May 26; 6th Sunday of Easter; Year C

6th EasterI need a Church to tell me I'm wrong where I think I'm right

The recently published article by Pope Emeritus Benedict raised more than eye-brows. It drew the ire of many left leaning and progressive commentators, who took offence with the former pope’s diagnosis of the clergy sexual abuse situation. They launched a vitriolic ad-hominem attack on Benedict without really addressing substantively the claims the latter made in his article. I would not want to go into the contents of the article but suffice to say that Pope Emeritus Benedict made an interesting and insightful link between doctrinal and moral dissent and clerical wickedness. Clergy abuse did not just fall from the sky. It arose from a situation within the Church that had been brooding for decades since the 1960s, a moral liberalisation that took its cue from the sexual revolution, rather than from the teachings of the Church. It is obvious that the harshest critics, of this article and of the former Pope for having the audacity to make these claims, come from the very groups and individuals who were blatantly or tacitly promoting dissent from Church teachings. As the Malays so wisely put it, “siapa makan cili, dia yang rasa pedas” (whoever eats chili will suffer its spiciness).

One of the most controversial points when discussing the Catholic Church in today’s world would be the Church’s claim that it is able to teach and govern authoritatively; in fact it teaches, governs and sanctifies with the authority of Christ Himself. While most experts can claim some form of authority from training and experience, only the Catholic Church, or the Magisterium, which is the teaching authority of the Church, can claim authority from the Holy Spirit. The Magisterium speaks with the authority of Christ, guided and empowered by the Spirit. But why would He do that? If Christ wanted to ensure that His teachings would have the efficacy of leading humanity to salvation, He would have taken the necessary measures to ensure the same teaching would have this purpose, rather than become a cause for confusion and destruction. This is why Christ promised to protect the teachings of the Church by conferring this very authority of interpretation on to the Church’s Magisterium: "He who hears you, hears me; he who rejects you rejects me, he who rejects me, rejects Him who sent me" (Luke 10. 16).

Pope Emeritus Benedict noted in a homily that “this power of teaching frightens many people in in and outside the Church. They wonder whether freedom of conscience is threatened or whether it is a presumption opposed to freedom of thought.” But then the erudite pontiff noted, “It is not like this. The power of Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate to serve. The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the faith.” This authority of the Church, as the Lord has reminded all His disciples, is not one which seeks ‘to lord it over others’ but ultimately one of service. The Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God. Instead, the Magisterium is clearly under its authority–it is the servant of the Word. Its role is not to add to God’s revelation or to subtract from it. Only to faithfully interpret and apply it (CCC 85-86).

We see an excellent example of the exercise of the Church’s Magisterium in today’s first reading. The issue of whether pagan converts to Christianity would have to submit to circumcision and other Jewish observances had become a major issue that threatened to split the leaders of the Church and the Church itself. During the Council, Peter strongly defended the position that the Gentiles, who were not circumcised, were accepted by God. The apostle James then delivered his judgment that the Gentile converts would not need to be circumcised but laid down certain guidelines that would allow Jewish and Gentile converts to live in harmony. So, finally the apostles and elders adopted the position proposed by James and chose men from among them to send to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. In the letter, they wrote, “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves ...” The apostles and elders who had gathered at the Council of Jerusalem were conscious that their decision was no mere human decision. They believed that it was the Holy Spirit who guided their decision, and so, ultimately it is God who has decided on the matter.

Unlike what many dissenters often claim, the Holy Spirit is not the source or muse for innovation. “We have to let the Spirit lead”. Unfortunately, this is often a euphemism for excusing oneself from following the Church’s teachings and disciplines. The Spirit does not provoke us to disobedience. In fact the Lord Himself tells us in today’s gospel, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word.” Likewise, the Holy Spirit is not a spirit of confusion. Our Lord sent the Holy Spirit to guide His Church into ALL Truth. He promised His disciples and us that the Advocate, the Holy Spirit “will teach (the Church) everything and remind (her) of all” He had first taught His apostles (cf. Jn. 14:26). Our Lord did not leave His people vulnerable to the doctrinal whims of competing leaders. Rather, He built the Church on the solid foundation of the apostles. He gave the Church His Holy Spirit, the Advocate (Parakletos), to enable her to be “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Despite the cultural winds that have blown through the ages, the faithful have always had a visible, easily identifiable magisterial “rock” on which they could safely stand on in all seasons.

Throughout the centuries, the Church has also experienced many crises that threatened to shake its very foundation and unity. In the early centuries, many Church leaders were divided as to the issue of Christ’s divinity. In later centuries, there were also disagreement about many church teachings and practices. In modern times, the most contentious issues revolve around sexual mores. Throughout its histories, the Church had to contend with schisms (splits) and heresies (erroneous teachings) but remain steadfast on its course, the course set by her Lord and Master. And yet in spite of these many centuries of crises and trials, the Church has continued to survive and grow, only because of the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit’s guidance ensures that in spite of all our personal opinions and ways of thinking, and despite the wickedness and failings of her shepherds, we can be sure of a certain authoritative position that reflects the will of God. In other words, the Holy Spirit is the guarantee of unity within the Church. Without the Holy Spirit, the Church and unity would not be possible.

As noted in Pope Benedict’s recent letter, the crisis that has afflicted the Catholic Church since the 1960s has been a crisis of both faith and morals, that is, a crisis that has made many Catholics to no longer know, what to believe or what kind of conduct God expects of us. What is needed as a remedy for this is a firm standard, a reliable guide or teacher who can tell us both what we must believe and what we must do. We need a Church who can ensure that the light of Christ’s saving Gospel will shine on every generation. We need a Church that does not only provide us with good ideas and opinions but who teaches authoritatively, who is able to give us great light & clarity in a world that seems often enveloped in the darkness of sin; in a world enamoured and confused by the fallacious philosophy of relativism which provides so many competing false lights. We need a Church and successors of the Apostles who will “discharge their exalted office for the salvation of all, and so that the whole flock of Christ might be kept away by them from the poisonous food of error and be nourished with the sustenance of heavenly doctrine” (Vatican I, Constitution on the Church of Christ). And as G.K. Chesterton once said, “I don’t need a church to tell me I’m wrong where I already know that I’m wrong; I need a Church to tell me I’m wrong where I think I’m right.”