The Christian faithful need pastors to guide them in the truth, to help form their consciences, and to call them to greater holiness. In the past weeks (regarding the synod), years (regarding Francis’ papacy), and decades (regarding the post Vatican-II Church), many Catholics have rejected their pastors, falling into a state of categorical distrust of the Church under the guise of conscience.
It’s true: the Church gives the conscience a high place. Our experience of conscience represents an encounter with God, where we hear the Spirit of Truth in the core of the soul. Made in the image of God, the conscience carries the voice of God.
At the same time, conscience cannot be an authority unto itself. It does not stand up equally to the authority of Scripture or Tradition, or to the “living teaching office of the Church” which serves the Word of God, and “whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ” (cf. Dei Verbum).
St. John Paul II writes in the encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, quoting Saint Bonaventure, “[C]onscience is like God’s herald and messenger; it does not command things on its own authority, but commands them as coming from God’s authority, like a herald when he proclaims the edict of the king. This is why conscience has binding force.”
In another place, he writes: “Revelation teaches that the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone” (emphasis in the original).
In no way can the human conscience be considered a closed system; it constantly depends on the help of God to preserve it in truth and full freedom! As John Paul II said, even in the garden with reason unobscured by the darkness of sin, the knowledge of good and evil was never the “possession” of Adam and Eve but rather they “participated” in it (Veritatis Splendor, 41).
The reality of sin only heightens the need to turn to sources outside the self for the truth, even at the same time the effects of sin make it harder to realize that we are in need of help.
His history of sin begins when he no longer acknowledges the Lord as his Creator and himself wishes to be the one who determines, with complete independence, what is good and what is evil.
Breaking the cycle of sin, it is by the grace of God that we can come to know and love our Lord Jesus Christ. “Truth is a relationship,” says Francis, and this encounter with God gives us “new horizons.” We receive the light of faith and see in a new way.
And yet, even when possessed by God through faith, the Christian still suffers in the darkness of sin. Francis writes in Lumen Fidei: “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey.” During our earthly life, it is the Church that guides us and “nourishes and reinforces” God’s gift of faith. Or to continue the metaphor, the Church, through her pastors, fuels the lamp of faith and strengthens its light in the midst of darkness. For this reason, we would do well to cling to the bishops, for it is precisely through apostolic succession, the line of bishops, that we have “assurance” of the Church’s fidelity to the truth. Francis writes in Lumen Fidei:
The Lord gave his Church the gift of apostolic succession. Through this means, the continuity of the Church’s memory is ensured and certain access can be had to the wellspring from which faith flows. The assurance of continuity with the origins is thus given by living persons, in a way consonant with the living faith which the Church is called to transmit. She depends on the fidelity of witnesses chosen by the Lord for this task. For this reason, the magisterium always speaks in obedience to the prior word on which faith is based; it is reliable because of its trust in the word which it hears, preserves and expounds.
Or as Lumen Gentium states:
[Bishops] are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith.
In lesser ways, though no less importantly, all pastors are tasked with leading and guiding the faithful in holiness. Even lesser pronouncements, such as the weekly parish homily, still ought to carry some weight among the faithful–not because the priest has been endowed with a grace of infallibility or impeccable wisdom, but because the priest’s responsibility and duty before God requires that the faithful be receptive to God’s grace for him to be effective.
Only if we are prepared to listen, do we have the freedom to set aside our own partial or insufficient ideas, our usual habits and ways of seeing things. (Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate)
Yes, God’s grace may be manifested through the preaching of a lowly minister of the Church who has been ordained to do exactly that–preach! Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium:
Let us renew our confidence in preaching, based on the conviction that it is God who seeks to reach out to others through the preacher, and that he displays his power through human words. Saint Paul speaks forcefully about the need to preach, since the Lord desires to reach other people by means of our word (cf. Rom 10:14-17). By his words our Lord won over the hearts of the people; they came to hear him from all parts (cf. Mk 1:45); they were amazed at his teachings (cf. Mk 6:2), and they sensed that he spoke to them as one with authority (cf. Mk 1:27). By their words the apostles, whom Christ established “to be with him and to be sent out to preach” (Mk 3:14), brought all nations to the bosom of the Church (cf. Mt 16:15.20).
(While priests and bishops have a special role in the formation of consciences, [cf. St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, “Christians have a great help for the formation of conscience in the Church and her Magisterium.”] Francis reminds us that the care of consciences is not “the exclusive concern of pastors; rather, with different responsibilities and methods, it is the mission of all, ministers and baptized faithful.” We all must look out for each other and help each other, in communion with the Church.)
The simple truth is that if pastors are to be pastors, then we ought to let them be pastors. And we must be sheep. Granted, the modern sensibility is to reject any dependency whatsoever, to be ubermenschen, capable of ruling ourselves with outside help but only if necessary, and even this is weakness. In truth, however, we are all called to take on the yoke of Christ and in this manner become servants of each other as befitting our roles in life. One way pastors are called to be servants is to be God’s teachers, and to preach the Gospel through their words.
We know that all truth comes from God. The Church, as a living body of believers, but specifically through its bishops who have been entrusted by God to be teachers, have the task of preaching the truth and preserving the “light of faith” for all Christians for all generations. Being like “sheep” is not to suggest we dispense with our conscience or accept their teachings blindly, but rather it is about training our ear to hear the voice of Christ speaking through the Church and to trust in the Holy Spirit who preserves the Church from error. All this is in accordance with Christ’s design.
Trusting the living teaching office of the Church is necessary because there are quite often not clear answers for all the world’s problems and challenges. Scripture and Tradition remain preeminent, but adapting those teachings to the experiences of the faithful in each place is the calling of our pastors who live with their “sheep.” Through the the teaching office of the Church, the Holy Spirit is continuing to guide the faithful today, with all its uniqueness.