Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Some more magisterial thoughts

A post from a couple of days ago over on our parish RCIA blog has caused me to reflect a bit more on the subject of Church authority. In discussing Church authority there is a distinction taught me by a Dominican priest about fifteen years ago. It is the distinction between authoritative and authoritarian. When stating that the Church aims at being authoritative and not authoritarian, it becomes important to discuss this distinction a bit more. In his wonderful homily while still Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals given at the Mass just prior to entering into the conclave at which he was elected Pope, then-Cardinal Ratzinger spoke about "the dictatorship of relativism," an authoritarianism that, by denying truth, allows for just about anything. It is important to note that he does not propose that this dictatorship be replaced by something like the dictatorship of truth, which would require the kind of religious fundamentalism he castigated in his Regensburg address. In order to grasp the truth one has to be free, it cannot be coerced. Because the truth is a person and not a set of abstract propositions, responding to truth means answering the question the resurrected Jesus put to Peter, "Do you love me?" Love can never be forced because true love requires true freedom.
Exodus, by Marc Chagall
To this end, Pope John Paul II wrote "On her part, the Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience" (Redemptoris Missio par. 39). Just as there is vast difference between authoritative and authoritarian, there is an ocean between proposing something and imposing it. Now, there have been eras in its history during which the Church sought to impose. This same Pontiff, John Paul II, as part of observing the beginning of the third millennium of the Incarnation, issued apologies for many of these failures. Apologies aside, being authoritative requires being credible and credibility means being believable and not being what is popularly known as hypocritical, saying one thing and doing another. The word for saying what one means and acting accordingly is integrity. Even in the Church's darkest days there have always been women and men of holiness and integrity. For example, St. Francis received his mandate from the resurrected Lord to "rebuild my Church" in a particularly dark time. In short, it is typically saints, not popes and bishops, who have been the Church's catalysts, just as the prophets were Israel's. Of course, holiness always has a prophetic dimension.

It is precisely because the Church has failed and continues to fail (I am writing here about the child sexual abuse scandal and cover-up among other problems) that it lacks credibility with a lot of people, which is certainly understandable in many cases. This brings us to the nature of the Church itself. Like our resurrected and risen Lord, the Church has both a human and a divine nature. Unlike our Lord, in our human dimension the Church is not sinless. If nothing else, I know the Church in her human dimension is not sinless because I am a member. It is also important to remember that God's light shines, maybe even brighter, through our weaknesses. The Lord said to St. Paul who was grieving over his weakness: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." To which Paul responded: "I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me" (2 Cor 12,9).

The Church is God's People. God's People are and have always been a pilgrim People. The Church at times no less than the ancient Israelites, has gone a wanderin' in the desert.

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