“When He saw the crowds, He went up the mountain, and after He had sat down, His disciples came to Him. He began to teach them…”(Matthew 5:1-2).
This week, on 22 February, the Church celebrates the feast of the Chair of St. Peter. Although a reputed chair that St. Peter sat on to teach is preserved at the Lateran Basilica in Rome, the Church is honoring something much more than a literal chair.
The posture of a teacher in ancient Israel was sitting down. Rabbis would gather their particular disciples around them—at their feet, as it were—and expound upon the Law and give their interpretations depending on the rabbinical school they were associated with as religious masters. The original practice dates back to Moses who taught the Israelites the Law and its interpretation while seated. The people listened as he authoritatively relayed divine revelation.
Consequently, in the Gospels, when Jesus sits down and teaches, it is an extremely important detail. He is the New Moses, and in fact, because Christ is God Himself, His teaching and interpretation supersedes Moses. As Jesus revealed the Beatitudes, He went up the mountain (like Moses at Mt. Sinai), sat down, and delivered the perfection of the Law, the Beatitudes (as Moses had delivered the original Law—the 10 Commandments).
The Church, therefore, has kept this traditional posture of teaching with her own ministers. Bishops, who are the successors of the Apostles, have the option of preaching their sermons from their chair, otherwise known as the cathedra. The purpose of this is to demonstrate that their authority, which they exercise in their office as teacher, is directly correlated to Jesus Himself, the true Teacher and Master.
The Chair of St. Peter, therefore, is a celebration of the unique authority that the Successor to St. Peter—the Bishop of Rome—enjoys as the universal teacher in the Catholic Church. In fact, this teaching office of the Pope and all bishops who are united to him is important for all the faithful because since Christ revealed to us the fullness of God’s truth, the Church’s ministers have a solemn and extremely important duty to maintain the truths of the faith in all their integrity.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the Magisterium (the pope and all bishops united with him) of the Church has a mission “linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with His people in Christ. It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the [faithful] abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals” (no. 890).
The Chair of St. Peter, therefore, represents the teaching authority of the Church which the faithful are obliged to follow in obedience because the Church continues authentically to pass on the truths that Jesus Christ Himself preached and lived. This relationship is not one-sided, however. While the faithful are obligated to follow God’s truths fully, the Magisterium also has an obligation to present the truths of the faith clearly and distinctly without compromise—particularly by not worrying about how Jesus’ eternal truths will be accepted by the world. Just as Jesus Himself was rejected by much of the world, so He is rejected by a great many people still today. Just as Judas Iscariot was present among Jesus’ disciples and even was an Apostle, so we have many Iscariots in the clergy and laity today who deliberately and casually betray Christ without a second thought.
Nevertheless, the mission of the Magisterium remains unchanged. We live today in the Church among many clergy at the highest ranks who do not present the truths of Christ authentically or deliberately manipulate His truth to make the faith palatable to those who are weak in their Catholicism or who have no faith at all. We have many false teachers among us today in the Church.
We see this in many ways particularly since 1970, but in our own day, the teaching on Holy Communion for those individuals who were married in the Church, divorced, and then were civilly married without an annulment has become a topic of great confusion for many people. If a person is married civilly after a divorce without an annulment, that person is still married to the original spouse. Therefore, the civil marriage is adultery. The problem today involves bishops and priests interpreting Pope Francis’ writings as fully condoning the reception of Holy Communion in the state of the mortal sin of adultery for any person in this situation. Many bishops and priests unfortunately are advising the faithful that their conscience can be their sole guide.
Several problems emerge here. First, any bishop who is not clear on the never-changing teaching of the Church is completely derelict in his office as bishop. Today, we see too many of these false and weak shepherds, and the faithful are the ones who suffer immediately; if the bishops themselves do not amend their ways, they risk suffering eternally for their betrayals. Second, the Catholic Church has taught definitely that no one may receive Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin. St. Paul and St. John are clear about this in the New Testament, and the Sacred Tradition of the Church has never changed this discipline based on the true doctrine that no one can have Communion with Jesus Christ in a sacrament when their mortal sin cuts them off from the life of Jesus directly.
Third, no one can be told that his conscience is his guide and then leave him to form his own conclusions; a person will always choose the most selfish choice in that case! A person’s conscience must always be informed. God’s divine revelation informs the conscience regarding our moral choices using Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition with the Magisterium of the Church as the voice interpreting God’s revelation. The Magisterium—the bishops—cannot simply hand difficult issues back to the laity and tell them that their conscience is their guide and then provide no guidance for difficult moral choices! This is the absurdity we see with many Church leaders today who fail, in fact, to lead effectively.
Fortunately, the Church does possess at least one clear, strong voice in the midst of the tremendous muddle among other bishops. Gerhard Cardinal Muller is the current prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. This is the most important office in Rome that safeguards the faith and morals in belief and practice. Cardinal Muller’s voice is second only to the pope himself. His recent interview to an Italian paper provides clear and steady guidance to the current issue confusing many Catholics.
First, Cardinal Muller stated definitely that when it comes to civilly remarried Catholics, they cannot receive Holy Communion in the state of mortal sin. He went on to say that no “power in heaven or on earth, neither an angel, nor the pope, nor a council, nor a law of the bishops, has the faculty to change” the Church’s perennial teaching and practice. He went on to say that many bishops themselves are not formed in the faith properly and, therefore, they are giving scandalous moral advice to persons in those situations.
Cardinal Muller reiterated correctly that actions that are evil by their very nature—like adultery—are always morally unacceptable under any circumstances and do not allow for legitimate exceptions. Adultery has no personal exemptions just because the couple “feels” like they are in a committed relationship to one another at the moment.
What, then, is Jesus’ teaching about marriage? In Mark 10:11-12, Jesus clearly teaches that if anyone marries another person after their first marriage—unless the first one was unlawful—then the person commits adultery. The Church cannot change Christ’s teaching. “If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists…Reconciliation…can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1650).
Pope John Paul II stated clearly in his writing, Familiaris Consortio (1981), that any couple in a civil remarriage must live free of conjugal relations, which means that they live in complete continence. Only under that circumstance may they receive the sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion until (or if) they are granted an annulment. John Paul’s teaching was directly in line with the teaching and practice of the Church from her beginning. He changed nothing; he was clear in what he taught. Pope John Paul II was a true shepherd for his times, and we can thank God that his ministry as the Bishop of Rome continues to guide us in today’s world and Church where the seeds of confusion are deliberately planted by those who ought to know better. May we remain steadfast and faithful to Our Lord by following His true shepherds who continue to cry out in an ever-increasing wilderness.
May you have a most blessed and holy week!
Fr. Shawn William Cutler