Showing posts with label ordinary magisterium. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ordinary magisterium. Show all posts

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Because Hell is Real: Reflections on Our Lord Establishing a Church

Last time I talked about God ultimately being in charge, so we could trust Him to protect the Church when things grew beyond our control. This time, I want to talk about the other side of that coin—the fact that God established a Church as the ordinary means of bringing His salvation to the world. Unlike Protestants and Orthodox, Catholics hold that Our Lord established His Church on the rock of St. Peter and his successors. We hold that God gave this Church under Peter, the Apostles, and their successors the authority to bind and loose. When the magisterium teaches, we are obligated to give assent—our full acceptance of that teaching.

Remember John 14:15. Loving Him is keeping His commandments. Remember Luke 10:16. Our Lord makes clear that rejecting His Church is rejecting Him. Remember Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18. What His Church binds/looses on Earth is bound/loosed in Heaven. Remember Matthew 18:17. Refusing to hear the Church is a very serious matter. Remember Matthew 7:21-23. If we do not keep His commandments, we will be barred from the Kingdom of Heaven.

I stress this because there is a temptation to separate Our Lord from Church teaching—a claim that Our Lord is merciful but the Church is focussed on “rules.” This temptation claims, “God doesn’t care about X.” It accuses the Church of Pharisaism. But what it tends to mean is, “The Church should not judge my sin.” Let’s be clear here. I’m not equating the Church with individuals who insist you do things according to their preferences, like vote for a certain candidate or you’re damned. I’m talking about the authority of the Pope, as well as the bishop and the priest who properly use their authority in communion with the Pope, to make known how we should live if we would be faithful to Christ, our Lord.

One cannot separate God from the Church, because the Church teaches with God’s authority. It is that simple. So if we dislike what the Church teaches on a subject, our issue is with God. Remember, if we accept the fact that God is in ultimate control, and that He has given the Church the authority to teach in His name, then we must accept what the Church teaches, trusting Him to protect His Church from error.

That doesn’t mean God retroactively turns falsehood into truth. It means God prevents the Church from teaching error. When the Church binds, saying a certain action is gravely sinful, then the person who knows this and freely chooses to do it, commits mortal sin. We do not appeal to God as if He were a higher court. Nor can we use the bad behavior of corrupt Churchmen or harsher methods of law enforcement in harsher times to justify disobedience. If we do, God will no doubt remind us of Matthew 23:2-3. Or as St. John Chrysostom commented on it, 

I mean, that lest any one should say, that because my teacher is bad, therefore am I become more remiss, He takes away even this pretext. So much at any rate did He establish their authority, although they were wicked men, as even after so heavy an accusation to say, “All whatsoever they command you to do, do.” For they speak not their own words, but God’s, what He appointed for laws by Moses.

 

John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel according to St. Matthew,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. George Prevost and M. B. Riddle, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 436.

When the Pope and bishops in communion with Him teach, they do not do so from their own authority, but God’s. If some members of the hierarchy behave unjustly, that does not absolve us from being faithful to the Church under the bishop of Rome. So, if we don’t like the fact that the Church teaches that abortion, contraception, divorce/remarriage, or homosexual acts are sinful, we have to remember that when we know the Church calls these things to be gravely sinful, yet we freely choose them, we sin against God, and don’t just “break a rule.”

But what about Pope Francis? But what about mercy? I answer, his stance is not contrary to the teaching about sin and Hell. His Year of Mercy presumes that we are sinners, and we are in need of forgiveness. But his Year of Mercy was not about dispensations permitting sin. They were about reminding us that now is the acceptable time of salvation, and making the Church available to bring God’s mercy to us. This meant if we would receive God’s mercy, we must repent. This isn’t a radical traditionalist screed. This is Our Lord, Himself telling us, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15).

Bishop Robert Barron points out the mistakes some make about the Holy Father:

A good deal of the confusion stems from a misinterpretation of Francis’s stress on mercy. In order to clear things up, a little theologizing is in order. It is not correct to say that God’s essential attribute is mercy. Rather, God’s essential attribute is love, since love is what obtains among the three divine persons from all eternity. Mercy is what love looks like when it turns toward the sinner. To say that mercy belongs to the very nature of God, therefore, would be to imply that sin exists within God himself, which is absurd.

Now this is important, for many receive the message of divine mercy as tantamount to a denial of the reality of sin, as though sin no longer mattered. But just the contrary is the case. To speak of mercy is to be intensely aware of sin and its peculiar form of destructiveness. Or, to shift to one of the pope’s favorite metaphors, it is to be acutely conscious that one is wounded so severely that one requires not minor treatment but the emergency and radical attention provided in a hospital on the edge of a battlefield. Recall that when Francis was asked in a famous interview to describe himself, he responded, “a sinner.” Then he added, “who has been looked upon by the face of mercy.” That’s getting the relationship right. Remember as well that the teenage Jorge Mario Bergoglio came to a deep and life-changing relationship to Christ precisely through a particularly intense experience in the confessional. As many have indicated, Papa Francesco speaks of the devil more frequently than any of his predecessors of recent memory, and he doesn’t reduce the dark power to a vague abstraction or a harmless symbol. He understands Satan to be a real and very dangerous person.

Barron, Robert (2016-03-31). Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism (Kindle Locations 613-625). Word on Fire. Kindle Edition.

Mercy is not about turning a blind eye to sin. Mercy is about sparing the person from the penalty justice demands. See, we deserve damnation for our sins. But God desires our salvation. So He sent His Son to save us. Yet, we can refuse to accept His mercy, and we do when we choose to do what God forbids. During our life on Earth, God gives us every chance to repent and accept His mercy. But if we refuse to do so, we will face His justice. When the Church teaches something is a grave sin, it’s not because she is obsessed with rules and power. it is because she is concerned for our souls, and wants to save us from the fires of Hell.

Remember that while Our Lord spoke of love and mercy, He also spoke of Hell:

13 "Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. 14 How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7:13–14)

He’s the one who talked about casting sinners out into the darkness (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30). These are not contradictions or additions to Jesus’ message of love and mercy. They’re warnings about what happens if we reject His commandments. Neither God nor His Church are cruel or judgmental for warning about sin and Hell. They don’t make dire threats to cow us into submission. We’re warned about Hell because it is real and we can go there if we refuse to keep Our Lord’s commandments. 

What we need to remember about the difference between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) was not that the Tax Collector was a better person. It was the Tax Collector repented, while the Pharisee did not. But not all tax collectors repented—The publicani (tax collectors under contract) were recognized across the Roman Empire as a scourge because of their rapacious ways that bankrupted entire provinces to boost their profits. Likewise, not all Pharisees were unrepentant. Some became Christians, after all. 

The point is, God loves each one of us, and desires our salvation—but that call requires a response. If we demand the benefits, while refusing the call of Our Lord—Repent, and believe in the gospel—we show we do not love Him, regardless of how we profess it otherwise. Instead, we simply want cheap grace. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it:

Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Martin Kuske et al., trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, vol. 4, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 44.

We should think of this when we’re inclined to accuse the Church of being in opposition to Christ. Our Lord established the Catholic Church to be His means of bringing His salvation to the whole world through the sacraments and teaching His way (cf. Matthew 28:19). It is true that as missionaries to the world, we must not be harsh. But as sinners in need of salvation, we must not demand that the Church change to suit us. If we do, we are spurning The Lord who desires to save us. If we spurn Him, and do not repent, we risk facing the reality of Hell.

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Time to Choose

Things are falling apart faster than I expected. Certain Catholics (not all of them: I pray this is merely a noisy minority) have gone beyond expressing disagreement and misunderstanding and have started rejecting the authority of the magisterium under Pope Francis. Some openly accuse him and his supporters of heresy. Others think the Pope is incompetent. But the assumption of these individuals is their opinions carry more weight than the teaching of the Pope, and they are deceiving faithful Catholics into going along. Now, each Catholic who professes to be a faithful Catholic will have to make a choice.

The choice every Catholic must make is whether to remain in obedience to the Pope and giving assent when he teaches, or to decide they can be Catholic without the Pope and listen instead to Catholics who say what they want to hear.

Despite slogans of “Answer the question,” what we are seeing is not a Pope who is corrupt or in error with “heroic” Catholics opposing him. This is not about “bashing” the cardinals who issued the dubia. This problem precedes this, and has its roots in factions which have been at war with the Pope, promoting dissent since 2013. These dissenters undermine our faith in Our Lord who built His Church on the rock of Peter, deceiving many into thinking the Pope is destroying the Church.

It saddens me to watch Catholics deceived into deciding they can no longer support the Pope. They think the problems in the Church will vanish once Pope Francis’ pontificate ends. But we have always had confusion and dissent in the Church. History shows that whenever portions of the Church fell into error, it was always the Bishop of Rome who was a beacon to the truth. We’ve had muddled Popes and morally bad Popes, but none of them have taught error. If his critics are right, this will be the first time a Pope has ever taught “error” and encouraged people to follow it.

But this is what Our Lord promised to protect us from. Informed Catholics used to know that the Papacy was the final line in the sand to determine what was bound and what was loosed. If the Pope can teach error (binding error and loosing truth), then we no longer know when truth was taught, and by whom. That’s denying the promise of Our Lord to protect His Church.

So, when it comes to this choice, I make mine to stand with Pope Francis. I trust that God will protect Him from error, and I reject the accusations that our Pope is incompetent or heterodox. That doesn’t mean I deify him or think he cannot sin. It means that since false teaching will endanger souls, God will protect the Pope from making false teachings.

While I believe the dissenters are a minority, I will hold to this position, even if I stand alone, because I believe that being in communion with the Pope is God’s intention for us in being faithful Catholics.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

"The Papacy But Not This Pope"

The title of this article comes from a passage written by Hans Urs von Balthasar about the growing hostility towards the Pope:

“The papacy but not this pope” is a further step. Beginning with Gerson, Gallicanism attempted this step (with the best of intentions, theologically) by trying to differentiate between the sedes, which is indefectible, and the sedens, who is not. This approach was mistaken and impracticable from the outset, as de Maistre pointed out. Gasser, in his final address at Vatican I, emphasized that infallibility is not a prerogative of an abstract papacy but of the pope actually reigning. Bossuet, despite his sincere identification with the Church, forever wavered in his position regarding the papacy, measuring with “two measures and two weights” and taking shelter under similarly useless distinctions that simultaneously pledge obedience and refuse it. Moreover, there is the whole Gallican issue of acceptation (“toujours des énigmes!” remarks de Maistre), which plays on the ambiguity of being “in one accord” with the spirit of the Church communio, on the one hand, and simply obeying the directives of superiors on the other. Y. Congar has written on what is justified and what is not in this approach. The reservations of Gallicanism do not at first touch the communio. Rather, they wish to qualify every papal decision, be it by an appeal to a council or by a stipulation that the directives must be accepted by the whole Church (bishops and flock) to be valid.

Another kind of stipulation is applied by the Jansenists, who support papal authority as long as it does not clash with a higher forum, e.g., the authority of St. Augustine, the authentic interpreter of the Pauline doctrine of justification. There were endless quarrels over the bull Unigenitus, about its range, its interpretation and about the earlier distinctions made by the Jansenists between the quaestio facti and juris. (The Pope condemned the statements of Baius or Jansenius, but did he condemn them in the sense in which the authors meant them? This, it was thought, would have gone beyond his competence.) All these were attempts to avoid an unappealable final decision by the existing papal authority. Surely conscience is the final authority of an individual’s moral behavior, but when a community within the Catholic Church refers to a dictate of its collective conscience against a final papal decision, it has already lost the sense of the Church communio.

von Balthasar, Hans Urs. The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church [†] (Kindle Locations 1039-1057). Kindle Edition.

The thing that bothers me the most about the Church today is seeing growing numbers of Catholics who once defended the Church from Vatican II through Benedict XVI, but now question the orthodoxy or wisdom of Pope Francis at some level and look to alternate leaders to follow instead. While some have taken this to the level of claiming the Pope is dangerous, most seem to treat the Pope as if he doesn’t understand the faith. Articles with titles like “What the Pope needs to learn about X” are not rare in these times. In essence, the people who refuted attacks on past Popes from theological liberals seem to be embracing these arguments against Pope Francis and using the same ad hominem attacks (papolatry, ultramontane) against those Catholics who defend him.

These Catholics don’t like what he says and they want to disagree—BUT (and I think this is important to stress) they don’t want to commit sin in doing so. This is why the opposition to Pope Francis revolves around the dividing lines of where his words stop binding and where they can label his words as “error.” The danger is, they run the risk of going too far and crossing the line they want to respect. In this article, I hope to identify some of these danger zones.

“When Do I Have to Obey?"

The attitude that asks when what the Pope says is no longer binding is a dangerous one. It’s dangerous because it implies that the authority of the Pope is a burden we must escape from. In contrast, St. Pius X spoke about what sort of attitude Catholics should have:

Therefore, when we love the Pope, there are no discussions regarding what he orders or demands, or up to what point obedience must go, and in what things he is to be obeyed; when we love the Pope, we do not say that he has not spoken clearly enough, almost as if he were forced to repeat to the ear of each one the will clearly expressed so many times not only in person, but with letters and other public documents; we do not place his orders in doubt, adding the facile pretext of those unwilling to obey—that it is not the Pope who commands, but those who surround him; we do not limit the field in which he might and must exercise his authority; we do not set above the authority of the Pope that of other persons, however learned, who dissent from the Pope, who, even though learned, are not holy, because whoever is holy cannot dissent from the Pope. (Allocution Vi ringrazio to priests on the 50th anniversary of the Apostolic Union November 18, 1912)  [§]

Reading the words of St. Pius X, I see him as saying: When the Pope speaks to us, whether he intends to formally teach or not, he speaks for our benefit and we would be wise to learn from what he has to say. If he is right, then the Catholics who try to find excuses not to listen or think the Pope is a burden or harmful do not love him in deed, even if they love him in theory. But, when defenders of Pope Francis cite this allocution, these critics argue that this does not apply. I have read some comments saying that St. Pius X couldn’t have anticipated a “modernist, Marxist Pope” or he wouldn’t have said this. But his words do not justify this opinion or allow people to appeal to other theologians or saints against the Pope.

The Church has been clear on the range of authority of the Pope. It’s not just in his ex cathedra teachings. It also exists in his governing the Church. The First Vatican Council teaches, in Pastor Æternus:

If then any shall say that the Roman Pontiff has the office merely of inspection or direction, and not full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal Church, not only in things which belong to faith and morals, but also in those things which relate to the discipline and government of the Church spread throughout the world; or assert that he possesses merely the principal part, and not all the fullness of this supreme power; or that this power which he enjoys is not ordinary and immediate, both over each and all the Churches and over each and all the pastors of the faithful; let him be anathema.

 

 Vincent McNabb, ed., The Decrees of the Vatican Council (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1907), 42.

People who say ad populum is wrong may want to take note.

The Pope has the right and responsibility to apply the timeless teaching of the Church to the circumstances of today. Bishops and theologians advise him, but the final decision is his. When he does so, he is binding and loosing as Our Lord intended in Matthew 16:19. We trust in The Lord to protect us from a Pope binding a bad teaching or loosing a good teaching.

When The Pope Isn’t Speaking as Head of the Church

But what about when he’s not teaching as Pope?

I won’t deny that Papal press conferences and interviews cause headaches. I just deny the claims of some people who say the Pope causes these headaches. But this does bring us to the question of the Pope speaking as a man and not as the head of the Church. This is a recent phenomenon. Popes St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have given interviews, addresses and written books during their pontificates but were offering their private views, not teaching as the Pope. How are we to approach this? A 1915 book on apologetics offers this insight:

The Pope is therefore not infallible when he gives a decision as man, bishop, scholar, preacher, or confessor, nor when he expresses an opinion on questions of art, politics, or secular science. Infallibility is quite distinct from personal impeccability.

 

 F. J. Koch, A Manual of Apologetics, ed. Charles Bruehl, trans. A. M. Buchanan (New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1915), 177–178.

What the Pope says in these cases are not protected under the charism of infallibility. But it doesn’t follow that this means what a Pope says in these circumstances are laden with error. His holiness, learning, and wisdom as a man, bishop, scholar, preacher or confessor still exists and we should consider this. People who defend the Pope on these grounds are not guilty of Papolatry. Nor are they ultramontane.

What this qualification does mean is we don’t call someone a heretic just because he disagrees with what Benedict XVI says about Our Lord in his Jesus of Nazareth books. It also means if a Pope like John XXII speaks in a homily, he’s not teaching heresy or defining a teaching. It also means that the laws he passes as ruler of Vatican City (or earlier of the Papal States) are not Church teaching.

The Fact that Bad Popes Existed Doesn’t mean Pope Francis is One

Another pitfall to avoid is thinking just because bad Popes existed in Church history does not mean Pope Francis is one. Bad behavior goes back to St. Peter eating apart from Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14), and Popes are sinners just like the rest of us. So every Pope will have cringeworthy moments. But when people appeal to bad Popes to argue Pope Francis is one, they dredge up the notorious Popes. Benedict IX, John XII, Alexander VI, Julius II and others.

The problem with this appeal is these Popes behaved badly, but they did not teach badly as Popes. Either they taught rightly or did not teach at all. The Popes who did wrong did so as men or as rulers. They practiced vice, treated their position as if they were a secular king. etc. Pope Francis behaves nothing like this, so it is an irrelevant analogy. Some, realizing this, will point to John XXII [∞], Liberius, or Honorius and argue that they spoke falsely or heretically, and Pope Francis can do the same. The problem is, the Church denies those Popes taught heresy, even privately. Their faults were they taught ambiguously or did not act when they should have. So these Popes antics don’t mean Pope Francis is heretical.

That brings us to our next point.

Do We Understand Context and Meaning? 

The problem with people accusing Pope Francis of holding error is that they assume that Pope Francis embraces the dubious claims of Cardinal Kasper and then interpret the Pope’s words according to the meaning the Cardinal gives them. For example, some Catholics are afraid that the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Lætitia promotes giving the Eucharist to the divorced and remarried. Yes, Cardinal Kasper appears to favor this. But the Pope said something entirely different:

Integrating in the Church doesn’t mean receiving communion. I know married Catholics in a second union who go to church, who go to church once or twice a year and say I want communion, as if joining in Communion were an award. It’s a work towards integration, all doors are open, but we cannot say, ‘from here on they can have communion.’ This would be an injury also to marriage, to the couple, because it wouldn’t allow them to proceed on this path of integration.

That’s one example of how people put a meaning into the Pope’s words he never intended. They assume that “integrating” the divorced and remarried into the Church means giving them the Eucharist and get upset. But they don’t consider whether the baggage they attach to a word is what the Pope intends. We who are Americans or western Europeans have a view of the world we think is normal, but the rest of the world doesn’t share it. He describes problems in South America and we think he hates capitalism or America. He talks about gradually moving people away from vicious customs in Argentina and we think he supports American vice. That’s not his fault. That’s our fault for assuming the rest of the world thinks like us.

We make this worse by our reliance on instant news coverage popping up on our smartphones from religiously illiterate sources. They take one sentence from an interview and treat it as if he is changing Church teaching. We rely on the analysis of that one sentence and form an opinion before the full transcript comes out. The problem is, you can’t interpret Pope Francis by one sentence. You have to look at his whole answer. He tends to describe a scenario first, and from that scenario describe a solution. If you don’t keep the scenario in mind, the quoted sentence sounds like he’s okay with sin. But if you do look at his whole answer, it becomes clear that he is not okay with sin.

I think we rely too much on bullet points and one sentence summaries. As a result, we aren’t used to diving into complex descriptions when we find them. But that’s our problem, not the Pope’s, and it’s our task to understand what he means, not to blame him because we misinterpret through our cultural mindset.

Conclusion: Judgment vs. Love and Respect

can. 1404 The First See is judged by no one.

One thing we have to remember when people want to question the Pope’s orthodoxy, that act assumes they have the right to judge his actions. Such an action implies their knowledge and their fidelity to the Church is greater than his. It assumes to read his heart and mind and finds them wanting. But we cannot do this. When the Pope teaches, we need to give assent (Canon 752). When he speaks privately, we need to be respectful. We have no right to judge him.

That doest mean the Pope can do whatever the hell he wants and we can’t say anything. There is fraternal correction. St. Thomas Aquinas describes how we must handle this:

I answer that, A subject is not competent to administer to his prelate the correction which is an act of justice through the coercive nature of punishment: but the fraternal correction which is an act of charity is within the competency of everyone in respect of any person towards whom he is bound by charity, provided there be something in that person which requires correction.

 

Now an act which proceeds from a habit or power extends to whatever is contained under the object of that power or habit: thus vision extends to all things comprised in the object of sight. Since, however, a virtuous act needs to be moderated by due circumstances, it follows that when a subject corrects his prelate, he ought to do so in a becoming manner, not with impudence and harshness, but with gentleness and respect. Hence the Apostle says (1 Tim. 5:1): An ancient man rebuke not, but entreat him as a father. Wherefore Dionysius finds fault with the monk Demophilus (Ep. viii.), for rebuking a priest with insolence, by striking and turning him out of the church.

 

 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, (II-II q.33 a.4 resp.) trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne).

The problem is the social media complaints against the Pope show nothing fraternal. It assumes wrongdoing and speaks in an unflattering way. Some is patronizing. Some is abusive. But it generally assumes the Pope is, at best, guilty of fuzzy thinking or, at worst, a heretic. People do speak of him as if he were a burden. People do say they still wish Benedict XVI was still Pope. People do hope he’ll retire or die soon. Not everybody does these things, but the point is the attitude which thinks he is a burden to the Church is undermining our faith and trust in the shepherds. We look at what he says and does and judge whether we think it is acceptable or not.

But what we don’t ask is if we are sinning in our attitude. St. Pius X linked loving the Pope with respect and obedience. He rejected the idea of looking to another theologian against the Pope. But how many people look to Cardinal Burke, Cardinal Sarah or Bishop Athanasius Schneider [∑] as being more reliable than the Pope when it comes to fidelity to the Church?

I want to be clear I don’t seek to judge any individual or blog here. I wrote this article because I see troubling things undermining the authority of the Church and the Pope, leaving people afraid and mistrustful. I just hope to encourage people to think a different way about these things, trusting God to protect His Church under Pope Francis just as He protected the Church under every other Pope. If any person is struggling with these things, I hope my reflections help and do not drive them away in defensiveness.

__________________________

[†] The actual title of the book was Der antirömische Affekt which translates as “the anti-Roman attitude.” (according to Google Translate) The book spoke about the hostility to the Pope c. 1974. Much of this anti-Roman attitude seems to fit today as well.
[§] This translation was from 2012 when Benedict XVI was Pope. Many people who cited it then deny it now.
[∞] Despite the views of some, Pope John XXII did not even preach heresy privately because the Church had not yet defined the matter at the time he offered his opinion.
[∑] I want to make clear here that I do not blame them for people elevating them this way against their will. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Ordinary Magisterium and the Authority of Encyclicals

Introduction

The encyclical Laudato Si is coming out tomorrow. Personally, I have no intention of commenting on the text until I see the official release and the official translation. But many are up in arms based on the text of the draft, unofficially translated, as if the media reports—always inaccurate thus far—have reported the nuances of the final version accurately. It seems to me that such objections are to miss the point of what an encyclical is and what it is for.

This seems to stem from a gross misunderstanding on the part of some Catholics on the matter of what is binding and what is not. One of the greatest errors going about is the misunderstanding on what manner the Church uses to teach authoritatively. Many have expressed the view that the only thing that binds Catholics is an ex cathedra teaching when the Pope formally defines something declared to be held by all the faithful. The problem is, this is an extraordinary (done outside the normal means) method, normally used in cases where a serious need make a teaching clear.

Ordinary Teaching Authority

But when you have extraordinary decrees, it implies that there is an ordinary means which the Church teaches to inform the faithful as to how the teachings of the Church are to be applied—what must be done, and what must not be done.

Then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in an official SCDF document explained the difference between ordinary and extraordinary magisterium this way:

23. When the Magisterium of the Church makes an infallible pronouncement and solemnly declares that a teaching is found in Revelation, the assent called for is that of theological faith. This kind of adherence is to be given even to the teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium when it proposes for belief a teaching of faith as divinely revealed.

 

When the Magisterium proposes “in a definitive way” truths concerning faith and morals, which, even if not divinely revealed, are nevertheless strictly and intimately connected with Revelation, these must be firmly accepted and held.

 

When the Magisterium, not intending to act “definitively”, teaches a doctrine to aid a better understanding of Revelation and make explicit its contents, or to recall how some teaching is in conformity with the truths of faith, or finally to guard against ideas that are incompatible with these truths, the response called for is that of the religious submission of will and intellect. This kind of response cannot be simply exterior or disciplinary but must be understood within the logic of faith and under the impulse of obedience to the faith. [Donum Veritatis #23]

In other words, while the ordinary magisterium does not intend to teach things in such a way that we accept it as “divinely revealed,” they do require us to offer the submission of our will and intellect and accept these moral teachings as binding us to obedience. The document goes on to label as dissent (#33) the idea that teachings that are not ex cathedra can be ignored:

33. Dissent has different aspects. In its most radical form, it aims at changing the Church following a model of protest which takes its inspiration from political society. More frequently, it is asserted that the theologian is not bound to adhere to any Magisterial teaching unless it is infallible. Thus a Kind of theological positivism is adopted, according to which, doctrines proposed without exercise of the charism of infallibility are said to have no obligatory character about them, leaving the individual completely at liberty to adhere to them or not. The theologian would accordingly be totally free to raise doubts or reject the non-infallible teaching of the Magisterium particularly in the case of specific moral norms. With such critical opposition, he would even be making a contribution to the development of doctrine.

Dissent is opposition to the lawful teaching authority to the Church—often “justified” by offering spurious arguments that say the teaching authority has not made (or does not have the right to make) a binding teaching in a certain case or area of human activity. So, to call a spade a spade, to disobey the Church in a matter which is not ex cathedra when she teaches on the Christian obligation, is dissent, and thus, contrary to the obligations of a faithful Catholic

Where Do Encyclicals Fit In?

An encyclical is an expression of the ordinary magisterium of the Catholic Church. The 1887 Catholic Dictionary describes an encyclical as:

encyclical (literœ encyclicœ). A circular letter. In the ecclesiastical sense, an encyclical is a letter addressed by the Pope to all the bishops in communion with him, in which he condemns prevalent errors, or informs them of impediments which persecution, or perverse legislation or administration, opposes in particular countries to the fulfilment by the Church of her divine mission, or explains the line of conduct which Christians ought to take in reference to urgent practical questions, such as education, or the relations between Church and State, or the liberty of the Apostolic See. Encyclicals are “published for the whole Church, and addressed directly to the bishops, under circumstances which are afflicting to the entire Catholic body; while briefs and bulls are determined by circumstances more particular in their nature, and have a more special destination.” [William E. Addis and Thomas Arnold, A Catholic Dictionary (New York: The Catholic Publication Society Co., 1887), 290.]

In other words, the encyclical does intend to teach the whole Church about matters of faith and morals in situations affecting the Church or the world in the time it is written—it is not an opinion piece written by a Pope that we can ignore. It is a teaching by the successor of Peter. Many of the teachings listed in Denzinger come from encyclicals, showing this is not a new claim about their authority, usurping the true teaching of the Church. Indeed, Ven. Pius XII had taught in 1950:

20. Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: "He who heareth you, heareth me";[3] and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine. But if the Supreme Pontiffs in their official documents purposely pass judgment on a matter up to that time under dispute, it is obvious that that matter, according to the mind and will of the Pontiffs, cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians. [Humani Generis]

So, we cannot exclude an encyclical from what we are called to obey—the very nature of an encyclical shows that the Pope intends to pass judgment on a matter, and obedience to these teachings are not optional.

Moreover, Vatican II (Lumen Gentium #25) tells us...

In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.

…so we can see that the type of document or the frequent reputation of the teaching shows that a Pope is making his will known as head of the Church.

Denying Ordinary Magisterium Can Bind Is Cafeteria Catholicism

So, given that the ordinary magisterium of the Church binds, and given that an encyclical is a way of expressing the ordinary magisterium of the Church, it logically follows that the moral teaching of an encyclical requires assent. But if one chooses to refuse assent, he or she is guilty of dissent, refusing to do what is required as a member of the faithful. So let’s stop with the illusion that one can ignore the teaching of an encyclical as being not binding. It is quite clear that it is binding, and if one is not faithful in small things (Luke 16:10), he or she will not be faithful in larger matters.