20 January 2012

Authenticating the Truth

2nd Week OT (F)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, New Orleans

It seems that for the last 40 years or so Americans and especially Catholic Americans have had a Love-Hate relationship with the concept of authority. We love having authority on our side when we think we are right, and we hate having it oppose us when. . .well, when we think we are right. In other words, authority is vitally important to discovering and defending the truth so long as whoever wields that authority agrees with me. The bad news here is that this particular way of treating authority actually leaves those in authority without much real power to discover or defend much of anything at all. The good news is that the truth isn't touched one way or another by whether or not we choose to accept or reject it. The truth is the truth and always will be. The authority of, say, a president or a scientist or a pope cannot create truth out of nothing. At most, legitimate authority has the power to authenticate some expression of the truth, or to point out that we are giving credibility to a falsehood. This distinction—btw creating truth and merely certifying an expression of the truth—is essential to our progress in holiness b/c we need to know whether or not we are holding on to and following the authentic teachings of Christ. Teachings don't save us—Christ does that—but like the apostles we are sent out to tell the truth about Christ and his Good News.

To ensure that his authentic message is spread, Jesus calls The Twelve together and then sends them out with the authority to preach and teach the gospel. They are not given the freedom to invent a wholly new gospel, or to spin the Good News for easier consumption, or to blend Jesus' teachings with the more exotic and interesting bits from fairy tale and legend. As eyewitnesses to his public ministry and the direct beneficiaries of his personal instruction, The Twelve are sent out to preach and teach what Jesus himself preached and taught. And they do exactly that. We know that they did exactly that b/c to this day—2,000 years later—the Church still teaches and preaches the apostolic faith of The Twelve. Resting on the building blocks of the martyred apostles, the Church has authenticated again and again the truth of the Good News of Jesus Christ and will continue to do so until he returns. We're not bragging. That's not a boast. It's a promise from Christ himself, the wellspring of the Church's power to define and defend the truth of our Lord's message of God's mercy to sinners.

Americans in general and Catholic Americans in particular have had a hard struggle these last few decades with the notion of authority. Our nation is rooted in rebellion against the alleged divine right of King George III to rule us as colonists. Since we declared our independence, we've been a tad shy of anyone claiming to hold authority over us as individuals or as a nation. But as Catholics we must be extraordinarily careful not to confuse the secular authority of the state (derived from the consent of the governed) with the authority of the Church (derived from Christ through his apostles). The truth of the Gospel is not subject to a referendum; we do not elect our bishops or pastors by popular vote; we cannot alter the apostolic faith b/c polls tell us to. This isn't a matter of ecclesial stubbornness or institutional authoritarianism. There is a Way, a Truth, and a Life beyond the grubby politics of the human passions and that way/truth/life is Christ Jesus—the way, truth, and life given to the apostles by Christ and given to us by them in turn. The Way is straight and narrow. The Truth never changes. And the Life we reap is eternal.

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