Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Church and the Self-Centered Catholic


The Church, over the past two thousand years and including today, has continued her mission of being faithful to Our Lord’s teaching. She evangelizes and she fulfills the commands of love and justice. She cares about the spiritual and physical needs of the people. Sadly, we have some in the faith who assume that if the Church does not explicitly focus on what they care about, or if they focus on what these people don’t care about, then the Church is accused of not being faithful. Depending on the slant of the critic, the same Church is accused of ignoring past teaching and of ignoring Our Lord’s commands to love.

But when we look at the complaints, they have something in common, no matter how vast the ideological divide. That commonality is believing the Church has failed if she does not act as I see best. This is a problem because it makes the individual preference take precedence over the discernment of the magisterium. The decisions of the magisterium on how to apply the teachings of Our Lord as handed on to the Apostles are reduced into an opinion—no more valuable than anybody else’s and often less valuable.

Confusing Preference With Truth

The problem is, we’re tempted to think that we have got things right. If others disagree, it means they are wrong. If problems don’t seem to subside, it means the Church “doesn’t care” or even “supports error.” Such views overlook the possibility of our own error, the possibility of more options than we have considered, or the possibility of people rejecting the Church teaching. In other words, if we think the problems in the Church are because the Church does not handle things as we see best, then we are self-centered Catholics

To head off objections, I want to make clear that I am not saying we should be passive when some Catholics support something morally wrong. As Catholic Christians, we have the right to expect our clergy, religious, and laity to provide the true faith and not their self-imposed opinions (cf. Canon 213). The problem is, self-deception is easy. We can trick ourselves into labeling the warnings of conscience rising from Church teaching as “political” or “heretical.” 

Too often we assume God, previous successors to the Apostles, the saints, etc., think like we do. What we want becomes DEUS VULT! What we don’t like is obviously “error.” But is that the case? If we don’t like Church teaching on contraception, on divorce/remarriage; if we don’t like the Church changing discipline on the Form of the Mass or how to interact with other religions, we accuse the Church of betraying Christ or betraying the past teachings of the Church, depending on what proof-texting we can use to justify ourselves. 

Do We Center Our Preferences on Ignorance about our Ignorance?

Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is,—for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows; I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. (Apologia 21)


Plato, The Dialogues of Plato, trans. B. Jowett, Third Edition, vol. 2 (New York; London: Oxford University Press, 1892), 113–114.

What’s not asked is, Do I properly understand what the Church teaches and accepts as legitimate obedience to those teachings? If we think we know what the Church teaches and think we understand the person we think at odds with the Church, but we actually are mistaken about one or both, we may be condemning what the Church accepts or supporting that which is incompatible with Church teaching—all the while thinking we are doing right.

On one side, I see Catholics dissenting from Pope Francis on the basis of what they think he supports and what they think Church teaching allows. The problem is, a review of their attacks show they neither understand what he actually said, nor understand the Church teaching he references. Many assume his teachings on social justice reflect a “leftist” anti-capitalist political view. I think these critics have never read Pope Pius XI, or St. John Paul II when they wrote on moral obligations in economics. Many assume his position on divorced/remarried Catholics shows moral laxity, ignoring the reality of intrinsic evil. These critics seem to show no recognition about the question of individual culpability. They seem to be unaware that the Pope asks bishops and confessors to investigate the conditions of individual Catholics, not look for loopholes. They seem to confuse discipline, which can be changed, with doctrine, which cannot.

On the other side, I see some Catholics who are proud of their defense of Pope Francis but behaved just as badly towards his predecessors as current dissenters behave towards Pope Francis. They sought to contrast a loving Jesus against a bureaucratic, heartless Church. They showed no understanding on why the Church said something could not be changed. They viewed the male priesthood and the condemnation of abortion and contraception as proof of “patriarchy.” They assumed that any attempt to determine what barred people from the Eucharist as “being obsessed with rules.” 

In both groups, the assumption was that the Church went wrong when she taught differently than the critics wanted—usually when her teaching showed them as being in the wrong. Both groups assume God doesn’t care about what they don’t care about. Yet both groups are willing to point fingers at each other where the other group goes wrong. This finger pointing shows that they are aware that the Church teaches, and that they appeal to it when it suits them. But with this awareness, it shows one has no excuse if we only apply Church teachings to others and never bother to ask if we fail in our own behavior.


Pharisee and Tax collector

I think the temptation to self-centeredness leads us to judge others rather than go through the trouble to investigate ourselves. We think that God cares more about the sins of those we disagree with than ours. We forget that the deadliest sin for each one of us is the one that sends us to hell, not the one we’re not tempted by. So if we can’t be bothered to look at our own sins and repent of them, we might be horrified at the Last Judgment, if Our Lord says to us,‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7:23.) St. Paul warned us, Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall. (1 Corinthians 10:12).

If we’re so self centered that we think that all flaws are with the “other side,” and that even the magisterium of the Church can be on the “other side” if her stance is against us, we are likely to find, at the Last Judgment, that we were on the wrong side all along.


  1. I've read several of your posts now. The desire to be receptive to the teaching of the Magisterium and to be wary of private judgement is deeply Catholic and commendable. But there seems to be a lot of speculation on this blog about the motives of those who are worried about the direction the Church is taking at the moment. They may be self-serving and seeking to impose their views on the Magisterium; indeed, they may. But what if they are trying to be loyal to the Magisterium and they see the Magisterium itself divided, bishop's conference from bishops' conference, cardinal from cardinal, tradition from present? Understanding the intricate balance of Catholic teaching is one thing, but trying to reconcile St. John Paul II's very clear teaching about remarriage and Communion with the declaration of the Maltese bishops, for instance...that is simply a logical contradiction.

    I don't go in for criticism of the Holy Father and I'm not a radical traditionalist. Indeed, up until very recently I was arguing the same case as yourself-- to myself, at least. But there comes a point where it's no longer docility but denial. Indeed, Edward Feser wrote an excellent blog post on this matter entitled "Denial Flows into the Tiber"; I think it is the definitive commentary.

    Not that I think there's anything wrong in simply remaining faithful and attentive to the Magisterium; indeed, that's what I think we should do. But I don't think it's fair to question the motives of those who are worried about the situation.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      It is not my intention (and perhaps I should work on an article clarifying that) to assume that anyone who has concerns is a dissenter. My point was to ask people to investigate their motives, pointing out a dangerous mindset we should try to avoid.

      I do understand that Catholics can and do struggle with what they don't understand and can't reconcile. To paraphrase Blessed John Henry Newman, a thousand difficulties do not equal one doubt. But difficulties can become doubt when one no longer seeks to understand, but reaches the point where they question the underlying authority of the Church.

      For example of a difference, you mention the Maltese bishops' document. I too have problems with that document. I think #10 can be misleading, because it can lead people into thinking they have the final decision and that the Church cannot interfere. Likewise, I don't have problems with Catholics who want clarification on Amoris Lætitia.

      My problem is when some Catholics reach the point of saying, "The Church teaches error," and tries to undermine the teaching authority, claiming it is in error. Dialoguing with these people, I find that their claims are based on a presupposition that their *preference* is right. The obvious examples of this are the SSPX and the "Spirit of Vatican II" Catholics. But it would be a mistake to try to cram all those with difficulties into those two groups. Rather, I see these groups as warning signs of what these Catholics who allow themselves to slip into doubt can become.

      In terms of sounding accusative, what I try to do is warn of the dangers of an attitude. I try to use terms like "We" instead of "You" to avoid coming across like the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (It's a parable I try to keep in mind when I blog).

      I don't believe any Pope is impeccable. I believe they can make mistakes of judgment, and I believe they can make mistakes in administrating within the Church. For example, Assisi 1986 probably should have been recast as a conference to avoid misunderstanding. But I don't think such mistakes imply a Pope is morally or doctrinally bad, or that he is leading the Church into error.

      I think the question each of us needs to ask is whether we're open to considering the possibility of our own error when we're troubled by the teaching magisterium of the Church. I see some Catholics mistaken about what Pope Francis has actually said, some who think he is wrong because they misunderstand what the Church has actually said in relation to what he said. There is always a danger that we will confuse our own preferences with how the Church should handle something with Church teaching, and get offended when something seems unfamiliar to us. That's what I hope to warn against in my blog.

      I hope this helps. God Bless.