I had a profitable discussion with one of my followers last week. The concern—probably shared by many Catholics—is, what is one to do when a Catholic one respects is at odds with the Pope. Are we to write them all off as schismatic, ignorant, or acting out of bad will? My answer is, No we can’t make a blanket assumption that a respected Catholic who disagrees with the Pope is to be automatically pigeonholed into the category of dissenter or gross ignorance.
However, that doesn’t make them right either. Regardless of intention, they have gone wrong in their interpretation. They are (knowingly or not) claiming the Pope is supporting or even teaching error in such a way that their accusations contradict previous Church teaching on the authority of the Pope and his protection from error. The problem is, these categories are based in an either-or fallacy. They assume that Pope Francis is contradicting previous Church teaching (unproven) and that therefore either he or his predecessors must be wrong.
I deny that accusation is true. However, it is helpful to look at some of the mindsets of his foes and see how they fall into error. This is by no means a comprehensive list. But it does describe the attitudes I encounter most often on the internet.
In writing this article, I’d like to make clear that I am not accusing any specific member of the clergy or any specific Catholic writer of belonging to these groups. If you look at these groups and think, “Oh, he’s accusing X of this,” then you miss the point. I hope to point out problematic views and leave the judgment of people to their confessors.
Confusing an Agenda with Church Teaching
One category which usually seems to get it wrong are the agenda driven people who believe that the Church needs to follow an agenda or else she is in the wrong. This group views a Pope or bishop favorably only if he happens to agree with how this person thinks it should be done. Often they assume that refusal to do it this way is either a sign of moral laxity (if they want it more rigid) or of moral rigidity (if they want more laxity). So St. John Paul II was accused of rigidity by those who wanted a change to Church teaching on sexual morality. Pope Francis is accused of laxity by those who think the Pope should “crack down” on sin. In other words, this category of people is not limited to one ideology. Conservative Catholics in this group let “conservative” influence their Catholic faith. Liberal Catholics let “liberal” influence “Catholic.” Both are wrong because their Catholic faith should influence their ideology. It’s not just political agendas. It can also involve being either a modernist (willing to compromise the faith to get along with the world) or a radical traditionalist (assuming a change in discipline is a change in teaching).
Many of these people are sincere and can’t imagine how one can be faithfully Catholic without holding to their views. From this they believe that anyone who doesn’t support their perspective is acting against God and what the Church is supposed to be. The problem is, their views are often colored by a certain political or cultural bent, while the Church recognizes that one can favor different ways to carry out Church teaching without being “unfaithful.”
Focussing on One Part, Missing Another
A second category involves Catholics who focus on one aspect of Church teaching, but miss another. Perhaps they are truly unaware of the other aspects. Perhaps they think they don’t apply. Or (if any of them do act from bad will) perhaps even suppressing mention of something that weakens their argument.
One example of this is the argument that Our Lord condemned adultery. Therefore any consideration of the Eucharist for the divorced/remarried is considered a contradiction of Church teaching. They have all sorts of arguments as to why the Church teaching about intrinsic evil cannot be violated. The problem is, nobody (except, perhaps, certain Agenda Driven Catholics) argues that it can be. Those who think the Church might be able to find cases where one can legitimately distribute the Eucharist to a divorced/remarried person is not denying Our Lord’s words. They’re asking questions about impediments that might limit culpability, such as knowledge and consent.
Church teaching can be very nuanced. It starts with the basic concept, X is intrinsically evil, and then focusses on the circumstances of the person that does X. In some cases, the person is guilty of freely choosing the evil with full knowledge. In other cases, the person who does X may have started in ignorance of Church teaching and has formed a compulsive habit that is very hard for them to break away from. Obviously, the confessor would need to treat the first case differently from the second case.
The person in this category goes wrong by assuming that a merciful approach to the second case is a denial of the intrinsic evil in general. That doesn’t make him ignorant of Church teaching. Such a person might simply be so accustomed to defending the Church teaching from those who reject it, that they begin to lose sight of the conditions that change culpability.
Pointing to Consequences, Without Considering What Really Causes Them
Some Catholics are (rightly) concerned by those who wrongly think the Church can change her doctrinal or moral teachings from saying, “X is true,” to “X is false.” They see how some seize onto whatever statement is made by the Church and use it to claim that they’re not dissenting against the Church. They are correct in believing this has to be opposed. But they are scandalized when Church does not issue a stinging public rebuke or excommunicate these people. Some even go so far as to say that the Pope or bishops must secretly support such behavior or they would have acted publicly and the behavior would have stopped.
The problem with this category is it assumes things as true that need to be proven. For example, it assumes that any action must be public, and must be in the form of a rebuke. It ignores the possibility of quietly contacting the person. It ignores the possibility of ongoing dialogue where the Church has not written the person off. In other words, the individual assumes he knows the whole story, but does not.
Church history is ugly because the members are sinners, like everyone else. Of course we’re all called to cooperate with God’s grace and strive to do good and reject evil. But every one of us does fall. The category of people I call the scandalized are those who are shocked and horrified by the sins of the members of the magisterium, believing this to be a sign of error, some going so far as to label it heresy or apostasy.
Such people need to remember our belief that God protects His Church from error does not mean that those who lead the Church will never sin, nor make errors of judgment in non-teaching actions. For example, St. John Paul II appointed some bishops that had many of us wondering “Why?” There’s a difference between teaching (which is protected) and administering (which is not).
Regrettable, but not heretical (The Obstinate Denial of Truth)
So, when the Pope teaches, we’re bound to give assent to his teachings, trusting God to protect him from leading the Church astray. But when he governs the Vatican City, gives a homily or a press conference, or other actions, he’s not protected. What this means is, just because a Pope may do something regrettable when acting as a man or as a ruler, it does not follow that he teaches error.
The Mythic View of the Church
People in this category tend to have a myth about a time when the faith was practiced perfectly. They believe that the Church needs to go back to that time, rejecting what they see as a deviation. So some Catholics think Vatican II destroyed the Church, and we need to turn back the clock to before if the Church is to be saved. Other Catholics view Our Lord as a “nice guy” teacher who taught love, and rules of sexual morality “contradict” Jesus’ teachings. Both are a denial of the belief that the Holy Spirit guides and protects the Church.
What the first group has to realize is that there was never a time when the Church was perfect. There were always problems. The problems after Vatican II had origins before Vatican II. The second group has to realize that Our Lord did teach on keeping the commandments and warned us about Hell. Both need to remember He did give the Church authority to bind and loose (Matthew 16:19, 18:18) and promised to protect His Church (Matthew 16:18, 28:20). The Church has never changed teaching from “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin,” but she has changed how to approach sinners and has taken a deeper look into what makes an action a sin. These are not betrayals of past teaching.
The Wrathful Catholics
Some Catholics have just bought into the idea that the Pope intends to change or destroy the Church. With this assumption, everything that sounds different to them is assumed to be “proof” of the accusation. So they read the Pope’s words with this viewpoint and find malice. At best, this is Rash Judgment. At worst, it is Calumny. The difference is whether they make a false assumption about his intentions or intend to discredit him.
I find these Catholics to be perpetually angry. It may be because they lament the wrongdoing in the Church and are frustrated with the lack of progress in eliminating it. It may be they belong to one of the groups above, and it leads them to think the Pope must support what they oppose. Or they may be influenced by other wrathful Catholics who repeat their accusations over and over. But to assume that the Pope intends evil for the Church is something that corrupts one’s faith in God and the authority He gave the Catholic Church.
Conclusion: The First Two Steps to a Remedy
All of these categories have something in common—a belief that the Pope is in the wrong. That belief is dangerous because it assumes that while the Pope can err, the individual judging him is not mistaken in his interpretation of the Pope. But each of these categories shows they do make an error in interpreting the Pope, past Church teaching, or both.
The first step is recognizing one can misinterpret Scripture, the current Pope, and past Church teaching—seeing conflict where there is none. Once one realizes they can make a mistake, he or she can begin considering whether they have made a mistake. The next step is realizing that God protects His Church. History shows there have been morally bad popes. There have been Popes who personally held to an error. But no Pope has ever taught error.
Once we recognize these things, we have to realize that if we think the current Pope is teaching error, we have to consider it more probable that we have misinterpreted him—not because of our being “ultramontane” (a common slur against the Pope’s defenders), or putting too much trust in his personal talents, but because God established the Church on the rock of Peter and promised the gates of hell would not prevail against it. So, if there is a difference between what we think the Pope says and what we think the Church teaches, we need to consider the possibility that we have gone wrong, whether by misreading, or focussing on the wrong issue, or assuming Church teaching limits more than it does.
If we can start by asking “Have I gotten the issue wrong?” then perhaps we can learn. But if we refuse to ask that question, we will not learn, and we will needlessly be in opposition to Our Lord and His Church while thinking of ourselves as defenders.