By Charlie Johnston
On December 20, 2014, I had a great vision of demons spewing across the world to raise confusion and chaos, to create divisions in families, marginalize Christians, and spread despair and fear in all, specifically targeting the most pious. I touched on the vision in this column of Dec. 28, 2014, then wrote more extensively on the whole matter on New Year’s Day of 2015.
The chaos, confusion and bitter recriminations are nearly at full boil.
Over the course of my life, whenever things have grown frantic and confused, I have always gone back to what I call “First Things,” foundational principles and realities. It doesn’t matter whether it involves private or public affairs; this method has always helped me to clear away the weeds of detailed strife and find a true (or nearly true) path out of confusion. The very act of contemplating and boiling things down to First Things calms and steadies me.
Let’s consider a few First Things here:
1) We have entered into the sequence of events that will end in the catastrophic collapse of civil society.
2) From the chaos of collapse, God’s plan will rise, enabling us to confront the remaining challenges of the Storm.
3) Nothing will ultimately prevail against God’s Holy Church. The bones of all-powerful emperors who once persecuted her are so much dust – along with their once-glittering empires. Since Judas at the beginning, some apostles have tried to hijack her. They, too, are so much dust – while the Church endures.
4) Jesus promised us Peter’s faith will not fail.
5) Ever since Jesus ordered His listeners to “…render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s,” the Church has acknowledged a spiritual order in which the Bishops are authoritative and the laity subject, and a temporal order in which the laity is authoritative and the shepherds involved.
6) God wants all His kids back.
When I start with these premises, several consequences logically flow.
Taking the first three premises into account, civil society is crumbling around us in real time. Such a thing is always accompanied by shocks, offenses, explosions, rubble, mud and blood. It is frightening because it is the end of an order. But it is not the end of order. There is plenty of dust and rumbling during the period of transition, but it is not what it seems. If God is going to intervene to raise up order from this, the best thing would be to prepare well for that Restoration.
I think of it in terms of the Parable of the Wise Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). While not neglecting to do the good we can as the crumbling continues, we must not allow the growing disorder around us to distract us from keeping our lamps filled with the oil of our faith. I do what good I can in the midst of confusion, but I do not lose my peace over all the offenses that now swirl around us. Terrorists rage in a rising tide, most of our freedoms are under assault by the very entities that are supposed to defend them, Christian faith is attacked, belittled and punished at every turn. Sometimes a day goes by without a major atrocity, but rare is the week that goes by without several. I certainly notice these things, but a part of me thinks, what did we expect in the crumbling of the old order?
Meantime I know that the greatest villains in history, the most powerful emperors and brutal atheist autocrats, have not prevailed against the faith. Anti-Christian progressives think they are bounding from victory to victory. I know they are actually discrediting themselves – and knitting together the shrouds they will lay in if they don’t repent. In reality, we have all been delivered up to judgment. The Lord is asking us, “Do you love Me?” If, in these times of turmoil, we make accommodations on the fundamentals of our faith, whatever we answer with our lips, the answer of our actions is, “No.” On the other hand, if we go into despair and condemnation of the world crumbling around us, we do not trust Him enough. We are called to ready the ambulances of the field hospital for those in need around us in the chaos – and to do it with confident resolve. If we go chasing after a strange god because we are shaken or if we start to sink because of our fear of the wind and waves that surround us, we fail. Like the wise virgins of the parable, we are to keep our lamps full of the oil of faith that they may burn brightly when the Master calls us to account.
A few Sundays ago, the First Reading was from Genesis 18:16-33. In it, Abraham bargained with God over the fate of Sodom. In the end, God said He would spare Sodom if even 10 righteous people could be found there. Given the situation, a man in Sodom would have been better advised to endeavor to be righteous than to spend time merely deploring disorder. A genuinely upright person is a sweet incense to the Lord that justifies the extension of much mercy. We are all called to be ambassadors of mercy in this horrible year.
I know that many are – and will be – wounded in the tumult of the collapse around us. I am called to defend against what depredations I can during this chaos, but never to let it distract me from preparing the field ambulances needed to inspire hope and healing – including ultimately the healing of many of those who have wounded themselves by visiting those depredations on us, reigniting the light of the hope that is in Christ when they have burned themselves out. God wants all His kids back.
As to items four and five, it seems to me that to call any validly elected Pope an anti-pope is not to doubt the Pope, but to doubt Christ’s promise that Peter’s faith will not fail. I simply will not do that. To do so is to leave the Church Christ, Himself, founded and search after another. If Christ’s promises were without effect, why would we bother being Christians at all? That is critical and decisive.
The Pope’s formal authority lies in matters of faith and morals. It is decisive when he speaks Magisterially, but is very weighty even when he speaks off the cuff on such matters. This authority adheres to his office. When he speaks Magisterially, it is akin to a judge ruling formally on a matter: decisive. When he speaks off the cuff, it is like a judge penning a formal op-ed column – not decisive, but demanding of weighty consideration. His Magisterial authority is guaranteed by God, Himself.
On temporal matters, the Pope has the right of everyone else to express his views. The worthiness of those views, however, are a function of his person, not his office. They rise or fall on their own merit and as an ancillary function of his public influence: there is no divine authority attached to them. The Pope is not infallible on matters of gardening or architecture – and any errant statements he made on those subjects would have no effect on his actual authority at all. He is also not infallible or authoritative on matters of politics and economics – or any other temporal thing. Whatever merit or lack thereof on such matters flow from his person, not his office. Any mistakes he may make on such matters have nothing to do with his formal spiritual authority.
In the late 90’s, during a large statewide campaign, I was fortunate to have one of the most gifted computer programmers I have ever known at my disposal. I would tell him what I wanted a program to do…and he would design it. Frequently, he would try to regale me with technological details of how he did it. I told him I did not want to know how to design programs – that was his portfolio. It would have been a mess had I tried to design the means to the ends I sought, myself. But he would have been rudderless had I not told him what those ends were.
There is no Pope I have admired more than St. John Paul the Great. The closest candidate would probably be Pope Leo XIII. Even so, I occasionally disagreed with St. John Paul on certain temporal matters. It did not disturb my peace in the slightest, for though John Paul was far more influential and wise than I, we had the same duty and authority on strictly temporal matters of policy. I much appreciated that St. John Paul rarely spoke on temporal matters without first developing a refined knowledge of the details and considering all angles. Even then, he took some pains to recognize the legitimate authority of lay officials in such matters. I heard him in St. Louis in 1999. He made an impassioned plea against the death penalty – even as he recognized that it could be licit under some circumstances and that lay authorities had not just the right, but the duty, to ensure the safety of the public whose welfare they were entrusted with. His passion – and his humility in commenting on it – changed some of my thinking on the matter.
I have been troubled by many of Pope Francis’ comments on temporal matters. The spiritual ends he enunciates are notably orthodox and sound. But many of the means he instinctively prefers have historically produced results that damage his preferred ends rather than enhance them. Even worse, he often does not take pains to consider all angles before speaking on what he is not authoritative on – and shows little regard for the legitimate responsibility of the lay officials who do have authority for them. To tell European countries to accept nearly unlimited immigration from countries that export terrorism without acknowledging their duty to protect their own citizens or offering some concrete advice on how to do so is insulting and disrespectful. It thoroughly discounts the authentic duty of lay authorities – and in the process causes the public to mentally dilute the legitimate authority of the Holy Father. It strikes me as almost as clumsy as if I had presumed to instruct my computer programmer on how to write code instead of telling him what ends I wanted that code to accomplish.
On the other hand, on matters of faith and morals, I have been deeply impressed on how focused Pope Francis is on working to effectively draw souls back to the fullness of the faith and the Sacraments. If this is a great Storm and the Barque of Peter is the vessel which will carry us to the harbor of Rescue, I often imagine the last three Popes as all Popes of the Storm. St. John Paul was the great rehabilitator of the ship. He pulled away all the rotted wood from misinterpretations of Vatican II and refitted the ship with fresh, new, well-seasoned wood, making it fully seaworthy. Pope Emeritus Benedict checked to insure that all systems were in proper running order. Pope Francis is neither of these: he is the captain standing on the deck shouting, “All Aboard!” He does that with marvelous aplomb. Even in his occasionally unclear comments on marriage, I appreciate that he is entirely focused on how to draw all back to the fullness of Sacramental life. The stale dualism that insists on either enabling the very disorders that have made us sick or are content to merely condemn the sick for being sick have accomplished little to heal anyone. Pope Francis is doing a passionate job of working to draw all back to spiritual health. That he does not flag in that effort over worries about making the occasional errant comment is, in my mind, a recommendation of his work rather than a criticism of it.
I have been simultaneously delighted and occasionally dismayed by Pope Francis. I am delighted because, unlike Pope Emeritus Benedict, he has the jubilant swashbuckling character and style I had been led to expect in the Pope who would guide us through the Storm. I have occasionally been dismayed because he is too often inadequately informed on the temporal matters he speaks of and shows little respect for the legitimate authority of those who actually do bear primary prudential responsibility for those things. In fact, I think that speaking so frequently and casually on temporal means is a real blunder on his part. But then, when I am confronted with significant dissonance between what I expected and the reality of a situation, I am more prone to ponder and pray over what God intends in this than to bitterly complain about it.
In this case, we have been spoiled by several Popes who had a refined understanding of many temporal matters, as well as divinely appointed authority on spiritual ones. We have grown accustomed enough to it that we have largely come to think it a function of the office rather than a function of the person of some gifted leaders. Confronted with one who is not as gifted on such things, we question the office and his legitimate authority. In the process, we have neglected our own duty to what is our primary prudential responsibility, while blaming the Pope for what is OUR own neglect of that duty. Our duty to him is neither to attack his legitimate authority, nor to neglect our own. Rather we are called to work together to devise means that are most likely to accomplish the noble ends he speaks authoritatively on. On the matter of his beginning the great work of finding effective ways to bring everyone back to the fullness of Sacramental life, it is our duty to help him, using all our hearts and minds to help refine his thinking when it is not definitive and to fully support him when it is.
These thoughts lead me to these primary conclusions for these times:
1) It should be no surprise to us that the course of the Storm is…very stormy. These things must come.
2) God will prevail. We are called to participate in the Rescue He has devised, not contribute to bitter acrimony and confusion.
3) This Pope IS the Pope of the Storm. He is fitted to this time in Salvation History both by his personal strengths as an inspiration for us and by his personal weaknesses as a rebuke to our neglect. He is protected by the promise of Christ from definitive doctrinal error.
4) We are called to live our duty of obedience to the formal spiritual authority of the Pope while fully exercising our legitimate responsibility on temporal affairs to secure the ends the faith authentically prescribes.
5) Christ is asking all of us whether we love Him. It is a great audition. Those who keep their peace amid turmoil and spark hope in their fellows will become useful tools in the Master’s hands for these times. Those who bitterly sow discord and confusion will reap what they have sown.