Benedict XVI, in one of his pre-papacy books, discussed turning the Catholic faith into partisan factions. In it, he pointed out what faith was in contrast with what people were trying to do with the Church.
When I advocate a party, it thereby becomes my party, whereas the Church of Jesus Christ is never my Church but always his Church. Indeed, the essence of conversion lies precisely in the fact that I cease to pursue a party of my own that safeguards my interests and conforms to my taste but that I put myself in his hands and become his, a member of his Body, the Church.
Joseph Ratzinger, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today, trans. Adrian Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 158.
The faith of the Church calls us to change to grow closer to God. Partisanship calls on the Church to change to match what is most pleasing to us. If we’re not careful, we might find ourselves rebelling against God in the name of “reforming” or “restoring” the Church to what we want while pretending we’re doing it for the benefit of others. As always, this is not a case where only one faction is guilty. Any time we get angry at the Church for changing things from, or not changing things to, what we think is best, we’re behaving in a partisan manner.
I’d like to clarify something first. What I wrote above does not deny the right use of Canon Law #212 §3. I’m concerned, however, that some people who appeal to this canon are misusing it to demand the Church become more like what they want, not considering (or, perhaps, refusing to accept) that the Church might have valid reasons for making some changes and refusing to make others.
I would also like to clarify that this does not mean the laity has nothing to say when a priest or bishop misuses his authority and acts against the teaching of the Church. Our Lord gave His authority to St. Peter and the Apostles, and is handed down from generation to generation to the Pope and bishops in communion with him. The priest or bishop who acts against this magisterium abuses his office. Such a one cannot demand that the laity act against what the magisterium teaches.
PART I: AUTHORITY AND DISSENT
Who Has the Authority to Determine Proper Interpretation and Church Practice?
However, Catholics do go wrong when someone claims that the Pope and bishops today are in error and go against the teachings of earlier Popes and Councils or that they were wrong in the past and finally are getting it right. The magisterium decides how to best apply the timeless teachings of the Church to the problems of today. In contrast, someone who claims that a recent Pope “violates" what St. Pius X said, or someone who claims St. John Paul II “violated" Vatican II, has no standing to interpret the documents against the magisterium today.
This confuses some people. After all, aren’t they appealing to the magisterium? No. They are appealing to their personal opinion on how they think the document should be interpreted against those who actually have the right and responsibility to determine how the document is to be interpreted. It’s like a person trying to argue that his interpretation of the Constitution is right and the Supreme Court is wrong. The individual simply does not have the authority to interpret the Constitution in a binding manner on the country, and the individual does not have the authority to interpret magisterial teaching in a binding manner on the country.
Selective Obedience is Dissent
The problem is, people assume that they only have to listen to the Church if they agree with what she says. If she teaches something they don’t like, dissenters accuse her of becoming “conservative” or “liberal.” They’ll accuse her of betraying tradition or betraying Vatican II. Because the Pope and bishops are deemed “wrong” in these areas, dissenters claim they don’t have to obey the shepherds of the Church. They’ll appeal to conscience or tradition when it suits them and treat the teaching they don’t like as if it were an opinion or even an error.
The problem with that view is the Church is not an invention of men with arbitrary rules. Catholics believe (if they’re not grossly deficient in their religious education) the Church established by Our Lord and the Catholic Church today are one and the same. This means she teaches with the authority given by Christ (Matthew 16:19, 18:18, 28:18-20). Since Our Lord likens rejecting His Church with rejecting Him (Luke 10:16, cf. Matthew 18:17), dissent is a serious matter—rebellion against God Himself.
Church teaching is not arbitrary. The teachings are made for our benefit. How do we live to be faithful to God? What is incompatible with loving Him? Church teaching exists to make His teaching known. The Church is the means Our Lord chose to bring knowledge of His salvation of the world and the commandments we must keep if we would be saved (see John 14:15). Obeying only the parts of His teaching we agree with anyway is rejecting Our Lord on the rest. If we reject Him, it will not go well for us (Matthew 7:21-23).
PART II: SOME DANGEROUS ERRORS THAT LEAD TO DISSENT
The danger for Catholics today comes from the fact that rejection of authority (dissent) has metastasized. It’s no longer a case of aging modernists and radical traditionalists like the SSPX. It has spread to the mainstream of the faith, so that a growing number of Catholics who once defended the faith now believe the Church is in error to the point that they openly question or even reject legitimate teaching authority when it goes against their preferences, forgetting that God punished such behavior as rebellion.
Why do we assume God won’t punish our rebellion, when He punished it in others?
With that in mind, I’d like to look at some of the dangerous errors that lead people to dissent while believing themselves to be “faithful” to the “true” Church (while rejecting those given the task of shepherding it today).
When a person has no way of knowing what the truth is, but follows one’s conscience and seeks to do what is right to the best of their knowledge, God does not condemn him for what would be impossible to know. But when a person could know if they bothered to do the research, then they do not have this excuse. When someone makes an accusation against the shepherds of the Church, we must find out the context of what was said, taking into account the difference of culture, history, and other conditions that lead to misinterpretation. Because Rash Judgment and Calumny are sins, we can’t just repeat what we heard. We have to actually learn the truth about what was claimed.
For example, when people condemn (or praise) Pope Francis for “supporting same sex marriage” because he said “Who am I to judge?” they are guilty of vincible ignorance. They could look it up and read to the transcript, which shows those words had nothing to do with what people think. Because they could learn, but prefer to remain in their ignorance, their lack of knowledge will be judged by Our Lord.
This leads us to our second problem.
Knowing Less than You Think You Do
Relativism must be rejected. We cannot twist Church teaching to turn “Thou shalt not do X” into “X is OK!” The problem is, some people know less about what the Church intends to teach than they think they do. There’s 2000 years of Catholic theology out there, dealing with countless ways people can sin, as well as knowledge of reasons why their guilt may be increased or decreased. A person ignorant about these things might see two different issues and assume they are the same—and that one must contradict the other. So they choose the one that fits their preference and say the other one is wrong. But if the differences between the two cases are greater than the similarities, we can’t compare them and claim they contradict each other.
For example, recently on Facebook, I encountered someone claiming that St. Pius X said that secularism was a "pernicious error” and that Pope Francis said states must be secular. Therefore, this person reasoned that this “proved" Pope Francis was a heretic. A person seeing this might think this statement was proven. To which I say, “Not so fast."
St. Pius X did say this in the encyclical “Vehementer Nos” (#3), written in 1906. The context of this encyclical was France establishing anti-Catholic laws absolutely excluding the Church from any role in the state (a situation worse than in America today). Under those conditions, all religions were equally isolated. Put in context of today, what he was condemning was the expulsion of the Catholic Church from the public square. In contrast, Pope Francis, speaking about France 110 years later spoke about a nation needing to be secular in the sense of not harassing religions in favor of one, but also insisting on religious freedom which France did not provide in 1906. The context missed by accusers was 110 years of experience. St. Pius X was writing about a new rebellion. Pope Francis spoke about what the Church learned since then. For example, the experience of totalitarian hostility to all religion and religious persecution from a sectarian state in the Middle East.
In other words, St. Pius X wasn’t wrong in condemning France for their attack on religion, but Pope Francis spoke from the perspective of things not yet present in 1906 and did not contradict his predecessor.
One common assumption is that if you don’t support a preferred position, you support the antithesis with all the evils it involves. One common example in the election season is targeting Catholics who oppose both Trump and Clinton. Because they will not vote for Trump, they are accused of voting for Clinton and supporting all areas her politics violate Catholic teaching. Another example might be assuming that whoever thinks certain government programs don’t work must favor letting people suffer.
The error here assumes that there are only two possible solutions and if a person does not support the accusers favorite position, he must be guilty of supporting the evils of the other side. But if there are more than two possibilities, this accusation is false. Assuming there is no attempt to evade Church teaching, a disagreement over the best way to carry it out is not endorsing evil. Traditionalism and Modernism are not the only two options. Conservative and Liberal are not the only two options. These factions do not express whether a person is a faithful Catholic or not. If X is wrong, all Catholics must reject X regardless of their political or liturgical preferences.
CONCLUSION: FROM FALSE ASSUMPTIONS TO DANGEROUS ERRORS
I could come up with several more errors, but I want to wrap this article up by discussing why they are dangerous. The danger is these errors lead Catholics to think that the person who has different preferences on how to proceed is acting out of malice. So the conservative Catholic assumes that the liberal Catholic (or vice versa) automatically embraces everything evil about that political view. The radical traditionalist assumes the non-traditionalist is a modernist. People assume that Popes and bishops speak as 21st century Americans and don’t consider the times and places they knew when speaking.
Accusers see differences and assume the difference means a rejection of Church teaching, or a rejection of what Jesus said in Scripture. The accusers don’t consider whether they’ve gotten something wrong and make unjust accusations. When these accusations are made against the Pope and bishops when they teach, they separate the accuser from the Church while thinking they are in the right. They also cause scandal by undermining faith in Our Lord protecting His Church and leading others to disobey as well.
What we have to remember is we need to know the facts and circumstances involving the acts before making an accusation. When the accused is the Pope or a bishop properly exercising his teaching office, we need to remember we have to give our assent. In all cases we must remember charity and make sure we properly understand and not act rashly. The Church does not turn wrong into right, but circumstances can mean that two events that look similar can actually be very different. If we rashly assume evil on the part of the shepherds of the Church, we can’t just shrug off the false accusation on Judgment Day. We’ll have to answer for our rebellion.
So to avoid judgment, we must recognize we might not have all the facts and therefore might not properly understand what seems wrong at first glance. Yes, there will be sin out there and we must correct sinners. But we must not assume we are always in the right and the Pope must be wrong if he rules differently than we want.