At the Altar, the Priest Presides

At the Altar, the Priest Presides November 12, 2018

Part 3 of my series on the relationship between the lay and priestly offices:

Last week in this space, we talked about the need to discern the distinction between Magisterial teaching and a cleric asking us to truly do evil or neglect to fight evil.  My basic point is that we should be docile to the Church unless we have a really good reason not to be.

The trick, of course, is to know when such times are.  Some people will avoid such confrontations at any cost.  Others are itching to imagine such confrontations where none exist.  Not every disagreement with some priest or bishop makes you St. Catherine of Siena rebuking the Pope or St. Joan vs. the bishop of Rouen. Usually, it’s a quarrel about who gets to use the Parish Hall on Wednesday night, the prayer group or the choir?  Usually it is not you starring as St. Athanasius against a whole Church corrupted by worldliness.  A good rule of thumb is to not imagine that you are the hero bravely standing alone for the TRVTH.  Most likely, you are being unreasonable about something minor and somebody else is being either reasonable about it or they are being about as unreasonable as you are.  Paul’s advice to us in such small spats is bracing:

When one of you has a grievance against a brother, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life! If then you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who are least esteemed by the Church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the brotherhood, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers?

To have lawsuits at all with one another is defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud, and that even your own brethren. (1 Co 6:1–8).

This sort of counsel went down easier in a time when apostles were, if anything, more dirt poor than their flock and, like Jesus, had no place to lay their heads. They could talk about bearing wrongs patiently because they lived it, as Jesus did.

These days, when bishops and clergy are often well-to-do, the gospel’s counsel can sound like the powerful telling the weak to shut up and take it.  And indeed, sometimes the weak have a positive moral duty to not shut up and take it since they would not simply be bearing wrongs patiently for themselves, but contributing by their cooperation to a system that must be resisted for the sake of others.  Rosa Parks would have sinned against her people had she continued to quietly sit in the back of the bus.  Likewise, one of the great lessons of the abuse crisis in the Church is that victims must be encouraged and given the freedom to report to the cops what has been done to them, precisely because the courage of one victim can free many, many more to come forward and call to account those who must face justice.

But most of the time, the bulk of our conflicts in the Church are not about issues of this magnitude. And so most of the time, Paul’s counsel remains true that, for ourselves, so given to turn truly petty issues into huge fights, there can be a real blessing in refusing to let our need for “winning” dominate our lives.  Let the jerk cut you off on the freeway.  Overlook the clown at the office who leaves grody food in the fridge.  Forgive the clerk who is on the cellphone to his girlfriend when you are trying to ring up your sale.

One useful thing to do in navigating our obedience to the Church is to cultivate a sense of where clerical and lay expertise start and end. The basic rule of thumb is this: At the altar, the priest presides.  But in the world, the laity preside.

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