Sunday, December 16, 2018

No Exceptions: Reflections on Church Authority

(Ven. Fulton J Sheen, Treasure in Clay)

A major struggle in the Church today is the issue of contrasting being faithful to the Church as the bride of Christ with giving religious submission of intellect and will when the Pope teaches (canon 752), and accepting his authority to govern all areas of the Church (canon 331). The problem is that while the Church makes clear that these things are required of the faithful, a troubling number of Catholics are arguing that to be faithful they must disobey the Pope.

Not only has this argument never been taught by the Church, the reality is it has only been used by dissenters who want to reject an unpopular Church teaching. For example: those Catholics who attacked St. Paul VI and his successors used the same arguments about “erring” Popes in order to deny their authority that the Catholics who attack Pope Francis today use over teachings they oppose. 

The problem is, many of those Catholics who use these attacks against Pope Francis denounced the same attacks when used against his predecessors. This brings up the question: if the dissent against the previous Popes was wrong, then how is the dissent against the current Pope justified? The common defense in this case is that we haven’t had a heretic Pope before. But that’s the point they have to prove... and there’s a lot of theology that has to be ignored to “prove” it. 

The starting point is the promises and commands of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We believe that He promised to build His Church on the rock of Peter, and that the gates of Hell would not prevail against her. (Matthew 16:18). We believe that Our Lord gave Peter the keys to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19) and promised to protect and guide Peter (Luke 22:31-32). We believe that He will be with His Church until the end (Matthew 28:18-20). We believe that Our Lord made clear that to love Our Lord is to obey Him (John 14:15, Matthew 7:21), and that to reject the Church is to reject God (Luke 10:16). 

But there are no exceptions to that obedience. Even in the case of sinful Popes, Our Lord drew a distinction between their authority to teach and govern and their behavior (Matthew 23:2-3). Yes, we have had morally bad Popes. Yes, we have some Popes who were suspected of dubious beliefs. But none of them ever taught error, and based on what Our Lord taught us, we know He will never permit them to teach error. 

The second point involves reason. If a Pope can teach error, then Our Lord’s promise was false. If His promise was false, He is not God. If He is not God, the Church has taught error in teaching He is God. In such a case, it would matter very little what Pope Francis said. If what a Pope teaches or governs is binding on the faithful, we sin if we disobey. We trust in God that He will never permit His Church under the Pope to teach error. A bad Pope might end up teaching nothing under this protection, but He will not teach error.

The third point to remember is that the authentic interpretation and application of past teaching is ultimately done by the Pope and bishops in communion with him. An individual Catholic cannot use his or her own reading of Scripture or past teaching to judge the orthodoxy of the Pope.

The arguments used to deny Papal authority ignore all of these points. They assume that the Pope can err, because they don’t like his teaching. But they ignore the fact that assuming him erring in teaching means ignoring the words of The Lord on protection and the obligation to obey. Let’s be clear: the idea that only ex cathedra teachings bind was condemned by Piux IX. The appeal to a council to judge the Pope was condemned as a heresy (conciliarism). The cardinals who elect the Pope cannot remove him from office.

Since there are no exceptions or escape clauses to the authority of the Church and of the Pope as the Vicar of Christ, we must put our trust in God. God may afflict us with a bad Pope as a chastisement (and let me be clear: I deny that Pope Francis is a bad Pope) but He does not give us the exception clause to reject the legitimate authority of the Pope.

Once we recognize the protection from Our Lord is always with the Church, we can recognize that the claims that he teaches error are garbage. We must assume that the accusations of error against the Pope are to be disbelieved. The individual blogger, theologian, priest, bishop, or cardinal has no authority to teach in opposition to the Pope.

I think Ven. Fulton J. Sheen (in Treasure of Clay) recognized the need to remain in communion with the Pope:

Our Blessed Lord told His Apostles: “The devil had asked to sift you as wheat.” There is no indication that Our Blessed Lord denied that there would be a demonic trial or testing; there is even a suggestion that He permitted it. Though the other Apostles were there, He spoke only to Peter: “Peter, I have prayed for you.” Our Lord did not say: “I will pray for all of you.” He prayed for Peter that his faith fail not, and after he recovered from his fall that he confirm his brethren. I think bishops are strong only when they are united with the Holy Father. As we begin to separate from him, we are no longer under the prayer of Christ And if we are not under the prayer of Christ, we are no longer protected, nor are we strong guardians or angels of the churches.

We should remember this. If we seek to find exceptions so we don’t have to listen to the Pope, we are removing ourselves from the prayer and protection of Christ. And then we are like sheep lost and easy prey.

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