But especially contradictory is a notion of Tradition which opposes the universal Magisterium of the Church possessed by the Bishop of Rome and the Body of Bishops. It is impossible to remain faithful to the Tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with him to whom, in the person of the Apostle Peter, Christ himself entrusted the ministry of unity in his Church.
John Paul II, Ecclesia Dei, #4
Encountering some anti-Francis combox warriors, one of them alleged that: "Even if the Pope claims to speak ex cathedra, but what he said was not in line with the authentic Magisterium, they we cannot follow his teaching, as it would be outside the Church. In which case, it would not be ex cathedra.” When I saw that, I was left kind of stunned at the ignorance. When the Pope speaks ex cathedra, that’s a guarantee that he is not teaching error at all! But this person (and others commenting on the post in question) have reached a state where they would rather deny the authority of the Church than consider the possibility of being rebels against the Church they profess to believe in.
This isn’t a problem linked to one faction (and, to be fair, it doesn’t involve all Catholics in a faction). I’ve seen modernist/liberal Catholics try to argue that the Catholic teaching goes against Our Lord’s teaching on love and mercy. I’ve seen traditionalist/conservative Catholics argue that a Pope (from St. John XXIII to the present) goes against previous teaching. In both cases, the Catholic in question argues that the Church is in error and will remain in error until she becomes what the combox warrior thinks it should be.
The problem is, whether the critic is citing the words of Our Lord or a teaching of the Church, the quote is usually ripped out of context. It’s obvious that the person has not considered the rest of what the text says or what else has been said. For example, yes, Our Lord did speak on love and mercy—but also about hell and the need to follow Him and His Church to avoid it. Yes, in some centuries, Popes emphasized certain aspects of the Church teaching against attacks from that direction, but that emphasis was not a denial of the other aspects.
An Example Where Catholics Go Wrong
Let’s take the Papal Bull Unam Sanctam. I have seen Catholics cite the line[†], “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff” to deny that non-Catholics can be saved and to insist that every Pope from St. John XXIII forward who speaks about the salvation of those outside of the Church are heretics. What they overlook is the fact that Pope Boniface VIII was dealing with the Caesaropapism of the French king, Philip the Fair, who refused obedience to the Pope and insisted that the clergy owed him obedience over obedience to the Pope.
Yes, it is true there is no Salvation outside of the Church as St. Cyprian of Carthage put it. But what this means is whoever is saved is saved by Christ and His Church, not through Buddha or some other figure, nor from some other religion. But it does not mean that only Catholics will be saved (that’s the heresy of Feeneyism, condemned at the direction of Pope Pius XII). In fact, Even before the First Vatican Council, Pope Pius IX spoke on the possibility of those outside the Church being saved. In Singulari Quidem #7, he said, “Outside of the Church, nobody can hope for life or salvation unless he is excused through ignorance beyond his control.”
Vatican II reaffirmed the necessity of those who know of the necessity of the Church to enter and remain within it: “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved” (Lumen Gentium #14). The Church recognizes (Lumen Gentium #16) that those who never received knowledge of Christ might be saved when they seek to do right, but…
[O]ften men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, “Preach the Gospel to every creature”, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.
In other words, we don’t despair of people who die who are ignorant of Christ and His Church through no fault of their own, but to save them from falling into evil ways or despair, we have to reach out to them. What many people think is indifferentism, is actually a discussion of what is and is not humanly possible in carrying out Our Lord’s work.
A Little Knowledge is Dangerous
This is just one example I’ve encountered over the years. People pull one quote off of a site which portrays it as contradicting a later statement (which actually clarify what the earlier statement means) and go on their merry way wrongly believing the Church today is in error and trying to persuade others of this misinformation. The problem is, there’s no real effort made to understand what the Church has taught and how she has deepened her teaching. Likewise, when they encounter something that doesn’t square up with how they interpret these out of context quotes, they assume the other must be in error, not themselves.
The problem is, this is vincible or culpable ignorance, not the invincible ignorance a person who has never accurately encountered the teaching of the Church might possess. As Catholics belong to the Church established by Christ, shepherded by the successors of the Apostles, we don’t have an excuse when we reject that authority. Yes, individual bishops can reject the authority of the Church and promote error (as the early centuries of Church history show), but the safe path has always been with those shepherds who follow the Bishop of Rome. Whenever a Pope has believed an error, it was always a private error and never a binding teaching.
And that’s why a little knowledge is dangerous. People ignorant of the history of Popes Liberius, Vigilius, and Honorius I cite them as “proof” that a Pope can be a heretic and “teach error,” even though they never taught error and historians are divided over whether they ever held it. Such people wrongly believe John XXII “taught” heresy on the beatific vision, even though he did not teach (he did mention it in two homilies), and the issue was not defined until his successor, Benedict XII decided to settle the issue.
Unfortunately, some Catholics choose to undermine the teaching of the Church by embracing arguments that attack the authority Our Lord gave the Church. That’s dangerous because when one has a difficulty, we have an obligation to investigate it, and not let it fester into a doubt. That doesn’t mean that Catholics must abandon their families, live as monks and study obscure documents. God understands our limitations in our vocational obligations or ability to study and doesn’t expect us to do the impossible. But He does expect us to put faith in Him and the Church He established, offering obedience (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16, John 14:15) when the shepherds teach in communion with the successor of Peter. When we find a difficulty, we ought to seek an answer while trusting in God to protect His Church.
The teaching of the Church is vast. For example, I read theology for pleasure as well as for study, and even I discover new things every day on how the teaching can be applied. There are many in the Church wiser and more knowledgable than me and they too discover new things every day. None of these discoveries have ever shown the magisterium of the Church going from “X is a sin” to “X is permissible.” That might surprise the person who has wrongly believed that Pope Francis “contradicts Church teaching.” But this false belief comes from being ignorant of what the present Pope really said, being ignorant of what his predecessors really said, or (often) both.
What we need to remember is God has been protecting His Church. He has protected us from wicked Popes changing teaching to justify their behavior. He has protected the Church from Popes making a teaching out of erroneous materials, even when not teaching ex cathedra[§]. This protection did not end in 1958 (when St. John XXIII became Pope), 1962 (when Vatican II began), 1965 (when it ended), or 2013 (when Pope Francis was elected). If there was ever a time when this protection was withdrawn, Our Lord’s promises in Matthew 16:18 and Matthew 28:20 would be false (a blasphemous charge) and we could never know when the Church was teaching wrongly. Those who hate the Church have argued for centuries that they are right and the Church has fallen into error. If Vatican II could teach error, why not Trent? If Blessed Paul VI could teach error in promulgating the Missal of 1970, why not St. Pius V in promulgating the Missal of 1570?
We must stop assuming the fault is with the Church when the magisterium teaches differently than we think the Church should teach. We need to ask whether our limited knowledge is the cause of this error, and seek to learn from sources which remain faithful to the Church today, and not those sources adversarial to her. Otherwise we risk the ruin of souls through our vincible ignorance.
[†] Ironically, critics of the Pope seem to have forgotten the quote since Pope Francis became Pope. Their quote-mining would indict them for refusing to follow what they demanded before.
[§] For example, when Blessed Paul VI called a commission to study whether the Pill was contraception or not [Because it didn’t work like barrier methods, the question was whether it was legitimate like medicine], nobody knew that the Pill had an abortifacient effect. If the Ordinary Magisterium (which some Catholics wrongly believe can be error-prone) had ruled it was not contraceptive, we could have wound up with the Church approving an abortifacient while condemning abortion