Before I converted, Anglican (and Catholic) friends warned me that if I was expecting to find brotherly love and amit, I’d do better not becoming a Catholic. I recall one friend, a former convert who reverted, telling me that as an Anglican I had no idea of the bitterness of the divisions within the Catholic Church – there were, he told me with some vigour, even those who did not think the Pope was much of a Catholic. That Pope is now a Saint, and yes, there are still Catholics who don’t think he was much of a Catholic, even as there are those who don’t think there has been a licit Pope since Pius XII; for all I know, there are those who would argue that the See of Peter has been vacant for longer than that. He was, of course, correct, and that was, of course, irrelevant. The Church is the Church founded by Christ, it has a Magisterium which is authoritative on matters of faith and morals, and when it pronounces on these things it does so with the authority of its founder. Do I think it ought to pronounce more on x or y; do I wonder why it does not say that this or that politician cannot receive communion because they support abortion; do I think it ought to take a firmer stand against this or that thing I think is evil, and which even I can see runs counter to the teaching of the Church? That is a bit like asking if I am human. Of course, I feel these things. But then who am I to judge my bishops and priests? Do I know something about these things or these people that they don’t know? Or might it just be possible they know more than I do?
My good friend ‘Scoop’ has forcefully argued in the comments boxes that:
teaching the faith to the best of our ability is our calling. Should an RCIA teacher (a layman without any formal teaching) do their best to follow the catechism and teach others what is expected of a Catholic? Or should he simply say that it is all up to your own discernment? We really don’t care if you teach the gospel in season or out of season. If it is unpopular you can still be a good Catholic by just keeping your mouth shut and agreeing with those who hold positions that run afoul with the teachings of the Church . . . i.e. don’t make Catholicism hard on you, find a comfort level with the world where you won’t be criticized or chastised.
I am unsure that the dichotomy in the second and third sentences is a real one. Of course all Catholics should do their best to live the faith, and by their example, if nothing else, witness to what it is to be a Catholic. But is there an alternative to one’s own discernment in the end? Are we to assume that those who fail to live up to what our own discernment and our expectations are not doing their best? It seems to me that the reluctance of the Church to censure individual politicians may just be the result of its greater wisdom in these things. Of course it is hard to see how bishops and priests could possibly be in a better position than those of us who read websites and newspapers and see things with our own eyes – away with such faithless shepherds, they are hirelings who have sold out to political correctness. Are we then, alone, and those who agree with us, the only ones who get this right? What effect do our words have?
We can get some example from the reaction of traditionalists to Pope Francis’ strictures. There is little sign that his words prompt anything by way of a rethink, and every sign they prompt further anger with him. Is it to be supposed that non-traditionalists will react is some morally superior way when they are called ‘cafeteria Catholics’ and go ‘goodness me, yes, they are right, thank you?’ Yes, it is true that the Church Fathers sometimes used harsh language, but then one bishop even punched another – are we going to say that we think that is a good way to witness in our own time? If we are to be known as his by the love we bear one another and that were used in evidence to convict of of being his followers, how many of us would be sure of being convicted? As one often on the receiving end of criticism for my conservatism from what I might want to call neo-traditionalists – that is those ‘spirit of Vatican II’ Catholics who want to go further down the liberal road – I also find myself criticised by those who want to close down such avenues. Each side is convinced of its moral rectitude, each side criticises the other. Where has it brought us? What good has it done to the cause of witnessing to the Gospel?
Do such disputes, when conducted in harsh language, do any good? If so, it is hard to find the evidence. Since at least Vatican II some of those in the Church have been calling each other the same things, and it is difficult to see that anyone has been convinced by the other. The mote in the eye of the other is always clearer than the beam in our own (especially when we are convinced we have rid ourselves of it). We all struggle, and I think we all do the best we can according to the Grace we have. I may well think that those Catholics over there are falling down on the job, or even not very good Catholics, and I may well be able to find chapter and verse for these views in the catechism, and I may well tell myself that what I say is inspired by love for their souls. I may also tell myself that I am doing what my priest or bishop will not do because they are politically correct cowards. But then I recall what Jesus said to the teachers of his own day about putting heavy yokes on others, and about the need to love even your enemies, and what St Paul said about the characteristics of love – so I suffer a little longer. As I hope for mercy, I shall give it, and I shall be judged by the judgements I make. Only God’s infinite mercy through the blood of Christ can save me; in that I am no different from everyone else. So I shall leave the name calling to those who are convinced it does good.