Regular readers of this blog know I hold the belief that God protects His Church from teaching error, even if individual members and even whole regions should fall. I also hold that Our Lord ties obedience to Him with obedience to His Church. Finally, I hold that the successor of Peter today has the same authority and protection that his predecessors had. From that, I reason that we can trust God to protect us from having a Pope who teaches error in matters of faith and morals. That doesn’t mean that a Pope will be a flawless ruler or teacher. it doesn’t mean that he will be impeccable as an individual. It certainly doesn’t mean that a Pope’s teaching will be followed without people misinterpreting or misrepresenting it.
The problem I’m seeing in the Church is people withholding obedience from the Pope because they think he is teaching error on the grounds that what he says doesn’t square with how they think he should govern the Church. Accusations from this sector run from claiming he is guilty of heresy to claiming he causes people to sin by being unclear. Tragically this number has grown. More Catholics assume that the Pope has erred because of the difference between what he says and what they think Church teaching is. But nobody asks whether they might be the ones who have things wrong, not him.
To borrow [†] from the analogy of the “Ship of Fools” in Plato [The Republic, Book VI. 488 B-E] the condition among the Catholic laity and some clergy is like a mutinous crew on a ship, where each sailor claims to be an expert in navigation, despite their lack of training (in fact, they deny this is something anyone can learn), favoring one who says what they want to hear, and are hostile to one who actually is trained in navigation who has actual knowledge of ship handling and tells them something different.
Whether a dissenter thinks the Church is too lenient with sinners, or thinks that the Church is too harsh because she calls something a sin, they play the part of the mutinous sailors. Because the Pope and bishops do not steer the ship the way they want, these critics turn against them and call for a new navigator or a change in direction.
But if, as I profess, God protects the Church from falling into error under the successor of Peter (see Matthew 16:18, 28:20), then we have to trust that He will not let the Barque of Peter founder, despite whatever personal flaws they see the Pope as having. Yes, a Pope can have the wickedness of a John XII. He may have a problematic understanding of theology like John XXII. He may be a poor shepherd like St. Celestine V. But even in these cases (and I deny that Pope Francis is anything like them), God protected the Church under them from teaching error where people would be damned for following. St. Augustine, in his work Contra Petilian, invokes Matthew 23:2-3, pointing out:
Furthermore, when such men sit in the seat of Moses, for which the Lord preserved its due honor, why do you blaspheme the apostolic chair on account of men whom, justly or unjustly, you compare with these?
Augustine of Hippo, “In Answer to the Letters of Petilian, the Donatist, Bishop of Cirta,” in St. Augustin: The Writings against the Manichaeans and against the Donatists, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. R. King, vol. 4, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 568.
In other words, if Our Lord told the Jews to obey the teachings (but not the practices) of the Pharisees because of the authority given them, then we have even less excuse if we disobey the successors to the Apostles when they teach. Yes, there will be priests and even bishops out there we can point to who teach error—either sincerely, or out of rebellion—but their rebellion always comes in opposition to the Church under the Pope.
When people claim there is a conflict between Pope Francis and his predecessors, I believe this is a sign that they need a remedial course in what both actually teach. The problem is, too many assume the Pope advocates evil that could come from an abuse of his teachings. The problem is, he explicitly rejects those abuses and asserts he is a son of the Church when it comes to the teachings most rejected today. He calls for mercy and outreach to sinners. So did his predecessors. The problem is, we assume mercy means moral laxity. If we have that assumption, everything he says will be interpreted in that light and we will (falsely) assume any initiative of mercy must be an attempt to undermine Church teaching. But we forget the possibility of our being in the wrong and the Pope being in the right.
So I think the conflict in the Church today is a conflict between the ship of fools and the barque of Peter. It’s between those who judge the Church according to their own will on one side, and those who trust God to protect His Church and give assent to the Pope’s teachings, striving to learn the truth about what they are called to be. The Catholic Church, under the headship of Pope Francis, is the Barque of Peter. This ship will reach the final destination. However, the ship of fools—guided by what we prefer—is doomed to founder.
Each of us must choose which ship we will embark on. Speaking for myself, I choose to board the barque of Peter because I trust God to protect the Pope from leading the Church in a wrong direction. I refuse to set foot on the ship of fools, because I do not trust those people who claim to know Church teaching while the Church does not. You can call me a fool, or accuse me of being blind to the problems in the Church. But this is the way I will follow because I want to be faithful to God and His Church.
[†] Borrow, not claim it is identical. Yes, I’m aware that Socrates was speaking of philosophers and statecraft, and that the governing of the Greek city-state is not the same thing as the governing of the Church, so the full analogy doesn’t 100% fit. But it makes a useful image for the concern at hand.