12 You see those who are wise in their own eyes?
There is more hope for fools than for them. (Proverbs 26:12).
Christianity is a religion focused on knowing, loving and serving God. This consists of placing our faith in Him and keeping His commandments. Catholicism recognizes that this faith and obedience involves hearing and obeying His Church. So, in theory, there should be no problem in knowing where to look when we have disputes over the best way to live our faith. Unfortunately, we do have constant disputes over how to live. Some of it involves Catholics who believe that those entrusted in shepherding the Church are in the wrong. Some of it involves Catholics fighting over the best way to live our Catholic faith. In these cases, we have people usurping the authority to judge over the Church and condemning those who disagree with their views on leading the Church.
That leaves us with a situation where we have a Church of a billion Popes, each one deciding for himself how they and others should live. If the Church teaches differently than he should like, he judges the Church to be heretical. If another Catholic, striving to live faithfully, has a different view on how to best live the Catholic faith, others accuse him of being a “bad Catholic.” But with a billion “popes,” each person also takes offense at another speaking against his own interpretation. Mutual anathemas get hurled—by people who have no right to hurl them—and each person leaves convinced that the Church has gone to hell in a hand basket.
But the Church is not to blame for that situation. The cause is a massive influx of opinion and news (giving us much more minutiae then we would have had even 20 years ago) that, thanks to the smartphone, can reach us anywhere there is wireless phone service. We’re instantly told about what happens, but what we’re told is often untrue or misinterpreted by the reader. We pride ourselves on the ability to pick up our smartphone and read what the media or a blogger claims Pope says, but we seem to have lost our ability to investigate whether there is more to the story than what the headlines say.
(This is the real culprit in why we hear “off the cuff”
remarks from the Pope today but not in the past)
So, when the Pope speaks about many invalid marriages because people enter them without understanding what marriage is, people stop with the headline that screams POPE SAYS 'MOST MARRIAGES INVALID!' In other words, they take the sensational part out of context and accuse him of attacking their own marriage or of trying to undermine the sacrament. I’ve even seen some editorials claim the Pope says most children are bastards (in the literal sense), seemingly never having heard of a putative marriage.
A “church of a billion popes” means a tower of Babel where nobody knows what is going on. But the thing to remember is, the “church of a billion popes” is not the Church we have. The Church we have is the same one we had since Pentecost, AD 33. When it comes to teaching, God protects the Church from leading us astray. When it comes to the shepherds speaking and acting as private individuals (i.e. offering their opinions or living a certain way), we need to remember that until the 21st century, we only rarely heard of them. We only know of St. Peter eating apart from the Gentiles in Galatia because St. Paul saw a need to write about the controversy. Odds are, Christians in Jerusalem or Antioch didn’t hear about it at the time it happened.
That’s important to remember. If we had the internet in earlier centuries, people across Christendom would be rolling their eyes about Pope John XXII and his sermon on the Beatific Vision or of cardinals restraining Urban VI from physically attacking someone he disagreed with. Pope’s don’t behave impeccably, and sometimes they do things we wish they didn’t...
What Catholics need to remember is we don’t suddenly have a heretic or an idiot in charge of the Holy See. We don’t have a case where a Pope is suddenly reckless about his words and actions while his predecessors were flawless in word and deed. This sort of thing has always been with us. It’s only recently that we’ve had instant access to what the Pope says and does, and we think nobody else acted this way.
That brings us to what makes a “church of a billion popes” dangerous. Nobody considers the possibility that their own knowledge of the situation is lacking—that would feel like an admission we are stupid. We assume that our interpretation of a text is what the author meant and do not consider the cultural differences or our education drawing us to a meaning the author never meant. Whether it’s a Bible literalist or a radical traditionalist, people are out there who confuse Church teaching with what they think a Church teaching means and then blame the Church for their own confusion. Then they take their own misinterpretation and condemn the Pope, the bishops or fellow Catholics for not accepting their view as Church teaching.
What we have to remember is there are not a billion popes. There is one Pope, and that Pope is Pope Francis. We have to remember that when he teaches, his teaching is not one of a billion opinions but something we have to give our assent to (see Code of Canon Law #749-752). When he says or something that is not teaching, we still have to be respectful to him—even if we wish he handled it differently.
We must also remember there are different ways to carry out our obedience to the Church and, so long as we are not seeking to justify disobedience in doing so, we can disagree (charitably!) on the best way to follow Church teaching. For example, we can never justify abortion and be a good Catholic, but we can disagree about the best way to deal with gun violence in our nation without being a “bad Catholic.” To demand that another Catholic embrace your opinion on the subject is to make yourself one of a billion popes again.
Dealing with the confusion within the Church is not a matter of muzzling Pope Francis or turning back Vatican II. It’s a matter of realizing who the successor of Peter is (not us), realizing God protects His Church, and realizing that we are living in a wholly new situation in sharing data where fact checking and context is often far slower than the quotes we see. It’s a matter of realizing our own limitations in comprehension and rejecting the idea of our interpretation being the same as what the Pope or other Church documents said.
If we can remember and follow this, we have a Church with one Pope who is the successor of Peter. If we forget it, we have a Church with a billion popes and the chaos which goes with it. So when considering how to act, let’s remember that the Church our Lord made has only one Pope.