There’s an old joke that goes “there may be a shortage of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, but there’s no shortage of vocations to the papacy”. The point being that few people seem willing to turn their lives over to God in service of His people, while lots of people feel free to consider themselves the ultimate authority about the validity of Church teaching.
This strange phenomenon was on display once again in a recent article in the Washington Post, in which they questioned parishioners at a local church about the Holy Father’s comments on condoms. The piece was oddly entitled, “Faithful Have Mixed Views” — which was strange, since they didn’t quote a single person who accepted and supported the Church’s teaching on contraception and sexuality. Typically, the reporter quoted only those who openly stated their disagreement with the Church’s teaching.
The upshot of the piece can be summarized in one quotation from a man who was an usher at the parish:
“As a Catholic,”… he opposed the use of condoms. “As a John Doe,” he said he approved. “It’s strictly personal,” he added, “a singular decision.”
There’s a word for that attitude, and it’s not “Catholic” — it’s “Protestant”.
At the heart of Protestantism is the denial of the authority of the Church to define matters of faith in terms that are binding upon all, and the freedom of individuals to determine the content of the faith. This principle is called “private judgment”.
The Catholic approach to the faith is quite different. We are called to listen to the bishops in communion with the Bishop of Rome — the successors of the Apostles, who together constitute the Magisterium, or teaching authority of the Church, exercised under the command of Christ Himself and in His Name. We have an obligation to adhere to the doctrines they teach us, and to set aside our personal reservations.
The Catechism puts this quite clearly:
“The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.”… Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: “He who hears you, hears me”, the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms. (85, 87)
This is not mindless obedience, but is instead an exercise of the virtue of faith. We should be actively receptive to this teaching, always seeking to inform ourselves better and to seek a deeper understanding of the will of God. The teachings of the Church are absolutely binding upon me in conscience, but I must always strive to better appreciate them with my intellect, and carry them out with my will.
This is not easy, and it runs very much against my nature. I’m a skeptic and cynic, and I have a hard time believing things that I cannot see and test for myself. But to be a disciple of Christ, I have to let go of that, and step out of the boat in an act of faith.
Cardinal John Henry Newman, who was beatified by Pope Benedict during his recent trip to Great Britain, described the difference between private judgment and Catholic faith, and the Catholic attitude to the teachers of our faith, as follows:
Now, in the first place, what is faith? it is assenting to a doctrine as true, which we do not see, which we cannot prove, because God says it is true, who cannot lie. And further than this, since God says it is true, not with His own voice, but by the voice of His messengers, it is assenting to what man says, not simply viewed as a man, but to what he is commissioned to declare, as a messenger, prophet, or ambassador from God. In the ordinary course of this world we account things true either because we see them, or because we can perceive that they follow and are deducible from what we do see; that is, we gain truth by sight or by reason, not by faith. You will say indeed, that we accept a number of things which we cannot prove or see, on the word of others; certainly, but then we accept what they say only as the word of man… We keep the decision in our own hands, and reserve to ourselves the right of reopening the question whenever we please. This is very different from Divine faith; he who believes that God is true, and that this is His word, which He has committed to man, has no doubt at all. He is as certain that the doctrine taught is true, as that God is true… and it gives this assent not because it sees with eye, or sees with the reason, but because it receives the tidings from one who comes from God. This is what faith was in the time of the Apostles, as no one can deny; and what it was then, it must be now, else it ceases to be the same thing.
In this light, it makes no sense whatsoever to say that I can accept a teaching “as a Catholic” but reject it “as John Doe”. I can no more separate my Catholic identity from who I am as a human person than I can separate my body and soul. Who am I, and who gave me the authority, to do such a thing?
As Catholics, it should be our fervent prayer that we not try to set ourselves up as the popes of our own church. Instead, may we always have the grace to conform our hearts, minds, and wills to the will of God, as expounded to us in the teachings of His Holy Catholic Church.