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In the first chapter of Father Robert Barron’s remarkable book Catholicism, he discusses the utterly revolutionary fact and idea of Jesus Christ, son of Mary, son of God, as communicated in the “fighting words” that open Saint Mark’s Gospel, and through the subversive teachings of Saints Paul and Peter: “Fighting” because the gospel states baldly that human authority is illusory in the face of creator and sustainer of life; subversive because their teachings took notions of freedom, defeat, and victory and turned them on their heads.
Barron closes by recounting the story of Cardinal Francis George and his “remarkably pensive expression” captured by cameras as he watched the newly robed Pope Benedict XVI wave to the throngs in St. Peter’s Square. Asked by reporters what he had been thinking at that moment, George said, “I was gazing toward the Circus Maximus, toward the Palatine Hill where the Roman emperors once resided and reigned and looked down upon the persecution of Christians, and I thought, ‘Where are their successors? Where is the successor of Caesar Augustus? Where is the successor of Marcus Aurelius? And finally, who cares? But if you want to see the successor of Peter, he is right next to me, smiling and waving at the crowds.’”
Benedict is certainly Peter’s highly visible successor, but the sons of Caesar are no less in evidence, and have been, all along. We saw them when a determined king, intent on assuaging his own urgent feelings and most ardent desires, declared that those whose heads were rightly affixed would come away from that oppressive papist church and find their freedom outside of her. It was an odd sort of freedom: if you did not avail yourself of it, your wrong-headedness would be hoisted high upon the end of a pike, for all to see.
The sons of Caesar appear today in the op-ed pages of leading newspapers, where the better classes of people—the self-proclaimed smarties who amuse themselves and their circles by calling themselves “collapsed” Catholics—are urging other smart Catholics to help “collapse” that which they believe to be teetering, to come away from stubborn, stupid old Peter, the thick-head who seems to have taken Jesus literally when he spoke of being a “sign of contradiction.”
The children of Caesar are assured of their own expertise, and overly invested in the social validation that comes from being compassionate in precisely the correct ways; they are too smart to have ever bothered learning what the Church actually teaches, why she teaches it and what possible intent lies behind those teachings besides “oppression” and “control” over people’s feelings, chromosomes, and orgasms. “Just leave,” runs their evangelistic message, because your church is clearly unwilling to surrender to the authority of the times and the latest moral trends.
The sons and daughters of Caesar have always found the church to be disorienting: It does not perform the expected oblations at their printing presses and editorial boards; it does not acquiesce to tantrums or feet-stamping; it does not recognize the celestial language of people so highly credentialed by earthly entities that they feel empowered to birth prophetic new modalities of being.
The Church cannot recognize everything that is humanly ordained because it has been divinely ordained. Its charge is not to simply echo the zeitgeist but to deliver us from it; to free us from the rigid rootedness of “right now,” where ideas become bronzed and erected and proclaimed as the new eternal rightness, until they are tumbled and replaced by the next generation claiming its idolatrous moment.
The sins of the church, vast in number though they are, are of human origin. The humans within the church, from Peter to your lowly correspondent, have always wrestled with the shadowy mysteries of human brokenness. As Hillaire Belloc said, the church’s divine origins are proved by its continued existence, for “no merely human institution run with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.”
The world and its children of Caesar disdain all knavish imbecilities except for their own; aware that human constructs do not last, they hastily deliver up their ideas in sterile, insulated environments and then quickly encase them into law books, which bear the name Authority. But in Peter they find a creature whose authority is other-originated—conferred upon a hapless fellow in the midst of a hot mess—and whose organization codified itself through slow, painfully thorough reasoning augmented by martyrdom. Her teachers are still tantalizing students with subversive notions, still turning the worldly world, in all its glamour, in all its empty promises, on its head.
Which is why the world, again and again, tries to turn Peter on to his.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
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