Let nothing exist among you that may divide you; but be united with your bishop, and those that preside over you, as a type and evidence of your immortality.
—St. Ignatius of Antioch, The Epistle to the Magnesians
Bishops and popes are human. Like many of you, perhaps, I have had to wrestle in a personal and very direct way with the reality of the flawed humanity of our Church’s shepherds.
When I left the Church I felt a deep sense of rebellion against any and all authority. I felt that there was no reason I should live under anyone’s thumb—not a pope, not a bishop, and certainly not any imaginary God.
But, after living my own rules to the extreme, I returned to the Church. Life under my own direction had left my heart in tatters. I saw that as a human being I needed to accept Christ’s authority. I desired to unify my mind, behavior, and heart to a way of life that would lead me to happiness.
Saint Augustine once wrote, “I would not believe in the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so.” Like Augustine, I found harmony of life and peace in submitting to the legitimate authority of the Church.
Since my return to the Church, the Lord has helped me to see that he is always at work, not only in the hierarchy but in all of us. Despite our failings, our mistakes, and in some cases, our terrible sins, we still remain, in a sense, within the Church and the Mystical Body of Christ.
Saint Robert Bellarmine once wrote:
“[T]he Pope and bishops are real heads, the teachers and preachers are real eyes and tongues of the Body of Christ, even when they have fallen from the grace of God. For while it is true that a Christian becomes a living member of this Body through charity, yet in the Providence of God the instruments of operation in the Church are constituted by the power of orders and jurisdiction, which can be obtained and exercised even by a man who is personally an enemy of God.”
Thankfully, God does not wait until the Church is full of saints to be present within and among us. He works in the entire Church, including through the hierarchy, in spite of our sins. Jesus Christ always remains in his Church.
But we reject Jesus in his Church when we do not respect and accept the legitimate authority he has set in place.
It is easy to see this rejection of authority among Catholics who effortlessly dismiss Church teaching. But it is present elsewhere too. Rejection of authority is rooted in pride, what the Book of Sirach called “the beginning of all sin” (10:13). So, we should not be surprised to see this behavior in some way in each one of us.
Disrespect for authority often springs from the concern that the person in authority is behaving either immorally or in a way contrary to the Gospel. Of course, this may sometimes be true. And there are times when the Holy Spirit calls people from all walks of life to stand up and communicate their concerns clearly and effectively.
But most of the time, especially in matters of faith and morals, we are called more than anything to holiness, to service, and to trust that the Holy Spirit is in charge.
There have been many times in Church history when all seemed to be lost. During the Trinitarian controversies, heresy reigned, even among the bishops. Saint John Fisher was the only bishop in England to oppose King Henry VIII; all the others caved. But time and time again, against all odds, the Holy Spirit has prevailed (and he has never needed the help of bloggers and social media activists).
Church history and divine revelation teach us that we can count on the Holy Spirit’s protection in matters of faith and morals. When we doubt the Holy Spirit’s power, turn inward, and focus all of our reforming energy on those in authority, we miss our own call to reform ourselves and to bring Christ to the world.
As Pope Benedict XVI, once said, the laity are invited to “make a gradual synthesis between configuration to Christ (union with him, life in him) and dedication to his Church (unity with the Bishop, generous service to the community and to the world).”
With this in mind, these are some questions that have helped me to discern spiritually beneficial online reading (particularly but not only in regards to this issue):
1. Does this article/writer/website give other people in society (lay leaders, politicians, Catholic organizations) more benefit of the doubt than the bishops or the pope?
2. Does this article either subtly or overtly make personal attacks?
- Name calling or the use of disrespectful nicknames.
- Attacks against a person’s character (i.e. judgments about a person’s inner life based on outward actions).
- Negative judgments about a person that communicate condescension, bitterness, or contempt.
3. Is this article opinion or fact based? If an opinion, does the writer share his thoughts humbly while giving the people involved the benefit of the doubt? Or does the writer share his opinion as if it is fact while assuming the worst of those involved?
4. Does this article unfairly assume intention, make conjectures about a person’s inner life, and base analyses on guesses rather than facts?
5. Does this article present itself as sharing objective information in a journalistic style while subtly adding in phrases of opinion that sow doubt and direct the reader to make certain conclusions?
6. Does this article/writer/website hold up certain Church teachings with reverence and respect while dismissing other teaching as non-essential or simply wrong? Or does this article/writer/website gloss over certain Church teachings or subtly subvert them because they are seen as unpopular or uncharitable in the secular world?
7. Is this article’s headline sensational? Does it suggest something scandalous without clear evidence? What would a non-Catholic think upon reading this headline? Does this headline portray events in the worst possible interpretive sense?
8. Does this article use scare quotes to suggest intention and to manipulate readers to absorb the information or a person’s words in a certain way rather than allowing the reader to make his or her own judgments about what was said?
9. Does this article use logical fallacies? (Uncharitable articles are often full of bad arguments.)
10. Does this article/writer/website set itself up against the hierarchy as a “guardian of orthodoxy” or as a de facto alternate Magisterium? Or does this website set itself up against the hierarchy as a prophetic voice of correction and worldly common sense?
I hope these questions are helpful to some of you.
May the Lord be with us as, together, we navigate the choppy waters of this world in the Barque of Peter.