Today marks day two of the papal conclave. My attachment to Benedict XVI and my fascination with this Sistine spectacle notwithstanding, I for one will be relieved when the interregnum comes to an end. For as is typical of such periods of sede vacante, the last several weeks have witnessed a slew of commentary on the papacy from every direction, with most of it about as edifying as news reports from The Onion. I’ve had as much as I can take.
Predictably, such reflections have come complete with the all too familiar—and oh so tired—cries for “aggiornamento” in the Church, and for the softening of Catholic doctrine on those subjects where it goes against the modern grain. Outspoken critics of the Bishop Emeritus of Rome have expressed hope that his successor will be more “up-to-date,” inaugurating a pontificate more sympathetic to the spirit of the times. The New Yorker wants female priests; Fox News wants married priests; Garry Wills wants to abolish the priesthood altogether. This isn’t even to mention the countless diatribes against the Church’s inequitable soteriology and her repressive sexual ethics.
I understand why non-Catholic progressives refuse to let go of the hope that, one day, the Church will change. Even as they overlook her heavenly destiny, these hecklers recognize her earthly clout. They appreciate the influential position the Catholic Church occupies on the world stage, and they figure that, as long as she is going to be a global tour de force anyway, they might as well have her work with them rather than against them. These non-Catholics see the Church as something of a blunt object—exceedingly powerful, even if not particularly exceptional. They attempt to sway the Church for the same reason Lincoln tried to sway the Southerners during the Civil War: “Do I not destroy my enemies,” he asked, “when I make them my friends?” From the erroneous perspective of non-Catholics, this attempt to convert the Church makes a lot of sense. But when Catholics join in on the confused chorus, I struggle to discern the intelligibility of their stance.
At the end of the day, there are only two possibilities regarding the Church: Either she is who she claims to be, or not. Either she is the divinely inspired Body of Christ, his anointed bride established upon the rock of Peter to lead all peoples into the fullness of truth, infallibly protected from error on all matters of faith and morals; or else, she is a fraud. There is no via media, and the significance of the implications of these radical alternatives is inestimable.
If the former is correct, and the Church turns out to be telling the truth about her identity, then obviously the right response on our part is a posture of humble obedience. As the Catechism would have it, “What the soul is to the human body, the Holy Spirit is to the Body of Christ, which is the Church.” In the scenario in which that’s accurate and the Church is who she says, then even when I don’t particularly care for one of her doctrinal pronouncements, I ought to recognize that my own preferences take a backseat to her divine wisdom. How arrogant it would be to suppose that I know better than the Holy Spirit himself!
But what if the latter option is correct, and the Church ultimately has no more claim to divine inspiration than the crazy storefront psychic who likes to loiter on my stoop? In that case, there would be only one right reaction for sane and honest Catholics: We ought to get out. If she doesn’t possess the fullness of truth, then the Church has been lying to us for millennia. If she is not the bride of Christ, she is merely a sinful seductress. That granted, ours would have proven itself a deceitful and abusive relationship—one we would do well to escape, and quickly.
Of course, I wish no Catholics ever fell away from the Church. For that matter, I also wish the New York Times would butt out of doctrinal disputes within a faith it never subscribed to in the first place. (Dare to dream, I know.) But I at least understand why the disillusioned depart, and I appreciate why establishment movers and shakers won’t wander far. What I don’t understand are the people who continue to call themselves Catholic even while vying for changes that, if adopted, would completely undermine the credibility of the Church, proving her to have been a deceptive counterfeit all along. If the all-male clergy is going to be a sticking point for someone, even after Mulieris Dignitatem and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, then it seems safe to say that that person just isn’t too committed to ecclesial infallibility. That’s all fine, of course. But then, there is a term for people who don't believe the Church is infallible. They're called non-Catholics.
I do not mean to put too fine a point on it and suggest that the Catholicism is entirely reducible to its teachings. No, the faith is not just a philosophy. And it is not mere intellectual ascent to creedal propositions that effectuate one’s incorporation into the Body of Christ. The waters of baptism welcome us into the faith, and that faith must be lived as well as believed. The Church is indeed more than her doctrine.
More, yes, but not less—and that is the key point here. While it is true that orthodoxy is not a sufficient condition for being a faithful Catholic, still it is a necessary one. One cannot proclaim the Church to be divine while in the same breath denying the veracity of her divine judgments. Thus the notion that one should doctrinally dissent from within proves ultimately incoherent.
This problem does not arise for all organizations, or even for all religions. It is obviously not the case that one may never claim membership in a group and yet disagree with some of its institutional pronouncements. Such a sweeping critique of in-house insubordination is not my point. There is no inherent inconsistency in identifying as an Obama-supporter but condemning his understanding of due process. One can be both a Republican fiscal conservative and yet staunchly antiwar. And there is no contradiction in subscribing to the Episcopalian faith despite one’s qualms with their recent stances on sodomy. But it is not so with Rome; Catholicism admits of no rational disobedience.
The reason for this exceptional and inviolable status is that the Catholic Church has staked out a far bolder claim to fame than any political party, bolder even than other Christian sects. Unlike these, the Catholic Church does not understand herself to be merely a human organization, exhaustively described by reference to her composition of mortal men cooperating towards some common goal. By her own testimony, the Church presumes to be first and foremost a divine institution. As St. Paul would have it in his first epistle to Timothy, she is “the Church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth.” That orientation to truth boasts a particularly extraordinary expression in the successor of St. Peter, the pope. Said the First Vatican Council:
We teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.
This was followed by some nice threats about anathema for those who reject the teaching. I’m just saying.
There is an old Christological argument, originated in the Patristic period and re-popularized in our own day by CS Lewis, classically known by the moniker, Aut deus aut homo malus: “Either God or a bad man.” Its thrust is that one must either believe Jesus to be the Son of God, or else condemn him as malicious (or, at the very least, certifiably insane). What he has not left available is the comfortable but evasive escape: that he was a good and wise man, but a mere man nonetheless. After all, holy mortals do not declare themselves to be God incarnate. Says Lewis, “You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon, or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
As the above ecclesiological reflections suggest, there is a comparable argument to be made for the Catholic Church. Her divine title blocks off for us the apparent path of least resistance. Whatever the Church is, she cannot be just a good human institution. Nice associations of mere men do not impress upon themselves the seal of the divine. No, if the Church is wrong, she’s a liar, the worst liar history has known since Christ himself. And if we are unwilling to dismiss her as a fraud, it is time to fall at her feet in humble submission, bowing to her authority and letting go our doctrinal disagreements. To riff on the Baptist formula: “Rome said it; I believe it; that settles it.”
It is important for all people to wrestle with these radical alternatives bequeathed to us by the Church. More than a few Protestants have crossed the Tiber on the strength of this argument, and it was a similar logic that led to the baptism of Abraham the Jew in Boccaccio’s Decameron. But at this particular historical moment, as the chair of Peter sits vacant in anticipation and the papal blogosphere threatens to burst at the seams, it is Catholics themselves who most need to contemplate the tremendous claims of Holy Mother Church. Like the two paths of Psalm 1, a drastic decision lies before each of us. Aut divina aut ecclesia mala: Either divine or a bad church.