In opposition to the teaching of the Church, I see multiple factions. While these factions oppose each other on what is right, they are united in one way—the belief that the Church has taught error in maintaining a doctrine or changing a discipline while they are in the right. Some think the Church has erred on her teaching on contraception or homosexual acts. Others think she has erred on making changes to the Mass. But these groups don’t consider the possibility that they have gone wrong. They think everybody else has erred, even going so far as to imply that the Pope is a heretic. To such factions, the Church will remain in the wrong until she changes to suit their preferences.
This has never been the way of the saints. Yes, some saints were reformers and, yes, the Church has needed reform. But these saints all respected the binding authority of the Church to teach and to command obedience. That’s something we lost. For a time it was easy to attribute this disobedience to one faction—the rebellion against the authority of the Church involved matters of sexual morality. Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI were attacked as if their affirmation of Church teaching was the invention of petty rules which went against God’s love.
But it wasn’t the only rebellion. While it wasn’t as widely noted, other Catholics opposed Catholic social teaching. They called this a political platform disguised as a Church teaching, or merely an opinion of the Pope. Still others alleged that the Church outright erred in changing disciplines, confusing them with doctrines. Whether political left or right; whether traditionalist or modernist these groups broke with the faith—knowingly or not—that God protects His Church. By breaking with this belief, some Catholics turned things on their heads. Instead of the Church being both mother and teacher, she was now seen as needing guidance. The general assumption was, “If the Church wasn’t in error, she wouldn’t be doing these things.”
To set things aright, we need to go back to the idea that God protects His Church under the headship of the present Pope and the bishops in communion with him. That doesn’t mean we can’t have bad popes or heretical bishops [†]. It means that God prevents the Church from teaching error when we are bound to obey…and we are indeed bound to obey when the magisterium teaches.
Scripturally, we follow a chain of reasoning. We can begin with John 14:15 and Matthew 7:21-23. If we profess to love God, we must keep His commandments. From there, Matthew 16:18 shows us that Our Lord intends to establish a Church with Peter as the rock He builds on. Matthew 16:19, 18:18, and John 20:22-23 show that Our Lord gave this Church His authority to bind and loose. Matthew 28:19 shows that the Church mission is to baptize and to teach them His ways. Matthew 28:20 shows that He will be with His Church always. This mission and authority will not end before the end of the age (i.e., the end of the world). Once we recognize this, Luke 10:16 and Matthew 18:17 show us that obeying His Church is mandatory and disobedience is fatal. To reject the Church teaching is to reject Christ.
Theology justifying dissent comes from the fact that human beings are sinners, and the Pope and bishops are human beings. Therefore the Pope and bishops are sinners. This is true, and we’ve had some sad examples of that through history. But the personal behavior of men who are Popes and bishops do not change the protection God gives His Church. So morally bad Popes like Benedict IX or John XII, theologically bad Popes as some claim for Liberius and Honorius I, and confused Popes like John XXII, do not disprove this protection because these Popes did not teach error as truth binding on the faithful. Yes, some did wrong and some believed wrong. But God prevented them from teaching wrong.
That doesn’t mean the Pope is inerrant in his personal behavior. There are times when Popes do regrettable things. St. John Paul II kissed a Quran, which led some to accuse him of religious indifferentism. Benedict XVI invoked the image of a “gay prostitute with AIDS” that led people to think he was giving permission to use condoms. Then there was the embarrassing case of Assisi in 1986, where Buddhists set up an image on a tabernacle. These things did cause scandal—but what the Popes intended and what the critics/exploiters assumed were vastly different.
Nor does it mean we’re bound to obey a bishop who teaches contrary to the Church in communion with the Pope. Sadly, some bishops have taught error. But they had no authority to do so. In those cases, it was by turning to the Bishop of Rome and following his teaching that people stayed out of error. Church historians are divided over whether Popes Liberius and Honorius I held heresy privately. But these historians are unanimous in stating the Popes in question did not teach error publicly.
This is why it is false to claim that the past bad behavior or mistakes of Popes “proves” Popes can publicly teach heresy. St. Peter withdrew from eating with gentile Christians, and St. Paul rebuked him for it, but there was no teaching of error involved.
With this understanding, we see that Catholics who claim that the Church has been in error ever since X are actually undermining the authority of the parts of the Church they want to defend. If the Pope can teach error on Laudato Si, why not on Humanae Vitae—or vice versa? How can one appeal to Familiaris Consortio while rejecting Amoris Lætitia (again, or vice versa) when both teach with the same level of authority? If Blessed Paul VI erred in establishing the Missal of 1970, then how do we know St. Pius V didn’t err when he established the Missal of 1570?
In all of these cases, the Popes exercised their authority as the Vicar of Christ, binding or loosing as needed to help people follow the teachings Our Lord handed on to His Apostles and their successors. When they bound something, we were required to give assent. When they loosed something, we could not call them faithless to Our Lord.
Our Lord’s words in Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 require us to recognize His protection. If He did not protect the Church, then we would be in the situation where God would bind us to obey the Church in being disobedient to Him—which is absurd. But there is the choice. Either we accept that God will bind error and loose truth in Heaven if the Church does so, or we accept that God will guide those shepherds in the Church from teaching error. In the latter case, we trust the Church because we have faith in God.
I think we who profess to be faithful Catholics will have to show it by our lifestyle. If we want Catholics to be obedient to the Church on matters they find difficult, like sexual morality and social justice, then we have to be faithful in lesser matters. As Our Lord said:
10 The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. 11 If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? 12 If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours? (Luke 16:10–12).
Once we remember that Our Lord established the Church and gave her the authority to teach in His name, then obedience is a necessity for our own salvation and is also a witness to others. If we pick and choose when to obey and when to disobey, the witness we give is that one can pick and choose what to practice and what to reject. But when people follow that example, and are told to depart from Him (Matthew 7:23), we will have to face the judgment of the One who said in Luke 17:1-2, “Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.”
But we can’t contrast loving God with obeying the Church. Because Our Lord made clear that obeying Him means keeping His commandments, and keeping His commandments means hearing the Church.
This is the base of ecclesiology we need to remember.