Taking the Long View

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 B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.