How Did the Laity React to the Council of Nicea?

Surrounding the news and criticism of Roman Catholic bishops in their responses to instances of sexual abuse by priests (and other officials) are calls for the bishops to be as holy as they should be and for the laity to be included in some mechanisms of accountability. What is strange about these arguments — especially by Roman Catholic laity — is what questioning of the bishops does to the entire justification for Roman Catholicism. Critics of the bishops seem to assume that in the case of the current scandal, the bishops have behaved badly and acted unwisely. But if bishops can show such deficiency now, couldn’t they also have been unwise, acted out of self-preservation, or outright erred when deliberating about liturgy, the creed, or the beatification of exceptional believers? I mean, once you start to question the bishops’ judgment on this one matter, you can question almost any part of Roman Catholic history going all the way back to the church that Jesus founded (not in Rome but in Jerusalem).

Michael Sean Winters does not seem to be aware of how his reaction to the recent meeting of the U.S. bishops in Baltimore could also be applied to the gathering of bishops at Nicea almost 1800 years ago:

On Nov. 12, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the conference, expressed his disappointment when he announced the Vatican’s decision to delay any votes on concrete proposals to confront the clergy sex abuse crisis. At the coffee break, bishops were fuming, complaining that Rome had pulled the rug out from under them. Even those bishops who are most enthusiastic about Pope Francis were distressed, worried that he did not understand the media spotlight under which the bishops were laboring.

But, when the bishops began discussing the proposals on Nov. 13, it quickly became obvious that the proposals were ill-conceived and would have fallen apart on their own, without any help from Rome. Erecting a national oversight commission, at considerable expense and with additional bureaucracy, to monitor 200 bishops, very few of them likely to have broken their vows of celibacy, didn’t seem very practical once they began discussing it. The proposed commission would report allegations to the nuncio but that happens now and no one had bothered to ask the nuncio if he wanted a commission to help him in his work. The Standards of Conduct seemed poorly framed and vague. The whole thing seemed amateurish.

Were the proposals at Nicea ill-conceived? Was the use of Greek philosophical terminology to explain the relations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit amateurish?

By the way, who is a Michael Sean Winters to judge his bishops? After all, even when Vatican II affirmed the laity as the “people of God” in Lumen Gentium, the bishops were quick to remind readers who remained in charge of the church (Jesus founded):

27. Bishops, as vicars and ambassadors of Christ, govern the particular churches entrusted to them by their counsel, exhortations, example, and even by their authority and sacred power, which indeed they use only for the edification of their flock in truth and holiness, remembering that he who is greater should become as the lesser and he who is the chief become as the servant. This power, which they personally exercise in Christ’s name, is proper, ordinary and immediate, although its exercise is ultimately regulated by the supreme authority of the Church, and can be circumscribed by certain limits, for the advantage of the Church or of the faithful. In virtue of this power, bishops have the sacred right and the duty before the Lord to make laws for their subjects, to pass judgment on them and to moderate everything pertaining to the ordering of worship and the apostolate.

The pastoral office or the habitual and daily care of their sheep is entrusted to them completely; nor are they to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiffs, for they exercise an authority that is proper to them, and are quite correctly called “prelates,” heads of the people whom they govern. Their power, therefore, is not destroyed by the supreme and universal power, but on the contrary it is affirmed, strengthened and vindicated by it, since the Holy Spirit unfailingly preserves the form of government established by Christ the Lord in His Church.

If Winters is within his rights as a church member to take swings at the bishops or if he is right about the lack of discernment by the bishops themselves, the Roman Catholic Church is in a crisis of jaw dropping proportions.

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Sola Scriptura?

Don’t listen to the polls but only to Jesus except when he teaches about what will become of Jerusalem:

Q. Recent polls indicate that some 70 percent of Catholics in the United States (and 66 percent in Ireland) do not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, but rather a symbolic presence.

I happen to be one of them. I am Jesuit-educated, and I have written to my pastor with my question but have been greeted with stone silence. If these polls are even halfway true, why is this elephant in the room never addressed or even mentioned in church? Are we all condemned to hell for this belief? (Duxbury, Massachusetts)

A. The beliefs of the Catholic Church are not determined by plebiscite. That is to say, what is fundamental in determining the core content of the Catholic faith is not how people feel, but what Jesus said. And for that, we go to the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel.

Jesus has just multiplied the loaves and the fish to feed 5,000 people, and the crowds are in awe. The very next day, Jesus says something that turns out to be very controversial (Jn 6:35, 51): “I am the bread of life … the living bread that came down from heaven … and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” People are shocked and ask: “How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52).

Even his followers are horrified. Christ has every opportunity to pull back and explain. “Wait,” he might have said, “I was only speaking figuratively.”

Instead, he presses the point, watching as people start to drift away: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (Jn 6:54-56).

Later, at the Last Supper, Jesus reaffirms this teaching in language that is virtually identical.

Polling data varies widely regarding this teaching. The National Catholic Reporter, for example, found in a 2011 survey that 63 percent of adult Catholics believe that “at the consecration during a Catholic Mass, the bread and wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

But as I said at the start, polling data is largely irrelevant, except to this extent (as your question suggests): If a fair number of Catholics do not subscribe to a long-held and central article of faith, the Church should doubtless do more to proclaim and explain that teaching.

As to your last line, about the consequences of not believing, one thing is certain: No one is going to hell who sincerely follows the dictates of his own properly formed conscience. So why worry about that? Why not focus instead on determining what Jesus taught?

So bishops should teach what the Bible teaches or church members should follow their consciences? No wonder the polls’ results and authority.

Luther-like?

Somewhere during the past few weeks I recall reading something about the origins of the episcopate and Ambrose’s contention that obedience to the bishop was of the essence of episcopacy. (That may generate titters from those in the Episcopal Church or the Reformed Episcopal Church, but it still goes with the territory of a universal bishop who has access to the relics of Peter.) Here is one account of the obedience that bishops require (though it might carry more weight actually coming from a bishop):

. . . most of us encounter bishops not only by instruction in the faith, but in practical judgments that have no assurance of divine guidance: appointment or removal of a priest, refusal of a legitimate request, closing of a church or school. Here obedience – along with charity and patience – is truly tested. This instance requires two further clarifications.

On the one hand, according the will of Christ the apostles and their successors the bishops have legitimate authority in all ecclesial matters down to the most mundane dealings. By virtue of the duties incurred by the great gift of our baptisms, we must obey the juridical decisions of bishops, even if we disagree.

On the other hand, our duty of obedience does not mean we cannot communicate our opinions, ideas, and reservations to our bishops, in private or public. But because of bishops’ ecclesial dignity, we must do so charitably and with deference. We can seek recourse to the Apostolic See if we believe a bishop has decided contrary to canon law, but we must never seek to embarrass or insult him in the process – doing so only further disturbs the whole flock.

“A bishop is bound to belong to all, to bear the burden of all,” writes Chrysostom. As members of the same Body of Christ, we must help our bishops bear the burden of souls by bearing our burden of obedience to them. Obedience never has been easy, and it never will be. But like all things truly Catholic, obedience is worth the sacrifice.

So far, so good (if you’re not a presbyterian or congregationalist).

Then along comes this diatribe that might have given Luther pause:

America’s bishops are confusing Catholics by using doublespeak, being indecisive, and being politically correct. Their posturing has, and is, causing great harm to the Church in America.

A case in point: In June 2012, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) unanimously stated that the contraception-sterilization-abortifacients regulation of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act was an “unjust and illegal mandate and a violation of personal civil rights.” Following the National Prayer Breakfast in May, Sean Cardinal O’Malley, OFM Cap., the archbishop of Boston and chair of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, was asked if this regulation violates God’s law. He responded, “The regulation that imposes abortion and sterilization, this is a violation of God’s law.”

So far, so good; here is the rest of the story. In a letter to Congress, the American bishops wrote, “Those who help provide health care, and those who need such care for themselves and their families, should not be forced to choose between preserving their religious and moral integrity and participating in our health-care system.”

However, when Cardinal O’Malley was asked whether American Catholics should obey laws that violate God’s law, he responded, “The question is complicated.” He went on to further confuse the issue: “This is a very complicated issue, and it’s something the Church is struggling with right now, and trying to come up with a moral analysis in order to be able to allow people to form their consciences and to go forward.”

As I Catholic, I do not wish to engage in calumny, particularly involving a cardinal or bishop of the Church I love. I do not believe my comments are such. I believe that the Catholic hierarchy is obligated to be clear and concise when it comes to defining God’s law. I believe that the hierarchy has a duty, as difficult as it may be, to “uncomplicate” the issues that Catholics face when it comes to their faith and how we should live as Catholics in our secular society. Cardinal O’Malley has failed to meet this obligation.

This is the sort of blast that might have actually led to excommunication and the start of a new church if bishops still expected obedience — enforcing it might be another matter. But episcopacy is not what it used to be and I don’t think Jason and the Callers have noticed.