As we face the social issues of our day (i.e. marriage and gay rights, the dignity of women and the priesthood) people both without and within the Catholic Church often question the teaching of the Church and ask why doesn’t the Church just change its teaching to be more in step with the times. Another area which may not be so pressing as far as secular culture is concerned but is of unique importance among the different branches of Christianity and, at least from my experience, often an issue on the local level in the parish is that of sharing communion with other Christians. Why does the Catholic Church teach what it does in these regards; often to the marked disagreement, frustration and even open hostility of others?
I would like to offer a reflection on this issue and from the start I believe it important to state that the position of the Catholic Church in these matters is not so much about being against others (although it is often interpreted and portrayed this way) as it is about the Church being true to its own identity and authority and, in fact, actually recognizing the limits of the authority that it has been given.
I would like to explain by beginning with an allusion to the tragic figure of Denethor in J.R.R. Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Denethor is the Lord of Gondor but it is specified throughout the trilogy that the ruling house that Denethor and his sons Boromir and Faramir represent is meant to be a House of Stewards. The House of Anarion cannot claim the throne, in fact their purpose is to hold the kingdom until the return of the true king. But Denethor oversteps his bounds – forgetting the role of the steward and claiming the authority that belongs to the king alone – and as Gondor is besieged and seems to be falling, he himself falls into despair.. Denethor fails to recognize the true king himself (Aragorn) when he is present before him while only seeing doom and destruction. Finally, in this nihilistic madness Denethor attempts to set fire to his one remaining son Faramir. When this is thwarted he leaps upon the pyre and destroys himself.
Right before this act of suicide Denethor despairs in the fall of the city and the loss of his power, “I would have things as they were in all the days of my life and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honor abated.”
In an attempt to break through the madness, Gandalf challenges the despairing Denethor with a summons back to truth and clarity, “To me it would not seem that a Steward who faithfully surrenders his charge is diminished in love or in honor…” Tragically, Denethor cannot recognize this.
Later, in contrast to Denethor’s folly and miserable end, we are given the image of the true king: “But when Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him. And then Faramir cried: “Behold the King!”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church offer these words concerning the sacraments:
“Adhering to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures, to the apostolic traditions, and to the consensus … of the Fathers,” we profess that “sacraments of the new law were … all instituted by Jesus Christ our Lord.” (CCC 1114)
Sacraments are “powers that come forth” from the Body of Christ, which is ever-living and life-giving. They are actions of the Holy Spirit at work in his Body, the Church. They are “the masterworks of God” in the new and everlasting covenant. (CCC 1116)
As she has done for the canon of Sacred Scripture and for the doctrine of the faith, the Church, by the power of the Spirit who guides her “into all truth,” has gradually recognized this treasure received from Christ and, as the faithful steward of God’s mysteries, has determined its “dispensation.” Thus the Church has discerned over the centuries that among liturgical celebrations there are seven that are, in the strict sense of the term, sacraments instituted by the Lord. (CCC 1117)
The Catholic Church is the “faithful steward of God’s mysteries.” The Church is neither the owner nor the one who holds authority over the sacraments. This authority rests with Christ alone – the one who instituted the sacraments. The quotes above clearly demonstrate that the Catholic Church did not invent the sacraments of its own accord but rather “gradually recognized this treasure received from Christ.”
When the Catholic Church approaches the issues of what marriage is, who is called to serve the community in ordained ministry or what must the authentic reception of communion entail it does so from the understanding of a steward and not that of the creator. This is an important distinction between the Catholic Church and other Christian faith traditions and also secular society – both of which approach these issues from the standpoint of having legitimate authority over these realities.
This is critical in understanding the Catholic Church’s approach to these realities. Despite what is often interpreted – that the Catholic Church does have the authority and can change these teachings but chooses not to because we are opposed to one group or another – the Church, in fact, cannot change the sacraments precisely because it lacks the authority to change them.
Here, I would like to make a theological note of distinction that also factors into this issue. When people often wonder why the Catholic Church does not allow female ordained ministers while many Protestant traditions do or why the Church is opposed to redefining marriage while other faith traditions do or why the Catholic Church does not celebrate open communion while others do they do not realize that they are in fact comparing apples to oranges.
One of the moves of the Protestant reformation was to redefine and also reduce the number of sacraments and, in essence, transfer the authority of who governs the sacraments to the church community. This is an aspect of Protestant ecclesiology and with this understanding it is perfectly understandable to then adjust the sacraments to different times and needs. With this ecclesiology one can ordain women, open communion to all or alter marriage because the authority does rest (in this scenario) with the church community.
This is not the Catholic understanding and whether one agrees with it or not (I personally agree) you cannot authentically equate the Protestant approach with the Catholic as the two are coming from different starting points.
But, often we do not recognize this and therefore many people insist on comparing apples and oranges thinking all the time that both are apples.
The Catholic Church must be true to its origins and foundation – to do otherwise would be to enter into a schizophrenic state which would ultimately lead only to despair and madness.
The Catholic Church is, in these regards, first and foremost, “the faithful steward of God’s mysteries.”
The Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, will not allow itself to fall into Denethor’s folly.