News flash: the Pope doesn't tell God what to do
No doubt it’s a mistake to expect theological clarity in a statement by Elton John. Still when a friend called my attention to Sir Elton’s proclamation that Pope Francis is a saint, my eye was caught by the rock star’s assessment: “He is a compassionate, loving man who wants everybody to be included in the love of God.”
Everyone is included in the love of God, regardless of what this Pope, or any other, says. (How people respond to that love is another question.) Does Elton John think that the Pope makes the rules and God obeys them, like some sort of powerful genie required to fulfill its owner’s wishes?
That’s a ridiculous notion, I’ll grant you. But it’s perfectly compatible with other notions that circulate freely in popular culture—that is, in the world that has shaped Elton John. We constantly hear calls for the Church to change her teaching on contraception, or divorce, or euthanasia, or the ordination of women, or homosexuality. But if you pay any attention at all (and I concede, that’s a big “if”) you know that the Church proclaims these moral teachings not as human rules but as the will of God.
Now you might deny that the Church can know the will of God; you might deny that the Church can teach authoritatively. If you do, you shouldn’t care, one way or another, what the Pope says.
Yet people who claim to reject the authority of the Church often argue that the Church should teach something authoritatively—only that “something” would be contrary to what the Church has always previously taught. In doing so, the Church would be saying, in effect: “We were wrong. We didn’t know the will of God. Here, now, is our revised understanding.” You see the problem immediately. If the understanding can be revised once, it can be revised again, so the teaching cannot be authoritative.
But now I find myself wondering whether the critics of traditional Catholic teaching actually credit the Church with a degree of authority far greater than any Pope would dare claim: the authority to dictate to God. Maybe Elton John and others think that the Church can not only know God’s will but change God’s will. That’s an absurdity, of course; the Almighty is not governed by his creatures. But it wouldn’t be the only absurdity with a powerful hold on popular culture.
Jesus gave St. Peter the keys to the Kingdom. But it’s still His Kingdom. St. Peter is the gatekeeper, not the Sovereign. Maybe our contemporaries have trouble recognizing the distinction because they are not ready to accept the existence of anything more powerful than the human will.
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