Mark Shea: At the Altar, the Priest Presides – Part 3

Last week in this space, we talked about the need to discern the distinction between Magisterial teaching and a cleric asking us to truly do evil or neglect to fight evil.  My basic point is that we should be docile to the Church unless we have a really good reason not to be.

The trick, of course, is to know when such times are.  Some people will avoid such confrontations at any cost.  Others are itching to imagine such confrontations where none exist.  Not every disagreement with some priest or bishop makes you St. Catherine of Siena rebuking the Pope or St. Joan vs. the bishop of Rouen. Usually, it’s a quarrel about who gets to use the Parish Hall on Wednesday night, the prayer group or the choir?  Usually it is not you starring as St. Athanasius against a whole Church corrupted by worldliness.  A good rule of thumb is to not imagine that you are the hero bravely standing alone for the TRVTH.  Most likely, you are being unreasonable about something minor and somebody else is being either reasonable about it or they are being about as unreasonable as you are.  Paul’s advice to us in such small spats is bracing:

When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life! If then you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who are least esteemed by the Church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the brotherhood, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?

To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud, and that even your own brethren. (1 Co 6:1–8).

This sort of counsel went down easier in a time when apostles were, if anything, more dirt poor than their flock and, like Jesus, had no place to lay their heads. They could talk about bearing wrongs patiently because they lived it, as Jesus did.

These days, when bishops and clergy are often well-to-do, the gospel’s counsel can sound like the powerful telling the weak to shut up and take it.  And indeed, sometimes the weak have a positive moral duty to not shut up and take it since they would not simply be bearing wrongs patiently for themselves, but contributing by their cooperation to a system that must be resisted for the sake of others.  Rosa Parks would have sinned against her people had she continued to quietly sit in the back of the bus.  Likewise, one of the great lessons of the abuse crisis in the Church is that victims must be encouraged and given the freedom to report to the cops what has been done to them, precisely because the courage of one victim can free many, many more to come forward and call to account those who must face justice.

But most of the time, the bulk of our conflicts in the Church are not about issues of this magnitude. And so most of the time, Paul’s counsel remains true that, for ourselves, so given to turn truly petty issues into huge fights, there can be a real blessing in refusing to let our need for “winning” dominate our lives.  Let the jerk cut you off on the freeway.  Overlook the clown at the office who leaves grody food in the fridge.  Forgive the clerk who is on the cellphone to his girlfriend when you are trying to ring up your sale.

One useful thing to do in navigating our obedience to the Church is to cultivate a sense of where clerical and lay expertise start and end. The basic rule of thumb is this: At the altar, the priest presides.  But in the world, the laity preside.

At the altar, where the word of God is preached and the grace of God is poured out in the sacraments, the priest and bishop very properly preside and very properly articulate what the implications of the gospel are.  They may not do it up to our particular level of snuff. We all have had to endure boring homilists.  Now and then (though still rarely), we have had confessors who who were interruptive, inattentive, weird, silly, or dumb.

But we can still usually get something out of what is read and preached at Mass.  And in any case, the grace of the sacraments is present no matter how much of a socially inept dork the priest may be.  All such matters place us in that grey area of learning to rub along in the hurly burly of life in the Church that is just a matter of humans figuring out how to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

But, honestly, are we really going to go to Mass and be instructed to do something evil?  I’ve been a Catholic for thirty years and it has never happened.  Similarly, now and then a confessor has bored me or given me counsel that was mildly ill-advised (“For your penance, I want you to read this gigantic book”—the penance was later rescinded).  But no confessor has ever come within miles of asking me to truly violate my conscience as a penance.

Likewise, we are not going to hear from our bishop personally very often, much less be inducted by him into an evil plot that sears our conscience.  The last time my bishop instructed our parish to do something was when the American bishops asked us to stand—if it was not too much of a problem—while others received communion. The idea was to have a unified liturgical gesture (which we already had because hitherto everybody knelt). The practical result was a congregation half-standing and half-kneeling, since it’s hard for some old people to stand a long time.  Eventually, the bishops gave it up for a bad job, proving yet again that if you are Catholic you do not believe in organized religion. The point is simply this: the Church does not much go in for micromanagement of our lives, so the fear that the bishops are going to bind our consciences to something intolerable is greatly exaggerated.

Indeed, in the world we laity exercise massive discretion and authority to live out the Tradition according to our prudence and conscience, of which more next time.

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