Catholics are called to be the light of the world and the city on a hill—in other words a visible beacon that shows others the way. Yet, increasingly, Catholics seem willing to adopt the tactics of the world to promote their position and savage their enemies. If something makes their enemy look bad, it gets repeated, even if they have not made certain it is true, or worse, they know it is false. The problem is, we are forbidden to do this. We are called to speak truthfully and with charity. This means we must investigate the claims alleged before we repeat them online. If we find them to be false, or doubtful, we must not spread them as if they were true.
It doesn’t even have to be malicious calumny. All too often, people nowadays are willing to believe the worst about those who hold a different view about how to best be faithful to God and His Church, or about someone with a different political ideology. From that point of departure, they are willing to spread the accusations they hear without checking if they are true.
A growing number of Catholics are willing to believe that the Pope is teaching error because of the false accusations that have been formed by people misrepresenting his teaching. Never mind the fact that transcripts and interviews show he did not say what the headline quotes scream. These Catholics still believe the Pope intends to change Church teaching, despite the numerous times he has said exactly the opposite of what they accuse him of. What I find notable is the fact that people have been constantly been playing this game with politicians, making all sorts of accusations without basis—and that’s the problem.
When the Pope teaches, or when the bishops teach in communion with the Pope, we are required to give assent. This isn’t a political opinion or a party plank. It is a matter of the successors to the apostles binding and loosing (Matthew 16:19; 18:18). But if we treat the Pope like a politician, especially if we treat him like a politician we despise, we are rejecting God when we reject the Church (Luke 10:16). This is something the Church has taught long before the current system of nation-states, and it will be taught long after they fade away. Since the Catholic faith requires us to accept that God protects His Church from teaching error in matters of faith and morals, we can either accept it as true, or we can deny that the Catholic Church teaches truly. But if we deny it, our relationship with God and His Church is damaged (Matthew 18:17).
If we want to escape the trap of being alienated from God and His Church, we need to investigate whether things are as we think they are—both in the matter of whether a Pope or bishop actually said what foes accuse them of saying, and in the matter of whether we have properly understood Church teaching. I’m not talking about comparing what we think the Pope said with what we think a past writing of the Church said to determine whether he is “orthodox” or not. I’m talking about investigating what the Pope said, and how it was intended on one hand, and whether we actually understand the Church teaching we think he is at odds with. Once more, if we accept God’s promise on protecting the Church from teaching error, then we must accept that He protects the Church just as much today as in any other era of the Church.
So, we cannot treat the Church teaching and Church teachers like politics and politicians. But if we just stop there, we’re still doing wrong. Why? Because the obligation to speak the truth in charity does not stop at the level of the Church. You might think one party or politician is wonderful, while another is a wrong. But you cannot treat the despised politician or party as if God’s commandments on truth were set aside. Even when they do wrong, our obligation to do right continues. That means we cannot commit rash judgment or calumny against them, even if the false story generates enough outrage that we can replace a hated politician with a preferred one. We may not do evil so good may come from it.
I would say that our problem is threefold. First, that we treat those we oppose as enemies, rather than children of God, who also need salvation. Second, that we have sinned against charity and truth by spreading hurtful stories against those we see as enemies without determining if they are true or, worse, spreading them knowing they are false. Third, that we treat the magisterium of the Church as enemies.
Lest factionalism blind us to our sins, we need to undo this threefold problem. We must stop thinking of those we oppose as enemies. Yes, some people may have bad ideas, even harmful ideas. But God does not desire the death of the sinner (Ezekiel 18:23), but that they turn from their wickedness. That means correcting them with charity, lest our bad behavior leads them to think we are the evil ones. It means we cannot adopt the tactic that the ends justify the means in the hope we can drive those we oppose from power. Finally it means that when the Pope and bishops in communion teach, we cannot treat this teaching—even in the ordinary magisterium (Canon 752-754)—as if it were a party platform held by an enemy.
If we can keep these things in our heart, and practice them, we can be God’s instruments in reaching out to those who are in error. If we refuse to change our behavior, we are part of the problem, and at the final judgment, we will have to answer for it.