If we don’t know our limitations, it might blow up in our faces…
Catholic theology has enormous depth. On one hand, the basic teachings can be grasped even by uneducated people. On the other, what we can learn from the Church can fully occupy the minds of geniuses throughout Church history without reaching the bottom. Of course, such understanding can never lead a person from “X is a sin,” to “X is permissible.” But as the Church refines and defines, our understanding of what X involves can deepen, distinguishing what makes it a sin, and what sort of situations increase or decrease culpability.
A problem arises when an individual defines X in a way where the Church does not concur. If a person defines X broadly, expecting no changes, they might be caught by surprise if the Church defines X more narrowly. Another problem arises if a person defines X in such a way that they think the Church can do away with the teaching on sin. When the Church affirms that X remains a serious matter, these people are likely to feel betrayed.
In both cases, the fault is not with the Church. The fault lies with the individual who confused their personal interpretation with the actual teaching authority of the Church. When the Church binds, we cannot loose. When the Church looses, we cannot bind. This is a limitation we must learn. Otherwise, we risk putting ourselves outside of the Church while thinking we are “true defenders” of the faith.
When you look at schisms and heresies that occurred throughout the history of the Church, none of them arose with the heresiarch thinking, “I am a heretic/schismatic!” No, they all came to be through the person thinking, “The Church went wrong and needs to think this way to get back on track.” In thinking this way, they refused to consider the possibility of being in error themselves, and refused correction. Instead, when rebuked, they resentfully assumed the Church “sided” with those “in error” when issuing a rebuke against them.
We need to remember this: When the individual Catholic encounters something from a Pope, bishop, or Council that seems to be in conflict with the Scriptures, or Sacred Tradition, as they understand it, they have the obligation to investigate whether they have misinterpreted what Scripture or the Church has taught, or whether they have misunderstood what the Pope, bishop, or Council has said. If they fail to do so, they make the error of confusing Church teaching with their personal interpretation of that teaching. It’s a serious distinction. The individual Catholic does not have the authority to decree that Catholics follow their interpretation over that of the Pope. Yes, we might prefer ad orientem, the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, or to change Church teaching in any number of ways. But ion the Church teaches one way, we do not have the authority to say, “The Church is wrong.”
Nor can we point to the existence of bad Popes in the past to argue that this Pope is bad. The existence of abuses, or Catholics who fail to do what is right, does not prove the Church today is teaching error. This stance is not ultramontanism. We do not claim that anything a Pope might say in a homily, press conference, interview, or conversation is infallible. Nor do we say anything the Pope does is automatically sanctified by the fact that he is Pope. What we do say is when the Pope intends to teach or govern, we are bound to give assent. The fact of the matter is, the bad Popes never taught their errors, nor attempted to justify their bad behavior. Likewise, when bishops went wrong, they went against, not with, the teaching of the Pope.
In the office of the Pope, a charism exists which prevents him from teaching error in the ordinary or extraordinary magisterium. This is not prophecy. We don’t believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Pope to create new doctrine. Rather we believe that the Holy Spirit prevents him from teaching error. That may involve ensuring the teaching isn’t in error. It may involve guiding a Pope into not teaching at all.
The limitation we have to know is this. All of us are sinners, and can go astray—no matter how holy we desire to be. If we try to match our personal interpretation of what the Church teaches against what the Pope and bishops in communion with him teach, demanding the Church change to match our interpretation, we go beyond our limitations, and it will lead to our ruin.