As I discussed in my last blog post, Catholic progressives and reactionaries are mirror images of one another. Neither faction has the humility to remain loyal to the message of the Gospel as proclaimed by the Church. Instead, each faction claims power over the Gospel message.
The Local Bishop
How can we be sure that we really are staying loyal to the Church? Today the Church is full of factions, each claiming to speak for the Magisterium. What does loyalty look like in this situation?
In such difficult times, we can learn from the saints of the past, who also wrestled with these questions. Early in the second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote seven letters to Christian churches while on his way to martyrdom in Rome. A persistent theme in these letters is the importance of unity, which, according to Ignatius, is to be guaranteed by staying close to the bishop of the local church.
For instance, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, he writes:
“For we can have no life apart from Jesus Christ; and as he represents the mind of the Father, so our bishops, even those who are stationed in the remotest parts of the world, represent the mind of Jesus Christ. That is why it is proper for your conduct and your practices to correspond closely with the mind of the bishop.”
And further on, he writes:
“Anyone who absents himself from the congregation convicts himself at once of arrogance and becomes self-excommunicate. And since it is written that God opposes the proud, let us take care to show no disloyalty to the bishop, so as to be loyal servants of God.”
Similarly, in his letter to the Magnesians, he writes:
“Allow nothing whatever to exist among you that could give rise to any divisions. Maintain absolute unity with your bishop and leaders as an example to others and a lesson in the avoidance of corruption. In the same way as the Lord was wholly one with the Father, and never acted independently of him, either in person or through the Apostles, so you yourself must never act independently of your bishop and clergy. All quotations from St. Ignatius were taken from the Penguin Classics edition of Early Christian Writings, translated by Maxwell Staniforth.
Of course, the local bishop is a sure guide only insofar as he is teaching in union with all the other bishops, and particularly with the Pope, the bishop of Rome. In the late second century, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons wrote Against Heresies, in which he said that it was a matter of necessity that every local church should agree with the Roman church due to its greater authority.
This does not mean we have to agree with every single thing the Pope does. Obviously, Popes can make mistakes in practical matters, in who they appoint, and so on. It does mean, however, that we have to remain respectful in our attitude toward the Pope; and that we have to “give religious submission of mind and will” to his official teachings. Lumen Gentium paragraph 25: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This … Continue reading
St. Catherine of Siena is a great example of the correct attitude toward the papacy. She saw that the decision of the popes to live in Avignon was doing grave damage to the Church, and she worked tirelessly to convince the Pope to return to Rome. At the same time, she remained unswervingly loyal to the Pope, and never attempted to alienate her fellow Catholics from him.
A similar stance can be seen in the life of St. Thomas More. St. Thomas lived under some scandalous popes, and he was not afraid to oppose corruption in the Church. Yet he ultimately gave his life in defense of papal supremacy.
From Theory to Practice
To imitate the fidelity shown by the saints, we need to be mindful of our speech, careful in our media consumption, discerning in our choice of guides, faithful in our prayers, intentional in finding inspiration, and concrete in our charitable action.
We should avoid speaking in a negative way about other Christians, but particularly about the Holy Father.
Personally, I like Pope Francis. I am inspired by his teaching, and I hold that most of the controversy about what he says and does has been stirred up by the media for political reasons. If you’ve got questions about things Pope Francis has done or said, I’d be happy to pass along resources that I’ve found to be helpful in understanding him. In particular, I think it is important to realize that his teaching is in continuity with the teaching of previous popes.
But even if I disagreed with him, I would still think a Catholic should not speak negatively about the Holy Father. What good can we do by speaking ill of him? What harm does it do if others think well of him? By speaking negatively about the Holy Father, critics are setting themselves in judgment over him and run the risk of doing serious damage to the Church if their necessarily limited assessment of the situation turns out to be incorrect.
Speaking in general about the dangers of rash judgment, St. Thomas Aquinas says “He who interprets doubtful matters for the best, may happen to be deceived more often than not; yet it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man, because in the latter case an injury is inflicted, but not in the former.” Summa Theologica, the second part of the second part, Article 60, question 4.
Certain kinds of Catholic media make it very difficult to stay attached to the Church and loyal to the Pope. Any news outlets that exist primarily to retail gossip, scandal, and outrage should be avoided. In general, it might be better to read less about current events in the Church. (If you do follow Church news, it might be better to read the blandest, least opinionated news site you can find.) Instead, read solid works of Christian spirituality, the lives of the saints, the Bible (and Bible commentary), The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Church Fathers . . . there are so many worthwhile things to read! In contrast, the latest controversy will probably be entirely forgotten in a few year’s time, with nobody being any better off for it. The definitive take on any event or person is written after all the players are dead; reading current events is always less informative than reading history.
I’d also propose three questions that can guide discernment of whether Catholic writers or speakers are speaking with the mind of the Church.
- Do they stay loyal to the Pope? As discussed above, this doesn’t mean they have to agree with every single thing he does and says. But if they are trying to turn public opinion against him, or talk about “resisting” him, they have crossed the line. This sort of talk only produces schismatic attitudes and infighting, which makes sharing the Gospel with others more difficult. Who would want to join a Church when those inside hate their leaders?
- Do they stay loyal to Church teaching? Would they accept everything laid out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Many Catholics who claim to stay loyal to the Pope refuse to accept Church teaching on various issues. But if they are not loyal to the teaching, then they are not really loyal to the Church.
- Do they stay clear of partisan politics? This test is primarily relevant to the USA. Since both of our major political parties are out of line with Church teaching on certain points (I outlined this in my “cult politics” article), a writer or speaker who is too tightly associated with either of these parties is less likely to be able to preach the Gospel in its fullness.
Pray with the Church
The Liturgy of the Hours is the prayer of the Church; by praying it, we join countless other Catholics around the world in prayer. The Office of Readings provides daily selections from the Bible and from our rich Christian heritage, a sort of daily theme suggested for our reflection. Of course, most of us don’t have enough time to pray the whole Liturgy of the Hours every day, but it is fairly easy to pray one or two of the “hours”; despite the name, each is only about ten minutes long.
Personally, I was really moved when I watched Pope Francis’ special Urbi et Orbi blessing during the pandemic and again when I watched the Holy Week Services live-streamed from the Vatican. Watching these events really helped me to feel connected with the Holy Father and the Church around the world.
Try to seek out and read inspiring stories about Christians living out the Gospel, instead of depressing stories about scandals and infighting. From missionaries spreading the Word of God to charitable organizations caring for the homeless, Christian heroes are out there. They just don’t make as much noise! For example, I recently came across the fascinating story of John Bradburne, the most prolific poet in the English language. He was a third-order Franciscan who spent the last ten years of his life caring for lepers in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). When war broke out, he refused to leave the lepers and was shot by guerrilla fighters.
Love your Neighbor
Beyond all these more theoretical and spiritual practices, it is important to really live out the mission of the Church in daily life. We’ll ultimately be judged by what we do, not by what we think about the latest controversies. By serving the poor and evangelizing with our lives, we are making contact with Christ who is present in the least of his brothers and sisters. Pope Francis calls us to renew our commitment to loving service of the poor, and that’s something all Christians should be able to agree on. As C. S. Lewis put it, “one usually gets on better with people when one is making plans than when one is talking about nothing in particular”. By participating in the mission, we’ll not only find it easier to stay spiritually in union with the Church but we’ll also be working to actually solve the problems of the world.
Header Image: Portrait of Thomas More by Holbein in the Public Domain; Pope Francis, Casa Rosada CC BY-SA 2.0; Catherine of Sienna, Uffizi Galleries, CC BY-SA 2.0
References ↑1 All quotations from St. Ignatius were taken from the Penguin Classics edition of Early Christian Writings, translated by Maxwell Staniforth. ↑2 Lumen Gentium paragraph 25: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.” ↑3 Summa Theologica, the second part of the second part, Article 60, question 4.