Dealing with Biblical literalists, I noticed they constantly made the same mistake. That mistake was confusing the words of Scripture with their opinions on applying it against the Catholic Church. They would keep insisting that this wasn’t their opinion. After all, they were citing the words of the Bible—weren’t they? What they couldn’t grasp was this: We did not deny the authority of Scripture. Nor did we deny the words of the text. What we did deny was their claim to applying it accurately against the Church.
While some Catholics may laugh at their silly blind spot, some of them make the same error in applying Catholic teaching. They cite a teaching of the Church, they apply it against a practice in the Church or behavior by an individual and accuse them of going against Church teaching. Like the literalist, they assume that the rejection of their opinion on how to interpret it is a rejection of Church teaching itself.
The problem with the literalist and the Catholic demanding on their interpretation of Scripture or Church teaching is one of authority. The problem is not what Scripture or Church teaching says. It’s about who can interpret it in a binding way. The person who does not have that authority cannot demand people follow their views. They can only point to the teaching authority that exists. The teaching authority belongs to the Pope and bishops in communion with him. The priest takes part in this authority by working with the bishop and never apart from him.
The rest of us can explain the teaching of the Church. But we have the responsibility to explain it rightly and make sure we separate what the Church teaches from how we would like people to apply it. There is a difference. If a Catholic tries to twist Church teaching to justify disobedience, we need to challenge that. But if a Catholic is faithful to Church teaching but disagrees on the “nuts and bolts” ways to apply this teaching, savaging him is wrong.
Discerning this difference is not always easy. Yes, people sometimes do get things wrong and we need to help them understand the right. But in doing so, we have to make sure we have a clear understanding on what the Church teaches, and make sure we are not replacing Church teaching with our own opinions on what we think should follow from it.
For example, I have seen people argue that Church teaching demands Catholics vote for or against a specific candidate. Some will go so far as accusing Catholics who disagree with them of being bad Catholics. This confuses Church teaching with personal opinion on applying Church teaching. Yes, Catholics who vote for a candidate because the candidate holds a view which is against Church teaching do wrong. And, yes, Catholics need to consider the consequences of their vote. But if a Catholic uses Church teaching to guide them, seeking to be faithful, we can’t accuse them of being faithless just because their decision does not match ours.
As I see it, if we find a person’s actions troubling but not intrinsically evil, we have to discern their reasoning and how they understand Church teaching. If they understand Church teaching rightly, and are using Church teaching to guide their actions, we cannot condemn them. The Catechism tells us how we must approach things:
2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:
Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.
Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 594.
But some Catholics don’t give a favorable interpretation. They don’t ask how the other understands it. They don’t correct with love. They assume from the fact that the other disagrees on how to best handle a situation, they must be bad Catholics. That’s rash judgment, and the Church forbids it.
Think about that the next time you’re debating on social media.