There are a lot of ideas and assertions that people will call Catholic teachings and some of those things are more certain than others. So, you’ll get people making a case for why you don’t have to adhere to it and some who will say that it’s a binding doctrine. And so these endless debates persist and those who are absolutely intent on undermining Church teaching at every turn can wedge themselves into that context and sow a lot of confusion.
But, there’s one very disruptive hard fact in the midst of that and it’s the doctrine of Papal infallibility. Now unlike some teachings that could be dragged into the fog of uncertainty, this one is a definite doctrine. There’s no ambiguity about it. Where there is a lot of confusion about it is in what it means.
And so, a lot of people will point to certain things that a Pope might say in a press conference or perhaps the bad moral behaviour of another pope and say, see, there’s no way that doctrine could be true. But that’s not what the doctrine means. It means that when the Pope defines a doctrine of the Church concerning faith or morals, when he speaks in a very specific way, called ex-cathedra, he is preserved from error.
Even though Papal Infallibility has got to be one of the most bold claims to authority in all of humanity, the Church’s definition of it is pretty toned down compared to what the Bible says about it. It’s like Jesus wanted to emphasize this point in the most dramatic fashion possible.
And so in the Gospel of Matthew, he singularizes Simon and renames him Peter, or Cephas in Aramaic, which means rock, and then, without changing the point of address, he gives him the keys to the kingdom of Heaven and says whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven.
In other words, your authority to define what is true and good is so absolute, that heaven itself will be compromised if you get it wrong. So, considering God probably has a vested interest in the integrity of Heaven, I expect he’s going to use up some of that omnipotent power of his to make sure that Peter and his successors don’t try to define a heretical doctrine.
So, if you consider yourself a Christian, a follower of Jesus, then there isn’t much flexibility on this question. You either accept what he said and follow it, or you don’t. And that’s an important ultimatum because to follow someone means to admit that you don’t have all the answers and you need the guidance of someone who’s wisdom or knowledge exceeds your own.
But if you’re just picking and choosing from among the things that Jesus said, then you’re not following him… you’re following yourself. You’re still deciding what is right and true. To only follow the things he said when it suits your assumptions is to not follow him. To head the other way when it’s difficult for you to accept, is not following him.
When a doctrine like Papal Infallibility is on the books, to try to expect the Church to reverse any other doctrine so that the faith is a better reflection of your preferences is to try to build something on a contradiction. It’s to cut off the branch you’re sitting on. You can’t do that and then still expect the Church to still be standing. It would represent its own collapse.
And I get that a lot of people who insist on this contradiction haven’t really thought it through and are just doing their thing and following their preferences, so I’m challenging you to think it through. That kind of dissent is a path to ruin for the Church. It’s not a path to reform or progress. It’s the worst kind of regress. Christ built his Church on a rock. That approach would pull the rock out and then be surprised when the whole thing crashes down.
So, what about dissent from other things that a bishop or the Pope might advocate. Well, not everything the pope says or does is infallible so, there is reasonable grounds to correct and even oppose the Pope and precedents for this go all the way back to the Bible. St. Paul rebuked St. Peter over his treatment of gentile converts. At no point was his faithfulness to the Church in question in that incident.
So, while dissent from doctrine is to seek ruin for what is known as Catholicism, dissent and opposition towards the Pope or a bishop who is out of step with the timeless teaching of the faith, can, with diligent prayer and discernment, be a good thing.
One is destructive in its approach, another is constructive. So, as you can probably guess, it’s really important that we’re able to distinguish between them given what’s at stake.