When it comes to moral obligation members of the Church can suddenly become very pharisaical in the sense of setting aside God’s commandment and the teaching of His Church in favor of their own thoughts on how things should be done. We see people trotting out fragments of what Popes, Councils and Saints have said on a subject and using those fragments to justify their behavior against what the Church actually teaches. The result is that we see some people arguing that a Church teaching concerning rare circumstances like the Pauline Privilege justifies divorce and remarriage in the case of a Sacramental marriage, or that the Church teaching on Double Effect and hysterectomies and ectopic pregnancies justifies sterilization and abortion. When the Church responds to that argument with an emphatic “No,” people accuse the Church of hypocrisy, contradiction, and double standards.
Or (so people won’t think this error is only committed by people on the political “Left”), we can see people scandalized when it appears that the Church has said for the longest time that people must abstain from meat on Fridays and now they don’t, or that the Mass must be celebrated in Latin, but now it doesn’t. They accuse the Church of “changing” her teachings and falling into error.
Basically, people see the Church as “changing her teachings” in one area and either demand (or fear) that this means the Church can change her teaching in any other area.
But nowhere do we see people actually seek to understand why the Church offers X as a general teaching and then appears to say “not-X” when it comes to certain cases. That’s the problem and why people go afoul of Church teaching. They think that their perceptions of Church teaching is correct and that their personal preference in relation to the Church teaching is correct and when the Church tells them they are in error, the response is to accuse the Church of being in opposition to Our Lord or in contradiction to the Popes, Councils, and Saints of past centuries.
That’s the problem. When it comes to two teachings alleged to be in contradiction, nobody actually bothers to see what the actual Church teaching is and why she considers certain cases to be in keeping with the basic teaching. But this mindset is not practiced in other fields. Nobody thinks it is a contradiction when the law looks at cutting a person open to be attempted or actual murder, but makes an exception for the surgeon performing open heart surgery. That’s because the law understands there is a difference between a qualified surgeon performing a legitimate and authorized operation and a crazed man in an alley wielding a knife.
People need to remember two things:
- What God binds, the Church cannot loose and what God looses, the Church cannot bind.
- What the Church binds, the Church can loose and what the Church looses, the Church can bind.
These two statements are not contradictory. Rather they make the distinction between God’s ultimate authority over creation and the Church’s authority to decide how to best teach what God has commanded. They also recognize that while the essence of God's teaching can never be denied, certain ways of calling the faithful to practice the teaching can be changed if the magisterium sees fit.
Take the case of compulsory abstinence from meat on Fridays before Vatican II. The basis of the discipline ordered by the Church seems to be based on the commandment to honor God. Meat is not evil in itself. We’re not gnostics here that think matter is corrupt. But before Vatican II, the Church decided that all Catholics should abstain from meat on Friday because it is a sacrifice to remember the Passion of Our Lord on Good Friday. For a Catholic to knowingly disobey this command would be to refuse to honor God in the manner prescribed by the Church as binding.
But, as a theology professor I once had put it, “What if you love fish? Is that really a sacrifice then?” What we ultimately had was that some people were missing the point, thinking that “Fish on Friday” was the real moral command as opposed to “offer a meaningful sacrifice on Friday.” So, if "Lobster on Friday because we can’t have hamburger” begins to be the way people start to approach this discipline, then the Church can decide to change the discipline to make the intended meaning more clear. In each case where this happens, the Church can say “OK, to combat the abuses that have slipped in, we will change discipline X in these ways.” Because the Church has bound, the Church may loose and the person who preferred the old way has no authority to condemn the Church for implementing a new way.
However, the person who sees these changes and says, “Eating meat on Friday was once a sin but now is not, therefore the Church can change her teaching on contraception, divorce, homosexuality and women priests” (whether they say it out of hope or fear) has confused what God binds with what the Church binds. The Church believes she has no such authority to change what God has commanded. We might develop a deeper understanding of what fits in with God’s command and modify disciplines to more fully reflect God’s commands in relation to justice and mercy, but the Church can never say “X is permitted” when God says “X is not permitted."
What we must always keep in mind is that when we feel troubled by a Church teaching—especially when we find ourselves at odds with it—is that our troubled feeling is not a license to disobey or dismiss the teaching of the Church. Our obligation is to seek to understand the reason for the teaching and how the Church understands the exception to the rule and why she does not see herself as contradicting herself or God. As Catholics we believe that Our Lord Himself gave the authority to bind and loose to St. Peter, the Apostles and their successors (whom we hold to be the Pope and bishops), and as such we do not have the right to disobey what the Church teaches.
Ultimately, it means we must seek to learn the what and why of the Church teaching when we feel confused or even trapped, and not rely on our personal desires and feelings. As moral theologian Germain Grisez put it:
6. Existing desires and accepted projects must also be called into question. Indeed, a fully mature Christian conscience comes into being only when all merely assumed goals and standards have been examined in the light of faith, and faith itself has been accepted by a commitment which one confidently holds to be reasonable and right. So St. Paul urges: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2).
Germain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus, Volume One: Christian Moral Principles (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 1997), 83.
In other words, we must form our standards of behavior according to the light of faith and look to the Church as the mother and teacher whom God has entrusted us to, using her teachings as our guide to interpret our actions and thoughts, and not seek to use her words in ways she never intended.