There are times when an individual who disagrees with the Church—whether an anti-Catholic, a modernist, or a radical traditionalist—will cite the Scriptures or a Church document in order to justify their rejection. I’ve seen this tactic take a number of forms. The fundamentalist who is convinced that a Catholic practice goes against the Bible, the atheist who wants to prove an inconsistency, the modernist who wants to ignore everything before Vatican II (and everything after St. John XXIII), or the radical traditionalist who wants to ignore everything from St. John XXIII forward. But in spite of these different goals in rejecting the authority of the Church, there is one common assumption—that the individual dissenting is interpreting the document in question correctly, while the living magisterium of the Church is not. In other words, a rejection of the authority of the Church when one disagrees with it.
The problem is, it is the living magisterium of the Church (the Pope and the bishops in communion with him) that has the authority and the responsibility to determine what is and what is not the proper interpretation of the teachings of Our Lord passed on by the Apostles and how to best carry out that interpretation in our times. We don’t believe that the magisterium usurped this power, or gained it from being the smartest people in history. We believe that it was Our Lord who gave the St. Peter and the Apostles this authority and responsibility, and it was passed on from the Apostles to the Pope and Bishops of today. So, the rejection of that authority by Catholics kind of comes across like this...
However, even though it is irrational for Catholics to reject this authority, some do. Moreover, anti-Catholics never accepted this authority in the first place. So, it’s not enough to appeal to the authority of the Church, because some people do think she is in error. But it’s not enough to say, “I think the Church is wrong!” Anybody can have an opinion about anything, but not all opinions are rational or grounded in reality. So one has to consider the truth of the claim—does the critic “say of what is, that it is or of what is not that it is not” (to paraphrase Aristotle). So, when someone makes reference to the Scriptures or to the Church documents or the writings of the saints, the question is whether or not they have properly understood the document they cite, or whether they accurately contrast it with the magisterial teaching they dislike.
Before the Church teaching (current or past) can be rejected, the challenger has to show they know what they are talking about (authoritative), and not insisting that we accept a personal opinion masquerading as fact. Anyone can have an opinion about what a document means, but not everybody has the knowledge to teach about it with authority. For example, the well known Neal deGrasse Tyson has the knowledge to teach about his scientific field, and that can make him an authority in that field. But he doesn’t have the authority to teach in a field outside his knowledge. To assume that his views on subjects outside his field are authoritative is to commit the fallacy of irrelevant authority.
So when the atheist, the fundamentalist, the modernist, or the radical traditionalist invokes the Scriptures or the writings of the Church, their authority needs to be established. When someone takes Matthew 7:1 (“Judge not…”) to challenge the teaching of the Church, or Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge…” to argue that the Church must change her teaching on sexual morality, the first question is, do they interpret what was said properly? (Short answer: No). If not, then their challenges have no authority.
With that understood, we need to look at what the teaching authority of the Church is, and why it is to be given more credence than the opinions of others. Where there are people talking, there are going to be different opinions. But when it comes to deciding the way things will be, someone has to have authority. In America, we have elections to determine who is given the authority to pass laws, and we tend to view this system as being the norm for everything (for example, the churches where the congregation chooses their minister). It’s very individualistic, and if a group does not agree with our personal views, people either go elsewhere or try to force change on the group.
But the Catholic Church does not take this view of leadership. We do hold that Jesus Christ intended to establish a Church on Earth, giving His authority to the Apostles with Peter as the head of this Church, and their successors—the Pope (the successor of Peter) and the bishops (successors to the Apostles)—to preach the message of salvation, with the authority to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19, Matthew 18:18, John 20:21-23). So, it is the Pope and the Bishops who continue to carry out this role. When they intend to teach, they must be heeded...
can. 751† Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.
can. 752† Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.
can. 753† Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.
can. 754† All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and to proscribe erroneous opinions, particularly those which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops puts forth.
can. 755 §1.† It is above all for the entire college of bishops and the Apostolic See to foster and direct among Catholics the ecumenical movement whose purpose is the restoration among all Christians of the unity which the Church is bound to promote by the will of Christ.
§2.† It is likewise for the bishops and, according to the norm of law, the conferences of bishops to promote this same unity and to impart practical norms according to the various needs and opportunities of the circumstances; they are to be attentive to the prescripts issued by the supreme authority of the Church. [Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 247–248.]
…it’s basically codifying what Our Lord said to his disciples: “Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” (Luke 10:16). As Catholics we believe that the Pope and the bishops who teach in communion with him (as opposed to a loose cannon who does whatever the hell he wants) have authority to teach, and we have the obligation to listen to them with religious submission to these teachings.
So, when it comes to the teaching of the Church, we hold that it is the bishops in communion with the Pope and not a Catholic politician like Nancy Pelosi who speaks with authority on what is the proper understanding about the Church teaching on abortion. We believe it is the Pope and the bishops in communion with him who speaks with authority on what is and is not permitted in the Mass—not the SSPX. We believe that the Pope and bishops in communion with him have the authority to explain what the Catholic Church believes about the Eucharist, not a Protestant minister. It’s the Pope and bishops in communion with him who has the authority to interpret scripture, not the extremely irrational atheist blogger who thinks Ezekiel 4:12 was commanding the Jews to eat bread made out of dung (the verse is actually Ezekiel warning the Jews about the extreme conditions of a siege that would reduce the inhabitants of Jerusalem to dire conditions, and yeah—this guy actually showed up on my blog during my Xanga days).
Now the individual is free (in the sense of “free speech exists”) to reject the authority of the Church and to say things against the Church. But when it comes to saying who has the authority to speak in the name of the Church and decide what is and what is not in keeping with the Catholic faith, it is the Pope and bishops in communion with him—not the individual who rejects that authority.