2010-05-16 - ..."It is the decision of the Holy Spirit ..."
It was perhaps not much more than a dozen years after the Resurrection that the Apostles met in the Council of Jerusalem to deal with the question of whether the Mosaic dietary and other laws were to be a necessary part of Christianity. Paul and Barnabas went "up" to Jerusalem - for the early city is a symbol of the Heavenly City on High - to consult with the other apostles. As with every General Council since, "there was much debate" (Acts 15:7). Then Peter arose, since upon him as a rock Christ had established the earthly structure of the Holy Church. The Gentiles were freed from the Levitical restrictions with a startling declaration: "It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us ..." (Acts 15:28). This pronouncement was the opposite of arrogance: it affirmed that apostolic teaching cannot be personal opinion apart from God. Thus, we have the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, and not the Opinions of the Apostles. To this day, when a pope as successor to Peter makes a solemn decree pertaining to a dogma or a canonization, he says, "... for the joy and exultation of the entire Church; by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define ..."
This organic system of authority protects the Church from error in essential matters of faith and morals, avoiding the pitfalls of the sectaries, whose denominations fragment time and again. It is a joyful burden to those who exercise the authority, for they must submit their own wills to the Divine Will; it is only an onerous burden to those who will not acknowledge the difference between their insights and God's revelation. When Pope Pius IX restored the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England, those outside the Church raucously complained that it was some sort of tyrannical invasion. Cardinal Newman understood otherwise, and called it "a pledge to us from Rome, of Rome's undying love."
Christ spent those days between His Resurrection and Ascension organizing His Church, and on Pentecost, He sent the Holy Spirit to empower and guide her. The Catechism teaches (Article 2, #169): "Salvation comes from God alone; but because we receive the life of faith through the Church, she is our mother." Obedience to the truth taught by the apostles is our response to the love of God: "Whoever loves me will keep my word ..." (John 14:23). So we must never think of the Church as just a human construction or her bishops as merely public figures legitimized by opinion polls and characterized politically as "left" or "right." Christ has dignified us with a Church, which is His before it is ours. "And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe" (John 14:29).