Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Tuesday of the Third Week in Lent

4 Kings 4:1-7 / Matthew 18:15-22

And if he will not hear the church: let him be to thee as the heathen and publican.

There is a dangerous trope much in circulation these days. It asserts, rightly enough, that the Church is not simply the hierarchy. As Bl. John Henry Newman said, when asked about the role of the laity in the Church, "The Church would look rather silly without them!" So far, so good. Yet, the trope does not delay here. Typically the refrain is to say that the Church is not the hierarchy, but the people, by which is usually meant the laity and the (lower) clergy in sympathy with them. That is, the premise is that the Church is fundamentally divided, that the "real" weight of the Church is found in the people, and that the speaker claims to know what those people really want. More than that, this move is generally made to assert freedom from something clearly, even definitively, taught by the Church, as though to say that the Church, being the "people" rather than the hierarchy, our duty to uphold to Church turns out, perversely, to require rejection of the authoritative teaching of her ministers. Taking their cue from Matthew's Gospel, they claim that it is the bishops who will not hear the church, and so it is the bishops who are to be shunned and ignored, treated as the heathen and publican.

To be sure, the hierarchy has no guarantee of impeccability. The grace of office does not always extend to social graces, intellectual acuity, or, sadly, even basic human relating. Taken as individuals, while the teaching of a given bishop is to be received with docility, there is no guarantee even here that he will, simply by himself, rightly pass on the apostolic faith, much less that he will always rightly discern the proper application of that teaching to controverted questions of the day. In these matters, should what the bishop say or do trouble us, we are enjoined by Christ himself to rebuke him, and if he will not hear us in private, then before a few members of the Church, and if not even then, we have recourse only the the public word of the Church herself.

Yet, to presume that the court of public opinion, the sort of thing discovered by demographic studies and opinion polls, is the best barometer of the mens Ecclesiæ, the mind of the Church, is to exchange theology for sociology. The Church has no voice, no authentic voice properly her own, that is not a speaking of the faith of Christ, delivered once for all to the saints, sustained by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is always and only the voice of the one Body with Christ as the Head, and thus is it the voice not of percentages and shifting attitudes, but the voice of a structured and priestly people. That is, the voice of the Church is to be heard precisely where Christ willed it to be heard, which is to say, as articulated by the apostles and their successors as legitimate and authentic transmitters of the faith revealed in Christ.

This is why we cannot try to take refuge in pollsters numbers when what is to us certain and approved by God falls under the clear and unmistakable censure of the Church as voiced by her bishops in union across the world. To do so would be to mistake what Jesus wants us to hear about the authority of the Church. That authority is not the "authority of the people" any more than the body is merely he hierarchy without the laity. Rather, the authority of the Church is Christ's own authority as God and as risen Lord of all. It is his voice, as sustained by the Spirit in the faithful witness of the Scriptures and its authentic teaching by the clergy, along with its being lived out by the baptized in communion with one another. When we find our lives and our loves rebuked by the clear words of the Gospel as proclaimed by the Church's ministers, do we have the humility to receive it, and receiving it, be gained back once again as brothers and sisters in Christ?

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