In my last column, I addressed the complaints of Catholics who leave the Church due to the sins of its members and leaders. Now, I would like to comment on those who fall away from their faith because they disagree with Church teaching on one or more topics.
People reject Church teaching when it does not make sense to them. But why do we assume that Church teaching should always make perfect sense to our limited and often uneducated minds? If I were to ask a biologist to explain the process of DNA replication, there is a good chance that I would not fully understand the explanation given to me. Should I therefore deny that it is true? Would it make sense for me to tell the biologist that I do not believe in DNA replication because I do not understand it? Of course not. Just imagine the reaction that I would get if I were to start telling people, “Oh I don’t believe in DNA replication. I just don’t accept it. It doesn’t make sense to me.” People would think I was ridiculous if I did this with a scientific concept, yet when it comes to the Catholic faith, people do it all the time. “Oh I don’t believe in papal infallibility. I just don’t accept it. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
Why is it acceptable for people to openly disagree with the Church on doctrines that don’t make sense to them, but taboo to do the same with scientific ideas? It is because people perceive science as a valid teaching authority, but they do not view the Church in the same way. Yet the Catholic Church is being guided by the Holy Spirit, a greater authority than any scientist!
Any sensible person will acknowledge that there are certain ideas that are difficult to understand without having received a specific education. Therefore, they are willing to accept the teachings presented by the authorities on the subject, even if they do not fully understand them. Yet when it comes to the Catholic faith, many people seem to think that they are a self-proclaimed authority. They are willing to challenge the Church when they disagree on teachings pertaining to theology and morality, and even to abandon their faith rather than accept a teaching that they do not understand.
The real problem here is a failure to acknowledge the Church as a teaching authority.
The teaching authority of the Church is indicated in Scripture. Christ told the apostles to go out and make disciples of all nations, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mt. 28: 19-20) And he did not merely abandon them to their own human efforts. Rather, he promised them the guidance of the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father to “be with you always.” (Jn 14:16) Christ spoke of the “Spirit of truth” who “remains with you, and will be in you.” (Jn. 14: 17) He promised that the Spirit “will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” (Jn 14:26) This, then, is the source of the Church’s authority: God himself, who continues to lead his people. If the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit, as Christ promised, then the Church is indeed a teaching authority. If we trust God, we should trust his Church, because He is the one guiding it.
Thus, it is arrogant to assert that our frail human understanding is superior to the Catholic Church, led by God himself. If Church teaching does not make sense to us, it is probable that we do not fully understand it. Instead of immediately challenging it and assuming that the Church is wrong, we should instead try to educate ourselves better. We should seek answers to our questions by researching them, just as we would do if we had doubts or questions about any other subject. We should seek more information about why the Church teaches the things that it does. Modern-day Catholic apologists have written entire books explaining Catholic teachings and practices, including commonly challenged ideas such as papal infallibility, indulgences and confession.
Often times, it is simply a lack of education at the root of people’s disagreements with Church teaching. Unfortunately, many Catholics learn what the Church teaches, but not why. They lack a complete understanding of Church teaching and its origins. If more Catholics were willing to humbly accept the Church’s teaching authority, they would be more open to trying to learn more about their faith. They would seek answers to their doubts and questions, and they would ultimately understand their faith better. There would be fewer people angrily leaving the Church, because they would have no reason to disagree with it. Thus, encouraging a proper understanding of the faith is essential. The words of Bishop Fulton Sheen ring particularly true here: “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church.”
Topics: Church teaching