During the papacy of Saint Paul VI, both traditionalists and progressives made the same mistake: they thought they understood things better than the Church. The former said that Pope Paul VI shouldn’t have changed the liturgy because they couldn’t square his teaching with they believed to be true. The latter said that Paul VI should have changed the ban on contraception because they couldn’t square his teaching with they believed to be true.
As Catholics, we believe that what the Church teaches is reasonable and rational. When the Pope teaches something, people should be able to understand that teaching in light of Scripture, Tradition, and their own experience. I’ve heard many educated and faithful people, invoke this idea in their disagreement with the Church’s teaching regarding contraception, “If contraception is so gravely and objectively evil, then reasonable people should be able to reach that conclusion without having to resort to blind obedience to the pope.”
Does our lack of understanding or confusion necessarily mean that there’s a deficiency in the Church’s teaching or in the explanation of that teaching? I don’t think so. Perhaps the Church has insufficiently explained a particular teaching. I mean, part of the Church mission is to present Her teachings to every generation, it’s part of why we have a living Magisterium. But quite often, the obstacle to our understanding comes from us.
Just because the Church’s authoritative teachings are reasonable and rational doesn’t mean that we are always open to them or immediately capable of understanding them. At times, our own biases and sins harden our hearts to the truth. At times we simply don’t have as much information as we think we do.
I have been in this boat many times. When I run into a teaching that I can’t reconcile with what I believe to be true, trust isn’t usually my first response. During those times I usually say things like, “The Church needs to explain Her teaching better because I don’t understand them, and all these other smart and respected people don’t understand them either.” I often refuse to accept that it’s my own ignorance and stubbornness that are at fault. My lack of understanding often comes from both my hardness of heart and a misunderstanding of what the Church actually teaches.
Fortunately, the Holy Spirit usually breaks through to soften my heart and broaden my mind. The Lord is reforming my heart, but the reform is slow. You would think that after all the times that’s happened I’d be able to trust that it will happen in the future? But I still fight. When I encounter a magisterial teaching that I disagree with or don’t understand, I want to give it the benefit of the doubt, but often I view it with suspicion. And without grace, this suspicion can easily turn into bitterness and antagonism towards the Church.
This is precisely what I’m seeing happen to many American conservative Catholics. A steady diet of EWTN, National Catholic Register, and the Catholic World Report plants, and then feeds, a hermeneutic of suspicion towards everything Pope Francis says and does. So much so that otherwise reasonable Catholics begin nodding their heads when they hear theologians accusing the pope of heresy. I know Catholics who refuse to read the pope’s document on holiness with their small group simply because it’s from Pope Francis, who ignore what Francis has to say on a topic because they trust Benedict or John Paul II more, or who refuse to accept and teach what Pope Francis has authoritatively taught because they don’t understand or simply disagree. Such things breed contempt for the Church and refuses the wealth of grace that God is offering to us through Pope Francis.
It’s not good enough to simply avoid viewing the pope with suspicion; we need to trust the Magisterium. We need to give the Church the benefit of the doubt. We should allow ourselves to be challenged by Pope Francis, rather than challenging him. We need to step back and examine our own hearts. We must be open to the idea that we don’t know as much as we think we do. We need to let the Holy Spirit broaden our minds and deepen our hearts.
[Image Credit: “Universal Church” by Roald Credo]
Paul Fahey is a husband, father of four, parish director of religious education, and co-founder of Where Peter Is. He can be found at his website, Rejoice and be Glad: Catholicism in the Pope Francis Generation.