Don't Argue Balls and Strikes -- on the Pope, St. Irenaeus, and the Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul

A few years ago former Yankees manager and current Major League Baseball executive Joe Torre sent a letter to baseball players and managers re-emphasizing an old piece of baseball etiquette--"don't argue about balls and strikes with the umpire!"

Why not?  Well, there are a few reasons as I see it:

1.) The game of baseball, like most sports, only works when the umpire's authority to officiate and arbitrate disputes during the game is recognized--umpires, referees, and officials are necessary to keep things running smoothly.

2.) While there are written rules and ideal parameters and a strike zone can be enforced unevenly, ultimately if an umpire calls something a strike it is a strike, if for no other reason than because (s)he said it was.

3.) The umpire is unbiased, knowledgeable, and has been entrusted with the task of determining whether a pitch is a ball or a strike, the batter/pitcher/manager/fan has not been so entrusted.

At this point you might be saying "what a strange digression, Father, what does that have to do with the pope, St. Irenaeus, or Peter and Paul?" 

Well, we live in an era when criticism of the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) is at an all time high.  Otherwise faithful priests, laypersons, Catholic periodicals, certain prominent Catholic television stations, and even a cardinal or two criticize everything that comes out of Pope Francis' mouth almost as a matter of course.  Now, this isn't terribly unusual, nor is it usually all that problematic, at least from an ecclesial point of view (though it may be from an individual spiritual point of view), after all the Pope is not perfect nor is he always infallible in everything that he says.  What presents a problem is when a purported Catholic accuses the pope of saying or promoting something heretical, unorthodox, or rejects any form of obedience to the pope in his role as Vicar of Christ.  It is this type of accusation that being a Catholic takes off of the table, the office of the Papacy is necessary and exists precisely because it is prevented by the Holy Spirit from uttering heretical or unorthodox formulations of the faith.  This is distinct from the ability of the Church of Rome, under certain circumstances, to make positive infallible statements, it is more akin to making the Pope the "referee" of Christian theology, the one with the supernatural authority to determine if something is a theological "ball or strike".

Let's look for a minute at these two feasts we are in the midst of celebrating--St. Irenaeus and Ss. Peter and Paul.  St. Irenaeus is one of our earliest theologians who lived during the second century in Lyons, France.  He is most famous for a letter that he wrote entitled Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies).  In Adversus Haereses Irenaeus is arguing against the Gnostics--a group of early Christians who claim to have secret knowledge about the teachings of Jesus that the rest of the Church isn't privy to, has forgotten, or is ignoring.  Irenaeus says that he doesn't even need to debate the content of Gnostic teaching because he knows right away it isn't legitimate.  Why?  Because it doesn't come from the Apostles.  The way this whole things works, according to Irenaeus, is that Christians can be confident as to what is the authentic teaching of Jesus based on what is passed down from the Apostles to the bishops. If you have no connection to the Apostles, then you do not have the authentic faith.  This apostolic guarantee of orthodox Christianity is even more pronounced and obvious when it comes to the Church of Rome.  The Church in Rome was founded by the two greatest of the apostles--Peter and Paul.  Because of the holiness and the witness of the Church of Rome and because of the promises that Jesus made to St. Peter we know that the bishop of Rome (St. Peter's successor) can never lead us astray.  Now, if you're not Catholic you may not have been convinced by this, but if you are Catholic it is absolutely fundamental to the very structure of our Church and our belief in Apostolic Succession.  Irenaeus refutes the Gnostics not primarily because of the content of their teaching, but because their teaching does not come from the Apostles and their successors, namely the successor to the Apostles in Rome.

I feel as though it is important at this moment to reaffirm this basic and foundational part of our Faith.  Think of Pope Francis as the theological umpire who is supernaturally prevented from completely misjudging balls and strikes.  It is inappropriate to accuse the Pope of heresy, heterodoxy, or refuse him theological obedience in principle, regardless of the content of what he is saying, because for a Catholic what he is saying is specifically prevented by God from being heresy, heterodoxy, or unworthy of obedience.  We have had bad, immoral, licentious popes.  We have had popes who have made poor decisions in their personal lives and in the governance of the Church.  We have had popes who may have even believed and in private correspondence espoused heretical beliefs.  But we have never had a pope who has taught at even the lowest level of magisterial authority something heretical--because he cannot.  To make such a claim against the Bishop of Rome: 1.) disrupts the very life of the Church; 2.) is, as we have seen, not even a theological possibility for a Catholic; 3.) represents an overstepping of boundaries for a priest, layperson, periodical, television station, or even cardinal. 

Now I have disliked things that popes have said or done, I have disagreed with their decisions, and I have even thought their statements on reformable theological issues incorrect--but it would be a contradiction of Catholic teaching for me to claim that a pope has taught heresy, heterodoxy, or that he was unworthy of my theological obedience.  I have never, nor do I now, possess a particularly exaggerated vision of the Bishop of Rome's theological role in the Church.  Throughout history Popes have not been the only source of theology, nor usually even the best source, but they ARE the safest and most secure source, a source which we can be confident at least isn't contrary to our teaching and our Tradition.  In other words, if you disagree with Pope Francis, fine, but if you find yourself questioning the orthodoxy of Pope Francis' teaching either your understanding of orthodox Catholic teaching is wrong or you are not in fact Catholic.  We can debate and disagree about most things, but this is a line that simply cannot be crossed.

We don't have to love every call he makes, but PLEASE, stop arguing balls and strikes with the umpire, it's not how the game is played.