There is a very important phrase in the beginning of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which we are reading in daily Mass. A common modern conception of what it means to have faith has an egocentric element, for which St. Paul provides a remedy. In describing his authority and mission as an apostle, he says,
Through [Jesus] we have received the grace of apostleship, to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name (Romans 1:3-4).
There it is: the obedience of faith.
He repeats the same phrase at the very end of Romans as well:
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ … through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen (Romans 16:25-27).
So again we read, “the obedience of faith.” It forms the bookends of the Letter to the Romans. St. Paul both starts and ends the letter declaring his purpose to be bringing about the obedience of faith.
Are we listening? Faith requires obedience from us. There are precepts, knowledge, and commands to which we must be obedient. Faith and obedience are two sides of the same coin. If we have true faith, we will be obedient and we cannot have a saving obedience apart from faith. If we have faith, we will base our life upon its promises and demands. We will see and judge the world by the standards of faith, even if that challenge us and convicts us of error or wrongdoing. Who has not obedience cannot claim to have faith. You can tell a tree by its fruit. If there is no good fruit (obedience) then there is not a good tree (faith).
This is important because many today have turned faith into a kind of self-help, self-affirming thing. According to this notion, the role of faith and religion is to comfort me, affirm me, and give me meaning that pleases me. Many speak of the “god within,” or the “god of my understanding.” They think that they have a perfect right to craft their own “god” and worship him (or her, it, or them). Inventing your own god and worshipping it used to be called idolatry and was the most egregious sin imaginable. Today, however, many blithely call this being “spiritual but not religious” and self-righteously speak of their spiritual hubris as a kind of tolerance, enlightenment, and openness.
In such a view, “god” becomes a kind of “affirmer-in-chief” or divine butler whose role is to step and fetch, to provide for me and console me. A god who says no or summons us to difficult things is unimaginable to many. The “Jesus I know” or the “god of my understanding” is fine with almost any sin (except intolerance of course), and is, frankly, just a big sweetie-pie. Gone is the cross or any demand to repent or to come to conversion. If there is any demand at all, it is that I learn to love and accept myself just as I am and others just as they are.
Apparently Paul never got that memo. He sees faith as a truth to comprehend and obey. Faith is taught and revealed, not invented and self-proclaimed.
The Greek word translated here as obedience is ὑπακοή (hypakoe), which literally means to be under what is heard: hypo (under) + akouo (hear). Having heard the revealed faith, we are to be under its sway, its demands, and its truth.
The opening words of Jesus’ ministry were “Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The word “repent” is a translation of the Greek metanoiete, which literally means “come to a new mind.” In other words, get rid of all that worldly mumbo-jumbo and the self-deception of the “god of your understanding.” Lose the trendy gibberish and double-talk. Come to a new, transformed mind that grasps the revealed truth of the gospel and have a will that is ready to obey.
St. Paul is clear that his work is to bring about the obedience of faith in us. Consolation, welcoming, and affirmation have their place, but obedience is the central goal—even if it means that affirmation, welcoming, and consolation must go. Would that all pastors and their flocks had this key goal in mind. To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams (1 Sam 15:22).
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.
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.
Many years ago, when I was just a teenager I remember being puzzled by the oft quoted John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son….” Now everyone used this verse to demonstrate how much God loved us. But I got stuck thinking, “What kind of a Father is this that he sends his Son to suffer horribly and die!?” My own Father wouldn’t send me in harm’s way, he’d go and face the threat and protect me. But God the Father sent his Son to do the hard and dirty work, to get slaughtered and die. Why? Why didn’t the Father come to save us himself?
As I asked this question no one had a real answer. Even the priests looked at me like they didn’t understand my question. As the years went by I eventually connected the dots and found the answer. But recently I was reminded of my question as some one asked me, “Why didn’t the Father come to save us himself?”
The answer really comes down to one word, a word we’re not so good at understanding in these modern times. The word is “obedience.” The simple answer is that the Father cannot obey the Father, only the Son can do that. For it is not just the suffering of Christ per se that saves us, it is his obedience that saves us. Consider that it was Adam’s disobedience that destroyed our relationship with God. Hence it is Christ’s obedience that saves us. Scripture says, For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous (Rom 5:19). So plainly put, since obedience was the necessary remedy for our disobedience Jesus the Son had to come for he is able to obey the Father. It does not pertain, nor is it really sensible, to say that the Father could obey the Father. Hence God the Father sent his only Son. Scripture says of Jesus He became obedient” to the Father “unto death (Phil 2:8)
While we tend to speak today primarily of the suffering and death of Jesus as the cause of our salvation. But more specifically, his suffering and death are really the manifestation of the deeper cause of our salvation, which is the obedience of Christ. Isaiah 53:7 says of the Christ, He was offered because he willed it. St. Thomas Aquinas says, Now obedience is preferred to all sacrifices. according to 1 Samuel 15:22: “Obedience is better than sacrifices.” Therefore it was fitting that the sacrifice of Christ’s Passion and death should proceed from obedience….And so the Man-Christ secured the victory through being obedient to God, according to Proverbs 21:28: “An obedient man shall speak of victory.” (Summa, Tertia Pars, 47.2)
Over and over again Jesus spoke of his looming death as an act of love and obedience for the Father. Christ received a command from the Father to suffer. For it is written (John 10:18): “I have power to lay down My life, and I have power to take it up again: this commandment have I received of My Father”–namely, of laying down His life and of resuming it again….He suffered [also] out of love of the Father, according to John 14:31: “That the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father hath given Me this commandment, so I do. Arise, let us go hence”–namely, to the place of His Passion:….. He “paid….suffering Himself to be fastened to a tree on account of the apple which man had plucked from the tree against God’s command (Aquinas, Summa Tertia Pars 47. Reply Obj 1).
And why such terrible suffering? Here too some get stuck on thinking that God is blood thristy. We need not conclude this any more that we would conclude such a thing of a surgeon. The surgeon clearly makes use of radical proceedures, slicing open the body, sawing through bones, cutting out flesh and the like. But strong medicine is needed when the situation is grave. Rather than looking at the crucifixion and saying, God has a problem (i.e. he is blood-thirsty) we ought to see how desperate our problem is. Sin is a very serious condition and we should not make light of it. In order to resolve our problem, God had to resort to this.
But Jesus freely obeys his Father out of love for Him and for us. In his human will he obeyed the Father and so we are saved through the suffering that it entailed. St. Maximus the Confessor has a beautiful line: We are saved by the human decision of a divine person. Where Adam disobeyed, Christ obeyed, and hence we are saved. Thank you Jesus. Thank you Father for sending your only Son.
Cardinal Newman once said, “To Read the Fathers of the Church is to become Catholic.” This is perhaps no better illustrated than By St. Ignatius of Antioch, whose feast we celebrated Saturday. He wrote very early, about 110 A.D. He also knew the Apostle John. Hence he is an important witness to the life and think of the earliest days of the Church. He wrote six letters to the Christian Communities at Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna and one Letter to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. In all these letters he clearly reflects Catholic teaching and demonstrates that the current Catholic understanding of authority in the Church, the Eucharist and Church life are consistent with the ancient Apostolic Age.
In celebration of his Feast Day consider a few of his teachings and see how Catholic the early Church was. Consider also how false is the claim of some non-Catholic denominations that they have returned to the “simplicity” of the early Church and overthrown teaching that only emerged later. St. Ignatius of Antioch gives a real portrait of the early Church. His writings debunk fanciful notions of a decentralized Church devoid of significant doctrine and presents a Church that clearly defined herself and was insistent on orthodoxy and Union with the local Bishop, a Church that was centered around the Eucharist Altar of the Lord. Go with me therefore to 110 A.D. and hear the voice of Bishop Ignatius Theophorus of Antioch who wrote these letters on his way to martyrdom in Rome: (The full text of these letters is available at www.newadvent.org: HERE and HERE
The grave Sin of no longer attending Sunday Mass – Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. For if the prayer of one or two possesses Matthew 18:19 such power, how much more that of the bishop and the whole Church! He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, God resists the proud. Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God. (Ignatius to the Church at Ephesus, 5)
The Power of the Eucharist and Unity in the Liturgy – Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when you assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith…obey the bishop and the presbytery with an undivided mind, breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ. (Ignatius to the Church at Ephesus 13 & 20)
Of the True Presence in the Eucharist and the fate of those who deny this truth – They [heretics and schismatics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again. It is fitting, therefore, that you should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public, but to give heed to the prophets, and above all, to the Gospel, in which the passion [of Christ] has been revealed to us, and the resurrection has been fully proved. But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils. (Ingnatius to the Church at Smyrna, 7)
The Sacred Liturgy is only properly celebrated in union with the Bishop – Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth ] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God. (Ignatius to the Church at Philadelphia, 4)
Of the necessity of respecting authority within the Church and of preserving union with the Bishop – Now it becomes you also not to treat your bishop too familiarly on account of his youth, but to yield him all reverence, having respect to the power of God the Father, as I have known even holy presbyters [i.e. priests] do, not judging rashly, from the manifest youthful appearance [of their bishop], but as being themselves prudent in God, submitting to him, or rather not to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of us all. It is therefore fitting that you should, after no hypocritical fashion, obey [your bishop], in honour of Him who has willed us [so to do], since he that does not so deceives not [by such conduct] 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 endeavour 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)
Without Holy Orders there is no Church – In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrin of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church…(Ignatius to the Church at Tralles, 3)
Obedience to the Bishop is essential to one who claims to be obedient to God – 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. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. (Ignatius to the Church at Smyrna, 8)