“The Roman Primacy and the Spiritual Life” by John A. Hardon, SJ (The Catholic Faith, May/June 1999)

Jesuit Father John Hardon writes: “We now know, more clearly than before, that not only progress in the spiritual life depends on people's faith in the supreme authority of the Bishop of Rome. The very survival of Christian spirituality is at stake.

“Since the early days of the Church, religious communities of men and women have dedicated themselves to the practice of more than ordinary virtue. Their members bind themselves under vow to practice what we now call the evangelical counsels, notably consecrated chastity in the sacrifice of marriage, poverty in the dispossession of material goods, and obedience in submission, under rule, to the authority of appointed or elected superiors.”

Father Hardon explains that the great founders of Catholic religious orders needed the ecclesiastical authority to validate their visions and launch their orders into the influential mainstream of Catholic life. “Remove the papacy and you dissolve the value of Franciscan or Dominican or Ignatian spirituality.” In addition, the Church's authority is required to set before us examined and approved lives to emulate. “By now, there are thousands of men, women, and even children whom the Church has raised to the honors of the altar. … They have been declared saints by the Catholic Church on two counts: that they are certainly in heavenly glory, and that their lives are to be imitated by the faithful as exemplars of sanctity.”

“Apart from the writings of canonized saints, whole libraries have been written by Catholic authors dealing with every facet of Christian perfection. The accumulated value of this writing is in thousands of books, some of which have become standards of spiritual literature for the whole world. Here again, the Church's authority, finally vested in the pope, has had to sift and screen this ocean of spiritual literature. And the screening is constantly going on. By now, a Catholic can well know what spiritual writers are faithful to the Church's Magisterium, and which ones — and to what extent — are not.”

Father Hardon explains the importance of 2,000 years of documented commentary on “every aspect of the spiritual life. The popes themselves have published a treasury on the meaning of holiness, on the means of attaining sanctity, and on the measures to be taken to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.”

The author notes, “as St. Paul tells us, where sin abounds, there grace is even more abundant. The modern world abounds in sin — like the legalized murder of millions of unborn children every year. Faith tells us that grace is correspondingly, and more than ever, bountiful. Our age needs nothing more than saints, to be the channels of grace in a world that is intoxicated with itself. But to insure the guidance of the Holy Spirit in leading souls to sanctity, we need — indispensably — the guidance of the papal primacy.”

But “there is more implied in this statement than meets the eye. We commonly, and correctly, associate the papal primacy with the exercise of authority in governing the Church. The question is what is the most important exercise of authority in the Catholic Church? It is nothing less than to insure that the Church founded by Christ is truly holy. … Without a Church that can infallibly declare that a person had lived a truly saintly life, there is nothing which the Church could teach without danger of error. Everything depends on whether the Catholic Church not only can, but actually has produced saints.”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidson, Maryland.

A condensed version, in the words of the original author, of an article selected by the Register from the nation's top journals.