The perfectly legitimate public authority of the Church
In the first three essays in this series, I have been arguing against our modern cultural prejudice that all religions are essentially the same, that they are all merely different forms of a personal and private sentiment. Though it may not always have been obvious, I have been probing the nature of the Catholic Church as a legitimate authority in human affairs. In truth, the Church is the only perfectly (that is, unassailably) legitimate authority, as we will see.
But I have been speaking more about Revelation and truth than about institutional authority, and I am not at all sure I have been forthright enough to shatter our contemporary Western illusion that “religion is a purely private affair.” To ensure clarity, we must distinguish among the natural law, religion in general, Christianity, Catholicism and, at last, the institution that is the Catholic Church. So let me speak more directly now; let me be perfectly frank.
Natural Law and human religion
Natural law is binding—both privately and publicly, as should be obvious—on all mankind. The natural law is simply the moral dimension of reality, of the way things are. What is, what is given in creation, reveals within its very ontological structure the difference between good and evil responses to it. Some actions are consonant with the structure and purposes expressed in natural being, and some are not.
While human persons are so constituted as to be in direct personal touch with reality, and while our faculty of conscience translates our apprehension of reality into moral terms, the devil is literally in the details. The human intellect is far from infallible and the human will is far from securely anchored in the good. Our ability to grasp this moral dimension of reality that we call the natural law is subject to various forms of blindness and error, not to mention the possibility of being misled by our passions, with all the rationalizations that typically follow. There will be arguments about the requirements of the natural law as long as human persons inhabit the earth. While we must still struggle to get it right, as human persons none of us can claim ultimate authority in the parsing of the natural law.
Religion in general responds to one of the most fundamental aspects of reality and of nature (which is the portion of reality with which we can effectively interact without anything superadded to our abilities). This “aspect” is our instinctive awareness (and eminently logical conclusion) that we and all the things we see around us are created; that there must be a Creator; that there is a difference between good and evil; and that we find ourselves somehow guilty or under a judgment. There are many ways to reflect on this pervasive natural sensitivity, which is only partially driven out even through the most careful tutelage of those who have made prior choices to turn away from God. But this awareness explains the nearly universal conclusion that God exists and that we owe him worship. In other words, this awareness points us to the virtue of religion.
Religion has taken a variety of different forms, a circumstance which many have illogically considered a powerful argument against its validity. But this diversity is only to be expected, and for three important reasons. First, left to ourselves, we have only our fallible reading of the universe to go on. Naturally speaking, we can know very little about God. Consequently, the very virtue of religion (our duty to worship God) tends to get fleshed out in a wide variety of ways by influential thinkers or religious leaders who attempt to explain and even codify far more than they really know to be true or best, expressing the religious impulse culturally, and sometimes even claiming a personal Divine enlightenment which cannot be verified.
Second, we can expect to find the influence of evil spirits in the formation of many religions, which can be perverted both through temptations and delusions experienced by religious leaders, and even by direct manifestation and manipulation. Even the most primitive peoples have been aware of the struggle between good and evil in their own minds and wills, as well as various forms of demonic influence, including possession by evil spirits. Such phenomena have continued to be chronicled even in the most “advanced” societies. They are on the increase now; it is increasingly clear that one of the reasons modern Westerners have often dismissed them as superstition is that such direct manifestations of diabolical activity became very rare in cultures in which nearly everyone was a baptized Christian believer.
Third, the broad religious sensibility of mankind opens a path to influence and power. Religious leaders have had more than one reason to stimulate and guide the acceptance of various beliefs and practices which (again) reflect the interests and values of particular human cultures. As we know from historical experience, since the religious impulse is very close to universal, most people will accept the religious theories of those they consider dominant in their society.
This can work the other way as well, as natural piety will be rapidly eroded in a deliberately secularized culture by constant assertions to the effect that God is dead, or that there is no God, or that God’s will is irrelevant because we cannot know it. On the other hand, as the Roman lyric poet Horace noted in a letter written only a few years before the birth of Christ: “Naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret: You can drive nature away with a pitchfork, but she always comes running back” (Epistles i.x.24).
Blessed John Henry Newman argued, both correctly and famously, that our pervasive sense of living under a judgment (which even self-proclaimed atheists experience daily) implies the existence of a Judge who cares about our moral decisions. And if this Judge cares, Newman concluded, we can only assume that at some point and in some way He will reveal Himself and tell us how He wants us to act. It is the most logical thing in the world, then, to expect and search for a Revelation from God.
But there have been two and only two manifestly Divine interventions in history, in which God has attested to His self-disclosure through public signs and wonders that could be produced only by a Divine being. Such a verifiable revelation is an absolute requirement for a claim by any religion to be true religion, and not just a human construct or interpretation. It is an additional very powerful argument that these two instances are recorded in the histories not of two widely disparate religious groups with widely varying beliefs, but of Judaism and the religion that claims to be the fulfillment of Judaism, namely Christianity. When we add all the miracles of Jesus Christ, the Jewish Messiah, culminating in His (publicly manifested and verifiable) Resurrection from the dead, what we discover is the religion—the mode of worship and the mode of life—revealed by God.
I have written previously that no other religion even claims to be based on a public, verifiable Divine disclosure. But it is one of the conceptual challenges of Christ’s ultimate Revelation that He Himself retired from our view, leaving it to His followers to grow in understanding of His Revelation, to preserve it, and to propagate it throughout the world over time. At this stage of the discussion, therefore, we find ourselves aware of a Divine Revelation but without any means of saying exactly how it is to be understood down through the centuries and around the globe.
If this were all we had, such a Revelation would be obviously incomplete—as was the first Divine disclosure to the Jews.
But this is not all we have. God (being God) understands the requirements for the sort of completed Revelation that Christ claimed to provide (e.g., “I and the Father are one” [Jn 10:30]). Consequently, Our Lord told His apostles that “He who hears you hears me” (Lk 10:16), and He stated point blank that He would establish a Church with Peter as its human foundation (Mt 16:18). Finally, He told Simon Peter:
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” [Lk 22:31-32]
Peter, then, might have ended up like the leader of any other religion, prone to mixing the Divine, the human, and the diabolical—especially, as we have seen again and again, under the influence if cultural fashions and political pressure. But Christ foresaw this problem and very deliberately prevented it from developing.The early history of the Church and Christian Scripture demonstrate that Christ made clear provision for the ongoing value of this Divine Revelation which was sealed by His own death and Resurrection. That the successors of Peter possess the same Divine commission, Divine protection, Divine authority and Divine guarantee as Peter himself is also more than amply attested by the earliest history of the Christian community and by the internal logic of what a completed Revelation must necessarily entail.
What was provided for by God, therefore, is exactly what we can see so clearly that the case requires. Appeals to Peter and his successors to settle disputes over faith and morals are documented throughout the earliest Christian centuries. The first Christians expected it and experienced it, and so should we. Through the unique and special Petrine office, the Catholic Church over which Peter and his successors preside is guaranteed by God to correctly identify and explain in every time and place exactly what God has revealed.
A Public Authority
I began by saying it was necessary to recognize the Catholic Church as a public authority—indeed the only perfectly legitimate authority. Every other institutional authority on earth is what we might call makeshift, a purely human construction forged through the vagaries of our history. Some authorities (like that of parents over children) are evident in the nature of things, but owing to fallibility they are never absolute. The Catholic Church is the only institution on earth whose authority God has reached from beyond time to directly establish, guaranteeing its infallibility under the conditions necessary to protect and preserve what He has revealed. Again, it should be evident at once that God could not have effected a complete and final Revelation by doing anything less.
This does not mean that the Church has the mission of prudentially governing the temporal order. That is neither the province nor the purpose for which her authority has been established, nor has she ever claimed such authority. Rather, her mission is to draw as many persons as possible into the Kingdom of God which, as Christ Himself stated, is not of this world (Jn 18:36). Her mission, in other words, is to make God and His will known to us, which she alone has been commissioned by God to do; and to do this with a sureness and a power which prevents Satan from sifting her like wheat.
Note: For any who are unaware of the Church’s claim, which is precisely delimited in ways that eliminate foolish or fear-mongering interpretations, I will state it succinctly here: She claims that the Pope, as the successor of Peter, is infallible whenever he manifestly (a) teaches (b) to the whole Church (c) on a matter of faith or morals (d) by virtue of his Petrine authority.
Though we have gone through several steps, the point of this essay is to demonstrate that the Catholic Church—unlike any other religious body that has ever existed in history—has an authority which is derived not from the influence and power of her collective membership but from God Himself. Other religions advance moral goals through argument and through their influence over men and women who in turn influence both the social order and government. The Catholic Church does this as well, of course. But the difference is that the Catholic Church has a Divinely-constituted authority to explain to the whole world—including to human governments—the precise truth about the moral order, about good and evil, about the legitimate means and ends of all human action, including the means by which and the ends for which governments may rightly rule, as revealed by God.
Now as we have already seen, God reveals Himself to us in two ways: (1) Naturally through His creation, that is, through the moral structure of reality which is articulated in what we call the natural law; and (2) Supernaturally through direct Revelation attested by signs and wonders that only He can perform. Consequently, the Catholic Church has the infallible authority to articulate rightly what is and is not required by both of these Divine disclosures. No other power on earth has such an authority or even makes such a claim.
It is sadly true that the Church’s claims are resisted and recognized only imperfectly in this world. The same was true of Jesus Christ despite His miracles, and even immediately after He rose from the dead. But these claims are verifiably true, and they explain why Catholics themselves must stop thinking about their religion as simply the one they happen to be involved in or the one they find most to their liking among a wide variety of similar offerings. While the social practice of religious pluralism is inescapable in some societies and in some periods, Catholics must cast off the blinders which restrict their vision to a false view of religious pluralism, in which the members of different religious groups are not merely seeking tolerance and understanding for the common good, but rather in which all religions are erroneously regarded as fundamentally the same, and in which no religion can possibly have any claim on the minds and hearts of all, let alone on the powers of human government.
The Catholic Church does makes that claim. She makes it by Divine command. Our present civilization will continue to slide into chaos—and so will Catholics themselves—until we recognize and act on this difference. We must recognize the fundamental and incontrovertible claim of the Catholic Church, not to a merely marginal influence in spiritual and moral affairs, but to true authority.
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