“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68)

Your parish priest?

We live in scary times.  It looks like our secular institutions in the West are collapsing, to be replaced by mob rule (which really means, as always, a tyranny of the elite who manipulate the mob).  More frightening still for Catholics, the institutional Church appears to be experiencing a parallel slide.  A commenter on my post about the Trappists and Icarians  expressed his unhappiness at attending Mass where, as he put it, the priest “preaches communism.”  He was not just concerned, however, that many Catholic clerics, from parish priest on up, are abandoning the Faith for a poisonous brand of politics, but also, on a more practical level, that the Catholic Church itself was not a safe place for his children.

The commenter raises some valid and important points, which deserve a better answer than I can give off the cuff in a social media combox. I’m finding it hard, in fact, to limit the discussion to even a single blog post, so today I’ll take a look at why leaving the Church is not the answer, and next weekend discuss some practical considerations, including my own family’s experience.

I was thinking about how to approach this topic Friday morning, when I received some timely help from the daily Mass readings.  In the first reading, for instance, St. Paul says to those gathered in the synagogue in Antioch:

“My brothers, children of the family of Abraham,
and those others among you who are God-fearing,
to us this word of salvation has been sent.
The inhabitants of Jerusalem and their leaders failed to recognize him,
and by condemning him they fulfilled the oracles of the prophets
that are read sabbath after sabbath. (Acts 13:26-29)

Now, we might rightly point out that Paul is talking about religious leaders under the Old Covenant, not the New. At the same time, they were ministers of a true religion who had been given a sacred duty to carry out the will of God.  It is clear in all the Gospel accounts that the religious leaders in Jerusalem were instead acting out of concern for their institutional prerogatives: as it says in Mark’s Gospel, “And the chief priests and the scribes heard it and sought a way to destroy him: for the feared him, for all the multitude was astonished at his teaching.” (Mark 11:18) We don’t  need to look very far through Church history to find plenty of Christian leaders, including some at the highest levels, who “failed to recognize him.”

     The fallibility of even legitimate religious leaders reminds us that the structures of the Church don’t exist for their own sake, but in order to lead us to Jesus Christ.  The same day’s Gospel helps point us in the right direction:

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled.
You have faith in God; have faith also in me. . .
Thomas said to him,
“Master, we do not know where you are going;
how can we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me.”
(John 14: 1; 5-6)

Now, St. Thomas had Jesus himself right in front of him in bodily form.  Where do we encounter Jesus?  In the Church he founded (see Matthew 16:18) which alone can bring us the the True Body, the Verum Corpus, of Christ in the Eucharist.  The Church itself has also been called the Body of Christ, the  Mystical Body, a term first used by the Church Fathers but drawing on St. Paul’s Letters  (1 Corinthians 12:12-31 and Romans 12:3-8). St. Paul tells the Corinthians  that “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” (Corinthians 12-13). The Apostle is clear that the Church is not a body in the ordinary sense of the in which we can apply it to any group of people ; here he’s using it in a very specific sense (italics mine): “Now you are the Body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27) In this body Christ is the Head, and all the rest of us have specialized roles that we carry out, not by and for ourselves, but in cooperation with the other members.  That very much includes all the members of the hierarchy, up to and including the Pope.  Nobody exercises authority on his own behalf.

Not even the Pope . . . in fact, explicitly not the Pope.  One of the most misunderstood Catholic doctrines is the teaching on papal infallibility.  The First Vatican Council (1869-1870) didn’t take up the question of the Pope’s infallible teaching authority in order to create a new doctrine but to define (that is, to establish clear boundaries for) a belief that had already been held for centuries.  The conciliar document Pastor Aeternus makes it clear that Papal infallibilty can be exercised only in extremely limited circumstances, and can never extend to promulgating new doctrine:

For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might make known new doctrine, but that by His assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the Revelation, the Deposit of Faith, delivered through the Apostles.

“Vergil and Dante meet Pope Boniface VIII in Hell” by Gustav Dore (c. 1855)

The Pope’s role is to preserve and pass on what he has received; infallibility means that he has the authority to clarify, not create.  It is authority that is invoked very rarely.  In fact, it is generally agreed that there has been only one papal pronouncement since 1870 that meets the standard set in Aeternus Pastor (Pius XII’s definition of the Assumption in 1950), and only one prior to Vatican I (The Immaculate Conception in 1854).  Any papal attempt to create a brand new teaching would have no binding force. The Pope himself, strictly speaking, is fallible; true doctrine alone is infallible. This is the Church established by Jesus Christ and no Pope can unmake it, however hard he tries.

That also means that fleeing from the Catholic Church, even if it’s because of real transgressions committed by its members (up to and including the Supreme Pontiff), necessarily means giving up the Body of Christ for a body composed of mere men.  As Peter replies when Jesus asks “Will you also go away?”: “”Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:67-68).  

But even if there’s nowhere else to go, what about the very real danger of one’s children being corrupted by priests (and, um, others in the Church) preaching communism or some other heresy?  I’ll take up that question in detail in next week’s post.

Features image above: “St. Paul Preaching in Athens” by Raphael (1515)

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