"Before a crowd of nearly 60,000 people at Yankee Stadium, Pope Benedict XVI last Sunday ended his first visit to the United States as leader of the Roman Catholic Church with a reminder to the flock that obedience to the authority of the church is the foundation of their religious faith" (italics added, quoted in the Sunday MJS April 21, 2008).
"Obedience" is so characteristic of the life of this pope that he now places it at the heart ("foundation") of our faith. He himself was born of Prussian stock, and Prussians were famous for their disciplined obedience. In later life, he was the obedient defender of the faith for Pope John Paul II, condemning and punishing theologians and Scripture scholars whose thoughts and writings were not in strict harmony with that pope's personal theology. Now Benedict XVI insists Catholics acknowledge "obedience to church authority" as the foundation of religious faith.
Is this the very same church authority that hides truth from people, operates behind closed doors, moves sexual predators surreptitiously from one parish to another, from one diocese to another (and even occasionally from one country to another), mismanages finances, harasses abuse victims and refuses to acknowledge moral or financial accountability to the people whom it purports to serve? Is it to this church authority that Benedict XVI wants us to pledge obedience?
Contrariwise, obedience to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ, not obedience to religious authority, is the cornerstone of faith. Jesus' invitation for us to gather in community and become compassionate lovers, peace workers and justice seekers is our foundational program. Could it be that Pope Benedict XVI has issue with us Americans? In his opinion we may appear too free wheeling, independent thinking, democratically bred and raised to fit the "obedient flock" mold. Apparently he was comfortable with his obedience. Now that he has risen to the top rung of the hierarchical ladder, he wants us to embrace the same trait he did; but the spiritual life doesn't work that way. It never has. It never will. The spiritual life is essentially the work of the Spirit. In Scripture, the Spirit appears as bird, wind and fire : all uncontrollable elements because they all reflect spontaneity : a spontaneity that is the sure spark of the divine within us.
We who are baptized in the Roman Catholic Church are not the pope's "flock." If anything we belong to Jesus Christ, the only reliable "Good Shepherd" in our lives. What Benedict XVI probably wants is a docile "flock." Yet what he is more likely to get is whatever the Abiding Spirit prompts us to be and do : and that is as unpredictable as life can get. Our task isn't to be obedient to an all-too-human hierarchy intent on pleasing a reigning pope; our task is to become what Jesus calls us to be. To do this, we must remain alert to the inner promptings of the Spirit. Obedience to religious authority wasn't high on Jesus' list. It shouldn't be on ours.