By Charlie Johnston
Everyone knows that we have entered uncharted waters that are very choppy – both in the Church and in the world. My whole life has been a journey through choppy, uncharted waters. The choices I made led me to the Catholic Church, animated by an unshakeable faith in the existence and providence of God. It is, in many ways, the genesis of my philosophy of the next right step. But if uncharted waters are my natural habitat, I know it is new and often scary, confusing territory for most of my friends. I thought it might be helpful to some of you if I went through, in some detail, how and why I make my decisions on what is the right step at every moment. So here is my process, my hierarchy of values, how I decide what is normative in determining how to live obedience to God.
A) The great commandment is that you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, mind and soul. Yet how do we do that? We can say that we hear the voice of God, and I am certain that all of us do…a thousand times a day in little whispers that we often miss. We also hear the voice of satan tempting us. If we are seriously rigorous about loving God, the voice of satan mimics that of God and says many pious things in an effort to lull us into a false sense of security that we may be more easily deceived at a critical moment. What we feel or sense, then, is not sufficient, for both lunatics and murderous idolaters often blame their dysfunction on what they felt about God or voices that they sensed or heard. We need an objective source guaranteed by God.
B) I turn then to Scripture. For most, this requires an initial leap of faith. I had many reasons why I believed Scripture to be the inspired Word of God from the beginning, and I firmly believe that anyone who studies it honestly, seriously and with depth will come to believe it to be so, as well. On the other hand, superficial examination of Scripture is a good way to lose faith. Even so, Scripture is hard – often confusing.
When I was yet a boy, I began relentlessly reading and re-reading the Bible, trying to make sense of it, trying to see it with “fresh eyes” rather than through a prevailing cultural gloss. I began to study history hard, understanding that the times in which these books were written were very different from our own. If all we had was a 20th Century filter to consider these things, we would completely misunderstand many passages entirely. It was important to me to understand not just what it said, but what it meant to its first audiences. It was important to define terms well. The Bible is inerrant, no doubt about it. That does not mean that in both scientific and historical terms it does not frequently contradict itself. That troubled me for a very long time, mainly because I misunderstood the deeper meaning of “inerrant.” It all snapped into place while reading St. Augustine’s “Confessions” in the summer of 1990. At one point early on, he chided some readers for abusing Scripture as mere history or mere science (and in 400 A.D. when he wrote it, there was a lot less history and science than there is now). It is the inerrant word of God written for our benefit to draw us all to salvation, he said.
This set off a whole series of lights in my head. I contemplated that Jesus IS God, so in His Incarnation we had all that we needed to dig deeper into the authentic personality of God. Sometimes He spoke literally, sometimes He spoke metaphorically, but everything He spoke illustrated the large truths that would draw us to Him and to heaven. Sadly, people often took his metaphors literally (Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again – John 2:19) and His literal teaching metaphorically (…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you – John 6:53). Much of what He said was initially obscure and impenetrable to those who first heard it. It was pretty clear that Jesus demanded that you must trust first and understand later. It should give us all a large dose of humility, yet many act as if seeking the Kingdom of Heaven is a contest to see who can fully penetrate the mind of God first. It is foolishness, like a contest to see who can contain all the oceans in a gallon jar first – an exercise in futility that distracts you from what God calls you to. After reading St. Augustine’s passage, I went back and read the whole Bible again, working from that template. Oh, there were still mysteries aplenty, but now it cohered for me in a way it never had previously.
Through the ages, though, many fine minds had studied Scripture – and come up with thousands of competing interpretations for various passages. Even if you have the finest mind in history, that is no guarantee that you are going to interpret accurately. We are closer to an objective approach to lawful obedience, but we are not there yet.
C) I considered that when any New Testament figure, including Jesus, spoke of “Scripture,” they spoke exclusively about the Old Testament, for the New had not yet been written. What was binding on adherents of this newly minted Christianity were the oral teachings of the Apostles – All were encouraged to study Scripture, but the only people given authority by Jesus to interpret Scripture and Tradition were those He chose. Those He sent were Apostles, to whom He said, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:16). At John 20:23 Jesus goes on to give the Apostles the authority to forgive or retain sins. Everyone who listened to Jesus was encouraged to contemplate what He said and to love and forgive one another. But the only people given final authority to interpret Scripture and to govern the flock were those He commissioned as Apostles. Thus, it was clear to me that it was Jesus, Himself, who established a Hierarchy for His Church and gave it binding Apostolic Authority. Even so, Judas Iscariot was one of those Jesus initially sent. From the very beginning, we have had people with authority in the Church who betrayed Christ and His people. We hold these treasures in earthen vessels (see 2 Corinthians 4:7) and when one of those vessels cracks we are not called to crack with it. Clearly, Jesus intends for none of us to follow the Judases who pop up among us into perdition. How to discern in a way that is truly obedient to God? We now have a solid foundation, but it is not yet complete.
D) Various saints and, especially, those formally recognized as Doctors of the Church, have done much to augment our understanding of Scripture and doctrine. It can be a little unsettling to get deeply into the history of various saints and find that there are often disagreements on specific points. Some saints who were contemporaries even found themselves on opposing sides in great controversies. If you dig really deep, you will find that some saints held positions that were later declared heretical (they were NOT heretical because you cannot be guilty of heresy until an authoritative decision has been made). The understanding and development of doctrine has involved far more conflict and is messier than most Christians know. There have been many worldly Bishops throughout history who have betrayed their call badly – and more than a few Popes. The Bishops do have genuine day-to-day authority in the governance of the Church, but that spiritual authority is limited to matters of faith and morals. Ultimately, the authentic Tradition of the Church is definitively expressed through Scripture and the Universal Magisterium. Those men who transiently hold the offices that Christ created for the governance of His Church are appointed guardians, not masters, of the faith. A Pope and the Bishops may – and should – develop doctrine as our study and prayer leads to deeper understanding, but that development never includes contradiction of settled doctrine.
For a Bishop’s order to be binding on the faithful, it must satisfy two criteria: it must fall under the purview of his actual authority over faith and morals (he has no authority over temporal matters, except to the extent that he is a public actor, such as a landowner or public official. Even then, that authority is not spiritual and only applies to the normal duties inherent to that role) and it must be a lawful order. A Bishop may not lawfully command you to commit adultery or cavort with strange gods.
There is no formula which excuses us from exercising our own moral agency – and being held to account for the decisions we make by our God. If someone says they will just do what their Bishop or Pope says in all things, if the one they follow falls into perdition, so will they. On the other hand, if they defy a lawful order that is within the purview of their Bishop’s authority, they offend (and defy) God. We will be held accountable for every decision we make. The path of our earthly pilgrimage is not for the faint of heart.
I spend a lot of time trying to discern what God intends for me and for me to do. I am grateful for Scripture which has been the most important resource for me – even as I know that my interpretation, at times, may be wrong, for I am given no guarantee that my interpretation will be accurate. I am grateful for the Magisterium for the same reasons and with the same caveat. I am profoundly grateful for the Bishops and the Pope, for collectively, they have been given authority to authentically interpret these things.
When I am given direction by my Bishop, whether publicly or privately (and I have been given both – and, over time, by more than one Bishop), my question is NOT whether his judgement is better or worse than mine. That is utterly irrelevant. My questions are whether it is within the sphere of his legitimate authority and whether it is a lawful order. If it satisfies both conditions, I obey, for in doing so I know that I am being obedient to God by my obedience to the hierarchy He set up. If I have serious and weighty concerns over a lawful order, I certainly have the right to discuss it with the authority over me, but it is a right I use very sparingly so as not to be merely willful (although my director Priests might dispute that on occasion. Thanks be to God, we developed such a good, warm relationship that our visits were usually a mutual search for what was right and true – and were mutually rewarding.) To be entirely candid, often when I have gotten lawful direction, I have been relieved because that is, at least, one decision I don’t have to make, knowing that even if it is temporarily errant, the obedience itself is pleasing to God.
Understand that, in Christianity, obedience is not a matter of the lesser submitting to the greater. Rather, it is a means of opening up channels of grace. Both disobedience and thoughtless direction clog the channels of grace. If I have been disobedient, the thoughtfulness of my superior’s direction helps open the clog. If my superior has been thoughtless, my obedience helps open the clog.
Obviously, I will not obey any command to intentionally violate the commandments or settled doctrine. Even if authority over me told me it was acceptable in the eyes of God to commit adultery or to integrate pagan idols into Christian worship, I would be held accountable for doing so in clear defiance of Scripture and the Magisterium. If the case is doubtful, though, I obey the command of legitimate authority over me, for if I reduced such things to a mere battle of wills over everything, I would be condemned by God as disobedient to the authority He set over me. I have little confidence in our current Pope. Even so, if he gave me a lawful order, I would obey it.
It is a tricky business requiring prayer, thought and discernment every step of the way every day. The Next Right Step.
It may surprise some, but at the very bottom of my tools of discernment is private revelation, including my own. It is exceedingly rare that I have looked to private revelation as a tool to decide what to do. There are too many frauds and delusions in the mix for it to be reliable. Even when it is authentic, it is unbelievably hard to interpret accurately – and often even partially so. The best of it is far more useful as a terrain map. Revelation was fully completed with Jesus Christ. Private revelation adds nothing to it, but can be useful in helping us assess particular times and situations in salvation history. If we use the best of it as a sort of terrain map to gauge the challenges we face, it can be useful in helping to apply Scripture and the Magisterium to those particular circumstances. But if you ground your discernment and decisions on private revelation, you build your house on sand. It is easy to get enthused into thinking you know God’s secret plan by letting private revelation become your magisterium, but to do so requires that you ignore almost all of Scripture and the experience of the authentic Old Testament prophets who rarely knew more than the next right step ahead of them, even when they were prophesying about things hundreds of years in the future. However straightforward it sounds, it almost never is. Without the benefit of hindsight, who could have understood what Jesus meant by His assertion that if the temple were torn down, he would re-build it in three days? Or his insistence that we must eat His body and drink His blood to have life within us? God does not so much disclose Himself to us as He unveils His presence – and the final veil does not fall until the end of time. As St. Paul says, so long as we are here, we see as if through a glass, darkly. (see 1 Corinthians 13:12) The best of private revelation is like a weather report, useful in determining how to outfit ourselves. But when it comes to action, we must stick to the hard bedrock of the land and roads as expressed by Scripture and the Magisterium through obedience to the lawful orders of legitimate authority set over us by God.
This is why, when I was speaking publicly of such things, I was stung, but not daunted by my errors. You will make errors in the normal course of things, no matter how careful you are. Those errors do not relieve you of your duty to proclaim the Kingdom – just as King David’s egregious offenses did not relieve him of his duty as King. (see 2 Samuel, chapters 11 and 12). We prove ourselves as faithful servants by doing our best, knowing that we will sometimes fall. Then when we do fall, get back up and do our best again until the next fall. Keep repeating this process and we will bear fruit that will last.
This is how I think, the process that goes into my decisions. I hope it may be useful to you in all the decisions that lay ahead of us.
I almost posted a bulletin yesterday. A Texas hospital was going to do a forced euthanasia on a nine-month-old baby girl from Ft. Worth, not because her health problems were life-threatening, but because the hospital decided her quality of life was not worth living. Thankfully, Texas Right-to-Life sprang into action and obtained a temporary restraining order signed by Judge Alex Kim. It buys time to get this into either federal court or before the Texas Supreme Court to, hopefully, strike down the hideous law that enables such things.
On his Twitter account, Ft. Worth Bishop Michael Olson reaffirmed “the Church’s teaching on the dignity of every human life and the immorality of euthanasia…” He did not note that he was the driving factor behind getting the Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops to support this immoral forced euthanasia law that is entirely contradictory to Catholic doctrine. I will be watching to see whether he actually has a change of heart and supports overturning it, or whether he continues to both support the law while mouthing pious platitudes to hide that he is a major reason why Texas has it in the first place.
I will do a piece in the next week covering this battle here more fully and giving you some info on what is happening in David Daleiden’s civil trial in San Francisco. I sat in for a few days and it is going very well for Daleiden. But you knew that: if things were going well for Planned Parenthood, it would be front-page news every day. Instead the establishment media has done its best to black it out.
I will be speaking in Houston at 7 p.m. this Thursday. It will be at 18222 Vinland Dr., Houston, Texas. This is in south Houston, near NASA headquarters. For information, contact Ed at email@example.com. If you live in eastern Texas or even western Louisiana, come on by. We’ll leave a light on for you.