Monday, July 7, 2014

Considering the Authority of the Church Before One Finds Oneself in Conflict


It always saddens me when I encounter a fallen away Catholic online—the kind who obviously feels betrayed by the Church. Obviously they are in a lot of pain, and their pain is real. It's not going to go away just because you explain to them why the Church cannot change her teaching for them. For such people, all you can do is pray, comfort and explain at the level they're willing to hear.

So why am I writing?

The problem is, online, many people read the bitter hurt and anger and are led to believe that the Church is a cruel, bureaucratic institution that couldn't care less about the "little people" who are crushed by these rules. These people believe that the Catholic Church is in opposition to the love of Jesus Christ. Few explore the actual teaching of the Church and why she feels obligated to teach as she does.

Yes, it is true that the Bible says "God is love" (1 John 4:8). But the Bible says so much more than that . . . it also speaks of moral obligations and commandments. Reading the Bible isn't a matter of keeping score—there's no contrasting Paul or the Old Testament with Christ here. Because God inspired the authors of Scripture to write what He intended and no more, we can't say that one part of the Bible contradicts another. Rather, we see a growing awareness of understanding God brought to the final fulfillment that Jesus Christ gave us.

This brings us to the heart of the matter: When there is a dispute, what living authority which can determine what is and what is not in keeping with the will of Christ? It does no good to argue that the Bible is that authority . . . it is the meaning of the Bible which is being disputed.

So this is why I write—so that people who have not yet found themselves running afoul of the Catholic Church might recognize her authority and obligation in teaching, and perhaps avoid finding themselves in opposition to the Church to begin with.

The Catholic Church and Authority

Ultimately, the dispute between the Catholic Church and those in opposition to her is the issue of what authority she has to make decisions binding on the faithful. If what the Church claims about her nature is true, then when she teaches, it is binding on the faithful and rebellion against the Church teaching is rebellion against God. But, if what she claims is not true, then she has no "teachings" at all. The Church would then be nothing more than yet another NGO with an agenda . . . one to support if you agree with it and oppose if you don't.

What the Catholic Church believes about herself is that she is the Church that Jesus said He would establish (Matt 16:18-19). The Pope and the bishops the successors of St. Peter and the Apostles. If what she believes about herself is true, then she does have the authority of Christ. What Christ has said about giving His authority to carry out His work is important here:

18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:18-19)

17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 18  Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matt 18:17-18)

18  Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

16 Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” (Luke 10:16)

21 [Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the holy Spirit. 23 Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”  (John 20:21-23)

New American Bible, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011)

These words are important. Jesus makes some important promises about His Church.

Laying all this out, we can see that whatever this Church may be, it was not a mere incidental point in Jesus' mission. He intends His mission to continue, even after His Death and Resurrection. So, considering all these points that the Bible makes, if the Catholic Church is not the Church established by Christ, where is it?

  • It can't be Invisible . . . otherwise, how could we go to it?
  • It can't have ever died out . . . or have come into existence centuries or millennia later.
  • It has to have the authority of Christ.
  • It has to have the authority to bind and loose . . . which means it has to be protected from teaching error. Otherwise Jesus would have to bind sin and loose His commandments in Heaven.
  • It has the authority to forgive sins.
  • It is centered under the headship of Peter.
  • It has to be carrying out the mission of Christ to the whole world . . . not merely serving one community or one ethnicity or one nation.

As Catholics, we believe that this Church is the Catholic Church, given the authority and the responsibility along with the protections needed to avoid teaching error.

What This Means

That leads us to the moment of truth. There are two (and only two) options:

  1. If the Catholic Church is this Church established by Christ, then her teachings are not arbitrary, but have the authority of Christ behind them.
  2. If the Catholic Church is not this Church established by Christ, then her teachings have no authority behind them except perhaps the power of persuasion.

Once one realizes this, the Catholic has a decision to make before there is ever a risk of winding up in conflict with the Church. If one recognizes this authority as being from Christ, then one should be aware that the Church teachings need to be followed and that decisions that might put one in conflict to the Church must be avoided.

Once this is grasped, one can look at the different issues on Church teaching. For example, Abortion, Contraception, Divorce and Remarriage, "Gay" Marriage, Women's Ordination and others. There's no sense in getting angry at the Church. She does this because she thinks she must teach this way to be faithful to Christ. If one agrees that Christ gave her that authority, then the Church teaching has Christ's authority and fighting the Church teaching is fighting God.

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