Yesterday, I outlined the role pastors play in helping to form our consciences. Because the teaching office of the Church has been established by Christ and is preserved by the Holy Spirit, we are called to be sheep and to listen for the voice of Jesus in our pastors.  But what happens when we reject our role as “sheep”?

Anecdotally, I have heard from at least a few people who distrust the Pope that they will undoubtedly listen to him on matters on which he speaks ex cathedra, though not on anything else.  Notwithstanding the fact that this view explicitly contradicts the words of Lumen Gentium, it is still worth noting because it suggests that the Pope’s dissenters believe that the Holy Spirit has worked in the past and works in the present but only in very unique ways and in rare instances.

Among those who distrust their pastors, the Church’s task of teaching (even though the Church itself claims it has the assistance of the Holy Spirit) becomes merely an exercise in confirming what the imperfectly formed conscience already holds to be true, while everything that challenges the conscience is discarded. In effect, those who distrust their pastors relegate the Holy Spirit to a very small and meaningless role.

In another related kind of two-step, those who distrust their pastors assign categories to the teaching of their pastors, depending upon their own assessment of its adherence with Tradition. Those statements that apparently abide by Tradition are “magisterial” and those that do not are “non-magisterial.” Magisterial teaching is helpful and binding on the conscience but non-magisterial teaching can be discarded or not depending on how helpful the individual judges it.  Needless to say, this approach is self-defeating.

How can anyone expect to grow in holiness if they close their conscience to the work of God in the Church? Perhaps more pertinently, if the individual discards teachings before he contemplates them, how can one learn if something is truly revealed by Tradition or not? In these cases, the conscience has been closed off to the Holy Spirit, as the individual becomes the ultimate arbiter of what is “magisterial” and therefore “true.”

Not only is this approach self-defeating it is also dangerous. When applied in an extreme manner, one could end up judging that no priest or bishop in the hierarchical Church, including the Pope, is preaching with the Church–in other words, that there is no current teaching that is truly “magisterial.” In this manner, they might, implicitly or explicitly, completely reject the concept of a living Magisterium altogether. The Magisterium becomes a “dead office” that is accessed through special knowledge, shared privately and individually (or behind a website’s paywall). This is like the Gnostic Jesus, detached from the people of God and detached from the incarnate Body of Christ.

Suffice it to say: a distrust of pastors leads to division within the body of Christ. Distrust serves to sever the lifeline of truth that God has asked the Church to cast out through its teachings.  Francis writes, “Faith is necessarily ecclesial; it is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers.” Because faith is ecclesial, those who distrust pastors, from whom we hear the truth of our faith, will tend to find themselves outside the institutional structures of the Church. This is no theory: I have heard Catholics announce they have skipped Sunday Mass, or would choose to, because they do not approve of the way Mass is being celebrated or the character of the priest celebrating it. (I’m sure I’m not doing justice to their complaints but you get the gist.)

But one might respond, because of sin, we shouldn’t listen to everything a person might say simply because he was ordained. The abuse scandals bring this point to the fore. Surely, bishops can (and have) wield authority in a way that is contrary to the truth of faith. Despite their charism and the grace of Holy Orders, they would pervert the faith for their own selfish gain.  How can we know whether what we are hearing is rooted in sinfulness or the grace of God?

We could shut out the preaching of bishops and never let it affect us, or we could “test it,” which are the words of Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians. Francis calls for discernment, which is the only way to know whether something is good or evil. Discernment is a gift of the Spirit, and “[if] we ask with confidence that the Holy Spirit grant us this gift, and then seek to develop it through prayer, reflection, reading and good counsel, then surely we will grow in this spiritual endowment.”   

Discernment, then, is not a solipsistic self-analysis or a form of egotistical introspection, but an authentic process of leaving ourselves behind in order to approach the mystery of God, who helps us to carry out the mission to which he has called us, for the good of our brothers and sisters.

In simple terms, we should give our bishops the benefit of the doubt. There are few good reasons why: (1) Because we know that the institution God has created is good.  (2) We know that his bishops come from a line of bishops that go back to the earliest apostles. (3) We believe the Holy Spirit guides the Church in wisdom and truth. All this being said, we should have much less reason to doubt the goodness of their teaching than we would the teachings of any other figure. Our consciences should be predisposed to accepting the teaching of our bishops, however challenging, and test it for good fruit. This would seem to be the preferred behavior expressed by Lumen Gentium: “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.”

There may come times, however, that even faithful discernment shows that a pastor is failing in his duty to preach the faith. In these cases, Francis encourages the faithful to “disturb” their pastors, as a calf might disturb her mother cow for milk. The attitudes of love and dependence suggested by the image of a cow and her baby calf are a far cry from the outrage seen in our Catholic Church today. “Disturb” is certainly not synonymous with slander or baseless anger, and calves still depend on their mother cows for milk. The fundamental relationships are to be preserved, even if our pastors, distracted by careerism or a quest for popular approval or deeper-seated sins, need to be reminded of the importance of their task.

We know that the divisions in the Church cannot be solved with mere words but in fact require the healing of the Holy Spirit, perhaps in our time or perhaps at the end of time.  In the meantime, it is critical for the Christian faithful to continue coming to the Church for nourishment, to be close to Christ and to grow in love and truth. There is no way to do this without keeping our hearts open to the preaching of our pastors. God has entrusted them with the teaching office, and we are called to both listen attentively and be a help to them in their mission, even if from time to time we must “disturb” them.

For more background on this concept of “disturbing” our pastors, I include this paragraph from Lumen Gentium: 

The laity have the right, as do all Christians, to receive in abundance from their spiritual shepherds the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the assistance of the word of God and of the sacraments. They should openly reveal to them their needs and desires with that freedom and confidence which is fitting for children of God and brothers in Christ. They are, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinion on those things which concern the good of the Church. When occasions arise, let this be done through the organs erected by the Church for this purpose. Let it always be done in truth, in courage and in prudence, with reverence and charity toward those who by reason of their sacred office represent the person of Christ.

Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman, finance professional, and armchair theologian. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of “encounter” with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts.  He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing soccer and coaching his daughter’s soccer team.

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11 Responses

  1. pat says:

    I’m sure there were plenty of faithful giving dutiful allegiance to their pastors and to the pope during the time of the arian heresy, and had the internet been around there would have been sites chastising people for not believing that Liberius walked on water, just as today. but, they were wrong. some how, there existed on earth, a church with a pope who did not uphold the truth, and bishops who were heretics or just indifferent.

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      I didn’t get into the issue fully but the laity DO, of course, have a role here. The paragraph from Lumen Gentium describes it more fully, and of course, there’s other places as well. I tried to show how discernment remains necessary even while we trust in our pastors to preach the faith. The question is not a matter of whether people can have opinions that conflict with the teachings of their Pope and Bishops and the Church. The question is how to handle those disagreements. The Church makes clear that first we must take steps to accept their teaching.

    • Pedro Gabriel Pedro Gabriel says:

      Yeah, no. Pope Liberius didn’t spread or incite the Arian heresy. That’s historically contested and, in fact, condemned as propaganda by at least two Popes.

      But had the Internet existed at the time, I bet there would be a wealth of Catholics supposedly defending the “orthodoxy” of Arianism against the un-biblical and challenging teaching of the Trinity, defended by the Pope and his papolators

  2. carn says:

    “We could shut out the preaching of bishops and never let it affect us, or we could “test it,” which are the words of Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians. Francis calls for discernment, which is the only way to know whether something is good or evil.”

    Fine. I regularly tried to “test” some things Pope Francis says.

    The conclusion i arrived now is that it is best for me to mostly ignore his words, not read his sermons and ignore his encyclicals cause the ratio “good” stuff/”bad” stuff (“good” stuff meaning things which help me being a better Christian, while “bad” stuff meaning things that are at least no help) is for me too low for an overall benefit. That is also true for a lot of people and groups being fond of Pope Francis.

    Maybe other people can benefit, so i also concluded that i should not mind people being fond of Pope Francis.

    Any problem with that result of my process of discernment?

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      I certainly didn’t want to give the false impression that we are called to read everything the Pope says or watch everything the Pope does. Definitely don’t recommend the practice. In fact, Lumen Gentium suggests that as regards most matters, your local bishop is really the best pastor for you.

      I cannot force anyone to do anything, nor can I magically wish that their conscience would be different. I just pray that we continue to all keep our hearts open to the work of the Spirit in our Church, specifically through our pastors. Be fond of him, or not, but the Church does call all Christians to trust in his preaching.

      Not saying you, but I do know that people confuse “discomfort” with something “false.” In other words, just because something is challenging or “outside the ordinary” does not make it false or counter-productive. I’ve personally found the greatest “benefit” when I allowed a difficult teaching to “reside in my heart” for quite some time. It’s just another way of saying, I’m thinking about it and praying about it. Through these experiences, I feel like I’ve grown to a richer understanding of my faith.

      Finally, I would be curious what you mean by “bad stuff.” Pope Francis’ theology may not be everyone’s cup of tea. That’s fine. Glean what you can and move on.

      • carn says:

        “I’ve personally found the greatest “benefit” when I allowed a difficult teaching to “reside in my heart” for quite some time.”

        In general i have that experience as well. But it doesn’t work, if my thinking ends in a contradiction repeatedly.

        “Finally, I would be curious what you mean by “bad stuff.””

        It’s difficult to give examples, as i would have to show why and how i end up with contradictions no matter how often i rethink something.

        As a simple example:
        Pope Francis often warns against rigidity. Just some weeks ago he said, that ALWAYS there is some underlying problem behind rigidity.

        From that i would conclude, that ALWAYS when i am trying to be rigid in some religious matter, there is always something wrong with that. Which means i should both be less rigid and identify the underlying cause and correct it.

        There is one thing in which in and due to religion i try to be so rigid to make steel look like butter; i do not always succeed, but i try. As described above from what Pope Francis says, i should stop doing so and tackle the underlying cause for my rigidity in that matter.

        Which leads to a contradiction both with Church teaching and with other of Pope Francis words.

        Because the matter i try to be absolutely rigid is that i should i no way approve or abet abortion; i am engaged politically in that matter; and guess what happens in maybe about every fourth time i contact some politician or similar happens?

        Inquiries, request and similar that i personally in some way approve that abortion is under some circumstances “ok” or approve some political stance or approach which would amount to that; and its not that i mean questions whether i am in favor of abortion being banned by law and so (which i anyway do not try to achieve, hence no problem with handling such questions); its about me personally giving my verbatim “blessing”.

        And i try to be rigid and not by word or gesture imply such a thing.

        Which as described above i should stop doing according to how i understand Pope Francis, cause there is always some underlying problem with rigidity. Which would contradict both Church teaching (which clearly implies that any political actor should strive to avoid approving abortion in anyway) and probably Pope Francis himself, as he compared abortion to hiring a hitman and i presume that Pope Francis would always advise against even indirect approval of hiring a hitman.

        And also, the underlying “problem” of my rigidity is of course, that i read Evangelium Vitae, especially Nr. 73, and while i am not an elected official, i try to influence elected officials to vote for “proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.”; hence, the standards that EV 73 sets for an elected official are also the standards i should meet; so my “absolute personal opposition to procured abortion” is to be “well known”, which means at least i should never give that verbal approval of some abortions some of the people i contact yearn so much for.

        So Pope Francis teaches that abortion is like hiring a hitman and teaches that i should not be so rigid about not giving verbal approval to abortion/hiring a hitman and that the underlying cause for my rigidity – trying to follow EV 73 to avoid committing/abetting/furthering something intrinsic evil – is a problem.

        The best interpretation i have is that Pope Francis either did not mean “always” although saying it or forget to add several clarifications/limitations to “rigidity”; in which case his words are unlikely helpful to me, cause i know that the combination of my brain and texts, in which some terms have unspecified altered meaning, seldom results in anything productive (that is a job affliction; i earn my money in part by hounding through texts for sentences, which do not make much sense on plain meaning of the words used).

        “your local bishop is really the best pastor for you.”

        To say something positive about my local bishop, he appointed my parish priest and my parish priest would (and actually) has cut short musing as above with a simple “There is nothing wrong in you trying to be rigid in that respect; forget what the Pope said about rigidity”.

  3. Peter Aiello says:

    What if Fr. James Martin, SJ is our pastor?

    • pat says:

      Move to another parish… or

      appeal to your bishop who appointed him, unless of course he tells you to get lost, then appeal to the pope who appointed the bishop, and when he tells you not to be so mean… Move to another parish…

      • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

        Funny but I didn’t see “move to another parish” anywhere in the Church documents I was reading. I know the intention behind the comment but, honestly, it’s clear that the Church wants the laity to be of service to pastors and pastors to listen to their flock. Being grounded in a parish, and preferably the parish in whose territory one lives, and staying committed to it through good times and bad has its virtues, particularly since pastors do need the help of holy people to achieve their goals.

        • pat says:

          Not to the point that it puts my faith or that of my children in jeopardy. (and I have known enough people who have lost the faith due to bad pastors.) (back in the 70’s and 80’s it was more the case than not… and there was no prodding either, there was only conform or be shown the door)

          I suspect that things are not as severe today as they were in the glory days of the new church, but on the other hand, when you have someone as bad as Fr. Martin (his example) he is not there by accident… there are a lot of bad people behind him, upholding him, who know who he is and what he does, and these they tend not to be open to prodding.

          (thank you)

    • Jane says:

      I would stay in the parish, pray for him, talk with him ‘St. Catherine of Siena-style,’ never ever post uncharitable comments about him online, and, if he persisted, quietly go to the bishop over him, and meet with him. I would rally fellow parishioners to fast and pray for him.

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