Imagine members of the lay faithful being invited to instruct the cardinals who come to Rome to select a new pope. They would be asked precisely whom they would choose as successor to St. Peter. Of course the cardinals are not obliged to take counsel with mere mortals. However avid some of us might be to pass along advice to their Eminences, they are hardly required to take heed. On the other hand, if they haven’t taken counsel with the Holy Spirit, why should we try and persuade them? “Those who do not speak to God,” warned Romano Guardini, “have nothing to say to the world.”
And what exactly does the world need to hear from Pope Francis who, Deo volente, has emerged from the conclave as God’s Vicar? Two things, it seems to me, without which there is no point in even having a conclave. One, that he is a man of the Church and, two, that he possesses the courage to propose the faith of the Church. As St. Paul exhorted Timothy, the son whom he loved: “Guard the noble deposit” (2 Tim 1:14). It is clearly a mission the Lord has entrusted to all of us. But in a manner both binding and conspicuous for the leaders of the Church, chief of whom is the Holy Father, the Bishop of Rome and Supreme Head of the Catholic Church on earth. As Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman reminds us: “Christianity is faith, faith implies a doctrine, a doctrine implies propositions.” So what do we do with propositions but assert them to be true and then set about implementing them. “It is not that which thou hast discovered,” he says; “but what thou hast received; not what thou hast thought out; a matter, not of cleverness, but of teaching; not of private handling, but of public tradition.” Faith is not like philosophy, in which all the wisdom and insight are found under the human hood. It is never what I reflect, but rather Whom I receive. “It is not a matter of learning or cleverness,” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar, “but the courage to put oneself at risk.”
Let me explain. Years ago a new bishop, appointed by Rome to fill a vacant diocese in a small Midwestern town, was asked by the local newspaper what his plans were for the future. Would he be wanting to move the Church to the Left or to the Right? His answer was wonderfully simple and direct. On his watch, he replied, the Church would not be moving in either direction. He would instead seek to immerse her more and more deeply into the center where Christ her Bridegroom dwells.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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It is not recorded how the answer played out in the paper. Nevertheless, one hopes that the people in the pew were pleased to find that they’d been given a Shepherd not intimidated by ideology. That here was a bishop who genuinely understood that nothing is more disastrous to the life of the Church than the tendency to politicize her mission, to regard all that she is and does from the standpoint of polling data and power. Seeking not the Kingdom of God, but the approval of men.
Was there ever a time when basic misapprehension about the Church’s mission, about the very nature of Christ’s Bride, was greater or more widespread than today? If Aristotle is right when he says, “All human beings desire to know the truth,” then surely the thing above all we need and desire to know is the truth. And what is truth but the nexus we strike between what is, i.e., reality, and our awareness of it? “Love the truth of an object more than your attachment to the opinions you have already formed about it,” urges Luigi Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation. “Love the truth more than yourself,” he challenges us.
It is really not an absence of justice we suffer from today. Resentments over the alleged rights of women to be priests, or gays to be married, are not, for all that they noisily agitate for change, grievances about justice. There are no rights being transgressed here. Why? Because neither pressure group is at liberty to change the nature of a sacrament. God himself having instituted the two orders of Priesthood and Marriage, it is simply not within the power of anyone to set them aside. If the world cannot see this—cannot recognize, say, the sheer sacramentality of the body inscribed in the very nature of male and female—it is because the proponents of such practices have succeeded in co-opting the discussion, thus deceiving great numbers of people into thinking (to use Chesterton’s image of a lie) that green grass has suddenly turned gray.
What ails us, once again, is not that there is no justice, but that truth has been high-jacked. We live in a culture more and more characterized by falsehood, untruth. A veritable superstructure of deceit surrounds us; a thick texture of lies on which so much that passes for wisdom and good sense depend. “I have met many men who have wanted to deceive,” wrote St. Augustine back in the fifth century, “but none who wanted to be deceived.” Perhaps he was a bit optimistic, there being so many nowadays who appear most eager to be deceived.
Yet, however swollen the numbers, it must be said that the effort to find and hold onto the truth is freeing in a way that is both more fundamental and enriching of human integrity and fulfillment than, say, the pursuit of justice. Professor John Lukacs, in his seminal study Historical Consciousness, reminds us that, after all, it was “Christ who taught truth, at the expense of justice, if need be. The pursuit of justice,” he adds, “can be a terrible thing, laying the world waste…Truth responds to a deeper human need than does justice—especially near the end of this age, when we are threatened less by the absence of justice than by the nearly fantastic prevalence of untruth.”
Is this why Christ identified himself as truth? That the very name which bespeaks his being from all eternity—Word, Verbum, Logos—means Truth? He did not introduce himself as a truth, thus trivializing an otherwise transcendent claim. He did not think of himself as just another item in the celestial food chain. The imperious I of Christ (“I AM WHO AM”…”Before Abraham came to be I AM”…”I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life”), is not a negotiable extra we are free to discard in deciding the sort of religion we wish to follow. The exclusivity of the Christ Event is absolute and uncompromising. And great big bishops and cardinals and popes must know this. They too must uphold the truth claims of Jesus Christ, that when he says, “Without me you can do nothing,” he is not giving us a metaphor. There is simply no way out, no room in which to relativize an insistence so entirely and ineluctably absolute.
How could Christ’s Church and his Vicar act otherwise? The Church would self-destruct were she even to consider downsizing the deposit of faith on which her whole life and destiny depend. Happily for her (and us) it remains essential to the understanding of that very depositum fidei that God would never suffer her to betray it. And, to be sure, it is not only bishops and popes whom we expect to know this, even as it becomes their appointed task to preserve and impart what they know. It is everyone’s job to know this. And to love and defend what we know.