Today's Advent readings ask us to do some critical thinking: what is the real foundation of our convictions? Or, as the Pharisees challenged Jesus, "On what authority do you do (or teach, or proclaim) the things you do?"
I've been noticing lately (and this may be an American thing) that people ultimately trust their gut more than any other authority, even when it comes to things that are fairly distant from the gut's usual areas of expertise. Over the weekend, USA Today reported that 20% of Catholics believe in reincarnation. Not resurrection: reincarnation.
On what authority?
Not the teaching authority referred to in the Gospels: "All authority in heaven and on earth have been given to Me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations..." That authority tells us that "it is given to human beings to die once, and after that be judged"; that Jesus is the "firstborn of the dead," and that our destiny is to "be conformed to the pattern of his glorious body" when he comes again at the end of time. (That is the "Advent" we are really celebrating this time of year!)
Those 20% of self-identified Catholics rely more on the authority of their own personal gut. Which means that there are as many authoritative guts as there are people with strongly held personal convictions. Which means, ultimately, that for them, at least, there is no actual authority outside of themselves.
Needless to say, reincarnation is only one example of guts trumping theology, tradition and the united testimony of the Churches of East and West.
After this two week tour, which took us to eight cities in seven states, I am more convinced than ever that God gave the Church real authority, and that many, many Catholics stand in serious need of conversion to that authority. It makes no sense to claim to be a Catholic but reserve to oneself all judgment about matters of faith and morals (or even of Church order, like those protest groups that are occupying closed parish churches and advertising for a disobedient priest to pastor them, as if sacraments celebrated apart from the communion of the bishop were genuine expressions of Catholic life). Clearly, they don't know what it means to be Catholic, no matter what their gut may tell them.
Sometimes the authority of the Church seems very much like Balaam's donkey, braying loudly and resisting the clear direction set by the "rulers of this age." What if, like the prophet's donkey, she sees something that guts alone cannot discern?