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 representatives—not 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).