Sunday, July 16, 2017

It's Time to Take Back the Faithful Catholic Label (and the means are different than one might think)


On the internet, a battle rages over what image the Catholic Church should take. Some are all about changing Church teaching. Others are about preferring the older way to do things. But whether these factions are politically conservative or liberal; whether they are modernist or radical traditionalist, or some other faction, they assume they are the ones really being faithful to the Church, and that those who think the preferred faction are wrong are accused of not being faithful. The problem is, this decree is not a decision of the Pope and bishops issuing a teaching. This is the claim of factions that are in opposition to the Pope and bishops. In other words, the Catholics who claim they are really being faithful are the ones who are refusing to assent to the teachings they dislike, and claim that their disobedience is really some sort of higher obedience.

The problem with this claim is: Church history has never recognized the actions of such dissenters as being “truly faithful.” The saints who reformed the Church gave obedience to the successors of the apostles, even when the men who held the office did not personally behave in a manner worthy of it. There is a (possibly apocryphal) story of St. Francis of Assisi meeting Pope Innocent III. Disgusted with the saint’s appearance, he reportedly said to go and roll with the pigs. St. Francis obeyed, impressing the Pope with his obedience and humility. Our 21st century sensibilities rebel against this, but St. Francis, recognized as one of the saints that reformed a Church in danger of becoming worldly showed that one cannot claim to be a faithful Catholic while refusing obedience to the Pope.

There is a vast difference between the saints who showed obedience to the Church out of love of God and the dissenters who declare themselves superior to the shepherds in the Church, and we need to take back the label of “faithful Catholic” from these counterfeits.

The First Steps

You might think the first step is to denounce the dissenters. But that would actually be following into their error—putting confidence in their own holiness. We should consider well the words of St. John Chrysostom, in his homily on the Gospel of Matthew:

Nay, if thou wilt accuse, accuse thyself. If thou wilt whet and sharpen thy tongue, let it be against thine own sins. And tell not what evil another hath done to thee, but what thou hast done to thyself; for this is most truly an evil; since no other will really be able to injure thee, unless thou injure thyself. Wherefore, if thou desire to be against them that wrong thee, approach as against thyself first; there is no one to hinder; since by coming into court against another, thou hast but the greater injury to go away with. (Homily LI, #5)


John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel according to St. Matthew,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. George Prevost and M. B. Riddle, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 320.

Our first thought should not be on the injuries others have inflicted on us, nor on “getting our own back.” Our first thought should be on where we ourselves stand before God. Because we are sinners, we cannot think of ourselves to be righteous before God. But because of God’s love for us, we cannot of others as being less deserving of His forgiveness. If we forget this, we become like those who misuse the term “faithful Catholic.”

We must also seek to learn as much as we can about the faith. Now the writings of the Saints, the Popes, the Councils and the Bishops  are vast. No one person could read them all—and that’s something we need to learn: That we do not know everything. We can always learn, and our teachers must be those who have the authority to bind and loose—not bloggers or academics who disagree with them. 

Knowing that we do not know everything does not mean that it is possible that Church teaching can justify something we thought was a sin. What it means is we need to recognize we can be led astray by laxity or rigorism if we do not understand that the Pope and bishops teach with the same authority that Our Lord gave the apostles.  They have the authority to teach and govern the Church. When they do, we must assent to their teachings. Refusal to do so is schism:

can. 751† Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.


Code of Canon Law: New English Translation (Washington, DC: Canon Law Society of America, 1998), 247.

If we would be faithful Catholics, we must realize our own sinfulness and our own limits to knowledge. Knowing this, we can turn to God for His grace and forgiveness. Knowing this, we can turn to His Church to learn what we must do to be faithful.”

But What About the Internet Brawls?

Speaking personally, I’d be happy if I never had to take part in another one. But we will encounter some who are either mistaken about the faith or are misrepresenting it. When these situations arise, we should remember 1 Peter 3:15-16:

Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. 

If someone’s going to act like a jerk, strive to make sure it isn’t us. If we want to put a verbal smackdown on our opponents, we risk leaving the audience thinking we’re both jerks.

When we encounter those dissenters who claim to be the “true” faithful, the temptation exists to “put those jerks in their place.” But we must not take that attitude. This is partially because we risk being overcome by pride, thinking we are fine as long as we are not like “them.” But also because we risk alienating the people we hope to help. Now, being sinners, we’ll always have problems. I can describe these dangers because I have fallen into them myself. 

So, when someone decides to attack the Church, or the Pope, we must not allow ourselves to flail wildly, or speak viciously. We may have to tell a critic, “We do not believe what you accuse us of believing.” We may have to explain the truth. This may not be effective with the person we are arguing with. But that person is not the only person involved. On the internet, there are more lurkers than commenters. Even if our adversary is not willing to listen to us, the lurkers might—if we give them a reason to. But if we’re rude and abusive, we might win some points with people who already agree with us for doing a stylish smackdown, but we won’t convince others.


How do we take back the label of “faithful Catholic” from those dissenters who claim to be in the right while the Church is in the wrong? As I see it, we have to act like faithful Catholics. That means following the example of the saints in their obedience and humility. If we want to convince people to be faithful Catholics, we have to give them a living example.

That means, turning to the Lord with the desire to repent and follow Him anew, seeking to know and do His will as taught by the Church. Not by what we think the Church taught at a time we think most pleasing to follow.

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