The papacy and the call to Christian unity


Jesus says in Matthew 16:13-20, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church… I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Peter is being given the authority to govern the Church. Catholics understand this to be about the papacy, but my Protestant friends often point out that the reason Peter is given this authority is because of his faith, because he confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, not because of anything particularly wonderful about Peter himself. Faith, they say, is what should govern the Church, not some man sitting in a building in Rome, claiming to be Peter’s  successor. Faith in Jesus Christ, built only upon the Word of God in Scripture, should be sufficient. Yet there is another way of looking at the papacy that avoids this unhelpful division. What the papacy gives to us is not merely a means of governing the faithful, but a focal point for expressing our love and gratitude.

The pope does, of course, carry out a very important governing function. He’s the pastor of pastors, the bishop of bishops, and we need that kind of accountability. The buck has to stop somewhere. Otherwise, if every person is his or her own authority, we end up with chaos. Even if we say that the individual must be directed by the clear teaching of Scripture – how do we adjudicate disputes when my idea of “clear teaching” conflicts with yours?

Contrary to popular belief, the pope does not have unlimited power. He cannot just say something and then it becomes so. He exercises his authority through established means that make clear the difference between when he’s speaking with the full teaching authority of his office, backed up by centuries of precedent, and when he’s only offering an opinion or sharing an idea. And yet, guided by the Holy Spirit, he’s able to speak a word that settles an argument. He’s a living authority, capable of making sure that the Church never strays from her true teaching.

All of that is often where discussion of the papacy gets stuck, but the role of the pope is much more than that. He’s the embodiment of the Church.

Over the course of two thousand years, most Catholics haven’t been reading papal encyclicals. In fact, for most of history, in most of the world, about the only thing that the average Catholic knew about the pope was his name. But knowing the Holy Father’s name was a big deal, because it meant that you could pray for him. Popes are just human beings. Like Peter himself, they have all had their foibles. Some have been good, some have been bad, some have been downright scoundrels who kept mistresses, had their enemies murdered, etc. But the pope is always a living, breathing man, which is what allows him to stand as the embodiment of the Church in any given age. Just as every priest is an icon of Christ, the pope is an icon of the Church.

I was living in Philadelphia in 2015 when Pope Francis made his famous visit to America, celebrating Mass in front of the steps of the Philly Art Museum. I was with the throngs of people who made their way through the security checkpoints. They say there were over a million people. I’ve never been in a crowd that large before. Yet there was so much joy, even though we were packed in like sardines. Some of the Dominican sisters from Nashville were leading people in singing “Ave Maria,” “God bless America,” and whatever else happened to pop into their heads. When I finally saw the Holy Father, from a great distance but still unmistakable in his white cassock, I felt a great swell of love in my heart. It was love for him, but it wasn’t really about him. It was love for Jesus, love for the Church, love for the grace and blessing that God pours out for us in the Sacraments, and most of all just immense gratitude. Here before me was all of that, in a living man who I could see and hear, who prays for me even as I pray for him. And I knew in my bones that this is what it means to be Catholic.

I love the Bible, but I cannot be grateful to it, nor can I expect it to love me back. I love the sacred tradition of the Church as well, but the great genius of the Catholic Church is that she is alive, organic, real. The pope is not a concept. He stands in Peter’s place as an actual living out of the apostolic calling that Our Lord gave to Peter when he was first handed those keys.

It isn’t about choosing between being governed by faith or by a man. It’s about recognizing that as human beings, we need more than just abstractions. We need flesh and blood. We need solid symbols that point us towards the unity and healing that we can only know in Jesus Christ.

Note on the text: This was originally written to be a homily for Sunday, August 23, 2020, however I have been in quarantine since Wednesday because of a possible Covid exposure. Nevertheless, I wanted to share this brief reflection.

 

Face Masks: Charity vs. Liberty


Wearing masks in public places is now strongly recommended by public health experts. It could significantly reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 to somebody else without knowing it. Therefore, in Catholic terms, choosing to wear a mask in public right now is an act of charity and a work of mercy.

Nevertheless, many Americans are opposed in principle to wearing masks, some expressing their opposition vehemently and even violently. The reasons offered vary quite a bit, but many of the arguments seem to come down to liberty. Wearing a mask is uncomfortable, unlikely to be much of a deterrent to my own getting sick (and may even make it more likely since I will be touching my face more), and infringes on my rights.

I will leave it to the courts to decide about the thorny legal issues surrounding enforcement of policies that require the wearing of masks. As a Christian, and particularly as a Catholic, I am much more interested in the theological question that this issue raises. Assuming for a second that it is both true that the wearing of masks can help slow the spread of the disease and that it infringes upon our liberty to wear them even in a voluntary capacity, which one of those goods should win out? If both charity (love) and liberty (freedom) are things that Christians ought to practice and value, which one is more important?

First, a couple of definitions.

For Christians, charity refers not merely to any sort of altruistic action but to what St. Paul points to as the greatest “abiding” gift of God in 1 Corinthians 13. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, charity is “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” Unlike other virtues, such as prudence or temperance, which human beings can develop within themselves simply through the building of good habits, theological virtues require the grace of God to become effective. We cannot just will ourselves to be loving. God has to plant love in us. Yet our love grows when we cooperate with God’s grace. It is the greatest of all the virtues because God Himself is love. Jesus specifically calls us to “love one another” as a way of becoming more like Him and thereby participating in the divine life (John 15:9-12).

In Scripture, the Greek word eleutheria can be translated both as “liberty” and “freedom,” two words that are not entirely interchangeable in English but close enough to be more or less synonymous. Liberty is not a virtue like charity is, but it is a gift from God. According to the Catechism, “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility… Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.” In other words, we may have the ability to make choices about how we live our lives, but we are not truly free until we choose to live in union with God.

Are liberty and charity in competition? Perhaps on the surface they seem to be. Certainly, when we engage in acts of charity, we necessarily accept limits and make sacrifices. If I give my money away to the poor, I cannot then use that same money for my own personal benefit. If I choose to get married or have a child, I am bound by love to tend to the well-being of those other people and must give up some of my own liberty in the process.

Nevertheless, if this offering up of our liberty is done not by coercion but voluntarily, as an act of love for another human being, it does not ultimately diminish our freedom but rather allows us to become free at a far deeper level. “The more one does what is good,” says the Catechism, “the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just.” When we seek the good of others ahead of our own, we become more loving and therefore more free to be fully human. Or as St. Paul puts it, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another” (Galatians 5:13).

Regarding the wearing of masks then, the question cannot be whether we privilege liberty or charity. We have to have basic liberty in order to be able to choose to be charitable, but only one choice actually leads to the fulfillment of both. It is only when we accept the duty to be charitable that we arrive at true freedom. The well respected microbiologist and theologian, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP, made a lengthy post earlier this week explaining the science behind how transmission of Covid-19 takes place and why masks are effective as a deterrent. In referring to the decision of the White House to require the wearing of masks internally to stem an outbreak, he said, “This is morally justifiable, and some may even argue, morally obligatory once you know that masks could minimize viral spread from respiratory droplets.”

Of course, life is more complicated than that. There are always exceptions. Some people are not able to wear masks for medical reasons. There also may be times when the good of wearing a mask is outweighed by some other pressing good, the need to communicate in an emergency for instance. Individuals and private entities, including churches, will have to make prudent choices about just when and how to make use of masks for the safety and well being of others.

Still, the basic theological and moral principle at play is clear. We cannot grow in knowledge and love of God without also growing in love for other people, including strangers. Jesus models for us the greatest exercise of human freedom when he freely chooses the cross for the sake of the world.

Photo by Nickolay Romensky. Used under Creative Commons License.

Justification and the Non-Competitive God

I had the privilege this past week of appearing as a guest on the radio program Theology on Air. It is hosted by a Lutheran pastor and aimed mostly at young Protestants, so while the purpose of my visit was theoretically to talk about comic books, many of the questions posed to me were about differences between Catholic and Protestant theology. This inevitably included discussion of the doctrine of justification and whether or not Catholics believe that what we receive through Christ is sufficient for our salvation or needs a little help from us.

I find these kinds of conversations tricky, not because I lack for things to say but because I want to avoid the danger of re-litigating the sixteenth century. I do not believe it does us much good to get stuck there, either defending or excoriating bits of history that are never going to change no matter who wins the debate. Nevertheless, there is spiritual fruit that can be harvested from an honest conversation on this topic, if we can stay in the mode of theology rather than apologetics, that is to say if we can stay in a mode of prayer, since theology is impossible where prayer is absent.

So, cards on the table: I receive, believe, and teach, to the best of my ability, what the Catholic Church teaches, which means that I do not believe in justification by faith alone. Truth be told, I was only ever a Johnny-Come-Lately to that particular doctrine anyway. By the time I graduated seminary, I was a full-throated Anglo-Catholic, albeit with an Eastward orientation to my spirituality. My understanding of salvation then as now was largely through the lens of theosis, beautifully summarized by the words of St. Athanasius: “God became man so that men might become gods.” We are saved by being united with God and thereby participating in the divine life of the Trinity.

It is not impossible to draw together some version of justification by faith alone with theosis. The Finnish theologian Tuomo Mannermaa, for instance, did some interesting work creating a bridge between Luther’s work and that of the Eastern Fathers. But most renderings of justification by faith alone require letting go of something that is crucial to Catholic doctrine, the idea that we participate in our own salvation. 

There is no part of what Jesus does for us on the cross that we can take credit for. Even the choice we make to cooperate with the grace of God is a choice that, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, is entirely contingent upon God’s graceful action. Yet, that choice is a real choice, and the change that takes place within us is a real change. God does not just decide to treat us as if we were holy but leave us internally rotten. He actually transforms us through union with Christ, rendered possible through the cross and made manifest in the Sacraments. My Lutheran friends like to say, “Sanctification is just getting used to your justification.” Perhaps in a way they are right, but the means by which that unfolds is real transformation, not merely a surface-level realization that we have been passively accepted.

All of that said, I think that what is spelled out in the Joint Declaration on Justification made by Lutherans and Catholics in 1999 is helpful in dispelling common myths about where Catholics and Protestants differ on this topic. We tend towards different emphases, which leads us to different pastoral practices. There is a good deal that Catholics can learn from Protestant theology on this topic, particularly from Lutheran theology. There is an absolute emphasis on the cross there that is refreshing in an age when so many churches want to hide the harsh reality of the cross from view. Another of the things my Lutheran friends like to say: “If Jesus didn’t die in your sermon, you didn’t preach the Gospel.” That one requires nuance as well, but it is nevertheless a helpful tool that I still use to evaluate my preaching.

Perhaps most helpful is the Protestant insistence on the gift of justification. Catholic doctrine is clear that our salvation is something we can only receive freely from God and could never earn, that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Yet we do not always stress this enough. We can give off the impression that salvation is a joint venture in which we are equal partners with God. In the formation of Catholics, we do not always emphasize as we should that the Gospel is not something we are required to do for God (or for others) but something that God has done for us in Christ.

Having said that, one of the most beautiful parts of Catholic teaching is the fact that God is presented not as a competitor with humanity but as the one who makes humanity authentically human. It has often felt to me, when listening to the way some Protestants describe justification, that they see it as an either/or situation in which either God acts or we do. We must never work for our own salvation because if we do, that must mean we are taking up the space that rightfully belongs to God. For Catholics, especially if we accept a thomistic view of the nature of God as being itself, the concept that our work could be in competition with God’s work does not make sense. Fr. Nicanor Austriaco explains why:

Consider an author writing a note with a pen. Who wrote the note? Yes, the author wrote the note, but in a very real sense, the pen “wrote” it too. Both the author and the pen were needed to write the note. In the language of philosophy, the author is the principal cause of the note, while the pen is the instrumental cause. Both are real causes that explain the existence of the note.

Fr. Nicanor is using this analogy in order to explain the way God acts in creation, but it works just as well for the way God acts in our salvation. We are justified by the work of Christ on the cross which is applied to us in the Sacraments. We may or may not have chosen to be baptized, but when we go to Confession, we are certainly choosing to receive this grace from Jesus. In that sense, we are active participants, as is the priest who absolves us. When we go to Mass, we become active players in our own salvation too, though we add nothing to the work of Jesus made manifest in the Sacrament. When we pray for others, we participate in their salvation, as do the saints when they pray for us. When we do good works, we grow in holiness as our love increases. None of this makes us competitors with God any more than the pen is in competition with the author.

We are not pens, of course. We have the capacity to say no to the gift of God’s grace. Yet when we say yes, it is not so that we may put on a show for God but so that He may truly be at work in us, changing us from the inside out into what we were always meant to be, prisms that reflect His light. In His generosity and love, God seeks to bring about real transformation in us by allowing us to take part in the mystery of salvation. That is part of the Good News too, not just that we are sinners who have been rescued, but that we are sons and daughters who are being prepared by a life of holiness for that day when the light will shine through us unimpeded.