Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me. (Luke 10:16)
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:18–19).
If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 18 k Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:17–18)
Attempts to cast oneself as a faithful Catholic by challenging the shepherds of the Church ultimately turn out to be chasing shadows. Chasing them can lead to our ruin as we follow them over treacherous ground. Our Lord created a visible Church where we can turn to know God’s teaching and how it is applied from generation to generation.
It is not the Pope and bishops endangering the Church, but those who forget this promise, who think the Church—especially her shepherds—must have erred and must be opposed, that deceive and scatter the faithful. Some of these people are clergy, some are laity. But the fact is, they do not have the authority to change what the Church teaches, nor to cite one favored teaching against a despised teaching. They cannot change what we are obligated to be and do. Yet in each age, such false teachers arise. Today, they come from the modern political divide of conservative/liberal, or the modern theological divide of modernist/traditionalist. Of course, these are not the only divides. Church history tells us of many divisions where people scrambled to challenge Church teaching. It would be meaningless to apply our current dichotomies to those factions. But one constant remains despite the divisions of history: these false teachers cannot demand we follow them over the shepherds of the Church.
The problem is, these false teachers try to invoke their personal interpretation on how a teaching should be applied as if it were Church teaching. They tell us that a Pope or bishop is in error if they do not meet the accusers’ ideals.
Of course we can have bad Popes (I deny the current Pope is one) and bishops throughout history. They hinder the mission of the Church by bad personal example. But no Pope has ever taught error (a couple have debatably held to error privately), and while some bishops throughout history have fallen into error, and sometimes heresy, they have not done so when following the teaching of the Pope. I think that’s something we forget. We’re so busy splitting hairs over the limits of an ex cathedra teaching, that we forget that protecting the Church is largely a negative function (preventing error from being taught) and that a formally defined dogma is rare.
Forgetting this creates a bizarre claim—that a disliked Pope is not protected from teaching error as Pope. But if this is true, then we can never know when a Pope taught error. If Blessed Paul VI brought error and spiritual harm to the Church with the Missal of 1970, how can we know St. Pius V didn’t bring error and spiritual harm into the Church with the Missal of 1570? If we will not trust God to protect His Church from error then we become “Cafeteria Catholics,” who pick and choose what we like and deny authority of the rest.
Recognizing both this protection and the fact that the Pope is the successor of Peter, we see the folly of trying to line up people against the Pope as if their opinions outweighed his teaching. A bishop has authority when in communion with the Pope, not in opposition. Otherwise the Old Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bishops would have authority over faithful Catholics.
If the bishops have no authority when not in communion with the Pope, the laity have even less. The armchair theologian, the blogger (including me), the canon lawyer, the combox warrior, the religion reporter have no authority to bind and loose at all. Their credibility depends on accurately representing the Catholic faith. The layman can do great things for the Church, but he has no right to demand acceptance for his opinion over the magisterium.
Think of it this way. In the legal system, a lawyer can be knowledgable about the law and can make compelling arguments on why it should be applied as he thinks. But neither his knowledge nor his arguments are authority. He argues the case, but the judge decides whether his application is right or wrong. The Church works in a similar way. Yes, each of us can read Church documents, and each of us can form an opinion on what they mean and how they should be applied. But our reading and interpretation are not Church teaching. It is the current magisterium who rules on how we must apply Church teaching for today.
That being said, we need to clear up misconceptions. This isn’t an assertion that the Pope and bishops can do whatever they want The magisterium is the servant, not superior to Scripture and Sacred Tradition. We do not hold some sort of “ultramontanism” (a popular slur against Papal defenders). We are stating the reality of who decides where to draw the line.
This is important when we address concerns and desires. Yes, Canon Law 212 tells us the faithful have the right and sometimes the duty to make their needs known. But the Pope and bishops have the authority to determine what practices should be maintained and which can be changed for the good of the faithful. In past centuries, people used to know this. St. Francis de Sales (made clear that we do not err in obedience to those in rightful authority acting for our spiritual benefit:
If this refers to those who have from God the power and duty to guide your soul and to command you in spiritual things, you are certainly right. In obeying them you cannot err, although they may err and advise you badly, if they look principally to any thing else than your salvation and spiritual progress.
Francis de Sales, Letters to Persons in the World, trans. Henry Benedict Mackey and John Cuthbert Hedley, Second Edition, Library of Francis de Sales (London; New York; Cincinnatti; Chicago: Burns and Oates; Benziger Brothers, 1894), 33.
So, some may want ad orientum, return to the use of Latin, or even a return to the Missal of 1962 for the whole Church. It’s not wrong to prefer these things, but some do wrong by rejecting the decision if the magisterium when it goes against what they want. Charity and docility to legitimate authority means we recognize they receive the power and responsibility to lead the Church from God. Accusing the Pope and bishops of bad will is not being a good Catholic “defending the faith.” It is dissent.
Once we realize this, we see the rebels have no authority to act against the Pope. They can’t treat his teaching as error. Nor can they treat it as opinion. Once the Pope teaches, even if it is not ex cathedra (see Canon Law 751-754), we must give assent. Those who will not may be clamorous and disturb us, but they have no authority to remake the Church to what they want it to be. Their clamor must be dismissed like shadows (Psalm 73:20), not given credibility, while we reach out to the world to bring them to Our Lord (Matthew 28:20).
I’d like to conclude by stressing one point. We’re not expected to be mindless sheep here with a blind obedience. As human beings, we all have our preferences and our dislikes, and we certainly have the right to make a respectful appeal to have these things addressed. However, we also need to remember what the Church knew in past centuries—that the Pope and bishops are given authority to determine what is best for the Church. We cannot rebel against this authority in the name of being “faithful Catholics.” That is simply a contradiction.