The present age is a very restless one. Men are growing more impatient than ever of restraint, and are constantly seeking to throw off even the last remnants of authority. Liberty! Freedom! Choice! That is the cry that rises wherever a multitude of undisciplined men are gathered together. Laws are found too galling, and each one seeks to do "what seems right in his own eyes" (Judges xvii. 6). They refuse to yield even a "reasonable service."
[Note: In reading this, I was struck by its relevance to the present age - as if nothing really has changed much...]Even the Church established by Jesus Christ to guide us safely along the path of salvation amid the errors and the heresies of a world "seated in wickedness," is not suffered to carry out her divine task, or to exercise her authority, without being challenged and questioned at every step. Men question her right to command, and to lay down laws of conduct, and would confine her power within the narrowest limits.
It will be well then for us, who have to mix with all sorts and conditions of persons, and to listen to every kind of sophism and objection, to consider the grounds upon which the Church issues her mandates, and promulgates her decrees.
Let us begin by observing that the Catholic Church is no department of the state. She does not receive her commission or her authority from the people. She is not even an organism gradually brought about by the natural cravings of a man's heart for some sort of religion. No, She in no sense owes her existence to the industry of man. She is a visible, living and thoroughly organized moral authority, established by the Eternal Son of God, while He was upon earth in the flesh, to rule and control and govern in the spiritual order, as an absolute monarch rules in the temporal order. The Church, as founded by Christ, is a perfect society, and, therefore, contains within herself all that is necessary and useful for the carrying out of the stupendous task laid upon her by her divine founder. She is (within her own sphere) independent, and stands in no need of any external permission or direction for what she does.
Her mission is to teach the way to Heaven, and to interpret and apply the law of God not merely to one or another favored people or nation as under the old dispensation, but to all nations. "Go and teach all nations." She is destined and commissioned to prepare and fit the hundreds of millions, subject to her, for a certain definite end, and must necessarily be armed with all the requisite means of doing so.
The civil government exists to keep order, to secure to each individual his. just rights, to defend the weak, to promote the interests of the whole community. And for this purpose it is invested with the power to establish laws and to enforce regulations that may be conducive to the public good. A government if deprived of this power would not be a government at all; and instead of order, license and confusion would everywhere reign supreme. If this be true in the case of a civil government whose jurisdiction is so limited, how much more so must it be in the case of a government whose jurisdiction like that of the Church extends over the entire world.
When our Lord established His Church He conferred upon it every prerogative that was necessary for the carrying out of His purpose. Indeed, it would be absolutely unworthy of God to establish a society like the Church, and to place it here among men, for a particular and definite end, and then to refuse it the means of carrying out that end. "All power," said Jesus Christ, "is given to Me in Heaven and in earth." And as the Eternal Father sent Him to earth with full jurisdiction, so He in His turn passed it on to the Apostles, and to those who should hereafter rule the Church in His place. "As the Father hath sent .me (i. e. , with full jurisdiction), so I also send you." "Going, therefore, teach all nations." (Matt. xxviii.) Further, He gave them full authority, so that any man who refused to obey them was to be treated as reprobate. "If he will not hear the Church, let him be as the heathen and the publican." This authority included most undoubtedly, the faculty of creating laws, and of regulating men's consciences, as well as their exterior actions; for the decrees imposed by the Church were to be recognized and ratified by God himself. "Amen, I say to you, whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound also in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven." (Matt. xviii.)
Now, as to the subject matter of ecclesiastical legislation, and the extent to which it can go in prescribing or prohibiting-all this is to be determined by the Church herself, who is the supreme judge of all such questions, since to her alone has been committed the charge of the entire flock. In saying so much we must guard ourselves against a misapprehension. We do not mean that the Church can make laws 'and impose duties arbitrarily, as though it rested with her to enforce any obligations she fancies, but in the sense that she is divinely invested with supreme authority from above, both in deciding questions regarding her own power, and in framing and promulgating laws under the influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit, who has promised to abide with her forever and to defend her from all error.
The reasonableness of this claim is obvious to all. Why, even the state, with all its' imperfections and with no special promise of protection from on high, asserts its right to exercise this prerogative, and will never allow its own competence to be impugned. The legislature in every civilized country is constantly asserting its right to pass laws and to impose restrictions which it considers to be for the benefit and well-being of the country. It lays down marriage laws, regulates the liquor traffic, raises imports, collects taxes, forbids the importation of goods except under certain conditions, determines the procedure of the law courts, makes certain offenses penal, demands a return of the individual's income, settles who shall and who shall not be eligible to vote at elections, and in a thousand other ways proclaims its supreme authority within its own sphere. And, so long as it confines itself to its legitimate limits no reasonable man will dispute its right.
It is only when it trespasses beyond its lawful boundaries and arrogates to itself the right to interfere with men's consciences, and to prescribe laws for the guidance of their conduct in spiritual things - it is only then, I say, that we denounce and condemn it, and refuse to follow its teaching. Thus, when in England, in 1534, Parliament passed an act declaring "the King -to be supreme head of the Church in England, and that the Bishop of Rome had no jurisdiction at all in that country;" and when, in 1547, it decreed that "henceforth communion should be received by all under the forms of both bread and wine," it stepped beyond its own province; and dared to encroach upon the ground occupied by the Church of God, to whom alone belongs the direction of men's souls, and the administration of the Sacraments. Our blessed Lord very clearly laid down the limits of the Church and of the state, respectively, on the famous occasion when He confounded the Pharisees, who asked Him to tell them whether it was -lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not? Jesus, knowing their wickedness, said: "Why do you tempt me, you hypocrites. Show .me a coin of the tribute." And they offered Him a penny; and Jesus said to them: "Whose image and inscription is this?" They said to Him, Caesar's. Then He said to them: "Render, therefore, to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." (Matt. xxii, 17-21)
Here our Lord clearly recognizes and acknowledges both Church and state, and the right of each to exercise authority and to command obedience within its own domain. The Church and the state exist for a special purpose, but this purpose is by no means the same in the one case as in the other. The state is for this world, and for the present life; the Church is for the spiritual and supernatural world, and for the future life. And just as we should resent it, if the Church were to attempt to impose laws as to how we should light our streets, or build our ships or cars, or train our soldiers, so we should resent it, as an intolerable piece of impertinence, if the state were to attempt to regulate divine service, and prescribe the ritual, and to forbid belief in transubstantiation, and to make it a misdemeanor to use beads or to carry crosses or Agnus Deis, and so forth, though all this and much more was actually done in Great Britain in the sixteenth century.
But just. as we must acknowledge the legislative power in the state, so long as it is restricted within its proper boundaries, so must we acknowledge, and indeed with much more readiness and gratitude, the legislative power of the Church, so long as it is contained within the much wider boundaries of its legitimate sphere.
Obedience to the Church has ever been considered a first principle among Catholics. To hear her voice, and to obey it, is to hear and obey Christ Himself. "Who hears you, hears me, and who despises you, despises me"-and this is the more important, inasmuch as her commands are but the application of the divine law, and are instituted to enable us to fulfill it with greater perfection and exactness. A few illustrations will render that clear. Take, for instance, the Third Commandment of God, "Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day." Here we are ordered to set aside one day of the week to the special service of God. But how? In what manner? If left to ourselves, we might introduce the strangest customs, or, very possibly, not pay any attention to the command at all. So the Church comes to our aid, and she prescribes the manner in which we are to observe the command of God, and to sanctify this one day. She bids us be present at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and unite with the priest, when he offers up the adorable Victim for the sins of the world, and especially for the sins of those who are actually associating themselves with Him in this tremendous act by their corporal and mental presence. How much are the faithful the gainers by this wise piece of legislation, and how many more "keep the Sunday holy" by reason of it than would be the case otherwise. So with regard to the rest from servile work.
Or take another duty, viz., that of doing penance for sin and atoning for our many transgressions. "Unless you do penance," says our Lord, "you shall all likewise perish"; and again, "if any man will come after me; let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me." Again and again we are exhorted to acts of self-denial; but if the performance of this essential duty were left entirely to our own discretion it is greatly to be feared that the immense majority of us would trouble very little about it. We would put it off, or excuse ourselves on one plea or another, and nothing would be done.
Therefore, the Church, lovingly intent upon our true interests and upon the exhortations of our Lord, takes the matter in hand, and appoints both the times and the manner of our penance. She establishes certain days of fast and of abstinence, and imposes upon all her children a strict obligation of restraining their appetites, and mortifying themselves, during the forty days of Lent, the Fridays throughout the year, and on certain Ember days and vigils. Indeed it may truly be said that all her legislation is really founded upon some law of God Himself, expressed or understood. If she prohibits certain mischievous books in her "Index Librorum Prohibitorum" it is because God obliges us to avoid the occasion of sin, and warns us all against "loving the danger" (Eccl. iii. 27), lest we perish in it.
If she puts us under a strict obligation of receiving the Blessed Sacrament at least once a year, it is because He has said, "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you." (John vi. 54.) If she forbids mixed marriages, and only with difficulty grants dispensation, and then only on condition that all the children of such a marriage be brought up Catholics, it is because God has said: "A man that is a heretic avoid" (Tit. iii. 10), and because He particularly warns us that "other foundation no man can lay but that which is laid; which is Christ Jesus." (1 Cor. iii. 11.)
The Church could not carry out her divine commission if she had not full legislative powers, and her presence in the world would be of very little use to the great majority of men, who need not only the general laws enunciated by God, but much more their actual application to present needs and to the exigencies of daily life. Hence, St. Paul particularly exhorts obedience to the Church's decrees. "Obey them," he says, "that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls as they must give an account." (Heb. xiii. 7, etc.) Indeed there is hardly anything which so distinguishes thoroughly good Catholics from those outside the .Church as the attitude they take up toward their respective spiritual superiors. Among Protestants an extraordinary spirit of independence prevails; they claim the right to exercise private judgment, to interpret the Scriptures as they please, and to reject every enactment of which they disapprove.
A Catholic, on the contrary, has to exercise docility and submission, and to bring his personal judgment into subjection. His position in regard to the Church is that of a little child before its duly authorized teachers. This attitude of mind is not a matter of mere counsel, but of necessity. "Unless you become as little children you shall not enter into the kingdom of God." Thus, we see that our Lord here makes it a condition of salvation.
There are some indeed who make a grievance of this necessity, but they have none of the spirit of Christ, who was "meek and humble of heart," and who never failed to give us lessons of obedience, even in things most difficult. What are we, my brethren, compared with Jesus, the only begotten of the Father, who is as truly God as He is truly man? If He, in spite of His infinite wisdom and power and dignity, was pleased to .be subject to His own creatures, and not only to those who were pure and innocent, like Mary and Joseph, but to evil governors and judges, how much more should we, who are but dust .and ashes, be ready to obey the authority of the Church, into whose charge we have been placed by Christ Himself!
Do we not claim Christ as our leader, our model and our King; and is His example, so much more eloquent, than any words, to count for nothing? Are we to be proud because He is humble; are we to rebel because He is obedient? Or, shall we, in our arrogance and impatience of all restraint, forget that we are the children of Him, who in obedience to His Heavenly Father was born in a stable; who, when only eight days old, began to bleed for our sins, whose whole life was a continuous mortification; and who died at last nailed to an ignominious Cross. Perish the thought!
Either let us renounce the very name of Catholic, or else curb our evil passions, and yield lovingly and loyally to the voice of ecclesiastical authority, feeling intimately persuaded, that in that way only we shall prove ourselves to be the true children of God. "Who hears you, hears me; and who despises you, despises me."
Adapted from Bishop Vaughan's Sermons, Vol. I(©1920)
by Bishop John Vaughan, D.D., Bishop of Sebastopolis
Nihil Obstat: Arthur Scanlan, S.T.D
Imprimatur: Patrick Hayes, Archbishop of New York
Forward by the Most Reverend John Glennon, DD, Archbishop of St Louis