A Listening — and Obeying — Church
COMMENTARY: God has spoken definitively in the Person of Jesus Christ; our task is to hear that Word and speak from it.
Growing up in New Hampshire, I was accustomed to the white-clapboard churches of the Congregationalists. Alas, their beautiful simplicity was often festooned with a giant comma and the words: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma. God is still speaking.”
What had been received as definitive about faith was, it turns out, not definitive at all. Where was God’s voice heard? Not in Scripture or Tradition, but in the voices of the contemporary world, or more accurately, certain voices who spoke from the spirit of the times.
As a Catholic, I felt a bit more secure in the dynamic constancy that God has definitively spoken in Christ as received through Scripture and Tradition and understood through the work of the whole faithful as guided by the magisterium. It was not that there was a “period” on a past tense speaking of God, nor a perpetually progressive and uncertain comma on a God who may say anything; rather, God’s speaking is his eternal and definitive Word. As St. John of the Cross teaches in The Ascent to Mount Carmel, the “Son, who is his one and only Word, has spoken to us once and for all, in this single Word, and he has no occasion to speak further.”
No matter our times, we are not to add words to the divinely inspired words that reveal the Word, nor are we to add practices or teachings onto divinely ensured tradition that shapes our lives and beliefs. Rather, in season and out of season, we are tasked to interpret, unfold and proclaim the “the new and definitive covenant,” which Vatican II’s Dei Verbum teaches “will never pass away.”
While doctrines can develop from within their own internal logic, we “await no further or new public revelation.” Rather, we are to hold to Scripture and Tradition as “a lamp shining in a dark place,” until Christ’s glorious return (2 Peter 1:19).
Increasingly, I fear some want to place a “comma” on that definitive covenant. The contemporary rhetoric of a “listening Church” risks being a Church of the comma, especially when we are told synodality means listening to the Holy Spirit or hoping that he will “hijack” the Synod on Synodality. Mind you, an essential aspect of a Christian spirituality is the invocation of the Holy Spirit, who leads us in our following of Christ. The only real spirituality is that of the “Spirit pleading for us with groanings that cannot be put into words” (Romans 8:26). There can be no true faith without listening to the Spirit as a member of the People of God.
But too often the rhetoric of listening to the Holy Spirit sounds a lot like the Congregationalist’s God still speaking. This “speaking” does not sound like the God who has spoken definitively in the revelation of Christ and in the tradition of Christians who follow Christ. The God of the comma sounds more like the zeitgeist (spirit of the age) than the Heilige Geist (Holy Spirit). And our listening does not seem to center on learning from the faithful who live out the faith today, but on how the unfaithful fail to live out their faith. And so instead of development within the logical consistency of revelation, there is the temptation to selectively change and reject what has been received.
The Church should be listening to our times and to those who fall away from the Church. Understanding necessitates listening, and listening is particularly needed for evangelization. But listening does not mean consenting to what is proposed, especially when it contradicts the faith, nor should listening perpetually postpone what we are here for: the proclamation of the Good News.
Paul listened well when it came to the unknown god of Athens so that he could direct the Athenians to the God who has revealed himself in Christ. Along these lines, when the times tell us that there are as many sexes as are assigned, we ought to listen and seek to understand, while not loosening our hold on the essential norm that “male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
Our times tell us that economics is everything and that the poor and the marginalized are expendable. We hear this all the time. We should — all the time — respond with Christ’s words that “whatever we do to the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) is more important than economic growth or career advancement.
Thus, when it comes to listening, we should start with obeying. Obedience comes from the Latin “to listen” (obedire). But it is a deeper listening because it is a listening to what is higher. As Dei Verbum, teaches (itself listening to and then quoting from Vatican I):
“‘The obedience of faith is to be given to God who reveals, an obedience by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals’ and freely assenting to the truth revealed by Him” (5).
This listening is at the heart of Christian life and so of any Christian endeavor, such as a Synod on Synodality. To God alone is this obedience given, but it is given to God through the Church because God gives himself to us through the Church.
Obedience, according to St. Augustine, is “the mother and guardian of all other virtues.” It ensures a life of goodness because it entails hearing and following God, the source of all goodness. This obedience is not for some in the Church but for all, from the child kneeling in the pew to the Pope presiding in Rome. Episcopal and papal authority depends on obedience to what has been revealed and handed down by means of the Holy Spirit. To be a teacher of the faith is first and foremost to be a learner of it. Though bishops and the Pope have specific teaching roles, the whole Church is the learning Church and so the whole Church is the teaching Church.
Our mission is to conform to what has been taught so that we in turn may be true teachers of the word. As Jean-Louis Chretien puts it, a person (or a bishop) ceases to be a teacher “of the faith when he ceases to let himself be instructed by universal tradition … speaks in the name of what he thinks he knows, on his own authority, and leaning on a local custom.”
Our teaching must be shaped by our obedience to universal tradition and never by our own ideas, by our own standing, or by our own times. We — bishops, synodal document preparers, and writers like me — can scrutinize the times only if we do so in obedience to the Gospel. We must never invert this and obey the times, while merely listening to the Gospel.
Our listening to the Holy Spirit, “who has spoken through the prophets,” means, and can only mean, obedience to the revelation of Christ in Scripture and Tradition. Listening to others is a preevangelization. It enables us to accompany those around us whose hearts yearn for more than a worldly message.
To listen prepares us to invite others to be obedient to God along with us. As Pope Francis teaches in Evangelii Gaudium:
“Spiritual accompaniment must lead others ever closer to God … to accompany them would be counterproductive if it became a sort of therapy supporting their self-absorption and ceased to be a pilgrimage with Christ to the Father.”
Obedient listening prepares us to listen to the men and women of the world, not to follow their ways, but so that we can proclaim the ways of God.
We can have a listening Church only if we have an obeying Church. Obey; listen; proclaim. God has spoken; our task is to hear that Word and speak from it. We are not to speak from our times but to our times from God’s Word. God is still speaking as long as we are speaking from his Word.