The Council of Jerusalem, highlighted in this Sunday’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, made Christianity’s gradual break with Jewish practices the official policy of the new church.
No longer would circumcision, dietary practices and assorted other customs from the Jewish Talmud be expected of converts to the new way. This authoritative departure from Jewish culture and customs can be understood as the Christian Church’s first appreciation of its own unique identity. The new Christian community was indeed a church in its own right, a body of believers containing within itself justification for its own existence. It was not simply a sect of Judaism. The courage of the first Apostles to depart from much of the Jewish tradition that they had inherited from their ancestors in the faith displayed tremendous confidence in the presence of the Holy Spirit among them and in their own ability to cooperate with that guiding Spirit. “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and ours, too. …” are words that express not arrogance but trust in the presence and providence of God within the Catholic Church.
Down through the centuries the universal church would express itself authoritatively and assertively on critical issues of faith and morals, revelation and tradition, theology and practice. Certainly the 20 ecumenical councils of the church have confidently set policy and practices for generations. Popes, too, in concert with the larger church, have exercised supreme authority on grave concerns. Pope St. Leo the Great standing up to Attila the Hun at the gates of Rome was certainly a testimony to the pontiff’s sense of responsibility for the whole Western world threatened by barbarous invasion. In the winter of 1077, the German emperor Henry IV waited for three days until Pope Gregory VII removed a ban of excommunication from him in a controversy over ultimate authority within the Christian world. Pope St. Pius V believed it was his duty to excommunicate the English Queen Elizabeth I as he saw Catholic England literally losing ground and membership. Napoleon indirectly attested to the authority of the pope by kidnapping Pius VII, whisking him off to Paris and demanding that he preside at the emperor’s coronation at Notre Dame Cathedral. Pius XII’s proclamation of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven was perhaps the church’s supreme instance of self-appreciation since the dogma relies much more on Catholic tradition than on Christian Scripture.
The authority of the church in union with the pope and the authority of the pope in union with the church form the single foundation supporting Christianity’s moral and doctrinal influence. There have been times in history when the mandates of the popes and the councils have led to great clarifications. The persons of the Trinity, the privileges of Mary, the nature of the Mass, the vocation of lay persons, to mention a very few, have been clearly defined down through the centuries. And sometimes papal statements have resulted in much consternation. Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors and Pius X’s crusade against Modernism have been often misunderstood.
At the present time, much of the secular world and even some members of the church itself favor attempts to diminish the authority of Pope Benedict by questioning decisions made regarding clerical abuse of minors. Some commentators actually believe that there is a definite media campaign to engender panic within the world community and even among the faithful by daily questioning the decisions and judgment of the pope and his close advisors. By the regular but random citing of sometimes controversial, sometimes obscure judgments, the sincerity and circumspection of Pope Benedict may be eroded in the minds of the faithful and the world at large. The sad agenda here is not simply the better handling of abuse cases but rather the silencing of the authoritative voice of the pope on critical issues such as religion in public life, the meaning of family, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, embryo research, and same-sex marriage. Even within the church some voices are intent on embarrassing the pope so their agenda of married priests, woman priests and the election of bishops will be more easily received. Crimes against young people are despicable and inexcusable. But alleging inaction on the part of Pope Benedict in order to further hidden or not so hidden agendas is also unwarranted and unjustifiable.