Sunday, November 24, 2019

Consider This: An Article for Perplexed Catholics Trying to Sort Through the Confusion

I address this article to Catholics of good will§ who are striving to be faithful to God through obedience to His Church, but find things confusing because of all the accusations made against the Pope.

I don’t doubt that you want to be faithful. But you’re probably struggling with the fear that if even a portion of the accusations against Pope Francis are true, then the Pope must be teaching error.

This is especially true if you don’t know the teachings as well as you like and an angry critic of the Church argues that some document you’ve never heard of, with a Latin title you can’t understand, contradicts what Pope Francis teaches. 

Or perhaps you liked what a certain layman, priest, bishop, or cardinal had to say about defending the Church when you first joined, reverted, or started paying attention to the Church, but now he’s speaking about how the Pope is teaching error. You’ve always trusted him before. Shouldn’t you keep trusting him?

The first thing to remember is that the Catholic Church was established by Jesus Christ and is not a merely human institution. He promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18) and that He would be with the Church until the end of the world (Matthew 28:20). As such, the Church teaches with His authority and is protected from teaching error. Appealing to Jesus Christ against the teachings of His Church shows a false understanding.

The second thing to remember is the fact that, within the Church, the ones who have the authority to bind and loose in the Church are the Pope, individually, and the bishops, when acting in communion with him—and only those bishops acting in communion with him. Priests, bishops, and cardinals who teach in opposition to the Pope, or refuse communion with him lack authority in what they say. This is why, for example, we are not bound to obey an Eastern Orthodox bishop or an SSPX bishop.

The third thing to remember is that the one who makes the final call on how to apply past Church documents in the present is the Pope. He’s the one who makes the infallible definitions, approves or rejects the documents from ecclesiastical councils, binds or looses disciplines, governs the Church, and so on. When he acts as Pope, we are required to obey—not only in the infallible statements, but the ordinary teachings as well*. Because of this we can either believe that we are required to obey error (which is absurd) or we can have faith that God will continue to keep His promise to protect His Church when it teaches. This is not a new claim. Prior to Pope Francis, this was generally understood and accepted as a mark of a faithful Catholic.

Fourth, every member of the Magisterium, like the rest of us, is a sinner in need of salvation. It doesn’t matter what Pope in history you look at. You will find sin in some area of his life. A Pope who neglects his salvation is in just as much danger as the rest of us would be. But that would not diminish his authority when he teaches. This is why it is irrelevant to bring up Paul rebuking Peter in Galatians 2:11-14. Peter’s moral failing (probably stemming from wanting to avoid a conflict) did not impact his authority to teach in a binding manner.

When we understand these truths, the attacks against the authority of the Pope are exposed. The people who claim that the Pope is in error when he teaches are either misunderstanding or rejecting one of the four points above. But, since they are Church teaching, the person who struggles must make a decision: Will they accept the teaching of the Church when the Pope teaches? Or will they reject the Church? There is no middle ground in this case. As Monsignor Ronald Knox wrote:

Here is another suggestion, which may not be without its value—if you find yourself thus apparently deserted by the light of faith, do not fluster and baffle your imagination by presenting to it all the most difficult doctrines of the Christian religion, those which unbelievers find it easiest to attack; do not be asking yourself, "Can I really believe marriage is indissoluble?  Can I really believe that it is possible to go to hell as the punishment for one mortal sin?"  Keep your attention fixed to the main point, which is a single point—Can I trust the Catholic Church as the final repository of revealed truth?  If you can, all the rest follows; if you cannot, it makes little difference what else you believe or disbelieve.

(In Soft Garments, pages 113-114).

Since the Pope is the final arbiter of what is or is not authentically Catholic, the perplexed Catholic needs to remember this: it is the one who denies the Pope’s authority, not the Pope himself when he teaches, that is responsible for spreading error in the Church.


(§) Non-Catholics of good will are welcome to come along for the ride. But be aware that the article will assume the teachings of the Church as a given. Those who do not believe that the Catholic Church is the Church established by Christ and teaches with His authority will doubtless disagree with some or all of the article.

(*) See (among others) Pius IX Syllabus of Errors #22, Vatican I (especially Pastor Aeternus Chapter 3), Pius XII Humani Generis #20, Lumen Gentium #25, canon 752 in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, and #890-892 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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