Certain Catholics who oppose the decisions and teachings of Pope Francis (or other recent popes) proudly announce their “orthodoxy” by citing certain Scripture and Church documents—the latter frequently from the time of St. Pius X—in order to argue that the more recent statements they dislike must be heretical. Their behavior is very much like that of those Protestant Christians who claim to rely solely on the authority of the Bible.

The reason I say the two groups are similar is because they make the same error, even though each clearly disagrees with the other’s theoretical understanding of the Church. Their common error is that they confuse their own interpretation of a teaching with what is actually taught. Because they rely on their own interpretations instead of those of the Church established by Christ (which has the authority to bind and loose), they assume that they have not erred in their interpretation and—as a result—will not heed anyone who warns them that their interpretation is wrong. If the Church should warn them, they simply assume this is further proof of error on the part of the institutional Church.

Ultimately, what they do is (perhaps unwittingly) assume that their non-negotiable understanding of a teaching is a sign that they are right and, as a consequence, the Church must be wrong. But conviction is not proof of inerrancy. In past centuries, numerous heretics were just as strongly convinced that Arius or Nestorius was right. Turning to today, many contemporary Christians are convinced that God, being love, didn’t really condemn certain acts as evil—even when it literally says so in the Bible. Likewise, many today are convinced that despite Our Lord founding a visible Church and giving it His authority to teach, they can freely ignore the Church or accuse it of error when it teaches something contrary to their interpretation. The question that this last group needs to answer is: what gives them the authority to interpret teaching contrary to the Church?

Quite often, their response to this question employs the begging the question fallacy. The one rejecting Church authority will simply assume that the “errors” taught by the Church—based on their own interpretation—indicate that the Scripture passages about false teachers and Church teachings on heretics must apply. Social media discussion usually turns into something like this:

Why do you say that the Pope/Church is in error?
Because the Bible/Church teaching contradicts them. 

But how do we know that you interpret correctly?
Because that’s what it says. 

But what about others who interpret it differently and say you’re in error?
They’re in error.

Why are they in error?
Because the Bible/Church teaching contradicts them*.

They won’t explain or prove why their own interpretation is correct, and when faced with a clear and precise question, they don’t give a real answer. They won’t acknowledge that, in reality, when someone puts forward their own personal interpretation of a teaching, it must be squared with what the Church officially teaches—under the leadership of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him—not the other way around.

This has always been the criterion for discerning what is authentic vs. what is counterfeit. When the Church teaches, whether ex cathedra or from the ordinary magisterium, the faithful are bound to grant assent to the teaching. If one refuses, they should remember that refusing obedience is a schismatic act (see canon 751).

Another hollow line of argumentation used by this group of Catholics is the fallacy of false analogy. Quite often, anti-Francis Catholics will attempt to support their opposition to him by mentioning the bad Popes and heretical bishops throughout history. Yet history shows that those bishops who fell into heresy or schism acted in opposition to the Popes, not in concert. Meanwhile, we have never had a Pope who was a manifest heretic. The history of the Papacy gives us three categories of bad Popes:

  1. Those who were morally or intellectually bad but did not teach#.
  2. Those who were suspectedof privately holding error but did not teach@.
  3. Those who were derelict or incompetent in their administration, but did not teach.

In contrast, when it comes to the current attacks on Pope Francis (as well as other recent popes and councils), the accusations are about magisterial teaching, not his private behavior, private error, or failure to act. Laudato Si’ and Amoris Laetitia are official papal teachings of Pope Francis. The documents of Vatican II are the teachings of an Ecumenical Council. It does not fall on individuals (even members of the clergy) to give official interpretations of these teachings. It is, rather, those who promulgated the teachings, as well as their successors who have the authority to authentically interpret the Magisterium, who make binding interpretation.

This has always been the Church’s understanding: even when there were Saints who challenged the moral or administrative faults of Popes, they were always respectful of the teachings of the Popes, giving obedience when he taught. But now, we see people claiming to be faithful Catholics but refusing obedience out of the belief that the Pope and bishops in communion with him are the ones spreading error or causing confusion. That is the accusation made by every heretical and schismatic group that emerged throughout Church history.

They might sincerely think that their rebellion is faithful. But they are blind in doing so. They are pressing forward blindly, confusing their interpretation for what actually is true. If one would follow them, that person would be the blind being led by the blind.


(*) This is also what reading Luther or Calvin feels like.

(#) We would include Popes like Benedict IX and John XII here.

(@) We might put John XXII here.

(§) We might include Honorius I here. He was not condemned (posthumously) for holding error—scholars disagree on that. He was condemned for failing to take actions against it. It should be noted that the Pope at the time of the Council’s condemnation rejected that canon, so it seems to have no validity.

(€) The criticism by St. Catherine of Siena was about the Pope not being in Rome and the moral decay in a Rome that came from that fact.


An earlier version of this piece, Pressing Forward, Blindly appeared on David Wanat’s personal blog, If I Might Interject.

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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/.

The False Authority of Personal Interpretation
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