Tell me if this sounds familiar...
Pope Francis has a press conference on a plane trip. The religiously illiterate media, which generally disagrees with Catholic teaching, rushes to get a scoop on something he says and gets it wrong, reporting that the Church is changing her teaching. Catholics read this religiously illiterate news report and assume it is true. They either get excited or get angry over the news. The Catholic apologists begin researching the issue and discovers the media reports are garbage, providing information to the actual translations of the transcripts. The media and the excited Catholics ignore these and continue to repeat the misrepresentation. The angry Catholics claim that the apologists are blind Pope worshippers “explaining away” the actual words of the Pope. Repeat the next time the Pope makes a trip.
When it comes to the Catholic Church in the pontificate of Pope Francis, there are two vocal factions that tend to drown out everyone else. One faction is those people who desperately want the Church to change things from saying “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin.” The other side is convinced the Pope is a menace out to give the first faction everything they want. Basically both factions look at Vatican II. The faction that wants to change things thinks that Vatican II didn’t change enough and needs to go further. The faction that mistrusts the Pope thinks Vatican II has gone too far and needs to be rolled back.
They’re not the only factions. I don’t think they’re even the largest factions. But they are the loudest and tend to be the most influential on social media. Why? Because when things are stated forcefully, people tend to believe them. So the faction that wants impossible change leads people who agree with them to false hope, and the faction that dislike the Pope leads others to worry that perhaps there is something to their claims. People trying to be faithful Catholics see this fight and begin to wonder whether at least part of the problem is with how the Pope says things or whether he is truly faithful.
It’s a danger which affects Catholics who seek to be faithful to the Church by attacking their faith in the Church. Either they begin to doubt the mercy of the Church (if they’re swayed by those who think the Church should change her teaching) or begin to doubt that the Church is protected from teaching error (if they’re swayed by those who believe the Pope is a heretic). Once these concerns are established, they become the way in which these Catholics view what the Pope says. They tend to start trusting the reports of those who fall into one of these factions and stop reading the actual transcripts or documents.
We do not want to be under the sway of either faction because neither faction speaks the truth about the Church. To use Aristotle’s definition of truth (join in and say it with me boys and girls), To say of what is that it is, and to say of what is not that it is not, is to speak the truth. Since these groups say of what is that it is not, and say of what is not that it is, they do not speak the truth.
So, the next time the Pope appears to say something contrary to the teaching of the Church, the Catholic seeking to be faithful needs to ask a few questions.
- Did the Pope, in fact, say what the Media claims he said?
- Do I, in fact, properly understand what the Pope actually said?
- Do I, in fact, properly understand what the Church has taught in the past compared to what the Pope says today?
- Do I, in fact, properly understand that a freaking press conference is not an ex cathedra (or any other kind of) Papal teaching?
- Do I, in fact, make sure my political views and personal preferences are not prejudicing my assessment of what the Pope said?
Most of the time, the person who hopes or fears that the Church is changing teachings never considers the possibility of being mistaken. They assume they are correct and that the Church must be in the wrong, concluding that the Church must embrace what they hold to get out of error. In other words, such people trust in themselves more than in the Church God promised to protect. But that is precisely how we must not think!
Because we believe that God has promised to protect His Church, we can trust that the Pope will not invent some binding teaching which will contradict the previous teaching of the Church. We don’t believe the Pope won’t teach error because we believe that the Pope is flawless. We believe it because we believe that God protects His Church. Yes, we’ve had bad Popes in the past (and I reject the claim Pope Francis is one), but such Popes have never taught that evil is good nor that good is evil. They’ve simply not behaved like Popes. We’ve never had a heretical Pope. Even Pope John XXII (commonly cited by those questioning Papal authority) never taught error as Pope. He merely gave a regrettable homily. Yes, he had some wrong ideas about the Beatific vision, but he never intended those ideas to be considered Catholic teaching.
I think that if we honestly consider the list of questions above when we hope or fear that the Pope is “changing” Church teaching, I think we will find that we have to answer at least one of those questions with “No.” I believe that if we recognize that God watches over His Church and can answer the above five questions with “Yes,” we will not have a problem with hoping or fearing that the Pope is going to change Church teaching. We might wish he said things differently perhaps, but we won’t be misled by false hope or fear.