Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them."
MATHEW 23:1-3 NAS
There has been great controversy lately over the recent Synod on the Family. This controversy has caused a great deal of confusion and many faithful Catholics feel disheartened as a consequence. They wonder what is going on. They wonder if the Church is about to go off the rails and schism. Headlines and gossip swirl. Cardinals and bishops attack each other in the media, and the Holy Father Pope Francis has taken some hits as well. To add insult to the injury, Catholic bloggers feel that they have to weigh in on the matter because they need material for their readers. Social media has added a dimension to all of this that has never been a factor in the past. The temptation for me is to also add my two cents to the matter. But I don't have to do this. I call this the Layperson's Prerogative.
Laypeople can voice opinions, but they effectively have no say in the affairs in the Church. This may rankle people a bit who are used to living in countries with democratic forms of government. But Jesus did not establish a democracy with His church. He established a hierarchy. He also expects us to be respectful and obedient to this hierarchy. Whether it is boss, parent, governor, president, priest, bishop, or pope, the Christian attitude is to be one of obedience. Now, someone in authority may like the sound of this, but they should tremble. The reason is because with great authority comes great responsibility. Those with authority will be judged more harshly than those under authority. In addition, that authority should be exercised in harmony with the teachings of Christ who is the ultimate authority. If the government forbids the exercise of your faith, you will disbobey because people must obey God rather than men. But we still pay our taxes.
The Layperson's Prerogative is simply to sit back and let the bishops and cardinals fight it out. Nothing really has changed for the layperson. We are to pray, go to Confession, attend Mass, tend to our families, and do the works of mercy. This never changes no matter how silly our leaders may get. This is essentially what Jesus tells us to do in Matthew 23. Our Lord has many rebukes for the leaders of His day, but He still commands people to "do and observe." I confess that I was always troubled by this verse, but I get it now. We are judged by our obedience in the same way that those leaders will be judged by their obedience to Christ.
There are two great temptations in our present time. The first temptation is to assume an authority that does not belong to us. This is the Monday morning quarterback routine people pull when they criticize leaders. As Benjamin Franklin put it, "Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain - and most fools do." The problem is that those who are critical would probably do as bad or worse if put in charge. It is enough to eat what is on our own plate without looking at what is on the plate of another.
The second great temptation is to shirk responsibility for the authority given. This would be that group of leaders who are eager to take credit for the good but always offer up excuses for the bad. Basically, they want all of the credit and none of the blame. And when a crisis hits, these leaders are nowhere to be found. This sums up the vast majority of corporate middle management. I have to wonder why companies continue to employ these non-leaders.
It is no secret that the Roman Catholic Church has had bad bishops and even bad popes. But it has also had saints at the helm as well, and I know of no other organization where you can find saints. Anyone who wants to castigate the Church that Christ established must answer one question. Where are your saints? Where are your holy people? When the Catholic Church does bad, it is merely the bad of every other institution and person in the world today and in human history. The Catholic Church is not always better than the world, but it is never worse than the world. But when it is obedient to Christ, it is the only source of hope this fallen world has.
Quiet saintly obedience should be our reaction and response to whatever our leaders tell us especially those leaders within the Church. It matters not if they are good or bad. The alternative to this obedience is revolution. Along with democracy, revolt is also popular because people think that revolutions turn out like the American Revolution. But this is an error. They mostly turn out like the French Revolution with heads falling into baskets from bloody guillotines. When the revolution ends, the end is worse than what preceded it. The French Revolution deposed a king and got Napoleon. The Russian Revolution deposed a czar and got Lenin and Stalin. Even the American Revolution rejected a king and his tax to end up with a central government that is every bit as bad or worse than old King George. Then, there is the Protestant Revolution that rejected the Pope and the Magisterium and ended up with the doctrinal clarity and unity of thousands of denominations and false teachers proclaiming different and opposing things. Revolution changes things but almost always for the worse.
The reason revolutions are so awful is that the revolutionaries seek to seize the authority they do not have. Once you establish a precedent of disobedience, the big problem becomes making others obedient to your disobedience. Legitimate authority is a moral authority derived ultimately from God. Revolutionary authority can only fall back on fear and intimidation. Revolutions can never bring about the desired effect. Conversely, when times are bad, the only lasting change is a return to first principles and obedience to Christ. This is why Christ is the only one that can save our crumbling Western societies. A great example of this would be the Council of Trent and the "Counter-Reformation" within the Catholic Church. People need renewal and obedience to make things better. They don't need revolution.
The recent controversy within the Church centers on this concept of obedience. Can laypeople be obedient to the teachings of Christ on divorce and remarriage? Can cardinals and bishops be obedient to those teachings? And can traditionalists be obedient to a pope who may not share their viewpoints? This last question is an important one because those on the traditionalist side of the Catholic continuum have historically been those most prone to disobedience and schism. There is an irony in this and a caution. This is what lead Martin Luther to his schism and heresy.
Martin Luther is a great example of disobedience. He should be contrasted with a great example of obedience--St. Pio of Pietrelcina. Padre Pio was a humble but miraculous friar in the Capuchin order who lived from 1887 to 1968. He bore the marks of the stigmata and performed many miracles and was considered a great confessor. He was massively popular and developed a large following. Naturally, those in authority despised him and imposed severe sanctions on Padre Pio. The severest of the sanctions were reversed as Pio's admirers threatened to revolt. But this only went to demonstrate the greatest sign of Pio's sanctity--his obedience. St. Pio did whatever was commanded of him, and he did not speak against those who contradicted him. He bore the humiliation with humility and endured the calumnies against him. Even today, those who despise the saint repeat the lies told about him. Padre Pio had a large base to draw upon if he wanted to flex his muscles and stir up a revolt. This never happened. St. Pio was always a most obedient servant and son of the Church.
Like St. Pio, Martin Luther was a consecrated religious. Unlike St. Pio, Luther was disobedient and defiant leading many others in his Protestant revolt. The result was a split and confusion that exists to this day. And as Martin Luther demonstrated in his words and actions, he was no saint. Here was his attitude towards sanctity:
Do not ask anything of your conscience; and if it speaks, do not listen to it; if it insists, stifle it, amuse yourself; if necessary, commit some good big sin, in order to drive it away. Conscience is the voice of Satan, and it is necessary always to do just the contrary of what Satan wishes.As for authority, here is Martin Luther on how to exercise authority over the poor:
Peasants are no better than straw. They will not hear the word and they are without sense; therefore they must be compelled to hear the crack of the whip and the whiz of bullets and it is only what they deserve.
* * *
To kill a peasant is not murder; it is helping to extinguish the conflagration. Let there be no half measures! Crush them! Cut their throats! Transfix them. Leave no stone unturned! To kill a peasant is to destroy a mad dog!
For Luther, violence was a necessary recourse. This is because he pulled the cork out of revolution's wine bottle and was desperate to put it back in. But he could never regain control of what he set in motion. John Calvin would attempt to succeed where Luther had failed, but he could only multiply the errors. This lesson goes all the way back to the Tower of Babel where confusion and division scattered the enemies of God. And as I point out repeatedly, there are no saints in the Protestant churches. The best you will find resemble Old Testament figures instead of New Testament saints. Cut off from the means of grace and joined to Christ only in baptism, the Protestant is a weak and frustrated sinner unable to change himself or herself. Somewhere, Satan has a laugh at this.
Those who speak of schism are no different than Martin Luther. People may believe that they are correct in their criticisms of the Catholic Church, and they probably are.correct. Luther was correct in many of his positions. But the pope is still the vicar of Christ and sits in the chair of Peter. Even if Judas Iscariot himself sat in that chair, we are to be obedient. The irony of these times is that the people who rail about communion for the divorced and remarried contemplate their own divorce from the authority of the Church. But if Christ allows this confusion, it is merely to test our convictions and our obedience to Him. To disobey the Holy Father is to disobey Christ. And let's not dispute whether or not he is a legitimate vicar of Christ like the sedevacantists who are every bit as nutty and disobedient as Martin Luther.
The Layperson's Prerogative is the same as following the example of St. Pio in his obedience. We keep praying, hoping, and serving. God is always faithful to His church and to His people. The task for us is to always be faithful to Him. This may not always be easy. But God will never abandon us in our trials. Christ was obedient even unto death. There is no greater test than this. We are to live in imitation of Jesus who did not follow the path of the revolutionary that the people desired. We are most revolutionary in our obedience. And let us remember the words of St. Pio who told us to pray, hope, and to not worry. Our persistence and patience in obedience is what will win the day.