Monday, December 14, 2009

A Question of Authority

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?


Sr Anne said...

The Chicago Tribune also commented on this phenomenon of American syncretism:

theFutureRev.Cody said...

While I do not, in any way, agree with the notion of reincarnation, I also do not, in any way, agree that a group of men (or a group of women, for that matter) has the authority to tell me--or anybody else for that matter--what to be believe. My beliefs are between God and I--not Rome and I.

This is why, as much as I would love to enter into Communion with the Catholic Church, I will not be able to do so in good conscience.

Peace to you, Sister.

Sr Anne said...

And yet... "He who hears you, hears Me; he who rejects you, rejects Me; he who rejects Me, rejects the One who sent me." What would that mean if each person could simply interpret the Scriptures and the Jesus story for him or herself? Even Paul insisted that "his" churches remain faithful to the Gospel they had heard from him, or they risked rejecting "not men, but God who sends his Spirit among you" (1 Thess 4:8).
So Catholics who really know what they're about are not just blindly taking in whatever "Father So and So" or Bishop So and So (or even Pope So and So) says, but recognizes in authentic church teaching (discernable also because of its continuity with the earliest church teachings) "God who sends his Spirit" to "teach us all things, whatsoever I told you."
But a lot of Catholics don't really know that and act, well, like Protestants! (Which is your very understandable position, of course!)
This woman's story might be more interesting than a theological treatise; I follow her blog and find it extremely well-written, intellectually engaging and (to top it off) entertaining:

Sr. Lorraine said...

This whole issue is a reflection of how relativism pervades our whole society. The idea that I can make up my own truth is at the root of the problem.
Yet reality is what it is, not what I want it to be. I can decide that the sun moves around the earth. By if I do, it won't change the reality of the solar system.

The Future Rev. Cody said...

Sr. Lorraine, with all due respect, I don't think that this is an issue of just deciding what to believe and what not to believe as if it were the same as picking the pudding over the fruit cup in the cafeteria. It's not that simple.

There are many, many people (myself being one of them) who honestly and legitimately disagree with some Catholic (and some Pentecostal and some Reformed and some Lutheran and so on and so forth) theology. This is not a result of picking and choosing. For some, I will concede, religion and theology is very much like a cafeteria--picking the sweet options and not the options that are healthy. It is ridiculous to say that all non-Catholics (or anybody who disagrees with us) are wrong and just operating on a cafeteria theology.

Again, I say all of this with no disrespect. I cannot, however, idly stand around while it is being said--by extension--that I am making up my own "truths" and, in essence, not following Christ. I'm sorry, but I cannot do that in good conscience.

Peace to both of you.