Sunday, March 25, 2012

God Wants Me to Obey THEM?

After fifty years of theologians like Charles Curran telling us we can form our own consciences without the Church, ratcheted up ten times by the mismanagement of certain bishops in dealing with ephebophile and predatory priests, the idea of obeying the Church’s Magisterium (the Pope and bishops united with him) may be the hardest obedience pill to swallow. Why should we obey them?
        Many have, at best, only a vague idea that obedience is even a basic part of being a Catholic, let alone understanding the concept of infallibility, which sounds doubtful at best. Didn’t the Pope and bishops come up with this idea just to bolster their own power and authority?
        Well, actually the idea goes all the way back to the time of Jesus; in fact, it was Jesus himself who came up with it. He was the one who told Peter alone and later the Twelve: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:19, 18:18). How could He say such a thing if it were possible for the Church to err in religious matters? He would not make binding in heaven any Church law that was contrary to divine law.
       He could say it because God Himself was going to be the guarantor of their teaching. He had a plan for protecting the Church from error in matters of faith and morals. He revealed that plan at the Last Supper, when He talked at length about not leaving them orphan but sending them the Holy Spirit. He promised the apostles (the first Pope and bishops), “the Spirit of truth…will guide you into all truth” (Jn 16:13).
        Not only did Christ give this promise of guidance of the Church by the Holy Spirit, He also made it clear that Church authority comes from God and is to be respected as such. Even of the Pharisees, he had said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Mt 23:2-3). He was clearly supporting their God-given authority as the successors of Moses.
The fact that the Pharisees’ own personal lives unfortunately fell far short of God’s laws is an example of how infallibility works in the Church. Infallibility isn’t equal to sinlessness, nor does it mean that the Pope can’t make a mistake about anything; it is God preventing the Magisterium from teaching error in faith and morals.
If there have been in the history of the Church shepherds who themselves were seriously sinful, that does not preclude God from teaching accurately through them. He can keep them from teaching error or even prophesy through them without their knowing it. Consider Caiaphas, who said, “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (Jn 11:50). He had a political meaning in mind, but God used his words to express a spiritual truth. The Scripture even points out: “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered about” (Jn 11:51-52).
Even though Caiaphas was himself plotting evil, God still chose to use him as His mouthpiece in virtue of the office he held. How much more will God protect and guide the teaching of those in authority in the Church, which is the body of Christ?
        Christ Himself made it very clear that authority in the Church is God-given and that He wants us to obey the Church, for He said to the Twelve, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk 10:16). Thus we have an obligation to obey the teachings of the Church given by her Magisterium, and we can be confident that God is behind those teachings.

And this also goes for those Church teachings that are unpopular, hard to understand, or difficult to follow.

This is not to say that the Church expects blind or irrational obedience. If we have trouble understanding a teaching, we need to read what the Church has to say about it. If we take the trouble to look into it, we will find that these Church teachings are never contrary to reason.
Obedience, Jesus pointed out, is the proof of our love. When we come before the Judgment Seat of God, the Adversary (the meaning of “Satan”) will also be there, pointing out all our sins. If our lives were carefree and God did everything for us, that Adversary could say we didn’t love God, we just loved His benefits. But if we suffer for God, if we obey Him when we don’t want to or it’s difficult, we prove our love.
The one who truly wants to love Jesus will obey His representativesnot for their sake, but for His sake. This will be neither convenient nor easy. But it will be worthwhile: “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17).

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Lent—A Time for Gratitude

A talented high-school soccer player was playing in his team's championship game. Suddenly he left the game, ran off the field and up a nearby hill—where one could see that a house was on fire. He ran into the house (it was his), up the stairs, and found his four-year-old brother. He rolled him in a mattress and dropped him out the window into the arms of some neighbors below. He had saved his brother.

But on his way out, he himself was struck by a falling beam. The firefighters arrived and were able to save his life, but he lost almost all his abilities—not only his sterling soccer skills, but also walking and even talking.

One day when his younger brother was about seventeen, a friend was visiting who witnessed the following scene: 

The younger brother asked his mom if he could attend a party that evening. His mother said, no, she and her husband had to go out and they needed him to stay home with his disabled brother.

The younger brother responded angrily, “What! I have to stay home with that vegetable!” 

The friend could see the older brother in his wheelchair in the living room. He saw tears roll down his cheek.

When I first heard this (true) story I was outraged. What an ingrate! That younger brother wouldn't even be alive if it weren't for his brother. His brother had risked everything, and lost everything but his life, out of love for his little brother. He should have been forever grateful to him and eager to do anything for him.

Then it hit me like a ton of bricks that I am no better than that younger brother. While He's not as visible to me as someone sitting in the living room, haven't I treated Christ just the same way? 

I have—every time I've wimped out on a sacrifice for Him who did even more for me than that heroic young man did for his little brother.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

If You Love Me...

Last week I wrote about that wildly popular virtue—obedience. I suggested that a more significant reason to obey exists than I’d mentioned so far. There’s more to the question of obedience than consequences or what other people think or do. There is a reason to obey in seemingly insignificant matters or when it’s inconvenient or if it’s a Church teaching we don’t understand. It is the simplest and most beautiful reason in the world. That reason is love.
        Jesus Himself gave us this reason, when He said, “If you love me, you will obey my commands” (Jn 14:15). This makes a lot of sense on its own. It makes even more sense when we consider human relationships. Anyone with children can appreciate that you feel loved when your child obeys promptly and cheerfully, and not so loved when she rebels. We can see this also between people “in love,” even if they don’t usually issue commands to one another. If you truly love someone, you avoid doing what offends or hurts your beloved. Instead, you seek opportunities to do the things that please your beloved. 
       If we do this for each other, how much more should we do so for God, who as our Creator has the right to command us, as well as the right to our gratitude and service, He who died for us! Is there anything we should refuse to do for Him or refuse to stop doing?
Jesus didn’t merely tell us to obey; He also lived out obedience. He was the prime example of obedience. The will of the Father meant more to Him than anything. When he began his public ministry by coming to John the Baptist for baptism, John said, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Baptism was a symbol of repentance and purification. Jesus needed neither, for He had never sinned. Yet he replied, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:14-15). He was giving us an example. He desired to show His love for the Father in obedience even to laws that did not apply to Him.
        The greatest demonstration of how great Christ's love for the Father was of course His Passion, especially clear in His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Despite His desiring to avoid the coming torture so desperately that He suffered agony and sweat blood, He still ended every plea to the Father with, “Still, let it be as you would have it, not as I.” His love for the Father outweighed any consideration for Himself, even excruciating pain and death. This love meant nothing if it did not mean obeying the Father’s will.
His Passion, crucifixion, and death, while bringing about our salvation, are at the same time an illustration of loving obedience. He “became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). He not only asks loving obedience of us, He demonstrates it beyond what we will ever have to experience.
As we saw earlier, Jesus also stated this truth explicitly at the Last Supper. It was obviously very important to Him, for He repeated it twice more in the same discourse. “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (Jn 14:21; see also Jn 15:11).
It is the apostle John who records these words in his Gospel, and they clearly made a deep impression on him, for he comes back to them again and again in his letters, especially in the First Letter of John (see for instance 1 Jn 3:6, 24, and 5:3). He even makes it the litmus test of the true disciple: “He who says, ‘I know him’ but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected" (1 Jn 2:3-5).
Could God have made it any clearer?
Love is proved by deeds,” said St. Teresa of Avila. It is much easier to say that we love than to love truly. We can even fool ourselves: we think that we love, until the rubber hits the road. When push comes to shove, our love isn’t as strong or deep as we thought it was. 
We may be like the seed that fell on rocky ground in Christ’s parable: one who “hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately falls away” (Mt 13: 20-22). We ourselves do not know if we are one of these… until we find it too difficult to obey God, even out of love. (That's when we need to turn to Him and ask for His grace, for we "can do all things in Christ who strengthens [us].")
Seen in this light—the light of love—these matters become opportunities to express our love for God. We can show Him our love on our way to the grocery store or at work. We can show our love for Jesus by stopping at that lonely stop sign when there isn’t another soul in sight or by buying our own copy rather than copying something illegally. We could obey a teaching we don't like or understand. The more it hurts to obey, the more love we show Him.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Forgotten O-Word

Of the vows taken by a nun, monk, or priest, chastity tops the list for most people as the toughest. To the secular mind, influenced by the legacy of Freud, extended periods of celibacy are risky; lifelong celibacy would surely leave one mentally unhinged. But even for many believers, the idea of giving up a spouse and family just seems too hard.
Some thought might go toward the second vow taken by those in religious orders (though not by diocesan priests)—poverty—which would be a real hardship for many in our materialistic culture.
The whole vocation idea having already been dismissed, most people don’t ever think about the other vow all priests and religious take—obedience. But according to many who have taken and are living out these vows, this is the real kicker.

        When one thinks about it, though, it makes sense. Really, the hardest thing to give up is one’s own will.
We Americans should certainly understand this. If the typical movie or TV show is any indication, our culture instead admires independence, self-assertiveness, and even defiance. Every other movie glorifies someone who bucks the system—boss, government, parent—and is proven in the end to be right and heroic to have done so.
Of course, most of us obey in areas that will otherwise get us into trouble—we wouldn’t think of stealing or assault. We do what our boss asks and speak to him respectfully, at least to his face. But we don’t think twice about ignoring laws or rules that are socially acceptable to disobey and easy to get away with.
        There are dozens of examples. Copying copyrighted material; not reporting cash income or other little ways of cheating on one’s taxes; breaking traffic laws when the coast is clear; pilfering small items from large companies like hotels or supplies from one’s employer; lying about one’s age to get something cheaper, etc., etc.
Most people, if they know they can get away with it, don’t give doing such things a second thought. Why wouldn’t you do them? Obeying the rules in such instances seems not only ridiculous but even scrupulous. “It doesn’t hurt anyone.” “This large company can easily absorb it—they’re overcharging anyway.” “Everyone does it.”
But what does God think about it? How can we know? Well, He actually did address this quite a bit in the Bible. 
The IRS didn’t exist in Jesus’ day, but the Roman Empire did, and it certainly collected taxes. Some people (usually Zealots) questioned paying the tax—but for religious reasons, not to save a few bucks—and what did Jesus say? “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Lk 20:25).
This would of course not only apply to tax evasion today as well, but also to civil laws. St. Paul makes this clear: “Pay all ... [authorities] their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Rom 13:7). 
This teaching is based also on the long-standing Scriptural idea that earthly authority comes from God. In the Old Testament, we read, “By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me princes rule, and nobles govern the earth” (Prov 8:15). Jesus echoed this when he said to Pilate, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (Jn 19:11).
Thus Paul teaches: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom 13: 1-2).
Peter writes similarly: “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him…. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2:13-17).
        Of course, there are evil rulers and bad laws. Obviously, if there is a conflict between human authority and divine, “we must obey God rather than men,” as Peter says in Acts 5:29. Likewise the great theologian St. Thomas Aquinas explained that though civil government has the right to create laws for the good of society and Christians should obey them as deriving from God’s law, still when a civil law is contrary to divine law we shouldn't obey it.
        The point is that when we are obedient to someone in rightful authority over us, God takes it as obedience to Himself. (And that leads us to another reason for obedience—the heart of the matter—but we'll get to that next week.)
        Lent is a great time to take out this old-fashioned virtue, dust it off, and give it a try. It may very well prove to be a harder penance than any we’ve ever undertaken.