We are all children of a revolution. At the heart of our national consciousness is the Declaration of Independence by which we cast aside the authority of the British Crown and created a form of governing that has at its basis the consent of the people. No more for us the theory of the Divine Right of Kings! We create the forms of governance and we can change them at will. Jefferson wrote often about the right of the governed to cast aside what does not work for their good and replace an established form of government with one more congenial to the rights and welfare of the people.
This openness to fundamental change is born of the Protestant revolution against the authority of the Church. Luther’s “Here I stand. I can do no other.” is at the center of the Enlightenment revolt against faith and is interwoven into the fabric of the founding of our nation. We are formed because of our refusal to bow to the unjust authority of a King. This is more than an historical once-in-a-lifetime happening. It is a principle of our formation as a nation.
I don’t mean this as a mere historical lesson but as the groundwork necessary to understand our suspicion of all authority and our absolutizing the individual conscience. Revolution is at the center of our toolbox. It is amazing that we have been such a stable government for so long! It also goes far in explaining both the flawed logic and the terror of the assault on the Capitol.
We have in our DNA as Americans both a deep appreciation of the value of our institutions as well as an inner warning not to idolize any human construct.
But, at the same time as Catholics, we must still have faith in God’s guidance through the accumulated wisdom of Catholic Tradition and the authority that Tradition embodies.
The splintering of the Protestant world in spite of Luther’s understanding and teaching on Scripture alone being the standard of orthodoxy has shown the world the importance of a teaching authority beside Scripture that calls out erroneous, heterodox thinking, thereby keeping the Church on the right path. The Catholic Magisterium that has outlasted the test of time serves the Bible as an authentic witness to the correct interpretation of innumerable passages whose many interpretations have always torn apart the unity of the Church.
The truth of the matter is that we need both the institutional side of the Church (Magisterium) and the prophetic side (the individual conscience); not as opposing one another, but as completing one another.
The Church has always been bedeviled with false dichotomies that have created an unnecessary disunity. Not for nothing has the kingdom of Satan often been called “Dis” because of the negative results of this destructive prefix: Disunity, Disorder, Disarray. Satan always seeks to create separation and disorder while Christ brings unity and communion. The unity of Church teaching over many centuries stands in stark contrast to the multitude of false teachings that have littered the centuries of ecclesial history.
There is therefore a proper role for authority which aids the individual conscience by limiting the many choices and pitfalls of understanding and by providing guiding banks for the river-flow of God’s correct teaching.
It is often necessary to find the proper balance between the prophetic and the institutional, between the call of the individual and the proper health of the communal.
This means we often must hold in check our tendency to idolize revolution and the privacy of our individual conceptions to see the whole sweep of the Church’s direction in any given age with its diverse circumstances.
We often must refrain from absolutizing our experience of being Americans and our impatience over the way the rest of the world sees what is going on. The Church is a global institution and not the slave of any one nationality however blessed it is. Washington and New York may see things in a particular way, but have no right to impose that on the Church which must also heed the experience of the faith in Manila, Mexico City and Nairobi.
The Virtue of Prudence is another word for this Proper Balance that I am suggesting is important for the future of each member of the Church.
“If anyone loves righteousness, [Wisdom’s] labors are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for mortals than these.”
– Wisdom 8:7