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.

 

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.

The Non-Competitive Mary

holy queen

I have been making my way slowly through Bishop Robert Barron’s Exploring Catholic Theology this summer. As is often the case with collections of essays, it can be a bit repetitive, but Barron nonetheless shows why he is one of the leading public theologians of our time. One of his fundamental insights is what he calls “the noncompetitive transcendence of God.” Grounding his argument in both Scripture and Tradition, particularly by way of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Barron says that God is not the supreme being in the way we sometimes think of Him, as if He were the largest and grandest of things that exist, but rather He is existence itself. In Barron’s words, God “coinheres” with His creation, meaning that He exists both outside of it and alongside it but without ever being in competition with it. God plus the world is not more than God Himself. If God and humanity had to fight for the same space, than God would not be God at all.

It is a remarkably simple point that Barron makes and yet it carries with it many profound implications. One of them, which Barron does not address, has to do with how we see the saints and particularly how we see the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Barron contends that the non-competitiveness of God means that God can direct and guide our lives without depriving us of our free will. The fact that we choose what we do with our lives does not negate God’s involvement, nor does God’s choice to point us in one direction or another make us somehow His puppets. In a world in which God coinheres with creation, the world can do the work of God without somehow taking over His unique place in order to do it. God makes the world holy by way of acting within and through the actions of free persons. If I act for the good of my neighbor, it is neither me working from my own goodness apart from God nor God working through me apart from the taint of my depravity. Rather, it is God at work within me and me at work by my own volition because of my sanctification. Neither cancels or negates the other.

Many Protestants fear that venerating the saints and asking for their prayers is tantamount to idolatry. Indeed, the Anglican 39 Articles of Religion warn against the perceived danger of the “invocation of saints,” though without defining exactly what is meant by these words. The Scottish priest William Forbes (1558-1634) argued that Anglicans could call upon the saints without running afoul of the Articles by simply making it clear, in their minds if nowhere else, that they are asking for the saints to pray with them and on their behalf, not praying to them. Forbes styled this advocation as opposed to invocation.

However, if Barron and Aquinas are correct, than the real issue is not one of keeping a proper distinction between the Creator and the created but rather of understanding the kind of relationship that God has with His creation. The holiness that is found in the saints deserves to be celebrated precisely because it is the same holiness that is in God. The saints have been made one with God through Christ, filled with His grace and life, fully immersed in His radiant glory. To venerate a saint is to worship God even as it is also to admire one of God’s creatures. The saint does not stop being a free person when he or she becomes holy. You cannot venerate a saint without worshipping the God whose energies shine through that saint’s life, but neither can you do so without acknowledging the active, free human being in whom God’s holiness has taken root. Where holiness abounds, neither God nor His creatures are threatened by the presence of each other. That is the mystery of salvation.

Perhaps the greatest source of Protestant unease about the veneration of saints is the way that Catholic Christians—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglo-Catholic—give honor to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Even amongst the saints, she holds a special place. Her intercession is sought more than any other. She is called the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of God. “O higher than the Cherubim, more glorious than the Seraphim,” we sing about her in that immortal hymn, Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones. We try to play this down in apologetics sometimes out of fear of spooking those whose antennae are sensitive to mariology, but let’s face it, Mary is revered by Catholics. We love and adore her. Let me just put my cards on the table. I love and adore her. I have no trouble offering her the following prayer:

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, hail, our life, our sweetness and our hope. To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve: to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears. Turn then, most gracious Advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us, and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus, O merciful, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary! Amen.

How is that not idolatry? How is it not blasphemy? How is it not elevating a creature to the throne that is rightfully reserved only for the Creator?

Truly, it is none of those things, because Mary is not in competition with God. They are not two items in the world duking it out for a finite amount of space in my heart. The difference between God and Mary is that Mary is finite while God is infinite. Mary reflects the eternal being while God is being itself. God and Mary can take up the same space without having to knock each other out of the way. In fact, one of the beautiful and glorious things about the Christian God is that He chooses to make His glory known in and through the lives of people.

While this may seem to be a bit of sideways thinking to Protestants, it is assuredly in line with how the God of the Bible operates. His mouthpieces are many, sometimes willing and sometimes not. Cyrus the Persian acts unwittingly for God. Some of the prophets, most notably Jonah, do everything in their power to run in the opposite direction when God comes calling. Nonetheless, God’s glory still shines through them. But it shines all the more when it is met with cooperation. Moses glowed after coming into contact with the Lord (Exodus 34:29-35). King David was so deeply changed by his encounter with the living God that he wrote the most beautiful poetry the world has ever known in the psalter. John the Baptist pointed the way even from the womb when he leapt at being in the presence of Christ (Luke 1:41). None of this was forced or coerced. God did not force David’s personality out of the way in the writing of the psalms or use him simply as a tool, even though it is surely God’ voice that we hear in them as much as David’s. We can appreciate and even venerate David when we encounter the beauty and majesty of the Psalms without for a second denying that they are thoroughly a gift from God.

So it is also with Mary whom all generations are to call blessed (Luke 1:48). She is more glorious than any other saint because through her womb the world was sanctified. Her very flesh was deemed holy enough for God to dwell therein. She was not simply a husk used by God to complete His purposes. She offered herself in service to God, becoming in the process the mother of all creation. She is not in competition with God or with any other saints. To love her more is not to love God less, any more than to have a new child is to love the old one less. And so we honor her, not simply as an instrument to be used and then discarded, but as a free person who offered her very life for the sake of millions of people like you and me whom she did not know. In honoring her, we ultimately honor Him, even when that is not explicit, because the faithfulness of Mary was such that her actions and His were intrinsically intertwined.

The life of a true saint is such that we may finally only speak of the saint’s actions and desires in contradistinction to Christ’s actions and desires in a theoretical way, similar to the way we speak of the continuing distinction between humanity and divinity within Christ Himself. To be a saint is no longer to be in competition with God because you have given yourself to Him freely. To be able to love Mary and Christ and your neighbor as yourself, all at the same time, is the mark of mature discipleship.