March 21, 2015
Saturday of the 4th week of Lent
Jesus Changes Our Attitude Toward Authorities
“Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him?”
Jesus respected authority. But he showed very little respect for authorities. And the authorities showed very little respect for him. It was a combination of the four kinds of authorities in Israel who teamed up to get Jesus crucified: Herod, a civil authority; the chief priests and the Sanhedrin, who were the highest ecclesiastical authorities; the scribes, who were considered the scholarly authorities on the interpretation of the law; and the Pharisees, who had no official authority, but who were strong enough to impose their interpretation of the law on others. Almost never do the Gospels speak of any one of these except as enemies of Jesus.
Does this call us to a change of mind?
Before Francis was elected Bishop of Rome, anyone who criticized the hierarchy was suspected of disloyalty to the Church. When Archbishop John Quinn wrote The Reform of the Papacy in 1999, he felt he had to spend two chapters explaining that criticizing defects in Church government is not only acceptable, but a very “Catholic” thing to do. He still raised eyebrows. And when Bishop Geoffrey Robinson wrote Confronting Sex and Power in the Catholic Church in 2007, bishops in the United States refused to let him speak in their dioceses. It is significant that neither wrote before they were retired as bishops.
And then came Francis. His first criticism of the hierarchy was wordless. He simply rejected everything he could in their lifestyle: their opulent residences, their ostentatious costumes, their pompous titles, their chumminess with the rich and separation from the poor, their attachment to and abuse of power, and their failure to “feed the flock” through groundlevel contact that would make them “smell like the sheep” (see John 20:17, Joy of the Gospel 24).
Then he started speaking out against clericalism, legalism and triumphalism, against the "bourgeoisie spirit and life which leads people to settle and seek a peaceful and comfortable life,” and the “psychology of Princes.” In choosing bishops, he said, “Be careful that they are not ambitious, that they do not seek the episcopate - volentes nolumus - and that they are married to their diocese without being in constant search of another” (to Papal Representatives or Nuncios, June 21, 2013).
In short, almost anything one wants to criticize in the hierarchy has already been criticized by Francis. This makes it clear that one who voices the same criticisms is not against the Church as such, or even the hierarchy, but is simply siding with the pope himself to correct abuses.
This is the key. If we should not assume the bishops are good Catholics just because they are bishops (see Lord Acton’s letter to Bishop Creighton, April. 1887: “There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it”), then we likewise should not assume the bishops are bad Catholics either. Francis sees his fellow bishops as brothers in Christ: sinful as he is sinful, holy as he is holy, loving and loved by God as he is. And if he criticizes them, it is because he believes they can hear and change and reform, just as he had moments when he realized he was governing badly (for example, as a young Jesuit provincial) and changed and found peace.
Our “change of mind” about authorities should lead to the following:
1. We never break with the hierarchical Church. It is the Church Jesus founded, and bishops are essential to it, although not everything that has become associated with their position. Cardinals are not essential, any more than “monsignors” were; a category Francis has discontinued. Cardinals are simply political appointees assigned to assist the pope. It is not a religious office, and you don’t even have to be a Christian to be one. If Francis appointed a Jew to head the Vatican bank, he could make him a cardinal.
2. We never identify the “Church” with the clergy or hierarchy. We, the People of God, are the Church. If we “leave the Church” because of the example of priests and bishops, we are also leaving our mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters and friends, and such loyal Catholics as St. Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, and all the saints and martyrs, including those of our own times. The clergy can embarrass us, but we should always be proud and grateful to be members of the 2000-year-old Church that is the body of Christ.
3. We obey pastors and bishops as we obey God. If they command something that is obviously contrary to the mind and heart of God, we ignore it or find ways to get around it. But when they make a legitimate decision, we obey it out of faith, not fear. We accept their divine authority without divinizing human authorities. Jesus taught this: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” But he was teaching a selective obedience even here, because earlier he told them to “beware of the yeast; [that is] the teaching of the Pharisees” (Matthew 16:12; 23:2).
4. We take responsibility for helping pastors and bishops govern. Church government is neither monarchical nor democratic. It is a kind of government that does not exist in civil society: government by discernment. All the members of the community are allowed and obligated to assist the authorities in determining what is the will of God at the present moment. It is the duty of the authority to hear them and then decide, as best he can, what God is revealing through the community. We see Francis doing this in the worldwide synod of bishops (2014-2015), to which he invited every member of the Church to contribute opinions. He urged the bishops to speak out with total freedom, and he will listen to what they say. But he made it clear that, at the end, he has the duty to decide what God is inspiring the Church to do.
This last point calls for the greatest “change of mind.” We have to stop being passive sheep. We have to stop leaving Church government to the authorities. If a pastor or bishop makes a wrong decision, every lay person who did not speak out against it is responsible; and guilty of “disobedience,” because in the Church of Jesus, silence makes authentic obedience impossible. Christian obedience is obedience to the Spirit speaking in and through the Church. If we don’t hear the voice of the People of God, we can’t be sure we are hearing the voice of the Spirit. Then, whatever we do, it is not Christian obedience.
Silent Catholics are disobedient Catholics, whether or not they keep the rules.
Do I choose to let Jesus change my attitude toward authorities? Will I help them govern with the authority that comes from God?
Pray: “Father, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Practice: Take responsibility for discerning what the Spirit in you is saying about the ministry of your pastor and bishop. Ask the Spirit if you should say something.
Discuss: Can a silent Catholic be an obedient Catholic?