Just Call Me Jerry
With the Ascension of Christ to heaven—the departure of his identifiable physical presence—and with the descent of the Holy Spirit, Jesus becomes accessible to us only by faith. Through faith, we come to know Jesus in the Word of God. Through faith, we encounter Jesus in the sacraments. Through faith and the sacraments, we are incorporated into his Mystical Body, we become one with Him and we become his holy instruments.
Hence, we all have our roles to play as members of his Mystical Body. All of us—laity, religious, and clergy, from every nation and every culture on earth—are indispensable to the mission of Jesus. A good deal is lost in God’s providence when we do not respond to his graces.
A priest derives his authority from Jesus through his bishop. His job is to govern the flock of his church in the way of the Lord; he is to preach the word of God and to sanctify his people through the reverent administration of the Sacraments.
The laity also has an indispensable role. Incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ by Baptism and Confirmation, and fed with the Blessed Eucharist, the laity represent Christ in the secular world—more so than the clergy. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, the faithful apply the magisterial teachings of the Gospel to the concrete circumstances of their lives in the world. They proclaim Jesus by their lives.
But in many respects, we have lost our way. Over multiple decades, we have witnessed the laity losing confidence in their role as members of the Mystical Body; in practice, too often lay people have become indistinguishable from others caught up in the secular culture. Too often, the “Church” is identified as “priests, bishops, and pope.” With the laity effectively disassociated from the Church, many members of the clergy have filled the void, taking leadership roles that primarily belong to the laity. Hence, we have ecclesiastical documents expounding upon the intricacies of tax policy, the details of immigration, even global warming.
The result of these distortions is confusion and a crisis of faith. Some Catholics who thoughtfully and prudently disagree with the clergy on matters of taxes or immigration policy, for example, think they are in bad standing with the Church. Not true!
Other Catholics profess to be “open-minded.” Of course, Catholics can disagree with the clergy in many matters of economics and politics, they argue. But many believe that the laity can also disagree with the clergy on matters of faith and foundational morals such as the Church’s teaching on marriage and human life. Pick and choose your faith. Again, not true!
To sort out the confusion, here is what I propose, with God’s grace:
First, let’s always carefully distinguish between the Church and the Church’s hierarchy. Resolve never to criticize the Church. The Church is one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic: the spotless bride of Christ. Mary the Immaculate Conception and perpetual virgin is the model of the Church. All authentic Church teaching is true, beautiful, and good. So we must all make a special effort to identify and live according to authentic Church teaching that extends back to the Apostles and Jesus Himself.
On the other hand, Peter is the model of the hierarchy. Unlike Mary, Peter was not sinless. When Jesus called him to be the first of the Apostles, Peter said: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Lk 5:8) He spent the remainder of the Gospels proving it. But Jesus never allowed him to resign his commission as first among the Apostles. It is reasonable—in justice and charity—to admit to the many errors and sins of the hierarchy, as we admit to our own sins.
Second, we should bear in mind that the clergy and the laity both belong to the Mystical Body of Christ. Always aware of the danger of oversimplification, we should realize that the role of the clergy is to teach the magisterial teachings and principles of the Church’s faith and morals. The laity implements the principles in the world, according to their states in life, guided by the Holy Spirit, making the prudential judgments that properly belong to them.
Hence, when I am teaching Catholic principles—the Creed, the Ten Commandments, the dignity of every human being from the moment of conception, the inherent dignity of peoples from every nation around the world—my parishioners should recognize my authority as a priest and call me “Father.” (On the margins, some historical situations can challenge and stretch priestly authority, such as when parish priests denounced the Nazis in the early 1930s.)
But when I use my office to wax eloquent on the economy, or global warming, or on the horror of the carbon imprint of volcanoes, you can call me “Jerry.” You may, if you prefer, respond: “Thanks, Father, we’ll take it from here.” The clergy has no special ecclesial authority in these matters. (Of course, like everyone else, priests are entitled to their private opinions.) Ultimately most questions in the political and economic spheres are for the laity to resolve with minds formed by magisterial Christian principles.
When we discover our proper roles as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, our freedom is properly expressed and directed. With clear boundaries defined by reason, according to our state of life, we should have the confidence to be militant members of the Mystical Body of Christ. With this said, there is nothing to prevent clergy and laity alike from locking arms and confronting the pressing problems of the day: opposing Planned Parenthood, combatting corrupt family-life education programs in our schools, resisting political assaults on our religious freedom.
We all have much to do on behalf of Jesus and his holy Church. And our time here on earth is short. The same Holy Spirit that enlightened the hearts of the faithful on Pentecost is with us today if we are open to Him. With the grace of the Holy Spirit, we must make our faith known in our families and workplaces, and in the world.
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