We might do well at a moment like this to ponder the First Station of the Cross, in which Jesus is tried before Pilate. At a critical moment Pilate said, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over me if it were not given to you from above”(John 19:10-11). Jesus thus acknowledges Pilate’s authority as governor but reminds him of its true origin.
Most of us right now are experiencing increasing restrictions on our movement; policies have been put into place that have changed how we live, work, and even pray. Some people are understanding and supportive of the measures; others are concerned about the erosion of civil liberties. Still others believe that more should have been done. My view on this does not matter; I write as a priest, not an expert in public policy. One thing I would like to say is that you and I have the luxury of “armchair quarterbacking,” whereas those in civil authority must make extremely difficult and complex decisions. I, for one, am glad I don’t have to make them.
Citizens certainly have the right to question their leaders, but right now for my own peace of mind, I need to spend some time accepting the First Station of the Cross. The point of the First Station is not that Pilate is just or good but that his authority was granted to him by God. In Romans we read,
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which is from God. The authorities that exist have been appointed by God. Consequently, the one who resists authority is opposing what God has set in place … Therefore, it is necessary to submit to authority, not only to avoid punishment, but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes. For the authorities are God’s servants, who devote themselves to their work. Pay everyone what you owe him: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due(Rom 13:1-7).
This sort of talk shocks most modern Americans. To be sure, St. Paul is giving a general norm, not an absolute one. There are times when a ruler commands obedience to what is evil; in such a case he must be resisted. As a general rule, though, we have a duty to obey just laws and policies. We might also remember that Nero was the emperor when St. Paul wrote this. Hence, St. Paul does not give this norm simply for good leaders or leaders whom we like. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about authority:
Every human community needs an authority to govern it. The foundation of such authority lies in human nature. It is necessary for the unity of the state. Its role is to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society. The authority required by the moral order derives from God: [see Romans 13:1-2 above]. The duty of obedience requires all to give due honor to authority and to treat those who are charged to exercise it with respect, and, insofar as it is deserved, with gratitude and good-will. …If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience (CCC 1898–1900,1903).
In our current situations, citizens can and should stay in vigorous discussion with government leaders and officials, but as we do so we must remember the principles set forth above, which are so contrary to the modern, adversarial approach.
When bishops began suspending public Masses, many of us were alarmed. We wondered if less severe methods would have been more appropriate (e.g., limiting the number of people at each Mass). As the maximum number of people permitted in public gatherings has dropped (from 250 to 100 to 25 to 10) even that option became essentially unworkable. The bishops cannot simply defy public authority in this matter. For most of us, the decision has been made: public Masses are suspended for the near future.
As for me, I need to spend time at the First Station of the Cross. Note that I am not comparing our leaders to Pilate. Rather, I am focusing on St. Paul’s astonishing words, The authorities that exist have been appointed by God (Rom 13:1). In writing this, he echoes Jesus’ words to Pilate: You would have no authority over me if it were not given to you from above. At this astonishing moment of upheaval and fear, unprecedented in my lifetime, I can only pray for our leaders, both civil and ecclesial.
Lord, at this point it is out of my hands. Help me to be at peace with that. I know that ultimately everything is in Your hands; everything will ultimately be all right. But I also know that You have placed difficult matters into the hands of our leaders. I do not envy the difficult choices they must make. I only ask that You guide them, Lord. May they be neither too severe nor too lax, neither too fearful nor too bold. We seem to be heading into some difficult days. Help us. Save us. Have mercy on us, and keep us by Your grace. And because you said, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2), I’ll ask, “How about a miracle cure, Lord?” Meanwhile, grant me the trust in You that is the only source of my peace. Thank you, Jesus.
Here’s another William Byrd classic lamenting the suffering of the Catholic Church in England. Translated the text reads:
Be not angry, O Lord, enough,
neither remember our iniquity for ever.
Behold, see, we who beseech thee, we are all thy people.
The holy cities are a wilderness.
Sion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation.