“The Canon of Issues”: When Catholics Disagree With the Church

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI named the long list of questions that we Catholics confront in contemporary society the “canon of issues.” This canon includes women’s ordination, contraception, celibacy of priests, and remarriage of divorced persons. These issues, among others, often cause tension between many Catholics and the Catholic Church, because many Catholics feel that the Church’s teachings are outdated.

This tension leads to a variety of responses. Some Catholics abandon the Church and become Protestants, claiming that Protestant ecclesial communities do a superior job of articulating the Gospel in light of the signs of the times. Others form new communities, and claim that they are the true Catholic Church. Still others are so disturbed by the Church’s teachings that they reject the idea of religion and God altogether. The majority, I speculate, dissents in private but, for any number of reasons, do not wish to leave. They believe certain teachings of the Church while ignoring others that they find hard to stomach. The question before us, then, is this: what are we — as thoughtful and compassionate Catholics of western civilization in the twenty-first century — to do when our own personal beliefs come into conflict with what the Catholic Church declares as Truth? I would like to offer a few thoughts about the process I go through when asking myself this question.

The first thing I do is pray for wisdom.

The second thing I do is pray for wisdom.

The third thing I do is pray for wisdom.

The fourth thing I do is to learn what the Catholic Church actually teaches about these issues. If one knows where to begin to look, a sophisticated and nuanced understanding can be gained fairly quickly. Although the Catechism is always a great place to start, learning what the Church says is not the end of the investigation, because each issue does not exist in a vacuum. I next place my new knowledge into the larger context of the Church’s thinking.

Let us use contraception as an example. Once I have learned what the Church says about it (it arrests the fullness of the act of love), I now must locate this new knowledge on the web of related ideas so that I may understand why the Church prohibits it. In order to have a full picture, I have to see how She understands rightly-ordered sexual behavior (self-giving love) — which is directly connected to the question of what it means to be a human being (created in the image and likeness of God) — which is directly connected to the question of who God is (a Triune communion of love) —which is directly connected to the question of who Jesus Christ is (the fullest manifestation of God’s love). All of these points — what is proper sexuality, who are we, who is God, and who is Jesus? — must be understood in relation to each other, and as a unified whole. Although learning about the Church’s position on contraception may be accomplished in short order, placing it in this constellation of ideas in order to comprehend the Church’s coherent system of thinking takes serious study, contemplation, struggle, conversations, and, most importantly, prayer.

Does the journey end there? Will I automatically be convinced to change my opinions to conform to the Church once I have done the intellectual heavy lifting? Often times, the answer is “no,” as the head and the heart do not always speak the same language. It often feels, therefore, as if I am back to square one. Here I stand, toe-to-toe with the Church, paralyzed to the point of inaction. What do I do? Do I stick to my guns? Do I walk away and find another community that articulates a message that fits my established belief system? I could find a community that agrees with whatever I have already decided is true, but I wonder if in doing so I am bending the Truth to fit my desires. Truth challenges me to bend myself to it, not the other way around.

In order to break this stalemate, we must investigate the nature of our interlocutor. In other words, we must ask “what is the Church?” Is She, on the one hand, a man-made institution that centuries of celibate men in Rome, who have political and financial power, have used to impose their rules on the rest of us? If so, then I think that it is our right and our responsibility to discard any established teachings that sound antiquated to our Postmodern ears. If this is the Church, though, then I need to ask myself: “what am I doing here?” If the Church is just a random collection of culturally constructed rules that were codified by men long dead, why would Catholics give themselves to Her?

Though the Church is a human institution, is She also something more? Is She what She claims to be — that is, the mystical body of Christ that was founded on Peter, whose teachings have been handed down through apostolic succession and, most importantly, is guided by the Holy Spirit? Is the Church not only a human institution but a God-given institution that has been provided for us so that we are not left to wander the desert of this life, so that we don’t have to create for ourselves the definitions of right and wrong, and so that we don’t have to construct for ourselves the meaning of life? Each Sunday, we declare that we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, not a Church that articulates the fickle whims of a given age. If the Church truly is guided by the Holy Spirit, then I need to take Her teachings very seriously.

When I think about these teachings, I am greatly comforted by the thought that they were not established overnight. The Church has always taken Her time and developed Her ideas over many centuries. Papal infallibility, for example (which, I’ll admit, used to give me trouble), was not something that was established the day after Pentecost. It wasn’t until 1870 at the First Vatican Council that the Church made an official claim about infallibility, which had been debated for over 600 years. Some people are frustrated by how long it takes the Church to articulate definitive teachings; I wouldn’t want Her to act any more quickly for fear of hasty, trendy, or sloppy theological conclusions.

Is my understanding of the Church too optimistic? Am I naïve? I’m sure we have all met clergy who have led less than exemplary personal lives, or — because of a poor seminary formation — made statements that are against the Church’s teachings. Should these indiscretions lead us to say that the Church is flawed at Her core? Any surface reading of the history of Christianity will quickly reveal the atrocious behavior that has been done in the name of the Church and, therefore, suggest such a conclusion. We are all aware of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and infidelities of the clergy, both past and present. How could a God-given institution allow such shameful behavior?

While it is true that Christianity has a shady past, we should never confuse the sinfulness of individual popes, bishops, priests, or lay persons with the Church, because the Church is not the numerical sum of all Catholics who are alive at any given moment. Rather, the Church, to use language from Vatican II, is, among other things, “the spotless spouse of the spotless lamb” (LG 1.6), the “mother who, by baptism, brings forth daughters and sons, who are conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of God, to a new and immortal life,” and the “virgin . . . who keeps, in its entirety and purity, the faith She pledged to her spouse” (LG 8.64). The line between the sinfulness of humanity and the purity of the Church is best heard each week during Mass before the Sign of Peace, when the priest prays to God, saying “look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.” This simple, yet elegant, prayer points to the difference between our sinful flaws and the holiness of God’s Church.

With this understanding of the Church in mind, we may return to our main question: what do I do when I disagree with this Church? As it is impossible to force myself to change my opinions overnight, I believe that the only course of action is to submit to the Church in obedience until I have been converted by the grace of God. For many of us, this word, “obedience,” causes us to shift uncomfortably in our seats, because, in our Postmodern, individualistic society, we bristle at the idea of obedience. The thought of it makes us nervous because of our “don’t tread on me” attitude, and the primacy of “freedom” in our culture. The popular definition of freedom, which is at the center of our American ethos, is: “do whatever you want, as long as it does not hurt anyone else.” We feel that obedience is equal to slavery.

But is this the way we should understand obedience? I think that it should be seen in a different light. Obedience is not a rejection of the freedom to do whatever you want. Rather, it leads us to true freedom — freedom from the radical slavery of sin so that we may be able to choose the Good and, therefore, to become what we were intended to be: faithful sons and daughters of God. Obedience is not its own end; it is a means that leads us to the end of a rightly ordered relationship with God by calling us to move beyond ourselves. Through obedience, we are liberated from the narrowness of our own desires and it allows us to have a clear vision of a gracious God who will lift us up to love Him, and each other, properly.

Allow me an example borrowed from Fr. Servais Pinckaers. Everyone has the freedom to walk up to a piano and to start banging on it. But only the most radical Postmodernists among us would dare to call that music. In order to create something beautiful, a musician first must spend years training to be conformed to the rules of music. Although our musician does not master music theory for the sake of the theory itself, it is only after she has done so that she will be able to craft a song that will allow her to express her most intimate longings. In a similar way, it is only by being formed to the Church — not to the cacophony of our own disordered hearts — that we will become spiritual virtuosi.

This idea of obedience, it must be made clear, is not proclaimed at the expense of a well-formed conscience, which St. John Henry Cardinal Newman described as the “aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” Indeed, the Catechism clearly stresses the importance of one’s well-formed conscience as an authority. It defines a well-formed conscience as “[formulating] its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator” (1783). This statement prompts me to ask two sets of questions. First, when is my conscience finally formed? Don’t I spend my entire life forming my conscience so that, as Ignatius of Loyola stated, I will “think with the Church”? As formation is a life-long process, my conscience should never be exercised independently of the teachings of the Church. When it does act independently, more often than not I have been led astray by my own passionate attachments.

Second, how do I determine what is the “true good willed by the Wisdom of the Creator”? The Bible could tell me, but anyone who has ever read it knows how confusing it can be, and how easy it is to come up with dozens of contradicting interpretations. Vincent of Lérins, in the fifth century, recognized this when he said, in his Commonitorium, that the Bible “seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters.” It is only through the Church, then, that I come to understand what the Catechism means by “the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator.” Vincent said this as well when it claimed that “the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.”

While the idea of obedience often may make us uncomfortable, deep down it also resonates with us at the same time. When we go to Mass each week and recite the Profession of Faith, we express to everyone present our deep-seated belief that there is a Greater Reality than us. And, by bowing and saying “Amen” when the Body of Christ is offered, we set aside our own desires in order to be part of that Greater Reality by joining ourselves to the Church through the Eucharist.

The final thing I do is pray for wisdom, and along with Mary — our best model of obedience — say: Here I stand, “the servant of the Lord; let it be it done unto me, according to Thy word.”

Dr. Stuart Squires About Dr. Stuart Squires

Dr. Squires studied theology at The Catholic University of America (Ph.D.), The University of Chicago (M.A.), and DePaul University (B.A.). He has published several scholarly articles on the Church Fathers in Augustiniana, The Scottish Journal of Theology, Cistercian Studies Quarterly, The Heythrop Journal, and Augustinianum. He has published a book in 2019 with Wipf and Stock titled The Pelagian Controversy: An Introduction to the Enemies of Grace and the Conspiracy of Lost Souls.

Comments

  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Dr Squires
    I liked your questions; it is always good, to begin with, what people are asking. However, I wonder if your list of questions is incomplete. Certainly, many people are asking questions about social justice which seem to be missing from your list. The Church does have important Social Teachings unknown to most Catholics.

    I wonder do you assume that people who have conflicts with the Church are not people seeking wisdom in prayer? Do you assume that people with conflict with the Church do not explore in depth the teachings of Scripture and Tradition? Is it possible that obedience to Church Teaching requires the process of growing in understanding and wisdom. A process that requires dialogue. So many of us experience the mandate of teaching authority, but not the authority of authenticity. People were amazed when Jesus taught, not because he commanded, but because he modeled what he taught. It does matter that leaders in the Church are servants, not commanders.

    • Hi Tom:
      Thank you, for your thoughtful comments and questions. I agree that many Catholics struggle with certain social teachings of the Church, such as immigration. This is why at the beginning of the essay I said “among others” to indicate that the canon of issues encompasses more than just the main few I mentioned explicitly.

      Although it is difficult to make definitive claims about why Catholics disagree with the Church, because there are so many, and would require hundreds of pages to probe (one book that is a good place to start is David Carlin’s “Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.”) In general, those who dissent from the Church are allowing the dominant American culture to be their guiding principle, not the Gospel. One example of this are the terms “liberal Catholic” and “conservative Catholic.” I agree with the decision America Magazine made some years ago to never use those phrases any longer. They are, at best, not helpful, and, at worst, weapons that cause division. Moreover, we are called to see politics through the lens of the Gospel, not the other way around. When we allow politics (or economics, or secular philosophy, or anything else) to dictate the way we see reality, we inevitably will clash with the teachings of the Church.

  2. I think assuming God only speaks to us through the church (and with a very slim definition of “the church,” at that) is a narrow, reductive view of God. God speaks to us through science, medicine, experience, nature and numerous other ways. We can give deference to official teachings but, like anything else, they are not dispositive by default. Perhaps some of us are called to live with the tension that exists between official teachings and our own conclusions. As humanity evolves, so too has the church. And so she will continue so long as those called to live with the tension respond to that call.

    • Yes John, we all know that that is the classic Protestant view, but this article is addressed to Catholics. Catholics take seriously the fact that unlike science, medicine, man-made churches or personal experience or anything else, Christ solemnly promised that He would never allow the Church that He founded to teach anything contrary to the Truth He entrusted to her.

  3. An otherwise excellent article and apologies for bringing up a side issue, but it is quite wrong to imply that the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition were PER SE “atrocious and shameful behaviour” on a par with “infidelities of the clergy” (of any kind). No reputable historian would suggest such a thing. Like any other Catholic enterprise of any kind, some Catholics who were involved in the Crusades and the Inquisition at times committed shameful sins. But in their conception and for the most part in their execution, they are initiatives which every Catholic should be proud that his Church undertook. It’s true that even many Catholics don’t know this or even believe the opposite due to the pernicious influence of the “Black Legend” invented by 17th century English and Dutch Protestant pamphleteers and revisionist atheist 20th century pseudo”historians” respectively. However I think it is important not to let Catholics who are thinking of leaving the Church, remain believing these anti-Catholic lies about her history.

    • Avatar Fr. William Topper says:

      Thank you Peter for clearing up these two errors in the article. The Crusades were held to defend Christianity against Islam in times where society behaviors and understandings differed from those of today — hence, one has to take that very much into account if one desires to evaluate any past historical action of the Church (=its people) is so-to-say “good” or “bad”. One can NOT use today’s standards as historical bases for past historical actions. So also with the Inquisition. It was an institution to guard the purity of the Catholic Faith against heresy.

      • Context: As far as the Inquisition went, about 3000 people over 300 years were killed or 10 a year.
        Awful, but we also must remember that 3000 Christians have been killed in the last two years in communist or muslim countries.

      • “Awful”, Byron? The inquisition SAVED the lives of many times more people than the number of those executed by the legitimate State government, whom the inquisition had been unable to save during its processes despite its best efforts.in areas of Christendom which had no effective inquisition, there was a totally unprecedented bloodbath of Christian on Christian violence adding up to millions and lasting 250 years, even longer in some places like northern Ireland. Everybody especially protestants should thank God for the blessings of the Inquisition.

  4. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    The Gospel be our guide, Jesus’ teachings are for all times. Let us follow His WAY, not partisan politics, not human ego, not doctrinal purity, not our righteousness and their sinfulness. Put away the sword. Jesus did not even have the power to prevent his murder.

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