No Easy Answer for Catholics

A reader named Lizzie McAllie has penned so clear a statement to clarify and even refute much of the confusion surrounding in issue that was recently being debating in this space, that I deem it laudable to laud her words, and repeat them here in full.

The comments are directed at one Mr. Gudeman, who proposed the paradox that any Catholic unwilling blindly to follow gruesomely erroneous pastoral teaching was estopped from criticizing Protestants, apparently on the theory that anything other than blind obedience was equal to schism.

With all due humility and deference of an individual who has not joined the conversation in Mr. Wright’s blog since the days of it being hosted on Livejournal, I respectfully posit that your dilemma presented is built upon a foundation of sand, and is therefore not a proper question in the first.

Understandably, you do not appear to have an understanding of the structure and organisation of the system you criticise. I humbly submit a summary of the basic structure:

A priest has been sacramentally inducted into his role according to the direct Apostolic lineage, traditionally associated with the line of Melchisedek (typologically, at least).

The priest is entrusted with the authority to act in persona Christi, specifically through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Diocesan priests function as administrative limbs of the Bishop, exercising authority over a Parish, in the traditional Roman administrative structure.

In accordance with his vow of obedience, the priest is bound to communicating the teachings of his bishop (on matters of faith and morality). A priest whose does not execute this responsibility in good faith is guilty of a breach of his vow. Therefore, a priest who presents wrong teaching is guilty of wickedness, but does not undermine the Magisterial Authority.

A bishop has been ordained with the specific charism of teaching authority. He is accountable to God for what he teaches to his diocese. Were a Bishop to promulgate a false teaching (e.g., that rape is in fact a moral good), it would be cause of great scandal. Proper recourse in this instance is, by my understanding that such grave claims are presented before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) (AKA “The Inquisition”). The CDF investigates such matters in which there are questions of the teachings of the Church, and promulgates statements as to the formal teaching of the Church. The CDF statements are not themselves infallible, but are considered authoritative and worthy of deference. If a Bishop persists in teaching contrary to the CDF proclamations, it is the responsibility of the Holy See to take appropriate administrative action.

In theoretical cases in which there is legitimate dispute of a teaching of the CDF, the next step would be A: an Ecumenical Council or B: An ex cathedra statement from the Pope.

In both instances, it is the same mechanism: the Bishops, speaking as one (directly or through the authority of the Pope), set forth the official teaching of the Church. This is Catholic dogma, which cannot disputed without being formally heretical. Protestantism, by definition, denies at least a portion of Catholic dogma. (Schismatic factions, by contrast, do not differ in matters of doctrine or dogma, but reject the authority of the Pope)

As touched on above, the Papal infallibility applies only to ex cathedra statements. The pope is free to state that it is his considered opinion that Marxism is good and desirable, but that is merely a matter of opinion. His lofty stature demands deference, that the faithful consider his opinion in good faith, but it allows room for disagreement. If, however, the Pope were to make an ex cathedra statement that Marxism were an Article of Faith, on the level of Christ’s Divine and Human nature, or the perpetual virginity of Mary, it is a situation that would be laughable were it not so grave. Formally, he could not simply say “Marxism is the way to go, yo”; it would have to itself be a series of theses, to the effect of “If any man shall claim that there is any just distribution of wealth other than confiscation of all material property to be redistributed by a central authority according to the needs of the individual, let him be anathema.”

The “official” response is that the infallibility of the Pope and Christ’s promise to Peter ensure that such an occurrence would not happen. But, for the sake of argument, we will allow for this possibility. It is needless to say that such a radical action would lead to a crisis of faith among many Catholics. Let us posit that there come three factions in response: One third accepts the statement, one third rejects the statement and leaves the Faith, and one third approaches the matter intellectually, to resolve the apparent conflict between all other Church teachings and this new teaching.

Of those that accept, you have two factions: those who humbly defer to authority, and those who are guilty of the sin of intellectual sloth. Of those that reject, you have two factions: those who were looking for an excuse to break with the church, and those who, through a combination of pride and intellectual sloth, reject the teaching outright. While it would be foolish to say that the third faction is entirely virtuous, they are in general practicing humility in accepting the possibility of their own error, while also practicing prudence in their seeking confirmation of the teaching through the divine gift of reason.

So, in conclusion, no, Catholics are not called to blind obedience. Nor are they called to consider themselves the sole arbiters of faith and morals. Catholics don’t get an easy answer. They are called to give deference to the teachings of the duly appointed leadership, but are also called to educate themselves, so they may understand the goodness and truth of the teachings outside blind deference to authority.

As a final point, you misunderstand excommunication. It is not a political weapon or even (necessarily) a tool of condemnation. It is the shepherd calling out to the sheep “Your actions bear the appearance of grave public sin, which causes scandal among your brothers in Christ. I call on you to repent of this scandal you have caused (along with any associated sins), and perform a public penance (so as to alleviate the scandal you have caused).” It is refusal of the pastoral call by which the excommunicated condemn themselves.