St. Paul on Respect for Authority

In daily Mass we have been reading from second chapter of the Letter to the Galatians. In it, St. Paul recounts his personal history and describes his authority. St. Paul’s story is interesting for three reasons:

  1. It shows that St. Paul did not ascend to the office of apostle (bishop) overly quickly but rather was formed in the community of the Church for quite some time and did not go on mission until he was sent.
  2. It spells out Paul’s relationship to authority within the Church.
  3. It shows the need for fraternal correction even of those under whose authority one falls.

Let’s take a look at each of these matters in turn.

1. On Paul’s conversion, formation, and ascent to the office of apostle (bishop) – Many people have oversimplified notions of Paul’s conversion and subsequent missionary activity. Many who have not carefully studied the texts of Acts, Galatians, and other references, incorrectly assume that Paul went right to work as a missionary immediately following his conversion.

Near the time of his conversion, Paul was described as “a young man” (neanias). Sometime after the death of Stephen, St. Paul had his conversion, encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Immediately following that encounter, he was blinded for three days and eventually healed by a Christian named Ananias, who also baptized him (Acts 9:9-19).

At that point, Paul went into the Desert of Arabia (Gal 1:17). Why he went there is not known, but it was likely to reflect and possibly to be further formed in the Christian faith to which he had come so suddenly and unexpectedly. Scholars differ on whether he was there for several years or just a brief time, but it would seem that some amount of time would be necessary to pray, reflect, and experience formation in the Christian way, possibly with other Christians. A period of one to three years would seem reasonable, but we can only speculate.

Paul then returned to Damascus, joining the Christian community there for a period of almost three years (Gal 1:18). While in Damascus, Paul took to debating in the synagogues. He was so effective in demonstrating that Jesus was the hoped-for Messiah, that some of the Jews there conspired to kill him.

St. Paul then fled Damascus and went to Jerusalem (Acts 9:20-25). He states that he went there to confer with Cephas (Peter) (Gal 1:18). Paul seems to imply that he thought it was time to confer with Peter because he had begun to teach and was gaining followers. Later, Paul would describe the purpose of another visit to Peter and the other leaders: to present the Gospel that I preach to the Gentiles … so that I might not be running or have run in vain (Gal 2:2). While there on this first visit, Paul stayed for 15 days, also meeting James.

After this consultation, Paul returned home to Tarsus and remained there for about three years. What he did during this time is unknown.

Barnabas then arrived and asked Paul to come to Antioch to help him to evangelize there (Acts 11:25-26). Paul stayed there for about a year.

Paul made another brief visit to Jerusalem to deliver a collection for the poor.

Upon his return to Antioch, Paul (Saul) was ordained as a bishop. The leaders of the Church at Antioch were praying and received instruction from the Holy Spirit to Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them (Acts 13:3). As a result, the leaders of the Church in Antioch then laid hands on Barnabas and Saul and send them forth on their mission. This is Paul’s ordination and the source of his status as apostle (bishop).

Notice, however, that this sending forth happens years after Paul’s conversion. Depending on how long we assume he spent in the desert, we are talking about 7-10 years during which Paul lived in community with other members of the Church and conferred with Peter. He was not a self-appointed missionary and his conversion required completion before the Church sent him forth. Paul only undertook this going forth after being sent.

2. On Paul’s submission to authority – Paul was not a “lone ranger.” He submitted what he taught, first to Peter and later to other apostles and leaders (Acts 11 and 15). Paul states that to preach something other than what the Church proposes would be to run “in vain” (Gal 2:2).

Here was a man who was formed by the community of the Church and who submitted his teachings to scrutiny by lawful authority.

Here was man who went forth on his missions only after he was ordained and sent.

He appointed other leaders. As they went through the towns and villages on their missionary journeys, Paul and Barnabas also established authority in each church community they founded by appointing presbyters in each town (Acts 14:23).

Upon completion of their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas reported back to the leaders at Antioch who had sent them (Acts 14:27) and later to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Hence, we have an accountability structure in the early Church and a line of authority. Paul was not an independent operator. He was not a self-appointed or self-ordained leader. He both respected authority and established it in the churches he instituted. He also made it clear to the Galatians and others that he had authority and that he expected them to respect it.

3. On true respect for authority – Paul clearly respected the authority of Peter: he conferred with him early on and later set forth the gospel that Peter had preached. However, there is also this description of Paul offering fraternal correction to Peter:

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? (Gal 2:11-14)

There is something refreshing about this understanding of authority. Having authority does not mean that one is above reproof. Too many people shy away from speaking honestly to those in authority. Today that is beginning to change and well it should.

Paul stands face to face (κατὰ πρόσωπον αὐτῷ ἀντέστην) with Peter and rebukes his practice of sitting only with Jews. Peter had taught rightly of the equality of the Gentiles but drew back from keeping company with them. As Catholics, we teach of the infallibility of the Pope, but we do not teach that he is impeccable (sinless). Even those who teach rightly (as Peter did) sometimes struggle to fully live the truth they preach.

Clearly, correction and/or frank discussion should be done charitably, but it should be done. Paul is bolder than I would be, but he also lived in a different culture than I do. As we can see from the Gospels and other writings, Jesus and the apostles really “mixed it up” with others. The ancient Jews were famous for frank and vigorous discussion of issues, often including a lot of hyperbole. Our own culture prefers a gentler approach. Perhaps the modern rule is best stated this way: “Clarity with charity.”

Clarity – We show far greater respect for authority figures by speaking clearly and directly to them than through false flattery, inappropriate silence, or sinfully speaking scornfully of them behind their backs.

Charity – The need for clarity does not exclude an accompanying need for charity and proper respect for office and age. Sadly, I have found that those who wish to correct clergy today often go to the other extreme: using bold, disrespectful, and even insulting language; name calling; and impugning motives. Not only is this unnecessary, it is ineffective, especially in these times.

St. Paul demonstrates refreshing honesty with Peter, acknowledging his authority while respecting him enough to speak to him directly and clearly, not behind his back.

This video provides a brief summary of St. Paul’s life. Most scholars don’t agree with the remark (at about the 2:55 mark in the clip) that Paul was released from his imprisonment in Rome and then went to Spain, but there are two traditions in this regard.

Teachings On Authority – A Homily for the 31st Sunday of the Year

The Gospel this Sunday is familiar to many Catholics (in a negative way) because many Protestants use the verse Call no one on earth your father, to assail the Catholic practice of calling priests “Father.” Never mind that the text also says that we should call no one on earth “teacher.” Never mind that the New Testament contains almost 200 uses of the word “father” to refer to earthly males. Apparently Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John along with Paul, Peter, and Stephen never got the memo banishing all use of the word in reference to anyone on earth.

However, to turn this into a Gospel about appropriate terminology is to miss its main point, which is to teach us about authority. This teaching is both beautiful and essential, especially in modern times when the notion of authority is so often misunderstood and maligned.

Before looking at Jesus’ teaching on authority it is good to be clear one point: While each of us is under authority, we also have authority. Whether it is as a parent, a supervisor at work, a community leader, a leader in the Church, or just because you’re older—you have authority.

Because we live in a culture that largely despises authority, we tend to think it is always the “other guy” who has authority and needs to be “put in his place.” Maybe it’s that pompous guy in the corner office, those nasty politicians, or the boorish and backward pastor. Look in the mirror! This Gospel isn’t just for “them,” it’s for you, too. As we explore this teaching on authority, remember that it applies to you and me just as much as to “them.”

Let’s look at the teaching in four stages.

The Tenure of Lawful Authority – Jesus says, The scribes and Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you but do not follow their example.

Jesus teaches the disciples that for now they are to remain under the lawful authority of the Scribes and Pharisees. In the future, Jesus will fully send forth His Church and establish the authority of the Apostles themselves, but for now they are to follow lawful authority, just as Jesus will expect the Church to follow the lawful authority of the Apostles and their successors later on.

Nowhere in Scripture are Christians encouraged ridicule, resist, or overthrow lawful authority. The human tendency (especially evident in modern times) to be insubordinate to and disrespectful of lawful authority is neither encouraged nor supported in biblical teaching. Consider some of the following examples:

  • Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment (Rom 13:1).
  • Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men. (1 Peter 2:13).
  • Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good (Titus 3:1).
  • I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:1).
  • Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king (1 Peter 2:17).
  • Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s (Matt 22:21).

The Lord Jesus, indeed Scripture in general, upholds the proper need and place for authority. The modern tendency to celebrate rebellion and disrespect toward authority is clearly not supported by Scripture.

This tendency is exhibited throughout Western culture. Children are disrespectful to their parents, younger people to their elders, subordinates in the workplace to their supervisors, Catholics toward the Church hierarchy, and so forth.

One may argue that some who are in charge are poor leaders. Perhaps, but consider the authorities of ancient times: the Scribes, the Pharisees, and Herod, just to name a few. Yet still this teaching went forth. Others may say that authorities need to be corrected. Yes, at times they do; in those cases, a Christian should use means that are both respectful and nonviolent.

Vigorous political discourse is surely a feature and a genius of our modern democratic republic. However, too much of the discourse today strays into the hateful, toward personal attack and ridicule. Such extremes are unfit for Christians, who are called to speak the truth with both clarity and charity.

So in setting forth a teaching on authority, the Lord Jesus first establishes that there is authority and that (other things being equal) lawful authority is to be respected and obeyed. Although there are times when the example of those in authority should not be imitated (more on that in the next section), their lawful and moral directives are to be followed.

In cases in which you are under authority, pray, strive to cooperate, and when necessary correct with reverence.

In cases in which you have authority, do not be ashamed of it. Use it well, for the common good and to provide necessary direction and unity for those under your authority.

The Tyranny of Arrogant Authority – Jesus does acknowledge the burdensome and insensitive qualities of the leadership of that time. He says, Do not follow their example. For they preach but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders. But they will not lift a finger to move them.

This is a sober assessment by Jesus of the problems of leadership in His day. They will have to answer to God for their tenure. Jesus holds them up as a kind of warning to the future leaders of His Church, who will one day have to render an account for their leadership. Do not follow their example, Jesus warns.

True authority exists to serve, not to crush or merely to exhibit its power. It exists to unite people around a common purpose and to direct people and resources to a good and focused end. It exists to help others to accomplish their tasks in a unified and directed way. Hence, we may ask the following questions of the exercise of authority:

  1. Does the exercise of authority make wings to lift a person up or is it a deadweight to drag him down?
  2. Does it help a person or haunt him?
  3. Does it carry him does he have to carry it?
  4. Does it bring joy to life or depression?
  5. Does it unite people around common goals or merely unite them in unproductive anger against authority?

How would those under your authority answer these questions?

The Trappings of Self-Centered Authority – Jesus describes how the Scribes and Pharisees loved titles, honors, and ostentation: All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and the salutation, “Rabbi.”

The Lord points out the following problems with self-centered authority:

  1. Their Actions Are Acted – Jesus often called them hypocrites, not as a slur but as a description. The word “hypocrite” comes from a Greek root meaning “actor.” An actor performs and plays his role only when there is an audience. He does so for money and applause. When the crowd is gone he stops acting because there would be no point; neither money nor applause would result. Some in authority forget the reason they have authority; they forget the goal to which it is directed. They care only about the praise that may increase their authority or build up their ego.
  2. They Parade their Piety – They want to be noticed as having authority. Rather than pointing to the end to which their authority is directed (in this case, God), they see the acknowledgement of their own authority as the proper end and desired goal.
  3. They Hunger for Honor – They seek the front seats. They want to be seen as having authority. They take the honor due those in authority personally, as directed to them, rather than directed to the office they hold.
  4. They Take after Titles – They crave the title itself for the honor they feel it brings them. A title is only good if the one bearing it does not disgrace it. Having a title is not so much an honor as a responsibility.

In the end, the poor example of the Scribes and Pharisees comes down to the fact that they used the “trappings” of authority for personal ends and glory, rather than for the ends to which they were intended: the glory of God, the serving of His people, and the common good and unity of all.

Leadership is not about trappings; it is about service and the glory of God.

The Truth of Christian Authority – The text says,  Do not be called teacher (Rabbi) You have but one teacher. Do not be called Father, you have but one Father in heaven..Do not be called master, have but one master the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled. Who ever humbles himself will be exalted.

Jesus emphasizes three fundamental things here, and I add a fourth.

  1. All authority is under the headship of God. In critiquing the use of terms like “teacher,” “master,” and “Rabbi,” Jesus is insisting that all teachers and “experts” must first be under the teaching and authority of God. All their teaching and “mastery” of any subject must be in conformity to, and submitted to the revealed truth of God. For someone to be worthy of the title “teacher,” “master,” or “Rabbi,” means that he is first submitted to what God teaches and reveals.
  2. All Fatherhood, all headship, is submitted to the Father and Lord of us all and reflects His Fatherhood. No one deserves the title “father” who does not first have God for his Father. In this sense, Jesus is not so much banning a word as He is insisting on a conformity to the one and perfect Father of us all. In this sense, St. Paul can say, You do not have many fathers, For I became your father in Christ Jesus our Lord (1 Cor 4:15). For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted you and charged each of you lead a life worthy of God (1 Thess 2:10). St. Paul takes up this title “Father” with them only in relation to how he guides them to what the Heavenly Father would want.
  3. Authority exists for service. Jesus says this of those in authority: The greatest among you must be your servant. In other words, those who have authority are to serve those under them, not “lord it over them.” Jesus says elsewhere,

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mk 10:42ff)

Hence, those who have authority have it not for their glory but as a sign of their servitude. The priest who has authority has it to serve his people in teaching, sanctifying, and governing (uniting) them. Parents have authority in order to serve their children by raising them to become the men and women God intends them to be. The police officer has authority to protect and give order to the populace. The teacher has authority in order that she may teach the students. Authority is not for its own sake; it is for the sake of others.

  1. Authority is exercised among equals. In this world authority is equated with power; it is often given to those who are richer, more connected, and so forth. Some in authority may assume that they have authority because they are somehow better than others. Among Christians, however, authority is always exercised among equals. The greatest title one can have is “Child of God.” Titles such as CEO, President, Grand Knight, and Monsignor are mere footnotes. The Pope has authority in the Church, but he is no more baptized than you or I. Please understand, he does have authority and we have an obligation to submit to it, but his greatest title is not that of “Pope” or “Supreme Pontiff”; His greatest title is “Child of God.” Authority does not make me greater than you, it makes me your servant. Before God, though, we are all equally His children. This final point is my own addition; feel free to critique it.

So there it is, a Gospel not about terminology (as in “father”), but about authority; how to understand it and live it as a Christian. Remember, it is not just about that other guy; it’s about you, too, because you have authority as well. One day we will answer to God about how we have used our authority, whether to build or destroy, enable or disable, inspire or unnecessarily infuriate. We will also render an account for how we have acted toward those in authority. Although this world may praise disrespect and disobedience, God is neither impressed nor pleased. Authority—how we use it and respect it—is critical to God.

Note that the word “author” appears in the word “authority.” No authority exists unless it is granted by God (cf Jn 19:11). To the Author, all in authority must one day answer.

One of my favorite hymns is “Crown Him with Many Crowns”. In the video below, we see it performed on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. It is fitting to see those in authority (even if only ceremonially so) praising the true King, from whom all kings, queens, and leaders get their authority.

Of Jesus, we can say that He is the only King who died for us. The second verse of the hymn says, “Crown him the Lord of Love; Behold his hands and side. Rich wounds yet visible above, in beauty glorified. No angel in the height can truly bear that sight; so downward bend his wondering eye at mysteries so bright.”

Indeed, For the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and give his life as ransom for many (Mk 10:45).

On Titles and Truth

Most Catholics have heard the critique from non-Catholics that it is wrong to call priests “Father.” It is a rather tired old charge, which basically goes as follows:

  1. Jesus says, “Call no man on earth your father.”
  2. But Catholics call their priests “Father.”
  3. Therefore, the Catholic Church is wrong to espouse this and is likely wrong in many other things as well.

The problem stems from a rather absolute and literal reading of Jesus’ words. At daily Mass on Saturday, we read this passage:

As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ. The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matt 23:10-11).

The problem with reading the text literally (and thereby absolutely) is that it amounts to a complete banishing of the word “father.” Jesus says, “Call no one on earth your father.” The phrase “no one on earth,” if interpreted literally, is about as absolute a forbiddance as could be imagined. In effect, the term “father” must never be uttered in reference to any earthly, human male, ever!

If that be the case, though, then none of the New Testament authors seem to have gotten the message. In the New Testament there are nearly 200 occurrences of the word “father” in reference to earthly males. Most “egregiously,” St Paul wrote, For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel (1 Cor 4:15). Didn’t St. Paul (and the Holy Spirit who inspired him) know that Jesus forbade the use of the word except to refer to the Father in Heaven?

In fact, Jesus didn’t even appear to get his own memo; either that or He somehow forgot!

I have compiled a list of all of these “violations” here: New Testament verses using the term “father”. It is quite a long list and many of the verses came directly from the mouth of Jesus.

Obviously, then, Jesus does not mean to forbid or eliminate the use of the term or title. Getting into a tedious debate about the linguistics misses the whole point of Jesus’ teaching—and it is a very important one.

The central point that Jesus makes is that no one on this earth should have more authority in one’s life than God. No teacher, no matter how eloquent or convincing; no master, no matter how many advanced degrees; no expert, no matter how many letters come after his name; has the authority to overrule or set aside God’s teaching. None of them should have a greater prominence or influence on us than the Lord. Everything they say should be tested in the light of God’s revealed truth.

Sadly, this is too often not the case. We so easily allow worldly thinking and the views of “experts” or cultural icons to eclipse God’s teaching and His authority in our life.

St. Paul says,

Test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil (1 Thess 4:21-22).

Is this what we do in practice? When a popular musician comes out with a song celebrating fornication, many say, “I know, I know, but it is a pretty song.” They’ll even play it at Catholic wedding receptions and school dances. When an eloquent spokesperson for any number of sinful practices contrary to God’s law and teaching comes along, too many Christians fall for the false notions of compassion and tolerance. Do we really “test everything” with the measuring rod of God’s teaching? Sadly, often we do not. More often it is God’s teachings that go on trial, to be judged by worldly standards.

St. Paul laments,

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound doctrine, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths (2 Tim 4:3-4).

This leads us back to Jesus true concern: no one, be it a teacher, a rabbi, an expert, a scientist, a parent, or a clergyman, should have more authority in one’s life than God does. In effect, Jesus says, “If even your earthly father, whom you should otherwise honor, asks you to do evil or seeks your assent to teachings contrary to what my Father and I have taught, disregard his request and refuse to cooperate.”

Jesus is not focused here on titles, as some erroneously think; He is focused on truth. He is not removing words from our dictionary; He is requiring the truth that He teaches to be the measure by which we test everything else. No one should have a higher authority in our mind than God. We should have no greater devotion in our heart than to the Lord. Too easily we miss Jesus’ crucial point by debating the details.

Is Being a Bishop Like Herding Cats? It Shouldn’t Be

I have written here before, (often to the great consternation of more than a few readers) of my concerns about disunity in the Church. In particular my concerns center around the dismissive attitudes many have developed toward the bishops. While this attitude was once the domain, largely, of dissenters on the theological left, it has now become quite a common attitude among many theological and ecclesial conservatives as well.

I am well aware of the (often legitimate) frustrations by some Catholics that the Bishops, either individually or collectively have not always shepherded in a clearer way; a way that both disciplined dissenters and corrected liturgical abuses and also encouraged those who tried to remain faithful. I get that. These have been difficult decades for the Church and for our culture.

But frustrations should not be permitted to draw us, even subtly, toward a posture that practically speaking severs our union with the bishops. Some of the comments that routinely come in to the blog here are quite shocking in their sweeping dismissal of the bishops, even the Pope. Some of them are so strong that I cannot post them. What makes them particularly shocking is that, these days, most of the comments of this sort come from those who would define themselves as conservative Catholics. That reflects somewhat the readership of this blog (i.e. more conservative), but it is shocking to hear conservative Catholics use the language that I had always associated with dissenters back in the 1970s and 80s.

In effect the dissenters of that time would dismissively opine that the Pope and bishops were out of touch and really knew little of what they were talking about when it came to sex and contraception, further, that bishops should listen to the faithful and get out of people’s bedrooms. They would also indicate that the bishops and the Church had all the wrong priorities and were not credible leaders; that the faithful could safely disregard their directives in any number of matters, especially sex. Thus a kind of parallel magisterium of experts and activists on the left generally worked to undermine respect for true Church authority, and sought to set forth their own priorities and interpretations of Church teaching and law. In their world, being a Catholic was an increasingly “self-defined” thing, and authority in the Church, to the degree it existed at all for them, was pretty theoretical.

Enter the conservatives – Yet, as I say, many of these attitudes, some times more subtly expressed, are now coming from more conservative circles in the Church. In the end there is a widespread dismissal of the role of the local bishop and or the bishops in general to shepherd the Church, set priorities, and to be a source of unity for the local Church.

Sometimes this dismissal comes in a legalistic way such that many will say, “If something isn’t infallibly taught by the Pope, or if the bishop isn’t repeating dogmatic teaching, I can wholly ignore them.” Perhaps this is true in a purely legal sense, but really, if we believe that our bishops are anointed by God to lead us, should they have to always meet this high criteria? Should we not remain open even to non-infallible teachings, and, as a general norm, accede to the just and reasonable directions set by our shepherds? Are their prudential judgements of no importance to us at all?

The second common way that many are dismissive of the Bishops (and even the Pope at times) is more attitudinal. For example, “Oh to heck with that stupid bishop, he’s just an idiot and shill for the left. He’s all wrong on immigration, and doesn’t emphasize abortion enough in his sermons and letters…to heck with him.”

Cardinal George in his recent ad limina visit to Rome summed up the difficulty the bishops face here in America in the following way:

The Church’s mission is threatened internally by divisions which paralyze her ability to act forcefully and decisively.

On the left, the Church’s teachings on sexual morality and the nature of the ordained priesthood and that the Church herself are publicly opposed, as are the bishops who preach and defend these teachings.

On the right, the Church’s teachings might be accepted. But the bishops who do not govern exactly and to the last detail in the way expected, are publicly opposed.

The Church is thus an arena of ideological warfare, rather than a way of discipleship, shepherded by bishops. And so, the Church’s ability to evangelize is diminished. Cardinal Francis George, May 28 2011 Ad Limina Visit.

In other words, trying to lead Catholics is like herding cats. And our descent into ideology stabs unity in the heart and gravely wounds our ability to impact our culture in any real effective and unified way. Consider that there are as many as 70 million Catholics in the U.S. Were we really together on any one topic, we would be a force to reckoned with. But we are not, and are thus largely ineffective as a force for positive change.

And it is always easy to say “It’s that other slob who is responsible for the disunity.”  But as Cardinal George notes, the bishop’s aren’t getting much support from any sector of the Church.

Canonist Ed Peters over at In the Light of the Law has some interesting insights in to this as well:

I often explain and defend in my blog legitimate exercises of ecclesiastical authority. I do this because we live in an age that distrusts exercises of authority in general and ecclesiastical authority in particular. Even within the Church, exercises of ecclesiastical authority are often suspect, nay guilty, till proven otherwise. Part of me understands that suspicion, at least when it arises from ‘the right’: I grew up with happy-clappy catechesis, suffered through clown Masses, watched the devastation wrought on religious life, mourned the closing of one Catholic school after another, etc, etc, etc…..

But, by the grace of God, I never let my disappointment ossify into distrust. As a result, I do not cling to my opinions about how things should be done in the Church (however sound my views might be) in the face of legitimate ecclesiastical determinations otherwise. I know all about Canon 212 § 3 3. It’s Canon 223 I’m concerned with now.

Widespread, knee-jerk distrust of ecclesiastical authority is perhaps the most crippling legacy left to the John Paul II generation of Church leaders by the past. This distrust is, of course, unfair to [the] new generation [i.e. of seminarians and younger priests] —who have done nothing to deserve it—but it is also increasingly incongruous to them. They didn’t grow up with the wackiness that many of us remember, and so they don’t understand the animus that is often directed by some otherwise orthodox Catholics against Church leaders just because they happen to be, well, leaders in the Church. Occasionally, when I see a solid young priest or seminarian suffer such [treatment], I call him aside and explain what things were like back in the day, and why patience is called for in this case or that. He listens, nods his head, and says, “Yes, I see what you mean, it must have been terrible. Well, time to get over it.” These guys are great.

Yes, distrust has led many to become disconnected from the bishops, who are our legitimate shepherds. This legitimate authority is the case even if they are not perfect. The first 12 bishops didn’t exactly lead with perfection either. Christ chooses and anoints imperfect men to lead the Church. And while we have every right to both petition the bishops and seek to influence their decisions, trust and respect are essential components of such a dialogue.

Being disconnected from the bishop is not of God and dangerously leads to becoming a member of a Church of one. Too many today proudly spout their views, and seem to imply they are more Catholic than the Pope and more orthodox than the bishops because they are able to quote St. “So and So” who said it just this way, and that is what it means to be truly Catholic. But its pretty hard to be truly Catholic and be utterly dismissive of the bishops or to remain at odds with the local bishop without a very severe doctrinal reason.

St Ignatius expresses the ancient and apostolic witness to the respect that we ought to have for the bishop:

It is therefore fitting that you should, after no hypocritical fashion, obey [your bishop], in honor of Him who has willed us to do so, since he that does not do so deceives not the bishop that is visible, but seeks to mock Him that is invisible….I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ,… As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled.  (Ignatius to the Church at Magnesia 3,6-7)

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. (Ignatius to the Church at Smyrna, 8)

None of this ancient teaching comports well with the derisive attitudes too common today regarding bishops among some of the faithful. God has summoned us to unity and obedience. And unity and obedience should not be reduced to theoretical concepts. There is an actual and real bishop to whom you and I each owe respect and obedience. And even in those rare cases when the Bishop is clearly at odds with a Church teaching or required practice, we humbly seek dialogue. And, if that is not successful, we appeal to higher authority in the Church. Other things being equal, we should seek and cultivate unity with the local bishop. We should seek to understand his priorities, along with that of our pastor. And even if these priorities do not perfectly match ours, we do well to remember who is the anointed leader and who is not. There is a reason that the Bishop is the leader and I am not. At some level we have got to trust God and accept that he works even through imperfect men.

A final thought from another Church Father meditating on the recent Christmas Feast:

And what can we find in the treasure of the Lord’s bounty more in keeping with the glory of this feast than that peace which was first announced by the angelic choir on the day of his birth? For that peace, from which the sons of God spring, sustains love and mothers unity; it refreshes the blessed and shelters eternity; its characteristic function and special blessing is to join to God those whom it separates from this world….For the grace of the Father has adopted as heirs neither the contentious nor the dissident, but those who are one in thought and love. The hearts and minds of those who have been reformed according to one and the same image should be in harmony with one another. – From a sermon by Saint Leo the Great, pope (Sermo 6 in Nativitate Domini, 2-3, 5: PL 54, 213-216)

Beware the Church of one.

This songs says, I need you, you need, we’re all a part of God’s body. Stand with me, agree with me, I need you to survive.

Authority is Inescapable. It Might as Well Be With the Lord and His Church – A Meditation on Authority With a Spiritual Master

In yesterday’s Gospel we pondered some teachings about authority from the Lord. Among His teachings was that authority is necessary and that, other things being equal, a Christian is bound to submit to lawful authority, both in the Church and, regarding temporal affairs, to lawful authority in this world.

In the Church  there is a “Chair of Moses” which the Lord has given to Peter and his successors (Matt 16:18). The Lord spoke of Peter’s role to bind and loose, and also to be the Rock, to  confirm, i.e. strength and unify, his brethren (Lk. 22:32). The sad experiment among Protestants, and to some extent the Orthodox, of trying to have a Church without a Pope, without a central governing “chair” of authority, shows the disunity, and even venom that can result without a pope. If no one is pope, everyone is pope.

I have been reading in the last weeks, for spiritual reading Fr. Thomas Dubay’s S.M. (R.I.P.) Authenticity – A Biblical Theology of Discernment. There are so many passages I have marked to share with you in the future. But for today I want to share with you some excerpts from Fr Dubay on the need for authority, just as a practical matter. He also ponders what happens if we, in some utopian way, think we can live apart from it.

Fr. Dubay has been one of my chief teachers in spirituality. He passed away last year – headed home to meet the Lord, whom he loved and preached. He was a devout and sober man, a fine theologians, deeply immersed in Scripture and Tradition, a terrific spiritual master, and always a keen observer of what ails us.

As is often the case, I will present his text in bold, black italics, and my poor comments in plain red text. I would like to give you page numbers in the book, but, sadly, the Kindle edition from which I have read does not have a coherent way of referring to pages (as far as I can tell). I can only say that the passage is in the last third of the book in a section entitled “Verification.”

Christ and St. Paul and the whole New Testament community were hardheadedly human. They knew better than we (because they were more holy than many of us) of human weaknesses and failings, but they could not imagine [as some do today] an “invisible Church of Christ.” In more than a theoretical way, the disciples knew they were not angels, and they could not have dreamed of the ekklesia of the bodily risen Kyrios lacking effective institutional elements.

Yes, the word I like to use is that they were “sober” about human sinfulness, and our tendency to be divisive and fractional, often about the most petty of things. And even in more profound matters, our sinfulness often causes us to have distorted thinking, our senseless minds can become very dark and jaded.

In the midst of all the scandalous division after the Eastern Schism, and the Protestant movements, some have tried to imagine that there is somehow an “invisible church” where “nasty little things” like structures, and authority are not necessary. In this dreamy, “kumbaya” thinking where all hold hands and sway as they sing “we are one in the Spirit,” there may be a legitimate dream.

But imagining we are one is not the same as actually being one. True unity will manifest in concrete, not just theoretical ways,  for a central tenet of the faith is that of the incarnation. And the Church remains, incarnationally,  the Body of Christ. I may like to imagine that a severed hand is still part of my body. But while I dream, the hand begins to decay, and my body bleeds out. In the end reality has a way of setting in.

The Biblical fact is, that where Peter is, there is the Church (ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia). He is Christ’s vicar on earth, and the one who holds the keys. Christ noted that the devil would seek to divide, to “sift” the apostles like wheat. But Jesus solution was clear: But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, you will strengthen your brothers (Luke 22:32). Bishop Sheen once said of this passage that we share in Christ’s prayer for unity in the Church, only through Peter.

There is no “invisible church.” Only the visible and structured one founded by Christ and rooted in his prayer for Peter.

Graphically St. Paul reminds the overseer-bishops of Ephesus that it was the Holy Spirit himself who established them in office, and it is through these human instruments that the Spirit will deal with “fierce wolves” who invade the flock (Acts 20:28-31).  The apostle goes so far as to say that anyone who objects to his teaching is not objecting to a human authority but to God himself, who gives us his Holy Spirit (1 Th 4:8). The Thessalonians are to foster the “greatest respect and affection” for their leaders (1 Th 5:12-13). All sorts of gifts from the spirit are given to the authorities in the Church: apostleship, prophecy, teaching, leading (Eph 4:11-13).

Yes, in our anti-authority modern age, we must recall that authority in the Church is established by God, and upheld by him. It is the Lord’s way of protecting the Church from the fierce wolves of error and division. God teaches authoritatively through his Church, and her appointed and anointed leaders. We have to trust God in this.

Authority is not perfect. God uses imperfect human instruments to accomplish his tasks.

In my personal journey I have come to discover that, while I have often wished that those in authority were more prompt and prophetic at times, I have also come to discover that there is a place to be more reflective. When I was first ordained, I was zealous for orthodoxy, but I was also rigid in unnecessary ways, and often impatient. “If only the Church would adopt my plan of action, all would be well.” Or so I thought. But, interestingly enough the Lord did not choose to promote me to bishop in those early zealous years, (or even now), and I must humbly recognize that there are often other ways of approaching issues. The general demeanor of the Church is to be thoughtful, reflective, and yes, slower than many moderns prefer.

But somewhere in the midst of this rather consistent approach, we need to see that our leaders have been anointed by God. We can surely seek to influence them and be part of the discussion. Most reform movements well up from the people of God. But we do not, and ought not, get ahead of our leaders, or refuse submission to them merely because we have a bright new idea. There may well be a reason to go slower and be more broad based that some who are zealous would prefer.

This bodily-structural element in the ekklesia comes out in many ways in the New Testament: Jesus sends men into the world, and they speak with his own authority so that those who listen to these representatives listen to him (Mt 28:16-20; Lk 10:16) . . . the leaders in the Church test the authenticity of her members (Rev 2:2; pastorals, passim) . . . all are to obey their spiritual leaders (1 Pet 5:5; Heb 13:17) . . . they who disobey are inauthentic, not from God (1 Cor 14:37-38; 1 Jn 4:6) . . . even a supposed messenger from heaven may not contradict what the human leaders have taught (Gal 1:6-9) . . . the presiding officer in the local church has all sorts of duties in the areas of teaching and governing (1 and 2 Tim and Titus) . . . the Holy Spirit is with them in the performance of these duties (2 Tim 1:6, 14). i.e. authority is biblical and from God.

Although we do not find the same degree of organization in the first-century ekklesia that we find in that of the twentieth century (it would be amazing if we did), we do find a plurality of functions that are clearly governmental. The leaders teach and proclaim the word (1 Tim 3:2; 4:13, 16; 5:7, 17; 6:2; 2 Tim 1:8; 2:2, 14, 24; 4:1-5; Titus 1:9; 2:1-10, 15; 3:1-8; Acts 20:28). They pray for the sick and heal them (James 5:14-15). They correct aberrations and errors and faults (1 Tim 5:20; 6:17; 2 Tim 2:25; 4:1-5; Titus 1:9-14; 2:15). They govern the ecclesial community, the Church of God (1 Tim 3:5; 2 Tim 1:14; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:1-4). These superiors are said to be God’s representatives, and their authority is not to be questioned (Titus 1:7; 2:15). The faithful are told in plain language to obey these leaders and do as they say (Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 5:5)….

To teach govern and sanctify are the essential roles of Church authority and the faithful are expected to be submitted to their leaders.

This is a critical reminder in an age like ours that often celebrates rebellion as well as angry invective and derision directed at leaders, both secular and religious. While our world may celebrate this and many who act rebelliously get “credit” for being bold and “free,” there is little or no biblical basis for this behavior, especially insofar as the Church is concerned.

While a Catholic may make some discernment as to the level of authority involved in a given pronouncement, legalistic minimalism should also be avoided and Catholics should remain teachable even in non-infallible teaching of the popes, bishops and magisterium  (cf CCC # 892).

It is not accidental that people who now commonly speak of our generation as “men come of age” are often those who belittle the need for societal government. ….The error in this position lies in its partiality. It fails to provide for the many other needs among perfectly adult men and women that cannot be met [apart from]… the essential role of authority. No matter how mature a society has become, its members cannot provide for protection, for international trade, for airports and highways (and a host of other things) by mere friendly agreements. To desire to substitute consensus as a universal replacement for authority is merely utopian.

Yes, utopian is the word.

It is the dreamy arrogance of our modern age that has caused us the most grief. The more we speak of ourselves as “men come of age,” the less mature we seem to become. In our culture, maturity is further and further delayed, and there are many in our culture who never grow up. Dependent and demanding, many sound more like petulant children, than grown adults. Further, the dismissal of the wisdom of previous generations, and the refusal to be accepting of authority, bespeaks more of a teenage rebellious stage than sober adult refelction. I have written more on that here: Stuck on Teenage

When the members of a group are all open to the Holy Spirit, a discernment process can produce consensus, but who will maintain that, in our sinful condition, we can hope, in larger societies, to be free from selfishness and ignorances of all sorts. And even aside from our sinfulness, we need to note that all judgments made for an action are surrounded with contingencies that make it impossible to demonstrate the necessity of any [one] given prudential judgment. One of the functions of authority, therefore, is to choose among many defensible courses of action one that all must follow….

Yes, so well said. Even in the best, the most mature and spiritual of communities, some one still has to call the shots. For not all, or even most, decisions are between good and bad things, but often between numerous good options in the face of limited resources.

If a group of people rejects an official teaching authority in the Church, it does not follow that there is no teaching authority. There surely is, and often it is more apodictic [demanding of submission] and harsh in its condemnations than most popes have ever been. The allegiance given to quotations from “in” theologians can be remarkable….

Pope Benedict has often remarked on the tyranny of relativism wherein those who cloak themselves in tolerance and open-mindedness are often the least tolerant when it comes to a host of issues they regard as politically correct. Many of the College campuses who have prided themselves on their liberal openness often have the most severe “speech codes” and the most strident applications of political correctness. Don’t try and uphold a lot of traditional Catholic and Biblical moral teaching there. If you do, prepare in most instances to shouted down, shown the door, and called hateful, bigoted, close-minded and number of other personal attacks.

Further, unquestioned loyalty to certain theories, scientific, political and philosophical, and the kind of venom, if you even have just a few questions, is remarkable. Talk about “religious” zeal.

Oh yes, we will confer authority on someone, it just depends on who. I had rather accept as authoritative a Church I believe founded by God and upheld by him. An old hymn says, I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. Jesus founded, establishes and upholds the Church, so I’ll go there and be submitted to authorities I believe, by faith, he upholds and inspires.

The binding force of an ecclesiastical Magisterium is commonly viewed [today] as an infringement on a healthy freedom in the academic realm. It is no more an infringement on freedom than the experimental data of the positive sciences are an impediment to scientific progress and freedom. The divinely guaranteed Magisterium liberates the theologian from the morass of his own subjectivity, just as the hard-nosed data of scientific research liberate the theoretician in pure physics from the illusions of a thought, lacking contact with the real world…..

One of the keys to understanding freedom is that it is only enjoyed within limits. I am free to communicate with you now only if I accept certain grammatical parameters.

Absolute freedom does not exist for limited and contingent beings such as ourselves. Hence, Christian theology must accept that there are necessary limits and guard rails which guarantee the greatest freedoms. Outside the guard rails of Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium, lie only thickets, precipices, dead ends and a howling wilderness of subjectivism and the directionless wandering of an “off road” experience.

I have written more on the paradox of true freedom HERE

It is alleged that Roman congregations have made mistakes and that these impede progress. Some (not all) of these allegations are true. But in sheer number they are few indeed in comparison to the thousands of mistakes that theologians have made….History abounds in examples of the bizarre aberrations possible even in well-intentioned enthusiasms.

Yes. Thank you Fr. Dubay. Rest in peace.

Here is video that illustrates the modern tendency to celebrate rebellion. While it’s funny, it must also be said that this ads ridicules limits and people who believe in them. The man who says “stay within the lines” is presented for us as an object of ridicule and the notion of limits as “childish” hides the teenage immaturity of those who celebrate rebellion and reject limits. The ad does not follow the woman “off road” as she surely hits ruts, messes up her alignment and may even flip the vehicle. Paved roads with guard rails are usually better, faster and safer.

What St. Paul Can Teach Us About Respect for Church Authority

In the readings for daily Mass the past few days we have been reviewing the faith journey of St. Paul who describes his personal history and also his authority in the second chapter of the Letter to the Galatians. The story is interesting for three reasons.

  1. It can help correct notions that some have of Paul’s rapid assent to the office of apostle (Bishop) and affirm that he was not a lone-ranger apostle. He was a man who was formed in the community of the Church for some length of time, and did not go on Mission until he was sent.
  2. It spells out Paul’s relationship to authority within the Church.
  3. It shows forth an important aspect of being under authority and the prevailing need for fraternal correction in hierarchal structures.

Let’s take a look at each of these matters in turn.

1. On Paul’s conversion, formation and ascent to the office of Apostle (Bishop). Many have oversimplified notions of Paul’s conversion, and subsequent missionary activity. Many who have not carefully studied the texts of Acts, Galatians, and other references assume that Paul went right to work after his conversion as a missionary. But this was not the case.

At the time near his conversion Paul was described as “a young man” (neanias). Sometime after the death of Stephen he had his conversion, encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.  Immediately following his encounter with Christ he was blinded for three days and eventually healed by a Christian named Ananias who also baptized him (Acts 9:9-19). Hereafter, according to Galatians, Paul went into the Desert of Arabia (Gal 1:17). Why he went, and for how long is not known. It is probably not wrong to presume that he went there to reflect and possibly be further formed in the Christian faith to which he had come so suddenly and unexpectedly. Was he there for several years as some scholars propose or just a brief time as others do? It is not possible to say with certainty but it would seem that some amount of time would be necessary to pray, reflect and experience formation in the Christian way, possibly with other Christians. A period of at least a year seems tenable and perhaps as many as three years. We can only speculate.

Paul then returned to Damascus and joined the Christian community there for a period of almost three years (Gal 1:18). While there he took to debating in the synagogues and was so effective in demonstrating that Jesus was the hoped for messiah that some of the Jews there conspired to kill him. He fled the city and went to Jerusalem (Acts 9:20-25). Paul states that he went there to confer with Cephas (Peter) (Gal 1:18). Paul seems to imply that he thought it was time to confer with Peter since he had begun to teach and even now was gaining disciples. Later he would describe the purpose of another visit to Peter and the other leaders: to present the Gospel that I preach to the Gentiles…so that I might not be running, or have run in vain (Gal 2:2).  While there on this first visit he stayed for 15 days and  also met James.

After this consultation he went home to Tarsus for a period of about three years. What he did during this time is unknown. Barnabas then arrived and asked him to come to Antioch and help him evangelize there (Acts 11:25-26). He stayed there about a year. He made another brief visit to Jerusalem to deliver a collection for the poor and upon his return to Antioch we finally see his ordination as a Bishop. The leaders of the Church at Antioch were praying and received instruction from the Holy Spirit to Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them (Acts 13:3). Thus, the leaders of the Church there laid  hands on Barnabas and Saul and send them forth on Mission. Here we have an ordination and the source of Paul’s status as Apostle (bishop).

Notice however, this sending happens years after Paul’s conversion. Depending on how long we account his time in the desert we are talking about 7-10 years wherein Paul lived in community with other members of the Church and also conferred with Peter. He was not a self appointed missionary and his conversion required completion before the Church sent him forth. This going-forth he undertook only after being sent.

2. On Paul’s submission to authority – We can see therefore, that Paul was not a lone ranger. He did submit what he taught to Peter and later to others apostles and leaders (Acts 11 & 15). He states that to have preached something other than what the Church proposed would be to run “in vain” (Gal 2:2). Here was a man who was formed by the community of the Church and who submitted his teachings to scrutiny by lawful authority. Here was man who went forth on his missions only after  he was ordained and sent. Further, Paul and Barnabas, as they went through the towns and villages on their missionary journeys, also established authority in each church community they founded by appointing presbyters in each town (Acts 14:23). Upon completion of their first missionary journey they reported back to the leaders at Antioch who had sent them (Acts 14:27) and later to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 15). Hence we have an accountability structure in the early Church and a line of authority. Paul was no. He both respected authority and established authority in the churches he established. He also makes it clear to the Galatians and others that he has authority and that he expects them to respect it.

3. But here is where we also see a fascinating and somewhat refreshing portrait of what true respect for authority includes. It is clear, from what we have seen, that Paul respected the authority of Peter and had both conferred with him early on and later set forth the gospel that he preached. However, there is also a description of Paul offering fraternal correction to Peter:

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? (Gal 2:11-14)

There is something refreshing about this understanding of authority. It understands that having authority does not mean one is above reproof. Too many people shy away from speaking honestly to those in authority. There is an old saying about bishops: When a man becomes a bishop he will never again have a bad meal and he will never again hear the truth.  Too many of us flatter those who have authority. In so doing we tend to isolate them. They do not have all the information and feedback they need to make good decisions. And then we they do make questionable decisions we criticize them. Of course we seldom do this to their face. Rather we speak ill of them behind their back and continue to remain largely silent and flattering to their face. The cycle continues, and everyone suffers.

But here Paul stands face to face (κατὰ πρόσωπον αὐτῷ ἀντέστην) with Peter and accuses him of a moral fault. Peter had taught rightly of the equality of the Gentiles but drew back from keeping company with them. We as Catholics teach of the infallibility of the pope but we do not teach that he is impeccable (sinless). Even those who teach rightly (as Peter did) sometimes struggle to fully live the truth they preach (believe me, I know).

Accountability in the Church demands that we learn to speak the truth to one another in love, even if the one we must speak to has authority. People are often reticent to speak frankly to their Pastors. Bishops too are often isolated in this way. Even their priests often refrain from frank discussion of issues. In this Archdiocese I know that Archbishop Wuerl is very serious about consultation and he enjoys a vigorous airing of issues at the priest council, and other consultative bodies.

Clearly correction and/or frank discussion should be done charitably, but it should be done. Now Paul here is a little bolder than I would be but he also lived in a different culture than I. As we can see from the Gospels and other writings Jesus and the Apostles really “mixed it up” with others. The ancient Jewish setting was famous for frank and vivid discussion of issues that included a lot of hyperbole. Our own culture prefers a more gentle approach. Perhaps the modern rule is best stated: Clarity with Charity.

In the end, we show a far greater respect for authority by speaking clearly and directly to those in authority. False flattery is unhelpful, inappropriate silence does not serve, and speaking scornfully behind the backs of others is just plain sinful.

So Paul demonstrates a sort of refreshing honesty with Peter here. He acknowledges Peter’s authority as we have seen but also respects Peter enough as a man to speak with him directly and clearly, to his face, and not behind his back.

This video is a brief summary of St. Paul’s life. Most scholars don’t agree with the concluding remark that Paul made it out of Roman prison and went to Spain. But there are two traditions in this regard:

When Did the Resurrection Become Dogma?

In the early hours of the resurrection appearances on the first Easter Sunday news began to be circulated that Jesus was alive and had been seen. These reports were, at first disbelieved or at least doubted by the apostles. Various reports from both women and men were dismissed by the apostles. But suddenly in the evening of that first Easter Sunday there is a change and a declaration by the apostles that the Lord had truly been raised. What effected this change? We will see in a moment. But first note the early reports of the resurrection and how they were largely disregarded:

  1. The women who go to the tomb first discover it empty (Mat 28:6; Mk 16:6; Luke 24:5; John 20:2). The Gospel of John, which is most specific indicates that Magdalene went straightway to Peter and John and speaks anxiously, not of resurrection but of a stolen body. Peter and John hurry to the tomb to investigate. But meanwhile the other women have had a vision of an angels who declare that Jesus had risen and that they should inform the apostles. They depart to do so.  Here is first evidence though the risen Lord had yet to appear.
  2. Peter and John arrive at the tomb after the women had departed. They saw only the empty tomb but it was clearly not grave robbers for the expensive grave linens were lying outstretched. Peter’s reaction is unrecorded but the text said, John saw (the grave clothes outstretched) and believed (Jn 20:8). Exactly what he believed is not clear. Did he believe what Mary had said? Or does the text mean he came to believe in that moment that Jesus had risen? It is not clear but let us suppose that he has come to believe that Jesus has risen. Does this mean that the Church now officially believes that Christ has risen because one of the apostles (one of the first bishops) believes it? It would seem not. That will have to wait for later in the day. Peter and John depart the tomb.
  3. Mary Magdalene had followed Peter and John back to the tomb and, after they leave, Jesus appears to her. Here is the first appearance of the risen Christ. Does this now  mean  that the Church officially believes that Jesus is risen? It would seem not. That will have to wait until later in the day. For scripture testifies that Jesus appeared elsewhere to the other women who had gone to the tomb but that when Mary Magdalene and the other women report that they had seen Jesus risen, the apostles would not believe it (Mk 16:11; Luke 24:11) Hence, though we have appearances we cannot yet say that there is any official declaration by the Church that Christ is truly risen.
  4. Jesus appears also to two disciples (not apostles) who are journeying to Emmaus that late afternoon. At the conclusion of that appearance they run to tell the apostles who, once again, do not believe it (Mark 16:13). So now we have had at least three appearances but no official acceptance by the Church’s leaders (the apostles) that there is any truth to these sightings.

So when does the resurrection become the official declaration of the early Church? Up till now the stories had been rejected by the apostles as fanciful or untrue. Even the possible belief of one of the 12 (John) was not enough to cause an official declaration from the early Church. What causes this to change? It would seem that, after the early evening report by the disciples returning from Emmaus, Peter slipped away, perhaps for a walk or some other purpose and according to both Paul (1 Cor 15:5) and Luke (Luke 24:34) the risen Lord appeared to him privately and prior to the other apostles. Peter then reports this to the others and the resurrection moves from being doubted to being the official declaration of the Church. The official declaration is worded thus:

The Lord has truly risen indeed, he has appeared to Simon!” (Luke 24:34)

The resurrection is now officially declared. Notice, the world “truly” (some texts say “indeed”). It is not an officially attested fact that Jesus has risen. Neither Magdalene, nor the women in general, nor the disciples from Emmaus could make this declaration for the Church. It took the college of apostles in union with Peter to do this. Hence the dogma of the resurrection becomes so on very Catholic terms:  The first bishops (the apostles) in union or in Council with the first Pope (Peter) make this solemn declaration of the faith.

It is a true fact that the Lord upbraids them later for being so reluctant to accept the testimony of the others (Mark 16:14). He calls them “hard of heart” for this reluctance but he does not undermine their authority to make the official declaration for in the very next verse he commissions the apostles to go forth and preach and teach in his name. Surely the Lord was not pleased after he had promised many times to rise from the dead that they were so slow to listen to the voices of the first witnesses. Should they not have concluded it was the third day and that the Lord had promised to rise and connected the dots? Did he have to personally appear before they would believe? Alas, it would seem so. Jesus’ first bishops were not perfect men, far from it. But they were the leaders he had chosen, knowing their weakness. So too for today, the Church’s leaders are not perfect and may take far too long at times to make decisions or give clearer teachings or impose necessary discipline. But, in the end it is they who are nonetheless commissioned to teach officially.

Finally it should be noted that one of the apostles, Thomas, was absent. Even after the official declaration of the Church went forth he still refused to believe (Jn 20:25). Here too the Lord is merciful to him but in the end is clear that Thomas has fallen short. And Thomas has fallen short in a more egregious manner for he has refused the collective and solemn declaration of the Church. He has not merely disbelieved the testimony of one or a few disciples. Jesus goes on to declare blessed those who accept the solemn testimony of the Church though they have not seen him with earthly eyes (Jn 20:29).

Authority to Forgive Sins

The Gospel for this Sunday is from John 20:19ff clearly shows him bestowing the authority to forgive sins to his first priests, the Apostles. He breathed on them and said, ‘Whose sins you forgive they are forgiven them. Whose sins you retain, they are retained.’  This passage should not be lightly set aside. According to John it is the among the very first things that Jesus did after He rose from the dead. First he says, Peace be with you. Then he commisions them: As the Father has sent me so I send you. Well the Father sent Jesus to reconcile sinners with the Father. So these sent one (Apostles) would have the same power, to reconcile sinners. It is an essential hallmark of the Church that she be able to reconcile sinners through the ministry of priests. If you’re a good Bible believeing Catholic you ought to get to confession frequently. Afterall Jesus set it up this way himself. Now don’t go an reinvent religion. Just practice what Jesus set forth. Central to the practice of the true and Biblical faith is confession.

So here are some other resources to study moreon this:

  1. I have put together a PDF flyer on the Biblical roots of Confession and you can read it here:  Confession in Biblical
  2. I preached a sermon on today’s Gospel which covers among other things the Authority to forgive sins you can listen or right click to download here: Sermon on Divine Mercy Sunday
  3. Here is a two minute Video Apologetical primer on Confession: