Another papal statement, another cry of outrage from a certain portion of the Catholic laity. It saddens me because, from what I can see, whenever there is dissent, those who are disobedient declare that they know more about God’s will and the real meaning of Church documents than those who have been given the authority and responsibility to teach and protect the Word of God.
Many excuses are offered of course. The primary one offered is that the teaching of the Pope is only binding in extremely limited circumstances. The problem with that argument is that it is usually the person who is opposed to what the Pope has said that is the one defining those circumstances. I believe these people are missing the point and are quite possibly endangering their souls (God being the one to judge, of course) depending on their individual responsibility for their actions.
I’m going to give a long quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church here because I think it is overlooked and, without it, it becomes easy to overlook how far God has entrusted the successors of St. Peter and the Apostles with His binding authority:
2032 The Church, the “pillar and bulwark of the truth,” “has received this solemn command of Christ from the apostles to announce the saving truth.” “To the Church belongs the right always and everywhere to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs to the extent that they are required by the fundamental rights of the human person or the salvation of souls.”75 (2246; 2420)
2033 The Magisterium of the Pastors of the Church in moral matters is ordinarily exercised in catechesis and preaching, with the help of the works of theologians and spiritual authors. Thus from generation to generation, under the aegis and vigilance of the pastors, the “deposit” of Christian moral teaching has been handed on, a deposit composed of a characteristic body of rules, commandments, and virtues proceeding from faith in Christ and animated by charity. Alongside the Creed and the Our Father, the basis for this catechesis has traditionally been the Decalogue which sets out the principles of moral life valid for all men. (84)
2034 The Roman Pontiff and the bishops are “authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach the faith to the people entrusted to them, the faith to be believed and put into practice.” The ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him teach the faithful the truth to believe, the charity to practice, the beatitude to hope for.
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.
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. (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. 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)
So, it is not just the ex cathedra pronunciations that bind. The Church has the right to announce moral principles and make judgments on human affairs—even if they involve disciplinary matters. This binding authority is primarily passed on in catechesis and teaching. It is not limited to the extraordinary magisterium. When we see this, we have to make a decision when it comes to a teaching by Pope Francis that makes us uncomfortable—Just how far do we trust God to protect the Church from teaching error in a matter we are obliged to give assent and docility?
I think the problem is people have been accustomed to thinking of the Church as only having binding teaching when it comes to rare pronunciations. But that is not the case. Humanae Vitae was not a document which was declared ex cathedra, but it is considered binding. The Catechism is not an ex cathedra document, but it is a binding document, with St. John Paul II writing, “I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion.” (Fidei Depositum 4). That means that the teaching of the Church on the issues contained within are authentically Catholic—which includes the teachings on sexual morality and social justice (the issues that the Left and the Right dislike respectively).
The problem in the Church is not that Pope Francis is some sort of “loose cannon.” The problem is we have forgotten the docility (readiness to accept instruction) we are bound to observe the teachings of the Church with. You can’t appeal to someone not a part of the magisterium to counter the magisterium—something that happens when some Catholics point to some very 13th century language by St. Thomas Aquinas to counter the Pope’s understanding of the needed rarity of the death penalty in the 21st century. As Canon Law puts it (CIC 1404), "The First See is judged by no one.” CIC 331 tells us, the Pope "is the head of the college of bishops, the Vicar of Christ, and the pastor of the universal Church on earth. By virtue of his office he possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely."
In other words, there is quite literally no person on earth who can loose what the Pope binds or bind what the Pope looses (Matthew 16:19, and Isaiah 22:22).
Such a concept must be frightening to some. If the Pope is not protected from teaching error, then a madman Pope can teach whatever the hell he likes and none of us can do anything about it—if we think the Pope is wrong, then we have no choice but schism… something that some have sadly accepted as the only choice available because they cannot reconcile the teaching of the Pope with what they want the Church teaching to be.
It is only if we have faith in God that He will not permit His Vicar to bind error or loose truth, that we can put any trust in what the Church teaches. Otherwise we could never know whether the Pope was in his right mind or whether the Church properly interpreted the Scriptures properly when professing the belief in the Trinity. It’s quite literally the case that without the assurance of God’s protection, we would never know if the faith we professed was true or whether it got to the point of embracing the most bizarre things.
Some might object here, saying that we have our faith and our reason, so we could tell the difference between the authoritative teaching of the Church and the virtual apostasy of some other denominations. But I would say that Church history is full of members who were so certain that they had the proper understanding of the real meaning of the Scriptures and Tradition, that they wound up outside of the Church, labelled heretics and/or schismatics.
No, Christ built His Church on Peter and his successors. He promised to be with the Church always (Matthew 28:20). It has always been Rome that has been free from heresy—even with the worst Popes in our history, the strongest accusation that could be leveled against them is that they failed to teach when they should have spoken out. But the successors to Peter, when teaching as Pope, have never taught error.
That’s not to say everything the Pope says is going to come across as a masterpiece of eloquence with no ambiguity. There have always been phrases that were vague or words that have multiple meanings. But we believe that the Pope is protected from error in Church teaching, not from social flaws, sins, or from making bad civil laws where he rules. So there always will be some uncomfortable moments—but that’s not just modern Popes. That’s all the way back to Peter, denying Christ three times and eating apart from the Gentiles in Galatia (Galatians 2:11-14)
So, this leaves us with some hard choices. We can...
- Put our faith in God, that He will protect His Church by protecting her from teaching error.
- Deny that the Church teaches with God’s authority, leave, and find a new place to follow God (to which I remind the reader of John 6:68)
- Remain in the Church, being disloyal and undermining the people’s faith (to which I remind the reader of Mark 9:42)
My faith tells me that only the first choice is valid, while the others lead to ruin. And that is where I must stand, believing that rejecting the authority of our current Pope is to reject the authority of Our Lord. It’s not because I think the Pope is flawless (far from it). It’s because I trust in God to protect His Church so the gates of hell will not prevail against her (Matthew 16:18).