Not long ago I was in a conversation with several long-time Catholic friends. The topic, as is not unusual these days, was authority: what is it, who has it, who doesn’t and how it should be used. The mood was intense.
Someone put a coda on the discussion saying, “I’m sick and tired of people living in big houses wearing little red hats telling me how I should relate to God. They know nothing about our lives and they aren’t interested in learning about them. They don’t ask for our experience and they don’t listen when we try to tell them our experience. Yet they have the nerve to tell us how we stand with God. I relate to God in the way that makes sense to me and I’ve lost all interest in what they or anyone else has to say about it.” There were nods of agreement all around.
I’ve listened to similar sentiments over the years and know that large numbers of Catholics are sympathetic to the views they express. The feeble dialogue between authority and the larger community has created a crisis of credibility and relevance. The I’m no longer concerned with what leadership says approach to authority in our Church has grown common among folks who otherwise care deeply about The Faith.
Authority has historically played such a central role in the Catholic Church that its waning has resulted not merely in a turning away from the powers-that-be but, for many, from the community itself. If I’m at odds with the power structure, I’m at odds with the Church is the assumption of many if not most Catholics. It’s a painful and unnecessary assumption.
The gospel for Pentecost, the day we celebrate the Church’s birth, quotes Jesus promising to send the Holy Spirit to the disciples: not just to The Twelve, not just to the apostles but to the disciples, all the followers of Jesus. The Spirit that guided Jesus came not just to the teachers or the symbolic “pillars” of the Church but to all Jesus’ followers.
To jump ship from the “Bark of Peter,” as barnacled and weed encumbered as it may be, over differences with leadership is to cede a power over one’s conscience to authority that even the bishops, on their best days at least, wouldn’t claim.
Christians always search for God’s within the community. But that’s a far cry from accepting the idea that without a bishop’s imprimatur we’ve nothing to say about God in our lives. As frustrating as She must find it, The Holy Spirit is at work within us all. Hang in there; don’t panic.