One common complaint about the teaching authority of the Church today is that she does not teach clearly. This complaint pops up a lot when a person railing against a Church teaching or press conference by the Pope gets refuted. In other words, the person assumes that any misunderstanding about Church teaching must be the fault of the Church. Translated: “I don’t make mistakes. So if I misinterpreted it, someone else must be to blame!"
But when I witness people who blame the Church for their misunderstanding, the question that pops into my mind is How hard did you look for the true interpretation? Now the ability to interpret Church teaching may vary from person to person. Each of us have different levels of education and training after all. Some may be able to research for themselves. Others may not even know where to begin and need help from a reliable source to understand. But how many are even looking?
The fact that people automatically assume that the Pope and bishops in communion with him are seeking to change Church teaching shows that not only are they not looking for truth misrepresented in news reports, they do not even know the foundations the Catholic theology needed to properly assess what the Church teaches—both now and in the past. Since we believe that the Church can only bind and loose (Matthew 16:19, Matthew 18:18) because Our Lord gave the Apostles and their successors that authority, and that Our Lord equated rejecting the authority of the Church with rejecting Him (Luke 10:16), it follows that when the magisterium intends to teach—even if the teaching is not ex cathedra—we must give our assent to that teaching[†]. Since it is absurd to think God would expect us to obey error and deny truth, it logically follows that Our Lord protects His Church from teaching error in matters that would force us to sin against God if we obeyed.
So, when we read a report that the Church is reversing a long held teaching to allow what she formerly condemned as sinful, Catholics searching for the truth should know this claim is untrue. From this, we can search out what the Pope, bishop or synod said and in what context. The belief that Pope Francis intends to change Church teaching on moral obligation shows both an ignorance about what Pope Francis says and what his predecessors said.
For example, many take offense at Pope Francis condemning evils in Capitalism and call him a Marxist. But if we look at what Popes said about moral obligation in social justice, we see that from Pope Leo XIII to the present have consistently opposed the same economic injustice Pope Francis opposes. To call him a Marxist means calling his predecessors the same thing.
What we have is the same situation Socrates spoke about. People often do not know the truth, and they do not know they are ignorant about the truth. Instead, they think their assumptions and preferences are truth, and attack whatever challenges those assumptions and preferences as error. So long as they do not constantly investigate whether their assumptions are true, they will never escape error.
When we are ignorant about something and we could have learned the truth if we bothered to look, we have vincible ignorance—that is to say, ignorance we can avoid and are responsible for if we do wrong through our ignorance. If we rely on the secular news and decide that the Church is in error while we are not, then we reach our interpretations through vincible ignorance and the error is our fault.
Yes, some people say “Pope Francis should have expressed himself more clearly” to excuse themselves. But people have misinterpreted Church teaching throughout history. How many anti-Catholics still believe we “worship” statues? How many of them think we believe in “works-based” salvation where we have to earn it? We do not believe these things but you will always find someone taking the Bible or a Church document out of context to justify a false accusation.
The fact is, the Church cannot express herself in such a way where nobody can misinterpret or misrepresent what she said. We use words in different contexts than Church documents intends and then assume the Church uses the word in the same context we do. That’s our fault. We rely on what others claim the Church said and don’t consider whether their claims are in context or even factually correct.
I’d like to end this article with two truths that always helped me when people try to attack my faith in the Church:
- Just because we don’t know the answer to a problem does not mean the Church has no answer
- When we’re tempted to think the Church is teaching error, we must investigate whether we have misunderstood
[†] Pope John XXII (commonly cited as proof that “heretic Popes”can exist) offered a personal opinion on a topic not yet defined at the time and never intended to teach it as Church belief. Yes, we’ve had bad popes, but that badness was moral, not doctrinal.