Introduction—The Troubled Catholics Wanting to Be Faithful Are NOT Bad Catholics
In my recent articles about the rebellion in the Church, I focussed mostly on the people who were being obstinate because the Church was taking an approach they did not like or did not match their political preferences. However, there is one group I tended to only mention in passing. It occurs to me that some might think I was lumping this group in with the disobedient. So I thought I would talk more about this group—the troubled but faithful Catholic who is trying to make sense out of the claims and counter-claims made about what the Pope or the Church after Vatican II is doing.
First of all, I want to make clear that the people in this category that I have met are not disobedient. They want to know which claims are correct so they can faithfully follow the claims of the Church. Some of them may have been recent converts or reverts and are not confident in their knowledge of the Church. When they encounter someone who seems more knowledgable or confident about what they hold about the Church, they begin to wonder if perhaps these people might know more about the faith and should be listened to.
The danger to these Catholics in this case is that not all of the people who seem confident about their faith are representing the true faith, but are actually representing their preferences as doctrine. So when these Super Catholics start attacking the Pope or bishops because they dislike what is said, the troubled but faithful Catholic is in danger of being misled.
So the question of the troubled but faithful Catholic is understandable—who is to be heeded and who is to be ignored—is not unreasonable. There are examples of Catholics, laity, religious, priests and even bishops whose words, actions or inaction causes scandal. How can we say “trust the Church” when we don’t know if the individual priest or bishop is trustworthy? I want to make clear that I don’t consider this question to be the sign of a bad Catholic. I see it as the sign of a Catholic who wants to be faithful but is afraid to have their trust betrayed.
So, based on some of the things I have encountered on my blog and in talking with friends, here are some of the things that strike me as possibly helping the Catholics who fall into this category.
Fallacies of Composition and Division
There are two ways of thinking that seem natural and reasonable, but are actually misleading. They are known in logic as the fallacies of composition and division. I include them, because they can trip up the faithful Catholic who is troubled by dissent and scandal.
The fallacy of composition works this way: A is a part of B. A has flaw X. Therefore B has flaw X. The response is, “not necessarily.” For example, take the argument “Father Harry Tik favors contraception. Father Harry Tik is a Catholic. Therefore the Catholic Church favors contraception. This is false because in this case, the priest in question is in opposition to the teaching of the Church. Unfortunately this one is widespread. People encounter a bad priest or bishop and assume the whole Church has that badness. The fallacy of division works this way: A has quality X. Therefore every part of A has quality X. Again, the response is “not necessarily.” For example, take the argument, “The Church is pro-life. Therefore every Catholic is pro-life.” People like Nancy Pelosi show this is false.
The important thing to remember from these fallacies is that a person can’t make assumptions that the whole is bad on the behavior of some, nor that the individual must be good on the basis of the beliefs of the whole. Remember Jesus’ parable of the Kingdom of God being like a net cast into the sea (Matthew 13:47-50). It catches the good and the bad alike.
The Teaching Authority of the Church is Living, Not Dead
The history of the Church goes back to AD 33. The Church teaching authority has taught a lot in that almost 2000 years. There’s a lot written down which benefits the Church. But we don’t rely on those written documents alone. If we did, we’d be in the same boat as the supporters of sola scriptura, with about as many interpretations as interpreters. With a living magisterium, we recognize that it is the current Pope and the bishops who teach in communion with him who has the authority to teach at this time what is and what is not a proper interpretation of the Church teaching. When Pope Francis dies or steps down, it will be his successor who has that authority.
Once we recognize that, we can see that the Catholic who tries to claim faithfulness while denying or ignoring the teaching authority of the current Pope and the bishops is leading people astray. From the earliest days of the Church, people were clear on that. St. Ignatius of Antioch, for example was constantly exhorting people to respect the bishop and not to be in opposition to him (Epistle to the Magnesians, Chapter VII. Epistle to the Trillions, Chapter II. Epistle to the Philadelphians, Chapter VII. Epistle to the Smyrnæans, Chapters VIII and IX).
Yes, at times we do have faithless bishops who do not shepherd well, and on some occasions, teach error. In such cases, we are to pray for the bishop in question. But that doesn’t give us the right to ignore the teaching authority of the Church under the Pope.
Remember—Some People Put Forward Their Opinions As Doctrine
As human beings, each Catholic has their own preferences on what things should be like in Church. For example, I prefer the ordinary form of the Mass (respectfully celebrated of course) over the extraordinary form of the Mass, but I have no objections to the extraordinary form of the Mass or those who prefer it. Some Catholics however think the ordinary form was a mistake and should be repealed. Of them, some of them accuse the Church of falling into error. We need to remember that, while we may like a specific way for the Church to do something, it is up to the magisterium to determine what is best for the Church—theirs is the responsibility, theirs is the authority. If it troubles us, we can make our concerns known, but we need to remember that the bishop is the authority of the diocese and the Pope has authority over the whole Church. The Vatican I document Pastor Aeternus tells us in Chapter 3:
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.
Which means that when the Pope sets things in place for the good of the Church, we do not get to appeal to something beyond the Pope. We can ask him to consider it our way, but if he says that it shall be done this way, we can’t say “No, I’ll do it that way!” But some people do, and believe the Church errs, not them. Such people can be a danger to the faith because they have convinced some that the Church has fallen into error and can no longer be trusted. Such people cause a great deal of confusion for the troubled Catholic who wants to be faithful, and such people blame on the Church for the confusion.
So I would stress that when you encounter someone who says that the Church as a whole is in error, they are not a reliable guide.
Misinterpretations Happen More Than You Might Think
We don’t have to have a malicious media to get news about what the Pope says wrong. All it takes is a lack of knowledge to understand how the Church works and how she teaches. The Pope doesn’t formally teach in press conferences or in interviews or in personal books (St. John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope or Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth are not teachings of the Pope). He teaches in encyclicals, exhortations, motu proprio, and others. But the modern media seems to be focussed on the big scoop and they tend to think of Church teaching as party politics. So, when they come across words that sound like (to them) a change in Church teaching, they report it as a Church teaching.
The modern media also tends to mirror each other. When one news source begins talking about “The Pope says X!” soon, all the news sources are talking about how the Pope said X, expanding on it with their speculation (See HERE for a parody of how this works). When this happens, people tend to believe it and when someone contradicts this, claiming it to be a misquote or taken out of context, people tend to not believe it. (“Who am I to judge” was taken out of context. “Breed like rabbits” was a misquote and so on). Some people accuse the apologists of trying to “explain away” what was said. But the transcripts do show that what was said and what the media reported are not always the same.
Now, the Vatican does have one weakness, and that is being slow when it comes to getting the full transcripts out there. I would hope that they catch on and release the transcripts as soon as possible, not relying on the members of the media to accurately report things they don’t understand properly. That wouldn’t help in cases where the Catholic is only aware of secular news sources (I strongly recommend Vatican Information Service and ZENIT), but if the full transcripts would appear on the same day as the interview or press conference, it would probably deflate a lot of the misinformation.
But here’s something to consider. How many times do the anti-Catholics dredge up the stories about how we “worship statues” for example. No matter how many times we deny that this is true, no matter how eloquently we explain what we do believe, you’ll come across someone who gets it wrong. So that’s why I have to disagree with the people who say that “If the Pope spoke clearly, this wouldn’t happen every time.” Yes, it can and does. St. John Paul II’s writings on economic justice was constantly misrepresented as being a turn in the direction of socialism. Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate was also represented this way. When St. John Paul II wrote Veritatis Splendor and Evangelism Vitae, the media’s first question was “Is the Pope changing Church teaching?” When Benedict XVI was interviewed in Light of the World, reporters around the world misinterpreted a hypothetical example of a “homosexual male prostitute with AIDS using a condom” reporters assumed he was perhaps moving towards approving homosexuality and definitely was changing Church teaching on condoms when it came to people with AIDS.
So, it is not true that the media wouldn’t keep misrepresenting the Pope if he spoke clearly—they did the same thing with his predecessors… constantly.
The thing I would most want to say to encourage the faithful Catholic who is troubled by what they see around them is this: Trust that God protects His Church, and His Church is centered around the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. Yes, there will be snags. Like us, they are human and sometimes they will goof up. Sometimes individuals in the Church may play the part of Judas. But we need to remember that God will not permit His Church to teach error in matters of faith and morals. Because even when the teaching is not ex cathedra, we have to give our assent to it (see CCC #892). It makes no sense for God to insist that we obey the Church in sinning against God or else be guilty of sin, so it is reasonable to expect God to protect the Church from teaching error when we must give assent or be guilty of sin.
This isn’t a call for blind obedience. It is a call for trust in The Lord.
May God Bless you in your seeking to be faithful to Him. I pray this article will be a help and not a hindrance.