What do you do when you find yourself in disagreement with a Church teaching or objecting to a discipline that the Church legitimately imposes?
Many Catholics find themselves in this place at some point in their life of faith. Some spend their entire lives there.
Such disagreements can be deeply uncomfortable and difficult to experience. It can be especially difficult the first time someone has felt it. It’s even more difficult when this teaching or discipline makes tangible demands on your life. It can be even more difficult when you are convinced that this teaching or discipline is actually harmful to the Church or to people in your life.
This type of disagreement can provoke feelings of anxiety and doubt about the reliability of the Church—or even Jesus. These disagreements can also cultivate sadness, anger, bitterness, and resentment.
Moments or seasons of disagreement with the Church are common—maybe even universal—among believers. These thoughts and feelings aren’t necessarily good or bad in themselves; sometimes they simply happen. Ultimately our response and the way we handle these situations are what can be good or bad, life-giving or harmful.
Catholics rarely talk about this, and there are few, if any, resources available to help Catholics respond to this experience. Sometimes a person lives with this discomfort for long periods of time. Sometimes it drives people to open rebellion against the Church. Others simply leave the Catholic Church—or even Christianity altogether.
In my own experience and from the experiences others have shared with me, I would like to offer some ideas for how to address such situations in a life-giving way, rooted in the Church’s teachings.
1. Pray for the grace to believe more deeply the most important truth that God has revealed to us: God loves us. Pope Francis says, “God loves you. Never doubt this, whatever may happen to you in life. At every moment, you are infinitely loved” (Christus Vivit 112).
Jesus reveals that God loves us like a father loves his children. He commands us to pray to “our Father” (Matthew 6:9). He invites us to apply our experience of fatherly love to help understand God’s love for us (Cf. Matthew 7:11). He tells us that God is like a father who forgives his prodigal son before the boy can even finish his apology (Cf. Luke 15:21-22).
The pope also reminds us that our Father is patient and gentle with our weaknesses and doubts. As Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium:
“We can wonder if God is demanding too much of us, asking for a decision which we are not yet prepared to make. This leads many people to stop taking pleasure in the encounter with God’s word; but this would mean forgetting that no one is more patient than God our Father, that no one is more understanding and willing to wait. He always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot as yet achieve” (153).
2. Pray for the grace to know that it’s okay to feel this way. The doubt, anger, bitterness, or anxiety do not mean you are disobedient or unfaithful. These feelings certainly don’t change God’s love for you. Don’t be ashamed that you have these feelings.
3. Pray for the grace not to fear taking these feelings to God in prayer. He already knows how you feel. He’s not ashamed of them or of you. He wants you to bring them to him because he wants to meet you precisely where you are. God thirsts for you to come to him with the vulnerability of a child.
4. Pray for the grace to trust Christ and his Church. How does someone gain our trust? They demonstrate their trustworthiness by the truthfulness of their words and actions. The sinful human element of the Church often proves itself to be untrustworthy, the teaching of the Church is protected and guided by the Holy Spirit. Pray for greater trust in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church. Reflect on times and experiences in your life when the Church’s teaching has proven itself true.
5. Likewise, take time to study and reflect on the teaching documents of the Church. Quite often, Catholic sources—even some that have reputations for being good and credible—misrepresent the official texts: the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the documents of Vatican II, encyclicals, exhortations, and other magisterial documents. Go to the source. Read it prayerfully and with a spirit of openness and receptivity. Consider the possibility of being wrong and have the willingness to try to understand the teaching according to the Church’s point of view.
6. Try to find people with whom you can share this experience. Do you know anyone who you know won’t shame you or treat you in a condescending way? You will also want to avoid those who will stoke your anger or instigate more resentment and rebellion. In-person relationships are often best, but online friendships and even social media groups can be extremely helpful. Try to be mindful of those who may provoke you from their own woundedness. Having other people with whom you can be honest and vulnerable can be extremely beneficial when undergoing a process of discernment and struggle.
7. Although expressing our difficulties and concerns openly in groups or on social media can be helpful, we must be careful not to allow our participation in the discussion to shift from sharing personal experiences and asking genuine questions to asserting that a Church teaching is wrong, or advocating for disobedience against the Church. When we do this, we may become a stumbling block to others and their own consciences.
Canon Law says that, “According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, [the faithful] have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful” (Canon 212).
But the Church also cautions the faithful to avoid turning to “mass media” when expressing our disagreements with the Church’s teaching but instead “have recourse to the responsible authority, for it is not by seeking to exert the pressure of public opinion that one contributes to the clarification of doctrinal issues and renders service to the truth” (Donum Veritatis 30). We do not want to create harmful division in the Body of Christ.
8. Form, trust, and follow your conscience. The Catechism teaches that the conscience “is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths” (CCC 1776).
We must properly form our consciences in order to properly hear God’s voice directing our lives, and a well-formed conscience “guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart” (CCC 1784). We form our conscience through Scripture, the Church’s teaching, the advice of others, examining “our conscience before the Lord’s Cross,” and quiet prayer (CCC 1785). Specifically, the pope says, it is through silent prayer that “we can discern, in the light of the Spirit, the paths of holiness to which the Lord is calling us” (Gaudete et Exsultate 150). Finally, this discernment is a dynamic and constant process that requires we always remain open to what God may ask of us.
It is vital to remember that the whole moral law is contained in the command to love others as God has loved us (Cf. CCC 1970). Further, the Catechism says that three “rules apply in every case” as we face moral choices: “One may never do evil so that good may result from it,” “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them,” and we must have “respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience” (CCC 1789).
Through our conscience, God can reveal the next concrete step he wants us to take. When we trust in God’s love and mercy, we can follow our conscience and walk forward with humility and obedience to God’s will. Pope Francis wrote, referencing Saint Augustine, “In every case, God commands you to do what you can and to ask for what you cannot, and indeed to pray to him humbly: ‘Grant what you command, and command what you will’” (Gaudete et Exsultate 49).
Sometimes our disagreement with the Church seems insurmountable. But God’s love for us is unconstrained, and he will help us to never lose faith. “For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail” (Donum Veritatis 31).
Whenever we disagree with the Church or struggle with a teaching, ultimately we are asked to trust in Jesus’ promise to never abandon us or his Church.