Donald Trump and Pope Francis are two figures whose words and actions provoke a wide and intense range of reactions by people and Catholics around the world. The actions, inactions, and behaviors of both men, as well as other figures in government and the Church, have contributed to a growing amount of tension within their respective squares. Sources for this tension include various movements and ideologies that have gained traction within the Church and the culture. One can see their impact currently in the mainstream media and social media. If left unchecked, it can lead to social media mobs who attack their opponents relentlessly by placing them in a box of fringe thought, fake news, or fanciful conspiracies.i
Such friction can blind us to the presence of God and how he may happen to be speaking precisely through the varied voices crying out in our midst. How then do we cut through the present tension and polarization we find influencing the Church and the world? How do we deal genuinely and humbly with the factors leading to our current cultural and ecclesial decay through the eyes of faith?
When one looks at Sacred Scripture and the sinfulness of the people of Israel during the era of Kings, up to the collapse of the Kingdom of Judah and the Babylonian Captivity, one finds parallels to our current age. It was an era marked by decadence, idolatry, insular thinking, tribalism, and immorality within God’s chosen people. Those who called Israel out and urged her to return to the Lord were known as prophets.ii In light of these historical parallels, it is essential that we acknowledge the authentic prophetic voices manifest through holy pastors and the baptized who genuinely seek the integrity and sanctity of themselves and their leaders.
Contemporary challenges show the need to develop a theology of ordinary prophecy in the life of the Church as it relates to her life, the lay apostolate, the priesthood, and the teachings of the Magisterium. It is only by developing this understanding of the ordinary prophetic calling of the Church in conjunction with her priestly and kingly roles that she can truly live out her divine calling and mission that was given her by our Lord.
When we hear of prophecy, we may think of things such as visions, locutions, apparitions, dreams, warnings of future events, and other various mystical phenomena both approved and unapproved by the Church. Yet these are not the only aspects of the prophetic call, nor are they its essential aspects. Prophecy is deeply rooted in scripture from the Old Testament to its culmination in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God.
What is ordinary prophecy? Ordinary prophecy concerns the God-given call and the mission of the prophet through the graces of faith. God gives this prophetic calling and bestows on the individual believer a particular identity and mission in the life of faith. This role can often differ in application according to divine inspiration, personal or historical circumstances, or the intended audience that such a message is meant to address. The ordinary prophetic office of Christ is given to each believer, alongside participation in his priestly and kingly offices, through the grace of their baptism.iii
What are the hallmarks that define ordinary prophecy? First, prophets respond to the call of the Lord. They help people see his presence and respond to his grace working in the present moment of history.iv Secondly, Prophets remind us of the reality of God’s love for his people, that he desires that they know him, seek him, and return to him. Thirdly, prophets convict us in the realities of sin and divine justice. They remind of the call to conversion and vigorously warn of the consequences of not heeding this call. The Lord can give this prophetic conviction of conversion and repentance to the average believer and people with greater pastoral authority.v Finally, prophets call us back to the essential aspects of following the covenant, which is foundational to the faith.vi This call can be summarized as a call back to right belief (orthodoxy), the right living out of that belief (orthopraxy), and sanctity of life.vii
The ordinary prophetic dimension within the Church’s life manifests as her pastors counsel believers to conversion of heart. They are the ordinary and hierarchical ministers of prophecy who guide the faithful.viii The neglect of their paternal guidance permits a culture of sin to prevail and grow as the faithful are left to the guidance of their respective consciences, be they formed, malformed, or deformed. The ways in which poorly-formed consciences do harm to the Church are all too evident. But even a well-formed conscience can be employed in an overzealous, imprudent way that can then be counterproductive, leading to spiritual harm or scandal. This manifests through calumny, detraction, intellectual pride, excessive rigidity, or the sort of elite sectarianism seen in heretical groups including the Gnostics, Donatists, Montanists, or Jansenists. All these dangers risk distorting the truth of faith, undermining the unity of the Church, and hindering the salvation of souls.ix
It is of the utmost importance to the care of souls that the pastors guide the prophetic dimensions of the Church’s life in its authentic use and refine it. Authentic prophetic action may go against established worldly thinking, which tends to celebrate the role and primacy of conscience and the free speech of the individual. The voices of authentic prophetic inspirations within the life of the Church ought not to be suppressed. These are the voices of those who cry within the heart of the Church for justice and integrity, yet who do so always in a spirit which fosters communion. The pastors of the Church must “test the spirits” in this regard, holding onto what is good, acknowledging the action of grace in the life of believers, while rejecting and calling out the evils which truly do damage to the Body of Christ.x
This prophetic calling may at times lead the faithful, through the use of the general sense of faith (sensus fidei), to deny assent even to the teaching of appointed pastors if they do not recognize in that teaching the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd.xi This can happen when the life of the Church is under threat due to grave scandal, promotion of heresy, or incompetence in the leadership of such pastors. These prophetic figures look to the entire deposit of faith in its full context as the ultimate source of truth and authority through which the Lord still speaks to the Church. We can see a recent example of this in Mother Angelica respectfully yet firmly challenging Cardinal Mahoney for causing scandal, writing a pastoral letter that failed to remind of the perennial teaching of the Church on the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.xii
Under the prophetic impulse of faith and guided by prudence, the believer ought to consider what might be the most appropriate way to give an authentic witness to the truth of Christ.xiii The lives of saints such as Catherine of Siena and Bridget of Sweden provide poignant examples. Both of these women challenged the pastors and even the popes of their day to live a more consistent Christian life with blunt, direct speech. However, even while reprimanding them, these saints did so both frankly and faithfully. In doing so, they maintained an attitude of respect to the successor of St. Peter and in full fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church.
Such fidelity is rooted in following the voice of Christ as spoken by our fathers of faith in every age of the Church’s life. It then fosters both faithful and unfailing stewardship of the mysteries of God that unites the church as the communion of saints beyond history and this life to Christ himself.xiv
Understanding the theology of the prophetic dimension of the life of the Church is critical in light of the polarization and corruption we face in our age of history. The Church is offered a path to live out her life and mission fully in grace and truth. Without the ordinary prophetic calling being rightly tempered and guided, any efforts of evangelization risk becoming a mere project geared toward building an earthly utopia of secular humanism. The prophecy of Sacred Scripture calls to embrace the true God who invites us to know the reality of his Trinitarian love, which alone has power over sin and failures.
Through the ordinary prophetic call, may the Church, as a whole, continue to be faithful and receptive to the voice of the Lord speaking anew in our peasant age and so continue to bear the fruits of salvation until His final coming.
i Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti – On Fraternity and Social Friendship (October 3, 2020) 21-28, 42-53; Message of His Holiness, Pope Francis for 2021 World Communications Day, (January 23, 2021); Bishop Robert Barron, On Social Media and the Catholic Culture of Contempt (July 7, 2020); Father Steve Grunow, The Monsters of Social Media (December 22, 2020); Matthew MacDonald, Social Media and Spiritual Dangers for Catholics Today, Catholic World Report (April 30, 2020).
ii CCC, 64; “Prophet” Taken from Catholic Bible Dictionary, edited by Scott Hahn (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2009) 733-736; Charles Journet, Theology of the Church (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2004) 55-58.
iii Order of Christian Baptism (New York, NY: Catholic Book Publishing Co, 2020), n. 98; Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium – Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, (November 21, 1964) 12, 31, 35; Apostolicam Acutositatem – Decree on the Laity (November 18, 1965) 2 & 10; CCC, 783-386; John Paul II, Christifideles Laici (December 30, 1988) 14 & 23.
iv CCC 64 & 436; Joel 3:1-5; Acts 2:14-47; See also the calls of Abraham (Gen 20:7); Aaron (Exod 7:1); Miriam (Exod 15:20); Moses (Exod 2:23-3:22); Samuel (1 Sam 3:3-10, 19-20), Jeremiah (1:1-19); and Isaiah (6:1-5).
v Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Ezek 18:26-28.
vi “Prophet” Taken from Catholic Bible Dictionary, 735-736; Fernando Ocariz & Arturo Blanco, Fundamental Theology (Woodridge, IL: Midwest Theological Forum, 2009) 248-252, 353-354; CCC 799-801, 888-892, 904-905.
ix Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Iuvenescit Ecclesia – Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Regarding the Relationship between the Hierarchical and Charismatic Gifts in the Life and Mission of the Church (May 15, 2016) 4-10, 18-23; Ibid, Placuit Deo – Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Certain Aspects of Christian Salvation (February 22, 2018) 2-4, 12-14; Francis, Gaudete et Exultatae – Apostolic Exhortation on the Call to Holiness in Today’s World (March 19, 2018) 36-62.
xi Cf. Jn 10:4-5.
xii John L. Allen, Jr, “We shall not look upon the likes of Mother Angelica again.” Crux. (March 28, 2016).
xiii Lumen Gentium, 35; International Theological Commission, Sensus Fidei in the Life of the Church (2014) 63-65; Thomas Aquinas, Scriptum, III, d 25. Q 2, qla 2, ad 3 & qla 4, ad 3; Questiones disputate de veritate, q. 14, a 11, ad 2.
xiv Cf. 1 Cor 4:1; Benedict XVI, “St. Bridget of Sweden,” General Audience (October 27, 2010); Ibid, “St. Catherine of Siena,” General Audience (November 24, 2010); Journet, Theology of the Church, 75-76.
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