Something written by one of the Blog Fathers three weeks ago has been slowly percolating in my consciousness, gnawing at the edges of my conscience.
The occasion for the blog post by Fr. Kyle Schnippel was the gospel for Friday, October 9 (Luke 11:14-20), in which Jesus was accused of driving out demons by the power of Beelzebul. Jesus responded with his “House Divided” speech. Fr. Schnippel used the occasion of this gospel passage to promote unity at three levels. First, we should be united to the Church (one, holy, catholic, and apostolic) and her visible head on earth, the Pope. Second, we should be united to our local church (typically the diocese in which we reside) and to her head, the bishop. The good padre concluded by noting that we should also be united with our particular church, our parish, and to her head, the pastor.
I’m fully on board with respect to being united with the universal Church and the pope. After all, he is the one who enjoys the charism of infallibility. That charism, however, is so nuanced that its application actually becomes rather narrow. He has to be speaking or writing, in his capacity as pope, on doctrinal matters of faith and morals. Some theologians say that he has to explicitly say that he’s making an infallible definition. Then there’s the distinction between when the pope is making doctrinal statements versus offering his opinion on matters of prudential judgment. Nevertheless, you can point to the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium 25) to see that the “religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will.” Does that mean that I have to agree with every word and action of the Holy See? I don’t think so, but obviously a lot of discernment is required before I can say, for instance, that the statements of the Holy Father on economics are prudential and not dogmatic. If I disagree on prudential matters, is that a violation of the principle of unity and of the submission of mind and will called for by the Council?
The farther you move away from the head, the more difficult it becomes to maintain unity above all else. The same dogmatic constitution noted that “Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.” There’s an important qualifying phrase in that statement. It would seem that we are to be united and obedient to our bishop to the degree in which he is “teaching in communion with” the pope. How are we to know? Any bishop who identifies himself as not being in communion with Rome is, by definition, schismatic. We certainly are not supposed to follow our bishop into schism! If I had lived in a diocese in which the bishop publicly disagreed with Humanae Vitae in 1968, should I have tried to preserve unity with my bishop or with the pope? The Second Vatican Council seemed to say that if your bishop disagrees with the pope, you should follow the pope, which takes us back to the preceding paragraph.
If there are limits to the degree of unity that we owe to our bishops, who are the heirs to the apostles, then what does that say about our pastors? The Code of Canon Law places authority within the parish in the hands of the pastor. In some dioceses, parish membership is strictly defined by whether one resides within the boundaries of the parish. In other dioceses, parishes enjoy a kind of “open enrollment.” Thus, even though I might live within the boundaries of Parish X, I can choose to belong to Parish Y. In our diocese, pastors are typically assigned to a parish for a period of ten to twelve years. If I move into an area and join a parish after determining that I can enjoy a degree of unity with that parish, but then the pastor rotates out, and the new pastor has a distinctly different spirituality (even if his doctrine is not questionable), what am I to do? Should I change my spirituality to more closely match my new pastor? Should I change my residence to a new parish that better fits my spiritual needs? Do I remain within the parish, but go elsewhere to worship? That hardly serves to promote unity. In fact, that is exactly what I’ve been doing, and it has led to feelings of estrangement. I no longer feel like a full member of my own parish, and I don’t feel like anything more than a visitor at the parish where I’ve been going for liturgical worship. That estrangement, that feeling of separation, is why my conscience has been troubled.
Unity within the Church, of course, extends beyond the visible. As we start the month of November, we are reminded that we are united with the entire Church – the Church militant here on earth, the Church suffering in purgatory, and the Church triumphant in heaven – and with her head, Christ Jesus. Our unity there is profound, by virtue of our baptism. We have been incorporated into the body. That is the unity that really matters and that we should strive, with all our might, to perfect. If we get that unity right, then the rest will work itself out.