We are free but somehow not free. As Paul puts it, “the good which I will, I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do.” The conundrum results from Original Sin: our will is turned against itself, because it is not directed as designed.
We are social and depend on others, so we can’t solve the problem—even assuming we truly want to—by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. And we can’t solve it by doing what people say we should do, because they’re as fallen as we are.
So what to do? Basic problems require strong measures. The Doctrine of the Incarnation tells us that man can be saved and the world restored only through God’s concrete presence among us. That’s the only way to break out of the circle we’re caught in.
That need didn’t disappear after the Ascension. It’s not as if God had to show up once and that was enough, and we can just read about it now, and each can interpret what he reads as best he can with the aid of the Holy Spirit. If that worked, and God just had to appear in Judea and Galilee for a little while two thousand years ago, then why was his concrete presence necessary at all? Why not just have sacred scriptures, so we have the info we need to make good choices, and the promptings of the Spirit to help us make them? If that’s been enough since 33 A.D., why not always?
So the Incarnation implies a need for a continuing concrete presence of God among us. And that’s what the Catholic Church is all about. It gives us the Real Presence, and also a visible public authority guaranteed indefectible—not through the virtues of its human representatives but through God’s grace—that can be counted on to guard the truth and point out errors.
To take advantage of those arrangements we need the virtue of docility, which simply means readiness to be taught—in particular, by the Church through her appointed teachers, the ordained clergy. As the Catechism puts it,
Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: “He who hears you, hears me,” the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.
But there is a problem, because the Church has its human and sometimes all-too-human side. To pick extreme examples, there have been priests, bishops, and even popes who have sided with heresy. Alexander VI threatened his mistress, the lovely Guilia Farnese, with excommunication if she returned to her husband, and Stephen VI had his deceased predecessor Formosus exhumed, placed on trial, mutilated, and thrown into the Tiber. (The faithful responded by jailing and strangling Stephen, and the dispute continued through several succeeding pontificates.)
So it seems that loyalty and readiness to be taught can’t simply mean “believe what your pastors say and do what they tell you.” We must be able to interpret what our pastors say and apply it to concrete situations. And beyond that, our pastors sometimes disagree (although usually more decorously than Stephen and Formosus), and sometimes they are ill-informed, imprudent, confused, or flat-out wrong.
We can see the difficulty at present. Cardinal confronts cardinal, as theologians, priests, and eminent prelates reject or insist on long-established principles. Episcopal conferences openly assert a lack of docility that is startling in those who wish to teach and should therefore accept teaching. The lack seems no bar to preferment, however. His Holiness says many admirable things, and many provocative things for the faithful to ponder, but also many puzzling things, especially when speaking informally. He seems to go in several directions, and downplay the need for order, discipline, and doctrinal coherence in the Church. At the very least, he favors open discussion of questions that had seemed settled.
With such guidance from our shepherds, what does docility mean for us today? Presumably, it means what it has always meant, a readiness to learn from the Church the truths of faith and morals, but how to do so doesn’t seem as simple as in the days of Pius X. Between the two Vatican councils many saw the Church as a well-oiled machine run from the very top. W. G. Ward, a nineteenth-century English theologian, mathematician, and convert, summed up a common “ultramontaine” attitude when he said he “should like a new Papal Bull every morning with my Times at breakfast.”
Times change, but we are told that all things work together for good for those who love God, so perhaps the current situation will turn out for the best. There have been persistent complaints that the Church has become too centered on celebrity Popes on the one hand, and formal institutions on the other—whether the hierarchy of the pre-Vatican II Church or the ecclesiastical bureaucracies of today. Such a situation might easily short-change local devotions and initiatives, the principle of tradition, which is informal, implicit, and customary rather than institutional or charismatic, and the sensus fidei fidelium, the people’s sense of the Faith, which is indispensable for closing the gap between that Faith and the lived experience of the faithful.
Francis has said that God is a God of surprises, which is another way of saying that he works in wondrous ways. After two major European intellectuals in the Seat of Peter we now seem to have a pope who is populist in his faith, local in his attachments, would rather be Bishop of Rome than Autocrat of the Universal Church, and seems much less inclined than his predecessors to take to heart traditionally papal matters like doctrine, theology, consistency, concern for procedures, and so on.
Such tendencies seem likely to end by reducing the relative importance of the pope in the life of the Church, however dramatic a figure Francis himself may be, and also the role of ecclesiastical bureaucracies in general, which depends on an integrated structure of authority. Under such circumstances the burden seems very much on the laity to do what they should be doing anyway, and develop their sensus fidei. We must be docile to Church teaching, but to do so we must be able to recognize it as such and recognize its implications. And to do that, we must do the things Catholics have always done to grow in our faith, and especially we must soak ourselves in the history, traditions, and teachings of the Church, and make them our own.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Grey Eminence,” depicts expressions of deference towards a preoccupied Francois Leclerc du Tremblay, the right-hand man of Cardinal Richelieu. It was painted by Jean-Leon Gérôme in 1873.