Sunday, February 05, 2006

Authority and It's Role in Christian Marriage

The topic I am going to cover here is not strictly related to marriage per se; however I think it has its own value. One of the most contested concepts in Scripture relating to marriage is the command of St. Paul for “wives, submit to your husbands as the Church submits to Christ.” I myself have never really seen a problem with this passage, but this seems to trouble so many “modern” Catholic women to no end. Poisoned by a feminist culture, many women nowadays look upon this not with love, but with scorn.

I have attempted numerous ways to tackle this issue so far, all of them failures. I would get to writing, and I just wouldn’t be convinced that what I was writing was coherent. As I began reflecting on this issue a little more in-depth, I believe I’ve come to the opinion that the reason this passage is so strongly objected to is not just a misunderstanding of obedience and submission, but also of the very nature of authority itself. This is not limited to women; I think Catholic men in many cases also may struggle with understanding the concept of authority.

What is the basis of authority in the eyes of many in the world and even the Church? Someone is given authority because “He has such a Charismatic personality, he can really fire up the crowds! He rules with an iron fist, nobody would dare oppose him! He has a commanding presence!” All of these are extremely good qualities. He who is charismatic can inspire people to his cause. Those who rule strictly normally have an order in the causes they lead. The commanding presence causes people to admire their leaders, and say that yes, this is the man God placed to lead us. Yet all of these traits, while good, are not the basis for authority for Christians. That is what the world measures authority by. Let us recall the words of our Blessed Lord, in Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 22:

And there was also a strife amongst them, which of them should seem to be the greater. And he said to them: The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and they that have power over them, are called beneficent. But you not so: but he that is the greater among you, let him become as the younger; and he that is the leader, as he that serveth. For which is greater, he that sitteth at table, or he that serveth? Is it not he that sitteth at table? But I am in the midst of you, as he that serveth: And you are they who have continued with me in my temptations: And I dispose to you, as my Father hath disposed to me, a kingdom; That you may eat and drink at my table, in my kingdom: and may sit upon thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

As with so many things, Christ changes everything. He takes what exists before, and elevates it to something even greater. Notice the context here. This comes in light of Christ’s once again warning that he will be betrayed and be crucified. It was then the Apostles began to argue who would be the greatest. In light of their leader being killed, the Apostles were now vying for leadership of the group, craving authority, craving leadership. Yet according to Our Lord, like so many other times, the Apostles were acting no different than those of the world. It was the world which craved exercising authority. It was the world who boasts of that authority. They lord the authority over their subjects, many times using fear to “keep the locals in line.”

This was not to be the way of Jesus Christ or the Catholic Church. For those who desired to lead, Christ commanded them to become servants. Christ served his Apostles, yet He was their master. Rather than the Apostles washing the feet of Christ, Christ washes the feet of the Apostles. Christ lowered himself to service, and through service led the Apostles. It certainly is a radical, but common sense concept. Through that service, the leader strengthens those he rules. He teaches them humility that even the great leaders are human beings just like the rest of us. That humanity of Christ was demonstrated completely by the act of ultimate service, the Cross, and His command for us to take our crosses and follow him. As leader, He identifies Himself with those He wishes to lead.

In the Old Latin Mass, I think this is something brilliantly demonstrated by the priest facing the altar, not the people during Mass. Many scornfully say “Oh the priest is not caring about the people; he is turning his back on them.” Rather, he is facing the same way we are. He is leading by serving. He’s a sinner just like we are, and he approaches the Cross for the forgiveness of sins, just as we do. Several times at Mass, he turns to the people asking for their prayers. It is their prayers, not his strength, which continues him in his ministry. It is the prayers of others that cause God to pour down grace upon that priest. The priest views it as nothing of his own, but by the Grace of God he continues, in serving others.

For another example, think of what happens whenever a Pope pronounces something major for the Church. Did Pius XII for example say “I Pius, Vicar of Christ, Supreme Pontiff and Successor to Prince of the Apostles tell you…?” Of course not. Rather he says, “I Pius, Bishop, and Servant of the Servants of God, for an everlasting memorial.” He lowers himself to the servant of all who serve God. Through that service, what he will say endures.

We see the first aspect of authority under Jesus Christ is that of service. The other aspect I am going to reference is not more or less important than the first. Indeed, the act of love cannot be separated from service, nor can service from love. They are equal, and both vital. Just as faith cannot be separated from works, love cannot be separated from service.

A perfect example of the requirement of love in exercising authority comes from the always impetuous Apostle Peter. He identifies Christ, knowing who He is, but objects to Christ carrying out His mission. He boldly proclaims He intends to follow Christ unto death, only to abandon Him when Christ’s death fast approaches. In John’s Gospel, the Risen Christ appears, and Peter rushes to greet him, but then all of a sudden is back in the boat. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen speculated, a likely reason is because Peter was being impetuous. He ran towards Christ with all his zeal, to see Christ standing by a fire. That fire reminded Peter of His denial of Christ over the fire at the Court of the Sanhedrin.

Yet we also know it is here that Peter receives authority from Christ to “feed my lambs, feed my lambs, and feed my sheep.” The Greek words used indicate that through Peter, the lambs and sheep would receive spiritual nourishment and governance. Yet what was the basis for such authority? Was it Peter’s zeal? Was it the fact that Peter was the first to identify Christ? Rather, it was due to the fact Peter affirmed his love for Christ. It was only after Peter said “Yes Lord, I love you” that he was to feed the sheep.

Christ of course knew the answer. I think, out of the Apostles, it very well could be that Peter loved him the most, but just, as some would say “had a real funny way of showing it.” He loved Christ, wanted to die for Christ, had unbelievable zeal, but he at the same time also lacked service. He was not willing to submit to the decrees of Jesus Christ. He wanted to have things his own way. He wanted Christ as King but not Christ as Victim. He wanted to die for Christ, but on his own time schedule. Yet at this exchange Peter understood. That because he loves Christ, he feeds the sheep. Because Peter loves Christ, he becomes the servant to them feeding them. He does not demand that they feed him.

This is the basis for authority. That of love, and service. You cannot claim to love someone if you do not serve them. Nor can you claim to truly serve someone unless you love them.