As the antics of some Catholics continue, I am reminded of the DC Comics Bizarro World. The basic concept here is whatever is seen as right, true, and good on Earth is seen as wrong, false, and bad in Bizarro World. It’s played for laughs in the comics, and it works because we know what is supposed to be right.
In the Bizarro-Catholic world, we’re seeing cases of Catholics who are ignorant of past Church history hailed as knowledgeable and those rejecting the authority of the magisterium with the vehemence of Luther praised as “defending the Church from Protestantism.” Formal teaching today is called “opinion” while opinions from the past are called “doctrine.”§ When the Pope repeats the Church condemnation against nuclear weapons, he is condemned as ignoring the Church teaching on Just War; when he repeats the consistent Church teaching on caring for the poor and oppressed, he is condemned for being “political.” When he makes something clear, they accuse him of being vague; when his staff corrects a misinterpretation by his critics, the Bizarro Catholics say the Vatican is “walking it back,” or even “lying.”
I could go on and on about these ridiculous antics—and, tragically, the Bizarro Catholics will continue committing them—but it will get annoying. The point is: a certain group that accuses the Pope or the Church today of being in error are actually the ones in error, and the standards they use to judge orthodoxy are opposed to what the Church has always called on the faithful to accept as the guide of what is authentically Catholic.
Pointing this out angers this faction of Catholics. They point to excerpts of obscure Latin documents and contrast them with the actions of the Church today, arguing that it is a “contradiction” and proof of modern error. The problem is, they are arguing about authentic interpretation when the final decision about authentic interpretation is the Pope. They do not consider the development of Church teaching and discipline, and whether the Church sees a need for a changed approach in times that have grown deaf to the methods used in the past.
St. John Paul II warned about this attitude in Ecclesia Dei, when he explained how the SSPX fell into error:
4. The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, “comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on. This comes about in various ways. It comes through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts. It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience. And it comes from the preaching of those who have received, along with their right of succession in the episcopate, the sure charism of truth”.(5)
But especially contradictory is a notion of Tradition which opposes the universal Magisterium of the Church possessed by the Bishop of Rome and the Body of Bishops. It is impossible to remain faithful to the Tradition while breaking the ecclesial bond with him to whom, in the person of the Apostle Peter, Christ himself entrusted the ministry of unity in his Church.(6)
The Church will never contradict the doctrines she has previously taught, but that doesn’t mean that what was written in the past cannot be clarified or when loopholes arise. As a result, when someone stands up and says that the Pope or validly convened and ratified Council errs, we have seen the antics of a Bizarro Catholic. And, if we give these critics credence while rejecting the Church under the visible headship of the Pope, we too are Bizarro Catholics.
(§) Case in point, one of St. Robert Bellarmine’s evaluations of different opinions on whether a Pope can be a formal heretic is considered “doctrinal” when the work in question is simply a defense of Catholicism against Protestant claims. He no more intended to be magisterial that Benedict XVI did when he wrote theological works as Cardinal or as Pope.
An earlier version of this piece entitled, “Umm, What? Reflecting on Bizarro World Catholicism” appeared on David Wanat’s personal blog, If I Might Interject.