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.

You cannot build a better life


At no time of year is there a greater divergence between what is happening inside and outside of the Church than at Advent. Outside, it’s red and green with jingle bells and Christmas lights. Inside, we are draped in penitent purple. Outside, every radio station has gone full tilt into the Fa la las. Inside, we are singing
O Come, O Come Emmanuel if you are lucky (and a bunch of dreary hymns you have never heard of before if you are not). Everything happening outside is about getting ready for twenty minutes of fun opening over-priced packages on Christmas morning, while inside we are preparing for the end of the world.

Love or hate the sixteenth century reformer Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, it is hard to deny that the man could turn a phrase. Whether weaving together bits of ancient liturgies or composing his own prayers, Cranmer’s skill at crafting liturgical English remains unparalleled. His Advent collects are a prime example, especially the first one which the Book of Common Prayer required to be prayed not only on the first Sunday in Advent but also on all the subsequent Sundays as a second collect. Today this prayer is offered not only in Anglican churches but in all the parishes and communities of the Catholic Ordinariates as well:

ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

It is a stark, direct prayer that draws a line between whatever is happening out there and what most needs to happen inside of us. The real preparation that needs to take place this time of year has nothing to do with trimming the tree, organizing dinner and travel plans, or ordering a whole bunch of knick knacks online. Christmas, as great as it is, is almost an afterthought. The real action comes not in remembering the Lord’s first coming but in being ready for His second coming. At any moment, Jesus will return, and the world will be flipped upside down when He does. All that’s wrong will be set right. Good will be blessed and evil will be expelled. It sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s true. He is coming. It is immanent. We need to be ready.

This attitude sharply contrasts with the dominant motif of our age: the soundbyte, the snap, the tik tok, the life lived in bite size bits, the only purpose of which is to make us happy for as long as we can distract ourselves from the silence of death. Despite the best efforts of materialist atheism, we do still believe in the transcendent, but we no longer believe that it comes to us from the outside, through the actions of a Divine Other who enters the world by choice to pull us out of the mire. Now we think that all transcendence bubbles up from within ourselves, producing an awe at the majesty of our own capacity to make meaning. “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion from the landmark 1992 Supreme Court case Casey vs. Planned Parenthood. He could not have realized how prescient he was being, considering the smorgasbord of options now available for us to express our personal, inner truth. We mesh our preferences together into a pastiche of ourselves that we then present to the world for validation through social media. Somewhere in the midst of the memes and the re-tweets, we assume a deeper sense of meaning will emerge.

Meanwhile, modern Christianity has bought into a different kind of navel-gazing transcendence, pointing us outward but only as a means of escape. This tends to take one of two forms. The kind that gets labeled “Fundamentalist”–regardless of whether it meets the historical definition of fundamentalism or not– which awaits a fictitious event called “the Rapture” in which true believers will get taken up out of this mean, old world before any of the real effects of the damage we have done to it can touch us. There are lesser forms of this ideology, but it all pivots upon the same false premise, that we can avoid facing ourselves.

The second form this takes in modern Christianity is that of the social transformation warrior. Not social justice, which is a venerable concept and one that has roots in the Bible and Catholic teaching, but social transformation, in which we pin our hopes on our ability to remake the world in our own righteous image. It is neither a liberal nor conservative thing, but rather takes on whatever cause seems closest to the aims of our particular political tribe. Social transformation theology also allows us to avoid looking squarely at our own sin, brokenness, and weakness, keeping out attention always on the Utopian dream of the perfect Christian society which the other kind of Christians do not want us to achieve.

Cranmer’s collect lets the air out of all of these falsehoods. As we pray it, we are forced to accept at face value that Jesus will return and that we must be ready. There is a judgment coming. There is a great renewal that will take place. Good will defeat evil. It is not theoretical. It is a known fact. Jesus will be returning to reclaim the world. The only question is whether or not we will be aligned with good or saturated with evil when He arrives.

Advent is good news, but it is good news that befuddles the secularist and the modern Christian alike. It means letting go of the notion that we can build better lives for ourselves. Transcendence will not come from some unexplored corner of our inner selves, nor will it be built out of the raw material of the world. The transcendence we seek comes only from union with Jesus, offered by Him in mercy and forgiveness when we repent of our sins and seek the good that flows from His Sacred Heart. It is good news that we will be judged because the judgement of Jesus is like a fire that lights up our hearts even as it burns away the idols to which we attach ourselves. Advent is the sure hope that the current state of this world and the current state of our lives is not final. We are preparing for something greater.

This post is part of a series on English Catholic Spirituality. To read the introduction to the series, click here. To see all the posts in this series, click here.