Last month I wrote an article imagining what would happen if Catholic Church leaders were in charge of Coca-Cola when the company introduced New Coke. I was being tongue-in-cheek, of course, but my goal was to show that failed ideas in the Church are sometimes harder to kill than a horde of zombies. A friend on Facebook took exception to the article. She wrote:
So, are you saying a) that the Holy Spirit is like a tone-deaf CEO who doesn’t know what He is doing, b) that the Holy Spirit was completely absent from VII, or c) that the Holy Spirit is like the totally right but ignored subordinate employee, begging and pleading with pope after pope to erase everything that has happened in the Church since about 1950 or so but those darned stubborn (canonized, two of ’em) popes just wouldn’t listen?
Now I don’t want to argue here against her specific objections, and I consider my friend a faithful, orthodox Catholic. But I do want to challenge an assumption lurking behind her remarks, because many orthodox Catholics in the Church today employ the same fallacy. I’m referring to the assumption that criticism (especially strong criticism) of the general direction of the Church is criticism of the Holy Spirit. After all, if the Holy Spirit guides the Church, then certainly He is guiding it in the right direction, correct? Sure, many orthodox Catholics say, there might be problems here and there, but questioning the overall direction of the Church would be questioning the wisdom of the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity.
Was the Holy Spirit Asleep at the Switch?
Imagine you’re an Egyptian Catholic born in 320 A.D. When you’re a little child, the great Council of Nicea takes place, defining that the Son is consubstantial with the Father, equally God. Your parents are faithful to this orthodox definition and raise you in the true faith. However, after the Council there is a great conflagration of the opposite viewpoint, Arianism, until almost the entire Church – including almost every bishop – embraces the view that the Son is NOT equal to the Father. Move forward to 360, and the Church is still overrun by Arianism. Do you, at this point, assume that the Church is moving in the right direction, and believe claiming otherwise amounts to being unfaithful to the Holy Spirit? Or do you fight to restore the Church to her proper teachings and practices?
Another example. Imagine you are a French Catholic born in 1370. Before you reach the age of 10 there are two men, Urban VI and Clement VII, claiming to be pope, causing what we now call the Western Schism. Of course you don’t know it as history, you know it as daily life. Good Catholics are on both sides of the divide, although they recognize the great scandal of two papal claimants. Move forward forty years. Not only is the papal situation not resolved, but now three men claim to be pope! You have lived your whole life as a Catholic under this cloud of competing popes. Do you, at this point, assume that the Church is moving in the right direction, and believe claiming otherwise amounts to being unfaithful to the Holy Spirit? Or do you fight to restore the Church to her proper teachings and practices?
Guide to Truth, or Micro-Manager?
These examples are not meant to argue that today’s crisis rises to the same level as the Arian heresy and the Western Schism – that is for the historian to decide one day. Instead, they show that the Holy Spirit is not a micro-manager or control freak who makes sure that the perfect pope is always picked, that the majority of bishops are always faithful to Him, and that the Truth is proclaimed and lived within Catholic parishes throughout the world. If this were truly His role, history would condemn Him as an utter failure.
What is, then, the role of the Holy Spirit? First, He guarantees that the Church will never officially teach error. Considering how often individual Catholics have embraced heresy (especially during the Arian crisis), this is no easy task. But note that protecting the Catholic Church from error does not mean protecting individual Catholics from error. Any Catholic – from the lowliest layperson to priests to bishops to even the pope – can hold and even promote theological or moral error. There is one exception, and this involves another role of the Holy Spirit: He ensures that the pope cannot teach error in faith or morals when the pontiff speaks (and only when he speaks) ex cathedra.
Further, the Holy Spirit guides individuals to Our Lord, while always respecting their human freedom. If we spend many hours in prayer and practice the virtues, then we will be more receptive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If, however, we do not, then the Holy Spirit will not force us to follow His guidance, even if we are a Prince of the Church.
In Times of Crisis, the Holy Spirit Raises Up Saints
Throughout Salvation History God works good out of the evil actions of men. We see this most clearly in the crucifixion, which turned the most evil act in human history into the greatest good. Likewise, we have seen how during the darkest times in Church history, great saints are raised up to combat the errors of their times. Saints such as Athanasius and Catherine of Sienna were not unfaithful to the Holy Spirit when they decried the state of the Church in their times; in fact, they were responding to the Holy Spirit and helped guide the Church to the truth (cf. John 16:13).
Today we too must trust in the Holy Spirit, but not in a Pollyanna way that refuses to acknowledge problems within the Church for fear of being unfaithful to Him. Instead, we must be confident that the Holy Spirit will raise up Saints like St. Athanasius and St. Catherine who will lead us out of this crisis. Perhaps even we should pray that we might be those Saints.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications.