Over the past four years, we’ve had a relentless drumbeat from the anti-Francis Catholics, telling us that this Pope is a “disaster” and that people who disagree are either ignorant or heretics themselves. Unfortunately, this group has gone from a small body of radical traditionalists to even absorbing some orthodox Catholics who were determined to be faithful to the Church at all costs. Those who made the switch will no doubt say that they don’t accept the radical traditionalist ideology—and I believe them. But I think these hitherto orthodox Catholics have been poisoned by the toxic rhetoric spewing forth from the beginning, so that while they are not radical traditionalists themselves, they have been taken in by the same error of assuming that what they don’t like is also contrary to the Catholic faith.
I think the built in error is a self-imposed line that the individual Catholic thinks cannot be crossed without the Church betraying God. That’s not to say there are not lines we cannot cross. Rather that the lines causing trouble are self-imposed. They generally involve disciplines that the Church can change, but the individual treats them as doctrines. Thus they feel betrayed when the Church crosses one of their self-imposed lines.
The problem is, we are constantly bombarded on social media with the claim that the Pope is the worst ever, and intends to water down the faith until nothing is left. While we probably won’t accept their claims until our own self-imposed line is crossed, these things do start to get under our skin. The Pope gets misquoted and everyone assume it is true. The Pope makes a small reform which sparks an angry response. When we’re barraged by a constant anti-Francis message, these things start to bother us. So once our own self-imposed line gets crossed, we start to believe the accusations. We start to resent the Pope and blame him for the unrest caused by others.
Then we forget the other side of all this. There are some misled Catholics (like the Spirit of Vatican II Catholics) who believe the Church is in error and will remain in error until she changes her teachings. That is their self-imposed line. But both they and the critics of the Pope make the same error—their self-imposed lines are a judgment on the Church, promising or withholding obedience depending on whether the Church does what they like.
The way to avoid this is to stop making self-imposed lines that actually judge the Church. We need to realize our own limitations. The Church will never go from saying “X is a sin” to saying “X is permitted.”[*] However, the Church can make changes on how to best apply her teachings, or how to perform them. For example, the Church has decided to respond to the divorced and remarried now in an individual investigation, rather than a blanket assumption. But a change in approach is not a change of doctrine. For example, 40 years ago, Blessed Paul VI reversed the discipline that the divorced/remarried were automatically excommunicated. Such rulings do not give the divorced/remarried sanction to sin, though some probably thought that was a line in the sand.
People have established a number of self-imposed lines over the years. They think the Church will never change the form of the Mass, never allow reception of the Eucharist in the hand, allow the laity reception of the chalice, never allow female altar servers, etc. When the Church makes the change they assumed would never be made, they assume the Church is “faithless” rather than consider the possibility of their own error. Likewise the Catholic who thinks the Church must change her moral teachings, they will not consider the possibility of their own error.
As a final point, please keep in mind I am speaking of the Church in her teaching role. We’re not talking about the pastor, sister or DRE who abuse their position to implement whatever they please. The parish that permitted female altar servers before the Church permitted it did wrong. The lay parish director who said it was ok for the divorced/remarried to receive the Eucharist on their own say so did wrong. Their disobedience was not changed to good when the Church announced a change. Rather we are talking about the fact that when the Church binds, we have no authority to loose. When the Church looses, we have no authority to bind.
It’s only when we recognize this that we’ll perhaps inoculate ourselves from the toxic rhetoric that leads people into believing the Church can and does err when she acts against what we would desire the Church to be.
[*] Some might argue the Church changed her position on usury. That’s not the case. Pope Benedict XIV, in the 18th century, called for the Church to investigate whether there was a difference between charging interest to people in need and investing in a venture, expecting a return. Usury is still a sin, but investing is not charging interest to those in need.
Others might point to the fact that eating meat on Fridays used to be a sin, but now is not. What they overlook is that meat itself is not evil. Rather the Church imposed a uniform Friday penance for all to follow. The sin was in refusing to follow the teaching of the Church. When the Church made a change to allow for other penances (how much of a penance is it to go meatless if you’re a vegan?), this was not a change of doctrine or morals.