by Ed MechmannA few weeks after I was born, the most important thing in my life happened – I was baptized. Not only was my original sin wiped away and I received the grace of justification, but I became a member of Christ’s own body, the Catholic Church. For this amazing gift, I cannot be grateful enough to my parents and godparents, and my ancestors who handed on this faith to me.
Being Catholic comes with a heavy price tag. Thanks to the lingering after-effects of original sin, the demands of discipleship are very great, even though Jesus assures us that with the help of grace “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Mt 11:30). For me, and I think for many others, one of the most challenging aspects of being Catholic is summed up in this short statement from the Catechism:
Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: “He who hears you, hears me”, [Luke10:16] the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms. (CCC 87)
This directly confronts us with the duty and obligation of all Catholics to accept the teaching authority of the Church – the Magisterium – which means to accept the authority of the Holy Father, the bishops, and our pastors. This is not easy, and never has been. All of us have our favorite sins that we would love to excuse away or justify, regardless of what the Catechism says. Many of us think we know the truths of our faith better than our bishops, or, even worse, don’t trust them to proclaim the true teachings of our faith. All too many people have developed a habit of suspicion when thinking of our bishops and the Holy Father.
Just think of how this has manifested recently:
- The ridiculous kerfuffle over the alleged pagan practices in the Vatican during the recent Amazon Synod. Rather than giving our brothers and sisters in Christ the benefit of the doubt, many self-anointed internet popes have rushed to judgment and denounced what they see as idolatry. They have even dismissed the Holy Father’s assurance that nothing was done with “an idolatrous intent”.
- A well-known celebrity priest suggested via Twitter that the Sacred Scripture prohibition of homosexual acts might be mistaken, and announced that there would be a grand meeting of self-appointed representatives of homosexual Catholics, to which will be invited a number of the usual suspects who openly dissent from the Church’s authoritative teaching on sexuality.
- At the recent meeting of the US Bishops, a vote over a matter of parliamentary procedure (which way to amend a document) was bizarrely misinterpreted by some as a repudiation of the idea that abortion is the preeminent public policy issue for Catholics – even though the bishops also reissued a document that clearly reaffirmed that precise principle.
- The ongoing proclamations by self-proclaimed prelates that the Holy Father is changing the teachings of the Church on abortion, homosexuality, and marriage, and even denies the divinity of Christ. He is openly called a heretic in some combox vitriol. All of these accusations are laughably absurd, and easily disproven – but only if people take the trouble to actually read and listen to the actual words of the Pope and try to understand them as Catholics.
- Online pundits dismiss and deride the intention of the Holy Father to include “ecological sins” in the Catechism, denounce the Church’s social teachings as being “communist”, scorn the development of doctrine on the death penalty, and even bluntly reject the authority of the Magisterium and the Catechism.
- We have a reprise of the old “cafeteria Catholic” mentality, where people strain at gnats to try to explain which statements of the Magisterium they have to accept, and which they can reject.
There really is only one correct word for the attitude that underlies all of this – Protestantism. God loves them, but our Protestant brethren believe in the authority of private judgment, namely, that each Christian has the innate authority to interpret Sacred Scripture and correctly discern the will of God. That is just not a Catholic way of approaching our faith.
A basic part of being a Catholic is that we believe there is one definitive Revelation in Jesus Christ. There are two ways in which this Revelation is communicated to us – Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, which together are called the Deposit of Faith. That Sacred Tradition is the teaching of the Church by the popes and bishops throughout time. We believe that the Deposit of Faith is infallible, namely without error on any matter that is necessary for our salvation. The only authoritative interpreter of the Deposit of Faith is the Church herself, through the Holy Father and our bishops in communion with him, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We also believe that the Church is indefectible, which means that the Holy Spirit will preserve her from error and will never allow her to stray from the fundamental truth on matters of faith and morals.
We are thus required to submit our intellect and will to God, and to submit and accept the teaching of the Holy Father and bishops, who are the successors of the Apostles that Christ appointed to proclaim the faith to us. This duty of submission is especially due to the Holy Father when he is teaching us. It doesn’t matter if we like our bishop or the Holy Father, or if we think we’re better educated or even holier than they are, or if we don’t like their politics. They have been delegated by God with the authority to teach us, and we must be submissive to them.
“Submission” is a word that most people don’t like to hear. It doesn’t mean blind obedience, or mindless acceptance. Rather, it means that we develop a habit and disposition of trust in God and in the Church he established for our salvation. It means making sure that we interpret the words and actions of our bishops and the Holy Father in the most charitable way, and striving to understand them as they understand them. It requires a sense of docility and acceptance, confident that God will never abandon us or lead us astray. And we have to recognize that it does us no good to worry or get wound up about matters beyond our control or expertise. As I said, it’s not easy, but that’s what being a baptized Catholic requires — docility.
My favorite psalm, Psalm 131, captures the attitude of a docile Catholic perfectly:
O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a child quieted at its mother’s breast;
like a child that is quieted is my soul.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time forth and for evermore.
That should be the prayer of every Catholic when we receive the teachings of our Church, along with a prayer for our bishops and the Holy Father, who have a terribly difficult task of leading us to salvation in a deeply flawed world.
Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Mary, when she was offered to the Temple by her parents for a period of service. Perhaps her example of docility and submission to the will of God, the governance of her parents, and her duties to the religious authorities would be a good example to emulate for all Catholics.