One trend I come across in social media is the claim that, before Pope Francis or before Vatican II, the Church and the Popes taught clearly, but now everything is ambiguous and needs clarification. This is an error, but it’s an easy one to make. The error revolves around the fact that the further away we are from a controversy, the less we hear about the things which led up to a formal definition by the Church. We remember that Nicaea I condemned Arianism. We don’t remember the disputes about the interpretations of Scripture and the meaning of equivocal words. We think of the old maxim, Rome has spoken, the cause is finished, and wonder why people should still fighting except that the Pope isn’t clear. But we forget that when St. Augustine said this, he was actually speaking about the repeated disobedience despite the teaching of the Holy See:
For already have two councils on this question been sent to the Apostolic see; and rescripts also have come from thence. The question has been brought to an issue; would that their error may sometime be brought to an issue too! Therefore do we advise that they may take heed, we teach that they may be instructed, we pray that they may be changed.
Augustine of Hippo, “Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament,” in Saint Augustin: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. R. G. MacMullen, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 504.
When we dig into the history of the Church we see that, when the Pope or a Council teaches on a subject, error doesn’t vanish. The decree just establishes the dividing line where one has to choose—either to accept the authority of the Church or to reject it. Error, however, doesn’t say, “Yep, I’m wrong but I don’t care.” Error rarely says, “I’m going to leave and start my own church!” What normally happens is Error denies that it is in opposition to Church teaching. Rather it either pretends to be faithful anyway or else it claims that the magisterium is wrong, and would have taught differently if they were really following Our Lord, or The Bible, or other Church teachings.
For example, when St. Pius X condemned modernism, many real modernists denied they held the positions condemned in Pascendi Dominici Gregis and Lamentibili Sane. They would simply modify their positions slightly, claiming obedience to the letter of the law while violating the spirit of the teachings. If we were to apply the logic of the critics of Pope Francis or Vatican II, we would have to say St. Pius X was to blame for the continued disobedience. But in fact the disobedience came from those who chose to misrepresent what the Pope said. We can also point to the fact that Catholics and Protestants alike have pointed to St. Augustine to justify their contradicting positions on grace and actions. Did St. Augustine teach confusion? Or did one side cite him wrongly? I think we can recognize that St. Augustine did not teach contradiction or error.
What these examples show is that confusion and dissent existed before Vatican II. We forget about it because, if we read about these things at all, we only read about the final results, and not the path that led to that point. We don’t see the discussion that evaluated each claim and argued over the merits and problems. We wonder why the Pope hasn’t issued a decree, excommunicated a politician or answered a dubia. We forget how Blessed John Henry Newman explained, over 150 years ago, why dispute and confusion existed in the process:
And then again all through Church history from the first, how slow is authority in interfering! Perhaps a local teacher, or a doctor in some local school, hazards a proposition, and a controversy ensues. It smoulders or burns in one place, no one interposing; Rome simply lets it alone. Then it comes before a Bishop; or some priest, or some professor in some other seat of learning takes it up; and then there is a second stage of it. Then it comes before a University, and it may be condemned by the theological faculty. So the controversy proceeds year after year, and Rome is still silent. An appeal, perhaps, is next made to a seat of authority inferior to Rome; and then at last after a long while it comes before the supreme power. Meanwhile, the question has been ventilated and turned over and over again, and viewed on every side of it, and authority is called upon to pronounce a decision, which has already been arrived at by reason. But even then, perhaps the supreme authority hesitates to do so, and nothing is determined on the point for years; or so generally and vaguely, that the whole controversy has to be gone through again, before it is ultimately determined. It is manifest how a mode of proceeding, such as this, tends not only to the liberty, but to the courage, of the individual theologian or contraversialist. Many a man has ideas, which he hopes are true, and useful for his day, but he wishes to have them discussed. He is willing or rather would be thankful to give them up, if they can be proved to be erroneous or dangerous, and by means of controversy he obtains his end. He is answered, and he yields; or he finds that he is considered safe. He would not dare to do this, if he knew an authority, which was supreme and final, was watching every word he said, and made signs of assent or dissent to each sentence, as he uttered it. Then, indeed, he would be fighting, as the Persian soldiers, under the lash, and the freedom of his intellect might truly be said to be beaten out of him. But this has not been so:—I do not mean to say that, when controversies run high, in schools or even in small portions of the Church, an interposition may not rightly take place; and again, questions may be of that urgent nature, that an appeal must, as a matter of duty, be made at once to the highest authority in the Church; but, if we look into the history of controversy, we shall find, I think, the general run of things to be such as I have represented it. Zosimus treated Pelagius and Cœlestius with extreme forbearance; St. Gregory VII. was equally indulgent with Berengarius; by reason of the very power of the Popes they have commonly been slow and moderate in their use of it.
John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1865), 289–290.
One can also read the CDF documents where a theologian’s works were ultimately condemned. In them, there is a process of dialogue in which the Church determines whether the person understood his ideas went against the Church, and if so, entered a discussion on how to make things right. It took years from the time the case was taken up until an obstinate theologian’s work was condemned. It takes years because the Church wants to make sure they do not wrongly judge someone who has merely stated the truth in a new way.
The modern critics however do not take years—whether in studying the Catholic faith or studying the person alleged to be a heretic. They match what they think they know about the faith and compare it with what they think they know about the person they dislike. The problem is often these Catholics treat their reading of Church documents in the same way that the Biblical literalist interprets the Bible—without regard to context or nuances in translation, and without regard for one’s limitations.
That’s not to say that only people with a PhD have anything to say about Scripture or Sacred Tradition or Church documents. What it means is we ought to realize we can go wrong, and we can avoid error by making sure our reading does not contradict the magisterium. Just because one person thinks the Pope contradicts a document does not, in fact, mean the Pope contradicts that document. The critic forgets to consider the possibility of his own error.
This seems to fit in with the Pope recently expressing his concern about “restorationist” (a belief we need to “go back” to an earlier time) attitudes, saying, “they seem to offer security but instead give only rigidity.” Expecting that the only response to a problem in the Church is strict response is to reject any response of compassion. Rigidity (wrongly) views the Pope’s words on mercy as moral laxity and condemn him with a growing demonic hatred. But many of those Catholics I have tangled with cannot get beyond a binary thinking of “either rigid or heretical.” But if there is a third option, a none of the above, then the binary thinking is right.
Now the epithet of “Pharisee” gets overused (and, yeah, I know I’m guilty of using it at times, too) but rigidity was one of the problems with the pharisees. They wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), they were scandalized that He dined with tax collectors (Matthew 9:10-13), and that he allowed the sinful woman to wash His feet with her tears (Luke 7:36-50). Our Lord was not lax in these cases, but he was merciful, and this is what the Pope is calling us to emulate—don’t treat the sinner with harshness, but with love.
I think the ultimate problem with controversy in the Church is that Catholics (whether ordained, religious, or laity) presume they know all the facts about Church teaching and about the situation of the sinner and reject the approach the Church takes if it does not match the individual’s flawed understanding. And that’s where we have to change. We have to stop thinking we are the ones who pass judgment on the Church when the Church does not match our preferences, and let the teaching of the Church pass judgment on our preferences.