The Catholic Thing
Taking the Long View Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Wednesday, 09 November 2011

The Church recently celebrated the Feast Day of the great St. Ignatius of Antioch – not the Spanish fellow who founded the Jesuits in the sixteenth century, but the bishop of Antioch martyred for his faith by being torn apart by lions in the Coliseum sometime between 98 and 117 A.D.

Ignatius was arrested in Antioch and, like Paul before him, was sent to Rome for execution. He was well aware of the fate that awaited him, and along his journey to Rome, he wrote a series of letters to various churches, one of which was to the church in Rome, exhorting them not to intervene in his execution. (It was Rome, after all; home of the bribe.)

“Do not seek to confer any greater favor upon me,” he wrote to his Roman brethren, “than that I be sacrificed to God while the altar is still prepared; that, being gathered together in love, you may sing praise to the Father, through Christ Jesus, that God has deemed me, the bishop of Syria, worthy to be sent for from the east unto the west. It is good to set from the world unto God, that I may rise again to Him.”

The language here is very purposefully Eucharistic. The altar is prepared, the congregation will be gathered, the sacrifice is ready, so that “from east to west” a “perfect offering made be made.”  Only the bread for the altar to be raised up to God will be Ignatius himself. “Let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts,” he writes, “that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”

Pope Benedict has called Ignatius the “doctor of unity.” And so he was. In his life and martyr’s death, he expressed his unity with Christ’s body on the cross, his unity with Christ’s body in the Eucharist, and his unity with Christ’s body in the Church. For Ignatius, the Church was not merely another “institution”; it was the “Body of Christ” on earth. Fostering divisions in the Church, therefore, was tantamount to rending Christ’s Body asunder. Unity with the Body of Christ and within the Body of Christ were necessary complements. And unity within the Church meant unity with the successors to the Apostles, the bishops.

“Submit yourselves to your bishop,” writes Ignatius in one of his letters, “as Jesus Christ to his Father according to the flesh, and the Apostles to Christ, and to the Father, and to the Spirit; that there may be a union both fleshly and spiritual.”  And elsewhere: “For we ought to receive everyone whom the Master of the house sends to be over His household, as we would do Him that sent him. It is manifest, therefore, that we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself.” 

            The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius    

Dissident priests, whether of the Lefebvrite or Austrian Priest Initiative sort, who imagine “schism” is the answer to the church’s problems, should heed Ignatius’s admonition:  “It is therefore fitting not only to be called Christians, but also to be so, and not to be as some who acknowledge the bishop, but do all things apart from him.”  “Be sure,” he writes, “that all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ does the Father.”

Such comments were a constant refrain among all the Fathers of the Early Church. Yet throughout history, Christians presuming to set themselves up as “more faithful” to the Gospel have at times set themselves apart from their bishop, with little or no concern for unity, but only for a kind of purity as they have understood it, whether “purity” of a more “conservative” or “liberal” sort.

To speak in this way is to speak foolishly. A wise Cistercian encouraged me years ago not to use the terms liberal and conservative for different Catholics. Such labels were appropriate for political debates, he said, where the two sides may have equal prudential claims. But in the Church, “orthodoxy” is the goal, and achieving it is less like aligning oneself on an ideological spectrum and more like hitting the center of a target. Shoot too long or short, and you’ve missed either way. To choose certain teachings you like and ignore the rest isn’t “progressive” or “liberal,” it’s just to have missed the mark. And similarly, to be more unyielding or restrictive than the pope isn’t to be “conservative,” it’s just to have missed the mark in a different direction.

Dissidents of every sort need to keep in mind that unity within the Body of Christ must never be an after-thought – something one considers after re-making the actual Church into one’s own image of the ideal church. Can one question a bishop?  Certainly. Can one, like Paul did to Peter, even be critical of a bishop? Sometimes. But have we a sacred duty to maintain unity in charity with our bishop? Absolutely. Has schism to achieve the goal of a more “perfect” Church ever been a good idea in the long run? Not once.

When people complain about “bad” bishops, I remind them that none has been quite so bad as the first group who, although they had eaten and slept and walked with Christ, abandoned him in his hour of need. Peter denied that he even knew Christ, and yet God built his Church on that rock. 

God was fully aware of the sort of people he was working with. From the beginning, they have been earthen vessels. Our faith is in the Holy Spirit who works in and through them, and in Christ’s promise to be with His Church until the end of time. Bad bishops? There’s nothing new under the sun. It has been so from the beginning. Ignatius knew the truth of it. And yet his dying prayers were for unity, “that they may be one, as the Father and Son are one.”

Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.

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Comments (6)Add Comment
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, November 09, 2011
As Mgr Ronald Knox put it, "The fideles, be they many or few, be their doctrine apparently traditional or apparently innovatory, be their champions honest or unscrupulous, are simply those who are in visible communion with the see of Rome. No doubt, in the long run this means the people who are so orthodox that Rome has seen no reason to excommunicate them, so that unity and orthodoxy still react upon one another. But the fact remains that the Roman theory does give a test for defining the fideles without the question-begging preliminary of ascertaining who the fideles are, from an examination of their tenets. And in fact there can be little doubt that, in the West, our labelling of this party as orthodox and that as heterodox in early Church history comes down to us from authors who were applying this test of orthodoxy and no other."
written by John, November 09, 2011
Thank you Mr. Smith!
written by I am not Spartacus, November 09, 2011
Mons. Lefevbre's "excommunication" was lifted which ended the legitimate dispute over whether or not he was excommunicated and the Pope, and the head of Ecclesia Dei Commission have said, repeatedly, that he SSPX is not in Schism.

Church historians may one day look back at this time of highly-questionable Ecclesiastical Praxis and conclude that most of what Mons. Lefevbre was admirable and heroic.
written by Manfred, November 09, 2011
Thank you for your column, Mr. Smith. I, too, have decided to take the Long View, but looking forward instead. The Second Vatican Council will have gone the way of the Council of Pistoia, the Extraordinary Mass, or something very similar to it, will be the one Mass of the Church, all the current actors, both good and bad, will have passed to their reward or punishment, the Jesuits will have been disbanded and replaced by the SSPX and their former offshoot, the FSSP. There will be a tremendous resurgence of piety in the world due to the financial collapse of world markets which did not revive for fifteen years. People will be reminded of their complete dependency on God.
written by Randall Smith, November 09, 2011
The author replies:

Attempts to figure out what the future will look like or what future people will say about the events of today are pure folly. We do not know what the future holds. What we do know is what we have been told by Christ that we must do, and that is to hold fast to the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church, which means a spiritual devotion to those successors of the apostles, the bishops. I say again (for those who missed it the first time): Has schism to achieve the goal of a more “perfect” Church ever been a good idea in the long run? Not once. St. Ignatius of Antioch knew what would come if people gave in to the temptation to separate themselves from the Body of Christ in that way. "O, that way madness lies." The phrase is Lear's, but it applies.
written by I am not Spartacus, November 11, 2011
Dear Prof. Smith. There was legitimate debate as to whether or not Mons Lefevbre was the leader of a schism and the formal lifting of the excommunication sort of settled the matter; so, why bring it up as though The SSPX is/was a schism and not an "internal matter" of the Church as even Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger described it years ago?

I know the questions involved have been endlessly hashed and rehashed but because it is now clear that The SSPX is not a schism now - if it ever was - what is the point of imputing malign motives to Mons Lefevbre who, it seems to me, was exercising a legitimate Canon Law option?

If The SSPX has ever offered false worship or if the SSPX has ever taught heresy then that would be news but the fact is it never has. Schism can not be charged against a Priestly Society when that Society merely wants to worship as their Fathers and Grand Fathers etc etc worshipped and that wants to teach what has always been taught.

And with that, I will drop the matter and I wish everyone else would and stop imputing malign motives to a Cleric/Prelate whose record of Ecclesiastical Orthopraxis was spotless until Vatican Two and during which Council more than 80 Bishops voted to reject more than one of the putatively binding documents.

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