Sunday, May 8, 2016

Kicking Against the Goad?

We all fell to the ground and I heard a voice saying to me in Hebrew, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goad. (Acts 26:14).

Goad: a spiked stick used for driving cattle. (Concise Oxford English Dictionary).

The Goad

Kicking against the goad means stubbornly resisting guidance in a way that only harms the one resisting. If the animal didn’t kick, it wouldn’t be injured. Likewise, if Saul hadn’t resisted God’s will by persecuting Christians, he would not have found himself thrown to the ground, blinded. If we resist God, even if we think we are doing right, we harm ourselves until we get on track. 

Watching the Church since 2013, I feel like the latest attack against her revolves around attacking our faith in those who shepherd us. Either people distort his words, for their own benefit, to the point where we have doubts about what the Pope really means, or they attack his character, so we doubt his orthodoxy. Sadly, it is effective. Some Catholics sift his words, seeking sentences and footnotes that justify what they planned to do anyway. Some treat it as if Papal teaching was an treasure hunt where we discover what he “really” means from scattered clues. Others watch what he writes and says, looking for the excuse to reject his authority, as if he were an usurper on the Chair of St. Peter and they were gathering evidence.

I believe we are witnessing Satan’s attack on the sheep of the flock. The attack isn’t intended to destroy the Church or the papacy. It seems aimed at destroying our faith so we no longer trust the Church as mother and teacher. Once the devil can trick us away from the Church, we fall into pride and become easy prey. That doesn’t necessarily mean falling into formal schism. It only means we stop obeying when the Church says something we dislike.

This happens when a majority of Catholics use contraception in defiance to the teaching of the Church. It also happens when Catholics legalistically search for reasons to argue that a Pope’s teaching is non-binding. We make ourselves judges of right and wrong, justifying our behavior as “faithfulness to Jesus, not the Church” or “faithfulness to the true Church over a bad Pope.” But these arguments assume the individual knows more about the teaching of Our Lord and His Church than those He chose to shepherd us—a dangerous attitude when Our Lord warned that rejecting them meant rejecting Him (Luke 10:16).

So, when we resist the Church guiding us, we kick against the goad and harm ourselves. Not because God treats us like Saul, but because we undercut the basis we have for living as Christians, thinking the direction we prefer is the direction God must want us to go and the Church only has authority when she agrees with us. But that’s spiritual anarchy. Our Lord’s words about taking disputes to the Church for the final say in the matter (like Matthew 18:17) assumes a visible authoritative Church.

But if God intends us to have a visible, authoritative Church which we could appeal to, it stands to reason this authority has to be visible today. If the protection from error was in Rome during one era and in Ecône [*] during another, we could never know who we could trust. If the Rock on which Our Lord built His Church can crumble into error, we could never trust the Church to be accurate at any specific time. Each of us could point to our favorite theologians as refuting a theologian we disagree with. Liberals could point to Hans Küng or (retired) Cardinal Kasper, traditionalists could point to Professor Spaemann. For that matter, some could point to Arius or Nestorius. Who’s to say that the protection from error wasn’t with the Patriarchate of Constantinople? But that’s not the Rock of Matthew 16:18. That’s the tower of Babel, scattered in all directions without leadership.  

It’s only when we have a “go to” source of authority in the Church, which judges how we apply the timeless truths of the Church in the present age, that we can avoid Babel. As Catholics, we believe the Church is that authority and we belief the Pope is the head of the Church as Vicar of Christ. That authority is not removed by the bad behavior of a Pope. Our Lord told us we must still obey those leaders (Matthew 23:2-3), though not imitate any bad behavior they do.

Pope Francis has chosen mercy as his theme on how we apply the teachings of the Church. This results in challenges from two sides, kicking against the goad:

  1. Those who think a focus on mercy is laxity.
  2. Those who think focusing on the teachings of the Church is rigorism.
But mercy in applying the teachings of the Church is nothing new or dangerous. St. Pius X wrote in his first encyclical, E Supremi, 113 years ago:

13. But in order that the desired fruit may be derived from this apostolate and this zeal for teaching, and that Christ may be formed in all, be it remembered, Venerable Brethren, that no means is more efficacious than charity. “For the Lord is not in the earthquake” (3 Kings 19:2) [†]—it is vain to hope to attract souls to God by a bitter zeal. On the contrary, harm is done more often than good by taunting men harshly with their faults, and reproving their vices with asperity. True the Apostle exhorted Timothy: “Accuse, beseech, rebuke,” but he took care to add: “with all patience” (2 Tim. 4:2). Jesus has certainly left us examples of this. “Come to me,” we find Him saying, “come to me all ye that labour and are burthened and I will refresh you” (Matth. 11:28). And by those that labour and are burthened he meant only those who are slaves of sin and error. What gentleness was that shown by the Divine Master! What tenderness, what compassion towards all kinds of misery!


 Claudia Carlen, ed., The Papal Encyclicals: 1903–1939 (Ypsilanti, MI: The Pierian Press, 1990), 9.

Pope Francis reflects this view in Amoris Lætitia when he says we must do more than cite rules:

[50] In such difficult situations of need, the Church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned by the very Mother called to show them God’s mercy. Rather than offering the healing power of grace and the light of the Gospel message, some would “indoctrinate” that message, turning it into “dead stones to be hurled at others.”

Francis, Pope (2016-04-22). Amoris Laetitia: On Love in the Family (p. 40). Our Sunday Visitor. Kindle Edition.

To reject the authority of Pope Francis is kicking against the goad of the authority his predecessors had. If Pope Francis was wrong to speak on mercy, so was St. Pius X!  On the other hand, if one wants to reject St. Pius X for saying we need to follow Church teaching, we have to reject Pope Francis as well. It’s only when we give respect the teaching authority of the Pope today and in the past that we have a healthy relationship with the Church and Our Lord who founded her.
Rebelling against the Church may feel right. Saul thought it was right to persecute her. But in the end, he learned the error of his ways. We ought not to follow Saul’s example. We have the teaching of 2000 years of a Church guided by God through the centuries of hardship and turmoil. We know what God calls us to do. If we do not follow, we’re kicking against the goad, even if we think we’re doing right by claiming to follow Christ against the Church, or the earlier Church against the later.


[*] The SSPX headquarters are in Ecône.
[†] In modern Bibles, this would be 1 Kings. Older Bibles labeled 1 and 2 Samuel as part of the four Books of Kings, so 1 and 2 Kings today were called 3 and 4 Kings then.  Also, I think there is a typo in this version. It should be 1 Kings 19:11. Perhaps someone saw “11” and thought it was a Roman 2 (II).

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