In modern times, Christianity has a problem with people who choose not to follow the people who are the appointed leaders. They believe that when the Church differs with them, the personal preference is to be heeded, not the Church. Such an attitude is understandable when we deal with Non-Catholics who do not believe that the Catholic Church is the Church established by Christ, or non-Christians and non-religious people denying Christianity altogether. The point of Christianity is that it professes to have revelation from God, and that people who have been entrusted with the authority of applying that revelation have their teaching backed by this revelation. So a person who does not believe Christianity possesses any such revelation, it stands to reason that they won’t follow the teachings of that Church.
However, when it comes to Christianity, which professes to believe in the God of the Old Testament and believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God, this faith necessarily presupposes that God has given us realization—through the Law, the Prophets and finally through His Son. When the Christian falls afoul of the commandments in some way, the fact is he or she is behaving in a way which God has revealed to us to be counter to the way He wants us to live. Furthermore, when God has revealed that authority has been given to certain human beings to bind and to loose (Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:18) for the purpose of bring the message of salvation and teaching His commandments so that people may live as He commands (Matthew 28:19-20 and Revelation 22:11), then obedience to that human authority is a part of being faithful to that revelation of God.
Now, with the non-Catholic, the non-Christian and the non-religious, they have some excuse (if they are sincere in their error) of not obeying the authority of the Church. We do have a mission to reach out to them, but their disobedience is not based on a disregard for the truth they have been taught (see Luke 12:47-48). Their judgment will be based on what they could have learned and what effort they put into seeking the truth. It’s not for us to try to guess whether they have searched hard enough or not. Rather we are to try to give them the message of salvation and the teachings of Our Lord so that they will not have to risk that judgment (and doing so in a way which does not drive them away from the truth on account of our behavior).
However, we who profess to believe in the Catholic Church as being the Church established by Our Lord have no excuses when it comes to not being obedient to revelation and to the teaching of the Church that we profess (with our lips anyway). As Vatican II put it, in Lumen Gentium #14:
All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be the more severely judged.
Catholic Church, “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: Lumen Gentium,” in Vatican II Documents (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011).
This leads to the problem of dissent. If we profess a belief in a God who reveals His will and who establishes a Church to teach people His ways, then what are we thinking when we decide to set aside a Church teaching in favor of our own preference? To do so is to either effectively deny God’s revelation or to effectively deny that the Church has any authority to teach in His name. In either case, it forces us to ask: For what purpose do we belong to a Church if we do not believe her claims to be true?
Of course such a rejection does not have to be total. People can (and do) choose to believe the Church is mostly right, except for that one area that he or she chooses to disagree with. Perhaps they are fine with the Social Teaching of the Church, but not the teaching on sexually. Or perhaps they profess to accept the moral teaching of the Church but refuse to acknowledge her authority when it comes to social justice or the ordinary form of the Mass. In such situations, the person reserves the right to say they will not recognize the authority of the Church.
The problem is, the fact that the Church has any authority on a favored issue requires that she has authority from God in the first place. If God has not revealed His authority, then one might be excused for making their own morality up. But, if God has revealed His authority, then the behavior which goes against His authority goes against Him (see Matthew 7:21, Luke 10:16 and John 14:15).
We certainly know that Our Lord has made revelation known to us saying that some actions are sins in His eyes. When we seek to determine right and wrong, and we profess to believe that there is a God who will come to judge the living and the dead, it certainly makes sense to listen to Him and to those whom He empowers to teach in His name. If we choose to treat this revelation as if it were not revelation, it raises the question: On what authority does this person make their claim to determine good and evil? As Frank Sheed put it, “The most brilliant moral system, constructed without the information only God can give, is brilliant guesswork,: (Is It the Same Church page 33). The person who disregards the Revelation in Scripture and Sacred Tradition in favor of his or her own guessing on what God really wants is choosing to ignore God’s commands in favor of the guesswork that “God doesn’t really still mean that."
In essence, the person who, while professing to be a Christian, chooses to deny the Scripture and Tradition or the person professing to be Catholic who chooses to disobey the Church, has a very confused concept on what they are called to be as Christians. If God has revealed that X is a sin, then how can one claim that in rejecting that revelation they are still being faithful to the God who revealed it? It can only be done through refusing to seek out what the truth is, relying instead on what feels good to the person. But Scripture warns that what seems right can lead to destruction (Proverbs 16:25).
The fact of the matter is, in trying to put Jesus and His Church at odds, one is denying part of what God reveals, pretending it is manmade. But in doing so, the person is making Christianity meaningless. As Peter Kreeft put it:
Socrates: Furthermore, if you do that, why do you need the Bible at all?
Bertha: What do you mean?
Socrates: If it agrees with you, it's superfluous, and if it doesn't, it's wrong. Why read a book that must be either superfluous or wrong? In fact, why read or listen to anyone? They must all be superfluous or wrong.
Bertha: That's ridiculous.
Socrates: My point exactly.
Peter Kreeft. Socrates Meets Jesus: History's Greatest Questioner Confronts the Claims of Christ (Kindle Locations 532-534). Kindle Edition.
To pick and choose is to put one’s own preferences first and when it agrees, it is only useful as a piece of propaganda to justify oneself; when it disagrees, it is considered wrong. But if the Bible or the Church is wrong in your eyes in some cases, why should another not use the same way of thinking and reject what you think is important as “manmade” and promote the things you disagree with? In such cases, the revelation of God and the teaching of His Church has no meaning. There’s no point in professing to be a part of something that you reject when it pleases you. The point of professing to be a Catholic is because one believes in God and that the Church teaches with God’s authority. Deny that and religion is a social awareness group.
But as Pope Francis said:
[W]e can walk as much we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a pitiful NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ. When one does not walk, one stalls. When one does not built on solid rocks, what happens? What happens is what happens to children on the beach when they make sandcastles: everything collapses, it is without consistency. When one does not profess Jesus Christ - I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy – “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.
Confessing Jesus Christ is to acknowledge what He says to be true, and when He gives the Church His authority, this means that to confess Jesus Christ is to be obedient to His Church. If we don’t choose to live in this way, then our profession to be Catholics is stripped of all meaning.