Saturday, June 5, 2010

Of rebels and bishops

We Americans have a soft spot for rebels. I think the soft spot is in our heads.

On any ordinary day, we subject ourselves to Authorities, sometimes with tacit approval, sometimes with grudging acceptance, most often without any thought one way or another. Our rebellion rarely goes beyond violating the speed limit; when we’re caught, we pay the fine with a smile of sheepish chagrin. Occasionally our financial circumstances force us to play chicken with the law until we have a chance to “get legal” again. We obey our bosses; we obey our parents; we obey the law; in the military, we obey both the commissioned and non-commissioned officers in our chains of command.

We do so because we recognize that Authority is necessary. We recognize that the idealistic anarchist’s vision of a society without rules and rulers is impossible above a certain number of people (five, to be precise), that predators and troublemakers would soon force us to recreate the role of an Authority. Shepherds, cowboys and soldiers all know that someone’s gotta keep the wanderers in line if everybody’s going to get to the group destination. A law without police power is an empty set of precations; an organization without a board can’t handle its obligations or set its goals; a church without a system of leadership can’t protect and pass on its dogma or doctrine.

All the while, though, there is this lurking, selfish, chaotic beast inside us that constantly strains at its own bonds, wanting to take us over long enough to make us “flip the bird” at them all: “Screw you! I’m gonna do what I want!” In our hearts, we ride with the Hell’s Angels, rob banks with the James brothers, drink and fornicate with rock bands, and lead the King’s men on a merry chase through Sherwood Forest with Robin Hood and Will Scarlet. O to live lawless and free!

Robin Hood was eventually hunted down and killed. Jesse James was shot in the back by a former henchman as he turned to straighten a picture on his wall; Frank did some time and eventually became a revival preacher.[1] There are still Hell’s Angels out there; but many have gone to prison, while the rest have faded from our minds as glorious “bad boys” and become just another vicious criminal gang. We have a sneaking admiration for Vito and Michael Corleone (and Tony Soprano) … but we’re also repulsed by them. Dionysius’ reign can never be other than short-lived; Apollo must always restore order at the end.

And the rock stars? Keith Richards’ face and body show every bit of the hard use irresponsibility has laid on him. Bret Michaels has publicly proclaimed himself “lucky to be alive”. The King of Rock ‘n Roll has been dead these twenty-three years; the King of Pop died from similar causes last year; both died from the over-indulgence their lifestyles made possible.

What prompts these reflections?

On The Catholic Thing, blogger Austin Ruse has posted an interesting bit on the “Good Church/Bad Church” dichotomy Catholic dissidents attempt to impose on their meta-narrative. “Good Church is made of the very good and saintly people—mostly nuns—carrying out their selfless humanitarian work on the ground, all the while being hectored and hampered by Bad Church, the pampered and soft elite who have little to do with the real teachings of Jesus.” Good Church is made up of people like Sr. Margaret McBride, who was excommunicated and removed from her hospital administrative post for signing off on an abortion, the medical necessity of which is debatable. Good Church is made up of people like Sr. Carol Keehan, who was booted off the Holy Family Hospital Foundation board by the Knights of Malta for her vocal support of the family health-care bill the US Conference of Catholic Bishops openly opposed due to its back-door funding of abortion. Good Church is made up of people like Rainbow Sash, a GLBTQ[2] group who staged a rather anti-climactic display of open opposition at Holy Name Cathedral on Pentecost Sunday. (Doubtless they were disappointed when the Holy Spirit didn’t visibly descend upon them.)

It’s understandable that they would appeal to the public using the envy-laden imagery of the bishops as “a group of detached, pampered men in gilded robes on a balcony high above the rest of us”, as Nicholas Kristof snarked in the New York Times (go figure). Doubtless they think of themselves as a collection of Merry Men—oops, Merry Persons—gaily and gallantly defying the pretender princes and their lickspittle sheriffs while doing the real Christian work. It all smacks of that Woodstock-y demand “Question authority!”

Of course, it’s very easy to challenge authority when you’re not the one in charge who has to get things done. The very people who once used that rebellious phrase now try to crush anyone who attempts to oppose or even correct them—their authority can’t be questioned, even by themselves. Martin Luther found that undermining the authority of the Pope and bishops didn’t mean that people transferred automatic obedience to him; he never realized that he couldn’t undermine episcopal authority without subverting his own. Protestant apologists have a hard time reconciling the absolute necessity of a human teaching authority with their insistence that only Scripture has divine authority; they can’t see how sola scriptura means that anyone can appeal to their own interpretation of Scripture against any minister or preacher, let alone a presumed successor to the apostles.

What many people, non-Catholic and Catholic alike, don’t know or understand is that the episcopate didn’t arise out of some demonic human need to create an oppressive elite (though it’s hard to keep elitism and autocracy out of any such structure). Rather, it became quickly apparent that some people had to take ultimate responsibility for teaching the Faith, which meant the responsibility to define and preserve it as well as promote it.

The first of many errors, Gnosticism, had started to manifest itself even in the times of the apostles. Realizing that his time was coming, St. Paul appointed successors in Ss. Timothy and Titus, telling the former: “Preach the word, be urgent in and out of season, convince, rebuke and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth, and wander into myths” (2 Tim 4:2-4).

Saint Clement I, the fourth Bishop of Rome (r. 88-97), saw this need with perfect clarity: “Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry” (Letter to the Corinthians 44).

Saint Ignatius, on his way to die for the Faith, wrote to several communities, whom he exhorted to obey the bishops: “See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the [priests] as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. … Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 8).

Tertullian, one of the great apologists among the Church Fathers, issued this challenge to heretics: “But if there be any [heresies] which are bold enough to plant [their origin] in the midst of the apostolic age, … we can say: Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [their first] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men—a man, moreover, who continued steadfast with the apostles” (Demurrer Against the Heretics 32).

The Church Fathers occasionally had their disagreements, both with the Bishop of Rome and other bishops. But they knew in general that the only chance the Church had of preserving the teaching of the apostles was to respect the transmission of apostolic authority to the bishops. As Cyprian of Carthage sardonically noted in his Letter to Magnus (75:3), the only way heresies can succeed is to destroy the apostolic succession by introducing bishops who “spring from themselves”.

Authority exists for a very good and necessary reason. The Gospel of Christ is now hopelessly fragmented within Protestant Christianity precisely because Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and others told people they could get it by reading the Bible for themselves. And that’s precisely what they did: because the Bible is not structured as a catechism nor as the repository of all necessary things, people got—and continue to get—what they want out of it.

And that’s why Catholic dissidents must be corrected: by repeating Luther’s rebellion, they repeat Luther’s mistake. They don’t make God’s desire theirs; they make their desire God’s.

[1] As Robert Ford told the tale, it almost sounds like Jesse James acted in the full knowledge of what would happen. Did he turn his back on Ford to make it easy (for Ford or himself), or to brand Ford a coward? Or was the picture really crooked?
[2] GLBTQ, if you don’t know, stands for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer. How does “queer” differ from “gay/lesbian”? The advocates of “queer theory” dislike gender and orientation categories, and reject marriage as an institution; moreover, they hold that the preference for same-sex relations can be a choice and not just a matter of genetic/social programming.


  1. "We recognize that the idealistic anarchist’s vision of a society without rules and rulers is impossible above a certain number of people (five, to be precise), that predators and troublemakers would soon force us to recreate the role of an Authority."
    How do you figure five? I always thought it was three, as the fourth person to come into the world killed the third, if I recall Genesis correctly (and assuming the barely-mentioned daughters hadn't been born in between those first two sons).

  2. The argument at this point isn't strictly biblical but rather sociological. Organized groups larger than five tend to split into factions, which end up reflecting differences in attitudes, beliefs and values that translate into differences of goals and methods. Genesis doesn't get too heavy into the group dynamics of Adam and his family.


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