Confidence in the Church: Our position of strength
When I outlined the suffering we experience when confronted with any form of infidelity in a pope (or a bishop or a pastor), I concluded that we should not expect the life of a Catholic to be free of such hardships, any more than we should expect our best pastors to be free of suffering induced by our own failures in fidelity to Christ, the Gospel and the Church. We have no warrant, I pointed out, for regarding our sufferings as intolerable or unfair, when in fact we are called to make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His body, the Church. I concluded by noting that Our Lord frequently answered the complaints and questions of his disciples by saying simply, “Follow me.”
Such was the essential argument of Confidence in the Church: What do we do when we want to cry?. But I also promised a second installment devoted to “the more positive aspects of our situation”. So let me begin at once with what must easily be the most overlooked benefit of the problem I have just described. I will start with a simple yet paradoxical affirmation: It is not good for us when everything in the Church invariably goes along in the way we think it should.
The benefit of self-doubt
As human persons we are remarkably adept at confusing God’s will with our own ideas, and confusing authentic Catholic renewal with whatever we think best. I do not intend for a moment to back away from my assertion that Pope Francis has, at a minimum, caused considerable uncertainty about major issues in the Church which lie at the heart of Catholic renewal. But at the same time I believe we must all learn to take our own convictions about such matters with a grain of salt. In other words, when we find ourselves at variance with the Pope, we do well to examine the issues very carefully, striving to identify in ourselves areas of imperfect understanding, or areas in which more than one viewpoint is possible without any error in faith.
A great evil stalks those of us who tend to be reflexively certain that we are right. For example, after I wrote the first installment of this two-part series, I received an email from a reader who could not imagine how I could be oblivious to the wonderful renewal that Pope Francis is spearheading. He even went so far as to suggest that if only I would ask Our Lord about my excessively negative perception of things, I would find that He is a God of joy Who could not possibly share my habitual gloom. Maybe so, but anyone who says, “Just pray over it and you’ll see I’m right” is already guilty of an extraordinarily myopic and self-serving error: I mean the conviction that another’s disagreement proves the absence of a sound spiritual life! And I am willing to bet that each one of us has fallen into that trap on more than one occasion.
Still, even ill-phrased criticism is a reminder that it is just remotely possible, in the grand scheme of things, that any of us could, on some rare and obviously unimportant matter, be very slightly mistaken. This is why criticism should not be met with hurt feelings or anger, but with serious reflection before the Lord. One of our most urgent prayers should be taken from Psalm 19:
But who can discern his errors?
Clear thou me from hidden faults.
Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in thy sight,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. [Ps 19:12-14]
We should always examine ourselves and the issues we confront not only carefully but prayerfully. We must not fail to pursue what we believe to be the right course, but even our strongest convictions should be held with an awareness that we sometimes make mistakes. Even with our best efforts, we must always pray that we will not lead anyone astray.
There is very little on the face of the earth that should make us as wary of our own fallibility as differences with our pastors, our bishops, and particularly the pope. Nothing is so calculated, if we reflect and pray, to stimulate our own spiritual growth. I am not being absurd when I affirm that I do not want everything in the Church to go my way until I enjoy the Church triumphant in Heaven. It is an odious self-centeredness that induces Catholics to break into sects and surround themselves only with the like-minded.
No, even as we act on our convictions and strive to serve Christ and the Church in the best possible way, we must remain aware that differences within the Church—taken in the right way—have enormous potential to both spiritually strengthen and humble us. Such sufferings invariably invite us to give ourselves more and more to Our Lord and Savior. In God’s Providence, surely, we are permitted to become aware of a lack of perfection in the Church around us for two reasons. The first reason is easily seen in the opportunities we have to strengthen the Church. But the second reason may be harder to perceive: The dangers of our own complacency.
The irrelevance of popes, bishops and pastors
Now let me turn to a problem which I have headed with a very provocative subtitle. I do not really mean to say that popes, bishops and pastors are irrelevant to the fundamental constitution of the Church, or the Church’s health, or the good of souls. Nothing could be less true than that. But a moment’s reflection will reveal that the quality of those in ecclesiastical authority only very rarely interferes with our own ability to give effective witness or to engage in the apostolate
Since I am a “talking head” (or more accurately, a set of ten talking fingers), I must frequently confront what appear to me to be the failings of Church leaders. But for most of us most of the time, whether Pope Francis is a good or a bad pope (to take but one example) makes very little difference to our ability to engage in those hallmarks of apostolic self-giving which we call the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. A bad pope makes more problems for bishops than anyone else, just as a bad bishop makes more problems for priests than he does for lay persons. Trust me when I say that we laity are seldom aware of the scope of priestly suffering. I hope it does not sound callous to confess that I have come to depend on this suffering as a source of grace. Our priests are so easily caught between the episcopal devil and the deep blue sea of the laity!
After all, it is not as if the laity are on the payroll, and even in the more dangerous position of the priesthood, it is extraordinarily rare for a worthy priest to be barred from ministry altogether. We may not always be able to perform a good work in the way we had envisioned it, but we nearly always have ample scope for doing what we believe God is calling us to do, especially among our family, neighbors, friends and co-workers, or even in broader independent apostolates.
What we must avoid is the grave danger of becoming preoccupied with the shortcomings of our ecclesiastical superiors, including the Pope himself. It is easy enough to allow our annoyance or disagreement to paralyze us, as if our sole role in life is to set others straight, and we have nothing more to offer. Most of us are called to set others straight only in a relatively small circle. All of us have ample scope for helping others both spiritually and materially—far more scope, generally, than we are selfless enough to use. And yet we may suffer a kind of paralysis. Bogged down in debating whether Pope Francis or Bishop X is right or wrong, we will most likely leave the lane to the basket open for Satan’s slam dunk.
For we are not called to paralysis. At some point, we must return our attention to whatever it is that we discern God calling us to in prayer. The chances are, if we set aside our preoccupation with reaching to the very top and rectifying the problems we see there, we will find that we have far more scope for serving Christ than we dared—in our habitual annoyance—to recognize. Yes, it is possible to find ourselves in circumstances so dire that it is clear God has marked out for us an exclusive calling to suffering and prayer. But that is hardly a typical outcome of our disagreements with bishops and popes.
We must not allow discontents to give Satan a double victory—over the one we are complaining about, and over ourselves. We must keep our perspective so that we can focus on the good God has given us to do. This is the perfect time to reread the twelfth chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” Or again, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” We are all members of the one body, and so we all have our own roles to play.
There is ample scope in Christ for all of our labors, even when there are difficulties beyond our power to remedy. To cite St. Paul again, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). The most frustrated apostle I ever saw in the flesh was Pope Paul VI. He was engulfed by trends in the Church and the world which he simply could not control. I was present at a general audience on his ninth anniversary, when he confessed that all he had been able to do for the Church was suffer. This is no mean calling.
At that time I was still very young, newly married, about to embark on an academic career, and in possession of a dashing self-image that looked suspiciously like a knight in shining armor. It took me some time to shed that conceit entirely, but hearing that statement from the Pope himself at least set me on the right path. When we are discontented with the way things are going in the Church, our first response must always be prayer. Prayer may be followed by discernment. As discernment develops, we may find we should do something about the problem.
We may even find that we are called to do something directly ourselves, but I’d like to suggest at least that all of us are called to complain less about the direction of the Church and sacrifice more. I have little to boast of on this score, but the unpleasant subject of fasting has impressed itself upon me recently more often than I could wish. Perhaps fasting should be a requirement for those who wish to shoot off their mouths (or fingers), and yet I am not fond of hunger pains. Still, perhaps I really should recommend that all of us who are concerned, particularly about Pope Francis, should find ways to offer up regular sacrifices. The purpose would be to put teeth into our prayers, to show Our Lord that we really do want him to care assiduously for the Pope and to guide him, both in the paths he follows and in the words he says.
This is worth serious thought. At a minimum, it puts things in perspective. If we find the shortcomings of our ecclesiastical father—the pope, our papa—great enough to complain about, or if we find his instances of imprudence significant enough to try to correct, then perhaps we ought to do more than simply blame him for making us suffer. God knows that I am no advocate of a universal silence; I counsel only, for the good of souls, due reflection before we speak. But perhaps we can discipline our tongues in another way as well. We certainly ought to pray for right judgment in both the pope and ourselves. That’s a fine lingual exercise, even when the prayer is mental. But perhaps we really can do something more. Perhaps we ought to try that other discipline of the tongue. Perhaps we ought to fast.
And if we find we complain frequently but are unwilling to fast, we should ask ourselves why. Prayer and fasting constitute, after all, the Christian’s greatest position of strength.
Previous in series: Confidence in the Church: What do we do when we want to cry?
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Posted by: John J Plick -
Oct. 19, 2016 11:41 AM ET USA
Our Catholic Church was skillfully designed by the Holy Spirit to work, not to be dysfunctional, & it causes me great grief to see it in its present state!
Posted by: Jim.K -
Oct. 19, 2016 2:35 AM ET USA
Articles such as this are why I continue to read you (and Phil) these many years. Thank you for your well educated, logical, and good old-fashioned common sense Catholicism. Prayer and fasting. Hummmn...
Posted by: margieP -
Oct. 18, 2016 11:22 PM ET USA
When there is much (or even little) that worries us and little we can actually do about it, it IS good to be reminded of the duty we have to pray AND fast. I like to think about "putting teeth" in my prayers! Thank you for all you do.
Posted by: Elan -
Oct. 18, 2016 11:14 PM ET USA