Throughout the history of Christianity there have always been people who read Scripture, Patristics, Magisterial documents and other things and used the conclusions they drew to argue that the Church—whether through the teachings of Pope or Council—had gone wrong and, to get back in the right, needed to adopt their own interpretation of these things.
This goes back as far as the Gnostic heresies of the First Century AD and continues throughout history to the present day, whether in the form of heresy, schism, or dissent. But it always involves the individual or group forgetting two things:
1) The Church, under the Magisterium of the pope and those bishops acting in communion with him, is protected from error when she teaches.
2) Those of us without or not acting with that authority do not have that protection.
When we understand those two points, it becomes easy to identify who we should listen to when an individual or group attacks the pope. Unfortunately, in the United States and Western Europe, a growing number of Catholics have lost sight of—or never understood—these two points and accuse him of heresy or (to avoid committing a schismatic act) of “causing confusion.”
Don’t be fooled. The confusion in the Church is not caused by the pope, but by those who rely on their own interpretation of what the pope says and don’t verify whether they interpreted him—much less the past teachings they put in contradistinction to the pope—correctly. Those who do this have either never had authority in the first place (your typical pope-bashing site or religiously ignorant mainstream media commentator) or they are offering their personal non-magisterial opinions (the priest, bishop, or cardinal who disagrees with the pope and is not acting in communion with him, but as a private individual).
There is nothing new here. Arius, Nestorius, Calvin, Luther, the Spiritual Franciscans, the Donatists, the Novatians, the SSPX, “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholics, etc., etc., etc. have caused the confusion in the Church by pointing to the personal interpretation of what the Successor of Peter said, contrasted with their personal interpretation of other documents. But their personal interpretation§ has no authority against the interpretation by the pope.
To blame the pope for the depressingly increasing number of false interpretations is like blaming the popes in the 16th century because Calvin and Luther contrasted Church teaching on our personal obligations to avoid sin with their own faulty interpretation of Scripture and St. Augustine to argue that the Church was guilty of Pelagianism. But the Church never taught what this duo accused her of. The Church never contradicted herself or fell into error. Rather, people grossly mistaken about what the Church taught, believed that the Church either was previously or is currently in error.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Much of this could be avoided if we would remember that rash judgment and calumny are sins. As the Catechism tells us:
2477 Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
— of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
— of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
— of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.
2478 To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor’s thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way:
Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved.
But those who automatically assume that the pope must err because they do not ask whether they properly understand him or the teachings they think contradict him before accusing him. Where are their attempts to assume a favorable interpretation? Where are their attempts to ask for clarification?* The critics have gone straight to “it must be error.” That’s rash judgment.
Calumny comes in to play when falsehoods are leveled against the pope or the Church. Whether they know it is false or not, those who accuse the pope of saying, doing, or intending things he did not say, do, or intend. Whether they believed it or not, Calvin and Luther committed calumny when they accused the Church of inventing doctrines to justify their desire for money or power#. When critics accuse the pope of wanting to promote divorce and remarriage or same-sex marriage, these are calumnies, whether those who made these accusations knew they were false or were in gross error.
We need to remember that what we think must be intended might be error. It is only by using the Church as our guide to proper understanding that we can avoid falling into error. But as soon as we respond to the teaching of the pope by saying that the Church errs but we do not, we fall away from “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) which is the Church.
(§) Not even mine. If something I write turns out contrary to what the Church teaches under the leadership of the pope (such a thing would be unintentional), you should of course listen to the pope.
(*) The problems I have with the “dubia cardinals” is not that they had a question about interpretation. Dubia have been used for centuries to understand things properly, after all. My problem is that the text of their questions gave me the impression of the “have you stopped beating your wife yet?” complex question fallacy that assumed a heterodox intention by the pope. They might not have intended it (to avoid rash judgment myself, I try to avoid attributing intention and motives to them). But it comes across disrespectfully.
(#) The false claims of the late Jack Chick can actually be traced back to the false claims from foundational writings of the men who established Protestantism.
An earlier version of this piece, “Beware: What You Personally Interpret Might Not Be What is True“ appeared on David Wanat’s personal blog, If I Might Interject.
Image: Adobe Stock.