule have been chosen by God. So when you oppose the authorities, you are opposing those whom God has appointed. Those who do that will be judged.
This is also the clear implication of Jesus’ response to Pilate, as well (John 19:10-11). Sometimes, God gives us the leaders we need, and other times, He seems to give us the leaders we deserve.
Let’s be clear about a handful of caveats, though: even though St. Paul calls us to “obey completely those who rule over you,” his own life shows one obvious exception to this: we should obey them completely, unless we’re asked to do something contrary to the Gospel. I would add two more caveats. First, it’s morally licit to politically oppose the president, and to run against him. There’s a clear difference between being an opposition party and a traitor, and it’s the latter that Paul warns against. Second, there are instances in which leaders lose all legitimate authority. Parents can lose custody of their children, we can be loosed from our obligation to obey certain secular leaders, and bishops can be excommunicated. St. Paul is warning us not to be disobedient citizens and laity; he’s not telling us to blindly worship the Emperor or do whatever Bishop Arius tells us to do.
In summary, there are four major points we should draw from Scripture and the Church Fathers:
- Obey the bishops, even if we disagree with their approach. Many of the issues dividing Catholics are ones on which people can take different views in good conscience. On these issues, we can have our own opinions, but when the rubber hits the road, we should obey the bishops. This includes, at a bare minimum, not undermining what the bishops are doing. That undermining is the behavior that tears at the Body of Christ, and that Ignatius denounces as the work of the devil.
- Obey the Gospel, even if an authority teaches otherwise. While we should exercise complete obedience towards the bishops, this doesn’t mean doing something contrary the Gospel. As the Church explained in Dignitatis Humane, “In all his activity a man is bound to follow his conscience in order that he may come to God, the end and purpose of life. It follows that he is not to be forced to act in manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious.” To simplify: if a person in authority over you (be they a parent, boss, president, priest, or bishop) tells you to do something stupid, you should do it. But if they tell you to do something evil, you must not. In a secular context, this means that you should pay your income tax (Mk. 12:17), but not comply with the HHS Mandate.
- Treat the bishops with respect. Acts 23:1-5 is worth reading carefully. St. Paul is taken before the Sanhedrin, and protests his innocence. The high priest orders him to be slapped in the mouth, and St. Paul responds, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!” (Acts 23:3). Those around Paul seem shocked by this, and ask, “You dare to insult God’s high priest?” (Acts 23:4). Then, something amazing happens. Paul apologizes, explaining that he didn’t realize that the man who gave the order was the high priest: “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people’” (Acts 23:5; Paul is quoting Exodus 22:28). Once he knew who he was dealing with, Paul refused to speak disrespectfully to the high priest — even though the high priest ordered him slapped in the mouth. And we today cannot even afford to be respectful to our own bishops?
- Pray for religious and secular leadership. President Obama needs our prayers. So does Congress. So do bishops, priests, and deacons. We’re called to pray for them at every Mass, but we should do so even more frequently. The worse the bishop or politician seems to be, the more they need your prayers. Plus, if what we believe about prayer is true, this will do a lot more good than simply kvetching about them on the Internet.
|Fra Angelico, Dispute before Sanhedrin (1449)|