Few, familiar with the wider Catholic blogosphere, can be unaware of the presence there of those who not only criticise the current Pope (a thing I may have done a time or two myself) , but who deny that he – and for that matter his immediate predecessors – is Pope at all. They cite various things in order to ‘prove’ their case, one being that they have all taken part in ecumenical gatherings which, they claim, no Catholic Pope would do; the question ‘according to whom?’ naturally arises. One theme of recent posts has been the place of Tradition within the Church. St Paul wrote about the traditions, oral and written which he had received and was passing on. These include the Scriptures themselves. Jesus wrote no book. He could have done so, and as Christians, we believe that Scripture is divinely inspired, but it needs interpreting, and that is why Jesus founded a Church with a teaching authority.
The last Pope, Benedict XVI, was one of the most intelligent men ever to sit on the throne of St Peter, and he may well have been the best theologian ever to be Pope. But according to the wilder fringes of the Catholic blogosphere, we are asked to believe that this life-long, loyal and intelligent Catholic, knew so little about the history and theology of the Church in which he spent his entire adult life that he failed to spot what some new converts can see – that the Catholic Church has fallen away, and exists only in small pockets of the faithful, identifiable only to those who are ‘true’ Catholics. This is a Catholic (if it is Catholic at all) version of our friend Bosco with his talk about ‘the saved’ being able to identify those others who are ‘saved’. It is a version of what Protestants hold when they talk about the Church falling away in the time of Constantine; it is what non-Trinitarians say about the Trinity; it is what the Quartodecimans held about the decision to change the date at which the Passover started; it is what the Orthodox say about the filioque. The moment you decide that you know better than the teaching authority of the Church, then you must, perforce, fall back on one of two things: either your own unaided conscience; or the claim that your conscience is better informed by the Spirit than the Church founded by Christ. There is a third option – to insist that a particular point in time was the golden age, and that whatever it was the Church taught then it must profess in that form for ever. This was the claim of those who opposed Nicaea; it was the claim of those who opposed the teaching of the “Theotokos” and it was the claim of those who opposed Chalcedon.
Yet for all such lucubrations, the Church has a teaching authority, and that authority teaches, and what it teaches is not a dead set of rules set out in ancient books, it is the teaching of Jesus Christ Himself – it is, as Pope Francis has recently reminded us, the ‘Joy of the Gospel’. I see little sign of that joy in those who spend their time criticising the Pope because he does not fit in with their idea of what the Church ought to be. Benedict did not abdicate to make way for the College to elect individual bloggers as arbiters of the teaching of the Church, the College elected Francis. He reminded us all, two years ago, of something important, indeed something vital which we forget at our peril:
What does “People of God” mean? First of all it means that God does not belong in a special way to any one people; for it is He who calls us, convokes us, invites us to be part of his people, and this invitation is addressed to all, without distinction, for the mercy of God “desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4). Jesus does not tell the Apostles or us to form an exclusive group, a group of the elite. Jesus says: go out and make disciples of all people (cf. Mt 28:19). St Paul says that in the People of God, in the Church, “there is neither Jew nor Greek… for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). I would also like to say to anyone who feels far away from God and the Church, to anyone who is timid or indifferent, to those who think they can no longer change: the Lord calls you too to become part in his people and he does this with great respect and love! He invites us to be part of this people, the People of God!
Now, whilst, as with any Pope, this one is subject to criticism, here he enunciates something which a Church facing a secularised and/or hostile world, would do well to remember. That some orthodox Catholics might remind this Pope that what he said applies to them, despite some of his recent language, would be a better response to his scolding than claiming he is not the Pope.