There seems to be a strong sentiment of rebellion among a certain part of American Catholicism that was hitherto unnoticed. During the pontificates of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI we saw the obvious dissent among Catholics on the political left, rejecting the Church moral teaching on sexuality. We were appalled by their behavior and their attempts to portray their disobedience as being authentic Catholicism. Indeed, when it came to Catholicism in America, it was easy to treat “conservative” as being synonymous with “orthodox.”
But there were always warning signs. The SSPX was the obvious example of dissent. There were also warning signs in the complaints that our Popes and bishops weren’t “orthodox" enough and encouraged dissent (Yes, even Benedict XVI was accused of this before his motu proprio in 2007). There were books out there on what needed to be done to save the Church from destruction—mainly focussing on striking down the dissenters, while complaining when the Church took action against the SSPX. “Why did the Church spend so much effort on them when the real danger was elsewhere?” When St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI wrote on economic and social justice, the media reports and resulting accusations were that these Popes were favoring socialism. There were signs that certain conservative Catholics believed the media reports and were all too ready to believe it.
So, all of this has happened before. It is not surprising that there is a conservative backlash against Pope Francis for the same reasons that there was conservative grumbling against his predecessors. But regardless of the motive or political slant, the fact is that when the Catholic decides that one can practice the faith as he or she sees best in opposition to the teaching authority (magisterium) of the Church, that is not an authentic practice of the faith. Some Catholics may take a rebellious attitude of “My way, regardless of what you say.” Others may be troubled by a misunderstanding of the faith or because of the faith being misrepresented to them, and are deceived into thinking that the Church must be wrong. But either way, it is an error, not the true practice of the faith.
The way to avoid the attitude of the rebellious Catholic mindset is to beware some of the attitudes which help cause it.
America tends to be a binary system in terms of thinking: Either A or B. So we tend to think about things in the sense of “either us or them.” Either they are for us and the other things they do don’t matter, or they are for the other side and our enemy. We look at things like political views in such a way that either a person or group does what we think is best or they support our enemies overtly. That’s not an exclusively liberal or conservative approach. Both sides do it. The problem however, is that such thinking causes people to forget that other views exist like, “I don’t care for either view” or “I think a third position is better. Even if a view doesn’t fit into the either-or mindset, it will be forced to fit somehow.
Which is the case in how the Church is viewed. The Church does not fit into this binary thinking. She holds some teachings which are reviled by the political left and some reviled by the political right. American bishops, for example, are considered “leftist” for supporting compassionate treatment for illegal aliens and “right wing” for opposing abortion, the contraception mandate and so-called “same sex marriage.” So members of both factions label the bishops as belonging to the other side.
Currently, members of both political factions are making this mistake. The Pope recognizes that in the western nations, there is an extreme level of consumerism which leads people to support things which are contrary to the teaching of Christ. This isn’t limited to one faction. The difference is simply the difference of one side approving of the way the binary interpretation works. The other disapproves. Neither considers the possibility that the binary interpretation is wrong. Pope Francis champions both the Christian teaching on social justice and the Christian teaching on morality. Some Catholics are perfectly willing to ignore one side of the equation. But the problem is the Church teaching, even when it appears similar to a partisan position, is held for an entirely different reason: Love of God and Love of neighbor. The Church sees her obligation to instruct the faithful on what we must do. Some of that will be uncomfortable for conservatives, some for liberals. All people, not just one faction, are sinners and need to change their hearts.
Lack of Knowledge
Another problem seems to be the lack of knowledge about what the Church does teach. There are many people who are zealous in seeking to be faithful to the Church as established by Christ, but do not know all of the teachings of the Church. Such a person, whether a convert or a Catholic from birth, may bring beliefs and understandings along which are incompatible with the Church teaching and discovers conflict. They were unaware of this teaching, have been quite happily holding on to a belief that seems right to him or her, and suddenly it seems like something—that they actually hear for the first time—seems like a change in teaching.
Of course the Church has not changed, but rather the individual has learned something new. But if one combines this with binary thinking, the person who has always thought that X was OK can be shocked when the Church says it is not OK. I think this is a real problem when hearing Pope Francis speak. If you read what he has said and compare it to his predecessors, he has said nothing different on the subject from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI. But in America, many Catholics seeking to be faithful (especially younger Catholics and new converts) have seen mostly the Church needing to defend against those who would deceive on moral issues. So when Pope Francis speaks out on social justice issues, they do not realize that this is not a change.
That leads me to a second area where a lack of knowledge causes trouble. There are some Catholics who know that their knowledge of the faith is limited, but want to be faithful to the Church, and look to the example of some person or group that seems to be confident in the faith. Unfortunately, not all people who are confident are right. Many are affected by the problem of binary thinking, who assume that there is a choice to be made: Either Pre-Vatican II or Post-Vatican II. They can be effective because anyone who lived through the 70s and 80s have seen some really goofy stuff out there (I remember the Barry Manilow “hymns,” the “make your own Eucharistic bread for consecration crumb debacles,” the idiots preaching their own sermons instead of the laity, rebellious priests and nuns, etc.) and it’s easy to create a post hoc fallacy that argues that these things happened after Vatican II, therefore they were caused by Vatican II. So, people who dislike such misbehavior and know they don’t have much knowledge of the Church can be misled by these false teachers who say that most of the Church is in error except for people who think like them.
Such people need to understand that the magisterium of the Church has the authority to teach, and any people who claim that one can be a good Catholic in defiance of the teaching of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him are teaching dissension just as much as the looney toons they are opposing.
Failure to Seek the Truth (Or Look For the Damn Transcripts Already!)
Following up from this, from what I have encountered on the internet, a lot of people never bother to follow up on their lack of knowledge. A person might wonder about an issue and never follow up on looking up what is true—for example, what the Pope actually said on an issue (“Who am I to judge” needs to be read in context, for example). So when the media reports that the Pope is changing a teaching on something, many people are led astray, thinking the media is reporting accurately. Unfortunately most mainstream media reporters are religiously illiterate and rushing to break the latest breaking news. So we get all sorts of bizarre reports about the Church favoring changing her teaching on condoms (Benedict XVI), economics (St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Francis), homosexuality and divorce (Francis).
To add on to this, we have a case of the Blind leading the blind. Some bloggers and Catholic news sites pick up the secular accounts of what the Pope said, and begin speculating on What It All Means. Incautious readers treat these as infallible reports, and then rush to make the same judgments as the people who follow the mainstream media—sometimes to the point of the ludicrous. Remember Pope Francis and All Dogs Go to Heaven? The Media had to give a retraction for that story.
It’s pretty rare that I see anybody actually questioning the accounts and try to find an official account—especially a transcript—of what was alleged. That’s a pity because usually when we look at a “WTF” statement by the Pope, the transcripts show that there is no scandal—just a misinterpretation. The problem is, months or years later, the misinterpretations and misrepresentations still come out as if nobody had ever corrected the issue. It’s still assumed to be the truth, and when someone attempts to correct them, the response I have often seen is, “Well how come the Church never corrected that?"
Another problem is the problem of becoming attached to a worldly political position in defiance of the Catholic position to the extent that the Church is seen as simply teaching error and needs to change her teaching. The problem often happens when the issue is one where people have a strong emotional attachment which makes the person blind to the possibility that they are the ones in error. There can be many causes for this attachment. The Church teaching on divorce and remarriage can be very difficult for the Catholic who has divorced and then remarried in a civil ceremony. Such people may be quite happy in their new relationship and the thought that they may have to give it up is terrifying. Or the Catholic who has been a staunch supporter on the American wars in the Middle East and believes that the use of torture is a legitimate tactic. He or she learns that the Church teaches that torture is evil and thinks this means America will be in danger.
The problem with these views is that the Catholic view is not a political view. It is a view which is concerned with the salvation of the whole world. If we are to love God with our whole heart, soul and being, and love our neighbor as ourself, we need to live in a way which is compatible with these commandments. The Church exists to make this way known to us—not through her own ideas, but from her obedience to God. So, if God calls us to live in a certain way, and we refuse to live in this way, demanding that the Church change her own ways, we are putting something above obedience to God.
This action is idolatry, as it replaces God as having the highest place in our lives. We need to seriously consider exactly Who we are rejecting when we reject the Church. We are not rejecting a human institution with arbitrary rules. As Catholics, we profess that the Church exists because Jesus Christ established her, and gave her the responsibility and authority to carry out His mission of bringing the world to Him.
The FUD Factor: (Fear Uncertainty Doubt)
It seems to me that those people in the Church who want to be faithful Catholics but are led astray by what is known as the FUD factor. They fear that they do not know enough about the faith. They are uncertain about where to find good teachers. They doubt that the person in their parish is giving them the straight story. So, when they are introduced to the person who shows assurance who seems to quote the old Church teachings from Trent to the 1950s to prove their points on how the Church should be, the Catholics seeking to be faithful can be led astray by having their fear, uncertainty and doubt exploited and be led to believe that the magisterium is corrupted. It is a neat little trap. The Catholic who wants to be faithful is taught that everything that challenges the views against the current Pope and bishops is “modernist,” and everybody knows that St. Pius X condemned modernism. The result is, it can be very hard to escape from this mindset. It’s a case of the NoTrue Scotsman fallacy. If the Catholic cited opposes this view, he’s not a true Catholic.
The way to escape from this is recognize that Jesus is looking after His Church and protecting her from teaching error in matters of faith and morals. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be Judases out there. That doesn’t mean that the teachers in the Church will be morally impeccable. It does mean that Jesus does want us to have a place to look when there are disputes on the meaning of His teachings.
The False Teachers
Eventually, when you explore the depths of people who believe error in good will, thinking it is authentic, you will find the bottom. The false teachers who have made a decision to reject the Church teaching and put their own teaching in its place. Ultimately, you will find such people who use the above factors to their own benefit, either by abusing the authority they have or by pretending their beliefs have an authority it does not have.
There are the false teachers out there who have put themselves in the place of the authentic teachers of the Church. For whatever reason, they have grown alienated from the teaching of the Church and believe something should have gone the other way. Because they have been so invested in the idea that their views on a subject must be right, a teaching from the Church that says their view is not true is seen as a sign that the Church is in error. This view is not limited to one point of view (though many are fond of attributing this to the other side). We have the Spirit of Vatican II people who claim to know what the Council really meant to teach better than the actual people who were there and participating it (such as St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI) on one hand, and the people who decided that everything the Church did since October 28, 1958 (the beginning of the Pontificate of St. John XXIII) was a disaster that needs to be overturned.
They are certain that they must be right, and that certainty has led them to believe that the Church cannot be protected from error—because if she was, she wouldn’t have taught that way. Throughout the history of the Church, heresies and schisms have arisen where people are certain that they have discovered the truth that the Church veered away from, and for the Church to get back to the path of righteousness, they have to follow this teaching The problem is, no matter how someone tries to justify these things, there’s a problem—this is a break from the Apostolic succession.
Apostolic succession is not something given to anyone who passes a “theological purity test.” The Catechism describes it this way:
861 “In order that the mission entrusted to them might be continued after their death, [the apostles] consigned, by will and testament, as it were, to their immediate collaborators the duty of completing and consolidating the work they had begun, urging them to tend to the whole flock, in which the Holy Spirit had appointed them to shepherd the Church of God. They accordingly designated such men and then made the ruling that likewise on their death other proven men should take over their ministry.”374 (77; 1087)
862 “Just as the office which the Lord confided to Peter alone, as first of the apostles, destined to be transmitted to his successors, is a permanent one, so also endures the office, which the apostles received, of shepherding the Church, a charge destined to be exercised without interruption by the sacred order of bishops.”375 Hence the Church teaches that “the bishops have by divine institution taken the place of the apostles as pastors of the Church, in such wise that whoever listens to them is listening to Christ and whoever despises them despises Christ and him who sent Christ.”376 (880; 1556)
In other words, the authority of the Church has to be passed on from the Apostles to their successors from the first century to today. Not all members may turn out to be worthy of their task, but it is to this succession, the Pope and the bishops teaching in communion with him, that God has given His authority and His protection, so that when they teach in matters of faith and morals, they will not teach the faithful something that is against the faith. Without such an assurance, the faithful could never know whether the Church could be trusted or not. Sure, we can have bad popes (John XII, Alexander VI, Benedict IX are some names to come to mind), but we have never had a Pope who formally taught heresy. We have had bishops who fell into heresy—but not those who remained in communion with the Pope, teaching as he did. It was only among those who broke away and rejected the teaching that the Pope affirmed. We believe that the line of Popes has continued unbroken from the time that Linus succeeded St. Peter until the present day, and that he and the bishops in communion with him are the ones God gives His authority to teach.
If the Church could go wrong in her official teaching, we would never know when she is right. If she could be wrong in Vatican II (a favorite accusation of the radical traditionalist), we can have no assurance she was right in Vatican I or Trent, or even Nicaea I. How could we know that it wasn’t the Arians who were right without God protecting His Church from teaching error in matters necessary for salvation? It is because we do believe that the Church is protected from teaching error that we can trust her when she says we must give assent to X or that we must not do Y.
The false teacher, whether he or she formally breaks from the Church does not have this authority and assurance of protection from error. In fact, the heresies and schisms from the Church did derive from people who were sure the Church was wrong. That doesn’t stop them. But the modern tactic is to appeal to a teaching from the Church in the past, contrast it with the phrasing of a teaching today and argue that the differences are a break in teaching as opposed to, say, a difference in the culture between how a teaching was expressed in the 16th century vs. how it is expressed in the 21st century.
One might say that the false teacher is guilty of the same error as the Bible-Only literalist that assumes that his or her own interpretation of the Bible is the objective one and all others are distorted. But the question is about whether his or her interpretation is correct, and what gives him or her the right to declare it is. Except, instead of the Bible, it’s a question of interpreting Denzinger and Trent and St. Pius V on one hand, and their interpretation of Pope Francis or Vatican II on the other. False teachers presume to judge the teachings, ancient and modern, and declare what they think is right and wrong to be dogma. But since they have no legitimate connection to the Apostolic succession, their interpretations have no authority.
The Hans Küngs or Nancy Pelosis on one side and the Marcel Lefebvres and their followers do not have the authority to teach in opposition to the Church, and the people who cite them to justify their own rejection of the teachings they dislike are guilty of the fallacy of irrelevant authority—they do not have the right to teach what they do and call it authentic Catholicism.
We must recognize just where the authority to bind and loose is. Those who try to contradict the magisterium cannot be called good Catholics, no matter how they protest that their views are authentic Catholicism. We know who Christ has appointed as his vicar, and that He said that the one who rejects the Church rejects Him (Luke 10:16).
The Church does have a visible head who Christ has given the authority since the time of St. Peter. The authority is not the mark of his personal holiness and wisdom, but of the office he is appointed to, and nobody can take it from him, or overturn his decisions to bind and loose (Matt 16:19). It is not limited to when he makes ex cathedra statements. The Catechism makes clear the Church is to be obeyed even when the Pope does not make an ex cathedra statement, but still intends to teach:
892 Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent”422 which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.
Ultimately, when faced with a struggle, we need to remember that if we have faith in Christ, we can trust Him to protect the Church from error when she teaches us. Even when individual members of the magisterium may behave badly, their bad behavior will not affect the truth of the teaching authority of the Church in communion with the Pope (Matt 23:2). That’s not because of the holiness of men, but because of the promise of God.