John Heard: God, Church’s authority absolute

01 Oct 2008

By The Record

The perverse are hard to be corrected, and the number of fools is infinite. – Ecclesiastes 1:15

John Heard

“I am a Catholic…but of course I don’t agree with everything the Church teaches”. This is a common refrain, one often heard when same sex attracted men (and others) are quizzed about the faith.
On issues like abortion, euthanasia and sexual morality in particular, some people feel comfortable parting ways with the Pope, and some endlessly contradict the bishops.
This sort of thing is in marked contrast to the witness of those like Blessed Teresa of Kolkata, who yoked herself to God, and lived as though she meant the things she professed in the Creed.
Teresa, in particular, is a mighty challenge.
Her diaries reveal that she had no sense of the presence of God, no comforting knowledge of His nearness, or His support, for many years. Still, she served.
Her life, characterised apparently by spiritual dryness and an interior emptiness, spilled out into the blighted city around her.
Her lifting up of the poor, her nursing of the sick, her provision of shelter and dignity to the rejected, dying people of Kolkata, these deeds cried out to Heaven, and they echoed around the world.
Teresa is a witness for the ages.
How are we – fatter, richer, and with more free time on our hands, some of us blessed with a good sense of God’s nearness – to compare with that sort of thing?
How do we stack up?
Certainly, when we deny the authority of the Pope, or claim to be above the Church, we are making a mess of things.
We are also being stupid.
Even after decades of study, no layman can definitively know what it is that the Catholic Church teaches on every key issue, and even bishops must brush up on incredibly complex theological, philosophical, and – increasingly, biological and scientific – knowledge to state the Catholic position without error.
Hardly anyone at all knows what it is, in fact, that the Church says (or will likely say) on every topical matter, and one should not reject (known) teaching A if (unknown) teaching B likely throws some new light on A: makes it all the more coherent, and the Church obviously right.
In my experience, Catholic ethical teaching is tight. Interlocking ideas form a bright web of reason.
Everything rests, of course, on man’s acknowledgement of the authority of God, but the teachings downstream of this basic humility are rich, intelligent, and beautiful. They make sense. They beautify lives. They explain sex. They make the world a better place, and promise heaven everlasting.
A good Catholic, then, will study her faith. She will probe, and question – but she will always seek to read with the Church: to appreciate Catholic teaching.
We are to approach this task in a spirit of profound gratitude.
But it is hard to do this. For one, not everyone has the time. Also, and it is a frequent problem, one cannot muster the gumption, not to mention the gratitude. 
The teachings on sex, in particular, seem to stick in the craw of many. How to accept, let alone welcome a teaching that seems to usurp the right to personal freedom? The Church seeks to dictate how it is that man may seek out his happiness, including his sexual happiness: how are we to respond?
By acknowledging, immediately, God’s authority.
If everything else rests on this, if all Christian teaching relies on the humbling of man before G-d, it makes no sense to put oneself in the place that is properly reserved for the divine lawmaker. 
The Church does not, in this light, usurp or probe, rather she gently guides.
Sometimes, thank God, she more firmly commands. She has a right to, and to be frank, I often need the stick. The Church knows what is good, true, and beautiful, even if individual tests find any one of us cut adrift, or too ready to rebel.
We are to obey, then, first because we love God and what is His (and the Church is His), but also because Catholic teaching – we are taught – connects us with ways of living, and ideas about happiness, that purport to be good for each of us. Even when we think we know better, we do not.
The Catholic Church goes further: there is no better way to live, no more blessed way to die, than according to her wisdom.
G-d grant us, perverse fools that we are, the grace to desire it.
John Heard is a Melbourne writer.