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.