How Footnotes Will Save the Church

Footnotes are humble things and do their best work in relative obscurity. When footnotes are newsworthy and are talked about for months – such as Amoris Laetitia #351 – the evidence suggests the note has missed its calling. Prominent assertions belong in the text, themselves in need of clarifying footnotes.

Footnotes are essential to demonstrate the reliability of research, the integrity of a term paper, the honesty of reporting, and the logic of many arguments. The four Gospels are supported by footnotes, after a fashion, demonstrating how human reason is essential to an orthodox faith. And discovering relevant, important and compelling footnotes can be moving, even consoling.

The most common “footnote” reference in the Gospel can be found in variations of the phrase, “so that the Scriptures would be fulfilled.”  In the accounts of the Passion of Christ, there are several references linking His Passion to the Psalms and Prophets:

In the Garden (cf. Mark 14:49).
At the foot of the Cross (cf. John 19:24).
The death of Jesus (cf. John 19:28).

The purpose and effect are to link the words and deeds of Christ to the Old Testament and to establish a unity of purpose in the ministry of Christ and the entire history of salvation.

After the Resurrection, the account of events on the Road to Emmaus represents another significant footnote – this time with an exclamation point – providing the correct context of the mighty words and deeds of Christ:  “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25) Any doubts that the Passion of Christ was not included in the ancient prophecies are put to rest with this grand-finale footnote.

One significant “footnote” in the Gospels can be deduced from events. During the Transfiguration, we read, “Then Elijah appeared to them [Jesus, Peter, James, and John] along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus.” (Mark 9:2)  The passage not only reveals the promise of heavenly glory in Christ; the event reaches back into history and elevates Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the Prophets) as key figures in the ministry and message of Jesus.

What is the overarching meaning of these Gospel “footnotes”? Unity of faith and the confidence that comes with stability and the constant reliability of God’s revelation:  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Mt. 5:17)

Christ is not a revolutionary in a worldly way. He is not the militant son of the world we’re inclined to choose over Christ, as the crowds chose Barabbas (Bar: “son of,” Abbas: “the father” of this world). But His Kingdom is not of this world. (cf. John 18:36)  Christ is Son of the Father, the God of the Old Testament and the New, and of all history. He is the Word made Flesh, the Savior of the world.


These Gospel “footnotes” should have a profound effect on how we view Christ and His Church. Church teaching is not revolutionary (except to the extent we are transformed in Christ). God’s gradual self-revelation as fulfilled in Christ provides the rock of our faith.

The three “sources of revelation” – Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium – protect the deposit of faith as carried down through history with integrity.  And the three are connected by footnotes.

Nevertheless, every generation sees demands to accommodate the Gospel to the culture.  “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings.” (2 Timothy 4:3)

Revolutionaries in the Church can only be destructive, they cannot endure. The Leninist “liberation theology” of a generation ago – where priests strapped belts of ammunition over their chasubles and carried AK-47s – is intellectually exhausted, despite leaving a trail of destruction.

The infamous “Nazi Bible” is an unpleasant artifact of history.  Revolutions – or “paradigm shifts” as they are now called – break with the past and are without those glorious footnotes going back to Christ to give them logical legitimacy.

So even if any churchman solemnly proclaims a change in Church teaching to persuade you, for example, that divorce and remarriage or same-sex unions should be recognized as holy by the Church, he would have to distract attention from the footnotes of countless Church documents.  Even a major book burning would be useless in eliminating the footnotes (now that we have the Internet).

Indeed, upon his passing, the footnotes of the very Church documents he cites – or refuses to cite – would remain to indict his infidelity.   And those plodding faithful scholars in green eyeshades fact-checking the footnotes would unmask his fraud – if he departed from received Church teaching to tickle ears.

The rock solid faith in Christ and His teachings are affirmed in the many footnotes tracing the Church’s teaching through historical documents back to Christ.  So with God’s grace and through a careful examination of the footnotes, we can overcome harmful doubts in our faith.

And we can rest joyfully in Church teaching as it has been handed down because footnotes are the instruments of human reason serving the integrity of faith, linking all of history to Jesus Himself.  All those footnotes – provided they unpretentiously point to the facts – may save our faith and the Church.

Saint Paul puts it more elegantly:  “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15) In the meantime, Jesus asks, “when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8)  If the answer disappoints, don’t blame those humble footnotes that patiently await rediscovery.


*Image: The Transfiguration by Titian, c. 1650 [altarpiece of Chiesa di San Salvatore (Church of the Holy Savior), Venice]

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.