Strangely, I think that this is my first post squarely on the subject. Let me sketch the Catholic view out very basically, then.
What happens if the Pope is not loyal to the gospel? What if a bishop is not loyal to the gospel? There does not seem to be much recourse built into the Catholic faith if the Pope or a Bishop is not loyal to the gospel. This is where the obedience practice of the Roman Church is a major problem for my understanding of the gospel. The Pope demands the loyalty/obedience of the bishops. The bishops demand loyalty/obedience of the priests. It is a rather feudal structure. How can we be loyal to the gospel and to the man (bishop or Pope) that we have sworn obedience to at the same time?
Luther's 95 Theses
This is not some "Devil's Advocate" question because this is one of my major issues with the Roman Church. How can we be loyal to the gospel when we have already sworn obedience to a bishop? I understand that this does not always conflict and that there are many faithful and good men serving the church. But this is one of those issues where I see a member of the church or a local priest being caught between two masters (Matthew 6:24).
I. We are Family
|Raphael. Portrait of Pope Leo X |
with Cardinals Giulio de' Medici
and Luigi de' Rossi. (1519)
When we talk about the Church as a family, we're not doing so in some vague Sister Sledge sense. We're meaning something concrete, but which can only understand by analogy. We mean it when we say that God is our Father, and the Church is our Mother. In fact, to the extent that this is an analogy, it's in the opposite direction: in Ephesians 3:14-15, St. Paul says that “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family [lit. “fatherhood”] in heaven and on earth derives its name.” Did you catch that? The Trinity is the truest Family. All other families are just derivatives and imitations, that give us a glimpse into what God (and His relationship to us) is like.
So the Church is a family at every level. The relationship between a priest and his flock is a paternal one, as is the relationship between a bishop and his priests, and the Church is our Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher). She nourishes us, cares for us, and disciplines us when we screw up. If you really grasp this notion of Church, hopefully everything else that I say about obedience will be obvious.
I'm assuming up front that Rev. Hans and I agree that children should honor and obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1; Exodus 20:12), but that this doesn't extend to denying or acting against the Gospel (cf. Matthew 10:34-36). So the first thing I'd say is: determine if our grievance is prudential or not. Is this an issue on which Christians can take either side without one being objectively wrong? Having said that, let's address each in turn.
II. Objective Moral Issues
|Carlo Saraceni, Gregory the Great (1610)|
But infallibility doesn't mean that the Holy Spirit protects every word that comes from the mouth of a pope (The First Vatican Council has specifically defined those contexts in which the pope is speaking infallibly). I know of one clear example in which a pope was wrong about an issue of faith and morals, but you have to go back to the 14th century to find it. Pope John XXII was wrong on the question of whether souls experience the Beatific Vision prior to the Final Judgment (a question that had not been formally settled by the Church at that time, but on which there was already broad agreement). As the Catholic Encyclopedia explains:
Before his elevation to the Holy See, [Pope John XXII] had written a work on this question, in which he stated that the souls of the blessed departed do not see God until after the Last Judgment. After becoming pope, he advanced the same teaching in his sermons. In this he met with strong opposition, many theologians, who adhered to the usual opinion that the blessed departed did see God before the Resurrection of the Body and the Last Judgment, even calling his view heretical.
A great commotion was aroused in the University of Paris when the General of the Minorites and a Dominican tried to disseminate there the pope's view. Pope John wrote to King Philip IV on the matter (November, 1333), and emphasized the fact that, as long as the Holy See had not given a decision, the theologians enjoyed perfect freedom in this matter.
Pope John XXII (1316-1334)
In December, 1333, the theologians at Paris, after a consultation on the question, decided in favour of the doctrine that the souls of the blessed departed saw God immediately after death or after their complete purification; at the same time they pointed out that the pope had given no decision on this question but only advanced his personal opinion, and now petitioned the pope to confirm their decision. John appointed a commission at Avignon to study the writings of the Fathers, and to discuss further the disputed question. In a consistory held on 3 January, 1334, the pope explicitly declared that he had never meant to teach aught contrary to Holy Scripture or the rule of faith and in fact had not intended to give any decision whatever. Before his death he withdrew his former opinion, and declared his belief that souls separated from their bodies enjoyed in heaven the Beatific Vision.
This was handled exactly as it should have been:
- The theologians were quick to object to the improper teaching, and in an appropriate manner. They responded to the pope, rather than trying to bash him in the court of public opinion. But they still publicly made it clear that Catholics shouldn't deny that souls enjoy the Beatific Vision;
- The pope made clear that he was not speaking in a Magisterial capacity;
- The theologians explained why the pope's view was wrong; and
- The pope retracted his view.
- After his death, his successor, Pope Benedict XII, quickly settled the matter in a papal encyclical, Benedictus Deus, in 1336.
Joan d'Arc being interrogated (1824)
Unlike prudential issues (which I'll get to shortly), we need to be prepared to face any earthly consequence in defending the objective truth. Here, consider the case of St. Joan of Arc. She was falsely accused of heresy, and the Bishop of Paris excommunicated her. Rather than deny the truth, she was burnt at the stake as a heretic. Not long after, the pope ordered an inquiry into her execution, and declared her innocent. She was ultimately canonized, numbered among the Saints of Heaven.
III. Prudential Judgments
Most of the gripes that Catholics today have are over prudential issues. The bishops aren’t acting like we would act, if God had just made us bishops! I’m generally skeptical of this, since there’s a reason God made them bishops and not us. But there are times in which a priest or bishop (including popes) will have an idea that, while not sinful, is a bad idea. It’s not immoral to approach them with a better idea.
St. Catherine of Siena did just this during the Avignon papacy. In a nutshell, Pope Gregory XI was living in Avignon, France, in exile from Rome, a virtual prisoner of the French crown, and fearful of the Roman mobs back home. St. Catherine of Siena wrote to him, exhorting him to:
“be a manly man...wanting to live in peace is often the greatest cruelty. When the boil has come to a head it must be cut with the lance and burned with fire and if that is not done, and only a plaster is put on it the corruption will spread and that is often worse than death. I wish to see you as a manly man so that you may serve the Bride of Christ (the church and its people) without fear, and work spiritually and temporally for the glory of God according to the needs of that sweet Bride in our times.”
Rutilio Manetti, St. Catherine of Siena (c. 1625)
Given the rest of her letters, there's no question that Catherine was writing to the pope with lovingly sincerity. Still, that's some strong language, and given that this (like the earlier example) comes from the 14th century, I think it dispels the myth that the Catholic Church is, or ever was, without recourse for approaching problems at the top. In reality, canon law has a variety of checks built in to ensure that bishops don't violate the rights of priests and parishioners. We saw this very recently, when the Vatican reversed Bishop Richard Lennon's closing of 13 parishes in the Diocese of Cleveland.
But there's one major difference. When it comes to the prudential issues, you can try to convince dad that something other than his plan is better, but if he says, “I don't care, do it my way,” you ultimately do it his way. So on all things prudential, we're honor-bound to obey our spiritual fathers, and those in authority over us. But this, obviously, doesn't extend to denying the Gospel, or to committing sin.
III. An Important Final Caveat
What I just laid out is something of a worst-case scenario: a bishop orders you to do something morally evil, or the pope gives a sermon in which he says something incompatible with Catholicism. But while this is all theoretically possible, most of the disputes between Catholics and their leaders are cases in which (1) the complaining Catholics are objectively in the wrong, or (2) the matter is one of prudence, left up to the bishop to decide. So don't just assume because you would do things differently than Pope Benedict or your bishop that you're right. For most of us, in the vast majority of cases, the opposite will be true.
At any rate, hopefully, this adequately sketches out (very basically) the way that Catholics understand obedience. I'd add only the obvious, that certain options are foreclosed to us, like schism and heresy. If we don't like the way things are going, we don't have the option to go start our own church. But we are free to seek to persuade those in authority over us to do something other than what they're doing.