If I had to say what I thought caused the biggest harm to the stability of the Church and acceptance of her teachings, I would say it was the loss of respect and obedience to the Holy Father when he teaches, and the assumption that when the Pope teaches what we dislike it means he must be an idiot or a heretic.
In the period of 1968-2013, this behavior was seen in those Catholics who were at odds with the teachings on sexual morality and women in the priesthood. They believed (and still do) that the Church went wrong on those teachings and, until the Pope reversed those teachings, they could “legitimately” disobey him. They argued that, since these teachings were not defined ex cathedra, they were not protected, and could be in error.
In response, Catholics began stepping up to defend the authority of the papacy. They pointed out that the authority of the Pope was binding when he intended to teach and, even if we should wind up with a morally bad Pope, God would prevent him from teaching error (whether by guidance or by diverting him from attempting to implement a false teaching).
There were warning signs we should have seen however. Because some of the Church teaching on moral issues superficially coincided with conservative values, it became easy to confuse the two. When Popes wrote on other issues, these Catholics fretted that the Church was “moving left” or argued that the Pope was just expressing an “opinion” where his Polish (St. John Paul II) or German (Benedict XVI) background gave him a distorted view of the West.
Beginning in 2013, we saw the first non-European Pope. He was solidly orthodox, but had a different perspective on the world, based on different experiences than Catholics in the US and Western Europe had. Misinterpreting these perspectives as a “change of teaching,” we soon wound up with same problem but with different actors and reasons for dissent. Because he spoke out on the social justice teachings of the Church—the ones the defenders of his predecessors wrote off as opinion—we saw the Catholics who confused Church teaching with conservatism begin to question him, then challenge his orthodoxy.
And, similar to before, the superficial similarities between Catholic teaching on social justice and political liberalism leads some Catholics to assume that the Church was finally agreeing with them, despite the fact that the Pope confirmed that he held the teachings of the Church, calling himself a “son of the Church.” [§]
Both of these factions of dissenters lost sight of the Catholic understanding of cum Petro et sub Petro—with Peter and under Peter. This is the recognition that one must be in communion with the Pope and offering religious submission of intellect and will to him when he teaches. This was the obedience of the saints even in darker times when some Popes were more interested in self than in God.
Professing that God protects His Church is not some misplaced trust in the holiness and knowledge of the individual on the Chair of St. Peter. It’s faith in God that we can trust Him to protect His Church under the headship of the Pope, even if some of the Popes should prove to live unworthily.
If we believe this, we can understand why we give obedience to each Pope when he teaches—even if we don’t particularly like him or his behavior—because we can trust God to protect His Church and prevent it from teaching error when we give obedience to the visible head of the Church. But if we refuse to give religious submission of intellect and will to the Pope when he teaches, if we refuse to be cum Petro et sub Petro, we are not faithful Catholics. We’re merely schismatics (cf. canon 751).
[§] It should be noted, despite the constant predictions of Pope Francis changing teachings on contraception, woman priests, homosexuality, etc., he has always strongly reaffirmed Church teaching on these subjects. Maybe it’s time to stop listening to the critics and alarmists.
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David Wanat holds a Masters Degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has been blogging in defense of the Catholic Church since 2007. His personal blog is at http://www.ifimightinterject.com/.