August 21, 2011 - Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

In the first reading, Eliakim is promoted to prime minister. The prime minister is not the king, but everyone obeys the prime minister because he is the representative of the king. It is the job of the prime minister to make sure that the will of the king is accomplished day-to-day. The Lord uses specific language when putting Eliakim in this office: “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim's shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut; when he shuts, no one shall open.” It is this same language which the Lord uses to appoint Peter to be his prime minister: “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

So Peter is the prime minister of the Church, which we call the “Pope”. Jesus is the king, but he has chosen Peter to be his representative here on earth until he comes back. So that a merely human person could take on this enormous responsibility, God gives to the Pope the grace of infallibility. Infallibility means that the Pope, whether he is personally a good man or a bad man, will never teach falsely about faith or morals. Even when there is a bad pope, and there have been plenty of bad popes, he will never teach what is wrong.

This is not, of course, only a gift for the man who is the Pope. It is a gift for the whole Church. We are able to relax and trust that whatever the Pope teaches us is true. One great example of this occurred about 40 years ago. Birth control had been condemned for over 1900 years by the whole Christian Church. Slowly in the 20th century, protestants began to accept birth control, but the Catholic Church continued teaching that married couples cannot use birth control. In the 1960’s many people thought that the Church should change this teaching. A commission of lay people and cardinals recommended to the Pope that he teach that the new forms of birth control were different than the old forms and could be acceptable. Then, in 1968, the Pope wrote a document teaching once again that only natural family planning can be used by married couples, that artificial birth control and sterilization was still and always would be unacceptable.

This document certainly did not make the Pope popular. Many people thought they knew theology better than he did. Perhaps they were smarter than the Pope, but he was not teaching what he thought was true, he was teaching what is actually true. As Jesus says to Peter today, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” In the past 40 years, we have come to understand how right this teaching was, largely because of the teaching of Blessed Pope John Paul II. The world hates the Church and is always yelling at the Church to change this teaching, but it will never be changed.

It will not be changed, but not because the Church is stubborn. As Jesus told St. Peter, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This is not to be understood as if the Pope makes the decision and then God obeys. It is actually the opposite. God made the decision and the pope obeyed. This authority to bind and loosen is founded on what Jesus had just said, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” It is nonsense to think that God would obey a man if the man was not obeying God first.

We will not be able to receive the gift of trust in the infallibility of the Pope unless we are able to believe that a man knows the will of the Lord. In the second reading, St. Paul asks, “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” There are three persons who I can list who know the mind of the Lord: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, but is it possible for a human to know the mind of the Lord? Definitely! The Son is Jesus Christ, one person with two natures, human and divine. Jesus Christ, in his human nature, knows the will of the Father.

Is this just an exception, can a merely human person know the will of God? St. Paul answers yes. Here in the Letter to the Romans, it seems like a rhetorical question, but St. Paul asks it again in his First Letter to the Corinthians, and there he gives an answer: “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” The Holy Spirit, who knows the will of the Lord, lives within our hearts. He is telling each of us, right now, God’s will for us. He does not shout, since this would take away our free will, but if we listen we will hear him whispering.

So it should not seem strange to us that God prevents the Pope from teaching what is not true. We cannot doubt that God can do this when he is living in our own hearts and speaking to us. It seems too good to be true, but nothing is too good to be true. God is true, and he is very, very good. He has not left the Church to founder in its doubts. Over the past 2000 years, we see a continual process of discovering God’s will guided by the Bishop of Rome.

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” Who would have thought that a fisherman would be the man chosen to be prime minister of the Church? The primary qualification was not education or human intelligence but the ability to trust God completely. God’s plans are so mysterious, so intricate, so perfect, that we can never understand them, and, if we see a small part of that plan, we may even think it to be foolish. Only in heaven will we see the whole plan, and then it will take us forever, literally forever, to contemplate and understand his wisdom.

We can trust God. He knows what he is doing. He founded the Church and gave us leaders, knowing that they would be sinful men. He intends to save the world through them anyway.