When Catholics DisagreeOct 27th, 2014 | By David Anders | Category: Blog Posts
The Creed teaches us that there is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” “One Lord,” says St. Paul, One Faith, One Baptism.” (Ephesians 4:5) In the 4th century, when the Donatists of North Africa claimed to be the one true church, St. Augustine invoked the unity and catholicity of the Church against them: “the verdict of the whole world is conclusive,” he said. Unity has always been a mark of the true Church. “May they be one,” Jesus prayed, “so that the world may know that you have sent me.” (John 17:21)
So what do you do when Catholics disagree? Recently we have been served with some rather egregious examples. Bishops have called each other out in public. Reporters offer statistics on how many lay Catholics dissent from Church teaching. The point of such criticism from the media is obvious. They would have us think that Catholic unity is a fiction. When even bishops disagree, shouldn’t Catholics give up the battle for doctrinal unity? Or should they water it down to the least common denominator?
This attitude misunderstands the nature of Catholic unity. The existence of dissent, even highly placed dissent, does not undo the Church’s unity. There is one, visible, objective doctrine, taught by the one Church, united under its one visible head (the pope), and celebrated in one common worship (the liturgy). It is the visible adherence (implicitly or explicitly) to this faith that constitutes the Church’s unity in doctrine.
At any moment, there may be individuals who fail to know clearly the teaching of the Church, those who fail to recognize its necessity, or those who openly dissent from it. These confused people can be laity, religious, priests, and even bishops or cardinals. In some cases, a man may believe wrongly through no fault of his own. Yet, he remains implicitly willing to believe whatever the Church teaches. In other cases, a man separates himself from the unity of the Church by formally endorsing heresy.
The unity of the Church can be wounded but never destroyed. Many times in history, members have flaunted, rejected, or distorted the deposit of faith. Sometimes these dissenters have been important members of the hierarchy. After the council of Nicaea (325), for example, large numbers of the clergy and even some of the most prominent bishops failed to support the Nicene Council. Between 325 and 381, “Pseudo-councils” evaded, softened, or even denied the Nicene decision. After one such pseudo-council in 360, St. Jerome lamented, “The whole world groaned to find itself Arian.” Athanasius the Great (296-373), the defender of Nicaea, was driven into exile. Even Pope Liberius failed to stand up for him. Such confusion is deeply lamentable but is still no threat to the Church’s sublime unity.
Some would have you think that the Church’s teaching today is unclear, but this is absurd. The Magisterium has spoken often on the most controverted contemporary issues. The Holy Councils of Trent, Vatican I and Vatican II taught the faith with great depth and clarity. We have received two Catechisms: one after Trent (the Roman Catechism), and one after Vatican II (The Catechism of the Catholic Church.) Popes both ancient and modern have not hesitated to correct misunderstandings of Church teaching. St. John Paul II, in particular, made definitive and authoritative statements about women’s ordination and human sexuality. Pius XII spoke directly about human origins, anthropology, and the implications of Darwinism. Paul VI incurred worldwide scorn (both in an out of the Church) for his authoritative defense of the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception.
The Church’s teaching today is not in question. The Catechism, John Paul II says, is “a sure norm for instruction in the faith.” “Whoever rejects it as a whole,” wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, “separates himself beyond question from the faith and teaching of the Church.” Pope Francis said, “The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church.”
The unity of the Church is a fact and a promise. It can never be destroyed. But like the Church’s holiness, it can be expressed in her members to greater or lesser degrees. We all have an obligation to work for greater unity and charity in the faith. “This treasure,” says the Catechism, “received from the apostles, has been faithfully guarded by their successors. All Christ’s faithful are called to hand it on from generation to generation, by professing the faith, by living it in fraternal sharing, and by celebrating it in liturgy and prayer.”