When people talk about the Catholic Church becoming more faithful, they generally think of a Church that expels the liberals and leaves us with a more conservative Church that was doctrinally pure—according to the preferences of the individual imagining it. It’s easy to understand the temptation. Catholics get tired of dissenting Catholics walking around with seeming impunity and they get tired of what they think are ineffective bishops. Catholics wanted vindication and they didn’t want to keep battling people who claimed to be good Catholics while openly rejecting Church teaching. What people didn’t consider was that this would stand the parable of the lost sheep on its head, where the shepherd who, instead of leaving the 99 to save the one, wouldn’t worry about 70 lost sheep so long as he had 30 good sheep who didn’t stray.
This mindset shows up when Catholics take offense with the Pope’s words about seeking forgiveness from those we wronged. Since this involved the past mistreatment of people with same sex attraction, people reacted with outrage. Some went so far as accusing him of wanting to apologize for Church teaching. That sort of thing happens all the time. The Pope speaks. People rely on out of context quotes and go berserk. They assume mercy means permissiveness, and asking forgiveness for mistreatment means apologizing for Church teaching—even though the Pope specifically rejected this interpretation.
But what makes this troublesome is I’m not talking about radical traditionalists here. I’m talking about people who spent years or even decades defending the Church suddenly treating Pope Francis as if he were a burden to endure and saw themselves as needing to defend the faith in spite of him.
These people will hasten to tell you they are not being unfaithful. They profess obedience to the Church and Pope. I don’t dispute their sincerity. What I dispute is their belief that their behavior is not dangerous. I do not believe a person can withhold loyalty and respect to the Pope in small matters without eventually becoming disloyal and disrespectful in great matters. Our Lord warns us in Luke 16:10, “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones.” If we can’t trust a person to be respectful and loyal to the Pope in small matters, how can we trust him to be faithful in large matters?
No, I’m not talking about radical traditionalists. I’m talking about Catholics who profess loyalty to the Church and the Pope, but they are patronizing about it. They feel superior to him and think they have a better grasp of Church teaching. They’ll argue that the Pope can make mistakes when speaking as a private person, and not intending to teach the Church (which is true). But they don’t ask if maybe they are the ones who made mistakes in interpreting the Pope or Church teaching itself. They’ll point out that we have bad Popes (which also is true) but they don’t show that Pope Francis is one. In other words, they mention the cases of not being infallible and of bad Popes in order to lead people into thinking the Pope’s might have spoke in error and might be a bad Pope. What they don’t do is prove that the Pope speaks wrongly. They blame him for the misunderstandings that happen but don’t ask whether there is another cause—like our tendency to focus on one sentence in isolation when we must read his entire statement in entirety if we would understand.
This is the danger: If one is so confident that they know better than the Pope, they eventually will decide that they can only obey him when they agree with him. The danger though is that Our Lord linked obedience to his Church with faithfulness to Him (see Luke 10:16 and Matthew 18:17), and the Pope is the head of the Church. Even when one might disagree with him on a minor matter, it is wrong to treat him like a fool—even if one is polite in doing so. I’m not advocating papolatry or ultramontanism (two popular ad hominem attacks thrown at Pope Francis’ defenders). I’m simply saying that Catholics who rush to blame him for the confusion caused by religious illiteracy are causing scandal, leading people to mistrust the Pope and the Church. Such people should remember that Our Lord warns that the fate of those who cause such scandal:
But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of scandals. For it must needs be that scandals come: but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh.
The Holy Bible, Translated from the Latin Vulgate (Douay-Rheims), Mt 18:6–7.