I used to argue with Catholics at the grocery store. I was sixteen years old and a fiery Baptist. I remember attempting to convince an elderly Catholic cashier to abandon the Church for the freedom of my Gospel. There was an exhilaration that came in those days as a young man whom ignorance had blessed with the ability to see things in black and white. There was great comfort in being right and having the truth. It was relaxing to know that the others were wrong and I was right.
There’s something about “being right” where you can create your own spirituality around it. It’s about knowing the answers to everyone’s questions that inflates your ego just enough to make it feel like you’re walking lighter. Your thoughts are pervaded by the correct answers, and the examples of how other people are wrong. There is a consuming self-referential celebration of certitude. Sometimes it bursts forth in prayer: O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men (Lk. 18:11). Above all, it relishes in correcting other people for their faults both on faith and morals.
This is the spirituality of being right. I have succumbed to this intellectual pride all my life. Through the grace of God I went to college and my fiery Baptist theology was put to the test, and fortunately it folded like a house of cards. I was confronted with the tension between pride in my own opinion and the unassailable arguments to the contrary. My black and white vision of the world was confronted by a world full of color. This made me feel uncomfortable, but also sparked my curiosity about the beauty of truth. A new force compelled me outside of my comfort zone: a painful yet persistent desire for truth, and nothing but the truth.
Humility and Certainty
A thirst for truth can only be satisfied by humility, since humility is conformity with the truth (II-II q161). But how can one have humility without authority? The very essence of my spirituality of being right was not needing authority by having all the answers. If I had certainty, I could then be my own authority. By professing to have all the answers, I was able to feel comfortable in black and white. But the world of color was too astonishing to ignore. Nevertheless it revealed something about this world which was terrifying: uncertainty.
Uncertainty meant simply that I did not have all the answers. Truth was much bigger than I first thought. The fact that the truth was uncertain was terrifying because it meant it could not be controlled. In my pride I wanted to control reality so it could be mine and I could maintain my comfort. But the world of color said that the world was not black and white. Some things were absolutely certain—the Creed, the Holy Bible—and yet to my Protestant mind, other things were not certain—predestination, questions of morality, Church history. Too many questions were no longer finding any certain answers.
But when I peered into the pages of history, one thing did become certain: the Church acted with authority. In times of uncertainty, the Church made things clear. The bishops and the pope acted with authority. I began to come to an uncomfortable conclusion: I was in need of authority.
Eventually I stumbled upon Apostolic authority, and I met a holy priest. When a fiery Baptist meets a holy priest, he either explodes or melts. This is where the spirituality of being right is shattered. Whosever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it shall grind him to powder (Mt. 21:44). A priest who acts with authority is truly terrifying to one who is consumed with pride. This is because pride is then revealed to be a fool, whereas wisdom is revealed in all its power. In the mouth of a fool is the rod of pride: but the lips of the wise preserve them (Prov. 14:2).
I could see the folly of pride which obscured the truth. I knew I needed authority, but I was not excited about the idea of letting someone else tell me what to do. It meant embracing uncertainty, because I didn’t know what that person would say or teach. It meant I had to let go of my ideas and submit them to the authority of the Church. I remember telling this priest: “I’m not comfortable talking to you about doctrine, but I know I have to.”
Ephemeral Authority or Eclipsed Authority?
This is how I found myself converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, whose priests spoke with authority to me personally. As I began to confess my sins, a great ugliness of pride was revealed in me which I had hoped would never be revealed. But a great freedom was discovered here too—the unlikely freedom of uncertainty where I needed to allow a man of God to direct me. I had to let go of the spirituality of being right and allow myself to be wrong. The way of life, to him that observeth correction: but he that forsaketh reproofs goeth astray (Prov. 10:17).
But I soon realized that although the Eastern Orthodox priests spoke with authority on the local level, the Orthodox Churches possessed only a shaky authority on the universal level. On larger questions of morality and doctrine which affected the whole Church, the various bodies of Orthodoxy were not capable of binding all the faithful to authoritative answers. And so I was forced to rely once again on my own authority to judge things, and once again I couldn’t escape my pride.
By the sheer grace of God, I finally realized that the papacy alone could wield this universal authority by calling and ratifying councils and other acts of universal authority. This is what converted me to Rome shortly after Francis was elected. I realized that most of the questions that vexed the Orthodox churches had already been authoritatively decided by the Church of Rome. The Orthodox churches’ claim to universal authority dissolved like a mist when confronted with the large body of authoritative papal and conciliar documents collected in places like Denzinger. Compared to Rome, the Orthodox churches’ authority was ephemeral. It was like the light of the moon compared to the sun.
And yet, I soon discovered that the Roman authority had been eclipsed. It was a total eclipse of the sun. I could see the authority existed—like one can see the sun’s rays during a total eclipse—and yet the Church for some reason refused to use this authority. Paul VI took off his tiara and this is a symbol of this phenomenon. The popes and bishops from John XIII supposed that concise clarity was not expedient but loquacious ambiguity was “pastoral.” This has thrown the whole Church into confusion ever since.
And so I am once again forced to judge for myself on my own authority. But like Fortescue wrote once, “However, bad as things are, nothing else is possible. I think that when I look at Rome, I see powerful arguments against us, but when I look at the Church of England or Matthew or anyone else, I see still more powerful arguments for us.” If I am forced to use my own authority to judge matters now, I know that my own authority can still be corrected. I have a recent body of authoritative texts to draw from, thus mitigating my own assertions. This time I know that my own answers will be subject to the Church’s universal authority (whenever that authority is once again exercised). I don’t need to have all the answers because it is a time of questioning.
Right now the papacy has metaphorically moved to Avignon, and is experiencing its Babylonian Captivity to worldly politics. The Avignon papacy lasted 67 years, and it got worse before it got better. Much worse. In that time, as now, the faithful were gripped with uncertainty and forced to face the darkness of an eclipsed Church. But just like an eclipse, the sun’s rays still reach around the darkness and people can still see some light. The Church had to basically die and rise again to get out that mess, and I don’t expect anything less to get out of this crisis.
I have learned that the Church will eventually resolve these agonizing periods of darkness because her authority is not ephemeral, but merely eclipsed temporarily. This statement does not provide an answer, because this is not the time for answers, but the time for questions. As Pope Pius XI reminds us in Quas Primas:
“We may well admire in this the admirable wisdom of the Providence of God, who, ever bringing good out of evil, has from time to time suffered the faith and piety of men to grow weak, and allowed Catholic truth to be attacked by false doctrines, but always with the result that truth has afterwards shone out with greater splendor, and that men’s faith, aroused from its lethargy, has shown itself more vigorous than before.”
This is about as painless as a crucifying death, but if history has taught us anything, it is only through suffering and death that we can reach resurrection and life.
The faithful must ask the hard questions and face the darkness of uncertainty with humility, even if it is painful to look at. This is because only by asking these terrifying questions will the effective answers be allowed to surface. This takes time, sometimes decades, or even centuries, as history shows. We need to be willing to die with uncertainty, while passing down the faith to our children. We need to be willing to let go of having all the right answers beyond our grasp, while pursuing the truth with penetrating questions. This is a time of complete darkness, and we need to be honest about the darkness, without losing hope. When the Church wields her universal binding authority once more, then the time of questions will finally be over.
Timothy S. Flanders is the author of Introduction to the Holy Bible for Traditional Catholics. In 2019 he founded The Meaning of Catholic, a lay apostolate. He holds a degree in classical languages from Grand Valley State University and has done graduate work with the Catholic University of Ukraine. He lives in the Midwest with his wife and four children.