One of the great struggles for many Catholics, especially in the West, is the hierarchical structure of the Church. We are called to submission and obedience to the Church. These are, of course, pejoratives in much of our culture, so many view the Magisterium and hierarchy with disdain, suspicion, and hostility. Some of this is a result of the sinful nature of men and women. The sins of the Church are on public display and so we blame the source instead of the person. While it may be understandable, it is incorrect to do so. The Church’s hierarchical structure is a great gift that was begun by Our Lord Himself. We must learn to separate the sins of men from the Church herself.
One of the great theologians of ecclesiology in the last century was Henri De Lubac. He was a French Jesuit and a masterful theologian. He was Hans Urs von Balthasar’s teacher, another great theologian of the last century. Henri De Lubac gives a clear, concise, and loving explanation of the Church in his book, The Splendor of the Church. De Lubac shows his great love of the Church and invites his readers into a passionate encounter with her, including the hierarchical structure of the Church. He also gives a vibrant explanation of why obedience is absolutely necessary in the Christian life. All that we have been given is from God and all that we have must be returned to God.
It is God himself, giving himself to us in the first place so that we may give ourselves to him; insofar as we welcome him into ourselves we are already not our own. This law is verified in the order of faith more than anywhere else. The truth that God pours into our minds is not just any truth, made to our humble human measure; the life he gives us to drink is not a natural life, which would find in us the wherewithal to maintain itself. This living truth and this true life find foothold in us only by dispossessing us of ourselves; if we are to live in them we must die to ourselves; and that dispossession and death are not only the initial conditions of our salvation, they are the permanent aspect of life as renewed in God.
De Lubac is issuing a timely reminder to each Christian that our lives are not our own. They belong to God and that means a total emptying of self. It is within this framework that we will examine our call to love and submit in obedience to the hierarchical Church. In learning this obedience, we will mature and grow in our faith. Since Christ left us the Church, it is He who calls us to loving submission to the Church.
What is obedience?
The term obedience, along with its counterpart submission, tend to create strong reactions in many people. This can be seen clearly by those who misunderstand St. Paul’s call for ‘wives to submit to their husbands’. The minute submission or obedience enters the discussion a great many people tune out. But when we tune out, are we missing an essential aspect of the Christian life? Yes. In fact, we are missing the deeper sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.
The external sacrifice of Christ on the Cross was His death in payment for the sins of humanity, but His greater sacrifice, the one that ushered in a new era and brought us into communion with the Blessed Trinity, is His internal sacrifice of total obedience to the Father. If we have submitted our lives to Christ in Baptism, then we have agreed to submit in obedience to the will of the Father. De Lubac points out just how critical this obedience is in the Christian life.
And this essential condition is brought about, par excellence, by the effect of Catholic obedience. In that obedience there is nothing of this world and nothing servile; it submits our thoughts and desires, not to caprices of men, but to the obedience of Christ.
De Lubac offers an important distinction. Human beings are leery of obedience of the human kind. We do not want to be obedient to other sinful people, but the obedience that the Christian is called to is obedience to God. God is perfect and so our obedience is meant to be out of love for the One who created us and saved us from sin and death.
What is the connection between the Church and obedience?
First, it is important to understand that while the hierarchical structure of the Church is run by sinful men, it is guided by the Holy Spirit. That means that the Deposit of Faith is not in the hands of men fully, rather it is protected and upheld by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, when the Church teaches on faith and morals, it is not men speaking, it is God. This is a very important distinction to understand. Christ gave us the hierarchical Church in order for us to have a place of reliance, trust, and love. A place where we can be assured of God’s working despite the sins of men and women. De Lubac quotes Fenelon saying:
It is Catholicism alone that teaches, fundamentally, this evangelical poverty; it is within the bosom of the Church that we learn to die to ourselves in order to live in dependence.
By submitting to God through the Church in loving obedience, we continue to learn and live our Baptismal promises. Part of our being conformed (theological term for to be made like) to the Blessed Trinity is learning to give total obedience to the Father, as Christ has done. The Church’s hierarchy provides us with the necessary structure for us to grow in our obedience to God. We are called to see past the sins of mankind and trust that God is working within the Church. De Lubac again:
For his part, the Catholic knows that the Church commands only because she obeys God.
This is the heart of the matter. A Catholic knows that the Church is not making up arbitrary rules and laws to restrict men. No, she is providing the world with knowledge of God and the teachings of God Himself. In fact, because of the experience of caprice that men and women know so well of each other, it is in the Church that we find true expression through trusting God completely in His hierarchy’s pronouncements.
History and his own experience combine to show him both the desire for knowledge of divine things, which stirs the human spirit, and the weakness which lays that spirit open to the falling into every kind of error. In consequence, he appreciates the benefit of a divine Magisterium, to which he freely submits. He thanks God for having given him that Magisterium in the Church and experiences a foretaste of the peace of eternity in placing himself under the eternal law by obedience of faith….He will not countenance any contest with those who represent God, any more than he would with God himself.
Men and women fall into error easily due to our fallen sinful nature. It is easy for us to mirror the first sin and desire to be like God and ignore teachings of the Church. In reality, when we do so, we are setting ourselves up in opposition to God. God calls us not to rely on ourselves, but on Him. Part of that call is through the Magisterium that He has given us. Remember Christ’s deepest sacrifice was of total obedience to the Father and we are called to nothing less. Our obedience to the Church is meant to be born of love for God and trust in Him. This is one of the many ways we can mature in faith. We can see the sinful actions of men within the hierarchy, but remember that God works through them and that the Deposit of Faith is always safe. If infallible teaching is pronounced, then we know it to be truth from the Holy Spirit. If we want to give our lives fully to Christ, then we must give our lives in total submission and obedience to His Church, the one, holy, and apostolic Catholic Church.