They’re imperfect – all of them. Every now and then, a reminder is useful.
The Acts of the Apostles contains a pair of segments that make many things plain – indeed, plainer in some ways than the Church would like us to know. The first of them is in Chapter 2:
And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved. [Acts 2:44-47]
Let’s agree to bypass the question many have raised over this passage: i.e., whether socialism, as it was practiced by those early believers, is somehow theologically mandated. Rather, let’s consider the amity and serenity the passage depicts. It tells of a true Christian peace, a state of existence to which all good men should aspire as the ideal. Now we turn a few chapters forward:
And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. [Acts 6:1-4]
Suddenly there’s dissension in the ranks! Some are being treated better than others in the “daily ministration” – i.e., the distribution of charity to those in need – and their fellow Greek Christians are not having any of it. Note also that the emergence of the “daily ministration” implies that the early practice of “holding all things in common” did not last. Socialism didn’t scale up any better in First Century Judea than at any time afterward.
The Church was getting populous. Dozens had become hundreds; hundreds would soon become thousands. Human failings were becoming more influential. It was, as much so as any human-derived phenomenon can be, inevitable.
The temporal Church, which is also called the Church Militant, will always be affected by the weaknesses of its members. We can hope that faith, prayer, and the Holy Spirit will dampen those weaknesses and correct for them, but there are no guarantees in a species that possesses free will. This opens the possibility that some who speak in the name of the Church will be wrong…and will mislead others susceptible to being misled.
Let me say this at once: This does not condemn the Church. Neither does it “automatically” negate any Church teaching. But Church doctrine is so broad and so ramified, dependent upon the hermeneutics of many generations of scholars, that the laity is understandably at a loss when the Church promulgates a doctrine that seems remote from the teachings of Christ.
Which is why the Church allows that the individual conscience, as long as it remains true to the core teachings presented to Mankind by Our Lord Jesus Christ, must be allowed its freedom. That’s the “properly formed conscience” of which Father Joseph M. Champlin speaks in this important passage:
Catholics believe that an individual’s conscience is the ultimate determinant of what is wrong or right for that individual. Moreover, God will judge us according to the fidelity with which we have followed our conscience. Nevertheless, this conscience needs to be formed by objective standards of moral conduct. The Church provides us with just that — moral norms based on Jesus’s teachings, the inspired scriptures, centuries of tradition, and the laws of nature.
These moral standards may seem at times to be inhibiting or restrictive. The fact is, that quite to the contrary, they release or liberate us. These norms both make us free, and lead us to the deep happiness that comes from following God’s plan. Jesus underscored that point when he said: “If you live according to my teachings, you are truly my disciples; then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
[Father Joseph M. Champlin, What It Means To Be Catholic, printed under the imprimatur of Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles]
If it were not for this fundamental freedom of conscience, the Church could not have proclaimed that Protestant Christians are as eligible for salvation as Catholics – which the Church has proclaimed. The ecumenical movement that began with the Second Vatican Council would not have been possible without that proclamation.
Catholics are called to love Protestants as our brethren in Christ, despite their disagreements with us. Indeed, that love is imperative for us, given that we spent centuries denying that brotherhood. Anyone who adheres to the Nicene Creed must be included in that love.
I could have written about many other things today, but this topic struck me as overriding all the others. I’ve taken some flak for insisting on it, especially over this passage from one of my more popular novels:
“You know,” [Father Raymond Altomare] said as he set down his empty mug, “I could tell this story with one hand on my heart and the other on a Bible, and no one would ever believe it.”
Jana’s eyes twinkled. “We could take a few ‘selfies,’ if that would help.”
He mirrored her grin. “Perhaps we should, so I don’t start asking myself if I believe it. But let’s leave that for later. The part that’s really tough to believe is immune to such things anyway.”
“That the world’s foremost actress crossed North America to meet an ordinary Onteoran on the strength of a blog entry.”
She cocked an eyebrow. “You think Tim is ordinary?”
“I have to tell you, Father, I’ve never met a less ordinary man in my twenty-eight years. And movie people get around.”
“I’m sure. It still boggles the mind. So he’s okay?”
“Okay and more than okay, Father. I’m here to tell you. I grew up in rural Kentucky. I went straight from there to Hollywood. And I never felt nearly as at home in either place as I do in…in Tim’s arms. He’s the brightest, kindest, gentlest man I’ve ever met.” She glanced at his mug. “Would you like a refill?” He shook his head. She took his mug, set it in the sink, refilled her own, and returned to her seat. “I assume you’re here because you’ve missed him?”
Ray nodded. “He’s one of my most regular regulars. Six AM Mass on weekdays, seven-thirty AM on Sundays. For him to miss a weekday Mass…well, it’s happened now and then. But two whole weeks of not seeing him is unprecedented.”
“Oh.” She smirked. “Feel free to blame it on me, Father. I got here two weeks ago today, and since then I’ve hardly let him out of my sight. But thank you for telling me. At least now I know why he’s always up so early.”
Do I dare? Oh, why not?
“You could come with him.”
Jana looked down at her mug. She played briefly with the handle.
I hope that didn’t poke a sore spot.
Presently she said “My people have some unflattering terms for yours, you know.”
“Ah. Yes, I do know. Have you known many Catholics?”
She shook her head. “There aren’t many in Kentucky, and movie people tend not to talk about religion. Hollywood isn’t friendly toward it. Especially not Christianity. I’ve taken pains to keep my own beliefs and churchgoing on the q.t.”
“I can imagine,” Ray said. “And here we are in Tim’s kitchen, the most famous actress in the world calmly conversing with one of the shamans of ‘the cult of Mary.’ It doesn’t seem to disturb you any.”
She smiled and sat back. “Father, I could tell you stories about my people that would turn your hair white. I know there are bad people in every sect on Earth, but Baptists…well, let’s just say that the ones I’ve known are way too ready to point out the motes in others’ eyes. I’d say the verse they’re least fond of is ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’”
A Gospel citation from the world’s number one actress!
Automatically, Ray followed: “For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure you use will be the measure you receive. Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of wood in your own? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye,’ while there is a beam in your own?”
Jana grinned. “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”
“You’re a King James aficionado, I see,” Ray said.
“While you prefer the New Revised Standard Version,” Jana replied. “I own copies of both, but the poetry of the Gospels always seemed to me to come out better in the King James version. Especially Luke. More rhythm.”
“And less blues,” Ray added, and they laughed together.
“But still,” Jana said more soberly, “you’ve missed your most regular communicant, and now you’ve come to his home to discover that he’s been passing his nights with a Hollywood harlot.” She smirked. “A Baptist harlot, at that.”
“That ‘judge not’ verse remains applicable, Jana,” Ray said. “I’m not going to stray from it, except to ask: are you promised to anyone? Because I know Tim isn’t.”
Jana’s smile was wistful. “No, Father, I’m not. Neither explicitly nor implicitly.”
“Then all is well, dear.”
The flak has come almost exclusively from Catholics. Go figure.
We can all be wrong. Therefore, our institutions, including our supremely cherished and irreplaceable Church, can be wrong. On subjects not directly tied to the teachings of Christ, the individual’s conscience must be allowed its place.
Humility, my fellow theophages. Ultimately, it’s all about humility. Without it, love of neighbor is a damn sight harder, if not impossible. So is forgiveness.
May God bless and keep you all.