ACTS 15:1-2, 22-29
PS 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
REV 21:10-14, 22-23
Our first reading this week from Acts relates how the peace and harmony of the infant Christian church was threatened by one its earliest controversies: the question of whether Christians from Gentile backgrounds ought to observe the Mosaic law. Certain Christians of a Jewish background were insisting on obedience to the Mosaic law as an essential pat of the Christina faith, thus the matter is brought before the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem. The same issue is related (though somewhat differently) in Galatians 2, thus revealing the historicity and importance of this event for the Church. The authorities in Jerusalem resolve at the conclusion of this passage to send a letter requiring only that its recipients
“abstain from meat sacrificed to idols,
from blood, from meats of strangled animals,
and from unlawful marriage.”
It is always refreshing to me to read about this controversy right on the tails of the more idealic pictures of the Church in Acts. And while Luke’s version of the Council of Jerusalem is more rosy than in Galatians, it is clear that the Church from its beginnings was beset by conflict but also equipped by God with what she would need to prevail. This is an important reminder today in light of some of the controversy surrounding the Holy Father’s post-synod exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Our first reading from Acts can offer some important heuristics for navigating this controversy.
1. The Holy Spirit is at work in the Church
In the letter sent to the churches conveying the conclusions of the council, we hear that it is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us that Gentile Christians need not be bound to the entirety of the Mosaic law. The church in Acts 15 does indeed seem “institutional” but its leaders clearly see their actions as proceeding from a cooperation with the Holy Spirit. Our gospel for this Sunday also underscores the importance of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church:
The Advocate, the Holy Spirit,
whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything
and remind you of all that I told you.
In some criticisms of AL I have heard people dismiss the document as mere “musings” of the Holy Father, personal reflections without authority. While it is important to debate the authority of such an exhortation, we should begin such conversations with a reminder that the Holy Spirit is always at work in the Church “lead[ing] believers to the full truth, and mak[ing] the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness.” (CCC 79, DV 8). In other words, while much of AL is personal musing, it is personal musing in dialogue with the Holy Spirit. We might think of the Holy Father offering a sort of “spiritual direction” to the Church. Though he isn’t offering new doctrine, he is trying to make the Church attentive to the Spirit’s promptings.
Furthermore, Amoris Laetitia reminds us that the critical work of the Holy Spirit works not just at the highest levels of authority in the Church, but also at the level of the individual in the work of conscience. The pope seems to be reminding us that it is not enough to flip to the Catechism paragraph expounding the relevant doctrinal point. Putting such doctrine to work requires an ongoing dialogue with the Holy Spirit, especially if we are to prioritize mercy and unity. This leads to our second heuristic.
2. There is a distinction between essential matters and non-essential matters
In the letter the ecclesial authorities send in Acts 15, they counsel Gentile Christians to respect the differences between them and Jewish Christians. The letter declares that Gentile Christians are to have no burden placed on them other than the necessities: “to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage.” The leaders in Jerusalem are making a judgement call about what is essential to the Christian life.
I think there is something similar going on in Amoris Laetitia though the pope doesn’t lay out a minimal list of things to follow. He does write, however, the oft-quoted sentence:
“I would make it clear that not all discussions of doctrinal, moral or pastoral issues need to be settled by interventions of the magisterium. Unity of teaching and practice is certainly necessary in the Church, but this does not preclude various ways of interpreting some aspects of that teaching or drawing certain consequences from it.”
In other words, there will be lots of areas where we will be called to act without having specific guidance from the magisterium. The role of the magisterium is to weigh in on, define, and teach on essential matters of faith and morals, but in no sense will that teaching be exhaustive. Which leads to the third point.
3. Unity, unity, unity
The Council of Jerusalem’s main objection is to maintain unity in the Church in light of a pressing conflict. The solution is creative, with an eye to unity. The leaders appear sensitive to the needs of Jewish Christians without totally acquiescing to their demands. Rather, Gentile Christians are told to obey certain fundamentals of the Jewish law, those points that even aliens in Israel were commanded to obey, so that they could live in unity with their Jewish brethren.
It is clear that unity is the Holy Father’s rallying cry as well. The Church is diverse and her members have different strengths and weaknesses. If there is an essential foundation, it would be unity. The Church is called to be one as the Father is one. It is no good to use doctrine as an excuse to exclude those who fail to live up to the high standard set by the Church’s moral teaching. The pope seems to envision a wider, more inclusive church in which those who fall short are strengthened and encouraged, not excluded. Thus, the flip-side of unity is mercy. We need to believe that God is merciful towards the church, and that God empowers us to extend that same mercy to ourselves and others. By focusing on unity achieved through mercy, we will be better equipped to discern what is essential and non-essential in the church today and tomorrow.
Ultimately, the Council of Jerusalem was only the beginning of the Church’s efforts to navigate conflicts that threatened her unity. It lays the foundation for a Church that is institutional and inspirational, a Church that pilgrim and values discernment, and above all, a Church that charitably and mercifully pursues unity in the midst of conflict. We see this process continue in the work of the current pope, and regardless of how we judge his particular conclusions, we ought nevertheless to recognize that it is the same Church at work as we hear proclaimed from the lectionary this Sunday.