Sunday, July 19, 2015

Teaching Infallibly

There is a clear connection between the first reading and the gospel today. In our first reading, the prophet Jeremiah is prophesying against the leaders of Israel. So Israel was at a low spot right now. After Kings David and Solomon, the kings continued to lead Israel further and further from God. It God so bad that the 12 tribes of Israel had actually divided into two nations. Worship of foreign gods was pretty standard. In a couple more generations, Israel would turn so firmly from God that God would allow them to be taken into exile in order to get their attention again. Not a good time in Israel, and it was primarily the leaders's fault.

So God speaks to these leaders through his prophet Jeremiah and he compares them to shepherds when says, "Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture."  And then a few lines later he tells what he is going to do about this when he says, "I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them...I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble." Jeremiah is prophesying about Jesus, the one true shepherd who will actually gather God's people into one flock. And that's what we're beginning to see in our gospel today.

Now, the gospel highlights two important themes for us that we want to unpack: teaching and doing. This gospel follows just shortly after last week's gospel, and we need to remember that for context. So in last Sunday's gospel, Jesus sent the apostles out two by to two to preach repentance and to heal the sick. After that in Mark's gospel, we get an interlude about the death of John the Baptist which we don't read in the Sunday cycle, and now we see Mark getting back to the main story about Jesus and the twelve apostles. We see them returning from their individual missions, and they're coming back to report on what happened.

And the gospel tells us that they reported two specific things. They reported all that they had done and taught. Doing things like healing and feeding and is one half of the ministry that the apostles were sent out on, and the other half is teaching. And they do that because that's what Jesus does. The gospel tells us that Jesus's heart is moved with pity for the crowds and he begins to teach them. He doesn't attend to their physical needs yet, first he teaches. Right after this passage, Jesus feeds this same crowd of five thousand, so then we see that "doing" half of the ministry. But Jesus thinks that the teaching side of his work is just as important as the doing side of the work.

What Jesus teaches is about as important as what he does because teaching keeps his flock united. What we teach is just as important as what we do because teaching keeps us united. What we do is crucial to our unity, but what we teach is just as important. What we teach keeps us united because, for example, many different organizations help the poor, from atheists to Catholics, but we would never claim that we are a united group of people. Two groups can agree on a single cause or project and not be united. But for us Christians, unity is crucial to our identity, because unity was what Jesus taught and prayed for, and unity was what he won for us by what he did on the cross.

Christ willed for us to be united, one flock united under one shepherd, one Body of Christ. He wants this because he knows it's better for us and better for the world. A group that is united in purpose and belief can support each other more naturally when one member is struggling. That's what the ancient pagans saw in the Christians, they saw a group that cared for everyone within the group. And a group like this that is united in purpose and belief is a powerful and unstoppable witness in the world.

So unity in the Church is God's will for us, but we must make sure we understand unity rightly. We don't want to understand unity simply as a consensus of beliefs as if the Church was a political body. We could all be united in the wrong belief and it would be just as wrong even though we all believed it. That wouldn't do us any good. No, we have to be united in Christ and in his right teaching.

Fortunately, because Jesus's heart was moved with pity for us, because we were like sheep without a shepherd, Jesus gave us the means to know his right teaching when he gave his authority to Peter and the other apostles. Jesus entrusted Peter and the apostles with his full authority to preach in his name, and to bind and loose sins. But Jesus didn't intend for that real and tangible authority to exist for just one generation, so it Jesus's authority continues to exist in the Pope and the bishops united to him down to the present day, all for the sake of the unity of the Body of Christ.

The Pope can't even infallibly declare beer
to be the finest beverage known to man
One of the most common sticking points about papal authority, for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, is the teaching of papal infallibility. So what's papal infallibility? Does it mean that the Pope can't be wrong no matter what he says? Not quite. The teaching of papal infallibility means that the Pope is preserved from the possibility of error "When, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church." So he has to be acting in his office as pope, and he has to be teaching authoritatively on faith and morals. If the pope were to declare that cookies and cream ice cream was the best and anybody who disagreed was wrong, he would be correct because cookies and cream is indeed the best, but that wouldn't be an infallible statement. When the pope decreed in 1854 that Mary was immaculately conceived without sin, that was an infallible statement. Papal infallibility is much bigger than just the pope's opinions. Throughout the history of the Church, less than a dozen statements or teachings have been considered infallible, and most popes spend their whole time as pope never issuing an infallible teaching.

Papal infallibility, like every other aspect of the Church that Jesus set up, exists for the sake of unity. Jesus's heart was moved with pity when he saw the people like sheep without a shepherd, and so he taught them so that they might be united. Trust Jesus, trust his teaching authority present in the Church, and then you can experience the hope that the responsorial psalm offers: "The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want."

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