As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavour that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent. Do ye therefore all run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one. (Ignatius of Antioch [AD 50-107] Chapter VII. Epistle to the Magnesians)
“The Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 62.
The Path of Denial
Very few people become heretics or schismatics by thinking, “I know I am in error, but I don’t care.” They are convinced that their views are correct, but they have encountered opposition from the teaching authority of the Church which tells them that their belief or behavior is not in keeping with the Catholic faith. When a person runs into this situation, they have two choices:
- Accept the authority of the Church and reject the behavior/belief which goes against it.
- Reject the authority of the Church and accept the behavior/belief which goes against it.
If the person chooses the first possibility, they remain with their relationship with God and the Church intact. But if the person chooses the second possibility, their relationship with God and the Church is damaged.
Many times a person who goes ahead with this damaged relationship does not want to admit that their choice is the cause of it. So they claim that the fault of the break is somewhere else, and their position is on the right side of the break. Someone else must be found then to be in the wrong. Of course, most people don’t want to say that God is to blame for this break (those that do seem to be suffering from some great hurt and despair). So they try to redefine things so God is portrayed as being on their side. Therefore if the Church goes against what they want, then they conclude that the Church teaching must be against God—otherwise the Church would be siding with them. In many cases, this is where the person leaves the Church. Either they pick a denomination which permits them to behave as they choose, or they leave their faith altogether. It is a tragic thing, based on the idea that they cannot possibly be in the wrong.
However, some people do not want to deny the Church outright. For whatever reason, they want remain associated to the Church. So, they see the people who are Catholics who think like them as the “true Church,” while the teaching authority of the Church which rejects their belief or behavior as against the faith of the Church must have fallen into error. Therefore the Church must change to match their beliefs. Otherwise, the actual teaching authority of the Church is believed not to bind.
The Path of Denial is Not Limited to A Certain Ideology
You will notice I did not equate any specific belief with this path of Denial. I avoided this because it is easy to fall into the error of thinking that only one kind of mindset can do this. Depending on the reader’s views, it is easy to project the person one disagrees with as being guilty of this error. But the fact is, the conservative and the liberal both can fall into this way of thinking. For example, both the traditionalist and the modernist can point to Vatican II and allege betrayal. The traditionalist alleges betrayal in claiming that Vatican II contradicted the past teaching of the Church. The modernist alleges betrayal in claiming that Blessed Paul VI and his successors have rejected Vatican II and turned back to the time before the Council.
Logic tells us that the Popes cannot simultaneously be traditionalist and modernist—the two positions are contraries. They can’t both be true. However, since they are contraries and not contradictories, they can both be false. The Pope can be neither traditionalist nor modernist, and to accuse him of being in those camps when he is not would be speaking falsely.
Likewise, even though the traditionalist and the modernist are in opposition to each other, that does not mean that one of them might be right. If one of them errs on the side of rigorism and the other errs on the side of laxity, then both do err.
Two Logical Problems
The first logical problem in this attempt to put the Church on the wrong side of the individual’s break with the Church teaching is the fallacy of begging the question. It is a fallacy which attempts to prove something, but when the person supplies arguments to justify their conclusion, those arguments presume that the conclusion is true—which is what they have to prove in the first place. Thus, the Church is alleged to be in error because she teaches X is wrong. Why is that error? Because X is asserted to be right but the Church disagrees.
See the problem? The whole argument asserts that if the Church was not in error, she would teach X was right, but never shows why the Church is in error for teaching X is wrong. A person who rejects the claim that “the Church is in error because she teaches X is wrong,” can rightly say that the argument proves nothing.
The second logical problem is similar. The fallacy is called Ipse Dixit (literally “He said” or “He himself said it”). This fallacy makes an assertion, but does not prove it. The speaker expects the listener to accept as “the way things are.” But the problem is, just because a person can say a thing does not mean the statement is true. People have the right to ask “Where the hell did you get that idea from?"
So when we see advocates of Same Sex “marriage” allege that “God doesn’t care about what two people in love with each other do!” or the SSPXer allege that “the Novus Ordo [sic] Mass is intrinsically invalid,” these are ipse dixit statements. Just because you say them doesn’t mean we have to believe your assertion. What gives you the right to say it is true?
The Authority of the Church vs. the Authority of the Challenger
Now, when a person is an expert in a field and speaks on his or her area of expertise, that may be considered authoritative. But if a person is not an expert or if the person is an expert in an unrelated field, then that person’s assertions have no authoritative value. Now authority can be defined as, “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” Since we are speaking about the Catholic Church, when we talk about authority, we are talking about who has the authority to make binding decisions on those who profess membership of the Catholic Church."
Now, while non-Catholics may disagree with the assertions of the Catholic Church, those people cannot be considered authorities when it comes to the question of who speaks for the Church. Nor can I the writer or you the reader consider ourselves authorities who speak for the Church. We can only point to the official teachings of the Church. If I were to personally declare that wearing purple was sinful, the wise person would ask where I got that idea from. Once it turned out that I made up that declaration on my own, it would be exposed as having no authority to bind.
So when it comes to the cacophony of people claiming to know how best to carry out the teaching of the Catholic Church, we have to stop and ask who was given that right to teach, to forgive sins and to otherwise bind and loose? The fact is, as Catholics we believe that this authority is given to the successor of St. Peter, the Pope and the successors of the Apostles, those bishops in communion with him. This has been taught from the beginning of the Church in the first century AD to the present. There is no time when the Pope and the bishops in communion with Him did not have the authority and responsibility to determine how the deposit of faith was to be understood.
That’s an important thing to remember because many people think they can just pull out a Bible passage or a Church document, claim that the teaching authority of the Church today contradicts it and conclude that this means the teaching authority of the Church is in error. But that is begging the question and ipse dixit again—on what grounds do they prove their interpretation of these passages is the correct one while the magisterial teaching is not? They assume that their interpretation is correct. That leads to this sort of dialogue:
Me: Why is that interpretation correct?
Challenger: Because that’s what the text says.
Me: How do we know your interpretation of the text is correct?
Challenger: Because that’s what the text says.
But the claim that the person is interpreting correctly against the Church is not something we can accept on their say so. We believe contra Protestantism that the Catholic Church has a visible authority which makes the ultimate decision on what is authentic interpretation of Church teaching. So, the one rejecting the Church teaching authority, insisting on their own interpretation instead is insisting on something they cannot actually prove—only assert ipse dixit.
Since we know that Our Lord gave His Apostles and their successors the authority to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18) and made clear that whoever rejected them rejected Him (Luke 10:16), it follows that no interpretation of Scripture or Church document can be considered authentic if it contradicts the teaching of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him. A person has free will to reject such a belief of course. But if one wants to reject this teaching, then how can they call their own interpretation “Catholic”?
The name “Catholic” comes from the Greek κατα ὀλος (kata holos—universal, with respect to the whole). So, if the person wants to hold their view in spite of the Church teaching, that’s individual, not Catholic. But if the person wants to claim that their interpretation applies to the whole Church, we can ask them what right they have to claim authority for binding and loosing in opposition to the Pope and bishops in communion with him—who were specifically entrusted with this responsibility and authority by Our Lord.
That’s ultimately the problem in the arguments of the person who claims to be right while the Magisterium is wrong—they have absolutely no authority to judge that the magisterium is wrong when it teaches authoritatively nor to interpret Church documents contrary to the magisterial interpretation. Their statements are ipse dixit. As the Catechism says:
889 In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a “supernatural sense of faith” the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, “unfailingly adheres to this faith.” (92)
890 The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms: (851; 1785)
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. When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,” 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.
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” which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.
When the Church teaches (as opposed to an offered opinion), obedience is required. The Pope has not taught anybody that they must sin or must refuse to do good. Nor has he denied any teaching of the faith. So accusations that He has done so are nothing more than slander/libel.
But… But What About the Bad Priests, Bishops and Popes?
God’s promise of protecting the Church is not intended to make our clergy impeccable. We have had shepherds who behaved unworthily of their office to be sure. This seems to be where the rejection of the Church authority comes from. Yes, we have had bishops, priests and nuns who have sinned by commission or omission to cast doubt on the faith of the Church. But the problem is, the sins of the clergy and laity do not mean the magisterium itself is in error. It means some of those entrusted to be shepherds have failed in their task. But just because some have failed does not mean all have failed.
People who think that now is the worst it has ever been need to become more acquainted with Church history. During the 4th century AD, there was a time when a majority of Christendom fell into the Arian history. But the minority that retained the faith was centered around the Bishop of Rome and those in the Church who followed Him. That was a pattern which repeated throughout history. Even when whole regions fell into error, the truth was defended by the Pope and those who followed him. Where Peter was, there was the Church teaching the truth. This was not on account of their holiness, but the fact that the Church established by Christ was built with Peter as the rock and Jesus promised that He would be with this Church always and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it.
That doesn’t mean that Popes made impeccable decisions in matters that don’t involve faith and morals. Nor does it mean that the Popes always chose the best options in handling things. But when they formally taught, they never taught error. They never taught that sin was good. They never denied the faith or taught something contrary to it.
Those people who allege that the Popes did, are again making an ipse dixit claim based on their personal interpretations of Scripture and Church documents with no authority to back up their claims.
The False Teachers Are Those Catholics Who Deny The Authority of the Pope and Bishops
So, since the person who claims to be a faithful Catholic must adhere to the teachings of the Church, and the Church teaches that the Pope and bishops are to obeyed when they teach authoritatively (which is NOT limited to ex cathedra statements), then, logically, a person who claims to be a faithful Catholic must obey the Pope and bishops when they intend to teach the Church. If a person denies they have this authority, they cannot be considered a faithful Catholic.
So when the SSPXer proclaims that the Pope is in error, or when the “100 influential Catholics” in San Francisco sign an open letter trying to get an Archbishop removed from his position, these people are denying the successors to the Apostles who Jesus has given the authority to shepherd the Church. They cannot be considered an “alternate opinion.” They must not be followed as if they possessed the truth on how to be authentically Catholic.
Yes there are roles for those of us who are not Popes and bishops in knowing, loving and serving Christ. We can indeed work to promote and defend the faith—but if we act apart from and against the Pope and the bishops, we are not loving Christ, but rejecting Him. And Our Lord gave us stern warnings about what would happen to those who did not do God's will:
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.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)