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St. Thomas Aquinas taught us how to please God while dealing with bad prelates: (1) We salute the rank, not the man; (2) When we suffer FROM the Church, we must suffer FOR her…..

St. Thomas Aquinas taught us how to please God while dealing with bad prelates: (1) We salute the rank, not the man; (2) When we suffer FROM the Church, we must suffer FOR her…..

What
attitude should a Catholic take toward cruel and arbitrary prelates – for example,
those who endlessly stir up division and then shamelessly blame the division on
those who note and bemoan the fact?  In
Quodlibet VIII, Aquinas makes some relevant remarks when addressing the
question whether “evil prelates” should be honored.  You can find the passage in the Nevitt and
Davies translation of Thomas
Aquinas’s Quodlibetal Questions
, from which I quote:

We can distinguish two things about a
prelate: the person himself and his office, which makes him a sort of public
person.  If a prelate is evil,
he should not be honored for the person he is.  For honor is respect
shown to people as a witness to their virtue.  Hence, if we honored such a prelate for the
person he is, we would bear false witness about him, which is forbidden in
Exodus 20:
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 
But, as a public person, a prelate bears an image and occupies a
position in the Church… that does not belong to him but, rather, to someone
else, viz. Christ.  And, as such, his
worth is not determined by the person he is, but by the position he occupies.  He is like one of those little stones used as
a placeholder for 100 marks on a scale – quite worthless in itself.  As Proverbs 26 says:
He who gives honor
to a fool is like one who puts a stone on Mercury’s heap… So, too, an evil prelate should not be honored because of who he is
but because of the one whose position he holds. 
The case is similar to the veneration of images, which is directed to
the things depicted therein, as Damascene says.  Hence Zechariah compares an evil prelate to an
idol:
Woe to the pastor and idol who deserts the flock

An evil prelate is unworthy to be a
prelate and receive the honors due to prelates. 
But the one whose image the prelate bears is worthy to have his vicar
honored, just as the blessed Virgin is worthy to have a painted image of her
venerated, although the image itself is not worthy of such respect
. (pp. 70-71)

There are
two key points here.  The first is that
when a man is a bad prelate, we should not pretend otherwise merely because of
his office.  That, Aquinas says, would be
a violation of the eighth commandment – a lie. 
He also compares it to idolatry. 
An image of Christ or of a saint has no value in itself, but only as a
pointer to something beyond it.  When we
focus on the image itself we turn it into an idol.  Similarly, a bad prelate merits honor only
because of the office he holds.  When we
pretend his personal faults are not real, strain to attribute good motives to
manifestly unjust acts or hidden wisdom to manifestly foolish utterances, we
are like someone who fixates on an image and pretends that the many flaws and
limitations it contains as a mere piece of matter must somehow really be divine. 

The second
key point is that such a prelate nevertheless
must be given the honor that attaches to his office
as a vicar of Christ.  It is
an insult to Christ to refuse his
representative such honor – as if it is not Christ himself who is permitting
such a man to be his vicar, or as if Christ does not know what he is doing in
permitting it. 

As
I have discussed in detail elsewhere
, according to Aquinas – and according
to Catholic teaching more generally – such a prelate can and ought to be
criticized publicly by his subjects when he does something that endangers the
faith.  But given the nature of his
office, even this must be done “not with impudence and harshness, but with
gentleness and respect.”  And if the
prelate in question is the pope, respectful criticism is the most one can do, because
he has no superior on earth.  Christ
alone can, and will, resolve the problem in his own time and in the way he
judges best.

What these
points together entail is suffering.  And suffering, as the lives of the saints
attest and as scripture teaches us from beginning to end, is the lot of the
righteous man – suffering penitentially, suffering in solidarity with others,
suffering in unity with Christ’s own agony. 
This suffering can result from our own sins, or from the effects of
original sin on the world around us, or from persecution.  And sometimes it can come even from within
the Church itself.  Christ promises only
that she will not be destroyed or, in her decisive pronouncements, bind the faithful
to error.  Short of that, she can be and sometimes
is afflicted with evil of every kind, even at the very top.  This is permitted in part precisely to illustrate
the truth of Christ’s promise.  Even bad
popes cannot destroy the Church. 

But Church
history is not a Marvel movie, where everything works out in two hours, or at
least by the next movie in the series.  As
the Cadaver Synod, the Great Western Schism, and other episodes illustrate, it
can sometimes take decades to resolve the problems resulting from papal folly, corruption,
and mismanagement.  We modern Catholics are
soft
and impatient
, and we need to recover the forbearance of our
forebears. 

Current
events
make timely the recollection of some words from Pope Benedict XVI,
while he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, on the event of the death of Michael
Davies, the well-known traditionalist Catholic writer and stalwart defender of the
Tridentine Mass.  The cardinal wrote:

I have been profoundly touched by the
news of the death of Michael Davies.  I
had the good fortune to meet him several times and I found him as a man of deep
faith and ready to embrace suffering.
 Ever since the Council he put all his
energy into the service of the Faith and left us important publications
especially about the Sacred Liturgy.  Even
though he suffered from the Church in
many ways in his time
, he always truly remained a man of the Church.  He knew that the Lord founded His Church on
the rock of St. Peter and that the Faith
can find its fullness and maturity only in union with the successor of St.
Peter
.  Therefore we can be confident
that the Lord opened wide for him the gates of heaven.  We commend his soul to the Lord’s mercy
.

End
quote.  Notice that Cardinal Ratzinger
acknowledged that Davies suffered from
the Church
– and that nonetheless, he remained loyal to her, and thus loyal
to the successor of St. Peter.  This is
an example we ought to strive to emulate. 
We must suffer for the Church
even when – indeed, especially
when
– we suffer from her. 

Related
posts:

Do
not abandon your Mother

The
Church permits criticism of popes under certain circumstances

Papal
fallibility

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