Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Readers familiar with me will know that I think the world of Fr. Robert Barron's creative and intelligent witness to the Faith. Here he is addressing the problem of the Protestant approach to authority as it is articulated by one of its smartest representatives, Alister McGrath:
It will not come as a shock to know that I agree with Fr. Barron on the problems inherent in sola scriptura and, in fact, have had more than a little to say about that myself:
But beyond the common and extremely-hard-to-deny point being made about the need for an umpire or referee in the "game" of the Christan faith (the core point made by apologists for the Catholic Faith like Yr. Obdt. Svt.) I think Fr. Barron makes an interesting and thought-provoking point when he notes that, while an umpire is essential to the game, the game is not about the umpire. It's about the game. The point of the Catholic faith is not about ecclesial politics or the minutiae of what the Pope and bishops are doing today. It's about the relationship of Jesus Christ and the human person. The gospel is not a mere set of moral precepts. You can get that from any religion and from a dozen philosophies. It's not a mere collection of liturgical practices or religious rites (again, you can find these in most religions). It's not about authority for the sake of authority (you can find that, not only in many religions and political ideologies, but in chemical purity in totalitarian states). All these things are found in human society apart from the gospel. They can be, when exercised reasonably, good things. But in our idolatrous fallenness, all of them are latched on to by human beings as possible means of salvation in and of themselves and invariably become evils when this happens. Apart from Jesus Christ, they are all idols and cannot occupy the throne in which he alone can sit. All of them, separated from him, are just one more grab at some form of money, pleasure, power, and/or honor as the perennial substitutes for God.
This is, I think, one of the reasons that Pope Francis is confusing so many people: they have lost sight of the fact that the game is not about the umpire. His emphasis, over and over, is on the game itself: on directing us back to the relationship between Jesus Christ and each human person. But lots of us want him to be about an idol: power. They imagine that the faith is about something other than Jesus Christ crucified for our transgressions and raised to life for our justification. It matters little what. For some, it's the attempt to reduce the faith to economic justice. For others, it's the attempt to reduce the faith to the proposition "Opposition to abortion taketh away the sins of the world". Both are examples of idolatry: of putting some good creature in the place of God. A,lot of people want the Umpire to kick out of the game anybody who fails to make their idol the goal of the game. But Francis is not primarily about exercising power and throwing players out of the game (though that will occasionally enter into his duties). More than that, he is not about the worship of idols. Instead, he's directing our attention to the game itself: to Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, who goes out into the highways and byways and calls in the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind--including people we might feel are too spiritually blind to be allowed into the game. And so the cry goes up that "The Ump is blind!" when it is we who are blind to the fact that, well, we are not the Ump and our idol is not the object of the game. Jesus is the object of the game.
That doesn't make every call the pope will make infallible. But here's the thing: it doesn't make every call we make infallible either--including the ones we make about his prudential and pastoral judgments. And the most fallible call we can make is to assume we are the Ump or that the point of the game is the Umpire or our favorite idol. The point of the game is our relationship with Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, and the love of God and neighbor.