Beware of anyone whose key concept is power.
Some years ago I worked in a Catholic school which decided to assign summer reading to the entire school community, including both staff and students. The idea was to have a school wide discussion of the book in September focusing on some key component of our Catholic Identity. The book chosen for the first year was a dystopian science fiction novel set in a future where water is a scarce commodity, and our “Catholic” theme seems to have been Climate Change (unfortunately, this was about the time of Laudato Si’). When I first saw the prepared questions we were given to guide the discussion with our students I was immediately struck with the fact that every single question was about “power”: who had the power in this situation, what did so-and-so do with his power here, what sort of power could such-and-such a person apply there, etc.
‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ -2 Cor 12:19
(Martyrdom of St. Paul, by Mattia Preti, 1656-1659)
It all seemed very foreign to the Christian, Biblical worldview. That’s not the way St. Paul talks. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians he says, “but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Another example of the Biblical take on power is the magnificent Psalm 119, the longest of the psalms, in which the theme is the Will of God. It contains 176 verses, and every single one of them contains a term denoting God’s Will. I’ve put the key words in the first eight verses below into bold type:
1 Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the LORD!
2 Blessed are those who keep his testimonies,
who seek him with their whole heart,
3 who also do no wrong,
but walk in his ways!
4 Thou hast commanded thy precepts
to be kept diligently.
5 O that my ways may be steadfast
in keeping thy statutes!
6 Then I shall not be put to shame,
having my eyes fixed on all thy commandments.
7 I will praise thee with an upright heart,
when I learn thy righteous ordinances.
8 I will observe thy statutes;
O forsake me not utterly!
And so it goes on for another 168 verses. There’s no question here who “has the power”, and it’s not me, you, or anyone else on this Earth, but God Almighty alone. The two biblical citations above are not outliers: look for the scriptural support for the idea of “empowerment” all you like, you won’t find it. The obsession with power comes from a worldly, and very often from a Marxist, orientation. It has nothing in common with the Jesus Christ who said:
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45)
I immediately thought of my summer reading experience when I read a certain article this week on The Catholic Thing website. The article, written by Fr. Gerald E. Murray, is called “Germany’s Schismatic Synodal Way.” The “Synodal Way” is a project jointly created by the German bishops and a lay group called The Central Committee of German Catholics (bonus points if you can name another well-known organization whose governing body was called the “Central Committee”). You might have guessed from the title of his article that Fr. Murray is not a fan of the Synodal Way, but he does quote extensively from the initiative’s Fundamental Text to support his critique. One doesn’t need to look far to see problems; really, one needn’t look further than the first word in the document’s title. It’s called: “Power and separation of powers in the Church – Common participation and sharing in the mission“. And power, in fact, is precisely what it’s all about.
My purpose is here not to present a thorough discussion about the errors inherent in the Synodal Way; Fr. Murray does an excellent job of that in his article. I’m just going to highlight a few points from the Fundamental Text to show how The Synodal Way’s obsession with power is the Wrong Way. The “Power” document, for instance, foresees
. . . a new council, in which believers within and outside of ordained ministry deliberate and decide together on questions of theology and pastoral care as well as on the constitution and structure of the Church.
Notice how the text takes for granted that “questions of theology” and other critical matters are not matters of truth, but of who has the power to decide. Then there’s this:
ecclesiastical decision-makers should also be elected and regularly face elections in which the powers granted to them can be confirmed or delegated to others.
How telling that the text speaks of powers granted by electors, rather than episcopal authority conferred by Christ. Not surprisingly, it turns out that the Synodal Way doesn’t put a whole lot of weight on the traditional understanding of the meaning of the episcopacy:
The faithful often accepted them as authorities whose assessments and decisions could not be questioned, as ‘shepherds’ by virtue of divine legitimacy whom they had to obey like ‘sheep.’
The sneer quotes tell us precisely what they think of the office of bishop; a word, by the way, that comes from episcopus, ἐπίσκοπος in Greek, the “overseer” who watches over the sheep. “Bishop” means “shepherd”. One last quote:
No one has the competence to decide single-handedly on the content of faith and principles of morality; no one has the right to interpret the teachings of faith and morals with the intention of urging others to actions that serve only his interest or correspond to his ideas, but not the convictions of others.
This is an explicit rejection of the ancient understanding of the bishops and the pope not as “deciders” of faith and morals, but simply as conduits whose job is to pass on the faith as handed down by the apostles, who had received it from Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd himself. The bishops are understood to be both servants to the truth handed on to them from above, and to the people, yes, the “flock” that has been put into their care. If a bishop is in fact “urging others to actions that serve only his interest or correspond to his ideas” then he is abusing his office, and will need to answer for it before God. Those who composed this document don’t see bishops as heirs to the Apostles, but as bureaucrats just like any others. They propose to discard the Church of Jesus Christ for a worldly bureaucracy in which certain people exercise “power”.
Clearly, the Church in Germany is in big trouble. If they adopt this program they will cease to be Catholic in any meaningful sense. One might say that if it has reached the point where such a text is even being seriously considered, then they already have at least one foot out the door. But this is not just a German or a modern problem: it goes back to the Garden of Eden, when Satan promised Adam and Eve that if they ate the forbidden fruit “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5) You can find people who share the perspective of the Synodal Way in the offices of the USCCB, your local chancery, the Catholic schools, and anyplace else that seems to be a locus of “power”. This same tendency is the spark that has kindled every heresy in the history of the Church.
It’s not a problem just for “other people”. Each one of us has our own little “Synodal Way” inside of us. We all have a desire to make our judgments the final word in questions of theology, church governance, and most especially, morals. We want to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: we think we can be like God.
That is a big reason for fasting and sacrifice during Lent. One reader of last week’s post on whether or not to give up chocolate during Lent emphasized the importance of giving up something that we’re really going to miss. The idea is that if we truly feel something missing, something we want, we are made to face the fact, over and over again, that our desires (along with our “ideas” and “convictions”) are not the most important thing. The privations of Lent are a constant reminder that, as Christ said in the Garden of Gethsemane, “not my will, but thine, be done.” (Luke 22:42) Our Lenten sacrifices may seem like small things, but they are meant orient us to self-denial, because “He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much” (Luke 16:10).
“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6)
Today’s non-scriptural reading in the Office of Readings deals with some of these same issues. It comes from Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World), which observes out that
Some look for complete and genuine liberation for man from man’s efforts alone. They are convinced that the coming kingdom of man on earth will satisfy all the desires of his heart.
Those who do so are bound to be disappointed:
Christ died and rose for all, and can give man light and strength through his Spirit to fulfil his highest calling; his is the only name under heaven in which men can be saved.
As one of those shepherds scorned by the devisers of the Synodal Way put it many centuries ago, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” (St. Augustine, Confessions)
Faithfulness, that is fidelity, not power, is the key word for a Christian. Being a Christian means being faithful to Christ, not to our own “ideas” or “convictions”. In case there is any doubt about the “way” we are to follow, Jesus himself tells us: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (John, 14:6)