(God takes a dim view of those who challenge the authority of those He chose to lead)
[See Numbers 16:1-35 for context]
The Catholic Church sees, as one of her tasks, the duty to safeguard the purity of the Gospel (Sources of Catholic Dogma #783) which includes both the written word and unwritten tradition of what Our Lord passed on to the Apostles. She does this so she can carry out her mission given to her to preach to all the nations His word, which is, “the source of every saving truth and of instruction in morals.” This duty to safeguard the purity of the Gospel did not become crystalized at a certain point in history, where the teachings of the Church became a written document where any person could claim a “plain sense” and apply it against the living magisterium of the Church in the same way that anti-Catholic fundamentalists claim a “plain sense” to Scripture and apply it against Catholic teaching.
We believe, as Catholics, that there is an authority which makes the final decision whether something is in keeping with the Catholic faith or not. This authority is what we call the Magisterium, which is defined as the Pope and bishops in communion with him. When the Pope intends to teach the Church (as opposed to making some informal statement), what he teaches is binding on us, and we are required to give our assent to these teachings.
This is a basic understanding of the Church, long understood. In fact, Canon Law (#751) describes schism as “the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” So, when a person refuses to follow the teaching of the Pope, he or she is committing schism, whether he or she intends to or not.
Ignoring a Key Teaching
The question then is, if this is a basic understanding, why do so many refuse to apply it to themselves? People are perfectly happy to point out when others are behaving wrongly when it comes to defiance of the Church. But they never look to their own actions and ask if they are guilty of the same thing. Thus modernist dissent refuses to accept when the Pope teaches on some issues. But traditionalist dissent also refuses the authority of the Pope when they dislike what he has to say. Both sides have created a theology which attempts to deny that a teaching that binds actually does bind. They claim that only an ex cathedra statement binds and anything else that the Pope or a Council might have to say is mere opinion which can be safely ignored. They claim that the Pope teaches error and therefore they do not have to listen to him.
The fact is, the modernist and the traditionalist dissenters are guilty of the same act—the only difference is they dissent over different things. They condemn the dissent of the other side but consider their own dissent as justified and being faithful to a “greater” truth. But this attitude is nothing more than self-deception used to justify the refusal to obey what one does not want to do.
On Whose Say So?
People who dissent against the authority of the Church have created elaborate justifications on why they will not obey what they do not want to obey. But there is a problem with such justifications—where is the authority for the justification? With the advent of the internet, it has been easy for people to collect a selection of quotes which serve their purpose and present them saying, “See, the Church taught THIS!” where “THIS” actually means “What I think." The problem is, we need to ask two questions:
- Whether this person has the authority to decide what interpretation is compatible with Church teaching.
- Whether this person has correctly understood the cited document.
People make an error in assuming that they interpret the Bible, or Church teaching in an unbiased sense and what they think it means is assumed to be “What it means!” in the eyes of the Church. The problem is, it doesn’t work that way. Yes, individuals are called to learn from the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. But we are to learn and not be judges over the meaning.
The Pope and bishops in communion with him are given the authority and responsibility to safeguard the purity of the Gospel, so it makes sense that Our Lord, who gives that authority and responsibility, would make certain that they do not lead the faithful into error where the faithful are bound to obey. We, the faithful, have not been given that protection. Certainly all clergy, religious and laity have a role to play in the Church and can contribute to the good of the Church. But, when the teaching authority of the Church says “No,” we do not have the right to say “Yes.” In other words, what the successors of the Apostles bind, we do not have the authority to loose and what they have loosed, we do not have the authority to bind.
So, when a person tries to argue that their dissent against the Church is justified, they have the obligation to show that they have the authority to interpret in a binding way and the obligation to show they have understood the meaning of the document correctly. They cannot appeal to the authority of the text in opposition to the magisterium because it is their own interpretation that is in question.
Mirror Images—Modernist and Radical Traditionalist
The Modernist and the Radical Traditionalist like to put those they disagree with in the opposite camp while portraying themselves as having the true sense of the faith. But the fact is, they make the same error.
- The Modernist assumes the magisterium teaches error today. The Church made a change in the past that was wrong (in their view) and has to be changed to become right (Claiming the Church needs to move “Forward”)
- The Radical traditionalist assumes the magisterium teaches error today. The Church made a change in the present that was wrong (in their view) and has to be changed to become right (Claiming the Church needs to move “Back”)
Neither side considers the possibility that they made the error in clinging to an interpretation which was never what the Church intended to teach. Confusing custom and Sacred Tradition, or assuming binding teaching is optional, they assume that they alone have the proper understanding of what the Church is meant to be, and if the magisterium disagrees, it is proof the magisterium is wrong (begging the question fallacy). Both assume that the Church, to be saved, must become what they think it should be.
Some have objected that this means that they are being told to “shut up and obey” in the face of clergy behaving badly (doctrinally or personally). That is not the case. Certainly, you will find people who abuse their position, promoting politics or error over the Church teaching, and that is wrong. When the Church teaches “X is a sin,” the person who teaches “X is not a sin” does act against the Church. That’s not a matter of dispute.
However, the problem is that dissenters often argue that there is a change in teaching when there is not. Sometimes a member of the clergy might speak unclearly, but an analysis shows there is no such intent. Sometimes the media misinterprets something said to the point that the meaning is distorted. The point is, we have to carefully assess what was said to make sure we do not rush to judgment and accuse them of saying something they had no intention to say to begin with.
We also have to be sure that we have properly understood the Church teaching before saying that Pope, Bishop or Priest is acting against it. Many people have misinterpreted Jesus’ words against judgment (Matthew 7:1) to mean we cannot say something is a sin. Others have drawn from Church disciplines (such as the universal use of Latin in the western Catholic Church) and wrongly assume that this discipline is a doctrine. The result is they say the Church has “changed her teaching” when she has not.
Another problem is that many people assume that certain teachings have an ideological slant and certain words are ideological buzzwords. Therefore, when the Church speaks on these teachings or uses these words, it is assumed that the Church is a captive of a certain political faction. Hence the simultaneous accusations of the American bishops being “Liberal Democrats” and the “Republican Party at Prayer.” Such accusations reflect a wrong belief that a moral teaching which predates the discovery of America has a motive rooted in a modern political ideology.
Conclusion—If the Church Is Teaching Error, Why Remain?
The point of this is, the Church—under the headship of the current Pope and bishops in communion with him—does have the authority and the responsibility to safeguard the purity of the Gospel. Because they have this authority and responsibility, we believe that when the Church makes a teaching—something we have to give assent to—we put our faith in God that the Pope will not bind us to error or loose us to truth. Certainly they can make mistakes in private statements and in prudential judgments. But when they intend to teach the Church on sexual morality, economic morality or ecological morality, this does involve an area where they do have authority to have us give assent.
If we don’t have faith that the magisterium today has this protection from God, the question is: Why in the hell are we still in the Church? If the Church we belong to is now in the wrong, we can never know when she was right. How do we know she was right when she ruled against the Arians, Nestorians, Monophysites, Monothelites, or Iconoclasts? On the other end of history, how do we know the Church was right in Vatican I or Trent? How do we know that it isn’t the Eastern Orthodox or Protestants who are right? How do we know that it isn’t Islam or Judaism that is right while we are in error?
If the Church can go wrong in the teaching of the Church by the Pope and bishops in communion with him, we can never be sure that it hasn’t gone wrong before. It is only when we trust that God protects those with the authority to teach from teaching error that we can trust that the Catholic Church is anything other than a human institution.
I believe that God protects His Church—The Catholic Church under the Pontificate of Pope Francis—and trust that the Church under the leadership of the current Pope will never teach error. It’s not putting unreasonable faith in a human being. It’s putting faith in an entirely trustworthy God.