Freedom and Authority, The Anchor, October 3, 2008

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Editorial
October 3, 2008

Two months ago, we marked the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical that reiterated that every act of love making by spouses needs to be open to the transmission of life and therefore that the practice of contraception is immoral. This crisis that followed the publication of the encyclical soon mushroomed far beyond whether couples would permit God in their bedrooms. The question quickly became whether God would be allowed to have a role in morality at all.

That is the way that the cancer of dissent metastasizes. Once a Catholic begins to believe that the Church founded by the Lord Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit is wrong on any one issue concerning faith or morals that she teaches to be definitively held by all the faithful, that Catholic often quickly begins to question the very authority the Church has to teach on anything. Once that occurs, the person begins to substitute an erroneous view of conscience, rather than the truth of God as articulated by the Church, as the supreme arbiter of moral action. Conscience has moral authority only because it is the means by which a human being is able to listen to God’s voice giving us moral principles to apply in a given situation so that we might make a judgment about what we are called to do or avoid. When a Catholic begins to reject the echo of God’s voice in the Church informing consciences with those moral principles, what normally results is that the person begins to listen to his or her voice thinking that it is God’s. Moral sovereignty begins to be given to one’s own opinions about the way he or she thinks things ought to be, rather than to the way God wants them to be.

This seems to be one of the issues at play in the negative reaction some Catholics have been giving to the recent doctrinal recapitulations of the Pope, the U.S. bishops, and this newspaper about the moral responsibilities of Catholics with respect to voting. Some have expressed outrage that the Church would comment on issues of political importance at all, as if this were de facto some type of mortal sin against a pseudo-biblical moral code published by the I.R.S. Others have embraced the Church’s living out its commission to be salt, light and leaven when pastors speak out against certain issues with which they agree, but have become apoplectic when the Church speaks about issues with which they either dissent or simply do not take as seriously as the Church does.

The most notable example of this happens when the Church teaches about abortion. When the Church teaches that a Catholic morally cannot support abortion and cannot without sin vote a candidate who supports abortion except when one has a “proportionately grave reason” for doing so — one that is so important that would outweigh the deaths of 4,000 innocent fellow human beings a day in the U.S. alone – many consider it an indefensible intrusion in both the political and personal spheres. When certain bishops have gone further and informed pro-choice Catholic politicians in their diocese that they needed to practice the Catholic faith more than on just Sunday mornings, and needed in fact to choose whether it was more important for them to receive Jesus in holy Communion or to receive the votes and money of the pro-abortion movement, many Catholics have protested even more vigorously. While many will say that Church leaders have the right to teach on these issues, they become incensed when those same leaders do not give them in return the “right” to ignore those teachings or merely give them lip service. They believe that authoritarian Church leaders are trampling their conscience by “forcing” them to follow Church teaching, rather than respecting them as moral agents capable of making their own choices.

The conflict between this erroneous view of conscience and the truth proclaimed by the Church is an example of the seemingly perennial conflict between freedom and authority that affects every family, city, nation and the international community. Some view freedom as the license to do whatever one wants, without obedience to any outside authority. Jesus taught, however, that there is an intrinsic relationship between freedom and the truth, that it is the truth that sets us free (Jn 8:32); for that reason true freedom is the ability to live according to the truth that sets us free. For a person to become free, in other words, he must freely conform himself or obey the authority of the truth.

This theme of freedom and authority was taken up repeatedly by the master catechist, Pope John Paul I, the 30th anniversary of whose death the Church marked on Sunday. This humble, smiling pontiff was as far from being authoritarian as any pope could have been. During his 33 day pontificate, he took up this theme several times because he knew, a decade after Humanae Vitae, that this was one of the greatest struggles among believers. His thoughts and images have not lost their vitality or vigor.

In a September 23, 1978 homily, commenting on the second reading from the 13th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, he said, “I confess that when [the passage] speaks of obedience it places me in a slight embarrassment. Today, when personal human rights are confronted with the rights of authority and of the law, it is so difficult to convince!”

He then turns to an Old Testament image to try to overcome that hardship. “In the Book of Job there is a description of a war-horse: he leaps like a locust and snorts; he paws the ground with his hoof, then he hurls himself fiercely forward; when the trumpet sounds he neighs with delight; he smells the battle from afar, the cries of the captains and the noise of the troops (cf. Job 39:10-25). This is a symbol of freedom. Authority, on the contrary, is like the prudent rider: he mounts the horse and, with gentle voice, by making judicious use of the spurs, of the bridle and of the whip, he urges it on or controls its impetuous course, curbs it and restrains it. To reconcile the horse and the rider, freedom and authority, has become a social problem. It is also a problem within the Church.”

He says that the Second Vatican Council, at which he was a participant, explicitly confronted this problem. “At the Council there was an attempt to resolve it in the fourth chapter of Lumen Gentium [the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church]. Here are the Conciliar indications for the ‘rider’: ‘The sacred pastors know very well how much the laity contribute to the welfare of the whole Church. They know that they themselves were not established by Christ to undertake alone the whole salvific mission of the Church to the world, but that it is their exalted office to be shepherds of the faithful and to recognize the latter’s contribution and charisms in such a way that all, in their measure, will with one mind cooperate in the common task.’” In other words, bishops and priests must respect that lay people are commissioned to cooperate with them in the salvation of the world and to be what John Paul I described as the “front lines” of that battle.

“On the other hand,” Papa Luciani continued, “here is the conciliar indication for the ‘high-spirited war-horse,’ that is, for the laity: ‘the faithful should acquiesce to the bishop as the Church to Jesus Christ and as Jesus Christ to the Father’ (LG 27). Let us pray that the Lord will aid both the bishop and the faithful, both the rider and the horses.”

In a catechesis four days later, the day before he died, he used a personal anecdote to describe the love that the rider should have for the horse and the trust that the horse should have for the jockey. “My mother used to tell me when I was a boy: ‘When you were little, you were very ill. I had to take you from one doctor to another and watch over you whole nights; do you believe me?’ How could I have said: ‘I don’t believe you, Mamma?’ Instead I said, ‘Of course I believe, I believe what you tell me, but I believe especially in you.’ And so it is in faith. It is not just a question of believing in the things that God revealed, but in him who deserves our faith, who has loved us so much and done so much for our sake.

“It is also difficult to accept some truths, because the truths of faith are of two kinds: some pleasant, others unpalatable to our spirit. For example, it is pleasant to hear that God has so much tenderness for us, even more tenderness than a mother has for her children, as Isaiah says. How pleasant and congenial it is to hear that!… Other truths, on the contrary, are hard to accept. God must punish, if I resist. He runs after me, he begs me to repent and I say: ‘No!’ I almost force him to punish me. This is not agreeable. But it is a truth of faith.

“And there is a last difficulty, the Church. St Paul asked: ‘Who are you, Lord?’ and heard, ‘I am that Jesus whom you are persecuting.’ A light, a flash, crossed his mind: ‘I do not persecute Jesus. I don’t even know him. I persecute the Christians.’ It is clear that Jesus and the Christians, Jesus and the Church are the same thing: indissoluble, inseparable. Read St Paul: ‘Corpus Christi quod est Ecclesia’ [The body of Christ which is the Church, 1 Cor 12]. Christ and the Church are only one thing. Christ is the Head, we, the Church, are his limbs. It is not possible to have faith and to say, ‘I believe in Jesus, I accept Jesus but I do not accept the Church.’ We must accept the Church, as she is. And what is this Church like? Pope John called her ‘Mater et Magistra’ [Mother and Teacher]. Teacher also. St Paul said: ‘Let everyone accept us as Christ’s aids and stewards and dispensers of his mysteries.’

“When the poor Pope, when the bishops, the priests, propose doctrine, they are merely helping Christ. It is not our doctrine; it is Christ’s. We must merely guard it and present it. …We must walk along the way of these truths, understanding them more and more, bringing ourselves up-to-date, proposing them in a form suited to the new times.”

Pastors have the duty to guard and present the truth faithfully. The whole Church, pastors and the faithful, have the duty to “walk” in their ways, while seeking to understand and proclaim them in ways that can encourage others to join us on that pilgrimage toward heaven while renewing the face of the earth.  

=================================================

A slightly condensed version appeared in the print edition. It is placed below.

Freedom and Authority

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Editorial
October 3, 2008

 

Two months ago, we marked the 40th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Paul VI’s encyclical that reiterated that every act of love making by spouses needs to be open to the transmission of life, and therefore that the practice of contraception is immoral. This crisis that followed the publication of the encyclical soon mushroomed far beyond whether couples would permit God in their bedrooms. The question quickly became whether God would be allowed to have a role in morality at all.

That is the way that the cancer of dissent metastasizes. Once a Catholic begins to believe that the Church founded by the Lord Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit is wrong on any one issue concerning faith or morals that she teaches to be definitively held by all the faithful, that Catholic often quickly begins to question the very authority the Church has to teach on anything. Once that occurs, the person starts to substitute an erroneous view of conscience, rather than the truth of God as articulated by the Church, as the supreme arbiter of moral action. Conscience has moral authority only because it is the means by which a human being is able to listen to God’s voice giving us moral principles to apply in a given situation so that we might make a judgment about what we are called to do or avoid. When a Catholic begins to reject the echo of God’s voice in the Church informing consciences with those moral principles, what normally results is that the person begins to listen to his or her voice thinking that it is God’s. Moral sovereignty starts to be given to one’s own opinions about the way he or she thinks things ought to be, rather than to the way God wants them to be.

This seems to be one of the issues at play in the negative reaction some Catholics have been giving to the recent doctrinal recapitulations of the Pope, the U.S. bishops, and this newspaper about the moral responsibilities of Catholics with respect to voting. Some have expressed outrage that the Church would dare to comment on issues of political importance at all, as if this were a de facto mortal sin against a pseudo-biblical moral code published by the I.R.S. Others have embraced the Church’s living out of its commission to be salt, light and leaven when pastors speak out against certain issues with which they agree, but have become apoplectic when the Church speaks about issues with which they either dissent or simply do not take as seriously as the Church does.

The most notable example of this has happened when the Church teaches about abortion. When the Church teaches that a Catholic morally cannot support abortion and cannot without sin vote a candidate who supports abortion except when one has a “proportionately grave reason” for doing so — one that is so important that would outweigh the deaths of 4,000 innocent fellow human beings a day in the U.S. alone – many consider it an indefensible intrusion in both the political and personal spheres. While many will say that Church leaders have the right to teach on these issues, they become incensed when those same leaders do not give them in return the “right” to ignore those teachings or merely give them lip service. They believe that authoritarian Church leaders are trampling their conscience by “forcing” them to follow Church teaching, rather than respecting them as moral agents capable of making their own choices.

The conflict between this erroneous view of conscience and the truth proclaimed by the Church is an example of the common tension between freedom and authority that affects every family, city, nation and the international community. Some view freedom as the license to do whatever one wants, without obedience to any outside authority. Jesus taught, however, that there is an intrinsic relationship between freedom and the truth and that it is the truth that sets us free (Jn 8:32); for that reason authentic freedom is the ability to live according to that liberating truth. For a person to become free, in other words, he must freely conform himself to the authority of the truth with assent of the mind and of the heart.

This theme of freedom and authority was taken up repeatedly by the master catechist, Pope John Paul I, the 30th anniversary of whose death the Church prayerfully marked on Sunday. This humble, smiling pontiff was as far from being authoritarian as any pope has ever been. During his 33 day pontificate, however, he took up this theme time and again because he knew, a decade after Humanae Vitae, that it was one of the greatest struggles among believers. His thoughts have not lost their vitality or vigor.

In a September 23, 1978 homily, commenting on the second reading from the 13th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, he said, “I confess that when [the passage] speaks of obedience it places me in a slight embarrassment. Today, when personal human rights are confronted with the rights of authority and of the law, it is so difficult to convince!”

So he turned to an Old Testament image to try to overcome that hardship. “In the Book of Job there is a description of a war-horse… (cf. Job 39:10-25). This is a symbol of freedom. Authority, on the contrary, is like the prudent rider: he mounts the horse and, with gentle voice, by making judicious use of the spurs, of the bridle and of the whip, he urges it on or controls its impetuous course, curbs it and restrains it. To reconcile the horse and the rider, freedom and authority, has become a social problem. It is also a problem within the Church.”

He says that the Second Vatican Council, at which he was a participant, explicitly confronted this problem. “At the Council there was an attempt to resolve it in the fourth chapter of Lumen Gentium [the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church]. Here are the Conciliar indications for the ‘rider’: ‘The sacred pastors know very well how much the laity contribute to the welfare of the whole Church. They know that they themselves were not established by Christ to undertake alone the whole salvific mission of the Church to the world, but that it is their exalted office to be shepherds of the faithful and to recognize the latter’s contribution and charisms in such a way that all, in their measure, will with one mind cooperate in the common task.’” In other words, bishops and priests must respect that lay people are commissioned to cooperate with them in the salvation of the world and to be what John Paul I described as the “front lines” of that battle.

“On the other hand,” Papa Luciani continued, “here is the conciliar indication for the ‘high-spirited war-horse,’ that is, for the laity: ‘the faithful should acquiesce to the bishop as the Church to Jesus Christ and as Jesus Christ to the Father’” (LG 27). The obedience of the believer is modeled on Jesus’ obedience to the Father, which culminates in his saying, “thy will, not mine, be done!” (Mt 26:39).

In a catechesis four days later, the day before he died, he took up the theme of obedience to God through the Church. He recalled that St. Paul discovered in Jesus’ question on the road to Damascus that Christ and his Church were one and that in persecuting the Church he was persecuting Christ (Acts 9:4). Thereafter St. Paul taught that the Church was Christ’s body (1 Cor 12). That led Pope John Paul to conclude: “Christ and the Church are only one thing. Christ is the Head, we, the Church, are his limbs. It is not possible to have faith and to say, ‘I believe in Jesus, I accept Jesus but I do not accept the Church.’ We must accept the Church, as she is. And what is this Church like? Pope John called her ‘Mater et Magistra’ [Mother and Teacher].”

With maternal love the Church teaches. Catholics are called to embrace her and her teaching, as spiritually mature adults, with the trusting simplicity of the childlike to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs.