Once upon a time, not that long ago, it was a statement of the obvious to ask ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ Now, to many, that is a real question. To some the answer is plain enough, and if pressed, questions will be asked about others in the hierarchy too. What such statements have in common is the assumption that the individual making them is competent to judge the Pope and his or her bishop. That seems to me the essence of the Protestant viewpoint. It was the departure point for Luther, as it has been for all heresies. The Catholic Church has a Magisterium to pronounce on orthodoxy and heterodoxy; kind though it is of individuals to claim to be able to provide the same service, there is about it a presumption which is unattractive: who died and elected you Pope? That seems to me essentially Protestant – it assumes that the individual believer has the discernment to pronounce where the Church is silent. I wonder how many such individuals are, like myself, converts, and whether they are not carrying into their new Church, the mind-set of their old? I leave it there as an open questions, as I have no idea.
The modus operandi is certainly a Protestant one. It is to compile lists of statements from Church documents and to fashion them into a club with which to beat the Pope or bishops; it assumes, a priori that the Pope and the bishops are either unaware of such statements, or less able to pronounce on orthodoxy than the individual who has found the quotations on the Internet; that is what I mean by an essentially Protestant mind set.
That said, let us examine for a moment where such phenomena originate, and see where that gets us. Overwhelmingly, at least during this pontificate, it derives from a suspicion that this Pope is undermining the orthodox faith, that he is, himself, unorthodox, and that his is abusing his position to try to change the mind of the Church on matters where change is not possible. That it resembles the reaction of many Republicans to President Obama is not accidental, as the cross-over between such Republicans and such critics of the present Pope is a large one. But, once we have arrived at this point, what then?
The critics of the Pope are sincere in their views; but in other contexts, the same critics would not accept sincerity as a defence. A man who genuinely believed he was a woman would not get much sympathy in such circles by using that as a defence, so it is unclear why, by their own standard, the critics should be let off the hook by the ‘sincerity’ defence, or by the fact that the ‘feel’ what they feel very strongly. Their invocation of certain websites which ‘prove’ their case falls to the same criticism; those who reject the conclusions of most the world’s most qualified researchers on climate change because of what they have read on denier websites are not in a good position to use the same technique to criticise the Catholic Church. Or, if they do, then they are essentially saying they know better than the Pope and the majority of the Cardinals and bishops. I daresay that if you really think that the majority of the world’s scientists are wrong on something so important, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have the intellectual arrogance to believe that the majority of the world’s Cardinals and Bishops also know less about what Catholicism is than you do; but there is equally little reason why the rest of us should accept such arrogance as a sign of infallibility.
It is understandable that, after the arduous journey home to Rome, the convert should want a quiet life, but from the beginning the Church has not offered that. This is because even St Paul and St John faced individuals who were sure that the Holy Spirit had told them what those two Saints had not been told, and that they had special insights denied to others. This was why Paul, like John, exhorted believers to rely on the traditions, oral and written, inherited from the past. But across the centuries the truth and weeds have grown up in the same field, as they always will, and it has been the job of the Magisterium to pronounce on the matter. As the monk, Luther, discovered, for the individual to take on that role is to begin the first step on a slippery slope.
Yes, as Catholics, we have a great concern for orthodoxy and tradition, but why proceed from the assumption that the Magisterium takes another view? We either believe that the Holy Spirit will guard the Church from material error, or we don’t, and if we act as though He can only do so with our help as a key-board warrior, then we incur the sin of presumption. Obedience is easy, so is tolerance, when we obey and tolerate that with which we agree.
In conclusion, let us recall what the Lord Jesus told Mother Julian in the thirteenth ‘showing’:
“In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion.
“But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’