Wednesday, October 18, 2017

14 Thoughts on Properly Understanding Church Teaching


Last week, the Pope gave an address on the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In it he startled some people by proposing that the section on the Death Penalty be revised, saying it was never legitimate to use. As usual, people went berserk. The usual game was played: The Pope was reported as “changing Church teaching,” and the usual suspects either thought it was good or bad. Very few people I encountered asked whether this might not be a change of teaching in the first place, but actually a deepening of understanding regarding the value of life.

I think the problem is some people tend to know less about how the Church teaches then they think. As a result, whatever doesn’t square with their understanding is automatically a change. So these people tend to think that the Church is moving to the “left” or the “right” (sometimes factions accuse the Church of both at the same time).

This article is a response to this problem. I’ve come up with a list of 14 things we should keep in mind to properly understand Church teaching. This list is not done in a particular order. It is more a list that formed pondering the problems I’ve seen. Nor is it an exhaustive article. I could spend more time and come up with more things to consider (in fact, as I finalize this for posting, I think of more I want to add) but that would turn a blog post into a massive tome. Of course it is not a doctrinal article. I’m a member of the laity. I merely offer this as a set of thoughts on what we must keep in mind.

Things to keep in mind 

So here are 14 points I think are important to remember when dealing with the confusion around what the Church has to say.

1) There is a difference between “irreconcilable” and “I cannot reconcile A with B.” The first says that A and B are objectively in conflict and cannot be resolved. The second admits that the inability to reconcile is at the level of the individual or group, but not necessarily at the level of objective truth.

2) Since we hold that when the magisterium teaches—as opposed to a Pope or Bishop giving a homily or a speech—we are bound to obey, we must either trust that God will protect the magisterium from binding us to error, or we must reconcile our mistrust of the magisterium with Our Lord’s promise to be with and protect His Church always (Matthew 16:18, 28:20).

3) Discipline is not doctrine and, therefore, can change—even if that discipline has been held for a long time. Doctrine cannot change, though it can develop. So, if we think that a Pope is saying or teaching something “against doctrine,” we have the obligation to make sure it is not a change of discipline.

4) We must realize that our interpretation of Church documents is not the same thing as Catholic doctrine. We must also realize that our interpretation is not necessarily correct. We must interpret these things in light of the magisterium, not assume that we are right and the magisterium is wrong.

5) In different ages, the magisterium expressed itself in different ways. Sometimes forceful, sometimes gentle. We cannot assume by the language or the age of the document that something is doctrinal. For example, some believe that the language used by St. Pius  in Quo Primum (promulgating the Missal of 1570) means it was an infallible declaration, and the Mass in that form could never be revoked. There’s a problem with that claim. Blessed Paul VI used language in promulgating the Missal of 1970 affirming it was law and affirming it superseded previous documents [∞]. If tone is a sign of ex cathedra definition, then we already have cases of conflicting doctrine. It’s only when we investigate how the Church understands past teachings that we can determine authority.

6) When appealing to the Old Testament, we must realize that God did not mandate things like slavery, herem (putting all inhabitants of a city to the sword), divorce when they did not exist before. God actually put limits on things existing in even harsher forms among the Hebrews’ neighbors. God was moving them away from the barbarisms and towards stricter limits when the Israelites were able to bear them. So, a Pope taking a stand against the Death Penalty is no more going against Scripture than a Pope condemning genocide is contradicting Scripture on herem.

7) As the Church develops doctrine and changes disciplines, she sometimes limits pre-existing behaviors and eventually eliminates them. In the time of St. Paul, slavery and divorce were accepted facts of life in the Roman Empire. In Pre-Christian Britain and Germany, burning at the stake was considered a legitimate punishment. When the Roman Empire became Christian, the secular laws on slavery and divorce remained on the books, and continued to be followed. Some Christians justified the existence of these pre-Christian practices. While Popes condemned the reemergence of slavery in the 15th century, Christians continued to keep slaves. In fact, they pointed to the Old Testament to justify it.

8) However, we cannot use Divine Accommodation or the Church gradually overcoming the sins of the world to claim that the moral commandments can someday be superseded. Atheists sometimes attack Christians for following Biblical teaching on sexual morality by pointing to parts of the Jewish Law that we don’t follow. Some people try to argue that the condemnation of homosexuality is just as changeable as the condemnation of the eating of shellfish, but that is a false analogy. Divine Accommodation, culminating with the teaching of Jesus Christ has been about closing loopholes and holding the faithful to a higher standard (Matthew 5:22-48)

9) We must base our judgment on what is promulgated, not on what we fear will be promulgated nor on what we think should be promulgated. When the Pope gives an address or writes a book, that is not a teaching act. It is helpful in understanding how to apply Church teaching, but it is not teaching. In these non-teaching instances, we should listen respectfully and attentively. But we should not view those things as “proof” that the Pope is a heretic.

10) An individual priest, bishop, cardinal, friend of the Pope, unnamed source, etc., who claims to have the ear of the Pope or claims that the Pope is in error is not a proof that the Pope is in error. For example, Cardinal Kasper claimed that the Pope agreed with his views on marriage. But actually, Amoris Lætitia did not accept his ideas of treating divorce and remarriage as the Eastern Orthodox do, and the Pope has affirmed things that some people have claimed he would deny.

11) There is a difference between Church Teaching and the application of Church teaching. The former is doctrine. The latter is a discipline on how doctrine is carried out. If the Church forbids a certain application, then that application is closed to us until the Church sees fit to change it for our spiritual good. This is not something we can “lobby” the Pope and bishops over. Yes (per Canon 212 §2, 3), we can make known our needs and desires respectfully. But if they think it is inopportune or not needed, we cannot disobey without sinning. For example, In the Council of Trent, the Church determined it was not opportune to permit Mass in the vernacular. After Vatican II, it was permitted. But a priest who tried to say Mass in the vernacular when it was forbidden did wrong. The priest who does so today does not.

12) How we think Church teaching should be applied is not Church teaching. Some Catholics, including some priests, bishops, and cardinals, believed that all Catholics who were divorced and remarried must be treated as if they gave full consent to mortal sin. The Pope said that confessors must evaluate each case, and if culpability was diminished so that the sin was not mortal, the person might be permitted (i.e., not given a right) to receive the sacraments if conditions justified it [†]. This is not a change of doctrine or permitting sin. Nor is it a refusal to obey Our Lord on marriage or St. Paul on the Eucharist.

13) Abusus non tollit usum. (Abuse does not take away [right] use). The fact that people misuse the teaching of the Church or the writings of a saint does not make those things bad. I have seen people misrepresent St. Thomas Aquinas on Double Effect to try to justify abortion. That does not mean that the concept of double effect is evil. I’ve seen people misapply the Church teaching on just war. That does not mean that the teaching on just war is evil. People misrepresenting Pope Francis is not something new. It’s just that communications were not as swift before the Internet and the smartphone. People had to wait for St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor to be released and read it before they could report on it. People immediately spread errors about Benedict XVI’s Light of the World interview and so-called changes in Caritas in Veritate

14) The Church is not to blame for your misinterpretation. All of us have the obligation to seek out the truth and live in accord with it. That is different from making a literalistic “plain sense” reading of a summary of what the Pope said from a hostile or a religiously illiterate source.  All too often I have encountered people who misinterpreted the Pope and, when shown the quote in context, they blame the Pope for “not speaking clearly.” Assuming a negative interpretation from one’s words or actions instead of learning what is actually meant is rash judgment [¶]. 


I believe that remembering these things can go a long way towards remaining calm as people seek to disrupt the Church by remaking it into what they think it should be. If we realize that the magisterium alone has the authority to determine how to apply Church teaching, and realize that what we want may not be compatible with God’s will, we will be less likely to be deceived by those who claim that their claims about what they think the Church holds supersedes what the current magisterium of the Church says (Luke 10:16).


[∞] Missale Romanum: “We wish that these Our decrees and prescriptions may be firm and effective now and in the future, notwithstanding, to the extent necessary, the apostolic constitutions and ordinances issued by Our predecessors, and other prescriptions, even those deserving particular mention and derogation."

[†] I personally believe that if some bishops are accurately represented as having a “come if you feel called” policy, they misapply Amoris Lætitia

[¶] I think this is another problem that got worse with the emergence of the smartphone. A reporter rushing to be first with something he wrongly thinks is a change in Church teaching gets an out of context quote traveling around the globe before the actual transcript appears. People tend to treat that first report as the truth, and then the official transcript as a “walking back” or “clarification.”

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