Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Reaction is not the Real News

“When a wise man points at the moon, an idiot looks at the finger.”

—attributed to Confucius

Lately, when the Church teaches on a subject, the coverage in the secular media or among partisan Catholics is to focus on how people react to it. This can be in the form of polls telling us that X% of the Catholic laity support a view incompatible with the official teaching. Or it can be in the form of articles telling us that a certain subset of Catholics took offense with what a Pope or a bishop said.

Yes, these things can help us assess what needs to be said to clarify what was misunderstood or ask whether a discipline needs to be adjusted to meet legitimate needs of the faithful. But when people focus on the reaction as if that was the news, people have gotten it wrong.

If one wants to understand the relevance of the popular reaction to a Church teaching as a news story, first we need to understand the teaching itself. What is being taught? With what authority is it being taught? What are the reasons for this teaching? Once we grasp this, then we can assess whether the reaction is legitimate or a sign of error.

However, articles demanding that the Church negate a teaching because a certain subset of the population—or prominent clergy—disagrees with it are useless at best and often cause confusion as to what we are required to do. The Church teachings are not opinions. Nor are they prone to error if they are formulated according to the ordinary magisterium. Changing times do not transform moral evil into moral good.

Since news coverage is not likely to do this, we need to take it on ourselves to do the legwork. Before we jump on the bandwagon, we need to understand the authority of the Church and the binding manner. When the Church teaches that certain behavior is required or forbidden, this is not an opinion. We are expected to give religious assent of intellect and will. The ordinary magisterium can be refined, yes. But it is not error prone. The bishops teach with authority when they teach in communion with the Pope. The decrees of the various Congregations in the Vatican teach with authority when the Pope gives his approval. (See Code of Canon Law 752-754)

Once we recognize this, we can recognize the authority—or rather, the lack thereof—of the critics who respond. The number of people who want the Church to change her teachings on contraception or homosexuality are not an authority. A Cardinal who publicly says that a Papal document or a Congregation decree are wrong or “disappointing” is not an authority. Yes, people can make their concerns know a la canon 212. And, if the concern is expressed over a discipline that might be changed to better fit the needs of the faithful in the present time, a change might be made. But if critics think that expressing “concern” means they can undermine the required assent, that is a misuse of the canon.

So, what is the value of such articles? As I said above, they can help us understand what sorts of misunderstandings exist and need to be addressed by the Church. In some cases, the Church might add to the teaching a section of this is what we believe and why. But sometimes it is not a matter of misunderstanding. Sometimes it is a case of not wanting to comply. The Church has consistently made clear the proper meaning when Pope Francis was misrepresented by the media. In these cases, these news stories show the need to make clear the authority of what the Church teaches.

But these articles are of no value in trying to lobby the Church to change doctrinal and moral teachings. We believe that God gives the Church the authority and responsibility to teach in His name, and we believe God protects His Church from error in doing so. In these cases, the Church could not change without being faithless to God. The Church will not change because of God’s protection. Either way, the weight of numbers or the renown of individuals are not the news when it comes to determine who speaks with authority.




(†) Critics would then claim that the Vatican was “walking back” what the Pope said.

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