One of the stranger items I have in my Verbum library is the address of a Presbyterian minister made during the Civil War. In it, he urges young men to take up arms against a threat, saying:
In the first place we must shake off all apathy, and become fully alive to the magnitude of the crisis. We must look the danger in the face, and comprehend the real grandeur of the issue. We shall not exert ourselves until we are sensible of the need of effort. As long as we cherish a vague hope that help may come from abroad, or that there is something in our past history, or the genins of our institutions, to protect us from overthrow, we are hugging a fatal delusion to our bosoms.
James Henley Thornwell, Our Danger and Our Duty (Columbia, SC: Southern Guardian, 1862), 5–6.
The words he used could have been used today speaking about a crisis in the Church or about the state of our nation. But no, Thornwell was a clergyman who believed slavery was justified and was writing to encourage people to fight for the Confederate States. What we have is a case of a Christian minister who was entirely convinced his cause was just and needing to be defended, but in retrospect, we know that his cause was unjust and needing to be opposed. In other words, Thornwell’s perception was not reality, no matter how sincere he might have been.
The Problem May Be Closer Than We Think…
Nobody wants to be compared with an apologist for slavery of course, and such a comparison is not my intent. But there do seem to be similar attitudes of self-assured assessments of situations. Lately everyone seems to know what is wrong with the Church—that which goes against how the critic thinks the Church should be acting and teaching. However, those tasked with leading the Church never get consulted on if this perception is actually correct. Everybody assumes Our Lord agrees with them, but when the Pope or the bishops in communion with him object to a view, or propose a different way of handling a situation, people assume these shepherds are acting “contrary” to Church teaching or even God Himself. So liberal Catholics accuse St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI of “betraying the Council” or Jesus’ teachings on love and judgment. Meanwhile, conservative Catholics accuse Pope Francis of “betraying past councils” or Jesus’ teachings on obedience.
What they don’t ask is whether their division against the Pope and bishops is a sign of their own error. They appeal to the “true Church,” but that Church is nothing more than their own interpretations and preferences. They give obedience to the actual Church only to the point that they happen to agree. When they don’t, the Pope or the bishop is “betraying” Our Lord and the Church.
Personal Sin and Bad Decisions are not Signs of Teaching Error…
That’s not to say that the Pope and bishops are impeccable (a common straw man fallacy). They are human beings like the rest of us. They can sin and make bad decisions like the rest of us. But the difference between them and us is that they, as successors to the apostles, are tasked with leading the Church: The Pope as the visible head of the entire Church; the bishop (when in communion with the Pope) as the head of the diocese. When the Pope teaches, or when the bishop teaches in line with the Pope, we are required to give assent.
can. 752† Although not an assent of faith, a religious submission of the intellect and will must be given to a doctrine which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops declares concerning faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim it by definitive act; therefore, the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid those things which do not agree with it.
can. 753† Although the bishops who are in communion with the head and members of the college, whether individually or joined together in conferences of bishops or in particular councils, do not possess infallibility in teaching, they are authentic teachers and instructors of the faith for the Christian faithful entrusted to their care; the Christian faithful are bound to adhere with religious submission of mind to the authentic magisterium of their bishops.
can. 754† All the Christian faithful are obliged to observe the constitutions and decrees which the legitimate authority of the Church issues in order to propose doctrine and to proscribe erroneous opinions, particularly those which the Roman Pontiff or the college of bishops puts forth.
Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 247–248.
That’s pretty cut and dried. If God requires us to obey the Church (Matthew 18:17, Luke 10:16), then we have to choose. Neither Scripture nor Church teaching allow us to disobey the Pope when he binds or looses. So, we can either trust God to protect His Church from teaching error, or we can hold the absurdity that God requires us to obey error and disregard truth if the Pope decrees it.
The Common Challenges Don’t Work…
Critics try to evade this by pointing to some of our less illustrious popes, Liberius, Honorius I, and John XXII. The problem with citing them is they made no attempt to teach error as Pope. They certainly made no demand that the Church embrace their views. Historians dispute over whether Liberius and Honorius even privately held heresy, or whether this was the propaganda of their enemies. In the case of John XXII, the matter under discussion was not yet defined.
To put the case of John XXII in context, a hypothetical example would be if the Pope preached one way or the other on whether Our Lady died before she was assumed into Heaven, and then some members of the Church discussed it with him and convinced him the other way was better. Since whether Our Lady died before her Assumption has not been defined one way or the other, the Pope in this example would not be in error—even if a later Pope should define it differently [†].
But, unlike the above Popes, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis did teach. Even if they did not teach ex cathedra, their teachings are binding (see canon 752 above). So these comparisons are false analogies. If his critics are right (Pro tip—they’re not), then we have a contradiction. We must give assent to these teachings, but, according to his critics, he can teach error in these things we have to give assent to! It’s absurd, but that’s what logically follows from trying to reconcile authentic Church teaching with the claims of anti-Francis Catholics!
To Be On God’s Side, We Have to Be in Accord With the Magisterium…
Both Scripture and Church teaching have consistently taught that, while we do not emulate the bad behavior of some Popes or bishops, we do have to give assent when they teach. There’s never been a case where a member of the Church has been right in rejecting the magisterium. Rejecting that authority is not something new in Church history, but in the past we called it what it was—heresy and schism. Now, certain Catholics use the special pleading fallacy to refuse applying this teaching to themselves. When those they disagree with dissent from the Church, they accuse them of faithlessness. But when it comes to their own dissent, they justify it as behaving rightly—ignoring the fact that those they condemn also justify themselves.
Not all of the magisterial issues involve faith and morals. Nor is our obedience limited to those areas. As the Vatican I document Pastor Æternus points out:
[Chapter III] Hence We teach and declare that by the appointment of our Lord the Roman Church possesses a sovereignty of ordinary power over all other Churches, and that this power of jurisdiction of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate; to which all, of whatsoever rite and dignity, both pastors and faithful, both individually and collectively, are bound, by their duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, to submit, not only in matters which belong to faith and morals, but also in those that appertain to the discipline and government of the Church throughout the world; so that the Church of Christ may be one flock under one supreme Pastor, through the preservation of unity, both of communion and of profession of the same faith, with the Roman Pontiff. This is the teaching of Catholic truth, from which no one can deviate without loss of faith and of salvation.
Vincent McNabb, ed., The Decrees of the Vatican Council (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1907), 40.
So when a Pope decides certain changes need to be made for the discipline and governance of the Church, the Pope does have the authority to make these decisions, and we do not have the right to reject them. Do we have the right to make our concerns known? Yes, but respectfully (Canon 212 §3). I would argue that today’s behavior is anything but respectful.
…not Bend the Magisterium to Our Preferences
In addition, we have to beware selective citation of Scripture and Church teaching to condemn those we dislike while ignoring those parts which indict us. Regardless of the topic, some Catholics cite only those parts of Scripture to support themselves and discredit those who take a different view. The problem is, people often confuse either-or with both-and.
It’s like this: There are some areas where the Church teaches, “X is a grave sin.” In such cases, no faithful Catholic can say, “X is not a sin,” or, “X doesn’t matter.” So the Catholic who supports abortion rights or the use of torture goes against Catholic teaching. However, not all issues involve contradictions. There is the possibility of two Catholics accepting Catholic teaching but preferring different ways of carrying it out—especially when society is so dismal that the probable options are both deeply flawed. Provided that they are not feigning obedience, it is possible for them to reach different conclusions on how to best be faithful, and in that case it is unjust for one to accuse the other of being faithless. However, ultimately it is the Pope or bishop who has the final say as to whether one or both of the conclusions are false.
In each of the examples above, people refused to consider whether they might be wrong, or whether they misunderstood the teaching which led them to error. While I certainly pray no Catholic would be as wrong as James Henley Thornwell was about his defense of slavery and the Confederate States, each one of us does have to constantly ask whether we are in error—especially when we find ourselves at odds with the Holy Father and the bishops in communion with Him.
Our faith is that God protects His Church from error. Yet nowadays, people from all factions assume the magisterium must be wrong when there is a conflict, arguing that these shepherds must be in error. That is a practice contrary to our professed faith. If we would avoid the “loss of faith and of salvation” (as the First Vatican Council put it), we must start considering whether it is more plausible that we err when we dissent. We must ask whether we really know, or only think we know.
After all, if we only think we know, and never bother to learn, that is vincible ignorance—which is not an excuse for doing wrong.
[†] People forget that St. Thomas Aquinas held some opinions on unresolved issues (such as on the Immaculate Conception) which the Church later defined differently after his death. We do not consider him a heretic because of those views, because he did not take an obstinate stance against the Church. He merely offered his opinion on something yet undefined.