We have this hope and confidence: Jesus is with us always, and that in him, the Church is able to withstand even the gates of the netherworld.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a huge increase in productivity in the developed world. With the advent of assembly-line manufacturing, factories and mills made large strides in efficiency and output. This period is often called the Industrial Revolution because of the dramatic way that the growth of industries changed society. As with any other social transformation, however, these changes had elements of both light and darkness to them. And as we might expect, the Church took notice.
Observing the increase in child labor, unsafe working conditions, poverty, and extremely long working hours, Pope Leo XIII voiced his concern. In his encyclical Rerum Novarum (All Things New), the pope stated that “human beings are not to be used as mere instruments for money-making” (RN, 42). He said that owners of capital are obliged to look after the welfare of their employees, suppliers, and their customers.
Now this article is not meant to be about Rerum Novarum or the Industrial Revolution. We simply wanted to use this history to illustrate an important point about our own lives. Just as Leo XIII called for business owners to include a higher philosophy aimed at the common good, we too are called to include a higher philosophy in our decision making—a philosophy that considers God’s purposes and the welfare of those around us. Like the businessmen of the late nineteenth century, we too are called to resist the temptation to independence and autonomy, the temptation to do what we want to do without submitting ourselves to a higher authority.
So the question is, what steps can we take to ensure that we are making our decisions in light of a philosophy that incorporates the ways of Jesus and the teachings of his Church?
Of course, the kind of self-oriented and independent thinking that appeared during the Industrial Revolution was nothing new. St. Paul faced a similar challenge when he built the early Church. Time and again he told believers, “Do not conform yourselves to this age” (Romans 12:2). Repeatedly he said that as members of the Church we need to think and act as God’s holy people, and he warned about the consequences that self-centered thinking can have on the Church.
But Paul went beyond just exhorting people to think and act with God in mind. He offered them a way to do it as well. Paul urged believers to “test” their thoughts, to discern whether their decisions were in line with what God had revealed. “Test everything,” he said. Hold on only to “what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Like these first Christians, we too need to test our thinking—something we are not often encouraged to do. We need to compare our thoughts with God’s thoughts. One way to do this is through good common sense, relying on virtues like honesty, fairness, and respect. It’s likely that most of us use this method. However, our decision-making is helped even more when we include a regular reading of Scripture. For example, Scripture tells us that “love of money,” not making money, is wrong (1 Timothy 6:10). It asks, “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Matthew 16:26). When we contemplate messages such as these, they can shape the way we spend, save, and donate the money we earn. Passages like these can help us avoid the trap of loving material possessions over people. They can help us see that we are simply stewards and not owners of this money.
It’s not only Scripture that we can use to test our thoughts and decisions. There are certain questions that Scripture just doesn’t answer. And for those, we have the gift of Sacred Tradition and the teaching office of the Church. For example, if we were to use only our good common sense, we might come to the conclusion that genetic research on frozen embryos is not a bad thing. After all, these embryos were not going to be used for anything else, and the research just might result in medical breakthroughs for people suffering from painful, debilitating diseases. Why shouldn’t scientists pursue the potential cures? Besides, Scripture doesn’t say anything about scientific research or medical progress.
While it’s true that the Bible has little to say directly on the matter of embryonic stem cells, the Church—drawing from Scripture, the teaching of the apostles, and the Sacred Tradition that has been entrusted to it—has much to say. The Church teaches that a human life is present from the moment of conception, and that to experiment on an embryo—especially if the experiment results in the death of this embryo—is to violate the dignity of this human life. Did the Church answer this challenge only by quoting Scripture? No, but by relying also on the work of scientists and theologians, the wisdom of the Church Fathers, and most importantly, by listening to the voice of the Spirit.
This is why it is important for us to remain in touch with the Church’s teachings. We do it not because we want to follow the latest controversy and not because we want to know whether our local bishop or the Holy Father agrees with us. Rather, we do it because we want to form our minds according to the mind of Christ. And the pope and the bishops united with him have been given a special commission—and a special grace—to continue to teach in the name of Jesus, just as Peter and the other apostles were commissioned. In fact, the term “Magisterium” comes from the Latin word magister, which means teacher.
The Need for Outside Discernment. When he returned from his missionary journeys, the first thing Paul always did was to meet with the elders of the Church to tell them what he saw and to discern with them where God was working and where things had not gone so well (Acts 14:27-28; 21:18-21). Paul felt the need for insight, discernment, and approval. He wanted his work to be guided by the Church. Likewise, when Peter returned from the house of Cornelius, he too explained what the Holy Spirit did, and he received blessings, support, and confirmation that what happened there really was God’s work (Acts 11:1-18).
These passages tell us that we can hear from the Lord. We can know his voice and be guided by his hand. They tell us also that while we can make good decisions by listening to his voice, we need to discern what we are hearing. We need to rely on Scripture and Tradition, trusting in the Magisterium of the Church to help guide us in our discernment.
Think of what happened when King David followed his own mind and had Uriah killed in battle so that he could marry Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:1-27). David didn’t acknowledge and deal with his sin until he was confronted by the prophet Nathan. How can this happen? Was David not a good man of God?
Similarly, Joseph’s brothers were good men of God, but they tried to kill their own brother out of sheer jealousy (Genesis 37:1-36). Rather than telling their father about their problems with Joseph—rather than submitting their thoughts to the man who had authority over them—they went ahead with their plan, bringing tragedy upon their whole family in the process. These stories tell us that we risk trouble when we follow our own minds without testing our thoughts against a higher source. They tell us that it is possible for good people to become misled and confused, often with painful results.
Passing the Test. As we go about setting our goals and resolutions for the new year, let’s resolve to test ourselves. Let’s spend a little more time each day examining the ways we think and act. Let’s decide also to try our best to keep our thoughts and decisions in-line with the way Jesus wants us to live. St. Paul once told us: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, of course, you fail the test” (2 Corinthians 13:5). Let’s pray for the grace to pass the test!
How can we ensure a passing grade? The best way is to see Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium as gifts that provide important principles to help form our minds and guide our lives. These principles may not always give specific answers to the day-to-day decisions that we face. Nevertheless, the more firmly we build our lives on these principles, the more in tune we will become with the mind of Christ concerning how we should think and act, no matter what questions we face.
This is a daunting task, especially considering that we live in a world that questions or openly denies Jesus and his supremacy. We live in a world that questions the value of any authority, let alone the authority of Christ and his Church. But as we face this task, we have two promises from the Lord—promises that we can count on every day of our lives. First, he promised that he himself would be with us “always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). And second, he promised that the Church—the great mystery that lifts us up to eternity even while we live on this earth—is able to withstand even the “gates of the netherworld” (16:18). With promises like these, we can have great hope and confidence.