Revelation: Minimal authority, lived in suffering
It could have been done differently, of course. God could have presented a continuous interior Revelation to each and every one of us, so that we all could enjoy a perfect uninterrupted awareness of His Being and His Divine will. But that would have made an even worse mess than we are in now. For this approach would not have guaranteed our acceptance and obedience unless God also eliminated our freedom. He would have had to imprint Truth without any assent on our souls, which would then (again, without assent) control all our thoughts, words and actions.
Hopefully the point is obvious: The most important human reality when it comes to Divine Revelation is the gift of free will. Free will renders impossible any sort of immediate, univocal affirmation of the true and the good.
But this does not mean God eschews interior illumination altogether. On the contrary, He uses it almost continuously to communicate Himself and His will to us, but without subverting our freedom. He does this in two ways: First, by what we call the natural law, which is known to the human conscience through human nature’s personal participation in being; and, second, by the direct promptings of the Holy Spirit, Who seeks in a great many mysterious ways to guide us into all truth. (For Scripture on this point, see passages such as 1 Tim 2:4; the dangers expressed in 2 Tim 3; and of course Jn 14:15-17,25-26.)
Two specific occurrences have prompted my thoughts. On the one hand, I have been exchanging emails with someone who registered on CatholicCulture.org for the purpose of challenging our Catholic beliefs, demanding to know how we square this or that belief or practice with various passages he has cherry-picked from Scripture. On the other hand, Sophia Institute Press just sent me a copy of their new book by Rod Bennett, provocatively entitled Bad Shepherds, which is a study of some of the worst bishops and popes in history. Bennett’s purpose, paradoxically, is to reassure us that all is not lost in these latter days. The compelling subtitle is “The Dark Years in Which the Faithful Thrived While Bishops Did the Devil’s Work”. But my correspondent, surely, would use this book for the opposite purpose, to lead Catholics to despair of the Church.
If we take free will as a given—and we must, for God’s whole point is to draw us into His love, and there is no love without freedom—then something very important is true that Rod Bennett knows and my correspondent does not: Not only human persons but all persons—including angels and even the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—find themselves on the horns of a dilemma when it comes to eliciting a properly-ordered human love. Reflection on this reality will make many things far more clear to us. Among them, I emphasize primarily this: God’s ultimate purpose in permitting human suffering is for us to learn to love with God’s own love, imparted as a share in His own life, rather than to depend solely on our own meager and unstable powers of affection.
This is a profound mystery, about which books can be written. Fortunately, today I have more practical points in mind. What, after all, would we have God do? What plan for our salvation would be consistent with the exalted nature He has given us?
Our thick heads
We can see immediately that finite beings possessed of intellect and will must know God through a Revelation, for the mysteries of God are beyond our ability to reason out, even in a perfect world, based solely on what we can know through nature. Still, our very nature does convince us that there is a fundamental difference between good and evil, and that we somehow live under a judgement. Therefore, there must be a Judge who cares how we live. As Newman argued so persuasively, there can be nothing more likely than that He who cares how we live would disclose His will more clearly. For this reason, all men and women of good sense are ever on the lookout for a Revelation. But if we really are reasonable, we will accept no claim that is not accompanied by signs that could only come through Divine power.
As we have seen, though, our freedom places severe restrictions on such signs, for they must not be such as to continuously dominate our wills. What could be more useful, therefore, than the startling claim of resurrection from the dead? Such a claim is specific to a time and place in history yet unique to our entire history. To become convinced of the truth of such a claim is to know where to look for our Revelation.
But again, this Revelation cannot be such as to compromise our freedom. Perhaps we can recognize, then, that Revelation is most useful for its purpose if it is expressed by fits and starts, as it were, in the midst of human history, sometimes a whisper and sometimes a thunderclap, in events which point to something greater than we directly perceive. Thus we have Jonah and Solomon, but there is something greater than even Jonah and Solomon in the crowning Resurrection of Jesus (Mt 12:39-42). Yet even the Resurrection, like all moments of Revelation, comes and goes in history.
How then are we to reflect back or even forward upon this Revelation year by year without constant error and confusion? Some would point to the written word in Scripture, but how do we know Scripture is the Word of God? And if any writings are the Word of God, how do we know which ones? Further, how do we know about all the things the Risen One taught that were not written down (Jn 21:25)? How do we know that we understand what is written? How do we know, as we reflect on Scripture over the centuries, that our understanding of its depth and richness is growing rather than diminishing? Whom in this confused world do we dare trust as a guide?
Even these questions must find a solution consistent with both human reason and human freedom. If a definitive Revelation is made and identified and recorded, then there must be established along with it what we call a “principle of authority”, that is, a defined and identifiable ongoing authority, included in the Revelation itself, which can distinguish truth from error in all that has been revealed.
To be consistent with our necessary liberty, this authority must be in a very real sense minimalistic. It must create only a guaranteed authentic baseline which enables us actually to grow in freedom and love through the quintessential human acts of knowing and living the Truth. Any alleged revelation which lacks such an ongoing principle of authority for its own interpretation—which lacks a definitive provision for settling disputes over its own meaning—can only become increasingly chaotic and useless over time. Even within the Christian line of thought, the division between Catholics and Protestants makes this painfully clear.
Now, as it happens, only Catholicism, of all the religions in the world, claims a definitive principle of authority. The Revelation which gave birth to Catholicism identifies this principle in Peter and his successors, who must “confirm the brethren” (Lk 22:32). It is a principle not only recorded in the written Revelation but carried forward in the ongoing life of the very community established by the One Who Rose. But notice another necessary consistency, for this authority, going down through the ages, cannot be manifested in such a way that the Christian community always receives demonstrably perfect guidance in all things, or that those who bear that authority manifest undeniable personal signs of Divinity which overpower all human doubt. For that too would be inconsistent with human freedom, which was given for love.
No, it is sufficient that the revealed authority protect, preserve and transmit the authentic Revelation so that each person down through the ages can respond to it anew. Therefore, it is precisely the establishment and endurance of this authority, in all its weakness and all its necessity, which makes nonsense of the constant objections of my correspondent while making perfect sense out of Rod Bennett’s new book. For my correspondent cannot on his own be certain of his understanding of the original Revelation. He cannot set his own non-existent personal authority against the authority established by Christ. And at the same time, it is this very authority which makes it possible to read a book like Bad Shepherds with the discernment necessary to receive as a sign of hope what might otherwise betoken only despair.
Catholics are not “people of the Book”. We are the living Body of Christ, growing forward through history until the consummation of all things. Despite our sins and our blindness, despite our confusion and our betrayals, we have what we need from God Himself. But what we have is conditioned by the inextricable link between freedom and love. This means that here and now we look forward to our union with the Risen One only while we also carry the Cross. As St. Paul explained, “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7).
Again, what would we expect God to do? My argument is hardly new! As for the authority principle which has been incorporated into the one true Revelation, the very first person who exercised that authority tried very hard to make us understand. Here and now we are guaranteed only the minimum consistent with the task of human liberty to choose Love. “Rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings,” urged St. Peter, “that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:13).
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