Following the Catholic news, blogs and the combox comments, one gets the impression that things are getting out of control in America. What we’re seeing is a number of people declaring that when the Church teaching goes counter to what they hold, it’s the Church that’s in the wrong. We’re also seeing them point to whatever document or press conference that has a soundbite that suits them to justify their own position—even though looking at these soundbites in context show that their position cannot be justified.
Of course when you raise this point, the usual response is to assume that those who are guilty are those from the other side of the political perspective, and investigating one’s own position is treated as politically motivated persecution: Why are you focussing on us when those people are doing THAT? It’s basically a view that says that only people who hold a position in opposition to mine is error.
The Authority Given to the Church is not Optional
The problem is, no individual has the charism of infallibility which allows them to declare that the Church is in error while they are not. This is given individually to the successor of St. Peter in limited circumstances, and collegiately to the bishops in even more limited circumstances.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us:
891 “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful—who confirms his brethren in the faith—he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals.… The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council.418 When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,”419 and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.”420 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.421
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.
2035 The supreme degree of participation in the authority of Christ is ensured by the charism of infallibility. This infallibility extends as far as does the deposit of divine Revelation; it also extends to all those elements of doctrine, including morals, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, explained, or observed.77
2036 The authority of the Magisterium extends also to the specific precepts of the natural law, because their observance, demanded by the Creator, is necessary for salvation. In recalling the prescriptions of the natural law, the Magisterium of the Church exercises an essential part of its prophetic office of proclaiming to men what they truly are and reminding them of what they should be before God.78 (1960)
2037 The law of God entrusted to the Church is taught to the faithful as the way of life and truth. The faithful therefore have the right to be instructed in the divine saving precepts that purify judgment and, with grace, heal wounded human reason.79 They have the duty of observing the constitutions and decrees conveyed by the legitimate authority of the Church. Even if they concern disciplinary matters, these determinations call for docility in charity. (2041)
When the Church teaches on what the faithful must do, we are called to give our assent (acceptance), and docility (readiness to accept instruction) when the Church calls us to respond to the moral issues of our day. Refusing to do so is to deny that the Church has the authority, that she claims to have from Christ, to make such demands on us. But there’s the problem. If one denies that the Church can teach us in a binding way, then she has no real authority other than a social club and it makes no sense to want to change the teachings. Just go elsewhere.
On the other hand, if the Church does have this authority given to her by Christ, then rejecting the teaching of the Church is rejecting Christ. That’s a serious matter, because Christ died to save us, and if we reject Him, we reject the salvation He gave us. He loves us, but He made clear that loving Him means keeping His commandments (John 14:15), and one of his commandments is heeding His Church (Luke 10:16; Matt 18:17).
Exalting Ourselves, Denigrating Others
The standard behavior is to look at ourselves as if we were the paragons of virtue, while those we disagree with ideologically are seen as what is wrong with the world. It’s easy to use someone who seems worse as the measure—if I don’t behave like that, it must mean I am a good person. What’s more, if the Church judges our behavior, it means that they give support to the sinners. Because we aren’t the sinners, their actions must mean the Church is teaching error.
The problem is, that’s not the standard Christ holds us to. It doesn’t matter that we’re better than somebody else. The question is, are we recognizing our own sins and repenting from them? The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector shows us what is wrong with the attitude of “Better than them."
9 He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else. 10 “Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’ 13 But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
We may do good things. We may not sin in the same way others do. That doesn’t matter. We’re still called to repent in the areas where our lives where we have gone against what it means to be a Christian. As Jesus told us:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’
24 *“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house.sBut it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. 26 And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.” (Matthew 7:21-27)
So, when Jesus teaches, whether through the words of Scripture we have or through the Church He established, we’re called to heed what He has to say.
The House on Sand
But our tendency is to build on sand. We equate our worldly political alliances with doing the will of God. When a behavior endorsed by our political party of preference is called “sinful” by the Church, we respond by being outraged at the “partisanship” of the bishops. When it is a behavior endorsed by the rival political party, we applaud the Church. But the problem is, what the Church has had to say on right and wrong has predated the Democratic and Republican parties by over 1800 years. How we mistreat others may change in different eras of history, but that doesn’t change the fact that mistreating people is always wrong. Neither political party is entirely correct. Whether the issue is abortion, the contraception mandate, so-called “same sex marriage,” torture or economic exploitation, these things are wrong. There are sins that cry to Heaven, according to the Catechism:
1867 The catechetical tradition also recalls that there are “sins that cry to heaven”: the blood of Abel,139 the sin of the Sodomites,140 the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt,141 the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan,142 injustice to the wage earner.143
(That basically denounces both political parties in America).
Yes, we are called to oppose these sins when done by the opposing political party. But more importantly, we are called to oppose these sins when they are done by our own political party—That’s putting Jesus first, and thus building the house on solid rock.
Metanoia and Paenitentia: The Change of Mind and Heart
To be in error is not a rare thing. We’re finite human beings and we don’t always consider the possibility that we’ve made a mistake. The question is, what do we do with our errors. Do we constantly look at what we hold to see if they are compatible with what God has taught us? As soon as we stop looking, that’s when we stop repenting from our sins.
The Greek Metanoia and the Latin Paenitentia have the same basic sense: change of mind or heart, repentance, regret. For the Christian, it’s a recognition that what we have done is not in accordance with what God has called us to be. It’s this recognition which causes us to pray the confiteor at Mass:
I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do;
through my fault, through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the Angels and Saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.
If we support what the Church says we must not do; if we oppose what the Church says we must do, we need metanoia—to change our hearts and minds, to repent of what we have done and failed to do. God calls us to do so, and offers us the grace to do so. But we have to accept it. We can’t be saved if we refuse to change to what God calls us to be.